Simon Read
May 26, 2024

Simon Read is the author of nine non-fiction books published on both sides of the Atlantic. 

When he’s not writing, he enjoys reading (naturally), messing about on the piano, listening to classic British rock, and searching for good English pubs (he lives in Arizona, where such drinking establishments can sometimes be hard to find).

Interview by Elise Cooper

Q: Which came first the movie, “The Great Escape,” or your idea to write the book?
Simon: The movie came first. I am from the UK originally. There, it is a tradition that they show “The Great Escape” movie every Christmas Day. My grandfather flew with the Royal Air Force during the Second War. From a very early age I used to sit with him and watch. It is still one of my favorite movies of all time. I was always traumatized by the ending where the escapees were gathered in a field and machine gunned down. I wondered what happened to the Nazi who gunned all the escapees down. This was the genesis for the idea of the book. It is also a great adventure story.

Q: How does the story of “The Great Escape” relate to Memorial Day?
Simon: Memorial Day is a time to reflect and ponder the sacrifices made by those in uniform. The Great Escape was an exercise in allied ingenuity, bravery, and rebellion. It was a massive propaganda victory. I think they are very much heroes for what they did. Not every victory is on the battlefield. This is an example of cunning and bravery.

Q: Can you elaborate on the quote by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels in May 1944?
Simon: You are referring to when he said, “We owe it to our people, which is defending itself with so much honesty and courage, that it is not allowed to become human game to be hunted down by the enemy.” This is where the title for the book came from. This in response to the allied bombing campaign. He thought it was perfectly legitimate to attack downed allied airmen and to take revenge. There is something cold and barbaric about this quote.

Q: How does the criticism of British bombing campaigns during WWII relate to modern criticisms of warfare?
Simon: People can look at the British bombing campaign during WWII where they used targeted bombing of cities. People need to look at the context of the times. It might not be very appealing, but Britain was fighting for its very survival against its merciless enemy. They did what they needed to do to survive. In warfare both sides are dealing in morally grey areas, which is just how war is. My grandfather flew in RAF bomber command, 48 operations over Germany. It used to fire him up when he would hear people criticizing the British bombing campaigns against German cities. His attitude, ‘these people do not know what they are talking about,’ considering London was being bombed and devastated. The context cannot be ignored.

Q: Why did you include pictures at the beginning of the book and an appendix at the end?
Simon: These men could not just be numbers, because otherwise it does not hit home. This is why I put in the pictures. It is one thing reading a name on a page, but putting a face to the name really drives it home. Auschwitz has a twitter feed of those who perished in the gas chambers. It is more than a name and a number. People can see the emotions of the faces, the terror and fear. It really underscores the tragedy. The appendix tells when and how the fifty died.

Q: How accurate is the movie “The Great Escape” in depicting the events at Stalag Luft III?
Simon: Regarding Stalag Luft III it is true as depicted in the movie that the Germans tried to make it escape-proof by trying to make tunneling impossible, had trap doors, set the barracks on concrete stilts, and had subterranean microphones buried deep underground. The top layer of soil was a different color than the soil underneath making it hard to hide the dug-up soil. Yet, the escapees found a way. The fake documents are also true. Where the movie deviates there were American characters, but the American and British POWs were actually separated. Also, true, the Germans took all the “problem airmen,” the ones who escaped from multiple camps and stuck them in one camp together. This all backfired on the Germans in spectacular fashion.

Q: Did Hitler really order the execution of all the escapees?
Simon: It was a huge embarrassment for the Germans. Hitler flew into an absolute rage when he found out. It was a very brutal response and violated every rule of warfare. The German Luftwaffe who ran the camp treated the inmates well because they were not Gestapo. There is a scene in the movie “The Great Escape” where the camp commandant told the British high-ranking official in the camp that fifty escapees were shot. This really reflects what happened in real-life, that they were upset.

Q: How were the escapees executed?
Simon: They were shot in the back, they were cremated, and their names were not supposed to be recorded. There was a list. The movie did not reflect what really happened because it had the escapees machine-gunned down. In actuality, the escapees were murdered in groups of two and three by Gestapo assassination teams. They were put in a car, driven out to isolated spots, and told to stretch their legs. This is when the Gestapo would come up behind them and shoot them in the back of the head. Their bodies were taken to a local crematorium and destroyed. Stalag Luft III did get a list of those who were executed, and it was passed on to the British POWs.

Q: Who was Frank McKenna, the RAF officer investigating the fifty murders?
Simon: He had detective skills and sought justice with a strong moral code. He was very determined and driven. He was outraged and disgusted by what had happened. Over the course of a few years, he did get results.

Q: Who were the most notorious Gestapo murderers involved in this incident?
Simon: Erich Zacharias wore a watch of a British airman. He also raped and then shot a woman witness. He is a horrible human being who was a true believer in the Nazi cause and Hitler. Then there was Johannes Post, the chief executioner who took real pleasure in killing some of the escapees. He was a sadist. They were just vicious with no redeeming qualities. It is unfathomable how someone resorts to such barbaric acts.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Simon: There were those low-level guys, like Emil Schultz who justified killing in cold blood because they claimed their families were threatened. I pondered and wanted the readers to question, what would they have done in that situation. Schultz confessed to shooting Roger Bushell, the main architect. He had true regret. The RAF investigators did have sympathy but because he did a terrible thing was sent to the gallows. I did not approve, or excuse of what Schultz did.

Q: What is your next book about?
Simon: It is titled Scotland Yard coming out in September. It is a history of the Yard told through many of its most famous cases and cases that helped advance criminal investigation like how fingerprinting developed, criminal profiling, and why police officers wear rubber gloves at crime scenes. It covers the Yard from its creation in 1829 to the Eve of WWII in 1939. I tried to write it as a thriller. There is a great mix of true crime and history.

Review by Elise Cooper

Memorial Day honors and mourns those military personnel who died while serving their country.  After watching the movie “The Great Escape” people might want to honor those in the allied armed forces who were captured by the Germans and brutally killed. Immortalized in the film is the mass breakout of seventy-six Allied airmen from the infamous Stalag Luft III.  Not long after the escape, fifty of the recaptured airmen were taken to killing fields throughout Germany and shot on the direct orders of Hitler.

People might wonder what happened to these Nazi killers. In the book Human Game, Simon Read delivers a clear-eyed and meticulously researched account of this often-overlooked saga of hard-won justice. This “after story,” starting where the movie left off, explains in detail how the German Gestapo killers were brought to justice.

When the nature of these killings came to light, Churchill’s government swore to pursue justice at any cost. Francis P. McKenna led a three-year manhunt that brought twenty-one Gestapo killers to justice.

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