Kenwyn Walters has written a long and detailed account of his life in WW2, from joining up in September 1938, to being de-mobbed in 1946. From the Leicestershire Yeomanry he was transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment. Assisted by diaries he kept during the war, he writes in a lively way about his life in the desert: the tough fighting, the dreadful conditions, his comrades and capture.
As a PoW, he spent time in Lecce, Bari and subsequently Chieti PoW camps, all of which are described in great detail. Because of the stay-put order carried out at Chieti, Walters was re-captured by the Germans but managed to escape from a transport train on its way to Germany and was on the run for about 5 weeks until 1 November 1943. He describes his gratitude for the courageous assistance given to him by many Italians and was delighted to be welcomed over the lines by American troops in the Prezza area. After repatriation he disembarked for Europe again as part of the Military Government (Legal).
This account is remarkable for the author’s many mentions of individual friends and comrades and for the fascinating detail of what he experienced in Europe at the end of the war, not least the situation amongst troops and civilian populations and the various court cases in which he participated, including the Belsen trial.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
THE STORY OF A RAT OF TOBRUK
(CAPT) J E KENWYN WALTERS MBE
This is not a history of the War. It is the story of my experiences. Some of the information is from diaries, but much is remembered and, after fifty years, much is forgotten and only impressions are left. I never went to University – this is the story of my University.
To my grandson, Daniel, without whose encouragement this would not have been written
This “unpolished” version was completed just before Kenwyn died on 27 September 1994.
© Peter R Walters, 2 Lammas Park Gardens, London W5 5HZ
THE LEICESTERSHIRE YEOMANRY 1
THE ROYAL TANK REGIMENT 7
THE FIRST SEIGE OF TOBRUK 9
THE END OF 7 R.T.R 23
A PRISONER OF WAR 29
MILITARY GOVERNMENT 58
THE LEICESTERSHIRE YEOMANRY
In September 1938 our Prime Minister – Neville Chamberlain – came back from a meeting with Hitler in Germany waving a piece of paper saying that there would be “peace in our time”. No-one of my age believed him and consequently it was felt that War was inevitable. There was a rush by all of us to join the ,forces. I went with John Wheeler – an articled clerk with Stone & Co., Solicitors in Leicester – to join the Air Force. We were told that we were not needed as it was full up. We then went to the headquarters of The Leicestershire Yeomanry at The Magazine (since demolished) in Leicester and were told that we should go to Loughborough, as “C” Squadron might be able to take us. We went over one evening in John’s open MG car and, to our joy, were accepted as troopers. We had to take an Oath of Allegiance and received the King’s Shilling. During the following winter and spring we attended once a week for drill in the Loughborough Drill Hall in Granby Street and it was there, at the age of 25, that I first realised how very innocent I was. Some of the regular soldiers I met were different from anything I had ever come across before. Swear words would come into every part of a sentence and ownership of property was liberally interpreted. We always went to the pub afterwards, and John and I quite enjoyed ourselves. We learnt a bit about rifles, Bren guns and drill, but we had no horses and learnt nothing about them. In the Yeomanry this was rectified at the Annual Camp when all troopers either brought their own or had commandeered horses supplied from the Remount Depot at Melton Mowbray.
My first and only Annual Camp was held at Burleigh Park near Stamford during the Whit Holiday 1939. We had glorious weather and the chestnut trees were in full bloom. At Loughborough and at the Camp I became very friendly with Eric Martens and was able to see a great deal of him over the coming years. I slowly lost touch with John Wheeler, who finally ended up as a prisoner of War in Japanese hands. After the War he practised as a solicitor in Warrington until his death a few years ago. He suffered greatly and, after his release, was in a wheelchair for the rest of his days. John was a great man, and would never say anything bad of anyone – even his Japanese captors.
I very much enjoyed the Camp at Burleigh and learnt to look after horses for the first time. Parades were announced by trumpet calls. The call for stables was particularly attractive although the work involved was often hard. At the end of the Camp we had a Squadron charge. We were all lined up in a single line with our legs touching. We then went from a walk to a trot to a canter and finally to a gallop. The horses got very excited – so did we. Our legs got crushed and why we were all not injl,lred I never knew. The Officers and N.C.O.s were obviously very concerned.
War became more and more inevitable, and on September 1 st 1939 Germany invaded Poland and the Territorial Army was called up. “C” Squadron of The Leicestershire Yeomanry was sent to Shepshed and billeted in various pubs. My troop (Soar Valley Troop) was in the Forresters Arms on the Charnwood Road. We slept in a large upper room on straw-filled palliasses. We washed and shaved in the yard. We had not got complete uniform; this came along in dribs and drabs. We had no horses, so our days were spent in P.T. drill and training of various kinds. Major “Dolly” Tilney was our Squadron Leader with Capt. “Teddy” Bouskell-Wade (a
Leicester solicitor) as his second-in-command and Lt. Luke Lillingston was our Troop Officer. As troopers, we were all taught to salute officers.
No rations came along on the first day, so we all thought that this was a pretty poor war. However, it was soon rectified and for the rest of the War (except as a prisoner) I never went short of food. In fact the Army was far better fed than the civilian population.
The square bashing around the streets of Shepshed was very boring, but the relaxation in the evenings in the pubs with singing and drinking was enjoyable, and one began to make good friends and to learn the Army songs. I managed to see my fiancee (Betty Roebuck), who lived in Kegworth, once or twice, but transport was not easy at Shepshed.
The Leicestershire Yeomanry then moved to Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire. Rufford was one of the great houses of the Dukeries situated in woods and park land with a lake and deer. Here my troop was billetted in the servants’ rooms at the top of the building. The horses soon arrived from the Remount Depot at Melton and we had to construct shelter for them around the roadways. The “standings” (as they lwere called) were made of a wooden framework covered with hessian. They were very primitive but kept the worst of the weather out. At night the horses had rugs on and were given a net of hay to eat through the night, and in the worst weather they had hot meals.
We washed in the yard – at first without hot water. To shave in cold water off which ice has been removed is not easy. The winter in Rufford was very severe. There was a great amount of snow and this affected the wellbeing of the horses. They suffered from strangles, which was a very unpleasant illness necessitating moving them to an isolation farm across the park.
Just before the War I had acquired my first car. It was an Austin Cabriolet. I was able to get it to Rufford. This was a great help, as I managed to visit Betty on a number of occasions and was able to give lifts to friends. Betty and her mother could not help commenting on the horsey smell I brought with me on my clothes and equipment. Betty used to help me clean and polish my equipment before going back. How she stood it and me I cannot now conceive. Sometimes the weather on the journey was very bad. I remember once only just getting across Gotham Moor before snowdrifts made it impassable. I often had to tie the back wheel which was in the ditch with a rope so that the differential would make the wheel on the road go round – and so free me.
Early on at Rufford when the weather permitted we had church parades in the long avenue of great elms leading from the gates to the house. Betty and her father and mother came to one of these.
At Rufford we did endless schemes and training. We were equipped with swords and rifles. To mount a horse with a sword and rifle was always difficult and often very amusing, even if frustrating to anyone in charge. Before mounting the sword was in its scabbard at the rear left-hand part of the saddle. The rifle bucket was opposite on the saddle but, whereas the sword could be in position, the rifle could
not as, if it were, its butt would stick up and prevent one’s right leg going over the saddle. Consequently, on the command “mount”, one took the rifle and the reins (four of them – two snaffle and two kerb), a great handful in the left hand, reached up and then hung the rifle over the right front of the saddle. The right hand then helped the left foot into the stirrup and afterwards grabbed the top of the back of the saddle to lever oneself up onto the saddle. The difficulty arose when one tried to place the foot in the stirrup. Horses generally do not like being kicked in their sides. The result of the command to mount was chaos. The ordered line of troopers with their horses was soon no longer in position but spread over the field!
After 50 years it is hard to remember detail. I remember we had a glorious autumn followed by a very cold winter with plenty of snow; the beautiful avenue of elm trees up to the Abbey with some clumps of mistletoe; the steam rising from the horses in the woods after jumping fallen trees; the rich voice of Ted Hoy as he sang in the pub at Ollerton in the evenings; the horses that bolted when foolishly taken through the ford at Well ow; the Christmas party we had in the main hall of the Abbey below the Minstrels Gallery; the hot baths Eric and I managed to get in “The Hop Pole” once a week for 1/- (5p) a time and the one we took in the Officers’ bathroom without permission (it was a good thing we were not caught!); the perfect game larder by our horse lines (I should think it could hold between 500 and 1,000 birds); the comradeship of our troop and of the regiment; the horses urgently drinking at the troughs after schemes; the single German planes that came over at night with their up and down drone; the endless stables, and the spit and polish.
Luke Lillingston – my troop officer – was a very good troop officer. He was tall and thin and quite mad and spent most nights out of camp with his girlfriend. He would arrive back in the morning just in time for the first parade looking shattered. He used to take us on what he called a “Tally-Ho”. He led us at a furious speed over hedges, ditches and other obstacles. He was a very experienced rider himself whilst some of us were not. It taught us no end. He was killed later in Italy.
Dolly Tilney was an equally good Squadron Leader. He was of medium height and had a husky voice. I remember on one occasion when on a scheme he came galloping to my section of eight on his charger and got us round him whilst he gave us some instruction. One of the troopers was sitting on a grey horse which soon decided it had had enough so sat down on its haunches leaving the trooper sitting on the saddle with his feet on the ground. Dolly was furious! How dare the trooper and his horse go to sleep.
I was at some stage promoted to be an acting unpaid Lance Corporal – as such I received orders from everyone above me, who knew it was their right, and also from all below me who obviously thought I’d got too big for my boots and knew they could insist on being shown how things were done! I left the Yeomanry convinced that the British Army would be quite lost without its lance corporals.
The Leicestershire Yeomanry was converted into two artillery regiments and lost its horses in the middle of February 1940. I left on the same day as the last horses went and my friends said “All the long-faced bastards left at the same time”. Eric and I both went as P.O.s (potential officers) to Colchester awaiting transfer to an O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit).
I have always been proud to have served in The Leicestershire Yeomanry during its last days. It was obvious that the horsed Yeomanry was no longer a viable option in a modern war, but no doubt its spirit lived on in the artillery regiments. When I first joined at Loughborough I was told how important it was to have “Cavalry dash”. When out on reconnaissance schemes a trooper was always sent in front as a “point”. He had his sword drawn, and the theory was that if he was fired on he had to charge at the enemy and hopefully kill him. We never solved what happened if the enemy had a machine gun!
At Colchester we spent all our days at stables or exercising the horses or just waiting about. We waited to be sent to O.C.T.U. We had plenty of spare time and in the evenings were able to go to the theatre (Donald Wolfitt was the star), as well as to the pubs. I was given the option of going to a Cavalry O.C.T.U. at Weedon or to Sandhurst, which was the Tank O.C.T.U. Both Eric and I chose the latter. We were a little over two months at Colchester, virtually doing nothing. We saw much of the district and it was there that I first learnt to play billiards.
Eric and I were posted to Troop 17 at the 101st O.C.T.U. Royal Military College at I Sandhurst on the 26th April 1940. We joined the Inns of Court Regiment – known as “the Devil’s Own”. The badge was a devil. The Regiment originated in London and in peace time had many lawyers in it – the devils!
Again, what can I remember of Sandhurst after 50 years? I remember the white bands around our caps; the endless drills, classes, schemes, T.E.W.Ts (Tactical Exercises Without Troops); the lack of equipment (we had no tanks – only trucks which we pretended were tanks); the dinners in the Mess; R.S.M. Brand with his falsetto voice; drilling a troop by the lake whilst standing on the tarmac, which seemed miles away and seemed to break one’s lungs; the island on the lake which was said to shelter two girls kept there by some of the soldiers; the passing-out parades when the adjutant went up the steps of the great portico on his charger, and sometimes lost his hat; the swimming pool in Camberley where we had many happy times; the time in Bovington where we studied driving and maintenance of vehicles (but not tanks) and the time at Lulworth for gunnery instruction.
The course took six months to complete and at the end I was fortunate to be chosen as the best cadet and was given my “Sam Brown”. (I still have the Sam Brown – but it no longer fits!). In peacetime the winning cadet was presented with what was called “the sword of honour”. Shortly afterwards, Eric and I got our Commissions and were posted to a transit camp at Perham Down in Wiltshire as Second Lieutenants. We were very proud of our first “pip” which we had on our shoulders. I now wore a black beret. This was my headwear for the remainder of the War.
Whilst we were at Sandhurst, Dunkirk was evacuated with the help of the Navy and very many small ships. We saw many of the troops that had escaped. They were very tired and shaken. Our officers bought strawberries and handed them into the trucks to help refresh them. We also witnessed some of the Battle of Britain over Weymouth and Lulworth. We saw many planes shot down – not always the enemy. The white trails in the sky made endless variable patterns. At Perham we were bombed but did not suffer much damage. We saw a German fighter plane come into
land with two of our Hurricanes escorting it down on either side. Captured pilots were brought into us in transit to prison camps. They were always treated well. The Commanding Officer at Perham was a Colonel (?11th Hussars) who never missed his pink gin at lunch. He was a charming public school type who could instantly get himself into a great rage when ticking anyone off for some minor misdemeanour and could just as quickly revert to his charm. He was really quite popular.
We were at Perham for about two months. It was (like Colchester) another period of inactivity. We spent hours playing billiards and generally doing the things young men did. When we found we were going to a hot clime we equipped ourselves with tropical clothing which in those days included the pith helmet or topee. When we left Perham, Eric and I went different ways. I was posted to the 6th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment in Egypt and Eric was posted to a tank battalion in England which was later equipped with Churchill tanks. We did not meet again until Eric came out to Africa to join me and where he was killed in his very first action.
At Perham I was given embarkation leave and was able to go with Betty to Bournemouth to see my parents and then to see my brother, Aelwyn, at Hulavington aerodrome in Wiltshire. Aelwyn was training to be a pilot officer. He had learnt to fly before the War and was in his element. He managed to get permission to go out with us for a meal in Chippenham. This was the last occasion either of us saw him. He became a pilot officer and flew in Hurricanes. Unfortunately he was on patrol from his unit in South Wales even before the Battle of Britain and his plane ran out of petrol off the Gower Coast. It came down by Worm’s Head and Aelwyn was drowned. He is buried in the churchyard at Pembray.
Later in the War he would have been picked up by the Air Sea Rescue teams – but these had not yet been sufficiently organised. Aelwyn was one of the best. He could climb trees better than any of us as boys and he and I went on many bird nesting expeditions. I still have sparrow hawk’s eggs we collected together – and also a cuckoo’s. I was in Egypt when he died.
This is probably the best moment to mention the other members of my family and their wartime activities. Mervyn was the eldest. He spent the whole War in Loughborough and never joined the forces. He became Deputy Town Clerk when the Town Clerk joined up.
I mentioned Aelwyn, the second son. Ivor was the third. He became a Chaplain of the Royal Navy in 1941 and was in or on ships on active service during most of the W’Q.r. He had many adventures and was lucky to survive as he was on the Arctic run to Russia at one stage. He was mainly on the Cruiser Hawkins and describes one incident between Mombasa and Colombo as follows:
We were escorting a convoy from Mombasa to Colombo and we were next in station to the Commodore’s ship, the Khedive Ismail, which was full of East African troops, British Wrens and nursing sisters. One Sunday afternoon (I was reading Toynbee’s Study of History on the quarter-deck) suddenly there was a rasping explosion and we saw a column of smoke rise from the Khedive. She had been struck by a Japanese torpedo. As ”Action Stations” sounded we ran to our cabins to pick up lifebelts and steel helmets, and as we
ran we saw the ship, a couple of cable-lengths away, slipping down into the water. I am told she sank in little more than twenty seconds.
If my memory serves, well over 1,000 lives were lost, including 20 of our Wrens, 51 nursing sisters and 674 African troops. As the ship sank, we saw the tracks of two more torpedoes coming towards us. Mercifully they were both set wrongly, and one went right underneath us amidships and the other lopped along the surface and narrowly missed our bows. There were two destroyers accompanying the convoy, and they gave chase to the U-boats (I think there were two of them, but we did not see them ourselves). One of the destroyers was rash enough to try to ram a U-boat, and was badly gashed down her side, but she managed to make port after emergency repairs. The old Hawkins had almost no weapon we could use against the U-boats. Our guns would not depress enough, and because of the men and women in the water we could not drop depth-charges. We had to keep on moving or we should have been a sitting target. With great difficulty we lowered a couple of boats and picked up as many of the survivors as possible. It was unfortunate that the majority of those on board had been watching the Sunday afternoon cinema between decks and had not the remotest chance of escape.
One Wren whom we did pick up told me afterwards how a Leading Signalman, on loan to the Commodore’s ship from ours, had burst into her cabin and got through the scuttle, and then, with his feet against the ship’s side, tried to drag her after him. Being wide in the hips she got stuck like a cork in a bottle, but he would not let her go. When they were right under the water an air bubble came to his rescue and impelled her out. Both came to the surface together, and they were picked up by our men.
Imagine the difficulty of a young chaplain ministering to the shocked survivors. Some of them asked me to offer a prayer with them, but they were so distressed by the loss of their friends that there was little place at that moment for thanksgiving. I never felt less adequate before or since.
I was the next son and Neville was the last. Neville joined the Pay Corps as a private in.1941 and remained such all through the War. He was very lucky to get out of Singapore when the Japanese captured the garrison. He was on the very last ship to get away. It was a small vessel and must have had a wonderful captain as he only had a school atlas to get safely to ……… where he changed ship which took him to Perth in Australia. Neville was a solicitor who could not settle in England after the War so went back to Australia to take another degree and in due time to marry his Australian girlfriend – Jean.
Enid was the youngest of the family and, true to the tradition of clergy daughters in those days, she stayed at home in Bournemouth and looked after Dad and Mam. They lived in Branksome Chine and suffered an air raid more than once. Fortunately the house was never hit and they all survived the War. Enid was a wonderful girl. She died of breast cancer before she was 60.
THE ROYAL TANK REGIMENT
During 1941 I kept a small Rambler’s Diary which fortunately came back with my kit after I had been captured. The entries are very sketchy but of course the dates are accurate.
I left Perham Down at 03.00 hrs on the 3rd January 1941 and disembarked at Port Tufiq on the Suez Canal, Egypt, on the 9th March 1941.
