Arthur Jobson was an Australian who was captured with his brother, Tim, 27th July 1942 via El Daba, Tobruk, Benghazi. He was taken to PG57 Grupignano. He escaped to Wald in Switzerland in October 1943 with W. Rudd, H. Andrews, W. Payne, J. Jobson, and Jack Smith, where they were received by the British Army. They were later taken, in September 1944, to Marseilles and then to the UK
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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Arthur Jobson. Australian captured with his brother, Tim, 27th July 1942 via El Daba, Tobruk, Benghazi. The other ship with them – Nino Bixie was torpedoed. See ‘Dark of the Moon’ Arch Scott.
Got Malaria at Brindisi. To PG57 at Grupignano North of Udine. 20 escaped. All recaptured. Taken South to the rice fields near Vercelli. At the Armistice a strict Alpino officer said that as the Germans had confiscated trucks he was unable to provide food and therefore according to the Geneva Convention he had to let them go.
[One line of text hand written and inserted: And save maps and money]
Most put up by farmers for whom they had worked until the Death penalty was announced for harbouring PoWs and they decided to move. 126 PoWs arrived above Biella to be with the Partisans who soon said 25 could stay and guides would be provided for the rest to get into Switzerland. A.J set off with three others but one was too old for the climbing and he remained with an Italian family for 18 months until liberated. Helped, guided and warned by contadini. Up to Macugano where 19 had been recaptured on the previous day. Through to Switzerland where A.J worked on a farm for a time.
Taken 27th September 1944 to Marseilles and home via Naples. (Author remarks how PoWs were already in the camp where limited Red Cross food supplies were always offered to new comers). A.J remained with his brother throughout.
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27 July 1942: Zero hour midnight. The 2/28 Btn. and attached troops 2/3 Ante-tank M.G and 16 Sappers 2/7 Fd. Coy. advanced from the start line, a body of 650 men.
Their objective Ruin Ridge, some distance behind the enemy lines. It was to be held until dawn when armoured division support would follow through the gap in the enemy lines and start them on a retreat.
On reaching Ruin Ridge over an hour later we were ordered to dig in which we did most enthusiastically, inspired by bursts of fire from our opponents.
At about 3 am a runner who had been despatched from a message to our lines returned with the news that he was unable to make it to our lines as the Germans had closed the gap we had made.
Permission to withdraw before dawn, when we would be in real trouble, was refused and the order was to hang on until dawn when support would come to take over as planned.
When dawn arrived tanks were seen moving towards us as planned, unfortunately, they were manned by Germans and for a few hours they manoeuvred around us behaving in a very hostile manner.
Between 9 and 10 o’clock most of us had no option other than to give the game away. We went out to the Jerries with our hands in the air. If hands were lowered machine guns opened fire and bullets spurted into the dust around one’s feet as a warning to keep your hands up.
As we neared the assembly point our artillery opened up and lobbed quite a number of shells around us, causing a few casualties. I counted about 250 prisoners, this figure was also given in the official figures which I read some years later; another number given was 40 walking wounded and escorting prisoners arrived back in our lines, which shows 360 men were lost in that stunt.
As we were being escorted back from the assembly point to the spot where motor vehicles were parked, a few Stukas returning from an
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attack on our lines flew over us on their way home. As they approached us, some of the men began to disperse, our guards naturally became alarmed as they thought it might cause the Stukas to attack us. They wildly waved and yelled, ’Bleiben!, Bleiben!’ at us. It didn’t have much effect for a short time, as far as I know only two of us understood German.
When we arrived at the point where the trucks were waiting to move us back to El Daba, our officers were grouped in a spot a few yards in front of us and the CO was permitted to address us before they were moved away from us. His address began, ‘I’m sorry I’ve let you down, men.’, interrupted by loud cries (very loud) of, ‘It wasn’t your fault, sir’ from every section of our group.
He also told us that our captors were the 50th Light Division of the Afrika Korps. 15 months later, a day or two after my arrival in Switzerland I read in an English magazine that they were regarded as the elite of the Afrika Korps.
That evening when we arrived at El Daba for the night we were joined by one of those chaps who had been mentioned in our ROs, an English-speaking German provost, to whom we were not to converse as military secrets could be revealed. However, several men had a yarn with him. Points in their conversation: German: ‘Surely you don’t believe that we commit atrocities, I spend my holidays in England and I’m sure my English friends don’t think I go about shooting women and children.’ This conversation continued for some time with Jerry ahead on points. Then he asked a question which lost him the debate, ’What are you
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fighting for?’ he asked. ‘We are fighting for freedom’ was the response. ‘Then you should be on our side’, replied the Jerry. ‘Why, you don’t even know the meaning of the word, you aren’t even allowed to listen to the BBC.’ The Jerry did not deny this, his answer was ‘Who wants to listen to the BBC It’s all lies anyway.’
An earlier question the Jerry was asked, ‘What do you think of your allies, the Italians and Japanese?’ His reply, ‘Well, you had them last time.’
The next day we were moved from El Daba to Mersa Matruh where some of us were selected for interrogation by Italians. Not a frightening experience, they just asked questions answered in one’s pay book which they perused. Any other questions, nil response and it was all over.
That night an air raid by our planes occurred and a couple of men were slightly wounded.
After three or four days we resumed our journey to Italy. On the evening of that day our lorry pulled over near the beach and we were allowed to go for a swim. On our way back to the lorry a German vehicle pulled in and parked for the night. A lieutenant got out of the cab and I asked him if he had any water. He checked his water bottle and found he had a little more than a cup of water. When I said it didn’t matter, he insisted, that the three of us drink it as he could get more in the morning. It was very welcome. It turned out in a small talk that his driver had cut cane in the Northern Rivers in NSW. However, he did not speak English.
We sat in our lorry all night under guard. Next morning we resumed our safari and a few hours later a silence set us as we passed Tobruk en route to Derna. The White Pennant was still flying at the masthead of the sunken ‘Ladybird’, sunk during the siege of the previous year. A question asked by the enemy was’ ‘Were you in Tobruk last year?’
When we arrived at Derna we were off-loaded for another night’s rest. The food and water so far
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had been well short of acceptable tourist standards.
