Flight Lieutenant Alastair Donald Mackintosh “Sandy” Gunn

Lieutenant Alastair Donald Mackintosh “Sandy” Gunn from Auchterarder and was a top-notch elite Spitfire pilot who flew on highly dangerous missions, including photographing the German pocket battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian Fjord, he took part in the ‘Great Escape’ and was subsequently cruelly murdered on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

During its 22-week operational life, Sandy’s Spitfire AA810, had at least 7 pilots, including the Welsh champion jockey and 1940 Grand National winner Mervyn Anthony Jones, and the Indian-born English motor racing star, Alfred Fane Peers Agabeg. Jones and Agabeg, both lost their lives flying missions for the RAF’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). The Operation Record Book for 1 PRU shows that Spitfire AA810 flew for a total of 49 hours and 47 minutes. The PRU employed modified Supermarine Spitfires which were unarmed, stripped of armour plating, armoured windscreens, and even without a radio. They were also fitted with additional fuel tanks giving them 4 times the range of a conventional Spitfire. Some PRU Spitfires which were meant to fly just under cloud cover, at sunset and sunrise, when the clouds took on a pinkish hue and so painting them pink rendered them almost invisible and gave them the nickname, ‘Pink Spitfires’.

When Spitfire AA810 crashed in Norway, it was piloted for the PRU by Alistair Donald Mackintosh ‘Sandy’ Gunn, a native of Perthshire. Sandy Gunn was born on 27 September 1919 at ‘Deansland’, Auchterarder to the locally well-loved surgeon James Turner Gunn, MB, ChB, FRCS and Adelaide Lucy Frances Gunn. He was schooled at Cargilfield School and Fettes College (both Edinburgh) before undertaking an engineering apprenticeship at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan. He then went on to Pembroke College (University of Cambridge) to study Mechanical Sciences.

Sandy Gunn enlisted in the RAF on 22 February 1940 and commenced active service on 22 June 1940 as an aircrew candidate (airman second class). On 18 January 1941, he received his pilot’s brevet (an honorary high rank that rewards merit or gallantry, but without authority) and was promoted to sergeant. He was commissioned as a pilot officer on 25 January 1941 and then promoted to flying officer on 25 January 1942. Much of Gunn’s flying involved flying dangerous long-range PRU missions photographing German naval units along the Norwegian coast and in the North Atlantic. During one of these missions, he crashed in the North Atlantic after running out of fuel. Luckily, he was rescued and was soon back in the air.

At 08:07 hours on 5 March 1942, Spitfire AA810, piloted by Gunn, took off from RAF Wick. It flew 580 miles across the North Sea to Fættenfjord in the north of Norway. Gunn’s mission was to photograph the German battleship Tirpitz which was sheltering in the Trondheim Fjord. This was the 113th PRU mission to try to monitor the German battleship and unfortunately for Gunn, the first to be successfully intercepted by the Luftwaffe, for AA810 was shot down by two Messerschmitt Bf109 E’s undertaking air protection over the fjord. Sandy was unaware that the Germans had installed a new listening post at Kristiansund, to the west of the Trondheim Fjord and Luftwaffe pilots, Dieter Gerhardt and Heinz Knoke had been scrambled at 12.02pm from Lade airfield to wait high at 15,000 feet nine minutes later over Trondheim for Sandy to arrive.

Sandy was seen to be circling with an engine issue, he was trying to decide whether to risk returning home over the North Sea or head for neutral Sweden. Heinz fired first hitting the oil cooler on AA810. Then it was Dieter’s turn, he peppered the Spitfire with hundreds of rounds. One of the cannon rounds hit Sandy’s starboard wing tank, setting it on fire.

Sandy bailed out just before his Spitfire crashed. He was assisted by locals and tried to escape on skies but suffering facial injuries and other burns and unable to ski well, undertaking the 110-mile hike to the Swedish border was not a realistic option. He surrendered and became a prisoner of war. Surnadalsøra village lies over the river below the ‘Troll Mountains’ and being so remote it would also be his place of rest that evening as there was no way to get him to Trondheim that same day. A lorry arrived the next morning (Note: see Heink Knocke account in Notes – flown by Fieseler Stroch) and he was taken to Trondheim where he boarded a train for Oslo. Then he was flown to a Dulag Luft, (Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe, Transit Camp of the Airforce) for interrogation. The main Dulag Luft was at Oberursel near Frankfurt.

The German military believed Gunn had flown from a secret RAF airfield in northern Norway and interrogated him for some 3 weeks before sending him to Stalag Luft 3, a Luftwaffe-run POW camp in Poland immortalised by 2 break outs, that of October 1943 – the subject of the book (and subsequent film) by Eric Williams, The Wooden Horse – and that which became known as the ‘Great Escape’, on the night of 24-25 March 1944. This was a new camp and Sandy was the 5th prisoner to arrive.

