Heroes of History - The Great Escape

I have a few films that I can watch over and over again without being bored by them, something that anyone who knows me would attest to being a rare occurrence – I bore incredibly easily – and one of those films is the amazing 1960’s epic, The Great Escape. The cast list alone is quite amazing and even more so when you start to look at some of the events they experienced in real life and not on the big screen.

I want to focus on the forger, Colin Blythe, or the actual actor who played him, real name Donald Pleasence. Whilst you may know him as Blofield from James Bond, or Dr Loomis from the original Halloween films, you may be unaware of his amazing past as a participant in the Second World War.

Born in Nottinghamshire in 1919, the son of Alice and Thomas who was a railway stationmaster. Fast forward 20 years or so and after the initial outbreak of the war in 1939, Pleasence registered as a Conscientious Objector and refused conscription. Whether this was due to his recent acceptance to Jersey Rep as an actor or his upbringing as a strict Methodist, one can only guess, but the impact of the blitz on London in the Autumn of 1940 changed his mind enough that he registered with the RAF and began training as a Wireless Operator, subsequently joining 166 Squadron and Bomber Command.

Anyone who has heard me speak before will know my love and interest in aviation and especially the bomber crews of the Second World War. I find that the emotions and experiences that they faced indescribable, not to mention the courage that these incredibly young men – the average age of bomber aircrew is reported to be 21, I’ll let that sink in for a second shall I?.

On the 31st August 1944, Flying Officer Pleasence was one of a crew of 7, taking off from RAF Kirmington near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, piloted by RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Flying Officer EB Tutty, their mission to attack the V2 depot at Agenville.

At this point, Pleasence had completed nearly 60 raids, a bomber crew members tour being 30 normally (or a maximum of 200 flying hours) as many tended to not even reach this magical number. Let me just throw a few statistics out there courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, 51% of aircrew were killed on operations, 13% became prisoners of war and a mere 24% survived unscathed.

Sadly Lancaster NE112 did not make it and was shot down around 9km east of its destination and Pleasence was captured and taken to the Prisoner of War camp, Stalag Luft 1. Why is this so interesting? Well, for anyone who has seen The Great Escape (and if not, the question has to be why not?) the camp is actually Stalag Luft III. The Stalag Luft camps were those run by the Luftwaffe for Allied airmen, so whilst it’s not a surprise that a member of the RAF was in there, it’s quite amazing to think that Pleasence was happy to create a film about one of the most infamous and horrific escapes of the whole war. I say horrific, because of the 73 men recaptured – only 3 actually got away – 50 of them were executed. It is believed that Nazi General Arthur Nebe was responsible for choosing which airmen to murder, although he faced his own demise after being part of the 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and then being “hanged like cattle” on 21st March 1945 with piano wire from a meat hook.

His incarceration in the POW camp was to last until the end of the war, during which time he put on plays for the entertainment of his fellow airmen. He also is reported to have said he was treated well and with respect by his captors, something which is also frequently heard from Luftwaffe POW’s in this country too.

Whilst Donald is no longer with us, I do believe that next time you watch Flight Lieutenant Blythe creating the ID to enable the escapees to blend into the background, just think about what he did see in real life, the amount of air crew he knew who didn’t return from their missions and the sacrifice both he, and thousands of others gave during the Second World War.

If you want to hear more about the life of a bomber air crew listen to the show I did with Mark Dudley on Rougham Airfield

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