Bernard Collier enlisted in the Territorial Army as a gunner/musician in November 1937. He was called up for war service in September 1939. In January 1940, aged 19, he was sent overseas and spends the next 15 months in the Middle East and North Africa, before being captured by the Germans near Derna, Libya. He was then transferred to the prison camp in Capua, Italy, and then on to the camp in Sulmona, Italy – where he spent the next 2 years. With the announcement of the Italian Armistice in September 1943, the POWs fled from Sulmona. Within a few days Collier was recaptured by the Germans and then moved out to Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia.
He arrived at Lindau, Oberleutensdorf – a working camp (part of Stalag IV-C) called Kolumbus Laager, which is where he remained until the German’s surrendered in May 1945. Collier’s story continues with his experiences on arriving back home, working at the War Office until his demobilisation, and details of return trips he made to Sulmona in later life.
Note: Collier’s memoirs are very comprehensive, and only certain parts of his story has been included on this website. In the indexes on pages 3-11, any section that has been included starts with an asterisk (*). The corresponding digital pages are then noted at the end of the sentence. Please contact the Trust if you wish to read the full version.
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.
[Digital page 1]
To those who have been on MSM Freedom Trails Bernard will be remembered for his mandolin and songs, but the mandolin has accompanied him on many trials and tribulations of x long and difficult years as a POW. Captured early in the desert when Rommel appeared mostly through the incompetence of a junior officer who insisted he knew the way, they saw General Neame with other more competent high ranking officers whom he too had led into captivity. Collier was among the few detained in North Africa to work at storage depots of food, water and petrol for the Germans. There were leakages of all three. After many months and finally taken to Italy, Bernard was in Sulmona Camp, at first in very poor conditions and there when the Armistice came and all escaped but he had the misfortune to be recaptured and taken on a horrific journey locked in a metal cattle truck to Germany.
Taken, at first it seemed across France to the Middle East he was captured… Transferred to a camp near coal mines and factories to work, which no POW should have done. Life or rather existence was perilous for all especially when the Allies devoted their bombing raids to it. His mechanical skill which he had used for Allied vehicles in the desert became in useful making. They could see the devastation of Dresden. He was wounded when forced to carry heavy material but had to carry on. In the confusion as the Russians get near, life becomes more dangerous as the Gestapo are shot and dances are arranged with buxom Russian women. When the Americans arrive, fortunately the negro drivers are not drunk like almost all others.
At one point Collier had played a female part in a production of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’. After the war, the cast is gathered together for a one-off matinee performance at the London West End theatre where it was still running as it had done throughout the war.
Collier joined the Army Escape Club and of course was among those who, led by Joe Drew, returned thanks to the people of Sulmona who had helped them when they escaped only to find the Italians wanted to fete them for returning.
To do justice to a summary of this huge 200 page manuscript is impossible but it is a gold mine of atmospheric ‘minutia’.
[Digital page 2]
Bernard H. Collier
The Diary of a Soldier of the British ‘Citizen’s Army’ (the Territorial Army)
[Photograph of Bernard H. Collier]
Experiences as a Gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery
1937 – 1946
[Digital page 3]
Experiences as a Gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery 1937-1946
List of Indices
Index and summary of my memoirs
[Editor’s note: not all of this account has been digitised due to its length. Please contact the Trust if you wish to consult the full version. In the contents pages below those sections marked with an asterisk have been included in this digitised version.]
Part 1 (Pages 1-17): 1937-1939 [Editor’s note: this section has not been digitised]
1937 November: Enlistment in the Territorial Army as a Gunner/Musician in the 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment Royal Artillery (later RHA [Royal Horse Artillery]).
1938 January to December: Summer Camp School of Artillery, Larkhill, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire – Band performs at Sunday Drum Head Service. Guest nights in Officers’ Mess. Armistice Sunday Band plays at Memorial Service at lngatestone near Chelmsford, Essex.
1939 January to August: The band performs at Agricultural Show Point-to-Point Meetings in the county. Assists in recruiting campaigns as war is imminent. Annual Summer Camp at Thornwood Common, Epping, Essex. Band takes part in Billy Cotton’s Band Show at Stratford Empire, East London.
1939 September to December: Called up for war service on 2 September in Colchester, Essex and then billeted in a private house in Chelmsford. The Regiment becomes part of the newly formed 1st Cavalry Division in Nottingham area. Joined RHQ [Regional Headquarters] which takes over Hexgrave Park at Farnsfield. Section of band plays at staff Christmas party at Lower Hexgrave Park, temporary home of Capt. Wills (of the Household Cavalry) and his wife (just like ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ set up). On 24 hours notice for posting overseas.
Part 2 (Pages 17-35): 1940 [Editor’s note: This section has not been digitised.]
1940 January to August: Joined Advance party – travel via France to Palestine. Work on erection of tented camp ready for arrival of Regiment at Gedera (not long there). Regiment moves to tented camp at Netanya on the coast. The Regiment begins desert warfare training Dead Sea, Sinai Desert. The remnants of band play short lunchtime concerts in open air and at formal ball attended by officers from Cavalry Division Regiments and local dignitaries. Small party on weekend leave tours Biblical towns and sights – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Dead Sea, Sea of Galilee, River Jordan.
1940 July: Italy declares war on Allies.
1940 September to December: Regiment moves from Netanya to the Egyptian frontier into defensive positions at ‘Baggush Box’. In hospital in Cairo with severe dysentery. Escort a ‘hush hush’ convoy of unusual vehicles and ‘boffins’ back up to the desert. Catch up with Regiment in time for Lord Wavell’s campaign against the Italians in Libya.
*Part 3 (Pages 35-61): 1941 [The last 4 pages are included on digital pages 12-15]
1941 January to March: Regiment initially part of the Independent Infantry Brigade then supports Australian Infantry Division in the battles of Bardia, Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. Italian army beaten and around 250,000 killed or captured. Well earned leave in Cairo where worn out vehicles are replaced. Return to Libyan desert to take up positions west of Benghazi at El Agheila to resist Rommel’s Afrika Korps invasion of Cyrenaica. Retreat towards Tobruk – shambles at Fort Mechili.
[Digital page 4]
*Part 4 (Pages 61-77): 1941 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 15-47]
1941 April to December
1941 6 April: “For you the war is over!!” Captured by German armoured column 10 miles from Derna. Handed over to the Italians in Derna and taken by trucks to Tripoli. Shipped to Naples in Italy and to transit camp at Capua. Taken by train to Sulmona POW camp at Fonte d’Amore (‘Fountain of Love!!’) in the middle of the Apennine Mountains, southeast of Rome. Later renamed Campo PG no. 78. Was like a real prison with high walls topped with barbed wire and glass. Each compound was separated by high walls. Relief of boredom with musical instruments sent by the Red Cross and formation of band. Performance of plays and musical light operas. Summer very hot, winter extremely cold. No heat in huts, heavy falls of snow – Christmas a miserable time.
*Part 5 (Pages 77-84): 1942 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 47-59]
1942 January to March: Weather bad, morale low. Overcrowded compounds after fall of Tobruk. Would be escapers digging tunnels, other attempts to escape.
1942 April to September: Weather good and very hot – morale improves.
1942 October to December: Weather gets colder and colder. Visit of the Papal Nuncio, the Pope’s representative. POWs given a diary for 1943 with Pope’s blessing! Variety of shows produced. Christmas – POWs’ spirits very low. Thank goodness for Red Cross parcels.
*Part 6 (Pages 84-88): 1943 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 59-66]
1943 January to August: Germans bleed Italy dry of all quality food. We and the local population suffer accordingly. Red Cross parcels not so plentiful but enough to keep us alive. Encouraging news of Allied successes helps to keep up morale. Hidden radio gives news of Allied invasion of Sicily in early July. Mussolini resigns and is arrested. Marshal Badoglio takes over. Internal walls in camp come tumbling down. Successful production of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ – I get involved as an ‘actor’. German military seen in valley heading south. First Allied bombing of Sulmona. Good news of landings in south of Italy.
*Part 7 (Pages 88-102): 1943 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 66-93]
1943 September to December
1943 9 September: We get out of camp as Italians capitulate and start trek south through mountains on foot to try and reach Allied troops some 60 miles away at the Sangro River area – ‘The Gustav Line’. Given away by fascists and recaptured by German Alpine troops between Cansano and Campo di Giove. Taken back to old camp at Sulmona.
1943 24 September: Set off by train made up of cattle and goods trucks with 60 men in each truck for Germany via the Brenner Pass and lnnsbruck in Austria.
1943 28 September: End up in southern Germany and put in a concentration camp (part of a Russian POW camp) for a short period. Three weeks later leave on foot and march 8 kms to Stalag IV-B for interrogation and delousing.
1943 19 October (my birthday!): Move out to Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Arrive at Lindau and later sent to Oberleutensdorf to a working camp (part of Stalag IV-C) called Kolumbus Laager to work on an extension to an oil refinery.
[Digital page 5]
*Part 8 (Pages 102-119): 1944 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 93-111]
1944 January to December: Extremely cold winter – snow very deep, frozen ice everywhere. Little heating in huts – sleep on 3-tier wooden racks in lice infested hut. During spring thaw, trouble with guards. Sent to jail – later get on camp staff in much better accommodation. Get crate of musical instruments from International Red Cross, Geneva. Form band and organise concerts and variety show at Christmas. Forced to entertain Germans at their Christmas party.
*Part 9 (Pages 119-143): 1945 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 111-136]
1945 January to April: Winter again very severe. Heavy falls of snow and morale again very low. Good news of the Allied advance through the occupied countries helps morale to improve. News filters through that the advance has crossed through the border into Germany. Allied bombing of the area increases with oil refinery and factories main targets. Tension mounts after bombing of Dresden and we are threatened with reprisals. News from hidden radio states Berlin falls late April. Rumours of Russian army advancing towards Sudetenland. Marched out of camp towards German frontier (Saxony Hills). Heavy gunfire heard close by so marched back to old camp.
1945 8 May: We inform guards of Armistice by producing hidden radio – they leave camp in a hurry. Russian troops soon appear outside the camp and give us Tommy guns, daggers and ammunition. Told to mount tanks to join infantry battle with Waffen SS. Some of us manage to get away in the dark in middle of a skirmish and find the way back to old camp. Many seriously wounded – volunteers go through Russian held territory and reach Pilsen and American 3rd Army. Americans get volunteer ambulance drivers to get to ex-POW Camp – successful journey both ways. Later American Army trucks get through and take us to Pilsen. Americans fly us out in Dakota planes to Reims in France. RAF fly us back to UK in Lancaster bombers. After re-kitting out in battledress, etc, and interrogation, proceed on 3 months repatriation leave. At end of leave report back for medical examination and aptitude tests. Results in my transfer to the War Office to the Dept. of Engineer Stores. Spent time until demobilisation tracing where numerous Bailey Bridges were to be found in various ex-theatres of war throughout Europe and out to the Far East.
*Part 10 (Pages 143-144): 1946 [Editor’s note: Digital pages 136-137]
1946 January to July: Continue working in the War Office until 7 May. Then proceed on Demob Leave for over 2 months. Army service finally terminates on 11 July 1946. Transfer to Army ‘Z’ Reserve List until 1955. Last recorded communication 30 January 1954.
[Digital page 6]
Experiences as a Gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery 1937-1946
Index of Maps
After Page 6
First leg of journey (Sept-Dec 1939) Colchester, Chelmsford, Hexgrave Park, Nottinghamshire, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, Southampton.
After Page 17
(a) Second leg of journey (Jan to Aug 1940) Southampton to Marseilles.
(b) Marseilles to Haifa (Palestine), Gedera, Netanya. September leave for Port Said in Egypt.
After Page 33
Third leg of journey (September 1940 to April 1941), Cairo to Mersa Matruh (Sidi Haneish). Baggush Box (Western Desert) on to Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi (via Fort Mechili) on to Ajdabiya, Marsa Brega. Retreat from German Afrika Korps back towards Tobruk. Captured in desert near Derna.
After Page 61
(a) Libyan Desert – Cyrenaica.
(b) Fourth leg of journey – Derna to Tripoli by Italian Army trucks to open air camp near Tunisian border.
After Page 64
From Tripoli by cargo boat to Naples and then to transit camp at Capua (near Mount Vesuvius). By train to Sulmona to POW camp No. 78 in the Apennines southeast of Rome.
After Page 66
*(a) British Red Cross map of British POW camps. [Editor’s note: Digital page 24]
*(b) Plan of Campo PG 78 1941-43 (made for ‘budding’ escapers). [Editor’s note: Digital page 25]
After Page 88
*(a) Map of journey from Campo 78 (Fonte d’Amore) to capture again between Cansano and Campo di Giove. [Editor’s note: Digital page 67]
*(b) Map showing ‘Gustav line’ (north of Monte Cassino) and approx 60 mile south of Campo PG 78 (Allied troops held up owing to bad weather). [Editor’s note: Digital page 68]
After Page 94
*(c) Fifth leg of journey – map showing journey (orange line) from Sulmona to Bolzano and on to lnnsbruck, Austria and then into southern Germany. [Editor’s note: Digital page 77]
*(d) Map showing Sudetenland (north of Prague). [Editor’s note: Digital page 78]
*(e) British Red Cross map of British POW camps in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland. [Editor’s note: Digital page 79]
After Page 128
Map showing escape from Russians (with help from Americans) to Pilsen.
After Page 130
*Sixth (and final) leg of journey to the UK by Dakota plane (Americans) to Reims then Lancaster bomber (RAF) back to UK. [Editor’s note: Digital page 123]
[Digital page 7]
Experiences as a Gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery 1937-1946
Index of Illustrations
After Page 2:
Part of band at Larkhill camp.
Full band at Larkhill camp.
After Page 5:
Notice of Embodiment of Territorial Army on 2 September 1939.
After Page 16:
(1) Leave of absence pass prior to leaving for overseas.
(2) Advance party and more to Netanya.
(3-4) At work at camp at Netanya.
(5) Open air lunchtime band concerts at Netanya.
(6) Active service envelope used to send letters home.
(7) Cinema tickets.
(8-11) At work and play at Netanya.
(12) Lt Qm Lieutenant Quartermaster] Grimshaw (Palestine and Egypt), Gnr [Gunner] ‘Pop’ Welham (Sarafand and Palestine).
(13) Sightseeing in Palestine.
(14) Churches in Palestine.
(15) Four scenes in Palestine.
(16) Six scenes in Palestine.
After Page 29
In the Western Desert, Egypt.
After Page 44
(1) Detailed chit from RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] for NCO i/c [Non-Commissioned Officer in command] Guard Duty – Tobruk, Libya.
(2) 25 pounder gun and guntower.
[Digital page 8]
After Page 52:
(1) On leave in Cairo.
(2-4) Cinema tickets in Cairo.
(5) On leave in Cairo.
(6) Lost gifts to Mother and sisters.
After Page 62:
*(1) First letter ‘missing on 02/04/1941 Mid-East’. [Editor’s note: Digital page 17]
*(2) Second letter ‘POW in the Middle East’. [Editor’s note: Digital page 18]
*(3) Port and capital – Tripoli, Libya. [Editor’s note: Digital page 19]
After Page 66:
(1) Six pages containing information about British and Dominion POWs.
After Page 68:
*(2) Pages of cartoons. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 28-29]
(3) Letter with illustration of wall clock made from empty tins from Red Cross parcels.
After Page 70:
*(1-5) Pages of cartoons of life in POW Camp No 78, Italy. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 32-36]
After Page 74:
*(1-2) Pages of cartoons of wooden bunk beds in Camp No 78, Italy. [Editor’s note: Digital page 41]
After Page 76:
*(1-3) Pages of Christmas card 1941 sent to my family. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 44-46]
(4) Uys Krige – South African poet.
(5) Krige’s poem ‘Midwinter’ composed in Sulmona on 16 January 1942.
After Page 82:
*(1) Cover of ‘Menu card’ Christmas Day 1942. [Editor’s note: Digital page 53]
*(2-5) 1943 Diary from the Pope – His Greetings and Prayer. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 54-57]
After Page 85:
*(1-2) Programme for ‘Blithe Spirit’. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 61-62]
*(3) ‘Dinner menu’ and autographs of cast and stage hands, etc. [Editor’s note: Digital page 63]
After Page 88:
*Following 2 maps, notice issued by the German Military Commandant of a reward offered for the capture of British or American POWs. [Editor’s note: Digital page 69]
[Digital page 9]
After Page 94:
*September 1943 leaf out of Pope’s diary. [Editor’s note: Digital page 76]
After Page 96:
*(1) Entrance gate to Stalag IV-B, my shaved head and German POW number. [Editor’s note: Digital page 82]
*(2) A British officer and his German POW number. [Editor’s note: Digital page 83]
*(3) Sudeten and German territory map. [Editor’s note: Digital page 84]
*(4) Looking back in Stalag IV-B to Main Gate. [Editor’s note: Digital page 84]
*(5-7) Pages with notes from my 1943 diary. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 85-87]
After Page 108:
*Camp band at Kolumbus Working Camp Stalag IV-C. [Editor’s note: Digital page 100]
After Page 135:
(1-6) POW special matinee of ‘Blithe Spirit’ at the Duchess Theatre, London.
[Editor’s note: Digital page 10]
Experiences as Gunner in the Royal Regiment of Artillery 1937-1946
Index of Appendices
(1) Three pages recording my interrogation on return to UK.
(2) Two pages about Bailey Bridges.
(3) Instruction to returning ex-POWs before proceeding on Repat (Repatriation) Home leave June 1945.
(4) Instruction issued to returning POWs after initial leave.
(5) Joining Order – Returned Military.
(6) Essex Yeomanry Welfare Committee invitation to a POW ‘Welcome Home’ party.
(7) Civic Welcome Party to Returned POWs.
(8) RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] Band provide music for ex-POWs.
(9) Union of Post Office Workers invitation card to a ‘Welcome Home’ dinner.
(10) Two pages of a British POW Association publication.
(11) Fly sheet from HM Forces Savings Committee.
(12) Statement showing War Gratuity and Post-War Credit due.
(13) Three pages of ‘Soldiers’ Release Book Class ‘A’.
(14) Three pages of Record of Service and National Registration Identity Card.
*(15) Five pages Medal Awards. [Editor’s note: Digital page 138]
(16) Second World War British Campaign and other medals.
(17) Three pages of Certificate of Transfer to the Army Reserve from 11 July 1946.
(18) MOD’s covering note with the Armed Forces Veteran’s lapel badge.
(19) Copy of one of the many war time poems entitled ‘A Tale of Tobruk’.
(1) Dress uniforms of officers and NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] circa 1911/1912.
*(2) Campo PG 78 Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy during the time I was POW there 1941-1943 (9 pages, 18 photos). [Editor’s note: Digital pages 139-147]
*(3) A postcard sketch of POW huts and Civil Prison with a Christmas greeting from Private George (Ginger) Camplin to his Dad and family dated 15/11/1941. (Note the three censors stamps on the address side of the card). [Editor’s note: Digital page 148]
[Digital page 11]
(4) Six pages of a ‘musical interlude’ in my wartime memoirs entitled –
‘Captain (well acting unpaid Lance Bombardier) Collier’s Mandolin’.
(5) Campo di Giove – the village in the Maiella Mountain Group of the Apennine chain. I was getting near to this village when I was recaptured by German Bavarian Troops. I have visited this village many times since the end of WW2.
(6) A German Deutsches Kriminalpolizeiblatt notice or news bulletin published in Berlin reporting the escape from a POW camp in Lamsdorf by 12 English and 2 Polish POWs.
(7) British POW Working Camp Kolumbus Laager, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. The Camp Band gives a concert at which I play the baritone and alto saxophones and clarinet. The pianist on the right was Jewish and called ‘Butch’ Butchinsky but the Germans never found out.
*(8) Same camp – picture taken the day after Armistice 9 May 1945 with ‘captured’ German camera. (I am in middle of back row marked X). The chap on the left is not fat but probably bloated with wind! [Editor’s note: Digital pages 149-150]
*(9) This picture shows the parade ground, part of two of our huts and a German Army barrack block at top end of the parade ground. (Note flag pole behind chap on the left of the group). [Editor’s note: Digital page 151]
(10) Memorabilia held at the Second World War Experience Centre Museum, Horsforth, Leeds.
(a) Top picture left – an Arab soldier’s name tag.
(b) Top picture right – my German POW number tag 211943.
(c) Wooden photo frame made for me by a wood carver in Compound 3 Campo PG 78 Italy.
(d) The bronze buckle from a leather belt given to me by a Czech partisan.
(e) Front cover from Second World War Experience Centre Journal.
11 Logos from the various organisations I have been involved with post-war.
(a) The Sulmona Reunion (Ex-POW organisation of Campo PG 78 Italy).
(b) Army POW Escape Club – Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Civic Welcome to club members 20 September 1991.
(c) WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society formed mainly to remember and honour the civilians who helped Allied troops to escape or evade capture by the enemy.
(d) San Martino Freedom Trust (for explanation see ‘An explanation of the logo’). Note a trust has been created to collect cash gifts and sponsorships from volunteer walkers of the escape trails in Italy. The money collected is to bring young Italian students to a London English language college for a month. The students are selected from descendants of those civilians who helped to shelter and assist in the escape of Allied POWs in 1943-1944, many of whom were executed by the Germans.
*(12) Notes of my return visits to the ex-POW Camp No 78 Sulmona in the years 1973, 1978, 2001 and 2002. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 152-153]
*(13) A copy of a fellow ex-POW’s account of his return to Sulmona 19-20 October 1973 (5 pages) and on reverse of final sheet a copy of an entry in the Yorkshire Evening Post. [Editor’s note: Digital pages 154-158]
(14) The 1978 ‘last brick’ ceremony during a visit 23-26 June 1978.
Sheet 2 – the lists of those present at the ceremony and an explanation of the ‘symbolic’ event.
Sheet 3 – the English and Italian wording of the tablet holding the ‘last brick’.
Sheet 4 – HRH Queen Elizabeth’s message to the Sulmona Reunion autographed by the Italian guests and ourselves at the formal dinner at the end of the event.
(15) The newspaper article on the Waffen SS execution of 800 civilians at Marzabotto near Bologna in 1944.
(16) The Desert Rat vocabulary and the song ‘The D-Day Dodgers’ (out in Italy).
[Digital page 12, original page 58]
The calm before the storm
The short stay in Cairo passed all too quickly.
We collected our replacement vehicles, 25 pounder gun parts and other stores at the base depot and on our departure not so cheerful comments were made such as “don’t expect to see you again -there are rumours that German troops have landed at Tripoli and are on their way heading for our static positions to sort us out when they get to our advance positions in Libya – but good luck all the same!!”
We then set off in convoy out of Cairo and on the long desert journey back to our positions well southwest of Benghazi. At our first desert halt for refreshments and a rest at a ‘halfway house’ on the road to Alexandria I found that I had about £10 left in Egyptian piastas. So with half of the money I bought a good quality Swiss made watch.
Seeing me with my wallet out, Lt Q. [Lieutenant Quartermaster] ‘Tubby’ Grimshaw, the officer i/c [in command] of our convoy, approached me and said he was unfortunately just about out of money, so could I lend him a fiver (this was strictly against rules and regulations). However I stumped up on his assurance that he would pay me back when we settled in at RHQ [Regimental Headquarters]. Little did I realise then that this would not happen – more about this later.
Nothing happened during this monotonous journey back to the Libyan desert worth mentioning except that I met up with my Uncle Jack at his Meduail Station in Tobruk and spent an enjoyable evening with him.
We soon found out that all the rumours doing the round in Cairo were well founded. To coin a phrase – all hell was let loose on a broad front shortly after our return to our advanced positions close to the Tripolitan Province.
Our troops were well outnumbered and the massed columns of German Tiger tanks supported by mechanised infantry very quickly over-ran our positions. Our guns, from memory, were supporting the Northumberland Fusiliers with their medium machine guns, the 4th Indian cavalry with Bren guns and similar weapons mounted on 15 cwt [hundredweight] trucks, a small unit of Free French troops – a Rifle Brigade regiment, and a few small recce units plus some medium tanks.
[Digital page 13, original page 59]
We found out later that we had been facing and trying to hold up Rommel’s Afrika Corps which comprised about 10,000 seasoned troops who were battle hardened after successful campaigns in Europe and Scandinavia.
Our gunners found it impossible to stop the Tiger tanks by firing head on with high explosive shells. They quickly learned that the only way to stop some of these tanks was to aim for and blow out their tracks and take out the crews when they opened up their turrets. In the end though the Germans broke through our ranks and we were soon given the order “every man for himself!!”
I am rather hazy as to how I came to be ‘up at the front’, although I have assumed that wireless communications between RHQ [Regimental Headquarters] and the 2 Battery HQ [Headquarters] had broken down so the only way to find out what the ammunition situation was like, was for someone to go and find out at first hand. The ‘lot’ fell to me and my little group to undertake this errand.
Fortunately when the hazardous situation became untenable we were able to get away without any casualties and headed back as fast as we could across the difficult terrain towards Benghazi. Eventually we made it back to Benghazi only to find that the Royal Engineers had started to blow up the Port installations. We managed to get hold of some diesel and petrol for our transport before the engineers got round to the storage dumps.
It was difficult to get any firm information as to what we should do next. Fortunately we came across the ‘Town Major’ who told us to head for Tobruk where it was expected that a stand would be made to try to stem the advance of the German ‘hordes’.
At this stage of our retreat we were a mixed group of 56, mainly from my own unit, with a 25 pounder gun as our heaviest armament. A few other soldiers from different units had also joined up with us.
We were well past Derna on our way to Tobruk when out of the blue we unfortunately met up with Captain S—— of our unit going the other way so we were forced to stop and listen to what he had to say. This officer had not been with the Regiment for some months as he had been badly injured at Bardia more or less at the start of the Cyrenian campaign against the Italians. As a result of these injuries he was left with permanent damage to one of his eyes and to one of his hands.
We were quick to tell him that we were on our way back to Tobruk following orders given in Benghazi, this being the place where a stand would take place to halt the German advance. The officer would not accept this statement by saying he had more up to date information on the
[Digital page 14, original page 60]
present situation. According to him the high command had decided that Fort Mechili would be the area of the main resistance to the German advance and our regiment was heading that way in support of that decision. So we were to follow him and head across the desert to the Fort.
We tried to convince him that his course of action was not really feasible as the enemy could easily surround the whole area with their superior armour and manpower. Unfortunately we could not get him to change his mind. So, following the discipline instilled in us during previous training, we followed his lead out to Fort Mechili.
On our arrival at the Fort we found the area in and around the fortifications very overcrowded. The main area was taken up by the 2nd Armoured Division HQ [Headquarters] staff with a number of ACVs [Armoured Command Vehicles] housing some generals and their attendant staff officers.
There did not appear to be very many front line troops in the vicinity and no sign of our unit in any part of this large ‘encampment’. I recognised a signals regiment of the MIY [undefined] and some vehicles with the Indian Cavalry Div sign on their 15 cwt [hundredweight] trucks.
We bivouacked down for the night and a deputation of NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] cornered Capt. S——. We later heard from them that S—— had attempted to contact the Regiment by radio without success but he felt sure they would be with us in due course!
Just before nightfall a German spotter plane circled the Fort. One or two bods attempted to bring it down with small arms fire but were unsuccessful. With no allied planes in the vicinity the appearance of the spotter plane gave cause for concern because past experience had resulted in a full scale enemy attack.
Next morning an artillery barrage ‘quartered’ our area followed up soon afterwards by a line of Tiger tanks advancing towards us virtually unopposed creating a large dust cloud so we could not see what opposition was following behind – no doubt mechanised infantry. There was no direct assault but gradually the tanks encircled the whole area creating havoc with the intensity of their firepower – heavy gun fire from the tanks interlaced with heavy machine gun fire from mechanised troops.
There being only spasmodic return fire from our troops, the Germans must have suspected a trap, because later in the day they fell back a mile or so. This action encouraged the Indian Cavalry to charge out in their 15 cwt [hundredweight] trucks firing their machine guns as they advanced. This course of action initially took the Germans by surprise because the Indians suffered very few
[Digital page 15, original page 61]
casualties. They managed to get through the enemy positions and appeared to disappear into the far distance.
During the brief ‘action’ I had a go at using the Boyes anti-tank rifle. One of our chaps had been sat nursing this weapon so I relieved him of it. It was a really useless weapon against the German armour and the recoil after firing a shot could do damage to one’s shoulder if held slackly. It was obvious that this puny rifle would not be of any use against the German tanks so I very quickly decided that enough was enough!!
Much to our surprise the enemy appeared to be retreating a short distance presumably because they feared a trap in view of the lack of fire from our side. This lull in the battle gave some of us the opportunity to get through the German positions in the dark. We managed this without much difficulty and were able to find a wide wadi which led towards the coast road between Derna and Tobruk.
By daybreak we were well on our way having about 10 miles still to go. Unfortunately by mischance we met a heavy armoured fighting column of Germans head on in this wadi. Our fighting strength was much inferior to the enemy having just one 25 pounder gun in the middle of our column with the remainder carrying only small arms, rifles and revolvers.
