After being captured in Egypt Algie Pool spent years in Italian (Servigliano, Camp No 59) and German (Kaisersteinbruck, Stalag 17) prison camps. He reflects on conditions, food, treatment, attitude to escape and how POWs filled their time. He was involved with theatrical events and producing camp magazines. Eventually, with the Russians approaching, he was marched across Austria by the retreating Germans where, at last, he was liberated by the Americans.
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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LIFE, AWAY FROM THE MAINSTREAM
BY ALGIE POOL
[Note in blue biro]: From 2 Royal Gloucester Houssars
[Note in blue biro]: Servigliano Germany
Looking back over my war the main impression is one of “apartness,” of being away from the mainstream. It began I suppose at Skellingthorpe when, together with Jacks, Glastonbury and Nichols I fell out of a Commer lorry on my head. By this drastic action I avoided the endless patrols through woods and fields chasing phantom paratroops attacking Scampton Airfield. Was it really true that Jack Nichols shot a cow one night?
Having recovered I went on an abortive trip to Salisbury to take over a camp at Harnham. The Regiment never arrived and we returned only to be despatched again to prepare a camp at Kettering. Further trips away included advance parties to Babraham and Cranleigh and a jaunt to Liverpool to load tanks on ships bound for Egypt. All these events are a story in themselves and hold some incidents not without merit, but this account concerns itself with the second stage of events after our departure from England.
On arrival at Port Tewfik I inevitably found myself on the party sent to Port Said to help unload tanks. We were based across the Suez Canal in a transit camp at Port Fuad. With very little money life was somewhat difficult and any hopes of sampling the fleshpots of Egypt after weeks at sea were quickly squashed. Sitting on a diving platform some 100 yards off the beach one afternoon we were alarmed to see a black fin circling us. Someone pushed Paul Winstone overboard to placate the monster. He covered the distance to the beach faster than Johnny Weissmuller, leaving a broad brown wake. The other bathers around seemed unconcerned and we soon realised it was only a friendly porpoise or dolphin come to spend a jolly hour playing with humans.
We rejoined the Regiment near Amiriya and after ferrying tanks out from the Ordnance Depot near that noisome smelling tannery we started to train in earnest. My luck held. After a few days I succumbed to an attack of sandfly fever and was whisked off to hospital in Amiriya. I was “out” for 2 or 3 days and eventually woke too weak even to appreciate a blanket bath administered by a pretty nurse. One of the nurses was the niece or granddaughter of Admiral wills who lived at Rooksmoor. Seeing my name on a list she sought me out and considerably brightened the next few days whilst I regained my strength.
From a visitor I learned that the Regiment was already preparing to move up the desert. I thought I had missed the boat once again. However, I managed to persuade a doctor that I was fit enough and arrived just in time to join the remnants of the rearguard. On the night of the 17th I crossed the wire on Harold Fletcher’s water bowser. The following day we arrived on the fringe of the El Gubi battle. Deciding it was not a healthy spot to live in and no one was likely to need water at that time we retreated to a safer distance. The next few days were spent
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toing and froing with the supply echelon until I somehow found myself behind the wheel of a 3 tonner caught up in the mad dash to the wire, the November Handicap. At night we halted and waited. Out of the darkness appeared Lt. Mitchell who said something like ‘sod this for a game of tin soldiers, let’s get out of here.” After purloining an extra carton of petrol Mitch and I and Geoff Harmer drove off into the darkness westward. We passed through many groups of men and vehicles unchallenged. Piecing it together later from official accounts and maps I believe most were the Indian Division and behind them a collection of equally bewildered German armour. Having a passable knowledge of the stars, I managed to keep a steady course and late the next day we drove by chance into General Gott’s H.Q. Together, we smartened Mitch up and he went off to dine with the General and his staff. The next morning Gott took us toward 22nd Armoured location. However, after a short while there was a sound of gunfire and the General’s armoured car halted and after a brief study of his map it swung back past us. Pulling up alongside the General shouted “I’m going back to control the battle. Carry on and follow the sound of the guns.” By chance, we struck 22nd Armoured and there we split up. I was assigned to drive a Cruiser commanded by a C.L.Y Sergeant whom I only remember as Pip. The operator and gunner were Speedy Randall and Bill Booy of “H” Squadron. We formed part of a mixed force under Major Dickens of the R.T.R, known as Dickie’s Force. The tank turned out to be that originally used by Norman Hart, a navigator’s vehicle with a 3 inch stovepipe up-front. It held 3 items of interest, Lord Cranley’s silver whisky flask, still partly full, Norman Hart’s hunting horn and his haversack with a supply of clean underwear, of which more anon.
