Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Conflict and Society Webinar: ‘He “assaulted me at the matrimonial home”: captivity trauma and domestic abuse.’


Conflict and Society Webinar: 28 September 2021

School of Humanities & Social Sciences

UNSW Canberra

For recording, click here (and scroll down) https://www.unsw.adfa.edu.au/events/conflict-society-seminar-6

‘He “assaulted me at the matrimonial home”: captivity trauma and domestic abuse.’

Introduction: captivity trauma and domestic abuse

‘Twice my husband attempted to kill me’, Madeline Reed stated. ‘The first time he held a carving knife against my throat and was stopped from going any further by our son [Peter] … coming into the room. The second time, without any argument or quarrel, he knocked me over and kicked me about the face and head.’ He ‘assaulted me at the matrimonial home’, Hayley Myatt attested about her husband, ‘grabbing me by the hair, shaking me and banging my head against the wall’.

Blake Reed and Marcus Myatt were former airmen prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a Second World War German prisoner of war camp. Both experienced captivity trauma. Both perpetrated domestic abuse against their wives, in front of their children.

In the years following the Second World War, violence in the home was often ‘subsumed and silenced by the broader question of domestic readjustment’ after homecoming. It was viewed as just one of a number of social ills arising from resettlement. With little concrete evidence collated in the immediate post-Second World War decades about violence arising from war service generally, it probably isn’t even possible, as Christina Twomey has noted, to determine the extent to which captivity contributed to family unrest. But it is perhaps easier to highlight historical domestic abuse by examining a small cohort.


This webinar draws on my PhD thesis ‘Emotions of Captivity: Australian Airmen Prisoners of Stalag Luft III and their Families’ in which I studied the captivity experience of 351 Australian airmen and their loved ones – from capture until death. A condition of use of some records is anonymity. As such, I have used pseudonyms, and these are written in italics. And a content warning: I will be quoting graphic testimony of domestic abuse which some may find distressing, or potentially triggering.

For my thesis, I compiled a medical sample of 128 of Stalag Luft III’s former Australian POWs. This is based on evidence from Prisoner of War Trust Fund records, divorce cases, coroners’ reports, family members, and other sources. The majority came from repatriation files held by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, most of which had been created by the former Repatriation Department. I found that eighty-five former POWs had experienced some degree of psychological damage during confinement, after liberation and homecoming, in the immediate post-war years, and in later life. Domestic abuse figured in the lives of at least 10 per cent of that psychological sample. All had been experiencing mental disturbance when perpetrating abuse. I found that, while some domestic abuse arose from a ‘crisis of masculinity’, it was also an expression of captivity trauma. As such, I positioned abuse as a psychological issue. But domestic abuse is also a gender issue. It is an emotional and sensory experience. It has a moral dimension. It also ‘lingers on in … memories’; it has an intergenerational legacyThese broader contexts are what I will highlight this evening.

Evidentiary challenges: subsumed and normalised

In the immediate post-Second World War decades violence in the home was still portrayed as ‘wife-beating’ or ‘wife bashing’ and women were considered to be ‘battered wives’. There was nothing as wide-ranging as current definitions of abuse which include physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and verbal abuse. Not all of these behaviours involve violence. As such, I favour the broader term of ‘domestic abuse’ with the understanding that it encompasses acts against intimate partners and other family members.

I found evidence of abuse enacted by Stalag Luft III’s former POWs against their parents, spouses, siblings, and children. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to go into all of them here, so I will focus on the former POWs, their wives, and their children.

My main source of domestic abuse in Stalag Luft III’s distributed archive comes from women’s testimony created in the immediate post-war decades, before the advent of second-wave feminism, and before the term ‘domestic violence’ was coined in the late 1970s. Children’s testimony was uttered more recently. Evidence of domestic abuse falls into two categories: empathetic veteran-centric narratives from the medical archive and lived experience, and combative statements from divorce records. I refer to those who responded compassionately to domestic abuse as ‘helpmeets’. Those who assertively decided to take no more I dub ‘combatants’.

Some accounts must be treated with care. Coded language appears in more recent narratives to either protect the suffering veteran or to create a barrier against the memory of abuse. Anything created for financial or personal benefit, such as to support pension claims and medical expenses, or, in the case of divorce proceedings, to elicit maintenance settlements or favourable custody decisions, could have been heightened to facilitate the best outcome. Some evidence has been recast by legal or medical practitioners to emphasise facts; they have been rendered devoid of emotion.

I encountered other evidentiary challenges. In describing their captivity trauma as part of the repatriation process, former POWs rarely articulated narratives of perpetration. Where domestic abuse was admitted, the causes were seldom explored: medicos and repatriation bureaucrats considered abuse as symptomatic of a psychological condition. Men were not treated as perpetrators of abuse. They were ill. Family members, particularly wives, were not viewed as victims of abusive behaviour. They were valued witnesses to traumatic responses. They were carers of the psychologically damaged and had a significant place in the repatriation system.

