Kriegies: The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III

Professor Peter Monteath, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. History Australia, January 2024

A challenge for the historian dealing with the history of Stalag Luft III is that the camp has such a strong presence in the popular imagination, due in part to books but even more powerfully through films such as The Wooden Horse (1950) and, above all, The Great Escape (1963). In prioritising the demands of both medium and genre, those cultural artefacts not only distort the history of the largest of Germany’s largest Second World War prisoner of war (POW) camp for airmen; they also place the escape trope at the centre of any narrative treatment of the topic.

The value of this book lies in looking beyond tales of escape – without eliding them altogether – while placing the emotional history of the POWs at the centre of attention. As the author puts it, she ‘wanted to know what they felt about being POWs’ (xvi). As the title states, it is the Australian airmen in Stalag Luft III who are the main focus. Altogether, there were 351 who were confined to the camp for greater or lesser periods from the time of the camp’s establishment in April 1942 through to its evacuation as the Red Army approached in January 1945.

Stemming from a doctoral thesis, the great strength of this book is the range of material that has been gathered together to examine the emotional lives of those airmen, from the time of their capture through to their homecomings and the ongoing impacts of imprisonment for the remainder of their lives. The author has located and mined a wealth of material drawn from archives and other published and unpublished sources. While many of these sources are familiar, an innovation here is the use of medical records from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, used on the condition that individuals were not to be identified. This material does indeed add to an understanding of the longer-term impacts of prolonged detention and of exposure to traumatic events, whether during or on either side of captivity.

That rich collection is then harnessed to the task of illustrating the emotional responses and coping strategies adopted by the airmen as they came to terms with the act of capture, with a heavily regulated all-male environment, with distance from loved ones, with the deaths of fellow airmen, and with the questioning of their religious faith. The technique is to group together plentiful, typically brief, extracts from primary sources under the appropriate heading. The advantage of this technique is to make extensive use of an impressively large body of evidence. …

Locating studies of captivity in histories of culture and emotion is a welcome move. This book offers historians new perspectives on how a rich record of military experience can be placed in the service of posing and answering some new questions.

*****

Dr Lachlan Grant, AWM: Wartime 105, Summer 2024

The popular memory of Allied prisoners of war in Europe in the Second World War has inevitably been shaped by iconic films and television series. Notable among them is the 1963 film The Great Escape, famously starring a motorcycle-riding Steve McQueen, which told the story of the audacious breakout of 76 prisoners from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (Zagan in current-day Poland) on the night of 24 March 1944.

Although that film was based on a book written by Australian pilot Paul Brickhill, largely invisible in the onscreen adaption were Australian airmen – five of whom were among the 50 Allied escapees recaptured and murdered by the Nazis. Noting their absence, Kristen Alexander set out to research the experiences of the 351 [Australian airmen] who endured captivity in Stalag Luft III. From the research, the resultant book is one of the finest published studies on RAAF history.

Documenting how airmen – who identified strongly as active flyers – adjusted to their monotonous existence as captives, Alexander discusses the fears, dangers and anxieties facing prisoners in their daily lives, and the measures they adopted to cope and endure their ordeal. There is excellent coverage of the men’s escape and their recapture, with documentation of the horrendous forced marches they had to endure. Other significant topics are addressed, including the ways in which partners and families on the home front dealt with the reality of a loved one being captured. For those who survived, the whole experience did not necessarily end with the war’s end: Kriegies also considers the challenges facing ex-prisoners readjusting to civilian life.

With the historiography and literature on the Australian prisoner of war experience so dominated by works on prisoners of the Japanese, Alexander’s book is a welcome and significant inclusion. It stands tall among the best works on Australian experiences of captivity that have been published in recent times.    