The next week or so was spent in meandering around with a daily duffy at enemy transport and the occasional peep at that infamous column of German vehicles of every description with the odd 88 mm at intervals in its length. One afternoon we again went astray. Sergeant Pip decided to go on a gazelle hunt with a tommy gun. After a fruitless chase we found ourselves alone but after dark we pulled into an apparently friendly leaguer and bedded down. At dawn we found we had stopped unchallenged about 30 yards from General Norrie’s A.C.V.
As we brewed up, the General, himself, wandered over to find out who we were. At this point we were attacked by a couple of ME110’s. The exuberant Sergeant Pip grabbed a bren gun and had a go, only to be told to “Leave it to the Bofors” by the General who then dived off to board a Lysander.
Our next foray took us back to Sidi Rezegh to help evacuate the New Zealanders who had been sitting up there for a week, shelled impartially by both sides. We sat there for a while under fire, from whom heaven knows. Eventually, small groups wandered through the smoke, nonchalantly spitting dust and clambered gratefully onto our tanks, to be taken to relative safety.
The next day we came across an abandoned German staff car. It was, I believe, the one just vacated by Generalleutnant Von Ravenstein, captured by the New Zealanders near point 175. It had been immobilised and ransacked but we did obtain a supply of
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Knacke-brot, German hard tack, and I had my first introduction to that grey German bread which always held a spare boot sole in its base. I was to see a lot of it in the years to come. There was also a plentiful supply of iron crosses which, after a brief parade, we abandoned. Shortly after the Regiment returned and Speedy, Bill and I rejoined Geoff Harmer as the crew of a Honey and a few days later arrived at the fatal Shit Creek which must have been somewhere in the region of Sidi Breghisc, south-east of Gazala. Geoff Harmer has recounted elsewhere the story of that day and of trying to communicate his instructions to me by strings attached to my epaulettes, but a few other thoughts come to mind. Among others, we received one hit right in the front bevel box which ended up in the gear box alongside me and that reduced our mobility to a tight left-hand circle and we were forced to evacuate. Being the driver I was last out, the front flap being jammed, and I had some difficulty trying unsuccessfully to free my greatcoat from the gun mounting. It contained my reserve supply of tobacco. Suddenly, realising we were under small arms fire, I dived off the tank and ran anywhere. For a brief spell, with a swarm of bees around me, I was convinced that this was it. It was an odd feeling. I felt detached from that little insect running across the sand – he didn’t belong to me, but I experienced a sense of pity and a little loss. Then, nature reasserted itself and I hit the deck. When the noise subsided I looked up to see the others getting to their feet about 70 yards away. I rose to join them and as I approached a number of young, very young German infantry men ran up. Geoff stood up, hands on hips, and said to one, “well, what do you want, you little bastard?” It was then I almost regretted having donned the last pair of Norman Hart’s clean underpants. The German C.O harangued us from the top of the truck, telling us with obvious pride how he had lured the Regiment into that fatal creek, chasing his fleeing transport to be shot up by the guns hidden round the perimeter. One of his Junior Officers was an ex Cheltenham College scholar, but even he couldn’t understand Bill Booy’s Gloucestershire accent. Bill was accused of being deliberately obstructive by speaking dialect. They wouldn’t believe it was his normal speech.
That evening we were taken to what I now know to be the D.A.K H.Q at Sidi Breghisc. For a while we lay on the ground trying to sleep, quite close to the dark shape of a captured English A.C.V. I am now sure this was the famous “Mammoth” captured from General O’Connor in the earlier campaign and used by General Cruewel, Commander of the Deutches Afrika Korps and also by General Rommel at those times when he came to a halt. After a while the door opened and 3-4 obviously high ranking Officers descended to stand in a row in the dim light of the vehicle, unbuttoning their trousers. They were blind to our presence, lying in the dark a few feet away, but had we had a torch I am sure we could have spotlighted the complete weaponry of the German High Command in Africa. As it is, we can perhaps fairly claim to be part of a very small elite to be almost peed on by the Desert Fox himself. The next morning we watched one of these same Officers dishing out iron crosses at a little ceremony in the shadow of an 88 mm mounted on a mound in the centre of the leaguer, close to the truck in which we had eventually bedded down.
