Medals of a Great Escapee

Time to take legal advice on where they stand

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A couple of years ago I was undertaking a probate valuation in Hambledon on the estate of a deceased wartime pilot, Wing Commander John Nunn, and had arranged to meet his son at the property.

Having finished my note taking of the personal property and effects in the house, I was shown the war medals awarded to John.

They comprised the standard WWII medals of a 1939-45 Star, British War Medal, Defence Medal and an Air Efficiency Award, but more interestingly he had an Air Crew Europe Star, a popular medal with collectors, and a gallantry award in the form of a Distinguished Flying Cross.

I estimated a probate valuation, or ‘open market’ valuation, on the medal group of £1,000.

John’s son began telling me the story of his father’s war career and remembered his obituary printed in The Times newspaper.

John Leslie Nunn had flown over 15 missions when, flying an Avro Manchester bomber, he was shot down over Belgium in August 1941.

Rather than bail out of the stricken bomber and abandon two wounded crew members, John risked his own life by crash landing the plane.

Captured and interrogated, he found himself in Stalag Luft III, the prison camp made famous in The Great Escape, the 1963 Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.

It was based on the real mass escape attempt of 1943 when 76 of a planned 250 men escaped from the prison camp through an underground tunnel.

Three tunnels were initially planned, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry.

However, two of the tunnels were discovered by the prison guards and the third tunnel came up slightly short of the tree line beyond the perimeter fence, contributing to the ultimate failure and early discovery of the prison break.

John, a mathematics graduate, had been the architect of the escape tunnels, using trigonometry to calculate the tunnel length.

All but three of the 76 escaped prisoners were quickly recaptured and, on the direct orders of Hitler, 50 were murdered as a deterrent to future escape attempts.

This miscalculation haunted Nunn throughout his life, even though his fellow prisoners held the firm belief that, had all 250 men escaped, then more were likely to have been murdered by the Gestapo.

Not only was John one of the escapees of The Great Escape, one of the most romantic stories of WWII, he played a crucial role in its planning.

With such provenance, and if ever sold in the open market, his medal group would generate huge interest and could easily sell for 10 times my original valuation.

Antiques expert John appears on TV shows including Cash In The Attic and Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is and also runs Nesbits auction house in Southsea. E-mail auctions@nesbits.co.uk or call (023) 9229 5568.

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