The Great Reunion: Epic escape revisited, 60 years on

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The Independent Online

The flicker of recognition in their eyes was brief but tangible as the two men solemnly shook hands.

The simple but emotionally charged gesture marked a rare union between a Second World War veteran and his Hollywood imitator.

Yesterday, Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, one of the few survivors of the "Great Escape", met for the first time the actor John Leyton, who portrayed a character based on him in the film that immortalised the event.

The meeting took place on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the 1944 escape, during which 76 allied officers tunnelled their way out of Stalag Luft III, near Sagan in Silesia. While all but three officers were recaptured and 50 executed, their bravery has long been etched on the minds of generations of cinema-goers because of the 1963 film The Great Escape .

For Mr Dowse, a sprightly 84-year-old who divides his time between Monte Carlo and Chelsea, the reunion at the Imperial War Museum in London for the few remaining survivors was emotional.

"It is overwhelming to be here," he said. "It's also quite strange to meet people from the film, particularly John Leyton. "I thought the film was very well done, apart from a few obvious changes. The motorbike scene with Steve McQueen never happened."

Recalling his determination to escape, the former Spitfire pilot, who was shot down in 1941, added: "Deciding to escape was a terribly easy decision to make.

"I was up there at the front the whole time when it came to the tunnelling and I was determined that we would escape."

Leyton, 65, who was joined by fellow cast members Tom Adams and Angus Lennie, said: "I was totally overcome when I met Sydney as he is clearly quite a remarkable character. I feel quite humble as my only involvement was in the pretend version of events."

Squadron Leader "Jimmy" James, who is one of only six survivors, described how the military-style operation was driven by a passionate desire to return to their homeland.

"You do lose all sense of fear,'' he said. "People do ask, was it worth it, and I'd say yes, of course it was. However, it was a pretty shattering experience to lose 50 men." He added: "To be honest I never envisaged that 60 years later I would be here giving interviews to the media. I was just a guy who wanted to get home."

Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who now lives in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, described how he created hundreds of forged documents. "But when it came to the escape I elected not to go with them because I was extremely claustrophobic in tunnels. It was a tremendous shock when they were recaptured. All of us lost several close friends."

For one man, however, the reunion was not entirely comfortable. George Mikell, who played a Nazi officer, said: "I am the only enemy here, which is rather strange and a little worrying. But if this story proves anything, it's the fact that truth is always stranger than fiction."