*****

Mark Moore, Reconnaissance, The Magazine of the Military History Society of New South Wales, No 56. Summer 2023

Kristen Alexander is the author of six books about aviators, including Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader, (Allen & Unwin, 2009), the story of which lit a spark in her to find out what happened to a man shot down flying to Russia in 1942, and into whose shoes Jack Davenport stepped. That man was 20-year-old James (Jimmy) Catanach. For almost twenty years Kristen has wanted to tell his story, spending a great deal of those years, on and off, researching this young man.

During her research into what happened to Jimmy, she learned he was a prisoner in the notorious prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III, made famous by both the book by Paul Brickhill, and the film with Richard Attenborough, called 'The Great Escape'. She contacted others who were prisoners with Jimmy and who told her their stories of captivity. A book was in the offing, but Kristen hit a roadblock, feeling unable to put things together to do justice to Jimmy’s story. Following a conversation with an academic, who was an acquaintance, Kristen decided to start a PhD. Kristen submitted her PhD in 2020, and in 2022 the Australian War Memorial awarded it the 2021 Bryan Gandevia Prize for Australian military—medical history. As Kristen writes in her 'Author's Word' at the front of the book 'with a new set of skills, a lot more knowledge, and a deep appreciation of what it meant to be prisoner of war, it was time to write a book' (p. xvii). This book is the result.

Kristen's research attained during her PhD has leant a depth of knowledge which makes the book more than a history of the Camp, more than a history of the escape, it is also a social history of the men interned and their families who waited for them. This gives the book a depth of emotion and understanding I have not encountered in any other book or account I have read on life as a PoW.

Kristen covers many aspects of life within the camp, she discusses the escape committee, the restrictions placed on the prisoners by the committee, there is discussion on the prisoners 'sex lives', including their attitudes towards homosexuality (a subject not mentioned in other books or accounts I have read). The different sections are discussed with respect, the denial of aspects, such as accounts of homosexuality, are discussed with empathy, some are discounted because others indicate such events occurred.

I felt quite emotional at times reading many of the accounts; especially when I read of Noela Hake, wife of Albert Hake who was one of the fifty murdered escapers, when she received a letter from Albert after official notification of his death and seeing his name in the paper. Kristen writes:

 It was a cruel irony: the joy of reading his words, feeling close to him again, experiencing the sense that he still lived was obliterated by the finality of the public announcement followed by the many condolence letters (p. 131)

Kristen found that the stories of the murdered escapers to be one of the confronting aspects of the book, in a chat with me when I mentioned my reaction to Noela's story, she mentioned, 'I still have nightmares about bodies [of the murdered escapers] lying on the ground for hours, and then chucked into the flames.' It is Kristen’s emotional connection with the story, and those of whom she writes, which I believe gives this account the depth it has, it makes the book more readable. Too often accounts like this are too dry and distant.

Kristen has selected evocative artwork and photographs spread through the book, many provided by the family members of those former prisoners mentioned throughout the book. The artwork by the prisoners provides a visual account of conditions faced by the interned, enhancing Kristen's work, all selections, including the photographs, bring the story life and a further connection to the Prisoners of War.

I highly recommend this to all with an interest in Prisoners of War, their lives as prisoners, the families that were waiting for them to return from war, and of those who thought their loved ones were safe when declared as prisoners, then to learn they had been shot 'trying to escape'.

*****

Peter Masters, Australian Defence Magazine October/November 2023 Volume 31, No. 8 (and https://militarybooksaustralia.com/2023/11/02/kriegies-the-australian-airmen-of-stalag-luft-iii/)

Kristen Alexander has received high praise from many quarters for this book, which began life as her PhD thesis a decade or so ago.

The Kriegies of the title derives its name from the German word Kriegsgefangener meaning ‘war prisoner’. Three hundred and fifty-one Australian airmen were interned at Stalag Luft III during the war.

For Alexander, what started out as an interest in the Australian airmen who participated in the famous ‘Great Escape’ from the POW camp in March 1944 morphed into a more complete and detailed examination of how the airmen POWs coped with the trials of their incarceration.

Humour helped relieve the monotony of camp life as did their varied entertainment and educational activities.