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Our captors treated us quite well. We were given food and the odd cigarette and there was no noisy hectoring or intimidation. Our interrogation was brief and not particularly subtle. The Officer who talked to me was an ex-shipping agent from Port Said and spent most of the time telling me of his earlier life in Nottingham, “the city of pretty girls.”
After a day or so, we were driven westward, our number having now grown from 4 to 9 or 10, with the addition of a K.D.G Bruce, who taught us to play “Up Jenkins,” a kind, of spoof and a party of Northumberland Hussars captured by our escort. We travelled through the north part of the Jebel Akhdar, sleeping in an Arab village one night and in a cave on another. All around us were the signs of a fleeing army, mainly Italian, hitch-hiking for the most part and offering cigarettes for lifts. Here and there they trundled those big long guns which they could use so well. Near Barce, we passed a rattling old bus, an Italian “passion waggon” loaded with “goodies” of mixed nationalities for the comfort of the troops.
Once again, I was on an advance party, one to last for the next 3-4 years.
On arrival in Benghazi, the atmosphere changed. From a small party jaunting through the desert, however unwillingly, we became part of a large amorphous mass of humanity, struggling for a share of the very meagre food supply and with little order or discipline. We were handed over to the tender care of the Italians who were rarely if ever guilty of deliberate ill treatment but managed to produce the same effect by their effortless inefficiency. One evening a day or two later we left Benghazi harbour on board the Ankara, a German vessel lately arrived from Taranto with 22 tanks on board, and having evaded trouble in the first battle of Sirte. Standing on the deck on a visit to the heads, I saw a sight to delight both visually and emotionally. The whole of Benghazi glowing in the setting sun was star-spangled with explosions and fires. Exploding ammunition dumps threw up magnificent showers to better any Brocks display and around the perimeter of the hills there were signs of British activity. Alas, it was all too late for us and we sailed into the night hoping that all British subs were tucked up in harbour, our destination Tripoli.
Landing at Tripoli we marched past a statue of Mussolini on horseback and boarded a train for Jebel Gharian, a mountain fortress some 60-80 km to the south. We climbed the mountain path now somewhat weaker through lack of food and affected by the thin cold air. In the fort, food was again conspicuous by its absence and on Christmas Day we were offered a choice of an onion or a lemon for our Christmas dinner. Apparently, the food sent up was so poor that even the Italians rejected it. However, the day was brightened by a magnificent festive gesture from a young Italian Officer. He paid for a piala Italian mug of brandy and 20 cigarettes for every British prisoner, all 2,400 of us. I count that the biggest round of drinks I ever joined. I saw the young man again 18 months later on the night the Germans overran our camp near Macerata but never knew his name.
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The other object of interest at Gharian was a drawing on the whitewashed wall of the large garages in which we slept on the cold concrete floor. Started by a previous occupant from the R.T.R it was a 20 foot long map of North Africa in the shape of a reclining nude. On her body in strategic and some unstrategic parts were little vignettes of the Libyan Campaign added to by successive inmates. Little pictures of tank battles, guns and transport interspersed with the odd Bedouin and camel. After the War Gharian became a tourist attraction and “the lady of Gharian” one of its highlights. A colleague showed me a picture post card of her 40 years later. Sadly, however, she was a victim of Colonel Ghaddaffi’s clean up and is now covered in whitewash.
Back in Tripoli we reboarded the Ankara with much trepidation. During the earlier trip those housed in the forward hold had broken into the ship’s stores and stolen a quantity of food. Unfortunately, the only thing in our hold was dry, weevil-ridden macaroni and no matter how hungry, that is impossible to consume in a raw state. However, the R.A.F had paid the ship some attention during our absence and the damage caused was sufficient to overshadow the losses.
The voyage to Italy was uneventful except for one almost tragicomic episode. An Italian Bersalgieri Officer in charge of the guards, glorious in his cock-feather hat and sporting a beautiful curled beard parted in the centre, would appear at intervals to announce “Mangiare domani” as though he was offering the Crown Jewels. On his last appearance an exasperated squaddie, wagging his hand under his chin, shouted “Baa-aa.” A thousand of us joined in the chorus and the infuriated man dashed up to the adjacent steps to the upper deck where a machine gun was trained on the hold. Anticipating his intention, we all piled several deep under the overhang of the hold opening, trying to get out of the line of fire. Fortunately, a burly German Naval Officer intervened and ejected him with the aid of his sea-boots but we were then battened down for a few hours.