The next morning we set off for Benghazi and an Italian captain joined us in the back of the lorry. He was found for Barce on leave and spoke English fluently. At one stage he corrected one of our chaps for a mispronunciation with, ‘Italian, please, not Eyetalian.’
That evening we arrived at the spot outside Benghazi known as the Palm, which became our home for about a fortnight. It was a sandy spot surrounded by high banks and barbed wire entanglements and a couple of Libyan huts amongst the palm trees.
It had a very heavily populated area in the camp, a lot of them taken in Tobruk and the others from all over the place in the desert. The result was that any sheltered area was occupied and we had no blankets, just lie down in the sand and sleep. During our brief stay the Italians decided to move some black African troops to a different area and included with them was one of our chaps of aboriginal decent. A protest was made by his nearby mates and the Italian colonel said, ‘He is a black man, why do you want him to stay with you?’ ‘Because he is our mate’ was the reply. ‘If you wish him to stay with you, so be it.’ was the colonel’s response.
During the last week in August movement started in the camp and a lot of us were detailed to make a move to Italy. Rumours had been circulating in the camp that our Navy had taken over previous convoys and taken them to Alexandria where the prisoners had been released. Being a cynical type I hoped that we would not contact our Navy on our four-day Mediterranean cruise.
On arrival at the Benghazi waterfront we were herded to the vicinity of four Italian liners anchored nearby. They had guns mounted on deck, which were manned by German gun crews, one gun mounted near the stern of the ship I boarded had
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received a direct hit from a shell or bomb and was hanging over the side of the ship.
The accommodation left much to be desired; we were packed in like sardines in a tin, excepting that we were alive and sitting up. A lot of us were perched on planks fastened on to the inside of the ship’s ribs and the only time we left our perches was to stand in the queue to climb to the upper desk and visit the makeshift latrine, a bit of hessian enclosing a section of the scuppers. Two men at a time allowed on deck. When an alert was given the two men on deck were ordered below. We had three alerts during the first two days, which proved to be false alarms.
At about 3 pm on the third day a state of panic occurred on the deck just above us. Shouts of ‘Alarme! Alarme! Unterseeboot!’ (submarine alert) and the thudding of heavy boots on deck as the German rushed to man their guns. Then a few moments’ silence followed by a cry from one of our two men on the deck (who had not been ordered below in the panic), ‘Jesus Christ! A bloody torpedo went across about 20 yards in front of our bow.’
A few more moments of silence followed by two loud explosions and a speedy movement of our ship.
About sundown our interpreter (an English soldier, who was married to an Italian girl in Cairo and who was allowed the privilege of camping alongside the hatchway on the upper deck) announced that the captain had asked him to announce that the other ship had been hit amidship and forward hold by two torpedoes (my blood ran cold when a lot of our chaps began cheering very loudly). ‘Hold on, men,’ cried the interpreter, ‘Hundreds of our mates have been killed in this event.’ The cheering dropped to a frozen silence. The interpreter continued, ‘The destroyers escorting us are towing the damaged ship into Patras (Greece) and we are on our own. We should reach Brindisi tomorrow morning.
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We disembarked at Brindisi the next morning as the captain had predicted and went through a ritual of shower, de-lousing and fasting. Fresh cool water was available and was appreciated, as was room to lay down on the grass after four days in a perpendicular position on the ship. Later in the day word was passed round that we were to fall in and were to march out to the staging camp.
As we marched through Brindisi the inhabitants crowded the footpaths on both sides of the street and a lot of them were sobbing into their handkerchiefs. We passed out of the city into a country area with farms on both sides of the road. The farmers stood between us and their crops armed with sticks to prevent us from breaking ranks and stealing vegetables. A lot of men did invade the farms and got something to eat. Our guards rushed in amongst them, yelling and waving their rifles. When order was restored some of those guards handed bits of vegetables they had stolen during the turbulence, to some of our men.
Our march continued for a few more hours when we noticed some lights and fires ahead of us. It was the staging camp and we were given a light meal and a small blanket to spend our first night in Italy in this camp surrounded by cork trees and invaded by a few mosquitoes which we were warned were of the malarial variety. In the middle of the following night I was awakened by a mosquito biting my left shoulder. I brushed it away and thought, ‘I hope it wasn’t a malarial b…..’ and went back to sleep. Less than a fortnight later malaria had me in its grasp.
A few days later we were marched into Brindisi and were herded into a train, no VIP treatment, just cattle trucks and we headed for Bari, the second stage of our Italian safari. The accommodation was straw laid on the ground and covered over by tents and we packed in there at night like sardines in a tin. Our diet was stew with a very high water content and eaten at a very high temperature.
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This we were told by the MO was the cause of many trips to the latrine at night; on returning to his tent in the darkness the only way to find one’s place was to call his next-door mate and hone in on the reply. After a few nights it was considered funny for everyone in the tent to respond to the plea of ‘Where are you, Charlie?’ with ‘Here’, ‘Here’, from men all over the tent. We only did it once and it amused everyone but the victim.
The next group of prisoners arrived a few days later. They were the survivors of the ship which was torpedoed off the Greek coast during our crossing from Africa. They were certainly a sight to behold but we were glad to see old mates among them. Among their stories was mention of Greek bystanders at Patras who incurred enemy displeasure by handing pieces of food into their hands as they moved into Patras.
We caught up with some of our officers in Bari. Naturally they were in another compound and were separated from us by a double apron barbed wire entanglement with a guard at one end and we were warned to keep clear of the barbed wire as the guards had orders to shoot anyone who moved close to it.
Officers would approach the wire from their side of the fence and talk to us and occasionally toss scraps of food to us to be shared with their men.
Towards sundown concerts were held with entertainers from both sides of the fence showing remarkable talent. It was an unforgettable experience with a guard and barbed wire separating performers and audience into two groups.
Shortly after this I became a victim of malaria and was put in the camp ‘infermeria’ (hospital) and recovered just in time to join the next draft being sent north to the main Australian POW camp, named as Campo di Concentramento di Prigionieri di Guerra, Posta Militaire 3,200 or PG57 for short.
The highlights of our march though Bari to entrain for the north: The singing of our various
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marching songs and at one stage the singers sang our national anthem (The King) while marching.
