ANZAC III: The (Other) Great Escape

In 1937, Nazi Germany began work on building the first and the largest concentration camp in Germany. Found eight kilometres north of the city of Weimar, the camp was able to incarcerate over 60,000 people.

Opened in July 1938, the camp was dubbed Buchenwald. Buchenwald Concentration Camp was comprised of three distinct areas, the first area was dubbed the Special Compound, this included the administration offices, the Commandant’s Villa, and finally the Schutzstaffel (or, SS) Quarters. The SS was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the foremost agency of security, surveillance, and terror in Nazi Germany.

Prisoners of the camp included Jewish people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, German military deserters, asocials (which included the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, the unemployable and pacifists) and finally, prisoners of war.

Visit www.truecrimenz.com for more information on this case including sources and credits.

Hosted by Jessica Rust

Written and edited by Sirius Rust

Music sourced from:

Day of Chaos by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3620-day-of-chaos
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Almost in F by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3354-almost-in-f
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

ANZAC III: The (Other) Great Escape

DISCLAIMER:

While this episode is under the ANZAC banner, this episode does not deal with World War I or the ANZAC troops, it is a story from World War II. Going forward, our ANZAC episodes will be any interesting stories from New Zealand’s military history. Thank you, and I hope you find this episode interesting.

BUCHENWALD

In 1937, Nazi Germany began work on building the first and the largest concentration camp in Germany. Found eight kilometres north of the city of Weimar, the camp was able to incarcerate over 60,000 people.

Opened in July 1938, the camp was dubbed Buchenwald. Buchenwald Concentration Camp was comprised of three distinct areas, the first area was dubbed the Special Compound, this included the administration offices, the Commandant’s Villa, and finally the Schutzstaffel (or, SS) Quarters. The SS was a major paramilitary organization under Adolf Hitler and the foremost agency of security, surveillance, and terror in Nazi Germany.

The second is the factory area where prisoners were made to work to create armaments for the German military. If the prisoners were deemed too weak to work they were subjected to “prisoner euthanasia”; either shot dead on-site, hanged or sent to sent to euthanasia facilities where they were “gassed” to death.

The third area of Buchenwald is the camp area. Made up of 33 wooden barracks, 15 two-story stone buildings, a prisoners’ infirmary, a kitchen, a laundry, a canteen, many warehouses, workshops, disinfection buildings, a railway station, a brothel and a crematorium. Surrounding the camp was an electrified barbed-wire fence, watchtowers and the chain of sentries outfitted with automatic machine guns.

The SS ran Buchenwald Concentration Camp under harsh conditions. Upon arrival at the camp, the prisoners were stripped of all their clothing and given one shirt and trousers but no socks or shoes. After this, the prisoners had their hair shaved completely off. If the camp was too full (meaning no huts were available), the prisoners were made to sleep on rocks with no blankets. The prisoners were rationed half a litre of soup (made of either cabbage leaves or grass), a quarter loaf of bread, three small potatoes and some coffee.

Of the 280,000 people sent to Buchenwald over the eight years the camp existed, it is estimated that 56,545 of them died; that is around 20% of the total population of the camp. Many died of malnourishment through Nazi Germany’s “extermination through labour” policy. Many also died from disease, as the vile conditions of the camp allowed illness to flourish. Others either died from human medical experiments or from being shot or hanged at the camp. 

Some of those that were hanged in Buchenwald were hung using the strappado method which is a form of added viciousness to the execution. The strappado is when the victim’s hands are tied behind their backs and the rope is attached to said hands. The victim is then suspended by the rope and the weight of the body dislocates the victim’s shoulders; adding great pain and suffering to the death sentence.

Prisoners of the camp included Jewish people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, German military deserters, asocials (which included the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, the unemployable and pacifists) and finally, prisoners of war.

PHIL LAMASON

Philip John Lamason was born on the 15th of September 1918 in Napier; a city of 65,000 in the Hawke’s Bay region. Phil attended Napier Boys’ High School and then Massey University. Phil eventually grew up to become an inspector in the Government Live Stock Division in New Plymouth. It was here in the ‘Naki’ that Phil was given an opportunity to have 100 hours of free flying lessons. This began his love of flying.

During the outbreak of World War II, a life in uniform called to him, and at 21-years-old Phil joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in September 1940. He joined the No. 218 Squadron RAF and became a pilot officer. 