There is much silence in the distributed archive. In a post-war society where domestic abuse was subsumed and normalised, abuse was usually kept within the home. The law did not acknowledge some behaviours: rape within marriage was not illegal. Women did not perceive some acts as abusive because they had yet to be defined. Keeping a wife on a tight budget – limiting her financial independence – would have been usual in many households dominated by a male breadwinner. Also unrecognised at the time was what we now know as coercive control where an abuser deliberately and systematically tries to restrictively manage all aspects of a person’s life; and gas-lighting, where the victim is forced to doubt her memory or perception of events.

Despite the evidentiary challenges and silences, testimony from the medical and divorce archives – and lived experience – is important. When examining narratives of abuse, therefore, we need to deploy two lenses. A contemporary one which allows us to see how women and men viewed themselves and behaviours within their specific culture and time, and a modern one so we can look beyond what men and women said or wrote (or didn’t say or write) to what we can infer – or label – in light of more modern definitions and understandings.

Edric Parr’s actions, for example, appear coercive. He ‘became very controlling …  the insecurities behind those behaviours’, his daughter Angela told me, ‘in their own way[,] held my mother “captive” to the emotional bind’. But Edric ‘was not physically abusive’. As such, his family did not see his controlling behaviour as a form of abuse. His obsessive compulsive disorder was a diagnosed psychological condition, arising from the ‘trauma and emotional damage [resulting from] his POW experiences’.

When I asked Bethany Lane if she had witnessed or experienced domestic abuse, she told me that her father’s moods were erratic and he could turn suddenly. Bethany was only three when her mother was hospitalised after a ‘scene’ during which Gerard ‘was furious’. She was ‘often terrified but didn’t know why’. The young girl also ‘endured a lot of verbal abuse’. ‘Loud shouting that made me very fearful’. Bethany also confirmed that she had lived with coercive behaviour. ‘Dad’ was ‘very controlling [in] what we did or said’. ‘If visitors came we were to be seen and not heard except if we recited something.’ He had high expectations and ‘the pressure from him stifled me’.

Petronella Barrie also suffered emotional abuse and coercive control. Her husband Hugo restricted her social life, forbidding her to accompany him when they were both invited out because he was ‘ashamed of her’. He undermined her self-esteem, Petronella attested, and ‘incessantly criticised’ her – using ‘expressions of the most offensive and insulting nature’. He stressed that he considered her to be ‘quite worthless’.

Hayley Myatt described an occasion where her husband gas-lighted her. Marcus viciously twisted her nose, still painful and healing after surgery. ‘[A]s he was doing it’, she claimed, ‘he said “you are just imagining it, I am not touching your nose or hurting you at all”’. Given much of her abuse took place at night in their bedroom, Hayley may also have been sexually assaulted. ‘[W]hile in bed’, she stated in her divorce testimony, Marcus [‘struck] me on a number of occasions … forcing my arms into a position which caused me great pain’.

Helpmeets and Combatants: collateral damage

Woman today are recognised as victims of abuse, but with urgent calls to replace ‘victim’ with the more affirming ‘survivor’. Men are uncompromisingly categorised as perpetrators. Helpmeets, however, did not see their husbands as perpetrators. Their presentation of evidence to the repatriation bureaucracy was entirely veteran-centric: it emphasised male victimhood not their own. They were witnesses to masculine fragility.

Some helpmeets unconditionally loved their husbands. Cassie and Edric Parr were a ‘devoted couple’ for sixty-nine years, with ‘an adoring love and affection for each other that was a soul journey of its own’, their daughter Angela recounted. Others may have felt obliged to remain within difficult marriages because of children, religion, economic dependence, or because a society which condoned domestic abuse did not provide a place for those who wished to escape it. There was also a societal imperative to stay and support. As so many of their grandmothers and mothers had done in the wake of the Great War, these women accepted society’s and the repatriation department’s expectation to care for a new generation of ‘shattered Anzacs’ or, in this context, ‘fragile flyers’.

Even in the most challenging relationships, helpmeets recognised the pain of captivity trauma. Accordingly, they chose to stay, to make a home, to support their husbands, and to protect their children. They found ways to accommodate the fragile flyers’ behaviour. But their compassion exposed them  to abuse.

Madeleine Reed, who felt cold steel against her throat, separated from Blake shortly after the knife attack. Six years later, she was close to destitution so allowed him to come back. It was a financial necessity but empathy intermingled with pragmatism. She knew how much Blake loved their son; saw what a good relationship they had. She also pitied her husband who ‘had deteriorated greatly. … he drank more than ever and would sit … staring into space. … Sometimes for hours he would talk in a low voice about [the] POW camp. I was frightened, but did not like to leave him when he was so troubled’.

