A genuine Great Escaper dies, 57 years
Evening Standard (London),
Feb 20, 2002 by RICHARD HOLLIDAY
ONE of the few Allied airmen to take part in
the real "Great Escape" and live to tell the
tale has died aged 86.
Former Wimbledon schoolboy Desmond Plunkett
was one of 76 men who escaped on 23 March 1944
through a tunnel they had dug beneath Stalag
Three got away but of the 73 recaptured, 50
were executed by the Gestapo. In 1963, the
escapees' story was told in the epic film, The
Great Escape, starring Richard Attenborough and
Mr. Plunkett avoided the executions, managing
to remain on the run until the Germans had shot
their quota of officers. Instead he was held in
solitary confinement for seven months at Gestapo
headquarters in the Czech capital, Prague, where
he was beaten regularly and fed - twice a week -
on a diet of boiled blood.
Desmond Lancelot Plunkett was born in 1915 in
India, where his father was a civil engineer.
After the family returned to England, he was
educated at King's College, Wimbledon, then
joined the Hawker aircraft company at Kingston,
Surrey. He learned to fly at Redhill flying club
and graduated as a flying instructor with the
RAF Volunteer Reserve.
Days before his wedding in 1941, he qualified as
a bomber pilot and was posted to 218 Squadron at
RAF Marham in Norfolk.
On only his eighth operational day, the
Stirling heavy bomber Flt Lt Plunkett was
co-piloting was shot down over occupied Holland
while on a mission to attack Cologne and Essen.
He was arrested and taken to Stalag Luft III 80
miles south-east of Berlin, where his fellow RAF
prisoners included Douglas Bader. The camp's
escape committee leader, Roger Bushell - played
by Attenborough in the film - picked Plunkett as
the team's mapmaker, charged with charting
escape routes to Switzerland, France and Sweden.
Plunkett and his team also produced passes,
permits and other "official" documents devised
by Tim Walenn, the escapees' master forger.
Both Walenn and Blunkett provided role models
for Donald Pleasence's character in the film.
By the time the Germans discovered the
360ft-long tunnel, the airmen had reached
forests beyond the camp. Mr Plunkett and his
escape partner, Czech airman Bedrich Dvorak,
boarded a train at the local station for
Breslau. They made it to Czechoslovakia, but
were eventually arrested at the Austrian border.
While Mr Dvorak was sent to Colditz, Mr
Plunkett endured the Gestapo's hospitality. He
was eventually released into the custody of
Hradin Prison in Prague and was sent in January
1945 to Stalag Luft I on the Baltic Sea. From
there he was repatriated after VE Day.
After the war Mr Plunkett remained in the RAF
for two more years, then left to become sales
manager of a Calcutta aircraft company.
In 1949 he went on to work as a survey pilot
and in 1965 he and his family settled in
He retired from flying in 1975 and took up
bee-keeping, returning to Britain in the late
Nineties to live at the Royal Air Forces
Association home at Storrington, West Sussex,
from where he co-wrote a book about his
experiences, The Man Who Would Not Die.
He is survived by his widow, Patricia, and
their son and two daughters
"Desmond Plunkett; Helped Lead WWII Escape"
By Beth Gardiner, Associated Press
Thursday, February 21, 2002; Page B07
LONDON -- Desmond Plunkett, 86, a Royal Air Force flier who helped plot
the daring World War II prison camp breakout that inspired the Steve
McQueen film "The Great Escape," has died.
Mr. Plunkett died Feb. 14, according to the RAF Association, a veterans'
group. It did not give the cause of death or say where he died.
Prisoners at the Stalag Luft III Nazi prison camp put Mr. Plunkett --
who had been shot down over occupied Holland on June 20, 1942 -- in
charge of making 1,500 maps that the men would need to get to safety
after tunneling to freedom.
Using ink from melted crayons and gelatin taken from Red Cross food
packages, Mr. Plunkett and his team assembled a crude mimeographing
system that let him print about 20 copies from every original map they
drew, said Jonathan Vance, a history professor at the University of
Although 76 men broke out the night of March 23, 1944, the plotters had
planned to help about 200 escape, and each would have needed many maps
to reach safety from the camp in Sagan, southeastern Germany.
Mr. Plunkett's team based its work on maps stolen from supply trucks or
obtained from guards by bribe or blackmail, said Vance, who interviewed
Mr. Plunkett for a book about the escape, "A Gallant Company."
"He was one of the key organizers. He was really in the inner circle of
escape planners," Vance said. "It required quite an organization to find
out where everybody was trying to get to and then get them the maps to
After nearly a year of planning and digging, 76 men, all Allied
soldiers, crawled out of the camp through a 300-foot tunnel.
Seventy-three were recaptured, and 50 were executed immediately on
orders from Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Plunkett, who traveled with Bedrich "Freddy" Dvorak of
Czechoslovakia, evaded capture for two weeks -- the two were the last of
the group to be caught when they were picked up at the Czech-German
border April 8.
He spent more than two months in a Gestapo prison in Prague before being
moved to a camp in northeastern Germany, where he remained until the war
Convinced he'd said something under interrogation that caused the
Germans to execute the others, Mr. Plunkett attempted suicide, Vance
said. Fellow POWs reminded him that the men were put to death before he
Vance said it was hard to say whether Mr. Plunkett was depicted in the
1963 film because many characters were composites.
Mr. Plunkett lived briefly in Pakistan and India after the war and then
moved to Rhodesia, where he started what became a successful flying
He returned to Britain in the late 1990s and lived at the Royal Air
Force Association's home in Storrington, southeastern England.
He is survived by his wife, Patricia, a son and two daughters.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company"