Thursday, 18 August 2016

Australian compass makers ... and more

Trawling through the history of Stalag Luft III’s North Compound, I found this interesting snippet about Australian George Gray Russell of 457 Squadron RAAF.

Russell worked closely with Albert Hake, another Australian, of 72 Squadron RAF to make the compasses used for the Great Escape. Working with the assistance from time to time of other POWs, Russell and Hake produced 500 compasses by March 1944. The cases were made from melted gramophone records and the needles were ordinary steel needles or strips of razor blades which had been magnetised. (In a letter to his wife in June 1943, Hake suggested she send razor blades. I wonder if they were appropriated for ‘the cause’?) The compasses were painted with luminous paint and waterproofed. The North Compound history notes that ‘the compass-makers were so good at their work that other sources of supply were relatively unimportant’.

 This picture of Russell is lifted from the Spitfire Association website and you can find more details about Russell there.

This photo of Hake is courtesy of the Preen family archive.

Russell and Hake had both been captured on 4 April 1942 and apparently, Russell was the only man from 457 Squadron to be taken POW. But not only had they been captured on the same day, both men—Spitfire pilots who hailed from Sydney and had been born in 1916; Russell was the elder by six months—had been part of the same escort for 12 Bostons which had been tasked with attacking St Omer Railway Station, in France. Both had been caught by FW 190s, baled out, and had been captured almost immediately. Hake had sustained some injuries and was shunted off to hospital. He was then sent to Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe interrogation centre.

Russell, however, had been taken to Dulag Luft shortly after he was captured and stayed there from 5 April to 8 April 1942. There, it seems he met Hake, as well as Timbury Alan ‘Tim’ Mayo, of 12 Squadron and Allen Bruce Slater of 75 Squadron, who had both been downed on 25 March, and Bernard Francis Mooney, of 252 Squadron who had been in German hands since 11 March.

Courtesy of Peter Mayo.

It seems that these five men were transported from Dulag Luft to Stalag Luft III at the same time, or certainly within days of each other (Russell and Slater noted 8 April, but Mayo stated 9 April), along with a much larger intake of men transferred to the newly opened Stalag Luft III, including a group of men from Stalag Luft I, Barth including long term prisoners of war James Anthony Cathcart ‘Tony’ Gordon, Ian Alexander ‘Digger’ McIntosh, Francis Raymond Graeme-Evans (known variously as Frank or Grimey) and Vincent ‘Bush’ Parker, who I first met as the only Australian Battle of Britain pilot to be taken prisoner of war.   

On arrival, the newbie prisoners lined up for processing by the Luftwaffe staff, their finger prints were taken, their family details recorded, as well as personal details. It seems that they were processed in alphabetical order as Hake’s prisoner of war number was 6, Mayo was number 20, Mooney was 22, Russell was 27 and Slater was allocated POW No. 29.

Letters home emphasised the positives of their new life as prisoners of war or in a particularly vulnerable moment how they felt at having been taken prisoner but a note Mooney sent to the Casualty Branch indicates that at least one focussed on the effect of captivity on his career, and that he equated captivity with death.

I’m sorry my career had to be cut short as I was just working my way up. I ended up as Acting Flight Lieutenant. It would not have been long for another but on being taken prisoner I had to go back to my substantive rank. My last job was a great battle and put my bag up to double figures (which includes 3 probables). I may of course get a DFC to my DFM. Maybe they forget dead men.

But not all prisoners considered themselves dead. They were still active servicemen, albeit behind bars.

Before he turned to compass making, Hake was known to have worked on carpentry such as making hiding places, tunnel and equipment such as shoring, ladders, sledges and traps. Tony Gordon got his hands dirty digging tunnels, taught judo, joined the gymnastics troupe and, in East Compound was noted for his metal work, and in North Compound was involved with the secret radio. 

Digger McIntosh was one of those who joined the theatre crowd and organised entertainments and, on 12 June 1943, was one of 27 prisoners who participated in North Compounds first mass escape attempt. 

By that stage, there had been a long tradition of escape activity in Stalag Luft III, which commenced shortly after it opened to new prisoners. Vince Parker, for instance, made his first attempt to escape within days of arrival. While in the cooler for that, he ensured a place in the in the history of East Compound as the first to attempt a wire scheme:

while serving a sentence in cells for a previous attempt to escape … [he] stole a key from a door and altered it with a nail file to fit the lock of his cell. While a fellow prisoner diverted the guard’s attention, Parker opened the door, jumped through a window and climbed the perimeter fence. He wore RAF trousers and a grey sweater, but had no escape equipment. Travelling partly by goods trains, which he boarded in shunting yards, and partly on a stolen bicycle, he reached Zulichau, on the Polish frontier, in five days. Here he was seen and caught whilst climbing into a train going to Warsaw, where he intended to get help. He was sent back to the Camp and sentenced to twenty days in cells.

Parker didn’t last long in Stalag Luft III: he fetch up in Colditz where all the hard core escapers were sent. But many of those left behind left their own mark on Stalag Luft III, including Russell and Hake, who—after the transfer to North Compound in April 1943—diligently produced 500 compasses. Hake took one of those compasses and … Well, we know his tragic outcome as I’ve already told his story elsewhere.

Some of the men mentioned above in this photo taken in North Compound, April 1943. Courtesy of Peter Mayo.
I would like to know more about George Gray Russell's and Digger McIntosh's experiences as a prisoner of war and would welcome hearing from any member of his family who can help.   

No comments:

Post a Comment