43 Years. Albert Hake: An Australian in the Great Escape.Talk for Rotary Club of South Launceston, 26 May 2016.
Approximately 340 Australian airmen were incarcerated in what is perhaps the most notorious of all German prisoner of war camps. That reputation is based on the Great Escape—and its tragic aftermath.
Two hundred men tried to escape from Stalag Luft III on the night of 24 March 1944. Seventy-six succeeded in fleeing the camp. Only three made it home. Of the 73 who were recaptured, fifty were executed on Hitler’s order. Five of those men were Australian and tonight, I’m going to tell you about one of them: 27-year-old Albert Hake. But this isn’t just Albert’s story. It’s also the story of his wife, Noela.
Young Albert enjoyed sailing and served as an altar boy at church.
He was academically bright and excelled in mathematics, science, metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. He was awarded a scholarship to Sydney’s Central Technical School where he was assessed as ‘capable and painstaking’. He later gained an apprenticeship with an air conditioning firm and, during his time off, was a keen ice-skater. One day in early 1940, he met a striking brunette at the local ice skating rink, and was smitten.
In between work and outings with Noela, Albert joined the RAAF reserve.
He was called up on 4 January 1941 and sent to Victoria for initial training. He and Noela married on 1 March, during a four day leave pass.
With hardly any time together during their marriage, Albert embarked for the UK in September. There, he was rated ‘above average’ and ranked as one of the top three pilots on his operational training course. Then, on 21 January 1942, he was posted to 72 Squadron RAF, flying Spitfires.
Over the next few weeks, Albert carried out convoy patrols, sweeps across France, and escort duties. On 4 April, he took part in a large escort for a bomber squadron which had been tasked with attacking a French railway station. Just south of the target, the Luftwaffe pounced. Albert’s Spitfire was hit by flak which smashed into the propeller. He turned for home but was attacked by five enemy aircraft. He collected a bullet through the leg of his trousers and his engine was set on fire. Despite a crippled aircraft, Albert continued to fight and managed to strike one of the enemy fighters. But his Spitfire was too damaged to cross the Channel homeward. He was forced to bale.
Albert landed close to a German troop depot and was captured almost immediately. After a stint in hospital to recover from burns and shrapnel injuries, he was sent to Stalag Luft III, the Luftwaffe’s state-of-the-art prisoner of war camp, located near Sagan in the German province of Lower Silesia. This camp was surrounded by a dense pine forest and was designed to be virtually escape proof. As a warrant officer, Albert should have been confined to the non-commissioned officers’ compound, but, as his rank insignia had burnt off, the Germans assumed he was an officer because he’d been flying a Spitfire. Albert didn’t disillusion them.
‘I feel a cad ending up like this darling’, he told Noela in his first letter as a POW.
This was a fairly common response. Prisoners of war often felt that they had let the side down by being captured. They somehow blamed themselves. Many agonised about being taken out of the war effort. Some even felt deeply ashamed. They also worried that the folks at home might think they were luxuriating out of harm’s way while others defended and protected country and empire. Indeed, for Albert, it was important to reinforce to Noela that he had been fighting right up to the last minute: ‘I got one which evens up my loss.’
Many of the prisoners tried to make light of their circumstances. With tongue firmly in cheek, some referred to Stalag Luft III as ‘Heaven among the Pines’ while others likened it to a holiday camp. Albert also presented a rose-coloured portrait of captivity to Noela because, ‘I would have you believe the pleasant pictures of happy POWs which I am assured are portrayed to worried relatives’. He told her of their ‘vegetable gardens, library, educational classes, band, musical tuition and sports of all kinds’, and sent photos where he looked happy and healthy with his new friends, if not splendidly attired.
He took up sketching, and was studying air conditioning, to upgrade or at least maintain his skills, as he and a friend planned to establish their own business after the war. He had also formed a band with his roommates and was learning to play a banjo. ‘Don’t be deceived by thinking we make music’, he joked to Noela.
As time passed, Albert wrote little about what he was doing to stay positive. Captivity is not an easy state. Those who couldn’t adjust to it were more likely to suffer from depression or worse: barbed wire psychosis. While Albert never endured this psychological extreme, he often experienced mood swings, or what he called a ‘fluctuating temperament’.
