By Nic Fleming and Alastair Sooke
Almost 60 years after 76 Allied airmen escaped from Stalag Luft III, Hermann Goring's supposedly escape-proof prisoner of war camp, 17 of those involved in the break-out were reunited yesterday at London's Imperial War Museum.
They gathered to watch excerpts of The Great Escape: Revealed, a documentary about three of the veterans returning to the site of the camp in Silesia, Poland, for the first time.
Flt Lt Sydney Dowse, 85, one of the two escapers present yesterday, and John Leyton, the actor who played him in the 1963 film, The Great Escape came face to face for the first time.
Leyton, 65, said: "It is wonderful to meet you. It is an honour and privilege. What you did was absolutely extraordinary. I had an insight into it but I went home to a nice hotel every night."
The former Spitfire pilot laughed and replied: "The fresh air was a good hotel for me."
For many the anniversary brought back painful memories of the former campmates who were killed.
Sqd Ldr Bertram "Jimmy" James, now 88, was number 39 of the Stalag Luft III escapers, and one of only six still alive.
Yesterday he said: "Going back there brought the ghosts of the past rolling back. So many dead comrades did not come home."
Flt Lt Alex Cassie, 87, played a vital role in forging many of the documents needed by the escapees. He said: "This is the first time that I have seen many of my former friends in 60 years. I don't look back with pride at our escape, but with great sadness. Being here today brings a lump to my throat because so many of my good friends were shot by the Gestapo."
Flt Lt Ken Rees, 83, from Rhosneigr, Anglesey, was shot down over Norway in October 1942. He was in the tunnel and just 25 feet from freedom when a German guard began shooting.
"I heard the shot and realised straight away that the tunnel had been discovered. I could not turn around so I just backed up the way I had come," he said. "Had they found it a minute earlier I'd have been among those shot by the Germans."
Those involved in the 1944 escape attempt dug three tunnels, codenamed Tom, **** and Harry. Both Tom, discovered by the Germans the previous September before it could be used, and Harry, used in the actual escape, collapsed long ago. **** lay undisturbed until last year when five archaeologists working for the makers of the new documentary dug a 30ft deep pit at its entrance. Artefacts recovered include a rubber stamp carved from the heel of an airman's boot and used to forge documents for escapers, empty tins fitted together to make ventilation pipes and the concrete slab used to conceal the tunnel entrance.
Air Cdre Charles Clarke, now 80, the president of the RAF Ex-POW Association, said: "I feel humble in front of heroes such as Ken Rees and Jimmy James. It is an amazing story."
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.
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."
"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.
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; **** 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", "****" and "Harry", were started in April that year.
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 ****.
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 two veterans with mock-ups of some escape equipment
By Charlotte Edwardes and Fiona Govan
Their daring breakout from a German prisoner of war camp is one of Britain's most legendary acts of heroism, but now the passion that lay behind the Great Escape is to be revealed for the first time.
Love letters written by one of the British prisoners who fled from Stalag Luft III in 1944 - celebrated in the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence - show how a passion for his wife spurred his bid for freedom.
Squadron Leader Tom Kirby-Green's correspondence to his wife Maria will be made public for the first time next month, as part of an Imperial War Museum exhibition to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape.
The letters have been donated by Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green's son Colin, who was at preparatory school in 1941 when his father was taken prisoner after his plane was shot down.
Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green was the pilot of a Vickers Wellington Mk 1 bomber, which took off from RAF Alconbury on the night of the October 16-17, 1941. The target was Duisburg. It crashed near Reichswald Forest in north Germany.
After being shot down, Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green was captured at the site of the crash and taken to Stalag Luft camp, in Sagan, eastern Germany. The inhospitable camp was equipped with new security methods to make it "escape-proof".
At its peak it held 10,000 Allied airmen - thought to be the most likely prisoners to attempt escape - in six separate compounds. Several months later, Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green was transfered to the notorious Stalag Luft III.
During his time in the camp, Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green wrote at least 76 letters and cards to his wife, the last of which was written on the morning of the escape on March 24, 1944.
It is perhaps the most passionate of all, setting out how Mr Kirby-Green's desire to be reunited with his wife was inspiring him.
