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  1. ITV Report

Last surviving member of the real-life World War II Great Escape team, Dick Churchill, dies aged 99

Tributes have been paid to Dick Churchill, the last surviving member of the real-life World War II Great Escape team, who has died aged 99.

The former squadron leader was one the designated diggers in a group of 76 who escaped from the Stalag Luft III camp in Germany in 1944.

The site now stands in Poland.

Their feat of courage went on to represent one of the most-told stories from the Second World War, immortalised in the 1963 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen.

Mr Churchill, who lived in Crediton, Devon, died on Wednesday.

Dick was one of the diggers directly involved in building the tunnel. Credit: ITV News

Air Commodore Charles Clarke, an RAF Prisoner of War who was also held at Stalag Luft III but who was not involved in the escape, told ITV News he "looks at, with admiration, all the POWs in my camp and particularly all those directly involved in the escape.

"I mean, it was a great feat in anybody's language and as prisoners, even greater."

He added that upon recapture the Germans thought Dick Churchill was a relative of Sir Winston Churchill, "so he was very lucky to survive".

Mr Churchill had previously said he thought sharing his surname with the wartime prime minister kept him alive, in case the Nazis wished to use him as bait with a powerful potential relative.

Air Commodore Charles Clarke was also held at Stalag Luft III but not directly involved in the escape. Credit: ITV News

Chief of the Air Staff Sir Stephen Hillier said: "On behalf of the RAF as a whole I would like to offer my condolences to the friends and family of Flt Lt Richard 'Dick' Churchill, one of the RAF personnel involved in the Great Escape.

"He was from a selfless generation who offered bravery and sacrifice to secure our freedom, he will be sorely missed. Per Ardua."

Air Vice-Marshal David Murray, of the RAF Benevolent Fund, said: "Dick, as he was known, took part in one of the most audacious Prisoner of War escapes during the Second World War and embodied the spirit of the RAF - tenacious, resilient and incredibly brave in the face of adversity."

Mr Churchill said he had been inundated with requests from journalists, historians and autograph hunters following his part in Operation Escape 200, later known as The Great Escape.

The escape was immortalised in the 1963 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen. Credit: The Great Escape

The plan took shape in the spring of 1943 when Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who had been a lawyer in his civilian life, hatched a strategy for a major breakout.

Mr Bushell, who came to be known by the codename Big X, created an escape committee and inspired the camp's Allied prisoners' attempt to free more than 200 men.

Some 600 prisoners helped dig three tunnels, which were referred to as Tom, Dick and Harry, with the hope that one of the routes would be successful.

Tunnel Tom started in a darkened corner of one of the building's halls, while Dick's entrance was hidden in a washroom drain sump and Harry's was concealed under a stove.

This sketch by a pilot involved in the escape demonstrates how the prisoners entered the tunnels. Credit: ITV News

The plan was for the escapees to come out at the other end with civilian clothes, forged papers and escape equipment.

On the night of March 24 to 25, 1944, 76 men took advantage of a moonless night to attempt a getaway through tunnel Harry.

Of the 76 there were 73 - including Mr Churchill - who were recaptured by the Germans within three days when Hitler became aware of the breakout and ordered locals to search their land and buildings.

Two-thirds of them, including Big X, were executed on Hitler's orders.