We arrived in the Bay of Naples and were transferred to a train which remained stationary in the shadow of Vesuvius for the next 12-24 hours. It was New Year’s Day, cold, wet and grey but at least it was a proper train with seats. My companions were Afrikaans-speaking Boer farmers who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of cigarettes and food stolen from the Ankara’s stores. They conversed in Afrikaans and completely ignored my attempts to fraternise and after a couple of hours I gave up and slumped into my corner swallowing my saliva and enjoying second-hand cigarette smoke. Eventually, we moved off to camp in the nearby town of Capua. It was snowing lightly and we were housed in tents in a sea of mud but at least we were given a blanket or two and some food. We were counted endlessly. Going in single file through a gate into an adjoining field we were checked by a number of “tellers.” As they couldn’t agree the total we were counted out again “uno, duo, tre, quattro, cinque, sei-sei?” “Mama Mia!” and back we went again. Halfway through the third count that same squaddie cried, “Maa-aa” and again the chorus started and we all filed through “Maa-aaing” through the gate. The Italians threw down their clipboards and
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settled for Domani. The sound of 2,000 odd British P.O.W’s bleating in a cold, muddy Italian field is one never to be forgotten.
From Capua we moved north over to the Adriatic coast to Campo No 59 at Servigliano near Porto St Georgio, which had previously housed prisoners during the earlier attempted invasion of Greece through Albania. The journey from the port was up a narrow valley in a local train which would serve well in any English theme park. It hurtled around the valley bends, bumping and swaying in an alarming fashion. The camp was not exactly a rest home but at least we had a roof, a bed and regular meals of a sort. One of the first high spots was a shave, the first for 3 months, performed with artistry by a Cypriot barber. It was marvellous. To stroke one’s baby-smooth face afterwards was a near orgasmic experience.
Life began to settle down to a monotonous routine, coffee in bed (to ensure everyone was present), ablutions, roll call, stroll or stride according to preference around the perimeter, cheese and bread issue, two bun-size bread rolls and one and a half ounces of cheese, first ladle of macaroni skilly, siesta, another stroll, another roll call, another ladle of skilly, and evening chats and lectures in individual barracks. One hears and reads much of the tensions of P.O.W. life, tales of oppression and even brutality, but for the majority the reality was much more prosaic. Tension of a kind was always there and rose sharply at the discovery of escape attempts. Harshness and verbal abuse there was, but of deliberate physical ill treatment I saw no evidence; others may have been less lucky. Camps varied of course and like all military organisations the attitude of the chaps at the top was reflected all the way down the line. The man in charge of campo 59 was Colonello Enrico Bacci, a tall, elderly, gangling man with a magnificent nose known inevitably as Mr Punch or Puncinello. For the most part, quite avuncular in manner, his arm language when roused was a wonder to behold and his hand language a miracle of infinite variety and artistry.
As time progressed and the weather improved routine became more varied. Red Cross parcels, the invaluable supplement in variety and quantity to our daily diet, began to dribble through. The issue was intended to be one per man per week but due to the vagaries and different priorities of the enemy transport system, this could never be maintained. Personal parcels, too, began to arrive. Families were allowed to send via the Red Cross one parcel per 3 months containing items of toiletry, underwear, woolly goods, a new pipe, etc and always an additional slab of chocolate by the Red Cross to make the total weight up to 10 lb. Any number of cigarettes, tobacco or games parcels were allowed, ordered through any shopkeeper and packed by the Red Cross. Books arrived in bulk and thanks to the organising body, the Bodleian Library no less, we acquired a very good collection of reading matter. Up until then I had personally only possessed a pocket version of “Omar Khayaan” which I already knew by heart. I still have it. I was able, however, to share a colloquial German grammar containing fairy stories, proverbs and prose passages with the aid of which, assisted by a Polish Sergeant
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from Popski’s Private Army I was able to supplement my schoolboy German. This was to stand me in good stead later. A camp theatre group grew up and a first class choir was formed under a chap named Richard Harris. We had our own Church of England padre and the Catholics were served by daily visits from an elderly Franciscan who had done service with the British troops in India. The rather garishly decorated chapel of the Greeks served impartially as theatre, music-room and place of worship for all denominations. In the summer we had a visit from representatives of the Pope. They brought with them presents, twelve beautifully bound collections of Vatican postage stamps. No P.O.W’s list of life’s necessities would be complete without one. They did, however, bring an accordion. We soon found two excellent but contrasting exponents of the instrument. One was a fellow with the happy knack of being able to doodle and improvise, to pick up a tune out of the air and entertain for hours. He was known as Boogie Burdett. The other, George Miles, was an accomplished musician an All England Bronze Medallist who would play a variety of classical and light classical pieces, having practised for hours to become note perfect. Both remained at the centre of our musical activities for the next 3 years.
