Harry Hannah was a Spitfire pilot during the Second World War. His story is like that of so many men and women of character from that time—it is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is ordinary in the sense that strange, extreme and dangerous things happened to all those who answered the call. It is extraordinary because it was strange, extreme and dangerous. Harry’s story is the stuff of novels and films, yet so were the stories of millions of young men and women from that time, on both sides of the front line.
Harry carries himself with dignity and delight, humour and sartorial elegance. He is a man of few words, but a gentle voice. He is a man for men—imbued with humility, great sporting skill and a discerning eye for the ladies. He speaks highly of you if you deserve it and not at all about you if you don’t. He stands to this day with a back as straight as his 96 years will allow. He dresses like an aristocrat, speaks softly like a gentleman and smiles like a fighter pilot. No better man ever shook my hand.
In 2012, Vintage Wings of Canada honoured Harry Hannah by dedicating our Boeing Stearman in his name. Photo: Peter Handley
Harry is not compelled to expound upon the richness of his life and the extraordinary experiences he has savoured, endured and survived. It is enough that he lived them and shared them with his long lost brothers in arms. He would not think to write down on paper those memories that have not yet faded with time… happy to let them continue to blur overtime until they are simply one single memory of distant thunder and deep camaraderie. But, four years ago, when Harry was 92 years, I suggested that he do just that. It never entered my mind that he would actually do this.
Harry bought a “scribbler” and a pencil and in a fine and steady hand began to write down the memories that came to him. The result was his roller coaster five-year-long service compressed to 21 pages of free-flowing memories in block letters of pale grey graphite. The words are simple, the style spare and honest, the whole thing humble and matter of fact. This is Harry’s story as he remembered it. These are not all of his memories, but today in his 96th year, these written facts help us learn his story and help him retain his grip on experiences now faded behind the foggy curtains of time.
Just recently, after speaking to Harry on Remembrance Day, I dug out that scribbler which Harry had entrusted to me and did what I had told him I would do four years ago, but never did—I transcribed his words. I am sorry it took so long Harry, but I know that you will forgive me. That’s the kind of man you are. Dave O’Malley, Editor
Harry and me in his 96th year.
Undaunted—Harry’s Story in His Own Words:
I was born on 1 September 1920 at Balfreish Cottages in Nairnshire County, North Scotland while my mother was visiting her sister from Cowdenbeath, Fifeshire. Two years later my father was killed in a coal mine cave-in.
My mother then moved the family—my brother, sister and me— to Glasgow and opened up a sweets and grocery store. I attended Kent Road Public School and Woodside Secondary School.
Harry’s early Glaswegian education was at Kent Road Public School (left) and Woodside Secondary School (right). Photos: Left: The GlasgowStory.com; Right: FlicrRiver.com
I left school at age fifteen to work in the offices of David Rowan and Co. Shipbuilders and Boiler Makers on Elliot Street along the River Clyde. One year later, I joined the Western Motor Co., dealers for G.M. Vauxhall-Bedford and started to work as an apprentice mechanic.
In 1938, at age 18, I joined 602 City of Glasgow Auxiliary Squadron as I wished to gain experience on aircraft engines. The Squadron at that time flew Hawker Hind and Hart fighters as well as later Gloster Gladiator and Gauntlet biplane fighters. The Glosters were equipped with Bristol radial engines. I attended classes on Wednesday evenings for theory and on Saturdays and Sundays at Abbotsinch Airfield (now Glasgow Airport) in Paisley, Renfrewshire.
This airfield was shared by the Navy (Royal Naval Air Station HMS Sanderling) which flew the Fairey Swordfish in from aircraft carriers on the Clyde.
An aerial photograph of RAF Abbotsinch/RNAS Sanderling taken in 1942 shows the wide open grass field used for takeoffs and landings into wind. The airfield was located at the confluence of the Black Cart and White Cart Rivers, where the Cart River is formed and flows for a mere kilometre before joining the Clyde. Today, it is the site of the Glasgow Airport. Photo via abct.org.uk
Shortly after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous speech “Peace in our time,” the squadron received a single Fairey Battle with dual controls and it was used to train our pilots on flying monoplanes. Following this, we received six Spitfires, no guns and one starter battery. By the time we lugged that battery from one Spit to another, the first off was coming in for a landing!
Gradually, we received more Spits and our armourers fitted them up with eight Brownings (.303 caliber machine guns) on each aircraft. I was now an Aircraftman Second Class (AC2) flight mechanic and enjoyed working on Spits. On 21 August 1939 (two weeks prior to the outbreak of war) the postman came to my house with a document that commanded me to report to the squadron at Abbotsinch. Two days later I was given the “King’s Shilling” (historical slang term for recruitment into British military service) and sworn in for the duration. On 1 September 1939, I turned 19 and two days later, war was declared.
The early days at Abbotsinch were spent drilling and becoming used to full-time service in the Royal Air Force. One of my memories from this time was that all personnel were required to spend four hours a week belting ammunition. This was accomplished by having two nails on board and pushing a .303 bullet and casing through a clip to make a belt of 320 .303 shells which was measured by a gauge for accurate alignment. Pushing .303s through the clips, we developed very strong thumbs. Another recollection of the early Spits was that they were equipped with a hand pump to retract the undercarriage and on takeoff, you could see the Spit bucking up and down as the pilot worked the pump.
