FROM CLONGOWES COLLEGE TO ‘THE GREAT ESCAPE’

by ehistoryadmin on May 16, 2015

Flight Lieutenant Michael J. Casey: from Clongowes College to the Great Escape

James Durney

The Clongownian 1946

Flight Lieut. Michael Casey (O.C. 1927-’30)

Michael Casey came here as a very small boy and remained three years in the III Line, when he went to Stonyhurst. He was very popular and good at cricket, even at that early age. He was taken prisoner after a dramatic hedge-hopping encounter early in the war, and we learn, that later, he was shot under tragic circumstances.

M. K.

While searching for Clongownians killed in the Second World War I came across these few lines in the school’s yearbook for 1946. This entry led me on a quest to find out more about the above named Michael Casey. Little did I know that Flight Lieutenant Michael J. Casey was one of the men who escaped from Stalag Luft III in March 1944 – the Great Escape made famous in the Hollywood blockbuster starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

Michael James O’Brien Casey was a product of the British Empire. He was born in Allahabad, northern India, on 19 February 1918, the son of Michael Lewis Casey, whose home address was given as Hollywood, Co. Kildare. Michael Lewis Casey was the Inspector General of the Indian Police Service – an Inspector General being head of the police in each province in India. Allahabad is in the northern province of Rutter Pradash. From 1893 most new entrants to the top echelon of the Indian Police Service were appointed by examination or selection in the UK. Details on Michael Lewis Casey are scarce, but it is known that he was born c.1880-1890 and died before 1944. Michael James Casey attended Clongowes Wood College when he was nine, but is not known if his family were living in Co. Kildare. Clongowes Wood, formerly Castle Browne, about a mile from the village of Clane, was purchased and opened as a college for the education of the sons of the Catholic nobility and gentry in 1814. Mike, as he was known, remained three years at Clongowes, where he was popular and good at cricket. The ‘School List’ published in The Clongowes Record (1814-1932) gives Michael James Casey’s school years as 1927-30 and his address as Bedford and Rathangan. He possibly had relatives in Rathangan, Co. Kildare, and the 1901 and 1911 census records several families with the surname Casey residing in the Rathangan area. Peter Casey, Mullantine, Rathangan, served with the 3rd Indian Airborne Division, for four years during WWII. He was a brother of Jack Casey, who played with the English champions Warwickshire against Down in the 1946 Junior All-Ireland football final (Down 2-10; Warwickshire 1-09).

Mike Casey returned to England to further his education at Stonyhurst where, according to Jonathan E. Vance in A gallant company. The men of the Great Escape, he was ‘popular at school, both for his athletic prowess in boxing, rugby and cricket and for his moral strength, manifested in his attention to religious duties’. Vance mentioned that Mike spoke with a ‘warm Irish brogue’. In April 1932 Mike Casey enrolled in Stonyhurst College, a Catholic boarding school adhering to the Jesuit tradition, in Clitheroe, Lancashire. He passed the Lower Certificate from Grammar two years later, and then spent two years in Syntax before leaving Stonyhurst in July 1936, when he was nineteen. He was captain of the Boxing Team for two years and was also a member of the Rugby Team for two years. Mike received his colours in rugby, and in cricket, having occasionally played for the First XI in 1935. He became a full member of the cricket team during his last season. Mike bowled Amar Singh Lodha, the Indian Test cricketer, for 0 in a match against Mr. F. Dutnall’s XI – to the surprise of both bowler and batsman. He was sturdily built, and endowed with considerable strength, which he used with excellent control. His obituary in The Stonyhurst Magazine said:

This control extended also to his moral character. He was very popular, for he never seemed to be out of temper, was invariably respectful to those in authority, and, withal, attentive to his religious duties.

Mike finished school in July 1936 and applied for a ‘Short-service Commission’ in the Royal Air Force under the scheme then in force. Shortly before the outbreak of war in Europe his sister, Mollie, married the son of an influential and respectable Tyneside businessman, a young man who Mike had known at Stonyhurst. Through this union Mike met the young man’s sister, Marjorie Jean, whom he subsequently married at Bicester, on 19 September 1939. Marjorie Jean was the eldest daughter of Dr. and Mrs. R. J. Weidner, of Tynemouth.

