May 8 is the 75th anniversary of VE Day. It is also the anniversary of the death of Lawrence Saywell, the last Australian soldier killed in the war in Europe. Saywell, an escaped POW who joined partisans in the Czech countryside, has been decorated by the Czechs – and is still remembered in the tiny village where he met his tragic end.
The village of Miřetín in the Pardubice Region has a population of around 100. In its graveyard there is a monument that reads: “Lawrence Saywell, English Partisan, was murdered in the resistance here by the German SS, 8.5.1945”.
Private Lawrence Phillip Saywell wasn’t actually English but was from the 17th Brigade Company of the Australian Army Service Corps, though he had indeed been fighting with Czech partisans.
Lloyd Brodrick is the Australian ambassador to Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. On the line from Warsaw, he shares the story of the soldier, who had endured many years of war before his tragic death.
“Lawrence Saywell was born in Sydney in 1919. He was one of the very first Australians to enlist after the invasion of Poland.
“He enlisted in the Australian Army in 1939 and left Australia in early 1940.
“He participated with the Australian forces in the fighting in Libya, Greece and then Crete, and of course things went badly for the Allies at that time.
“He was one of the Australians captured during the fighting for Crete and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He was then moved to prisoner of war camps in Europe.”
After some time in Poland, Lawrence Saywell, known to friends as Larry, ended up in early 1945 in a camp on the territory of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, specifically in the Pardubice area.
From there he and a fellow prisoner, New Zealander Sydney “Mac” Kerkham, finally managed – after a number of unsuccessful attempts – to escape.
They and two Russians got away in the confusion when the Germans were evacuating POW camps in the face of the advancing Red Army.
Saywell and Kerkham were taken in by Czech families near the village of Zderaz and, it seems, offered to help the local partisans in their sabotage operations against the by then retreating Nazis.
Local man Pavel Koutný’s family were among those who knew Saywell.
When I phone him, Mr. Koutný is on his way to visit his mother, who was a teenager in 1945 when the two soldiers from Down Under appeared.
“At that time she was 15 and I think she was interested in them as young men more than anything else [laughs].
“But she remembers that she liked the boys – and twice as much for the fact they were foreigners.”
Mr. Koutný’s paternal grandfather worked with the partisan group – but kept quiet about it even years later.
“My grandfather didn’t tell us so much about it, because he was afraid of the Communist regime.
“He thought if he told us we’d speak about it in school and there would be trouble.
“But it seems he provided logistics for the partisan group.
“They were staying with my grandfather’s forest worker, who lived in a pub right by the Chlebouns; my grandfather was Adolf Chleboun. And it seems they used to gather there in the evenings.”
Mr. Chleboun did his best to meet the needs of Saywell and Kerkham, who also did their bit around the place.
“He also found some glasses for Lawrence, who had lost his in the forest in the night.
“The other POW, Mac, was evidently a cow herd by profession. My grandmother said he was great at milking cows.”
Prior to his death, Saywell – who was only 25 years old – had pledged to repay the kindness of the locals.
“Lawrence was said to be very intelligent.
“The people here thought he had been in the retail business, because he promised that when he got home after the war he would send them a consignment of chocolate.
Actually, when he signed up in October 1939 – at 19 years and 10 months – he listed his profession as “wool buyer”.
It is a terrible irony that Lawrence Saywell, having survived so much, was killed in Miřetín (around five miles from Zderaz) on May 8, 1945, at the exact moment the second world war was coming to an end in Europe.
He and Kerkham had evidently come out of hiding after hearing about the national uprising against the Nazis that began on May 5.
Ambassador Lloyd Brodrick takes up the story.
“The accounts are a bit confused.
“What does appear certain is that Saywell was quite proficient in languages: He could speak some German, he could speak some Russian, he could speak a bit of Czech and Polish.
“There were some confrontations between some German troops and partisans and he interposed himself and acted as a translator, to defuse the situation.
“Later on, it would appear he found himself by himself in the open – and a retreating German soldier shot and killed him.
“There is another account that he was rounded up by the Germans with a group of locals.
“He identified himself as an Allied POW, saying that he had the papers to show he was a combatant, and subsequent to that he was shot.”
According to Pavel Koutný, Kerkham felt Saywell’s nature may have led him to take an unnecessary risk.
“His friend said that Lawrence was hot-headed.
“He was impulsive and all-action, and that’s why he got involved in the expulsion of those Germans.
Mr. Koutný’s grandfather only heard that Staywell had been shot in the head when it was too late.
“Grandfather wasn’t there at the time.
“Lawrence didn’t feel in any particular danger, so he wasn’t there, and they only found out about it later.
“Naturally he was really upset about it.
“Granddad had a stonecutting workshop, so he made a monument for Lawrence for the cemetery in Miřetín.”
Seventy-five years later, there is sorrow in Pavel Koutný’s voice when he recalls the fate of his family’s friend.
“It’s a very sad story. They must have suffered for so long, from being taken prisoner to being held in POW camps and then their journey to the Protectorate.
“Lawrence just didn’t know the territory here.”
Ambassador Lloyd Brodrick points out that Saywell’s killing was not just tragic but also a criminal act.
“It was right at the end of the war.
“The Australian government classifies him not as being killed in action but as being murdered, because the war was over at that stage.
“He should have been safe.
“And he was, as I said, one of the very first to enlist.
“He’d been in the army since 1939, made it all the way through to the end of the war, including a lot of time as a prisoner of war, and then right at the very end he found himself, through his own actions, by trying to resolve situations, being exposed and then being shot.
“One of the things about his story is that because it was the end of the war, the local people in the town of Miřetín, where he was known, had a very large service for him on May 10, 1945.
While he was initially buried in Miřetín, Saywell’s remains were later exhumed and moved to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Prague’s Olšany.
Mr. Brodrick says memorial events were planned for both places on May 8 but have had to be cancelled in view of current public health restrictions.
Private Staywell is only one of two Australians interred at the Olšany cemetery. The other is William Johnson Williams, also a POW, who was 38 and died of exhaustion during a forced march.
Saywell and Williams were among nearly 10,000 Australian soldiers to die in Europe, on the other side of the world from their homes, in the course of WWII.
“After the war he was decorated by the Czechs. He received the Czechoslovak Military Cross in 1945 [for ‘brave and eminent services to our State in the battle for liberation’].
“Then in 2005 he was also given the Czech Cross of Merit by the Czech Republic, so he was someone whose bravery was recognised at the time.
“And today his war medals are in the Australian war memorial in Canberra, where they are seen by thousands of visitors every year.”
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