Raymond D. Andrew’s account ranges from his childhood and life as a farmer on the South Island of New Zealand before the war to his return home in 1945. He was in Egypt and Greece prior to capture in the Western Desert near Sidi Rezegh, 30 November 1941.
Taken by ship to Naples and after a month in Capua (PG 66), he was transferred to Chiavari (PG 52) 1 February 1942. He was moved to a work camp at Torviscosa (PG 107), near Udine, in September 1942. He walked out of there at the Armistice in September 1943 but was recaptured January 1944 and taken to Germany. He then spent May 1944–May 1945 at Stalag IVC, a work camp at Brüx (Most) in Czechoslovakia. After walking out on 8 May, he made it to American lines near Karlsbad.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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SURVIVE FOR TOMORROW – EARLY DAYS TO PRISONER OF WAR
An Autobiography by Raymond D. Andrew, A North Canterbury Farmer
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To my wife and to my comrades in Prisoner of War Camps who suffered privations and hardship but never gave up hope under the most adverse circumstances.
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Prisoner Of War
New Zealand, my country, land of the free,
New Zealand, my country, I long for thee.
The hill and the valley, mountain and Plain,
Swift flowing rivers, I see them again.
In mem’ry I wander green pastures through,
The sunlight it shines o’er waters so blue.
The bell-bird is calling, calling to me,
New Zealand, my country, I long for thee.
Rata is painting the mountainside red,
Starry clematis its petals have shed.
The fields are splashed with gold of the corn,
The mountain tops flushed with rose at dawn.
Summer is coming, the Winter has flown,
But my heart aches as I sit here alone.
I think of my loved ones waiting for me,
New Zealand, my country, I long for thee.
Roses are blooming in gardens so fair,
The fragrance of flowers perfumes the air.
Children are playing so happy and free,
New Zealand, my country, I long for thee.
The long weary days draw nigh to a close,
Soon will come times of joy, peace and repose.
My homeland is calling, calling to me,
New Zealand, my country, I’ll come to thee.
R. D. Andrew
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CHAPTER 1: Early Life
Across the valley from my boyhood home loomed the great bulk of Mt Fyffe. It sat there like a great fat old man spread out in his armchair. In winter the peak was crowned with snow which spilled down the sides into the ravines below. As the summer progressed the snow climbed up the slopes and finally disappeared from the summit. It was then that fires were lit on the lower slopes to clear the bracken and bush. Often at night I would creep out on the front veranda and watch the twinkling glow of the fires as they slowly crept up the mountainside.
Born in the old home at Fernleigh, I spent my early years and primary school days in the district. It was a time when the pace of life was slower and much of life centred around the horse. One of my earliest recollections was riding with my mother in a coach on the inland road to Waiau. At the steep Conway cutting all the men got out and walked while the horses strained to pull the coach to the top. Our trips into Kaikoura were in a buggy pulled by a pair of smart stepping horses. At other times we travelled in the rubber-tyred governess cart with the fast trotting mare Bonnie, in the shafts. The shepherds all had their horses and then there was the team of Clydesdales, each with its own stall in the stables. In play we children sat astride a flax stick with a pair of reins on it and trotted and bucked our way around the yard. As we grew bigger we learnt to ride our real ponies.
Occasionally we would rush out onto the veranda to see a strange new motor-car going along the road. Then one day Dad arrived home with a motor-car of his-own, a Siddeley Deasy. The new car ran very quietly. It would tackle river fords that cars fifty years later with all their power, would not look at. However top gear performance was such that a strong, Norwester or an uphill slope made the driver drop down a gear. Most cars in those days seemed to have starting problems at various times. There were petrol priming cups on the side of the engine. The crank handle was turned vigorously. At the first splutters and coughs of life there would be a mad dash to switch over to normal running. If one was a little slow it would be back to the starting handle again. Mostly there would be little trouble and she would start like the gallant lady she was. However, one must admit there were times when no coaxing would avail. It was then that a couple of horses were hooked onto the front of the car and she was ignominiously towed around the drive, until she sparked into life.
School days came and we mostly walked the two and a half miles to school. At one time there were five of our family going to school at once. There was little traffic on the road and seldom did we get a ride. On rare occasions we rode on a traction engine waggon, in a dray pulled by a plodding draught horse or in a motor-car. When I first started school the sole charge teacher lived down in the Kowhai river bed. He had recently got married and as there was no schoolhouse he had erected a tent in a delightful spot amongst the flax bushes and willows along the river bank. He had built a palisade around the tent to protect it from wind and wandering stock. Here he had brought his bride and they seemed to be happy in their primitive surroundings. She cooked in a colonial oven outdoors and when we visited her she always produced some delicious scones and cakes. The pioneering spirit in those days was strong. A number of the school pupils waded the Kowhai river each day and arrived at school barefooted both winter and summer.
Two boys from a distance rode to school each day double banked on a Shetland pony. By the time they had caught and saddled their pony at night we were well on our homeward way. When they caught up with us they thought it was great fun to chase us with their pony. The Shetland would attempt to bite us as they rode him after us. We would run for shelter behind the manuka bushes which lined the roadside. The boys would then go cantering home laughing at our annoyance. One afternoon I had a manuka stick with a sharp pointed end. When the boys chased me behind a bush I turned around and drove the pointed stick at the belly of the pony. The surprised pony leapt into the air sending the hapless boys sprawling to the ground. The pony then went galloping up the road. The boys were upset about the prospect of a long walk home and I was apprehensive of what their parents and my parents might have to say about the episode. Just then in the distance appeared a waggon and horses coming our
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way. The driver, seeing the riderless pony coming towards him stepped out into the middle of the road cracking his stock whip. The pony stopped and as we children closed in from the other side the runaway was captured. The boys remounted and galloped off homewards. From then on the boys seemed to have lost their desire to chase us.
One weekend there had been a committee meeting at the school. Dad had locked the porch door as he came away. On Monday morning he gave me the key to take to the teacher. Arriving at school early I had attempted to open the door myself. Somehow the key got stuck. Getting a piece of wood I put it through the end of the key and with the additional leverage tried to turn the key. The only result was that the end of the key screwed off. When the teacher arrived the door could not be opened. As it happened one of the high windows on the side of the school was open. Getting the ladder from the woodshed the teacher put it up to the window. One by one we clambered up the ladder, got through the window and descended on a desk the other side. All went well till morning playtime when the process was reversed. When it came to my turn to get out through the window I fell head first down. Putting out my left arm to break the fall I finished up on the ground with a dislocated elbow. It was a painful shock and I sat on the ground nursing an arm that I was frightened to move. The teacher decided it was a matter for the doctor. There was no telephone and the nearest farmhouse with a suitable vehicle was some distance away. The teacher set out across tire paddocks to walk to the farm. When she arrived the farmer was working some distance from the house. Further time elapsed while the farmer’s wife went in search of him. When he was found he came back to get his car. The vehicle refused to start after much fruitless cranking. The farmer then went out into the paddock to catch some horses. Hitching them onto the car he towed it out into the paddock and got it to start. About lunch time the teacher arrived back at the school to find a very miserable boy still sitting there. Getting me into the car the farmer set out for the hospital. Arriving at the Kowhai ford we found there was a fresh in the river and it was unfordable. The driver turned around and drove down to the bridge near the mouth and so eventually we reached the hospital. Here we were informed that the doctor was somewhere out in the country on his rounds. Some Telephone calls failed to locate him. It just wasn’t my day. I was laid on a bed with that forearm still jutting out in the wrong place. Sometime that evening the doctor returned home and came up to the hospital. A wire mask was placed over my face and chloroform dropped on it. At last I was unconscious and the elbow was put back in place. When I woke up the fore and upper arm were strapped together and I went about like that for some time. When the bandages were taken off the arm would not straighten. My mother would work at pulling my arm down and I walked around holding a bucket of water in my hands. Gradually the arm straightened out and came back to normal. The moral of the story could be, don’t come down a ladder head first or possibly don’t force a jammed key.
Although I saw a lot of the hospital in other ways that was my only experience of being a patient. At one time Dad owned a small farm above the hospital and he was also a member of the North Canterbury Hospital Board. Often I would go with Dad from Fernleigh and look around the farm and finish up at the hospital. One evening I picked up a frog on the farm and wrapped it up in my handkerchief. We then went down to the hospital. I knocked on the main door. Sister Green, the matron, came into the hall. ‘Look Matron, what I have found’ I said and proudly held out my hand with the frog perched on it. The frog gave a leap straight at the matron who screamed and ran back down the passage. She soon forgave the small boy though.
In childhood, visits to the dentist were never very happy affairs. We had a very good dentist in Kaikoura but unfortunately he had a drink problem. Sometimes his hand was a little shaky. Once I rode my pony the seven miles suffering from a raging toothache. On arrival at the dentist’s he was not fit to see anyone. I had to ride home still with that aching tooth and had to put up with it until the dentist sobered up.
There was a lot of fun in life though. Rabbiting was one of the pursuits we enjoyed. Helping put nets over the holes in the warrens while Dad put the tame ferret in was followed by the excitement of seeing rabbits bolting out to be caught in the nets. I soon learnt to handle the Winchester .22 and spent many hours stalking the wily rabbit or the hare.
Sometimes the whole family and a few friends would go for picnics along the coast. In the summertime there might be only a few family parties in the whole stretch of the coast along to Goose Bay. The bush on the landward side was almost impenetrable with an understory of bush, ferns, creepers and supplejacks. One day with the help of grandfather’s walking stick, we were able to hook crayfish out from amongst kelp in a rocky pool. Some
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days we sat on the peninsula and watched whales spouting out at sea while Jimmy Johnston and his men chased them in their whaling boats. At the whaling station in South Bay we saw men cutting up the bloated whale carcases and hauling great slices of blubber up to melt in the tripots. Around the floating carcase the slimy blind eels poked up their ugly heads.
As a special treat we travelled in to the township to see Valentine’s pictures and roared with laughter at the antics of Charlie Chaplin on the black & white screen. Then there was the bushmen’s picnic with its chopping and sawing events. There were races for everyone and a lolly scramble for the children. The last event of the day was the chase of the greasy pig. It was carried back by its triumphant captor struggling and squealing.
It was about this time that Capt. Euan Dickson flew Cook Strait for the first time. There was great excitement when an Aeroplane landed on the Kaikoura flat. Dad happened to be chairman of the county at the time and he and mum were offered a ride in the plane. They took off and flew around and landed safely. Next it was the turn of the county engineer and his wife. The lady got in first and the engineer had one of his long legs in the cockpit when the plane commenced to taxi off. The man hung on grimly while the crowd shouted and waved their arms. The pilot, sensing that something was wrong, looked around and saw his passenger half in and half out of the cockpit. Much to the relief of the engineer no doubt, the plane was halted and a second take-off made.
It was a happy birthday when I was presented with my first pony. Gyp and I loved to gallop up hill and down dale. Once a week I rode into Kaikoura after school to Miss Bowen for music lessons. Taking a short cut over the Kowhai river we would jog along quietly to South Bay. The pony would be straining at the bit. At the foot of the racecourse hill I would let him have his head. He would gallop to the top of the hill where he arrived panting and somewhat subdued. When a boy scout troop was formed I rode the fourteen mile return trip in the evenings as a member of the Hawk patrol. Returning home one evening I found Kowhai ford at MacDonalds crossing covered in a flash flood. It was nearly dark and the roar of the flood waters and the grinding sound of moving boulders forced me to turn round and take the long ride back over the peninsula and home via the bridge. It was late when a tired pony and rider arrived home to be confronted by anxious parents.
Riding sometimes had its spills. Once when cantering over the flat the pony’s leg broke through into a rabbit warren. I didn’t know much what happened then. The pony was trying to struggle to its feet with me underneath. Eventually we both got to our feet, bruised and somewhat dazed but not much worse for wear except for a broken girth strap. The final half mile was completed on foot. Another time I was riding down a steep hill when I realised the saddle was gradually slipping forward. Instead of stopping to tighten the girth I rode on. Next moment I shot over the pony’s head and rolled down the hill. Getting up I saw the pony standing with its head between its front legs and the saddle perched on his neck. It was a real struggle for me to release the girth as the pony was straining to get his head up.
After being head pupil at a small country school it was a change to become a third former at a boarding school in the distant city. It was a long day’s travel from Kaikoura to Christchurch. Most times I would meet the service car at the Kowhai bridge corner. The passengers occupied the seats while the luggage would be stowed into canvas covers on the running boards, on the back luggage carrier or strapped to the sides of the engine. It was amazing what the old service cars could carry. The road over the Hundalees was very steep, narrow and winding. I inevitably felt travel sick. At Parnassus the passengers boarded the waiting train for Christchurch. If Dad had business in the city he would take us in the car. We would drop my oldest sister off at Amberley House Girls School on the way and continue on to St Andrew’s.
It was school holiday time when the great flood of 1923 occurred. After the torrential rains subsided most of the bridges in Southern Marlborough and North Canterbury were unusable. The Kowhai river broke through into a part of Fernleigh and into the peaceful Ewelme Stream with its fern fringed pools and patches of native bush. It left it a bed of stones and shingle to be called Stony creek. The only way to get to Christchurch was by boat. The small coastal steamers, Cygnet and Wakatu, plied a regular service between Wellington, Kaikoura and Lyttelton. Many of our bulk stores came in by these boats from Wardells of Christchurch. We would collect them in the dray. Sacks of flour and sugar, cases of tea, baking powder, raisins and sultanas and other bulk items arrived by sea.
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It was a rough trip down the coast to Lyttelton. I lay on deck in the lee of the funnel and watched the coast line slide slowly past. An area of flats and rolling downs on the North Canterbury coast was an area I was to know well in later life. Eventually we reached Lyttelton and I took train and tram and reached College rather pale and wan. The return trip home at the end of the term was by service car but the roads and bridges were still being repaired. We bumped our way up the Conway river bed, crossing the stream about half a dozen times. At the bridge we were pulled across the deep crossing by horses. More horses were waiting to pull us across the Kahautra river. It was quite an adventurous journey.
St Andrew’s College had only been going for six years [founded 1917]. The buildings consisted of Strowan House, the old gymnasium block and a few sheds out the back. Cows were pastured in the boggy back paddock. The motive power for keeping the grounds in order was old Arnold the draught horse who wore leather boots when engaged in his lawn duties. It was not surprising that the rissoles we sometimes had for breakfast were nicknamed Arnolds.
I’ll admit to being horribly homesick at first, but one soon learnt the way around. Such things as doing up a stiff collar and getting the right creases in a cadet hat were soon mastered. Five strokes of the cane taught me to look around before throwing chalk in the prep room in the evening. The master in charge was sitting behind me, not out of the room as I thought. Another lesson was not to get caught playing up in the Dorm at night. A caning in thin pyjamas was worse than in tweed knickers. I took part in all sports and remember playing a Rugby match against Boys High School while the Straven Road school was being built. We had to chase Dean’s cows off the ground before starting. One could be excused for not going down on the ball in a cow pat. Although I never reached the exalted heights of a member of the first fifteen or school prefect in my three years at Secondary School I at least got a medal for athletics and firsts in English, Writing and Agriculture.
Times were getting hard and by now there were three of us at Secondary School. I came home and spent a year on the farm. About this time the government took six hundred acres of the heavy swampland at the top end of Fernleigh for a soldiers’ settlement and six dairy farms were carved out of it. Previously this area had fattened bullocks which were sent off in droves of thirty to Addington market. They were drafted at about three-week intervals and driven to Parnassus and trucked on the railway there. In 1926 we left Fernleigh for a mixed farm at Winchmore.
While the family packed I went ahead and took delivery of our Stud Romney flock and some pedigree Fresians. On this farm we pastured a fat lamb flock, a Romney stud, grew wheat and milked forty cows by machine. The cows were not much of a problem except at harvest time. After a long day forking heavy wheat sheaves it was tiring to finish off the day milking cows by electric light. My eldest brother and I did most of the milking. We soon got to know the cows. They all had their individual traits and were generally a contented lot. An exception was old Stinker. As soon as she got in the bail her tail would start to rise and we would rush for the shovel. Out would come a stream of filthy manure. We tried milking her first, we tried milking her last, we tried kindness, we tried bashing her over the rear with the broom handle. The result was always the same, a dirty bail and a lot of cleaning up. We never did come to terms with her.
In those days we played a lot of tennis and in winter I played football for Methven. If I couldn’t borrow Dad’s car I thought nothing of pushing a bike the nine miles to Methven and then perhaps taking a bus to Rakaia or Springburn. It was only a short distance to go to catch the bus when we were playing Ashburton teams.
The depression deepened in the early nineteen thirties and as I had two other brothers at home I left to go to a farm manager’s job on the South Otago Coast. Here I arrived with two dogs and only enough money to pay a deposit on a third. As manager I was to receive the princely sum of two pounds a week. The married teamster received thirty shillings and lived in the homestead with me, his wife being cook. The cowboys’ wage was ten shillings. The property was at the mouth of the Tokomairo river and extended inland for several miles. One boundary was the tidal river and the other was a valley with an impenetrable swamp. There were a number of cribs at the river mouth and the holiday makers enjoyed fishing, boating and bathing. There was a good swimming beach below the homestead. In the winter the area was fairly isolated. Only vehicles with chains on could negotiate the last few miles of road once the winter rains set in. Two deep ruts would form in the wheel marks and once in the ruts a vehicle could not get out until it arrived on the metal formation.
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One morning I was taking three shearers back to Milton in the Model A Ford. We were going up a hill when we met a man in a baby Austin coming down. The cars came to a halt facing each other. Neither could move out of the ruts. The five of us got out and surveyed the position. It was decided to manhandle the Austin to the side of the road and let the Ford go past. Lifting first the front and then the rear we got the Austin out and finally back into the ruts. After the winter a grader would come down the road and it would leave a surface like a racing track. Later it would break up and become deep in dust.
During the week unemployed men would work on the road. I would lend them a spare draught horse and a dray. The horses were not shod and one old horse got footsore. One day a man came to me to say that they had a load on the dray and the horse would not move. Going back with him I found the horse and dray blocking a narrow road. The horse refused to be led and the application of a flax waddy to his hind quarters had no effect either. The dray was then unloaded where it stood. Once more we tried to move the horse and dray. The stubborn horse refused to move. The only thing left was to unharness the horse and push the dray to the side. The horse was left standing in the middle of the road. Next morning the horse was found contentedly grazing on the side of the road. Even horses get shrewd in their old age.
The tidal river was a source of fine flounders and soles. A drag of the net would bring ashore flat fish, eels and the occasional trout. Sometimes we would spread pitch on strips of sacking and wire it to a standard. With this alight on a dark night we would drift in a boat with the tide and spear the flounders as we passed overhead. Back at one of the cribs the fish would be cooked for supper. At other times a net would be strung over part of the river and mullet caught as they came in with the tide. In the summer evenings the little community would join together to play outdoor games in the long Southern Twilight.
In the winter I played football in the South Otago Competitions. Our Club members came from farms along the coast from Taieri Mouth to Tokomouth. The areas were so isolated that we never trained as a team and only came together when we played a match. Our home ground was in a little valley called Glenledi. To get there I rode across the tidal river, wearing long gumboots. If the tide was in, the water came high up on the sides of the horse. Across the river a couple of miles up the beach was another farm house. From here friends generally took me the rest of the way by car. For most matches I would travel to Milton and we would take a bus if playing further afield. In spite of our lack of training together we did well in the competitions and won the seven a side at Balclutha.
Sometimes a dance was held at one of the farms up in hills across the river. The horses were tied to a fence near the barn. Everyone would climb the perpendicular ladder into the chaff loft. The seating consisted of chaff bags placed around the walls. Swinging stable lanterns sent light and shadows across the room. A lone fiddler provided music and a large supper was provided at midnight. The dance would finish about three o’clock in the morning. It was then a case of donning overalls and saddling up the horses. The long ride home would find me fording the river about daylight. Unsaddling the horse, I would sneak quietly into the house and try to get an hour’s rest before it was time to get up again.
There was a coal mine at Waranui where I rode twice a week to pick up mail and stores. At intervals we would take a horse and dray and dig our own coal from outcrops on the hillside. It had a high sulphur content but burnt well in the stove and saved a lot of chopping of firewood. Oats were grown for the horses and the sheaves were carted in from the hill paddocks on a large waggon drawn by six horses. The sheep work occupied most of my time and at lambing I rode a daily round of the hill paddocks. The weather was often treacherous. A stiff Southerly would be blowing with the sun shining. Then dark clouds would come scudding across the sky. It was time to run for shelter, be it a flax bush, native bush in the gully or the hut in the back paddock. For twenty minutes the rain would come down, lashed by the Southern gale. Gradually the clouds would roll by and the sun would come out for an hour or two followed by another storm. One tailing time we had mustered the largest block and had just coaxed the ewes and lambs into the pen when a sudden icy storm broke. It only lasted a few minutes but was enough to wet sheep and men. We continued on with the job in a bitter wind. It was a relief to see the last lamb trotting off to seek its mother.
Riding round the sheep one day I saw a ewe standing alone on the hillside. Sensing something was wrong I rode towards it. She was calling out and there was a muffled answer from a lamb which I found in an under-runner. It was covered with black slimy mud. As soon
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as it was lifted out of the hole the hungry lamb made a dash for its mother. The startled ewe, seeing this strange black object careering towards her turned and fled. The lamb called out and the ewe stopped and turned round, but seeing the strange animal still chasing her she continued on out of sight. One couldn’t help laughing. Next morning the pair were found grazing contentedly together and the mud on the lamb had dried to a dirty grey.
After two and a half years at Coombe-Hay the farm was sold. My boss was a well-known business man and politician and a former army Colonel. The men had to be paid off and an inventory made of the stock and chattels for the new owner to take over. The Colonel had a suit of clothes and a pair of boots in a cupboard in the house. When I was taking the cowboy out to catch the train he confided in me that he had taken the Colonel’s boots as his own had worn out. I didn’t say anything as I was sure he needed the boots more than the Colonel whom we had never seen on the place.
In the early thirties the country was in the depth of a depression. Having finished my job I took a holiday with friends in the Catlins district and later in Dunedin. It was now time to look for another job. Stock and station agencies and labour bureau all gave the same answer, no jobs and men being put off work. Then an advertisement for fruit pickers on a farm in Central Otago appeared in the paper. This would be a new experience in a new district. On application the reply came back that I could start immediately.
Taking my best dog with me I travelled by train up the winding Central Otago line to Alexandria. Over the river at Earnsclough I joined a group of men, fruit picking, packing and hay making. We revelled in the sunshine and enjoyed many juicy fruit plucked straight from the tree. The wages were ten shillings a week and if the fruit was coming in fast we would work evenings and weekends. There was no such thing as overtime pay.
The hills above the irrigated flats were alive with rabbits. When approached the whole hillside seemed to move. Patches of lucerne at the foot of the hills were netted in to keep the rabbits out. If the rabbits couldn’t climb over the netting they endeavoured to burrow underneath, often with some success. Sometimes we would join a group of men with all the dogs we could muster and would set out for the lucerne paddock in the evening. Several men would go along the top fence and block up any holes they found. With the escape routes closed, the hunt would start from the bottom corner of the paddock. The disturbed rabbits would run to the holes by which they had entered. Finding their exit blocked they would run alongside the netting trying to get out. The cordon of men and dogs then drove the rabbits before them to the top corner. Here, with the aid of the snapping excited dogs, stick wielding men would slaughter the rabbits.
When the stone fruit season was finished, the next move was to an apple orchard at Ettrick. Here I was offered a fifty per cent increase in wages if I would milk the little Jersey house cow and kill and dress the occasional wether for the cookhouse. While my mates were busy in the packing shed in the evening I would milk the cow and give her a feed of hay and reject apples. I would be back in the hut long before the rest of the gang finished work.
We were a happy crowd and most of us got on well together. There was one exception though. He was the biggest and strongest man in the hut and played rugby for the local football team. Sometimes he would come home in the early hours after a visit to the pub. When he was full of liquor he would get quite nasty. One night he came in and turned on the light and proceeded to wake everyone up. One or two were too sleepy to wake so he tipped them out of bed. When he was sure he had a full audience he placed three empty beer bottles in the middle of the floor and proceeded to practise goal kicking. He then staggered to his bed and collapsed in a drunken stupor.
One night it rained quite heavily. It was clear by morning. The distant Lammerlaws were coated in a mantle of snow and the raindrops had frozen on the apples. Fingers grew very cold picking fruit that morning. The season was coming to a close. All except a few permanent hands were given notice. I went back to Dunedin. There had been riots in the streets of the city and Wardells, the grocers, had been broken into. The chance of a job was very slim. There was only one thing for a young fellow without a job. It was a case of home to mum.
Soon after arriving home I was offered a position on the farm of a relative. Much of my time was to be spent driving a six-horse team. The farm was cut up into fifty-acre blocks and each block was surrounded by pine trees. The view was pine trees and more pine trees. The ground was an easily worked loam but through it was the occasional large boulder. The
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ploughs used were three furrowed riding ploughs. The horses knew their job and were easy to handle. The ploughman would be riding along smoothly when suddenly the plough would strike a submerged boulder and up would fly the implement and toss the rider off. The horses automatically stopped and waited till the plough was straightened and the rider regained his seat. It at least kept one from nodding off to sleep.
In November the two shepherds went off to the show and races of Carnival week. They got on the booze and didn’t come back for some weeks. It was humid weather and a lot of the lambs were getting fly struck. I took over the job of shepherding. Sometime in December the two shepherds returned. Not relishing the eighty hour a week teamster’s job I decided to leave.
Sometime after I was shepherding on a farm in the Ti Pirita area. In those days the country was largely undeveloped with large areas of manuka scrub, tussock and native grasses. The hoggett block was a paddock of one thousand acres. It seemed a big area of flat when first mustering it on a misty morning.
On arrival I was shown my hut. It was new and the owner had built it himself. The only part missing was the door. He was always going to get a door for it but never seemed to get around to doing it. I didn’t mind the fresh air but found I had to shift the bed. Besides my own pony there were several other horses in the paddock surrounding my hut. One night I was awakened by something tugging at my bed. A horse had put his head in the doorway and was trying to eat my chaff-filled mattress.
Having spent some years as a farm manager I was looking to improve my position. Seeing an advertisement for a suitable position on Banks Peninsula I applied. A letter came asking me to go and see the owner. A few days later I was waiting at Lyttelton to board the John Anderson, a scow which plied the bays of the peninsula. The ship called in at every bay taking on or putting off stores and other cargo. At Le Bons bay the local carrier was waiting to take me to the farm. The homestead was at the bottom of the valley with steep hills rising on either side. The owner, a First World War veteran who suffered from frequent bouts of malaria, worked in his garden but was unable to get about the farm. Next afternoon I travelled over the hills to Little River, having secured the job.
A week later I trucked my pony to Little River. Arriving there some time in the afternoon I set out on horseback for Le Bons. At the Hilltop dense fog was encountered. The pony was not shod and the hard metal roads were making its feet somewhat tender. There was a short cut into the bay via a steep track known locally as Panama. Coming to a track going off to the left I thought this must be the way. The track was well defined at first and was obviously a sledge track. After some distance it narrowed and later it was no more than a sheep track. Soon it petered out altogether in a wilderness of fallen logs and scrub. There was visibility for only a few chains. Tying the horse to a log I went forward on foot. Coming to a bluff there was nothing to be seen ahead but swirling fog. Retracing my steps through the thickening fog it was a relief to see the road again. No more short cuts I thought as I traversed the long road round the summit and descended the steep road into the bay in the gathering darkness. This was the commencement of my five-year stay in the bay.
Some of the paddocks were very steep but my sure-footed pony carried me everywhere. Although somewhat reluctantly, he was even induced to pack posts up to a distant fence line.
At the first shearing the owner decided to come down to the shed and give me a hand. The exertion was too much. He suffered a heart attack and died in the wool-room. His widow left to live in their town house and I batched in the old two-storey homestead for over four years.
When the lambs were drafted they were driven from the woolshed yards down the narrow road alongside the bay to the jetty. Once the boat had berthed it was a case of loading the lambs as fast as possible in case the sea got up and the boat had to cast off in a hurry and some of the lambs would be left behind. The little steamer took the lambs direct to the Kaiapoi river and up to the freezing works. Later on the scows gave way to lorry transport.
The climate in the bays was fairly mild but every winter there was snow on the tops. Particularly remembered was one late winter snowfall. It blew a gale that night and next morning the powdered snow lay inches deep on the ridges and many feet deep in the gullies and sheltered basins. A white shroud covered the countryside from the tops of the hills to the lapping waters of the bay. Roads were impassable and fences were broken down under the weight of the snow. For a number of days I toiled on the hillsides, digging out sheep and tramping tracks onto the ridges. Thousands of sheep were lost on the peninsula that winter but
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our losses were not great. A neighbour in a sheltered valley lost several hundred. The snow had blown over the ridge and buried the sheep in great drifts on the sheltered side.
The back veranda of the homestead had a great weight of snow on it. I climbed up a ladder onto the roof and commenced shovelling snow off. Suddenly the whole veranda roof collapsed depositing me on the ground amidst a jumble of snow and corrugated iron. The snow continued to thaw but six weeks after there was still snow feet deep in some of the sheltered gullies.
The war clouds had gathered around Europe. About this time the farm was sold and my job came to an end. Like many other young men I enlisted and prepared to go overseas. My parents were then living in Fendalton. Waiting to go into camp, town life soon palled. Even a job in the city didn’t agree with me. When I heard of a Culverden farmer wanting a hand with the lambing I was pleased to spend the time with him until the call came to go into Burnham camp.
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CHAPTER 2: The Army & Egypt
One morning a crowd of civilians arrived at Burnham camp. Some had friends with them, most were strangers to each other. They all had one thing in common. They had enlisted to serve their country. Many would become fast friends. Their former stations in life would be relegated to the past. A new scale of social values would be forced upon them. The new order of life would be governed by stripes on the arm or pips on the shoulder. Officers and men were two distinct social groups.
As the new recruits were organised and allotted huts and equipment, much of the time was spent standing around in groups. Cigarettes were smoked and the butts dropped around indiscriminately. The first lesson in discipline and tidiness came when men were ordered to pick up every cigarette butt, piece of paper and rubbish and deposit in the proper receptacles. Some of the few non-smokers were not so pleased at the order but it was a lesson that did not need repeating. Soldiers soon learnt that the parade ground was sacred. To take a short cut across to visit mates in a hut opposite was to invite serious disciplinary measures. Long waits in queues for items of clothing and then to be told to come back again next day didn’t please men who had many uncomplimentary things to say about the efficiency of the army. Sleeping, eating, showering, multiple latrines and even short-arm parades, as inspections of private parts were called, soon convinced soldiers that there was no privacy in the life of a private.
Men who had had previous military training in school cadets or other units were irked at the basic drill. Left turn, right turn, about turn, one stop two! One grew sick of it and frustrated when some mug didn’t seem to know his right hand from his left. Later on that same mug might become one of the best soldiers on the field of battle. In time we became welded in a disciplined company and could march and drill as a unit that one could become proud of. P.T. exercises, shooting, weapon training and the learning of other basic army skills occupied our time. Food was plentiful but often badly cooked and presented. The cooks in the desert with their limited facilities could often come up with a better cooked meal than many we had in Burnham. Officers might think differently. There was no doubt however that the pig farmers around Burnham had the best-fed pigs in the country.
As the summer approached and the weather grew warmer men had other problems. They were issued with field service caps, commonly called after a part of the female anatomy, and they drilled in shorts. Standing in the hot sun of a Nor’West day, knees and faces became sunburnt. Coconut oil was in great demand. However, this was only a minor problem. Men had become fit and strutted around camp like little machines with head erect, shoulders back and arms swinging. Leave was eagerly looked forward to. Those with wives or sweethearts nearby were lucky. Others journeyed to the city to seek recreation and amusement and found it in various forms.
Final leave came and farewells were said to friends and families. That last march through the city streets was the march of no return for many. They lie today in Greece, Crete, the Western Desert, Italy and other far away places.
The day of embarkation came. The Dominion Monarch was a fine liner not yet fully modified for troop carrying. On boarding her one was conducted down steps and along alleyways and so deep into the bowels of the ship. Here were hammocks, swung above mess tables. These cramped areas were our living quarters. The journey across the Tasman was very rough. Not being a good sailor I was seasick. It wasn’t so bad in the fresh air above deck but in the confined spaces below, life wasn’t the best for a land lubber.
A few days out, there was excitement as we approached Sydney heads. Steaming up the harbour it was a grand sight to see ahead the great bulk of the Queen Mary silhouetted in the bow of the impressive harbour bridge. Disappointed at leaving home just before Christmas, we at least had the pleasure of spending Christmas Day ashore in this hospitable city. A few days more while steaming through the great Australian bight our convoy of the Dominion Monarch, Awatea and Queen Mary was joined by the four-funnelled Aquitania out from Melbourne. A war ship kept close watch on the ships. Our next port of call was Fremantle. The larger liners stood out to sea but the smaller ships could berth. Soon we were ashore and boarding a train
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for Perth. As we approached the city, scantily dressed females were seen waving from the doors and windows of houses backing onto the railroad tracks. This was Rose street where these same females would be hoping for the favours and cash of the soldiers. The Western Australians proved as hospitable as their Eastern cousins.
