The Great Escape took place on the night of 24 March 1943. 76 prisoners escaped through a 110 meters long tunnel named “Harry” in Stalag Luft III. After the alarm was raised and the hunt on the airmen seized only 3 escapees managed to stay out of German clutches, the other 73 were caught again and brought back to the camp. Hitler personally ordered the infamous “Sagan Befehl”. Ordering all 73 to be shot, as well as camp commandant Lindeiner who designed the camp. It is said that due to the interference of Herman Göring this number was reduced to 50. Field Marshal Keitel, Major-General Westhoff and Major-General Graevenitz all argued against this order for it was in conflict with the Geneva convention.
The sentence was executed by the Wroclaw Mordkommando, a Gestapo murder command. The executions took place near the town of Iłowa in Poland. The selection of the fifty men was done by the commander of Einsatzgruppe B and head of the Nazi Kriminalpolizei Arthur Nebe. Most of these men died later in the battle for Fortress Breslau and avoided responsibility. Max Wielen, chief of the Kriminalpolize in Breslau, was sentenced to life imprisonment and Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, officer in the Einsatzgruppe, died in a Russian prison cell in Moscow. Arthur Nebe was put to death due to the fact that he was involved in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler in the Wolfsschanze.
Among the Fifty was the South African Major Roger Bushell, the commander of committee “X”, the escape organisation in Stalag Luft III. He was shot by Gestapo official Emil Schulz.
A memorial for “The Fifty” was erected by the airmen of Stalag Luft III, a special tomb was built by the prisoners in the shape of an altar for 50 urns with the ashes of those murdered. On three tablets are the names of the Fifty and their ranks. After the war the urns were moved to Cytadela, a war cemetery in Poznan, also in Poland.