After spending most of my vacation working on a post for Remembrance Day, I turned my attention to a donation made by Laurie Clarke in September. To my regret, I wasn’t there when the donation came in, but I was fascinated by the artefact and the story.
At first glance the artefact seemed to be very ordinary, innocuous even- until you looked at the handle. The aluminum fork seemed too light to carry the weight of what we consider the most iconic symbol of evil we have ever seen- the eagle and swastika of the German Luftwaffe.
Jon has often expounded on the importance of the iconography of war. We see it in our Air Force roundel and in the German Iron Cross, but the swastika, originally a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, was corrupted and turned into a symbol of pure evil by Hitler and the German SS.
Intrigued I looked at the scans sent by Laurie and discovered her families scrapbook. In it is the story of her father, Robert Clarke and his time in Stalag Luft III. Carefully compiled by his mother Elizabeth, it is comprised of official documents, typewritten and handwritten letters and newspaper clippings.
Although not in chronological order, the military correspondence begins with a telegram notifying the family that their son is reported missing after a crash, and ends with the news that he has been transferred from Stalag III to Stalag IV. In between are letters from the other POW’s and their families and finally newspaper articles that fill in the gaps of the knowledge of what it was like to be a prisoner in probably the most notorious and well known German POW camp in WWII. While looking through this scrapbook I was surprised to note that the official correspondence notifying the family of Robert’s status were surprisingly empathetic despite their formality. I got the sense that the officers were genuinely sorry to have to put the family through such an ordeal and were trying their best to give them as much information as they were allowed.
I can’t imagine how heart-wrenching it must have been to wait almost a month to find out the fate of your child and harder still what it must have been like to worry about them being in the hands of the enemy as a prisoner. It must have been such a relief to have the father of another prisoner forward the letter of a POW from the same camp describing the conditions there as being fair, but the articles about the “Great Escape” and the death marches after the liberation by the Russians tell a very different story.
I also got a sense of how much people pulled together in Canada during the war. It would be extremely rare nowadays for a family to get a letter from a soldier’s previous employer offering their sympathies. Despite all our social media contacts and Facebook friends, the letters seem more real, more human somehow.
The Clarke family is justifiably proud of Robert and his service, and we are proud to be able to share their story with you. Our museum is currently redesigning the Colwell Diary exhibit to better display and interpret this invaluable artefact. I’m sure the Luftwaffe fork will be included in our new display, but when you visit also remember to visit the library and look through this fascinating document.
Corrine Bainard-CAFM volunteer.