Within a few weeks of arriving in Tunisia as a newly trained recruit, Fred Hirst was captured and sent to a POW Camp in Italy. Fred escaped twice and with the fearless aid of many of the Italian people, managed to elude the Germans for several months.
However, after the second escape, and within 500 yards of the Allied front line, Fred was recaptured and then sent to a German POW Camp near Munich. During the five years while he was in the Army, the young lad became a grown man. This is an amusing, moving and insightful story of Fred’s World War II experience.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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A SHERWOOD FORESTER’S STORY OF WORLD WAR II
by Fred Hirst, 2/5th Battalion
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[Handwritten note in right top margin – See also Book]
Fred Hirst Sherwood Foresters. Captured at 19 in Tunisia. At Armistice escapes from a working camp attached to Campo 82 – Arezzo. With a friend they are joined by two Spaniards who had served in Foreign Legion and for two weeks they follow their noses south staying where they can in houses and barns as offered. They get near Terni but in a more prosperous part when they are confronted by two well built men with shot guns. Obviously fascists or award minded they take them down to a road where a German car comes for them. (*Suffered the usual deprivations in the boat – shut in hold and then in a bad Prison Camp with no parcels and then to a better camp and sent out to a working camp.) They are taken to a sort of camp which was very lax and with his friend they are planning to find way out when suddenly taken to Spoleto Transit Camp for new (from Salerno) and old recaptured POWs. But they are taken by the usual cattle trucks by train to Germany. With a Parachutist friend it is decided to escape and another POW gets the door open. Taught by his Para friend how to roll on hitting the ground FH follows him out. But it was Nov. 5th; therefore in their determination this time to keep well away from any prosperous looking areas they made more and more to the hills which turned into snow covered mountains. They find a barn full of young Italians and next day all are able to continue because there is a horse which tramples the snow before them. Go near Arquata del Tronto – west of the Sibillini, then to Assergi and Barisciano, all mountainous villages but well visited by other POWs. Before Barisciano a shepherd tells them to wait in a cave; he comes back for them, not with Fascists but cows – for them to lead into the village past the German guard. Though pressed to stay they move on in spite of the snow and the Gran Sasso facing them. As they walk through Castel del Monte at 2000 metres, a boy of 12 quickly follows them and leads them to a side street and a youth takes them to a cave and supplies for them. He comes again next day but tells them to wait again. Finally he takes them into a house in the village where the contadini are hiding other POWs and take it in turns to feed them. In spite of the greater warmth, FH’s tummy was upset. Christmas came and FH told his companion to go with one of the others though he was loath to see him go. (He was to get through the lines only to be killed later in the war.) By the end of January FH with another companion are ready to leave in spite of the snow all around. Tony, their host, is willing to come part of their way to guide them although his wife is expecting a child very soon. They sleep one night in a cave. On the outskirts of Castel di Ieri, Tony tells them to wait for an hour and he will come back. They hear three men coming towards them but they keep well hidden until Tony calls them. Another Italian and a British ‘Officer’ – actually a Sergeant – take them into the village where all are supporting a variety of POWs though some six Germans are billeted in the village. A guide has been found and some 25 set off but they have to return. Then again a guide called Domenico (See J.Fox) leads off an even larger party of 50 mixed POWs and Italians, including one woman. They see in the distance to the east the prison Camp at Sulmona as they go at almost 3000 metres on the foothills of La Maiella. FH was very apprehensive about such a crowd but as they were said to be only a night’s march away from the frontline and there were officers, out of respect with them he went on. For 14 hours they struggle through the snow on the night of March 13/14. They cross a bridge with an hour to go when suddenly they are surrounded – 5OO yards from British lines. First back to the empty Sulmona Camp and then back to his original Camp 82 at Laterina from which they soon hear Allied gun fire after FH had spent his second birthday there his 21st. (They hear mines explode and shots and later hear several were killed.) Several coach loads are taken but they remain while hearing the Allies getting nearer but they are taken leaving only a few in the camp whom they hear afterwards had to march but as many of them just could not make they were shot. On interrogation at Sulmona he was asked to give a good reason why he should not be ‘shot being dressed in civilian clothes’. On the journey to Germany he wakes to find five have just escaped and one of the other POWs is furious because of what might happen to them. The Germans are pretty rough and especially one rather drunk but another German calms him. They arrive of course at Moosburg but were soon sent to a working camp on the outskirts of Munich where they are sent off each day to do a variety of jobs. FH and the others often have to share air raid shelters with Germans and do quite a lot of barter. There is little bitterness between the German civilians and the POWs – all victims of war. Once they dash for shelter and the civilian German is killed by the bombing. They return one day to find one hut has gone up in smoke and all the belongings (very precious to those who had so little) of some of their colleagues lost. They are even visited by a Concert Party from Moosburg to which some were returned as they could not take the bombings. On 22nd Dec 44 raids started at 7.00 pm and Munich seemed to be alight; after a pause the heavy bombers came. (As the Germans had done to London Sept ’40). They had to go to help clear up next day with bodies still lying around. Sat. 28th April the whole city was tense; the Americans were obviously near. On the Monday Waffen SS stopped near the camp and the 2 Austrian guards told them to remain out of sight. On Tues. May 1st the American arrived and it was snowing. POWs took over Munich. They found
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free wine. Next day FH, for the one and only time in his life woke up with a hangover on his 22nd Birthday. They were soon flown home and FH arrived in the middle of the night to wake his family up. After leave he was soon back with the Army and being shouted at and generally boorishly treated by Sergeant Majors who had most probably never been abroad. On his return from his wedding while on Embarkation leave he was put on a charge for being absent without leave – he had in his pocket the telegram saying it had been granted. Because someone had asked a question in Parliament they – most ex-POWs – were not sent to Germany until after Christmas.
The whole account demonstrates the extraordinary resilience, initiative and bearing up against illness, ill treatment, starvation and freezing conditions with little clothing of a young OR without any special training or experience. In spite of so much he bore no great hatred; he had no special training but used common sense and initiative. He was frightened of water and of heights, admitted it, but overcame when essential. His story reflects often the inhumanity of man to man, not always an enemy, but also extraordinary generosity and courage, especially of the Italians.
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[Photograph of Fred Hirst in uniform]
[Handwritten note: To Keith with Best Wishes, Fred Hirst]
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I wish to thank Harold Berriman for his help and advice, and for his excellent proofreading of this document; Bill Firth for advice on printing the photographs and maps, and for his technical assistance in that field. My Son Alan, for advice in presentation, everyday help in using the computer and for arranging for this booklet to be printed and bound. My thanks also go to Major Denys Crews for allowing me to use the maps from his notes. Finally I wish to thank Fred Heald who knows nothing about ‘mice’, ‘rams’ and ‘micro chips’, for his support and encouragement throughout the three and a half years it has taken to produce these war-time memoirs.
c Fred Hirst. 1997
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This is not a story of heroics or valour although I very much admire those of our comrades who were capable of such deeds. Perhaps one would describe the later part of the story as one of individual endurance, both mentally and physically, although I did not set out to create that impression. I just wanted to describe those five years as simply as possible in the way I saw them at the time. Though, on reading back through the pages again part of it does seem to substantiate those two features.
One of the reasons I set out to write down these experiences which have taken me over three years to complete, is because of the requests by various members of my family for a written description to be placed in the family records. During those three years many friends have also asked if they can be included on a list for a copy of the booklet on completion; therefore I decided to present it in a more attractive cover rather than it be just stapled together in one corner.
Another reason for writing the story is that I am a strong believer that every military veteran should do something similar for the benefit of the younger members of their families, even if it is only a couple of pages which must include Name, Rank, Number and Unit in which he or she served. I hear of so many sons, daughters and grandchildren who would like to have known more about a deceased relative but have very little information to go on in their search for further details of their military service.
The third reason is to illustrate the heroic kindness of those brave Italian people who helped many of the 50,000 escaped Allied prisoners of war in September 1943 onwards. These Italians received such scant reward from the British Government of the time, for their efforts. Even those Italians who gave their lives to this cause, and there were many, received no official recognition. Not one Bravery Award was bestowed on any Italian by the British Government, although the Americans who had not as many of their Servicemen involved in the escapes as the British, did make several such awards.
Despite all the so called jokes born of ignorance, about Italian tanks having top gear for reverse etc., no one will ever convince me that the Italian is a coward, and many owe their lives to that. But I could be convinced that the majority of Italians did not have their hearts in the war, and showed it.
I do not expect my ex-service friends to agree with all the opinions I have expressed in this account, but I do hope that they understand the circumstances in which they were formulated.
Dedicated to my late Wife, and my two Sons, and to my one Granddaughter and six Grandsons, who I hope will read this and learn something from my experiences.
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PART 1. TRAINING, SAILING, ACTION.
|1.||Called Up to be a Soldier||1.|
|2.||The 11th Battalion, The York & Lancaster Regt.||4.|
|3.||The 2/5th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters.||8.|
|4.||HM Troop Ship, ‘Derbyshire’.||12.|
|5.||The Journey to the Front.||15.|
|6.||Life Facing Green Hill.||17.|
|7.||‘Sedjenane’ – Our First Real Battle||21.|
|8.||‘Friendly Fire’ At Tamera||25.|
|9.||“Hands Up, Tommy”.||27.|
PART 2. LIFE AS A PRISONER OF WAR
|11.||Transportation to an Italian POW Camp||31.|
|12.||Life in Campo Concentromento P.G. 82.||34.|
|13.||The Farm Working Party||39.|
PART 3. A BID FOR FREEDOM
|14.||Feeling our Way.||42|
|15.||Back to Square One||44.|
|17.||Into the Mountains.||50.|
|18.||Assergi and Barisciano.||55.|
|19.||Castel del Monte||57.|
|20.||Castel di Ieri.||63.|
|21.||Good-bye Castel di Ieri. Now for the Cruel Maiella||69.|
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|PART 4. RETURN TO POW LIFE.|
|22.||A Complete Circle.||73.|
|23.||Back to the Beginning||76.|
|24.||Transportation to Germany||81.|
|25.||Air Raid on the Canal.||85.|
|28.||Another New Camp.||94.|
|29.||An Anxious Time Before the Americans Arrive.||97.|
|30.||We Can Visit Munich Without the Guards.||99.|
PART 5. HOME, RECALL, B.A.O.R., HOME.
|32.||Recall to Arms.||104.|
|33.||Herford Barracks In Germany.||106.|
|34.||The Konishorf Hotel, Bad Oeynhausen.||109.|
|35.||Demobilisation and Home Again||113.|
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A SHERWOOD FORESTER’S STORY OF WORLD WAR II
By Fred Hirst, 2/5th Battalion.
Part 1. TRAINING, SAILING, ACTION.
CHAPTER 1. Called Up To Be A Soldier.
It was about 11.00 am, and I gazed up at the depressing looking entrance to Lincoln Barracks as I climbed from the truck that had brought a party of new recruits from Lincoln Railway Station on Thursday, 12th February, 1942. It was snowing. With my small case of personal belongings I was ushered along with the rest of the party, through a side gate of the main entrance and into the guard room. On entering I saw a Sergeant sat at a table facing us. He was assisted by a Corporal in checking our names against a list in front of him.
Whilst awaiting my turn to be checked in, I noticed behind and to the left of the Sergeant, a door with the words, “DETENTION ROOM” across it. There was a small panel cut out in the door at about head height and what looked like a metal bar in a vertical position in the middle. What attracted my attention were the two eyes, one either side of the bar, peering out from behind the door. The prisoner was trying to obtain the notice of one of the NCOs in the guard room. The Corporal went over, then returned to the Sergeant and muttered something.
“Tell him he will have to bloody well wait”, said the Sergeant in a brusque manner, and carried on checking our names. The soldier behind the door began shouting but he was ignored. My attention was riveted to this little episode and I wondered if, perhaps, the prisoner required the toilet. I was never to see the outcome as it was my turn to be “welcomed” into the Army. But I had probably witnessed a bit of the seamier side of army life which I might wish to avoid in the future.
My “Calling Up” papers had instructed me to report to No. 7 Infantry Training Centre (No.7 I.T.C.), New Barracks, New Burton Road, Lincoln, on Thursday, 12th February, 1942. These barracks were to be my “home” for the next sixteen weeks. After the preliminaries of being kitted out, learning my individual Regimental Number off by heart, (4758633), and specific instructions to read “Company Orders” every morning before breakfast, and every evening after dismissal, training began in earnest.
It was a severe jolt to us all, having to learn to obey orders the hard way. To be bullied and shouted at became the order of the day, and the location of my bed in the barracks did not help. Our No.5 Platoon was on the first floor, and the entrance into the barrack room was at the opposite end of the room to where my bunk was located. Consequently, when being dismissed from parade outside the barrack room entrance, with the order, “Get changed for P.T. and be back on parade in three minutes”, returning on parade in the required time was something of an achievement for me and the lad on the top bunk above me. “Last one on parade will sweep out the lecture rooms this evening”.
It meant a struggle down the narrow gangway to get past those recruits who had got into the room first and were already getting changed and blocking the gangway to my locker. Then a further struggle to get back again past those still changing as the cries coming from below of, “Get down on parade No. 5 Platoon, and MOVE” ringing in my ears.
These continual shouts and bellows to ‘get on parade’, accompanied by incessant verbal harassment all the time began to get on one’s nerves. I remember an occasion after just a few days into our training, going with my new pals to a cinema in Lincoln and sitting in the balcony. I found myself feeling tense and nervy in anticipation of the call to ‘get downstairs on parade, and get a move on’, ringing through my head. I could not enjoy the film.
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The barracks looked like a prison from outside, with its big gates and brick towers at each side and a ten foot wall all round. Inside, during those first few weeks, we all felt as if we were being treated far worse than civilian prisoners in nearby Lincoln Gaol. And we were homesick.
But, our Platoon was lucky because the Sergeant we had was one of those tough, hard N.C.Os when on parade, but very fair within the terms of his duties as an instructor. Off parade he could be very kind, and would come up to our barrack room after duty and talk to us about what to expect during our stay at No. 7 I.T.C. He would help us to fit our equipment together and teach us the art of blancoing. The Platoon Corporal was happy if everything went according to his instructions, and no more. But the Lance-Corporal I regret to say, thought he had the power and the glory of the Company Sergeant Major. You could never please him. If he ever received promotion, God help the platoon that got him. There was a word to describe his sort in the Army …. beginning with B.
The Company Commander was a young Lieutenant who also was very strict. We did not see much of him except when he addressed the Company as a whole on our future training under his command. He would also come round on inspections and criticise almost everything we did; perhaps he was justified. But I am afraid that he was not very well liked by the men, and I don’t think he wanted to be.
The Commanding Officer of the Barracks was a Lt. Col. Shepherd-Folker. I never knowingly saw him because I did not know just what he looked like. The Company Sergeant Major was called Bird, and it followed that he was nicknamed ‘Dicky’. He would walk round the barracks, snarling at the defenceless recruits even when they were not on parade, to get their boots cleaned again, or smarten themselves up, whether the criticism was justified or not. I was always glad to get out of the place when off duty. Even when we were allowed to leave the Barracks to go into Lincoln we had to stand in front of a mirror near the exit and check that we were ‘properly dressed’. You could expect to be put ‘On a Charge’ if you were spotted not doing so, and if you were unfortunate enough to be stopped at the Barrack Gates and considered by the Sergeant on duty to be improperly dressed, you would suffer the same fate.
As the first eight weeks of infantry training were drawing to a close we began to look more like soldiers and to be more confident and relaxed in our relations with the officers and N.C.Os. But discipline was always very strict; much more so than when I finally joined my permanent unit. Square-bashing had been particularly difficult for the first month because the square was never free from snow and ice. Still we had to drill, and suffer abuse if we slipped. There was one occasion when we were practising the drill of ‘slope arms’, and each time someone would make a mistake. The Sergeant was becoming very impatient, yet I was pleased to have appeared to have mastered the art. “The next one who drops his rifle will go round the square six times, at the double!” Of course, that next one was me. I dropped my rifle and did the six laps round the square at the double.
Just before completion of the first eight weeks of training we were asked if we wished to apply to switch to specialist training for the last eight weeks, either as Bren-gun carrier drivers, driver/maintenance of other vehicles, or as Signallers. Selection was made from those who volunteered for any of these courses, and I considered myself lucky to have been selected for the driver/maintenance training. Those selected for this specialist training went on to complete their course during the second eight weeks at Lincoln Barracks. The remainder of the recruits carried on with infantry training for the second eight weeks. Before starting our second period of training we were all allowed 48 hours leave, our first leave since arriving two months ago. I did what I had seen many servicemen do; I hitched a lift. I managed to get a lift on an RAF long vehicle and it took me all the way to Doncaster where I caught the local trolley bus to Bentley and home.
The 48 hours flew by and it was quite an ordeal for me to face the journey back to Lincoln. But it was not long before I was entering that imposing gateway back into the barracks. I had now been transferred to Specialist Company at the other side of the camp, with new officers and NCOs to contend with. Again we were in platoons, ours being M.T. Platoon. The training consisted of lectures and practical lessons on vehicle maintenance, together with driving lessons on many different army vehicles. The driving lessons included convoy driving, camouflage and breakdowns; a very comprehensive course. However, we still had to fit in further infantry training, including some drill sessions. The platoon Sergeant had a great sense of humour, except if he happened to be taking you for driving lessons. His patience then was nil, and he would scream and shout at whoever happened to be under instruction at the time – but I liked him. He would demonstrate how someone had incorrectly carried out his orders during drill in a most hilarious way. Once when the platoon was on Piquet Duty and had to be back in the Company lines by 22.00 hours, a pal and I arrived to ‘Report In’ two minutes late. Our Sergeant was the Duty Sergeant. He listened to our excuse when we told him that we had
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actually passed through the barrack gates at 22.00 hours but that it had taken another two minutes to get into the Company area. “No excuse,” he roared, “you know what the orders are”, then ….. clear off”. That endeared him to me even more. The platoon corporal took us for normal training and slept in the same hut as us.
But he was not my favourite NCO, greeting us with the cliche, “You play the game with me, and I will play the game with you”. It did not work like that. We always had to ‘play the game’ the way he wanted, with his petty little restrictions which he would inflict upon us. For example, just before being dismissed for the day, he would sometimes decide that we must ‘boil out” our rifles. Then he would inspect them and they would only reach his satisfaction when it was usually too late for us to go down into the town. He was a man with a little power which he enjoyed using, but utterly failing in man management. Consequently he did not get the best out of us, and compared very unfavourably with NCOs I met later in my army life.
We completed our training and I was successful in passing out as a newly qualified ‘Driver (Maintenance)’ which was entered into my Army Paybook Part 1. We were told that we were to be posted to a battalion, and immediately after the passing out parade we were allocated to various units throughout the country. Although all training together in platoons we recruits were of mixed regiments, i.e. the Lincoln’s, Sherwood Foresters and York and Lancaster’s. I had been posted, along with 20 to 30 others from the I.T.C. to the 11th Battalion York and Lancs. stationed at Otley in Yorkshire.
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CHAPTER 2. The 11th Battalion The York & Lancs. Regiment.
The 11th was a ‘Training Battalion’ and supplied active units with reinforcements as required. The battalion was billeted under canvas at Farnley Park, Otley, and on arrival at Otley station we were marched into the town in full marching order, carrying kit-bags on our shoulders. We were then picked up in trucks and taken to the camp. We were paraded as soon as we arrived for inspection by the R.S.M., a terrifying looking chap called Robson, who gave us a talk on what we might expect now that we had left the I.T.C, and joined a battalion. We were then allocated to companies, and to our tents. I was now a member of ‘B’ Company. After two days to settle in our tents which had to accommodate eight men, we were sent on our first 10 day ‘privilege’ leave. But not before someone had rifled my kit-bag, stealing my new mess tins. I bought a padlock so that I could lock it in the future. Many of the NCOs already in the battalion were far from being recruits, some having served already in France and some were pre-war regulars. I was learning the hard way.
On returning from leave I found that the rest of the Battalion was away on exercises and we who had returned from leave were left to our own devices. This was strange to we rookies because back at No. 7 I.T.C. we were never left alone for one minute, until we were dismissed for the day at about 17.15 hours. But this ‘cushy’ period soon came to an end when the men returned from the manoeuvres, and training for us recommenced. Farnley Park was a wooded area with tents situated among the trees. Being under canvas created the opportunity to hear clearly the ‘dawn chorus’, sung by all the woodland birds in the area. Just before the sounding of our reveille ‘Charlie, Charlie get out of bed’ at 7.00 am we would hear reveille, at 6.30 hours played by the Shropshire Light Infantry buglers, destroying any further attempt to catch up on much needed sleep. The Brigade, camped in Farnley Park, was made up of the Shropshire Light Infantry, The Duke of Wellington’s and ourselves, The York & Lancaster Regiment.
Otley is a small market town, and at that time it had two local cinemas. We used to attend dances in the Mechanics Institute’s ballroom in the evenings, and at weekends enjoy a cup of tea and a bun in the Methodist Church Hall. We did not stay there long, a matter of five weeks, before our Battalion was moved by road to the Yarm area, south of Stockton-on-Tees. Battalion H.Q. was established in Yarm, and I was transferred to ‘A’ Company which was to be located in the nearby village of Egglescliffe. We were billeted in empty private semi-detached houses and Company H.Q. took over the local Golf Club building.
During our stay at Egglescliffe some of the men from the Battalion were placed on Draft for service overseas. They were supplied with tropical kit and placed on standby ready to move shortly. A Lance-Corporal who was in the Draft, ordered me to exchange my gaiters with him because his were badly worn and there were no new ones available in the Company Stores. I did not like the idea, but I was young and inexperienced and remembered that if you were given an order which you did not agree with you MUST obey first and (if you dare) complain later. Therefore I let him take my gaiters in exchange for his tatty looking ones. His old gaiters were worn through at the instep to almost a third of the way up, and very frayed, to such an extent that the Company Sergeant Major said during an inspection, that they looked to have formed a beard on each. Of course I was to blame, and the fact that I had only been in the army six months and could not have worn them out in such a short time, and that I had been ordered to exchange my own gaiters with a member of the Draft did not convince him. In fact I was cut short from my explanation with the threat of being placed on a ‘charge’ for answering back. But I was learning the ways of the Army.
Later I ran into trouble again in ‘A’ Company Office. I had asked for an interview with the Company Commander to enquire as to whether I was being considered for a driving post. After all, that is what I had been trained for at Lincoln and I thought, mistakenly it seems, that I would have been posted from there to a unit wanting ready trained drivers.
My platoon had been drilling on the golf course which was muddy after heavy rain. After the drill, and as we were being marched back to our billets, I was called from the parade to go on Company Orders for my interview. As I was marched into the Office to face the Company Commander I was greeted with,
“How dare you come here in that state, dirty boots and scruffy gaiters. Whatever do you think you are on?”
The Company Commander who was a Captain, was sat quietly at his desk. The noise was coming from a Major, leaning on a table near by, who I learned was the previous Company Commander. But, presumably because of his age, for he looked old to me, he was only staying on with ‘A’ Company until his replacement had settled in…….or perhaps he was being promoted, God forbid! Once again the CSM allowed me no explanation. Eventually, after being threatened with being placed on a ‘charge’ I was asked by the Captain the purpose of my request for an interview. I was by now feeling that it had been a mistake coming here, and
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consequently I do not think I was able to do justice to my case. I was told by the Company Commander, who came over as a rather kindly person and appeared to be irritated by the intimidation to which I had been subjected by the Major and the CSM, that the matter would be looked into. But I never heard any more on the subject.
During my time at Egglescliffe a party of us of platoon size, were sent to the Royal Engineers’ Training Centre at Ripon for a weekend. The purpose of the exercise, we were told, was that we were to take part in the making of a training film of an ‘Infantry River Crossing’. The crossing was to be under the control of the R.E.s. I was dreading it, for my fear of water again came to the fore. We were to use canvas collapsible boats each holding eight men and their kit. As I was, and still am, a non-swimmer this exercise was never going to appeal to me. If we had sunk we would have gone straight to the bottom with our kit still strapped to us, unless we were capable of taking it off under water. I certainly wasn’t. The river Ouse was flowing fast at the spot where the exercise was taking place, and sections of eight men each had to carry the boats, at the double, down the bank to the river and then jump in as soon as it hit the water. It had to be practised many times over the two days, and when arriving at the opposite bank we had to jump out and advance at the double up a gradual slope until we were out of sight of the cameras. I was glad when that was over and we were returned to Egglescliffe later that week.
The following Sunday morning the Company was roused early at about 5.30 am and hurried through ablutions and breakfast, then ordered to board transport and told we were going to Middlesborough, about ten miles away to give support to the fire and rescue services after an air-raid during the night. I hadn’t heard a thing all night. It was a harrowing experience for us all at the time, and one to which I was later to become accustomed but under very different circumstances. My pal and I had met two young ladies at a dance the previous evening (Saturday) and had been invited to a family tea on this particular Sunday at 5.00 pm when we would normally not be on duty. Of course all they would know was that we had not turned up, and would not have known why. We never saw them again. This also happened to me again at Christmas that same year, as will be seen later.
Our next exercise took place on the Yorkshire Moors near Catterick and we were infantry in support of an attack by Valentine tanks on a hill position about a mile from our starting points. Umpires were placed at strategic locations on the way to the objective. The exercise was to demonstrate how infantry could be carried into action by riding on the outside of tanks. Specific instructions were given to us not to encroach in the area of the tank’s exhaust pipes which were on the top and outside the tank and, as one can imagine, were extremely hot and could cause a very nasty burn. The hill was defended by some other unit, and the first attack was launched, but failed. We were brought back and prepared for a further attack, this time in the dark. As we approached the slopes of the hill, perched on the top and sides of the Valentines, we heard the sound of rattles and the cry of ‘gas’ over the sound of the tank engines. The defenders had been issued with tear gas but it was already being breathed in by us, making our eyes stream and noses run. We jumped off the tanks and put on our respirators, but to no avail. It was too late and we could not see through the steamed-up perspex window of our masks because of streaming eyes, made worse by wearing the respirators. We were now thoroughly fed up and tired, and we were not able to become “casualties”, because all casualties became new reinforcements. But there were actual casualties, because some of the men, although previously warned did receive burns from unavoidably touching the tank exhausts.
It was now early morning and raining heavily; the last attack had also failed. Therefore I do not know what was actually gleaned by ‘the powers that be’ from the exercise other than that it was necessary to have your respirators on BEFORE inhaling any of the gas however small the amount, for them to be effective. We returned to Catterick for breakfast, and dried out our clothes the best we could before returning to Egglescliffe.
On the August Bank Holiday weekend of 1942, which in those days Bank Holiday Monday was the first Monday of the month, ‘A’ Company was moved to Saltburn-by-the-Sea on the east coast, about 20 miles north of Whitby. It was decided that the Company would route march to this new location, a distance of about 20 – 25 miles. Headquarters were set up in Saltburn at the Zetland Hotel on the sea front and our platoon was billeted in an empty private house on Pearl Street or Emerald Street. All the streets in that area were named after precious stones. I remember one of my room mates there used to love singing the popular song of the time ‘The Anniversary Waltz’. He had a good voice and he would sing with all the gusto of a professional. His name was Thrush. There were still many holiday makers in the town and the weather was in keeping with the Bank Holiday. Training continued, with P.T. on the beach before breakfast being a major irritant to the men, and guard duty came round all too often. The Company Sergeant Major was not my favourite person
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especially after my interview at Egglescliffe and the episode of my gaiters, and I don’t suppose that I was his either.
I had been selected with others for guard duty outside H.Q. at the Zetland Hotel. The C.S.M. decided that he would rehearse us in the drill for the ceremony which included the selection of a ‘stick-man’. This man would be chosen for smartness and correct drill and would be excused the duty if he was considered to be the best turned out soldier on parade. The guard consisted of a Lance-Corporal and six men, with an extra man who would be chosen as the ‘stick man’ and be dismissed from the parade. The drill for the selection was made by the C.S.M., calling out, “Second man from the right, one pace forward, MARCH!”. It was the first time that I had come into contact with this particular drill, for we had never heard of a ‘stick-man’ at No. 7 I.T.C. We practised this drill for about 45 minutes and still kept getting it wrong.
“Third man from the right”, he called again, changing the position each time, “one pace forward, MARCH!”.
Nobody moved. I was in the front row and I knew it wasn’t me because the sun was behind us and I counted that I was the fourth shadow. I nudged the chap on my right and whispered that it was him, but he did not move. What more could I do? The C.S.M. was furious and came striding forward towards this chap. Oh no!, he’s making straight for me, but I know that I am correct; I must be because there are three other shadows on my right.
“Did you hear me call ‘Third man from the right?”
“Yes Sir, but I am the fourth, Sir”.
“You blithering idiot”, then turned in despair,” I’ve got a man here who can’t even count to three”.
He brought me out to the front of the parade and made me count. Of course I then saw my error, for on the extreme right stood the L/Corporal who, being the guard commander, is not called upon to take part in the ‘stick-man’ ceremony. His was the first shadow, which I should have ignored. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.
Opposite the Zetland Hotel was the Spa Ballroom, which has now disappeared, but it was where we would go dancing on Saturday evenings. One particular weekend it was the turn of our platoon to be on piquet duty, and the practice appeared to be that we could go out in the evening so long as we returned to our billet on the sound of air-raid sirens. Otherwise we had to be back by 22.00 hours. Of course we were in the dance hall and did not hear the sirens going until someone came in and casually mentioned the fact. My platoon colleagues and I rushed from the Spa back to the billet which was about a mile away, only to find the C.S.M. waiting for us. However, this time he spent his wrath on the Platoon Sergeant and other N.C.O.s, for it appeared that the orders were that the platoon which is on piquet duty is confined to billet for the period of their duty. The O.R.s heard nothing more other than the posting of new orders spelling out details of piquet duty which will be adhered to.
The C.S.M. used to strut about with his stick under his arm and a little brown and white dog at his heels. It was decided that the Company would spend some P.T. Sessions on the beach for swimming, or for non-swimmers like myself to learn to swim. Fine, although I was terrified of water I was willing to make an attempt to overcome my fear and learn to swim. We went down the steps from the promenade in our PT shorts and on to the beach. The pier at Saltburn had been damaged to prevent it being used by possible invaders, and the part of the beach we were to use was close by. I went to the water’s edge and tested the water for temperature. Suddenly I heard such a splashing and shouting going on to my right. On looking round I saw a gang of the lads carrying an unfortunate victim out to sea where they dumped him and ducked him repeatedly. My stomach turned in horror, for I was, and still am, terrified of water other than for drinking, washing and having a warm shower. Nobody, but nobody, was going to dump me in that sea. I moved out of the water and took up a strategic position for a quick getaway. The C.S.M. was on the beach in his battledress and his dog followed him. The C.S.M. was directing operations and pointing with his stick at the next man he wanted to be hauled off into the sea. Inevitably I was spotted.
“There’s one over here, let’s have him in” he shouted.
Fear provided wings to my feet; I had quickly planned a route for this occasion and I set off, diverting round a large shallow pool of water under the pier. It looked to the pursuers to have been my mistake. They took the route through the pool, expecting to cut me off before making my escape. But I was fleet of foot in those days and kept to my plan. As my pursuers darted into the pool in their bare feet they suddenly slowed down and one could hear their cries of pain, for the pool was full of various sized stones and pebbles. I looked behind to assess the situation and saw them limping from the pool where they had obviously badly bruised their feet; I was determined to leave the beach to avoid any further threat and I carried on up the steps to the promenade
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and returned to my billet and got changed. I thought that I might be up before the Company Commander on a charge of ‘leaving a parade without permission’ and I was quite prepared to defend my action by going all the way, even to the Area GOC if necessary. My fear of water was greater than the fear of the Army. But I heard no more about it. I mentioned the incident to a Corporal friend who said he would see about organising proper swimming lessons on a voluntary basis in the early evenings after parades were finished. This he did, and despite my fear, I joined his classes on the beach and he began to help me to learn how to conquer this real fear of being in water. But I had only two lessons before being posted to the 2/5th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters. The fear therefore was, and is still to this day, with me.
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CHAPTER 3. The 2/5th Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters.
The train stopped for a few minutes just outside Doncaster, and I could see the trolley bus station where the bus could have taken me to the door of my home in five minutes, but it was not to be. For the train was on its way to London carrying a party of us from Saltburn-by-the-Sea and the 11th Battalion The York & Lancaster Regiment, to join the 2/5th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters, stationed down in Kent. We had to change stations in London, and it was the first time that I had been to the capital. In fact it was the first time that I had been any further south than Nottingham, and that had been when riding my cycle from Bentley, a distance of about 40 miles, into the Dukeries and Sherwood Forest. Little did I know then, at 16-17 years old, that I would be joining the regiment of that name. We arrived at a little railway station at Cranbrook and were taken to Battalion H.Q. at Hawkhurst where we were allocated to the various companies, and I found that I was to be a member of ‘B’ Company. Three of us out of the original draft of 22 from the York & Lancs. were taken to Iden Green where ‘B’ Company were billeted, and I was placed with No. 11 Platoon.
The billets were steel Nissen huts commonly used for this purpose in the war, although I had never been in one before. They were situated in a field by the side of the road. I was taken to the 11 Platoon hut and handed into the care of a Corporal Littlewood who came from Sheffield. Inside the hut it was dark, although it was about 18.00 hours and still quite light outside. I was allocated a bed and began to unpack my things, at the same time trying to take stock of both my surroundings and the characters sitting on the beds opposite and on either side of me. Nobody spoke to me first, but I felt, or I thought I felt their eyes making their investigations. I recalled when I had first joined the York & Lancs, at Otley and the episode of my mess tins, and of a Sergeant who wanted to borrow money from me. I also recalled the disastrous experience of being interviewed in ‘A’ Company Office regarding my application to be considered for driving duties. Was it going to be like that here and was this battalion full of old regular soldiers who preyed on the younger ones now being called up for service? Suddenly I felt very lonely and vulnerable.
But, as so often happened during my military service, I soon found friends in the platoon, and became aware of the people in the Company who were giving the orders. The Platoon Commander was a Lt. Crews who, we heard, had himself only recently joined the Battalion. Not long after joining the Foresters, I was sent on ten days’ leave, and just as at Otley when I went on leave, the Battalion was making preparations to go on manoeuvres. We usually called them ‘schemes’. When I returned I thought it was just as well that I missed out on the scheme, for I heard that one of the ‘B’ Company officers, Capt. Peacock, who I gathered, was a popular officer with the men, had been seriously injured during the exercises. I had only seen him a couple of times before going on leave, once on Pay Parade, and he did seem to me to be quite pleasant compared to what I had been used to at the Infantry Training Centre at Lincoln, and with the 11th York & Lancs. In fact all the officers in ‘B’ Coy. Foresters were, perhaps with one exception, human. I found the atmosphere with the Foresters much different to what I had previously become accustomed. There did not seem to be so many petty restrictions; NCOs were not forever nagging and criticising unnecessarily. But the training was hard, for on arriving to join the Battalion, we had been taken to HQ in Hawkhurst to be addressed by the Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Stott. He told us that we now belonged to and were part of 46 Infantry Division, which was preparing for overseas service, destination as yet unknown.
It now seemed that there was a purpose to all this training, and I felt much better for that. It had become a responsibility on myself to prepare for whatever I may be called upon to do. Regimental pride became uppermost in my mind, and I really began to believe that I was in the best battalion in the British Army and that we were the toughest soldiers in the whole Division. When I first joined the Army it was with a feeling that it was not something that I wanted to do, but I would get on with it and do as I am told and learn how to take care of myself. Before joining the Foresters I had not, understandably, felt at all happy with army life, being screamed at and bullied by inflated officers, warrant officers and NCOs, all done in the name of what they called, discipline. It seemed that whatever one did was unsatisfactory to somebody of a higher rank. One day at Lincoln, I was sent for a haircut three times on three separate parades by various senior NCOs who were inspecting us prior to an OC’s inspection later that day. They would walk behind you, tap you on the shoulder and shout, “haircut”. When I arrived at the barber’s shop on the third occasion the barber told me to sit and read a paper for half an hour then return to my platoon. It had served no useful purpose to anyone and was just a waste of time. At Lincoln one had to stand at attention even when being addressed by a Lance-Corporal, and you were not allowed to answer without permission. This to me was not discipline; I could only see it as many (but not all) small minded men using the power bestowed upon them by the Army to make defenceless rookies like myself feel as miserable as possible, and they usually succeeded. I did not object to square-
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bashing, guard duties, and to taking orders to do something specific and useful. But I did object to blancoing equipment during “free” time as a punishment to a whole squad, because of the actions of just one or two. I resented being ordered about all the time in an aggressive way, and to being accused without a chance to explain. I suppose that they did succeed in turning me from a civilian into some kind of a soldier. But the soldier I was being made into was always on the defensive against his immediate officers and N.C.O.s, a soldier who was reluctant to carry out his orders with enthusiasm, a soldier who was always trying to avoid doing more than was absolutely necessary. I would say that at that time I was a well trained soldier, but of poor quality. But I had avoided major trouble throughout my military career although I had once appeared on a ‘Charge’, but it was found to have been a Company Office error in the records accusing me of being absent without leave.
But the Foresters I found were different, and my attitude changed. I would have done anything to earn praise from Corporal Herbert Littlewood who was about 30 years old, and the leader of our section. Herbert (it was never necessary to address him as Corporal unless it was ‘on parade’) used to call Sissons, (who was in the next bed to me in the platoon hut), and I his ‘young soldiers’. We were treated like sensible young men rather than rebellious imbeciles. Training was hard, with a twenty mile route march every Thursday which at first was a feat of endurance but soon became an easy and pleasant way to pass the day. In fact Sissons and I once walked several miles after returning from a march, to go to a military nurses’ home where, we had been informed, they occasionally held a dance. Not that I was much of a dancer, and anyway we felt very out of place there as most of the men and women were officers. We never went again. But I was now beginning to enjoy life with the Foresters and my new found friends in ‘B’ Company.
Although he was not one of my close friends, Gerald Summers was known by everyone in ‘B’ Company as the soldier who had an eagle for a pet. Gerald was the son of Lord Summers who, we understood, was a Governor of some far off place. Gerald had found this injured kestrel on the beach of Camber Sands. He was often seen with it in the woods nearby as it flew around, always returning to him when called. It was to stay with him throughout the war.
One memorable route march from our camp at Iden Green was to Dungeness on the south coast. It was about 30 miles and we were going there to take over coastal guard duties for a couple of days. The march was hard and many of the men suffered badly from blisters. I was always lucky in this respect for I never had trouble with my feet throughout my army life. But this did not do me any favours, for when we arrived at the billets allocated to us there were so many blister casualties that it was difficult for the N.C.O.s to muster enough fit men to do the guard duties. So after a hard march and feeling very tired I found that I was to be a member of the Guard that night. The beach is all pebbles at Dungeness and you can see the French coast from there. Steel tubing had been erected as part of the coastal defences and two of us were led through them to avoid mines which had been laid in the vicinity. It was dark and we were led by a member of the previous occupants to what looked like a two pounder gun set in concrete, with a pile of shells stacked up behind, covered with tarpaulin. We had to stand by this gun, but neither I nor my companion had a clue as to how to fire the thing. We were told that German ‘E’ Boats patrolled the Channel and had been known to land on the beach and take prisoners back for interrogation. During our four hours off we slept in a hut with other members of the Guard. Suddenly a terrific noise wakened us all. It sounded like a thousand dustbins being rattled and put us immediately on alert. It turned out however that it was the lighthouse fog signal in full throttle, designed to warn shipping in the Channel that it was in its area during bad visibility.
A local farmer was getting anxious about his apple crop because of the lack of available labour for harvesting. He approached the Company Commander to see whether he would supply enough men to clear his trees before the apples were ruined by frost. Consequently about 20 of us, led by a Corporal, were given the task of clearing the orchard. It was early November, on a Tuesday, that we began to work in pairs to pick the fruit from the trees. Our instructions were to fill the boxes provided, with apples pulled direct from the trees. Apples already on the ground were to be put in separate boxes, with a handfull of grass placed on the top. This was to indicate that these apples were ‘falls’ and that they were to be used only for cider. The company cook-house provided us with haversack rations each day, and by Saturday lunch time we had cleared half of this vast orchard. The farmer was delighted. So much so that he asked if we would stay on during our ‘off duty’ time to clear more trees. He also said that he would pay us 6d old money, (2 l/2p) per box, and would provide us with lunch on Sunday. We agreed. It just shows what a little financial incentive will do, for it had taken four and a half days to clear the first half of the orchard. Now we cleared the second half of the orchard starting at 1.00 pm Saturday, completing the job by 11.00 am Sunday, just short of one further day. Of course we did use some rather unconventional methods such has shaking the trees and picking up the apples from the
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ground etc. But the farmer was absolutely delighted, for now all his crop was gathered in. But the timing of this incident left a lasting memory of my early days with the Foresters.
We walked over, in the slight early November mist to where the farmer had laid out sandwiches and bottles of beer at the orchard entrance. Then, in the distance we could hear the faint muffled sound of church bells ringing. We all stopped and listened; we were not mistaken. But the church bells were only to be rung as a warning that Britain was being invaded, surely it could not be that? The farmer saw that we were curious as to why the bells were ringing. I suppose we had got out of touch with how the war in the Desert was going during these last few days. We did know of course, that a furious battle was raging at El Alamein in an attempt by the Eighth Army to push back the German Afrika Korps from Egypt. The farmer eagerly told us that the Desert Army had won a famous victory and that the enemy was now in full retreat; consequently Churchill had called on Churches throughout the country to ring out their bells, in thanksgiving for the first land defeat inflicted on the Germans in this war. We listened again with feelings of overwhelming emotion. What a tonic it was for the whole country to hear this first sound towards ultimate victory, and to us also who were preparing to join the fight in the not too distant future. Joining the fight, however came quicker than I expected.
Rumours soon began to fly around;
“Heard it from Company Office that we are to move in a few days time”, I was told by my friend Sissons who had influential friends located in sensitive places. He was right, of course, for within a day or so orders came to pack our kit-bags and be ready to move at some ungodly early hour the next morning
“Where are we going?” I enquired of my well informed friend.
“Somewhere in Surrey is all I know” he replied. We boarded transport vehicles, and our destination turned out to be Camberley, where we were billeted in empty private houses.
“We are about to go overseas” said Sissons, “but I don’t know just when or where – yet” he said, “but some members of the Division have already been sent on embarkation leave”.
It was now early December 1942, and sure enough I was soon sent on 10 days’ embarkation leave. I enjoyed my leave, but it was with a heavy heart that I said farewells to my family, and to friends and colleagues at my civilian place of employment; returning to Camberley about the middle of December. I had caught a train at Doncaster for Sheffield where I was to join the leave train back to Camberley. The platform at Sheffield when I arrived was filled with men carrying the Green Oak Tree flash, the Divisional Badge of 46 Division on their sleeves, all saying good-bye to families and friends. The same scene could be seen again as we stopped at Chesterfield, Derby and Nottingham, and memories of those farewells were often recalled later as I saw comrades fall in battle, and wondered how the news would be received back home by those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives and children I had seen on those railway platforms.
Feverish preparations were being made during the next few days, with the atmosphere full of expectancy and bustle, but we did not really expect to go before Christmas. In fact Sissons and I had been invited to Christmas lunch at the home of one of two girls we had met who worked at Woolworth’s, with further prospects of lunch at the other girl’s home on Boxing Day. It was not to be, for, just as at Stockton-on-Tees during my service with the York and Lancs when another pal and I were invited out to tea, we were unable to go owing to the Company being called out to Middlesborough after an air raid. We never saw those girls again, to explain. The reason that we could not go this time was because on returning to our billets at about 4.30 pm, after we had made the arrangements with these girls, we were given a Christmas dinner prepared by the ‘B’ Company cookhouse staff, and then ordered to pack all our kit and prepare to move in a few hours. Kit bags were loaded on to transport, and we formed up and marched out of Camberley in the dark at about 8.00 pm. It could not have been a very well kept secret that we were leaving because the sides of the road were lined with crowds of people, applauding and shouting, “Good luck boys, and best wishes”, as, with the muffled sound of our marching feet and the rattle of our rifles in the cold night air we moved along the road towards the railway station just outside the town. It was 22nd December 1942.
A train was waiting for us and we were all soon aboard and moving away without a clue as to our destination. The train travelled at varying speeds with stops at signals along the way. The journey lasted all night and we slept on the train as soldiers always do, on the seats, luggage racks or on the floor. It would be at about 8.00 am when the train pulled in to our destination station, but of course, all station names were blacked out during wartime. However it soon became known that we had arrived at Liverpool, and waiting outside of the station was a fleet of trains to take us to the docks, and with our rifles and our kit we all clambered aboard. On arrival at the docks, there it was in all its glory, HM Troopship Derbyshire, with its lights showing through
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portholes and widows, and the lit up gangways leaning up from the key side to the deck. Supplies were being loaded on by crane and feverish activity was going on all over the place. To me it seemed an awesome sight as I gazed up at the first large ship I had ever seen at close quarters, and it was preparing to take me away from my country to the unknown.
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CHAPTER 4. H.M. Troopship ‘DERBYSHIRE’.
Company by Company, Platoon by Platoon, the battalion began to shuffle forward in single file towards the steep gangway up to the main deck. It was soon the turn of 11 Platoon and it would be near 15.00 hours when we walked up the gangway where we were directed to steps leading below. The stairs were steep and led down to a deck level which was already filled with troops who were settling in. But this was not to be our ‘home’, and another staircase to an even deeper hole had to be negotiated by the platoon before being informed to find a hammock. We were now well below the water-line, in the bowels of the ship. I gazed at our surroundings which were not very inspiring, and began to select my hammock before taking off my equipment.
A hammock is not known for its easy handling, but I did not find it too much of a problem and I soon sorted myself out, spending a reasonably comfortable first night on the ship. The next day was 24th December, 1942, Christmas Eve. I wondered about my family and friends back at home in Bentley; about my work mates and what I might have been doing if I had been at home. I thought about the time spent on embarkation leave, and of the train journey back to Camberley, the inspection of the battalion there by HM King George VI and the support of the local population as they clapped our march out of the town on the way to the station. I thought of the two girls who had invited Sissons and I to Christmas lunch and wondered whether they knew that we had not deliberately let them down. My feelings and emotions at this particular time were very confused, and I was already homesick.
As the morning proceeded, I was on the main deck watching the activity on the docks. Suddenly I realised that the ship was beginning to move, and sure enough it began to head out into the centre of the river Mersey where it stopped. I could only assume that it had moved away from the dockside so that would-be deserters would not easily be able to jump ship. About 11.00 am the following day – Christmas Day – and to cheers from the dock workers we finally headed out to sea to join the convoy for a still unknown, destination.
Life on board ship was terribly overcrowded, uncomfortable and boring. On wakening the next morning, Boxing Day, I could feel the ship rolling a little. Long tables below the hammocks were for eating our meals, and this morning we were ‘treated’ to what I considered the most unappetising Boxing Day breakfast ever. The movement of the ship had already made me decide that breakfast was not for me today, and when I caught a whiff of what was being served my decision was confirmed. Whoever thought that kippers would be the ideal breakfast for a first day at sea would surely have needed some counselling. My only thought was to get up on to the main deck into the fresh air, and there I stayed until it was necessary to return to my hammock at night. I used to watch the porpoise swimming near the bows of the ship and keeping up with our speed. I remembered being told a story of how someone had been shipwrecked and that porpoises had swum round him, protecting him from sharks, and how playful they are. As dusk approached I would look over the side and see the phosphorous fish darting here and there, their little lights glowing just under the surface. At times the sea was extremely rough as storms raged over the Atlantic. Being my first voyage at sea I was unable to assess the comparative severity of the storms, not knowing whether it was unusual or just normal. But some of the so called experts who had probably only ever sailed to the Isle of Man claimed that we were experiencing unusually severe storms and hoped that the ship would withstand the buffeting. We did have an ‘action stations’ alert. My position for such emergencies was up on the deck above the main deck. As I looked down to the sea about 40 feet below, I wondered just how I would feel if we got the order to abandon ship. I cannot swim, and although we were all wearing life-jackets, (known as May West’s probably because of the padding strapped across the chest), I would most likely die of fright as soon as I hit the water. Fortunately nothing happened and we were stood down.
