Friday, 6 February 2015

Kriegiedom occasionally has its good points. Australians celebrating Christmas in Stalag Luft III

This piece originally appeared on on 22 December 2014. 

Al Hake had been thinking of his first Christmas in captivity months before it rolled around. After being shot down during operations with 72 Squadron RAF on 4 April 1942, and fetching up soon afterwards in East Compound, Stalag Luft III in Sagan, it didn’t take the former Spitfire pilot long to realise that letters to and from his wife in Australia would take a long time to arrive. The first, penned by Noela in February, turned up in June, after being forwarded from his squadron’s UK base. And so, as he wrote his monthly letter to Noela on 8 September, he wished her a Merry Christmas, and then again on 23 November. At some point, he posted her a camp manufactured Christmas card.
(Thomas Barker Leigh, another Australian in SLIII, also posted off a copy of this card. His was sent to Miss N Baker of Stornaway, on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. I don't know who Miss Baker was, but I have been advised that her married name was Thompson. One of Tom's crew members was Sgt Thompson, so it is possible she was Thompson's girl friend or fiancée.)

Despite missing his young wife, who he had married shortly before leaving Australia in 1941, Al comes across as relatively light-hearted in his 25 December 1942 letter which marked not just Christmas Day but Noela’s birthday. It probably had something to do with the free-spirited Kriegie celebrations. ‘Another Christmas away from you darling and perhaps the last. It is certainly an experience, the details I will tell you one day. Sufficient now to say that spirits are running “freely” and high (home brew and Reich beer) belts tight and extended.’
In keeping with his light mood he touched on mainly cheery subjects. ‘Well I’ve grown a beard darling, if I can’t get a snap I’ll make a sketch, something to scare the children.’ The beard obviously stayed, as Paul Brickhill and South African Conrad Norton referred to the hirsute Al Hake in their Escape To Danger, which was written mainly in Stalag Luft III and published shortly after the war. Like many of his fellow Kriegies, Al had taken up artistic pursuits to while away the time. ‘I now do portraits of chaps who want to record their present “looks” for posterity’ and was in a band. ‘Banjo still going fine.’ ‘Hope this letter finds you all as it leaves me, hopeful and happy. ... Cheerio my own sweet kid. I’m always thinking of you—naturally, darling! All my love.’

By 30 August 1943, when he issued his next Christmas greetings, Al’s tone had changed considerably. By that stage, he had been a prisoner for about 16 months. In April, he had moved from East Compound into Block 103 of the newly constructed North Compound where, in a room on the block’s north side, he devoted many long hours to constructing compasses out of Bakelite records as part of preparations for a mass escape. ‘Once again darling I must employ this entirely unsatisfactory method of conveying birthday and Christmas greetings, to you. My heart aches to be near you dearest more than ever as these anniversaries of life come and pass in an unnatural discord. Next year will surely see the fulfilment of our hopes, pal. All my love darling.’
(There is no record that Al sent a copy of this card to Noela, but some one gained a sense of the constantly guarded existence of their loved one when it lobbed into their mail box)  

Christmas and unshared special events were still on his mind during his next missive to Noela on 25 September. ‘Probably by the time you receive this Christmas will have come and gone; I shall have been drunk on ‘raisin brew’; you will be one year older and still eating the celebration ‘left overs’. I will have pounded around the perimeter track a few hundred more times and perhaps the war will be over. However I hope I never get a reply to this letter in Germany. Cheerio my sweet, keep the home fires burning and all that.’
By the time he penned his Christmas letter to Noela, Al was once again upbeat. ‘What ho! Darling, here’s the old “last” Xmas with us once again. Hope it’s the last of the ‘last’ Xmas here. I bet you do. ... Well I won’t say the same as last Xmas my sweet. I’m well and happy and pray you are the same, dear. My thoughts are not confined like my body and they are all yours today, sweetheart, your birthday.’

Perhaps Al was a little merry on ye olde raisin brew. It was potent and a prime example of Kriegie collaboration. Paul Brickhill, who like Al was an inmate in Block 103, along with Conrad Norton, fondly remembered the ‘fiery concoction’. The constituent ingredients were sugar and raisins, and to ensure a goodly supply, a dozen or so Kriegies would form a syndicate, pool their rations for a fortnight then stow them in half a barrel of water, along with some fermented raisins to start the process. Fermentation took about three weeks. The liquid was strained through a pillow case to remove the pulp to become ‘gallons of dubious sludge called raisin wine which possessed considerable alcoholic ferocity and was sufficient to lubricate one heavy party’. Hangovers were legendary and that ensuing from East Compound’s previous year’s bash was later recorded as ‘one of the most spectacular of these hell-brew binges’.
Brickhill and Conrad recalled that the ‘first few hours of riotous oblivion were a refreshing anodyne to the atrophying stagnation of prison life’. Perhaps too, raisin wine alleviated the loneliness of another Christmas without a beloved wife. As it happens, this was Al’s last Christmas in Stalag Luft III. But not because he was reunited with Noela. He was as he was one of the 50 prisoners killed in the reprisals following the Great Escape in March 1944. Knowing what we do of his fate, his last Christmas letter to Noela with hopes of a ‘last Xmas’ proves to be sadly prescient.