Cynthia Lane inured herself to abuse. She ‘was used to dealing with trauma’ inside her marriage and often told her daughter, Bethany, ‘just allow the pain to wash over you like water off a duck’s back’. As a consequence of her husband’s treatment, Cynthia ‘suffered incredibly emotionally’. She had no other family to turn to and ‘in those days you never divorced’. Cynthia put her children first, protecting them from Gerard’s behaviour by trying to create a ‘safe place’. ‘In her quiet way’, Bethany recalled, ‘Mum built … a small spark of hope in us by reading the Bible’.

Bethany is also a helpmeet. Despite a difficult childhood and a period of estrangement in her early twenties, she never stopped loving and supporting her father. She has spent much of her adult life actively trying to fathom Gerard’s trauma and, before his death, reconciling with him. By trying to accommodate her father’s behaviour and to forgive him, she has composed a narrative of acceptance which attributes domestic abuse mainly to ‘the war’, but to other life experiences as well. She knew he was ‘so damaged’ and in pain but ‘without … understanding what it was all about’. She later considered that ‘what Dad had been through’ during the Depression, war, and captivity, stimulated him to ‘make us ready for anything we might meet up with in life’. She also realised that ‘Dad usually eventually came through with compassion [to] those he inflicted with emotional pain’.

In her attempts to comprehend Gerard’s experiences and the root cause of his trauma, Bethany has exerted loving, empathetic agency. So, too, did her mother and other women who embraced a helpmeet role to fragile flyers shattered by captivity trauma. Some recognised the blessings despite unrelenting mental pain. Cassie and Edric Parr derived ‘genuine appreciation and benefit’ from their long, happy marriage.


The divorce archive reveals no helpmeets. Plaintiffs did not present their husbands as fragile flyers. Hayley Myatt sued for divorce on the grounds of repeated assaults and cruel beatings. Petronella Barrie cited cruelty and desertion. They described their husbands as malicious wife-beaters. They provided no mitigating statements relating to psychological state.

Hayley and Petronella were combatants. Their weapons were searing accounts of physical and emotional brutality in matrimonial homes that had become war zones. Fronting the divorce court in an era before no-fault divorce took courage. Intimate and prurient details were often aired in the press. They had children to raise, with no income other than their husband’s and no home to go to unless, like Hayley, they could move in with parents, or like Petronella, had husbands rich enough to maintain two households. There would have been an element of shame in publicly projecting an image of helpless, battered wife, but it was necessary. In making the decision to leave for the sake of self and children, risking social stigma to argue cruelty, and positioning themselves as victims, combatants exerted pragmatic, protective, and survivalist agency.

Combatants and helpmeets both maintained a degree of personal power despite their abusive situations. They were women of agency. Although perpetrated against, they were not entirely victims. They were survivors. But they were also the collateral damage of captivity trauma.

The emotions of domestic abuse: emotionally, visually and aurally distressing

Domestic abuse has an emotional landscape. It is a profoundly affective and sensory experience, comprising both negative and positive emotions. Helpmeets are motivated by compassion. They feel pity. Love precipitates what Bethany Lane calls her ‘amazing journey’ to understand her father’s pain and reconcile with him. Love was also the prevailing emotion in the Parrs’ life. Negative emotions, however, predominate the experience of abuse.

Women lived in anxiety, awaiting the next physical attack or emotional blow. They endured cruelty from men they had once trusted. The visual evidence of bruises lasted beyond the beating. Some women suffered deep psychological pain; Petronella Barrie was often driven to hysterics by her husband’s violence.

Fear is perhaps the strongest emotion. Women dreaded what their husbands would do to them or their children. There were many occasions when Hugo forced Petronella to the wall with his forearm across her throat and holding her with great force and vicious threats for long periods’. She would have been terrified, fearing for her life. And indeed, how close had she been to death? We now know that those who strangle their partners are eight times more likely to kill them.


Children also experienced the negative emotions of domestic abuse. They learned to walk on eggshells around their fathers, apprehensively anticipating the next explosion. Bethany Lane was ‘often on ‘tenterhooks [with] a constant fear’ of how she would ‘cope with the next onslaught’. Without warning, and in front of Bethany, her father ‘was suddenly slapping Mum across the face’. The teen was ‘shocked and left the room crying’. Gerard’s behaviour precluded intimacy; Bethany lacked the warm, ‘safe, stable foundation’ she needed. ‘Hugs were not something we indulged in when we were young.’ She became withdrawn and alienated from her father.

The Myatt children were somewhere in the house every time Marcus attacked their mother, if not in the same room. They, and other youngsters, could not have blotted out the sounds of arguing, their fathers’ assaults, or the damage. During one tussle with his wife, Marcus Myatt smashed a frying pan on top of his six-year-old daughter’s birthday cake. Peter Reed came into the room while his father held a knife against his mother’s throat; he saw the glint of what was now a weapon, and perhaps imagined a bloody gash preceding his mother’s death.

Abuse is emotionally, visually, and aurally distressing for anyone, but especially children. It was not seen as such at the time, but we now recognise that exposure to – witnessing – domestic abuse is a type of child abuse. And the memory of it intrudes into the present. In the week before this webinar, two children of Second World War POWs – including Peter Reed – told me they could not attend. Years after the deaths of their fathers, decades after its perpetration, domestic abuse is still too ‘fresh’ in their minds.

