A survivor of the prisoner of war camp Great Escape has hailed the “morale-boosting” breakout ahead of its 70th anniversary.
Jack Lyon, 96, of Bexhill, was a 23-year-old RAF officer shot down and imprisoned in Stalag Luft III during the Second World War.
Mr Lyon kept surveillance on the camp’s Luftwaffe guards during construction of escape tunnels and was waiting to make his getaway in the early hours of March 25, 1944, when the daring escape – recreated in the film staring Steve McQueen – was discovered.
Once they were recaptured, 50 Allied PoWs were executed by the Gestapo, but their astonishing bid for freedom was immortalised on the silver screen in the 1963 film The Great Escape.
Speaking at an event to celebrate the 70th anniversary, organised by the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, Mr Lyon said: “It was a costly operation but not necessarily unsuccessful.
“It did do a lot for morale, particularly for those prisoners who’d been there for a long time.
“They felt they were able to contribute something, even if they weren’t able to get out.
“They felt they could help in some way and trust me, in prison camps, morale is very important.”
Mr Lyon and fellow RAF officer Charles Clarke, 90, were joined for a special screening of the 1963 film by wilderness survival expert Ray Mears and comedian Al Murray.
Mr Clarke, who lives in London, said: “I think it’s often forgotten that the Great Escape was probably one of the most audacious operations that the RAF carried out.”
The plan for the Great Escape took shape in the spring of 1943 when Squadron Leader Roger Bushell RAF hatched a strategy for a major breakout.
Some 600 men helped to dig three tunnels, from which escapees could emerge with civilian clothes, forged papers and escape equipment.
On the night of March 24-25, 1944, 76 men attempted to get away through one of the tunnels.
Of the 76 there were 73 who were recaptured by the Germans and most were executed on Hitler’s orders.
Steve McQueen led a star-studded cast which included Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner and Donald Pleasance in a dramatised version of the men’s story two decades later.
RAF Benevolent Fund controller Air Marshal Chris Nickols said it had been an honour to hear Mr Lyon and Mr Clarke’s memories.
He said: “They remind us that The Great Escape is much more than just a movie; it was a remarkable feat of courage and resourcefulness, which sadly resulted in 50 men being killed.”