War had been declared between Britain and Germany in September 1939 and a little over a week after his wedding Mike’s unit, 57 (Blenheim) Squadron, was posted to France. On 16 October 1939 Mike Casey and his crew were flying a Blenheim 1 (L1141) on a reconnaissance of the main road between Wesel and Bocholt, in Germany, when they were spotted by a Luftwaffe fighter plane. According to the German pilot, the Blenheim led him in and out of cloudbanks before taking him on a mad pursuit across the countryside around Emden. Casey, described as a ‘good, adroit and skillful airman’ used every dip in the ground, every hedge and every tree as cover, in what his German pursuer called ‘an aerial steeplechase’. The Blenheim skimmed over rooftops, sometimes barely six foot off the ground, until finally the fighter’s gunfire found its vitals. With no time to lower the undercarriage Mike landed the Blenheim in an open field. The crew bailed out with moments to spare as the Blenheim burst into flames. They gave a hearty wave to the German pilot circling overhead. German troops arrived rapidly and the aircrew were taken off to the first of several prisoner-of-war camps.

An account of Mike Casey’s exploit appeared in The Times of 21 October 1939 and was quoted in full in The Stonyhurst Magazine for December of that year. Later on, The Universe magazine reported that Casey ‘is now safe in a German prison camp. He has been seen by a German Catholic priest and is able to hear Mass once a week’. The Catholic prisoners of war had not been able to attend Mass in this camp, but it was largely due to Mike’s initiative and agitation that facilities for Mass and the Sacraments were eventually provided. In his last camp Mike attended Mass and received Holy Communion every morning. Mrs. Marjorie Jean Casey was informed of this by a repatriated officer, who not only expressed his admiration at Michael’s practice of his religion, but said that he was the most popular officer in the camp with both prisoners and guards alike.

Mike Casey arrived in Stalag Luft III in 1942. Wing Commander Ken Rees, one of the Great Escapees, wrote of his first impression of the camp: ‘That first grim view of Stalag Luft III was not designed to make you feel anything but that you were miles from anywhere, isolated even if you were in company. You saw barbed wire and bare new-cut wood, a bleak vista of tree-stumps where what appeared to be endless woods had been cut down and this camp carved out of vast, unfriendly wilderness.’

Stalag Luft III (Stammlager Luft, or main camp for aircrew), which opened in May 1942, was situated in the German province of Lower Silesia, near the town of Sagan (now Żagan in Poland), 100 miles southeast of Berlin. The site was selected because it would be difficult to escape by tunneling. The camp eventually encompassed sixty acres and held 10,949 inmates – 2,500 RAF personnel, 7,500 USAAF aircrew and about 900 other Allied airmen. From April 1943 the majority of the British aircrew were situated separately in a newly-built compound, the North Compound, where the Great Escape occurred. The North Compound was a few hundred yards from the original camp, but was on the other side of the German administrative and living quarters and by the end of the war held 1,500 men.

The duty of all captured prisoners was to escape and as soon as they were organized the inmates began plotting to do so. Mike Casey was part of the Permanent Escape Committee which began hatching plans for prisoners to vacate their new environment as quickly as possible. The chances of getting back to Britain were slim, but if escape attempts caused the German authorities major disruption it would be considered part of the overall war campaign. The original plan was to dig three tunnels, codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry, and get as many men as possible out at the one time. However, Tom was discovered soon after it was started and it was decided to use Dick to store the spoil from Harry as it was dug. The plan was to free 200 men and priority was given to men who had the best chance – German speakers and the like. Names were drawn from a lottery. One of them was Mike Casey. He was strong-box treasurer and concealment officer in charge of all forged documents, filing and money.

On the night of 24-25 March 1944 seventy-six men made it out of the tunnel that ran for 348 feet from Hut 104 to the woods beyond the camp. The escape – the single greatest flight for freedom attempted by Allied POWs during WWII – was masterminded by South African Roger Bushell (Big X in ‘The Great Escape’ movie, played by Richard Attenborough). Twenty-one of the escapees were British, the rest from all other Allied nations, although none of them were American. While the characters played by Steve McQueen (Hilts, ‘the Cooler King’) and James Garner (‘the Scrounger’) were fictional, they were a conglomeration of several real-life inmates.  Only seventy-six men, from an expected 200, got out as the escape attempt was discovered before all the escapees exited the tunnel. Three prisoners, two Norwegians and a Dutchman, made it back to England; the rest were recaptured.