Very unusual but very acceptable under the prevailing conditions. Other noticeable features were the billboards depicting the enemy and us, their posters had ugly blokes in our uniforms and the handsome blokes in theirs, quite the reverse of our posters. A few chuckles occurred as men identified their mates as being the model for enemy propaganda.
We entrained for PG57, where we arrived at Cividale a couple of days later, slightly famished, owing to lack of food in transit. We were marched to the POW camp about a mile out of town and were halted on the roadway dividing 1 and 2 compounds from compounds 3 and 4. Compounds 1 and 2 were fully tenanted by previous arrivals, Australians and Kiwis, while No. 3 (vacant) was to be our future home. The barbed wire of No. [illegible] compound was lined with men wishing to identify any of their mates who may have been among the new arrivals. Amongst the noises was the voice of Roy Penhaligon, ‘Are there any sappers from the 2/7 Field Coy?’ My response, ‘Good day Penny, made it at last, pleased to see you.’ Comment from a bystander, ‘You’d think that bloke got taken prisoner just to visit his mate.’
After a few hours, interrogation etc. we moved into compound 3 and our new occupied quarters accommodated over 60 men to each hut with a four-man, two-tier bunk in the lobby and two rows of 2-tier 8 man [bunks] on each side of the main room. To our utter amazement sheets were part of the bedding. We were further astonished when our evening meal was served hot and with a high water content, normally we had to wait a day before rations caught up with us.
A couple of months later the mystery was solved. We learnt that our friends in compounds 1 and 2 had donated their evening meal to us as they knew from past experience just how we would feel on arrival. In the first week we were given articles of clothing from our mates in No. 1 and 2 compounds,
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who had received parcels from home and the present I got was a heavy blue sweater, a donation by Frank (Butch) Jocumsen. The names of sappers in 1 compound were Barney Dornan, Roy Penhaligon, Frank Jocumsen, 2/7 and Noel Ross 2/13. I can’t remember others. At the same time my brother Jim returned from 1 compound with a tin of bully beef (ex-Red Cross parcel) given to him by Bill Jamieson 2/15 Bn. When I said we can’t accept that from anyone, Jim said he had felt the same way about it but Bill explained he had a tummy upset and the MO had told him not to eat meat (a white lie, I still think).
A couple of weeks later we attended a concert in the recreation hut in No 2 compound. The camp commandant, Il Colonello and escort were also in the audience and stood to attention when our national anthem was sung. Shortly afterwards we were informed of atrocities against Italian prisoners in India. They were not allowed to sing Fascist songs and were not supplied with sheets for their beds, so our sheets were taken away and the national anthem prohibited. Red Cross parcels, which normally arrived weekly, were sometimes delayed by trains being bombed or ships intercepted. On one occasion we had a delay running into its third week and its effect was shown by the diminishing number of men walking round the compounds for exercise, or determined escapers walking out of step so that they would not be so noticeable when they escaped.
In the hut next to ours a peculiar event took place. Two of our 2/7 sappers were set up on the steps and would not let anyone other than the occupants enter; the reason given was that someone had stolen some items from a Red Cross parcel. A short time later on roll call on the morning parade it was discovered that nearly 20 men were missing. We were held on the parade ground for hours until our hosts discovered that a tunnel had been dug from the hut barred to
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outsiders, under the perimeter to the outside world. Two of our chaps who had guarded the doors of the hut were the only ones of the newcomers included in the escape group, as it was thought that our physical condition was too poor to stand a chance of escape success.
The designer of the escape tunnel was a sapper from 2/13 Fd Coy. In a little over a week the last of the escapees had been recaptured.
At about the same time an Israeli prisoner had the bright idea of getting into the attire of some Italians working in the camp. Disguised himself as a plasterer and walked past the guard at the gate and he raised the guard’s suspicion when he was unable to reply to something the guard called to him when he had walked across the road. Poor bloke, he couldn’t speak Italian.
A few weeks later a shot was fired after lights out and we were called out for roll call. One of the chaps had tried to escape over the wire.
Life in PG57 rolled on slowly and with Christmas approaching we had a reshuffle in our situations. My brother and I were moved to another hut and shared a bunk in the lobby with two Kiwis, who were determined escapers and we were told of an unexpected Christmas gift for Aussies, a generous donation from their officers in an officers’ prison camp. This with aforementioned help brought a comment from the Kiwis, ‘There’s no doubt about you Aussies, you sure look after each other.’ All of us received a visit from the Vatican, the delegation bringing us a card with a message from the Pope and a bag of lollies.
Shortly after an addition of British POWs was added to our numbers and we had a number of Indians with us who were divided into two groups, good and bad. The baddies had volunteered for services on the Russian front and when trained had been told they would be sent to Africa, which caused a revolt so they were once again POWs.
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The extra men caused the recreation hut to be used for accommodation and no more concerts or church services were held there, just small groups in different huts and travelling troubadours hut to hut replaced the concerts.
Then in April it was decided to send us out to work in the rice fields in the Po valley. All attempted escapees not acceptable. So off we went on a train trip across northern Italy to an area between Milan and Turin, where four gangs of us, about 60 men, were billeted in the town hall of a small village and the next day we were marched out to the farms where we were to toil. Having picked up a little of the local language, I was able to understand a little of what one of our guards, Bruno, was talking about. He told me when we arrived at work that his brother was a POW in England. I pointed to my brother Jim and told him my brother was a POW in Italy, it really rocked him and he went round a nearby group of women telling them ‘Two brothers’
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and pointing us out. Handkerchiefs came out and a little sobbing occurred. In our gang of 15 was David Payne, another of the 2/7.
After three weeks of limited communication the owner of the farm made his first appearance accompanied by an interpreter and his address began, ‘Well, men, I was a colonel in Benghazi and your 6 Division chased us out of there and I was recalled to Italy. Now you are our prisoners but as soldiers we understand each other.
If there is anything I can do for you, let me know and I will do what I can.’ First response, ‘We could eat more.’ Replied the colonel, ‘Yes I know that but some of you have been in a POW camp for two years and your stomachs have shrunk, if I were to give you all you would like to eat you would be very sick. So for a month I will increase your food and you will find that you will have as much to eat as you want.’ (He did that). Next request (as a nearby group had been seen wearing straw hats – we had only forage caps), ‘Could we have hats to wear at work?’ ‘Certainly’ replied the colonel. ‘When you go back to the village after work the padrone (boss) will go with you and you can choose which hats you want.’ Next request, ‘Since arriving here we have not had letter cards which we received weekly in the POW camp.’ ‘I will attend to that matter,’ said the colonel, ‘I will talk to the officer in charge at Vercelli. He is a colonel and I am also a colonel and I can speak to him as a brother officer.’ A few days later our letter cards arrived.
