Moving letters sent by the academic John Crook while he was a prisoner at the notorious Stalag Luft VIII-B camp in World War II reveal his indomitable spirit and brave resolve to remain positive for the sake of loved ones back home.

So intensely busy about rehearsals and writing parts, teaching Greek, cooking gelatine-and-chips, planning a chamber-music concert and acting as usual as a general confidant and receiver of everyone’s troubles...

John Crook, letter dated 20th December 1943

Christmas letters written by the Cambridge academic John Crook while he was a 22-year-old POW during the Second World War have been placed online.

From his prison camp in central Europe, Crook, who would go on to become a Fellow and Professor of Ancient History at St John’s College, wrote unyieldingly positive Christmas letters to his family, demonstrating a remarkably steadfast character in spite of the harsh conditions in which he found himself.

The letters are now held in the Special Collections of the College’s Library, where they are available for research, but selected items are now being made available to a global audience as well through the website.

Crook, the only child of parents of modest means, had begun an undergraduate degree in Classics after being awarded a scholarship to St John’s in 1939, but his studies were interrupted by the war. In 1942, he enlisted as a private with the 9th Royal Fusiliers. Captured at Salerno in September 1943, during the allied landings in Italy, he was sent to Stalag Luft VIII-B at Larnsdorf in Silesia, where he remained for the next two years.

The letters present a vivid picture of life in the camp. They describe plays and concerts organised by the men (Crook himself was a keen clarinetist) and offer reassurance to Crook’s parents, urging them not to worry about him.

On 20 December he explained that he had been: “So intensely busy about rehearsals and writing parts, teaching Greek, cooking gelatine-and-chips, planning a chamber music concert and acting as usual as a general confidant and receiver of everyone’s troubles.” With a supply of Red Cross parcels, plenty of fuel and ample entertainment, Crook optimistically predicted that they “shall do all right” over the festive season.

Crook kept himself busy during the Christmas period, allowing himself “no time to pine away”. In his letter dated 12 December, 1943, he records performances of “carols, ‘Messiah’, a band concert, cabaret, pantomime [and] decorating our barrack with paper chains”.

In truth, life in the prison camp was extremely difficult - something which Crook hinted at in the letters in touchingly positive terms. His mention of “very Xmassy weather - snow and ice” refers to the perishing cold temperatures and challenging conditions experienced by the men. Life as a prisoner of war meant learning to live without certain basic comforts, and while Crook instructed his parents not to send any clothes, he did request cigarettes, explaining: “They are currency here, and one can obtain for them anything from a banjo to a tin of porridge.” 

Crook’s letter to his parents on Christmas Day, 1944, is particularly moving and reveals the determination of the men in the camp to remain brave despite missing friends and family. He wrote that, notwithstanding the good cheer and cold, crisp weather, all that he and the other men could think of was their loved ones at home. Dances and concerts had taken place, with everyone “in their best khaki slacks”, but Crook longed to see the faces of his parents again.

Eleanor Swire, a Graduate Library Trainee at St John’s, researched the letters for an article on the College website, having come across them in a folder that Crook had poignantly marked with the words “Lost Time”.

“It must have been very difficult to be separated from his loved ones and to have to endure the harsh conditions of a prison camp,” she said. “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 and to put a positive spin on his circumstances in order to comfort his family.”

As the Soviet army advanced in the final stages of the war in 1945, Crook, along with 80,000 other PoWs, was forced by his German captors to march west in extreme winter weather conditions. He survived the “death march”, but many of his comrades died of hunger, exhaustion and the bitter cold before they could be liberated.

The rest of his wartime service was spent as a sergeant in the Royal Army Educational Corps, before returning to St John’s to complete his degree in 1947. He later became a Fellow of the College, where he remained for more than 50 years, at the top of his chosen profession as Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge. Crook became a world expert on Roman Law and legal practices and taught Greek and Latin to Classics scholars.

The letters form part of a collection of personal items including papers, letters and photographs that were left to St John’s after his death aged 85 in 2007. Since 2010, the College has offered a scholarship in Crook’s name and memory, open to gifted students from similar backgrounds, which reflects the spirit of his achievements. 

Swire added: “It was an honour to read the private letters from the youth of this remarkable man and gain an insight into the kindness and humility he showed throughout his life, to which many members of the College can testify.”

To view the letters and other items from the collection, click here.

Inset images: The military band that was formed at the camp, Crook is pictured on the first row, fifth from right / John Crook. All images reproduced by permission of St John's College, Cambridge. 

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