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The Great Escape: setting the record straight

  • Published
  • By Air University History Office, Maxwell AFB

A memorial ceremony took place to commemorate the “Great Escape” of World War II near Ramstein AB, Germany on July 1, 2017.  The memorial honored Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bushell and French Air Force 2nd Lt. Bernard Scheidhauer, the two escapees executed near Ramstein in March 1944. 


During the ceremony, family members from these airmen placed wreaths on the memorial after Bushell’s niece, Caroline Kennard and Scheidhauer’s great niece, Christelle Magnee, unveiled the memorial.  American and British Air Force and local community officials also dedicated a memorial plaque to honor these two great airmen.


Bushell and Scheidhauer were among the 76 Allied prisoners of war who had escaped from Luft Stalag III at Sagan, Germany (now Poland) before dawn, March 24, 1944, in what became known as “The Great Escape.”  Unfortunately, the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, recaptured 73 POWs and executed 50 of them within days of their recapture, including Bushell and Scheidhauer.  The Gestapo returned the remaining 23 POWs to the camp, and only three of the 76 escaped prisoners made it to freedom.


In 1950, Paul Brickhill, himself a former POW of Stalag III, wrote the book The Great Escape, and the Mirisch Company produced the movie with the same name in 1963.  Both recounted the planning, escape, and fates of the 76 Allied POWs in the largest escape of Allied POWs during World War II. 


“Interestingly, the Gestapo executed Bushell and Scheidhauer in a small stand of trees near present-day Ramstein where I had served as the historian for the 86th Airlift Wing, Ramstein Air Base Germany from June 2011 until June 2016,” said Dr. Silvano Wueschner, Air University historian.  “That’s how I became involved in straightening the record on the specific location of Bushell’s and Scheidhaur’s execution spot and, then later, the creation of a plaque in their memory.”


Wueschner said that a German history professor in Manheim, Germany, sent him a copy of the February 1995 issue of the British military history magazine After The Battle, written by its editor Winston G. Ramsey. In it, Ramsay detailed the story of Bushell’s escape, capture, journey from Saarbrucken, and execution near Ramstein 50 years before, including the fact that the Gestapo had executed the 50 recaptured POWs in pairs or singly as they were recaptured, not as a group as depicted in the movie.


Ramsey’s article contained two photographs, a 1944 aerial view which showed the location of Bushell’s and Schiedhauer’s execution spot and a photograph which Ramsey took of the supposed execution spot in 1994. 


“I mentally compared the two photographs and realized that, although the 1944 aerial photo did indeed capture the location, Ramsey’s 1994 photo was of a new section of the A6 autobahn near Ramstein Air Base, a section which did not exist in 1944 as the original A6 ran further north through the area that later became Ramstein Air Base,” said Wueschner.


Over the years, authors have produced conflicting accounts of the exact execution spot of Bushell and Scheidhauer.  Some placed the execution near Landstuhl, Saarbrucken, Homburg, and Kaiserslautern.  As a result of these conflicting accounts and Ramsey’s article, Wueschner decided to determine the actual location of the execution spot.


“After a careful examination of the postwar British interrogation records of the two Gestapo agents and the driver who accompanied the two POWs to their execution, I determined their exact execution spot was shortly before a bridge, located where the Kindsbacher Road crossed the A6 highway,” said Wueschner.  “There are still remnants of that bridge near the spot where the execution took place, and old time residents of Ramstein recall the bridge crossing A6 on Kindsbacher Road.”


With this information, Wueschner contacted Mr. Kai Philipp of the 86 Civil Engineering Squadron (CES) at Ramstein who conducted physical measurements of the area, using the squadron’s Geospatial software, to settle the matter. Additionally, Wueschner provided the editor of After The Battle with this new updated information, and he, in turn, amended the original article and published an expanded revision in the November 2015 issue of the magazine.


Wueschner presented all this material to Ramstein Mayor Klaus Layes and Wing Commander Alan Jones, RAF, assigned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air staff at Ramstein and suggested that a suitable memorial to Bushell and Scheidhauer be placed at the execution site.  After a good deal of discussion and collaboration with the appropriate local German authorities and American officials at Ramstein Air Base, that memorial plaque, which Winston Ramsey donated, became a reality on July 1, 2017.  Officers from the Royal Air Force, French Air Force, and the United States Air Force presided over the ceremony. 

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