Great Escape heroes ‘were betrayed by English collaborators’

Gordon Jackson (1923-1990), British actor, Donald Pleasence (1919-1995), British actor, Richard Attenborough, British actor, and James Garner, US actor, sitting in the escape tunnel in a publicity still issued for the film, 'The Great Escape', 1963
Desmond Plunkett was one of the inspirations for Donald Pleasence's character, Colin Bythe (second left), in the film The Great Escape - Getty Images

Great Escape prisoners of war were betrayed by English informants, according to claims in newly unearthed intelligence documents.

The 1944 mass breakout from Stalag Luft III, immortalised in the 1963 war film, led to the arrest and execution of 50 Allied escapers, on the direct order of a vengeful Adolf Hitler.

A new document has been unearthed by a surviving PoW which claims that his murdered comrades were betrayed by English informants.

The claims were made by RAF pilot Flt Lt Desmond Plunkett, who escaped along with 75 other prisoners, only to be recaptured and detained for the rest of the war.

He was the basis for Donald Pleasence’s expert forger character Colin Blythe, who discovers in the Great Escape film that he is slowly going blind.

Plunkett was eventually released in 1945, and made to fill in a questionnaire about his imprisonment which has now been unearthed in the National Archives.

The questionnaire suggests that there were two individuals whose activities impacted the fates of the executed PoWs.

Claims of informants come ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Stalag Luft III breakout on the night of March 24, 1944.

There is no evidence Plunkett’s claims were pursued, as no informants have ever been recorded in relation to the mass escape.

On the snowy evening when the breakout took place, the escape itself was detected when a German sentry spotted one of the escaping airmen.

The breakout had been planned meticulously for months, and Plunkett had prepared maps for those attempting the escape, making him one of the inspirations for the forger played by Pleasence.

He had served only eight days with No 218, his first operational squadron, when his Stirling heavy bomber was shot down over the Netherlands in June 1942.

He was taken to Stalag Luft III near Sagan, modern-day Poland, where escape leader Roger Bushell, played by Richard Attenborough in the film, asked him to lead a team employed in mapmaking.

Plunkett was the 13th man out of the “Harry” tunnel, having volunteered for the unlucky placement that nobody else wanted, and once he escaped he made straight for a train where he bumped into the escaping Bushell and other officers.

While on the run, 50 of his comrades, including Bushell, were arrested. On the orders of an infuriated Hitler, they were all shot by the Gestapo.

Plunkett, alongside a Czech airman, succeeded in getting into Czechoslovakia where, after several days in the relative luxury of a hotel, they hid in a barn. They eventually got as far as the Austrian border before being arrested.

He endured seven months at the Gestapo’s headquarters in Prague, where he was subjected to torture, frequent beatings, and a mock execution.

In a questionnaire he filled out following release, something all PoWs were required by the War Office Directorate of Military Intelligence to do, Plunkett made the claims about his comrades being betrayed by informants.

Desmond Plunkett his wife Patricia Plunkett (far right) , his brother Gillian Plunkett with his wife Jean Plunkett, at Calcutta after the war
Desmond Plunkett – seen here on the left with his brother and their wives in India – escaped Stalag Luft III only to be recaptured and interrogated for seven months by the Gestapo

It is unclear how the two individuals accused by Plunkett of “collaborating activities” betrayed their fellow Englishmen.

Of the 76 airmen to escape, 73 were recaptured, most within a few days of the breakout.

In 2021, the National Archives unearthed different documents which suggested the Nazis wanted the break-out to go ahead, so escaping airmen could be hunted down and made an example of.

A research project revealed Camp Commandant Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau feared an escape was imminent but the SS ignored his requests for extra security.

But the statement from Plunkett suggests for the first time that English collaborators worked with the Nazis in some way to aid in the recapture of escapers, leading many to their deaths.

The existence of this document appears to have been forgotten, until it was rediscovered by the National Archives.

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Dr William Butler, the National Archives’ military expert and head of modern collections, said: “When Plunkett was returned to a PoW camp he was hospitalised because of the mental toll his experience in Gestapo prisons took on him.

“There’s a suggestion that he blamed himself for the executions of the 50 by accidentally saying something in interrogation.”

After the war, Plunkett remained in the RAF for two years. He was posted to India with 10 Squadron, where he turned down the chance to become Lord Mountbatten’s personal pilot.

Plunkett died in 2002, aged 86, after co-writing a book about his experiences called The Man Who Would not Die.