Pilot officers during World War II were flying bomber aircraft. These planes were military aircraft designed to attack ground and naval targets by using air-to-ground weaponry, launching torpedoes, or deploying air-launched cruise missiles. These bomber aircraft are made up of five to seven crew members. First, the pilot (captain) flew the aircraft and made key operational decisions. A second pilot assisted the captain. The third was the observer, a person who navigated the aircraft to its targets using astral navigation and map reading. Fourth, the wireless operator/front gunner; their role was to assist the observer with navigation and if attacked use the defensive machine gun of the aircraft. Fifth, a sole air gunner; their role was to defend the bomber with the aircraft’s machine guns. On heavier bombers, an additional gunner may be used as well as a flight engineer.

By 1942, pilot officer Phil Lamason was stationed in Czechoslovakia; fighting with the British. In April of 1942, Phil Lamason and the allied forces were fighting the axis power in Pilsen (a city of 171,000 in what is now the Czech Republic). Phil’s actions that night are documented in the 15th of May 1942 copy of the London Gazette, “This officer was the captain of an aircraft which attacked Pilsen. During the return flight, his aircraft was attacked by an enemy fighter and sustained damage; the hydraulics were shot away and the turret rendered unserviceable, while a fire broke out in the middle of the fuselage. Displaying great presence of mind, Pilot Officer Lamason coolly directed his crew in the emergency and, while 2 of them dealt with the fire, he skilfully outmanoeuvred his attacker and finally shook him off. By his fine airmanship and great devotion to duty, Pilot Officer Lamason was undoubtedly responsible for the safe return of the aircraft and its crew. This officer has completed 21 sorties (an attack made by troops coming out from a position of defence) and he has at all times displayed courage and ability.”

After this, Phil Lamason was promoted to Sergeant. In the years between 1942 and 1944, Phil Lamason received more praise and commendations for his courage on military missions, even receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) awarded to those that display “an act or acts of valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy”. 

Phil continued to carry out his duty. On one mission Phil was made to make an emergency landing on an American airbase. Here he met famous American film actor Clark Gable. Phil told Hawke’s Bay Today on the 25th of April 2012, “I’d seen him at the movies when I’d taken Joan [his wife] to see Gone with the Wind”.

Phil was awarded an additional Bar (metal clasp) to his DFC medal on the 27 of June 1944 for his “courage and devotion to duty of a high order”. Phil Lamason was eventually promoted to acting squadron leader due to his outstanding actions.

PRELUDE TO BUCHENWALD

On the 8th of June 1944, on his 45th mission, Phil Lamason was the flight commander of a Lancaster LM575 LS-H bomber aircraft. He was flying a mission over France when, “… our bomber was spotted by a German fighter, which locked on to it. I decided to turn and fight him. Within seconds an incendiary round hit a wing and caught the fuel tank. I gave the order to bail out as the gas torched. But Robbie, our mid-upper gunner, kept on firing. When he eventually did jump, we no longer had enough height. I saw his parachute open, but too late. He must have died on impact. I pushed the navigator out and managed to jump clear at the last minute”.

Phil Lamason and his navigator Ken Chapman ‘hooked up’ with the French Resistance and were moved and hid in Paris by many brave French families. The men were trying to obtain passes and visas to reach neighbouring Spain. However, the men were betrayed by a French double agent before being captured by the Gestapo (Nazi Secret State Police). The man who betrayed the two was Jacques Desoubrie. Ultimately, throughout WWII, Jacques was responsible for over 100 people being captured by the Nazis. After the war ended, Jacques was arrested and tried for his crimes. He was ultimately executed by firing squad on the 20th December 1949.

Phil Lamason, instead of being treated as a prisoner-of-war and due to having false papers and being dressed as a civilian, along with the other Allied Airforce men were treated as spies and criminals by Nazi Germany. Therefore, they were held and interrogated in Fresnes Prison near Paris. Eventually, instead of going to a prisoner-of-war camp, Phil Lamason and 167 other allied airmen were sent to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

BUCHENWALD REVISITED

The following is a passage from the autobiographical book Buchenwald Flyboy by Joe Moser (one of the allied airmen that were sent to Buchenwald with Phil Lamason). “The first thing I saw getting off that train was the dogs. Big German shepherds restrained by strong collars and leashes held by SS guards. If the guards could snarl with the frothy, spit-filled, teeth bared growl like the dogs, I’m sure they would have. There were two rows of dogs and guards with just enough room between them for us to walk without getting torn apart. This was the gauntlet we walked through when we arrived in Buchenwald.”

168 total allied airmen, 82 Americans, 48 British, 26 Canadians, 9 Australians, 2 New Zealanders and 1 Jamaican, took the five-day train journey in crowded cattle cars from just outside Paris, France to Buchenwald (near Weimar, Germany). As Phil Lamason and the other Allied airmen arrived at the concentration camp, they were stripped naked and given their provisions (a pair of trousers and one shirt, no shoes). The Allied men were housed in a hut with 800 other men (the hut was only built to house 200 men). They were given their daily rations of half a litre of soup, three small potatoes and a quarter of a loaf of bread; within three weeks Phil Lamason lost almost 20kg of body weight and contracted diphtheria and dysentery from the severely subpar conditions of the camp.

