Stalag Luft III murders

The Stalag Luft III murders were war crimes perpetrated by members of the Gestapo following the "Great Escape" of Allied prisoners of war from the German Air Force prison camp known as Stalag Luft III on March 25, 1944. Of the 76 successful escapees, 73 were recaptured, most within several days of the breakout, 50 of whom were executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler. These summary executions were conducted within a short period following recapture.

Outrage at the killings was expressed immediately, both in the prison camp, among comrades of the escaped prisoners and in the United Kingdom, where Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden rose in the House of Commons to announce in June 1944 that those guilty of what the British government suspected was a war crime would be "brought to exemplary justice."[1]

After Nazi Germany's capitulation in May 1945, the Police branch of the Royal Air Force, with whom the 50 airmen had been serving, launched a special investigation into the killings, having branded the shootings a war crime despite official German reports that the airmen had been shot while attempting to escape from captivity following recapture. An extensive investigation headed by Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes (RAF) and Squadron Leader Frank McKenna of the Special Investigation Branch into the events following the recapture of the 73 airmen was launched, which was unique for being the only major war crime to be investigated by a single branch of any nation's military.[1]: 261 

Model of Stalag Luft III prison camp

MurdersEdit

 
Memorial to "The Fifty" down the road toward Żagań.

The day after the mass escape from Stalag Luft III, Hitler initially gave personal orders that every recaptured officer was to be shot. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, chief of state security, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of the German High Command, who had ultimate control over prisoners of war, argued about the responsibility for the escape. Göring pointed out to Hitler that a massacre might bring about reprisals against German pilots in Allied hands. Hitler agreed, but insisted "more than half" were to be shot, eventually ordering Himmler to execute more than half of the escapees. Himmler fixed the total at 50. Keitel gave orders that the murdered officers were to be cremated and their ashes returned to the POW camp as a deterrent to further escapes.[1]: 56–57  Himmler set up the logistics for actually killing the men, and passed it down through his subordinates in the Gestapo.[2] The general orders were that recaptured officers would be turned over to the Criminal Police, and fifty would be handed to the Gestapo to be killed.[1]: 57 

As the prisoners were recaptured, they were interrogated for any useful information and taken out by motor car, usually in small parties of two at a time, on the pretext of returning them to their prison camp. Their Gestapo escorts would stop them in the country and invite the officers to relieve themselves. The prisoners were then shot at close range from behind by pistol or machine pistol fire. The bodies were then left for retrieval, after which they were cremated and returned to Stalag Luft III.[3]

British Military Intelligence was made aware of the extraordinary events even during conditions of wartime by letters home and as a result of communications from the protecting power, Switzerland, which as a neutral party regularly reported on conditions in prisoner camps to both sides. Notices posted in Allied POW camps on 23 July 1944 that "THE ESCAPE FROM PRISON CAMPS IS NO LONGER A SPORT" in the wake of the Stalag Luft III escape,[3] as well as the suspicious deaths of fifty officers during their recapture, led the British government to suspect a war crime had occurred.[3] The British government learned initially of 47 deaths after a routine visit to the camp by the Swiss authorities as the protecting power in May; Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden announced this news to the House of Commons on 19 May 1944.[4] Shortly after the announcement the Senior British Officer of the camp, Group Captain Herbert Massey, was repatriated to England due to ill health. Upon his return, he informed the Government about the circumstances of the escape and the reality of the murder of the recaptured escapees. With the information received from Massey along with the official notification of the 50 deaths from the German Government, Eden updated Parliament on 23 June, promising that, at the end of the war, those responsible would be brought to exemplary justice.[5]

VictimsEdit

InvestigationEdit

A detachment of the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Air Force Police, headed by Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes, was given the assignment of tracking down the killers of the 50 officers. The investigation started seventeen months after the alleged crimes had been committed, making it a cold case. Worse, according to an account of the investigation, the perpetrators "belonged to a body, the Secret State Police or Gestapo, which held and exercised every facility to provide its members with false identities and forged identification papers[;] immediately they were ordered to go on the run at the moment of national surrender."[1]: 7 

