07.11.1941 72 (Fighter) Squadron, Spitfire Vb W3367, Flt Lt. Henry Birkland MiD
Date: 7th November 1941 (Friday)
Unit No: 72 (Fighter) Squadron, 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command
Type: Spitfire Vb
Serial No: W3367 Lerumo
Location: Between Berck-Plage and Boulogne-su-Mer, France, France
Base: RAF Gravesend, Kent
Pilot: Plt Off. Henry ‘Hank’ Birkland MiD J5233 RCAF Age 25. PoW No. 689 */Murdered
* Stalag Luft 3, Sagan-Silesia, Germany, now Żagań in Poland. (Moved to Nuremberg-Langwasser, Bavaria).
Note: This Spitfire was donated by Basutoland and named ‘Lerumo’. It first flew on the 23rd April 1941 and was issued to 74 Sqn on the 12th June 1941 before being transferred to 72 Sqn on the 29th July 1941.
REASON FOR LOSS:
On the 7th November 1941 at 13:20 hrs eleven Spitfires took off from RAF Gravesend to join the Wing on a Rodeo to the Dunkirk - St. Omer - Boulogne area.
Rodeo Missions - fighter sweeps over enemy territory.
The French coast was crossed with little incident. When leaving the Boulogne area, Blue section were attacked by Fw190s from above and behind. Flt Lt. Campbell, Yellow Leader, and Plt Off. Rosser, Yellow 2 dived in turn on one of these Fw190s opening fire at extreme range with Cannon. Plt Off. Rosser saw pieces come away from the enemy aircraft which began to lose height rapidly. Flt Lt. Campbell and Plt Off. Rosser followed the Fw190 down, with Plt Off. Rosser closing in and firing until his ammunition was exhausted.
Flt Lt. Cyril Norman Stanley Campbell 44879 RAF was promoted to Sqn Ldr. and awarded the DFC whilst with 72 Sqn on the 6th February 1942. At the time of the award he was credited with 1 enemy aircraft destroyed and 1 other damaged. He was Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) as a Sqn Ldr. after the war on the 13th June 1946.
One Fw190 was claimed as damaged by Plt Off. Walter James Rosser DFC, 102991 RAFVR. He was awarded the DFC whilst with 130 Sqn on the 23rd June 1942. At the time of the award he was credited with 2 enemy aircraft destroyed and 4 others damaged. He survived the war and retired from the RAF as a Flt Lt. on the 20th February 1972.
The enemy aircraft was still going down through 4000 ft over Boulogne, but owing to heavy Flak both Spitfires broke off and regained height. Sgt. Rutherford, Yellow 3, reported he saw a Spitfire, believed to be one of Blue Section, going down Between Berck-Plage and Boulogne-su-Mer, France.
Sgt. John Rutherford 402254 RAAF was commissioned and promoted to Plt Off. on the 9th December 1941. He was repatriated to Australia on the 26th March 1942 and joined 76 Sqn, RAAF flying the P-40E Kittyhawk. He was promoted to Fg Off. on the 9th June 1942. He tragically died in an accidental gun shooting incident whilst off-duty at Port Hedland, Western Australia on the 14th February 1943.
Plt Off. Birkland’s Spitfire was the only aircraft that failed to return. There is no clear evidence whether he was shot down during the encounter with the Fw190s or by Flak. What is known is that he bailed out and became a PoW.
Plt Off. Birkland was eventually sent to Stalag Luft 3 where he was involved in the first mass escape attempt from the camp on the 12th June 1943. In this attempt two working parties of PoWs were each to be escorted out of the camp by two PoWs who were fluent German speakers disguised as camp guards. Flt Lt. Birkland was in the first group who successfully left the camp, dumped their uniforms under which they had civilian clothes, and made their escape. The second group were halted and discovered. All of the escapees were captured within a few days. (Ref 1, pp.186-187).
Flt Lt. Birkland earned for himself or was selected on an early position in the line of two hundred hoping to escape from the north compound of Stalag Luft 3.
On the night of the 24th-25th March 1944, 76 officers escaped from the north compound of Stalag Luft 3 which, at that time, held between 1000 and 1500 RAF PoWs. The escape was made by the means of a tunnel. At about 05:00 hrs on the 25th March the 77th PoW was spotted by guards as he emerged from the tunnel.