Belting .303 ammunition was one of the more tedious tasks that ground crews endured during early operations in the Second World War. Hours of work would be blasted away in mere seconds in aerial combat. The mind-numbing and thumb-strengthening job left an indelible memory on young Harry Hannah. Here, 85 Squadron ground crew check ammunition belts at an airfield in France during the Battle of France. Photo: Imperial War Museum
While at Abbotsinch, I was sent on a three-month mechanic’s course at Strathens, near Cardiff, Wales, after which I was promoted to Aircraftman First Class (AC-1), Flight Mechanic. I rejoined the squadron which, by that time, had moved to RAF Drem in East Lothian on the east coast of Scotland near the Forth Bridge over the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh.
602 Squadron mechanics pose with a squadron Spitfire at RAF Drem, where Harry joined the squadron following his mechanics’ course. Photo: 602SquadronMuseum.org.uk
Harry’s fellow 602 Squadron mechanics work on a Spitfire I at RAF Drem in March of 1940. This Mark I has the half white/half black underside paint scheme with the demarcation line running up the underside of the engine cowl. This ID paint scheme, originally introduced by Hugh Dowding himself, was meant to make friendly aircraft more identifiable to RAF ground observers and anti-aircraft crews. Photo: Imperial War Museum
By this time, our pilots had shot down many German aircraft and some men had received Distinguished Flying Medals (DFM for NCOs) and Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC for Officers).
In the latter half of 1940, the pilots flew to RAF Westhampnett in West Sussex, a satellite airfield for RAF Tangmere in Chichester. The ground crews followed in a Bristol Bombay transport aircraft, and the pilot had to cruise around for 40 minutes as there was an air raid in progress in the vicinity.
When the Spitfire pilots of 602 Squadron moved their Spitfires from RAF Drem to RAF Westhampnett, Harry and his fellow mechanics followed in a Bristol Bombay, a British troop transport and sometime medium bomber. Photo: Imperial War Museum
At RAF Westhampnett, the ground crews lived in Nissen huts, while the pilots and officers lived in a commandeered estate house. We lived 40 to a Nissen hut and one of our crew developed a hacking cough. After three nights of little sleep, I remember that at 1 a.m. a voice rang out in our hut: “Die you bastard, die!”
The daily drill was a dawn running up of the Merlin engines of the Spits, check the “mag drop”, and the aircraft controls and radio communication equipment. At dusk we draped the engines and wings with canvas covers and lit the heaters under the Merlins. This was a platinum and asbestos box that glowed without flame.
As the Battle of Britain heated up, the days became countless rounds of gassing up and reloading the Spits that managed to return. The pilot of “my” Spitfire was Flight Lieutenant John Christopher “Micky” Mount, CBE, DSO and DFC. He was a good one who flew countless operations in the Battle of Britain. The Spits that we lost, we replaced. Replacement Spits were flown in by lady pilots and arrived with clear non-leaded “white” petrol in the 85-gallon tank. This had to be replaced by 100-octane “green” gas. This meant draining the tank and we ran out of containers for the fuel and we had to drain the tanks straight into the farmer’s field which was our aerodrome (heartbreaking).
At RAF Westhampnett, Harry and his fellow mechanics lived in 40-man Nissen huts and tents close to the aircraft they serviced. Here a 602 Squadron Spitfire Mk I (X4382) awaits an op at Westhampnett in late 1940. Photo: Britmodeller.com
Nissen huts at RAF Westhampnett. Living in a 40-man Nissen hut was cramped, uncomfortable, smelly and not in any way private, but in the winter months of late 1940 when Harry and 602 were still at Westhampnett, it was also an icy misery. The entire hut was heated by one totally inadequate coal stove (centre left). Photo: 602SquadronMuseum.org.uk
Aircraft mechanics are known to have great affection for the pilots who flew “their” aircraft, especially those who understood the importance of working closely with their ground crews. By all accounts, the pilot of Harry’s Spitfire, Flight Lieutenant “Micky” Mount was a wonderful human being, much loved by all who served with him in the Battle of Britain and beyond. It is because of the inspirational effect of Mount that Harry Hannah asked him to intercede with the squadron commander to request retraining as a pilot. Mount left 602 in March 1941 to form and command 317 (Polish) Squadron of the RAF. Mount, who retired from the RAF as an Air Commodore, died in 2002 at age 88. Photos: Left: Military-Art.com; Right: Daily Mail
A 602 Squadron Spitfire Mk I is readied for a flight while a section of 602 Spitfires sweeps in across the field at Westhampnett. Photo: Imperial War Museum
At Westhampnett, all our food was picked up from Tangmere, and we took turns picking it up. On the way over one time, we knew there had been an air raid, but what we found at Tangmere “Hamps” was unbelievable—Spits were on fire. Buildings were gutted and about 40 WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force personnel) had been killed. That was when I realized I had never seen a dead body before.
The battle went on with losses and renewals of our pilots. Early in 1941, Micky Mount was being posted to another squadron (317 Squadron— a Polish unit) as Squadron Leader, so I asked him to speak to the commanding officer (Squadron Leader Alexander “Sandy” Johnstone) and let him know I wanted to apply for aircrew. This he did and the CO selected me and another member of our squadron, Jackie Anderson (Possibly Sergeant John Anderson—an Australian), and we were sent to Edinburgh for an aircrew test—we both passed and were ordered to report to No. 5 Initial Training Wing at RAF Torquay in Devon at a later date.
At Westhampnett, across the country road in a hedged field, were two retired horses that we called Darby and Joan. Along the roadside was a deep ditch that was filled with water and was loaded with apples from an overhanging tree. Darby and Joan broke through the fence and started devouring the apples and drinking the water which was essentially cider. That was the first time I ever saw two drunk staggering horses—a funny episode that took the edge off operations.
