Execution of Great Escape PoWs ordered by Hitler

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Fifty Allied prisoners-of-war, whose exploits inspired the Hollywood film The Great Escape, were murdered on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler despite strong objections from senior German officers.

Previously undisclosed documents, released by the Public records Office yesterday, describe the tensions and acrimony among the German high command which surrounded the notorious atrocity.

A German officer, Major General Westhoff told MI5 after the war how an "excited and nervous" Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, a loyal Hitler follower in charge of PoW camps, had summoned him to a meeting shortly after 80 Allied airmen escaped from the camp Stalag Luft III at Sagan, east Germany, in March 1944.

"Gentleman, this is a bad business," said Keitel and told how he had been admonished by the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering in the presence of SS head Heinrich Himmler, and warned he must "set an example" to other prisoners. "We shall have to take very severe measures," Keitel said. "I can only tell you the men who have escaped will be shot; probably the majority of them are dead already."

When told it was "out of the question" to execute recaptured men, the field marshal said: "I don't care a damn. We discussed it in the Fuhrer's presence and it cannot be altered."

Westhoff was told Hitler and Himmler had decided the matter between them. "The Fuhrer always took a hand in these affairs when officers escaped," he said. Fifty of the prisoners were shot by police or Gestapo, their bodies burnt and their ashes returned to the camp in urns.

"For the burial, the PoWs arranged with the protecting power that they should be allowed to erect a nice monument, which they made themselves."

He spoke of the "honour" of the British officers, and claimed he had once told a meeting of the German high command: "Gentlemen, we act only according to the (Geneva) Convention." The chilling response came from a Nazi Party official: "Gentlemen, the convention is a scrap of paper which doesn't interest us."

RAF investigators tracked 21 of the Nazi killers after the war. They were tried and executed. The story was turned into a successful film in 1963 starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and a host of other British and American stars.

Further documents released by the PRO also reveal how SS general Gottlieb Berger asked Hitler to commit suicide in Berlin rather than flee to safety. "I told him he could not betray the German people, and that it was very easy - to put a bullet through one's head or to take one of those pills or tubes issued, which worked instantaneously," said Berger.