The moral dimension: unresolved moral troubling

Domestic abuse has a moral dimension. It is an assault on the recipient’s self-esteem, sense of self, and human dignity. The perpetrator betrays trust; subverts love; and destroys the family unit’s safety and security. He engenders psychological distress in intimate partners and defenceless children.

Perpetrators assailed their victims’ moral selves, but they were also morally afflicted; they suffered agonising moral emotions. I determined that at least forty-two of Stalag Luft III’s Australian airmen POWs – just over 12 per cent – were morally troubled to some degree about their service or captivity. The majority were also psychologically damaged. Family and medical evidence suggests that some, like Gerard LaneHugo Barrie, and Blake Reed suffered moral injury, that is the end point of extreme, distressful unresolved ethical troubling.

Given some morally troubled, like BlakeHugo and Gerard, had also perpetrated domestic abuse, it is important to consider whether their behaviour was an expression of moral injury. Jonathan Shay, an American psychiatrist whose work has proved foundational to our recognition and understanding of moral injury, believes moral injury can give rise to domestic abuse.

Shame and guilt are two separate but linked moral emotions. POWs generally experienced deep shame when captured. Stalag Luft III’s airmen prisoners worked to overcome their shame in captivity. They embarked on a dedicated program of active disruption, which included harassing and hindering their captors, theft, sabotage, and escape. Their martial pride, however, took a blow when they arrived home: Australian society did not look kindly towards POWs of Europe who, they believed, had sat out the war in something akin to a holiday camp. Unlike those of former prisoners of Japan, their traumas of captivity, generally, were not recognised. But like those captured by the Japanese, they lived, until relatively recently, with the stigma of captivity in a society which revered the bronzed fighting Anzac.

Research now suggests that domestic abuse is an enactment of shame: as the perpetrator’s deep-seated humiliation is triggered he lashes out to gain a sense of power. It was unlikely that Hugo Barrie’s alcohol-fuelled abuse arose from a stalled career, because he was riding high on success when Petronella first endured ‘many bitter incidents’ during their early years of marriage, including ‘abuse and criticism’. We must ask then, was Hugo’s deep shame of not being able to participate in Stalag Luft III’s escape organisation a catalyst for his abusive behaviour? We must also ask if Gerard Lane’s and Blake Reed’s rage and abuse were unconscious displays arising from guilt over their powerlessness to protect and save the men for whom they, as bomber pilots, were responsible? And what part, if any, did Gerard’s deep moral guilt over his part in the civilian bombing campaign factor into his perpetration of abuse?

Power and choice: fragile flyer

Domestic abuse is now recognised as being about male power. It is seen by many as a deliberate choice to exert control and perpetrate violence. A considered decision. But some behaviour, as Angela Parr reveals, was not deliberate. It was symptomatic of a captivity-trauma related psychological condition. Bethany Lane sees Gerard’s controlling behaviour as deriving from love but also reflecting his mental pain and moral injury She recognises that her father had no control over his abuse. Gerard LaneBlake Reed, and Edric Parr were powerless in the wake of their captivity trauma. Their perpetrations were not deliberate, calculating choices. They were consequences. Their experience indicates that contemporary models of male power and choice don’t necessarily apply to historical cases, particularly where the fragile flyer was also morally troubled.

Many fragile flyers suffered some degree of business or work stress; there was a disconnect between successful flying careers and the ability to thrive in post-war employment. Family and social tensions further compromised a traditional male identity as provider and loving husband and father. Some could not adjust to a changing gender dynamic.

Benedict Shaw, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for ‘technical skill and courage’ was particularly thrown off kilter by his inability to adapt to post-war life. Violence in his first marriage was repeated in his second. After one tussle where he shoved a sideboard over, his second wife called the police and a few days later took out a summons against him. Did Benedict’s reliance on strong, economically independent wives trigger a violent retaliation in an attempt to overcome an overwhelming sense of masculine powerlessness? If so, it ultimately failed. The fragile flyer who had been in and out of psychiatric facilities for years, committed suicide on the day the summons was to be heard. Blake Reed also took his own life. While both men had experienced marital, work, and social crises, both suicides were attributed to captivity trauma, not masculine crises arising from post-war resettlement difficulties.

Conclusion: more to do

Historical domestic abuse is a gender issue with significant psychological, emotional, moral, and intergenerational dimensions. It has a place within medical, gender, and memory studies, as well as moral inquiry, and also should be considered within the history of emotions. My sample of abuse in the lives of former prisoners of Stalag Luft III and their families is small but it reveals that captivity trauma precipitated abusive behaviour. It suggests that domestic abuse arising from captivity trauma sits awkwardly with current models of power and choice. It indicates that women in the pre-feminism era were not necessarily victims; they were women of agency. The Stalag Luft III sample also highlights the emotions of captivity for perpetrator and survivor. Empathy and love prevailed in some lived experience, even as fear, terror, anxiety, shame, and guilt, predominated in others. It shows that the memory of abuse lingers. It may never fade.

