Gordon Brettell – Part 3


The Great Escape

24-25 March 1944 – night of The Great Escape. Alex Cassie recalled the disorder in the room as hiding places were opened and the bits of escape kit were assembled. He described the atmosphere as electric. Clearly apprehensive about the future, Brettell asked Cassie: "If I don't get back will you get in touch with my family and let them know what happened, and why it happened".

F/Lt Romas 'Rene' Marcinkus (89580), a Lithuanian serving in the RAF, and another member of the forgery team, was Tim Walenn's escape partner [Although his CWGC entry lists his first name as Romas there is information on the internet to suggest that it was actually Romualdas].


02:00, 25 March 1944 – train leaves Sagan station bound for Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. On board are Per Bergsland, Jens Muller, Brettell, Marcinkus, Picard, and Walenn. In remarkable contrast to the fortunes of the other four, the Norwegian duo of Bergsland and Muller made 'home runs' – successful escapes. The only other Great Escaper to get back home was Dutchman Robert Van Der Stok. Unlike the movie, no British or American officer that took part in The Great Escape succeeded.

Informed of the mass escape that evening an enraged Hitler orders that all recaptured prisoners are to be executed. Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goring objects on the grounds of possible reprisals against German POWs. Hitler partially relents but orders more than half of the escapers to be executed. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler sets the total at 50 and together with Head of the General Staff Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel start issuing the necessary orders.


26-27 March 1944 – Brettell, Marcinkus, Picard, and Walenn spent the night at Willenberg.


27 March 1944 – Caught another train but taken off at Schneidemuhl following a document check. Initially taken to a prison camp near Marienburg (where they exchanged uniforms) before transferred to the prison at Danzig.


27-28 March 1944 – spent in Danzig (now the Polish town of Gdansk) with work detachments from Stalag XXB (a camp for British POWs). They had been able to exchange their escape clothes for British Army battledress. After the war, Company Sergeant Major J Fulton of the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders was able to recall the name of one of the four RAF prisoners who had signed for their new clothes – it was Brettell.


29 March 1944 – F/Lt Edward Gordon Brettell, F/Lt Romas Marcinkus, F/Lt Henri A Picard and F/Lt Gilbert W Walenn, and at least 14 other Great Escapers (including 'Big X' Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell) are murdered on this date.

Post-war investigations were hampered by the Cold War and a refusal by Poland's Communist authorities to allow RAF officers freedom to conduct investigations on their territory. However, the investigations and trials of German officials involved eventually revealed that early in the morning the four officers had been taken from their cells and driven to Gross Tampken Wood. Here Reinhold Bruchardt led a five-strong execution team from the Danzig Gestapo office. According to witness statements the head of the Danzig Gestapo office, Dr Gunther Venediger, was also present at the time of their execution. There is no eyewitness testimony to exactly what happened (at his trial Bruchardt testified that he was investigating the reported murder of RAF officers alleged by Ukrainian members of an Einsatzgruppen – a special action group involved in carrying out Hitler's Final Solution). However, two Danzig Gestapo office drivers testified hearing the sound of gunfire, described members of the group returning out of the woods carrying rifles and an automatic pistol, and later a lorry being used to transport the bodies to a crematorium.

"Don't blame us, please, for what the Gestapo do. They're not the real Germany"

– Von Masse, Chief Censor Officer, Stalag Luft III. Many German officers and camp guards were genuinely appalled by the murders.


The aftermath

6 April 1944 – Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft III informed that 41 escapers were shot while trying to avoid recapture (that same day 6 officers are seen alive for the last time and F/Lt Anthony Hayter was shot – instructions were received to shoot him the next day, however his Gestapo executioners did not want to kill him on Good Friday so they carried out the order a day early)


19 May 1944 – Foreign Minister (and later Prime Minister) Anthony Eden makes an initial statement on the murders in the House of Commons, a week after receiving notice of 47 deaths from the Swiss in their role as Protecting Power.


20 May 1944 – The Times newspaper published the names of dead officers. Gordon Brettell's name is the first on the list. In all, of the 47 names, 25 were from the RAF. The Great Escape, like WWII, was a very international affair.


8 June 1944 – Posthumous Mention in the Despatches for Gordon Brettell (and several other Great Escapers) posted in the London Gazette. Living recipients of a Mention in the Despatches wear metal Oak leaves attached to the ribbon of the campaign medal.


23 June 1944 – Anthony Eden's second statement in the House of Commons. Death toll revised to 50. Eden concludes his statement with a vow of retribution: "HM 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".


