Former gunner's PoW experiences laid bare in new book
Published on 7 October, 2017
A World War II hero has revealed he bailed out of his stricken bomber just seconds before it crashed and exploded.
Albert Gunn parachuted to safety but was captured by German soldiers and sent to a notorious Prisoner-of War camp.
The 93-year-old has vividly recounted the trials and tribulations he faced while battling hunger and fighting to maintain hope and his sanity in a new book called the “Last of the Kriegies”.
The Church of Scotland Elder was just 18-years old when he joined the Royal Air Force as a gunner and took part in many daring bombing missions over Germany.
In the book, Mr Gunn of Burntisland in Fife, one of the UK’s last surviving Bomber Command PoWs, describes the intensity and extreme danger of operational duties.
He reveals the circumstances in which his Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber suffered catastrophic engine failure during a raid on Berlin in December, 1943, forcing the crew to bail out.
Mr Gunn parachuted into hostile territory and like thousands of stricken airmen, was seized as a ‘Kriegsgefangener’- prisoner-of-war in German, nicknamed 'kriegie’ for short.
Despite his ordeal, Mr Gunn, who was sustained by his faith in God, bears no malice towards his captors.
"The war happened, I wanted to do my bit and I have no regrets," he said.
“I don’t hold a grudge against anyone involved in what happened to me while I was a PoW in Germany.”
Mr Gunn's story is one of five recounted by British airmen in the book which lays bare the frustration, baiting and harassing of prison guards as well as friendships made in the face of horror.
His daughter, Rev Gillian Paterson, said she was immensely proud of her father, who weighed less than seven stones when he was released.
"This is a long held dream that has been realised in seeing my Dad's story published,” said the minister of Wellesley Parish Church in Methill, Fife.
“From when I was a small girl, I have heard the stories of his time in the RAF which he loved, and also the trials of the prison camp.
“I am humbled by his bravery, and the courage of the countless others who served in World War II and since.
“But I am also inspired by the way my Dad has lived his life following his release from the prison camp."
Around 125,000 airmen served with Bomber Command squadrons during the Second World War and almost 60% were casualties.
A total of 55,573 airmen lost their lives and 9,838 became prisoners-of-war.
Recounting the beginning of his terrifying ordeal, Mr Gunn, who originally wanted to be pilot, wrote: “We had the benefit of an evening take-off just before dark and everything went smoothly.
“With full loading, it took some time for the Halifax to reach altitude, usually about 18,000 feet, and every effort was made to get to 15,000 feet before the enemy coast as light anti-aircraft guns could reach you at that height.
“We had no problems until nearing the German border with Holland; an aircraft quite close to us was attacked by a fighter and returned fire.
“Not long after this incident the engineer reported we were losing power in our starboard outer engine, and this became sufficiently serious to close the engine down and feather the propeller to avoid drag.
“As we were in a stream consisting of over 700 aircraft, we decided to carry on, using three engines and in fact were able to maintain altitude until we started to lose power on the starboard inner.
“With this obviously serious situation we started to lose height and decided we had no choice but to turn back.”
Mr Gunn, the only Scot whose story is outlined in the book, said the plane was already well into German airspace but despite jettisoning its bomb load, it could barely maintain altitude.
“The port inner engine then developed the same symptoms as the others and, as our height dropped, we realised we were in serious trouble,” he wrote.
“Pilot Andy Baird was having great difficulty in controlling the aircraft, with only one good engine, and it was decided we had to abandon it.
“I slipped on the chute and to my horror the pack landed on the floor, having pulled the straps, which in theory do not come undone until after the parachute opens.
“I folded them as best I could, holding the lot to my chest, and then had to negotiate the main spar and climb down under the cockpit instrument panel into the nose.
“I was faced with a very draughty black hole in the floor and without hesitation sat down, made sure I had the parachute handle in one hand and, holding the pack as tightly as I could, thrust myself out.
“It only seemed seconds after my parachute opened that I heard the aircraft seemingly coming back towards me, but in actual fact it was going in a dive toward the ground, which it hit with a tremendous explosion.”
Mr Gunn, a member of Kinghorn Parish Church near Burntisland, said he landed with a thump at the edge of a field.
“I quickly gathered my parachute and harness together, and as I tried to hide it as best I could in some bushes and shrubs.
“The rain was persistent and I looked for somewhere to shelter for the night, but any place I approached seemed to be well protected by barking dogs.”
Mr Gunn, former Session Clerk of Burntisland Parish Church, said he had walked for several hours when he realised that someone was following him.
“When I stopped walking, they stopped, and we continued in this way until I could see that I was approaching a T-junction and would have to go right or left,” he wrote.
“On my left, just short of the junction was a large tree, so I quickly moved behind it to see what my pursuer might do.
“I knew immediately that something was wrong, and a torch was suddenly shone in my face and a large rifle thrust against my chest.”
Mr Gunn said the soldier was German and the woman who was following him appeared with a group of armed men.
“One, with a Luger pistol, had no doubts as to what should be done with me, but fortunately the local police chief was also present and we proceeded towards the village,” he added.
Mr Gunn was eventually taken to a POW camp called Stalag Iv-B near a town called Muhlberg, around 35 miles from Leipzig, and given the number 26977.
His head was shaved to kill off lice and he was forced to wear shoes with wooden soles with a piece of material to put his toes in because his flying boots were confiscated.
Mr Gunn was allocated to Hut 50A which was cold and draughty and had bunks for 200 people in three tiers.
A bunk consisted of wooden boards with a straw mattress on top and thin blankets, relics of the First World War.
Months and months of tedium and hunger ensued and he and the other prisoners – mostly Allied soldiers and airmen - were liberated by Americans and Russian troops in April, 1945.
Mr Gunn eventually returned to the family home in Burntisland and left the RAF in February, 1947.
Over the course of his working life, which only concluded when he turned 85, he worked in the Naval yard in Donibristle near Rosyth in Fife, ran a family owned convenience shop in Burntisland and as an archivist for an architects firm.
Mrs Paterson said: "Dad's faith helped him greatly while he was in captivity and has been at the forefront of all he has done in his personal life, working career and church service.
"Despite what happened to him, he has nothing against the Germans at all.
"He is very pragmatic man who has never really blamed the guards at the camp or others for what they went through.
"I admire that hugely."
The book was released by Fighting High Publishing on September 23.
Mr Gunn is signing copies at a shop called Chapter and Verse on Burntisland High Street on Saturday, October 14 at 10.30am.