Because of my findings, and because our knowledge of historical perpetrations is so limited, it is imperative to delve deeper into the archives to recover more traces of historical domestic abuse; and to emphasise abuse’s profound intergenerational legacy. I have raised many questions this evening which must be answered. There is much more to do.

Thank you.

My research into this subject continues. If a member of your family was an Australian airman imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, and your life has been touched by domestic abuse, please get in touch. 


Dr Kristen Alexander |Adjunct Associate Lecturer
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
UNSW Canberra

Monday, 19 July 2021

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


Wednesday, 24 March 2021

The Great Escape - An Australian Perspective.

Memorial to the Fifty. Photo courtesy of Geoff Swallow.

Before North Compound was constructed, kriegies volunteered to help clear away tree stumps. Their labour was not, however, altruistic. Justin O’Byrne was one of those ‘busy studying the layout and pacing off distances with the idea of eventually constructing tunnels for escape’. O’Byrne, who had a long history of joining escape enterprises – he contacted the escape organisation almost as soon as he arrived at his first camp – ‘was transferred over into the north compound’ in 1944, ‘and then became associated with the tunnel called “The Great Escape”’. After months of digging, ‘eventually it was time to go. And we were allocated by drawing lots, and where we’d be in the line. It was like a giant crocodile’. The grand scheme, he assessed, was ‘a classic of perseverance, of ingenuity, of bravery and everything combined’.

Stalag Luft III is renowned for two escapes. Some, like O’Byrne, participated in both. The first, in October 1943, was the so-called Wooden Horse effort where three men from East Compound made a ‘home run’ to Britain. When O’Byrne wasn’t playing the harmonica to distract the guards, he disposed of spoil. John ‘Jock’ McKechnie’s hands were scarred from the ‘crude tools’ he used when helping to fabricate the vaulting horse. Richard Winn took turns jumping over it while tunnellers worked underneath. Winn also joined the digging roster and took his turn removing the soil. Some of it ended up in bunkers on the golf course they had constructed themselves. If the escape route hadn’t been discovered, George Archer (one of those who enjoyed a good game of golf) was in the next batch of prisoners hoping to use it. ‘You do get disheartened’, Archer stated after the escape was blown. Reflecting his own sense of community however, he conceded that ‘it was a great thing’ that three airmen got out.

The second, more notorious scheme, was the mass attempt which has come to be known as the Great Escape. Organised by Roger Bushell, plans were implemented shortly after North Compound opened in April 1942. The kriegies dug three tunnels known as ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’, and ‘Harry’. One was discovered by the Germans, another was decommissioned, and ‘Harry’ remained the focus of the tunnellers’ attention. Two hundred men tried to exit the camp on the night of 24–25 March 1944. Six Australians were among the 76 who escaped. Bill Fordyce was still in the tunnel when the attempt was discovered. Only three airmen made it back to Britain. Seventy-three were recaptured.

When the sirens went off, Fordyce and the others still in the tunnel made their way back to the hut. Those awaiting their turn, including Justin O’Byrne and Albert Comber, ‘sneaked back to our bunks’. For Comber, it was another foiled escape attempt. ‘Failure again!’ Alan Righetti, who had been one of the ‘X’ Organisation’s ‘stooges’ logging German movements in and around the huts, remembered hearing shots fired. It ‘was pandemonium’. All traces of the escape were covered up or destroyed as the Germans searched for signs of a tunnel. Righetti recalled that ‘we were bitterly disappointed’ that all the men had not escaped ‘but 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’, including Paul Royle who was fifteenth out of the tunnel.

Royle was what the airmen termed a ‘hard-arser’ – he had to travel on foot. Captured within 24 hours, he was later sent back to Stalag Luft III. James Catanach, who had been assailed by the ‘the futility of the existence’, was 23rd out of the tunnel. Travelling by train, he had put about 530 kilometres between him and the camp before he was captured at Flensburg on Germany’s border with Denmark. He had been on the run for 45 hours. John Williams, number 32 from the tunnel and Reg Kierath, the 35th, travelled some of the way together by train, and partly by foot. They covered about 80 kilometres and had been out for maybe 16 hours before they were recaptured. Albert Hake was number 70. Following close behind was Thomas ‘Tom’ Leigh, who was 73rd. Hake and Leigh, like Royle were hard-arsers; they knew they had no chance of success. It is thought that Hake, who suffered excruciating frost bite, travelled perhaps less than 65 kilometres and had been free for about 72 hours before he was captured. No one knows for sure, but it seems Leigh had trudged no more than 24 kilometres from the camp, and that he had been free for less than 48 hours. Along with 45 other airmen, including the escape’s instigator, Roger Bushell, the five young Australians were shot on Hitler’s order. They were all in their twenties. Kierath, the oldest, was 29. The youngest at 22 was Catanach; he had been only 20 when captured in September 1942.


