Sunday, 30 August 2015

Paul Gordon Royle: A Fortunate Life

Paul Gordon Royle: A Fortunate Life

When Australians hear the phrase, ‘a fortunate life’ our minds inevitably turn to the title of Albert Facey’s memoir. Published in 1981, it chronicles his early life (including escaping from abusive employment), Great War service on Gallipoli, and his post-war years until the eve of his 83rd birthday. It also describes, in a diffident, matter-of-fact way, considerable hardship, loss, friendship and enduring love. This memoir has become a watchword in Australian literature for exemplifying the extraordinary within the ordinary, and the ordinary within the extraordinary. Paul Gordon Royle, in many ways, was his generation’s Albert Facey.

Born on 17 January 1914—the year Facey turned twenty— Paul experienced a South Perth childhood many would consider idyllic. He lived close to the river, swam whenever he had the chance, and his father built him a little boat when he was about ten. He sailed it ‘quite a lot’ and ‘enjoyed [it] very much. I liked it.’
When he was fourteen, he was selected for a naval cadetship at Jervis Bay on the other side of the country. He stayed there for three years and a half years but, without ready contact with his family, was ‘absolutely devastated by homesickness’ and pulled out. He admitted that it was ‘a very stupid thing to do but I just couldn’t help it. Pure homesickness … That was the most terrible thing’. Looking back, he considered it a great ‘failure’, but when one career path is blocked, another one often opens.

Although jobs weren’t easy to find in the Depression, Paul was unemployed only a short while. His father, who was travelling around Western Australia inspecting aerodromes, came to his rescue. He needed a driver. It wasn’t the most exciting job but he saw a lot of the state and it had another advantage. ‘I was always interested in aeroplanes’ and at one point had paid over the two-and-sixpence for a joy ride in a large de Havilland DH50. ‘I took a newspaper with me and threw the paper out the window’ to prove he ‘was in the plane’. He now saw aircraft aplenty as he chauffeured his father around and more passenger opportunities presented themselves courtesy of a de Havilland Dragon and an Airco DH4. It was not long before the thought of learning to fly began to appeal so he applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force in September 1934. He was unsuccessful and so continued to drive his father around until the position was abolished in December 1935. He packed away the driving gloves he had diligently worn for three years and, within the month, was working in a Kalgoorlie gold mine.

The lure of aviation was strong and Paul continued to dream of an air force career. War clouds might have been looming but the young man gave no thought to them. ‘I was not particularly concerned with the political aspects’ of the international situation. ‘I wanted to fly’. Indeed, ‘I was very anxious to learn to fly’. So much so that, giving no thought to the ‘rights or wrongs of the political angles’ of the time, ‘I was only too happy to join the air force’.

With only 20 hours as a passenger to his credit but an impressive sporting CV which included rugby, hockey, cricket, boxing, swimming, tennis and lifesaving, as well as some engineering subjects, Paul applied to the Royal Air Force. As 1938 closed, he received the welcome advice that he had been ‘selected to proceed to England to undergo a course at a civil training school for subsequent appointment to a short service commission’. The 25-year-old embarked for Britain in February 1939 as part of the second last Australian contingent.

First stop was No. 7 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School, a civil training school at Desford, in Leicestershire.
Desford flying school, courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
His first dual flight was on 14 March in a de Havilland DH82 Tiger Moth where he carried out some straight and level flying. He soloed for five minutes on the 29th after 10 hours 45 minutes dual.
Paul with Tiger Moth G-ADXX in which he did much of his early training, including making his first solo flight. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
A glimpse of the joy Paul must have felt at this watershed event in a budding pilot’s career is seen in the careful entry in his log book, ‘FIRST SOLO’ underlined in red. As with any young pilot, it wasn’t all smooth flying.
First solo. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
On 14 April, during a session where he was practising taking off into the wind, medium turns, slide slipping, and approaches and landing, he made a heavy landing and damaged the Moth’s strut on the starboard side of the fuselage, just above the undercarriage. He put that mishap aside and went on to master the Tiger Moth. On 13 May, he was posted to Uxbridge for formal induction into the RAF, including receiving his service number, 42152. Two weeks later, he was at 9 Flying Training School at Hullavington in Wiltshire, where he qualified for his flying badge on 29 August 1939. He was rated average in ‘proficiency as pilot on type’ and the only special fault ‘in flying which must be watched’ was a tendency to side slip too close to the ground.
Paul Royle all kitted up in flying suit and furlined boots. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.

Paul had almost completed his training when war was declared on 3 September. ‘Things then speeded up, and we were shortly to learn how to land on three wheels instead of two, or, was it the other way round?’, he joked, obviously pulling the interviewer’s leg given he completed the six months’ course three days later with an assessment on ground subjects as a ‘keen officer with above the average intelligence. Has shown interest in his work with very good results’. Flying-wise, after notching up experience on the Hawker Hart, Audax and Fury, he proved ‘an average pilot with no outstanding faults’. His overall assessment was ‘an average officer not outstanding in any way.’

The next day he joined the first war course at No. 2 School of Army Cooperation at Andover in Hampshire, flying twin-engine Bristol Blenheims. His flying skills improved so dramatically that he emerged on 13 May 1940, according to Eric Woods, his observer, as ‘one of the most experienced pilots on the course’.
Formal portrait of  Paul Royle, with RAF Wings. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.

Paul was happy to have achieved his goal of being a pilot—‘very happy, pleased that it was happening’. In fact, he had no doubts that it would happen. As long as you applied yourself, ‘it was just part of the sequence of events. You trained for so many hours and suddenly found you could fly’. But there was a downside. ‘Almost the worst feeling’ was when he first took up a passenger. ‘That was not a very pleasing sensation … because you felt the sense of responsibility for somebody else’. 

On 14 May, Paul was posted to 53 Squadron which had been based at Poix-de-Picardie in northern France since the earliest days of the war. On the 18th, Paul, Sergeant Eric Woods and LAC AH Malkin set off in Blenheim L4861 on their first operation which turned out to be, according to Woods, ‘a rather tricky reconnaissance’ over the advancing German army near Cambrai. As Paul recollected, ‘the job I was to do was to see whether the Germans were crossing over certain canals in France … I can’t remember [now] what I saw but I saw it’, then ‘turned around to go back’. It wasn’t long before some ‘109s got to work. I was flying as low I could—... [and] doing about 250 miles an hour, right on ground level’. He had no chance of evading the Messerschmitts. They fired. Woods ‘was quite seriously injured’ and ‘I had splinters, bullets in my hands’. As far as he could remember, ‘the gunner … [who] sat well back behind us, nothing happened to him at all.’ The situation was dire. They were too low to bale out and ‘so, eventually, well, we just had to land this wretched thing’.
53 Squadron’s Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L4842 which was shot down in France during the same period. Photo from Aviation Heritage Museum of WA, Courtesy Paul Royle, via Charles Page May 2015.

Ably demonstrating his expertise with the Blenheim—for which Eric Woods was particularly grateful: ‘very fortunate for me I can tell you’—Paul force-landed in a field at Fontaine-au-Pire, southeast of Cambrai. ‘We just landed on a bare patch of ground, avoiding the trees.’ After 148 hours 5 minutes as a captain of a Blenheim, and only 37 minutes on operations, Paul’s career as a pilot had ended.

As Eric Woods put it, ‘this at the time was in French hands and we fully expected to get away. But unfortunately, I had a broken leg and transport was unavailable’. Paul and Malkin carried Woods to a nearby village, and Woods later acknowledged that ‘Mr Royle risked his life to get me into hospital’. They were taken into care by a priest and, despite his injuries, Paul returned to the Blenheim and destroyed it. He hiked back to the village then passed out from his wounds. He regained consciousness about two hours later. Malkin, who was not injured, went in search of an ambulance accompanied by the village schoolmistress while Paul, whose sense of responsibility towards his crew extended beyond the cockpit, stayed with Woods. (Paul never saw Malkin again but learned years later that his former gunner evaded capture, escaped to England, and wound up in a hospital at Evesham eleven days after the forced landing. Sources do not indicate whether he was hospitalised because of wounds from the landing or injuries sustained en route to England.)

Later that afternoon—about six hours after the crash—the Germans arrived at the village and the priest told them of the two RAF men. They were arrested the next day. Although Paul was ‘in the bag’, he was entitled under the Geneva Convention to medical care and so a German doctor treated him and Woods, who was later taken away to hospital. At some point, Paul found himself in a church which was serving as a field hospital.   

Servicemen can expect to see many harrowing things in wartime and the 26-year-old was no exception. The Battle of France was taking its toll on the Allies. Paul had already lost squadron friends during his brief sojourn in France and hundreds of men had been killed, wounded and captured in this sector. The church was crowded. ‘People here and people there, some of them seriously wounded.’ Some ‘with arms blown off, people with blood all over them’ and ‘some like me very lightly wounded. Lots of French army people were there and this one British army officer.’ The young man was dying. Paul took him in his arms to offer the comfort of human contact in his last moments. ‘He was wounded and I was holding him and he died. I will never forget that.’ The memory and the impact of such intimacy with a dying man—who could quite easily have been him if he had not been such a good pilot—remained with Paul a life time.

With barely an opportunity to inure himself to the trauma of death and the dying, and little time to think of the consequences of capture, Paul was carted off to Germany. He recalled that he had had no briefing during training about what to do if taken prisoner. ‘Nothing. Hadn’t been told’. Even if something had been mentioned at the training schools, the shock of captivity, compounded by the trauma of witnessing close up so much death and the agony of the wounded, might well have pushed any briefing to the back of Paul’s mind.

It is possible too that there may have been another factor at play. In one of the earliest considerations of the psychology of prisoners of war, Captain AL Cochrane, a medical practitioner with the Royal Army Medical Corps who was taken prisoner on Crete in 1941, stated that, not only had he ‘visualised death and wounds fairly often’—he was aware of what had happened at Dunkirk and in Greece—‘but I never thought of being taken prisoner’, despite it being patently obvious to any impartial observer that, given the situation in Crete at the time, it would be highly likely that he and many thousands of others would be captured. Perhaps not trusting his own experience, he spoke about this to other prisoners and discovered the ‘extraordinary fact’ that ‘practically none of them even considered the possibility of their being taken prisoner’. Cochrane concluded ‘that there was some strong unconscious factor inhibiting normal reasoning’. Somehow, personal psychological ‘censors’ had allowed him and other servicemen operating on Crete to consider death as a natural consequence of service, but had blocked any consideration of imprisonment.

Despite no conscious awareness of what to do under enemy interrogation, by the time Paul arrived at Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe, the Luftwaffe’s transit camp and interrogation centre at Oberursel, near Frankfurt (more commonly known as Dulag Luft), he was confident of how he would handle himself. He was ‘questioned frequently, but under no great pressure, although occasionally encouraged by a cigarette or two’. It was all, however, a matter of saying as little as possible. ‘You knew what to do, you knew that you never told what you’d been doing. You had to observe the secrecy.’ It was simply name, rank and serial number. ‘I do not think anything was given away. In my case at least there was nothing to give.’ He was at Dulag Luft for a fortnight, then, ‘a party of us, about a dozen, were sent to Stalag Luft I which was a camp on the Baltic.’

The trip to Barth, in the far north of Germany on the Baltic Sea, took a number of days with a couple of stop offs, including at Limburg. While waiting to embark on the next stage of the journey, another group of prisoners arrived including Bertram ‘Jimmy’ James who recalled that ‘we were housed in a dark, dirty barrack block containing three-tier bunks on which we slept on filthy straw. There was only one tattered book in English called’, perhaps appropriately, ‘Cold Comfort Farm which Paul Royle … was gloomily reading’. The next staging post was Oflag IIA at Prenzlau where he was allocated his prisoner of war number and identification tag: from now on, he was known to the Germans as Kriegsgefangen (prisoner of war) 2269. The word was a handful and was soon almost universally shortened to Kriegie within the RAF prisoner population.

Paul’s POW card and identification tag, both issued at Oflag IIA at Prenzlau. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page .

The Luftwaffe-run Stalag Luft I had only just opened and ‘we were the first “guests”’. They ‘moved into newly built huts, four to a room, I think, with nothing to do and nothing to do it with. Food was minimal, soup and a small piece of sausage, rye bread, potatoes—frequently bad, and ersatz coffee, barely enough for survival.’
Ersatz coffee and tea. AWM private records.

Underneath the Luftwaffe camp administration, the prisoners established their own organising system, with its own hierarchical command structure, largely based on a well-run RAF station. Within that framework, Paul and his fellow captives learned the art of communal living and, regardless of political persuasion, adapted to a system which incorporated elements of socialism where everything was pooled, including ‘household’ duties in individual rooms. German rations were supplemented by Red Cross food parcels, as well as packages from England, Australia and America. As well as gifts from family, friends and welfare organisations they even benefited from the personal bounty of total strangers. ‘After a time several of us received parcels of food and clothing from unknown well-wishers in Denmark, me from Frau Rigmor Benthin, to whom I am eternally grateful.’
Rigmor Benthin. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
So much did they rely on the additional rations that ‘times were grim when no parcels arrived’. Each package was scrupulously divided—‘meticulously shared by rooms’— but ideas differed as to how they would be used. ‘Mike Bussey, when our cook, believed in one good meal and hunger for all the week. When I cooked, it was equal meals and hunger for all the week’. 

One of the most difficult things to do in captivity is fill the days. Paul recognised the ‘extraordinary sensation [of] having no playthings, but as time went on we got books and cards, and we made and did many things including much tunnelling’. From December 1941 until February 1942, the Western Australian was in charge of tunnel operations. Participating in the escape schemes seemed a natural thing to Paul. ‘Well, I had worked underground in Kalgoorlie, being in the tunnels was nothing new to me, I felt comfortable—at home digging in the tunnel ... it was pretty hard work, you have to go down, you worked like mad and dug out the soft soil, it was all soft sand.’ It was always an effort finding new places from which to start the tunnel but often the best place (or so they thought) was close to home. Sometime after arriving at Stalag Luft I, Geoff Cornish, one of Paul’s old friends from Perth, arranged to move into Paul’s room and discovered that his new room mates were working on a tunnel. The entrance was under Paul’s bed. Despite the best efforts of the camp’s keen potential escapees, which now included Cornish, Paul recalled ruefully that ‘we did our bit unsuccessfully’.
Room mates at Stalag Luft I, Barth. L-R Geoffrey Cornish, Joe Hill, Paul Royle, Tom Whiting. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.

Barth filled rapidly and, in March 1942, Paul and a large contingent were transferred to the recently completed East Compound of Stalag Luft III, located near the town of Sagan in the German province of Lower Silesia (now Zagan in Poland), about 100 miles southeast of Berlin. (Barth closed down in April, but was reopened in October 1942.) The RAF command and administrative structure was replicated in the new camp and escape work was not only actively encouraged but officially endorsed. Paul was involved in tunnel construction until December and his enterprises included a tunnel from Hut 68 for which he had recruited a crew of novice diggers. That, like the Barth attempts, came to naught.
(Blurry - sorry) map of East Compound, Stalag Luft III. AWM private records. 

In April 1943, Paul took up residency in the newly opened North Compound. Life mirrored that of East Compound but for one significant difference. The Senior British Officer, Group Captain Herbert Massey, decided to formalise the hit-and-miss escape attempts and appointed the charismatic and arrogant Roger Bushell to head the newly designated X Organisation. Paul recognised the competency of the man who masterminded what would become the organisation’s greatest and most notorious achievement and put his name down as a volunteer for the grand scheme. ‘I think we were aware of the plan to escape from day one, you always had [the thought]—we will have to go soon, we will have to go.’ It was well known within the RAF camp administration who could be counted on to participate in a combined escape effort. There were the ‘leading spirits’, the experts, ‘the keen escapers’, ‘the self-effacing but thoroughly co-operative men’, like Paul, and the ‘not-interested class’. The majority who were willing were mobilised in some way ‘to bring out the most useful qualities of each man’. Those who weren’t were also pressured to take their part, mainly on the ‘stooge’, or watcher roster, or by their silence. The compiler of the North Compound history recorded (perhaps a little too glowingly) that ‘there were no square pegs in round holes, and the general efficiency was increased by each prisoner’s sense of his own responsibility, the importance of his part in the life of the compound, and his opportunities for making the fullest possible use of all his mental and physical energy’. (The ambitious undertaking wasn’t referred to as the Great Escape until after the war when Paul Brickhill coined the phrase for the title of his book; it was simply referred to as a breakout.)

The men planned and worked for months on three underground escape routes, dubbed Tom, Dick and Harry to ensure that the word ‘tunnel’ would never be accidentally uttered anywhere near a lurking guard. Paul was one of those drafted to dispose of the dirt excavated from the tunnels ‘through my long underpants’. Nicknamed penguins, because of the way they waddled around with cumbersomely-filled long john legs hidden under their outer clothes, Paul would surreptitiously shake his feet and the soil would fall to the ground, to be kicked or dug in. Others stole equipment and supplies, manufactured escape kits, forged papers, or tailored clothing.

Secrecy was paramount. ‘You didn’t want to talk to anybody about anything. You all kept your mouth shut because you never knew who was listening to you. Because there were Germans in and out of the camp among us and you didn’t want to say anything or do anything.’ Not one word leaked out but there were other signs that something was afoot and Tom was eventually discovered. Later, Dick was decommissioned and used for storage when it was realised that the camp’s expansion would cover its planned exit. Harry became the sole lifeline to the outside.

In about January 1944, Paul took on a new job as a ‘watcher’ or ‘stooge’, where he kept a look out during tunnelling operations for any sign of ‘the goons’ or ‘ferrets’, whose particular job was to nose out escape activity. But his entire camp life was not entirely devoted to the escape effort. He enjoyed the many shows put on by the compound’s theatre crowd, he played sports, went ice-skating, and studied engineering subjects. He even joined in the ‘goon-baiting’, such as mucking up during roll call and trying to ‘convince the Germans of our certain victory, and their stupidity in continuing the war to no avail’. He may have been a prisoner, but Paul was certainly not downtrodden.

According to Eric Woods who, despite confinement in the non-commissioned officers’ compound, was able to exchange a few messages with his former pilot and even managed to see him for a few minutes on one occasion, Paul ‘was looking extremely fit and entirely unaltered’. Woods was later repatriated to the United Kingdom and wrote to Paul’s father to assure him that ‘you need have no worries as to the life out here ... life is comparatively easy. Red Cross supplies are abundant … Sports equipment of all descriptions has been received from Switzerland and England for quite a time now, and organised games are the order of the day … Last year the officers sent across articles selected from their arts exhibition including some model yacht hulls carved by your son. They are very fine indeed’. It seems Paul had inherited his father’s craftsmanship, albeit on a smaller scale. Despite the rosy glow portrayed by Eric Woods, it wasn’t an entirely easy existence. Paul later recalled that ‘the weather seems to have been always cold, and the heating stoves in our rooms were starved of fuel, as were we’.

Paul stayed mentally active. ‘We spent our time talking, reading in our own language when books arrived, and German newspapers after I had learnt to do so. I translated German news bulletins … and pinned them up on a noticeboard daily.’ So good were his language skills that he even instructed in elementary German. He studied maths and physics, ‘and passed an examination set in England’. As well as wood carving, he turned his hand to making model aircraft. This, and his other activities, ‘slightly alleviated the boredom of camp life … the drabness of our existence’.
Model aeroplanes made by Paul Royle, in camp. Photo taken by either guard, Hauptmann Pieber, who took many photographs of the prisoners, or a fellow Kriegie with a secret camera, obtained by bribing one of the guards. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
But the intellectual and physical diversions were not enough to compensate for the fact that Paul and his friends were prisoners. Life was going on elsewhere, the war was being won without them, and perhaps there was a sense that they were forgotten. ‘We wrote the two letters that were permitted each month and mourned the frequent lack of reply’. Some drew comfort from their faith. Paul noted humorously that the American prisoners in particular ‘were great churchgoers. We had a Scottish padre in camp. He was kept busy by them but less so by the rest of us’. And so, ‘our major pre-occupation’ and prime factor in coping with captivity, ‘was attempting to escape, over the wire, under it or through it, but with limited success’. As 1944 opened, hopes were pinned on the audacious and carefully planned scheme which, if successful, would see two hundred men breaking out of Stalag Luft III.
Endpapers from Guy Walters: The Real Great Escape, Bantam Press, London, 2013. Len Kenyon painting showing the entrances of the four main tunnels in Stalag Luft III North Compound. Paul Royle lived in Hut 121 in the latter stages of 1944.

Time passed and Harry was nearing completion. On 20 February 1944, ‘I was told that I was to be a member of the escaping party and that my number was 55 [in the] order of exit’. Paul got in touch with number 54, Edgar Humphreys. (Paul’s accounts of the order vary. In his wartime log book he noted that he and Humphreys were numbers 55 and 56. His MI9 report states that he was 55 and Humphreys was 54.) ‘Between us we made plans for our journey outside.’ They prepared their equipment and rations, and ensured they ‘had the right form of clothing that could be mistaken for civilian clothing’. The breakout was set for the night of 24 March and on that day, ‘we were issued with maps, compasses, special food etc’.
Map of Germany, courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
The night was freezing, moonless, and snow covered the ground. The escapers gathered in Hut 104 where Harry’s entrance was located, anxiously awaiting their turn to enter the tunnel. ‘All of us were nervous in some way or another. We didn’t want to be caught.’ The first men made their way through Harry at about 10.30 p.m. but progress was immediately impeded. The boards across the exit shaft had swollen and could not be budged. When they were finally dislodged, the front men discovered that the tunnel was roughly 15 feet short of the tree line and the nearest watchtower was about 30 yards away. More time was wasted figuring out a way to safely dash across the bare ground between the exit and the pine trees. Once the escapers started passing through, more delays were caused by blankets or briefcases getting stuck in the sides of the tunnel. They were behind schedule when Paul climbed into the tunnel, with just the bare necessities for a long march. ‘Everything we had was in our pockets.’ Then, ‘we were pulled on the trolley and that took us from the hut where it started, up to the discharge point. We got to that point, climbed up … and just got up and there we were on our feet’. It was 2.30 a.m. on 25 March. ‘It was very cold when we got out of the tunnel … and all we could see was pine trees up above and snow banked up against the trunks … and snow underfoot.’ It was exhilarating. ‘We’d got that far, an achievement.’ Then, ‘I looked up at the stars, and … back at the watchtower and the barbed wire.’ After almost four years in captivity, the 30-year-old was free. He ran for the pine trees and waited with the others in his party for Humphreys.

The ten men headed off. Despite all the months of planning, they hadn’t really thought much beyond the actual breakout. ‘I don’t know what our plan was, except we would head for Switzerland.’ After about an hour trudging through the snow, the party split up and Paul and Humphreys travelled southwest.

While they tramped, the escape continued but with so many delays, there was no hope that two hundred men would be able to escape. Dawn approached, and would have to be called off at that point. Fate, however, intervened and, with men still making their way along the tunnel, the scheme was discovered. It was bedlam in Hut 104 as the prisoners covered up or destroyed all traces of the enterprise. Guards rampaged through the camp looking for signs of a tunnel. Outside, a Kriegsfahndung, or war emergency manhunt, was initiated. Then, when the full scale of the breakout was realised, this was upgraded to a national alert—Grossfahndung. Police, armed forces, Hitler Youth, and thousands of factory and field workers were mobilised to search for the escapees. 

Meanwhile, ‘we walked that same night as far as we could.’ At about eight o’clock in the morning, they rested, burrowing into the depths of the pine forest, hiding themselves from view. ‘The bitter cold being exaggerated by our inaction.’ Twelve hours later, under cover of deep darkness, they resumed their trek.

Somewhere around 2.30 a.m., they entered a small village and were soon stopped by three members of the German auxiliary police. ‘We were apprehended’. They had been free for just 24 hours.

Paul and Humphreys were held locally at first, then, in the morning, they were taken to Sagan and incarcerated in the town’s gaol. ‘At 22.00 hours, with twenty other escapers, we were moved to Gorlitz Gaol.’ It was ‘an awful place’. Crowded, dirty, no blankets, nothing but black bread and watery soup to eat. There, Paul watched as some of his fellow prisoners, including Humphreys, were led away. Those who remained assumed their comrades were on their way back to Stalag Luft III.

According to his MI9 report, ‘I spent six days [in Gorlitz] and was interrogated once’. His interrogator warned that he could be made to disappear if he did not reveal full details of his involvement, and would automatically be blamed if any acts of sabotage in the area were discovered. ‘I’m afraid I’ve told you all I can.’ The questioner pressed him but Paul was deliberately vague, claiming only that he was tired of being in prison and had decided to take a chance at freedom. He was returned to his cell.

‘On 2nd April I was sent back to Stalag Luft III’ (his wartime log book records that he returned on 3 April) and consigned to the cooler for three weeks. When Paul arrived, Ken Rees, who had been in the tunnel when the escape was discovered, was already part way through his punishment stint. He recalled that Paul and his three companions ‘were astonished to be the first back in camp, since they had all been detained in a gaol with a group of about twenty other escapees who had all left before them’.

It was almost inconceivable: no one else from the Gorlitz group had returned. A few days later, Rees heard the reason, ‘shouted to us from outside’. Those taken from Gorlitz, and others of the escapers, had been shot. Ultimately, of the 76 who had got away, only three made it to Britain. Twenty-three of those seized on the run, including Paul, were despatched to various prison camps; only some were returned to Stalag Luft III. When they discovered that fifty of their fellows had been killed, Rees could barely articulate ‘the collective shock at this news. In wartime you are, if not actually ever used to death on a daily basis, at least prepared for it. You take your chances against the enemy and, on the whole, you know what you’re up against. But this was murder.’

