Karel Stastny – PoW

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The account of W/O Karel Šťastný, a pilot with 311 Sqn, as a Prisoner of War, by M. Vincent:

Almost from the outset, Karel’s crew was to become acquainted with anti-aircraft fire during bombing raids, but there was none that 18th night of July, 1941 as they droned high over the Netherlands, bound for Bremen. Without warning, the bomber was suddenly buffeted in a violent oscillation – triggered, it seemed, by an explosion under Karel’s seat. In immediate reaction, Karel strained to bring the ‘plane back on to a level course, until it became obvious that it could neither regain height nor be counteracted in its downward trend. The bomber’s erratic behaviour, combined with the flames now flaring into the fuselage behind, prompted Karel to make an urgent roll-call. The crew was intact, but the fire was spreading and a bomb-laden Wellington was no place to tarry, so Karel gave the command to bale out. Once the last of his crew had jumped, Karel struggled out of his seat and clambered in defiance of the ‘plane’s diving tilt towards the nearest means of exit. The bomb-aimer’s trap door, directly behind his seat, was already open and he hurtled through its flaming outline, braced to experience his first parachute descent. Instead of dropping like a stone, he was sharply jerked to a halt, almost hanged by the cables of his intercomm and oxygen mask, which he had forgotten to disconnect. There he dangled in the slip-stream, held fast by the taut flexes across his throat, already raw from breathing acrid smoke – while the heavy Wellington gathered momentum in its earthward plunge.

Summoning every last ounce of his might, he managed to lever himself back aboard, free the restraining cables and plummet once more out of the now spiralling inferno. Had not they been cruising at an altitude in excess of 18,000 feet, it is virtually certain that a lesser descent of the bomber would have taken Karel with it into the crash. Miraculously none of their number was seriously injured, but they held little hope of retaining their liberty, when their flaming ‘plane and its subsequent crash, was certain to have aroused German Occupation Forces into a thorough search for survivors.

One feature of the night’s dramatic events was clearly imprinted upon Karel’s mind: that there had been no flak, he was convinced. Experience had taught him that even a close miss was invariably accompanied by the noticeable. Instead, the explosion was within the ‘plane itself, directly under the Captain’s seat and Karel was never known to retract his conviction that it was the dastardly work of a saboteur.

PRISONER OF WAR

The blazing aircraft had most certainly alerted German troops and it was only a matter of hours until tracker dogs in the charge of armed soldiers, had located every crew-member. By truck, they were then taken to Germany – to Stalag Luft IIID at a place called Sagan.

Stalag Luft III, Sagan.

The huts were large ones with double bunks accommodating some 40 men. Conditions were harsh in the extreme. Food was appallingly inadequate, the German interpretation of a prisoner’s daily food allowance (within the terms of the Geneva Convention) amounting to a mere 1/12th of a loaf of bread (3 thin slices at most), 3 small potatoes and a bowl of soup. Even this scanty meal was further depleted, when, at the finish of their stored season, many of the potatoes were rendered quite inedible. Frequently and especially in hot weather, the so-called soup was rancid and could only be consumed when the nostrils were pinched together. The onset of winter lowered despondency to a new madir as their under-nourished bodies strived to ward off the bitter cold. Had it not been for the weekly distribution of Red Cross parcels, the sick-list would surely have reached greater proportions. These parcels sustained them in spirit as well as in body, providing a link with the outside world with a silent rally of hope that this limbo state would not last forever.

The parcels came, in turn, from three sources – Great Britain, Canada and the United States of America – portions being, not surprisingly, more liberal from the two North American countries than those out of strictly-rationed Britain. The contents averaged a small tin of butter, cheese, meat, powdered milk, and dried eggs, sardines, jellies, some chocolate and forty cigarettes. A certain meat loaf seemed, even to their deprived palates, overly lacking in a reasonable meat-content and gave rise to a joked threat that, after the war, they would unitedly seek out the supplier named on each tin and shoot him as an enemy agent.

It was soon after being taken prisoner that Karel decided to grow a beard and this image he was to maintain for the duration of his captivity, except for a few occasional and brief resorts to his razor. Even then, he retained the substantial moustache, without which, he never was seen thereafter.

