Monday, 19 July 2021

Winning the Battle of the Wits in Stalag Luft III

Friends of Air Force History and Heritage Network Seminar 4 December 2020

Winning the ‘battle of the wits’ in the barbed-wire battleground: Australian airmen of Stalag Luft III. 

In my first post-PhD presentation, I discuss how the Australian airmen of Australian airmen – a Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp – energetically overcame the challenges of captivity to remain active servicemen in the barbed-wire battleground by reinforcing their military identity; enacting RAF discipline; and engaging in a programme of active disruption, including escape. I also discuss the narratives of captivity which enabled the Australian airmen to make sense of the deaths of those killed in the Great Escape reprisals.

Tuesday, 23 March 2021

Grieving the 'Great Escapers'

 Much has been written about the Great Escape: what occurred on the night; what happened to those involved; and the commitment to obtaining ‘exemplary justice’. 

Artist: Ley Kenyon, published in Paul Brickhill and Conrad Norton: Escape to Danger (Faber and  Faber, London,  1954)
 This post, however, focuses on how the airmen’s kriegie friends and Australian families responded to their deaths.
Courtesy Chris Armold, MSgt, USAF (Ret). Taken in March 2017.
Alan Righetti, who had been one of the many ‘stooges’ or lookouts over the previous few months, remembered hearing the shots fired after the discovery of the break out. It ‘was pandemonium’, he recalled, as the Germans tore the North Compound apart. When things quietened down, the airmen ‘were bitterly disappointed that we hadn’t got at least 200 out’. But, Righetti added, they were, ‘at the same time, very proud of the fact that we had the whole of the area and the German Army rushing all over the place looking for our fellas’.
Alan Righetti, courtesy of Alan Righetti
Days later, when the names of the dead were announced, Righetti recollected that ‘we were shocked’. A memorial parade was held and, recalled Justin O’Byrne, the men ‘went into mourning’. ‘Every prisoner wore a black diamond of mourning on his sleeve for the remainder of our term in prison’, including on Anzac Day ten days later, when photos were taken of the men wearing their black patches.
Justin OByrne, courtesy of Anne OByrne
Courtesy Andrew JB Simpson  NSW POWs North compound Anzac Day, 1944 
Just as many British Great War memorials had been voluntarily built by families and communities to provide a focus for their grief, Stalag Luft III’s air force ‘family’ in North Compound decided to erect a memorial using stone provided by the Germans. Originally referred to by the prisoners as ‘The Vault’ (pertaining to its crypt-like purpose of holding the ashes of the dead), the prisoners’ memorial resembled an altar. 
From Walton and Eberhardt, From Liberation to Interrogation. A Photographic Journey. Page 418.
In conceiving this design, prominent Australian-born architect and theatrical designer Wylton Todd, who had had a thriving architecture business in London before the war, seems to have been inspired by the recently deceased Sir Edwin Lutyen’s altar-like Stone of Remembrance. (The Stone became the centrepiece of the Imperial War Graves Commission’s most significant cemeteries.)
 Like Lutyen’s iconic design, the prisoners’ memorial evokes heroic sacrifice in warfare, as do many British memorials as well as significant Australian memorials such as Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and Sydney’s Anzac Memorial.
Shrine of Remembrance, authors photo.
The airmen’s names are engraved on three granite tablets reminiscent of Great War honour rolls. Underneath is the inscription, ‘In memory of the officers who gave their lives. Sagan March 1944’. 
SLIII memorial. From the Casualty Section, Dept of Air, March 1947 via Air Ministry London, provided to them by His Majesty’s Air Attache at Warsaw. Courtesy of the Preen Family.
The simple wooden cross atop the nearby cairn (which appears to be a later addition) evokes the crosses which marked the graves of the First World War servicemen who died overseas, before the Imperial War Grave Commission replaced them with stone headstones.

SLIII memorial. From Casualty Section, Dept of Air, March 1947 via Air Ministry London, provided to them by His Majesty’s Air Attache at Warsaw. Courtesy of the Preen Family.

