The ‘Great Escape’ took place on March 24th 1944. It was, in fact, a mass escape from Stalag Luft III at Sagan in mid-Germany and was not termed the ‘Great Escape’ until it became the title of the 1960’s Hollywood film and it stuck. 76 men escaped from Stalag Luft III but the escape became notorious for the murder of 50 of the escapees by the Gestapo.
When Anthony Eden announced news of the murders in the House of Commons, there was outrage. The House made a promise that it would hunt out those responsible for the murders and immediately after the war in Europe ended, the RAF set up a special investigation unit led by Frank Mckenna – a flight engineer in Bomber Command who had previously been a police officer. Mckenna had flown 30 missions for Bomber Command and was known to be a thorough and methodical worker. It was generally accepted that if anyone could find the perpetrators, it would be Mckenna.
The first thing Mckeena did was to find out about as much of the escape as he could – who was involved in it, how the tunnels were built without arousing suspicion etc. Squadron Leader Roger Bushell commanded the whole escape operation. Ken Rees was dues to escape but was in the tunnel when the breakout was discovered. Rees remembered that Bushell had specifically made the point to those involved in the escape that some would not survive.
For the breakout, some men were classed as ‘Priority Escaper’ while others were classed as ‘Hard Arses’. ‘Priority Escapers’ were men it was felt had the best chance of success – they spoke either German or French very well and could better merge into the general mass of travelling people. The main line rail station from Sagan to Berlin was just one mile from Stalag Luft III. Three escapees caught a train to Berlin but overall less than 50% of the escapees caught a train as they felt it was too risky. ‘Hard Arses’ were escapees who chose to walk to freedom. Lacking linguistic skills, they knew they had to travel at night heading south to Switzerland and hide during the day. What was against them was the weather. Many of the ‘Hard Arses’ were quickly caught – victims of the very cold weather.
Mckenna had little to go on. Many records of Gestapo officers had been destroyed either deliberately by those who did not want to be caught or in the general chaos of war. However, he did find out that the bodies of those murdered had been cremated and that their ashes had been sent back to Stalag Luft III. Each urn had the name of the crematorium on it. At least Mckenna could pin down each murder roughly to an area. He assumed that the men were not murdered and then their bodies transported many miles to be cremated. His assumption was that each murder would have been near to the crematorium stated on each urn. It was a start.
On September 3rd 1945, Mckenna flew to Germany and started his hunt for the murderers. He had with him a list of names. British Intelligence had found the names of 106 known local Gestapo officers who were linked to areas where crematoriums had been used to cremate the bodies of those murdered. Mckenna also got a lot more information from the commandant of Stalag Luft III, von Lindeiner, who had been outraged by the murders.
However, having a list of names in a country devastated by war and where population movement was rife did not make Mckenna’s task any easier. It was taken as read that many Gestapo officers would have done all they could to change their identities and simply melt into the background. Mckenna also knew that he would get no help from the Soviet authorities in the part of Germany occupied by the USSR. He could do little about Cold War politics. However, Mckenna did believe that few wanted to live until Soviet control so he became confident that many of those he wanted were in what was to become West Germany.
In July 1946, Mckenna received the breakthrough he needed. A former driver for the Gestapo had been caught in Saarbrücken. Under interrogation, he confirmed that Bushell had been shot and that Emil Schulz had been second-in-command of the Gestapo in Saarbrücken. Unknown to Mckenna, Schulz was already in prison and Mckenna found out where when he raided the home of Schulz’s wife. She denied having any contact with Schulz but Mckenna found a letter written to her from her husband. It was written on prison notepaper and even had his prison number on it. Schulz was in fact being held in Saarbrücken Prison.
A raid on a crematorium in Kiel also proved successful. Here men from Mckenna’s squad found the names in crematorium records of the four Gestapo officers who had brought to the crematorium the bodies of four of the escapees. The two men Mckenna most wanted were Johannes Post and Fritz Schmidt. They were both found and put on trial. Their defence of ‘only obeying orders and what else could we do?’ was not accepted and they were found guilty. Post was hanged in early 1948.
By the time Mckenna’s job was completed, over thirty Gestapo officers associated with the murders had been punished. The maximum punishment for any escapee was thirty days in solitary confinement – not death. Thirteen Gestapo officers were sentenced to death and hanged. Another seventeen received lengthy prison sentences. Frank Mckenna, after leaving the RAF, went back to being a police officer.