Father George Forster was captured by the Germans on 21st June 1942 near Tobruk in Libya. During the several years he was a P.O.W he spent time in many prison camps both in Italy and Germany.
Because he was a Catholic priest his memoirs concentrate on the difficulties in practising his faith inside a POW camp and how he was able to provide spiritual guidance for the men imprisoned with him.
His memoirs also detail the day-to-day life within a POW camp with emphasis on how his fellow P.O.Ws kept their minds occupied either by playing sports, indulging in hobbies, learning new skills or languages but also escape attempts.
On 29th March 1945 when the Allies were advancing from the West the Germans decided to march all POW’s from Oflag IX A/Z to another P.O.W. camp. They never reached the next camp as they were liberated by the 3rd Armoured Division of the 1st U.S Army on 13th April 1945.
Father George Forster arrived back home in England shortly afterwards. This story is reproduced by kind permission of the Trustees of Ushaw College, Durham.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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‘Priest behind Barbed Wire’ George Forster. Sent to Trust when he was 87. Good on the fall of Tobruk. In Chieti and remembers Croce, the ill remembered interpreter. Then moved up to Sforza Costa POW Camp (Macerata) which had 7000 POWs of which 3000 went before Germans arrived in the night. Moved to Moosberg and then Oflag 1X 450 officers in a school with the ex Head Master in charge. German food for officer POW atrocious compared to that in Italian POW Camps. Concealed wireless. Finally had to march in atrocious conditions for three weeks until finally they refused and the German guards disappeared. Strange relations of Catholic priest POW with Catholic Church locally. In S.C. Camp there was a Chapel already decorated by POWs. G.F. much appreciated the few occasions when he could ‘be on his own’.
[Note in left hand-margin of page] Printed by M.H. Printshop, Southwick, Sunderland. Tel: (091) 5490367
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[Black and white portrait picture of Father George Forster]
‘Priest Behind Barbed Wire’
by Father George Forster
[Handwritten note: Summary see Back]
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[Handwritten note] To Mr J Keith Killby, with best wishes George Forster. Jan 24th 1997
When I was told that the priests of the Sunderland deanery were arranging for the publication of this booklet, I was surprised and delighted.
I am very grateful to them, and in particular to Father John Coyle, who gave much time and energy to the details of publication.
Father George Forster
Second Printing – February 1993
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Father George Forster wrote six articles for the Ushaw Magazine about his experiences as an army chaplain in Italian and German P.O.W. camps. By kind permission of the Ushaw Magazine they are brought together in this booklet. Readers will understand that they contain several references of special interest to Ushaw.
[Black and white picture of Father George Forster]
The description of the final fifteen-day march through Germany was written and published before the other articles, but it is fittingly placed at the end of the series.
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Page 3 Father Forster near the Great Pyramid May 1942
Page 49 Chaplain, choir and altar servers in Macerata P.O.W. Camp
Page 58 The 1943 Rotenburg Christmas Card
Page 68 Father Forster’s German P.O.W. Identity Card
Page 72 Signed Parole Card for an escorted walk
Page 74 A Group of Prisoners at Rotenburg Camp
Page 78 The 1944 Rotenburg Christmas Card
Page 78 Drawing of Father Forster by a fellow-prisoner in Germany
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JOURNEY INTO CAPTIVITY
The following account is, for the most part, made up of extracts from a diary which I kept from the day I left England up to and including my first few days as a prisoner of war. I apologise for the frequent use of the first person pronoun, but these are my personal experiences.
On 10th January 1942, a cold and misty Saturday, some two thousand officers and troops left Liverpool on the S.S. [Steam Ship] Arawa, a converted cargo and passenger ship of 14,000 tons. We sailed in convoy, escorted by a cruiser and several destroyers. We had the usual Atlantic convoy experiences sumptuous food (for the officers, not for the men!), submarine scares, the sound of depth charges, being stalked by a German Focke-Wulf plane for several days, sea-sickness, prickly heat, crossing the Equator, the sight of the Southern Cross, flying fish, the albatross. We called at Freetown (no shore leave) and rounded the Cape for Durban. I was the only Catholic chaplain on board. I had daily Mass, two Sunday Masses and large numbers of confessions and Holy Communions. Catholics and non-Catholics, officers and men, came to me frequently with a question or a topic for discussion. How many children had Adam and Eve? Did I know Father Milroy of Benwell? Why do Greek priests marry? What did I think of the Montessori system of education? What about the Church and birth control? Did I think the prophecies of Daniel were applicable to the war? All this certainly helped to mitigate the tedium of the voyage. Somewhere on the convoy were four other Catholic chaplains, Father Edward Gibson C.S.S.R. [Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer], Father (later Bishop) Hart, and two who were Ushaw men: Father Charles Crilley and Father Angold O.S.B. [Order of St Benedict]
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Our part of the convoy was en route for the Middle East, but after a delightful few days in Durban, 700 of us were mistakenly put on the P & O liner Strathmore, bound for India. There were about 250 Catholics, officers and troops, on the ship, including two army nurses. There were also more than one hundred Catholic Goanese among the crew. In my diary account of the voyage from Durban to India two items stand out. First, my very early first Mass on Sundays at 5.30 a.m. down on F deck for the Goanese crew members and their remarkable devotion. Secondly, the Stonyhurst dinner to which I was invited by Colonel (later Brigadier) Lomax. There were five Stonyhurst officers on board. I had to toast Stonyhurst. The only anecdotes I could think of were Stonyhurst’s reply to Eton’s answer to their challenge to a game of cricket(1), and the fact (is it a fact?) that when the naturalist Charles Waterton left his collection of stuffed birds to Stonyhurst and Ushaw, Stonyhurst bagged the better specimens. Colonel Lomax told us that he used to correspond regularly with Father Vincent Smith(2) about old Catholic Durham and Northumberland. He had never visited Ushaw, but he knew much more than I did about Esh, Crook Hall, Flass Hall. The evening before we disembarked at Bombay, there was a hilarious singsong in the main lounge, at which I had to operate on the piano. After prolonged shouts of ‘Up, up, up!’ the nurses came to the piano and sang, ‘All the nice girls love a sailor’, and were booed vociferously until they substituted ‘soldier’.
We disembarked on Saturday 7th March. I stayed for the week-end with Archbishop Roberts, the last British Archbishop of Bombay. On the Monday I visited Sophia College for Women on the Malabar Hill overlooking Bombay. It was run by the Sacred Heart nuns, and I met Reverend Mother Woolworth who had helped to push off Bishop McCormack’s car when the driver had difficulty in starting it, on his journey from Fenham Convent to the Cathedral for his consecration. She sent her good wishes to the Bishop. I delivered them more than three years later over a trout supper in Bishop’s House.
From Bombay I was posted to Deolali transit camp,
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about two hundred miles inland. Here I found myself with three Anglican chaplains. We were all supposed to be in the Middle East, but we were listed as ‘War correspondents awaiting appointment in India’. Our protests were unavailing. We had full pay, good food, a comfortable bungalow with an Indian servant between two and no duties. I helped the local civilian priest, Father Carter, to look after his congregation of Indians and Tamils. One day Father Carter told me that the Bishop of Poona had said that there was a Father John Bull stationed on Poona racecourse about one hundred and fifty miles away. I felt there could never be two Father John Bulis. This must be my friend John, ordained with me at Ushaw. It would be marvellous to see him. Also, incidentally, he had borrowed £2 from me in Nottingham eighteen months previously. So I got three days’ leave to visit him. When I suddenly appeared at the entrance of his tent he got up, wide-eyed with surprise, and exclaimed, ‘George! I can’t believe it! How on earth did you get here? You must be damned keen on your £2.’ I recouped my £2 in rupees (present-day value £40 to £50!) and spent three very pleasant days with him.
[Black and white picture] Father Forster near the Great Pyramid
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Eventually the three Anglicans and myself were reinstated as chaplains and boarded a ship for Suez. We arrived in Cairo on 31st March, nearly six weeks late. Mgr Stapleton, senior Catholic chaplain for the Middle East, asked me why I was so late. Behind his desk was Father Patsy Redmond, smiling and winking at me. I told the Monsignor that I had taken the wrong ship and sailed to India as a war correspondent. He said, ‘If you had any sense, you would have stayed there.’ I was posted to First Armoured Brigade and attached to one of their Battalions, the First Sherwood Foresters. The Brigade was training in Mena Camp, a few miles into the desert. We suffered the hardships of desert life, though just on the fringe of it. The landscape was a dull, deadening grey except where the Pyramids rose in the distance. There were flies everywhere. Every article of food on the table had to be covered with gauze and you had to protect every morsel on its way from plate to mouth. The sun beat down on us relentlessly, except when the Khamsin blew and a sandstorm halted everyone and everything. The sand got into your eyes, hair, mouth, nose and clothing. Often enough you ended with a bad headache. You retreated into your tent, but the sand penetrated everywhere. During a sandstorm I sometimes whiled away the time by practising on my ‘digitorium’(3), a dumb keyboard of about an octave and a half, which I had bought in Wigmore Street during my stay in London Transit Camp, in the hope of preserving what little technique I had acquired ,on the piano. There was also the scourge of ‘gyppy tummy’, and most of us, myself included, had a bout of it.
But life in Mena Camp was busy and rewarding. Daily Mass for one or other of the Brigade Battalions, two or sometimes three Sunday Masses, regular times for confessions, instructions, interviews, advising men with family trouble. I was also expected to help in organising social events debates, brains trusts, concerts and so on. There were other more material compensations. We could usually get to Cairo at least once a week, and manage regular short visits to the palatial Mena House Hotel at the foot of the Great Pyramids. There were some familiar Ushaw faces in Cairo. In addition to Patsy Redmond, who was liaison officer to the Apostolic Delegate, there was Father Vincent Smith at the Scottish Hospital, and Father Hugh Dowd, more familiarly known at
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Ushaw as Chirpy. We sometimes met for lunch at the Shepheards Hotel or the Turf Club, or paid a visit to the kind nuns in Heliopolis, where we always got a good tea and a game of tennis, if so inclined. One day I arranged to visit the Cairo Coptic churches with Chirpy. To combat sun and flies I wore dark glasses and a toupee and carried a large fly swatter. When I emerged from the taxi Chirpy took one look at me and dissolved into laughter. He refused to get into the taxi with me unless I hid toupee and fly swatter. He said, ‘You look like a superannuated professor on a butterfly hunt.’ I was rather pleased that he did not know about my ‘digitorium’.
On 7th May the Brigade was inspected by General Auchinleck. We took this as a hint that we would soon move into Libya. A few days later my transport arrived. I had expected a truck, but it was a new Ford sedan staff car. My driver, Harold Chilton, and I were delighted. I did not realise, in my untrained innocence, what a disadvantage it would prove to be in the battle area. The Foresters’ Adjutant, a son of Archbishop Fisher, insisted that I took a course in navigation and learned to drive not only my own car but also different sorts of truck. This was all forestalled by an order to move on 31st May. So I went into the Libyan desert unable to navigate and unable to drive, though I did sometimes take a spell at the wheel without disastrous consequences. It was goodbye to the lush green vegetation of the Nile valley, the splendid blue-flowered jacaranda and flaming scarlet trees, the delicately scented oleanders and jasmine. It was goodbye to the colourful life of Cairo, to the Mena House Hotel with its cool air, swim-pool, iced drinks and Bechstein piano. It was goodbye to my Cairo friends of Ushaw days and the kindly Sisters of Heliopolis.
We moved away into the grey desert, taking the coast road to Libya. When we arrived at Fort Capuzzo, just beyond the Libyan border, the Brigade lost all its tanks. They were taken from us to reinforce forward units, a sign that the desert battle was not going well. The Brigade was recalled to base except for the Sherwood Foresters, who were motorised infantry. Strictly, as a brigade chaplain, I should have returned to base, but I lived with the Sherwood Foresters, knew them well and liked them. So I persuaded the Brigadier
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to agree to my going up to Tobruk with them. It was a momentous decision for me. He also agreed that I should keep my brigade staff car, though he said, ‘Heaven help you if you lose it.’ Fortunately I never met him again. We reached the Tobruk area and were attached to a Brigade of Guards whose Catholic chaplain was Father John Connolly of Leeds diocese (known to Ushaw contemporaries as Fishy(4)). When the Foresters moved into the battle zone I asked if I could travel with the medical unit, but the Adjutant informed me that no staff car could accompany them. ‘You would be shot up’, he said, ‘a sitting target. You will have to go with our B echelon’ (i.e. the supply unit). An appeal to the C.O. [Commanding Officer], one armed Colonel Pratt, fell on deaf ears. I now realised the disadvantage of a staff car and felt very unhappy about the situation. I visited Fishy Connolly and said Mass, using the back of his truck as a support for my altar – another advantage of a truck. He gave me the news that Father Dennis Bankes, an Ushaw classmate, had been taken prisoner.
On 7th June Chilton drove me to Tobruk hospital, where I met the Catholic chaplain, Father Jackson. To my surprise I found our Colonel in the hospital. He had been run over by a bantam truck while in his slit trench and had three broken ribs. He asked me to take him back to his H.Q. [Head Quarters] I admired his courage, but felt that with one arm and three broken ribs he ought to stay in hospital. However, he insisted, so we drove him to his H.Q. [Head Quarters] and left him in bed, under a lean-to tent by his truck. I asked a nearby South African medical unit to keep an eye on him. The following day, 8th June, I went with Father Connolly to see Father Winstanley, senior Catholic chaplain to 8th Army. While we were in a tent waiting for him, Father Edward Gibson C.S.S.R. [Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer] suddenly appeared. He had come from Iraq with an Indian Brigade and was protesting violently because he now found himself in the Libyan desert without transport or batman. Father Winstanley advised me to stay with the Sherwood Foresters until they rejoined 1st Armoured Brigade. He told us that Father Angold O.S.B. [Order of St Benedict] had been a prisoner for five minutes. When the German officer who captured him discovered that he was a chaplain he confiscated his watch and told him to get into his own truck and drive in front of him. Father Angold’s driver moved ahead with alacrity, did a quick detour and
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found his way safely back to Tobruk. When I met him later in Tobruk hospital Father Angold told me that on his way back he got involved in a minor tank battle, and that a British tank was firing over his truck at a German tank. He was helping Father Jackson while his driver was in hospital recovering from shock.
I was able to say Mass daily and numbers arrived regularly for Mass and confession. I also helped to take men who were ill to hospital and accepted the job of censoring outgoing mail. Sometimes I went up with our injured Colonel to the forward area but did not see much of the battle. On Sunday 14th June, the Foresters were withdrawn to a position midway between Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier, where I again met Father Connolly. This was the last time I saw him. In the mysterious way that the army works, the Sherwood Foresters were recalled to Tobruk the very next day, Monday 15th June. We were the only traffic moving in the Tobruk direction. The Via Balbia, the coast road from Tobruk to Egypt, was crammed with trucks and armoured vehicles as a South African division made its way from Gazala, just west of Tobruk, towards Egypt. The drivers waved to us and smiled sympathetically. The unspoken words seemed to be, ‘Hard lines, old chaps!’ We settled down about six miles east of Tobruk and some three miles from the sea. We had just left the Via Balbia when it was machine-gunned by a German plane. As we moved to our parking ground, Lt Leslie Carter, M.T. officer (i.e. motor transport), shouted, ‘Go very carefully, we are not sure if this is a minefield or not.’ Fortunately, if it was a minefield we missed them all. From our position we could see the blue Mediterranean and the tip of Tobruk Bay. There was a fresh sea breeze. Sunset was an eerie amalgam of greens and yellows and struck a note of unreality which matched our feelings about our situation. We were very short of water. No shaving, no washing, was the order of the day. It was highly unpleasant. To comb your hair you had to jerk the comb hard through tufts matted with sand. During the night we were constantly disturbed by bombing, ack-ack fire and the rumbling of trucks pouring out of Tobruk towards Egypt. In the afternoon of Tuesday 16th June, Chilton drove me into Tobruk. Compared with the bustling Tobruk of a week ago it was like an abode of the dead. No patients remained in the
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hospital except those undergoing surgery and they were being moved from the operating theatre to the hospital ship moored in the harbour. Father Jackson was worried because he would have to leave most of his kit behind if he left on the hospital ship. I couldn’t help feeling that he would be fortunate to get away, gear or no gear. Water was in such short supply that it took much persuasion to extract a cup of tea for Chilton and myself. Outside the hospital I met Father Norris O.S.B. [Order of St Benedict], chaplain with an ack-ack unit. They were to move out of Tobruk that evening. This exodus was hardly calculated to instil confidence into us who were remaining: in fact it gave me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. On our way back to B echelon we mingled with the stream of traffic heading east. It would have been so easy to join them! On Wednesday 17th June a supply of water arrived and we were able to shave, wash and sponge down. We felt like new men. I accompanied Lt Leslie Carter to the Guards’ Brigade H.Q. [Head Quarters], where I obtained a nominal roll of Catholics. I met some of them and heard their confessions. That evening we wondered if the road to Egypt was still open, but decided it must be, as we could still hear the heavy rumbling of traffic. The next morning, 18th June, news came in that the Via Balbia, the only road of escape, was closed. The Germans had cut the road. The second siege of Tobruk had started. Later that morning shells were exploding very near to us and we were ordered to move. We arrived in a small wadi (i.e. a gully) about three quarters of a mile nearer the sea. It was a most unattractive place, coated with a dry, hard growth which shed myriads of tiny prickly balls that found their way into your boots. In spite of the din of battle the place hummed with the noise of thousands of grasshoppers. The heart of the wadi contained a nest of caves and was littered with abandoned equipment, empty beer cans and discarded tins. Chilton covered my car with netting and strands of prickly bush. It was fortunate that he did, because a few minutes later a German plane nosed about for half an hour. The highlight of the day was the arrival of mail. I received a birthday letter from my mother, only a few days late, and another from a Grimsby family who had befriended me during my stay there. This contact with home and loved ones gave me new heart. In the evening we heard a wireless programme from London
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‘Recollections of 1938’. It was a strange and nostalgic experience, trapped in Tobruk by Rommel’s Panzer Divisions, to hear Howard Marshall on a test match at the Oval, and to listen to a commentary on Preston winning the cup final with a penalty goal. Before we bedded down in our slit trenches I spotted my first scorpion, the yellow variety, with upturned tail. Chilton quickly despatched, it. We had a fairly restful night, punctuated now and again by heavy ack-ack fire.
On Friday 19th June after an exchange of heavy gunfire, the morning was quiet. In the afternoon I visited the Coldstream Guards and arranged to return on Saturday for confessions and on Sunday for Mass. Alas, it was not to be! I had tea with them, a good strong brew, with bread, butter and delicious honey. Trust the Guards! That evening we heard a London news bulletin on the wireless: ‘The retention of Tobruk is not necessarily so important now’ – or words to that effect. So we were being written off! This added to my feeling of gloom and despondency. I think many others felt as I did. Tobruk was no longer the strong fortress that it had been during the 1941 siege. General Auchinleck had never intended to allow Tobruk to be invested a second time, but urgent messages from Churchill forced his hand. Two divisions were evacuated in the nick of time: the South African Division already mentioned, which escaped by the Via Balbia, and another Division which drove deep into the desert and reached the Egyptian frontier. Some twenty-five thousand British and Commonwealth (mostly South African) troops remained, under the command of the relatively inexperienced South African General Klopper, who tried valiantly to hold a deteriorating situation. But the defence lines were in a state of decay. The anti-tank ditch had partly crumbled, partly filled with sand. Portions of the minefields had been cleared. Communications within the Tobruk perimeter seemed to be in a state of confusion.
The night of 19th June was quiet. The desert was bathed in soft moonlight, except when lurid flares of light from burning supply dumps pierced the sky. Beyond us lay the German Panzer forces, poised for the assault on Tobruk. We ate a not very cheerful supper and decided that, as a precaution, we had better share out the spoils of the officers’
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mess. I stored my allocation of tinned food, cigarettes and a bottle of whisky in my car. I stood for a few minutes looking at the beauty of the desert in moonlight and then sat down on my camp chair in my little lean-to tent and mused for a while on what was going to happen to us. Already we were in a kind of limbo, cut off from our own, from the world we knew, from communication with home. I could hardly take it in. I felt dazed and shocked. I picked up my ‘digitorium’ and put in some fifteen minutes finger practice, which had a soothing effect on me. It was the last time I was to use it. It wasn’t hard to say night prayers. Many thousands of fervent prayers must have been uttered that night within the Tobruk perimeter. I helped Harold Chilton to dig two slit trenches, and we settled down to get what sleep we could. A strange thing happened during the night. At 10.30 pm. a solitary British plane, flashing lights frantically, flew into Tobruk from the east and returned about ten minutes later. Was it delivering a last desperate message, or was it evacuating some special person or persons? We never discovered.