Back on shipboard there was a change around of quarters. After the cramped conditions in the hold I found a two-berth cabin a luxury. With improved living quarters and the calmer seas of the Indian ocean, seasickness seemed to vanish and life became more enjoyable. The swimming pool became popular and deck games were enjoyed in spare time. We could never lose sight of the fact that at anytime we could be torpedoed so our life jackets accompanied us everywhere.
Colombo was the next port of call. Here again we had leave ashore and explored the sights of this tropical city and the surrounding bush jungle. It was an experience to see gangs of men bunkering a ship. Each man carried a basket of coal and like a stream of ants they clambered up and down planks and deposited the coal inside the ship.
The bigger ships had been left behind as we steamed up the Red Sea. Ahead the white buildings of Suez gleamed in the bright sunshine. As we proceeded up the canal, we were in a different world, the world of George the Gyppo. Sights and sounds and smells were a new experience. In a small boat was a swarthy figure clad in a dirty white galabiyah. He was squatting on the side of the boat with his great bare backside facing the ship. As he continued his toilet session he seemed oblivious to the passing ships and the rude remarks of the passengers. This was Egypt! Water to the Egyptian meant life. It was a means of transport, it was used for irrigation, washing and drinking and, of course, it was a handy latrine. There were salt-water and sweet-water canals. The so-called sweet water was often highly polluted. Disembarking at Port Said we travelled by train to Mardii, the New Zealand base camp. Here we came to live and work and train for battle in the desert.
The first view of the pyramids was fascinating as was also the sight of ships on the nearby canal apparently sailing the desert sands. It was early spring. The days were hot but the nights were still cold. Standing on parade in the early dawn, men shivered in their thin shirts and shorts. Route marches in the sands of the desert (two steps forward and one back) toughened men up. Weapon training, drill and manoeuvres occupied our time. Waves of infantry advanced in mock attacks behind a screen of trucks or bren carriers posing as tanks. The tanks were still absent when it came to the real thing! Another time it was an artillery barrage lifting ahead as we advanced. Again when we needed them in battle the gallant artillery were often short of ammunition or shot up in their positions. That was all to come.
In the meantime we learnt such things as not to drink the last dregs of tea or soup, they were sure to contain some sand; watch out for the walls of the hut where the bed bugs lurked; hang on to your rifle at night, some thieving Gyppo might sneak in and steal it and you would be up for a court martial and keep out of sight of all in authority when off parade, one might land a fatigue.
Leave was eagerly looked forward to. Egypt was indeed a fascinating place. In Cairo one saw luxury side by side with squalor, the new and the ancient, modern buildings and old mosques and bazaars and really strange sights, sounds, and, of course, smells.
Some of the more unsavoury areas of Cairo were out of bounds to troops. This was as much for their own protection as anything else. That didn’t prevent bands of soldiers exploring some of these areas and risking getting caught by the military police. Walking in a tightly knit group through dingy alleyways and past evil leering faces in doorways and pestered by the inevitable ragged and dirty children one would arrive at a doorway where a collection would be taken up. Clambering up narrow winding stairways the soldiers were ushered into an ill-lighted room. Having received the money for their performance an Egyptian man and woman would lie on an improvised bed and give an exhibition jig-a-jig. A lighted cigarette end on the bare buttocks of the male brought this performance to an abrupt end. Next a fat and ugly female performed a belly dance in the nude. It was more grotesque than enticing. Turning to a soldier she asked for the lend of the cigarette he was smoking. With typical Kiwi generosity he offered her a fresh one from his packet and lit it for her. While puffing her cigarette she continued her dance. Taking the glowing cigarette she then placed the butt up her voluminous backside and gyrated around with the smoke issuing forth. Transferred to her mouth again she took a few more puffs of the cigarette. Next it was placed in her vagina as the dance continued. When the performance was finished she offered the still-smoking cigarette back to
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its donor. What one especially remembers about the scene was the intense look of horror on the face of the soldier as he hastily refused the tainted cigarette. The Gyppo gratefully went on smoking it herself. Having seen some of the seamier sides of life in Cairo, many of us spent our leave visiting the famous tourist attractions of Egypt.
Orders came one day to say the battalion would be moving next morning. We would only be taking essential kit in our packs, all else would go to base. Very early next morning the battalion moved out into the desert and came to a halt by a roadside. Then came a long wait. As usual nobody seemed to know what it was all about except that we were waiting for transport to some undisclosed destination. A large quantity of parcels from home had been delivered to the troops. They had probably been sitting for some time in a base camp post office. We could have enjoyed the parcels at leisure if we had received them in camp. Now it was a case of gobbling up the cake and goodies and discarding the items we couldn’t carry. The minutes grew into hours and still no sign of transport. Men cursed the army, the officers, the Egyptians and the sand. Why had they been roused out at such an early hour to sit like dummies in the empty desert? Then in the distance appeared a cloud of dust. The transport had arrived. The honour of the army had been vindicated! We were going to move after all.
Our destination proved to be a desert camp at Amiriya, some distance from Alexandria. It was a dirty camp, bleak and with few amenities. Here we experienced a real desert dust storm. For some hours before it actually hit us the sun was losing its intensity and the atmosphere gradually became more clouded. As it grew darker the sun became a scarcely visible orb and was gradually blotted out. There was an ominous stillness in the air. Then the storm really struck and all visibility disappeared in a swirling, stinging sand storm. Men groped their way to their tents. It was lunch time but meals had to be postponed as the fine wind-driven sand filtered through every crevice and hole of the tightly laced tents. Men lay on their palliasses and sheltered under their blankets. Gradually the atmosphere lightened, the wind died down and the sun appeared again. Everything in the tent was covered with a layer of silty sand. Blankets and gear were taken outside and shaken and the camp gradually returned to normal life.
In this transit camp much was the speculation as to our destination. As tropical helmets had been issued we thought it must be a hot place. The next move was to Alexandria harbour where many naval ships were moored. As we embarked on board ship the navy took over. We were impressed by the manner in which we were allocated our quarters. There were sailors at every ladder and corridor and the embarkation proceeded quickly and smoothly. The army had much to learn from the navy in organisation.
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CHAPTER 3: Greece
A few days later as we approached Piraeus, the port of Athens, one was reminded of the story of the passenger aboard the liner. ‘Tell me captain, what is the white stuff on the mountains over there?’ ‘That is snow.’ ‘I thought it was, captain. Somebody told me it was grease.’
As we marched from the port and continued through the streets of Athens, crowds gathered to welcome us. We pitched our tents in a park on the hillside above the city and soon we were fraternising with the locals. Leave was granted and the city explored.
While sitting in a café with some mates and an English-speaking Greek, a little girl approached our table with a basket of spring flowers for sale. At a word from the Greek she threw her arms around my neck and gave me a kiss. Although we didn’t want her flowers I couldn’t resist giving the wee girl some money.
We soon learnt we were not in Athens for a holiday. Leave came to an abrupt end when one morning orders came to leave for Northern Greece. Most of the troops were going by train. Motor transport was taking another route. Some of our men had been over imbibing the previous night and some were unfit for duty. A spare driver was called for. When originally volunteering for the army one had to state a preferences for which one of the services one wished to serve in. As I thought four wheels was an easier way to get about than on two feet I applied to join the A.S.C. Being an experienced driver with an unblemished record the army in its wisdom put me into the infantry. On this occasion I was gratefully accepted as a spare part in the transport machine. It proved a good decision as the main body of troops had a long and weary trip in a crowded train while we had quite an enjoyable few days motoring through the rugged but interesting Greek countryside.
It was somewhat hectic at times keeping in touch with the convoy. The road would wind through the hills and then enter a village. The preceding trucks were lost sight of as one twisted and turned through narrow streets scattering Greeks, goats and fowls and dodging laden donkeys. One night we camped beside an arm of the Aegean Sea. It was an idyllic spot. Trees were growing close to the shore line. The opportunity was taken for a swim and as men relaxed by the shore, war seemed far away. The calm waters gently surging against the little beach were more like a lake than an arm of the sea.
It had been spring when we went into camp in New Zealand. Arriving in Egypt was to be in the northern hemisphere spring. Months later in inland Greece spring was just commencing . Banks of wild violets and primroses were blooming in sheltered spots on the hillsides. Judas trees grew in profusion and the thickets of branches were spangled with pink blossom which carpeted the ground beneath and ran up the slopes in a riot of colour. Sure-footed donkeys plunged down steep hills laden with loads of wooden faggots which almost obscured them from sight. In places enclosures of woven branches were the night quarters for sheep and goats. Built on one side of the circular yard was a small enclosure of similar make where the herdsman spent the night. From the outside the only difference that could be seen was that the herdsman had a roof overhead.
A short stay was made in Katerine, a small town which seemed full of children who quickly made friends with us. As we journeyed north we came in sight of Salonika. Having joined my unit again we set about digging in a defensive line. A large body of Greek labourers were constructing an anti-tank ditch. We dug weapon pits camouflaged in the scrubby bush. When everything was quiet we often heard crashing noises in the undergrowth. Cautiously moving in the direction of the sound, a large tortoise like a miniature tank, would be observed pushing its way through the scrub. It wasn’t long before tortoises were captured and were being lined up for races. There were big ones and small ones and they seemed to be everywhere. Some had ticks under their shells. It must have been most annoying as they couldn’t scratch themselves.
When tipped on their backs they pathetically waved their legs in the air as they tried to recover their normal stance. The streams and pools had large numbers of fresh water tortoises swimming about.
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Soon after arriving in Greece men were sitting around eating their evening rations. The air was still and the landscape spread out around us with tree-dotted slopes stretching up to the higher hills. Suddenly the quiet was broken by the call of a jack donkey. The raucous voice echoed around the hillsides and died away in a long-drawn-out moan. Our youngest soldier, Dick, looked around with wonderment on his face. In a surprised voice he said ‘What bird was that?’
Much of a soldier’s life seems to be spent in digging holes which shortly after are abandoned. Several times in Greece the Germans would outflank us and we would be forced to abandon our positions and take up a defensive line somewhere else. This happened in Northern Greece and soon we were going back through Katerine and heading for Mt Olympus where there was a large sanatorium on the mountain slopes.
Once our section was detailed for a rearguard action near the foot of the mountain road. Tom, a thick-set and strong man lugged the heavy Boyes anti-tank rifle on our marches. On this occasion he passed it on to me and settled down amongst the grass on the roadside behind the Bren gun. Bill was armed with a Tommy gun and the rest had rifles. Camouflaged with sprigs of herbage in their helmets they still appeared vulnerable. Not wanting to set up the gun in the narrow roadway I climbed the steep bank on one side and set up the gun in some bushes from where there was a clear view down the road. None of us had ever fired the Boyes rifle so I didn’t know what to expect when I pressed the trigger. I never found out. We settled down to wait. Distant explosions or gunfire was heard but otherwise all seemed peaceful. We grew restless. Suddenly from up the road appeared one of our own light trucks. Our battalion had advanced up the hill and the road had been mined for demolition. Piling into the truck with our weapons we set off to get above the demolition party before we were cut off.
Rejoining our unit we found there was to be a forced march up the steep mountain road. With heavily loaded packs and at a brisk pace it was an exhausting climb of many miles. Near the end of the climb the General and his aides stood watching his men march past. I hope he felt proud of them as they straightened up, arms swinging, heads erect and softly cursing.
The little bivvys were erected in the snow on the side of the mountain. Eggs which had been purchased from some villagers seemed to take a long time to cook in the mountain air. It snowed and was bleak and cold that first night. A sudden contrast to the heat of Egypt. Later it cleared and we commenced making tracks to site guns to overlook the mountain road. As we toiled on the mountainside the padre arrived and we realised it was Sunday. The men knocked off work for a brief period and gathered in a half circle on the hillside. In that service on the historic mountain the padre spoke of the experience of Paul when he came to Athens. He based his sermon on the text from Acts ‘For as I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship Him declare I unto you’. After a brief refreshment of mind and spirit it was back to pick and shovel.
The Greek defences were crumbling. As the Germans broke through on one front after another we were forced to take up new positions. Some rugged country was traversed on foot. Besides our personal gear, rations and ammunition plus extra ammunition for the automatic weapons, was carried. As though that wasn’t enough, men carried a pick or shovel thrust down behind their packs. No wonder the laden Greek donkeys greeted us as fellow sufferers.
Crossing the Aliakmon river by a small boat suspended to a cable, men struggled up steep slopes to the crest of a ridge. Below was a valley stretching away to Servia in the distance. Enemy troop movements could be seen and planes flew overhead and were a constant menace. Tired and hungry men prepared to take up new positions. The day grew hot and we were short of water and it was a long way down to the river below. As usual nobody seemed to know what was going on. As darkness fell the troops were told that a brigade of Australians on our flank were evacuating their position and we would cover their withdrawal. We would hold our position till 11 p.m. and then would follow down and cross the river again. The enemy had captured the bridge and cut us off.
Contact was made with the Aussies. They had a dump of tinned food and we were told to help ourselves. This allayed our immediate hunger. The Aussies departed and we stayed in our position until the 11 p.m. deadline. The time came to depart. In single file we slid and stumbled down the steep hillside. Pieces of white rag tied to bushes were the only guide in the darkness. Eventually the river was reached, without mishap. The engineers had erected a crazy suspension bridge of wooden slats fixed on wire ropes suspended high over the river.
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Clutching weapons with one hand and hanging on to a wire with the other, men stepped gingerly over the swaying structure. Half-way across big Bill from Mt Hutt missed his footing and fell between the slats. He managed to hook an arm over a slat on either side and hung suspended above the torrent. Bill was over six feet tall and a heavy man with a heavy pack on his back. Men in front and behind struggled to lift him up on to the swaying bridge. It was a very relieved Bill who finally managed to get to his feet again.
On the far side of the river a welcome mug of hot tea was obtained. White enamel mugs were hooked in the straps of each man’s valise. Besides being readily accessible the white mug at the back of each man showed up in the darkness and helped one to follow in the footsteps of the man ahead.
After this brief halt for refreshments, the men set off up a steep goat track through the bush. Tom admitted that the weighty Boyes rifle had been ditched in the Aliakmon river. No one regretted its loss. Men tramped on hour after hour. By daylight we had reached a valley and a road of sorts. It was raining and the clouds hung low. Mercifully the enemy planes were grounded and the march went on uninterrupted. As the day wore on men were no longer marching in formation but straggled on in small groups. When they felt they could go on no longer they sat down for a rest. The whole of that day the march went on and then darkness fell. Plod, plod, plod and the action was almost automatic and the mind numb as the miles slowly slipped past.
It was nine o’clock that night when our transport trucks picked us up. Scrambling into the back of the vehicles men in uncomfortable attitudes tried to sleep as the trucks bumped, braked and shuddered over the rough roads. This went on until three o’clock the following morning when the convoy stopped at a small village. The little hamlet was deserted. Many of the household chattels were still inside the houses. We found a rug or two which we pulled over ourselves as we lay on the floor too tired to take further stock of our surroundings. Sometime before dawn we were woken by a man tugging at the rugs. It was a Greek trying to explain that the rugs belonged to him and he wanted them for his family. We let him take them and went back to sleep. After twenty-two hours of marching and another six hours jolting along in trucks on one was feeling like arguing.
As we continued from one position to another it was evident that our few planes were being driven from the skies. The German airforce dominated the countryside. British army dumps were abandoned. Passing one big dump, we saw Greeks with their faithful donkeys carting cases of stores into the surrounding hills. At one dump our dirty blankets were abandoned and clean new ones issued. The surplus ones were burnt. It was plain we were fighting delaying actions against an advancing enemy. Lying in a field of spring barley the farmer in me was interested in the cuckoo spit on the stems of corn. It was peaceful lying there until the shattering sound of exploding bombs brought one back to reality. Field guns were firing on enemy targets. The guns were hidden in a wood and enemy planes were looking for them. We also had shifted into a wooded gully on the hillside. Our orders were to hold our fire so as not to give away our positions. Deciding that our particular wood was the area to be strafed, the Messerschmitts dived one after another, spraying the wood with bullets. The screeching roar of the diving planes and the chatter of machine guns dulled ones senses. Lying close to the sheltering tree trunks no one was hit and the planes eventually flew away.
Arriving at a railway station we waited to board a train. The train was standing in the siding when Stuka dive bombers came over. As the bombs fell some of us dived under a railway carriage and lay between the rails. It seemed a safe place except for a direct hit. We were told not to worry about direct hits because one would not feel them. Cold comfort! As soon as the raid was over we were ordered to disperse in the surrounding countryside and marched along in open order parallel to the railway line. The Greeks were reluctant to staff the train and it was finally commandeered by our own men.
As the train drew abreast of us in the fields it stopped to pick us up. It was found that the engine boilers needed water. There was a well nearby. Men formed a chain and petrol tins were filled and passed along and the water emptied into the engine. When all was ready men clambered aboard and the carriages were quickly filled. In each carriage a short stairway led to a box-like structure on top. Finding the carriage overfull I deposited my gear in the upstairs compartment and relaxed in the seat provided. The train moved off and soon darkness fell. Leaving the flat the train was now climbing into the hills.
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One of the train crew informed me that I would be a brakeman. In each box was a wheel and screw which worked the braking mechanism. When the train was gathering speed downhill, the brake was to be screwed down. This was to be released when the train slowed down or an uphill grade encountered. It was all rather primitive but not very demanding for the man in the box. The system seemed to work reasonably well most of the time. There were periods when the train seemed to be plunging to disaster and the brakes were screwed down to the limit. The men manning the engine had the real problems. It was a fine piece of work on their part that they managed to bring the train and the battalion safely over the hills and deposit us at a little railway station late the next day. We had some trouble with Greek soldiers who were trying to hitch a ride with us. I understand they were induced to occupy the rear carriage which was conveniently disconnected on a slight upwards grade.
As tired men clambered out of the train they would have been content to lie down and sleep beside the railway siding. It was not to be and we had to march off and take up positions in the surrounding hills. In the morning planes came over and bombed an ammunition train in the siding. Dense columns of smoke went up and exploding ammunition popped and crackled most of the morning. That little effort of marching a few miles the night before felt worthwhile then.
The German hordes were now coming down unhindered through Yugoslavia and Northern Greece. The Albanian front had collapsed and the German airforce roved virtually unhindered. Outnumbered, with diminishing supplies and no further air support, the British were gradually evacuating the country. After maintaining a position for a few days we would quietly move out at night and march for miles in the dark until picked up by motor transport. Without the enemy realising it we would be several hundred miles away manning a new position or holed up in a friendly olive grove by morning. Periods of sleep were very limited.
One afternoon our platoon was dug in on a hillside. Planes came over and strafed us. When the last plane had disappeared our youngest member hastily climbed out of the weapon pit and made for some bushes a short way off. There is nothing like a little excitement to loosen one’s bowels. Dick had his trousers down when unexpectedly another plane came screaming over the hillside and dived towards our positions. On the day Dick would have won any sack race. With his trousers around his ankles he somehow managed to make the trench and literally fell on top of us. Everybody, including Dick, roared with laughter as we crouched in the shelter of the weapon pit and the plane flew harmlessly on. It was a near-thing though.
Dick was always good for a laugh. On another occasion we had stopped before dawn in an olive grove. We had been travelling all night and soon everyone was asleep. Sometime during the morning the heat of the sun woke us to find ourselves close to some beehives. Dick’s first thought was that some fresh comb honey would be a welcome addition to our diet. As the area was in a malarial zone we were carrying mosquito nets. Pulling on some gloves and draping a mosquito net around his head and shoulders Dick pushed over a hive and soon came back with some honeycomb which he shared around. The bees were very annoyed, in fact mighty mad, so we shifted a little farther away. In the meantime, two unsuspecting Greeks came walking up the track which led to the beehives. When they reached the overturned hives the bees vented their fury on the newcomers. The Greeks ran off waving their arms in all directions as they tried to escape the attentions of the enraged bees.
In order to avoid the strafing planes most of our movement was at night. The narrow roads were often cluttered with vehicles moving both ways. Sometimes we had no choice but to move in daylight. When planes were seen, a spotter on the vehicle would bang the top of the cab. The vehicle would brake to a stop and everyone would jump down and disperse along the roadside. Once when travelling in convoy I had an opened tin of food in one hand and a spoon in the other. As a plane dived over the hillside I found myself in a ditch by the roadside still clutching the spoon in one hand and the tin in the other. One member of our platoon had an anxious few minutes. He was quiet and well liked but large and somewhat ungainly. He had earned himself the title of the Old Grey Mare. Jumping off the truck he caught his web-gear on a projection of the canopy. While a plane dived down on the trucks he remained suspended on the side of the vehicle. Although he could have been a sitting duck he wasn’t hit and finally struggled off the hook. Not so fortunate were some others. It was sad to hear that several of our friends were killed and others wounded. It was a one-sided war with no suitable weapons to fight off the Stukas and Messerschmitts. In one place where the road skirted a cliff a string of mules had been shot up. Their bloated carcases were strung out along the roadside.
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From Thermopalae the battalion went to Tripoli. German parachute troops were being dropped near the Corinth canal and we were rushed up to prevent them seizing the canal bridge. In a confused sortie contact was made with some of the enemy. Strafing planes slowed up our advance. Eventually word was received that the bridge had been blown up. As dusk drew near we retired towards our original positions. Walking up the railway line we came to a cutting with vertical banks on either side. Suddenly a plane flew out of the sunset straight towards us. There was no escape. The platoon flattened out on the track as the plane came shrieking low overhead: Not a shot was fired as the plane flew on. Perhaps the pilot had run out of ammunition. The men continued on into the gathering gloom slightly shaken at the unexpected encounter.
Many British troops were being evacuated from various beaches. Our job was to cover the withdrawal. Athens was passed through during the night. No chance to buy that lovely vase with the traditional Greek motifs I had seen in our previous stay. Motoring through the pleasant countryside of Sparta with its corn fields, orange groves and vineyards, the local population gave us a great reception. Girls showered us with bouquets of flowers. They must have known we were leaving them to their fate but they cheered us all the way. It was rumoured that a convoy of Germans had gone through ahead of us but we branched off up a side road into a wooded valley and stayed hidden in the trees. Reconnaissance planes were searching for us. There was a citrus orchard here with large ripe fruit hanging juicy and delicious. In the midst was a well of clear cold water. The day was hot but lemon drinks sweetened with caster sugar picked up at an abandoned dump was the order of the day. When we left Greece many of our water bottles contained lemon drink.
We had halted some miles from the tiny port of Monemvasia in the southern tip of Greece. Small boats were to ferry the troops out to destroyers which would come into port during the night. In the evening I was detailed to wait on the track down the hill to the port to pick up a detachment of British troops and lead them down to the jetty. Why they picked on me I don’t know. Did they think I was a reliable soldier or didn’t they care if I got lost? I like to think it was the former. While waiting in the dark a Greek came along leading a donkey. Around its neck was a melodious sounding bell. I thought it would be a good souvenir of Greece. Pulling out all the drachmas I had left I offered them for the bell. He refused to part with it and I did not blame him. The musical tinkle died away in the stillness of the night as he continued on his way.
A little later I heard the faint clomp of boots. It grew louder and a body of men appeared out of the gloom. At my challenge they stopped. An officer came forward and asked if I was the New Zealander to lead them down to the port. On the way downhill in the darkness, the Tommy Major confided that it was not long ago that he had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Now he was leaving Greece. He wondered what the future of the war was to be. The track led down to the foreshore and eventually the jetty appeared in sight. There were no lights showing.
In the early hours of the morning we scrambled aboard a boat which ferried us out into the harbour. The outlines of a destroyer appeared out of the gloom. All was quiet except for the lapping of water and a few subdued voices. Willing hands pulled us aboard an already crowded ship. Curling around an ack-ack gun platform on deck I lay down with my rifle and pack at my side. The sailors came around with hot cocoa as the ship quietly slipped out of harbour. Not much interest was taken in the night from then on. Two hours of sleep in twenty-four had been the average for the last two weeks.
Arriving in Suda Bay in Crete the first object of interest was the sunken cruiser, York, sitting up in the water. Although immobile it still acted as a gun platform. As the sixth brigade was ordered back to Egypt to defend the Suez canal we transferred to transports. The convoy headed across the Mediterranean. There was sound of bombing during the night. One morning we woke to the sight of a flotilla of British warships escorting us. It was a magnificent sight and cheering to the troops. We had much to thank the navy for. Disembarking in Egypt we were welcomed by Red Cross ladies with tea, cakes, chocolate and cigarettes. That first cup of tea was the best we had had for many a long day. Even the sand and flies seemed welcome again.
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CHAPTER 4: Canal Zone
Shortly after returning to Egypt the battalion was posted to Spinney Wood, a dirty dusty tent camp not far from the delightful little town of Ismailia. I never did find out why the strip of sand was called Spinney Wood. It was a pleasant contrast to visit the town with its fine homes and tropical flowers. Many a soldier prided himself with the idea that by swimming the canal he had swum from Africa to Asia. There was a concrete ledge down the bank above the canal. It was a favourite place to get undressed and leave one’s shoes and clothes on. One day a large ship came along the canal while a lot of chaps were in the water. They clambered up the bank while the ship sailed past. What they weren’t prepared for was the wave which followed the passage of the ship. The water surged up and swept everything clean off the shelf. The swimmers had to retrieve their gear floating in the water. No need to worry, however, the hot sun soon dried everything.
From Spinney Wood a move was made further along the canal to Geneifa on the Great Bitter lake. For miles alongside the shores of the lake were tented camps occupied by various nationalities. Our tents were dug down several feet below the ground level as protection in bombing raids. The first night we noticed a curious smell. It was hard to locate where the smell came from. After a lot of sniffing around the hard packed sand walls, it was found that the unpleasant smell originated from one particular area. With trenching tools we dug into the bank. The smell grew worse. A sack was located and dragged out to the tent floor. When opened it was found to contain a quantity of evil smelling camel dung. Apparently the area had previously been a camel camp.
Generally the camp facilities were much better than at some previous locations. Swimming was still a favourite pastime. The water of the lake was warm and salty. Sharp shells were rather a menace and there were a few cut feet in consequence.
The weather was extremely hot for training. Another move was imminent. We were to move to the Kitchener Barracks at Moascar to relieve another unit. It was decided that it would be good training to march the distance. At the end of the first day of marching down the hard bitumen road men were glad to take boots off their sweating feet and relax in whatever shade they could find. Some sat and dangled their feet in the canal. On the second day men could be seen limping along with blistered feet. The long marches in Greece hadn’t been as hard on feet as this march in the sweltering heat of Egypt. At Moascar we found living conditions in the barracks much improved on the tented camps. Such amenities as tiled floors, electric light and plenty of showers was much appreciated.
Enemy bombers were making frequent forays into Egypt. The surrounding aerodromes and railway yards were main targets. When a supply train was bombed and burnt out we had the job of helping to clean up the mess. One waggon had been full of bottled beer. In spite of the heat of the fire some of the bottles were still intact. Soldiers couldn’t resist the temptation to sample free beer. However, not many could stomach warm beer in the hot Egyptian sun.
While in the canal zone, soldiers took the opportunity of leave to various centres. Alexandria and Cairo were visited again. One leave took me to Palestine. I travelled through the length and breadth of the historic Holy Land and made a brief visit into Transjordan. Memories remain of oranges rotting under the trees alongside the railway line, of a truckload of bananas lumbering along in the middle of Jericho, of the sun shining on the waters of the sea of Galilee and the sheep and goats and Arabs in Nablus. Also remembered was the impressive view from the hills looking down on the port of Haifa, the buildings of the modern city of Tel Aviv, swimming in the buoyant waters of the Dead Sea and of course visiting the historic shrines of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
On the way back to Egypt a mate and I spent a night at a hotel in Kantara. During the night we were awakened by the air raid siren. We were tired and considered our hotel well away from any target area. We lay in bed while doors slammed and the excited chatter of voices and sound of running feet was heard. After a while there was an uncanny silence and we decided to go up and see what was going on. The hotel was deserted and the street doors were locked. Just then the ack-ack guns opened up and the crump of bombs was heard. We
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went upstairs again and out on to the balcony. From there we watched the searchlights pointing fingers up into the sky and the tracer and so called ‘Flaming Onions’ from the guns punctuating the darkness as they sought the enemy planes. Soon things quietened down and we went back to bed. The all clear sounded and we dozed off. Some time later the streets were full of the noise of returning Egyptians. One wondered how far out into the desert they had run. Doors banged in the hotel again and then all was quiet.
Coming back from a short leave in Cairo, six of us boarded a train for the canal zone. When we presented our tickets to the guard we found we were on the wrong train. He said we would have to get off at Zagazig, the next large town and get a train from there. We duly got off at the station. On enquiring when the next train left for our destination, it was only to find that there wasn’t another train till sometime in the evening. We went outside the station building, and stood beside a wall. There wasn’t a white face of a soldier in sight. The usual crowd of youths and passers-by were taking an active interest in us. Apart from our baggage we each had a rifle. At that period of the war we had to be ready to return instantly to our unit which may have shifted in the meantime, so our personal weapons were carried while on leave. The Gyppos were ever ready to seize a rifle as it could be sold for big money. The particular crowd were very interested in our rifles and continued to press for us to let them examine the weapons. Needless to say we held on to our equipment and were glad of the wall to protect our rear. We had been long enough in Egypt to know that an article could disappear very quickly in a crowd. We weren’t looking forward to night coming on and being surrounded by a somewhat hostile crowd. At this juncture a young Egyptian, speaking good English approached us and told us there was a British Army convoy passing nearby. He volunteered to lead us to the road. Gratefully we accepted his offer. Disregarding offers from bystanders to carry our rifles and gear we marched down the streets and were soon alongside the road. We waved down the first truck going our way. When the two Tommies aboard heard of our predicament they were happy to oblige us with a ride back to our base.
Our next move was back to Helwan where we found huts had been erected in place of tents. When we had moved to Greece the Germans had advanced into Egypt. Now our army was training and re-equipping to push them back again. The battalion settled down to advanced training. A further move took us to Baggush in the Western desert. This was to be our springboard for the assault on Rommel’s forces.
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CHAPTER 5: The Western Desert
The night before we left Baggush there was a blood-red sky at sunset. Was-it an augury for the grim days ahead? If it was we did not much care. For most of us it meant the end of a period of inactivity. Ahead of us there lay adventure, new scenes and new triumphs. There was the thought of capturing German cameras, binoculars and revolvers and the triumphal entry into enemy cities. Perhaps at the back of our minds there was the thought that one might get wounded, or even killed. We did not dwell on those thoughts. The long awaited big push was on and we were to take part in it. We would show Jerry a thing or two this lime!
As darkness came on we, descended to the shelter of our dugouts. Cut in the soft sandstone on the side of a slope they were dry and comfortable. Candles were flickering in niches in the walls and by their flickering rays we went about our evening tasks. Soon the primus was alight and on its hissing flame water was heating for supper. When all was ready four or five of us would squat around on the sandy floor and consume hot coffee au lait and biscuits, shortbread and fruitcake. In those days we were living well, for parcels from home and occasional purchases from the canteen kept us well supplied in extras for afternoon teas and suppers. Next, we unrolled our blankets and prepared for bed. When lights were out there would be desultory conversation for a while, lapsing into drowsy monosyllables and finally silence. Overhead would sound the hum of motors as one by one the big Wellingtons headed out to sea on bombing missions down the coast or across to the shores of Europe. In tile early hours of the morning they would return, giant monsters looming out of the blackness, their deadly mission completed. Long before that we would be asleep and only our deep breathing and an occasional snore would disturb the silence of our underground home.
In the morning we were up early and there was a bustle of activity everywhere. Everything not needed we had to discard. Even then our bulging packs had to be knelt on or sat on to get the straps to meet. Platoon trucks were loaded up with baggage and blankets and our transport vehicles arrived. All around were scenes of similar activity. Platoon trucks, cook trucks, water carts, ammunition waggons, headquarters trucks, transport trucks, artillery, ack-ack and all the attendant vehicles were being hastily prepared for the desert journey. Gradually order emerged from seeming chaos. As each vehicle was ready it moved to its allotted place. Platoons were marshalled into companies. Trucks moving down the sandy track were joined by other trucks. The company commanders, standing up with their head and shoulders protruding from the opening in the roof of their cabs, directed operations like captains of ships at sea. Clouds of dust arose from moving vehicles. The column moved on, then stopped. Another move and another stop. Meanwhile Don R’s [Dispatch Riders] roared up and down on their motor-bikes, carrying messages and marshalling trucks into line of convoy. Flags waved, signals were exchanged, planes roared overhead; the big push had started. Company followed company, battalions merged into brigades and soon the whole New Zealand division was moving west. At a steady pace it raced down the tar-sealed road and then on into the desert. Great columns of dust were churned up as the countless wheels in the vast array of vehicles moved relentlessly onward. ‘Yep, boys, it’s the real thing this time, no damn “frugal” about this’ one man remarked. ‘And someone’s going to get hurt, hope it’s not us’ continued another. ‘Nope, Jerry’s not going to have it all his own way this time’ was the reply.
