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Book Reviews

We Flew We Fell We Lived: Stories from RCAF Prisoners of War and Evaders 1939-1945

by Philip LaGrandeur 

Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2006
400 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Lieutenant-Colonel Rory Kilburn

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Book coverThe stories of the pluck demonstrated by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) in the European theatre during the Second World War formed a staple diet of reading for young readers during the 1950s and 1960s. The escapes carried out under the very noses of German guards, and the various hijinks conducted by the prisoners, as described by these authors, softened what was, in reality, a very dangerous and decidedly brutal aspect of the war. We Flew We Fell We Lived: Stories from RCAF Prisoners of War and Evaders 1939-1945, by Philip LaGrandeur, is a description of dozens of Canadian experiences in the Nazi POW system, along those who were fortunate enough to elude their pursuers. LaGrandeur, a high school history teacher, in no way sanitizes this recounting of history, although he does offer a view of both the tedium and the horrors experienced by POWs, who were frequently unwilling guests of the Third Reich for several years.

Some readers may find the layout of the book somewhat disconcerting, as the first 50 pages are best described as background material for the uninitiated. After a foreword and preface, LaGrandeur launches into a glossary – defining many of the English and German terms used in the camp system. This is followed by a fairly comprehensive introduction to the German system of POW Camps, and a general description of life and activities in the camps. Readers who are well-versed in this area may wish to skim the material, rather than read it carefully.

The specific stories from RCAF prisoners of war constitute the ‘meat’ of the book. In a first major portion of the book, chapters are structured so that a set of stories deals with a specific camp; the camp is described at the beginning of a given chapter, followed by the vignettes from Canadians who spent time in that particular camp. While the actual experiences of the POWs – how they got there, details of the raid on which they were shot down, and so on – were interesting, I found that the stories often repeated details described in the opening pages of a given chapter, or that the POWs shared many of the same memories. This repetitiveness, such as recounting the spoiling of Red Cross parcels by German guards, detracted somewhat from the flow of the book, as I frequently felt that the author already had covered the ground sufficiently.

Nevertheless, there is still a huge amount of very interesting information contained within the covers of this book. For example, LaGrandeur states that most camps were constructed in the eastern portion of the Nazi empire to minimize the chance that an escapee would reach freedom successfully, and thus rejoin the war effort. When viewed in the light of the Allied shipping of German POWs to Canada for the same reason, and recognizing the enormous numbers of prisoners involved on both sides, one can begin to understand the resources required to build and maintain such a network. Within the German system, the Canadians interviewed divided the German guards into three major categories: Nazi sympathizers who were brutal towards all prisoners; those who just wanted to get through the war without being sent to the Eastern Front; and anti-Nazis who risked their lives to help Allied POWs. The majority of them were described as belonging to the middle category. Some were co-opted by POWs into aiding escape efforts through bribery or intimidation, and some treated the POWs with decency – especially in the closing months of the war, when they realized that Germany had all but lost. Finally, the POWs recount numerous friendly fire incidents in the closing months of the war – normally while they were on forced marches, or while moving by train to another camp – as Allied fighter planes roamed the skies over Germany, strafing trains and troop columns. The POWs noted that the trains into which they were herded were never marked as POW transports.

In the midst of some of the worst horrors of the war, the survivors of the camps remarked that their treatment contrasted starkly with the treatment of Soviet POWs, who were given the most undesirable jobs – such as the cleaning of POW latrines – while being given even less food than that offered to Allied POWs in adjacent compounds of the same camp. When guards were questioned by the prisoners, they offered the excuse that the USSR was not a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and the Nazis could thus rationalize starving these Eastern European POWs and using them as forced labour. Even at risk to their own lives, many of the Canadian and Allied prisoners smuggled food to those whose lot was even worse than their own.

The second major part of the book, the stories from RCAF evaders, is also extremely interesting. The author and the reader quickly come to the same conclusion on the existence of robust resistance lines, despite the threat of German reprisals against civilians. In the end, the murder of civilians who aided Allied evaders had the same effect on morale as the bombing of civilians: it served, at least, in some cases, to strengthen their resolve. This section also has an excellent description of German prisoner interrogation – from the initial triage of separating those who could be exploited (navigators and radio officers), to the techniques employed by the interrogators, ranging from gentle persuasion through to physical and mental brutality.

For scholars, or for those interested in more in-depth information on POW life, We Flew We Fell We Lived is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many drawings, photos, and cartoons of camp life. The drawings all come from the Red Cross log books of the prisoners interviewed, and they provide an invaluable insight into state of mind of these individuals: their humour in the face of their situations, and the intelligence value of their observations in both aiding escape attempts and in the war crimes trials conducted after the conflict. They are a treasure trove of information for those who take the time to pore over their unbelievable detail.

In We Flew We Fell We Lived, Philip LaGrandeur has detailed the treatment of POWs by a western power that, despite being a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, did not place the same value on human life as did we in Canada at that time. LaGrandeur’s brief description of the famous Great Escape and the subsequent murder of 50 escapees, of whom six were Canadians, clearly illustrates the deadly nature of the Nazi regime. However, even in the midst of this crime, he demonstrates that there were many Germans who risked their lives to protect Allied and Canadian POWs from their fellow Germans. Although we can only imagine what treatment will be like for Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen, and airwomen should they be captured by forces whose culture and values are very different from our own, we can hope that there will always be those among them who will embrace the best in humanity, just as there were in Nazi Germany.

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Rory Kilburn, a navigator, is Senior Staff Officer Concepts in the Professional Development Division of the Canadian Defence Academy at Kingston, Ontario.