Jack Mason's war, Gary Mason's mission and the Great Escape
Decades before his death, Gary Mason's father divulged a secret about his role in the Second World War, and his brush with one of its great acts of defiance. Retracing his steps, the veteran's son uncovers breathtaking moments of humanity and perseverance – and an unexpected sense of redemption
It was cold and bleak in the early evening hours of Feb. 19, 1944, as the men of the 100 Squadron flying out of RAF Grimsby in Lincolnshire began readying for that night's assignment. With a stiff wind blowing off the North Sea, pilot George Sidebotham was preparing for a bumpy departure.
But then, good news: The mission had been scrubbed. He quickly relayed the update to the six members of his crew: five fellow Brits and a Canadian – all kids barely in their 20s. The unease and nausea that inevitably crept up on them ahead of an operation dissipated instantly. It was Saturday night. Now, drinks were being imagined. Maybe some women and dancing.
But an hour later came word that their sortie was back on – their 13th in the three months they'd been flying missions together. Suddenly, that sickening feeling returned. They all had too many friends who'd taken off and never come back. Airmen of the Second World War tried not to think about the death rates in their line of work, but the chances of being killed in action were nearly one in two. Russian roulette offered better odds.
Soon, Lieutenant Sidebotham and his men were pulling on their woollen long johns and heavy roll-neck sweaters, fur-lined leather jackets and flying boots. It got cold aboard a Lancaster; frostbite was an occupational hazard.
The Allied bombing crews never knew where they were going until a few hours before takeoff. Lt. Sidebotham's crew was no stranger to tough assignments though. In only their third sortie, they were part of a disastrous raid on Berlin that became known as Black Thursday: A night Bomber Command lost 25 aircraft in heavy fighting, and another 28 in crashes at fog-enveloped airfields back home. The German capital was heavily fortified, and raids on it always came at a high cost . Lt. Sidebotham and his men had managed, however, to hit it on six other occasions and considered themselves lucky to return to base unscathed each time.
This night, however, there would be a different target: Leipzig, a city 200 kilometres south of Berlin that boasted not only Europe's largest railway station but also aircraft-parts factories crucial to the Luftwaffe. It would be the opening salvo in a sustained Allied aerial bombing campaign that would come to be known as Big Week. The six-day-long assault on the German aircraft industry would change the course of the war – but also come at a heavy cost.
Shortly after 11 p.m., Lt. Sidebotham fired up his machine, the Lanc's four Merlin engines making a terrific clatter. The crew's usual "kite" was in for repairs; this was a new plane. The comfort that came with familiarity was now missing. Just after 11:40 p.m., Lancaster ND571 rumbled down the runway and was airborne.
The route to their target would take them nearly four hours, flying over the North Sea and the tip of the Netherlands before entering Germany's Altmark region and the city of Hanover. When they reached the small town of Stendal they were to proceed south to their mark. The Luftwaffe maintained a small but fearsome fleet of night fighters at Stendal, one that would be credited with numerous kills by war's end. Shortly before 3 a.m. on the 20th, Allied bombers en route to Leipzig began rounding the turn.
The Luftwaffe was ready. A team of Messerschmitts hit the sky and began picking Lancs and Halifax bombers off one by one. After 20 minutes, seven were on the ground, destroyed.
Then, around 3:30 a.m., a straggler craned into view; it was Lt. Sidebotham's plane. An oil leak in an engine was creating black plumes of smoke. A small fire broke out, which one of the men had to battle with an extinguisher. Soon Lt. Sidebotham couldn't move the plane's flaps. In a stab at maintaining altitude, a decision was made to jettison the bombs.
It didn't help.
Once over Stendal airspace, the Lancaster was hit with search lights from below; Lt. Sidebotham and his men were sitting ducks. German fighter pilot Joachim Hanss soon had them in his sights and started firing, to devastating effect. The Lanc's rear guns froze. And the plane began losing altitude at a much faster clip. Any time Lt. Sidebotham tried to bring the nose up, the plane threatened to stall. Then he lost an engine. The Lanc was now closing in on 10,000 feet, the point at which protocol insisted that the men evacuate.
"Chaps, we have to abandon the plane!" the lieutenant shouted.
Directly below him, the plane's bombardier, who was also Lt. Sidebotham's closest friend on the crew, wanted to make sure he had heard his pilot right.
