By Kristen Alexander
The popular perception of the prisoner of war is that, once captured, he was out of the battle. Rather than compliantly accepting a status of hors de combat, however, many captive allied airmen in Europe during the Second World War continued to be potent military operatives in a new theatre of conflict—the barbed wire battleground. Indeed, the airmen adopted a stance as prison camp combatants. To facilitate this, they actively managed their lives to demonstrate individual and collective agency. They strenuously mitigated the ill-effects of their circumstances by embarking on a program of active disruption. Importantly, they did not give in to, what at least one man termed, ‘the futility of existence’.
Drawing on personal records in private and public collections, as well as official reports, this article provides a brief overview of some of the ways in which Australians and their fellow prisoners in Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp, established, maintained and promoted themselves as active airmen, on duty, in the barbed wire battleground.
Many downed airmen spoke of the ‘shock’ of captivity and the shame they felt on capture. These feelings were a common response to being taken from battle. The airmen’s sense of disgrace was exacerbated when they heard the ‘usual taunt’, ‘für sie der Krieg is beendet’—‘for you the war is over’. The realisation after their unwilling departure from the aerial arena that they had become prisoners of war was a serious blow to self-esteem and service pride. However, rather than accept a situation defined by passivity and docility, they rejected it. The war was not over for them. Moreover, so, they remained on active service as prison camp combatants.
However, before they re-attained operational readiness, they had to regain their fighting spirit. Humour was a significant means to that end as well as an almost universal morale booster. Many, for instance, depicted their new accommodation as a holiday camp or sanatorium, and tongues were firmly in cheek when they poked fun of the ignominious exits that landed them there. Many illustrated themselves as Donald Duck behind bars. ‘Winglessness’, like that of ‘Downed Donald’, was a shared state and the men gained strength through ridiculing their common plight.
The armed forces have a long tradition of using language to distance themselves from the emotions associated with military action and death in service. The men of Stalag Luft III were no different, and so, they too gained strength through language. While they were initially bemused at being called Terrorflieger, Luftgangster, and Terrorbomber, many filled their wartime logbooks with clippings from German newspapers that promoted Allied airmen as the Second World War version of terrorists. In doing so, the downed airmen recognised that the propagandised terms highlighted their success. Consequently, they ignored the intended insults and willingly accepted—as tributes to their military prowess—their new designations.
The airmen were not, however, so keen to be known as Kriegsgefangener—war prisoner—because of the negative and shameful connotations surrounding the word ‘prisoner’ and its associated trappings, such as POW number, fingerprinting, and identification discs. Accordingly, they spurned ‘prisoner of war’. In a canny example of linguistic reframing, they adopted the easier-to-pronounce and linguistically distancing abbreviation of ‘kriegie’—even those who were captured in the later months of the war. Derived from the first syllable—the German word for ‘war’—it subconsciously indicated that they were still men of war with a fine fighting spirit and distanced them from the stigma of captivity. ‘Kriegie’ removed the sense of derogation surrounding captivity and turned an affront—and assault to their dignity—into a linguistic badge of inclusiveness and pride. ‘Kriegie’ declared that they were still men of war on operational service. It also became ‘a fun word’ to describe them. Ultimately, their prison camp patois—terrorflieger, Luftgangster, kriegie and so on—became a language of agency and defiance.
With self-esteem restored, confidence reasserted, and fighting spirit reinvigorated, the airmen turned to discipline and their strong sense of service duty to help negotiate captivity. Demonstrating collective agency, the kriegies institutionalised air force discipline in the camp. They acknowledged that running Stalag Luft III along RAF station lines was best for the community—for the camp commonweal—and it was generally agreed that the senior officers ‘did an excellent job’. As well as maintaining ‘a high degree of morale and discipline’, there was much security in adhering to the familiar aspects of their former service lives. Moreover, it afforded the airmen the support they needed to wage war as prison camp combatants.
One aspect of that war was the duty of active resistance. All new arrivals were interviewed by the Senior British Officer or, in the NCO compound, the Man of Confidence, who reminded the kriegie new boys of their continuing obligations as servicemen. Importantly, they warned them not to comply with any German order ‘beyond what was necessary’. The airmen welcomed their new responsibility of active resistance and defiance. Exemplifying personal and group agency they were deliberately disruptive. They misbehaved during roll call. They purloined German supplies. They bribed guards. Their favourite sport became goon-baiting. Many embarked on covert operations. Some became code writers and sent secret messages to MI-9. A major aspect of active resistance was escape, and the airmen embraced their moral right and duty to break out of the prison camp. If they were not on the exit list for a particular attempt, or not personally eager—or even physically or psychologically capable—they supported those who were by participating in the communal effort.
