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. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C168955?image=1

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. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C168957?image=1
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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaFwU7FI-cU 

Peter Kierath, nephew of Reg Kierath, retraced his uncles journey. Photo from The Daily Liberal, Dubbo. http://www.dailyliberal.com.au/story/3538949/retracing-family-steps-at-war-photos/

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:







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