Courtesy Chris Armold, MSgt, USAF (Ret). Taken in March 2017.
Close up of the cairn plaque, Sagan, Poland, September 1998.  Courtesy of Drew Gordon. 
Todd’s design included an eagle, which was mounted below the inscription. Particularly pertinent, the spread-winged eagle is a key symbol for airmen, representing both the ‘brotherhood of the air’ and the insignia—‘wings’—which declare an airmen’s aviation credentials. 
Reg Kieraths RAAF Wings. Courtesy of Peter Kierath.

 Arthur Schrock, 1944, in Earle M Nelson: If Winter Comes.

This drawing of the memorial, by Flight Lieutenant Grenfell Godden (a South African in Stalag Luft III who was killed in a flying accident on 23 November 1945), was sent to Mildred Williams, the mother of John Williams, one of the five Australians killed in the Great Escape reprisals. It was published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 1945. Courtesy of the Preen Family.

AWM ART34781.022. Albert Comber, drawing of the Monument to those 50 officers who were shot after the break from Stalag Luft III, 1945.

SLIII memorial. From the Casualty Section, Dept of Air, March 1947 via Air Ministry London, provided to them by His Majesty’s Air Attache at Warsaw. Courtesy of the Preen Family.
While visible in Bert Comber’s sketch and other early drawings and photographs, and repeated in the commemorative plaque mounted on the stone cairn erected in front of the memorial, the eagle is no longer extant.

Recent photo of the memorial, with modern dedication, c 2015. Courtesy of Geoff Swallow
The memorial was located in the nearby cemetery where other prisoners had been buried. There, fifty urns containing the dead men’s ashes were interred on 4 December 1944. In accordance with RAF mourning custom, a service funeral was held. Thirty prisoners along with members of the Swiss Legation attended. Wreathes were laid and the Roman Catholic and Protestant chaplains said prayers and blessed the monument and ashes.
From the Casualty Section, Dept of Air, March 1947 via Air Ministry London, provided to them by His Majesty’s Air Attache at Warsaw. Courtesy of the Preen Family.
Some of the airmen recorded details of the memorial service in their wartime log books. Some marked the pages, drawings, photos and nominal rolls with a cross, the traditional symbol denoting the dead. 
Lifted from Brickhill and Norton: Escape to Danger.
Before he returned to Australia, Comber produced for the Australian War Memorial’s collection three pen, ink and wash drawings of the memorial’s construction.