The ‘X’ organisation contributed to some men’s psychological problems. A handful discovered they had claustrophobia. Albert Comber found underground work ‘terrifying’; he, like others continually battled the ‘panicky feeling that accompanied fears of being entrapped by a cave-in in the confined space’. Robin Sumner traded-in tunnelling for other tasks because of his claustrophobia. No matter how important they were, he felt ashamed. Returning time and again to captivity in memory and nightmare, he experienced serious late-life anxieties. ‘I am back in a POW camp somewhere in Europe’, Robin Sumner explained. ‘Sometimes I’ll be taking part in an escape attempt under enemy fire the circumstances are always hopeless and consequently frightening. In another dream I’m being buried alive in a collapsing escape tunnel (equally hopeless and frightening).’ The tension of escape work may also have contributed to a collective mental strain.

Protecting Powers’ delegates had visited Stalag Luft III a month before the Great Escape. They reported that George Matthews and his fellow medical staff were concerned about the airmen. ‘An increasing number of prisoners and particularly among those who have been in captivity for a long time, (3 or 4 years) are gradually losing their peace of mind, becoming more and more mentally unbalanced.’ ‘Psychosis cases’ were also increasing, perhaps emanating from fear of possible discovery after the ‘“blitz” campaign’ to finish off tunnel ‘Harry’ began in early 1944. The situation was ‘extremely grave’ and the ‘effect on some of the prisoners may be a lasting one unless some serious steps [are] taken soon’. Rather than transfer the complex cases to a specialist facility, such as at Stalag VIII-B, Lamsdorf, because it ‘might do more harm than good’, several men were moved to the Belaria compound ‘as this would secure a change of surroundings for them’. This helped some ‘in a very small way’.

The airmen did not know why some of their complement had been relocated. Perhaps reflecting the social stigma of mental illness, their medical and senior officers failed to tell them. The airmen, however, constructed their own narrative which reflected their continuing status as elite airmen on duty behind barbed wire. While some of them, Paul Brickhill recounted, ‘were completely harmless types who had nothing to do with “X”’, a group of critical operatives in the escape organisation and ‘fairly important workers’ numbered among the transfers. Accordingly, the airmen inferred that the Germans were aware that something big was afoot, especially as it followed an upsurge in camp security checks. As time passed, the ‘harmless types’ were elided from the story to emphasise the purge’s connection to escape work. Author and journalist Guy Walters, for example, states that all the Belaria transferees were part of the escape organisation. Shifting the focus from mental strain reinforced the airmen’s wellness and near-universal escape narratives. There was no place for mental disturbance in their expressions of martial masculinity.

Given the increase in escape work in the early months of 1944 and the collective strain of keeping it secret, it is likely that the advancing plans for a mass escape underpinned the medical staff’s concerns. But how did the lead-up to the Great Escape affect the mental well-being of those preparing to escape? Reg Kierath’s last letter to his mother indicates nothing other than his usual high spirits, tiredness of the domestic regime, and annoyance at the continual blaring of the camp loudspeaker. When he wrote ‘I fear I shall be doing the goose step, or else going crazy in the near future’, Ada Kierath would have held no doubts about her lively son’s sanity, or entertained any suspicion that he was planning to escape. It seems, however, that James Catanach could barely suppress his excitement. ‘Get my suit pressed’, he told his friend Malcolm McEachern.

Albert Hake’s correspondence indicates a build-up of emotional turmoil. The tone of his earlier letters had been bright and positive, and despite his separation from Noela, he continued to look to the future: ‘tomorrow is another day [where] one’s spirit rises with the sun’. Reading between the lines, Hake’s letters indicate he was busy with his work for the ‘X’ organisation as a compass-maker, as well as his pride in it. As time passed, Hake became more morose. He continually expressed how much he missed Noela, his desperation to return to her, his fears that she was in love with someone else, his regret about not starting a family, and his sense that he would be too old by the time he returned home. He was shocked by the news of Mrs Rob’s death. His grief was acute. ‘She was a great friend and mother to me. Her kindness and understanding sympathy helped me through many a physical and mental hurt. I have lost my adopted mother.’ Hake’s psychological state was exacerbated by the breakup of his close-knit room when two of the members were transferred to Belaria. ‘Well after almost two years together our old room (called “Anzac Cove”) has finally split.’ Close relations were not established with the non-Australian new arrivals. ‘The list of names on our door now contains five names under “Anzac Cove” with the latters under the heading of “Some Other Cove”’. By his third wedding anniversary – his second in captivity – Hake’s mental state had deteriorated further. ‘Living through that happy day of three years ago’ appeared to galvanise him towards participation in the ill-fated escape attempted. ‘Well damn it all I’ll be home for our next anniversary darling’, he wrote on 1 March 1944. His last letter, written four days before the mass breakout, concluded, ‘I hope I can justify your faith in me dearest one of these days. Remember me’.


