Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The James Catanach Collection: musings on a couple of scrapbooks

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 http://australiansinsliii.blogspot.com.au/2015/02/70th-anniversary-of-great-escape.html  

I’ve been researching Australian airmen in some form or another for almost 15 years and it always gives me a thrill when I view the personal items collected and preserved by families. The huge scrapbook put together by Mrs Caldwell, cataloguing Clive Caldwell’s lifetime in the public eye. John Crossman’s service medals and diary which revealed his passion for flying, his fear of combat, and his acceptance of death. The love letter Alec Arnel tossed to his sweetheart from the train as it rumbled towards his first RAAF training posting. The searing grief of May Fraser in the face of the uncertainty of what had happened to her son Donald when he’d gone missing from air operations for the second time. Albert Hake’s last letter to his wife, Noela, before he trolleyed out of Tunnel Harry towards the Great Escape and execution. I could go on: the precious artefacts held by families are many and I have been privileged to share—and record details of—but a mere handful.

Treasured relics are not only held by families, of course. For many reasons, serious decisions are made to relinquish custody to collecting or memorial institutions of items which provide tangible testament of lives and service careers. The Australian War Memorial is perhaps the most obvious custodian of Australian military collections but it is not the only one. In my years, I have consulted private collections held by the Darwin Aviation Museum, the Narromine Aviation Museum, the RAAF Museum and the National Library of Australia, to name just a few. Most recently, I visited for the first time the archives of the Shrine of Remembrance to view the James Catanach Collection.


The Shrine of Remembrance. Authors photo 

I had first come across James Catanach—or Jimmy as he was ‘introduced’ to me—while researching Jack Davenport and I was intrigued by him. It wasn’t just because his DFC was gazetted in June 1942 while he was still only 20 years of age, or because he was acknowledged as the youngest Australian squadron leader. It was because I wanted to know more about the man who elicited such an enthusiastic accolade from 455 Squadron’s commanding officer, Wing Commander Grant Lindeman: ‘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’.


Left to right: Jack Davenport, Jimmy Catanach, Grant Lindeman, Leslie Oliver, and Bob Holmes, 1942. Just before they departed on Operation Orator. Authors photo

I’ve written a little about Jimmy elsewhere on this blog so won’t go into details about how he fetched up in Stalag Luft III, or how he was killed in the post-Great Escape reprisals. Instead, I want to talk about what the James Catanach Collection reveals about Jimmy and those who created the collection.

The collection consists of Jimmy’s flying log book, his DFC, service medals, framed and unframed commemorative certificates and citations, two watches, a clock, two scrapbooks, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and other documents, and a number of booklets. Some of these items are currently on display.


Photograph of James Catanach Exhibit, Shrine of Remembrance (POW section) by Vlad Bunevich, the Shrine of Remembrance, 26 October 2016. Reproduced courtesy of the Shrine of Remembrance. 

Some items first came into the Shrine’s possession back in 2013 when the Exhibition Curator borrowed them to include in a Bomber Command display. (455 Squadron may have been better known for its work in Coastal Command after it transferred to that command in April 1942, but its earlier work was with Bomber Command.) A formal donation of material was made in 2014, with artefacts originating from two donors. Just as the collection has multiple donors, it seems items were collected by a number of different people, over a number of generations.

Some items appear to have been sent to Jimmy’s brother Bill, others to Bill’s wife Corona and daughter Julia. The bulk of the official and personal correspondence was addressed to William Mercer Catanach, Jimmy’s father. Other official correspondence was sent to Jimmy’s stepmother, Sybil Louise Catanach after William’s death on 14 April 1947.

(A little family history interlude: William Mercer married Jimmy’s mother, Ruby McAinsh in 1908. They had three children, William Alan (Bill) in 1909, Peter Bryan, in 1915—he died in 1923—and James, who was born on 28 November 1921. Ruby died on 19 May 1931 and William Mercer married 26 year old Sybil, who was born in 1906, on 8 October 1932. Bill married Corona Shepherd on 6 March 1933. Their son, Blair, was born on 28 October 1936 and their daughter, Julia, was born on 29 May 1939. Incidentally, Sybil was not an unloved, unwelcome stepmother. Jimmy included her in correspondence home and she referred to herself as his ‘loving stepmother’ in a succession of memorial notices placed in The Argus over a number of years.)


Table Talk, 13 October 1932

For some items, such as the multitude of newspaper clippings, there is no attribution regarding who collected or created them, including the two scrapbooks.