Everyone associates P.O.W life with escapes but with most it was not the all-consuming passion often portrayed. Naturally, almost all of us thought up a variety of schemes but few survived the incubation stage. One almost successful attempt was discovered when a wandering soldier, or was it a donkey! , fell through the tunnel which had already reached beyond the perimeter wall. Masterminded by an ex Durham miner, the bed boards used for props had proved inadequate. One attempt from Servigliano was, however, successful. A tunnel, dug through the concrete floor of the hut, reached beyond the walls and surfaced under the elevated floor of the Red Cross parcel hut outside. Those huts with wooden floors on an earth base were searched regularly for traces of digging but concrete ones were considered by the Italians to be beyond our means to penetrate. One night a long file of would-be escapees lined up for the big moment. The first eleven passed through without any difficulty. The twelfth, Chief Petty Officer “Dutch Holland,” a mountain of a man, got stuck. It took almost till daybreak to free him and he was the last to go. All were recaptured in the next few weeks. Their absence was quickly discovered and all hell let loose. We stood for hours to be counted and recounted, not an easy task, as we believed the Italians counted our feet and divided by 2. The odd one-legged man could throw them. This incident gave Enrico Bacci the opportunity for the performance of a lifetime. Posing on a sentry platform above the wall, he produced every gesture in his extensive repertoire with many encores and a few innovations to describe the whole sorry tale to a more Senior Officer who had descended on us, and to bemoan the perfidy of the ungrateful British in their desire to spurn his hospitality. He extracted his revenge by dragging us on parade every 2 hours day and night until the guards were more weary than we were and life slowly returned to normal.
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P.O.W’s in Italy were paid about 10-12 lira a week in special camp money which was deducted via Switzerland from our pay at home. With this, we could buy fresh fruit in season, very reasonably priced. For 1 lira, we could obtain quite a quantity of grapes and there were also peaches, apples, tomatoes and fennel to be had from time to time.
In addition, there was a canteen which sold odd items such as razor blades, matches, cheap “popolari” or “nationale,” cigarettes and for 2 lira a water bottle of rough, local vino. For the extravagant, a week’s pay would purchase a bottle of Masala or two packets of a superior cigarette “Tre Stelle.”
One other outstanding aspect of camp life was the individual cooking arrangements. With the advent of Red Cross parcels, we now had individual supplies of tea, cocoa, tins of bully and Donald Duck’s beef stew, etc. The problem was heating it up. The Cypriot soldiers had a simple solution. They would empty all the contents into one container – beef stew, powdered egg, marmite cubes, creamed rice, apricots and so forth – and spoon the lot. Inevitably, two hours later, they formed a queue at the camp hospital for a stomach pump.
Now began the age of invention, the development of the brewing machine. A variety of food tins, boot laces and odd bits of metal were hammered out and assembled into miniature forced draught blowers with an enclosed fire space, rather like a blacksmith’s forge fire. Interlocking oval pilchard tins which just fitted an Italian mess tin served as a fireplace and large dried milk tins with an inner paddle blade on a central spindle made ideal exhauster-type blowers. Boot eyelets made good bearings, tin lids of varying sizes the pulley gear systems and boot laces the driving belts. With these contraptions, a mess tin of water could be boiled on the equivalent of a box of matches. As time went on, the machines were improved and became more sophisticated and some were quite marvellous models of engineering ingenuity. Fuel, however, was the great problem. A good stove would consume anything with the slightest combustible capability, some with quite noxious and nauseous side effects. But wood was naturally the best. Supplies of odd pieces to be scrounged around the camp soon exhausted. Attention then turned to the largest source of supply available – our beds! These were two tier construction erected in blocks of four. The base of each was made of 4 inch wide slats. By removing one slat and respacing the others, one could obtain a supply of fuel for several days. As time went on the spaces got wider and wider. I remember an Aussie complaining one day “my mates must think I’m a goddamned pigeon,” His bed board had one slat at each end and a knitted nest of string and an old shirt in between. Our hosts naturally resented the destruction of army property and tried various methods of prevention, without success. Eventually, they opted for appeasement and parties of local women were sent out to collect bundles of firewood which were sold to us at the camp gate. Despite the disagreement over fuel, the Italians were fascinated by the brew machines and even old Enrico Bacci was once seen squatting on his haunches turning a blower handle with obvious delight.