Conditions in Buchenwald Concentration Camp were unlivable and death was a regular occurrence. The horrific daily life in Buchenwald was written about in the 25th of May 1945 edition of the Auckland Star for the article ‘New Zealander in Buchenwald Camp’, “The crematorium was working for 24 hours a day. Prisoners would come across dead bodies and take no notice of them, not even bothering to wonder how they died nor who would collect them. Once Lamason saw a group of Poles kill a man whom they described as a “bad Pole”. They beat him senseless, and then flung him into water until he recovered. Then they beat him senseless again. It took him four hours to die. Nobody seemed to care. Nobody seemed able to do anything about it. Sometimes the Germans hanged a prisoner and paraded his swinging body”.

TIME AT BUCHENWALD

As Squadron leader, Phil Lamason was the senior officer at Buchenwald. As such he believed it was his duty to continue the war effort even at a concentration camp. He demanded a meeting with the commandant of Buchenwald, Hermann Pister. Phil argued that as soldiers the allied airmen, under the Geneva Conventions, should be sent to a prisoner-of-war camp as opposed to a concentration camp. The commandant agreed that this seemed to be a mistake but the Allied men remained in Buchenwald nevertheless.

Phil Lamason, as the ranking officer, instilled a sense of routine and military discipline in the captured Allied airmen. After the unit’s first meal together, Phil Lamason spoke to the group about their predicament as detailed in Joe Moser’s book Buchenwald Flyboy, “Gentlemen, we have ourselves in a very fine fix indeed. The goons have completely violated the Geneva Convention and are treating us as common thieves and criminals. However, we are soldiers. From this time on, we will also conduct ourselves as our training has taught us and as our countries would expect from us. We will march as a unit to roll call and we will follow all reasonable commands as a single unit.”

In the succeeding weeks, Phil Lamason continued to negotiate with the German authorities that he and the other Allied airmen should be transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp; however, his requests were repeatedly denied.

The 168 Allied airmen were expected to work in the nearby armament factories but Phil Lamason refused to give the order for the men to work as it would go against their duty as soldiers to participate in war production. Phil was given the ultimatum, either give the order to work or be executed on the spot. Phil Lamason still refused to give the order, a short stand-off followed but the SS officers eventually backed down. 

Over his time at Buchenwald camp, Phil Lamason gained a network of other prisoners that he trusted. This allowed him to secure extra provisions such as more blankets, clothes and food for his men; as well as important intel.

Eventually, Phil’s contacts allowed him to smuggle a note through a Russian prisoner, who was working at a nearby airfield. The note was hoping to find its way to the German Luftwaffe (the aerial-warfare branch of the German military), and inform them of the Allied airmen’s predicament. Phil Lamason believed that the Luftwaffe would be sympathetic to their situation as they wouldn’t want their captured soldiers to be treated the same way.

The note reached the airfield. Eventually, two Luftwaffe officers visited Buchenwald and spoke to Phil Lamason and the other allied prisoners and became convinced they were genuine airmen and not spies.

In the interim, Phil learned through a trusted contact who had access to the administration area of the camp that Phil and 167 other Allied airmen were scheduled for execution on the 26th of October 1944. Phil thought to keep morale high, he wouldn’t inform the rest of the airmen of their impending death.

The two Luftwaffe officers who visited Buchenwald and spoke with Phil wrote a report about their findings. This report somehow made its way across the desk of Hermann Goring (the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, as well as one of the most powerful people in the Nazi party). Hermann understood that a massacre of the allied airmen might bring about reprisals to German pilots in Allied hands, and therefore demanded that the Allied soldiers be transferred into Luftwaffe control.

Against all odds, after almost two months at Buchenwald, Phil Lamason’s perseverance paid off. On the 19th of October 1944, seven days before the 168 Allied airmen were to be executed at Buchenwald, 156 of them were transferred to a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp, Phil Lamason among them. Another ten men were transported later, as they were too sick to travel at the time. Unfortunately, the two remaining Allied airmen died at Buchenwald of disease.

STALAG LUFT III

Phil Lamason and the other 165 allied airmen were transferred to the Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III, an approximately 370km journey east from Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Stalag Luft III is famous for being the location of ‘The Great Escape’, where 76 Allied soldiers escaped the camp using an elaborate system of underground tunnels. However, 73 of the 76 men were recaptured, seventeen of them were sent back to the prisoner-of-war camp, two were sent to another prisoner-of-war camp, four were sent to a concentration camp and the other 50 were executed (two New Zealanders were among the executed). The Great Escape was eventually turned into a (mostly fictionalised/Americanised) film in 1963 starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.

