George Alan Boanas was a Sapper in the 4th Field Squadron Royal Engineers (“The Desert Rats”). His memoirs start on 8th April 1941 as he was retreating from El Agheila to Fort Mechili where he attempted to avoid capture by the Germans by driving around their desert positions. The Germans eventually captured him and made him work as slave labour either working at Tripoli docks unloading supplies from ships or hiding fuel supply drums in the desert (some of these they were able to sabotage).
Boanas eventually ended up at Servigliano PoW camp. He escaped after the Italian Armistice in September 1943 but gave himself up after 3 days on the run without any food.
He ended up at Paulschacht Arbeits Kommander HE88 where he escaped again once the German guards abandoned their positions due to the Russian advance from the east. He met some American soldiers whilst on the run and was passed back through the lines, repatriated and sent back home to the United Kingdom.
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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The memoirs of Four Years as a Prisoner of War, April 1941 – April 1945.
1907665 Sapper George Alan Boanas
4th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers
“The Desert Rats”
[Black and white photograph of George Alan Boanas from 1945]
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1907665 Driver George Alan BOANAS
Deemed to have been enlisted into the Royal Engineers Embodied
Territorial Army as a Driver 15.01.40
Posted to No 2 Motor Transport Depot 15.01.40
Posted to No 1 Training Battalion 29.04.40
Posted to 4th Field Squadron 28.11.40
Reported missing (Cyrenaica) Confirmed as Prisoner of War 08.04.41
Location now Camp No 59 No date
Transferred to Camp 118 28.05.41
Transferred from Italy to Stalag IV D Germany POW No 262934 No date
Repatriated arrived United Kingdom 20.04.45
Posted to 94 Reception Camp 20.04.45
Posted to 45 Divisional Troops Unit 14.06.45
Posted to 1 Motor Transport Training Depot 05.07.45
Posted to 178 Tunnelling Company 01.08.45
Posted to 283 Field Company 28.08.45
Released to the Royal Army Reserve 01.06.46
Discharged from Reserve Liability 30th June 1959.
Auth: Navy, Army and Air Forces Reserve Act 1959.
Service with the Colours: 15.01.40 – 31.05.46
Middle East 02.10.40- 07.04.41
Italy Prisoner of War 08.04.41 – 19.04.45
Military Conduct: Exemplary
War Medal 1939/45
Hard working and reliable, a good driver, above average intelligence, a very useful man.
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APRIL 8th, 1941.
After the shambles of the retreat from El Agheila to Fort Mechili, where we arrived at dusk on April 7th, to be greeted with the news (by the troops already in occupation there) that Jerry was already ‘dug in’ to the East of the Fort, in between us and our escape goal of Tobruk or Cairo.
I seemed to spend the night trying to find the rest of the 4th Field Squadron amongst the milling throng in that small compound.
At dawn on the 8th April, Jerry opened up with his artillery, the shells falling short at first, but coming closer and closer, until it was ‘every man for himself’ to get what transport you could lay his hands on and belt off on to the desert.
Because of the escarpment situated North of Mechili and Jerry already positioned on the East side, there was really only the one way – ‘Go West, Young Man’ and hopefully to veer South round the German troops, providing the difficult salt marsh Desert terrain could be negotiated.
I gathered my kit and stored it in the back of a 3 or 5 ton wagon, just behind the drivers cab and set off out of Mechili along with hundreds more.
It was akin to the great early settlers races at Oklahoma, USA where the pioneers raced across the prairie to stake their claim to a certain piece of land.
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At first the exodus was mainly one of concern to keep moving and to avoid other fleeing vehicles and bodies.
As one who has been on the Western Desert will appreciate, the surface can be decidedly hostile to motor vehicles, with fairly large holes, craters, boulders and, worst of all, the hard layer or crust only 2 or 3 inches thick covering the salt marsh, where the vehicles became bogged down.
During the mad scramble in fleeing from the bombardment, many of the vehicles sustained damage and some were put out of action, whereupon the personnel on the useless vehicle would take to the Desert, thumbing a lift or simply leaping aboard a moving vehicle.
So it came about that the truck that I was driving had 4 men in the cab, two standing on the metal steps or running board and one at each side of the bonnet, laid on the mudguards.
Whilst these men were boarding the vehicle, bits and pieces were flying off as we hit boulders and bumped in and out of the potholes in the desert.
After some four hours chase across the Desert always trying to steer South East to circumnavigate the German troops – they too were aware of our intentions and so would progress South Eastwards in this cat and mouse game.
The passengers on this military vehicle complained that I was not travelling fast enough, and that I should get my foot down if we were to avoid the German column.
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I said that the vehicle was overloaded and that as the men could not get off, it had to be the cargo on the back of the lorry that must be ditched overboard in order to lighten the load. But I was not going to stop the truck for this operation, they must cut the canvas sheeting cover of the truck and clamber inside and so dispose of the dead weight overboard whilst the vehicle was in motion.
This they did, very quickly and efficiently, although I must state that the two first items to be thrown out of the wagon were my kit bag and my valise which held all my treasured possessions. But this was not the time or place to protest.
Sometime around 1 o’clock in the afternoon when I thought we were winning the game, the vehicle became bogged down in the sand on a gently sloping stretch of Desert.
I said ‘OK let’s get the sand channels in operation in order to get this vehicle going again’, at this point there was a mad scramble, everyone shouting and disappearing over the sand dunes, I looked towards the left and saw the reason for the sudden departure! Two Czechoslovakian Armoured Cars were stationed on the ridge top some 200 yards distant, suddenly there was peace and quiet – I guess it was the uncertainty as to what the next move was to be, that brought the hush.
I went to the cab of the truck to get my rifle, with the intention of putting a round into the petrol tank rather than the vehicle fall into enemy hands.
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As I stood there putting a round ‘up the spout’ I could hear the noise and squeak of the gun turret being traversed on the Armoured Cars and could see their guns being trained in our direction. I must say I was not prepared for what followed, there was a loud bang and I felt a blast of air on my face. The Armoured Car had fired a shot at the wagon, hitting the packages that had been left in the truck.
At this I high tailed it up and over the sand dune to join the other chaps.
We did not have to wait too long before the Armoured vehicles came up behind us and a German Officer ordered that we surrender or he would give instructions to fire. We all, 8 or 9 of us surrendered, at which point we were herded together and marched a short distance (200 yards) to join other of our comrades who had suffered the same fate as ourselves.
After a short time we were ordered to march back to the vehicles that had to be freed from the sand dunes.
We were told to get into the trucks with a German armed guard to each driver and were driven back to a spot some one mile from Mechili, where a temporary barbed wire compound was erected on the Desert to hold the 1500 men that were captured at Mechili.
After 7 days on the run, night and day, with hardly any sleep, I, Like a lot more was very tired and lay down on the sand and fell asleep. I was awakened after 10 hours sleep by a lot of noise. On opening my eyes I saw 3 British Generals sat next to me with an R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant Major] in attendance, and the Germans issuing water rations
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As there was no food and very little water, we were all transported the next day, 9th April, to Derna to be housed in some burned out store houses and were guarded by some Italian troops.
We were kept here for about 7 days, living on half burnt tins of Italian ‘Bully Beef’ – then we were transported by trucks to Tripoli – entering the town through a horde of violent, stone throwing Arabs and Italians.
Even some of the German guards on the vehicles were struck by the objects thrown at us from the crowds.
However, we finally arrived at a deserted Naval barracks on the shores of the Mediterranean on the outskirts of Tripoli.
We had been at this place for some 6 or 7 weeks when a vehicle arrived at the camp gates containing 20/24 more British Prisoners of War. There was, of course, the necessary roll call as the men lined up just outside the prison camp gates.
I was with Dave Brown and many more chaps, looking at the arrivals.
We heard the German interpreter call out the names one by one as each man answered. Then we heard the name Eric Huggate from 4th H.Q. [Head Quarters] We looked over the Englishmen but could not see Eric.
When they finally came into the camp compound Dave and I went round each fellow asking where was Eric.
After a short time, a thin dejected, dishevelled chap said ‘Here, that’s me’. Poor Eric was in such a poor
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state neither Dave or I recognised him. All this transformation had occurred in 10/12 weeks since we had seen him last in our lines.
We were sent out to work on the docks unloading ships etc., but after an unfortunate fracas Dave and I had with the German guards, poor Dave got very badly sunburned which turned septic and the German Medical Officer could not deal with it.
Dave and Eric plus some more sick and injured were shipped over to Italy where they were promised better treatment for their various afflictions. That was the last time I saw them.
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There were about 150 of us POW from various regiments, I cannot recall any RAF [Royal Air Force] or Navy personnel. We were taken out in motor vehicles to either the Tripoli docks or a large Military depot some 10 miles from Tripoli (SW) which was in the desert.
