Stalag Luft III murders

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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 a total of 76 successful escapees, 73 were recaptured, mostly within days of the breakout, of whom 50 were executed on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler. These summary executions were conducted within a short period of recapture.

Outrage at the killings was felt immediately, both in the prison camp, among comrades of the escaped prisoners, and in the United Kingdom, where the Foreign Minister 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 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.[2]

The murders[edit]

The day after the mass escape from Stalag Luft III, Hitler gave personal orders that every recaptured officer was to be shot.[citation needed] Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsführer 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.[citation needed] Göring pointed out to Hitler that a massacre might bring about reprisals to German pilots in Allied hands. Hitler agreed, but insisted "more than half" were to be shot. Himmler fixed the total at 50. Keitel gave orders that the murdered officers were to be cremated and returned to the POW camp as a deterrent to further escapes.[3] Himmler set up the logistics for actually killing the men, and passed it down through his subordinates in the Gestapo.[4] 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.[5]

As the prisoners were captured, 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.[citation needed]

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, as well as the suspicious deaths of fifty officers during their recapture, led the British government to suspect a war crime had occurred.[citation needed] The Judge Advocate General originally placed the blame on Field Marshal Keitel, feeling publication of the notices linked him to the notice to shoot the prisoners.[citation needed]

The British government learned of the deaths from a routine visit to the camp by the Swiss authorities as the protecting power in May; the Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden announced the news to the House of Commons on 19 May 1944.[6] 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. Eden updated Parliament on 23 June, promising that, at the end of the war, those responsible would be brought to exemplary justice.[7]

Victims[edit]

Name Rank Nation Unit Date of Death/
Last Seen Alive
Cremated
Birkland, Henry J. Flying Officer Canada CAN No.72 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Brettell, E. Gordon Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.133 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Danzig
Bull, Leslie G. "Johnny" Squadron Leader United Kingdom GBR No.109 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Brüx
Bushell, Roger J. Squadron Leader United Kingdom GBR[8] No.92 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Posen
Casey, Michael J. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.57 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Catanach, James Squadron Leader Australia AUS No.455 Sqn RAAF 29 March 1944 Kiel
Christensen, Arnold G. Pilot Officer New Zealand NZL No.26 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Kiel
Cochran, Dennis H. Flying Officer United Kingdom GBR No.10 OTU RAF 31 March 1944 Natzweiler
Cross, Ian E.K.P. Squadron Leader United Kingdom GBR No.103 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Espelid, Halldor Lieutenant Norway NOR No.331 Sqn (Norwegian) RAF 29 March 1944 Kiel
Evans, Brian H. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.49 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Fuglesang, Nils Jørgen Lieutenant Norway NOR No.332 Sqn (Norwegian) RAF 29 March 1944 Kiel
Gouws, Johannes S. Lieutenant South Africa ZAF No.40 Sqn SAAF 29 March 1944 München
Grisman, William J. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.109 Sqn RAF 6 April 1944 Breslau
Gunn, Alastair D.M. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.1 PRU RAF 6 April 1944 Breslau
Hake, Albert H. Flight Lieutenant Australia AUS No.72 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Hall, Charles P. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.1 PRU RAF 30 March 1944 Liegnitz
Hayter, Anthony R.H. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.148 Sqn RAF 6 April 1944 Natzweiler
Humphreys, Edgar S. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.107 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Kidder, Gordon A. Flying Officer Canada CAN No.156 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Mährisch Ostrau
Kierath, Reginald V. Flight Lieutenant Australia AUS No.450 Sqn RAAF 29 March 1944 Brüx
Kiewnarski, Antoni Flight Lieutenant Poland POL No.305 Sqn (Polish) RAF 31 March 1944 unknown
Kirby-Green, Thomas G. Squadron Leader United Kingdom GBR No.40 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Mährisch Ostrau
Kolanowski, Wlodzimierz A. Flying Officer Poland POL No.301 Sqn (Polish) RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Krol, Stanislaw Z. Flying Officer Poland POL No.64th Sqn RAF 12 April 1944 Breslau
Langford, Patrick W. Flight Lieutenant Canada CAN No.16 OTU RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Leigh, Thomas B. Flight Lieutenant Australia AUS No.76 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Long, James L.R. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.9 Sqn RAF 12 April 1944 Breslau
Marcinkus, Romas Flight Lieutenant Lithuania LTU No.1 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Danzig
McGarr, Clement A.N. Lieutenant South Africa ZAF No.2 Sqn SAAF 6 April 1944 Breslau
McGill, George E. Flight Lieutenant Canada CAN No.103 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Millford, Harold J. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.226 Sqn RAF 6 April 1944 Breslau
Mondschein, Jerzy T. Flying Officer Poland POL No.304 Sqn (Polish) RAF 29 March 1944 Brüx
Pawluk, Kazimierz Flying Officer Poland POL No.305 Sqn (Polish) RAF 31 March 1944 unknown
Picard, Henri A. Flight Lieutenant Belgium BEL No.350 Sqn (Belgian) RAF 29 March 1944 Danzig
Pohe, John Flying Officer New Zealand NZL No.51 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Scheidhauer, Bernard W.M. Lieutenant France FRA No.131 Sqn RAF 29 March 1944 Saarbrücken
Skanzikas, Sotiris Pilot Officer Greece GRC No.336th Sqn (Greek) RAF 30 March 1944 unknown
Stevens, Rupert J. Lieutenant South Africa ZAF No.12 Sqn SAAF 29 March 1944 München
Stewart, Robert C. Flying Officer United Kingdom GBR No.77 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Stower, John G. Flying Officer United Kingdom GBR No.142 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Street, Denys O. Flying Officer United Kingdom GBR No.207 Sqn RAF 6 April 1944 Breslau
Swain, Cyril D. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.105 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Tobolski, Pawel Flying Officer Poland POL No.301 Sqn (Polish) RAF 2 April 1944 Breslau
Valenta, Ernst Flight Lieutenant Czechoslovakia CZE No.311 Sqn (Czechoslovak) RAF 31 March 1944 Liegnitz
Walenn, Gilbert W. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.25 OTU RAF 29 March 1944 Danzig
Wernham, James C. Flight Lieutenant Canada CAN No.405 Sqn RCAF 30 March 1944 unknown
Wiley, George W. Flight Lieutenant Canada CAN No.112 Sqn RAF 31 March 1944 Görlitz
Williams, John E.A. Squadron Leader Australia AUS No.450 Sqn RAAF 29 March 1944 Brüx
Williams, John F. Flight Lieutenant United Kingdom GBR No.107 Sqn RAF 6 April 1944 Breslau