The small detachment of investigators, numbering 5 officers and 14 NCOs, remained active for 3 years, and identified 72 men as guilty of either murder or conspiracy to murder, of whom 69 were accounted for. Of these, 21 were eventually tried and executed (some of these for other than the Stalag Luft III murders); 17 were tried and imprisoned; 11 had committed suicide; 7 were untraced, although 4 of these were presumed dead; 6 had been killed during the war; 5 were arrested but not charged; 1 was arrested but not charged so he could be used as a material witness; 3 were charged but either acquitted or had the sentence quashed on review; and 1 remained in refuge in East Germany.[1]: 261 

Despite attempts to cover up the murders during the war, the investigators were aided by such things as Germany's meticulous bookkeeping, such as at various crematoria, as well as willing eyewitness accounts and many confessions among the Gestapo members themselves, who cited that they were only following orders.

AccusedEdit

High commandEdit

Name Position Fate
Hitler, Adolf Führer Committed suicide on 30 April 1945
Keitel, Wilhelm Head of OKW "Supreme Command of the Armed Forces" Executed at Nuremberg Prison on 16 October 1946
Himmler, Heinrich Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police[6] Committed suicide on 23 May 1945
Göring, Hermann Luftwaffe and enemy Air Forces POWs Committed suicide on 15 October 1946, hours before his scheduled execution

RSHA leadershipEdit

Name Position Fate
Kaltenbrunner, Ernst Chief of RSHA Executed at Nuremberg Prison on 16 October 1946
Nebe, Arthur Chief of Kripo, RSHA Executed at Plötzensee Prison on 21 March 1945 (for his complicity in the 20 July plot)
Wielen, Max Kripo, Breslau Sentenced to life imprisonment on 3 September 1947; commuted to 21 years; released on 24 October 1952
Müller, Heinrich Chief of Gestapo, RSHA Unknown – vanished after April 1945
Scharpwinkel, Wilhelm Gestapo, Breslau Died in Soviet prison in October 1947

