Guy Griffiths' paintings (above) entertained and impressed inmates in Prisoner of War camps during World War II
Exhibition: Griff – Thinker, Painter, Forger, Spy?, Royal Marines Museum, Hampshire, until October 2010
Eleven days into the Second World War, a botched attempt to save a merchant ship from German submarines saw Royal Navy pilot Guy Griffiths crash his aircraft into the water and wind up captured by waiting German soldiers.
He spent the remaining six years shifting between various Prisoner of War camps, but it was to prove no tortuous ordeal for the charismatic Royal Marine.
Taking to his easel, Griffiths interspersed brilliant paintings of aircraft with cheeky cartoons, much to the amusement of his temporary roommates.
Griff at the Easel
"The prison was totally for flying crew, run by the Luftwaffe rather than the Gestapo," explains paintings and photographs librarian John Ambler.
"There was a lot of mutual respect. In the early days nobody knew quite what to do with prisoners, so it was quite a strange situation. It was a lot more gentlemanly, to the extent that the commandants would bring the occasional bottle of Schnapps across and become quite sociable."
The guards assumed the atmosphere would pacify their prisoners, so an escape bid by the inmates miffed them somewhat.
Attack on U-30
"The Germans thought they'd created an environment where the British would be quite happy painting, drawing and playing games, so when they dug a tunnel and went for freedom it upset them," says Ambler.
It's rare for the Museum to devote an exhibition entirely to an individual, but Griffiths' story is well worth it. A later group attempt to bust out of Stalag Luft 3, which became the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s classic film The Great Escape, deployed Griffiths' skilful artistry to produce convincing decoy documents.
"They forged anything they could as a means of showing they were local or from Austria or Hungary," says Griffiths.
"So if they were searched people could just say, 'oh yes, he's obviously German, he's got a letter from the local plumbing company in his pocket.' But there did come a time when the Germans realised his materials could be used for forging. That was when the guys had to resort to scrounging, bribing and blackmailing the guards to get hold of the paintbrushes or whatever they could."
Griffiths gained a degree of fame in Germany, including this photo of him which appeared in a national newspaper
Griffiths' sharpness would have done McQueen's character proud – letters by other prisoners reveal his popularity and call him "the smartest guy in the camp", and he devised codes and ruses to break up illustrations of planes posted back to his girlfriend and parents.
Swiftly catching up with the latest technology after his release, he returned to the fray during the Korean War. Griffiths was also "one of these guys who always seems to turn up in the right place at the right time", according to Ambler.
"You're doing your research and you think 'crikey, this guy was the first Royal Marine to fly a helicopter'. The range of aircraft he flew was fantastic. He was flying mosquito aircraft with a very advanced radar system, one of the first guided missile systems, if you like. He was very advanced in his technical knowledge and flying skills."
Griffiths was hurtled out of his plane and into the sea while attempting to protect the Ark Royal (pictured) 11 days into the war
His last great coup was a vital one in Korea. "He was debriefing some pilots after they'd been on a flight," says Ambler.
"They happened to say that they’d seen what they thought was a Canadian Sabre Jet on mudflats, so Guy went away and checked his intelligence reports. There wasn't a Sabre missing, so he organised another trip.
"When he checked the photographs he realised they'd actually stumbled across a Russian Mig 15 fighter, which at that time the british didn’t know the North Koreans had. It was the first Mig which had fallen into our hands."
A self-portrait by Griff
When he returned to England in 1953 Griffiths began to chronicle his escapades while editing a newspaper, and this show promises an absorbing exposé full of photos, scrapbooks and even film footage captured by him.
"I've been wanting to do this for such a long time because of the quality of materials we've got," says Ambler, who has consulted Griffiths' family and local historians who knew the man before his death in 1999.
"He was quite an amazing fellow. I wish I had met him."
All images courtesy and © The Trustees of the Royal Marines Museum
Open 10am-5pm. Admission £3-£6.95 (free for under-5s, family ticket £16.50).