An icy January rain fell like bullets outside Victoria Hall in Westmount. Inside, most of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra was taking a break as Lorraine MacAllister sang a smokey cover of “Be Careful It’s My Heart” to Oscar Peterson’s spare piano accompaniment. A pair of teenagers in sodden coats pushed through the crowd from the fire exits, ducking the cover charge at the front door.
Si Yasin and Joe Friedman had come across town from Mile End just for this. Not for the show, though Si stopped in front of the stage, entranced by MacAllister’s smooth alto, before Joe pried him away; not for the Victory Bond drive broadcast nationally on the CBC; but for the man in the crisp Royal Canadian Air Force uniform, standing to the left of the stage with his arms crossed, staring into the space behind the crowd thronging around him.
George Frederick Beurling, DSO was home in Montreal with a pilot officer’s stripe on his sleeve after an epic six month tour of duty during the siege of Malta in the previous summer and fall of 1942. At 21, he was an ace, the “Falcon of Malta” celebrated in Canadian newspapers and radio. To Joe and Si, and every teenaged boy in Montreal, he was “Buzz” Beurling, a hero straight out of Spitfire Parade who left the streets of Verdun to take the fight to the enemy.
To his commanders and comrades in Malta, he was “Screwball,” a loner maybe a little too good at dispatching German and Italian pilots at close range, where he could see their faces, and maybe a little too eager to throw his aircraft directly into the hail of his enemies’ machine gun fire to get his kills. There was something not-quite-right about Screwball Beurling. With 21 kills, and after losing four Spitfires, bailing out each time over the Mediterranean, the Air Force sent him home. A live hero could sell bonds, rally the troops, and inspire teenaged boys. A dead hero was useless.
The band came back to the stage and Johnny Holmes made a pitch for Victory Bonds – “We can all stand on guard for victory!” – and the dancing began again. Beurling stood off to the side, staring blankly into space, listening to the memory of the abrupt chatter of his Spitfire’s guns. Joe and Si made their way through the dispersing crowd.
“I just want to say, sir, that you are a great Canadian,” Si said, wiping the condensation from the lenses of his glasses, and looking down at the hero’s scuffed shoes. Joe, taller and bolder, pushed closer. “Buzz – You’re just great, you know? I’m seventeen, but as soon as I’m able, I’m going to sign up. I’m going to be just like you.”
Beurling looked away from remembered Mediterranean skies and stared silently at the two young men, only four years his junior. He looked very old in the light and, after a moment, said in a monotone just audible over the band, “don’t be stupid, kid. Go back to your mother. No one should want to be just like me.”
A few weeks later, Joe Friedman announced to his family that he was going to join the RCAF. There was a war on after all, with opportunities for excitement and glory, and as far as he was concerned the question was not open for debate. His mother, Dorothy Friedman, wept; his father, Maurice Friedman, would not even discuss the matter. As he was only 17, Joe needed his parents’ permission to enlist. They refused.
Undaunted, Joe announced that, if he could not join the Air Force, he would enlist in the merchant navy instead. Having lost more than thirty ships to German submarines in the North Atlantic convoy in the previous year, the most dangerous service was desperate for manpower and would be willing to overlook his young age. Dorothy Friedman signed the RCAF enlistment papers.
Joe’s enlistment in the RCAF was really something of a foregone conclusion in 1943. The news was grim almost four years into the war, but Canadian resolve had not weakened. After reading the casualty lists every evening on the CBC, Lorne Green, the “Voice of Doom,” would grimly intone that “there is a job to be done.” Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Johnny Canuck showed how good old Canadian pluck would always defeat Nazi villainy, at least in the comic books, and many Canadians believed it.
The Air Force gave a young man from the dirty streets of Montreal’s Mile End a chance to seek adventure and see the world. Joe still remembered seeing the R100 airship float gracefully across the skies of Montreal in 1930. He resolved then, not yet five years old, that he would someday be flyer. But there was more to it than that; for a Jewish teenager, the Air Force also offered empowerment – a way to get back at Nazi antisemitism. Twenty thousand Jewish Canadians served in the Second World War, a number exceeding their proportion of the Canadian population.
And Joe had the examples of his older brothers Mel and Jack, and his older sister Ruth to emulate. By 1943, all three had enlisted in the RCAF. By the summer of that year Joe, like his brothers and sisters and hundreds – if not thousands – of young men and women who had attended Montreal’s Baron Byng and Bancroft schools, was in uniform. The Montreal Star ran a photo of Joe, Mel, Jack, and Ruth posing proudly in their uniforms on page three, under the headline “The Fighting Friedmans.”
