BY RICHARD MADDOX
This is the final of a three-part post about Sir Harold Gillies and written by IWM London volunteers Dr. Jess Pocock and myself, with Jess writing the first in the series.
The companion pieces are ‘The Surgeon’ and ‘The Patient’.
ON 23 MAY 1940 FATE DEALT A CRUEL BLOW as it had done so often before and would continue to do so.
Pilot Officer John Arthur Gillies of No. 92 Squadron RAF failed to return from a patrol over the French coast at 17:00. The initial cryptic signal received by the RAF’s Casualty Section just before midnight on 24 May attributed the loss to enemy action. He was the eldest son of the eminent plastic surgeon Sir Harold Delf Gilles.
It also stated that ‘Gillies was missing (believed killed)’ (1). Telegrams were then sent to his wife Ellen in Liverpool (they had married in February 1940) and his father in Hampstead.
In view of the importance of Sir Harold’s work with the RAF a Group Captain Powers had asked to be informed of any developments in John’s case – presumably to act as a support for the family.
By June 14 it was clear that John was a Prisoner of War.
An international Red Cross telegram had been received listing him and nine other airmen as being at Dulag Luft, (Durschgangslager der Luftwaffe – Luftwaffe Transit Camp) – the Luftwaffe’s aircrew reception and interrogation centre to which all captured airmen were sent before continuing on to a prisoner of war camp (2).
The telegram ends with the words ‘Tous Bien’ – all is well.
While he was at Dulag Luft he became a member of the camp’s Permanent British Staff and became was Cookhouse Officer (3).
John, a chartered accountant by profession who had served with No. 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force before the war, would be imprisoned until its end, returning home after his prison camp was liberated.
On 17 May 1945, with the Victory in Europe celebrations more than a week old and the imminent end to the war in Europe in sight, his father made enquiries as to when his son would arrive home.
He left a message that a Squadron Leader Byrne (4) at No. 106 Personnel Resettlement Centre (one of three centres set up for returning liberated prisoners of war at this time) could contact him with details of his son’s arrival. Byrne had also been imprisoned in Stalag Luft III before being repatriated in 1944 (5).
But of course there were many things to be done before John was truly home. Like all former prisoners of war he had to provide the authorities with details of his experiences as a captive.
He was asked to complete at least two questionnaires – one from P4 Casualty Branch who were attempting to find and identify missing airmen and another from MI 9 a department of Military Intelligence established to help evading airmen return to the UK by supporting resistance networks in Occupied Europe.
His P4 Casualty questionnaire is attached to his casualty file (6).
Completed around 21 June 1945 it bears only his neatly written name, rank and serial number, together with the number of his squadron and the date of his capture. Details of his aircraft, where he was captured and other information are left blank.
With the war in Europe over, MI9 (and its sub-division Intelligence School 9 – IS 9 (7)) were interested in the former prisoner’s experience of capture and subsequent imprisonment. They were concerned with securing the prosecution of enemy personnel who had maltreatment prisoners or indeed allied prisoners who may have collaborated as well as recognising those individuals who had helped aided Allied airmen.
On 23 May 1945 he completed his Liberated POW Questionnaire. Here too he wrote little – but showed an accountant’s mind for detail and exactitude.
Although not specifically asked to do so, he gave his prisoner of war number (626), disclosed that he had been with No. 604 Squadron, was uncertain of his date of enlistment (‘approx. April 1932 in R.A.F.O. class A.A. (ii)’) and that he was interrogated at Dulag Luft in June 1940.
All other questions about his experience as a prisoner of war are crossed through, answered with ‘NO’ or both.
And at the end he signed a neat signature and the date (8).
AT THIS POINT I MUST ADMIT TO BE A LITTLE DISAPPOINTED with my research. Having made up my mind that there was nothing more to be found, for some strange reason I turned the page over.
Why I don’t know. But I did. And what I did made interesting reading.
I turned the page to find another with two testimonials, one from Group Captain Richard Kellett, RAF, the Senior British Officer at Stalag Luft III and the second from Wing Commander Harry Day.
The then Wing Commander Richard Kellett RAF Commanding Officer of No. 149 Squadron RAF at RAF Mildenhall, Cambridgeshire. Image © IWM C439.
Kellett was flying as a second pilot on Vickers Wellington bomber on 18 December 1939 when the aircraft was shot down. His was one of nine aircraft lost from the force of twenty four. A further six ditched in the sea or make emergency landings at other airfields. He managed to evade capture for a week in September 1942 before he was caught (9).
The Citation for the award of his Distinguished Flying Cross in January 1940 (awarded for leading the attack in December 1939) notes that “… by his personal example and cool leadership he won the confidence of all pilots under him (10).”
His testimonial to Gillies’ work reads:
‘… From its inception he was responsible for the coding and decoding of messages to and from home. For the last 3 years he was in sole charge in East Camp Luft III for this particular work, Involving all special letter writing and wireless messages, training and supervision of operators and the security of the whole system.’
He notes that because of his immense work load Gillies was ‘practically precluded from indulging in any personal interests and that over this period he wrote nearly 200 letters introducing and modifying codes as necessary. He did all this without a break from his duties and without the Germans discovering his activities.’