Capture – into ‘the bag’ as POWs
The decision on what to do was taken out of our hands when a double column of what we thought were Indian Army troops in 3 tonne trucks drew up. Out of the back of these trucks jumped scores of German infantry. The trucks were driven by Indian troops but German NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] were crouched down in the front passenger seats with drawn pistols pointed at the stomachs of the drivers.
The dreaded words “for you the war is over” greeted our surrender to the Germans. I suppose we numbered about 46 officers and men, the majority of which were of my own unit, the Essex Yeomanry. The following 10 minutes or so were extremely frightening because we were lined up in one long single file on the ground above the wadi. Our captors then brought a number of machine guns from their vehicles and placed them in front of us. This action on their part looked very ominous indeed.
A brief discussion then took place among the Germans. One of our chaps understood and spoke German having spent holidays pre-war with a German family. So he was able to interpret the
[Digital page 16, original page 62]
conversation which confirmed our worst fear that we were to be executed. Regrettably one of our number fainted on hearing what was to be our fate.
Our guardian angel must have been watching over us because just before this decision was carried out, a German staff car drew up and an officer who was evidently senior to the one in command of the armoured column, gave orders for us to be escorted a few miles across the desert to a forward supply area which had just been set up. Of course the few officers in our party did not have to suffer the indignity of marching with us other ranks to this supply area. They were driven there by the German officers in their Stubelwagens.
We did not have much time to collect together a few items of clothing. I managed to grab my uniform jacket (pre-war issue with brass buttons, collar badges, sewn on stripes, etc) and my cavalry-style great coat. I could not find my boots or long trousers so I finished up in a pair of shorts, roll necked white sweater, cap and a stout pair of sandals. There was no time for anything else.
When we arrived at the supply area we were surprised to see a handful of British Generals in the ‘Bag’ – Lieutenant-General Gamlin-Parry, Major-General Neame, Major-General O’Connor, Brigadier Todhunter (he had been Colonel of the Regiment prior to promotion) and one or two others but I now can’t remember their names. So we were in ‘good company’ but this did not make up for the numbness and despair at having been captured and also some fear of the unknown future before us.
We did not remain at the supply base for very long. So we were soon tramping on our way to the coast. I suppose the distance to march would be about 10 miles which does not sound to be very far but trudging in sand and at times over rough rocky terrain was rather exhausting. The escorting German infantrymen kept us going at a steady pace presumably because there was a chance, or so they thought that roving armoured allied troops could come across our marching column. Wishful thinking perhaps although there had been instances of this happening. We eventually staggered into Derna in the early evening tired, footsore, hungry and thirsty.
It was there we were handed over to the Italians who marched us off to a barracks on the edge of town. The buildings formed a square with a sandy open area. The barrack rooms were brick built with a so called cement floor which was crumbling. There was still no sign of food or water and the craving for water was stronger than for some food. There was an old unserviceable fountain with slimy stagnant water. The craving for water was too much for some who foolishly drank some of this polluted water and they were very soon suffering with the ‘runs’.
[Digital page 17]
[Letter sent home to Collier’s family, stating that he was “missing”.]
Cyrenaica – Libya, March/April 1941, “Lost In The Desert”
I regret to have to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office to the effect that (No.) 874884 (Rank) Gnr U/L/Bdr (Name) Collier Bernard Henry (Regiment) Royal Artillery was posted as “missing” on the 02-04-1941 Mid-East.
The report that he is missing does not necessarily mean that he has been killed, as he may be a prisoner of war or temporarily separated from his regiment.
Official reports that men are prisoners of war take some time to reach this country, and if he has been captured by the enemy it is probable that unofficial news will reach you first. In that case I am to ask you to forward any postcard or letter received at once to this Office, and it will be returned to you as soon as possible.
Should any further official information be received it will be at once communicated to you.
Your obedient Servant,
Officer in charge of Records.
Any change of your address should be immediately notified to this Office.
[Digital page 18]
[Letter sent home to Collier’s family, stating that he was a Prisoner of War.]
Cyrenaica/Tripolitania Desert – Libya, April/May 1941, “Found” in a POW Camp, Italy
I have to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office to the effect that (No.) 874884 (Rank) Gnr (Name) Bernard Collier (Regiment) Royal Artillery is a Prisoner of War in the Middle East. Your letter is returned herewith.
Should any other information be received concerning him, such information will be at once communicated to you.
Instructions as to the method of communicating with Prisoners of War can be obtained at any Post Office.
Your obedient Servant,
Officer in charge of Records.
IMPORTANT. Any change of your address should be immediately notified to this Office. It should also be notified, if you receive information from the soldier above, that his address has been changed.
[Digital page 19]
Tripoli, Libya as a POW. Port of Embarkation for Italy. Shipped across in a cargo boat.
Tripoli Port and Capital
(1) [Photograph with caption] View of Main Promenade
(2) [Photograph with caption] View of Harbour Front
This was our first experience of large crowds of Italian civilians jeering, booing, etc!!
[Digital page 20, original page 63]
The next day the food was not sufficient to satisfy a starving rat! We were given a small tin of smelly horsemeat, a weevil infested biscuit and a mouthful of brackish tasting water to help the solids go down. That night I felt a bit queasy and wanted the toilet. It was a moonlit night and I easily found the urinals trench by the foul smell.
Having relieved myself I was heading back to my barrack hut when I was stopped by an Italian guard. He pointed at the watch and indicated I should hand it to him. I tried to ignore him but he produced a revolver and threatened me with it. Discretion being the better part of valour, I reluctantly gave him my new watch recently bought on my way back from Cairo to the Libyan desert. The loss of the watch would act as a reminder to me for the future.
The next few days continued to drag along still with little food or drink. It appeared that the delay was due to the fact that the Italians wanted to get a reasonable number of POWs together to make a large enough convoy of trucks to make it worthwhile to transport prisoners with the necessary number of guards. Eventually 40 to 50 of us were crammed into a large truck and so began the very uncomfortable journey to Tripoli.
Numerous stops were made to allow the POWs suffering from diarrhoea or dysentery to collapse in the sand and make themselves more ‘comfortable’. This also gave relief to the remaining occupants to have a pee and to stretch aching limbs. The guards were not too happy about allowing these breaks but they were extremely necessary. It also allowed the floors of the trucks to be cleaned out with sand. The journey took three days or more to reach Tripoli.
We were then marched around the streets of the business part of the city and then on to some of the residential roads. The Italian population took great delight in throwing all sorts of rubbish down from upstairs windows including the contents of toilet pots – not very pleasant. The Italian newsreel photographers had a heyday following the pitiful column of prisoners – British, French, Indian and other allied nationalities – around the city. It was obvious this column was filmed a number of times throughout the route, no doubt to give the impression thousands of prisoners had been taken by the Italians whilst in action in the Libyan desert!! Nothing could have been further from the truth.
After this humiliating experience we were packed into railway cattle trucks and taken to barracks near the Tunisian border. This was a hastily constructed camp out in the open air protected by plenty of barbed wire. Again there was little food or water – we were getting used to it!
[Digital page 21, original page 64]
It was in this camp we met up with the Captain who led us into trouble when he stopped us from going to Tobruk so ending up with him as a POW. He again tried to explain why he insisted in taking us to Fort Mechili. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to admit we had known more about the situation than he did. There’s nothing more dangerous on a battlefield than officers who ‘abuse’ their power of rank to cover up their limitations as military strategists or have too high opinion of themselves that they always know better than their subordinates.
(Note: It was only after the end of the war that I found out through another officer’s account in the Essex Yeomanry Journal that it had been the intention for the Regiment to make for Fort Mechili but when the acting Colonel found out that Rommel was very active in strength in that area he used his initiative, turned round and headed for Tobruk!).
Most of us ignored the Captain whilst we remained in the POW cage and I have ignored him ever since that time. Maybe I should have forgiven him but I found it impossible to come to terms with the unnecessary four years spent in POW camps in Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The day came when we were going to experience the next stage of our journey into captivity. Once again we were crammed into cattle trucks and headed down towards Tripoli harbour to board a ship for the Italian mainland. As the train approached the harbour, loud explosions could be heard and flames and smoke seen around the harbour. Our Navy and Air Force had paid a visit. This port was being used by the Germans to bring all their supplies across from Italy to sustain their push against the Allies now surrounded in Tobruk.
The train reversed and headed back to the POW cage. This shuttle backwards and forwards to Tripoli continued for the next 3 nights because each night the bombing and shelling continued. But at last on the following night four cargo boats were moored at the quayside. We stumbled aboard being hurried along by the mixed Italian and German crew as they were fearful of a further visit from the Navy and Air Force. We were battened down in the holds with very little light and only the floor to sleep on. The engines started up and away we sailed from Libya.
The next morning the covers were removed from the holds and we were given a little water and some bread. It was evident the crew did not intend to let us out on deck but after a strong verbal protest we were allowed on deck for about half an hour. During the second day the heat in the hold became unbearable together with the smell of vomit, urine and excrement. Evidently we were not allowed up on deck because enemy submarines and aircraft (ours) were in the vicinity. However eventually later in the day the hatches were opened and we staggered out to gratefully gulp down fresh sea air.
[Digital page 22, original page 65]
The next time we came on deck we were approaching the southern tip of Italy. It was a very welcome sight to see greenery again – trees and grass in abundance. The convoy passed through the straits between Etna and the mainland and finally the ships docked in Naples. From there we went by train to a transit camp at Capua, in sight of Vesuvius with smoke and steam emanating from the summit of this volcano. Accommodation was very primitive indeed – just two man bivouac tents. The weather didn’t help because it rained most of the time we were there waiting to be sent on to permanent POW camps. Many of the prisoners were still suffering from dysentery and diarrhoea.
It was in this camp that I first noticed the naive and hilarious attitude of mind of our captors. Soon after we arrived in the camp the officers and other ranks (ORs) were separated initially into two large groups. I naturally as Lance Bombardier joined the ORs ranks group. Up came an Italian officer of rank Captain and when he saw me he shouted at me to move over to the officers’ group. I could not understand why he should do this but I did as I was told and joined the group of officers.
It was not long before I was told in no uncertain terms by the allied officers to clear off back to the ORs group which I did without argument. The Italian officer seeing that I had appeared to disobey him called me over and produced a fancy Beretta revolver and told me that if I did not do what I was ordered he would shoot me for disobedience!! Naturally I didn’t want to lose my life through no fault of my own so without argument I hurried off back to the Officers’ group where lo and behold the same British officer scathingly called me an awkward, f—–g, dumb idiot and to clear off and stop this stupid nonsense.
Now I don’t believe I’m easily aroused but I took his remarks to be most insulting and I blew my top. I told him to explain to this far from pleasant Italian officer that I would be most happy, willing and contented to join my brothers in adversity as a member of that esteemed group of fellows known as ‘other ranks’ so let’s be finished with this nonsense! Eventually the British officer managed to catch the eye of the troublesome Italian officer and after a bit of shouting and much waving of arms the Italian finally accepted that I was not an officer hiding in the ORs waiting for the opportunity to cause a riot or whatever. It was probably the uniform jacket I was wearing that confused the Italian as it was a pre-war ‘service’ jacket with a number of brass buttons and badges quite different to the plain battledress blouse which we had not, up to the beginning of 1941, been issued with.
[Digital page 23, original page 66]
Fortunately our stay in Capua didn’t last very long. We boarded a train with ancient rolling stock, carriages this time with uncomfortable wooden seats but a vast improvement to cattle trucks. The train chugged its way northwards into the middle of the Apennine chain of mountains and got to the end of the journey at a place called Sulmona. The station was sited some 2 miles out of the town centre fortuitously part way to the POW camp which was built on the lower slopes of a high mountain range.
We trudged through sandy paths with grapevines on either side. After about an hour’s foot slogging we arrived at the camp which had a small hamlet of houses outside the main entrance. We were soon informed that the name of this very poor hamlet was Font d’Amore – the Fountain of Love! We found out later that the women of the hamlet did their weekly wash at a small stone fountain which had been erected at the side of a small mountain stream. The stream flowed past the houses better described as hovels as the families and their animals, goats, sheep, cows, dogs and cats, all lived in with family. This arrangement probably helped to keep them all warm in the winter!
I well remember the first card I was able to send home to let my parents know I was still alive. The wording went as follows: “Well Dad history repeats itself (he was a POW in Germany in 1914). I hope I am not a prisoner as long as you were.” Thank goodness I didn’t know then that I was to be a POW for over four years, whilst he spent just over a year as a prisoner. He was repatriated in 1915 to be put in charge of a hospital train taking seriously wounded Commonwealth troops back to the UK. Evidently there was still some chivalry between enemies in that war, as handicapped serviceman were handed back by each country involved.
Our camp in Italy was divided into a number of compounds – Senior and Junior Officers in the top compound next to the carabinieri (like military police) barracks. My compound was immediately below that of the officers separated by a high brick wall 8-10 feet high. We were therefore not able to communicate with them officially, but more about that later. I won’t go into the details of the compound or the rest of the camp as the attached detailed plan shows this very clearly. It had been drawn up by two young architectural students to help would be escapers get away from the camp.
The whole camp was surrounded by a 10 feet high brick wall with glass and barbed wire on top. There was a wide path round the perimeter of the camp with a boundary fence of barbed wire and sentry boxes at regular intervals. Lights and searchlights lit up the whole area at nighttime. Then there was also barrelled barbed wire, two deep with another on top.
[Digital page 24]
[Map showing British Prisoner of War Camps in Italy]
These maps were sent to the next-of-kin of the POW.
(Note) The reverse of this map showed the Map of Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia and indicated where the German POW camps were situated.
The shaded areas on the map indicate where Collier was held.
[Digital page 25]
[Map showing the plan of Camp PG No. 78 – Fonte d’Amore]
Plan of Camp PG No. 78 – Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy – (Made for “Budding Escapers”)
[Digital page 26, original page 67]
The huts were built of red brick with a red pantile roof and the floors of the huts were of bare concrete. There were narrow windows, one large double door and no heating whatsoever. There were therefore extremes of temperature – freezing in winter and very hot in summer. So much so that in summer we slept outside between the huts on the bare stony earth – not very comfortable but we gradually got used to it.
Our batch of prisoners was the first in large numbers in the camp. Previously there were only a handful of aircrew and the crew of the submarine ‘Oswald’ – rammed in the Adriatic by a German destroyer in the early months of the war. So the huts were not crowded having 40 to a hut and at times we slept on camp beds. We were told there were some paratroopers held separately in the bottom compound under sentence of death. Although in uniform, they had penetrated into Italy by parachute and blew up a large water dam causing serious flooding in an industrial valley. A number of factories were put out of action and it was said that a large number of the civilian population had been killed by drowning and panic. (A modern TV documentary claimed this operation was the first to be carried out by the first British paratroops unit to be formed and that they were abandoned to their fate by a high command that made no provision to get them out of Italy after the raid!).
Having nothing to do all day it became very monotonous. Discipline and personal hygiene were becoming a problem. Something had to be done about it otherwise serious arguments could have occurred (they did occur) and disease could have quite easily developed and spread throughout the compound.
The senior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] (or their equivalent) had a discussion and decided to find out if any of us were sufficiently experienced to start discussion groups or study classes covering such subjects as foreign languages, art, maths and chemistry. There was a lukewarm response to these suggestions but it was decided to go ahead with some classes hoping that others would take part if word got round that the content of the subjects being taught was interesting and the knowledge gained could be useful after the end of the war.
This was all well and good but the vast majority were still sitting about getting more and more bored. Then an RAF Sergeant, who could play the accordion, hit upon the idea of getting in touch with the International Red Cross in Geneva to enquire if a variety of musical instruments could be sent to the camp as there were enough musicians of experience to play a variety of instruments. Much to our surprise we received a reply fairly quickly which said a crate of instruments was on its way to us and hoped that there were sufficient to enable us to make music together.
[Digital page 27, original page 68]
When the crate arrived it was obvious it had been opened by the Italians and after we removed the instruments the wooden crate was taken away from us. The most experienced of the group of musicians was Andy Bain, a regular soldier of the Northumberland Fusiliers, a medium machine gun regiment. He had been a band corporal before the war and played saxophone, clarinet and violin. Although I played the same three instruments, he had first choice so he took the only sax and I had the clarinet. An accordion had also been included so the RAF Sergeant took that away to get some practice in.
There was a slight problem concerning who was to play the cornet (no trumpet at that time) but one of the submarine crew claimed to have been a cornet player before he joined the Navy. He had a very rudimentary grasp of reading music but a powerful pair of lungs! So Andy Bain persevered with him. There were no problems with players for the two violins and a drummer had been found for the old fashioned set of drums.
The next problem was no music, so Andy and I sat down and produced a few numbers which Andy arranged to suit our rather unusual combination. He gave me the task of transposing all the parts for the Bb and Eb instruments. We really needed a piano to fill in and fit in with the accordion player. I cannot remember how we persuaded the Italians to find one for us but an old one was found very quickly – presumably one not being used in the Italian barracks. We then rehearsed intensively for a few weeks until we considered we could put on a variety concert which would be accepted by an audience of mixed ‘culture’. To provide the variety orchestral numbers were interspersed with comedy sketches, vocal solos and solo dancing – tap dancing and Latin American.
The first concert was a success so it was then decided to spend a month rehearsing for the next concert. I should have said earlier on that an empty hut had been turned into a concert hall with built up stage, front curtains and a large space behind the backcloth used for props and dressing up areas.
The ‘captive’ audience soon got tired of these variety band shows. Therefore more variety in entertainment was needed. One of the popular group participation innovations was ballroom dancing classes. When this was first suggested the general consensus of opinion was that most people could dance so there would be little response. Surprisingly circulation of this suggestion got a very favourable response as it turned out very few could dance. Classes were organised for two afternoons a week. The band provided the music which served us musicians in good stead as the hourly session were additional practice for us.
[Digital page 28]
[Cartoon with caption] You should see them now!!
[Digital page 29]
[Cartoon with caption] It is surprising what can be done to create the illusion of home life, with a little lipstick, etc. Which brings us to the theatre. Although in the early days this was pretty crude, and the chorus distinctly of the heavy variety.
[Cartoon with caption] It has improved enormously and is almost up to professional standards. As for the chorus.
[Digital page 30, original page 69]
Problems did arise, some of which were quite amusing. For instance the learners were told that they had to change places with their partner so that those taking the female part could also learn the male part. Some of them refused to change places with the excuse that it had taken some time to learn the steps going backwards and were now enjoying themselves, so they objected to changing places. One of these objectors was a big, hairy sailor and I could just imagine him saying to his girlfriend when he got back home that she would have to take the male lead!
There were a number of budding solicitors and barristers in the compound and they considered themselves capable of being actors (and actresses!). No one argued with them as it was well known that this profession playacted in the courtroom – if they were any good! There appeared to be sufficient enthusiasm to get in touch with George Black, a London impresario, to request ‘librettos’ for the following plays: ‘Journey’s End’ (First World War trench warfare plot); ‘Middle Watch’ (a Navy farce) and ‘Blithe Spirit’ (a spiritualist comedy long running in London before and after World War II). It didn’t take very long for copies of these plays to arrive so the ‘Thespian’ Group got under way.
The first play to be performed was ‘Journey’s End’ as this was an army play and there was no difficulty in producing uniforms of the correct era. The scenery was also very easy to construct and looked very realistic as the dingy, dark dugout in which the plot took place. The performances were well received so the performers, producers and backroom boys were encouraged to go ahead with a series of plays including some ‘home produced’ short plays.
It soon became evident early on with the productions needing women’s parts that jealousies were appearing among those taking on female roles and one or two of them were becoming rather effeminate in their actions and mannerisms! Right from the start it had been agreed that the portrayals of females would not be treated in a slapstick or comical manner. It was therefore necessary to audition for good lookers with a slim physique and ‘good’ deportments. So those who started to exceed the acceptable limits had to change over to male parts. Any objections meant being kicked out of the theatrical group and that did happen in one or two cases.
There was no real difficulty in making costumes and wigs. Most costumes were made up from a variety of army blankets and sheets kindly donated by or cajoled from their owners. Where there was reluctance in some instances a means of barter was used to obtain the cloth needed for costumes. Various drapes were made for more colourful scenes. Wigs were made from Red Cross parcel string teased out to give a finer texture to look like ladies’ hair dyed to various shades of blonde, black, brown and grey.
[Digital page 31, original page 70]
There was no shortage of skilled, experienced craftsmen with the know-how to make realistic costumes, hair, boots and shoes among the 800 or so inmates of the compound. The framework for the stage was made from purloined wood, slats from the beds, crates and any scrap lying about. These were collected up and taken in by the stage workshop.
Ideas for productions became more ambitious and, as a change to the professional scripts one or two successful musicals were performed from original scripts and music scores. One that comes to mind was ‘The Man from Cooks’ (the travel agents). This was a romantic comedy with the plot revolving around a young lady teacher taking her first trip abroad in the Mediterranean area which included Italy of course. Her amorous adventures involved the rep from Thomas Cook as well as a variety of young Spanish and Italian males.
My main activities concerned the musical side of the various entertainments provided. I played in the ‘Billy Cotton-style’ of variety band show, the light orchestral group and then as a member of the ‘pit’ orchestra for the musicals. A further musical experience was soon to follow which resulted in the comparison of me with Captain Corelli and his mandolin.
Earlier in this account of my experience as a POW I referred briefly to the question of discipline. Ways had to be found to combat the tendency of some of the inmates to refuse to accept the authority of the NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] nominated to be in charge of huts, the distribution of Red Cross parcels, supervision of food supplies and cleanliness of the huts.
If some form of discipline and personal hygiene had not been maintained then all kinds of problems would have arisen especially in a country very hot in summer and very cold in winter. There are always ‘rotten apples’ in a barrel and if nothing is done about it then the rest will suffer by infection.
A committee was organised and members were recruited from amongst the hut leaders (senior NCOs), other representatives from each hut and members of the Entertainment Committee. The most senior of the NCOs, a Warrant Officer in the RAOC [Royal Army Ordnance Corps], presided over this committee.
After a very lengthy discussion that lasted several days, it was finally decided to introduce a set up whereby some alternative means of discipline could be introduced on more informal lines than the usually military hard line.
The planned changes notified to all members of the compound were as follows:
[Digital page 32]
Campo PG No. 78. Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy.
An Ideal Day
[Cartoon with caption] “Gung Ho” Attempted Escapers. A walk….. (Not many allowed because of the 2 above)
[Cartoon with caption] (A rare treat) A Shower…..
[Cartoon with caption] and a parcel (asperramo). Note. Italian form of punishment – punching holes in tins of food – because attempted escape tunnel found.
[Digital page 33]
[Cartoon with caption] Any Offers? I’d make a wonderful husband.
[Digital page 34]
“Gefangenschaft” has peculiar effects on one’s character, and originality of hair styles is one of the most noticeable results. It is presumably a means of self expression, and in some cases, merely the result of laziness. We have for example:
[Cartoon with caption] The ‘Latinesque’ dude, or Count.
[Cartoon with caption] The convict crop known locally as “Moon Man”.
[Cartoon with caption] The Bolshie.
[Digital page 35]
[Cartoon with caption] The he-man from the back blocks
[Cartoon with caption] The chorus ‘girl’
[Cartoon with caption] and the bohemian
[Digital page 36]
[Cartoon with caption] The man of the Victorian persuasion, with flowing Dundrearies
[Cartoon with caption] The gambler, who will gamble away even his beauty
[Cartoon with caption] The musician, or poet
[Cartoon with caption] The tramp
[Digital page 37, original page 71]
Our compound, officially ‘No 3’, was unofficially changed to ‘BLIGHTYBOROUGH’. The complex of huts, toilets, wash places, concert hall and cookhouse became a small fictitious English town with its own elected Mayor, Corporation and Police Force. The old concert hall became the ‘Town Hall’ and the community theatre. The Councillors of the Corporation were elected representatives from each hut together with a representative number from the hut leaders. The Senior Warrant Officer was the Chairman of the body of councillors.
The Police Force was run on the lines of the ‘KEYSTONE COPS’ of the silent and early sound comedy films popular in the early 1930s. These ‘cops’ had a distinctive semi-uniform with ‘pith helmets’ and/or ‘toppies’ dyed black to look like police helmets! The truncheons were made of old socks, again dyed black, filled with straw or some other soft materials. These weapons were used to beat ‘law breakers’ when sentenced by ‘The Magistrate’.
Officers in the ‘Force’ were recruited from those members of the Rifle Brigade (The Tower Hamlet Rifles) who had kept themselves fit by regular keep fit exercises. They were not of a particularly big build but they were tough and strong enough to cope with most of the convicted ‘villains’ who they used to haul out of their huts and mete out their ‘punishment’.
In the main it was all treated like a joke and caused hilarity amongst the onlookers when the offenders were publicly chastised. If this treatment was not accepted by all those involved then some other official sanction had to be used, but most of them took it in good part. The object of this method of treatment for those unwilling to conform was really used as a warning to others to fall in with the requirements of close communal living.
Some amusing incidents occurred following the set up of this ‘new’ town. During the first summer it was decided to hold a carnival and fancy dress parade to be led by the band. The fancy dress competition was for couples dressed up to look like well known male and female couples such as Adam and Eve, Tarzan and Jane, Punch and Judy, Babes in the Wood and so on. There would be prizes awarded for the most originally, comically and unusually dressed couples to be judged by the Mayor.
On the day of the carnival the procession started at the top of the compound and proceeded to walk down the slope in twos. The Mayor and the Corporation sat halfway down the compound and applauded the competitors as they went by. The sound of music, laughter and ribald comments from the crowd watching the procession was too much for the guard in his sentry box outside the gates to the compound. The gates were about eight feet high and were made of solid wood so the guard couldn’t see into the compound. To satisfy his curiosity he opened the gate a
[Digital page 38, original page 72]
little way and gasped in astonishment when he saw what he thought were women in the compound. He asked some of the crowd nearest the gate to confirm his suspicions and in order to cause a stir they assured him it was true.
The poor little guard hastily closed and locked the gates and then pressed the alarm bell in his sentry box. This quickly brought the officer in charge of the compound together with a squad of his troops in support. He then asked the guard why he had raised the alarm. He was told that the prisoners had women in the compound and as he knew this was not allowed he had raised the alarm.
The officer of course did not believe him but on hearing the noise and the laughter coming from the compound he opened the gates. He soon realised what was causing all the amusement! We found out later that the guard had been marched off under escort to the punishment cells to spend a week in solitary confinement.
I have forgotten the name of the officer in charge of our compound but I do remember we called him ‘Flatbats’. He was always smartly dressed in a well-tailored, pale grey uniform with plenty of gold braid in evidence. He always wore breeches and highly polished black riding boots. He appeared to have large flat feet and walked with his feet splayed out – hence the nickname ‘flatbats’.
It was rumoured, and probably true, that this officer in civilian life in the 1930s had been in business with his father in Malta. It was said they ran an import/export business but had been kicked out by the British before war started. They had been accused and found guilty of a number of illegal dealings over a number of years. Hence his dislike and, at times, hatred of the British. Consequently we had to bear the brunt of his petty punishments. This did not deter some of the lads finding ways and means to annoy him on many occasions. This often gave us the chance to have a laugh at his expense but these escapades often led to punishment.
On one occasion a number of the occupants of one particular hut often passed the time away playing strip poker. There was no point in discarding items of clothing so those players who had a strong growth of hair, moustaches or beards shaved off one half of said hair growth when they lost in a game.
When the compound officer saw these men at next morning’s roll call he went berserk waving his arms and shouting. He assumed the men had deliberately shaved off part of their hair growth to make him look a laughing stock in front of the assembled POWs and his guards who were on
[Digital page 39, original page 73]
roll call. He picked out one of the men minus beard and sent him off to the punishment cells so as to save face.
On another occasion, a mock battle between nominated huts had been arranged. ‘Bombs’ were made using surplus tomato powder (used to create puree) and then put in paper bags. When thrown the bombs burst releasing a cloud of red powder over attackers and defenders. When water was thrown on the men they looked like red Indians.
The laughter and noise from the watching crowd brought the guards and the compound officer charging into the compound. On seeing the mess caused by the tomato powder and water our not so friendly officer accused the participants of wasting “good food”. The punishment this time was the stopping of the issue of Red Cross parcels for one week.
In the early days, walks outside of the camp were arranged from time to time. During what turned out to be the last walk allowed, some prisoners decided that they would attempt to escape into the vineyards and olive groves on either side of the lane on which they were walking. Their dash for freedom did not last very long as all of them were soon caught. During the excitement some of the guards fired their rifles although no one was hurt. One guard near me in his panic attempted to load his rifle with a clip of bullets in an ammunition pouch on his belt not realising that the pouch only held a packet of cigarettes which he attempted to insert into the breech of his rifle. He forgot that the clip of bullets was in the other pouch on his belt. This incident caused laughter amongst the prisoners nearest to the poor little fellow. An NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] soon appeared and when he realised what had caused the laughter saw to it that the guard was ordered to the guardroom and from there sent to the cells as punishment.