There were seven tank officers in my draft and I think about 40 other ranks. We embarked on the “Highland Princess” at Avonmouth and had lunch on board. During the first night the Germans dropped incendiary bombs around the ship but no damage was done. The Highland Princess had been a refrigeration ship in peacetime and had carried beef from South America. It was just over 14,000 tons and had been made very comfortable as a troop ship. It was part of a very valuable convoy of 19 large ships which assembled in Bangor Bay, Belfast. Many of the Castle boats were in the convoy and it was a most impressive sight when at last we sailed. We were initially escorted by one battleship, three cruisers, eleven destroyers and some corvettes and passed through the St. George’s Channel on the 12th January. We zigzagged out to the far side of the Atlantic and made a big sweep back to Freetown in Sierra Leone, arriving there on the 25th January. There were a few scares when we thought we were to be attacked by aircraft or submarines but nothing happened. Our escort gradually dropped away from us and by the time we got to Freetown we had two Corvettes and later we only had one. When in Freetown the German radio announced in its English broadcast by Lord Haw Haw (who was hanged for treason after the war) that the Germans had just sunk the Empress of Australia which was in our convoy. We all laughed as we could see the Empress of Australia still floating safe and sound fairly close to us. The little Corvettes were wonderful ships which seemed to be busily bouncing all around the convoy. One of them left us at Freetown and as it passed us its radio sang out loudly “Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye”. I wonder what happened to it? We sailed from Freetown on the 29th January – none of us were allowed ashore but the “bumboats” came alongside with the natives selling us fruit (nuts, bananas, oranges) and souvenirs. Few of us bought anything. The tropical trees and plants on the shore looked most inviting but they were not for us. There was no blackout in the town. Portholes had all to be blacked out at night as they had been all the way from England. This had made it very hot on board in the evenings and some suffered from prickly heat. After Freetown we saw again flying fish and porpoises in front of the ship. I saw the Southern Cross for the first time. I thought the southern sky at night was most beautiful and several of us spent long hours on watch studying the stars. We “crossed the line” on the 31 st January and had to go through a ceremony which I cannot now remember. During the voyage I read many books which I listed in my diary. We saw an albatross, whales and sharks but otherwise the journey to Cape Town was uneventful. We arrived there on the 8th February but again we were not allowed to land but we had a good view of the Table Mountain with its table cloth. Some of the convoy (about half) left us there. We soon sailed on and arrived at Durban on the 11th February where I was able to send a cable back to Betty. We stayed in Durban until the 15th and had a wonderful time as the South Africans queued up in their cars to take us out. Durban was a very English type of town. In Durban we had to say goodbye to the Highland Princess and we moved to the Orbita
(15,495 tons) which was nothing like as comfortable but was adequate. We parted with five more of the convoy at Mombasa. We passed Socotra on the 25th February and saw Arab dhows for the first time. The sun shining through the waves in the Red Sea made it look very green. The mountains either side looked forbidding. We disembarked from the Orbita at Port Tufiq on the 10th March and entrained for a camp on the Canal where we spent a night under canvas. The following day we went by train to Cairo where we joined the Royals under canvas at Abbassia. I was able to send a cable to Betty and visit Cairo. One of the officers of our draft was Tom Stainton. We had become good friends on the voyage and now enjoyed seeing and visiting sites in Cairo, including the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Nile. We had some very happy meals in Shepherd’s Hotel and at the Turf Club. It was at this camp that we had courses to get us acquainted with the desert. We were able to get our tropical kit sorted out. We also experienced a sand storm for the first time. Most unpleasant. A typical diary entry is “P.T. all morning. Rested all afternoon. Shopped in evening. Dinner in Mess”.
The continuous sound of the cockroaches was one of the strange things about Egypt to us who had come from the comparative silence of England. Tom and I spent a very happy evening at the Oxford and Cambridge dinner at the Continental Hotel. I We frequently went to Groppis and the Turf Club. I’ve noted in the diary that I bought a “Movado” watch for £8. I still have it. I managed to keep it right through Prisoner of War Camp.
We moved from Cairo on the 28th February and arrived at the camp at Amiriya – outside Alexandria:
“29th: Spent morning in Alexandria. Went to Cecil Hotel for dinner – afterwards cabaret at another place. Saw amazing conjuring show in the Cecil with live chickens, a snake and a white guinea pig. Hitchhiked to Alex in car and came back in taxi.”
The next three days were spent resting and going into Alexandria. We visited the Cecil, the Metropole Hotel, the Union Club and saw the Carlton Cabaret as well as played snooker. I note on the 2nd April that “Tom had a lot to drink!” Maybe I did also but didn’t want to confess it to my diary.
On the 3rd April we boarded the “Bamora” (3,391 tons) at Alexandria and set sail in the afternoon going west. By now I was the only officer of the original draft left with the other ranks. Frank Whitty (a Nottingham solicitor) who had been with me in Sandhurst joined the draft. He later became the Adjutant of the 6th R.T.R.
THE FIRST SEIGE OF TOBRUK
We arrived in Tobruk harbour at 10.00 hrs on the 5th April 1941 and disembarked after an uneventful voyage. Arriving in the harbour was a great shock to us all as the harbour was littered with sunken ships including the Italian battleship “San Giorgio”. This was the first time most of us had seen the real effects of war. Much of the town of Tobruk was damaged. Later it was to be damaged considerably more. We were met by an Australian sergeant and taken in lorries to the “Wadi Auda” situated to the west of the town. We were dumped on a patch of scrub land and told by the sergeant to beware of the scorpions and avoid touching the small red Italian hand grenades which were everywhere as some of these were booby trapped. We all felt very deserted and homesick when even the sergeant left us and told us we were now on our own! We eventually managed to contact a headquarters in an E.P.I.P. tent in the Wadi and obtained some food and water for the troops.
Tobruk was in a state of chaos as the Germans had pushed the 8th Army back after the very successful campaign by Wavell and had gone past Tobruk when my party went in. The Germans thought they could take their time to mop us up.
Frank Whitty and another officer left us on the 6th April. That night we spent in the open in a sand storm. I’ve noted in my diary that it was “awful”. I recall lying on the ground and covering my head with my coat and desperately trying to breathe without inhaling sand. The torture seemed never ending. One’s chest became very painful.
On the 9th April we were moved to a Staging Camp run by the 6th RT.R and I ceased to be responsible for the draft. Whilst in the Wadi Auda with the Australians we managed to make ourselves more comfortable by moving into an old building which was called “Schloss Musso” – presumably a building put up by the Italians when they occupied Tobruk. I noted that a swallow landed on the sand and that I found a nest with eggs and young in a wall. We suffered an air raid when in Schloss Musso but bombs in the desert often did little damage unless a direct hit was scored. We were not hit.
I was posted to the 6th RT.R and joined “B” Squadron as 0 ilc of No.1 Troop. We were at once turned into motorised infantry with rifles as we had no tanks. We moved out of Tobruk in five lorries and took up position about five miles outside the town on the Bardia road. We dug in and lay down in the holes we’d made. We were dive bombed on the way from EI Adam to the Bardia Road.
My diary of the 11 th and 12th April reads:
“Friday: In night moved forward and dug in. Saturday: At 07A5 awaiting attack. 1 DAD No attack yet. Occasional shelling on both sides. Think of England. Easter Saturday – Betty I love you – No attack as far as us. Moved to front line”.
I must have been feeling very homesick wondering what in the world I was doing out in the desert in a most unhealthy spot. It was the first occasion that I’d been under direct shelling. I’d dug my own grave. Fortunately direct hits were very rare and we
suffered no casualties. I don’t suppose Betty ever read my diary which was locked away in my trunk when it was returned to England after I’d been captured.
On the 13th April – Easter Day – I was detached from the 6th R.T.R. and sent to “B” Squadron of the 2/24th Battalion of the Australian Infantry. They were in concrete positions which the Italians had built around the perimeter of the garrison of Tobruk. To join an Australian unit was almost as shattering as it had been to join the Yeomanry. The other ranks were very rough and crude in the extreme but also they were very brave and excellent fighters who you were pleased to have on your side.
By now our 25 pounders (British Artillery) had done a wonderful job at the Derna Road and had repelled the Germans – at times firing over open sights. They had suffered quite heavy losses but without doubt were primarily responsible for holding the Garrison.
On the 15th April I was sent forward to observe the enemy lines and my diary reads:
“Spotted about 30 enemy on opposite hill at about 04.30 – Reported. Enemy attacked and repelled with losses. 25 prisoners captured. No loss to ourselves. Our trenches shelled”.
The following day more Italians gave themselves up. The Italians had no stomach for fighting and came to our lines waving white bits of cloth. In the evening I went out on patrol with about 20 Australians. I personally captured one Italian who was trembling with fright as I think he thought I was going to kill him. Many prisoners were taken that night and we all returned safely without loss.
On the 18th April the 2/24th moved out of the position and the 2/23rd moved in. stayed with the 2/23rd. In the evening a complete company of Australians (with me) went out to capture guns we had seen in the Wadi in which I’d captured my first P.O.W. We set off at 01.00 hrs but found the guns had been removed but two wounded Italians had been left behind.
My diary of the 19th reads:
“Did some washing! – shirt, handkerchief, towel, stockings. Saw German bomber brought down just by – Grand sight burning on the ground – collected pieces – magazine guns etc. that fell off on our side of lines – Junkers 88 – there are several beautiful birds about the desert and also flowers in the Wadis. Seen Hoopoes”.
was always fascinated by the desert. It could change its mood dramatically. Sometimes it was hot almost beyond endurance and the nights were very cold; sometimes it was very beautiful with attractive light effects on the escarpment hills; sometimes it blossomed with carpets of colour – I never knew what the flowers were called; sometimes it was hell when the Khamseen blew with sand getting into everything.
The whole of the Garrison was by now secure and the Germans left us alone. The broken down vehicles and abandoned equipment of the Italian Army was
everywhere. I found a diesel truck which I was able to get going. I ran around with it for a few days but finally swapped it for fruit, chocolate and beans with some Australians!
On the 22nd April I received a telegram from Betty with birthday wishes (birthday 24th March). On the 26th I noted that there was “the worst sandstorm yet”.
On the 25th April I was posted to “0” Squadron 7 R.T.R. which was dug in with “I” tanks near to Pilestrino on the top of one of the escarpments overlooking Tobruk harbour. We were dive bombed three times during the day and watched the bombs coming down from the planes. It was frightening to be bombed if you were out in the open, but was fairly safe if you were in a depression of any sort. “0” Squadron was the only unit of tanks in Tobruk until the end of the Seige when the 4th Battalion came out and “0” Squadron was attached to it.
On the 30th April the Germans began another attack at dusk. The battle continued all the following day but ended the next day. Two of our tanks were knocked out and two officers killed (Peter Fry and Percy Rothwell). Their bodies were not recovered until the Seige was over months later. At this time I developed a high temperature and was sent into hospital in Tobruk.
“3rd May – the hospital orderlies are excellent. One man complained of the food. The orderly said the cook was to blame – anyway “sorry pal”. They go to endless trouble and encourage shell shocked men in air raids”.
Letters from home came through very erratically. They were wonderful when they arrived and were read and re-read many times. On the 23rd May I received a letter from Betty and four postcards, also one letter from home. On the 31 st I received two letters from Betty and two letters from home.
During the month of May it began to get much hotter and we settled down to make life as easy as possible. We were frequently dive bombed and shelled but we got used to this. We were able to bathe in the sea when we went into Tobruk to collect stores. We read many books and tried to get out of the sun in the middle of the day. I actually noted if a day went by without an air raid, which was very seldom. Most days there were two or three. Our ack ack was very good and accurate and soon the dive bombers ceased to come down low and dropped their bombs from a great height. From the escarpment we had a grandstand view of attacks on the harbour both by day and night. Sometimes the bombers would come close over the esc;:arpment after they had dropped their bombs and occasionally we w~re able to shoot at them with machine guns as they passed. I don’t recall one ever being hit but – like duck shooting – one had to aim off far in advance of the passing plane.
At the end of May Major Ken Harris our Squadron Leader, gave me my first troop of tanks. The tanks were “Matildas” and named “Goliath” (my tank), “Gallant” and “Go to it”. Each tank had a crew of four. There was a commander, a gunner, a loader (who also operated the wireless), and a driver. Sgt. Woodworth was in command of “Gallant” and Cpl. Smith of “Go to it”.
My diary for Whit Sunday and the following few days reads:
“June 1: G.O.C. Tobruk inspected “Go to it” this morning and had a ride therein. He was very pleased. There were present 1 General, 2 Lt. Cols., 3 Capts., 1 Lt. and myself.
June 2: Morning went to get water from Tobruk where the Indians were also drawing. Went to say goodbye to Frank Whitty who is returning to Alex.
June 3: New Acting Brigadier inspected tanks. Tried to compensate compass and failed. Went to Tobruk in afternoon with Jock Anderson. Visited Field Cashier and Australian Workshop Section.
June 4: Many thermos bombs dropped in camp. seriously looking. Not very well.
June 5. Well again. Deloused Italian hand grenades.
counted 20 without
June 6. Worked on troop all morning. Mended Sgt. Woodworth’s stove with aid of Bassett”.
We tried to use magnetic compasses in tanks – but they never proved satisfactory. A tank has too many moving parts – particularly the gun. The Germans had a far better compass – it was gyroscopic and did not depend on magnetism. Bassett was my batman. He was a very competent soldier and later went to an O.C.T.U. I don’t know if he ever became an officer. I imagine he did.
On 9th June I’ve noted:
“Sand storm. Bombers over regularly. Nights are very disturbed with artillery fire on both sides and listening to bombs coming down and exploding”.
We had exercises with various infantry battalions. These usually took place at night – I’ve noted one beginning at 03.45. After each we would have a post mortem and hopefully we learnt something. Frequently we’d show infantry troops over the tanks. The Aussies thought the Matilda was wonderful but I never heard anyone of them wishing to fight in a tank. They preferred to be in the open!
The heat and boredom at times created difficulties and Sgt. Woodworth and I had a row about something which I cannot now recall. I’ve noted that after the row I had “a conference in the evening of section tank commanders and put things in order. Highly successful I think”.
The 20/21 : These were red letter days. I received six letters from Betty – one from home and one from some old teachers at Whitwick (Miss Hunt and Miss Harding).
On the 25th June I’ve noted:
“Had grand meal in evening with my crew. Home made sausages where the “bully” could not be traced”.
Normally the officers had their meals in the Officers’ Mess which was in a tent partially dug in. I remember we had to take small yellow tablets at meals (I think ascorbic) to prevent scurvy. Meals were a perpetual battle against sand and flies. The ration of water was extremely low. It was for drinking and washing – so often the washing was put off so that you could drink more. Sand was in your food – in your hair and in your clothes. Desert sores became common and frequently needed the attention of the doctor. Gippy tummy became very common and again had to be treated by the medics. I remember counting the number of times I’d been to the toilet one day – it was 64. In the end you felt your whole insides were leaving you. The toilet consisted of a box over a hole dug in the desert – very primitive and revolting. The flies didn’t help.
We went into July with more schemes which because of the heat were very exhausting. I’ve noted on the 3rd “exceedingly hot day – hottest I can remember”.
On the 5th July I’ve underlined in red chinagraph pencil that I received a parcel from Betty. I only now realise what a sacrifice this must have been for her as the rationing in England was severe and we in the forces did not know what it was like back at home. The parcel was wonderful and came as a great joy after perpetual bully beef and biscuits.
I think I should mention our sleeping arrangements. We all – officers and men – dug what we called “tamboos”. They were scooped out of the ground deep enough to house our bedding roll which was placed over a ground sheet. Over the top we all rigged up a roof of sheeting or anything we could scrounge so that we were protected from the sun and sand. We never had any rain in the summer months. The rats were a nuisance and I often shot them with my revolver in my tamboo. They were particularly active at night and I recall once only a rat walking over my face. I did not like it.
The Germans called us “the rats of Tobruk” and said we’d be exterminated like rats. The Garrison was proud to be so-called and since the War an association has been formed of former garrison members called “The Rats of Tobruk” of which I am a member and hold the Tobruk Medal which they issued.
Again on the 12th July I received another parcel from Betty. Again I’ve underlined it in red. Letters continued to come in bunches. Betty and I had arranged to put numbers on our cards and letters so that we could check they all arrived. Many did not and some arrived damaged by sea water after they had been salvaged from the sec;!.
On the 8th July I note:
“Gippy tummy. Interview with Sgt. Woodworth and Major Harris re row. Still not settled. Sgt. Woodworth doesn’t seem to know what he wants. Ken Harris useless also”.
9th July: “Course of mine disposal began with 2/7 Australian Field Company Royal Engineers. Made up with Sgt. Woodworth”.
On the 15th July I was attached to the 2/12 Royal Australian Artillery Regiment for an artillery course. I returned to “0” Squadron on the 30th. I was the only British Officer and there were no others on the “Course”. It was great as I was taken to see the guns being operated both from the sites and from the Observation Posts (O.Ps) where one could see the shells landing on the enemy lines. I was also in the end allowed to give the commands and even choose targets. The Aussies were very helpful and looked after me very well. I had a batman who actually brought me a meal in bed when I was not too well. The battery operated some captured Italian 75 mm guns. I spent several days at the O.P. which was a concealed dugout on a fairly high position with a solid roof covered with rocks. One went there by truck at night and could not move out at all during the day or our position would have been found by the enemy. All washing, toilets etc. had to be performed in the dark. The post would only accommodate about three people.
My diary reads:
“20 July: Up at O.P. with Australian Officer – Lt. L.K. Bartel. Doing own cooking. Excellent supply of rations. Quite exciting night. Several batteries shelled around us and mortar fire actually on our position. Took bearings of hostile batteries by their flashes and reported back to B.H.Q.
21 July: Shelled enemy Sangars in morning and in the evening with about 150 rounds “gunfire” and “salvo”. Saw one stretcher party move among enemy sangers in the afternoon. Came back in truck – rough ride – arrived back in gun position about 24.00 hrs. Found big black scorpion in bed”.
22 July: Got up late. Spent afternoon studying some gunnery. Went into gun pit in evening when guns fired. 75 mm Iti – not much blast – plenty of dust – counter battery work”.
The 28th July was Betty’s birthday. I spent the day with the guns in the gun position. The temperature for the 30th was 1040 in the shade. Fortunately it was a dry heat but nonetheless it was not pleasant.
As I’ve said, I left the Australians on the 30th and returned to “0” Squadron.
I’ve not so far mentioned the names of many officers and men. We became a fairly close knit unit and got on surprisingly well together. Our Squadron Leader to begin with was Ken Harris. He was replaced in due course by Jock Holden who was a great improvement. Jock McGinlay, Tom Craig, Peter Massey, Jimmy MacKinnon and Jock Anderson were my main friends. I don’t know what happened in the end to the last two. Jimmy was wounded in the knee and I think went back to England. The first two survived the War and Tom Craig became Godfather to my son Peter. My tank crew was Cpl. Barton (driver), Strangeways (gunner) and Kent (wireless operator and loader). I know all of them were killed later but none whilst with me. They were a wonderful crew and would do anything for me. My batman, as I’ve said, was Bassett. He too was most helpful. He actually mended my desert boots with wire on one occasion and I’ve noted: “Bassett reports that there is often no dew where the moon shines – but in the shadow there is”. Either I was very gullible in
those days or it was a fact which I never noticed!
On the 1 st August we started to build a new mess. It consisted almost entirely of timber from the old brothel in Tobruk. It took us five days to complete. I also extended my own tamboo and was able with Basset’s help to fix up a primitive water system. I obtained a hand basin from a bombed house in Tobruk with its tap.s and pipes complete. I got an empty 50 gallon drum and managed to scrounge some brackish water. By connecting the drum to the basin I was in great luxury and could shave and wash in the cool! Jock Holden was quite envious.
During August we were able to go swimming in the sea frequently and able to scrounge fruit from the wadis. I ate figs and grapes daily and prickly pear. The last was difficult to harvest as the prickles were vicious but the fruit was good when you finally got it. We read quite a lot and occasionally we went on short courses for bomb disposal and anti-tank mines. We also fired 25 pounder guns with our own artillery. The heat was unbearable at times and when combined with a sand storm was hell. Bombing of the garrison was daily but not very effective and our ack ack did a wonderful job – keeping the dive bombers high. I spent quite a lot of time making ashtrays out of abandoned shell cases and these came back home with the kit sent from Alexandria after I was captured.
My diary reads:
“21 August: Two barges that were being towed here were cut adrift owing to enemy action when towing vessel sank. These barges were last seen going towards enemy lines! With our food and letters”.
