Squadron Leader I K P Cross DFC RAFO - 103 Sqn
Flight Lieutenant G E McGill RCAF- 103 Sqn
The Great Escape - 24th March 1944
The well known feature film of the sixties, The Great Escape, was based on a true story involving the mass escape of 76 RAF, Dominion and Allied Air Force personnel from the prisoner of war camp at Stalag Luft 3, Sagan, Germany on the 24th March 1944. The plan was the brainchild of the brilliant, charismatic and courageous Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. He was an Oxford law graduate and barrister and before the war had joined the RAF becoming a fighter pilot in 601 Squadron and later CO of 92 Squadron. As the head of the escape and intelligence committees he was referred to as Big X. It was Squadron Leader Bushell’s idea to engineer a mass break out of 200 of the prisoners which was known as Operation 200. To this end he decided that 3 tunnels be dug simultaneously and much careful planning and preparation took place before this ambitious scheme was put in hand.
600 of the camp inmates were involved in Operation 200 and amongst these were Flight Lieutenant G E McGill and Squadron Leader I K P Cross DFC of 103 Squadron.
Flight Lieutenant George E McGill
Born on the 14th April 1914 he was a married man from Toronto in Canada. Before the war he had been a clerk at a coal importers. He enlisted in the RCAF in 1940 and trained as an Air Observer. With the rank of Pilot Officer he was posted to 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds in October 1941. He went on to complete 4 successful operations with the Squadron.
On the night of the 10/11th January 1942 he was the Observer in the crew of Sergeant C L Bray. Their target was the German naval base at Wilhelmshaven. During their second bombing run their Wellington was hit by flak and a burning flare was blown from the bomb bay into the fuselage. The bomber was filled with flames and fumes and the situation appeared hopeless so the pilot instructed the crew to bale out. 4 of the crew, including George McGill, did so successfully. All 4 were captured.
It is a cruel irony that Sergeant D W Spooner, who was the co-pilot in the crew, was then able to extinguish the fire after the flare burnt it’s way through a section of the fuselage and fell away. Sergeants Bray and Spooner then managed to nurse their badly damaged aircraft back to the UK and land at Grimsby after a difficult flight. Both men received well earned DFMs. Both died in action later that year
Squadron Leader Ian K P Cross DFC
Born in 4th April 1918 Squadron Leader Cross came from Hayling Island, Hampshire, England. He joined the RAF in the late thirties and served with 38 Squadron. After the outbreak of the war he completed 34 operations and was awarded the DFC. A posting as an instructor to 11 OTU at Bassingbourne followed in July 1940 . On the 9th August 1941 he joined 103 Squadron as B Flight commander flying on 13 successful operations.
His last operation was on the 12th February 1942 when the Squadron participated in Operation Fuller also known as the Channel Dash. This was the attempt by the RAF to find and sink 3 German capital ships that had broken out of the French port of Brest and had made a dash up the Channel to seek refuge in their German home ports. The weather during the day was poor with cloud base down to 300ft in places. Squadron Leader Cross and his crew were shot down by flak from German naval units and crashed in the sea 40 miles off Rotterdam. He was picked up by the Germans with 3 other survivors and all were made prisoner of war. Whilst in captivity Squadron Leader Cross became an experienced escaper.
Both men had an active role in Operation 200. Promoted to Flight Lieutenant whilst in captivity George McGill was one of the tunnel digger team captains. Squadron Leader Cross was the leader of the penguin team and also a tunnel digger. The “penguins” were prisoners who secretly disposed of the sand excavated from the tunnels around the camp.
One of the tunnels was abandoned and another discovered by the Germans. This left only the third code named Harry. Work on this was progressing well and was completed on the 14th March 1944. It was decided that the escape should go ahead later that month and the 200 escapees were then selected. Preparations were well in hand with every escapee having forged papers, compasses, rations, civilian clothes and the like.
The final plans were drawn up and on the night of the 24th March 1944 the breakout began. When the tunnellers broke through the surface they found that the tunnel was a few yards short of the trees. The escape went ahead but, after 76 prisoners had got away, a sentry patrolling outside the camp spotted one of the escapers and raised the alarm.
Of the 76 who escaped 3 reached England, Flight Lieutenant Jens Muller RAF - Norwegian, Flight Lieutenant Peter Bergland RAF - Norwegian and Flight Lieutenant Bram Van der Stok RAF - Dutch. The rest were recaptured. 4 were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 2 to Colditz with 1 imprisoned in Berlin and another to a POW camp at Barth. 15 were returned to Sagan.
The remaining 50 including Squadron Leader Bushell were all murdered by the Germans on the orders of Heinrich Himmler.
Squadron Leader Cross was recaptured east of the camp and he was taken to Gestapo HQ at Gorlitz for interrogation. He was shot with 5 other escapers by firing squad on the 31st March 1944. It is said that the 6 officers bravely stood side by side and faced the firing squad calmly and without blindfolds.
Flight Lieutenant McGill was recaptured and shot at Liegnitz on the 31st March 1944.
The remains of all 50 were cremated to prevent examination of their bodies and the prisoners at Sagan were told that they had all been shot and killed whilst trying to escape which was quite ridiculous and not believed.
As the story began to be pieced together the outrage and shock amongst the prisoners was deeply felt. It was also clear that the Luftwaffe guards at the camp were bitterly ashamed of what had taken place. The Luftwaffe High Command had made strong protests about the incident saying that it was a grave breach of the Geneva Convention and that they accepted that it was the duty of all Allied prisoners to try to escape. German aircrew were under similar instructions to escape from capture if at all possible.
The ashes of those killed were sent back to Sagan and were later placed in a stone memorial built by the prisoners at the camp. After the war the ashes were removed and most were laid to rest at the Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery in Poland.
When the war was finally over an extensive investigation into the murders was undertaken under the personal direction of the Provost Marshall of the RAF. This involved the interrogation of over 60,000 Germans and spanned many European countries. After 1 year the search for the culprits was narrowed down to 319.
Finally 72 men were indicted and 2 trials took place. 21 were executed, 17 imprisoned and 11 committed suicide. 17 were either dead or could not be traced and the remainder were not charged because of political reasons or were acquitted apart from 1 who remained free in East Germany until his eventual death.
The Sagan murder investigation team had worked tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of this dreadful crime to account and the final outcome was at least some justice for the unfortunate victims.
Item written by David Fell
Acknowledgements I am most grateful to the late Stan Szuba for the photographs and some of the information used in this item.