One of the things that particularly interests me is how prisoners of war enacted the usual social rituals. Birthdays celebrate life already lived and anticipate future achievements. How were these significant family-and-friend orientated ceremonies marked in captivity? And what did they mean to the prisoners of war?
Physically, prisoners of war shared the ceremony with their kriegie friends with cake and parties. Mentally, however, as they wrote about the occasion to their loved ones, they were transported home through recalling other birthdays or hoping that future birthdays outside ‘Kriegiedom’ would be different.
In 1942, John Osborne marked ‘Another birthday too, this one not celebrated at the Piccadilly’. In 1943, he noted to his family that ‘one certainly finds queer places to celebrate’. ‘I didn’t have much opportunity to celebrate my birthday, all I did was hope that I don’t spend another one at this place’, wrote Colin Phelps to his folks. ‘I hope to celebrate my next birthday with you’, another chap told his parents.
For many, the next birthday wasn’t celebrated with loved ones. On his first birthday in captivity, Albert Hake found himself ‘indulging in an idle, fanciful contemplation of circumstances relevant to previous birthdays (for today is such.)’. He wasn’t carried away by fancy or even moroseness, however. He ‘honoured the occasion with merry peals of laughter and a grand festivity, consuming with great gusto a large jelly (strawberry), a larger rice custard a pint of Horlick’s chocolate malted milk (real milk) plus various odds and ends’. Hake’s mood wasn’t as festive as his next birthday drew nearer and he realised he would not be sharing it with his wife. ‘Time will certainly have to march on if I’m to spend my next birthday at home.’
Parties were guaranteed to blow away the birthday blues, and cakes were the time honoured tradition for birthday bashes. George Archer and his roommates concocted a ‘cake made of pancake mixture and sultanas iced with chocolate’ for a Canadian celebrating his 23rd. It was a ‘wonderful success’.
Alan Scanlan was one the Australians who gained their majority in Stalag Luft III. ‘Your son has crossed the line and is now recognised as a man’, he told his parents. ‘I wish I could have spent it at home, but circumstances made it impossible.’ Despite being separated from his family, ‘The boys were very thoughtful and arranged many surprises throughout the day and we spent quite a happy day.’ That evening, when tea was finished, his crew member Arthur Tebbutt, ‘brought forth a two-tier chocolate cake complete with twenty one candles’. ‘Tebby’ demonstrated his impressive culinary skills as well as doffing his flight cap to their shared homeland: ‘The decorations were a white iced border with a small map of “Aussie” done in white, in the centre of which was a small silver key. “Good Luck, Alan”, was written in chocolate across the map’. It was an emotional moment. ‘It shook me up, I can tell you, for the boys must have spent considerable time preparing for the occasion’.
Rex Austin’s 21st birthday ‘occasion’, mirrored air force initiation ceremonies as well as some of the traditional (and raucous) rites of passage to adulthood. ‘The boys’ in his room stripped him naked, threw him in the air, bumped him in the snow, rubbed him down to dry him off, presented him with a key with ‘21 on it’ and ‘an absolutely magnificent chocolate cake’. They then ceremoniously ‘shook me by the hand and said “Happy 21st I hope you’re not here for your 22nd”’. Austin’s ‘21st was something’, an occasion to remember, made even special by the sacrifices made by his friends. In a time of almost desperate rationing in January 1945, ‘the blokes had saved up their semolina and everything’ to make his cake.
We don’t know if this is a birthday or, given the 1942 decoration, a new year's party, but cake is on the menu. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be cheering Tony Gordon (seated, right hand side) and his friends. (Courtesy of Drew Gordon.)
Cake was not the only birthday treat. Alex Kerr was depressed at the prospect of celebrating his 21st in captivity. For him it was nought but a bleak and dispiriting occasion until he received a ‘truly rare morsel’, an egg extracted from one of the guards by Stalag IIIE Kirchhain’s most successful traders. ‘I will never forget the generosity of someone who hardly knew me but considered that the significance of the occasion demanded a gesture of compassion’.
While Kerr, Scanlan and Austin experienced the best of human kindness for their birthdays, Lex Dixon experienced the worst of humanity for his. For ‘something to look forward to’, he had been saving a potato. (This was before he arrived in Stalag Luft III.) Every time he came across a bigger one he swapped it and ate the smaller one. Just before his birthday, when Dixon’s anticipation was greatest, another prisoner stole the potato and devoured it. ‘It was the unforgiveable thing for anyone to steal anything else from a fellow prisoner,’ recalled Justin O’Byrne.
Fortunately, not every birthday represented the darker side of captivity, but many were not easy. Some weren’t even worth remembering. ‘It happens to be my birthday today’, Charles Fry told his fiancée. ‘I had forgotten about it’. Keith Carmody ‘forgot it was my 26th birthday—am feeling a bit better now—have not spent a birthday at home since my 20th in 1939’. Despite forgetting, he and a friend had a ‘“bash” to celebrate’.
Friends and camaraderie made birthdays worthwhile. So too did the knowledge that their family and friends remembered them, but ensuring that captive loved ones received birthday greetings was a lottery. Australia was half a world away, letters were frequently lost, and delivery was often delayed through censorship or even punishment or retribution.
Sometimes the family timed their birthday greetings just right. ‘Red letter day, my birthday, also your letter 2/11, my first from you’, wrote George Archer to his folks. (Four months later, however, his birthday parcel still hadn’t turned up.) ‘I received your birthday greetings, which arrived about two days ago, and I was very pleased to receive them, thank you’, another chap recorded.
Home is where the kriegies would have preferred to be, but prison camp conviviality and birthday celebrations demonstrated the strong fraternity, culinary ingenuity of their roommates and friends, and even personal sacrifice to ensure that the festive table was well-laden. For many, that strong friendship made captivity bearable.