That was the end of the walks – see artist’s sketch headed ‘An ideal day’. The bottom sketch on the same page of illustrations shows an Italian guard punching a hole in a tin of food from a Red Cross parcel. This action was taken originally as a punishment when would-be escapers were caught in a tunnel with tins of food from Red Cross parcels. This puncturing of the tins became a regular practice by the guards. As an attempt to get our own back and to show we were not bothered by these actions, some of the lads emptied all the contents of the tins – meat and veg, fruit, condensed milk, even prunes into their dishes, stirred the whole vile-looking mess and spooned it into their mouths exclaiming “prima!”.
The Italians had the last laugh because we were not allowed to take away all the contents of the parcels to our huts in the following weeks. We had to pick out a few tins and the rest of the contents of the parcel, with our names written on the box, went into a ‘food bank’. Then
[Digital page 40, original page 74]
application had to be made to the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge of the food store when we wanted something from our stock of food or other items left in the parcel.
At the time we were made to dig out the parade ground/sports field. It was summer and very hot indeed. We worked with pick and shovel digging out the rocky soil for long periods. We were supervised by a number of guards with their rifles slung on their shoulders. This toiling away in the hot sun without water or regular breaks became too much. Consequently the progress of the work became slower and slower. So much so that the Italian officer in charge of the project on his periodic inspection berated the guards for not making us work harder.
The rate of progress just about came to a halt as soon as the officer disappeared from the site. The guards, frightened that they would get into serious trouble, threatened us with their rifles and fixed bayonets if we did not work at a faster rate. This display of aggression did not deter us and it got to the stage when one of our number stopped digging for a short breather. The guard nearest to him jumped down and stabbed him in the leg drawing blood. Fortunately the wound was not very deep so did not result in heavy bleeding.
The wounded man indicated to the guard by sign language that if he thought he could do better perhaps he should show him how it should be done. Much to our amazement and amusement the stupid guard propped his rifle against a bank of earth, took off his jacket, grabbed a pick and started to attack the rocky soil with gusto. Unfortunately the officer reappeared on site and seeing what was happening berated the poor guard.
During the period from June 1941 until the end of that year there were many changes of prisoners in our compound. The crew of the submarine ‘Oswald’, who had been in the camp when we arrived, left the camp. We heard they had been exchanged for a number of Italian diplomats held in England. Were they lucky to be repatriated? They would after a spell of leave and re-training have been back in action again. I never heard what became of them and whether they survived the war. The next batch to leave us were the Australians and New Zealanders who were rumoured to have been sent further north.
We were soon involved in a major upheaval. With no prior warning a number of guards appeared in the compound and ordered us out of our huts with all our possessions. The comfortable camp beds were removed and wooden two-tier bunks were brought in to replace them. We could only assume more prisoners were about to arrive and this turned out to be the case. Crete and Greece had fallen to the Germans.
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Campo PG 78, Compound No. 3, Hut 59
[Sketch with caption] A typical two-tier wooden bunk. A busy day – writing home?
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Evidently attempts to take survivors of the battle by boat had only been partially successful. Some of the transport ships had been sunk and where survivors had been picked up by the Italian navy, they were taken to Italy as prisoners with some coming to our camp. A short time later another intake of prisoners came following the sinking of the destroyer ‘Hereward’ off Crete by German fighter bombers. The survivors had been rescued by the Italian navy with some of them so badly burnt with their wounds also covered in oily water that they were taken to hospital.
Following a severe battle between German and British tanks in which the Germans came out on top, many prisoners were taken. Some were handed over to the Italians who transferred them to our camp. It was during that battle that a number of war correspondents were captured wearing officer style uniforms with the words ‘War Correspondent’ on their jackets. Although under the Geneva Convention it was agreed such correspondents would be treated like officers, the Italians didn’t follow the code.
There were two well-known names amongst them: the Hon. Edward Ward, a BBC war correspondent, and Uys Krige, the national poet of South Africa. In the following year he wrote a very descriptive poem entitled ‘Midwinter’ (a copy of a photo of him and his poem are included in this narrative). Edward Ward, later to become Viscount Bangor, wrote a book entitled ‘Give me air’ describing his experience whilst a prisoner. The included photocopy of an extract from that book gives a vivid account of his experiences in the Other Ranks compound. Later on in the book, when finally the war correspondents were accepted as ‘officers’, he described the differences between lifestyle in the two compounds.
It was not so long after the completion of the ‘sports ground’ mentioned earlier that our captors announced there would be a challenge football match between the prisoners and the guards. No doubt our captors thought that their team would be much fitter and better trained than our team. Little did they know that there were at least two professional footballers in our team – the Stevens brothers who had played regularly for Newcastle or Sunderland. Although our team was not allowed to practise on the proper pitch they did try out some moves such as taking corners on the stony slopes of the compound between the huts.
On the day of the match we were allowed to spectate from the side of the pitch watched over of course by many of the guards. The Italian troops were crowded on the other side of the pitch with their backs to the small hamlet of Fonte d’Amore. When it became obvious that, despite the lack of real practice, our team was well on top having scored a number of goals by half time, we started barracking the opposition. The booing, ribald remarks, boisterous laughing and shouting
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didn’t please the Italians, especially the officers who were watching. Both goalkeepers didn’t fancy diving on the hard rocky ground but the Italians were not good enough to score many goals. The final whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the guards’ team as they lost by a large margin. I believe our team scored double figures in goals to the odd goal against. Regrettably there were no more matches arranged – for obvious reasons!
Other sports were played in the compound such as inter-hut cricket matches that were not easy because of the narrow space between huts, the quite steep slope and the stony ground. Special rules were introduced such as if the ball was hit down the slope and not stopped the batsman could only run four runs. Cricket bats were made of slats from the bunk beds and rubber balls were obtained by barter with the guards, with the most popular ‘currency’ being soap and chocolate. Deck tennis was another popular sport with nets made from Red Cross parcel string which was also used to make the rings or quoits.
There were one or two good boxers in the compound. One of them had been an amateur champion of South Africa at his weight. An Irish flight crew sergeant in the RAF was also very useful with his fists. Exhibition fights were arranged and other volunteer hopefuls tried their luck against the more proficient boxers. Serious arguments and differences of opinion were often settled by putting on the boxing gloves. Those fights were strictly supervised and the fighters had to abide by the referee’s decision.
The winter of 1941 began in November – very early that year – and the weather became very cold. There was soon two to three feet of snow on the ground. As there was no heating in the huts we spent most of the day in bed wrapped up in an overcoat (for those who had one and luckily I did), the thin issue blanket and anything else that could keep the intense cold out. The food situation was not good and a lack of a balanced diet led to many of us including me getting yellow jaundice.
As a result many of the POWs were down in the dumps and despair set in because the news of the war’s progress obtained from a hidden radio was very gloomy to say the least. The hope of getting out quickly soon faded away and led us all to think continually of home and family. We also thought of the good wholesome food that although rationed we were missing especially as Christmas fast approached.
To occupy myself during this bad period of weather I managed to sit up in bed and draw a Christmas card with coloured crayons and pencil (see copy enclosed) which I sent home to my parents. To my surprise the card did arrive home in time for Christmas.
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Campo PG No. 78, Fonte d’Amore, Italy
Compound No. 3, Hut 70, Christmas 1941.
[Illustration with caption] Card designed and drawn by myself and sent to my family.
(Note: when the other occupants in the Hut saw this effort, they all asked me to sketch a card for them. Fortunately the hut was not full at that time!!)
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[Message inside Christmas card designed by Collier]
12th November 1941
To: Mum, Dad, Margaret and Janett
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[Poem inside Christmas card designed by Collier]
Here’s a hearty Christmas greeting
Best of luck until our meeting
Though the miles are many
And long is the way,
To where you are spending
Your Christmas day.
Most fond are the wishes
And thoughts are so dear.
To wish you good fortune
And Christmas cheer.
[Digital page 47, original page 77]
When some of the inmates of the hut saw what I was doing they begged me to draw a card for them. I did on payment of five cigarettes which were one of the main sources of ‘money’ in the camp used for payment or barter. Parcels of clothing, cigarettes, etc, were beginning to get through from home, relatives, friends and charitable organisations such as the ‘Forget me not League’. Some parcels came from as far away as Canada and the USA.
One bright spark wrote to Deanna Durbin, a well-known, very attractive American actress and singer. He begged her to send a photo of herself which he could lie and look at to keep his spirits up during the long days of imprisonment. Much to his surprise not only did he get photos of her but also a parcel of food and cigarettes. So you can imagine the comments he got from other envious onlookers when he opened his parcel. Others tried the same approach but were disappointed when the actress did not reply. However they did receive the odd parcel from other sources in America following publicity in that country.
1942: The Dawn of Another New Year
We all wondered what this New Year would bring. Would it be possible for the war to end next year, sometime or never? Our morale was at a low ebb especially when news from America reached us of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the entry of the US into the war against the Japanese and then the Axis forces. Uys Krige in his poem ‘Midwinter’ written on 16 January 1942 said in the final line: ‘Here even dreams are dead’.
The winter dragged on and it seemed spring would never arrive. But gradually the snows melted on the lower slopes of the mountains and the days got a little brighter and began to get warmer. When the early morning mists cleared the scenery was fantastic. The mountains stood out in all their majestic grandeur with their tops still covered in brilliant white snow. A wondrous sight indeed!
As the boredom got worse among the prisoners some of the more adventurous types turned their attention to setting up feasible ways of trying to escape. Digging tunnels was not a very profitable exercise and no attempt to escape through those was successful. Some of the failed attempts turned out to be quite amusing for those not involved. One of those involved mainly Australian officers who had mining experience. They carefully surveyed what they thought was a most promising area to start digging under the nearest hut to the wall of their compound. The tunnel was then dug underneath the wall then onwards under the road which ran round the camp. They then had to dig a further ten to fifteen yards to get under the coils of barbed wire.
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Unfortunately the ‘miners’ had miscalculated the distance from the wall of the compound to the fence on the other side of the road so they started their slope up to the surface too soon. To make matters worse they had hit an area of softer soil. The next calamity happened when the guards marched along the perimeter road they all suddenly sank through the ground and into the tunnel on top of the ‘miners’. They had only dropped about three feet but the shock and confusion caused a terrible uproar.
Another attempt to escape was made by two lads from our compound. They had watched a group of civilian workers brought into the compound to repair the roofs of a number of huts. The workmen needed some wooden ladders to get up onto the roofs and it was after dusk before they left for the day. This work went on for a few weeks. One day our two chaps managed to pinch one of the ladders – goodness knows how they did it without the workmen noticing. They then managed to get hold of some civilian-looking clothes.
On the selected day they walked out of the compound with the civilian workers carrying the ladder between them on their shoulders. It was quite a dull evening and they might have got away with it but unfortunately the same officer who had been on duty in the morning when the workers had been admitted had again been on duty when the workmen were being let out of the gate. Being suspicious of the group, he lined them up in front of him, called out the guard to bring out the day’s worksheet, counted them and found out there were two more than had been let in that morning. The extra workmen were soon identified and were immediately sent to the punishment cells under armed guard.
Another daring escape attempt was thought up by a mysterious New Zealander who was brought into the compound on his own. He was not dressed in any known uniform, wearing a dark sweater and trousers and a type of merchant seaman’s cap. He was only five feet three inches tall but appeared to be very wiry with quite dark skin. He told fellow inmates of his hut that he had been a merchant seaman but jumped ship in Alexandria when it docked in Egypt. When his money ran out he had to look for a job. Eventually according to him he met up with some men of the Long Range Desert Patrol who spent their time behind enemy lines in the Egyptian and Libyan deserts. There was some suspicion about his story but he became accepted among us.
He thought up an escape plan by watching a local pig farmer coming into the compound weekly to collect sacks of waste food from the cookhouse. He used a wheelbarrow each week to cart off two sacks which were partially full as there was not much waste food from a POW camp. Our short Kiwi, after a discussion with the cook-sergeant, got in a sack and the waste food was placed
[Digital page 49, original page 79]
on top. To stop the farmer being concerned about the weight, two of the cooks heaved the sack into the wheelbarrow and placed the other sack on top whilst the sergeant offered the farmer a cigarette. The farmer cannot have noticed the extra weight as the journey through the compound to the main gate was all downhill.
At the main gate the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge of the guard thought that one sack seemed much fuller than the other one so he stopped the farmer leaving the camp and sent for the duty Orderly Officer. When the officer saw the difference in size between the two sacks he ordered two of the guards to empty the sacks onto the road and out came the Kiwi curled up inside. The officer was furious and threatened to shoot him but the guards were doubled up with laughter. The poor Kiwi finished up in the punishment cell for a month and was really thin when he next saw the light of day!
Among the other escape attempts there was one that was aborted and another that was successful that may be of interest. The first was an attempted tunnel breakout where the escapees were well on their way to completing the tunnel when they arrived at a fall of rock. They started to clear it when they came across some bones that looked as if they could be human. They put some bones in to a bag and crawled back up to their hut. To their surprise, guards were waiting for them. ‘Flatbats’ clapped his hands in glee at the discovery of the tunnel and the capture of the tunnellers.
When the sack was emptied there was much scratching of heads about the bones and where they could have come from if they were human. After some research it was decided they were human bones of unsuccessful tunnellers of the 1914-1918 war. In that war, Italy was on the side of the Allies and the camp was built to keep Austrian prisoners secure. Our tunnellers were given the standard punishment of a month’s imprisonment in darkness with very little food and water.
The only successful escape from the Other Ranks compound was by the compound barber – a sailor and a Catholic. He managed with the help of a guard to get through the wire where a priest’s outdoor robes and a hat were given to him. He was also given a bicycle which he cycled all the way to Rome and the Vatican City where he was allowed entry. We were led to believe he was interned and eventually repatriated to the UK in exchange for an Italian wanted by the Vatican officials.
Because of these escape attempts all the Allied prisoners were punished by the stoppage of Red Cross parcels for some time.
[Digital page 50, original page 80]
A copy of an article is included that I wrote about how we managed to get the Italians to agree to the re-issue of the parcels. (This article was written for a brochure produced for a formal visit made after the war to the camp by myself, a large party of young servicemen and women, as well as relatives and friends of ex-prisoners of war.)
It became very obvious early in the New Year that we would have to get down to discussing improvements to the entertainments itinerary from both the drama and musical groups. Our captive audience had become noticeably bored with some of the repetitive shows put on in recent months. So the leaders of both groups met to try and suggest some new ideas to improve the quality and variety of future programmes. This get together needed to come up with some decisions without delay as some of the inmates were becoming rather difficult. Unfounded accusations were being made of thefts of clothing, cigarettes and food. Much of this behaviour arose from the despair and despondency felt by many in not knowing the state of the war.
The entertainment did improve. For example, the concert band got some new music from the UK and short sketches became more amusing or dramatic. As far as solo turns were concerned, one slim good looking chap had been trained as a ballet dancer in his younger days. Somebody made for him a tutu, stockings and pumps. In between two musical numbers the stage curtains were drawn to and the lights were switched off. No announcement was made and then a spotlight was played on the centre of the curtains which were then pulled open. There standing in a classic female ballet pose was a figure of a lovely ballerina. For a short moment there was complete stunned silence followed by enthusiastic applause and some wolf whistles. The name of the person taking the part was kept a close secret. When someone from his hut recognised him, he then had to have a close ‘minder’!
Another act was more comical. A muscle bound corporal in the Tower Hamlet Rifles, a light infantry regiment, dressed himself up as Carmen Miranda, a well known pre-war Brazilian dancer. She wore outrageous headwear so our impersonator made a headdress of vegetables and danced around the stage to Latin American music. He of course received ribald remarks and catcalls followed by generous applause at the end of his act.
The drama group certainly improved their act by putting on comedies and more serious plays. These plays were very well performed and the costumes and scenery were very realistic. Two of these plays were ‘Middle Watch’ and ‘Blithe Spirit’ by Noel Coward (more about this play later). A very good friend of mine, Henry Hudson from Leeds, played the main character in both plays. He was brilliant.
[Digital page 51, original page 81]
There were two or three other musical combos – a classical string quartet, a pit orchestra for the musicals and the Mandoliers orchestra. So our compound was well served for listening to a variety of music.
When Tobruk fell to the Germans after the first siege and 20,000 allied troops were captured, this resulted in our camp getting a large number of British prisoners. They were all taken to the bottom compound No. 4 and the camp was now full to overflowing. It was around that time that the Italians were looking for volunteers to go to work camps which had been opened. Strictly we were not supposed to volunteer to work for the enemy. However there were a few volunteers, mainly ex-commandos, who thought there would be more chance of escaping, especially if they were sent to farms. The small number of volunteers did not satisfy the Italians so they decided to pick out the number they required who were sent away under the leadership of one or two NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers].
The venture was not a great success because many of the workers turned out to be idle and the stealing of vegetables and other food was rampant. One of the NCOs who was sent back to the camp said that as a result the scheme was not considered worthwhile and was stopped.
As soon as the Italians had received confirmation that the War Correspondents should be recognised as the equivalent of officers, they were sent to the Officers’ compound. This only applied to the British so the South African ones had to stay with us. Edward Ward told the officers of the quality of entertainment in our compound. So through a request from the Senior Officer, a play and concert went up to the officers’ compound to perform.
The performances were received with rapturous applause. Edward Ward talked the officers, who had plenty of money, in giving all the performers wads of real money which was taken back to the compound. This was used to buy decent cheese, pasta and wine which was shared around all the huts apart from the Sergeants’ Mess. The Senior NCOs had been living better than us with their own cook, kitchen and dining area. They pooled their Red Cross parcels and with their Italian rations as well they ate better than the Other Ranks. They also kept their camp beds so they also slept better than us!
The officers were given permission to bring one of their Revues to our compound which was quite entertaining. They were surprised to see the quality of our stage settings and costumes.
So the year dragged on and everyone, with a few exceptions, had settled down into a dreary routine. The warm summer helped matters. Most of us slept outside in the areas between the huts for two reasons. First because it was cooler and second because the bed bugs had come
[Digital page 52, original page 82]
out of the wooden bunks and began feeding on our flesh! The Italians occasionally fumigated the huts, especially the beds, which helped for a short time but the little devils returned in what seemed to be greater numbers.
The only wound I received during the war was caused by the actions of a very officious carabinieri guard who was patrolling our compound early one morning. It was my turn to make the porridge that morning from the dried oats we got in some of the Red Cross parcels. The Italians had banned all cooking and the use of tin stoves between the huts in the compound. The only cooking was supposed to be done in the cookhouse. When the guard saw me ignoring the ban and stirring the porridge he shouted at me and in his rage kicked over the stove. The hot porridge spilled on to my foot. As I was only wearing sandals I shouted out in pain and in my anger at the pain and the loss of our breakfast I jumped up waving my arms. The guard, probably thinking I was going to attack him, reversed his rifle which had a needle like steel bayonet attached to it. The downward lunge stabbed me in the right foot and the pain made me shout out.
The noise brought some of the lads out of the hut and when they saw what had happened they threatened the guard who beat a hasty retreat blowing his whistle. The main gate guard on hearing the commotion had already opened the gate much to the relief of the carabinieri guard. The outcome of this incident was once again the total banning of all small fires and stoves in the compound, but of course after a short while individual brew ups soon resumed.
Within a few days my foot became very red, blistered and swollen, so I asked the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) corporal in our compound to have a look at it. I had wrapped my foot up with a handkerchief torn up into strips which he took off to look at my foot. As soon as he saw it he said I would have to report sick at the next roll call after which I was sent to the Infirmary near to the guards’ barracks. When the Italian medical orderly saw my foot he called the Italian doctor.
The doctor ordered me to lie down on a rather grubby couch and proceeded to jab at the loose skin around the burst blister on my foot with a pair of scissors which had not been sterilised. He told the orderly to put some thick black coloured ointment on the wound and cover it with a not too clean bandage. He wrote out an order confining me to bed and excused all roll calls for a week.
It was summertime and I lay on my bunk day and night for the following week at the end of which my foot still felt very sore. In fact the skin above the bandage looked very red and one of my mates went for the medical corporal who came and had a look at the wound. When he saw it he looked concerned and said the wound had turned septic. He wanted the advice of Major White
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Campo PG No. 78, Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy.
Compound No. 3, Hut 59 – Christmas Day 1942.
[Illustration with caption] Cover of Christmas Day 1942 menu, designed and drawn by myself for our syndicate. The design was based on the Compounds “Coat of Arms”.
[Digital page 54]
[Picture of 1943 Diary from the Pope] Christmas 1942
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[Picture of inside page from 1943 Diary from the Pope]
874884 Hbdr [undefined] B.
Campo PG 78
Posta Militare 3300
The words quoted beneath the calendar for each month are taken from speeches made by His Holiness Pope Pius XII.
[Digital page 56]
[Picture of inside page from 1943 Diary from the Pope]
Among the many calamities resulting from the vast conflict one in particular has, from the outset, weighed heavily, and still, on Our heart: the fate of the prisoners of war which We have felt all the more keenly the less opportunity was allowed to our fatherly solicitude to come to their aid where greater numbers and more acute distress call for efficacious relief and comfort. Bearing in mind what We were able to accomplish during the last war, in the name of Pope Benedict XV of happy memory, for the alleviation of the material and moral sufferings of very many prisoners, We hoped that this time also the way might remain open to the religious and charitable enterprises of the Church.
Nevertheless, if in certain countries Our purpose has been frustrated, Our effort has not been everywhere without success. In fact, We have been able to send not a few spiritual and material proofs of Our interest to at least one section of Polish prisoners, and others more frequently, to Italian prisoners and interned civilians, especially in Egypt, in Australia and in Canada.
Nor did We wish the holy festival of Christmas to dawn on the world without sending, by means of Our representatives, some tangible evidence of Our blessing, Our encouragement and Our remembrance to the English and French prisoners in Italy, to the Germans in England, to the Greeks in Albania, and to the Italians scattered throughout the British Empire, chiefly in Egypt, Palestine and India.
Moreover, in Our longing to make our own the eager desire of so many families anxious to know the fate of their unfortunate and absent relatives, We have established another work of no small magnitude which We are actively developing and extending with a view to obtaining and transmitting news, whenever and as soon as it is possible and permissible to do so, not only of numerous prisoners but likewise of refugees and all those who have been cut off from home and country by present circumstances. In this way We have been able to feel thousands of other hearts beating in unison with Our own in the tumult of their deepest affections, in the agitation of longing desire, in the nightmare of uncertainty, in the exultant joy of safety regained, in deep grief and patient resignation for the fate of their loved ones.
(December 24th 1940).
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[Picture of inside page from 1943 Diary from the Pope]
The Pope gave this commemorative diary to all English speaking POWs as a gesture of goodwill for Christmas 1942.
May the Lord grant His Christmas peace to the prisoners of war of every nation whom adversity has made doubly dear to Us. The longer and more painful the separation from their country and their dear ones, the deeper be this peace within their hearts. At this holy season of Christmas, Our prayers for them are still more fervent, and on them and on their families We call down God’s choicest blessings.
Pius pp. XII
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the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] doctor in the officers’ compound to whom he was able to pass a message through a small hole in the wall separating the two compounds. At great risk to himself Major White came over the wall that night and inspected my foot. He had brought some antiseptic ointment and clean bandages with him and he tended to the wound as best he could, leaving some of the ointment and bandages with the corporal. It was very brave of Major White because if he had been caught in the act by a trigger-happy guard he would have, in all probability, been shot.
Fortunately my foot gradually improved with the regular attention from the medical corporal. He told me I had been very lucky because without the treatment from Major White, gangrene could have set in with dire consequences. I still have the scar today to remind me of that bad incident. Another reminder came a lot later in May 2002. The Italian doctor who caused the problem in the first place had earned the title of ‘The Butcher’ and in 2002 I met him again in an Italian village high up in the mountains. The village called Anversa was where a mountain shepherd had sheltered over 40 escaping POWs from my camp in 1943/1944. When the Germans found out they executed him.
A number of ex-POWs including myself had gone to the village nearly 60 years later to honour the courage of the man by laying a British Legion wreath at the foot of a memorial erected in his name. After the ceremony we were invited by the village mayor to meet the daughter of this hero. She had just had published a book she had written about the heroism of her father.
The ‘Butcher’ of our camp was at the ceremony! He had the cheek to get up during the meeting at the civic hall and said he’d been the doctor in the camp and had looked after us and had probably saved the lives of those who had been ill whilst in the camp!! A few of us who had suffered at his hands were tempted to get up and tell him what we thought of him and his brutal treatment. But by then we thought ‘what’s the use?’ we might as well let bygones be bygones.
Just before Christmas 1942, Pope Pius XII sent his representatives round the prison camps and all the prisoners were given a commemorative diary for 1943 from the Pope. In it there was a lengthy printed message and also a personal handwritten message from his Holiness. Under the monthly calendar there were extracts from some of his speeches. I suppose that these extracts were intended to offer some comfort to us for each month! I found the diary very useful for recording dates when I received parcels or letters from family and friends at home. I did this because we were restricted to the number of letters we were able to send to the UK each month. So if I replied to friends my family didn’t get so many that month.
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My ‘syndicate’ consisted of Reg Wilkinson of my own regiment, Andy Bain, the leader of the concert band and The Mandoliers, a corporal in the Northumberland Fusiliers and myself. With Christmas approaching Reg, who fortunately was a good cook, managed to make puddings and cakes from ground up biscuits and pasta soaked overnight. Andy and I made the ‘hooch’ from raisins, prunes and sugar saved from Red Cross parcels. The alcoholic drink was really potent and had to be hidden and guarded to protect it from likely looters! Over Christmas the potent brew made us forget our problems and doubts for a day or two! (I enclose a copy of the Christmas ‘menu’ but unfortunately the inside page listing the various courses has been lost).
1943: Another new year in captivity?
What would this New Year bring? Would there be any change in our circumstances and would the tide of war change in our favour?
Having mentioned the visit of the Pope’s representative to deliver the gift of a diary for 1943, it reminds me of an earlier visit during the summer of a representative from the International Red Cross from Geneva in Switzerland. That visit was to inspect the conditions in the camp with regards to sleeping accommodation, cleanliness, adequate food and the delivery and distribution of Red Cross parcels.
Prior to the visit the whole camp was cleaned up and the quality of the food was improved (not for long). The Red Cross chap was accompanied by a high ranking Italian army general, together with his HQ [Headquarters] staff and the Papal Nuncio with the local bishop and minor clergy in support.
We were all lined up in front of our huts suitably dressed for the occasion – well anyway a clean shirt or vest and shorts or trousers. The Red Cross rep picked out a few of the chaps and questioned them about their treatment from our gaolers. Of course the visitors were shown around the compound theatre to indicate the extent of our welfare. Once the visit was over conditions soon returned to normal.
The cold winter turned to early spring and the snow retreated back up the mountain as the sun gathered strength. As time went on there was no sign of release from captivity. We were beginning to think that our situation was hopeless and we couldn’t envisage any other life in the future. Despair and depression were beginning to affect all of us. I was more fortunate than the majority of inmates of our compound because of my involvement with the entertainment provided. But the lack of any good news from the outside world made us all feel that we would remain prisoners for the rest of our lives!
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The quality of the food provided by the Italians was now very poor. Evidently the Germans were taking all the good produce out of Italy to help with the shortage in Germany. So the Italian population was suffering as well. Thank goodness Red Cross parcels were still getting through to the camp although not always on a regular basis. What parcels we did get helped us to survive to face the future.
In the late spring good news of the progress of the war began to get through to us. In the Middle East the advance out from El Alamein had gathered momentum and evidently towards the end of January had made a rapid push through Libya and Allied troops entered Tripoli. At the same time the Russians were beginning to halt the German advance in Russia.
The source of the good news was mainly from our hidden radio but it also came from the Italian guards who roamed the compound at night. Usually the carabinieri dressed in black would, with the help of a bar of soap or chocolate, give us news of the progress of the war. This was given grudgingly if the allies were getting the upper hand. Confirmation of the good news came in notes passed through the hole in the wall from the officers’ compound. When the good news had been circulated around the huts the fellows cheered up no end. There were more smiling faces and more laughter as morale improved considerably.
Further good news reached us as spring turned to summer. Most importantly from our point of view was the news that Allied paratroops and other troops had landed in Sicily in early July and by the middle of the month the Italians had surrendered in western Sicily. Then came the news that Mussolini had resigned and had been arrested while Marshal Badoglio had taken over the army and formed a government.
It was at this time that Roy Goodhind, a LAC [Leading Aircraftman] in the RAF, asked me to take part in a play he was putting together called ‘Blithe Spirit’ by Noel Coward. I had known Roy for quite some time because he had been a stand in drummer for one of the bands I played in. I was very surprised that he had asked me to join his ‘Falcon Company’ of actors because I didn’t have any earlier experience of acting. It was obvious he had not selected me for one of the major parts. Much to my relief he wanted me to play the part of ‘Doctor Bradman’, a small part in the supporting cast. I thought this would be a change in my entertainment experience so I agreed.
