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Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Death on the Lend Canal

On 9 April 1940, the day Germany invaded Denmark, the Danish freighter Eleonora Maersk was discharging cargo in the port of Cape Town, South Africa. The vessel's owners agreed to loan the vessel to Britain's Athel Line. Most of the Danish crew remained with the ship but some, including the Galley Boy, elected to return to Denmark. 16-year-old Michael Cister, born 2 March 1924, successfully applied for the vacancy. It's unknown if it occurred to Michael or his parents that by joining the ship he was now a sailor in Britain's Merchant Navy.

Worried that Greece might join the Axis forces, Winston Churchill guaranteed the Greek prime minister military support that if Greece came under attack. Greece, in fact, did come under attack from Italy but it was able to defend their borders with its own troops. However,  on 5 April 1941, Germany's elite SS troops and its Mountain Division invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. Churchill responded by placing the defence of Greece in the hands of troops mostly from Australia and New Zealand. Britain also committed a Brigade but lacking aircraft and armour, the Allies were poorly prepared to withstand the German onslaught and soon found themselves conducting a series of withdrawals. Slowing the Germans down was the best they could do under the circumstances. While the ANZAC Force took the fight up to the Germans, they were never in a position to stem the advance. By 20 April 1941, the Greek Government agreed that the ANZAC Force should be evacuated.

The final withdrawal to the evacuation beaches on the Peloponnese Peninsula began on 24 April. Over the next five nights more than 50,000 troops departed Greece. They nevertheless left behind 5,000 troops, one of whom was my father, Kevin.

Many of the troops who were evacuated were landed in Crete but it wasn't long before they had to be evacuated once again. The Eleonora Maersk was sailing in the vicinity and was ordered in to Crete's Suda Bay to take  aboard evacuating troops. The ship, Michael's ship, came under heavy German air bombardment and was sunk. Six crew were killed but Michael made it to shore. Now aged 17, he was captured by the German army and became an army prisoner-of-war*. Michael was transported to Stalag 18A in Austria then onward to Camp 10029/GW in Klagenfurt.

Michael is the lad on the extreme right of the photo. Kevin Byrne is  second from the left.

Michael was the youngest in the camp by almost three years. Over the next two years he fitted in to camp life as best he could. He went through the usual teenage growth spurts. The photo below was taken in 1943. Michael is in the middle of the back row with shoulders hunched.

Two and a half years later, Michael was a member of a work party assigned to clear snow from the Lend Canal. This canal, which still exists, has featured in Klagenfurt's history for more than six hundred years. It was originally built for watercraft on Lake Worthersee to transport produce to the markets in the centre of the town. The canal has also been used for recreational ice-skating for much the same period. During winter of 1943-44, POW work parties were assigned to clear snow from the skating lanes.

On 16 January 1944, an Allied bomber group targeted Klagenfurt for the first time in the war. It's objective was to bomb the rail yards and factories. One of the bomb runs that commenced at the rail yards continued to the canal.

A bomb exploded near the work party. The guard, Andreas Sihler, was killed instantly. Michael Cister and another Australian POW were wounded. Michael was taken to the camp hospital in a non-life threatening condition however infection set in and 21 days after the incident, on 6 Feb 1944, Michael succumbed to his wounds. He was buried in the Klagenfurt War Cemetery. Contrary to the age shown on his headstone, Mick’s death came 24 days short of his 20th birthday. His funeral parade is pictured below.
The guard who was killed, Andreas Sihler, was born on 8 March 1900. He had been a soldier in the German army since 1922. In 1940, his regiment was sent to Finland. The harsh conditions led to Andreas becoming ill. He was repatriated to his hometown of Klagenfurt and was assigned to guard prisoners in the POW camp in Klagenfurt. From time to time he was charged with guarding work party prisoners.

Sihler was married with a 4-year-old son, Horst. I had the opportunity to meet Horst, then aged 75, in Klagenfurt in 2015. He told me that the only thing he remembered of his father was his funeral. Horst is a poet and a former film critic. For a time he ran his own cinema in Klagenfurt located, oddly enough, on the Lend canal. Horst and I exchanged photos of our fathers and he presented me with his recently published book of poetry.
Horst Sihler with the author, 2015.
 The Lend Canal in the autumn of 2015
 Pre-War Postcard of the Lend Canal. 

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