During the night of 24 March 1944, 76 airmen escaped from the Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft III. Only three made it home and, of the remainder, 50 were murdered on Hitler’s orders. Alan Bowgen explains what really happened in the so-called Great Escape, one of the Second World War’s most infamous incidents.
The Great Escape: you’ve seen the film, now hear the truth
Good afternoon everybody. As you will gather from that [title] we’ve all seen the film, but do we really know the true story behind the Great Escape? Hopefully today you’ll be better informed when you leave here about what actually happened, rather than the Hollywood version of what happened.
Exactly 65 years ago today, at about 10:15, on the night of Friday 24 March 1944, Flight Lieutenant Lester Bull removed the remaining few feet of soil to open the exit shaft of the escape tunnel nicknamed ‘Harry’. This relatively innocuous action initiated a chain of events that led to the cold-blooded murder of 50 Allied airmen and the most comprehensive British war crimes investigation of the Second World War. What in 1963 John Sturges’ film loosely portrays the story of the so-called Great Escape, the reality was less heroic and far more tragic. This is what really happened.
Firstly, a brief overview of the German security network. It’s very complex, but the three organisations which I shall mention are the RSHA [Reichssicherheitshauptamt] at the very top, which in a sense is essential security headquarters. Below that, and they need no introduction, is the Gestapo, the Secret State Police. Below that is Kripo [Kriminalpolizei] and they’re equivalent, really, of the British CID, they’re more like a criminal police. They are the three key organisations you should perhaps bear in mind when I’m talking about what actually happened.
Before getting onto a bit of an overview of Stalag Luft III, here’s some German security measures leading up to the
• mid-1943, Himmler assumes overall control of POW security. The Igel Order is issued by the Supreme Command to Armed Forces, known as OKW, [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht] stating that, ‘prisoners moved in bulk must be chained’
• February 1944, the Stufe Römisch III Order is issued by OKW 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’
• early March 1944, and bear in mind that the Great Escape took place on 25 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 syndicated that such prisoners should be immediately executed’
A little bit more overview of what’s actually happening in Germany. At the time of the Great Escape there was a certain amount of paranoia amongst the Germans which led to deterioration in the relationship between captor and captive and some of the key points are, the German labour force is depleted by continuous drafts to her armies.
Consequently, the country was filled with large numbers of foreign workers, slave labourers in addition to prisoners of war and remember that’s not just British and Commonwealth, we’re looking at Russian and French etc.
Increasing numbers of escapes by POWs were partly due to over extended resources and an inability to effectively guard and contain the prisoners. The deteriorating military situation, in association with the increased incidents of escapes, and foreign workers, slave labourers on the run, caused concern over internal security at the highest level.
And there seemed to be a genuine fear that escaping servicemen would link up with partisans and foreign workers for sabotage and rebellion.
Just a bit of background about Stalag Luft III. The Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III was located near Sagan or Zágán, Silesia, in present day Poland. The East compound was opened in April 1942 to hold prisoners of all Allied air forces. The first POWs to arrive were an advance party from Stalag Luft I which is at Barth on the Baltic coast. Numbers increased as more batches of prisoners arrived from various officers’ camps or directly from the Luftwaffe’s own interrogation centre called Dulag Luft at Oberursel near Frankfurt-am-Main.
The camp was eventually divided into five compounds, East, Centre, North, South with an overflow camp situated at Belaria, some five kilometres west of Sagan. At the time of the Great Escape, Stalag Luft III’s Commander was Oberst or Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, but I’ll just call him von Lindeiner in the future.
[Shows image] Here is an aerial shot of the camp and you’ll see from here, this here is Hut 104 where the Great Escape actually took place. Wooded area here, and this is the railway station, which at the time was a major junction on the Berlin to Breslau railway. And this is, say, Hut 104 so the direct route through the woods to the station.
There’s a few shots really [shows images], this is the East compound, the first compound that was built. It’s a view taken from the guard tower. I believe there were 15 of these huts were built in the East compound. The building in the background which still exists is actually a grain silo, it looks like a small château, but it’s actually a grain silo.
And a few more, kind of images, which very much reflect the traditional image of a prisoner of war camp. This one [shows image] you can see here look, there’s a heavily wooded area. And you can see the tree stumps which have been cut down to form a compound. This is a recently taken shot, about I suppose about five years ago. This is the footings of one of the huts, the area is now heavily wooded and overgrown and you can see the footings of the huts. The hut ran this way and was subdivided that way, and this is sort of Mother Nature’s taken over the site yet again.
