A Story Re-Told

Because it’s ANZAC Day, I thought I’d re-share a story I posted two years ago about my grandfather who was an airforce pilot in WWII.

It’s April 25 and that date is an extremely significant day in the calendars of all Australians and New Zealanders as this is ANZAC Day, the day we remember those who served our country in war and in particular the many thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

At the outbreak of World War II my father was just a newborn and an only child.  My grandfather joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Canada for his training.

My Grandfather before the War

He arrived in the UK where he joined Bomber Command as a navigator flying a plane called the Armstrong Whitley Bomber.

A W Bomber

Their mission was to fly raids over Germany and once you had completed 30 missions you were allowed a few days off.  My grandfather had completed 29 raids and as he set off for his 30th raid he was looking forward to the respite that was just within reach.

Unfortunately his few days of rest never arrived because on their way back from that fateful 30th mission his plane was attacked by a number of German Messerschmitt fighter planes and with their plane on fire they were forced to bail out.

My father once asked his father what it was like to jump out of a plane that was on fire during the pitch black of night.  He said his first concern was whether all his crew of four had managed to escape out of the falling plane safely.  He also remembers the sound of the Nightingales rising ever more loudly as he approached the forest below.

On landing it became obvious to him that he was in the middle of the grounds of a large Belgium castle, probably Beaulieu Castle which is on the outskirts of the city of Mechelen.  He made his way to the gatehouse of the Castle forever hopeful that the Belgium people were anti-German and would put him in touch with the local underground and aid his escape.  He knocked on the door and the occupants answered.  They gave him dinner and offered him a bed for the night.  In the morning the woman left saying she would bring back some food for breakfast.  A short time later my grandfather looked out the window to see the building surrounded by German Gestapo.  She had turned him in to the Nazis.  Amazingly he never harbored any ill-feeling towards those who betrayed him.

Prisoners of War. My grandfather is second from the left.

My grandfather was sent to the POW camp, Stalag Luft 111 and was there for over three years.  This prison became famous for its escape attempts including ‘The Wooden Horse’ and ‘The Great Escape’, with The Great Escape later becoming the subject of a movie starring Steve McQueen.  My grandfather had helped build the tunnels that the prisoners used to forge their escape but before it was his turn to escape the NAZIs discovered the tunnel.  Of the 76 successful escapees, 73 were recaptured and 50 were murdered by the Nazis in one of the worst war crimes in history.  My grandmother always prayed that her husband would not tempt fate further and try to escape.

The POW’s inside the camp. My grandfather is second on the left.

Just before the end of the war, the 10,000 prisoners in Stalag Luft 111 were marched in different directions (all Westward and away from the advancing Russians who were 20ks from the camp when the prisoners were moved out).  They left on the 28th of January 1945 late one night and with just one hour’s notice and it was a bitterly cold winter.  My grandfather said by the time the horse droppings hit the ground they were frozen.   My father recalls him saying some POWs just fell by the wayside finding it impossible to continue and they refused to continue, which led to their deaths.   As the POWs passed through villages they would try to barter with the residents, using their chocolate rations from their Red Cross parcels to secure prams to help carry their bedding and the few possessions they had.  They marched for weeks in appalling conditions with the Germans refusing to give them water and many were sick and dying from dysentry.  I am not sure how my grandfather came to be rescued.

Of the 125,000 airmen in Bomber Command, 56,000 were killed and 10,000 became prisoners.

Recently I was at the hairdressers and my hairdresser, who grew up in the UK somehow began telling me about his father and how during the War he was in the air force.  After much discussion we realised his father and my grandfather were both shot down over Belgium and both became prisoners in the same POW camp and were both there for over three years.  They must have known each other.  My hairdresser went into the house and produced the identification papers they sent home to the next of kin, letting them know the member of their family was now a prisoner of the Nazis.  I told him I have the same identification papers.

The Identification papers sent to my grandmother letting her know her husband was now a prisoner of the Nazis

I bonded with my hairdresser that day.

But we all have good reason to remember the ANZACS on ANZAC Day.

How will you spend ANZAC Day?

 

Comments

  1. I love how you have kept all the documents from this ear and the details of his time in POW camps is very important to record. What was his life like on his return to Australia? Did he suffer from his wartime experiences?

    • He was a New Zealander, Francesca so he went home to NZ. I think all those who returned suffered in some way as they weren’t given any counselling and PTSD had not been invented. I think they all just repressed their memories and did the best they could to put it behind them and get on with life. But I do know the horror of what he experienced and how cruel the NAZIs were, never left him.

  2. An amazing story Charlie! Thank you for sharing this and all those treasured photographs. Lest we forget.

  3. It’s so haunting seeing the young face of someone about to go off to war. What a dreadful nightmare his experience must have been, I’m so thankful he made it home to your grandmother and you. This story really brings the reality of war home so much more vividly. My grandfather was in the war, but I don’t have his story, just that he was shot down somewhere. I must find out.. but I know he’s not in your photos here. Where did your grandfather train in Canada??

    • Hi Smidge, I just asked my father and he said Selwyn trained at a place called Rivers – near a town called Brandon in the province of Manitoba…..Very out back place. He ultimately sailed to the UK from Halifax.

  4. I’m glad you re-posted this – it is such a powerful story, and one that deserves remembering at this time of year and always.

