Tributes paid to the Portsmouth airman who helped lead the Great Escape from Nazi jail in the Second World War

HE WAS a leading light in one of the most audacious jail busts of the Second World War.

Thursday, 21st March 2019, 4:36 pm
Updated Saturday, 23rd March 2019, 8:26 am

And now tributes have been paid to the former airman from Cosham who was killed after breaking free of Stalag Luft III.

RAF Squadron leader Ian Cross was among 50 Brits murdered at the hands of the Germans after the daring flight for freedom, which was immortalised by the Hollywood movie The Great Escape with Steve McQueen.

The heroic airman was one of the primary tunnellers for the escape, made famous by the 1963 film, and was one of the 76 men who made it out of the camp in Sagan, Polance on March 24, 1944.

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Tragically, he was recaptured and executed alongside five other officers on March 31, 1944. He was just 25 when he died.

Tomorrow his heroic exploits, and those of his fallen comrades, will be remembered when the escape marks its 75th anniversary .

Penny Mordaunt, Portsmouth North MP and former armed forces minister, said: ‘This is an incredible story and one which should never be forgotten.

‘Tremendous heroism and deeds that still inspire people today: never give up, hold your values dear, be brave.’

Ian joined the RAF in 1936. When war broke out the pilot defied the odds to complete 34 missions, earning himself the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1940.

This included having a parachute out of the bomber he was the second pilot in when the plane ran out of fuel.

He was then posted as a flying instructor but demanded to return to operations in 1941, where he was posted to No 103 Squadron and later that year flew another 16 missions which led to his promotion as temporary squadron leader.

However, his capture came when he was hit by a light anti-aircraft fire and crashed into the sea, 40 miles off Rotterdam.

He was rescued by the Germans the next day and sent to the Oflag XXI-B prisoner of war (POW) where he met Roger Bushell, the South African-born POW who masterminded the Great Escape.

Together they worked on several escape attempts before being transferred to Stalag Luft III. Ian was not deterred, and among other escape attempts, he jumped aboard a German truck leaving the compound with pine trunks and branches. He did not get far before being seen.

Ian became a senior figure during the Great Escape, working extensively on the construction of the tunnels, and led the efforts to dispose of soil. Most famously he led the ‘penguin’ team, so named because they sprinkled soil out of their trouser legs as they walked.

Tomorrow a ceremony is being held at the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, in Poland, where Ian and 47 others from his escape party are buried.

The ceremony will be attended by British officials and members of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Max Dutton, assistant historian at the CWGC, said: ‘The world knows the version of the Great Escape made famous by the film, but when you learn about the real men behind this ambitious breakout there is an even more incredible story to be told.

‘Ordinary men, like Ian Cross from Cosham, found themselves imprisoned with no sign of release and decided to take action to free themselves and their comrades.’