It was suggested by some on board that if we were ever called to abandon ship it would be best to make for the large ship on our right, for it was said to be carrying female forces from the WAAFs, ATS, WRNS and Nurses.
I felt quite ill for four or five days, eating nothing at all, with just sips of water to keep me going, but I never vomited. Many of the troops on the ship were extremely ill and the ablution areas were horribly overflowing. I saw the Battalion Padre dash out in front of me from a door on my right, and rush across the main deck, lean over the side of the ship, and from the look of him it probably was a good thing that his prayers were not to be answered. For I am sure he would have been asking for the ship to be sunk to put him out of his misery. The smell from the toilets below which were flowing with unimaginable fluids was almost unbearable and many of the men stayed up on the main deck for the whole of the trip. The mess tables were empty except for the one or two who were immune from sea-sickness. But gradually men began to trickle back to try a taste of the food which slowly became more appetising to them as time went by.
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As most of us began to recover it was decided that we should be told our destination. There had been much speculation on this subject. Was it the Western Desert where the Eighth Army were pushing forward at great speed, or was it Burma where the 14th Army were fighting the Japs in terrible climatic conditions and where none of us wanted to go? But we had not been issued with tropical kit for use in the desert or the jungle. We were going somewhere, obviously, where we would need our normal battledress. All this we had worked out for ourselves, so where could it be? The only other places were, a possible invasion of some place unknown, or Tunisia where after the initial invasion along the North African coast a battle was now raging to keep a foothold in the hills round Tunis. Tunisia it was, and after a 10 day voyage, many of those days in extremely rough weather with the ships in the rest of the convoy often disappearing completely from view in the trough of a wave, we finally arrived in the more calmer waters of the Mediterranean where it was much warmer. We could see land to the right of the ship (is that starboard?) and as it became dusk we could see lights which knowledgeable friends said were from Tangiers. We passed through The Straits of Gibraltar, and on 3rd January 1943 we berthed in the docks at Algiers.
As we approached the harbour we could see Algiers, with the Mediterranean sun glinting on a beautiful looking clean city of white stone buildings rising from the coast. It looked magnificent and could have been the subject of a wonderful postcard photographic view. Orders came to prepare for disembarking, and during the late afternoon, after ten long uncomfortable stinking weary days at sea we left the ship. The Battalion formed up ready with small pack and rifles, to march away from the docks. We moved forward into the city on an untarmaced road. The illusion of a beautiful white city quickly disappeared as we passed mud splashed buildings which at some time may have been snow white, but were now a dirty grey and covered in dust. We saw ragged natives of the city in bare feet appealing for anything we may have to offer; it was the first time that I had stepped on to foreign soil. Everything looked so different from towns at home, but it was hard to realise that we must be about 2,000 miles or more from England.
But now I was to begin the hardest march that I had ever experienced. We passed through to the outskirts of the city, not knowing where we were making for but hoping that we would soon be accommodated in some comfortable billets where we could rest. It soon became dark and we were all extremely tired. Most of us who had either been or had felt seasick on the boat including myself, felt very weak after that voyage. There were several hours of marching before we were ordered to stop, and I was greatly relieved at the opportunity to sink to the ground and rest. The normal rest when on a route march was ten minutes at the end of each hour, but on this occasion the break must have been 30 or 45 minutes. You never seem to get to know about these things in the Army, the reasons for delays and such like, but in this case we came to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that those who were leading us must be lost. I never found out whether we were lost, or as someone suggested, that somewhere at the top they could not make up their minds where we were to go. But I was grateful for the rest.
Eventually we were called on to our feet again which required a terrific effort from us all, and resumed our march. Hour upon hour we seemed to go, not knowing where or how much further. To me it felt as if I was marching almost beyond human endurance. What was there to be at the end of it? We were tired and hungry and hoping that we would soon arrive at our destination where there would be food and rest. But what a let down! In the early hours of the morning a building loomed into view; it looked like some kind of a factory – it was, it was a brick factory and we were marched inside and told to make ourselves as comfortable as the accommodation would allow. We were then issued with ‘Tommy Cookers’ and some tins of food and a mixture of powdered tea, sugar and milk, and left to get on with it. It began to sink in that we were now sampling active service abroad and that we would have to look after ourselves. We had arrived at a place called Gue de Constantine.
No one bothered us much the following morning and we were left to get up from the blanket hurriedly laid on the floor the previous night. I began to get my bearings as I looked round the factory. Bricks were still stored there in the middle of the floor and there was a gantry going all round the inside of the building. Some of the men had slept up there and some were on the floor below. On going out of the building we saw curious Arabs who were alert to possible business to be done. We had already been told that on no account were we to purchase oranges from them because of possible infection. But this did not deter the Arabs and they attempted to sell them to us no matter how much we refused. Others came along with eggs, dates and such like. I did not buy anything; I could not afford it anyway, but I am sure that some of the men succumbed to this high pressure sales technique.
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It eventually transpired that we were quite near a town called Maison Carree, about three miles away. Some of the men walked there to look round, but we soon had orders that we were not to walk alone in the area. We met several members of the Free French forces, and some of the lads were able to practise what little of the French language they had learned at school. It soon became apparent that there was a great attraction in Maison Carree for, as soon as we were off duty in the early evening you would see some of the men dashing off in the direction of the town without waiting even to have a meal. The attraction was of course, the local brothel there. My only visit to the town was when we were taken there for a shower which was great. We were told to make our own way back to the factory on foot, and Sissons and I decided to go and see what a brothel looked like. We found the place which was situated straight opposite a building taken over by the Americans who were well in evidence there. We looked through the door of the brothel and immediately one of the occupants, a very buxom lady, came towards us offering her services using the crudest of words. I was a virgin soldier and could not imagine my sex life beginning in a place like that. We beat a hasty retreat, very fearful of disease, and disappointed in what we had seen, although I don’t know what I had expected. Anyway, we could not have afforded the prices even if we had been interested.
The weather was like a warm summer’s day in England and quite pleasant. We did not do a lot of training but we did do several short route marches around the area. Expectancy was in the air, for we knew that it would not be long before we would be sent up to the hard pressed front in Tunisia, about 500 miles to the East. The Battalion Padre arranged a Service on the ground floor of the factory, and because of later events this became most memorable to me. The Service was voluntary, unlike most of the Services organised on behalf of the armed forces, and many of the men attended. I, along with some members of 11 Platoon, was looking down on the proceedings from the gantry leading round the building. The Service was very moving, knowing that we would soon be departing for action at the front. The Padre, The Rev. Barratt, conducted the service with assistance from someone playing an accordion for the hymn singing. I do not now remember which hymns were sung, but I do know that one of them was ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Although not a strongly religious person I was very moved by this service, and it has a permanent place in my memory. Sure enough, on about 14th or 15th January 1943 orders came for us to proceed to Maison Carree to board a train.
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CHAPTER 5. The Journey to the Front Line.
The train was of the ‘cattle wagon’ type rather than the ‘luxury’ method of transport we had been used to at home! Oh!, for those crowded corridors again, and the scramble for a seat on the packed train from King’s Cross to Doncaster. That method of travelling was now gone for sometime to come.
We piled on to the train, with about 20 men to each wagon which was to be our home for the next four days or so. Rations were supplied to us for the journey, which consisted mainly of tinned foods and hard tack biscuits. The train lumbered on at varying speeds, from slow, very slow and stop. One could often get off the train to perform a call of nature by the track side, then at a gentle trot you could catch up with it again a little further on. There were occasionally bursts of speed, probably up to about 25 miles an hour when we were going slightly down hill. When we stopped for any reason in what looked to be a remote area, suddenly the train would be besieged by dozens, sometimes I think hundreds, of young Arab children begging for whatever we had to give. Some adult Arabs were also among them, offering to barter eggs, oranges, dates etc., but in our short stay in the country so far, we had become wary of the honesty of these people in their transactions.
However, some of our lads became as crafty as they. One of the stories I was told was of the soldier who offered to flog an army shirt for eggs. He held up the shirt for a quick inspection by his customer who quickly grabbled it and stuffed it under his gown after handing over the eggs. Little did the Arab know that when he would get round to inspecting the shirt he would find that it was only the front part that he had received. No doubt, the back half would be disposed of in a similar way further up the track. Other men relayed stories of waking up during the night to the doors of the wagon being open and seeing some Arab standing at the entrance, obviously surprised to see soldiers in occupation rather than possible supplies from which he could steal.
Security during the journey had to be maintained, and to this end as the train progressed, orders were given that someone had to stay guard with a bren-gun on the roof of one in every three or four wagons along the train, in case of enemy air attack. This was a hazardous job because of the many tunnels we had to pass through along the way. Some of these tunnels seemed to have very small clearances and you needed to keep a very sharp ‘look-out’ or you could have your head knocked off. We were never going to be able to hit a diving enemy plane from the roof of a moving train with a bren-gun. But at least, the men on the roof could warn of enemy attacks, which fortunately we did not have to experience during our journey.
Eventually we arrived at the rail head, and after leaving the train we were marched a short distance and told to rest in a small wooded area until the transport arrived. I had no idea where we were or how much further it was to the front.
Transport eventually arrived and our journey now continued by road towards our destination which we knew was somewhere at the front in Tunisia. We travelled through the night before arriving, in the light of the dawn, at a wooded area again. During this journey I had begun to feel unwell. The lorry I was in was almost empty; the rest of the platoon were in another vehicle and I was one of about three who could not find room with them. Whether it was fumes, or travel sickness which I had never suffered from before I do not know, but I do know that I was really rough. Ordered to dismount from the transport we were given further orders to ‘dig-in’ immediately because enemy air-raids were expected in the area at any time. But I did not feel up to digging into the very stony soil in which the wood was situated, despite constant pressure by Officers, Warrant Officers and N.C.O.s, stressing that enemy air raids were a near certainty sometime during the day, and telling us that we must dig ourselves in at once. I was now vomiting, and it did occur to me for just a moment that a bomb landing on my head would be a ‘happy release’.
Fortunately, round about mid-day I began to feel better, and this improvement accelerated rapidly as the afternoon progressed, and I began digging with the rest as if my life depended on it. This led me further to believe that it was fumes in the lorry that had made me so sick. Fortunately the raids did not materialise, and as dusk gathered we once again boarded the transport for the last stage of our journey to the front. An hour or two later we stopped and were ordered to dismount from our transport. This was as far as the transport would go, the rest of the way was by route march. We began to get our bearings, and in the dark to which our eyes were getting accustomed, we could see the road leading along the foot of a hill on the right. To the left it seemed fairly flat. It began to dawn on me that we were now almost at the front and it was creepy. In the eerie distance I could hear for the first time the occasional ‘boom’ and then the resulting ‘thump’ on the target as artillery of one side or the other, or both, were in action. We were within a few miles now of our destination, and we formed up ready to march off. I could see the flash of light on our left as the guns continued to rumble on. In between it was spookily quiet, and I find it difficult to describe my feelings adequately as the reality of
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the situation struck home. This was for real, it was no training scheme. There was the German Army in the dark nearby of whom I had heard so much about at home, but never seen. We were told to be very quiet and to march out of step, for the rhythm of marching feet can be heard over a considerable distance in the dark, whereas a continual dull noise is not so easy to identify. It was a clear night with stars twinkling above as we walked towards the enemy, and I could see the dark silhouettes of the hills all around. When we stopped for a break there was the sound of the bullfrogs which would be constantly with us for the next few weeks. A sudden feeling of excited fear shot through my stomach as it occurred to me that we would soon become within range of small arms enemy fire for the first time. All that training I had received over the past year was soon to be tested, for I was now almost at the front, facing Germans. Other than the occasional gunfire and the call of the bullfrogs everything seemed so peaceful and quiet, yet the atmosphere was charged. But we were now getting close to our positions in the line and everyone was tense in anticipation as to what was in store for us when we arrived.
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CHAPTER 6. Life Facing Green Hill.
We stopped. Then came the usual wait for orders, and we could see in the gloom to our right at the side of the road some activity indicating that this was a field headquarters, perhaps for a company or even a battalion. To our left the land sloped down a little from the road, before rising into the rear slope of a medium size hill. This hill was to be occupied by ‘B’ Company, and 11 Platoon were to be positioned on that rear slope. The present occupants were a platoon of the Royal West Kent’s, usually known as ‘The Buffs’, of the 78th Infantry Division, and whilst our platoon officer, Lt. Crews, was being shown our positions some of us began chatting in whispers to some of the members of the Buffs. They told us of the ill-fated carrier platoon belonging to the Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders which had been ambushed by the Germans and that some of their bodies were still on the bren-carriers on the road between us and the opposite hill. Our Buff friend went on to explain that the large hill that we could just see in the darkness opposite, much bigger than ours, was known as ‘Green Hill’ and was occupied at that very moment by the Germans, and that on Christmas Day his battalion had made an unsuccessful attempt to capture it. The hill to the right of ‘Green Hill’ as we look from our positions appeared to be even bigger and seemed devoid of vegetation; therefore it was easy to understand that it was known as’Baldy’. The hill on the left, as we look at ‘Green Hill’, our Buff friend introduced as ‘Sugarloaf. We could not get a clear view of ‘Sugarloaf’ from our platoon positions and I do not know how it got its name, but I suppose it would be to do with its shape. Our Buff friend continued with his introduction to us of the other aspects of the place. “Do not linger over there” he said as he pointed to a bit of greenery near by. “Jerry has a ‘fixed line’ setting of a machine gun aimed on that spot”. One or two other “dangers” were pointed out by him, but since none of them materialised during our stay there I think he was pulling our legs.
[Left-hand side of the page: Map of Northern Tunisia titled ‘Route to Front. Our Position].
After the Buffs silently departed we were called upon to go down to the road where I had seen the field HQ, and man-handle boxes of ammunition and supplies back to our positions. It was a difficult task because the ground was damp and muddy, and as one returned up the slope carrying a heavy box it was often a case of one step forward and slide back two. However, the job was eventually completed and it began to get light as dawn approached.
A clearer understanding of our positions came with the dawn, and we could see a small stream below us at the bottom of the hill which was useful to wash, and shave in. Above us, up the hill, was a mud/straw hut which some Arab family would have lived in until the war erupted in their country. We were told that during the day we would occupy the positions on the rear slope, and we were to find a suitable hole in which to rest. At night we would go forward to the front of our section of the hill and occupy slit trenches facing ‘Green Hill’. Each of the three sections of the platoon would have two men on guard for an hour in turn with the bren-gun throughout the night. There was a slit trench for every two men; Sissons and I shared one. We did two hours on alert, then we passed the bren-gun on to the occupants of the next trench for them to take over. We passed away our stint listening to the bullfrogs making their croaking sound which carried across the valley to our right, and in whispered conversation reminiscing our peace-time activities and recalling our embarcation leave. We would
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look up on a clear night and see shooting stars streaking across the sky. If there was any artillery activity from our side we would see the flashes of the guns behind us and sometimes the resulting explosions on ‘Baldy’ if that happened to be the target.
There was an occasion when on duty in our night positions, that Sissons and I could have been in serious trouble. It was very difficult to sleep during the day because of enemy shelling and mortar bombardment. There was always rifle cleaning and ablutions to attend to, meals to consume and letters to write, all during daylight. Consequently, when it came to night time duties we were very tired. On the occasion referred to it seems that we were due to stand on duty for the last period before dawn. We had done two periods of an hour earlier and then duly handed the bren-gun to the next pair to stand. The next thing we knew were voices calling for us to wake up and get moving. We looked up and surprisingly it was light. There, standing above our trench was Sergeant Littlewood with Lance-Corporal Humphries telling us in a loud and aggressive whisper, to get up and get back to our daytime positions as quickly as possible, and that they would talk to us later. The normal routine was to return to daytime positions just before dawn. I thought we are for it now, with a possible charge of ‘sleeping on duty in the face of the enemy’. I suddenly felt so ashamed of what had happened, for we had left our part of the front unguarded for at least an hour, and had also exposed the two N.C.O.s to danger in coming to find us, because the night positions were in full daylight view of the enemy. We all hurried back to the day positions with all kinds of thoughts going through my mind. It must be a Courts Martial offence, and in the 1st World War men had been shot for less. Then Herbert, (Sgt. Littlewood) laced into us both, using his own particular version of the English language to convey to us the seriousness of our offence. I felt so ashamed, for I liked Herbert and I felt that we had let him down badly. I was so relieved when he finally ended his tirade with the words, “Don’t let it ever happen again”, for I knew then that he was not intending to take it any further. I think he understood how tired we were, but of course that was no excuse. We found out later that when the previous pair had come to hand over the bren-gun to us they had just called in a loud whisper to say they had brought it and it was now our turn to take on the duty. Unfortunately, being fast asleep, we had not heard them, and they had not made sure that we were awake. We heard no more about it, and for my part I vowed that it would not happen again, and it didn’t.
It was not always fine and dry at night on those hills in Tunisia, nor was it dry in the daytime. It rained long and often, and it made life rather miserable for us. The ‘night’ trenches would get very wet and so did our clothes, and we would find ourselves stood in water in the trench bottom. One night my companion and I decided to do something about it by stretching and pegging our ground sheets over the top. The theory was that since the trench was dug on the side of a hill the rain would run off the ground sheets and carry on down the hill. When we were not standing guard we could lie in the trench and keep dry. That was the theory and we tried it out. But it was a disaster, for sure enough when it started to rain we disappeared under the ground sheets and listened to the rain beating away above. Suddenly the ground sheets gave way because of the weight of water which had gathered on them. Instead of the water running off, it had caused the ground sheets to bulge downwards with the weight of water they were holding, and eventually it put too much strain on the pegs which gave way. The next thing we know was that we were suddenly deluged with water as the ground sheets collapsed, and we ended up wetter than if we had not bothered with the experiment. I can understand now that I would never have been suitable for serving with the Royal Engineers after that kind of experiment. The rain became so bad that we received orders to retire into the shelter of the mud hut on the top of our hill for the rest of the night. This we were thankful to do. In contrast we often found it very cold up in those hills, and not just from the rain, for sometimes we would find a white frost covering the ground as dawn approached. It was always a matter of amazement to me to see the local Arabs wandering at will in the front line area. I often wondered on whose side these people were working, for it seemed obvious to me that they were taking information to the enemy as well as bringing information to us about the enemy. But it was also very dangerous, for they could easily be caught in the shelling and mortar fire from either side. Often we would witness an Arab entering our positions to meet with our Platoon Commander or Company Commander etc. and assumed he would be imparting his information, whilst at the same time taking note of whatever he could see around him. We soldiers of 11 Platoon did not trust them one little bit.
Facilities were made available for a few of us at a time to be taken to ‘B’ Echelon, near Sedjenane, for a bath or shower and a night’s rest, returning 24 hours later. I went on one of these ‘rests’ and was thankful for the opportunity to take a shower away from the noise and stress of the front line. But I never volunteered to go again. Much of the time there was spent taking shelter from enemy air attacks, and I considered the place to be even more stressful than facing Green Hill. At least I knew the ‘ropes’ there, and felt much more comfortable
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and safe in my trench in the front line. Later I realised that I had made a wise decision, for some of the men did become casualties of enemy air raids during their stay at this ‘rest area’.
Almost every night the Battalion would have to supply patrols into enemy, or unoccupied territory, in an effort to ascertain enemy movements and strengths in its area of the line. One such patrol was arranged to probe the area to the left of ‘B’ Company and the Battalion which was so far as was known, unoccupied. The main purpose of the patrol was to investigate this area to make sure that the enemy had not moved into it. It was to be a ‘fighting patrol’, which meant it was to go out, prepared to meet opposition and to defend itself. Twelve men were chosen to take part in this operation, and one of them was me. It was to be led by Lt. Garrett, Commander of 10 Platoon, ‘B’ Company.
All the members of this patrol were ordered to report to 10 Platoon positions soon after dusk, for briefing by Lt. Garrett before setting out. I arrived there and was greeted by Gerald Summers, the owner of the kestrel mentioned earlier. Gerald was a member of 10 Platoon and he also was to be part of this patrol. He offered me some soup in his mess tin, but when he handed it to me I hurriedly declined after seeing the rather unhealthy looking scum coated on the sides. He had been an officer at the beginning of his service, but later for reasons of his own, he chose to become a private soldier. But the effort of serving at this level, in the circumstances must have been difficult for him. Gerald has written several books since the war, including one, “The Lure of the Falcon”, which describes his service in the Foresters and life as a POW and how he retained possession of his kestrel throughout that time.
We eventually set off on the patrol, with faces blackened and wearing our P.T. slippers. As we moved out to the left I thought about the instructions given to us that if we were separated we should follow in the direction of the tail of the ‘kite’ in the stars above which would lead us back to the location of our positions. It was a clear sky and I could see the ‘kite’ quite clearly which was a great comfort, for I was apprehensive of what may happen on this patrol. We moved further forward, past Arab dwellings which caused their dogs to bark, obviously alerting everyone and everything in the vicinity. Eventually Lt. Garrett, who had been leading us carrying his walking stick, perhaps to prod for mines?, was satisfied that the area to the left of ‘B’ Company was clear of the enemy and we made our way back without incident.
The Battalion suffered heavily from enemy artillery and mortar fire all the five weeks we were in those positions. We had not long been in the front line before the Battalion suffered its first casualties. Word arrived that during a Service being held in ‘A’ Company’s positions a shell had landed, killing the Battalion Padre The Rev. Captain Barratt, and another officer. This was a great blow to morale, and I recalled in my mind the moving Service he had conducted in the brick factory before we set off for the Tunisian front. A few days later another casually, this time from our own Company, and it was with a feeling of apprehension that I witnessed the stretcher bearers carry him away down the hill from our positions. I had a feeling that we had not seen the worst yet, and that was soon to be demonstrated when we moved to another position.
On one particular night two or three of us from 11 Platoon were told to report to the road at the bottom of the hill where we were joined by others from the Battalion who had been detailed to unload ‘compo’ rations which were to be stored in a railway tunnel not far away. We made a chain of about 75 yards long from the vehicle to the tunnel entrance and the plan was to pass these boxes, each containing one day’s rations for 30 men, along the line to the tunnel entrance where more men were stacking them into place. It was not long before boxes were being passed to me which were much lighter than they should have been, because some of the contents had been removed as they arrived from further back along the chain. I always felt hungry during my time at Green Hill and it was a great temptation to ‘acquire’ a tin of bully and perhaps a tin of fruit, tin of meat and veg. or a packet of hard tack biscuits to take back to our trench. It seemed that several others had already thought on these lines, hence the half empty boxes. But most of the boxes did pass through intact. Hundreds of them were stored in the tunnel, and of course, we wondered for what reason this was being done.
I found out later that one of the reasons that we, in 11 Platoon, were so hungry all the time was that the Platoon Cook had the notion that if we were ever ‘cut off’ by the enemy in our positions on the hill he would still be capable of feeding us. It seemed to me an unlikely situation, but to him a very real one. Therefore when we did leave the positions at Green Hill we found that the cook had held back tins and tins of bully beef instead of using them in the daily serving of stew. He had used them as a foundation for the place in which he slept. There were so many that it was obvious that he alone could not carry them all, and it was necessary to hand them out to each one of us, and I was handed three or four tins which I later put to good personal use.
It was during our time facing Green Hill that the Americans were heavily attacked at the Kasserine pass which was further south of our positions. A battalion of Leicesters from our 139 Brigade was sent, along with other
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British and American formations to help stem the tide. There was a real danger that the whole of British 1st Army might be cut off, for it was reported that the Americans had pulled back over 80 kilometres. Fortunately the attack was held and the Germans called off further pressure in that area.
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CHAPTER 7. Sedjenane – Our First Real Battle.
We had been in the positions in front of Green Hill for about five weeks when orders came for us to move, but we did not know of course at the time where our new positions were to be. It was a night in late February 1943, when we moved down the hill, in pouring rain, towards the road. Commandos took over our positions as the rain poured down and it seemed, typically, hours before we got the order to form up on the road ready to march off. We marched in the rain with broken step for about 6 miles before stopping on the road with a large hill on our right which looked to be a very steep climb. It was almost dawn as we were directed up this hill, passing through a small collection of Arab huts. We were given boxes of ammunition and other supplies to carry from the road which was a very long way up, and very hard work. My section of 11 Platoon were to occupy what looked like a small pimple of about 50 or 60 yards across at the very top of this large hill. On the side facing away from the road which we could see in the distance down the hill, was a steep slope down to a flat area which stretched away for perhaps a mile or so. The immediate area below was covered in vegetation, and beyond was open space reaching a range of approximately 700 yards before further vegetation covered the rest of the way up this valley. We began to settle in our new positions, but the ground was very rocky and it was impossible to dig trenches. There were many large cactus plants which seemed to grow in circles of 15 to 20 yards in diameter, and to a height of about 10 feet. At the front of the pimple where the view was as just described, there was what could best be further described as a sort of veranda, large enough for four or five men to lay in a firing position. We set up the bren-gun there, pointing towards the flat area below. Behind us was the earth bank of the pimple which prevented our silhouettes being seen from below. Arabs were often seen wandering around, probably from the small settlement we had passed on the way up.
[Left-hand side of the page: Hand-drawn Map titled ‘Sedjenane Battle Distributions – March 2, 1943].
But we could hardly believe it, when after only a few days in these positions we were told to prepare to move again, and we now had to carry everything back down to the road, then form up to march, section by section, into the next small town a few miles away, and transport would take us to another part of the line near Beja where we would be held in reserve. That next small town was known as Sedjenane.
We were transported through the night in similar large transport vehicles to the ones used to bring us within a few miles of our first positions at Green Hill, alighting just as dawn approached. The transport left, and we found for ourselves somewhere comfortable at the side of the road to rest and to try to catch up on some sleep. We were tired, for it had been difficult to sleep in the positions we had left the previous day, and we had not slept during the night of the move from Green Hill nor during the night just gone whilst being transported to this place. Even so, when we were given tents to rest in, I found that I could not sleep during that day which was bright, sunny and warm for a charge.
‘B’ Company remained by the side of the road all day, expecting to move at any time. But the call never came. As the afternoon wore on it began to cloud over, and soon we were being drenched in a severe thunderstorm. The transports returned and we were ordered to form up ready to re-embark. But, inexplicably, we were kept standing in torrential rain for about 20 to 30 minutes or so before being given the order to get aboard the transport. I suppose there was a reason for it but this kind of thing seemed to happen so often, giving the ordinary soldier the impression that ‘organised chaos’ prevailed. As we sat in the lorry someone lit a cigarette and we could see clouds of steam rising from our wet clothes. It was a most uncomfortable journey for all of us, and yet again it was a night without sleep.
The transport dropped us off in Sedjenane early the following morning and we set off in daylight to march through the cork forest on the right hand side of the road, giving us cover until we arrived opposite the large hill we had vacated a day or two ago. We crossed over the road and began climbing the hill. The men were strung out along the route, moving along in twos and threes up the hill towards our various positions. Observing us were two very tall Arabs, and one of them approached me and indicated that he was prepared to carry my pack and my rifle up the hill for me. Of course I refused; I did not trust either of them. It crossed my mind that there may be something in the stories that Germans, masquerading as Arabs, were in the area.
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These two looked like Arabs, but being so tall they kept me on the alert. Looking back now, perhaps I should have reported their presence, but I expect that they both would have disappeared by the time I could make the report.
I looked for the land marks to direct me back up to that pimple looking feature where 11 Platoon had been located such a short time ago. It was not long before I arrived and joined the rest of my section as dusk was settling over the hill. I could still see the road way below as it disappeared to the left behind a lower hill. I learned that this road was the way to Mateur, still held by the Germans, and as I looked to where it stretched away to the right I knew that way led back to Sedjenane. I had now got my bearings and I felt better for that. But I was not allowed to ponder on our situation, for I along with the others, was directed back down the hill to help bring up ammunition and supplies which had to be carried up on our shoulders. Very little sleep again, and we were ordered to ‘stand to’ just before dawn with the dramatic news that we must shortly be prepare to receive an attack by the enemy.
It was only after the war was over that I learned that, because the 1st Army was so thin on the ground, there was only a battalion (ours) available to defend these positions which left wide gaps, between and within, its three companies. Ideally there would have been a full Brigade, (three infantry battalions) ready and waiting for this attack.
As the morning progressed we began to hear gunfire over to our left where we understood the D.L.I.s were in position. Shell fire began raining down onto the Battalion positions. Then, looking down the valley from our ‘pimple’ with the road behind us, I could see figures emerging from the trees at about 700 to 800 yards which was just out of range for our rifles and the bren-gun. They were Germans. It was a tense moment for us, and frustrating too as they were too far away to fire at them. The gunfire was now becoming heavier from both sides, and the frightening crack of rifle and machine gun fire was increasing. It was the first time since being in the front line that I had actually seen a German, and now I was seeing dozens of them coming towards our positions. It was evident that we must open fire before they could get to the cover of some trees down in front of us at the foot of the hill. It was not so far down to the bottom of the hill on this side facing the enemy, as it was on the other side down to the road behind us but it was much steeper, almost sheer but capable of being climbed.
We opened fire even though the range was still too far for our weapons, but it made those Germans hit the ground and then crawl to their right for the nearest cover. The bren-gun was brought into action, but I thought it a mistake that it was firing tracer bullets, and therefore giving our defensive position away immediately. But whether it made much difference to the outcome is extremely doubtful. What I was afraid of at the time was the possibility that after being spotted, their artillery or mortars could be directed on to us. But that did not happen, presumably because their own troops were getting closer to our positions and could be caught in the fire.
I chanced to look back behind me down the hill towards the road, and suddenly, coming from the left and around the bend at the foot of the hill, appeared an enemy armoured vehicle travelling at full speed. I presume that an enemy effort was being made to cut the road to isolate us. But almost as suddenly, at point blank range, a bofor anti-aircraft gunner on the opposite hill just above the road, dropped his sights and opened up with rapid fire, scoring direct hits on the vehicle, bringing it to a halt. I saw the turret of the smoking vehicle open and two Germans scrambled out and dived into a ditch at the road side. It was a heartening sight, for I felt sure that no further enemy vehicle would chance coming round that corner again. Looking around me I saw a corporal of another section of the platoon, one who had seen service with the Battalion at Dunkirk. He had completely gone to pieces and was huddled up against a boulder shaking with fear. I felt sorry for him but there was nothing I could do to help him at that moment.
The noise from the artillery and rifle fire increased and it seemed to be all around, especially from our left as the Germans pressed on with their attack. This was the first time in Tunisia that the battalion had been called directly into action. At Green Hill the line was static and neither side had made any move towards each other, the action being confined to the shelling of each other’s positions, which was bad enough, and to carrying out patrols. But now, this looked to be a full scale attack upon us, and my mind was preparing to cope with what was now becoming an alarming situation. Lt. Crews decided to try to get over to Company HQ to ascertain the situation because he was unable to establish contact with them. The crack of bullets being fired just above our heads indicated that our platoon was being singled out as a target for direct action. I hadn’t a clue what was going on. We had lost sight of the grey clad troops who we had fired on earlier, and it seemed that they were now keeping to the cover of wooded areas on our left to get nearer to our positions. I broke off firing my
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rifle for a moment and removed my small pack, taking out a tin of bully to put into one of my ammunition pouches in case I might find the time for a quick snack later. Then, I heard the voice of Platoon Sergeant Fletcher; I looked up to see him wildly gesturing and shouting for us to get back down the hill immediately and meet up with Lt. Crews at the bottom by the road side. I picked up my small pack to put it on, but the Sergeant ordered me to leave it as there was no time to lose and to get down the hill now. I glanced across at the distressed corporal, about 20 yards away and shouted to him that we had to return down the hill at once. He got up and I followed him down so far, but then somewhere on the way down I lost him, and I never saw him again. I looked back behind to see if anyone else was following, only to see silhouetted on top of the hill from where I had just left, enemy soldiers who looked to be setting up a machine gun. Fortunately as we raced down the hill the land became much steeper and we were able to drop out of sight.
On arrival at the bottom, by the road side we saw Lt. Crews who was gathering as many survivors as he could, and he told us that we were going to cross the road and move into the cover of a cork forest on the hill on the other side of the road. It was the return route by which we had arrived the previous day. We crossed the road at the double and moved up the hill into this good cover and began to move forward, parallel with the road on our right, towards Sedjenane. A German plane began circulating above us, obviously aware that we were somewhere below. But the vegetation was quite thick and we were able to keep out of sight whenever the plane came near and nothing was dropped on us. We battled our way through the trees for several miles, and it began to get dark. We could hear vehicles moving along the road, but we did not know whether they were ours or German. Moving closer to the road it became apparent that the transport was ours, and we could see guns being towed and other vehicles all making their way back to Sedjenane. The Battalion was in full retreat. Lt. Crews led us down and we joined the steady procession along the road. It was quite dark now and somewhere in the confusion several of us became separated from the platoon. I managed to get a lift on an artillery vehicle which eventually dropped me off just through Sedjenane, and I tried to find my Company in the dark. I, along with others, did get to the Leicestershire Regiment’s positions where we were given a mug of tea, and when the location of the Foresters’ new positions were found they took us by transport to rejoin our Battalion near Tamera. I did not see my friend, Sissons, come down the hill with us and I never saw him again.
Next morning what was left of the Battalion was reformed. My memory of the situation was of a hurried formation into platoons again, and I was provided with a replacement small pack and webbed belt etc. although my bayonet was not replaced. The platoon to which I was now attached moved back that morning into a front line position which was in a wooded clearing, with trenches already having being dug by previous occupants. I do not know why we were put there for no one told us what we were supposed to do. I did not know who my new platoon officer was. I did know that within a few minutes of us taking up our positions we came under severe bombardment from enemy artillery, and I had no idea from which direction it was coming. Not far away was the distinctive sound of Stuka dive bombers screaming down as they dropped their bombs. There began the familiar terrible cries for help from casualties nearby as the explosions continually rent the air. This seemed to go on for some considerable time and I was as far down into the bottom of the trench as I could get. But then the shelling eased off and those of us who had survived were ordered to move out and return in the direction from which we had come. Why we were ever put there in the first place I will never understand. We passed through a Coldstream Guards artillery position who were firing their guns in a most determined way, and it heartened us to see and hear them as we moved back through the wood in which they were positioned. At least the enemy were getting something in return. I cannot for the life of me, begin to understand why we infantry were sent into that position. We were, or at least the rank and file, were not given any instructions of what we were to do there, and we were not even told in which direction the enemy positions were. All we did was to lay at the bottom of the trenches and hope that we would not get a direct hit. It seemed to me that all we did was to go into those positions, get shelled and then come out again. We must have only been there an hour or two, and I suppose someone probably knew why!
As we moved out we passed the Battalion Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Stott, who was leaning on his stick and offering words of encouragement, “Well done boys, and keep going”. But I didn’t know what we had done to earn this praise, other than suffer further (unnecessary?) casualties.
The Battalion moved back to a position near what appeared to me to be a large cave. The entrance to this cave was in a hollow and Platoon HQ was in a smaller cave situated on a ledge on the steep sides of the hollow. The Platoon was beginning to reform, and whilst in these positions reinforcements from Algiers arrived, some of them being men who had been with the Battalion in England, but had been held back in reserve. I was back now in 11 Platoon and it was here that I last saw Lt. Crews. We heard later that he had been sent as part of an instruction team to train American Officers, for the Americans were having a rough time because of lack of
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experience. I was rather sorry at his departure for I had confidence in him. He had been our officer from being in England, right through our days at Green Hill and he had got us out of an extremely dangerous situation at Sedjenane. Up to now I had survived under his leadership, but now I did not feel so confident and wondered how soon he would be back. A new platoon commander who I remembered giving us a lecture on Social Matters during our time at Iden Green had now taken over command. His name was Lt. Jackson who seemed to be older than Lt. Crews but gave me, probably, the wrong impression that he would be more at home at a desk. He was a pleasant enough man and looked to the comfort of his men as far as he was able. I remember one night when a companion and I were on duty patrolling the area which was just behind the main front line; it began to rain very heavily indeed. The two of us looked for somewhere to shelter and we descended into a small hollow where we could be shielded from the wind. We could see a fairly wide area forward of our positions, for, believe it or not we had become quite competent at seeing in the dark. We did our best to keep out of the heaviest rain when suddenly, above the sound of the heavy rain beating onto the trees, we heard cries which were getting nearer. We were now on the alert, wondering if it was an enemy patrol that had filtered through to our positions looking for prisoners to get information. The voices came nearer and we distinctly heard names being called. Our hands tightened round our rifles, for we had heard that the enemy had sometimes resorted to this kind of trick by calling out names which they had obtained from prisoners already taken. We had two options. The first was to see which way this enemy patrol was heading and in what strength, and to let it pass if it was going away from our positions. The second was to raise the alarm if it was heading towards our positions by firing in its direction.
The voices came nearer, and we could now quite clearly hear our own names being called. Hold on!, I could recognise that voice. It was Lt. Jackson, and we could now see him and another man silhouetted above the hollow. We thought that we were possibly in for a rocket because we were sheltering in this place. We called out at the top of our voices, “Halt, who goes there and give the password”. Of course Lt. Jackson obliged and then called us to him. He said they had been looking for us for about twenty minutes, for he was calling all the patrols in to shelter for the rest of the night in the large cave. We were grateful for not being in trouble and even more so to be able to shelter from the rain.
From our daytime positions around the cave we could see, across a flat piece of land, one of our artillery batteries firing their big guns in duels with the enemy. We could also see shells landing around them from the enemy guns, and we counted scores on one particular day which failed to detonate, for that I am sure those gunners were truly grateful.
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CHAPTER 8. ‘Friendly Fire’ At Tamera.
In the middle of March 1943, about the 12/13th, we were moved to the rear slopes of a hill across the road from Tamera Station and behind a battalion of Paras. A feature high above our positions was pointed out to us as being our objective in an attack we were going to make with the parachute battalion. A new Platoon Commander had been appointed to our Platoon; his name was Lt. Stansfield. He seemed to be a very enthusiastic officer and determined that we should reach our objective. The idea for the assault was that our ‘B’ Company would advance on the right, with ‘C’ Company on the left. ‘D’ Company was behind in reserve. I do not know where ‘A’ Company had been sent. We were briefed on what was intended, and the following morning we set off for the assault line. It was a very difficult climb through the thick growth of vegetation, and up almost vertical slopes which was only achieved by pulling one’s self up by branches and roots of the scrub looking trees. It was very heavy going and we were exhausted when we had only made a little progress. But we had to press on to our objective. Gradually we began to arrive in to clearer parts as the ground levelled out a bit. We could hear the gunfire starting up, when suddenly there was an explosion about 30 yards in front of me. I heard a voice shout “Stop”, then another explosion took place in front of me but to the right of the first one. Whatever was going on? As the ringing in my ears subsided and my senses cleared I could see several of my Platoon comrades who looked to be dreadfully wounded, or worse. A Sergeant-Major whom I did not know came forward and ordered us to move ‘at the double’ back down the hill for about another 50 yards from the scene of these explosions. It transpired that two shells from our own supporting artillery had dropped on to our positions. The voice shouting ‘stop’ turned out to be the artillery observation officer who was up with us to direct the fire. From what I observed it looked as if the second shell must have already been on its way when he shouted, and it landed very close to where he was positioned. I did not know his fate, but suspected the worst. It was a tragic case of ‘friendly fire’, a tremendous shock to me and to those around me. But after only a few minutes we were being urged on, past our terribly injured comrades who were now being treated by medical orderlies, back again up the hill.
‘B’ Company eventually arrived at the place from which we were to make our assault. The Para Battalion was to make the initial attack then ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies were to secure the enemy positions. We crawled our way forward under heavy machine-gun fire which I could hear clipping the trees just above my head. We were being loudly urged on by our own Company Sergeant Major Wheatley who ordered us to fix bayonets. I had often wondered how I would react when given this order in battle, and had decided that I did not think I would be up to thrusting a bayonet into another human body. Instead, if called upon to make a bayonet charge, I would prefer to fire my rifle at my opponent. But now I would have no choice, because I had lost my bayonet in the Sedjenane battle 10 days earlier.
Casualties were appearing all around as the intense machine gun fire ripped through the trees. The man immediately in front of me suddenly rolled on to his back. I will never forget the surprised look in his lifeless staring eyes.
Our movement forward began to falter; further progress seemed impossible as the machine-guns kept up their merciless chatter. Then the voice of our wounded ‘B’ Company Commander, Captain Newton, was heard above the din, ordering us to withdraw. The attack had failed but I did not know the official reason why at the time, because we had been told that there would be little opposition. It was almost as difficult to go back as it was to go forward, but we eventually returned to our positions at the foot of the hill. The next day, under a flag of truce a request was made for a party of volunteers to go back up the hill to bury our dead comrades. I am rather ashamed to say that I could not bring myself to offer my services in this respect, for I had not realised how badly shaken I was after those shells had hit the platoon. However, a party was formed and the job was done. Within a couple of days I was back to my normal self, and a little more hardened after the experience.
The following day we were informed that we had a new Commanding Officer, Major E.A. Hefford, from 6th Battalion Lincoln’s, and that Lt. Col Stott had taken command of our 139 Brigade.
We returned to the positions by the caves for a couple of days. Then on 16th March all N.C.O.s were called together to a briefing before telling us that we were to prepare to move that night to take over positions from the Para, again at Tamera, which was a few miles along the road, but to a different hill nearby.
The New Platoon Sergeant Twigg, gave a grim warning of what we might expect. On arrival in moonlight at these positions we were guided by members of the Parachute Regiment to our own respective positions on the hill. Our section was led through the bushes for what seemed to be a half mile ahead of everyone else and told to lay in some bushes and stay perfectly quiet and listen. The Para told our section leader to set off back towards our own lines just before full light. It was a most forward position, but instructions as to what we
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were to do there if we did hear or see anything, were unclear to me although the Section Leader was briefed by the guide. As dawn approached, the Section Leader who, according to instructions left with him, was to leave the position just before full light insisted that he wanted to wait until the sun was up. He was not sure of the way to go in the dark, and the area was covered in small trees. We had arrived there through bushes in the shade of the moonlight which did not help when trying to get our proper sense of direction.
We all chipped in with our suggestions before setting off in the direction we thought we had come. After we had been on our way for about half an hour without picking up any recognisable features, it seemed that we were lost. This was not a pleasant situation, for we did not know whether we were approaching our own or the German lines. Most of the section, including the Section Leader, had only joined the Battalion as reinforcements two days earlier. Only one other, like myself, had been with the battalion all the time in Tunisia.
We could hear voices in the distance which were getting closer. It was, thank goodness, our new Platoon Commander, Lt. Stansfield, who was leading a party to look for us. The vegetation was pretty thick in this area and Lt. Stansfield congratulated us on having found our way pretty well in the circumstances. It was more by instinct than anything else that had kept us in the right direction. Lt. Stansfield led us back towards our lines and placed our section of eight men in position forming a small semi-circle where we were to lay with our rifles ready cocked. He told us that we were the foremost point of an arrow, with one section behind us to our left and the other section behind to our right. We could expect to be attacked during the day. The other platoons were a little further back in support. He left us then to attend to the rest of his platoon.
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CHAPTER 9. “Hands Up Tommy”.
Not long after, enemy artillery and mortars opened up. Most of the shelling appeared to be directed towards the right of our positions, and it sounded pretty heavy, but did not appear to pose an immediate threat to us at that moment. But soon the shelling seemed to be directed at the Battalion’s positions and shells were landing further back and behind us. It was a very heavy barrage and the noise was considerable. But thanks to my experiences at Green Hill and at Sedjeane I was able to get this one in proportion and I knew that our immediate position was not the objective. The ration Corporal appeared, and told our Section Leader to send two men back 50 yards to his supply point to collect the section’s food rations, and then he departed. The Section Leader asked who wanted to do this, but it was obvious that the shelling was unnerving the men. He asked if anyone would volunteer or he would have to detail two of us. Myself and the other ‘long serving’ chap agreed we would do it. The two of us got up and made our way towards the place the ration Corporal had indicated. We could not see his supply point because of the bushes. There was an open space to our right, but we kept to the trees until we came to this ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of food which was stacked about four or five feet high. But what seemed strange was, the Corporal was not there to supervise. There was no one there, and we could just help our selves; strange! My companion selected at will the items to take back to the section and piled them up in my arms. He otherwise kept his arms free to act as escort during our way back to the section.
The shelling stopped abruptly, and we could hear small arms fire not far away. This indicated trouble, and suggested that the attack was imminent. I was loaded up with as much food, which was all canned, as I could carry. My companion said that he would return to the section first to find out what was happening there, and to report that there was no one at the ration dump. He had only just departed, leaving me holding all this food in my arms, when small arms fire began cracking immediately over my head, and voices were shouting, “Hands Up Tommy, hands up Tommy”.
I promptly dropped all the food and dived into a small trench which had probably been dug for the use of the ration Corporal. The trench, only about three feet deep, was very muddy and had about an inch of water in the bottom. I crouched below ground level. The voices were getting nearer, but I was comforted to know that support was just behind and that the other sections just a few yards to our rear would soon be opening up. But nothing happened, and I became increasingly anxious as to what my next move should be. What had happened to my companion who had not returned, and to the comrades in my section only 50 yards away? Where were the other sections and other platoons of ‘B’ Company? I alone could not stop the advancing enemy, for if I had attempted to fire my rifle I would have disclosed my position and then brought the whole weight of enemy fire on to myself. I was on my own. I thought that perhaps I could climb out of the trench under the cover of the trees and scramble back to the sections behind, or, I could stay in the trench until this first wave of enemy infantry had passed, then make a break for it. But I had not been given any orders to leave my section. It had gone quiet as I clutched my rifle and slowly raised my head to assess the situation. But there, within 10 or 12 yards of me were three enemy soldiers, dressed in sandy coloured uniforms who it seemed, had moved across to examine the food dump. Obviously they had seen the trench and were about to investigate. They all levelled their weapons directly at me with great urgency and for a fleeting second I tensed, expecting to be fired on immediately. But again they repeated the call, “Hands Up Tommy”, then again, “Hands Up Tommy, for you the war is over”. The inaccuracy of that last phrase, “for you the war is over” was to haunt me for the rest of the war, because it was proved so wrong many times over in the next two years.
There must have been 25 to 30 Germans, armed with the German version of the Tommy gun, swarming past as I was escorted by my captors towards a German Sergeant.
Now, it began to dawn on me that I had been taken prisoner. Where were my section comrades, and where was the support from behind that we had been told to expect? What was to become of me, and how would my family at home take the news? How was I going to be treated and where would I be taken? Strangely I did not feel afraid; perhaps I was naive, but I was very bewildered, confused and probably in a state of shock at this turn of events which seemed to have happened so quickly.
It was as these thoughts were going through my mind that there was an explosion caused I suspect by a small, probably a 2″ mortar bomb, landing a few yards away, wounding one of my captors in the arm. My hopes rose, perhaps a counter attack was taking place and I might be rescued. It caused the Germans to start running about, and shouting to each other which I did not of course understand, but nothing further happened. Once they had settled down they began again to turn their attention to me. Some of them
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continued with their advance, and I think it must have been the German Sergeant who indicated to me that I must remove my small pack and place it on the ground, which I did. I then began to open the pack to get out some cigarettes to take with me to wherever I was going. Unfortunately, as I opened the flap out rolled two mills bombs, (hand grenades) on to the ground. They were ready primed, and I thought the German Sergeant was going to shoot me there and then. He screamed and shouted for me to move away from my pack, and ordered one of his colleagues to take charge of me. It was then that another German brought our Section Leader towards us; he had also been captured. I immediately began to ask him where the others were, but the Germans indicated by arm movements and by pointing to the mouth not to speak to him, nor him to me.
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CHAPTER 10. The Interrogation.
