Monday, November 09, 2009

Prisoner of War No. 52605

Flt. Lieut. Anton Novak's prisoner ID card.

In the early morning of July 29, 1944, during six hours of Allied bombing, Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak's Lancaster was shot down over Germany. Badly injured, he was quickly captured and experienced the chaotic close of the Second World War from the discomfort of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp.

Three weeks after arriving in Stalag Luft III, 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin, Lieut. Novak received a blank notebook from the YMCA in Geneva, with the words "A Wartime Log" written on the front.

The following excerpts are from the National Post’s three part Rememberance Day exclusive: Inside a Canadian POW's secret diary .

This is the first time pages of the secret diary of RCAF Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak, Prisoner of War No. 52605, have ever been published:

Nov. 7, 1944 — Received this book today. Memories that should and won't go down here, but stored away, safe from prying eyes... Show tonight -- shades of home life -- female impersonators very good. Was almost out of fags when Bob Andre, a big good-natured Australian gave me 1,000 Sweet Caps. Really a godsend...

Nov. 8, 1944 — We are now on half rations but we can all thank God for the Red Cross parcel that means all between starvation and some comfort.... But I'm a very lucky young man to be alive. Four of my crew died in the crash.

Nov. 10, 1944 — Grey day -- cold -- why go on? Homesick and lonely....

Nov. 11, 1944 — Remembrance Day — same as any other day here. For a change it has rained all day without let up. A cold wind.... Haven't started to gamble yet -- need my dough for something better: a HOME. Good night, Beloved.

Nov. 21, 1944 Raining like hell -locked out of our quarters all morning as the Germans searched for contraband. What a miserable day.

Nov. 25, 1944 — Have managed to get a bit of food stored away for a real need later on. Now the Germans are confiscating all extras. God knows where it will end up. We will most certainly be hungry before we get home....

Could hear Berlin being blasted again. About 100 miles from here, must have been the heavies [Lancaster bombers]. Wished I was taking part up there instead of down here.

Dec. 11, 1944 ....Allied armies bogged down again. Might have known it! Thank gosh Joe [Stalin] is moving again. We are about halfway between the two. Bet the man of steel gets here first.

Dec. 21, 1944 ....My third Christmas away from home. It is hard on our son. He and I will be strangers when we meet again (if we ever do!).... My injuries give me no trouble now except my leg. There are one or two scars but they won't be seen. Lost my right heel, broke right leg, fractured three and broke two ribs, broke right collarbone, ripped right arm from shoulder to elbow and a few scratches on left hand and both sides of face.... It is very cold now and is miserable most of the time.... But there is always something to live for. Hope to be able to build our own home when I get home. Should have the money by then. Wonder what Jac will have saved?

Dec 31, 1944 New Year's Eve — Thoughts of home and loved ones, food and comfort and warmth.... I wonder how long it will be before I see them again. It was two years tomorrow that I came home on my last Canadian leave....What a wealth of sights, scenes and good and bad experiences in that time!... Over five months and no news from Jac yet. Am getting slightly worried...but I haven't lost faith in my wife yet. She always was square with me and now that I am in a jam and very low is no time to start. So Happy New Year, Beloved, it can't be long now.

UPDATE:November, 10, 2009

The following excerpts are from the second batch of never-before seen pages of the secret diary of RCAF Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak, Prisoner of War No. 52605. Click on the images to zoom in and read the pages for yourself.

Jan 1, 1945: German advance finally checked. Said it would be — we and Joe [Stalin] are moving again. Looks a bit brighter. Started to snow this a.m. and now a howling blizzard….

Jan. 24: My wife’s birthday. I hope you are as happy as you can possibly be…. I love you so very much. 24 below zero and we were locked outside all morning till 1300 hours as the Germans searched our rooms for contraband. Thoroughly chilled.

Jan. 25: Stalin has put in a BIG push and is only 62 miles from here last night. Closer now. Explosions and the rumble of guns can he heard in the east. If we don’t get shifted from here within four days, our days of captivity may be at an end. Excitement and optimism reigns in the camp as we at last may be free and the end of this senseless war is in sight at last...

Jan. 27: … Fooled ourselves by wishful thinking. At 2130 hours we were ordered to pack in readiness to move off at once as the Russians were only a few miles away but did not leave until until 0630 next day. Much flap and a very terrible wastage of clothes and cigarettes as we couldn’t carry them all. Made a sled which comes in very handy.