"You mean that, George?" he asked.
Lt. Sidebotham was sure.
As the plane plunged through the darkness, the bombardier squeezed himself through a small escape hatch in the front of the plane, his heart racing, unsure of what lay ahead. The first man out, he floated toward Earth, trying to discern the chutes of his mates in the darkness. He could see only two. Falling into a snow-covered field, he tumbled a few times before coming to a stop. He'd somehow lost one of his boots.
Soon, he could hear the unmistakable high-pitched scream of a plane going down. Then, he heard a crash, and an explosion. A kilometre or so away, a great light filled the sky. He knew it was his plane; he didn't know who'd made it off.
Next came the sound of footsteps trudging through the snow. Two men – one carrying a rifle – trained a flashlight on him: They were civilian police.
A week shy of his 22nd birthday, the wide-eyed Canadian was now in the hands of the enemy. What he didn't know was that his life was about to intersect with some of the most iconic moments of the Second World War.
Unspooling a time of devastation and death
Towering over a facade forged by the hands of Gothic bricklayers, the twin spires of St. Mary's Church slowly emerged before me in the distance. After flying into Berlin his past August, I had driven to Stendal to finish reporting a story that I had, in a sense, begun decades earlier as a young journalism student in Vancouver.
The Canadian bombardier who had tumbled into the field near this Saxon village 73 years earlier was my father: Flight Lieutenant Jack Maclean Mason, RCAF 100 Squadron 1 Group, Bomber Command.
For the first 25 years of my life, however, I had understood his role in the war to be something quite different: He'd told his family he was an air navigator. Like many veterans, he did not divulge much about that time in his life. His five children knew he was a prisoner of war, but we had no idea what that meant. We were too young to understand, and frankly, too young to care. Any notion of what time in a POW camp might have been like was gleaned from watching Hogan's Heroes on Sunday nights. Life under Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz looked like a laugh. We assumed it must have been the same for our father.
As I got older, however, I became more curious about his role in the war. Then, as part of a journalism-school assignment in 1981, I mailed him some questions. His letter back to me included a shocking revelation. "I know you think I was a navigator," he wrote. "In truth, I was the one who dropped the bombs."
War asked young men to do unspeakable things. Sometimes it was easier to adopt another persona; the position of navigator had some cachet. And it was certainly less controversial than being the guy who dropped the bombs, sometimes on unsuspecting, innocent civilians.
"I don't know," my father would later tell me. "Maybe I was a bit ashamed of my role."
In the years before his death in 2011, Dad and I talked about his war adventures on occasion. So why then was I here, in Germany? I always felt that retracing his journey, at least that part of it that was the most life-changing, might get me closer to a truth about who he was . That it might allow me to better understand what it was like for this humble, ordinary kid to be thrust, like Forrest Gump, into this extraordinary time and some of its most mythologized moments. That it might get me a little closer to his truth.
"Regret to advise that your son flying officer Jack Mclean (sic) Mason … is reported missing after air operations overseas February Twentieth," read the Canadian National Telegram sent to my grandparents in Chippawa, Ont., on Feb. 22, 1944, by the RCAF casualties office. And that was it.
The worn piece of paper sat on the passenger seat of my rental car . It was a reminder of how cold and unsympathetic war could be – but also provided a powerful connection to where I was now, in Stendal, where my father's war adventures had taken a dramatic turn. Was there anything I could learn about that night when his plane fell from the sky, anything that could help separate fact from fiction, something that might give the events of that day some broader meaning?
I did know a few details from a couple of those late-in-life chats with Dad. The civilian police that picked him up also grabbed Vic Mendelski, the crew's flight engineer. They were taken to the home of the local buergermeister, the town's mayor, who also served as chief of police. While cooling their heels there, a little girl no more than 6 appeared from around a corner with a book in English. My dad put her on his knee and began to read from it. She cried when he had to leave. He and Vic were taken to the local aerodrome for an initial inquisition before being shipped off to Frankfurt for a fuller interrogation. From there, they would be shipped to their POW camps.
I had arranged to meet Simone Habendorf, chief curator at the Stendal archives, and Mareike Kunst, a German translator and researcher whose assistance would prove to be invaluable. Ms. Habendorf had brought out binders of clippings from the local papers the week that my father's plane had been shot down. There were some general accounts of the raid on Leipzig, one of the most disastrous air missions of the war for the Allied forces. But there was nothing specific about the planes that went down in Stendal.
