Prisoner of war diary available online

News Article / July 30, 2018

RCAF Public Affairs with files from the Comox Air Force Museum

A true Canadian military treasure has been digitized and is now available for everyone to see on the website of the Comox Air Force Museum.

Flight Lieutenant John Colwell was a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III—site of the famous “Great Escape”.

He documented his time as a prisoner, including preparations for the escape, in meticulous detail in a diary provided by the YMCA. As well as recording day to day events, he drew illustrations of camp living conditions, recorded daily menus and the Christmas 1944 menu, listed prisoner and air force slang, drew diagrams of the Great Escape tunnel, and much, much more. He was a “tinbanger”—making pots, pans and household items from tin cans. He even includes in his diary the numbers and types of tin cans used to make various items.

Flight Lieutenant Colwell was also directly involved in preparations for the escape. He was a “penguin”—one of the men responsible for covertly distributing the 86 tons of sand dug from the tunnels around the compound. He was slated to be the 146th person to go through the tunnel, but the escapers were discovered by German guards after only 76 had gotten out. All but three were recaptured and 50 were executed.

Following the war, he and his wife Fern took over the family poultry farm on near Lantzville on Vancouver Island. In August 2002, he donated his diary to the Comox Museum. Now, it has been digitized as a PDF and is available on the museum’s website.

Gary Brammer, who volunteers with the Museum, describes on the Museum’s website why the Colwell Diary is his favourite exhibit.

“I had no hesitation in picking the Flight Lieutenant Colwell Diary as my number one exhibit. The very fact it survived the war is incredible in itself. It gives us a detailed, unique look at the great escape from Stalag Luft III POW camp.

“The detail, colour, and story hidden within its pages is second to none, but there is also something else there that is the reason why it’s my favourite exhibit.

“I think we forget that the men who took part in this escape were in fact, young men, no more than boys. The inner strength and fortitude that drove these men to survive the brutal conditions alone is to be admired, but I think there is so much more. They had a pride and sense of duty that drove them on. They could have had a fairly comfortable safe war, just allowing the war to carry on outside the fence line but they felt a duty to do what they could to disrupt the German war effort in any way they could.

“The diary shows the incredible intelligence of these men in the way they used everyday items to make tools and find engineering solutions to tough problems. The diary shows team work, sacrifice, and the inner strength I think they all had.

“I hope that this diary can be used as a teaching tool to show our children today that they too can do more with what they have around them. The power and strength they have inside of each and every one hopefully can be brought out without having to face the same terrible adversity that these men had to face. Remember that 50 men were shot for showing the world their greatness when they succeeded in this ‘great escape’. May they not be forgotten, and this diary is a wonderful way to remember.”

Flight Lieutenant Colwell was born in India in 1916 and passed away in British Columbia on April 8, 2007.

Date modified: