A Canadian bomber pilot imprisoned at Stalag Luft III — site of the famous ‘Great Escape’ during World War II — has died.
Art Crighton was 96. He crossed over on Sunday, 14th of July 2013 at the Kipnes Centre for Veterans in Northeast Edmonton.
In April 1942, Flight Lieutenant Crighton was at the controls of a two-engine Wellington bomber over Nazi-occupied Holland, en route to Hamburg in northern Germany.
The plane had a full bomb load and a crew of six.
Anti-aircraft knocked out an engine, and that was that end of that bombing run. When Crighton realized he no longer had control of his aircraft, he gave the order to bail. Everyone did — except his good friend, Dick Hower, the rear-gunner. For some reason, Hower didn’t hear the order to get out. His body was found in the wreckage.
Art Crighton landed safely in a tree, climbed down and buried his parachute. But it wasn’t long before he was spotted, taken prisoner and put on a train to Stalag Luft III, near the [then] Polish town of Sagan, 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin.
The POW camp was the size of a small city, holding about 10,000 prisoners in several compounds. The Nazis considered Stalag Luft III to be escape-proof. Towards the end of the war they discovered it wasn’t.
Crighton — who says he had “music in his blood” — played the trumpet and eventually formed an orchestra at the camp. He went on to become leader of a 40-piece band there.
In an interview I did with Crighton in March 2012, he pointed out that the Germans didn’t mind the POW’s getting involved in musical and theatre productions because it helped take their mind off escaping.
Canadians in The Great Escape
The interview was for a book by Ted Barris called The Great Escape: A Canadian Story. The book, by Thomas Allen Publishers, was released in the fall of 2013.
Barris’ book can be ordered by clicking on this link: http://www.amazon.ca/The-Great-Escape-Canadian-Story/dp/1771022728In March 1944 — after months of work digging a tunnel in the direction of woods outside the prison fence — 76 men did make it out. However, the plan was for 200 to escape. Turns out, the tunnel was about ten feet short of the trees … and prisoner #77, climbing out of a hole in the ground, was spotted by guards. The gig was up. Shots were fired and all hell broke loose. Only three Airmen ever made it to freedom. The rest were captured. Fifty were then executed on Hitler’s orders. Urns containing their ashes were brought to the camp where a funeral service was held.
Art Crighton played the Last Post.
The mass break-out from Stalag Luft III was the subject of a 1963 Hollywood movie called The Great Escape. The flick featured many big-name stars including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn and Richard Attenborough.
Crighton vividly recalled the night of the escape, and how the camp was abuzz that “tonight was the night.” More of his recollections of life at the camp and how things came down that evening can be found in Barris’ book.
Crighton taught music at the University of Alberta from 1949 until 1982. He continued to fly small aircraft long past his retirement.
Gordie King of Edmonton — another Canadian pilot who had been imprisoned at Stalag Luft III — was saddened by Crighton’s death. He said the man was well-liked by prisoners because his music had given them much joy. Turns out, the man who lived for music had given thousands of POWs a different kind of escape.
It was odd to see that Crighton and King saw so differently the famous breakout, now more than 70 years ago. Crighton was of the opinion it shouldn’t have happened. He thought it was a dumb idea, and perhaps it was. Hard to tell. Crighton felt the POWs should have waited out their time at the camp and enjoyed life as best they could because, he said, in 1944 the Germans knew the war was a lost cause … and it was just a matter of time before they’d be going home.
Crighton objected to POWs using wooden planks from the theatre for their escape tunnels since they had given their word that the wood would only be used to build the theatre. Crighton felt the Allied prisoners broke their promise, and that wasn’t right.
It was clear that while the two men had worn the same uniform, they had much different interests. Crighton poked fun at King for spending so much time in the camp playing soccer, instead of getting involved in music, plays and the like.
Listening to this, at the other end of a dining room table in Crighton’s home, was King who smiled and jostled in his chair, mimicking his days as a young soccer player.
Gordie King is the father of famed Canadian curler Kathy King. I’d interviewed Gordie in 2012 at his daughter’s home in south Edmonton. The man showed me a small plastic bag containing some soil. “Put your hand in here,” he said, holding the bag open. And so I did. “That’s from the escape tunnel,” he announced. It was obvious the Great Escape was also one of the greatest moments in King’s long life.
In the famous movie, Gordie King is the POW operating the air pump 30 feet down. I asked King if he said anything to the men who passed by him on their way out. “See you in London,” he said. He revealed they eventually got a post-card from one of the prisoners who made it safely to London.
When I finished with the interview at Art Crighton’s house, Crighton and Gordie King were sitting in the living room, Gordie on the couch and Art in a chair beside him. I shook hands with the two former POW’s and left, but not before reaching up to touch a model of an old bomber suspended by strings from the ceiling. “That’s our old Wellington,” Crighton announced. King smiled and nodded.
On 15 July 2016, the Edmonton Journal had news that several city streets would be named in Gordie King’s honour in Keswick, a new housing area being developed in the Windermere subdivision in southwest Edmonton.
Art Crighton was buried on the 23rd of July 2013. It was his wish there would be no funeral service. However, there was a “viewing” … and about two dozen people showed up.
Crighton did not have any children.
Author Ted Barris
Barris, acclaimed broadcaster and journalist, has written close to 20 books, many about Canada’s involvement in wars. He is currently a Professor of Journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.
More than a quarter of a century ago, I worked with Ted when he was a newsreader at CBC Radio in Edmonton. Ted was professional and thoughtful, and that comes through in the books he has authored. They include Behind the Glory, Deadlock in Korea, Victory at Vimy, Breaking the Silence, Days of Glory and Juno.
You and I stroll through a graveyard of long-forgotten soldiers and we see faded names on old tombstones. Barris, because of his compassion and love of country, gets to know these dead men and women. He hears their stories, feels their pain and he gives them a voice.
Ted Barris’ website:
Aside from the Edmonton Journal [which ran a paid obituary announcement], I’m not aware of any Canadian media outlet — save for this blog and author Ted Barris — that paid any attention to the death of former Stalag Luft III prisoner Art Crighton. Makes me wonder how many Vets there are whose passing goes virtually unnoticed.