In the early morning of July 29, 1944, during six hours of Allied bombing, Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak’s Lancaster was shot down over Germany. Badly injured, he was quickly captured and experienced the chaotic close of the Second World War from the discomfort of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp.
Sixty-three years later, tucked in a drawer of an old writing desk in the northern Ontario community of Kenora, a 114-page diary that Lieut. Novak had secretly penned during his harrowing ordeal was uncovered and, after a bit of sleuthing, returned to his family.
“We were shocked. We had no idea he kept a diary. After he came back he never spoke of it,” said Carolyn Callan, 64, Lieut. Novak’s niece.
“He never talked about the war. I think he just wanted to forget it.” That was not always the case. As he fought off sickness, cold and starvation; suffered personal and collective indignities; displayed ingenuity and bravery; and witnessed atrocities against soldiers and civilians alike, Lieut. Novak kept meticulous and articulate notes with an eye to remembrance.
“I have seen some unforgettable sights,” Lieut. Novak writes in his diary.
“I can assure the reader (if any) that I and the other poor wretches here will carry our memories of this place and others for a long time.”
Revealed now for the first time, his diary forms a stunning historical document, rare in its scope and completeness, eloquent in its observations and emotional in its vivid depictions of war.
In the days leading to Remembrance Day, the National Post will be exploring the contents of Lieut. Novak’s diary, which was secretly penned in tiny pencil scribbles from Nov. 7, 1944, while in Stalag Luft III — the camp where the famed “Great Escape” took place seven months before Lieut. Novak arrived — and ending on July 19, 1945, with his return to Kenora.
War historians are thrilled with the discovery.
“I have never heard some of these things before. It is very interesting,” said Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein when told by the Post some of the diary’s contents, which will be revealed in coming days.
“That is a gem, a real prize,” said Jonathon Vance, a history professor at the University of Waterloo who has researched and written extensively about Canadian POWs.
“It is rare to find one that was actually used as a day-to-day diary. To find one that records the guy’s experiences on a daily basis for an extended period of time is quite unusual.”
The fact that Lieut. Novak kept writing after the Russian army liberated his camp — but before the prisoners could be moved to the West — makes it of particular interest.
“There is very little direct historical material that surrounds the liberation of the camps and the few weeks after,” Prof. Vance said. “There is not a lot known about what the prisoners themselves were going through and what they were seeing and what they were experiencing. So it is a pretty neat find in terms of capturing this really quite bizarre period of history.”
The small diary, however, measuring just 17x12 cm and bound by black electrical tape, was almost lost forever.
Anton Novak was born in Brandon, Man., in 1913, one of five children born to Anna and Anton Nowakowski, who immigrated to Canada from Poland during the First World War as stowaways.
The family moved to Kenora, Ont., about 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg, where Anton legally changed his name to Novak, met his wife, Jacqueline, and had a son, Anton III.
He worked in the local brewery with his father but hated the job, which was one of the reasons he volunteered for the military.
He was stationed in England as a navigator in Lancaster bombers and was guiding a bombing raid over occupied Europe when his plane was shot down. Four of the seven-man aircrew died.
Three weeks after arriving in Stalag Luft III, 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin, Lieut. Novak received a blank notebook from the YMCA in Geneva, with the words “A Wartime Log” written on the front.
“November 7, 1944: Received this book today,” he begins in his first entry, noting it will be a place for “memories” that will be “stored away, safe from prying eyes.”
His dedication to the diary is striking. Often daily, he notes the weather, his food, his longing for his wife, whom he calls “Jac” or “Beloved,” and records the alternating drudgery and horror of POW life.
The diary survived several searches by guards looking for contraband: “24 below zero and we were locked outside all morning till 1300 hours as the Germans searched our rooms for contraband. Thoroughly chilled,” he wrote on Jan. 24, 1945, his wife’s birthday.
