Tributes to hero pilot held captive by Nazis in Second World War

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Tributes have been paid to a RAF pilot who survived two plane crashes, braved the horrors of being a prisoner during the Second World War and went on to be a successful businessman.

Aubrey Niner, who lived in Old Portsmouth, died recently at Queen Alexandra Hospital aged 88.

Mr Niner, who was born in Southsea on June 10, 1922 and educated at Sutton Valence School in Kent, volunteered to join the RAF on his 18th birthday and went on to fly successful bombing raids on coastal and land targets during the early part of the Second World War.

However, on his 16th operation - a daylight attack on a power station near Lille - his Douglas Boston Mk III plane was shot down.

The young flying ace was forced to crash-land in a park in the centre of the French city, where his immediate capture by the Germans was photographically recorded.

After a period of solitary confinement in a PoW camp near Frankfurt, Mr Niner was sent to the Stalag Luft III camp in Poland - famously depicted in the Steve McQueen film The Great Escape.

There he was instrumental in the famous 'wooden horse' escape in 1943 as one of the gymnasts that spent hours practising on a gymnastics horse to cover the sound of men digging a tunnel below.

He was still at the camp when the 'Great Escape' took place in 1944. He did not participate directly in the break-out as it took place in another part of the camp. But he lost his good friend Tom Leigh, who was one of the escapees murdered on Hitler's orders.

In the winter of early 1945, as the Russians were closing in, the pilot survived the wretched 'Long March' west.

A few months later he also survived the 'Spring March', ending up on a farm near Lubeck in northern Germany, where he was liberated by the British Army.

But this was not the end of the drama for Mr Niner, who was on board a RAF Lancaster that crashed on the take-off run after hitting a shell hole on the runway.

Fortunately, a second flight was successful and he finally returned home to join the family firm, Harringtons, which marketed baby goods. He became managing director and in 1962 the company was awarded the Royal Warrant for its products. He subsequently became a divisional director within the Courtaulds Group and, later, chief executive of the National Children's Wear Association.

He married his second wife Rosemary in 1976, who survives him together with two sons, Stephen and Marcus, and a daughter, Judy, from a previous marriage.

Rosemary said: 'He was very outgoing but also modest and a very amusing, kind man who will be sorely missed.'

His friend and business colleague Earl Whitehead said Mr Niner 'inspired trust and confidence' and he had 'that twinkle in his eye and that mischievous smile.'