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Extra Threads: Soldier or Spy?

Squadron Leader James Catanach was one of 76 Allied airmen to take part in the infamous ‘Great Escape’ from German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Prior to breakout, the escapees re-tailored their uniforms to look more like civilian clothing. Coats and jackets were dyed, lapels and pockets re-styled, and buttons swapped out. This was inherently risky. The Geneva Conventions offers certain protections to troops captured wearing identifiable national uniforms. Combatants in ‘civilian clothing’ can be summarily executed as spies.

Ultimately, 73 of the escapees were recaptured. Hitler ordered 50 of the men (including Catanach) shot. This photograph of Catanach was taken by German police only hours before his death. The appearance of the men’s altered uniforms entered into the deadly calculations made by Gestapo agents, who decided which 50 men would be ‘shot whilst trying to escape’.