At Stalag Luft III tunnelling was a standard past time in the camp and it is estimated that the Germans discovered at least 80 tunnels. These digging activities caused the authorities to install a control system of microphones buried around the camp perimeter, which from late 1943 gave proof that large-scale tunnelling was being carried out. Two more of the audacious escapes from there were the, ‘delousing party’ and ‘the wooden horse’ escapes, all from Stalag Luft III which I should talk about fairly soon.
A little bit more about Stalag Luft III. It was a very sort of typical camp in a way. [Shows image] Here they have just finished building the theatre. The man as I say right at the back here is the ‘Carry On’ actor Peter Butterworth, this is a photograph from his son and they’ve just completed the theatre. They put on stage shows such as this, Busby Berkeley style musicals. A more intriguing photograph there [shows image], I think. And this is the remains of the camp theatre as it is now, the stage is up here. And you can see it sloped down to accommodate seats and again there’s a thing they call, there were several on the site there, they’re called ‘fire pools’. And basically, obviously you got wooden huts you need a source of water in case there’s fire and you can see here [shows image] that Mr Bristow, Warrant Officer Bristow’s steam boat is there. You know model making club, sports days etc, etc. And this is the ‘fire pool’ and obviously to the great amusement of everybody he’s showing them his steam boat, and this is what it looks like now [shows image]. So obviously this is filled with water, should there be a fire they’ve got a ready source of water.
Here [shows image] is the site of what is often said in the film as ‘the cooler’ and the tunnel ‘Harry’, the escape tunnel did run underneath this almost towards this edge here and you can see on an overhead shot [shows image] that
you can actually see the line of the tunnel and it ran underneath here so this is the cell block or ‘the cooler’.
Before the Great Escape three intriguing events took place at Stalag Luft III. In November 1943 a three-week inspection of the camp was carried out by Max Wielen, head of Breslau Kripo, remember that’s the CID, and a large party of experts. They gave the impression that they had failed to discover any tunnelling activities and plans were made to enlarge the camp. And this necessitated disconnecting the microphones. A remarkable step in view of the known
tunnelling activities and even more so because of the considerable time they were left unconnected.
The first inspection was followed by a visit in February 1944 by SS Major Erich Brunner, who was the RSHA special representative for the prevention of POW escapes. The Commandant, von Lindeiner, had requested this visit as he
sensed that an escape was imminent and feared the consequences. Brunner chatted with the Commandant but did not
inspect the anti-escape measures within the camp which was his duty to inspect and which the Commandant had urgently
asked him to complete. Nor did he order that the anti-tunnelling microphones should be reconnected. Indeed, it has been suggested that it was German High Command policy to encourage the escape and then take severe counter measures.
Lastly in March 1944 – and remember again the escape itself was in March 1944 – just weeks before the escape, a meeting of the District Camp Security staff was held at Sagan when methods to prevent camp breakouts were discussed.
After this meeting it is fairly certain, that the Commandant, von Lindeiner, advised the British officers of the special dangers facing any recaptured escapees. Apparently, this was not repeated in the same explicit terms as those various orders, the Stufe Römisch III and the Kugel Order, but if the warning was given it was almost certainly based on von Lindeiner’s knowledge of the content of those special orders.
[Shows image] This is the Camp Commandant at the time – sorry, Senior British Officer at the time, Group Captain Massey. And here [shows image] is one of the famous so-called ‘ferrets’, Rubberneck. And I think you can see why, and their job is to kind of prod around and get to know if there are any escape attempts. But there was a very good relationship at the time between the sort of Luftwaffe and the prisoners.
This is the Commandant at the time, Oberst von Lindeiner [shows image]. He was a highly decorated First World War soldier, a professional soldier. He was respected by the staff and the prisoners. And as I said before, before the escape he allegedly warned the senior British officers about the increased security measures and dangers if they were caught.
If he did indeed warn the senior British officers, why did they take no notice? Did they believe it was a bluff? Did they believe it would be bad for morale if they stopped digging or did they just ignore it completely? There is no documentary evidence to say one or the other. The documentary evidence points to the fact that he did, as far as possible, warn them that these harsh security measures were now in place.
Pre the Great Escape, as I said before, there were a couple of other memorable escape attempts from Stalag Luft III. And if you look at these two men here [shows image], these were part of a delousing party escape. And what happened was, as I said, there were two men in these German Police Gazette photograph, which you just saw them, are these two men here. And they participated in the first mass escape attempt from Stalag Luft III in June 1943. A party of 27 men escorted by two German speaking POWs disguised as guards were led out of the compound for delousing. Once outside, Welch and Morison put on the uniforms of the bogus guards. They were captured at a local air field when trying to start an aeroplane – perhaps the inspiration for the James Garner and Donald Pleasance attempt to get away by aeroplane. But the Germans were very fond of taking photographs of recaptured escapers and the means which they went to escape. So, there was some kind of in a sense, no hard feeling almost you could say but this is one the earlier escape attempts.