A few weeks later we were reorganised. Our gang was cut back from 15 to 10 men and we were moved to another group on a farm some distance away. We brought this group’s number to 86, formed in gang who were marched to 6 separate farms for their daily toil. Bruno, our previously mentioned guard, remained with us. At this time the staff on the farm where we worked had an increase in staff of over 60, all girls who were used to transplant rice plants on fields from which the only maturing wheat had been harvested, thus enabling a crop of wheat and a crop of rice to be obtained every years between winters. Conversation took place between them and us when we had our lunch break. Having adopted the Italian version of my name ‘Arturo’ I was asked one day if my mother was Italian. We found that amusing.
The area was controlled by the bersagli, two men on push bikes and if they were sighted in our area, the alarm was sounded and the natives would move away from our vicinity as though we were lepers.
Life went on as usual until early in August when malaria struck me again, I spent four weeks in my bunk. At the end of this attack I woke and had a snack for breakfast for the first time in a month and spent the day out of bed. That evening just after the last gang had returned from work, one of the guards who had been listening to the news in the farmhouse, came running back to our area shouting, ‘La Guerra è finite! La Guerra finite! Armistizio! Armistizio!’ (The war is over! Armistice!) ‘Is that true?’ asked a guard at the gate. ‘Si, è armistizio’, was the response. Thereupon the guard raised his rifle, pointed at the sky and emptied the magazine in that direction. Then he flung open the gate and in rushed the guards, shaking hands and behaving very excitedly. Crawling into my bunk very early I was kept awake until after 2 am by my mates and the guards celebrating (mistakenly) the end of the war. Next day I joined in the march to work and during the mid-day break the farmhands came rushing out with the news, ‘Mussolini finito! Italia libra!’ (Mussolini finished, Italy is free).
The next day we were back at work and on returning to our camp that evening, we were informed by the Alpini officer in charge of us that we would remain in camp tomorrow.
The officer had taken out over our camp about three months earlier and we were made aware of his presence when we returned from work. He was seated near the entrance of our enclosure and we just walked past him as we had done with his predecessor. When the last gang had arrived there was a blast on the whistle, parade was called and we got quite a blast from our new boss, through another new arrival Carlo who was our first interpreter and who worked for the Shell company in Naples in peacetime. We were reprimanded for not saluting the officer and were warned there would be no Red Cross parcels issued, no cigarettes etc. Then came the softening part, if we did the right thing he assured us he would also do the right things by us according to the Red Cross, Geneva Convention etc.)
On the second day of our stay in camp, Carlo and two other guards went to Vercelli in the truck to get rations, petrol from the district headquarters. They returned on foot hours overdue and
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late in the day. The Germans had taken over Vercelli, confiscated the truck and turned them out. Carlo ended his story with, ‘We have no truck, if we had a truck we have no petrol and we have no food, but we will win!’ and laughed like blazes.
The next day the Alpini officer found his loophole, he called our two senior men. He explained that under the Geneva Convention, if food or water could not be supplied to prisoners within 24 hours, they must be released. ‘If you decide to stay we will not hand you over to the Germans, we will resist them. If you wish to be released I will open the gate. Ask your men for their decision.’ This resulted in: 86 (open the gate), 0 (will stay), 0 (informal). While we were gathering our meagre possessions, most of the guards had packed up and said goodbye. Bruno was the last to come in. He came straight up to me and pointing to the north, said, ‘Arturo, Svizzera’ (Arthur, Switzerland) and said farewell.
We then planned where to go and what to do. Our gang decided to split into 3 groups, 2 x 3 and 1 x 4, the rendezvous being a copse of trees about 2000 yards from the farm buildings where we had worked. The last group of 4 consisted of Joe our corporal (senior man), Smiler, a man who had reduced age to enlist, my brother Jim and I. By the time we arrived on the farm the men ahead of us had been spotted by the farmhand and were invited to stay on the farm and do some work until the Allies arrived from the south. It sounded like a reasonable proposition, so we accepted and instead of camping under the trees we were given sleeping accommodation in the farm buildings.
Two days the colonel arrived from his CO position in Milan or Turin and he had had a few German bullets through his car in the process. A couple of the farmhands who were in the army and deserted arrived home the next day.
After about a week Smiler remarked to me after lights out that we were very lucky and it was only a matter of time before our mates arrived from the south. Being a pessimist by nature, I remarked that it may not be that easy and remarked what would I do if I were a German. I’d put a death penalty on any Italians found aiding Allied POWs. Smiler’s comment, ‘They can’t do that, this is Italy, not Germany.’ So we slumbered through the night. Early during the morning’s work a paper arrived and it was the German proclamation that any Italians harbouring or aiding Allied prisoners of war would incur the death penalty. They out-thought me when they added that £25 Australian would be the reward for handing us over to the Germans. What an insulting amount to offer!
We had a discussion on the matter and decided to leave after dark, owing to the Milan-Turin highway just to the north having a heavy flow of hostile traffic. Our hosts suggested we head for the Alps and join the partisans. We liked this idea as in our ignorance of Red Cross details, we assumed that we would be interned for the duration of the war if we went to Switzerland.
Our hosts put on a special meal for us that evening and when it was over, the colonel entered with the two deserters, shook hands all round and gave each of us a 50 lire note, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two folded maps. He tore the covers off them because his name was on them and handed them to Joe, our senior man.
When we unfolded these maps, they covered in minute detail roads and trails from Genoa to the north of Switzerland, west to France and east to the central north of Italy and most of Switzerland.
The two uniformed farmhands also shook hands all round and surprised us with a kiss on the cheek, a European custom but extremely un-Australian. We then took off for the hills, some distance from the Milan-Turin road. We split into three groups and arranged to meet about 200 yards north of the road. There was no disturbance so the first groups crossed. Then came our turn. It was an amazing piece of luck with a large irrigation channel on the northern side of the road. We had crossed the road where a footbridge crossed the water.
