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Ian Tapson, 84, a survivor of World War II's 'Great Escape' as told in book and film

JOHANNESBURG -- Ian Tapson, one of the last survivors of a team of World War II soldiers who planned and executed a breakout from a German POW camp later immortalized in the film "The Great Escape," has died. He was 84.

Mr. Tapson died at Settler's Park, a retirement complex in the coastal town of Port Alfred on March 31, said Wally Vandermeulen, chairman of the Port Alfred branch of the South Africa Air Force Association.

The escape was immortalized in Paul Brickhill's book "The Great Escape" and in the movie of the same title, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.

Mr. Tapson was a lieutenant in the South African Air Force flying Kittyhawk fighter-bombers when his plane was crippled by antiaircraft fire over Tunisia and he was forced to crash-land. He was captured and was sent to Stalag III prisoner of war camp at Sagan, Silesia, near the Polish border.

South African born-Roger Bushell, a squadron leader, decided to organize a mass escape by tunneling to a point outside the perimeter fence.

The team members were all volunteers, and 20-year-old Mr. Tapson was one of them. His job was to scrounge for wood to shore up the tunnels.

"He stole planks off the beds," Vandermeulen said.

Before an alarm was raised, 76 men managed to escape, but only three reached safety. Fifty of those recaptured were shot in a field by the Gestapo.

Mr. Tapson was not among those who escaped, Vandermeulen said.

"The prisoners of war selected those who were going to enter the tunnel by drawing lots. He was very lucky he didn't draw one of the lots to escape," he said.

Vandermeulen said Mr. Tapson survived in the camp until its liberation.

He said Mr. Tapson had read Brickhill's book and had seen the film but was not one of the main characters.

A reserved man, he seldom spoke about being one of five South Africans who were involved with the escape, the South African Press Association reported.

Mr. Tapson's link with the escape might have remained within his family had he not mentioned it years later to a woman who had attended commemoration services in Italy for airmen killed helping Italian partisans, SAPA said.

He was then prevailed upon to tell his story publicly for the first time.

Mr. Tapson, who worked as a municipal engineer in the city of East London until his retirement, leaves his wife, June, and a son.

A memorial service was held Wednesday.

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