NOTE: ‘frugal’, an army name for practice manoeuvres in the desert.
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As night approached the vehicles gradually closed in, until in the darkness they were travelling in close column. The drivers strained their eyes to follow close in behind the vehicles in front. As the evening progressed we became tired and didn’t envy the drivers their job. Heads began to nod and one and then another dozed off, until an additional lurch of the vehicle would bring us back to wakefulness again. The night was filled with an indescribable noise. The engines of thousands of motors combined to make a grand crescendo of sound which throbbed like some gigantic pulse. The night seemed full to bursting with this pulsating roar which dulled the senses and left one feeling like a helpless atom held in a vast maelstrom of sound. In this wise the night wore on, until in the grey light of dawn the vehicles drew near to their first halting place. The convoys of trucks gradually spread out across the desert and vehicles came to rest some 200 yards apart. Spaced out thus, as a bombing target they wouldn’t be very satisfactory to the enemy. As the trucks stopped the men debussed, looking weary, dusty and bleary-eyed. The first task of the men was to dig weapon pits. Each section was given an area of ground to cover in case of enemy attacks and the pits were dug accordingly. Much of the desert was very rocky and seldom did we come upon a place where we could dig any depth with ease. Mostly the top 8 or 10 inches were fairly soft, then one struck the rock. By judicious and laboured picking this could often be brought up in slabs and a reasonable depth acquired. Sometimes, however, after much hard labour, it would be found necessary to recommence the hole somewhere else, the terrain proving too rocky. Whenever it was necessary to dig in, we would anxiously scan the surrounding ground. Often the trucks would stop in a place where the ground looked soft. We would start to congratulate ourselves when the commanding officer would come along and direct us to some rocky ridge. Most annoying of all, however, was when we had been allotted our positions and were well on the way to completing our pits, a perspiring junior officer would come along and redirect us to another position some 100 yards or so further away. Some even more perspiring men would voice their candid opinion of the army, and their officers in particular, as they set to work all over again. In the early stages we carried ‘bivvy’ tents, big enough to shelter two men. The pits accordingly were dug wide enough for two men to lie side by side and long enough to stretch out comfortably. When complete they looked just like shallow graves, unhappy thought. The little green bivvy tent was then erected. With its sides well down in the pit and its rear end facing the prevailing wind it was made as snug as possible. Sand and rocks were placed along the lower edges of the tent to prevent, as far as possible, sand and dust seeping into it when the wind blew. It didn’t take much of a breeze either, to set the sand creeping and the dust eddying across the desert. A little sand thrown over the canvas and a few sprigs of the scrubby desert bushes would complete the camouflage. Our ground-sheets would be put down and our blankets unrolled and we would crawl into our little shelters.
In the meantime the cooks would be busy preparing breakfast. Their petrol cookers would be installed in a sheltered spot and would soon be hissing away with the dixies on top. Then the call would come for us to go, one platoon at a time, and get our rations. Not many men were allowed to congregate at one spot, in case of a surprise air attack. There was always a rush to queue up as the first in line had best chance of a second helping. Appetites were sharpened and now we were on the move there wasn’t much chance to supplement our slender rations with extras from the canteen and afternoon tea and suppers from home parcels. After the last scrap of porridge and bully beef stew had been scraped from the bottom of our eating utensils, we could spare a little drop of our hot tea to put in. Stirred around with our fingers it would remove the grease our spoons had left and little of our precious water would then be needed to leave our utensils reasonably clean. Our mug of ‘shi’ was always appreciated but it was often hard to tell what it was supposed to be, especially if a dust storm had been blowing. It would then look more like coffee or cocoa and taste like nothing on earth. There would often be a lingering taste of bully-beef stew about it though. It certainly had body to it, rich and brown with a little froth and a residue of sand in the dregs. It’s lucky that sand sinks and after all one didn’t have to drink the last drop.
Breakfast over, we would then crawl into our bivvys once more and try to get a few hours sleep. Later on in the day it would be time to rouse ourselves. We would roll our blankets and pack our gear. The tents would be taken down and neatly folded. Canvas, ropes, pegs, poles and mallet would be fitted into a little canvas bag. When all was ready it would be time to line up at the cookhouse again. The meal completed, we would prepare to embuss. The convoys would gradually form up again and spaced out at intervals, would set out on the next
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stage across the desert. Flying plumes of dust accompanied each vehicle. As far as the eye could see, trucks, tanks and guns were moving. Those on the horizon looked like toys and some were just specks melting into the receding landscape.
This Western Desert over which we travelled was an arid waste of level plains and rocky escarpments. In places the going was so smooth that the trucks could travel at full speed like on a well-formed road. In other places the going was soft and lower gears would have to be resorted to. Occasionally uneven and rocky places would be crossed, but the going was generally reasonably good. The fact that much of our travel was done in the hours of darkness would tend to prove this. Nevertheless the strain on the drivers at night must have been fairly severe. The course we were to follow was mapped out and M.P.’s would go ahead at night and would stand at intervals and show a green light. This little green eye showing in the darkness would be our guiding star. When we reached it, we would find a man or small group of men standing by a motor-bike or truck. Beyond again, another green light would be seen, showing our direction ahead. This chain of lights led us at night from the western frontiers of Egypt into the deserts of Libya. These little beacons, although plainly visible to us, would be invisible to the enemy ahead. No lights were allowed to be shown at night and smoking was forbidden. However, many a surreptitious smoke was indulged in. A favourite place was under cover of a blanket. Once, a carelessly dropped cigarette butt set fire to some leaking petrol in a truck. There was a sudden burst of flame and the glare lit up the immediate surroundings. Grotesque shadows flickered about the ground while the men sought hastily to extinguish the flames. The fire was quickly put out, but if the enemy had been in the vicinity it would have immediately revealed our position.
In all this expanse of desert there was little animal life; The nomad Bedouins had been forced to evacuate from much of their former roaming grounds now that it had become a battle area. In the desert we saw an occasional mob of goats or of native sheep. On one occasion, when on manoeuvres, we came across a little group consisting of a few Arabs, some half dozen camels and a flock of sheep. The men were watering the camels at a hidden well. Unless one knew of its existence one would pass close by without discovering it. One man was lowering a bucket into the well by a rope. From the depths below could be heard strange rumbling sounds. On approaching closer it was found that it was the voice of a man echoing in a cavern below. The bucket was lowered to this man who then advanced to the far side of the cavern where he dipped up the water from a pool further underground. He then attached it to the rope again and the men above would pull it to the surface and pour the water into a trough to water their stock. Finally, the rope was attached to the waist of the man below and he also was pulled up to the surface. We tasted the water, which was slightly brackish. Having watered the camels, one Arab partially stripped and poured a bucket of water over his head, apparently enjoying this impromptu bath which would be more cooling than cleansing. We offered them cigarettes which they gravely accepted. One youth, however, refused a cigarette, saying that he did not smoke. The refusal was rather a surprise after having dealt with Arabs in such places as Cairo and Alexandria. What! A wog refusing a cigarette! These simple Bedouins were a different type to their avaricious city cousins.
In certain parts of the desert the graceful gazelles were seen. These on occasions provided roving patrols with fresh meat. The noise of the convoy would scare them away, however. Desert jack rabbits were also seen. They were much like our own hares, but smaller and leaner. Various birds were seen. The scavenger hawk circled overhead. A kind of dotterel, well camouflaged by its surrounding lived amongst the stones. A little green linnet flitted amongst the scanty bushes and the graceful swallows skimmed along overhead. Many of the birds were migratory and were seen mostly near the coast. A search of the ground would also reveal various forms of life. There were numerous kinds of ants, black ones and red ones. Many were small but others again were about 3/4 inch in length with quite ferocious heads and powerful jaws. Huge black beetles were found in burrows in the sand. They appeared to delight in feasts of decaying animal manure and would drag a piece with them into their underground burrows. What we disliked and feared was the repulsive-looking scorpion. A loathsome creature indeed and notorious for its deadly sting. A piece of rock removed from the ground would often reveal one of these fearsome-looking creatures. Greyish, liverish in hue, it would advance with huge claws held extended crabwise and deadly looking tail held arc-wise over its back. It was promptly killed. A favourite trick was to put a ring of petrol around it and set fire to it. It might sound cruel but was effective. The commonest form of life,
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however, seemed to be the snail. There were countless millions of them, their white shells scattered over the landscape. Many of them were empty, the shells of past generations of snails. Others had live snails in them but large or small the entrance of the live ones was sealed. Some had glued themselves onto rocks and stones, others onto the scraggy bushes. Small ones were often found glued to the shell of a larger. They all seemed to be hibernating, perhaps waiting for a rainy season. As it was there seemed nothing for them to live on. Perhaps some would find nourishment from the bushes scattered about, many were in areas of barren desert with no visible signs of vegetation. Nevertheless they seemed to have lived and multiplied for generations.
Although the desert was often barren, in many places scrubby bushes were scattered about. In hollows where soil had lodged they were often growing quite thickly, although they never grew very high. Later on when in action and the bullets were whistling past one’s head one would invariably feel like hiding behind one of these little bushes if there was one near. Not that it offered much protection in itself, although it seemed to give one a little more feeling of security. Actually the sand collected around the roots of the bush and the slight mound it formed could have been a slight protection. Sometimes these scraggy bushes were seemingly covered with brightly hued flowers. On closer examination what looked like little scarlet flowers would appear to be merely a coloration on the tips of the leafless branches. Perhaps they were a primitive form of flower or possibly just nature’s effort to add a little colour and beauty to the otherwise desolate wastes. Sometimes at night when the convoy was travelling across the desert, an aromatic fragrance of sage would permeate the air. The scent from the crushed bushes would bring elusive visions of gardens and memories of home to the weary men in the truck.
During the long nights as we jolted along a topic of conversation that was very popular was that of food. One man would say ‘I could go a good feed right now.’ Then the talk would begin. A man would mention some gastronomic delicacy that he favoured. Another man would describe a full-course dinner with all the trimmings. So we would tantalise ourselves with thoughts of tasty meals that we had no chance of getting and would console our appetites by crunching hard biscuits. The keen desert air, for the winter was approaching, served to whet our already good appetites. Hungry men invariably think of food, especially when there is not much else to occupy their thoughts. Many of us to our cost were later to find out how true this is.
We were still dressed in summer attire and were finding the wearing of shorts bitterly cold with the changing season. The army is inexorable however. Summer is summer and winter is winter whatever the individual day might happen to be. Then orders came that battle dress was to be worn. Summer had apparently ended. We gratefully pulled on our battle dress trousers and wondered why it had taken so long to convince the powers that be that the days were no longer warm.
Soon after striking into the desert we were joined by camouflaged tanks which were a source of interest to us, as we had had little to do with tanks so far. Covered by a canopy like any truck, from the air they would be indistinguishable from ordinary transport vehicles. Even viewed from the ground at a distance they gave the appearance of trucks racing along with the convoy. They gave us a feeling of security such as we experienced when we were travelling across the ocean and the destroyers and cruisers showed upon the horizon to escort our convoy across the dangerous waters. In fact the whole desert campaign reminded us of naval warfare. In the daytime the convoys travelled well spaced out. At night they closed in so as to keep in touch with each other, just like war-time convoys at sea. Later on tanks and armoured vehicles were used to escort ammunition and food waggons across the desert from the army bases to the fighting front. To heighten the illusion of naval warfare, the desert provided unlimited areas to manoeuvre in. Just as sea raiders could sail long distances to attack an enemy convoy, so armoured fighting vehicles could cruise long distances out into the desert and get around fortified posts to attack enemy supply lines. With miles upon miles of barren country, no human habitations for vast distances, the desert was an excellent place for man to wage war in. They could kill each other and destroy guns and tanks and planes without devastating a populous or fruitful countryside. Unfortunately the war in the desert was only a phase in the great world struggle.
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A number of nights after leaving our base we saw a grand exhibition of wildfire. We were travelling along in convoy when suddenly a brilliant flash lit up the sky. It died as quickly as it appeared. Then further flashes appeared. Each time the desert was lit up like day and moving vehicles were plainly seen. The glow in the sky would die out and an inky darkness would settle over the face of the desert. A few minutes after another flash would throw everything into vivid relief. The brilliance would last for a fraction of time and then it would seem to leave the night blacker than ever. This continued at intervals for several hours. We heard no accompaniment of thunder. There was just the brilliance of the wildfire. We heard later that about this time there was a terrific downpour of rain further up the coast. The desert in places was turned into a quagmire and many vehicles were stuck in the mud. We were to come across some of these areas ourselves in the next few days.
Through the Wire and into Libya.
On the night of the eighteenth we passed through the wire into Libya. This wire was in the form of a huge barbed fence stretching from the coast several hundreds of miles into the interior. Erected by the Italians, it was the eastern barrier to their Libyan Empire. The barbed wire barricade was strengthened by minefields alongside. Several forts in the vicinity were the bases from which armed forces could patrol the wire. We also saw a telegraph line stretching into the interior. Our engineers had cleared a narrow passage way through the minefields and had cut the barb so that the trucks and fighting vehicles could get through. As we followed the trail of green lights across the desert we saw a cluster of red lights ahead. These resolved themselves into two lines of red lights, one on either side of the narrow passage through the minefields. On passing through we had left the frontiers of Egypt and had entered the enemy territory of Libya.
All day we were camping out in the desert in open formation. The tanks had gone on ahead to engage the enemy. Our future movements were hanging on the result of these tank battles. We were ready to move at short notice and in the meantime were resting. We took turns at the ack-ack post which consisted of a Bren-gun mounted on a stand on the open ground. We had visions of covering ourselves with glory by shooting down a plane. At the same time it looked plain suicide to us if a plane had dived down on our exposed position with its guns shooting. Most of us had experienced that sensation in a previous campaign. One longs for a hole in the ground then and a deep one at that. Fortunately there were Bofors guns handy and when a couple of enemy fighters came over to investigate, the Bofors put up some accurate fire which drove the planes off in a hurry. In the meantime the planes had strafed some trucks and set one on fire. Prior to this we had seen no enemy planes and at no time did we see them in large numbers. Our own air force was much in evidence which had a very heartening effect on us. It was a welcome change from the days of the Greek Campaign when every plane we sighted we treated as an enemy one. We were to see an amusing incident about this time. It was a dull day with great banks of cumulus cloud formations in the sky. A lone German fighter was proceeding in our direction. He was cruising steadily along out of range of our ack-ack. Apparently he thought he had the sky in the vicinity to himself. From the ground we could see a large formation of British bombers escorted by fighters flying in the direction of the Hun. Owing to the cloud banks between them the German was unaware of the superior force approaching him. Suddenly the British planes appeared through the clouds right in the path of the approaching Hun. That Jerry must have received a very rude shock. It was almost laughable the way he somersaulted his plane and went streaking back the way he had come. Two British fighters detached themselves from the formation and set out in pursuit of him. The fast Messerschmitt had a good start and showed them a clean pair of heels. The British soon gave up the pursuit and the Jerry was left to recover from his fright.
This Libyan desert in which we now found ourselves varied little from the Egyptian variety. The country we traversed became more rolling however. Instead of a vast tableland typical of much of the Western desert there were now rolling hills and escarpments
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interspersed with broad wadis. A reddish brown soil overlaid with a fine silt which lifted with the slightest breeze, covered much of the land. We dug into this with glee but almost after the first spade’s depth the inevitable rock was struck and the pick had again to be resorted to. The landscape was dotted with scrubby bushes, but it was still desert and as far as we were concerned, the Italians were welcome to it.
A squadron of our tanks had engaged an enemy formation. The engagement was somewhat indecisive. Our tanks had suffered fairly heavy casualties but the way was clear for us to advance again. Within a short space of time we were packed up and away in our transport. We were a little more keyed up than we had been before. A good look out was kept for enemy planes and when we stopped for the night and dug in, there was always the feeling that we might get a surprise visit from the enemy. One section of a platoon would picket the platoon lines each night. While we were at full strength this duty was not very onerous, each man’s turn at picquet duty coming only once in three nights. At that time we were only posting single picquets and we generally did an hour’s duty per man. The first and last shifts were considered the best as it only meant that one was a little later getting to bed or a little earlier getting up in the morning. It wasn’t so pleasant though, being awakened in the middle of the night. One rose from a warm bed and stood up in the cold night air. There was often a chilly wind blowing and there was no shelter to be found anywhere. On leaving one’s sleeping pit the first thing to do was fix one’s position by the stars. When camping in the open desert at night there were absolutely no landmarks to go by. A short walk away from one’s position, a turn around a time or two and one could easily become hopelessly lost, although still within a few chains of one’s sleeping comrades. By observing the position of the stars one always had a guide at night. Even then this picquet duty had its troubles. The simplest thing, of course, was to stay put and not move very far away. However, we were supposed to patrol the platoon area. Often the sections were chains apart in different directions and one was not always sure in the darkness of a black desert night in which direction they lay. One dark night I spent about ten minutes in finding the other sections and the rest of the hour finding my way back to my own section. I was very relieved when I stumbled upon my own bed again and could wake my relief lying alongside. Sometimes it took much peering into the sleeping faces of the men to discover which was the right man to wake. If one was dreaming of home sweet home and then was rudely shaken by the shoulder in the middle of the night while a muffled voice said, ‘Time to go on duty, Bill’, one was not very pleased as one replied, ’That’s Bill there on my left!’
As we continued our advance by night we reached the area which had been flooded in the storm a few nights previously. We were aware of the slowing down of the convoy and then there was a short stop. Ahead there was much roaring and grinding of trucks in low gear. The wet piece of desert had already claimed some victims in the shape of trucks which had become hopelessly bogged. These were eventually extricated by the help of tanks. Our driver advanced in low gear and we roared and churned our way across and soon reached firmer ground. We later camped for the night. Some German prisoners were captured that night. They had got their vehicle bogged in the marshy ground in the evening. Knowing our troops were still many miles away they had decided to wait till daylight before trying to get out. Rolling themselves up in their blankets they lay down inside the truck and went to sleep. A few hours later our night advance had caught up with them. Some surprised and sleepy Jerries had a rude awakening.
At one stage we had passed beside the artillery shelling the forts. Fort Capuzo, Sidi Omar and Libyan Omar are fortified posts near the border. Apart from this and a little ack-ack fire we had seen no action so far. We had heard the tank battles ahead and much evidence of the conflict lay about. Burnt-out tanks, some with turrets askew, some with gashes in the side, stood about the desert. Some had black crosses on them, others belonged to our own armoured divisions. Heaps of empty shell cases showed where gun actions had been fought. Water-tins and numerous odds and ends lay scattered about. During a short pause an abandoned motor-cycle drew our attention. Some mechanically minded soldier got hold of it and after a little tinkering with it succeeded in getting it going. There was much evidence that the enemy had lately been around this area. We wondered how soon we would catch up with him. We were not long left in doubt.
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We resumed our advance at 3 a.m. and at daybreak had halted for breakfast in a wadi. It was a chilly morning and some of the men made little fires of scrub around which they were warming themselves. The morning stillness was suddenly broken by machine gun fire and a hubbub was let loose. We were told to spread out and take cover. Bullets were coming our way. The noise of fire broke into a crescendo as heavier guns came into action. Our first casualty was a man caught with his pants down. It was no joke though, for the man in question who would find it sore to sit down for some weeks to come. The fighting was soon over and quietness reigned once more. Our formation had intended avoiding an enemy force known to be in this vicinity. Owing to an error in navigation we had come to halt right on top of them. The German tanks and armoured cars were quickly subdued by our Valentine tanks. A few high-ranking prisoners were captured.
As there was no longer time for breakfast we started on the move again. This early morning encounter had whetted our zeal and as we rolled along behind the tanks our spirits rose, in spite of our empty stomachs and we thought that modem warfare was quite a good adventure. Ahead of us we discerned a variety of fast-moving transport. Our tanks and guns moved up behind a rise in the ground and opened up on the enemy column ahead. The action was soon broken off as it was seen that there were many captured and disabled British vehicles in the German column. Bren carriers went out to investigate and some British wounded were brought back. An amusing incident took place about this time. While our column remained halted a German motor-cyclist appeared on the horizon. Heading directly towards us he apparently mistook us for German transport. When within a few hundred yards he began to doubt and then his doubt was turned to certainty. Stopping suddenly he swung around and started back in the opposite direction. Instantly our men opened out with Bren and rifle fire. The motor-cycle wobbled and fell over and the Jerry sprawled out at full length. I thought he was dead. A moment after he sprung up and commenced to run. A few more shots pinned him to the ground and he lay still. A bren carrier went out and collected him. He was still alive.
Our advance continued. Our battalion was instructed to link up with the South Africans. About midday we halted and debussed. Our transport went back to the rear and we were to see them no more. We immediately took up defensive positions and then proceeded to eat our first rations of the day. Having been on the move for about nine hours we did justice to our meal. About half way through the afternoon, the South African 5th Brigade positions immediately ahead of us were strongly attacked by enemy tanks and lorried infantry. Bursting shells, smoke and dust made an impressive sight in the distance. Soon our own guns opened up but the infantry could only stay where we were and watch proceedings. It was obvious the South Africans were having a bad time. Soon fleeing South African Transport came stampeding through our positions. One truck stopped right in front of where I was lying and the driver asked who we were. ‘Man’, he said, ‘It is terrible back there. What are you doing here?’ When we said we were going to hold the position he replied, ‘Go for your life, man, while you have got the chance.’ Suiting the action to his words he slammed the truck into gear and went roaring on. Another truck passed with petrol streaming from a hole in the tank. A man beside the driver lay sprawled back on his seat with blood dripping from him. The driver was wasting no time as he grimly held the wheel.
Having overwhelmed the South African Brigade, the Germans advanced with a mass of armoured vehicles on our battalion positions. Their infantry debussed and advanced on foot. The light was not too good and the dust and smoke did not improve it. Already there were numerous fires and dense smoke of burning vehicles. We were able to keep up an effective small-arms fire against the enemy infantry. Spurts of dust all around us, the swishing of bullets and the weird singing of falling shrapnel let us know we were under heavy fire as the enemy crept up on our position. About this time my section commander was hit with a bullet through his foot. It looked at any minute as though we would be hand to hand with the enemy, fighting it out with the bayonet. I thought of my own bayonet with a point shockingly blunt after many months of service when it had only been used for such jobs as opening tins, cutting sticks and digging holes. Just before the push started I was on leave in Alexandria. A man had come around our company and ground all the bayonets. I, being on leave, had missed out. If we had to die fighting, I at least wanted a fair show. Crawling over to the section commander I asked if I could help him, but he had already had first aid. I then asked if I could borrow his bayonet, mine was too blunt. Luckily his bayonet fitted my rifle and I crawled back to my
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position in a happier frame of mind. Next think we realised the Germans were going back instead of advancing. We could hardly believe our eyes and could not help doing a bit of a cheer. Things quietened down a lot and as the RAP truck had approached close to position, the wounded were taken away. Our corporal limped away in to the dusk supported by his rifle-butt under his arm. I will never forget the agonising shrieks of a wounded man somewhere on our right.
Darkness was closing in. The lurid glare of burning vehicles showed more plainly as the darkness gathered. Trace shot flew through the air. Armour piercing shells glowed red hot in the sky as they swiftly sped to their targets. Striking the rocky desert they ricocheted up into the air, the glow dying until it was quickly extinguished, like the passage of a shooting star. The lull did not last long. The Germans had re-organised and were coming towards us in formation, raking us with a murderous crossfire as well ashram the front. A hurricane of shot sprayed the desert. The Germans were sending up flats as they pressed home another strong attack. The battalion had orders to withdraw under cover of the darkness. B Company took part in a bayonet charge. Captain Wesley, the well-known footballer, was among the killed. Eventually word came to move back. Quietly we filed back in the darkness. Then a flare would go up and illuminate the surroundings. We would remain motionless until the flare died down before moving on again. The guns and carriers were also moving back and as we got the opportunity we clambered aboard anywhere we could get a grip. As I sat on the back of a gun carriage and the vivid arcs of tracers flew towards us and flares mounted the sky at intervals, I wasn’t altogether sorry to think that we were putting distance between ourselves and the enemy. After all, our battalion had done well to hold off for so long a force which was strong enough to crush a whole brigade. The glow of numerous burning vehicles illuminated the battleground. As we moved further back the fires grew smaller and smaller until eventually they were pin points of light in the darkness of the desert night. Finally, about eleven o’clock, having made contact with our battalion, we came to a halt and lagged for the night. So passed our first day of contact with the enemy.
During the morning we occupied ground in which we were under mortar and shell fire during the day. The ground was fairly open. Our artillery was replying to the enemy. After our guns had fired a few rounds, the Germans would range onto our guns. Our gunners would then pack up and move quickly away to another area and open up again. The infantry cursed the artillery every time they came near because they knew it would draw the enemy fire to their positions. There were quite a lot of shell bursts in our area and dust and smoke would rise in a dark column. We were well dispersed and there didn’t seem to be much damage done. The shell bursts looked decidedly better at a distance than alongside however. That night I struck picquet duty. The nights then were dark and cold. We just lay in our slit trenches with a ground sheet underneath and a blanket over the top of us and our rifles alongside. We were supposed to sleep with all our gear on, webbing strapped on over our overcoats, a valise on our backs, ammunition pouches on the front and bayonet scabbard and water bottle on the side. Tired though we were, it was next to impossible to sleep like that. We always contrived to take off our gear and leave it alongside while we slept. Wedged into the slit trench there was little room for movement. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was no pleasant. The desert air was raw and cold and one soon became chilled.
We were early astir next day and our advance was towards the airfield at Sidi Rezegh. We advanced on foot in open formation. I found myself on the left flank of my section which was on the left of the platoon. As my platoon was on the left flank of the company, I found myself the last man on the flank of our advance. The morning came out fine and fresh. The ground was dotted with scrub and the broad wadi along which we advanced was bounded by rocky ridges. All was quiet. It seemed in the nature of a pleasant morning walk until I spotted a disable vehicle on my left. Moving over towards it I discerned the figure of a soldier lying alongside with a gaping wound in his head and his brains spilling out. I continued
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on my way thinking of the senseless death and destruction of warfare and how grim the stark reality of it was.
A little further on I saw two men get up from the bushes and raise their hands. I moved towards them with my rifle at the ready. It looked as though I was going to capture two German prisoners. Some one behind me yelled out ‘Watch out for a grenade, make him put both hands up.’ One of the men had one hand up and the other hand by his side. I indicated that he should raise both hands, which he did. I saw then that he was wounded in the hand. He said in English, ‘Who are you men?’ .When I said New Zealanders he looked very relieved, ‘We are South Africans’ he said. ‘Our mates were taken prisoners but we have been hiding for two days. When we saw you advancing we thought you were Germans and decided we would have to give ourselves up.’ Two quite cheerful South Africans were then directed to the rear.
As we advanced, shooting broke out on our right flank and our advance was halted. A blockhouse built of rock and containing an enemy force was assaulted by our troops. The skirmish was lively for a while and we had a number of casualties. Advancing once more we came in sight of the aerodrome. We halted on the outskirts and dug in. Ahead of us, on the ‘drome there were quite a number of aeroplanes of various kinds. They were all out of commission and damaged to some extent. One to the special stunts of the Long Range Desert Group was to creep up on an aerodrome at night and plant time bombs in the cockpits of the ‘planes on the ground. By the time the first explosion occurred, the LRDG’s would be away across the desert again. Many enemy planes were destroyed in this manner.
Near at hand to us were quite a number of disabled vehicles, many of them being South African transport. Beside one of them were piles of South African letters scattered about. A great deal of mail would never reach its destination. Respirators, eating utensils, clothes, personal gear, water bottles and odds and ends were scattered about. It wasn’t hard to make up any kit deficiencies. I picked up a Reader’s Digest, which I was very pleased to find. Reading matter was at a premium just then.
During the darkness of the evening a move was made to occupy a new position. Stumbling forward in the gloom we were startled by a shattering explosion. Had a shell dropped in our midst? Were more to follow? No one seemed to know. All was quiet again but the column in front had halted. We lay down wearily where we were and waited for orders to move on. We grew chilly and a few dozed off. At last word came to move. We heard that a truck had struck a mine and the brigade major and his driver had been blown up with the truck. Eventually our slow progress came to an end. We had reached our objective and word was given to dig in. The enemy must have been aware of our presence as an occasional tracer came flying our way. This gave us an extra incentive to dig in. We were particularly unfortunate in the area we had arrived at. The ground seemed to be solid rock. All around in the darkness could be seen the flashes of sparks from picks hitting rock. After some strenuous work with the pick I was forced to abandon my hole and commenced another one a few yards away. Prizing up slabs of rock and piling [them] around the rim of the hole, a shelter deep enough to form a protection from flying bullets was eventually made.
In the morning a company of infantry was sent out to assault a forward position. As they advanced in extended order, shrapnel shells were bursting overhead. It didn’t look very healthy. Our men were soon pinned down by devastating machine-gun fire and the attack had to be abandoned. That same evening we were told that we were to take up new positions. We carried our usual arms and equipment and one blanket. About 11 p.m. we set out in close order.
The night was very dark and the stars twinkled like brilliant jewels above. An occasional halt was made while a new compass bearing was taken. The last time we halted, Major Milliken, who was leading us, gave orders to unsling our rifles and advance at the alert. Not until then had we realised that the evening might have grim possibilities. Very shortly after, flashes pierced the darkness ahead. A flare went up and next moment a rising crescendo of sound broke out. The air was bright with tracer. The noise and clatter of automatic weapons and the explosion of bombs and mortar fire were deafening in their intensity. The ground shook and the air was thick with luminous flying projectiles. As we lay on the exposed ground
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head on to the hail of fire it was a terrifying spectacle and experience. Our own weapons then opened out and added their din to the general inferno. Gradually the intensity of the enemy fire slackened. Soon shouts and shrieks of men ahead and the noise of motor vehicles starting up gave the impression that the enemy were abandoning their positions. There were also groans in our own ranks. Many of our men had been hit, numbers of them fatally. We were afterwards told we had advanced 200 yards, further than was planned and had walked into a machine-gun position firing on fixed lines. Two out of the three sections of my platoon were casualties, many of, them being killed. Of the remaining section one man was badly wounded. The whole battalion had suffered many casualties in that night’s operation. The colonel was badly wounded and our company commander killed. Our objective had been gained however.
As the fighting died down we were able to take stock of our position. Only a few yards in front of us lay a dead Italian, a large man wearing the feather head plumes of the Bersaglieri. We had come to close grips with the enemy. Almost immediately we were ordered back some distance and commenced digging in. Sporadic bursts of fire were still coming from the direction of the enemy and I must confess to feeling a little jumpy after the ordeal we had come through. In spite of extreme fatigue we set to work with a will to dig pits. The locality promised to be unhealthy when daylight appeared. The night gradually quietened down and the friendly darkness closed us in. Our platoon commander called me over and asked if I would go out and see what could be done for our wounded out in front. Tom volunteered to go with me. The men had had first aid but there was no prospect of further immediate aid. Fixing our position carefully by the stars we groped forward in the darkness. It was rather an eerie sensation, not knowing what lay ahead and just where the enemy was. Soon we stumbled on some wounded lying near their dead comrades. They belonged to our company but not my own platoon. The first man we spoke to was Rhoddie. He had received first aid but was very thirsty. He told us he thought he would be all right if only he could be got to hospital. We made him as comfortable as possible and gave him a drink from a water bottle and he drank thirstily.
During the previous summer, when camped at Spinney Wood on the outskirts of Ismalia, I had spent an afternoon’s leave with Rhoddie. The sun shone from a clear sky and the heat waves danced across the sand. In the town the pavements reflected the heat and the lassitude of an Egyptian summer’s day weighed heavily on us. The town seemed lifeless. Natives lay sprawled about in the shade of the palms and trees. Their galabiyahs were wrapped around their bodies, heads and all, as protection from the myriads of flies. The perspiration showed damply through our shorts, dripped down our foreheads and oozed into our eyes. How could we enjoy such an afternoon? Rhoddie had once been a patient at the convalescent hospital and he knew his way around the town. He led me to the lake shore where we hired a small yacht for an hour’s sailing. After the usual bargaining as to price, the owner took us out on the lake and we glided smoothly over the calm waters. It was a delightful sensation. Out on the open lake there was enough breeze to send our craft skimming along and at the same time to give us a feeling of coolness and freshness. Back and forth we tacked, sailing down to where the lake narrowed into the canal, past the little revolving shelters at the bathing lido and back again past King Farouk’s yacht. Stepping ashore again, the worst of the heat was past. The town was coming to life again as we made our way back to camp, past the glowing flamboyant trees and out into the sandy desert.
What a contrast to our present position! Here tonight there is no peaceful lake, no waving palms or flowering trees, no bright sunshine. Instead darkness, rock-scarred desert, mangled bodies, pain and death.