Later, when attempts were made to rationalise the mass escape attempt, many claimed that, although there was little possibility of success, it was their duty to try. Moreover, they believed a large-scale breakout would divert a good proportion of German resources into recapturing them. Paul, however, did not feel that way. In a brave, late-life honesty that is contrary to the accepted narrative, Paul admitted that the idea simply was ‘not in my mind. No thought of it. We only thought of ourselves getting out.’ As for redirecting troops from the war effort, ‘even if the whole lot of us had got out we couldn’t have done much harm, even a couple of hundred of unarmed individuals couldn’t have done any useful, critical harm. We had no weapons … we merely did it for our own purpose and that was getting out.’ As for the consequences, the murder of fifty of his comrades, including his escape partner Humphreys, Paul was pragmatic. ‘You couldn’t foresee these things, you just wanted to get out, then what happens would happen.’ Even so, Paul, like the other survivors, had to live with the ‘what happens would happen’ and, even at the end of a long, full life, still hadn’t ‘a clue as to why I wasn’t chosen’; why he had survived.

And so, Paul settled down to waiting out the war in Stalag Luft III. ‘Things were comparatively quiet thereafter’ and Paul’s specific recollection of the months after the breakout was poor, probably, he considered, ‘clouded over by the dramatic events on the fronts’. He had no doubts that the Allies would prevail. ‘We were absolutely confident that we were going to win—there was never any doubt about that’. If he had had any niggles beforehand, when he saw the state of the German civilians during his brief liberty, he would have been reassured. ‘Even after our long stay in prison, we stood out as strong and fit compared with the other occupants’ of a railway refreshment room where Paul and his fellow captives were taken for coffee en route to Gorlitz. ‘The civilians were obviously ill fed.’ It was evident to Paul that, by ‘that stage Germany was in terrible condition’.

D-Day came and conviction in Allied success continued strong but before release, came hardship. As the Allied invasion gained momentum, more airmen arrived and Stalag Luft III was uncomfortably overcrowded. Rooms originally inhabited by six men were soon bursting; Paul’s Room 12 in Block 121 (conveniently positioned for the shower house, if nothing else) somehow managed to ‘house’ ‘ten bods’ in studied orderliness: everything was neatly stowed in its own place, on shelves or under beds.
 ‘Ten bods’ , Room 12, Block 121. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
As Germany’s fortunes worsened, so too did the prisoners’. Red Cross parcels were rationed and rumours circulated about what might happen to them in the event of a German collapse or Russian advance. Secret plans were put in place to cater for either eventuality, included digging another tunnel, George, but Paul had no knowledge of this. Secrecy had been utmost during the construction of Tom, Dick and Harry and it again prevailed to the extent that only those who needed to know had an inkling. There was little escape fever in camp in those days as, shortly after the mass breakout had been sprung, the Senior British Officer declared that the danger was too great for future attempts. In September, a coded message was received from Britain stating that escape was no longer considered a duty.

Despite any concerns about what would happen in the future, Paul and his friends were able to celebrate Christmas 1944 with a festive cake containing biscuits, margarine, raisins, dates, nuts, Klim milk powder, one and a quarter pounds of sugar and a packet of pancake mixture courtesy of saved up ingredients and a bonus Red Cross parcel ration. The concoction was baked all night and, as with every other prison meal, painstakingly divided and shared on what would prove (finally) to be their last Christmas in captivity.

Christmas cake, 1944. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page. 

There had been rumours but little forewarning that the Germans would evacuate Stalag Luft III and, in late January 1945, the camp was emptied of prisoners. Ten thousand or so men from Stalag Luft III joined thousands of other prisoners from nearby camps who clogged the road as they ‘marched westward in bitterly cold weather’. The men took with them as much food as they could manage, cigarettes to trade with civilians on the route, and precious objects they could not bear to leave behind. In Paul’s case, this included his wartime log book, issued to him in camp by the YMCA, and a map of Germany (had he managed to hide his own escape map when he was recaptured? Or was it a spare from the map-making department?).
Paul Royle’s Wartime Log, courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
He cobbled together a sled to carry his possessions and sixteen American Red Cross parcels which would sustain him and his friends. He pulled it along as he trudged away from the camp. In the prisoners’ wake was ‘a mountain of tins of Klim dried milk, eagerly seized by the local inhabitants’.
Klim. Aviation Heritage Museum of Western Australia. Photo taken by Charles Page, May 2015.
‘Marched 35 kms’ on the first day. ‘Marched 30 kms with sleigh to Muskau. Stayed at riding school’ or some such place, on the second, he wasn’t really sure. ‘Abandoned sleigh’ three days later as ‘no ice left on road, marched 18 kms with pack. Slept in hay loft’. Paul and his comrades were growing steadily weaker from the rigours of the march; few had been terribly fit before that, having been on half rations for months before. It would get worse but Paul’s brusque sentences recording the first stage of the march fail to describe the true horror of the experience.

On 2 February, they arrived at a railway station near Spremberg. ‘Forty men in each truck’. Paul doesn’t elaborate but those were enclosed cattle trucks. They were so crowded, the men could not move. They could not lie down. The only ones who could get fresh air were those pressed against the sides, and only if they pushed their faces into the slats. The only light came through the few remaining gaps in those slats. There was no provision for sanitation, they were given no water, and they weren’t allowed out when the trucks stopped. Many men had diarrhoea. Some suffered the worst effects of motion sickness. Paul and his fellows were confined in the cattle truck for two days. Looking back, some former prisoners considered this utterly dehumanising experience to be the most traumatic of all their years of captivity; it was this journey which brought on repeated night terrors.