Jackie and I reported to no. 5 ITW at Torquay and we were accommodated in a commandeered four-storey hotel (either the Hotel Majestic or the Hotel Stanbury) and commenced courses on navigation, radio communication and of course fitness and drilling.
Aircrew trainees right dress at Initial Training Wing Torquay in Devon. Though Harry had been an auxiliary member of the Royal Air Force since 1938, he was still required to undergo basic training at Torquay when he asked for a transfer to air crew. Photo: Imperial War Museum
At the end of the course, we were all lined up and a Warrant Officer came down the line and looked at us individually and handed us a letter of the alphabet—I was a “C”. We “C”s were then marched to a warehouse and were issued a grey flannel jacket and pants and a cardboard suit case. The outfit I got was a very good fit.
We were then loaded onto a train and taken the 80 kilometres to Greenock on the River Clyde where we boarded the ocean liner SS Louis Pasteur, which had been captured from the French and converted to a trooper. After a very fast trip, we arrived in Halifax and travelled by train to Toronto and were housed at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) Manning Pool. About three weeks later, we were issued with a student visa to enter the United States—that was why we had been issued the grey flannel civilian clothes.
When Harry crossed the Atlantic and braved the U-boat threat for the first time, it was on the commandeered French liner Louis Pasteur, seen here at left tied up at Pier 21 in Halifax harbour with the older liner Aquitania. Louis Pasteur had the distinction of having the largest funnel ever fitted to a ship up to that point in time. Photo: CruiseLineHistory.com
I travelled by train across the border and south to Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona while I bid farewell to Jackie who went to Pensacola. Falcon Field was home to No. 4 British Flying Training School (BTFS), a flight training centre run by the RAF under a sort of Lend Lease arrangement as the United States was not at war at this time. We flew American-marked aircraft and our instructor pilots were all Americans—ex crop dusters and commercial flyers (Southwest Airways)—and they were a super crew.
During the week, we were confined to camp, but on weekends, we were allowed off base—in our grey flannel suits. Our Primary Training was done on the magnificent Boeing Stearman, a nice-handling, forgiving and robust biplane. Our Basic Training was on the Vultee BT-13 Valiant monoplane with fixed undercarriage and our Advanced Training on the North American T-6 Texan (Harvard in the British Commonwealth).
After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor which brought America into the war, we were allowed to be seen in our RAF uniforms. On completion of the course, we were presented with our wings and Sergeant’s stripes and shortly thereafter, we took a train back to Canada and Moncton, New Brunswick. From there we went to Halifax and boarded the troopship Stirling Castle in convoy to the Clyde.
Falcon Field, near Mesa, Arizona offered excellent weather and endless skies for training Royal Air Force student pilots far from marauding German fighter and bomber aircraft. Two of the aircraft types Harry trained on can be seen here—T-6 Texans in the foreground and in the distance a Boeing Stearman. Photo: FalconFieldAirport.com
A group of Royal Air Force student pilots, salted with a few “Yanks”, pose with a Falcon Field T-6 Texan at No. 4 BFTS. The RAF sent British students to six different flying schools throughout the American south—No. 1 BFTS Terrell, Texas; No. 2 BFTS Lancaster, California; No. 3 BFTS Miami, Oklahoma; No. 4 BFTS Mesa, Arizona; No. 5 BFTS Clewiston, Florida; and No. 6 BFTS Ponca City, Oklahoma. Photo: FalconFieldAirport.com
Harry learned the fundamentals of flying on the beefy and lovely-to-fly Boeing Stearman trainer. When Vintage Wings of Canada was looking for a pilot of the Second World War who had experience with the type to dedicate our Stearman to, Harry fit the bill. The Harry Hannah Stearman flew hundreds of young cadets during the 2012 Yellow Wings summer tour. Photo: Shorpey
Unlike most Commonwealth pilot trainees of the Second World War who earned their wings in two aircraft stages (Elementary and Service Flying), pilots such as Harry, who learned to fly at one of the six America-based British Flying Training Schools, got their wings after three stages of flying—Primary, Basic and Advanced. The intermediate or Basic flying was done on the Vultee BT-13 Valiant. While hardly known across the Canadian border, the Valiant was built in large numbers (9,525) and performed well in its role. Student and instructor pilots called it the Vultee “Vibrator” for its tendency to shake violently before entering an aerodynamic stall. Photo: Wikipedia
Harry and his fellow graduates from his flying training course at Mesa crossed the Atlantic on the way home aboard the Royal Mail Motor Vessel (RMMV) Stirling Castle, a 25,000 ton liner of the Union Castle Mail Steamship Co. Originally completed in 1936, she was converted to a troopship for the duration of the war. In this service, she travelled unscathed for more than half a million miles and carried some 128,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to and from theatres of war and training grounds. Here we can see she’s painted in grey for wartime trooping and looking less than the luxury liner she was designed to be. Photo 458RAAFSquadron.orb
Jimmy Kelly (a member of 602 Squadron and the same wings course as me) and I were sent to No. 57 Operational Training Unit at RAF Hawarden near Liverpool. Excited to be flying Spitfires after these many months, we were dismayed when we were ordered to become staff pilots flying Fairey Battles and towing drogues for Spitfire gunnery practice. The drill was to fly to altitude, deploy the drogue and three Spitfires would fire on the drogue in rotation. One had unmarked .303 ammunition, one had red-painted and the other blue-painted .303. The hits on the drogue would bear paint marks and could then be attributed to a pilot’s score.
At the time, my dear old 602 Squadron was on a rest period near Liverpool, so Jimmy and I went for a visit and I met a lot of my old friends. During this visit, the commander, the famed Irish ace, Squadron Leader “Paddy” Finucane, had us visit him in his office and asked us if we would like to join 602. We both immediately said “Yes!”
