Hundreds of mourners paid their final tributes yesterday to the Midland RAF veteran who took part in the Second World War prison camp breakout immortalised in the film The Great Escape.

Squadron Leader Jimmy James, of Ludlow, Shropshire, died aged 92 at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital earlier this month, after a short illness.

Father Jim Robinson led the service at St Peter's Roman Catholic Church in Ludlow, Shropshire. David Blakeway Smith, who had known Sqn Ldr James for 30 years, paid tribute to his friend's bravery.

He said: "Jimmy is the only real life hero and the single most remarkable person I have ever met." He said that when he went to collect his late friend's death certificate, he told the registrar that it should list his occupation as "escaper".

Sqn Ldr James became well-known after his attempt to dig a tunnel out of a Nazi prison camp in Poland was recreated in the 1963 film The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.

He was one of 76 men to escape from Stalag Luft III on March 24, 1944, 50 of whom were executed after they were caught.

After his recapture, he was interrogated and sent to Sachenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin, from which he made another escape bid only to be caught again days later.

With military standards at the front of the church and the coffin draped with the Union Jack, Mr Blakeway Smith told the congregation that Sqn Ldr James made 13 escape attempts altogether.

After the war, Sqn Ldr James "wondered why he'd survived, why so many of his good friends had died and he hadn't".

But the veteran found "new purpose in life" by giving talks to schools, squadrons and other groups about his and his comrades' experiences.

The congregation also heard of Sqn Ldr James's life as a husband and churchgoer.

Father Jim said: "He was devoted to Madge, his wife of more than 60 years.

"He served his parish regularly and was scheduled to read the lesson last Saturday. He was tireless in explaining to the young the evils of Nazism and the horrors they perpetrated."

He went on: "Though Jimmy escaped death more than once, he could not escape it in the end."

But this he said, was not defeat, but the "final victory".

As mourners left the church, the theme music of The Great Escape was played.

Military historian Howard Tuck, who was working on a book with Sqn Ldr James, has described him as "the country's greatest living war hero".

He retired as a squadron leader in the RAF in 1958, and held posts in Africa, Europe and London as part of the Diplomatic Service until 1975.

He also wrote a memoir, Moonless Nights, about his experiences.

In recent years, he was president of Project 104, which aimed to build a replica of the hut from which the famous Great Escape tunnel began.

Hundreds of people joined the funeral procession on the short walk to the nearby cemetery, where airmen from RAF Honington carried the coffin .

As the sun shone through the clouds, the Last Post was sounded before a fly-past by four planes from RAF Marham. His widow then threw the first handful of earth into the grave.