The German Sergeant indicated to my escort to take me away, and, as we moved near to our section positions on my right, I could see the crumpled great-coated figures of what must have been my section comrades. I could not see enough to identify which of them they were but I suspect that my recent companion was among them. A little further along I passed a British para trooper, laid on his back, eyes staring and lips drawn back baring his teeth. He must have been a casualty of a previous battle. These sights were beginning to bring the emotions of my situation to a head and I suddenly began to feel terribly depressed. I was tired, both physically and mentally, and I felt to be in a hopeless situation. Then I turned my attention to my escort and realised that he was not a young man, probably in his mid forties. I think that he was grateful for the opportunity of escorting me back to his lines instead of having to stay with the attack. After a while he began to signal for me to take my time, for obviously he was not in a hurry to return. He walked behind me and kept directing me by pointing the way forward. We soon found ourselves almost out of earshot of the small arms fire going on behind. My escort suggested to me to stop and sit down for a rest. Thoughts of escape did enter my head but although he did appear to be comparatively kind to me, he also made sure his rifle was alwavs directed towards me. He was, unlike my original captors, dressed in the normal German grey uniform. I was very tired for I had not had any sleep for the past 36 hours. The German began to talk which I did not understand at first, but soon it became clear that he was telling me that he had been on the Russian front, and that it was not very nice there. He got out his photographs and put them on a small rock, and waved me to look at them. He was able to identify to me the people on the photos which included his wife and children. Still he made sure that he had me under proper guard. I felt my eyes dropping and the German made it clear that he was prepared to allow me to dose off.
I began to recap on my position. It appeared that the ration corporal had not been at the ration point because he and the rest of the company had been called upon to withdraw. However it would appear that the message had not reached our section, and consequently we were overrun.
After the war ended I found out that the Battalion had become surrounded that day, and orders went to the men to try to find their own way out during the night. Casualties had been high.
[Left-hand side of the page: Black and white photograph titled ‘Their Share’. Photographs of Private F. Hirst and Private G. Hirst. Text underneath photograph: “Pte. Fred Hirst, eldest son of Mrs. E. Hirst, 62, Askern-road, Bentley, who, as reported in last week’s “Gazette”, is a prisoner of war in Germany. He twice attempted to escape, but was recaptured. His mother has not heard from him for over a year. His sister Gladys (24) is in the A.T.S., and his brother John (19) has been wounded in Normandy.]
I opened my eyes and saw my escort looking towards me and with his rifle although not menacingly, still pointing towards me. He indicated that if I was now ready we must push on. I think it was about mid-day when I was first captured, but it must now have been late afternoon. I had probably been asleep for almost a couple of hours. We carried on walking with the German behind me until we dropped into a railway cutting which was not unlike a long trench, with hundreds of German soldiers in their grey uniforms stretched along the length of it. It looked to me as if they were preparing to follow up the previous attack which had hit the Foresters. I was guided towards a wood just behind the rail cutting where I saw a few other recently captured British troops. There was an open car nearby with a German officer standing up in it. He had a short queue of prisoners waiting to be interrogated. I was put with a group who were standing nearby. One or two more prisoners were being brought in, and one party was carrying a dead German officer in a blanket by holding the blanket at each corner. Not long after, a German small ‘pick-up’ vehicle came towards us and stopped for the driver to make some form of enquiry of a German officer nearby. I could hear a voice inside shouting through the open window, “You must only give your name, rank and number. If there are any British there can you hear me; give only your name rank and number, do you understand?” I thought that I recognised that voice, and I edged closer and looked into the vehicle. There, sat in the back with his head and eyes heavily bandaged and covered in blood, was Lt. Stansfield, our platoon commander. I could not help but admire his spirit and his courage, and I called back, “Yes Sir”, before being moved away by the German officer. The vehicle was then driven away.
It was not long before I was lined up with several others at the interrogation officer’s car. It seemed to me that the Germans were anxious to grill their prisoners as soon as possible after capture, and whilst they were still in a state of shock. We could all hear the questions, spoken in excellent English, being asked of those prisoners in front, and it was made clear that the German officer was not accepting just ‘Name, Rank and Number’ without us answering
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other questions. It is all right quoting the Geneva Convention when you have been registered with the Red Cross but that does not take place until you arrive at a permanent POW Camp, which can take several days, weeks or months. Until then you are vulnerable, and exposed to ill treatment, in some cases even death. We were rather intimidated by the ring of armed German troops around us, and of what was to be our future. But I remembered what Lt. Stansfield had bravely called to us, and tried to give nothing away. Most, but not all I’m afraid, gave information which was a pack of lies. When it came to my turn I had heard most of the questions, and I agreed with everything when asked, whether it was right or wrong. But I was not asked many questions, perhaps because it was now getting dark, and there were still a couple more to be seen behind me. One of the lads in front, when asked how he was captured, told the officer that he did not know because he was asleep. Several more followed that line, giving the German the impression that the assault on some of our positions had been a complete surprise which of course it hadn’t, at least not to the extent of them being asleep. This line of approach saved giving any more details of their capture. The interrogation officer did know that some of us were 5th Foresters, but he did not even ask what regiment I belonged to. He also recognised that some were Paras, from their distinctive uniforms. I was surprised that we were not asked any really searching questions about the 46th Division, about our officers and about casualties, but perhaps he thought he had got all he required! It was quite a strain for us to parry the questions already asked, and to think up a plausible but mythical, explanation on the spur of the moment. Hopefully the interrogation was not all that successful for the Germans, and perhaps the interrogation officer could not really tell fact from fiction – but one had the feeling that he was rather clever.
Dusk began to fall, and I noticed that the Germans had torches which, instead of batteries, were operated by pressing down a serrated lever which drove a small dynamo in the torch. Transport arrived and we were taken to a building in Ferryville where we were placed in a locked room with the floor covered in straw. It was now dark and there were about 20 or 25 of us, and a small electric light illuminated the room but not very brightly. We were given some very weak but warm soup which was not very nice but rather welcome, because I at least, had not eaten since the day before other than the emergency chocolate pack issued to every soldier. It was a small room with a stone floor, and we laid out our weary bodies as best we could and slept until early morning when we were wakened by the Germans, ushered on to transport and taken to Bizerta Harbour where we were handed over to custody of the Italians.
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PART 2. LIFE AS A PRISONER OF WAR.
CHAPTER 11. Transportation To An Italian POW Camp.
Buildings around Bizerta harbour were just a heap of ruins following Allied air raids and artillery bombardment, and there seemed to be very few sailing vessels moored in the bay. However, there was an Italian cargo ship by the dockside. It was nowhere near the size of the ‘Derbyshire’ in which I had sailed from Liverpool on the previous Christmas Day, 1942, only twelve weeks ago, but it was to be our next means of transport. What an age away that Christmas Day seemed now.
The Germans ordered us out of the trucks which had brought us from Ferryville, and I began to look around at this famous port which had been so much in the news before I left England. It was one of the key objectives of the Allied forces in Tunisia. To my left I observed a compound surrounded by barbed wire containing more British prisoners, and one of the men there looked very familiar to me. I concentrated on him from where I was standing, about 150 yards away. Yes, it was Leo Burn who had been in the top bunk above me in the barracks at No. 7 Infantry Training Centre in Lincoln. Leo had arrived at Lincoln with his cousin, and they both came from Leeds. The compound was guarded by rather untidy looking soldiers in blue grey uniforms with baggy trousers. They did not look to be Germans, they must be Italian; they were. The German officer in charge of us was seen to be handing us over to an Italian officer dressed in a light pale blue uniform and a forage cap.
When this procedure was completed the Germans left and the Italians took over. The prisoners in the compound were ushered out towards us and Leo, who had also recognised me, moved forward. It was nice to see a familiar face but I would have preferred it to have been under better circumstances. Leo told me that, after the Passing Out Parade at Lincoln he had been posted to the 6th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment which was also in the 46th Infantry Division. He, like the rest of the men in that compound, had been taken prisoner several days ago and they were starving. They had received very little food from the Italians and life there had become very miserable for them. Our party had received no food today and were feeling a little hungry, but it was nothing compared to what we were to face in the future. Hunger was to be the main feature and discomfort of POW life.
Leo and I, with the rest of the party were marched towards the Italian cargo boat. (I do not recall its name.) The boat had a very small deck with a wheel house. The Italian crews’ quarters and the kitchen appeared to be at the front and below the wheel house. But we were pushed and prodded towards an open hatch with a ladder leading down into the depths of a dark smelly hold. We descended via the ladder into our ‘quarters’ and there we found just a bare floor with two large round containers about 8 ft. diameter, presumably for use as toilet facilities. There were a couple of oil lamps to light up the gloom. This was to be our ‘home’ for the next ten or twelve days. Food was in very short supply on this boat, and the daily ration for each man was:
One rusty tin of watery ‘meat’ which was of very doubtful origin, the tin being about the size of a small tin of beans.
One hard tack biscuit, about three inches square, usually covered in green mould.
Drinking water was available.
Although I was becoming very hungry, I could not always face eating the biscuits, or at least I would attempt to find a portion to eat which was free of mould. Leo had been living for the past few days on similar rations issued in the compound and his appetite was much more acute at this stage than mine. Therefore he devoured the remains of my biscuits, along with his own, each day. The boat moved into the middle of the bay and anchored. We were allowed on deck for a few hours each day and it was a very sad sight to see some of the men who were becoming desperately hungry, bartering what few valuables they had been able to hang on to when captured in exchange for just a bread loaf the size of a small tea cake, or a cabbage stalk which the Italian crew were about to throw over the side. As the days passed by I found myself gazing at a cigarette lighter given to me by a friend during my embarcation leave. It had been made by someone working in a munitions factory and was of a very simple design. But I had become very attached to it for it helped to remind me of that last leave at home. I was very hungry indeed yet I did not yield to the temptation to barter it for at least three days. When I finally succumbed I found it very difficult to persuade any of the Italian crew to accept it. However I think one of them must have thought that the lighter was of some use to him and I received one of the small loaves. I shared it with Leo.
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The boat was at anchor for about a week before sailing and I felt very vulnerable at the thought of possible further air raids by our own side on the port. But, when the ship finally moved we were ordered into the hold and there we stayed for the whole of the trip with the hatch battened down most of that time, and the ladder taken away. It was opened on one occasion when a Sergeant Major of the 6th Lincoln’s, (who with other senior ranks was allowed to stay in separate quarters from us) thought he was doing us all a favour by standing at the hatch and throwing raw cabbage stalks which he had saved from being thrown overboard, down to the men below. It caused very degrading fights in the mad scramble to catch any of this ‘valuable’ nourishment. What bits any of the men did get hold of would not have made much difference to their well-being anyway. It would have been better if the Sergeant Major had not bothered, although in his mind I suppose he thought he was helping.
Another occasion when the hatch was opened was when a Padre, of the Lincoln’s I believe, who I was unaware was aboard until that moment, was allowed to come down to talk to us and to conduct a short service. He was a tall kindly man and was extremely offended at the way we were being treated, and promised to do what he could to persuade the Italians to ease our discomfort. But nothing happened. There was not much else he could do for us. Where else, other than the hold, would you expect the Italians to put us on this small boat? We were not being treated aggressively by the crew, but our living conditions and starvation diet were more than enough.
The Padre performed the Service the best way he could, which was difficult without music and a not too enthusiastic congregation. He prayed that we would complete the journey safely and that our ordeal would soon come to an end. At the conclusion of the Service however, the Padre called for us to sing the National Anthem with all the gusto we could muster, and I felt a searing feeling of pride run through my stomach as we all sang at the top of our voices just to let our jailers know that they had not yet broken our spirit.
Life in the hold was miserable and depressing. I was feeling so desperately hungry and it was having an effect on me. It was a stage of hunger I had never ever previously experienced in my life, but which I was to endure many times later during my POW life. Sometimes I would drop to sleep, then wake up with the certainty that I was at home with the table laden with every kind of food one could imagine. Cream cakes, bowls of tinned fruit, sandwiches and sausages on sticks, more food than in reality, I would have ever seen at home. There was no war, and I would eat before joining my mates on the town in Doncaster. I would look round our dimly lit quarters and I could ‘see’ all this lovely food within reach. I could hear my mother’s voice calling to say that Stan, my mate was at the door waiting for me. Then suddenly I would return to the reality of the situation in this dark and smelly place with the sound of the throbbing engines vibrating through the ship, and the grim situation in which we were in.
After about three days, as near as I can remember because I lost track of when it was day time or night, we were startled by a terrific bang which thundered through the ship and dulled our hearing for a few seconds. Then again and again this terrific sound was repeated, making the ship shudder and rock to a frightful extent. We were being attacked, but the hatches remained closed. If we were hit we would be killed either in the explosion, or drown like rats in a trap. Some of the men began screaming for the hatches to be opened to give us a chance. They began to throw whatever they could lay their hands on at the hatches to attract attention, but nothing happened. A group of men got together and attempted to climb on each other’s shoulders in an effort to reach up to the hatches but weakness overcame them and they were unsuccessful. Pandemonium reigned.
I stayed in the spot where I normally slept and did not take part in any of this activity. I began to accept that my life was now in the hands of fate. If the ship was hit and I was not killed in the explosion, I would surely drown, for my fear of water would make sure of that. So, even if the battens locking the hatches were removed to give us a chance, the moment I hit the water I would panic and that would be it. I laid there and awaited my fate.
The noise of explosions carried on for what seemed to us about half an hour, it could have been longer or shorter, but then they became less frequent until finally they ceased. Still the hatches were not opened. No one came to see how we had fared after our terrifying experience. Not knowing what had been happening above us was frighteningly frustrating. We were left to guess just what had taken place. Were the explosions caused by bombs from an Allied air attack, or were they from depth charges in an effort to repel a submarine ambush? We were never informed, but we did hear that the crew had shed most of their clothes during this period ready to take to the sea if the ship had been hit. The POWs would have been left to their fate.
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No further experiences of that nature occurred during the rest of the trip, but sometimes the fear of the worst is often greater than it would have been if the worst had happened. We felt the engines slowing down and sensed that we had reached our destination. The hatches were opened and the searing shaft of light from above made us wince. We had arrived at Livorno (Leghorn in English) on the west coast of Italy, well north of Rome. The ladder was dropped down and we were ordered to climb up on to the deck. As we were doing this, one of the prisoners passed out halfway up the ladder and fell back knocking some of the men below back down into the hold. The lack of food was telling on us, and we all had difficulty making it to the top. We were pleased at least to see civilisation again as we focused on our surroundings. It was a grey day, unlike what we expected of the Italian weather. Down the gang plank we went where we were ordered to sit outside a dockside building and await our turn before entering. Soon it was my turn. Inside the building were showers and a ‘barber’ with clipping shears in his hand waiting for his next victim. First, to the barber who not unlike shearing sheep, proceeded to remove all the hair from my head. All the others were subjected to this drastic hair cut and much banter as to our appearance resulted. Next, what appeared to me to be nothing more than white sheeting, and already wet, was thrown to me and I was directed to the showers. I was grateful for the shower after being so long without a proper wash since way back before the battle at Sedjenane, but drying afterwards on this sheet was not very successful, and most uncomfortable.
Our ablutions completed we were directed towards a train waiting in a siding nearby. It was a “luxury” train compared to the rail travel we had experienced since leaving England, and appeared to have the normal passenger coaches used on the Italian railway. The compartments were the saloon type and fitted with wooden seats with a gangway running along the middle. The rail journey lasted for several hours as we passed through towns and villages, and it seemed to have a lifting effect on our moral to see civilisation again after the horrors of the Tunisian hills and the crossing of the Med. Eventually we arrived at our destination, a small station in the countryside. It was now a bright and warm sunny day as we left the train. We had to form up and march towards what the guards appeared to think was a Utopia of a POW camp with every facility available to us. It sounded unbelievable as we ambled along, hungry and tired, towards this what seemed to have been described by the Italian guards as a holiday camp. It was one of the first delusions and disappointments of my life as a POW, and an early introduction to Italian imaginative promises, “Domani, Domani!!”, (Tomorrow, Tomorrow!!) was the inevitable answer if any kind of request was made by the POWs, but as we all know, tomorrrow never comes.
We drew nearer to the camp gates and could see the current inmates lining our route leading from the main gate to one of the concrete huts. Barriers had been erected to separate us from these thin but bronzed looking men, some with legs covered in sores. We halted for a while until the gates were opened and a weighted bar was raised, then in we went, leaving freedom and contact with the outside world, behind. We were Prisoners of War, and at the mercy and every whim of our captors. Rules laid down for the treatment of POWs by the Geneva Convention were applied by the Italians, but not always in the spirit in which they were intended.
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CHAPTER 12. Life in Campo Concentromento P.G. 82.
As we moved towards a brick building the inmates of the camp began shouting to us:
“Where were you captured, and when did you leave Blighty?”, and, “How is the war going in Africa, what are the latest songs in Britain now?”.
These men had received little news since they were captured in the desert during the summer of 1942, prior to the Battle of El Alamein in October of that year. Many were taken at the fall of Tobruk after holding out for nearly 18 months. They had suffered from the heat and lack of water whilst waiting ‘in transit’ in makeshift barbed wire enclosures in the desert, exposed to the heat of the sun during the day, and the cold at night. They were hungry for news of home, and the progress of the war. The situation in North Africa at the time was that the Germans had retreated, in the face of the Eighth Army’s advance westward, all the way from Egypt through the Libyan Desert, into southern Tunisia. The British 1st Army, together with the Free French and the Americans had advanced eastwards from Algeria and into Tunisia. The last that most of the men in the camp had seen of the war was the rapid advance of the Germans eastward towards Egypt, led superbly by the German Lt. General Erwin Rommel, Commander of the Afrika Korps.
No other Allied prisoners had arrived at the camp since, until we came. We were escorted into a building, searched and documented, then directed into a brick built hut with a barbed wired compound on one side. Each of us was given a palliasse filled with straw to lay down on the concrete floor, and to sleep on. We were then given one Red Cross parcel each. These Red Cross parcels were to be our life and mental saviours during life in this POW Camp.
The parcels were oblong cardboard boxes weighing approximately 10 lbs, containing various tinned foods, a 2 oz packet of tea, a 2 oz packet of sugar and a tin of condensed milk, with 20 cigarettes and a tablet of soap in each. The tinned foods previously mentioned were usually made up of a 2 oz round tin of cheese, one standard size tin of stewed steak or similar, a small tinned sweet pudding, an 8 oz tin of hard biscuits, tin of jam, a small tin of margarine, a tin of fruit, a tin of diced carrots, and also included was a 4 oz block of chocolate.
I could hardly believe we were being given this food after almost starving to death since being taken prisoner a few weeks ago. It did not seem real, and we spent the first few minutes opening and examining our parcels and looking through the items therein. Gasps of astonishment filled the air as first one then another excitedly began to describe the contents of his box. Nobody listened, for we were all doing the same. Such ‘luxuries’, and then, “Anyone got a tin opener?”
The current inmates beyond the barrier, were looking on and sharing in our joy. “We all get one parcel a week”, they shouted, “but don’t thank the Ities, thank the British Red Cross”. (This was the first time I had heard the Italians expressed as Ities.)
We were kept in quarantine and confined to within the compound for about two weeks before being allocated to huts in the main camp. I assume this was to avoid the possibility of bringing in any contagious diseases. The camp had been brought alive by our arrival and we were continually being asked for news from home and the progress of the war. When we were allowed to leave the compound we were shown by the camp staff, who were also POWs, to our respective huts and beds. Again we were pressed by our immediate neighbours for more news. We became known in the camp as ‘The New Prisoners”.
The hut to which I was directed was about 40 yards long and about 8 yards wide, with a dividing wall down the centre. Bunk beds, in blocks of nine, i.e., three at the top, three in the middle and three at the bottom were provided and I was allocated to a top bunk on the outside. A Sergeant Major was in overall command, and the hut was divided into sections, each under a Sergeant or a Corporal. Most of the men in my section were South African, with a South African Sergeant in charge. But I was not the only new prisoner allocated to this section; there were two British paratroopers of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Ronnie Ford and Don Wigley, both Yorkshiremen.
I began to settle into camp life and soon became aware of what was taking place around me. We were allowed pre-printed postcards and letters on which to write home, issued at various intervals. The issue of Red Cross parcels was staggered throughout the camp which meant that each day, except Saturday and Sunday, some huts would receive their parcels. It was always a big day for those receiving their parcels, and camp activity revolved around this event. Food provided by the Italians was of poor quality and small quantity. We called it ‘Stodge’ and it contained various unknown green vegetables, with sometimes a little meat which was infrequent, but which usually drew the comment, “Must have been an air-raid nearby”, insinuating that the meat may have come from any animals killed in a raid, such as dogs, cats, horses or mules. But we were so hungry nobody took it seriously, yet it probably had some truth in it. This Italian ‘dish’ was issued twice a day, and
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two men were detailed by the section leader to carry it from the cookhouse in a square metal container about 18″ square and about the same in depth. These containers were called pots. Ladles had been made using half of a food tin from a Red Cross parcel cut in half and attaching it to a wooden handle, probably fashioned from a bed board or a small branch from a tree brought in for firewood by some working party. The South African Sergeant would ladle out the food to each member of our section who had all been given a number, and the first number in the queue changed by one at each serving. Much emphasis was directed at making everything connected with the distribution of food as fair as possible, thus avoiding unnecessary disputes. When the small bread buns, similar to those bartered for on the crossing from North Africa, were issued two or three times a week each man had his turn at having first choice, for the bread varied in size slightly. The two men whose turn it was to carry the ‘stodge’ pot were allowed to take the scrapings left after the issue had been made. This usually amounted to the equivalent of a further serving each for these two men, making for them a hunger free day. Cheese was issued to sections in bulk once or twice a week and had to be cut up into as near as possible 1 oz portions. This also was subjected to choice by rotation. This rigid system of choice by rotation worked very well, and reduced suspicion of cheating in allocation of the food. The men were always very hungry despite the meagre camp rations plus the issue of Red Cross parcels which, unless you had a very strong will, would be devoured within two or three days. It was possible with care, to make the 2 oz packet of tea and the Nestles condensed sweetened milk, last almost a week. But without the Red Cross parcels we would have received very little nourishment from only Italian rations, and would have suffered all kinds of illnesses which the previous inmates of the camp, from their own earlier experiences endured before the parcels became a regular supply, could confirm. But the nagging feeling of hunger went on day after day, relieved only by the weekly parcels, and the pot carrying which came around individually about every twenty days.
But the Red Cross parcels did not only relieve hunger, they also encouraged ingenuity and creativity among the prisoners. A place in the corner of the camp, known as the brewing area, was allocated to the individual preparation of heating water and food. All kinds of burners were made out of empty tins from the parcels. Gadgets with wheels acting as fans, turned by handles would keep little fires burning under further tins holding water. Fuel, usually twigs, was brought into the camp by POW working parties and dumped near the brewing area to be used as required. Not having a very practical sort of mind myself, I marvelled at the number of different models operating in the brewing area. A pall of smoke continually hung over the place, and voices could be heard coming through the ‘fog’ appealing for, “Any embers please,” in an effort to avoid having to start their own fire. On receiving a positive reply, “Here you are, mate” one would scoop up the remaining fire embers from a colleague who had just heated up his one tin of eg. stewed steak for the day.
Another important activity of camp life also evolved from the issue of the Red Cross parcels. It was the Camp Market, and it operated in the brewing area. The main currency was cigarettes. Some of the men became experts at playing the market, and would take their entire food parcel and offer its parts for cigarettes, then again exchange those cigarettes for the food items which they preferred. Particular items usually settled down to a price of so many cigarettes, but if there was an arrival of some individual personal parcels from home containing cigarettes, the prices on the market could fall. This would depend, of course, on how many of the recipients submitted their windfall for selling on the market. The clever ones in the camp would get wind of such events and play their hunches according to the intelligence gained. A small crowd would gather and begin millihg around in the area. Would be sellers and buyers would call out their requirements to anyone prepared to listen. Sudden changes for no apparent reason used to occur as runners would dash into the huts yelling, ” A tin of cheese has just exchanged for four cigarettes, down by two”, or conversely, “They are now wanting twenty fags for a tin of jam sponge, that’s five up on yesterday”. Some POWs used to juggle their parcels around to try to get more than they started with, or to try to change the contents to more of the items they preferred. The market became a popular event, even if only a talking point. Being rather a cautious type I usually kept what I had got, and did not dabble in the business of the market.
There was a little bartering over the wire with Italian civilians, and sometimes in a quiet part of the camp it was said that one of the prisoners had a regular arrangement with an Italian whereby the Italian would throw over an agreed amount of bread in exchange for a two oz. packet of tea. However, the fresh tea leaves had been removed and replaced with dried used leaves. One day a more ‘honest’ prisoner also made a similar arrangement with the same Italian and he threw over an untampered packet of tea. Next day the Italian in quite a rage threw the tea packet back and complained that it was not the same quality as his usual supplier provided, and threw it back demanding it be replaced……which it was!
Morning ‘Roll Call’ was a bedraggled affair as the men tumbled out of their bunks in the cold morning air, wrapped in blankets or other miscellaneous garments in their possession. The Italian guards were not terribly
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efficient in counting, and we were often standing there an hour or more until they were satisfied that we were all present. However, on one particular morning the count seemed to be taking even longer, and the guards were running around and shouting excitedly to such an extent that we were hopefully expecting that an escape had been made. It was not to be, and a search of the huts revealed a man who had found that camp life was too much for him. He was found hanging in the ablutions area – and quiet reigned over the camp for the rest of the day. One morning as I emerged from the hut I noticed a bit of a commotion taking place by one of the toilet trenches. These trenches were about three yards wide, and when first dug would be 6ft deep and 15 to 20 ft. long. Planks were laid across with 12 inch gap between each. When required to be used, often with almost cruel urgency, one would place a foot on a plank either side of the gap and perform in the obvious way. Imagination does not need to be stretched far to realise that the place was a mess and a haven for flies. On this particular morning the commotion was because one of the unfortunate victims of diarrhoea had collapsed and fallen down into the pit below. Someone had spotted him and had alerted the camp medical staff who came and pulled him out. I was just in time to see him being carried away to the sick quarters for cleaning up and treatment. It must have been a horrible experience for both the victim and the medical staff who came to his assistance.
Most of us at sometime or another suffered from diarrhoea more than once, but many of the prisoners who were already at the camp when we ‘new prisoners’ arrived, had all kinds of other illnesses. A common one seen was leg ulcers which did not seem to respond to the restricted medical treatment available. Many had malaria whilst others attended the camp doctor’s surgery for ailments which continually flared up again and again. These men had suffered considerably at the hands of both the Germans and Italians soon after their original capture in the desert, being deprived of both food, water and medical supplies, before their transportation to Italy. Once there they found that no established camp had been prepared for them and instead had to work during the autumn and winter of 1942/43 to build one. During this time the men had to live in tents in awful conditions and limited medical supplies through the very cold winter of that year, with no Red Cross supplies available. Eventually the Red Cross made contact and supplies began to filter through. Parcels arrived for distribution at the rate of one parcel a week between four or one parcel each every four weeks, then one between two or one each every two weeks. It was only just before we arrived, that distribution became one parcel per man per week. Morale in this camp or any other POW camp, was maintained in direct proportion to food available, even more than the good news coming in to the camp of successes in Tunisia for example.
My bunk was at the top of a block of nine and was an ‘outer’ one. The chap next to me in the middle bunk was a Rhodesian and one of the original occupants of the camp. He filled me in on much of the camp routine, but failed to inform me of a mobile delousing machine available in the camp in which you could place your clothes. The heat generated inside a kind of oven would, I was reliably informed, kill off any kind of insect which may have infected the clothing. Lice was rife in the camp, but as far as I was aware, I had arrived in the camp free of the horrible things. But as a precaution I put all my clothes, other than my army issue cellular draws, into the delouser. The weather was warm, and I was assured that the delousing would only take an hour and then I could have my clothes back.
I informed my Rhodesian friend of what I had done. He was a quiet voiced and mild mannered man, but when I told him he exploded. In no uncertain terms he told me of my thoughtless mistake, and that even if I had no lice in my clothing at the time I most certainly would have now. I could understand his point of view, for he had done his best to keep himself comparatively free from lice, and now I had exposed my clothing to certain infection, and I was in the next bunk to him. After a while he calmed down, for he was basically a nice chap and very friendly. He began to accept a bit of the blame for not informing me earlier of the disadvantages of the, so called, delouser. But it had not been into the camp for a week or two and he had forgotten to mention it’s fallibility to me. I presume the operators of the machine thought we ‘new prisoners’ would be only too eager to take advantage of cleaning ourselves up after having arrived from the Tunisian war zone. With much foreboding, I collected my clothes and began to inspect them. Sure enough they were infected. Other prisoners who were badly infected would use the delouser in a frantic effort to reduce their problem; consequently comparatively clean clothes like mine, which were mostly only coated in Tunisian mud, were contaminated. From that day onwards, despite regular treatment of my clothes by running a lighted match up the seams and also visual attacks with thumb nails, I was never free of them until leaving Italy. It was a regular sight to see men sat outside on the floor with their backs to the hut wall, doing the ritual ‘burning the seams’. I never used the de-louser again.
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What could we do to relieve the boredom? Efforts were made by several well meaning members of the camp fraternity to set up courses in various subjects. For instance I attended a course in motor engineering, a subject in which I was interested. After all hadn’t I taken and passed the Driver/Maintenance Course during my training at Lincoln’s No. 7 Infantry Training Centre? I also attended a simple language course in Italian. Both these courses were well attended, but then tailed off until it was not worth continuing any more. The reasons that I dropped out, and I suspect it was for the same reasons that others dropped out, were (a) the heat, because for some reason the courses were run in the afternoons, (b) the difficulty in maintaining concentration in the environment of a POW camp, and most of all (c) the feeling of hunger which also contributed immensely to the lack of concentration. Later the courses were offered in the evenings but had few takers, for it was in the evenings that we usually sat on our bunks and chatted to each other over a tin mug of tea before turning in which was usually around 8.30 to 9.00 pm. When asleep one could forget feeling hungry for a while.
Clothing became more of a problem as the weather became warmer. Most of the ‘old prisoners’ had shorts which they had worn in the desert, and during the past cold winter in the camp, as part of their Khaki-drill uniforms issued for desert warfare. We ‘new prisoners’ found it more comfortable to cut down our battledress trousers to make them into shorts. We had worn full battledress in Tunisia as it was too cold there for Khaki drill. My Rhodesian friend had given me a spare shirt and a pair of under pants. Many men just used under pants as shorts as they had nothing else suitable.
All my immediate associates were strangers to me. Most of the Section were South Africans who had been holding the town of Tobruk when it fell. There were many other South Africans in the camp who were captured at Tobruk when it finally surrendered to Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the summer of 1942. I was very intrigued to see that most of them were sleeping in pyjamas and wondered whether they had received parcels from home. But that was not the case and it appeared that when the Tobruk Garrison finally surrendered they were able to walk out with all their personal belongings. They did not suffer quite the same in transit as their British counterparts who had been captured elsewhere in the Desert. I began to make friends with the South Africans in the Section who appeared to me to be a pleasant set of lads, although some of their colleagues in other parts of the camp were rather unpopular with the British. This unpopularity was mainly directed at an element of the Boar contingent who constantly caused trouble in the camp with their arrogance and bullying attitude towards other prisoners.
I also made friends with the two British paratroopers who had joined the Section with me and had also been taken prisoner in Tunisia. Both Don Wigley and Ronnie Ford were from Leeds although Don’s home was now in Scotland. Both were married. We used to have long discussions about our native Yorkshire, especially Yorkshire cricket. The first topic of conversation among new acquaintances was usually an exchange of the stories on how they were captured and the battles in which they had been involved. But gradually this settled down, and conversations centred on home, food and incidents in the life of the camp. Sex which was a constant conversational subject during service training was way down the list, but noticeably came more to the fore when tummies were full.
Camp life began to become long boring days with nothing much with which to occupy one’s self. Looking down on the camp was the little village of Laterina which stood on the hill dominating the view to the north. On Sundays we could see the tiny brightly dressed figures of people walking up towards the church. The sight of this made us feel homesick, and a desire to be free just like those people up there were. The boredom was sometimes reduced by the personal duties to be performed, such as washing clothes in cold water and writing letters when the letter forms were issued. Sometimes someone might lend you a book which, even though it may not be of particular interest to you, you would still read it to pass the time. For the purpose of both physical and mental exercise I would walk round the perimeter of the camp several times, keeping just inside the trip wire. This wire was about three yards in from the main barbed wire fence and was about one foot from the ground. No prisoner was allowed to step over this wire, and if the order was violated the culprit could be shot at by the guards located in towers at each comer of the camp. Fluent English-speaking Italian guards used to wonder around the camp talking to anyone who would listen, telling their audience of their experiences during their time in Britain. One in particular spoke in a Cockney accent and shared his knowledge of certain areas of London with POWs from that area. These guards were, of course, in the camps for a purpose which was obviously to glean information. This ploy was used in all camps in which I was held.
Day after day, week after week, the time dragged so much. One day seemed to last for ages, and the time just crawled along. News reached the camp that the war in North Africa was now over, convincing the ‘old prisoners’ in the camp that we ‘new prisoners’ had not been exaggerating in our reports when first entering the
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camp. Then we heard of the invasion of the island of Panteleria, just off the Italian mainland which was the first part of Europe to be invaded. This further boosted morale in the camp. But life in the camp for me was so hard to accept. I felt frustrated and trapped and longed to be free from captivity. But perhaps we would not be incarcerated in this place for much longer, for the hope now was that the Italians would give in as soon as the Allies set foot on their soil. It was at this time that I heard that volunteers were required to live and work on a farm some miles away. I discussed this with my two para pals and we agreed to volunteer. Instinct seemed to suggest that we would be better situated if the Italians did surrender; consequently we were all pleased to have been accepted on to the farm working party.
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CHAPTER 13. The Farm Working Party.
I said good-bye to my South African friends, several of whom wrote a note in my diary. One I particularly treasure is a quote which reads,
“Herd’s Champagne to Real friends, and Real Pain to Sham Friends”.
Transport was waiting, and we had packed what few belongings we owned, and with them boarded the lorries which were to take us to our new abode. Our party was of about 30, made up of a mixture of NCOs and men. A Sergeant from Leeds was designated Camp Leader, with another Sergeant as his deputy. Our interpreter was a private who hailed from Runcorn and who could speak a very hesitant Italian. He could be quite forceful in his own particular way when making a point on our behalf to the Italian Officer in charge of the party. We did not know what to expect when we got to the farm, nor did we know the nature of the work we were to perform there.
It was the 25th June 1943 as our truck passed through the gates towards this large house with its outbuildings. Immediately we entered the grounds we became aware of a low building on our right, with a barbed wire compound in front. This building was to be our quarters. There was a gate in the fence which was open, and we clambered off the truck and were directed by a guard into the compound. The accommodation was a long single story building, stretching back for about 30 yards, with another room at the end on the right big enough to hold a couple of bunks. At the entrance, immediately on the right was a small shower room which was soon to be put to good use. The building looked to have been possibly a cattle shed, but the walls had been painted white to make it look reasonably tidy. The bunks were of the orthodox single two tier type with a straw mattress and a blanket on each. It all looked much more comfortable than the camp accommodation that we had just left. Our Red Cross parcels, and any letters received would be sent on from the main camp, PG 82 at Laterina.
After a day or so to settle in, we were taken to see the site on which we were to work. The job assigned to us was to start by digging a trench along the bottom of a small hill, taking out any stones, large or small, and then to advance the trench in a straight line up the hill, throwing the loose earth behind. The idea was to reclaim this rough land into something that could be worked, enabling various crops to be sown in to it. We had picks and shovels to make our advance up the hill, and it was hard work in the hot sun. However, food was in rather better supply than in the camp, and facilities were made available for us to heat up food from our Red Cross parcels, or make toast and to make tea or coffee. Bread was supplied by the farmer and seemed to be in good supply, and together with the Red Cross parcels our feelings of hunger were now at an end. The hours of work were from 6.00 am to 11.00 am, when we would return for food and a break until 4.00 pm, then finally completing the day’s work at 7.00 pm. It was very hot, even at 6.00 am, even more so when we resumed at 4.00 pm. We usually worked stripped to the waist in our shorts. We all became very bronzed which was very noticeable when in the showers, for the parts covered by our shorts looked very white compared to the rest of the body.
The Sergeant in charge was very zealous in his approach to the job and would not stand for any slacking. To back his enthusiasm he would threaten to have anyone who did not respond to be sent back to Laterina. I would say, as I recalled later, that this Sergeant’s attitude reminded me of the story of ‘The Bridge Over the River Kwai’ in which a British officer became fanatical in completing a bridge for the Japanese. I don’t say he was as bad as that, but he certainly required the job to be carried out as well and in the manner befitting a foreman in charge of a job at home. He gave me the impression that he considered that here was an opportunity to regain some of the power he had enjoyed as a Sergeant before being taken prisoner. Most of us did not see our duty to perform the task in that way, for we were not inclined to giving our best to help the Italian war effort. We took the view that we should work at a reasonably steady rate, for it was hot, boring and tiring work with no real incentive to over do it anyway. Much criticism was levelled at the Sergeant by the men who took the view that he should be seen by the Italian farmer to be making us work hard, but he should also relax a little when the farmer was not present. The guards didn’t seem to care one way or another, for they were bored too. In mitigation I know that the Sergeant was under pressure to get the work done as soon as possible yet at the same time as Camp Leader, he was supposed to look after our interests in our relations with the Italians. A creep to the Italians and a bully to his men. Personally, I would not have liked to have served under him during my army life. The NCOs I served with in the Foresters were great, and this was the standard I measured all other NCOs with whom I later came into contact.
The trench line advanced steadily, with bulges here and there which the farmer insisted had to be levelled out. The work went on day after day. One Sunday we were allowed to join with the local civilians in the little
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church within the farm area. It was a Catholic Service which we did not understand, but at least, we were in contact again with ordinary people even if we did not speak their language. There was a cross section of all ages of Italian men and women attending the service, and they seemed friendly enough, waving and smiling in our direction. As the weeks went by we began to become more friendly with the guards who would update us on the war news. We heard of the invasion of Sicily from them, and it was also from one of the guards that I first heard that wartime international song, ‘Lili Marlene’ being sung. Later I learned that this song had originated in Germany.
The Italian Officer in charge of the guards at the farm camp was a dapper little man, always dressed immaculately, and reasonable in his treatment of us. He liked to get us on parade for ‘roll call’ and to make a speech to us. Unfortunately he only spoke in Italian and we never understood a word he was saying. However, if what he wanted to say was really important he would tell our interpreter first who would then relay it to us in the best way he could. On one particular evening, after work, we were on roll call, and when the count was completed the Officer began one of his speeches. Suddenly, from the row behind me came the embarrassing sound of ‘breaking wind’. The Officer’s face became a picture of rage, for he felt very insulted. He called for the interpreter demanding to know who was the culprit, but no one came forward. The rest of us had to exercise great restrain to prevent us falling down in laughter. The Officer was certainly very upset about the matter and indicated, again through the interpreter, that it was an insult to his rank and that he insisted that the offender own up. Still silence. The Officer then announced that if the guilty man did not make himself known he would punish the whole working party by stopping any further issue of Red Cross parcels. Immediately this was conveyed to us by the interpreter, the offender who I remember as Lofty, a very amiable Coldstream Guardsman, gave himself up and apologised to the Officer. We were all off the hook, but Lofty was sentenced to two weeks without a parcel, which I suppose was rather lenient considering the nature of the offence and the options open for punishment. We thanked Lofty for owning up and then rallied round by donating from our own parcels to help him over the period of his ban.
The news of our arrival at the farm had reached the nearby village of Pietraviva and at the weekends members of the local population would come to the farm and look through the closed gates, sightseeing I suppose. Some of their faces became familiar, especially the younger female visitors, for as POWs, we were starved of female company. The guards who had a very boring job, did not discourage this local interest, and would chat with the visitors, sometimes passing on enquiries from them such as “Where in Britain did we come from?’ and ‘Where were we taken prisoner?’ Several had relatives who had served in the Desert and in Tunisia, many of whom were now prisoners in Britain. This made these relatives feel that they had something in common with us.
News of the war began to come through to us quite openly now, and Italian newspapers were passed in by the guards. Sicily had been invaded and landings on the mainland were imminent. We could not understand the detailed news, but our interpreter did his best. It seemed that the Italian Government was in turmoil and one of the papers of late August carried a headline with the words ‘Marshal Badoglio’ as the main feature. It was to indicate that Mussolini had resigned and had been arrested, and that the Marshal was now Prime Minister. We were all jubilant at the knowledge that Italy was on the point of surrender, and freedom from this awful life under constant guard, boredom and frustration would soon be over. Then, on the 10th September we were called on parade by the Italian Officer, and he informed us that Italy had signed the Allies’ terms of surrender two days ago and that Allied forces had landed on the Italian mainland. We would now soon be free to join our own people. Since the Italian Army was still responsible for our safety he asked us to remain calm and to stay in the camp area until Allied troops arrived. At last, we would soon be going home. Jubilation at this news knew no bounds. We began singing and flinging our arms in the air with relief. Local inhabitants flocked to the gate shouting their delight that the war in Italy was over. Vino found its way into the compound and merriment went on late into the night, and we were joined in this by the Italian guards who had indicated for some time that they and the majority of the Italian people were fed up with the war.
Next day we were taken by the guards on a walk into the village where we mingled with the inhabitants who treated us more like heroes than prisoners. They made it abundantly clear that the war for them was now over and that they blamed it all on to Mussolini and the Fascists. Everywhere there was celebration and relief, and expressions of hope that we would soon be home with our loved ones. Feelings of freedom, which had been enhanced by the walk into Pietraviva, became firmly entrenched in our minds, and that evening just as it was getting dark Ronnie Ford and I pulled back the barbed wire between the fence and the building and ran from the camp across the fields and made our way to the village. There we were feted and fed with bread and cheese, and vino. I was not much of a drinker, and Ron was determined to limit his intake also and we were
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happy to join in by just having a social glass of the red wine. We were invited into several houses and we enjoyed it immensely. We enjoyed the freedom of movement and our morale was high. We did not feel to be prisoners of the Italians any more. We felt that we were their friends.
Sadly this euphoria was to come to an end. The next morning the stout figure of the ‘Padroni’ (farmer) came bustling in to the compound in a very agitated and excitable state. We could not understand at first just what he was saying, but we did understand the word ‘Tedeschi’ (Germans) which frequently punctuated his sentences. We called our interpreter over to translate, and what we were told was not good. It seemed that the Germans, instead of getting out of Italy now that the country had surrendered, were instead pouring troops in as fast as they could. Further landings of Allied forces had taken place south of Naples and the Germans were determined to oppose them. Our understanding was that the Germans were also rushing to take over all POW Camps in Italy for transportation of the occupants to Germany. The Italian guards had gone, and their Officer came and endorsed what the farmer had told us before he too departed. It seems that the Germans were disarming the Italian Army and taking control of the country with the object of preventing the Allies’ invasion and occupation being successful. The farmer advised us to leave as soon as possible and told us that the Italian people would look after us. Hurried discussions took place and decisions were made as to which direction to take, or even whether to take the advice to leave, for this sudden change of events had taken us all by surprise. One could not always take an Italian version of a situation very seriously, as I found out later. However I personally had no doubts of my intention, and that was to leave the place as soon as possible. Was it to be north towards Switzerland and internment or south towards the Allied forces with an attempt to pass through the lines. Ron Ford and I decided on the latter and we made our preparations to leave. We collected what belongings we wished to take and moved out as soon as possible. We thought it imperative to get far away from the farm in case the Germans had arrived at Laterina, found our location from the records there, and came looking for us. Therefore, on 12th September 1943, Ron and I and a another chap, an Irish Guardsman, left the farm camp, passing the hill which had been our place of work for the last three months. We discussed various plans as we walked along. Should we travel: (a) by day or by night, (b) by road or across country, (c) avoid villages and towns, (d) down the east or west side of the country?’
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PART 3. A BID FOR FREEDOM.
CHAPTER 14. Feeling Our Way.
Our first stop was at a small farm about two miles from the one where we had been working. We had little knowledge of the Italian language, and communication was generally by hand waving and mime. We were able to convey to the farmer our predicament, and that we were British prisoners of war who had been working at the farm estate nearby. The truth of the Padroni’s assurance that the Italian people would look after us was borne out by our present host’s kind offer. He indicated that he did know of us and that we could stay in the cow shed overnight. It was wonderful to be able take our own initiative as to what we should do without being herded along by guards all the time. It was our first night of freedom. At about 2.00 am we heard a scuffle half way along the cow shed. It was then that we realised that freedom was now a qualified word, for every unusual sound or sight immediately put us on our guard. But on this occasion there was no danger, for as the farmer passed by our primitive sleeping quarters he smiled and indicated that he was attending to one of his oxen. The following morning we saw the cause of the commotion – a bull oxen calf born in the early hours.
Early next morning we thanked and said good-bye to the farmer and his family and off we went. The three of us had now taken some decisions, and we confirmed our original intention to go south to meet the oncoming Allied forces. We had little news of what was happening on the war front other than that there had been a landing in Calabria which was making progress, followed by a further landing south of Naples. The front near Naples was to be our objective, and we would try to get there as soon as possible, for we thought that at this early stage we may find it easier to penetrate the lines. That was the theory. We also thought that walking after dark may be the quickest method because we could not be seen so easily and that fewer people would be about. But we soon abandoned that because we had already agreed to travel across the countryside rather than along open roads, and we found that we were stumbling along in dark undergrowth oblivious of where we were going and what we may be walking into. We also discovered that the Germans were imposing curfews in some areas, and we did not know which, nor did we know the period of the day or night that the curfew would be applied. After about three days our guardsman colleague decided he wanted to go it alone. He did not want us to stick to our original decision to avoid the towns and large villages where, he thought, we could possibly hide until our armies arrived. Ron and I preferred to keep moving and go as far as possible towards meeting our troops in the shortest possible time rather than take the risk of betrayal or being caught during a house to house search by the Germans or Italian Fascists. Yes!, we had to be very careful of the Italian Fascists who were supporting the Germans, and who were prepared to betray, or capture, any Allied escaped prisoners and hand them over. Posters began to appear offering the Italian civilian population £20.00, (which was of course worth a lot more than it is today), for every prisoner handed over. This offer was sometimes varied by offering as an alternative, the return of a relative who had been taken to work in Germany in return for the betrayal of an Allied prisoner. There was little danger of the majority of Italian peasants on whom we were mostly dependant, responding to these offers for they hated the Germans. But the Fascist element of which there were still many, were not to be trusted. We tended to think that this danger would be more prevalent in larger villages and the towns.
However, in some cases we were told unexpectedly by our helper to leave at once, for no other reason other than that he had become afraid for his family and his home. Many stories abounded of German viciousness reaped on those unfortunate enough to have been found to have harboured escaped prisoners under their roof. People were shot or imprisoned, or sent to Germany as slave labour; houses were burned down and pillaged. These stories, as well as frightening us to death, put a great strain on those Italians who were prepared to help. But despite the consequences many took the terrible risk of coming to the aid of the confused and hungry strangers from countries which were now friendly and who were trying to liberate them from the hated Germans.