Early next morning, 20th June, I was near my car, about halfway up the side of the wadi, preparing my portable altar for Mass. Harry Whittle, our Lt [Lieutenant] Quartermaster, came to tell me that we were warned to expect an attack by land, sea and air. It was a beautiful morning. The desert was all quiet except for a snatch of bird-song which echoed up the wadi. I started Mass about 6.45 a.m., accompanied only by my faithful server, batman to Lt Leslie Carter. As I was reciting the Roman Canon, the desert exploded as if struck by a thousand thunderbolts. Batteries of German and Italian guns poured salvoes of shells into the Tobruk defences. Then came waves of dive-bombing Stukas, whose deadly droppings compounded the frightful din. I don’t suppose I was even noticed, but I felt very conspicuous in my white alb and gold chasuble and I was very frightened. I glanced round for a little reassurance but the server had wisely disappeared. I finished Mass with what I hope was decent haste, unvested and packed up the altar in record time, and scuttled for the heart of the wadi. Once there I felt safer. I walked to the officers’ mess-table. It was laid out for breakfast, with tea and plates of hot sausages and bacon, but not a man in sight. I was hungry, so I sat down and tucked into a delicious plateful. Then I heard a
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chorus of shouts from my left. I looked around and saw figures in a cave gesticulating to me. However, the B echelon officers decided to join me. It was our last English breakfast for a very long time.
All of us, officers and men, spent much of the morning in a cave. Once or twice I went to my car, but had to clamber quickly back to the cave as shells burst nearby. We watched mass raids on our gun positions. There was heavy ack-ack fire, but no British plane was to be seen. The German bombers flew over in formation, each diving in turn. Often we spotted the bombs leaving the plane like tiny white pills. The shelling grew more severe and unpleasantly near. Several times we had to duck quickly in our cave to avoid flying shrapnel. I did not at all like the look of the cave. A huge wedge of rock hung over us and a large crack seared the roof. We huddled together in the back of the cave, away from the crack. News came in that three hundred German infantry had broken through in our direction, but measures were being taken to deal with them. Our wadi now seemed to have become a pet target for the guns, and soon a message came from Brigade H.Q. [Head Quarters] ordering us to move out towards Tobruk. This was an awkward manoeuvre! While B echelon stacked stores and equipment on their trucks, Chilton and I got our car ready, packing up portable altar, tent and bedding.
We moved up an incline which led away from the wadi towards the Via Balbia road to Tobruk. Soon after we emerged from the wadi we came to a C.C.S. [Casualty Clearance Station] in a cave to our right. I got out of the car to see if they had any wounded. Chilton wanted to stay in the car, but I insisted that he sheltered behind a large pile of stones. As I walked the twenty yards or so to the C.C.S. [Casualty Clearance Station] cave shells or small fire seemed to be whizzing inches above my head. I thought it must be my imagination, but a soldier followed me into the C.C.S. [Casualty Clearance Station] and said, ‘Is that your car? A shell has just hit the radiator.’ How right the Adjutant had been about the staff car! Meanwhile, Chilton arrived post haste. Inside the C.C.S. [Casualty Clearance Station] was a medical officer, medical orderlies, a South African private ill with gall stones, and another South African private who was dead, and whom I absolved and anointed. The Germans seemed to be very near. When anyone stepped outside the cave there was a burst of machine
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gun fire, and small arms fire was popping around all the time. Then Lt Leslie Carter very courageously got out of his truck, came in and advised us to get out as soon as possible. He left us to return to his truck. He told us later that he never reached it. The German fire was so intense that he had to lie flat, and was eventually captured where he lay. I had thought of risking a quick visit to my car to retrieve portable altar, breviary and emergency knapsack, but the M.O. [Medical Officer] and orderlies said it would be crazy to try. I could not help thinking of my little ‘digitorium’ lying snug in the back of the car. If a German soldier pressed a key and heard no sound he would probably think it was a booby trap and run for his life. The lip of another wadi lay about ten yards away from the C.C.S. [Casualty Clearance Station] cave. We hoisted a Red Cross flag and ran for it, one at a time. Two medical orderlies helped the man with gall stone trouble. We reached the wadi safely. There was no shot fired at us. I believe the Germans saw the flag and respected it.
Then began a very laborious, slow trudge down the wadi to the coast. After nearly three hours we reached the shore about three miles east of Tobruk, at the head of a tiny bay. Once we were fired on by some of our own troops in the hills above the wadi, who thought that we were infiltrating Germans. We passed a group of coloured South African soldiers who were tossing away their rifles and making a run for it. But where was there to run to? We sheltered under an overhanging rock. Two tins of sausages provided one small sausage each which we washed down with some medical brandy. We then bathed our feet in a warm pool. Burning trucks littered the hills and shrapnel shells were bursting too near for comfort. Huge pillars of smoke rose over Tobruk from burning supply dumps. Hundreds of troops were now clambering over the hills towards the east, some in parties, some individually, but there was no escape route to the east, only the Germans. Two medical orderlies, Chilton and myself decided to reconnoitre towards Tobruk. The orderlies discovered a deserted officers’ mess. We were about to devour bread and tinned pears when indignant officers arrived. The mess was not deserted! They had been sheltering in a cave. However, they were very friendly, urged us to eat and gave us cigarettes. We then moved on towards Tobruk and suddenly came upon about a hundred officers and men in a large cave
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with a very pleasant major in charge. We were still ravenously hungry after our long trudge down the wadi. He invited us to stay for a meal. We drank tea and ate a variety of tinned food with biscuits. As it was growing dusk we were going to move on, when a sergeant arrived with news that the Germans were in Tobruk. We decided to stay. In fact there was nowhere else to go. The scene in front of us was both beautiful and terrifying. To our left, the shore and the Mediterranean bathed in the purple and deep orange of the dying day; to
our right, on the hills, clouds of smoke and dust, the flashing of bursting shells, flames shooting up from innumerable burning trucks.
Most of us stripped and bathed in the warm sea. It was as well that we did, as we were not able to take off our clothes for several days afterwards. It was sad to see despondent officers tossing their revolvers into the sea to prevent them falling into German hands. Four soldiers stripped, put clothes, food and water on a diving-board which they used as a raft and moved off towards the east, paddling with their hands. I wonder how far they got and whether they survived. Fortunately, Chilton and I had picked up a couple of blankets from piles of abandoned equipment. We all lay down on the hard floor of the cave and tried to get some sleep. We were awakened several times by tremendous explosions and blinding flashes – petrol and ammunition dumps going up. The ‘deserted’ officers’ mess made a great blaze, whether hit by a shell or set alight by the officers, I don’t know. Some of the men flashed signals to passing motor-boats, but there was no response.
At last dawn came, Sunday 21st June. We drank tea and had a cold breakfast, including some beautiful tinned Logan berries. We talked and smoked and awaited the inevitable. When we were finally captured it was a tame affair after yesterday’s long hectic day. We did not know then, but that. morning the white flag was raised over General Klopper’s H.Q. [Head Quarters], and Tobruk had surrendered. Eventually we saw a German officer rounding up some of our men near the burnt out officers’ mess, about a quarter of a mile away. He waved to us to follow, but we were in no hurry. Chilton and I looked around for some of the necessities of life, as both of us had lost everything except what we wore, apart from the
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blankets we had acquired the day before. Abandoned equipment littered the caves and hills. I picked up a towel, underpants, toilet set, socks, sand-shoes, woollen gloves, scarf and sleeveless pullover. Chilton got similar items. Then we made our way slowly up from the cave towards Tobruk. The first Germans we met were two soldiers in a truck looking for wounded prisoners. Then two further Germans walked towards us. We stopped for a talk. They asked us which were the best Cairo hotels. I said, ‘Shepheards and Continental, but you don’t think you will ever get there, do you?’ They thought this an enormous joke and laughed heartily. After more good-humoured bantering on both sides we moved on, rather impressed with their friendliness. After a long climb we crossed the Tobruk road just beyond the NAAFI [Navy Army and Air force Institute] and found many thousands of prisoners in a large open sandy area near the road. We located the Sherwood Foresters and joined them. Fortunately they had a small supply of water, as neither Chilton nor I had a water-bottle. We decided to brew up, and Lt Jack Goody coolly asked some German N.C.O’s [Non-Commissioned Officer] for petrol. They obligingly unscrewed their petrol tank, but it was empty. Meanwhile, German soldiers buzzed around us with cameras, and German planes flew low over our heads. Eventually all of us were moved to an assembly area about four hundred yards east of the Tobruk NAAFI [Navy Army and Air-force Institute] The Foresters settled down on the side of a gentle hillock. Someone or something must have died there. The smell was nauseating. We were under the full glare of the sun and our thirst was a constant pain. We drank some muddy water with a taste of petrol but it did us no apparent harm. Men were crying out desperately for water. When the Germans brought in a water-cart a mob besieged it. Attempts to organise a queue were futile. The Germans gave us no food, we had to make do with what we had salvaged. The Foresters had a large tin of tunny in olive oil and we all got a small portion. With many others I lay down on the hillock for the night and got very little sleep.
On Monday 22nd June, we rigged up some shelter against the heat. We were given small rations of tinned meat and bread by the Germans and managed to cook our meals tolerably well. The attitude of the Germans was decent and sympathetic. We were even allowed to make periodic searches
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outside the assembly area, and brought in fresh food and some clothing. I found a spare shirt and salvaged from a rubbish heap Vol. I of Churchill’s Life and Times of Marlborough, which proved to be invaluable in prison camp. A Brigadier tried to organise some semblance of order for the distribution of water, with limited success. There was a very poignant scene on the Monday morning. A battalion of the Cameron’s, who had fought on until the Sunday afternoon, marched into captivity in perfect order, led by their Colonel and to the sound of their pipes. The Brigadier took the salute. Many hardened men turned aside to hide their tears. The Germans reckoned that there were twenty-five thousand prisoners, and I don’t think they were exaggerating. The assembly area was thick with men as far as the eye could see.
On Monday afternoon the Germans asked me to officiate at the burial of eleven of our dead, whose bodies they had brought in, and detailed some of our troops to form a burial party. The bodies lay in a row near the NAAFI [Navy Army and Air-force Institute]. The whole sorrowful operation lasted from 1.30 to 4.45 pm. The eleven were left under the sand near the NAAFI [Navy Army and Air-force Institute]. Their graves were marked by makeshift wooden crosses on which we inscribed name, number and rank as best we could. I had my small pocket ritual and was able to say the official prayers of the Church over them. It was a very distressing experience, and yet’ a consoling one. Amid the apocalyptic scenes of death, destruction and defeat, the prayers and blessings of the Church continued. This was a bridge connecting with life before capture. With so much lost and our future so uncertain, the consolations of our Christian faith remained. I wrote down details of the eleven dead and later, in prison camp, arranged for the information to be forwarded to the Red Cross.
On Tuesday we spent another very trying day in the baking heat of the sun with very limited water but enough to eat. Then on Wednesday morning 24th June, the officers were put into large diesel trucks driven by Germans, who gave us a plentiful supply of water. The Sherwood Foresters still had a reserve of food. We went down through Tobruk, passing some of our supply dumps intact, a gift to the Germans. We drove through Gazala, where we got a glimpse of Mussolini’s statue and moved on to Tmimi, a dreadful place. The ground
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was covered with excreta. We climbed out of the trucks, looked around for a clean spot, and were very relieved when fifteen minutes later we were loaded on to another fleet of diesel trucks to be taken further along the coast to Derna. The Germans now handed us over, very apologetically, to the Italians. I think they felt sorry for us. Our relations with the Italians were not happy. They confiscated most of the Sherwood Foresters’ stock of food, which we had stored in an ammunition box. When Major Hugo Pyman protested, a young Italian lieutenant called him a ‘bloody fool’. Before we left Tmimi, while the Italians were looking the other way, Lt Jack Goody bagged a supply of their hard biscuits, and I ‘acquired’ an Italian water-bottle, which I shared with Lt McGillavrey, a young Scottish Sherwood Forester. The guards on the trucks were Senussi Arabs, and they seemed very hostile to us. Each large diesel truck had a truck in tow, also filled with prisoners. The Italian drivers were very expert in manoeuvring the double loads down the amazing corkscrew banks into Derna, which seemed to be a pleasant town with tree-lined streets. But our night quarters were absolutely abominable. We were herded into a very dirty open-air enclosure on hard sand dotted with boulders. It had formerly been an Arab cemetery. We were given nothing to eat, nothing to drink. There were no toilets, no washing facilities. It was like a taste of hell. Even penned animals would have been fed and watered, but not British prisoners. We slept on the hard ground, cheek by jowl. More and more prisoners were packed into this noisome enclosure. Darkness added to the confusion. During the night Senussi guards opened fire, and we heard later that one prisoner was killed, another wounded. Perhaps they were trying to escape, we never knew. I slept with Lt McGillavrey on one side of me, and there was not an inch to spare. Yet when we awakened, another prisoner had inserted himself between us, using my boots as a pillow. In the morning we were again put into diesel trucks and given a supply of water and one biscuit each. To be fair, it was a large thick biscuit, about five inches square, and very sustaining. We moved up out of Derna to the top of an escarpment. It was good to see cultivated land, wheat, vegetables, trees. Anything with colour was lovely after the
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desert. When our truck stopped for a time Major Hugo Pyman jumped to the ground to ease his legs. An Italian lieutenant gave him a hard slap on the face and ordered him back. I told the lieutenant, in my halting Italian, that I was a Catholic priest and ashamed to see him, a Catholic officer, strike an unarmed senior officer in this disgraceful way. This worked wonders. He slunk away without a word. We arrived at the coastal town of Barce in the afternoon. The P.O.W. transit camp for officers was a great improvement on Derna. The Commandant, Major Pizzonia, was a friendly, reasonable man whose son was a prisoner in England. There were small tents; each tent housed two officers. On arrival we were given a bowl of vegetable soup and a very small loaf of delicious brown bread. We filled in a Red Cross form, stating we were alive and well, and a P.O.W. in the hands of the Italians. We hoped that the message would get home soon as we were very worried at the thought of being posted ‘missing’ and the anxiety this would cause.
Food was sparse but very well cooked. There was ersatz coffee, a small brown loaf daily, a bowl of vegetable soup or macaroni twice a day, and a small amount of red wine daily. We were issued with a small hand towel and a tablet of soap, though there were no facilities for showers. I had my first shave for several days and it was very tough going with a fairly blunt blade. We were also given 50 lire, but the only articles on sale were Italian cigarettes. We stayed for five nights in Barce camp. This was our first opportunity to pause and reflect on our situation. We were all in a state of shock after capture, and it was several weeks before we came to terms mentally with what had happened to us. But it was beginning to dawn on us that we had suddenly become almost ‘non-persons’, ciphers, or mere P.O.W. numbers, dependent on our enemies for our means of existence, for food, shelter and protection. It was particularly galling for many, probably for most, that we were in Italian hands. Most P.O.W.s, particularly officers, looked on the Italian soldiers with something close to contempt. Even our German captors seemed to share this feeling. This antipathy boded ill for our relations with them. They felt this contempt, I am sure, and naturally resented it. They were doubtless tempted to ‘take it out’ on us. But no one could reasonably complain
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about our treatment by the Barce Commandant.
Among our batch of prisoners was a South African priest, Father McManus. This was a great boon to me. I never realised before how much I depended on the companionship of fellow priests. We were visited by two Franciscan Italian army chaplains. They brought in a portable altar, and both of us were able to say Mass on the feast of SS [Saints] Peter and Paul, and to give Holy Communion to a large crowd of Catholic officers who stood around us. No sermon was allowed, but after each Latin Mass we said prayers in English for an allied victory, in which the two Italian chaplains innocently joined, nodding approval with a succession of ‘bene, bene’.
We left Barce on 30th June. We were again jammed into diesel trucks with water and another large square biscuit. Major Pizzonia came out of the camp to wave goodbye, and called out, half in English, half in Italian, ‘Good luck! Buon viaggio!’ A most likeable man!
The long and weary journey from Barce to Benghazi was relieved by the delightful scenery – large areas of cultivated land interspersed with tracts of rugged hill country. The accommodation for officer P.O.W.s was a large hut, surrounded by barbed wire, on the outskirts of Benghazi. The only furniture was row after row of three-tier wooden beds, each with a straw-filled mattress. The hut swarmed with flies and at night mosquitoes and bed-bugs attacked us. There were latrines, but the only water supply was a huge metal tank from which protruded one rubber tube. To get water, hundreds of officers had to suck that one rubber tube. I noticed boxes of lemons stacked outside the hut and I asked an Italian, ‘E possibile avere un limone, per piacere?’ He was wearing trousers and shirt, no tie, no collar, and I thought he was the cook. I discovered he was the Commandant. He was very good-natured and immediately arranged for a good supply of lemons to be brought in. I rather think that he doubled as Commandant and cook. He allowed Father McManus and myself to visit an open-air enclosure not far from the hut where several hundred other ranks were confined. We moved around and spoke to many of them. They were very cheerful in spite of wretched conditions, much worse than ours. We heard later that many of them were kept in Africa for several weeks, some for four or five months,
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on semi-starvation rations. There were already cases of dysentery, and some were to die before they could be moved to Italy. In the evening we were given a bowl of good thick soup and a small loaf of brown bread. The next morning, 1st July, after some ersatz coffee and another small loaf, the officers were moved to Italy in Savoia bombers. This was my first time in the air. We sat on the port side of the plane. Opposite us were Italian soldiers going home on leave. They had parachutes, we had none. We would be flying not too far from Malta. We decided that if the worst happened we would made a bid for the parachutes. I was wearing desert outfit, short trousers and open-necked shirt, as were most of us. Very unwisely I arranged for my two blankets to be stored in the hold. We circled over Benghazi, getting a good view of the twin towers of the cathedral. Then off we flew over the blue Mediterranean, and the higher we flew, the colder it got. We were soon shivering and our teeth chattering. The Italians gave us half a lemon each to counter airsickness. Fortunately the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] did not appear, and after an uneventful and very cold flight we reached the toe of Italy. We descended towards an airfield. It was the town of Lecce, dotted with innumerable church towers.
As the sandy wastes of Africa faded into a distant blur I had felt relief, even intimations of pleasure, at the prospect of seeing Italy again. I had to thank God for so much, in spite of losing my freedom. My time in the drab, war-torn desert had been so short; others had to endure it for years. There would be no more depressing sand-storms, no more stale, salty water to drink. I had seen very little of the horrors of battle; others were immersed in the blood, sweat and tears of it. I was alive, with a good chance of survival; so many others had died or suffered grievous wounds. My priestly work would continue in trying but perhaps more fruitful surroundings. We were still shocked and emotionally upset, and I was unprepared for the mental turmoil evoked by the church towers of Lecce. This was the Italy I had loved on pre-war holidays. Down there were the Italians whom I knew to be so friendly, so vivacious, so full of the joy of life. They were now the enemy. I was their prisoner. Our hope of regaining our freedom lay in their defeat. This was to be no
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holiday. Yet as the church towers of Lecce loomed up I felt a thrill of pleasure, a sense even of coming home. This was Catholic Europe, of which I was part, and I was back. A surge of joy and excitement took hold of me, with a feeling almost of guilt because I was so happy.
I. When Eton was challenged by Stonyhurst to a game of cricket and replied “What is Stonyhurst?” the reputed answer was “Stonyhurst is what Eton was, an establishment for the education of the sons of Catholic gentlemen.”
2.Colonel Lomax corresponded with Vincent Smith, not to be confused with William Smith, the noted historian of old Catholic Durham and Northumberland.
3.This word can be found in specialist books on pianos, though probably not in an ordinary dictionary.
4.Not to be confused with John Connolly, of the Salford diocese, who was a few years his senior at Ushaw.
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ITALIAN P.O.W. CAMPS – PART 1
The Savoia bomber, with its cargo of British officers and Italian soldiers, approached Lecce airport in the afternoon of 1st July 1942. My euphoria at the sight of Italian church towers came down to earth with a bump in more ways than one. The pilot made two vain attempts to land. To reassure us we could see an ambulance parked near the runway! It was third time bumpy but lucky. We were marched away in groups to different billets for the night. Ours was a grimy building which had been a factory, and later a stable. Mosquitoes and fleas infested the place, dirty straw covered the concrete floor. There were latrines, but no washing facilities. There was no furniture of any kind. I was peering through a barred window at passing civilians when ·a sweet little Italian girl appeared. She had large dark eyes, she was six years old, and her name was Rosaria. As we talked, her father arrived. When he learned that I was a priest he was horrified, and said he would see the officer-in-charge and arrange for me to stay overnight in his home. Some hope! I gave Rosaria some Italian money, and she returned with boiled sweets, which we shared. Later we were visited by an Italian colonel who could speak English. He painted a wonderful picture of P.O.W. camps for officers. We would be treated as gentlemen. There would be plenty to eat, and wine to drink. We would be comfortably housed. There would be tennis courts, amusements, all that we needed for a pleasant life. When he had got us into a good mood he asked if we had used postage stamps to spare, and he was showered with them. If only we could have got our hands on to that Italian philatelist after we had arrived in the P.O.W. transit camp! We were given some bread and a bowl of vegetable soup, and tried to get some sleep on the flea-ridden straw. In the morning, after acorn coffee and a piece of bread, we marched
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to the railway station and were put into third-class compartments. We arrived at Bari station tired, very hungry and very, very unwashed. There was a long march to the P.O.W. transit camp outside the town. Some -carried large haversacks, a few had suitcases, two or three officers had contrived to anticipate capture by donning service dress. Fortunately I did not have a heavy load to carry. The camp was in a desolate area, cut off from all view of the countryside by groves of olive trees. We were searched in the forecourt of the camp, and had to surrender our English and Italian money. My English money included a Churchill crown. Receipts were issued, but needless to say we never got anything back. We were checked into the camp one by one. Near the entrance a group of prisoners was segregated in a barbed-wire enclosure. As I passed them there was a shout, ‘Is that George Forster?’ I looked around. It was Father Denis Bankes, my Ushaw classmate. He told me they were to leave in the morning for permanent camps. He put his hand through the wire and offered me a dried fig. ‘Don’t eat it’, he said, ‘keep it for breakfast. You won’t get anything else.’ I said goodbye to Denis and moved into the main camp area.