Sandy found a place as a Security Officer, guarding Escape Committee conferences and as a tunneller. The tunnel he first worked on was discovered, his second was ‘Harry’ which was to become very well-known thought the world. The mastermind of the Great escape, Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell (Big X) hand-picked the first 100 men that were to escape, priority given to those who had contributed the most. The tunnel they escaped through, Harry, was 100 metres long. The tunnel fell short of where it was supposed to end up, it was intended to go as far as into the woods. The weather was extremely cold that night and on the higher ground to the south snow lay up to six inches deep.

The men gathered in hut 104 and prepared to leave. Sandy was 68th on the list to escape. With the tunnel being too short, subsequent delays caused a backlog, and it suffered several collapses. Sandy Gunn was one of the 76 escapees who managed to get out and one of the 73 recaptured.

So furious was Adolf Hitler over the escape, he ordered the infamous “Sagan Befehl” execution of the escapees. It is said that due to the intervention of Herman Göring, this number was reduced to 50. Sandy Gunn was murdered on 6 April 1944 by members of the Gestapo along with 49 other RAF personnel, including 11 Spitfire pilots. Flight Lieutenant Alastair Donald MacIntosh ‘Sandy’ Gunn (60340) was but 24 years of age. He was buried at the time in Sagan. Subsequently, his ashes were re-interred in the Old Garrison Cemetery, Poznan.

From the Spitfire AA810 – Restoring Sandy’s Spitfire Facebook page – ‘Sandy was 68th on the list to escape, but the tunnel collapsed, between the half-way houses of Picadilly and Leicester Square and had to be dug out by Cookie Long. Disappearing into the night with his escaper partner Mike Casey, with neither speaking German they headed for the Zagan train station to ride under the freight trains north. Their destination was the northern German port of Sassnitz where they would try and stow away on a boat to Stettin, Sweden. Sandy had photographed Stettin several times from his Spitfire. They managed to stay free through the entire day of the 25th. Sandy and Mike’s escape attempt would come to an end 78 years ago today. Once caught they were transported to the Gestapo HQ at 31 Augustastrasse, Görlitz, Germany where Sandy would be imprisoned and interrogated until 6th April.

Both Mike Casey (RAF 57 squadron) and Cookie Long (RAF 9 Squadron) were also murdered by the Gestapo.

Heink Knocke described the shooting down of Spitfire AA810 in his book, ‘I Flew for the Führer ‘, published 1953 in the UK by Evans Brothers Limited, London:

“5th March 1942. A shout from the operations room: “There he is again!” Out through the window and into the snow in one bound, twenty or thirty long strides, and I am in my aircraft. Seconds later I start rolling to take off.

12.02 hours: climbing steeply into the cloudless sky.

12.10 hours: altitude 15,000 feet. I adjust the oxygen mask. It is bitterly cold.

“Bandit in Cäsar-Ida–Hanni-seven-zero.” (German Phonetic Language -Hanni, unknown, possibly meaning height or altitude as in the German word Höhe)

“Victor, victor; message understood,” I reply.

Altitude 20,000 feet.

“Bandit now in Cäsar-Kurfürst

I shall climb to 25,000 feet. I simply must get him today.

“Bandit in Berta-Ludwig.”

He seems to be sweeping round the northern tip of the Sound, heading up towards the anchorage of our warships.

I am now at 25000 feet, scanning the skies around and below. Ahead and to the left I discern a tiny dark speck in the sky against the unbroken white landscape below.

It is the Spitfire, leaving a short vapour trail behind. The Tommy comes round in a wide sweep, heading up the Inner fjord. I maintain altitude and study my pray. Now over his objective, the Tommy flies’ round in two complete circles. He is taking photographs.

I make use of this opportunity to take up a position above him. Apparently, he is so intent on his task that he does not notice me. I am now about 3,000 feet above him.

Then he starts back a westerly course. I open my throttle wide and check my guns as I swoop down upon him. In a few seconds I am right on his tail. Fire!

My tracers vanish into his fuselage. And now he begins to twist and turn like a mad thing. Must not let him escape. Keep firing with everything I have.

He goes into a dive, then straightens out again. He begins trailing smoke, which gradually become denser. I fire yet again.

Then something suddenly splashes into my windshield. Oil. My engine? I have no visibility ahead and am no longer able to see the Spitfire. Blast!

My engine is still running smoothly. Apparently, the oil in front of my eyes must have come from the badly damaged Spitfire when its oil-cooler as shot to pieces.

I veer a little to the right, in order to be able to observe the Tommy farther through the side window. He is gradually losing speed but is still flying. The smoke-trail is becoming thinner.

Then another Messerschmitt comes into view climbing up on my left. It is Lieutenant Dieter Gerhardt, my old comrade, and I radio him to say that I am no longer able to fire.

