A FORMER Whitby Community College student now serving with the RAF has helped to recreate an historic World War Two prisoners’ tunnel escape to be shown on television.
Flight Lieutenant John le Cornu (32), whose parents farm in Fylingdales, is a Tucano flying instructor based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and was one of six RAF officers chosen to re-enact the story, made famous in the 1963 film The Great Escape.
John spent two weeks in Zagan, Poland, at the site of the infamous Stalag Luft Three where the wartime escape attempts took place.
The RAF personnel involved in the film were selected because of their links to the Great Escape or their interest in the historic events.
John said: “I was brought up on Jersey until the age of 16.
“The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans and so the history of WW2 has always been important to me.
“My grandfather was also a qualified flying instructor during WW2 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross while conducting a bombing raid over Normandy.
“He flew every aircraft the RAF had at the time including the Hurricane, Spitfire, Lancaster and Halifax.
“I believe the present public should be assured that today’s air crew training would mean that ordinary RAF pilots could conduct the same heroic events.”
Flt Lt Le Cornu, who has served on many overseas operations since being commissioned into the Royal Air Force in 2001, joined fellow RAF officers in the ruins of the former camp where they put their skills and training to the test and gained an insight into the ingenuity and effort involved in the escape by attempting to recreate equipment made and used by the PoWs.
They used records, pictures and original artefacts for reference and were fortunate to be guided and advised by original prisoners of war.
The team also took an active part in the excavation of a section of tunnel using replicas of the original tools and shoring.
John said: “Constructing a ventilation system and fully functioning air pump was a daunting task.
“It was an honour to have former prisoner of war Stanley “Geordie” King’s seal of approval to our finished pump.
“He had operated the genuine article on the night of the Great Escape and was thrilled to see that we had constructed a pump which looked remarkably similar to the one he had used.”
The original great escape was led by Spitfire pilot Squadron Leader Roger Bushell with a hand-picked team of fellow officers who were escape specialists.
They dug three tunnels but one was detected by the Germans and another was used for storage by the tunnellers.
In March 1944, 76 men managed to escape but only three of them made it back to England.
Of the 73 others only 23 were re-imprisoned, with the remaining 50, including Roger Bushell, shot on direct orders from Hitler.
John moved with his family from Jersey to Fylingdales when he was 16 and after Whitby Community College, took a degree in physics at York University.
Digging the Great Escape will be shown on Channel 4 later this year.