Art was Robert Buckham’s life—or at least his sanity. It got him through the hell of two forced marches during his time as a PoW in Germany during WW II. From top to bottom: On The March, April 1945; RAF Polish Officer.
Born in Toronto in 1918, Robert Buckham didn’t go overseas as a WW II artist. He went over as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force and ended up flying Wellington bombers over France and Germany. He was with 428 Squadron when his plane was shot down over Bochum, Germany, on April 8, 1943. The pilot and crew survived the crash, but were captured by the Germans and imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, 120 kilometres northeast of Dresden. It was from there that the Great Escape took place on March 24, 1944.
On Christmas Day 1944—a small, green hardboard book was issued to the airman. It contained 115 blank pages which Buckham began to fill with notes and sketches prior to the first of two forced marches the PoWs endured. The book, which fit nicely into the large pocket on Buckham’s tunic, formed the basis of an illustrative diary called Forced March to Freedom.
In addition to keeping a diary, Buckham worked on several drawings which he rolled up and carried with him in two tubes made out of cans.
The first forced march began Jan. 27, 1945. It was very cold and the men walked for days before they were put on a train to a PoW camp outside Tarmstedt, 80 kilometres southwest of Hamburg. It was a hellish trek that left many of the men frostbitten, exhausted and sick. At the camp, Buckham swapped cigarettes from a Red Cross parcel to obtain more drawing paper. He also traded four sketches for a box of water colours, and swapped a portrait for some paint brushes.
The second forced march began as Allied troops moved closer to Tarmstedt. This time the destination was Stalag 8B at Lubeck where Buckham and the other PoWs were liberated on May 3, 1945.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could draw or paint under such conditions, but Buckham did. His work depicts his surroundings simply and eloquently, and it gives us a rare view of what he and other PoWs endured.
After the war, Buckham returned to Canada and worked in advertising in Montreal. Today, he resides in Vancouver.
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