There were several large breeze-block barracks. Inside were rows of two-tier wooden beds, no other furniture. At the rear of each building were latrines and a wash-place. There was an unlimited supply of water, a great boon after the desert. We had to take a disinfecting shower. We were too late for the evening meal, and were given nothing to eat. So our total issue of food for the day had been one small piece of bread. I devoured the dried fig Denis had given me, and spent a restless hungry night on a straw mattress with two blankets to cover me. Breakfast consisted of a little ersatz coffee, made from acorns, nothing to eat. The first meal of the day arrived at 2.30 pm. We got a bowl of vegetable soup. If you were lucky you found a piece of meat in it. We also received a small piece of cheese, a tiny loaf (less than 4 oz) of brown bread and an amazing amount of fruit – a dozen or more tomatoes, a slice of water-melon, bunches of grapes, dried figs and peaches. In the evening we received another bowl of soup. It was a strange diet. The fruit was delightful, but there was so little solid food. The change from British army rations was catastrophic, and within a few days most of
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us suffered from diarrhoea. You had your meals on your bed. There also you read, if you had anything to read; there you sat and talked. It was your one port of refuge. For exercise there was an open area dotted with olive trees, which we dubbed the orchard. After a few days a batch of ‘other ranks’ arrived, and were put in the orchard under canvas: Officers were then forbidden to enter the orchard, and restricted to a lane at the front of the barracks. There were two roll-calls, morning and evening. The officers were counted separately from the men. The Italians became very excited when they got the number wrong, which they usually did, and a roll-call could last for an hour or more. Fortunately they never tried a ‘nominale’ at Bari, i.e. a count by name; that was a joy to come. Apart from roll-calls we were left to our own devices.
Father Denis Bankes remained for a short time, as his departure was postponed. Father McManus, a South African chaplain, was also in the camp. All three of us had lost our portable altar. An Italian military chaplain visited us and promised to bring a portable altar on Sunday, so that one of us could say Mass. We drew lots for the privilege and it fell to me. When he arrived on the Sunday, to our amazement he draped the whole altar with the Italian flag. I told him I could not say Mass on the Italian flag. Father Bankes and Father McManus agreed with me. I said that he knew very well that the Church was universal, not Italian, and that we were British soldiers. There was a heated argument. The Commandant and a visiting General joined in and seemed to be accusing us of insulting the Italian flag by refusing to celebrate Mass on it. But we held our ground, and the chaplain removed the flag with bad grace, while General and Commandant scowled at us. I was able to say Mass and give Holy Communion to a large number of officers and men.
The Italian chaplain turned out to be friendly and helpful. He brought us some Italian books, and I started to work seriously at my Italian. A few days later two more Catholic chaplains arrived, Father Edward Gibson C.SS.R [Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer], and Father Wilfrid Coates of Mill Hill, whose family I knew well in Corpus Christi, Gateshead. One of them had his portable altar, so we could now have daily Mass, to which officers and men were able to come. A few days later Father Bankes was moved to a permanent camp near Ancona. As he was leaving,
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very early in the morning, he stopped at my bed to say goodbye and presented me with a small tin with the lid removed. Denis was always a handy man, and he had twisted some wire round the tin to form a handle. It was invaluable for my morning acorn coffee. Until then I had used an old tin without handle, and regularly burnt my fingers. As there were still four priests in the camp we decided to hold a mission. We were allowed to use a large hut near the Italian quarters. There were four instructions daily for four days, with daily Masses and confessions. Our attendance varied from 150 to 200. The Italian chaplain supplied us with altar breads and wine. The large number of communicants surprised us. It was a wonderful way to start P.O.W. life. For many it was their first mission.
No doubt our mission was helped because officers and men were on the spot, and had time on their hands. Most of the prisoners had nothing to read, and there was no opportunity for games. Indeed we were soon so weakened by lack of solid food that we had no desire for violent exercise. Officers organised classes and talks. I ran a small class in Italian. Our venue was the narrow space between two barracks. My ‘students’ included Bill Bowes, the Yorkshire and England fast bowler, and Freddie Brown, the English Test captain. Bill Bowes was allowed into the orchard to talk to the men about his cricketing experiences, and a Guards officer who had a Cambridge rowing blue also attracted large numbers. But all in all life was very difficult and boring in Bari camp, and it was hard to keep cheerful. We were given a Red Cross postcard to fill in, stating we were P.O.W.s in Italy and in good health; but in spite of many requests, and indeed our rights under the Geneva Convention, we were unable to write letters home. The answer was always ‘Domani’, i.e. tomorrow. We soon learned that ‘domani’ meant ‘possibly in the distant future’. Smokers – and most of us smoked – got little consolation. Only very small amounts of Italian tobacco were available. Father Gibson filled his pipe with green vine leaves and tried to smoke it. A crowd formed around him, waiting to see the result. He survived, but he never tried it again. What did transform the camp was the arrival, after three weeks, of a consignment of Red Cross food parcels and English cigarettes. There was only enough for an issue of one
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parcel between two, but it did give us about five pounds of solid food each. It was our first link with home. We were not forgotten. The camp suddenly became a place of good cheer. That evening we made a strong brew of tea by lighting brushwood fires outside the barracks and boiling water in old tins. Our minds were so active after the strong tea, which we had not tasted for five weeks, that we were awake half the night.
There were unpleasant incidents, and indeed one very tragic event while I was in Bari camp. There were British doctors among the prisoners, but they were given no facilities. I saw a British M.O. [Medical Officer] trying to bandage the injured foot of a prisoner through barbed wire. The man was in a separate enclosure with a group due to leave, and the M.O. [Medical Officer] was not allowed to enter. Some weeks after we arrived there was trouble with the drains, and for several days there was an open sewer running past the doors of the barracks. The stench was so strong that it awakened us during the night; the very hot sun seemed to stifle the smell during the day. The barracks were locked at night. Ours was the one nearest the orchard. About 2 a.m. one morning we heard someone shouting, and then a shot and a scream. A medical officer and I battered at the door and demanded to know what had happened. Eventually an Italian officer opened the door and told us that one of the other ranks in the orchard had been shot. I explained that we wanted to go to him. ‘Piu tardi’ – ‘Later!’ was the reply. In spite of protests we were kept waiting for fifteen minutes. When we got to him he was dead. He was a Catholic. I absolved and anointed him. He had been walking about, looking for the toilet. He was shouting ‘Latrina’, and was nowhere near the perimeter when he was shot. The guard who shot him was removed from the camp. I presume he was inexperienced and lost his head. I was told that the Italians asked the British M.O. [Medical Officer] to sign a certificate that the boy had died of heart failure. Naturally he refused. I was able to recite prayers during the funeral procession, but not allowed to go to the cemetery. I think the Italians refused to let me officiate at the burial because I would have had to sign an entry in the register which would include the cause of death. I was given no opportunity to write to the next of
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kin, presumably for the same reason. No doubt the S.B.O. (Senior British Officer) gave full details to the representatives of the protecting power when he first met them.
After six weeks in Bari transit camp I was moved by train, along with a group of British officers, to Camp 21 at Chieti, near Pescara. The evening before we left we were transferred into a separate hut where lime had been stored. There were no beds, and the floor was covered with lime dust, which rose in clouds when you walked about. We protested strongly, and continued to shout until irate Italian officers eventually moved us to a cleaner hut, though again without beds. It was an unhappy ending to an unhappy stay in Bari camp. This was certainly the most unpleasant treatment I experienced during three years as a P.O.W. in Italy and Germany. As we left we remembered the colonel philatelist, and hoped for better things. At least, we thought, nothing could be much worse than Bari.
Campo di Concentramento No.21, the largest officers’ camp in Italy was situated in Chieti Scala, a township at the foot of the hill on which stands Chieti proper, with its cathedral and shapely campanile. It had been built as barracks for budding Italian pilots, and was solidly constructed. There were six long breeze-block buildings with red pantiled roofs which we called ‘bungalows’, three on the east and three on the west side of a very spacious open area. At the southern end were the cook-house and dining hall, a shower-bath unit and a theatre hall. To the north were the Italian quarters, the main gates and a small ‘cooler’ block, a prison within a prison. There were about 1,300 British and Commonwealth officers in the camp, housed in five bungalows. The sixth, the one nearest the ‘cooler’, was the hospital. A passage ran the length of each bungalow, and on either side of the passage were open-ended rooms, containing two-tier wooden beds. The entrance was at the end of the passage and faced the large open area. Near the entrance were two smaller rooms, cut off from the main dormitory. The whole camp was enclosed by a high wall, on which were perched sentry-boxes for the guards. There was a trip-wire seven feet from the wall. Outside were elevated machine-gun boxes with searchlights. Beyond the bungalows, towards the main gates,
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a white line was marked across the open area, from wall to wall. Guards were ordered to shoot if a prisoner crossed the white line or trip-wire without express permission. Compared with Bari, Chieti camp was not without some charm, with the campanile and red roofs of the town on the hill to the south, and to the north-west, in the distance beyond open country, the huge mass of the Gran Sasso mountain range, where later, in September 1943, Mussolini was imprisoned until his daring rescue by the Germans.
For several weeks life was very spartan in Chieti camp. No Red Cross food parcels arrived, no cigarette or clothing parcels. The diet was similar to that at Bari, a generous amount of fruit but very little solid food, with the same daily tiny loaf – less than 4 oz – of delicious brown bread. We were always hungry, even immediately after our main meal. Yet there were some heavy smokers who craved so much for tobacco that they saved a little of the precious daily loaf until they had a whole loaf in hand, which they bartered for ten cigarettes from a prisoner lucky enough to have a stock of tobacco. Lack of clothing was another hardship. Nearly all of us were still in desert outfit – shirt, short trousers, socks and desert boots. In late summer Italian evenings can be very cool. I made a hole in the middle of one of my blankets, stuck my head through it, tied the blanket round my waist with string, and became semi-monastic. We got one very unpleasant surprise. We had taken for granted that we would have a good supply of water. To our dismay the water taps operated only twice in the day, for ten minutes in the morning, and ten minutes in the afternoon. During these two short periods every available receptacle was filled. These had to supply us for drinking, cooking and washing until the next ten-minute period. What really infuriated us was that there were excellent marble-tiled shower units, but not a drop of water came through the showers, not even during the two ten-minute periods. There was enough for drinking and cooking, and to sponge yourself over with a piece of cloth. The washing of clothes was impossible. Most of us had only what we wore, though I did have one spare shirt salvaged after capture. These ghastly conditions continued for several weeks. The great water scandal was hard to forgive. Chieti, a town of some 45,000 people, presumably had an adequate supply of
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water. Did the former Italian inmates of the camp suffer the same treatment? Was this the Italian way of getting their own back for the attitude of polite contempt shown by most of the prisoners? We were very crowded in the barracks. The inevitable consequence was that we all became infested with lice. Like many others I used to sit on my bed and examine my shorts and shirt. The horrible little creatures moved like lightning. You tried to catch one between two finger-nails. If there was a tiny crack you were one louse less, but nine times out of ten it escaped into a seam.
The Italians eventually decided to do something about it. Probably they feared an epidemic, and a visit from the Red Cross or the commission of the protecting power. One bungalow and its inmates were treated each day for five successive days. When our turn came we took a disinfecting shower, and our clothes were stacked into large boilers and subjected to a very high temperature. We sat about in the hot sunshine, more or less naked, and watched the guards as they sealed every door, window, chimney and crack in the bungalow. They then pumped in lethal gas. ‘Nothing can live in there now’, they assured us. We waited expectantly for some hours. The Italian Commandant, podgy little Colonel Barela, arrived with some of his officers to witness the solemn re-opening. At 5 pm. he gave the order, and guards unsealed and opened the main door with a flourish of triumph. A great cloud of fume billowed out, and out of the cloud of fume stalked the camp cat in high dudgeon. The burst of laughter must have been heard in the cathedral on the hill top. We clutched our stomachs with pain in our uncontrollable mirth. The guards joined in, and the Italian officers turned aside from Colonel Barela to hide their titters. Strange to relate, in spite of the camp cat, we never again became lousy. At least I never heard of further trouble. Perhaps any surviving lice came out on the cat. From then onwards the water supply improved, and we got a shower-bath weekly, thirty seconds under the hot water and thirty seconds under the cold. Several months later (after I had left the camp) the supply of water was unrestricted and showers could be taken regularly. This improvement came too late to prevent an epidemic of infectious jaundice which swept through the camp in October. I was one of many
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victims who were confined to the hospital block for several days. The Italian doctor was kind and fatherly, and after leaving the hospital we were given a rice diet to help us to complete recovery.
Another example of Italian pique at the superior and somewhat contemptuous attitude of most of the prisoners occurred one day when we were on parade for roll-call. When the count was completed the whole assembly of P.O.W.s were ordered to drop their trousers for a search. There was a roar of protest and a storm of abusive language, well justified by such an unwarranted order. If the Italians thought such a search was necessary, it should have been done indoors and in private. When the guard nearest me ordered me to comply I refused. He went to the Commandant and informed him. I heard Colonel Barelamutter ‘Il prete e scusato.’ This incident angered us, and was a very unwise ploy on the part of our captors. We felt that we were being unjustly bullied to appease the hurt sense of inferiority of the Italians. This feeling was reflected in our attitude at the twice-daily roll calls. If the Italians had arranged for the S.B.O. (i.e. Senior British Officer) Colonel Marshall to call us to attention, we would have obeyed, and there would have been at least a modicum of discipline. But they insisted on calling us to attention by a bugle-call. The effect was ludicrous. Hardly anyone paid any attention to the fanfare. Colonel Barela was a pathetic figure, standing on the steps of a bungalow entrance. He was short and squat, and had little piggy eyes. Instead of moving his head around to survey the assembled P.O.W.s, he swivelled the pupils of his eyes from side to side, just like a shot from a Fatty Arbuckle film. This increased the merriment as the P.O.W.s continued to lounge around, talking and cat-calling. I felt sorry for him. He wanted so much to be respected. He was not malevolent, though sometimes unwise. At heart he wanted to treat us reasonably. I don’t think he was responsible for the water shortage. Eventually he would summon Colonel Marshall to his aid, and a degree of order resulted, so that the count could begin. Actually the Commandant had the Geneva Convention on his side. We were obliged to salute Italian officers of superior or equal rank, to obey reasonable orders and to observe the norms of military discipline. But we had not forgotten the
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water scandal and the trouser-dropping incident. During those early weeks roll-calls continued to be a trying experience for Colonel Barela. We were also annoyed, and I think rightly, by another example of insensitivity by the Italians. A bugle fanfare accompanied the hoisting and lowering of the Italian flag, morning and evening. They insisted that if we were outside we must stand to attention while the flag was hoisted or lowered. To British and Commonwealth officers this was like a red rag to a bull. No one paid the slightest attention. The Italians raged and ranted and threatened, all to no purpose. After a time they capitulated and conveniently forgot about it.
Altogether, then, our first few weeks at Chieti were unpleasant, not only for us but also, I think, for our captors. Gradually we came to terms with each other, and established a sort of ‘modus vivendi’, a live and let live attitude. The initial clash between the British and Commonwealth air of superiority and the Italian inferiority complex and feeling of national pride, took some time to resolve. There was one exception on the Italian side. The camp security officer, Captain Croce, who spoke reasonably good English, had no inferiority complex. He returned contempt for contempt with interest. He was a member of a well-known family of land-owners in the neighbourhood, and apparently a Fascist. Always immaculately turned out in silky uniform and leather riding-boots, tall, slim, highly perfumed and sporting a goatee, he strode about the camp with his glowering Alsatian at his heels, and took no pains to disguise his hostility. I think he aroused a deal of reluctant admiration. He was, of course, highly unpopular. It was suspected that in reality he ran the camp, and that he was probably responsible for the water scandal. However, I must admit that, as a Catholic priest, I was always treated with great respect and courtesy, not only by Colonel Barela but also by the redoubtable Captain Croce.
After several weeks life changed dramatically, as at Bari, with the arrival of Red Cross food parcels and cigarettes. There was a weekly parcel for each prisoner, containing about eleven pounds of food, mostly in tins. All tinned meat and fish and packets of tea were handed to the kitchen staff for communal use. We kept the other items: bar of chocolate, sugar, condensed milk, biscuits, cheese, jam and margarine. When we got a Canadian parcel it included a large tin of
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powdered milk (Klim), a jar of ground coffee and a tin of butter, instead of condensed milk, tea and margarine. Our diet was now tolerable. The Italians improved it further with a quite generous ration of wine once a week. It was usually a rough red country wine, which the kitchen staff made into a very pleasant punch by adding fruit juice, sugar and hot water. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to get Marsala. The canteen usually had a supply of dried figs, and, on major Church festivals, delicious Siennese cakes and bars of nougat dotted with cherries and almonds. The cakes and nougat were very dear, but according to the Geneva Convention we had to be paid the same salary as an Italian officer of equivalent rank. This was issued in camp money, not Italian currency. On one occasion the canteen acquired an enormous amount of the Italian form of ovaltine, which was offered at a very reasonable price. Many of us bought large quantities of it. A few days later the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer], Colonel Marshall, told us that the Italians had mistakenly left a nought off the price, and that the real price was ten times what we had paid. He had agreed to direct us to pay the extra. He promised that the British government would reimburse us after the war. I had to stump up the equivalent of several pounds sterling, and I am still waiting for the government to repay me. There was also the black market. This seemed to be a recognised part of the Italian war economy. When a local merchant delivered our rations he remained to negotiate black market dealings for extras.
Along with food parcels and cigarettes came a supply of Red Cross clothing. There were wood-burning heaters in the bungalows, but the small wood ration sufficed only for part of the evening, and on the concrete floors it could be intensely cold. Those of us (the great majority) who shivered on cold autumn evenings in our desert outfit now donned army battle-dress, and received warm underclothing, socks, army boots, handkerchiefs, towels and pyjamas. We could now face the winter without fear. We had enough to eat, and we were reasonably warm. Everyone became more cheerful and our health improved. We had been able to write home since arriving at Chieti, and our spirits rose still further when eventually we began to receive letters. A letter from home
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was something to be read, re-read and digested at leisure. Sometimes we spent hours trying to conjure up the words erased by the censor. One letter from my mother was totally erased except for two or three lines of greeting. I found after my return that she had described how a land-mine dropped on the beach at Roker and shattered all the front windows of our house, on the same night that a bomb exploded in the farmyard at my sister’s house in Whitburn. We could also receive cigarette parcels from home or friends, but many of these never arrived. A clothing parcel from home was allowed every three months, and the stipulated weight of the parcel could be made up by the addition of chocolate. Our families must have sacrificed many a chocolate ration to give us a little extra. So our conditions gradually improved, and we became more accustomed to the restraints and disadvantages of P.O.W. life. We never became reconciled to our loss of freedom, but at least life was more tolerable.
Chaplains, of course, had the great advantage of being able to continue their work. There were several Anglican and Free Church chaplains in the camp, but I was the only Catholic priest. As I had lost my portable altar in the desert we could not have daily Mass during those early weeks in Camp 21. On Sundays the Italians erected an outdoor altar, and borrowed from the local church all that was necessary for Mass. There was no Italian chaplain, so I said Sunday Mass in public for the P.O.W. Catholics and the Italian officers and guards. It was a great thrill. The British and Commonwealth Catholics stood on my left, the Commandant and his officers behind me, and the Italian guards on my right. Before and after the consecration an Italian soldier sounded a fanfare on his bugle. This was certainly an occasion when the old Latin Mass reigned supreme. That a prisoner-priest could offer Holy Mass for prisoners and guards alike, highlighted the catholicity of the Church in full view of some twelve hundred non-Catholic officers. Colonel Barela, whom I grew to like, told me that he urged the Italian soldiers to note and emulate the devotion of the British officers.
After I had been in the camp for three weeks, Colonel Barela said I could go to the church in Chieti Scala every Monday to offer Mass. Chaplains did not get special treatment, except that, in accordance with the Geneva Conven-
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tion, they and the medical officers were allowed to write home more frequently. It was better so. Privileges could have caused ill-feeling and lessened our influence. But this was a very tempting offer which I accepted without hesitation. Whether I was wise to do so is open to debate. I left the camp at 5.30 a.m. with a sergeant as escort. I was still wearing tattered short trousers and shirt, and old desert boots. My only distinguishing mark was a purple arm-band inscribed ‘R.C. [Roman Catholic] Chaplain’. The Italians I met could hardly believe that I was a Catholic priest. My sergeant escort, a rather churlish man, followed my every movement. He came into the sacristy to watch me vest, and sat and watched me during Mass. Afterwards the friendly Servite priests invited me in for breakfast. The sergeant followed. I was greeted with a broad smile by the portly housekeeper, and went upstairs to the dining-room. Up came the sergeant. He got a look from the housekeeper fit to kill. The result was that during breakfast our conversation was very inhibited. The following Monday she was waiting, arms akimbo. After greeting me she put a brawny arm on the sergeant’s shoulder, swivelled him round and propelled him into the kitchen. He went in like a lamb. During breakfast the Servite priests now gave me the latest war news, including items of a broadcast in Italian from England by a Colonel Stevens, to which they listened regularly. Nearly every Monday they announced that a neighbouring village was celebrating the festa of their local saint, which called for a liqueur. ‘Oggi (i.e. today) festa a Popoli’, or ‘Oggi festa a Sulmona’. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of local saints. So after coffee and rolls it was usually ‘liquori per tutti’ at 7 a.m. When there was a marriage in the parish the Servites insisted that ‘il povero prete nel campo’ must have his share of the spoils, and I carried a sizeable box of cakes and sweets back to camp. I became very popular with the officers billeted near me.