He opens fire. The right wing of the Spitfire shears away. Like a dead autumn leaf, the plane flutters earthwards.

And the pilot? Is he still alive? My throat tightens. I had come to like that boy. If he is not dead, why does he not bail out?

The Spitfire goes down, a flaming torch now, hurtling towards the snowfield. It will crash there and be utterly destroyed. And with it the pilot.

I find myself shouting as if he could hear me: “Bail out, lad, bail out!” After all, he is human too; a soldier, too, and a pilot with the same love of the sky and clouds that I feel. Does he also have a wife, a girl like Lilo, perhaps?

“Bail out, lad, bail out!”

Then a body becomes detached from the flames and falls clear. A white parachute spreads open and drifts slowly down into the mountains.

A feeling of pure joy is in my heart now. This is my first combat victory in the air. I have got my man and he is alive.”

Dieter and I share a bottle of brandy. We drink a toast to our own fighter pilots, and another to our Tommy.

Dieter brings him in, after landing in the mountains in a Fieseler Storch fitted with skies. He is a tall, slim Pilot Officer in the Royal Air Force. A stiff drink of brandy does him a lot of good. He joins in the laughter when I explain how the entire bottle was actually dedicated to him.

In 2018, Spitfire AA810 was discovered embedded in a mountainside peat bog in Norway – a remote area near Surnadal, Norway (Surnadalsøra). After careful excavation and meticulous on-site recording, its component pieces were carefully packed into boxes and driven back to the UK. The plane had been hit by over 200 machine-gun bullets and some 20 rounds of cannon fire. Before it hit the ground at an angle of about 20 degrees, its engine had stopped and its starboard side, nose, and cockpit were all ablaze. Unearthing, salvaging, and rebuilding the Spitfire is costing at least £2.5 million. Work has begun on restoring Sandy’s Spitfire; it is now being fully restored (image below) and will fly again as a memorial to the 305 known PRU pilots. Inside the top cowling of AA810 will be the names of all the PRU pilots, 77 who were killed, 19 made POW’s and 74 who were missing in action. It is hoped to have AA810 back in the air in 2023/24. If you can support this restoration effort, please visit their website and you can honour them by adopting a name on the, For Those Who Served page. I personally hope one day to see Sandy’s Spitfire flying over Auchterarder, what a tribute that would be to him.

Research by Ken Bruce


Stalag Luft 3 also housed local former POW’s Ernie Holmes DFC, who passed away in November 2021 at 100 years and Bill Reid VC who is buried at Crieff Cemetery.

Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General Graevenitz all argued against the “Sagan Befehl”, the supreme command execution order, for it conflicted with the Geneva convention. Stalag Luft III was located near Sagan or Zágán, Silesia, in present day Poland.

In February 1944, the Stufe Römisch III Order is issued by OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), and it stated that, ‘escaping POWs should not be automatically returned to their camps but held in special detention pending consideration of each individual case’. In early March 1944, the Kugel or Bullet Order was issued. It stated that, ‘all non-British or American recaptured escapers should be sent to Mauthausen concentration camp with a letter “K” appended to their name’, this indicated that such prisoners should be immediately executed’. Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (Protection Echelon), Heinrich Luitpold Himmler in mid-143 assumed control of Prisoner of War security.

Sandy Gunn was twice ‘Mentioned in Despatches’, 5 June 1942 for service as pilot officer and for conspicuous gallantry as a prisoner of war. On average, each PRU Spitfire had a life expectancy of just 14 weeks!

Sandy had also flown missions in January 1942 in Supermarine Spitfire AA790, 315983 Mk PRIV. It first flew on 12 September 1941 and was powered by a Merlin 46 engine. It looks like this Spitfire was produced in one of the small factories dotted around Henley-on-Thames and was probably first tested on a field grass strip aerodrome at the nearby Upper Culham Farm. Fortunately, following the bombing of the Supermarine factory at Southampton in September 1940, some of the precision machines, jigs and tooling that survived had already been dispersed to temporary facilities such as requisitioned car and bus garages, and furniture factories. Supermarine Spitfire production would continue in hundreds of different locations as well as at the Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory (formerly Morris Motors).

AA790 was subsequently allocated, when it finished its PRU duties, to RAF 8 (Coastal) OTU (Operational Training Unit) based at RAF Fraserburgh. By a very strange and spooky coincidence, Spitfire AA790 crash landed due to engine failure on 15 December 1944 at Westburn Farm near Aberuthven, only three miles from Sandy’s hometown of Auchterarder. The pilot, Flying Officer R. E. Ludman was undertaking a cross country flight at 19,000ft when the engine began to run rough, with a subsequent rise in radiator temperature and erratic boost reading. A sump oil tank in a wing had lost power and the aircraft had to belly land in a field near the farm. Westburn Farm is between Aberuthven and Dunning, near the Broadslap Farm Shop and Cafe.