Albert had a lifeline which helped him cope: his strong, continuing connection to home. Noela was a faithful wife, she regularly wrote letters, passed on news from family and friends, and sent comfort parcels to her husband. They were as close as could be, given the circumstances, but with letters taking four months or longer between Australia and Germany, it was increasingly more difficult to nurture a long distance marriage. And Albert’s frustration at being apart became obvious. He needed something more than just Noela to help him cope with captivity.
Escape was the most important coping mechanism for many, and, when plans were set in motion for the grand scheme which would later become known as the Great Escape, most of Stalag Luft III’s North Compound prisoners were involved in some way. Albert had a key role: he was in charge of compasses, which he meticulously crafted from Bakelite records, slivers of magnetised razor blades, glass from broken windows, and solder gleaned from the seals of tin cans. All were stamped ‘Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent pending’. With his precise technical drawing skills, he also forged documents.
(From Brickhill: The Great Escape)
The Great Escape was ambitious, but the men had high hopes of positive results because they knew of many successful attempts from other camps and from Stalag Luft III itself. Five months earlier, three men from East Compound had scored a home run via a tunnel constructed under a wooden vaulting horse. Of course, not every attempt was successful. Failed schemes far outweighed the home runs. But each would-be escaper had the satisfaction of knowing that he had tied up German resources looking for him. There may have been little chance of success, but they believed it would be worth it.
And so, North Compound’s prisoners dug three tunnels and concealed the evidence. John Williams led the carpentry team. Ably assisted by his Australian compatriot, Reg Kierath, they filched bed boards to shore up the tunnels.
Rosters of stooges watched out for German guards. Tailors fashioned civilian clothes, forgers created false papers. Others stole equipment and manufactured escape kits, all of which contained Albert’s compasses.
Not everyone would be able to make a bid for freedom, but it seems Albert hoped he would be one of the 200 chosen for the mass breakout, because his letters were full of hints to Noela that he would be home soon.
Months of hard work passed. Albert continued to churn out compasses. One tunnel was discovered. Another was decommissioned. The escapers were almost ready, and the mass breakout was scheduled for 24 March 1944. Albert was one of the 200.
Albert needed to write to Noela before he left. The Germans—and the prisoner hierarchy—censored everything so he had to be careful that he didn’t reveal anything that would alert the Germans. He started mundanely enough, thanking Noela for her most recent letters. He’d kept a record of their correspondence and told her that ‘I have everything to date’. As in most of his previous letters, Albert looked to the future he hoped to build with Noela beyond barbed wire. ‘Send me some wool you sweet kid and I’ll help knit those baby clothes.’
Even though the escape would be long in the past by the time she received this letter, Albert couldn’t resist dropping another hint about his intentions. It ‘shouldn’t be much longer darling and I’ll relieve you from the perpetual grind of your daily life. I hope.’
That ‘I hope’ seems to indicate that Albert had a sense of foreboding that something would go wrong, and it’s no wonder. He didn’t have a chance of getting home. For one, rather than being issued with train tickets as part of his escape kit, Albert was what they called a hard-arser—he had to make his way, as best he could, on foot. We don’t know exactly where Albert was heading, but neutral Switzerland—700 kilometres away as the crow flies—appeared to be his target. Of course, Albert could not take a direct route. Once the alert was sounded, there would be a Reich-wide manhunt, forcing him to avoid towns, roadblocks, and roving patrols.
(From Brickhill: The Great Escape)
Even if he could avoid the patrols, how easy would it be to trek cross country to Switzerland? It was still winter and, in his previous letter to Noela, written a few weeks earlier, he’d mentioned that ‘six inches of snow’ had fallen ‘during the night’. That hadn’t thawed, and more snow had fallen recently. He didn’t have decent footwear. His clothing was totally inadequate. The odds were stacked against him.
With so little chance of success, it’s not surprising that Albert was uneasy. He realised this could be his last letter to Noela and, between the lines—and with the benefit of 20–20 hindsight—we can see his fears that he might not survive the escape attempt. While he usually signed off with a simple declaration such as ‘All my love’, or ‘I love you’, followed by a happy ‘Cheerio’, this time his farewell was more sombre: ‘I love you as always. I hope I can justify your faith in me, dearest, one of these days. Remember me. Albert.’ And three final kisses.