The Royal Canadian Air Force had training down to a science, and molded teenaged toughs like Joe into disciplined airmen in short order. After a few weeks of basic training in Lachine, a suburb of Montreal, Joe was assigned to RCAF Mont-Joli Station as part of the Commonwealth Air Training Plan for training as an air gunner. He excelled in his training, and he was sent overseas to Newfoundland in the winter of 1944 with the rank of corporal to join the bomber crew of an Active Training Unit. He watched the convoys stream out of Halifax from the dorsal turret of an aging Avro Anson.
In the summer of 1944, shortly after his 19th birthday, Joe shipped out to Britain for two months of operational training in a Vickers Wellington bomber before finally being posted to No. 195 Squadron, a composite RAF/RCAF unit based at RAF Wratting Common in Suffolk. He was assigned to the tail turret of an Avro Lancaster Mk X. The Lancaster was the Commonwealth and Empire Air Forces’ front-line bomber, equipped with four 1,280 horsepower Rolls Royce Merlin V12 engines, a 14,000 lb bomb load, and three turrets bristling with .303 machine guns. Mark Goldwater, an old schoolmate from Montreal, joined the crew as mid-upper gunner. Of the seven crewmen, four were still teenagers. The skipper – the “old man” – was 22.
RAF Bomber Command suffered the highest casualty rate of any allied service in the Second World War. A bomber crewman had only a one in four chance of completing a 30-mission tour of duty without injury. He was almost twice as likely to be killed in action. Joe’s life expectancy when he joined his operational squadron in England was six weeks.
It was partly in response to the horrific casualties of 1941 and 1942, and the vulnerability of its aircraft to enemy flak and fighter attacks that Bomber Command began organizing nighttime “thousand-plane raids,” beginning with the saturation bombing attack on Cologne in May 1942. There was strength in numbers, of course, and Air Force planners believed that the so-called “bomber stream” would overwhelm enemy radar, search lights, and night fighters making individual aircraft harder to spot. That, at least, was the theory. The reality was that Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris always expected hideous casualties and, with half the aircraft unlikely to return, reasoned that huge raids could still deliver massive destruction, regardless of the cost in aircrew lives. The airmen of the RAF and RCAF called their commander “Butcher” Harris behind his back.
The tail gunner’s turret was the most vulnerable position aboard a Lancaster. Although Joe was armed with four .303 machine guns, his odds of actually hitting a moving target from this unstable position, as his aircraft dodged flak and fighters, were infinitesimally low. And seated at the point from which the vast majority of German fighter attacks came, he was by far the most likely to be killed or injured. Many of the bombers that did return from the raids often did so without a tail gunner.
Yet, by November 1944, Joe had come out of three raids unscathed and was promoted to sergeant. The Luftwaffe was running out of fuel and had made a strategic decision not to deploy fighters to defend cities like Essen, Duisberg and Dusseldorf, which had already been repeatedly carpet-bombed into kindling, and no longer had any value to the German war-effort. Apart from the flak, those first three raids had been quiet, sometimes boring.
Between raids, when he could get a pass, Joe would grab a lift down to London. Si was posted to RAF intelligence, where he compiled casualty lists from squadron reports and sent them up the chain of command to the Butcher, and he had a billet with a family in Tottenham where Joe could flop for the night. Si was sweet on Rosie Frankl, his hosts’ 18-year-old daughter; Joe was looking for excitement in London’s pubs and nightclubs that he wasn’t finding in the air over Germany.
The briefing for the fourth raid identified the target as Witten, a city of 50,000 in the Ruhr Valley which had not yet been bombed. Very few cities of any substantial size remained unscathed by late-1944. The targets had been getting smaller ever since Bomber Command, along with the US Eighth Air Force, obliterated Hamburg in Operation Gommorah, killing more than 40,000 of the city’s 1.5 million burghers over a week in July 1943. By October 1944, Bomber Command was reduced to incinerating Braunschweig, a sleepy medieval town of 120,000 in a firestorm, “in order to demonstrate to the enemy in Germany generally the overwhelming superiority of the Allied Air Forces.”
