WHY THE GREAT ESCAPE ENDED IN A BLOODBATH; UK Intelligence Services Finally Released Secret Papers Yesterday Detailing the Way Nazis and Spies Operated in World War II

By McCOLM, Euan | Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), April 20, 2000 | Go to article overview

WHY THE GREAT ESCAPE ENDED IN A BLOODBATH; UK Intelligence Services Finally Released Secret Papers Yesterday Detailing the Way Nazis and Spies Operated in World War II


McCOLM, Euan, Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)


STALAG LUFT III

IT WAS the great escape - when around 80 Allied prisoners made a daring bid for freedom.

But the massacre of 50 of those brave airmen by the Nazis shocked the world.

And yesterday it emerged the order to kill them came from the very top of Hitler's Third Reich.

The courage and industry of the prisoners who broke out of Stalag Luft III in 1944 gripped the imaginations of generations to come and inspired the film The Great Escape.

The World War II mass murder was one of the most emotive scenes in the 1963 movie, with two of the main victims played by Scots actor Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborough.

The most famous scene however, which saw Steve McQueen's failed bid to escape to Switzerland on a stolen German Army motorbike, was pure fiction.

Film makers included the American character in a bid to woo audiences in the States.

Yesterday's released documents show the draconian decision to kill the recaptured prisoners was taken to deter other bids for freedom.

They also give a chilling insight into the bitter objections raised over the mass-shooting from senior German officers - and how these were dismissed out of hand by the Nazi high command.

They include a verbatim account of the events surrounding the escape, given by the German officer responsible for prisoner welfare in camps.

The testimony came from a General Major Westhoff, who was interrogated by British intelligence officers after the war.

Westhoff told how an "excited and nervous" Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who was also ultimately in charge of PoW camps, called him to a meeting shortly after the break-out in March 1944.

Giving the news that around 80 Allied airmen had escaped from the camp Stalag Luft III at Sagan, east Germany, Keitel said: "Gentlemen, this is a bad business."

Keitel, one of Hitler's most loyal military followers, warned he must "set an example" to other prisoners, Westhoff recounted.

Keitel said: "We shall have to take very severe measures. I can only tell you that the men who have escaped will be shot; probably the majority of them are dead already."

When told it was "out of the question" to execute recaptured men, Westhoff remembered the Field Marshal answering simply: "I don't care a damn."

Keitel continued: "We discussed it in the Fuhrer's presence and it cannot be altered."

Westhoff said the meeting was told how Hitler and Himmler had decided the matter between them.

He said: "The Fuhrer himself always took a hand in these affairs when officers escaped."

He told his MI5 interrogators that all those killed had been shot by police or Gestapo before his troops had even seen them.

He said: "We were faced with a fait accompli."

Some 21 of the Gestapo executors were themselves tried and put to death by the Allies after the war.

Westhoff's recollections were likely to have been at least coloured by a desire to please his captors.

He told the MI5 officers he later acted to allow the remaining prisoners in Stalag Luft III keep a monument to their dead comrades.

He recalled how the bodies of the 50 were burnt and their ashes returned to the camp in urns.

He said: "For the burial, the PoWs arranged with the protecting power that they should be allowed to erect a nice monument, which they made themselves."

Westhoff said he was told about the monument and sent a photograph. But he chose not to tell his superiors, fearing it would "give rise to more difficulties".

He spoke of the "honour" of the British officers.

And he claimed he had once told a meeting of the German high command: "Gentlemen, we act according to the (Geneva) Convention."

"Gentlemen," came the chilling response from a senior Nazi Party member at the meeting, "the Convention is a scrap of paper which doesn't interest us. …

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