Stalag Luft IIID expanded, with the erection of additional huts within its confines and new arrivals swelled the roll-calls. In mid-October 1942, a track brought in a batch, who had just been discharged from hospital care, among them, Zdeněk Sichrovský. If prisoners they must both be, then it was good that they were together, but Karel was distressed to see such change in his old friend and gradually to learn the details of the dreadful crash, which had almost cost Zdeněk both his limbs. His Wellington bomber had received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire, after a raid on Bremen, killing his navigator and wireless operator outright and extensively burning the other crew members. Zdeněk himself had been catapulted heyond the ‘plane by the impact of the crash, thus escaping burns, but not severe injuries embracing 9 broken ribs, a in both legs. In hospital in Tibburg (Holland) the German doctors had, in fact, recommended amputation of both legs below the knee, but, encouraged by the experienced optimism of a Dutch nursing nun, he elected instead, for the long and painful treatment by surgery, plaster casts and traction. It had taken nine months to patch him up and the suffering endured was clearly evident as he painfully struggled for mastery of ambulation.

STALAGLUFT I – BARTH

Stalag Luft I, Barth.

Only a few days after Sichrovský’s arrival, the entire camp was transferred by cattle truck, to Stalag Luft I, sited at a place called Barth. It was a much smaller compound, with smq1 ler huts, each divided into three rooms. A room held three bunk beds, a w stove, a table and 2 benches as well as a cupboard in which, they stored the combined contents of their food parcels. They had discovered that it was advantageous to pool the food items and had nominated Sichrovsky their chef, he having proved himself the most competent cook amongst them, capable of serving some remarkably palatable snacks from even this, very limited, larder.

Zdeněk Sichrovský, on right, at Barth.

Another useful accomplishment, was Sichrovsky’s skill in watchrepairing. No doubt in consideration of his physical incapacity, permission was granted for him to receive two boxes of watch parts from the Red Cross in Geneva. Karel made a small lathe for him and they were in business.

Most of the prisoners engaged in some pursuit; some painted pictures saved up the foil wrapping within cigarette packets, smelted it down into a base metal and from this, all manner of objects were, with considerable artistry, created. Such was the wealth of talent in and support for, this particular craft, that an impressive exhibition was eventually staged, the array somewhat dominated by a grotesque death-mask of none other than Sichrovský.

This outward show of resignation to their plight, was a concealment of a further hive of industry, namely the assembly of contributions towards escape projects. German uniforms were duplicated, after painstaking unpicking of British ones, each piece then carefully pressed and re-fashioned, using the reverse side of the fabric, thus effecting a close resemblance to the material worn by a Deutsch soldier. Metal buttons were cast from plaster moulds. Papers were stolen, ‘borrowed’ or bartered and the temporary ‘loan’ of a typewriter allowed moulds of all type-face to be taken, for subsequent compilation into the rubber stamps, so imperative for authenticity in identity and travel documents.

ESCAPE 1

It was one matter to prepare for escapes but another to survive the manifold hazards which undoubtedly lurked in the alien territory beyond Camp. That much, Karel had, to his chagrin, learned when he made his first bid for freedom in the summer of 1942, out of Stalag Luft IIID.

Under cover of darkness, he and another prisoner had accomplished an undetected exit, after cutting their way through the double perimeter wire fences. Not until many miles separated them from the Camp did they slacken their pace, having navigated themselves to a predetermined Railway. Momentarily, they lay amid shrubbery on the embankment, to regain their breath and decide in which direction might lie the nearest signals, where a train might have cause to slow down. A goods train did just that and once hidden beneath the tarpaulin cover of a wagon, they allowed themselves a small measure of congratulatory elation that they had made it and were speeding in the direction of Czechoslovakia. Fate however, was to deal a capricious hand. After some time the train’s erratic shunting behaviour and a prolonged halt tempted Karel to risk a careful survey of their whereabouts and to his consternation, he saw that they had been shunted into the loading yard of what was surely, a German Munitions Factory. Here security was maximum – not only was the yard brightly illuminated beneath its blacked-out roof, but sectional walls were topped with barbed wire and amongst the small array of workers already unloading the train, he could discern numerous aimed guards. By comparison, escape from Stalag Luft IIID had ben relatively simple and there could be no unobserved retreat from this highly secure bulwark.

ESCAPE 2

The severity of a German winter, with its snows and extreme cold was a formidable deterrent to further escape speculation. Karel recognised only too well, the rigours of life on the run and the greatly reduced chances of success, in inclement weather conditions. In any case, he had to await spring to avail himself of the particular means by which he hoped to quit Barth Camp.

Among the inmates of Stalag Luft I was a percentage of civilian refugees of Russian extraction – non-combatants whom war had buffeted into a slave labour situation here at Barth, their days spent in wearisome agricultural toil whenever weather allowed, in return for one unappetising and barely sufficient meal, at the end of each day.

The opportunity of escape, by changing places with one of these refugees, was an obvious one, but fraught with the danger of recognition by a guard or even betrayal.. Karel waited and watched, before making his choice of a likely co-operator, meanwhile hoarding his own Red Cross parcels, to the sacrifice of any complementary meals. One morning in early summer, he hurriedly relinquished his bribe and donned the garb of a fieldworker, taking his place in their sullen ranks, tense and expectant that the ruse would fail. But it succeeded and from the open fields he edged gradually to the cover of nearby shrubbery and ultimate woods.

