Sunday, 13 May 2012


Gestapo picture taken the day before his murder - wearing clothes he probably made himself from old uniforms and blankets

 He was an observer (navigator), born on 18th March 1909 in Warsaw. He was murdered as a POW. Returning from a raid on Mannheim, on 8th November 1941, the aircraft was out of fuel and the pilot attempted to land his plane on an airfield in Belgium. He landed at St Trond near Liege, which was a Luftwaffe fighter base – unfortunately for the crew. They all survived and were made prisoners of war, but not before destroying all their papers and anything that might be useful to the Germans and setting the aircraft on fire. The aircraft was Vickers Wellington 1c, R1215 (NZ-?). The rest of the all Polish crew were F/O Blicharz, P/O Rekszyc, Sgt Jaworoszuk, Sgt Krawiecki and Sgt Lewandowski.

He was one of the 50 Officers executed on 29th March 1944 after an escape from Stalag Luft III (The Great Escape) in Sagan, Germany (now Zagan, Poland). He was Prisoner of War No 680 and active in the year long preparations for this mass escape which seriously disrupted the German war effort by tying up large numbers of German troops and resources at a critical time (less than ten weeks before D-Day), which was a serious blow to the Germans – even though only three, of the seventy six who escaped, actually made it home.

In the scheme of things, he was a very useful member of the escape team and performed some very useful functions. He was one of a group of tailors who skilfully converted uniforms into civilian clothes and made warm coats from the POW blankets. In the pre-war days, before he joined the Polish Air Force, he worked on building sites and developed a skill at cutting out shaped profiles from concrete and then replaced them invisibly. This must have been extremely useful when they were concealing the entrances to the tunnels – it was certainly successful. He is also said to have built all the trapdoors in the tunnels, but that is not confirmed.

His other duty was to scan any German newspapers and magazines for any information that might prove useful to the escape effort. He was assigned this intelligence gathering task because he was fluent in speaking German and he could also read it.

Once clear of the wire, he was part of a group of twelve who made for the local railway station and he made further use of his German language skills by buying tickets for the group. The ticket seller was suspicious of so large a group, but Jerzy held his nerve, explaining that they were all Spanish workers in the local mills.

The basic idea was to get as far away from the camp as possible before the inevitable manhunt started; so they took the early morning train in the general direction of Jelenia Gora and, on arrival, the party split up into smaller groups. Jerzy and his three companions headed south with the intention of getting into Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and seeking help from the Czech partisans – who had no love for the Germans after their occupation first of the Sudetenland, and later the whole country.

The party had to walk through waist deep snow for about 20 kilometres and were recaptured by a German patrol whilst crossing the border mountains near Reichenberg (now Liberec), in what was then Czechoslovakia. They were taken to the prison at Reichenberg where they were reunited with other recaptured prisoners (Johnny Stower and Ivo Tonder) and interrogated (possibly tortured) before being taken into the countryside near Brux (now Most) and executed. Stories vary as to whether they were machine gunned or killed with a single bullet to the back of the head – but that seems to be academic – by an unknown Gestapo killer. The bodies were cremated at Brux the next day and the urns were returned to Stalag Luft III. Cynically, the cremations were ordered the day before the executions took place.

His ashes were later buried in the Old Garrison Cemetery at Poznan, Poland. It is a sad irony that he was incarcerated in Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Zagan) which is in Upper Silesia in modern Poland.

The actual killers are unknown but the “executions”, or rather murders, of Jerzy Mondschein and his three travelling companions (F/Lt Lester J Bull DFC of 109 squadron RAF, F/Lt Reginald V “Rusty” Kierath and Squadron Leader John EA Williams DFC, both of 450 squadron RAAF) were orchestrated by local Reichenburg Gestapo leader Bernhard Baatz, Robert Weissman and Robert Weyland. Baatz and Weyland lived on with impunity and with the complicity of the Russian authorities. Weissman was later arrested by the French military authorities but his fate remains unknown.

He was a married man with at least one child (a daughter) and, at age 35, he was the oldest of the group of Polish officers who set off for Czechoslovakia. He was in the Polish Air Force before the war and escaped, via Romania, on 17th September 1939. At some point, he was awarded the Cross of Valour.

On 25th March 2012, the Czech Republic held a ceremony honouring these men and unveiling a plaque in their memory in the city of Most (formerly Brux) where they were murdered. The Czech Air Force organised a fly past and a Guard of Honour at the ceremony, which took place on the 68th anniversary of their escape. Members of the families of the four airmen met for the first time at this event.

The photograph I have used was taken, presumably by the Gestapo, the day before he was shot and was part of the evidence gathered in the subsequent Nazi War Crimes investigation. He is wearing clothes he probably made himself. Copyright is unknown but presumably comes under the Crown or the National Archives.

Jonathan F Vance, in his classic book on the Great Escape - "A Gallant Company", has stated that Jerzy Mondschein suffered frequent bouts of depression - being convinced he would never see his wife and daughter again.  As a result, when these depressions occurred, he spent many lonely night time hours pacing the corridors of Hut 110, in Stalag Luft III.  Be that as it may, he bore these personal agonies in private.  He never let them interfere with his escape duties.

General Artur Nebe, the man tasked with compiling a list of the fifty recaptured escapees to be murdered, was executed by the Gestapo for his part in the July 1944 plot on Hitler's life.  He was hanged, with typical Nazi savagery, with piano wire, early in 1945.  Ironically, this happened at Sachsenhausen concentration camp where he had sent so many others - and this included Stalag Luft III escapers who ultimately survived the war.

More information and photographs will be added this space.

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