And of course another one which a film has been made of ‘The Wooden Horse’. And on 29 October 1943 after a 114 days of tunnelling Airman Eric Williams, Michael Codner and Oliver Philpott escaped via the wooden horse. This is obviously a frame from the film [shows image] all three reached Sweden and were repatriated back to Britain. They were the only men to make successful home runs from the East compound. A home run, it’s genuinely agreed, is when you actually escape from inside a camp and make your way home from inside a camp. It doesn’t in a sense count if you are shot down and make your way home very often with the help of an escape line or whatever. Home runs are, really count, for people who have actually escaped from inside a camp.
We’ve done the German security measures. ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. The North compound was opened in late March 1943 and eventually held some 1400 officers and 100 NCOs. Amazingly by April, a month or so later, three tunnels, named ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ were begun. ‘Tom’ was discovered by the Germans in the summer of 1943 and blown in. At this point I should mention that while some American prisoners assisted with the planned escape, in October 1943 they were all transferred to the South compound, so I’m afraid we have no Steve McQueen and motorbike. As the tunnel ‘Dick’ was less well sited it was used as a hiding place for such as material excavated from ‘Harry’.
In March 1944, 65 years ago, ‘Harry’ was finished. Running from Hut 104 towards the perimeter wire, it was 363 feet long, nearly two feet square and 28 feet underground. The tunnel was in three sections with bays in each section for the men working the rope trolley system which you’ll see photographs of a bit later that ran through it. And it was lit by electricity diverted from the camps own electricity circuit. In all, some, about 600 men had been involved in the tunnelling and other aspects of the escape.
The escape was, kind of largely planned and headed by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who is known as ‘Big X’. He was amongst the 50 people who were actually murdered later on. But if there was a huge escape organisation there was forgeries to be done, maps to be made, clothing to be altered as in the film. There was all this organisation before you could actually lead the escape. Here is a kind of plan of the tunnel [shows image], so imagine this is Hut 104, you’ve got the stove there, bellows for ventilating the tunnel and you had these way stations there, number 13s called ‘Piccadilly Circus’ and number 15 ‘Leicester Square’ and it aimed to come out in the woods the other side of
the perimeter fence.
The escape itself. The escape took place on the night of 24-25 March, exactly 65 years ago today. The weather was extremely cold and on the higher ground to the south snow lay up to six inches deep. It was planned at least 200 men would escape during the hours of darkness. Due to a miscalculation by the surveyors, when the tunnel emerged outside
the perimeter fence it was some way short of the tree line beyond, leaving an expanse of open ground to be crossed. So when Leslie ‘Lester’ Bull opened up the tunnel, looked out, they weren’t in the trees, there was a gap of open ground to be covered and as I say you can you see the various dotted lines of where the tunnel lines were and you can see that Harry went right by ‘the cooler’ there and right out into the woods. That was the theory it was going to land up in the woods but it fell short of the tree line. Those at the head of the tunnel had a quick rethink it was decided to tie a rope to the end of the exit ladder and run it into the woods. There a man acting as a controller would watch the sentries and give a couple of tugs on the rope when it was safe to emerge. The first controller was indeed Lester Bull, after seeing some 20 men clear his place was taken by someone else and Bull was then free to make his own escape. The last controller was Flight Lieutenant Roy Langlois who was sixtieth through the tunnel. He was to stay in place in the trees until escaper number 80 had emerged. He was among the four that were captured near the tunnel’s exit, an apparent misfortune that may well have saved all their lives, it’s hard to know.
Those chosen to escape first were German speakers; the remainder had been decided by ballot. The escapers were instructed not to wear identity discs in the belief that if they were caught near the camp, they could pretend to be
foreign workers from a neighbouring labour camp. Nevertheless, some of them did carry discs. Most of the escapers
elected to travel in pairs, choosing their own partners. All were issued with forged passes. Their clothes were mostly modified British uniforms, dyed and altered with different buttons. In very few cases were the escapers dressed in genuine civilian clothes. The escapers were divided into three groups; those wishing to travel by train for long distances were given priority through the tunnel. Then came those travelling by train for a short distance and then by foot and lastly those travelling entirely by foot.
The rate of departure was slowed by bulky baggage that caused sand falls. More seriously, about midnight an air raid in the direction of Berlin meant that the camp’s lights were extinguished and the tunnel was plunged into darkness.
Remember that their electricity supply system had been diverted from the camp’s main supply. In addition, the guards were doubled. At four am the last change of guard took place amongst the sentries patrolling the wire. Some 50 minutes later it was beginning to get light, and it was decided by the controlling officers in Hut 104 to make man number 87 the last one out. At about 5 am a guard patrolling further from the wire than normal apparently noticed a track in the snow caused by escapers crawling from the tunnel through the snow into the woods and raised the alarm.
By then 76 men had escaped, and as I said before, four of those were captured in or near the tunnel.
These are some photographs from Stalag Luft III [shows image].These are the floor tiles by Hut 104, as are far as I know they could be the original floor tiles there. And what they’ve actually done, this is the end of Hut 104, they’ve marked out a sort of gravel path which takes you along there and there is a wire there, a double-wire fence,
so you see it comes all the way from there, to there, to there, double-wire fence, perimeter road and then this marks the spot where they think the tunnel emerged. Admittedly, it’s now wooded of course but at the time it emerged fairly well short of the woods. It’s contradictory, some people say yards short, some say 20 feet short, some say 30 feet short, but whatever it was, it was short of the woods.
These are some German photographs taken, so the alarm has been given and later on when they were investigating what happened, these are German photographs at the Imperial War Museum showing exactly what happened. This [shows image] is the entrance to the tunnel as looking down the tunnel and then along it and this [shows image] is one of the trolleys used to transport the earth along the tunnel. And this is the so-called guard nicknamed Rubberneck and he’s emerging form the tunnel exit at the far end there [shows image].
Here, [shows image] he’s also demonstrating the home-made bellows used to ventilate the actual tunnel itself. And [shows image] one of the other guards is demonstrating the penguin method of dispersing excavated soil. The soil’s in these bags and a kind of draw string drops down and you try to tread it into the ground, not dissimilar in a sense to what you see in the film.
Many of the escapers made over towards Sagan station, this is a rear entrance to it [shows image] and it’s just the other side of the woods, and a lot of them lost their way in the darkness. An air raid was going on, trains were cancelled, late etc. and two of the escapers reported the sort of local air raid warden made them go into the air raid shelter, you can’t be running around when there’s an air raid on, go into the air raid shelter. And down here, these are the, right at the far end there, is a World War II air raid shelter, through that door there and there’s the steps up to Sagan station. This is what it looks like now [shows image], as I said it was once a busy junction on the mainline between Berlin and Breslau. It’s now a bit of a backwater and when you look at the timetable there’s probably only about a dozen trains a day. The back way into the station would have been just behind this, this is a water tower for locomotives, it was just behind there.
Interestingly enough, what I find somewhat bizarre, is that they’ve discovered the tunnel, they know there has been a huge break out, but they did not dispatch, there’s no evidence anywhere, that the camp Commandant or any officials dispatched guards to the station.
And, surely to my mind, one of the obvious things and there are a few contentious issues when it comes to this particular incident, I do not understand why, when you’ve got a railway station, perhaps, I don’t know, you know, a few kilometres away you didn’t get a truck load of guards and dispatch them to the station. There’s no evidence that ever happened.
Planning the murders, the machinations of these 76 men have got out; they’ve dispersed to all points of the compass. You know, you can think, you’ve got north, south, east and west. The machinations behind the planning of the murders is far too complex to discuss today, but it can be summarised to rather very much an overview. The German authorities did not have a clear picture of the situation until Sunday 26 March; remember the escape took place on Friday 24 when a conference was held at Berchtesgaden. Amongst those present were Hitler, Himmler, Keitel and possibly Ribbentrop and others. Predictably somewhat, Hitler flew into a rage and demanded the death of all the recaptured escapers. Göring, amongst others, counselled against this and after further discussions the number was fixed at 50.
Operational instructions, known as the Sagan Order, were sent by top-secret teleprinter to all Gestapo and Kripo regional headquarters. Those who saw this message recalled that it read something along the lines of: the frequent mass escapes of officer prisoners constitute a real danger to the security of the State. I am disappointed by the inefficient security measures in various prisoner of war camps. The Führer has ordered that as a deterrent more than half of the escaped officers will be shot. The recaptured officers will be handed over to Amt IV for interrogation. (After interrogation, which is secret, Amt IV must be Kripo). After interrogation the officers will be transferred to their original camps and will be shot on the way. The reason for this shooting will be given as ‘shot whilst trying to escape’ or ‘shot whilst resisting’. So that nothing can be proved at a future date. Prominent persons will be exempted. Their names will be reported to me (ie Himmler) and my decision will be awaited whether the same course of action will be taken’.
So Kripo were responsible for apprehending the escapers. As soon as men are recaptured this was reported to the Central Security office in Berlin, RSHA. Kripo headquarters in Berlin then instructed its regional officers that prisoners were to be handed over to the local Gestapo. In turn, Gestapo headquarters in Berlin issued orders to the regional offices to take over a certain number of enemy prisoners of war from Kripo, who were to be shot, and afterwards to report the killings to Berlin.