He deemed it imperative that he remain isolated from civilisation and essential, therefore that he travel only at night. In his present refugee clothing he lacked the protection afforded by his uniform should he be apprehended and could be shot as a spy. A second day passed in hiding, the hunger pangs which plagued him barely relieved by gnawing on a few raw potatoes gleaned from a field.

The stars guided his north-easterly route towards Czechoslovakia. Some fugitives from P.O.W. Camps opted for a route to Yugoslavia and many did, in fact, reach that country to fight again with the partisans. But Karel pressed steadfastly homewards, each 24 hours of freedom setting the seal on success. His diet remained raw vegetables, potatoes or turnips mostly, but drought conditions roused the more pressing torment of thirst. He would not permit himself to venture near farms where there might be water troughs or barrels – such places also had people and worse, vigilant dogs.

Into his third week of freedom he was crazed by thirst, until mercifully a ground mist formed one dawn and he lay on the moist grass greedily sucking the droplets of dew. As his panting gradually abated an unbelievable sound reached his ears the tantalising gurgling of water – and soon he was floundering in the shallow depths of a vastly evaporated river bed.

With his thirst satiated and aglow from the cold dousing, his spirits rose as he lay in a hiding place re-assessing his chances. It was his 17th day of freedom – surely he was rid of the pursuing search-parties which had undoubtedly been sent forth after him from Barth. His reckoning told him he might well be within one more night’s trail of the border. Surely thus refreshed and spurred by this anticipation he would cross into his homeland before another dawn. In this state of reassurance he discreetly spread his clothes to dry in the heat of the day while he drifted on into an oblivion interspersed with dreams of home-coming.

The sun was in its zenith when Karel was startled back to consciousness by the proximity of two dogs sniffing around him. Beyond them, with steady gait, the figure of a man approached, a broken shot-gun resting easily in the crook of his right arm. Karel scrambled to his feet, but the man made no move to cock his gun and was still very much in charge of the obedient hounds. As he questioned Karel, his accent revealed him to be a Czech. and an apparently innocent gamekeeper engaged on his daily patrol. Karel felt himself weakening with relief, yet could not dispel a nagging mistrust of the shelter offered and promise of subsequent assistance in a clandestine crossing of the border, which, as he had calculated, was but a few miles distant. How prudent was his instinct, for even before they cleared the spinny a dozen and more German soldiers ran to meet them and Karel realised that his discovery had actually taken place earlier, either as he slept on or perhaps he had been spotted as he bathed in the stream. It was just too’coincidental, to suppose that a truck-load of armed soldiers had been passing. Feelings of disappointment over this 11th-hour disintegration of all his endeavours and dejection at the prospect of further captivity, took time to develop in him. For the moment, his whole being was consumed by a loathsome contempt for the fellow-countryman who, so readily, had abused his trust and stooped to betrayal. Karel managed to convey his disgust for the traitor, before rough hands were laid upon him and brutal blows rained upon his face and head, from the riflebutts of his captors. Thus ended his 17-day liberty – further misery and deprivation awaiting him in a dark, lone cell back in Barth.

His prolonged absence had, understandably, encouraged an assumption of his success, among the inmates of Stalag Luft I. His re-appearance, after such an interval, therefore had a decidedly shattering effect on the few onlookers who witnessed his return. Not only did the revelation of his failure depress them, but they were deeply shocked to note the battered face that rendered him barely recognisable.

Four weeks in solitary confinement was the customary punishment for re-captured escapees. Karel knew only too well, from memories of Sagan, what was in store for him. It meant survival on the most meagre amount of swill to keep him vacillating on subsistence level and no more. And again, he found himself glad to gnaw on fragments of coal, in a vain attempt to stave off the gripes of overwhelming hunger – his sole comfort being the few crusts tossed through his window in sympathetic token, by a band,of prisoners led by Sichrovsky. But, with grit, he withstood this destitution and the long month ended at last.

Czechoslovak PoW's Stalag Luft I, Barth, 1945, Karel Šťastný middle row 2nd from left

A THIRD ESCAPE

Incredibly, Karel was not defeated by the two unsuccessful escapes, for indeed, failures they had not been, both beset by cruel and unexpected twists of fate.

He was determined to try again and preparations were put in hand. For months he hoarded and bartered chocolate bars, to fill the little attache case which was to be an essential accessory to the role he contrived, namely that of a civilian worker. It was getting on for winter, but he planned to travel by train as fax as possible, thus trusting that the somewhat shabby trousers, jacket, cap and scarf procured for him would suffice. Finally, the forged papers and a small amount of money were available and he was ready to go.