Then she brought out some other books, bound volumes with light-blue covers. They included research, in English, related to the Feb. 19-20 mission, with detailed information on the planes that were shot down in the area. Ms. Kunst and I split up the books and started going through them.
"Isn't this your father?" she asked a few minutes later. She was pointing to a page that had the code number of my father's plane – ND571 – but also the name, rank and position of every member of the crew and what had happened to them. It had similar facts on the other seven planes that were shot down over Stendal that night.
It was difficult to read.
- Lancaster from the ninth squadron; all seven aboard killed.
- Halifax from the 35th squadron; five killed in action (KIA), two captured.
- Halifax from the 78th squadron; six KIA (three Canadians), two captured.
- Halifax of the 427th squadron; eight killed (all Canadians).
- Halifax from the 429th squadron; six killed (four Canadians), one captured.
- Halifax from the 434th squadron; seven KIA (six Canadians).
- Halifax from the 640th squadron; eight KIA (two Canadians).
The last one was my father's plane: Lancaster ND571. Seven crew. All survived.
Of the 59 men aboard the eight planes that were shot down over Stendal in the early hours of Feb. 20, only 12 lived. Of that number, more than half came from one plane: ND571. Twenty-three Canadians lost their lives in just that one little intersection of the war, in the space of 30 minutes.
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The documents included eye-witness accounts of the crash of my father's plane. Local resident Ella Bodenstein remembered that it went down behind a water-treatment plant. Willi Radloff, who also lived in the area, had recounted how a fire that the plane created after hurtling to Earth destroyed a nearby shed.
The attack on Leipzig that night involved 823 Allied aircraft, 82 of which were lost. It cost the lives of 426 men; another 140 ended up as POWs. It was, by any measure, a catastrophe.
Beyond the details of what happened over Stendal on Feb. 20, the research documents that Ms. Kunst and I were handed included a grim and disturbing accounting of the horrible fate that often awaited those who chose to battle in the air: casualty reports filled out by U.S. airmen who fought in many of the same confrontations my father had.
The men were asked to document what had happened to a specific member of their crew who never returned from battle.
"He burnt to death in his seat before the plane went down," said one, about his pilot.
"Shot to death at his position," said another, about the tail gunner on his plane.
"He was not able to get out before our ship blew up," said another, referring to his engineer.
And on it went, page after page, a horrifying window on what it must have been like to be in the heat of war, aboard planes, many of which were fated to become twisted cans of death.
Ms. Kunst and I left the archive and drove to the small air base in town, in search of what remained of the buildings where Dad was taken for his initial interrogation. The main one hadn't been used in years, and now sat silent behind a rusty fence, a ghostly ivy covering most of its exterior. Somewhere in there, I thought, my father once sat on a chair refusing to answer questions from his Luftwaffe interrogator, unsure of what was going to happen to him.
We then drove over to the train station, which looked much as it did in 1944, its distinctive yellow and red-brick exterior having held up well over the decades. I imagined Dad being put on a train bound for Frankfurt, where he would undergo more cross-examination before being shipped to his prison camp, in what is now Zagan, Poland – then, Sagan, Germany.
I tried to imagine the thoughts that would have crossed his mind. Would he ever see his family again? Would he ever have the chance to get married and have kids? How long, if ever, would it be before he got another square meal?
There must have been a million things racing through his head.
An escape from the home front into the belly of a plane
My father was born in Welland, Ont., on Feb. 28, 1923, the second of John and Marjorie Mason's five children. His mother gave birth to him in a neighbour's kitchen. He grew up in Chippawa, a small village just outside of Niagara Falls, enjoying a contented but simple life. He breezed through school, graduating from Stamford Collegiate at the age of 16.
While life at home was fine enough, he felt restless. Yearning to get out from underneath the firm hand of his father, he looked for a job that would liberate him from the constraints that naturally came with living at home. With few jobs available, however, and a war in Europe under way, he decided he would try to enlist, and convinced my grandfather to sign an affidavit saying he was 18 – a year older than he actually was. It would work, but Dad would spend the next year convinced his lie would be revealed.