Continuing on we soon stumbled across wounded comrades from our platoon. Two other helpers had now joined us and the four of us decided to bring two wounded men back on blankets. After some difficulty we succeeded in getting a blanket under one man and we attempted to lift him. The movement was so painful for the poor chap that he could not stand the agony and he cried out for us to leave him lying. Realising the limitations of a blanket for carrying a wounded man we were forced to abandon our first plan. One of our mates who was badly wounded in the leg begged us to take him back with us. It took three of us to carry him, one man supporting the shattered leg. The fourth man of our party, a stranger to us, decided to rejoin his unit. Our progress was slow. The ground was uneven and strewn with rocks. The man on the blanket sagged in the middle and we had to make frequent halts. When we had travelled only a short distance we were met by our sergeant. He told us our unit had been
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ordered to retire to our previously held positions. He had waited behind to tell us the unit had gone and to give us the bearings to take in the darkness. He promised to send someone back to help us. Already fatigued by sleepless nights and the strain of battle, we were now intensely weary. We struggled on through the darkness. Our halts became more frequent and of longer duration. The first faint shafts of dawn had already appeared in the eastern sky. We were apprehensive of being caught out in open ground in the daylight. Already stray shots were coming from the direction of the enemy. At this moment we were joined by a relief party. With fresh men to help us we were able to keep going at a fair pace and soon contacted our own troops. We had to go some distance to the flank before we reached our own unit. It was getting quite light when we thankfully lowered our wounded man into a protecting slit trench to await the ambulance. Dropping into the same holes we had left many hours previously we tried to get a little sleep. Tired as we were, sleep seemed out of the question in the circumstances. Immediately behind us was an artillery unit which commenced to fire at a nearby target. Firing through open sights the shells were passing a few feet overhead and the concussion nearly lifted us off the ground as each salvo was fired. Then the guns stopped firing and all around seemed quiet. There was no sign of the enemy. Men became cramped in their narrow holes and sat up to stretch themselves. Our sense of security was rudely shattered when a sinister swish-swish was heard and machine-gun bullets whistled past our heads. Still there was no sign of the enemy but we again lay flat in our shallow holes and wished they were deeper. The terrain here was very rocky and the shallow holes we had managed to make were hardly sufficient to enable us to lie below ground level. Our valises in many cases were lain on the ground above us as there was no room for them in the cramped holes. Pieces of rock were put around the rims of the holes to give added protection. In front of my head was a large slab of rock. Suddenly there was a shattering explosion. The rock dissolved into fragments and I felt momentarily dazed. Blood trickled from the back of my hand. Later on I found that the same shot had torn the corner out of my mate’s valise, some yards in front of me and left the strap lying to my rear. I lay very quiet for some time, partly shocked and partly thankful, to keep my head as low as the rocky ground would allow.
Early in the afternoon orders were given to occupy the ground captured the previous night. We advanced in open order and were heavily mortared all the way. Arriving at our positions we very quickly took advantage of the holes previously dug by the Italians. Piles of bright red Italian grenades and ammunition lay about, testifying to the hasty departure of the enemy troops the previous night. A few yards from our position lay the body of an Italian soldier. He lay on his back serenely gazing at the sky as though dreaming of sunny Italy. He was clad in cheap looking shirt and trousers with a sun helmet on his head. His rifle and bayonet were stuck in the ground beside him and his helmet placed on top. For several days these acted as a landmark in the featureless surroundings to guide us back to our positions. For the rest of the afternoon we lay prone in our slit trenches while our positions were systematically mortared. The mortars were positioned close by. The bombs could be heard leaving the mortars and we counted the seconds till they exploded. One had a nasty feeling that each bomb as it flew through the air was going to fall directly on one’s back or land in the pit of one’s stomach, according to the position one was lying. Not exactly conducive to a quiet afternoon’s meditation.
However, casualties were surprisingly small and towards evening things quietened down. An RAP [Regimental Aid Post] had been set up a short distance behind our position. I took the opportunity to get my hand dressed. By this time the blood had dried up and the wound was liberally coated with sand. I found the doctor seated in a hole and he cleaned my hand and strapped up the back with sticking plaster. That night I slept very soundly. We were all dog tired. Unfortunately an attack was expected and double sentries had to be posted all night. With our much-reduced platoon strength, picquet duties became more onerous as there weren’t so many men to spread the duties among. My turn came from 6 to 8 p.m. and again from 4 to 6 a.m. It at least gave me an uninterrupted night’s sleep. It was dark and chilly getting up in the early morning but all was quiet. Occasional Verey lights were going up in the distance. Dawn came but no attack.
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During the previous afternoon an A Coy. platoon had attempted to capture a dug in [the] German position which had been causing us considerable trouble. After being held up by accurate machine-gun fire and suffering several casualties including one man killed, our men had been forced to withdraw. It was decided that Nottle’s platoon, strengthened by our own No. 8, would make another attempt. With Nottle, we spent some time on reconnaissance observing the position through field glasses. Men could be observed walking about in the distance. Nottle considered there were only a dozen or fifteen men in the position, but we were doubtful. Many more could be observed on the flank and we were highly suspicious that these were Germans also. It was decided to attack up the side of the wadi. Below us could be seen bren carriers escorting German prisoners across the desert. Cheered by this sight we continued the advance. The terrain was rocky. We passed several recently occupied weapon pits and machine-gun emplacements, also several of our own dead. Advancing across uneven ground containing small wadis and outcrops of rock we were suddenly confronted with German soldiers coming out of a dugout or cave. They were putting up their hands in surrender as they came out. With our weapons at the ready we slowly advanced, watching the Germans suspiciously. We were outnumbered as more and more of them came out until there was a group of over 100 men. We realised that they could have overwhelmed our small force if they had continued to fight. At this time two New Zealand soldiers emerged from the German dugout. They told us their story. They had been captured by the Germans some days previously. During the last twenty-four hours the Germans had been very friendly. They had seen hundreds of their fellows around them being escorted away as prisoners and knew that they themselves were surrounded. Their water and rations were almost exhausted. When they saw our party advancing on them they had eaten the last of their rations and prepared to surrender.
After lining the Germans up we searched them for weapons. One soldier pulled a sheath knife out from his gaiters and handed it to me. The shaft was in the form of a deer’s foot with a silver hoof. It was an interesting souvenir which I was not to keep for long. By this time the day was drawing to a close and the light was beginning to fail. We marched the prisoners away in the direction of our lines. It wasn’t long before it grew too dark to continue. The Germans were halted and it was decided to remain where we were for the night. The Germans weren’t worrying unduly. They had had a meal before surrendering and were well equipped with greatcoats and blankets. They bedded down together in a hollow in the sand and soon seemed to be fast asleep. Our own position was far from comfortable. We had had nothing to eat since midday and now had missed our evening meal. We were hungry and weary and were soon chilled to the bone. The desert air was now very cold at night and we had no greatcoats or blankets with us. We stood on guard in the chilly breeze and almost envied the Germans snugly bedded down. When we heard trucks rumbling along we didn’t know whether it was a German column or some of our own. A cautious contact revealed them to be our cook trucks returning from issuing rations. We were able to obtain a small but very welcome ration of bully-beef stew.
At the first glimmer of dawn orders were given to rouse the prisoners and proceed on our way. Circulation was soon restored to our half-numbed limbs. It wasn’t long before we made contact with our own men and were able to hand over our prisoners. Our lieutenant was being congratulated by other officers on his good capture. Our small party realised how fortunate we were that we had not been annihilated. We returned along the wadi destroying German rifles and machine-guns as we went. Eventually we reached the positions we had left the previous late afternoon. A Red Cross issue of chocolate and cigarettes awaited us. There were quite a number of valises lying around, left behind by battle casualties. Opening one of these, the first object I saw was a bottle of whisky. There were plenty willing to sample its contents. During the afternoon we were cheered to see a big formation of our bombers fly over the enemy positions and drop a concentration of bombs. A great pall of dust and smoke arose from the desert. Later on our ration party arrived. As there had been many casualties in our company during the last few days, the rations were more than adequate. We were able to have our fill and make up somewhat for the sparse rations of previous days. There were persistent
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rumours that the South Africans were joining up with us. Long columns of motorised troops were observed across the wadi. These proved to be Germans instead of the hoped for relief. As darkness descended Verey lights could be seen going up in many places. An attack could be expected from almost any direction. With our platoon down to about one third strength, picquet duty took up much of the night hours. At dawn we stood to in the chilly atmosphere expecting an attack. Slowly the light strengthened as we peered across the inhospitable desert.
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CHAPTER 6: Prisoner of War
November 30 1941
Full light came and still no sign of enemy movement. We were able to relax somewhat although given to understand that attack was imminent and could come from any direction. As the day wore on lead and splinters began to fly around fairly thickly. Two of us had our position in a shallow pit behind a Bren gun. The noise was getting deafening and the atmosphere was heavy with dust and smoke. The smell of battle was all around. It was hard to know exactly what was going on and it was definitely unhealthy to raise one’s head above the parapet to look. A two-pounder gun on a truck was rushed forward. There was no time to dig it in. The gun continued to fire until gun and crew were knocked out by the advancing tanks. An ominous clanking could be heard above the noise of battle as fifty German tanks gradually closed on our positions. We opened up with our Bren gun and in between bursts filled cartridge clips. It was like peppering the tanks with peas for all the effect our bullets had. The next thing we heard were shouts to stop firing. Looking up we could hardly believe our eyes. Our comrades all around us were all rising from their shallow pits with their hands above their heads. There was nothing else we could do. The steel monsters advanced on us with machine-guns levelled. Any further resistance was suicide. We had no weapons to knock out the tanks. We had been told all about sticky bombs and had seen them demonstrated, but here we were without them. Our rocky trenches were too shallow to protect us in any way. German infantry were following the tanks and English-speaking Germans directed us back to them. For you, my man, the war is over, they said. How wrong they were to be proved. It seemed strange to be walking on the battlefield without carrying a rifle. It was with mixed emotions that we were gathered together in groups in the rear of the battle. Several of the Germans could speak English fluently. One of them addressed us. He explained, rather apologetically, that we would have to march a few miles before transport could pick us up and take us to a camp. It was dark by now and we were already feeling hungry and very weary. We were prepared to show the Germans we could still march though. We were assembled in a column and commenced the march under armed guard. On and on we stumbled, where and to what we wondered. Any questions on our part as to how much farther it was, invariably met the response, only a little further. The strain of the days and nights of battle, lack of sleep, hunger and exhaustion, were telling on us. We struggled on through the night and at long last were handed over to the Italians. The German in charge of us explained, again somewhat apologetically, that though we had been captured by the Germans, it was in Italian territory, so we would now be prisoners of the Italians.
December 1 1941
The Italians lined us up and with much shouting and gesticulating commenced a methodical search. Watches, coins, trinkets and even mess spoons were added to a growing pile of loot beside the much-beribboned warriors conducting the search. While awaiting my turn I hastily took off a boot and sock and tied my wrist watch around my ankle. With the watch sitting under my instep and my sock and boot back on again I felt somewhat happier. A thorough search by the Italians left me less a few odds and ends but still in possession of my watch. It was destined to be with me through many adventures, to travel right around the world and to come home with me. Next we were herded into huge Italian Diesel trucks and set out for some new destination. We passed crowds of jubilant Italians excited and pleased at seeing the convoy of British PoWs on their way to the rear. They must have thought they were winning the war all right. Eventually, ahead of us in the desert, loomed a building. We drove into the gateway of a large rectangular structure of stone, with an open courtyard in the centre. From there we were directed to an open-fronted building which turned out to be an old camel stable. We were acutely aware of a man sitting behind a machine-gun in a central tower. It was trained directly at us, a grim reminder that we were now prisoners of war.
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The ground in the stables was filthy, but at least we could lie down with a roof over our heads. This place had the name of Bug-Bug and probably lived up to its name, whatever it meant in Arabic. Our stay here was short lived, however. After a short rest we were marched out again, not altogether unwillingly, as we were not sorry to see the last of the place.
This next move of ours took us to what turned out to be an open pen in the desert. It was just an area of desert fenced around with a high barb-wire fence. There were no buildings or tents and no shelter from the bleak desert wind. We just lay on the ground. Some of the men had no greatcoats. A fortunate few had blankets. We were given a ration of a part tin of bully beef and a hard biscuit, something like a large SAO cracker. Water was very hard to get. We huddled down on the ground feeling exceedingly miserable and tried to forget our troubles in sleep. Next day dawned cold, bleak and cheerless. There was little to break the monotony beyond a certain amount of coming and going of men. Some men were taken out, presumably on some working party. A few fresh groups of prisoners arrived. The rations were the same as the previous day. The men were lined up and walked forward to a central point where they were each given a hard biscuit. Every fifth or sixth man was given a small tin of bully beef which he was supposed to divide up amongst those counted in front of him. The ration was enough to keep one alive, but effectively discouraged one from trying to escape. To make matters worse, it came on to rain, a cold relentless rain driven off the wintry Mediterranean. There was nothing we could do about it except huddle closer together and try and keep some warmth in our bodies. The rain gradually eased off but the cold lingered. Another wretched day and night passed.
We rose up and eased our aching bones as morning came. Transport arrived and we were on the move again. The pen was soon far behind. It was a relief to be on the move, although somewhat disquieting to realise that we were getting farther and farther away from our own forces. During this time we passed some large aerodromes and noted with satisfaction the numerous enemy aircraft which had been disabled on the ground. A large number of these planes were Italian bombers. We were travelling over a fairly high escarpment now. We commenced to go down a winding road to the coast. This was a well-constructed road. The Italians were always noted as good road builders. Below us was the town of Derna, snuggling under the hills beside a little bay. It was a pretty scene to our desert-accustomed eyes. Numerous trees and shrubs marched down the hillsides and camped on the flat, softening the landscape. The convoy came to rest on an open space by the town. Here we were put in another enclosure. This time we had the shelter of Italian army tents. These tents were somewhat ingenious in construction. One piece of material acted as a groundsheet. By buttoning several pieces together a tent was made. The more pieces that were buttoned together the larger the tent became. Although we were far from comfortable as we crowded together in the tents we had at least shelter from the heavy showers of rain in the night. Derna was only a staging post for us and next morning we were to continue the journey west.
Our transport continued to move steadily on and although we were far from happy there was the interest of passing through new country. In one place we passed through some very rugged country. A road wound through a defile and for the first time we saw some really big trees.
Previous to this the country had been mostly arid. In this defile I remembered passing a cave on the side of the road. At the entrance to the cave was a fire burning cheerfully. Inside were two Italians preparing a meal. I could not help thinking what luxury it seemed for anyone to be sitting cosily in front of a fire in a cave in the ravine. For a long period we travelled through uninteresting country clothed in low straggling scrub. In places this gave way to slightly better country. Here we saw some of Mussolini’s farm colonies. Drab little houses and outbuildings testified to where some Italian colonist had been struggling to win a living from the unrewarding soil. At a lonely crossroad there was built a huge stone monument with the Fascist emblem sculptured thereon. At one place we halted in the centre of a small town. The inhabitants came around and stared at us and made remarks. We stared in return and were
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quite interested in seeing civilians for a change. As the long day wore on we were getting nearer Benghazi. Eventually we reached our destination. We were on the outskirts of the town. A walled enclosure with stone buildings was alongside us. We had a long wait. We were keen to get inside and lay our weary bodies down to sleep. Instead some Italian ground sheets and poles were handed to us. We were put into a barbed-wire enclosure alongside the walls. We erected bivouac tents and had great difficulty in hammering the tent pegs into the rocky soil. Eventually we all got bedded down and spent another uncomfortable night. It seemed that the prison inside was full and until others were moved off to make room for us, we must remain outside. In this overcrowded space we were forced to spend several days.
Food and water were both inadequate. Most of the men were suffering from stomach disorders and diarrhoea. As there were no eating utensils empty bully-beef tin were used. Many of the hard biscuits issued to the prisoners were mouldy. The general lack of sanitary conditions was deplorable. The most pressing need was for latrines to accommodate the big crowd of men. Trenches were dug at one end of the compound. These were soon full to overflowing. There seemed to be no drainage. Some of the men nearest the latrines were in danger of their tents being invaded by the ever-rising filthy tide. There was little to do to while away the long hours. I was indeed fortunate as I possessed both a New Testament and a Reader’s Digest. Reading matter was at a premium and was eagerly sought after. Soldiers who had previously shown little interest before were now eagerly reading the New Testament and doubtless received much help and encouragement from it.
On Sunday morning we were issued with identification cards which we had to fill in. A member of the medical corps had arranged to hold a church: service. This was held in a pit at the end of the compound. A large proportion of the prisoners made their way to this special area and joined lustily in the singing of well-known hymns. The service was conducted by Roy Puddle, who in after years was to become a Baptist minister in New Zealand. We left this simple open service feeling heartened and encouraged. It was a spiritual tonic that was much needed in this difficult time.
At last we were to be allowed inside the prison walls. It seemed somewhat strange that men should long to get into prison. Anything promised to be better than the conditions we had been putting up with. When we arrived inside we found that our sleeping quarters consisted of a huge open-fronted shed with a concrete floor. There were other buildings, food stores, cookhouse, guard quarters, and administrative. The only place we had access to was our sleeping quarters in the big shed. The building was cold and bare and the men lay in groups on the floor. In the evening the whole floor area was covered with reclining men. Six of us lay together and as two of my mates possessed blankets these two blankets were spread over the six of us. We lay on the bare concrete in what clothes we possessed. It was too cold to undress. I think a concrete floor is the most uncomfortable bed one can lie on. Besides being hard the cold seems to come up through it. After the experience of the first night we found it much warmer to lie on the blankets instead of putting them over the top of us. During that first evening lying in the crowded shed we were entertained by some South Africans singing a round. The song was Old King Cole. They were extremely good and the great crowd of men lay silent as the singers voices echoed through the building. The audience consisted of men from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the British Isles and India. As these different groups had joined us they had each brought news.
The most momentous news was the entry of the Japanese into the war. The events of Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the British battleships [HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse] in the Pacific were somewhat alarming news. Our thoughts were of our homeland and our people there and the great gulf that separated us. The only comfort was the knowledge that the Yanks were at last in the war and on our side. We knew it would be a long time, but we never gave up hope, however grim events appeared. As the evening wore on we settled into an uneasy sleep. There is little comfort or peace lying on a concrete floor. There was much twisting and turning of aching bodies. During the night there was an air raid on the harbour. After the ack-ack guns opened
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up pieces of flak came rattling down on the roof. It was soon quiet again. We fervently hoped that any ships in the harbour which were to take us away, had been sunk. Our rations improved slightly to the extent that a little macaroni skilly was issued from the cookhouse. Water tankers came in infrequently and queues of men would wait patiently for some of the brackish water, which we could never get enough of. Life inside this prison was very grim. Most of the men were suffering from dysentery, some of them being hospital cases. Body lice also began to make an appearance. The general insanitary conditions and lack of water gave the men little chance of improving their health or keeping clean. Open trenches with a narrow board to squat on formed the latrines. At :night to visit the latrines, one had first to thread one’s way over the recumbent forms of a crowd of men to reach the doorway. Even with the dim lights left burning it was difficult not to tread on someone. It was a dreary existence. The chief events of the day were the queues for food and water. These took some organising to enable everyone to have a reasonable chance of getting a share of the meagre rations. Many of the prisoners traded watches, rings and articles of apparel to the guards for bread or cigarettes. It was a shame to see a man give a good watch in exchange for one or two cheap Italian cigarettes.
On Sunday a communion service was held in a room in one of the buildings. In contrast to the previous Sunday there were not many present. The room had at an earlier date been occupied by British soldiers. There were many drawings and scribblings on the walls. It wasn’t easy to give one’s full attention to the service when there were so many distractions on the walls. It was certainly disconcerting to look up and read in large letters, ‘Substitute Institute for Destitute Prostitutes’.
At one end of the prison compound was a large heap of boulders. By standing on top of these it was just possible to see over the nearby wall. A little distance away was the main desert road. On this particular morning the road was crammed with army vehicles all heading west. There were transport vehicles of all kinds and occasionally guns and tanks. We were very jubilant at this sign of a general retreat of the Axis forces. As the day wore on the stream of vehicles continued. Interested prisoners climbed the heap of stones to get a glimpse of the road. The Italians became annoyed and posted extra guards outside. Whenever anyone climbed on the stones they were immediately menaced by the rifle of a guard to the accompaniment of much shouting. We went to bed that night with spirits much higher.
With the knowledge that our troops had the enemy on the run, our chief concern was whether the Italians would evacuate us before our own troops caught up with us. There was much evidence that the Germans and Italians were preparing to evacuate Benghazi. Great columns of black smoke could be seen where army dumps and stores were being destroyed. The longer we stayed behind the better our chances of being liberated. Our hopes were dashed when orders came to march out of the prison and we headed for the waterfront. Benghazi cathedral loomed up close at hand as the long column of prisoners marched into the town. Near the centre of the town I remember passing the dead body of a high ranking Libyan soldier. He had been left lying dead on the side of the street. He had apparently been shot and left lying like a dog in the gutter, probably as a warning to the civilian population. Nearing the waterfront we saw much evidence of RAF bombing. Many damaged and destroyed buildings were seen. Eventually we reached the waterfront with its wide esplanade and waving palm trees. In the harbour were a number of sunken ships. At a pier stood a ship to which we were evidently heading. The column of men slowed down and there were frequent long halts. The day wore on and still we hadn’t made much progress towards the ship. Finally we were turned around and marched back towards the centre of the town. Darkness was falling and the guards were getting jumpy. We skirted alongside a railway yards. I was toying with the idea of slipping away in the gathering darkness. I had moved some yards to the side of the column when there was a sudden shout behind me from an Italian guard. I quickly got back in column in case a shot was to follow. It evidently wasn’t as dark as I had thought. By this time we were extremely weary and hungry. We found that the men were being ushered into a large bomb
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damaged building. We climbed up echoing stone stairs and along empty corridors. We lay down to sleep wherever we could find a resting place in the damaged rooms. Tired and with the knowledge that the building might be bombed again that night, we still had the satisfaction of knowing that we were a day nearer our advancing troops.
As morning came we were awakened by shouting guards who were searching through the rooms and corridors and sending the men down onto the street. Once more the long column of men wended its way to the waterfront. It seemed that such a large crowd of men, could not possibly be accommodated in the waiting ship. Some of us reasoned that if we fell to the back of the column we had a fair chance of being left behind. Gradually we worked our way back to the rear of the column. Slowly the long line of men in front of us disappeared as they were directed into the bowels of the waiting ship. Before the last of us reached the ship all available space inside had been filled. By this time the sea had become very rough and a cold wind was blowing steadily. As the ship tossed at its anchor and the waves outside the harbour rose steadily higher, the prospect of a sea trip was far from inviting. However, our luck was out. Although there were still quite a crowd of us on the wharf we were marched up the gangplank onto the open deck. We saw the name of the ship was the Ankara. We lay on the hatches or on any available space. Almost immediately the ship cast off and headed for the open sea. Outside the harbour the Ankara tossed and rolled and the flying spume wet us as we huddled miserably together. Weakened with lack of food and diarrhoea we were now exposed to the miseries of seasickness. Needless to say retching only produced a nasty liquid from a tormented stomach. Even the thought of being torpedoed didn’t worry us unduly in such a state.
All next day the ship plunged and rolled as it made its westward passage. We were far enough away to be out of sight of the coast. Many of us were so weak and miserable we didn’t take much interest in the trip. All we could hope for was a speedy landing.
In the morning we were close in to shore. Countless palm trees could be seen on the land. In the distance the gleaming walls of a city could be seen. The sea had moderated and the sun was shining. We all felt better for the change in our circumstances. We viewed the shore line with increasing interest as the boat approached Tripoli harbour. Soon we had anchored in the harbour itself with the town rising up from the water’s edge. During the day we disembarked from the boats and were lightered ashore. It was with grateful feelings that we stood once more on firm land, although on somewhat shaky legs. The warmth of the winter sun was a blessing after the cold and stormy sea trip. We were formed up in some sort of a column and shouldering our meagre possessions, walked up in to the town. Soon we approached an antiquated-looking railway. It was of narrow gauge. On it stood an equally small and antiquated railway engine with a string of iron-sided railway waggons. We were stood in groups opposite these waggons. Doorways on the sides of the waggons were let down and we were ordered to entrain. It was soon obvious that there wasn’t much room in the waggons for us all. However, we were packed in like horizontal sardines and the doors shut. There was standing room only. Eventually the train started. We had no idea of our destination. The first part of the trip was interesting.
As we left the town we passed through a pleasant countryside with palm trees and orange groves. The sides of the waggons were breast high. Standing up one had a good view of the countryside. As the afternoon wore on the wind grew chilly. One was glad to sink down below the level of the sides for shelter. There wasn’t room to sit on the floor. Half-standing, half-sitting one would soon begin to get cramp. After a while one could stand it no longer and would fight to straighten up again. Someone next to you would sink down and the process would be repeated. One always had the feeling that if he grew too weak he would not have the strength to rise again and would succumb under the pressure of bodies. The green vegetation
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gradually gave way to desert conditions and soon we were out in a barren countryside with night fast descending. The train came to a standstill and the engine uncoupled and disappeared. There were no signs of habitation anywhere and all around was desert. The guards got off the train and stood a little distance on either side of the line. They lit small fires of stunted scrub. A few prisoners at a time were allowed off the train to relieve their private needs. As darkness closed in we settled down to another cold uncomfortable night, hungry and sleepless. The guards were somewhat better off squatting before the fitful blaze of their fires. In our weak condition, hungry and thirsty and in the middle of an unknown desert, they had little to fear from prisoners trying to escape.
Dawn revealed a train load of gaunt and cramped men and a returning engine. The engine coupled up and soon the train was moving once more. In the distance appeared a bleak and barren range of hills. The train was slowly crawling toward its foot. Where did the railway lead to, and where were we going? It seemed to us that in this barren wilderness there must be some mines of some kind and we were being sent there to work. The train twisted around the foothills and finally came to a halt beside the steep hills. This was the end of the line. Apart from a tiny station there seemed nothing to justify the existence of a railway in this. desolate spot. A narrow winding road led upward from the station. A few mounted soldiers and a truck were waiting us. There were the usual shouting and gesticulations amongst the guards and the awaiting soldiers. With shouts of avanti, avanti, we were ordered to set off on foot up the hill. With grim determination we forced our tired limbs and weakened bodies to climb on and on. There was a rumour that any who fell out would be shot. Nevertheless a few driven to the point of exhaustion, collapsed by the roadside. In fairness to our escort, it must be said that the men were not shot but eventually rejoined us after having been picked up in the truck following and were carried to their destination. We still had no idea where the road could lead to but plodded grimly onward higher and higher into the rugged hills.
At last the front of the column disappeared out of sight over the top. As we in turn reached the top of the hill we received a great surprise. After traversing the barren desert and the equally barren hillside we suddenly found ourselves walking down the main street of a fair-sized town set in a fertile countryside. We were in the town of Garien situated on top of a plateau. The street was thronged with curious sightseers who watched the long column of marching men. We in turn straightened our drooping shoulders and smartened up our step to show them that although captured, we were not beaten men. An easy march through the town led us to a large barracks where we ended our nightmare journey. On Christmas Eve we settled down in the barracks in as comfortable surroundings as we had experienced in our time as prisoners of war. With an issue of rations, space to stretch out on the floor and a roof over our heads, life was at least more bearable. Few if any of us failed to make up for some of our lost sleep that night. There was little peace on this war-torn earth, but here at least we were far from the battle line and the Italians were showing us a little more consideration than they had so far shown.
Christmas Day was a day of rest and a chance to recuperate from the unpleasant voyage we had made. Thoughts of homes and loved ones were ever present. Our miserable rations made us think even more wistfully of the Christmas dinners we might have been having in more favourable circumstances. As a special favour we were promised a cognac issue next day.
On Boxing Day the prisoners were marshalled into single file and the line of men gradually moved forward to a group of Italian officers. Each man was given a small issue of cognac and his name and number were checked. Like most army issues it involved a long and wearisome wait. The Italians at least got a good check up with little trouble.
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In the morning we shouldered our scanty possessions and marched out from our temporary barracks. Through the town and down the steep winding road down the mountain side we went. In contrast to our upward march we were now feeling fresh and rested. At the foot a train was waiting and we were soon aboard and on our way to Tripoli. This time the journey did not take so long. From the train we marched down to the port and embarked on board a ship. This ship had little cargo aboard and even with a load of prisoners of war aboard rode high in the water. This would account somewhat for the excessive rolling of the ship in the stormy passage across to Italy. It was very cold and blowing hard as we settled down for another unpleasant voyage. This time we were all down in the holds at night although let up in the daytime. While battened down in the holds someone expressed the hope that the ship should be bombed by British aircraft or torpedoed by a submarine to prevent us being taken off to Italy. The majority of us fervently hoped nothing of the sort would happen, as our chances of survival would be small indeed. The trip took a couple of days. In the stormy weather the ship tossed and rolled and even below decks it was very cold. Rations were very scanty, even water being limited. Some of the men discovered some army stores in a hold below them and lived well for the time being. The majority of us merely subsisted. Sanitary conditions were very primitive and the queues of men were continually lined up at the few roughly constructed privies on deck. To the keen smokers the lack of cigarettes was being felt. However, it wasn’t a happy sight to see men trading valuable wristlet watches for a few miserable cigarettes. It was even worse to see a soldier stripping off his grey army pullover and trading it to a guard for one Italian cigarette. The soldier in question had no greatcoat and was already shivering with the cold. A man needed all the clothes he could get.
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CHAPTER 7: Italy
The second day out we sighted the isle of Capri. It didn’t look the least bit romantic. White-capped waves were breaking continuously around the rocky base and the sky was grey and forbidding. A few houses could be seen clinging precariously to the storm-lashed hillside. Across the bay a smoky plume trailed out from the summit of Vesuvius. A cluster of grey buildings in the distance was the port of Naples. As we neared the land the seas grew less angry. Soon we were approaching the wharves of Naples. Seagulls flew screeching overhead. Our ship edged in to the quay and we were amongst new sights and sounds again. It was a dingy looking part of the port and did not give us a very favourable first impression of Italy. After disembarking we were ushered into a building where we were to receive a hot shower. It was six weeks since I had last had my clothes off. It was somewhat of a shock to view my naked body and see how thin I had got and how prominent my ribs were. The inside of my woollen singlet was matted with a mixture of grease and flaked skin from its long association with my body. The hot shower was a sheer joy. We emerged cleansed and refreshed. The only drawback was that we had to put on our soiled clothes again. From the shower house we went to a train standing nearby. In contrast to the train journeys in Tripolitania this one was done in comfort. Closed-in carriages with comfortable seats took us on our journey to the prison camp of Capua. We were now beginning to get a favourable impression of Italy and our treatment in this country. We had visions of a warm and comfortable camp. The Italian guards had stressed the point that once we arrived in Italy, our troubles would be over. We received a rude shock when we reached our camp on a bleak and showery day.
December 30 1941
The camp was in the course of construction and our quarters consisted of tents more or less waterproof, depending on how hard it rained. The weather had been very wet and the ground was not well drained. We almost wished for the desert again. Our bedding was raised a few inches off the ground on wooden planks. Little ditches were dug around the outside of the tents to try and prevent the interiors from being flooded. We lay on straw palliasses. An issue of a large Red Cross blanket was given to each man. By sleeping two together we were able to fold the blankets so as to have four thicknesses of blanket over us. It was the middle of winter and cold and damp but there was no form of heating. So we were glad to crawl under our blankets. The cook shop was a wooden building and there were permanent latrines and ablution stands. The latrines consisted of holes in a concrete floor with running water underneath. Quite a high standard of hygiene to what we had so far experienced. The Red Cross had also issued us with a comforter which was a woollen garment which formed a wide band around the chest. It was a poor substitute for a woollen singlet, but by wearing it and washing it alternatively with the singlet I was able to keep almost free of body lice. When we did have periods of sunshine there would always be seen men sitting in the sun and searching industriously through their garments and killing lice. The cook-house was always an attraction. One could stand outside and see the cooks preparing the skilly. Vegetables, a very little meat, a little macaroni, some grated cheese, olive oil, tomato puree and large amounts of water. It was fascinating to see food in bulk when one’s share would eventually be one ladleful. There was also the lingering hope that a cook might toss out some cheese rind with enough cheese on to make it worthwhile to risk the displeasure of the Italian guard. Meal queues were strictly organised. So many men were told off to each dixie. We soon knew the men in our own group and any stranger trying to get a helping from our dixie as well as his own, was given short shrift. It was a fight for survival. Each man was entitled to a share. If he missed out there wasn’t any more. Each man had a number and if there was any food over, numbers were called out in rotation for the extra ladlefuls. One man stirred the container continuously while the man in charge of the group ladled out. If rations were plentiful one received a ladleful of thickish stew. If rations were light the cooks made the amount up with water. The result then could be some oily looking water with a cube of turnip and a piece of anaemic looking
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cabbage floating on top. In Italy we also received a bread ration. This pane, as it was called, was a small loaf with pointed ends. It was much superior to the mouldy biscuits we had formerly received.