On 4 February, they arrived at Tarmstedt, near Bremen at 4.30 p.m. They were herded out of the trucks, in a pathetically weak state and then forced to march to nearby Marlag und Milag Nord, a camp for naval and marine prisoners. There they stood, in the rain and mud, for six hours, ‘entering Marlag at midnight. Wool shavings on floor, no furniture’.
Route map, Sagan to Tarmstedt,  January to February 1945. Dotted line indicates forced march route and crossed line from Spremberg to Tarmstedt indicates journey in cattle trucks. From Ken Rees Lie in the Dark and Listen, Grub Street, London, 2006, p.191.

Despite the hardship of the preceding days, incarceration at the dirty and overcrowded camp until 9 April, another march which ended at an estate at Trenthorst, near Lubeck, during which they were strafed by Allied fighters—‘Lt Cdr from Marlag killed and several wounded’—morale, incredibly, was high according to Paul because ‘we were completely convinced that we are going back to the victorious army’. Or, if not going back to the victors, at least sitting right in their path when they turned up. In the interim, they were better fed as Lubeck hosted a Red Cross depot which provided as many parcels as they could consume. Another prisoner, Alec Arnel, recalled that they ‘ate well for the rest of our internment. As a result most of us were in good shape when released’.   

‘I was liberated … on 2 May 1945 by Allied forces.’ Paul’s terse post-liberation debrief gives no hint of the profound relief he must have experienced when an ‘armoured recco vehicle [dubbed] “Joan-Ann” arrived at camp 1300 hrs, driver from Cheshire Rgt 11th Armoured Div[ision]’. Perhaps it was still sinking in, because it was all a bit of a whirl. From Lubeck, ‘after three days, Army trucks took me to Luneberg and on to Rheine, from where I was flown to the UK arriving on 8 May’ to discover, as he climbed out of ‘what was to us pioneer prisoners a new-fangled Lancaster’, that it was VE Day.

The next morning he was ‘re-kitted’ and assaulted by ‘forms etc’. Before he knew it, he was in London on ‘VE2 night. Great difficulty in finding accommodation.’ Not surprising, really, with the steady flow of liberated men, but he managed to secure a bed at the King George V officers’ club in Piccadilly. Then, ‘I was in the Strand with thousands of other people … it was marvellous’. And after that, ‘a bath … clean clothes, slept in [a] bed with clean white sheets, had a decent breakfast’. The whirl continued, and within months he was engaged to be married.

War and captivity affect people differently. Some are scarred by the trauma. In others, the marks are less obvious. For Paul, ‘I do not know what the impact of my imprisonment was. Health does not seem to have suffered, on character I cannot comment.’ At first, he had wanted to go back on active service and spoke to Group Captain Herbert Massey, former Senior British Officer of Stalag Luft III. The news was not good. He ‘advised me to leave the service if I had a job in view as chances of a [permanent commission] were small’. As he would have suspected when he first encountered the ‘new-fangled Lancaster’, the RAF had moved on and Paul would have to convert to more sophisticated types of aircraft. Not only that, there was simply no place for Paul and thousands of other liberated, under-skilled airmen who wanted to pick up their flying careers. There wasn’t even a place for all of those at the peak of their abilities; there even too many to absorb into Far East operations.

Paul accepted that there was no place for him in the RAF and, from that point, ‘my concern was to resume my engineering and put the past behind me’. Perhaps there was a sense that the years were slipping by and so the 31-year-old lost no time in preparing for his future and physically and psychologically walking away from his life of confinement. He travelled around Britain, took his discharge from the RAF, interviewed for positions in an overcrowded civilian job market, studied at the Royal School of Mines, visited friends, married Georgina Forster-Knight on 23 March 1946 (almost exactly two years after the Great Escape) after a five month engagement, and brought his young bride back to Australia in August. His first job was as an assistant surveyor at Fimiston gold mine near Kalgoorlie.

It seems that Paul hadn’t totally buried his hopes of a service career. He reapplied for a permanent commission but, on 6 May 1947, he was bluntly advised that ‘after the most careful consideration’ the Air Council, which had been set up to deal with the innumerable applications for post-war commissions, had ‘regretfully decided that it is not possible to offer you either a permanent or an extended service commission.’ In 1959, after turning 45, his last link with the RAF was severed when he was released from his obligations under the Royal Air Force Reserve of Officers.

Professionally, Paul’s star rose and he established a good career in mining and engineering which took him around the world. It was a different matter, however, on the home front. Although Paul and Georgina had three children, their relationship did not work out. True conjugal bliss of over half a century’s standing came after his 1961 wedding in Yorkshire to second wife, Pamela Yvonne Fortune.

In 2014, shortly after his 100th birthday, at the end of a marathon interview which had extended over eight sessions—one was conducted on the 70th anniversary of the Great Escape—Paul admitted that ‘I have been very happy’ in life, his second marriage, and fatherhood, although ‘I am very unhappy at having a first marriage which was unsuccessful. … But everything’s alright now. I have five children, three by the first and two by the second’ and of course, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, ‘and it seems alright.’

Paul Royle and grandchildren, Sam Cameron, Amy and Sophie Royle, April 2014. Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.

