As Australia commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War, the Australian War Memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson stated that the generation thus honoured, and who are now leaving us, was the greatest this nation has produced. ‘Born in the aftermath of the war that was, growing up through the Great Depression and coming to adulthood under the shadows of the war that was coming, they mobilised to defend our nation, its values and vital interests.’
One of those great Australian men who has just left us, was my long distance friend, Alan Righetti, former pilot from 3 Squadron RAAF. Alan and I never met but we enjoyed a long and email friendship lasting just on 12 years ago, and beginning with a letter from a very green writer asking if he had any stories to share about Clive Caldwell who he had known after the war.
Alan Righetti, 3 Squadron RAAF. Courtesy of Alan Righetti. I often referred to Alan as a 'cheeky chappy', because that is how he comes across in this photo, my favourite one of him.
Alan had some successes in North African skies but, after baling out of a burning aircraft, eventually found himself a prisoner of Italy, and later in Germany, in Stalag Luft III. (His journey from flaming Kittyhawk to captivity was not easy. ‘I went through HELL!!’)
Alan Righetti and a 'group of my flying mates--I am in the middle (4th left). sitting in front of the tall chap standing'. Courtesy of Alan Righetti. Courtesy of Alan Righetti
Alan was one of the many quiet and unsung heroes of Stalag Luft III. He took his place on the stooge roster but was not involved in any other escape activity. ‘My stooge involvement took no more than an hour each day’ and so he had to busy himself some other way. With an eye to the future, he availed himself of the educational facilities on offer. ‘A senior lecturer from Edinburgh University (Fleet Air Arm RN) taught me Organic Chemistry, and I passed that subject at Melbourne University on return, saving a year of lectures. I learned enough Russian to identify myself, as I was sure the advancing Russian Army would liberate us before we were marched out. Access to books was very good, and passed around from hut to hut.’
Although he wasn’t a dedicated escape artist, Alan’s name was in the ‘hat’ for one of the ‘“lucky” tickets to escape’ in the Great Escape. ‘Little X, the escape chap came in to our room and he said, “George. George Wiley”, my little Canadian friend, “you got a ticket. Alan, you missed out.” Alan ‘was so disappointed’ but hid his feelings, and congratulated George. ‘Oh you lucky devil!’
George, however, as Alan recalled, did not ‘know whether I’m lucky or not.’ Years later, Alan could still see George. ‘He was about 21, [a] fair haired, blue-eyed kid’ and the room was all behind their young friend. ‘We then started making arrangements to get him all set up to go, gave him our collection of fudge and a bit of extra chocolate.’ But George had misgivings, which he only confided to Alan. ‘Look Al, I know I won't get far. I can’t speak German or anything like that and we’re miles to go before we get anywhere but I’ve just got a few bad vibes about it. If anything did happen would you see that my folks get, there’s only my mother and sister, these few photographs and things back.’
On the face of it, it was a strange request for George to make of Alan. There were other Canadians in the hut who could more easily have returned his precious personal things. They were certainly closer geographically speaking than Alan, the Australian. ‘But we were good friends’. Like Alan, George had flown in the desert (with 112 Squadron). ‘Maybe he sort of felt a bit embarrassed about saying that he had bad vibes because everybody was so envious of anybody who had got a ticket to escape.’ But perhaps too, George saw something special in Alan. The sort of integrity that, no matter how difficult, would ensure that he would honour a pledge to a friend.
Alan remembered clearly the night of the break out. It ‘was pandemonium’ when the shots of discovery were fired. All traces of the escape were covered up or destroyed and the Germans rampaged through the camp looking for signs of a tunnel. When things quietened down, Alan recalled that ‘we were bitterly disappointed that we hadn’t got at least 200 out but at the same time, very proud of the fact that we had the whole of the area and the German Army rushing all over the place looking for our fellas.’
