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Arsenic and old lace: Stalag Luft III: while the war continued on all fronts, allied airmen being held prisoner in Luftwaffe camps innovatively fought off boredom.

THE SWEET SADNESS of memories flooded back when PBS reran this Warner Brothers movie, made in 1944, starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre. With apologies to them, I enjoyed our cast much more. In 1944, we had obtained the script while the play was running in London to enact it in Stalag Luft III where amazing, unsuspected talents among WWII aircrew were nurtured and flowered. This was one of many well-known plays we enacted along with POW originals, making our theatre, with its added library, the focal point of sanity in a compound of 2,000 kriegies (POWs).

We designed and built it in 1943 with German materials donated in the hope that theatrical activities would divert our skills away from escaping. All 350 armchair seats were made from the plywood of Canadian Red Cross crates that brought us food parcels. On a reciprocal agreement with the Germans, $35 a month was deducted from our pay to go to the host government to allow us to buy toilet articles, canteen snacks, and the like, but wartime Germany -- unlike Canada, the U.S. or UK -- had nothing of this nature to offer prisoners. We could, however, use the money to rent musical instruments and some theatrical costumes.

Most of our props were homemade by our tin bashers and by our newly-minted experts in many fields. The backdrops in these pictures were made from UK, U.S. and Canadian Red Cross tin cans and plywood. The pictures were provided by Barbara Edy of Calgary, daughter of Don Edy, a Hurricane pilot shot down in North Africa and one of our great actors who now lives in London, ON. Don is also the author of Goon in the Block, a most interesting tale of his Hurricane career and POW time in Libya, Italy and Germany.

It was a crazy war. While millions of living beings were being slaughtered horribly and prisoners were starving to death in Japanese, Soviet, and German camps for non-Westerners, we Westerners, taken especially by the Luftwaffe, were treated with respect. Along with Red Cross food allowed in with little or no pilfering, the respect gave us the stamina to permit many intellectual pursuits, enough for me to call Luft III my Alma Mater.

Members of the Luftwaffe camp staff attended our plays, taking these pictures which were published post-war by S/L H.P. Clark in Wirebound World. One new prisoner was shot down with an unused ticket in his wallet to the play in London. We accepted it in Sagan.

Our cast had 14 actors. I have tracked down data on 11 of them. Seven of them I found through the huge data base Rob Davis of Telford, Shropshire, has built up of Bomber Command losses. Strangely, we learned more about the aerial careers of our fellow kriegies after the war than we did when we were all together. In camps ranging from 2,000 to 11,000 kriegies, all with harrowing tales, we soon stopped enquiring the backgrounds of others except for roommates and close friends.

This cast list gives rank, aircrew trade (P=Pilot, N=Navigator, Obs=Observer, Wop=Wircless Operator), squadron, aircraft, date and target on which shot down, and crew fates:

* Mortimer: F/L John Madge, P, RAF 88 Sqn, Fairey Battle, 11 May 40, Luxembourg, crew killed.

* Elaine D'Argent: F/L Robt Lauman, P, escaped Belgian 350 Sqn, RAF, Croix de Guerre, Spitfire, 01 June 42, North Sea 3 days in dinghy. Played many female roles most convincingly. Became Sabena's top pilot. Spent time with Boeing in Seattle.

* Martha Brewster: F/L Harvey Vivian, P, RCAF, 99 Sqn, Wellington, 04 Dec 1940, Dusseldorf, 5 all POW.

* Abby Brewster: P/O Malcolm Freegard, P, RAF, 115 Sqn, Wellington, 21 Jul 42, Duisberg, 3 killed.

* Officer Brophy: P/O Peter Sewell, N, RCAF, 432 Sqn, Wellington, 22 Sep 43, Hannover, all POW,

* Mr. Gibbs: F/O Wm. Lepine. Wop, RCAF, 617 Sqn, Lancaster, 24 Apr 44, Munich, 3 RCAF killed.

* Lt. Rooney: P/O Robert Coste, P, RAF, 144 Sqn, Hampden, 29 Sep 39, Heligoland, 3 killed.

* Rev. Dr. Harper: P/O Philip Runnacles, Obs, RCAF, 10 Sqn, Whitley, 07 Sep 41, Huls, All POW.

* Dr. Einstein: LtCmdr John Casson, P, RN, 803 Sqn, Skua, 13 Jun 40, Trondheim, Norway.

* Teddy Brewster: P/O Patrick Greenhous, P, RAF, 254 Sqn, Defiant, 13 May 40, Holland. 2 POW.

* Johnathan Brewster: Ken Macintosh, 1924-2006, Went on to act with Lawrence Olivier in Othello in 1965.

Among our homegrown plays was Paling Panic, written by David Porter with music by Wylton Todd. Marcel "Tat" Olivier of Sherbrooke, QC, whom I had trained with in Canada, who was commissioned one number behind me and was also in Bomber Command, was a scream in playing the part of a schoolteacher taking a cruise hoping to find a husband. She took a shine to the captain, a battle-scarred veteran of the Royal Navy. Throughout the play she kept bumping into to him, hitting a different part of his body each time. She would excuse herself but the captain would console her, "Quite all right my dear, cork you know."

As the play ensued it appeared the captain was all cork. Finally he blurted out a proposal. She demurely replied, "Oh, captain, are you proposing?" He replied, "Gad, woman, a man can't be all cork!" David and Todd also produced Make Way for Messalina, a three-act comic opera of life in Imperial Rome, making it out to have been much naughtier than our school books allowed. In one picture Don Edy as Caesoniaus is fondling Bobby Laumans as Agrippinilla.

In another homemade play there was a BBC news flash: The Nobel Peace Prize for 1943 has been awarded to the British Army. This echoed our frustration at the lack of Allied victories that could end the war. Well known plays among the 40+ we enacted included: Macbeth, Saint Joan, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Design for Living, Pygmalion, Thark, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Blythe Spirit.

All this was in addition to our band concerts directed by Arthur Crighton, now 95 and living in Edmonton. The band included Don Armstrong, another friend with whom I had trained. Arthur, from my 419 Squadron, was shot down in April 1941 on his eighth operation in a Wellington. Don's crew and mine were nearing the end of our two-month #22 OTU course in September 1942 when we were ordered to take part in the "thousand-bomber raids" against heavily-defended German citics. Don's crew was shot down but he survived.

Just to make up the numbers for propaganda purposes, Bomber Command needed our pitiful Wellington relics, retired from operations, that were to kill 299 (244 RCAF) in training at our OTU alone. They also lost over Germany 20 crews totalling 100 good young men, including a dozen instructors who had survived 30 ops only to die in their "rest" period. We were close to mutiny when this practice was stopped. Don greeted me in Luft III when I arrived six months later.

Several of our actors went on to starring roles post-war. Peter Butterworth, a Royal Navy officer, played in 16 of the carry On series. Donald Pleasence (1919-1995) acted on the London stage in 1939, joined the RAF as a wireless operator, was shot down in a 166 Squadron Lancaster. Post-war, Pleasence acted in the films The Great Escape, Great Escape II, The Eagle has Landed, as well as many others. He was nominated for four Tony Awards, married four times, and had five daughters.

A score of our good actors had the looks and figures to be made up as dazzling women and were the only "women" many kricgies saw in over five years.
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Title Annotation:SECOND WORLD WAR
Author:Sweanor, George
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Oct 1, 2012
Words:1295
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