Tuesday 31 July 2012

POWs, penguins and P/Os

Again with the coincidences. Here I am, boring restaurant story done and dusted, busily researching the next one about Stalag Luft III, when what do I see in today's paper but a report about the discovery in Fremantle, WA (where I've been) of the grave of one of the Great Escapers, S/L Leonard Trent, VC. [That's Squadron Leader, to you civvies - I'm down with all these abbreviations now: G/C, F/L, S/L... and P/O like my father - Pilot Officer.] I've just been reading about how Trent had got out of the tunnel and crawled through the snow into the trees (a triangulation error meant the tunnel surfaced 10m short of the treeline) when the guard discovered the tunnel and the game was up. He surrendered straight away, wise man.

One of those who got away was another New Zealander, Johnny Pohe, a Maori, who was in the same room as Dad. He was caught a few days later. Just 22 years old, he was murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler's orders, one of the 50 who were made an example of, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Though only 3 made it safely home, the escape succeeded in its prime objective which was to disrupt the war effort - and infuriated Hitler, who wanted all 76 escapers shot. Surprisingly, it was Goering who persuaded him to moderate that; our guide at the SL3 museum in Zagan told us that actually he got Hitler to agree to 50% of the escapers shot, but somewhere along the line the % got lost - and so an extra 12 men died.

I also learned yesterday, poking through my father's stuff and listening to a recorded interview with my nephew Scott, that Dad not only worked on magnetising razor blades for compass needles, but also did his bit as a Duty Pilot look-out and as a penguin scattering sand from bags down his trousers, as well as taking stints pumping air through the klim-tin pipe in the tunnel - very hard work, that was. And as well as all that activity in the North Compound, when he was in the East Compound earlier, being big and strong, he was one of the men who carried out the vaulting horse that concealed a tunnel being dug there in plain view of the guards: the famous Wooden Horse. It was quite an achievement, to carry it as though it was light, when it was concealing one, sometimes two men, plus all the sand they'd excavated.

I do so wish Dad were still alive, so I could talk to him about all this. Or even, just talk to him.

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