In his “Commando Order” of October 1942, Adolf Hitler decreed that all captured Allied commandos were to be executed.

The murderous directive was extended to include SAS soldiers,  Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents, paratroopers and airmen, but the precise number of those slaughtered has been unclear. 

Now, newly-unearthed papers of the SAS war crimes investigator reveal for the first time that the Commando Order led to the deaths of more than 300 secret agents and special forces soldiers. The majority were British.

In a 69-page report dated June 1948, SAS Major Eric ‘Bill’ Barkworth, chief of the SAS War Crimes Investigation Team (WCIT), concluded that “at least 160 British parachutists and Commando men” were murdered under the Order and that, if the “cloak and dagger” agents are added, the total rises to “over 250”.

Barkworth’s daughter gave the report to Damien Lewis, the best-selling military historian, while he was researching his new book SAS Band of Brothers. He described it as “revelatory on many levels”.

Lewis told The Telegraph that no-one had been sure of the exact number of Allied victims of the Commando Order: “As the man who made it his absolute mission to investigate [it], I’d say Barkworth’s figure is as good as it gets.”

He added: “The report reveals that around 300 of these incredibly brave men and women – from all nationalities, but mainly from Britain – were murdered as a result of Hitler’s order.”

The Commando Order was a direct breach of laws of war that stipulate that soldiers taken captive in uniform should receive protection as Prisoners of War.

 SAS Major Eric 'Bill' Barkworth, chief of the SAS War Crimes Investigation Team, who researched the report 

Barkworth’s report, titled “The Commando Orders of 18.10.42 and 25.6.44 with Reference to Certain of the War Crimes Caused by Them”, is a forensic investigation.

Among his lists of “victims” are 14 men who had been on board a glider that crashed near Egersund in Norway. It was one of two gliders carrying British Royal Engineers that did not survive a raid in November 1942 on a heavy-water facility crucial to the Nazis’ nuclear plans, with Allied fears of Hitler winning the nuclear race then at an all-time high.

Barkworth noted that the 14 men were “captured 20th November 1942” and “shot 20th November 1942”.

Barkworth’s daughter, Amy Crossland, said to Lewis that she had “never shared this with anyone”. 

Lewis added: “It had been in the family archive… for all this time… My researcher – who spent 35 years himself working at the National Archives – has unearthed for me everything he can find on Barkworth and the SAS WCIT, and I have never seen this June 1948 report before.”  

Barkworth listed the units and formations involved in their murder, further recording that A B Evans of the Royal Navy, “had been captured while attempting to cross the Norwegian frontier… was also shot.”

Barkworth showed that Hitler had ultimate responsibility for the deaths of the SAS agents

In another passage, he recorded that the Wehrmacht had announced the capture of 34 “British terrorists” near Poitiers. He added: “Two days later… 31 of the prisoners were shot. The remaining three men, who were wounded, were subsequently made away with in circumstances which were as disgusting as they are obscure”. They were hospitalised and killed with horrific injections.

Lewis contacted Barkworth’s daughter while researching his new book, which tells the story of 12 SAS men who were parachuted into occupied France in 1944 for top-secret sabotage operations, only to be captured, tortured and executed on Hitler’s orders. Two escaped, going on to help the SAS WCIT, which was established in May 1945 to hunt down Nazi war criminals.

Barkworth, who died in 1985, had founded the SAS’s pioneering intelligence arm. Fluent in seven languages, he was listening in on a German military broadcast, when he first heard details of the Commando Order.

Lewis observed: “No one could quite believe that such a murderous directive might exist.”

In his report, Barkworth listed at least six senior Nazis who should stand trial for their part in drawing up the Commando Order.

But he showed that Hitler had ultimate responsibility for it, with his “exacerbated sensibility” to behind-the-lines commando-style raids: “Perhaps the person most profoundly affected by Commando assaults was the Führer, who appears to take them as a personal attack unworthily directed against himself.”

Barkworth concluded that Hitler, along with his senior military officers and legal advisors, was “party to a conspiracy” to murder allied commandos, trying to legalise an illegitimate directive by hiding their actions from the Allies and neutral agencies such as the Red Cross.

Lewis noted that no action appears to have been taken against those six senior Nazis: “Sadly, Barkworth’s SAS WCIT was disbanded shortly after he drafted this report… By the summer of 1948, the West had turned its attention away from its former enemy, Nazi Germany, and towards its former ally, the Soviet bloc, and the coming Cold War.”