A clear sense of altruism helped keep relationships strained by close living in check. Sharing meagre resources equitably was an unwritten code.

Alexander uses the POW’s own words recorded in diaries, memoirs and interviews to enhance the story she tells of how the men survived to be released. But release from captivity, unsurprisingly, did not end the war for many.

Alexander quotes a figure of two-thirds for whom the war never ended, for whom the mental scars were lifelong. But that is ‘another story’, writes Alexander, who has once again excelled herself in her mission to tell the otherwise forgotten stories of a war almost beyond human memory now.

*****

K Robertson, an Amazon reviewer: 5.0 out of 5 stars. An engrossing exploration of life in a German WW11 POW camp for Allied Fliers.

Reviewed in Australia on 28 December 2023

“Kriegies” is an engrossing exploration of life in a WW11 POW camp for Allied airman (by a writer well known for authoritative works on 20th century fliers).

The things that make Kristen Alexander’s new volume remarkable, other than its broad scope, are the author’s deft use of quotations from letters, diaries and interviews – these could too easily have encumbered the pace – and her insightful remarks about POWs’ own observations and actions. Her handling of various sensitive matters is also highly skilful; such matters are neither ignored nor explored in unseemly detail.

Prospective buyers shouldn’t be apprehensive about the (proudly) admitted origin of the volume in a doctoral dissertation – lots of work has clearly gone into transforming the thesis into a narrative palatable for the general reader – but there remains something to be said for leaving ‘the preliminaries’ (including ‘promotional content’) until later. Moving straight from the front cover to the introduction enables the reader to immediately appreciate Alexander’s talent as a storyteller.

While the focus of “Kriegies” is ostensibly on Australian airmen, much of the author’s commentary is necessarily about POWs from other nations, so readers not especially interested in the experiences of Australian captives will still find the content engaging.

In short, “Kriegies” is an accomplished work by a fine writer who has the enviable ability to shape an absorbing story from a huge amount of primary source material. It’s just a pity that the title, “Kriegies”, will mean nothing to many potential takers and will thereby prevent this admirable work from getting the audience it deserves.

The verdict: “highly recommended” for readers interested in how WW11 POWs dealt with captivity but “mandatory” for those more specifically interested in the Australian POW experience in Europe.

*****

Dave, an Amazon reader/reviewer: 5.0 out of 5 stars. A deeply insightful book into the experience of Australian airmen POW's during WW2

Reviewed in Australia on 23 August 2023

Kriegies is an exceptionally-researched, well-written book about the experiences of members of the RAAF, and Australian members of the RAF, that were incarcerated in Stalag Luft III during the Second World War.

The structure it uses, of chapters walking the reader through different stages of the airmen’s experience, from being shot down to liberation and homecoming, is very effective. Readers are taken through each stage of the story, given examples of the range of experience at each stage, covering both what happened in a general sense but also and more importantly, how it affected the POWs.

Kriegies is not a blow-by-blow journey but rather thematic – so it doesn’t follow any particular individual, but rather uses a range of people’s experiences for each stage to illustrate life in Stalag Luft III. As one would expect, this includes a chapter on “The Great Escape” and others on its aftermath, and provides as detailed coverage as records allow of the fate of the Australians that took part in the breakout who were later murdered by the Gestapo. A key theme of the book is the emotional struggle the POWs went through.

The standard of writing and editing is extremely high – I can’t recall seeing a single typo (almost unheard of), and the only blemish was a very minor typesetting/layout issue, with a paragraph broken up by a blank line near the bottom of one page (no text was missing, so this had no impact on following the story). The language is accessible and the author ably navigates a range of different experiences in each chapter to create a cohesive argument covering the theme in question.