Active resistance, disruption, defiance, and escape work epitomised individual and collective agency. Significantly, they reinforced the airmen’s continuing identity as combatants. For many, such concerted agency ameliorated the mortification of becoming prisoners of war. Moreover, so, the escape or ‘X’ organisation became the overriding feature of life in Stalag Luft III.
Each compound had its version of the ‘X’ organisation and Australians participated in almost every aspect of its work. ‘X’ rosters were drawn up disguised as participant lists for sports days, and sporty types created diversions. The carpentry department commandeered bed boards to shore up the tunnels and other purposes and built cabinets and hidey holes to stow secret equipment. Some men did metal work, made dummy rifles, and meticulously constructed compasses. Scroungers obtained ink, radio parts and essential supplies. Photographers took passport photographs. Forgers replicated passes and identification papers. Tunnellers dug, others carted dirt away, and gardeners disposed of it. Meanwhile, the majority joined the army of ‘watchers’ known as ‘stooges’, who kept a lookout for any sign of the Germans. So industrious were the tunnellers that, in East Compound alone, between 60 and 70 tunnels were started during the first six months.
Despite such diligent ‘X’ work and prolific excavation, East Compound’s only successful getaway was that of October 1943—dubbed ‘the Wooden Horse’—where three men made a ‘home run’. The culmination of North Compound’s ‘X’ work was the mass breakout of March 1944. While seventy-six succeeded in fleeing the camp, only three made it home. Seventy-three were recaptured. Fifty were executed, five of whom were Australian.
The men regretted the tragic outcome, but not their part in it. Nor their determined demonstration of collective agency as prison camp combatants. They believed their large-scale resistance work had been worthwhile, not just because of the sustaining effect on morale, but because of the cost to the Germans in tying up resources during the ensuing Großfahndung which they considered ‘biggest manhunt of the war’.
After the war, Paul Brickhill, an Australian journalist and former Stalag Luft III kriegie, was invited to write a book about the March 1944 escape. That book proved influential in how captivity in Stalag Luft III has been portrayed. The mass breakout, for example, was not known as the ‘Great Escape’ until the publication of Brickhill’s The Great Escape in 1951. From that time, the book’s title entered the lexicon as participants, bystanders and the public all appropriated it to describe an event that still resonates. So powerful is the book’s theme of triumph over the enemy through a communal agency, so exciting is the narrative, that most commercially published accounts of life in Second World War German POW camps—and Stalag Luft III in particular—feature the exciting high adventure and derring-do of major escapes.
While many of the former airmen were impressed with Brickhill’s book, many were not overly pleased with John Sturges’ 1963 film. They begrudge it the Americans, the motorbike, a truly appalling Australian accent, and other factual inaccuracies inserted in the interests of ‘good cinema’. Despite their distaste, the film, along with Brickhill’s book, has left a substantial legacy which they, their descendants and popular culture have embraced.
They frame captivity in Stalag Luft III as an action-packed success story. They reinforce the kriegies’ personal and collective agency as active airmen, on operational service, in the barbed wire battleground. They deny any perception of passive, docile, humiliated prisoners of war. Just as the airmen themselves had done when they refused to accept that the war, for them, was over.
Kristen Alexander is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, researching the responses to captivity of Australian airmen prisoners of Stalag Luft III and their families. Specialising in Australian aviation history, she is published in Australia, Great Britain and Japan. She won the non-fiction category of the 2015 ACT Writing and Publishing Award and was highly commended in the 2014 and 2017 awards. Her books were included on the RAAF Chief of Air Force’s 2010 and 2015 reading lists. Her military essays won the Military Historical Society of Australia’s 2012 and 2013 Sabretache Writers Prizes. Her website can be found here and she is on Twitter as @kristenauthor.
Header Image: Australians of North Compound, 25 April 1943, courtesy of Ian Fraser. (Source: Private Collection)
 This article is based on a paper presented at the Don’t Drown Post Graduate Conference, UNSW Canberra, 4 October 2017, which was a shorter version of that given at Aviation Cultures Mark III Conference, University of Sydney, 27–29 April 2017.
 Shrine of Remembrance, James Catanach Collection, 2013. CAT050: Catanach, letter to William Alan Catanach, 28 March 1943.
 Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 24 June 1986, ‘The Complete Tour: Letters of Jaime Bradbeer and Bruce Lumsden, April 1985–October 1990’, unpublished manuscript; Calton Younger, No Flight From the Cage: The Compelling Memoir of a Bomber Command Prisoner of War during the Second World War ([No place]: Fighting High, 2013), p. 40; Rex Austin, Australians at War Film Archive (AAWFA) interview No. 0382, 5 June 2003; Alec Arnel, author’s interview, 29 October 2015.
 Aaron Pegram, ‘Bold Bids for Freedom: Escape and Australian Prisoners of Germany, 1916–18’ in Joan Beaumont, Lachlan Grant, and Aaron Pegram (eds.), Beyond Surrender: Australian Prisoners of War in the Twentieth Century (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2015), p. 25; Kate Ariotti, ‘Coping with Captivity: Australian POWs of the Turks and the Impact of Imprisonment during the First World War’ (PhD Thesis, The University of Queensland, 2014), pp. 55–57; Karl James, ‘“I hope you are not too ashamed of me”: Prisoners in the siege of Tobruk’, in Beaumont, Grant, and Pegram (eds.), Beyond Surrender, pp. 101–102; Adrian Gilbert, POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe 1939–1945 (London: John Murray, 2007), p. 41.
 ‘Usual taunt’, Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 24 June 1986, ‘The Complete Tour’, unpublished manuscript. Midge Gillies noted that it was a phrase the Germans favoured. Midge Gillies, The Barbed-Wire University: The Real Lives of Allied Prisoners of War in the Second World War (London: Aurum Press, 2011), p. 13. Examples of those who heard the phrase: Private collection: Ronald Baines, wartime log book, p. 8; Younger, No Flight From the Cage, p. 37; Geoffrey Cornish, AAWFA interview No. 1388, 2 July 2004; Kenneth Gaulton, AAWFA interview No. 1276, 3 February 2004; Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 24 June 1986, ‘The Complete Tour’ unpublished manuscript; Cyril Borsht, ‘A Life Well Lived. A Memoir’, unpublished manuscript, p. 18; Irwin John Dack, So you Wanted Wings, Hey!: An Autobiography – Part One (Moorabbin: the author, 1993), p. 74; ‘Tom Wood Diary’, unpublished manuscript, p. 26; Les Harvey, ‘Over, Down and Out: Recollections of an Airman Captured by the Germans in 1942’, unpublished manuscript, p. 6; Charles R. Lark, A Lark on the Wing: Memoirs World War II and 460 Squadron [No publication details], p. 64. Non-Australians also recorded the phrase. For example, B.A. (Jimmy) James, Moonless Night: The World War Two Escape Epic (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military), 2008, p. 17; Jack Rae, Kiwi Spitfire Ace: A Gripping World War II Story of Action, Captivity and Freedom (London: Grub Street, 2001), p. 116; Ken Rees, (with Arrandale, Karen), Lie in the Dark and Listen: The Remarkable Exploits of a WWII Bomber Pilot and Great Escaper (London: Grub Street, 2006), p. 111. Rees entitled the chapter dealing with his earliest captivity experiences, ‘“For you the war is over”’.
 Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 24 June 1986, ‘The Complete Tour’, unpublished manuscript.
 Stephen Garton, The Cost of War: Australians Return (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 211.
 Eric Stephenson, ‘Experiences of a Prisoner of a War: World War 2 in Germany’, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health, 18:2 (2010), p. 34 (reprinted from Australian Military Medicine, 9:1 (2000), pp. 42–50); Karen Horn, ‘“Stalag Happy”: South African Prisoners of War during World War Two (1939–1945) and their Experiences and Use of Humour’, South African Historical Journal, 63:4 (2011), p. 537.
 Australian War Memorial (AWM) PR03211: Peter Kingsford-Smith, wartime log book, pp. 37, 54–55; Andrew R.B. Simpson research collection: Arthur Schrock, wartime log book, p. 1; private collection, Horace ‘Bill’ Fordyce, wartime log book, unpaginated section; private collection: Cyril Borsht, wartime log book, p. 5
 AWM PR03211: Peter Kingsford-Smith, wartime logbook, pp. 43 and 37; AWM PR88/160: James McCleery, wartime logbook, unpaginated particulars page (name/POW number/camp/compound) and p. 1.