We pressed on down the west of the central part of the country, and only called at isolated farms where, if we became suspicious or felt we could not trust them, we could clear off fast in an entirely different direction to the one we had told them we were taking. The weather at this time was fine, warm and sunny. We took our general direction from the sun, bearing in mind the time of day and the direction of sunrise and sunset, for we had no real map with us. We would pick out a feature such as a particular hill or other land mark far enough away for us to follow for the rest of the day. If the sun disappeared we could still keep to our route by moving towards the land mark. What we did have was a map of the whole of Italy on a piece of paper; a page from a
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book of about 8 ins x 5 ins, which only showed the major towns and cities. Shading in brown indicated the high ground and most of that, the Apennines, was further east towards the Adriatic side of the country. Bearing in mind the precautions we had to take such as waiting to cross over roads busy with German convoys moving south, and skirting villages and towns, we made good time. By 30th September 1943 we were on the outskirts of Terni, a fairly large town N.E. of Rome, and as the crow flies we had covered nearly a hundred miles. It must have been more than a hundred miles if diversions and hills are to be taken into consideration. This was achieved in eighteen days after travelling mostly across country, keeping to the shaded side of hedgerows and avoiding approaching anyone until it became necessary to look for somewhere to sleep. Often we slept outside in a secluded place, for the nights were still very warm. We still had little knowledge of the language, but as dusk approached we would make for what looked like a friendly isolated place and ask for ‘aqua’ (water). We were still in what remained of our uniforms including our cut down shorts, and sometimes we were taken for Germans. This helped us to judge whether our hosts were friendly or not. We would not always say right away that we were English, and would study their reaction which would usually be of polite but edgy interest. We heard that the Germans had been posing as Allied prisoners of war in an effort to find out who were helping them; therefore one can understand the Italians being on the alert, especially with us being still clothed in our tatty uniforms with the trousers cut down to knee length.
However, once they were convinced that in fact we were English we were usually greeted with open arms and offered, even, the last meal in the house if that was necessary. We would be given an overnight bed in the house or accommodation in a barn. It was usually the barn. We would be quite comfortable, the weather being warm, and we would be pretty tired. It was our practice to make just one overnight stay at a time before moving on in our desperate bid to reach our troops before the Germans established a solid line of defence. We often had company in the barns, and sometimes in the houses as well, in the form of mice. We also had rats to contend with, but I consoled myself by thinking that the rats would not attack unless they themselves were threatened. Whether that was true or not I don’t know for I was never attacked, but there was always danger of infection from the rats’ fleas. Another escapee we met during our travels told us that he once awoke in the night to see the eyes of a rat looking straight at him as it perched on his chest. In a panic he grabbed the rat and threw it against the wall of the barn. But it was not all that seriously injured for it scurried away. I hated the things, but gradually got used to hearing their squeals and squeaks as they scampered about in the straw. Other vermin with which we had to contend were the never to be forgotten lice which were still with us both, and getting worse. It was difficult to keep control because we had no change of clothing and had to live and sleep in what we had.
After about twelve days we came across two Spaniards who said that they had served in Tunisia with the French Foreign Legion. We conversed with them as best we could in what little Italian we had picked up between us. They could speak good Italian and just a little English which was enough for us to understand each other. It would be useful to us if they could obtain an up-to-date situation of what was happening at the front near Naples, for that was where we were heading. The Spaniards begged us not to reveal to any Italians that they were Spanish and asked that we would confirm their story that they were South American. They conveyed to us that they did not think the Italians were very keen on Spaniards. We did not understand their concern but agreed to their request. They expressed a wish to join us and we agreed, for they looked desperate to seek guidance and help. But we made it clear that they must follow our lead, and if not we would have to part company. Ron and I felt that we could use the Spaniards’ knowledge of Italian when visiting farms for help and a bed, with perhaps a better understanding of the people who offered the help.
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CHAPTER 15. Back to Square One.
We received little news of what was happening at the front near Naples other than that the Germans were pouring troops into that area at a tremendous rate. The news given by local Italians was usually very vague and often so obviously exaggerated to such an extent that we began to fear that the only news we could believe was what we could see for ourselves. We saw road convoys of German troops and equipment being transported south whenever we came to a main road. This was no exception when we arrived at a road crossing our path and leading into Terni. We looked down on to a valley, with a river running from left to right, parallel to the road, and these two obstacles were between us and the wooded hill on the other side. We wanted to skirt round Terni by going to the east of the town. As we looked across the valley Terni was situated to the south, in the direction of the road leading away to our right. Therefore we had to cross both the road and the river before climbing the hill, gradually bearing south-east to pass Terni on our right. As we gazed across the area it was noticeable that the road, which was on our side of the river, passed over the river to the other side about a quarter of a mile further on towards Terni. We decided that we would make our way down to the road near this point, wait for the road to clear of German traffic then quickly cross over the bridge and follow the path leading up the hill. We could see a few houses showing through the trees halfway up the hill but it was not our intention to seek any help there, for we wanted to have left Terni behind before nightfall. It was about mid-day at this point.
[Left-hand side of the page: Black and white picture of “MEMBERSHIP CARD”, “ARMY POW ESCAPE CLUB”, “FREEDOM”, “The Badge of the AMRY P.O.W. ESCAPE CLUB”.]
The two obstacles were safely navigated without incident and the four of us climbed up along the steep path into the trees which ensured that we would not be seen from the road. All four of us were still in the remnants of our uniforms and recognisable I suppose as escaped POWs to those who may be looking for them. We continued along, eventually reaching the houses that we could see from the other side of the valley. These houses, bungalows most of them, looked a little more prosperous than the ones to which we had become accustomed. They had fences and hedges and garden plots. Ron and I became very uneasy for we knew that the majority of the Fascist element of the population were the ones who lived the best. Obviously this was a rather select area we had walked into and probably a Fascist stronghold. As we pushed on one of the inhabitants of a bungalow popped his head over the fence and enquired if we were ‘Inglese?’ (English?) but we hurried on without answering. Perhaps they might mistake us for Germans. The path carried on past the dwellings and on through the wood and we stepped out to put as much distance between us and those suspect inhabitants in that ‘well off’ little community.
Then, to our left and coming through the trees towards us, appeared two hefty looking men holding double-barrelled shot guns and they were pointing them at us. My heart sank at the thought of possible ‘recapture’, for I had already had enough of prison camp life, especially after the freedom experienced over the last few weeks even though it was fraught with danger and discomfort. They shouted aggressively in Italian to us and waved their shotguns in a menacing fashion. We stopped in our tracks, hoping that perhaps they were Italian patriots and had mistaken us for Germans. No such luck for these men were Italian Fascists and obviously out to claim their reward for turning in Allied escaped POWs. We were trapped with no chance to escape, and our would-be captors stopped about thirty yards away, obviously wondering whether we also were armed. On being satisfied that we could not be concealing any weapons in our flimsy attire, they cautiously moved towards us. They were clearly father and son and began to become more confident but were still aiming their weapons at us. They asked if we were English and Ron and I nodded; the two Spaniards stuck to their story that they were South Americans. They then directed us to continue along the path in the direction in which we had been going. We were not allowed to talk to each other but it was pretty certain that we had been betrayed by someone in the houses we had passed through not many minutes ago, probably by telephone.
As we walked along the path we could see that these two men were jubilant at their success, but I felt a loathing for them and all they stood for. I was furious that we had fallen into the trap and felt indignant that these two Fascists should be our captors, especially for the harm the Fascists were doing to their country and fellow country men and women, in supporting the Germans. I felt bitter disappointment at this turn of events after coming so far. I did not feel afraid of these Fascists, only contempt. As we proceeded along we saw a house just off the main path and it was here that we were halted. The son stood guard over us outside the door while
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the father went inside. He re-appeared a few minutes later and handed four grapes apiece before returning into the house. I think that he thought he was being generous to us – four grapes!
Ten minutes later the father came out and we returned to the path and continued along in the same direction as before, with the two men behind us carrying their shotguns under their arms. It was now downhill along the winding path. Then, as we looked forward through the trees we could see a village coming into view below. We drew nearer to the village and the path came to an abrupt end. There at the bottom a large car was parked on the road across the end of the path. On our approach two German soldiers sprang out of the car with revolvers drawn. Ron and I and the two Spaniards were directed into the back seats of the car with the two Germans sitting in the front. That was it, we were back in the bag. What a bitter disappointment it was for us to accept. Once again it must have been a telephone or radio call, this time to the Germans, asking them to collect us and probably made by the father during the stop at the house in the wood.
The car sped along the road before stopping at a large house or hall which looked as if it was some kind of headquarters. One of the Germans got out of the car and made his way up the steps in front of the entrance, presumably to get their orders for whatever was to be our fate. After about fifteen minutes the German returned and informed his colleague of the instructions. We set off again and in a few minutes we arrived at what looked to be a German Army stores where we had to give our names etc., but strangely we were not interrogated. Probably that would come later. Then when that business was over we were transported by lorry into Terni and taken to some Italian barracks and put in what looked to be the guard-room situated in a building just inside the entrance. The room was primitive and we had to make the best of what there was, just a bare room which was at the end of a passage on the right. On the left was another room which was empty. There were, I think, two or three others already installed in this room who had only arrived a day or so earlier. We could wander about along the passage where a guard stood at the entrance. Life was a bit humdrum and boring. A few days later, in the evening, some young uniformed Italian Fascists, three or four I recall, decided that they wished to see the prisoners. Some of us had wondered along the passage when they arrived. They came in making sneering remarks and shouting at us, laughing at our situation. It was too much and we retaliated, throwing them out of the passage by the scruff of their necks. They shouted in protest for German assistance which was not too quickly answered. When the Germans did come in it was mainly to complete the ejection of the Italians. Nothing was done to us. One of the Germans came in to the passage and began to talk as best he could to me and expounded his theories on the way the war would go. I know that the Germans had little respect for the Italian soldier and he likened them to the Americans as being the Allied equivalent, to which of course I could not agree. He then went on to say, illustrated by an imaginary diagram, he was sure that Britain would come onto the German side against the U.S.S.R.
A few days later the body of a German soldier was brought in during the night, and placed in the room opposite to ours. It appeared that he had been killed in an accident on his motorbike, or that was what we were told. Next morning one of the Germans came and selected four of us, including myself to carry the dead German soldier out suspended in a blanket to a waiting horse-drawn hearse at the barrack entrance.
Our treatment by the German occupants of these barracks was very strange. There only seemed to be about a dozen of them; otherwise the barracks were empty. After passing through the entrance which was a short tunnel with a room above it, there was an open square, not the barrack square that we knew, but covered in stubble grass and loose concrete. The barrack buildings as I remember, were on two sides of the square forming a 90 degrees angle, and a high wall protected the other two sides. One wing of the buildings looked as if it had been the hospital because we could see through the windows various apparatus, bedding, sheets strewn across the floor, and equipment. It looked to have been ransacked.
The guard at the passage entrance had been withdrawn and we seemed to be able to wonder around at will. Ron and I explored the buildings which weren’t locked, looking for possibilities for quietly slipping away. Nobody seemed to bother us very much for most of the day. Food was what I would only describe as adequate, and we were given the job of peeling potatoes for ourselves as well as the Germans. One day a truck came into the barracks and we could hear pigs squealing in the back. Some poor Italian had obviously been deprived of one of his possessions. The back of the truck was lowered to reveal one large pig but making enough noise for three. There were three German soldiers in attendance and they called for us to come to their aid in unloading the beast. It was unloaded with difficulty and we were then called upon to hold it on its side whilst one of them cut its throat. It was not a very pleasant experience watching the poor animal struggle for breath with blood pouring from its throat into a container for future use. It was an unpleasant sight which I cannot forget. However, the Germans told us that because of our help we would be given some of the food
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being provided from the animal, and when it came I was as pleased as anyone else to accept it. Hunger overcomes many other instincts.
The two Spaniards would follow Ron and I around. One of them who did most of the talking, I named him Tony, was continually asking if Ron and I were planning to escape, and if so could he come with us. We were not all that sure about him or his companion in a crisis, for we had noticed that they were more than anxious to cover themselves when we were caught by the Italians. They went out of their way to make sure that they were not to be mistaken as English. Perhaps they thought they would be treated better than us since they did not come from a belligerent country. But we thought that in a future crisis they may try to save their necks at the expense of ours, and it was decided by the two of us that if we did find a way out we would go on our own. Many apparent opportunities to escape presented themselves, but always something prevented us from making the move. When the air-raid sirens sounded, we were quickly ushered into an underground shelter about fifty yards along the road outside the barrack entrance, a busy part of the town. The shelter was used by civilians as well as German military, and after the first visit to the shelter when we were able to assess the possibilities, we decided make a move at the next air raid. But just as we thought it was possible to slip out of sight of our German escort and into the street, some bombs began to drop and there was a rush of German soldiers into the shelter and the entrance door was closed.
One day a new prisoner was brought in and was left in our room, perhaps cell is a better word. Of course we wanted to know who he was and where had he come from. He was in civilian clothes and had fair hair. He spoke English in an obviously foreign accent, and when asked about this he lowered his voice and said that he was a German but had been taken prisoner whilst serving with the French Foreign Legion. He said that he had told our captors that he was German and that they had accepted it. I believed the Spaniards’ story when they told us they were Spaniards and not South Americans, but I was very suspicious of this man’s story. It sounded so incredible and too obvious not to be true but I still could not bring myself to believe this story. It was decided by the rest of us not to say anything incriminating in front of him, such as Italian help received and where, or the routes taken from the POW camps we had been in.
Supervision by the Germans over the past week or so was very lax indeed, and Ron Ford and I decided to make a break for it. We made our plans which were to go into one of the empty buildings we had already explored and which overlooked the road running along side the barracks. Dusk seemed to be the best time so that we would not draw too much attention to ourselves. It was only a short drop of about 10 feet, through the window down on to the road below. We thought it better not to alert all the others of our intention that only the two of us should go together. We gave a great deal of thought to the venture and we were very much aware that the lack of supervision by the Germans could be deliberate; then maybe it wasn’t and perhaps we were being over cautious. It was possible that the Germans wanted someone to escape so that they could be followed to their destination, i.e. a safe house or even to meet up with Allied agents sent to rescue escaped POWs. During our explorations we had kept a close watch to see if we were being followed, and occasionally we did see the odd German going about his duties, with hardly a glance in our direction.
Our great desire to escape again into the Italian countryside and sample the kind of freedom that gave, drove us to put our plan in to action. We decided that the following day, instead of returning to the guard room as it grew dark, we would wander around the barracks a little later until dusk arrived. Then we would move in the shadows towards the empty building, and drop down on to the road and into the streets of Terni. All set for tomorrow.
Perhaps at this point it would be appropriate for me to say a few words about Ronnie Ford who had been my constant companion since first making our break for freedom. We had started off as good friends in the Italian POW Camp PG 82, when we found out that we were both Yorkshiremen, and both had a tremendous interest in Yorkshire cricket. Ron, four years my senior, was married but had problems in that part of his life which it would not now be fair to dwell on. He was originally in a Scottish Regiment; I think from memory it was The Royal Scots Fusiliers. But whichever one it was he was extremely proud of it. It was from that regiment that he volunteered to join The Parachute Regiment, serving with the 2nd Parachute Battalion as infantry support in Tunisia. He told me many stories of the type of training required to become a paratrooper, having done most of his at Ringway (now Manchester airport) and at Tatton Park in Cheshire. The paras did excellent work in Tunisia, with the Foresters often working with them either in support or, being supported by them. Ron already had lost a brother, killed in Tunisia. He was an excellent soldier and fiercely proud of his regiments, and loyal to his friends. He was brave but not foolhardy, content to weigh up all options when a vital decision
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had to be made. He was fully determined to reach Allied lines. I considered that I was with a good friend and together we would win through.
Next morning we were awakened by the Germans and told to prepare to be transported to another place of captivity. Blast!, we had left it too late. We were loaded on to a truck, and would you believe it, our German POW colleague was not with us. He had just disappeared overnight. Did this prove our suspicions that he was a plant, or, had he cheekily made his escape instead? The Germans said nothing.
As the truck moved closer to our destination we could see a row of large white tents with a barbed wire fence around the perimeter. We had arrived at Spoleto POW transit camp, about 15 miles north of Terni.
The truck drove into the camp and we dismounted and were allocated to our respective tents. Many of the men were new prisoners taken after Salerno, but there were also many like ourselves who were recaptured after escaping at the Armistice. Also among the inhabitants of the camp were lots of coloured South African troops who were billeted in their own tent. It was now dark outside, and I talked to other inhabitants of our tent to try to find out what the situation in the camp was like. The impression seemed to be, in the circumstances, reasonably favourable because it appeared that Red Cross supplies, including parcels, had arrived and were now available in the camp. I was warned not to get too involved with one poor chap who, as forecast by a fellow POW in the camp, got me into conversation about what I gathered was a mock German Court Marshal in which he was sentenced to death. He had a nasty scar across his throat which, I was also told, was an attempted suicide. I never did find out what the crime was that he was supposed to have committed but whatever it was, together with the threatened sentence, it had caused him severe psychiatric problems.
The inmates of our tent were a mixed bag from various regiments and services. One particular chap from, I think the RASC, seemed to be popular with the rest of the occupants. He was repeatedly encouraged to perform his masterpiece and he always gave the impression that he could not be bothered, but really he enjoyed all the encouragement and pleadings of his fellow prisoners. What was the nature of this performance which so delighted his audience? He finally relented and sailed into the poetic delights and hilarious adventures of that lustful lady from the frozen north, ‘Eskimo Nel’. I remember his name and the brilliant rendering of that famous poem which many of us were aware of, but had never before heard in full. His name was………Churchill!! (I have now forgotten his first name.)
It was only a few minutes after Churchill’s graphic rendering when suddenly we found ourselves following our army training by flinging ourselves flat onto the ground. A shot had been fired, and experiences in action told us that the firing was in our direction and not far away. Nothing else happened, and when we ventured back to our feet we could see the holes in the tent at about head height made by the bullet which had gone right through the tent and out the other side. It was only by extremely good fortune that none of us were hit. We could only guess that the shot must have been fired as a German version of a prank, or it was an accident? No one came to the tent to explain, therefore we never found out.
Next day we newcomers were, much to our delight, each issued with a Red Cross parcel, and I also received a new pair of traditional army boots, for my old ones were the ones I had been wearing in Tunisia and had almost worn away. I also received a new army great coat. For whatever was to happen to me later these supplies were to prove most opportune and invaluable, to say the least.
Our two days of being left to our own devices whilst being confined to that tent was short lived. We were called out by a very aggressive German Sergeant and marched over to the camp perimeter and told to start digging a ditch for what looked like an extension to the camp drains. This German Sergeant was a really nasty piece of work. To get maximum effort he was inclined to use his feet, and the butt of his German ‘Tommy Gun’, on anyone not moving fast enough for him. Perhaps it is surprising to say that, since those first two days of being taken prisoner before being handed over to the Italians, and during the five weeks or so since recapture, it was the first time I had come into contact with this kind of treatment from the Germans…….and it was rather disturbing. But I would learn more about that in time.
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CHAPTER 16. Off Again.
Surprisingly we were abruptly taken off the work and returned to the tent. It was the middle of the afternoon and we were instructed to pack our belongings together and prepare to march out of the camp to the nearby railway station. The day I had been dreading had arrived and we were being sent to Germany where there would be very few opportunities to escape compared to Italy, for here the majority of the people in the villages and countryside would help. One wouldn’t expect that kind of treatment from the German civilians.
With a saddened heart as dusk was approaching I marched out of the gates of the camp at Spoleto. The German Sergeant who had been in charge of us in the afternoon was now screaming abuse at us as we were marched ever nearer to that waiting train which would end any further possibility of escape in Italy. Ron and I knew full well that, if we could only get away whilst still in this country we stood a good chance of success. Since our recapture, news had become scarce and we virtually knew nothing of the situation at the front in Italy, nor how far any advance might have been made by the Allies. We gathered that the Germans were intending to defend their hold on the country to the best of their ability, and what they were doing was not just to defend a total strategic withdrawal. The station now came into view.
There was the train waiting at the platform, cattle wagons again silhouetted against the light evening sky as darkness crept over the countryside. There were several different nationalities being transported and it seemed that the Germans wanted to keep them segregated, and we found ourselves with other Britishers all in the same wagon. There were 18 or 20 of us, some were only recent prisoners from the front. But, fortunately there was no German guard with us in the wagon, for they were in a wagon of their own. But we did not know whether it was the one in front of us or not. I had noticed as we boarded the train that we were to be in the last but one wagon.
The train began to move. I could see through the cracks in the side of the wagon that the night was still clear and bright and without a moon, and it began to feel a little cold as we sped north on our miserable journey. Of course the sliding door of our mobile cell was locked from the outside. I spoke with some of the other occupants for a while, exchanging experiences and generally trying to pass the time before trying to drop off to sleep.
I began to be aware of excited voices penetrating through my drowsiness and Ron was by my side. I asked what was going on, but he did not need to answer.
“Don’t worry lads, we will be out of here in no time with this”. I could see in the gloom one of the occupants of the wagon who was waving a short bayonet in the air. He, like Ron and I had been an escapee.
“This is an Italian bayonet, and I will have the door open as soon as we are ready to leave the train”. He seemed most determined and confident that he could get the door open, and began to make a start. The train continued on its noisy way, rattling as wagons do which was to our advantage because it covered whatever noise this chap made when working on the lock. He did make quite a noise as he prized and levered the door and the lock mechanism until, finally, with a shout of triumph, “Its open”. Ron and I were absolutely delighted at this turn of events, and the excitement in the wagon was intense. It was now that Ron gave me the benefit of his training as a paratrooper, telling me what to do when I jumped from the train which was steaming on at about 25 miles an hour. When jumping I must face the direction in which the train was going, bend my knees as I landed and roll over on to my left shoulder. All this whilst carrying the remains of the contents of my Red Cross parcel in my right hand.
It was agreed that it was only fair that the chap who had opened the door should go first, but it was also agreed that we all wait awhile until the guards in their wagon had settled down for, hopefully, some sleep. About half our number in the wagon indicated that they were not prepared to take the risk of jumping from the train and would take their chance in going to a POW camp in Germany for the rest of the war. This I could not understand but it was their own choice. From what I could see it appeared that they were mainly recent captives from the front, and perhaps the horrors they had encountered there were still of vivid memory, but I do not know if that was the case. One thing for sure, I was certainly going and so was Ron.
The train was steadily moving further north, away from the front line which had been our objective since first escaping. The word was passed that the door was to be slid open and the first departures would be made. Ron suggested that it might be better if he went just before me as a final demonstration of how to make the jump. The train rattled on at a steady pace, smothering the noise of the door being opened. Those who were going lined up and the first one jumped. Ron said that he would wait at his landing place, and asked me to make my way back to join him. The noise was even greater now that the door was open, and as each one jumped and landed there was no reaction from the guards. It was Ron’s turn and I saw him jump, but in the
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darkness I lost him and he was gone. My turn now, and after a slight pause and a deep breath – then I hesitated, for as I looked down towards the edge of the rail track I saw what looked like a white broad strip several yards long as we sped by. It flashed past and I jumped in the way I had been shown and landed on the gravel at the side of the track. As I flew in mid-air it did pass through my mind that if the guards had realised what was happening, now would be the time for them to open fire. I landed safely and it was suddenly quiet. I watched the rear end of the train, with its red light, rapidly moving away. I felt a sudden sense of relief and an elated feeling of being free from captivity again. With only a few cuts to my bare knees I picked myself up and ran back along the track towards where Ron was waiting. The mystery of the white broad strip was solved. It was the concrete edge of a bridge which took the track over a river, and there was very little space between this edge and the rail track. If I had jumped as the train passed over the river it is quite possible that I could have stumbled over the edge and into the river…….and me a non-swimmer. I kept going and caught up with Ron again about 100 yards from where I had landed.
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CHAPTER 17. Into The Mountains.
Ronnie Ford and I had talked together at length of what we would do if we escaped again, and our strategy was to turn more towards the east and move into the Apennines where we hoped that there would be gaps in the line and perhaps not so many Germans and Fascists. In our previous travels through the Italian countryside further east, we found ourselves having to continually avoid roads full of German transport. The flatter central and western area also seemed the more prosperous, and consequently more likely to be inhabited by active Fascists. The mountain areas were, from what we had heard, very poverty stricken, and when we moved in that direction we soon found it was only too true.
We crossed over the rail track and struck east towards the hills; it was an exhilarating feeling to be out on our own again, but it was colder than when we were last out in the countryside at the end of September, and this was a cold night. We still had on our makeshift shorts, and although I had the greatcoat I still felt a little cold. But this was soon remedied by our intention to put as much distance as possible between us and the railway in case a search was organised by the Germans, for it was likely that, helped by that ‘friendly’ Sergeant, they may have forced information from those we left behind as to the time we left the train. Anyway we were not prepared to take chances, and were determined not to be re-captured a second time.
It must have been about 3.00 am on the 5th November 1943, an easy date to remember, when we left the train. We kept up a steady pace until dawn before deciding to shelter in a small cave on the side of a hill and have a rest before sampling some of the remaining food from our Red Cross parcels. As dawn approached we lit a fire, opened a tin of meat and warmed it up, enjoying a make shift meal supplemented by a few biscuits also from a tin. We had no implements with which to make a drink, but we would look out for the possibility of finding a supply of water somewhere later. It was great to be free again even if it was a qualified freedom and that we would be hunted by both Germans and Fascists, not knowing what our fate would be if we were caught again. Many stories of atrocities were related to us in connection with the help and harbouring of escaped POWs during our journey towards the lines, and although we became accustomed to the Italian way of overstating an event or situation, it was particularly unnerving that much of the content of their stories were later proved to be true.
I began to pick up bits of the language, and the hand movements supporting various requests or instructions. For instance the word for hungry was ‘fame’ (sounds like famy), and very hungry became ‘multo-fame’. The hand movement to go with this statement was to place the arm across the stomach with the hand parallel to the ground, and then move the arm from the elbow backwards and forwards away from the body. We did this frequently. If an Italian wished to invite someone towards him the hand sign for this was a bit different to the beckoning action we would use. The Italian does what always appeared to me to be best described as a scraping movement, with the arm pointing towards you and the hand facing the ground. Then the hand was drawn forward to the body as if he was pulling something towards him. The first time we came across this we thought we were being told to push off.
It was quite common to meet an Italian, usually in the upper age group, who could speak some English and who had lived in the United States at some time. This was always welcome, and we could then be brought up-to-date with the war situation. But as mentioned earlier, much of what we were told was often exaggerated, distorted or even imagined. It was too risky to always follow advice, especially from casual Italian acquaintances who we might meet on the road. We did meet Italians who we felt we could trust to give reasonably accurate information, and to whom we could listen to for advice when planning our route, but we had to be very careful. Another obvious problem of course was our interpretation of what we were told in Italian, for it was very possible that, with our limited knowledge of the language we could misunderstand and make a wrong decision. These were a few of the problems we had to face.
Sounds from a village down below reached us as it began to wake, carrying clearly through the morning air the noises of men’s, women’s and children’s voices; of a dog barking, movement, and the clank of possibly pans, tins or other implements. It was a homely sound of human beings going about their business. The village beckoned, but we thought better of it and decided to skirt round it and move onwards as quickly as we could. It was sometime in the middle of the afternoon that we met Dave, on his own, and we invited him to join us. Dave was a fellow Yorkshireman from Hull, and an infantryman, although I do not now recall the name of his Regiment. He, like ourselves still wore remnants of his uniform including shorts. Dave was in full agreement of the need to get into the mountainous region as quickly as possible, and we continued briskly in an easterly direction. This need to get east was based mainly on instinct, and as previously explained, we believed that the
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poorer the people the more help we would get, for this was made clear when we first escaped and found that it was the poor people in their isolated farms who were the more friendly towards us. It was not to be forgotten that Ron and I, along with the two Spaniards, had been caught in a wealthy area near Terni, north east of Rome.
That night soon after dusk we slept in what must have been shelters for the sheep, for this was sheep country and we had seen many of them during the day. These shelters were like little straw huts the size of a four man tent. We were tired and we slept well. But that day we had decided to get rid of what was left of our bedraggled uniforms, in exchange for civilian clothes. The advantages were two-fold. The first one being that shorts were not suitable attire now that winter was coming, and the second was that we would reduce the risk of being immediately identified as being escaped POWs. There was the risk that we may be recaptured whilst wearing civilian clothes. None of us was certain of the Geneva Convention on this subject, but we were well aware that there was a real risk of severe punishment, or even death by firing squad if we were caught. We considered it worth that risk because it would also be a risk to face the winter in these mountains in our present attire. It was as we passed through a collection of about ten houses that we were able to exchange our clothes, and in fact we were offered the opportunity to do so by the occupants of one of these houses. My greatcoat was a great attraction, and in return I received a lady’s gabardine raincoat with a hood, a suit jacket, a pair of light trousers and a cotton shirt. I had a good pair of army boots issued to me at the camp in Spoleto; but before leaving I warned the new owner of my greatcoat to make sure that he removed the military style buttons which might be a ‘give away’ under close inspection of its origin. I asked that my other lice infected clothes be burned.
The next morning the sun was shining as once again we picked out our land mark and headed in that direction. Looming up in front of us was a white snow-covered large hill or mountain which straddled our route. It had to be climbed for it stretched a long way both to our right and our left, too far to skirt around. We began the ascent, and as we got nearer we found a track through a valley, although even here we were on pretty high ground. We continued climbing, but not as steeply as we had first expected, and towards late afternoon we arrived on top of a ridge shrouded in cloud, like thick fog. The faint path we were following looked to have steep slopes downwards at either side, but we could not see how steep because of the cloud mist. We could hear the faint familiar, but muffled sounds of a village down below to our left, but visibility was so poor we could not see how far down or how far away it was. It was late afternoon and beginning to get darker as the cloud became thicker. It was only with difficulty that we were able to keep moving in what we thought was still the right direction. It was decided that to continue stumbling forward in this way was rather dangerous. We did not know where we were heading or what point of the compass we were following. It was an eerie feeling and we felt isolated and lost in this hostile weather environment. Visibility was now so low, not much more than 5 yards all around. Early evening was approaching and we did not know where we were or what surrounded us; and it was bitterly cold. We had to get out of this thick swirling fog, and the only way to do so was to move down hill below the cloud level, which meant we had to move towards that village. It took about twenty minutes of cautious manoeuvring down the steep slope, warning each other of hazards when necessary and skirting places where it became a sheer drop, before visibility began to improve enough for us to see the village down below. We were wet, hungry and very tired and we could not stay up on those hills all night. It was obvious that we must find shelter in the village; therefore we must move down under whatever cover we could find in an effort to ascertain whether the Germans were in occupation. From our view on the hill we could see all movement down below, for it was only a small village, and as we moved even lower down we became more confident that the Germans were not in this village. We slowly and carefully entered the village which, as we moved nearer, we realised it was built on a small hill. This seemed to be the way that most of the villages we would visit in the mountain areas were built, and their names usually began with ‘Castel’. The one we were about to enter was called Castelluccio, which I believe loosely translated becomes Castlelight.
It was almost dusk as we made our way along a narrow street. We were glad to have come down that mountain before dark. It was now common knowledge among the Italian population that Allied escaped prisoners of war, 30,000 or more, were roaming the countryside from the Po Valley in the north, down to the front line south of Rome. Posters were displayed telling the Italian population of rewards for information leading to the capture of Allied prisoners of war. In fact Allied radio broadcasts also informed that any Italian family helping us would be rewarded. Therefore I don’t think it came as much of a surprise to the villager who saw three strangers to his village moving towards him. He looked rather anxious but friendly, and proffered the question, “Inglese?” (English?). We nodded, and indicated we were hungry. The Italian directed us to follow him along the street which ran back towards the perimeter of the village. He stopped and signalled to us
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to wait as he disappeared into a house on the edge of the village. He came out with some bread, cheese and about three quarters of a bottle of red vino and again we followed him towards some outbuildings across from his house. He looked anxiously up and down the street before entering a barn, where inside were some bales of straw. He made us understand that we could stay there overnight, chattering all the time in an excited manner, and we did not understand a word he said.
We accepted his hospitality and thanked him with the word we knew to express it, ‘Gratzia’, receiving the acknowledged response (‘You are welcome!’ But I am not certain of these Italian spellings), and then he was gone. It was another cold night but the straw was warm and after sharing out the bread and cheese, and the vino, we looked forward to a good night’s rest and sleep.
It must have been the early hours when I became aware that something had disturbed me. I could not hear anything and it was pitch dark in the barn. The other two were happily slumbering away and I began to think I had imagined it. Then I felt a movement. It was near my left knee. I moved my knee sharply and the feeling of what ever it was moved up to my thigh. I grabbed the outside of my trousers and felt something wriggling on the inside. Panic!, it must be a mouse up my trouser leg; too small for a rat but what ever it was I did not like it. I jumped up, still holding my trousers with this thing still wriggling, and I moved forward towards the barn door. I gave an extra hard squeeze hoping that I had either smothered or stunned it, and then let it drop down my leg to the floor. It was too dark to see the creature, but I thought I would see just what it was when it became light again. Morning arrived and I related the story to my companions who looked at me in disbelief. To prove it I went towards the door to show where I had dropped the creature. Of course it was not there. It must have recovered and fled. Ron and Dave accused me of having dreamed the whole thing and blamed the vino, but I know that it was true. Therefore in future when sleeping in a barn I made sure that my trouser bottoms were tucked into my socks.
Just a few minutes later our host arrived in a very agitated state. We could pick out the word “Tedesci” (Germans) being frequently repeated as he waved his arms and gestured for us to go quickly. Rightly or wrongly we took it to mean that the arrival of Germans was imminent. Within seconds we were out of the barn and walking briskly from the village. It was later suspected that our kind host, understandably, had got an attack of the jitters and wanted to make sure that we would not be staying another night.
It was a cold day and cloudy as we pressed forward against a stiff breeze. We did not know just where we were heading except that it was somewhere between south and east. From what we could see ahead the going was fairly level although we were still at a high altitude. The area in front of us and to the left and right was just flat. Eventually we should be dropping down, because no hills appeared above the horizon in front to indicate we would have to climb again. It was as if we were on the top of a great big table. It began to get misty even though there was a stiff breeze, probably the mist was low cloud.
It began to snow heavily and in no time the ground was white over and visibility was now just a few yards ahead, making it even more difficult to see because of the snow driving into our faces. Once again we became anxious. We thought about returning to Castelluccio, then ruled it out because it was about three quarters of an hour since we left and it would take that amount of time, or even longer in this snowstorm, to get back there. Also if the story that the Germans had arrived in the village was true then that was another good reason not to return. Our best bet we thought, was to continue forward and see what happens. The snow swirled down without a break and it was getting deeper all the time; we were finding it very difficult to make headway against the strong wind, and very tiring plodding through the snow. Because of the poor visibility we could not see far enough ahead to ascertain whether we were approaching any relief from the wind and the cold. I was thankful for the hood on my ladies Mac. and for my boots. The situation was turning serious for us and we were becoming exhausted, yet there was nowhere where we could sit down to rest and shelter, no trees or bushes, no buildings – nothing. None of us had any really warm clothing, and we only kept from freezing by keeping going. We were covered from head to foot in snow and our faces felt to be frozen – it was most unpleasant. The snowstorm seemed to be getting worse all the time without a break and it was now about a foot deep. It must have been two to three hours since we left Castelluccio (none of us had a watch). How much further must we go before we come to some kind of civilisation again? The thought kept drilling through my head, “We must keep going, we must keep going!”
Then, believe it or not, there to our right silhouetted in the mist and snow we could just make out the shape of a small building. Our hopes rose, for even if it was unoccupied we would probably find a way to get inside, or even shelter alongside from this merciless wind. If it was occupied by Germans then our luck was out, although dressed as civilians and hoping they did not understand any more Italian than ourselves we might bluff
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it out. If they were Fascists, then……….But we had no alternative; we had to take a chance for we were near the end of our tether. We began to move closer towards what we could now see was a wooden shack. From round the side of the building appeared a figure coming towards us. As it got nearer we could see it was a man in civilian clothes and he was doing the scraping action, previously described, beckoning us to come forward. He shouted something in Italian which we presumed meant for us join him, and with a further burst of rapid Italian he turned back to the building and signalled for us to follow. At least he wasn’t a German, but was he a Fascist and were there more of them in the shack? We would soon find out. Struggling through the snow which had drifted up against the side of the building we followed our guide into a fairly large room. In the room we could see probably six or seven other youngish men sat around and looking at us with great interest.
Neither Ron, Dave nor myself had spoken up to now, but then came the inevitable question, “Inglese?”. We would soon know whether these were young Fascists or not. We nodded, and our fears were dispelled, for immediately several of them stepped forward and shook us firmly by the hand. Who they were and what they were doing in this isolated building I never knew, but obviously they were sheltering from the storm, and they went to great pains to make us understand that it would be most dangerous for us to continue on our journey today. We must stay overnight and reassess the weather situation tomorrow. They apologised for not having much food, which seemed to indicate that they too had been caught in the blizzard and were only sheltering. The room was sparsely furnished, with a chair here and there, and these were offered to us. Drinking water was available in a large metal container. A blazing wood fire was burning in the open fireplace and one of the Italians was roasting chestnuts on it. It transpired that chestnuts was their only supply of food available, making one wonder whether a supply had been stocked in this place for such an emergency. There seemed to be a plentiful supply and we were given a generous helping and told to dig in, which was an offer we were very glad to accept.
The storm still raged and the wind roared through the roof making it quite noisy. We resigned ourselves accepting our young hosts’ invitation to stay the night, but it was looking increasingly doubtful to me, for even tomorrow we were going to have difficulty walking in the deep snow even if it stops. It must have settled in various depths of four or even five feet in many places. How were we going to be able to make any progress in so much snow? There were a few blankets of a sort available and as it became dark we settled down to a night’s sleep, wondering what lay in store for us tomorrow.
The morning dawned with clear blue skies, and looking through the windows one could see snow everywhere and it looked too deep to walk through. The Italians had opened the door and cleared away the snow which had drifted high above it. They made it clear that they were departing this morning and that we would be welcome to join them. I did not understand how they could get through the deep snow on foot, until I saw the horse – yes, a horse. I suppose that we had been told about the horse when they were talking to us about what we were going to do and where we would be going, but the Italians talked too quickly for us to understand. All was now revealed as we set off, with the horse in front making a way through the snow and we and the Italians following on behind. It was very successful and obviously our hosts had done this before. It was now that we realised how close to disaster we could have been if we had not come across that building. If we had passed another 15 or 20 yards to the left we may never have seen it, and now, we knew that safety would have been hours away. We would never have made it. One of our Italian friends told me as we trudged through the snow, that we were making for the village of Arquata del Tronto. The horse began to struggle in the deeper drifts which must have been five feet deep and it had to pick its way by its own instincts to keep a firm footing. After a while we began to be gradually descending and the going became more hazardous as the horse tried to keep its feet. If it had gone down I don’t know how we could have continued. The sky was again becoming overcast, but soon we could see the end of the snow line, and the village far below. It was mid-afternoon when we left the snow behind us and it had now started to rain. Way back at our shelter of the previous night it would be snowing again. Dusk was approaching when we finally made it into the village of Arquata del Tronto.
Our escorts who had befriended us so well, guided us into the village and to a friendly house where food was already being prepared. They could not have known that we three were to arrive on their doorstep just at their mealtime. But without hesitation room at the table was made for us and we were invited to join the family. The dish was polenta, a preparation made from maize and it was poured onto the table straight from the pot. A yellow substance which spreads out across the table top to the very edge, and setting quickly like a great big pancake of about three eighths of an inch thick. Then meat, in this case it was pigeon, was placed at strategic
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places just in from the perimeter. Everyone would sit down round the table and, with a fork would eat their way towards the meat, or that is what it seemed to me they did.
I began to make a narrow channel towards the meat. I hated the taste of the polenta but it seemed that one had to put up the pretence of enjoying it and making it look as if it was incidental when one took the meat nearby. But suddenly I began to feel very sick, and much as I disliked the polenta it was not that which had upset me. I dashed from the table out of the house and was violently sick. I felt very ill as my companions and members of the Italian family came out to assist me. I also began with diarrhoea; it was all so sudden for I had not felt ill during the descent from the mountain. Could it have been those chestnuts, for that is all I had eaten during the stay in that building the previous day. But none of my companions were ill. I must have passed out because I remembered waking up in a barn and there was an Italian lady with an oil lamp in her hand, and with the other hand she was either mopping my brow, or, she was sprinkling water on my face. It passed through my mind, “was I receiving the last rites?” But really, I felt too ill to care. The next morning I woke up feeling somewhat better but did not want any food. It had been our intention to press on today and I assured Ron and Dave that I was up to it and that the sudden illness had passed. The female members of the Italian family tried to insist that I stay behind a few days to fully recover but I wanted to stay with my friends. They would have stayed but I also wanted to move on and get to our lines as soon as possible. We were given bread and some cheese to carry with us, and a friendly ‘send off’ as we departed towards the hills in a south easterly direction.
As we progressed I began to feel almost back to my old self again, although to a lesser degree than before I still had ‘the runs’. We began to climb again reaching the snow line, but we kept to the edge of it. It was all trial and error for we had no idea of the terrain in front of us or of any villages that we could make for in search of shelter. We knew now the risks we were taking, but felt better able to cope after our recent experiences. We kept a sharp eye on the weather and tried to keep to the lower paths through the small valleys. Snow-capped mountains were all around us. Eventually, after travelling most of the day, a village came into view and down we went, keeping a sharp lookout for undesirable signs of German occupation. We were soon befriended by a talkative Italian who was only too happy to let us use his barn for the night. The next morning our host came to see to our welfare with a glass of vino and bread and cheese. He asked us to accompany him just a short distance to the other side of the hill and pointed to a lake which we had not seen because we had entered the village from the other side. The Italian made clear to us that he had lost many of his sheep down by the lake, because of wolves. He pointed out the route he thought it best for us to take round this lake, and to make for a village called Assergi. It was the nearest place on our route to the Allied lines, but it would take the whole day to get there, a distance he estimated to be about 35 kilometres.
Off we went in the direction the Italian had indicated. We made our way towards the snow-covered shores of the lake, noticing with some apprehension the large dog-like footprints in the snow. These must belong to the wolves that roam in this area and which the Italian had warned us about, for it was not always possible to understand exactly what we were being told. Whether the wolves would have attacked humans I do not know, but I for one was glad when we had moved out of that area. Gradually we began to leave the lake behind and the going became fairly easy, although still at a high altitude, but without the steep gradients previously encountered. To our left we could see the snow covered tops of the Gran Sasso, which was the largest range of mountains in the Apennines, and we were in the foothills of that range. Our helper at Campotosto had, in his own broken English combined with Italian words we could understand, told us that it was on the Gran Sasso that German Parachute troops had recently rescued the Italian dictator, Mussolini, who had been taken prisoner by the Italians after his overthrow.
It was a hard slog before arriving at Assergi, with care having to be taken when crossing roads which were often carrying German transport. Sometimes because of the acoustics in the particular landscape in the area, one could hear the sound of vehicles when they were still a good distance from where we wished to cross. Other times a motor cycle travelling at high speed would come round a hillside without almost any warning. We feared that even in civilian clothes three men on foot carrying bags on their shoulders in a remote area would arouse suspicion to a German enquiring mind. Either they could be Italian soldiers making their way home, or more likely disguised escaped POWs.
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CHAPTER 18. Assergi and Barisciano.
Once again like many others, this village was built on a small hill, and it was late afternoon as we carefully approached, looking for signs of German occupation, although the information received at Campotosto was that it wasn’t occupied. But there was always the possibility that things could have changed since that information was received. Since leaving the previous village there was only snow or mountain streams to quench a thirst which was made more severe due to the loss of body fluid when perspiring, something we did even though it was very cold. A friendly looking villager was eyeing us which made it appropriate for us to use one of our frequently used introductory phrases, “Pocco Aqua?” (A little water’? I cannot remember the word for please). We would use either this phrase, or, the one we used for asking for a little bread. Nearly all the Italian peasants in the region were very sympathetic towards us and the women folk in particular wanted to help us. They were horrified at our plight and seemed to want to mother us. This was demonstrated so clearly at Arquata when I was ill. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble if it was in their power, and yet they were taking frightful risks. For even if the Germans did not find out that they were helping escaped Allied POWs, there was always the risk that someone may betray them, and us, for the rewards offered by the Germans which appeared on posters and leaflets all over the place. We were not invited into the house, but we were given a drink of water and some bread. However, we were given permission to sleep in the barn although it was provisional, on condition that we spent the last couple of hours before sunset hiding in the woods nearby. These people were kind and risked such a lot; therefore it was understandable to us that if they were afraid they were entitled to take their own precautions. We were to return after dusk so that anyone who had seen us previously would know no other than that we had left the village.
Barisciano was the next village we should make for if we were to take the advice given by our helper. Very rarely did we use any kind of road, preferring to move across country and follow a pre-determined landmark. We did not always follow instructions given, and this was done deliberately. Sometimes we left a house or village saying that we were going in one direction, but instead we would take a completely different direction. This would cover us in case information on our whereabouts was either betrayed, or unwittingly passed on to a Fascist sympathiser. However, in this particular instance, we followed directions given and struck out for Barisciano. It may not always be a great distance between villages, but because of the terrain a place which as the crow flies, may be only five or six miles away but would turn out to be 15 to 20 miles by foot. It would seem that Barisciano was that kind of distance. At one time we thought we had missed the village and that we were again concerned that we would be stranded up in the mountains. Darkness was beginning to fall when we heard the now familiar sound of the tinkle of bells worn by sheep round their necks to keep the shepherd in touch with his flock. It was a welcome sound and we moved closer to investigate. Another interesting thing about many of the flocks in Italy was that I particularly noticed that the rams had a piece of cloth hanging down under their belly tied by string round their body. I often wondered as to what purpose this cloth served, and on enquiry of one of the shepherds I was greeted with laughter, and then told that it was to prevent the rams from mating until the appropriate season of the year, usually so that the lambs could be born in Spring.
The shepherd called to us, for he must have been aware of our presence before we were aware of his; possibly the sheep had been disturbed. We moved towards the voice and in the gloom we could see a middle-aged sprightly man who appeared to be friendly. He guessed, of course, that we were POWs and asked if we were English. Then he escorted us to a large cave which had been dug out of the hillside and where he kept an oil lamp. In the cave were tethered several cows. The shepherd then pointed out the village down below and confirmed that it was in fact, Barisciano; we had found it at last. He indicated as best he could that he would go down into the village to find somewhere for us to stay, and asked us to remain in the cave until he returned. He looked all right and we agreed, and he departed down the hill. But it did not seem wise for us not to exercise extreme caution; therefore we left the cave and moved back up the hill and waited. We wanted to be sure that the shepherd was not after the bounty by bringing back with him Fascist sympathisers or even the Germans.
It must have been about an hour before we heard movement down the hill. It was quite dark now but we could see fairly well for our eyes were accustomed to the gloom. He was on his own but we watched him enter the cave, and then come out again. He stood and looked about, presumably to see where we were, then went back into the cave. We could see a good distance down the hill for there was no cover, and certainly no one had followed him. The decision was made to move down to the cave, and we arrived just as the shepherd was coming out again. He looked pleased to see us and began talking in Italian, enough to tell us that everything was arranged for us. Then he beckoned us into the cave and untethered three cows and handed the rope leads to each one of us. We must have looked puzzled and he began to mention the word “Tedeschi” in his
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explanation. Gradually it sunk in that he was telling us there were Germans in the village and that one was posted by the roadside at the village entrance. We were to lead the cows and the guard would ignore us, for he would accept us as villagers bringing down the cattle for the night. It sounded a bit risky to me but the shepherd appeared quite confident, and off we went. My cow wanted to come down the hill a bit quicker than I did and it got in front of me. It was not going to look very plausible to the German at the village entrance if he saw a cow with which I was supposed to be familiar with, dragging me along. I was not familiar with the handling of cattle but I had to do something. The rope lead was round its neck and I dug my heels firmly into the ground and pulled the lead back as hard as I could. The cow stopped and waited, and I was able to get in front of it. From then on it stayed by my side, allowing me to lead it down the hill. We were following the shepherd who was also leading a cow. At the bottom of the hill was the road into the village and we joined it, turning left. There on our right out of the corner of my eye was a German sentry. He was looking in our direction out of interest, to relieve the boredom I would think, and we passed him by without a murmur.
Just after entering the village we turned sharp right up a narrow street and carried on a further hundred yards or so before suddenly several men appeared from nowhere and took the cows from us. Another indicated for us to follow him into what looked like a tunnel through / under a building which appeared to be constructed into the side of a hill within the village. Later we were informed that this village was honeycombed with tunnels.