When Harry was asked to return to his old 602 Squadron, he was delighted for many reasons, not the least of which was its commander at the time, the famous Irish-born fighter ace, then-Squadron Leader Brendan Eamonn Fergus “Paddy” Finucane, DSO, DFC and two Bars. Above: Finucane with his personal Spitfire at 602 Squadron—LO-W, nicknamed “Queen of Salote” after Queen Salote and the people of Tonga who had donated the money to buy the Spitfire, a common fundraising practice of the war that often earned one’s name on the fuselage. Behind the name can just be seen Finucane’s famous shamrock symbol, while on the side of the engine it carries the heraldic red lion of Scotland from the squadron badge. Finucane, the son of an Irish rebel, ironically became the poster boy for the Battle of Britain, scoring 26 victories over German aircraft. He did not survive the war. Photos: Top: ww2aircraft.net; Bottom: InRathmines.blogspot.ca
Upon return to our aerodrome at Hawarden, we learned that 12 American twin-boomed Lockheed Lightning fighters had arrived and had requested firing time on our drogues. Flying out to the Welsh coast, I had Jock, my Corporal operator in back, pay out the drogue and the first Lightning came in firing .50 mm tracer rounds and did not break off at the required 20-degree angle—with the result that he blew off several feet of my port wing and me yelling to Jock to drop the drogue, give them the red (red light signal to stop firing) and get them the “F___ out of here.” The next radio transmission was from Wing Commander Farmer, our Chief Flying Instructor and CO saying our WAAFs’ (in the tower) “pretty little ears” were not used to such language. No comment from me.
Hoping to start flying Spitfires at 57 Operational Training Unit at RAF Harwarden, both Harry and his pal Jimmy Kelly found themselves instead towing target drogues about the sky in offshore ranges for gunnery training of the Spitfire pilots that they had hoped to be among. They flew the Fairey Battle target tug, seen here in its yellow and black striped paint scheme—designed for visibility and nicknamed the “Oxydol” paint scheme for its similarity to the box of detergent. The protrusion on the port side of the rear cockpit is the wind turbine that powers the winch that pays out and pulls in the target drogue. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Being a coastal station, RAF Harwarden (both photos) was subject to plenty of rainy weather. Photo via forum.keypublishing.com
When we landed, I carefully parked the Battle with the damaged wing hidden from immediate view. Wingco Farmer and the American Captain came out to meet me, with the young pilot yelling about my cussing on the radio. I said “Come and take a look.” “Oh my God,” he said and he knew right then that he was in big trouble. The Wingco said “We must not cause an international situation. We have a grounded Battle in the hangar and we’ll cannibalize it and repair this one.” I said it would not be a problem if Jimmy and I were put on the next Spitfire course. We followed him to his office and it was all arranged.
Shortly thereafter, we started flying Spits and the course was moved to a new airfield at RAF Morpeth near Newcastle on Tyne on the East Coast of England. At the finish of the course, we finally joined our 602 Squadron at RAF Perranporth near Truro, Cornwall in the far Southwest Coast of England. This was in early 1943. The squadron was led by Squadron Leader Beytagh, DFC. The three squadron sections were led by Beytagh, Flight Lieutenant Arthur “Struddy” Strudwick and Flight Lieutenant W. Loud.
602 Squadron was part of 125 Wing that was escorting American B-17 Flying Fortresses over the English Channel to bomb the submarine pens at Brest on the French coast. The Spits were equipped with 80-gallon long-range petrol tanks that were dropped when the group leader called “Change Gear”. The return flight was a massive crossover of the Spits with the inside aircraft nearly stalling out and the outside Spits going flat out.
In between bomber escort duty, we spent much time covering small shipping convoys in the English Channel and short beat-ups on the French coast. On a low-level practice run down the Scilly Isles (approx. 40 kilometres off the tip of Land’s End) and back up the Bristol Channel, one of my squadron mates got a little too close to a high wave and bent the tips of his propeller. I will never know why, but he was sent to a punishment program in Brighton and three weeks later when he came back, he and his uniform looked like they had just come out of a “band box”—really spiffy! (A band box is defined in Merriam Webster as “a cylindrical box of cardboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire”—Ed.)
The squadron moved to a farmer’s field “near Guildford” (this would be RAF Lasham where 602 Squadron was based for the latter half of April) that had been laid out with a wire mesh runway and we took over “clipped-wing” Spits equipped with a “Crux Blower” on the engine. They had the ability to get up to 12,000 feet in a very short time to enable a diving chase of the “tip and run” Messerschmitts (a cricket term for “hit and run”—Ed.) We took turns sitting on the runway, warming the engine every 20 minutes or so, waiting for the German fighters.
602 Squadron pilots pose for a group photo at RAF Lasham where the squadron was based for most of April 1943, a few months before Harry was shot down. This is the only image of Harry from his wartime service, all his photographs having been lost in the intervening years since the war. Harry sits in a relaxed manner beside his best friend Jimmy Kelly. Kelly would be shot down and killed after D-Day the following year. The loss of Kelly hit Harry hard when he found out about it after returning from prison. Photo: 602SquadronMuseum.org.uk
We were now living in tents and practicing for the invasion which would of course not come for another year. We also escorted B-25 Mitchell and Douglas Boston medium bombers on raids over France, in particular Abbeville and Poix airfields where the Luftwaffe had based a number of day and night fighter units. (By this time 602 had moved from RAF Lasham to a series of airfields—RAF Fairlop, RAF Bognor and were now on the coast at RAF Kingsnorth.)
