BATTLE OF BRITAIN TALK IN THE MUSEUM AT PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, 2015
Standing at the podium I had my back to a restored Thunderbolt, so opened with: "I always feel nervous standing here because, even though we had Red Crosses all over our box cars stuffed with POWs, 9 of those things made 27 strafing passes at us as we raced across the field seeking ditches. They shredded the Australian beside me but all I got was a mouthful of mud as I flung myself into a ditch."
I also added: "I need to let you know that I, about 15 years ago,
along with 2 other RCAF, painted this entire hangar floor. You must agree it has held up quite well."
What you see before you is an old relic who is about to complete 96 voyages around the sun, but who, in all that time, has failed in his life-long quest to find a meaning for Life. Why does this globe, that could be a paradise for all, remain an ugly battleground?
Today, we recall the 1940 Battle of Britain which was a turning point in a war that had to be fought and it is right that we remember the sacrifices of those who made our victory possible.
But, there have been numerous books, movies, and speeches glorifying them, including my own words many times. I have known and corresponded with 33 authors on the WWII aerial combat, 2 in Argentina, 4 in Australia, 11 in Canada, 2 in Germany, 6 in the UK, and 8 in the US, 14 of the 33 in my home or theirs. 16 have used extracts from my book and I have used extracts from 5 of theirs. One author tells of the 10,000 Argentines who rushed to join the RAF.
I would also like to inject the neglected reminder that if Neville Chamberlain, the so-called appeaser, had not quietly placed orders for all the aircraft we needed, we would not have won.
Today, let me dwell for a few minutes on the sacrifices of some of those trapped on the side that lost the most, including the war.
Pre war, Roderich Cescotti joined the Luftwaffe in 1937 at age 18 because he wanted to fly. What a shock when he found himself flying bombers in the invasion of Norway and the Battle of Britain. Several times he was holed by Hurricanes, Spitfires, and flak. On his 12th raid, 15 Sep 1940, a Spitfire put 30 holes in his Heinkel 111K. He was badly crippled, barely managing to struggle home to his Belgium base where he crashed landed. As he struggled to get out of the wreck, Göring arrived for a surprise visit and all hands, including Rod, had to immediately assemble for inspection. When Göring saw this dirty and blood-stained man in the ranks he started to criticize, then grinned broadly on learning Rod’s story so ordered an aide to get an iron cross which he pinned to Rod’s torn uniform.
Seventeen years later, I met Rod when he led the first 300 cadets of the post-war Luftwaffe for pilot training at Centralia, Ontario, where I was Chief Ground Instructor. His was not an easy task as the Military was very unpopular in Germany so uniforms could not be worn in public and in Canada there was still resentment against all Germans.
He was grateful when he saw I was sincere in my welcome and when my family entertained his family several times in our home. We forged a lasting friendship.
Each course was half Canadian and half other NATO, so I paired each Canadian with a cadet from another country both for lodging and training. I sought private talks with as many cadets as I could. Joan and I organized dances every Wednesday evening for all cadets. I would send 2 large buses to London where a school official, Sylvia McPhee, would pack them with girls. I had the cadets write and perform a skit half way through the evening.
On one such evening in 1957, I was talking to a Luftwaffe cadet who mentioned that during the war he had been a high school student doing night duty manning an 88mm gun that could hurl shells up to 40,000 feet from a lone and isolated battery near Rotenburg that crippled my Halifax in March of 1943 and that he was manning that gun that night.
We did manage at much-reduced altitude and speed to carry on and bomb Berlin, but were easy prey for the fighter that finished us off near Hamburg on the way home.
We became good friends with this cadet, who was responsible for my downfall, and his friend (Rohde and Römer). They left us in 1958 with two large charcoal drawings they did of Bavarian pubs that still grace our recreation room.
Rod Cescotti and I maintained a correspondence as he served at many diplomatic and NATO posts in Europe, retiring as a Major General. He gave me copies of 5 of his books while he has copies of 2 of mine. He had flown practically every model of Luftwaffe bomber, fighter, and reconnaissance aircraft on all fronts. In 1987 he, and his wife, Otti, entertained us for a week in their Fürstenfeldbruk home near Munich.