Word soon got round Chieti Scala that an English prisoner-priest said Mass in their church every Monday. Men, women and children waited outside the presbytery to escort me, and my walk back to camp became almost a triumphal procession. They were more than friendly and insatiably curious. Everyone wanted to talk to me. ‘Va bene nel campo? Abbastanza da mangiare? Non troppo male? Dove abita Lei?’ – ‘Is life
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all right in the camp? Is there enough to eat? Things are not too bad? Where is your home?’ Some wanted to show off their English – ‘Me – cousin in Chicago’. ‘Me, I was in London’. At the camp gate there was a chorus of ‘Arriverderci, Reverendo’. They were such lovable people, it was difficult to regard them as enemies. Eventually an elderly bearded Franciscan arrived in the camp as chaplain for the Italian soldiers. When he saw my rig-out he was shattered. ‘You cannot go to say Mass dressed like that. Come to my room on your way out next Monday.’ Sure enough, on the following Monday he had ready for me a full Franciscan monk’s garb. So I made my way to church in Franciscan cowl and girdle, no doubt transgressing Canon Law. I was greatly admired by the Servites, and liqueurs in honour of St Francis were ‘de rigueur’. When I returned the Franciscan chaplain was crestfallen. Colonel Barela had given him a piece of his mind. I could speak Italian, he had said, and could easily have given the slip to my sergeant and taken a train to the Vatican! So Franciscan cowl and girdle were out. Later, when we got a supply of British army clothing, I cut quite a figure on my way to and from church in new battle-dress with three pips on each shoulder. I think Colonel Barela became a little worried about this procession back to camp, and a few weeks later he made an excuse to discontinue my visits to the church.
The Franciscan chaplain now said Sunday Mass for the Italian officers and guards, and provided me with all I needed for daily Mass in the camp. There were about one hundred Catholic officers and three Catholic orderlies, i.e. other ranks who worked in the kitchens and hospital bungalow. The S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] reserved a small room for us for part of the mornings, and we used it for weekday Mass, confessions, talks and instruction classes, though I found that most confessions were heard while I walked around the camp with the penitent. We also used the room for Sunday evening rosary and devotions, but continued to celebrate Sunday Mass outside. It was a great consolation to have regular Mass, and some twenty officers received Communion daily. Sunday Holy Communion was a difficulty, as the stricter rule at that time required, I think, a three-hour fasting period. But many observed the fast for their Sunday Communion.
In April 1943 came the exciting news that the Papal
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Nuncio to Italy, Archbishop Borgongini-Duca, was to visit the camp on behalf of Pope Pius XII. The Italians erected a dais in the centre of the open area. The Nuncio was greeted with a fanfare of bugles, and saluted by a guard of honour. Colonel Barela and his officers escorted him to the dais. He could speak some English, but was a little daunted at the sight of thirteen hundred officers, nearly all Protestant. So he asked me to mount the platform with him, and give out his message, sentence by sentence, as he spoke to me in Italian. I quite enjoyed myself. The Nuncio was a very impressive figure with his broad red sash and large round hat. He was the perfect diplomat. He knew just what to say, and, equally important, what not to say. He brought presents from the Holy Father. There were twenty complete collections of Vatican stamps, going back to the Lateran Treaty of 1929. He insisted that I kept one of these. There were also two large piano-accordions, a number of papal medals, and, for everyone, a booklet calendar with Christmas carols. He ended his talk by saying that the Holy Father sent his apostolic blessing and promise of prayers to all of us, and that Pius XII hoped we would soon be safely home with our loved ones. This was received with a storm of cheering. I felt I now had to bring the proceedings to a fitting conclusion. The enthusiastic reception of the Nuncio’s talk must have gone to my head. After thanking him I called upon one hundred Catholic and twelve hundred Protestant officers to give three cheers for the Holy Father and his representative. There were three great rousing cheers. Later, a Major said to me, ‘Padre, if my old dad heard me cheering the Pope, he would cut me off with a shilling’. The Archbishop made himself available to any officer who wanted to talk to him. A large number approached him, many of them non-Catholic. He made a note of the name and number of each one. Some weeks later everyone who had talked to him received a letter and a cheque for 1000 lire. I have taken care to keep Archbishop Borgongini-Duca’s letter, as it is the only occasion in my life that I have been addressed as ‘Reverendissimo Signore’. The Nuncio promised to tell the Pope that I had lost my altar set, and Pius XII forwarded to me a beautiful portable altar, with silk vestments. I used it both in Italy and Germany, but unfortunately lost it at the end of the war. The Pope also arranged for a clothing parcel to be sent to me. Perhaps the
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Nuncio felt that battle-dress was not very priestly. I was then billeted with nine officers in a small room near the bungalow entrance. There was great excitement when I opened the Vatican parcel. I unfolded the first item – a pair of large white bloomers! When the uproar subsided, the comments of my room-mates may be imagined, but not printed. There was also a light-weight three-quarter length black coat, presumably to wear over the bloomers. I could not wear a black coat in an army prison camp, so regrettably I never wore the bloomers. I think they and the black coat ended up in the camp theatre, perhaps eventually with the escape committee.
Archbishop Borgongini-Duca was not our only visitor on behalf of the Pope. Pius XII sent an Irish Jesuit round the Italian P.O.W. camps to give a mission to Catholic prisoners. He wore a smart black clerical suit with full-length dress coat, and a broad-brimmed trilby hat. A non-Catholic officer said to me, ‘Isn’t it great to see him in an Italian prison camp? Just like a typical English gentleman’. He gave us a three-day mission which was much appreciated, though he rather put his foot in it in his final talk, when he said, ‘I hope to see you all for another mission in a year’s time’. But after all, he was not a diplomat. We were also visited by a Waldensian Italian army chaplain, a very friendly charming man, and very picturesque in his officer’s uniform, with a small neat alpine cap decked with a feather. He came particularly to enquire into the spiritual welfare of Methodist and other Free Church prisoners, who of course had their own chaplains in the camp and regular church services.
The Anglicans were very active in Chieti Camp. In addition to their Sunday and weekday services, they set up a training course for prospective Anglican Church students. Several times I was invited to talk to them about the Catholic faith, and to have discussions with them. Indeed, relations were very friendly between chaplains of all denominations. There was a very impressive Anglican, Lt. Christopher Ackroyd – a lay missionary. His home address was ‘The Brotherhood, Cawnpore’. He was long and lean, ascetic and devout, very intelligent, kind and human. He used to argue very forcibly that the British should leave India and let the Indians run their own country – a brave opinion to voice in a prison camp of British officers in 1942. Another very devout Angli
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can, Lt. Fraser, taught history in Morpeth grammar school. One day I said to him, ‘I am going to mention something to you, and do you mind telling me the immediate image it arouses in your mind’. He agreed, and I said, ‘Catholic Church’. The instant reply was ‘Italian’. It gave me food for thought.
As we gathered strength through a better diet we began to take more exercise. The extensive open area between the two rows of bungalows was large enough for football, cricket and other improvised ball games. We could buy games’ equipment through the Italian staff, or apply to the Red Cross for what we needed. There were courses in physical training for those disinclined for games. Many preferred to keep fit by walking or running round the perimeter. As for more gentle exercise, the period before we were confined to billets on magical Italian summer evenings is a poignant memory of Chieti. We sauntered in small groups, some alone, around the camp area. The dying sun touched the Gran Sasso with gold. The sky glowed with orange and misty purple. Fireflies sparkled in the grass by the perimeter wall. The noise of chirruping crickets filled the air. Sometimes the song of the nightingale sounded from over the wall. The campanile of Chieti stood starkly on top of the hill, and from there came distant sounds of voices – men, women and children enjoying freedom – and vague noises of music. As we smoked our English cigarettes or supped what remained of our ration of wine, the short twilight softened the harsh lines of our captivity. We persuaded the Italians to play a record of ‘Lili Marlene’ as a signal that it was time to return to our quarters. The tender notes of the woman’s voice turned men’s thoughts to home and loved ones, to wife and children, to sweethearts, to parents – to all that we missed. The familiar constellation of the Plough began to twinkle overhead. Would those at home also be gazing at it? Was it a lovely English evening? We sighed, and made our way to our gloomy billets as the searchlights suddenly emphasized the shackles of imprisonment; the high wall crowned with sentry-boxes, guards with loaded rifles, Captain Croce and his Alsatian. We were locked into our bungalows. The remaining hours we spent in reading, reminiscing, playing cards until ‘lights out’ at 10 pm. We climbed into our two-tier wooden bunks and tried to get to sleep against the uncouth masculine noises around us. One officer
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in our room tormented us by grinding his teeth in his sleep. Occasionally we were awakened by the music of the nightingale. Sometimes I was aroused early by sharp cracks of cherry stones spat into a tin with unerring aim by Captain Mortimer from the bunk above me. ‘For heaven’s sake, John, stop it’. ‘Oh, sorry Padre. Sorry, old chap’. Quite often I got up very early before anyone was astir, and made my way to the camp theatre to play the piano for forty minutes or so before morning Mass. I closed the theatre door to deaden the noise. It was bliss to be alone.
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ITALIAN P.O.W. CAMPS – PART 2
So another day started in Chieti camp, the same routine, the same drab surroundings. Day after day of baking sunshine. We longed for a cool day under a grey English sky. It was so easy to become bored, to lose interest, to vegetate. This was a danger to guard against, especially in an officers’ camp. Other ranks could be sent out to work in factories, on farms, etc. Conditions of life in their camps were generally worse than ours, but those made to work had some contact with civilians, and were saved from the monotony and boredom of life which could take hold of officers who, according to the Geneva Convention, could not be made to work. Officers were supposed to be allowed escorted walks in the countryside, but at Chieti the Commandant’s idea of an escorted walk was to send out 50 guards with 100 officers, so that we were surrounded by them. This so disgusted us that we refused further walks.
A supply of good books would have been a useful antidote to monotony, but several months passed before the Red Cross managed to send some. Later (after I had left the camp) a reasonable library was formed, and a camp librarian appointed by the S.B.O. (Senior British Officer). My Vol. 1 of Churchill’s Life and Times of Marlborough, salvaged after capture from a rubbish heap outside Tobruk, was a treasure. Countless readers just about wore it out. To remedy this shortage of books, a series of lectures and talks was organised, and a programme posted daily on the camp notice-board. There was a fund of expertise among 1,300 officers, and one could attend courses in languages, economics, history, law, mathematics, psychology, etc. There was also great musical activity. There were two hired upright pianos (one a very good Swiss piano), and orchestral instruments were hired or
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bought. The camp boasted two orchestras, classical and light. The latter played daily at tea-time on a balcony in front of the dining-hall. A sort of tower near the camp overlooked the balcony. Civilians used to climb to the top of the tower to listen to the music and applaud enthusiastically. The conductor of the light orchestra was Lt Tommy Sampson, who toured England with his own dance orchestra after the war. An outstanding performer in the classical orchestra was Lt Tony Baines, who before the war played the bassoon in the London Philharmonic. There were also piano recitals in the theatre, with two or three hundred listeners. A captive audience indeed! The theatre was very much in use. Dramas, comedies, musical revues were produced to a very high standard. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ was a great success. A handsome young Guards Officer made a most alluring Snow White. He was so realistic that his performance had a disturbing effect in the camp. One even felt a trifle shy when talking to him. He was so much in demand for female parts that he wearied of it, and settled the matter by growing a moustache. St Bartholomew’s Fair was celebrated in grand style. Stalls and amusements were concocted, and there was evening cabaret in the dining-hall, with many officers made up as girls by the theatre staff. The Italians enlivened the cabaret by producing a supply of vermouth. Sometimes private celebrations could be arranged. Many of my 1st Sherwood Forester friends were at Chieti, and I was invited to their ‘Badajos Day’ dinner on 4th April 1943 (two days early). I still have the menu card with their signatures. In explanation, we sometimes got Marmite in our food parcels.
MENU: PETITE MARMITE
CROQUETTES DE POISSON
SAUTÉ DE BOEUF
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All from Red Cross parcels except the carrots, onions and wine. Not too bad, you will think, for an Italian P.O.W. camp. But a meal like this was a very rare treat, and we had to make sacrifices for it.
Another antidote to boredom was the escape bug. It was unnatural and frustrating for 1,300 men to be confined together within four walls. Moreover, it was a military duty to escape if possible. But to escape successfully did not mean merely to get out of the camp; one had to get to a neutral country and eventually home, or to the allied forces. There were very few recorded ‘home-escapes’ from Italy prior to the armistice of September 1943. One obstacle was the incessant curiosity of Italian people. Any stranger was fair game. ‘Who are you? Where do you live? Where are you going? What do you do?’ Not many P.O.W.s were fluent Italian speakers. Moreover, the police, the military, wary fascists, were always looking for anything suspicious. I am sure that many prisoners, indeed the majority, considered the obstacles to a ‘home-escape’ so great that they were resigned to sitting it out until the end. Indeed one often heard complaints about ‘crazy attempts’ to escape, which sometimes resulted in temporary loss of privileges for all of us. But for many others the thought of escape was a constant incentive, and helped to take the edge off the monotony of life. Every officers’ camp had an escape committee, to which any plan had to be submitted for approval. The committee organised the provision of iron rations, clothing, currency, maps, compass and documents. Strict secrecy was essential. The fewer who knew about a planned escape, the better. There was always the possibility of a ‘stooge’ planted in the camp by the Italians, not to mention Captain Croce and his Alsatian. After we had been several weeks at Chieti the escape bug hit hard, and there were several tunnels on the go, perhaps not a very wise procedure. For concentration of effort and for security, it would have been better to opt for one or two tunnels. One could not help noticing the unusual activities when tunnelling was in progress. There were small plant-pots on the window ledges of each bungalow. Every morning you could see officers moving the plant-pots to a different position, ostensibly to give the plants more light or shade, but in reality to send a signal to the opposite bungalow,
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according to an agreed formula, that a guard was approaching on their side of the camp. When a tunnel was discovered, anyone caught in ‘flagrante delicto’ was awarded a period in the cooler, and usually our wine ration was stopped for a week – a communal punishment contrary to the Geneva Convention.
There was no successful tunnel dug during the ten months I spent at Chieti, but later one was carried out beyond the camp wall, and completed at the time of the Italian armistice. Apparently it was never used until after the Germans took over the camp. However, some did get out of the camp. Two officers, dressed in bogus Italian uniform, one masquerading realistically as Captain Croce, the other as a camp guard, crossed the white line to the gates. Only the ‘guard’ could talk some Italian. He ordered the sentries on the inner and outer gates to open them for Captain Croce, which they did. The two· walked out of the camp to Chieti Scala. Unfortunately a sentry telephoned the Italian officers’ quarters to inform the Commandant that Captain Croce had left the camp. The officers were dining, and Croce was sitting next to the Commandant! The escapees were being saluted on all sides in Chieti Scala when they were arrested, and consigned to the cooler. Another officer secreted himself under the cart while a local merchant was delivering rations, and was taken out of the camp at a trot. He too had bad luck. The merchant met a friend outside the camp gates and had a long gossip. He hung on as long as he could, but caught cramp and lowered his legs. He was spotted, and ended in the cooler. There was also a mysterious escape. A young officer disappeared. No one knew how he got out. He may have told the escape committee, but certainly we were in the dark. He was eventually caught on a train travelling up the east coast route. When challenged he claimed to be German, but the Italians produced a German officer to refute this. He refused to tell how he had got out, and was put in the cooler for a month. Colonel Barela used to take a bunch of grapes to the window of his cell and pass it through to him with the words ‘NO ESCAPY! NO ESCAPY!’ No doubt Barela feared that if there were a few ‘escapies’ he would lose his job.
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Obviously the duty to escape, if reasonably possible, did not affect a chaplain, who provided for the spiritual welfare of P.O.W.s, but I was not beyond suspicion in the eyes of the Italians. One day an Italian officer asked me to come immediately to the Italian quarters with my portable altar. Colonel Barela and his staff were waiting for me with stern faces. I was ordered to open the altar-box and produce my candles. As I did so one of the officers, who had a hand behind his back, brought it forward with a dramatic flourish. It contained some candles found in a tunnel. They were of a different brand. ‘Sono diverse le candele’, muttered Colonel Barela. I said to him, with a smile, ‘Se Lei venisse da me a confessarsi, daro una grande penitenza’. The officers enjoyed this, and Barela summoned up a sickly smile as I saluted him and departed with my altar.
When Colonel Barela left us, our new Commandant, a small, neat, cultured, school-masterly man, decided to talk to us about escaping. Instead of using Captain Croce he asked me to translate for him. I informed the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] of his request, and he told me to go ahead. I think he preferred to have me translating rather than listen to Captain Croce’s superior tones. The gist of the Commandant’s talk was that it was foolish to try to escape into the big wide world. In the camp we were safe, and they tried to give us reasonable conditions. Escaping was very dangerous, and why take such risks? All we needed to do was to stay in camp until the end of the war, and we would then return safely to our loved ones. My translation was heard with good-natured amusement, but made no difference, of course, to those bitten by the escape bug. The Italians continued to worry about it. They decided that perhaps it was lack of female company which stimulated attempts to escape, and, incredible as it may seem, offered to bring in a group of Italian women from time to time, if the P.O.W.s promised to stop escape activities. This was confirmed for me in an unusual way. Our own camp authorities decided to tighten up security. A friendly Major, presumably a member of the escape committee, told me that the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] and his staff were trying to minimise contacts with the Italians, and that they might have to ask me not to communicate with the old Franciscan chaplain. I was appalled. How could I refuse to talk to a fellow-priest who had been
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kind to me, I asked him. He replied that we all had to do difficult things sometimes. ‘For instance’, he said, ‘we had to turn down “with regret” an offer by the Italians to bring in some women periodically, if a promise was given not to try to escape.’ He saw that I was upset at the proposal and never mentioned it again. In point of fact, I did not see much of the Franciscan, but I could not have brought myself to hurt his feelings.
There was something of a cloak-and-dagger, hide-and-seek atmosphere about many escape activities, as if we were schoolboys trying to outwit the masters. Perhaps the cessation of many responsibilities of normal life made us like grown-up schoolboys. I think many of those engaged in escaping schemes enjoyed the excitement, but knew in their hearts that they were not going to get home, perhaps had no real desire to try it out. It was a sort of game. But for many others it was a deadly serious business. They were determined to do their utmost to get back home and into the fray again. It was their duty, and they were going to do it. It certainly ceased to be a game if you did make a break, and sentries were shooting to kill. It required great determination and courage, and a large slice of good luck. When someone got out of the camp it was a great boost to morale. Even if the escapee was soon caught, there was a feeling of triumph. The Italians had been outwitted, we were one up on superior Captain Croce. On the whole the Italians seemed to be good at guarding prisoners. They found it hard to understand the urge to get out. ‘Per voi, la guerra e finita’. The patriotic duty of a prisoner to try to return to his country’s armed forces was an idea which did not seem to register with them, in contrast with the Germans.
Escaping activities were not the only antidote to boredom. Our Italian hosts sometimes provided us with amusing situations. Some new guards arrived from the Russian front who were absurdly trigger-happy. During the night they shot at anything that seemed to move. We were frequently disturbed and protested strongly – to no avail. Two officers constructed a dummy, attached string to each arm, hid him in the grass between two bungalows as dusk approached, and trailed a string to each bungalow. When it was dark and searchlights were combing the camp, they jerked him up and
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made him dance around. There was a torrent of shots. The dummy collapsed, only to jump up again and do another jig. The second fusillade was followed by alarm bugles, and a search and roll-call in all bungalows. The dummy was hauled into a bungalow, dismembered and dispersed. The Italians found the correct number in each bungalow, discovered nothing suspicious, and retired, relieved but puzzled. This cured the trigger-happy characters. The Italian officers did not relish the loss of a night’s sleep. It was a sort of schoolboy prank, but it gave us a lot of pleasure.
Another comical diversion arose from an attempted reprisal. Apparently some Italian P.O.W.s in Egypt had bright patches sewn on their clothing. We were informed that, in return, a patch of red cloth was to be sewn on the back of each item of outer clothing of all P.O.W. officers at Chieti. They started on a room containing ten officers. Two guards arrived with a hand-cart and asked for spare outer clothing. They returned an hour later with the items of clothing decorated with a red patch. They were then presented with a second batch of spare clothing. While they were away the ten officers removed the red patches, and handed them the first batch again when they returned with the second. After they had sewn red patches twice on the first and second batch, and were then offered yet another batch, they tossed up their hands in despair, and made off with an empty handcart. We never heard any more about red patches. We would never have got away with this in Germany.
