Wednesday, 10 January 2018

‘“For you the war is (not) over”: Active Disruption in the Barbed Wire Battleground’

From Balloons to Drones, a web-based forum which explores the development of air power from the earliest days of flight to now and the future, recently published ‘“For you the war is (not) over”: Active Disruption in the Barbed Wire Battleground’. This article is based on a paper presented at the Don’t Drown Post-graduate Conference, UNSW Canberra, 4 October 2017, which was a shorter version of that given at the Aviation Cultures Mk III Conference, University of Sydney, 27–29 April 2017.

The popular perception of the prisoner of war is that, once captured, he was hors de combat. This article, however, argues that airmen downed in Europe and the Middle East exchanged airspace for a new theatre of conflict—the RAF station behind barbed wire—and continued on active service.

Rather than docilely accepting their new state as they moved from the aerial arena to a barbed-wire battleground, many airmen prisoners of Germany continued to be potent military operatives. They resisted captors and guards and participated in escape organisations. They managed their lives to demonstrate personal power by not succumbing to the futility of captivity.

This article briefly explores the prisoner of war as active agent through the experiences of Australians in Stalag Luft III. Focusing on escape culture, it illustrates how they used humour and language to both protect and distance themselves from an identity of airman manqué and to maintain the persona of a barbed-wire operative. It also touches on how they established a post-war narrative of captivity.

Just follow the link to find the article.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

‘I miss you very very much’: Another Christmas apart.

Charlie Fry and Beryl Smith had known each other for five or six years when he embarked for the UK in July 1937.
(Photo with application for Point Cook cadetship, NAA A9300, Fry, C.H.) 
 A graduate of 20 Course, 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook (ranked 16th with 70.9 per cent) he was on his way to take up a short service commission with the RAF. The couple wouldn’t see each other again for a little over eight years.
(20 Course, 1 Flying Training School, Point Cook. Fry, front row, third from left. Courtesy RAAF Museum.) 
After completing his training in the UK, and a brief stint in 32 Squadron, Charlie joined 112 Squadron RAF, transferring to Egypt in May 1939, flying Gladiators. The couple wrote regularly during their separation, but after almost two years apart they missed each other terribly. As war clouds thickened, Charlie had ‘had a bit of the blues for the last couple of months’ but letters from Beryl—or Bebs—were just the tonic he needed to cheer him up. Photos were also a significant means of maintaining their strong connection and helped him imagine what she was doing back in Australia while he was on operational service. ‘They were lovely snaps of you dear, and [I] would very much like to have some others too if you have them, I can just imagine what a lovely time you must be having’. They also kindled regret at the fun times they were missing out on as a couple. ‘God I wish I were home.’
(Beryl Smith. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)
Two months after the outbreak of war, Charlie wrote to Beryl with the question he wished he had put to her before he left Australia. He hadn’t, though, because ‘I sincerely wanted to ask you to wait for me to return home, but I did not dare to, as it seemed so unfair because five years’—the period of his short service commission—‘is a very long time’. After three years separation, and with a new war, however, everything was different. ‘Please darling, this is a proposal: I want to marry you’. Moreover, he wanted her to come to Egypt so they could be together.
(Unattributed engagement notice. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)
Beryl accepted immediately, but it was over a month before Charlie received word. He was ecstatic: ‘At last my dream of almost eight years has materialised and I am very proud and happy of what we have so far accomplished. I was out on a desert landing ground when an aircraft brought your cable, and the pilot thought I had gone crazy with the antics that I performed’.
Much as they wanted to, it was not possible for Beryl to cross the world to be with her new fiancé. Within months, 112 Squadron was in action. From Egypt it moved to Greece, and then to Crete. Gladiators had been traded for Hurricanes and Charlie, now a flight commander, was in frequent combat. ‘Crete was being subjected to Stuka attacks and the sky was often thick with Messerschmitts’, he later recalled. On 16 May 1941, ‘a fateful day’, Charlie, or Digger, as he was known almost from the time he had set foot in England, was in battle yet again:
‘They appeared again in the very early morning, followed by Ju88s, Dornier 17s, and Ju52s. Crete was subjected to a great softening-up before the troop-carrying gliders came on the scene. The sky also turned white with the canopies of German parachutists. The tide of our war had turned.’
Charlie was attacked: ‘My Hurricane lay in ruins after I was shot down, but I survived’. 
Injured and unable to fly, Charlie made himself useful. He set about building pens to protect the squadron’s aircraft. As Crete fell to the Germans, and their aerodrome was taken, Charlie attempted to construct another strip in the hills. When he realised there was no hope, he organised the evacuation of the remaining squadron members. As one of his comrades recollected, ‘He used to lay up in the hills during the day, and at night he would take … [his men] down to the beaches on the off-chance of a warship being around. I know there were occasions when he could have made his escape but he preferred, as is the duty of an officer, to remain with his men to the last—good old Digger’.
Charlie succeeded in getting off two officers and three airmen before he was captured on 6 June 1941. He was the last of the squadron’s officers remaining on Crete. And so, lauded his friend, ‘he remained at his post to the last. A good pilot, a good officer, and an excellent leader of men’. (His service in Greece was later acknowledged by a Greek DFC and a British DFC.)
For Beryl, who had regularly received letters from her fiancé, there was only worrying silence and unanswered questions: what had happened to Charlie? And then, on 14 August, ‘It was with gladness and thanksgiving, after many weeks of knowing you to be missing that I heard you were a Prisoner of War. Chas it is impossible to describe how happy and relieved I was to learn of your whereabouts. I sincerely hope you are well and safe’. Four days earlier, Charlie had written his first missive to her since capture: ‘At last I am able to write to you I am very well and uninjured’. It took over four months before those precious words arrived just after Christmas 1941.