The first localised action was taken by the head of Breslau KRIPO, Max Wielen, in whose administrative area the escape had occurred. He initially ordered a Kriegsfahndung, which is a general war search, but when the size of the break out was realised this was raised to a higher status alert, known as a Grossfahndung. This was a nationwide hue and cry, meaning that every policeman and every quasi-policeman in Germany and occupied Europe had the task of looking for escaped officers, whose photographs were published in the German Police Gazette, saw an example of that earlier with Welch and Morison, the two men who eventually tried to escape dressed as Luftwaffe, they tried to actually start up a plane for escaping.
The thing about a Grossfahndung, was it not only involved the mobilisation of all branches of police including all auxiliaries and party formations of affiliated organisations or whatever units of the Wehrmacht that could be mustered. But it actively interfered with almost every aspect of normal activity in Germany. To illustrate the scope of the security problem, as well as the intensity of the search of this kind, the results of the first Grossfahndung conducted in Germany 6-20 March 1943, the year beforehand is informative. The escape of 43 British and Dominion airmen from a camp near Poznan occasioned the search, but the arrest included the following, escaped prisoners of war 809, foreign workers who had left their assigned work places 8,281, other persons wanted by the police 4,825, making a total of 13,915.
What is curious is that there is no documentary evidence that the Grossfahndung of March 1944, soon after the Great Escape, recaptured any persons other than the escaped POWs from Stalag Luft III. There was a selection process, so you have a number of men but Hitler said, well, we need to, you know, in fact execute them all, it was agreed that the number will be 50. On 28 March this man here [shows image], Arthur Nebe, he was head of Kripo in Berlin, began to select the men to be murdered using their personal file cards.
Each prisoner of war had a file card, photograph and they were held in a camp, but anybody in the army above the rank of colonel and all RAF personnel there was another copy of that in Berlin. So the copy of the camp, but a second copy in Berlin. So, Arthur Nebe began to select the men using their personal file cards. They included, sort of say,
photograph, personal information, details of previous escape attempts.
The selection process is somewhat contradicted by various different statements, but it seems in some cases Nebe gave instructions to Kripo chiefs that certain prisoners were to be sent on to named POW or concentration camps under Kripo escort. Upon receipt of a telegram informing them of a recapture, he made a decision reportedly based on the prisoner’s age and status, middle-aged and with a family he lived, not too young and unmarried and he died.
As did all of the men are of foreign origin, apart from three wanted for questioning on other matters. By foreign origin we’re talking about French, Czech etc. And also on top of that is a large majority of officers from the Dominions were also murdered. The actual process is somewhat contradicted by somebody called Doctor Hans Mertens who was actually in the room with Nebe when he made the selection. His statement indicates that the decision as to who would die was made all at once.
But perhaps the number of cards on Nebe’s desk was less than Mertens thought. And the decisions were indeed made as and when information was received, which seems most likely. Interestingly enough Arthur Nebe himself was executed by the Germans, as he was implicated in the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler. Another, I suppose, key witness to the process who the Allies never had the chance to interrogate. But Mertens describes what happens, he’s in the room with Nebe and Mertens says:
‘I attributed Nebe’s excited and uncontrolled behaviour to the fact that he was aware of the monstrosity of the deed which he was about to carry out. There may have been six or eight perhaps even ten cards which I gave him. He threw several in front of me saying: “Have a look whether they have wives and children”. After putting the cards which he had kept into two piles, he took my cards. I gave him briefly the personal particulars of these particular officers. I cannot remember the names of any. I remember however, that Nebe said in one case, “He’s for it”. He put this card in one pile in front of him and looking at the picture of another officer said, “He’s so young, no”. This card was put into another pile. On viewing another card he said, “Children, no” and put it on the first stack. There were then several cards in both piles.’
The daily list of those to be executed was passed to Gestapo chief Henrich Müller, telegrams were then dispatched to the local Gestapo headquarters giving instructions, and the names of the prisoners held by KRIPO to be transferred to the Gestapo. Between the 29 March and about 13 April the selected 50 men were shot at locations across German occupied Europe.
Breslau, you remember, Breslau just south east of Sagan, the Breslau Gestapo murdered by far the largest number of recaptured men. At least 26, but more likely 29, so roughly three fifths. However, the events there are representative of what occurred elsewhere when escapers were arrested. 19 of the escapers were quickly recaptured in the vicinity of Sagan and Stalag Luft III camp. They were put into the local jail at Sagan and they were searched and identified by Kripo personnel. During the evening of Sunday 26 all 19 were transferred to the old civil prison at Görlitz.