We were much entertained by an incident concerning the trip-wire some seven feet from the wall. A prisoner would sometimes jump over the wire to retrieve a ball without asking permission from the sentry. The Italians decided to erect warning notices every twenty yards or so. We emerged from our bungalows one morning to find notice-boards along the trip-wire. Each notice bore the warning in large letters: ‘DEMURRAGE NO (sic) ALLOWED’. Our hosts were puzzled to see groups of prisoners looking at the notices with loud guffaws and cackles. After a couple of days of this they could stand it no longer, and the notices disappeared. How they managed to discover the recondite word ‘demurrage’ I cannot imagine. I suppose national pride prevented them from asking our advice.
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An amazing display of military ineptitude occurred at a morning roll-call. We were drawn up in platoons according to bungalow. There was always a squad of guards present. When the count was completed, and before we were dismissed, the guard-sergeant ordered his squad ‘forward march!’ – straight into one of our platoons. The guards marched forward, the platoon stood steady as a rock. Bedlam ensued. Before you could say Jack Robinson, there was a tangled heap of guards and prisoners jumbled together. Rifle butts and muzzles stuck out at random. Colonel Barela ran to the scene from his position on the bungalow steps, shouting ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ Prisoners and guards were disentangled and order was restored. It was very funny, but could have had tragic results. No doubt the sergeant ended in the cooler for a few days. The Italian soldiers were very slovenly in appearance, in rough ungainly uniform, very much in contrast with their ultra-smart officers. They slouched rather than marched. Dad’s Army would have shamed them. They seemed very bored, and without any enthusiasm for the war. One day a solitary guard was wandering disconsolately round the camp when there was the sharp crack of a shot. He gazed around in amazement to see where the shot had come from. He then looked at his own rifle, and found he had pulled the trigger. He walked about, pretending that nothing had happened, when two guards appeared and arrested him. No doubt he too ended in the cooler.
Our new school-masterly little Commandant decided that we did not always behave as officers and gentlemen. In particular, he had noticed that when an officer wanted to visit a friend in an adjoining bungalow, he would take a short-cut by climbing out of a window and into the opposite window. This, he said, was ungentlemanly. In future any officer seen climbing through a window would be punished. The very next day two officers were caught climbing through a window to visit a friend in the hospital-bungalow opposite. The guard haled them in front of the Commandant. ‘I must punish you’, he said. ‘But Signore Colonnello’, they replied, ‘this is Feb. 14th, St Valentine’s Day’. ‘But what difference does that make?’ he asked. ‘Oh’, said the two miscreants, ‘in England everyone jumps out of windows on St Valentine’s Day.’ ‘That is most interesting’, said the Commandant. ‘I
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have never heard of that custom before. For this one occasion, then, I will excuse you.’ I wonder whether our little Commandant was bamboozled, or perhaps had a good laugh about it. I rather think he was taken for a ride.
However, classes, concerts, amusements and escape schemes were poor defence against the claustrophobic stress of P.O.W. life. For 1,300 officers to be cooped up together in prison camp, living cheek by jowl month after month, year after year, was a considerable strain. Tempers frayed and patience grew thin. There were the inevitable explosions and quarrels, bouts of sulks and bickering. Yet the overall atmosphere was one of tolerance and understanding, kindness and, indeed, great gentleness, especially towards those unwell, those depressed by bad news from home. There were some drop-outs who retired into a world of their own, but they were few. By and large, the 1,300 prisoners seemed to cope amazingly well.
Early in May 1943, the boring routine of life in Chieti camp was broken – indeed transformed – by the arrival of 250 American officers, who were billeted in one of the bungalows. Many British and Commonwealth prisoners had to move to another bungalow, and we were more crowded than ever. We found it hard to keep up with them. Relations were friendly, but British tended to consort with British, and Americans with Americans. Among the new arrivals was Larry Allen, an Associated Press correspondent, captured when the destroyer Sikh was sunk off Tobruk. He was very friendly, and exhilarating company. He edited a daily news bulletin, posted at the entrance of the American bungalow, a very racy and lively sheet compared with our British equivalent. I heard later that he wrote a letter to Mussolini ‘as one journalist to another’ and was moved to another camp.
The American contingent included a Catholic chaplain, Father Stanley Brach, from Newark, New Jersey. He proudly showed me his portable altar ‘made in U.S.A., very superior’. But I preferred the Holy Father’s altar. Obviously there was no need for two Catholic chaplains in the camp, though it was delightful to have the company of a fellow-priest In June 1943 I was told to be ready to move early the next morning. I made a quick round of calls on friends, and
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gathered my belongings together. It is amazing how much junk one collects as a P.O.W. You never toss anything away that could conceivably be of any use. I also had my portable altar to carry, and whatever Red Cross food I had in reserve, including a tin of Klim (Canadian powdered milk). So at 6 a.m., I left Chieti Camp after a stay of ten months. Two guards escorted me and we travelled by train to a very large ‘other ranks’ camp near Macerata, an old papal city not far from Ancona and Loretto.
The camp was at the foot of a hill, below Macerata. My baggage was searched by a guard who – accidentally, I think – spilt the contents of my tin of powdered milk. As I was berating him in my best Italian, a voice from behind me said, ‘Dinna fash yer’sel, mon’. This was Jock, whose family had an ice cream business in Scotland. He had been unlucky enough to be in Italy when she declared war. He had been drafted into the army, and was camp interpreter. I was escorted to the living quarters of the chaplains and medical officers. It was a pleasant surprise, the start of a new mode of life. We lived in the upstairs portion of a farm-house within the camp walls. There were four doctors: Dr Allen from Consett, Dr Graham, a Canadian, Dr Fruen from Ireland and Dr Fish from the south of England. There were two other chaplains: Padre Wrigley, C. of E. [Church of England], from South Africa, and Padre Simmons, a Free Church chaplain from England. We were comfortably lodged, three in one room, and two in each of two other rooms, with ordinary single iron beds and decent bedding. We were even provided with mosquito nets. There was a dining-room, a kitchen, bathroom and toilet, and there were two British orderlies to look after us. In front of the farm-house was a garden in which we cultivated melons, tomatoes, maize and various vegetables. Padre Wrigley bred rabbits in a hutch attached to the house. With the help of our Red Cross parcels we fed well, and our quarters were clean and cosy. This seemed a world away from Chieti.
Our style of life was in marked contrast with that of the other ranks, of whom there were about seven thousand. They were housed in large factory buildings, in three-tier wooden beds, which were infested with bed-bugs. Some were taken out on weekdays to work on farms or in factories, but
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[Black and white photograph with caption] Rev. George Forster (centre front) with the choir and altar servers, Camp P.G. 53, Macerata, Italy, Summer 1943. Paintings, screens and decorations all made by prisoners from wood of Red Cross parcels containers.
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[continued from digital page 53] many just stagnated in the camp. They were very overcrowded, and meals were rough-and-ready compared with our comfort. Their internal organization was supervised by a senior British sergeant, known as ‘man of confidence’. There was a regular supply of Red Cross food parcels and cigarettes. Concerts, plays, debates and classes helped to relieve the tedium of their lives, and there was a camp library.
I had another pleasant surprise. The religious welfare of the 600 Catholic prisoners was wonderfully catered for by an Italian army chaplain, Father Louis Giunta, whose home was in Agira, Enna, Sicily. He remained for a few weeks after I came. He had spent several years in America and spoke English fluently. With his generous financial aid the Catholics had decorated a large hall, and constructed a beautiful altar and sanctuary. On weekday mornings the building was used for the distribution of library books, but the men had made and painted a screen, using wood from Red Cross boxes as material, so that altar and sanctuary could be cut off. We used the screened area for Christian doctrine classes, discussions, instructions for converts, and regular confessions. It was like coming into a well-established parish. We had our daily Mass and night prayers. On Sundays the 600 Catholics filled the hall. We reserved the Blessed Sacrament twice a week, and so could have our Sunday and weekday Benediction. An experienced choir-master ran an excellent choir, with the aid of a tiny organ borrowed from a priest in Macerata.
A former church student was sacristan, and there was an eager group of Mass servers. There were several men who wished to be confirmed, as well as some newly-fledged converts. I got permission to go to Macerata and interview the Bishop. He readily agreed to come to the camp with his secretary and M.C. [Master of Ceremonies], and administer Confirmation. It was a moving experience for all of us. I had to translate and deliver his address. After the Confirmations the Bishop presided at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. He was highly impressed with the devotion of our men and the singing of our choir, and delighted with our chapel. Macerata was a wonderful camp for a Catholic chaplain, thanks mainly to our good Sicilian friend, Father Giunta.
The Anglican and Free Church chaplains held regular services on Sundays and some weekdays. These were out of
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doors, and large crowds assembled around a table on which the chaplain stood. I don’t think I realised how fortunate we were to have our Catholic chapel. I just took for granted what I found when I arrived. This was, of course, in pre-ecumenical days, when any ‘communicatio in divinis’ was forbidden, and the possibility of sharing the chapel never entered our minds. It is a tribute to Padre Wrigley and Padre Simmons that there was never any hint of resentment at our having our own chapel.
The medical officers and chaplains went for a country walk every week, escorted by an Italian officer. Sometimes we strolled through orchards and vineyards, where the peasants invited us to pick as many luscious peaches and bunches of grapes as we wished. On other occasions we called upon a charming Italian family connected with the film industry, who treated us to wine and biscuits, and made it clear that they were out of sympathy with the fascists. Once, as we walked by the side of an orchard, I reached up and secured a lovely ripe apple. Our Italian officer said, ‘Si deve fare cio che dice il prete, ma non cio che fa’. We were excused the lengthy roll-calls which the men had to endure. Instead, morning and evening, we were visited in our quarters by a most agreeable Italian officer, a communist from Emilia, who was decidedly anti-fascist. He joined us in a cup of tea or coffee – a great treat for him, especially the coffee – and gave us the latest war news. There was an unoccupied room on the ground floor of the farm-house. The Commandant allowed me to hire a piano and put it in this spare room. So I could play my piano whenever I wished. He even suggested I might give piano tuition to his daughter. But nothing came of this, much to the disappointment of doctors, and chaplains, not to mention our two orderlies.
Relations with our Italian hosts were quite friendly; indeed the atmosphere was much pleasanter than in Chieti camp. I think this was probably because the other ranks did not have that air of superiority and polite contempt for the Italians adopted by many of the Chieti officers. One day a diminutive Italian guard, rifle on shoulder, was plodding wearily behind a horse-drawn cart as it clattered slowly towards the camp gates after delivering our rations. To my astonishment, a burly prisoner suddenly picked him up, rifle
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and all, and planted him upright on the cart. The little guard grinned sheepishly at his prisoner-friend as he was taken away at a gentle trot. This sort of incident could never have occurred at Chieti. There was a large area for exercise. Football was played during the summer in spite of the heat. There was a league, and a Saturday afternoon match could attract a crowd of 6,000. One Saturday it was announced that the Commandant’s daughter would kick off, and all 7,000 turned up to watch. Sure enough, our Italian colonel escorted a pretty girl to the centre circle. She kicked off to a tremendous cheer and ran for the touch-line. But when she was halfway to safety her skirt dropped down, to reveal a pair of
P.O.W. khaki shorts. ‘She’ was a prisoner, made up by the camp experts and dressed alluringly from our stock of theatrical costumes. Another pastime was all-in wrestling. The Italians found this hard to stomach, and asked the men not to indulge in it. Perhaps they had visions of what they might experience at the end of the war.
But, in spite of our advantages, we were prisoners, enclosed within four walls, and our future was uncertain. We longed for freedom and home. The strain was more severe for the men in their overcrowded and primitive conditions, and with their interminable roll-calls. For one poor man it became too much. He cut his throat, and in spite of valiant attempts to save him by the nuns, he died in Macerata hospital. When the allies captured Sicily and landed on the Italian mainland, a wave of excitement swept through the camp. Dr Allen grew a beard, and vowed to keep it until Mussolini fell from power. Our worries about the future became more acute. Would the Germans pounce on us, and take us to a more rigorous imprisonment in the Reich? We got regular news about the war on the Italian radio, supplemented generously by our communist friend. One morning he came into our quarters in great excitement. All he said was one word, ‘Mussolini’ and gave an emphatic thumbs down. So it had happened. Dr Allen shaved off his beard, and we listened to the news with growing anticipation.
In September 1943 the Armistice with Italy was signed. We sang the ‘Te Deum’ and offered Mass in thanksgiving. Cheering was heard from the nearby village; church bells rang; bonfires blazed on the Macerata hill. The local squire
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had nine fires in a row. One would never have guessed that Italy had lost the war. The wireless now gave us news and music from London. But all the time we feared that the Germans would come. The Commandant said it was his duty to protect us, and keep us under guard until the British forces arrived. He managed to do this for three days, but the guards made off to their homes more quickly than they could be replenished. One afternoon, during a Christian Doctrine class in the chapel, there was a sudden storm of shouting, and we heard men running about wildly. Our class came to an abrupt end. There were no guards remaining, and the gates were open. Hundreds were streaming out of the camp, some staggering under enormous loads of baggage. A number were ransacking the Italian quarters, ably assisted by a crowd of excited peasants from the village. Some vats of wine were discovered in the officers’ larder, and the gaiety increased. Many visited the village and made merry with the locals. For about two hours the celebrations continued, but no harm was done, except that the Italian stores were somewhat depleted. Eventually the peasants were ejected from the camp, and the village was picketed to guard against unpleasant incidents, but none were reported. In fact the only regrettable event occurred inside the camp, when several men who were the worse for drink jumped on to a table near the wall, and made a disgraceful exhibition of themselves to some Italian girls passing by.
A message had been received from London, presumably by wireless, that P.O.W.s were to stay in camp until the arrival of the British forces. There is something of a mystery about this message. It was received in other P.O.W. camps. I heard later that at Chieti camp it caused a rift between Americans and British. Apparently it originated from General Montgomery, who did not relish the prospect of roving bands of ex-prisoners in the area ahead of his forces. The British authorities, with misplaced optimism, had expected to overrun Italy in a few weeks. At any rate, the message was accepted as genuine, and prisoners at Macerata, as in other camps, were advised to stay. In spite of this, about two thousand left, including Doctor Fish who managed to get to Switzerland, and eventually back to England.
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Many of the 5,000 who remained slept in the open that night, a pleasant change from the stuffy bug-ridden barracks. All was quiet until 2 a.m., when there was a rattle of machine-gun fire. It was a warning from the Germans. We were surrounded, prisoners again after a few hours of counterfeit freedom. We were bitterly disappointed and dejected. Several late arrivals from the village were astounded to be welcomed back to camp by German guards. One of them was refused admission. This is the only instance I know of a P.O.W. trying to break into the camp. He was Maltese, very Italian in appearance, but in the British army. He argued in vain; the Germans were convinced that he was Italian. His friends and his Red Cross food were in the camp. He returned to the village in very low spirits.
The German troops were friendly, and surprised that we had not escaped. They had little idea how to guard prisoners. When an Italian civilian delivered rations with horse and cart, he drove out again with a girl on either side of him. The Germans seemed to think that this was quite normal. The ‘girls’ were P.O.W.s dressed and made up in the camp theatre. I saw several men escape under the very eyes of the guards who stood on top of the camp wall. They brought wooden bed frames from their billet, placed a frame against the wall midway between two guards, climbed up, jumped over the wall, ran down towards the river and disappeared into the woods, while their friends chatted to the two nearest guards and held their attention.
Two days later we were moved into Germany by train. We took with us our stock of food parcels, and as many of our belongings as we could manage. Our Maltese friend was on the platform to see us off, still trying to persuade the Germans to let him join us. He waved us off very tearfully. I wonder what happened to him. I also wonder what happened to the piano I had hired, to the little organ lent to us by the Macerata priest, and to my album of Vatican stamps, which I left for safe-keeping with the local village priest. As the train moved off we felt, chaplains and doctors at any rate, that what was in store for us in Germany was most unlikely to be as congenial as our life in Macerata camp. We consoled ourselves with the thought that when we were next released, there would presumably be none left to recapture us.
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PRISONER IN HITLER’S REICH – PART 1
IN THE afternoon of September 20th, 1943 the five thousand prisoners who had obeyed the War Office directive to remain in Macerata camp, left by train for Germany, very dejected and apprehensive of what lay ahead in Hitler’s Reich. It was already dark as we passed through Loretto and Ancona, and bitterly cold when we reached the Brenner Pass. I persuaded a German officer to let me go to the platform buffet, where I used a little Italian currency I had acquired to buy biscuits and a bottle of Marsala wine. Our train was held up for several hours. In the early morning we arrived at Innsbruck which I had always wanted to see, in its magnificent setting, cupped by mountains. But this wasn’t the way to do it. Some hours later we ended our journey at the small town of Moosberg, a short distance beyond Munich, and entered an enormous camp which held prisoners of many nationalities. Officers were now separated from other ranks, but I was able to move around and see many of my Macerata friends. I met some French army chaplains who regaled me with coffee and biscuits, and arranged for me to say Mass in their chapel-hut. In the pen next to us were Russian prisoners, wan, thin, bedraggled, in vile conditions. We had food to spare, but it was ‘verboten’ (i.e. strictly forbidden) to give anything to them. Some officers, very smart in uniforms unknown to me, had passes to go out into the town. Perhaps they were collaborators. There were many thousands of prisoners, divided into so many sections, that it was all very bewildering.
On 30th September I moved from Moosberg with thirty nine British officers to Oflag IX A/Z in Rotenburg, near Kassel. (Oflag = Officers Camp.) We travelled in a third-class carriage with several guards, and the journey took one and a half days. We were coupled to a goods train, detached and left alone for some hours, then tacked on to a passenger train. There were many stops between stations. So our carriage crossed Germany by fits and starts. A loose floor-board was
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discovered in the toilet, and officers began to escape during halts. The guards never took the precaution of counting us I until we were near Rotenburg, when they found several missing. It is almost incredible that they had never noticed our dwindling number. They had been quite friendly, but now became very excited and hostile. No wonder. They probably ended in prison or at the Russian front. When we arrived at Rotenburg station after 1 a.m. on 2nd October, we were treated as a band of highly dangerous brigands. We stood on the station platform holding our belongings, surrounded by guards with rifles at the alert. We were warned that if we moved out of ranks we would be shot. We marched through the town in the black-out, and reached Oflag IX A/Z at 2 a.m. It was a large stone building, ringed with searchlights. They took us into a room in the guards’ quarters, and examined our baggage carefully down to the last small item. We were then subjected to a body search. The guard who searched me was very apologetic, and told me that his father was a Lutheran pastor. It was 4 a.m. when finally we were ushered into the prisoners’ quarters. To our surprise, the Germans had allowed a number of P.O.W.s to stay up to welcome us. After our weary journey it was marvellous to be greeted by our own. There was an enormous buzz of conversation. ‘Who are you? Where are you from? You are a Catholic chaplain? Oh, we have the mad monk here.’ ‘The mad monk?’ ‘Yes, Michael Charlton.’ I could hardly believe it. Michael Charlton! My old acquaintance from Ushaw days. Michael was at Ushaw as a lay student from 1922 to 1928. He entered the Redemptorist novitiate in Perth, and was ordained priest in 1936. He was a rugged character, very down-to-earth, always on the side of the underdog. He was taken prisoner at Dunkirk in 1940, and had worked as chaplain in Stalags (i.e. other ranks’ camps) where he was immensely popular with the men. But he got on the wrong side of the Germans, and was moved to Oflag IX A/Z. He lived in a two-bunk cubicle on the top floor, and I was allotted the spare lower bunk. I dumped my baggage and greeted an amazed Michael. He dressed and took me down to the dining-room. A banquet awaited us. We rubbed our eyes. Was this a vision? Had we gone nuts? Porridge with sugar and milk, scrambled egg and bacon, toast, butter and marmalade, hot strong tea. The last
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time I had devoured a comparable breakfast was on 20th June 1942, the morning of the German assault on Tobruk. But there would never be another breakfast like this until we were out of Germany. The Rotenburg P.O.W.s knew that we had endured a long, exhausting journey, and provided this feast from their Red Cross parcels – all of it except the toast.
Oflag IX A/Z was a small camp. It housed about four hundred and fifty officers, mostly British, but included some Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans. The usual quota of orderlies worked in the kitchens and hospital. There were many older officers and twenty or more surplus chaplains and doctors, some of whom had crossed swords with the Germans in other camps. The S.B.O. (Senior British Officer) was dapper little Colonel Kennedy of the Oxford and Bucks. Among the surplus medical officers were Doctor Kennedy, a Catholic eye specialist from Southend, and Doctor Allen from Macerata camp, still minus beard. One of several Anglican chaplains was Padre Bernard Pawley, who later represented the Archbishop of Canterbury as an observer at Vatican II, and became Archdeacon of Canterbury Cathedral. Bernard had been moved to Rotenburg from a large Stalag because he had protested strongly when prevented from conducting a burial service for a Russian Orthodox prisoner who had been shot.
The stone building, strongly constructed, had a basement, where there were latrines and shower unit, ground floor and two upper floors. There was also a very substantial room in the roof with tiny dormer windows, which was used for music practice and art. There were some outbuildings: a small stone wash-house with mansard roof, a large wooden hut at the rear which served as the camp hospital, and another hut at the front, which was our food parcel store. Before the war the building had been a girls’ High School, and had featured in a film, ‘Madchen in Uniform’. The former headmaster, Herr Borman, was our Colonel Commandant: we called him Daddy. The German officers and guards occupied about a third of the building. The German security officer, Hauptmann (Captain) Heil, was a lapsed Catholic. There were two other German officers, several Feldwebels (Sergeants) and a large contingent of guards. The buildings were sur
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[Black and white illustration of the 1943 Rotenburg Christmas card]
rounded by masses of barbed wire, with elevated sentry-boxes and searchlights at strategic points. There was a courtyard within the wire, for walking, games, and the twice-daily roll-calls. The camp was pleasantly situated on the outskirts of the small town. Behind us lay wooded hills, and in front was a stretch of open country leading to the river Fulda and the railway.