An overview of the German response to the escape and the subsequent British prosecution of those responsible for the murder of fifty of the escapees is summarised in the report entitled “The Fifty - The Great Escape”.
After exiting the tunnel Flt Lt. Birkland lead off a party of ten into the surrounding pine forest. After heading west for about 2 km or so the party split into smaller groups. Flt Lt. Birkland, Flt Lt. Brodrick and Fg Off. Street remained together. (Ref 1, p.196).
They struggled to make headway through the deep snow and decided once it was light they would have to settle down. The next night they moved off but could not find a way out of the forest and with the snow becoming increasingly deep they were soon struggling to make headway. (Ref 2, p.181).
When morning came again they hid in a bunch of bushes all day. By this time they were wet through and freezing so decided to start off again before darkness fell. In the middle of the night Flt Lt. Birkland became delirious so it was decided that they had to get under some sort of cover. They came across a building in the forest and as Fg Off. Street spoke German he knocked on the door and asked the owner for shelter. However, unbeknown to him four German soldiers were billeted there and that was the end of their bid for freedom. In 2½ days they had only covered 2 or 3 kms. (Ref 2, pp.194-196).
He and a number of recaptured officers were gathered together in Görlitz prison in Germany which was under the control of the Gestapo. Gradually the numbers of recaptured officers grew until thirty-five were held there.
On the 31st March two of the surviving officers witnessed a number of Gestapo agents collected the following ten officers and take them away; Flt Lt. C.P. Hall, Ft Lt. Birkland, Flt Lt. B. Evans, Flt Lt. G.E. McGill, Flt Lt. E.S. Humphreys, Flt Lt. P.W. Langford, Flt Lt. C.D. Swain, Fg Off. R.C. Stewart, Flt Lt. E. Valenta and Fg Off. A.D. Kolanowski. None of these men were seen alive again.
It was alleged that a Gestapo agent by the name of Lux selected and commanded the death-squad that carried out the order to execute selected prisoners.
Believed to be Kriminalobersekretär (Chief Detective) Walter Lux who was reported to have been killed in the Siege of Breslau in 1945.
No one was formally charged with the actual murder of Flt Lt. Birkland or for the other fifteen officers killed by Lux and his death-squad. The bodies of this group were cremated at Liegnitz (Legnica) in Poland and their urns returned to Stalag Luft 3.
Memorial to “The Fifty” near to Żagań (Courtesy: CSvBibra - Own work, Public Domain)
Above left Flt Lt. Birkland and right Grave marker
Flt Lt. Henry Birkland MiD. Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery, 7.C.3. Grave inscription: “BELOVED BY FAMILY AND FRIENDS ALIKE, HE GAVE HIS LIFE, KNOWING THIS RIGHT”. Born on the 16th August 1917 in Spearhill, Manitoba. Son of Kristian Martin and Botilda (née Johannssen) (His mother predeceased him in October 1930) Birkland of Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
Enlisted in RCAF on the 16th July 1940 and undertook his flying training in Canada. Earned his Pilot’s Wings on the 26th April 1941 and was commissioned and promoted to Plt Off. on the 27th April 1941, and to Fg Off. one year later on the 27th April 1942.
Promoted to Flt Lt. whilst being held as a PoW on the 27th April 1943.
Flt Lt. Birkland was Mentioned in Despatches (MiD) recognizing his conspicuous bravery as a PoW because none of the other relevant decorations then available could be awarded posthumously. Promulgated in the London Gazette on the 8th June 1946.
Above Memorial at Birkland Lake
Birkland Lake at Alberta, Canada has been named after Flt Lt. Birkland MiD.
Originally researched by Kelvin Youngs (Webmaster) for the relatives of the pilot. Thanks to Jack Brook for the correction the aircraft serial. (Oct 2015). Reviewed. And updated by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this pilot with additional thanks to Traugott for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’ (Jul 2022). Update to narrative and links (Aug 2022).
Other sources below:
1. Stalag Luft III - An official history of the ‘Great Escape’ PoW Camp - Published by Frontline Books - ISBN: 978-1-47388-305-5.
2. The Great Escape - Anton Gill - ISBN: 978-1-7201-5488-4