The book also survived Lieut. Novak’s temptation to toss it aside while on long forced marches in deep winter as the prisoners were moved west, away from the approaching Russian army. Many POW diaries did not survive the marches, said Prof. Vance.
"Typically what they did was start on day one carrying everything they owned and there are stories of the road leading away from camp being littered with possessions as they started to realize their packs were too heavy,” said Prof. Vance.
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“A lot of the guys would have ditched their diaries then, when you are faced with a choice between your diary or some chocolate.”
What likely saved Lieut. Novak’s diary was a little Canadian-winter know-how.
“At 2130 hours we were ordered to pack in readiness to move off at once as the Russians were only a few miles away,” Lieut. Novak wrote on Jan. 27, 1945. “Much flap and a very terrible wastage of clothes and cigarettes as we couldn’t carry them all. Made a sled which comes in very handy.”
The sled allowed him to take more stuff.
On Jan. 31 he wrote: “It has stopped snowing and warming up a bit. Hope it doesn’t get too warm or our sled will be useless to us and we will have to pack our possessions on our already weakened backs.”
Despite his effort to retain the increasingly frail book through the war, perhaps a bigger mystery is why Lieut. Novak decided to keep it hidden once he returned to Canada.
It certainly was a return he viscerally longed for.
“[I’m] thankful that I am still alive and will be at least able to return to my home, Beloved Jac and son,” he wrote on April 25, 1945.
“I have waited so long for that; I truly believe it will be the happiest day in my life when I step off that train at Kenora, and the happiest moment when I once more take Jac in my arms.”
But life in Kenora was not what he had hoped.
“When he came back, his wife had taken up with someone else. That was the sad part,” Ms. Callan said.
“Uncle Tony was one of those guys who, when he got back from the war, wasn’t quite the same,” said her brother, Kirk Doran, 58. He started drinking, heavily at times, and eventually left town and contact with his family became sporadic.
Lieut. Novak contracted tuberculosis and died in Deer Lodge veterans’ hospital in Winnipeg on Dec. 21, 1986.
His family believes his wife’s unfaithfulness is likely why he never let anyone know about the diary.
At some point he gave the book to a friend in Kenora named Harold Whiteman, who stored it away in his house where it lay, apparently unread, for decades. Mr. Whiteman died in 1973 and the diary remained among his effects for decades more.
It did not resurface until 2007, when Mr. Whiteman’s wife, Lillian, moved into a seniors’ home and the Whiteman children started sifting through the family home.
“It was in a drawer of an old writing table, one of those with a roll-down top,” said Gordon Hanstead, the Whitemans’ son-in-law. “I found it and went to my wife and said ‘What on earth is this?’” His wife, Haroldene, had no idea. “I don’t remember ever seeing it before,” she said. “We were amazed by it. It was interesting and scary. It was like a movie,” she said.
The couple started phoning Novaks in Kenora and eventually reached Lieut. Novak’s family. By the time it was uncovered, only one of his siblings, younger sister Katharine, was still alive. She read the diary shortly before her death.
“When my mother read the diary she was delighted and astounded. She said: ‘Now I understand things a little bit better,’” Ms. Callan said.
Most of her family has read it now, each struck by the profound experience their relative had.
“I get goose bumps thinking about — and not just because it’s my uncle,” Mr. Doran said.
“We are all so interested in and in awe of the sacrifices these men made. With Remembrance Day coming up, it is a timely reminder.”
Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak was falling through a darkened sky when he regained consciousness, rattled by searing pain from a broken collarbone, savaged leg, cracked ribs and a shoulder-to-elbow tear in his right arm.
The flaming hulk of the four-engine Lancaster bomber he was navigating over Nazi Germany fell away from him, signalling a calamitous end to his wartime flight duties on July 29, 1944.
"Our kite [airplane] was burning on the ground before I had sense enough to pull the ripcord,” Flt. Lieut. Novak later wrote in his secret prisoner-of-war diary.
The reassuring jerk of the parachute opening above him — “that lovely silk,” he called it — meant he would survive the crash, unlike four others in the seven-man aircrew. His fight for survival, however, was far from over.
