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History

The great crime
Aussies among murder victims

SQNLDR James Catanach, above, with one of the damaged aircraft he brought back to base on three occasions. At right is FLTLT Tom Leigh.
SQNLDR James Catanach, above, with one of the damaged aircraft he brought back to base on three occasions.
WOFF Al Hake, the compass maker, and his wife, Noela.
WOFF Al Hake, the compass maker, and his wife, Noela.
FLTLT Reg ‘Rusty’ Kierath
FLTLT Reg ‘Rusty’ Kierath
FLTLT Tom Leigh.
FLTLT Tom Leigh.
SQNLDR John ‘Willy’ Williams
SQNLDR John ‘Willy’ Williams

By David Edlington

THOUSANDS of their compatriots fell victim to fighters and flak in the air battles of World War II, but five Australians who broke out of Stalag Luft III in the Great Escape on March 24-25, 1944, met pitiless deaths at the hands of the Gestapo, along with 45 other airmen.

They were Squadron Leader James Catanach, DFC, aged 22; Warrant Officer Albert Horace Hake, 27; Flight Lieutenant Reginald Victor Kierath, 29; Flight Lieutenant Thomas Barker Leigh, 25; and Squadron Leader John Edwin Ashley Williams, DFC, 24.

Of the five, WOFF Hake – whose Spitfire was shot down over France in April 1942 on operations with No. 72 Squadron (RAF) – played the most prominent part in preparations for the breakout as he was the mastermind of the compass-making operation.

The ingenious compasses were made from melted Bakelite phonograph records, slivers of magnetised razor blades, glass from broken windows and solder obtained from the seals of tin cans. WOFF Hake stamped them with the inscription “Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent pending” so that the bearers, if recaptured, would not be shot as spies.

This did not prevent his execution after he was caught not far from Sagan, where the POW camp was located, as he slogged on foot across the snow-covered landscape.

When he joined the RAAF in January 1941, on his enlistment papers he had included ice skating among his list of sporting pursuits. (He first met his future wife, Noela, at an ice rink. They were married five months before he embarked for service overseas.) But the icy conditions the exposed POW faced on the run were something else and he suffered severe frostbite. Other recaptured Allied airmen saw him hobbling with a group of prisoners and a Gestapo escort to a black car outside the Gorlitz civilian prison on March 30. The man renowned for lively renditions of songs, including Waltzing Matilda, on guitar at Stalag Luft III, was never seen alive again.

FLTLT Leigh was also in the group of airmen murdered at that time. He, too, had been recaptured in the Sagan area.

An air gunner with No. 76 Squadron (RAF), he had been in a Halifax bomber that had been shot down in August 1941. An ex-RAF Halton apprentice, his nationality is listed as United Kingdom on Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, but he originally came from Sydney.

Like FLTLT Leigh, SQNLDR Williams joined the RAF before the war, though he was flying with No. 450 Squadron (RAAF) when his Kittyhawk was shot down during a strafing mission in North Africa in October 1942.

He had been born in New Zealand but his family moved to Australia when he was a child.
Known to his squadron mates as “Willy”, he took to the skies in baggy khaki shorts and shirt and leather sandals.

Despite his appearance, he was a formidable pilot who became an ace and earned the DFC.

At the POW camp before the Great Escape he was among those who collected wooden slats from the bunks to shore up the tunnels.

He and FLTLT “Rusty” Kierath were among a group of 12 airmen disguised as foreign workers who attempted to make their way to Czechoslovakia.

Their pair – who had attended the same school – were arrested with two others by a mountain patrol near the border and taken to Reichenberg jail. They were murdered by the Gestapo on March 29.

For the Kierath family, descended from German immigrants and who had already had a son killed in action with the Australian Army at Tobruk in 1941, the death of another son who they believed was safe in a POW camp would have been devastating.

A member of 450SQN, FLTLT Kierath became a POW in April 1943 after being hit by anti-aircraft fire while attacking naval targets.

At Stalag Luft III, he helped create fake walls to hide forged documents, Al Hake’s compasses and other material vital to the breakout .

SQNLDR Catanach enlisted in the RAAF in Melbourne in August 1940. His previous military experience was confined to three years in the cadet corps at Geelong Grammar, but he became an accomplished flier.

He never lived to receive the DFC awarded for bringing back to base on three occasions aircraft that had been severely damaged on raids with No. 455 Squadron (RAAF).

There was to be no return when his Hampden bomber and other Coastal Command aircraft flew out on September 2, 1942, for Murmansk, Russia, to protect Arctic convoys. Near the Finnish/Norwegian border, anti-aircraft fire from an armed trawler forced him to crash land. One of the RAAF’s youngest squadron leaders and keenest fliers was forcibly grounded – a prisoner in Stalag Luft III.

Fluent in German, he learned Norwegian in the POW camp. After he broke out, he and three companions headed for Denmark. Near the border a suspicious policeman insisted on checking their cases, which contained escape rations. Inspection of their clothing revealed they were wearing altered greatcoats. The four airmen were handed over to the Kiel Gestapo and murdered on March 29, 1944.

The Hollywood myth

IN the classic film The Great Escape, one of the scenes in the closing stages shows a character played by James Coburg and supposed to be an Australian, escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

The reality was far different as only three of the 76 airmen who escaped made it to safety and none were Australian (two were Norwegian and one was Dutch). The choice of an Aussie character may well have been in acknowledgement of Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book The Great Escape, which inspired the movie.

However, there was an Australian link to one of the successful escapees – Dutch pilot Flight Lieutenant Bram van der Stock wore an altered RAAF overcoat on his journey to freedom.


Recommended reading

The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill.
A Gallant Company: The Men of the Great Escape, by Jonathan F. Vance.
The Longest Tunnel, by Alan Burgess.
The Great Escape. The full dramatic story with contributions from survivors and their families, by Anton Gill.

 

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