Squadron Leader Peter David Tunstall
Born December 1st 1918 at Chadwell St Mary, Essex Died July 27th 2013. Age 94
Squadron Leader Peter Tunstall, was an inveterate escaper who spent longer in solitary confinement than any other Allied PoW; he was court-martialled by the Germans on five occasions and became one of the most notable inmates of the infamous Colditz Castle.
Tunstall was captured in August 1940, and when a German officer reminded him that his war was over, he responded: “It damn well is not.” He later observed: “As far as I was concerned, a different type of war had started. My first duty was to escape, my second was to be as big a bloody nuisance as possible to the enemy.”
Tunstall was so successful in his aim to create trouble that, in March 1942, the Germans transferred him to Colditz, where he was to spend the next three years refining his skills in the art of “goon baiting”.
Among his most famous exploits was the water-bombing of German officers from a locked room above the courtyard. Below him the Germans were holding a muster of prisoners, and Tunstall succeeded in landing his “bomb” directly on the card table where the papers lay, soaking the officer in charge.
While this created hilarity and raised morale, there was a serious purpose. Two other Colditz inmates had just escaped, and by creating chaos for an extra half-hour, the prank delayed the discovery that they had got away. Tunstall was court-martialled and received a month in solitary. Some time later he appeared before another court on the more serious charge of jabbing a guard with his finger when refusing a bath; on this occasion he was acquitted .
Tunstall once set fire to the wood shavings that were used as the PoWs’ mattress fillings. In the ensuing panic as the fire brigade dealt with the blaze, the prisoners took the opportunity to steal a number of tools from the fire engine.
What gave Tunstall most pride, though, was the system he devised to convey information back to London. Coded messages were written on tracing paper and concealed in letters and photographs that the PoWs sent to their relatives, who then passed them on to MI9, the Military Intelligence Directorate at the War Office.
MI9 later recommended Tunstall for an award for his outstanding conduct during his time as a PoW, but the last senior British officer at Colditz declined to support the award, a decision attributed to a personality clash between the two men.
During his time in Colditz, Tunstall was involved in a number of escape attempts, resulting in spells in solitary confinement. Finally, on April 16 1945, American troops liberated the castle and Tunstall was flown back to England.
Peter David Tunstall learned to fly while still at school — paying for his lessons by shooting rabbits and selling them to the local butcher. He joined the RAF in 1937, and after pilot training joined No 61 Squadron at Hemswell, Lincolnshire, flying the twin-engined Hampden bomber. During the retreat to Dunkirk and the days that followed, he attacked targets in northern France.
On the night of August 26/27 1940, Tunstall and his crew set off to bomb the Leuna oil refinery near Merseburg. On their return home the wireless failed and the navigator became hopelessly lost. The aircraft ran out of fuel
, and Tunstall landed on a sandbank on the Dutch island of Vliehors. Attempts to set the aircraft on fire failed, and the four-man crew were soon captured. (see Aircrew Remembered note)
Tunstall was sent to the PoW camp at Barth in Poland, where he soon started his career as a tormentor of his guards and persistent escaper. On May 28 1941 he joined a group of five Army PoWs who, escorted by a German-speaking RAF officer wearing a homemade German NCO uniform, managed to march unchallenged through the main gate. Tunstall and his RAF colleague headed for a nearby airfield, but their attempt to start up an aircraft failed and they were recaptured; they were sentenced to three months’ solitary confinement — the first of the 412 days Tunstall would spend in isolation. On his release he was sent to Spangenberg Castle .
In September 1941 Tunstall participated in what was considered by many PoWs to be one of the most daring escape attempts of the war (it was known as “the Swiss Commission”). Four men were involved. Two dressed in German uniforms which they had discovered in the attic of the castle , and “escorted” two “Swiss representatives” through the main gate. They completely fooled the guards, marching out of the camp and heading for Kassel, where they planned to steal an aircraft. Having failed to find one that was suitable, they headed for Cologne, covering more than 100 miles over the next 10 days before being recaptured. They received 53 days in solitary.
Tunstall was transferred to Oflag VIB, where he was immediately sentenced to six more weeks in solitary. When he protested, he was told that this new sentence was for “insulting the Third Reich” after his recapture.
His next attempt involved making fake German overalls and joining a party of orderlies escorted by PoWs disguised as sentries and equipped with dummy rifles and false passes. On December 1 they passed through the gate, but the guard recalled them on the ground that their passes were incorrectly signed. Since the guard failed to appreciate that this was an escape attempt, the party returned to the camp to prepare a second attempt. They tried this a fortnight later, but a more observant guard detected an irregularity, and Tunstall endured another period in solitary. He was transferred to Colditz Castle on March 15 1942.
After the war, Tunstall remained in the RAF as a flying instructor. He flew Meteor and Vampire jets and served as the chief flying instructor at No 5 Flying Training School at Oakington, Cambridgeshire. He retired in 1958, and joined Laker Airways before moving to South Africa, where he continued to fly and secured a number of parts as a professional actor.
After the war he remarked: “I have gone down in history as the arch German baiter, always causing trouble and raising lots of laughs; but I am sorry for that reputation, rather than being remembered for my escaping and getting intelligence messages home.”
In 2006 a video, Escape into Colditz, was made of his time as a PoW.
Peter Tunstall is survived by his wife, Ann, and by their two sons and two daughters.
Aircrew Remembered notes: 61 Squadron Hampden P4324 OJ-A Other crew – Sgt. A.E. Murdock, Sgt. M.J. Joyce and Sgt. W.J. Brook all PoW. Page also placed regarding this loss on this website.
Reprinted with the kind permission of the Daily Telegraph obituaries column.
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Article prepared by Barry Howard of the Spixworthonian Language School.