AWM ART34781.024 Albert Comber, The monument in the early stages of construction, 1945.
Six months earlier, on 20 June 1944, a memorial service for family and friends of the Fifty had been conducted at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. As the men had been killed in the course of carrying out their service duty they were accorded full air force honours. Australian-based families could not attend and so either British family members or others represented them. 
Authors collection
Squadron Leader William Melville, the liaison for prisoner of war matters at RAAF Overseas Headquarters, considered it ‘a very great honour and privilege’ to represent Reg Kierath’s mother, Ada. After the ceremony, Melville wrote to her as he wanted her ‘to know something of the very magnificent tribute that was paid to your son and the others who died with him’. He told her about the service:
Sir Archibald Sinclair—Secretary of State for Air—Sir Charles Portal, Chief of Air Staff and our Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal Wrigley, were but three of the many Air Force representatives who came to pay their tribute and Mr Bruce our Australian High Commissioner was also there. After the first hymn the Vicar of St Martins read the first part of the service and the psalm, and Sir Charles Portal the lesson. Then came the Address by the Chaplain-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force in which he paid tribute to the memory of those whose courage and high faith was an inspiration to us all. As we stood, after the recession, the Blessing, crystal clear came the notes of the Last Post—the most honoured tribute to the serving member and one which is paid to him alone. For a moment there was silence—and then in the distance, the roll of a drum and the awakening call ‘Reveille’. It seems so singularly appropriate, for to all of us in our hearts and memory they will live through their example of courage and steadfastness.
During the service, the RAF chaplain-in-chief had stated that ‘Their sacrifice was touched by the finger of God’. Melville too recognised that sacrifice. He explained to Ada that Reg, ‘and the others, have become my very real friends and I cannot express how much the sacrifice which they have made has meant to me personally’.
Reg Kierath. Courtesy of Peter Kierath
Others acknowledged the deaths in a similar way. Families placed ‘in memoriam’ notices in newspapers. Friends send condolence letters. 
The Argus, 25 March 1947
Unattributed clipping, courtesy of Preen Family.
Group Captain Thomas White, former prisoner of the Ottomans and commanding officer at 1 Initial Training School, Somers where Catanach and Albert Hake had attended believed that the young man’s ‘name and memory will long endure as among the noblest of those who gave their all’.
Those who died after the Great Escape were not forgotten. Their friends attended remembrance services. Winifred Munt, Jimmy Catanach’s childhood nanny, known to him as ‘Da’, was a member of the Australian contingent to the Service of Remembrance at St Clement Danes (the Central Church of the Royal Air Force) on 22 March 1969. Bill Fordyce, who was in the tunnel when the escape was discovered, attended the 50th anniversary service on 25 March 1994. 
Bill Fordyce, courtesy of Lily Fordyce
 Courtesy of Lily Fordyce
Courtesy of Ian Fraser
 Reg Giddey, who regarded Albert Hake as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’, placed a tribute on his former friend’s grave during 50th anniversary commemorations at Posnan, Poland. 
Reg Giddey. Courtesy of the Preen Family
Their families made pilgrimages to Sagan and wore their service medals.

The Preen Familys pilgrimage to Stalag Luft III, 2013. Courtesy of Max Preen.

The Search for the Compass Maker, Albert Hake 2013: 

Peter Kierath, nephew of Reg Kierath, retraced his uncles journey. Photo from The Daily Liberal, Dubbo.

Albert Hakes great niece and nephew, wearing medals. Anzac Day, about 1997. Courtesy Jude Preen. 
 That continuing sympathy of family and friends, along with the dedicated commemoration, brought comfort to those who grieved. So too did the knowledge that the deaths of the Fifty had been construed as sacrifices for the cause, as extensions of their air force service. As their ‘Duty Nobly Done’.

Memorial card, sent by Noela Hake to Dick Wheeler. Dick Wheeler Archive. Courtesy of  Tony Wheeler

My thanks to all the families who have shared their photos and records with me.

I have written a number of other blog pieces on aspects of the Great Escape from an Australian perspective:

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Kriegies coming home


The long sea voyage to Australia allowed a period of transition between the ‘long and arduous’ road from captivity ‘strewn with pain, both physical and mental’ to home. It offered an opportunity to readjust. Some former Stalag Luft III kriegies sailed to Australia in July 1945; they were among the earliest repatriations from Europe. Almost 700 RAAF ex-prisoners of war travelled home in August–September on the SS Orion. Some followed later. New friendships were forged, old ones were rekindled, and existing bonds strengthened during the weeks of relatively leisurely travel.

The following is taken from the ‘Repatter’, a gossipy newsletter (dubbed ‘journal’) printed and published on board the Orion by a group of former prisoners, including Denis Adams, a pre-war cadet journalist at Sydney’s The Sun newspaper and one of the editors of The Daily Recco in stalags Luft III and VI. ‘Repatter’ focussed on active participation in group events and highlighted how the former kriegies continued to care about their fellows.

Ron Mackenzie’s friends, formed a protective gambling school: not to make money but, recognising how much healthy bank balances could be depleted by bad falls of dice or cards as they whiled away the hours, weeks, and days, they mutually agreed to strictly enforce daily stake limits.