On 15 July 1943, I was flying as No. 2 to Flight Lieutenant “Struddy” Strudwick, who was the acting CO and squadron leader on a trip escorting 12 Douglas Boston medium bombers at 14,000 feet on a bombing run to Poix Aerodrome, operating with 122 Airfield Wing. When the raid was completed, we were on our way home when Flight Lieutenant Loud called for help in covering a wounded Boston. Struddy immediately radioed that he was returning to help and in making the turn for position, we were jumped by “the Abbeville Boys” (a term for the fighters that operated out of that airfield). Struddy and I were both hit, almost simultaneously (Canadian member of 602 Squadron, Flight Sergeant Albert J. Tysowski of Saskatchewan was also shot down on this op, as well a Flight Sergeant Kenzie—the squadron ORB referred to this as “a bad day for 602 Squadron”).
In my case, I received a direct hit to the engine while in the port turn. The windshield and canopy were covered in brown oil. To gain visibility, I pulled on the black ball release mechanism to jettison the canopy but it came away in my hand, the wire having rusted through. I was now in a tight spin and had to fight the canopy to make it open. I removed my helmet and disconnected my oxygen hose, stood up on the seat and jumped. When clear at about 2,000 feet, I pulled the ripcord and started to float down to the French coast at the mouth of the Abbeville Canal. On the way down, a Messerschmitt flew close to me and the pilot gave me a thumbs-up.
When Harry needed to get out of his cockpit, he was required to jettison the canopy by pulling on the black ball (red in this photo) on the canopy rail. The Spitfire Site explains the mechanism: “This was attached to the locking bars on either side of the canopy by means of steel cables which run down the sides of the hood in the piping visible here. Pulling the ball would disengage the bars and thus release the canopy.” Unfortunately when Harry pulled on the ball, it came away in his hand. Photo: SpitfireSite.com
When I hit the French coast, I was swinging badly and damaged my left ankle. A German soldier took me prisoner close to the wreck of my Spit which was burning furiously, and said to me in half French and English, “For you, la guerre est finie.”
A short time later I met up with Struddy who had lost his flying boots when he bailed and was in his stocking feet. They put us in a Kübelwagen (a German military vehicle) and took us on a 3-mile run through the barbed wire and pillboxes. I remember thinking that the invasion will be very tough on the ground forces.
I was then taken by truck to a hospital in Amiens. This hospital was used to treat frostbites and burns for German troops from the Eastern Front. During this time I was cussing my bad luck—“Why me?” On arrival at the hospital, my ankle was treated and I was put in a small room with another prisoner. He was a South African pilot from our wing (125 Wing, RAF) who had been shot down two weeks earlier. He was sitting on a rubber ring, no legs, no arms and covered in a foul-smelling brown ointment. He told me that when he was hit by the fighter that shot him down, the cockpit was blowtorched and he was burning all the way down in his chute. The Germans were sending him to Spain and eventually back to South Africa. I stopped cussing my luck and realized how fortunate I was.
A German guard had a couple of chairs placed across the room’s entrance and he stretched out across the doorway. He eventually fell asleep and, still in my hospital gown, I stepped over him and limped down the corridor and out the front door. About 300 metres down the hospital yard, I met a French gendarme. I thought he would help me, but he escorted me back to the front door. So much for my “great escape.”
Five days later, a German sergeant and a corporal, who were going on leave to Germany, were given the task of delivering me to a Frankfurt interrogation centre (known as a Dulag Luft (for Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe (Transit Camp–Air Force)) at Oberursel near Frankfurt, the largest of these centres). On the way through the Paris railway station, the Parisians were giving me the “V” for Victory sign. On the train we had our own compartment. The Sergeant carried a Schmeisser machine gun and the Corporal a Luger pistol. They each had a suitcase that contained good food, perfumes and silks. They were good enough to share the better food with me. The arrival at Frankfurt was the start of a new era for me.
I was placed in a solitary cell and every day for ten days, I was interrogated by a young German Luftwaffe officer and asked to complete a so-called Red Cross Paper that requested vital information. Name, rank and number were all that was given.
Upon release from my cell, I met Struddy in the courtyard and he was on his way to an officers’ POW camp. Two days later, 50 of us—Americans, paratroopers, RCAF, and RAF—were on our way to Stalag IVb (Stammlager—Main Camp) near the town of Mühlberg in Saxony, Prussia.
The wooden front gate of Stalag IVb. Through these gates Harry walked on his way to captivity and then again on his way to Dresden for his court martial. Photo via lager-muehlberg.de
On arrival, we had our pictures taken at a photography hut and our hair shaved off and then were taken to our 50-man hut. The first night was brutal as we were attacked by bedbugs. The following morning, we were paraded outside and they sealed the hut and set off a couple of killer bombs (insecticide). Four hours later we were sweeping and shovelling out dead bedbugs.
Stalag IVb was a large complex with a Russian compound, a European compound and our Air Force compound containing US aircrews, RCAF, RAF and Aussie and New Zealand personnel. We also had 12 paratroopers captured at the Sicily invasion. One of them, Sergeant Ted Wrathall, told me how he was captured. He was a mortar sergeant and was out exploring where to set up his mortars, when 40 German soldiers showed up, threw down their weapons and wanted to be taken prisoner. Ted, Sten gun (British sub-machine gun) in hand, started to march them back to his lines. He said he could envision the award of a military medal. On the way back, two German sergeants showed up Schmeisser automatics and Ted and his Sten gun were no match, so he became a prisoner and the following day he was in Italy on his way to Germany.
