Flight Sergeant Andrew Carswell: “Over the Wire”
For thousands of Second World War airmen, Goderich is remembered as the first stage in flight training. Their ultimate destiny was to aerial battle in the skies over Nazi occupied Europe. Each man’s fate took him in a different direction. Most survived, many did not, but few are as interesting as Flight Sergeant Andrew Carswell’s experience whose remarkable survival after two escapes from a German POW camp is recounted in his 2011 autobiography Over the Wire. Andrew Gordon Carswell was born on May 29, 1923 in Toronto’s Beaches district. His father was a Great War veteran who had won the Military Medal. He was in Gr. 12 at Malvern Collegiate when, on his 18th birthday Carswell, enlisted in the RCAF.
After basic training, Carswell was posted to Elementary Flight Training School #12 in Goderich. Carswell recalls the ’circular’ town and dating a couple of girls while in Goderich but nothing came of the relationships. He trained on the Fleet Finch, a bi-plane, which was “quite nice to fly.”
His first Goderich flight instructor was “a bit of show off ” and he did not learn much from him but his second one was a middleaged man from whom he learned quite a bit.
After his passing flight school in Goderich, Carswell underwent advanced flight training in Brantford where he was given his wings and promoted to Flight Sergeant.
Carswell was assigned to No. 9 RAF bomber squadron in the United Kingdom. He was one of the few Flight Sergeants in the squadron to ’captain’ a Lancaster bomber. The Lancaster was a heavy bomber with four 1,250 horsepower RollsRoyce engines and weighing 60,000 pounds.
On just his second operational flight on January 17, 1943, Carswell’s aircraft was hit by flak. With one engine on fire and the controls not working, Carswell’s Lancaster spun out of control at 20,000 feet. Carswell ordered the crew to bail out. Five of his seven crewmen made it out safely.
Badly shaken, Carswell found himself alone in hostile territory when he knocked on a German farmer’s door. Fortunately, the kindly middle age couple whom took him inside before he was taken away by German police to begin life as a ’Kriegie’ or Prisoner of War at Stalag VIIIb at Lamsberg in eastern Germany.
In a stranger than fiction coincidence, when he entered the camp, Carswell heard a familiar voice shout “Hi, Andy! What are you doing here?” It was a Malvern classmate shot, which was also a prisoner. The next person he met was his nextdoor neighbour who had been captured at Dieppe the previous summer.
Life without freedom in the camps was monotonous. Prisoners lived on Swede soup (a thin broth made of turnips), black bread and Red Cross packages. For Carswell the boredom was relieved by plotting to escape which he saw as his ’duty.’ He ’swapped over’ his identity with, Dennis Reeve, a British POW captured at Dunkirk, so that he could get on a work detail outside the wire. Carswell and another British prisoner plotted their escape by slipping away from their work gang in spring 1943.
Carswell and his escape partner moved overland by night through fields and woods with forged identity papers trying avoid contact anyone who might give them away. After nearly getting killed hopping a freight train, Carswell and his partner made it as far as Brno, Czechoslovakia when a railway worker discovered them and turned them over to the military. The German guard who escorted the escapees back to camp occupied the long train ride by giving the tips on how they should have escaped.
After returning to Stalag VIIIb, Carswell began plotting his next break for freedom. In a second ’swapover,’ Carswell and ’Taffy Mac’ McLean, a Welshman. Carswell and Taffy forged papers, saved money, learned some German and turned their shabby military uniforms into civilian dress.
While outside the wire on a lumber cutting detail, Carswell and McLean broke out of their cabin at night and headed to Frankfurt to take a train to Stettin on the Baltic Sea. In disguise as foreign workers, they hoped to board a freight ship to neutral Sweden for repatriation to the U.K.
They arrived without incident in Stettin but a foolish decision to eat their midday meal in a public park attracted the attention of a German policeman. This time, Carswell and his partner, were sent to a Gestapo prison where they were struck with rifle butts and forced to stand at attention by their bunks all day. The sounds of screams and beatings could be heard through the thick prison walls. After about three weeks, Carswell and McLean were returned to the Lamsberg Camp.
Yet, the worst part of Carswell’s ordeal began in January 1945 when the Germans evacuated the camp to escape the Red Army’s onslaught from the east. In sub-zero temperatures, in old worn, shabby uniforms and on a starvation diet, thousands of POWs began a nightmarish trek across the German countryside.
Long days of forced marches with, at most, a cup of thin Swede soup and a chunk of black bread. The POW column suffered from frostbite, dysentery, diarrhea, influenza and malnutrition. Every day was a gruelling physical and mental ordeal. During the entire month long march, Carswell had not washed, shaved or changed his clothes. The POWs lived “from day to day, like animals, waiting for food and too weak to do more than drag ourselves slowly westward.”
Yet, military discipline kept the POWs from degenerating into a mob. Many perished on the march that lasted weeks. One of those who died was Dennis Reeves, Carswell’s first ’swapover.’
After five years as a POW and weeks before liberation, Reeves was killed scrambling from a train strafed by an RAF plane. Killed by friendly fire, Carswell described Reeves’ “sightless eyes staring unblinkingly at the sun; a jagged hole in his belly the size of a bowling ball” and “that familiar unmistakable smell of death.” It is a sight that still haunts Carswell to this day.
In April 1945, Carswell was finally liberated after 27 months in captivity. His long harrowing ordeal was finally over. Carswell was repatriated back to the U.K and then, home, to Canada. In December 1947, he married Dorothy McCreadie, of Sarnia. They eventually had five children.
Carswell enlisted in the RCAF as an ’experienced’ pilot in 1947. He flew PBY-5A Canso aircraft over Canada’s coasts and was involved in several rescues.
In July 1959, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Carswell the Air Force Cross. When she asked him what he did to earn the medal, he just answered, “I rescued some people.” He retired from the RCAF with the rank of Major in 1970.
At 95, Carswell and his wife, Dorothy, live in Toronto. In December, they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. After the first day of liberation in 1945, Carswell recalled in his autobiography Over the Wire that he could not sleep at all that night thinking that he had survived. He wrote that he “wanted to enjoy every minute of my new found freedom. And I did.” Reflecting back on his wartime experiences nearly three quarters of a century later, Carswell says, “And I still am.”