He would join the Royal Canadian Air Force, spending time at a manning depot in Brandon, Man., before moving on to Vancouver and then Edmonton. He wanted to be a pilot, but didn't make the grade. He would say later that it was the single greatest disappointment of his life. Deciding what to do instead, he realized there weren't many people lining up to be bombardiers – or bomb aimers as they were also known. So he signed up.
Eventually, he was sent to England to join the 100 Squadron, a unit whose flag depicted a skull and crossbones and whose motto was "Never stir up a hornet's nest." He eventually joined a crew with six Brits; their first mission together would be on Nov. 23, 1943, to Berlin. There would be 11 more over the next three months before their ill-fated encounter over Stendal.
My Dad never really disclosed much about his time in England prior to being shot down. The most revealing insights into that period came in the form of a letter he sent to his younger brother Ken, just weeks before my dad became a POW. Also in the Air Force, Ken was about to be shipped over to Britain any day. In describing one mission in which he and his crew got a "little too brave and ventured over one of the most heavily defended areas" of Germany, my father wrote: "Man, if you could only have seen your big brother really praying that night."
He also filled his younger sibling in on life at the base. On nights they weren't flying, he said that he and his mates often rolled into the nearby town, drinking and dancing until 10:30 or so, and then returning to the mess where they usually had "a really good brawl until 2 a.m." He talked about a woman he had befriended who visited him on weekends. "Blonde, Scotch gal and not very expensive but a swell kid," he wrote, in what would be a latter-day eye-opener to his children. He also alluded to the nervousness he felt ahead of missions. "Don't remember ever having prayed for bad weather in my life before," he said, in reference to the circumstances that often would scrub a sortie.
After the war, my father returned to the family home in Chippawa, Ont. His parents met him at the train station in Niagara Falls in a taxi. The driver refused to take any fare.
He eventually got a job working in a plant that made fertilizer, married and began a family that would grow to seven. He moved his brood to Sarnia in 1967, where he took a job with chemicals manufacturer C-I-L. None of his children remember our dad being troubled with any psychological issues associated with his time in the war. Kindhearted and stoic might be the best words to describe my father, although he also possessed a refined, biting wit. But there was a quiet side as well, one that only grew in his later years.
Dad never talked about the war, even when others of his age asked him. It seemed, in a sense, out of bounds. As I got older, and began to understand what he had been asked to do, I wondered if his particular role in the war had something to do with his silence. I once asked him whether he thought about the devastation wrought by the bombs he dropped. "I didn't have the luxury of thinking about what destruction the bombs were creating," he said, looking at me like I was a clueless naif. "It was war. It was kill or be killed."
In his book On Killing, Dave Grossman, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the U.S. Army, says the anguish and trauma a soldier suffers from killing another person is often correlated with proximity to the victim. My father never saw the people he killed when he dropped his bombs. Col. Grossman maintains that when soldiers can't see their victims, it's easier to remain in denial about the consequences of their actions.
Still, my father was certainly aware of the debate that surrounded the Allies' bombing program. In his book on the subject, Fire and Fury, University of Toronto historian Randall Hansen suggested that the bombing missions carried out by the RAF's Bomber Command amounted to "wanton destruction" – a war crime, as defined by the Nuremberg principles.
The Allied air forces dropped nearly two million tonnes of bombs on Germany, destroying nearly 60 cities and killing more than 500,000 German citizens. Other casualties included upward of 80,000 airmen, more than 10,000 of whom were Canadians. My dad was involved in some of the most devastating attacks, including on the city of Leipzig on Dec. 4 , 1943 – when 442 bombers dropped almost 1,400 tonnes of explosives and firebombs. More than 1,800 civilians were killed in that strike alone.
In some cases, the bombing created firestorms in the cities, melting streets and incinerating the people on them. Canals became boiling channels of death, cooking anyone who dove into them seeking sanctuary. Of the German civilian deaths caused by bombing, the RAF and its Commonwealth allies were alleged to have been responsible for 75 per cent of them; that compares to 25 per cent by American Air Force crews, which used a more finely targeted bombing approach that helped avoid killing innocent civilians.
I left Stendal and drove south to Leipzig, to talk with Dirk van Laak, a professor of history at the university there. We met in his office to talk about the reconstruction of the city that he lived in, and across Germany more generally. My father had never shown any interest in visiting the country in his later years. He displayed disdain when one of my sisters said she was planning to visit Dresden. "Why would you want to go there?" he asked.
