Kiwi World War II hero dies

MAX LAMBERT
Last updated 16:32 20/05/2012
Squadron Leader Phil Lamason.
HERO: Kiwi squadron Leader Phil Lamason.

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Phil Lamason, the New Zealand World War II bomber pilot who saved a large group of Allied airmen from death in the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp, has died at the age of 93.

Lamason died at his home on the farm outside Dannevirke where he lived yesterday afternoon, his son, John, said.

Lamason, a squadron leader, ranked as the senior officer among the 168 airmen marched into the notorious camp in August 1944 and risked his own life to get word to the Luftwaffe, the German air force, that the men were being held there illegally.

The tough, determined New Zealander learned the Gestapo had ordered the execution of the group of flyers and worked desperately to smuggle out news of their incarceration.
 
On October 19, 1944, Luftwaffe officers, who had no time for the Gestapo, arrived at the camp gates and demanded the release of the airmen. The flyers were freed and taken to Sagan, a regular Prisoner of War camp.

The majority of the 168 had been shot down in raids over France and, like Lamason, had been on the run in civilian clothes before being captured and held in Fresnes prison outside Paris.

Because they were not in uniform they were regarded as enemy agents or saboteurs and not accorded POW rights.

On 15 August 1944, five days before Paris was liberated, the men were herded into grossly overcrowded railway cars and five days later delivered to Buchenwald in eastern Germany, southwest of Leipzig.

Buchenwald wasn't an extermination camp but thousands of prisoners slaving in nearby munitions plants died from disease and hunger and countless others were killed by random acts of brutality and their bodies thrown in the camp ovens.

One RAF man wrote later that Lamason "epitomised all that is good in a leader and there is no doubt in my mind that his sustained effort as the front man for our group ... was a major contributing factor in us ... getting transferred to a recognised POW camp."

SS guards manned Buchenwald but much of the administration was run by inmate factions and Lamason had to make many contacts and tread carefully to succeed in getting word of their plight to the Luftwaffe.

A Dutchman was particularly helpful. Lamason said years later: "I told him just to say we were here and to get us out. He achieved it but I don't know how. I never inquired and I didn't want to know. I'd seen how the Germans handled people. If you didn't know something they couldn't get it out of you."   

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Two of the 168 - two New Zealanders, nine Australians, 29 Canadians, 47 Britons and 81 Americans - died from sickness in Buchenwald and the airmen's shaven heads and emaciated frames shocked POWs in Sagan.

The second New Zealander was Malcolm Cullen, from Maungaturoto, Northland, a Typhoon pilot shot down over Amiens in May 1944. He was on the loose until picked up in Paris two months later. Cullen died in 2003.

Lamason joined the RNZAF in September 1940, learned to fly here and sailed for England in April 1941.

He flew his first tour on Stirlings with 218 Squadron, winning an immediate Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in April 42 for beating off German night fighters with some skilled flying on the way home from Pilsen, Czechoslovakia.

He then instructed other pilots at 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit and while there was twice mentioned in dispatches for "bravery and distinguished service" before joining 15 Squadron on Lancasters for his second tour as a flight commander and squadron leader.

Lamason flew the tough targets in early 1944 - Berlin, Leipzig, Nuremberg - and was awarded a second DFC for "gallantry, leadership and enthusiasm".

The New Zealander, a solid six-footer, was not afraid to speak his mind. Before the Nuremberg raid in March 1944, the RAF's worst night of the war when 100 Lancasters were lost, Lamason tackled the station commander. He was hugely critical of the route chosen and forecast heavy losses.

Lamason was proved correct and was dismayed to watch bombers going down all along the route.

The New Zealander survived that raid unscathed but his Lancaster was shot down  while bombing a bridge outside Paris the night after D-Day, June 7, 1944. He and his navigator parachuted together and were sheltered by French patriots until they were captured by the Gestapo in Paris seven weeks later and locked away in Fresnes Prison.

After he got back to England in May 1945, Lamason was chosen to lead one of the Lancaster squadrons for "Tiger Force" for the final battle against Japan.

He was on his way home on furlough before the assignment when the war was ended by the atomic bomb.

Lamason was tempted by English peacetime flying jobs offered to him but he and his wife Joan, whom he'd married before going overseas, settled on the farm at Dannevirke.

Lamason's role in the Buchenwald affair was first publicised in the 2005 book Night After Night - New Zealanders in Bomber Command - and that led to several documentaries about his story, one an American-made programme, Lost Airmen of Buchenwald, shown recently on Prime.

Born in Napier on September 15, 1918, Philip John Lamason is survived by two sons and two daughters. His wife died in 2009.

- Stuff

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