January 1 1942
Lately we had heard quite a lot about Red Cross parcels. These were food parcels issued to British PoWs by the International Red Cross and supplied by Britain. There was a big depot in Lisbon and another in Geneva from which the parcels were distributed to the various countries and camps. Later we were to get parcels from Canada and New Zealand. These food parcels were made up to give a balanced ration to supplement PoW rations and were supposed to be issued at the rate of one per week. They provided a small quantity of essential foods and an occasional luxury item. The wellbeing of the men in the camps was generally in direct ratio to the amount of food parcels received. The parcels consisted of meat loaf, fish, jam, sugar, tea, cheese, condensed milk, cocoa, chocolate, oxo cubes, margarine, diced vegetables and other odds and ends. No parcel contained all these items. Basically each one contained a meat, a sweet, a drink and a spread for one’s bread, with a few other items to make up the parcel. Provided a man received a full parcel once a week he could live reasonably well. Unfortunately this was seldom the case. Often there would be weeks between issues and then as like as not the issue would be one parcel between two or more persons. The authorities were frightened of prisoners hoarding up tinned goods for a possible escape. To counteract this orders were given for all tins to be pierced. In some camps, especially after an escape scare, this was carried out punctiliously. At other times and in other camps, conditions would be relaxed and only the occasional tin would be pierced, or the parcels would be delivered intact. The contents of the pierced tins would not keep long and the food had to be eaten fairly soon. This detracted greatly from its value as it tended to cause men to gorge for a day or two and starve for the rest of the week. This often resulted in sickness and diarrhoea. The wiser ones would try to spread their food over the week, having a little each day. Nevertheless, the so-called parcel bashers would look with something akin to contempt on what they called the hoarders.
On this first occasion we only received a part parcel per man. It was nevertheless extremely welcome and a great morale booster. Living conditions were still very miserable with much rain and low temperatures. At this stage I was suffering from bladder trouble. After settling down for the night, sleep would just about come when I would have an urgent desire to get up. Quickly throwing on a few clothes, boots and overcoat I would stumble out into the night. A few hundred yards walk and the latrines would be reached. Getting back as quickly as possible to my tent I would crawl under the blankets feeling thoroughly chilled. By the time my body was warming up again I would feel the same urgent need. Long as I tried to put it off, nature would not be denied. Once more I would venture out into the cold and cheerless night. When this happened four or five times a night there was very little sleep, and one came to dread the long night hours. Those who did sleep undisturbed all night through were the envy of we weaker brethren. After a few nights of this I was feeling rather miserable and went to consult the doctor on sick parade. I was advised to drink plenty of water. As our rations already contained so much water, the idea of imbibing more cold water in cold weather was not enthusiastically received. Procuring an empty bully-beef tin I placed it outside the tent near the head of my bed. When I needed to get up at night I stretched my hand under the tent instead and reached for my receptacle. It was not as handy as a hospital bottle but served the same purpose. Instead of getting cold I remained warm in bed and slept for far longer periods. The tin was emptied in the morning and my condition much improved.
In common with most of the men I looked gaunt and unkempt. My hair was long and I wore a straggly ginger beard. A barber had arrived in camp. He cut our unruly locks and
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trimmed close our beards. To complete the sprucing up process we once more were given a hot shower.
As prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, we were entitled to pay. This pay was in the form of special camp tokens representing lire. Our first pay was of 1 lire per man. The pay was of little use unless there was something on which to spend it. Most camps had a canteen but stocks were always low and often non-existent. The pay chits were at least souvenirs and there was always the chance that one might be able to purchase something with them. The procedure on pay day was for each man to go up to a group of Italian officers when his name was called out. For the Italians it acted as a check of the men in camp. On approach to the officers the man was supposed to salute, receive his pay, salute again and step down. It was pointed out that we saluted our own officers and were expected to salute the Italian officers. This was rather a sore point with many of us. Courtesy or no courtesy we felt it disloyal to salute an enemy officer. We were a mixed bag. Tommies, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders. Some of the other nationalities seemed quite keen on the saluting but New Zealanders generally hadn’t a good reputation for saluting even their own officers. The Italians seemed to regard it as a test of authority and were ready to make trouble if anyone demurred. Many of us solved the problem by temporarily losing our caps. One cannot salute without headgear. By coming smartly to attention when we received our pay both Italian Officer and Kiwi felt their honour vindicated.
Following the receipt of our first pay of 1 lire we received a further pay of 10 lire. with this princely sum I was able to purchase a white pocket comb. At least it was something useful even if it could not be eaten.
In camp there was very little to amuse ourselves with or pass away the long hours of waiting. We could see little of the outside world. One day two Italian air force training planes were performing evolutions within sight of the camp. Our interest was heightened when we noticed one plane descending in a sharp spin. Next moment a figure emerged from the falling plane. Almost immediately a parachute blossomed out. The plane continued its downward plunge and nose-dived to earth with a resounding crash. A great cloud of dark smoke ascended from the wreck. The incident was greeted by cheers from the watching prisoners. The pilot continued to drift downwards until he was finally lost to sight by a fold in the ground. We had something to talk about then for the rest of the afternoon.
The weather was getting colder and one morning we woke up to find the countryside covered in snow. Conditions were miserable before and were now getting grim. Some of our guards had been telling us how much warmer it was up north where our permanent camp was to be. This made us all the keener to get away from this camp although we were somewhat dubious about their promises of better conditions. We reasoned that it wasn’t likely to be worse and it might be quite a lot better.
It was therefore with some relief that news was received that we were departing for a permanent camp somewhere in the north of Italy. The only cause for misgiving was the fact that we would be going even further away from our own lines and deeper into enemy territory. Once more we were herded into closed carriages on a train. Whether by design or convenience we were travelling at night so wouldn’t see much of the countryside. Sitting on hard seats we travelled through the night sometimes half dozing but generally painfully aware of the cold and
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discomfort. At times the train shuddered to a stop. After a while there would be jerks and bangs and slowly the train would get under way again. At one of these stops we could glimpse bright lights. There was much shouting and going and coming. Word went around that we were at Rome. Not for us the sights of the ancient city but just glimpses of a dingy siding. As the night wore on the cold grew more intense. We were up amongst the mountains and peering out into the darkness, snow clad peaks could be dimly discerned. The hours slowly passed and the sky lightened with the first signs of dawn. As the light gradually increased men who were formerly slumped in their seats seemed to take a new lease of life. The train was approaching the Italian Riviera and there was much of interest to see. Sleepy villages were clothed in a mantle of snow and the rugged hills gave place to enchanting valleys. As the train thundered along and the light grew stronger the villages we passed seemed to be coming progressively to life and the odd early riser was seen moving about.
February 1 1942
Having been shut up all night with no lavatory accommodation some of us were getting to the bursting point and we were threatening to foul the carriage. Our two guards opened up a crack in the double doorway in the side of the carriage and the men proceeded to relieve themselves. This satisfied most of the men but some of us had more serious business to do. Accordingly the guards opened up the doors about 18 in. wide and holding on to each man let him squat on the side of the carriage with his rear end out in the icy breezes. We travelled through a deserted looking valley. My turn came to squat and I had hardly got started when the guard grew very agitated and tried to pull me back into the carriage. I resisted to the best of my ability, protesting that I was not finished. The other guard came along too, looking furiously angry and between them both I was hauled willy-nilly into the carriage and the door slammed shut. Fortunately I had protested long enough for my needs. When I had time to look through the window the cause of the guard’s upset was obvious. We were passing through the middle of a fair-sized town with crowds of people watching the train go through. The train continued on its northward journey, roaring through tunnels, skirting the sides of hills and thundering along the valleys. Exquisite vistas of blue Mediterranean Sea with fairy-tale villages clinging to the heights above were seen. The morning blossomed bright and sunny although the air was keen. The cold and cheerless life in the south had given way to the exhilaration of travel along the lovely Italian Riviera. Eventually the train came to a halt at the railway station of Chiavari, a fair-sized town near Genoa.
It being a holiday, crowds of civilians were promenading the streets, no doubt being specially keen to see the trainload of prisoners arriving. To the usual shouting and arm waving of Italian guards we alighted at the platform and formed up in a long column. Compared with civilians we had seen in the south the crowds seemed much more prosperous and well dressed. There was a big proportion of signoras and signorinas all resplendent in their Sunday finery. Many of them seemed taller and fairer than girls seen in the south. The crowd appeared more curious than hostile. When all the men were lined up they shouldered their various kits and oddments and marched off at a steady pace. Snow lay thick on the sides of the road but the sun was shining brightly and there was a crispness in the air. Some orange trees laden with golden fruit looked somewhat out of place in the snow. A woman amongst the crowd lining the road, called out in English and wished us luck. It seemed to cheer us on our way and there seemed to be an extra swing to our march as we left the flat and turned up a winding valley road. As the gradients increased the pace slowed down and soon the march was an effort. No longer were we fit. The exertion of toiling up hill with our few possessions taxed our dwindling strength. It was interesting passing through villages seeing churches on the hillside and curious civilians alongside the road. Some of the houses had doorsteps and window sills made of great slabs of slate. Rough-hewn slate also covered the roofs of many houses. However small the village there always seemed to be a large and often ornate church. Some of the churches were in very inaccessible places. Only a steep walking track leading up from the valley below must have made building difficult. Of one such church we heard the following story:
A local village decided to build a new church. The villagers assembled the necessary material on a chosen site in the valley. The next morning the material was all gone and was later discovered miraculously transported to a site high up on the hillside. The villagers
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laboriously carried it down again to the original site ready to start work on the following day. That night the same thing happened and the material was again found high up on the hillside. Once more the villagers toiled to carry the material down to the chosen site. When in the morning the building materials were once again found up on the hillside, it was considered that it was the divine wish that the church should be built there. The villagers accordingly erected the church there and ever since have toiled slowly up the steep path to attend the services.
At last the site of our camp was reached. Nestling under the hillside across the stream it contained a number of huts, some single and some two storied. Past the guardhouse we stumbled into the barbed-wire enclosure with the machine-gun towers standing in the corners. Up the muddy paths and into our allotted huts two rows of bunks greeted us along either side of the hut. The bunks were two tier with wooden slats and straw palliasses. There were grey blankets and biggest surprise of all, coarse linen sheets, yes actually sheets. It was a great relief to have a real roof overhead and a dry and reasonably warm bed. It was winter still but a more invigorating climate than Capua and the rampart of hills to the north sheltered us in to some degree. We soon settled down to life in the new camp. Meals were much the same as before until orders came for a drastic curtailment.
Meals had never been enough to satisfy but now rations were on a starvation basis. One of our sergeants who was interested in dietetics worked out the value of the rations in calories. His final summing up was that if we lay in bed most of the time and used up as little energy as possible we could just about exist, but it would probably be a losing battle. Our only hope was to get Red Cross food parcels. A canteen was opened in the camp. Armed with camp lire we queued up to see what we could buy. There was practically nothing in the edible line, only large cubes of salt which were so much in demand that they had to be rationed. Our bodies were suffering from lack of salt and the salt cubes were sucked greedily. However, they didn’t allay the pangs of hunger. One man having purchased some toilet paper and some salt was feeling so ravenous that he sprinkled pieces of toilet paper with salt and promptly chewed them up. Some other prisoners were very jubilant when they managed to entice a tame cat through the wires, quickly pounced on it and in a while were eating a nourishing stew. The same fate befell a hedgehog. Most had to be content with the meagre camp rations, and day by day we lost weight. It was an effort to rise from bunks for check parades, meal queues or to go outside to the lavatories. Much of the time was spent in a comatose state, half asleep and half awake with the mind occupied with day dreams and fantasies.
One South African was found at this period who had lain in his bed almost continuously, without the will to get up and wash or exercise. His bedclothes were a seething mass of lice and he was carted off to hospital, emaciated and eaten alive with vermin. His bedclothes were hung out in the enclosure as a warning of what could happen if one hadn’t the energy or will-power to look after one’s self. Firing was another problem. An issue was made to each hut for heating purposes and for cooking if there was anything to cook. This issue was far from adequate and was augmented by any sticks of wood prisoners were able to pick up. In one hut particularly the problem was solved first by using slats from the beds and when these were getting short pieces were taken from the walls and roof of the hut. Eventually so many pieces of timber had been cut or knocked out of the building that it started to sag in an alarming degree. Suspicious guards came in and searched the hut and found it in a state of near collapse. Home-made saws, knives and other tools were discovered and confiscated. The men had to be shifted to another hut while repairs were carried out.
With a few thousand men milling about the enclosure in winter time, the ground soon became a quagmire. There were plenty of stones in the nearby creek. The Italian authorities arranged working parties to carry stones from the creek to pave the paths in the camp. The men were marched down to the creek bed in charge of guards. Each man would pick up a stone and carrying it back to the camp would deposit it on the paths for others to put in place. This coming and going of a large crowd of men produced quite a pile of stones. However, the prisoners needed so many rests and got so slow that the guards found they were expending too much energy themselves in trying to exhort the prisoners to renewed efforts. In the finish they hit on the idea of forming the men into a long line extending from the creek to the prison
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compound. By passing stones from hand to hand they were passed along the line with little energy exerted on the part of the men. Although monotonous it produced results in the shape of a steadily growing pile of stones. Once the pathways about the camp were paved, the camp assumed a more civilised appearance. One could get about without wading deep in the mire.
These camps in their early stages took a lot of organising and were noted for their shortages. Even water was often short for ablution purposes. It was quite an event when we were once more treated to a hot shower.
It was in this camp, when morale was rather low, that rumours of Red Cross food parcels were heard. There was great excitement when trucks were actually seen arriving and the parcels unloaded. The first issue was one parcel between each three men. This was followed later by further issues. The change in the men was very marked and their health and wellbeing began to improve immediately. About this time too the weather commenced to improve. The previous wintry weather had been followed by several weeks of rainy weather and then suddenly it was spring. The sun shone bright and warm, flowers bloomed in the wayside pastures, the young corn was green on the hillsides and the air was fresh and mild. The stimulus of sun and warmth and a little more food in their bellies, resulted in the men becoming less discontented and revived their hopes.
From information received from the latest arrivals amongst the prisoners, maps of battle fronts were chalked up on a blackboard. These showed great chunks of territory carved out of the Russian front, but the German offensive had slowed down and in places the Germans had even been pushed back. The allies were slowly gaining in strength. It looked as though it would be a long time but most of us felt sure of the outcome. How hope and trust can tide one over the dark periods of life!
A further boost to morale came about when personal parcels arrived from England. In the parcel there were pullovers, pyjamas, gloves, shaving gear, soap and other comforts. Many of the beards about the camp disappeared and clean shaven faces took their place. With soap and a few extra clothes, lice were on their way to being exterminated. An issue of a British uniform was made to each man. Many of the old uniforms were worn and stained and some of the men were wearing oddments of Italian uniforms, so the new uniforms were doubly welcome. As more food parcels arrived there soon commenced the swapping market which was a great feature of the camp and was to continue in a greater or lesser degree in other camps. Red Cross parcels were arranged so that each recipient would have a balanced ration of food. Men were supposed to receive one parcel per week but this was seldom the case. At times the men went for long periods without parcels, at other times they were reasonably regular. Some camps were more fortunate than others. It depended on supplies and distribution in a war-torn countryside. On receipt of parcels many men would go to a recognised area in the camp grounds and try to swap meat for sweets or cocoa for tea and various other swaps. Each article had its price according to the tastes of the individual and could also be swapped for cigarettes which were the universal coinage of PoW camps. Some astute traders could start off with a couple of small articles and build up quite a parcel by swapping this for that. The Indian prisoners would generally swap meat, which had a high value, for some of the less prized items. However, the market didn’t last long as the trading articles were soon devoured by hungry men. Speed was the essence of the contract or a man might get left with a couple of tins of watery diced carrots instead of the tin of meat or condensed milk he was hoping for.
It was the advent of the Red Cross parcel which produced that phenomenon of the PoW camps the tin basher. With mostly home-made tools and infinite patience these men would hammer out tins from Red Cross parcels and fashion them into various articles of utility and convenience. The most famous and widely used of these articles was the camp blower. The object of this blower was to boil water with as little expenditure of fuel and as quickly as possible. A tin fan operated by a handle blew a blast of air into a fire box containing some chips or pieces of wood which heated the water in a container above. These blowers were crude at first but they evolved gradually until they achieved a peak of perfection which was, to
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say the least, amazing. They became an established part of the camp equipment and a special area of ground was reserved for brewing-up operations. Blowers of all shapes and sizes were seen about the camp. On one occasion a hobbies day was held in the camp and numerous examples of the tin-bashers art were on display. It was quite a good exhibition. The Italian camp commandant and his officers viewed the display with quite a show of admiration. They seemed pleased that the men should devote their energies to such worthwhile efforts. Secretly however, they no doubt thought the prisoners were concealing a real arsenal of tools. Accordingly, they conducted a raid on the camp and a collection of home-made knives, hammers and other odds and ends were found.
Among the thousands of men in this camp there were many interesting personalities, some of these had had unusual jobs, many had had exciting experiences, others again had the knowledge and ability to lecture on different subjects. It was arranged that lectures and talks be given in different huts at certain hours. These talks proved very popular and many men were able to pass away the long hours by listening to talks which were sometimes amusing, often instructive and generally interesting. The best lecturers soon became known and crowds would squat around in every available space in the hut where that man was speaking. Boredom was one of the bug-bears of PoW life. Anything that contributed to relieve it was blessing. In the camp was also a library with a small selection of books and this again was a great boon. Even the long wait in a queue to select a book helped to pass away the weary hours. Another pastime which was peculiar to the PoW camps was the collecting of recipes. The ingredients of many delectable dishes were written down in notebooks or on scraps of paper. The men tantalised themselves with thoughts of various kinds of fancy foodstuffs which seemed so far out of their reach. In their half-starved state it was a harmless obsession which would soon be cured when meals got back to normal again.
Sometime after the camp had become established, a concert party was organised. Amongst these men from different countries and from many walks of life there were found artists of great talent. They met together and rehearsed for the concert. A date was fixed for the great event. All the camp was looking forward to this break in the monotony of camp life. A debutante anticipating her first ball couldn’t have looked forward to it much more than the men in the camp did to this concert. A large new mess hall had just been constructed. This served as an ideal concert hall. A stage was built at one end and all preparation finalised. On the evening of the concert the men quickly filled up the hall and all was eager anticipation. The Italian Commandant and his staff were invited and when everyone was seated the concert commenced. The Red Cross had given some musical instruments to the camp. With these an excellent orchestra had been formed and some splendid orchestral items were given. There were also good vocalists and pianoforte items. Some humorous recitations helped to enliven the proceedings. The highlights of the show were some excellent plays presented in costume.
The costumes of the party were made with odds and ends of material and pieces of cardboard and packing. The result was outstanding and a credit to those responsible. When some seemingly gorgeous females clad in evening robes walked onto the stage there was a gasp from the all-male audience and a flutter of pleasant anticipation. The Italian officers looked somewhat startled, perhaps wondering how the beautiful females had been hidden in the camp and if they were real, should they investigate. It is surprising what the change in appearance, some make-up and different attire, can make to the male appearance. Altogether it was a very pleasant evening and a bright spot in an otherwise dull existence.
Although the material welfare of the prisoners was of great concern, the spiritual welfare was not neglected. Church services were held regularly in one of the huts. The chief padre was Bishop Gerard. A big man with the rank of a colonel, his opinions carried some weight with the Italian authorities. An English-speaking Italian padre, complete with black beard and robes took over the spiritual care of the Roman Catholics and succeeded in making some converts to his faith. He also took classes in Italian language studies.
Several of our own doctors were in the camp and worked under the Italian doctors. Lack of medicines and drugs and the facilities for treating patients hampered them in their work. At different times all the men in camp were given inoculations. It was rather a painful process. Blunt needles were jabbed into skinny arms. The job was to find sufficient meat on the arm in which to stick the needle without jabbing bone. Those who became genuinely sick had a very unenviable time. Apart from some invalid food and a few extras from the Red Cross, there was little to treat them with.
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Drawing of PG 52 Chiavari by Arthur Douglas (New Zealand), August 1942
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Like other camps there were always those individuals in it who contrived to escape. Generally those in privileged positions had the best opportunity. A man on the cook-house staff secreted himself underneath a truck delivering rations. When the vehicle went out the gates the man went out too, riding precariously underneath. There was a brief flap when the man was discovered missing. Everyone was lined up on the parade ground and the camp was thoroughly searched. Next day the man was captured and brought ignominiously back to camp and put in the lock-up for punishment. Such ill-planned escapes were good for the morale of the camp at the moment of discovery of the escape. Later, however, they only resulted in a tightening up of camp discipline generally and the punishment of whoever the Italians thought were concerned in the escape.
A more ambitious escape was being planned in the camp. This was through a tunnel to be constructed from under the floor of one of the huts. The camp as a whole did not know of this projected attempt. It did not do to talk too much, as some prisoners, especially of some nationalities, were not over reliable. A chance word in the hearing of such people, could easily get back to the Italian authorities. The inmates of the hut had to be ever vigilant when anyone was working at the tunnel. The approach of a guard or a stranger had to be reported instantly. The floor boards were immediately replaced and everything put back to normal. After long weeks of work the tunnel had been extended out beyond the hut and under the barb-wire perimeter of the camp to a few yards beyond. Now everything was ready for the escape. On the following night it was only necessary to break through the roof of the tunnel to the surface. As luck would have it, a sentry proceeding along outside the wire heard a hollow sound underfoot. Banging the ground with his rifle butt he broke through the surface and discovered the tunnel. Immediately afterwards there was pandemonium. There was much shouting and the guards were turned out and extra soldiers summoned. The camp commandant was on the scene, shouting and gesticulating, and guards were running here and there. The sergeant from the hut in which the tunnelling had started was taken to the lock-up under armed escort. All prisoners were lined up and counted and recounted. It was many hours before things got back to anything like normal. Once again a very thorough search of the camp was made and for several days there was much coming and going of Italian officers and carabinieri. Gradually things settled down to normal once more.
The Italian commandant of the camp had been associated with the British in the First World War. Although running the camp in a strict manner he seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for the British prisoners. When some men eventually did succeed in escaping from the camp he gave his guards a real tongue lashing. He told them they were a lot of food and warned them that they were guarding brave men. The commandant was in the habit of stumping about the ground of the camp accompanied by some of his staff. He took a personal interest in what was going on about the camp. The men didn’t mind standing to attention when he approached as they felt they could respect him. That was more than could be said of the men’s attitude to some of the camp commandants encountered.
After representations to the Geneva Red Cross, who at times sent delegates to inspect prison camps, it was arranged that the prisoners should have an outing. One fine day we were lined up and marched out of camp and up the winding valley road. The guards seemed just as happy as we were. It broke the monotony of guard duty for them. At the same time they were on the alert and somewhat apprehensive as to what these irrepressible and unpredictable prisoners would do once they were let out of the confines of the barb-wire enclosure. We, for our part, were more like a gang of school-boys let out on holiday. There was much laughing and joking as we climbed steadily up the valley road. For the time being we were tourists, penniless, ill-fed, not particularly welcome, but still tourists. We gazed to either side of the twisting climbing road. Terraced fields of wheat climbed in serried ranks up the hillsides. Verdant grape-vines grew on trellises or wound their stems around mulberry bushes. The stream was never far from the road and tumbled over rocky falls or flowed quietly in deep pools. Wild flowers grew by the roadside and the warm sun shone overhead. Little villages with occasional shops were passed. Groups of houses clustered close to the roadside. A party of lounging men sat outside a wine-shop. They stared at us. We stared at them and passed ribald remarks. We were interested in the many types of people we saw. The passing senorinas
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came in for critical appraisement. Fortunately they couldn’t understand all that was said about them or they might have blushed twice over. Some smiled at us, others gave us an icy stare and walked haughtily past.
Near the end of our walk there was a stone bridge crossing the stream. Over it climbed a riotous mass of wisteria in bloom. The great trusses of purple blossom made a glorious backdrop to the sparkling stream below. After the sordid ugliness of prisoner-of-war camps such a glimpse of beauty was like a ray of light in the gloom. In the centre of the town was a statue of Christopher Columbus. Here in the valley was his birthplace. Retracing our steps down the winding road we returned to our camp weary in body, but refreshed in spirit.
April 25th was Anzac day, a day of remembrance and of special significance to the Australians and New Zealanders. Here in this camp we had obtained permission from the camp commandant to hold a parade. He had been given to understand that it was regarded by the men as a special religious ceremony. The Italians, keen on their religion, had consented. It was decided to put on a good show and let the Italians know that there was plenty of spirit left in the prisoners. Each man smartened himself up as much as possible, wearing his best uniform if he was fortunate enough to have an alternative. Mud was cleaned off boots and gaiters and everyone washed and razors were kept busy. The men were then assembled under senior NCOs and formed up in groups. The parade responded smartly to almost forgotten orders and marched off in a long column around the compound. Lifting up their heads and swinging their arms they marched in step looking once again the soldiers of Greece and Crete and the Western desert. The scruffy looking guards watched with amazement the sudden transformation of their previously shuffling and careless prisoners. The parade marched past the saluting base and then the ranks closed up and the men stood to listen to an address by a senior officer. The singing of the national anthem was banned, instead the gathering sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ with a lusty fervour that must have awed the Italians outside the wire. So ended this first Anzac day in captivity with the morale of the men much strengthened.
As the days wore on the corn was shooting into ear and the song of the cuckoo was heard. In the evening the trees on the hillside at the back of the camp were luminescent with the trails of the flickering darting fireflies. Then came the first letters from home. What a joy and encouragement they were to the men so many thousands of miles distant from their loved ones. There was much talk and discussion that evening as little homely items of news were passed around. After lights were out, lying in the darkness, the only privacy one knew, not a few eyes were moist, no doubt, as a surge of homesickness welled up in the hearts of strong men.
Following the arrival of the letters we were allowed to send a cable home. Not much could be said but we felt the cable was a definite link with those so far away. So life went on, a monotonous day to day existence. The food ration was still very low but occasional Red Cross parcels helped out. With the cold of winter past and the season merging into summer, energy was not expended in merely trying to keep warm. Men lounged about semi-naked and there was more chance to wash and air clothes and so defeat the scourge of body lice. Water was always scarce, however, and there was never sufficient for the needs of the men.
The corn on the hillsides was standing in ordered ranks, tall and yellow. The gentle breezes moved their tasselled heads in unison while the cobs swelled to maturity. Under the influence of the hot sunshine the wheat was turning golden and the grapes were ripening in great clusters on the vines. To us it was often unbearably hot as we were crowded together on the floor of the valley with insufficient water to bathe in. One’s thoughts would stray to a dip
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one evening in a quiet arm of the Aegean on the shores of Greece, of swims in the canal and the Lake of Genefia in Egypt and of exhilarating sport in the Mediterranean surf at Baggush after playing rugby in the dusty desert. Then came news that in the interests of health, men would be taken a short distance up the valley and allowed to bathe in a hole in the creek. Shepherded by the usual armed guard we arrived at the spot and quickly stripped. Soon we were splashing in the water. Little did it matter that the crowd of men soon stirred up the mud in the bottom. It was luxury after trying to wash under dripping pipes.
July 22 1942
There had been much talk in the camp about a farmer’s party which was to be organised. Those picked to go would be sent to work in a country area. They would be given increased rations and the work would be of a non-military character. The idea of extra food, coupled with some healthy bodily exercise, was attractive to many of us. Far too long had we rotted in the close confines of the present camp under starvations conditions. Although the men were then picked to go it was many weeks before the day arrived for them to leave the camp.
At last the day came when orders were issued for the work party to assemble and march out of camp. Down the long winding road they plodded towards the distant railway station. ‘Chi-avari’s no place for me’ and other snatches of song were heard. It was a contrast to the previous march up the valley to the prison camp so many months ago. Instead of a snowy countryside, now the valley was full of the fruits of autumn. Grapes hung thick and luscious on the vines. Pumpkins had climbed up into the trees and hedges and their great golden fruits sat sedately on little man-made platforms. Where previously the column consisted of tired, dispirited men trudging up the steep road, now they were an easy-going crowd marching downhill in the warm sunshine. The accompaniment of armed guards was now so much a way of our life that they were regarded as a necessary evil, something to be baited, something to be despised, but something to be put up with. So down the valley to the station and then to be crowded aboard a train once more. The journey was mostly by night, probably for security reasons. There is little to remember of that trip except the usual crowded, uncomfortable sleepless journey.
When morning came we had arrived at a station in a little township called Torviscosa [Province of Udine, c. 45 km NW of Trieste]. Here we found a number of farm tractors each towing several trailers. Climbing aboard the trailers we were soon riding down narrow country roads. The terrain was very flat. On either side of the road were ditches. Here and there clusters of farm building were seen. Large areas of the country were covered by stands of tall cane. Soon we came to the gates of a prison compound with the all too familiar barb-wire surround. Enclosed were a collection of newly finished buildings. This was to be our home for the following year.
Once inside the compound we were allotted to our huts. Inside the buildings a narrow passage in the centre led from end to end. In the middle was a small square with windows on either side and a single bunk in each corner. The main part of the building was furnished with three tiers of wooden bunks on either side of the central passage. In all each hut accommodated 200 prisoners. Those in the lower bunks had hardly room to sit up so dressing and undressing was often done in unusual postures or out in the passageway. As the tiers of bunks were in the form of long shelves it was necessary to enter them through the gap facing the passage. This was easy enough for the occupants of the bottom tier, as they were at floor level. The second tier dwellers had to climb up the ends of the bunks and dive head first into their beds and out again the same way. They had to be careful not to tread on the occupant of the bunk below sitting with his feet out in the passage. The top tier dwellers had an even longer climb, but once on top had more room to move as there was more space between the bunks and the ceiling. This top tier of bunks became a popular place for card parties in the evening or on non-working days. In the summer the huts were very hot but in the winter we tried to conserve what warmth there was. There was little ventilation and the atmosphere was very foul at times.
In this new camp we found our rations were doubled and we began to get regular issues of Red Cross parcels. Sometimes there would be some grapes or dried figs to divide out
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between the men. During this period our depleted bodies were gradually built up again. Even water was now to be had in plenty. The exercise derived from our work, extra food and the glorious sunshine increased our return of strength and also our morale. We had as an interpreter an Italian of noble birth, a graduate of Oxford university whose diction and command of English were superior to that of most of us. He was a striking figure of a man, well over six feet, broad of shoulders and was a handsome and charming gentleman.
After a few days settling into camp we went out on our first working party. First we assembled outside our huts under our hut commanders and were counted. In a long column the men were then marched out of the prison gates and were flanked on either side by armed guards. The narrow road had a ditch on either side and beyond were the fields of tall cane. We soon found that the cane washout by worker using a tool like a small dutch hoe. It was chopped off near the ground, tied up in bundles and loaded on trailers towed by tractors and carted to the town of Torviscosa. Here it was processed in a large factory. The fibre was used for various purposes and much of the clothing worn by the workers was woven from the material. Our work was to prepare the swamp lands for growing the cane. This consisted in digging ditches about two chains apart and carting the soil in wheelbarrows to fill up depressions and making a surface gradually sloping from the centre to the ditches on either side.
The go-slow policy was adopted from the start. Leaning on the shovel was the order of the day. It was soon found that as long as one kept moving the civilian overseers were satisfied and stopped shouting and raving. As soon as they turned away, however, work would come to a standstill. How slowly the work went on and yet a few thousand men shifting the odd shovelful at intervals over a period of time, accomplished a surprising amount of work. The shovel handles were made of poplar, unshaped and brittle. Whenever one grew tired of shifting soil it was easy to snap a shovel handle. A trip to the overseer and a welcome respite while he fitted another handle. On the rare occasions when one had a nice smooth handle it was worth conserving and it was treated with care. The guards’ job was to prevent prisoners escaping and they weren’t particular about whether men worked or not. Only when appealed to by the overseers would they brandish a carbine threateningly or give way to a torrent of abuse.
At the end of the day one of the guards would sound a trumpet and everyone would immediately down tools and make for the trumpeter where a line would be formed for the march home. There were many beautiful sunny days and as the men worked they would strip off to the waist. the tan of the desert soon reappeared and men were looking fit and well again. One North Islander with a Maori cobbler swore he would soon be as dark as his mate. He never caught up though for the Maori was tanning too. In the heat of the summer, often about two o’clock, thundery clouds would gather in the sky and sometimes there would be showered of rain. Later the clouds would drift away and the sun would shine clear and warm again. At the first sign of rain the men would shout ‘Trumba, Trumba’. The guards who had the monotonous job of standing around all day, were only too pleased to march the men back to camp and thus be relieved of their duties for the day. On one particular day the sky grew cloudy and a few drops of rain fell. Immediately there was an outcry from the men. They were supported by the guards. The civilian overseers were emphatic that there would be no more rain that day. An argument ensued in which the military got their way. The men were marched back to camp. Half-way back the clouds had disappeared and the column of returning workers marched through the prison gates in brilliant sunshine and with most of the afternoon still to go. The commandant wanted to know why the men were brought home from work. After a heated exchange with the guards he finally dismissed them as it was not worth while going back to work at that time of day. After that the Italian guards were not so keen to support us when we called ‘Trumba’ at the least sign of rain.
