It was late November 1946, an Allied Internment Camp in the heart of Germany. A dark room lit by a single lamp hanging from the centre of the ceiling. Two men, one sat shackled to a shabby, heavy table, the second stood over, facing him with an intense glare, awaiting some sort of response. A uniformed guard looked on. The second had just placed 3 well-handled photographs in front of the first, three men in RAF uniform, smiles on their faces, hatless. The first man looked emotionless at them. ‘Do you recognise these men?’ The straight face turned to slight surprise. A second time, more forcefully, ‘Do you recognise these men?’. ‘I was only carrying out orders! I have a family to think of’ was the eventual reply. His fate was sealed!
The interview was the end of two day’s determined, gruelling and rigorous interrogation. The first man was an ex Gestapo Officer, imprisoned under suspicion, by the Allies three months earlier. He had been caught working under an assumed name on a farm and recognised whilst on an infrequent trip into town, by a local policemen. He had been on the list of those wanted for the murder of fifty British and Allied Airmen, hunted by the Special Investigation Branch of the RAF Police, the investigation headed by Squadron Leader Frank McKenna. This was only one of the interrogations McKenna and his team would carry out, until all the perpetrators were caught.
The three men in the photographs were three of the fifty airmen murdered following their escape from ‘Stalag Luft III’ Prisoner of War camp in Sagan, south west of Berlin. The Escape was immortalised in the 1960s film ‘The Great Escape’. The murder was also portrayed in the film.
The interrogator was Frank McKenna, an ex Blackpool Detective Sergeant, appointed by Churchill to find and bring to Justice the murderers of the fifty Airmen.
Frank McKenna, was born in Church, Accrington in February 1906. Frank had been a pupil at Sacred Heart School, Blackpool and had lived in Huntley Avenue, Layton. He and his younger brother John, joined the Police like their father. At the outbreak of war, Frank was living with his wife Eunice and son Terence in Lyndhurst Avenue, South Shore. Sadly, Terence died in 1941, at the age of just 9 Years.
Frank joined the RAF in 1943 as a Sgt Flight Engineer, flying 30 missions over Germany. He was commissioned to Pilot Officer in November 1944 with 622 Sqn at Squires Gate. In December 1944 he transferred to the RAF Police Special Investigation Branch.
During the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III, 76 escaped, 23 were captured and returned to the camp; only 3 eventually escaped to allied lines. The remaining 50 were to be the subject of McKenna’s investigations.
On a direct order from Hitler, these 50 were to be recaptured at all costs and executed. 150,000 German troops along with the dreaded Gestapo with national and local police, were detailed to find them. At the beginning of the investigations, McKenna had little to go on, no names, no witnesses, no confirmed locations, he had commented that ‘they launched their enquiries in utter darkness’.
Despite the initial dearth of clues, the statistics of the investigations are impressive, from such a poor start: 329 suspects were tracked down; 72 identified as played an active role in the murders of whom 23 were directly complicit (18 of these were Gestapo officers); of the 72 identified, 21 went to the gallows; 17 received prison sentences; 6 were killed in wartime; 7 killed themselves; 5 had the cases against them dropped; 3 had sentences overturned; 1 turned material witness, 1 remained and remains free. There was insufficient evidence against the rest.
He and his Commanding Officer were awarded the OBE in for their ‘Outstanding’ work. On demobilisation from the RAF in 1948, McKenna resumed his career with Blackpool Borough Police, but retained his Commission in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, Provost Branch. In 1954 he was posted to Cyprus as Assistant Provost Marshall, to serve during the EOKA Emergency. For his ‘exceptional work’ there, he was ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ in 1958. He retired from the RAF in 1965, however, continuing to work for the MoD, finally retiring to Ansdell in 1971.
Local press in 1952, records a well received talk given by Frank to Fleetwood Round Table, ‘How the murderers of the RAF Officers from Stalg Luft 3 were hunted’. In it he recounted the 20,000 people interviewed, travelling 100,000 miles over 10 countries
McKenna died in Ansdell in 1994, aged 88 and is buried in Layton Cemetery. His story has only come to light since his death.
The 2013 book ‘The Human Game’ details the extraordinary investigation, the fate of the fifty and capture of the murderers. The Author Simon Reid also discusses the nature of the ‘Only carrying out orders’ defence.
In a final twist to the Blackpool connection, Albert Pierrepoint was the British Executioner sent to Germany as ‘Lead Executioner’ to deal with Nazi War Criminals. On his retirement, Albert bought a Pub in Oldham and later one in Hoole, Preston. Throughout his career, he took his holidays at the Headlands Hotel in South Shore.
Oct 2019, Revised Feb 2021
Reid, S., (2013), The Human Game: Hunting the Great Escape Murderers, Constable, London
Siegphyl, 2014 available at: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/war-articles/murder-great-escapers-mission-blackpool-police-track-nazi-killers.html
Article on the 70th Anniversary of the Great Escape, highlighting McKenna’s role at:
Talk to Fleetwood Round Table at:
Fleetwood Chronical, 25/01/1952, p 11, Col 1
Blackpool Police Badge at:
Gravestone by the Author.
Albert Pierrepoint at: