Sunday, 23 April 2017

'Ever remembered'. James Catanach, Anzac Day 1944

Jimmy Catanach had been a prisoner of war for almost seven months before unburdening himself to his brother, Bill, on 28 March 1943. It had been a long journey from Melbourne, where he had been born on 23 November 1921, to Stalag Luft III, Sagan. He had enlisted in the RAAF when he was 18; was promoted to squadron leader; and had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for daring raids over Lorient in north-western France, and the German cities of Cologne, Hamburg, Essen, and Lubeck, all before his 21st birthday. The most recent stage of his journey to captivity had begun on 4 September 1942.
Numbers 144 and 455 squadrons had been deployed to Russia as part of Operation Orator, to protect a convoy taking vital supplies to Russia: Jimmy was 455 Squadron’s youngest squadron leader and was lauded as the youngest in the RAAF. He was a lively, boisterous man, much loved by his crew and squadron friends. His commanding officer, Grant Lindeman, recalled that, as they were lined up to depart, ‘Jimmy of course couldn’t restrain himself to wait his turn; he taxied into the first gap in the line and was off like a blooming rocket’. Lindeman had ‘never seen such a wealth of superfluous energy in any individual over the age of twelve as Jimmy constantly had at his disposal. He didn’t drink or smoke; he talked at an incredible speed; he couldn’t stand still for a second, but he hopped about all the time you were talking to him till you were nearly giddy’. In his opinion, Jimmy ‘was a most excellent Flight Commander, and was probably the most generally liked man in the whole squadron’.
Members of 455 Squadron, August 1942. 

L-R: Jack Davenport, Jimmy Catanach, Grant Lindeman, Les Oliver, Bob Holmes. Author's collection
Jimmy was piloting Hampden AT109, which experienced a great deal of flak as it crossed the Norwegian coast. He realised they were rapidly losing fuel. Rather than risk the engines cutting out, he took the first opportunity to land. He touched down safely on a strip of heather adjoining a beach near Vardo, in northern Norway. Jimmy, his navigator Flying Officer George ‘Bob’ Anderson, wireless operator/upper gunner Flight Sergeant Cecil Cameron, lower rear gunner Sergeant John Hayes and their passenger Flight Sergeant John Davidson, a ground crew fitter, attempted to destroy the Hampden, but they were fired on by soldiers from one direction and a patrol boat from the coast. The five were taken prisoner; Bob Anderson and Jimmy were sent to Stalag Luft III.
455 Squadron, April 1942. L-R  Wilson,  Bob Anderson, Smart,  Humphrey, Acting S/L Jimmy Catanach DFC, 
Miller, and Clarke. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/SUK10124/
Jimmy’s handful of earlier letters to his parents had been upbeat and emphasised his good spirits. His letter of 28 March 1943 was more subdued. He told Bill as much of the truth as he could within the constraints of censorship. He confessed his part in the events precipitating capture: ‘my arrival in enemy territory was far from glorious. I force landed as a result of fuel shortage caused by a sequence of misfortunes, mostly due to my own foolishness and partly due to climate conditions and enemy action’. Although the memory of it still ‘gets me down a bit’ he tried to push recollections aside and conceded that ‘present circumstances are not so bad’. Food, thanks to Red Cross parcels—when available—‘is quite good’ and living conditions were tolerable, if ‘a bit trying’. By far ‘the worst thing’ was ‘the lack of comradeship male & female and the futility of the existence.’ Even so, Jimmy kept himself busy with exercise, cooking, study and reading. But even as he made the most of life behind barbed wired, he planned for his future: ‘The end of the war is the main interest and topic of conversation … I am going to try studying Gem[m]ology & Bookkeeping etc. but am considering the idea of staying in service’.
But, unlike the majority of Stalag Luft III’s prisoners, Jimmy did not experience a life outside of captivity. Almost exactly twelve months after writing to Bill, he was dead, one of fifty Allied airmen—including five Australians—killed in the ‘Great Escape’ reprisals.
 Jimmy after he had been captured after the mass breakout. Lifted from http://twicsy.com/i/6iideb

The men of Stalag Luft III were shocked, ‘shaken and despondent’ when they heard of the death of their fellow prisoners. They held a memorial parade after roll call. They wore black flashes. They observed a period of mourning. They commemorated the dead in their wartime log books. Later, they built a memorial to comrades who had merely been carrying out their service duty to escape.
Sagan Memorial to the Fifty, courtesy of Geoff Swallow
Jimmy’s loss in particular affected his friends: Ronnie Baines who he had welcomed and taken under his wing and into his room on Baines’ first day in Stalag Luft III; Tony Gordon who had trained with him and never stopped grieving for his first RAAF friend; Bob Anderson who had flown with him and whose friendship had been forged under difficult and dangerous conditions.
Ronnie Baines

Tony Gordon and Jimmy Catanach, courtesy of Drew Gordon


 Bob Anderson. Courtesy of David Archer  
On Anzac Day 1944—less than three weeks after they had heard the ‘crushing news’ that most of those who had participated in the mass breakout of 24/25 March had been killed on Hitler’s orders—Jimmy’s Australian friends of North Compound gathered in the theatre with their compatriots from New Zealand. There, Padre Watson took a special Anzac Day service. Afterwards, they assembled for a series of group photographs taken by one of the German guards.
Anzac Day 1944. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P00270.027

The Australian ranks were depleted: as well as Jimmy, Albert Hake, John Williams, Reg Kierath and Thomas Leigh had been executed. Dressed as smartly as could be in worn RAAF and RAF uniforms, they proudly declared that they were air force men. On the day in which Australians and New Zealanders, honour their war dead, their photos were as much statements of Australian pride, unity and defiance against the enemy as they were portraits of grief. Last year, Jimmy had stood with them on Anzac Day.
Anzac Day 1943. Courtesy of Ian Fraser
 This year he was missing, ‘his duty fearlessly and nobly done’. But, he was ‘Ever remembered’. 
Jimmy Catanach’s headstone, Old Garrison Cemetery, Posen, courtesy of Geoff Swallow, 
Photographic Archive of Headstones and Memorials WW2 by Spidge

 Jimmy Catanachs letters are held by the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. I would like to thank Jenna Blyth, Collections Manager, and Neil Sharkey, Exhibitions Curator, who allowed me to consult the James Catanach Collection in October 2016.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Every night about this time: A kriegie's wife writes.

It’s easy to forget that the wives, fiancĂ©es and girlfriends of prisoners of war had it just as rough as their menfolk, but in a different way, of course.

I am currently going through the letters of Lola Hutchinson. She had been married to Doug for five years, and separated from him because of overseas service and captivity for four years. 


Doug and Lola Hutchinson,  25 March 1939. Courtesy of Robert Douglas Hutchinson.

Lola wrote to Doug every week and was lucky if she received one letter a month in return. She was in despair because he was badly injured when his aircraft crashed in a minefield near Heraklion, Crete after being shot down by machine gun fire on 22 July 1943. It was a terrible situation. The aircraft was on fire. The pilot had an arm shot off, the navigator had severe head wounds, the second Wop/AG was killed, and Doug had shrapnel wounds to foot (with a large chunk missing), elbow, legs and body. Although severely wounded, he had managed to drag his crew members to safety. Lola knew he was injured but, because of the difficult mail situation—and because he had omitted to tell her—she did not know that he had only been in hospital for a month and was on the road to recovery and out of hospital.

Every letter to him reiterated her worry that he was still seriously injured and badly burnt. And where was he burned? Was it his face? She had no idea if her handsome husband’s good looks were intact. Putting that aside, the strain of the separation was difficult. She missed him and needed to know that he still loved her, as much as she loved him. She also felt the strain on their married life. They were young, and they didn’t have one. Despite censorship and the effects it might have on her husband, she dropped a hint about the strains:

‘I’m hoping and praying for you to be home for your next birthday, wouldn’t that be rather a wonderful thing to happen sweetheart? My dear you should see me now, it’s terribly hot and I’m lying on the floor with only a pair of scanties, a floral skirt and a white open neck blouse on.’

Usually, though, she was more circumspect in her correspondence which, perhaps, was just as well, for both of them. But nothing could stop her remembering their time together, turning over memories and hoping to make new memories when he returned. As she wrote her weekly letter, she listened to the radio:

‘They have been playing lots of new numbers and one of them, a favourite of mine, is “Every night about this time”. It’s funny but when I hear it played I always think of you, somehow the words bring back memories.’

Lola didn’t mention which version but perhaps it was this 1942 recording by the Ink Spots. I can see why she liked it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPNFpeYemAY

Incidentally, Doug received Lolas letter about four months later. Mails had been disrupted and it was his first letter for a few months. I must say your description of how you were coping with the hot weather was rather vivid. Almost distracting to me’.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Kriegie Easter

Given today is Easter Sunday, and I spent the morning stuffing my face with chocolate cake, I wondered how the air force prisoners I am studying spent their Easters in captivity.



Interestingly, Christmas is mentioned a number of times in letters and wartime log books but I only found a handful of Easter mentions in the personal collections I ‘hold’. It seems as if Easter didn’t have the same resonance for the majority as a time of Christian celebration but, for some, it provided a handy point of reference when recalling events. For some, it was point from which they could look forward, hopefully marking the end of their captivity. 

For Geoff Cornish, it marked the beginning of captivity. He was ‘marched off to a car … and taken away up to Amsterdam, and that was Easter Thursday 1941 … I spent Easter Thursday in gaol in Amsterdam’. Then, on Easter Monday, he was taken to Dulag Luft for interrogation. ‘There they questioned you, tried to get information about you more than your name, rank and number but it was fairly easy to resist, there was no torture or anything like that. If you didn’t answer you didnt answer.’

Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.

At Sulmona in Italy, Albert Comber sent a special message to his loved ones via the Vatican for Easter 1943. He was much cheered by the recent war news and, ‘everyone of course wishes that the whole business would end very soon’. But when Easter came and went, ‘one realised how quickly the months slip by—perhaps Christmas will see me home’. (It didn’t; by that stage he was in Stalag Luft III.)



Courtesy of Cath McNamara. 

Prisoners of war needed a lot of humour to help them cope with a seemingly limitless captivity. And chocolate. Just after Easter 1943, Justin O’Byrne wrote to his family and told then how the big Easter Monday sports day had been marred by the weather. Life, however, was not too bad in Stalag Luft III. ‘I have become quite used to the diet now, but look forward to the chocolate in the clothing parcels ... so bung in the chocolate for all you’re worth’.

Courtesy of Anne O’Byrne.


In April 1944, George Archer sent Easter greetings to his family. ‘Once more Easter is with us and I only trust the next service will be at St Marks’, his local church. 

Courtesy of David Archer.

He was to be disappointed. He was still a prisoner of war at Easter 1945. By Easter 1946, however, the war was over and he and his fellows were free men at last. 

I couldn’t find any drawings relating to Easter in wartime log books but I am quite taken by this rendition of Bugs Bunny by Cy Borsht, poking fun of the their kriegie accommodation. Happy Easter.

Courtesy of Cy Borsht.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Albert Hake and Paul Royle: Australians in the Great Escape.

On 20 March 2017, during the week of the 73rd anniversary of the Great Escape, I presented this talk to the Deakin Combined Probus Club.

Two hundred men tried to escape from Stalag Luft III on the night of the 24th and 25th of March 1944—almost 73 years ago. Seventy-six succeeded in fleeing the German prisoner of war camp. Six were Australian. Only three made it home. Of the 73 who were recaptured, fifty were executed on Hitler’s order. Five of those men were Australian. As we only have a short time, rather than tell you about all of our compatriots who participated in the Great Escape, I will just focus on two escapers: one who survived, and one who was killed in the post-escape reprisals. Through the stories of Paul Royle and Albert Hake, I hope you will gain a sense of the tragedy, the human cost, and lasting impact of that singular event. Firstly, a bit of background about the two men.
Courtesy of the late Paul Royle, via Charles Page. 
Paul Royle was born on 17 January 1914 and experienced a South Perth childhood many would consider idyllic. He lived close to the river, swam whenever he had the chance, and his father built him a little boat when he was about ten which he enjoyed sailing. When he was fourteen, he was selected for a naval cadetship at Jervis Bay on the other side of the country. He stuck it out for three and a half years but, without ready contact with his family, was ‘absolutely devastated by homesickness’ and pulled out.
Jobs weren’t easy to find in the Depression but Paul was unemployed for only a short while. His father, who was travelling around Western Australia inspecting aerodromes, came to his rescue. He needed a driver. It wasn’t the most exciting job but Paul saw a lot of the state and it had another advantage. ‘I was always interested in aeroplanes’, he recalled, and often paid over the two-and-sixpence for joy rides. It was not long before the thought of learning to fly began to appeal so he applied to join the Royal Australian Air Force in September 1934. He was unsuccessful.
The job with his father ended, but he soon found work in the Kalgoorlie gold mines. The lure of aviation was strong, though, and Paul continued to dream of an air force career. War clouds were looming but the young man gave no thought to them. ‘I was not particularly concerned with the political aspects’ of the international situation, he recalled. ‘I wanted to fly’.
With 20 hours as a passenger to his credit and an impressive sporting CV which included rugby, hockey, cricket, boxing, swimming, tennis and lifesaving, as well as some engineering subjects, Paul applied to the Royal Air Force. As 1938 closed, he received the welcome advice that he had been selected and so, the 25-year-old embarked for Britain and flying training in February 1939.
Courtesy of the late Paul Royle, via Charles Page. 
As 1939 progressed, Paul—and almost everyone else in England—expected ‘the worst’. When war was declared on 3 September, the full significance took a while to ‘fully permeate’. He was at least relieved that, ‘at last the suspense is over’. He found that the lack of action during the Phoney War period had a ‘perpetual depressing effect on me.’ He bemoaned the fact that everything ‘seems to have petered out entirely with no air or land activity at all. Wonder when it will start, if ever’. The waiting was getting to him. ‘I can understand why many people take to drink.’ He hoped things would improve when he received a posting to an operational squadron. ‘Even as he regretted the lack of action, he came to appreciate the moral ambiguities of warfare. ‘Gone are the days when [war] was a glorious adventure. Now it is just subterfuge, cunning and murder.’