During the summer Red Cross parcels were coming to hand very frequently. In the hot weather the Italian rations of oily vegetable and macaroni soup were often found to be more than we could cope with. Rather than have our rations cut, any soup left over was surreptitiously tipped down the toilets. In our rations, meat was almost non-existent and the soup was very watery. We were given to understand that part of our ration was being saved for Christmas. When Christmas Day arrived sure enough the Italians kept their word. Into the camp came great piles of fresh meat, vegetables and fruit. The cooks did a great job and for
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the first and only time in our PoW existence we sat down to a meal that would have done credit to any home occasion.
Although life was much more pleasant than in the former camps it was still a monotonous and dreary existence. There were occasional bright spots which made life more bearable. There was little contact with civilians other than the works’ overseers. When civilians passed on the road they were the object of good natured banter. The few senorinas who went by were subjected to a barricade of remarks, from friendly and humorous to straight out suggestive. Their reply was often an invitation to escape.
One very hot day we were resting along a poplar-lined roadside while we had our lunch. Down the main road came an ox waggon piled high with hay. It was pulled by a milk cow which plodded steadily along the road. The driver on top of the load had a soft bed and the warmth and the gentle motion had lulled him to sleep. The prisoners, quickly sizing up the situation, stepped quietly out on the road and turned the head of the cow down the side lane. The cow, seeing the welcome shade ahead, was only too pleased to come to rest under the poplars. While a couple of men fed the cow with handfuls of grass from the roadside, another man got under the cow with a dixie and in a professional manner stripped the cow of what milk it had. In the meantime the driver awoke to find his oxcart pointing in the wrong direction and a crown of grinning strangers surrounding him. His annoyed shouts brought the guards running but no one explained to them what happened. With the hearty co-operation of theme the oxcart was manhandled around in the narrow lane and the cow plodded off in the right direction.
As the summer wore on we were conscious that the war was not going too well for Italy. We often had arguments with our overseers, especially one who had spent some years in the United States and who spoke English with a Yankee accent. Asked why Italy had entered the war, he said they wanted to grow big. When taunted about the fall of North Africa and the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy the tall loose-limbed Yankee Italian was almost in tears. The thought that they might have backed the wrong horse was worrying him mightily. In many ways there seemed to be a change in feeling towards the war.
January 11 1943
One well-publicised event was a visit by the Papal delegate. The camp was expected to be on its best behaviour and everything looking well so auto impress this important visitor. The camp was presented with a number of gifts from the Pope. These included a clock and some albums of stamps, all with papal emblems inscribed on them. These gifts would now be very valuable. Perhaps someone was fortunate enough to get home with them. A set of musical instruments was also presented to the camp and at least one of these instruments arrived back in New Zealand.
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CHAPTER 8: Escape
News filtered through one day that there had been a change in government. Fascist signs were being pulled down everywhere and the guards were getting very jittery. Italy had capitulated and Mussolini had been hanged [capitulation made public 8 September 1943; Mussolini hanged April 1945]. It seemed that the great day had arrived for us. Everyone was confined to camp. No more working parties. The head ranking officers in the camp were called for consultations with the Italian staff. In the meantime a game of baseball was going on in the camp quadrangle between a team of South Africans and a team of New Zealanders. These men had put in a lot of practise in the summer evenings. The South Africans were by far the best at first. The New Zealanders were improving all the time, but so far they had not beaten the South Africans. Today they played as men inspired. With rumour and counter rumour going around the camp and a tenseness in the air, the strain on the players must have been great. The nerves of the Kiwis must have been good for they excelled themselves and beat the South Africans for the first time. Now came word that the allied High Command had given orders that all prisoners of war were to stay in their camps until released by their own soldiers. This was to facilitate gathering the PoWs up and transporting them to base camp. The Italian guards were to remain and look after the men in the meantime.
Many of us had prepared to get out of camp as soon as possible. Valises had been packed with spare clothing and gear and any food we had managed to save. Arguments for breaking out of camp or staying put were many. Some felt it safer to stay in the confines of a guarded camp and obey orders, others were uneasy about being trapped in camp if the Germans were to get there before our own troops. The wire was cut in a corner of the compound and a few men escaped while the guards looked on. The wire was repaired with some of the guards becoming threatening. At the same time a few of the guards were quietly making off themselves and heading for their own villages in civilian clothes. It was a time of indecision both for guards and prisoners. Everyone seems to be packing up and preparing to move one way or another. My mates and I decided to get out if possible. Walking up to the main gates and guard posts we found the gates open into the covered guard area with the double gates beyond. Inside a number of guards were talking and arguing with men wanting to get out.
September 11 1943
We walked briskly through the courtyard and out through the double gates and onto the road, not glancing behind and ready at the first shout or shot to dive into the depths of the tall friendly cane growing in great blocks on either side of the road. Hardly an heroic escape, just a walkout! However, we weren’t stretching our luck too far and quickly disappeared into that same tall cane and headed across country away from the roads.
It was late in the afternoon so the first claim on our new-found freedom was to find a place to stay the night. Emerging from the far side of the cane field we came upon an area where maize had been harvested. The stalks had been neatly bound in bundles and stacked up in the form of wigwams. Approaching one of these heaps some of the bundles were pulled aside and one by one we crawled inside. Placing the bundles back in position we could lie undetected from any passers-by. It was a cramped and uncomfortable night but at least we were free. Rising next morning somewhat stiffly from the hard bed we greeted a fine new day. Peering from behind our shelter we were somewhat dismayed to see lines of Italian soldiers walking across the countryside. What were they doing there and would it be safe to reveal ourselves? Plucking up courage, Sol, our Italian linguist, approached a group plodding quietly along. He came back with news that they were soldiers from the Northern front returning to their homes. There was no transport for them and they were only interested in getting back to their homes as soon as possible. As far as they were concerned the war was over and they were not worrying about escaped prisoners. This encounter gave us some confidence and we set out across country. Arriving at a village we came in contact with a very friendly family who invited us in for a meal. Some of the inhabitants of this village had been over to the
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prison camp and the men had thrown them clothes and odds and ends that they thought they would no longer require. There was no doubt many of the Italian peasants were well disposed towards us. It was a pleasant experience to sit around the table and partake of the simple fare of this friendly family. The dog sat under the table and waited expectantly for the scraps of food which were dropped underneath for his benefit. A first-class waste disposal unit! Later we were treated to a drink of their precious real coffee which they saved for very special occasions. At mealtimes there was always plenty of the red vino.
The days were hot and the nights mild. We swam in the canals and lazed in the sun or in the shade of the trees. A heavenly existence after prisoner of war life. We made beds of twigs and grasses and slept comfortably outdoors under the trees. Our new-found friends brought us food; crisp newly baked loaves of bread, fresh milk, pasta ascuttia, polenta and luscious grapes. Our troops had been doing well in the south and it looked as though it would only be a short time before they would be conquering the north. Rather than travel the length of Italy and attempt to pass through the front lines of the opposing troops, it looked a better proposition to stay out of trouble and wait for our troops to reach our area.
One day while sitting under the gnarled tree in our camping area a large snake slid out of the grass and disappeared into a hole in the trunk of the tree. Somehow the area no longer appealed to us and we decided to move. Our Italian friends hearing of this offered us the shelter of their barn. Here we slept on straw in a corner of the shed. During the day we shared in the family life, helping where we could. On Sunday morning the family dressed up in their best clothes and we accompanied them to the village church. Dad and mother, the daughters Gina and Maria and the young boy with the three uniformed New Zealanders all worshipped together. That afternoon while wandering gentle woods I came upon a party of our fellow PoWs out for a walk. They were in charge of an Italian guard. I was able to talk with them for a few minutes as the guard was not interested in me. He had taken fifteen men out on a walk and he was only concerned to bring fifteen back.
Next day we were told that a force of German soldiers had surrounded the prison camp and our former mates were all on their way to Germany. All escaped prisoners were to be rounded up. Several thousand lire per head was to be paid to anyone giving information leading to the capture of former prisoners. Italians found harbouring escaped prisoners would be shot. Our little holiday was at an end. The Germans were tightening their grip on the countryside. Not wishing to expose our village friends to trouble, and possible death, we decided to leave. They were reluctant to let us go and said they would give us a tent and bring us food. They led us to a wood where we would be hidden. It was a short walk from the village to an area of swampy land and behind it some thickly wooded ground. Here we pitched our tent in the undergrowth. Each day some of the family appeared carrying food and vino. Daily excursions were made around the area as we familiarised ourselves with the countryside, keeping out of sight of roads and habitations. Often we wished for maps as we could only guess our location. Our friends gave us whatever news they could glean. It seemed our troops had met more resistance in the south and our time of waiting would be longer.
One Saturday night Giovanni appeared out of the darkness, puffing and agitated. Somehow they had got word that the Germans were throwing a cordon around the village and surrounding area and at daylight they would search every building and field for escaped prisoners. Almost tearfully our young friend implored us to hurry as we packed up our meagre possessions and prepared to leave. ‘Would we come back and see them at Christmas if we were still free?’ ‘Yes’ we said, ‘If we could manage it.’ Giving us a general direction to follow, our young friend farewelled us and we stumbled off in the darkness. Our eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, we moved faster and were soon out in more open country. It was not easy going as the region was criss-crossed with ditches and canals. The ditches could be jumped but we covered a lot of extra ground going up and down banks looking for a crossing of the canals. A bridge had to be found and bridges were often in villages and liable to be guarded. The idea of swimming canals in the cold autumn night did not appeal. Finally we reached a main road which we crossed in the darkness. Now we knew we were well out of the area of the search and could relax. Proceeding some distance away from the road we came to a hedge with a dry ditch underneath. Crawling into the ditch we made ourselves as comfortable as possible and proceeded to make up for some of our lost sleep.
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So exhausted were we that we didn’t wake up again till the sun was high. What really woke us was the roar of traffic alongside. Peering above the ditch and through the hedge, trucks of German soldiers could be seen speeding along the highway. Further back the road had taken a turn and here we were back beside it. A look in the other direction revealed a field of mulberry trees interspersed with trellises covered with grape vines. In the field were a number of peasant women at work. They seemed very surprised to see three somewhat bedraggled uniformed men climb out of the ditch. There was much talking and looking in our direction, but they went on working. Making sure there was plenty of cover between us and the road, we approached them, indicating we were hungry. Could they spare us a little food? This they willingly obliged, giving us each a little from their lunch baskets. Confiding in one old lady that we were New Zealanders and not Germans, she didn’t comprehend. However, she said, ‘Si, Si’ when we said we were British soldiers. Then the dear old soul said ‘I don’t care if you are Germans, or British or Italians, you are hungry men and hungry men need feeding.’ We found many of the peasant people didn’t comprehend the intricacies of the war. They knew Italy had capitulated but the Germans were forcing them to keep in the war when all they wanted was to be left alone. Although the Italians appeared friendly, the Germans were uncomfortably close. Someone might be tempted to give away our position in expectation of a large reward. There was not a great deal of cover on our side of the road but across the other side was a large wood. This was our immediate objective. The traffic seemed to be all one way, coming from around a corner and continuing down the straight. It seemed a large convoy of Germans was heading south.
Crawling as close to the road as possible and lying under some bushes we waited for a lull in the traffic. Several times we started up preparing to dash across the road only to hear another vehicle coming around the corner. The situation struck us as ludicrous and we couldn’t help laughing as we had several near misses. At last the road was clear and there was no sound of approaching vehicles. Dashing across the road we disappeared into the shelter of the wood as more vehicles came roaring around the corner. Time to take stock of our position. We didn’t know where we were, we had no maps and little food. One of our party could speak Italian reasonably well and was picking up the local Friuli dialect. We decided to push on, keeping in as much cover as possible during the day and seeking food and shelter at night. Crossing the fields our next encounter was with two senorinas of dubious age and apparently dubious character. Manpower was scare around the district by their suggestions. They had no appeal for us and we wished them good day and continued on our way. About this time we met up with several other escaped PoWs and decided to join forces. We carried enough of the versatile Italian ground-sheets which buttoned together to form a tent, to put up a shelter in a pleasant spot by a stream. There was plenty of straw and dry grass to make comfortable beds. Some friendly Italians arranged to bring us food and milk and vino. We settled in for a period once more. Daily. excursions were made around the area to acquaint ourselves with the district, which was well wooded. As usual our Italian friends told others that there were escaped British prisoners in the woods. More people arrived each day, some to stare but most to bring us food and vino and discuss the war situation. ‘Were we volunteers or had we been conscripted?’ Our group were all volunteers. ‘Why did you volunteer to fight against the Italians?’ ‘We didn’t volunteer to fight against the Italians. We volunteered to fight against the Germans and then Mussolini joined in with the Germans to fight against us.’ This led to a discussion with much waving of hands and denouncements of Mussolini. We were all friends again. Our food situation was a little chaotic, a super abundance of food at times interspersed by lean times. There was no way of storing food, so it was a feast or a famine but generally we lived well. Eagerly we sought news of the war situation. Our troops in the south seemed to be advancing very slowly and the approaching winter was discussed with a little less optimism. It might be longer than we had first thought.
One afternoon two girls from a neighbouring village arrived. They had been very good in bringing us food and we had complete trust in them. They were somewhat agitated and explained to us that so many people knew we were there that word was bound to leak to the local Fascists and so to the Germans. So many visitors had come to see us that there was a well-marked track to the door of our tent. The only thing was to leave quietly and they would lead us to a place where we were well hidden. Their two families would guarantee to feed us and no one else need know we were there. We could see the wisdom of this as we ourselves were getting somewhat perturbed about our increasing notoriety. Quickly we packed our few
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belongings and unbuttoned and folded the tent. Away we tramped led by the fair Elsa and the buxom Margarita. Eventually we came to a stream we would have to wade over. We sat down to take off our boots and socks. Margarita, barefooted and strong as a young ox said ‘No, no, leave your boots on’ and indicated she would piggy-back us across. One by one she took us on her broad shoulders and waded us across, everyone laughing and joking. It was thickly wooded and swampy country. This led to a road which we followed for a short distance. Leaving the road we plunged into a dark wood. For some distance we walked through the dense trees, eventually emerging into a little clearing beside a stream. Here we set up camp. Augusto, the father of the girls, arrived with more tent material and promises of bales of straw for bedding. He had already left a bale. Quickly we erected the enlarged tent, spread the straw on the ground and set to work to camouflage the tent with branches.
In our new position there was no chance of our camp being spotted from the air and there were no tell-tale tracks leading to it. It seemed to be an isolated position and we determined to keep out of sight of the local population. Water for washing and drinking was in the creek behind the tent. Daily one or more of the family arrived with food. Their house was on the outskirts of the village, so it was a simple matter for them to slip out the back and into the woods without being seen.
November 21 1943
On Sunday morning we were awakened by the sound of motor vehicles stopping and starting. At this early hour when everything was normally quiet any such noise could be heard from a long way off. The only vehicles usually seen in this quiet locality were horse-drawn carts. We sat up with an uneasy feeling. Sunday morning was the usual time for the Germans to put a cordon around a district in preparation for a search. During week days the peasant farmers would leave the villages early to go out working in the fields. On Sunday morning they would all be in their homes prior to going to church or about their Sunday activities. It was then easy to check over the population and hopefully catch people like ourselves who shouldn’t be about. Joe got up and volunteered to go down to the road and try if he could see anything suspicious. After a time of waiting in which we all got dressed, Joe came back. His news was that there was a German soldier with a rifle, sitting on the side of the road. ‘What was he doing?’ ‘Nothing,’ said Joe, ‘just sitting there and quietly humming to himself.’ By this time we were even more suspicious. More motor traffic was heard in the distance and again vehicles stopping and starting. After a while I decided to go and have a look for myself. I never got as far as the road. Half way there I saw about half a dozen armed soldiers filing up between the trees. Quickly retracing my steps I arrived back in the clearing and yelled to the others ‘Go for your life, the Germans are coming.’ There was a scatter. As I jumped over the creek at the rear of the tent the Germans came into the clearing, shooting as they came. Two of our chaps were badly affected with boils and didn’t get away from the tent. I saw Joe lying in the grass across the creek as I dived into the undergrowth. Racing through the woods I came to a succession of small fields each surrounded by trees. It was easy to conceal oneself but I wanted to put as much distance as I could between myself and the Germans. That burst of fire as the Germans entered the camp certainly hastened one’s footsteps. The exertion of the run soon slowed me down and I continued across country until I came to another road. There was a large ditch beside the road and trees lining the near side of the ditch. Vision up or down the road was limited. Jumping the ditch I stood on the edge of the road and glanced to my left. A few chains down the road stood a German soldier. On seeing me he immediately unslung his rifle and shouted. Jumping back across the ditch I was out of his sight but the alarm was raised. Tally-ho! the hare was sighted! It seemed likely that the area was surrounded. My only hope was to go at right angle to my previous course. There was plenty of cover and it led to a wild area of swamp. By now I was tired and felt very much like a hare in the middle of a hare drive. Cautiously proceeding through the trees and little fields I came to a grass track. It was a waggon track used by the farmers to gain access to some small fields. It was little more than a cart-width wide and on the other side was dense bush. As I was about to cross I looked directly at a German ten or twelve yards away. He saw me as soon as I saw him. In a few
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strides I was across the track and in the cover of the bushes. He fired two shots at me as I disappeared. I struggled on nearly exhausted. The trees gave way to swampy ground and then a thick reed bed. Plunging into the swamp I crawled into the reeds and continued some distance. I lay spread eagled on the oozing mud hoping there were no tracker dogs with the soldiers. The shouting of men was heard. The quarry had been sighted and the hounds were on the trail!
In my pocket were a number of photos given to me by the first Italian family who had befriended us. If the Germans found photos of Italians on me it might lead to identification and possible death of my friends. Taking the photos I had a last look at them and then pressed them deep down in the mud. Explosions were heard at intervals as the Germans threw stick bombs into dense thickets. The swamp was not entered and gradually the sound of the search moved away in another direction. Then there was a long silent period. This was followed by a burst of machine-gun fire from the general direction of our camp. Hopefully this was the signal for the soldiers to call off the search. After a while I raised myself sufficiently to peer above the reeds. In the distance a pall of smoke rose above the trees. This came from where our camp lay. There was a lot of hay on the ground with bales of straw spread on top for our beds. With the tent and camouflage branches it would all make a good fire.
By this time the sun was high overhead but I was cold and shivering in the swamp. Slowly I crawled out and into the shelter of the surrounding trees. It was good to stand up in the warm sun. Taking off my boots and socks and all my outer clothes I hung them on the bushes to dry. As I lay in the long grasses the sun warmed my body and dried out my clothes. A lark sung overhead and all was peaceful and quiet around. My mind was not at rest though. Had any of my companions escaped? Would John and Sol, who had spent the night in a neighbouring village, come back during the day and walk into a trap? If any of them were still free would I be able to contact them? I felt very much alone.
My clothes had dried and the mud brushed off. After dressing I decided to scout around the district and see if I could find any of my friends, New Zealand or Italian. Gradually I worked my way over to the road up which the Germans had come to surround our camp. Lying in cover I watched the road for some time. No German vehicles were seen, only Italians going about their Sunday activities. I kept well clear of the woods where our former camp lay. The Germans might be waiting for me to return. Circling around toward the nearby village, I stopped and lay in the trees for some time. Then with a feeling of great relief I saw two girls come walking through the trees. It was Elsa and Margarita. Stepping out from my shelter I called softly to them. They came running towards me. ‘Raimondo, Raimondo, we have been crying all the morning! We heard all the shooting and saw lots of German soldiers in the village. Some of your mates were escorted through the village by the Germans but we knew some of you were missing and thought you were dead.’
‘Have you seen John and Sol?’ I asked. ‘No,’ they replied. The Germans had put up a notice to say that if any prisoners-of-war were found hiding in houses of the village, ten men would be shot. The Germans had then gone off in their transport. The villagers were naturally frightened. The girls said I must stay where I was until dark, then they would come back for me and Augusto would look after me.
There followed another period of waiting in the chilly evening air. I was hungry and weary but not without hope. As the evening shadows had gathered, two forms emerged out of the darkness. They were softly calling my name. Joining them we stumbled through the dark woods, finally emerging into the backyard of a house on the outskirts of the village. The girls tapped at a door which opened to reveal Augusto himself. Quickly ushering us inside he closed and locked the door. Soon I was sitting at the table ravenously eating the meal that was put in front of me. Augusto said I couldn’t go about in British uniform any more as I would be seen by someone who would give me away to the Fascists. Bringing some civilian clothes I was soon attired with a cloth cap, a black coat and grey trousers. Being fair I probably didn’t look like the average Italian labourer. In my favour was the fact that some of the Northern Italians were fair, no doubt as a result of the occupation of that part of the country by the Austrians some decades ago. We didn’t linger in the house for long. They knew the risk they were taking. Augusto led me to a shed somewhere in the darkness. I went inside and lay down on a bed of straw. I heard Augusto lock the door as he left but it didn’t worry me. I was entirely in his hands.
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Summary of Andrew’s account by Keith Killby
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Summary of Andrew’s account by Keith Killby cont’d
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I slept but it didn’t seem long before I was awakened again. There was no sign of dawn in the sky as Augusto led me back to the house. He told me he had heard that two of my companions had come back to the camp that previous afternoon. As they approached they had a premonition that all was not well. At the edge of the clearing they were confronted by the smouldering ruins of our tent site and they hastily withdrew. They were returning to the village they had left that morning. My only course was to try and rejoin them. After breakfast Augusto presented me with a little bag. In it were a few toilet items, including a safety razor. They also gave me provisions for the journey. Now came the time to part from these good and brave people. I shook hands heartily with Augusto and he wished me a safe journey. Then I turned to the two girls. Elsa had been very friendly with Joe and was a nice looking girl. I kissed her Good-bye. Poor Margarita was not beautiful. Some would even call her ugly, but she had a heart of gold. I kissed her too. I never saw them again. There was a lighter glow in the sky and the village roosters were beginning to crow as I set out across country.
By the time the sun came up I was well away from the area. Later in the day I came to a main road on which German convoys were moving. Standing on the edge of the road I watched some troop trucks passing by. If the Germans saw me they showed no interest. This gave me more confidence in my disguise. At dusk I entered the village. As I walked up the familiar street I half-expected someone to accost me, but all was quiet. I reached the home of our friends only to be told that my mates had heard that I had escaped and had gone in search of me. Somewhere during the day our paths had crossed so now we had merely exchanged villages. The procedure was much like the previous night. No longer could they entertain us openly. After a meal I slept the night in the cow byre. Again I was awakened before daylight and taken in and given a meal, warm milk straight from the cow, toasted polenta from the previous night’s meal, crusty bread and vino. Then it was out into the darkness into a field a short distance away to spend the day in waiting for the return of my mates. It was dusk when Giovanni came out to the field to let me know of the return of my companions. To me especially it was a welcome reunion and we had quite a jolly evening recounting our various adventures. It was good to have Sol to help out with the language difficulties again.
November 23 1943
Next day we set a pattern which we were to follow for some time. Up before dawn, a simple breakfast, out into the chilly night and away from the house. When it became light enough we set out across country. At dusk we would approach a house standing on its own or on the outskirts of a village. Would the occupants be friendly? Could it be a Fascist household or even could they be billeting. German soldiers? These questions we asked ourselves. It was always a risk which we accepted. When we were asked inside there would always be a meal prepared for us. We would spend the evening talking to them in the cow byre. It was like central heating there. One got used to the smell. The womenfolk were busy with their spinning wheels, knitting or stripping the corn from the husks. The men folk arose now and again to attend to the bedding of the cows. There would always be a clean bale of straw put down in a corner for us to sleep on. If we were not able to stay the night in a farm house we found a hay shed and climbed in, burying ourselves in the hay with only our heads out. This was not as warm as the cow byre and the nights were getting very cold. The Alps to the north were coated with snow. Often we would have to leave a warm bed in the early morning and stand out in a hard frost until there was enough light to move. No one would risk having us about in daylight but seldom were we turned down for the night.
On one occasion it was necessary to shelter in an old shed for several days. During the first night we became aware that the place was infested with rats. It wasn’t pleasant to awaken and find a big rat exploring one’s body. Most of the night there were squeaking and scuffling sounds in one corner. When daylight came the cause of the disturbance became evident. The rats had discovered that a bag left in the corner contained our precious supply of bread. They had managed to get in one corner and had devoured a large part of a loaf. The following night our provisions were suspended from the ceiling and we hoped the rats wouldn’t nibble at our faces. Instead we came to appreciate the value of maize to these people. Many evenings we spent helping to rub the golden corn from the cob, using a rough kind of tool. The corn was ground into a meal which was used for various purposes. When boiled with water it produced a thick porridge-like substance. This polenta, as it was called, was cut out in big chunks and
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was eaten hot with meals. Any left over was toasted in front of the fire next morning and eaten for breakfast. The cobs were used for firing and the maize stalks used as bedding for the cows. This bedding mixed with cow dung finished up on the compost heap. Even the clasping ears from around the corn cobs had their use. They were found strung together on the walls of their primitive conveniences and used as toilet paper. In our trips across country we ourselves generally used handfuls of grass or leaves. On one occasion one of our trio had stopped to relieve himself. When he joined us again he complained of intense itching and pain between his buttocks. We asked him what he had used to wipe himself with. ‘Just a handful of leaves’ he replied. ‘We had better go back and see what sort of plants they came from’, I said. It was hard to stop from laughing after finding that our hapless mate had used a handful of stinging nettles. It wasn’t funny for him though, and took some time before the effect wore off.
The countryside was very flat. The earth met the sky in the horizon far away to the south and was only interrupted by trees and houses. One brilliant winter morning five fingers of white climbed slowly from the horizon up into the blue dome of the heavens. At first this phenomenon was hard to understand. Gradually the white fingers reached higher and higher into the sky and started to curve towards us. As they reached overhead, at the front of each column of white could be seen a pinpoint of brightness moving steadily at a great height. Then we realised that they were planes flying. The curvature of the earth gave the illusion that the vapour trails had risen perpendicularly from the horizon when the planes were flying at a height from their bases hundreds o£ miles to the south. It was a cheering sight. An Italian nearby called out excitedly ‘Americano, Americano, bomba.’ We hoped the bombers would find the right target.
Amongst some Italians we met there were rumours of people planning an escape route for British prisoners-of-war. Men were to be collected and taken to the coast and evacuated by submarine. Nothing definite ever emerged as far as we were concerned. Rumours were also prevalent of men who had set out on an escape route and at the end of the journey found themselves handed over to the Germans. An Italian lady who heard we were about came to us and said if we would meet her in the same place in a week’s time she would arrange a rescue operation. The appointment was not kept by us. she looked to be the money-making type.
Christmas was now getting near. Italian friends had asked us to be with them at Natale. We planned to travel across country and arrived at their village on Christmas Eve. The afternoon of Christmas Eve we saw three brought looking pseudo-Italians nearing the village. It was too early in the day to risk going into the streets. A sunny spot behind some bushes well away from the outskirts seemed a good place to wait for sundown. Here was witnessed an amusing incident. Three Italian youths dressed in their Sunday best were coming across the fields. They too were going to spend Christmas Eve in the village. Between us was a canal which we had crossed some distance away. The youths were taking a short cut and had come prepared with a slender pole. Two of the youths were slim but the third was a fat and jolly type. Arriving at the edge of the canal the youth with the pole put one end in the middle of the canal. Firmly grasping the other end he gave a short run and vaulted across the canal to land safely on the far bank. Throwing back the pole it was caught by one of his companions. The performance was repeated and there were two across. Now it was the turn of the fat youth. Grasping the pole he made a short run but losing confidence failed to make the leap and stayed on the edge of the canal. He subsided into a laughing heap accompanied by shouts of laughter from the other two. Urged on by his mates he controlled himself and prepared for another attempt. The result was the same. The lads were thoroughly enjoying themselves, especially the two who had already crossed. After much laughing and ragging the fat boy prepared to make a supreme effort. This time he really tried and he swung out across the canal until the pole was standing perpendicular. His momentum was not enough. After an agonising moment youth and pole splashed down in the centre of the canal. The two on the bank were delirious with laughter and even the fat boy laughed as he scrambled ashore. They immediately set to work to gather dry branches and soon they had a roaring bonfire going. The wet youth stripped off and they spent a considerable time drying his clothes. Finally they all departed still joking but somewhat more subdued. As soon as it was dark we headed for the village and arrived safely at the home of our friends. They welcomed us with pleasure but we could see they were not as relaxed as usual. After spending the night there we were up before light and spent the daylight hours in a nearby field. It was a miserable day and we were very cold. During the day the family brought out a special Christmas meal which we enjoyed in the dismal surroundings. It was a long wait
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for dark until we could approach our friends’ house again. After another night with them we prepared to leave before dawn. It was not fair to subject them to further danger after being so good to us. Now we set out in the general direction of Switzerland. It was either there or with the partisans in Jugo-Slavia.
One evening we arrived at the house of a man who had previously put us up for the night. When we knocked on his door he came out and informed us that in no circumstances would he let us stay there. An escaped Maori prisoner had been living with a family nearby. When the Germans raided the house the Maori escaped but the Italian farmer was shot. Naturally the neighbours were upset and scared. Standing out on the road we discussed the situation and were considering hiding ourselves in his hay barn for the night. Then a boy came out and said he would lead us to a place where we could spend the night. Further up the road we crossed into a field and finally came to a large pond. On the edge of this pond was a structure or mai mai of straw used as a blind for duck shooters. Entrance was gained by crawling through a tunnel of straw. On the pond side were openings for the guns of shooters. The boy said the owner of the mai mai might appear early in the morning but he assured us he would be friendly towards us. It was somewhat cramped but there was room to lie head to feet along the tunnel. The bed was soft and we were reasonably warm and were soon asleep. Sure enough we were awakened in the early morning by someone crawling into the shelter. It was problematical as to who received the biggest shock, the Italian shooter who discovered a body as he crawled inside or the man who was awakened by someone trying to crawl over the top of him. After the first nervous reaction the situation was explained and we all sat up and peered out on the pond. The duck shooter had several decoys floating out on the water. It turned out to be an unsuccessful morning as the ducks were not lured in and no shot was fired. The sportsman departed after giving us directions where to go and perhaps more important, which place to avoid.
There was a river crossing ahead. The main road and rail crossing were guarded. Somewhere down stream lived a farmer who owned a boat. He was no friend of the Germans and would be sure to help us. At daybreak he would row us across. In the chilly dawn we found him waiting. Before setting out he insisted we drink to the downfall of Germany. His special vino turned out to be a very potent white wine. This had an immediate effect on empty stomachs. The scenery seemed to get a bit blurry and we stepped carefully into the waiting boat. We were all in good spirits as we set out for the far shore. Half way across John and Sol staggered to their feet. Clutching each other to prevent falling overboard they persisted in singing in unison with the splash of the oars. To the strains of the Volga Boatman we reached the far bank. After walking some distance the effects of the vino wore off and we were very much aware we had not eaten that morning. In the distance was a farm house. Here we were rewarded with some bread and a large chunk of raw sausage. Next we looked for a quiet spot in which to cook our meal. In the distance was a line of trees marking the banks of the Tagliamento river. Here was a river much like many of our New Zealand rivers, with a wide shingly bed. Out in the middle were several islands of willows. Crossing to one of these we found a secluded area in the midst of the trees. This looked to be an ideal place to light a fire without being seen. Dead twigs were gathered together and a fire was about to be lit when the sound of shots was heard. Peering out from the willows we saw half-a-dozen men walking down the shingly bed towards us. They were all carrying guns and they walked at extended intervals. The men were all in civilian clothes but they looked menacing to three escaped prisoners-of-war. Hiding in the trees we waited for some time. When next we peered out the men had passed and were continuing their advance down the river bed. Once they were out of sight the fire was lit and soon slices of sausage were sizzling on the ends of sticks. Hardly had we finished our meal when a strange figure burst into the little clearing. The man was clad in an ornate green uniform and looked an important man. He informed us he was the local game warden. Seeing wisps of smoke rising above the tree tops he had come to investigate. His job was to protect hares and he thought we might be poachers. We soon found he was friendly towards us when he realised who we really were. ‘Did you see people shooting in the river bed?’ he asked. ‘Yes’, we replied. ‘Did you know who they were?’ ‘No, but they looked like civilians to us.’ ‘They were the local Fascist chief and the commanding officers from the German garrison down the river. They are on a hare drive and it is my job to warn people to keep clear. You are lucky they did not see you.’ We heartily agreed. At no time had we a wish to meet up with such distinguished company.