We followed our guide who led us to a house inside the tunnel. It all seemed to be a bit confusing as we were moving at jogging pace and twisting and turning in all directions. Once in the house we found that sleeping arrangements had been made for us, and food was being prepared. A lot of Italian was being spoken to us at break neck speed by several people at once, and we did not understand a word. We did understand when they motioned us to sit at the table, for we were hungry. We made it clear that we wished to depart first thing in the morning which didn’t seem to go down very well, and we were advised to stay a few days. I could not understand why they were so insistent at the time, but later I realised they were trying to warn us that winter weather on these mountains was imminent. But we insisted that we would be leaving the next day, for we wanted to get near to the front lines as quickly as possible. Our present main objective was to make for the vicinity of Pescara on the Adriatic coast and try to get through the lines there. It was the beginning of December 1943.
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CHAPTER 19. Castel del Monte, (Castle of the Mountain, Alt. 1,846 meters).
The Germans were in occupation; therefore our Italian friends skilfully guided us out of the village of Barisciano on to a narrow road which was just about wide enough to take a vehicle. The view in front of us on this clear sunny but bitterly cold day was dominated by the snow-covered peaks of the Gran Sasso. I could see the road winding upwards, and finally disappearing around the folds of the foothills. It was absolutely empty of any traffic or pedestrians as we trudged upwards and onwards, hoping that before nightfall we would reach some form of civilisation on the way. Since it was a road we were following it was reasonable to expect that it would take us along the easiest route forward, rather than the hardest when previously we had travelled across country in as direct a line as possible. By walking uphill we did not feel the cold, for the exercise was enough to keep us fairly warm. The villagers of Barisciano had kindly given us bread and cheese to help us on our way, and we stopped a while for a break to eat from our rations.
Barisciano had now disappeared from our view, and even though we had been steadily climbing, the road had twisted and turned and the village was now hidden from us by those same foothills we had seen when first setting out. Once again I felt that sense of isolation experienced so many times in the mountains since leaving the train. We were too far on to go back, and yet we did not know how far we still had to go. The road must lead somewhere. Surely something will come into view soon? Perhaps round the next bend, or the next after. If we do arrive at a village, will it be occupied by the Germans?; or will we be apprehended by Fascists? We had many things to ponder as we followed that road, and we must certainly be on our guard, even though we were desperate to find some form of shelter before nightfall.
The road began to level out and our hopes rose as, round the next bend we could see a village in the distance. Again those doubts came into my mind. Will we be made welcome, for it was unlikely that we would find another village at this altitude. I clung to the hope that the Germans would not find it in their interest to position themselves up here which did not have a commanding view over the area, because of the many foothills. We moved off the road so that we would not show up so much on its white surface background. As we moved nearer to the village we could see that the road passed straight through. The road was wider than we had been used to in other villages. There seemed to be a few buildings on the left with the main part of the village extending downwards to the right. Gradually we arrived and entered the village, trying to look as Italian as possible. Any villagers who might have seen us would know that we were not local. But many Italian soldiers were on the roads on their way home in various forms of dress, for they did not want the Germans to capture them in uniform for fear of being taken to be Partisans. We hoped that unfriendly Italians might just ignore us, but it was very unlikely since we were always recognised as English in previous encounters.
There were a few Italians about on this main road through the village and they did not seem to take much notice of us, although we did not go close to them. I saw a young boy of about eleven or twelve looking at us across the road. He moved slowly forward, then sidled up towards us obviously trying not to attract too much attention. “Inglese?” he enquired. So much for hoping we would not be recognised. It was obvious that he wanted to help and we confirmed his enquiry. The boy indicated in an urgent way to follow him. We let him move away about twenty yards or so before we began to follow in what we hoped looked to be in a casual unhurried way.
Once off the main road we turned into a narrow street, the kind of street where you feel that if you looked upwards you might find the liquid contents of a bucket, or worse, landing in your face. Not maliciously, but just part of the daily routine. The boy began talking to us now. He said his name was Angelo and he indicated that he was taking us to safety. We stopped in a quiet place and Angelo told us that he would return shortly. A few moments later he did return with a slim young man with glasses who he introduced to as Georgio. We were very relieved to be told by Georgio that he could speak some English, although modestly went on to say his English was not very good, which happened to be true. But it was of tremendous help to us, for when we could fill in with the smattering of the Italian we had picked up we were able to communicate reasonably intelligently.
Georgio told us that he would be able to fix us up just for the night; then he would think of what to do next. We followed him to a small house further along the road where he went in, leaving us to wait outside. A few minutes later he called us in and introduced us to a lady who would be about sixty years old. She gave us a big smile when we each gave Georgio our first names as he introduced us to her. I do not now remember her name but obviously she was very brave to take us, complete strangers from another country, into her home bearing in
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mind what would happen if the Germans found out. Food was found from somewhere and we were made very welcome. Georgio told us he would return the following day. Our lady host showed us the bed where we would sleep, all three of us in the same bed. But ‘beggars cannot be choosers’ as they say and we were so grateful to be able to sleep anywhere rather than out on that hostile mountain. We spent a reasonably comfortable night, but I could not help feeling sorry for this lady regarding the bed. All three of us were still badly infected with lice and no doubt we must have infected the bedding. It was on my mind from first being brought to the house. So much so, that the next day to relieve my conscience despite my companions’ protests, and with the limited knowledge of the language I had together with appropriate sign language, I told her of our problem. This kind lady just laughed and indicated it was no problem to her and not to worry, she would cope with it. But I wanted to let her know first rather than finding out later.
True to his word, Georgio returned that morning, and with him was our lady host’s son-in-law, Antonio. Georgio told us that he was rather worried that we may possibly have been seen by one or two of the villagers who may, or may not, be hostile enough to betray us. He emphasised that it was only a possibility, but I could understand his concern, for it was also our concern. He said that he had a plan to make it look as if we had now left the village, and he and his friends would pass the word round to this effect. To make it more realistic in case of a search, he wanted us to be ready at midnight for him to take us to some caves about two miles out of the village where we would stay for a few days. Food was prepared, the usual bread and cheese, for us to take with us and when Georgio arrived with two friends just before midnight he brought with him a small barrel holding about three gallons of water. The friends were carrying blankets.
Everything was quiet as we left the house under the cover of darkness. Georgio was carrying the heavy water barrel in front with the rest of us following on behind; he would not let us take our share of carrying anything. We crossed over the main road near where we had first entered the village and struck out towards some hills which we could now see silhouetted ahead. After about an hour, picking our way among some large rocks, Georgio moved towards a rise in the ground on our left. He seemed to disappear into the side of this higher ground, and when we caught up we could see he had entered a deep cave. The entrance was concealed by a large rock which made it difficult to see it from down below. I followed him into the cave which was a fold in the rock, and opened out into a circle of about four yards diameter. Georgio then, surprisingly to me, began to light a fire from brushwood he had picked up while we were exploring the cave. More surprismgly was that the smoke, instead of filling the cave seemed to disappear up through folds in the in the rock roof, leaving the cave quite fresh.
Georgio and his friends left us with the promise that they would return the night after next, warning us to stay in the cave out of sight. We settled down by the fire to sleep. Next day dawned bright and sunny and we passed the time playing different games of cards. I did take part as best I could but I am afraid that cards had never been one of my favourite pastimes, and other than pontoon I did not know the rules of most of the games. Whist, crib etc. were beyond me and could not hold my interest. Consequently I was extremely bored and could not help feeling frustrated at not being able to continue on our journey towards the lines. I knew, of course, that in the present circumstances it was impossible and the time began to drag for me. Night came and we settled down to sleep, which to me would not come quickly. It was a long night and when the first sign of dawn appeared I began to crave for the night when Georgio and his friends would come and collect us. Another long day, but we were grateful that we were in a quiet place, never hearing a sound outside. We would frequently go to the entrance of the cave to look out, for we could see for quite a distance back along the track from whence we came and any unwanted visitors would be seen very early.
At last dusk arrived; we were all cold and a bit miserable. We had no means of telling the time and we began to become anxious as time went by. Was it time for Georgio and his friends to come yet? It seemed to be getting later and later, and surely it must be time for them to arrive. What if they have been caught, I wondered, and how long do we wait here? Could they have been betrayed by a hostile villager? We knew that there were no Germans in the village, and from past experiences it would be dangerous for any inhabitant to betray their neighbours without the protection of the Germans or without a strong Fascist presence in the village. Anyone who dared to do this would be severely dealt with by the rest of the villagers. Nearly all the Italians with whom we had come into contact seemed to take pride in protecting Allied POWs, and helping to make their lives as bearable as possible. Anyone caught betraying them, or the men they were protecting, would receive short shrift. But it did happen, especially in situations where the betrayers could quickly call on the protection from the Germans or Fascists. Castel del Monte was pretty isolated and it was unlikely that if the Germans responded to a betrayal and came to the village they would want to stay and occupy it, thus leaving any betrayer vulnerable to attack from the villagers when the Germans departed with their prisoners. These
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thoughts were comforting as we inevitably discussed all possibilities, although if a betrayal did in fact take place it is pretty certain that frequent future raids would be made on the village.
Someone was coming. We could hear the sound of feet walking over the small boulders leading to our cave. I could not see who it was but we were on the alert, especially after our recent thoughts. Was it Georgio, and his friends?, or…….. We waited and watched, then as they came nearer we heard Georgio call out to us…………. and we were most relieved. But our ordeal in the cave was not over for we were dismayed to be advised by Georgio, who had carried another heavy water barrel, that it was necessary for us to stay another night until he could make further arrangements for our return. We accepted his advice for we trusted his judgement and resigned ourselves to another anxious, yet boring, twenty-four hours.
The time passed as slowly as ever, and when we were collected the following night everything went smoothly until we arrived just outside of the village. Georgio then told us that we were to hide up in a barn until final arrangements could be made to place us in a safe house. We entered the village at a point where the street dropped steeply downhill, and then Georgio stopped outside some double doors which were a yard or so above ground with a wall below. One of Georgio’s friends opened the doors, more like hatches, as quietly as possible for it was still dark in the early morning. We were advised to climb into the barn which was full of hay, and looked warm and comfortable, more so than that depressing cave. We were told that the owner did not know that we would be hiding there and that if anyone arrived we must keep as quiet as possible. With the doors open it was light enough for us to see that the level of the barn we were to occupy had a steep drop to accommodate the sharp slope of the street, with the entrance to it being a few yards further on with a more orthodox type of double doors at street level. This was to be our home for four more days. What or who we were hiding from I do not know. We did a lot of sleeping, for despite the bitter cold of mid December it was quite warm and comfortable. Toilet facilities were not available and we could not leave the barn; therefore we had to drop down into the lower part of the barn below whenever the need arose. I was beginning to suffer from diarrhoea again and felt decidedly off colour. It was necessary for us to hide evidence of our presence as much as possible, which we did by covering it with hay. Georgio came each day to see that we were safe and brought food and water.
One day we heard someone opening the door down below. We kept as quiet as possible, and we heard our visitor muttering away in Italian as he carried out the purpose of his visit. He must have been occupied there for fifteen to twenty minutes before we finally heard the door being closed. At nightfall on the fourth night we were collected and taken to a house where there were three other POWs, one of them being an American. They were awake when we arrived and they told us that two of them were leaving the following morning. The house belonged to Antonio Mariani and his wife. Antonio was the son-in-law of the lady where we had stayed before moving to the cave. There was only one room, with a small outbuilding attached to it. There was no door between the out building and the only room and Antonio and his wife slept in the only bed in that room. We were to sleep on some straw in the outbuilding, which had a soil floor. There had been little chance to introduce ourselves properly to the two men who were leaving, and we wished them the best of luck on their journey. The one who was to stay behind was a chap in his early thirties called Ron Baker, and we soon made friends with him. He had been with the 8th Army in the Desert and had escaped from his camp when the guards had departed.
Antonio, who we christened Tony, made us very welcome although he spoke no English. On the other hand I had picked up several words, enough for me to often make myself understood. My greatest difficulty was understanding the Italians for they spoke very fast. Tony, after we had been with him a few days began to understand which Italian words I had learned and he too used those words back to me when we were conversing, which helped a lot. He explained to us in his own way, although it was pretty obvious to us, that his wife was pregnant and that the baby was due in February or March. He loved to sing, although I doubted his story that he had appeared once on Rome Radio. He had a pleasant tenor voice and we would flatter and encourage him to sing some of the well known Italian opera music, which he did with relish. It passed the time for us. The reason we did not move off from Castel del Monte after a day or two’s rest was because I was not improving and I was now refusing food. I had begun to lose weight rapidly and my friends were fearing for my well being. Dave, who had been harbouring a relic from a Red Cross parcel with loving care, a tin of bacon, was so concerned that he offered it to me if I would promise to eat it. This I could not do. I was very thirsty but they advised me not to drink the water which they thought might aggravate the condition. I realise now that I must have been slowly dehydrating. It was probably true that I may have drunk contaminated water just before we arrived at Arquata where, as stated earlier, I was ill with similar symptoms. I had never really recovered from then, but I wanted to keep going, and for that reason I kept it from my companions, although
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they did know that I was always needing to open my bowels at frequent intervals. It became a bit of a joke between us.
But I knew I was getting worse and my appetite had completely gone. Food was brought to us on a rota basis by neighbours, and because I could not eat their food they were getting more and more concerned about me. I began to develop a raging thirst, to such an extent that I decided to ignore the advice to drink no water other than sips. I went to the water bowl which Italian households inevitably keep in a prominent place, picked up the ladle and took a long thirst quenching drink. My pals, while being sympathetic to my unpleasant condition, understood how I felt. I could not have felt much worse and I considered a good drink of water was not going to make me come to much more harm. Anxious eyes followed me during the next few hours, looking to see what effect my drinking was going to have. I drank several scoops over the next few hours, and funnily enough I began to think I was feeling a little better. The next morning I was much better and began to feel a little more cheerful, and even a little hungry. But I had lost a lot of weight and still felt very weak.
Christmas Day dawned, and down below in the street we could hear someone calling out as if selling something. On enquiry of Tony he informed us that the person was selling dried figs. We pooled what money we had between us and asked Tony to get figs to that value. He came back with a bag full and we shared them out between us including Tony and his wife. I for one, having only just got back my appetite, really enjoyed them.
I knew that Ronnie Ford and Dave were eager to be off again, but I knew that I was not yet recovered enough to go with them. I decided, reluctantly, to tell them not to hold back any longer on my account and that if they wanted to be on their way, then they should go. Ronnie would not hear of it. We had been through a lot together since meeting in the POW Camp PG 82 at Laterina in April 1943, including our first break from the Farm Camp in September; recapture at the end of that month, then the jump from the train in November and those gruelling treks over mountain and dale. Next morning Ronnie came over to me and said that Dave and himself had thought over what I had said, and had decided after all to go on together and that they were leaving today. I suddenly felt very sad. Ronnie Ford and I had a lot in common; we both came from Yorkshire and spoke in a common language, we both loved football and cricket and during our time as escaped prisoners we had both been very determined to succeed. We were both patriotic to our country and to our county, proud of our respective regiments, and we were loyal friends. I put on a brave fece and applauded their decision and would have dearly loved to have gone with them. But I knew that at the moment I would only be a liability to them and feared a reoccurrence of that horrible illness. But I too, as soon as I felt fully recovered, would be on my way again. Ron Baker decided that he too would stay behind, and when we were ready we would leave together. It was a day or two before the New Year of 1944.
We said our farewells and wished each other the best of luck and success in our mutual desire to reach our own lines. Ronnie and I promised to meet up in Leeds for a slap up meal when we returned home………..then they were gone. I felt very sad. The following morning we woke to find that it had snowed heavily during the night and it had drifted way above the height of the door. Castel del Monte was now completely cut off.
I could only hope that Ronnie and Dave had managed to get down the mountain and below the snow line in time, and had not got trapped in the blizzard.
I was feeling better each day and my appetite had returned with a vengeance. I never seemed to feel fully satisfied, although we were brought one hot meal a day. My toilet requirements were becoming less frequent, and as the month of January progressed the urge to be on our way became greater. However, leaving Castel del Monte was out of the question now until the snow had cleared. In talks with Tony we were persuaded to wait until the end of January at the earliest before considering leaving the village. Tony told us during these discussions that he would take us so far in the direction of where he thought the lines were, which in fact as the crow flies would be 15 to 20 miles away, depending at which point one wanted to cross. Of course we have to bear in mind that in this mountainous area it would be almost twice as far by foot. But it would mean that we could be in the vicinity of the lines in about three days’ time.
Life in this village became a little more relaxed during the time it was cut off. Nobody could get in or out, other than perhaps on skis in which some of the villagers did indulge. But it was unlikely that the Germans would come up here. The weather was now bright and sunny, but still cold. Tony took us to see another POW staying at another house in the village, and it turned out that this other chap was an Australian, which was pretty obvious by his accent. The Aussie begged us not to tell the Italians that he was Australian. The reason was the Aussies were alleged to have roughly treated Italian troops in the Desert, and because of this he
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had experienced hostility in some other parts of the country. Of course we assured him that his secret was safe; we would back up his story that he came from London.
It was during our visit to the Aussie that the Italian he was staying with came in with a plate of meat already cooked and cut into small pieces. He offered us the plate for us to take a taste and then enquired if we had liked it and did we know what it was. It was nice enough although well seasoned which disguised some of its taste, and we nodded our approval. As far as I was concerned I always felt hungry these days; therefore any food tasted good to me. Then it was disclosed that one of the mules had slipped on the icy road and had to be destroyed. We had just tasted it.
Ron Baker and I spent many hours in front of the fire which was in an open fireplace, burning wooden twigs, a supply of which was stored in the outbuilding in which we slept. A chain with a hook hung down from the chimney and the cooking pot would be hung from it. Tony was very poor and, as stated earlier, food was brought to us from a list of villagers near by who had drawn up a rota. I never saw the cooking pot in use and I suspect he and his wife went to her mother’s home for their meals. To keep the fire going there was a steel tube which was directed at the dying embers and you needed to blow down the other end in an effort to bring the embers back to life. We tried to keep the fire as small as possible and we would huddle over it to keep warm. It was embarrassing for us to see the stocks of fuel dwindling rapidly. It became very frustrating, just sitting in that room day after day, and I asked Tony if he thought we might go out for a walk if we were careful. We, at all costs, did not want to take any risks that might threaten first him and his family, and ourselves, but I was surprised to see him greet this suggestion with enthusiasm. He said he would come with us and he took us to a small hill where many of the men of the village, thirty or so I would think, gathered to talk and chat with each other. Probably they got under their wives’ feet and had been kicked out, for during the snow there was nothing for the men to do. Funnily enough although it was a cold sunny day and there was ice on the hill it was surprisingly warm when standing in the sunshine. We did not get involved in trying to use our smattering of Italian on anyone; in fact nobody seemed to be interested in us at all. No penetrating stares or furtive glances came our way and nobody tried to talk to us. We were pleased to see Georgio coming up the hill, then come towards us. He had a camera and asked us if we would like him to take our photograph, which he did. We never saw the result.
It was now nearing the end of January, 1944. The snow was still with us, but it had melted a little on the top during the day, then at night it had frozen again, making it firm to walk on. I was the one who wanted to be off again, although Ron (Baker) was not in any hurry. Therefore I approached Tony about setting a date for us to be on our way. Tony, I think was now having a change of mind about escorting us nearer to the lines, for I think it was more bravado on his part when he had earlier suggested that he would put us on the right road. I was beginning to think that he did not know where the front line was, for he had no radio to listen to the news. I could perhaps understand his reluctance, knowing that his wife was near the time of her confinement, and I began to think that it would be better for us to go it alone. Tony told the ladies who brought our food that we wanted to leave to try to reach our comrades at the front. They were horrified and begged us to stay there until we were relieved by our advancing troops. The truth of it was, from the little news we had received from Georgio the line had become static due to the winter weather conditions. I calculated, or rather I made a guess that a further offensive by the Allies on this part of the Front would not begin until April or May and we would not he relieved until sometime after then. It seemed an eternity away and I could not see me clicking my heels here until then.
I discussed the matter with Ron and told him that I was ready to leave any time now. He agreed and we then told Tony that we would be leaving in three more days. He was very distressed at our decision and I only wish that I could have spoken the language a little better so that I could have explained to him how frustrating and stressful it was, knowing that we were only about three or four days away from our own troops. Also I wanted to tell him that after the snow had gone the village would be open to unwelcome visitors, which would not help him if we were still here. He and his family would be in danger if we were betrayed and caught in his house. The following night after going to bed I heard Tony and his wife talking which went on for a long time, and I heard his wife begin to cry. Next morning Tony told us he was coming with us part of the way towards the lines, and then he would return.
After many tears shed by all our helpers, they got together and provided us with suitable carrying bags, like small sacks with rope acting as a sling, attached to the top and bottom corners of the bags. We were to carry them on our shoulders in the same way that we had carried our rifles, which now seemed such a long time ago. Somehow, from their own meagre supply of food, they provided the three of us with sufficient rations to last at
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least a couple of days. How kind, and brave, these people were. We left the appropriate notes confirming the help given to us, with instructions that they be passed on to the Allied forces when they arrived.
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CHAPTER 20. Castel di Ieri (Castel of Yesterday. Alt 519 Meters).
Snow was still deep on the ground as we left Castel del Monte but it was frozen hard, and firm enough to walk on, Although more relaxed and less frustrated now that we were on our way. I was fearful for Tony. He was obviously worried about leaving his pregnant wife, but I was more concerned for him in case he was caught with us, by either Fascists or Germans and the consequences that may have. I had heard of fearful atrocities being applied to Italians who were caught helping Allied prisoners, such as homes being burned down and men being deported to work in Germany; in extreme cases they were tortured and even hanged or shot. Since returning home to England I discovered that those fears were not exaggerated, and that many Italians were tortured, shot, hung or killed in other ways by the Germans because of their dedicated help and kindness to Allied POWs.
Our journey was all downhill and as dusk arrived we had not passed through any other village or seen any other person since leaving Castel del Monte. The snow was not so deep now and green patches showed through in many places. It was time to look for somewhere to spend the night, a situation in which I had found myself so many times before. To our right as we entered a small valley; I could see what looked like caves in the side of the hill. We went up to investigate, and indeed there were two or three caves hollowed out of the soil. They were probably used by shepherds and their sheep before the snows arrived, only to be abandoned in the winter. We found what seemed to be the driest one and decided that here would be our home for the night. There were a few twigs and some dirty straw available and from these we made a fire at the entrance to our cave, and we had a bite to eat from our food supply.
Tony was becoming very distressed and broke down in tears. He said in a determined way that he was returning home right now. I could understand his distress and it was probably a long time, if ever, since he had spent a night away from home, especially in such a hostile environment as this. We could not let him return tonight, especially in the state he had got into. Therefore we decided to invite him to stay a little longer with us and to sing a farewell song before he went, just to cheer us all up a little. He shook his head at this, but we persisted for we knew how much he loved to sing, and to receive the praise that followed. He began to calm down, and I asked him to give us a rendering of ‘O Solo Mio’ before he went. He nodded his head and soon the cave echoed as he went into full voice. It sounded very nice, for I really enjoy that kind of music which, these days, is performed so admirably by the three tenors in their frequent concerts. We gave Tony warm applause and asked for an encore with ‘Come Back to Sorrento’. We were all feeling better now and we conveyed this to Tony who then carried on to give us his complete repertoire. As the fire began to die down and the embers began to lose their glow, a feeling of tiredness came over us. It had been a long day and Tony, Ron and I made ourselves as comfortable as possible on the straw and went to sleep.
Next morning we woke early to a fine sunny but cold morning. Tony was cheerful and raring to go, which was quite surprising after his despondency of the previous night. Through the small valley and continuing our descent we gradually moved below the snow line which was also good for our morale. Seeing nothing but snow is very depressing and it was nice to see greenery again. As we emerged from a wood we could see a road down at the bottom of the hill, running from left to right, with a small village to our right which straddled it, and was just in view as the road disappeared on the extreme right. We paused to study the situation, when suddenly we heard shots which were being fired in short bursts. This continued for probably half an hour before stopping and everything seemed quite except for the familiar sound of village life coming back up the hill. It was almost certainly Germans firing those shots in the village for they would be the only persons to be armed.
We kept the road under observation for some time and did not see any vehicles come along either way. At the extreme left, the road turned 45 degrees to the right and away from us over a small bridge under which flowed a narrow river. Just beyond the bridge to the left of the road was a wooded hill. We would make for that elbow in the road, and as soon as we have walked over the river bridge we would turn left off the road and move into the trees and up the hill. It would be about mid-day as we moved down towards that elbow on the road, using whatever cover there was available. Then quickly across the road towards the bridge. Looking over to the left as we approached the bridge my heart suddenly missed a beat, for, horror upon horror, there I saw several Germans who seemed to be examining the area on the side of the river near to where the bridge began. Most of them looked to be officers and one in particular who was doing all the talking and waving his arms about looked to be of a very high rank. Ron Baker and Tony had also seen them, but we all kept on walking at the same pace until we were well clear of the bridge before leaving the road, and began rapidly climbing the hill
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with trees screening us from view. It would seem that the Germans were so engrossed in whatever they were doing, and that either they had not seen us or, were not bothered about two or three ‘Italians’ crossing a bridge.
Whatever those German officers were up to I will never know. Perhaps something to do with preparing defences covering the road. We pushed on up the hill, and it began to rain quite heavily. Trousers became wet but my feet in my new boots, received at the Spoleto Camp, were dry. Progress slowed somewhat for it was hard going in the rain. Slowly the going began to level out and it became easier to keep up a steady pace. It would be late afternoon but still daylight when we reached a point where we could see down the other side of the hill, and a village down below. We were still covered by trees and it was easy to stand and look down on this village which was not very far away, perhaps four or five hundred yards. But there did not look, from where we were standing, to be very much activity down there, probably because of the rain. Tony indicated that he would go down and investigate the possibility of finding a place to sleep, and to see if it would be safe. He promised to return in about half an hour.
Ron and I hung about wondering how Tony was getting on. We were able to get a bit of shelter from the rain by keeping under those trees with the thickest branches. Time seemed to drag, for it was difficult to estimate half an hour as neither of us had watches. Then we heard the sound of rustling coming from our left. We had not seen anyone come up the hill from the village even though we had kept a sharp lookout. Then low voices were heard but we could not hear what was being said or what language was being used. Then clearly in a northern English accent we heard, “They must be around here somewhere!” We had kept under cover up to now, and we now moved out of line of their direction so that we could keep our visitors under observation a little longer. As they crossed about ten yards in front we saw three men in civilian clothes and they were obviously looking for us. Tony was not one of them which made us rather cautious, but further snatches of conversation convinced us that they were fugitives like ourselves. We called out, “Are you looking for us?”, and we stepped forward to reveal ourselves. Immediately our visitors stopped, and then came towards us. One of them stretched out his hand and introduced himself as Bill. The other two were Jock, and an Italian from the village whose name I do not now recall.
Bill, again I cannot recall his surname either, told us that Tony had alerted them to our situation and where to find us, and that because Tony was wet through and tired they had left him behind in the care of an Italian family in the village. Bill told us that he was a Captain and that there were two Majors and several Other Ranks being cared for in the village. He told us that accommodation in the village, although now almost exhausted, had already been arranged for us and he and his companions would take us into Castel di Ieri, which, unknown to us then was to be our home for a further six weeks. As we followed them down the hill, Bill casually informed us that Castel di Ieri was occupied by the Germans. He must have noticed the shocked look that came over our faces, for he quickly assured us that the villagers of Castel di Ieri, to the man, woman and child would never betray us. But I knew what terrible risks these faithful Italians were taking if we were caught in their homes, for the whole village would receive terrible punishment.
We soon arrived at the edge of the village and were escorted into a small stone house, which was entered via a stairway of a dozen steps up to the doorway. Inside we met and were introduced to an old lady of between 60 and 70 years old, Seniora Nobili, and her three sons (a fourth was missing in the Libyan Desert) and a daughter, Antonetta, who was 16. They quickly made room for us around the fire, and Bill, who it turned out could speak excellent Italian, acted as interpreter. In one corner, as I got accustomed to the dark, I spotted Tony who was all smiles, and pleased that he had escorted us to this, hopefully, safe haven. His job was now done and he said that he would be returning home in the morning. The room was small and basic in accordance with the usual standards of Italian peasant life. The floor was of an uneven stone surface, the fireplace was the traditional Italian open type with a few hot embers on its concrete base, and the familiar metal tube used to blow through to liven up the fire was nearby. Bill told us not to worry about the Germans in Castel di Ieri for we would be well looked after by the villagers who would never betray us, and were proud to have us in their care.
Bill told us that the two Majors would be visiting us tomorrow for a chat. He also told me that Tony had related the story of the tears and distress in the cave on the way here, but he had changed the story a little by saying that the victim of this distress was…….me! Both Ron and I quickly related the true story, which we had not originally intended to do for Tony’s sake, for we did not want him to appear in a poor light in front of everyone here. I asked Bill not to tell the Nobili family the true story, for Tony had been good to us and it had been a tremendous effort on his part, which we appreciated, for him to have come with us leaving his wife so near to her confinement. It did not worry me that the Italians would probably have believed his story at the
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time, but I preferred the other POWs in the village to know the truth. After all I had now been on the run for over four months and had become hardened to such situations. I do not know why Tony had told this story. Perhaps it was for a little bit of glory for himself?
The following evening Bill came to see us, bringing the two Majors. One of them who did most of the talking gave the impression that he was in charge of matters in the village so far as the POWs were concerned. Although I cannot now remember his name, I do remember the name of the other Major which was Raworth. He was captured during an action whilst serving with 155th Field Battery in Tunisia in support of a battalion of Hampshires in the 46th Division, the Division in which my own battalion of 2/5th Sherwood Foresters was a part. Major Raworth had sandy coloured hair and a bushy moustache. These were probably the reason, among other things why I remember him so well. The first Major asked which regiments Ron and I were from, where we were captured and what Italian POW Camps we had been in? Major Raworth was particularly interested after I had informed them that I belonged to the Foresters of the 46th Division and consequently we exchanged a few words on that. But they were both even more interested when they heard that I had already been recaptured once and then escaped again. They asked me many questions on that. How had I been recaptured, and what kind of treatment had I received from the Germans? The latter part of the question was probably to assess their own chances if recaptured.
Eventually Ron and I were given what I considered clearance to stay in Castel di Ieri and the two Majors wished us well during our time here before departing back to their own ‘billet’. Bill stayed to put us in the picture of the situation here. It appears that the Germans are not aware of anything amiss, and that there were probably only half a dozen of them in the village. It was not wise to venture out too much, even though we were in civilian clothes. For the Germans would sometimes round up local men from the village to do work for them including clearing snow from the road which passed by the village, and being taken to other places to load or unload vehicles, and other work of a similar nature. Bill told us that on hearing our story from Tony, Seniora Nobili had offered to take us into her home and look after us. Bill said that the family was very poor, which we could see for ourselves, and that we would be put on a rota organised by the villagers who would provide all our food in turn, whilst the Nobili family would provide our accommodation and bed. We asked him to convey our grateful thanks to them on our behalf.
Another reason for the Majors to pay a second call on us was rather unexpected to say the least. They raised the subject by asking Bill to say a few words, and by the look on their faces it seemed very important. Bill began by saying that he wished to make an apology to us both, and we began to wonder why. He then went on to say that although he had informed us that he was an army Captain, in fact he was just a private like ourselves. We were both very surprised at this announcement although his relationship with us had not been as formal as one would have expected from a Captain. We had put this down to Bill’s probable attitude that in this situation he considered that we were all in the same boat together. The Majors then asked us not to tell the Italians what we had just been told, and that the reason Bill had masqueraded as a Captain to the Italians when he first arrived at Castel di Ieri was to gain favour enough for them to take him in. To tell the Italians now might destroy the trust that they have in the rest of us. We agreed to this and assured Bill that we would not think any the less of him, for he was a very jolly chap. He would often come to see us and we would have a good old singsong together. He seemed to know all the latest popular Italian songs which fascinated our hosts and they would also join in the singing. It was from these singsongs that I learned to sing ‘Lili Marlene’ in Italian – parrot fashion. At that time I did not know that this particular song was sung by the German troops in the Desert. I was even more surprised when I finally arrived back home in the UK to hear it sung on the radio in English, and it was only then that I realised that ‘Lili Marlene’ was known throughout Europe. I don’t know if it was ever sung by the Japanese, but it would not have been beyond belief!
Life went on and the weather was still very cold. About a week after our arrival which was early February 1944, it snowed again and we were soon informed to watch ourselves because the Germans were recruiting snow shifters. But it was necessary for us to leave the house occasionally for the very important calls of nature. No flush toilets or such like, and one took the opportunity of finding a secluded spot where one could answer the ‘call’ and hoped that it would stay secluded as long as necessary. One morning Ron and I were on such a mission, as much for the exercise as for the ‘call’, when, on our return we came face to face with a German soldier. I had seen him several times before through the window as he passed on the path by the side of the house on his way to the next village, Castelvecchio, about a mile away, a journey he seemed to make on foot two or three times a week. It was a bit unexpected and we tensed, but continued walking at the same pace. As we approached the German, a tubby man with a round red but friendly fece, he looked towards us and nodded a “Bon Journo” (Good Morning), and we replied in the same vein – then he was past. We carried on
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past the house a short distance until the German disappeared round the bend, then retraced our steps and returned to the house. On telling the sons about what had happened they did not think it was anything to get upset about; no one in this village seemed to care two hoots about the Germans.
This was clearly demonstrated several days later, for suddenly we heard firing which also included other noises. We looked outside and it seemed to be coming from the road just beyond the village, but we could not see anything from where we stood. Then one of the sons came running back to the house, very excited indeed. From what we could gather the shooting was coming from aircraft attacking a German motorised convoy on the road. All the villagers were standing at vantage points cheering the planes as they made their attacks. Then the son who had brought the news told us to follow him and he took us to a house higher up the hill, and from the window there we could clearly see a quarter of a mile away, what looked like American fighter aircraft zooming down above the road and raking the vehicles with their fire. There did not appear to be any resistance by the Germans to the attack. Smoke was billowing into the air as the planes repeatedly made their runs along the convoy, and the raid lasted probably half an hour. Then it all went quiet…..and they were gone. The Germans were furious with the villagers because of their cheering, jeering and applause during the raid. So much so that they clamped an immediate curfew on the village, and this was around two o’clock in the afternoon. Consequently we were confined to this house up in the village, about 150 to 200 yards from where we were staying. The Italians in the house thought it was hilarious and much boosted by what they had seen, and it was not long before some of them ventured out. By 5.00 pm the curfew was called off and we were able to return to our adopted family again. But the Italians were not the only ones to have enjoyed this spectacle.
One day the Major, the one who appeared to have assumed control, made an unexpected call on us. He announced that contact had been made with an agent of the Allies who was to attempt to take a party through enemy lines. The Major said that he could not be sure of success; therefore he would go first and that he would take Jock, a Scotsman who was also in the village, with him. If they were successful he would try to get a message back to the village, hopefully so that we could also be guided along the same route. Major Raworth was also to stay behind and I felt comfortable with him. He did not use his rank to force the rest of us to do anything against our will. He had the correct attitude for the situation and was polite and courteous when visiting us. He gave the impression that he would prefer that we all made our own decisions as we wished, regarding our future moves. Later in this story I will be revealing the courage and leadership qualities of Major Raworth. I never heard any thing more of the attempt by the other Major and Jock to cross the lines, although an opportunity to reach our lines did arrive later.
Our life with the Nobili family was reasonably happy, but the days seemed long. This could only be expected when we were so close to the front, and ‘freedom’. One day we heard the heavy sound of artillery and when we enquired of our hosts we were told it was not from the front near us but from an Allied invasion force at a place called Anzio. Since we at that time did not know where Anzio was it was explained by Bill when he came that it was on the west coast south of Rome. It must have been a terrific barrage to be heard from all that distance away. This was exciting news but Bill, who seemed to get hold of news from somewhere, deflated our hopes by telling us that things were not going well for the Allies. We had gone through all this before when the Armistice was announced in September 1943, and we were bitterly disappointed then. So we were prepared to wait and see what the outcome of this latest campaign would be. Of course we did not know the purpose of these landings, and we passed much of the time discussing the possibility that the plan was to strike across the country and split the German forces in half, and at the same time liberate us. Wishful thinking!
Because of our close contact with the villagers, my smattering of Italian was beginning to improve and I was able to communicate with them much better. We used to pull Antonetta’s leg by asking her if she had a boy friend, which caused her great but amusing embarrassment. Nevertheless she enjoyed talking to us and really did her utmost to make us understand what she was saying. She brought her best girl friend to see us and they both used to chatter away; some of which we understood but most of it we didn’t. Antonetta became closer to us than anyone else in the family. One characteristic of the Italians I had noticed was when visiting friends they would be chatting away to their hosts, then suddenly without any preliminaries they would rise from the chair and utter their farewells and go. None of this opening another subject as they stand which often happens with our own ladies at home. No, up they get, “Ciao!” and they are gone.
Ron and I slept in a small bedroom and in the same bed, and at bedtime Seniora Nobili would put a chair under the blankets which was a common occurrence in Italian villages, and she would thoughtfully insert a warming pan filled with embers from the fire. This made the bed lovely and warm on these very cold nights. It was her practice to remove the warming pan just previous to us retiring for the night. One evening as I was preparing
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to climb into bed I suddenly heard Ron give out an almighty shout, and he leapt out of the bed like a kangaroo. After uttering many words that one would not want their mother to hear he calmed down, pulled the clothes back, and there we saw a slab of stone in the middle of the bed, just where he had placed his bottom. It was difficult not to laugh although I could understand his anguish for, perhaps if I had got into bed first it would have been my rear end that had blisters. Seniora Nobili came rushing in to see what the commotion was all about and apologised profusely. It seemed she usually placed the pan on a slab of stone, and on this occasion when she had removed the pan and the chair which was used to kept the blankets from touching the pan, she had forgotten to remove the stone, which was extremely hot. Ron found it difficult and uncomfortable for a few days when sitting down, but he soon recovered. From then on we always made sure that the bed was clear before we got in.
One day near the end of February 1944, a message was received at the village that a party was going to be escorted through the lines which, from Castel di Ieri would be about 15 miles away. A tantalising one day’s march. We all decided to go including some of the village’s younger inhabitants, and after some preparations made by the villagers to provide us all with enough food for the journey, we thanked Seniora Nobili for her kindness and said our good-byes and set off early from the village for what we hoped would, at last, be a return to our own lines and home. Those villagers going with us including one of the sons, Mario Nobili, knew where we were to ‘meet up’ with an Italian guide who was to escort us to the Allies. We did not know at the time whose troops occupied that sector, but we did hope they would be British. We walked for most of the day until we arrived at a very concealed cave which had been dug out on a small hill. It was very large inside and all of us, and there must have been twenty-five including the Italians and POWs from other villages, fitted in quite easily. Major Raworth was, of course with the party and there looked to be some rather important looking Italians with us who seemed to be talking with a certain amount of authority. I began to feel uneasy about this venture, for I did not feel that I was now in charge of my own destiny. But the urge to succeed tended to overcome my fears. If there was a way through then I wanted to be involved, for I had been sitting around waiting for our troops to arrive for far too long. I wanted to contribute to my own return to the safety of Allied lines. We bedded down for the night in the cave.
Next morning I awoke to the sound of rapid conversation in Italian at the entrance to the cave. It was early in the morning, barely light and it was apparent that all was not well. On enquiry Major Raworth said that as far as he could gather there had been a breakdown in communications and that we were to return to our respective ‘safe’ villages. So, disappointed, we set off back to Castel di Ieri. On arrival at Seniora Nobili’s house Ron and I were treated like long lost sons along with her own. She decided that it was cause for celebration for our safe return and ordered that wine was to be brought up from the meagre stock in the cellar below the stairs. I am not a heavy drinker. In fact I have never been able to come to terms with alcohol and would much rather drink fresh orange to this day. However, the wine was sweet and it was obvious that Seniora Nobili would have been upset if I had not joined in. I began to feel the worse for wear by the time the festivities ceased. It had been a tiring two days and I was ready for bed, slab of stone or not, for I would never have noticed. The only thing coming to mind was, “Never again, never again will I drink this stuff!”
The evenings and nights were very cold, and to save fuel we would be escorted by members of the family to a stable nearby where many of the villagers would gather in the light of oil burners. We shared the stable with the village farm animals, and mules which were used to take out and bring in supplies for the village. It is always quite warm in the stables when animals are in occupation, but it was the first time we had found one used for communal gatherings. It was a pleasant change from sitting in the house blowing our heads off down the metal tube, trying to keep the fire going. The villagers seemed to enjoy chatting away to each other. They always seemed to have a lot to say. Some would talk to us but we would only understand a quarter of what they said. The men would venture to make ribald comments in the direction of the senioras and senorinas regarding the variations in the appearances of the private parts of the male mules. They would respond with their own comments, then dissolve into giggles and counter remarks which, although we did not understand all the words, we did understand ‘porco’ (small) and grande (large) (spellings may not be correct). I enjoyed this banter in the stable and it passed the time which seemed otherwise to drag so much. Where were you, Allied forces!; whatever is holding you back from rescuing me from this stressful life, a fugitive of war. But it was of no use blaming them for our predicament. I knew what it would be like for those men in the mountains in the cold rain and snow, for hadn’t I experienced it in Tunisia? No!, it was no use feeling sorry for myself and it was up to me to make the best of the situation and take whatever opportunity arose to get through those lines. That opportunity was to come a few days later.
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We were now into the first few days of March 1944, and early one morning one of the sons, Mario, came into our bedroom in a very excited state. We could not understand him but it looked serious to us; therefore we quickly got up and dressed. Our fears were that perhaps the Germans were, at last, on to us. We followed Mario outside, and then we saw about twenty or so men gathered together just outside the village and Major Raworth was with them. He told us that we were again to meet up with a party near the town of Sulmona which was going to be taken through the lines by an Italian agent of the Allies. My heart leapt. Was this it, was this the opportunity I had prayed for and looked forward to so much? We were going through the lines.
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CHAPTER 21. Good-bye Castel di Ieri. Now For The Cruel Maiella.
We stayed under cover of a small wood and the villagers brought us supplies for our journey. Ron and I again wrote out our notes for the Nobili family for them to hand over to the Allies when they eventually arrived. When everything was ready we said our good-byes. We had been well looked after in Castel di Ieri and it was with genuine regret that we had to go. The help we had received had been from the whole village, not just individuals. As well as being given a home, rosters had been drawn up so that the burden of feeding us did not fall on the same families all the time. The people there had been loyal and brave, and they were really concerned for our safety on this dangerous venture. But they did understood our great desire to return to our lines, and hopefully home. The village will not be the same after we have all gone, and I am sure we will be missed. I do not know exactly how many POWs were in the village at this time, but I do recall that there was Ron and I, Major Raworth, Bill, and another chap, Johnny White who came from Whitby. We had not seen much of him during our stay but I was to see a lot of him in the next few days. We set off out of the village in single file through the wood in a south easterly direction.
Our destination was somewhere just north of Sulmona, about 12 miles away as the crow flies, but many more by foot. The rendezvous was to be in that area. We travelled all day following the route we had taken on the previous attempt a few weeks ago, and then beyond. We stopped for the night and were left to find individually a suitable place to sleep. After a cold and uncomfortable night the journey was resumed at first light. About mid-day we arrived at the rendezvous area which was a large vineyard, and there we joined up with another twenty-five or so other POWs, including the Australian we had met in Castel del Monte. I began to worry a little at the sight of all these men being together in this place and feared that someone may spot us and bring in the Germans. But soon we were to see our guide who came striding confidently through the vines with a cheery greeting to us all as he swept by. His name was Dominico. There were also several more Italians who had joined the party which had now grown to well over fifty. Instructions were passed to us from the guide to try and sleep, for we were to set off just before dusk and the route will take us over the nearby mountain, The Maiella. We could see the mountain to the east which was to our left with its white snow cap, a formidable obstacle. It was a bright sunny day and we were informed that the conditions necessary for us to climb up there required warm sunshine during the day, melting the snow on the surface, then freezing cold at night so that the snow would bear our weight. But despite warnings to keep quiet and stay under cover, some of the POWs, not from our village, began wandering about and making a noise. Johnny White was especially anxious about the whole thing, and he begged me to join him and return to Castel di Ieri. I was tempted, for things did not seem to be quite what I had expected. There did not appear to be any security organised such as the posting of lookouts for possible German or Fascist approaches, and discipline among some of our comrades I am sorry to say was sadly lacking. But the smell of freedom was strong and, despite Johnny’s pleading with me right up to the very time of departure, I decided I would take my chance and go over that mountain. Eventually Johnny gave up his attempt to persuade me to return with him to Castel di Ieri and decided to come with us. I think that the journey back alone without a companion was more daunting to him than staying with the party. On talking to some other men in the party one of them pointed to a place a short way up the mountain which he said had been a notorious Italian POW Camp, Sulmona POW Camp, PG No. 78.
Dusk was approaching and word came that conditions on the mountain were ideal and that we were to prepare to move in a few minutes. It was still not dark as we set off through the trees into the foothills of The Maiella, a mountain range with an altitude of between 2,500 and 2,800 meters (8,000 to 9,000 feet) at the place we were going to cross. I did not know at the time just what we were taking on, but it was clear enough to see that it was a formidable task to climb this mountain. At least my boots were ideal for the conditions and fortunately all of us from Castel di Ieri were reasonably well shod. However, my clothing was a bit sparse. I had a normal Italian civilian shirt and trousers, with the never to be forgotten lice as companions. Socks were reasonably new, having been provided along with the boots, by the German-run Spoleto Transit Camp, just before escaping from the train. But my coat was an Italian woman’s grey gabardine raincoat with a hood. It soon began to get dark and we could see the stars. Once again we were in a long line and as we moved along I wandered up and down the line to chat to Major Raworth, Ron Baker and Johnny White who was still worried that he had not returned to the village. I had much in common with the Major because of our service in
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Tunisia in the 46th Division. We were able to discuss our experiences of the various actions in which we had been involved.
It was beginning to feel colder but as long as one kept moving it did not feel so bad. We must have been climbing for roughly four hours without a stop, when I noticed that the stars had disappeared behind cloud and the wind began to increase. Even though we were walking up steep inclines, sometimes almost on our knees, the wind began to find its way through my clothing and I began to feel the cold. It started to snow and I doubt that our guide had expected this to happen. The wind increased in velocity and the snow drove into our faces. Most of the time the wind and snow was blowing from the right and I noticed that a layer of ice about an eighth of an inch thick was building up on my right arm and shoulder and the side of my trousers. Even though I stamped my foot and vigorously bent my arm to get rid of it, the driving wind and snow began another build up. It was imperative that we did not lose sight of the person in front, for visibility in the dark and thick heavy snow was only a few yards. Steep slopes appeared on our right, but because of the poor visibility one could not see just how far down they went. Someone dropped an empty bottle which went scudding away down, out of sight, and we did not hear it land. The wind now must have been at gale force and blowing bitterly cold snow across us. It was difficult to breath because of the wind and the cold, but we had to keep moving. It was even worse than the day we had faced the snow back in November after leaving Castelluccio when we were rescued by Italians in a remote hut, but this went on for much longer.