Like his fellows, Alan grieved for the loss of friends such as Jimmy Catanach, with whom he had developed a belated companionship. I did not know Jimmy Catanach when I first arrived in Luft III, but not long before the Escape, we saw a lot of each other, and shared many common interests. I was very envious of his “good luck” when his name was drawn from the hat to go out through the tunnel, and my name was not!! My parents knew his when we lived in Melbourne. Jimmy was younger than I, so we did not meet in sport when he was at Geelong Grammar and I was at Melbourne Grammar. A very, very nice bloke.’ He also remembered young George Wiley and his promise. He probably wondered at the time how he could ever honour it. But he kept it in his heart. Later, when they shared their memories of their former room mate, Alan did not tell any of George’s Canadian friends of his charge; he didn’t try to fob it off to those who lived in towns quite close to George. No, Alan was too honourable. A promise made was a promise kept.
Life changed in North Compound after the Escape. ‘Generally speaking’, Alan recalled, the great desire to escape had subsided amongst those of us involved. I, personally would not have walked out if they had left the gates open. The Germans put up notices saying “To escape is no longer a sport. If caught you will be shot” or words to that effect.’
Within months, Alan did leave Stalag Luft III through open gates: he, along with thousands of other men, trudged across Germany on the ‘long march’. It was harrowing, and Alan rarely spoke of it to me. He shared some pictures of it, one drawn by his friend Bert Comber, many of whose drawings are now in the Australian War Memorial, and another by Hartnell-Beavis, an Englishman in the RAF, who did a sketch in his diary. (Alan asked me not to publish them, and I won’t) I can see from them what Alan preferred to forget: the exhaustion, the dispirited former airmen, trekking in long lines, pulling along laden sleds or resting along the roadside, bundles on backs. One man head down, sitting propped up against the back of a Kriegie mate, tin mug by a hand too heavy to lift to lips, another trying to haul himself upright with the help of a walking cane.
Alan survived the march and ended the war on a large farm near Lubeck. Coincidentally, I had emailed him round about the time of the anniversary of his liberation. ‘Tomorrow 2nd May, is the 69th anniversary of the great day we were released … by the 2nd British Army Commandos, and next day set off for Paris in a “liberated Mercedes”’. Luckily, he never had to try out his Russian!
Before he knew it, he was in England. ‘As I got off the Lancaster at Wing Aerodrome (north of London), a WAAF asked “Can I help you with your kitbag Sir?” It was the first kind word I had heard in two and a quarter years, and I almost burst into tears.’ But kindness was quickly replaced by practicalities. ‘Then we were deloused and sent off to barracks to brush up for the VE celebrations in London!’ and later a long detour home.
A while ago, I wrote an essay about chivalry in wartime. Alan operated in the desert and it was well known that Allied parachutists would be shot down by the enemy if given half a chance. Alan came out of that theatre believing that chivalry ‘is hard to find today, and very difficult to find then’. And so, despite encountering few instances of it himself, Alan remembered his promise to George Wiley. Before he was repatriated home, he took a detour to America and Canada.
Alan was a modest chap and did not tell the grieving Wileys that he had driven up from Washington DC especially to visit them with George’s effects, and to tell them something of their son’s experiences in camp, and the last moments of imprisonment among friends. Carefully, with great honour to his friend, Alan handed over George’s precious watch and photos to his mother and sister, still stunned with grief to, at the time, to appreciate the intimate, personal chivalry of that fulfilled promise to George.
Alan, however, saw nothing chivalrous about it. ‘You do indeed flatter me’. But I don’t. Alan was one of those from the greatest generation who believed in honouring promises, remembering fallen comrades, and, decades later, providing long distance friendship, encouragement, and enthusiastic support of ‘young’ writers.
Vale Alan Righetti. 15 August 2015. A true friend.
Alan Righetti ‘In the middle after three of us had each shot down an enemy aircraft’. Courtesy of Alan Righetti
There is so much more to Alan’s story. You can read more at http://www.3squadron.org.au/subpages/AAWRighetti.htm including about the day celebrated in the above photo.