Rotenburg was grubby and overcrowded, like all camps. The furniture was basic – two-tier wooden beds with straw mattress and pillow, plain tables, hard chairs and small lockers. Yet it was a cosy and friendly camp. We were not large in number, and all under one roof. You got to know everyone by sight, and a large proportion by name. Moreover, it was pleasant to be in what had been a civilian building, with a generous central stairway, landings and spacious Georgian-type windows. No curtains at the windows, of course, and no black-out. The electricity was cut off at 10 pm. and during air-raid warnings. Two or three ordinary W.C.s were a great boon: one could be alone for a short time. Though in the basement a large army-type loo had no seating and no partitions. There was a school gymnasium which sometimes served as a cinema. In the wash-rooms were tiny individual wash-basins – cold water only. Shades of old Ushaw. You got a hot shower once a week, and could take a
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cold shower daily. The solid-fuel central heating was very efficient; you could warm a drink of cocoa by sticking it between two bars of a radiator. We had to wash our own clothes, though the bed sheets were laundered monthly. To wash clothes with lather-less German soap and sometimes in cold water was a trial. We took our turn at cleaning out our room or cubicle, and carrying up the large tea-urns from the kitchen. P.O.W. life was a great leveller: the bearer of the tea-urn could be anyone from a former shipyard worker or miner to a university don or a Scottish duke. The morning cry of ‘Tea up’ was a most welcome sound at Rotenburg. We had one priceless asset, our concealed wireless. Look-outs were posted while a radio officer listened to the news from London, which was written down and read aloud in every room. The news-sheet was then torn up and burnt. The Germans (or ‘Goons’ as we called them) suspected that we had a wireless, and often sent guards (‘ferrets’ to us) on the prowl to try and locate it. The daily bulletin was a great boost to our morale.
Rotenburg was usually well supplied with Red Cross food parcels, cigarettes and clothing parcels, until the last few months of the war. The food parcels were of the same type as those received in Italy; each contained eleven pounds of food and a small tablet of soap. We queued at the parcel hut every Monday morning for our cardboard box of goodies. As in Italy, tea and most tinned goods (meat, fish, bacon, egg powder) were handed to the kitchen staff for communal use. The rest we kept. Prisoners craved for anything sweet. Sometimes an officer would devour the contents of his tin of Nestle’s milk on the Monday morning. Our food parcels were even more essential in Germany. We could have survived, though in a weakened state, on Italian P.O.W. rations for officers. The daily issue of fresh fruit had been a great help, and the Italian canteen offered dried figs – very sustaining and occasionally excellent nougat and cakes. In the German canteen all that you could buy, apart from razor blades, paper, pencils and sometimes matches, was ersatz beer, with no apparent alcoholic effect. P.O.W. rations for officers in Germany were atrocious. Many of us – perhaps most of us – would not have survived without Red Cross parcels. Yet according to the Geneva Convention we should have received the same rations, in quality and quantity, as German depot
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troops. The Germans gave us the following rations weekly. A portion of lowest quality brown army bread with a bitter taste (it had one virtue, it lasted indefinitely. You could keep it for several weeks. I think it was potato bread); a few potatoes, a tiny issue of fresh veal, so minute that we arranged to take it fortnightly, when it furnished a very small portion; a very small amount of sugar, margarine and acorn coffee; some dreadful turnip jam and soft white cheese. (The cheese was completely neutral, no taste at all.) In addition we got sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) almost daily, and very occasionally a little sausage, and mint tea.
There was no excuse for these meagre rations; the German army was never short of food until almost the end of the war. Civilians were rationed, but the army drew supplies from occupied Europe and fed well. Only certain items were rare or unobtainable – tea, real coffee, chocolate and proper soap. This gave good scope to barterers. For example, the kitchen staff regularly dried our used tea leaves and sold them to the Germans. Cigarettes were also most useful for bartering, and for bribing or tormenting the guards. Amongst ourselves they became a sort of currency: 200 cigarettes for a bar of milk chocolate, 100 for a small tin of cheese. Rates of exchange varied according to availability of items. Every P.O.W. received fifty cigarettes weekly from the Red Cross, and duty-free parcels from home or friends, so that almost everyone built up a large stock. The Germans were usually able to buy only acrid Polish cigarettes, which were about one and a half inches long, and stuck into a cardboard tube. They found the offer of a few Players cigarettes hard to resist, but there was a price to pay. A guard in the kitchen asked for a cigarette. ‘No cigarettes for the Germans’. He pleaded. ‘You can have ten Players if you give the Nazi salute and shout “Heil Churchill”.’ He was aghast. ‘Dass Kann-ich nicht tun.’ ‘All right, no cigarettes.’ The poor guard looked around anxiously to see if the coast was clear, gave the Nazi salute with a resounding ‘Heil Churchill’, and walked away in triumph with ten Players. Matches, however, were hard to come by. When you managed to get a box, you sliced every match in two with a razor blade. Some were able to cut one into four, and strike a wispy match without breaking it or burning a finger. To overcome the scarcity of matches,
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almost every room had what we called a ‘smokeless burner’. Handy prisoners made one out of a small squat tin – a sardine tin was excellent. They filled the tin with margarine or cooking-oil, and a strand of pyjama-cord made a good wick. The lid provided a roof, which was supposed to suppress most of the smoke, but it billowed out and made the fuggy air even worse. A ‘smokeless burner’ heated many a cup of cocoa, and lit innumerable cigarettes.
Even with our Red Cross parcels and sparse German rations we were often very hungry. The diet was just tolerable, though monotonous. No doubt with our tins of meat, fish, cheese and Nestle’s milk, and half a pound of margarine weekly, we fared better in some ways than civilians in England. But we got no fresh food, apart from the minute fortnightly portion of veal, no fruit, no vegetables, unless you can call sauerkraut a vegetable. During eighteen months in Rotenburg I had one fresh egg – given to me, hard-boiled, by Sergeant Schmitt on Easter Sunday, 1944. Food was a humiliating obsession. You would peep at a neighbour’s plate at dinner to see if he had a little more than you. Some prisoners tortured themselves and listeners by describing in detail their favourite meal. The arrival of four thousand food parcels from Geneva evoked a communal sigh of relief. No need to worry for the next eight or nine weeks. But what if the supply failed? It never did, until the final few months of the war. It was to be a bitter experience.
There was another anxiety, shared by all prisoners. How long was the war going to last? Another year, two years, five years? We were simply locked up for the duration. And what would happen when the Nazis faced imminent defeat? Would we be maltreated, or worse? By 1943 many had endured this life of stress and anxiety for three years, some for even longer, and had suffered much harsher conditions in the early years. Father Michael Charlton, the ‘Redemptorist’, was one of these. A prisoner since Dunkirk, and always highly-strung, he showed signs of nervous tension. Yet Michael had his moments. Once he was in a room with several officers who were bemoaning their lot, locked up year after year behind barbed wire in a grubby fusty camp. Michael waited for a lull in the catalogue of woe, and said, ‘I don’t
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know about you chaps, but I have never been so free before’. Unaware of the rigours of an old-time ‘Redemptorist’ monastery, they stared at him blankly. Perhaps that was how he got his title of the ‘mad monk’. In a way what he said was true for all of us. We were freed from some ·of the usual responsibilities of life. Our captors made decisions for us, sent us to this camp or that, told us what we could do, where we could go. But we were free to give our minds to new ventures, new hobbies, with almost unlimited time on our hands. And we were now buoyed up by Allied successes and a sure hope of victory.
Yet even for us later arrivals, life could be grimly monotonous as one grey day succeeded another. All days were grey in the camp, no matter how brightly the sun shone. The same weary faces, the same stolid guards, the same sordid surroundings, the same colourless diet, the same boring parades – day after day this was our life. At 9 a.m. and 5 pm. an alarm bell summoned us to the courtyard, where we assembled in platoons. Colonel Kennedy called us to attention, and returned the salute of the German duty officer, who counted us, aided by a sergeant. The S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] then made any necessary announcement. ‘Four thousand food parcels have arrived at Rotenburg Station.’ Enormous cheers! ‘The Commandant asks me to warn you that if any light is seen at a window after the 10 pm. “lights-out”, the guards are under orders to shoot’. Prolonged jeers! Then always the same conclusion, ‘Gentlemen’, with a glance at his watch, ‘it is now
9.35 a.m. Parade dismiss’. ‘Gentlemen, it is now 5.30 pm. Parade dismiss’. I reckon that during my eighteen months in Rotenburg camp Colonel Kennedy announced the time to us on 1,086 occasions.
As in Italy, P.O.W. life was easier to bear for those who worked as chaplains or doctors. We were as free to practise our religion in Rotenburg camp as we had been in Italy. There was a regulation that you handed written sermons to the German security officer for approval. After some months Hauptmann Heil asked me why I did not do this. I told him I did not preach from notes, but that he was most welcome to attend Sunday Mass and listen. He smiled and never bothered me again. But in some other camps the Germans insisted that
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sermons must be censored, and surplus chaplains could not say a public Mass or conduct a service. In Oflag IX A/Z there were forty-five Catholic officers and one Catholic orderly. Michael Charlton and I said daily Mass (no con-celebration in those days) in a small room used by the camp cobbler (a P.O.W. orderly), and the place stank with the smell of old boots. Several prisoners attended regularly. Later we got the use of a larger room for morning Masses and evening prayers; during the day it was the barber’s shop. For the two Sunday Masses we used the dining-room, and nearly all forty-six Catholics attended. In late November 1943, two further priests arrived – Father Tom Lynch of Portsmouth diocese, and Father Edward Hinsley of Westminster, a nephew of Cardinal Hinsley. Edward Hinsley was a rather quiet, devout, straightforward man, very easy to get on with. Tom Lynch, a close friend of Patsy Redmond from Roman days, was a delightful companion, and a tower of strength when one felt depressed. All four of us were able to say Mass daily. We bought altar-breads from a convent in Fulda. Wine was in short supply. We managed to get a small amount from the local parish priest. Pope Pius XII forwarded money to a priest in Paris, who sent parcels of altar breads and wine to German P.O.W. camps. But these arrived only rarely. As official chaplain, Michael Charlton held the wine supply. He often reminded us that we needed only a very small amount. Tom Lynch and I obeyed instructions, but Edward Hinsley had no time for this, much to Michael’s annoyance. On Christmas Eve 1943 I was resting on my lower bunk with my eyes closed. Michael was resting above me. A Major, a friend of Michael’s, sidled into the cubicle. Michael climbed down from his bunk, thought I was asleep, and slipped a couple of bottles of altar wine to his friend for his room’s celebration. I have never mentioned this, then or since, to Michael, Edward or Tom. All three died many years ago, and perhaps share the joke in heaven, especially Edward Hinsley. Michael was really unique. He had no time for ex-public – school boys, of whom there were many in our little band, and not overmuch time for St Paul. In his sermons he lambasted the former, and conceded a modicum of deference to the latter. The public school officers took their punishment like lambs. I have not yet discovered what St Paul thought about it. But there is no
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doubt that Michael was an outstanding P.O.W. chaplain. Here is an extract from a letter I received about him from Doctor Michael Egan in Australia. (Incidentally, his wife, Mary, is the late Father Gerard White’s sister).
My first encounter with Mike was in late June, 1940, somewhere between St Valery and the Rhine. About 40,000 P.O.W.s (British and French) had been driven into a field after a 20-mile hike. I was attracted by laughter from a group, and as I approached I saw a bloke sitting on the ground in his bare feet attending to his blisters, talking his head off and keeping everyone amused. A fellow prisoner nudged me and said, ‘Know who that bloke is? He’s a monk’. I was amazed. Anyone less like a monk I never saw. Eventually I shared accommodation with him in an underground fort in Thorn, Poland, in 1942. He was a wonderful companion and always kept our spirits up when things looked grim…. One thing that impressed me was his attachment to the other ranks. He never missed the opportunity to visit the men’s huts to tell jokes and swap yarns. Goodness knows how much he contributed to raising their flagging spirits. He was quite a guy. I often think of him.
Early in 1944, Michael Edward and Tom left Rotenburg to work in stalags, and I remained as official Catholic chaplain. I felt very lonely for a time. However, I had many good friends, and my little flock were great consolation and encouragement. They included some wonderful Catholics. Jack Hamson, a Cambridge don and very devout, was camp education officer, known affectionately by everyone as ‘Prof’. He was a man of the highest intelligence, and one of the most humble persons I have met. After the war he became Professor of Comparative Law at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a close friend of Mgr Raymond Corboy. Indeed he gave an address of appreciation at the Requiem Mass for Raymond at Cambridge, a fact of which he was immensely proud. He died at Cambridge in 1987. Quiet little Major Rogerson of Gainford, who practised as a solicitor in Darlington, was another excellent Catholic. He died some years after the war. Ben Heagney, a journalist from Sydney, Australia, was ardent in the practice of his faith. We kept up our friendship after the war. He and his wife Connie stayed with me in Boldon presbytery, and we corresponded regularly until his death a few years ago. There were several other exemplary Catholics.
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However, there was now the problem of confession – for me, that is. Our former headmaster Daddy Borman had retired, and I asked for an interview with the new Commandant. He received me very politely, and agreed to allow me to go to the parish church once in six weeks. The Catholic Feldwebel Schmitt escorted me, and I took with me a bar of milk chocolate and a tin of cocoa. In contrast with my experience in Italy, the parish priest was civil but reserved. He politely refused to accept the chocolate and cocoa. On this and future visits I never gained entrance to the presbytery. He was probably on his guard because of the Feldwebel. The friendly Schmitt then told me, shamefacedly, that it was ‘verboten’ for me to enter the confessional, and that he was under orders to kneel beside me as I made my confession. ‘Do you understand Latin, Sergeant?’ ‘Not a word’, he replied. So I knelt in the back row between Sergeant Schmitt and the P.P. [Parish Priest], and made my confession in Latin. The P.P. [Parish Priest] left us, and I stayed to say my penance. As we were leaving the church the housekeeper appeared, smiling and friendly. I told her about the chocolate and cocoa. She said, ‘I’ll see that Father gets them’, and the goodies disappeared under her apron. On future visits she always found something to do in the church as we were leaving. Another contrast with Italy – no German bishop, no German priest entered the camp. No Lutheran pastor appeared. No doubt they were not allowed to come. A visit from the local bishop would have cheered us up tremendously, but at least we were quite free to practise our religion. I am sure that Christians of all denominations found great support in prayer and religious observance to combat the monotony and basic insecurity of life.
The only occasion when it was not possible to offer daily Mass was when the Gestapo visited the camp. This only occurred three times, and always without warning. Seven or eight of them arrived early in the morning, all wearing dark raincoat and trilby hat. They began in the basement, and combed the whole building carefully for escape material and contraband, but were polite and reasonable. We had to remain in our quarters until they had inspected our own floor. As our cubicles were at the top we were last to be searched. Two Smiths, Keith and Alan (no relationship) shared a cubicle. Keith, a Jew, was sturdily built, and seemed to put on weight,
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a rare achievement for a P.O.W. He was a commando, and no doubt trained in the art of survival. Like most of us, he built up a large stock of cigarettes. He then set about bribing the guards with gusto. If you called at Smith Villa, as we called their cubicle, after a meagre dinner, it was no surprise to find Keith and Alan tucking into cold chicken and a bottle of wine. Keith was a most likeable and generous man. He gave Michael Charlton a cheque for £50 (modern equivalent £1,500?) to send to the Little Sisters of the Poor. When the Gestapo reached the floor below ours, Keith announced, in the most matter-of-fact tone of voice, ‘Gentlemen, if you have anything you wish to conceal, it will cost you ten cigarettes. To avoid the personal search will cost twenty cigarettes’. Any officer with compass, map, German currency, etc., gave the article to Keith with ten cigarettes. He then did business with a guard posted on the stairs, and the guard took the article to the floor below and gave it to someone already searched. Anyone wishing to escape the personal search produced twenty cigarettes, and a guard allowed him to slip downstairs to a floor already inspected. Keith was indeed ‘sui generis’. We called him ‘Autos’ – ‘The man himself’- and he enjoyed the title. It must have given him, a Jew, particular satisfaction to diddle the Gestapo under their very noses. When they completed the inspection the Gestapo processed solemnly down the central stairway to the German quarters. We lined the stairway and hissed them the whole way down. Their only reaction was a wry smile. This pleased the guards as much as it did us. In fact, the guards were more afraid of the Gestapo than we were. The German officers made no attempt to stop this demonstration. I suspect they thoroughly approved of it.
A Note on Fr [Father] Michael Charlton
Readers who remember Michael Charlton at Ushaw may be interested in some details of his subsequent career. After release from prison camp in 1945 he returned to England in a sorry condition, with nerves shattered. By agreement with the ‘Redemptorists’ he recuperated for some months with the Dorkin family of Roker. Incidentally, Mr Charles Dorkin now
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aged ninety, was a lay student at Ushaw for six years; he came in 1909, aged nine – the youngest boy in the college. When Fr Charlton was leaving for France in 1940, the Dorkins gave him a crucifix containing relics of the saints. Early in 1945 Michael endured a forced march from a camp in East Germany. Afraid of losing the crucifix he hid it in his boot, and marched many painful miles on that crucifix which the Dorkins still treasure in their Roker home. Michael was later posted to the ‘Redemptorist’ vice-province in South Africa; after some years he transferred to the Benedictine Order. He developed cancer, cheerfully endured several months of pain with great patience, and died, a Benedictine, in South Africa.
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[Black and white photograph of Father Forsters’s German P.O.W Identity Card]
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PRISONER IN HITLER’S REICH – PART 2
P.O.W. life for officers was monotonous and boring. It was easy to mope around aimlessly, but the majority tried to use the unlimited leisure hours usefully. Many discovered hidden talents, or developed interests already held. With the help of the Red Cross there was a reasonably good library, and we learned to concentrate on a book in the constant clatter of camp life. Tuition was available in many subjects, from languages, history, the law, accountancy, mathematics to bridge. (We had a former captain of the English bridge team.) You could study German with a German officer. Prof. Hamson gave a series of fascinating talks on post-war Europe. When I met him in Morpeth a few years ago, he told me that the only time when he found an intellectual climate equally stimulating to that of Rotenburg camp was during his first two years at Cambridge. Indeed Oflag IX A/Z was rather like a small university with the students permanently gated. You could take the examinations of London and some other universities, the Law Society, the Royal College of Arts, the College of Preceptors, and other bodies. Special books were available free of charge through the Red Cross. Universities waived fees, but there was nothing phoney about the examinations. The papers arrived from London via Geneva. German security agents perused them, re-sealed them, and gave them to Professor Hamson, who invigilated very strictly. As there were only 46 Catholics in the camp I had abundant time on my hands, and decided to prepare for a London University examination in French. I received all the books I needed from Geneva, and there were several French-speaking prisoners with whom I could practise. Jack Hamson persuaded the University to appoint Capt. George Sofio to examine me in oral French. George, a financial secretary at the Vatican before the war, was multilingual, but French was his main language. After testing me closely for nearly an hour, George said, “Father, what mark do you think you deserve?” I thought
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I had done reasonably well, so I said “65% George”. He answered, “Well, I disagree, I am giving you 75% “. I didn’t argue. The main difficulty I met in preparing for the exam, was mental fatigue. After several weeks of study, quite suddenly I became incapable of taking anything in. This was probably due to our drab mode of life and almost complete lack of fresh food. When this happened I downed tools for a fortnight, read a couple of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers thrillers, and found myself restored. A regular officer at Rotenburg was depressed at losing experience and chances of promotion. Jack Hamson advised him to try the legal profession. With the help of Jack’s tuition he passed his law examinations. After the war he became a barrister and is now an eminent Q.C. [Queen’s Counsel]. When he gained a great legal success he used to write a letter of appreciation to Jack, who told me, a year or two before he died, how much this delighted him. To brush up on their knowledge some officers took two or three Royal College of Arts examinations. Others obtained material for embroidery or carpet-weaving, and were able to send the finished articles home. Some turned to painting. Dr. John Mulligan, of the Bute Medical School, St. Andrews, Scotland, who had never painted before, became an accomplished water colourist, and indulged his hobby with gusto until he died at the age of 90. Bridge exercised a potent spell over many, and stakes were sometimes high. Debts could be paid by cheque. For ‘Kriegies’ (i.e. P.O.W.s), banks accepted a cheque written on a piece of paper. A number of officers lost a great deal of money and the War Office issued a warning of this danger to S.B.O.s [Senior British Officers]. There were three firms of bookies in the camp, and you could place a bet on anything from the result of a game of basketball to the next day’s weather. A favourite bet was on the date of our release, or of the end of the war, with enormous odds in your favour. Did anyone plump for unlucky Friday, April 13th, 1945, the date of our release?
