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Desmond Plunkett, 86; RAF Pilot Helped Plan WWII's 'Great Escape'

March 04, 2002|From Associated Press

LONDON — Desmond Plunkett, 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. He was 86.

Plunkett, who lived in Storrington, England, died Feb. 14, according to the RAF Assn., 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 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, 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 Western Ontario.

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 in southeastern Germany.

Plunkett's team based its work on maps stolen from supply trucks or obtained from guards through bribes or blackmail, said Vance, who interviewed 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 get there."

After nearly a year of planning and digging, 76 men--all Allied soldiers--crawled out of the camp through a 300-foot-long tunnel.

But 73 were recaptured, and 50 were executed immediately on orders from Adolf Hitler.

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, 1944.

Plunkett 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 ended.

Convinced he had said something under interrogation that caused the Germans to execute the others, Plunkett attempted suicide, Vance said. Fellow POWs reminded him that the men were put to death before he was captured.

Vance said it was hard to say whether Plunkett was depicted in the 1963 film because many of the characters were composites.

Plunkett lived briefly in Pakistan and India after the war, and then moved to Rhodesia, where he started what became a successful flying company.

He returned to Britain in the late 1990s and lived at the Royal Air Force Assn.'s home in Storrington.

Plunkett is survived by his wife, Patricia; a son; and two daughters.

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