  5. I think many people do not realize all that those who have gone before us went through, especially in times of war.I don’t think most people understand at all how hard it must be to go through a war at all. No one comes away unscathed.They all have my admiration for simply getting through life afterward. I think that generation was the bravest of them all with how much they accomplished after The War,(as my parents used to WWII)

  6. Great story, Charlie! How cool that he survived – you have a lot to celebrate!

  7. What a harrowing story, and how lucky he was to have survived after all that.

  8. your grandfather must have had great strength of mind and body to survive – it is an amazing story and I am glad you are able to tell it – I was just listening to the radio and the discussion about how much we don’t know because it is so painful to tell. And I can’t get over how like Archie that top photo is. Now off to bake ANZAC biscuits

  9. Oh my goodness Charlie, what a story! :O I can’t even comprehend what they must have gone through. And to receive papers like that letting you know that your son was a prisoner of the Nazis would have been unthinkable.

  10. Danielle says:

    Thanks for sharing this history Charlie, it is through individual stories like your grandfather’s that we are reminded of the sacrifice our relatives made for us. I too can see Archie in your grandfather’s photograph, those strong good looks have definitely been passed on! And how amazing what you have in common with your hairdresser!!

  11. History with a strong personal perspective, thank you.

    I visit my mum in her care home. One of the men there was a Spitfire pilot in WWII. My uncle survived his 30 missions as a tail gunner in Lancasters (against unimaginable odds). My father saw active service in France after the D-Day landings.

    My generation has enjoyed freedom and peace because of the sacrifices these young men made. It’s good that you remember this in your ANZAC Day anniversaries.

    • Thanks for letting me know about your uncle. He did very well to survive 30 missions – not many did as it was so incredibly dangerous and so many lives were lost. It’s so true that we need to remember and acknowledge the sacrifices and the bravery that the generation before us has made.

  12. What an awful adventure for your Grandfather. You are lucky to know so much family history, thank you so much for sharing it with us.
    xx

  13. This is sweet. A courageous story that is to be retold for generations. I love how you guys have so many clippings and photos from the time. Such a cherished family treasure

  14. Wow it’s crazy what a small world this is. And I can’t imagine having to jump out of any plane, let alone a burning plane. Crazy.

  15. That’s an amazing story, all the more poignant for being told by his granddaughter rather than in a documentary. It’s so important that we do remember the sacrifice that was made by everyone for us. GGx

  16. What an incredible story of bravery and sacrifice. Bravo to your grandfather and all of the other brave soldiers who endured so much.

  17. It was really great to read your grandfather’s story. I’m happy he made it home safely. It’s great to see you’ve kept all these valuable papers, such painful but wonderful memories. It’s because of your grandfather and you that we remember. Btw, you resemble your grandfather.

  18. What a great story Charlie. I’m just fascinated by this. It is truly amazing that your grandfather survived the war camp. Those places were so awful and the conditions often so appalling. Happy ANZAC Day!

  19. Wow….what a story! Your grandfather was a handsome man! And a brave one! I always had a facination with the diary of Ann Frank and her story… but what an awful time in history. I just can’t imagine people being so full of hatred toward one another, it baffles the mind. Thank you for sharing your story! xo

  20. What an amazing story of survival and heroism!

  21. We owe all such courageous men an incredible debt Charlie. My family has many generations of military service, and it’s always humbling to hear what they went through during their time of service. How incredible that your hairdresser and you had such a bond! Astounding! I was also struck by the photo of your grandfather, I thought it looks just like Archie :) xox

  22. I really liked this story when you first posted it as I do today. Lest we forget!

  23. Be proud, Charlie! A wonderful story which I’ll read again!! At the beginning of WWII I was somewhat twixt a ‘toddler’ and ‘a big girl ‘ to my way of thinking!! I did not go thru’ this in air or in POW camps – perhaps many of the facets in my memory banks are a great deal more horrible! As you can see I did survive in all the different ways. BUT, as an erstwhile army brat [my father was the Prosecutor of the Higher Military Court of Estonia at the outbreak] I have the highest regard of ANZAC Day and the ANZACs – to me it is the most important day for us to share . . . .

  24. What a touching and fascinating story, Charlie. It made me lovingly remember my uncle who was marched over a hundred miles with a shattered knee by the Nazis, before his internment. We are so vey blessed not to have directly experience war in our lifetimes. So hapy to be reconnected with your blog. Although I am still traveling, i realize I have missed you!

  25. Oh Charlie, what an absolutely touching, fantastic story … it just goes to show how small this world is that we live in. You are so very fortunate to have all those beautiful photos and documents.

  26. Such a compelling story. Charlie thank you for sharing it again. Archie has such a resemblance to your grandfather, it’s uncanny! It’s sounds like both our grandfathers had the same perseverance against the Nazis, mine helped Jews escape through the underground in Budapest during that same war. Such a terrible time in history.
    Happy Anzac’s Day!

  27. I’m a little late to read this, Charlie, but I can certainly see why ANZAC’s Day would be very special to you. Your grandfather was definitely a man of courage and one to be very proud of. I know you are. I do remember when you first shared this story, because it impressed me so at that time, and I’m glad for the re-telling. I hope your children have a strong lesson from this, too. There is something special about realizing our grandparents–or in their case, great-grandparents–lived extraordinary lives under extraordinary conditions, and in many ways they did it for us, before we were even born. I could go on and on with this thought because it deeply moves me, but I think you have captured the essence of something very deep and meaningful in this post. I hope the day of remembrance was very special indeed!

  28. What a fabulous story and so very lucky that he survived. Especially after they murdered the escapees.

    I can also see where you get your blonde hair from.
    Carolyn

  29. I remember your Grandfather’s story, Charlie, and I find it every bit as remarkable now as I did when I first read it. What an amazing tale of strength and survival! You’ve good reason to be proud of him. Thank heavens he was one of the survivors. I hope that he lied to a ripe old age so that he could see his family grow and prosper.

  30. I don’t think it’s possible to read this post without getting goosebumps. What a horrid time that was for so many families. Your grandmother must have been very strong.

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