By December, there was not much left to bomb but, Butcher Harris said, “the enemy has not yet learned his lesson.” So, in the interests of keeping up the war effort, Bomber Command would send almost 500 aircraft, officially to obliterate Witten’s tiny small-arms factory, but in reality as further pedagogy.
The raid began uneventfully, as hundreds of Lancaster and Halifax bombers of more than thirty squadrons executed a flawless rendezvous en-route to the target. Each aircraft carried 14,000 lbs. of high explosive bombs and incendiaries and a crew of seven men. More than 3,000 Canadians, Britons and Australians were set to drop 3,500 tons of explosives on 50,000 German civilians in the early hours of the morning.
The bombers encountered increasingly heavy anti-aircraft fire as they approached the outskirts of Witten, flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and a speed of 200 knots. As wave after wave broke from the main force and reduced speed to begin their bombing runs, they met unexpectedly stiff opposition from four Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.
Joe could see nearby bombers break formation, shudder, and sport plumes of black smoke as they were hit by enemy fire. Within minutes, his own aircraft banked into a bombing approach. German fighters were everywhere, and the intercom chatter chatter was so thick and incomprehensible that the old man called for quiet. Joe scanned the brightening sky. He stopped breathing when he saw the fighter.
The Focke-Wulf 190 approached the Lancaster from behind and slightly to starboard. Joe squeezed off one burst of machine gun fire after another, but the target was too fast and too nimble. His turret suddenly dissolved in a cascade of molten plexiglass and shards of steel as one burst after another of the fighter’s tracer fire and exploding 20mm cannon shells crashed into the bomber.
Joe felt the aircraft shudder. He could just hear the old man on the intercom over the howl of the wind order the crew to abandon ship. The fighter attack had severed the hydraulic lines, so he had to laboriously crank the gun turret manually to climb into the fuselage and make his way to escape hatch. Joe felt the Lancaster nose down and begin its death spiral as he crawled along the gangway.
The Lancaster’s tail gunner was isolated half an aircraft away from the rest of the crew, and Joe had no idea if any of his comrades had bailed out successfully. What he did know was that the aircraft was ablaze and minutes from crashing to earth when he finally made it to the escape hatch. He also realized that, in his panic, he had forgotten to strap on his parachute.
Joe crawled back along the gangway. The aircraft was hit by another burst of cannon fire, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel into Joe’s head, arms and shoulders. Bleeding and in intense pain, his bare hands freezing, Joe clipped on his parachute, made his way back to the hatch and pushed. The metal door was bent and wouldn’t open. He pushed again and finally kicked it open with all of his strength and bailed.
Later that day, the report of the loss of Lancaster H, No. 195 Squadron RAF crossed Si’s desk in London. He passed it up the chain of command to the Butcher. A few days later, Joe’s brother Mel, stationed at an RCAF base in Cambridgeshire, received an Air Ministry telegram informing him “F/SGT Friedman, J.A. has been reported missing in action.” On St. Joseph Street in Montreal, the Friedman family grieved. There was hope – one in ten aircrew reported missing were later found in POW camps – but the hope was faint and the waiting was agony.
Joe remained missing for several weeks and was officially presumed dead until a Red Cross inspection team located him in a German transit camp in late November, 1944. His mother received the welcomed news in a telegram that on 19 December 1944. It was the last day of Chanukah. Neither Mark Goldwater’s parents, nor the families of Joe’s other crewmates would learn until 1946 that their sons were buried in the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Kleve, Nordrhein.
Joe parachuted to the outskirts of Witten. He was bleeding and badly injured, and he had made a rough landing near a road. He dimly noticed two groups of Germans rushing toward him – a crowd of survivors from the city he had just bombed wanted revenge. A platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers approached from the other direction. The soldiers arrived first… by a matter of seconds.
The soldiers threw Joe into the back of a truck and drove thirty miles over rough roads to a military field hospital near Duisberg. Wehrmacht medics, assisted by local schoolgirls, treated his injuries – shrapnel in the head and shoulders, multiple lacerations and burns, frostbite to his hands. From there, he was transferred to a Dulag Luft transit camp in Oberusel for interrogation. The facilities were built on an old poultry farm, where prisoner were held in damp, unheated concrete cells. Water seeped up through the ground and mold grew on the walls. Joe contracted tuberculosis.