 <https://australiansinsliii.blogspot.com.au/2017/12/i-wanted-wings-donald-duck-prisoner-of.html> (accessed 14 December 2017); <http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/6728-stalag-luft-iii-i-wanted-wings/>; Art and Lee Beltrone, A Wartime Log. (Charlottesville: Howell Press, 1994), pp. 60–61; <http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/6728-stalag-luft-iii-i-wanted-wings/>(accessed 14 December 2017); <http://blog.modernmechanix.com/wwii-pows-get-a-disney-designed-logo/> (accessed 14 December 2017); AWM PR88/160: James McCleery, wartime log book, p. 58; AWM PR03211: Peter Kingsford-Smith, wartime log book, p. 25; AWM PR00506: John Morschel, wartime log book, unpaginated; private collection: Cyril Borsht, wartime log book, p. 3; private collection: Eric Johnston, wartime log book, p. 1; private collection: Ronald Baines, wartime log book, p. 93; Andrew R.B. Simpson research collection: Arthur Schrock, wartime log book, p. 11; Dack, So you Wanted Wings, Hey!, p. i; Rae, Kiwi Spitfire Ace, unpaginated photo block.
 Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War. Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 90.
 Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of RAF Slang (London: Michael Joseph, 1945), pp. 25, 10, 25, and 52; Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face-to-face Killing in Twentieth Century Warfare (London: Granta Books, 1999), pp. 231–232.
 AWM PR90/035: Torres Ferres, wartime log book, p. 41; AWM PR03211: Peter Kingsford-Smith, wartime log book, pp. 46–47; private collection: Cyril Borsht, wartime log book, pp. 55 and 68; Cyril Borsht, author’s interview, 28 January 2016; private collection: Horace ‘Bill’ Fordyce, wartime log book, pp. 100–101; private collection: William Kenneth Todd, wartime log book, unpaginated section; Richard Winn, AAWFA interview No. 1508, 4 March 2004.
 Cyril Borsht, author’s interview, 28 January 2016.
 Kate Ariotti, ‘Coping with Captivity’, p. 56; Annette Becker, ‘Art, Material Life, and Disaster: Civilian and Military Prisoners of War,’ in Nicholas J. Saunders (ed.), Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, Memory, and the First World War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 28, 88; Joan Beaumont, Gull Force: Survival and Leadership in Captivity, 1941–1945 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988), p. 2.
 AWM PR05675: Guy Grey-Smith, diary, 26 January 1942; H.R. Train, ‘A Barbed-Wire World. The Diary of a Prisoner of War in Germany 1942–1945’, unpublished manuscript, 17 June 1942, pp. 9, 12; Colin Burgess research collection: Robert Mills, wartime log book, p. 31; H. Homer Ashmann, ‘Kriegie Talk’, American Speech, 23:3/4 (1948), pp. 218–219; Paul Brickhill and Conrad Norton, Escape to Danger (London: Faber and Faber, 1954).
 Alec Arnel, author’s interview, 29 January 2015.
 Ronald Baines, AWM 54, 779/3/129 Parts 1–30: [Prisoners of War and Internees—Examinations and Interrogations:] Statements by repatriated or released Prisoners of War (RAAF) taken at No 11 PDRC, Brighton, England, 1945; Robert Nightingale, AWM 54, 779/3/129; Alan Righetti, AAWFA interview No. 0984, 16 September 2003.
 Robert Nightingale, AWM 54, 779/3/129.
 Walter A. Lunden, ‘Captivity Psychoses Among Prisoners of War’, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 39:6 (1949), p. 722.
 Private collection: William Kenneth Todd, wartime log book, p.11; AWM PR90/035, Ferres, ‘A POW in Germany’: Beecroft Probus talk, 3 February 1989; Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 8 April 1988, ‘The Complete Tour’, unpublished manuscript; Andrew R.B. Simpson, ‘OPS’ Victory at all Costs: On Operations over Hitler’s Reich with the Crews of Bomber Command. Their War – Their Words (Pulborough: Tattered Flag Press, 2012), p. 342.
 Private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 8 April 1988, ‘The Complete Tour’, unpublished manuscript.
 Alec Arnel, author’s interview, 9 October 2014.
 Calton ‘Cal’ Younger, Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWMSA) interview, No. 23329, [no day] November 2002.