There was some guilt surely lurking in the back of his mind. He may have been a tiny cog in the great war machine. But when he informed his pilot that the bombs had been dispatched – "Bombs gone" – he was lying prone in the glass -encased front belly of the plane. He could see cities on fire below him; he could see what his bombs were doing to Germany.
He would have been astonished at the job the country did of rebuilding, in many cases reclaiming vital elements of its urban uniqueness. It has also transformed remnants of the war, even as it has covered them up. Not far from where I met Prof. van Laak, for instance, is a 150-metre -high hill where the Prix de Tacot, an annual soapbox derby, is held. The rise is, in fact, made of rubble left over from the war. Schuttbergs, as such camouflaged piles are known, can be found throughout the country. "Overcoming the past, putting the conflict and politics behind them, that became the overarching, dominant theme that materialized in German cities after the war," Prof. van Laak told me. "The 1950s, sixties and seventies were all about building up."
And about coming to terms, as well, with Germany's role in the fate that had befallen it. There was obviously resentment that the bombing "took a high toll on innocent people," Prof. van Laak said. "But there was also this almost unanimous feeling that Germany in some way deserved what happened."
Which is a view my father and most veterans would have almost certainly subscribed to.
In the thick of history and the claws of the Nazis
After being interrogated in Frankfurt, my father was put on a train headed for Sagan and the purportedly escape-proof Stalag Luft III. Designed as an officers-only POW camp run by the Luftwaffe, its prisoners were generally spared the hard labour, cruelty and deprivation of concentration camps and compounds housing non-commissioned officers. Still, it was no picnic.
"We have fun here," a fellow prisoner, Roger Bushell, told my father soon after his arrival there in late February. Within a month, the camp would be the scene of arguably the most notorious and determined prison break of the war, one that would be glamourized in the movie The Great Escape. For his role in leading that escape, Squadron Leader Bushell, nicknamed Big X, would be murdered by the Gestapo before March was through.
I always found my father's association with such a seminal event of the war exciting. He never did. So, after leaving Leipzig, I headed the next morning to Poland, to visit the site of Stalag Luft III. It is now part of a museum, underwritten largely by the town of Zagan. Its main building is actually on the site of what was Stalag Luft VIII-C, a camp that housed Polish and, later, French and Belgian POWs. But the museum's artifacts are mostly associated with the more famous Luft III, the remnants of which exist in an overgrown forest of pines and dense underbrush a kilometre away.
"It's an honour to have someone whose father was here," the museum's curator, Marek Lazarz, said to me when I arrived. In a reception area, a red-brick wall is adorned with framed photos of POWs, commemorative plaques and other camp memorabilia.
When my father himself arrived at the camp, he was greeted at its fenced gates by a reception committee of kriegies – the word the prisoners gave themselves. (It was short for Kriegsgefangene, the German word for POWs).
It wasn't long before Dad got wind of the historic escape plan, and of Squadron Leader Bushell's almost God-like stature among the men. There were prisoners in my father's hut, No. 105, who had been working on various aspects of the tunnel-building operation over the previous year. Throughout the day of March 24, when the escape was scheduled to occur, an aura of excitement and apprehension permeated the camp. Like many, my father didn't sleep well that night. He knew what was under way in the barracks next door – in hut 104. Around 5 a.m., he would later recall, the early-morning silence was pierced by the sound of a single gunshot.
"Then you could hear guards shouting and dogs barking," he would tell me, decades later. "It was a helluva racket, that's for sure. Shocked the hell out of me."
It wouldn't take long for word to begin circulating about what had happened. Fewer than half of the 200 men who were supposed to escape made it out, owing to an array of unexpected problems. Still, the scope of the break was hugely embarrassing for the Germans and particularly for the camp commandant, Friedrich Lindeiner, who would later be court-martialled by the Gestapo for not preventing the audacious undertaking.
March 25 would be a long day. Shortly after light broke, the commandant, now aware of the full dimension of the breakout, called the POWs out to be lined up and counted. "First of all , gentleman, good morning," my father remembered Lindeiner saying. They then nearly froze as they proceeded to stand out in the cold for hours.
Mr. Lazarz and I hopped into my car for the five-minute drive to the scene of the event itself. A stone memorial marks the spot where the men exited the tunnel – code-named Harry – 18 metres beyond the camp's outside perimeter but a few metres short of the cover of the forest. It was when a tower guard saw one of the escapees urinating near the forest's edge that the escape would be discovered. A fellow prisoner was just about to exit the tunnel when another German officer arrived on the scene. Pandemonium ensued.