However, Phil Lamason and the other men arrived in October of 1944, and ‘The Great Escape’ had already occurred in March of 1944

Phil Lamason spent the first month at the camp recovering from diphtheria. In January 1945, due to the advancing Russian army, the prisoners at Stalag Luft III were transferred to another prisoner-of-war camp Stalag III-A further inside Germany, near the city of Luckenwalde.

Eventually, Stalag III-A was overtaken by the Russians sometime around May of 1945 and the Nazis were ‘run out of town’. At the same time, the American military was entering the city, Phil Lamason and his navigator Ken Chapman met up with Americans and caught a ride to Hildesheim Airfield, approximately 300km west of Luckenwalde. 

Phil and Ken were flown from Germany to Belgium and then eventually to England. After reaching England, Phil Lamason returned to New Zealand. He arrived in NZ, the day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan by the United States of America, on the 7th of August 1945.

Phil Lamason was officially discharged from the New Zealand Air Force on the 16th of December 1945.

CONCLUSION

In 1948, Phil Lamason moved to Dannevirke, a small town of 5,700 people in the Manawatu region. He settled down with his wife Joan and children (three sons and two daughters) and bought a 406-acre beef and sheep farm just outside of town.

He lived a mostly quiet life, speaking sporadically over the years (often reluctantly) about his time in World War II and the concentration camp including some appearances in documentaries about the Allied airmen of Buchenwald. 

Phil Lamason passed away on his farm just outside of Dannevirke on the 19th of May 2012, he was 93-years-old

Glenys Scott, a family friend of Phil Lamason honoured the veteran in the 25th of April 2012 edition of Hawke’s Bay Today, exactly 10 years ago today, less than a month before Phil passed away, “His is a remarkable story. His amazing bravery and heroic acts, especially at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, deserves the highest honour our country can give.”

SOURCES

Articles
Wikipedia, RAF Bomber Command aircrew of World War II, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RAF_Bomber_Command_aircrew_of_World_War_II
Wikipedia, Number of deaths in Buchenwald, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_deaths_in_Buchenwald
Wikipedia, Buchenwald Concentration Camp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buchenwald_concentration_camp
Wikipedia, Strappado, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strappado
Wikipedia, Allied airmen at Buchenwald concentration camp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_airmen_at_Buchenwald_concentration_camp
Wikipedia, Phil Lamason, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phil_Lamason
Holocaust Encyclopedia, Buchenwald, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/buchenwald
Stuff.co.nz, War hero had a ‘core of steel’, http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/obituaries/6993965/War-hero-had-a-core-of-steel
Veterans Affairs Canada, Prisoners of War in the Second World War, https://web.archive.org/web/20090625165353/http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=history%2Fsecondwar%2Ffact_sheets%2Fpow
Wikipedia, Hermann Goring, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermann_G%C3%B6ring
Wikipedia, Stalag Luft III, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stalag_Luft_III
Stuff.co.nz, Airman survived horror camp, http://www.stuff.co.nz/auckland/local-news/northland/dargaville-districts/392189/Airman-survived-horror-camp
Wikipedia, Jacques Desoubrie, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Desoubrie
Joe Moser-Buchenwald Flyboy, Chapter 8: Buchenwald, https://buchenwaldflyboy.wordpress.com/chapter-8-buchenwald/
Wikipedia, Distinguished Flying Cross (United Kingdom), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinguished_Flying_Cross_(United_Kingdom)
Hawke’s Bay Today, Anzac Day: From teen ratbag to hero, https://web.archive.org/web/20120428043343/http://www.hawkesbaytoday.co.nz/news/phil-lamason-anzac-day/1357384/
Royal Air Force Commands, Actg Sqn Ldr Philip John LAMASON (403460) of the RNZAF, http://www.rafcommands.com/database/awards/details.php?qname=LAMASON&qnum=403460
Hawke’s Bay Today, Phil Lamason: Humble Bay pilot, https://web.archive.org/web/20120713145639/http://www.hawkesbaytoday.co.nz/news/phil-lamason-humble-bay-pilot/1357378/

Newspapers
Evening Post, Award of Bar to D.F.C, 5 August 1944, Page 6, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19440805.2.42
Evening Post, Skill And Gallantry New Zealanders Decorated, 16 May 1942, Page 6, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19420516.2.60
Auckland Star, New Zealander in Buchenwald Camp, 25 May 1945, Page 4, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/AS19450525.2.27

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