Courtesy of the late Paul Royle, via Charles Page. 
Paul completed his training on 13 May 1940: he was a fully qualified Blenheim bomber pilot. He had demonstrated high skills during training and was considered one of the most experienced on his course. He was posted to northern France the next day, four days after Germany had launched its mighty Blitzkrieg in Europe. France was under attack and the RAF had come to her aid.

Courtesy of Charles Page. 
On the 18th of May—on his very first operation with 53 Squadron RAF—Paul’s Blenheim was attacked by enemy fighters. He and his two crew members force-landed in a French field. The observer was wounded so Paul and his air gunner carried him to a nearby village and left him in the care of a priest. The air gunner went in search of an ambulance and, although injured, Paul returned to the Blenheim and destroyed it. He hiked back to the village but passed out from his wounds. Later that afternoon, the Germans arrived. The priest had betrayed them and Paul was taken prisoner.
Courtesy of the late Paul Royle, via Charles Page. 
Paul had a brief stint in an army camp where he was officially processed as a prisoner of war and issued with his identification tags. He was then transferred to an air force camp where he notched up much experience in the escape organisation.
Participating in the escape schemes seemed a natural thing to Paul. He’d worked underground at Kalgoorlie so, ‘being in the tunnels was nothing new to me’, he recalled. ‘I felt comfortable—at home digging in the tunnel’. He did acknowledge, however that ‘it was pretty hard work.’ At one point he was even in charge of tunnel operations. Despite the best efforts of the camp’s keen potential escapers, however, Paul recalled ruefully that ‘we did our bit unsuccessfully’.
While Paul and his team dug, the German air force—the Luftwaffe—was building a new state-of-the-art prisoner of war camp located near Sagan in the German province of Lower Silesia. In March 1942, Paul and a large contingent were transferred to the recently completed East Compound of Stalag Luft III, arriving just before Albert Hake.
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this one from.
 But what of Albert? What had been happening to him while Paul progressed from boy to pilot to prisoner of war? It’s time to backtrack.

Courtesy of the Preen Family.
Albert Hake was born in Sydney on 30 June 1916, almost two-and-a-half years after Paul. He lived near the Parramatta River and, like Paul, enjoyed mucking about on the water. A canoe satisfied his sailing urge for a while but he decided he wanted something much grander so began building a sailboat under the house.
Albert was academically bright and excelled in mathematics, science, metalwork, woodwork and technical drawing. He was awarded a scholarship to Sydney’s Central Technical School where he was assessed as ‘capable and painstaking’. It sounds like he might have been a swot but Albert had a sense of adventure: he was a wannabe mountain climber. His house was built on a rocky outcrop and, while the part facing the street was single-storied, the back part was two stories. He decided it would be much more daring entering his bedroom via the window which was about six metres from the ground. So he drove spokes into the wall at regular intervals and climbed up that way.   
Albert had a sober side as well. He attended church regularly, served as an altar boy, was confirmed an Anglican, and was a member of the Boys Brigade. But the audacious, cheeky side was never too far away. One day, he smuggled a possum into church. Naturally, it escaped from his pocket and caused an uproar.
He gained an apprenticeship with an air conditioning firm, working his way up to draftsman and, during his time off, was a keen ice-skater. One day in early 1940, he met a striking brunette at the local ice skating rink, and was smitten.

Courtesy of the Preen Family.

We don’t know why Albert decided to join the air force, whether it was through a passion for flying, like Paul, or an aversion to the army, fostered through horror stories of trench warfare. Whatever the reason, he turned up at the Woolloomooloo recruiting depot on 8 May 1940 and filled out an application for air crew. He was 24-and-a-half when he was called up on 4 January 1941.

Courtesy of the Preen Family.

