Cambridgeshire

Cambridge prisoner of war's 'upbeat' Christmas letters published

John Crook Image copyright Cambridge University/PA
Image caption John Crook after the war - and as an undergraduate in 1939, middle row, fifth from left

"Upbeat" letters describing Christmas celebrations in one of Germany's harshest World War Two prisoner of war camps are to be published online.

John Crook, an only-child, wrote the letters and cards to comfort his parents after he was captured during the 1943 Allied landings in Italy.

He was held at Stalag Luft VIII-B in Poland and in early 1945 was forced on a "death march" by his captors.

His letters are to be published by St John's College, Cambridge.

Image copyright Cambridge University/PA
Image caption The letters and cards form part of a collection of John Crook's personal items to be published online on Monday
Image copyright Cambridge University/PA
Image caption St John's College describes his parents as of "modest means"

The private with the 9th Royal Fusiliers later became a professor of ancient history at the college.

Just before his first Christmas in captivity, he wrote about carol performances, a band concert, a pantomime - and decorating the barracks with paper chains.

The future professor told his parents not to worry, adding he had "no time to pine away".

A letter dated Christmas Day 1944 described the prisoners organising dances and concerts and wearing "their best Khaki slacks".

Image copyright Cambridge University/PA
Image caption The private, first row, fifth from the right, was a clarinet player who organised concerts while in captivity
Image copyright Cambridge University/PA
Image caption A scholarship has been created in his name for a post-graduate student who is the first in their family to go to university

Eleanor Swire, a librarian at St John's College, said the letters were likely to mask the reality of life in the camp.

He writes about "very Xmassy weather - snow and ice", referring to the extremely cold conditions experienced by the prisoners.

"When I sat down to read his letters in a quiet corner of the library, I was moved to tears by how brave he was to stay so upbeat... in order to comfort his family," she said.

In early 1945, Professor Crook was among thousands of prisoners of war made to march west, ahead of the Soviet advance.

Many died from the bitter cold, hunger and exhaustion.

He returned to St John's, completing his classics degree in 1947, and after a career as an academic died in 2007, aged 87.

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