The rest of the summer passed, with nightly Bomber Command raids and daytime raids by the Flying Fortresses and the daily addition of shot down personnel to our compound. Red Cross food parcels were the mainstay of our daily diet and created a situation where cigarettes, coffee and soap became trading currency. Every evening we were updated with U.K. news. The Germans forbid the singing of God Save the King, but Land of Hope and Glory under the circumstances was much more fervent and appropriate.
Sergeant Ted Wrathall advised me of an escape group who had developed documents but required photographs. Then he said “Will you go under the wire with me to the photo hut and we will “borrow” the camera?” I agreed and the following night, which was New Year’s Eve 1943, we crawled across the compound, got over the trip wire and then under the barbed wire fence, then another twenty yards to the fence. The door was unlocked and Ted went in, then handed me the camera through a small window. I took off for the fence and was going under the wire when I heard a rush of feet and Ted was trapped inside the hut. I then ran down one of the “streets” with a guard chasing me. He stopped and fired a shot, but I kept going. Further down the street was a four-wheeled wagon parked against a wall and I dived under it at the wall. I was lying there with my heart pumping so hard it felt like it was lifting me off the ground. The guard caught up to the wagon and I could hear his heavy breathing. Then he urinated against one of the outside wheels. I waited for some time before I made my way back to my hut and put the camera under my pillow.
Paratrooper Sergeant Ted Wrathall was Harry’s co-conspirator in the camera caper that got them a year in a punishment facility. He suffered numerous beatings after the botched attempt that became the subject of a war crimes tribunal after the war. Following this story is a transcript of part of the court proceedings in that war crime tribunal. Photo: wrathall.ork—family history website
Two days later, the Dutchman who took care of the “pokey” found me and said that Ted was being beaten up and asked that I return the camera. I told the Dutchman to tell the guards my name and hut number. That evening at roll call, an officer and four sergeants entered the hut and the officer asked for me by name. I came forward and he said “Kamera!”, so I gave him the camera and the sergeants drew their Lugers. I was marched out of the hut surrounded by the sergeants and on my way to the pokey. The commotion and shouting in the hut was really something.
A couple of days later, I met with Ted. His face was a mess and he had lost two teeth when they beat him up during interrogation. Ted and I thought that we would probably be tried in the camp and sentenced to a month or six weeks on bread and water in the pokey.
About a week later, the officer who spoke English told us that the theft of a camera required a court martial. For a couple weeks we were allowed out in a small compound and our friends tossed food over the wire after our guard turned a blind eye in exchange for some real coffee. Several days later, the officer returned and said “Pack your gear, we are on our way to Dresden.” The officer, with a Luger, and a corporal with an automatic rifle took us out of the camp through a large warehouse where there were wooden boxes containing Russians inside in cramped position. The officer said: “Not good for the so-called three fronts (the Allies had not yet invaded Normandy) and Allies kaput!”
After a long train ride, we arrived in Dresden and Ted and I were put in cells in the dungeon of a castle to await our trial the next morning. That night, the RAF bombed Dresden and even in the depths of the dungeon, the noise and shrieking was immense.
In the morning the officer and corporal arrived to escort us to the courthouse. The streets were a mess, lamp standards bent, tramlines twisted like pretzels and the angry crowd wanting to string us up. The officer drew his Luger and the corporal cocked his rifle and we made the march to the courthouse in one piece. At court, we met the young Luftwaffe officer and lawyer who was to defend us. He asked us why we stole the camera and we told him that it was part of an escape plan. The officer presiding over the courts martial was a general.
The trial was conducted in the language of the accused. Ninety percent of the cases before the court involved prisoners in working parties who had become “involved” with German women. The sentences for our “crime” and these other fraternization crimes were stiff for both—three to five years hard labour as a military zwangsarbeiter (forced worker) in a prison camp like Belsen-Belsen. It would be a death sentence.
The tribunal heard our case, then retired from the court to make their decision. When they returned the general sentenced us to three years of hard labour. Amazing to us, our young lawyer, just a captain, blasted them, saying: “These men are soldiers who were doing their duty in trying to escape and I would hope that our soldiers under the same circumstances would do the same.” The tribunal retired again and came back with a revised sentence—1 year punishment POW (Straff-Kieigsgefangenen)—basically a year in solitary confinement.
Ted and I were taken to Königstein Fortress (a prison for officers known as Oflag IVb), a rather lovely place overlooking the Elbe River, where we met up with a variety of sentenced POWs in the three weeks we were held there. The stories coming in from the court were almost unbelievable and deserve a separate anecdote.
One of Harry’s “favourite” prisons was the massive fortress of Königstein near Dresden, where he enjoyed daily constitutionals along its ramparts high above the Elbe River. Photo: Wikipedia
Königstein Fortress sat on a large hill overlooking the Elbe and we were allowed a one hour walk on the ramparts which was the joy of every day as we gazed down on the scene below. The ships on the Elbe, the railway trains and the road traffic all looked like a tiny toy set.
After a couple of weeks, Ted and I were transported to Graudenz Prison (in today’s city of Grudziadz), a pre-war Polish prison of four storeys taken over by the German military for the imprisonment of POWs serving sentences issued by German Courts Martial. As Punishment POW NCOs, we still could not be forced to work and the alternative was solitary confinement with a one hour walk per day. My cell on the fourth floor had a bed with a canvas-covered straw mattress, a single blanket, a chair, a small table and up high, a small window overlooking the main courtyard. My kit consisted of a razor, toothbrush, wash cloth and a small bible.
