Irishman who helped dig tunnels for the Great Escape


Nicolas Tindal: Group Captain Nicolas Tindal, who died on January 28th aged 94, was a well-known figure in Co Donegal, where he lived for a number of years having bought a farm there in 1947.

A career officer in the Royal Air Force, he had joined Bomber Command in 1939 and became a prisoner of war in 1940 after being forced to crash-land in France.

He was involved as a prisoner of war in the preparations for what has become known as the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944. There he took part in the laborious digging of the three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry - but his expertise was for forging the documents and stamps and other paraphernalia which were essential if capture was to be avoided.

That the escape, which was to be attempted by 200 officers and involved so much intensive preliminary work, was kept secret is astonishing and there were constant fears that it might be betrayed either accidentally or deliberately. Roger Bushell, who was in overall charge, was suspicious of a certain Irish airman, who had for weeks been feigning madness to persuade the Germans to repatriate him. For good measure he also claimed to be a member of the IRA.

Bushell asked Tindal, who had been brought up in Ireland, to keep an eye on the suspect. Tindal was later able to reassure Bushell that he was absolutely reliable and would never betray the escape. This was just as well as arrangements had already been made to drown the Irishman in his bath, had suspicions been confirmed.

The Great Escape was a disaster; the tunnel chosen surfaced far too near the camp perimeter and the escape was discovered while still in progress. Unknown to the escapers, Goering had ordered that an example be made to discourage escapes of this kind and 50 of the officers out of the 75 who initially got away were shot. Bushell was among them. Tindal was on the parade ground when the ashes of the murdered men were returned to the camp in urns. He had the chance to escape but had given his place to a Czech airman, whose wife had recently given birth and was anxious to get home. Typically, Tindal urged him to make an Act of Contrition before he left. He was among those shot.

After the escape the ever-present gloom in the camp became much worse and Tindal never forgot the tedium and anxiety of men who wondered if they would ever see their families again. Some went mad and threw themselves on to the perimeter wire and were shot. A guard told Tindal he would never get out because the Nazis were going to win.

But the Germans were forced to evacuate the camp in January 1945 in advance of the Red Army. The prisoners were forced to march hundreds of miles westwards in freezing conditions- one of his worst experiences of the war.

Nicolas Henry Joseph Tindal Carill-Worsley, normally known as Nicolas Tindal, was born in Dublin on March 7th, 1911, the son of a naval officer who had at one stage served aboard the British royal yacht.

His mother was Kathleen, daughter of Simon Mangan of Dunboyne Castle, his majesty's lieutenant for Co Meath. Tindal's parents separated when he was still a child- and he ever afterwards suffered from the rift - but he was brought up in the midst of a large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins.

He was educated at St John's, Beaumont, Stonyhurst and Trinity College Dublin.

Stockily built and fast he was a gifted player and excelled at tennis and rugby, at which he represented TCD.

While at Trinity in 1930, he applied for and won one of the six commissions in the RAF then open annually to university graduates. During the long summer vacations he learned to fly Gipsy Moths at Filton near Bristol.

After Flying Training School at Grantham he went to the Army Air Corps at Old Sarum for further training, and soon proved to be so brilliant a pilot that he was posted as an instructor at the central flying school.

There he taught among others the future air ace, Robert Stanford-Tuck. After a further period at Grantham he wrote to the under secretary of state for air, Sir Philip Sassoon, seeking a London posting. Sassoon invited him down to Port Lympne, his luxurious retreat in Sussex. Sassoon was a keen tennis player but a very bad loser and when his staff heard that he had asked Tindal for a game they begged the young officer to let their master win.

Tindal remained for a year, 1936-7, in London, where he married, and was then posted to Abbots Inch near Glasgow. He was in Scotland when war was declared. He was next posted to Cottesmore in Lincolnshire where, now a squadron leader, he underwent a conversion course to bombers. After Dunkirk in 1940, Britain had no way of showing defiance except by bombing Berlin and the Ruhr, and it was on such a raid that he was taken prisoner.

Tindal made several escape attempts before arriving at Stalag Luft III and spent many weeks in solitary confinement as a result. On one occasion, when he was at a camp near Bremen, he was free for eight days surviving on iron rations and by drinking water from puddles. He was captured when the goods train on which he managed to hitch a ride ended up in the middle of one of the German army's principal training areas in the Black Forest.

On another he and "Wings" Day walked out of the camp in German uniforms made by the prisoners. This was at a time when prisoners were still treated in a gentlemanly way and Tindal was even taken skiing by his first prison commandant who was named Rumpel.

A local countess, whom Tindal had met before the war in Scotland, once invited him to dinner with the approval of Rumpel, but he decided that it would be unwise to accept. For all his determined attempts to escape Tindal was mentioned in despatches.

After the war Tindal was promoted wing commander and posted to Flying Training School, Shrewsbury, for a year. He was then sent to Palestine. He was promoted group captain and served in Italy and Austria before returning to England as commanding officer at RAF Coltishall. He retired from the service in 1947.

Tindal, like many of his colleagues, had studied agriculture while a prisoner of war and soon after it ended bought a mixed fruit and dairy farm at Bruckless, not far from Killybegs, amid beautiful coastal scenery. Here he brought up his growing family.

Though a novice Tindal proved to be an innovative farmer and a good businessman. He was one of the first fruit-growers in Ireland to introduce cold storage and his orchards were highly successful until they were destroyed in a single day by the hurricane Debbie in 1961. Not deterred, he turned part of the farm over to battery-hen farming then almost unknown in Ireland. He had been told, on arrival in Donegal, that he would probably stay a year. He retired to Lough Conn in Co Mayo in 1975.

Always known as "the Captain", Tindal was an immensely popular figure in Donegal, notorious in his family for chatting for hours with anyone he might meet by the roadside. Poverty was widespread at the time. Although he was known to sack unreliable workers, and to prosecute poachers, he had the kindest of hearts and was always helping those less fortunate than himself.

He was in charge of the RAF benevolent fund for many years. Tindal was a devout Catholic and daily Mass-goer. He was devoted to his wife, to whom he was married for 60 years, and after she died he gradually divested himself of his earthly belongings.

After one particularly traumatic railway journey he was heard to say: "I have lost my house, my car, my wife and now my luggage."

He married, in 1936, Winifred Cooper with whom he had seven children, two of whom pre-deceased him. He is survived by three sons and two daughters.

Nicolas Tindal: born March 7th, 1911; died on January 28th, 2006