HistoryofLancs (Lancashire History) Blog
Author: John Ellis
Blog Number: 2
Blog Topic : Frank Mackenna and the great escape
Location : Accrington , Blackpool , Lancashire
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Note – This article has been adapted from a Book I have written , as the copywright belongs to the publisher , you cannot reproduce anything on this page (sorry).
This is the story of Frank Mackenna; Born in Accrington and served in Blackpool as a police officer. He was tasked with catching the people responsible for the massacre of the great escape fugitives in post war Germany. As immortalised in the film starring Steve McQueen.
The story behind the great escape was a mass escape of allied prisoners of war from the stalag luft III camp in Silesia (situated in modern day Poland) in 1944. The prisoners, under the direction of squadron leader Roger Bushel of the RAF, decided that escape was necessary and an escape committee was formed. He was quoted as saying;
“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In (the) North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick, and Harry. One will succeed!”
The idea was too build three tunnels, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry in an attempt to tunnel under the camp and into the near by woods where escape would be easier. The idea was to build three in the hope that one of the tunnels would make it, if one was found they would simply concentrate on another, the camp, which housed a huge number of officers, was designed to make digging hard. Firstly it was built on sandy soil, not suited to tunnelling, the camp huts were also raised off the floor to make detection of digging activities easier and there were also seismographs to detect digging. Despite the difficulties the digging continued and many an inventive idea was used in the design and execution of the tunnels. It was a massive undertaking with the tunnel needing 600 men to construct in total. The idea was that over 200 prisoners would escape, a huge break out, a massive undertaking as all were to be given papers and civilian clothing.
The first tunnel to be completed was the infamous Harry tunnel. The escape idea was to split the escapers into 2 groups of about 100, the first was made of people who had the best chance of escaping, namely German speaking or previous escapers, also the people who had worked hardest on the tunnel. The second group nicknamed “ hard arses” were given basic papers and were deemed to have little chance of success.
On march 24th 1944, a moonless night, the escape commenced but catastrophe struck when the first escapers realised the tunnel was short of the woods and in full view of a German watch tower, never the less the escape commenced as it was deemed too late to turn back. Even with the problems, which included an allied air raid in the area, 76 of the first group managed to tactfully escape and made it into the woods without being seen. This itself was a great fete to be achieved. 76 people escaped following a massive German operation though, 73 were eventually recaptured. The 3 that succeeded were all RAF pilots, two Norwegians managed to reach Sweden by boat and a Dutch pilot made the mammoth trip to Spanish neutrality. The darkest part of the story commenced when 50 prisoners were executed, including 22 British prisoners, all were unarmed, innocent and supposedly protected by the Geneva Convention. The death toll could have been higher if Hitler had got his personal wish but it was a travesty of humanity never the less. The news of the execution reached back to the devastated prisoners back at camp. The prisoners of Stalag luft III were eventually liberated by advancing American troops in 1945.
This is where Frank Mackenna came in; following uproar at the atrocity back in Britain politicians demanded justice after an address by the home secretary Anthony Eden of the news to the house of parliament he was quoted as saying
“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.”
Frank Mackenna was picked to lead the search of post war Germany for the perpetrators of the massacre. Frank originally born in Accrington, moved to the resort when he was child with his family. He attended sacred heart school in the town as a child. He later became, along with his brother, a detective sergeant with the Blackpool police force, a skill that would help in his pursuit of justice on the continent. Frank who had a passion for flying eventually entered the RAF, after he was cleared from his reserved occupation when the losses of bomber command were high; he flew numerous Lancaster bombing sorties over occupied Europe. The combination of his RAF experience, police detective work and his desire for justice made him the ideal candidate. By 1945 having been promoted to Squadron leader he was transferred to RAF special investigation branch. RAF special investigations branch, part of the RAF force was established to solve serious crimes relating to the organisation.
Roughly 17 months after the massacre Frank, who was 38 at the time, went to Post war Germany with the one ideal of Justice, A police officer and Christian at heart no one was more committed to attaining this outcome than him. When arriving in Germany for the first time he has little to start on. Most the records of the event had been destroyed, mainly by Gestapo officer predicting a post war crack down. Along with the lack of documents post war Germany, a war torn, defeated nation, immersed in increasing political strife between Russia and the other allies proved time and again a hard place to committee an investigation. This was made harder by the fact that he spoke little to no German and had only one staff member an interpreter warrant officer Williams. His desire to capture the perpetrators was increased by the fact he knew two of the men killed, Edgar Humphreys and Robert Stewart whom he met at RAF squires gate where they had been stationed, Frank was a regular visitor to the airfield throughout the war as flying was one of his passions.
Despite the difficulties, He had his first lead, thanks somewhat surprisingly to help of some German soldiers, in particular Wilhelm von Lindeiner, who appalled by the slaughter informed Mr Mackenna that all the victims had been secretly cremated and the ashes took back to camp. With this small piece of information a determined Frank took to the local crematoriums in the hope of discovering more information. After months of searching it was proving fruitless, many of the guilty parties had destroyed the evidence, perhaps in the knowledge that the war was coming to an end and maybe even heading the early warnings of Anthony Eden.
During a drive in the German countryside an attempt on his life was made, a metal wire was strewn across the road in the hope of decapitation, fortunately the attempt failed, this highlights the dangers of working in a hostile, particularly to members of the RAF who they saw as responsible for the flattening of many German cities.
After further hard work investigating and visiting many post war prisons, Frank and his now larger team were starting to get results. With a list of wanted men the team under Frank started making arrests, one arrest, perhaps the most famous was of Emil Schultz who had been responsible for the murder of the leader roger bushel, even in the face of his enemy Frank showed Christian compassion and contrary to procedures took a final letter to Emil from his wife. By the end of his stint, 13 Gestapo officers had been sentenced to death for there part in the murders and many more were sentenced to prison sentences for their varying parts.
One thing is for sure Frank Mackenna had played a vital role; unfortunately he was never properly given credit for, in which his ideal of justice had been ruthlessly followed. He quite rightly deserves a place in the folklore of the great escape as with the escapers themselves.
Frank did receive an obe for his RAF work, he eventually returned to work for the Blackpool police after a brief stint in Cyprus where he was mentioned in dispatches. Frank Mackenna died aged 1987 on Valentines Day 1994 finally putting to rest an extraordinary life.
A credit to the RAF and to lancashire
Adapted from Blackpool (&fylde) at war , John ellis, The History Press , to be published October 2013 , rrp £12.99.