As well as the writing, there are a number of photographs, documents and artwork by POW’s reproduced in the book on the same stock as the rest of the book. These are all well-chosen and add depth and context to the text. The cover of the book is also artwork produced by an Australian POW during their time at Stalag Luft III, and is testament to both the POWs themselves and the depth the author went to in researching the work. The depth of research is also evident in the extensive bibliography, covering public and private archives, the author’s interviews and records, as well as books and magazine articles. The book handily also contains an index, which is something I’m always grateful for.

I found it a very moving read - often quite sombre, but also providing nuanced insight into the experience of being an RAAF POW at Stalag Luft III during the Second World War. I can’t speak to the broader literature on POWs as this is the first book I’ve read on the topic, but I’d be very surprised given the quality of the work if the book isn’t an important contribution to the field, and well worth reading by people interested in Prisoners of War during the Second World War (or more broadly).

*****

Brett Holman: A year of reading Airmindedly: ‘a terrific book’ ‘Kriegies is unique in focusing on the emotional lives of RAAF POWs as well their families. On top of that, it’s a great read!’

Kristen Alexander, Kriegies: The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III (Mawson: Ad Astra Press, 2023). Many readers of this blog will undoubtedly be familiar with Kristen's books; indeed, I've already read one in this series [Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain], and I've got another still sitting on my to-be-read shelf. But while it certainly continues her established interest and expertise in writing the lives of Australian aviators, Kriegies is different. First, it’s devoted to a non-flying cohort: RAAF airmen who ended up incarcerated in Stalag Luft III one of the Luftwaffe’s network of POW camps for Allied airmen, as well as their families and loved ones back in Australia or in Britain. Second, rather than taking a straightforward narrative or biographical approach, it's much more thematic and indeed analytical, as befits its origins in a PhD. Don't let that put you off, because Kriegies is a terrific book. Kristen's interest is in trying to uncover the emotional lives of these POWs, from the shock of capture through the camaraderie and cohesion of kriegie (a self-chosen label taken from Kriegsgefangener, German for prisoner of war) life, the boredom and strain of waiting for the war to end without going round the bend, solace and yearnings from prior romantic relationships (with letters to and from home being a somewhat surprising source), and the sometimes difficult transition back to peace. Nor are topics such as homosexuality and suicide neglected, despite the unease many of former prisoners felt in discussing these after the war. And of course, escaping is dealt with in some detail, including the Great Escape (five of the fifty escapees executed by the Germans were Australian). While the POW experience has definitely seen a surge of research in the last couple of decades, Kriegies is unique in focusing on the emotional lives of RAAF POWs as well their families. On top of that, it’s a great read!

https://airminded.org/2023/08/14/the-year-of-reading-airmindedly-ix/

*****

Goodreads: Four Stars from Aussie Rick

"Kriegies: The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III" by Kristen Alexander is a book that provides an interesting and detailed look at how Australian aircrew, shot down and captured by the Germans during WW2, managed to survive while in captivity. The book specifically covers aircrew held in Stalag Luft III, made famous during the Second World War by the 'Great Escape'.

The book explores nearly every facet of life that Australian POW's experienced whilst held in a German captivity. The chapters range from the bonds of brotherhood as members of the RAAF, to issues of despair, sex, faith, escape, resignation, mental health, resilience, love and homecoming. The author has utilised numerous sources from official documents, medical records, logbooks, family letters and interviews with both the POW's and their families to flesh-out the story and to provide a compelling narrative of these men's lives and how they coped whilst being a Prisoner of War.

My normal reading of WW2 usually tends to skip over the issue of POW's, and I have only read a small number of books on the subject. This book helps to place the men taken prisoner during the war and held in a POW camp back into the story of the Second World War. The book reminds us of what these men, and their families back home, suffered and endured during their period of captivity and highlights why these men should never be forgotten in our reading of this conflict.

The author covers the 'Great Escape' which was popularised by the 1963 movie, based on the 1950 book by the Australian writer Paul Brickhill, who was a POW in Stalag Luft III. Also covered was the shocking aftermath, where 73 of the 76 men were recaptured by the Germans, and fifty of those men were subsequently shot and later cremated with their ashes returned to Stalag Luft III as a deterrent to other would-be escapers.