Paul Royle and his congratulatory letter from Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrating his 100th birthday.
One indication of potential long-term trauma as a consequence of surviving the Great Escape and the arduous forced march was perhaps a deep-seated reticence in talking about his captivity. Despite ongoing public interest in Stalag Luft III, fostered by books and a movie, Paul was silent. Then, four decades after his release, Paul began to share his memories. ‘I do not think I could have written this story’, he admitted in one account, ‘anytime in the first forty years after the end of the war.’ Like Albert Facey, Paul told his story plainly, with little embellishment and no sentiment. Readers have to peer between the lines to discover his true feelings about those long ago events. In recorded interviews, Paul injects humour by treating some incidents lightly but there are also long pauses, moments of contemplation where the listener must penetrate the silence to discern the profound emotion underlining his experiences. As he reflected in his fierce desire to fly courtesy of an air force career over seventy years later, Paul quietly acknowledged, ‘the consequences of that I couldn’t foresee’.
Paul Royle’s service medals which were presented to him at his 100th birthday party, thanks to the assistance of researcher and aviation writer Charles Page.

Paul Royle died on 23 August 2015. He was 101. In recent years, with public attention to anniversaries of the Great Escape and his longevity, media and in-depth oral histories recorded for public collections have concentrated mainly on his involvement in the mass breakout. Publicly, at least, it seemed as if the events preceding his 24 hours of freedom seventy years earlier defined his life. But they did not. ‘That was a minor part of my life, only a matter of a couple of days.’ Indeed, Paul preferred to down play his part, putting it down to ‘our duty not to languish in a prison camp if we could help it’. Reflecting the community of the escape effort and the crowded communal aspect of camp life, when speaking about his prisoner of war experience, he tended not to relate what ‘I did’ but what ‘we did’. Indeed, ‘my overwhelming impression of my experience is of the loyalty shown to the RAF’—and the RAF in camp—‘by its many men’. Captivity for Paul was a shared experience which did not detract from any sense of his identity as an air force man.

There was more to Paul than one failed escape. His life was full of personal and professional achievements which included publication of ‘A Simple Method of Determining Tunnel Cross Sections’ in the Journal of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and, at one point, responsibility for 70 staff, three main contractors and contracts valued at $HK300 million (Hong Kong dollars).

Paul eventually returned to Western Australia. After retiring in 1981, he took up bowls, until an operation stopped that. He then gave free rein to his creative side. He studied at the Claremont School of Art and was particularly drawn to abstract painting. He also continued with woodwork, but looked at this craft from an artistic perspective, the result determined by the shape of the piece rather than his will. Like his father, he also put his woodwork talents to practical use and designed and constructed pieces of furniture. Demonstrating his on-going intellectual acuity and enthusiasm for contemplating some of the major themes of life and the human condition, including ageing, the man of few words picked up his pen and wrote rhyming poetry. Many revealed his strong sense of humour. He even shared a few of them for posterity in his 2014 interview, including:

In As You Like It, Shakespeare said

You’ll live for seven ages then you’re dead.

Life ends for you, there’ll be no more—

There’s nothing you can now live for.

But some live longer up to eight

You can’t foretell you must just wait.

Perhaps there’ll be another sign

Saying you will live to nine.

What comes next, it might be ten

I wonder how one feels just then.

But there are limits to our lives

So hold on tightly, avoid dear strife.

After that I don’t know what,

You had it all, the blooming lot,

So quieten down and live at ease

And to the Lord say ‘no more please’

During that last, lengthy interview, Paul was asked what phrase he would use to sum up his life. Echoing Albert Facey, Paul replied: ‘I am very fortunate to have lived so long, extremely fortunate, without any particular illness, in my whole life.’ And would he have done anything differently? ‘I can’t say that I think I did anything wrong, and that I should have done it differently. It was just fate that brings it to you and I’ve been very lucky.’ A fortunate life indeed for a man who experienced much in his 101 years and who graciously gave up some of his final months to share details of those events. Unpretentious and unassuming to the last, while simultaneously revealing yet again his strong sense of humour which punctuated that interview, Paul was never sure that anyone would get anything out of his story. When asked what he thought a researcher stumbling across that interview in fifty years’ time might think, Paul laughed. He thought, modestly, that that ‘they might say “queer chap, lucky chap to have lived so long”. That’s all I could say about that.’ Paul, of course, will be proved wrong. Any future listener will discover a life that was not defined by one incident and will gain a sense of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the ordinary within the extraordinary. They might well consider that the concluding words of Albert Facey’s memoir could equally apply to Paul: ‘I have lived a very good life, it has been very rich and full. I have been very fortunate and I am thrilled by it when I look back.’ Vale, Paul, man of good fortune. Rest in peace.
Paul Royle, 101, proudly holding the photo taken after he was awarded his wings. This photo was taken by Garry Sarre as part of the WWII Reflections Project which honours Australia's WWII veterans. Courtesy of Garry Sarre and Paul Royle, via Charles Page.  

Although I have drawn on the North Compound History and some published references, the main sources for this piece are: Paul Royle’s interviews for the Imperial War Museum Catalogue No. 26603, Reel 1 and the State Library of Western Australia’s Nedlands and South Perth Oral History project, Reels 1–8; an unpublished record of Paul’s experiences as a prisoner of war; his RAF service record; and his flying log book, wartime log book, and other items from his personal papers. For access the SLWA interview, private records and the accompanying photographs, I owe my thanks to fellow researcher and friend, Charles Page, who, with Paul’s permission, provided me with copies.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you Shane! I think you have an idea of how heard it is to write these pieces but it is a joy to share something of what I have discovered about Paul.