The names of the dead were announced a few days after the escape. Their comrades felt ‘deep personal loss’. ‘We were stunned’, Justin O’Byrne recalled, ‘so grieved at such a tragedy happening to people who were young, virile lads in the prime of life, and to be shot down, murdered like dogs, it was beyond our comprehension.’ It could just as easily have happened to him if he had made it through the tunnel. In addition to deep grief, the escape emotionally and psychologically affected the airmen. The Protecting Powers’ observers detected ‘a great nervousness in the whole camp’ after the Great Escape. Both British and American senior officers were concerned ‘about the deplorable effect’ on ‘the mental state of the prisoners’ of the ensuing reprisals on the recaptured escapers. The situation did not improve. ‘The state of mind of the prisoners at this Camp is, naturally, very bad as a result of the death of the 50 officers who were shot’, observed the Protecting Powers’ representatives after their 22 May 1944 inspection. The prevailing feeling of ‘insecurity felt by the prisoners of war’, lingered. Indeed, the memory of that time stayed with Julian Macpherson for many decades, detracting from his long-term well-being. ‘We were not treated well after that episode.’

Even as the airmen personally dealt with their shock and grief, they altruistically looked outwards. Many of ‘the Fifty’ were married; some, like Albert Hake, had paid allotments to their wives or mothers. Recognising that the deceased airmen’s next of kin might need financial assistance, North Compound personnel each subscribed an average of £5 to a special fund. A ‘committee of adjustment’ was formed to gather the men’s personal effects which were then auctioned off. ‘Some of the camp leading lights were invited to act as “guest auctioneers”’, Laurie Simpson reported. Although the men were still grieving, ‘the whole thing was carried out … in a very light hearted spirit’. The ‘bidding was generally very high, some prices being fantastic’. As a result, ‘a substantial sum’ was raised. Noela Hake received two payments totalling £283. 4. 11d. After the war, profits of £450 from the ex-prisoner produced book, Spotlight on Stalag Luft III, were donated to the RAF Benevolent fund.

Not all personal possessions were auctioned and two examples illustrate the extent of the kriegies’ altruistic impulses. Personal parcels arriving after the men’s deaths were considered communal property and divided up. RAF airman Vivian Kelly, ‘one of the few who have suffered a particular dearth of clothes’, benefited from Ada Kierath’s last parcel. Despite the charitable efforts of his friends in camp who shared what they could spare, Kelly ‘was beginning to feel very much in need’. He was touchingly grateful to Ada: ‘I may tell you that the contents were never more welcome because it has been over two years since any clothing parcel had come my way’. Before exiting the escape tunnel, Alan Righetti’s roommate, George Wiley had charged him with returning his wristwatch and personal photos to his family in Canada if anything happened to him. After liberation, Righetti displayed ‘an intimate chivalry’ by taking the long way home via America and Canada to fulfil his promise. ‘That was a very hard thing to do’, he recalled, as he encountered the Wiley family’s stark, uncomprehending grief. Their fears for his safely had subsided when they heard he had been captured, ‘so relieved to hear that he was safe in prison camp, only then to have the news that he was murdered’. Their anguish was so profound that they had little comprehension that Righetti had delayed his return to Australia, and driven to Ontario from Washington DC (a trip which would take over 13 hours today) to deliver his friend’s belongings, and that he had been fulfilling Wiley’s final, personal request.


‘I shall never forget the day when our SBO … gathered us together in the camp and told us the tragic news’, Reg Giddey told a reporter seven years later. The memory of the camp’s collective grief was still vivid. ‘Some of the hot-heads wanted to charge the barbed wire and guard boxes, but reason prevailed...’ Individually and as a community the airmen tried to give the deaths greater meaning as they ‘went into mourning’. North Compound held a commemorative service on Good Friday – one of the most significant days in the liturgical calendar, commemorating Christ’s sacrifice. ‘Every prisoner wore a black diamond … on his sleeve for the remainder of our term in prison’, recalled O’Byrne, including on Anzac Day. Wearing full uniform, the Australian airmen gathered for photographs. Taken on the day of Australia’s most significant commemoration of the war dead, their group portrait declares more than national and service solidarity. It is a visual record of air force pride and communal grief.

The kriegies’ mourning signalled a departure from the usual air force practice of marking death and rapidly moving on. Air force culture distanced them from contemplating their own deaths or those of their fellows; they did not die but ‘went west’ or ‘for a Burton’. Those on operational squadrons climbed back into air craft and continued operating. The airmen pragmatically accepted death as a fact of service life and simply carried on with their work. In captivity, however, they had the ‘space’ to contemplate the deaths of the Fifty and find a way to make them meaningful.

Some wrote lists of those killed in wartime log books. They annotated the pages, drawings, and photos with a cross, the traditional symbol denoting the dead as well as a pre-eminent symbol of a shared Christian faith. Personal remembrances and photographic records of collective grief, however, were not enough. Graves and memorials provide a tangible connection between the dead and living, a focus for grief, a trigger for remembrance, and a place of pilgrimage. They allow the grieving to keep faith with the dead. Just as many Great War memorials in Britain and Australia had been voluntarily built by families and communities, North Compound’s air force family similarly kept faith with their dead.

