ESCAPING CAPTIVITY WITH CROWS AND STEVE MCQUEEN

In 1949 the following paper was published in Ibis the official journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union. The title was: Rook and Jackdaw Migrations Observed in Germany 1942-1945.

1942-1945? Wasn’t something else going on in Germany then?

So who exactly was doing the observing while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War? The compilers of this article were John Buxton, Peter Conder and George Waterston, who were POWs in Germany at the time. There were many ways POWs sought to escape the boredom of captivity: reading, acting, playing music, painting, doing academic courses of various different sorts, sports, escape activities and yes, bird watching.

The amount of time they put in was extraordinary. Here is a run down of an average day’s bird watching during the summer :

6-8.30 watching

Breakfast/parade

9.30-12.30 more watching

lunch

1.30-5.30 watching again

Tea

6-9.30 more watching with a break at 19.30 for supper

That is a great many hours to look at the sky. These men were incarcerated in Germany where most of the camps were situated away from towns and cities and many were in wooded areas. In addition officers, unlike the ORs, did not have to work and therefore had time on their hands. The 16 page note they produced had the occasional wry aside that bore witness to the extraordinary circumstances of their observations. For example it was noted that the rooks enjoyed feasting on fields covered in human excrement!

In his wonderful book Crow Country Mark Cocker has this to say about the obsessional aspects of bird watchers:

‘Perhaps all monomanias … are a way of offsetting some deeper pain in life.’

Well, I think in this case it’s highly probable that the pain was that of captivity, hunger, boredom, and anxiety about loved ones back home and how the war was progressing. Looking into the air, looking at birds which were free to fly where ever they wanted maybe gave them some reprieve from their incarceration.

Waterston suffered severe kidney damage when he was captured in Crete in 1941 but took an active role in the Dössel camp bird watching. However in 1943 he was allowed to go home because of his ill-health. Another bird man, his friend Ian Pitman, demanded to be repatriated at the same time. When he was challenged as to the fact that he seemed in perfect health, he took out his glass eye and slammed it down on the German Commandant’s desk and was thus sent home with his friend. After the war the two of them bought Fair Isle in the Shetlands and established it as a migration study site. Condor and Waterston became two of the leading environmentalists of their age. John Buxton became a distinguished Oxford don and poet.

In the film The Great Escape  there’ s a scene where the prisoners are being given a lecture on birds and it’s a cover for them forging documents.

Finally, for those of you who like your escapes a bit more physical. Here’s that famous attempted escape sequence with Steve McQueen and the stunt he executed himself. An iconic film star, a tasty motorbike, some beautiful mountains and quite a nifty bit of music to accompany it as well. Elmer Bernstein wrote the score. He also wrote the film scores for The Magnificent Seven and Thoroughly Modern Millie amongst many others. If you’re interested in finding out how crows figure in my book Far Away here’s the link:

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

How do you escape? Motorcycles or bird watching? Or … ?

Sources: Mark Cocker: Crow Country, Midge Gillies: The Barbed-Wire University.

THE LIVES OF POWS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

To begin with, a bit of a riddle to stretch your little grey cells – what do Maria from The Sound of Music and a POW in Italy during the Second World War have in common?

No?

OK, Poirot is deeply disappointed in you; he is twirling his moustache in a positive frenzy of disappointment.

Here’s a clue – it has to do with favourite things.

No, it certainly does not have to do with solving a problem like Maria, Poirot being singularly uninterested in women and women being singularly absent from the lives of POWs.

Still no?

Oh, for heaven’s sake then I’ll just have to tell you – packages tied up in string.

There – it was easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re kicking yourself.

Yes, this is a post about RED CROSS PARCELS and my God were they tied up in a lot of string. But I’ll get to that a little bit later.

Here comes the serious and rather touching bit.

Red Cross parcels were absolutely crucial in the lives of POWs and the Red Cross were extraordinarily successful in raising money for them and sending them. During the six years of the war the Red Cross sent out twenty million food parcels to POWs. In 1942, the year my father, Robert Blake, was taken prisoner and their peak year, five and a half million were delivered. By the end of the war the Red Cross had sent out fifty-two million pounds worth of parcels and had incurred no debt. By any stretch of the imagination that is a hugely successful campaign.

Each parcel was 31 cm wide by 17.5 cm tall by 11.5 cm deep. And it was filled with food. The aim was to get one to each prisoner per week but due to the vagaries of war-time transport this rarely happened. At the beginning there was an attempt to send bread but this soon ended as the parcels were taking too long to reach their destination. The contents varied slightly but chocolate, tea and sugar appeared in every one because they were universally popular and could be bartered for other food. Indian POWs had their own parcels which contained atta, flour used in South Asian cooking, curry powder, dhal and rice but no tinned meat. Cigarettes and tobacco were sent separately.

