Stalag Luft 111

It’s nearly 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?

And…I’ve been nominated in the Sydney Writer’s Group award, Best Blog 2012.  There is also a People’s Choice Award.  If you could take the time to vote for me I’ll be your best friend!

Want to keep in touch?  Join the fun on the Hotly Spiced FaceBook Page!

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. You can never do enough for the people who fought to keep us safe.

  2. Oh, Charlie … hats off to your handsome, strong and brave grandfather and everyone else who does what they must to keep the ones they love safe and free.

  3. This is an incredibly touching story of bravery and strength in the deepest sense of those words. You should be proud of your grandfather for enduring all that he did and especially for holding no animosity toward those who betrayed him. Thank you for sharing this powerful story and likewise powerful images.

  4. Fascinating Story Charlie and I cant believe the coincidence with your hairdresser!
    Of course my dear I voted for you, I love your writing, I’m being sincere.
    Hugs!

  5. In each war or ‘hostile action’, our soldiers underwent harrowing experiences. We should never forget what they sacrificed for us. Thank you for the reminder.

  6. Thank you for sharing your family story. Very moving.
    I must be a real glutton because when I saw ANZAC, I thought about ANZAC biscuits (the only Australian thing I can make and adore).

  7. Thanks for sharing Charlie. As a former historian I understand how important it is to remember our past, particular when it is as close as it is for your family. Quite amazing to that your grandfather was in Stalag Luft 111 and about his service. I’d love to hear any more stories if you have them and are willing.

    Cheers,
    Jed

  8. Urgh war! My father-in-law was also a prisoner of war for 4 years! Such a waste war is! I am with Mother Teresa, don’t be Anti-War be Pro-Peace.
    Thank you for sharing your grandfathers war story Charlie. Amazing photos and what a dashing man.
    :-) Mandy

  9. What an amazing story, I’m voting for you right now!!!!! You have to win!!!!!

  10. What an amazing, fascinating story with great detail and pictures. Thank you for sharing something so personal with the rest of us.

  11. This was a wonderful post to honour ANZAC day – fascinating story and history my friend
    Would you mind if I link this up to my Anzac day post please this weekend? Thank you :)

    Cheers
    Choc Chip Uru

  12. P.S Of course I shall vote for you :D
    I forgot to enter myself this year but thanks for letting me know – next year :)

    Cheers
    Choc Chip Uru

  13. That is some story, Charlie. And what a coincidence with your hairdresser. My grandfather was also an officer in Hungary and he in fact helped several hundred Jews escape through the underground that he was involved with at my Grand Mother’s church. Being an officer (Hungary had unfortunately close ties to the Germans and in 1941 was forced to participate in the war) he was able to lie when asked where he was taking the prisoners to. Not sure I would have had the balls, but you can do some pretty incredible things when in dire circumstances, much like your dear Grandfather. My grandfather was never caught. Sadly during the later part of his service he was helping a horse and buggy and somehow it toppled over on top of him and broke his back. He was laid up for years (or at least that is the story I remember).
    I’m sorry your Grand Father never made it to Canada, he would have loved it and perhaps even stayed and we might have even ended up as neighbours! Thanks for sharing this great story, Charlie.

  14. Amazing story, Charlie, thank you for sharing it with us. I’m glad your grandfather made it out alive. xx

  15. Remarkable story, Charlie! How very lucky he survived to tell the tale. And what a coincidence when you “connected” with your hairdresser. Life is often stranger than fiction. Dad was a flight crew member and they flew supplies across Burma, the Burma Hump, to China to help in their fight against the Japanese. So much of what we have today is owed to that generation. Thanks for reminding us of their importance and for sharing a little of your grandfather’s incredible story.

  16. PS: I voted for you.

  17. Thank you for sharing this story, he sounds like a very brave man. I will be going to the dawn service in the city to remember all that the armed forces did, and still do, for us.

  18. I’m hoping your grandpa made it home? It sounds as though he did.. What an incredible experience to have gone through.. and so emotional reading about it today. Thank you for sharing this… xo

  19. Wow, what an amazing story. Your grandfather sounds like a courageous man.

  20. I have goosebumps reading this Charlie. What an amazing man your grandfather was. We can only be forever grateful for what all those people went through for us! x

  21. A strange coincidence indeed . Sometimes I am amazed at how these things happen. You were destined to cross paths it seems. I find Anzac day is not understood or revered enough, the sacrifice still continues for many families every day with family members posted to Middle Eastern and African hotspots.

  22. that was an incredible story, thank you for sharing charlie and it’s so amazing about your hairdresser, it is such a small world!

  23. I appreciate you sharing your grandfather’s story. Stories like this puts my life in perspective, although my life consists of things so far from his experiences, it makes me appreciate the things I have, including freedom, and the peaceful time I’m living in.. I hope I can have enough courage to stay strong and optimistic, when I’m faced with difficult hurdles in the future no matter how big/small.

  24. What a brave man your grandfather was, and quite good looking! :) I love reading family stories like this and seeing the pictures. They all still look so dignified and strong. I can only imagine how your grandmother must have felt when she received that letter from the Germans. It wasn’t just the soldiers that needed to be strong!