 Richard Winn, AAWFA interview No. 1508, 4 March 2004; Younger, IWMSA interview, No. 23329, [no day] November 2002; National Library of Australia (NLA) Justin O’Byrne, John Meredith folklore collection, 31 October 1986.
 Justin O’Byrne, ‘Mercury Radio Roundsman’ segment, Radio 7LA, Launceston, undated, [c. July 1947]; Horace ‘Bill’ Fordyce, AAWFA interview No. 0523, 19 June 2003; Geoffrey Cornish, AAWFA No. 1388, 2 July 2004; Royle, IWMSA interview, No. 26605, 2 December 2012.
 NLA Justin O’Byrne, John Meredith folklore collection, 31 October 1986.
 The National Archives (TNA) (UK), WO 208/3283: Camp History of Stalag Luft III (Sagan) Air Force Personnel, April 1942–January 1945, Part I East (Officers) Compound, pp. 67, 69.
 John Herington, Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series Three. Air. Volume IV: Air Power Over Europe, 1944–1945 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963), p. 485.
 Air Publication 1548, Instructions and Guide to All Officers and Airmen of the Royal Air Force regarding Precautions to be Taken in the Event of Falling into the Hands of an Enemy, ([no publication details], 2nd Edition, June 1941). The duty was rescinded after the Great Escape but was still implied. Air Publication 1548, The Responsibilities of a Prisoner of War, (3rd Edition, April 1944), <http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/UK/RAF/POW-RAF/> (accessed 14 December 2017). British and Australian soldiers had a similar, formal, obligation to escape. James, ‘“I hope you are not too ashamed of me” in Beaumont, Grant, and Pegram (eds.), Beyond Surrender, p. 110.
 NLA Justin O’Byrne, John Meredith folklore collection, 31 October 1986.
 Justin O’Byrne, ‘Mercury Radio Roundsman’, [c. July 1947]; Robert J. Laplander, The True Story of the Wooden Horse (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014).
 Private collection: Horace ‘Bill’ Fordyce, wartime log book, p. 140; TNA, WO 208/3283: Camp History of Stalag Luft III (Sagan) Air Force Personnel, March 1943–January 1945, Part III North (Officers) Compound, pp. 9, 25, 31; AWM ART34781.019: Albert Comber, drawing, ‘Flight Lieutenants (Mac) Jones and (Rusty) Kierath, RAAF at work, Stalag Luft III, Germany’; Justin O’Byrne, ‘Mercury Radio Roundsman’, [c. July 1947]; H.P. Clark, Wirebound World: Stalag Luft III (London: Alfred H. Cooper & Sons Ltd, 1946), p. 8; private collection: Bruce Lumsden, letter, 10 June 1988, ‘The Complete Tour’, unpublished manuscript.
 Stalag Luft III: An Official History of the ‘Great Escape’ POW Camp (Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2016), pp. 30–32; <https://australiansinsliii.blogspot.com.au/2016/08/australian-compass-makers.html> (accessed 14 December 2017).
 TNA, WO 208/3283: Camp History of Stalag Luft III (Sagan) Air Force Personnel, March 1943–January 1945, Part III North (Officers) Compound, pp. 23–24, 36; Geoffrey Cornish, AAWFA interview No. 1388, 2 July 2004.
 Geoffrey Cornish, AAWFA interview No. 1388, 2 July 2004.
 Ibid; Justin O’Byrne, ‘Mercury Radio Roundsman’, [c. July 1947].
 TNA, WO 208/3283: Camp History of Stalag Luft III (Sagan) Air Force Personnel, April 1942–January 1945, Part 1 East (Officers) Compound, p. 36; private collection: George Archer, 1942 Diary, 5, 21 and 24 August 1942.
 Justin O’Byrne, ‘Mercury Radio Roundsman’, [c. July 1947].
 Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape (London: Faber and Faber, 1951). A section on the mass escape was included in the earlier publication, Brickhill and Norton, Escape to Danger.
 Stephen Dando-Collins, The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill (North Sydney: Penguin Random House Australia, 2016), p. 198.
 Cath McNamara, author’s interview, 18 July 2016; NLA ‘Reminiscential conversations between the Hon. Justin O’Byrne and the Hon. Clyde Cameron’, 29 August 1983–28 July 1984; Alan Righetti, AAWFA No. 0984, 16 September 2003.