He and Noela married on 1 March and, four days later, he was on his way to a training school.
Courtesy of the Preen Family.
We may not know why Albert wanted to join the air force, but we do know that he was a keen pilot. Noela later recalled that, when he obtained his wings, ‘he was so proud of them’.
With hardly any time together during their marriage, Albert embarked for the UK in September 1941. He was rated ‘above average’ and ranked as one of the top three pilots on his operational training course and, on 21 January 1942, he was posted to 72 Squadron RAF, flying Spitfires.
Courtesy of the Preen Family.
Over the next few weeks, Albert carried out convoy patrols, sweeps across France, and escort duties. On 4 April, he took part in a large escort for a bomber squadron which had been tasked with attacking a French railway station. Just south of the target, the Luftwaffe pounced. Albert’s Spitfire was hit by flak which smashed into the propeller. He turned for home but was attacked by five enemy aircraft. He collected a bullet through the leg of his trousers and his engine was set on fire. Despite a crippled aircraft, Albert continued to fight and managed to strike one of the enemy fighters. But his Spitfire was too damaged to cross the Channel homeward. He was forced to bale and landed close to a German troop depot.
Albert was captured almost immediately. After a stint in hospital to recover from burns and shrapnel injuries, he was sent to Stalag Luft III. As a warrant officer, Albert should have been confined to the non-commissioned officers’ compound, but, as his rank insignia had burnt off, the Germans assumed he was an officer because he’d been flying a Spitfire. Albert didn’t disillusion them. And so, he joined Paul Royle in the East Compound.
Courtesy of the Preen Family.
As far as POW camps were concerned, Stalag Luft III wasn’t too bad. It was new, with lots of amenities, but it was still a prison camp and Albert, for one, wasn’t happy at fetching up there.
Lifted from the Imperial War Museum.
 ‘I feel a cad ending up like this darling’, he told Noela. This was a fairly common response. Prisoners of war often felt that they had let the side down by being captured. They somehow blamed themselves. Many agonised about being taken out of the war effort. Some even felt deeply ashamed. They also worried that the folks at home might think they were luxuriating out of harm’s way while others defended and protected country and empire. Indeed, for Albert, it was important to reinforce to Noela in his very first letter home after his capture that he had been fighting right up to the last minute: ‘I got one which evens up my loss.’

Courtesy of the Preen Family.
Despite his shame, Albert realised that, in a way, he was fortunate, given how he had exited from his final aerial battle. ‘That I am alive now is a miracle’, he told Noela. ‘When I think of [the] events which landed me here I have to pinch myself to be sure I am whole.’ Further complicating his already complex thoughts about his captivity, was the fact that, to all intents and purposes, he was safely out of harm’s way and so, he declared to Noela that ‘nothing will stop me from returning to you now’.
Many of the prisoners tried to make light of their circumstances. With tongue firmly in cheek, some referred to Stalag Luft III as ‘Heaven among the Pines’ while others likened it to a holiday camp. In the early days, Albert also presented a rose-coloured portrait of captivity because, he wanted Noela to ‘believe the pleasant pictures of happy POWs which I am assured are portrayed to worried relatives’. He told her of their ‘vegetable gardens, library, educational classes … and sports of all kinds’, and sent photos where he looked happy and healthy with his new friends, if not splendidly attired. 

Courtesy of the Preen Family.
He took up sketching, and studied air conditioning to upgrade or at least maintain his skills, as he and a friend planned to establish their own business after the war. He also formed a band with his roommates and was learning to play a banjo. ‘Don’t be deceived by thinking we make music’, he joked to Noela.
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this one from.
Paul, too, made the most of his life in captivity. He enjoyed the many shows put on by the compound’s theatre crowd, he played sports, went ice-skating, and studied engineering subjects. He made a great effort to stay mentally active. He recalled that, ‘We spent our time talking, reading in our own language when books arrived, and German newspapers after I had learnt to do so. I translated German news bulletins … and pinned them up on a noticeboard daily.’
Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
So good were his language skills that he even instructed in elementary German. He studied maths and physics, ‘and passed an examination set in England’. As well as wood carving, he turned his hand to making model aircraft. This, and his other activities, ‘slightly alleviated the boredom of camp life … the drabness of our existence’.
Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
But captivity is not an easy state and boredom and drabness are only two of the discomforts. 
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this from.
Imagine living in an environment where your every movement is overlooked by guards, in such profound intimacy that every breath, every sniff or snort, every tummy grumble, every nightmare, mood swing, and shift on lumpy palliasse was heard by every other man in the overcrowded rooms. Imagine living in those small rooms which had to be kept scrupulously neat so no one could impinge on someone else’s private space. Imaging living where there was no silence or alone time. Just imagine the tension building as men from all walks tried to muddle along with people so different in personality that you probably wouldn’t have bothered knowing them in ‘real life’! Consider trying to be cheery, friendly and tolerant when all you wanted to do was wring the bloody neck of the bloke who spilt the last of the real coffee.
Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.  
For some, the intellectual and physical diversions were not enough to compensate for the fact that they were prisoners. Life was going on elsewhere, the war was being won without them, and perhaps there was a sense that they were forgotten. Those who couldn’t adjust to captivity were more likely to suffer from depression or worse: barbed wire psychosis. 