The Tripoli harbour is a very beautiful and picturesque part of the town, with its large white buildings and houses to the south side with a wide roadway lined with palm trees. On the north side of the promenade was what appeared to be a marble balustrade which protected one from falling into the harbour. The harbour itself was enormous, to give some idea, whilst we were there many were the times we saw Italian seaplanes land on the water or take off and this was whilst shipping, merchant and naval were also using the harbour. At the entrance to the harbour was the hull of a half sunk hospital ship, then the blue Mediterranean beyond.
We POW’s were roused by the German guards anytime between 4 and 5 am with a mug of ersatz coffee before we left camp which was no later than 5.30am in order to start work at 6.00am under the eyes of the German guards.
The work at the harbour was unloading the ships that brought supplies for the German desert forces. The cargo was mainly drums of petrol or the small jerricans also full of petrol. Other items were all manner of shells or boxes of small arms ammunition, boxes or crates of other equipment such as tank tracks, mobile gun parts, motor engines and parts etc. Very rarely did we have to unload foodstuff. However, when we were ‘lucky’ enough to be present when any food was unloaded the craft and ingenuity as well as the hunger of the POW’s found various ways to extract items (tins or bottles) and secrete these items somewhere on the dock area to be collected at a later time. Some of these items that we ‘stole’ were tins of sardines from Norway, Champagne from France, German sausage and Dutch cigars.
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Of course, from time to time some of us were caught in the act, when this occurred the German guards went into action.
The POW’s were shouted at, in German of course, but we soon learnt that this meant we were all to get ‘Fell in’ and in a long line in order that we could be searched and it was woe betide any POW who had any unauthorised item on his person.
On these occasions, the forming of this line of POW’s was accompanied by very harsh treatment by the Germans, helped by boots, rifle butts, chains, straps, metal rods etc. In fact anything that came to hand, plus a declaration by the German Officer that every 10th man in the line would be shot. Consequently the first nine POW’s in the line up were in place in double quick time, then the remainder just stood by or wandered about being exhorted to Fall in by the German guards with the use of the aforementioned articles. The similar treatment was meted out to the POW’s who were sent to ‘GARIAN’ which was the Garrison fort in the desert 10 miles SW of Tripoli.
After a number of explosions, fires and other accidents at the harbour, the German Command said that the POW’s were to blame for these happenings and were not allowed to go near the harbour or the docks.
Instead we were taken to an area in the desert south of Tripoli. Here we had to dig shallow pits in the sand which were to receive the large drums of petrol (4 ½ gallons I think) which were then covered with sand leaving the whole area like the rest of the desert which was a very uneven surface.
Regarding this work, I remember that we became very adept at puncturing these drums of petrol with the corner of the spade thus we hoped that when the time came to use this petrol most of the stuff would have leaked into the desert. In order to carry out this practice, the metal cap or bung in the drum of two or three of the first batch unloaded from the lorries had to be loosened. These lorries were brought to the Tripoli docks driven by the German forces.
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This operation proved very difficult to carry out as the stoppers were screwed in very tight and the German guards were always around watching.
This operation had to be carried out first in order to make sure that some petrol was spilled round about to cover up the smell from the leaks we made in the drums
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This record of Alan Boanas as a Prisoner of War is written from memory by his wife in an effort to complete the story which Alan himself began.
I cannot complete the story of the days in North Africa but eventually the prisoners were put on board ship bound for Sicily. They slept and stayed on deck as the ship was hardly seaworthy and had a large hole in the side just above the waterline and there was always the risk of it being torpedoed by a British submarine. On arrival they had access to mountain streams, the water was freezing cold but most stripped off to clean themselves after months of sand and more sand and no water other than for drinking. The journey through Italy was by cattle truck and occasionally allowed out for exercise. It was on one of these stops that Alan had his life saved by a German guard who gave Alan a violent push in the back which sent him tumbling to the ground and seconds later a train came along on the same stretch of line.
Journeys end was a camp at Servigliano near Porto San Gorgio.
Food was scarce and Alan admitted that he took an orange from a basketful being carried by an Italian lady. However, there was also humour.
Each man had to provide himself with a mug for drinks – sometimes it was just an empty tin but no mug – no drinks so a container of some kind became very important. Books were very scarce so when one arrived one man became the reader and each evening before lights out everyone gathered round for the next instalment and the last ‘cuppa’. On settling down for the night Alan found someone’s mug in his bunk and shouted out “There’s a mug in my bed” – he never forgot the roar of laughter that went up!