The Shrine’s catalogue notes reveal that Scrapbook One consists of ‘newspaper clipping[s] regarding the RAAF and Pilot Officer James Catanach’. Scrapbook Two is also noted of comprising ‘newspaper clippings regarding the RAAF and Pilot Officer James Catanach’. While the creators are not recorded, I have enjoyed a bit of speculation as to who they might be.

On the face of it, the scrapbooks—which are the same sort of blank/unlined-paged, black-covered books—appear to have been compiled by the same person, and I initially thought that they had been created by Jimmy’s father. But I am not so sure about that now. For one, the inside front cover of Scrapbook One, bears, in ink, the name of WK Munt, Flat 4, 862 Malvern Rd, Armadale. Below that (also) in ink is ‘or’, and below that, in pencil, is Catanach Jeweller, Royal Arcade, Melbourne. And so, I think that Scrapbook One was created by Miss Winifred Munt, Jimmy’s former nanny, who was known as ‘Da’ to the Catanach family. It is possible that, given the ‘Catanach Jeweller’ annotation on the inside front cover, Winifred worked at Catanach’s after she had retired from the nursery. Certainly, electoral rolls indicate that, after giving up her work as a nurse, she was employed for many years as a clerk. But even if she wasn’t an employee of Catanach’s, she had special status in Jimmy’s family and to him: when he sent his first letter home on 27 September 1942 after being captured, he addressed it to Dear Dad, Syb and Da. Nor did Winifred’s fondness for her former charge waver. From at least 1944 to 1952 (the extent of The Argus’s online record), Winifred inserted memorial notes in memory of Jimmy. Years later, on the 25th anniversary of the Great Escape, she was a member of the Australian contingent attending the commemorative service at St Clement Danes, London.


The Argus, 25 March 1947

I don’t think the two scrapbooks were created by the same person. For one, the handwriting in them appears to be different and for another, Scrapbook Two includes items that were not addressed to Winifred. It was created by an intimate family member, someone who was present when the wire advising that Jimmy had been reported missing in action, had been ‘received 10.30 AM’ on ‘1st October/42’. Perhaps it was created by Sybil, as a ‘loving birthday greetings’ telegram from Jim had been pasted into the book. But I think it is more likely that it was created by Jimmy’s father, because all of the official correspondence and condolence letters are all addressed to him.

But while I suspect that Scrapbook One was compiled by Winifred, and Scrapbook Two was the work of William Mercer Catanach, I don’t know; I need concrete evidence to verify ownership and creator status. So, I will just leave that aside and simply refer to ‘the compiler’ as I talk about the contents of the scrapbooks and what they reveal.

Scrapbook One is not exclusively about Jimmy, and comprises articles celebrating the achievements of the RAAF in the European and Pacific theatres. However, the very first article (unattributed but a search of Trove indicates it is The Argus, 26 December 1941) describes how the ‘Hampdens of the Australian “forgotten” squadron’ bombed Cologne on the night of 23 December. This, of course, is 455 Squadron, led by Jimmy’s commanding officer, Grand Lindeman. 


The Argus, 26 December 1941

A more detailed article on the ‘Daring Australians’ who bombed Cologne briefly mentions Jimmy’s involvement; the compiler has highlighted it in the article and ‘Jim’ is written beside it. 

The success of Jimmy and his squadron is followed by other RAAF successes: ‘One man rearguard epic of RAAF in Malaya’; ‘RAAF bomber pilot’s attack on Dusseldorf’; ‘Australian airmen decorated’; ‘Low level attack by Australians. Truscott’s graphic story’. As well as Bluey Truscott, other great names of RAAF achievement fill the pages: Clive Caldwell, Paddy Finucane (who, although an Irishman, commanded 452 Squadron, the first Australian Spitfire squadron) and many more. So too are men known to the compiler such as Peter Hallett, Dick Lewis and Peter Crombie.

When Jimmy’s career really takes off (pun intended; sorry), articles about him and 455 Squadron abound. He is one of the ‘Australians in risky RAF jobs’, serving in ‘torpedo bombers of RAAF’, and he is one of three RAAF men to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross.

The overriding tone is firmly established in these early pages and continues throughout. This scrapbook celebrates the heroic RAAF pilot: his bravery, courage, victories, achievements and awards. It is clear that, in the mind of the compiler, Jim and his service and achievements belong within the heroic air force tradition.

But the compiler’s eyes are not totally dazzled by success; indeed, the compiler is fully aware of the dangers of active service. Right next to the Dusseldorf article, ‘Keith Truscott tells what it feels like’ in a discussion of the ‘hazards of a fighter pilot’s life’. Another pilot was ‘saved from burning plane’, and a ‘bomber crew gambled with death—and won’. The compiler also appreciates that servicemen do not always survive: on the same page are pasted extracts from an ‘Executed Belgian’s last letter’ and an ‘airman’s moving farewell letter to mother’ in which the ill-fated airman—missing believed killed—tells his mother that he has done his duty ‘to the utmost of my ability’ and has ‘no fear of death’.

If Jimmy ever sent a last letter, it perhaps no longer exists. Certainly, it is not in the James Catanach Collection which includes only two copies and one original letter from Jimmy, all written after he had been taken prisoner. I can’t help wonder if these articles later provided some comfort to the compiler after Jimmy’s ultimate fate was revealed. Were the sentiments of those brave men—duty done, bravely facing death, giving and daring ‘his all for his principles, like the Martyrs of old’—attributed to Jimmy? Perhaps they were, if, as I suspect, Winifred Munt compiled this album. Certainly, she later placed Jimmy’s death within the noble tradition of willing sacrifice. The young man for whom she offered ‘a tribute of everlasting love’ was a ‘brave and gallant airman’, who ‘gave his life for peace and freedom’. (The Argus, 20 May 1944 and 25 March 1948.)


The Argus, 25 March 1948

The juxtaposition of some articles is telling. One about the adventures of a ‘torpedo bomber squadron’ ‘somewhere in Scotland’, in which 20 year old ‘Melbourne pilot Squadron Leader Jimmy Catanack [sic] DFC’ described a ‘typical “flip”’, is placed above and around one about the return to Australia of Empire Air Scheme men. Was this wishful thinking? Perhaps it was, because on the facing page contains four articles, ranging from 2–16 October 1942 about Jimmy and the transition from ‘missing in action’ to confirmed prisoner of war.

Just as families of servicemen who died often received letters for weeks or months afterwards, so too did the compiler continue to find references to Jimmy in the press and carefully pasted them in. When Jimmy dropped out of the scrapbook, the pages continued to be crammed full of RAAF achievement in both Europe and the Pacific.
Interestingly, the chronology is disrupted: from the November 1942 articles about 455 Squadron’s Russian sojourn (sans Jimmy), clippings jump back to June, July and August with two Australians winning DFCs, another winning a George Medal for a heroic rescue, another ‘Australian ace praised’ and details of honorary Australian Paddy Finucane’s ‘spectacular career’. Success after success is preserved, and the ‘Spirit of the air force’ continues to be lauded as the war progresses. Surprisingly, perhaps, 455 Squadron and its Russian operation puts in another appearance in the 18 December ‘RAAF fliers enjoy stay in USSR’ (annotated ‘happened Sept 1942’) and the 28 December 1943 piece on the Australian airmen who tackled the Scharnhorst. Then there is a blank page and nothing more until the horrendous headlines of May 1944.

‘Massacre of Airmen.’ ‘Prison Camp Horrors. Britain Shocked by New Outrage.’ ‘First-hand report on shootings’. The jaunty, laudatory tone of the earlier pages has been replaced by one sombre and elegiac. The celebration of heroic aviation has given way to sorrow. The compiler is now in mourning. The articles about the shooting of the airmen are followed by pieces about the memorial service, the Stalag Luft III memorial and other clippings relating to the shooting. Whereas previously many of the pages were crammed with multiple articles, leaving little blank space, now only one or two articles are mounted on each page. Jimmy’s name is again highlighted and the focus returns to him. ‘Two Shore boys among Australians shot dead’ includes a photo of Jimmy and ‘Into the Silence’, published in the Australian Manufacturing Jewellers’ Watchmakers’ and Opticians’ Gazette noted that he had been regarded with deep affection by the whole staff at Catanach’s Jewellers. The compiler also copied by hand a tribute from the Wings, the RAAF’s paper, which dubbed him a ‘first class leader’ and declaring that he was ‘of an engaging disposition, he was adored by all his men—ground staff as well as air crews’.

The scrapbook does not end with the death of Jimmy and his fellow escapers. An eclectic mix of articles fill the next few pages but finally, the compiler returns to Jimmy and the last pages are devoted to him. There is a potted service history, and, on the inside rear cover, the final clipping: ‘DFCs for Three RAAF Men’, featuring the photographed Acting Flight Lieutenant James Catanach, 20, single of Malvern Victoria, who ‘had made successful attacks on Cologne, Hamburg, Essen, Lorient (France) and Lubeck. He has taken part in nine attacks on Germany, and on three of these he brought his damaged machine back to its base.’