At 8.30 pm on 24 March, the first escaper was on his way down the tunnel. But the breakout had got off to a bad start. The tunnel’s exit trap door had frozen solid. They’d miscalculated the length of the tunnel so it stopped short of the forest. Each man had to time his dash to the trees to ensure he was not espied by the guards, and that slowed things down. There was an air raid and the power went off in the tunnel, delaying proceedings further. Over-large blanket rolls got stuck as the men trolleyed to the exit. A frame was knocked out, causing a fall of sand which had to be cleared. Another was knocked out, and more sand had to be cleared. Two hundred men would not escape that night. Just before 5.00 am on 25 March, it was decided that the 87th escaper would be the last. Just as he disappeared down the shaft, a shot was heard. The Germans had discovered the escape but Albert, who had been number 70 in the tunnel, was already making his way through the pine trees.
No one knows exactly what happened to Albert. He was captured near Gorlitz, less than 50 kilometres south south-west of Sagan, en route to Switzerland. We think he had been free for no more than 72 hours. We know it was an arduous journey because Bob Nelson, a fellow escaper, travelled in roughly the same direction. He and his companion walked through the woods until dawn, then hid until dark and continued walking. At dawn on the 26th, they hid in a barn. They were so exhausted by the trek through snow and floods that they stayed there until they were discovered by a search party.
But Albert’s journey was worse than Nelson’s because he suffered excruciating frostbite. It was so bad he could barely walk when he was escorted to the civil prison at Gorlitz and put in a cell with some of the other escapers.
On the 30th of March, each man was interrogated. He was asked if he was married, if he had any children. Some were roughed up and threatened. Each was told that he had been sentenced to death.
The next day, Albert was taken from his cell again. He was so debilitated by frostbite that those looking out of the window thought that he was being sent to hospital. Others were removed from the cell. Some were returned to Stalag Luft III but six of them, including Albert and fellow Australian Tom Leigh, were driven to a wood.
The prisoners got out of the cars and were lined up next to each other. They were told that ‘the sentence was about to be carried out’. Given that they were accompanied by men with guns, it was clear how they would die. Albert and his fellow escapees showed considerable calm. And then the order to fire was given. A second salvo was delivered, and all the prisoners were dead.
Noela had lost her husband. They may have spent most of their brief marriage apart, but he was dearly loved, and sadly missed. And that was the inscription she had placed on his memorial gravestone.
As Albert had begged in his final letter, Noela remembered. She put in memoriam notices in the paper, year after year, as did other members of his family.
She relived the handful of days they had spent together. She recalled their future plans. She treasured Albert’s personal effects, returned after the war. She kept safe the certificate which stated that Albert had been mentioned in despatches for distinguished service.
She read and reread her husband’s letters, just as he had done with hers, while he was in Stalag Luft III. She never remarried.
In the late 1980s, Noela was approached by an historian who wanted to know about Albert’s background. She told him what she could and then asked one of his childhood friends to fill in the gaps.
Jean Heckendorf’s letter was full of vivid details of Albert’s life-before-Noela and, in thanking Jean for sharing her memories, Noela said that she ‘was very grateful as he’d never told me anything of his early life’.
That almost broke my heart when I read it.
Albert had been dead for over forty years before Noela learned of his deep grief over his mother’s early death.
Four decades passed before she learned about the time he and a friend stayed out all night in the sailboat that Albert had built under the house. Jean had sat up half the night, frantic that there had been an accident, waiting for word that all was well, and then, he sauntered in at breakfast time, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Noela was slipping into old age when she first laughed at the story of the possum that had escaped from Albert’s pocket during church.
She had to wait 43 years to discover the boy and man she had never known.
Fifty deaths was a tragic outcome of the Great Escape. But so too was the effect on those who were left behind. Those who never lived the life they’d planned. Those who never heard the stories. Like Noela.
My thanks to the Preen family for personal details of Albert and Noela Hake, and for photos from their collection.