Alec Arnel was a Spitfire pilot with 451 Squadron RAAF who ended up in Stalag Luft III’s North Compound after he was caught unawares by enemy fire near Bologna, Italy on 29 June 1944. Coincidentally, he had carried out his initial training at Somers, in Victoria, at the same time as Al Hake and, like Al, took up residency in 103 Block. The shadow of the murdered men still clouded the camp when Alec arrived and left Alec with a particular sadness as he had been expecting to meet up with some of them before discovering their fate.
The year before, Alec had posted off his seasonal greetings written on squadron produced cards but as 1944 drew to a close, he, like Al Hake, wrote about his first Christmas as a prisoner of war on Kriegie stationary. ‘On Xmas eve we held special church services and sang again the old carols. Our minds wandered far away and nostalgia caused this Xmas to be the quietest most reflective I have ever known. ... There is no doubt as to what my prayer will be. I think every soul who has been touched by war’s repulsive hand will cry “Peace!”’


Although peace was very much on Alec’s mind in December 1944, it seems food was more on the minds of other prisoners. Torres Ferres a navigator with the RAF’s 156 Pathfinder Squadron who entered Kriegiedom after being shot down over Mannheim, Germany on 5 September 1943, was facing his second Christmas in Stalag Luft III. He wrote up Christmas cake and mincemeat recipes and, along with his friends, enjoyed a menu that included devilled ham on toasted crackers, roast turkey, Vienna sausages and bread stuffing, roast and mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts and carrots, Christmas pudding and cherry sauce, pineapple tart and perhaps that very cake whose recipe he copied out. For afters, there was coffee, cheese, bikkies and dried fruits. Sumptuous by any standard, and especially Kriegie ones.
 The festive largesse was not provided by their Germans captors. This bounty was provided courtesy of the Red Cross. The American Red Cross, in particular, did not stint in sharing festive food gifts. On 24 December 1944, resident of Stalag Luft III’s Belaria compound, James McCleery of 460 Squadron RAAF, sole survivor of a Lancaster who had crashed near Oberhausen, Germany on 30 March 1944 following an attack by a German night fighter, signed for one the American packages. When he opened it, he discovered along with tobacco, cigarettes and playing cards, a 16 ounce plum pudding, 14 ounces of dates, a 12 inch boned turkey, 12 ounces of mixed candy, 3 ounces of ham, salted peanuts and nuts, cheese, butter, sausage, cherries, tea and jam. He was so impressed by it all that he pasted the chit into his Wartime Log Book, provided by the Canadian YMCA.

Like Torres, James was enamoured by the recipes and wrote down those for Christmas Cake and Christmas Pudding. Along with the Red Cross supplied ingredients, these included prison camp ingredients such as ‘goon’ bread. I wonder how successful James’ date sauce recipe proved. I would not have thought that noodles and crushed biscuits would be traditional date sauce ingredients.

Traditional or not, Christmas Day in Belaria was summed up by James as ‘What a bash!’

It seems East Compound had a memorable bash as well if John Morschel’s account is anything to go by. John, who was flying in ‘Q for Queenie’ with 630 Squadron RAF during the 6 June 1944 D Day assault, had taken up residency in Room 8, Block 62, East Compound, a bit before Alec Arnel had arrived in North Compound. Like North Compound and Belaria, East Compound also had a special service and communion that took place after appel—morning roll call—but John was too busy to participate as he was one of the master chefs responsible for Christmas dinner. While Kriegie voices united in Christmas carols and prayer, he was elbow deep in vegetables.

With the camp flooded with Red Cross parcels, even Christmas lunch, which was usually a bare excuse for a meal, was memorable: ‘double strength porridge from the kitchen’ and the inevitable Reich bread was, for once, ‘displaced for the more appetising cheese tart and sausage rolls.’ A full and active afternoon followed, with ‘a hockey match, football match England Scotland and some skating’ which ‘made the clear weather afternoon all the more attractive’
Before the East Compound boys knew it, ‘afternoon tea was soon upon us when we gorged ourselves upon the cake which was sitting on the table waiting for us together with two cherry buns and some cherries. Even half of this rich cake was sufficient for our own shrunken and undernourished stomachs.’

There was no respite for those shrivelled up stomachs because, ‘it seemed no time before Dinner was before us’. And what a dinner it was. ‘Thick vegetable soup, carrots, turnips, parsnips, soup powder, 1/2 tin Turkey, roast carrots, roast parsnips, creamed potatoes. Interval of two hours as everybody was filled to overflowing. Pudding ... strong hot chocolate brew.’ Interestingly, John discovered something that almost every Christmas chef, male or female, soon learns: ‘By the time I had cooked most of it I was not nearly as enthusiastic about it as the others.’

Regardless of any diminished enthusiasm, John’s first (and only) Christmas in captivity would ‘probably be the most memorable day in my Kriegie career ... Honestly, it is the only day since 6th June that I have not had the old hunger pains in anyway whatsoever. Somehow I doubt if I will ever forget Christmas 1944 for though not so elaborate as others it was outstanding in that [it] was so much better than the ordinary Kriegie Day and everybody pulled together in proper Xmas manner to make it such a success.’
It is good to see that Torres, James, John and probably Alec, and all their Kriegie comrades in Stalag Luft III, were well stoked by good food as within weeks the prisoners of war were tramping across the countryside on the long march. There they would face hardship but, in many instances, the men again pulled together to help fit companions on the difficult trek. There would be much privation ahead in crowded camps with less amenities than Stalag Luft III but the war was fast coming to a close. Alec’s desired Peace was not too far off.

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