English Nazi collaborators may have aided recapture of ‘great escape’ PoWs

<span>The escape during the second world war inspired the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen.</span><span>Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto/Allstar</span>
The escape during the second world war inspired the 1963 film starring Steve McQueen.Photograph: United Artists/Sportsphoto/Allstar

It’s one of the most celebrated heroic failures of the second world war – the “great escape” of dozens of allied prisoners of war from a German camp by tunnelling under the wire.

As loosely depicted in The Great Escape, a 1963 film, 76 British and international air force members successfully escaped from the Stalag Luft III camp in March 1944, only for most of them to be recaptured and 50 brutally executed.

Almost exactly 80 years on, historians re-examining wartime documents have uncovered a bombshell claim made by one of the escapers – that the murdered men were betrayed by two English Nazi collaborators.

The allegation was made by Flt Lt Desmond Plunkett, a Royal Air Force officer who forged maps for the escapers and inspired the character played by Donald Pleasence in the film, which also starred Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

Unlike Pleasence’s blind forger, who is caught and killed after escaping, Plunkett was one of the few escapers whose life was spared after he was recaptured.

Writing in a questionnaire in May 1945 after he was liberated from another prisoner of war camp, Plunkett wrote: “There are two individuals … whose activities have a direct bearing on the fate of the 50 executed prisoners of war.

“These two persons must be traced, as both are undoubtedly indigenous Englishmen, and must be tried for their collaborating activities with the enemy.”

The claim came to light this month at the National Archives in London, while the PoW questionnaires were being digitised. Will Butler, the head of its military records who curated its current exhibition on great wartime escapes, said no such claims of betrayal relating to the event had come to light before.

“I’ve read a lot of the material that was produced postwar around the executions of the 50 officers, and I’ve never come across any suggestion that there was some kind of collaboration,” he said.

Did it happen? “It’s absolutely possible,” said Butler. “There were certainly many examples of the Nazi authorities placing people in prisoner of war camps posing as prisoners of war but actually working on behalf of the German state as agents, either to foil escape attempts or to gather intelligence.”

That said, given Plunkett did not repeat the assertion in his extensive debriefing after the war, and given the brutal treatment he had received after his recapture, “there are question marks, for sure”, over the claim’s reliability, Butler said.

The historian Guy Walters, author of The Real Great Escape, agreed. “I think [Plunkett] is mistaken, because if he’s suggesting that two supposedly treacherous individuals were responsible for the murders, I don’t see how that is possible,” he said.

“Because the escapees … were captured because they made mistakes. They weren’t betrayed.

“It’s also impossible to see how two supposedly treacherous individuals could be responsible for their murders, because those murders were on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.”

Unlike the events depicted in the movie, when the escapers are rounded up and shot en masse, “the murders were carried out … by Gestapo officers in numerous locations throughout the Third Reich, wherever the escapers managed to get to”, Walters said.

He has argued that it is this atrocity, rather than the failed escape, which ultimately makes the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III remarkable. “It’s not an act of war. It’s just straight murder. It’s grotesque, horrific.”

The reason he believes Plunkett was mistaken – “and I hate to take issue with a great escaper” – is most likely thanks to “paranoia understandably engendered by 10 months at the hands of the Gestapo, and a breakdown. I think that he was putting two and two together and making five.”