The play evidently had been running in the West End of London for most of the war years and indeed was still running at that time. We practiced long and hard for a few weeks until Roy was
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[Illustration of the programme for Blithe Spirit, staged at Compound No. 3 Concert Hall]
This programme was designed and produced by Norman Kingham in the camp. (He is now an internationally known architect in Liverpool.)
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[Illustration of the programme for Blithe Spirit showing the cast and set crew]
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[Menu for the celebratory dinner for Blithe Spirit]
“Celebration” dinner given to the cast and stagehands by the producer LAC [Leading Aircraftman] Roy Goodhind RAF.
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satisfied with our standard of performance. The costumes had all been made and the stage sets completed.
The first performance was a huge success and we were encouraged to give continuous performances in the afternoons and evenings. By this time parts of the walls separating the various compounds had been knocked down (a sign of the times) and the prisoners from the other compounds came to see the play we performed to rapturous applause. As a result of this success Roy organised a celebratory ‘dinner’ for all the cast, stagehands and others who had helped to make our performances so successful. This dinner took place in the evening of 21st of August 1943, just eighteen days before we all left the camp.
More good news of the progress of the war was getting through to us daily. In the month of August the ‘new’ Italian government tried to sue for peace with the Allies. Rome was declared an open city and before the end of the month all resistance in Sicily had ended.
It was obvious when looking down into the valley that there was increased activity along the roads especially traffic travelling south. Due to the distance it was difficult to tell if it was German or Italian activity, although in all probability it would have been German.
This conjecture was supported with the first Allied bombing of Sulmona. The aircraft appeared to be American fighter bombers flying fairly low as there was no anti-aircraft fire from the ground. We could not find out the extent of the damage caused by the bombing but the Italians were rather annoyed and frightened by the air raid. I can’t remember if there was any more bombing whilst we were there – the raid had probably been aimed at the rail station and tracks.
Soon after this air raid a few American aircrew and two Canadian fliers were brought to the camp. They provided us with more good news that Allied troops had landed on the Italian mainland on the 3rd of September. Then the best news of all (or so we thought) was passed onto us that Marshal Badoglio had agreed to sign surrender terms with the Allied command. Following this news the senior Italian colonel in charge of the camp allowed the senior Allied officers in the camp, mainly British and Australian, to speak to us. We then paraded on the football pitch cum parade ground to hear what they had to say.
The senior British officer, a Lieutenant Colonel, told us that the British government had issued strict instructions that all British POWs were to stay put in the camps under the control of our own officers until the advancing Allied armies reached us. Then orderly repatriation would be organised to get us back home. The government did not want thousands of ex-POWs wandering
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about the countryside, as this would create too many problems whilst gaining control of the area during the advance northwards to Rome. It was also considered safer for us to remain in the camps.
This directive was not received with any degree of agreement from the assembled other ranks. In fact quite rebellious comments were shouted at the officers which gathered momentum. Gradually the shouting died down when a senior Australian officer stepped forward and told us he was the senior Allied officer in the camp. He agreed with the majority of the assembled troops that this order from the British government was ridiculous and as far as he was concerned we all needed to get out of the camp as soon as possible.
It was obvious to him that the Germans would soon have thousands of troops, fighting vehicles and aircraft in the area as the valley was one of the main routes south through the centre of Italy. The enemy would be certain to clear out thousands of enemy serviceman. This would mean we would be kept as prisoners in northern Italy or most probably be carted off to Germany without delay.
The only obstacle to us getting out of the camp would be the attitude of the Italian colonel. When he was approached he said he left it to our officers to decide what should happen. By now most of the rank and file guards had already discarded their weapons and uniforms and disappeared leaving the carabinieri unit in charge of the camp.
The camp gates were opened and without further discussion or delay away we went. There was evidently some resistance put up by the carabinieri as we could hear gunfire around the area of their barracks at the top of the camp but the firing soon stopped. We heard later that a group of French Foreign Legion troops had soon overcome them. These troops had been prisoners in one of the bottom compounds having been captured in Tunisia during the Allied campaign in that country.
As we left hundreds of Italian men, women and children dashed into the camp to see what food, clothing, etc, had been left behind by the ex-POWs. Most of us headed up the mountain slopes towards the forests in which we could hide before working our way south until we met up with the advancing Allied troops.
On our way up the mountainside, not very far from the camp, we came across a long queue of our chaps waiting outside a large decrepit building. We were informed that a makeshift brothel had been set up by some of the local women. Money was not requested in payment for their
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services but chocolate and soap would do instead. I hasten to say that some of us were not tempted!
The failed attempt to escape
I went up the mountainside with a large mixed group of various ranks from a mixture of countries. One of them was an officer in a Scots uniform of kilt, sporran and bonnet. Before the group split up I had a brief chat with him. He told me he was one of the paratroop officers imprisoned in the civil prison quite close to our camp. Like the paratroopers in our camp they originally were under sentence of death. Evidently the paratroop sergeant major assisted by his team went to the civilian prison to get their officers out. They forced the prison gaolers to release all the paratroop officers held there.
I noticed that his fingertips were scarred and misshapened. He told me that his captors had tortured him to try and find out details of their mission when they had dropped into Italy to destroy a dam. His interrogators had tried the old Chinese torture of pushing slivers of bamboo under the fingernails and then setting light to the bamboo which then burnt down into the fingernails.
Our large group of escapees split up and four of us continued to trudge southwards at a rather slow pace. We had taken plenty of water with us to last at least a couple of days when we left the camp. We soon found out however that we had chosen to take too many large tins of food. The weight was too much to carry on our trek up and down the mountain tracks.
It was agreed that we should hide most of these large tins at the side of the track. Myself and Mickey Abbott, from the East End of London, volunteered to return to the camp to see if we could find some smaller tins of food containing cheese, ham, chocolate or raisins. It was not far to go back about six or seven miles at most. We managed to find a more direct route to the camp. However it took us quite some time to find the type of food we wanted because the local civilians had given the buildings a good going over in the search for food. In the end we managed to find enough to fill two haversacks.
Our return journey to where we had left the other two earlier in the day was completed fairly quickly. Soon after we left the camp for the second time we met some Italians who told us that German troops had already occupied some buildings in Sulmona. Also they said that the Germans had quickly produced notices informing the local population that they were offering 1800 lire to every Italian who captured an escaped British or American POW and handed them over to a German unit.
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[Map with caption] Map showing “escape” route from Campo 78 (Fonte d’Amore) to beyond Cansano.
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[Map showing “escape” route from Campo 78 (Fonte d’Amore) to beyond Cansano.]
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[Illustration of a “Wanted” poster for escaped POWs.]
1800. – lire italiane oppure
20. – Sterline inglese.
vengono pagate ad ogni italiano che cattura un militare inglese o americano sfuggito alla prigionia.
IL COMANDANTE MILITARE TEDESCO
1800 Italian Lire or £20 Sterling
will be paid to every Italian who captures an escaped British or American prisoner of war and hands them over to a German unit.
The German Military Commandant
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Most of the ordinary people, known as ‘contadini’, did not help the Germans to recapture us. On the contrary many hundred Italians were executed for assistance given to us. Our main problem was the civilians who were fascists and still supported the Germans. It was impossible to tell who was who. To avoid this problem we tried to keep away from civilians but this was not always possible in the circumstances in which we found ourselves.
When we arrived back at the place where we had hidden the large tins of food, there was no sign of the other two. This was not unexpected so we trudged on until dark and left the beaten track to find a reasonably comfortable spot to spend the night. Next morning we noticed we were above a large village that we later found out was called Pacentro.
The next day was decision time as we soon came to a junction. Should we head east taking us higher up the mountain range or should we head down towards the town of Sulmona which we could see clearly in the distance. The third way was to head more or less due south keeping to the lower slopes of the mountains. We decided to take the route south because there appeared to be a lot of activity around Sulmona and we could hear gunfire and shouting coming from that direction.
The chosen route was very exhausting. The track, which was a short distance away from the road, was very winding and dipped up and down quite steeply – a strain on our tired leg muscles that were not used to mountain walking. We dare not use the road during daylight as it could soon have German vehicles on it in their attempts to root out the escaping ex-POWs. As dusk fell we looked for a soft spot to spend the night. The night time temperature was not really that cold but after the warm day it felt cold because of the height above sea level.
Next morning after a bite to eat we set off up the track. We had lost count of the number of days we had been on the mountain but it must have been the start of the fourth day. We could hear the sound of gunfire and machine gunfire most of the time now, sometimes quite near but below us. Most often than not though the sounds of pursuit were quite a distance away. We kept trudging on and upwards with roughly hour breaks. Eventually as dusk fell we could see a few lights in the distance but well above us so we continued on to this small village which we entered about 10 pm. There appeared to be only one main street which was in darkness with the only lights coming from a few buildings on both sides of the road.
At the end of this road we came to a small church at a junction of two tracks. We were now completely exhausted and thought it would be a good idea to try and get shelter and maybe some
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food and drink as well. We noticed a large wooden door at the side of the church under which we could see a strip of light. This was evidently the entrance to a small house in which the priest would live. There was no bell pull so we had to knock on the door. Eventually we heard footsteps approaching the door and the key turning to open it.
In the open doorway stood a priest in a black cassock. Regrettably neither of us could speak Italian but we managed to get him to understand that we would like to be given shelter for the night. We said we were escaping British POWs and were trying to keep away from the Germans who were searching for us and many others. Instead of inviting us inside he indicated we should wait a minute and then closed and bolted the door.
When the priest had not returned after a few minutes we discussed what we should do next. Our minds were soon made up for us when a man appeared from around the back of the building and pointed what appeared to be a gun or short rifle at us. He indicated we should put our hands in the air and to follow him. We were not happy with the situation we found ourselves in so we managed in a joint effort to disarm the man. In doing so a shot was fired and he shouted out. This noise woke all the dogs in the village and they all started barking.
Without thinking we dashed up the path to the right which led us further up the mountain. We had not gone very far up this path when we came across a large farm building with a rotten wooden door into it. In we went looking for somewhere to hide until the fuss died down. The only hiding place appeared to be some large empty wooden barrels and we thought about getting in to them. On second thoughts it was an obvious place for any searchers to look for us. In despair we continued up the path running as fast as our poor physical condition would allow. We hoped we had managed to get quite a distance from the village.
There was no sign of any immediate danger although there was plenty of shouting and barking of dogs. Due to fatigue we were forced to slow down to a steady walking pace. Eventually we came to a small cave in the rocks and this became our resting place until daylight. We set off again pushing our weary limbs along this winding uphill path which could have been a goat track. The sound of gunfire was now very intense further down the mountain. It was obvious that the German troops were making a determined effort to capture the escapees.
There must have been hundreds of us still wandering about the mountain. To find as many as possible and root us out of our hiding places must have been the primary task of the Germans. This action must have involved a large number of their troops as they were covering a very wide area. Later on in the day we came to the end of a tree line. Just ahead of us was a long wide
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gulley, a deep cleft in the mountainside which led upwards to a sheer rock face which appeared to be about 20 feet high.
To cross the wide gulley would have taken us a long time and we would have been exposed on bare rock. With the Germans close by it was too much of a hazard to undertake. We therefore dropped down into the ravine and scrambled our way up to the rock face. As we approached this dead-end we noticed that a large number of boulders had dropped into the bottom of the ravine. Some were small enough to move around and we used them to make a hideout that we hoped would give us protection from being seen from lower down the ravine. We then settled down until nightfall when we hoped to get out of the ravine under the cover of darkness and continue our journey southwards.
This was not to be because in the early afternoon we could hear running and shouting followed by a lot of rifle fire. Then round a slight bend in the ravine six escapees appeared. Two of them found us hiding behind the fall of rocks. There was not enough room to hide anyone else which they accepted with a shrug of the shoulders and turned to move back down the ravine. They had not gone very far before they came across their pals surrounded by German infantry.
One of the Germans spoke a little English because we heard him say to the two who had seen us to tell his other comrades to come out and join them. We then heard one of them say that there was no one else at the top of the ravine. The German didn’t believe him because within a very short time I felt a small rock hit me on the back. When I looked up I saw a German pointing his rifle at us and he yelled out for us to get up.
For some stupid reason, probably shock, I did not respond to his command and lay still. He evidently thought I had not heard him so he fired a warning shot into the gulley, but above our heads. This action soon made us get up and join the other six captured escapers. We were marched at gunpoint down the ravine and on to the main road where we were put on a truck. The six escapees recaptured with Mickey Abbott and I were all from the Tower Hamlet Rifles (a TA [Territorial Army] unit of the Rifle Brigade). Mickey was also from the same regiment so he knew the other six.
The journey took us back north and we ended up in our old prison camp Campo PG 78. I could hardly remember the journey as the shock and despair of recapture had numbed my body and mind. We were taken to the same compound in which I had already spent two years and four months. We were not allocated to a particular hut so we decided to use the concert hut until we were kicked out into another hut.
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We chose that hut because it was not full of bunk beds. In the back beyond the stage we found two metal and canvas camp beds, luxurious compared to wooden bunks. Mickey was a real London East Ender, small in stature and a gifted scrounger. He managed to rustle up some blankets and scrounged us some food. This was when food was in short supply as there were no Red Cross parcels and very little food provided by our German guides. There was just the usual watery greens with a little of ‘something solid’ added – goodness knows what the ‘solid’ was, better not to ask!
I was still very depressed and despondent that I couldn’t make the effort to help myself. It was not long however before I realised I needed to do something to rouse myself out of this trough of despair. The compounds at that time had not been blocked off as under the Italians, so I started to roam the camp. I noticed that down in the left hand part of the camp, just past the parade ground there was a dark area behind the Italian Officers’ old quarters. At the end of this building was the perimeter wire fence. Some of the hovels of the hamlet of Fonte d’Amore faced on to this fence, which had been attached very securely to the officers’ building.
From a closer inspection of the fence I noticed that there were one or two small gaps between the wall and the wire. Later that evening I mentioned to Mickey what I had noticed and we decided that when it became dark we would have a closer look. There was a problem in that there was a manned watchtower not far from this area of the fence with a swivel searchlight.
We tried to move about without making any noise but unfortunately we knocked against some obstacle. Immediately the searchlight was switched on lighting up the whole area around the fence. Fortunately there was some shadow to protect us near the officers’ building so we stood in the shadows until the searchlight was switched off. We managed to get back to our hut without any problems on the way back. The next time l had a look at this fence in daylight I noticed some repairs had been done and there were now no gaps at all. That was the end of our attempt to find a way out of the camp without being seen.
When we had been brought back to the camp we had been interrogated by a German officer and had given our name, rank and army number. It was not long before early one morning we were all rousted out of our huts, lined up and had our names called out. We were then marched to the parade ground and when our names were called out we had to stand to one side. Eventually we were counted off into groups of fifty or sixty and marched off to the railway station some three miles away in the valley.
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At the station we were led to a train made up of a variety of cattle and goods wagons into which we were pushed and shoved until the wagon was full of some fifty or sixty bodies. I found myself in a metal wagon with only a small aperture with a grill across it. This was the only light in the wagon and the only source of light. There was some mouldy straw on the floor and two metal buckets presumably to cater for bodily functions.
The journey into the unknown
I don’t have the ability to describe adequately that train journey to eastern Germany. All I can say is that it was a complete nightmare. Conditions in the wagon after the first hour or so were atrocious. It was impossible to sit down comfortably and to lie down was out of the question. The stench from sweating bodies, urine and excrement became unbearable but there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The train seemed to travel at a snail’s pace and was continually halted at sidings, to let troop trains and goods trains carrying men and machines to the front line in the south of Italy. We were not allowed out of the trucks at these forced stops although after a continuous clamour from the trucks the guards did at times open the sliding doors to let some fresh air into the stinking interiors. Armed guards stood outside the open doors to ensure nobody tried to escape.
The first day dragged on with conditions getting worse by the minute. As I’ve said before Mickey Abbott was small and he managed to worm his way to the back right hand corner of the wagon and I followed him as best I could. This move gave us a little breathing space and we took it in turns to crouch down on our haunches and rest our heads in our arms as the day dragged on.
Early that first evening the train was stopped in a siding and we were ordered out of the wagons to be counted. This gave us the opportunity to stretch our backs and legs. We were given a drink of water and a dry, stale chunk of bread – our only meal of the day. The trucks and wagons were mucked out and a detail under guard emptied the overflowing buckets. Then it was back on board to continue our slow journey northwards. During that first night it was impossible for anyone to get any sleep.
The next morning when we were let out of the wagons for roll call we could see that we were still in Italy and still heading north. There was a changeover of guards from army to air force and it was obvious from the faces of the latter they were not keen to have been given the job of escorts. Most of them were quite young and no doubt had never seen human beings in the filthy state we
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were in before. Once again the buckets were emptied out and the sodden foul smelling straw was changed.
On the third day the train started climbing into the mountains with the engine changed for a more powerful one. The steep climb up through the Brenner Pass even caused this more powerful engine to slow down to a snail’s pace. The guards had been changed that morning and we now had Waffen SS troops in charge. They all seemed to be battle-hardened and gave us some rough treatment. What a change from the air force guards. The train reached the top of the pass by early the next morning and stopped at Bolzano where we were all ordered out for the usual roll call but this time in the snow.
Then pandemonium broke out, as evidently there were a number of missing men from some of the wooden wagons. They had escaped during the night whilst the train was travelling at its slowest. They had managed to prise up some of the floorboards and then they dropped onto the track, lying still until the train had passed. When they were clear of the train they ran off into the forests. The SS guards were furious and at one time we thought we were going to be shot. Fortunately they calmed down and ordered us back into the wagons. Due to the escapees, they were not cleaned out, I suppose as a punishment.
The train started its descent and left the pass at lnnsbruck in Austria. That day was real purgatory for us cooped up in the stinking wagons. Many of the men were quite ill with numerous complaints such as diarrhoea, septic sores and vomiting. Early that evening the train came to a halt and we were all ordered to get out of the wagons. We could see we had come to the end of the line. It was fairly flat countryside so we could see a short distance away there were camp buildings surrounded by the usual barbed wire and watchtowers. We were then lined up and marched to what was obviously no ordinary prison camp. There were no British or Commonwealth troops among the few prisoners walking about and there was no kind of uniform recognisable as that belonging to any Allied troops.
We were taken to the bottom of the camp and crammed into a number of huts in the bottom right hand corner. These few huts were separated from the rest of the camp by a fence of barbed wire. We soon realised there were no bunk beds in the huts just bare red brick floors. Once our hut was full with about eighty men we were locked in for the night. There was no electric light, which meant we had to feel our way around to find a space on the floor to lie down.
We had not been given any food or drink at any time during our final day on the train so by this time we were very hungry and very thirsty. There was nothing we could do about it that night
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[Pope’s Diary page for September 1943]
Left Sulmona, Friday evening, 24th September.
He who truly desires the well-being of mankind, who earnestly wishes to help protect from incalculable harm the spiritual and moral bases of the future collaboration of the nations, will consider it a sacred duty and a lofty mission to strive that the natural ideals of truth, of justice, of courtesy and of cooperation should not vanish from the minds and hearts of men, nor, above all, the sublime supernatural ideal of brotherly love, which Christ brought into the world.
(December 24th 1940).
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[Map of Italy and neighbouring countries]
(Light grey line) shows the boat and train journey from Tripoli to Sulmona, Italy.
(Dark grey line) shows the journey by cattle trucks from Sulmona to Bolzano, and onwards to Innsbruck, Austria and into southern Germany.
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[Map showing Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia]
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[Map by The Red Cross & St. John War Organisation showing the POW camps in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland.]
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except to lie down on the bare floor wrapped up in anything we had brought with us. Fortunately I still had my ‘British Warm’, the short cavalry overcoat with a decent lining. As we were all completely worn out we managed to get some fitful sleep until morning. We had left Sulmona on Tuesday morning 28 September 1943 and arrived at what hopefully was a transit camp on Friday evening of 1st October.
There was no improvement over the next fourteen days with nothing to sleep on and the food not fit enough for pigs to eat – just bowls of watery greens plus a greasy lump of horse flesh, or it could have been cat or dog! There was no proper sanitation, just narrow ditches and a large open cesspit that soon stank. There were no proper ablutions just a couple of old standpipes or village type pumps.
Although the weather was turning quite cold some of us braved the elements and stripped completely and washed each other down. A brisk towelling helped to warm up the flesh a little. Fortunately I’d had the presence of mind to fill up a large haversack with a set of clean underclothes, socks, shirt, cotton trousers plus pullover. We scrubbed the filthy clothes we had taken off to get rid of the muck in them but we could do nothing about the fleas, lice and other creepy crawlies, which had been attacking us during the last week or so.
On 7th of October I managed to send a card home to my parents to let them know I was still alive, just. I had not been able to write to anyone since the time of the walk out of the camp in Italy on the 8th September. I’d no idea if the card would get to my home in Colchester. Hopefully as Switzerland was not too far away the cards would reach there and then would be sent on to England.
We protested vigorously to the camp commander through a German speaking fellow prisoner that we should not be kept in such deplorable conditions. He was told that under the Geneva Convention we should be treated humanely and given decent beds, bedding and food. Furthermore he knew we were all British Commonwealth servicemen and should be treated accordingly. We also requested, but not very hopefully, that the International Red Cross should be approached to send a representative to see the conditions we were being kept in.
The Germans response to this request was to inform us that we had been brought to this concentration camp as punishment because of the many escapes that took place during the train journey from Italy. Our response was to remind our captors it was our duty wherever possible and whenever the opportunity arose to try to escape. This comment didn’t impress the Germans in
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fact they got rather upset and shouted at us saying that most of us were not properly dressed in uniforms of our country, therefore we could have been treated as spies!
As we walked about the compound we noticed that on the other side of the fence the prisoners were wrapped up in odd bits of sacking and bits of cloth on their feet. There was a continuous procession of these prisoners to a large pit smelling of lime close to our compound into which they were throwing what looked like human bodies. One of the guards told us that they were in the main Russian aircrew shot down in Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe. These aircrew included women but it was impossible to tell the difference between the sexes.
Soon after the complaint about the conditions was made, a high-ranking German officer came to the camp and looked around our compound. He spoke to our senior representative through our interpreter and agreed that the poor conditions we were putting up with were not good enough and said that he would arrange for bunk beds to be provided without delay. He was as good as his word because the beds did appear the next day – they had obviously been in the camp all the time.
Much to our surprise there was a ‘red letter day’, which I recorded in my diary – ‘October 14th received two English cigarettes per man’. Then on the October 16th we left that nightmare of a place and we all marched carrying our kit some eight kilometres to a very large camp called Stalag IV-B. Included in the kit I carried was a very good clarinet I had brought with me from Sulmona. This had been given to us by the Red Cross from Geneva and I made sure this fine instrument was still with me and never left my sight.
Stalag IV-B was massive and evidently held about 7,000 prisoners from all the Allied countries. We wondered where the Germans would find room to house us – we were to find out later after we’d been deloused, showered, medically inspected and injected. We were also given odd pieces of military clothing that was ancient but quite clean. The jackets had red patches sewn on to them to show that we were prisoners. Next we marched off to some barrack huts in the German part of the camp where we were lined up in four columns in front of one of the largest huts where we were to be interrogated.
The next thing to happen to us after we had been clothed was to be taken to a hut in front of which were three wooden stools. An unusual looking machine on a tripod stood next to the stools. As we got to the stools a number of prisoners came out of a hut and two of them stood beside each stool and machine. We were ordered to sit on the stools and much to our horror all our hair was clipped off with these machines. One of the operators held the clippers, which were big
[Digital page 82]
[Photograph of the entrance gate to Stalag IV-B]
[Photograph of Collier at Stalag IV-B with his shaven head and his German POW number]
November 1943 to May 1945
Kriegsgefangener No. 211943.
Bernard Henry Collier, after interrogation. Transit Camp, Germany.
[Digital page 83]
Germany Officers POW Camp
Oflag 9 A/Z Rottenberg
[Photograph with caption] Green’s POW identity card.
Lieutenant Alan Green, Platoon Commander – 1st Battalion The Border Regiment – captured Italy 1944.
[Digital page 84]
[Map with caption] The Sudeten-German Territory in Bohemia, Moravia and Sudeten-Silesia, and the Carpathian-German Areas in Slovakia.
[Photograph with caption] The main gate [Stalag IV-B].
[Digital page 85]
[Memorandum page from Pope’s Diary]
01/09/1943 Letter from Margaret dated 11/08/1943
06/09/1943 Letter from Gerald dated 12/07/1943
16/09/1943 Parcel cigs (200)
Arrived at Concentration Camp in Germany, Tuesday morning 28th September.
October 14th received 2 English cigs per man.
October 15th moved into new compound on beds.
October 7th sent a card home from Transit Camp.
October 16th left Transit Camp and marched 8 kilometres with kit to Stalag IV-B, at 10.15 am and arrived at 1.15 pm.
October 19th left Stalag IV-B for Sudetenland.
October 20th arrived at Lindau, Oberleutensdorf.
[Digital page 86]
[Diary page for October 1943]
November 1st sent to Kolumbus Camp 51, Maltheurn.
A Christian, who faithfully and bravely fights for his country, must, nevertheless, refrain from hating those against whom it is his duty to fight.
(July 10th 1940).
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[Diary page for November 1943]
As there can be no strength of body without frequent physical exercise, neither can there be firmness and constancy of soul without frequent spiritual exercise… You have already learnt, or will learn, as you grow older, a profession or an art but making oneself a good Christian is also a profession, an art; in fact, it is the art of arts because it is the art of life.
(November 2nd, 1941).
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enough to shear sheep and his mate turned the handle to work the shears. Hair came off in lumps together with some skin so we ended up completely bald with bloody patches for good measure.
Next we were taken to another hut to be photographed and as we entered we were given a dark grey slate (similar to a school slate) with a wooden border. On the slate was a number – mine was ‘211943’. After the picture of head and shoulders with the slate held under my chin, I was given a metal tag with my name and prisoner number to be worn round my neck at all times, just like an army dog tag. I still have this name plate with its dirty piece of string to this day. I would have liked to have got hold of a copy of the photo to show what a horrible sight I looked. I have enclosed a copy of an officer POW’s photo – please note that officers didn’t have their hair shorn!
When I eventually got inside the interrogation hut I found myself in front of a German officer sat at a long table. On either side of him were other officers all involved with the interrogations. I was asked the usual questions about name, rank and army number. The officer tried to find out further information about my army service, such as whether I was in the infantry or a paratrooper. I just repeated my name, rank and army number. I was then asked for my date of birth, where I lived before the war and what was my job. I answered these questions without hesitation, except for the last one. Answering this could have had some bearing on the type of work I would be able to do in the future. We had already heard that the Germans made all their prisoners work, except officers.
Whilst I was being questioned there was a sudden commotion at the column on my left. Everything stopped and all eyes and ears were on the German officer and the prisoner standing in front of him. This chap was a tall, thin Aussie with the typical slouch hat on the back of his head. The German officer had taken his revolver out of its holster and laid it on the table in front of the Aussie. He then said: “I will ask you once again. What was your job before joining the army?” The Aussie replied: “I’ve already told you, bar lounger.” The German officer was furious at this reply. He picked up his revolver and pointed it at the Aussie and shouted at him: “I will not stand for any more of your insolence. For the last time I ask you the same question and if you do not answer me correctly I will shoot you!” He pointed his revolver at the Aussie’s chest.
Everyone in the hut stood or sat in silence watching and waiting for the reply. Again the Aussie said: “Bar lounger.” There was not a sound in the hut with us all expecting the officer to pull the trigger. It seemed an age before the officer lowered the revolver and said: “I now believe you because no man in his right mind would continue to give the same answer knowing he would be killed, unless it was true.”
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Following this drama there was shouting and laughter until guards rushed in to restore order. When I left the hut I caught up with the very brave or very dumb Aussie and asked him what he meant when he said to the officer he had been a bar lounger. He grinned at me and said: “I used to lounge in bars around Sydney harbour when I had some spare cash when I was let out of jail!” I thanked him for his explanation and wished him luck for the future.
I found out later from some other Aussies that before the war started the two Australian divisions were short of their complement of soldiers and not enough volunteers had come forward to join up. To make up the shortfall the government issued a directive that any petty crooks would be let out of prison if they agreed to join the army. Evidently a few hundred had agreed to these terms and the divisions were eventually brought up to strength. So the Aussie who had caused all the commotion had no doubt been one of the ex-prisoner volunteers.
Three days later on 19th October (my 23rd birthday!) we left Stalag IV-B for Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. The following day we arrived at Lindau, Oberleutensdorf, a coal mining working camp attached to Stalag IV-C.
Forced labour in working camps
Our party was put in a hut that was partly full. The empty bunks were near the door and as the door did not fit very well we found it very cold. Most of the other inmates were evidently at work but a few were wrapped up in their bunks. I went to one of them and asked what type of work they had to do. He laughed and said we would find out soon enough. When pressed he said that all the prisoners in the camp with the exception of the camp staff, worked down a coal mine.
The next morning at roll call we newcomers were told to wait outside. A German NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] came to us with an interpreter and we were given the bad news that:
- We were to be split into two groups.
