In the late fall of 1940, a troopship loaded with new pilots fresh out of primary flight school and raw, untrained recruits arrived in Vancouver, Canada. They were about to hone their skills in aerial navigation, radio communications, gunnery, aircraft mechanics, and advanced flight training. They were from New Zealand and were the country’s earliest contribution to the Empire Air Training Scheme. This agreement between the British Empire’s members aimed to train the vast numbers of men needed to crew and maintain the aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command. By the end of World War II, tens of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders passed through these Canadian schools.
Amongst these recruits was a unique individual, Porokoru Patapu “John” Pohe. He was the first Māori trained as a pilot to serve in the Royal New Zealand Air Force. When Pohe arrived in Canada, he already completed his primary flight training in New Zealand. He then began converting from flying the small open cockpit biplane de Haviland Tiger Moth basic trainer, to the multi-engine Avro Anson advanced trainer. Surprisingly, as he flew over the plains of western Canada, he would encounter a topography similar to New Zealand. The Canadian Rockies towered up from the flat fertile plain to the west, just like New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Following almost a full year of learning night flying, aerial navigation, and combat maneuvering, Pohe was ready to fly combat bombers for the Royal Air Force.
Following a short transition period at an Operational Training Unit (OTU), the RAF assigned Flight Sergeant Pohe to 51 Squadron. Unfortunately for Pohe, the unit still flew the ungainly-looking Armstrong Whitworth Whitley twin-engine bomber. The aircraft was at the end of its service life and was obsolete. This did not stop Bomber Command from using it in combat operations, and Pohe flew numerous operations, dropping bombs, propaganda leaflets, and sea mines to block German ports.
One of Pohe’s missions stands out for its truly exceptional nature during the early years of the war. As part of a combined operation with the newly formed paratroop brigade, the RAF had 51 Squadron convert their Whitley bombers to troop transports so that they could carry the British Commandos on an important raid at Bruneval on the northern coast of France, designated Operation Biting. Located here was a newly installed German radar station. British scientists needed to learn about the technology used in German radar and needed an example of the equipment to study. After a short period of training to learn how to safely drop paratroopers, on the evening of February 27-28, 1942, Pohe and the other aircraft of 51 Squadron made their way in darkness over the English Channel to the French coast. Here they precisely dropped these 119 paratroopers on top of the German station. After a brief but intensive fight with the German garrison, the paratroopers captured the prized piece of equipment as well as a German radar technician. They then fought their way to the beach, cleared the way of beach obstacles, and were extracted by Royal Navy landing craft and motor launches.
Soon after the raid, Flight Sergeant Pohe completed his operational tour with 51 Squadron and went to 24 OTU to help hone the training of new crews entering combat with Bomber Command. Wanting to return to combat operations, Pohe requested a return to an operational combat squadron. In August 1943, he began training on one of Bomber Command’s newest 4-engine bombers, the Handley-Page Halifax. After a month learning its flight characteristics, the newly promoted Flying Officer Pohe, with a new crew, returned to 51 Squadron on September 20, 1943. Like so many others, Pohe’s second operation tour was extremely brief. On the evening, after two short days of re-joining 51 Squadron, Pohe, in command of his new Halifax, made his way on a night bombing mission over Hanover, Germany. There his aircraft came under intense anti-aircraft fire. Heavily damaged, it became evident to Pohe that he could not return with his crew back to Britain and had to make a controlled ditching in the North Sea. The entire crew survived the alighting at sea but found themselves floating in life rafts for two days. Discovered by a German reconnaissance aircraft, the group was picked up by a Kriegsmarine motor launch and processed into the German prisoner of war system.
Within the week, Pohe found himself assigned to prison camp Stalag Luft III in Żagań, Poland. In this camp, Pohe became involved with the plot for a mass prisoner escape through hidden tunnels that they dug under the camp’s perimeter wire. The 1963 epic film, “The Great Escape,” immortalized the event. Although not depicted in the film, Pohe was one of the 76 prisoners that made it out of the camp through one of the tunnels during the evening of March 24-25, 1944. This is when Pohe’s story turned tragic. For three days with two other prisoners, he managed to evade capture from the Germans. The group struggling through the Polish winter suffered from exposure and frostbite. Pohe and his group were then captured by a German patrol searching for the escaped prisoners. They were transferred to the responsibility of the notorious Gestapo and sent to their Gölitz prison. Under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, the Gestapo began executing the Stalag Luft III prisoners. It was later determined that the Gestapo shot Flight Lieutenant Porokoru Patapu “John” Pohe on March 31, 1944. He is honored on the center tablet on the memorial dedicated to the 50 prisoners murdered by the Gestapo in Żagań, Poland.