And it’s still there [shows image], at the front here is the court house, it’s been modernised a bit, but that’s the old civil prison at Görlitz through this archway here. The 19, I said, were transferred to the civil prison at Görlitz, on the same day von Lindeiner, the camp Commandant, made a request to Breslau Kripo to have the prisoners returned to the camp. This was refused. Kripo state they could no longer accept his instructions as he had been relieved of his command. Over the following days another 16 recaptured escapers were taken to Görlitz prison, bringing the total recaptured escapers to 35. A lot of the survivors say that they were taken to number 31 Augustastrasse which is still there, and I think it’s quite ironic that above the door there you have, ‘Salva’ sort of basically a welcome. And this is the building itself [shows image], the Gesatpo were housed on first floor of 31 Augustastrasse.
In Breslau, on the Tuesday 28 March, Max Wielen instructed senior Gestapo officer Dr Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, a person you will hear of again, to form an execution squad and appoint a leader. The man chosen was Gestapo Kriminal Obersekretaer Lux, L-U-X
On the morning of Thursday 30 March, and remember the escape took place on the night of 24-25, Lux and his execution squad arrived at Görlitz. There, the, it’s a very sinister person but he’s a sinister, I would say, English speaking Scharpwinkel interrogated most of the prisoners. I mean, disobedience to instructions from Berlin, casually inform many that they were to be shot. At about 1300 hours or one o’clock in the afternoon of the same day, the first party of six men were taken away in civilian cars and a truck. We know this is a fact because other prisoners who survived were looking out the prison windows to see what’s happening in the courtyard. This group consisted of Squadron Leader Cross, Flight Lieutenants Casey, Wiley and Leigh and Flying Officers Pohe and Hake. At about half-past three a stop was made at a point on the autobahn, some eight kilometres or five miles north of Halbau it’s called present day Ilowa, where the road leads through the woods.
What happened, the Germans Germanicised all the names in Poland, there’s the German name, there’s the Polish name and this is the road we’re talking about…We worked out by using some military maps which we got from the local museum there, the spot the first party were murdered is roughly where that number is [shows image], it’s roughly eight kilometres from there to there and there you see is Sagan, they came from Görlitz down here, up this road, up there, stopped there and their destination was theoretically to go back to Sagan and be re-interned in Stalag Luft III. By using say some old military maps and they describe in one of the statements here one of the drivers says, oh, it was where the road and there was a little cut off in the road there’s a dip in the ground and it, sort of, rose a bit there.
We got to a point something like this and I’m not saying this is exactly where it happened but it’s in this sort of terrain in something like this that the first party of six were murdered by Dr Scharpwinkel’s execution squad. The prisoners were told to get out of the vehicles; they stood around in a group for about five minutes. Then Scharpwinkel gave their guards a sign to move them into the woods. There the prisoners were told that the sentence which had previously been made known to them would now be carried out. Remember, they weren’t supposed to know this. They were placed in a row, Lux gave the order to fire and after a second salvo all the officers were dead.
When interrogated in Moscow, in August 1946, Scharpwinkel was actually captured by the Russians, we tried to get him back, but the Russians wouldn’t let him go. It’s debatable whether the Russians employed him, because he was their type of man, or whether they themselves executed him, but a Capitan Cornish went to interview him twice in Moscow. But Scharpwinkel commented that the six men showed considerable calm which surprised him very much. After the shooting an undertaker was brought from Halbau so that the boys could be immediately cremated, an act obviously clearly contradicting the accepted conventions. The undertaker’s vehicles arrived at about half-past eight that evening and took the bodies to Görlitz for cremation. The urns were in Scharpwinkel’s possession a few days later.
Several days after they were handed to Max Wielen at Kripo HQ. Eventually being sent to Stalag Luft III on or about 15 May 1944.
The first teleprinter message that Scharpwinkel received gave him only the names of the first six officers to be shot, which leads me to believe that Arthur Nebe’s selection was done on a sort of ad hoc basis. It couldn’t have all been done at once ‘because they were recaptured in various spots, over various days’. Scharpwinkel’s had a message that these six will be shot and during the following days obviously further messages arrived from Gestapo headquarters. And then obedience to them Lux and his execution squad carried out further executions. The details are reported to Scharpwinkel and then forwarded to Gestapo HQ in Berlin via top secret teleprinter messages and that is key for something later on.
So, next the aftermath and the cover-up. At Sagan the then Senior British Officer, Group Captain Massey, he was the man we saw in the photograph with the walking stick, was informed on 6 April that 41 officers had been shot while trying to escape. On the 11th of April all the clothing of the 76 escapers was moved from the North compound and stored in the adjacent Vorlager, a sort of storage area. On the same day, and this is the 11th of April, Massey left Sagan on the first stage of his repatriation back to England due to ill health. Purely by coincidence he had been selected for repatriation by a travelling medical board sometime beforehand. So, the Germans didn’t actually stop him coming back to this country, or at least the Luftwaffe didn’t anyway.