Once on the ground, he was captured and after interrogation and medical treatment in a prison hospital he arrived at Stalag Luft III, the prisonerof-war camp where the famed Great Escape took place shortly before the arrival of Flt. Lieut. Novak. It was there that he was given a small notebook by the YMCA in Geneva.
The 31-year-old from Kenora, Ont., who died in 1986 without telling his family about his diary, developed a profound relationship with the 114-page book, keeping a secret diary of his harrowing experiences as a Canadian POW, a document that now stands as a rare, almost-daily account of prison life during the chaotic close of the Second World War.
In the now fragile pages of the diary, only recently uncovered and returned to his family — and revealed in the National Post in a three-part series — Flt. Lieut. Novak records his experiences in eloquent detail.
As a Western air force officer, he received better treatment than most prisoners of the Nazis. Stalag Luft III had sports equipment and a prisoner-built theatre. Flt. Lieut. Novak particularly liked the camp’s library and documented what he was reading in his diary. (Charles Dickens became a favourite.) But as the Russian army encroached from the east and the Allied invasion pushed from the west, conditions grew harsher. “Freezing and starving to death,” he wrote on Dec. 16, 1944.
“Explosions and the rumble of guns can he heard in the east. If we don’t get shifted from here within four days, our days of captivity may be at an end,” he wrote on Jan. 25, 1945.
Alas, the guards roused them and marched them west through the snow, away from the Russian advance.
“We have had no rations whatsoever from the Germans and we are keeping alive from our small reserve we managed to build up and the one Red Cross package we were given before we left … we haven’t been issued even a mouthful of water,” he wrote on Jan. 30.
They slept in a church and in a school along the way, with the men stuffed so tightly they had to lie on their sides, alternating head-to-feet to sleep.
“Four Americans died of cold and exposure,” he wrote.
On Feb. 3, the prisoners were packed into railway cars.
“The door slammed and locked and we were left to our own devices from 1730 hrs to 1800 hrs the following day.… Just enough room to crouch or sit in a pinch but were thankful to be crowded together for the sake of the animal heat that kept us from freezing. Bowel movements were either held or dropped through a hole in the floor we speedily made. No water. Man’s inhumanity to man!”
They reached their new home the next day, a camp near Luckenwalde, just 30 kilometres south of Berlin.
“Had to march us to the camp where we stood around a further two hours in the rain before we were admitted. Then it was nearly 10 at night before we got indoors as air raid was in progress to liven things up,” he wrote. “One American’s pack rope broke; he stooped to repair it, received three bullets in the back and a final resting place at the side of the road. Another fell on his face from sheer weariness — got three slugs in the head.
“[We’re] that much closer to home or death, don’t seem to care much which it is now.”
In Luckenwalde, Flt. Lieut. Novak was buoyed by a reunion with the two fellow survivors from his flight crew, but life grew increasingly severe.
"We get only enough [food] to subsist on and we are losing even more weight. By dint of denying ourselves, we managed to save up four loaves of bread between four of us. Today we find some lousy bastard has stolen one! I could cheerfully kill that animal with my bare hands,” he wrote on Feb. 17, 1945.
“Very lonely in spite of the crowd. Our room is up to 198 now. Very crowded. All types here at Luckenwalde — Norwegians, Poles, Americans, Canadians, Irish, British, New Zealand, Australia, French, Czech, Serb, Russians — and others — all in one gigantic stew.
“By God, I didn’t think I’d ever be reduced to eating potato peelings, but I started today. Anything to keep alive. When I think of all the food I used to refuse at home.… I damn near burst into tears.”
Flt. Lieut. Novak found his mechanical aptitude helped.
“To my delight I have discovered, or rediscovered, the use of my hands again. The absence of any sort of useful tools hampers my results but what I make are serviceable. All I have to work with are a knife and fork,” he wrote.