Dubbed by Winston Churchill ‘The Beast’, Tirpitz was eventually sunk by Avro Lancaster bombers on 12 November 1944 using Barnes Wallis developed ‘Tallboy’ 12,000-pound bombs. There was a plan to use Wallis developed ‘Highball’ bouncing bombs against the Tirpitz. These were the follow up type to the Dambuster ‘Upkeep’ bombs, used against the dams in Germany’s Ruhr valley. Testing of the ‘Highball’s’ was carried out by de Havilland Mosquito’s on Loch Striven just north of Rothesay against the anchored former French Battleship Courbet and later the Battleship HMS Malaya.

Stalag Luft III housed 2,500 RAF officers, 7,500 USAF airmen and 900 officers from other Allied forces at its peak. Stalag Luft III was liberated by the Soviet army on 27 January 1945, the day before the prisoners with their German guards were marched to the city of Spremberg about 80 Km west. The three other Stalag Luft III tunnels were named, Tom, Dick, and George. Only 3 escapees managed not to be re-captured during the Great Escape, two Norwegians, Jens Müller and Per Bergsland and a Dutchman, Bram van der Stok.

The Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme (ACP) is a venture dedicated to inspiring and assisting those 15 – 18 years old into engineering and aviation. Website: https://www.acp-aa810.co.uk/

Heink Knocke on 14 February 1942 Knoke was detached to Jagdgruppe “Losigkeit” (Fritz Losigkeit), where he was charged with the air protection of the ships around the Norway coast. He returned to his squadron, JG 1 later in March 1941. In February 1942, Knoke participated with 3. /JG 1 in Operation Donnerkeil, the Channel Dash of the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. By the end of the war, he was credited with 33 aerial victories and 19 unconfirmed kills and 1 shared (AA810), all in the western theatre of operations. His total included 19 bombers of the USAAF. After the war he went into politics in 1951, firstly as a member of the Socialist Reich Party. This party was declared illegal in 1952. Knoke remained in politics as a member of the parish council of the Gemeinde Schortens (Gemeindeparlament) from April 1954. He was elected in 1956, 1961,1964 and 1968 for his community/parish parliaments as a member of the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Liberal Democratic Party). Knocke was born 24 March 1921 in Hamelin, Germany, best known for the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. On 28 August 1941, Heinz married Elisabeth “Lilo” Makowski in Schieratz, Poland. He retired in 1972 and died 18 May 1993.

Dieter Gerhardt was killed in action on 18 March 1943, flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 1/R.2 Werke number 14150, Schwarze 6. Gerhardt was downed by return fire from a Boeing B17 four-engine heavy bomber over Heligoland in the North Sea. He bailed out but died of his wounds in his dingy.

The Fieseler Fi 156 Storch was a small German liaison aircraft with a short take-off and landing (STOL) capability. 2,867 were built until 31 March 1945

(Some) German phonetic alphabet language usage during WW2 (not a definitive list):

A – Anton
B – Bertha or Bruno or Berta
C – Cäsar
D – Dora
E – Emil
F – Friedrich or Fritz
G – Gustav
H – Heinrich
I – Ida
J – Julius
K – Konrad or Kurfürst or Kuafmann
L – Ludwig
M – Martha
N – Nordpol
O – Otto
P – Paula
Q – Quelle
R – Richard
S – Siegfried
T – Theodor or Taube
U – Ulrich
V – Viktor
W – Wilhelm
X – Xanthippe
Y – Ypsilon
Z – Zeppelin

Harry Tunnel layout
A graphic of the plots occupied by 48 of the 50 officers of the Great Escape at Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery. Image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license CC BY-SA 4.0 Author – Woodsterdog – Own work
See the source image
Sandy Gunn on the tail of Spitfire R7056 in November 1941 at RAF Benson – Colourised Image from https://www.spitfireaa810.co.uk/ (original image from Gunn Family)
OpenStreetMap® is open data, licensed under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL) by the OpenStreetMap Foundation (OSMF).
Sandy Gunn
THE GREAT ESCAPE, MARCH 1944 (HU 1591) From left to right: 1. Flying Officer Henry Birkland, Royal Canadian Air Force. 2. Flight Lieutenant Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, Royal Air Force. 3. Flight Lieutenant Leslie George Bull DFC, Royal Air Force. 4. Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell, Royal Air Force. 5. Flight Lieutenant Michael James Casey, Royal Air Force. 6. Squadron Leader James Catanach DFC, Royal Australian Air Force. 7. Flight… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205234801
Dieter Gerhardt and Heinz Knoke
Sandy sitting on the wing of Spitfire AA810 (Image: www.spitfireaa810.co.uk)
Sandy as a prisoner at the Stalag Luft 3 camp, back left in the doorway (Image: www.spitfireaa810.co.uk)