03 April 2008

Taihape’s Great Escaper

Reading for me was always about escape. Literally. The first book I ever completed – after a diet of Commando comics – was Ian Serraillier’s classic children’s novel The Silver Sword. Based on fact, it was about three Polish children on the run during the Second World War, after their parents were taken by the Nazis. It is extremely moving, but also thrilling, and it has never been out of print since it was first published in 1956.

Next came The Wooden Horse, Eric Williams’ account of a successful escape of three British POWs. They used a gymnasium jumping prop as a Trojan horse to get out of their prison camp, Stalag Luft III. So simple, and so perfect: a classical metaphor come alive and a ripping yarn.

The grandfather of them all, though, was The Great Escape. Not the silly 1963 film starring Steve McQueen as Evel Knievel, but the 1951 book by Paul Brickhill. The most famous war escape of all, it was on an epic scale.

At the same Stalag Luft III camp near Zagan, in Poland, the allied POWs dug three tunnels at once – Tom, Dick and Harry – and planned for more than 200 prisoners escape on the big night in 1944. In the end, they just used one tunnel, Harry, and only 76 escaped before their tracks were discovered in the snow.

Until then, the POWs had been reasonably treated by their Luftwaffe guards, as most of the prisoners were fellow airmen. However this grand gesture infuriated the German high command, and the SS and Gestapo responded with their own grand gesture. They murdered 50 recaptured escapees in cold blood.

Two of those murdered were New Zealanders. One of them came from Taihape, and I remember my uncle – who had also been a pilot and came from the same region – wistfully talking of his friend, Johnny Pohe.

So I was moved to pick up the March 18 Central District Times – also known as the “Taihape Times” – and read on the front page:

World premiere to be held in Taihape’s Majestic Theatre

Turangaarere: the Story of John Pohe premieres at the Majestic on April 5, with the red carpet rolling out for Pohe’s relatives, Maori elders, MPs, and members of the defence force. After the first few screenings, it will be broadcast on Maori TV as an Anzac Day special.

Porokoru Patapu (John) Pohe was the first Maori pilot of the RAF. He was born in Wanganui, raised in Taihape, and flew 22 missions over Germany before his reputation as "Lucky Johnny" ran out and his Halifax was shot down. After his escape from Stalag Luft III, he was recaptured 67 km away near Gorlitz, then murdered aged 22 by the two main executioners of the saga. Lux, who murdered at least 27 of the escapees, later died in battle, while Gestapo chief Scharpwinkel is thought to have been sheltered by the Russians.

The other New Zealander murdered in the escape, Arnold Christiansen, got even further away: 628 km. He was recaptured at Flensburg, just south of Denmark, and murdered days before his 23 rd birthday. He will be represented at the premiere by his niece and her husband.

Also present will be an old crew member of Pohe’s, who is being flown out from Canada by Air New Zealand, and will then travel on the railcar to Taihape (it’s about time Toll NZ did something for Taihape, after demolishing the historic railway station).

The Pohe family told the Times they regard the premiere as “symbolically bringing Johnny home”. Among the memorabilia on display will be the Pohe family piano which they bought 80 years ago from the Majestic theatre. Johnny learnt to play on the piano, and it has now been gifted by the family back to the theatre trust.

Turangaarere is directed by Julian Araranga, who played a Heke in Once Were Warriors. His father is Larry Parr, who has rehabilitated himself in the film world doing a brilliant job as programmer at Maori Television.

Escaping POWs continue to have a resonance. The London Times has collected a dozen of most dramatic escape stories, taken from its obituary columns. The motorcycle scenes in the film The Great Escape may have been hokum, but otherwise they tried hard to keep it factual (if American). The TV series Colditz kept the legend alive, even becoming a board game. A fascinating book examining the reality and mythology of the POW genre is The Colditz Myth: British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War in Nazi Germany, by SP Mackenzie. The best-written account is probably We Die Alone, by David Howarth, which is more of a survivalist thriller set in snow-covered Norway.

The latest bid on Ebay for a copy of the Colditz game is $100. So it may be easier just to listen to this BBC documentary on a great escapers Return to Stalag Luft III. Or check out the Times' selection of 15 "greatest escapers": ripping yarns taken from their obit columns.

The stories of New Zealand POWs during the Second World War are covered thoroughly here (with excellent pictures). Escape! edited by Matthew Wright (Random House, 2006) is an engrossing anthology of writing by or about New Zealand escapees, sadly let down by its cheap production values.


PGR said...

Spent some of my fondest memories at Taihapes Majestic Theatre, even when vids came in, i'd much rather roll jaffas down the aisle and such at the flicks though(we didn't own a video haha) it showed but haha but Footrot Flats brought the whole town out, it was marvelous!!! ET to and Return Of The Jedi, I still remember thinking who is Dr Zhivagio!?

Francine Kruger said...

My grandmother Andrea Buxton (nee Christiansen) was a cousin of Arnolds, till her death she would still say, 'the germans shot Arnold in the back'. I feel privileged to be related to one of those amazing men.