One of those POW's murdered by the Germans was an Australian Spitfire pilot, Albert Hake. In the book the author quoted a very moving letter from Albert to his brother-in-law in regard to his wishes that if he died during the war that he wanted his wife, Noela (Noel), to remarry:

'If I don't come back, I want Noel to marry again …. It was my wish … Noel is still young and a type that should be married … for such a girl to live out her life unmarried would be a crime.' Albert told his brother-in-law that if he could not convince Noela to remarry; 'I would "turn on my heel" now and retrace every step. Hang the consequences. I'm prepared to sacrifice a lot, but not that much. One life is enough, not two.'

This a great book and should be read and enjoyed by all who have an interest in Australian military history, Australian aviation history, or who just enjoy a good book. The book is 238 pages in length (21 chapters and an afterword) with numerous black and white illustrations throughout, one general map of German POW camps where Australians were held, and a detailed Bibliography.

This book is highly recommended reading.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5652652794?type=review#rating_625316547

*****

Reader's comments:

'we appreciate ... this important book which we will cherish because it brings memories of events more than 81 years ago that dramatically affected my family & the many others too'.

'Congratulations. It was a compelling and absorbing read and not just because it features my Dad. There was so much meaty personal information, so unlike dry history.'

'I have received your wonderful book. I would like to sincerely thank you for presenting this little known aspect of Australian military history to the public.' 

'A study which gave a realistic and heartfelt insight into the mindsets of RAAF POWS as they lived during those crucial and stressful times, 80 plus years ago. It captured a unique and little understood slice of Australian military history.'

'Just finished Kriegies yesterday - great read - highly recommend.'

'Great attention to detail, structure and writing, and a strong focus on the human side of things and the actual people.'

'I finished it in two days, only because I rationed my reading. I could have read it cover to cover, non-stop, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Packing facts about individual characters while telling a larger story is a juggling act, and I think you nailed it beautifully. I found it a lovely story about amazing men in extreme circumstances. Congratulations!'

'Congratulations on your wonderful book.'

'[S]ince you first got in touch with us ... for your Caldwell research I’ve tagged along on your writing journey, and now that I have Kriegies ... I can congratulate you on another quality product!'

'Your wonderful book was an eye opener for me in many ways ... I am deeply indebted to you for this immense undertaking to present such an important history for us the families, and for those who paid the supreme sacrifice and to be remembered with their ordeal recorded so faithfully to their memory. … Hearty congratulations.'

'Last night I finished reading Kriegies. …  It is a wonderful book that makes alive all the trials and tribulations and all the very few positives that were experienced by the men incarcerated in Stalag Luft III and by inference in other similar institutions during WW2. Your effort to gather all the information relating to these men and to some of their families would have been tremendous and then to write it all up! No wonder you are now Doctor Kristen A: it is a very well deserved outcome!!!!'

'What a fascinating read.'

'You have made a serious contribution to the history of escaping from POW camps in general and to that of "the Great Escape" in particular. The story that you told also revealed a good deal about the daily lives of the kriegies. It also filled out the simplistic accounts written in the 1950s, as well as some of the more recent accounts.'

‘[I]t really drove home in highly concentrated form, emotionally … about the devastation of war. Yes, there is resilience, heroism, sacrifice, mateship and all those things that sustained POWs, indeed aircrew generally, but it left me with a profound melancholy. That’s no bad thing, but it is not a book that just leaves you when you’re finished and you move onto something else. It requires some emotional processing which can’t be hurried.

'Congratulations on its publication - it is a great read and you combine your analysis with the human interest elegantly.' 

'... an outstanding work. It answered a lot of my "so what was it ACTUALLY like" questions and gave insight into the homefront and the experiences of the women these men left behind. It's also the best reference I have seen so far of the Australian experience of The Great Escape.'

