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Soldiering On: Inspiring Skaters From World War I and II

In the 2013 Skate Guard blog "Finding Peace On The Ice: Figure Skating And World War II", we first explored some of the figure skating connections to the second World War. From the stories of Hanni Sondheim Vogelweit to Freddie Tomlins to Anne Frank, the horrors that were World War I and II continue to pop up time and time again. They have swooped in almost like some inescapable tornado without notice whenever I go to research new topics to write about.... and there's no doubt in my mind they will continue to. As we remember this Remembrance Day, let us look back on yet more stories of inspiring wartime skaters. Lest we forget.


In 1963, John Sturges' film "The Great Escape" was nominated for both Academy and Golden Globe Awards. It was based on Paul Brickhill's 1950 book of the same name, which was also adapted to television in a 1951 episode of The Philco Television Playhouse. "The Great Escape" told the story of the daring and dramatic escape of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW Camp in what is now Poland during World War II. The real life "Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III took place overnight from March 24 to 25, 1944 and saw seventy seven men make their way through tunnels dug by the prisoners to initial freedom from the POW Camp. It was one of the most extensively and thoroughly planned escapes in history. Unfortunately, the final man to crawl through the tunnel was spotted by the Germans and surrendered and seventy three of the seventy six who escaped were later recapatured, fifty of which were executed. Sadly, one of those escapees who was caught and killed by the Nazis was a skater.

Albert Horace Hake was a twenty seven year old Warrant Officer from Sydney who served in the No. 72 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force. Jonathan F. Vance's book "A Gallant Company: The Men Of The Great Escape" explained that "early in 1940 Al's life received a boost thanks to an outing at a local ice-skating rink. A friend from work introduced him to a striking brunette named Noela Horsfall, and Al was instantly taken by her gay smile and cheery eyes. They started going out together and spent every weekend hiking, surfing or picnicking. More frequently, though, they returned to the skating rink where they had first met. On March 1, 1941, they were married." Having enlisted on January 4, 1941, Albert and Noela's wedding actually occurred on a four day leave from his training. On his enlistment papers, he actually listed skating as one of his sporting pursuits, according to David Edlington's article "The Great Crime" in the official newspaper of the Royal Australian Air Force.

Hake actually played an integral part in the masterminding of The Great Escape as he was the brains behind the compass-making operation. He manufactured two hundred compasses all bearing the false inscription "Made in Stalag Luft III. Patent pending." for the men to use once they had escaped from the tunnels, so they would not be shot as spies if recaptured. Unfortunately, after escaping, the ice he so loved to skate on actually came back to haunt him and he suffered severe frostbite after soldiering on through the snowy landscape before he was recaptured by The Gestapo not far from Sagan, where the POW Camp was located.

According to Edlington's article, Hake was seen "hobbling with a group of prisoners and a Gestapo escort to a black car outside the Gorlitz civilian prison on March 30. The man renowned for lively renditions of songs, including Waltzing Matilda, on guitar at Stalag Luft III, was never seen alive again." Hake was murdered on March 31, 1944 by Gestapo Chief Dr Wilhelm Scharpwinkel and his associate Lux, cremated at Gorlitz and is buried at Poznan Old Garrison Cemetery in Wielkopolskie, Poland. The courage and ingenuity this young man showed in thinking not only of his own self-preservation but of the dozens of other men plotting their escape was profoundly human and one can only hope that Hake and his wife Noela who passed away in 2004 are now Waltzing Matilda on the ice of The Other Side.


Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee's book "And If I Perish: Frontline U.S. Army Nurses in World War II" retells the story of an unnamed skater who served in the second war whose misfortune seemed to continue while recovering from the injuries he sustained on the frontline: "About a week later, one of the ambulatory patients, a large, red-haired man who had been a professional ice skater in civilian life and had lost one of his legs in combat, decided to take Glant for a ride in his wheelchair. The two went visiting around the Quonset huts but got bogged down in the rocks and gravel between the metal buildings. They finally flagged down some help, were retrieved from the rocks, and returned safely to their own ward." The book explains that the man named Glant that the skater was taking out for a ride was Private Berchard Lamar Glant, a man whose arm was amputated after he suffered gangrene from his wounds. His wounds had apparently been so severe that he was counted among the DEAD when he was transported from the Mussolini Canal to the hospital by medics by jeep.


Winning her World title in 1937 may have been one of the biggest bright spots in the life of 1936 Olympic Silver Medallist Cecilia Colledge but what happened next had to have been one of the scariest. During World War II, she drove an ambulance in the Motor Transport Corps during The London Blitz (which killed forty to forty three thousand people) and saved many lives undoubtedly in the process... although there was one she couldn't. Her 2008 New York Times obituary explains "(she) drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz, and her brother, Maule, became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin. Colledge became a pro skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows, then settled in the United States, coaching elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She never married and had no immediate survivors. Long after the war years, Colledge evidently remained tormented by the loss of her brother in combat. Asked once if she would return to Britain, she replied, according to The Independent newspaper, 'There was nothing left for me there except unhappy memories.' She sometimes wore a brooch designed from Royal Air Force wings willed to her by a colleague of her brother's who also died in World War II."

Despite the evidence of her own grief, Colledge never wavered in her dedication to leaving figure skating better than she found it. She coached in Massachusetts until 1995, among her many students U.S. Champions Ron Ludington and Lorraine Hanlon.


