Jack’s War

When I was a kid, my grandfather had a photo in an end table beside the couch.
It wasn’t a big photo — about an inch or so wide by an inch-and-a-half high. It was black and white, with some writing scrawled on the back.
It was a picture of a man — not my grandfather — standing beside a twisted pile of scrap; that pile of scrap was the Lancaster bomber — LM 129 — Grandpa was the radio operator/gunner aboard. The man was Jacques Meyer, a member of a French Resistance cell that helped smuggle airmen like my grandfather out of France.
bomber_croppedIt was a Friday — July 7, 1944 —that my grandfather’s crew was bombing a V-1 manufacturing site hidden in caves in a mountainous area of France. They were caught by a Luftwaffe fighter, and, with the plane in flames, grandpa — a 21-year-old flight sergeant — bailed out from about 18,000 feet in the air. Four of the seven-man crew made it out of the plane alive, and his plane — one of five Lancasters Squadron 207 would lose that day — crashed near a small town north of Paris (it wasn’t a particularly good day for the RAF as a whole on that two-day raid; 37 of 221 planes would be brought down).

The three men who died in that plane — the 34-year-old pilot, and the two, much younger, gunners— are buried in the same communal cemetery as Vincent Van Gogh.
The mission itself was a success; the caves were blocked.
In France, my grandfather was taken in by the Resistance, and spent four weeks waiting to get into Spain, the point where he could then be taken back to England. He never made it to Spain, instead getting caught up in the midst of a battle between Resistance fighters and a group of Sicherheitsdienst, a branch of the German secret police. Captured with several others, they were locked away in a large packing container, under constant threat of being shot for being “terroristen”. At one point, they were lined up on their knees, and the police systematically began executing their prisoners before Luftwaffe officials arrived and took the rest, including my grandfather, away.
From there, it was off to Chartres, before being taken to Stalag Luft VII Bankau, one of a number of prisoner-of-war camps the Germans had set up specifically for captured airmen. This one was in Silesia, which is now in south-west Poland.
He would celebrate his 22nd birthday in that camp. He was prisoner number 576.
Back in Watford, north of London, my grandmother had only word that her husband — they had been married less than three months — was missing in action. It wouldn’t be until August that she was informed by the Ministry of Defense that my grandfather’s name was broadcast by the Germans as a prisoner of war.
I have heard a little about the camps, and it was nothing like Hogan’s Heroes. The men would play soccer to keep themselves occupied; they slept in tents for the first month or so until the Germans built something a little more permanent, as they had only established the camp earlier that summer.
As 1944 turned to 1945, the Germans began emptying the camp — as they did with several others on the Eastern Front — as the Soviets advanced west toward Berlin. He was force-marched for about a month before being shipped by cattle car to Stalag 3A, just south of Berlin, near Luckenwalde.
It was one morning the prisoners woke, not to their German captors, but Soviet ‘liberators’ — who soon also became the guards as a diplomatic row between the Americans and the Russians resulted in the Soviet demand for the U.S. to hand over Ukrainians who had fought on the German side.
Grandpa escaped the Russians, catching a lift with American lorry drivers to the Elbe River. He crossed to the American side, then on to England.
Along with his memories, there are the material things he brought home; his prisoner of war record (when the Germans left, and the Russians arrived, he was determined not to be leaving any record of himself around), the silk map issued to airmen, the telegram that my grandmother received.
There are also the things, I learned many years later, my grandmother likely very quickly got rid of, such as the German helmet he managed to smuggle back to England, and used to tease some German POWs who were fixing bomb damage to a rail line.
My grandfather’s story is not unique; I’m sure there are thousands of veterans who went through similar experiences (and likely far worse, in some cases) to preserve the freedoms we have today.
However, as we’ve turned the page on that century, and with a gulf of more than 65 years since the end of the war, it’s stories such as these that are quickly disappearing from our collective consciousness as the men and women who served during that war pass away.
My grandfather died five years ago, and I think of him often; Peter Phelps, the flight engineer on his Lancaster and a gentleman who spoke about his experiences in schools, died earlier this year. Phelps was also captured — one of more than 600 Allied airmen who were betrayed by a member of the Resistence, and taken to Buchenwald concentration camp.
Meyer passed away in 2007.
Most of what I know of his experiences were gleaned from my grandfather, but I was also fortunate to speak to Mr. Phelps after my grandfather died. A Canadian airman, John Watkins, who met my grandfather in Paris and was captured with him on the way to Spain, filled in a few other gaps. Another Canadian airman, Patrick Agur, wrote about his experiences in a self-published book, and noted my grandfather was the only one of the group he was with in Paris who stood out — however, it was for an incident, in his eyes foolhardy, that sounded just like something my grandfather would have done.
A new generation of veterans is being created as we wrap up seven years in Afghanistan, with a commitment of at least one more year or so to go. Unlike the veterans of previous wars, these are ‘professionals’, men and women who have signed up to serve Canada in war and in peace — but that does not lessen the sacrifice of the 133 soldiers who have died in that conflict.
On Wednesday, think beyond just standing politely for two minutes as the notes of Last Post echo over the cenotaph. Think about the those few old men standing proudly in their Legion jackets, about the years they sacrificed to ensure we have the lifestyle we enjoy today. Think about the work of the men and women serving in the area around Kandahar, or who have been part of the countless peacekeeping missions Canadians have undertaken since 1945.
Think about them, and thank them.