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At any other time, a stay in Servigliano would have been heavenly. It was a small, walled village in a beautiful valley. The tops of the surrounding hills were crowned with small villages and many churches. Away at the head of the valley towered the snowy peaks of Monte Priori. Its sharp, white pinnacles always reminded me of the old toothpaste advertisements displaying “Gibbs Ivory Castles.” The evenings were warm and pleasant. Under the dark velvet night skies fireflies darted between the buildings to the never-ending accompaniment of the cicadas in the massive oak tree which dominated the compound.
On two memorable occasions we were taken for a walk up the valley. Smallholdings came right up to the high white walls of our compound and we suddenly realised that ordinary people were living only a few yards from our barrack doors. Outside the small door in the wall, we had to walk down a path past the biggest tomato I have ever seen; its huge, luscious mass supported in a net like an outsize truss, A comely, young peasant girl was coming down the dusty track carrying a basket of chickens on her head, walking barefoot but very gracefully. As we watched her (mentally devoured might be more accurate), she sat down on a wall and, donning a fashionable pair of shoes, hobbled on into the village painfully and awkwardly. A sacrifice of grace to vanity.
From Servigliano we eventually moved to Urbisaglia, [Urbisaglia crossed out in biro and overwritten with Monturano] another village in the next valley, but to us a world away. Campo 57 was much larger and was separated into three compounds, each the size of campo 59. Here, Geoff and I were put into separate compounds. The barracks were larger and loftier and even more bug-ridden. One day I plan to write a manual on parasites and how to identify their type and even sex by their bite. Life there was much the same as before, but on a larger scale. There was a large field for football, rugby and general exercise. Again, as at Servigliano, the boundaries were marked by a narrow strip of no-man’ s-land with the same warning notices in Itanglish, “PASSAGE AND DEMURRAGE NO ALLOWED.” Work it out!
The theatre productions were on a bigger scale and there were two excellent music groups whose instruments were provided by the Red Cross. The leader of one was Freddie Williams who played with Henry Hall. I remember one Sunday afternoon in the bath house listening to Freddie playing “Liebestraum” on a clarinet. He had a lovely touch. During the shambles of September 1943 Freddie was one of those who walked out and I never knew what happened to him after that. At this time I first started my editorial activities. With the aid of a brilliant illustrator from Lancashire, whose name escapes me, I started a wall-newspaper. It was a collection of stories, jokes and news, handwritten, and illustrated with my friend’s cartoons and my own creation, “Maisie,” a sort of dumb blonde, owing much to Pett’s Jane and Peter Arno’s drawings in “Razzle.” Maisie was later brought to life on the camp stage and again in our German theatre. She was played by a young journalist Eric Morley from Nottingham. Eric’s portrayal was sufficiently erotic and convincing to upset many a P.O.W’s dreams. Female impersonators came in various guises and with a variety of effects on both actors and audience. Further
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comment might be considered libellous. They went from comic pantomime-like characters through a Danny La Rue look-alike and Maisie to a dark young R.A.F pilot who was transformed into a very beautiful (and disturbing) young thing in “French Without Tears.”
In September 1943 came the Italian collapse. Pandemonium reigned as the Italian guards slipped away from their posts. A few Officers remained but no guidance was available and no solid news. Many just walked through the gates and into the unknown. Geoff Harmer was one of these, but what happened to Speedy and Bill I cannot recollect. Some, like Geoff, survived, others were never heard of again. With a few friends I wandered into the village. The villagers were distant and somewhat sullen. There were still a few unarmed soldiers around and also Carabinierie, still armed and still obviously hostile. We returned to the camp to try to get some news. In the Italian Command building, we found a radio and searched the air waves for hours trying to get some sort of picture. We learned that the allied forces were still a long way off, that the German forces were still very much in control of Italy and that British P.O.W’s were advised to remain in their camps for mutual protection. With an R.A.F pilot as leader, an attempt was made to take over an Italian transport plane which had previously landed on a nearby field carrying Italian officials from Yugoslavia. This effort was frustrated by a small group of black-shirted Fasciste who held a small blockhouse on the edge of the airfield. They later destroyed the plane during the night and a visit next day found the field deserted but the plane beyond repair.