"My sweetheart I am thinking so much of you now and long so hard for you with every part of my soul and body. I am lonely in my heart I live only for the moment when I shall take you into my arms darling love, how feeble are my words, how clumsy to express the wild tumult of my heart when I think of you. One day I shall be able to make the world a paradise for you "
Other letters give further illustrations of his love for his wife as well as of his concern for her welfare, and his own need for supplies to make life as a prisoner of war more comfortable.
Sqd Ldr Kirby-Green and other prisoners of war were allowed by the Germans to write home on a regular basis in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention.
The letters were subject to censorship and some went astray. The Germans also allowed the International Red Cross to deliver food parcels and packages from families.
In his first letter, Sqn Ldr Kirby-Green, who was killed during the escape, began:
"I hope you are well and that you heard about me quickly. I am very fit indeed so my darling, do not worry about me. Draw any cash you want from the bank. I would like my battle dress, 2 prs wool socks, ditto underwear, ditto pyjamas, 2 shirts, cottons, hankies, my new booties, particulars from Red Cross."
It ends affectionately: "All my love to you I think of you always, Thomas."
All his letters, written in pencil and in a tight but looping style, are littered with affectionate names for his wife, such as "dudie darling".
He wrote on March 29, 1943, that the trees at the camp, which was on the edge of a sandy pine forest, "don't do well. Few are growing," adding, "but anyway I feel we'll be together before they grow much bigger."
On September 30 he told his wife, in harrowing detail, what happened to the crew when their bomber was hit:
"We were on our way home when we were extremely hard hit all controls were completely 'dead' and the aircraft was spinning and losing height extremely fast. I gave the order to jump. My parachute opened almost at the same time as I hit the ground with the result that I injured my spine and could not walk.
"The aircraft crashed about three seconds after I landed and about 30 yards from me. Martin was found in the tail of the aircraft dead The others were found some short distance away but on very much higher ground with their chutes open, killed instantaneously."
Colin Kirby-Green, a lecturer in fine art from Brightlingsea, Essex, believes the public will find the letters fascinating.
"They are remarkable historical documents, but they show, too, the pain he felt at being separated from my mother," he said. "He was desperate to see her. She told me about the letters but kept them private, I only saw them after she died."
In 1944 he was among 80 prisoners of war who took part in the mass escape attempt. Only three successfully reached home; 76 were recaptured - four at the mouth of the tunnel - and 50 of those were shot.
Shortly afterwards, Mrs Kirby-Green received a letter from the Air Ministry, to inform her, "with great regret", that, "your husband, Squadron Leader Thomas Gresham Kirby-Green, lost his life when attempting to escape on 25th March 1944."
Details of what happened were recounted in a later letter, dated June 26, 1947. It says:
"All that is at present known in this Department concerning your husband's movements after his escape is that he [was] re-arrested at Zlin Moravia on the 28th March, 1944. [He was] ordered to be transferred to Moravska-Ostrava en route for Breslau and left Zlin in two Gestapo cars. Arriving at a spot about ten miles from Moravska-Ostrava the cars were stopped, the prisoners got out and were shot from behind."
Colin Kirby-Green says that his mother was so traumatised that she could not bring herself to break the news to him. "She came down to school and took me out. We went in a taxi to the teashop in the nearest village.
"She had actually had come down to tell me about my father but she just couldn't bring herself to do it." She was always very tearful when she greeted me or said goodbye to me in railway stations, so I didn't think of it as then she kissed me goodbye and went on her way, crying as she always did."
Mr Kirby-Green was told that evening by the headmaster of Oakwood Prep School. "He said: 'I'm sorry to have to tell you your father has been killed.' He said it quite quickly. Everyone was very stiff upper lip in those days so the following day it wasn't mentioned again."
Mrs Kirby-Green later married Roy Langlois, who shared a hut with her late husband at Stalag Luft III and had survived the Great Escape.
"My step-father told me how he first met my father. He said he walked into the hut and saw this great 6ft 4in man with a beard lying on a top bunk wearing a kaftan and reading Proust. He was a wonderful man."
Mr Kirby-Green believes that the fictionalised character of Flt Lt William "The Tunneller" ****es, played in the film by John Leyton, could - as with many other characters - be a composite of several prisoners, including his father.
He was, however, portrayed by Brian Pettifer in the 1988 film, The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, also starring Christopher Reeve and Donald Pleasence again.
The Great Escapes Exhibition at The Imperial War Museum, London, will run from October 14 until July 31 next year.