ON an unremarkable morning in December 2014, journalist Ben James received a call from a son who was clearing out the home of his recently deceased father.

The man on the phone pleaded with him to come round and look at his dad’s diary – promising it would be worth braving the cold.

Reluctantly, and with not much hope of a story, Ben jumped in the car and made his way to the modest two bedroom home in Peacehaven.

Over the next two hours he was introduced to the incredible story of John Akehurst, who would be the inspiration and cover star of his book, Sussex War Heroes.

John had joined Bomber Command at the start of the war and clocked up more than 750 flying hours as one of the most skilled gunners around.

Such was his talent he was recruited for a secret squadron attached to Churchill’s Secret Army – the Special Operations Executive.

During his time with the squadron he took part in numerous covert missions including the assassination of Hitler’s right-hand man Reinhard Heydrich. The operation is the subject of a film due out later this year starring Hollywood stars Jamie Dornan and Cillian Murphy.

However, John’s luck ran out when he was shot down over enemy territory.

He went on the run with his crew but was eventually rounded up - only for John to attempt an audacious escape by drop kicking a guard and trying to jump from a moving train.

He was sent to high security Stalag Luft III, the scene of the Great Escape and was thrown in ‘The Cooler’, made famous by Steve McQueen in the 1963 film.

He remained in prisoner camps for more than two years until he escaped while on a forced march.

His tale is fit for a Hollywood blockbuster, yet even his own family barely knew his backstory.

Author Ben James said: “I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I went through the diary. It astonished me that someone could have gone through all that yet nobody really knew about it.

“It got me thinking how many others must be out there with similar tales to tell.”

Ben touched base with various contacts in search of similar heroic men and women. And to his surprise, there was no shortage.

Next he interviewed a former RAF mechanic called Bob Morrell.

Bob, who still lives in Brighton, was involved in the Battle of France and later the Battle of Britain before being sent to the Far East.

There he was captured and endured three years in the brutal Japanese prisoner of war camps.

He was beaten, starved, deprived of medical attention and endured the kind of hardships you would see in the most dramatic of survival movies.

Such was the horror of those years, he still suffers flashbacks.

But like John, his story had never been told.

Next Ben visited a soldier by the name of Patrick Delaforce, also from Brighton, who as a 20 and 21-year-old helped lead the British Army through Northern Europe after D-Day.

He was twice blown up, was one of the first people into Bergen Belsen concentration camp and helped liberate millions.

After the war he was chosen to judge numerous concentration camp guards for war crimes and he sent many to their death. He also had to be an official witness to the executions, carried out by British hangman Albert Pierrepoint.

Again, his story was barely known.

Next was Shindy Perez, from Hove, who survived the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

She was followed by Cowfold’s Bill Lucas, who was denied a chance at an Olympic medal by Hitler so instead decided to bomb Germany.

Ben said: “I couldn’t believe how many incredible stories there were within such a small area.

“Sadly most of those who experienced the war have now passed away and those who remain are well into their nineties.

“And so as this fascinating period moves from living memory to history, we are at an important moment in our remembrance of the Second World War.

“We must ensure the stories of the likes of John Akehurst, Patrick Delaforce and Shindy Perez are recorded, before they are lost forever.”

Don’t miss extracts from Sussex War Heroes in The Argus on Monday, February 8 and Tuesday, February 9 in The Argus. There will also be a £3 off voucher in the paper on Tuesday.

Sussex War Heroes is available in all good bookshops, online and by calling 01235 465500.

To buy the book online click here