Gestapo field officersEdit

Name Office Fate
Absalon, Gunther Breslau Died in Soviet prison in May 1948
Baatz Reichenberg Prematurely released from Red Army camp
Boschert, Heinrich Karlsruhe Sentenced to death on 3 September 1947, commuted to life imprisonment
Breithaupt, Walter Saarbrücken Sentenced to life imprisonment on 3 September 1947, released on October 24, 1952
Bruchhardt, Reinhold Danzig Sentenced to death on 6 November 1948, commuted to life imprisonment upon Britain's abandonment of the death sentence experimentally, released 1956[7]
Dankert[8] Breslau Untraced
Denkmann, Artur Kiel Sentenced to 10 years in prison on 3 September 1947
Dissner, Max Strasbourg Committed suicide on 11 May 1948
Ganninger, Otto Karlsruhe Committed suicide on 26 April 1946
Geith, Eduard München Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Gmeiner, Josef Karlsruhe Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Hampel, Walter Breslau Arrested on 1 September 1948, charge not proceeded with in accordance with British government's new war crimes policy
Hänsel, Richard Breslau Acquitted on 6 November 1948
Herberg, Walter Karlsruhe Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Hilker, Heinrich Strasbourg Prematurely released from French custody, charged but case dismissed 23 December 1966
Hug, Julius Danzig Untraced
Isselhorst, Erich Strasbourg Executed at Strasbourg on 23 February 1948 for other atrocities
Jacobs, Walter Kiel Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Kähler, Hans Kiel Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Kilpe, Max Danzig Arrested 27 August 1948, charges not prosecutor
Kiske, Paul Breslau Killed during the Siege of Breslau in 1945
Kiowsky, Friedrich Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia 1947
Knappe, ? Breslau Killed during the Siege of Breslau in 1945
Knippelberg, Adolf Brno/Zlín Prematurely released from Red Army camp 1945
Koslowsky, Otto Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia on 3 May 1947
Kreuzer, ? Breslau Untraced, likely killed in 1945
Kuhnel, ? Breslau Killed during the Siege of Breslau in 1945
Lang, ? Breslau Untraced, probably killed 1945
Läuffer, ? Breslau Suicide reported, not confirmed
Lux, Walter[9] Breslau Killed during the Siege of Breslau in 1945
Nölle, Wilhelm Brno/Zlín Arrested 10 June 1948; charge not proceeded with
Pattke, Walter Breslau Untraced, probably killed 1945
Post, Johannes Kiel Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Preiss, Otto Karlsruhe Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Prosse, ? Breslau Died 1944
Romer, Hugo Brno/Zlín Untraced
Sasse, Walter Danzig Escaped from internment camp
Schäfer, Oswald München Acquitted on 11 December 1968
Schauschütz, Franz Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia in 1947
Schermer, Martin München Committed suicide on 25 April 1945
Schimmel, Alfred Strasbourg Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Schmauser, Ernst Breslau Captured by Red Army
Schmidt, Franz Kiel Committed suicide on 27 October 1946
Schmidt, Friedrich (Fritz) Kiel Sentenced to two years imprisonment in May 1968
Schmidt, Oskar Kiel Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Schneider, Johann München Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Schröder, Robert Breslau Not charged, used as material witness
Schulz, Emil Saarbrücken Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Schwartzer, Friedrich Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia 1947
Seetzen, Heinrich Breslau Committed suicide on 28 September 1945
Spann, Leopold Saarbrücken Killed in air raid, Linz, 25 April 1945
Struve, Wilhelm Kiel Sentenced to 10 years imprisonment on 3 September 1947
Venediger, Günther Danzig Sentenced to two years imprisonment after four years of appeals, 17 December 1957
Voelz, Walter Danzig Untraced, believed killed
Weil, Emil München Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Weissman, Robert Reichenberg Held by French authorities but not transferred
Wenzler, Herbert Danzig Arrested 1948, charge not proceeded with
Weyland, Robert Reichenberg Refuge in Soviet zone
Wieczorek, Erwin Breslau Sentenced to death 6 November 1948, conviction quashed on review
Wielen, Max Breslau Sentenced to life imprisonment 3 September 1947; commuted to 15 years; released on 24 October 1952
Witt, Harry Danzig Arrested September 1948, charge not proceeded with
Wochner, Magnus Karlsruhe Sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for atrocities at Natzweiler-Struthof
Zacharias, Erich Brno/Zlín Executed at Hamelin Prison on 27 February 1948
Ziegler, Hans Brno/Zlín Committed suicide on 3 February 1948

TrialsEdit

 
The Hamburg Curio Haus, photographed in more recent times

SS-Gruppenführer Arthur Nebe, who is believed to have selected the airmen to be shot, was later executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the 20 July plot to kill Hitler.

American Colonel Telford Taylor was the U.S. prosecutor in the High Command case at the Nuremberg trials. The indictment in this case called for the General Staff of the Army and the High Command of the German Armed Forces to be considered criminal organizations; the witnesses were several of the surviving German Field Marshals and their staff officers.[10] One of the crimes charged was of the murder of the 50.[11] Luftwaffe Colonel Bernd von Brauchitsch, who served on the staff of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, was interrogated by Captain Horace Hahn about the murders.[12]

The first trial specifically dealing with the Stalag Luft III murders began on 1 July 1947, against 18 defendants. The trial was held before No. 1 War Crimes Court at the Curio Haus in Hamburg. The accused all pleaded Not Guilty to the counts indicated on the table below; names in the final column are the victims that they were accused of murdering. The verdicts and sentences were handed down after a full fifty days on 3 September of that year. Max Wielen was found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were found not guilty of the first two charges, but guilty of the individual charges of murder. Breithaupt received life imprisonment, Denkmann and Struve ten years' imprisonment each, and Boschert eventually received life imprisonment. The other 13 condemned prisoners were hanged at Hamelin Prison in February 1948 by British executioner Albert Pierrepoint.[1]: 252–257 