Returning to our wireless set the next night we again attempted to glean some news. In the middle of the night there came the sound of heavy transport moving nearby. We doused the lights and waited. A little while later, we heard the crunch of heavy boots on gravel, and looking out saw a German sentry pacing up and down a few yards away. After an odd burst of machine gun fire and a few shouts, quiet descended on our part of the camp and we crept unnoticed through a side gate into our compound. At dawn we saw German troops on all the watchtowers, some of whom threw down bunches of grapes in a conciliatory gesture. We were back inside with a vengeance. A day or so later, loaded into goods waggons, we started on a journey north. Via a route from Ancona through Rimini, Bologna, Verona, Bolzano, we arrived one frosty morning at Brenner station on the border. The guards on the train were press ganged Italians under German control. At Brenner we dismounted to be counted, as ever, with the Italian guard lined up at our side. These were swiftly disarmed by the Germans and to a chorus of “Mama-Mia Tedeschi Amici” were loaded into the rear waggons to join us as guests of the German Reich. After a stop at Innsbruck for a brief walk-about, we went via Rosenheim and Munich in the aftermath of an allied raid to a camp at Moosberg, not far from the more infamous camp at Dachau.
We remained there for a few days and made our first contact with Russian prisoners, the lucky ones of whom served everywhere, performing the menial tasks in German camps. The main memories
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of Moosberg are of barrels of beer trundled into the camp and being largely wasted due to hasty attempts at tapping them, and dogs. These dogs were Alsatians or such like which patrolled the camp regularly. It was the habit to fraternise with these dogs and even to give them the odd titbit. During our stay there a notice was posted to the effect that
“IN FUTURE, IT IS FORBIDDEN FOR ANY P.O.W TO FEED OR ASSOCIATE WITH THE GUARD DOGS. THE DOGS HAVE BEEN INFORMED OF THIS.”
The other episode has been published elsewhere and relates to a morning when the Russian camp servants went on strike for more food. Their barrack was surrounded and after many warnings the doors were burst open and the dogs released inside. There ensued a frenzy of barking and confused shouts, followed by a somewhat pregnant silence. Eventually, the doors opened and out were thrown the pelts of the dogs. Whether the Russians had time to cook them I never learned.
From Moosberg we were taken across Austria to a camp beyond Vienna, almost on the Hungarian border. On the way we stopped outside Salzburg. I have had tea brewed in a variety of situations but this was the only time I sampled tea brewed from the blow-down cocks on a steam cylinder courtesy of a friendly train driver. A strange flavour, but even under the circumstances probably more acceptable than Earl Gray.
Stalag 17 (A) was located in the tiny hamlet of Kaisersteinbruch on the hills overlooking the Danube at the north end of the Neusiedler See, the large shallow lake on the Austro-Hungarian border. It was a large camp and with its satellite working camps administered around 60,000 P.O.W’s of all nationalities. The largest population consisted of French, Belgian, Russian and Yugoslavian prisoners, some veterans being there since Dunkirk, but there were at times representatives of most European, African and Indian nations, but we were the first contingent of British to arrive and inevitably caused problems – for both sides.
It was winter, very cold and deep in snow.
The first few months were decidedly rough. Our barracks, normally used for Russians, were large, lofty buildings and the beds, 3-tiered units of continuous sloping boards, housing between 400-500 people. The sole heating was a large cast iron stove at each end and the heat of all those human bodies. The basic food was that grey issue loaf that I had encountered in the desert, a variety of sausage and a skilly made of sugar beet residue (after the extraction of sugar) with the odd potato floating in it.
The French and Belgians established for some three years were well organised and well supplied but not at first helpful. Our true friends were the Yugoslavs, mainly Serbian. They were supported like us by the Red Cross from English sources and at Christmas a few days after our arrival they shared with us their
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very limited stock of Red Cross food parcels, a very noble gesture.