The testimonials of Group Captain Kellet and Wing Commander Day on the back of John Gillies’ POW Questionnaire contained in file WO 399/114/1. Image © R Maddox 2017.
Originally a Royal Marines officer Harry Arbuthnot Melville Day transferred to the Fleet Air Arm in 1924. During the First World War he won an Albert Medal (the equivalent of the George Cross) for saving two trapped men on HMS Britannia when the ship was torpedoed off Cape Trafalgar in November 1918 – just two days before the Armistice. He then joined the RAF in 1930 (11) (12).
Known as ‘Wings’ Day he was the first British officer imprisoned at Dulag Luft, having been shot down when his Bristol Blenheim reconnaissance aircraft (was attacked by Luftwaffe fighter aircraft on Friday 13 October 1939.
Although he and his fellow crew members Sergeant Eric Hillier (the observer) and AC2 Frederick Moller (the wireless operator/air gunner) all managed to leave the stricken aircraft, Day – who was also the newly appointed Commanding Officer of No. 57 Squadron and was forty years old at the time – was the sole survivor, receiving burns to his hands and face (13).
Whilst in captivity he was made Senior British Officer at Dulag Luft. He used his position to build a relationship with senior German personnel to win them over and thus gain intelligence insights which he sent back to London. He would also debrief newly arrived prisoners on the interrogation methods they were subjected to and their general welfare. In addition he started writing coded letters after being shown by a fellow prisoner
So successful was he in building these relationships that other prisoners genuinely suspected him of collaborating and reported their suspicions after the war (14).
Day was awarded a DSO and an OBE in December 1945 (15).
His testimony reads: ‘His duties as camp Accountant Officer i/c Coding were most painstaking and arduous, and at no time was it necessary to even check over his work, and he carried them [all his duties] out with good temper and great ability’(16).
Further research informed me that a third of each officer’s pay was diverted to the Communal Fund used to pay for a variety of things from furniture to bills for damages, additional rations from the German canteen as well as items needed by the camp’s Escape Committee (17).
This fund was administered by Gillies after he took over the post from a Flight Lieutenant R G Stark RNZAF when Stark was transferred to another part of Stalag Luft III.
Account books with their strings of numbers and cryptic headings can be a natural place for codes.
Gillies as a member of the Coding Staff, would have been given intelligence material gleaned from overheard conversations, mission details from newly captured aircrew as well as any intelligence that was gained by trading food stuffs, personal items etc. with German personnel by the camp’s Code Intelligence Officer, and then approved by the Senior British Officer and his own Intelligence Officer. (18)
He then would turn this into a coded message that was sent back to England, sometimes by hidden radio (as in the post on this blog ‘Captain Shackleton’s gift to the Imperial War Museum’) or in a coded letter.
In order to keep messages secure, codes had to be updated or devised from scratch. Gillies and another RAF officer devised a new code during June and July 1943 and managed to have the information sent to London. (19)
There was a real skill in constructing these messages as not only had the message to be hidden in ‘normal’ English it also had to contain no word or phrase that would be deleted by the German censors.
In December 1945 John was awarded an MBE for his wartime services (20) and may have moved back to the land of his birth as there is an award to a John Arthur Gillies MBE of the New Zealand Queen’s Service Order for Community Service (21) in the 1986 New Year’s Honours List.
It is perhaps significant in the way that John lead his life that I could find only one picture of him (on a website describing his crash) and that I haven’t been able to establish definitely if he did returned to New Zealand or even what he did in his post-war life.
As usual if there is anything that can be added to this story please let us know.
SOURCES AND FOOTNOTES:
(1) Air 81/509 – enclosure 1A. UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(2) ibid – enclosure 5A. UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(3) ‘Dulag Luft – The German Aircrew Interrogation Centre’. After the Battle magazine number 106, pages 14.
(4) This is probably Vincent “Paddy” Byrne, serving with No.74 Squadron RAF and captured when his Spitfire was shot down over France also on 23 May 1940. See file Air 81/506 UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(5) http://wlajournal.com/webcontent/malingering/malingering.pdf – accessed 3 August 2017
(6) Air 81/509 – enclosure 13. UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(7) http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14414 – accessed 3 August 2017
(8) WO 399/114/1. UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(9) http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Kellett.htm – accessed 5 August 2017
(10) https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34773/ page 301 – accessed 5 August 2017
(11) http://www.flyingmarines.com/Biographies/1921-1930/Day.htm – accessed 28 October 2017
(12) https://www.haileybury.com/medals/george_cross.htm – accessed 28 October 2017
(13) AIR 81/27 – UK National Archives, Kew England.
(14) ‘Dulag Luft – The German Aircrew Interrogation Centre’ – After the Battle magazine number 106 – page 8.
(15) http://www.flyingmarines.com/Biographies/1921-1930/Day.htm – accessed 28 October 2017
(16) WO 399/114/1. UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(17) Stalag Luft III: An Official History of the POW Camp of the Great Escape. John Grehan, pubished by Frontline Books (2017) – page 12.
(18) ibid – page 65.
(19) ibid – page 70.
Special thanks are due to Ernie Henty who kindly lent me his copy of ‘After the Battle’ Magazine when I had been unsuccessful in finding a copy. Not only that, but he then ordered me my own copy!