The snowstorm continued throughout the night, but gradually as dawn approached, the wind began to ease a little and it stopped snowing. Progress was slow as we climbed higher up the mountain, and it was hazardous under foot. One false step and any one of us could have slid down the side of the trodden snow path which we were attempting to follow. It had been trodden into the steep hillside, and the view to our right disappeared below out of sight. I was very cold and I could feel the soreness in my lips as they began to split open owing to the icy wind in my face. So much for the reputedly warm Italian climate. Gradually it became lighter as the dawn broke on the morning of the 12th March, 1944. It would be mid-morning before we had our first stop for a break and something to eat since leaving the rendezvous near Sulmona some fifteen hours ago. The sky had cleared, the sun was shining and the wind was now reduced to a stiff breeze, but it was still very cold. The halt was only a brief one because of the cold, for it would be dangerous to stop any longer and soon we were on our way again. Morale was a little higher now that the storm had passed, and we began to look forward to the possibility that freedom was only a few hours away. I began to take stock of what was going on around us. Sometimes I had overtaken people in front of me, and sometimes I had dropped back because of the inevitable need to attend to the calls of nature, a hazardous manoeuvre under the circumstances. Some of our comrades were now feeling the worse for wear after virtually fifteen hours of non-stop climbing up this hostile mountain. One poor chap, an officer, collapsed in the snow crying out that he could go no further, and I noticed that his footwear was not much better than a pair of soft shoes which were completely inappropriate for a journey of this nature. It demonstrated to just what lengths these men would go in an effort to regain their own lines. His friends were doing what they could for him, but the rest of us had to keep going. I hope that he was able to continue the journey, for the alternative would be a disaster. I discovered a little later that among us was an Italian woman, probably in her mid thirties who, although dressed in suitable attire must have had remarkable courage to have come on this so dangerous trek over The Maiella. She did have male companions with her and she was comparatively expensively dressed. Who she was I do not know, nor why she was included in the party. Maybe there was a desperate reason that she had to escape from the Germans. Perhaps she had been helping Allied POWs and had been found out, but I never knew really why she came with us. The last I saw of her she was making good progress in the company of several male escorts. Perhaps she was a betrayed Italian Allied agent?
At last we reached the summit and from now on everything looked to be downhill. We had left all the trees below and for a while we travelled over a level surface deep in snow but with no vegetation showing through. Information, or was it wishful thinking, was passed back along the line saying that we were now not many more hours from our destination which we had already been told was a place just behind the Allied lines, and safety. It was less of a gradient coming down than the one coming up, and progress became easier and less tiring. Conversation was more in evidence as our morale became higher, with the thought of freedom, food and perhaps a warm place to sleep beginning to occupy our minds. The worst was now over and it was just a matter of covering the last few miles to our destination. Oh!, to be warm again, although my feet were warm as you might expect due to picking them up and putting them down continuously over the last twenty hours or so, with only a one stop break. It had been the hardest route march I had ever experienced, and I had done many since joining the army, and since escaping. I wonder which regiment will greet us, not the Foresters
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surely; possibly the Americans but we had no idea whose troops were in this sector. We had heard that the British Eighth Army was operating on the eastern side of the country and along the Adriatic coast. (We knew the Yanks were in Italy somewhere, but at that time I had never heard of the American 5th Army which contained so many British divisions, including my own 46th Division before it was transferred to the British 8th Army).
The sun had disappeared, obscured by The Maiella’s summit now behind us, and in the shadow it became noticeably colder again. Excitement filtered back from the front of the column, and as I looked forward and down, I could see a fairly wide fast flowing river. Was this going to be a barrier? Then, thankfully at least for my sake for I was so terrified of water, I saw a narrow footbridge which crossed the river to join a road running parallel to the river.
(To this day I still do not know the name of the river, but looking at maps since coming home I would guess that it was the Aventino, which was a tributary of the Sangro. It looked to be at least 75 yards wide or even more).
Beyond the footbridge and turning left along the road, there was a small village which looked the worse for wear, as one would expect at the battlefront. We approached the footbridge as dusk was just beginning, but I could not get a clear view of the village which was about a quarter of a mile on from the bridge. The road went on to turn sharp right, leaving the river, and at the corner on the left between the road and the river were some farm buildings. We crossed the bridge, and suddenly there were several bursts of what sounded to be machine-gun fire behind us. Tired and exhausted as we were, everyone began to run along the road, not wanting at this final stage of the journey to be killed or captured. As we reached the corner of the road, we could see the silhouettes of soldiery figures on top of one of the farm buildings and wearing forage caps as we did when back in England. They must be British soldiers who would now, hopefully, protect us. We moved to our left off the road and made towards the buildings. A burst of machine gun fire from in front went over our heads and a voice cried “Halt!” For a second or so I thought that they had not recognised who we were and so did several more of the party. Then more shouting and shooting came from these soldiers, and to my horror I recognised that guttural harsh German language. I was still running and as the situation dawned on me I swerved back towards the road and made towards the side of a farm house to shield me from the view of those Germans on the farm buildings. A second or so later I was joined by the Australian I had met at Castel del Monte. We were now out of sight of the Germans, and we looked at each other for inspiration as to what we should do next. Firing was now continuous, and explosions rent the cold night air. A quick discussion with the Aussie and we decided to run along the road, but instead of following it to the right we would go straight on parallel with the river and into what looked like scrub land. We were about to sprint off when round the corner of the house came a German soldier waving his machine gun at us and indicating for us to return to the main party who were now surrounded by German troops, and huddled together in the clearing in front of the building manned by the Germans.
It was bitter cold again, and it was almost dark with a clear starry sky. We huddled together surrounded by Germans; and because we were not moving we really began to feel the cold. I can honestly say that I have never felt so cold in my life, before or since. This place was still at a very high altitude. But we were kept out there for almost two hours in the bitter cold. There was a stiff breeze, which seemed to penetrate into the bones. I expect that the Germans were reporting our capture and waiting for orders as to our disposal. Eventually we were formed up ready to march off. Just before we departed a loud explosion occurred to our left, between us and the river. It seemed to have come from the Allied lines which, I found out later from one of the more talkative Germans, were only another 500 yards further along the river – so close but yet so far. Perhaps they were expecting us and had heard the shooting and the explosions and had fired off a mortar, for that is what it seemed like to me, just to stir up things, or was it another mine? It was revealed to us later that the other explosions were mines which had been set off by some of our party, the result we were informed, being thirteen of the party killed or wounded, including British and Italians. But none of them, so far as I knew, were known to me.
As we were marched round the bend in the road, some of the more brutal members of the enemy thought it good sport to hurry us along by using their rifle butts. I was rather surprised at this from front line troops. It was usually troops further behind the lines who resorted to the rough stuff. As if we had not suffered enough! Our bed for the night was in a small barn which did not allow enough space for everyone to stretch fully out on the floor. There was no bedding, not even any straw to lie on. Guards were posted inside the door and oil lamps were kept alight all night.
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I reflected on my wretched position and the bitter disappointment of this terrible set-back. I recalled the events since jumping from the train, leading to this superhuman effort of going over The Maiella. The spectre of being confined in another POW camp for the rest of the war reared its ugly head. I thought of Johnny White’s pleas to return with him to Castel di Ieri, and what a fool I had been not to have agreed. Incidentally Johnny was now missing, and I hoped against hope that it was because he had made his escape. I was so uncomfortable on the barn floor as were most of the others who had not been able to find a more comfortable spot. I was miserably cold, exhausted and dejected, and I wanted to break down and cry which might have helped. But it wouldn’t happen, even though my stiff upper lip had now gone somewhat flabby. What a miserable end to an all-out effort by us all. I eventually drifted off to sleep through sheer exhaustion.
The sound of the barn doors being opened brought me back to the world of the living. The Germans began shouting in their usual aggressive manner, “Raus, Raus!”, urging us to get up and out on parade. I was stiff with cold and discomfort. A piece of bread and some water was issued. There was no opportunity to wash and shave. As I began to take stock of the situation one of the more chatty German soldiers gleefully pointed along the river to a spot not more than 500 to 600 yards from where we had been recaptured, and indicated that British troops were in positions in that area. I looked longingly in that direction. Looking around I could see Major Raworth was still with us, my room mate at Castel di Ieri, Ron Baker, also had survived and so to had the Australian. Then, a mixture of delight and regret gripped me as I saw Johnny White and some others being brought towards us. The delight was that Johnny was not one of the casualties, but the regret that his brave attempt to escape had been thwarted. Among our Italian comrades who were now separated from us, I spotted Mario Nobili, and I was very pleased that he too had survived. Again I wondered, as I had done several times before, ‘what was now to become of us. But what was now to become of us?’
When it became clear to the Germans that we had arrived at their positions by climbing The Maiella, especially during the night of the severe blizzard, they seemed to treat us with a little more respect. In fact, when they were first told they were inclined not to believe it. But they soon realised from our condition that it must be true, and they were amazed. In any case we could not have arrived there by road without being spotted long before we had got this far.
There was no sign of the Italian guide, Dominico, among the Italian survivors. I heard various stories later that he had been captured and shot, or he had perished on a mine, or that he had managed to escape. I never did find out the truth but I hoped it was the latter.
Major Raworth assumed leadership of us all, and he told us that we were to be marched back along the road and through the valley to the area from where we had started. He did not know our exact destination. We marched off along the snow covered narrow valley, passing carcasses of horses and mules, burned out and abandoned vehicles and other war debris. We also passed three human bodies laying in the snow dressed in civilian clothes. This scene of war devastation was silent and eerie, and a reminder of what I had left in Tunisia. It looked very much as if this road had been machine-gunned from the air just at the time a convoy of vehicles, both horse drawn and fuel driven, was passing through.
As dusk was approaching we arrived at a small village, and we were directed into what had been the local school. The village was empty and the villagers must either have fled of their own accord or been driven out by the Germans. We were put into one of the classrooms with cold stone slab floors and left to make ourselves comfortable, which to say the least, was going to be difficult to do. A supply of food was handed out, bread and cheese, stolen from the Italians I presume. The next day we resumed our journey back to the other side of The Maiella. It was slow progress in the deep snow and we were all very tired, but eventually after several more hours without a stop for food, we arrived where we could see back across the valley to the place from where we had started off to climb up The Maiella, only three days ago. I could pick out the place previously pointed out to me as being the Sulmona POW Camp No. 78. As daylight began to give way to dusk a couple of lorries arrived along the road and we were told to board them. Our destination was four or five miles further on, and was to be the old Italian POW Camp No. 78 near Sulmona.
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PART 4. A RETURN TO P.O.W. LIFE.
CHAPTER 22. A Complete Circle.
The Camp was situated on the side of the mountain, sloping down towards the road on which we were approaching. Our dejected party was ushered from the lorry into one of the brick huts which had no bunks or bedding, but there was straw on the floor for us to sleep on. There was no food or hot drink, only cold water awaiting us after our long gruelling march, and the atmosphere was, to say the least, rather depressing. Food would surely be coming shortly, probably in containers from another place. The whole of the camp was empty other than for our presence. In the meantime Major Raworth quickly organised us with a story to tell if we were interrogated, which was almost certain to take place. It was essential that we all told the same story, and it had to be convincing. After all, we were vulnerable because we were dressed in civilian clothes and the Germans could do whatever they wished with us. For we were not now registered with the Red Cross, and had not been since leaving our original camps. We were worried for the Italians who had been with us, and how the Germans would view that. They had been segregated from us and were in another hut, therefore we were unable to communicate with them. It is possible I suppose that the story we were to tell when interrogated had already been prepared by the Major and the Allied Agent before we set off, although I don’t think it had. I think it was thought up by Major Raworth. But this is just conjecture on my part. The story we were to tell was, “some of us had heard that if we could get over this mountain we would get back to our own lines, and that this information was frequently repeated when meeting other Allied prisoners in the area. On the strength of this information a party of ex-prisoners had decided to make the effort on their own. On the way the party began gathering other POWs, including myself, to join them. On arrival at the foot of the Maiella the party came across another group made up of Italians who were making a similar journey, and we simply tagged on behind”. Hopefully the story would be accepted.
There was some excitement when one of the POWs told us that a chap had dashed off into the unoccupied part of the camp just as we were unloading from the trucks. But he was soon caught again and the next day he was slung back in with the rest of us, carrying a few bruises handed out by the guards for his effort.
The evening dragged on and German guards, who were not the ones who had escorted us back from the point of capture, continually walked through the hut, often in an aggressive manner. On one of these occasions a scuffle broke out, and I saw a guard attacking one of our comrades. Major Raworth immediately intervened and remonstrated with the German who then turned on him, joined by other guards who struck him with their rifle butts and kicked and punched him savagely for several seconds. The Major took it all without a murmur, and showed tremendous courage throughout this unwarranted attack. I think his composure and his courage shamed the Germans into calling off their brutal assault. I have a feeling that if they had known then that he was a British officer this unprovoked attack would not have been made on the Major. We assisted him as best we could and conveyed to him our deep admiration for his courage and bravery which we had all witnessed. No further attacks of this nature occurred again at the camp.
Still no food had arrived, and we were now all extremely hungry. This was POW life back with a vengeance, again with that awful nagging pain of hunger. In the straw I spotted ears of corn with grain still attached and began looking for more. They didn’t satisfy the hunger, but it was something to do even though I only found just a few grains. We had to lay down our heads that night, tired, cold and hungry. Surely next morning the food will arrive!
Next morning nothing had changed. Why were we being deprived of food? Probably to soften us up for the interrogation. About the middle of the morning the first prisoner was taken for interrogation and I wondered when it would be my turn. Suddenly, I remembered that I had a postcard in my pocket of Castel di Ieri, given to me as a souvenir before leaving that village. If the Germans were to find that photograph in my possession, then the village would take the consequences of my thoughtlessness. I had to think what I should do. Even if I just disposed of it and then it was found by the Germans the village would immediately come under suspicion because it would be obvious that one of us had been there. I tore it into the smallest pieces and rolled each one into a ball of about quarter of an inch in diameter. Then I moved around the room, dropping one here and there so that they would never be noticed for what they were. I don’t think it would be possible to find those bits of that photograph, never mind putting them together. I was happier now although I was sorry that I had not been able to keep the photograph.
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The interrogations continued and soon it became my turn; in fact I was the last one to go into this darkened room. There was a German officer sat at a table and two other Germans, probably NCOs. I was told to sit down facing the officer. The Germans began talking to each other, nodding their heads and looking at me. The officer spoke in a sharp tone,
“You are wearing civilian clothes; I can have you taken out now and shot as a spy”. I inwardly shuddered but said nothing.
“I believe that you and your comrades have been landed by parachute. Is that true?”
This conversation was not going as I had imagined. I had expected that something would be said about our civilian clothes and I had got an answer for that. But I did not expect to be accused of dropping by parachute. I told him that I was a prisoner of war who had left the camp because the Italian guards had all gone. I did not tell him that I had been recaptured by Italian Fascists. But I did say that I had no alternative other than to wear civilian clothes because my original uniform, worn at the time I was captured, had disintegrated into rags, and the trousers had been cut down to shorts which were not now suitable for this weather.
“Where were you taken prisoner?” “Tunisia, Sir” I answered. He was an officer and had to be addressed as Sir! whether I liked it or not.
“Which POW camp were you in?” “Campo Concentromento PG 82, Laterina, Sir”. I did not mention the farm as it didn’t seem relevant.
“If you say that you are an ordinary soldier who was taken prisoner, how did you get involved with this group?”
I told the story which was as had been arranged.
“It was September when you left your camp, so where have you been since then and where have you been given food?
My reply was that I did not know where I had been other than I had set off in a south easterly direction in an effort to get to our lines. I explained that I could not understand the Italian language and did not know the names of places we had passed through. I had no map and my route was all guess work.
“Why has it taken you so long to get here?”
“I have walked down from the Arrezo area, over a hundred miles away with various companions. At night I would sleep in barns or cattle sheds, and during the worst of the winter I had, with whoever was my companion at the time, spend several nights in succession sleeping in caves. During the day, local inhabitants in the area would be approached for food.
“How old are you?” “I will be 21 on 4th May this year (1944), Sir”.
The officer spoke in very good English, but was very forceful with his questions, shouting most of them in an intimidating way.
“Explain to me why I should not order you to be shot”. It was a very frightening question at the time and I thought very carefully before answering, because if I did say anything under pressure that might, wrongly, incriminate me I thought it was possible that he may carry out his threat. I reasoned that if I were a parachutist it was unlikely that I would have put myself in this position, unarmed. I would certainly have had better warm clothing even if it had been civilian, and I added hopefully as a light hearted addition, “I would not have been covered in lice like these clothes are”. I was looking closely now at the officer, and perhaps it was my imagination or wishful thinking, but I thought I might have detected just a flicker of a smile cross his face as he muttered something in German to the NCOs. He then began a conversation in German with them which went on for several minutes.
“You took a great risk wearing those civilian clothes, but I understand your reasons. You may go!”
Thinking back to those days I do not really think that the threat to shoot us all was anything other than bluff to frighten us into revealing the names of helpers and the villages where we had received help. At least I did at the time, but since coming home I found that such threats had indeed been carried out on other POWs for escaping. I got up from the chair and tried to walk normally and calmly out of that office, but my legs wanted to run as fast as they could. We had no further interrogation sessions that day and it would appear that our stories had been accepted. I heard afterwards in a letter from the Nobili family in Castel di Ieri that Mario and the other Italians had been freed shortly after we British had been transported from Sulmona.
It had been a hard day for us all, and still no food came our way. It was nearly three days since we had eaten, and again we closed our eyes on very empty stomachs. On waking up the next morning we were told to move outside into the compound in front of the hut. At each corner of the compound was a sentry’s tower manned by guards, each with a large machine gun ominously pointing in our direction. However, trucks were waiting and we boarded them to some unknown destination. I looked in vain for an opportunity to get away, but none presented itself. I could only see out of the back of the truck because it had a canvas cover
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over the top. I longingly looked out on to the Italian countryside, knowing that if I could only get out there again I would be safe, for I would never let myself be persuaded to go on an ‘organised’ mission again. How right you were Johnny White.
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CHAPTER 23. Back to the Beginning.
Eventually we arrived at another discarded old Italian POW Camp but I did not know which, and at last we were fed after four long days without food other than a few grains of wheat. But even then, we were not overfed, just a small bread bun and a piece of cheese, then back on board the trucks and on our way again. We travelled for some hours and it began to get dark. I was dozing when the truck began to slow down and finally stop. It must have been the early hours of the next morning as we climbed out at what looked like the gates, with lights over them, of another familiar POW Camp. I looked across the camp which was also vaguely familiar in its design, as most camps were I supposed. Then it struck me why it was so familiar. It was Campo Concentromento PG 82 – IT WAS LATERINA. I had come full circle.
[Left-hand side of the page: Black and white facsimile titled ‘TRANSIT CAMP FOR P.O.W.”
FP. Nr. 31979
I am prisoner – ………………………. (1) – in German captivity, and in perfect health. From here I shall be transported during the next few days to another camp, the address of which I shall give you later. Only there I can get your letters and can reply to them.
NAME AND CHRISTIAN NAME: …………………………….
(1) CROSS OUT IF NOT CORRECT.
BESIDES NAME, RANK AND UNIT ADD NOTHING.
WRITE IN BLOCK LETTERS AND SIGN LEGIBLY.]
We were led into the camp with all the familiar huts set in a row, with what used to be the Camp Hospital at the end. The camp was dimly lit and I could now see that the end hut had been demolished. We were taken to the next one to it which, believe it or not, was the same hut that I had been in when the camp was in Italian hands. But now that same hut was devoid of any bunks, and once again we bedded down on straw. Most of the occupants were asleep. I was hardened to this kind of rough sleeping and it was not long before I also found sleep. Next morning when I was awakened by voices, I glanced round at our surroundings and saw a mixture of Khaki clad figures along with others, like myself, in civilian clothes. Those in British uniform were from the Manchester Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers which I was able to identify from their should flashes. I got into conversation with some of them who told me they had been captured at Anzio. I asked for news of the war and was told horrific stories of the action on the Anzio Beachhead and the ‘touch-and-‘go’ situation there. I was also told that the Second Front would soon be opened and the preparations were being made for the invasion of the European mainland from the south coast across to France. It was no great secret, other than the date of when it would start and the place on the French coast where the landings would take place. My mind went back to when I had first arrived at this Italian controlled camp from Tunisia in April 1943. But this time it was me asking the same questions as I had previously been asked in April 1943 after arriving straight from Tunisia, but the camp was now controlled by the Germans.
I made friends with Jim Dean of the Manchester Regiment. Jim was a Lancastrian who lived in Failsworth near Oldham. In civilian life he worked at the Ferranti Electrical Works in Failsworth. Jim was a good friend to me right up to the time when we finally went home. Another friend was Tommy whose surname now escapes me. Tommy was just a little older than I and was from Liverpool. I believe he was in the Lancashire Fusiliers. I learned from them both something of the camp. They told me that the Camp Leader was an American Airforce Sergeant and that there were a lot of Americans in the camp, probably they were in the majority. There were also Indians, Gurkhas, New Zealanders and Canadians in the camp. The inmates were classed as being in transit and there was no evidence that the Red Cross was involved in its control. Very little in the way of medical supplies was available, and the same old POW complaint – very little food either, and definitely NO Red Cross parcels. Already in the camp were other recaptured POWs all in their civilian clothes, with the letters, KGF, painted on their backs and on one trouser leg. KGF was an abbreviation for Kriegsgefangenen, (Prisoner of War). That same day I had to report for those same identification marks to be painted on my clothing.
During the day I found that the other huts did have some bunks. I can only assume that the ones from this hut had been burned, stolen or removed for some reason, and that this hut was now the only accommodation left. The ‘food’, such as it was, would be served at about 11.30 am, (no breakfast) in similar containers to the ones
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we had in the Italian days, probably the very same. They were about two feet square and about the same in depth, and each hut sent over ‘carriers’ to what was now laughingly called the Cookhouse, to carry the containers back to the huts. The contents in normal life, because they were so awful, would be thrown away, but hungry stomachs will accept almost anything, and this stuff could just about be called edible. It was a liquid substance usually containing sauerkraut (a kind of vegetable) and a few cabbage stalks. Rarely did it contain any meat, and that was of doubtful origin if it did. Sometimes it was just only very watery pea soup. The ration was about half a pint of the stuff. This was supplied twice a day, at 11.30 am and about 4.00 pm. There were no eating utensils. Someone had been good enough to give me an old British steel helmet with the head frame taken out with which to collect my food and to use for drinking purposes. The food was unappetising as it was, and using this steel helmet did not make it any easier. There was more food later, for at 4.00 pm we also received our small brown bread bun, and a piece of margarine the size of those now provided wrapped in restaurants with your meal. That was our lot for the day. As we were already ravenously hungry when we came, these rations failed dismally to satisfy.
After the 4.00 o’clock feed on the first day I decided to walk out into the compound. The familiar trip wire was still there, and to take one step over it would, without warning, attract machine-gun fire from the guards in their towers at each corner of the camp. On this particular evening at about 7.00 pm, as dusk began to descend, a group of KGF men, as we previously escaped prisoners were called, had gathered close to the trip wire. As I came within earshot I could hear talk of escape. Like myself, these men had tasted freedom and knew that if they could just get out of the camp and into the countryside they could then, with the help of the Italian peasants, take care of themselves. Silly suggestions were raised, such as charging the main gate, or trying to distract the guards so that someone might get over the perimeter fence. We all wanted to get out but preferably alive. One of the most talkative conspirators was a South African who boasted of having a girl friend in Rome where he had been recaptured. He was determined to get out and return to Rome. None of these suggestions seemed remotely attractive to me and I began to walk away.
Suddenly without warning I heard a rush, and as I looked around I could see that someone was caught on the top of the barbed wire perimeter fence, and others were trying to follow. Immediately shots were fired and I put down my head and sprinted as fast as my weakness through lack of food would allow, back to the safety of the brick hut. Not long after, one of our hut’s occupants crawled back in; he had been involved in the attempt to rush the barbed wire fences and had been shot in the foot. His name was Lightfoot. We gave him the best first aid that we could, and informed him that we would do our best to keep his injury from the Germans. Later the camp was informed that the South African had been shot whilst trying to climb over the perimeter wire and had been killed. I can only say that it could easily have been more. The Germans allowed the Camp Leader to organise a dignified military funeral and a Service in the camp for this South African. I have to say that it was a foolhardy attempt to escape and had no hope whatsoever of being successful. The desperate desire to get out had overridden any sensible considerations for survival.
Life in the camp was unbearably boring, for there was nothing to do other than search our clothing for lice. I would walk round the perimeter of the camp, sometimes alone and sometimes I would be joined by friends. The weather was getting much warmer for it was now early April 1944. To think that it was just a year ago since I had arrived at this self same camp. I would again, as I did a year ago, gaze up at the village of Laterina at the top of the hill opposite the camp, and watch the religious processions walk from the Church and down the hill. How I wished that I had not been caught again. There was no library, and the only books in the camp were those brought in by the prisoners themselves. If you wanted to borrow a book you would have to go to the bottom of a long list of names. There was no brewing area because, of course, there were no Red Cross parcels.
May arrived and once again, on the 4th I was ‘celebrating’ a birthday within the confines of this camp. This time it was my 21st, and I had much leg pulling and congratulations on finally attaining manhood. But I think that I had already attained that status way ahead of schedule over the past eighteen months. In my restless slumbers that night I dreamed, as I had done on the Italian boat during the trip from North Africa, of being at home celebrating with a cake at a small party given by my mother, sister and brother. It was so real that I could taste the cake, and remember quite clearly taking advantage of it being my 21st and reaching for a second piece. But realism reared its ugly head and I woke to the sound of “grub up lads”, and grabbed my old steel helmet to join the queue.
One day messages were sent to each hut to say that a German celebrity was coming to visit the camp that very day. I was only mildly interested in this because it was bound to be for German propaganda purposes. Surely it wasn’t going to be Hitler? The celebrity arrived and it turned out to be the German boxer, Max Schmelling,
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who proved to be a great attraction to the Americans as they crowded around him and taunted him with the current American world champion, Joe Louis. The German photographers were there in force and no doubt their papers would be showing pictures with their own captions underneath, and ‘proving’ how well they looked after Prisoners of War. No doubt they would not have described the conditions in existence at that very camp, including the starvation diet on which we were supposed to exist.
Sometimes I would walk along to a wooden fence near what used to be the camp office, and talk to Major Raworth who was in a compound along with other officers. The fence had been broken in places and it was at one of these holes that we could talk. He told me that their lot was not much different to ours. But I think that the officers were moved out soon after because I never saw anyone there at the fence again.
It was not long after this that I started to get ‘the runs’ again, similar to that which began just before and during our stay at Castel del Monte. I began to lose my appetite and gave my rations away each day. Imagine, being incarcerated in this place of near starvation and I was giving my food away. My new friends tried to insist that I should at least eat the bread bun, but I couldn’t. After almost a week without hardly any food my friends dragged me to the Camp M.O. to see what he could do. He asked me questions about the condition that I had experienced previously, and told me to drink as much water as possible and then gave me some tablets which he hoped would help. The tablets looked like aspirins. My friends told the doctor that they would see that I had plenty to drink. Probably if I had learned from my previous experience I would have done this. But when I arrived at the camp I had no utensils to use for either food or drink. It was difficult to clean the steel helmet after each meal, for there was no soap and hot water available and a good rinsing in cold water was all that could be done. I suppose that to keep filling the helmet with water and drinking from it was unattractive to me and therefore I was not getting sufficient fluid. My pals brought me water in their own water bottles which they had retained when captured at Anzio. My condition improved, so much so that in a day or two I was beginning to eat a little of my food issue, and it was not much longer before I was eating all my food, and my pals although they did not now have the benefit of sharing it between them, were delighted that I was feeling better. This POW camp was not the ideal Convalescence Home but in spite of that I did continue to improve. I had gone from being extremely hungry, to not feeling hungry and feeling ill, then back to feeling ravenously hungry again. This all took place over a period of about three weeks.
The Germans used to send in their ‘ferrets’; English speaking Germans who wandered about the camp pretending to listen to our complaints. They would engage in conversation with anyone who cared to listen, and there were plenty who would. One of these ‘ferrets’ was called Herman, a little man of about 40, with little eyes that darted all over the place. He would pretend to be horrified at the way we were being treated and promised that he would speak with the German Officer-in-Command of the camp, which of course he never did. His job, like all the other ‘ferrets’ as the nickname implies, was to root out any information he could extract from any, (sometimes willing probably through ignorance), conversationalists he might find.
Once again we had a repeat of what happened when I was last in this camp, then controlled by the Italians. We were called out as usual for Morning Apel (Roll Call) which, on this particular day seemed to be taking a long time. The Germans were counting and recounting, especially the hut next but one to ours, and it was over an hour before we were dismissed. The answer to the long Roll Call arrived not long after we had returned to our hut. The occupants of the next but one hut passed on the sad news that a suicide had taken place, for one of their comrades had been found hanged in the ablution area. Life in this ‘hell hole’ had been too much for him. But for the rest of us, life must go on and we were to make the best of it.
Not long after this Jim, Tommy and myself were moved out of our hut into one at the other end of the camp which was already occupied by mostly Americans and a few Gurkhas. Jim, Tommy and I soon settled down in this hut which had bed bunks of nine in a block, left over from when the Italians were in control. We made good friends with the Americans who told us that they had not been to England, having come straight to Italy from the U.S.A via North Africa. They had all been taken at Anzio and I listened to their many and varied accounts of the horrors of that beachhead, from both the Americans and my British friends. An attempt was made to put on a show for our entertainment, with only limited success The most popular act was an American who could really get us interested by his brilliant rendering of, “I’m Going to Buy Myself a Paper Doll”, but it was difficult to concentrate on the show and to forget our hunger. At night we would climb into our bunks and eventually drift into blissful sleep, releasing us for a while from the torment of boredom, homesickness and hunger.
The camp was equipped with loud speakers which were located all around. They were not used for the purpose of making announcements. Instead they were tuned in to propaganda programmes being relayed for
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the consumption of Allied forces in Italy. One programme which we were regularly fed was of some sultry voiced woman singing romantic songs in English, and which started and finished with that well known song often sung by Deanna Durbin, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ and would include a message for Allied forces at the front to give themselves up to be well looked after in a cosy POW camp. That would always get a cynical laugh from us. Obviously, broadcasting these programs to us was not designed to cheer us up. Two or three times a day we were also subjected to short news reports of the Italian Front in which Allied forces were always suffering heavy losses, and that the Germans were making ‘orderly withdrawals to well prepared positions’.
I suppose it was a morbid pastime but there was very little else to do, and I, together with a few others would sometimes walk over to the cookhouse and watch the next meal being prepared. There was not much to see but it was something to help to pass the time away until the next issue of food was due. Each minute took at least half an hour, to pass, and then at last the man in charge of the cookhouse would call for the food carriers to come and collect the containers. I would then follow them back to the hut and join the queue, with my steel helmet receptacle ready in my hand. I could not start eating until someone had finished with their spoon and could loan it to me. In a couple of minutes we had all consumed the meagre rations, which in no way had satisfied our hunger; in fact it often became worse. The long wait then went on again until the next meal was ready. At least having the meal was something to do. I find this utter boredom and frustration suffered in the camp very difficult to describe in suitable words to explain fully my feelings, and only another POW would really understand. Despite all this misery I steadfastly believed that we would win the war, and I had never wavered from that since first being captured in Tunisia. If I had not held on to that faith throughout I might have gone under.
We all began to suffer from blackouts when getting up from the ground where we would often sit with our backs to the hut wall, hunting lice. From primitive research we found it was necessary to make sure we had something to cling on to as we got on to our feet, like the door frame or the hut wall. It was the beginning of June 1944.
One morning as I was once again torturing myself outside the cookhouse, the wireless loud speakers around the camp came on with some kind of political German propaganda. The gist of it was that:
“Churchill had a dream where he had called upon his British soldiers to die by sending them across the Channel against the European Fortress. In the dream Churchill witnessed a sea of blood flowing along the Channel, blood of his brave British soldiers whom he had sent to their deaths. It was a dream that continued throughout the night. Churchill woke up in a sweat, now unsure of the wisdom of the Allied plans to invade France. Then the programme addressed itself to all British and American soldiers asking if they wanted the blood to be theirs at the whim of a demented capitalist who was using them to further his own ambitions. The sea wall defences were impregnable and there was no way that a successful invasion could be carried out.”
The following day the Germans in their propaganda news bulletin, broadcast a report over the loud speaker system that an invasion attempt was being made on the French coastline, but it was being repulsed with the enemy suffering severe losses. From those few words this magnificent news told us what we had wanted to hear; the invasion of Europe had begun. Never mind the words used by the German propaganda machine to play it down, we now knew that the long awaited invasion of the Continent was at last underway. What a tremendous boost to our morale.
A further boost was that we could now hear the guns from the battlefront in Italy as the Allied forces advanced, and there began to be speculation that the camp could soon be overrun and we would be freed. This possibility had evidently also occurred to the Germans, for we were called on parade by our American Camp Leader who had a terrifically loud voice and could be heard clearly over the whole of the camp whenever he had an announcement to make. He told us that the Germans were preparing to evacuate the camp, and that names would be called in batches to be loaded on to coaches for transportation further north. We were instructed to gather together whatever belongings we had, ready for our departure. Everyone must parade tomorrow morning and listen for their names.
The next day we went on parade. During this time the guards went round the huts looking for anyone who may be hiding in there hoping that they might hang on after everyone else had gone. The names were called, mostly American, about a hundred of them in the first session and neither Jim, Tommy nor myself had been called. The same happened again in the afternoon and again in the evening – about 300 in the day. We estimated that there would be at least a 1,000 in the camp and that at this rate it would take another three days to get us all away. But the sound of the guns was getting louder nearer and sweeter. Could we but hope that they would be here before the Germans could get us away? Another day went by and still we were not called. Our hopes
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were rising now and the noise of the guns was very clear and could not be very far away. There was great activity across at the Germans’ quarters just outside the camp. They were loading up their possessions and looked to be almost ready to leave. Next day the few of us that were left, (all the Americans had gone) paraded as usual and we were still not called. The afternoon session began, and there must only have been one further batch, after this one, to be called. The battle could not now be far away, probably only a few miles, perhaps six at the most and at the present pace of progress they would surely be here by tomorrow! The Germans will be able to get this one away but I doubt if the last batch will be moved, for we anticipated that they would be abandoned when the camp was finally evacuated. But to our great disappointment all three of our names were called and we were quickly, if not brutally, ushered out of the camp to three awaiting Italian coaches. Another bitter disappointment.
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CHAPTER 24. Transportation to Germany.
Within minutes we were on our way, leaving the sound of battle behind us, and I felt sure that we must have been the very last to leave. How I envied those being left behind, for the Germans looked to be already on the point of leaving themselves. The coach sped on its way, passing through the beautiful but battered city of Florence. But seeing Florence was no consolation as we travelled further away from our lines, and even if I could find a way to slip off the coach I would again have to find a way back through the concentration of German troops at the front. But seeing the countryside go whizzing by made me long to get out there and chance my arm again. But it was not to be, for the coach had several armed guards aboard, with two of them sat by the open door, wide awake. We received neither food nor drink during this journey, and it was about an eight hour trip before we arrived at the camp in Modena, Northern Italy. This camp was obviously set up as a transit clearance camp before taking the final lap into Germany. We were given a shower and some food, enough to whet the appetite, before being kitted out with British Army battledress, presumably to give the impression that when we arrived at a Red Cross registered ‘Stalag’, we had been well treated. At least I was glad to get rid of my lice infected clothes, but I expect that my new attire would soon be infected again, despite giving myself a good scrub before putting on my new uniform. I was now about to leave Italy after 15 long months of mixed fortunes.
Next day, after the usual kind of “breakfast” we were surprised to see more prisoners being brought in. They were the last of the POWs from Laterina, and from what we could gather they had been subjected to the most terrible atrocities. It seems that the camp’s liberation by the Allies became imminent; therefore instead of the Germans leaving behind the remaining occupants, or waiting for the coaches to return, they decided to march them out of the camp. I have already described the conditions in that camp and it was inevitable that those men would not be able to walk very far. They began to drop to the ground through sheer weakness. Some tried to make a break for it and ran from the march – they were gunned down. Those who collapsed were beaten and warned not to drop out again. Several just could not drag themselves to their feet; consequently they were shot where they lay. Their chief executioner was the camp ferret, Herman, described earlier. It was a forced march of horror and he, among others was a Major War Criminal who I hope was caught and brought to justice, but I doubt that. This news came as a shock to us for, as they say, “there, but for the Grace of God, go I”. If we had succeeded in hanging on we could have suffered the same fate. Our hatred of those German guards was now intense, but we did not know then how much more we were going to hate them.
Next day we were marched to some sidings nearby where the usual form of transport for POWs was waiting – cattle wagons. Jim, Tommy and I, along with the rest, were crowded into the wagons, about 25 to each wagon, and without any food or water. In the early afternoon the train set off. There was now the danger of Allied air attacks on the train which was not very pleasant to look forward to. Let us hope that we get through to our destination without that problem. I looked round the wagon for a possible chance of escaping as I had done in Italy. But all the doors were locked and barred, with barbed wire nailed across the open slots on either side of the wagons. These slots were about three feet long and a foot wide, criss-crossed with barbed wire, and without wire cutters there was no chance of getting through. There did not seem much enthusiasm to escape from some of the other occupants of the wagon; in fact one big Geordie fellow was pretty hostile to anyone who thought of escaping, for fear of reprisals by the Germans on the ones left behind, a genuine fear.
The train rattled on and we were left to our thoughts. There were no toilet facilities other than a small bucket which spilled over every time the brakes on the train were applied and the wagons bumped into each other. There was very little room to stretch out to sleep, but one seems to overcome these difficulties with practice, and I had already covered the course many times before. Darkness drifted in and I eventually left my surroundings and entered into dreamland. I must have slept pretty soundly, and in my dream it became noisy and it was because I was at Doncaster Rovers ground watching my favourite team. During the war ‘The Rovers’ had many famous guest players, including internationals playing as wartime guests for them. The crowd noise was getting louder, so much so that I opened my eyes and saw the dark gloomy interior of the wagon. It was still dark, and I realised that it was not the noise of the ‘Rovers’ supporters I could hear; it was shouting within this wagon. I began to wake up and readjust to my surroundings. There was a real commotion taking place and I gradually picked up from what was being said that someone had escaped through one of the openings near the top of the wagon side. The Geordie was sounding off in great detail his extreme displeasure, and he had some support. It was now coming to light that, in fact, five had gone out of the opening and that one of them must have had some form of implement to cut the barbed wire. Oh how I wished that I could have gone too. The place where they left the train would have been somewhere in the Brenner Pass. It
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seemed now obvious that these five had kept their intentions to themselves because of the hostility against an attempt to escape being voiced by some of our comrades. Perhaps if they had kept quiet we would all have had the opportunity to get out. But it was too late now for the train was coming to a halt, and we could hear the Germans shouting, and running up and down outside. The train finally came to a halt, and we heard our wagon door being unbolted and unlocked and then it was slid open. There on the outside were three screaming German guards with their rifles pointing in at us. One of them had an oil lantern, and two of them boarded the wagon whilst the other kept guard at the door. Then the fireworks started. Rifle butts were swung here, there and everywhere. No one escaped injury. Many faces were covered in blood from blows to the head and body before calm was restored. The Germans decided to count us, and with the help of a few more lusty blows we were herded into one end of the wagon. They indicated for us to move across to the other end one at a time, each one being followed and helped along with the aid of the rifle butt. Of course, as one would expect, to avoid the blows we scampered across as fast as we could. This was too fast for the Germans to count us accurately, and therefore the process was repeated about half a dozen times until they were able to satisfactorily confirm that five were missing. After a couple of counts my brain told me that when called to move across I must try to be among the first to go, because the Germans were following up by raining blows on the last few to cross. The train began to move again.
Now satisfied with the count the two guards who remained with us in the wagon, ordered us to sit cross-legged in one half of the wagon, with our hands on our heads. They sat on boxes brought in with them, and faced us. Compared to the aggressive guard, his colleague seemed comparatively reasonable now and stopped pointing his rifle in our direction. But the other one who had obviously been drinking was almost hysterical with his continuous shouting and threats. He got so excited at one stage that he began pointing his rifle at individuals, with his finger on the trigger, to such an extent that his companion had to restrain him. In his inebriated condition anything could happen. The sober guard had mellowed somewhat and, with a bit of prompting, began to do his best to converse. Some wit told him that it had just been like a circus arena a few minutes ago which brought a smile to his face for he had picked out the word ‘circus’, and indicated that it was a good description. Some of the POWs were a bit handy with their German and told us that the German was explaining that because some of our comrades had escaped, their leave would be cancelled. This had upset them all and it was the reason why his colleague had acted against us as he did. The drunken guard had now dropped off to sleep, propped up by the wagon side. The sober guard told us that we could now remove our hands from our heads. It was beginning to get light, and about an hour later the train stopped. We were moved out of the wagon on to a station platform, although the POWs in the rest of the train remained where they were. What was going to happen to us now? The answer soon came for we were allowed to use a toilet on the platform, and then were returned to our wagon just as the rest of the occupants on the train were being allowed the same facility. It seems that we were not being allowed near the others because we were ‘naughty boys’. During this stop someone came and securely covered the opening from which the escape had been made, and the two guards were withdrawn from our wagon. It had been an anxious last few hours for us, for we knew that the drunken guard could easily have lost whatever control he might have had and fired off his rifle. Probably without the calming influence of his companion there could have been another atrocity. I gritted my teeth as I did on the Italian ship when being taken to Italy from North Africa, and prepared myself for any eventuality, although sadly some of my follow POWs lost a little control and began begging for the drunk not to shoot. Fortunately, other than some nasty cuts and bruises which should have had stitches, we managed to survive. But it was a frightening experience for us all. I did not blame those five men who had escaped, but I did envy them, and would have joined them if I had been awake.
Late that afternoon the train again began to stop. We could not see out to find out where we were. After what seemed ages we heard the doors being opened and we were subjected to Germans shouting again, “Raus, raus’. I could now see that all the other POWs on the train were out already and forming up to move off. There in front of them, rows upon rows of huts behind barbed wire fences. It looked a massive place, far bigger than Laterina in Italy. We had arrived at Stalag VIIA in a place called Moosburg, about twenty miles from Munich in Bavaria.
We were marched into a small compound at the entrance to the camp which looked to be divided into lots of large separate compounds with the inmates isolated in their own areas. It looked very grim and depressing to me and I was not looking forward to a long stay here. I followed the queue which led to a door leading into a similar hut to those others in the camp, and was confronted with German guards at a table. Although a complaint about our treatment on the train was passed to the German in-charge, nothing was done other than calling a POW camp doctor to look at some of the injuries. Fortunately for myself I had not suffered any cuts,
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only bruises to my back which were sore. I did not bother to report to the camp doctor. We were searched and finger printed, and then an individual photograph of each of us was taken, together with our POW number printed on a board placed at the front so that it would show on the photograph. My number was 130306, which I can still remember just as well as my Army Regimental number. At least we had the satisfaction of knowing that now we were registered under the Geneva Convention as Prisoners of War. We would be able to send, and receive letters and perhaps receive a Red Cross parcel, and if lucky a parcel from home.
It was mid July 1944 when I arrived in Germany, and the last letter I had received from home was dated June 1943, over a year ago. I learned when I finally did arrive home that I had been posted as missing for well over a year. The last letter I had written home was in the camp at Spoleto in Italy, dated 4th November 1943 the day before jumping from the train. It was the last letter mv mother received. Very few of my later letters written during my time in Germany were ever received at home, although I began to receive the odd letter again in late 1944 which were by then about three months old. Letters from home had been sadly missed and there was great excitement when the first batch for we recent arrivals was distributed.
Once the preliminaries of being registered into Stalag VIIA were over, we were allocated to our hut which was in the same compound. No other prisoners were there, only those of us who had just come in by train that day. There were crude showering facilities which we were all grateful to take advantage of. In the early evening and, to every one’s delight, sure enough a supply of Red Cross parcels was brought into the compound. Jim and Tommy, although I had described Red Cross parcels to them during our time at Laterina, had never seen one and consequently their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. They opened their boxes and there, gazing up at them was a 4 oz bar of chocolate, 30 cigarettes, can of tinned fruit, tinned biscuits, packet of tea, tin of stewed steak, condensed milk, small tin cheese, small tin of jam and a tin of diced carrots. What a picture their faces were; I was so pleased for them all. Those men who had been caught had not seen or tasted anything like this since before being captured in January/February 1944 at Anzio. Because of my own experiences after a long spell without food I warned my friends to be very careful at first, for their stomachs would have shrunk and therefore will not be able to accept very much comparatively rich food. Cigarettes would also upset them after so long without. But it was difficult to hold back after suffering so much hunger for so long, and soon some of the men were feeling decidedly sick. Who could blame them?; but I was pleased that at least Jim and Tommy did heed the warning and drew on whatever will power they had, to eventually after sampling a few things, close the box until tomorrow. But even then, both Jim and Tommy began to feel a little sick, and I who had been issuing those warnings to my friends began to feel slightly uncomfortable. But we were not anywhere near as bad as those of our comrades who threw caution to the wind and scoffed a large proportion of their parcels.
After about four days we received information that we were to be sent to a working camp somewhere in Munich. We had no option for the Germans decided that all POWs other than commissioned officers, had to work in Germany. In Italy you had the option of not working. Perhaps working will help to pass the time although it depended on the work, for I had heard that some POWs were made to work in either Salt or Coal mines, and I would not like that. Most of the men had by now managed to come to terms with what was left of their Red Cross parcels, and were prepared to leave for pastures new. Little did we know that those pastures would not be so green.
[Left-hand side of the page: Black and white photograph with wording at bottom “The British Camp leader is on the right”]
Once again we boarded transport, something I must have done so many times before since first joining the Army way back in February 1942. The truck headed along a dead straight road, and we could see the silhouette of buildings in the beautiful city of Munich, now about six or seven miles away. We entered the city and passed through the centre and out towards the suburbs on the west side. At this time we did not see a great deal of bomb damage, although there was some. But the place was not in ruins, for up to then Munich had not been raided as much as some of the other German cities. We drew up at the entrance to a square barbed wire compound with wooden huts dotted about the place. It was small compared to Moosburg, or even Laterina and Sulmona and was designed to house about 300 POWs. There was hardly anyone about other than the German guards. Two men in British uniform, and looking very smart, joined the guards at the entrance as we dismounted from the truck. We were lined up and taken across to a hut. Outside of the hut, one of the men, a British Sergeant explained that he was the Camp
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Leader, and his companion, a full corporal, was his Second-in-Command. These two officials were not required to go out to work and remained in the camp doing administration jobs necessary for the running of the camp. We were counted off and some were taken over to another hut and the rest of us were to be known as working party No. 31 and would occupy this hut.
The Camp Leader told us that Red Cross parcels were issued at the rate of one each per week at the moment, so long as supplies kept coming from Moosburg which was our base camp. He said that as POW camps go it was not too bad here. The German Commandant was a comparatively kindly man of advanced years for a soldier, but would not tolerate anyone breaking the rules laid down for the running of the camp. It was a reasonably ‘cushy’ job for the German Commandant and it was reasonable to think that he wanted to stick to it. The Camp Leader went on to say that he had found the Commandant to be usually fair, and that there was no serious German bullying in this camp. We still came under the jurisdiction of the Red Cross, and were under administration from the main Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. However, there was a prison within the camp but situated just outside the immediate perimeter, next to the guards quarters. Anyone caught breaking the rules would spend, depending on the severity of the crime, several days in isolation and fed on just bread and water. Anyone trying to escape, or recaptured after making an escape would usually be dealt with outside the camp by the Gestapo, and incarcerated in cells below the Mercedes building in the city for varying spells, once again depending on the severity of the of offence. We were now in the picture. The camp was known as: Arbeit Kommando (Camp) No.4064, Stalag VIIA.
Inside the hut was a flush toilet (what a luxury to enjoy!), and sink washing facilities. A shower hut was available in another hut in the camp. Also, a very welcome event had taken place, for after all the showers I had taken in Modena, Italy and since arriving in Germany and together with the improvement in my diet I found that I was at last, free from lice, both hair and body. I do not know whether it was true or not, but rumour had it that while ever you were severely undernourished the lice would not be destroyed, but when returned to health your blood was too rich for the lice and they would not survive on you. Anyhow, I must have done something right for them to disappear, thank goodness.