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As the days passed and we walked on, the countryside was becoming more open. There were less trees and habitations were further apart. Away to the north were some big military aerodromes. So far we had always informed people who we were and had almost always had a good reception. With the increasing tight grip the Germans were getting on the countryside some people were getting chary of helping us. One morning Sol, who did most of the talking for us, thought it might be a good idea to pose as Jugo-Slavs and see what kind of a reception we got. The first place we stopped at a woman gave us some food but asked us some searching questions. ‘Why had we left our own country? Why had we come to Italy?’ ‘We were short of food’, we said. ‘We are short of food here too’, she replied. As we walked on we had the feeling we had not made a very good impression. In future we would stick to the truth and be Novo Zealandisie prigionieri di guerra.
New Year’s Day had passed but there were no celebrations for us.
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CHAPTER 9: Recapture and Germany
January 4 1944
At midday one day we saw a lonely dwelling in this quiet countryside. Here a kind family invited us in and soon we were seated around the table partaking of a meal. Half way through a woman arrived at the door and was taken into an adjoining room. Here a heated argument seemed to be taking place. We could not understand the torrent of words but had the impression it concerned us. The voices died down and the door banged as the woman departed. Our meal was hardly finished when our hosts rushed in saying there was a German Staff car coming up the track towards the house. We were hurriedly shown out into the back yard where there was a huge heap of faggots stacked for drying. The Italians gathered the dead and dying twigs from the forests and bound them into big bundles which they stacked upright ready for their winter fires. Pulling a number of bundles aside they urged us to hide inside the heap. They then piled twigs on top of us. Shortly afterwards we heard a vehicle roaring up to the house. German voices were heard. After a few minutes of conversation the vehicle went roaring off again with its occupants. The Italians came and pulled the covering twigs away from us. ‘The Germans know you are in the area’, they said. ‘We told them we had not seen you and they have gone off to look for you. If they come back and find you here they will shoot us. You must go away. Hurry, hurry!’ We needed no second bidding. Away in the distance was higher ground and a lot of trees. Setting out at a jog we hoped we would reach shelter before we were spotted.
The countryside looked deserted. We were well on our way when far in the distance on our left a motor-bike and side-car appeared. The occupants must have spotted us about the same time for it changed direction and was seen coming towards us. Slowing down to a walk we continued on as there was nowhere to conceal ourselves in this open country. Across the plain to our right the staff car appeared. The two vehicles converged on us. The motor-bike and side-car was the first to approach us. Stopping about a chain away a man jumped out of the side-car brandishing a tommy-gun. He fired a burst over our heads. We stopped in our tracks. After all, one can’t argue with a tommy-gun pointing at one! The staff car then arrived and we were surrounded by Germans. Quickly searching us for possible weapons, they bundled us into the overloaded staff car and soon we were bumping across country. After five [four] months of freedom the Germans had captured us once more, this time by their air force. Our destination turned out to be a large air-force camp. Locked in a bare room in a barrack building we were brought a cup of coffee each. We were thoroughly searched and our pay-books, which we fortunately possessed, and letters and photos were taken away for perusal. An English-speaking officer came in and chatted with us. He knew we were escaped prisoners and were no use to them from a military information point of view. ‘How had we managed to survive so long?’ he asked. ‘The Italians fed us’, we replied. ‘They wouldn’t do that’, he said. ‘You must have stolen food.’ We knew better. That night we slept on hard boards, but at least it was clean and warm.
In the morning we were aroused to find a truck and escort waiting to take us away. Squatting in the back of a truck with an armed guard watching us we felt somewhat depressed as we realised we were once more prisoners and would be taken further away from home and our own troops in the south. What would our fate be? Would we survive another period as prisoners-of-war or had they some other fate in store for us? Our immediate destination proved to be the town of Udine. Here we were taken to a great old stone barrack building. Escorted down a dismal corridor in the depths of the building we were faced with a great door. With groaning and creaking this was opened and we were confronted with a dark dungeon. After being pushed inside, the great door clanked shut behind us. We were left in darkness. High up in the wall was a glimmer of light from a small barred opening. As our eyes became
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accustomed to the darkness we could see we were in a bare cell. There was nothing to do but lie on the floor and try to sleep.
Sometime during the night the great door clanked open. There was a commotion outside and someone was shoved into our midst. He was groaning and was obviously in great pain. His replies to our questions were unintelligible. He seemed to have great difficulty in talking. Eventually we went back to sleep. In the grey light of dawn, sufficient light filtered down from the high opening in the wall to reveal the form of a coloured man. He had been shot in the temple. The bullet had travelled down through his mouth and out through his jaw. He was saturated in blood which had congealed on his face and clothes. It was a wonder he was still alive as he had not received any medical treatment. With great difficulty he told us his story. He was an African Cape coloured and had escaped from a PoW camp. While wandering in the countryside he was seen by an enemy officer. The officer took out his pistol and shot him on the spot. He was left lying apparently dead. Later soldiers picked him up and as he was still alive he was brought and thrown into the cell with us. The man’s plight was so pitiful we decided to do something about it. Kicking, banging on the door and shouting brought a guard running down the corridor. He opened the door and asked what all the noise was about. We said there was a badly wounded soldier in the cell and according to the Geneva Convention he was entitled to medical attention. The guard went away and shortly after came back with several others. The badly wounded man was taken away. We could only speculate as to what his fate would be as we never saw him again. He was certainly a hospital case but would need a lot of attention to survive. After the guards had gone we had to make another assault on the cell door to get a guard to come back. There were no toilet facilities in the cell and we got him to take us away one by one to relieve ourselves.
Later on in the morning we were let out of the dungeon and marched down the corridor. A we neared a door in the stone wall we heard the chatter of a machine-gun. The door was opened and we stepped out into a large courtyard. At one end was a soldier lying behind a machine-gun. He was busy loading his magazine. We were marched up to the other end of the courtyard. Was this to be the end of us? Were we to be shot as enemy spies in civilian clothes? Our people back home would never know our fate. A sad thought! At the end of the courtyard there was another door. Much to our relief we were taken through it to the outside of the building. The machine-gunner must have been having a practice fire after all. It had been a tense moment all the same. We were handed picks and shovels and given a job of cleaning out a ditch. In the few days we were at Udine we were given a number of jobs including helping in the kitchen preparing vegetables for the cook. In the kitchen several South Africans were working. They too were recaptured prisoners and they had acquired a good knowledge of the Italian language. A number of Italian girls working in the kitchen had been joining with the South Africans in singing songs as they sat around the piles of vegetables. They were particularly good at harmonising and we worked to the accompaniment of the well-known songs of the African veld and the Friuli countryside. For a brief time it took our minds off our troubles.
The time had come to move again. A crowded train was waiting at the railway station. Many people were standing but to our surprise we were ushered into a private compartment. The seats were comfortable and the public were kept out. The drawbacks were the shuttered windows and the German soldiers with pistols in their holsters sitting watching us. The train started and we travelled for a considerable time. We had been moving through hilly country when suddenly we came to a stop. Passengers could be heard talking excitedly and running past our carriage up the side of the track. Evidently everyone was vacating the train and hurrying to get somewhere. Our guards sat stoically in their seats making no move to get out. We sat and wondered. Gradually the noise of people died down and we seemed to be on our own. Our guards then got up and ordered us out of the carriage. We then found the cause of all the excitement. The railway line had been bombed and the service disrupted. On the far side of the broken line another train was waiting. Our train had been overcrowded, so as soon as it stopped people had rushed up the track to the other train to get seats. There was some satisfaction for us to see the results of the bombing. Again a reserved compartment was waiting for us. Without further incident we arrived at Trieste. Disembarking at the station we
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were soon in the main street. The well-dressed crowds on the sidewalks watched curiously as the scruffy-looking prisoners were escorted up the centre of the road. The Germans were taking no chances of our escaping again. As I walked I was well aware of a guard with a pistol at my back. The walk ended at a barracks building. Here we found a number of New Zealanders as well as British, Australian and South African soldiers who had been picked up from various parts of Italy and transferred here prior to transporting to Germany. There were also hundreds of jabbering Italian soldiers. We got friendly with some of them and they told us their story.
They had been part of the army of occupation in Greece and Yugoslavia. When Italy capitulated they were asked by the Germans if they would continue to fight for them or did they want to go back home? Almost as one man the vote was to go back home. ‘Alright’, said the Germans. ‘As soon as we can we will arrange a train to take you back to Italy.’ After many delays they were eventually put on trains which took them to Trieste. As promised they had been brought back to Italy, but from Trieste they were sent through the Brenner pass to finish up as forced labour in Germany. There was not much we could see from this barrack building except in one direction. I was intrigued to see a peep of a racecourse with horses going around the track.
January 12 1944
Our stay in Trieste was short. The second day after our arrival we were herded into railway waggons for transportation to Austria. In the enclosed trucks was a little grille high up in one corner, the only place one could see anything outside. We lay on the floor and tried to keep warm in the mid-winter temperatures. Not much chance of that though. The train rocked and clattered its way up the pass. I took a turn at looking out of the little grille on the wall. Steep snow-clad mountain slopes and dark trees standing stark on the hillsides emphasised the winter scene. Houses with steep-pitched roofs and an alpine type of architecture told us we were in Austria. The train stopped at intervals and grey-clothed armed soldiers paraded along the railroad track, ever watchful of any attempt to escape. The train continued on through the night. Between bouts of fitful sleep we awakened to the jolting, swaying progress of the train or to long periods of stoppage on some siding. There were no sanitary arrangements on the train and men were reluctant to foul the floors on which they sat or laid. In the early hours of the morning the train pulled into a siding. Heeding the vociferous cries of the prisoners, the guards allowed men to get out and squat between the rails to relieve themselves. The train then continued through a wintry countryside. Leafless trees stood stark under the grey skies and the fields were lying under a blanket of snow. Great clumps of potatoes covered in straw and earth and topped off by snow were seen in corners of fields. It was a dismal scene, cold and cheerless. We were in no mood to appreciate any of the more scenic glimpses of countryside. Only once in the journey were we treated like civilised human beings. The train stopped at a station. The truck doors were unbarred and we all climbed out and filed past a Red Cross stall where women dished out hot soup. The only bright incident in a cheerless journey!
On the second day we arrived at our camp at Mooseberg. This was a big camp containing thousands of allied prisoners of war, many of them, like us, from Italy. Here we were given showers and then waited naked while our clothes were fumigated. My civilian coat and trousers were exchanged for a British army uniform. We were prodded with inoculation needles, identified as to name and rank and photographed like a criminal. When it was all over we were allowed into huts with double tiers of bunks. The crowded huts were at least warm. Sitting on my bunk that evening I listened to the chatter of the men with mixed feelings. Another period of PoW existence was beginning and we were further than ever away from home. However, it was good to talk to other prisoners and hear the latest news and be encouraged by the general optimism in the face of adversity. During the evening some talented singers sang old and new songs. The men joined in heartily with the choruses. One of the new songs was ‘You are my Sunshine’ sung by a Tommy soldier with a pleasing voice. It left us with a feeling of nostalgia.
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The rations here were better than in some of the Italian camps but not as good as in Italian working camps. There was little to do, just the dull routine of prison life, living from one sparse meal to another and trying to keep warm. After about three weeks word was received that some of us would be transferred to another camp.
February 5 1944
Outside it was bitterly cold with the ground covered in snow. We had some distance to walk and I viewed with trepidation the prospect of slogging through the snow with my thin and leaking army boots. I applied to the hut commander for a new pair. A pair of wooden clogs with leather uppers was issued to me. Putting on all our available clothes and carrying our meagre possessions we prepared for the march. The men assembled in the compound. We were surrounded by guards who herded us together with Alsatian dogs. I hate the sight of the brutes to this day. The march started. My new boots kept me high and dry in the snow. It was then I found that the snow was beginning to gather on my wooden soles, making walking more difficult. Gradually the snow built up until I was in danger of toppling over. There was nothing for it but to stop and knock off the accumulated snow. Walking was then much easier until the snow built up again. The same performance had to be gone through again. At the finish of the march there was another miserable train journey.
On the second day we arrived at Muhlberg in Germany. Here was sighted another big prison camp. Instead of going into the main compound we were housed in huts in an outside compound. The huts were cold and dirty and we lay dejectedly on the floor. For five days we lived a particularly miserable existence, cold, hungry and seemingly hopeless. Evidently we were waiting for men to be shifted from the main camp before we could be admitted. During the fifth day we were brought into a large room where we stripped and had a shower while our clothes were fumigated. Once more we lined up and were jabbed by hypodermic needles as we filed past the doctors. Clean again we were admitted to huts in the main compound and life was a little more bearable. This huge camp contained men of many nationalities. In an adjourning compound were Russian prisoners-of-war. As Russia did not subscribe to the Geneva Convention, her prisoners-of-war were treated far worse than British prisoners. Their living conditions and food were very poor and they were roughly treated. They were tough men though. They had to be to survive. Our aluminium dixies were prized by the Russians and when they could acquire them they would cut them up and using home-made tools, fashion them into various articles and trinkets. They would then hawk them through the huts and sell them for food or cigarettes. One afternoon all the camp electricity failed and the evening roll call in the huts was done by torch light. The guards weren’t willing to go into the Russian hut in the dark so ordered all the men outside. The Russians refused to come out so the Germans put an Alsatian dog in to chase them out. After waiting and shouting threats at the men in the hut, the skin of the dog was thrown back to the German guards. The hungry Russians were going to enjoy an extra meat ration! The count was abandoned that night. Occasionally we would get much-prized Red Cross parcels. Generally we would have to share one between two or three persons. They were a great help to our morale and our physical wellbeing. The Germans generally punctured every tin so food had to be consumed quickly and not saved up for such an eventually as an escape. The miserable winter slowly gave way to spring.
After about a month in this camp names of a working party to shift to another locality were called out. My mates and I were showered and fumigated and placed in a new hut for the night. Next morning we left Muhlberg and eventually arrived at the town of Halle. Here we were marched into the large sports stadium and found that we would be living in the pavilion changing rooms. The sleeping accommodation was cramped but toilet facilities were good. My first working job in Germany was to help construct bomb shelters. Our task was to be brick-
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layers labourers working with a group of over seventy-year-old bricklayers. These elderly men were working as part of the German war effort and they were all experienced men at their job.
In the morning we marched out of the stadium accompanied by the usual armed guards. We had to traverse a number of streets and it was a change to see civilians going about their daily business. The route across town led up past a large brewery with a big sign across the front. It read Freybergs Brewery. Morning and night we passed the brewery and many were the comments, such as ‘Which side were we fighting on’. Two of New Zealand’s best-known soldiers had German names. We marched up a small side street and stopped at a huge pile of bricks. They spilled out from an opening in the wall and had been there for a little while. The local youngsters had been using the pile as a play house. They had been having a great time building castles, walls and towers. Our first job was to get the bricks onto the section where the bricklayers were to work. The underground shelters had already been excavated and the sides and roof were ready for bricking up. To shift the bricks we formed a chain from the pile of bricks on the street to the shelters in the section. One man picked up the bricks and threw to the next man and so down the chain. It seemed easy at first but soon got monotonous. After a while it was getting tiring and our soft finger-tips were getting sore. Catching the rough bricks wore the skin on the finger-tips and soon they were oozing blood. It was a painful job before all the bricks were on site. During the following days our job was to mix the mortar and keep the bricks up to the elderly bricklayers and do any other labouring jobs on the site as required. It wasn’t hard to go slow on this Job. The old men worked steadily and said little and we had no trouble.
Easter came and there were four days holiday. The old men probably needed it. For us it was a time to wash clothes, clean up and generally relax. A football was given us and we played Rugby in the stadium with its Nazi flags fluttering in the breeze all around.
One morning as we marched to work in the early hours we noticed a few buildings with flags flying. It was a little unusual but not enough to warrant comment. It was a different story coming home in the afternoon. As we turned into the main street a blaze of red, white and black met our eyes. Every building along the street was plastered with flags waving from poles or draped across the front of buildings. It was a spectacular sight. Enquiries to the guards revealed the fact that it was Hitler’s birthday.
While here we experienced our first air raid in Germany and saw formations of bombers passing overhead. This was a cheering sight. The shelters were nearly completed apart from a large concreting job. The reinforcing was all in place. We were told we would be at work extra early next day and could not go back to the camp until the job was finished. The concrete pour had to be done in one operation. By late next afternoon the job was completed. Then to our pleasant surprise waiters appeared with trays of tall glasses brimming with pale ale from Freybergs brewery. The wizened up little foreman in a mellow moment confided that he was a communist at heart and he had no time for the Nazis. He thought that whoever won the war he would still be alright. Now our job in Halle was finished.
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CHAPTER 10: Sudetenland
May 2 1944
It was time to move again. The transport was the usual railway waggons suitable for horses or men. It was late spring and could have been a pleasant trip in better circumstances. At one time we passed through Dresden with its lovely villas and gardens and continued up the picturesque Elbe valley. Glimpses of river and wooded hills with the occasional castle on the heights were sighted. Unfortunately it was no tourist trip and vision was restricted to a few square inches.
The journey finished up at Brux in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This area had been taken over by Hitler at the beginning of the war and the Sudeten Germans had a bad name as far as we were concerned. Brux was the centre of a large coal-mining district. The whole of this large valley was honeycombed with mines from which large quantities of brown coal were extracted. In places worked-out mines had subsided and water had collected in the craters, forming small lakes. In the centre of the valley was the huge factory which processed the coal. It was dominated by the three tall brick chimneys which belched smoke and fumes day and night. The factory itself was a complex of buildings, streets and railway lines covering a large area and all enclosed in a high fence of mesh and barb wire. A large part of the plant produced petrol and associated products and we were to learn that even our ration of margarine was derived from coal. There was a maze of pipes of many sizes and they snaked in and out of buildings and formed a massive network around retorts and gasometers. There was forced labour of many nationalities working here. It was with a chill feeling that we first viewed this area in which we were to work. If there was ever a prime target for bombing this was it. Against all precepts of the Geneva Convention and against our protestations we were forced to work in the factory and live in a lager close by.
After a few days settling in to the new camp we were ordered out to work. We were not sure where we were to work or what work we would have to do. The first walk to work was interesting. The ornamental fronts of houses and buildings were different in architecture to others we had seen. This was typically Czecho-Slovak and many of the inhabitants were Czechs. However, there were a large number of Sudeten Germans. The work force in the district consisted of many different nationalities, including prisoners-of-war, forced labour from occupied countries and political prisoners. As we marched along our worst fears were realised. We were heading straight for those huge smoking chimneys and into this maze of factory buildings. It wasn’t the kind of place one would want to be caught in, in a bombing raid.
It was only the first morning after starting work when the alarm sirens sounded. With the whole of Europe virtually under German domination there was a system of three alarms. A preliminary alarm meant that enemy planes were crossing the frontiers. Little notice was taken of this in our district except to alert people to the possibility that planes might continue in our direction. The second alarm meant that planes were flying directly towards our general area and were closing in. The final alarm was when the sirens wailed the overhead. On this occasion the first alarm was followed soon after by the second alarm. The Germans and those in authority started heading for the bomb shelters. These were double brick underground shelters. Our overseers disappeared and the guards were themselves heading towards the shelters or the gates of the huge compound. Many of us ran to the nearest shelters but were
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angrily turned away by the Germans. The only other course was to head for the gates. The menacing drone of the large number of bombers was steadily increasing in volume. Ack-ack guns were opening up around the valley. We joined the crowds clamouring at the gates to be let out. The sirens signalling the overhead warning gave added urgency to appeals of the crowd. The German guards in the sentry-boxes were themselves unhappy and were hesitating as to whether they should unlock the gates or not. The first sticks of bombs fell in the centre of the factory. The shattering blasts were followed by a rising pall of smoke and steam. The sentries hesitated no longer. The gates were thrown open and a deluge of people flowed out into the surrounding fields. Workers of many nationalities, guards and prisoners-of-war struggled to get through the gates to the comparative safety of the fields beyond. I had just emerged into the open when a sound I had first heard in Greece made me flatten on the ground and breathe a silent prayer. Like a train rushing through the air, a stick of bombs was descending from above. There was now a continuous crash of bombs in the factory and all around. Then there was a terrific concussion and soil and debris started to rain down on me. I placed my hands over my head. Something solid hit the back of my hand. I could feel the warm blood trickling, but was glad it was my hand and not my head. I arose dazedly and looked with a sense of shock at a number of tremendous craters only a few yards away. Spurred on by this near escape I continued running. More bombs were falling but I was further away by now. Crowds of people all around were fleeing from the inferno behind. I glanced back at the factory area. It was almost obscured in smoke and flames. A refinery on fire made a good bonfire! Bits of shrapnel were falling from the skies as the ack-ack guns continued to bark away. The crescendo of sound from the waves of bombers was already beginning to fade in the distance. Among the fleeing crowds were many armed soldiers and any prisoners-of-war diverting from the direct route back to camp were quickly put back on course by the threat from a loaded rifle.
It was with a sense of relief that we walked back through the gates of the prison compound. That so many of us had escaped seemed miraculous. The huge number of casualties were mostly among those who had elected to stay in the flimsy shelter of the factory. They were useless against direct hits which were many.
As the sound of the planes died away the ack-ack guns became quiet and an oppressive silence descended on the valley. This was broken by the occasional dull explosion from the direction of the factory. Then the all-clear siren sounded. Viewing the pall of smoke over the factory we thought that this would be the end of the work for us in this hated place. It was not to be. After a short spell we were assembled on the parade ground and a thorough check was made of all the men in camp. The Germans were in an angry mood and it was no time to employ our usual non-cooperative tactics. We marched out on the road and headed for the smoking shambles that was the factory.
As we drew near we noted that the three great chimneys were still intact. Through the gates we went and found the streets choked with twisted metal and debris. Great craters were all around. The huge gasometers were collapsed and tons of water had spilled around. Pipes were broken and twisted, buildings flattened or partly demolished. Underground water pipes were blown up and railway lines twisted and broken. Firemen were attempting to control fires in many areas. Many hundreds of people were dead or dying, most of them blown up in the shelters. Many of the shelters had filled up with water from the gasometers and fractured underground water pipes. The work of getting these corpses out continued for days.
Our first task was to clear a right of way through the streets. There seemed to be no suitable machinery available and it was a case of man power to the fore. We heaved and tugged at steel beams and pipes and pulled the debris clear from the middle of the roads. Then it was to work with picks and shovels to fill in bomb craters so that wheel vehicles could traverse the roads. For about the only time in our prisoner-of-war existence we worked without a question, with heads down and no argument. The Germans were mad and trigger happy. With so many of their own dead about, the death of an argumentative prisoner would be of no consequence to them. However, we did succeed in burying quite a lot of useful equipment in those bomb craters.
Sunday came but no day off was allowed. It was nearly three weeks before we were to get a day off work. While working in one place we could see black and stiffened corpses being thrown unceremoniously into trucks. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The Germans worked with feverish energy to get some of the huge plant into working order again. Welders and other
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workmen were working day and night. Gradually some order was established as the wreckage was cleared away, buildings repaired and the maze of pipes replaced or repaired.
One morning a gang of us had to present ourselves at the labour exchange. We had got the sack! Our previous employer was fed up with the Englanders as he called us and was going to take on labour that he hoped would be more co-operative. Our names and numbers were filed and we were left sitting in a large room. Officials were coming and going with the accompaniment of heel clicking and Heil Hitlers. Eventually we were told to report to the firm of Shreck immediately. The guard or postern as they were called took us to a part of the factory where a gang was working under a German overseer. He was a big man named Normann and he certainly believed in the superiority of the German race. One of the jobs he put us to was repairing bombed railway lines. We had to pull the twisted or broken rails aside, pack up the sleepers with gravel and put new rails in place. Special tongs were used for lifting the heavy rails. The number of men put to lift and carry the rails was about two too few per rail. It was heavy work on meagre rations. Breakfast consisted of a mug of hot ersatz coffee. We then worked till lunch when the firm supplied us with a bowl of soup. When we arrived back at the lager at night we got a ration of boiled potatoes and a wedge of heavy dark German bread. On the rare occasions that Red Cross parcels were issued, some of the contents were used to supplement the evening meal and the bread was kept to eat with the coffee at breakfast.
It was a long time since I had heard from home. My last letters came at some period while in Torviscosa. After my wanderings in Italy and subsequent imprisonment in Germany, it was a great joy to receive a pile of nineteen letters forwarded from Switzerland. I read letter after letter picked up at random. In one letter from a friend he said he was sorry to hear about my father. After opening a further letter I came on one informing me of the death of my father. It was a sad moment. Most of my mates had also received letters. During the evening we read out items of news to each other. Some of the news was nearly a year old. It was a happy evening in many ways but tinged with sadness.
One of our jobs was to salvage metalwork damaged in the bombing. We were given a large hammer and cold chisel each. The metal beams were placed on a wooden stand and the rivets had to be chopped off and the plates freed from the beams. It took much hard banging to cut the steel rivets. After some hours at this work I felt my wrist getting very sore and starting to swell. By mid-afternoon it was very painful and gave out a creaking sound when I moved my hand up and down. I persevered at the job. If I had a sore wrist I might as well have a bad one and try for some days off. Next morning I joined the sick parade. I explained to the doctor what work I had been made to do and how sore my wrist was. He gave a perfunctory glance at the wrist, said it was a little swollen but I must go back to work. I then moved my hand up and down slowly. There was a very satisfactory creaking noise. The doctor was duly impressed and gave me that day off. Only a small percentage of men were allowed off sick per day. While the others went out to work the sick could lie in their bunks and get some well-earned rest. The only hazard was if one moved around the compound or went to the latrines. There were always guards waiting to pounce on the sick to do duties about the camp. As long as one could walk one was liable to get a camp job.
About this time we received news of the invasion of the French coast by the British and Americans. The Germans wouldn’t say much about it but everyone seemed excited and our morale went up by leaps and bounds. Events didn’t make much difference to our work, although the better things looked for our side, the more we slacked and the more the Germans shouted and threatened. Our next job was to clean out a cement store. We were up in arms about this one and complained to the camp authorities without avail. The store had housed a huge stack of cement. Bags that had been dropped or broken lay in piles spilling their contents about. Our job was to carry these broken bags out by hand and load the mess onto trucks
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outside. After lifting and carrying a few broken bags our uniforms were covered in cement. The dust stirred up in the shed made breathing difficult. Someone suggested that the inhaled cement dust would harden in our lungs. That idea didn’t make us any happier. It was a filthy job which when finished left us looking like a pack of tramps. Our uniforms were never the same again even when the worst of the cement was knocked out.
It was a short hot summer. In the confines of the factory compound we were often thirsty. We were paid a few marks a day by a special prisoner-of-war currency in the form of paper vouchers. This was not universal currency but it could be used to buy a few items in the factory canteen. The only drink we could get was a form of beer in bottles. It was a dark non-intoxicating drink with a not unpleasant flavour. It was said to be derived from a by-product of coal. Occasionally we received a small ration of margarine. This was also a coal by-product. It had little taste and spread easily even in cold weather. It looked like pale axle grease and probably wasn’t much different. At least it improved the palatability of our solid sawdust encrusted bread.
Since the first big bombing raid, Czech workmen and labour from some of the occupied countries had been busy welding and repairing the refining plant. The big chimneys had commenced to smoke again. The allied planes must have observed the increased activity and decided to bomb the factory again. When the sirens sounded, the gates were opened in plenty of time to let everyone out in the surrounding countryside. Massive shelters or bunkers made of reinforced concrete were being constructed but they were not ready yet. There was a cordon of guards around the area. As soon as the all clear sounded everyone was herded back to the factory. Some of the bombs had fallen in the village on the outskirts of the factory area. As we passed there were some weeping women viewing the remains of their homes which had been blown up and were burning. The factory had received enough damage to keep it out of commission for another month.
Soon after the latest bombing we had a Sunday off work. A communion service was held in a nearby building. Soon after the service started the first warning sirens were heard. The padre said that he was in the habit of ignoring the first air-raid warning and carrying on with the service, but if anyone wished to leave they were at liberty to go. On a second alarm he advised men to go to shelter but if any wanted to remain he would stay with them. On this occasion the all clear went before there was a second siren and no one had left the building.
About another month went by before there was a third raid on the factory. The Americans were doing the daylight bombing and they came over at a great height. They did a great deal of damage but their bombs were often scattered over a fairly wide area. It was a case of getting as far away from the factory as possible in the short time available. As the war progressed the warnings grew shorter and shorter. In September the factory was bombed three times. The first time I got as far as a village on a nearby hillside and watched the bombing from there. The residents were most unfriendly towards us so there was no thought of escaping. The next raid I got as far as some bush on the hill slopes and in the third raid was standing in water under a culvert. In such a position one felt safe from the bombs except for a direct hit. While the ack-ack blazed away and the ground trembled from high explosive that nagging thought of a direct hit kept recurring. Many of the air-raid alarms were for bombing raids on targets within close flying distance. Chemnitz was a city over the hills from which we often saw flares and glows in the sky from bombing raids. There were many night alarms and we had to get up and run to a near-by coal mine for shelter. As raids and alarms became more frequent some of our men would lie fully clothed on their bunks at night ready for a quick getaway. Most of us took off our boots and outer clothes and made sure they were within ready reach in the darkness. Stumbling down the sloping mine shaft and into the underground tunnels in the dark was always a hazard. Once I came into violent contact with a projecting
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ledge and cut open my eyebrow. I saw stars underground that night. Sometimes we dozed in the cool depths of the mine, propped up along the sides or stretched out on the hard floor. Then there was always the weary walk back to the compound before the morning check parade.
The short autumn gave way to the long winter. On November 11 there was snow to the foot of the hills. A week later it was lying thick in the camp grounds. From then on it never rained. If there was any precipitation it was in the form of snow. Gradually the ground froze until it was solid for several feet down. It grew very cold. Any breeze was a cutting wind. It wasn’t safe to handle metal with bare hands. Red Cross gloves were a boon. Failing these, rags were wrapped around our hands. Ear muffs of some sort were popular. We had neither the strength or desire to work hard to keep warm. We shuffled about in the snow and did as little work as we could get away with. The work-day was one long misery. It was dark when we got up in the morning and dark when we got back to camp at night.
In one bombing raid large water pipes were fractured underground. A mechanical excavator was brought in to dig up the pipeline. Because of the deep frozen ground it made little progress. Truckloads of brown coal were brought in and heaped along the pipeline. This was set fire to and burned all day and the following night. In the morning was a line of hot ashes and the ground had thawed out sufficiently for the excavator to do its job.
The middle of December saw the factory area bombed for the seventh time. My gang was working at the far end of the factory this time. Running out the nearest gate there seemed little shelter in the flat area beyond. Then we noticed a ventilator shaft. This was a covered vertical shaft protruding from the surface. It provided air to the mine shafts below. From the surface a ladder descended to a round platform below. On the opposite side of the platform another ladder led to a similar platform. A succession of platforms and ladders eventually reached the mine floor. From here we walked a short distance, lay down in the darkness and listened to the bomb explosions on the surface. As always, we hoped the bombers would make a good job of wrecking the factory. The all-clear sounded and we made to return to the surface. As we pulled ourselves up one ladder after another we realised how weak we were getting. It was a real effort to get up the last few ladders to the surface.
A few days later the factory was bombed again. We ran for a nearby mine called Julius Third. Half-way down the sloping shaft a descending waggon nearly skittled us. Fortunately our guards were as keen to seek shelter in air raids as we were. Next day a delayed action bomb went off at Koppitz and gave those working nearby something to think about. The continuous work, poor food and numerous air-raid alarms were beginning to tell on our health and strength. It was now Christmas Eve. With the promise of a day off on the morrow and an issue of Red Cross parcels we decided to celebrate. A concert was arranged amongst the men and carols were sung lustily. We sensed that the war was gradually coming our way. Could we survive till the finish?
Christmas Day dawned with grey skies and was bitterly cold. A fog prevented much visibility. This fog was frozen to the extent that when one stood outside one’s outer garments were soon covered in a rime of frozen droplets. There was no work for the day and we were hoping for something extra in the way of food to celebrate Christmas. About eleven o’clock the air-raid sirens sounded. Not being allowed out of the compound we waited until the overhead alarm commenced to wail. Then we crouched in trenches on the perimeter of the hut area. Ack-ack opened up as the bombs began to fall. It was a big raid and bombing was widespread around the area. Some of the bombs fell in our compound and the ground shook with the force of the explosions. When the drone of the planes disappeared in the distance and the all-clear sounded I made my way back in the direction of my hut. As we walked along we noticed power and telephone wires down and some of the huts shattered by blast. Approaching our hut we saw it was partly demolished and on fire. Running inside we attempted to salvage some of our meagre possessions before the fire consumed the hut. There wasn’t time to carry things to the door. We opened the windows and heaved everything we could salvage out into the snow. As the fire quickly spread through the interior of the hut we scrambled out the door. The fire had attracted a small crowd, few of whom we knew. Rushing around to the far side of the hut it was a further shock to find most of the stuff we had thrown out had been carted
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away. We were left out in the cold with what we stood up in. Some of the foreign workers had got a few extras at our expense. This was Christmas Day! To make matters worse eight of our men had been killed in the raid. All lights and water were off. The only meal we got was some boiled potatoes from the cookhouse. We salvaged pieces of bed from the wreckage and made up some bunks in the mess house. There was a good roof over our heads but the end of the mess house had been blown out. Before dark we filled a bucket of water from a hole chopped in the ice of a pond in the compound. It had been a sad Christmas for our men apart from the satisfaction of knowing that the factory had been hit again. In the morning we didn’t get a wash from that bucket of water. It was a solid block of ice.