Investigation[edit]

A detachment of the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Air Force Police 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."[9]

The small detachment of investigators, numbering five officers and fourteen NCOs, remained active for three years, and identified seventy-two men, 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 were for other than the Stalag Luft III murders); 17 were tried and imprisoned; 11 had committed suicide; 7 were untraced, though of these 4 were presumed dead; 6 had been killed during the war; 5 were arrested but charges had not been laid; 1 was arrested but not charged so he could be used as a material witness; three were charged but either acquitted or had the sentence quashed on review, and one remained in refuge in East Germany.[10]

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

Wing Commander Wilfred Bowes, OBE headed the 15-man investigation team from the RAF which relentlessly tracked down, arrested, and interrogated the alleged war criminals responsible for the murders.

Accused[edit]

High Command[edit]

Name Position Fate
Hitler, Adolf Führer Suicide, 30 April 1945
Keitel, Wilhelm Head of OKW "Supreme Command of the Armed Forces" Executed 16 October 1946
Himmler, Heinrich Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police[11] Suicide 23 May 1945
Göring, Hermann Luftwaffe and enemy Air Forces POWs Suicide 16 October 1946

Gestapo High Command[edit]

Name Position Fate
Kaltenbrunner, Ernst Chief of RSHA Executed 16 October 1946
Nebe, Arthur Chief of Kripo, RSHA Executed by Gestapo February 1945
Wielen, Max Kripo, Breslau Sentenced to life imprisonment 3 September 1947
released October 24, 1952
Müller, Heinrich Chief of Gestapo, RSHA Unknown-vanished after April 1945
Scharpwinkel, Wilhelm Gestapo, Breslau Died in Soviet prison, May 1948

Gestapo Field Officers[edit]

