Monday, 31 October 2016

Jimmy Catanach and Heather Ebbott

I was very privileged to visit the Shrine of Remembrance on 20 October 2016 to consult the James Catanach Collection as part of my PhD research on the responses to captivity of the Australian airmen of Stalag Luft III and their next of kin. The below is a reflection on items in the collection. It does not include specific details of Jimmy Catanach’s background, military service, life in Stalag Luft III, participation in the Great Escape or death. Some of those details appear briefly in 

You learn something new every day.

Before trawling through the Shrine of Remembrance’s James Catanach Collection, I had no idea that Jimmy had had a girlfriend (or at least a friend who was a girl) before leaving Australia. There was nothing in the squadron history, nothing on his NAA file and, it if had been mentioned in documentaries, I’d missed it. But being the romantic soul I am, I thought perhaps I would have remembered it.

Items from the Shrine of Remembrances James Catanach Collection, on display in the POW section of the Second World War galleries. Photo taken by Vlad Bunevich, reproduced courtesy of the Shrine of Remembrance.

The James Catanach Collection holds insect damaged copies of what seems to be the first letters Jimmy wrote to his family from captivity. The first, dated 27 September 1942 and sent from Dulag Luft, was addressed to his father William, stepmother Sybil, and Da, his old nanny, Winifred Munt. In it, he mentions the limitations to his ability to correspond—‘I will be able to write two of these letters a month’—and so, to make the most of his allowance, asks that they let him include Heather with the family letters. This he does on the next one, written from Stalag Luft III on 16 October. ‘Dear Dad, Syb, Da and Heather …. Trust you are all well, will write again as soon as possible. Do keep writing. All my love always, JIM.

Author’s photo of James Catanach, 455 Squadron 1942

So, who was Heather? Well, if she was a girlfriend it seems that, in including her with the family letter, she was simply a fond friend, certainly no one overly special because, surely, she would have rated at least one personal letter from his monthly allowance if they had any sort of romantic understanding? But there are no more family letters in the Shrine’s collection so it is impossible to discern Jimmy’s true feelings towards her. Indeed, there is only one small hint that he might be missing female companionship in general—if not hers in particular—and that appears in a letter he wrote to his brother Bill on 28 March 1943 (almost exactly a year before his death on 29 March 1944) when he spoke of the conditions within Stalag Luft III: ‘the worst thing I find is the lack of comradeship male + female and the futility of the existence’.

The James Catanach Collection holds no other clue to Heather’s identity but a quick scan of the The Argus’s 19 May 1944 ‘Death on Active Service’ notices reveals her identity:

Catanach—On March 25 [sic] (while POW German) Squadron Leader Jimmie Catanach DFC, the loved friend of Heather Ebbott.

A notice from her family, in the same edition, indicates that Jimmy was also beloved of Heather’s family:

Catanach—A tribute to Squadron Leader Jimmie Catanach DFC, the beloved friend of the Ebbott family. Condemning all things mean, his truth unquestioned and his soul serene. 

The ‘In Memoriam’ notice on the third anniversary of Jimmy’s death (The Argus 25 March 1947) indicates that Heather and her family still held fond memories of him and continued to grieve his loss:
Catanach—A tribute to the loving memory of Squadron Leader Jimmy Catanach (Heather and Ebbott family).

But life goes on, and it seems this notice was more than just a remembrance. It was also Heather’s public farewell to Jimmy because on 14 June 1947, she married Lieutenant Jack Miscamble Shaw of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve. Sadly, that marriage failed. Shaw remarried in June 1952 and Heather married Wilson Palmer Bill Johnstone in November 1952. A lovely home at Colac awaited them. On 6 August 1953, a son, Timothy Gilmour, was born. And from that point, I could find no more reference to Heather in the online newspaper archive. I hope she had a happy life but it continued to be touched by tragedy. Her only son, Tim, died in 1971 while still a student at The Geelong College.  

The Argus6 November 1952

That’s one of the things I love about researching. Public and private collections don’t always tell the whole story but they offer hints for further enquiry. If you question the little things, like ‘Dear Dad, Syb, Da and Heather’—who on earth is Heather? (and Da, AKA Winifred Munt, for that matter, but that is another story)—you can discover so much more. 

As well as revealing Jimmys connection to Heather Ebbott, his brief letters reveal something else which is particularly interesting to me and my research. In entreating ‘Dear Dad, Syb, Da and Heather to Do keep writing, Jimmy Catanach demonstrates that captivity is the not the sole province of the prisoner of war. It is a state shared by homefolks who are called upon to provide continued support to help the prisoner manage and endure captivity. Jimmy demonstrates that, in telling them to do keep writing’, he is ensuring a key place in their thoughts and routines. Not only will they not forget him, but he will be able to look forward to letters that will help ameliorate the monotony of captivity and his place in their hearts and lives will be maintained. Indeed, he is actively managing the activities of his kith and kin.   

While we know from newspaper evidence that Heather maintained fond memories of Jimmy beyond his death, we dont know how significant she was to him. Regardless of the depth of his emotional or romantic feelings towards Heather, Jimmy needed her assistance as much as that of his parents and his old nanny. The Shrine of Remembrances James Catanach Collection reveals that, in linking Heather Ebbott with his parents in the monthly family letter, Jimmy expected her to play a vital role in helping him endure and survive captivity. As far as the Collection is concerned, all of the other letters home from Jimmy are lost. It does not contain a last letter. I can't help asking, does it exist? Is it still held within the family, or did Jimmy send a separate one to Heather? Questions, questions, questions. Probably never to be answered. 

I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Shrine of Remembrances helpful staff who made my October 2016 visit such an enjoyable, illuminating and moving experience: Jenna Blyth, Collections Manager, who facilitated my access to the James Catanach Collection, Neil Sharkey, Exhibitions Curator, for additional details about the collection, and Vlad Bunevich  for the photo of the James Catanach Exhibit.

The Shrine of Remembrance, 20 October 2016. Authors photo

No comments:

Post a Comment