On 17 April, Gabriel Naville of the Swiss Protecting Power paid a routine visit to Stalag Luft III, which the German authorities again decided not to stop. The new Senior British Officer, Group Capitan Wilson, gave Naville a full report of recent events. Indeed in July 1944, Wilson held a Court of Inquiry in the camp to investigate the incident, in which those escapers who had been returned to the camp gave evidence.
In the outside world on 19 May, the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, made a statement to the House of Commons, informing that he had received information from the Protecting Power that 46 officers of the RAF, Dominion and Allied air forces had been shot after a mass escape from Stalag Luft III. Eden made a further statement to the House on 23 June revising the number of men shot to 50. The German response to this earlier statement maintained that during March there were a number of mass escapees from POW camps throughout Germany involving seven, several thousand prisoners.
Remember, I was saying that there is no evidence, documentary evidence that this Grossfahndung, this hue and cry across Germany arrested anybody other than the men who escaped from Stalag Luft III. The Germans claimed that these series of escapes involving several thousand prisoners was systematically prepared by the General Staff of the Allies and had both political and military objectives, adding that this situation endangered public security throughout Germany. In order to control this state of affairs, harsh measures were ordered including the use of weapons against any who resisted arrest or made renewed attempts to escape.
Not convinced by this explanation, Eden observed: ‘It is abundantly clear that none of these officers met his death in the course of making his escape from Stalag Luft III or while resisting arrest’. He assured the House that, His Majesty’s Government are firmly resolved that these foul crimes should be tracked down and brought to exemplary justice. Soon afterwards the German Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, broke off discussions with Great Britain.
The Germans were now in a sense fully aware that the cat was out of the bag, and realising that their explanation that all 50 prisoners were shot dead and that none were reported as wounded, while trying to escape, was unconvincing, they now set about concealing the truth. Himmler had to provide an official excuse that the German Foreign Ministry could use in its dealings with the Swiss Protecting Power, which had been instructed to hold an official inquiry into the affair. It was therefore essential that statements, however false, should be issued. Gestapo head, Müller, issued orders for detailed reports to be made.
The head of some Gestapo stations visited the executions sites, remember there’s executions sites all around Sagan, north, south, east and west, the heads of some Gestapo stations, visited the execution sites to compile reports and have detailed sketches drawn. The cover-up included returning to the murder scenes to fire shots into tree trunks and telegraph poles, to make it look as though there had been a frantic pursuit of fleeing prisoners. Orders were also given that new teleprinter messages with the original date were to be fabricated. These were to include very varied details in an effort to make them look dissimilar, for example, the vehicle carrying the prisoners had suffered punctures or engine trouble.
There had been hand to hand fighting between the prisoners and their escorts, some shot prisoners had died before a doctor reached them, others had died on a way to a hospital. Adding to the subterfuge, these new messages were to be sent quite openly for anyone to read them, an open teleprinter message rather than a state secret teleprinter message. This is to give the impression, we’ve got nothing to hide.
Less than three months after the Great Escape, the Allies invaded Europe and most people’s attention turned to these, well I suppose, momentous events. For some time after the German surrender the British Authorities were uncertain as to where to place responsibility for the murders. But the greater accumulation of evidence appeared to clear the Luftwaffe. Eventually, 17 months after the murders, orders were given to the Royal Air Force to seek out an unknown number of murderers. They faced an enormous task given the chaos in post-war Europe, the vast territory to be covered, the millions of displaced persons criss-crossing Europe, no less the fact that the perpetrators belonged to organisations, the Gestapo and Kripo, that in the wake of Germany’s collapse had provided its members with false identities and forged documentation.
The RAF Special Investigation Branch team assigned to this task consisted of just five officers and 14 NCOs. It was led by Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes and Squadron Leader Francis MacKenna. It was active for three years and by painstakingly travelling across Europe and interviewing countless people it gathered enough evidence to identify the culprits. Many of these were flown to England and interrogated by Lieutenant Colonel Scotland at London District Cage which is in Kensington Palace Gardens, many high ranking Germans and war criminals were flown into London and interrogated actually at the London District Cage.
During the course of their investigations, they came across these four photographs [shows image] of Kripo. This is in the Kiel area, these are four of the actual escapers and they’ve used these cards and what is somewhat bizarre, the other side, these have been recycled, there is a subject on the other side, something kind of quite banal on the other side there and they’ve reused them. And these four, these photographs have been taken, basically the day that they were captured in the Kripo offices and these four men were then taken out and murdered by Kiel Gestapo. Soon after, in late July 1944, this poster [shows image] appeared in Prisoner of War camps. But by then, as the Allies had landed in Europe, official advice of Military Intelligence 9, the branch of military intelligence set up to contact and help Prisoners of War, basically advised against trying to escape and a prisoner’s own judgement was that it was safer to stay put and await liberation, but this is the, you know, the tall business that escape is no longer a sport.