Jimmy Catanachs Distinguished Flying Cross, on display in the James Catanach Exhibit, Shrine of Remembrance. Photo courtesy of Drew Gordon.

(A significant aside: I am not strictly allowed to use photos of the exhibit unless provided by the Shrine. However, this photo of the DFC reveals another aspect of Jimmys story. It was taken by my friend Drew, son of Tony Gordon, also of 455 Squadron, who was a fellow captive with Jimmy in Stalag Luft III. Jimmy and Tony joined up together and trained together and Drew treasures a photo of his father and Tony in Stalag Luft III. For some reason, the Catanach family did not have Jimmys service medals. The James Catanach Collection reveals that Drew advised the family how to obtain them. Within months, they obtained the service medals and these too are in the Collection. Here is the photo of Tony and Jimmy, shortly after Jimmy arrived at Stalag Luft III.


Tony Gordon and Jimmy Catanach, Stalag Luft III. Courtesy of Drew Gordon. Tony Gordon is here and very well, wrote Jimmy to his family, 16 October 1942. 
Close significant aside!)

This final word on Jimmy predates his captivity and death. It celebrates his achievement but also, in hindsight, poignantly highlights the loss of a man who died young, who never enjoyed the happiness of marriage, and would never know parenthood. Jimmy may be dead, but in the eyes—and heart—of the compiler, he is indeed one of the courageous and heroic RAAF men honoured and celebrated in the opening pages of this scrapbook.

In Scrapbook Two, the newspaper record only rarely strays from Jimmy; it is firmly about Jimmy and his squadron. This album opens with an article about ‘RAAF’s big part in British raids’ which notes that a plane piloted by Jimmy ‘was hit on the nose by an anti-aircraft shell and seriously damaged but was brought home safely’ and is followed by ‘top squadron in RAF for February’, although Jim is not mentioned. Many of the clippings are the same as in Scrapbook One but here, the compiler is more diligent about sourcing articles about Jimmy. For example, a clipping of airmen en route to Canada has been cut from The Australasian, 26 April 1941. Unlike the compiler of the first scrapbook, articles here are not crammed in. Only one or two appear on each page (though one page does contain four small snippets). The effect is to allow the reader to savour the details, and not be overwhelmed by too many stories. Jimmy is this compiler’s main interest and focus.

The articles celebrating Jimmy and his squadron continue until the news that Jimmy had gone missing broke. ‘Young Geelong Squadron Leader Missing’, dated 1 October 1942, the same day the compiler received the official telegram at 10.30 am.

And then, just as in Scrapbook One, the out of sequence stories appear—smiling Jimmy making his radio debut with his fellow airmen and ‘Australian airmen air Soviet in War with Nazis’—along with updates regarding Jimmy’s missing and prisoner of war status.

Then the references to Jimmy dry up. The impression though, is not that the album needs to be formally closed now that Jimmy is out of the public eye, awaiting completion at end of the war and Jimmy’s return. Rather, in the interim, why not include other Jimmy related material? And so, the next item pasted in is one that reflects Jimmy as a loving, thoughtful son: ‘Loving birthday greetings’ to Sybil. Perhaps too, as time passes and they hear little from Jimmy in his prisoner of war camp, something more is read into the update on his health and status ‘all well and safe’; perhaps this represents the continuing hope that Jimmy remains ‘well and safe’.
But that, of course, is not how it turns out. What began as a celebration of Jimmy’s stellar military career, soon becomes a memorial and a symbol of grief. The very next inclusion is an article advising the ‘death of Sqd-Ldr J Catanach, followed by details of the memorial service for the ‘airmen prisoners shot by Germans’ and the ‘urgent inquiry by Switzerland’. Pages of clippings of the aftermath of the escape and the shootings follow, including first-hand accounts from repatriates. Among them appear the first tributes to Jimmy.

Another sharp division occurs. The clippings cease and two telegrams are pasted in, facing each other. The first, dated 7 May 1944, informed William that ‘your son Squadron Leader James Catanach (DFC) lost his life on 25th March 1944 while attempting to escape from confinement as a prisoner of war’, and the one of 7 September 1944 erroneously addressed to Mr J Catanach, invited him to attend with two relatives or friends the investiture at Government House to receive the ‘decoration awarded your late son’. How ironic that the investiture would take place at 10.30 am, the same time William received the first wire advising that Jimmy had gone missing in action.

