Obituary: Marcel Zillessen

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NEVER COULD Marcel Zillessen have thought, as his Hurricane crashed in the isolated area of Wadi Akarit in Tunisia, that his life would one day be portrayed in a classic war film.

Zillessen was a pilot with No 6 Squadron during the final phase of the action in North Africa. Equipped with 8mm cannons, the Hurricane was used in low-level "tank-busting" raids. Having just returned from leave, Zillessen had been ordered to fly as a last-minute replacement. He was shot down and captured on 6 April 1943. What his captors never realised was that he spoke fluent German. Before the Second World War, his father's business had contacts in Germany and he had been sent there to learn the language.

Various pressures were put upon Zillessen by his interrogators. They plied him with whisky, little knowing that in the bars of Alexandria he could drink most of his squadron members under the table. Then a lithe 6ft naked blonde woman was sent to his cell. However, he had heard his captors say that if he touched her they could call in the Gestapo to interrogate him. He simply curled up in a corner and would have nothing to do with the Teutonic temptress.

He was eventually transported to Stalag Luft 3, where gradually he earned the trust of the guards by speaking to them in their own language, especially about their wives and girlfriends. They were soon asking him to write love letters home, bringing him paper, pens and ink to do so. Any surplus material Zillessen secreted away so that the camp "forgers" could work on vital documents and passports in readiness for the intended escape.

On the night of 23 March 1944, with the escape tunnel complete, under cover of darkness 200 Allied officers assembled in a hut ready to escape. Seventy-six managed to get out through the tunnel before the guards realised what was happening. Zillessen was not among them. Everything had gone wrong. There had been an air-raid that night, the lights in the tunnel had gone out and one man had got stuck. Zillessen then saw men crawling back through the tunnel to the hut. To him and the rest of the waiting men this was an immense disappointment, for they had spent months preparing.

It was, however, one of the largest mass breakouts by Allied prisoners. But, of the 76 who escaped, 73 were recaptured and 50 summarily executed.

This remarkable story inspired the 1963 film The Great Escape which starred, among others, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and Richard Attenborough. Zillessen was one of several prisoners whose ability to scrounge supplies was the basis for the American played by James Garner, though in reality there were no Americans in the camp. Zillessen, although not consulted, enjoyed the film. He was particularly taken by Attenborough's performance. However, having lost six stone while a prisoner, he thought Garner "a little bulky" for the part.

Marcel Zillessen was born in Northampton in 1917 and educated at Gresham's School. He worked in the family textile business before joining the RAF at the outbreak of war.

Much of his time in Stalag Luft 3 was spent translating 19th-century German poetry into English. Finally, with Allied forces approaching in May 1945, the prison was evacuated and the prisoners forced to march towards Germany. During a break, Zillessen managed to escape into a nearby wood and make his way back to the empty camp. The camp was eventually liberated by British troops.

After the war he returned to the family business before moving into the wool trade in Darlington, where he remained until the early 1970s. He eventually left to set up a chain of take-away food shops in the North- East bearing the Zillessen name. In semi-retirement he and his wife kept a guest house in Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire. A handsome, self-effacing man, he delighted in his four sons and his grandchildren.

Max Arthur

Marcel Zillessen, pilot and businessman: born Northampton 14 January 1917; married 1951 Lyn Hudson (four sons); died Whitby, North Yorkshire 8 January 1999.