Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oh! What an Interesting War

Ron Power — POW Escape Artist

Over the years I spent many pleasant hours at the National Press Club bar with Ron Power who at that time, among other activities, organized the popular New Year’s Eve lobster dinners and club dances. He also, coincidentally, in the 1930s had attended St. Peter & Paul’s School in our hometown of Ilford, northeast London just a couple of years before I did myself.

He also dangerously borrowed a page from the book of Scotland’s Robert the Bruce. Like Robert sitting in his cave and gaining courage from watching a spider trying time after time to climb up the wall Ron, after being taken prisoner by German paratroopers landing on the Italian-held Aegean Island of Leros in 1943, was not dispirited by his first attempts at escape being followed by recapture. In all Ron escaped seven times. Though he himself says he only escaped once, as the first six soon ended in recapture after varying periods of roaming wartime Germany and Austria. Once he and a couple of others had actually reached the Swiss frontier but the Swiss border guards had fired on them and chased them away. Another escapade was when the road ahead was blocked by a couple of SS men. Ron and his Australian pal, Jim White, went behind a house and stole a long ladder. They each took one end and put it over their shoulders, just like in oldtime comedy movies, and carried it casually past the sentries who took no notice of them. One of his getaways was from the Salzburg Gestapo punishment camp.

Before his year and a half as a POW, Ron Power was a private in the pre-war army in Palestine and one of the battered defenders who endured the 3,600 enemy air raids during the siege of Malta. Also for a period he was a member of the amazingly adventurous Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a compact hard-hitting mobile army within an army that sent small units on secret missions deep into the Libyan desert, skirting to the south of the German Afrika Corps and then attacking them in daring hit and run raids from the rear.

For a soldier Ron Power managed to get into quite a lot of salt water by having three ships sunk beneath him, including the destroyer HMS Intrepid.

He had landed safely on Leros from Intrepid about September 16 1943. However, a few days later he went back aboard, in Leros harbour, to pick up some books. Suddenly several Junkers 88s dove out of a clear sky and attacked the ship. Ron was blown over the side by a near miss but managed to get ashore as the destroyer was sunk by more bombs.

While in Malta, in early 1942, the SS Essex limped into the Grand Harbour. She had been badly damaged by enemy action but tied up under her own steam. Ron was in a working party unloading the ship when it was attacked by dive bombers, with one bomb going right down the funnel and causing much damage and loss of life. Ron was lucky to get up topsides and ashore. As the ship lay on the bottom its deck was above water and they continued unloading its precious supplies.

Ron Power left Malta for the Middle East in June 1943 and his ship hit a mine off Bardia. Ron was in the heads washing and as the alarm buzzer sounded the watertight door closed. He told me that at that moment he really thought he was doomed. But for some reason the doors momentarily opened again and he managed to scramble through just before the doors closed behind him. Though damaged his ship continued with the convoy and arrived at Alexandria two days later.

As German POW number: 114479, Ron had to work at various jobs from the several camps in which he was put after his breakouts.. During one winter he was clearing the streetcar tracks of ice in Munich, and at another time he worked in the garden of Willy Messerschmitt, the famous aircraft designer. He said that as Herr Messerschmitt left his front door to get in his limousine the prisoners would talk loudly together, as they looked studiously and intently down at the ground they were digging, and say such things as: Yeah! Those old Messerschmitts, they’re not much good. The Spitfire, though, that’s a real good one. And the Hurricane, that’s another good one.

One Sunday he was in a working party sent to work in a brewery damaged in an air raid. When picked up by their truck they and their guards drove inebriatedly through the streets of Munich, loudly singing British army songs, accompanied on their truck by a piano they had borrowed from the brewery’s canteen. Sadly, their guards were sent to the eastern front as punishment. The prisoners had to return the piano and every day for a month were locked up, without clothes, after work.

Ron said that during one bad air raid he was next to some German officers in a shelter who said to him that their raids on London were doing much more damage than the RAF was causing Germany. Ron said he agreed. He said he’d had a letter from his mother only last week in which she complained that one of their house windows had got a terrible crack in it, at least three inches long.

In one prison a wire fence separated him from a German army post-office. One night he climbed over and opened some packages and stole some food. At dawn all the prisoners were paraded to be searched. The commandant said the thief would be shot. When the guards searched Ron they felt things in his pockets and exclaimed: Ha! They felt in his pockets and drew out their contents. Ah! they snorted in disgust, Coalen! It was just a few pieces of coal Ron had scrounged from somewhere. They threw it on the ground and passed on to the next prisoner. All the time, inside the lining of his coat, Ron was hiding the stolen food.

Ron Power said that though they were always hungry it was nothing like conditions in a nearby camp for Russian prisoners. They were so starved that when, during a riot, the Germans set a couple of dogs on them the unfortunate animals were torn apart and eaten.

But perhaps his best story was during one escape with an Australian and a Polish fellow. They had picked up a Opel limousine and were driving through Austria. Ron was in the back seat and was looking at the maps in a pre-war multi-lingual Baedeker tourist travel guide he had found in the map holder. He read part of it out to his companions. It says, here, he said, if you are ever in the area of these scenic lakes it is well worth taking the time to make a little detour to view their beauty as one never knows if one might ever be back in the region. So they decided to do so. They made the detour and did a little sightseeing.

But Ron says that in later years he was often gripped with fear at his senseless audaciousness during those days. Especially, an instance when he argued with a Gestapo general who told him he wasn’t working hard enough. How close was I to being shot, he wonders. He also remembers being with some fellow escapees on a railway station when they saw some Gestapo men coming along, looking at everyone’s papers. His friends panicked and ran across the railway lines and were shot.

I never knew until Ron told me that as a working party POW he was paid a wage by the Germans. Paltry as that wage had been I helped him write, tongue-in-cheek, to the German Embassy in Ottawa in 1996 to see if he was entitled to a German pension. It didn’t work.

When he was first captured in Leros, Ron said it was strictly Hollywood scripted. He had been on high ground with a Bren machine gun shooting Germans as they emerged from their JU 52s. But minutes later a very large parachutist had him covered and was repeating that corny old movie line: ‘For you the War is over!’ A prediction, which in Ron’s case, was to prove somewhat in error.

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