Jan. 31: Wakened at 0430 hrs in a room roughly 15 x 25 ft with 126 others; how we managed I can’t say, but we are all very sore and stiff. One thing about sleeping together like this is the fact that we keep warm to some extent by being close together… The roads are in a terrible state, crowds of refugees and evacuees hinder progress; we are all travelling west… By gosh I could go for a big chicken dinner with all the trimmings! Four Americans died of cold and exposure. They were left where they dropped, but later picked up.

Feb. 4: … After interminable delays we at last arrived here in a pouring rain and nearly dark…. Had to march us to the camp where we stood around a further two hours in the rain before we were admitted. Then it was nearly 10 at night before we got indoors as air raid was in progress to liven things up a bit. We were soaked to the skin and the sick toll is mounting alarmingly. One American’s pack rope broke, he stooped to repair it, received three bullets in the back and a final resting place at the side of the road. Another fell on his face from sheer weariness – got three slugs in the head. I seem not too ill, but not too strong yet. God, how these bastardly Germans push you around…. Beloved, oh, my Beloved, if murder was ever justified, it really is now…

Feb. 7: … Cigarettes very valuable here, could buy almost anything except freedom, if we had them to spare.…

Feb. 9: … Running out of bumph [toilet paper] and there are no newspapers. Wonder how things are at home?? I’m lonely.

Feb. 10: I have kept notes of the past two weeks and will endeavour to keep this up, provided I can keep going (many have perished) and we get shelter of some sort from the elements… That much closer to home or death, don’t seem to care much which it is now.
… Today were issued with one spoon for every ten men as eating tools. No cooking utensils whatsoever. What stupendous generosity. Also, 1,500 blankets for over 4,000 beds. Managed to get one of them… What I long for almost as much as my family is a long, long hot bath, clean clothes and a deep warm, soft bed. My back and sides have had enough of boards. And some privacy! Am heartily sick of having someone’s front or butt end stuck in my face at odd moments…

Feb. 15: … Heavies [Lancaster bombers] went over last night in great force. Dresden got it in the neck again… Wonder if the Germans will pack up? I doubt it. Still have heavy cold. Bought a wrist watch for sixty cigarettes from an American. That’s how short they are. Shouldn’t have taken it but he insisted, so my conscience is clear…

Feb. 17: … By dint of denying ourselves, we managed to save up 4 loaves of bread between 4 of us. Today we find some lousy bastard has stolen one! I could cheerfully kill that animal with my bare hands — and take great delight in doing so…

Feb. 20: … Am slowly going downhill. Oh, hell, why can’t we die and get it over with? This slow starvation is hell on earth…

Feb. 22: By God, I didn’t think I’d ever be reduced to eating potato peelings, but I started today. Anything to keep alive. When I think of all the food I used to refuse, at home, in England, I damn near burst into tears. … Odd reports come in about the chaos in Berlin and the surrounding country — according to them we are still in the lap of luxury…

Feb. 25: … Made a forced air blower burner out of tin cans — now can heat up some of our food, if we don’t run out of wood chips. Must make one for up the lake when I get home…

March 12: … To my delight I have discovered, or rediscovered, the use of my hands again. The absence of any sort of useful tools hampers my results but what I make are serviceable. All I have to work with are a knife and fork in lieu of all else. But I have made an egg beater (wish we had eggs) for mixing up milk —which comes in powder form and has to be mixed with water. A spoon or fork took too long so the beater was the only answer. Have put sturdy on cans and they can now be used as cups and when we boil water, no longer burn fingers by hanging onto a tin can…

March 14: … Saw a swan this morning as it circled the camp twice Dazzling white and very graceful and beautiful. Made me feel a pang of bitterness and hatred against everyone in general, just because I was unfortunate enough to land here. Wish I could fly again — hope I can get out to the Far East.

April 15: The Germans are trying to find out who escaped in the last three days. Quite a few did but I can’t see the sense of that as we are so near to freedom now. The risk is great and there is no need of it — just a foolish bravado in an endeavour to get your name in the papers. To hell with that! I want to live to grow old at home with my Beloved…

April 20: Can hear the Russians at night. Terrific air raids night and day. Can see the bombers in the daytime, see the markers go down and see the mushroom clouds of smoke as they hit the deck. We are rocked continually by blast but don’t mind as we are so near to freedom… Will soon be home, I hope, if I’m not killed before the end of the war.

