It is a melancholy fact that escape is much harder in real life than in the movies, where only the heavy and the second lead are killed. This time, after huge success, death came to some heroes. Later it caught up with some villains.
– Paul Brickhill, RAAF officer, Stalag Luft III POW and author of the 1950 best-seller “The Great Escape”.
The Great Escape was a triumph of the ingenuity, organization and sheer physical and mental endurance. Seventy-six Allied officers tunnelled their way out of the supposedly “escape proof” Stalag Luft III under the German’s noses. Recalling that glorious moment when they finally pulled themselves up out of the tunnel, free, RAF Squadron Leader, Bertram “Jimmy” James later said: “It was exhilarating. It felt like liberation just to be on the other side of the fence.”
Construction of the 10-metre-deep, 111-metre-long escape tunnel and the preparation of civilian clothes and forged documents operation occupied 600 men for more than a year, and aimed to break 200 of them out; the most audacious escape plan of the war.
However, the success so enraged Hitler that he ordered the secret execution of 50 of the 73 mean eventually recaptured across Germany and beyond, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Escapees were driven into remote forests to be shot.
The Great Escape Memorial at Most honours four Allied officers (click on a photo at the right to read a profile) who made it all the way to the Czechoslovakian border, walking the last 20 kilometres or so though snow drifts and bitter cold. After being intercepted by a German alpine patrol, they were briefly detained by the Gestapo but soon executed in the woods near Most. This website honours the “Most four” and the rest of “the fifty” who lost their lives.
In perfect spring weather on March 24, 2012, the 68th anniversary of the break out, the Great Escape Memorial at Most was unveiled by the descendants of the heroes of the Great Escape.
“Their journey to freedom, tragically, ended here,” said Czech organiser, Michal Holy, flanked by Czech, Australian, British and Polish military and government representatives and officials of the local region where the men were secretly executed. Although the exact place of their executions has never been identified their bodies were brought back to Most for cremation.
Recent research into the case of the “Most Four” in the lead up to the memorial ceremony uncovered chilling photos of the young men taken by the secret police, the Kriminalpolozei or kripo, shortly before their death, showing the civilian clothes famously cut from uniforms by the POWs inside the Stalag Luft III camp to disguise the escapees as migrant workers.
The paperwork ordering the men’s cremations was also recently unearthed showing the order for their cremation was signed the night before they were killed. Like the other escapees, official Nazi documents claim all four of the men were “shot trying to escape”; an event that could hardly have been foreseen the previous day. Of the 76 escapees, 73 were recaptured and 50 were secretly executed on Hitler’s personal orders in breach of the Geneva Convention.
“These are very intriguing finds,” said British historian Guy Walters, the author of the new book, The Real Great Escape. “The fact that the cremations were ordered before the men were shot for supposedly trying to escape reminds us quite how cold-blooded the Gestapo could be.”
Peter Devitt, representing the RAF Museum, London at the memorial ceremony, said The Great Escape achieved two important goals despite its tragic end.
“They (Allied air force POWs) wanted to show the Germans what they were capable of, and this was a very big gesture given the camp was supposedly escape proof, so it not only caused massive disruption but hit German morale hard.”
However, more significantly Hitler’s barbaric reprisals, including the Most executions, exposed the barbarity of the Nazi regime, he said.
“The murders advertised loud and clear exactly what the Nazi regime was like before we knew about the death (concentration) camps.”
“Fifty gifted young men got out and they made a great fist of it – they had ingenuity, heroism and dedication, and although it ended in tragedy it sent a clear message about the survival of the human spirit (in the face of adversity).”
Everyone involved is immensely grateful for the energy and effort of Michal Holy, who brought us all together and made this memorial possible. Read more about the memorial here.