- The first group would join the day shift and would be taken to the coal mine at 6 am the next day and the second group would be on the night shift 6 pm – 6 am.
- Each group would be expected to shovel up a required tonnage of coal.
- There would be a short break halfway through the shift for some food and drink with drinks of water available throughout the shift.
- If the required tonnage had not been reached the whole shift would be kept underground until the target had been reached – bad news for novices like ourselves.
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I was on the night shift and when we arrived for work that evening I discovered I was to have various jobs as a surface worker. I breathed a sigh of relief although it was very cold during the night and I had no gloves to keep my hands warm. For most of the time during that first night I was with a gang sweeping and shovelling coal that had fallen off the full skips when they were loaded into railway trucks to be taken to the nearby oil refinery. There was only one time I had to go into the pit to take some tools to the overseer. That one experience below ground was more than enough for me!
About ten days later we were roused from our bunks, ordered outside and lined up in two ranks. A party of German civilians entered the compound led by the officer in charge of the camp with an interpreter. We were told that these civilians were employers wanting various craftsmen such as locksmiths, wheelwrights and joiners. I thought it would be a good way to get out of the camp even though we were instructed not to volunteer for work but I was desperate to avoid any chance of going down the pit.
I nudged Mickey Abbott and whispered that we step forward and say we were joiners. He was worried that if we were found out we would be severely punished but I was determined I wasn’t going to be a miner. I made up his mind for him and stepped forward and he followed. We were asked which trade we were volunteering for and we replied that we had been carpenters before the war. We were accepted without further questions being asked about our experience in the trade.
Before we left that camp we found out from those working at the coal face that the Germans had not shored up the final approach from the bottom of the pit shaft but had just blasted out a huge cavern of coal. The coal was worked out from wooden gantries by teams of workers, prisoners of war, forced labour from occupied countries, as well as local Germans and Czechs. The Germans were not concerned that a number of workers had been killed from falling lumps of rock or coal as there was plenty of labour to replace the dead ones!
Two days after volunteering as joiners we were roused early in the morning and told to get our gear together as we were going to another camp a few miles away. We were joined by two others who had also volunteered to be joiners and we all placed our belongings on a hand cart and walked out of that camp pulling the cart and guarded by two soldiers. It was still pitch dark so we did not know in which direction we were heading. We must have been walking for about an hour when it became light and we were allowed to stop for a rest and a drink of water. We looked around and all we could see were coal mines in all directions. We were in despair, that we were going to another mining camp as we trudged on with heavy hearts.
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I happened to notice three very tall chimneys surrounded by a number of buildings and very shortly we came to the entrance to another camp with a board at the entrance saying ‘Kolumbus Laager No. 51 Maltheurn’. As soon as we passed through the camp gates our two guards handed us over to the camp guards. A sergeant questioned us and referred to some folders that the guards from the other camp had given to him.
A guard then led us across the parade ground to one long hut. On entering it appeared different from those in other German camps as it was filled with three-tiered wooden bunks with the third tier very close to the roof. The POW NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge of the hut showed us to our bunks. As was usual when newcomers arrived, the inmates gathered round and bombarded us with questions such as where we had come from and how was the war going.
The first bit of bad news given to us was the place was full of fleas and lice. Russian prisoners had occupied this part of the camp quite recently and had been moved out to make more room for a further intake of British POWs. We four were part of the new intake brought in to work on an extension to a large oil refinery to be built by digging out a massive hole. This was to create an underground area to house further equipment and machinery to produce by-products from the oil extracted from coal.
After a few days given to settle in we were taken out with a group of fellow POWs under guard to this new site at the refinery. The ground had already been roughly levelled out and digging out the hole had already started. We four new ‘joiners’ were told to follow a funny little bloke who reminded me of one of the ‘Seven Dwarves’ of musical comedy fame. He opened the doors of the shed in front of us and handed out to each of us our working tools consisting of a claw hammer, a bow saw and a bag of assorted nails. He next laid out a sheet of plans which showed wooden shuttering of various sizes that had to be made to the specifications shown on the plan.
This little gang leader couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak many words of German. He definitely wasn’t German but probably a Czech or Hungarian who had been roped in as forced labour when those countries had been overrun by the Germans and could speak and understand enough German to get by. So we set to making the shuttering, a job we thought was going to be a doddle and we would be able to get away without showing we were very amateur ‘joiners!’
The weather had now turned very wintry – quite frosty with a hint of snow in the area. It was very difficult to keep warm and our hands and feet in particular were getting very cold. Round about midday we were given a supposed hot drink that was lukewarm and contained so-called coffee
[Digital page 92, original page 101]
made from burnt acorns! We also had the usual bowl of thin, watery green soup cum stew with greasy bits floating about on the surface.
This break didn’t last very long so we were soon back to work. We thought we would get a rest when we had made sufficient shuttering but we were sadly disappointed. We then moved along to the next hut and shown how to make the metal reinforcing panels. The shuttering and metal panels were used to keep in the concrete to make the retaining walls. The rest of the gang of workers were digging out the dark, grey, wet clay which formed the subsoil – a terrible, backbreaking job. There were many hundreds of others from all the occupied nations digging out and removing the clay soil in large metal skips. Then only two men pushed each skip along mini metal rails to the far side of the site where they emptied the skips into railway trucks. When all the trucks were full a shunting engine pulled them away to a dump outside the perimeter of the main site.
Other gangs were pouring liquid cement from metal skips in between the shuttering to form the retaining walls. Water was oozing out of the clay so the bottom of the hole was beginning to fill up with water. Practically all the work was done by hand so another gang was pumping the water out with hand pumps hour after hour. Day after day this backbreaking work continued for 24 hours a day with shift working. At the start of December snow began to fall on most days. Labour was then needed to remove the snow from the workings and to make matters worse the snow froze on the cold ground as soon as it settled.
Another difficult task with which we all had to assist was the unloading of the rail trucks when fresh supplies of cement, sand, gravel, timber, railway sleepers, etc, turned up at least once a week. All the forced labour, including POWs, were getting weak what with the long hours of work, lack of wholesome food and the very heavy work. We POWs hardly ever received Red Cross parcels although the few that eventually did get through to the camp certainly helped to keep us alive. There were never enough to be given one parcel each so we had to share one between two and sometimes one between four.
With only getting one day off each week nobody felt like providing any entertainment as we were too exhausted and too fed up. Quite early on after arriving at the camp I let it be known to the entertainments committee that I was an experienced musician and could play a variety of instruments. I told them I had a clarinet with me and also could arrange music for small or large groups. At that time there were very few musicians or musical instruments in the camp. The Germans had provided an old piano from their barracks which was badly out of tune. Fortunately
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the chap who could play the piano could also tune it with the right tools that had mysteriously turned up one day – must have been a ‘barter’ job with one of the guards.
About a couple of weeks before Christmas 1943 I was asked if I would get some music together to accompany a very amateur production of ‘Cinderella’. I promised to help but said I would need to get some time off work if I was to get the music sorted out. To my surprise I was told that this could be arranged with the agreement of the German officer in charge of the camp. The pianist fortunately was on the camp staff and we managed to put some appropriate music together to help make the pantomime semi-musical.
By asking around the huts a few pieces of sheet music were found and these tunes formed the basis of the musical content of the show which followed the usual pattern for this type of production – a musical introduction, a few songs for the chorus to sing and a short finale. The ‘band’ comprised a quartet of piano, clarinet, banjo and mouth organ. The standard of content and performance was not as good as the polished shows in Italy but it was a complete change for our fellow POWs from the daily grind of hard work in wintry conditions. Overall the efforts of everyone were well received and we had to give a number of performances to allow all the camps to see the show. Even the camp commandant and his senior staff came to a performance and appeared to be amused and quite impressed.
We did get a little more nourishment in the meals over the Christmas period – the stew was more filling and slightly more ‘tasty’. The black bread ration was increased and some ersatz margarine was supplied. To really help the ‘festive season’ some crates of Red Cross parcels arrived and there were enough to share one between two and one between four at the New Year. This short break was an unexpected relief from the hard work on the refinery site.
Another year arrives – 1944
It obviously couldn’t be a happy new year. The weather was getting colder and colder with the temperature well below zero, regular snowstorms and hard frosts at night when the snow stopped. There were times in January and February when work on the surface at the refinery came to a stop and those of us working there were then employed in the camp removing snow from around the roads near the German barrack buildings. The unfortunates working down the mine had to get there through the snow and ice, as did those working in the production works on the by-products from coal and refined oil.
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It is said being tall has its advantages but in the camp it could have its disadvantages causing pain and anger. An example was during the construction of a railway track on the site when six to eight men were supposed to manhandle a single metal rail. If four of the eight were short they tried to get between the tall ones like me who then bore all the weight. This happened all too often until on one occasion the tall ones refused to lift the rails and the guards came to see what the row was about. After a demonstration it was agreed that 6-8 men of the same size would carry a rail from that time on.
Sabotage of the ‘Arbeitsfront’ (labour front) was punishable by death but POWs risked their lives by:
- Deliberately losing tools or breaking them – dozens of picks and shovels disappeared in the wet concrete, usually when there was poor daylight during bad weather or at dusk.
- Deliberate dropping of bags of cement so they burst.
- Causing damage to railway shunting engines by taking out the grease from the axle boxes and replacing it with sand which would eventually cause wheels and axles to seize up.
- Breaking points on railway tracks – engines had been known to topple over as a result.
After a time the German engineer in charge of the site and his foremen became very worried, and soon angered, at all these stoppages and loss of materials. Suddenly one day scores of soldiers arrived at the site. The POWs mainly were lined up according to which country they came from – British Commonwealth, Russia, Holland, Belgium and France. The soldiers stood in front of us with their rifles and machine pistols pointed at us and an officer appeared out of the engineering office and started to walk along the line of POWs.
He stopped at each national group in turn asking the same question through an interpreter: “Who is responsible for all this sabotage?” There was no response from any of the groups. He turned to a junior officer and ordered him to tell his troops to prepare to shoot. He then placed himself in front of the soldiers and shouted: “If no one admits to this sabotage I will give the order to the soldiers to kill all of you. You all know the law – sabotage of the Arbeitsfront is punishable by death.”
After a few seconds some of the French said something to him in German and he came over to us saying that he’d been told the English had been causing all the damage. We all shouted that it wasn’t us it was the French. Back he went over to the French who must have said that it must have been the Belgians then. So it went on down the line, the Belgians blaming the Dutch who in turn indicated it must have been the Russians. Finally he announced that this time he would not
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give the order to shoot but if there was any more trouble there would be an inquiry and all prisoners and all other labour on the site would be shot. Off he went leaving the soldiers to wander around the site.
More guards appeared to be roaming about the refinery after that episode and I also noticed two civilians dressed in dark clothes including black leather overcoats and trilby type hats. We heard on the ‘grapevine’ that they were Gestapo who were interested in the civilian forced labour and I always felt apprehensive when they were near where we were working.
The new extension was slowly taking shape and the black hole was getting deeper. It was now necessary to make wooden walkways with a guardrail around the excavation. This was so the skips of wet concrete could be pushed along the walkways and then tipped between the shuttering and the clay wall. To make the guardrail secure we had used three nails to attach the wooden slats to the wooden uprights and were told off for using too many nails and instructed only to use one in future! We protested at this order and pointed out that if anyone pushing a skip lurched against the protective wooden rail it could break and the unfortunate worker would plunge into the hole and be injured or worse. The response was that we shouldn’t worry as plenty more labour could be brought in to replace any injured worker!
The weather remained bitterly cold and the ground was treacherous to walk on. We were very glad to receive the odd parcel from home sending us some warm clothing such as woolly hats, scarves, hand-knitted cardigans, sweaters and socks, long john underwear and thick vests with long sleeves. These packs from home were occasionally supplemented by crates of warm clothing, etc, sent by the British Red Cross via the International Red Cross.
The POWs working in the factory sheds found out that there were two ‘English’ women, a mother and daughter, working as forced labour in the shed. Evidently the mother had worked in Italy as an English teacher in one of the colleges well before the war began. She had met an Italian and when he started work they married with a daughter being born a few months later. The husband had been called up for military service in the late 1930s and had been promoted to officer rank by the time the Italians entered the war in 1940. He had been sent to Libya and as far as his wife knew he was a POW in South Africa.
The daughter was 16 years old when they had been taken away to Germany with hundreds of other men and women as forced labour in working camps. Neither of them had any proper warm clothing and like everyone else were in poor shape because of having to work long hours in bitterly cold weather. However they were worse off for food than we were because they didn’t get
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any Red Cross parcels or any other luxuries like real soap. They did not get any medical help either so as a result they were both in very poor shape. Not only that but they were continually beaten by the German female guards.
I would like to take the opportunity to describe these female guards from my own observations. Behind our camp was a very large cookhouse site producing food for all the forced labour camps surrounding the oil refinery. There were quite a number of these camps providing labour for the refinery and the numerous coal mines in the area. A large number of women were brought from these camps daily to work in the kitchens. They passed by just outside our camp in long straggly columns with a number of these female guards in charge of them.
The female prisoners were not supposed to shout or wave their arms at us. Many ignored these orders and as a result were continually abused and beaten with leather whips carried by the guards. They weren’t deterred from waving as I suppose they were hardened to this harsh treatment and probably worse. The horrible guards were dressed in a very distinctive uniform of a peaked black cap, dark green jacket with metal buttons, long black skirts and long black jackboots. Their face showed their brutal nature and most of them were heavily built. I cannot remember a decent looking one or one who treated their charges reasonably.
As far as the unfortunate mother and daughter were concerned, although no fraternisation was allowed, one of our chaps had got to know them quite well. He described the plight they were in and asked if any of his hut mates had any clothing they were prepared to give away. He was given a number of items of warm clothing including long johns, long sleeved woollen vests and some socks. To be able to smuggle this clothing out of the camp and into the production shed could only be done by sharing out the clothing with two or three others from his hut who were working in the same shed. It took most of the day to pass the clothing, a bar of soap and some chocolate to the mother and daughter. They did not want the guards and supervisors catching them handing over the various items.
About a week later the POW who had befriended the mother and daughter noticed that neither had been to work for a few days. When he asked some of the other women if they were sick he was told they had both been taken away to a local concentration camp for women. We could see this camp in the distance as it was an old castle perched on a hill. He then enquired what they’d done wrong as it must be serious for them to be taken to a punishment camp. Evidently some of the other women in their hut had been jealous of the gifts of clothing given to them and someone had told the guards the women had accepted the gifts from British POWs. As stated, fraternising was strictly forbidden and therefore they had been given the harsh punishment of spending the
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rest of the war in a women’s concentration camp. So a good deed had resulted in extreme anguish for these two unfortunate women.
We were all still suffering from the extreme cold and freezing temperatures at night. Those of us on the top tiers of the bunks got the worst of it as there were gaps between the walls and roofs of the huts making it impossible to keep warm. There were only two small cast iron round wood burning stoves to each hut but there wasn’t enough fuel to keep them burning all night. So sleep was virtually impossible, not only because of the freezing draughts but also because of the fleas. To those blighters feeding on me I must have had ‘sweet’ flesh – what there was left of it by now – along with fellow inmates who were in the same predicament. Flea hunting helped to pass our very short time away from work. It helped that we were allowed showers fairly regularly and we washed our underclothes at the same time in the winter weather.
I knew the end of winter was in sight when I noticed a slight rise in the outside temperature and the beginnings of a slow thaw. However the ground still had a dirty, snowy, frozen surface that was slippery to walk on. One morning in mid-spring, probably March, I was detailed with three others to move the site engineer’s stove. This was about five to six feet in length, three feet wide and about nine inches in depth made of cast iron with a hinged metal door at the front for the wood and nuggets of coal. The stove was very heavy and we used two stout wooden poles to carry it with a man at each end of the poles. I was at the front end and we staggered along the treacherous surface until I suddenly stumbled in an icy, watery pothole which I hadn’t noticed because of the melting ice and packed down snow. As I fell I let go of the pole to save myself from injury causing the others to also let go and the stove dropped onto the frozen ground.
After we sorted ourselves out we noticed that the stove was badly damaged. The guard near me clubbed his rifle and swung it at me in his fury and fright of possible punishment for allowing this damage to happen. I managed to turn away from the downward swinging rifle butt and avoided it hitting me on the head, shoulders or body. However the rifle butt caught me across the top of both kneecaps causing me to shout in pain and anger. I raised my arms in the air to fend off the expected further blows. A second guard rushed forward and poked his rifle in my chest whilst the first guard blew his whistle. Other guards with a NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge ran up and then the four of us were marched back to camp with me limping in severe pain. Because of my difficulty in walking it took some time to get back even with two of the other POWs helping me along.
Back at the camp we were kept in the guardroom until the officer in charge of the camp arrived to hear the guards’ report. The interpreter was sent for and we were told we had committed a serious offence and we were each placed in separate cells overnight. Next morning we were
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formally lined up before the camp commander, his deputy and a senior NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer]. On our side we had the senior British NCO and the interpreter.
The two guards were questioned first, with the one who hit me giving his side of the story which was confirmed by the second guard. I was then questioned and immediately rejected the guards’ statement explaining how the stove got damaged by accident and about the guards’ actions. I finished off by saying I had raised my arms to protect myself from the swinging rifle and that my fellow prisoners were in no way to blame for what had happened and should be exempted from the inquiry.
All three of my fellow POWs confirmed what I had said was true and with the end of the interrogation the three Germans holding the inquiry conferred. My three companions were dismissed and I was left alone to await the outcome and my punishment. I knew that the camp commander before the war had been a musician in a German army military band. He had played alongside the British Grenadiers band at a massed bands celebration, I believe in Cologne. He had told me himself when we obtained permission to hold the pantomime last Christmas and he also knew I was a musician. With him knowing this I hoped he would be sympathetic to my plight and deal with me leniently when considering punishment.
His two colleagues on the inquiry left the room leaving the camp commander with the interpreter, my camp leader and myself. The camp commander told me that strictly I faced a severe penalty for what had occurred and in some circumstances I could have been sentenced to death for sabotage of the Arbeitsfront. However he tended to believe my explanation for the incident but he had to ensure that the guards didn’t ‘lose face’ so he sentenced me to two weeks’ detention in the cells.
After about four days sitting in the dark lying on a bare wooden bed with my only company a urinal bucket which I was let out to empty, I was taken to the showers for a clean up with a guard in attendance. I was then escorted to my hut to get a change of clothes before being taken before the camp commander. Much to my surprise he told me I was not returning to the cells to finish my sentence. Instead I was to be on the camp staff and to be given the dirtiest jobs in the camp, German barracks and the POW buildings. These jobs included cleaning out the cess pits, putting all the rubbish in bins and cleaning out the toilets and showers. I was not on my own but with other fellow POWs who were also on punishment duties as part of a gang supervised by one of the guards.
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Fortunately I was only kept on this horrible job for about a month when I was again taken before the camp commander. He said he had been considering what to do with me in the future and thought that I would be better away from the building site as I would probably be under close watch as a past troublemaker!! I thanked him and thought to myself why not ask him, as he was an ex-army musician, if he would give me permission to approach the International Red Cross in Switzerland to see if some musical instruments could be sent to the camp. I had found out that there were sufficient musicians in the camp to form a reasonable concert band.
To my surprise he agreed to my suggestion and said he would countersign the request to the Red Cross. To my even greater surprise about a month later a large crate of musical instruments arrived at the camp. When the crate was opened we were pleased to find some brand new instruments and some secondhand ones in good condition. Our camp leader patted me on the back and said that because of my initiative I would be taken off the day-to-day routine duties of the camp and be left to concentrate on getting the band and concerts organised.
Eventually the camp band was made up of the following musicians:
- Alto saxophone doubling up on clarinet.
- Baritone saxophone doubling up on clarinet and alto saxophone (me).
- Trumpeter and valve trombonist.
- Two accordionists (one doubling up on piano).
- Drummer with a reasonably full kit of accessories.
The uniform consisted of pale blue shirts made from fibres that were a by-product of coal, black bow ties made from cardboard covered with old sock material dyed black, and black trousers. The music stands were made from Red Cross parcel three-ply wood, crates and the crate that contained the instruments.
During the early part of 1944 a few more British prisoners who had been prisoners and escapees in Italy were brought to the camp. They had a very sorry tale to tell. They had been caught by the Germans in various areas of central Italy, mainly in the Apennines, and had been taken to the old Campo PG 78 Sulmona. They were en route for Germany on the usual cattle and goods trucks when the train was stopped in L’Aquila rail station in sidings next to a large ammunition train going south. American bombers attacked the station aiming for what they thought were the two goods trains and they achieved hits on both. Ammunition and shells exploded and the ammunition train was severely damaged. Many POWs in the other train were killed or severely injured. I knew many of them personally including some who had been members of various bands and orchestras in the Italian camp. All of those who were killed are now buried in the Ancona War
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British prisoners of war of the Germans working camp Stalag IV-C Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia.
[Photograph with caption] Camp POW band – Bernard Collier front row on right (propaganda film by German Army) 1944.
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Graves Cemetery. I was very depressed after I heard about this loss of life. Some of the more fortunate ones who survived the bombing managed to escape from the damaged wagons but how many were then able to escape from the rail station itself was not known.
For some time there was a suspicion that we had a traitor in the camp. The prisoners in the huts containing the mineworkers were in a separate area to the rest of us although we did have daily contact with them. The huts were raised from the ground on small columns of red bricks. Because of the hard work in bad conditions and the number of hours a day spent down the mine, a scheme had been devised to allow for one man per hut to escape work for a day by hiding under the hut on roll call which took place early each morning when it was not yet fully daylight. To replace the hidden men, life-size dummies had been made to take their place. The dummies were taken to the mine to ensure the numbers were correct as the POWs were counted as they left the camp. The dummies also went down the mine and were hidden until the POW workers returned to the camp at the end of the shift. These schemes for dodging work were known as ‘doing a Churchill.’
One morning without warning a large number of guards charged into the compound fully armed and surrounded the mineworkers’ huts. Then the next action was to look under the huts and of course they discovered the hidden men. It was obvious that someone in the camp who knew of the scheme must have informed the Germans for them to have searched under the huts before looking inside.
The occupants of these huts were so incensed that they didn’t go through the proper channels which was to report their suspicions to the senior NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in the camp and he in turn would consult with the committee of NCOs to decide what steps should be taken to track down the informer. Instead the occupants of the huts set their own trap to try to find the culprit. They evidently had their suspicions about someone who met a German guard at a particular time early in the morning and at first they thought he was bartering various items with this guard.
The trap was set and sprung the next morning when again guards came rushing into the compound and on this occasion found nothing. The German NCO in charge of the guards, who incidentally were called ‘ferrets’, was furious. He shouted out that all in the camp would soon suffer and the next man caught trying to evade work would be shot without any trial. I cannot say those were his exact words but that was the gist of his threat. The mineworkers’ suspicions were now confirmed so early one morning, after the boiler for the showers had been stoked up, the informer, who was one of our in camp workers, was grabbed out of his bunk, gagged and his hands tied behind his back. He was then taken to the boiler room, stripped naked and his body
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pressed against the hot metalwork of the boiler. He was told he was suspected of being an informer and would he admit it and after further ‘heat treatment’ he confessed. He was then taken out of the boiler room, had his legs bound and left behind the shower hut which was near the German barracks. Evidently he was found by the Germans with a piece of cardboard around his neck with just the word ‘TRAITOR’ written on it.
Much to our surprise the Germans didn’t make a fuss about the incident which led us to believe the traitor was a plant, possibly an English speaking German who could have been brought up in England before the war. When our camp leader got to know what had happened he was furious as he said the repercussions could have been serious for the whole camp. However he tended to agree that the traitor had been a plant as this had happened in other camps. When we were in the camp in Italy there was also a suspicion that we had a spy because the Italians seemed to know when the tunnels were being dug or other attempts to escape were being made.
One day without any prior warning the German camp commander, who had been in charge all the time I had been at the camp, suddenly left. When his replacement arrived I could tell from his uniform that there would definitely be a tightening of discipline and security. He was very smartly dressed in the Waffen SS uniform of a field grey jacket with silver facings and a cap with a high peak and a ‘death’s head’ badge. He had the insignia of the Iron Cross, various campaign medal ribbons and the wound badge on his jacket.
After he arrived at the camp he very soon carried out a thorough inspection and intimated that a number of changes were to take place. Soon after his inspection he had all the POW camp staff called out on parade and firstly questioned all the senior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] as to their duties. When we seven of the band and others involved in entertainment were pointed out to him he had a discussion with the German NCOs present. He then dismissed us saying he would be issuing written orders relating to our duties in the near future. That did not sound too promising for the future and most of us feared for the likely loss of our relatively easy existence.
It was not long before we heard on the ‘grapevine’ why the previous camp commander was replaced. It was said a revolver and ammunition had gone missing and not been recovered despite an extensive search. It could also have been considered that he hadn’t been strict enough with the POWs during his term in charge of the camp.
The promised new orders soon appeared attached to the inside of all the hut doors. The most significant part of these was that if anyone attempted to miss work, steal food or anything else
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they would be severely punished. Anyone caught trying to escape or causing damage to or loss of German property would be shot without trial.
It was not long before the new camp commander sent for me together with the interpreter and our camp leader. I was told I could continue with the band and produce concerts but he warned me there were to be no songs showing disrespect for the German flag, the German High Command or German people because they supported the Nationalist Socialist State. He would personally check from time to time to make sure these guidelines were being followed. However he also said that those providing entertainment didn’t have enough work to do and he would discuss with our camp leader what could be assigned to us. Later I was told that in the mornings that with one or two others I had to do some work in the German barracks and discover what when we reported for duty.
When we were escorted to the barracks I was taken to the camp commander’s office. Much to my surprise he addressed me in English but not fluently so he had the interpreter present. Before he could tell me what jobs I had to do, I told him that I could use a typewriter but this hint was not taken up. I found myself working in the officer’s garden mainly growing vegetables, some of which I was allowed to take back to the camp. Fortunately my efforts were fairly successful, especially with carrots and turnips.
Other duties I had to undertake included cleaning his office out under supervision. I always swore I would never be an officer’s batman or servant, but in the camp I didn’t have much option! As he had a fetish for cleanliness this meant cleaning out his shower very regularly and as a result I saw him partially stripped on one occasion. He had been very badly wounded, no doubt on the Russian front, and from the waist to the chest he was deeply scarred from wounds caused by what appeared to have been machine gun bullets. He must have been in hospital for a long time as a result of his wounds and he was obviously fortunate to have survived the operations he required.
We were able to obtain good news of the successful progress of the war which heightened everyone’s spirits as it appeared the eventual Allied victory could occur the following year in 1945. The radio was carefully hidden away from the ‘goons’ inside the bass drum, the same way it was done in Italy. Newsletters were passed around the huts and then in the last hut they were burned and the ashes swilled down the latrine.
It was noticeable the air raids were getting more numerous with most of the daytime raids carried out by the American air force. They bombed from a great height with the result that many bombs missed the target and exploded in the villages surrounding the oil refinery. One would have
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expected the Germans to be well organised in ARP [air raid precautions] with local air raid wardens, first aid help for the injured and an organised means of disposal for the dead. This was not the case.
Air raid warning sirens were used and the general instructions were that the women and children were to be taken in orderly fashion to one or other of the mines in the area and taken to the pit bottom until the all clear sounded. However the women and children were not the first to be taken to the pit bottom as the German surface workers got to the pit shaft first and made sure they were first down to safety.
After one particular raid a village near to a pit was severely bombed and there were numerous casualties with a large number of dead. Apparently there was chaos with screaming and wailing from the women and children caught in the raid and no organisation at hand to help the injured and dying. A sergeant from our camp organised some POWs to take the badly wounded to a large building left standing and start the process of labelling them with their names if an identity could be found. The dead were taken to another building whilst the uninjured were taken to part of the local school that was still standing and left in charge of a woman who appeared to be relatively calm.
Whilst this was going on a fairly high-ranking German officer happened to be passing in his vehicle and noticed there were no German officials in attendance. However he did see the sergeant and his fellow POWs busy helping to get the situation under control. He sent his driver over to get the sergeant and because he could speak some English, the officer realised that it was British POWs that had given the most help to the villagers. He had a look in the three buildings with the dead, injured and survivors and complimented the POWs on their endeavours and he then went back to our camp. He informed our camp commander of what had happened.
A few days later the sergeant was told to pack his bags because he was being sent to a special camp near Berlin – a propaganda camp with very good amenities including a swimming pool and a leisure centre! He was away for two or three weeks and told us about the camp. He had also been recommended for a German decoration but had declined it. He was surprised to find there a number of British Commonwealth POWs walking about unguarded in new British battledress with shoulder flashes saying ‘British Free Corps’ and a Union Jack badge. He was not allowed to mix with these men but he informed our camp leader of what he had seen and been offered (more about this ‘Free Corps’ later).
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It was now early summer so some of us took the opportunity to sleep outside on the bare earth with our blankets or overcoats for cover. The Germans did fumigate all of the interiors of the huts during this warmer weather but it was a welcome relief from the hungry fleas and to get some sleep without irritation.
I had been having trouble with my sinuses towards the end of winter but thought I would have to grin and bear it. Unfortunately things got worse and the flesh around my eyes became very swollen and around my left eye it became very black. The pain was intense so I had a word with the medical corporal who after a short examination said I had sinusitis – a blockage of the hollow space that acts as an air passage into the nose and both passages to the left and right of the nose. He said there was no medication available to clear the passages and that my condition would need the attention of an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist. There was one in the town who had treated other sufferers but I would have to see the German doctor when he next made his rounds of our medical hut. When the doctor saw me he agreed to me seeing this civilian specialist and signed the necessary form of authority.
When the day came for me to be taken to the ENT specialist, the medical corporal said that if l needed further treatment I should take a pack of ten cigarettes with me. On no account should I give the pack to the doctor or his nurse but accidentally drop them when I was taken in by the nurse to see the doctor. On my way out of the room having received the treatment I noticed that the pack of cigarettes had disappeared. The nurse gave me a completed form to take back to the German military doctor stating I needed further treatment. I had three weeks of treatment and much to my relief the specialist cured me – at a cost of forty cigarettes in total.
Mickey Abbott was the next one to fall sick with very bad boils on his arms and legs. I helped to nurse him in the medical hut under the supervision of the medical corporal. The only treatment was to smear the affected parts with a horrible looking thick black or purple paste. Fortunately Mickey recovered in due time but he was left with scars on both arms and legs for a few months.
Occasionally an Australian Captain, a qualified medical officer, accompanied the German medical officer. He was also a POW but was able to work in a proper hospital to which POWs were taken if they became seriously ill. This hospital was at Bilina and was shown on the Red Cross map of POW camps in Germany and the occupied countries. Medical supplies included in the crates of Red Cross parcels were allocated to the recognised hospitals.
No supplies were sent to the individual working camps except for small amounts of aspirin, M&B tablets and some dressings for minor wounds. There were never enough dressings to cover the
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needs in the working camps and so the proper dressings were washed out time and again until they finished up in shreds. Then old clothing was torn into strips, boiled and then used to bind wounds. For some reason or another German medical staff were scared of tropical ailments such as blackwater fever or beriberi. This gave our medical staff a good opportunity to keep some of our chaps away from work in one or two beds at the far end of the medical hut in isolation.
I was very fortunate to get out of the huts with the three-tier bunks when I was told that Mickey and I could move to the store hut. One end of the hut had been partitioned off with a separate door and two small rooms created. On the left of the entrance, the slightly larger room occupied by the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] responsible for the stores in the hut. The stores included Red Cross parcels when we received them, which was not very often, some items of clothing, bedding, fuel for the stoves and other odd items. On the right of the entrance was the small room to which we had been allocated, which had just enough room for one two-tiered bunk and a small wooden cupboard for clothes and other items. What a relief to be away from the fleas! However it could not be said to have been luxurious because there was no form of heating in the room.
One day another chap and I were detailed to go with a couple of guards to a small spa village in the Saxony hills to collect a truck full of large and small pine logs for the German barracks to supplement the rationed coal supplies. The village was not very far from our camp and near Karlsbad. We had the truck loaded up by midday and much to our surprise and gratitude the guards took us to a small Gasthof that looked like a Swiss chalet.
The Gasthof was built with pine logs from the local woods with an outside balcony and situated on the edge of a forest away from the main street of the village. There was not much to eat just chunks of bread and cheese and to drink a local lager type beer and schnapps. The guards paid for these as we had no money and we gave them cigarettes we had received in parcels from home. It was a very enjoyable interlude in our monotonous daily life in the camp. We arrived back in camp in the early afternoon, not quite sober and in a mellow mood, where we unloaded the truck and then went back to the old routine.
There was only one successful escape from the camp whilst I was there which was only made possible with the help of a German soldier called Richard Strauss. I cannot remember the name of the escapee but he was in the South African army. This unusual story began when the German who had been a guard at our camp had been accused of some misdemeanour. He had been sentenced to a number of months in a penal battalion where the treatment given to the inmates of the barracks to prisoners was brutal. His home region was Schleswig, a state of Germany which had been rebellious towards the Nazi regime for a number of years.
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The ex-guard managed to break out of the barracks and ‘broke’ into our camp one night. He entered the hut I had been in originally and spoke to the hut leader in quite good English. He said he had no intention of going back to the penal battalion or of being caught and taken back there to be shot. He was planning to get through to the Swiss border and thought that he would have a better chance of being interned in Switzerland if he had a British Commonwealth POW with him.
He was in full German uniform and stipulated that the chap he took with him must be able to speak German well or understand it. That reduced the numbers who met the requirements to two South Africans who tossed a coin for the chance to escape. The winner and Richard Strauss disappeared into the night. A letter was received later by the unlucky South African from his fellow countryman to tell him that they had both got through to Switzerland and had been interned there.
Another unusual incident occurred when it was known that a Swiss team of representatives was visiting the area to find out about the conditions the Commonwealth POWs had to work in. The day before the expected visit the party turned up saying there had been a mix up with the dates. They produced their credentials and were shown around the oil refinery. After a lengthy walk about I understand they said they didn’t have time to visit the coal mine or the work camps. They would be visited at some future date and with that they left and were escorted back to the Swiss border!
According to our POWs who were in the refinery on the next day as well, another party of Swiss turned up who were the real representatives. They had great difficulty in convincing the Germans that they were the Swiss team. Had the first group been imposters on a spying mission? Something unusual must have happened because for weeks after this incident the area was saturated with Gestapo, Waffen SS troops, military police and ordinary troops all brought in to support the guards at all the camps in the vicinity of the refinery.
At the centre of the refinery there were three very tall chimneys that we named ‘Churchill’, ‘Roosevelt’ and ‘Stalin’ and they were a perfect target for precision bombing. The US air force bombed the site at regular intervals but did not land sufficient bombs on target to put the refinery out of commission for good. They had no excuse for not flattening the refinery because as well as the landmark of the three chimneys the site had an overall area of about 10 square kilometres!
The Germans brought hundreds of additional forced labour workers to the site and after about four months they had the refinery working again. The interruptions caused by the bombing delayed the completion of the extension we had been building and like many other projects was never completed before the end of the war.
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Our efforts at entertainment had proved successful and word had spread beyond our camp of our well-received performances. Much to my surprise one day, from a working camp of British POWs nearby, turned up a man called ‘Ginger’ Rogers escorted by a guard. I knew him very well as he had been in my camp in Italy and had also been involved in the entertainments there. He had been a trooper in the 11th Hussars and had been captured in Libya scouting behind German army positions.
He told me he was the conductor of a band in his camp and when he’d heard of our band he thought it would be a good idea if we got together to give a big band concert in his camp followed by another concert in our camp. I was not too keen on the idea but he was a very persuasive guy and I agreed with some reluctance. When I introduced him to other members of the band he was very impressed with our collection of instruments. ‘Ginger’ was a brash, extrovert London East Ender with a very large nose who spoke with a bit of a lisp and always referred to me as ‘Bernie boy’. He had been employed in ‘Tin Pan Alley’ in London before the war, an area of London that was a centre for recording studios and where professional musicians and composers of ‘pop’ and jazz music gathered.
Somehow or other Ginger managed to get single copies of the music for the combined concert he had organised. Between us we managed to score this music to suit our combo and then we practised the numbers a few times until we were ready to perform in public. I managed to get word to ‘Ginger’ that we were ready and a date for the combined concert was agreed with him and our captors. On the arranged day we loaded up a handcart with all our instruments, music stands and stage clothes and walked down to the other camp under the watchful eyes of a couple of guards. We were allowed to go in the morning so we could rehearse with Ginger’s band prior to the concert. They were about twice the size of our band with the usual mix of instruments – saxophones, trumpets, a small string section of violins and two guitars.
After a bit of lunch and a drink we changed into our stage clothes. Ginger stood out as the conductor because he had on a white tuxedo, black trousers, red shirt and white bow tie. Goodness knows where he got them from but he certainly looked the part! The concert was well received in both his camp and in our camp on the return visit.
We never gave another combined concert as the situation in the area was getting pretty grim. Food was getting very short as the Allied bombing was very intense causing severe damage so we were not very popular.
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I should have mentioned earlier that we had taken our small band to another working camp of British POWs. All of the inmates had been captured at Dunkirk and had therefore been in captivity for a very long time. What struck us most forcibly was to see these men in nearly new full British battledress. We were told that army clothing and boots had been delivered to the camp via the International Red Cross.
When we told them that we had never seen any consignments of uniforms, we found out why. Evidently French army POWs, also captured around the time of the fall of France, had taken parole – promising not to attempt to escape. They were put in charge of the clothing and Red Cross parcel stores in the main Stalag IV-C camp. They kitted themselves out with our uniforms and walked about the local town without any guards with them. The Dunkirk boys said it was rumoured that a high ranking German officer responsible for POW camps had said that the French walked about the place looking as if they owned it and the British were escorted about looking as if they couldn’t care less who owned the place!
The weather soon changed as winter approached and it became extremely severe. Snowstorms were more frequent than the previous year and so most of our time was taken in trying to get rid of the snow. This was a thankless task because the temperature dropped to zero and beyond. This arctic weather continued up to the end of the year and well into the next year. It was impossible to keep warm and the lack of good wholesome food and warm clothing made it hard to endure.
Those of us in the band occupied our spare time preparing for the annual Christmas concert. Nobody was in the mood to concentrate on producing a pantomime so a singsong and carols were all we could muster. Much to my surprise the camp commandant said he expected the band to entertain him and his colleagues for ‘KristaI Nacht’. It was obvious we could not turn down this order but I pointed out that we didn’t know any German carols other than ‘Silent Night’. The Germans evidently were not bothered about the religious side of Christmas but wanted music for singing and dancing.
A guard came for us in the evening of Christmas Eve. We loaded up the handcart with the instruments and our gear and went to the German barracks. The full band didn’t go because one of the band, the pianist and accordion player, was a Palestinian Jew. His surname was Butchinsky, nicknamed ‘Butch’, and he looked very Jewish. Having protected him up to then we didn’t want to see him carted off to a concentration camp. We also left behind the trumpeter and the valve trombone player because of the lack of space in the German barrack hut. So the small group was made up of me on baritone sax for the ‘oom-pah’ sound, the clarinetist, the other
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accordionist and the drummer. We remembered to remove the illegal hidden radio from inside the big drum!
The festivities took place in the German NCOs’ [Non-Commissioned Officers] dining and recreation hut. When we entered the building we were met by the heat from the interior from two large cast iron stoves with a pile of logs beside them. Some attempt at seasonal decoration had been made with greenery from the branches of pine trees and some coloured lights looped around the walls and across the hut. There was a mixed gathering of uniformed soldiers, mainly men, but also a fairly large contingent of women. To our disgust among them were the awful, fat female prison guards (without their whips) but dressed in their green and black tunics and skirts with black jackboots. However there were also some quite good-looking, blonde female soldiers in smart uniforms.
They had just about finished their meal so we couldn’t see what they’d been eating, but there was plenty of beer, wine and schnapps on the tables. After unloading our instruments we were taken to the kitchen for something to eat – the leftovers from their feast. We were given some thick soup containing mainly potato with some other vegetables, black bread, cheese and some not very palatable sausage. This mixture did warm us up and was washed down with a mug of beer from a large barrel in the pantry that helped us to get in the mood to play some music.
The dining tables had been pushed back to allow some room for dancing and so we quickly got set up to play. The SS officer in charge of the camp arose to say a few words but from what we could make out it wasn’t to introduce us but to give some sort of pep talk. There was a lot of shouting and his comrades jumped up yelling “Heil Hitler” and gave the Nazi salute – that rather dampened the proceedings for us.
The Germans favourite types of dancing were waltzing and a bobbing up and down style of polka. We gave them what they wanted and soon they were more than merry with plenty of shouting and drunken laughter. We found all of this pretty boring but we were kept supplied with mugs of beer and small cups (like egg cups) of ersatz schnapps. By the end of the night goodness knows what our playing was like but the Jerries weren’t bothered as long as there was plenty of ‘oom-pah’ music and they could stomp round the room in a drunken state!
To finish off, we played the well-known German marching song ‘Lili Marlene’ (which incidentally was pinched by 7th Armoured Brigade as one of our military songs), the carol ‘Silent Night’ and finally, much to our disgust, ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’. That was the end thank goodness and after we had packed up our gear we staggered back through the snow and ice to our huts.
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Christmas 1944 and New Year’s Eve were once again rather miserable with not a lot of food. However I had saved the odd item or two from the rather scarce Red Cross parcels and the three of us in our hut managed to save up prunes, raisins and sugar to make the usual ‘hooch’.
1945 – Will this be the year of release from captivity?
The weather got colder and colder and the situation was getting serious. There was good news about the Allied advance into the heart of Europe and eventually Germany but there was also cause for concern. The rumours going around were quite disturbing as the German propaganda machine was busy making threats to Allied POWs and forced labour inmates. If the Allied armies penetrated German borders all POWs would be shot or castrated and all civilian men, women and children would be exterminated – something to think about after surviving 5 years of war! Although we were elated at the continuing success of the Allied armies, the future looked bleak for us and other internees.
The cold weather during this winter caused frequent pain in both my knees and a spell in the fairly warm atmosphere of the medical hut would have been helpful. There was no chance of that as the medical hut was full to overflowing due to a variety of health problems such as malnutrition, various stomach complaints and damaged limbs from falls on icy, compacted snow. This was a much different situation to when I last visited the medical hut after being injured by the guard who hit me across both knees with a rifle butt following the damage to the site manager’s stove.
In January a long, weary file of fellow POWs trudged past the camp. They were in a terrible state, very poorly clothed and some without boots with feet wrapped in tattered rags. We lined the barbed wire fence to watch them pass by, and from shouted conversations we were told that they had been in camps near the Polish border. They had been marched out of the camps ahead of the advancing Russian army and had been on the move since before Christmas. Many had fallen by the wayside and left to die in the freezing snow. Others who could not go any further had been shot dead by the Waffen SS when they had been in charge for a period.
For most of the time they had had no shelter when they stopped for the night. Their terrible experience made us realise that to date we had fared much better than them. A number of us dashed to our huts to dig out some clothing to help these poor souls as they moved on heading towards central Germany. These few items were thrown over the wire fence and eagerly grabbed. Who knew if the same plight would befall us at some time in the near future?
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The next serious incident that had repercussions for us was in early February with the dropping of bombs and incendiaries on the residents and refugees in Dresden. We could tell that an air bombardment was going to take place because we woke up one morning to the sound of a large collection of Allied bombers circling above our heads. It was a clear day and the sky was crisscrossed with white contrails. The direction of their flight showed they were heading northwest and before long we could hear muffled explosions that went on for a long time. The ground beneath our feet literally shook just as though there had been an earthquake not far away.
Later that evening there was a report on the BBC World Service heard on our hidden radio that hundreds of Allied planes had dropped thousands of tons of bombs on Dresden causing extensive damage. Dresden was not far away, possibly 30 to 40 miles, and when the full extent of the damage and loss of life was broadcast we began to feel the reaction of the German military and civilians. POWs and forced labour people were sent to Dresden in their hundreds including some from our camp who we didn’t see for a few weeks. When they did return we found out the extent of the damage caused by the massive bombing campaign.
The returnees were all very subdued as two of our camp party had been shot dead at the place where they were clearing away debris from a destroyed large hotel. Some of our chaps witnessed the incident as to how the two had been killed. They had been leaning on their shovels taking a breather and one of them, who was a bit of a joker, must have said something that caused them to laugh. Unbeknown to them a black leather-coated Gestapo thug happened to be passing and thought they were laughing at the devastation and loss of life caused by the bombing. In his anger he took out his revolver and shot them without asking why they had been laughing. Nobody took any notice, other than our chaps who hastily got on with shovelling the rubble in front of them.
Our fellow POWs were also very upset at the carnage caused by the bombing as they had been told that over 70,000 people had been killed, mainly women and children. Evidently there had been hundreds of refugees resting in a large park close to the city and most of them had been killed by fires when incendiary bombs were dropped to supplement the damage caused by high explosive bombs. It was probably not appreciated that around the city were large marshalling yards which no doubt had wagons loaded with ammunition, military vehicles, guns, tanks and other fighting machines waiting to repel the advancing Russians.
It was about that time we experienced our most devastating air raid. It was well into the night when we were woken up by the sound of aircraft overhead and the three of us went out to see what was happening. Over towards the area of the oil refinery the sky was lit up by a carpet of what
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appeared to be orange flares and then a lone plane dropped a line of green flares across the orange patch followed by one red flare. Soon after that the bombers came over with the first flight coming in low and dropping their bombs in the middle of the refinery area.
They were followed by more planes at a greater height dropping loads that blanketed the whole area including a stray bomb that hit one of the huts in our camp. The noise, fire and earth and debris thrown up made it seem like ‘Dante’s Inferno’. There was only one air raid shelter in the vicinity but no one had time to get to it and in any case it only had room for 50 or so. We didn’t fancy being buried alive so we laid down where we were, covering our heads with our arms and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately there were quite a few casualties, mainly in the hut which had been set on fire and which had then collapsed following being hit by the stray bomb. Next morning we found out there had been over 60 casualties including some 20 deaths. So near and yet so far for those unlucky individuals who would have had only three more months to survive as it turned out. Such is fate – something my experiences have led me to believe in.
With the advent of early spring there was only a slow thaw and the situation was now drastic with food almost non-existent. The only consolation for us was that the Germans were also suffering. The war news was marvellous as the Allies had crossed into Germany and the end of hostilities appeared to be in sight.
It must have been in early April when all the inmates of the camp were ordered to gather on the parade ground with all their possessions. We were then formed up in a long column and marched out of the camp for the German border in the Saxony hills. We marched all that day with only short rests and by the end of the second day we were fairly close to the border when we were suddenly brought to a halt. We could hear the sounds of gunfire in the distance. Could the end of captivity be near at hand? Which army would release us? Would it be the British, Americans or more likely the Russians?
We did not continue the journey on foot into Germany but turned round and headed back towards our camps in Sudetenland. We started singing ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’ but the German guards were not amused. The next day we did indeed arrive back at our old camp. We had only been on the road for four days and got nowhere! It was most noticeable that the attitude of the guards changed completely after our short exodus from the camp. Even our strict, no nonsense Waffen SS camp commander’s harsh regime eased and his earlier utterances that the Third
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Reich would still win the war had changed to: “If the enemy should happen to win, then Germany would win the peace.” He was not far wrong!
The noise of battle got even closer and the daily war bulletins became more optimistic according to the BBC. Then on the 8th May came the news we had all been waiting for, that hostilities had ceased and an armistice had been signed and agreed. Someone in the camp had made a Union Jack earlier on and had kept it hidden in his hut. It was now taken outside and together with the radio it was hung on the flagpole in the middle of the parade ground. The radio was left blaring out details of the victory and martial music accompanied the statements.
Having seen this the guards sounded the alarm and rushed into our part of the camp and surrounded the flagpole. The camp commander supported by his NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] entered the ‘arena’ fully armed and the guards rounded up us cheering prisoners and pushed us at the point of a bayonet into the parade ground. The Waffen SS CO [Commanding Officer] was beside himself with anger and demanded to know what had caused this ‘mutiny’. It was suggested he listened to the radio broadcasts that were being delivered in German.
He would not believe the radio and stormed back to his office leaving the NCOs and guards surrounding us at gunpoint. It was not long before he came back, called his NCOs to him and spoke to them. Next he called our camp leader to him and through the interpreter confirmed the armistice and handed over the running of the camp to him and our NCOs. All the guards were withdrawn and we could see that they soon changed out of their uniforms and left the camp in all the available vehicles.
It is difficult to describe my feelings at that time. There was no sense of elation although there was some cheering and shaking of hands. The problem was we didn’t know what to do next. To our consternation we could see German army activity on the road outside the camp. From their uniforms and cap badges we could tell they were units of the Waffen SS. There appeared to be a tank regiment, an artillery unit with 88 mm guns on low loaders and other armoured vehicles full of infantrymen. Our senior NCOs called us together and advised us that due to the military activity in the vicinity it would be wise for us all to stay put for the time being until the situation became clearer.
The sound of heavy fighting was getting near and it was not long before we could hear the sound of heavy shells passing overhead with some falling in our camp. The noise of the battle was coming from the west and the Waffen SS were obviously going to make a fight of it because the sound of heavy gunfire could also be heard coming from the east, the direction we had seen them
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going when they passed by our camp the previous day. It was soon apparent we were ‘pig in the middle’ – not a very pleasant thought – and we were fearful that for us the war was not yet over. The noise of battle was all around us and shells were falling in the camp from all directions. There were now a number of casualties, some quite serious, from exploding shells. There was not much shelter for us to use to protect ourselves and we just had to keep our heads down and hope for the best.
The next morning we woke to the sound of heavy vehicles coming to a halt outside the camp. Troops led by officers entered the camp and it was obvious from their uniforms, caps and type of jackboots the Russians had arrived. At first we had difficulty in letting them know we were their Allies as none of us could speak Russian and none of them could speak English. They looked a fierce lot being armed to the teeth and most of them with unkempt beards. There was a lot of shouting and waving of arms in the air with some of them appearing to be drunk and shots being fired, fortunately into the air.
Eventually an interpreter was found among the Russians and a discussion was held between the senior Russian officer and our camp leader. The outcome was that we were supplied with a rifle, a type of Tommy gun and a dagger and told to get on some tanks that were parked outside. It was obvious what the rifles and Tommy guns were for but the reason for the daggers was less apparent. We found out they were for killing animals to be eaten raw – urgh! The other thing that was obvious was that we were expected to fight alongside our new comrades!
Mickey and I found it difficult to clamber on top of the tank but willing hands soon helped us. It was nearly full of infantrymen who made room for us. It was a good job we were riding in the open air because the smell of unwashed bodies was hard to bear and it was obvious they were full of drink from the smell of their breath! I could not believe that this was happening to me and it seemed as if I was in a dream world. I was soon brought back to reality when our column of tanks came under heavy attack and came to a halt. We followed the Russian soldiers by jumping and rolling off the tanks and taking shelter behind the armoured sides of the vehicle.
Concentrated gunfire was coming from a concrete surface bunker that had a concrete apron covering its entrance. It was obvious the entrance was being heavily defended. Fortunately for Mickey and I, it was getting quite dark by this time but we could see a deep ditch close to the tank that we thought would give us protection from the bullets flying about. We had no intention of becoming dead heroes a couple of days after the armistice.
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The Russian troops were crawling on knees and elbows towards the bunker concentrating their fire on the guarded entrance. We crawled along the ditch until we were clear of the tank and fired off a few bullets into the air. Because of the time it was taking to prise the defenders out of the bunker it had got quite dark. The darkness enabled us to crawl away from the scene of battle. We retraced our steps down the road in the direction of the old camp.
On our way back we met up with what turned out to be a female Russian nurse who, much to our surprise, spoke good English. She was returning to a temporary mobile field dressing station close by to report what help was going to be needed in the morning. Before we left her we found out she had joined the Russian Medical Corps because she had wanted to join her husband who was an officer in a tank regiment. He had been killed during the advance to Berlin and she could have returned home but decided to continue her job in the medical services. We said goodbye when she reached the medical station. It was apparent she was a well educated young woman who had been happy to talk to us because it gave her a chance to practise her English. I noticed she had been better dressed than the rest of the Russians we had come across to date.
By this time I was completely leg weary and as it became daylight I was thankful to see the entrance to our old camp not far away. There was one of our chaps at the entrance gate posted as a guard to keep out intruders intent on pinching food and equipment from the vacated German camp. The situation in the camp had become extremely serious because of the number of badly wounded people needing proper medical attention. An army padre and a RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] sergeant had found their way to our camp and they volunteered to try and get to the Americans who, according to radio broadcasts, had reached the Czechoslovakian border at Pilsen.
Before they left, all the wounded had been put on stretchers and covered with blankets to keep them warm. They were laid in rows on the wooden floor of one of the vacated German barrack huts ready to be lifted into ambulances if the two volunteers managed to reach the Americans. The distance they had to travel through Russian occupied territory to reach Pilsen was about thirty to forty miles if they were able to take as direct a route as possible.
It had already been established that once the fighting had stopped in the area and the Russian fighting troops had cleared the area, the political commissars and their henchmen took over control. As soon as these officials, dressed in a form of uniform with a red star on their caps, had taken charge they had complete authority over the whole area and its population. They could, and did, countermand orders given by high-ranking officers in the Russian army and were therefore feared by all and sundry.
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The padre and sergeant must have been gone for about a week and as there was no sign of the Americans, hope of any help to get the badly injured away seemed very remote. A few died in this period of waiting. Our two volunteers had probably been waylaid and therefore unable to get to the Americans. The Russians had nothing but contempt for all POWs because they expected their troops to stand and fight to the death. They also appeared to have the same attitude to their allies.
There was no doubt the Czech people had suffered at the hands of the Germans especially after the assassination of Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. He had been Hitler’s top man in Czechoslovakia and in revenge the entire population of the village of Lidice was put to death. There had not been that many serious resistance groups during the German occupation, but after the armistice at the beginning of May the local Czechs took the opportunity to exact revenge on the Germans for the years of brutal occupation. Partisan groups had armed themselves with discarded German weapons and a number of Nazis who had held top jobs were killed.
One day during my wanderings away from the camp I found myself at the local cemetery that was surrounded by a fairly high stone wall. I heard pistol shots coming from the cemetery and I managed to peer over the wall to witness what was a nasty situation. There were a number of men dressed in civilian clothes, obviously Germans, lined up in front of a long trench. There were a number of other civilians, presumably Czechs, most armed with rifles. One of them stood out from the rest as he was smartly dressed in a tweed jacket, riding breeches and riding boots. He had a machine pistol in his hand pointed at the line of Germans.
He aimed the pistol at the first man at the left of the line, took aim and then nodded to one of the other armed men who pulled the German back from the line. Another was pushed into his place and the first man took the second’s place in the line. The one who was now first in line was then shot dead and he fell in the trench. This tactic was repeated until all the lined up Germans had been shot apart from the first one who by this time was just about dead on his feet. He had to be held up by one of the armed partisans.
By this time quite a crowd had gathered around me to witness the executions and a running commentary was given for those too small to see over the wall. Finally the last poor wretch was pushed down on his knees and the executioner fired a number of shots into his body and put an end to the torture. Evidently this man had been the top Gestapo man in the area and some must have thought this was a fitting end for a brutal, callous official. Although I had seen some horrific sights and incidents in my time during the war, I felt sickened by this method of execution.
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Each night there was the forlorn hope that a convoy of ambulances would turn up to take the sick and wounded away to safety and medical care. To ensure there would be no delay if the convoy arrived there was a rota drawn up to make sure that every night there was someone awake to open the gates to admit the rescue vehicles. There was a guard rota at the entrance to the camp covering 24 hours, but at night the guard slept in the old German guardroom.
One morning I was called to the guardroom. I was told there was a civilian enquiring if there were any musicians in the camp with instruments. He introduced himself in reasonable English and said he had been the conductor of the Prague Radio Concert Orchestra at the beginning of the war. He was trying to get a marching band and a dance orchestra together for a number of events to celebrate the armistice and the freeing of the area from German occupation. There was still some fighting going on in Prague where the Waffen SS were thought to be fighting to the death rather than suffer torture and execution at the hands of the Russians if they surrendered.
The celebrations were to take place within the next few days and would take the form of a procession of local people, mainly woman and children unfortunately, who would be dressed in their national and regional costumes. We were all invited to join in. In the evening there was to be a Victory Ball in a large warehouse that had been cleaned out and decorated and in which a stage had been erected.
I said I’d be very pleased to help out with the orchestra after speaking to the other musicians to get their agreement. The conductor said there was to be a rehearsal of the orchestra that afternoon and that he would like us to join in. He said he would arrange for a vehicle to come and pick us up. The local Russian commissar had agreed to these celebrations provided the Russians could take part and naturally this was agreed by the local dignitaries.
The day of the celebration of victory turned out to be a day to remember. The procession of gaily dressed women and young girls danced along to the music of the band leading the procession. The teenagers and young girls were dressed in blouses with coloured embroidery, bright red and green flared skirts, white socks and stockings and black shoes. The older women were in black sleeveless short jackets, white blouses, black skirts and stockings.
There was dancing, singing and laughter as they passed along the road to the local civic building which was adorned with national and regional flags. The procession came to a halt in front of the steps of the building and the crowd of people were greeted by the local dignitaries who were with some Russians in uniform. There were the usual speeches with clapping and cheering after each speech. Around the square were stalls with barrels of beer and wine and fruit juice for the
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youngsters. The barrels must have been hidden away during the war ready for this day. The warehouse was full for the dance in the evening and again there was plenty of wine, beer and other drinks but I didn’t see much in the way of food!