The shipboard welfare sub-committees also had the best interests of their fellow repatriates in mind. To stave off boredom during a two-month voyage with only one stopover, they organised entertainments, amenities, and time-fillers, and the padres held church services, community hymn singing, and bible readings. Gordon Given, for example, played saxophone in the ship-board band, Justin O’Byrne took charge of the library, Hugh Lambie received contributions to a proposed voyage souvenir, James McCleery and Louis Koch paired up for the bridge competition, Bill Brew was voted ‘No. 1 Pin-Up-Boy by Brighton Belles.

Emphasising that captivity was not an entirely empty phase of their lives, ‘Repatter’ also honoured the ‘Things We’ve Done’. One man, for instance, was lauded for his formidable knitting talent developed in camp, Ron Mackenzie’s classes in commercial subjects were highlighted, and Rob Damman’s escape attempts were outlined. There was also a subtle shift in emphasis to future careers: Mackenzie’s camp-attained qualifications were revealed, as were Damman’s hopes of re-entering the family tobacco business. It was an active yet peaceful time for the airmen as they continued to recover from the stresses and strains of captivity. Other than sea sicknesses and other minor ailments, there were few hospital admissions with the ‘Repatter’ announcing that ‘Sick Bay Reports Business Slack’.

While shipboard life provided a pleasant, relaxing interlude before home and a return to ‘real’ life, concerns about psychological disturbance was perhaps never far from their minds. For example, less than three weeks into the Orion’s voyage, ‘Repatter’ reported that ‘Ship Happy’ had replaced ‘Stalag Happy’ as nerves frayed in an environment of restricted space and limited society. As in camp, however, they tried to manage it with humour and action: ‘Some do P.T. Others grow beards. Same [sic] even went to see a George Formby film’.


Wednesday, 24 April 2019

A bit overcrowded

Prompted by a curious friend, I looked at SLIII’s population statistics. 

According to Red Cross visitor reports, in April 1944, the camp total of British, Commonwealth and allies, and Americans (including in Belaria compound) was 5229. 

By November 1944, the total population, across 6 compounds was 10,091. It had almost doubled in seven months.

The 10,091 comprised 1992 British, 695 Canadians, 261 Australians, 165 New Zealanders, 150 South Africans, 174 other British Commonwealth and Ireland, and 6654 American (not sure what category other nationalities such as Czechs fitted into). 

While the Americans were largely confined to their own compounds (West, Centre and South) there was considerable overspill into the British compounds. 

You have all heard about the increasing numbers of roommates: from six to eight, to ten and even more. One room in Belaria had 16 denizens, accommodated in six beds. As you can see from these images from John Dack’s wartime log book, they very carefully managed their space. 

From 'So, You Wanted Wings, Hey!' by Irwin John Dack. 

And as you can see from George Archer’s, double decker bunks were converted to triple deckers to accommodate them! Despite the cramped quarters, George at least still maintained his sense of humour.
Courtesy of David Archer.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

A seasonal anthology of Kriegie Christmases

It’s been a few years since I entered the bloggersphere and over the years I’ve put together little stories related in some way to my research. I’ve been studying the Australian airmen of Stalag Luft III for over five years now. The result: a few articles (checkout my website); a well-stocked blog; good progress on my PhD thesis (I hope to submit next year); a lot of good material for the book-of-the-thesis (and a bit more!); and five seasonal articles about Kriegie Christmases.

Rather than have you trawl through the blog to find them, I’ve compiled a little seasonal anthology. Why don’t you click through in one of those snoozy times in between the turkey and the Queen’s Christmas Message.

Happy Reading and Merry Christmas! 

‘Touched the face of God’: Faith, Christmas, and Remembrance in Captivity.

‘I miss you very very much’: Another Christmas apart.

