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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 15:38 GMT
Survivors mark 'The Great Escape'
Squadron Leader Bertram 'Jimmy' James (l) and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse
The two veterans with mock-ups of some escape equipment
Two war veterans have been reunited to mark the 60th anniversary of the prison camp breakout immortalised in the film The Great Escape.

The pair are among only a handful of survivors of the escape from the Stalag Luft III camp in Germany.

Squadron Leader Bertram "Jimmy" James and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse were among 76 Allied aircrew who tunnelled their way out of the camp.

Mr James said he never thought "I'd be here talking about it" 60 years on.

The men attended a reunion at London's Imperial War Museum on Tuesday.

They were joined by Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when it was discovered by a German guard.

I never had an inkling that 60 years on, I'd be here talking about it all
Bertram "Jimmy" James

He was captured after his plane was shot down in flames over Norway and he walked for several miles to a farmhouse despite his flying boots being torn off in the crash.

Only three of the escapees managed to reach England.

The other 73 were recaptured, and 50 of those were murdered by the Gestapo on Adolf Hitler's orders.

The 1963 film of the event, The Great Escape, starred Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Garner.

Mr Rees told BBC News Online that he never tired of speaking about his wartime experiences and said he was pleased that the museum was marking the 60th anniversary.

"We have all moved on but it is still very much part of my life."

Computer-generated image from The Great Escape computer game (SCi Games)
The escape was mythologised in the film and game, The Great Escape

"Europe has changed very much, including Germany - I really think that the people there realise that they were very badly led and are determined never to allow that to happen again."

"Jimmy" James spends much of his time lecturing in schools and colleges.

"Inevitably, the questions I am asked most often are 'How deep were the tunnels?' and 'What was it like being all the way down there?'.

"I never had an inkling that 60 years on, I'd be here talking about it all."

Mr Dowse, a Spitfire pilot, was in charge of a digging team and was one of the first men to leave the tunnel.

After the war he became an equerry to King George VI and worked in the Colonial Service.

He is now 84 and lives in both London and Monte Carlo.

Imperial War Museum
The anniversary will be marked at the Imperial War Museum

Mr James, 89, was flying a Wellington bomber when it was shot down in June 1940.

He was involved in a dozen escape attempts after being captured, and was awarded the Military Cross.

Only four other escapees are still alive today - Les Brodrick, now living in South Africa; Dick Churchill, from Devon; Paul Royle, from Western Australia; and Mike Shand, of New Zealand.

An escape committee was formed at the camp in spring 1943 and the escape plan hatched under the leadership of Squadron Leader Roger "Big X" Bushell.

Three tunnels, codenamed "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry", were started in April that year.

Original documents

The tunnels were dug to a depth of 30ft and shored up with wooden boards from the prisoners' beds.

Some guards co-operated in supplying railway timetables, maps, and official papers needed by the escapees.

One of the tunnels, Tom, was only 10ft from completion when it was discovered.

The prisoners then focused their efforts on Harry, depositing the sand in the partially excavated Dick.

Measuring over 300ft long, Harry was finally completed in March 1944.

A number of artefacts recently recovered from one of the tunnels will be on display at the museum, together with original documents.

The BBC's Paul Adams
"Only three got home, the others were captured"



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