Family history can stir strong emotions, and the life of my Uncle Gordon is close to my heart. Gordon was a pilot in the RAF during World War II in 54 Squadron. He was shot down over France in July 1941, and died as a prisoner of war, aged 23, in Hamburg in April 1942. Although he died many years before I was born, as my uncle, his early death deprived me of a relationship that I am sure I would have loved and potential cousins, the children that he never had. I have seen first-hand the devastation his death caused. When my Dad spoke about his older brother, so many years later, his voice would crack and his eyes would fill with tears. There is something so tragic about the waste of a young life with all that unfulfilled potential. His bravery, both as an RAF pilot, and then as a prisoner of war, enduring a painful illness, fills me with pride. I will be writing more about Gordon’s life as a pilot with 54 Squadron, and as a prisoner of war, another time but for now, I thought I would share with you the information I have received recently from the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Gordon Herbert Batchelor was born on August 20 1918 in Higham, Kent. Although he was working as a farmer on the family farm, in a reserved occupation, he chose to sign up to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in June 1939, a few months before war broke out to serve his country. After his training was completed, he joined 54 Squadron in October 1940, seeing service in the Battle of Britain that was raging in the skies above. He was then involved in many missions defending the country from enemy aircraft during the Blitz as well as defending convoys from air attack. From the Spring of 1941, the squadron was involved in risky missions, escorting bombers who were crossing the Channel to attack targets in France.
On the fateful day of July 9th, 1941, Gordon was on one such mission when his Spitfire was shot down close to Arras in France. Although he was able to open his parachute and escape from his aircraft, he suffered shrapnel injuries to his legs and upon landing, was unable to walk. He was taken prisoner almost immediately. From this time, he kept a pocket diary, detailing his movements and thoughts. The larger pieces of shrapnel were removed from his legs in a hospital in Arras but some smaller pieces remained. He was then transferred to a hospital in Brussels before being sent east into Germany to be interviewed at the Dulag Luft transit camp in Oberursel near Frankfurt. After this, he was moved, for a short time, to camp Oflag V-A in the Bavarian mountains, before being interred at Oflag X-C, which was close to Lübeck, on the north coast of Germany. Sadly, his condition worsened, not helped by Appellplatz, (roll call), twice a day, and inadequate food. He withered in his tall 6ft 3in frame. On 24th September 1941, he was eventually admitted to hospital in Lübeck. It would appear that the shrapnel in his legs had infected his bones, causing extreme pain. By now, he could not walk at all. Tragically, this eventually resulted in his death in hospital in Hamburg on April 15 1942, aged 23.
In 2019, the Red Cross announced that they would be opening up their archive on WW2 Prisoners of War. On a specific day, four times a year, one has the opportunity to put in an application. If successful, the archivists will investigate the records that they have in their archive on a particular individual and supply the information free of charge. I first tried in September last year. I logged on, on the appointed day, but to my disappointment, I found that the application page had disappeared because all the available slots had already been taken. I therefore put the next application day in January 2020 on my calendar and when the day came, I logged on early. This time, I was successful, at least I thought so, though with no confirmation email, I couldn’t be certain. I was therefore delighted when one day in May, out of the blue, I received an email with documents attached, that contained the information that the Red Cross held on Gordon.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I expected. I knew, from his diary, that Gordon had received a few Red Cross packages whilst in hospital along with some letters from the family. The family had also requested a photograph of his grave through the Red Cross. Were the records going to give me some more background information on the role the Red Cross had played in facilitating this? In fact, they consisted of two capture cards, two death notifications and some information on Gordon’s movements derived from German lists.
My grandparents first heard that their son was alive and a prisoner of war from the infamous “Lord Haw-Haw” on the wireless, who was broadcasting Nazi propaganda using an affected, upper class, English accent. He began his broadcast with the words “Germany Calling, Germany Calling”. Families would tune in, desperate for news of their loved ones who were listed as missing. I have had the opportunity to study the Operations Record Book (AIR 27) for 54 Squadron and from this, I know that his squadron received the news on August 14th 1941 that Gordon had been captured and made a prisoner of war. I imagine that my grandparents heard his name mentioned on the broadcast just prior to this date. They must have been both profoundly relieved to hear that he was alive, yet desperately worried that he was now a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany.
