Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas in Stalag Luft III, Belaria, 1944

By December 1944, Stalag Luft III was overcrowded and prisoners, who had long relied on Red Cross parcels to supplement their poor rations from their Luftwaffe captors, were down to half a parcel, per man, per week. Bruce Lumsden, a navigator from 195 Squadron, whose Lancaster had crashed in Allied territory in early November 1944, found himself in Stalag Luft III’s Belaria satellite compound, settling into one of the 12 barrack-type huts which contained five 20 foot square rooms, with a smaller one for the block leader (dubbed by his underlings, the Blockhead).

Lumsden’s new quarters was crammed with six three-tiered bunks, a table with eighteen stools, a bench-top cupboard to store food, and a cast iron stove which, if there were any briquettes on offer, would heat the room. His bed, in an overcrowded space, in an overcrowded camp where he would never be truly alone, was his ‘own small piece of territory’.

Lumsden joined seventeen others in Room 7, Block 18. They were a mixed bunch of seven RAF men, five from the USAAF, one South African, one Canadian, one New Zealander, and three Australians. As well as adjusting to captivity, they had to learn to live with each other. John Dack of 463 Squadron, one of the other Australians, had a head start. He had been captured with his crew member, Canadian Frank Major and had met Lumsden at the interrogation centre. Cy Borsht, another Australian and also from 463 Squadron, had been lost on the same operation as Dack and Major. Dack recalled that ‘Cy is much shorter than me and we were known as Mutt and Jeff. I’m not sure who was which. He had the ability to bring people together in quite close relationships’. Generally speaking, Borsht succeeded but it was very much an eternal joint effort to maintain cordiality. There was one squeaky wheel—‘an overbearing character’—one of the Americans. But, as in any family, he was tolerated, because ‘he was one of us’.

Each room was called a ‘mess’. The inhabitants pooled their Red Cross parcels and scrupulously shared everything out. Everyone in the mess had his own task. Some groups rotated the jobs, others designated them permanently to the individuals. Although he had no great aptitude for it, Lumsden agreed to be his mess’s cook. To volunteer for such a position was particularly courageous. If he failed, the mess starved. Happily, he proved more than competent in his new role. Dack remembered that meal times were ‘generally very pleasant social occasions, mainly due to Bruce’s patience and understanding, and above all, his ability to make things palatable.’

Long term prisoners had hoped that the war would be over by Christmas. By the time Lumsden arrived, it was all too obvious that that would not be the case. Lumsden and his new friends soon set about planning their Christmas dinner. Old stagers had been planning for months. They had saved up little titbits from when the Red Cross parcels had been plentiful and some had already had quite a good store cupboard of festive niceties. Lumsden’s mess, however, ‘were the newest kriegies’, with few stored up supplies, because ‘desperate hunger drove us to eat every crumb and morsel of our meagre rations’. Lumsden worried if it would be possible, ‘from our slender resources, to place on the table on Christmas Day a meal that even slightly resembled a traditional Christmas Dinner?’ Somehow, they would do it.

Nobby Clarke, who, as ‘quartermaster’, was in charge of the pantry, started eking out their rations even more stringently. He sliced the bread thinner, he scraped the margarine so finely that the bread had barely a covering. He swiped the tastiest items from the parcels before Lumsden could even start planning his next meal. Somehow, almost miraculously, the ‘goon rations’ one day included semolina and molasses, and a Christmas parcel from the American Red Cross arrived full of nutritional ‘wealth beyond our wildest dreams’.  

The most precious items in Nobby Clarke’s pantry were the ingredients for the Christmas pudding. In a recipe that bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything from my family cook book, Lumsden mixed together crumbled crusts of Reich bread, a chocolate D-bar, semolina, crumbled American biscuits, raisins, prunes, sugar, molasses, margarine, Klim powdered milk, four 4 cups of pre-cooked barley, a tin of orange juice, a spoonful of coffee and a pinch of salt.

When Lumsden had finished blending the mixture—all 21 pounds of it—each man honoured the age old tradition of stirring the pudding and making a wish. None revealed his wish—it would not come true! But, as Lumsden recalled, decades later, ‘you may be sure that the same wish came from every heart.’

Pudding stirred, wishes completed, the mixture was poured into a calico bag, tied up, boiled for four hours, and then hung from the rafters ‘to await the day’.

Lumsden also made a Christmas cake from a combination of scrounged and saved camp ingredients and American Red Cross largesse. Despite Lumsden’s lack of culinary skill, his mess had faith in him. When the cake came out of the oven, ‘with the whole mess watching eagerly, it looked and smelt superb!’

