Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Great Escaper: Thomas Barker Leigh

This piece originally appeared on kristenalexanderauthor.blogspot.com.au on 30 October 2014.

My research into the Australians of Stalag Luft III is going slowly but surely. Happily, since handing in the manuscript for one book, and publication of another, I have had more time available to simply read around the subject and delve into files. Regular readers of my blog and various Facebook pages may recall that I have written a couple of posts regarding Thomas Barker Leigh, and he appeared in the commemorative article I wrote about the Great Escape that was published in Sabretache back in June.



Here is a little more about Tom Leigh’s life.

Tom Leigh was born in Waverley, Sydney, on 11 February 1919. He was the second son—and child—of a British father and Australian mother who lived in Shanghai, China. His mother had returned to Australia for his birth, and later for that of his sister. By the time of his mother’s death in 1926, Tom and his siblings were much travelled, having visited Australia on a number of occasions. Their father died in 1932, but the three children had lived in England since their mother’s death. They all attended boarding schools and spent holidays with family friends or their guardian.

After turning 15, Tom took the entrance examination for the Training Ship Mercury. He passed, was declared medically fit for sea service, and commenced on 30 September 1934.

TS Mercury was located near Hamble airfield near Southampton, in Hampshire and it seems the aerial activities attracted Tom’s attention. Rather than the natural progression into the Royal Navy or Merchant service, within months he was being coached for the entrance examination at the Royal Air Force’s No. 1 School of Technical Training at Halton, located near the village of Halton, in Buckinghamshire the heart of the Chilterns. He left Mercury on 29th July 1935 and joined the 32nd Entry of apprentices on 20 August. Allocated service number 568142, he was attached to A Squadron, No. 1 Wing as an aero engine Fitter II. He was promoted to Leading Apprentice and took on additional responsibilities which usually included commanding a room of 21 junior boys. With responsibility came privilege, and he moved from his dormitory to a room of his own. He passed out on 26th July 1938 and was attached to 48 Squadron squadron as an Aircraftman 2nd Class.

Tom was later offered aircrew training and was posted as an air gunner to the newly reforming 76 Squadron RAF in May 1941. Based at Linton-on-Ouse, Yorkshire, 76 was a heavy bomber squadron. After relocating to Middleton St George, County Durham, the squadron carried out its first operation on the night of 12/13 June. It continued to play its part in the RAF’s bombing offensive, carrying out raids on a variety of targets including industrial centres and railways.

Tom was commissioned as an officer and allocated service number 46462 with effect from 2 August 1941. This was gazetted on 30 September 1941. But he did not see the gazettal.

On the night of 5 August 1941, he was the rear air gunner on Handley Page Halifax L9516, which was tasked with bombing railway workshops at Karlsruhe in southwest Germany. They took off from Middleton St George at about 9.45 p.m. and reached the target area with little worry. They bombed the larger of two fires below, possibly at Mannheim, and were then badly coned. They copped a lot of flak and one half of the Halifax’s tail unit was destroyed. At about 2.00 a.m., the pilot, Sergeant Thomas Byrne, put the Halifax into a steep dive and gave the order to bale out. Byrne made it as far as the Belgian coast where he was shot down by a fighter, and crashed near Glabbeek in Belgium. He was captured at Louvain shortly afterwards.

It seems the Halifax was quite low before the men were able to jump. Flight Sergeant Cyril Flockhart, for instance, parachuted out at 500 or 600 feet. He landed on a road between Worms and Lampertheim and was later captured near Worms. Sergeants George Taylor and Leonard Thomson were captured near Karlsruhe and Sergeant John Pitt was nabbed at Mannheim. Sergeant Brown did not survive.

Tom was on the run for about five hours before he, like Flockhart, was caught near Worms at 7.00 a.m. He and Flockhart travelled separately after landing, and were not captured together, but both were taken to the barracks at Worms where they were interrogated by a series of polite Army and Luftwaffe officers, who all spoke English well. Later that day, they were taken to Dulag Luft at Oberusel, near Frankfurt, where they experienced more sophisticated interrogation.

From there, Tom was purged to another camp but, by October 1942, was in Stalag Luft III near Sagan, in the German province of Lower Silesia.  He was originally in East Compound and, when it was opened in March 1943, he was moved to North Compound, from which he made his bid for escape on the night of 24/25 March 1944.

There are many gaps in Tom’s story and I will slowly work on filling them. Sometimes, if I am lucky, scraps of information, gleaned from official forms and letters, when combined with memories, take on a new meaning.

