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During WWII, my dad, George Edwin Farrar, was a waist gunner on a B-17 crew of the 384th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Forces’ (USAAF) 8th Air Force. The 384th was based in Grafton Underwood, England. Dad was “Ed” to family, but in the Army Air Forces, he was known as “George.”
During the war, Lawrence Newbold was a wireless operator on an Avro Lancaster crew of the 50 Squadron of the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The 50 Squadron was based in Skellingthorpe, England. He was also known as “Lawrie” and signed a letter to my father as such (although I originally read it as “Laurie.”)
While the British Royal Air Force flew night bombing missions over Germany during WWII, the US Army Air Forces flew daytime missions. The result was constant, continuous bombardment against the Nazis in the European Theater.
On the night of March 18, 1944, Lawrence Newbold’s 50 Squadron took part in a mission to Frankfurt, Germany. In the course of the mission, his Lancaster was shot down and Lawrence bailed out over Germany. After interrogation, he was likely first confined to the Stalag Luft VI prison camp near the town of Heydekrug, Memelland (now Šilutė in Lithuania), although I am not certain that was his original camp.
In July 1944, the POW’s of Stalag Luft VI were moved to the Stalag Luft IV prison camp in Gross Tychow, Pomerania (now Tychowo, Poland), which had opened in May. Whether Lawrence was one of the prisoners who endured the dreadful transfer from Stalag Luft VI to IV, via crammed railroad boxcars, the dismal hold of a ship, and the torturous “run up the road” (also known as the “Heydekrug Run” – more on this subject at a later date), I do not know, but I do know at the time he was captured, Stalag Luft IV was not yet open and he was transferred there sometime on or after the opening in May 1944.
On the morning of September 28, 1944, George Farrar’s 384th Bomb Group took part in a mission to Magdeburg, Germany. Coming off the target, another of the group’s B-17’s collided with George’s. George, who was luckily wearing his parachute, was thrown from the aircraft which had split in two in the collision. After interrogation and a lengthy hospital stay, he was confined to Stalag Luft IV in late November, around Thanksgiving.
Lawrence and George were assigned to Room 12 of an unknown barracks and lager of Stalag Luft IV. Within weeks the newfound roommates would spend Christmas 1944 together. Lawrence undoubtedly would like to have been home to spend Christmas with his wife Marjorie and their son Michael, and George was likely dreaming of Christmas with his parents and eight siblings.
In a Christmas POW postcard to his mother, George wrote,
Hope everyone had a nice Christmas. We had as good as can be expected here.
I often think of how alone and scared my dad must have been at Christmas 1944 in a prison camp with no family to comfort him. But this year I have a new perspective. This Christmas is the 75th anniversary of the Christmas Dad spent in Stalag Luft IV and I will think of it as the Christmas Dad spent with Lawrence Newbold and his POW family of “Room 12.”
This year is special because Stephen Newbold, the son of Lawrence Newbold, and I, the daughter of George Farrar, met for the first time. When I was in England for the 384th Bomb Group reunion in September, Steve and his son, Paul, and I met in the village of Grafton Underwood, where Dad’s 384th Bomb Group’s airbase was located.
Dad would never have believed that seventy-five years after he and Lawrence Newbold endured the horrors of imprisonment in Stalag Luft IV and the 86-day 500-mile march to liberation during WWII, their descendants would have the opportunity to meet. At our meeting, the connection was instantaneous. I predict our friendship will be long lasting and I look forward to a future visit to England which must include meeting more of Lawrence Newbold’s descendants.
Even though George and Lawrence are both gone now, our pride in the sacrifices they made for us seventy-five years ago will live on through their children, grandchildren, and many generations to come.
On this 75th anniversary of the Christmas George and Lawrence spent together in 1944, to my newfound friends, Steve and Paul Newbold, and the Newbold family members I have yet to meet, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2019
Question: Why did the caterpillar cross the pond?
Answer: To save the lives of airmen who were forced to bail out of disabled aircraft, like George Edwin Farrar of the 384th Bomb Group of the USAAF 8th Army Air Forces and Lawrence Edgar Newbold of the RAF 50 Squadron in WWII.
I recently wrote about Lawrence Newbold here. Lawrence was forced to bail out of his Avro Lancaster on March 18, 1944 on a mission to Frankfurt. Six months later, my dad, George Farrar, was thrown from his disabled B-17 on September 28, 1944 on a mission to Magdeburg. Dad and Lawrence were assigned as fellow POWs in Room 12 of the Stalag Luft IV prison camp.