The dancing gathered momentum as the night progressed and it was not long before it developed into a free for all. Groups formed into large circles doing traditional and local dances, very much like our country dancing or Scottish reels. It was a really momentous occasion and a relief from the horrors and anguish of war.
Back to the reality of the aftermath of the war. The two chaps who had tried to help the Italian/English woman and her daughter went with support to get them out of their prison hoping they were still alive. They found them among a group of walking skeletons and more or less carried them back to our camp. It was thought advisable to cut their hair short and they were given odds and ends of men’s clothing to wear after they had a long session in the showers.
There was one other incident I was at first hesitant to recount and that concerned the fate of one of the mine managers who had ordered the brutal treatment of the Russians working down his mine. He had not been able to get away from the area and had been caught by a group of Russian POWs. He was continuously beaten with shovels and anything else available until he was then literally torn apart limb by limb whilst still alive. Then someone mercifully put him out of his misery. His torso and limbs were then left in the road until eventually they were carted away.
We became very worried at the grim rumour that was suddenly circulating around the camp that the Russians were insisting that the Allies should hand over seven Russian POWs for every British and American ex-POW in their hands. If this were not agreed then they would not allow any of us to leave the areas controlled by them until agreement was reached. We could understand why they were making this demand. To the Russians there should not be any POWs because all Russians were expected to fight to the death. In other words POWs were cowards and therefore should be executed for their cowardice. The Allied commanders would not agree to these demands so at that time it was stalemate.
At last the Americans turned up in the middle of the night with a fleet of ambulances driven by black soldiers. The white officers and NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers] appeared to be well fortified with liquor. They were accompanied by a number of Jeeps with crews armed to the teeth. The remaining wounded and seriously ill were quickly lifted into the ambulances. Whilst this was going on there was a discussion as to how we could get out of the situation we were in. The American officers said that if they got back to Pilsen without any opposition they would ask their commanding officers if they
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were prepared to call for volunteers to come and get us out with a number of large trucks. It would take about eight trucks to move the 500 or so of us in the camp.
During the day when I had been involved in the victory celebrations I met a mixed group of young people who had hidden with a group of others. Initially they had hidden away from the Germans in the hills making up the border between Germany and Sudetenland. This group, according to what I’d been told, managed to steal weapons such as rifles and revolvers and intended to join up with other small groups to form a partisan unit. They admitted that they hadn’t been able to cause much of a problem for the Germans but had managed to avoid capture and came down out of the hills when they heard of the armistice.
I told this group of our predicament and they offered to take a few of us into the hills and guide us towards Pilsen. They had been thinking of getting away from the Russians themselves because of fear of the future and they felt they would be better off in the American sector. I thanked them for their offer of help but said that we were hopeful of being evacuated by the Americans but didn’t go into any detail. One of the group gave me a leather belt with a large metal buckle with the partisan badge engraved on it as a memento.
I’d been thinking what we were to do with the musical instruments, as they were quite valuable with some of them nearly new when sent to us by the Red Cross. I would have loved to have taken the baritone saxophone and clarinet home with me but the sax was far too big. When the time came to leave the camp I just took the clarinet and I’m glad to say I did get it home safely and used it to good effect for many years after the war.
The problem about the instruments was solved when I came across the conductor we had helped out earlier. We offered him all the instruments that we were not able to take with us and he could hardly believe his ears, but said he would gladly give the instruments to his musicians. To protect him from being accused of being a looter I wrote out a letter of transfer of the instruments to him. When he returned later within the day with a small vehicle to transport all the instruments he said, with tears in his eyes, that he could not pay for the generous gifts. He produced a pocket watch and insisted I take it with sincere thanks. I still have that watch today but unfortunately it now doesn’t work.
At last the Americans arrived in the night to take us away and we boarded the trucks without delay. The trucks were well known heavy-duty vehicles called ‘MacWhites’ and were covered with light coloured tarpaulins attached to oval frames making them look like the old prairie wagons of the Wild West. There was standing room only as we stood huddled together about 40 to a truck.
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All of the Americans were near enough drunk and this was reflected in their erratic driving. They were taking a route through the Saxony hills to avoid large units of Russians. The journey was a nightmare as it was pitch dark and they were driving on masked, dipped headlights and goodness knows how they managed to drive at speed in the dark. Unfortunately one of the trucks failed to take a bend and ended up in a ravine. The officer in charge would not stop and see if the occupants were alive or dead but just pressed on towards Pilsen. In any case there was not any room on the other wagons to take any survivors and so they were left to fend for themselves.
We eventually arrived in Pilsen feeling nervous wrecks but very glad to be with friends at last. We were put into some buildings around this very large encampment of troops of General ‘Blood and Guts’ Patton’s Third American Army. They could not do enough for us and there was a never-ending supply of food from what they called their ‘K’ rations. These were cartons of food, a different one for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was so much that it was impossible to cope with it all and I found that after opening up a breakfast carton I had more than enough left to last me the rest of the day.
I realised very quickly that my stomach had shrunk so much and was not used to lots of rich food that was too much to take in and digest. Unfortunately some of the other ex-POWs just kept on devouring this food and the Americans gave us as much as we wanted. The consequence of this was that a few actually died of overeating. I suppose some would say what a way to die. To me it seemed such a sad ending to a life having survived five years of war to die in that manner, so near yet so far away from a joyous homecoming. For the rest of the short time we were to be with the Americans we were restricted to a small sample from the daily packs of food.
The only other lasting memory I have of the few days with the Americans was when we were invited to attend the opera house in Pilsen to see excerpts from an opera and a ballet. It had evidently been arranged as a special gala performance to celebrate the end of the war. In the interval free drinks of Pilsner lager were given to us few ex-POWs and the Americans who attended the performance. We were told that the beer had been hidden in cellars for a number of years but it didn’t taste bad to those who had been deprived of beer for so many years.
The Americans had kitted us out with some of their army gear – khaki vest and pants, a pair of combat trousers and boots, combat blouse and a knitted baseball cap – in preparation for our departure from Pilsen. On the day when we left the Americans, a flight of Dakota aircraft arrived to take us to Reims in France for onward transportation from there by the RAF. The journey turned out to be rather hair-raising. These planes, with a fuselage and wings made of wood and canvas, had been very reliable transport planes during the war.
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We flew in operational cargo planes with just two long padded benches facing each other. An American Master Sergeant who was continuously chewing gum sat on a wooden stool at the rear of the aircraft with a metal bucket between his feet. This was the sick bucket for those who were airsick and for no other purpose and he said that he hoped it wouldn’t have to be used. One of the problems was that for many of us this was our first flight and so we were experiencing the unknown.
We were soon to experience how this plane would cope with a severe thunderstorm as soon after we took off we ran into bad weather with continuous thunder and lightning. The plane rose and dropped alarmingly and as I looked out of the window I was sure I could see the wings moving up and down in the storm. Being sat on benches, we slid backwards and forwards and it was difficult not to fall onto the floor of the aircraft. Luckily I wasn’t sick but it was not long before two men opposite each other shouted for the sick bucket. The sergeant kicked the bucket along to where the two were heaving and they grabbed it and were violently sick. Seeing the vomiting set others off and it became a mad scramble to get the bucket, which before long was full to overflowing with a vile smell. The Yank sergeant got a bit upset and threw a couple of mops down the plane and shouted to get the bloody mess cleared up right away!
Fortunately we passed safely through the storm and the rest of the flight was relatively calm apart from short bursts of turbulence. We were all very happy when we landed in Reims where there was a line of old buses to take us to the transit area. The transit camp was in a large sports complex sited in a big park and on arrival we were sorted out into different groups. The British ex-POWs were allocated to the British Red Cross representatives. Those of us dressed in Yankee gear had a bit of a problem at first but we very quickly demonstrated we were British by giving our army details and home addresses. The two Italian/English women were handed over to a displaced persons’ section to be interrogated as to who they really were. Our two chaps who befriended them provided a signed statement confirming their story. I suppose the two women were eventually handed over to the Italian Red Cross.
We were then taken back to the airfield where we were put aboard operational Lancaster bombers that were to take us back to England. I was one of the first on the plane, which as an operational bomber had no seats for passengers. The rear gunner, a typical Irishman, asked if anyone would like to have his seat for the journey and I immediately said yes. I had to crawl through a narrow part of the plane’s tail end and then I had to squeeze in between two machine guns and with a large camera between my legs.
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[Map showing journey home to UK] By Dakota plane (Americans) to Reims, France, then Lancaster Bomber (RAF) back to UK.
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Once the plane was airborne I had a marvellous view and it felt as if I was suspended alone in mid-air. Fortunately it was a clear day and I could see for miles ahead on both sides but not below because of the camera. When we landed I realised why the rear gunner was so eager to give up his seat. As soon as the wheels touched the ground the tail wheel wobbled and juddered like mad and caused me to shake like a jelly. What a relief it was when the plane eventually came to a halt. The gunner asked me with a grin on his face if I’d enjoyed the trip in his seat and I said I had but not the landing!
There was a welcoming committee when we got off the plane with the usual backslapping and handshaking. Then we were transported in trucks, with seats thank goodness, to a nearby transport camp where we were given a complete battledress uniform including boots and cap. We were then taken to another hut where we were to be interrogated by an army captain. After the usual questioning about name, rank and number and the last unit before capture, I was asked if there was anything I wished to add about the circumstances of my capture, any incidents concerning army discipline whilst a prisoner of war or anything else which could be of interest regarding future tactics or disciplinary issues.
I told him I had been very concerned at the circumstances of my capture in April 1941 in Libya because of the actions of an officer we had met on a coast road when we were heading towards Tobruk during the retreat from the German Afrika Corps under General Rommel. As stated earlier in my diary this officer insisted that we accompany him across the desert to Fort Mechili as he said he had been informed that our regiment was to be involved in a stand against the German forces at this desert fort.
Despite the fact that we told him that we had been told to go to Tobruk where a stand was to be made and that a desert fort could be easily surrounded, he insisted he was taking command and we had to follow him to Fort Mechili. The consequence of that order was disastrous as it led to our capture and this officer handing over all his maps of the area to the German officer in charge.
The British interrogating officer asked for the name of the other officer. I told him and much to my surprise he suggested that I forget about the incident as an unfortunate set of circumstances which often occurred in the confusing situation of a retreat from enemy forces!! In view of this attitude I didn’t bother with other questions on the interrogation forms and just signed them in disgust. (Note: The officer who led me into captivity some years later was made a ‘Knight of the Realm’ and he was also appointed High Sheriff of his County!)
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Just before I went on repatriation leave I was directed to the WVS [Women’s Voluntary Services] hut where one of the ladies sewed on my battledress jacket five medal ribbons – the 1939-1945 Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal, the War Medal and the Territorial Efficiency Medal – the shoulder flashes of the Royal Artillery and on the bottom of the left sleeve, five small inverted stripes to denote war service overseas.
I was then directed to the Army Pay Corps tent to exchange any German marks for pounds but I only had ten marks. The man in front of me had a bundle of marks and he was questioned closely as to how he had acquired such a large amount. I don’t know if he got away with it as he was passed on to an officer for further questioning about his wad of enemy currency. I was also paid out a month’s pay and the next day I was on my way home with a railway travel pass to get me to Colchester.
The homecoming – end of May 1945
I had to change trains to get to Liverpool Street Station in London and whilst waiting on the platform for the Colchester train, I met John Goodwin, a gunner in the Essex Yeomanry, who I last saw in Cairo in December 1940. He told me he had gone with Captain Dawnay and some others of the Regiment on a hush-hush attack on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. After a fight he’d been seriously wounded and captured by German troops who occupied the island. He then spent a long period in enemy hospitals and finally ended up as a POW for the remainder of the war. We travelled together on the train until he left it at Chelmsford, the nearest station to his hometown.
Unfortunately I had not been able to warn my parents of my homecoming because they didn’t have a telephone. If I’d sent a telegram it would have just frightened my mother into an early grave thinking the worst before she or dad opened it. My mother opened the door when I rang the bell and she took one look at me and screamed at the sight of me. I suppose this was only to be expected because I was under eight stone in weight and my skin was a yellowish colour because of jaundice. I threw my arms around her and said: “I’m home mother!”
She soon got over the shock of seeing me for the first time in five and a half years having said goodbye in December 1939. I was then a 19 year old and now I was nearly 25 years old, in poor health and worn out. Dad had not been home when I arrived as he was up at his allotment enjoying a Woodbine cigarette and a chinwag with other allotment holders. When he arrived back home and saw me sitting there he came across, shook my hand and said “Welcome home son and well done”. He was not a demonstrative person as he had a very quiet and reserved nature.
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I hadn’t been home very long before my mother invited some of her friends round to the house to see me. Having not heard the sound of female voices for some time I couldn’t stand the sound of, what were to me, high-pitched voices. After a very short time I found myself starting to sweat and felt my hands clenched in my lap because of tension. I had to excuse myself from the room and went out into the back garden for a ‘breather’. When dad called me in to say goodbye I excused myself for my absence by saying I felt over hot and needed a breath of fresh air. Later that evening I explained my problem to him and he being ex-military in the Royal Army Medical Corps understood the reasons for my tension during the visit of my mother’s friends.
One of my problems in the early days of my return home was that all my pre-war friends were still away or had been killed in action. I wandered around the locality and in the town visiting pubs and hotels where my friends and I had visited before the war. This was not only to see if I could find anyone who would recognise or remember me but also to get the feel for the place after having been away for so many years. Unfortunately I didn’t meet anyone I had known prior to 1940, although strangers in bars on seeing the medal ribbons on my uniform jacket did offer me drinks presumably in the hope of hearing about some of my wartime experiences.
I suppose I must have been home for about two weeks and I had still not been able to come to terms with freedom. I replied to two invitations to attend welcome home parties. I turned down the one from the Essex Yeomanry, which may seem surprising, but I didn’t want to risk putting myself in a difficult situation if the officer who led me into captivity had been there. I was maybe in the wrong but I couldn’t have just shaken his hand and let bygones be bygones. It would have been interesting to have met some of the others who were in captivity with me because when we left the camp in Italy we all went our separate ways. Some of those I was sure would have survived the war like me.
The second invitation was from the Mayor of Colchester to attend a ‘Civic Welcome Party to Returned Prisoners’ that I accepted. It was on the following Wednesday 27 June at 1.30 pm, initially at the Playhouse Theatre in Head Street. I knew this theatre very well as I had played in the pit orchestra for the local operatic society’s season of Gilbert & Sullivan performances. During this initial gathering we ex-POWs were presented to the Mayoral Party, other local dignitaries and some Staff Officers from the Local Eastern Command Headquarters of the Army.
Whilst I was walking around talking to people I felt a tap on the shoulder and turning around I saw a tall, thin chap in uniform about my own age. He had unit flashes on his shoulders of the Essex Regiment (an infantry regiment). He said he’d first met me in a working camp in German occupied Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia in 1944. He said it was the ‘Kolumbus’ working camp
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near a large oil refinery with a number of coal mines in the vicinity. He had definitely got the right camp but to be honest I couldn’t remember him or his name. He may have remembered me easily because of my involvement in the entertainments and my regular presence on the stage. He said he had chatted to me a few times in the camp because we were from the same area in Essex – he came from a village not far from Colchester. He then added that we had exchanged names and addresses at that time in the camp.
He had been lucky when the Armistice was announced because he had been outside the camp on the day with one or two POWs and two German guards. The Germans threw away their rifles and caps and turned their jackets inside out to conceal the fact they were soldiers. They then helped the POWs to get through to a small town near Pilsen where they came across a patrol of American soldiers who took them to Pilsen when they were satisfied with their identity. Within a few days they were on their way back to England.
After he’d been home a few days he thought of me and having kept my address he decided to call to see if I’d got home. When my parents told him that they had not heard from me for some months, he told them what the situation had been like after the Armistice and assured them I had definitely been alive a few weeks before the 8th May because he had spoken to me around then. I apologised for still not remembering his name but l must have lost his name and address when I swapped my POW gear for American Army issue. We said that we should meet again but we never did. I have still got his name and address somewhere but I still can’t remember his name!
Soon after the welcome home party I received a letter from a chap called ‘Pop’ Wright who had been with me in the Italian POW camp and involved in the production of the play ‘Blithe Spirit’ by Noel Coward that, as mentioned previously, we had performed in the camp with some success. He said that he was writing on behalf of Roy Goodhind, the play’s producer, to everybody involved with the production hoping they had survived the war. The play was to be performed once more by the original cast at the Duchess Theatre in the West End of London.
This was to be a ‘Special POW Matinee’ on 16 July 1945 by ‘The Falcon Company’ of Campo 78 Sulmona, Italy with the entire proceeds going to Mrs. Churchill’s ‘Aid to Russia Fund’. This performance was to take place during the performances by a professional cast in the same theatre where the play had been running during and after the war.
I replied directly back to Roy who informed me that he thought a number of rehearsals should be held which were arranged for a hall in Harrow. He invited me to stay with him in Harrow for the duration of the rehearsals and the day of the performance. This was the opportunity for me to get
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involved with something and forget my POW experiences. However I was a bit apprehensive about my ability to perform before a full house on a professional stage but if the others were willing to have a go then so would I.
When we all gathered at the hall for the first rehearsal it was very interesting to hear the individual stories of the cast and supporting stage staff. Regrettably one of the leading performers was missing – Wallace (Wally) H. Jones who had taken the part of ‘Edith’. He had evidently made a successful escape from Italy and after a period of rehabilitation leave and training had been sent out to a theatre of war for the second time and unfortunately had been killed in battle. His replacement as ‘Edith’ was one Harry Hopkins who had been in entertainments with Roy Goodhind in Germany and showed he was a competent amateur actor. After struggling with the script in the early rehearsals, we all managed to feel our way into the individual characters.
We could only manage one dress rehearsal in the theatre and that was on the morning of the performance in the afternoon. I must say that the professional cast had all turned up to give us advice where we needed it. It was apparent that they were quite amazed at the quality of our performances and we were quite overwhelmed by their congratulations. It took a little time to get used to the amount of makeup we each needed, the heat from the stage lighting, the vastness of the stage and the props operated by the professional stage hands. When you looked into the auditorium all you could see was a black mass surrounded by a frame of bright light. When your eyesight got used to the light and the atmosphere, you could just pick out people sat in the orchestra stalls.
After a well-earned break for lunch, we were again made up ready for the live performance. We were told that we were to play to a full house including representatives from ENSA [Entertainments National Services Association] who had come along to see our efforts as amateur actors – that information caused a nervous laugh from most of us. After a tentative start we managed to feel more comfortable and assured in our parts. Two incidents stand out in my memory of that performance. The first happened when we came to the seance scene in the first act and we were all sat around a table holding hands to form a circle. The stage was in semi-darkness. Henry Hudson (of Leeds) as ‘Madame Arcata’, the spiritualist, said in a hushed, trembling voice: “Is anyone there?” There was a moment’s silence and the table began to move on its pedestal. I have never believed in the occult or ghosts but the atmosphere created in those few seconds seemed very real just as though some unseen force had moved or vibrated the table – a most haunting experience.
The other incident was more amusing when towards the end of act one ‘Madame Arcata’ had left the house to ride away on her bicycle. We all had our backs to the audience looking out of a
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window when ‘Charles’, played by Michael Chapman, should have said: “There she goes pedalling off down the hill at a hell of a rate”. What he said was: “There she goes piddling off down the hill at a hell of a rate”. We all had difficulty stopping from laughing and I’m sure all our shoulders were heaving with pent-up laughter.
At the end of the play we received a tremendous ovation and had to take a number of curtain calls. After changing we went to the ‘Green Room’ to receive the congratulations of the professional cast, the theatre management and stage staff as well as some welcome alcoholic drinks. We were then introduced to the ENSA [Entertainments National Services Association] party all dressed up in their ‘officer-type’ uniforms without any ‘pips’ on their shoulders, just the letters ENSA on their shoulder flashes. The senior one did most of the talking and he congratulated us in a rather condescending manner intimating that after all we were only amateurs.
Roy Goodhind and ‘Pop’ Wright were rather taken aback by that approach and said that we had hoped that we could take the play to the late battle areas of Europe, the Middle East and the Far East as we all had another nine months to serve until we reached our demob groups. The ENSA group went to the back of the room and after a short discussion came back and the leader of the group said that regrettably they were unable to recommend that ‘The Falcon Company’ should join their ranks. As a parting shot he said that we should leave it to the professionals who would all need to get jobs in the entertainment field at the end of the war!
My repatriation leave had ended on 12th July 1945 just before the theatre performance but had been extended for a time to cover the period of the rehearsals and the performance. I returned to duty the week after the acting experience by presenting myself at the special unit of the ’45 Div’ near Horsham in Sussex. During the following few days I had to undertake various aptitude tests that came under two headings – Mechanical Aptitude and Intelligence. I quickly decided that I wasn’t going to do very well in the mechanical test. If successful I could be sent to either a vehicle unit like the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] or to REME [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers], which I did not fancy.
The mechanical tests included putting a cold water tap together (there was a catch, there was a washer missing), putting a bicycle pump together and assembling a bicycle chain that was in several bits. I concentrated on the intelligence papers which I didn’t find very difficult, like putting round objects into round holes and similar with squares and oblongs, etc, and a few problematical questions that were also not too testing. I failed the mechanical tests but did very well with the intelligence tests. I was told I was mechanically hopeless but showed sufficient intelligence to be sent to the War Office in London.
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Soon after the tests some of us were sent to London to the Millbank Military Hospital on the banks of the River Thames to undergo medical examination. Following a routine examination on the couch I also had to cough for sign of a hernia and have my weight checked and height measured. The outcome of this examination was that I was definitely underweight (very obviously) and so I was downgraded to B2. There was one thing that annoyed me following examination of my legs. The knee joints were visibly swollen and I mentioned that I was sure the condition of my knees was due to a German prison guard hitting me across the knees with the butt of his rifle causing me to be laid up in the camp medical hut for a few weeks.
The medical officer refused to accept that explanation and said my condition was typical of a sports injury. I said I wasn’t happy with the diagnosis because there had been witnesses to the incident and I had been seen by a young Australian medical officer who came to our working camp on occasions from the nearest hospital in Bilina. When I couldn’t give names, units, etc, of the medical officer and the witnesses the medical adjudicator said he was unable to accept my explanation and so dismissed me from the examination room. I was furious at this decision and I cynically assumed that medical examiners had received orders to reject unsubstantiated claims because of possible claims for disabled pensions from ex-soldiers when they returned to civilian life.
Some attempts to con medical examiners were quite amusing. One particular soldier was a paratrooper who had been captured at Arnhem. It had been suggested to him that he pretend to be ‘bomb happy’ and he had been practising the visual symptoms for a few days prior to his medical examination.
When he came out from seeing the Medical Officer [MO] he was furious because the MO had seen through his attempted deception. He’d acted slovenly and twitched his shoulders and head all the time but had been ignored by the MO. Suddenly the MO had shouted at the man who was shocked into forgetting to perform his twitching and he responded in a clear voice. Too late! The MO pronounced him fit for further active service.
He had only been 19 years old when dropped into Arnhem and he’d literally dropped into the arms of a German soldier so he hadn’t been a POW for very long. He said the MO had threatened to report him for play-acting which would have been punishable by a period in the ‘glasshouse’ (military prison). It appeared to me that if you were one of the unlucky ones to get back to the UK after the main body of returning POWs then you didn’t appear to get the same sympathetic treatment as those back home before you.
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The ‘special’ camp I was in was one of the few in the area and catered for artillerymen and paratroopers. One day much to my surprise my old mate Mickey Abbott turned up on a tandem bike from one of the other camps in the vicinity where he had heard that artillerymen were in a camp nearby. The tandem bike came in useful as we used it to tour the surrounding villages sampling the beers in the local pubs.
One Saturday night we found ourselves at a dance in a village hall which was a hunting ground for Land Army girls. When the doorkeeper saw us we were welcomed with open arms and allowed in free – evidently the girls didn’t see many men at these hops. We never got the chance to ‘survey the field’ as we were grabbed without ceremony as soon as the music started for the next dance. Seizing our chance when we were near an exit, we left our partners standing and escaped up the road to the local pub.
After my return to London I was told that I’d been accepted to serve out my time at the War Office. I went home for another period of leave until I received a call up letter from the Director of Engineers’ stores section in Great Smith Street near the Houses of Parliament. I would have company as another artilleryman had also been selected to go to the same place. On VJ (Victory over Japan) Day I was not at home in Colchester as I’d received an SOS from the parents of a friend of mine who had also been a POW in a working camp under Stalag IV-C.
His camp had been much nearer to Dresden than mine and during a bad bombing raid he’d been buried alive in a bomb crater. Fortunately part of his body had been visible in the rubble and he’d been pulled out unconscious as a bomb splinter had penetrated the top of his head. He survived to return to England eventually, to spend most of his time in Military Hospitals recovering from his head wound. The bomb fragments had been removed but his brain had been badly shaken up. As there was nothing more the doctors could do he was sent home on indefinite sick leave. He suffered with severe headaches, nightmares, lack of sleep and had violent outbursts of aggressive temper. Pat unfortunately had also become a heavy drinker to ease the pain of his injuries which did not mix well with the pain killing drugs he was on.
His parents lived on the Suffolk coast in Felixstowe, which was a small port and popular seaside resort at the time. He was surprised to see me when I arrived but I was concerned about Pat and decided to see if my companionship might help in some way. Soon after my arrival he had introduced me to a young RAF pilot, the son of a family friend. He was younger than us being under 21 years of age but he was also on extended sick leave. He had been a pilot of a ‘Typhoon’ fighter bomber, a very fast aircraft which had proved very successful in low flying attacks on retreating German forces. Unfortunately mixed up with the retreating troops were civilian refugees
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and the young pilot could not avoid seeing the thousands lying dead or dying as the result of his attacks. He became badly affected at the sight of more and more slaughter of human beings in the daily attacks.
The three of us spent most of the mornings on a pub crawl with a break for lunch then a stretch out on the grass for an afternoon siesta. We did spend some afternoons at the matinee performances at the local Variety Theatre. Pat and his pilot friend had got to know three quite young naval officers’ wives whose husbands were all serving overseas. Pat had known one of the wives, a local girl who was married to a naval doctor, from before the war. He appeared to have something of a crush on her as she tried to help him get over his wounds. However she did not reciprocate his feelings, which he found rather frustrating.
One evening we were invited round to the home of the doctor’s wife for drinks with the two other female friends. Our hostess was over generous with the drinks and we foolishly drank a potent mixture of beer, wine, rum and whisky. As a result Pat caused a problem as he became over amorous with the doctor’s wife. It was too late to get back to Pat’s house so the three women managed to get him into a single bed where he passed out thank goodness, whilst the pilot and I slept on settees.
All this drinking wasn’t doing Pat any good in his condition, so his dad rang the medical officer who had been treating his son. She came out to the house and I spoke to this very pleasant female captain whose speciality was treating brain damaged servicemen. She explained that it was very difficult to determine whether Pat would ever fully recover from the kind of injuries he had suffered and that he could be left with a permanent disability.
When I walked the captain to her car I explained my connection with Pat. She could not discuss in detail with me about his condition but she did say there was very further medical help that could be given to improve his recovery. It was just a matter of wait and see how the brain injury settled down. In the meantime he would suffer severe head pains, which could only be helped by painkillers, and he would require the support of family and friends. He would be invalided out of the army with a pension and would be called back from time to time for further examination and tests.
Unfortunately I couldn’t stay with him for much longer and regrettably we went our different ways for a variety of reasons. I have related the story to show it wasn’t only the ‘poor enemy civilians and displaced persons’ who were affected by the bombing and firestorm of Dresden. Many allied POWs were killed and many were injured, some for life, by the so-called ‘friendly fire’.
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VJ (Victory over Japan) Day 15th August 1945 – Final victory
What a day! I was still with Pat in Felixstowe when the news was announced. We were still in uniform with a row of campaign and other war ribbons on our left breasts. To say we were mobbed would be an exaggeration, but we didn’t have to buy a drink all day! There was an invasion of young and old sailors from HMS Ganges, the training establishment in Harwich, who certainly added to the scenes of jubilation and proved the truth of the saying ‘all the nice girls love a sailor!’ The celebrations went on through the night until dawn.
When I returned home I received my orders to report to the War Office, Director of Engineer’s Stores Department, in central London. There was no living accommodation for staff employed at the War Office and we had to find our own digs for which the Army paid the living out rate. I contacted Ethel Edwards, the wife of my cousin Alf, who had a large house in Hornchurch in Essex to see if she could put me up during my time in London. Alf was still away serving overseas in Persia (now Iran) as a sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals.
I rang Ethel and she said she could put me up as she now had bedrooms to spare. Evidently the house had been severely damaged by a ‘V2’ rocket bomb that had landed in the garden one night. Ethel, her young daughter and two female teachers from Yorkshire, who had been billeted with her, had been asleep when the bomb exploded and the roof fell in on them. They had an amazing escape because they all got out from the debris without injury. The house was now fully repaired and as the two teachers had been sent elsewhere she had plenty of spare room. I gratefully took up her offer the following weekend.