His daughter, Viola, wrote us of his death in February 2015, at age 95.
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Then, there is Oberst, (Colonel), Freidrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner, who, as commandant of my Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Silesia, Germany, so organized his small staff, mainly of Luftwaffe too young, too old, or too war wounded to serve on the fighting fronts, that it became my Alma Mater rather than the hell hole it could have been. Luft III contained 6 compounds holding 11,000 POWs, all aircrew from 22 different countries. He treated all POWs, including Jews and Soviets, with respect. An excellent book about him, entitled “From Commandant to Captive”, has just been published and I have an e-book copy.
It is co-authored by my friend, Marilyn Walton in Ohio, whose Dad, now deceased, was also a POW with me and on whom she wrote a 487-page book, “Rhapsody in Junk” (the name of his B-24 bomber). Her new book echoes my comments in my book, “It’s All Pensionable Time - 25 Years in the RCAF”.
She uses Lindeiner’s memoirs that were found by author Art Durand with whom I had discussed both our books in my home and agreed to free use of each other’s material. His book was published in 1988 under the title “Stalag Luft III - The Secret Story”, mine in 1981 with an e-book update in 2014.
Von Lindeiner was a gentleman of the old school where chivalry was paramount. A member of the Prussian Army he served in German East Africa, earning the Pour Mérite medal during the 1905-07 Maji-Maji Rebellion. In WWI he was wounded 3 times on the Western Front. He married a Dutch baroness, Henriette van de Groes.
He sought retirement when the Nazis, whom he despised, came to power. His talents were such that his request was denied, so he joined the Luftwaffe as the least Nazified of the armed forces.
Promoted to major he became a member of Göring’s inner circle then Hitler’s Western staff.
Throughout this he ensured his Luftwaffe refrained from hitting civilian targets or mistreating prisoners.
Both he and Göring had many enemies including Himmler, Goebbels, and Ribbentrop, so when put in charge of Luft III he had a continuous battle to keep us under Luftwaffe control rather than SS or Gestapo.
Too many of us believed it was our duty to make their lives as miserable as possible so treated them with more disdain than they treated us. I argued we should cultivate them as we would need them post war.
Our compounds were heavily treed giving some semblance to a resort but concealing our constant escape activities forcing the Germans to cut them down, thus turning our camp into a dust bowl without protection from wintry breezes. Most of our escape attempts were thwarted by our guards who knew, but could not find, Harry the tunnel we managed to complete.
Worried von Lindeiner repeatedly warned us: “Escaping is no longer a sport due to your ruthless bombing. If you get out from our protection the SS and Gestapo will kill you.” I had talked with him and believed him but many did not. I continued to work, among other activities, for the Escape Committee but had no desire to escape, knowing it would be suicide.
Throughout all these years we prisoners with Red Cross food ate considerably better than our Luftwaffe captors, yet they never stole any of it from us,
When the Great Escape occurred, Lindeiner was arrested, court marshaled and faced 18 months imprisonment. With help from friends he avoided this but was put in charge of an infantry unit fighting the Soviets who wounded him, leaving him for dead. He now had 17 war wounds.
Allied forces found and handcuffed him although he had never handcuffed any POW. He was sent to the”cage” in London, blamed for the murder of the 50. He languished in slowly improving conditions for 2 years before in June 1947 being reunited with his destitute wife.
They lost their Dutch estates confiscated by the Dutch, their Berlin properties to Bomber Command, and their Sagan estate to the Soviets then the Poles. They lived in poverty for a decade. He wrote his memoirs and died in 1963 at age 82.
I also had lasting friendships with Italians who had fought against us. In my book and my blog site, now with 134 essays, are descriptions of incidents where common Luftwaffe soldiers risked their lives to save us from the wrath of the SS, Gestapo, and civilians irate from our area bombings. Far too many of them were badly treated by British, Canadian, and US forces after they surrendered.
So, your responsibility, as proud members of our armed forces, is to preserve human dignities while preventing wars rather than fighting them. Not an easy task, but I have great confidence in you. Perhaps you could invent weapons that fire, not bullets, but contraceptives.
So to you, from failing hands, I throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high, not to continue conflicts, but to abolish them.
May the gods, in whatever form of energy or matter they may be, bless you.