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Human Game    Hunting the Great Escape Murderers

Simon Read            Constable & Robinson, March 7th, 2013

The Great Escape has been at the forefront of WW2 media attention for a while, as new material is gradually unearthed. (See for example, the Dodger, reviewed here, for an account of one escapee who remained alive). The escape was a monumental effort by more than two hundred men to divert as much German military resource as possible – 100,000 Germans were involved in the hunt.  For that is what it was – the book’s title is a reference to how the Germans termed these escaped prisoners.

 

Human Game focuses on the attempts of the British Forces after VE Day to bring to justice those accountable for the Great Escape’s grisly aftermath – the cold-blooded murder of fifty of those escapees, on the order of Hitler and Himmler.

 

Read is true to his name – his style is very readable; the subject matter both gross and engrossing. He has the great benefit of having a very rich treasure trove of interview records and other materials in the National Archives. And, judging by the bibliography, there has been a multitude of other books written on the subject before, although none with quite the strong focus of this one. But Read uses these sources very conscientiously, and weaves a dramatic thread worthy of a thriller.

 

The chaos in Western Europe as the Allies tried to restore order after the war has not been particularly well chronicled: civilian reconstruction projects carrying, after all, much less glamour and drama than war itself. So the book gives a strong impression of the desolate state of many German cities in 1945.

It is instructive to learn of the obstacles faced by the RAF’s team of detectives, led by Frank McKenna, who becomes the undisputed hero of the book. Many of the crimes were on German land then occupied by the Soviets. Their lack of assistance to Allied investigators is inexcusable. Interesting too to learn that the attempts by the French to bring several Gestapo murderers to justice were hampered by corruption  - the German prisoners threatening to reveal details and identities of French collaborators. McKenna was woefully under-resourced, and had to traipse across a frozen Germany and Denmark chasing his fugitives in a canvas topped jeep, through one of the worst winters in living memory. It took a heavy mental and physical toll on him.

 

Meanwhile the narrative sheds light on some of the very darkest parts of the Nazi’s rule – the Gestapo set up in Czechoslovakia is particularly stomach churning. As McKenna gradually brings the guilty to justice the reader is forced to consider the same aspects of culpability as did the British forces in 1945. What would be the appropriate sentence for a Gestapo driver who carried the airmen to their place of execution? Should one hang a Gestapo officer for pulling the trigger, when he had been ordered to do so, and knew (or at least later maintained) that he himself would have been executed had he not carried out that order?

 

Late in the book when Read considers the culprits’ sentences he points out that none of these Germans could actually point to a colleague who had been shot for refusing such an order, nor to a colleague’s family who had suffered.  

 

That some murderers did only eight years is shocking; the treatment of a handful later apprehended by the German government even more scandalous.  The book also chronicles how several of these Gestapo men managed to commit suicide in prison – which reflects poorly on their British gaolers. Meanwhile Read leaves open the question of whether Lt Col Alexander Scotland in the London Cage  - the interrogation centre for German high value prisoners during and after the war – used techniques which were and remain unacceptable.

Failings? There is a paucity of illustrations – the few are small black & white smudgy images scattered across the book. There must be photos of many of the leading protagonists which might have illuminated the text. The book becomes a little repetitive in its middle section  - one interrogation becomes very much like another: same accusations, same excuses, that text appealing to few other than students of criminal justice.

 

Simon Read is a British journalist now living in the US. This no doubt accounts for the use of Americanisms in a British book – “center”, “plane”, “acclimated” (sic). Call me old fashioned, but these grate a little. There are odd slips such as referring to SAS “agents” in describing a behind the lines raid in late 1944. The SAS were and are soldiers. Also it would have been enlightening to learn what effect the investigation had on Frank McKenna in later life.

 

Overall a well written account of a fascinating, if grisly, period in European relations. One wonders if war crimes in the last two decades have been and are as diligently investigated.