There were three rooms in the hut, each furnished with two-tier bunk beds. The room I was in was at the rear and we had to pass through one of the other rooms to get to it. There were three sets of bunk beds, sleeping six in that room. In the middle of each room was a cast iron stove with a metal chimney going up through the roof. We were allowed to bring back fuel, usually old floor boards and other bomb damaged timber, to fuel the stove. We would heat up our Red Cross food, do toast and boil water on the top of this stove. Some of the POWs who considered themselves good amateur “electricians” would heat up water for tea etc. by wiring up an old food tin from their parcel to use as a very crude and dangerous immersion heater. In fact one of the most common occurrences in the camp was of power failure, and the sight of the camp electrician clambering up the pole which contained the fuses and the wires which distributed electricity around the camp. Fortunately to my knowledge, no one was killed or injured due to this very dangerous practice.
Next morning we were wakened at 6.00 am and prepared ourselves for work. I made a mug of tea and had a Red Cross biscuit and took a few more biscuits with me. We were told that food would be provided by the people for whom we will be working. The German guards began shouting for ‘Gruppe ein und dreissig’ (Group 31). A truck was waiting at the gate and we boarded. It seems that our destination was to be a canal which, I believe, was somewhere on the outskirts of the east side of the City. I am not sure exactly where, but it was situated in the countryside with a wood running along the banks, and there was a massive dam with a road across the top of it to the other side.
When we arrived we could see that the dam had been closed and that from thereon the canal was empty except for silt, including sand and small pebbles. It was this silt which had to be removed by us. A rail line had already been laid down the concrete bank of the canal with a turntable at the bottom and another rail extending from the turntable along the canal bed. Our job was to shovel the silt into a skip which was then manually pushed back up to the turntable and directed up the concrete bank to the top, for emptying. As progress was made, so the rail was moved to the next area to be cleared. Although we had guards with us, the work was overseen by a civilian. It was hard work and very boring, and none of us were really fit to be thrown into such heavy work so soon after our ordeal in the Laterina Camp and the journey to Germany. But this civilian overseer was not too strict as long as the work was seen to progress.
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CHAPTER 25. Air Raid on The Canal.
This was our job each day. After about three days working on the canal we heard the local air-raid sirens sounding in the distance. It was early afternoon. Immediately the guards, almost hysterically, screamed at us to drop everything and come up from the canal bed. We were told to run back over the road across the dam to the woods on the other side of the canal. We did not feel the panic that the guards felt and thought it was good news that the Allies were bombing the Germans. We felt elated as we made our way to what we thought would be air-raid shelters. However, there were no shelters and the bombs were beginning to fall. We were advised to get down behind a tree somewhere as shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns in the area was buzzing through the air like the sound of a large swarm of bees, and was a tremendous danger to anyone walking around. The canal had been singled out for attack and we could hear, and even see, some of the bombs falling along side the banks of the canal. It would be logical to assume that the dam was a target, but it did escape damage. I could now understand the panic felt by the guards who had obviously seen it all before. It was quite frightening, and to make matters worse for us was the knowledge that we were under attack from our own side. Eventually, after about three quarters of an hour the raid ended, but not without its casualties. None of we POWs were hurt, but the German civilian in charge of our work was killed. He had, among other injuries, lost the bottom part of a leg and we were informed by the guards later that he had died in hospital the next day. After the raid was over we were directed back over the dam and began making our way to the truck. The guards who were also badly shaken had decided that they would return us back to the camp. On the way to the truck I saw a small crater in the road and I wandered across to look down the hole to see how deep it was. To my horror I saw the fin of an unexploded bomb with the rest of it burrowed into the bottom of the hole. I did not wait to listen to see if it was ticking, and shouted to the others and the guards warning them of what I had seen. We all ran along the road until we felt we were far enough away. Then, as we began to board the truck, BANG!!, a bomb went off, and the tell tale billow of smoke and dust into the air indicated that it was the bomb we had just seen.
I am of the opinion that we should not, under the Geneva Convention, have been put to work on what I considered the canal to have been, a military target. But despite my opinions it was not the only place that many of us worked which were military targets, as will be explained later. At least we now knew that when there is an air raid warning we need to move fast towards whatever shelter one can find, and not stand and cheer our planes on to do their worst. We had undergone our baptism of air raid fire, and would go on to be veterans over the next few months. As time went on we too began to dread the sound of the sirens.
It was about this time, July 1944, that we heard the rumours that an attempt to assassinate Hitler had been made and for a while we were under the impression that it had been successful. Once again hopes that Hitler’s overthrow would lead to Germany seeking peace, followed by our release soon after came into mind. Only to be dashed as it emerged that Hitler had survived and was taking terrible retribution on the participants of the attempt.
After a few days of working on clearing road rubble caused in the city at the same time as the canal raid, we were returned to work on the canal under another civilian supervisor. He was a nasty piece of work and laid down rules that we would not be allowed to leave the job until we had filled a certain number of skips for the day. This number was determined by him, and when we did achieve it then the next day he would increase the number. But we were getting wise to the situation, and we began to realise that the guards would not want to stay longer than necessary. Therefore we passed the word around to slow down, and by the end of that day we were several skips short of the target and even shorter than his original target of a few days ago. The German was furious and ranted and raved and threatened but to no avail, for at the appointed time the guards called us to prepare to move towards the truck. After that the German overseer became more conciliatory and was prepared to negotiate a realistic target, which we got him to agree that when it was reached our day’s work was done. It gave us an interest and a timetable, knowing that at every hour if we were on schedule, we would have completed up to a certain number of skips until the agreed number was achieved. We usually timed to finish with about half an hour to spare.
One morning we arrived at the canal and I went to make my way down to the canal bed. The concrete bank was very steep and we usually went down the rail ramp which was more of a gentle incline. Usually the first skip for the day was at the top and we would make our way down stepping on the wooden sleepers attached to the rail. This particular morning the skip was at the bottom and its attached cable was stretched back to the winch at the top. I set off down, one step at a time when suddenly my trousers caught on the frayed metal cable and I fell with my right arm sliding along the cable. Sharp bits of cable were protruding along the full
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length of my arm which was ripped open several inches and in two places. Blood was everywhere and one of the guards came over and applied what was the equivalent to our field dressings, on to my arm, after cleaning out the rust and dirt. He did a good job and my arm was then bandaged from the elbow to the wrist. I was then sent back to work and given the job of operating the turntable for the rest of the day. It was several years later, in October, 1959, just after I had taken up an appointment in an office in Manchester the month before. I felt something hard just under the skin of my right arm, and I was able to squeeze out two further pieces of metal, each about half an inch long.
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CHAPTER 26. Miscellaneous Work.
Soon after my accident, Group 31 was taken off the canal job and were individually allocated to several smaller jobs. Jim and Tommy went off on different jobs and I found myself with four other chaps being taken to the house of a member of the Nazi Party. These people wore a light sandy coloured uniform with a black swastika on a red and white background worn on the sleeve. This particular man did not have his uniform on when we arrived. He was a jocular chap with his own particular and patronising sense of humour of which I understood very little. He was a large man and rather rotund. His wife was very pretty with what looked to be natural blonde hair. She appeared to be much younger than he.
The job was to remove some broken tiles from the roof of his house which had been damaged in an air raid. On the roof just above the guttering was a small metal trellis which looked to be designed to stop snow sliding off the roof. The house was very high and the ladder stopped short by about four feet. The small fence was broken and the two ends were each hanging down the side of the house by about a yard. The German began explaining in the best English he could muster that he, with one of us was to go up on to the roof and throw down damaged tiles. One of the other two was to support the ladder and any good tiles would be passed down to the other who would to take them to the ground. Heights are not my strong point for I get dizzy standing on a chair, and still do. No matter, it was I who was to accompany him up the ladder. I nearly fainted at the thought, for I was sure that it was not safe to climb that ladder and then stretch out those last few feet to clamber on to the roof which was also quite steep. The German beckoned me to follow him up the ladder and although terrified I followed, but I not going to let him know that I was afraid. The ladder seemed very flexible and swayed backwards and forwards, struggling with our joint weight the majority of which belonged to the German. He got to the top and I watched in anguish as he pulled himself up by the dangling snow stopping metal trellis, which looked too frail to support such weight. The German’s approach to all this was very cavalier and he treated it all as a good laugh. Perhaps he was a steeplejack in peace time?
I reached the top of the ladder and gave a testing tug at the dangling metal on which my life was now going to depend. I dare not look down at the ground which must have been 35 feet away. The German now on the roof was wedging his feet against the trellising still held in place above the guttering to support his weight. I pulled myself up on to the roof and wedged my feet in the same way. We began to remove the broken tiles which had to be thrown onto the ground below. I was extremely glad when the job was finished and I could make my perilous way back down to solid ground.
We were then directed into the house where his wife had prepared loads of slices of bread and jam which was laid out on the table, it looked very appetising to us, and it was swilled down with some rather weak looking beer which was given to us. Nevertheless we were given as much of the food and drink as we wanted. We spotted a radio in the house.
The German left us in the care of his pretty wife who knew just a few words of English, and after some hints from us she offered the use of the radio which we soon tuned into the BBC. She, and us, would have been in serious trouble if caught but she did not seem to mind. Unfortunately one of our party misread the lady’s friendliness and began to make certain advances and flirt with her. The rest of us immediately verbally jumped on him to back off for it was obvious to me and the rest of us that both this lady and her husband were only trying to impress us of their comparative comfortable standard of living. The lady had been understanding of our situation up to a point, but if the intentions of our companion had been allowed to continue and she had called her husband, then we would all have been in serious trouble. It was so irresponsible and down right stupid, but there is always one and this one was noted for it.
The work we had just done was a ‘one off’, and the following day I found myself making up a party of four to work on the main Munich railway station, another military target. The job was with a potato merchant and the four of us were employed on bagging and weighing potatoes straight from the wagons. When we arrived to start this work we found that there were two Russian POWs who had also been working on this job. One of them was a jolly cheerful character, while the other one who came from Baku on the Caspian Sea was very surly and unfriendly. He did not seem to like us, but over the weeks that we worked together we gradually broke through to him and made him smile occasionally. But he was never close. We took our own food for the day, and in return the proprietors, a man and wife of early middle age, allowed us to take potatoes back to the camp. This was very good for us because we had enough for ourselves and enough to barter with those comrades in the camp who had access to other things, or, dipped into their Red Cross supplies to exchange with us. Without these additional supplies which we all managed to obtain in some form or another from outside we would have found it very difficult to keep up our strength on just the German camp issue of food
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and the Red Cross parcels. There had been a reduction of 50% in our Red Cross supplies, which was said to be because of the constant air attacks throughout Germany, making it difficult for the Swiss white painted lorries to deliver them. Those parcels being sent into Germany in wagons by rail were often looted. The issue of parcels was now restricted to one between two and it became common for two mates to ‘muck in’ together, pooling their resources and sharing the preparation of food. My mate was Jim Dean who slept in the bunk above me.
One day whilst working at the station the air raid siren started up. The German lorry driver whose job was to take away the full sacks of potatoes had just arrived back for his next load. Bombs were already falling, and he called for us to jump on to the lorry, for he was going to drive out of the city where he thought it would be safer. The four of us jumped up into his cab and off we went, leaving the Russians who had to report to their German guards during air raids. The noise of the vehicle was so loud that I could not hear much of what was going on outside. We must have gone for about five miles and were getting to the outer limits of the city, when all of a sudden we saw a stick of four bombs straddle the road about 300 yards ahead. It looked as if two had landed on the right and two on the left of the road, leaving the road in the middle clear. The driver stopped the vehicle and we jumped out and ran towards some houses on the left which appeared to be empty, and sheltered in the porch doorway. The noise was terrific as more bombs fell all around and anti-aircraft guns retaliated. Shrapnel was flying everywhere, hitting the house walls and thumping into the ground. Gradually the raid subsided and we returned to the lorry which had escaped damage, and made our way back to the station. I definitely decided that in future I would take my chance in an air raid shelter. We were told that we were being taken back to camp, for no further work was to be done that day.
Arriving back at the camp at about 4.00 pm a distressing sight met our eyes. The camp had been hit by an incendiary bomb and one of the huts, straight opposite ours, was completely gutted by fire. The whole camp was vulnerable to fire because all the buildings were made of wood. Everything in this particular hut had been destroyed and the men whose hut it was had not yet returned from their work. All their precious bits and pieces, their food, implements, letters, photographs and clothes – all gone. The hut had completely disappeared leaving only the brick foundations. When the occupants came in they were very distressed, for it may not seem much to you reading it here but to them they had lost their only possessions in the world. Typical of the comradeship among servicemen which existed in those days, a collection was organised in the camp to provide these unfortunate men with food and clothing and anything else one could spare. Accommodation also had to be found and two of them, with an extra bed bunk, were squeezed into our room making eight of us, with similar provision being made in other rooms and huts throughout the camp. Room had to be found for about 50 ‘homeless’ POWs. We were now extremely cramped in our small room, and with the windows closed and covered with shutters at night it became very stuffy and smelly indeed,. Representation was made to the German Camp Commandant and, although he would not allow the windows to be opened at night, he organised the camp carpenter to cut slots in the wooden walls about a foot long and four inches wide to let in some fresh air, which helped.
I had now removed any thoughts of escaping again for several reasons. We had heard of the breakout at Avaranches by the Americans and at Caen by the British and Canadians which we ever optimistic POWs saw as the approaching end of the war in Europe. It would be easy to get away from any working party and several had done it since I was there. But they were all caught, mostly making for the Swiss border, and they were held by the Gestapo for several weeks in dungeons below the Mercedes building in the city. It was not as easy as in Italy and the German people were not as ready to help as the Italians were. Different tricks were tried such as posing as foreign workers who were not under guard and allowed the freedom to move from one place to another providing they had the correct papers. But when getting nearer to the border, security became much keener and it was here that they were usually caught. I had come to the conclusion that the end of the war was in sight and that to escape now was not worth the risk.
As the year progressed and winter arrived one could sense a feeling of futility beginning to show itself among the civilians and the guards, but the SS troops were keeping a strong hold on the country. On one occasion a party of us were clearing bomb damage rubble from the road. It was a warm day and our guard, a man with white hair and probably in his late forties, took a bucket to a stand pipe, filled it with water and brought it back to us.
It just so happened that some young SS soldiers, no more than seventeen or eighteen years of age, were passing at the time. They charged over and screamed abuse at the guard and tipped the bucket of water over. Then they turned on us, hitting out with their rifle butts and letting us know that we were not allowed the luxury of drinking water when the German people were suffering so much. One of the POWs could not take this
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provocation, and he lashed out with his fists, suffering the consequences of a beating up. They went away only to return a few moments later, taking three of our party away including Jim Dean. Later back at the camp Jim told me in hushed tones that he thought it was the end for him, and that he and the other two were being marched away to be shot. However, it turned out that the three of them were taken to help remove some furniture from a house and load it on to a lorry. Although we laughed at what thankfully turned out to be needless fear, I could easily understand it after what had just happened, and at this stage of the war the SS were most prominent in the city, keeping tight control on the civilian population in an arrogant way. I must add here that our guard picked up the bucket and refilled it with water for us, once the SS had gone. The normal German soldier, especially the POW guards, did not like the SS because of their arrogance, and their privileges which other soldiers did not enjoy. These men were not afraid to voice their opinions of the SS to us now, and some would talk in their broken English, trusting our discretion when they expressed their thoughts which often included the opinion that for Germany the war was lost. Other work on which I was engaged was street cleaning in which three or four of us, under the supervision of an old civilian, would sweep the streets of Munich. This was during the autumn when leaves were covering the roads and footpaths. German civilians would stop and converse in their broken English, asking where in England we came from and hoping for us that the war would soon be over. On the whole I had no reason to generally criticise the Bavarian people who did not take it out on us after any air raids.
During a previous air raid a bomb had made a direct hit on to a large water main. The pipe which was four feet in diameter had been split open, and there was a 20 yard space between the two ends. The water had been turned off by the time our small party arrived. Because of the damage and the resultant escape of water, the pipe become filled with silt for up to 30 to 40 yards along, and it was our job to dig it all out. Two of us were to shovel the silt into wheelbarrows and two were to wheel the barrows away. It was a backbreaking job for both shovellers and barrowers because of the narrow width of the pipe, and it got worse the deeper into the tunnel we went. It took us a week to finally clear the pipe and I for one was glad to move on.
[Right-hand side of the page: Black and white photograph with wording at bottom “Concert Party. “Where’s that Tiger?”]
Sometime during September 1944 a POW Concert Party, formed in Moosburg, was allowed to visit our camp to put on a show. With the help of the Red Cross the Concert Party brought a self-assembly stage, together with its own props etc. The basis of the show was a novelty band with singers and comedians. There was also a drag artist whose portrayal of a glamorous woman was rather too realistic and brought course comments from the audience who had not seen the like since leaving home, or even Maison Carree and Cairo. She, or rather he, encouraged these blatantly suggestive remarks which became hilarious at times. The Band was very good and the show gave us all a little light relief from the stress of air raids, and POW life in general. Even the V.I.P. Germans in the audience seemed to enjoy the show.
[Left-hand side. Black and white photograph with wording at bottom “POW Audience at the Concert Party”.]
It was becoming increasingly clear that the civilian population was getting fed up with the constant air raids and the war as a whole, and did not believe that they could now win. News of spectacular advances on the Russian Front and on the Allied Invasion Front were constantly being brought into the camp. Although it was never revealed during my time at this camp, I was pretty certain that we were getting news from a radio somewhere in the camp. On several occasions I was handed a homemade news sheet, usually on a rough piece of paper, for me to read out to my fellow prisoners in our hut. I never knew where they originated because the news sheets were passed from one hut to another without explanation. When speaking in our limited knowledge of the language with German civilians and with the guards who escorted us to our work, it became more difficult now to find anyone who would admit to having ever been a Nazi. Most of these conversations took place in the dimly lit air raid shelters in which both civilians and ourselves took shelter during the raids.
There were clear expressions of sympathy by some of the locals for the POWs, with a readiness to barter in exchange for our Red Cross small issues of coffee, tea, dried prunes, cigarettes etc. We could get sugar, bread, flour, a little fruit sometimes, to supplement our camp supplies, and most of the guards were beginning to turn a
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blind eye to this, often helped by the odd cigarette. But you could be caught if searched on return to the camp and then you would lose whatever you had brought back, and would be in serious trouble. Some days the German Camp Staff would have a purge and search everyone when leaving the camp in the morning, and again on returning in the evening. Other days we would return to our huts only to find that they had been turned over by the Gestapo who regularly carried out searches in the camp, looking for that radio no doubt. They did what they considered to be a detailed search, tipping everything on to the floor, including bedding, food and all our personal letters and possessions. They even took up the floor boards. It was very disheartening.
[Centre of page: Black and white photograph with wording at bottom “Ron Baker is on the left”.]
Just before Christmas, Ron Baker, my companion in Italy at Castel del Monte and Castel di Ieri, who was also a baker by trade, said that he would make a large Christmas Pudding for all in our room if we could get the ingredients. He listed the items and quantities and left us to get them in. This meant taking something from our Red Cross supplies to exchange in the city when out working. Jim and I decided that we could spare a packet of prunes and I would barter them for a kilo (about 2 1/4 lbs) of sugar. I set up the deal the day before with a German civilian who promised to bring in the sugar the next day. The next day, just a few days before Christmas, was a very cold morning with thick frost on the ground. We formed up at the gate, about 20 of us, ready to move out to the job which was working on salvaging furniture etc. from bombed buildings. Suddenly without warning the guards began to search us, starting at the head of the column which was in threes. I could see some of the men in front, also intent on doing some bartering, throwing to the ground their precious chocolate, tea and other items they had intended taking, to avoid being caught in possession. What was I to so? I did not want to be caught either, for I had set up the deal and if I did not turn up and produce the prunes then I would not get the sugar. Where could I hide the prunes? My battledress blouse cuffs were quite big and on making a quick check I found that there was enough room to push the packet just a short way up the sleeve. I noticed that the guards were frisking the men in front by patting their arms which they were ordered to hold up in the air, starting just past the wrist and working down to the armpits. I pushed the packet under my right cuff and bent my fingers to hold the cuff tight, then as the guard came towards me I raised my arms. He did his check and much to my relief he missed the packet of prunes. It is possible that because some of the men had jettisoned their goods the guards probably thought they would not find any thing more and were a bit careless in their search. Anyway I got away with it.
But the danger was not yet over, for I now had to fathom out how I would get the sugar past the guards during the inevitable search when I got back. After I had done the deal and picked up the sugar I wrestled with this problem during the rest of the day. A possible solution came as we were moving some floorboards out of a damaged building, for we were allowed to bring these kind of things back into the camp to use as fuel. The Germans did not issue any camp supplies for that purpose.
I got hold of some floorboards and with some short ones, about a yard long, I tied them together with string, of which there was plenty available, and made a square short tunnel and popped the sugar in. Then I got some longer pieces and fastened them round the outside to make a long bundle. We usually marched to and from this work; therefore I had about a three quarters of an hour’s walk back with the bundle. It was heavy but I made it back to the camp, and as expected, only to be met by a search party. The Camp guards told us to form up in threes ready to be searched. I looked at one of the guards and pointed to a spot by the Camp Reception building indicating a request that I be allowed to take my bundle from my shoulder and place it down there out of the way. He nodded his approval and I put the bundle down and then took my place in the line-up ready to be searched. Nothing was found on anyone and we were dismissed. I picked up my bundle and tried to walk at normal pace back to my quarters, fearing any second to be pulled back to have the bundle searched. I wasn’t, and I carried my burden into the hut and flopped down, saying, “There is the sugar!!”.
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CHAPTER 27. Air Raids.
The months were going by and the dark evenings were upon us. It had become very cold in Munich indicating that winter had arrived with a vengeance, and soon the city was covered in deep snow, a commodity of which I had already had my fill. Ever since we arrived in July 1944, the city had suffered from air raids, usually localised attacks. The arrangement seemed to be that the Americans raided in the day time and the RAF at night. As well as high explosive bombs and incendiaries they also dropped containers of tabloid size newspapers containing the latest news in German. Each container carried hundreds of these news papers, and the ones dropped by the RAF were called The Night Raider. The Americans also dropped a similar paper although I forget what it was called. Usually after a raid some of us would bring one on into the camp and get someone who could speak German to translate it into English. The guards did not seem to bother about this and it was often possible to see some of them reading from these newspapers for themselves.
I did not like air raid shelters very much; they seemed depressing and claustrophobic. One of the things I noticed different here to what happened in Britain was that there would be a radio installed in the shelter tuned into Munich Radio which would give a running commentary on where the approaching planes were, and the direction they were taking. We POWs would know when the planes were approaching Munich because the people in the shelter would gasp, shuffle about and look anxious. When we were working in the city the guards would escort us into the nearest shelter, as much for their own safety as for ours. Those civilians seeing POWs going into a particular shelter would hurriedly follow because they thought that we knew where the bombs were to be dropped. They laughed when we denied this, but they would wink and mutter about a radio in the camp. They may have been right about the radio, but we were certainly not informed of any particular targets. I only wish that we had been.
One shelter we went into was in the partially constructed future Munich underground railway. It was a big open space below ground with walls built here and there to help to divert blast. The thing that unsettled me in this shelter was that when looking up one could see daylight above through a large hole, obviously made by a bomb which had penetrated through the road above, down into the shelter. Some civilians that I spoke to said that many had been killed in a raid when a bomb had hit this shelter, and that was why the walls had been constructed in an effort to screen the blast if hit again. During another raid in another part of the city, we went to a large shelter in which we had been to several times before, and which was deep and looked safe. It had a wide entrance, sloping down a short tunnel before actually reaching the shelter. It was a popular refuge and was used by many people in the city centre who were now pouring in. As I reached the end of the short tunnel which was a matter of about 30 yards, and was about to move into the shelter, there was an almighty CRUMP!! and a terrific bang as a bomb dropped just outside the entrance, sending a horrific blast into the shelter. Our party of POWs and our guards were all OK but there was panic behind us as everyone began screaming, and pushing their way forward trying to force their way into the shelter.
We POWs at the entrance were pushed on ahead of the human tide, and on gaining access into the shelter proper, quickly moved away so that other people could scramble in. There were some terrified people in that shelter and some casualties outside. Even we POWs were shaken, but I was determined I would not let the Germans see my fear. I began talking in my poor German to some women who were in distress, and tried to calm them down by saying that they were safe in here. Doing this helped me to regain control of my own fears, and even better it seemed to have succeeded with those women. After the raid was over we tumbled out of the shelter, and, as we emerged from the tunnel into the street we saw the crater caused by the bomb. A little further along on the way back there was a bundle of the newspapers from the sky laid by the side of the footpath kerb. I bent down to get one to take back to camp, and giving a little tug from the heap I was able to pull one out. As I did this the papers rolled back into the road revealing a headless and legless body. Nearby was a mangled bicycle, probably belonging to this unfortunate person. It did look as if someone might have piled the papers over the torso to cover it up. I kept my newspaper and took it back to camp. When I got back Jim was already there and he was in some distress, for he had been in a different working team and had been behind us when entering the same shelter and was blown off his feet.
Several occupants in the camp found that they could not cope with the raids, and after examination by the English Camp Doctor they were allowed to return to the main camp at Moosburg. Life back at Moosburg was one of hunger, boredom and restriction, and nobody wanted to go back to that if they could manage to put up with the raids here. Some gave it a great deal of thought and weighed up the comparison very carefully. Obviously life in our camp, other than for the raids was better than at the main Stalag VIIA, Moosburg. But some just could not stand it any more, and began to break down. It became a medical necessity for them to go.
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We heard stories that another neighbouring POW camp nearby in Hindenburger Strasse had been hit during a raid causing casualties among the occupants.
When I first came to Munich the city had not suffered all that much from air raids and much of it was still intact. It was a beautiful city and the civilian men were often seen dressed in traditional Bavarian costume, which were shorts and broad leather braces with a Tyrolean hat. There were two outstanding landmark buildings which we could see from most parts of the city and we used to call them ‘The Pepper Pots’. They were two tall narrow buildings within a few yards of each other, each with a clock face and a green dome top which gave us the idea that they looked like pepper pots. They were still standing at the end of the war, and are still there to this day. Gradually as the constant air raids took their toll the city began to look forlorn and depressing. The trams were single decker and towed two other coaches. But the roads were so damaged that tracks had been laid on the road surface on sleepers similar to rail tracks, so that if they were damaged that particular section could be repaired quickly. Whole areas of the city were now just filled with the shells of bombed buildings and there would be no people there. We often marched to our various labours through such areas. Another danger we had to face was the spectre of unexploded bombs, for they could not be spotted among all the rubble piled up high by the roadside. We would hear some go off almost every day. Vehicles suffering from the lack of petrol had cylinders attached to the side which were fuelled with wood.
During our work on the station and in the city we would often see men dressed in what looked to me like light and dark blue striped thin material pyjamas, accompanied by their SS guards. This dress looked hopelessly inadequate for the bitter winter weather, and when looking at these poor wretches, it showed. I soon found out that these men were inmates of the notorious Dauchau Concentration Camp not far away. Of course we did not know just how bad these camps were at the time, but before leaving England we had heard of Nazi concentration camps in Germany and Dachau happened to be the name of one I remembered. On one occasion I saw them from a distance digging out what looked to be an unexploded bomb as we were being transported past, and I also saw them laying rail track on the main station.
On 22nd December, 1944, Munich suffered its biggest raid of the war. The camp inmates had returned from their labours tired and cold, made their meal and settled down for a quiet evening of reading, or chatting about the approach of Christmas and what we would have been doing at home. Very little mail had got through since I had been recaptured, and what had arrived was about three months old. I had received my very first parcel a few days ago from home since being taken prisoner. It was not from my own family and to this day I do not know who had sent it. I think it might have been from some local organisation in Bentley, or even from my old school, but there was nothing to say who it was from. However it was very welcome and contained, I think, 250 cigarettes. Personal parcels from home up to the weight of the ten pounds allowed had been sent by my family but were never received during the whole time that I was a prisoner.
The sirens sounded the alarm at about 7.00 pm. Following camp standing orders, we turned out the lights in the hut, and putting on our outside clothing made our way to the covered trenches outside which served as air raid shelters for the camp. It was a very cold frosty evening, and seemed even colder in the shelters than it was outside. Our ‘callers’ would be the RAF who usually did the night time raids.
Soon we heard the familiar sound of anti-aircraft fire which sounded much louder in these trenches than it did in the more robust shelters in the city. We could hear the drone of the planes above and it sounded as if it was going to be a heavy attack by the many aircraft we could hear over the city. We did not, however, hear many bombs drop near the camp and considered ourselves lucky that we had come through this raid with what had sounded to be carried out by a large number of planes.
After about 45 minutes thankfully it was over, and we came out of the shelter to witness a most dramatic scene which seemed to explain the lack of the sound of bombs falling. Looking towards the city centre the sky was crimson and flames and sparks were flying high in the air which seemed to be across several miles of the city skyline. There was no doubt about it, this incendiary raid had been designed to set the city on fire and at that very moment we could hear the sound of fire appliances racing into the centre. The whole camp was lit up by the flames which would have been at least six miles away. We were stunned. There were lots of other smaller fires dotted around the residential area near the camp.
We went back to our huts, thankful that the camp had not been set on fire, and for the next half hour or so we sat and pondered on what had happened, and what kind of a reception from the residents of Munich we might get tomorrow when returning to our labours, that is if there is anything left for us to do. Then…….with its spine chilling wail which seared through the pit of my stomach, the siren warning began again and we were soon back into the cold interior of the shelters. Again the anti-aircraft guns opened up, and added to that was
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the unmistakable ‘CRUMP, CRUMP!!’ of exploding bombs. Again there were many planes taking part as we sat and shivered in that shelter, either from fear or the cold, probably both. A loud explosion sent a blast of air through the open end of the trench, and there were murmurs from some of the men, “That must have hit the camp!”. The ferocity of the raid continued, and again there was a terrific explosion but at least the shelter was still intact. Gradually the sound of the planes, guns and falling bombs began to ease off, and after a similar period to the first raid we heard the so welcome sound of the ‘all clear’. This second raid was almost exclusively of high explosive bombs, and had caught all the fire appliances now in the city. Whether that was by design of the RAF I do not know, but it was a consequence of the raid. It was getting on for half past nine when we again returned to our now cold huts, badly shaken but thankful that the camp and ourselves had survived such a devastating raid. The camp had not been hit, but a bomb had landed about 200 yards away from the perimeter in a field next to the camp. Because of the shutters on the windows most had escaped being shattered. We heard later that the second explosion which rocked the camp had been caused by one of the planes being shot down about half a mile away, landing on a cross roads at the opposite side of the camp. The terrific noise must have been caused by the explosion of bombs still on board the plane. “For you the war is over”, my captors had said in Tunisia. I, and the others in the hut slept in our clothes for the rest of the night.
The next day our normal work was abandoned and we were taken into the city in trucks. Bomb damage was strewn all along the route, and it was with some trepidation and misgiving that we approached the centre in the truck. Bodies were still lying about and the people looked numbed. There were no demonstrations against us when we got off the truck and were put to work helping these unfortunate people to rescue what possessions they had left. I know that our own country was heavily bombed and suffered greatly, but I could not bring myself to say to these people, “It serves you right for what you did to our country”. What it did bring home to me was how innocent children and old people on both sides who have absolutely no control over these events, have to suffer. I saw the fire appliances wrecked by the bombing and now covered in ice, some of them on their side, and the acrid smell of burning buildings which has stayed with me to this day. I saw the hopeless look on old people’s faces as they just sat out in the street in the bitter cold on chairs rescued from their homes as snow flakes settled gently on their shoulders. They looked at us without anger in their faces, just hopelessness. I tried not to feel some guilt for their terrible plight, but it was a severe test of my support of the Allied air tactics. At home people would be saying that the German people should suffer the same, if not more than we did in Britain, but it was not so easy to think that way when witnessing the scenes that we were seeing now. It is human nature to want to help fellow human beings in distress whoever they are, and we felt drawn together in a common fear, making us willing, even though compulsory, helpers to these Munich distressed civilians. I had seen a few horrible things during this war, but never anything like this. What we POWs found hard to take was the fact that, unavoidably, we also were included in the attacks by our own planes. There had been raids before and there were other air raids to follow, but nothing as so devastating and destructive as this one. For Munich it was the knock-out blow. Three days later it was Christmas Day.
We had Christmas Day and Boxing Day off; we tried to forget air raids for a while. I really enjoyed our Christmas Pudding, for Ron Baker, with ingenuity and improvisation, had done an excellent job; and typical of the British soldier to make the best of things a little alcoholic refreshment had been smuggled in which helped to brighten the evening. But there was more bad news to come. After the holiday we returned to the work of clearing the roads of rubble.
It was about this time that we heard reports that a new prisoner, a South African, had been brought into the camp. Warnings began to be passed around the camp that this South African was not to be trusted, and could be really a German planted in the camp. This ruse had been tried by the Germans before, because the German accent when speaking English was similar to the way the South African Boer spoke in English. After a week the ‘South African’ disappeared from the camp. What more could be said?
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CHAPTER 28. Another New Camp.
One day in early January 1945, we came back from our work to be told that Group 31 was to move from our hut into another older wooden building in the opposite corner of the camp. Why I do not know. We settled ourselves into this hut only to find that the old wooden bunk beds were infested with bugs. I was lucky, for these bugs did not attack me, but others woke up the following morning covered in bites. But things were moving fast and I do not know whether it was in response to our vigorous complaint to the Camp Leader at being moved into this bug infested hut. But a couple of days later we were informed that our Group 31 was being moved out of this camp altogether and be transferred to another one which was in a different part of the city – and it was to be the following day. We began packing our things that night in preparation for moving out tomorrow; to where we did not know. We were assured that it was not back to Moosburg, but to another working camp in the city. But the Camp Leader did not know where it was although he did give us its address which meant nothing to us.
We loaded our chattels and ourselves on to the truck which was to take us to our new destination. Our route took us through the city centre, or what was left of it, crossing a river which turned out to be the Isar on the eastern side of the city. We left the road and stopped at a clearing in front of a large building which looked like a school. Surprisingly there was no barbed wire fence surrounding the perimeter. We were escorted into this building by our new guards, up two flights of stairs, along a corridor which had windows on our right looking down on to the clearing and towards the main road running alongside. At the end of the corridor was a door, and on entering we found ourselves in a large room which was to accommodate us all. It was furnished with double bunk beds and straw filled bedding and blankets and looked quite comfortable as POW accommodation goes. Then we found out the catch. In the camp we had left we were able to walk about the compound freely and visit friends in other huts. But here we were confined to the floor we were on and not allowed out of the building except when escorted to work. Nor were we allowed to go to the floor below where other POWs resided. It meant that at the end of the week’s work at midday on Saturday we were incarcerated in our accommodation until going out to work on Monday morning. No wonder that there was no barbed wire. After our comparative freedom of movement at the previous camp we found this severe restriction hard to accept, especially at first. This school was located about a quarter of a mile from the Munich East Railway Station, which we were a bit uncomfortable with since the station could be a target for Allied bomb attacks.
Discipline here was more severe and the German Commandant was a younger man than in the previous camp; an officer who we believe to have been wounded on the Russian Front, and now unfit for front line action. Before we went out in the mornings he would inspect us to check that we were at least clean and tidy. His inspection also included the guards escorting us. The British Camp Leader was also the interpreter and he showed no fear in standing up to the Commandant in our defence when necessary. There was no transport available at this camp and we had to walk to the jobs wherever they may be. As it happened we only had one job during the time we were there, and this included the whole group. It was in the centre of the city, probably three or four miles away for it usually took us about one and a quarter hours to get there. Our route into the city would take us across Konigsplatz where Hitler used to make his speeches in the times before the city was subjected to air raids. It was a large open oblong space with several large white buildings surrounding it, and supported by pillars at the front. Lighting was provided by ornamented lamp posts with double lanterns at the top, and they were located at intervals down one side of the platz. But it was now neglected and partially damaged by the bombing.
The job we were given to do was again to salvage good undamaged tiles from the roofs of several commercial buildings. The buildings were not high like the house belonging to the member of the Nazi Party mentioned earlier, nor were the roofs at a steep angle. Access to the roofs was easy and the ladders we used were adequate and reasonably safe. It was not our intention to help the German war effort if we could avoid it, and dropping a few perfectly good tiles through the open spaces of the roof at least made us feel better.
It was February 1945 with more war news filtering in to the camp, all good after hearing of the ‘set-back’ around Christmas in the Ardennes when the German papers were predicting a break through Allied lines with the objective being to capture Antwerp. They were also boasting of more terrible weapons to be launched against Britain, for we had already heard about V1s and V2s although we did not know at the time just how extensively they were being used and the damage they were causing at home. We tended not to take German news too seriously, although sometimes they were right such as the time when they splashed the defeat of the airborne attack on Arnhem by the Allies all over their papers. We didn’t believe it. Now we were being told
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of the German heroic and strategic withdrawals on both the Russian and Western Fronts, and that the German frontier had been crossed.
We were all beginning to feel more cheerful and optimistic that deliverance from captivity would soon be at hand. In particular I was given a boost when a letter arrived from Ronnie Ford, my para friend from Leeds, and although he was not allowed to give details it was clear that he had managed to safely pass through the German lines. What excellent news, for I had often wondered how he and Dave had got on, because the day after he and Dave had left Castel del Monte came the blizzard cutting off the village. Well done, Ron, hope to see you when I get home! Ron and I had arranged before we parted at Castel del Monte that when we were both back home we would have a slap up meal in Leeds. I will keep him to that.
One day we were despatched to work with a new guard who, not like our previous guards who were pretty lenient began shouting and raving whenever we dropped a tile or stopped for a smoke. He was an older man who we thought perhaps belonged to the German equivalent of our Home Guard. He had a bushy moustache, tall and a very loud voice; not to our liking at all. He did not allow us to go to the bread shop with bread coupons we had already bartered our own goods for. Something had to be done, and it was. When we returned to the camp a complaint was put in to the Camp Leader and he, like us knowing the Camp Commandant’s views on tidiness, went to see him. When the Camp Leader returned he told us that he had noticed that our aggressive guard had not washed his ears clean, and had used this in his complamt to the Commandant. He flogged it a bit saying that we POWs were expected to be clean and tidy, yet he sent us out with guards who did not wash properly. The outcome was that we had a new guard the next day, an Austrian who was very friendly and easy going. In fact during the day he would ask who wanted to go to the bread shop and who wanted to do any bartering, and he would escort them to wherever they had business to transact. This was a great step forward and we reported to the Camp Leader that we were now entirely satisfied with our new guard. Things were getting decidedly easier.
Sickness here was a bit of a problem. At the previous camp there was a British Medical Officer who dealt with everyday illnesses. There was no resident M.O. at this camp and if you were ill you were marched a couple of miles to see a German M.O. I developed a sore throat which became very painful and reported sick to the Camp Leader who told me to report at 9.00 am in the corridor. I reported, and joined several other POWs including some from the floor below. The Camp Leader regretfully informed us that there was no transport for us and that it was a half hour walk to see the German doctor. I did not feel too good, probably because of a slightly high temperature, but I felt that I would be able manage that. Some of the others were worse than me, but it was either back to work, or make that journey. The German doctor was a grumpy fellow and gave the impression that he resented having to treat us at all. He looked at each of us, but not in a separate room, and we were witness to each other’s examination. With some he was furious and accused them of malingering and threatened to have them severely dealt with by the Camp Commandant. He was aggressive with everyone and when it was my turn he grabbed my chin and bellowed at me to open my mouth. He had a good look down my throat and I got the feeling that he might have been just a little disappointed that I really did have a sore throat. He gave me some tablets and I think it must have hurt him to have to tell me to stay at the camp for the next few days; then we had to walk all the way back.
There had not been many serious air raids since the one just before Christmas. We had several alarms at night time, and discovered that the local sirens were on the top of our building. We knew immediately they were to start up because the lights dimmed for a second as the sirens took up the electricity load. It became an achievement to get up and sufficiently dressed before the first downward wail was heard. Shelter was in the basement which had the ceiling propped up with steel adjustable props for extra support. March went by and war news was getting better all the time. Stuttgart had fallen to the Americans and, being optimistic, it was not all that far from Munich, and it meant that the Rhine had already been crossed.
April came, and with it a flurry of small air raids. On one particular day we were disturbed from our labours on the roofs by the sound of the air raid warning. Now there had recently been some changes made to the instructions for when the alarm is sounded. On hearing it no one is to take shelter immediately. Instead everyone including ourselves were to wait for what had now been introduced as the Acute Alarm. This alarm, which was one up and down wail of about three seconds, would indicate that ‘enemy’ planes are immediately overhead and shelter can then be sought. In practice bombs were falling even before the acute alarm had sounded. On this particular occasion bombs were falling some distance away and we downed tools and prepared to move into a shelter before the acute alarm sounded. In fact we set off leaving our friendly guard behind, and just as we arrived at the shelter the acute alarm began. We entered the shelter with the sound of heavy bombers overhead, and no sooner had we found a seat when, CRUMP!!, the first of a stick of four, then
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one second later and nearer, CRUMP!!; the third one dropped just a hundred yards outside the shelter CRUMP!!; all thought was now concentrated in that split second on the next one, CRASH!!, it had hit the shelter. The familiar screaming began and a panic to get out of the building now filling with concrete dust was uppermost in most minds. There had not been many people in the shelter and there were no casualties. We all soon got out. The radio had informed us that the raid, which was an isolated attack, was being carried out by a few planes from the Free French Air Force. The fourth bomb, luckily, had only clipped the top of the building and exploded on landing a few yards further on. It was a very lucky escape……….and it was the last bomber raid on Munich of the war.
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CHAPTER 29. An Anxious Time Before The Americans Arrive.
It was now Saturday, 28th April as we marched into the city on our usual routine job. There was an atmosphere of expectation in the city, for the news reports which we were getting quite openly from the guards, was that the Americans were approaching towards the west of the city and preparing to attack Munich. We were not in the mood for work and stood around chatting until mid-morning. Soon after this we heard machine gun fire and the guards decided that enough was enough and instead of us carrying on working until midday in the usual way, we would return to the comparative safety of the camp. We set off marching along the road, and after about half an hour we again heard machine gun fire which was coming from somewhere straight ahead. Then we saw them, fighter planes swooping over the city about a mile away firing their guns. Their target looked to be near the school, probably in the vicinity of the East Station? No air raid sirens sounded and it was not a bombing raid, only fighter planes picking out suitable targets. We pressed on but did not see anymore aircraft. However, those houses still remaining on our route after all the bombing, were displaying white sheets from the windows. These displays were not there when we came past on our way in this morning. On enquiry of the guards they told us that it was to show that the occupants had surrendered and wanted peace. They also told us that there had been disturbances by the civilian population in the city during the night, but did not know to what purpose. Probably it was a desire for the city to surrender without further fighting in an effort to save more unnecessary casualties. I hoped that was the answer and that the city, including us, would not be subjected to artillery and tank fire, but I could not confirm that was so. There was a lot going on which none of us understood.
We arrived back at the school at midday feeling unsettled and anxious as to what we could expect next. Our Austrian guard and his friend, also an Austrian, had both been understanding of our feelings these last few days. This could have been because the war was nearly over for Germany, but they seemed now to be genuinely anxious to help. I think that it had dawned on them that Hitler had led the country into catastrophe, and it was their way of offering some kind of apology to us for what had been done by Germany. Next morning, Sunday, all the guards including the Camp Commandant but excluding our Austrian friends, had gone. It reminded me of what happened at the farm camp in Italy at the time of the Italian Armistice when all the Italian guards vanished.
Going back to work on Monday was out of the question. We could hear rifle and machine gun fire coming from the direction of the city centre, but I do not know what it was all about. We could, of course, now wander about the school building at will and I went up to the top of the building where there was a small glass roof with opening windows. One of our Austrian ‘friends’ was there and he beckoned me to have a look through one of these windows. It was quite high and the Munich area is very flat; I could see for miles. Then I saw flashes from guns, and on studying the picture a bit more closely I could tell that they were tanks which were moving forward and firing as they went. They would be about five miles away and moving from our left to right. “Panzer Americana” shouted the Austrian, pointing in the direction of the firing, and I nodded excitedly in agreement. After watching the progress of the tanks a little longer I went back down with the Austrian, leaving him when I made my way back to our room. Ten minutes later I heard a noisy commotion going on in the passage leading to our room. I dashed out only to be told to keep away from the windows………..for there down below a Company of Waffen SS were moving on to the clearing in front of the school. The two Austrian guards implored us to stay away from the windows so that the SS soldiers would think the building was empty. What they would have done if they had knowm Allied POWs were in here I dread to think. We had heard rumours that Goebbels had taken over responsibility for all POWs with the possibility that he would have them taken as hostages in an effort to gain better terms to the “Unconditional Surrender” now in existence. Therefore we were only too willing to keep our heads down. The Camp Leader told us that the two remaining Austrian guards would stay until the Americans arrived and if necessary, defend us from any attack. This was brave of them because they would have had no chance against those SS men down there.
From what I had first seen of this Waffen SS Company they looked very tired, as if they had marched a long way, possibly from Dachau, and they were resting here and having some refreshment. They stayed about an hour, which seemed like two, for it was a most anxious time and we were all willing them to go soon. Then to our relief they formed up and went on their way.
That same evening the Camp Leader decided to go on a reconnaissance back along the main road towards the bridge over the Isar. He returned about an hour later and called us all together to announce that he had, in fact, met up with the American Forces whose tanks were parked for the night at the bottom of the hill, just this
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side of the bridge over the Isar. What could we say? There was a mighty cheer, for our freedom was almost at hand. The Camp Leader went on to say that the Americans were delighted to know that we were safe and to stay put, and they would be up to see us first thing in the morning. Is this the end of all our worries – surely nothing could go wrong now? I began to recall other times when we thought freedom was imminent; the Italian Armistice, the climb over the Maiella, hope of release by the Allies when in the camp at Laterina and the possibility that the war would end at the time of the attempt on Hitler’s life but which turned out to have failed. I was still a little apprehensive that something could still deny me. Once again, I slept in my clothes that night.
I must have eventually dropped off to sleep, for I was awakened by excited shouts of joy, “They are here, the Yanks and their tanks are here!” It was 5.00 am and I jumped out of bed and followed the crowd down the stairs. What a lovely sight those tanks were, with the crews waving excitedly to us and passing down the odd bottle of brandy. It was Tuesday the 1st May 1945 and it was snowing.
We chatted to the American tank crews as they jumped from their tanks and pulled up nearby wooden garden fences to make a fire on the footpath, for it was surprisingly cold. They told us that they had just come from Dachau Concentration Camp which was terrible. Even then we did not realise how terrible, and I only found out about the awful atrocities committed in the gas chambers at Dachau, and also at Belsen and other places after I had returned home.
The tanks finally departed on their way towards Ingolstadt, and we returned to our toiletries which had been skipped in order to greet our rescuers. Now as we washed and shaved we had a song in our hearts, and I wrote the following words home on an American ‘V’ Mail letter dated Thursday, 3rd May, of which a quantity had been left for us by the Yanks:
“THE YANKS ARE HERE”.
That was the yell that woke me up on Tuesday morning at about 5.00 am. I was sleeping – or trying to sleep in all my clothes, so it did not take me long to dash out of the school which we live in, down to the main road that passes the front of the school. What a grand sight it was I can tell you; ‘Sherman’ tanks with Yanks piled on the top of them, waving and yelling and as pleased to see us free as we were to see them. We had three anxious days, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Trouble started on Saturday but the SS quelled it to a certain extent, but now in nearly every window is waving a white flag. A week ago I was in an air raid shelter that was hit by a bomb. As luck would have it the bomb landed on the corner of the small building above and the most we got was blast. We had to get out of it then because the place caught fire. I have lots to tell you. We expect to be in England inside 14 days so it will not be long before I see you all again. The last letters I had were dated in January, nothing since then. I hope Jack is safe; I suppose he is somewhere in Germany now. I must close and get to bed. Hope to see you all soon.