Courtesy of Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
Even Albert, whose first letters home had appeared so upbeat and cheery soon had difficulty recording all the positive things he had been doing in order to cope with his new existence. While he never endured this psychological extreme, he often experienced mood swings, or what he called a ‘fluctuating temperament’.
Courtesy of the Preen family.
Despite the circumstances, Albert was fortunate. He had a lifeline which helped him cope: his strong, continuing connection to home. Noela was a faithful wife, she regularly wrote letters, passed on news from family and friends, and sent comfort parcels to her husband. They were as close as could be, given the circumstances, but with letters taking four months or longer between Australia and Germany—eight months in some cases to receive the response to a query—it was increasingly more difficult to nurture a long distance marriage.
Albert’s frustration at being apart became obvious. He needed something more than just memories of times past and a long-distance relationship with Noela to help him cope with captivity. And so did Paul. As Paul recalled, ‘our major pre-occupation’ and prime factor in coping with captivity, ‘was attempting to escape, over the wire, under it or through it’. And so, both Paul and Albert participated in Stalag Luft III’s escape organisation.
Lifted from Walters, The Real Great Escape.
In April 1943, Paul and Albert left East Compound for the newly opened North Compound. There, a new, audacious plan for two hundred men to escape via a tunnel was put into action. But rather than build one tunnel, they started working on three. The rationale was that, if one was found, there would be another.
Paul was one of those drafted to dispose of the dirt excavated from the tunnels. Nicknamed penguins, because of the way they waddled around with sausages made from towels hidden under their outer clothes, Paul would surreptitiously shake his feet and the soil would fall to the ground, to be kicked or dug in.
Secrecy was paramount. ‘You didn’t want to talk to anybody about anything’, Paul recalled. ‘You all kept your mouth shut because you never knew who was listening.’ And they never knew when any of the Germans’ special security detail would be poking about. Called ferrets by the prisoners, their sole task was to sniff out escape activity, hunt for tunnels, and unearth hidden contraband and escape-related paraphernalia.
Lifted from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3058534/Enola-Gay-pilots-flight-logs-Hiroshima-plans-sale.html
Paul became a ‘watcher’ or ‘stooge’, where he kept a look out during tunnelling operations for any sign of the ferrets or goons, as they called the guards. Albert too had an important role in the preparations. He was in charge of compasses, which he meticulously crafted from Bakelite records, slivers of magnetised razor blades, glass from broken windows, and solder gleaned from the seals of tin cans. 

Lifted from Brickhill: The Great Escape.
All were stamped, ‘Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent pending’.
Lifted from Brickhill and Norton: Escape to Danger.
Months of hard work passed. Paul kept watch while others dug and concealed the evidence. Australian John Williams led the carpentry team. Ably assisted by his compatriot, Reg Kierath, they filched bed boards to shore up the tunnels. Tailors fashioned civilian clothes, forgers created false papers. Others stole equipment and manufactured escape kits, all of which contained Albert’s compasses. One tunnel was discovered. Another was decommissioned. As March 1944 advanced, they were almost ready. They just had to set the date but Albert and Paul had already secured tickets to escape.
Courtesy of the Preen family.
Albert needed to write to Noela before he left. The Germans—and the prisoner hierarchy—censored everything so he had to be careful that he didn’t reveal anything that would alert the Germans. He started mundanely enough, thanking Noela for her most recent letters. He’d kept a record of their correspondence and told her that ‘I have everything to date’. As in most of his previous letters, Albert looked to the future he hoped to build with Noela beyond barbed wire. ‘Send me some wool you sweet kid and I’ll help knit those baby clothes.’ Even though the escape would be long in the past by the time she received this letter, Albert couldn’t resist dropping a hint about his intentions. It ‘shouldn’t be much longer darling and I’ll relieve you from the perpetual grind of your daily life. I hope.’
That ‘I hope’ seems to indicate that Albert had a sense of foreboding that something would go wrong, and it’s no wonder. He didn’t have a chance of getting home. For one, rather than being issued with train tickets as part of his escape kit, Albert was what they called a hard-arser—he had to make his way, as best he could, on foot, to neutral Switzerland—700 kilometres away as the crow flies. Of course, Albert could not take a direct route. Once the alert was sounded, there would be a Reich-wide manhunt, forcing him to avoid towns, roadblocks, and roving patrols.
Lifted from Brickhill: The Great Escape.
Even if he could avoid the patrols, how easy would it be to trek cross country to Switzerland? It was still winter. He didn’t have decent footwear. His clothing was totally inadequate. The odds were stacked against him.