Name Office Fate
Absalon, Gunther Breslau Died in Soviet prison May 1948
Baatz Reichenberg Prematurely released from Red Army camp
Boschert, Heinrich Karlsruhe Sentenced to death 3 September 1947, commuted to life imprisonment
Breithaupt, Walter Saarbrücken Sentenced to life imprisonment 3 September 1947, released October 24, 1952
Bruchardt, Reinhold Danzig Sentenced to death 6 November 1948, commuted to life imprisonment upon Britain abandoning the death sentence experimentally
Dankert Breslau Untraced
Denkmann, Artur Kiel Sentenced to 10 years imprisonment 3 September 1947
Dissner, Max Strasbourg Suicide 11 May 1948
Ganninger, Otto Karlsruhe Suicide 26 April 1946
Geith, Eduard München Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Gmeiner, Josef Karlsruhe Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Hampel, Walter Breslau Arrested 1 September 1948, charge not proceeded with in accordance with British government's new war crimes policy
Hänsel, Richard Breslau Acquitted 6 November 1948
Herbert, Walter Karlsruhe Executed at Hameln 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 Condemned to death for other atrocities
Jacobs, Walter Kiel Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Kähler, Hans Kiel Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Kilpe, Max Danzig Arrested 27 August 1948, charges not proceeded with
Kiske, Paul Breslau Killed during Siege of Breslau
Kiowsky, Friedrich Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia 1947
Knappe, ? Breslau Killed during Siege of Breslau
Knippelberg, Adolf Brno/Zlín Prematurely released from Red Army camp 1945
Koslowsky, Otto Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovokia 1947
Kreuzer, ? Breslau Untraced, probably killed 1945
Kuhnel, ? Breslau Killed during Siege of Breslau
Lang, ? Breslau Untraced, probably killed 1945
Läuffer, ? Breslau Suicide reported, not confirmed
Lux, ? Breslau Killed during Siege of Breslau
Nölle, Wilhelm Brno/Zlín Arrested 10 June 1948; charge not proceeded with
Pattke, Walter Breslau Untraced, probably killed 1945
Post, Johannes Kiel Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Preiss, Otto Karlsruhe Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Prosse, ? Breslau Died 1944
Romer, Hugo Brno/Zlín Untraced
Sasse, Walter Danzig Escaped from internment camp
Schäfer, Oswald München Charge dismissed 11 December 1968
Schauschütz, Franz Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia 1947
Schermer, Martin München Suicide 25 April 1945
Schimmel, Alfred Strasbourg Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Schmauser, Ernst Breslau Captured by Red Army
Schmidt, Franz Kiel Suicide 27 October 1946
Schmidt, Friedrich (Fritz) Kiel Sentenced to two years imprisonment May 1968
Schmidt, Oskar Kiel Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Schneider, Johann München Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Schröder, Robert Breslau Not charged, used as material witness
Schulz, Emil Saarbrücken Executed at Hameln 27 February 1948
Schwartzer, Friedrich Brno/Zlín Executed in Czechoslovakia 1947
Seetzen, Heinrich Breslau Suicide 28 September 1945
Spann, Leopold Saarbrücken Killed in air raid, Linz, 25 April 1945
Struve, Wilhelm Kiel Sentenced to 10 years imprisonment 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 Hameln 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, sentence quashed on review
Wielen, Max Breslau Sentenced to life imprisonment 3 September 1947
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 Hameln 27 February 1948
Ziegler, Hans Brno/Zlín Suicide 3 February 1948

Trials[edit]

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 for his involvement in the July 20 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.[12] One of the crimes charged was of the murder of the 50.[13] Luftwaffe Colonel Bernd von Brauchitsch, who served on the staff of Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, was interrogated by Captain Horace Hahn about the murders.[14]

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 pled 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 September 3 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 Jail in February 1948 by British executioner Albert Pierrepoint.[15]

Accused Charge 1: Committing a war crime in that you at divers(e) 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(e) 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.

Popular culture[edit]

The search for the culprits responsible for the murder of the 50 Allied officers was depicted in a 1988 television movie named The Great Escape II: The Untold Story starring Christopher Reeve.[16] The movie also features Donald Pleasence in a supporting role as a member of the SS (in the 1963 original Pleasence had played an Allied escapee).

References[edit]

  1. ^ Andrews, Allen. Exemplary Justice Corgi Books, 1976 ISBN 0-552-10800-6
  2. ^ Andrews, p.261
  3. ^ Andrews, Allen (1976). Exemplary Justice. London: Harrap. pp. 56–57. ISBN 978-0-245-52775-3. 
  4. ^ Colditz web article
  5. ^ Andrews, Exemplary Justice, p.57
  6. ^ http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1944/may/19/officer-prisoners-of-war-germany-shooting |chapter-url= missing title (help). 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.
  7. ^ http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1944/jun/23/officer-prisoners-of-war-germany-shooting |chapter-url= missing title (help). Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. 23 June 1944. col. 477–482. 
  8. ^ Born in South Africa
  9. ^ Andrews, Exemplary Justice, p.7
  10. ^ Andrews, Exemplary Justice, p.261
  11. ^ These offices were "separate, yet linked". See, The SS (Time-Life, ISBN 0-8094-6950-2, pp.70-73)
  12. ^ Guilt, responsibility and the Third Reich, Heffer 1970; 20 pages; ISBN 0-85270-044-X
  13. ^ Indictment "Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1, Indictment: Count Three C.2". Avalon Project. Yale University. Retrieved 2009-06-28. 
  14. ^ Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 9 seventy-ninth day: Tuesday, 12 March 1946: Morning Session, Avalon Project, Yale University, Retrieved 1 March 2010
  15. ^ Andrews, Exemplary Justice pp.252-257
  16. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095252/