The first official communication that they would have received from their son, proving that he was indeed a prisoner of war, was the capture card, a copy of which was sent to me by the Red Cross:
The capture card was dated July 30th 1940 and posted a few days later. From his diary, I know that after Gordon’s capture in France on July 9th, he was in hospital in Arras, and then sent by ambulance to a larger hospital in Brussels. From here he was put on a train and sent to Dulag Luft in Oberursel near Frankfurt, the transit camp for Allied aircrew, where he arrived on July 27th 1941. Here he was interrogated by the German authorities before being sent to a permanent camp. The card gave the information that Gordon had been slightly wounded. He filled it in himself so it is wonderful to see his writing and signature recorded on the card.
Gordon writes in his diary that he arrived by train at Oflag V-A on August 1st at 6.00 am. This prisoner of war camp was situated in the small village of Weinsburg, about 6km from Heilsbronn, in the heart of Germany’s wine country. However, his stay in Oflag V-A was to be short-lived. On August 3rd, he was woken up at 5.00 am, told to pack and put on another train going in a north westerly direction. He arrived at Oflag X-C at Lübeck on August 4th at 10.00 pm. There was obviously some confusion over where his party of officers should be detained and his short stay at Oflag V-A has not been recorded in the Red Cross records.
Gordon had already been at Oflag X-C for nearly a month when he filled in another capture card dated September 2nd 1941. His parents must have been glad to have some news of him.
The Red Cross also had in their files a record of when and where Gordon had been detained according to German lists and the two capture cards aforementioned:
- Detained in Dulag Luft (according to a capture card dated 30/07/1941)
- Prisoner of War in German hands (according to a list dated 31/07/41)
- Transferred on 01/08/1940 from Dulag Luft to Oflag X-C.
- Arrived in Oflag X-C on 04/08/1941 or 08/08/1941 (according to a list dated 04/08/1941 and a list received on 02/09/1941)
- Detained in Oflag X-C (according to a capture card dated 02/09/1941)
- Transferred from Oflag X-C to Oflag VI-B on 08/10/1941 (according to a list dated 30/01/1942)
- Detained in Reservelazarett Hamburg on 13/11/1941 (according to an undated list)
The Red Cross records state that Gordon was sent from Oflag X-C in Lübeck to Oflag VI-B in Warburg on October 8th 1941. In fact, I know from his diary that Gordon had been transferred to hospital in Lübeck on September 24th 1941. A big contingent of officers was then moved from Oflag X-C to Oflag VI-B in Dössel on October 8th, due to overcrowding in Oflag X-C, so at this point, the Red Cross must have been unaware that Gordon was not with them and remained behind in Lübeck. Gordon was then indeed transferred to hospital in Hamburg on November 13th 1941. Gordon was told that they were moving to Hamburg as he might be repatriated from there.
During this time, Gordon had a roommate, Major Antony Holden, whose leg had been severely injured by an incendiary in a RAF bombing raid that took place ca. September 17th 1941, that had inadvertently damaged some of the buildings at Oflag X-C. Tony later had to have his leg amputated. Tony and Gordon were roommates for months, both at the hospital in Lübeck and then in Hamburg. I have one photograph of them together in hospital in Hamburg and Gordon makes a wry comment about this in his diary:
December 14th 1941
Came and took our photos in bed, very good propaganda.
The last entry in Gordon’s diary is dated March 23rd 1942, as his health was deteriorating quickly. By then, Gordon was alone as Tony had recovered sufficiently to be sent to Oflag VI-B in Dössel. Not long after, Gordon died on April 15th 1942 at the age of 23.
A notification of death, dated September 15th 1942, was sent by the Air Ministry in London to my grandparents. This states that Gordon’s cause of death was Ewing’s Sarcoma.
Ewing’s sarcoma is an exceedingly rare form of bone cancer that affects young people, commonly between the ages of 10 and 20. Although I am not a medical expert, to me, this seems a false diagnosis, given the circumstances. It is clear that Gordon never recovered from the injuries received when he was shot down and the failure to remove all the shrapnel from his legs caused infection in his bones. Lack of appropriate medical care was compounded by a starvation diet in Oflag X-C in Lübeck and insufficient rest. Perhaps the doctors did not want it to look as if there had been any negligence on their part though to be fair, by the time Gordon entered hospital, it was probably already too late to save him. I get the impression from reading Gordon’s diary that the doctors at the hospital in Hamburg did try to give him good medical care though to no avail.