Following these telegrams are the personal condolences to William. There are not many and they are all addressed to Jimmy’s father; none acknowledge Sybil in their salutations. Regardless, they are all heartfelt expressions of sympathy from those who knew Jimmy. The condolence notes are then ‘interrupted’ by two more official communications. The first accompanied the order of service from the memorial service at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, London on 20 June 1944 for the fifty airmen who had been shot after escaping from Stalag Luft III ‘which commemorates the name of your son and his comrades’. (This booklet was not pasted into the album but is included in the James Catanach Collection.) The second advised that Jimmy had been awarded a Mention in Despatches and noted that ‘the Minister for Air and Air Board sincerely hope that this recognition of his gallant service will be of some consolation to you at this time’.

Who can tell if it was any sort of consolation, but this recognition was something of which the Catanach family was extremely proud. The MID certificate was framed to hang on a wall, as was the condolence note from the King and Queen, who prayed ‘that your country’s gratitude for a life so nobly given in its service many bring you some measure of consolation’, and the ‘next-of-kin’ letter from Jimmy’s Wing Commander, Commanding advising that the young Australian had gone missing. The latter was framed with a piece of DFC ribbon and spoke of the Squadron’s pride in his Jimmy’s development ‘from a good pilot to an exceptional and experienced pilot and a capable officer who could deal with any situation that might arise’. It spoke of Jimmy’s personal qualities: ‘as a man, Jimmy was one of the most popular members of the Squadron. He had strict and high standards of personal behaviour to which he always kept and respected and looked up to by all’. These three tributes also form part of the Shrine’s James Catanach Collection.

The two scrapbooks are fascinating records of RAAF, squadron and personal achievement—I dearly wish I had seen them when I was researching Jack Davenport and 455 Squadron—but they are more than mere compilations of newspaper clippings. Scrapbook One is a snapshot of air force success. It foregrounds heroes and achievements and downplays the setbacks and losses. With Jimmy’s story though, it presents the tension between heroism, sacrifice and duty with ultimate (if unexpected) consequences. If Scrapbook One positions Jimmy’s career as part of an air force success narrative, Scrapbook Two, along with other items in the collection, positions his death within the tradition of sacrifice: he gave his life; he made the ultimate sacrifice; and that sacrifice is ever honoured. It begins by celebrating Jimmy's achievements and ends by recording a father’s grief and hints at the solace and support he gained from those who knew his son and sympathised with his loss. Indeed, one condolence was from another grieving father who deeply understood just what it meant to lose a son.

It may be difficult to determine the former ownership of many of the items in the Shrine’s James Catanach Collection, and I can’t say conclusively that Scrapbook One was compiled by Winifred Munt or that Scrapbook Two was an expression of fatherly pride and grief, that, in a sense does not matter. What matters is that this multi-creator, multi-donor collection indicates the significant place Jimmy maintained in the lives and hearts of two people who loved him. It also demonstrates that his memory was cherished throughout the extended Catanach family for many decades after his death.

Weve all heard the stories of photo albums and old letters discovered on rubbish tips. As those of older generations die and their relics and treasures are passed down, there is, sadly, an increasing likelihood that those in succeeding generations might not appreciate family stories. Indeed, I’ve spoken to two family archivists who realise that their children are not interested in the deeds of those who went before them and are trying to decide the best way to preserve their family records for those who will appreciate them. One woman is currently making a hard decision about whether retain custodianship for a while longer or consign her archive into a public archive. As years pass, family archives, too, are often split between different members of the family. I have liaised with brothers, sisters and cousins in piecing together a story. As I understand it, the Catanach family appreciated the dilemmas facing many family custodians and, rather than risk their records being further dispersed and lost, they decided to place them with a professional archival and memorial institution.




The Shrine of Remembrances medal wall, recognising service in conflict. Authors photo. 

The Shrine of Remembrance was established to help alleviate the grief of those Victorians who had lost family and friends in the Great War. It provided a place for them to mourn and a means by which memories and artefacts could be preserved. With a succession of twentieth and twenty-first century wars, the Shrine’s remit has been extended. As well as remembering, preserving and commemorating, it now interprets the stories of Victorians at war and in peacekeeping operations. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Catanach family, records relating to Jimmy’s military contribution will be preserved, the impact of his loss will be remembered, and his life, service and legacy will be interpreted.


Jimmy Catanach. Authors photo. 


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of the Shrine of Remembrance’s helpful staff who made my 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 James Catanach exhibit. I would like to note that this personal response to items in the collection is my own and may not reflect that of the Shrine of Remembrance. 

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