Pudding and cake sorted, it was time to deck the halls, just like they, or their families would have done if it had been a normal Christmas at home. Decorations were of the home made variety and improvisation was the name of the game in a camp where every man was trying to create a festive air with scant resources. Toilet paper was turned into streamers, coloured by crayons, and were festooned from wall to rafter. They saved white card from the Red Cross parcels and John Dack and Cy Borsht, Room 7’s other Australians who had artistic talents (they were both studying architecture) produced individual table menus. As much as they could, Lumsden and his friends created a sense of home and celebration in the dingy prison room.

And then it was Christmas day.

Each man who had arrived in camp had experienced some sort of trauma—crash landing in flames; baling out; battle wounds; death of comrades; survivor guilt—not to mention the despair of being taken prisoner and assorted difficulties in adjusting to captivity. Each man was older than his years and yet, to Lumsden, ‘the joy and excitement of Christmas morning was close to child-like in its unabashed naiveté. It is not possible to explain how war-hardened young men, locked up in a prison camp in far-off eastern Europe in mid-winter could be so softened by the consciousness that it was Christmas morning.’

After a breakfast that in itself seemed a feast, morning appel and a short church service, they began their preparations for their biggest meal since imprisonment. They decided not to serve dinner until after the 3 o’clock roll call, so they wouldn’t be interrupted. Lumsden started boiling the pudding at 1.30 pm and it ‘boiled merrily away at the back and other pots and cooking dishes were in place’.

As he stood at the stove, stirring and checking, and breathing in the aroma of a well-cooked and much anticipated meal, Paul Louis … a most likeable American Jew and a friend of mine’ asked if the deeply religious Lumsden would say grace before the meal. Louis may not have shared Lumsden’s faith but he knew that Christmas was more than just a religious celebration. It represented family and hope. ‘Somehow’, Lumsden recalled, Louis ‘felt this was the most significant and should not be omitted’. Even so, he was reluctant.

While imprisonment tested the faith of many men, Lumsden had found succour, strength and comfort from the Christian fellowship of a bible study and prayer group. They, however, were in the minority and were, perhaps, treated as suspect by the majority: in a camp which had developed its own language—‘kriegie-speak’—Lumsden and his friends had their own entry in the camp lexicon: ‘god botherer’. Given this, ‘I protested that other members of the mess might object. But he had already put it to the company and the desire, he told me, was unanimous.’ Cy Borsht was one who valued faith, regardless of creed. He and his close crew had worshipped together. As Dack recalled, they took ‘turns to visit each other’s church, or, in Cy’s case, the Synagogue.’

Lumsden ‘was much touched.’ They may have come from all walks of life, but Lumsden’s mess had formed their own family—symbolised as much as anything by the sharing of ‘household’ tasks, and the solemn stirring of the Christmas pudding—and they had much to be grateful for, despite their situation. He accepted Louis’ invitation to say grace.

And so, ‘…we rushed back to the hut [after appel] hardly able to contain our excited anticipation. I cannot remember the words I used in my grace, but I recall the quiet participation of every man present, especially when I expressed our thoughts for our homes and families and for our return to them soon’.

Grace said, very item on the menu was carefully shared out eighteen ways. Then, tin plates laden, the men ate and enjoyed the tantalising flavours. John Dack recalled that ‘not one of us could possibly forget the emotions of that particular Christmas Day.’ He believed that their memorable day had been because of the ‘character of one man, and his ability to make us all feel as one. That is apart from his ability to feed us.’ But each man in that mess had all played their part in creating a small sense of home despite the difficulties of captivity: the ‘twice daily appels, ablutions, discussions sometimes bordering on arguments, talking and dreaming about food, trying to find something to read, anything to find relief from the ever present boredom.’

Christmas is a day of sharing, for remembering happy times, and for looking towards the future. When Cy Borsht artistically rendered the Belaria ‘Xmas Bash’ in his wartime log book, illustrating the Christmas tree, fully laden table and a smiling cook holding the plum pudding, he made a slip of the pen. When he recorded the date, he noted it as 25 December 1945. Perhaps he was dreaming of a future Christmas, with the same sense of happiness and festivity, but in a time of peace.

Peace would come, but not for many months, and Lumsden and his friends would endure much hardship before they returned home and to their own families. One thing was certain: ‘Every man knew that as long as he lived, this had been a Christmas dinner that he would never forget.’

This account of Christmas in Belaria for three Australians and their wartime companions is drawn from the recollections of Bruce Clyde Lumsden and Irwin John Dack. I would appreciate any assistance in locating their families. (The illustration comes from another source.)
I include a link for one of my favourite Christmas carols. It is a newish version of The Little Drummer Boy by my favourite singer and his Christmas guest. It includes a special wish for the peace on earth that Bruce Lumsden, John Dack, Cy Borsht and their comrades fought for.

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