Under the Geneva Convention, officers were not obliged to work but, with the commandant’s permission, and using stone provided by the Germans, a working party of prisoners constructed a memorial in the nearby cemetery where other prisoners had been buried. There they could inter their friends’ ashes. Designed by Australian-born architect and theatrical designer, Wemyss Wylton Todd, the prisoners’ memorial resembles an altar, a pagan and Christian artefact of sacrifice – the sacrificial table. Todd’s design included an eagle. Mounted below the inscription, its spreading wings symbolise both the brotherhood of airmen and their wings insignia. The names of the dead are engraved on three granite tablets, divided into columns by crosses which recall Sir Reginald Blomfield’s Cross of Sacrifice. Featuring in Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries, Blomfield’s cross, encompassing a battle broadsword, emphasises both the military service and religious backgrounds of the majority of the dead. The broadsword’s links to medieval knights and their code of chivalry has deeper resonance for members of an air force which aspired to chivalrous values at heart, if not on operations. By incorporating the cross into the memorial, Todd signalled that he and Stalag Luft III’s airmen perceived the Fifty’s deaths as sacrifices. So too does the inscription underneath their names: ‘In memory of the officers who gave their lives’. (My emphasis.) From this, the airmen composed a lasting narrative of sacrifice.

The memorial was built in the nearby cemetery. There, 50 urns containing the dead men’s ashes were interred on 4 December 1944. Thirty prisoners along with members of the Swiss Legation attended the funeral. The airmen laid wreathes, and the Catholic and Protestant chaplains said prayers and blessed the monument and ashes. After the way, the ashes were removed to the British Military Cemetery at Poznan and buried there. The Imperial War Graves Commission erected headstones to mark the graves, inscribed with the airmen’s names, service details, and epitaphs chosen by their families. 

By helping to erect a memorial to the ‘gallant men who gave up their lives’, the Australians provided a focus for their grief and an opportunity to come to terms with and make sense of their friends’ death. So too did the narrative of sacrifice which later merged with one of duty: the Fifty had died as active airmen, fulfilling their service and captivity obligations as outlined in Air Publication 1548. A late-life emphasis on compliance with air force abrogated any sense of guilt the survivors may have felt in participating in the escape work which had led to the deaths of their comrades. While Justin O’Byrne recognised personal desire to regain his freedom along with motivations, he stated that his ‘first duty was to escape, to try to rejoin his lines’. Lionel Jeffries, one of the Great Escape ‘stooges’, also cited service obligation: ‘we were duty bound to escape if we could’. Some framed the Great Escape as a worthwhile endeavour based on the highest motives. Reinforcing that they remained active participants in the war behind barbed wire, many highlighted the ‘nuisance value’ of escape. They believed they were tying up German manpower and matériel. Bill Fordyce and Bill Jeffries considered the breakout ‘successful, even if it was so tragic’ because of the ‘massive amount of disruption’ it caused. ‘There were tens of thousands of German troops whose sole job was to look for those that escaped’, Fordyce said.The escape was such an embarrassment to German authorities as to involve Hitler himself,’ asserted Jeffries. ‘This was our war contribution, to create maximum disruption to Germany in its then failing condition’ he insisted. To otherwise couch the Fifty’s deaths would diminish them. It would make a mockery of the camp’s ‘deep mourning’. It would also risk highlighting real or vicarious personal or collective culpability in the escapers’ deaths.

Because of decades of lionisation of the participants, there are very few latter day criticisms of either the escape organisation or its main proponents, particularly Roger Bushell. Indeed, most of Stalag Luft III’s prisoners forgot or ignored Bushell’s escape autocracy; some acclaimed him a hero. Sixteen months after Bushell’s death, Malcolm Jones, who had worked in the carpentry department with Reg Kierath, claimed that ‘the escape was brilliantly planned’ by Bushell. Sixty years after Bushell’s death, Geoff Cornish, who was active in the ‘X’ organisation until he transferred to the Belaria compound to work in the sick quarters, still considered the South African to be ‘a very great friend’. He ‘was brave and he was cunning. He was the ideal type’. Justin O’Byrne’s assessment is also typical: ‘he was an inspiration for morale building and determination, a very great man’. There were only a handful of dissenters, such as Len Netherway thought Bushell was ‘mad. Crazy’.

The Great Escape failed to achieve its aim of creating great havoc. It had little effect on the allied war effort. The narratives of sacrifice and duty, however, gave meaning to the mass break-out, as well as the deaths of the 50 airmen. The glee with which former kriegies such as O’Byrne later told stories ‘of prisoners under a big handicap but often coming out on top’ highlights their believed success in winning the ‘battle of wits’ against the Germans. The great cost, however, was lost lives, and the men grieved deeply for them. Some mourned a life-time.