‘So another Kriegie Xmas passes’: Christmas in Stalag Luft III

Christmas in Stalag Luft III, Belaria, 1944

Kriegiedom occasionally has its good points. Australians celebrating Christmas in Stalag Luft III

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Thomas Albert Bax

Thomas Albert Bax: Mini Biography

A number of the Australian prisoners of war were medically repatriated from German POW camps. One was Thomas Albert Bax. As part of my research into the Australians of Stalag Luft III, I compiled a very brief mini-biography. I acknowledge the assistance of Geoff Swallow and his fellow aviation history enthusiasts of the WW2Talk forum in piecing this together. I should note here that my main interest lies in the lives of the Australians in captivity and beyond. Accordingly, I have paid little attention to Tom’s RAF service career.

Sadly, I have not come across a photo of Tom.

Thomas Albert Bax was 22 January 1910, Mt Pleasant, South Australia. His father was Albert James Bax. Various references in newspapers indicate that the family lived in Kandina.

Bax was athletic. He won the Glenelg Sprint in 1930 (as reported in Advertiser (Adelaide) 24 June 1932). In early 1932 he participated in a number of ‘pedestrian events’ at Payneham Oval, including those listed in 22 March 1932 News (Adelaide), which reported his handicap.  

In June 1932, aged 22, he accompanied former state champion, Malcolm Dunn, on a voyage to England. Dunn anticipated competing in sprint events in England and hoped to be back in Australia by October that year to prepare for the world’s championship. (Advertiser (Adelaide) 24 June 1932). Bax left Australia aboard P&O vessel, Ballarat, working his passage to the UK, arriving on 27 July 1932. It seems he did not return to Australia before the war as he is not included on any shipping entries (via Fremantle records) between 1932 and 1940.

UK marriage records indicate that he married Violette D. Locke of Surrey in April-June quarter 1937. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived as 23 year old Violette Doris Bax died on 28 May 1937 at Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, following an accident. (The Times, 1 June 1937, This notice confirms her husband was Tom Bax of Adelaide.)

Bax’s RAF service number, 78742, was one of a block of RAFVR service numbers issued between 1937 and January 1941. The London Gazette 14 May 1940 recorded his commission ‘for the duration of hostilities as Acting Pilot Officer on probation WEF 12 April 1940. TLG 2 July 1940 records that Acting Pilot Officer Bax, on probation, was graded as Pilot Officer on probation on 1 June 1940. TLG 25 July 1941 confirmed his appointment WEF 12 April 1941, and promotion to war substantive rank of Flying Officer WEF 1 June 1941. TLG 16 October 1942 recorded his promotion (war substantive) to Flight Lieutenant WEF 1 June 1942.

These later gazettals occurred after his last operation.

At some point he joined 9 Squadron RAF. On 9 June 1941 he was gunnery leader and air gunner on Wellington serial R1758, piloted by Wing Commander George Claringbould Arnold. Gordon Thorburn, Bombers, First and Last (page 54) indicates that this was a scratch crew and 9 Squadron Wellington was one of four sent to attack enemy shipping off Belgian and Dutch coasts. indicates Claringbould was on a reconnaissance operation and that the Wellington was downed in the North Sea near Zeebrugge, Belgium.

Arnold was killed and the rest of crew, including Bax, were taken POW. According to an interview with The Argus (Melbourne) Special Correspondent, Godfrey Blunden 18 September 1944, Bax parachuted out of a burning aircraft in Zebrugge Harbour. It seems that he wasseverely injured’ in the downing. 

Bax’s Red Cross record card reveals that on 13 June 1941 he appeared in RAF casualty lists as missing. His father received a telegram advising his status of POW Germany on 3 July 1941. The POW Information Bureau advised the Red Cross on 19 August 1941 that Bax had been imprisoned at Spangenberg Castle.

On 6 September 1941 advice was received by the Red Cross that Bax was in Oflag IX A/H (H’ being an abbreviation for Hauptlager or main camp). They were then advised on 11 November 1941 that he had been transferred to Oflag VIB, Warburg where he remained for some time. The Red Cross received word on 11 December 1942 that he had been transferred to Oflag XXIB since 4 September 1942, where he remained until he was transferred to Stalag Luft III. The exact date of arrival is not known but the Red Cross received details of transfer on 27 May 1943.