In all, 76 men escaped. Three would make it all the way back to Britain. The rest would be captured, including escape mastermind Squadron Leader Bushell. He had successfully boarded a train at Sagan railway station but would be caught the next day at Saarbrucken, while waiting for a train to Alsace. Three days later he would be shot by the Gestapo on orders from Hitler; 49 other escapees would meet the same fate.
A crushed stone pathway 20 inches wide – roughly the width of the tunnel itself – runs from the stone memorial back to where the tunnel began. Claustrophobically narrow, Harry was 102 metres long and 8.5 metres below ground. Mr. Lazarz and I then walked through the forest to find what remained of my dad's home during the last year of the war. "This is where your father stayed," the curator said, pointing to broken pieces of brick that were once part of the stanchions upon which the barracks had rested. Pointing to the faded outlines of another room a couple of metres away, he added, "This is where the kitchen was. Your dad probably cooked right here."
Without much effort, you could softly lob a horseshoe the distance from my father's hut to the tunnel's entry point. The break-out would be immortalized by the 1963 movie, which starred Steve McQueen , James Garner and Charles Bronson. But while thoroughly entertaining, in many instances The Great Escape bore little resemblance to the actual event itself – a fact that had always irritated my father. The heart-stopping motorcycle chase involving Steve McQueen never happened. More egregious, Hollywood portrayed many of the most important characters as being American airmen, even though their real-life counterparts were Canadians.
This has been well chronicled in the excellent book by Ted Barris: The Great Escape – A Canadian Story. Six Canadians were among those who escaped and were later killed by the Nazis upon being captured. No Americans ever got through the tunnel that night. Beyond Squadron Leader Bushell, much of the brain trust of the escape was Canadian.
Word of the death of 50 of their fellow prisoners shook my father and his fellow POWs. Everyone in the camp, he told me, became pretty "bloody-minded" after that. Almost immediately, work began on another tunnel, under the camp theatre. This one was named George.
My father and his crewmate Lt. Sidebotham would get involved as part of the security detail, warning tunnel workers when guards were approaching. For their work, they were rewarded with an opportunity to try out the underground trolley designed to take the men to the tunnel's exit. Ultimately, the plan was to have escapees make their way to the approaching Red Army and notify its soldiers of the camp's whereabouts. But with rumours growing stronger that liberation might be imminent, the plot was deemed too risky: The tunnel would sit dormant until the war's end.
Dad spent almost a year in Luft III. He certainly didn't eat well, but nor did he starve. The biggest thing he had to fight was boredom – and a certain amount of loneliness, uncertain when he would get out. "It's really chilly around here these days," he wrote his mother in a letter dated the 12th of January, 1945. "Just wondering whether we should start making preparation for next winter? If you think so, start sending skates and warm boots. Getting lots of skating in these days but clamp-ons are pretty much impossible."
The POWs held hockey games on a patch of field they turned into a rink , taking angle irons from benches and affixing them to their boot bottoms to make crude skates. It was not the only sport they leaned on for distraction: Besides Lt. Sidebotham, the other crew member of my dad's plane to end up in Luft III was Dave (Jock) Parry, the mid-upper gunner. He staged boxing exhibitions in the camp to help prisoners pass the time (they also served as a diversion for the guards while George was being built).
In that letter home, my father also talked about how he'd been studying a lot, and how he'd made up his mind to pursue a career in marine engineering (something he didn't later do). "A pipe, an armchair, book and a beer will suit this boy from now on," he wrote, dreaming of the day he was free.
Mr. Lazarz and I strolled the grounds of the camp. He pointed out where the hospital once was. We walked over to where the theatre had been, and he showed me where the tunnel George began. Then we hopped in my car and drove over to a nearby cemetery built during the war to honour those who had died while staying in Luft III. A stone memorial , constructed by the prisoners in 1944, commemorated the 50 men who were shot following the escape. Their remains had been cremated, and initially interred there but were later exhumed and reburied in a British military cemetery at Poznan, in west-central Poland.
