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Map Maker From ‘Great Escape’ Dies

February 20, 2002

LONDON (AP) _ 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 died Feb. 14, according to the RAF Association, 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, southeastern Germany.

Plunkett’s team based their work on maps stolen from supply trucks or obtained from guards by bribe 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,″ said Vance. ``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 tunnel. Seventy-three 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 on April 8.

He 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’d 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 1963 film because many 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 Association’s home in Storrington, southeastern England.

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

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