Were Allied prisoners of war involved in the Great Escape betrayed?

An extraordinary claim that Allied prisoners of war involved in the Great Escape were betrayed by two of their own side has come to light in files at The National Archives.

Seventy-six prisoners escaped from Stalag Luft III camp 80 years ago this week on the night of 24-25 March, 1944 after spending almost a year tunnelling. All but three were recaptured and within a week 50 were shot on the direct orders of Hitler.

“The Mapmaker” Flt Lt Desmond Plunkett was the 13th man out – he volunteered because no one else wanted that number. He was recaptured near the Austrian border and interrogated by the Gestapo who held him for eight months before moving him to POW camp Stalag Luft I.

As recorded in a record held by The National Archives, he told British authorities when he was released from the camp in May 1945: “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.”

His claim appears in a questionnaire which all POWs were asked to complete when they were freed. The “collaborators” are not identified.

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.”

Other prisoners reassured him that this was impossible, because the shootings happened before Plunkett was questioned by the Gestapo.

Donald Pleasence

Donald Pleasence’s character Flt Lt Colin Blythe in the 1963 film The Great Escape was partly based on Plunkett, who was in charge of producing 2500 maps for escapers.

Pleasence drew on lived experience to create the character having been a wireless operator in RAF bombers before being shot down over France in August 1944. He was also imprisoned in Stalag Luft I. He had started the war as a conscientious objector but enlisted in 166 Squadron in 1941 after the London Blitz.

Pleasence’s questionnaire is also among the records The National Archives holds. The collection includes German POW cards for everyone involved in the Great Escape with debriefing notes and letters from their families to the Air Ministry. The files are available to the public in our reading rooms and online.