Then our luck changed. We could not find our mates and after an hour of wandering about, we headed north again. We came to an irrigation canal with a bridge across it. Unfortunately there was a small village on the other side and dogs had begun to bark, so we decided to turn east and cross the canal at the first bridge we came to. A couple of hours later we came to a patch of timber and settled down for the rest of the night. We awoke as it was getting light and heard someone whistling behind us. As he approached we laid low and were very quiet, he passed us and less than fifty
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Yards away, turned left and crossed the bridge we had hoped to find during the night. We resumed our safari and for the next few days we found we were able to proceed in daylight; at first we had expected to travel by night only.
We were hailed by the natives quite often with, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Switzerland’ and then cries of ‘Good luck!’
We were eventually hailed by the partisans and about 20 of us in a mixed group, us, them and a couple of Fascists they had picked up. The Fascists, who had to carry the heavy load of supplies had a short life expectancy.
We eventually arrived at the bottom of an aerial railway which ran up to San d’Oropa, a partisans’ retreat, high in the hills overlooking the city of Biella, the district HQ of Germans and friends. Nearly a week later the number of escaped POWs amounted to 126 and our hosts decided that 25 of us would meet their requirements, so they asked for 25 volunteers to stay with them and guides would be provided to escort the surplus to Switzerland. The next morning, Sunday 29 September, our mountain resort was covered by a heavy fog and after breakfast we wandered to a nearby mountain lake and we were surprised to hear two planes flying low overhead, then bullets fired from below at the base of the aerial railway whistled through the mist around us. When the shooting stopped, our hosts (the partisans) told us that the Germans from Biella had done the shooting and they had cut off the power supply which put the aerial railway out of action. They also invited us to depart as the Germans at Biella were too strong for us to do any good and Switzerland was only three slopes away. Distances in the Alps being measured by hours taken to travel between points, so much for the 25 of us who had volunteered to stay with the partisans the previous night. That afternoon, Jim, Joe, Smiler and I clambered down the slope to the valley below and shortly afterwards were invited by a native to have an evening meal at a nearby café. After the meal our hosts mentioned that Switzerland would be the best place for us to go and when I mentioned that my boots were too dilapidated to tackle hours of walking in the snow, our hosts told
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be size 7 and I mean 9. Our luck still held. Joe was wearing a pair of nearly new size 9s and normally wore 9 so we were on our feet again. Smiler, our old mate, could not take any more of our mountaineering and he was taken in by a local family and remained with them until the following year when he was able to come home safely.
Resuming our safari the following morning we crossed over another range and toward sundown we came to a stream with a bridge across it and on the other side was the village Scopello. We crossed over and walked to the first street corner a few yards away when a young man came running across the street and stopped us. He asked us if we were refugees and asked us to wait, he returned to the café across the street and a few minutes later the customers emerged, the doors and windows closed and the man returned and asked us to go with him. We were ushered into the café and given a meal and later invited into the lounge of the living quarters and they turned they radio on to the BBC news for our benefit at 9 o’clock. An hour later an elderly chap whom we called Poppa called to take us to his home a few yards away and in conversation told us that his only son was missing on the Russian front and he proudly showed us his 1914-18 ribbons. He took us to a haystack on the edge of the village where we slept until he called us pre-dawn to have coffee and a snack before escorting us to the track leading over the next range to the valley beyond. During the climb we met an elderly lady picking apples off some trees alongside the path. She hailed us and offered us an apple each and noticing my condition asked me the reason for it. I told her malaria and she went away sobbing. My comment was that I was the one who should be sobbing!
We reached the road running along the next valley and planned to spend the next night at a village at the end of the road. We went through several villages along the road. At the first one we met only one person who seemed a little sub-normal. We passed a couple more deserted villages and at the next one a lady opened an upstairs window and hailed us (in Italian), ‘Have you eaten?’ Before I could reply Jim and Joe responded, ‘Yes’ and turned towards the house. The lady waved us away. My comment, ‘You blokes have just talked us out of a meal. The lady asked us “Have
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you eaten?” not “Will you eat?”’ We continued our journey and late in the day sighted the village at the end of the trail. We were halted by a group of villagers a few hundred yards from our target and they explained that they had been warned that a German patrol of three men was coming up the road and that a party of our own mates were being guided to a hut on the next range by two local guides and we were asked to join them. So we took off after them and joined them in a hut just below the snowline where we spent the night, 16 of us plus two guides. A fire was lit in the fireplace but failed to provide heat but smoke was plentiful We started early the next morning and when we reached the crest of the range one of our guides pointed to a higher range across the valley and said ’There is Switzerland.’ And for the first time in our safari it would really have hurt me if we had been picked up by the Germans. The road in the valley ended at a village called Macugnaga and was occupied by a German border patrol. We were told to cross the valley at the small group of houses a few hundred yards down the road from Macugnaga. So our guides bade us farewell and we resumed our journey. We crossed the snowline after spending four hours in snow and during the afternoon we reached the road where we were taken in hand by the locals. They took us into a house and explained that two guides would guide us some of the way up to Monte Mora Pass beginning early the next morning. The few of us still wearing our uniforms were asked to exchange them for civilian clothes. They told us that the previous day a party of our men numbering 17 had been captured by the local German patrol. We had an evening meal and then settled down to rest. We were aroused about 2 am and at 2.30 am we set out on our last climb and as dawn was breaking we were walking along a path about five feet wide set in the face of a precipice which seemed to extend over a thousand feet below us and a hell of a long way above us to the top. We came to a spot where the path came to a stop, the rock face extended across the path. The method of overcoming this obstacle was a hole sunk in the face of the rock at shoulder height and one at toe level. The top hole was grasped in the right hand and the right foot was pushed into the bottom hole
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and foot, one swung past the obstacle and resumed one’s travels. Glancing down the conifers below seemed about the size of mushrooms in the faint dawn light. When we reached normal earth again we continued our climb, with one guide using his binoculars every now and then to check signs of movement by the Germans in Macugnaga which by this time was a long way below us but we were still within machine gun range, our guides told us. Just before we reached the snow line our guides left us, warning us that beyond the crest of the range to our left was to be avoided as it could have been occupied by Fascists. On the snow to our left were numerous refugees, civilian and military in small groups, all headed for Switzerland. One small group we met was a Jewish family, the parents no longer young, a daughter in her early teens and a son who had a bullet wound in his knee and was being carried to the top by one of their two Italian guides. Later at the assembly point in Switzerland I saw this girl offering lollies to our chaps. I just didn’t have the heart to accept one. We reached the top of the pass just after midday (height about 9000 feet) and looking down the Saas Tal which should have been (and is) in Switzerland. We were surprised to see three soldiers at the bottom of the snowline, dressed in German-type uniforms, coal scuttle helmets, but there was no way we could turn back. We had some numbers of our party being helped by those capable of doing so and we continued on our way downhill once again. We had completed eight hours in the snow by the time we reached the three soldiers who turned out to be Swiss guards. We were vetted, one asked to advance and identify ourselves, then we were asked if we had passports. We flashed our pay books which were checked by the guards and we were then asked by the lieutenant in charge to wait on one side until more people arrived and we would then be escorted back to the reception depot. In a short space of time we were taken back to where the road began or ended, depending on which way one was going. When we arrived at the depot our mates who arrived before us greeted us at the roadside building with cries of ’Have a cup of tea in here.’ I thought we must be
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In a Christian country at last, they drink tea here, I thought the tea was a little different to ours and learnt that it was made of linden leaves.
