Jimmy Catanach had been a prisoner of war for almost seven months before unburdening himself to his brother, Bill, on 28 March 1943. It had been a long journey from Melbourne, where he had been born on 23 November 1921, to Stalag Luft III, Sagan. He had enlisted in the RAAF when he was 18; was promoted to squadron leader; and had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for daring raids over Lorient in north-western France, and the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg, Essen, and Lubeck, all before his 21st birthday. The most recent stage of his journey to captivity had begun on 4 September 1942.
Numbers 144 and 455 squadrons had been deployed to Russia as part of Operation Orator, to protect a convoy taking vital supplies to Russia: Jimmy was 455 Squadron’s youngest squadron leader and was lauded as the youngest in the RAAF. He was a lively, boisterous man, much loved by his crew and squadron friends. His commanding officer, Grant Lindeman, recalled that, as they were lined up to depart, ‘Jimmy of course couldn’t restrain himself to wait his turn; he taxied into the first gap in the line and was off like a blooming rocket’. Lindeman had ‘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’. In his opinion, Jimmy ‘was a most excellent Flight Commander, and was probably the most generally liked man in the whole squadron’.
Members of 455 Squadron, August 1942.
L-R: Jack Davenport, Jimmy Catanach, Grant Lindeman, Les Oliver, Bob Holmes. Author's collection
Jimmy was piloting Hampden AT109, which experienced a great deal of flak as it crossed the Norwegian coast. He realised they were rapidly losing fuel. Rather than risk the engines cutting out, he took the first opportunity to land. He touched down safely on a strip of heather adjoining a beach near Vardo, in northern Norway. Jimmy, his navigator Flying Officer George ‘Bob’ Anderson, wireless operator/upper gunner Flight Sergeant Cecil Cameron, lower rear gunner Sergeant John Hayes and their passenger Flight Sergeant John Davidson, a ground crew fitter, attempted to destroy the Hampden, but they were fired on by soldiers from one direction and a patrol boat from the coast. The five were taken prisoner; Bob Anderson and Jimmy were sent to Stalag Luft III.
455 Squadron, April 1942. L-R Wilson, Bob Anderson, Smart, Humphrey, Acting S/L Jimmy Catanach DFC,
Miller, and Clarke. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/SUK10124/
Jimmy’s handful of earlier letters to his parents had been upbeat and emphasised his good spirits. His letter of 28 March 1943 was more subdued. He told Bill as much of the truth as he could within the constraints of censorship. He confessed his part in the events precipitating capture: ‘my arrival in enemy territory was far from glorious. I force landed as a result of fuel shortage caused by a sequence of misfortunes, mostly due to my own foolishness and partly due to climate conditions and enemy action’. Although the memory of it still ‘gets me down a bit’ he tried to push recollections aside and conceded that ‘present circumstances are not so bad’. Food, thanks to Red Cross parcels—when available—‘is quite good’ and living conditions were tolerable, if ‘a bit trying’. By far ‘the worst thing’ was ‘the lack of comradeship male & female and the futility of the existence.’ Even so, Jimmy kept himself busy with exercise, cooking, study and reading. But even as he made the most of life behind barbed wired, he planned for his future: ‘The end of the war is the main interest and topic of conversation … I am going to try studying Gem[m]ology & Bookkeeping etc. but am considering the idea of staying in service’.
But, unlike the majority of Stalag Luft III’s prisoners, Jimmy did not experience a life outside of captivity. Almost exactly twelve months after writing to Bill, he was dead, one of fifty Allied airmen—including five Australians—killed in the ‘Great Escape’ reprisals.
Jimmy after he had been captured after the mass breakout. Lifted from http://twicsy.com/i/6iideb
The men of Stalag Luft III were shocked, ‘shaken and despondent’ when they heard of the death of their fellow prisoners. They held a memorial parade after roll call. They wore black flashes. They observed a period of mourning. They commemorated the dead in their wartime log books. Later, they built a memorial to comrades who had merely been carrying out their service duty to escape.
Sagan Memorial to the Fifty, courtesy of Geoff Swallow
Jimmy’s loss in particular affected his friends: Ronnie Baines who he had welcomed and taken under his wing and into his room on Baines’ first day in Stalag Luft III; Tony Gordon who had trained with him and never stopped grieving for his first RAAF friend; Bob Anderson who had flown with him and whose friendship had been forged under difficult and dangerous conditions.
Tony Gordon and Jimmy Catanach, courtesy of Drew Gordon
Bob Anderson. Courtesy of David Archer
On Anzac Day 1944—less than three weeks after they had heard the ‘crushing news’ that most of those who had participated in the mass breakout of 24/25 March had been killed on Hitler’s orders—Jimmy’s Australian friends of North Compound gathered in the theatre with their compatriots from New Zealand. There, Padre Watson took a special Anzac Day service. Afterwards, they assembled for a series of group photographs taken by one of the German guards.
Anzac Day 1944. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P00270.027
The Australian ranks were depleted: as well as Jimmy, Albert Hake, John Williams, Reg Kierath and Thomas Leigh had been executed. Dressed as smartly as could be in worn RAAF and RAF uniforms, they proudly declared that they were air force men. On the day in which Australians and New Zealanders, honour their war dead, their photos were as much statements of Australian pride, unity and defiance against the enemy as they were portraits of grief. Last year, Jimmy had stood with them on Anzac Day.
Anzac Day 1943. Courtesy of Ian Fraser
This year he was missing, ‘his duty fearlessly and nobly done’. But, he was ‘Ever remembered’.
Jimmy Catanach’s headstone, Old Garrison Cemetery, Posen, courtesy of Geoff Swallow,
Photographic Archive of Headstones and Memorials WW2 by Spidge
Jimmy Catanach’s letters are held by the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. I would like to thank Jenna Blyth, Collections Manager, and Neil Sharkey, Exhibitions Curator, who allowed me to consult the James Catanach Collection in October 2016.