With so little chance of success, it’s not surprising that Albert was uneasy. It seems he realised this could be his last letter to Noela and, between the lines—and with the benefit of 20–20 hindsight—we can see his fears that he might not survive the escape attempt. While he usually signed off with a simple declaration such as ‘All my love’, or ‘I love you’, followed by a happy ‘Cheerio’, this time his farewell was more sombre: ‘I love you as always. I hope I can justify your faith in me, dearest, one of these days. Remember me. Albert.’ And three final kisses.
Courtesy of the Preen family.
The date was settled on. The night of the 24th of March was freezing, moonless, and snow covered the ground. The escapers gathered in Hut 104 where the tunnel’s entrance was located, anxiously awaiting their turn to enter the tunnel. ‘All of us were nervous in some way or another. We didn’t want to be caught,’ recalled Paul who, like Albert, was a hard-arser. He was Number 55 to go down the tunnel, and Albert was Number 70.
Lifted from the Australian War Memorial. 
At 8.30 pm, the first escaper was on his way. But the breakout had got off to a bad start. The exit trap door had frozen solid. Then they discovered they’d miscalculated the length of the tunnel so it stopped short of the forest. Each man had to time his dash to the trees to ensure he was not espied by the guards, and that slowed things down. There was an air raid and the power went off, delaying proceedings further. Over-large blanket rolls got stuck as the men trolleyed to the exit. A frame was knocked out, causing a fall of sand which had to be cleared. Another was knocked out, and more sand had to be cleared.
They were way behind schedule when Paul climbed into the tunnel, with just the bare necessities. ‘Everything we had was in our pockets’—a map, one of Albert’s compasses, and some escape supplies. But that was about it. 
Courtesy of the Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
Then, ‘we were pulled on the trolley and that took us from the hut where it started, up to the discharge point. We got to that point [and] climbed up’. It was 2.30 a.m. on 25 March. 
Lifted from Brickhill and Norton: Escape to Danger.
It was very cold when we got out of the tunnel’, Paul recalled, ‘and all we could see was pine trees up above and snow banked up against the trunks … and snow underfoot’. Then, he ‘looked up at the stars, and … back at the watchtower and the barbed wire.’ It was exhilarating; such ‘an achievement’. After almost four years in captivity, the 30-year-old was free. He ran for the pine trees.
Paul’s group headed off. But despite all the months of planning, they hadn’t really thought much beyond the actual breakout. ‘I don’t know what our plan was, except we would head for Switzerland’, Paul recalled. After about an hour trudging through the snow, the party split up and Paul and his partner travelled south. By that stage, Albert was probably struggling his way through the forest as well.
While they tramped, the escape continued but with so many delays, there was no hope that two hundred men would be able to escape. Just before 5.00 am, it was decided that the 87th escaper would be the last. Just as he disappeared down the shaft, a shot was heard. The Germans had discovered the escape. It was bedlam in Hut 104 as the prisoners covered up or destroyed all traces of the enterprise. Guards rampaged through the camp looking for signs of a tunnel. Outside, a manhunt, was initiated. Police, armed forces, Hitler Youth, and thousands of factory and field workers were mobilised to search for the escapers. 
Meanwhile both Paul and Albert were doing their best to head to Switzerland.
Paul and his companion walked as far as they could. At about eight o’clock in the morning, they rested, burrowing into the depths of the pine forest, hiding themselves from view. It was bitterly cold. Twelve hours later, under cover of deep darkness, they resumed their trek south.
Somewhere around 2.30 a.m. on the 26th, they entered a small village and were stopped by three members of the German auxiliary police. ‘We were apprehended’, Paul bluntly recalled. They had been free for just 24 hours and had travelled perhaps 36 kilometres.
Paul and his partner were held locally at first, then, in the morning, they were taken to Sagan and incarcerated in the town’s gaol. Then, with twenty other escapers, he was moved to Gorlitz Gaol. It was ‘an awful place’, he recalled. Crowded, dirty, no blankets, nothing but black bread and watery soup to eat.
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this from.
No one knows for sure what happened to Albert after he exited the tunnel but it is believed he was captured near Gorlitz, less than 65 kilometres south south-west of Sagan. It seems he had been on the loose for longer than Paul but certainly no more than 72 hours. We do know that his journey through snow and icy water was arduous because he suffered excruciating frostbite. It was so bad he could barely walk when he was escorted to the cell at Gorlitz Gaol where he met up with the other escapers.
Courtesy of the Paul Royle via Charles Page.
The prisoners were interrogated. They were asked if they were married, if they had any children. Some were roughed up and threatened. Some were told that they had been sentenced to death. Paul’s interrogator warned that he could be made to disappear if he did not reveal full details of his involvement in the escape, and would automatically be blamed if any acts of sabotage in the area were discovered. Undeterred, Paul declared to his interrogator that ‘I’m afraid I’ve told you all I can’. The questioner pressed him, but Paul was deliberately vague, claiming only that he was tired of being in prison and had decided to take a chance at freedom.
Each man returned to his cell after questioning. A day or so later, Paul watched as some of his fellow prisoners, including his escape partner, were led away. Albert was also taken from his cell. He was so debilitated by frostbite that those looking out of the window thought that he was being sent to hospital. Paul and the others who remained assumed their other comrades were on their way back to Stalag Luft III. But six of them, including Albert and fellow Australian Tom Leigh, were driven to a wood.

Courtesy of the Preen family.