(POW identity card, Charles Horace Fry 40047, NAA A13950.) 

(POW postcard, Charles Fry to Beryl Smith, 10 August 1941, received 29 December 1941.
Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)
In that first POW postcard, Charlie wrote that he had lost all his photos of Beryl on Crete and asked if she would send him some more. So treasured was her image—and perhaps also conscious of the changes brought about by passing time—it was a question he continued to ask throughout almost four years of captivity. Beryl did not hesitate to respond. Indeed, throughout his captivity, she placed Charlie and his needs firmly at the centre of her life.
She joined the POW Relatives’ Association, she raised funds for the association, assiduously read its newsletter, made contact with other families of captives, spoke with a repatriated prisoner, all to glean information about Charlie and the prisoner of war camps in which he was incarcerated. She diligently worked for his comfort. 
(Beryl Smith. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)
She wrote frequently, sent photos, arranged for cigarette and book parcels to be sent to him, contributed financially to parcels sent from British relatives, kept in touch with his family and friends, lobbied for his actions to be appropriately recognised, and sought future career advice on his behalf. She wrote about family, a little about what she did in her limited spare time so he could picture her life but, as a minister’s confidential typist, she could write little of her career.
 (Beryl Smiths receipts from David Jones for parcels. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
(Letter from Beryl Smith to the Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 December 1943. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)
Beryl provided Charlie with a real link to home. He in turn did his best to maintain that link. As well as his regular letters, he asked the Irving Air Chute company to send Beryl the caterpillar pin which signified that ‘he had saved his life with one our chutes’.

(Letter to Beryl Smith from the Caterpillar Club, 7 September 1943. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.)

