Thursday, 2 May 2013

Flt Lt. Des Plunkett - Great Escape Mapmaker

   By Rob Birkbeck (RhAF)
Flt Lt. Des Plunkett 

   I was cleaning out some stuff the other day and I came across a battered postcard that I had never really  studied before written by Flt Lt Desmond Plunkett ex RAF who used to live with us during our time in  Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. He had written this 'Prisoner of War' postcard during the Second World War from  Stalag Luft III shortly after his capture by the Germans. It has been 20+ years since I last remember  looking through this folder which Des had given me amongst a whole load of other memorabilia from his  war days before he died.

 Des flew Sterling bombers and was shot down on the 21st June 1942 over Alkmaar, Holland upon  return from a raid over Emden. He was one of 76 men who took part in the Great Escape. He told me  that he agreed to go as number 13 down the tunnel 'as he was not superstitious'. This placement in the  escape turned to good fortune as he became one of only 26 men to survive Hitler's firing squad.

   I remembered that Des had told me years back that he had sent it to his brother Gillian in the UK with  whom he had arranged a secret code if he was ever shot down. As an ex cyrptoanalyist with the CIO back  in my Rhodesian days, I sat down and worked my way through the card. Eventually, reading backwards,  from the bottom to the top, just the highlighted characters, his cryptic message emerged to read… 'shot  down by one o [nine] over hol[land] re attacks no [r]eaction and no cordite'. [I added the letters in square  brackets]. It must have taken him days to select words that would make sense in a sentence yet fit  perfectly into place to reveal the embedded coded message to its recipient.

 A truly amazing character and a credit to the force with whom he served.

Des is on the extreme left of the photograph

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At 5 May 2013 at 15:41 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Nick Baalbergen (Intaf) Writes:-

Incredible material!

At 14 May 2013 at 22:29 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Just reading about Des Plunkett, perhaps this may interest the older folk. My twin brother John and I met Des Plunkett and his crew at the Coq d,or, Baker Avenue one day in September 1951, he was with Hunting Air Survey and here on a contract to map ther Kariba area. Their Dak was parked at Belvedere Airport. As we had an interest in photography from our experiences with the Brit army in Palestine, meeting the photographer, Vic Harding, who could assist us in setting up a dark room at our home, we jumped at Des ,s invite for us to go on a mapping operation over Kariba. Taking off from Belvedere one October day in their Dak, There were some oxygen bottles down the side of the fuselage, which they said we must use if neccessary by sucking from a tube attached to the bottle, as we were flying over ten thousand feet AGL. Quite an experience, so started a long friend ship, often meeting for the odd drink etc., Vic sorted out our first dark room where we made our first print, which gave us the same feeling as going solo at the gliding club, which was on Thorn Park on the Mazoe Road.

I remember attending a Royal Aero Society meeting where Des spoke about his experiences at Stalag Lift 111, the consequent escape in 1944, where Des made all the escape maps, which you can read about in the book the Great Escape. He was picked up by the Gestapo in Prague, but can,t remember how he got out of being shot like 50 of his colleagues. Des was very fond of Amirila cigars! I have a vague recollection that his co pilot was someone Campbell? I know he flew the Dove for Air Survey company for quite a time. I have a studio photo of him somewhere amongst my old prints. Very happy days, also flying from Belvedere in the Viking to Ft Jameson in Northern Rhodesia., as I was a tobacco buyer for Bindi Noakes, we were attending the NE sales where tobacco was off quota, consequently prices were very good, strip leaf ging for 60 pence per pound! I think we needed an iron lung to get us back to normal on our return from a week in Fort Jimmy!!

Mike McGeorge.

At 4 June 2013 at 15:28 , Blogger Saharabina45 said...

I am one of Desmond's many nieces and nephews. I don't think any of the family had knowledge of the postcard, though I have seen the photo before. I don't recall Desmond ever talking about his time in Stalag Luft III - he spent two years in solitary confinement there, possibly following his recapture. The first 50 escapees that were recaptured were shot on Hitler's orders, and it's alleged that Desmond was the 51st to be picked up. There is a book called "The Man who Wouldn't Die" by Roland Pletts and Desmond. He clearly had several narrow escapes. Do you have any more of Desmond's items that the family can have or at least see? We'd certainly be very interested in them.
Desmond has two sisters who are still alive and living in the UK. Desmond's children are all living in the UK - a son and two daughters. I am living in Johannesburg, so if you have any of Desmond's items that you can pass on to the family, please let me know as we would like to have them if you are prepared to part with them.

Sarah Bain (nee Plunkett)

At 21 August 2013 at 18:02 , Blogger Don Edy, WW2 Vet, RCAF and RAF 33 SQN, shot down N. Africa 1942, POW in Stalag Luft III Sagan 1943-45 (POW Padula Italy in 1942) said...

A note to Rob Birkbeck and Des Plunkett's niece, Sarah Bain (nee Plunkett) Saharabina45 if you'd like to contact my father who was PoW in the next hut, please also note that many Stalag Luft III and Great Escaper's families are in touch via email. You can reach us through my father's website. Don Edy was also a POW in Stalag Luft III North Compound at the time of the escape. Use his 'Contact Don' link to email Dad or myself, I'll refer you to the families of Des' hut mates at Stalag Luft III, also in the Great Escape. We have a sketch of Des, depicted with 5 of his fellow escapers and roommates. Dad's "Contact" link can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of the page at

At 22 May 2020 at 13:00 , Blogger Unknown said...

My father Alan Green was shot down with Des on JUne 20/21 1942 and ended up as a POW in SL3

At 29 June 2020 at 18:17 , Blogger said...

Can you put me in contact with Rob Birbeck many thanks

At 17 November 2022 at 19:13 , Blogger AxelSewell said...

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At 17 November 2022 at 19:13 , Blogger AxelSewell said...

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