“Made a forced air blower burner out of tin cans — now can heat up some of our food, if we don’t run out of wood chips.… Blower works wizard — hot food is so much better.
“I have made an egg beater (wish we had eggs) for mixing up milk — which comes in powder form and has to be mixed with water,” he wrote a few weeks later. “Have put sturdy handles on cans and they can now be used as cups and, when we boil water, no longer burn fingers by hanging onto a tin can. Also a tin plate for each of us.… tins can be flattened and fastened together by my secret process.
“Pretty good, eh? The only snag is fuel, but we manage to scrounge enough — getting to be expert thieves by now.”
He later got his hands on a flint and some benzene and made a homemade lighter:
“Don’t have to worry about matches, of which there are very few.” On April 10, the prisoners were again loaded in railcars for a move, but after a few days standing still it became clear the railroads were beyond repair and they returned to Luckenwalde.
“Two Canadians shot while trying to escape — damned fools,” he wrote on April 14, 1945. “The Germans are trying to find out who escaped in the last three days. Quite a few did but I can’t see the sense of that as we are so near to freedom now. The risk is great and there is no need of it — just a foolish bravado in an endeavour to get your name in the papers. To hell with that! I want to live to grow old at home with my Beloved,” he wrote of his wife.
By mid-April, the war seemed won. “Feel sure we will be set free within seven days. See if I’m right… Can hear the rumble of guns once again and see flashes and glow at night,” he wrote on April 17.
“Terrific air raids night and day,” he wrote a few days later. “Can see the bombers in the daytime, see the markers go down and see the mushroom clouds of smoke as they hit the deck. We are rocked continually by blast but don’t mind as we are so near to freedom. Will soon be home, I hope, if I’m not killed before the end of the war.”
Liberation was indeed at hand, but he would not be returning home as soon as he had thought.
In fact, he would soon witness his greatest horrors.
Freedom came for the 40,000 prisoners of war at Stalag III-A not with the fanfare of an invading army but with a frantic fleeing of their frightened German guards.
While the end of captivity seemed anticlimactic for Royal Canadian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak, a 31-year-old airman from Kenora, Ont., he did not know that his liberation marked the beginning of fresh horror and depravation as he witnessed the chaotic close of the Second World War from his rare vantage point.
It took 29 days after liberation for the prisoners to be repatriated and while he waited within the barbed wire, Flt. Lieut. Novak documented appalling scenes for which even nine months in a Nazi prison camp had scarcely prepared him.
The atrocities he bears witness to in his 114-page diary, revealed here for the first time, serves as a shocking endnote to his account of ingenuity, courage and a deep longing for home.
"I am so full of horror and terrible sights that sometimes I wonder what humanity is made of to carry on in such a senseless and bestial fashion," Flt. Lieut. Novak wrote two weeks after liberation.
Among the acts he recorded and condemned: rapes and close-range shootings of civilians by Russian soldiers; the killing of Western POWs by their Russian allies in disputes over German women; freed POWs exchanging scraps of bread for sex with starving children and rampant sex with civilians seeking protection in the camp.
Before his liberation turned so sour, however, there was euphoria.
"I am no longer a prisoner, but once more a member of our Majesty's Air Force on active service," he proudly wrote on April 21, 1945. "All the Germans, guards and officers, have disappeared and we once-prisoners, 40,000 of us, have the camp to ourselves ... The majority took it quite calmly. No yelling, shouting.
"We have managed to get some machine guns, rifles and small arms. Just in case the Germans come back. Some of them were too slow in getting away and are now locked in the cooler where the former prisoners are their guards. Until troops arrived, all we can do is sit tight and wait."
German civilians arrived before the troops, however.
"Women and children fleeing the flames were at our gate screaming to be let in under our protection! What an irony! They who had us under their thumb are now on their knees begging," he wrote.
In the morning came the Russians, first by armoured car, and then, later in a convoy of a dozen tanks, followed by truckloads of motorized infantry.