(The Sunday Sun, 9 November 1943. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
Most of Beryl’s letters—and Charlie’s to her—focused on their love for each other. ‘My love’; ‘my darling’; how much they ‘missed’ each other. Interestingly, they wrote little of the future, or the life they planned to share with each other. As Charlie’s captivity dragged on, the most important thing for each was to reinforce the strength of their love.
During the course of his long captivity, Charlie spent time in Oflag XC, Lubeck, Oflag VIB, Warburg, Stalag Luft III, and Oflag XXIB, Schubin. On 2 April 1943, he returned to Stalag Luft III. Captivity was not an easy state for Charlie. He endured physical and psychological stresses but he appeared to suffer more from his long separation from Beryl. She too felt the strain of being apart. They tried to be cheerful, but both had doubts about the other’s constancy, and they did little to hide it.
‘Charl, dearest, I love you very very much—it is most anguishing to be separated from you for so long and I am looking forward longingly to the day when I shall be in your arms again. You are the only one I care for (or have ever cared for Chas)—since the very first day I met you … . I sincerely hope, Chas, that you reciprocate my feelings and that these long years apart have not dimmed your ardour for me.’
Both were conscious of the passage of years. On 29 November 1943, Charles wrote, ‘By the time this will reach you, you will have had your 28th birthday. [Beryl was born on 5 March 1915.] Happy returns darling gosh I wish I were here with you darling for I would have lots more to tell you. I miss you darling and hope we shall be together again soon. Cheerio my dear you have all my love, yours for ever’.
(Charles Fry in Oflag XXIB, Schubin late 1942, after their heads were shaven. Fry second from left
Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
By December 1944, the strain was almost unendurable. It was their seventh Christmas apart and Charlie’s fourth in captivity. He had sent her Christmas cards in times past but if he had this time, it did not reach her. 
(Christmas Card from No 1 Flying Training School, RAAF Point Cook, 1936. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
(POW Christmas card from Charles Fry to Beryl Smith POW,  postmarked 22 November 1942 while he was in Schubin, received 12 March 1942. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
On 12 December, Beryl wrote again to Charles. It was her last letter addressed to him at Stalag Luft III, yet he never received it. [She typed all of her letters and kept the flimsy.] ‘How are you, my precious darling? Sick and tired of waiting, I guess. I feel that way at times too. Not tired of waiting for you my darling but tired of having to wait.’ It was a poignant letter, full of all the longing a woman felt for a man she had not seen since July 1937. It suggested a silence that, despite the many letters over the years, stretched between them. It hinted at the things that could not be told because of censorship, or because they both recognised that ‘one must keep a happy exterior and write bright cheery letters’, or because some words simply could not be put on paper: they could only be whispered between lovers entwined in each other’s arms:
‘I wish I could express what is in my mind—tell you how I feel and what thoughts I have about life, the war and ourselves … . I really think of some marvellous things to say to you but when I come to write them it is very very difficult. I feel I would like to tell you how much I love you and adore you and that you are the embodiment of all my dreams—that I miss you very very much and am often unhappy and sad about that. I would like to tell you that I dream of the time we will be together and that you will say that you love me and think that I am beautiful … I try to imagine what it will be like to have your arms around me and to feel your kisses.’
As Beryl wondered what she would do when they were reunited—‘Will I rush forward and throw my arms madly around your neck and kiss you and kiss you and kiss you—or will I stand shyly by whilst you embrace your mother and family and wait my turn later on’—Charlie was having a ‘miserable Christmas’. ‘How I would like to be with you there’, he wrote. He had been at a low ebb during the last weeks of 1944 as the hoped-for release in the wake of the D-Day invasion had failed to eventuate. The only joy was the ‘lovely Christmass [sic] present of three letters … Thanks darling they were lovely letters’. Realising yet another birthday was nigh, he wrote, ‘Hope you receive this before your birthday darling with all my love for a happy birthday & may the next one be happier’.
Beryl’s 30th birthday was no happier. Charlie still had not returned to her and, by March 1945, was off the radar. She had not heard from him for weeks. Mail from Germany was irregular at that stage of the war and Charlie had not written since the prisoners had evacuated from Stalag Luft III at the end of January 1945. After months of silence and anxiety over Charlie’s fate, Beryl finally heard the wonderful news that he had been liberated and was back in England. ‘There are no words to express my happiness and joy’, she wrote on 14 May. ‘Oh my darling. I am so happy. I sincerely trust you are in good health and none the worse for your experiences. Gee Charles it is hard to believe after all these years. I can hardly wait to see you, dearest, and to have your arms around me.’
(August 1945, taken at Buckingham Palace just after DFC investiture. Unknown source.)
Charlie was soon on his way, excited to be returning home and to Beryl. On 6 September 1945, as he approached Australian waters six years to the day when he had proposed by letter, he sent the most welcome telegram: ‘Be with you soon for good. Happy excited love Charles’. 
(Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 
Charlie disembarked in Sydney on the 9th. Less than two weeks later, on 22 September 1945, Charlie and Beryl married. They were together at last: ‘for good’.
(Cutting the cake. 22 September 1945. Courtesy of the Fry family archive.) 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

‘I Wanted Wings’: Donald Duck, Prisoner of War

The wartime log books of the Australian airmen prisoners of Stalag Luft III have many commonalities. The same images, poems and quotes appear time and again. 
One illustration that had wide appeal was Donald Duck behind bars. But this wasn’t just dipping their hats to a favoured cartoon character, Donald Duck—or Downed Donald as I prefer to call him in this context—represented the fallen airmen themselves. Jim McCleery’s angry duck who, like McCleery flew in Lancasters, declared, ‘I Wanted Wings!’ 
(AWM PR88/160, McCleery, wartime log book)
Peter Kingsford-Smith’s frustrated duck-pilot was sobbing as he exclaimed in animated disbelief, ‘“Join the air force and see the world”, they said!’ and recorded, too, that ‘I wanted wings’. 
(AWM PR03211: Kingsford-Smith, wartime log book)
John Morschel’s bemused duck simply uttered ‘wo – is – me.!!!’ while dangling his brand new prisoner of war identification disc from his wing. 
(AWM PR00506, Morschel, wartime log book)
Ronnie Baines, Cy Borsht, and Eric Johnston all drew their own version of the image. 
(Baines, wartime log book, courtesy of the Baines family)

