Kenneth Shenton takes a timely look-back at how a Blackpool detective played an integral role in bringing the “Great Escape” murderers to justice.
A few weeks ago, the last survivor of “The Great Escape” from the German prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III, Richard Churchill, died at his Devon home, aged 99. This month marks the 75th anniversary of their legendary 1944 adventure, later famously immortalized on film starring Steve McQueen. In truth, the reality was quite different as 50 of the escapees were brutally murdered in cold blood on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler.
Stalag Luft III was based near the town of Sagan, some 100 miles south of Berlin, nowadays Zagan, in Poland. Built on the orders of Hermann Göring and designed to be escape proof, it was specifically reserved for the captured officers of the Allied air forces. Built amid an extensive pine forest, many of its wooden huts were raised up on stilts to prevent tunnelling. However, its escape committee had a plan to get 200 prisoners out of the camp using three tunnels named, Tom, Dick and Harry. Each was dug some 30ft below ground and intended to reach the woods on the other side of the fence.
Their efforts consumed some 4,000 bed boards, 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 62 tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches and 1,212 bed bolsters, as the 60 prisoners involved used everything they could get their hands on, to help build three structurally sound escape routes complete with both electric lighting and ventilation.
With each tunnel almost 400ft long, it was a project on an industrial scale. In the event, Tom was found by the Germans during its construction, and Dick was eventually used for storage. That left only Harry as the sole escape route, accessible via the stove at the end of Hut 104.
As in so many camps, gardening was used to help supplement the often meagre rations. Here it also became a vital activity to help dispose of the vast amounts of soil from out of the tunnels. In addition, the camp had its own 1,220 yard golf course, its bunkers built by ‘Penguins’ depositing soil from the tunnels by carefully dropping it down their trouser legs.
A small reservoir in the middle of the camp was used for model boats. In addition, the prisoners built a theatre where they regularly put on shows. Leading lights were actor, Peter Butterworth, and writer, Talbot Rothwell, both later to be involved in the Carry On films.
The 200 prisoners selected for the mass breakout were chosen from three groups: the first were experienced escapees and German speakers; the second group were those who contributed most to the plan; and the third were all drawn by lots. After months of meticulous planning, the date chosen was March 24, 1944.
However, things went awry from the start.
It took much longer to get the men through the tunnel than had originally been anticipated and, sadly, the length of the tunnel was shorter than intended, meaning the men had to surface in open country, rather than in the woods.
In what would still be the biggest mass breakout by Allied prisoners of war, only 76 of the intended 200 escapees managed to escape before the alarm was raised. The first out was Flight lieutenant Harry Marshall together with his escape partner, Czech Flying Officer Ernst Valenta.
Roger Bushell and his partner, Bernard Scheidhauer, a member of the Free French Forces, were following close behind. Of these four men, all but Marshall would soon be brutally executed. Only three out of the 76 who escaped – two Norwegians and a Dutchman – eventually managed to get all the way back across Europe to Allied lines.
What nobody involved could possibly have anticipated was the scale of the German revenge. Hitler’s rage was all-consuming, immediately ordering the deaths of all the 76 escapees. In the end, in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, it was decided 50 would be killed, chosen at random by SS-Gruppen Fuhrer Artur Nebe, the notorious Head of the RKPA.
Richard Churchill, one who did survive, always believed he was spared because his captor’s mistakenly that he was somehow related to his namesake, Sir Winston Churchill. When news of the atrocity reached London, there was immediate and total outrage. On June 23 1944, the Foreign Secretary, The Right Honourable Anthony Eden made a statement to the House of Commons. He ended with the following promise: “We will never cease in our efforts to collect the evidence to identify all those responsible and are firmly resolved that these foul criminals shall be tracked down to the last man, wherever they take refuge. When the war is over they will be brought to exemplary justice.”
The fact that against all the odds, exemplary justice triumphed owed much to a most remarkable local citizen, long serving Blackpool policeman, Frank McKenna.
Born in Accrington in February 1906, the eldest of six children, Francis Peter McKenna – universally known as Frank, moved to Blackpool as a young baby when his father, also known as Frank, was transferred to the resort’s police force. He later became Head of CID. Educated at Sacred Heart School, both Frank junior and younger brother, John, followed in their father’s distinguished footsteps, each becoming Detective Sergeants in the CID.
Even when a young constable, a noted maverick, he was famously idiosyncratic in his methods. During the course of 1926, McKenna had been sent to the Isle of Man to bring back a prisoner.
Anxious not to miss an FA cup game at his beloved Bloomfield Road, instead of using the ferry as he had been instructed, he took a plane both ways, thus having his man back in the cells comfortably in time for the kick-off. Not for the first or last time, he needed all his noted eloquence to avoid disciplinary action.
Later, he always took special pride in claiming to be the first policeman in Britain to have used an aircraft to get his man.
On the outbreak of the second world war, McKenna, who had considerable civilian flying experience, was deemed to be in a reserved occupation and as such was refused permission to join the Royal Air Force. Later, when the high losses in bomber command saw the rules eased, sadly, he was by then too old to fulfil his dream of becoming a pilot.
Instead, he became a flight engineer, initially in 622 Squadron based at Mildenhall, going on to fly more than thirty successful Lancaster bomber missions throughout Europe. Subsequently working his way up through the ranks, he later served as Deputy Provost Marshall in Edinburgh.
By 1945, now a Squadron Leader, McKenna found himself transferred to London, becoming a member of the RAF equivalent of the CID, the Special Investigation Branch. Thus, 17 months after the murders in Stalag Luft III, on September 3 1945, McKenna flew to Germany to begin the investigation into what still remains the worst war crime against British nationals in general and the Royal Air Force in particular. Initially, the outlook for the enquiry looked bleak, the chances of any success seemed well nigh impossible.
McKenna himself spoke little of the language and it was a while before he was granted an interpreter.
His task was further complicated by the total fragmentation, chaos and corruption of post-war Germany, now controlled in separate zones by the allies. However, in typical style, he soon became particularly adept at side-stepping the somewhat claustrophobic bureaucracy inherent at the time. Likewise, he also found the timely appearance of a packet of cigarettes would soon smooth any amount of ruffled feathers.
After something of a slow start, as the investigation began to make progress, McKenna was able to bring together a small, highly independent and remarkably dedicated team, never more than 11 in total.
On first meeting, McKenna came across as a somewhat driven, dour, cerebral Lancastrian.
Imposing in stature and nicknamed Sherlock Holmes by his service colleagues, his pale yet piercing eyes masked an intellect few could equal. Always willing to act first and ask questions later, beneath a somewhat prickly persona lay a deeply committed Christian who, despite the often turbulent buffetings of a long career never lost his highly acute sense of justice. He saw it as his duty to uphold the law not to act as an avenging angel. This proved vital as he struggled to comprehend the rapidly unfolding inhumanity of his fellow man.
• See next week’s Memory Lane to find out how McKenna brought the perpetrators to justice