Whilst a prisoner in North Africa Alan became friendly with Jim Shuttleworth (a real cockney) who was serving in the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps]. Jim looked after as many prisoners as possible with meagre medical supplies.
Sun burn and desert sores were common. Jim travelled to Italy but being a non combatant was offered repatriation. Alan said it was a dark day when Jim left – one of his worst as a prisoner. Jim didn’t want to leave but he had a young wife at home and really had no choice.
However, on reaching England Jim visited Alan’s parents in Hull and was to reassure them that Alan was reasonably well. It was also in Italy that the Prisoners were visited by a representative from the Vatican and after 18 months of being posted as ‘Missing in Action’ Alan’s family at last knew he was alive and could start sending parcels.
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As the Allies invaded Italy and began to push North the prisoners were once more put into cattle trucks and moved on.
Eventually they arrived at Bolzano and some of them, including Alan, were moved to a small village called Garagazone. Here they were put to work in the orchards picking apples. Alan boasted of being apple eating champion – 68 in one day. They worked all day and came back to camp for the evening meal. One evening one or two complained about the rubbish they were expected to eat and the cook threw his apron down and said “If you can do any better——-“. Alan asked for two volunteers to join him and became the cook. Life was fairly good and the Italian guards quite friendly and would sometimes take small groups for walks around the village.
This, then, was life until the Italian Armistice in September, 1943. The Italian guards disappeared and prisoners made their escape. A day or so before this a large German lorry had been noticed on the main road – supposed to be broken down. It was full of German soldiers who promptly began rounding up the prisoners. German soldiers on motorcycles with sidecars were driving through the village warning residents not to harbour POW’s, some did and had hand grenades thrown through the windows of their houses.
By this time Alan and a few more had made their way to the river and were hidden in the undergrowth on the banks. They were without food and warm clothing and the nights were bitterly cold and they could not ask for help from the villagers. The bridge over the river was guarded at both ends and after three days and nights their only option was to surrender.
Once more they were on the move in cattle trucks – taken through the Brenner pass and eventually arrived at Moosberg, north of Munich.
This was a large holding camp but eventually 150 men including Alan were transported to a coal mining area at Heiligenstahl, 20 miles or so to the west of Halle. The camp was Paulschacht Arbeits Kommander HE88 in the Mansfeld area of Germany.
On the journey to the mine they stopped at a clearing in some woods and they all had to leave the trucks and walk to a camp (this was surrounded by barbed wire) and they were there for 10-12 days. On the second or third day they saw nearby many people dressed in striped clothing and wondered if this was one of the concentration camps they had heard about. Alan remembered over the entrance the name JACOBSTAHL or JACOBSTADT.
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Being so near Christmas Alan decided to do something for Fritz’s children. Empty tins were always saved and Alan made a model of the Spitfire and painted it. He had also saved a bar of chocolate and gave both to Fritz, the Spitfire for his son and the chocolate for his daughter. Fritz was quite overcome but explained he would have to hide them and give them to his children later. Children would talk and there were still plenty of people around who listened.
In April, the Russians were getting very near and the German guards were disappearing. Alan and a few others walked out of the camp and made for the village. Everywhere was deserted, people were moving away from the Russians. They broke open a garage and found a car with some petrol. They drove until the petrol ran out and then had to walk.
They met up with some American soldiers who were highly suspicious at first. Apparently a lot of German soldiers were throwing away their uniforms and donning civilian clothes.
Having assured the Americans they were genuine they were passed back along the lines. They had little clothing and were taken to a store which was full of fur coats – some finished and some still being put together. They were looked after very well by the Americans, more food than they could cope with. They were eventually flown out by Dakota’s and Alan’s fur coat was so long he couldn’t climb the steps and just dropped it on the ground.
He was flown to Didcot and said he never forgot his first sight of the white cliffs of Dover. The journey back took him from Nordhausen, Geissen, Paris, Le Havre and finally Didcot.
Here they were de briefed, equipped with new uniforms, rail pass, food ration cards and 6 weeks leave.
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Alan met up again with Jim Shuttleworth and we met him and his wife and took our children to meet them and we all became good friends.
Jim became Godfather to Margaret. He and his wife had no children. Sadly Jim died very young, around 1964/1965.
Many years later we visited Garagazone. Some people remembered the camp, the site was now the village school playground. The Church had been bombed and rebuilt in a different location. Alan was able to contact the son of the owner of the orchards. We walked to the Bridge over the river where Alan and others had hidden – a new bridge now and displayed on one of the girders we read ‘MADE IN MIDDLESBROUGH’.