    My Grandfather was also a POW. I don’t have all of the details but my Grandma told me so many fascinating stories when she was alive. He made friends with a German guard that would bring him food and tell him when they were going to do a search for weapons. She said when he went missing in action she received letters from all over the country from wives telling her they had heard through the soldier grapevine that he was a prisoner of war. My mom still has those letters and they are so fascinating to read! She told me when he finally did make it home, that he could only stomach ice cream and she wasn’t allowed to touch him anymore to wake him. She had to stand by the door and say his name. He was later killed just a few years after that on his motorcycle in a hit and run accident while my grandma was 8 months pregnant with my mother. Interestingly enough, they found out later, that my step-grandpa whom my grandma married when my mom was eight years old, was in the first group of soldiers that attacked the POW camp and set my grandpa free. History!! Always so fascinating!

    Hope you’re having a wonderful day! :) – April

  25. What an incredible coincidence Charlie. My grandmothers first husband died of pneunomia in the first WW while on duty in Egypt. If he hadn’t died my grandmother would not have married my grandfather, and I would not exist.

  26. Thanks for such a personal perspective on ANZAC day Charlie. Your grandfather was a true hero. Sorry to learn that he never did get those few days of rest that were just within his reach.

  27. Wow Charlie what an amazing family story ~ your grandfather was definitely a very brave man! And a handsome too may I add ;) I m glad he survived and was able to return home to your grandma!
    Even though I was born and raised in Melbourne and have grown up with ANZAC day I have never had any strong connections because neither of my grandparents were involved in the war as they hadn’t migrated to Australia yet, but I have always admired my friends who would share their stories about their grandparents or great grand parents hehe

    Hope you have a lovely ANZAC day!

  28. I felt shivers down my spine on reading your hairdresser link – what an amazing conversation that must have been. I imagine you’re sticking with that hairdresser now!

  29. Kristen Radge says:

    I think I was holding my breath reading your Grandfathers history. Amazing photos and the family resemblance is striking. An incredible read Charlie, thank you.
    Enjoy tomorrow.

  30. An amazing story Charlie, I was really moved reading it. Thank you for sharing your family history. I got chills!

  31. Wonderful tribute to your grandfather, as well to all who served in WW II.

    Charlie, you may enjoy this past post of mine. http://afrankangle.wordpress.com/2008/11/11/a-weekend-with-the-greatest-generation/

  32. Oh my goodness! What an incredible story Charlie, thanks so much for sharing it with the rest of us.
    My family has a long military history with even some ANAC day Galipoli heros, and Light Horse Brigade warriors as well. We usually go and watch the march, and my hubby is going to the Dawn Service. I went to one in Queenslad last year where I was privileged to watch my Dad give the main speech. He’s a Vietnam veteran and my real-life hero too.

  33. Just voted for you! Good luck!

  34. This gave me the shivers. I am glad you know your grandparents history and can share it.

  35. Thanks for sharing that very touching story. I think it helps the global community in general to understand something of the real lives of real people in our horrible, horrible wars.

  36. Wow. What an amazing man and a fantastic post. I’m always so astounded by the capacity of man to withstand so much hardship and suffering. I vsited the memorial when I visited Melbourne and was remembering the ANZAC soldiers today. Thanks so much for sharing your very poignant post. My grandad also fought in the war and I have some of his photos from the front line. It’s amazing that any people made it home in one piece. ONe of my relatives was also captured and held in POW camp but he managed to escape after the family had been informed that he had died. What a wonderful surprise they got! I always enjoy reading your blog please keep up the wonderful work!

  37. I’ve heard of ANZAC Day, of course, but couldn’t have told you when it was! What a recounting, Charlie! Just gives me chills! I’m always very touched and greatly moved by stories of POW’s and certainly your grandfather was a very brave man. I don’t know how the spirit survives in such terrible conditions. Of course I’ve seen the movie The Great Escape, and always thought those men were just amazing…I’m so very glad you shared this story. And what a big thrill it must have been to share and swap stories with your hairdresser! Debra

  38. Wonderful recount Charlie – I loved reading this… I even learned something… I had no idea they sent ID papers back to the next of kin letting them know “To whom it may concern, you husband/son/brother/father is now our prisoner. Please do not reply to this mail”.

  39. What an amazing story Charlie! And what treasures that you have these photos. :)

  40. What an amazing story and how wonderful it is that you have all those great pictures of your grandfather and the documents as well of his experience. An interesting and great post! Congrats on your nomination, too! Well deserved.

  41. What a fantastic story. Again, congratulations on the nomination. I voted already. I hope you win.

  42. As always, Charlie, an excellent post. What a story! I’m so thankful that your grandfather made it out alive and well enough. My dad was in the Vietnam War – flying rescue, which was so much better than having to shot people, eh? It’s always interesting when people such are your grandfather and my dad can be convinced to talk about their experiences – though it’s never easy.

  43. I voted for you, good luck.
    Thanks for sharing your grandfather’s heroic story, a very touching post.

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