UPDATE: Remembrance Day, November 11, 2009

Final installment of the National Post’s three part Rememberance Day exclusive: Inside a Canadian POW's secret diary

It took 29 days after liberation for the prisoners to be repatriated and while he waited within the barbed wire, Flt. Lieut. Novak documented appalling scenes for which even nine months in a Nazi prison camp had scarcely prepared him.

The atrocities he bears witness to in his 114-page diary, revealed here for the first time, serves as a shocking endnote to his account of ingenuity, courage and a deep longing for home.

"I am so full of horror and terrible sights that sometimes I wonder what humanity is made of to carry on in such a senseless and bestial fashion," Flt. Lieut. Novak wrote two weeks after liberation.

Among the acts he recorded and condemned: rapes and close-range shootings of civilians by Russian soldiers; the killing of Western POWs by their Russian allies in disputes over German women; freed POWs exchanging scraps of bread for sex with starving children and rampant sex with civilians seeking protection in the camp.

Before his liberation turned so sour, however, there was euphoria.

"I am no longer a prisoner, but once more a member of our Majesty's Air Force on active service," he proudly wrote on April 21, 1945. "All the Germans, guards and officers, have disappeared and we once-prisoners, 40,000 of us, have the camp to ourselves ... The majority took it quite calmly. No yelling, shouting.

"We have managed to get some machine guns, rifles and small arms. Just in case the Germans come back. Some of them were too slow in getting away and are now locked in the cooler where the former prisoners are their guards. Until troops arrived, all we can do is sit tight and wait."

German civilians arrived before the troops, however.

"Women and children fleeing the flames were at our gate screaming to be let in under our protection! What an irony! They who had us under their thumb are now on their knees begging," he wrote.

In the morning came the Russians, first by armoured car, and then, later in a convoy of a dozen tanks, followed by truckloads of motorized infantry.

"The whole camp went mad with joy!" wrote Flt. Lieut. Novak.

But it wasn't long before he saw cracks appearing. "Though we are free and have the run of the countryside now, we are still virtually prisoners and it is very irksome. Tempers are fraying.

"Russians are killing the Frenchmen who refuse to give up the German women they are living with," he wrote on April 25.

Because he could speak some German (his mother was German), he joined foraging parties with Russian soldiers searching for food, radios, and other items.

"The Russians are indeed heartless to the Germans and [I] have seen some unforgettable sights of their treatment. Germans shot at close quarters. One of the most horrible was the sight of a burly Russian soldier raping a German woman who was hysterical with fear and terror and in convulsions it seemed to me," he wrote on May 1.

"Ugly as it was, I was powerless to do anything for her."

The night before, there had been a skirmish outside the wire.

"This morning, looking over the field, such a scene of carnage and death met the eye that my stomach was almost sick, but past experience allowed me to take it with some sort of composure," he wrote.

Refugees continued to arrive.

"The stray women are attaching themselves to the men here and many are the couples that can be seen strolling the countryside and woods... Women very loose – a lot of the boys are sleeping with them and many have contracted V.D. Personally I value my health too highly.

"[The Germans] are sending their kiddies, pitifully thin and ragged, to the camp to beg for food. I am giving them what I can, for who knows, they may be some of my relatives, and I just can't but feel sorry for the wee tots who are so pathetically grateful for anything they get.

"Young women and girls are so desperate for food that they are selling themselves for scraps of bread – and filthy Poles and Frogs are capitalizing. I thought I had seen everything but this about tops it all. You come upon them all over the shop, in the woods surrounding the lager and by the lake."

Finally, on May 20, the POWs moved west and on July 19, Flt. Lieut. Novak arrived back home to find his wife had left him for another man and never told his family about his diary, but it was recently discovered and returned to his family.

1 comment:

Pattie Matheson said...

Thanks for this. Wow! Read it all and wanted to read the finish, hope he made it.

Also went thru photos of Canadians who've died in Afghanistan and was surprised to see so few minorities. Also seemed like more officers & warrant officers than I see in US.

And had to check out Prince Charles, he sure has gotten old, but then, so have we!