End of an era: the Kriegie years.
Their story began two days before Canada declared war in 1939. Alfred Thompson of Penetanguishine, Ontario, was shot down during a leaflet raid on Germany and became the first of some 2,500 Canadian Kriegsgefanger or Kriegies.
Each underwent a sudden transition from hunter to hunted which came with a harsh psychological and physical impact for bomber crews and fighter pilots alike.
Rear gunner on a burning Halifax, Jim Finnie of Ottawa fought his way to the centre escape hatch where George Brown stood like a dead man, he had popped his chute and it had spilled down the fuselage which was filling with smoke and flame. Finnie told Brown to grab silk and they got out the escape hatch in each other's arms. The slipstream blew them apart and miraculously Brown's chute trailed out of the aircraft. The two gunners drifted down in the night but pilot Bud Moss from Saskatoon died as the aircraft exploded.
After his pilot ordered him to abandon aircraft, Ottawa's Ed Rae sat at the escape hatch and watched a burning city drift by. The flames, the flak, the stench of cordite and the roiling black smoke held him in a trance. He swears the image of his mother appeared through the smoke demanding: "Eddie, are you just going to sit there looking stupid?"
Omer Levesque's Spitfire went into the water at nought feet during the Channel dash of three German battleships. The impact slammed the Mont Joli pilot's head against the gunsight and, semi-conscious, he drifted down 40 feet in a confining green tomb. He remembers thinking death wasn't so bad; simply a crack on the head and the rest was easy. Then he suddenly found himself fighting his way to the surface, where he was picked up by a German destroyer.
AIRCRAFT SHOT DOWN
Don Morrison of Toronto shot down an Me109 at Dieppe from such close range that he flew into pieces of the wrecked aircraft and went into the drink. He was rescued and three months later was credited with six enemy aircraft destroyed and six probables. While flying escort to B-17's over Lille his Spitfire was blasted. Morrison's leg was shot off and it remained in the aircraft as he managed to jump.
Interrogations were sometimes casual and sometimes informative for the new Kriegie. One German officer actually boasted to a prisoner that they would soon unleash rocket bombs on England. George Ruff's interrogation revealed little but a nasty temper.
Ruff had come down hard and broke a leg. He was thrown into a cell where he had to set the leg himself. Later, a German officer came in to interrogate Ruff and slapped his leg with a riding crop when the Canadian refused to respond to questions.
Finally, the German shouted in frustration: "You are the dumbest officer I have ever seen. If the rest of the RCAF is like you, we will surely win the war."
Many imaginative methods of escape were employed. "Wings" Day organized a parade of officers wearing great-coats made over to resemble German uniforms. The parade got through the gate when a guard recognized Day.
At one camp a Kriegie merely walked through the gate disguised as a nurse. The guards were about to open the gate when they noticed the nurse had a moustache.
Another officer -- fitted with a dog's head and a sheepskin coat -- joined a party of guards marching through a gate. A real dog joined the party and took a very active liking to the Kriegie who finally succumbed to his amorous advances. At Colditz Castle, Kriegies actually built a glider in a deserted tower, but Germany surrendered before it was launched.
Wing Commander "Wings" Day was a major force in organizing escape activities. He didn't like the Kommandant at the camp in Schubin, Poland, where conditions were deplorable. The Kommandant refused to do anything about cleaning up a stinking latrine and Day decided to strike a blow to the German's career. Although the Kriegies were almost asphyxiated in the process, they dug a tunnel out from the cesspool and 33 of them escaped. It took 4,000 security people two weeks to round them up, and the Kommandant was then dismissed.
Sqd/Ldr Roger Bushell, an associate of Day's, was recaptured after his escape from Barth and sent to Sagan late in 1942 where he became "Big X," the officer who controlled escapes. Sagan bulged with 10,000 prisoners and a new compound was to go in the following spring. Bushell called a quiet meeting and announced a plan: he wanted to put 200 men out of a tunnel after they moved into the new compound.