The only photos of Tom are black and white. I spend hours looking at them trying to glean every possible shred of evidence from them; trying to conjure something of the three dimensional personality hidden by the two dimensional image. Tom looks such a happy young man in the photo, snapped so many decades ago. His eyes shine and dance and smile. His service record revealed that those glowing eyes were blue. Blue eyes. To know that, makes all the difference. So too, does the recollection of Canadian George Sweanor, who recalls that Tom had a boyish charm that appeared so carefree.

When the time came to nominate the inscription for Tom’s headstone, his sister nominated this quartet from Kipling:

E’en as he trod that day to God
So walked he from his birth
In singleness and gentleness
and honour and clear mirth.

 (NOTE: this is how it was provided to me by a family member. The third line is misquoted and I don’t know if this mistake is the sister’s or the IWGC’s.)

Because of letter limitations, the Imperial War Graves Commission would only allow a contraction:

E’en as he trod
that day to God
So walked he
from his birth

How well George’s recollection tallies with the way Tom’s sister remembered him, as attested by the Kipling quote, and also from his smiling photos.

I was thrilled when Geoff Swallow recently provided me with a copy of Tom’s grave so I could see the meaningful inscription. For those of you who don’t know, Geoff is the man behind the RAAF Deaths Photographic Archive of Headstones and Memorials and his aim is to collect headstones or memorial photos of every one of these Australians who died in the Air Force in WWII. Please like his Facebook page if you haven’t already done so. https://www.facebook.com/pages/RAAF-Deaths-Photographic-Archive-of-Headstones-and-Memorials-WW2-by-Spidge/223714254314847?fref=ts  
Here is the photo of Tom’s headstone at Poznan Cemetery, which Geoff sent.

This photo was taken during one of the All Saints Day ceremonies, held on 1 November every year. On this day, Polish Catholics make pilgrimages to the graves of those who have gone before. They tend the graves, lay wreaths, and light candles. As evening falls, the flickering candlelight creates a wonderfully evocative, reflective atmosphere.

Friday, 6 February 2015

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

This piece originally appeared on kristenalexanderauthor.blogspot.com.au 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.
 

Thomas Barker Leigh: Australians in Stalag Luft III and the Great Escape

This piece originally appeared on kristenalexanderauthor.blogspot.com.au on 9 May 2014.

Great Escaper Thomas Barker Leigh was a former ‘Trenchard Brat’; he joined the 32nd Entry at No. 1 School of Technical Training (Apprentices) at Halton and passed out in 1938.


The Halton Apprentices’ Association has installed a number of beautiful commemorative stained glass windows at St. George’s Church, RAF Halton. The four corners of the 32nd Entry’s window illustrate the Rose of England and the beech trees of Halton. From the top of the window to the bottom is shown the King’s Crown for George V, Edward VIII and George VI, The RAF Eagle, the Entry dates and number, the apprentice wheel on a laurel wreath and banners showing the trades, the two wings and the apprentices unwritten code, “Honour”.




I think that unwritten code is particular apt when applying to someone involved in the Great Escape.
 
The Escape window commemorates the 3 former 'brats' who took part in the Great Escape but were caught and later executed: Flt. Lt. William Jack Grisman, 23rd Entry- Navigator, Flt. Lt. Edgar Spotiswoode-Humphreys, 25th Entry - Pilot, and Flt. Lt. Thomas Barker Leigh, 32nd Entry - Air Gunner.




 
The Halton archivist kindly allowed me to 'borrow' the Great Escape and 32 Entry window. They are just a small handful of the many stained glass tributes. Others who want to see these and all of the windows (and many have descriptions of the iconography) can go to www.oldhaltonians.co.uk Click TRIBUTE and then stained glass windows.
 
I have lots more to discover about Thomas Barker Leigh and his fellow Australian escapers but I have been working on this quietly for over a year now and it will keep me busy for some time yet.  I am keen to get cracking on a worthy tribute to these men! Happily, my publisher is also keen and is looking forward to the results of my Stalag Luft III/Great Escape research. Book No Four is in production, Book No Five is almost finished, so now I can really start focusing on Book No. Six!
 
If anyone has stories of Australians in Stalag Luft III they would like to share with me, please get in touch. alexfax@alexanderfaxbooks.com.au

70th anniversary of the Great Escape.

This piece originally appeared on http://kristenalexanderauthor.blogspot.com.au 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)