When the full extent of the escape became known, the order for a Grossfahndung (National Alert) was given on the highest authority.
Police and security services went onto full alert all over Germany, also an SS Panzer division which happened to be in the Sagan area. There was little chance for the 76 escapers to slip through the net, even those with watertight papers and several cover stories, like Roger Bushell and Scheidauer who were caught near Saarbrucken; having passed an exhaustive Gestapo check, one of the officials shot out a question in English, an old trick, but Scheidauer who was French and had been speaking English for months, answered in English.
When Hitler was informed of the Mass Escape he flew into one of his increasingly frequent rages. Calling a conference with Goring, Himmler and Keitel, he ordered that all the recaptured officers were to be shot. Goring objected on the grounds that it would look too much like mass murder to shoot all and, anyway, reprisals could be taken against German prisoners in Allied hands.
"Then more than half are to be shot," shouted Hitler.
Himmler fixed the number at fifty and set up the machinery for their execution.
Bushell and Scheidauer were among those shot. After interrogation at Gestapo Headquarters at Saarbrucken, they were taken along the Autobahn at dawn on 29th March, towards Kaiserslautern, accompanied by Dr Spann, the Gestapo Chief at Saarbrucken, and Kriminal Sekretar Emit Schulz. The vehicle was stopped and Bushell and Scheidauer were told that they could get out to relieve themselves. When their backs were turned, Spann, carrying out his orders to the letter, gave a sign to Schulz and they both fired their revolvers simultaneously into the necks of the two officers. Their bodies slumped to the ground. Death must have been instantaneous and one hopes that they did not know that they were to be executed.
This was not so in some other cases, notably in the Kiel killings, also on 29th March. Squadron Leader Catanach, an Australian captured at Flensburg, was told casually by SS Sturmbannfiihrer Johannes Post that he would be shot; Post was collecting a theatre ticket for his mistress at the time, the while watching Catanach's face for his reaction to the announcement of the Himmeljahrt.
Catanach merely asked, "Why?"
The execution site was chosen and Catanach was shot in the back. Christensen, a New Zealander, Espelid and Fugelsang, two Norwegians were taken shortly afterwards to the same place, and almost tripped over Catanach's body. They started to run, but were shot down immediately.
These cold-blooded and gruesome murders continued for two weeks, all following the same pattern. They included my Greek companion, Nick Skanziklas, and seven others of the Woodmill Leave Party. Pop Green and Poynter went back to Sagan. Among those shot were Tim Walenn, the Chief Forger, Valenta, Marcinkus, Pat Langford, "Harry's" trap operator, Birkland and McGill, the two Canadians I had passed on my way out, Tom Kirby-Green and Ian Cross. The last man to be seen alive was James Long at Gorlitz on 12th April. He was an old friend from Barth days, and had helped me get out on the incinerator tunnel.
Three got home. Bob van der Stok, a Dutch officer, was Number 18 out of the tunnel. He had papers as a Dutch worker and enough money for long distance train travel. On the platform at Sagan he got into conversation with a girl who startled him by saying that she was a censor and was looking for escaping officers. Van der Stok caught his train; after thirteen hours, three changes and Gestapo document checks every four hours (the German travellers had far more trouble than he did) he reached Holland. Thence the Underground passed him through Belgium and France to Toulouse where he had an anxious moment when he found that he had forgotten the address where he was to make himself known to the Maquis. He remembered that it was something to do with the Dutch Royal Family; as he wandered around fuming, he suddenly spotted the Cafe L'Orangerie, that was it, the contact post for the Maquis. He was soon over the Pyrenees into Spain. He was back on flying and leading a Spitfire squadron on operations within a couple of months.
The two Norwegians Peter Bergsland and Jens Muller travelled by train to Stettin. Here they met some Swedish sailors who hid them aboard their ship that evening; it sailed at once for Sweden where they arrived at dawn the following day - twenty-four hours after leaving the tunnel.
It seemed a high price to pay; three men gained their freedom, fifty were murdered, eight incarcerated in Concentration Camps and gaols, and only fifteen returned to Sagan. It must be remembered, however, that it caused the Germans to divert about five million of their population, directly and indirectly, in the search for the escapers over a period of about three weeks. This was our contribution to the war effort.
The Commandant, Major Broili and nine others of the staff at Sagan were court-martialled and received prison sentences. Three electricians were shot. The Gestapo wondered how 800 feet of cable happened to be down "Harry" for the lighting system. It had been stolen from the electricians and they were too scared to report the loss, but they were assumed to be traitors by the Gestapo and paid with their lives.