His secret plan was confined to the few friends whose assistance he needed to help smuggle his disguise to the Ablutions Block, where, after the other prisoners had showered and departed, Karel remained in hiding, to wait out the tense hours until darkness descended. He then made his way toward the double fences, carefully timing each spurt between the sweep of the searchlight, cut a small hole in each of the grills and gained cover of the scrub, some distance beyond. Momentarily he thought “so far so good” and permitted himself to wonder how long might his freedom last this time, before grimly pressing on into the night.

It seemed suddenly strange to walk along a proper tarmac road. He tried to adopt an air of nonchalance through the outskirts and into the town, which was now astir for the day’s business. He had breakfasted on some chocolate, which only served to confirm his fear that such a diet was going to prove monotonous, if not downright sickening. Still, this independent food supply obviated the risk involved in contact with shopkeepers, cafes and even the ubiquitous German Militia – nor did he have money to spend on ought but travel. As it was, his meagre resources would hardly get him far and he might well have to resort to less than honest tactics, to cover the considerable distance he intended. He would exercise maximum caution until he gauged the risks and he noted, with relief, that his guise did not seem to arouse any undue attention.

It was not his dress which gave him away, but a simple irregularity in his papers. From time to time, the German Authorities introduced additiinal or re-styled endorsement stamps to up-date passes, in an effort to tighten the net cast to catch deserters and other fugitives. Unfortunately, Barth’s Escape Committee had not been acquainted with the latest of these alterations and the discrepancy came to light when Karel chanced to be selected by a Railway Policeman during a random document inspection. It was at the barrier as an anxious crowd jostled to pass through to the waiting train. A foul stroke of luck it was for him to be one of those waylaid, just as it was a crushing blow to be thus intercepted in Sudetenland so close to Czechoslovakia and safety.

Examination of his attache case only condemned him further and he was transferred into Civil Police custody, incarcerated in a cell beneath the Police Station, for several days while they verified his true identity. During this detention the only food he received was bitter, raw, salt fish while all liquids were denied.

From this private hell, he was almost glad to withdraw to a top-security Prison Camp – in reputation, second only to the infamous Colditz, there to know a third term of the obscene injustices of solitary confinement.

DISBANDMENT

A new year dawned, bringing with it an abundance of rumours for the prisoners’ speculation. News filtered into the Camp of successive Allied victories and the increasing certainty that Germany was on the brink of defeat. It was 1945 and a March morning brought dramatic confirmation of these stories, when the entire Camp seemed to erupt in a fever of activity. Since daybreak lorries had been trundling out of the gates and soon the prisoners were urgently aligned and marched out, under escort, soon to overtake streams of fleeing civilians. Everyone-and everything moved in an easterly direction – the rout was on.

As far as the eye could see the road ahead was clogged, but gradually the Army lorries hooted a passage through, taking all food supplies with them. Many of the prisoners were already under-nourished and weakening visibly under the demands of such unrelenting physical exertion, without sustenance. Hunger pangs attacked Karel too but he was not slow to recognise a potential meal when a cat happened along. Without hesitation he wrung its neck, skinned and dressed it, to provide a meal when a cat happened along. Without hesitation he wrung its neck, skinned and dressed it, to provide a meal surely to be tolerated by none but the utterly desperate.

Fitful sleep was snatched by the roadside and another daybreak saw so many automatons force themselves into a reluctant resumption of the gruelling trek.

Mid-morning brought an unexpected jolt from their torpid nightmare, when, out of the sky behind them roared a singlefile formation of fighter ‘planes, each in turn, swooping low over the straggling column and strafing its length – the machinegun fire scattering the dazed pedestrians into the ditches on either side. When Karel sensed their passing he raised his head and clearly saw the insignia on the last ‘plane – ironically the star of the United States Air Force. Threat, though these undoubtedly brought, their presence was nonetheless reassuring, for it promised the close proximity of Allied Forces. And rescue was indeed at hand, when, soon after American ground forces caught up and took them into welcome care.

The end of hostilities in Europe did not take place for a further 7 weeks, but for Karel, the war ended that April day. He underwent several postings; from a Prisoner Release Centre he moved on, in mid-May to a Czech. Depot; two months later, he joined a Group Pool and finally from R.A.F. Station Manston, in Kent, England he took his farewell of the Royal Air Force under repatriation to Czechoslovakia, just two days before Japan capitulated.

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This entry was posted in 311 Sqd, Biography, POW, Victim of Communism. Bookmark the permalink.

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