The prisoner of war camp at Graudenz in Poland was reserved in the Second World War by the Germans as a punishment facility for Allied servicemen serving out sentences from courts martial. The prison dated from the First World War. Harry would spend the better part of a year here in a solitary cell in the top floor overlooking the parade ground. The window of Harry’s cell is probably visible in this image. Photo via GarethJones.org
While Harry was in prison at Graudenz, his best friend Jimmy Kelly was shot down and killed on 4 July 1944. A German photographer took photos of his wrecked aircraft and grave. Of the many trials and tribulations that Harry experienced during the war, it was the death of Kelly that he has never quite recovered from. He learned about his death after his return. Photo: Bundesarchiv
Every morning I was taken down the hall to a bathroom and also allowed to shave and once a week take a cold water shower. The previous inmate had left behind a deck of cards with which I played solitaire endlessly. The highlight of the day was the sun shining through the small window making a square patch on the mattress where I could watch the fleas jumping around in the heat. I could also stand up on the chair and see the courtyard where the returning work parties were stripped and searched regardless of the weather. These work parties met with other POWs who had access to Red Cross parcels and would receive food and cigarettes.
In spite of all the searching of inmates in the courtyard, my peephole in the door would be slid back once in a while and a couple of English cigarettes and sometimes a chocolate bar would be popped through.
When I had arrived, I was advised to check the bed side slat and look for a small cut-out in which was embedded a small flint that could be sparked with my razor blade to obtain a light for a cigarette. The drill was to remove a page from my little bible and take my toothbrush which was made from cellulose and shave a little pile onto the paper and then spark the flint which flamed the cellulose and lit the paper. The burning paper was use to light the cigarette, which had to be smoked standing up on the chair so that I could blow the smoke out the window. The guards could smell an English cigarette at forty paces. The remains of each cigarette were carefully saved and a page from the small bible made an excellent cigarette paper to make a rolled smoke.
Every day at 3 p.m., the NCOs were taken to a small courtyard and were allowed to walk in a circle—ten paces apart, no talking.
The daily food was ersatz bread, a small spoonful of sugar with ersatz coffee, and sauerkraut cabbage soup with a potato. After a year of this I was down to 105 lbs.
When we had finished our time in 1945, Ted and I were taken to another small camp in Poland which consisted of two huts of 50 POWs. The food here was somewhat better. When the Russians broke through at Warsaw, we were taken to join a column of POWs that was being marched west toward Germany. After three days we noticed that the guards were fewer in number, so that night Ted and I took off and holed up in an abandoned and bombed-out house.
A couple of days later, Soviet Red Army troops passed us and a tall Russian colonel on a tall horse pointed to the east, and so we walked in that direction. Ted and I had built a small sledge from scrap lumber (this would have been late January, early February, 1945). We came across a Mongolian Soviet soldier who had just killed a pig and he gave us a rear quarter, which served us well for the next three days until we arrived in the district of Hermannsbad, at a Polish spa town called Ciechocinek on the Vistula River. We waited here for a week, then were taken to a train station and loaded onto freight cars with other POWs. I was placed in charge of 15 Indian Army troops and we had a mixed bag of Americans, Brits, Ethiopians and others. Fifteen days later, after many stops and starts, we arrived in Odessa, which was badly bombed out. Several days later we were loaded onto a British liner and we were placed under command of an RAF Squadron Leader. We were issued new uniforms and I was now a Warrant Officer with my own cabin! After a stop at Naples, we sailed on to the Clyde and home.
By Harry Hannah, Oakville Ontario, 2012
A Transcript of the War Crimes Tribunal proceeding regarding Wrathall and Hannah
From The National Archives at Kew; Reference TS26/377
[The following information was transcribed by Derek Wrathall in Mar. 2006]
Headed : United Nations War Crimes Commission
Registered Number : 1258/LIK/G/198
Date of receipt in Secretariat : 10 August 1945
United Kingdom CHARGES AGAINST … German …… WAR CRIMINALS
Name of accused, his rank and unit, or official position:- Unnamed German Oberleutnant and Unnamed German Stabagefreiter at Stalag IVB on 31 December1943
The Stabagefreiter was the guard in charge of the camp prison at that time
(A handwritten note referring to the Oberleutnant is “Hertzel” whose home was in Leipzig. Promoted to Hauptmann)
Date and place of commission of crime : - 31 December 1943 and 1 January 1944
Number and description of crime in war crimes list : - No.xxix. Ill-treatment of wounded and prisoners of war
References to relevant provisions of national law : - Breach of the law and usage of war and in particular of Article 2 of the Geneva Convention 1929 relating to the treatment of Prisoners of War
SHORT STATEMENT OF FACTS
During the night of 31 December 1943 the first accused came out of his office and L/Sgt. Wrathall stood to attention. The first accused hit him two blows in the face with his fist knocking him down on each occasion. During the night of 31 December 1943 and the morning of 1 January 1944 the second accused hit L/Sgt. Wrathall with his fists, kicked him and threatened him with his pistol and chained his wrists and ankles together and joined these with a third and caught hold of the third chain and pulled his feet from under him.
PARTICULARS OF ALLEGED CRIME
At about 2115 hours on 31 December 1943 L/Sgt. Wrathall and W.O. Harry Hannah, R.A.F., decided to try to take German photographic equipment from a photographic barracks which was inside Stalag IVB next to the German guard room. L/Sgt. Wrathall got inside a room in the photographic barracks and Hannah was outside the window. Wrathall had passed certain photographic articles out of the window to Hannah and after he had been there some time he heard the sound of someone approaching. He immediately dived through the window and landed on the ground outside at the feet of a German Oberfeldwebel.