Boxing Day was still foggy and the temperature freezing. We stayed in camp until an alarm sent us scurrying to the Julius 5 mine shaft. On return the mess hall was getting more organised. The open end had been blocked up and the temperature had risen somewhat. That night I managed to sleep warm again. The huts had stoves in them and a small ration of coal was given us. This we supplemented by wood brought in by the working parties. After the first bombing there was always plenty of shattered wood about. This was broken up and carried into camp in small bundles. A lot of time was spent on working parties dodging the guard and breaking up wood, whether good planks or derelict timber. It mattered little to us as long as it would burn. One had to be careful though as the penalty for looting or sabotage was to be shot. Depending on the mood of the guards the firewood was carried into camp openly or under our jackets. Sometimes a search was made as the working parties came through the gates of the lager. All firewood was then deposited in a pile at the guard post. These searches probably occurred when the guards were wanting some extra firing themselves.
After two days off we were back at work again. It was extremely cold and the overseer allowed us to light fires on the job. We took turns at warming ourselves around the fires. The usual daylight alarm was of only short duration and we did not leave the factory.
Two nights before New Year it snowed again and on Sunday we only worked half a day. There weren’t many people working in the factory and we got an extra issue of soup before going back to barracks. The alarm sounded in the evening so we got dressed but luckily the all-clear sounded soon after. It was blowing a gale and snowing outside. We kept awake till midnight and the New Year. Everyone hoped for a better year than the last one.
January 1 1945
On New Year’s Day we were given the day off. There were deep drifts of snow about, very unpleasant to be outside, let alone work. There were two kinds of alarm now, a fighter alarm and a bomber alarm. The fighter alarm was not regarded as serious as the other. There was one fighter alarm but otherwise New Year’s Day was a quiet day.
The last week had been fairly quiet and somewhat less cold. Again we were given a day off. I took the opportunity to heat up a bucket of water and washed myself from head to foot and also washed out a few clothes. It was good to feel clean again.
Another quiet week saw the lights in the camp restored and water flowing in one washhouse for short periods. There were many accidents at work and I received my share. This time I suffered a badly bruised rib and chest injuries. The treatment was one day off work. It
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was a working Sunday and my day off was supposed to heal the injuries. I was much cheered to receive two letters from home. These were written in October and they broke a long period without news. That night there were two alarms. The fog was so thick that we stayed in the camp trenches and listened to the bombing over the hills. On the second alarm we again dressed but stayed indoors.
Next day I was sent out to work as usual. The pain in my chest was so severe when I handled a shovel that the postern took pity on me and took me to an office where I waited in the warm. Later I was taken with two other sick men back to the lager. A mid-day fighter alarm saw me remain in bed.
The following morning there was an alarm before midday and feeling somewhat better I ran to Julius 5 mine for shelter. About 9.30 p.m. there was another alarm. We waited for the second siren before we left the lager. It was a clear night. Fighter planes were overhead. The ack-ack opened up and the fighter planes were diving down on the gun flashes. Flares were being dropped and it was soon as bright as day. In the distance could be heard the menacing drone of many bombers circling around waiting to come in for the kill. Different coloured flares were dropped over individual targets and soon the whole valley was lit up like a jeweller’s shop. The daylight raids had been done at a great height by the Americans. This night raid, we later learnt, was a RAF affair and was a precision job. It was the first big night raid on the factory and the tenth to date. We strained every effort to get to the mine before the bombs started to fall. With a feeling of relief we raced down the slippery path into the depths of the mine. It was just in time. As we lay panting in the darkness the earth trembled with the massive shock of sticks of high explosive. When the raid was over we started back for the lager but did not get far. Numerous delayed action bombs were going off at intervals. Back to the mine we went and lay down there for the rest of the night. About 7.30 a.m. we got up and walked back to the lager. All the front end huts were burnt to the ground or blasted by bombs. Windows and part of the wall of my sleeping quarters had been blown out. Six hundred planes that night had once more wrecked the factory which had been painstakingly repaired and built up after each raid.
The firm for which our party worked spent much of its time on railway maintenance work and repairing bomb damage. At one time we were engaged in unloading railway trucks of shingle. This was a night shift. We marched out to the factory grounds in the early evening darkness, stumbling over the potholes as we went and with armed guards in close attendance. A rake of waggons was waiting at a siding. Two men were allotted to each railway waggon. The shingle had to be shovelled out onto the siding. When all the waggons were unloaded they were taken away and another train of waggons was shunted into the siding. In the night each man unloaded the equivalent of one waggon. It was hard work for men in our condition. To make matters worse the shingle must have come out of a wet pit. By the time it reached us it was often frozen into a solid mass. It had to be picked loose before it could be shovelled out. When the first waggon was unloaded we lay resting in the bottom of the waggon until all the waggons had been unloaded. About midnight the empties would be shunted away and a rake of full waggons would take their place. The short spell at midnight would result in us gradually freezing so we were glad to get to work again. We knew that the sooner we finished the sooner we would get back to the comparative warmth of the camp. If the job wasn’t finished by the time the guards were ready to take us back to camp we would stay on under the day shift. It was a system that compelled us to work. Often at night there were air-raid alarms. In these cases we would carry on working until the schnell alarm went and the planes were getting overhead. We then filed into the newly built shelters. There were not so many people working in the factory at night so there was room for us in the civilian shelters. At other times we had to take our chances in the open or run for the nearest mine shaft. In the shelters it was a welcome respite from work but we still had to make up for lost time. At daybreak we would struggle back to the lager and fall into our bunks and try to go to sleep. Day after day about eleven o’clock in the morning the air-raid sirens would sound the alarm. It was a case of
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hastily dressing and running to the mine shaft. Once inside we would doze until the all-clear sounded. Back to camp and into our bunks again. Some days there would be an afternoon alarm as well. By the time we returned after the all-clear it was hardly worth while getting back to bed again. It was then time to get ready to go out onto the night shift again. We did six weeks on this shift before going back onto day work.
The physical condition of many of the men was deteriorating fast and the strain of the air raids was beginning to tell. I myself was suffering from chest pains from a previous accident but was sent out to work. There was no work in the main factory on account of delayed-action bombs. The whole place was a shambles. Our gang was working on the railway on the Brux end of the factory. In the morning five fighter planes flew over and the ack-ack opened up. These were followed by bombers. We sheltered in the Koppitz mine and then returned to camp. Two days later I was off work again with a painful chest. Heavy work gave my chest little chance to heal. We noticed that groups of men were being taken away from our camp about this period. The rumour was that they were going to a camp nearer Dresden. The wreckage of the factory meant that there wasn’t so much work available. A week later there was another evening alarm. The leaving area siren sounded as I was getting near the Julius mine. As it was so bitterly cold on the surface I continued down the shaft. On Sunday I was given a day off work because of a boil of massive proportions on my arm.
On the first day of February the weather became much warmer. The snow was thawing and the roads were very wet. The roof of our hut commenced leaking and the water was dripping on my bunk. Ten days later the whole of the factory workers were given the weekend off work, the first for a long time. During several alarms lately we have been allowed into the new factory bunkers as the work force is much depleted. Everywhere it is very muddy as the thaw continues.
There was a further fall of snow followed by a thaw and it was even more slushy outside. On the brighter side the electric lights were restored in the camp after many weeks spending our evenings in darkness. The only lights we had were what we could manufacture ourselves. Pieces of rag covered in grease were burnt in tins. One good find was a quantity of carbide in a bombed-out store. With empty tins, water and a little ingenuity some passable imitations of carbide lights were made. The lights were evil smelling and mostly showed only flickering glimmers in the darkness. The pleasure of electric light was short lived for there was no power the following night. We were only a short time in bed when the sirens blared their warning. We dressed and headed for the hills. Dresden was heavily bombed that night. It could have been us. After returning to camp and being in bed for a short while there was another alarm. Running through the village we headed for the hills again. Many planes passed directly overhead. About 3.15 a.m. we arrived back in camp feeling dead tired. Two days later another alarm sent us scurrying from the factory. This time we set out for the Kolumbus mine and as we ran saw thirty-six bombers make the eleventh raid on the factory. There were big volumes of black smoke arising but those three huge chimneys were still intact.
Returning to the factory in the afternoon there was no work and we were escorted back to camp. At night there was another alarm. Fires were still burning in the factory and casting an eerie glow on shattered buildings. We headed for Julius 5 mine. It was exceptionally muddy going down the mine shaft. When coming back up we formed a chain up the side of the pit and so missed most of the mud. There was only a short time in bed when a further alarm sent us away again up the village. I stayed in one of the old disused shelters hoping that there wouldn’t be a direct hit. There were many planes over and much ack-ack. When the raid was finished, neighbouring Johnsdorf was in flames and the glow of fires was seen in many directions. It was now raining and I walked back to the lager feeling exhausted from exertion and lack of sleep.
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Four days went by without alarms. On the fifth there was an evening alarm. We headed for Julius mine but the all-clear sounded soon after. Another alarm at 4 a.m. caused us to dress again. We stayed at the top of the pit as only a single plane passed over. Next day there were two alarms and we went into a factory bunker. Alarms and raids were now part of our life day and night.
I received word that I had to report to the camp office one evening. To my relief and great surprise I was handed a parcel from home. Very little mail or parcels had been coming through to the camps lately. This one posted on 14 August had taken over six months to reach me. The soap, toilet gear and chocolate which it contained was especially valuable now.
After a week of spring-like weather it turned very cold again with a strong wind blowing and frequent snow squalls. There was a fairly early morning alarm in the factory. I couldn’t get into an air-raid bunker and had to proceed towards Herkules mine. Planes came over and ack-ack opened up. Footing was bad in the slushy snow. As I was hurrying along I slipped and ricked my ankle. Back in camp again we found the electricity was on again after another long period without lights. During the many alarms all lights were extinguished in any case. By this time the factory complex was ringed with smoke pots. When the alarm sounded these pots were lighted and the dense black smoke they sent up shrouded the valley and hid targets from overhead planes.
The camp doctor gave me a day off because of my swollen ankle. It was a bitter day out with driving snow. There was an early morning alarm and the lager was evacuated. I had to hobble in the snow to Julius 5 mine and did riot get back to camp until midday. It wasn’t much of a day off. Next day was a free Sunday. The weather continued to be very rough. There was a church service in the camp. At the end of the day I was feeling much better from the short spell from work. Next evening brought another alarm.
We only managed to get outside the hut when a plane dropped its load of bombs. The explosions seemed very close. They dropped over the fence in the neighbouring lager where seven French and fourteen Dutch prisoners-of-war were killed. Bombs also dropped in Brux township. In the course of the raid we ran all the way to Julius 5 mine and arrived there in a sweat in spite of the cold. It was midnight when we got back to camp.
A fore alarm sounded in the evening as I was commencing a shave. We stayed in the lager. The all-clear was followed by another alarm. This time we ran out for shelter but the all-clear went almost immediately. Back in the lager I had my third attempt at shaving and got it finished this time.
The days have continued very cold lately with some snow falling. Our bread ration was now three hundred grammes a day. On Wednesdays we were getting a soup issue in the factory. This was now cut out. The hours of work were increased. We commenced at 6.30 a.m. and worked till 6 p.m. Many of us were getting weak and life was very grim. In the evening the schnell alarm was late sounding. It meant that we had to run fast for shelter.
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Sitting in a disused shelter up the village on a cold and snowy night was no fun. The Germans were not worrying about the Geneva Convention and continued to work us in a target area.
A quiet week was followed by a fine mild day. In the early afternoon the alarm sounded and we went down the shaft of the Herkules mine. It was a long time before we were able to come up and we got back on the job about twenty past five. The alarms and air raids were certainly cutting down work in German factories. At night another alarm sent us as far as the first mine. The night alarms were a dead loss as far as we were concerned, but we risked our lives if we did not go to the shelters. So much of our camp had already been destroyed. In one raid twelve of our men were killed. The Germans gave them a military funeral and they were buried outside the camp. Next night in an air raid some of the newly buried coffins were blown up.
In the morning alarm a huge number of planes were circling overhead. We were not the target this time as no bombs were dropped. We sheltered in a factory bunker and then were taken back to the lager. Now we were getting weekends off work. The hall in which we had our bunks was getting very crowded as refugees from other camps were brought in. These included Cypriots and Frenchmen. The days were getting warmer which made work a little less unbearable.
During this day there were four separate alarms. I ran out through the village and lay down by the railway embankment. There were large numbers of planes passing overhead and there was the sound of heavy bombing over the mountains. The allied planes seem to have little opposition at this period and were ranging the country in increasing numbers. That evening a number of us were shifted to a barrack room in the Czech lager. With me were five other New Zealanders. Our previous camp was almost destroyed by bombs and fire by now.
A bomber alarm at 3.30 a.m. resulted in a single plane coming overhead. As the ack-ack opened up we sat in the trench shelters in the lager. In the morning while out at work a fighter alarm was followed by a bomber alarm. The afternoon brought a fighter alarm and fighter planes swooped low over the valley while bombers flew overhead. That evening a convey of Red Cross lorries arrived carrying American food parcels. This was a great boost to our morale. We eagerly questioned the Red Cross personnel on the war situation. Our armies were making progress on all fronts and as we knew allied planes were ranging far and wide over enemy territory.
A beautiful sunny day seemed to herald in the spring. There was a long bomber alarm which lasted through the morning till after lunch. Not being allowed down Herkules mine we continued out into the surrounding fields. There were several fighter alarms. We heard numerous planes and distant bombing. Fighter planes appeared overhead. That evening we received one American food parcel between four men. The little stove in the hut was the centre of attraction that evening as men took turns cooking up little dishes from the parcels. The sight of our bomber and fighter planes overhead during a sunny day plus a little extra food at night certainly put fresh heart in us. Next day was also fine and we spent more time out in the fields during alarms. More fighters appeared overhead and the ack-ack opened up several times on recce planes. The allied air force was getting quite cheeky now.
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interfered very little with us. Some of the guards had been front-line soldiers and were no longer fit for active service but many of them were obvious misfits. These latter were often the worst guards trying to show their authority by abuse and bullying tactics. Their ultimate authority was the rifle they carried. They escorted us to and from work and watched over us wherever we went. They were also there to see that the civilian overseers’ orders were carried out. Most of them realised the war was going against them and were inclined to be lenient towards us. A few, like our new postern, were out to show their authority and their dislike for us while they had the chance. The first day out to work he lined us up and questioned us on our names and former occupations. There were clerks, shopkeepers, farmers and labourers amongst us but he did not always get the right answer. When he questioned me I said I was a boxer. He wanted to knew what a boxer was. Shaping up as my old boxing master Fritz Holland had taught me, I gave a demonstration of shadow boxing. After watching my display of straight lefts and right crosses he next asked me if I was a master boxer. Presuming that he meant a champion, I nodded my head vigorously and said ‘Ya, ya’. This undeserved reputation stood me in good stead. My demonstration must have impressed the postern for he left me severely alone afterwards. On a number of occasions he took members of our gang behind a shed and bashed them with his rifle. One day he threatened our little red-headed Scotchman. Scotty was more renowned for his guts that his gumption. He raised his shovel and threatened to hit the postern. What he didn’t see was a guard with another gang a short distance away. As Scottie raised his shovel the guard raised his rifle and sighted on Scottie. We shouted to Scottie to put down his shovel. He looked around and saw the guard with his rifle raised. Somewhat sheepishly Scottie dropped his shovel. If he had attempted to hit the guard he would have been a dead man. The cowardly postern took the opportunity to hit Scottie over the shins with his rifle butt. This was the man we were reporting for his misconduct to prisoners-of-war.
Working in the factory were gangs of men who were mostly political prisoners. We called then E gangs as they each had a large letter E painted on the back of their clothes. These men were subjected to all kinds of brutality. They were half starved and were given hard and dirty jobs. They were frequently knocked about and driven to work beyond their strength. They were literally being worried to death. As they shuffled along to work some men would be holding up mates who could hardly walk. Sometimes a new face would appear in the gang. He might be wearing city shoes and dressed in a good suit of clothes. In a few days he would appear gaunt and bedraggled. Although they often worked in the same area as us, we were never allowed near them. One day we heard a guard shouting at the men. A man seemed to be arguing with the guard. Next moment the guard raised his rifle. A shot rang out and the man dropped. Soon after there was an air-raid alarm. The guard hustled the E gang away to a shelter. We had to run towards the gates. On the way we passed the man who had been shot. He lay there a ghost of a man like a tattered scarecrow. His limbs were still twitching but he was near to death. There was nothing we could do for him. A few nights later there was an air raid which destroyed the E gang’s barracks. The men inside were killed. We felt it was a merciful release for them.
On the last day of April we took a trolley up the railway to collect our tools. Then we went back to the fabric, as we called the factory and worked for half a day.
About this period were several incidents which left their impression on us. One day a man was off work and was left alone in the barrack room as his mates went to work. During the day he methodically went through all the gear of his fellow prisoners. Besides purloining various items he ate all the bits of food his mates had saved for their evening meal. His excuse was that he was starving and couldn’t resist the temptation. His mates were so incensed that they took him and dumped him bodily in the latrines. When he crawled out he was a filthy stinking mess. He went to the showers and slowly got rid of the excreta covering him. His room mates wouldn’t let him back into the barracks with them. They carted his bunk and clothes into the shower room where he had to stay. It was a terrible punishment but we had little sympathy for him.
A large number of our regular guards had gone away and their replacements seemed to be a poor type. Some of them took pot shots at men strolling in the compound. There seemed no particular reason for this except that they were jittery and trigger happy. One of the British
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CHAPTER 11 : Flight To Freedom
There was a sudden scare on the part of the Germans. They gave orders to evacuate the lager and started to blow up ammunition and barrack buildings. The Russians were at Johnsdorf and they started shelling the area. I hastily packed a few possessions in a valise and Jim and I set out to walk to Komotau. The roads were absolutely packed with PoWs of many nationalities and foreign workers as well as German soldiers and civilians all heading west and fleeing from the Russians. The roads were filled with lorries, tanks, guns, cars, carts, waggons, push carts, bikes and prams as well as many thousands on foot. The roadsides were littered with castaway gear of all descriptions. As vehicles ran out of fuel people loaded what they could carry on their backs. When the loads grew too heavy more gear was discarded. We carried what provisions we had in camp and ate sparingly on the side of the road when we felt like it. Jim was not very fit. We found a Red Cross station in a small town and Jim had sores on his leg dressed. The day grew very warm as we plodded on. On the way we arrived at a place where a crowd of people were ransacking an army store. Joining in we pushed into the store. We found it was such a mad fight inside that we feared we would be knocked down and trampled underfoot.
Grabbing a hundred cigarettes, three bottles of wine and a KLIM tin full of split peas we backed out. In late afternoon we reached Komotau and the refugees were still streaming in. Here we heard that the Yanks were still a long way ahead so we kept going. Through the town we stopped near a bombed railway yard. Here we lit a fire and cooked a meal of potatoes and peas thickened with soup powders. Later we continued on and looked around for somewhere to sleep for the night. Many people were sleeping in fields and farm buildings alongside the road. Motor traffic was still continuing on into the night. Making away from the main road we approached a house near a brick factory. We spoke to a man about staying the night. He took us into the factory but the floors were very dirty. We convinced him we were really Englanders, as he called the British. He then took us into his house, gave us some blankets and let us lie on the floor of a room almost empty of furniture. He also gave us some bread and coffee. As we lay down to sleep the German came in to say that the Russians were passing through. He asked us to get up and go to a bunker as protection against shooting. About midnight we went back to the house. Later we found that the war was not officially over till midnight. The German was still so afraid of the Nazis that he didn’t want us sleeping in his house till after midnight.
In the morning we slept in until late. After having some coffee we prepared to go but we were told the Russians were fighting the S.S. in the hills. There were certainly a lot of rifle shots. We were keen to get going so ventured out. The shots were being fired by civilians, mostly forced labour who had seized weapons and were amusing themselves. The Russians had passed thought and were now ahead of us. Many of the German refugees, in farm waggons and on foot, were now returning the way they had fled. Both German civilians and soldiers now wore white arm bands. White flags of surrender were flying from every house. We continued on our way. In a village we arrived just in time to witness the looting of a grocery shop. We improved our stores to the extent of a tin of honey, a tin of jam and some soup powders. The day grew very hot and Jim was far from fit. We arrived at a lager which had housed air-force trainees. It had been evacuated hurriedly. There was food, clothes, bedding and equipment lying about. I had a job getting Jim up the drive and he collapsed inside. I managed to get him in bed in an officer’s room where they had formerly lived in luxury. In the lager cookhouse I cooked a meal. As we had no bread I went down to the nearby village in the evening. There was no trouble getting bread as the German civilians were very frightened of the Russians who had passed through and wanted to side with us. Some women were in tears and wanted to know why the Americans had let the Russians take over. Several people wanted me to stay the
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night in their homes. I explained I had a sick companion down the road. One householder was very persistent and sent his wife and daughter back with me to fetch Jim. We thought he would be better in a private home. Back at the lager we roused Jim and supported by the two women we got him down to the village house. We had coffee and cakes for supper and went to bed upstairs. It was luxury lying between sheets with a big bolster over us.
After along sleep we were late getting up in the morning. The family were keen for us to stay. This home had not put up a surrender flag on the night that the Russian tanks had passed through so the Russians had put a burst of machine-gun fire through the windows. The German family were terrified but promptly hung up a white sheet outside. They thought that as long as they had British soldiers staying with them they would be safe. We had our own ideas. After the good rest and some good meals Jim was feeling much better and we were keen to reach the American forces as soon as possible. Before midday we were on the road again. It was gloriously fine as we went through the town at the end of the valley and started a long uphill climb. Here there was a bull-dog tractor pulling two trailers. On it were French ex-PoWs. They had been working on a farm and had commandeered the tractor and trailers and said they were making for France. We jumped on the trailer and continued on over the hills in the direction of Karlsbad. About 6 p.m. the tractor pulled in at a small town for the night. We called in at a house and asked the people to make us some coffee and had a snack. Jim and I walked up the hill to a village. Here we tried to find a bed but the place was full of refugees. Finally we climbed into a loft and slept well in a bed of hay.
Next morning we cooked some breakfast outdoors then set out on foot again. At a bridge we passed a dead soldier. It looked as though he had crashed into the bridge on a motor-bike. We didn’t linger as we had no wish to be involved with the Russian army. A nearby railway station had suffered a severe bombing. On a siding stood a number of carriages. Someone told us that an engine was coming to take the train to Karlsbad. Deciding that this was better than walking, we entered a carriage and found it full of Frenchmen. There was a long seat down each side of the carriage. Seating ourselves between the Frenchmen we prepared to wait. Using a mixture of German, French and English we did our best to converse with our new-found allies. Jim took out one of our bottles of wine and offered his neighbour a drink. Taking a swig from the bottle the Frenchman passed it on. It went round the carriage and was returned empty. By now we were the best of friends. After waiting for some time we decided it was most unlikely that an engine would turn up. We had been PoWs long enough to know that rumours seldom matched up to reality. Wishing the Frenchmen Bon voyage we clambered down onto the tracks and walked over to the road. The delay had given us a rest but we were glad to be on the road again.
As we approached Karlsbad we noticed that there were mostly Red flags flying. That morning we met up with the Yanks at a control point. All civilians were being turned back and told to go back to where they had come from. German soldiers were stripped of all weapons and medals and were shut in a barbed-wire pen. After identifying ourselves we had a fairly long wait until some trucks arrived. We jumped aboard and the Yanks drove us out beyond Karlsbad to a large outdoor camping ground on the side of a hill. There was a huge crowd of British, French, Italian and Dutch ex-PoWs there. We got some straw to bed down on for the night and then went for a swim in a pond. It was beautiful weather and we slept well in the open air. To feed us the Americans first lined us up in big queues then as each man marched past the ration truck he was thrown a box of the American K rations. The whole crowd were quickly fed. Some of the Frenchmen had arrived here with a cartload of gear pulled by a horse. As the horse was no longer required the men had killed it and were busy cutting it up for meat. There were a few French and Italian girls who had been forced to labour in Germany and these girls were returning home with their menfolk.
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The following afternoon a fleet of trucks arrived driven by a cheerful crowd of American ‘coon’ soldiers. All British and American ex-PoW troops piled aboard and we were soon on our way to Nuremberg. It was a very hot and dusty trip. At one place German troops had abandoned their trucks and other gear and surrendered to the Americans. Near Eager we saw where a battle had taken place and there were vast numbers of trucks, tanks and guns lying about. Near a burnt-out aerodrome were German prisoners behind barbed wire. It was a grand sight for us to see our positions reversed. Towards evening we turned onto an autobahn, a wonderful highway with four traffic lanes. The coons were doing sixty-five miles per hour with their trucks and really enjoying it. By this time we were feeling the effects of san and wind burn on our faces. At dusk we entered Nuremberg. The bombed ruins of buildings had spilled out into the streets. Bulldozers had driven down the middle of the streets and cleared a passage for traffic. The drivers were looking for the aerodrome. After travelling through the ruins of the city and out into the country several times we finally pulled into an ex-PoW camp about midnight. Here we lay down on bare boards under tents and had a few hours of sleep.
In the morning we were able to have a wash and shave. The unaccustomed food and the concentrated American K rations seemed to have upset the stomach and I wasn’t feeling at all well. My eyes were very painful. The dust and heat of fast travel in open trucks had scorched our eyelids and eyeballs. Crowds of men were lining up at an M.I. tent. for eye washes. My eyes were watering copiously and I could hardly see. About midday we were taken in trucks to the aerodrome. In the afternoon numbers of twin-engined Douglas planes arrived. The plane on which I was to fly was No. 13. and it had engine trouble so I was transferred to another. The planes had names painted on them. My plane, Colorado Honey, took off at 6.20 p.m. accompanied by two others. It was an excellent flight and we arrived at the airport twenty miles from Brussels at 8.30 p.m. Red Cross girls welcomed us on landing and provided us with tea and sandwiches. After being used to black German break the sandwiches looked almost too white and clean to eat. As I spoke to an Australian Red Cross officer I informed her it was three and a half years since I had conversed with an English-speaking girl. She didn’t seem particularly impressed. After all I was only one of thousands. English Tommies then conveyed us in trucks through the neat and clean Belgian villages to Brussels. All along the route people waved to us. Arriving in the city we were billeted in a hotel. Then there was the almost forgotten luxury of a hot bath and about midnight to bed between white sheets.
The following day men were taken to a depot and relieved of their dirty old uniforms and soiled underclothes and fitted out with new clothes. The Red Cross gave gifts of toilet gear. Meals at the hotel were excellent and we received some money from a bank. Things were certainly looking up. I couldn’t help thinking of some of those less fortunate than ourselves. Those of our mates who never made it and some who survived as physical wrecks. There was an Aussie on our plane to Belgium. He lay on a stretcher on the floor of the plane looking terribly ill. After the plane had been in the air some time he was violently sick. His vomit was full of blood. An ambulance awaited him at the airport. Would he see the sunny skies of Australia again? After having got so far we hoped he would make it.
We went by train into the centre of the city. Goods were fairly expensive in the shops but the people were very friendly. That afternoon trucks took us to a nearby aerodrome. A crowd of us boarded RAF planes and flew towards the coast. There was a large area on the coast that had been flooded and roof tops and church spires showed up above the water. Soon we had crossed the Channel and were flying along the English coast. There, unmistakably, were the white cliffs of Dover. Our landing was at Tangmere Air Force Station. Here two WAAF girls escorted me in, insisting on carrying my two small valises. Airforce officers and WAAFs entertained us to tea in a hanger. The tables were loaded with fancy cakes and food we had not seen for a long time but all I could manage was a cup of tea and some dry biscuits. The stomach hadn’t settled down yet. The Tommies and South Africans were taken to
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another destination but we six New Zealanders stayed at Tangmere for the night. Some New Zealand Air Force officers treated us wonderfully but we were glad to get to bed in a comfortable barrack room.
After an excellent breakfast we were taken to the railway station where a train was waiting with a reserved compartment for us. No more horse waggons or cattle trucks. At London’s Victoria Station we took a train to Margate. From Westgate we went to Cliftonville where we stayed at Northcote Hotel. In the following days we went through pay, interrogation, dental and medical exams and received a new kit from the Q.M. stores. With good meals and plenty of relaxation the following few days saw most of us improving physically and mentally. It would be a long time before many of us would be really fit again though.
Our next move was to Broadstairs where our convalescence continued. Short trips were undertaken to Ramsgate, Margate and Canterbury. Plenty of rest, plenty of sleep and plenty of food was the order for the period ahead. Then the time came for more extended leave. Arriving in London once more I came out of Victoria Station onto the busy street. I tried to hail a taxi without avail. Realising that a lone New Zealand private hadn’t much chance to attract the attention of a taxi driver when the street was full of Yanks and officers, I set out on foot for the Fernleaf club. After seeing many of the sights of London I travelled north, visited friends and did a lot of sightseeing. After travelling across Scotland and down into Wales, it was time to return to our base in Kent. Although still thin and with little energy I was beginning to enjoy life. Just as I was planning another trip, news came through that a boat was waiting to take us home. After all, this was what we had been waiting for for years. A mate of mine had managed to get an earlier passage home. He had been married before he left for the war. During his PoW days he had looked forward to her letters. When he arrived in England there was a letter waiting for him. Eagerly opening it he was distressed to find that she had been consoling herself with another man and had written to say she no longer wanted her ex-PoW husband. He had gone home in a hurry to see what he could retrieve from the ruins of his marriage.
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CHAPTER 12: Homeward Bound
A special troop train carried us to Liverpool and in the following dawn we were checked aboard the Mauretania. The great ship moved out into the stream and gathered speed as she moved down to Mersey mouth. We passed several sunken ships and also three sets of sea forts standing on stilts in the water. For the next nine days we ploughed through the waters of the Atlantic and then arrived at Colon where we spent two days. The trip through the canal was enjoyable although it rained hard and continuously for the latter part of the journey.
After leaving the American coast we were told there was a Jap submarine alert on and we would be making for Hawaii instead of direct for New Zealand. About ten days later the troops were lining the decks at attention as the ship pulled into Pearl Harbor with its many naval craft. It was an impressive sight. The slopes around the harbour led up to rugged mountain peaks. Sunken warships in the harbour were a grim reminder of the day the Japanese planes made their surprise attack. The whole place was a hive of activity with small boats shuttling back and forth across the harbour and trucks and cars moving around the hillsides. Planes flew overhead from the fighter and bomber bases nearby. Leave into Honolulu was granted. Soldiers walked about with leis strung around their necks. The town looked fairly old but it was full of modern motor-cars. There seemed to be few white women about and the shop attendants were girls of an Asian type. The streets were full of Yank forces. On the return journey the lingering and delightful smell of pineapple from Libbys Canning Factory remained with us for some time.
Many of the men arrived back on the ship decidedly under the weather. Two Aussies jumped into a launch and started up the motor and put it in reverse. The launch broke the mooring ropes and chugged out into the harbour with the two drunken men trying to find the controls. The boat headed straight for a naval ship. When only yards away the men managed to turn off the engine. The boat bumped into the ship and sailors came down and rescued the Aussies and the runaway boat. Meanwhile two more Aussies dived into the harbour fully clothed and started swimming around until pulled out of the water somewhat sobered down.
The following day there was no leave but a number of men managed to get ashore by various means. As the ship steamed out of harbour, patrols were bringing back men from Honolulu and they were being hauled up the ship’s side by ropes. The Mauretania continued on its way south and after crossing the equator the weather began to get cooler. One morning several Ventura planes were observed cruising around. The skies were dull and cloudy and a strong wind was blowing. As the ship sailed into Cook Strait we were greeted with rough seas and heavy rain. The ship tied up in Wellington harbour. The Aussies aboard were granted leave and all but the southern troops were sent on their homeward way. Eventually we were given leave ourselves. In pouring rain a girl in a Red Cross car took us up town. The car broke down and we finished up by walking.
Next morning we said Good-bye to the Mauretania. It had been our home for a month and had carried us swiftly to Panama, Hawaii and New Zealand. We said our good-bye to the Aussies who were continuing their journey to Australia. They had been our companions in Greece and the dark days in PoW camps. Boarding the Wahine we set sail for Lyttelton. Most of the time was spent in our cabins trying to make up for the lost sleep of the night before. It was dark when we entered Lyttelton harbour. As we pulled in to the shore a crowd of people rushed up the wharf to greet us. A band was playing. As we stood waiting to step ashore a surge of emotion seemed to well up in my chest. We had come home at last!