Sunday, 24 April 2016

ANZAC Day 1944

Anzac Day 1944 in SLIII

At 2.30 am on 25 April 1944, Minnie Archer and her daughter, Mavis, walked from Sydney’s Brighton Le Sands to Rockdale, where they caught a special train to Martin Place. Mrs Archer thought that only 3 or 400 would make the effort to attend the Dawn Service but ‘I got a shock when I saw so many people there. … Martin Place was crowded. 20,000.’ As well as honouring the war dead, it is likely that Mrs Archer would have prayed for the safe-keeping of her son, George, who had been a prisoner of war since July 1942. Apart from a 6 month stint in Oflag XXIB, he had spent all of his captivity in Stalag Luft III’s East Compound. ‘The service was beautiful’, she wrote in an airgraph to George a few days later. (He didn’t receive it until September.) ‘I was glad I went’.

Later that morning, during the Solemn Requiem Mass held at St Mary’s Cathedral on 25 April 1944, Father O’ Brien told the congregation that ‘Today Australia is deep in thought as well as in sorrow for the 70,000 men dead, prisoners of war, missing and wounded.’ If some of those prisoners were also deep in thought, they weren’t letting on. They were making the most of the day.

In Stalag Luft III’s East Compound, a church service was held in the theatre by Padre Thompson, a British Methodist padre who had been captured in North Africa. Almost certainly, George Archer was present at this service as he was one of the Camp Church stewards. Afterwards, the Australians and New Zealanders staged a sporting carnival which included basketball, soccer and golf. The prisoners of war may have been denied many liberties during their incarceration but the Australian sports lovers were better off than their home front compatriots: in early April, Prime Minister Curtin had announced that organised sports meetings were prohibited on Anzac Day. Gerald Carroll, an army orderly was proudly nationalist and noted when the Australians beat their New Zealand opponents.


The Australians in North Compound also mixed faith and sport. There, Padre Walton—‘a Church Army type from NZ’, as Harry ‘Gobi’ Train recalled him—conducted a service for the Australians and New Zealanders. After that, Hauptmann Hans Pieber took some group photos. As well as gathering for the North Compound photo, the Australians divided into state groups, including the West Australians and New South Welshmen. For one New South Welshman, the day meant more than sport, community and commemoration: this was also Ronald Bowen Anzac Pender’s 29th birthday (and his second in captivity). He had been born on the very first Anzac Day.
Copies of Pieber’s photos appear in a number of books and the collections of many of the North Compound Australians such as Laurie Simpson, Ken Carson, Ronald Baines, Len Netherway, and Torres Ferres.
The ranks of those gathering for the group portraits were depleted by the five Australians who had recently been killed in what would later be called the Great Escape: James Catanach, John Williams, Tom Leigh (whose Australian connection would not be recognised for many years afterwards), Reginald Kierath and Albert Hake.

Their deaths were felt by all their fellow prisoners of North Compound, but their Australian friends in East Compound too felt the shock of their loss. On 8 May, George Archer sat down to write his monthly letter to his mother Minnie, his father, and the ‘rest of [the] gang’.

Tumbled in among a catalogue of letters and parcels received, instructions to the family to send more parcels to his English friends, details of the basketball games he enjoyed playing in order to keep fit, and greetings passed on to friends from another prisoner, was an oblique reference to the deaths of two of the Australian Great Escapers: ‘Bill Catanach and Allan Hake met with an accident and were buried last March’.
It is not likely that someone who had worn a black armband to commemorate the deaths of fellow Australians, with whom he had shared a compound (they had been in East Compound with George when they first arrived at Stalag Luft III) would forget their names. George’s letters home had been censored in the past and so it seems he deliberately obscured the names to ensure the news slipped past the censors.

It would be a few months before Minnie Archer received this sad news, well after the kin of the Escapers had been notified.
In due course, their names were added to Australian casualty lists and, on 17 May 1944, Albert Hake’s wife received the telegram advising that her husband had lost his life on 25 March 1944—one month before his former friends gathered to remember all war dead—‘while attempting to escape from confinement of a prisoner of war’.

Noela Hake spent a life time remembering her young husband and her extended family also remembered Albert. A proud moment was when his great nephew and great niece honoured him on Anzac Day 1997.  


  1. Thanks Shane. It is only a small piece but I hope to build on it later on for the thesis.