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Wednesday November 11, 2009

He played a role in The (real) Great Escape

RCAF pilot helped dig a tunnel under Stalag Luft III, then survived by being in the hospital when his buddies started to crawl

In a sky as azure as a line from High Flight, a Lancaster bomber, its port engine cut and propeller stilled, flew in the sunlit silence over the playing fields of Upper Canada College in midtown Toronto on a sunny afternoon in late September.

Chased by a perky canary-yellow de Havilland Chipmunk, the flypast was an idiosyncratic but moving tribute to F/O John (Scruffy) Weir, a veteran of the Second World War, a pilot who loved to restore and own heritage planes and a man who had thwarted his German captors during nearly four years as a prisoner of war.

Above all, he was a survivor - and that includes The Great Escape from the infamous Stalag Luft III and a forced march across Germany in the dying days of the war.

Few people knew better than John Weir how to cherish life.

John Gordon Weir was born less than a year after Germany signed the armistice ending the First World War, a war that had scarred the life of his father, Colonel James Gordon Weir.

The elder Weir, a Presbyterian of Scottish descent, served on the front lines in the trenches in a machine gun battalion. By the time the guns stopped firing, he had been gassed twice, awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, and risen, literally through the ranks, from trooper to colonel.

After the war, he married a Canadian nursing sister, Mary Frederica (Freda) Taylor, and settled in Toronto, where their son John and daughter Nancy were born.

Col. Weir went back to his former trade as a bond salesman, eventually helping to found McLeod Young Weir, which became part of Scotiabank in 1988.

Unlike his father, John grew up in an affluent household and went to Upper Canada College.

School was a humdrum part of a much larger education, orchestrated by his father: How to survive in the natural and political wilderness. As the 1920s turned into the 30s, Col. Weir was convinced that fighting a second world war against the old foe was inevitable.

He wanted his son's survival and strategic skills honed, as Blake Heathcote illustrates in a forthcoming biography of F/O Weir.

As a youngster, John spent time in Algonquin Park under the tutelage of an Ojibwa fishing guide; as a teenager he was sent to France during school breaks to learn the language and customs; and every couple of years his father took him along on European business trips, where he observed the rise of Nazism in the mid-1930s and, on a couple of occasions, carried covert messages to desperate clients who were trying to escape from Germany.

Finally, Col. Weir sent his son to Timmins in northern Ontario in July 1938, to work underground in the gold mines to earn tuition money for university and get toughened up with hard physical labour.

On Sept. 4, 1939, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, Mr. Weir, barely 20, enlisted in the nascent and ill-equipped Royal Canadian Air Force. He was called up in November, sent to a civilian flying school in Winnipeg and then shipped back east, eventually being posted to Trenton, to train on fighters. After appearing on dress parade wearing a uniform stained with glycol, a visiting RAF group captain observed that F/O Weir was "rather a scruffy looking individual." And "Scruffy" he remained.

About this time he met Fran McCormack on a blind date. "We just hit it off; it was quite magical," she said nearly 70 years later. They danced together like champions and she brought out the playful side in him - although it was never far from the surface. On at least two occasions, he "bombed" her with notes dropped in handkerchiefs from training planes over her Forest Hill neighbourhood, a courting ritual impossible to imagine being overlooked by aviation authorities today.

F/O Weir shipped out in August, 1940, arriving on the south coast of England in the middle of the Blitz at the apogee of German invasion fears. He was posted to Squadron 401, which had sustained heavy losses in the Battle of Britain, and had been re-assigned to Thurso, Scotland, to regroup while protecting the skies over Scapa Flow, the main British naval base.

By October, 1941, Squadron 401 had been posted to Lancashire and re-equipped with Spitfires, which were faster than Hurricanes and more agile than Messerschmitts. F/O Weir, who had accumulated 1,000 hours of operational flight time, had far exceeded the life expectancy for new fighter pilots - approximately six combat hours. His luck was about to expire.

Flying sweeps with a rookie tail man over Abbeville, one of the main Luftwaffe bases in Normandy, he was shot down by a coven of Messerschmitts. In the melee, the gunner was killed and the cockpit and fuel tank burst into flame. F/O Weir bailed out at 26,000 feet, a dangerously high altitude without an oxygen mask, and landed - burned, battered and bootless - about 30 km southwest of Caen.

His eyes were almost fused shut and the skin on his hands, face and neck was seared. A French farmer led him, nearly blind and in shock, to a tree stump and told him to wait for the Germans. That's how he began his nearly four years as a POW, first in a German hospital, then in Stalag Luft I on the Baltic.

"It was a nightmare," said Mrs. Weir about the three dreadful weeks that her fiancé was missing in action. She was working at Simpsons (now the Bay) as a personal shopper when she received an urgent message to go to the office. Thinking she was about to be fired, she was overjoyed to learn the real news - F/O Weir was alive, albeit in a POW camp. Her relief was so palpable that she quit her job and began working for a research facility in the war effort.

Overseas, hatching escape plots was the primary conversational currency - tunnelling, sneaking under the wire, or jumping from trains when being transported from one camp to another. And escape is what F/O Weir did a couple of days later when hundreds of Allied airmen were marched to the local train station, bound for Stalag Luft III, the "escape-proof" POW camp deep in Poland. But freedom lasted only a couple of days before he was rounded up in the local whorehouse, marched to Gestapo headquarters, brutally beaten, and loaded aboard another train.

With 300 other prisoners, he arrived at Stalag Luft III, near Sagan (about 160 km southeast of Berlin) in mid-April, 1942, and immediately joined the X, or escape, committee - even though the camp had been deliberately designed to thwart tunnelling. The barracks in the four compounds were raised several inches off the ground so guards could observe covert digging; the sandy subsoil, which was structurally fragile, was bright yellow and easily detected against the grey surface soil; finally, the Germans had embedded seismograph microphones around the perimeter of the camp to amplify digging sounds.

