Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday. The one day of the year when we all unite in showing our appreciation to those who have fought and fallen to keep our liberty. My Italian uncle was a partisan/resistance fighter, and my English grandfather was an RAF navigator. He flew in a Lancaster Bomber, which was shot down on its fifth operation over Germany on 19th February 1944. He was then a prisoner of war (POW) for the remainder of the war, kept in Stalag Luft 3, the very camp from where the famous ‘Great Escape’ took place.
This week my grandfather shared some amazing WWII memories with me. I find all of it fascinating and hope that he doesn’t mind my sharing them. Listening to his stories was like a movie scene coming to life.
My grandpa joined the RAF in peacetime, before the war. There was a lovely advertisement in the newspaper which said ‘Fly a Spitfire, join the RAF’. So he completed his coupon and sent it off. He was summoned down to Adastral House, London, for an interview. Which job you could do in the RAF was down to your education. If you had a good school grade or came from public schooling you stood more of a chance of being sent to pilot school. A navigator was somewhere in the middle. And a gunner was probably the least qualified, hence the lowest rank. Once in the RAF however, there were opportunities to work your way up to pilot.
His crew comprised of two gunners (a mid-upper gunner, and the rear gunner), a wireless operator, the navigator, and the pilot. Five. Initially there was just the one navigator, later on this increased to two navigators. A crew of six. The new addition operated the ground seeking radar, he was called the H2S operator, whilst the other navigator did the plotting and course forecasting. My grandfather was an H2S operator. He loved it. He became the eyes of the pilot in darkness. It was the first time that aircraft had an image of the ground beneath them. It must have been exciting.
The German night fighters were highly skilled. More so than our boys? An operation could involve eight to nine hundred bombers over the target for up to thirty minutes. Imagine that many aircraft all moving towards Germany together. Many operations would leave England whilst it was still daylight. Imagine what that must have looked like from below! Within the plane they could see endless fellow aircraft above, below, and either side of them. Quite a convoy.
They were bombing cities. Bombing areas with dense populations. Trying to bomb isolated targets, such as armament factories, had been a big fail. Aircraft bombing equipment was just not accurate enough back then, and I guess much time, resources and lives were wasted. That’s not to say that the German citizens were not wastes of lives. Horribly so in fact. But I have not lived through a world war, so I am in no position to judge. So instead, they sent huge armadas of bombers to obliterate cities. Quantity rather than quality.
Looking down from the sky my grandfather witnessed vast areas of fire and flame. And later on he had the unfortunate opportunity to also see it from the ground!
They went down on their fifth operation. 19th February 1944. Jumping out with parachutes before the aircraft hit the ground. My grandfather knew what to do. If you fell in to snow, the first task was to bury your parachute. Next, get out your compass and head towards the coast. Destination: the nearest sea port. He dropped in snow, so got to digging his hole. As he turned to grab the parachute he watched it take off across the field in full glorious sail. Oh dear. Hello Germans, here I am!
Not being able to do much about that bad start, he struck off through the snow until he came to a cottage. Whilst leaning against a wall and gathering his thoughts, an old lady walked around the corner, and upon seeing him squealed out. My grandfather had his hands in the air calling out “kamerad , kamerad” when the German Home Guards came a running, already in the vicinity searching for living Airforce Officers. And so he was captured.
Once he’d been fed and watered he was put on a train to Berlin, and then another to Frankfurt. Once at the Stalag Luft, he was put into solitary confinement for approximately ten days, the norm, with the hope that he’d then open up and tell them all sorts of secrets upon interrogation.
They even tried to trick him with one of the interrogators coming into his cell acting as a civilian and wearing plus-fours (that alone would make me suspicious!), and speaking English. He was trying to coax information out, but my grandfather was not daft.
Stalag Luft 3 was for airforce officers only. Stalag Luft 3, made very famous by Steve McQueen. Most of the characters portrayed in this film were real men. All that leaping about the countryside on a motorbike was not.
The Great Escape tunnel was dug from the camp theatre. Yes they had a theatre, and a theatrical group to perform in it. The escape tunnels were dug vertically to quite a depth before turning and moving more horizontally. This was due to the Germans having sound detectors which enabled them to hear underground digging. The deeper the tunnels the less likely the detectors would pick them up. Not for the claustrophobic huh! If and when the Germans did detect a tunnel, they would then dig their own tunnel to meet it and then empty the latrines down it. Nice.
My grandfather treasures his time spent in the camp, the experiences, the different characters, and nationalities, and also the distance learning course he was able to study, thanks to the red cross. There were Canadians, Americans, Rhodesians, South Africans, and obviously Brits, all Airforce officers. It seems everyone was treated with respect.
The food was not fantastic, and you couldn’t always identify what it was, but they did receive red cross parcels that nearly made up for it. And the parcels were never tampered with, the German Officers never touched them or took any of the food for themselves.
One of my grandfather’s roomies played the cello. And one of the German Officers played the violin. The violinist would often come to their room and the two musicians would make music. Officers from other rooms would crowd in to listen and enjoy the music.
The Officer prisoners were not put to work. It sounds awfully kind doesn’t it, but the Germans had their reasons. Putting the prisoners to work just created too many opportunities for escape, in turn creating more work and headaches for the Germans! The film did get that bit right then – some of them were obsessed with escaping!
My grandpops showed me his Observer’s and Air Gunner’s Flying Log Book. I hadn’t ever seen it before. What a treasure I held in my hands. I glanced through and saw in red ink the details of the five Operations. The last one read ‘Operations as ordered, MISSING’. When he and his crew did not return to base, the log book was sent to my grandmother. The squadrons were losing so many men that they had a department that dealt solely with the sending of personal belongings back to relatives. Shocking.
As the Russians were making their way across Poland, ever closer to the Stalag Luft 3 camp, the German Officers decided to move their POWs. They feared for the safety of their imprisoned Officers. Does this sound unreal? They marched for weeks by foot or train, until eventually they reached Amsterdam. There, the Germans left the Brits and co, to freedom and a safe distance from the Russian army. They were found by British Officers and brought back to England. Amazing.