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