*****

John Meier: Downwind: Aviation Historical Society of Australia (QLD) Inc, July 2023

Kristen Alexander’s passion and knowledge of the history of Australia’s pilots is well-known and well-respected in Australian aviation history circles.

Her recent writings range from biographies of individual RAAF pilots (Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader) to those of major air battles in which RAAF pilots participated (Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain).  Winning the Australian War Memorial’s prize for Australian military-medical history in 2021 was public recognition of her efforts.

Kristen was awarded her PhD which forms much of the research for her latest book, Kriegies, The Australian Airmen of Stalag Luft III.

The book is logically divided into six areas which detail the airmen’s story in much the same sequence as it would have happened. Kriegies uses Stalag Luft III as a means to describe the life of Australian aircrew who were captured in the Second World War. Unlike some earlier books, this history has not only what one expects from earlier histories, but also aspects which were not at all popular subjects in the years not long after the war. The Great Escape and its aftermath receives quite detailed and appropriate coverage.

Part One, “In the Bag”, gives the reader an essential understanding for the shock of the dislocation from being an operational aircrew to that of a PoW who has no real control on his new life. Recounting of personal experiences when captured and interrogated highlight the incredible demands put on the individual aircrew – these are quite poignant when dealing with the conflict between denying the Germans information and trying to ease the pain for the next of kin back in Australia. This part moves neatly into describing the day-to-day life in the camps. Given the German’s ruthless efficiency when guarding and monitoring the prisoners, the extent of items manufactured by the aircrew is astounding. A subject rarely mentioned in other publications follows and covers how the men dealt with the loss of female company, and how those at home reacted to the incarceration of their loved ones. The importance of maintaining contact with families back in Australia is neatly handled as is the criticality of Red Cross parcels to the very survival of the airmen.

“Duty to Escape” brings the harsh reality of escape obligations to the topic, something not covered in many post-war PoW movies. Not all were keen to actively attempt to escape yet many were. Explaining the changes in RAF doctrine for captured aircrew regarding their obligations to escape or not brings into sharp focus the moral dilemma for many men in the camps.  It still remains inescapable that many, the majority in reality, were part of the escape organisation whether they actually went past the wire or were active contributors in the effort.

The author has spent considerable effort when dealing with “The Great Escape” and its aftermath, both the immediate German reaction and the impact on surviving prisoners and the families in Australia. Her coverage is a compassionate retelling of the stresses and mechanics of the tunnels, and the prisoners’ plans once outside the camp. The shock of discovery both at the camp and when captured is well-handled and gives the reader a feel of the emotions of the prisoners. The actions of the German authorities when executing the captured Australian airmen is covered in enough detail for the true horror to hit home to the reader. It is not easy to record very strong emotions but Kristen has managed to describe clearly and tactfully the feelings of those still in the camp when the loss of so many friends is confirmed.  The shock of having their compatriots murdered in cold blood was compounded when the urns of the dead prisoners arrived at the camp, again well described by the author.

I particularly appreciated the regular use of personal recollections from the prisoners. Her technique gives the reader the ability to develop a much better understanding of, and empathy with Australians locked away so many years ago. The use of transcripts from various War Crime Tribunals gives colour and “faces” to the otherwise anonymous Germans involved in the camps and murders. The recollections also show the reader just how varied the prisoners’ emotions were and how they changed over time. Access to the former prisoners’ medical records has allowed an assessment of the number who continued to suffer from their experience even when back in Australia and “settled.” …

…While the book’s subject matter is a fairly narrow topic, it greatly adds to the wartime histories of Australia’s aircrew. PoW histories are not particularly common and those dealing with the harsh experiences of Australian even less common. Kriegies finally balances the immediate post-War books and their often very different memory of the camps and prison life. Kristen’s efforts to redress this gap are to be applauded and I would strongly recommend this book to all. I should note that some of the detail is quite hard on the heartstrings but its recording is essential to the story.  

 

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