My service at the War Office – September 1945 to March 1946
On arrival at the section office I found that I wasn’t the only ‘new boy’. There were four of us adding to the existing complement of the section – two Staff Sergeants from the Royal Engineers (REs) who both had two rows of campaign ribbons, and myself and another gunner from the Royal Artillery, each with one row of campaign ribbons. The original section comprised the section head (a middle-aged Major in the REs), his deputy (a Lieutenant in the REs), an executive officer, two clerical officers and a clerical assistant (all civilian civil servants).
We were introduced to all the staff and then we four were told that our job involved tracing all the ‘Bailey Bridges’ (temporary extendable bridge structures used in theatres of war) throughout the former battle zones in Europe and the Middle East. We of course knew what Bailey Bridges looked like but we had no idea why they had been given that particular name.
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We were given a brief lecture on this bridge and told that it was invented by Donald Bailey, a civil servant working in the War Office during the war. His hobby was building model bridges to his own designs. He showed a particular model to his chiefs who were impressed and encouraged him to explore the construction in more detail. An improved model was finally accepted but was given a low production priority. It was therefore not available in any quantities until early 1944 when the build up for the attack on mainland Europe was at its height. The diagram of a double truss, single storey bridge is enclosed.
The bridge was portable with the sections small enough to be carried by trucks. It was of modular design that was suitable for military engineers to use it to span up to 60m (200 feet) across water and other gaps. It was easy to assemble and did not require special tools and when assembled it was strong enough to carry the heaviest tanks and other large vehicles. Donald Bailey was knighted in 1946 in recognition of his talent and services to the war effort.
By the end of the war the US 5th Army and the 8th British Army had built over 3,000 of these bridges in Sicily and mainland Italy alone. Many more thousands were built all over mainland Europe, North Africa and the Far East. Our section therefore had quite a task to establish where the British alone had built the bridges used in all theatres of war throughout the world. This exercise had been deemed of importance by the powers that be because it had been decided to make the bridges surplus to requirements post-war and donate them to UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rescue Agency).
We managed to complete our task so far as Europe and the Middle East were concerned within about three months of concentrated effort by all concerned. The Far East battle area proved more difficult and therefore our head of section, who had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, came up with an idea to enhance his reputation as an organiser and leader. He proposed that a small team led by him should go to the Far East so they would be in a better position to discover the location of all the bridges built by the British Army. This was put into a lengthy written proposal but he had a problem getting it typed because there was a strike with 100% support in the typing pool.
Our leader was not to be deterred and he ordered me to go to the typing pool in secret and bring back a typewriter to our section after the typists had left the building for the day. The typewriter had been recently repaired and the typing pool supervisor was prepared to lend it to our section. However when I went to collect it later that afternoon I was told it had to be returned the following morning before the typing staff arrived back in! When I took the typewriter into the Colonel’s office he asked me to stay to type his submission to his superiors. I told him I wasn’t a great typist but
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he remembered from my records that I’d been a teleprinter operator in the Post Office before the war. Despite my concerns about my typing skills being rusty he told me to get practising and when I’d got used to the machine he would go through his notes with me.
He stayed with me for the two hours it took me to produce a decent result without mistakes and he had the grace to thank me but warned me not to tell anyone what I’d been doing that evening. Although I was there until 8 pm I was told I had to be back in the morning before 8 am to get the typewriter back to the typing pool before the staff got back in and for my troubles I was promised a half day off in the afternoon.
At the War Office at this time all service staff wore uniform but with shoes instead of boots and gaiters. This was until a new young officer decided that other ranks in the Admin section, including junior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers], should be correctly dressed especially on pay parade. He also ordered that soldiers when receiving their pay from the officer should come to attention and salute smartly and do the same when they’d received it. It was reported back to the young officer that the majority of the junior ranks had ignored this order giving various excuses – they couldn’t find their boots and gaiters, they were excused boots because of foot problems, etc. Most of the ‘old sweats’ had been working at the War Office for years and had forgotten how to salute correctly and marching smartly in and out of the pay office had never been heard of before!
Because of the number of officers working in the building there was an unwritten law that only officers of the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and above would be saluted. This upset many new young officers and they attempted to reprimand those who didn’t salute. After complaints, the younger officers were advised by senior officers of the relaxation of formalities. All ranks used the canteen and on one occasion a Warrant Officer Class 1 joined the four of us from our section at the dining table. He had three medal ribbons, Defence Medal, War Medal and the Meritorious Service Medal [MSM]. He was asked what the MSM was as we didn’t recognise it and when we were told he was then asked how long he’d been at the War Office and he said five years!
Our colonel much to our surprise was given permission to go to the Far East with two others and he was given a Dakota aircraft and crew for the length of his stay in the area. Our section gradually increased in size to such an extent that other rooms had been taken over. This was my first experience of ’empire building.’
As it got towards Christmas I was looking forward to going home to Colchester for the festive season. During this time I was persuaded to buy two tickets to a combined Victory and Christmas dance to be held in one of the big hotels taken over for the duration of the war that had a large
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ballroom that was still intact. I had no idea of who to take but my cousin suggested I ask one of the Yorkshire schoolteachers who lived at the house previously to whom I had been introduced before. I was a bit diffident in approaching the one I rather fancied and she phoned the slim fair headed Margery Watson who agreed to go to the dance with me. This was a partnership that was destined to last over 60 years as Margery and I were married the following October 1946.
1946 – the end of my military service in sight
I’d already been told that my demobilisation (demob) group number was 27, which meant I would be discharged from the army in July 1946. That date couldn’t come soon enough as although I was having an easy time in the War Office, the work was becoming monotonous and I was fed up with the general situation there. Our Colonel returned with his staff in February and after making his report, this time typed in the typing pool, he was soon after promoted to Brigadier!
One day he called me into his office and told me he was recommending me for a WOSB (War Office Selection Board) for consideration for a commission to officer rank. My immediate response was to turn this down which upset my senior officer and he suggested I give it some thought. I did consider it but thought I didn’t stand much chance of succeeding as l hadn’t got my Schools Certificate, I wasn’t A1 healthwise and I understood regular service commissions were not being given out, so consequently one could be discharged after three years then having to find a job in civvy street.
I decided to turn down the opportunity much to the disgust of my boss. The other RA [Royal Artillery] chap did accept the chance and he became an officer in the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] where coincidentally he met my brother-in-law, Don Grieve, who was also an officer, in the Suez Canal zone in Egypt – a small world! This successful ex-gunner had been educated at a well-known public school and joined the army direct from there so he didn’t have a job to go back to on demob.
I was now in the countdown to demob phase. I knew from the regulations concerning ‘release leave’ that I would have earned 64 days. This was worked out on the basis of one day for every month spent overseas. As I left England at the start of January 1940 and returned towards the end of May 1945, I was entitled to 64 days release leave. I received certification to go on leave on 18th March 1946 and on 23rd March received a ‘Certificate of Transfer’ to the Army Reserve, Class Z(T) w.e.f. [with effect from] the 11th July 1946. On the same day I was sent my ‘Record of Army Service’ – 16/11/1937 – 10/07/1946 (16/11/1937 to 01/09/1939 was Territorial Army service).
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On the 18th March I was sent to the ‘Olympia’ building in London to be given my civilian clothes in exchange for my army uniform. I was allowed to pick out a two piece, double-breasted light grey suit with a pinstripe and a military-style, double-breasted fawn raincoat. There was only a poor selection of shoes and whilst I was studying which pair to take, a civilian storeman came up to me and said he could possibly find me a nice pair of brown Clarks shoes. He produced a pair from his storeroom and I think he expected a tip but he was unlucky! I went to the changing room and walked out a civilian.
Next I would have been pleased to have received notification of a generous War Gratuity and back pay from a grateful government and nation. This would have been in appreciation of my 6 years and 10 months service in HM Forces which together with that of millions of others helped to win the war.
I received the princely sum of £39.00! It was to be officially noted that I wouldn’t be given the £2.00 gratuity for the period 18/03/1946 to 11/07/1946 whilst I was on demob leave – I suppose I should have been grateful for small mercies I got anything at all! ‘The Post-War Credits’ due amounted to £41 and 1 shilling for the period 01/01/1942 to 30/06/1946. This was the total amount of pay withheld for that period in support of the cost of the war that was refunded. This restriction in pay must have been brought in force on 01/01/1942 and I assume must have applied to everyone, soldier and civilian alike.
I now turn to the flyer headed ‘Welcome Home Again’ issued by HM Forces Savings Committee with my words in brackets: ‘This is your day ……. your pay has been accumulating’ (no mention of the fact that most of my pay had been passed over to the Italians and Germans while in captivity!). ‘You’ll want to spend some of it, why not? But for goodness sake don’t part with all your cash (don’t spend it all at once – big deal!) or get caught by sharks (rogues and robbers) who want your money (they must be hard up!). Put some of your credit in the Post Office Savings Bank ….’ (and live on what?!).
The princely sum of £80 and 1 shilling didn’t seem much to start civilian life on! Luckily I’d decided not to seek promotion in the army because any increase in pay would have reduced the amount of the balance of Civil Service pay that had been accumulating in my bank account. The total sum was just over £300.00 – a fair amount in 1946 – that provided a nest egg when I married in October 1946.
Thus ends my story of my life as a soldier in the British Citizen’s Army (the Territorial Army) for nearly nine years.
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[Photograph of the 5 medals earned by Bernard Collier.]
Gunner Collier B. H. 874884 RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] (Essex
1. 1939-1945 Star.
2. Africa Star.
3. Defence Medal.
4. War Medal.
5. TA [Territorial Army] Efficiency Medal.
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Campo PG 78 Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy.
[Photograph with caption] 1. The camp is situated at the foot of Monte Morrone range and can be seen towards the bottom right hand corner.
[Photograph with caption] 2. This picture of the camp buildings will have been taken from above the camp on Monte Morrone.
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The POW Camp Campo PG 78, No. 3 Compound
I was a prisoner in this compound for 2 years and 4 months.
[Photograph with caption] 3. This picture was taken from the top of the compound looking down towards the entrance gate at the bottom. My hut was No. 59, second hut coming up the slope.
Cricket matches were played between the huts – not easy!!
[Photograph with caption] 4. The Officer’s Compound. Most of us used the space between the huts to sleep outside in summertime, to escape from the bed bugs which took up residence in the 2-tier beds.
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More pictures of the huts of No. 3 Compound.
[Photograph with caption] 6. This picture, again, looks down the compound towards the Peligna Valley across to Monte San Cosimo and Monte Prezza.
From further scrutiny, this could be the bottom compound as the doors to the huts are smaller than in No. 3.
[Photograph with caption] 7. This is a view near the main entrance to the camp. Guardroom to the left, bent flagpole in middle, with Italian Admin building behind.
[Digital page 142]
Campo PG No. 78
[Photograph with caption] 7. This picture shows clearly the space between the huts, not very comfortable to sleep on the ground. We slept in 2 rows with our feet to the centre.
[Photograph with caption] 8. The interior of a hut in No. 3 compound, dark and dingy as there were very few windows, bare concrete floors, no heat – so very cold.
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Campo PG No. 78. Outside the POW Compounds and near the Italian Officer’s Buildings.
[Photograph with caption] 9. This photo shows the partly dug out parade ground cum sports field. We prisoners dug out the rocky soil using just picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. Not an easy job in midsummer.
[Photograph with caption] 10. This photo has been included because it shows the area near the civilian prison where the paratrooper officers were held captive, initially under sentence of death and tortured.
[Digital pages 144-147]
See index of illustrations for descriptions at front of memoirs.
[Editors note: There is no list of illustrations in the memoirs. A note on digital page 10 suggests the photos on digital pages 144 to 147 might be of Campo PG78 Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy, where Collier was a PoW from 1941-1943.]
[Digital page 148]
[Postcard sketch of the POW huts and Civil Prison with a Christmas greeting. Sent from Private George “Ginger” Camplin to his Dad and family 15/11/1941.]
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[Photograph] At the British POW working camp Kolumbus Laager, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Taken the day after Armistice, 9th May 1945, with ‘captured’ German camera. Collier is in the middle of the back row.
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[Photograph] At the British POW working camp Kolumbus Laager, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Taken the day after Armistice, 9th May 1945, with ‘captured’ German camera. Collier is on the left of the back row.
[Digital page 151]
[Photograph] At the British POW working camp Kolumbus Laager, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. Showing the parade ground, part of two of our huts and a German army barrack block at the top end of the parade ground.
[Digital page 152]
Bernard H Collier
Foreword to this Folio 2: Ex-POW Camp No 78 Fonte d’Amore and Sulmona, Italy Revisited
1st return visit on 19th to 21st October 1973
2nd return visit on 23rd to 26th June 1978
3rd return visit on 13th to 23rd May 2001
4th return visit on 7th to 14th May 2002
Each return visit was, and is, for a specific reason as detailed below:-
RETURN VISIT No. 1 in OCTOBER 1973
Originally it was thought that as we of the ‘Sulmona Reunion’ (the ex-POWs of Campo No. 78 Italy) were now sixty years of age or over it would be a good idea to return to the camp, as a group, for a short visit.
Many of the ex-POWs had been back on more than one occasion. These earlier visits had been to meet up and stay with the local people, or their descendants, who had sheltered them or helped them to escape in September 1943.
The camp and its buildings were still standing more or less as they were in September 1943 when we left there. This was because the majority of the buildings were being used by the Alpine troops of the Italian Army, who maintained the camp as a mountain warfare training camp for NATO troops.
Permission had therefore to be obtained before we could gain entry to the camp. This was done through the British Military Attache at the Embassy in Rome. When the local Italians and the Italian national ex-POW Association got to hear of our proposed visit it gave them the opportunity to turn this visit into a more formal ‘official’ visit.
Evidently the town of Sulmona was to receive a ‘Gold Medal’ in recognition of the assistance given to escaping ex-POWs from September 1943 by local people. It also recorded their bravery because many of them were caught by the Germans and executed for hiding escapees. They also caught after informers had pointed them out for helping the POWs to escape.
The mountain village of Campo di Giove was also to receive a ‘Silver Medal’ for the same reason as related above. It was in this village that nearly all the inhabitants, except for a few very old women and babies, had been executed. This barbaric action had been carried out by the Germans because they had found out that mountain guides and shepherds from this village had helped escapers to get within striking distance of the Allied armies held up at Castel di Sangro because of the bad weather in late 1943.
RETURN VISIT No. 2 in JUNE 1978
At the Sulmona Reunions, held at the Union Jack Club, London in April of 1977 and 1978, it was suggested that it would be a good idea to have a final visit with wives, relatives and friends.
It would again be necessary to obtain permission to get into the camp. Once we were in the camp we intended to carry out a little ceremony to ‘symbolically’ remove the ‘last brick’ from the buildings and then to throw it down the
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mountainside. In other words, to finally say goodbye to Campo PG No. 78 at Fonte d’Amore, Sulmona, Italy.
The necessary arrangements were made, but again, when the Italians heard what we intended to do they wanted to turn this event into something to be recorded for posterity. They made arrangements for a formal blessing of this brick. Firstly, at the small chapel in the camp, and secondly, at a ‘pomp and circumstance’ service in the Cathedral di San Panfilo in the Commune of Sulmona. Both services were conducted by the Bishop of Sulmona and other religious dignitaries.
After these ceremonies the brick was embedded in a wall within the cloisters of the Town Hall in Sulmona, with a suitably engraved tablet, in English and Italian, explaining why the brick had been inserted in the wall. It is to remain as a permanent memorial of this event.
An evening concert was given by local choirs in the Garibaldi Piazza, the main square in Sulmona. We reciprocated by giving an impromptu music session on clarinet, piano and drums. A coach tour of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo was arranged by the Italian Army, but they were called away on an unexpected emergency, so the police kindly took over and provided a sumptuous picnic in the Forest.
RETURN VISIT No. 3 in MAY 2001
This visit was arranged and organised by the Monte San Martino Trust (a UK registered charity) to create a commemorative Freedom Trail covering one of the WW2 mountain routes used by escaping POWs. Help was often given along the trail by local people of the mountain towns and villages as most of the men were mountain guides and shepherds.
This event was a sponsored walk covering about 58 miles over mountain tracks taking four days. The walk was undertaken by young Italian students, guides and scouts, British youth groups, and British Forces, young soldiers and airmen under the command of senior NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officers].
About 200 walked the trail and over £25,000 was raised by sponsorship donations. The proceeds were used by the Trust to cover the cost of bringing 18 young Italians from the mountain regions to London. They attended an English Language College for a month with a view to improving their knowledge of spoken and written English.
This event turned out to be very interesting indeed especially as the President of Italy was present in Sulmona on the day the walk commenced. After a colourful pageant and numerous speeches the President cut the tape for the start of the walk. Fortunately the weather was very good for most of the time spent in Italy, so everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
PROPOSED RETURN VISIT No. 4 in MAY 2002
Arrangements for this visit are now well advanced. The sponsored walk this time will follow the western escape route through the mountains of the Apennine Chain which will take us through the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo where small European bears, deer and mountain goats roam free. Hopefully we will be fortunate enough to get a glimpse of these animals. A full report of this visit will be recorded in due course.
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[A copy of a fellow ex-POW’s account of his return to Sulmona.]
RETURN TO SULMONA: 19th to 20th OCTOBER 1973
When we heard from Joe Drew of the proposed trip to revisit Sulmona, most of us imagined that we should only make our way, in a body, to the town, revisit the camp, if this was possible, spend a little time shopping, etc, and return. Joe had, of course, to ask for formal permission to revisit the camp, which is now in use as a military depot, and news of our trip got through to the equivalent of the British Legion – this Italian Legion deals especially with ex-prisoners of war, deportees, internees, etc. A few of us had, therefore, some idea that the Mayor (Sindaco) of Sulmona might possibly meet us at the hotel, but details were very vague.
The trip was arranged as a two day winter holiday through a commercial travel organisation, and a courier – a niece of one of the party – was to be provided. We were all on time at Gatwick, and found that we took up almost all the seats on a Comet 4B – the few remaining seats were taken by “ordinary” holidaymakers, who left us on arrival at Rome and rejoined us there on the return flight. The BBC had got wind of the trip and Joe, after all his emphasis on our being punctual, was nearly late for take off at 9 am through giving them an interview for their sound programmes.
The flight was calm and uneventful, with magnificent views of the snow-covered Swiss Alps. We flew just off the west coast of Italy and landed at Rome at about 12 o’clock, when the surprise started. We had imagined that we ourselves would have to pay for the return journey Rome-Sulmona-Rome (about 120 miles each way), but the Italian Legion, in conjunction with the Italian Army, had provided three Army buses – equal in comfort to civilian buses – which were ours for the weekend. The Italian customs did not, in the circumstances, want to know anything about us, and our bags were stacked outside by the buses almost before we were through immigration. (The other “ordinary” passengers, on the other hand, got the full customs examination). The three carabinieri guards at the airport entrance saluted us as we passed through, and we set off for the autostrada up to the Apennines.
This autostrada has two lanes, plus a hard shoulder in each direction, and winds its way up through magnificent scenery. The mountains are of limestone, and the valleys are very steep-sided, with sharp changes of direction. To keep the autostrada reasonably straight and level, therefore, it is sometimes carried out from the side of the mountain over viaducts, some of which are up to two miles long and 200 to 300 feet high. When a mountain is in the way, the autostrada tunnels through it – one tunnel I estimated at being 2 to 3 miles long. Unfortunately, this autostrada does not go right through to Sulmona, and about 2/3rds of the way, just before Avezzano, we left it for the ordinary road system. The surface of the road remained excellent, but it twisted very much – to avoid steep ascents and descents – and we became almost dizzy with the constant changes of direction. The scenery remained wild and magnificent – sparse semi-shrub vegetation on the upper slopes, then, lower down, olive trees, and lower still the occasional vineyard.
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Sulmona itself lies in a flat valley some 6-7 miles wide and probably 10-15 miles from north to south. We, of course, recognised the valley as soon as we started to descend, and could see the camp itself – on a slight rise on the eastern side – just before we stopped at the motel at which we were staying, about 1.5 miles north of Sulmona. A meal was ready for us on our arrival, and afterwards those who could speak Italian chatted to the Mayor, the President of the Italian Legion, one or two guides, and representatives of the Press. Afterwards, Chris, Mac and I – we had always been together in the camp – walked down to Sulmona and looked around the town. Here we had our second surprise. Our visit had been made the occasion of the presentation of medals to Sulmona, to a neighbouring hilltop village, Campo di Giove, and to some of their inhabitants, commemorating their struggles after 8th September 1943 in resisting the German invaders and helping escaped prisoners of war – this help from the partisans to the Allies has of course been acknowledged by the Allies many times in the past. Posters announcing the forthcoming presentations, signed by the Mayor, had been affixed every fifty yards or so to the walls of the buildings in every street in sight: we tried, not very hopefully, to take photographs of these, had a drink, and returned for supper. Further chatting and drinks with various Italians, and to bed about midnight. The courier – who had previously said that she usually knew the place her party was visiting, whereas the tourists did not; but on this occasion the positions were reversed! – had by this time given up, as we seemed to be doing quite well by ourselves, and went to bed exhausted about 8 pm.
In our bedrooms we found a selection of travel literature about Sulmona and its surroundings, and a small gift of sweets from a shop run by a local ex-resistance fighter, who later produced a list of escaped prisoners of war, with the names of those Italians who had helped them – Joe went through this list with him and brought him up to date, as far as was possible, on their subsequent histories.
On Saturday morning, by bus to the camp. On the way, we were each handed an envelope containing the magazine of the Italian Legion, more guide books, and the medal given to all returned Italian ex-prisoners, deportees, internees, etc. On our arrival at the camp gate, the carabinieri saluted us and the guard “turned out”. A small shrine had been erected at the camp gate, after we had left, to an Italian Air Force Officer, captured by the Germans after 8th September 1943, who had escaped and had been shot on recapture. Joe had brought a wreath in homage to him and to those British prisoners who were killed either escaping or en route to Germany. The Italians knew nothing of this, and hurriedly provided a guard of honour at the shrine whilst we laid the wreath, followed by a speech from Joe and a translation of this from Chris. This surprised the Italians again; the language barrier was so complete that they were very pleased indeed to find anyone with whom they could converse.
We then wandered around the camp, looking for the huts in which we formerly lived. The section of the camp – the compound – in which I had lived had been extensively altered, and my hut had been demolished and rebuilt. After a while
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it was suggested that we held a “last parade” in the camp, and we solemnly lined up in threes as we had done when prisoners for the twice-daily roll calls. Chris persuaded an Italian sergeant-major to go down the line counting the “bodies” (as in former times) and filmed him whilst he was doing it. A number of photographs were also taken. I afterwards got chatting to this sergeant-major, and with his permission photographed some of the huts in this compound, and in another compound which had remained unaltered, and also one of the somewhat primitive “loos”. Chris in the meantime was having his own tour, escorted by the Captain in command, with a detailed history of the valley from Roman times – our departure was delayed by his giving an account of his escaping adventures to (1) the Captain, (2) several carabinieri, (3) the President of the Italian Legion and (4) a number of the “garrison”.
At lunch it was announced we should be taken to be shown Sulmona, and after that to the village of Campo di Giove for the presentation of the medal. We arrived at Sulmona at 2.30 pm and were left to our own devices until 4.30 (shopping, photographs, etc). Chris, Mac and I found one of the Italian guides and were taken round a large part of the town with the full “guide” treatment. (Two churches, the Porta di Napoli, etc). From the pick up point, the town square (with a statue of Ovid, who was born in the town), we went some 30 miles or so up into the mountains to Campo di Giove (about 3,000 feet up) where, in the town square, were the War Memorial, two carabinieri in full ceremonial uniform – Napoleonic hats with cockades – a detachment from the Italian Army, a group of schoolchildren, and a reserved place for us, all this forming a square, with a rostrum in one corner draped with the Italian flag – as were the windows of the houses round the square. Speeches from (1) a representative from the Ministry of Defence awarding the medal, (2) the Bishop of Sulmona, (3) the President of the Italian Legion and (4) Chris, extempore, thanking the villages for their help in times past – this one again surprised the Italians.
We were then most unexpectedly invited to a reception which the village had prepared for us; the village is a winter sports centre and the reception was held in a magnificent hotel nearby. Handshakes by the Mayor, his wife and the local dignitaries, and then drinks and hors d’oeuvres. A number of the villagers produced names and addresses of prisoners whom they had helped, but unfortunately none were present. By this time I was feeling a little overcome by our reception: these villagers had saved the lives of many of us during the war, and now they were thanking us for coming back to them, eating their food (which they had spent most of the day preparing), drinking their wine, and, for the most part, going off without being able to say anything or do anything except wave. I therefore started going round to all the Italians I could find, putting this point of view, and saying that we appreciated very deeply; and were overcome by, the reception itself. Among the Italians was an elderly lady, who could have been anybody’s grandmother, and who did not look as if she could crack an egg by herself without assistance. Immediately after I had spoken to her, another Italian told me that in 1943, when she was 37, she had hidden six ex-prisoners in her cellar: the Germans had accused her of hiding prisoners, refused to accept her denial, and had searched the house – without finding the prisoners! They had accused her again, whereon she said “If you don’t believe me, shoot me”. And here she was, grateful that we had come back and were drinking her wine and eating the food which she and the other villagers had prepared.
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I translated what had been told me for the benefit of those of our party who were standing round, all of whom were very moved – as was I. She was, I was glad to see, wearing the medal which she had received during the ceremony.
After dinner, Chris retired, with Joe, to redraft his prepared speech for the morrow at the big ceremony at Sulmona, and Mac and I, after a little further chatting with the Italians, went to bed, physically and emotionally exhausted, early at 11 pm.
On Sunday, after breakfast, we were taken to another square in Sulmona with the War Memorial. There were two carabinieri in full uniform, a detachment from the Italian Army, some ex-members of the Resistance carrying their banners (and wearing pre-war type Army hats and caps, with which we were more familiar), the Mayor, the President of the Italian Legion, the local civic dignitaries, an Italian General, and a Group Captain from the British Embassy. A bugler sounded what we took for the Last Post and Reveille. The detachment presented arms and five wreaths, including one from us, were laid simultaneously. Then, preceded by the Mayor, etc, and the ex-Resistance fighters, we went to the town theatre for the presentation of the medals. All the Italians strolled down; we tried to march, but without much success. Whilst he was waiting for the ceremony to begin, Chris gave a recorded interview for Radio Italiana, which was to go out at 7.30 on Sunday evening.
The theatre was decorated with the British and Italian flags. We started by singing, surprisingly well, the National Anthem, then came a recording of the Italian National Anthem, and the speeches started. Firstly, the man from the Ministry of Defence, then, the Bishop of Sulmona (who finished by shouting and hurt my eardrums), the Cardinal from the Vatican – by far the best of the Italian speeches, clearly spoken and concise, although I cannot now remember what he said, the Mayor, representatives of the various Resistance groups (long lists of individual actions, read at high speed in a monotonous voice – I went to sleep), and finally the set speech of Chris – about 15 minutes -which brought a standing ovation. Immediately after this, “Pack up your troubles” sung in English by an Italian choir from behind a curtain but sung so lentissimo that it was some little time before we recognised it. Then back to lunch.
Joe and his helpers and Chris had lunch with the Mayor, the General, the Cardinal, etc, at which he made yet another extempore speech which I gather was a little more lighthearted. (This is Joe, he’s the conductor; I’m only the first violin. I do all the work and he gets all the money”). This again brought the house down.
We had been told that we should be leaving a little early so that we could be shown St. Peter’s: we should then have a light supper (for which, we realised, we would have to pay) before going on to the airport. We left at 2.30 returning by a different route (including the 3 mile tunnel) and arrived at Rome at about 5.30, in the middle of the rush home of those who had been away for the weekend. The traffic was very difficult, but as we were in Army buses we pushed well in front, with a lot of hooting. We then had a lightning tour of historic Rome:
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Mussolini’s balcony, the wedding cake memorial to Vittorio Emanuele II, Trajan’s Column, the Forum, the hill of Romulus and Remus, the Baths of Caracalla, and right round the Colosseum, being deposited outside St. Peter’s for two minutes for flashlight photographs and to stretch our legs. During this tour, the courier came into her own again, and identified all the buildings for us. Then to our “light” supper – three huge courses (£2) – after which we felt bloated – and a high speed dash to the airport, and home.
Whilst we were waiting for the buses outside the hotel, I was chatting to the guide – the Italian one -who said “Ah, there is a man you must meet, the editor of our local paper” and he introduced me to him. He – the editor – has promised me a copy of the supplement the paper will be issuing describing our visit.
My overall impression is of the friendliness and willingness to help of everybody we met, particularly if the English person could speak Italian, however badly. We felt honoured guests during the whole of our visit, and nothing was too much trouble. A few of us had asked if we could have any spare copies of the posters affixed to the walls of Sulmona; within twelve hours what must have been a reprint had been made, almost enough for two copies for each of us.
The weather was sunny and warm, and most of us were in our shirtsleeves, except of course for the formal occasions.
A fantastically enjoyable and moving weekend.