(Written while I think about it: I wondered about our easy entrance to Switzerland we had envisaged having to dodge past border patrols and all those papers. We also learnt that Churchill had approached the Swiss Government at the fall of Mussolini and said we would pay our way, any of us who arrived there. It turned out that we would have been welcome anyhow. The date of our entry into Switzerland was 2 October 1943 Five members of 2/7 Fd. Coy. made it, W. Rudd, H. Andrews, W. Payne, A. Jobson, J. Jobson, while Jack Smith and another also escaped.)
Later in the afternoon we moved into a large building further down the trail which was as far as buses came and we spent the night. We were gathered inside before dark and when the dinner was ready a Swiss interpreter made this announcement: ‘A meal has been prepared, however, owing to lack of space we cannot serve you all at once, so we would ask you to eat as quickly as you can and if you would like more, just ask for it, but think of your friends who are waiting to be served.’
Next day we were interrogated by a Swiss officer. It went like this: ‘Come in, sit down, cigarette offered, a few questions’ and it was all over. That afternoon we went by bus to the city of Briga where we spent a couple of days. The local British sent some English papers and magazines around and on opening one of the magazines there was an unmistakeable photo of Sapper Collingwood laying mines at El Alamein, no need to check the script but it was him all right.
The next move was by train to Wil, east of Zurich where we were taken to headquarters of British troops stationed in Switzerland (our official designation). However the Swiss title was Evades di Guerra which didn’t sound quite as honourable to my ears. We were questioned by our superiors and relevant details filed. We were issued with British battle dress uniforms and then told we would board a train for a town named Wald in Canton Zurich where soldiers from France had been billeted for some time.
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soldiers later on. They had caused so much trouble during their stay there that the Burgermeister (Mayor) of Wald, hearing of an impending arrival, had been to Berne to protest against any foreign troops being billeted in that area. We were warned that we would not be popular when we arrived to join the men already there. We marched to the station for our second train trip and both times the trains arrived dead on time, causing a comment from one of our group, ‘We’re not at home how, the Swiss trains arrive dead on time, not some time later.’
We arrived at Wald after darkness had set in, we detrained and were greeted by a British officer and WO, fallen in and marched through the town to the local school which was to be our home for about a fortnight until the school holidays were over. We were marched to one of the town’s hotels for our meals and a weekly shower at the school. We were allowed to go for a walk in the afternoons and during these walks the one and only unpleasant incident occurred. Somebody had stolen a lot of fruit from an apple tree and the farmer had complained to the Swiss officer in charge at Wald who then contacted our senior officer about the matter. They met and discussed the matter and the Senior British Officer asked the farmer to put a value on the damage done and promptly paid the amount named, plus expenses. Everybody concerned was happy.
The disadvantage to our predecessors the French and Poles was that they had no pay, while we did receive some of our pay, limited because of the scarcity of available Swiss money in relation to the British pound.
We were moved from the school to a factory in the town when the school holidays ended, the officers’ quarters were in a hotel opposite to the one in which ORs had their meals. It was not long before friendly contacts were made with local inhabitants and restrictions were lifted. Classes in maths and languages were organised and interesting lectures were given by men who had interesting topics to relate. One of the highlights were the yarns regarding golf by a British officer, Count John de Bendern, British Open Golf champion. His title, Count, was inherited through his Austrian mother, the title count not being listed in the British peerage.
Routine orders were placed on the notice board regularly.
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Occasionally among the names of those we knew [some] had promoted themselves while crossing the Alps and a year later when we boarded a ship at Naples we were issued with updated pay books brought by staff from London. On parade they told us that they required details from us and wanted our rank, the real one, not the Swiss one.
Life in Wald went on quietly for some time then one of the calls of nature occurred and permission to marry Swiss ladies was sought. After some delay it was grated but money was not available for maintenance of a spouse.
One condition in our way of life was that leave to visit other areas would only be granted on condition that one must have an invitation to stay with a Swiss host.
A number of our group had received permission to marry the girl of his dreams (Swiss and British permission) then it was pointed out to him that he needed an invitation (Swiss) to go to the town where the marriage would take place. His comment, ‘First time I’ve heard of a man having to have an invitation to his own wedding!’ All parties happy.
When Xmas occurred we had Xmas dinner served by our officers and attended by the Swiss garrison (3 or 4 ORs [Other Ranks]) and we each received a Red Cross parcel including our Swiss guests. One of our party protested at the giving of a parcel to the Swiss and when it was explained to him that according to the rules Red Cross parcels were to be distributed at the discretion of the Senior British Officer. The protest ended.
Early in the New Year it was announced that leave would be granted to visit Adelboden, a ski resort in the Bernese Oberland. A four-week stay was granted, billeted in hotels, made honorary members of the British Alpine Society, provided with ski instructors, ski boots, skis, Swiss military discount on the ski lift. For this service we paid 1 franc per week, in addition to this we had to buy our own ski wear.
The ski sergeant in charge of our operation was our mate Bill Rudd, a damn good skier in his own right.
We enjoyed our holiday even though the temperature dropped to -40 degrees.
We returned to Wald and life went on as usual and about the end of March a plea was made for one of us to help a farmer make hay for a week. I volunteered and the next move was to have lunch, front the Swiss garrison OC, given a train warrant and details of the train departure to the next station where I would de-train, wander half a mile along the road to the farm of Herr Karl Schmitt where I would become involved in the Swiss hay-making industry. I saw Herr Schmitt and his Swiss farmhand at work in a field some distance from the house and approached them. We introduced ourselves and then I was escorted to the house and taken to a room upstairs which I was to occupy for the next five months. After a few days’ work Herr Schmidt left home about mid-afternoon. When the day’s work was done I was strolling along the road to the house when the boss (Herr Schmidt) came into view peddling his bicycle towards me. When we met he dismounted and broke the news to me.
‘Frank (the name I used in Switzerland), I have been to Wald and have managed for you to stay with us until the war is over.’ I sure was astonished as I had not been consulted about the matter. The boss and his farmhand milked the cows about 10 while I did other farm work. On Sundays I would take the train to Wald and spend a few hours with my mates, then return to the farm. On the third Sunday morning when I returned there was no sign of the farmhand. The boss told me he had discharged him and then went on, ‘Frank, come with me and help me with the cows’. He then gave me a detailed illustration/demonstration of how to extract milk from a cow without the benefit of a milking machine. After about a week I was milking more cows than he was and during one evening I mentioned that my first job in Australia was on a dairy farm where we milked over 200 cows in summer. He surprised me by laughing like hell commenting, ‘I thought you had learnt to milk cows very quickly’ and went on chuckling.
A few days later rain set in, a prelude to the wettest summer for 30 years. At last, I thought, we’ll get a day off, after a [illegible] I came. After breakfast we headed into
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let the water run-off and kept on messing about with it until it was dry and ready for storage. ‘Hinausgehangt’ and ‘Hineingestellt’ were the technical terms for this non-stop operation.
On one train trip to Wald I came across the German and Italian service magazine ‘Signal’. I bought a copy for a few centimes. It was the German issue and amongst the headlines was ‘When will the Invasion Come?’ and an opinion expressed that it would come but the British would not attack until they were fully prepared as they were very thorough and intelligent people etc. etc.
Flying Fortresses were beginning to fly over by day and we saw and heard a lot of bombing to the north of us just across the border. One sad incident was the bombing of the town of Schaffhausen when about 130 Swiss were killed. Lord Haw-Haw remarked that the Allies claimed to have bombing devices which enabled them to bomb with great accuracy and added that they need navigators who can determine which country they are bombing.
Late in September I was not well enough to work and was in the sick bay in Wald. Two days later I joined the group in their walk to the hotel for breakfast and saw some of our officers walking down to the factory where the ORs were billeted, a most unusual event as we did not normally see them until the morning parade after breakfast. Breakfast was nearly over when a couple of officers entered and the senior officer announced, ‘Attention men, the Australians and New Zealanders will be leaving for home on tonight’s train for Geneva. They will be the first men to leave at the request of Montgomery for services rendered by them in North Africa and Italy. The rest of us will be leaving in the next day or so. There will be no leave today and do not tell your Swiss friends that you are leaving by the 7.30 pm train tonight, 27 September 1944.’ That evening we marched to the station and a crowd of the locals had gathered to see us off. It was nearly like leaving home. So much for security, the word of our leaving had been passed around. At some of the stations we were joined by our mates who had been billeted in these particular localities. We arrived at Geneva as dawn was breaking, detrained and walked to the French side of the station where a train controlled by Americans who had invaded [one line missing] with packs of American rations and requested that we did not eat at stations where we stopped as food was very scarce and it was not a nice thing to eat in front of hungry people. Later pieces of food were seen being handed to locals, after all we had learned to how it felt to be more than slightly hungry.
Our first stop in France was at St Julien and we wondered why there was a delay in our departure. After about half an hour there was a commotion on the platform and as we pulled out we were saluted by a guard of honour comprising of local French partisans.
We proceeded very slowly on our way to Marseille, passing through Grenoble and Avignon and arriving at our destination nearly 48 hours after the journey had begun. We heard on the grapevine some time later that two of the railway bridges we had crawled over had collapsed behind us. The country showed signs of heavy bombing nearly the whole way and in one of the stations we moved through, a locomotive was lying in a huge bomb crater alongside the line we were on.
In Marseille we were billeted by our American hosts in a large building where we spent about a week, with what amounted to the freedom of the city, even the curfew imposed on Americans did not apply to us. I have to admit that when shooting occurred during our evening strolls in the city we overcame our curiosity and avoided that area.
After our second day some of the boys told us they met had met a party of our Air Force in the town. Next morning at breakfast there was a shout from our senior officers, asking me if I came from Bundaberg and if so, to join him. He had one of his Air Force chaps enquiring as to whether Jimmy Gibson was in our group. He was a chap Roy Jarvis whom I met in the Burnett Wheelers in 1938, while Jim was a member of the Mayborough Wheelers and the three of us were starters in the 100-mile Dunlop road race held here early in September 1939. Unfortunately Jim had been deported to Germany. It’s a small world.
On the night we left Marseille there was a really bad tempest, too bad even for the captain to board his ship, so we left without him. Incidentally our destination from Marseille depends on which way the first ships were going, personally I had a wish to go to England. In the 14-18 show I had a free trip to England
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[5 words illegible] that two days after our departure the next ships left for England, with some of our mates who came from the hills on board.