Accused Charge 1: Committing a war crime in that you at divers places in Germany and German-occupied territory between 25 March 1944 and 13 April 1944 were concerned together and with SS Gruppenführer Müller and SS Gruppenführer Nebe and other persons known and unknown in the killing in violations of the laws and usages of war of prisoners of war who had escaped from Stalag Luft III. Charge 2: Committing a war crime in that you in divers places in Germany and German-occupied territory between 25 March 1944 and 13 April 1944 aided and abetted SS Gruppenführer Müller and SS Gruppenführer Nebe and each other and other persons known and unknown in carrying out orders which were contrary to the laws and usages of war—namely, orders to kill prisoners of war who had escaped from Stalag Luft III. Charge 3: Committing a war crime in that you between (place) and (place) on or about (date) when members of the (place) Gestapo, in violation of the laws and usages of war were concerned in the killing of (victim(s)), both of the (force), prisoners of war.
Boschert, Heinrich x x D. H. Cochran
Breithaupt, Walter x x R. J. Bushell and B. M. W. Scheidhauer
Denkmann, Artur x x J. Catanach, H. Espelid, A. G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Geith, Eduard x x J. R. Stevens, J. S. Gouws
Gmeiner, Josef x x D. H. Cochran
Herberg, Walter x x D. H. Cochran
Jacobs, Walter x x H. Espelid, A. G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Kähler, Hans x x J. Catanach, H. Espelid, A. G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Post, Johannes x x J. Catanach, H. Espelid, A. G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Preiss, Otto x x D. H. Cochran
Schimmel, Alfred x x A. R. H. Hayter
Schmidt, Oskar x x H. Espelid, A.G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Schneider, Johann x x J. R. Stevens, J. S. Gouws
Schulz, Emil x x R. J. Bushell, B. M. W. Scheidhauer
Struve, Wilhelm x x H. Espelid, A. G. Christensen, N. Fuglesang
Weil, Emil x x J. R. Stevens, J. S. Gouws
Wielen, Max x x N/A
Zacharias, Erich x x G. A. Kidder, T. G. Kirby-Green

A second trial began in Hamburg on 11 October 1948, with verdicts and sentences being reached by November 6. In the interim, however, Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary, announced a Cabinet decision not to prosecute any more war criminals after 31 August 1948.[citation needed]

Accused
Bruchhardt, Reinhold
Hänsel, Richard
Wieczorek, Erwin

In popular cultureEdit

The murders were shown (as a single massacre rather than individuals or small groups being murdered) in the 1963 film The Great Escape.

The search for the culprits responsible for the murder of the 50 Allied officers was depicted in The Great Escape II: The Untold Story.

A dramatisation of the investigation, written by Robin Brooks and Robert Radcliffe, was featured in the BBC Radio 4 "Saturday Drama" series, first broadcast on 13 April 2013.

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Andrews, Allen (1976). Exemplary Justice. Corgi Books. ISBN 0-552-10800-6.
  2. ^ "Colditz web article". Archived from the original on December 3, 2010. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  3. ^ a b c Bowgen, Alan. "The Great Escape: you've seen the film, now hear the truth". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 January 2022.
  4. ^ "Officer Prisoners of War, Germany (Shooting)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 19 May 1944. col. 437–439.; 47 BRITISH AND ALLIED AIRMEN SHOT BY GERMANS, The Manchester Guardian, May 20, 1944, Page 6.
  5. ^ "Officer Prisoners of War, Germany (Shooting)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 23 June 1944. col. 477–482.
  6. ^ These offices were "separate, yet linked". See, The SS (Time-Life, ISBN 0-8094-6950-2, pp.70–73)
  7. ^ Archives, The National. "The Discovery Service". Discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk. Retrieved 18 July 2018.
  8. ^ Andrews, Allen (1978). Exemplary Justice. Corgi. p. 239. ISBN 0-552-10800-6. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  9. ^ Walters, Guy (2013). The Real Great Escape. London: Bantam Press. pp. 217–8. ISBN 9781409044284.
  10. ^ Guilt, responsibility and the Third Reich, Heffer 1970; 20 pages; ISBN 0-85270-044-X
  11. ^ "Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1, Indictment: Count Three C.2". Avalon Project. Yale University. Retrieved 2009-06-28.
  12. ^ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 9 seventy-ninth day: Tuesday, 12 March 1946: Morning Session, Avalon Project, Yale University, Retrieved 1 March 2010