British nurse Edith Louisa Cavell was a pioneer of nursing in Belgium who once said, "I can't stop while there are lives to be saved". When World War I broke out, her nursing facility became a Red Cross hospital. She is remembered for her dedication to caring for both Allied and Axis soldiers without discrimination and helping around two hundred Allied soldiers escape from Belgium (which was occupied by Germany at the time). Her brave effort sadly cost her her life. She was tried for treason and sentenced to death by firing squad on October 12, 1915. The History's Heroes website explains that "When Edith was a girl, one of her favourite winter pastimes was ice skating. There was a moat behind the church where the Cavell sisters and brother would skate when it froze - and Edith had also been seen skating down by the fort at Intwood." Fittingly, Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper, Alberta overlooks Pyramid Lake, a popular outdoor skating spot for tourists and locals alike.


As a singles skater, Austria's Melitta Brunner won the bronze medal at the 1929 World Championships. However, her biggest success was arguably her Olympic bronze at the 1928 Winter Olympics in pairs skating with Ludwig Wrede. Together, the pair won another three World medals to boot. However, ANOTHER Melitta's story is every bit as impressive. Melitta Anderman was born in 1929 in Vienna (the year Brunner won medals in both ladies and pairs skating at Worlds) and was the only daughter of a well-to-do Jewish haberdasher and his wife. Her family all managed to survive the World War II annexing of Austria by Nazi Germany and flee to the U.S. with their lives, despite her father being arrested and spending time in the Dachau concentration camp for a year. In her "Viennese Memoirs" on file with the Leo Baeck Institute's Center For Jewish History, Melitta describes her skating connections: "My best after school times were spent with my mother skating in the Wiener Eislaufverein (Vienna's largest ice skating rink which is now adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel). For whatever reasons, my mother named me after a popular Viennese ice skater, Melitta (Bruner). Though I was no figure skater, I loved the feeling of gliding on the ice and was pretty good. I participated in a skating festival and again had a chance to wear my snowflake costume. My mother also had her a little excitement there when she broke an arm during one of our afternoons on the ice." Like in Anne Frank's story, Anderman related that "Jewish discrimination laws came out overnight. We were no longer allowed to go to public parks, theatres, movies and any congregation was forbidden." This included skating. The enthusiastic skater describes Kristallnacht in November 1938, her father's arrest, the loss of their home and scarcity of food and her mother being detained and later released while the family was onboard a train to Paris. She started a new life in New York City with the Metropolitan Opera Society and married a pharmacist. They now call Manhattan home. She concluded her memoirs by saying "I thought the past was gone and a new shiny world would rise around me. I tried that for over fifty years. I also thought I had no scars but I am riddled with them. But this is all part of who I am, where I come from and where I'm going - I presume that's life." Want to hear Melitta's entire story in her own words? A wonderful audio interview with her from 2012 can be listened to here. I think you'll find her candor and story just amazing... and you'll never guess her husband's name: Ludwig!


Speed skater, barrel jumper, stilt-skater and showman Phil Taylor served in the Canadian Army during World War I. Returning from service with a partially amputated leg, the Saskatoon Public Library's records tell us that like JUST LIKE fellow skater and Saskatchewan native Norman A. Falkner whose story we visited in the third episode of the Axels In The Attic series, "he continued his figure skating and was considered the 'best fancy skater in Saskatoon'. Like Falkner, Taylor was successful in parlaying his athletic prowess into a career as a 'show skater' despite the obstacle of having to overcome the loss of a leg. He was still performing his one-man show at the Dreamland Rink in San Francisco around 1947. He later married an Australian and moved to Australia, and thereafter kept on skating." With a prosthetic leg, Taylor toured with Ice Capades and performed regularly in ice shows with his daughter. He was also one of, if not the first, professional skaters to perform an exhibition at an amateur competition when he stilt-skated at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.


In her memoir "Memories of the Crystal Night", Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Dr. Ursula Falk shares her painful story from World War II: "With the help of my beloved mother, 'ole vescholom', my father escaped to Belgium by night and fog. We fled to Breslau with my two siblings, ages two and eleven. There we lived in a cold apartment with my single aunt. Again, because of my Mom's courage and exceptional faith and intelligence, to say nothing of her generosity, she assisted my two cousins to escape the country. One took his new bride to Sweden, the other went with skis to Czechoslovakia and from there to Israel (then called Palestine). The landlady in the apartment, an avid Nazi, took the one toy, a pair of skates, and blackmailed us for the last possessions we had. Nazi SS came armed with swords on Kristallnacht and ran their sabers through the couch and stuffed chairs looking for 'weapons', of which we had none. They held me out of a multi storied window and threatened to toss me out of it. For some unknown reason the one Nazi pulled me back inside. Children were screaming out of other windows and I held my breath and could not look. My voice was stilled within me. Previous to these horrors I had already been raped by an unsavory Nazi criminal who rode his bicycle into the apartment downstairs hallway and stilled my voice with stuffing a dirty handkerchief in my mouth. From a distance the next day we saw fires and learned that Jewish books (any book written by Jewish authors) were being burned in the streets. The smoke and flames seemed to be reaching the heavens. We must never, never forget Kristallnacht and the everlasting destruction and death that followed! Shalom u’vracha." Being blackmailed over a pair of ice skates is nothing compared to the horrors that Falk endured, and one can only admire her determination through her words and profession to help others. It's astounding.

Each of these stories has one thing in common... the fact that - with the exception of Cavell, who sadly didn't make it out of the war alive - these people fought through their hardships and persevered, just like all great skaters do. Whether we skate or not, there's a lesson in that we all too easily seem to forget. The world may be cruel at times, but whatever it may throw our way we have it in our hearts to soldier on and keep on living.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":