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Calls for monument to unknown World War 2 pilots who 'turned the tide of war'

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Battle of Britain: RAF Spitfires fly over London for anniversary

Scot Alastair “Sandy” Gunn was piloting the AA810 when it was shot down on a mission to photograph the German battleship Tirpitz in March 1942. Its remains were left strewn across the side of a mountain – and Fl Lt Gunn was taken to Stalag Luft III to play a key role in The Great Escape.

The breakout of 76 men from the POW camp in Poland is the story line of the iconic 1963 blockbuster of the same name, featuring Steve McQueen.

Gunn, from Auchterarder in Perthshire, would go on to tunnel his way out of the camp – only to be captured and murdered by the gestapo.

And he has now inspired another campaign – after remnants of the Spitfire were discovered on the Norwegian mountainside in 2018.

The plane’s discovery led to an outpouring of dozens of unknown tales of World War 2 bravery, honouring his involvement in the Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU).

Tony Hoskins, who discovered AA810, said: “The stories of the men who flew these planes are absolutely incredible.”

Sandy Gunn

Alastair ‘Sandy’ Gunn leaning on the tail of Spitfire R7056 in November 1941 (Image: Gunn Family)

Spitfire

Spitfires were among the aircraft used in photo reconnaissance missions (Image: Phil Chaplin/Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)

Reports of the discovery led to families of veterans coming forward to tell more stories of unknown heroism.

This triggered a campaign for national recognition for members of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) – as part of Project AA810 – which raises awareness of the unit through school talks.

George Pritchard, 97, is one of four known surviving veterans.

He joined the RAF in April 1941, completing about 20 operational photo reconnaissance flights during the war.

He signed up after the Luftwaffe bombed RAF Croydon where he worked in a cardboard factory as a boy.

It was a lucky escape for the then 16-year-old – who watched in horror from his parents’ back garden as bombs rained down.

On his way to the site afterwards, fearing for his colleagues, he was stopped by a policeman and told: “You have no more friends. There are none left.”

READ MORE ON PUTIN PLOTTING AN IMMINENT INVASION

McQueen

Steve McQueen starred in The Great Escape (Image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

remains

The remains of Sandy’s Spitfire laid out in Surnadal town hall, Norway (Image: Tony Hoskins)

After training, Mr Pritchard flew “Wooden Wonder” Mosquitoes from RAF Wyton over France and Germany, searching for U-Boat activity and carrying out D-Day reconnaissance.

Taking off in the early morning, he recalled rising to 20,000 feet before descending to 3,000 feet, maintaining a steady speed so the cameras captured the target then heading home.

Fraught with danger, a German Focke-Wulf FW 190 appeared out of the blue on one mission.

Mr Pritchard said: “I saw it just in the nick of time. I shot off before he got the chance to fire at me.”

Asked if he feared for his life, he said: “When you’re 20 years old you don’t look at it that way.

“We had a fatalistic attitude. I don’t know whether I was frightened or not. We didn’t think of ourselves as heroes.

“I don’t consider myself to be particularly brave. I just did what I was told.”

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Infographic

The biggest armies in the world (Image: Express)

Andrew Bowie, who represents West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, is spearheading efforts in Parliament to secure Government support for the monument.

In a Westminster Hall debate in November, Mr Bowie and Northampton South MP Andrew Lewer hailed the campaign.

Mr Bowie, who served with the Royal Navy, told Express.co.uk: “It is not an understatement to say these guys turned the tide of the war. They were incredibly brave.

“There are three or four [PRU veterans] left. It is surely the right thing to do while these men are still with us. Let’s get it done.”

Mr Hoskins said: “It is recognition of the sacrifice and efforts made by a group of people that has gone totally unnoticed for 80 years.

“These guys helped win the war. They should be recognised. They did this with no way of defending or protecting themselves and that takes balls.”

He added just 29 percent of those who flew survived with the bodies of many casualties missing even today.

Campaigners hope the monument will get the go ahead and for it to be positioned in a prominent location linked to the PRU’s history.

PRU

Pilots of D Flight 1 PRU relax in the summer of 1941 (Image: Peter Arnold collection colourised by Colour by RJM)

Photo reconnaissance proved useful in World War 1 too – but interest in developing it waned.

Prior to the outbreak of World War 2, a group of people, including James Bond author Ian Fleming, flew clandestine operations over countries including Germany, France and Belgium to photograph what was happening.

Mr Hoskins said: “This unit was mightily valuable. Before the British Expeditionary Force went to France, we could see what [armaments] Germany was amassing.”

After Britain declared war, the group was formalised. By 1940, No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit was under RAF control and based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire.

Pilots flew aircraft including Supermarine Spitfires and de Havilland Mosquitos, modified to reach higher altitudes and to travel further.

But with a majority of the unit’s planes unarmed to make them lighter and faster, those inside were vulnerable.

Almost 26 million photos were taken during the war with the majority now kept at the National Collection of Aerial Photography in Edinburgh.

The unit’s advantage was the speed with which information could be passed to the Government and military top brass.

A plane could fly over enemy territory, take up to 1,500 photos and return to base.

Interpreters scoured the images before passing any intelligence on within hours of the aircraft landing.

One air photographic interpreter tasked with studying prints was screen legend Dirk Bogarde, who selected ground targets for RAF Bomber Command.

Mr Hoskins said: “Without [photo reconnaissance] we would really have struggled.”

The method was used in the D-Day landings, led to the discovery of V1 rocket launch sites and the bombing of V2 factories.

A total of 1,300 men were in the unit – which in 1942 was split into five squadrons – alongside 700 women, including Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah.

Mr Pritchard, from Duston, Northampton, left the RAF in 1947 and went on to become an engineer, helping to design the internal pacemaker.

On what a monument would mean to him, the veteran said: “Like all monuments, it is something for people later on to realise what went on and what those guys did.

“This warrants a memorial to those poor fellas who are buried somewhere in Europe.”



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