But they weren't counting on the determination and organizing skills of RAF squadron leader Roger Bushell. He was shot down in March, 1940, and had survived at least four POW camps and several escape attempts before arriving in Stalag Luft III in October, 1943. He immediately developed an ambitious master plan for three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry - and an escape strategy to spring more than 200 men, equipped with civilian clothes or uniforms, identity papers and travel documents.

That summer that F/O Weir had spent in the mines in Northern Ontario had taught him the significance of shoring up tunnels so they wouldn't collapse and bury the diggers. Luckily, his old pal Wally Floody from Toronto and the mines, was also a POW. He became X Committee's master tunneller - his first decision was to use Klim tins (the packages of powdered milk sent in by the Red Cross) as scoops to dig straight down for 30 feet, (thereby making a smaller sound field for the guards) before levelling and stretching ahead horizontally. The tins were also modified and strung together to form air ducts to bring fresh air from the surface into the tunnel, a bonus for F/O Weir, who was inclined to veer left and downward. The row of tins helped keep him from digging in a circle.

Despite the ingenuity and the perseverance of the POWs, the Great Escape was stalled more often than not. In December, 1943, with Tom and Dick abandoned and the obvious dumping grounds exhausted for the mountains of yellow sand coming out of Harry, the ambitious escape plans were put on hold.

That's when Wally Floody persuaded his pal to consult a visiting Red Cross doctor about his deteriorating eyesight. Because his eyelids were gone, he did everything - including sleeping and digging - with his eyes wide open, leaving them vulnerable to disease, damage and fatigue. The doctor convinced him that he would eventually go blind if he didn't seek treatment. Consequently, F/O Weir agreed to be transferred to a German hospital for plastic surgery.

He thought he would be away for a couple of weeks. In fact, he was there for several months serving as a guinea pig under the experimental care of David Charters, an extraordinary Scottish ophthalmologist with the Royal Army Medical Corps, who had been captured in Greece in 1941. By 1943, having turned down an opportunity to be repatriated in a prisoner exchange, he was the chief medical officer at Stalag IXB at the spa town of Bad Soden, near Frankfurt.

Major Charters did a series of experimental skin grafts on F/O Weir, slowly rebuilding his upper and lower eyelids - without anesthetic. Before operating, he trained F/O Weir in self-hypnosis, according to Mr. Heathcote's vivid account, as that was the only way the patient could withstand the pain of the scalpel and keep his eyes still enough to avoid being blinded during the multiple surgeries. It took until late spring, 1944, for F/O Weir to heal enough to be sent back to Stalag Luft III.

Major Charters saved his sight, and probably also his life, for without the long hospitalization in Bad Soden, F/O Weir would surely have been crawling through Harry on Friday night, March 24, 1944. Of the 76 men who slithered through the tunnel before the Germans discovered the escape attempt, only three made it to safety. Defying the Geneva Convention, 50 captured prisoners were executed either singly or in pairs. F/O Weir arrived back in Stalag Luft III (about the same time as D-Day) to learn that many of his fellow prisoners had been murdered.

By this time, the Germans were clearly facing defeat. Camp conditions deteriorated, with Red Cross parcels of food and medicine frequently disappearing into German hands and open hostility breaking out between the guards and the prisoners. As the Russians advanced from the east in the bitter January weather, the Germans, fearing retaliation for earlier atrocities, forced the hungry and ill-clad prisoners to march westward deeper into war-ravaged Germany.

F/O Weir, his survival instincts in overdrive, decided making a break for freedom would greatly increase his chances of staying alive until the end of the war.

He bribed a guard to organize a cart and horse and to pretend he was escorting four POWs to a prison camp near the coast. In exchange, F/O Weir invented an amnesty agreement, scribbled it on a piece of paper, had his three pals sign it, ripped it in half and gave one portion to the guard.

If they made it to Lubeck, on the Baltic, and linked up safely with the invading Allies, the POWS would rejoin the pieces of paper and vouch for the guard. F/O Weir never told his family the worst of the horrors he had witnessed or what he himself may have done to survive that trek through war-ravaged and SS-infested Germany.

Considering he left Sagan weighing 124 pounds and had gained nearly 40 pounds by the time he was liberated by the Allies in Lubeck three weeks later, he had clearly drawn upon his ingrained survival instincts to make the appropriate decision.

After the war, he returned to Canada, married his sweetheart, cashed in nearly four years of back pay from his truncated flying career, and embarked on a profitable career as a bond salesman for Wood Gundy - his father's strict rules against nepotism meant that the doors of McLeod Young Weir were firmly closed to him.

The Weirs eventually had three children. In an extraordinarily close marriage, they travelled extensively and enjoyed weekends and vacations at a large farm they bought in the mid-1950s in the Mulmur Hills north of Toronto. By the time he finally retired from Wood Gundy, long past the age most people call it quits, he had helped found the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton and African Lion Safari, near his father's birthplace in Flamborough, Ont.

John Gordon Weir John Gordon Weir was born in Toronto on July 22, 1919, and died there on Sept. 20, 2009. He was 90. He leaves his wife Fran, his three children and several grandchildren.

LEST WE FORGET

We pause to remember veterans of the Second World War on the Obituaries page. They survived the war and rebuilt their lives, often repressing the horrors they had witnessed. They may have succumbed to illness and old age, but their courage and their valour flourish. To those who fought in that great bloodletting from 1939-1945 - and those who stand on guard at home and abroad today - we owe an enormous debt of sacrifice and remembrance.

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