I have not found Bax’s name in any of 'my' Australian records except for one letter (mentioned below) and he does not appear in any of the photos held by Australians. The only reference to his life in captivity that I could find is in the aforementioned Argus article where he talked about gambling and camp two-up rings. He also noted the importance of Red Cross parcels and how the men could not have existed without them.

On 4 September 1944, the Camp Leader advised the Red Cross that Bax had left SLIII on 26 July 1944 for Stalag IV DZ, where and others severely wounded POWs were sent as they awaited medical repatriation. NOTE: this date might not be correct as one of the Australians in East Compound (where I assumed Bax ‘resided’) noted in a letter home of 24 July that ‘another batch of repats leave this week including three Aussies—Chuck Lark will know them—‘Dusty’ Miller, [George Eric Miller] ‘Hap’ [William Henry] Edwards, and Tom Bax’.

The Red Cross enquired about his state of Bax’s health on 21 September 1944 but received no details, only that he was due to be repatriated.

I have no details as to why he was repatriated but it is likely it was as a consequence of the severe injuries from the downing.

After repatriation, he appeared to remain in the UK (Blunden interviewed him in Liverpool shortly after he arrived) and in the RAF. His appointment was terminated WEF 23 March 1948, and he retained the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He travelled on the Orion to Australia, arriving in Fremantle on 19 April 1948. His address is listed as 29 Yanco Avenue Bronte Sydney.

I don’t have access to electoral rolls and can find little other trace of him during his years in Australia. In 1952/53 he married Adarie Hunter in Hong Kong. They had no children. He died of a heart attack, age 65, on 7 May 1975. His death certificate lists his occupation as a taxi drive, and address as 4/58 Dover Road, Rose Bay.

If anyone has any knowledge of Tom's life in captivity, I would appreciate it if you could contact me. 

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

In good spirit

D-day infused prisoners of war every everywhere with great optimism of a speedy return to home and loved ones. The Australians in Stalag Luft III were no different. 

They had talked about it for months beforehand, and excitement mounted.

Bill Fordyce, courtesy of Lily Fordyce

Then, on the big day, they 'Heard [about it] per German radio 1330 hours', recorded Ted Every in his wartime log book. 

Harry Train wrote, that 'At 13.30 hours today (camp time) Sondermeldum from the German radio announced that last night the long expected invasion of the fortress of Europe was commenced. It was preceded by heavy bombardment and then landings were made between the Cherbourg Peninsula and Le Havre with heavy sea and air support. Fierce defence fighting is in progress. I am afraid our feelings are too full for expression'. 

Others shared their feelings with family.

The great news of the invasion has cheered us all up and the morale is 100% plus’, wrote Justin O’Byrne to his family. ‘The news of the invasion, somehow makes me feel that it won’t be long before we are together again’, Doug Hutchinson told his wife Lola. ‘The news at present is heartening to the Kriegies and some are optimistic—I say England in the New Year’, wrote George Archer as Allied successes increased in the succeeding months. Such excitement and hope of a rapid conclusion to hostilities, and their ensuing freedom, made life in captivity (for a time, at least) easier to bear.

Some of the men recorded their take on the invasion in their wartime log books.

 Ronald Baines, courtesy of the Baines Family 
 Bill Fordyce, courtesy of Lily Fordyce

D-day, coincidentally, also brought some relief one family back in Australia. Colin Phelps wrote his first letter as a prisoner of on 14 February 1944 but it took almost four months to reach Adelaide. While Britain and Europe were thrilling to news of the invasion, the Phelps family read Colin’s heartening words that he was safe and well on 6 June 1944: 'Dear Dad and Mum—have been taken prisoner and am being well looked after by the Red Cross—I am unhurt and in good spirit.—My permanent address is not yet allotted and I will forward it later on.—Sorry to cause you so much worry. Love from Colin'.