The tempest continued during the first day of our voyage to Naples and while I was on deck it plunged from the crest of a wave to the base of the following wave, it stayed still for a few moments, then a bulge ran through the steel deck and the bows began to rise. Some of our mates on the other ship told us later they saw the incident and did not think we stood a chance of coming out of it and the crew told them that on a trans-Atlantic crossing they had lost six LSTs in one convey in similar circumstances. Later in the day we passed through the strait between Corsica and Sardinia into calmer waters and arrived in Naples, where we were taken to a palace on the coast near the base of Mount Vesuvius. The palace had been promoted to the (forgotten) POW Repatriation Depot and we were to reside there for over a week, with freedom to go anywhere and do anything (within reason). Naples has the reputation of being a not very clean city (in wartime it was probably slightly less clean). Not being a fussy type I even felt it was time for a shower after spending a few hours in the city. Having read the book ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ in Switzerland a fortnight previously I decided to have a tour of the city. So with a mate we wandered from our palace to the nearby ruins and spent the next few hours with an Italian guide investigating the ruins. Amongst the highlights were the mosaics in the mansions of ill fame, many of them depicting such outrageous acts that they were shielded from view under lock and key and opened by the guide to all-male parties. (In view of recent findings by the Fitzgerald enquiry in Queensland and the Pompeii visit, my opinion is that we are beginning to make Sodom and Gomorrah seem fairly respectable.
Our next move was to board the Reino del Pacifico bound for Alexandria. We left in the afternoon and the voyage took is along the Libyan coast from Derna onwards. When we berthed in Alexandria the wife of an Australian diplomat in Cairo came aboard to give us a rundown on current conditions in Australia. Among the topics mentioned was Lord Haw-Haw’s report and Axis talk o the Americans taking over our place with our ladies as being propaganda. I really began to worry about the situation, as I figured if there was nothing in it, why bother to mention it. The next day we were transported to Port Tewfik and became guests of the Kiwis. We numbered Aussies six officers and 398 ORs. Our numbers had dropped by one as Bill Russ had remained in Berne and was later sent to London. Next day 13 October 1944 we embarked on the ‘Orontes’ while three other ships made up the convoy including the ‘Onion’ which had taken us to Israel/Palestine almost four years ago. We called at Aden and berthed there for 12 hours, no shore leave granted, then we set sail for Bombay where we arrived in due course, the harbour being disfigured by the wreckage of ships involved in a huge explosion a short time before our arrival. We were taken to barracks a short distance out of town where we spent about a fortnight, we spent quite a lot of time in the city and were entertained at night by concerts and club activities of local troops.
Our final voyage began on 4 November aboard the ‘General A.E. Anderson’, an American metal troop-carrier. We were escorted for a few hours by a destroyer which then steamed to Bombay. We had two meals a day ‘a la americano’. Personally I found 11 meals ample for our 13 days at sea. After a few days’ travelling slightly west of south with Seychelles Islands, Madagascar being mentioned by the captain as being the nearest land in the event of our being sunk, after about a week our course changed to roughly northeast, with our watches’ time being advanced daily. On the 13th day the captain announced that the land coming into sight off the port bow was Cape Otway, southeast of Melbourne. The Yanks couldn’t understand why we didn’t act hysterically after over four years’ absence for most of us. We berthed at Port Philip that afternoon and when we disembarked we were driven by volunteer drivers to Royal Park Zoo. The lady in the car I was in remarked that she thought it disgraceful that we were being treated like animals being sneaked home. In her opinion there should have been a parade etc. etc. We were quite contended with the situation as it was. On arrival at the zoo we were [illegible]
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The host being General Blamey who apologised for being unable to attend. Servicewomen did an excellent job as waitresses. During the meal one of our chaps called to me, ’Did you ever see a lady sapper before? Well, here’s one.’ Diana West, one of the waitresses.
Next morning on parade we were being sorted out for train rides to our various states, when it came to, ‘ Those travelling north, put up their hands!’ I had to explain to the WO that, owing to an allergy I could not put up my hands as the last time I had done that I had finished up in a POW camp.
That afternoon we moved into Melbourne Central Station. During the night we changed trains at Albury, then on to Sydney. At about midday we left Sydney for Brisbane. We travelled in Red Cross carriages and slept in stretchers, while the men travelling north to their units had only sitting accommodation. I thought it unfair.
On arrival at Brisbane we were transported to the Exhibition grounds where our immediate future was to be explained to us. During the process one of the staff told me that my number two brother’s unit was sailing back to the islands with his unit that night and had been granted special leave to meet Jim and (his two brothers) when we arrived home that day. Brother Jim was taken straight to Greenslopes Hospital. We were paid and given 60 days’ leave plus travelling time. We were then taken to the Reception Station to be greeted by our families. After greeting my parents I was clasped and kissed by a nearby young girl and I thought those tales about Yanks and our girls weren’t true after all. Then the penny dropped. It was my baby sister who was still going to school when I last saw her. We then took off for my family’s home in Brisbane and out walked out my (by now grown-up) brother in uniform. After tea he headed for his ship to the islands, the other brother in hospital, what a happy in reverse homecoming.
A week later I left to meet my old friends in the bush and after a few days spent the last day in the township where I had enlisted. Early in the afternoon I went to the post office and an old mate was there on leave. He took one look at me and began stuttering and rushed up to me and said, ‘Am I glad to see you!’ I worked in Records and saw your name go through as killed in action.’ And the surprising reaction was explained. Next day I spent in a nearby city and dropped in to see a few friends. Their reactions were the same, on seeing me they would stop and stare unbelievingly; at least I know how people look when they have seen a ghost.
Our sixty days’ leave have expired and we reported back to the Exhibition Grounds and were sent on leave until the next day. Next morning we reported back and were sent on leave until 1400 hours. On reporting back on time we were surprised at the number of ambulance vehicles parked near the orderly room. To our amazement they were for our use and we were taken to Greenslopes Hospital where we took up residence for most of the next three months. Most of the time we enjoyed our stay and the sisters and the AAMWAS told us that it was really a break for the better having people like us as clients, in fact it resulted in a couple of weddings later on.
When we were being discharged from hospital to spend time at the convalescent camp on what is now known as the Gold Coast, we were interviewed by the CO Greenslopes individually and his first words absolutely surprised me. They were, ‘Well Jobson, we’ve downgraded you as medically B2.’ I just couldn’t understand it. We arrived at the Con. Camp and spent about a month there before reporting back to Redbanks. Life became very mixed. Medically fit A1 class were sent to TIB to receive basic military training where they made life a joke for the sergeant instructors.
One sergeant wrote a letter to his wife telling her he had been put in charge of a group of repatriated POWs and after a month was as mad as they were.
Eventually in July all repatriated POWs were given the option of a discharge and so began the process and on 13 July I became a civilian and with my presence as a burden on the Armed Services. Peace broke out about three weeks later.