The next few days were spent in “tank hunting” schemes. Each troop of the Squadron in turn attacked with its tanks a hill position. The remainder of the Squadron, purporting to be civilians, tried to prevent the tanks reaching the objective by getting on to the tanks and covering periscopes and using imaginary home made petrol bombs. It was judged that every troop would have been put out of action except my troop! I had scrounged some iron bars from old Iti positions and easily fixed these around our tanks and had then attached rolls of barbed wire so that the “civilians” could not mount the tanks. We were quite unstoppable! It was great fun and my troop was very elated to beat the rest of the Squadron. Incidentally, whilst scrounging I also found another Iti diesel lorry which I then used for the benefit of my troop.
I’ve noted in my diary that I saw a fox for the first time on the 28th August and that I collected some tomatoes and marrows from a wadi – also that I received Betty’s birthday letter a month later. I wore 7 R.T.R. shoulder colours for the first time.
September began with heavy daylight bombing raids – both high level and dive bombers. The high level bombers came over in waves.
On the second anniversary of the outbreak of the War (3rd September) it rained slightly in the night – the first rain we’d had since April. The nights started also to get colder and more clothes had to be worn. On September 6th the Squadron had official photographs taken by both British and Australian photographers. That day
was my sister Enid’s 21 st birthday.
“5th September: Church service in afternoon by Padre Quinn.
11 th September: 2 Hurricanes over. The first British planes we’ve seen for a long time. A piebald mouse was caught”.
“14th September: Called 04.00 hrs. Left camp with troop 06.00 hrs. Spent day out on front Bardia Road watching enemy. Found tortoise. Saw wonderful meteor. Saw two German tanks – the first I’ve seen. Shells fell all around”.
I was laid low for the next week with gippy tummy but well again when we moved to a new position on the Derna Road which took many days as we had to dig in the tanks and make new tamboos and a beautiful new officers’ mess. To save labour we exploded a 1,000 Ib Iti bomb and then erected a wooden structure in the hole. It really was very good and had a table and chairs all scrounged from Tobruk.
“10th October: Early this morning a string of bombs dropped down whole length of camp. One about 15 yards from tamboo. One dud incendiary”.
I’ve noted that on October 12th 1940 Betty and I became engaged. I remember I’d been on leave at Kegworth and proposed in the car beside the road between Hathern and Kegworth! How long ago it seemed.
In the Middle of October we thought we were going to be attacked and we moved our tanks up to the perimeter ready for the assault which never came. I recall spending a night with Peter Massey wrapped in a camouflage net to keep warm. It wasn’t very successful as there were too many holes in it!
A great deal of time was spent in maintenance as sand was no good for any vehicle and the guns had to be kept clean. The Besa machine gun in particular gave trouble.
Ken Harrrs left us at this time and Jock Holden took over. Jock was such a great improvement. Morale and efficiency at once improved.
Before Ken Harris left he did one good thing for me. He moved Sgt. Woodward to another troop and appointed Sgt. Hawkins to mine. Sgt. Hawkins was one of the best.
“24th October: Spent the day down at Crouche’s Cove with the troop – swimming and playing with a football. Calm – very clear – hot sun. Very enjoyable day. Plenty of butterflies about. Shrubs are greening. Sgt. Hawkins covered his back with olive oil from sardine tin! Drew design for a woodcut. I’ve now got to get the wood”.
I can’t remember the proposed woodcut and had no tools anyway.
“28th October: Squadron Leader inspected troop. He was pleased.
Inoculated T.A.B. Game of pass ball. My troop won 2 – 1. Very tiring. Very sandy. 5 mins. each way.
I see I wrote myoid Yeomanry and Sandhurst friend – Eric – on the 5th November. I’d heard from him that he was fed up with being in England and wanted to come out and join me.
At the beginning of November there was a noticeable increase in enemy activity both in the air and around the perimeter of the garrison.
“15th November: Invasion scare and paratroops. Attack on Tobruk feared. Navy reported large number of boats approaching Tobruk. Stand to 05.30 tomorrow 16th Sunday. Received p.c.6, 58, 59, 61, 76 and cable. Prisoner had come through stating that General Rommel was moving all his forces outside Tobruk and had said that Tobruk must fall at all costs. Standing to.
16th November: Moving tanks at 05.30 hrs. Rained during night. Very bad sand storm blew up during day and continued after dark. Electric storm – first I’ve seen. Very dark all night – some very heavy rain storms. Kept dry in tamboo. Lost way and got wet looking for tamboo in dark”.
We had been told some days earlier that the 8th Army was mounting an attack codenamed “Crusader” to relieve Tobruk and chase Rommel out of the desert and we were to break out of the garrison and meet up hopefully at Ed Duda which was about 20 miles south. The Commander of the 8th Army was General Cunningham. We were extensively briefed as to the enemy positions around the perimeter and a model sand table was fixed up to show where we were to go. Brigadier Willison explained the tactics and wished us luck. Tanks were sent out nightly to create diversions. A tank moving at night was a squeaky noisy thing and its movements would be easily noticed by the enemy.
By now most of the Australian troops had gone from Tobruk. They were replaced by British troops. This was a political move by Australia. Only one Regt. of Australian infantry remained. It was the 2/13th. It was first class and had itself been in the garrison from the beginning. The changeover of Australian to British troops was a great achievement by the Navy. It was accomplished at night without loss. On one occasion earlier on I had been down at the harbour to meet a destroyer for some reason which I cannot remember. We were told that the destroyer would dock at 01 .. 00 hrs. It was pitch black and nothing was easily visible. At exactly 01 .00 hrs the large form of the ship quietly moved towards the dock – wonderful! Incidentally we were always most envious of the Navy. They were in clean clothes, well washed and shaven and looked so fit and fat. Whereas we were dirty with sand in our hair and sweaty shirts etc. But what risks they ran to keep us supplied! They had practically no air protection and had to make the final run in at night when there was no moon.
The 4th Btn. of R.T.R. came up to Tobruk by sea with its tanks at the same time as the Australians left. The Commander was Col. O’Carrol. They were a first class regiment. “Pip” Gardner was one of their officers who had come out to Africa on my
convoy. He won the V.C. during the battles at the breakout from Tobruk.
On the 18th Nov. “0” Squadron, which was now attached to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, moved to the rear assembly area. On the 20th we moved to the forward assembly area at night.
“21 st November: Started attack on BUTCH at 06.20 hrs. Reached objective – turned round – ran on minefields – track blown off. Spent day in tank pinned down by strong point and O.P. 300 yards away. Loader sick. Evacuated tank at dusk – approx. 17.30 hrs. Disabled 2 pounder. Besa was out of action immediately after going in to action. Reported at post 73 and 70. The 2nd Leicesters gave us rum and bread and jam. Taken to O.P. at BURTON box. Spent night there.
22nd November: Artillery Colonel and C.RA. Artillery gave us breakfast – tea, bread and jam. Walked to 4 RT.R Sent to Brigade then to “0” Squadron. Put on light tank to act as rear link. Spent night by light tank”.
I The attack on BUTCH was the first time I was in action to fire at the enemy. I was very frightened before we moved off from the start line, but I thought I must not show it as I was an officer and should encourage the rest of my crew. It became easier for me when I realised how Kent – my loader/operator – was suffering. He was trembling with nerves and actually dropped the breach block of the Besa machine gun which resulted in one of the nibs on the block breaking off and putting the Besa out of action. I remember saying to him “Laddie we’re all right and we’re all in this together”. I did manage to calm him off but he was sick in the tank later. Cpl. Barton – my driver – and Strangeways – my gunner – were much more relaxed.
The mine we ran on was a loose one quickly laid out with others by the Germans shortly before we arrived in the hope of it surviving our artillery barrage and knocking a tank out. During the day we shot at the German position just in front and tried to silence an enemy machine gun which we could see firing at our infantry. In reply the Germans mortared us and hit our tank more than once. This meant we had to close down in case a mortar bomb came into the tank. In a calm interval I shouted to the Germans – who we could easily see in their trench – to come out and surrender. If they’d been Italians I might have succeeded but the Germans we learnt later were some of their best troops and certainly would not surrender. If they had surrendered I don’t know what I’d have done as I only had my revolver!
Of course we had to relieve ourselves during the day and for this purpose used empty shell cases and threw them out of the tank.
A tank commander in a Matilda has no means of sitting down so one became very tired as the day went on. In the afternoon I decided we’d evacuate the tank at dusk before the enemy could themselves attack us. For this purpose I carried out the standard drill of immobilising the 2 pounder by removing the breach block and shifting the wireless frequency so that the enemy could not listen in on our Squadron’s frequency. I calculated the compass bearing along which we would have to walk to arrive at the gap in our perimeter. We all very quietly evacuated the tank
through the driver’s hatch so that we would not be seen silhouetted against the skyline by the Germans. Cpl. Barton carried the breach block all the way back. I now wonder how tired his arms must have been – but he never complained. He was like that – a very delightful character. That night the standard oil compass proved its weight in gold. We were challenged at the gap “Halt – who goes there?” “Lt. Walters of the tanks with his three crew”. “Advance and be recognised”. We were recognised and sent to the dugout of the 2nd Leicesters where the officers gave me a stiff drink of rum. The rum was fatal to me as I was very tired and hungry as well as thirsty. I became very tiddly and was very pleased to lie down somewhere and rest.
My crew were wonderful to me after this action and could never do enough for me. The sad thing is we were slowly split up and worse still all three of them were killed in the end – but none in a tank with me.
As I’ve said my tank was Goliath. When I got back to “0” Squadron I was given Jock Holden’s tank – “GARLAND” to complete my troop of three. We returned to the Derna Road for the night then moved to the forward assembly area. There the Squadron Leader (Jock Holden) took back his tank and I was given “GRAMPUS”.
“25th November: Attack on 2nd Butch. Spent night on minefield – mended track. Closely attacked by enemy”.
It was called “2nd Butch” as it was the same German strong point but was attacked by us from the other side. The first attack on Butch had not been successful and so we had to go in again on the 25th November at night. The night attack on 2nd Butch was one of the most scary occasions I’ve ever been in. We had to advance with the infantry for a precise distance then stop whilst they went on to take the position. We could only fire over fixed lines so that we would not shoot up our advancing men. It was very dark and my tank ran on a mine just when we stopped and had its track blown off. The crew were able to mend it after the firing subsided and by morning we were able to move off again. During the night one of our infantry climbed on to the tank and asked me to silence a machine gun which was pinning his men down. He pointed out the gun by its flashes. It was a success. Also during the night when I was out of the tank two tall well-spoken men came to me – one was obviously wounded and being helped by the other – and asked the direction to our lines. I pointed out the stars they were to follow. I could not see what uniform they were wearing and when they left me I noticed they soon altered their course and went off in the opposite direction. I wondered then, and still do, whether they were in fact German officers. I had to stoop down to see in what direction they went as one could then see them against the stars.
The attack on 2nd Butch succeeded and the enemy withdrew. This enabled our forces to move forward to Ed Duda which we captured. I was now in another tank – “Go to it” – one of my original troop.
“26th Nov: Had 2 pounder shot off. Spent night Ed Duda. Met some New Zealanders and 44th R.T.R. who had come through from Bardia.
27th Nov: Spent day on Ed Duda. Took over “GAIRLOCH”. Shelled. Caught by 75 mm when out of tank. 3 duds dropped within 3 ft. Hit by shrapnel when sitting on tank. At dusk moved forward to Bypass road. Shot up one German Mark IV tank and sent another away in flames. Recced tank and got swastika flag and Luger pistol (on the following morning).
28th Nov: Moved back on Ed Duda. Moved off for attack on “Freddie”. Rec’d two direct hits from 105 mm. Had to withdraw – guns out of action. Explosion inside tank. Slightly wounded on neck. Returned to “Tiger”.
I did not know at the time but the driver of Gairloch was Bob Williams who recently wrote a book called “Dan Dan the ‘I’ Tank Man”. In it he refers to this action and the recovery of the Luger. It is gratifying to realise that another rank can be appreciative of his officer sometimes.
On the Bypass road my three tanks were in hull down positions when the column of Germans came up line ahead. I was given enough time on the wireless to get all three gunners directing their guns onto the leading tank and to give the command to fire. It was great to see the three lines of tracer all going onto the one tank and I knocking it out.
The next morning we went to the Mark IV German tank we had knocked out and I was given one of the two Lugar automatics left by the crew. Sgt. Hawkins had the other. The Lugar arrived home with my kit after I was captured, together with 800 rounds of ammunition. Years later I handed it all over to the police as I was worried that my children might find it and have some fearful accident. I still have the swastika flag.
I’ve mentioned “Freddie” and “Tiger”. These were two of the several German positions around the perimeter our forces had to capture. The positions were all given names and all were captured in the end but not without loss on both sides. It was during the breakout that I saw my first dead body. I was quite upset as it was not of the enemy but one of our men who had been driving a carrier and had run on a mine. He had been thrown out of the vehicle and was bent in two as a broken matchstiok. The flies were going in and out of his swollen mouth.
After the attack on Freddie, Jock Holden suggested my troop should go into action again. I had to remind him that we had been in action continuously for 3 days and 3 nights without any rest and all my men – as well as me – were almost at breaking point. We desperately needed sleep and better food. I so well remember his reaction. At once he realised we had done wonders and sent us back to “Tiger” to sleep – which we did and how refreshing it was. In fact we rested for several days as both sides seemed to go into stalemate. The Germans held fast and we just held Ed Duda. At times it was touch and go whether we would have to retreat back into Tobruk.
On the 1 st December my troop moved to the forward assembly area just below Ed Duda and there I received another parcel from Betty. We stayed there until the 4th when we moved up on Ed Duda. The Germans attacked and brought up their 88 mm guns which caused us many casualties. It was in this action that Jimmy
MacKinnon was wounded in his tank. One of our tanks was knocked out in the morning forward of our defensive line. It was obvious that there was someone alive in it as occasionally during the day its signalling light was observed to flash. My troop and I were anxious to rescue any who might be alive and so I went to Col. O’Carroll after dark and got his permission to take a small number of men forward to the tank. He was very reluctant to let me go as he did not want to lose any more. However he consented in the end and gave orders that the Infantry were to be warned that we were going forward and were not to fire on us in the mistaken belief that we were Germans. I took 8 men with me. I posted four around the tank to warn of enemy approach and the others to get out any live crew. These latter discovered the gunner (Cpl. Hudson) alone alive. He was wounded and jammed in his seat with his commander (Cpl. Kinvig) a big man – dead over him and the dead loader. They managed with great difficulty to get him free and out of the tank. He had to be carried back to our lines and was in a very poor condition. The Medical Officer had him removed to hospital as soon as possible and I never knew what happened to him until I read Williams’ book “Dan Dan the ‘I’ Tank Man” where he says he visited him in hospital and Hudson could not remember what had happened. What a terrible day he must have had in his tank and how many other tank crews have suffered similar fates – sometimes without any help at all.
The next day I moved to get another tank – “GIMMIE” – and spent the night on top of Ed Duda where on the 5th we watched the enemy move away. They continued to do so all the following day. We were unable to follow them as we were too weak ourselves but it was wonderful to watch them go. We had been told on the 4th that if the Germans were still in position in the morning we would have to move back into Tobruk. We had won! What a lesson – stick to your guns and positions as long as possible and even longer if possible.
On the 6th my troop was relieved and we arrived back at the forward assembly area at midnight. There I received 14 letters and cables including one from my brother Ivor. All the rest were from Betty. It was great to have so much news and to be still alive to enjoy it.
On the 7th my troop moved back to the Derna Road. Bassett did everything he could to help me. I’ve noted that he managed to scrounge some water so that I was able to have a bath of sorts. On the 8th I received a parcel from Betty with a photo and many papers. We stayed at the Derna Road until the 12th when I took over yet another tank – “GLASGOW” – and moved forward to the Gazala aerodrome. On the 14th I sent Glasgow back to Ordnance and as far as I was concerned the fighting wa~ over for a time. The Germans withdrew and we handed over all our tanks and moved back in stages to Alexandria. I had a skeleton 30 cwt. truck with an engine and chassis. Bassett and I drove this back to railhead where we entrained for “Sidi Bishr”. I remember that when we went past Caputzzo with our truck an Australian must have thought us very funny as he shouted at us “One of the ruins that Cromwell knocked about a bit”!
In Sidi Bishr we were in E.P.I.P. tents (Egyptian pattern Indian pattern tents) and I spent the first night (which was Christmas Eve) with Tony Gardner and Tom Craig relaxing. We all felt very lucky to be alive. 21
The next three days were spent in Alexandria shopping and visiting the Bank, the Cecil Hotel, the Monseigneur (whatever that was!) and the Union Club. I wrote to Betty from the Union Club and spent the night in the Cecil Hotel. I was then granted leave and went on the 28th to Cairo with Norman Harvey (who later became my son John’s Godfather). We stayed at Shepherds’ Hotel (I was in a room with Jock Mac Ginlay) and enjoyed relaxing until the 2nd January when Norman and I took the night sleeper train to Luxor. Incidentally in Cairo we found we had money in our accounts. We had been unable to spend in the desert so I had accumulated about £600. We all felt free to spend – and we did! I’ve noted in my diary that we visited the “Tavern Frangaise”, went to the flicks, went to the opera, had dinner in the Continental and at Shepherds’, went to the “Metropolitan Dug Out” for New Year’s Eve. I also visited the Citadel to see Frank Whitty and others who had all gone to 6th R.T.R.
The last entry in my diary is for the 5th January 1942:
The train journey to Luxor was very comfortable. We had a sleeper and very good service and food. We stayed in the Winter Palace Hotel and were able to visit all the local sights including the temples at Luxor and Karnak. We visited Thebes and saw the Valley of the Kings, the Queen’s Valley, the Nobles’ Valley, the Slaves’ Valley and many temples and the Colossi of Memnon.
“Went to pottery in the morning on donkey. Most interesting ride. Visited Coptic Convent and had coffee there. In afternoon went by boat up river and had tea in orange grove. Picked and ate oranges off trees. There also were bananas, mangoes, dates, grapes, tangerines and lemons. On return wonderful sunset on Nile”.
I remember the weather in Luxor was very pleasant – like a warm English summer day. The gardens were beautiful with flowers and birds. Palm trees were everywhere. Norman and I enjoyed our bottle of wine every night with our dinner.
And so I come to the end of my Rambler’s Diary. Until I get to a diary I kept during some of the time when I was a P.O.W. I have to rely on my memory which after so many years is getting more and more misty.
During the battles I had fought in 6 Matilda tanks: “Goliath”, “Garland”, “Grampus” “Go-to-it”, “Gairloch” and “Gimmie”. Fortunately none of the crews were killed whilst with me but the tanks were often put out of action. I received a slight injury to my neck when a 2 pounder shell exploded inside the tank after we had been hit by an enemy shell. Until the German 88 mm gun was extensively used later the Matilda would keep out most of the missiles that were thrown at it.
It was during the first seige of Tobruk that we reckoned that we captured a German song – Lily Marlene. Normally one didn’t go into a tank unless one had to, but every night at a certain time (I think 6 o’clock) the German radio broadcast the song which was sung by a rich, husky and sexy female voice and of course we could switch our tank wireless sets over to receive the wonderful song. There were no such things as transistors in those days. I would certainly choose that song to take to my desert island.
THE END OF 7 R.T.R.
After Tobruk was relieved (or as some say “the Garrison broke out”), the Germans retreated back beyond Benghazi to EI Agheila in Tripolitania. At this point our forces were so exhausted and the tanks so few that we could go no further. Rommel was now fortunate as a convoy with Panzer tanks managed to get through to Tripoli. Typically he wasted no time and attacked our slender forces on the 21 st January and commenced his push back across the desert.
The 7 R.T.R. was at first in Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria, where “0” Squadron got to know the rest of the battalion. It was a happy time. I became PMC (President of the Mess Council) and had to organise the feeding arrangements in the officers’ mess. This necessitated going into Cairo and buying fresh food of all sorts. Haggling over the prices was the norm and if any officer dared to complain of the meals he was told to take on the job. There were no complaints as a result.
Because I’d been a solicitor in civilian life I was detailed to defend a sergeant who had given away 2 tins of bully beef to a prostitute for her favours. He told me that he fully intended to return two tins later to the mess from which he had removed them. I had as a student learnt the definition of stealing for my exams. Part of the definition says the thief must “permanently intend to deprive the true owner” of the goods. To my amazement the Court accepted my submission that the accused did not permanently intend to deprive the army of the bully beef and he was let off. Major Tony Gardner, my immediate superior, was furious when he heard the result and called me all the most objectionable names he could think of. I told him he ought to be proud of one of his officers who had been asked to do a job and had obviously done it well. Later in the battles around Gazala he was killed. A shell removed the cupola of his tank and took his head with it. Probably the sergeant should not have got off and at a party in the Sergeants’ Mess afterwards I refused to accept any drink from him.
In due time we moved from Sidi Bishr to Amaria. It was a most unpleasant patch of desert west of Alexandria. It was here that we were to receive our new Matilda tanks and generally get ready to go up to the desert to oppose Rommel.
The desert, right back to beyond Benghazi, was littered with derelict vehicles of all sorts. R.E.M.E. – the recovery people – had collected large numbers of towable trucks into a huge park by Tobruk. Some of 7 R.T.R. who could be spared – and I was one – were detailed to take a quadrant (a vehicle used for towing 25 pounder guns) and two men to Tobruk. We were then to tow two of the broken down vehicles in stages back to Alexandria. It took about four days to complete the journey. I had with me my batman and Cpl. Smith (one of my original troop). We changed round in the vehicles from time to time and became very good at towing. It is quite a skilled task to be towing two crocks behind you and equally if you were in one of the crocks it was quite a job to avoid crashing into the vehicle in front. We took our own rations with us and brewed up as and when we wanted. The first stage back was to a position near Gambut aerodrome. There was considerable activity on the desert
road as many units of tanks and infantry were being moved up to the Front. I remember well Friday 13th February 1942. We were nearing Gambut at the end of the day and our towing vehicle broke down on an embanked part of the road. We tried hard to mend it but failed even with the help of a signaller who came down from a telegraph pole where he was working. Whilst we were struggling with our vehicle a number of tanks of the 42 RT.R came past on transporters. There was not much room for them but they all got by except the last which moved too near to the edge and went over. Its crew, except the driver, were riding on the outside and fell off and under the tank as it rolled over. They were killed. A colonel medical officer happened to come past and confirmed they were dead and that we could do nothing about them until the tank was moved. We decided we would have to spend the night there and managed to move our three vehicles forward a few yards and to the side. My batman fixed my camp bed in the quadrant and after we had had our meal of tea, biscuits and bully beef we settled down for the night. It was unreal to be trying to relax knowing that there were three dead men just by us. It became more and more unreal when one of our own ‘planes came very low over us and landed in the desert before it could get to the aerodrome at Gambut. It had apparently run out of petrol. To attract the aerodrome to its position so that the recovery forces would come out the pilot fired his guns. He did not know we were in his direct line of fire and the bullets were skimming over our heads. In the morning we managed to get our quadrant going and we had no more trouble.
I cannot now remember how many trips we made up to Tobruk but I do know that all the vehicles in the large park at Tobruk were recovered and no doubt the crocks were in due time mended and returned to service: REME do a wonderful job. .
It was at Amarya that Col. Foote took over command of the Regiment. To begin with we thought nothing of him as he had come straight out from England and knew nothing of the desert. Tension was very high on one occasion when a trooper was caught asleep on guard. The Colonel held a Court Martial in the desert. For this we (the whole Battalion) formed up into a square and the trooper was found guilty and marched away to serve time in the Glass House (the army’s strict punishment prison). One had learnt to tolerate many things when fighting in the desert and when one knew the man was most inoffensive and likeable the sentence seemed unjust. How things changed later. The Colonel proved to be very brave and was awarded the V.C. and the O.S.O. I thought much of him and he made me his Reconnaissance Officer (RO.).
It was here that Eric Martens (myoid Yeomanry friend) joined the Regiment. He had applied specially to come out to join me as he was fed up with being in England. I wish he had never come as he arrived in a sandstorm and missed the pleasant days in Cairo and Alexandria. He never had time to get to know the officers well and was killed in his first and only action. I was not able to be with him much and I remember his saying I had changed greatly and had become remote. I don’t think he could understand what I and the others of “0” Squadron had been through. He was killed in the attack on Sidra Ridge on June 5 1942. In the History of the Royal Tank Regiment by Capt. B.H. Liddell Hart the author says of the attack that the 32nd Army
Tank Brigade (of which 7 R.T.R. was a part) “suffered heavier losses than ‘the Charge of the Light Brigade’ at Balaclava ninety years before” – but more of this later. I was not given time to renew our old friendship. Eric was busy with his troop and I was busy as R.O. This was war. His mother kept in touch with Betty until she died. He was her favourite son.
Rommel with his Africa Corps managed to advance as far as the “Gazala Line”.
I cannot remember how our Matilda tanks were moved up to the front line – I think they came up on the railway and then on transporters. I, as R.O., had a Cruiser tank, a dingo (which had a Rolls Royce engine and could move as fast backward as forward) and a 30 cwt. truck, all with their crews. I probably owe my life to this situation as only one of our Matilda tanks remained by the time Tobruk fell on the 21st June.
General Auchinleck commanded the British forces and had agreed reluctantly with Churchill that he should launch an attack in the middle of June. However, Rommel struck first on the 26th May. By that time 7 R.T.R. was in a “box” near Gazala awaiting orders. We were part of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade which was commanded by Brig. Willison (called by us “the Ant”). Between then and the 5th June 7 R.T.R. moved frequently and I, as R.O., was kept very busy. I shall never forget the 5th June. At dawn I put the Battalion on the start line for the attack on Sidra Ridge. I managed to jump on to Eric’s tank and wish him luck. There were 84 tanks lined up on the start line with Col. Foote in command of 7 R.T.R. My duty was to collect the tanks into the leager area when the battle was over. Within a very short time a few tanks came limping back. Most were badly damaged having been hit by 88 mm shells. Some had the driver alone alive. The Medical Corps and the Padre were desperately busy. I never saw Eric again. He died from very severe wounds later in the day. After it was all over at the end of the morning I counted only 18 tanks left. The Corps Commander who had ordered the attack was General Ritchie. In the afternoon he ordered another brigade to attack Sidra Ridge from another angle and in the evening he again ordered yet another brigade to attack from yet another angle. The result in each case was almost as disastrous as the first attack. All the Germans had to do was to move their 88 mm guns around to meet the attacks. In his journal Rommel commented:
“In a moment so decisive they should have thrown into the battle all the strength they could muster. What is the use of having overall superiority if one allows each formation to be smashed piecemeal by an enemy who is able to concentrate superior forces on every occasion at the decisive point”.
I thought then – and still do – that Ritchie ought to have been court martialled and sacked. He was of course promoted! Needless to say Rommel could not believe his luck and probably this was the main reason for his continued advance into Egypt.
Col. Foote was outstandingly brave. He had one tank disabled and after clambering into another had that in turn knocked out but he managed to get back without a
wound. He was awarded the V.C. because of this action and later when 7 R.T.R. covered the Guards withdrawal from Knightsbridge.
As R.O. I was very lucky as for the first time I was able to watch a battle from the outside. I could see the 2 pounder shells from our tanks lobbing over seemingly very slowly to the enemy and their 50 mm shells coming back in a fast straight line. I had to keep my eyes open for spent enemy shells coming bouncing over the sand. It would never do to be hit by one of these. It always amazed me how peaceful it was only a mile or so from the action.
The fortnight that followed before Tobruk fell was one of the most exhausting of my life and is now vague in my memory. 7 R.T.R. was on the move most of the time and was frequently in action. The men would fall asleep as soon as we stopped. The gunners often did best as they could sleep leaning over their guns whilst the tanks moved. The drivers often had a terrible time. Unless they were in the leading tank they had to endure perpetual sand coming over them from the tanks in front. Commanders could at least get out and walk in front or beside their tank. The food was bully and biscuits washed down with tea (“char” as we called it). Incidentally char was brewed up whenever possible and was a great comfort. During these days we received no letters from home and certainly could not write any to home. I do not know when Betty received the last communication from me before I was captured – but I do know it was quite a long time before she finally heard I was a prisoner of war.
The Battalion was involved in one night attack on a German “box”. I believe· we suffered no losses on that occasion. Later the Scots Guards were on Rigel Ridge and Knightsbridge Ridge and were hemmed in by the Germans. Col. Foote was in command of the remnants of the 7th and 42nd R.T.R. and by his leadership and bravery enabled the Guards to withdraw. The Citation for his V.C. says:
“On June 13, when ordered to delay the enemy’s tanks so that the Guards Brigade could be withdrawn from the Knightsbridge escarpment and when the first wave of our tanks had been destroyed, Lieut-Colonel Foote re-organized the remaining tanks, going on foot from one tank to another to encourage the crews under intense artillery and anti-tank fire.
As it was of vital importance that his battalion should not give ground, Lieut- Colonel Foote placed his tank, which he had then entered, in front of the others so that he could be plainly visible in the turret as an encouragement to the other crews, in spite of the tank being badly damaged by shell-fire and all its guns rendered useless. By his magnificent example the corridor was kept open and the brigade was able to march through.
Lieut-Colonel Foote was always at the crucial point at the right moment, and over a period of several days gave an example of outstanding courage and leadership which it would have been difficult to surpass. His name was a byword for bravery and leadership throughout the brigade.”
The remnants of our tanks under Col. Foote gradually pulled back towards the sea road and into Tobruk. I remember standing with Col. Foote on the top of Point 209 and seeing a German Panzer Division on the move. It was clearly going to cut us off. We were fired at by 88 mm guns and quickly had to withdraw. We were all exhausted but it is true to say that the Germans were in the same position and this is probably why they did not follow up their successes as quickly as they should and so enabled us to get back into Tobruk. The last stage was at night. Col. Foote led the tanks on foot. I walked with him most of the night. I think Johnny Maclean and Jock McGinlay were also with us. When we finally got within the perimeter of the fortress we were all exhausted and grabbed what sleep we could. I cannot recall the date. The days were timeless – one day went into another, nothing fixed the time. Meal times – bed times – rest times – all were forgotten.
What other incidents can I now remember of that last fortnight? I remember Kent, who was my wireless operator and loader in “Goliath” when I first went into action, was killed. His body was carried on the back of a tank for two days until it had to be buried as it was too high. The other two members of my original crew were also killed during this time – I remember Sgt. Davies made me very cross for some minor misdemeanour and chasing him for a whole day – probably most unfairly. I remember Col. Foote on one occasion asked me to take him in my dingo to some point and showing him how to direct the driver who was not the brightest. The driver would never respond to verbal commands – which is how we were all trained because of the intercom – but would respond to a touch on the shoulder. He would turn to the right or left depending on which shoulder was touched. Quick taps would mean quick turns and so on. Col. Foote was delighted when he found it worked. I remember one officer was very frightened and determined to get out of the army. Before one action he let the lid of his cupola fall on his hand breaking two fingers. I was then disgusted with him as I felt he was letting the rest of us down. We were all in the same boat and all of us must pull our weight. I remember he told me I showed no sympathy. He was in fact evacuated and I never heard of him again. I wonder what view I would take now of similar circumstances. I remember watching our own Air Force bombing our own troops and I also remember the Germans bombing their own forces. That was war and you could not blame the pilots in the confused situations. I remember when we were in Tobruk climbing on to one of our tanks and with difficulty stopping the Commander firing on to our own garrison headquarters. Again shortly afterwards I remember stopping by a 25 pdr battery and telling the Commander to fire over open sights at German Mark IV tanks coming over an escarpment below EI Adam. I was at that time in my cruiser tank and could move round rapidly.
Finally the remnants of 7 R.T.R. withdrew to the sea at some point west of the town of Tobruk. Our adjutant – Johnny Maclean -was wounded. Col. Foote told us that the order had come through on the wireless from General Klopper (the South African Commander of the fortress) that the garrison had surrendered and it was “every man for himself’. This was on the 21 st June 1942. Col. Foote ordered us to dump all our remaining equipment into the sea. My truck, which had been my base camp for
weeks, sank like a stone but my bedding role floated off into the Mediterranean. There was only one Matilda left and it was also dumped. I now stood up with a beret, shirt, shorts, stockings and shoes – all of which were stained with sweat and sand. I also had a small haversack with soap, towel, toothpaste and some hard rations as well as my revolver and binoculars. I was exhausted and so was everyone else. We all thought the order was stupid as it resulted in chaos. Johnny Maclean (our adjutant) had to wait until he was rounded up by the Germans and sent into hospital. The 7th Battalion ceased to exist in Tobruk but had fought to the end. I don’t think many – if any – managed to get back to Egypt.
A PRISONER OF WAR
Col. Foote asked me to join him with Sgt. Longstaff and one other (whose name I cannot remember). Our object was to walk back eastwards to attempt to join our own forces in Egypt. Having been in the first Seige of Tobruk with the Australians I knew the garrison fairly well. We decided that we would hide in a cave during the day and walk through the night. At dark we moved off. I led the way. We crossed the Derna Road and made for the Bardia Road. At one stage on that first night we picked our way through German tanks with their crews fast asleep on the sand. At one point we actually stepped over Germans who were too exhausted to wake up. They were sleeping the sleep of the victors. We were doing very well and had walked about 11 miles until the dawn was about to break when Col. Foote slipped and broke his ankle. Shortly he found it too difficult to walk so we found a cave where we could hide. We slept in this cave the next day and at night I went out with the others (leaving Col. Foote alone) to try and scrounge a vehicle to use for our escape. We found many broken down trucks but none we could mend but we were able to get water out of the radiators to replenish our water bottles. We did not find any food. The next two nights were spent in the same way with the same result. We were always fearful that we would be spotted in our cave and on the third day some Italians came near to us and spotted us. They were too frightened to come close and brought some Germans to capture us. I hid my binoculars in the back of the cave but kept my revolver. I’ve always thought that the German N.C.O. who captured us was a brave man. He did not know what reception we would give him and he could not know, but probably suspected, that we were very exhausted. He got above and cave and jumped down in front of us. Of course he then had his back to us. He quickly turned around and pointed his Lugar at us. We had no alternative but to surrender. The Italians then became braver and indicated that we should at once start walking to the prison compounds which were several miles away. The Germans would have none of it and made the Italians go and get a truck in which we were taken back to Tobruk. Col. Foote, I learnt years later, was taken to the hospital. I was taken to an officers’ compound and I imagine the other two went to an O.R.’s compound. As far as I was concerned this must have been the lowest point of my life. Until then I’d been an officer in the British Army with all the backing that gave. Now I stood up with practically nothing and dependent on the enemy for everything – including my life. I was in an area of desert (I would think about an acre) surrounded by barbed wire and outside were some pathetic looking small Italian soldiers with rifles. They looked frightened to death. The compound had been used to hold hundreds of officers for the last three days and was filthy. One side had been allocated as an area in which we relieved ourselves but there were no spades or proper facilities and the flies were in masses. There was no such thing as privacy. I remember I did not know whether to stand, sit or lie down. There were others here but I knew none and one talked little. I can’t remember how many were present but we were the remnants being collected after the main body of prisoners had gone through. At some stage I was issued with a tin of Italian bully beef and water and a piece of awful brown bread.
I think it took about 4 days to get from that first compound to the plane at Benghazi which took us out of Africa. Truckloads of officers and men were moved. We spent one night in Derna in a desert fort. Officers were made to sleep inside on the stone floor and other ranks kept outside under the stars. Derna had a reputation of being a hell hole and came to be called “the Black Hole of Derna”. Another night was spent outside Barce. Some of the countryside before arriving at Barce was hilly and beautiful and the area around Barce was cultivated and I imagine pleasant in peacetime. The camp at Benghazi was another hell hole. Fortunately the Italians were anxious to move any tank officers out of Africa as soon as possible but the other ranks had to stay much longer and many died of dysentery.
I was flown to Italy in a slow twin-engined Savoia Bomber. I think there must have been about 20 officers guarded by two Italian soldiers with rifles. I was the only Englishman – the others were all South Africans. During the flight I tried to persuade the South Africans to take over the plane and force the pilot to fly to Malta. I felt it would be very easy to disarm the two Italians who looked sick and miserable. The I South Africans thought it would be too risky to land in Malta as they said we would be shot down. I thought the risk was worth taking as it was accepted that a surrendering plane could come in if it swayed its wings up and down before landing. Fortunately our own Spitfires did not shoot us up and we landed safely at Lecce in the heel of Italy. We flow over Taranto and I shall never forget getting a glimpse of that beautiful little harbour with its white houses, green trees and blue sea. It was such a contrast to the North Africa we had known with sand browns and no green or blue.
We spent a couple of nights in Lecce and it was here at last I began to get clean. We were housed in a disused cigar factory with a tap in the yard. I was able to strip off and get under the tap fairly soon after arrival. To remove the caked sand from one’s hair and body and even to put one’s shirt under the tap was too good to be true. Of course we had to share with many others so one could only do the minimum. The second day the Italians stopped us using the tap as they said the girls in the adjoining occupied factory were being diverted from their work by watching ‘us bathing!
Our next move was to Bari on the Adriatic coast. I can’t remember whether we went by truck or train. I only know that many of the British officers were by now feeling very weak and in need of good food which we did not get. We were in Bari for a month. It was a camp in olive groves with no view. It had water but little else and it was here that the shortage of food became serious. We all lost considerable weight and had not the strength to walk more than a few yards. If one stood up beside one’s bed you had to hold on to prevent you falling with the dizziness that overcame you. The food the Italians issued was pumpkin soup with a flavouring of horse meat.
It was at Bari that I first became acquainted with the Standard Wooden P.O.W. bed for two – one up and one down. Here also I joined up with some of my friends and made new ones. Morale was low until a new senior British officer arrived who made us all smarten ourselves up and in particular to shave if at all possible. A little
discipline made all the difference and cheered us up no end. Johnny Sampson had managed to bring his trumpet into the camp and entertained us in the evenings. We also started to organise other forms of entertainment – such as lectures and gentle games, but the greatest event was the arrival, in about the second week, of Red Cross parcels. To begin with we had one between seven for the week. This meant practically nothing in volume, but the food value was so high that I’m sure it saved our lives. In the last week we had a parcel between four. It was wonderful. The division of the parcels was a matter of great concern. No one wished to be greedy and yet we all wanted our proper share. How much we owe to the Red Cross cannot be measured. They were wonderful.
At the end of the month the officers were moved from Bari by train to Chieti in the foothills of the Apennines. It was a purpose built P.O.W. camp in a beautiful situation in the plain below the town of Chieti and overlooking the Gran Sasso – one of the highest mountains of the range. The train journey was uneventful but unfortunately we were not allowed to look out of the carriage windows and all blinds had to be drawn. This did not prevent us taking peeps when the guards in the corridors were not looking.
Chieti P.G. No. 21 was a new camp when we took over. The large area between the six accommodation blocks was still covered in grass and scrub. We were made to sit in a fenced off part of this area and left for some hours whilst the Italians said the formalities were being completed and whilst we were individually taken out and searched before being taken to the blocks. Those of us who had managed to bring various things with us such as diaries, watches, maps, compasses plus money etc. took the opportunity to bury them carefully and secretly in the ground, often getting our friends to shield our activity from the guards. We took note of the exact position of our secret hiding place. When we were finally all out of the fenced area and safely in the blocks the Italians systematically dug over the whole area and collected up all our precious belongings which of course we never saw again! It was galling to hear their cries of joy when they found some particularly choice item. For my part I was lucky. I had a Movado wrist watch which I had bought in Cairo for £7. It had an expanding metal strap. When we were searched we had to take all our clothes off with the exception of our shirt which of course had short sleeves. I slipped the watch up my arm under the short shirt sleeve and it was never discovered. Unfortunately I dropped it a day later and knocked the balance wheel out so it never worked during my days as a P.O.W. However I stuck to it and got it mended when I got back home. I still have it. When in Chieti a friend tried to unscrew the back to mend it but failed. He only managed to make scratches on the back which can still be seen.
Chieti was very like a university without women. Soon we organised eight hours per day of lectures on every subject imaginable including law, medicine, philosophy, languages, literature, military history, engineering, science, art, etc. There were many clubs such as sketching, farming, motoring, angling, Welsh, Scottish, poetry etc. etc. I was not a Mason at the time but I believe the Masons managed to meet. There was a Chieti news agency (C.N.A.) which collected information from Italian papers and other sources (including wireless in the later days). It had to do a lot of
“reading between the lines” – but it was amazing how accurate it often later turned out to be. There were many orchestras and plays were put on weekly.
Tony Baines wrote and conducted his own symphony in Chieti. Tommy Sampson performed on his trumpet nightly.
There were in the camp approximately 1,250 officers with about 200 other ranks to help. The South Africans (about 200 of them) were in one block on their own and the other ranks were in another block. The remaining officers were in three blocks. The Italians were in another block.
The cookhouse and hall were at the top of the area looking towards the Gran Sasso.
Food got better by the month and at the end we actually received one Red Cross parcel between two per week. I shared with my bunk mate, John Arbib. He was a Jew-boy but I liked him and we got on well even though he knew exactly how to get I his proper share! – so did III We all got a cigarette allowance. As I didn’t smoke this
was useful as you could easily exchange it for a little bit more food.
Games were very important and we had some first class sportsmen in the camp including Bill Bowes and Freddie Brown, both of whom had played cricket for England – the latter as Captain.
For my own part, I cannot say I was unhappy at Chieti, especially after we had survived the first winter and food got better. During the winter one was a little envious of the South Africans who had come into “the bag” with all their equipment and were able to keep warm with their adequate clothes. We were issued with one blanket each and this was worn night and day. In the daytime it was worn as a poncho with a slit cut in the middle for one’s head. To occupy myself I lectured in law on Equity and had a class of about 12 up to the end. Law books came in from the Law Society through the Red Cross but all books had their hard covers ripped off as the Italians discovered some maps being concealed in covers. I also joined many societies and clubs including a Tank Society, a Welsh Society, a Law Society and an Art Club. I actually took two small parts in plays – the names of which I now forget. I also tried to escape with my particular friend in the tanks – John Collinge. John and I did escape from a train later but he was killed in N.W. Europe towards the end of the War.
Being a large area there was a good long perimeter walk which in fine weather was a favourite for gentle exercise. I must have walked many miles around the camp and discussed many things with my friends. One was not allowed to go close to the walls with their sentry boxes on top. The boundary was a trip wire and barbed wire within the walls. Italian soldiers were in the boxes and a couple of Carabinieri with rifles over their shoulders wandered around the camp all the time. We used to treat all the Italians as somewhat of a joke as – without exception – they were very small and when moving about in squads could not keep in step. If they attempted to march we used to whistle a marching tune to annoy them! Every so often they would make a
search for tunnels and to begin with they always found them. They would order everyone out of a block and then tap around until they found a hollow sound. They would then easily locate the tunnel and remove all the digging equipment and block it up. There were, however, two tunnels they never found; one was built by the officers and the other by the other ranks. Both were quite excellent.
The escape committee realised that to be effective the tunnel must start out of the blocks. The blocks were U shaped with the open end of the U towards the perimeter wall. There was only one block with the U not overlooked by a sentry box and it was within that U that the tunnel started. Officers were recruited to conduct lectures on the land where the tunnel was to start. It was common to sit on blankets for lectures so it was easy to conceal under a blanket any activity when the Carabinieri came past. At that point the lecture was in full swing. A wooden framework was made from bits of our beds and sunk for about 9 or more feet and from the bottom the tunnel ran towards the wall. The disposal of soil was the first problem. To begin with we filled our trouser pockets with soil and walked round the perimeter slowly letting it drop out. The ground changed colour somewhat but this was natural as many feet could be expected to disturb the soil. Then came a great bonus. The tunnel ran up to a very large main sewer going down to the river. With difficulty this was broken into and from then on soil was systematically deposited on a shelf constructed over the sewage flow – again out of wood and extended as far as was necessary. It was at first thought that the sewer was the perfect escape route but on investigation a metal grill was found which was impassable. The tunnel continued forward and was completely through at the time of the Italian Armistice.
The other ranks’ tunnel was from inside their cookhouse. They had a large copper in which to boil water and food. They hit on the idea of going down below the fire box. Whenever they were searched the copper was just warming up with a fire burning below it. I believe that tunnel was also completed before the Armistice – but I’m not sure.
Before the end of 1942 – just prior to Christmas – we had a visit from the Pope’s Nuncio who gave every P.O.W. a small diary for 1943 and if you were a Roman Catholic you also received a set of Vatican stamps. I kept brief notes in the diary and so I can pinpoint exactly the dates of events during the year. The entries in the diary are very sketchy and often very difficult to read being sometimes in pencil and sometimes in biro. Frequently I’ve had to use a magnifying glass to decipher the writing.
The main event of January was the issue of warm clothing. I’ve noted:
23 – warm morning – battledress and boots issued. Lovely and warm.
24 – underwear issued. 2 pairs socks, 2 shirts, 2 vests, 2 pants – all very good.
The previous days frequently refer to the cold but this was not surprising with only one blanket and one’s tropical kit to keep one warm.
Lectures and plays were in full swing and after the 11th January I attended lectures on Bankruptcy, Company Law, Sale of Goods, Conveyancing, History and Literature.
Plays were put on in the cookhouse block and were of a very high standard. I’ve noted “Mice & Men” and “Whoops Dearie”. Regularly we had reports by the C.N.A. (Chieti News Agency). These were generally very good and gave us hope.
I refer to a number of officers in the diary and often to “Trot” Taylor who lectured on military history primarily. He was very erudite. He was a tank major with an M.C. He was called “Trot” as he had wild hair and looked like Trotsky. Mike Dunn was another of our officers. He came from Devon and dreamt of going home to farm. Leslie Bowie, J.E.M. Mitchell, John Collinge, John Arbib are often referred to as they were some of my immediate companions. Peter Barnett is not referred to but I spent tmany happy discussions with him. He was a solicitor and the brother of Sir Geoffrey Barnett (the husband of Lady Barnett). We both knew so many Leicester people. There were many others not referred to but whom I remember including regular actors such as Paul Hardwick, Alan Glover (an R.T.R. man), John Metcalfe and Jimmy McFarlane (a female impersonator). Then there was Tommy Watson, Tony Baines and John Dugdale.
At the end of January I’ve noted:
“Generally the food is going off. The fruit is scarce and the soup which is our main diet is nearly all onions and macaroni or rice. If it wasn’t for the Red Cross I don’t know where we’d be”.
At this time also we had various photographs taken and I still have these. How I managed to get them home I cannot now remember. I must have had them in my pocket whilst escaping later . .
February seems to have been a somewhat uneventful month. There were the usual lectures, plays and a deal of book reading.
A R.A.F. officer was brought in on the 27th Feb. He was Newberry from Hugglescote (near to Whitwick). I knew his father when we lived in Whitwick.
At the end of February I’ve noted:
“The food is still getting less and the Red Cross parcels are running low – enough for three more weeks. We get half a parcel per week and except for Christmas have never had more. The C.N.A. have always been most optimistic and say we’ll be out of the bag by 15th April!”.
On the 1 st March – St. David’s day – we had a Welsh Dinner – about 20 of us. I proposed the toast “Cymry am beth” – very badly! Of necessity the food was not of the highest and of course brought by ourselves. We managed some vino!
During March the plays and shows I’ve noted were “Ten Minute Alibi”, “Anything Goes”, “The Affair of Aunt Isobel Concluded”, and “Hullaballoo”. The Italian officers were invited to some of these and reciprocated by sending us six bottles of wine. I don’t know who had the wine – I certainly didn’t!
It was in March that I started to lecture on Equity – which I quite enjoyed. It was also in March when we got two hot showers each week. They were wonderful.
At times we were very depressed. My diary entry for 10th March reads:
“Italians lost a hammer and had a general search. They kept us in bungalow from 12.30 to 8.00. We had no food from 6.30 the night before until 8.30 tonight – 26 hours. Col. Kilkelly told the Italian interpreter what we thought of him and refused to call a roll call without a protest. The Italians are a poor miserable nation that can only hit a man when down”.
Obviously written at the time when fed up!
At the end of March I’ve noted:
” ……. news in Tunis appears to be good …… Have been having a parcel a week since the middle of March. Everyone much better as a result ……… ”
” ….. The fuel for one small stove which began at the end of January was stopped at the beginning of March! The one stove had to warm six large rooms – each having 30-40 officers”.
April was an uneventful month. We certainly did not get out of the bag on the 15th. At least two tunnels were found by the Italians and after the second I’ve noted in my diary:
“10. Tunnel found in room of 60. Half room (inmates) told to go to cooler. A large number of the camp led them to the (wire gate) with a bagpipe leading. At the wire we sang “South of the Border” and “Why are we Waiting”. Croche (the Italian officer interpreter who used scent) arrived. We sang “Ain’t She Sweet”. Then the Commandante arrived. The crowd stood to attention. He wisely treated the whole thing as a bit of a joke and said that the Carabinieri were charged with the task of preventing “demolition works”. 20 Italian other ranks were in cooler for singing English song “South of the Border” and for disobeying orders”.
Outside the camp a nightingale could be heard. How I longed to be over the walls and free again. In fact we were occasionally allowed out for conducted walks but
only under strict supervision and on the clear undertaking that we would not attempt to escape. We were marched in units under our own commanders but with overall Italian guards. These were enjoyable outings as we were able to see some of the outside world and how the Italian civilians were living. The colours of the fields, trees and houses were often very attractive. Particularly I remember the bright red of the chillies hanging by the houses.
Plays I’ve noted in April were “Belinda” (in with John Collinge was Betty the maid) and “The Man who Came to Dinner”.
We were visited by the Protecting Power (Switzerland) during the month. They were satisfied with what they saw.
May was another uneventful month. I started to collect butterflies and moths and had a very good collection by the time I left Chieti. The moths would come into the bungalows at night and settle on the white walls in the morning where they were easily caught. A little wiff of chloroform from the dentist was the best way to kill them. I got many Hawk moths and Emperor moths. I left the collection on the train later – I wonder what happened to it?
On the 10th May I received a next of kin parcel from Betty. It was dated 17th March but it was wonderful with a large warm blanket.
June was another uneventful month: John Arbib became ill but was back from the sick bay in about a week. I’ve noted:
“Arbib in hospital – peace!”.
Things began to change in July for the better. The Italians became more helpful. On the 11 th July I’ve noted that flag no longer flies at gate – “Why?”. On the 24th we went swimming to the river at OS.50. It was a pleasant walk through the country lanes.
But on the 26th my entry in the diary is:
“Best news so far in bag – Mussolini deposed and the King of Italy takes over. O.R’s not allowed out for a swim. The Italians in the camp are most happy. Martial law in Italy”.
And the final entries for the month are:
“27. The trains going up the hill (to Chieti) have flags on them ….. today (Italian) paper runs down fascist regime.
2S. Betty’s birthday. Dreamt of B last night”.
During July and August it was noticeable that the allied airforces were more active and Pescara was frequently bombed. We could hear these raids from the camp. I’ve noted on the 27th August:
“Went for a swim. Air raid as we went down at 08.45. Off as we came back at 11.00. Another air raid at 11 .15 when two large flights of planes went over at a great height. We think these are the first allied planes we have seen since being in the bag”.
Red Cross parcels ceased to arrive and our reserves would run out by the end of September even at only 1/2 parcel per week. We were however able to be inoculated with T.A.B. and our dentist still operated to help us keep well. I had two small stoppings and was able to get some glasses which helped my long vision. Whilst on the subject of health I should note that we had had a very severe epidemic of jaundice in the winter. Very few escaped and some were very yellow. The medics originally said that it could not be transmitted to others but later they came to the conclusion that it could. I was one of the very few who escaped without getting jaundice. I have no idea why.
I of course did not know it but September proved to be my last month of captivity and was a most eventful and exciting month. It was a month of rumours, some of which were correct. We heard that our forces had landed in Italy and at Naples. We also heard that the Italians had asked for an Armistice and had accepted our terms.
My diary reads:
“9. Did not lecture today. Carabinieri off by day and night. Sentries still on walls.”
“10. Final meeting of Law Society. (We divided text books). Got “Gibsons Divorce.”
“11. German “B” vehicles passing gate all day.”
“12. Sentries off wall by day – only on at night “to protect us”. Band played “God Save the King” – for the first time since the Italians stopped it months ago – it was great. Six engined German plane flew over.”
“13. Sentries on wall again for our protection.”
“14. About 15 Italian sentries deserted last night. During the day things have become quite exciting. Another 15 guards went over the wall with their suitcases. Sentries left their boxes and their rifles and deserted. They had heard that the Alpine Division in the district had deserted “en bloc”. Some armed troops under German subaltern called and wanted to be assured that everything was in order. They said that they did not want us! A very good show.”
“15. Woke up 07.00. Walked round camp. All sentries gone. A small girl was in one of the sentry boxes! Only the officers and Carabinieri and a few Italian soldiers left. About 250 gone home (casa). We’ve been trying to get out for more than a year. Now the Italians have gone we will not get out! We guard ourselves especially after two O.R.s tried to get out and made a break. The Carabs were in the boxes for a short time. Italians and British cooperating completely. Germans in area but seem to leave us alone. They are supposed to be commandeering all civilian vehicles in Chieti. Many rumours. Trying to build a wireless to receive British News. Food and fruit coming into camp. Tommy Sampson played “the last post”. (The Italian trumpeter went last night). It sent a thrill down one’s spine. The whole camp stood to attention. British news is coming in”.
The Senior British Officer (S.B.O.) was a man called Marshall. He was an English Lt.Col. and not a very popular man. I imagine he would be the sort who loved his pink gin at lunch and started to drink whisky at sundown. He addressed the camp on the 13th Sept. and said he had orders from our forces to stay put. We were not to attempt to escape and he instituted a rota of guards to see that none of us attempted to get out. He said the remaining Italians were only their “For our protection”!! If anyone was caught escaping he would be court martialled! Because of his action 90% of the camp was finally moved to Germany. If we had all been allowed out – as was the case in a number of camps – one wonders how many would have escaped to our lines. Those that went to Germany had a very bad time and many died. On the other hand those that escaped often were killed later – as was the case with my friend John Collinge who went back to fight in Germany after he got back to England. Despite the many reports critical of him Marshall was cleared in a post-war court of enquiry of any responsibility for the capture by the Germans of the prisoners of war under his command.
On the 16th September I’ve noted that Tommy Sampson played the Reveille – again a great joy. ,
By now we were getting regular British news on the wireless and we were hopeful that we would be free soon. The Germans visited us almost daily but did not take us over and we continued to guard ourselves. The O.R.s went out and collected rations. They brought back information and rumours. They reported that there were many escaped P.O.W.s in Chieti but we still stayed put!
My diary continues:
“21. Woke up to find German guards on walls. Two on box by us with Spandau machine gun. German troops are paratroops. Caused great excitement.
23. Awakened early to find that Germans were moving the Americans and approx. 50 British by road to an unknown destination. Another party left at 2
o’clock – about 500 moved altogether. Camp seems very quiet. Packed kit as it seems we are all being moved.
24. Orders to move by lorry. Arrived Sulmona about midday. Good surroundings but what a prison to live in for two years. During the breakout walls were pushed down and there is much more freedom. [The camp at Sulmona was one which was enabled to escape, unlike Chieti]. The Germans treat us well. Scrounged round camp. Collected bed – feeding things etc. Quite comfortable.
25. Again fixing myself up with John [Collinge] and Mike [Dunn]. Found brand new law books. Long roll call parade ….. Germans have not got our names and do not know our numbers exactly. It is said that approx. 1,000 O.R.s are still out after the breakout. Every day a few are brought in.”
In my diary I then give a long story of 2 officers and four O.R.s who were captured in Greece and tortured and ill treated. As related to me at the time it was very real but as I read it now I wonder if some of it wasn’t exaggerated for the benefit of the listeners. If it was true it was very shocking. One of the officers was said to be insane and in the care of a monk in a monastery.
On the 26th Sept., John Collinge and four others tried to escape. One of the five dressed up as a German N.C.O. His uniform was made up from bits and pieces collected around the camp. The props department of the theatre at Chieti made some of us masters of the trade. The sham N.C.O. marched the four other escapees who were in O.R.’s dress through the gates as though on some fatigue. The O.R.s were carrying a box in which was their escaping equipment, i.e. clothes, food etc. They were not stopped by the proper German guards at the gate. The Germans were a very mixed bunch of soldiers and obviously did not necessarily know each other. Our party got about 400 yards beyond the gate and around a building where they donned their escaping clothes. They were just about to move off when a German patrol spotted them and brought them back to the camp. They were put into the cooler under guard and spent a miserable 20 hours without food as theirs had been taken from them.
In my diary I’ve noted:
“21. John Collinge and others sentenced to 3 days No.1 Punishment, i.e. 2 blankets each, a loaf and water each day. Managed to slip them some books and chocolate. The German guards now treat them well. …. ”
29. John Collinge out of bag.
30. Germans moved us suddenly. Warned at 12.30. On parade packed at 2.00. Went to Sulmona station by lorry. American bombing had been very effective. Thirty officers with kit in a wagon. Very crushed. Did not move off until about 02.00 (1 st October). Germans took our names and ranks”.
When we were having our names taken at the station one of our officers made a run for freedom across the station yard to some cover. He was an easy target and was shot by a guard and instantly killed. His body was put in one of the wagons which meant that the rest of us were more crushed. It was a sobering experience. It was at this time that I learnt that I was a Hauptmann (captain). The wagons were standard cattle trucks of the time and were more frequently used for transporting horses.
I dropped from the train on the 30th September 1943 and joined the Americans on the 2nd November 1943. The month of October was never to be forgotten!
I wrote to Betty on the last available post from Chieti before we were taken over by the Germans. I don’t know when she heard from me but I do know that it was a long time before she knew I was safe, well and free. I knew where I was roughly all the time and that I was alive. She was in a state of limbo. Was I alive or dead? Was I injured? Was I in Italy still or was I in Germany? Sometimes I think those left at home had a far worse time than those in the forces.
The cattle trucks we were in were all bolted from the outside and the guards were in three trucks – one at either end and the third in the middle of the train. When the train stopped the guards at once surrounded it. When it moved off it had to go slowly to allow the guards to climb back into the train. John Collinge and I decided we would make a break when the train was slowly moving off as we judged the guards would be preoccupied in getting back on board and would, if still dark, be blinded by the lights from the guard’s van. We had to force a small ventilator open at the top of the truck – this had been nailed shut – and then climb up and squeeze through the aperture. At about 02.30 John dropped off first and I followed immediately afterwards. I made a lot of noise kicking on the inside of the truck and after I squeezed through I slid down the outside to the ground and lay hoping I would not been seen by the guards in the van, the light of which was coming slowly towards me. I did not move as the lights passed me and I then realised how lucky I’d been that I had not fallen across the line. The wheels of trucks looked huge and menacing as they rolled past. I could easily have had an arm crushed. It was pitch dark. I was free. I heard the train go into the distance and wondered how John and I would find each other. We had dropped our kitbags and haversacks out just in front of us and I managed to find my haversack but not my kitbag. I walked back knowing John would come towards me. He did and we met. He too could only find his haversack. We decided we could not move far as we wanted to get our bearings. We later learnt that we had dropped off near the station at Pretza.
My diary reads:
“30 Sept. We got away successfully with reasonable kit. Lay up until first light – found that we were by a vineyard – so helped ourselves. Two Italians then picked us up – one had been to America and could speak a little English. Language difficulty for us.”
At first light we sorted out our kit and found we had some chocolate but no other food and no drink. The vineyard we were in gave us complete cover and shelter but as soon as we moved out the fields were open and it was obvious we would be seen at once as there were many people about. We decided to go up to the first two we saw working in a field and ask for help. Fortunately one of them turned out to be a very good and guided us for many days. He was called “Toni”. He took us to a small
depression in the hillside from which we had a wonderful view over the valley. He went down into the village and organised some of the women to bring us food. They made us most welcome and gave us plates of Polenta with cheese and vino. It started to rain so we were moved to a small cave where we spent a very cold night. One of the Italians had a sharp knife which was his pride and joy. He told us he had killed a man with it!
The next morning we were again fed most generously and John had his hand (which he had slightly injured) cleaned and bandaged by a pretty girl whose name was Luigina. When you are young and you are male and you have not seen a member of the other sex for more than a year it’s quite surprising what an electric effect a girl has on you! She was really beautiful and had a wonderful figure!
We were told that the British were at Benevento and we were advised to stay put until the British arrived. We found, during the following month, that the Italians always wanted us to stay. We felt that they thought we could be a protection to them and possibly get them some just reward for the most generous way we were treated. We did in fact sign many chits to say what benefits we had received and I only hope these were honoured and duly paid for by the British.
We also heard that the Germans were taking everything from the Italians and largely living off the land as indeed armies have dome from time immemorial. They were taking salt, sheep, pigs, fruit, corn, clothing, trucks, etc. etc.
I’ve noted on the 2nd Oct:
” ………. Very few trains go past in day. British and American fighters over again today. An explosion and small arms fire towards Popoli this morning (sabotage of petrol).”
In the evening we were taken after dark to a house in the village. The Italians were careful to see we were inconspicuous as they were fearful that some of the young fascists mig’ht inform the Germans of our presence in the hope of a reward. Again we were made most welcome and given more food and vino. We spent the night in a loft with maize stalks on the floor. It was very warm and comfortable and we both had a good sleep. There were some mice but these did not worry us.
The next day we stayed in the loft all day and were visited by other escaped P.O.W.s. We met David Roberts and Philip Gibbs in the evening and they joined us in the loft for the night. We were given a treat of veal for our evening repast. It was Luigina and her friend Philippa who brought us our food. The loft was reached by a ladder from outside the building. We would hear steps on the ladder and remain concealed until we knew it was a friend arriving. The two girls washed our dirty clothing and organised our change to civilians. John was easily fixed up as he was a small man but they had difficulty in providing for me. However, the station master was a tall man and one of his blue suits fitted me. I was very sorry to lose my
battledress but I kept my greatcoat which proved invaluable later as it had a more fugitive colour and was warm.
I’ve noted on the 4th that we were fed on halibut! The people we met were very poor and short of everything but they were prepared to share what they had with us. I cannot praise their generosity too much. Their great hope was in the coming of the British. They hated the Germans and the Fascists.
A German Division from Naples was said to be at Raiano. (I cannot find it on the map). We all hoped they would pass us. Our airforce was very active.
We had no accurate news and it was difficult to assess when, if ever, the allied armies would be with us. The Italians were, as I’ve said, always optimistic and always pressed us to stay and await the arrival of our forces which they assured us would only be in a few days time.
As the days dragged on we began to get impatient and slowly realised that we would have to make a move and ourselves attempt to join our forces.
On the 7th October we moved into a house with Toni. It was a great improvement as we were able to sleep on a mattress on the floor of the kitchen. We always slept with our clothes on in case we were discovered and had to make a run for it.
We stayed in the Prezza area until the 20th October being looked after by Toni and his family and friends. In the daytime we went for long walks in the hills and reconnoitred the whole area. The foothills of the Apennines in the autumn are particularly beautiful. It was a period of comparative relaxation even though we saw Germans in the distance every day. We went back into Prezza at night and always very cautiously. We were not only afraid of the Germans but of some Italians – particularly the younger ones – who were capable of giving you away for a cash reward. I remember on one occasion being handed a German poster which announced that anyone handing over an escaped prisoner of war to the Germans would be rewarded by a certain sum. I wanted to keep the poster but the Italians who were with us tore it up.
My diary for this period is very sketchy and many days go by with no entry. I see that we sometimes had to spend a night in a cave when the Germans were in or too near to the village. David Roberts left us but Philip Gibbs stayed with us all the time and I finally got through to our lines with him alone.
We spent several days in the vineyards picking grapes. This, we felt, helped the Italian women to get in the harvest and as the vines were fairly high gave us good cover from the Germans.
One day two attractive looking nuns joined us in the vineyard and we all helped the Italians to put the grapes into the panniers on the donkeys. At dusk we would take them back to the presses where the women would press the grapes with their feet.
John, Philip and I worked hard and at the end of a day our thumbs were very sore and often bleeding. It was here that we were joined by a young Scottish other rank who took a fancy to one of the nuns. I should say the nuns kept very much to themselves and did not enter into conversation with us. On the day after the nuns arrived the young Scot said to me that he thought one of the nuns was really rather good and he intended to see if she would respond to his advances. He slowly worked towards the nun in the vineyard and at last was alongside her. He carefully chose his moment and then reached down to touch the bottom of her leg. He was shocked to hear a deep voice come from the nun who said “You bloody fool – I’m an escaped prisoner myself’.
Later we learned that other prisoners had escaped by dressing up as women.
On another occasion we watched from a hillside vantage point the removal of all women and children – the men had all gone – from La Roca by the Germans. They were taken to Germany presumably as slave labour. We were told this was for harbouring prisoners of war. From where we hid you could hear across the valley the shots and cries of the women and children. It was very depressing. Later on we were to be very much closer to a similar operation.
( I’ve noted the village as La Roca which is the name the Italians gave me at the time – but I cannot now find it on the map – unless it be “Rocca Tia”).
Before we finally left the Prezza area I collected the names of some of those who helped us and some are these:
Terragniole Tereso Ciorletto Mario (the father of Luigi) Biacio Enrico Eramo Francesco Dipietro Antonio (?Toni) Dante Antonio Antonio Antonelli Scarnecollia Luigi Leone Ottilino Barrea L’Aquila
Incidentally John and I were called “Giovanni” and “Estaccio”. They had no name equal to any of my Christian names – except for John – so “Estaccio” was nearest to Eustace that they could think of.
On the 20th Oct. we moved off having said goodbye to our friends and given them all chits to say how much they had each helped us and asking the British authorities to pay them for their help. Our own party consisted of John Collinge, Philip Gibbs and myself.
Some of our friends came with us for a short way but by the end of the first day we only had “Toni, “Pomp” and “Pipino” and the last two left and they said goodbye on the 22nd Oct. but Toni continued with us for another day.
Our path on the 20th took us high up into the mountains. In the evening we arrived at a shepherd’s hut in which he housed his goats. He generously allowed us to spend the night in with the goats. Each goat had a bell round its neck and every time it moved the bell tinkled. However, as soon as we and the goats had all settled down on the warm dry floor composed of dried goat droppings we spent a very restful night and I for one never heard a sound from any goat. Incidentally I think the goats slept standing up.
During the first day we walked for about 5 miles and only saw Germans in cars in the distance.
The following day (21 st) we made good progress and covered about ten miles. We spent the night in a charcoal burner’s hut. We heard the charcoal burners chopping wood long before we reached them and were very doubtful whether we should approach them as we had been told that they were a race apart and might give us away. They turned out to be most helpful and gave us food. They were supreme craftsmen at building the wooden domes which they turned into charcoal. We could not understand their Italian but we managed somehow to communicate.
My memory now after nearly half a century is very vague as to the next few days. can see from the map I marked up shortly after I was back in our lines shows the dates I was at certain points and so I can calculate the distance we walked each day. We had no maps so made our way southerly knowing that we would meet our forces somewhere. We kept to the high ground except when we had to come down to cross roads, rivers etc. Generally the Germans did not go to the tops of the Apennines but we did encounter a mountain mule unit at the summit of the highest mountain. The mountains on our route averaged between 6,000 and 7,000 feet and were liberally wooded on their lower slopes. Needless to say woodlands gave us very good cover but we always chose to walk along paths if possible as they were much easier going.
My diary too is sketchy. On the 22nd I see we slept two in a small bed in an old charcoal burner’s hut. We had crossed a road successfully.
On the 23rd we risked going into one village called Opi but when we saw some Germans we moved out quickly and went up the mountains where we found a number of Italians in a half completed wooden hut with no roof. They lit a huge fire in the middle of the floor and we were able to keep warm all night even though it was very cold outside. We were given some hot Polenta to eat as well as cheese. We felt fairly safe as the fire could only be seen from the air and few planes came over the mountains at night. We must have been over 6,000 feet at this point and it was hereabouts the next morning that I saw for the first and only time in my life a pine
marten. I was quite thrilled by its beauty and agility. On the 23rd we had only travelled about 5 miles.
The next day we again did not travel far. We passed the Meta mountain (2,167m) and it was here that we met a German mountain artillery unit with its mules. I shall never forget the leading German soldier stepping out freely along the narrow path singing at the top of his voice with great gusto and freedom. We were spotted and had to disperse quickly. However they didn’t waste time on us and after firing a few shots at us went on their way much to our relief. The three of us were in civilian clothes which may have saved us. That night we remained high up in the mountains and again came upon some Italians who built a large fire – in the open this time. They insisted that no Germans would come up to them at that height. We stayed with them for the warmth but I know that we three were not too happy after our experience earlier in the day. We had no food.
On the 25th we had to come down off the mountains to cross a road. When we were moving along a path by some fields I was leading and failed to see that we were walking straight up to a German anti aircraft position. John and Philip shouted to me to stop and I then realised our danger. The Germans did not come out to us but sent up Verey lights, presumably to indicate to some other unit that something of interest was about. We very quickly changed course and found cover along a valley that was wooded on both sides. We moved up into the woods on the south side and came to a vantage point where we could see below us the road and small stream we had to cross. As we looked down we were alarmed to see a number of Germans below us who had obviously seen us against the skyline. They again sent up some Verey lights and we saw that two of their number (there must have been about 30 of them) were dispatched to intercept us. We did not know what to do as we appeared to be trapped. If we went back we would be caught by the A.A. unit and if we went forward we could only surrender. Fortunately we were amongst the stumps of trees that had been cut down and had started to put up sprouts to about 12 feet. The sprouts still had leaves on and we were able to hide ourselves in the base of these trees. We $pent hours lying down praying we would not be found. We were lucky. I actually saw the hobnailed boots of one of the Germans fairly close to me but thankfully he did not see me or either of the others. We waited there until darkness and then we very gingerly moved out and down into the valley where we had first seen the Germans. We very carefully and quickly crossed the dried up stream bed and up the other side. We were very close to a bridge which carried the road we had to cross. This bridge was guarded by the Germans. We could hear them as the guards were changed and we could see their cigarettes glowing as they relaxed by the bridge. Our progress here was very slow – literally inch by inch as we did not want to move even a single stone to make any noise. When we finally arrived at the road we were some hundred yards from the bridge and now had to duck down when the occasional vehicle came past. I went across first and found that we had to cross a stream by a small wooden bridge with a farm building beyond. A dog was barking in the farm and we debated whether we could safely cross the bridge. It started to rain. We were very cold and had not eaten since we were given polenta and cheese · some way back. John, who was the smallest of us, went over the bridge safely and
Philip and I then followed. We skirted the farm and were pleased to get safely out into the open fields beyond and away from the dog. The rain got worse and we decided we were too exhausted to go much farther after we got to a wood at the side of a hill. We had been without food for a long time and were very hungry. I believed holly bushes were dry underneath – having been told as a boy that tramps took shelter under them. We found a holly tree and John and I settled down side by side under it to try and keep warm and dry. We had a miserable remainder of the night and got very wet. I think this was the low point of our journey as I remember discussing whether it would not be more sensible to go back onto the road and give ourselves up to the Germans. We would have been given food and dried off – but we would have been prisoners again and this we could not tolerate, so at the dawn we moved off and up into the mountains again – still wet and hungry. I doubt whether we covered more than 4 miles during the whole of the previous day.
Our luck now changed. The rain stopped and we dried off. We crossed another road without incident and on our way up the other side we came to a house at the edge of a wood where we were made welcome by the Italian family. They gave us fried eggs, chicken and white wine! We had two hot meals in that house and our morale was boosted greatly. Once again we felt that we owed the Italians such a lot and of course we signed chits saying how much they had given us.
It was at about this time that John began to feel somewhat unwell. He had a tendency to gippy tummy. It wasn’t very surprising as the occasional food we had been given was very dubious and we had drunk from the streams as we went along.
On the 27th we moved on and up into the mountains to a small village called Conca Casala. I should love to visit it now. I believe it could only be approached by mule tracks although it had a church and a few buildings. Construction there must have been very difficult but the Italians are great engineers.
Before we got to the village we rested for a short time in a shepherd’s hut. Later this was to prove a godsend to John after Philip and I had to leave him.
When we got into the village we found it was full of people from all over the place who obviously thought it was a safe refuge. We too thought we could safely stay there and let our forces come up and pass by leaving us free without any effort. How wrong we were!
Someone who spoke English told us that the priest would be able to help us. We met him on the way to his house and found him to be a very distressed man. He could not suggest any place for us to go but he did give us a few lira which he thought might help. It was the only Italian money we had at any time and was later to prove useful. Whilst we were talking to the priest an Italian army officer still in his uniform came up and said he thought he could find us a place of safety. He took us to a stable with a loft over. The door was shut and locked but he managed to get the key from somewhere and let us in. There were seven mules tied up inside and the loft was reached by climbing up pegs in the wall. The pegs were no more than 1 ~
feet long and were placed diagonally up the wall to the open entrance in the roof. I had never seen such a ladder before and have never seen one since. It was so simple. The loft had a good supply of some rough fodder under which we could hide if necessary and also use as warm bedding. After the officer left us he went down the pegs past the mules and out of the door which he locked. We were somewhat taken aback as we were now quite unable to get away without breaking the door down and this would have been difficult. We came to the conclusion that the wisest thing was to settle down and get some rest and hope for the best. In the meantime John was getting worse and had to go down the pegs to the stable to relieve himself as he did not want to foul our temporary home. How he managed to keep himself clean does not bear thinking about. (When we were walking in the open there was always vegetation and streams to assist us). We had no watches. It was dark in the loft and at sometime in the evening we heard the lock being opened and a slow shuffling noise came along and up the pegs. Whoever it was carried a lamp which shone its light into our roof. The three of us had hidden in the fodder and watched anxiously as an old woman’s head finally appeared. She could not speak English but left the lamp and then went down the pegs and brought up a tureen of the most wonderful smelling hot goat soup. We had no means of eating it so she went away and shortly came back with plates and spoons – I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a meal more. The goat’s meat was thick and the soup was rich. All we could say to the old lady was “multi gratzia”. When she went out she again locked the door. The food gave Philip and I renewed strength but unfortunately it had a bad effect on Joh n who got steadily worse and went up and down to the stable like a yoyo.
In the early morning we were awakened by the sound of rifle shots in the village and we could hear the clatter of hobnailed boots on the roads. The Italians generally had very makeshift shoes (often no more than rags wrapped round their feet and they could not easily be heard when moving around). Later we realised the Germans had moved into the village in some strength and then moved out all the inhabitants. The Italian men and boys had escaped to the surrounding hills but the women and children were left and we heard their cries as they were marched out of the village. We never knew what happened to them. Did they go to Germany as slave labour or were they just abandoned on the mule tracks in the mountains? The former was the most likely outcome as the Germans set up many camps in Germany and we certainly never came across abandoned villagers during our journey.
However, be that as it may, some of the German soldiers broke down the door to our stable and shouted with joy when they found the mules which they removed at once. We hid in the fodder and prayed they would not come up to us. They didn’t. Thank God. They went out and left the door open so we were now free to escape.
It was obvious to us that John could not be moved but he was anxious that Philip and I should get out of the village at once before we were found as it was quite apparent the Germans were establishing some sort of headquarters – probably mountain artillery – in Conca Casala. We thought that we might find some shelter outside to which we could move John. So Philip and I got out at dusk and spent the night in the surrounding wooded hillside. In the morning we watched the village and
saw the Germans arrive in greater strength and again move out all civilians that had escaped their first net. We wondered if John had been caught and tried to get back to him when darkness fell but found it hopeless as sentries were posted all around. We were fired on several times even though we thought we had made no noise. The Germans seemed to be very “trigger happy” which was unusual for them.
On the 30th Philip and I decided we would have to move away after some Italians joined us in the hills and said that the Germans had moved up a mountain artillery unit and were in the area in considerable numbers.
Later we learnt what had happened to John. When he realised the Germans were not going to move on he decided he must move out which he did on the night we had tried to get to him. He was spotted at one point and fired on but managed to crawl away. He went back up the mule path we had come in on to Conca Casala and got to the shepherd’s hut we had visited. Whilst there and still feeling very ill Frank Fisher and others found him and slowly got him away to join our lines eventually. Frank Fisher was a P.O.W. in Chieti and the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He later became headmaster at Repton School.
Philip and I spent the night in a shepherd’s hut with two Italians who had killed a sheep and tried to cook it. The meat was so tough that we could only chew it and I doubt whether it was very sustaining. We had two crusts of bread between us. The Italians were very jumpy as they said there were some young fascists who were informing the Germans of escaped P.O.W.s for reward. There were pigs in the shepherd’s hut and that night I snuggled up to a lovely fat and warm pig. He or she seemed to accept me readily. I was most grateful for the warmth and stillness. By now I was getting very lousy and often spent time killing the lice between my two thumb nails. The little blighters seemed to enjoy sucking your blood – particularly at night.
In the morning we met an Italian admiral who had established himself in a cave and kept chickens and a dog. He was a great character and said he was enjoying the freedom and no responsibility. He pointed out from his high vantage point in the hills the best “passage” for us to go along to join our forces which he said were not far away. As it turned out he was correct which was most unusual as generally Italians would point out a route which seemed to land up at some German strong point.
In the afternoon we came to a large farmhouse which appeared to be occupied by a wealthy farmer and his wife. We had difficulty finding them but when we did they were very frightened and said the Germans were very close and we must go away at once. They would not even give us a drink of water. In all our journey they were the only Italians who treated us badly. We went a short way up the hillside from the farm buildings and wondered where we should go from there. At dusk we saw from our vantage point the farmer come out of the house carrying a sack of something. He climbed to the top of a silage unit and undid the lid. He carefully lowered the sack into the silage and closed the lid, trapping the rope that was around the sack. He then returned to the house. We thought that he was hiding some of his treasure so
that the Germans could not loot it. It crossed our minds that we could easily have taken the sack but needless to say it was not a very practical thought for escaping P.O.W.s even though we had no love for that farmer. I wonder what was in the sack. Was it silver, jewellery, papers or what? Did the family – or even the farm – survive in the end?
In the night we moved to cross a road and watched a number of Mark IV German tanks moving westwards towards Cassino. We counted 20 in all. After they had passed we decided we would walk along the road which was much easier going. We were very concerned once when a figure came walking in the opposite direction. Neither it nor we said a word and both passed as far from each other as possible. It was obviously as frightened of us as we were of it. After that we abandoned the road and took to the hills again.
The next day we came across a small house which seemed to be full of women. They were fairly friendly and told us one of them had just had a baby so we were not taken indoors. However they said we could buy a chicken which they cooked. The priest’s liras were all spent but how well spent. Philip and I ate every bit of the chicken except the bones that we could not chew. We had been without food for a long time and were desperately hungry.
We moved on and came across another shack in which an old man and his wife lived. They were wonderful to us and gave us soup and fried eggs and vino. They wanted us to stay with them as they said the Germans were close and so were our forces. We knew we must be getting closer to the front line as occasionally we could hear shelling and our air force was quite active. The vino made us quite tipsy and we decided we would spend the afternoon in a clearing in the woods and rest before we made for what we presumed would be our lines.
It was a calm, warm and beautiful November 1 st. We both took off all our clothes and enjoyed the warm sun on our bodies. We spent ages killing lice which spent the days in the. seams of our clothing. I must have killed hundreds that afternoon squashed between my two thumbs. In the evening we moved back to our two friends who again gave us hot soup and fried eggs and vino. We spent the night in their loft in straw and felt very happy and not much worried by the bites of the lice.
At first light we moved down and along a track through the woods. Three Italians joined us -which we were not happy about as we believed we would be better able to join our own troops on our own rather than be cluttered up with others. However they stuck to us which from their point of view was reasonable as they no doubt thought we could help them with our soldiers.
We were moving quite freely when all of a sudden we were fired upon – possibly by mortars. There were several violent explosions around our path and we all dived for cover. Our little group must have been spotted by some German outpost. When things settled down we cautiously moved on and came to the edge of the wood overlooking a plain. We could see soldiers moving about and vehicles. The soldiers
had round German type helmets and at first we thought they were Germans but I recognised one of the vehicles as a Jeep. I had seen one when I was in N. Africa. Philip and I decided we would risk going forward as we were fairly confident the soldiers were Americans. We left the Italians and I don’t know what happened to them as the Americans seemed very pleased to see us and took control at once. My diary for 2nd November reads as follows:
” Moved off to try and get through. Walked to Presenzano where we found out the Americans were there. Great joy. Taken in and fed. Slept with blankets on a stretcher. Fed by Americans at Divisional Mess – 3rd American I nfantry Division”.
The first American G.I. we spoke to made us wait until he called his officer. We knew we were now safe and our faces must have shown our happiness even though we still stood up in civilian clothes. I was a Captain and Philip was a Lt. in the British Army and when we explained we were escaping Prisoners of War we were quickly accepted and within half an hour we were being interrogated by Corps Intelligence Officers who were most anxious to know about tank movements, troop movements and condition of bridges and roads. I remember they were particularly pleased to hear about the 20 Mark IV tanks we’d seen moving towards Cassino as they said they had lost them.
As the crow flies the distance we had travelled from getting off the train until we joined the Americans was about 45 miles but the route we took was very very winding and the actual mileage must have been at least twice. We had travelled through the month of October and just into November. The weather had on the whole been kind to us. It was a beautiful autumn with vivid colours in the woods and in places the fungi were very prolific. We saw Germans most days and were fired upon more than once. We had to split up from time to time but John, Philip and I usually managed to get together again. I was most sad when we got split from John at the end as he and I had been in so many tough spots together both in the tanks and as P.O.W.s. We could not have made it without the aid of the Italians – generally the older ones. They clothed us, fed us and housed us without stint and often we shared food with them when we were sure they had little to spare. We drank a lot of vino but only got tiddly once towards the end when we were probably very tired and weak. Of all of us I think I was the fittest and put this down to eating all I could as a P.O.W. and exchanging my cigarette ration for food. I also took advantage of the inoculations we were able to receive.
By the 4th Nov. we were in a P.O.W. cage in Naples under the British Army where we had to await clearance by the British authorities. They checked that we were truly the persons we said we were. This had to be done through England.
Incidentally very soon after we joined our forces we were given new clothes and all our civilian clothes were burnt. The stationmaster’s suit had done me proud but it had become very tatty and lousy and I was really glad to see it go. We also had to submit to a disinfectant bath which was most pleasant.
On the 5th to the 9th we managed to visit various places around Naples but could not get any messages back home until we had been vetted. In those days there was no such thing as telephone or cables except for army work. We were very unimportant people waiting in a vacuum. I learnt that John had managed to get back with Frank Fisher and visited him in hospital. Philip and I went to Herculaneum and Pompeii. We also visited Torre del Grecco twice but I cannot now remember what or where it was!
During these days we were moved to a transit camp ready to go back to England. was cleared and able to put up my three pips as a Captain.
On the 10th I’ve noted:
Awakened early – orders to move. Said goodbye to John in hospital – boarded our L.S.T. (Landing ship Tanks). Good berth, good food. Sailed at about 16.00 from Naples. Sick at night – ran into storm. Rolling very badly. Two hours watch”.
Until then I thought I was a good sailor. The Naval Officer in command put me on the bridge and told me I was to keep a watch out for enemy aircraft. If I saw any I was to give the alarm and the gun crews would at once man the guns. The ship pitched and tossed so much that I felt and became hopelessly sick and prayed the Germans would come and put an end to my suffering!
We moved in a slow convoy which arrived in Bizerta (Tunis) at about 14.00 on the 12th. Our ship had trouble with its steering gear so we had to spend the night on board.
Today (1992) by now, after the adventures I’d been through, I would have been medically examined, psycho-analysed, interviewed by the media – both television and radio -,and my family would have been informed at once that I had escaped and was free and back in allied hands. Then (1943) I was not medically examined or psycho-analysed. I certainly was not interviewed by anyone and the War Office did not tell my family or fiancee that I was free. In fact Betty first heard of my escape on the 11 th November. She received the first letter from me soon afterwards written in Algiers. It came as quite a shock to her as by then I had sorted myself out and asked her to marry me at once – which I then realised I ought to have done before I went abroad. I suppose I had at last grown up.
From the 13th to the 19th November we moved in stages by train to Algiers. It took a five day journey to achieve what normally took five hours – but I suppose it was a satisfactory rehabilitation process as we spent hours – even days in sidings eating plenty of fruit and good food and endlessly chatting. Early on the journey we found some sacks full of rose petals. These we made into most comfortable bedding in the carriage and soon we took on the lovely scent of roses!
By now Philip and I had parted company and I cannot remember who were my companions. We kept on meeting new friends with many different experiences. Some were coming from the fighting forces to go on leave and there were many escaped P.O.W.s. There were always miscellaneous hangers-on who did not seem to fit into any picture. I know there was a great feeling of hope that we would get back home soon.
In Algiers we were put in a transit camp on the racecourse and from there we visited during the next few days the British Officers’ Club, the officers’ shop and the pictures. The ex-P.O.W.s were a very happy and contented band but very independent. We were not supposed to go into certain parts of the town – including the Casbar – but this did not stop us as we wanted to see the truly native quarters. I remember one night it rained very heavily and we were by some Pullman coaches in a siding. We decided to spend the night in a sleeper – which was wonderful. The authorities must have been very tolerant of us! To feed out was always more exciting that remaining in the Transit Officers’ Mess.
On the 22nd November we moved to a rest camp some miles West of Algiers at Castaglione. I was billeted with a French family and treated wonderfully well. Every morning I was greeted by the good housewife by “Bonjour Monsieur” and I’d reply “Bonjour Madame” and that was the limit of my French speaking – shame!
My entry in my diary for the 23rd reads:
“Wrote Betty. Went for walks and ate good food. Enjoying things very much”.
The next few days we went for many long walks on the shore and I wrote to Betty. On the 26th I actually had a medical inspection which I passed O.K. We went shopping and I bought a large box of dates and some lemons. I hoped they would be welcome at home – and indeed they were. Lemons were almost unheard of in England and so were dates. Accidentally I’d chosen well.
I should mention that all escaped P.O.W.s had to be careful not to eat or drink too much. Our stomachs were not capable of taking the standard army food. There was a great temptation to take too much as we were being pressed by everyone to enjoy the food. One or two did eat and drink a deal and some landed in hospital. I was fortunate to survive this period.
On the 28th Nov. I embarked for Liverpool at Algiers on the Scythea which was a very old liner destined for the scrapyard. We sailed in convoy and arrived in Liverpool on the 9th December. The journey was uneventful. The convoy went past Gibraltar at night and well out into the Atlantic. I remember little of that voyage. I know I longed for it to be over and to get to England as soon as possible. Liverpool seemed dull and depressing in rain and drizzle – a typical English November day. We spent the night on board and entrained for Kegworth on the 10th.
I was met at Kegworth Station by Betty’s father who came to meet me on his bike as petrol was very short in those days. In my innocence I scrounged a lift with my kit in a car that happened to be going past the house. It was only later I realised how fortunate I’d been.
I don’t think I have to say much about the next few days and indeed months as it was such a happy time for both of us.
We were married on the 19th December 1943 in the Kegworth Church with the bells ringing for the very first time since bells were stopped at the beginning of the War. They were only to be rung as a warning of an invasion. My mother came up from Bournemouth but my father was not well enough to travel. My brother Mervyn was the best man and the vicar’s daughter (Ann Cartwright) was the bridesmaid. It was a very small wedding but those who could get came. In Kegworth I was treated as a bit of a hero. I remember walking down the High Street with Betty when a platoon of the Home Guard came marching along. Betty knew them all. The Sergeant in c~arge , when he saw me in my officer’s uniform, made his men march to attention and as they passed us commanded them “Eyes left”. Betty did not know what to do with herself!
I suppose I ought to end my narrative here and say “they lived happily ever after” but the war was still on and I was not to be free of the army for another two years.
I kept diaries for 1944 and 1945, but these are very sketchy. There are very few entries in 1944 except for “Betty”. This presumably was noting when I was on leave. I have sometimes noted the times of trains and it shows how travelling was disrupted and because of air raids or the warnings of air raids you could not predict a time of arrival. For instance on the 6th March I left Kegworth at 9.10 but did not arrive in Camberley until 4.15 and on the 17th March I left Camberley at 4.07 and arrived in Kegworth the next morning at 1 o’clock. The trains were very crowded and often one had to stand in the corridors for the whole journey. On one occasion Betty came down to me and had to stand the whole way from Kegworth to St. Pancras on the moving platform between two carriages. To have kit with one was sometimes an advantage as at least one could sit on it.
I was given a long leave which kept on being extended until finally I was posted to 100 O.C.T.O. at Sandhurst on the 6th March. During this leave I was sent for a medical inspection in Derby and saw a psychologist. I was passed A.1. That was in January. In February I was sent to Sanderstead, South Croydon to discuss a job. I was then recommended to be posted to an O.C.T.U.
During my leave Betty and I made the most of our time together and I began to realise how hard the living conditions were in England with rationing affecting everything.
We spent the first night of our honeymoon in the Cumberland Hotel in London. We had a very difficult journey from Kegworth after the wedding. The train was late arriving at Kegworth station and we sat side by side in the thick fog feeling very happy. London was worse as the fog was one of those very thick, dirty smogs which we don’t get nowadays. The tube station is very near to the hotel but we had to feel our way along the walls and were fortunate that we arrived safely. In the night there was an air raid and we were supposed to go down to the air raid shelter in the basement. We decided that we would stay in our room. If we were to die how much better it would be to be in each others arms.
After the Cumberland we went down to Bournemouth for a few days and then back to Kegworth.
At Sandhurst (it was called “Sandhurst” from the village just by but was of course in Camberley and the 100th O.C.T.U.) I was detailed to help in the collective training part of the cadets’ course. This was the final part where the cadets had to put together all the skills they had been taught on separate courses, i.e. wireless, gunnery, driving and maintenance, map reading, etc. All the officers at this stage had had battle experience and I really enjoyed my time there. By now we were equipped with tanks and went on many treks and schemes for miles around. Sometimes we were out for weeks on end. At first I assisted Eric Maitland (a regular
army Captain in a Cavalry Reg. and an old Harrovian)to run a troop and later we reversed roles and I ran a troop with Eric as my assistant.
I was at Sandhurst until the end of the year when our forces were advancing well into the Continent. It was known that I was a lawyer and I was detailed to be transferred to Military Government in the Legal Department, but I’ll come to that later.
“0” Day was June 6th and I’ve simply noted in my diary “Second front starts”. remember how very exciting it was to get the news. The build up for the invasion had been going on under great secrecy for months. I remember going down to Bournemouth with Betty on one leave and passing miles of tanks and other vehicles at the sides of roads where they were obviously just waiting to move forward to the embarkation points. I was lucky still to have my car and to be able to get a small ration of petrol.
At Sandhurst the passing out parades marked the end of a cadet’s training and these were important occasions when parents would often turn up. Many a time I’d be asked by a parent to point out a son. It was almost impossible when all the cadets were in similar uniform and were all lined up according to size. When the parades were over it was the son who always found his parents.
On October 9th I’ve noted “Peter born 8% Ibs”. That day we had a rehearsal for a passing out parade which was conducted by the Battalion Adjutant – Major Arthur James. The cadets were on the parade ground in front of the great portico and all the officers except the Adjutant were lined up at the back of the portico. I had received the message of Peter’s birth just before the parade started and was most anxious to ring Kegworth to know how Betty and Peter were getting on. I decided that it was futile to be standing on parade with nothing to do when I could get on the ‘phone usefully. I calculated I could move carefully to the great doors at the back and slip out unnoticed. I did just that and at once rang and found all was O.K. After the parade was over I got an urgent message to report at once to the Battalion Orderly Room. When I got there I saw that things were not good. Arthur James always had a red face but I could see it was even redder than usual. He tore a great strip off me. He said I’d made him the laughing stock of the Battalion by slinking off parade. I told him of Peter’s birth and he said “At least you’re honest”. After he’d fumed for a bit he dismissed me and I saluted him as smartly as I could. As I got to the door he called to me “Walters – Congratulations on your son. I hope they both do well”. Arthur James was a great man and most popular. In the Mess later he came straight up to me and insisted on giving me a drink and again wishing Peter and Betty well! Arthur was a guards officer – a short man with a moustache.
I had two days leave on the 11 th and 12th October and first saw Peter late on the 11th. How proud I was of him then (and still am after all these years!).
It was at Sandhurst that Eric Maitland married and I was his best man. The ceremony took place at Caxton Hall and the reception was at the Savoy Hotel in
London. I’ve no idea what has happened to them. I wonder if they are still together. He was a very wealthy man and a real gentleman.
In December we took a troop of cadets to Wales on a battle course where we used live ammunition. I found it great but many of the cadets found it very hard. We went up Snowdon in the snow with full equipment. Our route was selected to be hard. We were billeted in buildings that had no windows and sleeping was not easy. We survived! We attacked positions across a lake (Llyn Gwynant) and the officer had to be in front of the small landing craft whilst a sergeant on shore fired a machine gun with live ammunition onto the water in front of the boat. It was disturbing to see the waters being splashed up by the bullets coming closer and closer to one. I remember hoping the sergeant had a clear head and hadn’t got it in for me!!
What else can I now remember of my days at Sandhurst? There were the schemes in the rain when the water gradually dripped down the back of one’s neck and misery was great. There were the beautiful sunny days on Hanckley and Thursley Commons when everything was peaceful whilst we played war games. I enjoyed observing the flowers and the birds and insects. The war was obviously going our way and there was a much more relaxed attitude, especially after we had landed in France and our forces finally broke out to run across Europe. Betty came down to me often and we managed to spend many nights in an hotel in Camberley. Sometimes we were able to get down to Bournemouth to see my father, mother and sister Enid.
There was one delightful young waitress in the hotel at Camberley who was most attentive to our needs. One day she was missing and when we asked why we were told she had been found out entertaining Canadian soldiers in her room nightly. Such conduct was not welcome to the hotel’s reputation so sadly she had to go! She was sweet and one couldn’t blame the Canadians!
I finished at Sandhurst at the end of December 1944 and was posted to Military Government (Legal) at the beginning of January 1945.
On the 1 st January I was sent to a CASC Course at Wimbledon. I can’t now remember what CASC stands for! I was billeted with a Mr. and Mrs. Cockerill at 122 Victoria Drive. He was an accountant and in a reserved occupation. They had a son Barry who thought I was a great hero as an escaped P.O.W.
I was on the course until the 7th March when I was sent on embarkation leave. During the time at Wimbledon I studied the German situation and the German language. I also studied German law. I don’t think, looking back, that it was a great help. When we finally got to Germany the Control Commission cancelled all German law – both civil and criminal – and superimposed the Allies Proclamation which we lawyers enforced. We were not allowed to speak German in the Courts even if we kpew the language but had to conduct the proceedings through interpreters. We had to play things very much by ear and make the best of situations which could not possibly be envisaged in a class back in Wimbledon. Incidentally, I found that the officers at Wimbledon were on the whole persons without any battle experience and some of them were in my view there for what they could get out of it. Many policemen were seconded to the forces and often given the rank of Major. I was to meet them in Germany and must say I was not impressed.
Whilst at Wimbledon I was able to be with Betty quite often and managed to get down to Bournemouth with her. I also managed to see Ivor and Mervyn with her. They were lovely occasions.
My embarkation leave ended on the 20th March when I arrived at Eastbourne. We hung around Eastbourne at a transit camp until we embarked at Tilbury for Ostend on the 2nd April on an L.S.T. (Landing Ship Tank)
I’m writing this at Christmas 1992 and for 1945 I have the benefit of an Air Force diary which gives me the dates and times I was at various places on the Continent but it does not convey in any way the excitement, the joy, the thrill of that year. The allies were advancing from France through Belgium and Holland to Germany. As we went through Belgium and Holland we were greeted by smiling, cheering and waving inhabitants who were obviously overjoyed to be liberated. What a difference there is between a conquered crowd and a liberated crowd! When we finally arrived in Germany we were the conquerors and their and our whole attitude changed. We behaved properly as far as I was aware but some of the Canadian and Polish troops sometimes went out of hand. I recall protesting to a Polish officer whose men had been found out raping some German women. He told me he would not – and in fact could not – stop them. I should not forget what the Germans had done to the Poles at the beginning of the War and it was now their turn. There was one incident with one of our men which I had to stop. He had rounded up 4 elderly German civilians and was making them run round in a room using a whip. When I ordered him to stop
at once he said he was getting his own back for the death of his brother in an air raid in England. War was an unpleasant mess at times but on the whole 1945 was a year of anticlimax when the War was obviously going to end and for my part I only really wanted to get back to England and the family and start my civilian life again – even though by now I could work the army very well and got on with the system easily.
As I have said, I was a legal officer in Military Government and as such there was no proper work for me to do until arrival in Germany. After all we had no standing in Belgium and Holland and could only assist in the rehabilitation of those countries. As a result we were treated wonderfully and often went to parties organised by the residents of the places where we were billeted. We helped in organising D.P.s (Displaced Persons). These were coming in vast numbers from the East. We helped with a camp of 1,200 in Veendam. We organised the opening up of communications and roads and canals. I remember one canal was blocked by one of our tanks having broken through a bridge and settled firmly on the bottom of the canal so nothing could pass either over the bridge or along the canal. When we got the engineers to remove it the Dutch people were delighted and gave us a party! We had to issue passes to civilians who wanted to move any distance and sometimes we were able to catch undesirables. Generally, however, it was an easy time and it was at this time that I first came across David Goodrick-Clarke who became a great friend and was our son John’s Godfather after the War. He was a widower who had two potential wives lined up to marry when he got back. He and I spent a very happy evening in my room in Aurich in Germany. We began with a full bottle of Benedictine and by the time we drained the last drop we had decided which of the two he would marry. She was the one who was a member of the hunt he favoured in England – but that wasn’t the only point in her favour. She was gone over from top to bottom! After the War Betty and I saw them occasionally and I sometimes went shooting with him in Lincolnshire around the Wash. He became a partner in a firm of solicitors in Sleaford. That wife died and he married again but I never met this third wife and lost touch when he moved house and omitted to give me his address. My letters to him at his old address in Blandford Forum obviously got lost.
My diary shows that our journey through Belgium and Holland to Germany was very leisurely. I finally arrived in Aurich on the 22nd May having left Ostend on the 3rd April. Our party of Military Government personnel moving to Germany was a very mixed bag commanded by a Major whose name I think was Thompson. He was a shoe manufacturer in Northampton and collected old motor cars as we went along. These all had to come with us and frequently broke down. We had a small establishment of trucks to carry our belongings and I was lucky to be issued with a Jeep to take to a unit in Germany. I kept this Jeep until the 20th May when an order came for Capt. Walters to hand over the vehicle at once to the unit I’d been requi red to deliver it to long since. I was very sorry to lose it as I’d found it a great friend. In Veendam in Holland I’d found a conveniently sized gas equipment box in an abandoned German ack-ack position which exactly fitted into a part of the Jeep. It was padded and held bottles of wine safely even when going over the roughest ground. I still have the box which is called “the Jeep box” and now contains tools.
Our progress was entirely governed by the rate of advance of our armies. We were sometimes in one place for a day or two and at others we stayed for weeks. After Ostend we want to Harranhals near Tilburg via Gent and Antwerp. By the 9th April we were having a party in the Officers’ Mess at Hertsogen Bosch. We made a move into Germany to see a military court which had already been set up by another unit. We passed Nijmegen and spent a night at Enschede. Then on to Meppen where we were billeted in a German house where I slept under a duvet for the first time in my life and liked it. I had a bath in this house and took my revolver with me rather than leave it in my room for the Germans to take! On the 20th April we moved to Veendam. We were there until the 6th May and were billeted in a large house which had been occupied by Dutch German sympathisers. The house was fully furnished with a well stocked library of books of all languages including English. The former residents were removed to a detention camp. The residents of Veendam could not have been more helpful to us and David and I became very friendly with one family called Wilkins who invited us back there when we moved on to Germany. We would C(i)me back to join shooting parties. We were popular with our Dutch friends when we would bring back 20-30 head of game. It was a great help to them when food was very scarce.
It was at Veendam that four Yugoslavian officers came to us and asked permission to lay flowers on the grave of the crew of a British bomber which had been shot down. We were very impressed by their smartness and politeness. I now wonder how such charming people can be tearing themselves to bits in that country which is no longer.
Whilst stationed at Veendam, David and I went on a reconnaissance in our Jeep to Groningen the day after the Germans had withdrawn. Outside the town we were met by cheering crowds and one lanky boy of about 16 volunteered to guide us to wherever we wanted to go. He sat on the front of the Jeep. He was a delightful boy in scout uniform which was far too small for him – but somehow he’d made it fit. It had been his when the War began but he’d not been able to wear it since.
One of my most lasting memories of Holland was of the smells of the canals – they were terrible, especially on a warm day.
I was officially posted to 612 Detachment of Military Government on the 4th May and did a 200 mile trip via Meppen to Lochem where I was stationed for several days. Churchill broadcast to the nation on the 8th May and the War in Europe ended on that day. It made little difference to us as our forces were still in the process of mopping up and the War in the Far East was still progressing.
Our little unit went into Westerstede – just in Germany – on 16th May. The Union Jack was flying over the town hall – a wonderful sight!
I arrived with three other legal officers in Aurich on the 22nd May. The other three were David Goodrick-Clarke, Henry Durbridge and Mac (I can’t remember his full
name – he was always known as “Mac”). David and I became great friends and later we went shooting together both in Germany and Holland. Henry was also a friend who had his own solicitor’s practice in (I think) Bedford. He always said the practice was run by a domineering woman clerk who he would like to dismiss. Unfortunately he could not as she knew all the clients and everything about the business. He was a very gentle man who sadly got himself involved with a German girl. Mac was a solicitor from London who occasionally came shooting with David and me. We began work at once setting up courts to try the German civilians who were caught out offending our Proclamation which, as I’ve said, took the place of all their laws. We set up courts in Aurich, Emden, Leer, Norden and Javer. I set up the court at Javer which is a small country town in Friesland. I went in with my interpreter to the Rat Haus (town hall) and ordered the Land Rat (Mayor) to vacate the council chamber which we took over for the court. I told him exactly what I required for the furnishing of the court room and when I expected it to be ready for use. The Germans – who knew they had no alternative – readily cooperated and we all worked well with them. I see from my diary that I also set up the court at Wittmund.
To begin with our days were taken up with going round to the courts in the various towns and dealing with cases brought to us by the security officers. The Germans were entitled to be represented by German lawyers and we came to know some of them quite well as they were frequently before us. The jurisdiction of the courts was limited and we legal officers sat alone to try the cases. There were two other higher courts, Intermediate and General Military, to which appeals could be taken or to which, in the more serious cases, the matter could be referred direct. I think we were not able to impose a prison sentence of more than 5 years – but I may be wrong. The highest court could impose a death sentence – but this was very rarely used. We were told that we should impose stiff sentences as a warning to the Germans to behave – but we were also told unofficially that all sentences would be reduced within a couple of years. Some of the interpreters we had were very able people. They would accurately translate long speeches without hesitation. I could not speak German but got to understand a great deal as so much of the work was routine.
One had to spend a few days in the office in Aurich to keep the paper work in order but these days were not frequent. We always came back to Aurich at night and the Mess and living quarters were in an hotel – the name of which I forget. It was very comfortable and we were looked after by freed “slave labour” girls from the nearby camps. They were a very pleasant bunch of girls from the Baltic States – all had sad stories to tell. I wonder whether they finally got back to their own homes.
Once a week we had a Mess dinner with all the army “bull”. The C.O., who was a Brigadier, sat at the end of the long table and the officers in rough seniority sat at either side with the P.M.C. (President of the Mess Council) at the bottom. There were proper glasses for each officer to take sherry, white wine, red wine, port and brandy. The table looked spectacular after the hardships we had been used to. The food also was very good. The legal officers were only a small part of the detachment. A photo I have shows 25 officers. There may have been a few more
as some may have been away on leave. At the end of the meal the C.O. would gavel and address the P.M.C. – “Mr. Vice”. The P.M.C. would then rise and say “Gentlemen – the King” and we would all stand and drink the loyal toast. A happy evening would then follow with as much wine as we wanted. I should say that the wine, food and equipment was obtained from the Germans. Frequently we did not pay for it. All game shot was taken by us as of right. We had pheasants, partridges, hares and even roe deer, as well as duck of many kinds.
My diary shows that I was receiving letters from Betty regularly but sometimes they still came in bunches. I also note that I wrote her regularly. The main news from home was, of course, as to the progress of Peter!
I’m writing these notes in January 1993 and looking at my diary for 1945 I can now see how we were all in a period of winding down. The War in Europe ended and was to end in the Far East before the end of the year. I was granted 99 days leave on the 30th November and released from military duty with effect from the 9th March ‘4\6 which meant that I was back in civilian life on the 30th November 1945.
I cannot close this chapter without referring to a few more experiences which happened after I’d reached Aurich at the end of May 1945.
On the 30th May my diary just reads:
“Fed up. Went to sea with Henry Durbridge”.
I cannot remember where we went – probably the North Sea – or why I was fed up. do remember that we legal officers were very anxious to get back home to our families and civilian life as we felt those we had left behind were ahead of us in every way.
I see I prosecuted at a General Military Court on the 11th June. The accused got 10 years.
On the 13th June I was taken ill with stomach ulcers and moved to a hospital in Leer. From there I went by ambulance to an aerodrome at Cloppenburg and was flown to Brussels where I was admitted to 108 British General Hospital for tests and observation. I was there for 8 days and then discharged to a convalescent home near to Waterloo. I became friendly with a local family who owned a large house near to the home. I was there for 17 days and often spent the nights in the farmhouse. The family were called Thys and there were two children of about my age – a boy called Herve and a girl called Janik. It was at their farm that I first became interested in shooting and fishing although I can now remember little of each. I’ve recorded catching 10 fish one day and 16 another but I’ve no idea where or what sort of fish were caught. Herve, Janik and I went for many very pleasant trips in the vicinity including Waterloo and Brussels. We also went to shows in Brussels and visited the Ardennes, Namur and Dinant. We saw the beautiful caves of the Grotte de Han which reminded me of the caves at Cheddar.
On the 26th June Marie Hardy-Smith who was stationed at Ostend visited me. She was a Wren officer and had been in school with Betty. She managed to get a staff car with chauffeur to drive her over. Later she was able to report back to Betty as to my progress. She was Peter’s godmother. When I went through Ostend on the 3rd July I called at her Mess but unfortunately she was not in.
I see that I had dinner at the Atlantic Hotel, Brussels, on the 6th July with Janik and Herve and afterwards we went to the theatre and saw “French Without Tears”. Finally we went to a night spot called “Hell” which was rather disappointing. I really was having a very happy illness! The doctors were most kind and regularly extended my convalescence and allowed me to stay with the Thys family instead of in the mess. It all ended on the 9th July when I flew back to Hamburg and spent the night at the Atlantic Hotel there. The flight over Hamburg was incredible. The allied bombing had reduced vast areas to rubble – walls standing with no roofs. The hotel was an isolated island in a sea of devastation. I was to come back to the hotel at the beginning of October, but more of that later.
I flew from Hamburg to Ja’ver on the 10th July. I started back in the Courts the next day. I sat with Mac at Emden on the 11th and took a Juvenile Court there the next day. Thereafter I was back in full swing visiting Leer, Aurich and Wittmund regularly. I often went duck shooting with David and sometimes Mac. The Japanese asked for terms on the 10th August and the Japanese War ended on the 15th. It was the two atom bombs which ended it all. However, we were still in Germany and could not see when we would be back home. David and I managed to go shooting very often. The shooting was good as we went where we wanted and never asked permission. The game had not been shot much during the War and in some places was very well stocked. Germans with gun dogs were very happy to come and help us and we made some good friends. I remember going out with David one night duck shooting. We took with us two German wildfowlers and lent them a shotgun each. It was a remote area by the Grosses Mere in Friesland. We each had a small boat and my wildfowler took six domestic duck which he secured to bricks which he sank in the water so that the duck could swim around within a very small area. Our boat was in the reeds and the duck were carefully placed so that we were at the point of a V and the duck were the arms of the V in the open water. When wild ducks came over the German called them and they readily came round and landed within the V. I remember thinking how vulnerable I had made myself. The German was in the boat behind me with a shot gun in a very remote spot. However, we both shot a few duck and he took them home as we had as much game as we wanted. He was most grateful and David and I had had a new experience.
During August we were able to get some horse riding. I found it most exhilarating as I’d not been on a horse since my yeomanry days. We were also able to go to the coast and on one occasion went over to the Island of Borkum. The sea trip took 3 hours and we stayed at the Barnhof Hotel on the Island.
In September I was given 14 days leave in England. I was met at Loughborough station by Betty, Peter and Betty’s father in the car. We had a wonderful holiday and even managed to get around Derbyshire as far as the Manifold Valley. Incidentally I was able to take some game back from Germany which was much appreciated. I hung it outside the carriage as we travelled through Holland to keep it cool!
On arrival back in Aurich at the beginning of October I found I was detailed to go with one senior officer to the Belsen trial. All legal officers of any rank and all field officers were ordered to go. We were to know at first hand what had been going on in Germany. I went with a Lt. Col. Bailey. We spent two nights in the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg which I had previously visited.
After the first day Col. Bailey told me he could not sleep all night and had been sick with revulsion. We sat through hours of the most terrible story of the concentration camp. The accused – those who had run the camp – sat in the dock and looked to be normal, ordinary human beings, but the story we heard revealed them to be the most df3praved monsters. Two in particular – the Commandant and his right-hand assistant, Irma Greze. The former was know as “The Beast of Belsen” and the latter was a young woman who went round the camp with a whip. The hate in the eyes and voices of the many witnesses who narrated what had been going on behind the prison walls was fearful to watch. Sometimes they would shout and point at the accused. They were always very frail and the contrast with the fitness of the accused was most marked. We heard how the gas chambers were operated – how groups of prisoners were made to strip off and then go through a hot shower before being forced into the gas chambers. They apparently died quicker if they were soaked in hot water. As many as possible were then crammed into the chamber and were observed through a glass window to judge when they had died. Prisoners were made to clear the chamber of gas and cart the bodies away on trucks to the furnaces where they were burnt. Fat from the burning was taken off and later made into soap. Irma Greze cut skin from the bodies and had lampshades made from it. It was terrible and I could not forget the horror for a very long time and even now I shudder and know how right we were to defeat Hitler and his most evil regime. ,
All legal officers were anxious to get back into civilian life and I was no exception. The last two months in the army were generally happy. By the middle of October I was the only legal officer left and I was subjected to considerable pressure to stay on for a further six months. The authorities were anxious to maintain law and order until such time as the Germans could take over. We were all offered bribes to stay. I was to be promoted to a Major dating back for six months. This would have made a considerable financial difference to me – but I would not change my mind. They then offered to make me a Colonel – but again I told the authorities what they could do with their offer – I wanted to be out as soon as possible. This was in fact a great mistake as Betty and I had little money and the extra hundreds would have made a great difference. Stone & Co. wrote and asked me to get back as soon as possible. As it turned out those six months would have made little difference. It’s always easy to be wise after the event. When it was clear that most legal officers would not stay in Germany we were ordered to hand over the courts to the English Commanders of
the local units. The local Commander was a Major in the 11th Hussars. He sat beside me in court for a week and saw what I did. The second week I sat beside him and helped him to get things right. Finally on the third week I left him alone to run the court. I told him if he got into difficulties he was to adjourn the case and I’d sort it out next day. This remained the position until I finally left and as a result I had some weeks doing very little apart from shooting. I was considered to be the best shot in the unit so I spent very many happy days and nights getting game for the Mess from a wide area. Day after day I’ve noted in my diary records of the bags. For instance I’ve noted on the 14th October we got 29 pheasants, 4 partridges and 2 hares. I shot 2 partridges with one cartridge!
Occasionally I had to attend a higher court. I see I was a member of an Intermediate Court on the 23rd October. If I went to a Court in the day I would try and get some duck shooting in the evening. On the 6th November my entry in the diary reads:
“Shooting after tea – 1 deer, 4 pheasants, 1 duck”.
Not often did we shoot deer but if we did the person who shot it was given the liver at his next meal in the Mess. It was a great delicacy and all officers wanted to partake in the feast. The deer we shot were Roebuck. They were somewhat of a pest but very hard to find. I personally shot only three and still have the antlers of one that the Germans presented to me.
On the 20th November I was a member of a General Court (the only one I ever attended as such). I cannot remember where it was held – not in Aurich – or what the crime was. I only know that the accused was given 15 years imprisonment. Some of the lay officers sitting on the higher courts had peculiar views. Our own C.O. was very fond of saying “Off with their heads” and yet he was a kindly man. He was a regular soldier and was brought up to believe that all Germans should be exterminated like rats. He used to say they bred like rats and should be reduced in numbers. I often went game shooting with him after David left and was quite fond of him.
My journey back to Kegworth on demobilisation took several days. It was a lonely journey. I had many companions on the way but I left friends behind and was looking forward with some apprehension to going back into civilian life after six long years. The army had been a wonderful experience and was, as I said at the beginning, my University. I got on well in the army and could work the system. After being a P.O.W. I could scrounge anything and always made myself comfortable. Of course getting back to Betty and Peter were the most important things in life – but what of the law? I was completely out of date and would find it difficult to compete with those who had stayed behind and secured their positions. I first of all travelled to Oldenburg on the 24th November. On the 25th I went to Hanover by train. I remember sitting alone in a shabby carriage looking out of the window over Hanover and wondering where one would start to put things right. As far as one could see there was desolation – nothing but piles of rubble and twisted girders – all as a result of our bombing. I think it looked even worse than Hamburg.
I spent the night of the 25th in 33 R.H.U. (whatever that stood for) and the next day went by train via Wesel and Brussels to Tournai, arriving on the 27th, where I spent the night. I must have spent the previous night on the train. On the 28th I sailed from Calais to Folkestone and spent the night at Shorncliffe.
My last diary entry for 1945 reads:
“Nov. 29, Thurs. Left Shorncliffe – London Victoria – arrived Northampton about 16.00. Arrived Loughborough 21 .00 hrs”.
I was now back in Civvy Street!
Through the whole of my army life there was one constant thread which can be summed up in one word – “Betty”. She was in the beginning, in the middle and at the end and thank God she is still here!
Since writing the above I have read “The Fusing of the Ploughshare” by Henry R. Ritchie. He served with the Gunners throughout the Desert Campaign from Dec. 1940 to Alamein in 1943 and covers my time in the desert. He, like me, joined The Yeomanry, is a “Rat of Tobruk” and also like me one of the few people who saw through and survived the whole of the 242 day Tobruk Seige – the longest seige in British military history. He like me became engaged to his girlfriend just before going abroad and married at the end of the War. I’ve read no other work which so truly reflects the authenticity, the gallantry, the humour and the sadness of the desert war. His gun crew was so similar to a tank crew.
Major A.O. “Jock” McGinlay who was with “0” Squadron of 7 R. T.R. and a great friend during the desert battles died on the 21st December 1992. He was a great soldier and the Daily Telegraph had a wonderful Obituary on the 17th February 1993 with his photo. Gen. Foote V. C. said “He was the best Squadron Leader I had in my regiment. He was a born leader of men and had a knack of getting them to follow him anywhere. This was mainly due to his character but also due to the fact that he knew his job thoroughly, both in the technical and tactical fields, was fearless and never asked them to do anything he was not prepared to do himself He was always full of drive and immensely keen”.
After Tobruk I spent most of my leave with him in Cairo – based in Shepherds Hotel. He was a great man and wonderful friend.
My Colonel – who attempted to escape with me from Tobruk – Major General H.R.B. Foote, V.C., C.B., D.S.O., died on the 22nd November 1993. There were many Obituaries to him in the papers, including one in The Tank magazine. He also was a very great man.