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.