(Borsht, wartime log book, courtesy of the late Cyril Borsht)

(Johnston, wartime log book, courtesy of the late Evelyn Johnston and Colin Johnston)
Lest anyone not be convinced that Downed Donald represented specific individuals, careful observers will see that the he often wore the appropriate aircrew badge, and had been given the same POW number as the airman prisoner. In an imaged that resembled the depictions of Downed Donald, Johnny Dack ditched the duck and put himself behind prison bars.
(Dack, So you Wanted Wings, Hey!, An Autobiography. Part One. Moorabbin: the author, 1993, p. i)
These Australian examples are by no means the only ones. Downed Donald appeared in many logbooks, representing airmen of many nationalities. New Zealander Jack Rae also uttered the ironic kriegie lament. (The airmen prisoners called themselves kriegies, a contraction of the German Kriegsgefangener—war prisoner.) 
(Rae, Kiwi Spitfire Ace: A Gripping World War II Story of Action, Captivity and Freedom. London: Grub Street, 2001, unpaginated photo block)
Popular Science’s May 1945 issue noted, the ‘dry Yankee humor’ [sic] that puzzled prison guards at Stalag Luft III since the Americans adopted a Donald Duck-behind-bars insignia ‘to show their new status’. 
As prisoners moved beyond Stalag Luft III, so too did Downed Donald, and his image appears in the wartime log books of airmen in other POW camps throughout Germany. Downed Donald also gained a life behind the prison camp. He featured on the nose of one of the US 56th Fighter Group’s P-47 Thunderbolts.
At first glance a duck behind bars appears a surprising motif for air force men. Perhaps surprisingly, the cartoon duck had a strong air force connection. Walt Disney launched Donald Duck in 1934, and, along with Mickey Mouse and Goofy (a dimwit dog), found himself in a series of ludicrous adventures in both film and comic strip.
Donald had a temper that countered a positive outlook on life. He was also a noted prankster, with little malice in him, and a show off. A scan of Trove newspapers indicates that he was a well-loved drawcard at Australian picture palaces from his debut in the mid-1930s.
After the United States entered the war, Donald became a mascot for a number of US Army Air Force units. His face even appeared on the ‘Ruptured Duck’, one of the aircraft that participated in the 18 April 1942 Doolittle Raid to bomb Tokyo and other places on Japan’s Honshu Island. 
In May 1942, Donald was ‘drafted’ into the American army and appeared in a number of short propaganda films including November 1942’s Sky Trooper where he desperately wanted to fly. After a series of misadventures, he had his chance, as part of a parachute troop. Things did not go quite as planned and he managed to fall out of an aeroplane during a fight. The renowned comedic icon with military connections was now a downed airman, just like many of his enthusiasts in Stalag Luft III.
Downed Donald, confined behind bars, angrily bemoaning the ironic outcome of his great desire for wings, was the creation of Emmet Cook, an American prisoner of war captured in March 1943. Cook mixed freely with the British, Canadians, and Australians in Stalag Luft III’s North Compound (Americans would not be segregated into their own compounds for some months). As well as working for the escape committee, he filled in his time playing sport, painting, and drawing cartoons. Perhaps the first appearance of the Duck motif was on Cook’s June 1943 postcard informing his mother that he was a prisoner. 
Other prisoners liked his creation and wanted their own copies. Cook obliged and, adopting the nom de guerre, ‘Mutt’, reworked the comic image into a number of other men’s wartime logs. Others created their own versions and, at some point, Robert Bishop, another American, reproduced it on a postcard that he sent to his girlfriend. She forwarded it to Walt Disney who had an artist clean up the design. 

The Walt Disney Company now holds the copyright but Downed Donald—the kriegie duck—first experienced life behind bars and barbed wire 74 years ago. For many downed airmen he summed up the frustrations of captivity.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Kriegie Commandments