A huge amount of string was used to secure them – ten feet per parcel. The string was three stranded sisal and brutally tough on the hands of the packers but very useful to the POWs.

Here are some of the things the string was used for:

  • shoes
  • bags
  • brushes
  • hammocks
  • pulling the wooden trolleys that brought the earth out of escape tunnels – 300 meters of rope was made by those men taking part in the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape
  • wigs for female impersonators to use in plays
  • cricket balls – the string was wrapped round a pebble
  • golf balls
  • tennis nets
  • cricket nets
  • football nets

An unusual donation to the Red Cross campaign came from Hitler when his  English language publishers, Hutchinson, donated £500, (approximately £18,000 in today’s money) royalties earned from sales of Mein Kampf. 

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gilles

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

If you’re interested in reading any more on this subject I’d highly recommend Midge Gillies excellent book, The Barbed-Wire University. To quote from The Mail on Sunday it’s ‘brilliantly researched, fascinating and deeply moving.’

LETTERS HOME: POWS – SECOND WORLD WAR

I’m publishing my book FAR AWAY this year, a novel based on my father’s memoirs of being a POW in Italy and then escaping,  so this post is about POW letter writing in general and his letters in particular. As far as I can tell from the numbers of letters and postcards I have, officers were allowed to write four letters and four postcards a month. There was a magazine called The Prisoner of War, produced by The Red Cross  for the next-of-kin of POWs and in this suggestions were made as to what one should and shouldn’t write about. The concern was naturally for the men’s morale. The resulting lists are rather quaint to today’s eyes and the not list seems altogether more interesting than the first one:

WHAT TO TELL HIM

  • film you saw
  • book you read
  • sermons you heard
  • flowers you grow
  • skirt you made
  • money you saved
  • words baby learnt

WHAT NOT TO TELL HIM

  • dinner you ate
  • cold you caught
  • bomb you dodged
  • fright you had
  • pound you lost
  • vase you broke
  • ration book loss

Letters that were sent to POWs which contained thoughtless comments were known as ‘mail bag splitters.’ Here are a few examples quoted by Midge Gillies in her fascinating book The Barbed-Wire University (Aurum Press).

Darling I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.

From a complaining wife: Here I am working myself to death and you are leading a life of luxury.

Do you get out to do much shooting?

From a wife:You have just bought me a silver fox fur – aren’t you glad?

Written in September 1940:Keep your chin up – it won’t be long now. 

Can you buy beer over there or do they only sell wine?

I am having an affair with a Canadian airman and he is having cigarettes and parcels sent you from Canada

Letters were censored and if you ignored that then your relative was likely to receive a letter that looked something like this:

Dear Buddy






Love Nana

This was exactly what happened to Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame when his gran sent him a letter. He didn’t seem to mind, suggesting that the hilarity it produced was much better for morale than the crossed out contents could ever have been.

Some people used code words or expressions that might slip under the censor’s pen. Uncle Joe for example was code for Stalin and therefore a reference to what was going on in Russia. Bill Murray, who was captured in North Africa, used a coded message relying on a sequence of letters to his mother informing her that his boots had been taken and they had no suitable footwear for the bitterly cold Italian winter. She went to the Glaswegian branch of the Red Cross and they arranged for 2000 boots to be delivered to the Italian POW camp where her son was being held.

In a letter to his sister Jill on 6/7/43 my father wrote:

‘I shall be writing my next letter home in French as they say letters written in a foreign language get home quicker. It will be good practice for you to correct the grammar!’ 

In fact he wrote one letter in French and an almost identical one in Italian. Here’s the French one.

My dear Mother

Imagine how happy I felt to receive four letters from Brundall (the village in Norfolk where he was born). However I feel very sad at the news of Colin Pitman’s death. Many of my best friends have died since the beginning of the war – Bill Garnet, Christopher Cadogan and now Colin. It’s very sad. I can’t help but wonder what life will be like after the war and I can come to no real conclusion other than to think it will be very different to the life we have at the moment. I am quite well. The censor prevents me from giving you all the details you ask for or from speaking of the war. I pass the time reading and taking a bit of exercise. I recently read a biography of Catherine of Aragon which I found very interesting. It is written by an American and consequently the style is rather barbaric! I must finish now. Tell Jill as far as I’m concerned she shouldn’t worry too much about exams! My love to Jill and Daddy

Love Bobby

It’s interesting that this is one of the few letters in which he expresses his feelings. Maybe writing in another language gave him permission to do that. I remember once when I was quite young saying to my mother wasn’t it lucky that neither she nor my father had anyone close to them killed in the war. She came out with some rather vague response. How naive I was. Of course they had losses but like many of their generation they simply chose never to talk about them.