There was also much musical activity. There were three hired pianos, and many orchestral instruments. An enthusiastic camp orchestra gave regular concerts. Practitioners of trombone, horn, clarinet et al., and of various stringed instruments, used a large room in the roof for practice. The blast of doubtful trombone notes would assail you from
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one end of the room, the twang of violin strings from the other end, while somewhere in between, near a dormer window, stood an artist beside his easel, impervious to the din, as he tried to capture the likeness of a brother officer who sat patiently reading a book. One of my pleasanter memories of Rotenburg is of two or three evenings during air-raid warnings, when all lights went out, guards poured into our quarters, and I played the dining-room piano to an audience of prisoners and guards. Marcus Edwards, an Australian officer from Sydney, was an ardent violinist, and we sometimes played together in concerts. Once, when a piano wire snapped before a concert, Marcus showed his versatility by conjuring up a piece of wire, fixing it in the piano, and tuning it up to pitch. His wife, Myriam Hyde, O.B.E. [Order of The British Empire], is a professional composer, pianist and teacher. We still correspond, and Myriam and Marcus stayed a few days with me in Boldon presbytery.
There were theatrical productions to a good standard in which Jack Hamson and George Sofio, often appeared. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a great success. For Christmas 1944 Michael Langham produced “Youth at the Helm”, a comedy by Paul Valpius and Hubert Griffith, with Jack Hamson as Chairman of the London and Metropolitan Bank. There was another comedy, I have forgotten the title, which included a miming scene. The highlight of the show came from my neighbour in the audience, a Sunderland engineer who was very hard of hearing. When the players started to mime he became very agitated, turned to me and shouted “What are they saying?”He thought he had gone completely deaf. The play had to stop until the gales of laughter subsided.
There were some skilled wood-workers in the camp. For instance, Padre Simmons, who was with me in Macerata Camp in 1943, made an efficient 12 hour pendulum clock using wood from parcel crates and odd bits of wire. A German officer offered him a large sum of money for it which he refused. Alas, the clock was left behind in the camp and probably destroyed or perhaps stolen along with my portable altar when foreign workers ransacked the camp. We played football, cricket, baseball etc. in the courtyard but the small area cramped our style. A more refreshing recreation was a walk in the country under escort. To leave the camp you had to hand in a signed
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[Black and white photocopy of Father Forster’s signed Parole Card for an escorted walk.]
During the time I leave this card with the representatives of the Detaining Power I give my parole:
- I will not escape or prepare an escape either for myself or for any other Prisoner of War.
- I will not seek or have intercourse with, offer presents to, or accept them from Ps. o. W. of other nationalities or Civilians.
- I will not take objects out of the Camp to leave outside and will submit for inspection anything I bring into the Camp from outside. I am aware that I am only allowed to speak to German Civilians (Farmers, Foresters etc.) when permitted by, and in the presence of my Escort, and in the German language only, or through an official Interpreter.
- I will not consciously do anything detrimental to the interests of the German Reich.
- I am the person whose signature appears on the above card.
Subject to the provisions of the Commandant’s Commentary issued on 8/9/44
Name [Signature of George W Forster]
Rank Chaplain (Captain) No 1677
“Signed parole card to be handed in before an escorted walk”
parole card. Sometimes we used to guess which of the passing civilians were Nazi. We would greet them in German “Guten tag” or “Gruss gott”. Usually we got a reply in kind with a smile, but now and then we received a curt “Heil Hitler” without a ghost of a smile.
Eventually there were day excursions into the forest to cut wood for the camp central-heating. They allowed 24 prisoners at a time out of the camp, and we carried a picnic lunch. An officer put a plea to the Commandant: there were birdwatchers amongst the prisoners, and the woods would offer marvellous opportunities. He allowed six bird-watchers to accompany the wood-cutters. Then a bright spark informed the Commandant that some prisoners were philosophers, and found it very difficult to have deep thought in the noise of the camp. The wonderful German forests would be the ideal milieu. He agreed six thinkers could join us. If you approached one of them as he lay on a grassy bank doing sweet nothing, and suggested he might do a little wood-cutting, you got the Olympian reply, “Please leave me alone. I’m deep in thought”. Occasionally some went under guard for a swim in the River
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Fulda. As I am not a good swimmer I never joined them.
A number of officers took to bird-watching of another kind. On Sunday afternoons the Rotenburg belles paraded past the camp in their best. The bird-watchers smartened themselves up, and settled down by the wire near the road. Soon they were exchanging Christian names, and quite a camaraderie ensued. If a regular watcher was missing a girl would ask, “Woist Bill? Ist-er krank?” “Where is Bill is he ill?” “Nein, friedel, er ist nur mude” “No, Freda, he is just tired”. Surprisingly, the Germans made no attempt to interfere.
For some, the main absorbing pastime was to join in escaping activities. The many enthralling accounts written of escapes give the impression that P.O.W. camps were full of prisoners yearning and plotting to escape. This may have been true of Colditz, but not of other camps. The majority of P.O.W.s had no desire to get out. Very few were fluent German speakers, risks were high and the difficulties were almost insuperable. All of us, of course, yearned to get home, but most were resigned to sit it out to the end. A large number were willing to help in organising an escape for others, but there were also many who complained about what they considered useless attempts to get out. Nevertheless there was always a gallant band determined to try their hand no matter what the risks. As in all officers’ camps the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] established an escape committee, which had to approve any plan to escape. Security was essential, and was very tight. Shortly before we arrived from Italy, the Germans unearthed a tunnel when it was near completion. A suspect P.O.W. had been in the camp for a few days, and there was a strong probability that he had informed the Germans. It was always possible the camp harboured a German stool-pigeon.
In 1944 escape workers dug a remarkable tunnel. It started on the second floor in a W.C. situated near the rear of the building. They broke into the W.C. wall, and inserted a wooden panel to hide the opening. They then tunnelled down a solid, thick wall. Helpers carried away lumps of stone and piles of rubble, concealed under battle-dress blouse, and stored them under the roof. In working their way down they fractured a water-pipe. A large damp patch appeared on the outside, which the Germans must have seen. But who would have
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[Black and white photograph showing a group of prisoners in the Rotenburg Camp courtyard]
A group of prisoners in the courtyard of the Rotenburg Camp. The seated figure is the Senior British Officer. Colonel Kennedy. The damp patch visible on the rear of the building was caused by the diggers of the tunnel when a pipe burst.
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suspected a tunnel so high above the ground? They tapped electricity mains to provide light. Klim tins (powdered milk) from Canadian parcels made an excellent ventilation shaft. Once below ground level they moved out, under the hospital hut, towards the wire fence. They then had to shore up the tunnel with wood, and fix wooden slats across the roof to take the weight of the soil. In this we all helped, because our bed-boards supplied the wood. We started with nine or ten bed boards; eventually we had six, some of us only five. It was not unknown for the occupant of a top bunk to slither through a gap when asleep and land on the unfortunate man beneath. The tunnel crept out beyond the hospital hut, and was within a few feet of the wire fence when the Gestapo arrived and searched the camp. They discovered an enormous amount of debris in the roof space. “Verdammt! Sie haben einen grossen Tunnel gemacht!” Reckoning the tunnel would start below ground level, and calculating the amount of debris, the Germans estimated it must already be beyond the wire. Days of searching and probing revealed nothing. They brought in a squad of pioneers, who demolished the wash-house near the wire, and part of the court-yard entrance. Still no trace of a tunnel. The Germans became desperate, and we were on 48 hours’ notice to evacuate the camp. Then, by sheer bad luck, they discovered the entrance. A guard often went round the building with a long pole, tapping and probing hoping to find a hollow space where our wireless was hidden. Two prisoners usually accompanied him, also armed with poles, taunting him and pretending to help. On this occasion, by a lapse of security, the crucial W.C. was not ‘besetzt’ (i.e. occupied). The guard went in, tapped the outer wall and all was over. Camp morale nose-dived. The Germans were exultant. Workmen arrived to remove the debris and repair the damage, though they did not re-build the pretty wash-house. The Germans presented us with a bill for 10,000 marks to cover the cost. It worked out at two or three pounds each. We still await repayment from our government.
Later in 1944 there was an escape from the camp. An imprudent guard left a bunch of camp keys on a window sill while he paid a short visit to the toilet. An alert prisoner pressed the keys into clay. The camp locksmiths made skeleton
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keys. The escape committee organised the making of sham guards’ uniforms, dummy rifles and civilian clothing. The P.O.W. orderlies usually went for a picnic in the woods on a Saturday afternoon, accompanied by two guards. They took a hand-cart on which they stored overcoats and picnic tea. For that Saturday, the orderlies cancelled the picnic party. At 1pm a bogus party of six officers and three ‘guards’ walked out of the building to the gates. They had iron rations and civilian clothes in the hand-cart, concealed under khaki overcoats. There were two imponderables. Would the keys work? Would the usual picnic guards notice the bogus party? The keys worked. The guards were probably asleep. Two ‘guards’ and six officers walked out of the camp. The third ‘guard’ re-locked the gates and returned to the building. The escapers waved to the Germans in the high sentry-boxes, got a cheery wave back, and marched off into the woods. At last they had beaten the efficient Captain Heil.
At the 5pm roll-call the ‘Lager Offizier’ (Camp Officer) Lieut. Weigand and his Feldwebel (Sergeant) began to count us. By jumping ranks, fooling-on and cat-calling we made the count impossible. Eventually, after three attempts to count us, Wiegand informed the Commandant that there was a riot, and a squad of soldiers surrounded us and trained tommy-guns on us. Still the fooling-on continued. In desperation, the Germans shepherded us one by one into the gymnasium, and found eight missing. By then it was after 7pm. The Commandant apologised to the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] for the show of force, and congratulated us on gaining two hours for the escapees. A very sporting gesture.
Within a few days all eight were recaptured, and came into the hands of the Gestapo, who bullied them and knocked them about, but did not seriously harm them. Some had bruises and black eyes. A regular officer friend of mine, Captain David Maude, had his glasses broken into smithereens. Several officers decided to complain about Captain Heil, when and if we got home. Apparently when the Gestapo notified him of their recapture, he did not send guards to escort them back for two or three days. As camp security officer Captain Heil was inevitably unpopular. He had lost a leg in the First World War, and had a pronounced limp, yet he was a smart, erect and
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rather austere figure. I thought he was very correct and reasonable, though many would disagree with me. He spoke English well, and was always polite and courteous. He received a good deal of abuse, and must have heard much of it. One day British plane swooped down on a goods train travelling from Rotenburg to Fulda. Cannon fire poured into the engine, which came to an abrupt halt belching clouds of smoke. We had a grandstand view from the front windows, and stood there cheering. Captain Heil climbed to the nearest elevated sentry box and ordered us away from the windows. No-one moved. An officer shouted “Heil, you know what you can do with your wooden leg.” Heil seized the guards rifle and everyone ducked as he put a bullet through the window. This was wrong, but what would we have done in his place? I heard that after the war an Allied military court sentenced him to a term of imprisonment. I hope it isn’t true. He didn’t deserve it. Perhaps he returned to his Catholic faith. He certainly never lost his respect for a priest.
In June 1944 there was another exodus from the camp – part of an exchange of prisoners between Germany and the Allies on medical grounds. The night before they left Padre Bernard Pawley joined the party to make up the agreed number. He suffered much pain through an accident in a jeep in Eritrea. As they left the camp for the Rotenburg railway station, packed together in a large truck, we gave them a lusty cheer. Our feelings were mixed – delight for them, but a great nostalgia and longing for our own homes. Bernard’s widow described to me how they were exchanged man for man, on a double gangway in Barcelona. The party included the Sunderland engineer defective in hearing: he visited my mother to reassure her that I was in good health.
In that same month of June 1944, the Allied landing in Normandy gave us new hope that the war would soon be finished. But our fears about our survival also increased. What would the Nazis do when the destruction and defeat of Germany was imminent? Would the extreme elements of the S.S. [Schutzstaffel] wreak revenge on us? Fortunately we did not know how worried were our own authorities at home about our fate, nor did we know that they were in touch by code with the S.B.O.s [Senior British Officers] of prison camps, no doubt including our own, and warning
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[Black and white illustration of the 1944 Rotenburg Christmas Card]
[Black and white drawing of Father George Forster drawn by a fellow prisoner in Germany]
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them to do nothing that could give the Nazis a pretext for reprisals. As the Allies swept through France, the routine of camp life proceeded normally. Our food parcels continued to arrive, though with some hitches. Sometimes we were reduced to an issue of half a parcel per week. Indeed anxiety about our food supply was our main immediate worry. The daily news bulletins grew more and more exciting. Large numbers of Flying Fortresses frequently passed over the camp on their way to unfortunate German cities. Were we going to be home for Christmas?
Then came the Arnhem disaster, and later the Battle of the Bulge. There would be no release for us in 1944. Prisoners from Arnhem arrived and brought eagerly awaited news about life in Britain. I heard that Father Benny Benson, an Ushaw friend, was badly wounded at Arnhem; also that Father Bernard Egan, S.J. [Society of Jesus / Jesuits] was wounded and in Obermassfeld hospital, some fifty miles away. There was no Catholic Chaplain at Obermassfeld and the Commandant allowed me to spend two or three days at the hospital. I found Father Egan peppered with shrapnel, but in no danger. During my short stay, news came through that Benny Benson had died. A wounded prisoner from Arnhem told me that when Benny realised he had lost an arm, he seemed to have no desire to recover.
The 1944-45 winter was very cold, and seemed very long. Our supply of food parcels dwindled and finally gave out. We now had to endure life on German P.O.W. rations, and even they were reduced. It was a harsh experience. If you caught a cold, you took a long time to recover. I noticed a strange tingling in my finger-tips when I awakened. After a few mornings of this, I consulted Dr. Vaughan, our camp M.O. [Medical Officer]. He said it was a lack of vitamins and gave me some vitamin tablets, which reduced the tingling. Some officers collected snails while on escort walks. The kitchen staff cooked them, and produced a pink sauce of dubious origin. Most of us could not face them, hungry as we were. Some chewed nasturtium and dandelion leaves in an effort to get some vitamins. The P.O.W. doctors were afraid of an epidemic striking us in our weakened condition. Each had his own knife, fork and spoon, but there was no washing-up of cutlery, which became encrusted with the
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detritus of former meals. On the doctor’s advice, the orderlies placed pails of hot water at the dining room exit, into which we were urged to dip our cutlery as we left. If you were well back in the queue, the water was like thick soup. We dipped for several days but we noticed that the doctors never dipped, so we all stopped and the pails of hot water disappeared.
The kitchen staff were determined to give us a good Christmas dinner. They kept in reserve tins of steak and kidney pudding, saved from food parcels, and began to build up an enormous Christmas pudding. Anything and everything went into the pudding except the snails (so we were reassured, but I sometimes wonder). We still had good supplies of cigarettes, and bartering with the guards produced the odd bottle of wine or schnapps, biscuits, flour, currants, jam, margarine, civilian quality bread. Into the pudding they all went. Were we really going to get one good square meal? Could it be true?
On Christmas Eve we sang carols and thought of home. The Commandant allowed Midnight Mass, but only by candlelight. It was lights-out and to bed as usual by 10pm. At 11.30pm the Catholics got up in total darkness, groped our way to a wash basin for a quick sprinkle of cold water, and edged our way downstairs, upstairs, along murky passages to the mass-room. Two candles lighted the altar table and four candles at strategic points cast a glimmer over the large room. We sang Silent Night, ‘Adeste Fideles’, and plain-chant ‘Missa de Angelis’. As we celebrated the Birthday Mass of Christ, welcomed Him onto our little altar and received Him in our Christmas Holy Communion our thoughts strayed again to home. Would next Christmas find us together with our loved ones? Would we get home? We were aware too, that all around us, beyond the barbed wire, the Germans were singing ‘Stille Nacht’ and the Catholics joining in Christ’s Birthday Mass with us. One body in Christ, a bond of love between us. Peace to all men of goodwill. Our Midnight Mass by dim candle-light, so redolent of that stable in Bethlehem, in the heart of hostile Germany, gave balm to our souls. Peace within us, peace with our German captors. Alas, twenty-four hours later we would exult at the sound of Allied planes dealing destruction and death to German cities, but at least for Christmas Day we were at peace with ourselves and our guards. There were some hard nuts in
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the camp, for whom the only good German was a dead German. But even they, I think, toned down their rancour for Christmas Day. After our second Christmas Mass, and Anglican and Free Church Services, it was time for the Christmas pudding. First, a tin of steak and kidney pudding between two. Our half-starved stomachs almost purred with satisfaction. Then each of us received a mound of almost jet black pudding, exuding a strong smell of schnapps. Our stomachs now groaned in protest, but we battled on to the last morsel. By common consent, indeed out of dire necessity, we then retired to our two-tier wooden bunks for two or three hours. Between Christmas and New Year, the choir of a Lutheran Church in Rotenburg invited us to a recital of Christmas music, and some hundreds of us accepted. It was a beautiful but disturbing experience. As we listened to the glorious music in honour of the birth of Christ, there was in me, and, I am sure in many others, a feeling of compassion mingled with guilt. They sang Bach to us, while we continued to destroy their cities, to kill and maim their men, women and children.
The bitterly cold weather continued during January, February and March, as the Allies drove the German forces further back, and crossed the frontiers of the Reich. When a glass of water was left overnight on a table in our room, there was a thick layer of ice by the morning, in spite of the heat generated by eight bodies in a room about 12 by 14 feet. The food situation was now critical, and hungry prisoners sometimes queued at the kitchens to collect potato peelings. We just hoped the end would come soon, and tried to conserve energy. Faced with defeat, what would Hitler and his gang do about his prisoners? Wreak revenge on us? Take us away as hostages? Forget about us? If we had to face a long march in our weakened state, would we survive? Meanwhile camp routine continued – roll-calls, surveillance, the correct and quite civil relations between guards and prisoners, the issue of ever diminishing rations. Growing numbers of Flying Fortresses passed over the camp, and there were distant sounds of gunfire and bombs. There was no sign of demoralisation in our captors, except that an Austrian officer, who had recently arrived, used to greet us, when no Germans were present with two salutes. First he gave the normal ‘Heil Hitler’, then
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followed it with a sarcastic ‘Heil Blutig Hitler’.
In February, after an unwise skating session on our improvised ice-rink, I developed a touch of bronchitis. In normal life a day or two indoors would have cured me. With no nourishing food, and no tonics, I had to spend five weeks in the camp hospital while my strength slowly returned. Shortly after I left hospital, in March, the situation reached the point of crisis. It became obvious that American forces would reach Rotenburg in a few days. We still hoped to remain until liberated, but the Germans were not going to allow the Americans to scoop up 450 P.O.W. officers without an effort to hold on to us. On Holy Thursday, March 29th, when the Americans were likely to arrive in two days, the whole camp, prisoners, guards and German officers, marched off in a North-Easterly direction. We endured a fifteen day march. We met no S.S. [Schutzstaffel] unit. We encountered no hostility, but a good deal of kindness and friendliness. The American First Army rescued us on Friday, April 13th, 1945, near Eisleben, in Saxony, and we landed in Buckinghamshire on Wednesday April 18th, in Lancaster bombers.
What of the aftermath? For two or three weeks, life was sheer bliss, but one soon took for granted the comforts and delights of being free and at home, and the years behind barbed wire faded into the past. However, any considerable period in a P.O.W. camp could not help but leave its mark. Some of those who spent five years or more in captivity, and suffered the much harsher conditions of the early years, took a long time to recover, physically and mentally. There was also the luck of the draw. Some camps had a less rigorous regime than others. Moreover prisoners differed in their reactions to P.O.W. life, and in attitudes to Germans and Italians. One can only describe one’s own experiences. Apart from a few weeks at Bari soon after capture, I was never in a camp where conditions were harsh. I never grew to dislike the Italians or Germans as such. Most prisoners in camps in East Germany and beyond had to endure a dreadful final forced march, and some died on the way; by comparison, our fifteen day march was like a walking tour under escort.
A bonus in P.O.W. life, for me at any rate, was that I felt on equal terms with my comrades, not only with fellow
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Catholics, but with men of other denominations or of no religion, and got to know and understand people in a closer way than before. To be free of the taboo of the clerical collar was a benefit. Many of my P.O.W. friends were so generous and kind to others, that I often felt humbled. I hope some of this experience has stayed with me. Along with many others I did learn, I think, to appreciate more things that are for free. In spite of the occasional nightmare about the darker side of prison life, my musings on P.O.W. days are usually recalls of enjoyable moments; the song of nightingales at Chieti; growing water-melons and maize in our little Macerata garden; saying public Mass at Chieti for Italian officers, guards and prisoners; the singing of German soldiers as they marched past the camp in the early hours; the heavenly blue of a large colony of wild lupins encountered on a walk near Rotenburg.
As for physical effects, when I got home I was thinner but quite well, though for nearly two years I suffered from claustrophobia. Once was enough, of course; it was wonderful to be home. But for the prisoner-priests, for me at least, there were good things in prison-camps, a new openness to others, a marvellous comradeship, a kind of freedom which largely vanished along with the barbed wire.
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“THE FIFTEEN DAY MARCH”
This article was written and published some years before the others. Readers will find that some details already mentioned are repeated.