15 July 1944 – Prisoners at Sagan start work on a memorial for their murdered comrades.


20 July 1944 – Failed Bomb Plot to assassinate Hitler.


February 1945 – General Artur Nebe, who was given the task of selecting which of the recaptured airmen would be executed was tortured and killed by the Gestapo at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp for his involvement in the failed 20 July Bomb Plot. His and several other of the plotters' death throes, as they were slowly hung by piano wire, was filmed and later shown to Hitler.


30 April 1945 – Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker as Russian forces close in.


23 May 1945 – Heinrich Himmler commits suicide after being captured by the British Army.


16 October 1946 – Wilhelm Keitel is executed after being convicted of war crimes at the Nuremburg trials.


Not so Exemplary Justice

Testimonies from German personnel during the post-war investigations and trials were often contradictory. Not entirely surprising, as those making the statements were only too aware that implicating themselves was likely to lead to their own convictions and execution.

The uncovering of the complex chain of events from Hitler's order to execute all recaptured prisoners to those passing on these instructions and those actually carrying them out, is a saga in its own right.

The then Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden (later Prime Minister) promised that the culprits would face 'Exemplary Justice' (also the title of Allen Andrews' book), and indeed 72 individuals were later identified (initially there were 106 names) but not all were brought to trial (some evaded, killed during the war, committed suicide and it is believed some later worked for, and were protected by, Soviet intelligence agencies).

Sad to say that in the case of Gordon Brettell and his brothers in arms murdered in the Gross Tampken Wood there seems to have been little justice done.

Head of the Danzig Gestapo Office SS Standartenfuhrer, Oberreigerungsrat and Kommandeur der Sischerheitspolizei Dr Gunther Venediger emerged from the Russian Zone in 1952. Initially acquitted in a 1954 trial in the German civil courts, the prosecution successfully appealed, but he only received a 2-year sentence in 1957.

Kriminalsekretar Reinhold Bruchardt, who had been described by a colleague as a particularly sadistic individual (although that may be due to Bruchardt having an affair with his wife), was arrested in July 1946. However, attempts to coax him into a confession failed when one of the prison staff decided to teach him a lesson and beat him up. He was tried in the second Stalag Luft III war crimes trial (11 October – 6 November 1948), found guilty and sentenced to death but there was a temporary ban on the death sentence in Britain, which Germany copied, so it was reduced to a life sentence. Ironically, the man who assaulted him in effect saved his life – although that clearly wasn't his intention. He was released in 1956.

There is some uncertainty over the names of the other members of the execution team; trial transcripts suggest they were Hug, Sasse, Voelz, Roehrer and Asal. In the book Exemplary Justice they were tentatively identified as Helmut Willich, Julius Hug,  Walter Voelz and Hans Asal. Although Appendix 5 lists: Julius Hug (not traced),  Max Kilpe (arrested but not tried), Walter Sasse (escaped), Walter Voelz (believed to have been killed during the war), Herbert Wenzler (arrested but not tried), and Harry Witt (arrested but not tried). Hans Asal is mentioned as also having been arrested but not tried earlier in the text.

Unpunished they may have been but their deeds speak for themselves, and they are not part of a history which the majority of their descendants in modern Germany wish to honour or remember. So very different from the case of Gordon Brettell and the rest of The Great Escapers, whose deeds and exploits are now the stuff of legends. And rightly so.



Elizabeth Stratton, Edgar Bowring Archivist, Clare College, Cambridge

Johnny Langridge, Development Associate, Clare College, Cambridge

Jacqueline Cox, University Archives, Cambridge

National Archives

Encyclopaedia Britannica Online

London Gazette


(Please note: DVD and book links take you to their Amazon.com entry)

The Great Escape (Special Edition) [1963] [DVD]

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill (Cassell Military Paperbacks)

The Longest Tunnel by Alan Burgess

The Great Escape by Anton Gill

Exemplary Justice by Allan Andrews

Moonless Night by B A (Jimmy) James

Wings Day by Sydney Smith

Lie in the Dark and Listen by Ken (Shag) Rees

Bonds of Wire by Kingsley Brown (no Amazon uk entry)

Lonesome road by George Harsh

The Darlington Spitfire by Peter Caygill

The Eagle Squadrons: Yanks in the Raf, 1940-1942 by Haugland

Smoke Trails in the Sky by Anthony Bartlett

Spitfire: A Test Pilot's Story by Jeffrey Quill


Top ^


Click here to go back to Part 1


Click here to go back to Part 2


Click here to go to the Guide to The Great Escape


Back to: Aviation and Aerospace


Copyright © 2009, 2012 D H Markus. All rights reserved. No liability is accepted for the accuracy of information in this site.