I marked Remembrance Day in 2010 by sharing the story of my father’s experiences in the Second World War with my friends on Facebook, in the form of a day-long series of status updates. I shared the whole narrative again in 2011, and I present it here, revised and expanded. Through this story, I remember the generation Canadian men and women who served, their sacrifices and their valour. I believe that we serve the cause of peace by remembering the horror and hardships of war and the courage of the men and women who served.
This is my act of remembrance.
Early in 1943, Joe Friedman informed his parents that he was going to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. There was a war on, with opportunities for excitement and glory, and as far as he was concerned the question was not open for debate. However, as he was only 17, Joe needed his parents’ permission to enlist. His mother refused.
Joe did what any headstrong teenager would have done: he lied about his age at the enlistment office. Dorothy Friedman, horrified at the thought of losing her son to the war and in any event never inclined to take challenges to maternal authority lightly, was livid. She was determined to set things right and expose his lie to the Air Force recruiter.
Undaunted, Joe announced that if he could not join the Air Force he would enlist in the merchant navy instead. Having lost more than 100 ships in the North Atlantic convoy in 1943 alone, the most dangerous service was desperate for manpower and would be willing to overlook the fact that Joe was only 17. His mother gave in.
Joe’s enlistment in the RCAF was actually something of a foregone conclusion. Canadian resolve had not weakened after four years of war. The CBC’s Lorne Green – the “voice of doom” – intoned that “there is a job to be done,” while Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck showed how good old Canadian pluck would ALWAYS defeat Nazi villainy, at least in the comic books.
The Air Force gave a youth from the dirty streets of Montreal’s Mile End district the opportunity to seek adventure and see the world. For a Jewish teenager, it also offered empowerment – a chance to get back at Nazi anti-Semitism. 20,000 Jewish Canadians served in the Second World War, a number exceeding their proportion of the Canadian population and in numbers far outstripping the national average.
In any event, Joe had the examples of his older brothers Melvin and Jack, and his older sister Ruth to emulate. By 1943, all three had enlisted in the RCAF. A photo of all four ran in the Montreal Star with the caption, “The Fighting Friedmans.” By the summer of that year Joe, like his brothers and sisters and hundreds – if not thousands – of young men and women who had attended Montreal’s Baron Byng and Bancroft schools, was in uniform.
It’s remarkable how quickly the RCAF molded teenage toughs like Joe into disciplined airmen. After a few weeks of basic training, Joe was assigned to RCAF Mont-Joli Station as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan for training as an air gunner. He excelled in his training, and by the winter of 1944 was sent overseas to Newfoundland with the rank of corporal to join the bomber crew of an Active Training Unit.
Shortly after his 19th birthday, in the summer of 1944, Joe was shipped to Britain for two months of operational training before finally being posted to a No. 195 Squadron, a composite RAF/RCAF unit based at RAF Wratting Common, as the tail-gunner in an Avro Lancaster Mk I bomber.
Mark Goldwater, an old schoolmate from Montreal who had dropped out of Sir George Williams University to join the RCAF, joined the crew as mid-upper gunner. The Flight Engineer was 19-year-old Sergeant Douglas Cullum from Waddon, Surrey. Flying Officer Norman Waring, from Caernarvon, Wales, joined the crew as bombardier. Sitting in the position behind the cockpit was the wireless operator Sergeant Bernard White of New Southgate, Middlesex. Flying Officer Richard Barry, a school teacher from Fredericton, NB was the navigator. Of the seven crewmen, four were still teenagers. The skipper, Robert Tait Roth, a graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, was the “old man” at 24.
RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any allied service in the Second World War. A bomber crewman had only a one in four chance of completing a 30-mission tour of duty without injury. He was almost twice as likely to be killed in action. Joe’s life expectancy when he joined his operational squadron in England was six weeks.
Bomber Command’s thousand-plane raids were organized partly in response to the bombers’ vulnerability to fighter attacks and the horrific casualties among bomber crews. There was strength in numbers, of course, but more importantly, with an expected 50% aircraft loss rate, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris reasoned that huge raids could still deliver massive destruction, regardless of the cost in aircrew lives.
