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The BBC's Torin Douglas
"A German officer said the Nazi high command was responsible"
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Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 01:46 GMT 02:46 UK
Hitler ordered 'Great Escape' massacre
Adolf Hitler: Decided matter with Heinrich Himmler
Adolf Hitler: Decided matter with Heinrich Himmler
The massacre of 50 fleeing Allied prisoners of war in 1944, immortalised by the film The Great Escape, was ordered by Hitler, it has been revealed.

General Major Adolf Westhoff, who was interrogated by British intelligence officers after the war, said Hitler and SS head Himmler decided the matter between them and the German secret police, the Gestapo, carried it out.

"The Fuhrer himself always took a hand in these affairs when officers escaped," he said.

The testimony was among files released by the Public Record Office in Kew, south-west London.

We shall have to take very severe measures

Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel
Westhoff recounted how an "excited and nervous" Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel summoned him to a meeting shortly after the mass break-out in March 1944. He was one of Hitler's most loyal military followers and was also ultimately in charge of PoW camps.

"Gentleman, this is a bad business," Keitel said, giving the news that around 80 Allied airmen had escaped from the camp, Stalag Luft III at Sagan, east Germany.

Saying he had been personally admonished by Hermann Goering in the presence of SS head Heinrich Himmler, Keitel warned he must "set an example" to other prisoners, Westhoff recounted.

stalag 3
PoWs tunnelled their way out of Stalag Luft III
He said: "We shall have to take very severe measures. I can only tell you that the men who have escaped will be shot."

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

Westhoff said the meeting was told how Hitler and Himmler had decided the matter.

Stalag Luft III
Stalag Luft, short for Stammlager Luft or Permanent Camps for Airmen
Opened in 1942 at Sagan, 100 miles south-east of Berlin (now called Zagan, in Upper Silesia, Poland)
10,000 PoWs
59 acres, with five miles of perimeter fencing
One by one the escapers were recaptured and on Himmler's orders, handed over to the Gestapo.

This was not the normal practice. Usually, recaptured PoWs were handed over to, and dealt with, by the civilian police.

Gestapo groups later submitted almost identical reports that the prisoners whilst relieving themselves, bolted for freedom and were shot whilst trying to escape.

Westhoff recalled how the bodies of the 50 were burnt and their ashes returned to the camp in urns.

The massacre was intended to be an example to other would-be fugitives and created shock in Britain.

Executors tried

The story was turned into a hugely successful 1963 film starring Steve McQueen and James Coburn.

Some 21 of the Gestapo executors were themselves tried and put to death by the Allies after the war.

Westhoff spoke of the "honour" of the English officers, and claimed he had once told a meeting of the German high command: "Gentlemen, we only act according to the (Geneva) Convention."

"Gentlemen," came the chilling response from a Nazi Party eminence at the meeting, "the convention is a scrap of paper which doesn't interest us."

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