Michal Holy, a Czech commercial pilot, had a long standing interest in aviation history, which led him to the story of the four Great Escape Allied air force officers executed near Most. Initially he was researching the air battle over the Ore Mountains (Czech Republic) of September 1944 between German and American air forces – which resulted in terrible losses. Some of the surviving US air force officers became POWs in Stalag Luft III. However, when Michal visited Stalag Luft III for the first time, he realised that there was another connection to the Czech Republic – the execution of the four near Most. He was profoundly moved by their story.
That marked the beginning of a new research program and an extraordinary effort to contact family members around the world so they could attend the unveiling of a permanent memorial in Most.
It was Michal Holy who arranged for a Czech Air Force fly-past and a Czech military band and an international memorial ceremony to honour Willy, Rusty, Leslie and Jerry. And, it was Michal who brought the men’s descendants together and arranged for them to trace their ill fated footsteps.
“It is something which should have been done many years ago,” he said.
In perfect spring weather on March 24, 2012, the 68th anniversary of the break out, the Great Escape Memorial at Most was unveiled by the descendants of the heroes of the Great Escape.
“Their journey to freedom, tragically, ended here,” said Czech organiser, Michal Holy, flanked by Czech, Australian, British and Polish military and government representatives and officials of the local region where the men were secretly executed. Although the exact place of their executions has never been identified their bodies were brought back to Most for cremation.
Recent research into the case of the “Most Four” in the lead up to the memorial ceremony uncovered chilling photos of the young men taken by the secret police, the Kriminalpolozei or kripo, shortly before their death, showing the civilian clothes famously cut from uniforms by the POWs inside the Stalag Luft III camp to disguise the escapees as migrant workers.
The paperwork ordering the men’s cremations was also recently unearthed showing the order for their cremation was signed the night before they were killed. Like the other escapees, official Nazi documents claim all four of the men were “shot trying to escape”; an event that could hardly have been foreseen the previous day. Of the 76 escapees, 73 were recaptured and 50 were secretly executed on Hitler’s personal orders in breach of the Geneva Convention.
“These are very intriguing finds,” said British historian Guy Walters, the author of the new book, The Real Great Escape. “The fact that the cremations were ordered before the men were shot for supposedly trying to escape reminds us quite how cold-blooded the Gestapo could be.”
Peter Devitt, representing the RAF Museum, London at the memorial ceremony, said The Great Escape achieved two important goals despite its tragic end. “They (Allied air force POWs) wanted to show the Germans what they were capable of, and this was a very big gesture given the camp was supposedly escape proof, so it not only caused massive disruption but hit German morale hard. However, more significantly Hitler’s barbaric reprisals, including the Most executions, exposed the barbarity of the Nazi regime. The murders advertised loud and clear exactly what the Nazi regime was like before we knew about the death (concentration) camps. Fifty gifted young men got out and they made a great fist of it – they had ingenuity, heroism and dedication, and although it ended in tragedy it sent a clear message about the survival of the human spirit (in the face of adversity).”