Courtesy of the Chevalier family.
The prisoners got out of the cars and were lined up next to each other. They were told that ‘the sentence was about to be carried out’. Albert and his fellow escapers showed considerable calm. And then the order to fire was given. A second salvo was delivered, and all the prisoners were dead. Three other Australians were executed in similar scenes: John Williams, Reg Kierath and Jimmy Catanach. They and their fellows—fifty men in total—were cremated.
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this from.
Courtesy of the Kierath family.
Lifted from Walters: The Real Great Escape.
Meanwhile, Paul was sent back to Stalag Luft III. He was astonished to find that those escapers who had left before him had not returned. When he and his fellow prisoners discovered that fifty had been killed, they were stunned and horrified. No one had anticipated that the escapers would be murdered. They donned black armbands, conducted memorial services and built a memorial, designed by Australian, Wylton Todd.
Courtesy of the Preen family.
Later, when the prisoners tried to rationalise the mass escape attempt, many claimed that, although there was little possibility of success, it was their duty to try. Moreover, they believed a large-scale breakout would divert a good proportion of German resources into recapturing them. Albert’s motivation, however, clearly focused on Noela: ‘Well, dammit all, I’ll be home for our next anniversary, darling’, he declared. Neither duty, diversion nor even love played a part in Pauls rationale. In a brave, late-life honesty that is contrary to the accepted narrative, he admitted that the idea was simply not in my mind. No  thought of it. We only thought of ourselves getting out.

 
I'm a bit vague about where I lifted this from.
As for the consequences, the murder of fifty of his comrades, including his escape partner and Albert Hake, Paul was pragmatic. ‘You couldn’t foresee these things, you just wanted to get out, then what happens would happen.’ Even so, Paul, like the other survivors, had to live with the ‘what happens would happen’ and, even at the end of a long, full life, he still hadn’t ‘a clue as to why I wasn’t chosen’; why he had survived when others had been murdered.
Paul remembered few details of his captivity after the Great Escape. Those events overshadowed everything else. He was eventually liberated and began a new life beyond captivity. He wanted to fly but there was no place for him in the post-war air force. Even so, his star shone professionally with a good career in mining and engineering which took him around the world. It was a different matter, however, on the home front. He married quickly after the war but that relationship did not work out. True conjugal bliss of over half a century’s standing came only after his 1961 wedding to his second wife. He admitted few long term consequences of captivity but he was reticent about his experiences for four decades and, when he started talking about it, he only gave scant details. The deep emotion of those events can only be read between the lines, and in the long pauses of his recorded interviews. It seems he bore the guilt of survival until the very end of his long life.
Courtesy of  Paul Royle, via Charles Page.
Paul died on 23 August 2015. He was 101. Despite his career success, publicly, at least, it seems as if the events preceding his 24 hours of freedom seventy-one years earlier had defined his life. But they did not. ‘That was a minor part of my life, only a matter of a couple of days’, he stressed.
And what of the consequences of Albert Hake’s part in the Great Escape?
Courtesy of the Preen family.
At the most basic level, Noela, of course, lost her husband. They may have spent most of their brief marriage apart, but he was dearly loved, and sadly missed. And that was the inscription she placed on his memorial headstone.
Courtesy of the Preen family.
But the ramifications were more profound.
As he was sailing away to England, Albert wrote to his friend Ray Preen who eventually married Noela’s sister and announced ‘I’m going to place you under a few obligations’. He told Ray bluntly that, ‘If I don’t come back, I want Noel[a] to marry again’. He didn’t want Ray to find her a husband, he just wanted his friend to quietly make her understand that it ‘was my wish’. 
Courtesy of the Preen family.
He recognised that Noela ‘is still young and a type that should be married’. He believed that, ‘for such a girl to live out her life unmarried, would be a crime’. But Noela did not marry again. Instead, as Albert had begged in his final letter to her, she remembered. She put in memoriam notices in the paper, year after year, as did other members of his family. 

Courtesy of the Preen family.
She relived the handful of days they had spent together. She recalled their future plans but they never had the children they wanted. She treasured Albert’s personal effects, returned after the war. She kept safe the certificate which stated that Albert had been mentioned in despatches for distinguished service. 

Courtesy of the Preen family.
She read and reread her husband’s letters, just as he had done with hers, while he was in Stalag Luft III. She cherished the knowledge that Albert’s fellow prisoners regarded him as ‘one of nature’s gentlemen’.

Courtesy of Geoff Swallow.
Fifty deaths was a tragic outcome of the Great Escape. But so too was the effect on those who were left behind. Those, like Paul Royle, who suffered survivor’s guilt. The fatherless children. The children who were never born. The widows. Those who never lived the life they’d planned. Those who remembered. Like Noela.
Lifted from Brickhill and Norton: Escape to Danger.