The plan was to dig three tunnels in the new compound, and Wally Floody from Toronto was put in charge of three teams who would do the digging and a Calgarian, Barry Davidson, was the official scrounger assigned to somehow acquire ink, maps, stamps and original documents. Keith Ogilvie, from Ottawa, later got a guard's wallet and this provided the committee with key documents.
An incredible array of talent emerged as a tailor shop provided German uniforms and other disguises, documents were forged including typewritten detail which was done by hand and forbidden photos were taken for identity cards.
As work progressed, the Germans became suspicious but could find no hard evidence. Floody encountered yellow sand six inches below the trap which led to the tunnel named "Tom." This meant finding a way to disperse 100 tons on yellow sand, residue from the three tunnels. The men in the tunnels filled bags with sand and handed them up to Kriegies who put them in their pant legs. They then sauntered to garden areas where the sand was released by pulling a pin in the bag.
George Harsh had served 12 years in a Georgia Chain Gang. He shot a man in a hold-up and, while doing time, killed a man in a fight over a cake of Lifebouy soap. Then in a major storm and power-blackout, he did an emergency operation on an inmate and saved his life although he knew little about medicine. Granted a pardon, he came to Montreal where he joined the RCAF. Harsh had learned about security at the pointy end, and as security officer at Sagan he set up a system where he knew every time a German burped.
But the security on `Tom' was blown when a workman accidentally dislodged a tile under a stove which was the trap entrance. The Kriegies abandond the second tunnel and used it to store dirt from the surviving tunnel, dubbed `Harry.' The Germans drove heavy trucks around the compound to shake down tunnels. Wally Floody was crushed in a fall-in and was unconscious when they pulled him out. In early March 1944, a psychological net closed around the North Compound as Floody, Harsh and about a dozen other key players were moved to another compound, miles away.
`Harry' broke surface beyond the wire but it was only 15 yards from a sentry tower and didn't reach the woods. But Bushell decided to go on 24 March as planned. While 220 men waited, a Kriegie in the trees controlled exit traffic with a rope. Skeates Ogilvie was the 67th and last man out when a guard spotted the next man in the trap. He fired a shot and the escape was over.
Of the 76 men to escape only three made it to England while 50 were executed. Roger Bushell was among the dead as were six Canadians.
Hal Willis, from Ottawa, and Halifax's Bill Gibson were two of 167 airmen who ended up at Buchenwald concentration camp in the fall of 1944.
It was here they saw secret agent Frank Pickersgill -- brother of politician Jack -- lead 15 agents marked for death in a defiant final march. Canadians John Macalister and Romeo Sabourin also led in singing "Alouette" as they marched to a bunker. The next morning the crematorium chimney belched smoke. The airmen were spared the fate of the agents and after two months were transferred to POW camps.
By January 1945, the Russians started a drive on a hundred mile front and 10,000 POW's started withdrawal in minus 20 degree temperatures. It became a death march for captor and captive alike.
Prisoners carried what Red Cross parcels they could or dragged them on sleds. The rigors of the march hit many of the guards hardest because they were older. The weakest amongst them were pulled in Kriegies' sleds, and, in a strange juxtaposition of roles, some Kriegies carried the guards' weapons. Freezing weather, lack of food and uncertainty made this the worst of times for many.
Only about 33 actually made a home run but the illusion and the determination to give the enemy a hard time sustained some 12,500 RAF Kriegies. It also bonded them, and future wives, forever. For instance, Wally Floody has been dead for a number of years, yet his wife was a welcome and respected figure at the recent reunion, which featured a steam train excursion to the Gatineau village of Wakefield. As the train left the station on a sparkling fall afternoon, a five year-old girl stood on the platform with her mother and waved at each face in the passing windows. Less than four feet tall, she became a mighty symbol of a nation's debt to the old men on the train who left home in similar fashion some 60 years ago, and lost their youth along the way.
Canadians executed following the breakout from Stalag Luft 111
Flt/Lt Henry Birkland
Flt/Lt Gordon Kidder
Flt/Lt Patrick Langford
Flt/Lt George McGill
Flt/Lt James Wernham
Flt/Lt George Wiley
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|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1999|
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