HC Deb 23 June 1944 vol 401 cc477-82
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I am now in a position, with the leave of the House, to make a statement about the deaths of a number of Air Force officers who were prisoners of war at Stalag Luft III. Before dealing with the facts I wish to state that His Majesty's Government have no knowledge of any mass shooting of British prisoners of war, other than that which has already been reported in connection with Stalag Luft III. I make this statement in order to allay fears aroused by rumours which have received wide circulation recently.

In my previous statement, I told the House that 47 British and Allied Air Force officers had been shot as a result of an escape from this camp. This information was based on the figures given to the Protecting Power by the German authorities on a routine visit to the camp. We have now received an official communication on the matter from the German Government. This communication states that 5o officers have been shot and not 47 as previously stated. The next of kin of the three additional victims have been informed.

The German note gives the same explanation and attempted justification of these shootings as was given to the Swiss inspector on 17th April, namely that these officers were shot while offering resistance when found after their escape or while attempting a renewed escape after capture. The note adds that, during the month of March, there were a number of mass escapes of prisoners of war from camps throughout Germany, involving several thousand persons; that these escapes were systematically prepared partly by the General Staffs of the Allies; and that they had both political and military objectives. This situation is stated to have endangered public security in Germany. In order to repress these undertakings, specially severe orders were given to pursue, at all costs, all prisoners who failed to halt upon challenge, or offered resistance or made renewed attempts to escape after capture, and to make use of weapons until the prisoners had been deprived of all possibility of resistance or further escape. The note states that all prisoners who escaped in March, except for about a hundred, the search for whom is continuing, were recaptured but that weapons had to be used against some of the rest including 50 from Stalag Luft III. It is also stated that the ashes of 28 of the 50 officers reported to have been shot have been taken to the camp.

I now propose to inform the House of the facts as we have learned them from statements on oath made by officers who were in the camp at the time of the escape and have been recently repatriated. They include Group Captain H. M. Massey who was the senior officer for the whole camp and acted as prisoners' representative. The information they give is as follows:

Early in this year a tunnel which had been excavated by the prisoners of war was ready and the escape was made on the night of 24–25th March. Some 76 prisoners of war got out of the tunnel during the night, but four who were following them were detected and arrested at the mouth of the tunnel. These four were immediately removed to camp cells. I do not propose to give full details of the plans of escape, but it is now known that these prisoners intended to make their way, in pairs, by different routes to different destinations. During the day following the escape, the Gestapo arrived and took control of the camp. On 6th April Group Captain Massey was informed by the Commandant that he had been ordered by the German High Command to give him some information about the escape. He then read out a statement to the following effect—this is the German Commandant: With reference to the recent escape from the North Compound at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, I am commanded by the German High Command to state that 41 of the escapers were shot while resisting re-arrest or in their endeavours to escape again after having been rearrested. On being pressed for further information regarding the circumstances, and whether all the men were shot dead, or some only wounded, the Commandant merely repeated the statement and said that he could not amplify it except that all were killed, and there were no wounded. A similar statement with the substitution of the figure 47 for the figure 41 was subsequently posted up on 8th May at the camp at Annaburg, to which Group Captain Massey and the other repatriates from Stalag Luft III were removed on nth April in their journey home. With the exception of one shot fired at the last of the 76 as he got out of the tunnel, no shooting was heard by anyone in the camp at the time of the escape. After the news of the shooting had been given to Group Captain Massey the whole camp went into mourning. The Germans at that time refused to allow the bodies of those who had been shot to be brought back to the camp, for burial in the camp cemetery.

So much for what happened in the camp. The information which the repatriated officers have given goes further. Within a few days of the escape some of the officers were brought back to the camp under heavy guard, and were put into the camp cells. According to the report of the Protecting Power they are still in the camp. They reported that, after capture, they had been taken over by the Gestapo who had removed them to a Gestapo prison at Görlitz, some 40 miles away. On the way there, cars with armed Gestapo both preceded and followed the vehicle in which they were driven. At Görlitz they were put into cells containing five or six each. They were all interrogated by the Gestapo and in the meantime were kept in shocking conditions with very little food. Amongst other threats the Gestapo used the following words to them: We have got you here. Nobody knows you are here. To all intents and purposes you are civilians. You are wearing civilian clothes and we can do what we like with you. You can disappear. Others were told that anyone dressed in civilian clothes would be without the protection of the Convention. After their interrogation they were taken back to the cells and some German officials came in and picked out a number of men. Those picked out were seen from the prison being driven away handcuffed and in the charge of the Gestapo officials who were armed with tommy guns, whilst the remainder were handed over to the Luftwaffe and brought back to the camp. Those shot included all the officers of European Allied nationality who were recaptured. These were taken away on different days in small parties with one larger party of about 20. On 6th April, the very day on which the Commandant of the camp informed Group Captain Massey that the number shot was 41, a party of eight, six of whom were later shot, were taken away. The number given to the Swiss Inspector on 17th April was 47.

The German note states that a final communication giving further details will be forthcoming but His Majesty's Government feel obliged to declare at once that the explanation now put forward by the German Government is in fact the confession of an odious crime against the laws and conventions of war.

I would draw the attention of the House to the following facts:

First, no orders have at any time been given to British prisoners of war to take part, in the event of their escape, in any subversive action as is alleged in the German note.

Secondly, all these officers knew the futility of attempting any resistance if they were recaptured.

Thirdly, as to the possibility of a renewed attempt to escape we now know that owing to physical exhaustion and ill-treatment at Görlitz they were incapable of any such attempt.

Fourthly, whether these officers escaped in small or large numbers there can be no justification for the German authorities executing them. We know, however, that during the original escape the officers were in pairs and that when last seen after leaving Görlitz prison they were in comparatively small numbers handcuffed and under heavy guard.

Fifthly, and most significant, there were no wounded as would have been inevitable if the shootings had taken place during an attempt to resist capture.

Sixthly, the German statement omits all reference to Görlitz, and contains no account of the circumstances which led to the death of any single officer.

Finally, the ashes of 28 of the escaped prisoners have now been returned to Stalag Luft III although the Germans had previously refused to send back the bodies for burial. This is the only occasion known to His Majesty's Government, or the Protecting Power, upon which any British prisoner of war who has died during captivity has been cremated. It is abundantly clear that none of these officers met their death in the course of making their escape from Stalag Luft III or while resisting capture. The Gestapo's contention that the wearing of civilian clothes by an escaping prisoner of war deprives him of the protection of the Prisoners of War Convention is entirely without foundation in International Law and practice. From these facts there is, in His Majesty's Government's view, only one possible conclusion. These prisoners of war were murdered at some undefined place or places after their removal from the Gestapo prison at Görlitz, at some date or dates unknown.

His Majesty's Government must, therefore, record their solemn protest against these cold-blooded acts of butchery. They will never cease in their efforts to collect the evidence to identify all those responsible. They are firmly resolved that these foul criminals shall be tracked down to the last man wherever they may take refuge. When the war is over they will be brought to exemplary justice.

Mr. J. J. Lawson

I am sure that the House is shocked, as the country and the whole civilised world will be, at this atrocity committed upon helpless and gallant men, and I am sure that the Government can take it, that any steps they take now, and in the future, to mete out justice to these culprits and murderers, will be supported by the public of this country.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.