The Oberfeldwebel took Wrathall to the German camp office where he was interviewed by an Oberleutnant in the presence of the Assistant Man of Confidence and an interpreter.
Hannah had avoided capture and was back in his barracks. He had taken with him the photographic equipment Wrathall had passed to him. The Oberleutnant discovered that certain of the equipment was missing and sent the Assistant Man of Confidence back to the barracks to try to recover it and find out who had got it. The Assistant Man of Confidence was away for about half an hour during which time Wrathall stood in a small corridor outside the camp office. Near him were six or seven German guards. The Oberleutnant came out of his office and he stood to attention. The Oberleutnant thereupon hit him two blows in the face with his fist knocking him down on each occasion.
Shortly after this he was taken to the guard room by a German guard (Stabagefreiter) who at that time was in charge of the camp prison. On the way to the guard room this guard struck him on the head with his fist and kicked him several times with his jack-boots. At the entrance to the guard room he hit him again with his fists and threatened him with his pistol. He then chained Wrathall’s wrists and ankles together and joined these two chains by a third chain. He then kicked him down the corridor, opened a cell door and pushed him into an empty cell locking up the folding bed in the cell and locking him in.
After about three-quarters of an hour the German guard came back with a Feldwebel and a German private soldier. As he entered the cell he kicked Wrathall and hit him several times with his fists until eventually the Feldwebel stopped him and dragged him outside the cell.
At approximately 0200 hours next morning the same German guard came into Wrathall’s cell with a Dutch soldier who was employed at the Stalag as an orderly. Again as he entered the cell he kicked Wrathall and caught hold of the chain joining his wrists and ankles together and pulled his feet from under him and started hitting him on the head with his fists.
About 0300 or 0400 hours in the morning the Oberfeldwebel came into Wrathall’s cell and took off his chains.
PARTICULARS OF EVIDENCE IN SUPPORT
The affidavits of William Edward Wrathall, Lance Sergeant The Parachute Regiment, with permanent home address at Sanbury, Bentham, Lancaster and Harry Hannah, No. 802581, warrant officer Class 1, R.A.F., with permanent address at 47 Beltane Street, Glasgow, C.3.
NOTES ON THE CASE
Although L/Sgt. Wrathall stole certain photographic equipment belonging to the Germans this did not give the accused the right to ill-treat him the way they did and it is submitted that their ill-treatment of him constitutes a war crime.
The case is complete, but it has not been possible so far to ascertain the name of the accused. W.O. Meyers, R.C.A.F., who might have supplied this information, has returned to Canada and a letter has been addressed to Lt. Col. McDonald, 1 Canadian War Crimes Interrogation Team, Canada House, S.W.1. requesting that Meyers be interviewed in Canada and this information obtained from him if possible. The usual wanted reports have been sent to A.G.S. (VW) for transmission to CROWCASS.
The affidavits of Lance-Sergeant Wrathall and Warrant Officer Hannah more or less repeat the information in “Particulars of Alleged Crime” but the affidavit of the W.O. Meyers
CANADA PROVINCE OF MANITOBA TO WIT
I, JACQUES WASHINGTON MEYERS, Pilot Officer, (CAN. J96537), of the Royal Canadian Air Force, with permanent address at 653 St. Matthew Avenue, WINNIPEG, MANITOBA, make oath and say as follows : -
1. I acted as British Man of Confidence, in charge of the British and American Prisoners of War at Stalag IVB from 25th August 1943 continuously until 23rd April, 1945 when the prisoners were released by the Russians. During the said period my rank was Warrant Officer Class I.
2. I have carefully perused Affidavits by William Edward WRATHALL, Lance Sergeant, and Harry Hannah, which were submitted to the United Nations War Crimes Commission with respect to a charge of ill-treatment of the said Lance Sergeant William Edward WRATHALL.
3. The Oberleutnant referred to in the said Affidavit was a man by the name of HERTZEL, whose home was in LEIPZIG. About the month of May 1944, he was promoted to the rank of Hauptman. I do not know to which Regiment he belonged, but he was a member of Hitler’s original Party, and he was trained in the original Officer’s Training Corps sponsored by Hitler.
4. I was subsequently informed by the Russians that they had taken care of him. This I deduced from the fact that I had advised the Russians that he had been responsible for the shooting of a Prisoner of War named Corporal BROWN, and I was then advised by the Russians that the murderer of Corporal BROWN had been taken care of by them.
5. With respect to the Stabagefreiter referred to in the said Affidavits, his name is not known to me but I am able to place him by reason of the description set out in para. 7 of the Affidavit of WRATHALL, as the description is an excellent one. He was a veteran of the last war and I believe he had an Iron Cross Decoration from the last war. He belonged to an Artillery Regiment. He left the camp about the month of November 1944 on being transferred to the Russian Front for fighting.
6. His name can possibly be secured from the Dutch soldier who was employed at the Stalag as an orderly and who is referred to in para. 5 of the said Affidavit of WRATHALL. I do not know the said Dutch orderly, but his name can be secured from the Dutchman who acted as the Man of Confidence at the said Stalag for the Dutch Prisoners. His name is WAE VAN NAMEN and his address is BURGUE BRUINELAAN 152, LWYNDREGER, HOLLAND.
SWORN before me at the City of WINNIPEG in the Province of MANITOBA, this 24th day of August 1945.
(SIGNED) G.S. WALTER (Squadron Leader, No. 2 A.C. HQRS., R.C.A.F., WINNIPEG, MAN)
(SIGNED) P/O. J. MEYERS (Pilot Officer J.W. MEYERS (CAN. J96537))