The Great Escape – The Commandant of Stalag Luft 3

On this day in may 1963, Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav von Lindeiner -Wildau died.  His death had gone unnoticed, just another former German soldier that had served during World War 2. But one month after his death, a Hollywood film called ‘The Great Escape’ was released that became one of the greatest Hollywood war films ever made. What did Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm Gustav von Lindeiner-Wildau have to do with the Hollywood film?

In 1944, Von Lindeiner-Wildau was the Commandant of the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III which was located in the former German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań in Poland), 100 miles (160 km) southeast of Berlin. What do we know about Von Lindeiner?  According to an American military report, Von Lindeiner was  ‘Courteous and considerate at first sight, he was inclined to fits of uncontrolled rage. Upon one occasion he personally threatened a PW with a pistol. He was, however, more receptive to PW requests than any other commandant’.

On the night of 24th March 1944, seventy-six allied prisoners of war broke out of Stalag Luft III. The 1963 film ‘The Great Escape’ is about the ingenuity of the allied prisoners of war in their planning, building the tunnels and the tense excitement of the escape. The film was based on the book by Paul Brickhill who was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III during the escape. The events of that night have been immortalized in the 1963 film.

Did Von Lindeiner suspect that the allied prisoners were planning an escape? According to Watson and Eberhardt, the commandant had confided in a secretary that he and his staff had observed the allied soldiers making preparations for an escape. It was on the basis of these suspicions that von Lindeiner had 30 allied prisoners of war transferred from Stalag Luft III to another camp at Belaria. In Paul Brickhill’s book on the escape, it was planned for the American and British soldiers to be divided into separate camps just before the escape took place. But von Lindeiner’s plans to stop the escape came too late.

In the 1963 film, the Commandant of Stalag Luft III is taken away by the SS officers after the mass escape. It is assumed that Von Lindeiner was arrested by the SS and punished on orders from Hitler for the escape. But other accounts state that Von Lindeiner was arrested by the SS on charges on dealing on the Black Market. According to Wikipedia, Von Lindeiner feigned mental illness to escape imprisonment. Other accounts state that Von Lindeiner was wounded fighting against the Russians in Berlin before being captured and deported to Britain. But what is true?

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According to transcripts from the Nuremberg trials, the acting commandant of Stalag Luft III Cordes informs the senior British officer on the 6th April 1944 – two weeks after the escape that an official communication of the German High Command was received advising that 41 officers (unnamed) had been shot, ‘some of them having offered resistance on being arrested, others having tried to escape on the transport back to their camp.’ This seems to be supported by Tim Carroll, the author of ‘The Great Escapers: The Full Story of the Second World War Most Remarkable escape’, who writes that on the 26th March 1944 two fellow Luftwaffe officers arrived at Stalag Luft III with a writ ‘accusing von Lindeiner of incompetence and relieving him of his command’.

Now from the above we can assume that von Lindeiner had been arrested as depicted in the film and replaced by Oberstleutnant Cordes by 6th April 1944. But this is where history and hollywood separate and the quest for fact over fiction begins. According to Arieh J. Kochavi, author of ‘Confronting captivity: Britain and the United States and their POW’s in Nazi Germany’,  the head of the British Interests division at the Swiss legation in Berlin, Gabriel Naville visited Stalag Luft III on 17th April 1944. Gabriel Naville met with von Lindeiner who told him that three weeks earlier that a mass escape had taken place.

But von Lindeiner had alot to be worried about. While von Lindeiner was commandant of Stalag Luft III there had been 262 escape attempts – which included also the ‘wooden horse escape with 100 of these being tunnels.’ The suspicions of the Germans that tunnels were being dug led to the discovery of the tunnel nicknamed ‘Tom’ which was almost completed when discovered. It is believed that 3 days after von Lindeiner had been advised he was no longer commandant. According to Watson and Eberhardt, on the 29th March 1944 von Lindeiner collapsed from severe heart palpitations but recovered with the assistance of a doctor. Meanwhile the Gestapo were at Stalag Luft III and arrested the new commandant, Erich Cordes, for dealing on the blackmarket.

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In the testimony of Hermann Goring at the Nuremburg trials, Goring revealed that von Lindeiner was court martialed (along with ten other camp staff) for the escape from Stalag Luft III and that von Lindeiner was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for neglect of duty by the Central Airforce Court, the ‘Zentralluftwaffengericht. In Tim Caroll’s book, Von Lindeiner and other members of his staff were court martialed on 5th October 1944 and were to originally receive 18 months imprisonment but were sentenced to only 12 months imprisonment. Its believed that von Lindeiner feigned mental illness and was admitted to an army hospital at Gorlitz.

A new book From Commandant to Captive: The Memoirs of Stalag Luft III Commandant Col. Friedrich Wilhelm Von Lindeiner von Wildau’ by Marilyn J Walton and Michael C Eberhardt (the authors of ‘From Interrogation to Liberation: A Photographic Journey of Stalag Luft III – The road to Freedom) has just been released. A teaser to the book tells us that ‘At 6:30 a.m. on 27 January 1945, Col. Friedrich von Lindeiner, the court martialed and exiled “gentleman” ex-Commandant of Stalag Luft III, sat in the waiting room of the Görlitz train station hoping to return to Sagan, Germany, to fight the approaching Russians.

With the Russians closing in on Germany, the army hospital at Gorlitz had to be moved further west to avoid capture. Its believed that von Lindeiner was told he could not move with the hospital and was instead sent back to Sagan to fight the Russians now on Germany’s pre-war borders. It seems to be quite ironic that Von Lindeiner was heading back to the very place from which he had been taken away and would become famous for. As Lindeiner was arriving back at Sagan, the prisoners of war at the camp from which he was commandant were being liberated.

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At Sagan, von Lindeiner was made a deputy of a local fighting force to stop the Russians. But von Lindenier was wounded while making a reconaissance on a motorbike. Wounded,, von Lindenier was sent to the local hospital which was captured shortly by the British and American forces.He was sent back to Britain to face questioning over the murder of the 50 captured allied airmen after the escape in march 1944.  It would not be until 1947 that von Lindeiner was allowed to return back to Germany.

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