What I didn’t realise was that the Red Cross also issued a form to be filled in by the German doctors when a prisoner of war died. A copy of this was forwarded to me by the Red Cross Archives:
The form was not filled in until December 3rd 1942, nearly nine months after Gordon’s death. Gordon was described as a Lieutenant in the RAF and interestingly, Oflag VI-B at Dössel, near Warburg in Westphalia, is given first as the prisoner of war camp where he had been detained, as well as Oflag X-C in Lübeck, although he had never been transferred to the former with the rest of his party. The place of death was Reserve Lazarett V, Hamburg-Wandsbek (the largest military hospital in the Wehrmacht built between 1935-1937). His date and place of birth is given, the name of his father, and his home address in England, though the name of his mother and his marital status was unknown. What I found particularly poignant was the time of his death, 11.05 am. It is such a small detail but it was new to me and somehow I found it affected me a lot. His cause of death was given as bone sarcoma and bronchopneumonia and he was buried at Ohlsdorf Cemetery Hamburg with the details of the plot recorded.
The German doctors had to give an account of Gordon’s illness and death. Using Google Translate, this was their report:
Lieutenant B[atchelor] after he was shot on July 9, 1941, was sent to the local hospital via various military and field hospitals, finally through to the reserve hospital in Lübeck. He was in a hospital room with the English prisoner of war Major Holden for about 7 months. Major H[olden] will later be able to tell the relatives what thoughts moved B[atchelor] in his last months of life. The general condition, which was already much worse at the time of delivery, has steadily deteriorated and, despite all the medical efforts on April 15, 1942 at 11.05 a.m. he gently passed away. He is buried with military honours at the cemetery of honour in Hamburg-Ohlsdorf.
What I found particularly fascinating was the mention of Major Holden, Gordon’s friend and fellow roommate, Tony. Although Tony had recently been discharged and sent to Oflag VI-B in Dossel, I know the news of his friend’s death was indeed passed on to him for he wrote this letter to my grandmother:
Dear Mrs Batchelor, I was alone in hospital
with your son for 7 months before his
death and as he asked me to come and see
you if I was repatriated I felt that my
letter may give you some small comfort
in your tragic bereavement. “Batch” as I
called him was a very good friend to me,
and at Xmas when I lost my leg his courage
and encouragement to me, although in
constant pain himself, were something
which I shall never forget. Since then you
will be glad to hear that he was very
kindly treated and did not suffer much
pain. I left him a fortnight before he
died and am convinced at that time he
did not know he was dying. His courage
was indomitable and he always talked
to me of his plans for the future an
the farm and his affection for you and
his father. He seemed to have enjoyed
every moment of his life both as a farmer
and a R.A.F. officer, and during the time
I was with him, was always amazingly cheerful.
In him I lost a good and true friend.
Every time I read this letter I am incredibly moved. It is nice to know that for the majority of his time in hospital, Gordon had a friend next to him in his hospital bed. I haven’t been able to trace any more information subsequently on Major Antony Holden so if anyone can find out more I would love to hear from you. It would be wonderful to let his family know how much his letter has meant to Gordon’s family.
The Red Cross records on Gordon’s time as a prisoner of war both add to and compliment the records that are in my possession. It was wonderful to see the capture cards, filled in and signed in Gordon’s own hand. It was also interesting to see what information they held on his whereabouts; though Gordon was never sent to Oflag VI-B, (as was recorded), he did spend a few days at Oflag V-B, (which was not recorded). I imagine that many researchers would not have this sort of information on their prisoner of war relatives. The record of Gordon’s death, which was typed up and given to the Red Cross, is very valuable. The reference to Gordon’s fellow patient in hospital, Major Holden, ties up beautifully with the precious letter that Major Holden sent to Gordon’s family, which has been in the family ever since.
Finally, I do want to add my appreciation to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Gordon mentions in his diary what an event it was to receive a Red Cross parcel. These parcels were literally the difference between life and death for many prisoners of war because of the hunger they endured. The Red Cross also facilitated communication between the prisoners and their families. Receiving a letter from home was a lifeline and you can imagine how families at home likewise longed for news of their loved ones. Without the inspections of the Red Cross, prisoners of war may also have been ill-treated to a greater extent. I am truly grateful that they are now opening up their archives, shedding a light on those dark days.
Since writing the above post, I have been able to trace the daughter of Major Holden. This enabled me to pass on a copy of her father’s letter, and also the photograph of him together with Gordon in hospital. Like many of his generation, Major Holden had spoken little about his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war so his family were grateful to learn more about what he had been through and the positive contribution he had made through his friendship with Gordon, my uncle.
If you have a researching someone who was a prisoner of war in the First World War, you will be pleased to know that the majority of the Red Cross records have been digitised and are available online. The next available date for requesting information from the Red Cross Archive on a prisoner of war in the Second World War (or Spanish Civil War) is January 16th 2022 at 8.00 am (GMT +1) when the form appears on their website:
© Judith Batchelor 2020