The tail-gunner’s turret was the most vulnerable position aboard a Lancaster. Although Joe was armed with four .303 machine guns, his odds of actually hitting a moving target from his unstable position were infinitesimally small. However, seated at the point from which the vast majority of German fighter attacks came, he was by far the most likely crew member to be killed or injured.
By November 1944, Joe had come out of three raids unscathed and was promoted to sergeant. The Luftwaffe was running out of fuel and had made the strategic decision to not deploy fighters to defend cities like Essen, Duisberg and Dusseldorf. They had already been repeatedly carpet-bombed into kindling and no longer had any value to the German war-effort.
The briefing for Joe’s fourth raid identified the target as Witten, a city of 50,000 in the Ruhr Valley which, to date, had not been bombed. However, there were very few cities of substantial size left unscathed by late-1944 and, in the interests of keeping up the war effort, Bomber Command chose to send almost 500 aircraft to obliterate the town’s small arms factory.
The raid began uneventfully as 500 Lancaster and Halifax bombers of more than thirty squadrons executed a flawless rendezvous en-route to the target. Each aircraft carried 14,000 lbs of high explosive and incendiary bombs and a crew of seven men. 3,500 Canadians and Britons were sent to drop 3,500 tons of explosives on 50,000 German civilians in the early hours of the morning of 12 December 1944.
The bombers encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire as they approached the outskirts of Witten, flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. As wave after wave broke from the main force and reduced speed to begin their bombing runs, they encountered unexpectedly stiff opposition from four Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.
Joe could see nearby bombers break formation, shudder, and sport plumes of black smoke as they were hit by enemy fire. Within minutes, his own ship banked into its bombing approach. The chatter on the intercom about incoming fighters was so thick and incomprehensible that the old man called for quiet. Joe scanned the brightening sky. He stopped breathing when he saw the fighter.
The Focke-Wulf 190 approached the Lancaster from behind and slightly to starboard. Joe squeezed off one burst of machine gun fire after another, but his target was too fast and too nimble. His turret suddenly dissolved in a cascade of broken glass and shards of steel as bursts of the fighter’s tracer fire and exploding 20mm cannon shells crashed into the bomber.
Joe felt the aircraft shudder. He could just make out the old man on the intercom over the howl of the wind order the crew to abandon ship. The fighter’s attack had cut the hydraulic lines so he had to laboriously crank the gun turret manually, climb into the fuselage and make his way to escape hatch. As Joe crawled along the gangway, he felt the Lancaster nose down and begin its death spiral.
The Lancaster’s tail-gunner was isolated half an aircraft away from the rest of the crew, and Joe had no idea if any of his comrades had bailed out successfully. What he did know was that the aircraft was ablaze and minutes from crashing to earth when he finally made it to the escape hatch. At that moment, he realized that he had forgotten to strap on his parachute in his panic.
Joe crawled back along the gangway. The aircraft was hit by another burst of cannon fire, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel into his head, arms and shoulders. Bleeding and in pain, his hands freezing, he clipped on his parachute, made his way back to the hatch and pushed. The steel door was bent and wouldn’t open. He pushed again and finally kicked it open with all of his strength and bailed.
The next day, Joe’s brother Melvin, stationed in Britain with the RCAF, received an Air Ministry telegram informing him that “F/SGT Friedman, J.A. has been reported missing in action.” The week that followed was extraordinarily difficult for the Friedman family. While they knew there was hope (about 10% of aircrew reported missing were later found in POW camps) the hope was faint and the waiting was agony.
Joe remained missing for several days and was officially presumed dead until a Red Cross inspection team located him in a German transit camp in late December, 1944. His mother received the welcomed news in a telegram that arrived on 19 December 1944. The last day of Chanukah.
Neither Rose and William Goldwater, nor the families of Joe’s other crewmates would learn until 1946 that their sons were buried outside of Dortmund. They would be re-interred later that year at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Kleve, Nordrhein.