This is another one of the execution sites as well [shows image]. This is a reconstruction by the Special Investigation Branch of the RAF and they’ve reconstructed, with the assistance of one of the chauffeurs or drivers of one of these cars, what actually happened by the road side there and this is the shooting of Squadron Leader Thomas Kirby-Green and Flying Officer Gordon Kidder and remember by Zlin Gestapo which is, sort of, Czechoslovakia way. But you can imagine that the scenes across Europe for all 50, and so they weren’t murdered as 50, or in large groups, were very similar to this. The car stopped, the Gestapo say, get out, have a cigarette, relieve yourselves, you know, it’s a long journey, by the side of the road, stood behind them and shot them in the back of the head or sometimes you know, other parts of the body, but generally in back of the head. And this is one of the Investigation Branch’s reconstructions.
There were two trials really, the British Military Court in Hamburg conducted two trials of the alleged perpetrators. The first and largest was July to September 1947 and the second October/November 1948. Here you have Max Wielen [shows image] you heard of him before, this is Eric Schulz and he is the man who murdered Squadron Leader Bushell.
Eventually, these two both met Albert Pierrepoint and here is the death warrant of Schulz [shows image].
Albert Pierrepoint and his two assistants, they hung 13 of the men found guilty of murder and there’s the date there, they were hung in twos. So there is 13 in those but he also on the same day there’s 15, there’s a notice that kind of went up in and around the prison or whatever, there’s another two there which are not related to the Great Escape as such. There’s another two there, so in the morning him and his assistants actually executed 15 of the men.
Ultimately, of the 72 men indicted for the killing or conspiracy to kill, 21 were executed, 17 were imprisoned, 11 committed suicide, seven were untraced of whom four were presumed dead, six were killed in wartime, five were arrested but for political reasons the charge was not proceeded with, one was arrested and not prosecuted but used as a material witness, three were acquitted or the sentence was quashed on review, one remained free in East Germany
until his death. Here’s [shows image] the nationalities of the 50 murdered men. Obviously right across the Dominions, French, Greek, all the Allied forces in a sense, outside I suppose you can say the Americas, are virtually represented there.
The ultimate fate of those responsible for and involved in this war crime, obviously, Hitler, Himmler, Göring all
committed suicide. Keitel, who was very much involved in it, one of the charges laid against him and Göring at Nuremburg, if you ever see the recordings, they ask them, what do you know about the murder of the 50 Allied airmen.
Keitel was hung after the Nuremberg War Trials. Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller is alleged to have died during the battle for Berlin in April 1945, but there are numerous theories about what his ultimate fate was, did he get away,
did the Americans capture him, did he land up in Switzerland, no one quite knows what happened to him. Of the Breslau perpetrators the two principals, Dr Scharpwinkel and Lux. It’s alleged that a force known as ‘Unit Scarpwinkel’ and led by him was formed for the defence of Bresalu. It was made up of Gestapo, Kripo and an organisation called SiPo, [Sicherheitspolizei] which is when the two of them combine. After the capitulation of Breslau, Russian officers acting upon information, arrested a wounded German officer in a hostel masquerading as a Lieutenant Hagamann, it was in fact Scharpwinkel. He was twice interrogated by the British officer, Captain Cornish in Moscow, in August and September 1946. Although there were several Foreign Office requests asking for his extradition from Russia, his ultimate fate is unknown. Scharpwinkel is reported dead by the Russians on 17 October 1947. However, he may have been give some position suited to his temperament in the Soviet Security Services administration. It’s alleged that Lux who led the actual execution squad from Breslau died in the fighting in and around that city, where as a member Scharpwinkel’s detachment.
A memorial to the 50 men was built by Stalag Luft prisoners in July 1944, with the camp Commandant’s permission. Von Lindeiner and various others were charged by the German authorities. Von Lindeiner, it seems, had a years called, ‘fortress confinement’, and after the war he was held by the British for a couple of years, but a lot of the ex-prisoners there did speak up for him and I think the Luftwaffe were quite ashamed of what had happened. The urns containing the ashes of the Airmen were originally entombed here but after the war these are transferred to Poznan
Hopefully, next time you see the film, ‘The Great Escape’ be through perhaps more knowledgeable eyes and with greater respect for 50 brave and resourceful men who met tragic deaths. Thank you.
Transcribed by a volunteer as part of a transcription project, April 2015