In March 1945 Oflag IX A/Z, at Rotenburg near Fulda, buzzed with excitement. The Allied armies were pushing through Germany. How quickly would they get to us? Would we stay in the camp until they arrived? Some P.O.W. officers had drawn a large map inside the entrance hall with Rotenburg at the centre. The advance of the American and Russian armies was marked up day by day, according to the German news bulletins. We had to be careful not to include details given only on British news and received on our hidden wireless, but the German bulletins were honest and accurate. News of our map filtered into the town, and German officers who had no connection with the camp came to inspect it, and argued amicably with us about the details. Fortunately, the American army units were nearer to us than the Russian. By Palm Sunday, 25th March, the excitement was intense. As I celebrated Mass for the Catholic officers it was not easy to keep our minds on Holy Week and the Passion of Our Lord. Fasting, however, was no problem. There was very little to eat: some bitter German ‘army bread’ and margarine, some potatoes, ersatz acorn coffee and not much else. Several officers queued at the kitchen for potato skins. No Red Cross food parcels had arrived for four or five months because Allied bombing had severely damaged the railways.
I had left the camp hospital a few days previously after a stay of five weeks. There was very little wrong with me, just a touch of bronchitis, probably caused through skating with an empty stomach, on our home-made ice-rink. Captain Vaughan, our charming camp doctor, told me that in normal life two or three days indoors would have cured me. But with very little food and no tonics, the only cure was to stay in bed until I recovered. The highlight of my stay in hospital was my first hot bath since leaving Cairo in May 1942. By Holy Week I felt surprisingly fit.
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Each day brought the American forces nearer. By Wednesday evening we reckoned that if the advance continued they would reach us in a couple of days. One of the mental tortures of being a prisoner-of-war was that one didn’t know how long the war would last. Another year, two years, five years, or even longer? Well, that worry was over. Clearly the war in Europe was almost finished. Another anxiety, what would happen to us at the end? Would we get safely home? If we marched out of the camp and met an S.S. [Schutzstaffel] unit, would we be molested? We did not talk much about it, but it was at the back of our minds. On one occasion, while walking back to camp from one of my visits to the parish church for confession (I was allowed to go once in six weeks, as I was the only Catholic priest in the camp) I asked my friendly German escort, Sergeant Schmitt, did he think we would be safe at the end of the war. He replied, “I hope you will be”. He did not try to reassure me. In fact, I found the expression on his face disturbing. Obviously he had doubts. But if we stayed in camp until the Americans arrived, all should be well.
On Holy Thursday, 29th March, I said Mass in our little chapel room at 7.30a.m. and gave Holy Communion to the forty-five Catholic officers. As we left the chapel we heard the bad news. The whole camp, about five hundred officers was to leave at noon, along with our German officers and guard’s. The time of departure was later postponed until 2 pm. We were assured by the Germans that any possessions we could not carry would be placed in a special ‘strong-room’ and that we would recover them later. A Catholic priest from the Quebec area of Canada, Father Desnoyer, had arrived in the camp a few days previously after a long march from the east. His portable altar set was not as heavy as mine. So mine was consigned to the ‘strong-room’. It was a magnificent altar set with silk vestments, sent to me by Pope Pius XII through the good offices of Archbishop Borgongini Duca, Papal Nuncio to Italy, when I was in P.O.W. Camp 21 at Chieti in 1942. I never saw it again.
We left Oflag IX A/Z promptly at 2 pm. It had been my home for eighteen months; for many others, for a much longer period. Life in Rotenburg camp could have been much worse. The building was solid and good. It had been used as a High
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School for girls before the war, and had been used as a setting for a film called ‘Madchen in Uniform’. It was certainly better than most P.O.W. camp buildings, and situated in pleasant country on the outskirts of Rotenburg. Our life had been very monotonous and restricted, and of course the camp was very over-crowded, a condition endemic to German and Italian P.O.W. camps. But there had been compensations. Until the final few months we had received a regular supply of Red Cross food parcels, one parcel weekly for each of us, containing about eleven pounds of food, mostly in tins. The parcels came to us by rail via Geneva. A telegram informed us of the date of despatch and number of parcels. An officer was allowed to go to Rotenburg railway station to check the consignment. We could then send a telegram to the Red Cross, Geneva, to confirm safe delivery. I never heard of food parcels missing. Along with the meagre German rations this provided us with a tolerable diet. We were all free to practise our religion. The only occasion when I was unable to offer daily Mass for the Catholic officers was when the Gestapo arrived without warning early in the morning, and spent the whole day searching the camp. This happened only two or three times during the year. Chaplains were supposed to submit a written copy of the sermon beforehand. The security officer, Captain Heil, once asked me why I did not do this. I told him that I preached without notes, but that he was most welcome to attend Sunday Mass. He was a non-practising Catholic and he never asked again. Many officers spent their time working out schemes of escaping, learning to speak German, helping to dig tunnels, making bogus German uniforms, forging identity cards and passes. But in Rotenburg camp there was a large number of older men, many of whom would not have been physically capable of trudging long distances in all weathers, usually during the night through a hostile Germany, and lying hidden during the day. A number played bridge every day, some lost a good deal of money. Others got materials from the Red Cross to make rugs and embroidery. We had a good camp library, and in a camp of five hundred officers one could get expert tuition in most subjects. Some officers sat London University, Law Society and other examinations in prison camp, with successful results. There was an open courtyard for recreation, a film show once a fortnight (nearly always American
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Westerns, but we once got Rita Hayworth in ‘You Were Never Lovelier’, and it was shown several times on popular demand), an occasional walk under escort into the countryside, concerts and plays, good companionship and, on the whole, fairly reasonable treatment from our German guards. But we were prisoners, yearning to be home, and nothing could really compensate for that. So as we marched out into the unknown, with some apprehension and foreboding, I don’t suppose any of us had regrets about leaving Oflag IX A/Z.
We must have been an odd sight as we left. We carried whatever we could, items of clothing, especially socks, a blanket, whatever meagre rations we could muster, toilet articles and as many cigarettes as we could manage. Cigarettes were a currency and we had large stocks of them. The officers in our room were fortunate. We used to get a four-ounce bar of milk chocolate in our weekly parcel. One of our number, Major Mervyn Bull, a New Zealander, had, unknown to us, saved up his weekly bar of chocolate for about a year. Before we left camp he insisted on sharing this hoard equally with his seven room mates. He told us he had saved these chocolate bars specifically for this final march, which he had always expected. Each of us received six bars. It was a noble act of charity, particularly in view of the scarcity of food over the last few months.
Most of us humped our belongings on our back in a holdall, if we had one, in a sack or anything we could find. Some rigged up makeshift wheelbarrows, one officer found an old pram. We marched off through the town, with our guards placed around us, directed by the German Commandant and his officers. The German medical officer walked beside a horse-and-cart, on which were stacked rations, medical supplies and a large number of white bed-sheets which we insisted on taking with us. By the Geneva Convention, officer prisoners had to be provided with bed-sheets. We were allowed to put our portable altar on the cart which was a relief. We moved off into the country, more or less regulating our own pace. We marched for fifty minutes, then rested for ten minutes. Fortunately, the weather was fine. On we went, fifty minutes march, ten minutes rest, with a longer rest about 5 pm. We were still walking at 11 pm., and wondering when and where we were going to stop. We reached a clearing in a wood
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and were amazed to find a German sergeant and soldiers waiting for us with urns of hot ersatz coffee, sausages and bread. This may seem incredible, in a Germany on the verge of collapse, but that was how it was. In fact, we were to find that the German rations doled out to us during our march were very much better than our camp fare over the past few months. We tucked into the sausage and bread with gusto, and even the acorn coffee tasted good. We then marched on, but only for half an hour. We reached the village of Rockersüsse about midnight and we were ushered into a large barn. No light was allowed. We groped about in the dark. Half of us had to climb a ladder to the upper floor of the barn, and we were warned that there were several large holes in the floor. We crawled about, feeling gingerly for the holes, lay down on straw and slept soundly. In the morning we found ourselves in a large farmyard. We washed at the farm pump. Some of us made our way to the farmhouse and were welcomed by the farmer, his wife and children. We bartered cigarettes for eggs, and were soon sitting down to a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and margarine and the ubiquitous acorn coffee. There was a piano, and we had an impromptu sing-song until summoned by the German guards. “Machen Sie sich fertig!” “Get ready!”
Off we went again. It was Good Friday, 30th March. The sky was grey, it was cold, it rained off and on. Guns rumbled in the distance. Planes swooped overhead. Sometimes we saw spectacular aerial combats as German fighters tried to stem the allied raiders. Bombs dropped with sickening regularity. It was like the end of the world. When Allied planes dived low overhead we made a huge P.O.W. sign by the side of the road or in an adjacent field with the bed sheets. This was as much to the liking of the German guards as it was to us, though on a few occasions when an Allied plane swooped very low over us the German Commandant was miffed, seized a guard’s rifle and took one or two pot-shots at the plane. We shouted our disapproval, but the guards kept discreet silence. We heard later that the large white P.O.W. signs were spotted by the pilots and our route was reported to the American ground forces. So on we trudged, slowly, across the face of a stricken Germany on that cold and wet Good Friday. Our backs ached with the weight of our belongings. I was walking with a Catholic officer from New Zealand. After a few minutes
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without talking, he turned to me and said, “Father, what a marvellous day to be carrying our burden”. I wonder if he realised what a wonderful sermon he preached to me.
As we left Rockersüsse the Germans counted us, found that six were missing, and informed the local ‘home-guard’. After sometime our security officer, Captain Heil became worried about the fate of the missing six. He returned to Rockersüsse with a few guards, picked them up and returned with them. They had hidden in the straw, and were soon unearthed by the home-guard with pitch-forks. The situation had become ugly and menacing when Captain Heil arrived. The missing six felt they owed their safety, perhaps even their lives to him. Captain Heil was unpopular with the prisoners, and several were ready to make complaints about him when released, but he was assured that all was forgiven.
We continued our slow march through Germany until we reached the village of Auhe, about nineteen kilometres from Rockersüsse,and again settled into a large barn for the night. We now made a parole agreement with the Germans. We arrived about 5pm and promised not to attempt to escape before 8pm. The Germans accepted this and gave us the freedom of the village until 8pm. This also freed the German guards from duty. We found the country folk very friendly, and with our cigarettes we were rich. The going rate was an egg for a cigarette, a small joint of pork for 10 or 15 cigarettes. Many villagers invited prisoners into their homes. I was one of a group who spent a couple of hours in a peasant’s cottage where we had supper, and when no guard was in the offing they managed to get the B.B.C. news for us on the wireless. From now onwards, with our parole arrangement, the evenings until 8pm. became welcome interludes, though once or twice the Germans refused to operate the agreement.
The next day, Holy Saturday, we marched twenty kilometres to Wanfried on the River Werra. This was our most pleasant port of call. Our barn was a charming farmstead. A small lake, dappled with ducks, glistened in the evening sunshine, peacocks strutted on the lawn, beds of spring flowers gladdened our eyes. There was a well-cared for, prosperous look about the place. If it had not been for the rumble of distant gunfire, the war might have been hundreds of miles away. After years behind barbed wire it was utterly delightful to see.
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It was here in a barn, next morning, that Father Desnoyer offered Easter Sunday Mass and gave us Holy Communion. We all had much to pray about, and the festival of the Resurrection brought us new hope.
The Germans gave us an easy march for Easter Day, a mere six kilometres. We passed through hilly country in a blustering wind. As we walked up an incline a crowd of prisoners, some 250 to 300, came down the hill towards us. They were Russians, with Mongolian features. There was no semblance of order among them. They were penned together like a flock of wild animals, surrounded by German guards wielding long sticks. When the crowd bulged out, the nearest guard lashed at the bulge with his stick until it disappeared. Their clothing was ragged, they looked utterly wretched and forlorn. As they passed by, one of our officers tossed a packet of cigarettes towards them. About a dozen of them jumped on the cigarettes and fought tooth and nail, impervious to repeated blows from the guards. It was a heart-rending sight for Easter Sunday, or any other day.
We were in a Lutheran district, but as often happens in Germany, we arrived at a Catholic enclave, the small town of Diedorf. Opposite our barn was a convent. After some persuasion Captain Heil allowed Father Desnoyer and myself to visit the convent so that I could offer my Easter Mass. The Sisters gave us a great welcome. “Did I need anything before Mass?” “Yes, Reverend Mother, may I please have a bowl of warm water to wash my feet?” While the nuns whispered at a discreet distance I solemnly bathed my feet, and how good it felt! Then, many years before Vatican II and official Evening Masses, I celebrated Easter Day Evening Mass, at which the whole community assisted. The nuns then gave us coffee and cake, and we returned to our barn. Perhaps because we were in a small town, the Germans were not willing to make a parole agreement.
Unfortunately, Father Desnoyer later developed a very painful swollen toe. Poor fellow, he had already endured a long march from the East. He had to be left behind with about thirty other sick officers at Lengefeld on 3rd April. The arrangement was that transport would be found to bring them along later. But they never caught us up. A number of prisoners from our sister camp, Oflag IX A/H at Spangenburg, met up with them
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in Lengefeld. The Americans arrived before they could be moved and all were released. We now had no portable altar for Mass, though it was rarely possible to say Mass during the march.
So our trek through Germany continued. We never covered a great distance on any one day, twenty kilometres was about our maximum. We were very fortunate compared with large numbers of allied prisoners who were made to march hundreds of miles from camps in East Germany and Poland in atrocious conditions. Some of them died on the march. As for that wretched band of Mongolian prisoners, one could hardly bear to think of them. On 6th April we rested for the day at Nohra, and on the 7th we reached the village of Uthleben. During the parole period I was welcomed into the house of the Lutheran pastor and given refreshment, after which we enjoyed a musical evening together.
Meanwhile, our health improved with better food (extra rations from the Germans and a good deal of bartering) and many hours of fresh air and exercise. We were always hoping to be overtaken by the Americans. Sometimes excitement rose to a peak when the tank alarm sounded. This was given by a series of short sharp blasts on the air-raid sirens. If this happened during a rest period the Germans hurried us off immediately. The march was not without moments of comedy. One chaplain got into a little trouble because, when on evening parole, he used to search for a cow and milk it. On 10th April we reached Dittichenrode and rested there on the 11th. We were now marching through Saxony with the Harz Mountains on our left. There was an uneasy undercurrent of fear that the Germans were trying to hold us as hostages. Why all this trouble to march us through Germany when it was obvious that the Americans would eventually reach us? Our fear became very real when we were suddenly recalled to our barn at Dittichenrode, during our parole period, and the Germans announced that a fleet of lorries was to take us off. We left at 9 pm. At least nearly all of us did. Keith and Alan Smith (no relationship) who had shared a cubicle on the top floor of the camp which we dubbed ‘Smith Villa’, and who were expert at manipulating the German guards, disappeared. Keith told me later that a Ukranian girl had hidden them in a cellar, and that before the last lorry left they were eating roast chicken with
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her. Shortly afterwards they were released by the Americans and spent some weeks touring Germany before returning to England. The lorries took nearly three hours to move us about thirty-eight kilometres. We passed within half a mile of Nordhausen, the site of one of the infamous concentration camps. Part of the town was burning and a cloud of smoke hung over it. Eventually we reached Wimmelberg, a small village outside the town of Eisleben, where Martin Luther was born and died.
We settled down for the night in a barn on a large farmstead which, in pre-Reformation days, had been the site of a monastery. The old monastic church still stood. We remained here during 12th April. A rumour spread that the Germans were trying to arrange to take us to Bavaria by train, but no driver could be found willing to risk the journey. In the evening, about 5.30 pm, I was trying to make some porridge in an old tin, on a small fire in the farmyard which I had started with a little brushwood. I was sharing rations with one of my flock, Captain Kennedy, an eye-specialist. He had produced a small tin of oatmeal saved from Red-Cross parcel days. He was standing over me, and had just said to me, “Do you call that stuff porridge?”, when shells screamed overhead from two directions, German shells from the east, American shells from the west. We were in the middle, not very healthy! The shelling continued and the porridge was abandoned. A few minutes later the German Commandant informed us: “It is too dangerous here. We move in half an hour”. Our senior British officer, Colonel Kennedy, refused to move. To our surprise the Commandant accepted this. “It is my duty to protect you. If you stay it is your responsibility. The local Home Guard are armed. You will be without any protection”. Shortly afterwards he lined up his company of guards, along with his officers, saluted us and marched off. We never saw them again, except for five or six, including the German M.O. [Medical Officer], who crept back again and asked if they could stay with us, to which we agreed. The farmer gave us more comfortable billets and a supply of eggs and milk. The night passed quietly. Early next morning we posted a look-out in the old church tower. The guns opened up again from both directions for about an hour, and then all was quiet except for distant gun-fire and the thud of bombs. Then came the message from the church tower,
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“American tanks about half a mile down the road”. The great moment was near. “American tanks 200 yards away”. We held our breath. “American tanks outside the farmyard”. It was Friday, 13th April. At 11.47 am. an American tank moved into the farmyard. An American officer’s head appeared out of the turret. “Hiya, glad to see you. You are free!” More Americans emerged, congratulated us, tossed us gum, candies, cigarettes. The ordeal was over. We laughed and cried with joy, and tried to realise that after years of incarceration we were free. We had been rescued by B Column, 3rd Armoured Division, of the 1st
U.S. Army. We spent the next few hours by the roadside outside the farmyard, watching the American armour as it streamed through the village. We cheered until we were hoarse. The German villagers gaped at the constant flow of armour with resignation and, I imagine, great relief. The Americans left two tanks to protect us.
Thoughts of actually returning home now filled our minds, something we had hardly dared to think about in prison camp, so remote did it seem. We used to wonder if years of P.O.W. life had changed us. Were we still quite normal? Sometimes, when a recently captured officer arrived in camp, we would ask him, “What do you think of us? Do you find us strange?” The usual kind of reply was, “Oh, you are all right, just a little odd!” After a few months, if we asked the same officer, “How do you find us now?” the answer would be “You seem quite normal to me”. The moment of truth was now approaching.
On the Saturday many of us walked into the nearby town of Eisleben, where an American officer was now installed as mayor. I found a Catholic Church and the parish priest kindly supplied us with altar-stone, vestments, chalice and all we needed for Mass. Some officers discovered a Nazi wine hoard in the town and returned with a large supply of wines and spirits. Others unearthed a collection of old decorated swords and brought some back. There were prolonged celebrations that evening. The next day, Sunday 15th April, there were services of thanksgiving for our release. I celebrated our thanksgiving Mass in the old monastic church, and later returned the altar stone, chalice and vestments to the Eisleben priest.
On the Monday morning we were taken a few miles by lorry to a large level field. At 10 am huge American transport
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planes landed near us. A few minutes later we were off, flying very low for about 100 miles to avoid possible German fighter planes. We landed at Liege. We were approached by a small army of American air-force girls with syphons, and Keatings powder was pumped unceremoniously under our clothing. We waited some hours for the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] to arrive. To console us we were given an unlimited supply of American ‘compo’ rations, cardboard boxes of tasty basic items of food. Eventually we decided the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] were not coming, and the Americans provided us with billets for the night. On the Tuesday morning we moved by train to Brussels and spent a night in British army billets. When we arrived A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girls gave us another ‘going-over’ with Keatings powder. We were allowed to draw £5 on our account and sampled the Brussels shops. On Wednesday 18th April we flew in Lancaster bombers to an airfield in Buckinghamshire, near Chalfont St. Giles.
Awaiting us was an R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] band to play us in, and in a large marquee long trestle tables laden with food. But first, a group of the W.A.A.F. [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] approached us. Yes, you’ve guessed it – in spite of protests a third dose of Keatings powder. We were soon seated at the tables, with a W.A.A.F. [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] girl on either side – very pleasant indeed after years of male company. During the meal a clerical figure made his way slowly between the tables. It was a Catholic chaplain, Father Quigley. “Is there a Father Forster here?” I had to admit there was! The W.A.A.F. [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] girls on either side of me registered surprise and politely lost interest. Well, life can never be perfect.
On Thursday 19th April I was given a travel warrant to Newcastle. On the train two officers from our camp came into the compartment and each solemnly deposited an old decorated sword on the luggage rack. The civilian passengers looked nonplussed. Could we really be on the point of winning the war? I was met by my sister at Newcastle central station and taken by car to my mother’s home in Roker. After greeting me my sister exclaimed “Where on earth have you picked up that accent?” So P.O.W. life had changed me after all.
On the following Monday, St. Georges Day, I said to myself, “I am free. I can go to a cinema.” I took a tram into Sunderland and went to the old Theatre Royal, then converted to films. I did not even look at the posters; it was enough just to be able to walk into a cinema. The main film started. It was
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Rita Hayworth in ‘You Were Never Lovelier! Plus ca change – !’ All the reveries in prison camp about the delights of being free and at home! To see my mother and sister, to say Mass in our own St Benet’s, to be alone sometimes, to walk along the coast, to go to the shops and buy something – anything, to sleep in a comfortable bed, to visit old friends – all this would be sheer bliss. And so it was for two or three weeks. Then all these longed-for delights quickly became part of normal life, and the years behind barbed wire receded into the past. At least the ghastly, unpleasant details of P.O.W. life were conveniently forgotten, and one remembered only the pleasant, the interesting, the comical. But still, forty years on, once or twice in the year I have a dream, a nightmare. I am taken prisoner again, and I am in utter despair at having to endure once more the grim, grey, dirty routine of prison camp, the foul air of over-crowded barracks, the daily oppression of barbed wire and guards with loaded rifles, the complete lack of privacy, the constant roll calls, the unending vista of days, months, years away from home and loved ones. Then I awake with a shudder and breathe a sigh of relief. I savour again the joy of Friday 13th, April 1945, and I thank God that I am free.
GEORGE W. FORSTER.