Joe had parachuted to the outskirts of Witten. Badly injured and bleeding, he made a rough landing near a road. He dimly noticed two groups of Germans rushing toward him – a crowd of survivors from the city he had just bombed wanted revenge. A platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers approached from the other direction. The soldiers arrived first. By a matter of seconds.
Following his capture, Joe was taken to a German field hospital near Duisberg to have his injuries – shrapnel in the head and shoulders, multiple lacerations and burns – treated. From there, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft transit camp for interrogation. It was probably during this time that he contracted tuberculosis and was spotted by Red Cross officials.
Joe was finally transferred to Stalag Luft I, a Luftwaffe prison camp outside of the town of Barth, Pomerania that housed 9,000 captured allied airmen. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in memory, and Barth was two miles from the Baltic coast. On a rare clear day, you could see Sweden across the straits from the beach north of the camp. Assuming, that is, that you were outside the wire.
The camp was divided into four compounds, each housing around 2,000 prisoners. Joe was assigned to the West compound, in a 16’x24′ barracks room with 23 other POWs. The barracks were uninsulated clapboard shacks, and each room was heated with a single wood-burning stove – when there was wood to burn. With the nightly temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit, Joe learned to sleep in his clothes, like the old timers.
The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were constantly hungry. The German government claimed to the Red Cross that every POW was fed 1200 calories per day, but in the last months of the war, with endemic food shortages throughout the Reich, expending even that level of resources on enemy airmen seemed excessive to German officials. In reality the prisoners at Barth were fed no more than 1000 or even 900 calories per day.
Meals usually consisted of bread heavily adulterated with sawdust, thin turnip or cabbage broth and, very occasionally, boiled potatoes. Joe developed a lifelong aversion to turnips. Prisoners could supplement their prison rations with their Red Cross packages – but only when those packages arrived without having been first pillaged by the starving German guards… or when they arrived at all.
German discipline was harsh. Virtually every infraction, from failing turn up for the many daily roll calls, or showing inadequate respect to a guard would result, at minimum, in a week or month in the cooler, a block of unheated brick and stone cells. Other infractions, like crossing the first line of fences, or remaining in the compound when ordered into barracks, were usually grounds for summary execution.
In many ways, however, the worst part of life in Stalag Luft I was the boredom. Young men like Joe found themselves removed from a life of daily peril, with bursts of intense excitement, to a carefully controlled and disciplined sedentary existence. By the time Joe arrived at the camp, the prisoners were under orders from their own offices to not event attempt escape.
For the most part, Joe played cribbage on boards fashioned out of wood scraps pulled from the walls of the rickety barracks buildings. He read, mostly late-romantic and Victorian poetry in books provided by the YMCA. Under the title “my favourite poem,” he copied Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the pages of his journal. A fellow prisoner drew an illustration.
The camp was also home to the POW WOW, the largest-circulation underground newspaper in Germany. Distributed with the warning “TO BE READ SILENTLY, QUICKLY AND IN GROUPS OF THREE,” the newspaper contained news gleaned from German newspapers, camp PA announcements and especially from BBC news broadcasts heard on the secret radio, built from smuggled parts and hidden in the North compound chapel’s altar.
POW WOW correspondents would secretly listen to the radio, transcribe news onto sheets of toilet paper, and hand them to a “compositor” who typed up the daily issue on legal-sized tissue paper, duplicated with carbons on a stolen typewriter. When carbon paper became scarce, the editorial team improvised their own by holding sheets of paper over kerosene lamps to coat them in oily soot.
Joe was always thinking of food. West Compound organized an Easter feast, collecting part of every man’s rations and Red Cross packages to make a corned-beef and liver-paste soup and bread pudding with raisins. But that was rare. Mostly, Joe copied recipes in his journal for imagined luxuries like Welsh rarebit, and daydreamed of the delicacies back home in Montreal, like the Laurier BBQ’s coconut cream pie.
The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were in unusually good spirits by the middle of April 1945. Part of that might have been due to delirium caused by the reduction of prisoner rations to 800 calories per day. But the main cause was news – published in POW WOW – that Patton’s 3rd Army had driven into Saxony and the Western allies held a 100-mile front along the Elbe. The war, it seemed, would soon be over.
