Art Crighton survived Second World War to teach Music at U of A

Pilot Art Crighton had twice doused the flames shooting from both engines on his twin-engined Vickers Wellington bomber, but the third time he pressed the fire extinguisher, nothing happened.

by Nick Lees, Edmonton Journal - 7 May 2010

Pilot Art Crighton had twice doused the flames shooting from both engines on his twin-engined Vickers Wellington bomber, but the third time he pressed the fire extinguisher, nothing happened.

"We were at 10,000 feet, heading for Hamburg with a full bomb load and a crew of six," says the former flight lieutenant. "The machinery that operates the ailerons then failed and I lost control of the aircraft."

There was nothing to do but tell his crew to jump into the blackness of that April 8 sky over Nazi-occupied Holland in 1942.

"We had the great misfortune of losing our rear gunner," says Crighton, now, 92. "I don't know if he didn't hear my command to bail out or what happened.

"He was a family friend who was like my older brother. I've always felt responsible for him."

Crighton landed in a tree, climbed down, buried his parachute and checked the terrain. "I thought I'd found the best woods to cover myself in with leaves."

But he was captured and sent by train to Stalag Luft III, a permanent camp for air force officers near Sagan, Silesia, 160 kilometres southeast of Berlin.

The camp, later the site of The Great Escape, held 10,000 prisoners in several compounds.

"I played the trumpet and they needed a trumpet for the orchestra," says Crighton, who was sent to the north compound. There, prisoners built a theatre and put on quality, biweekly shows, featuring everything from the current West End shows to Shakespeare.

"Musical activities were tolerated by German guards because they preferred them to escape attempts," says Crighton. "Musical instruments were obtained through German sources, the Red Cross, the YMCA and other benevolent organizations.

"I could read music before I could read books and I taught every instrument except the violin.

"Music was my life. I was the conductor of a 40-piece symphony orchestra. But we also created a theatre orchestra for plays, a stage band modelled on the big bands of that era, a male chorus, a marching band for sports and outdoor activities and a chamber music society."

The Germans had given the prisoners a theatre site and a hut was put over a sloping floor, created by removing hundreds of tons of sand.

Seats, with ashtrays, were constructed for the 300-seat theatre from Red Cross crates. Lighting dimmers were created from biscuit tins, tar, salt water and pieces of wood.

"Prisoners were allowed dress uniforms from home," Crighton says. "Most men had no use for them. But I insisted musicians wear them for performances."

The canny camp commandant encouraged guards to take photographs, which were given to prisoners to send home.

"Other memories are less treasured, such as squatting on an abandoned roadway that ran through the camp, freezing in the winter cold and picking up bits of unburned tar from the macadamized road surface that would be used to cook our evening meal of turnip and barely soup," Crighton says.

Cheerless spirits were revived and prisoners with mild depression were renewed by representations of a world they had left behind, he says.

He knew theatre activities would be terminated if connected to an escapes or escape plan.

"I shut my eyes to escape plans. It still makes me weak when I think of The Great Escape and one man whispering to me, 'Art, we are going tonight.' "

Seventy-six men on the night of March 24-25 crawled through a tunnel to initial freedom. But the 77th man was spotted emerging.

"I was lying in bed when the siren went off and I heard a shot," says Crighton. "I knew it was all up."

Seventy-three of the escapees were caught. "We were later told 50 men had been shot while trying to escape," says Crighton. "There was no answer when we asked how many had been injured. That's how we knew they had been murdered."

On Jan. 28, 1945, prisoners had to join throngs of civilians, dogs, horses and chickens fleeing west to escape the Russian advance.

"Etched in my memory is that second dreadful night, which was the coldest night of my life," Crighton says. "I'm sure I would have died had it not been for a compassionate friend, who shared with me his roughly sewn sleeping bag."

Months later, a guard told them they could go wherever they wanted. He was in a farmer's barn when a soldier came by in a Jeep and told him he was free.

After the war, Crighton taught music at the University of Alberta from 1949-1982.

Today, he is probably the oldest survivor of RCAF 419 "Moose" Squadron -- still active at Cold Lake -- and recognized as the only pilot still alive who flew with "Moose Fulton," the squadron's first and legendary commanding officer.

"We had a frightening trip through the heavily defended valley of the Ruhr," says Crighton.

"Moose made me fly the plane while he was down in the bomb bay taking photos. 'Let's go over again,' he said. I told him he couldn't be serious. He was. He was fearless."

Fearless? Crighton took the controls of a friend's aircraft recently and landed it. "I think I was being watched very carefully," he says.

Originally published by the Edmonton Journal
Written Nick Lees