We then headed over to the train station, where Dad first arrived. Mr. Lazarz said its dark brick walls and white-and-black tiled floors were the same as they'd been in 1944. The ticket booths were exactly the ones that Squadron Leader Bushell and others had walked up to the night of the escape, getting their vouchers to what they thought was freedom. We walked through the passageway, under the tracks, that connected the station to the camp. We strolled down the gravel road my father marched on the day he arrived. It was eerie and exhilarating at the same time.
"Your father had a front-row seat to history," Mr. Lazarz told me, before we parted ways.
By late 1944, reports had begun circulating that the Soviets were closing in and that the Nazis might evacuate Luft III (which by then accommodated more than 10,000 POWs). Many found the idea far-fetched. By this point, life in the camp had taken a turn for the worse. Food was being rationed. The men were fed a lot of turnip soup in urns that often contained maggots. Red Cross care packages weren't as frequent. And an exceptionally harsh winter was now upon them.
On the late evening of Jan. 27, 1945, the men in the North Compound, where my father and most Canadians were kept, were told by German guards to get ready to march. The order set off a frenzy of activity; the men began rifling through their lockers, stuffing everything they could into duffel bags. Some made makeshift sleds out of bed boards to pull their belongings. Around 4 a.m., thousands began to march out of the camp, heading down the same road they'd taken when they first arrived at the prison. Before long, they were turning onto the main thoroughfare leading out of town.
A brutal march to freedom
The day after visiting the camp, I decided to drive the same roads my father had walked during what would be known variously as The March, The Great March, even The Death March – which was, in fact, a series of forced marches initiated by the Germans in the late stages of the war. By some estimates, more than 80,000 POWs were subjected to these treks, often in the worst conditions imaginable.
The marches would ultimately be remembered as among the most brutal and harrowing events of the war. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 3,500 American and Commonwealth POWs died during them.
In the first stage of theirs, my father and his fellow airmen walked west from the camp in Sagan toward the town of Spremberg, where they would board cattle cars to head to another prison camp before being marched again.
The initial six-day journey took them into the same small towns through which I was now slowly passing: Ilowa (then known as Halbau) and Borowe, Leknica (then Lugknitz) and Bad Muskau (then simply Muskau) before eventually arriving in Spremberg. In all, 110 kilometres walking in subzero temperatures. While much of the roadway is now paved, stretches are still made of the cobblestones my father hiked along. Tall pines border the country roads, forming colonnade s. I imagined men propped up against them, hungry and exhausted, lighting up cigarettes if they had them.
Driving through such places as Gozdnica, a tidy, unassuming village in the province of Lower Silesia, I could picture small children leaning against parents who were standing outside their homes as the men walked by. Most were pleasant and respectful, my father would recall years later, with a few even giving the men food and cigarettes. But some shouted angry words, and threw things at the men.
It was in houses and barns along this route that my father and his mates took refuge at night, huddled against one another for warmth. They often did not take off their boots, fearing they might not get them back on, so blistered and swollen were their feet. Some men, unable to walk, had to be pulled on those makeshift sleds. The conditions on some of the other marches were even worse, with reports of soldiers eating dogs, cats and rats to survive.
Eventually I arrived in Bad Muskau, a spa town sitting on the Lusatian Neisse river, which, since the end of the war, has formed part of the border between Germany and Poland. It is here my father recalled getting the longest stretch of rest. There was food and soup awaiting them. The people were generally hospitable. My father remembered a beautiful garden. That would have been Muskau Park – an English garden built in the area in the early 1800s and which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From Bad Muskau, I drove to Spremberg, which is where my father and the rest of the POWs were corralled into the rail cars awaiting their arrival. The central station remains just as it did more than seven decades ago. The brick is a dark and light red, the windows arched. A big round clock presides over the main entrance.
In many respects, the three-day journey that followed would be the worst part of the entire ordeal. My father and about 3,000 others were shipped to a prison camp near the Dutch border – Marlag und Milag Nord. About 30 kilometres northeast of Bremen, it had been a POW camp for men of the British Merchant Navy and Royal Navy, but had since been evacuated.
My dad figured his car held 50 men, who had to take turns standing so that others could spread out to sleep.
The guards, meantime, would let the men out only every 12 hours to relieve themselves. Consequently, they had no choice but to urinate on the inside walls of the car. There was a box set up in a corner for those who had to defecate or vomit. Yet my father considered his group lucky: at least no one had dysentery. Others weren't so lucky; several men died on this portion of the trip.
My father reached his new home around Feb. 5, and once again settled down to prison-camp life. Parsnips and turnips were usually dinner. Many men, by then, needed medical attention desperately. People had teeth that were rotting and aching horribly.
The only good news during their nearly two months there came from reports that the German army was about to fall; this war was not going to go on much longer.
At the beginning of April, German guards led a few thousand of the POWs, including my father, George Sidebotham and Jock Parry, northward, toward the town of Lubeck (then spelled Luebeck) on the Baltic Sea. It would be another gruelling trek of 120 kilometres – although temperatures weren't nearly as frigid as before. On May 1, they neared the coastal town and were met by the British 11th Armoured Division. The German guards threw down their weapons and fled. In a May 2 letter home, Lt. Sidebotham wrote: "We were liberated at long last by an officer and private just after 1 p.m. and I'm writing to say we are all well and fairly comfortable here in barns after being on the road a month." He asked his mother and father to inform my father's parents that their son was safe and free.
Dad and his fellow POWs were hysterical with joy and relief. They bummed cigarettes off their liberators. They hugged and danced in the streets. Some spilled tears of happiness. Others looked vacantly to the horizon, incapacitated by the nightmare they'd endured.
Within days, Dad would be on another Lancaster, this time bound for England. After a few weeks, he'd be back in Canada.
Forging meaning from war, for both father and son
The last few days of my trip were spent in Berlin, the German capital that rose from the ashes of the war to become one of the world's most compelling and beautiful cities. There, I thought a lot about my dad and his war journey – and also about how this trip had signified a liberation, of sorts, for me. I was now freed of the many questions I had about my father's time as a POW and felt a quiet sense of redemption to have retraced his steps, to see for myself a bit of the reality he once lived.
The trip also represented a promise kept. In 1997, when he was 75, Dad and I had flown to London to attend an annual dinner hosted by the British Royal Air Force for POWs from Luft III. George Sidebotham, who lived in the English Midlands, had always wanted my father to attend; finally I was able to persuade him to go.
It was a wonderful evening – the first and only time Jack Mason ever donned a tux. The menu included steak-and-kidney pudding and mashed potatoes. Dessert was apple tart and cream. Afterward, my father and George retired to the bar, literally trading war stories. They looked incredibly pleased to be in each other's company, two guys who had cheated death and knew it. It was then I vowed to one day fly to Germany and reprise Dad's war journey best I could.
"You don't need to do that for me," he said, when I mentioned my plan to him. "No," I replied. "I need to do it for myself."
As I listened to Dad and George talk that evening, I realized that a person emerges from the other end of the kind of torment and distress they endured in one of two ways: Either the images and pain of war haunt you the rest of your life, or you realize how lucky you were to survive , and look back on it as nothing short of amazing.
"I had the best seat to watch the war's most exciting action that any coward ever had," my father wrote to me 10 years before his death. "But only because dying in the trenches or on the seas wasn't for me."
He would say of the war: "In some ways, I didn't want it to stop."
I think, ultimately, that that is how George and my father tended to view the war: as something few others would ever be able to relate to, because few others had ever sat where they sat, ever marched where they'd marched. That is also why the two would remain so close their entire lives. It was a friendship forged by a unique and highly emotional experience.
But I could now close my eyes and see my father walking in his uniform toward the gates of Stalag Luft III. I could look over the fields in Stendal and picture him parachuting to Earth under an ink-dark sky. I could almost feel his heart pounding. I could now see him in Spremberg station with his fellow POWs, being stuffed into a cattle car, wondering what fresh hell awaited them.
My father once gave me a poem written by Noel Coward called Lie in the Dark and Listen. A favourite of airmen, it talked about the bravery of those who took to the "icy, moonlight sky" to fly "high above villages, hills and streams, county churches and little graves."
Lie in the dark and listen,
City magnates and steel contractors
Factory workers and politicians
Soft hysterical little actors,
Ballet dancers, 'reserved' musicians,
Safe in your warm civilian beds.
Count your profits and count your sheep
Life is flying above your heads
Just turn over and try to sleep.
Lie in the dark and let them go
Theirs is a world you'll never know
Lie in the dark and listen.
Over the years I had perused it many times. On the long flight home from Germany, I pulled it out of my pocket once again.
It was like reading it for the first time.
Gary Mason is a national affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver.
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