Over the last few months, I’ve been delving into the place of religion in helping the airmen prisoners of war in Stalag Luft III cope with captivity. Some men had profound faith which provided much comfort. Others disclosed a particularly secular—even wryly humorous—relationship with religion.
For many, ‘monotony’ was the key characteristic of life in a prisoner of war camp. One wit, for instance, pointed out that Hebrews 13:8—‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever’—admirably summed up their ‘kriegie’ life. Many relieved the boredom with escape work. When the time came to name North Compound’s the three major escape tunnels, George Harsh, who was in charge of security, favoured calling them ‘The Father’, ‘The Son’ and ‘The Holy Ghost’. 
(Author photo from George Harsh: Lonesome Road, Longman, 1971)
Roger Bushell, the escape mastermind, however, vetoed the idea because they would need all the help they could get, and they didn’t want to ‘start out by making the Almighty cross with us’. Bushell then settled on the less irreverent and more anodyne and the tunnels were dubbed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’.
(Lifted from
There were many off duty hours to fill and when they weren’t digging tunnels or carrying out other important escape related jobs, the men were always keen to keep their minds active and stimulated. John Osborne, for example, read religion along with science and philosophy for intellectual interest and a starting point for debate. 
(From the John Carlisle Osborne collection.  Courtesy of Narromine Aviation Museum)
Dick Winn read the Bible and Koran from cover to cover but not for the religious inspiration: ‘these books were so good, because they took so long to read’.
(Dick Winn's POW card)
Some, however, even in times of literary starvation, such as in Stalag IIIA, Luckenwalde after the evacuation from Stalag Luft III, could not stomach the word of God. Bruce Lumsden who carried on the forced march a copy of A Christmas Carol, a hymn book, and his precious Bible recalled that, for weeks, the Dickens ‘was passed around the hut from one to another kriegie, hungry for a read. One or two also borrowed my Bible’.

(Bruce Lumsden and his bible, courtesy of the Bradbeer/Lumsden family) 

Parodying the Ten Commandments, ‘The Kriegie’s Commandments’ exhorted the prisoners ‘to do no arbeit’ (work), or ‘dhobi’ (washing), and to ‘get into as many rackets as possible’. The humour of the ‘commandments’ helped make light of their new life. They also prescribed a formula for harmonious communal living. The ‘commandments’ promoted kriegie safety (‘Thou shalt not walk over the warning wire’) and reflected civilised society’s laws in, for example, the prohibition against stealing (‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s bedboards; nor his palliasse nor his dixie, nor his irons, nor anything that is his’). But they were also subversive. In forbidding arbeit, encouraging their fellows to be involved in rackets, and exposing ‘the rest’, i.e. German involvement in the rackets, the ‘commandments’ also condoned active and passive resistance.

(Courtesy of Alex Kerr)

Monday, 6 November 2017

A shout-out to the kriegie tin bashers of Stalag Luft III

Tin bashers such as Tony Gordon, who was noted by Bill Fordyce as North Compound’s ‘official’ tin basher, played a key role in Stalag Luft III’s physical comfort.
(Caricature of Tony Gordon, by Bill Fordyce. Fordyce's wartime log book, courtesy of Lily Fordyce)
As had prisoners of war in earlier conflicts, they produced artefacts which are generally described as ‘trench art’ from materials at hand—particularly dried milk powder tins the equivalent of the Great War’s bully beef tin—including kitchen and table utensils, biscuit grinders, jugs, tea pots, and coffee percolators.

(Klim tin, 'lifted' from the internet so long ago I have no idea where it came from. Sorry.)
The tin bashers also played a key role in the camp’s social life. George Archer sketched ‘Simo’s Masterpiece’, a brewing still manufactured by ‘Brew Fuhrer’ Laurie Simpson, noting that the fractionating column was constructed out of Klim, Ovaltine and cheese tins, joined together with solder from cigarette packet foil.

(George Archer's wartime log book, courtesy of David Archer)
Some became so skilled that tin bashing evolved from the purely utilitarian. Illustrations of percolators, tea pots and coffee pots in Belaria compound’s record of captivity, for instance, indicate that aesthetic form became as important in kriegie manufacture as function.
(Cousens, (ed), The Log: Stalag Luft III Belaria–Sagan 1939–1945. Cheltenham: the author, [1947], p. 193.)
The tin bashers also built chip heaters, ‘blowers’, and stoves. Tim Mayo, for instance, constructed a stove for his room out of Klim (powdered milk) tins, clay, bricks and solder from silver paper. The force draft cooker, known as a ‘blower’ or ‘stufa’, which ‘burns at a fierce heat’, used ‘fuel of all descriptions’. It was particularly useful when ‘fuel is almost non existent’, and is considered by historian Peter Doyle to be ‘the epitome of POW ingenuity’ and an ‘icon of captivity’.
(From Ken Todd's wartime log book, courtesy of Peter Todd)
But given that today will see the yearly running of the 'race that stops the nation', this post particularly celebrates the exemplary work of Bill Fordyce during his stint in an Italian POW camp, PG 78, Sulmona.

(Bill Fordyce, in happier times, courtesy of Lily Fordyce.)
He designed the 1942 Melbourne Cup trophy and ‘horses’. The blurry images are from Bill’s log book and the sharp image (AWM) P00631.005 is from the AWM collection. If you look carefully you can see Bill’s name on the stables.