Mr. Black before his capture in Germany

The Great Escape – Duncan Black Obiturary
Monica Porter

HE WAS one of the most famous heroes to be portrayed in war movies, but his gentle manner never hinted at the actions, which saw him immortalized on the silver screen.
His name was Duncan Black and he was catapulted to hero status because of his expert handwriting and drawing skills.

As a POW he was the Forger of Stalag Luft III - the real-life airman portrayed by Donald Pleasance in the Hollywood classic, The Great Escape.

Sadly, the 73-year-old has died in his home city of Edinburgh, but his story lives on as an inspiration not only to Hollywood, but also to his many friends and neighbors

A navigator in Bomber Command, Mr. Black was 21 when he was shot down over Düsseldorf in 1943

He spent two days on the run but was captured and taken to the, notorious Stalag Luft III.

There was no shortage of prisoners eager to break out of the camp and escape plans were being drawn up under the noses of unsuspecting German guards. Mr. Black was soon one of the masterminds.

He trained and led a team of forgers, which produced hundreds of passports, travel passes and other documents. It was a struggle to obtain enough paper for the operation.


But the real difficulty was the lack of rubber stamps – all documents had to carry the official Nazi stamp of approval. Mr. Black taught his men how to reproduce the stamp painstakingly by hand.

In the end, despite having only the most basic equipment and working in poor light, the papers were so expertly done that they could not be distinguished from the real thing.

Unlike the Donald Pleasance character in the film, Black did not go blind through his efforts though he did stay behind when the escape was made.

The punishment for being caught undertaking such work could be severe and the men became adept at covering their tracks and diverting the guards’ attention.

The escape team was highly organized and allocated jobs according to individual skills.

More than 400 documents were forged, hundreds of compasses were made and hundreds of prison uniforms were turned into convincing civilian clothing.

And, of course, a 330ft tunnel was dug from under the stove in Hut 104 to the far side of the camp’s perimeter fence.

The Great Escape – immortalized in the Sixties film by a gallery of s tars from both sides of the Atlantic, including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson – involved 600 British and American prisoners of war.

But not all of them were on the list of those due to escape on the night of 23 March, 1944. Only 200 were given permission to go. Although Mr. Black played a pivotal role in the daring plot, he could not join the escapees. He had been put on the list but, to his disappointment, he fell ill shortly before he was due to go.

In the end, only 76 prisoners were able to make it through the dangerously unstable tunnel before daybreak.

As it turned out, Mr. Black’s illness was probably fortunate; 73 of the escapees were recaptured and a furious Hitler ordered 50 of them to be shot as an example to other would-be escapees.

The POWs were duly transported to the countryside and machine-gunned by the Gestapo.

Mr. Black remained in the camp until it was liberated by American troops in May 1945.

However, the end of the war did not signal a slide into an everyday life for Mr. Black.

 

On his return to Edinburgh, he took up acting and played a number of minor roles in the Ealing comedies.
Later he resumed the architectural studies which had been interrupted by war.

He won the prestigious Rome Scholarship, which enabled him to spend two year s in the Italian capital before returning to work in Edinburgh.

Mr. Black enjoyed an illustrious career at the Scottish Office, rising to the position of deputy chief architect, and worked on the design of Scotland’s new towns including Glenrothes and Irvine. He retired in 1982.

His former boss at the Scottish Office, Bruce Beckett, said: ‘Duncan had wonderful handwriting and could draw beautifully.’

Mr. Black suffered a stroke two years ago.

He never married but lived with his lifelong friend, Maurice Guild.

He like to live quietly and spoke little about his wartime adventures, except when in the company of other former POWs – to the end, modesty was among his greatest assets.

Reporter: Monica Porter of "The Daily Mail"