Flight Sergeant An­drew Car­swell: “Over the Wire”

The Goderich Signal-Star - - Opinion -

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.”

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