Joe also noticed that the camp guards were becoming increasingly tense and restless. The prisoners could faintly hear artillery fire and explosions from the east of Barth as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Pomerania. Most Wehrmacht units in the area had already been withdrawn toward Berlin, leaving the camp’s garrison to face the inevitable Soviet attack virtually alone.
On 30 April 1945, Oberst Warnstadt, the camp commandant, called the Senior Allied Officer, Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke (USAAF) and his senior officers to the camp headquarters. Warnstadt had been ordered to evacuate the camp several hundred miles to the West to escape the advancing Red Army. Realizing that he was in an untenable position, the Oberst requested the prisoners’ cooperation.
Zemke refused. He knew that, after months of half rations, and with allied bombers pummeling every road in the Reich with bombs and rockets, the evacuation would be a death march. After conferring with his officers, Zemke informed the commandant that the prisoners would not leave the camp willingly. If Warnstadt insisted on an evacuation, he would have to use force.
The prisoners expected force. Facing capture by the Red Army, the camp guards had become increasingly aggressive and brutal in their treatment of the POWs. Zemke had secretly organized a prisoner strike force and had been stockpiling homemade explosives and knives for several weeks in the knowledge that German officers had been ordered to execute allied prisoners if necessary.
Ultimately, Warnstadt secretly agreed to surrender the camp to the POWs. At 8:00 pm, 30 April 1945, all prisoners were confined to barracks. At 10 pm, every light in the camp was turned off. The garrison quietly mustered at the West gate, and marched out of camp, leaving the gate unlocked. When Joe awoke on the morning of 1 May he and the other 9,000 prisoners found that they were alone in an unguarded camp.
The senior allied officers ordered the prisoners to remain within the camp to await liberation by the Red Army and set up a Military Police unit to maintain order within the camp. Crews tore down the barbed wire fences and Col. Zemke sent scouting patrols to the East to make contact with the Soviets and inform them that the camp was now in allied hands.
In the next few days, advanced units of Marshall Rokassofsy’s First Ukrainian Army entered Stalag Luft I. None stayed but Col. Zemke used the opportunity to send his officers back with them to locate the Soviet commander. Short of food, the POWs were becoming impatient. About 700 left the camp on their own, about a dozen were killed in the crossfire of the dying days of World War II.
Red Army Gen. Marozil officially liberated the camp on 4 May 1945. The Russians provided the POWs with flour, potatoes, eggs and about 100 head of cattle expropriated from nearby German homes and farms. The POWs ate well. The Russians provided entertainment and vodka. Overwhelmed by the sudden intake of food and alcohol, Joe and his comrades were quietly, violently sick… but ecstatic nonetheless.
Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The next day, B-17s of the 91st Bomber Group of the United States Army Air Forces began ferrying the liberated POWs to Britain as part of Operation Revival. Each aircraft carried a dozen passengers, and the evacuation took almost a week. Joe was one of the last Stalag Luft I POWs to be evacuated to Britain on 15 May 1945.
Malnourished and suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, Joe was hospitalized in Britain before being debriefed by RAF Intelligence in June. Due to the scale of demobilization, he would not be able to return to Canada until September. Released from hospital in time for his 20th birthday, and retroactively promoted to Flying Officer, Joe relaxed in London, spending his back-pay.
He was repatriated to Canada in early September 1945. Joe spent a few weeks recuperating at a sanatorium in the Laurentians before returning to Montreal. He would be in uniform until the end of 1945. During that time, few Montreal restaurants would let him pay for his meals. Not even for the coconut cream pie at the Laurier BBQ.
As readers of this blog know, Joe Friedman died in the spring of 2012 in Montreal at the age of 86. He is buried in the National Field of Honour in Pointe Claire, Quebec, in the company of veterans of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. There is a monument to peace a few metres from his final resting place.
Robert Tait Roth, Mark Goldwater, George Barry, Douglas Cullum, Norman Waring, and Bernard White are buried at the Reichswald Forest Cemetary in Kleve, Nordrhein, Germany.
To quote the lines from the “Ode of Remembrance:”
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Originally posted 11 November 2012