"The whole camp went mad with joy!" wrote Flt. Lieut. Novak.
But it wasn't long before he saw cracks appearing. "Though we are free and have the run of the countryside now, we are still virtually prisoners and it is very irksome. Tempers are fraying.
"Russians are killing the Frenchmen who refuse to give up the German women they are living with," he wrote on April 25.
Because he could speak some German (his mother was German), he joined foraging parties with Russian soldiers searching for food, radios, and other items.
"The Russians are indeed heartless to the Germans and [I] have seen some unforgettable sights of their treatment. Germans shot at close quarters. One of the most horrible was the sight of a burly Russian soldier raping a German woman who was hysterical with fear and terror and in convulsions it seemed to me," he wrote on May 1.
"Ugly as it was, I was powerless to do anything for her."
The night before, there had been a skirmish outside the wire.
"This morning, looking over the field, such a scene of carnage and death met the eye that my stomach was almost sick, but past experience allowed me to take it with some sort of composure," he wrote.
Refugees continued to arrive.
"The stray women are attaching themselves to the men here and many are the couples that can be seen strolling the countryside and woods... Women very loose – a lot of the boys are sleeping with them and many have contracted V.D. Personally I value my health too highly.
"[The Germans] are sending their kiddies, pitifully thin and ragged, to the camp to beg for food. I am giving them what I can, for who knows, they may be some of my relatives, and I just can't but feel sorry for the wee tots who are so pathetically grateful for anything they get.
"Young women and girls are so desperate for food that they are selling themselves for scraps of bread – and filthy Poles and Frogs are capitalizing. I thought I had seen everything but this about tops it all. You come upon them all over the shop, in the woods surrounding the lager and by the lake."
Finally, on May 20, the POWs moved west and on July 19, Flt. Lieut. Novak arrived back home to find his wife had left him for another man and never told his family about his diary, but it was recently discovered and returned to his family.
He died in 1986 and can no longer provide answers to questions about his experience.Jonathon Vance, a history professor at the University of Waterloo who has extensively researched Canadian POWs, said Western airmen of the camp thought liberation was the end of the trauma only to find themselves in the thick of the Eastern Front.
"After they are liberated, it is in some ways their first chance to see what the war is really like on the Eastern Front. When they experience the sheer hatred that has been going on in the East for four years," he said.
"They are suddenly thrown into this world where values and norms are non-existent and it must have been a very strange situation for them."
In essence, he said, Flt. Lieut. Novak and his POW comrades were rudely thrown from one expression of hell to another.
Read more: http://www.nationalpost.com/news/story.html?id=2208253#ixzz0WZEy8wIhLETTER RESPONSE:
Copyright 2009 - National Post
I was interested in the account of RCAF Flight Lieutenant Anton Novak His Lancaster bomber was shot down in flames over Nazi Germany on July 29, 1944. One month earlier, my cousin, Flight Sergeant James Wesley (Wes) Shurvell, had a similar
The official record shows that on the night of June 28, 1944, his Mark III Lancaster bomber of RCAF Squadron 405 took off from RAP station Gransden Lodge, 50 miles north of London, England, on a raid to the Metz rail yards. Outbound, it was at tacked at 12,000 feet, from astern, by a night fighter in the vicinity of Rheims, France. The aircraft was so badly damaged it had to be abanadoned. Of the crew of seven, both LI gunners were killed, but the remainder survived and parachuted safely to the ground. Two crew members were captured, but Wes and three others evaded capture, and with the aid of the French Resistance, he was able to make it back to England months later. Wes passed away in March this year at the age of 95. He was one of eight young men from the western Manitoba village of Isabella to serve with Bomber Command. Six of them flew in bombers that were shot down — Wes was the only one to survive.
Regardless of the moral and political arguments surrounding the objectives and achievements of Bomber Command, the brave young men who flew into extreme danger night after night served their country well and Canadians should be proud of them.
H.F. (Gus) Shurvell Kinzston. Ont.
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