I even more recently was able to connect with Lawrence Newbold’s family in England and his grandson Paul Newbold kindly shared a photo of Lawrence’s Caterpillar Club certificate and pin with me.
Seeing Lawrence’s Caterpillar Club certificate and pin jogged my memory of how important a wonderful invention – the parachute – was to the airmen of WWII and specifically to my dad and to me. If my dad hadn’t been wearing his in his midair collision of September 28, 1944, he would not have survived, married my mother, and had me or my sister.
During WWII, several companies manufactured and sold parachutes to both the American and British military. The Irvin Air Chute Company was one of them, as was the Switlik Parachute Company.
In 1919, Leslie Irvin, a stuntman from California, borrowed a sewing machine and made the first “free drop” parachute, which he demonstrated himself to flying safety experts. He so impressed them that the American and British Air Forces adopted the parachute as standard equipment. Irvin established his first American factory in Buffalo, New York that year and his first European factory in Letchworth, England in 1926. The Irvin Letchworth factory produced a peak of nearly 1,500 parachutes a week during the height of WWII.
Both the Irvin and Switlik companies began Caterpillar Clubs which awarded certificates and pins as testimony to the life saving ability of the parachute. The requirement for each was that the applicant must have bailed out of a disabled or flaming aircraft under emergency conditions.
The name of the club came about because in the early days of the parachute, they were made from pure silk. The clubs used the symbol of the silk worm caterpillar, which descends slowly by spinning a silk thread to hang from.
By WWII, silk could no longer be imported from Japan and the parachutes used by American and British airmen were primarily made of nylon. Regardless of the material used in the construction of their parachutes, after the end of WWII, by late 1945, there were 34,000 members of Irvin’s Caterpillar Club.
Airmen serving in WWII did not receive any training for bailing out or using their chutes other than a set of instructions. Though the Parachute Instructions (full instructions at the end of this article) suggest “It is advisable to have one side of the parachute pack snapped to the harness when in immediate danger,” most airmen didn’t strap them on until they heard an alarm or instructions from their pilot to bail out. Chutes were uncomfortable to wear and got in the way of an airman’s duties.
My dad must have been wearing his chute, which was a chest chute, or at least had one side of the pack strapped on, because I don’t think he would have had time to grab it when, and if, he saw another B-17 in his formation heading straight for him.
In the stories he told me when I was a child of the collision and his time as a prisoner of war, he said the reason he was the only survivor aboard his flying fortress was because he was the only one who “still had on his chute” after dropping the bombs on their target. He was knocked unconscious in the collision and awoke in free fall 5,000 feet from the ground to the sound of his mother’s voice calling his name. After hooking up his chute and taking in the view of the countryside below him, he lost consciousness again and didn’t awaken until he lay injured on the ground, being beaten by an older German woman.
On his parachute ride down, he did not see the B-17 from which he had been thrown burning and spinning into the clouds. He did not see the ball turret knocked from the ship with the helpless gunner inside falling to Earth. The ball turret was too small for most gunners to wear their chutes inside the capsule. Even if my dad’s crew mates had been wearing their chutes, the centrifugal force of the spinning ship likely would have pinned them inside and prevented them from bailing out. They also may have been knocked unconscious in the horrific collision 25,000 feet above the ground, unable to find and strap on their parachutes.
But like Lawrence Newbold, my dad survived, thanks to his parachute, to also become a member of the Caterpillar Club. Dad joined both Irvin’s and Switlik’s clubs.
From the Irvin Air Chute Company…
From the Switlik Parachute Company…
George Farrar and Lawrence Newbold endured Stalag Luft IV together, they survived the Black March together, and both became lifetime members of one of the most exclusive clubs in which no one wants to have to face the first requirement to become a member, having to bail out of a disabled aircraft in an emergency to save one’s life.
Parachute Instructions for B-17 Crews as presented at Stalag Luft I Online (link below)
- Handle the parachute pack gently and do not allow it to get wet or greasy.
- It is advisable to have one side of the parachute pack snapped to the harness when in immediate danger.
- Jumping Suggestions
- Make delayed jumps.
- Dampen oscillation.
- Face downwind.
- Keep feet together.
- Unhook snaps during descent if over water.
- Use static lines to bail out wounded personnel.
- Three short rings on alarm signal indicates “Prepare to bail out.” One long ring is the signal for “Bail Out.”
© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2018