As history and film enthusiasts know, “The Great Escape” involved the breakout of 76 Allied airmen from Stalag Luft III, a supposedly escape-proof camp deep in the heart of Germany, during the Second World War. Three men ultimately made it back to England, while 50 of the recaptured 73 men were taken to isolated killing fields and executed.
The murders—and the search for the killers—are the focus of my upcoming book, Human Game: The True Story of the ‘Great Escape’ Murders and the Hunt for the Gestapo Gunmen (Penguin, Oct. 2).
In the wake of the killings, inmates at Stalag Luft III were allowed to build a memorial to their fallen comrades. They did so not far from the camp, using stone from a local quarry. The memorial (pictured above) still stands today. It’s a lasting tribute to a daring—but ultimately tragic—endeavor. Scattered about Europe are other monuments to individual victims of the ‘Great Escape’ murders.
Last week, I received a nice email from a gentleman named Michal Holy in the Czech Republic. Michal, much like myself, has held a lifelong fascination with the escape and its brutal aftermath. Touched by these events, which took place in March and April 1944, Michal led an effort to dedicate a memorial to four of the airmen murdered in Czechoslovakia.
The monument to Flight Lt. Lester Bull, Squadron Leader John E.A. Williams, Flight Lt. Reginald Kierath, and Flying Officer Jerzy Mondschein was unveiled and dedicated in March. Michal was kind enough to send me pictures of the unveiling. Nearly seventy years after the event, it’s good to know the sacrifices of a past generation can still inspire people today. If it’s not too late in the production process, I’m hoping I can get a picture of the memorial (below) included in Human Game.
In the 1963 MGM movie, the Great Escape’s mastermind—Squadron Leader Roger Bushell—is depicted as “Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett,” played by the excellent Sir Richard Attenborough. Bartlett and his escape partner—Flight Lt. Andy MacDonald—are caught as they try to board a bus. A Gestapo agent asks to see their travel papers. The two escapees present their forged documents. The agent hands them back without comment. As the two relieved airmen board the bus, the agent wishes them “Good luck” in English. MacDonald, out of habit, responds with a word of thanks, resulting in their immediate arrest.
In reality, Bushell’s escape partner was Lt. Bernard Scheidhauer, a French airman. The two men were captured at the main railway station in Saarbrücken on Sunday, March 26, 1944—two days after the escape. A police officer approached them and asked to see their travel papers and identity cards. The two men handed over their forged documents, which seemed to pass inspection. When their papers were returned to them, Bushell and Scheidhauer thanked the officer in French and turned to leave. It was then the officer wished them good luck in English, prompting Scheidhauer—also in English—to thank him. Both airmen were murdered by the Gestapo three days later. Bushell was 33; Scheidhauer was 22.
A memorial to Scheidhauer (below) stands near the spot where mechanical problems brought down his Spitfire on November 19, 1942, on the occupied English Channel Island of Jersey, which led to his capture.
These photos appear courtesy of Great Escape – Stalag Luft III Facebook group, moderated by Michal.