Squadron Leader Peter Tunstall, the cooler king of Colditz who failed to get the recognition he deserved

His death has raised questions about why he was never honoured

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot