Friday, 6 February 2015

70th anniversary of the Great Escape.

This piece originally appeared on on 5 April 2014. It was published in a slightly different form, and entitled '"Remember Me": Australians in the Great Escape'  in , Sabretache, the Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LV, No.2 June 2014.

On 20 March 1944, 27 year old Albert Horace Hake sat down to write to his wife, Noela. It was three weeks since his last letter, written on their third wedding anniversary, and, on the face of it, it was a perfectly ordinary sort of letter. He thanked Noela for her most recent letters and, as he had kept a record of their correspondence, was able to let her know that ‘I have everything to date’. He apologised for the trouble she had taken to get some trousers for him, especially as he’d ‘rather have brilliantine any day, my hair gets so long and untidy’. He managed to put her mind to rest regarding his health and fitness. ‘Incidentally the back is OK now.’ It was a relief as he had been concerned that he was ‘beginning to crack up’. He even referred to his plans to upgrade his qualifications: ‘The air cond[itioning] course you mention has not arrived yet darling.’
Albert and Noela Hake (Preen family)
As is common with lovers who are separated, Albert referred to his future hopes. ‘Send me some wool you sweet kid and I’ll help knit those baby clothes. I understand perfectly sweetheart, our thoughts on that subject run in true harmony.’ He also spoke of his fear that, not knowing how long he would be away, ‘I will be old before they are grown up’. A perfectly ordinary letter. For someone who was a prisoner of war.
But there was something different about this letter, the sixth he had written that year. Albert Hake had a secret. ‘After two years in this hole’, he was one of 200 men who had a ‘ticket’ to escape Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner of war camp located near the town of Sagan in the German province of Lower Silesia (now Zagan in Poland), about 100 miles southeast of Berlin.
They had planned and worked for months. They had dug three tunnels and concealed the evidence. They had stolen equipment and supplies and manufacturing their escape kits, which contained the compasses Albert had painstakingly crafted from bakelite records, slivers of magnetised razor blades, glass from broken windows and solder gleaned from the seals of tin cans. All had been stamped ‘Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent pending’. The great escape was set for the night of 24 March.
With all letters scrutinised by the Germans, Albert couldn’t tell Noela anything of the escape but he couldn’t help dropping a small hint that things might be different in future. In his anniversary letter he had declared, ‘Well, dammit all, I’ll be home for our next anniversary, darling’. In this one, he anticipated that, ‘Shouldn’t be much longer darling and I’ll relieve you from the perpetual grind of your daily life. I hope.’ It was as much as he dared.
Underlying Albert’s hopes was the dread that he would not make it home. He usually signed off with a simple declaration of love such as ‘All my love’, or ‘I love you’, followed by a happy ‘Cheerio’, or Cheerio, Pal’. This time there was a more sombre note to his farewell. ‘I love you as always. I hope I can justify your faith in me dearest one of these days. Remember me. Albert. XXX’
24 March 1944 was a freezing, moonless night with snow on the ground. The first men made their way through the tunnel at about 10.30 p.m. but  only 76 of the planned 200 escaped. The tunnel was too short: It was roughly 15 feet short of the tree line and the nearest watch tower was about 30 yards away. That, as well as a few other glitches meant that less than half the planned numbers made it out of the camp, including Australian Bill Fordyce. He was still in the tunnel when the alert was sounded. Six of the escapees were Australian airmen: Flight Lieutenant Paul Royle of 53 Squadron RAF, Flight Lieutenant Tom Leigh, an air gunner from 76 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader John ‘Willy’ Williams and Flight Lieutenant Reginald ‘Rusty’ Kierath and of 450 Squadron, Squadron Leader James ‘Jimmy’ Catanach DFC of 455 Squadron RAAF, and Warrant Officer Albert Hake of 72 Squadron RAF.
As they waited for their chance at freedom, had those men pondered how they had come to be there? Take Paul Royle, for instance. He was born on 17 January 1914. He had joined 53 Squadron RAF on a short service commission before the war had started. He was on ops during the Battle of France when Blenheim L4861 was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters on 18 May 1940. He and his two crew members force-landed in a field at Fontaine-au-Pire, southeast of Cambrai and were captured. The observer was wounded so Royle and his air gunner carried him to the village and left him in the care of a priest. The air gunner went in search of an ambulance and Royle, although injured, returned to the Blenheim and destroyed it. He hiked back to the village but passed out from his wounds. Later that afternoon, the Germans arrived in the village and the priest told them of the two RAF men. And then Royle was ‘in the bag’. He was initially sent to Stalag Luft I and was transferred to Luft III when it was opened in March 1942. After the escape plans were hatched, he was one of the men drafted to dispose of the dirt dug from the tunnels.
Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh was born on 11 February 1919 in Sydney but spent most of his childhood in Shanghai before attending boarding school in England after the death of his parents. He was a former ‘Trenchard Brat’. He had joined the 32nd Entry at No. 1 School of Technical Training (Apprentices) at Halton and passed out in 1938. Graduates of the aircraft apprentice scheme were the RAF’s best trained mechanics and most, including Tom, progressed to senior non commissioned officer rank. Tom trained as an air gunner in the RAF and, after joining 76 Squadron RAF, assumed the role of squadron gunnery leader. On 2 August 1941, Sergeant Leigh was granted a commission for the duration of hostilities. On the night of 5/6 August 1941, Halifax L9516 was bound for Karlsruhe but was shot down near Glabbeek in Belgium. One of the crew died but Leigh and five others survived and were captured. Leigh was in Stalag Luft III when his promotion to Flight Lieutenant came through on 2 August 1943.

  Tom Leigh (Chevalier Family)
Born on 6 May 1919 in New Zealand, Australian raised John ‘Willy’ Williams, was an alumni of Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). He had served with 94 and 260 squadrons RAF before transferring to 450 Squadron in June 1942. Squadron Leader Williams took command of 450 Squadron in October 1942. He had built up a fine reputation as a fighter pilot, notching up four destroyed and two damaged since his first victory on 18 June 1942. On 31 October he was carrying out a long range strafing operation when his Kittyhawk was attacked. He and his adversary engaged in an excruciatingly long dogfight but he failed to extricate himself. He was shot down, crash landed and taken prisoner. His DFC was gazetted in May 1943, with effect from 23 September 1942.
Red-headed Reg ‘Rusty’ Kierath, born on 15 February 1915, was also an alumnus of Shore and, like Williams, had had a desert flying career. He had trained in Rhodesia and gained his wings in April 1941. Sergeant Kierath had had a few near misses. In June 1941, during his operational training he ditched his aircraft and suffered scull and facial injuries which were not serious. Soon after his posting to 33 Squadron RAF in August, he was ground strafed by enemy fighters while taking off from Sidi Haneish and his Hurricane burnt out. Two days later, on 9 September, while on a fleet patrol, the squadron was bounced by Me109s and his Hurricane’s port wing was struck by a cannon shell and he was wounded by shrapnel. He joined 450 Squadron in January 1942 and was commissioned in May. On 23 April 1943, while on a sweep, his Kittyhawk was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The engine was damaged and he was forced to bale out over the Mediterranean Sea. He was rescued by a German rescue launch and later sent to Stalag Luft III where he met up with his former squadron leader.
Reg Kierath (Peter Kierath)
Williams and Kierath had important roles in the escape planning. Williams was the chief supply officer and head carpenter, responsible for appropriating 4000-odd bed boards which were used to shore up the tunnels. Kierath helped to built a network of false walls behind which were stashed forged documents and other items vital for the escape such as Albert Hake’s compasses.
Born on 23 Nov 1921, Jim Catanach had enlisted when he was 18. He had been promoted to squadron leader and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for daring raids over Cologne, Hamburg, Essen, Lorient (France) and Lubeck
before his 21st birthday. On 4 September 1942, 455 Squadron, along with 144 Squadron RAF, has been deployed to Russia as part of Operation Orator, which had been launched to protect convoy PQ18 which was taking vital supplies to Russia. Jimmy had been piloting Hampden AT109, which experienced a great deal of flak as it crossed the Norwegian coast. He realised they were rapidly losing fuel. Rather than risk the engines cutting out, he took the first opportunity to land. He touched down safely on a strip of heather adjoining a beach near Vardo, in northern Norway. Along with his navigator Flying Officer George ‘Bob’ Anderson, wireless operator/upper gunner Flight Sergeant Cecil Cameron, lower rear gunner Sergeant John Hayes and their passenger Flight Sergeant John Davidson, a ground crew fitter, Jimmy attempted to destroy the Hampden, but they were fired on by soldiers from one direction and a patrol boat from the coast. The five were taken prisoner. Jimmy ended up in Stalag Luft III. His squadron later left two significant tributes to their your flight commander. This by the squadron historian, John Lawson: 'Catanach was shot by the Germans in punishment for his part in an attempted mass prison break. He had a fine operational record and the Russian expedition would have been the last operational work of his tour'.  This from the CO, Wing Commander Lindeman (referring to Jimmy's hurried departure from Sumburgh): 'Jimmy of course couldn't restrain himself to wait his turn; he taxied into the first gap in the line and was off like a blooming rocket. I've never seen such a wealth of superfluous energy in any individual over the age of twelve as Jimmy constantly had at his disposal. He didn't drink or smoke; he talked at an incredible speed; he couldn't stand still for a second, but he hopped about all the time you were talking to him till you were nearly giddy. He was a most excellent Flight Commander, and was probably the most generally liked man in the whole squadron.'
Jimmy Catanach (author's collection)
Albert, who had been born on 30 June 1916, had been married to Noela for a little over six months before he embarked for Britain. Much of that time he had been training so had hardly seen her since. They had corresponded frequently since his departure and he told her as much as he could about his voyage to Britain, his flying training and, later, his life as a prisoner of war. Before his capture, he had been rated ‘above average’ and ranked as one of the top three pilots on his operational training course. On 21 January 1942, he was posted to 72 Squadron, a Spitfire squadron. Over the next few weeks (when weather permitted) he carried out convoy patrols, sweeps across France, escort duties and practice sessions. And then, on 4 April 1942, after 16.40 operational hours, and a total flying time of 255.45 hours, he was missing in action. The squadron had been part of a larger wing escort for 12 Bostons to St Omer railway station in France. Just south of St Omer, the Luftwaffe pounced. He survived the dogfights but Spitfire AB258 caught by an anti-aircraft shell. He was then bounced by a formation of Fw190s. He shot one down. He started losing height and his engine caught alight. He baled out and landed close to a German troop depot. After a stint in hospital to repair his minor wounds and burns, he was packed off to a POW camp.
What had been going through their heads as they waited to make their bids for freedom? Did these men believe they would be successful in their attempt to escape the Germans? At the very least, they believed it was their duty to try.
Of the 76 who escaped, only three made it back to Britain. Twenty three were captured sent back to POW camps. One of those was Paul Royle. He was captured within 24 hours and taken to Gorlitz prison. ‘An awful place’. He watched as some of his fellow prisoners were taken away, never to be seen again. He still hasn’t ‘as clue as to why I wasn’t chosen’.
Fifty escapees were shot in the post escape reprisals. Those 50 included Albert Hake, who was number 70 out of the tunnel and Thomas Leigh, who was number 73. They had no real chance of success. They were hard-arsers—they had to make their way, as best they could, on foot. Albert suffered excruciating frost bite and was captured near Gorlitz. He had travelled perhaps less than 40 miles and had been free for about 72 hours. But it is not known exactly. It is also not known exactly where Leigh was captured, though it is thought that it was perhaps less than 15 miles from the camp, and that he had been free for less than 48 hours. Both Albert and Leigh ended up in Gorlitz prison. They, along with four others, were shot on a wooded road 3 miles south of Sagan. Williams, number 32 from the tunnel and Kierath, number 35, travelled part of the way by train, and partly by foot. They travelled together and were captured somewhere in the mountains near Boberrohrsdorf in Poland. They had covered about 50 miles and had been on the run for maybe 16 hours. It is not known exactly where they were killed but it is presumed to be near Reichenberg in Poland. Of the Australians, Jimmy Catanach, 23rd out of the tunnel, had travelled by train. He had been on the run for 45 hours and had put 330 miles between him and the camp before he was captured at Holm, Flensbburg, Germany. He was shot in a field about 6 miles from Kiel in Germany.
Back in the camp, when the sirens went off, those still in the tunnel, like Bill Fordyce, made their way back to the hut. Former 3 Squadron RAAF pilot, Alan Righetti, who had been one of the many ‘stooges’ or lookouts over the previous few months, remembered hearing shots fired. It ‘was pandemonium’, he recalled. All traces of the escape were covered up or destroyed and the Germans rampaged through the camp looking for signs of a tunnel. When things quietened down, Alan recalled that ‘we were bitterly disappointed that we hadn’t got at least 200 out but at the same time, very proud of the fact that we had the whole of the area and the German Army rushing all over the place looking for our fellas.’ And then they heard that 50 had been shot.
Alan Righetti (Alan Righetti)
When Noela Hake learned that her husband had been killed, she put in memoriam notices in the paper, year after year. She remembered the brief time she had shared with Albert and all that they had planned for their life. They never had the children they wanted; she never remarried. She treasured all Alberts letters and the few remnants of their brief marriage.
Today, 24 March 2014 is the 70th anniversary of Great Escape. Like Noela Hake, we remember the men who died trying to escape. We regret their lost lives, their unfulfilled futures. We empathise with the unassailable grief experienced by their families. Rest in Peace.

(The Preen family) 

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