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South Derbyshire’s remarkable connection to the Great Escape

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: June 04, 2014

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THE Great Escape is one of most well known stories from the Second World War, in which plucky British courage was pitted the oppressing jackboot of German brutality.

But less well known is South Derbyshire’s remarkable connection to the story of the mass escape of 76 Allied prisoners of war in March 1944.

For without the say-so of Hilton-born Group Captain Herbert Massey, the decision to dig the escape tunnels, famously named Tom, Dick and Harry, may never have been taken.

Hitler flew into a rage when he learned of the break-out, and on his orders 50 of the recaptured escapees were shot; murdered in cold at the hands of the German secret police, the Gestapo, for carrying out their duty.

In the 1963 film The Great Escape, Group Captain Ramsey - played by James Donald - was based on Massey, who would inform the British government of the war crimes, though he didn’t take part in the escape himself.

His extraordinary story only came to light after Hilton-based historians Ros Darlington and Richard Sherratt passed on research to the Mail.

The story starts, on January 19, 1898, when Massey was born in what is now the Hilton House Hotel; modest beginnings for a man who would become one of the great pioneers of air combat.

It was in the unforgiving skies above the Western Front during the First World War that Massey became one of the fabled ‘knights of the sky’, and continued flying despite half his leg being amputated following a serious injury in 1917.

After serving in Palestine in the 1930’s, Massey played an instrumental part in reaping Britain’s ‘whirlwind’ bomber offensive over German cities in the Second World War.

During a thousand bomber raid against Germany in June 1942 he was shot down over the Dutch coast and captured after bailing out of his blazing aircraft.

Massey, who was by this time a Group Captain, was taken to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III, located in a desolate corner of Lower Silesia in what was then Germany and part of Hitler’s Third Reich.

It was an imposing camp, surrounded with double belts of barbed wire and guard towers bristling with machine guns. It was also designed to prevent Massey and the 11,000 other inmates from escaping.

Barracks huts were raised half-a-meter off the ground, which consisted of yellow sand making tunnels not only hard to dig but also hard to conceal.

After arriving at the compound Massey became the senior British officer, giving him influence in how escape attempts would develop.

Tunnels were dug below the huts through pillars used to raise them from the ground, so to conceal them the watchful eyes of the guards.

The escape operation was an unprecedented undertaking. It was planned for 200 men - disguised in civilian clothing and carrying papers - to crawl through the tunnels dug nearly nine meters below the surface.

Massey, however, would not be one of them nor would he be in the camp when the escape took place. In May 1943 he had been admitted to the Obermassfeld Hospital near the Czech border due to a severe problem with his amputated leg.

After months of silently toiling away, the 102-meter-long and half-meter square tunnel Harry was finally ready in early 1944.

On the moonless night of March 25 the daring operation began, as the escapees – all airmen – began their audacious bid for freedom.

While 200 intended to flee, disaster struck when the 77th man was seen emerging from the tunnel and the alarm was raised.

The hunt was now on for the fugitives who were making good their escape. But making it to safety would be a far from easy task.

The nearby railway station at the town of Sagan was hidden in a fold in the ground, causing many to miss the night time trains and forcing them to travel in daylight.

That March was also one of the coldest on record, and a thick blanket of snow covered the ground forcing the fleeing airmen to use roads rather then using the cover of forests.

Though they could not have known it at the time, each of the 76 escapees was also running for their lives, for upon hearing news of the escape, Hitler personally ordered that every recaptured officer to be executed.

This was eventually reduced to 50, after Hitler relented following fears that executions could lead to reprisals against German prisoners in Allied hands.

Of the 76 who escaped the vast majority were eventually rounded up, interrogated then executed. Just three – two Norwegian and a Dutch pilot – made it to neutral territory.

News of the murders sent shockwaves through the camp, where the cremated remains of the murdered airmen were dumped and signs hung up saying that escape attempts were ‘no longer a sport’.

But Massey would play a key role in bringing the perpetrators to justice. He was repatriated on grounds of ill health soon after the escape and brought the war crimes to the attention of the British Government.

As a result of Massey’s testimony, the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden promised to Parliament that justice would be served on those responsible.

A post-war investigation tracked down the members of the German secret police with blood on their hands.

Of these, 21 were executed, 17 imprisoned, 11 committed suicide, seven had disappeared in the war’s final months, six killed, five were not charged and three had their charges squashed -justice had been served.

After returning home Massey was appointed director general of RAF personnel in 1945 and made Air Commodore the following January.

In January 1950 he was bestowed with the Order of the British Empire before he retired after 34 years of service in the RAF later that year.

He lived in Devon with his wife and family, until his death in 1976.

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