David Rosenthal bailed out of his Halifax bomber on January 29th, 1944, a few hours after completing a bombing run over Berlin.
Their plane had been badly damaged by flak and although barely flyable, the pilot had managed to keep the plane aloft a few more hours before ordering the crew to bail out over Holland. David spent the evening with some grateful Dutch citizens in a local tavern, before being picked up by the German police who sent him to an interrogation center.
Before long David and several other captured airmen were sent back to Germany as prisoners of war, their next stop, Stalag Luft III. This is where the Great Escape took place, two months later. David remained a prisoner until May 1945.
The 23rd Mission
On the night of January 29th, 1944, Pilot Officer David Rosenthal climbed aboard his Halifax III bomber, HX333 with eight other airmen to prepare for a bombing mission over Berlin, Germany. The crew had been in reserve that evening and had learned only an hour earlier that they would be called upon to join the mission. At 21 years of age, David was a veteran by RCAF standards, and was about to embark on his 23rd bombing mission over Germany. At 12:40am, their flight left from Lisset, England for the eight hour journey to Berlin and back.
The journey over the North Sea and across Denmark was fairly uneventful, although there were high clouds and danger of icing. Clouds obscured the target but the markers dropped by pathfinders were visible as the aircraft made its run. The bombardier lined up the target and told the pilot to open the bomb doors.
Hit by Flak
Just as he called out “Bombs Away”, a blinding flash and a terrific bang hit under the aircraft. The nose of the aircraft rose alarmingly and the pilot jammed the control column forward with his legs and managed to stabilize the aircraft. Enemy fire had destroyed the intercom, injured the gunner and ruined the turret. With no defences, the pilot headed the Halifax desperately for the Dutch coast, losing altitude constantly.
For the next four hours the pilot and copilot did everything possible to keep the aircraft above stalling speed, while continuing to be shot at by enemy anti-aircraft defences.
At around 07:30am, the pilot realized they didn’t have enough fuel left to cross the sea to England, so he ordered the crew to bail out. As the intercom had been lost, the message was passed by word of mouth through the plane.
Over Zwolle, Holland, the crew transmitted their last message, “Being shot up by flak, bailing out over Holland”. After the first six crewmen bailed out, it was Dave’s turn, leaving only the pilot and flight engineer to jump last. Dave’s jump from the Halifax was the first time he had ever used a parachute.
As it turned out, there was only one serviceable parachute left between to two men left in the plane, and neither of them would leave the other behind. So they agreed to try to land the aircraft together, which they did in an open field. The two men escaped from the wrecked Halifax but were later captured, as were the aircraft’s documents which they had been unsuccessful in destroying.
A Toast to the Queen
Dave had landed hard but was not seriously hurt. Off in the distance he heard a very loud crash as the Halifax came down in a nearby field. It was early morning in Holland and off in the distance he noticed a small village. He walked over to the village and found a small building with a light on in the window. Looking in the window he noticed tables and chairs and shelves of liquor, it was a tavern! Dave knocked on the door and a Dutch person welcomed him in. He spoke English well and made Dave a small breakfast.
Nearby men and women swarmed into the pub to see the English pilot and to shake his hand. The owner of the pub told Dave that someone had called the Dutch Police and that soon they would be coming to pick him up. Dave pulled out a large roll of British pound notes and offered to buy drinks for everyone. He asked the owner to make a toast to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and later a toast to Queen Elizabeth of England. They were very happy to oblige!
Interrogation and Incarceration
The Dutch Police arrived and escorted Dave to their barracks. For the next three days he was treated well. They did not need to interrogate him as all the information the Police needed was in the crashed Halifax.
Soon the German police arrived to take Dave away to the naval barracks in Amsterdam. He couldn't help smiling at the Dutch people he met in the railway stations as they sang and whistled British songs and flashed him the thumbs-up sign as he boarded the train. Four or five days later, Dave and a party of about 30 R.A.F. and American Air Force personnel were sent by train to Dulug Luft, the air crew interrogation centre, near Frankfurt.
Dave was finally reunited with the entire crew for one night, with the exception of one crew member who had found refuge with the Dutch Underground and who stayed hidden for several months before being captured. At Frankfurt, the crew was separated with the NCO’s going to their own camp, and the officers sent on a train to the POW camp at Stalag Luft III, near Sagan, Germany.
Compared to other prisoner of war camps throughout the Axis world, it was a model of civilized internment. There were many diversified activities in the camp available for prisoners. Sports were a life saver for many. There were theatre groups and musical events. All the professions were well represented and courses and lectures in many languages were given. It was here just a few weeks later that the mass escape of 76 officers occurred.
The Great Escape
At Stalag Luft III, a team of young officers from the Royal and Allied Air Forces started in the early 1943 to dig three tunnels which were code named “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”. The intention was to affect a mass escape. The tunnel Tom was discovered by the Germans and Dick was abandoned in favour of completing Harry as quickly as possible. Harry was completed in 11 months.
On the night of March 24, 1944, 76 officers broke out of the tunnel. Harry, which was 350 feet long and 30 feet underground, was the longest prisoner-of-war tunnel ever dug. Three made it back to England and 73 were recaptured. Of these, 50 were murdered by the Gestapo acting on orders from Hitler. This event was later to be known as the Great Escape. Afterwards all escape attempts were told to stop. Listening to their hidden radios, the prisoners knew that the war could not go on much longer.
The “Death March”
On January 27, 1945 orders were received that Stalag Luft III was to be evacuated since the Russian Army was approaching. Prisoners were told they could only take what little food or clothing they could carry. Between January and April, 1945, the prisoners were force-marched westward across Poland and Germany to prevent them from being liberated by advancing Russian forces.
The severe winter conditions under which the marches took place were appalling. The Red Cross supplied prisoners with some food rations but the deprivations were horrendous and added to the constant danger of starvation or freezing, Allied fighters strafed the march unknowingly.
Prisoners slept in the open on railway sidings, factories, freight cars, barns and stables. It was a harsh winter for the prisoners without adequate shelter, food or clothing. It is possible that as many as 8,000 Allied POW’s died during the marches.
David and the other surviving POW’s were liberated by the British Army May 2, 1945, in Lubeck, Germany. He was finally repatriated to England on May 7th, 1945, and arrived back in Canada on June 7th, 1945. His long ordeal was over.