A huge manhunt involving troops, police, Gestapo, Home Guard and Hitler Youth was launched to recapture the escapees. At first Adolf Hitler had ordered that all the escapees were to be found and shot, but he was persuaded by Herman Goering to reduce this number of deaths to fifty, otherwise their guilt in the murder of prisoners of war would be impossible to conceal and might encourage reprisals against German POWs held by the Allies. Eventually Hitler calmed down, but still insisted that an example had to be made: fifty were to be shot and cremated. General Nebe, head of the Kriminalpolizei, selected the fifty to be shot, but it was not known how they were picked. They were driven singly or in small parties to quiet locations and shot. The deaths were explained away as shot ‘while attempting to re-escape.’ All the official reports stated that the prisoners were shot as they dashed for freedom while their guards allowed them to relieve themselves.

Mike Casey headed south with another escapee. Both were dressed in civilian clothes and posing as foreign war workers. When stopped near Gorlitz by police their papers did not stand up to scrutiny and they were arrested and held with other recaptured escapees in the town jail. On 31 March 1944 six recaptured prisoners, including Mike Casey, were taken from Gorlitz Jail to a nearby wood. According to Gestapo agent, Scharpwinkel, another agent, Lux, informed them that they had been sentenced to death by order of the Supreme Military Commander, Adolf Hitler. Lux asked the prisoners some questions if they were they married, or had they children? Scharpwinkel said the prisoners showed considerable calm as they stood next to each other in the wood. Lux gave the order to shoot and the detachment of accompanying troops opened fire. Lux also fired. By the second salvo all were dead. The official byline was that the prisoners were ‘shot while resisting arrest, and some in the course of a new attempt to escape after capture’. The remains were ordered to be cremated at Gorlitz.

When news of the murders was announced the entire prison camp was horrified. Many of the Luftwaffe guards were also horrified and tried to distance themselves from the murders, insisting that it had nothing to do with them and was the work of the Gestapo. To allow an outlet for the festering bad feelings the camp authorities allowed the prisoners to build a memorial for their dead comrades and urns containing the ashes of the fifty murdered prisoners were placed in a special mausoleum. The memorial was designed by Squadron Leader Hartnell-Beavis, a former architect, and a working party under parole with an armed escort, built it in the local cemetery. (In 1994 all the ashes were transferred to the Old Garrison Cemetery at Poznan, Poland.)

Word eventually filtered back to the UK, and later Ireland, that the recaptured escapees had been brutally murdered by the German Gestapo. In the National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration), 1858-1966 there is an entry for Mike Casey:

Casey, Michael James O’Brien of 3 Font-street Tynemouth Northumberland died 25 March 1944 on war service. Administration Newcastle-upon-Tyne 18 February to Marjorie Jean Coleman Casey widow. Effects £506 10s 5d.

After the end of the war the hunt for the killers of the escapees revealed that Gestapo agent Lux had been killed in the fighting in 1945. Agent Scharpwinkel was interviewed in Russian custody in 1946 by British officers who requested he be handed over to them. He claimed he was an ‘observer’ to the killings and that Lux had participated in most of the killing. British investigators did not believe this, but Scharpwinkel ‘disappeared’ in the Soviet zone and was never heard of again. Thirteen Gestapo agents were found guilty of murder and were hanged at Hamelin Jail, Hamburg, in early 1948.

In March 2009, on the 65th anniversary of the Great Escape, twelve former inmates of Stalag Luft III returned to the site of the camp and tunnel. Alfie ‘Bill’ Fripp (then ninety-five) returned with eleven other veterans to mark the anniversary. He had helped in the escape through his job in charge of collecting Red Cross parcels from a depot in a nearby town by ‘liberating’ numerous items for the tunnelers, such as wire cutters, files and other tools. Bill Fripp was a crew member of Blenheim L1141 in which Mike Casey was the pilot. He said, ‘When I saw the site of Harry the tunnel, I thought of Mike and said a prayer for him.’

Sources

Daily Mail 23 March 2009. ‘Veteran British prisoners visit Stalag Luft III to mark the 65th anniversary of the real Great Escape,’ Allan Hall.

National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administration), 1858-1966.

The Clongownian 1946.

The Clongowes Record (1814-1932).

The Stonyhurst Magazine 1944.

Simon Read. Human game. The hunt for the Great Escape murderers.

Ken Rees, with Karen Arrandale. Lie in the dark and listen. The remarkable exploits of a WWII bomber pilot and Great Escaper.

Stephen Stratford. ‘British military and criminal history 1900-1999.’

Jonathan E. Vance. A gallant company. The men of the Great Escape.

 

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