Book Review: Letters from Stalag Luft 3 – A tale of two heroes by John Garwell
Review by Andy Cockeram
Letters from Stalag Luft 3 – A tale of two heroes
By John Garwell
Review by Andy Cockeram, Chairman British Modern Military History Society
John Garwell has written a fascinating and enjoyable book combining his family history, the momentous events of World War Two and the unusual and often difficult relationship between his father Arthur, held as a Prisoner of War in German prison camps for over three years, and his mother, Joan , a fragile lady with mental health issues in war torn England.
What makes the book even more absorbing is that the book is largely based around letters written to his mother and his parents by his father whilst being held captive in Stalag Luft 3, a camp made notorious by The Great Escape. As with so many people who served, Arthur rarely spoke of his time in the RAF.
The cover graphically depicts a Lancaster bomber, flames pouring out of one engine and heading to the ground, an event sadly not uncommon during the war, but one which is central to Arthur’s story. He was an RAF pilot in Bomber Command, who after 30 sorties to bomb German cities, was shot down on a daylight, long distance raid on Augsburg deep in Bavaria in early 1942. He and some of his crew survived, all being quickly rounded up and finding themselves as POWs.
Blending in events that were taking place during the war, the information Arthur ( ‘Ginge’ to his friends due to his shock of red hair) received about life at home from Joan and his family and the letters written home during the three years he was in captivity, John Garwell has painted a vivid and coherent account of what life was like both in captivity and at home.
The personal or family side of the story is central to the entire book. Living in rural Northumberland before the war, Arthur was a Customs Officer. He joined the RAF Volunteer reserve in 1936, becoming a fully qualified pilot and was called up into the RAF in 1939, joining Bomber Command. He only met Joan a few months before his Lancaster was shot down and their relationship had little time to develop in person, and as such could only continue through their letters. Arthur regularly described how his crops were doing in the camp garden, the results of camp football matches as well as making requests for warm clothes and cigarettes. Prisoners had to do whatever they could to cope with the inadequate food, the long periods of boredom and bitter cold in winter. Arthur spent several weeks in the ‘cooler’ (solitary confinement) over one Christmas period for his part in an escape attempt.
Despite the restrictive censorship on all incoming and outgoing mail, Arthur’s natural positive attitude comes through, and he regularly expresses his desire to marry Joan as soon as the war is over, also repeating his wish that they should emigrate to South Africa and start a business. Unknown to him, indeed kept from him by his parents, the fits of depression Joan was going through, was to dominate most of her adult life.
John Garwell has integrated the events of the time with the extracts of his father’s letters, but faced a challenge as the war was nearing the end and the letters stopped. It was a time of obvious uncertainty for the POWs as to what the Germans would do to the prisoners as the Russians approached. Fear of being held hostage or even executed by the German guards was high on the list of speculation. In the event Hitler ordered all POWs to be force-marched westwards. Arthur and his colleagues were some of the thousands who had to withstand the bitter Eastern Europe winter on a three week march with minimal food and no shelter. Many didn’t make it. There were no letters home at the time, and the author through use of the internet and social media was able to track down the sons of two of his father’s fellow POWs and close friends – one in the USA and the other Australia. Between them and what their own fathers had told them, John was able to give a vivid description of the grim conditions they faced.
When the war ended, Arthur returned to the UK, married Joan and the author, John, was born, followed by a younger brother. At this point the book becomes more of a personal family story portraying the eventual breakdown in the marriage, and divorce as Joan’s mental health deteriorated. In 1957, Arthur left the UK and headed for a life of farming in Kenya alongside a role as a senior Custom’s Officer, re-marrying a glamorous lady called Doris, and initially living a most agreeable colonial life. The intermittent and somewhat uncomfortable relationship between the two parents and their young sons, who visited from time to time, comes through clearly. With Kenya going through internal change and turmoil, and life for white farmers becoming more difficult, Arthur began to have financial difficulties. It was however a great shock for the author and his brother to learn of his unexpected death in 1969 aged just 49.
Joan died in late 2012 aged 91, and it was the clearance of her home and the discovery of a paper bag of the old letters and a few photos that started John Garwell’s quest for the full family story and that of his father, who served his country bravely but had to a great extent largely abandoned his family for warmer climes and a new life.
This book is not a history book of events that happened as we often read, but a personal account of bravery, love, resilience and the difficult interactions between family members set against the backdrop of the tumultuous events of the Second World War.
John Garwell has achieved a most readable and enjoyable book, which has great coherence and allows the reader to feel involved in his family, and particularly the personality of his father Arthur Garwell, DFC, DFM.
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