After a week, he was transferred to Stalag Luft I, a Luftwaffe prison camp outside of the town of Barth, Pomerania that housed 9,000 captured allied airmen. The winter of 1944 was one of the coldest in memory, and Barth was two miles from the Baltic coast. On a rare clear day, you could see Sweden across from the beach north of the camp… assuming, that is, that you were outside the wire.
The camp was divided into four compounds, each housing around 2,000 prisoners. Joe was assigned to the west compound, in a 16-foot by 24-foot barracks room with 23 other POWs. The barracks were uninsulated clapboard shacks, and each room was heated with a single wood-burning stove, but there was rarely firewood to burn. With the nightly temperatures dropping below zero Fahrenheit, Joe learned to sleep in his clothes, like the old timers.
The prisoners at Stalag Luft I were constantly hungry. The German government claimed to the Red Cross that every POW was fed 1200 calories per day, but in the last months of the war, with endemic food shortages throughout the Reich, expending even that level of resources on enemy airmen seemed excessive to German officials. In reality the prisoners at Barth were fed no more than 1000 or even 900 calories per day.
Meals usually consisted of bread heavily adulterated with sawdust, thin turnip or cabbage broth and, very occasionally, boiled potatoes. Joe developed a lifelong aversion to turnips. Prisoners could supplement their prison rations with their Red Cross packages – but only when those packages arrived without having been first raided by the starving German guards, or when they arrived at all.
German discipline was harsh. Virtually any infraction, from failing turn out for the many daily roll calls, or showing inadequate respect to a guard would, at minimum, result in a week or a month in the cooler, a block of unheated brick and concrete cells. Other infractions, like crossing the first line of fences, or remaining in the compound when ordered into barracks, were grounds for swift, summary execution.
The worst part of life in Stalag Luft I was the boredom. Young men like Joe found themselves removed from a life of daily peril, with bursts of intense excitement, and placed in a strictly controlled and disciplined sedentary existence. By the time Joe arrived at the camp, in fact, the prisoners were under orders from their own offices not even to attempt escape.
Joe spent his days trying to keep warm while he played cribbage on boards fashioned out of wood scraps pulled from the walls of the rickety barracks buildings. He read, mostly late-romantic and Victorian poetry in books provided by the YMCA. He copied Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the pages of his journal, under the ironic text “my favourite poem.” A fellow prisoner drew an illustration.
The camp was also home to the POW WOW, the largest circulation underground newspaper in Germany. Distributed with the warning “TO BE READ SILENTLY, QUICKLY AND IN GROUPS OF THREE,” the newspaper contained news gleaned from German newspapers, camp PA announcements and especially from BBC news broadcasts heard on the secret radio, built from smuggled parts and hidden in the North compound chapel’s altar.
POW WOW correspondents would secretly listen to the radio, transcribe news onto sheets of toilet paper, and hand them to a “compositor” who typed up the daily issue on legal-sized tissue paper, duplicated with carbons on a stolen typewriter. When carbon paper became scarce, the editorial team improvised their own by holding sheets of paper over kerosene lamps to coat them in oily soot.
The Germans called the prisoners Kriegsgefangener, so they called themselves “kriegies.” And like every other kriegie, Joe was always thinking of food. West compound organized an Easter feast, collecting part of every man’s rations to make a corned-beef and liver-paste soup and bread pudding with raisins. But that was rare. Mostly, Joe copied recipes in his journal for imagined luxuries like Welsh rarebit, and daydreamed of the delicacies back home in Montreal, like the Laurier BBQ’s coconut cream pie.
Yet, by the middle of April 1945, the kriegies of Stalag Luft I were in unusually high spirits. Part of it might have been due to delirium caused by the reduction of prisoner rations to 800 cal. per day; part of it might have been the warmer days of early spring. Mostly, it was the news – published in the sooty pages of POW WOW – that US General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army had driven into Saxony and that the Western allies held a 100-mile front along the Elbe. The war would soon be over.
The camp guards were becoming increasingly tense and jumpy. A South African kriegie was gunned-down without warning for standing too close to the wire. The prisoners could hear the faint sounds of artillery fire and explosions from the East of Barth as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Pomerania. The Wehrmacht had already withdrawn units in the toward Berlin, leaving the camp’s Luftwaffe garrison to face the inevitable Soviet attack virtually alone.
On 30 April 1945, Oberst Warnstadt, the camp commandant, called the Senior Allied Officer, Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke, USAAF, and his staff officers to the camp headquarters. Warnstadt had been ordered to evacuate the camp to a position several hundred miles to the West to escape the advancing Red Army. The Oberst realized that he was in an untenable position, and hen officially requested the prisoners’ cooperation.
