He was the cooler king of Colditz – the clown prince of the high-security citadel reserved for the most incorrigible of escape artists. Yet with 415 days spent in solitary confinement – and a further three months still to serve when the notorious former mental hospital was liberated in 1945 – Squadron Leader Peter Tunstall could not lay claim to being the Second World War’s greatest escapologist. Five of his audacious bids for freedom ended in heroic failure.
Tunstall had another trick up his sleeve though – making himself the Germans’ biggest pain in the neck. He was court martialled five times for his antics, which included tossing water bombs over his Nazi captors and generally goading them into a state of distracted fury – much to the delight of his fellow PoWs.
And by the time the war was over no other prisoner had spent as much time incarcerated alone or faced so many tribunals. His death on Saturday at his home in South Africa aged 94, has once again raised questions over why it was that Tunstall was never officially recognised for his heroic actions.
Along with the celebrated “shows” he created, which bought escaping PoWs valuable time to make good their get-away, he smuggled out vital coded messages on tracing paper concealed in letters and photographs.
Filmmaker Dave Windle, a personal friend of the former pilot, spent four weeks filming his reminiscences in 2006 for the video Escape into Colditz which chronicled Tunstall’s extraordinary life.
He believes it was a personality clash with the castle’s highly respected senior British officer, Colonel Willie Tod, that cost him the recognition he deserved. “He did so much to assist other people but this was not understood by Colonel Tod who had no time for Pete or for Douglas Bader [a fellow inmate] who was regarded by all the young RAF officers, including Pete, as God,” said Mr Windle.
“Tod never spoke to Pete until he was liberated when he saw him with a gun and said: ‘What are you doing playing soldiers?’ He never forgot that,” he added.
Tunstall was told after the war by Tod’s former adjutant that the ex-Scots Fusilier had been sitting on the panel which considered the award of medals for former PoWs after being put forward by MI9, the Military Intelligence Directorate at the War Office who valued his covert messaging.
“He said: ‘Over my dead body. He should never get any recognition whatsoever’,” said Mr Windle.
The death of the former flying ace leaves just three former Colditz inmates still alive in the UK – Flight Lieutenant Francis “Errol” Flynn, Captain Tommy Catlow and Major- General Corran Purdon – all of whom are in their 90s.
Two survivors are believed to live in Canada and Australia with a number of Frenchmen who were taken to the castle towards the end of the war from the Eastern front are also still living.
Tunstall, along with Bader to whom he remained fiercely loyal for the rest of his life, was a towering character of one of the most enthralling chapters of the Second World War.
He paid for flying lessons while still a schoolboy growing up at Chadwell St Mary in Essex by shooting rabbits and selling them to the local butcher. During his training – after joining the RAF at the first opportunity – he was told by the veteran World War One escaper AJ Evans that if captured “your first duty was to try to escape. Your second duty was to be as big a bloody nuisance as possible to enemy”.
It was advice he took to heart. Shot down on a bombing mission in 1940 when his aircraft ditched on a Dutch island, he was captured and sent to Barth in Poland where he joined an escape party and attempted to steal a German plane at a nearby airfield.
The ill-fated adventure earned him his first three months in solitary and later a transfer to Spangenberg Castle. There he participated in the notorious “Swiss Commission” in which an Allied prisoner in a stolen Nazi uniform walked free accompanying two fellow inmates posing as neutral Swiss.
Another attempt to steal a plane failed and Tunstall walked 100 miles towards Holland where he was picked up and returned to more time in the cooler and another transfer to Oflag VIB where yet another escape bid resulted in the move to Colditz in March 1942.
Though celebrated for his stunts he insisted everything he did was carried out at the behest of the senior escape officers and were part of a careful plan.
He was later to recall: “I have gone down in history as the arch German-baiter, the chap who is always causing trouble and raising lots of laughter which was essential for our morale. I seemed to have a knack for it, because I’m naturally rather naughty I suppose. But I’m sorry for that reputation, rather than being remembered for my escaping and getting intelligence messages home.”
After the war, Tunstall was a pilot for Freddie Laker before moving to Uganda where his passengers included Idi Amin. He later became an actor and even recorded cowboy stories under the name Pete and the Boys.
“He had a sense of fun about it but with all that solitary confinement he thought that in the end you did go potty. He once said that he had never been right again,” said Mr Windle.