Lots of Love – Fred. (I arrived home before this letter.)
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CHAPTER 30. We Visit Munich Without The Guards.
Later on the day of our liberation the Americans delivered hundreds of ‘K’ Ration packets. The packets, about 9 inches long by four inches wide, contained rations for an American soldier for a day and included five American cigarettes, small round tins of bacon and egg, cheese, jam and other items which I cannot now remember. I had never seen so much food since disembarking from HMS ‘Derbyshire’ at Algiers on 3rd January 1943. They also came and collected the two Austrian guards, and although the Camp Leader had spoken up for them the Americans said that they had to go to join their other prisoners of war.
We were now free to come and go as we pleased, and it seemed strange to have this freedom. I ventured down into the city the following day after our liberation. The city was filled with foreign workers and liberated POWs. We had been given instructions by the Americans that if we were challenged by an American soldier, especially if we were out after dark, we should reply, “British (or Canadian etc.) GI” to identify ourselves.
On the second day, Wednesday, 2nd May, the weather improved dramatically and became quite warm again and I walked down into the city. As I walked over the Isar bridge I could see people sat down by the riverside in the sun. It looked very peaceful. As I got nearer to the city centre all kinds of sights came into view. There was one POW sat side-saddle on a horse playing a mouth organ, and others were riding about in Munich Post Office’s electric vans. One chap had got hold of a single decker bus and began taking passengers from the school into the city.
Then I saw a queue outside a cellar, and Tommy who was with me, and myself went to investigate. We followed the crowd, mostly foreign workers, down into the cellar only to find six very large barrels propped up on trestles. I think they were wine vats, with the taps continually running and the floor was awash to a couple of inches deep in the liquid. People were passing through just holding their bottles under one of the six taps then moving on. We decided to sample some of the liquid and found a bottle each, collected a small sample and returned back to the open air. I had collected about half a bottle of the stuff which turned out to be something called Kummel. Now I am not a lover of beer, or in fact alcohol of any kind for it seems to taste like nasty medicine to me, but this stuff tasted nice and sweet and I just about drank the lot. But then I began to feel a little odd, and I remember talking to an American and telling him how appreciative I was at being liberated by his colleagues. I shook him by the hand before looking for somewhere to sit down, because everything was spinning round………I woke up some two or three hours later to find myself laying on some stone steps leading up to where a door had been, and where a bombed building had been behind it. I felt rough and made my way back to the school and was welcomed by Jim and my other mates who thought it was hilarious. I don’t know where Tommy went; I don’t think he did but he did turn up later. I flopped on to my bed, and when I awoke it was mid-morning of the next day, the 4th May……..my 22nd birthday.
I had learned my lesson and didn’t drink anything but tea or coffee from then on during the rest of my time in Munich. Since the liberation the city found itself without any control of law and order. The initial fighting American troops who had taken Munich had left the city in pursuit of the enemy and there was a vacuum in the administration until more American Forces came in to take over. During that time law and order did not exist and the foreign labour and inmates from Russian and other camps ran riot in the City. There were some atrocities carried out against the local German population, and I was told of a young woman who, for a few weeks before liberation, used to talk to the POWs in our previous camp and had thrown books and magazines etc. over the wire to them. She was raped and then murdered by some members of the imported foreign labour force. It had become a too common occurrence throughout the city during these few days of liberation, and it sickened me. Hadn’t there been enough suffering? Surely now that hostilities had ceased all this indiscriminate bitterness should come to an end. I suppose it was considered by the perpetrators as some kind of revenge, but it could not have been very sweet. I personally had not a lot to thank the Germans for and had suffered at their hands, but it would not have occurred to me for one instant to go seeking indiscriminate revenge. Certain individual Germans I had been in contact with, such as the ferret Herman for example, who had committed such dreadful atrocities against those men in the last batch to leave Laterina in Italy, did deserve severe punishment. But it was up to the authorities to deal with that. I was so grateful at the time to have come through it all. But for those few days, terror had reigned in the city again, and this time it was not bombs.
Eventually, after about three or four days more the Americans arrived and took over control of the city. All vehicles were confiscated and a curfew was set for the civilian and foreign workers. Law and order was reestablished and the city began to calm down again.
Now that I had got used to the immediate novelty of being free again, I began to look forward to going home. One day as I was passing a kind of American depot, one of the GIs called me over. “Its the King broadcasting
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on the radio”, and asked me if I would like to go in and listen, which I did. It was the 8th of May, the end of the war in Europe and a national holiday in Britain.
On the 12th May we were told to stay nearby because the Americans were sending trucks to collect and take us to an airfield ready to fly out of Germany. We packed our few belongings together, but the bulk of my remaining food I handed to a young German girl of between 13 and 14 years of age. She was one of about 20 German civilians waiting to enter the school to look for anything we may have left behind. The girl looked so thin and pathetic and was very grateful, and insisted that I accept a ring in appreciation of the carrier bag full of food. I declined the offer but she was so insistent as if it would be an insult if I had refused. On my return home I gave it to my sister who still wears it.
Most of us had never flown before, but it did not bother me, for when I saw those Dakotas waiting on the runway I knew that one of them would take me nearer to home. We boarded the aircraft, a change from railway cattle wagons and trucks, and sat along the fuselage facing one another. As I looked left I could see the back of the pilot. It was an American plane, and the American steward told us that our destination was to be Brussels where we would be looked after and documented, and then flown on to England……….I can’t wait!
The plane took off and it was not as noisy as I had expected. It was quite a sensation to see the ground moving away as we climbed higher. It was a lovely clear day, and looking left through the pilot’s windscreen one could see for miles ahead. Then I looked out of the window behind and to my left. I could see the port engine on the wing, and then I began to feel just a little apprehensive for there was a clear trickle of liquid coming from the top of the engine. Was it fuel, or water perhaps? Had anyone else noticed, or should I call the American and ask him if it was OK? I tried to ignore it and began a conversation with Jim who was sat opposite. But still I kept stealing a glance at that engine to see if it was getting worse. It was about a two hour trip, but it did not seem long before the American came and told us to put on our seat belts and we would be landing in three minutes. The plane began to drop towards the runway……..when suddenly through the pilot’s windscreen I saw someone run across the runway firing flares into the air. The plane was almost ready for touchdown; and now the engines picked up to a mighty roar as the pilot struggled to get the plane to turn up its nose and climb, which thankfully he did. We skimmed over the houses beyond the runway, engines still flat out, and began circulating the airport. Although it had been a pleasant calm flight to Brussels, the constant circling began to have an effect, and some of the passengers felt sick. We circled for a good half hour before coming down to land safely. On enquiry as we got off the plane, the American told us that there had been an obstruction on the runway and therefore we could not land. After the escape in the air raid a few days before liberation, and now this I began to hope that it would be my last brush with danger and that I would eventually arrive home safely. At least this latest scare had taken my mind from the leak on the engine.
On landing at Brussels we found a hive of activity. Dozens of planes were landing and taking off all the time and the open air reception area was crowded with incoming returned POWs. Food was available all over the place with tea, cakes and biscuits served from vehicles by some pretty South African A.T.S. girls speaking in English which was such a refreshing change from the unavoidably drab looking German women speaking in their own language. It is so hard to explain how touching it was to once again hear everyone speaking English. It made us feel that, ‘Yes’, we were back again among our own. I noticed that all the British troops working at this airport, and those in the streets outside were wearing brown berets rather than the old forage side caps normally worn. Must be the dress of the particular regiments on duty here I thought. It was only when I arrived in England and was issued with a new uniform and a new set of kit that the khaki beret was now standard head dress for most of the regiments including my own Sherwood Foresters.
Jim, Tommy and I had kept together. The queues waiting to be documented were long and slow; therefore we filled in our time visiting the showers before queuing at one of the many reception desks. It was not until the documentation process had been completed that you were given a flight number for a plane back to England. We three managed to get on to the same flight which was to leave at 7.00 am the following morning. The overnight sleeping accommodation was very comfortable with white sheets and blankets, and it passed through my mind the dreadful possibility of over sleeping and missing the flight. But I had no need to worry because we were wakened by army orderlies in plenty of time to wash, shave and have a cup of tea with the exciting prospect of breakfasting in England.
Once again we boarded a Dakota aircraft which this time was being flown by an RAF crew. The seating arrangements were similar to the one in which we had arrived from Munich, and I sat in almost the same place. It seemed that these planes were extensively used for dropping paratroops, but I was thankful that I would not have to jump out of this one. It reminded me of my good friend, Ronnie Ford, who had faced that prospect many times, and I looked forward very much to meeting up with him again and to talk over our “adventures”
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together since parting at that Italian village on the Gran Sasso, Castel del Monte, and to thank him for the letter he sent to me in Germany.
I do not know whether it was part of the planned route or whether the pilot was being understanding, but as we crossed the channel the plane headed direct towards the white cliffs of Folkestone and Dover, then turned left giving us a clear view as we flew parallel with the cliffs on our right. Then our plane crossed the coast and landed at an airfield near Horsham in Sussex. We were home! As we left the plane we were met by medical men with sprays who commenced to spray white powder (DDT I presume, for non-existent lice, at least in my case) up our trouser legs. Then we were taken to a large hanger where a flight officer, maybe he was the C.O of the airfield, welcomed us back to England and apologised for not having a party of WAAFs ready to serve us with breakfast.
We did have breakfast of course, served by the cookhouse staff, but we did not mind that one bit for we were so pleased and excited to be back.
After breakfast we were loaded on to trucks and taken to a reception camp just outside Horsham and allocated to our quarters. My eyes sparkled when once again I saw beds like those in Brussels, with blankets and white sheets already made up. I could see me spending a pleasant time here before leaving for home which I expect would be tomorrow. I had not slept in sheets since my embarkation leave in December 1942. Various processes were gone through during the day including being given appropriate medal ribbons to attach to the new uniforms issued to us all, together with new kit and a kit-bag. We were issued with pay, plus double ration money and coupons. All returned POWs received these double rations. About 6.00 pm, surprise, surprise!, we were issued with travel warrants and a note to say that we were Returned Prisoners of War and had not yet been issued with a paybook. This had to be shown if stopped by Military Police for any reason. Then even more surprising after only having arrived that morning, we were told by the Camp Sergeant Major with a smile on his face to “Clear off home out of my sight”. Coaches were provided to take us to the station and the three of us travelled together to London; Jim, travelling to Manchester, and Tommy travelling to Liverpool would be departing from Euston and as I was to travel to Doncaster I would have to make my way to Kings Cross. We had been given train times before we left, and since my train did not leave until after 10.00 pm I went with Jim and Tommy to see them off at Euston, departing round 9.00 pm.
With my kit bag on my shoulder I made my way to Kings Cross and caught a train at 10.30 pm. The train was packed, mostly with RAF men, some leaving the train at Peterborough and more at Grantham, leaving plenty of room for me to relax for the rest of the journey. I was becoming rather emotional as the train continued on its way, passing through familiar places, finally stopping when the words DONCASTER appeared on the platform signs. I picked up my kit bag and saw that the station clock showed a few minutes past two in the morning, the 15th May 1945. There would be no buses to Bentley two miles away, at this time and I went out of the station to find a taxi. There was one waiting, and I approached it and asked to be taken to Bentley. “Certainly”, and with my kit bag under my arm I got in.
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PART 5. HOME, RECALL & HQ B.A.O.R.
CHAPTER 31. The Homecoming.
The taxi driver, a middle aged man, asked if I was on leave from abroad, and where had I been? I told him briefly that I had been a POW in Munich. On asking where he should take me to in Bentley I gave him my mother’s address. He said, “I know your family and have heard about you from your mother” and he wished me well. Soon we arrived outside my home. The taxi driver told me not to bother paying him the 3/6d fare just now, but to take it round tomorrow to his house which was only just along the road. “Off you go and see your Mum” he said.
He drove away, and I stood at the gate for a while until I could collect myself together for again I was feeling a little emotional and I did not wish to upset my Mother or my Grandmother who lived in the same house. It was 2.30 in the morning and they will wonder who it is at the door and may be frightened. My Granddad had died while I was a prisoner in Italy. He had a dog called Ruff when I left home; I wonder if Ruff is still there? I rattled the letterbox, and straight away I heard Ruff begin barking. I wonder if he still knows me, for before I went into the Army I often took him for walks in the evenings to save my Granddad from turning out. I heard someone coming down the stairs, telling the dog to be quiet; it was my mother who called through the door, “Who is it?” “Fred”, I answered. She opened the door and well it was a typical homecoming greeting. I gave them a brief account of the last two or three days and then went to bed, for it was always ready made throughout our absence, that is my sister Gladys, brother John and myself who were all away in the Army.
The next morning I heard the sound of a siren, and I sat up with a start before realising with some relief that I was safe and sound back home. It turned out to be the siren used to tell everyone at the local Cementation Works that it was time to start work. I went out with my mother to buy in the double rations which I was allowed, but in practice we just lumped everything together. Later I visited the wholesale warehouse where I was working at the time of my ‘call up’ to renew old acquaintances.
Now that I was back home again it was time to get in touch with Ronnie Ford and arrange that meal in Leeds. It was possible that he would not be on leave at this time; therefore I had better send a letter to his home address. My mother had told me that Ronnie had written to her soon after arriving home and had told her not to worry. He said that I was alright and enclosed a cutting from the Yorkshire Evening News telling of his escape. A few days later I got a reply …….. from his mother. She told me that she had heard of me from Ronnie, but she had to tell me some sad news. Ronnie had been killed by shell fire during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. It was a terrific shock to me and I was very upset. I had looked forward so much to meeting him again and to hear at first hand of how he had got through the lines in Italy. Here is the letter Ronnie wrote to my mother:
Dear Mrs Hirst,
This letter may seem to come from a stranger, but maybe your son, Fred, has mentioned my name in his letters to you from the previous prison camp in Italy, PG 82.
We were great friends in the camp, being captured in Tunisia at the same place and transported to Italy together. We also went out farming together, and it was on the 8th September 1943 at the farmhouse that we both made our escape only to be recaptured 20 days later and handed over to the Germans. In this German camp we were allowed to write two letters home, of which one managed to reach my home. I hope you got yours from Fred as I know he wrote two letters to you.
It was a month later when on the train bound for Germany that we made our second escape. On the 29th December when we had reached a point where we were just behind the German lines, we split up. Fred deciding to stay at the *farmhouse and I deciding to try my luck getting through our English and the German lines. Glad to say I succeeded and am now safe and sound at my home. I am sorry that Fred stayed behind, but I can assure you that he is in the best of health, and should luck be with him (I hope it will) as it was with me, it should not be long before he is in Allied hands once more.
I hope that this little news, Mrs Hirst, will cheer you up, as I know how mothers worry over their sons. I also have a mother who this last year has fretted, having lost the eldest son, killed in Tunisia, and I being a prisoner and missing for half a year.
So here’s to hoping that your son will soon be home again.
Yours sincerely, Ronald Stanly Ford. 11th Feb. 1944.
1st Parachute Battalion
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Ronnie was not allowed to say where I was for obvious reasons, and the *farmhouse mentioned in the letter was in fact Tony’s house in Castel del Monte. He was careful not to upset mother by not telling her that we split up because I was unfit at the time to go with him and Dave.
I visited Mr and Mrs Ford who made me very welcome and I was able to fill in, and confirm stories Ron had told them after he had arrived home from Italy.
My leave pass said that I was to return from leave in June and that I would be notified later of where to report. I was later informed that my leave was to be extended until further notice. During this time I was called to attend a clinic in Sheffield to have my health checked. When I got there I got the impression that the doctor examining me was some kind of psychiatrist, and since the war with Japan was still going on I thought it better that, if I was not A1 fit there would be little chance of me being sent to the Far East. Therefore I told him of my genuine experiences of German air raids, and when he asked if I had any bad dreams I answered, with tongue in cheek, that I had nightmares about being taken prisoner again – by the Japanese. I don’t think that he was too impressed. I got a letter later to say that I had passed the medical and was classified as A1.
At the beginning of this account of my military service I told of being posted to the 11th battalion The York & Lancs. at Otley which was significant and that the reason would be explained later. I was still on leave on 8th August 1945, which was the day before my sister’s wedding. I went out with a cousin and my future brother-in-law, calling in at the Pavilion dance hall which was located immediately across the road from home. I danced with a pretty young lady called Margaret a couple of times and wondered where she lived, with the thought that I might gain sufficient courage to ask if I could take her home. She told me that she did not live in Bentley, just visiting at the invitation of a friend who lived not far away. In fact it was near where the taxi driver lived who first brought me home. “Where do you come from then”, I asked. She replied, “You probably haven’t heard of it, but it is a little place called……..Otley”. I was delighted and I told her why. It gave us both something to talk about, for it seems that she lived very close to Farnley Park where I was billeted under canvas, and when I described the exact location of my tent, she said she would have been able to see it from her bedroom window. We got on famously, and by November she was my wife.
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CHAPTER 32. Recall To Arms.
I was recalled from leave at the end of September after spending VJ Day celebrating in Doncaster, and was told to report to a LAA unit at Haywoods Heath in Sussex with other returned POWs for three weeks Infantry re-training before being re-posted to Squire’s Gate Holiday Camp, Blackpool, for further training. Our billets at Blackpool were chalets in the pre-war Holiday Camp. Part of the training was to fire the Piat, a new antitank infantry weapon which fired what looked to me like a large mortar bomb loaded on the end. It was my turn to fire, and we had been warned that this weapon had a fierce recoil. I carried out the instructions and aimed at the target which was an old tank. I lined up the sights, took careful aim, finger on the trigger and squeezed. The next thing I knew was that I was flying into the bottom of the trench, ending up lying flat on my back with the Piat on top of me. No bones broken but I was rather surprised even though I had been warned. The Sergeant instructor shouted down to me, “Direct hit”. I didn’t know whether he meant me or the tank. After two weeks I was posted to Braunton, near Barnstaple in Devon. I was a bit disappointed at this for it was a very long way from home and a bit too expensive and too far to go home on ‘a weekend pass’. I did however, get home for a 72 hour leave at the beginning of November. But it was touch and go because just a day or two before I had been kicked on my left foot when playing football during P.T. and was unable to walk. In fact some of my pals used to carry me to the Dining Room for my meals each day. I had to report to the M.O. for permission to go on the ’72 hour’ and although it was painful to say the least, I was determined to walk in to his office. The M.O. who was not very sympathetic said I could only go on leave if I did not report sick at home, and he snarled “If you do I will put you on a charge”. Not a very pleasant man. After a painful journey I eventually arrived home in Bentley and Margaret was there waiting for me. She had arranged for us to go to the dance across the road. Och!
During my time at Braunton I received a communication from MI9 asking me to fill in a form which was to include details of my escapes in Italy and the experiences during my time behind the German lines. This I did, and on completion I handed it into the Company Commander who gave me a receipt which I still have.
A day or two after returning from leave the C.O. called everyone together and gathered us round him in a circle. I wonder, what’s up now? After a few introductory words about demob and the large numbers of men leaving the Army and having to be replaced by others in higher demob groups, he got to the point. “Tomorrow”, he said, “you will all proceed on ten days embarkation leave, and on return you will be posted overseas to the ‘British Army of The Rhine’ and serve with the occupational forces in Germany”. It was a bombshell. It was not even Christmas yet. Many of us had not had a Christmas at home for, in my case four years, yet here we are being sent abroad again. It was too much for some of the men and they went back to their Nissen huts very disconsolate, but temporally heartened to be going home on leave.
It was during this embarkation leave that Margaret and I were married at the Congregational Church in Otley. After the ceremony we came out of the Church doors just as a lorry load of troops from the Farnley Park Camp was passing by. The advice shouted to me needed to be interpreted before Margaret could understand, or so she said, but it stood us in very good stead most our married life. I had asked for and got, seven days extra leave because of our marriage, but it had to come to an end and I returned to Braunton with a heavy heart. As I passed through the gates by the Guard Room to go to my billet, I was stopped by the Corporal Guard Commander who confirmed my name and informed me to report to the Company Commander on Company Orders first thing in the morning. In short I was on a ‘Charge’, so what had I done wrong? Next morning our platoon Sergeant called me out and told me I was on a ‘Charge’ and to report to the Company Office. “What have I done?” I asked, for I had got on well with him in the past. He looked at me and said, “If you don’t know I am not going to tell you, and I am rather surprised, Hirst, that you would do this”. I became a little worried for I could not recall doing anything serious enough to be put on a charge. Yet it must have been something that had happened before I went on leave. Perhaps some damage had been done at the time it was announced that we were going abroad again, and although I had taken no part in any vandalism perhaps I was being accused with others?
I reported at Company Office and was told to take off my cap. I had never been on a ‘Charge’ before and did not know just what to expect. Others were there and we were lined up to go into the O.C.’s Office to face our punishment. The Company Sergeant Major began to tell us what we were being charged with before we went in front of the O.C. He called my name out, then proceeded to read out the Charge, which, in short was that I had ‘been seven days absent without leave’. So, I was being accused of over staying my leave without
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permission, yet in my pocket I had a telegram saying, “REQUEST FOR SEVEN DAYS LEAVE EXTENSION GRANTED”. I was pleased that I had brought it with me, although I had not been anticipating any problems. It was time for me to speak up, and I told the Sergeant Major that I had not overstayed my leave. Unlike some other Sergeant Majors I had met, this one allowed me to say my piece. I did not at this stage show him the telegram, but I did explain that I had applied for an extension of leave which had been granted. He at first looked in disbelief, then he told me to wait, and proceeded to take the others before the O.C. After a short while one of the Company Office Staff came out and apologised to me, explaining that there had been a misunderstanding; he could now confirm that my story was true – and that I could go back to my platoon. On return, the platoon Sergeant asked what sentence had I been given and he seemed pleased and relieved when I explained to him that the whole thing had been the result of a mistake in the Company Office. The Sergeant then said he had got some good news for me, “the posting to Germany has been postponed until after you have all been sent home on leave for Christmas and the New Year”. This was excellent news, but not as good as if we had been told that the whole thing had been cancelled. It seems that someone had complained to their M.P. and questions were asked in Parliament as to why some returned prisoners of war were being sent abroad without being allowed home for their first Christmas in England in years.
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CHAPTER 33. Herford Barracks in Germany.
We returned from leave during the first few days of January 1946, and by the 6th we were boarding a boat at Tilbury Docks in London, bound for Ostend in Belgium. There were many incidents of blatant disregard of discipline by some of the more disgruntled men during the voyage which took one and a half days. Our escorting officers who were both decent chaps and full of understanding of the circumstances, were very lenient but often driven to despair. It was not their fault, and they were only doing their job. I think that they were looking forward to when they could hand us over at our destination. Eventually their patience began to pay off and most of the men were won round and began to accept the situation. In fact it was not long before both officers and men were joking with each other.
During a short stay in Ostend we received some mail from home, and the important news for me was that my wife, Margaret, thought that she was pregnant, which gave me something to think about and look forward to.
We were taken from Ostend by train to Ghent, arriving after dark and billeted in the Leopold Barracks, a dark and dingy looking building, both inside and out. Our sleeping quarters were up on the top floor and the room was lit by something no bigger than a 40 watt bulb dangling from flex, and the surface of the walls were slimy damp. The Sergeant Major of the Barracks called us down to be introduced to life here. He was like many other Sergeant Majors, expecting everyone to quake in their boots in his presence. He began to lay into us about being sure to be on Parade five minutes before time, and what would happen if we weren’t. He also went on to rant and threaten anyone who stepped out of line, and began lecturing us on the way to behave when abroad, and to lay off the local brew which was more potent than at home. As can be imagined this was not going down very well with all these ex-POWs who reasoned that having spent several years in POW Camps, they were not going to be frightened by ‘seven days confined to barracks’ threats before they had even committed any crime. This only rekindled the resentment, and uproar reigned. It was then that someone, a Corporal I think, managed to get the Sergeant Major’s attention long enough to explain to him that we were not raw recruits out of the U.K. for the first time, and did not expect to be greeted in this way. He went on to tell the Sergeant Major, supported by contributions shouted by others, that we already felt aggrieved at having been sent abroad again.
Perhaps the Sergeant Major had not been properly briefed as to who the new intake to the barracks were. If he had, then it was no credit to his man management skills to go at us as soon as we arrived. On the other hand maybe he had been given a report on the behaviour of some of our colleagues on the way over, and therefore decided he would show his authority and stamp down on us all and nip any ‘rebellious’ intentions in the bud. However, life did become easier and we saw little of the Sergeant Major from then on. After six days we moved out and boarded a train which was to take us into Germany. We travelled into the night and I began to fall asleep. Then I became aware that the train had stopped, and someone was calling for us to get out of the train, unload our kit bags etc. and to wait on the platform. It must now have been the early hours of the morning, cold, with snow flakes beginning to fall. It turned out that this was not our destination and that we must wait for another train. The station was small and draughty and there was nowhere to shelter from the wind, and at that time in the morning you were very vulnerable. After about an hour we could hear in the distance the sound of a train arriving and began to prepare to board it. The big steam engine came into view and our hopes were dashed when the rest of the train appeared. It was only a goods train with open topped wagons, and we returned to our seats. But no, this was to be our train and we were ordered to board it the best way we could which meant climbing over the sides and dropping down to the bottom of the wagon. I had travelled in various trains before but never in an open wagon.
It was snowing heavily now as the train moved off. At least I was better equipped against the cold than I was during other recent experiences in the snow in Italy, and when last in Germany, but I was beginning to feel that the cold and the snow were following me around. After a very uncomfortable journey lasting another hour we eventually arrived at Beilefeld. We were now in Germany and had probably crossed the border sometime ago. We were found a bed in the local barracks for the night, or what was left of it, before taking the last lap of our journey by truck to a nearby large luxury new German Barracks at Herford in the British Sector. The facilities in these clean new barracks were excellent. They were purpose built and the best I had seen, and considering that it was military accommodation it was very comfortable indeed. At least Hitler had provided his army with good living quarters. Our party was split up and distributed to different barrack rooms which included other men just arrived in Germany, and others who were departing. In other words it was a transit camp. It was here that we received some more mail from home, and it was then that I received the confirmation that our first baby was on the way. Again I was homesick, but it had to be faced.
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We settled ourselves in and I soon found my name on Company Orders ordering me to report for Guard Duty the following morning, with webbing blancoed ready for the Guard to be inspected at Roll Call. A fine start for my return to this country. I duly reported and was inspected by the Sergeant who was acting Company Sergeant Major, taking Roll Call each morning. After being inspected by the Sergeant we collected haversack rations and boarded a truck, taking us several miles out to a railway bridge where we were to carry out a 24 hour guard. It was way out in the countryside and the Guard Room was a wooden hut in the middle of a field about 200 yards from the bridge. I do not know what I expected when I again came overseas, but it was a rude awakening to realise that I was back in the infantry and would be called upon to perform these kind of duties, schemes and exercises in the mud and rain until I was demobbed, a daunting thought.
I did not like the Sergeant who was pompous and aggressive, and obviously had thoughts of promotion to Company Sergeant Major. He delighted in ridiculing his victims, and made sure everyone including the Company’s Officers, saw that he performed the duty in the way his interpretation of a Sergeant Major should be done.
It was not long before I found myself down for Guard duty again and I told my new friends that I would be staying in the barracks that night to polish my brasses and blanco my webbing ready for guard duty tomorrow. This I did, but a little later round about 9.00 pm I began to feel queasy and got on to my bed. But it was not long before, I began to vomit, and felt really ill. What about my guard duty, and how am I going to face that Sergeant if I report sick? Did I think it would wear off and should I risk it and say nothing? I struggled with my thoughts and decided it was better to report sick now to the Orderly Corporal on duty rather than wait and have to report sick at Roll Call tomorrow morning. At least it would give more time for a replacement to be found. I waited until 11.00 pm to make my decision, and as I felt no better by then I got up and explained to the Orderly Corporal that I would be reporting sick in the morning, and that I was due to go on guard. He took my name. The effort in climbing back up the stairs brought on another vomiting attack and confirmed that I had made the right decision.
Next morning I still felt ill, but I had not vomited any more through the night. Perhaps I will feel better as the day progresses, therefore should I report fit before Roll Call begins? The decision was made for me because my replacement, someone I did not know, came to me as I was getting dressed. Because he had not the time to do his own he had been told to collect my webbing which I had already prepared for guard duty the night before. I apologised to him for having to replace me at such short notice. I must have looked ill because he told me not to worry and hoped that I would soon feel well again.
I washed and shaved as best I could ready for Roll Call, but I was worried that I may be facing a reoccurrence of that awful illness I had in Italy at Castel del Monte. At least I was not, as yet, suffering from “the runs”. The thought of any breakfast was not on my agenda today.
I reported with the sick at Roll Call, and it was not long before the Sergeant was standing in front of me with a look of thunder upon his face. “What a nerve you have, reporting sick to get out of Guard Duty’, and it had better be genuine. Report to me immediately after you have seen the M.O.”. Obviously he thought I was malingering and that I would get the dreaded note from the M.O. in red ink saying ‘medicine and duties’, meaning that the M.O. thinks there is nothing wrong with you. All I can hope for now is that the M.O. was not of the same opinion as the Sergeant who had made it clear to everyone on parade that if I returned with a negative diagnosis I was in very serious trouble.
I was called in to see the Medical Officer who asked me to explain my problem to him, which I did. I admitted to him that I was due to have gone on Guard this morning but did not feel up to it, but I was ordered to report to the Acting Company Sergeant Major immediately after returning from this consultation. He then asked me questions regarding my overseas service because he had noticed that I was wearing the ‘Africa Star’ medal ribbon with the 1st Army Clasp, in accordance with Army regulations. The M.O. was not the aggressive type and listened closely to what I said. A look of understanding crossed his face when I told him of several attacks of sickness and diarrhoea during my time in Italy. He seemed interested in me telling him more of my experiences abroad before finally providing some tablets with instructions to drink plenty of fluids, and to return if I did not improve. He then handed me an envelope to give to the Sergeant, and I made my way to the Company Office where I met him coming out. “Ah!” with a look of expectancy on his face as he opened the envelope. He read out the treatment prescribed by the M.O., “Two days in bed then light duties for seven days”. I knew I was ill and was glad that the M.O. had given me a proper examination without jumping to the same conclusions as the Sergeant. He eyed me up and down in frustration, still unconvinced, and spat out every word as he said, “Get out of my sight”. I stayed on my bed and had nothing to eat until teatime that day, then
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I went over to the mess and had a mug of tea. The next day I began to improve and although breakfast was not an attraction I did begin to feel ready for lunch. By the following day I was fully recovered and reported back on parade. I expected that it would not be long before I was called up for guard duty again, but I wasn’t.
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CHAPTER 34. The Konigshorf Hotel, Bad Oeynhausen.
An opportunity arose for volunteers to be trained for Army Clerical duties. I had always been interested in clerical work, but I had never had the chance to work in an office before. This seemed to be an answer to my prayers and I wasted no time in putting my name forward. I would look forward to the possibility of ending my days in the Army doing that kind of work, and if successful I could be called upon to work in that capacity at any level in B.A.O.R. The volunteers did not have to wait long before being told to prepare to move to the Clerical Training School at Lippstatt in late February 1946. Those remaining members of the party who had come over from England with me were posted to one of the Welsh Regiments, but I was fortunate to keep my membership of The Sherwood Foresters until demobilisation.
The six week course was very interesting to me and included a study of the War Office and Headquarters Organisations at Army, Division, Battalion and Company levels. Instruction in the Army’s unique clerical procedures, including typing was also included. I was delighted to be told at the end of the course that with 75% marks I had comfortably passed. I returned from Lippstatt at the beginning of April to Herford to await posting. I crossed my fingers and hoped that it would not be a re-run of my experiences, as related in Part I when qualifying as a driver at Lincoln, and then never ever being posted to driving duties. I need not have worried.
Two days later came the order to pack my kit and prepare to move to B.A.O.R. Headquarters at Bad Oeynhausen and to be ready in a couple of hours. I was a bit overawed to say the least, to be going to H.Q. B.A.O.R., and a bit apprehensive as to whether I was up to it. After all I had only had a six week course and no practical experience. I had made lots of useful notes however during the course, and I took them with me to revise in case of difficulty.
It was about a half hour’s drive in a jeep to Bad Oeynhausen before the jeep driver dropped me off at the entrance to a large hotel, the Konigshorf, six floors high, which turned out to be the H.Q. offices. I went in at the main entrance and after enquiring where and to whom I should report I was taken, dragging my kit with me to the ‘G’ Operations Branch Chief Clerk’s Office and met the Chief Clerk, a Staff Sergeant. Nothing like the Sergeant I had left at Herford, he was even polite. However, he looked me up and down and asked a few pointed questions about my previous record. He shuffled uncomfortably when I told him that I had just recently returned from The Army Clerical Course at Lippstatt. I suppose he must have been wondering about the quality of clerks being turned out so quickly, and with no previous experience either. With so many staff being demobbed now he had to resign himself to accepting whoever was sent. These thoughts I was having did not do anything for my confidence. The Chief Clerk told me that I was being allocated to ‘G’ Operations Branch (Training & Infantry) Section, and called a messenger to show me the way which was up the lift operated by a friendly German, on to the second floor. I was taken into an office which had an opening to the next door office, and was introduced to the Section Senior Clerk. He also was a Sergeant who made me very welcome before taking me through the opening into the next office where there was another Sergeant. It seemed that the Trg. & Inf. Section was, in reality two sub-sections, and the sub-section through the opening was the ‘Infantry’ sub-section to which I had been allocated. There was a proviso that when the larger Training sub-section needed assistance I would be called upon to assist, which I often did. My own ‘Infantry’ sub-section handled exercises in co-operation with the ‘Training’ sub-section. A Lieut/Col. Hunter was in charge of the whole section, with a Major and two Captains in the ‘Training’ sub-section, and a Major and one Captain in ‘Infantry’. Their offices were across the corridor from us and when requiring clerical services they pressed a buzzer which indicated the identity of the caller. There were officers here of every rank, and some would be the most senior I had ever come into contact with. For a day or two I was a little overawed by all the ‘brass’ but I soon got used to it.
There was much good humour exchanged and I found the atmosphere to my liking, with an 8.30 am to 5.30 pm daily office routine. I often would think of what I might have been doing if I had not gone on that clerical course, and it gave a good feeling that I had made the right choice again. I soon began to pick up what was required of me, which was finding files and/or letters for the officers, prepare letters and instructions ready for typing by the typing pool and collating documents for distribution in accordance with standard distribution lists. Other duties of a miscellaneous nature were also carried out. We had a mixed staff in the ‘Training’ sub-section, and a messenger who collected and delivered mail for both sections.
On one occasion I answered a call for a clerk by the ‘Training’ sub-section officers, and whilst in there I noticed a circular paper dial showing 360 degrees, and with a red arrow pointing at zero. Above it were the words ‘Flap’Barometer.’ On returning I asked one of my colleagues what the purpose of this piece of equipment was.
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He told me that it had been designed by the Major in that office. It seems that when a flap or panic was on, which was fairly often the severity of it was measured in degrees and then indicated on the barometer. It was meant to be a humorous reaction to a panic situation.
One morning as we were working in the office we could hear a loud banging which appeared to be coming from the radiators. Not long after a messenger came rushing into the office asking who was doing the banging and when told it was not in here he rushed off. Two minutes later in charged a Sergeant asking the same question, and on getting the same answer quickly departed to ask the same question in offices all along the corridor. The banging still continued and it could only have been another five minutes before in rushed a junior officer desperately seeking an answer to the question as to who was doing the banging. He was the last caller on the subject, and a few minutes later the banging stopped. It was only later in the day that we heard who the culprit was. It seems that some visiting high ranking officer had arrived as this banging was taking place, and had casually asked what the noise was. As one can guess, the HQ officer who had welcomed the visitor had asked someone to find out where it was coming from and have it stopped. Of course all ranks below had panicked in an effort to find the answer. Eventually the problem was solved, for it was a little German plumber who had been called in to attend the central heating boiler in the cellars below the building. I don’t think he was shot, but the possibility of it must have been close.
Once again I was miles away from home on my birthday the 4th May, my 23rd this time. We Other Ranks in ‘G’ Operations Branch had a Club in the town where we could relax, dance and/or drink (including tea or coffee) at the bar, and it was there that I spent that evening with colleagues from the office. My last birthday at home had been my 18th.
About this time, June 1946, Field Marshal Montgomery was appointed to the top position of Chief of the Imperial General Staff, which was the highest position in the British Army. He was to leave his command of BAOR and return to the UK. On the day of his departure we were given permission to line his route along the main road to Bad Oeynhausen railway station. During my time at BAOR HQ Monty worked at what was known as TAC HQ in a different location; therefore I did not see anything of him at the Konigshorf Hotel although many high ranking officers came and went. The officer in command had the appointment of Major General Chief of Staff. Almost all of us, except a few who stayed behind for security, went to see Monty leave and as the procession led by a band came into view we could see Monty standing up in his own 8th Army Desert car. The car was being pulled by several Military Policemen, and later in a local Army newspaper report of the event it said that these MPs had voluntarily rushed forward and tied the rope to his car and took it in tow. However, it was believed that these MPs had been rehearsing the event for a week. A few days later photographs of the occasion were placed on the notice board, and one of them which I was allowed to purchase showed Monty in his car waving to the crowd, with myself standing clearly on the pavement behind.
Life for the British soldier at Bad Oeynhausen was a little dull. There was a NAAFI in the town centre where we could have the usual NAAFI fare. Sometimes there was a civilian band there to play popular music for the troops. We used German Marks in the NAAFI which we obtained from the German civilians who really didn’t have anywhere to spend what money they did have. We could get equivalent to 10/- (50p) for a 2oz block of chocolate, and we found it unnecessary to draw any pay. However this came to a stop when the British Government introduced a new kind of money for military personnel in BAOR. It was known as British Armed Forces Currency, (BAFS) and was the only currency to be accepted by the NAAFI and similar organisations, in the future. Therefore Pay Parade which had become a thing of the past, returned to become a regular weekly event.
After a few weeks Lieut./Col. Hunter departed H.Q. BAOR, and only a few days later the Sergeant of the Infantry sub-section also departed for demobilisation. Neither of them was replaced, nor was the Major in our sub-section who departed shortly afterwards. This left Captain Lake of the Middlesex Regiment and myself as the only remaining members of the sub-section. It was soon afterwards that several promotions among the clerical staff took place including myself when I received a stripe, to become L/Corporal Hirst.
Among the files for which we were responsible were several marked ‘Top Secret’, one of which was considered to be of the utmost importance, and for the eyes of only selected staff members. It was only when I had served in the department for several months, and near the time for my demob, that I was allowed the doubtful privilege of examining its contents. Obviously it was not for the eyes of everyone and anyone, for it contained very specific details of certain manoeuvres, statistics and highly sensitive descriptions of a delicate nature. There were stringent security procedures to be completed before any ‘Top Secret’ files could be drawn, and these were adhered to when I was asked by the Section Chief Clerk to unlock the steel chest containing these
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secret files. Each file had a number, and on finding the requested file I took it to the Chief who, in return, handed it back told me to memorise its name and to study the contents whereby my education would be complete. The file’s title was The Filth File. On reading its “secrets” my education was indeed, almost completed.
Although I was enjoying the work at Bad Oeynhausen I became extremely home-sick and looked forward desperately to my home leaves, which were ten days every four months. The route taken when going on leave was via the Hook of Holland and across to Harwich which was a transit camp. We went by rail from Bad Oeynhausen, and the train would stop at Krefeld where there was a large Dining Room available for [text missing?]
[Printed caption ‘A photograph of myself taken in Brussels’; however, no photograph.]
I had been home in late April 1946, and saw quite a physical difference in Margaret who was by then about five months into her pregnancy and quite well. At long last my August leave came along. The route home was by tram to the Hook of Holland, and then by boat to Harwich where there was a very large transit camp. On the way to Holland the train had to negotiate a very high rickerty bridge over the Rhine. It was a temporary bridge constructed by the Army, single track, and when looking out of the carriage windows at either side you could see no part of the track, only the long drop to the river below. The train was only allowed to move at a very slow pace, at two or three miles an hour and the bridge made a dreadful creaking sound as we passed over it. It was quite scary and seemed to take ages before reaching the other side for which I for one was truly thankful. From Harwich I caught a train to Leeds then a bus to Otley where Margaret was still living with her parents. Our baby was due sometime in August and I just hoped that it would be during my leave. Time went by too quickly, then on the night before I was to return to Germany her Mum and I took Margaret into the hospital. We were asked by the hospital staff to return home as the birth was not expected for a few hours yet, and advised us to ring in the morning. My dilemma was should I make my return journey to Germany tomorrow morning? As it happened Captain Lake was on leave at the same time as I, and he lived in Leeds. He knew that my wife was expecting our child during August and he had told me that if there was a problem I should ring him, and he gave me his telephone number. I did ring him and he advised me to report to the C.O. at the Army camp in Otley (where I had been stationed in 1942), and explain the situation. If I still had any problems I should ring him again.
I was concerned that by not returning the following morning to Germany, I would already be unable to report back to HQ BAOR at the appointed time; therefore if extra leave was not granted I would have been reported absent without leave. I told mother-in-law that I would be reporting to the camp in Farnley Park and that I would ring the hospital when I returned. On arrival at the camp I was directed to an office and interviewed by a Major and a Captain who listened patiently to my story. Then they asked which unit I was with and where had I served during my Army service. I told them and was immediately granted an extra seven days. When I returned Mother-in-law met me with the words, “Its a boy, born at 7.30 this morning”. Being a soldier on leave the hospital allowed me to visit at anytime which was great. However I went in one morning and had my hand on the ward door handle when a loud female voice yelled, “Don’t go in there!”. I stopped, and a nurse came and quickly moved between me and the Maternity Ward door. “You cannot go in at the moment because the mothers are all feeding their babies. I will let you know when it is all clear”. If I had been a fraction sooner I would have been in there looking for my wife, before being pitched out by an irate Matron.
The seven days flashed by and I was back on the train from Leeds already feeling homesick again, and on my way to Harwich. I wanted to be at home looking after my wife and child, but it was not to be. I arrived at Harwich and went for a meal in the dining area until my leave batch sailing number was called. The loud speaker system was working constantly, when suddenly I heard a request for men returning to Bad Oeynhausen to report to the Main Office at once. I wondered why, and suddenly thought that it was me they wanted and that there was something wrong at home, perhaps to do with Margaret or the baby. It was with some apprehension that I reported, and not long after I wished that I hadn’t. “What is your name and number?” I was asked. Then I was asked to confirm that I was from Bad Oeynhausen which I did by handing over my leave documents. Now that I had satisfied my inquisitors I was told the reason for them calling me.
I was to escort a prisoner back to Bad Oeynhausen where I would be met by Military Police who would then take over custody. I did not fancy that one bit, for it meant that I too would have no freedom of movement throughout the long journey back into Germany. My escort duty was to commence on landing at the Hook of Holland, for until then the prisoner would be under the guard of M.P.s during the sea journey. I was given instructions for collecting the prisoner, and further instructions during the train journey. Normally the train stops at Krefeld where a Dining Room along side the station is available to military travellers. But I and my prisoner were to wait until M.P.s escorted us to a waiting table. On the train I was not to allow the prisoner to
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visit the toilet on his own, and on such occasions instructions were that he had to leave the door open. No instructions for my own toilet use were received; therefore when this became necessary I had to make a request to other soldiers in the coach to keep their eye on my prisoner until I returned. It was with reluctance that anyone agreed. I could not have a nap, although there was nothing to stop the prisoner from dropping off to sleep. I was worse off than him in that respect over the seven or eight hour journey. I did talk to the man and found that he had overstayed his leave, or at least that is what he told me. He gave me no trouble. But the journey seemed to go on for ever and I was greatly relieved when, at last, we arrived at Bad Oeynhausen station. I had instructions to wait for the M.P.s to arrive to take the prisoner off my hands, but I need not have worried on that score for they were there waiting for us on the platform. Thank goodness that was over.
September 1946 slowly arrived and although I was not outwardly miserable or depressed, I was still very homesick, even more than as a POW I suppose. Probably it was because demob was getting ever closer, and with the help of Captain Lake and from tables supplied by the Army I was able to work out my Release Number which we calculated to be No. 44, and meant I would be released in November this year. A call came for me to hand in Part 1 of my Paybook to the Admin Office to have my official Release Number entered into it. When it came back I was both surprised and delighted to find that the entry showed 43c, the c meaning ‘confirmed’. Both Captain Lake and I re-checked the calculation which had to be based on age and length of service, and still came to No.44. I decided that if this was an error it would be one that I would not draw attention to and let things take their course. It meant that I would go home in October. Those few weeks early would be so precious to me.
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CHAPTER 35. Demobilisation and Home Again.
Slowly but surely the appointed day arrived, and on the night before Captain Lake who I had worked with for the last seven months, invited myself and my two friends into the back door of the Officers 21 Club to join him in a farewell drink. Other ranks, other than staff, were normally not allowed in the Club, but he had brought with him a bottle of brandy, and after wishing me well he left us with the remains of the bottle and told us which way to leave the Club. Although I find it difficult to drink spirits, or any other alcoholic drink for that matter, I was pleased to join in a drink with the Captain for we had got on very well together. He wrote me a glowing reference in my Release Book which has a prominent place in my mementos. That evening I was instructed to pack all my gear and move into a building near where I could be called early in the morning by the orderly corporal. My present accommodation was in an empty house, together with several other men from various offices, including Systems and Signalling.
My travelling instructions were to proceed by train to Cuxhaven from where I would be transported by boat to Hull, and from there by train to Fulford Barracks in York where I would receive my demob. suit etc. From there I would make my own way by train to Leeds and then catch a bus to Otley.
The next morning after an early breakfast, I was taken with all my gear by transport to the Bad Oeynhausen station and was very surprised, and a little embarrassed, to see about twenty of my colleagues and friends waiting to give me a good send off. It was an emotive experience as it dawned on me that my life was going to change drastically, and these were the last few moments of almost five years of military service. I kissed the A.T.S girls and shook hands with my pals; then the train moved off. It was a moment of mixed feelings, for I had been waiting for this day for so long. Yet I wondered what life was going to be like when I return to my wife and new baby, and to a more stable and routine life! Then I began to wonder if the error in my Release Number would catch up on me and that I would be stopped at Cuxhaven. I was determined that when I got to there I would not answer to any relayed messages over the loud speaker system if it called for me to report to some office. Once on the boat I thought I might be safe although I could, of course, be met at Hull and then returned back to Germany.
There were no messages for me at Cuxhaven and I began to feel that all was well. The boat was smaller than those in which I had sailed previously, and the trip took two days. It was a very rough sea journey causing utensils on the dining tables to be swept off on to the floor, but strangely I did not have any feeling of seasickness. Had I now got my sea legs, or was it because I was going home? After customs formalities I boarded the waiting train to York, arriving at Fulford Barracks late in the afternoon. We were escorted into what looked like a men’s clothing shop, but I got the impression that the best of the clothes had been picked over earlier in the day. There did not look to be a very wide range of choice, but I wanted to get home and I chose whatever I thought was suitable as quickly as possible. Everything was then packed into a large cardboard box, and together with my personal belongings in my kit-bag I boarded a truck for the last time as a soldier, which went on to drop me at York station. From there I caught my train to Leeds. Arriving at Leeds at about 6.30 pm I was beginning to feel my legs turning to jelly as I made my familiar way towards the last lap of my journey home. The Otley bus stop was a quarter of a mile away, and with my kit-bag over my shoulder and my cardboard box under my arm I made my way to the bus stop.
It was a half hour journey to Otley, but it seemed longer than that, until eventually I could see the lights from the town as the bus turned to take us down Chevin side (a large hill dominating Otley), soon arriving at the bottom and into the bus station. A further 20 minutes walk over the River Wharf bridge and up the hill soon found me knocking on the door which was opened by mother-in-law. Margaret was just bringing the baby downstairs. I greeted them both affectionately. It was good to be home with my wife and child. This Time For Good.