Zemke refused. After months of half rations and bitter cold, the Allied prisoners were weak and sick. With allied bombers pummeling every road in the Reich with bombs and rockets, the evacuation would be a death march. Zemke conferred with his officers, and informed the commandant that the prisoners would not leave the camp willingly. If Warnstadt insisted on an evacuation, he would have a fight on his hands.
The prisoners expected force. Facing the prospect of capture by the Red Army, the camp guards had become increasingly aggressive, brutal, and unpredictable Zemke had secretly organized a prisoner strike force composed of the healthiest men in each compound, and they had been stockpiling homemade explosives and weapons for several weeks in the knowledge that German officers had been ordered to to carry out mass executions, if necessary.
Ultimately, Warnstadt secretly agreed to surrender the camp to the allied POWs. All kriegies were confined to barracks at 8:00 pm on 30 April 1945. At 10:00 pm, every light in the camp went dark. The German garrison quietly mustered at the West gate, and marched out of camp, leaving the gate unlocked. When Joe awoke on the morning of 1 May he and the other 9,000 prisoners found that they were alone in an unguarded camp.
The senior allied officers ordered the prisoners to remain within the camp to await liberation by the Red Army and set up a military police unit to maintain order. Work crews tore down the barbed wire fences and Col. Zemke sent scouting patrols to the East to make contact with the Soviets and inform them that the camp was now in allied hands.
In the next few days, advanced elements of Marshal Konstantin Rokassofsky’s 2nd Byelorussian Army Group entered Stalag Luft I. None stayed but Col. Zemke too advantage of the opportunity to send his officers back with them to locate the Soviet commander. Short of food, the POWs were becoming impatient. Some 700 left the camp on their own; about a dozen were killed in the crossfire of the dying days of the World War II.
The Red Army officially liberated the camp on 4 May 1945. The Russians provided the POWs with flour, potatoes, eggs and about one hundred head of cattle confiscated from nearby German homes and farms. The kriegies ate well. The Russians provided entertainment and vodka. Overwhelmed by the sudden intake of food and alcohol, Joe and his comrades were quietly, violently sick.
Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The next day, B-17s of the USAAF 91st Bomber Group began ferrying the liberated POWs to Britain as part of Operation Revival. Each aircraft carried a dozen passengers, and the evacuation took almost a week. Joe was one of the last Stalag Luft I POWs to be evacuated to Britain on 15 May 1945.
Malnourished and suffering from the lingering effects of tuberculosis, Joe was hospitalized in Britain before being debriefed by RAF Intelligence in June. Due to the scale of demobilization, he would not be able to return to Canada until September. Released from hospital in time for his 20th birthday, and retroactively promoted to Flying Officer, he spent his back pay and stood as best man at Si and Rose’s wedding.
Si would remain in London, but Joe was repatriated to Canada in early September 1945. He spent a few weeks recuperating at a sanatorium in the Laurentians before returning to Montreal. He would be in uniform until the end of 1945. He survived.
Six crew members of Lancaster H, No. 195 Squadron, RAF did not. Flight Sergeant Mark Goldwater (mid-upper gunner) was 19. He had been a student at Baron Byng High School and the son William Goldwater and Rose Pesner of Montreal, Quebec. Flying Officer Robert Tait Roth (pilot) was 23. He played on the basketball team of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. His widow was Isabel Arklie Roth, of Montreal. Flying Officer Richard Barry (navigator) was 23. He was a school teacher and the son of William and Alice Barry, of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Sergeant Douglas Cyril Cullum (flight engineer) was 19. He was the son of Henry and Annie Cullum, of Waddon, Surrey, where he had been a mechanic’s apprentice. Flying Officer Norman Richard Waring (bombardier) was 21. He was a driver and the son of Samuel and Ellen Waring, of Caernarvon, Wales. Sergeant Bernard White (wireless operator) was 22. He was the son of Walter and Mary Alice White, of New Southgate, Middlesex, where he had worked as an electrician. His remains have never been recovered, and he was officially listed as killed in action in May, 1946.
Top Photo: Six members of the crew of Lancaster H, September 1944. Top row (left to right): Bernard White, Robert Roth, Norman Waring, Richard Barry. Bottom Row: Joe Friedman, Mark Goldwater.