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Secret files reveal Great Escape families' long wait for compensation

The Guardian logo The Guardian 21/03/2017 5:30:00 Alice Ross
Stalag Luft III circa 1942: the prisoner of war camp, run by the Luftwaffe, held captured enemy airmen until its liberation on April 29, 1945. © Getty ImagesStalag Luft III circa 1942: the prisoner of war camp, run by the Luftwaffe, held captured enemy airmen until its liberation on April 29, 1945.

The families of RAF airmen killed after the "Great Escape" breakout from a Nazi prison camp were paid compensation, but some survivors were refused a payout until a public outcry forced the government's hand. New details of the payouts are revealed in previously secret Foreign Office (FCO) files released on Tuesday by the National Archives.

In March 1944, British personnel staged a daring escape from the Stalag Luft III German air force prison camp at Sagan in Germany (now Zagan in Poland), after digging three tunnels which 76 airmen passed through in the dead of night. Seventy-three of them were captured within days, and 50 were shot by the Gestapo on the personal orders of Adolf Hitler.

The families of five of the men finally received "death grants" of £2,293.15 - equivalent to about £40,000 in today's money - in 1965 and 1966. The families of four SAS commandos who were captured and killed in an operation deep behind enemy lines in occupied France also received payouts, the archives reveal.

The grants were part of a compensation scheme for victims of the Nazis run by the FCO 20 years after the end of the second world war. The scheme, which used £1m from the West German government, provided money to those who had suffered persecution.

But deciding who had suffered wrongs specifically at the hands of the Nazis and who had simply fallen victim to war proved fraught, as the experiences of the Great Escape airmen illustrate. In total, 868 people received compensation, but more than 3,000 applications were rejected, including more than 1,300 who were judged to have been held in prisoner of war camps or civilian internment camps rather than concentration camps.

This led to some harrowing rejections, including the application from Jack Thorez Finken-McKay, a British serviceman transferred from the Royal Fusiliers to the War Office to perform "special duties", who said he became "a living skeleton" at the hands of the Gestapo. He spent two years in solitary confinement and said the experience left him partially blind, with memory loss and mental health issues. But the FCO rejected his claim as he had been in a PoW camp rather than a concentration camp.

Among those killed after the Great Escape was Fl Lt Edgar "Hunk" Spottiswoode Humphreys, a Bristol Blenheim bomber pilot with 107 squadron who was captured by the Nazis in 1940, broke out of Stalag Luft III four years later, and was captured by the Nazis within 24 hours. Aged 29, he was shot by the Gestapo. After the war, his friend Frank McKenna, a detective, tracked down many of those responsible for the killings.

Humphreys' widow, Lilian Phillips, who by 1965 was living in Australia, was granted £2,293 by the government. Her application was sent in July 1965, and she received an initial payment of £1,000 by the end of August. The families of Fl Lt Charles Hall, Fl Lt Gilbert "Tim" Walenn, Fl Lt John Williams and Fl Lt Cyril Swain were also compensated, the records show.

The Ministry of Defence championed the cause of those murdered after the Great Escape, according to research by Prof Susanna Schrafstetter, although the terms of the fund meant even those shot by the Gestapo while captives were not automatically eligible for compensation. The government established that the men appeared to have been held in a Gestapo prison, with conditions that could be compared to a concentration camp, so could receive payouts, she found.

But the survivors, such as Sqn Ldr Bertrand "Jimmy" James, had to fight for years for similar recognition. James was held along with two other Great Escape survivors who had been rounded up and imprisoned. But when he applied for compensation, describing how he had spent five months in solitary confinement, "not knowing when our turn for the firing squad might come", the FCO decided he had been held in a cell block adjoining the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, rather than in the camp itself.

It was not until 1968, after a high-profile media campaign and a parliamentary inquiry, that James and the others were awarded £1,192.

The families of SAS servicemen killed during Operation Loyton, in which commandos parachuted into the Vosges mountains in eastern France, were also deemed eligible for death grants. Maj Denis Reynolds, Lt David Dill, Capt Anthony "Andy" Whately-Smith and Capt Victor Gough were among 31 men who went missing in the early stages of the campaign.

The four were later discovered to have been captured by the Nazis, and the Red Cross listed them as inmates at camps in the Gaggenau region of southern Germany. A secret SAS mission after the war found their bodies in a mass grave. In early 1966, the FCO signed off on payments to their families.

The files are the last of four batches of Nazi compensation files released by the National Archives. They were previously held in the FCO's "special collection" in Hanslope Park, Buckinghamshire.

21. maaliskuuta 2017 7:05:36 Categories: The Guardian logo

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