Life soon became more organised. The majority were dispersed for the first time to working camps in a radius of some 40 miles, ranging from timber camps to airfield construction. From the German point of view the latter was a disaster. They could never understand that it was British practice to use picks and shovels as the final reinforcement in concrete. They even suggested it was sabotage. Perish the thought!! They eventually learned not to entrust British prisoners with such highly technical work. A propos of this, I later came into possession of a German document issued for the guidance of those employing P.O.W labour. This compared the effectiveness of various nationalities with the average German worker. The Russians were well up the list at around 70% (they needed the food and couldn’t care less who won the war anyway), the French and Belgians rated about 60%, the Yugoslavs 50% and the ever work-shy British at 30%, lower even than the Italians. Those of more senior rank of course were not obliged to work and together with those engaged in theatre work and other legitimate activities were housed in new barracks with proper beds and even a small cupboard locker for clothes, etc. Apart from helping with the theatre group I started again on a camp magazine, but this time it was produced in printed form in the German Abwehrstellung on a Roneo machine. I was promised the opportunity of access to a press used by the French for their production, but for one reason or another it never came about. To justify my continued residence in the base camp I was given a job in the Briefpost, mail-room, sorting mail for British prisoners. This provided me with many useful contacts. I had left Italy with a large supply of cigarettes and tobacco thanks to the generosity of my family and friends, the Nailsworth P.O.W fund (run by girlfriends) and “The Stroud News,” This, along with soap and chocolate, was a universal currency which purchased me with other things, a daily supply of fresh Vienna rolls, only available outside on a doctor’s prescription. My daily job enabled me to extract mail for those still in the camp before it went to the censor and to intercept much routine military material destined for the German authorities, most of which was not of great importance, but occasionally provided a gem to be passed via my French contacts to outside organisations and allied intelligence. The P.O.W staff of the Briefpost was mixed, mainly French, Belgian and Serbian, with an odd Italian. There, I formed a friendship with a Serbian artist Strahnimer Hrkalovic which only ended with his death in the mid-70’s. He was later well known as an artist in Europe, Australia and America and our relationship is a story of its own.
The German staff consisted of a schoolmaster, Feldwebel Wagner, who refused to acknowledge our existence, Gefreiter Gobi, the entrepreneur and taxi driver who supplied the rolls and other goodies at a price, and Franz Weber. Franz was a short, tubby, pug-nosed Viennese who, at the slightest provocation, would burst into song. He had a magnificent voice of which Tauber would have been proud and in the absence of the Feldwebel would sit with twinkling piggy eyes and a beautiful smile relishing an English cigarette, murmuring “Prima Prima Prima” and then burst into
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“Dein Ist Mein Herzes Gluck” or some Strauss melody.
This vast camp was divided into many compounds spread along the hillside interspersed with walkways and guardrooms and overlooked by the central Komandatura building, the hub of the administration. The Commandant was Oberst von Pamperl, an Officer of the old German military class, a strict disciplinarian but very fair and always very appreciative of good military attitudes. He loved to take the salute on the rare occasions when the British marched out for a walk or to visit the camp cinema. This they did like guardsmen, without a lot of urging, out of cussedness or in a spirit of “we’ll bloody show ‘em” rather than of co-operation. Von Pamperl would stand rigidly at the salute and then smile, murmuring “Prima dizciplinn” and follow up with a letter of congratulations to the British Vertrauensmann, literally “The man of trust,” appointed under the terms of the Geneva Convention and usually the Senior British Officer. Dr. Bobletta once remarked “The French walk around the place as though they own it, the Serbs and Russians as though they were going to own it and the British as though they wouldn’t own it at any price.”
The camp staff and guards were in the main Austrian and elderly or medically unfit, but our main contact with the command was through the Abwehrstellung (Ast) the office of the Abwehrabteilung of the Army Intelligence. Our Go-between was a Tyrolean called Doktor Bobletta. English-speaking, self-interested and cunning, the young Doktor was very helpful and apparently friendly, but quite untrustworthy. I last saw him trying to collect signatures for a letter of recommendation to the Americans, saying what a good friend he had been to the British. His boss, however, was a vicious, unscrupulous German/Pole, Hauptmann Hankeiwicz, who as Security Chief put the fear of the Lord into P.O.W’s and Germans alike. I crossed swords with him once, with almost fatal results. My magazine was prepared in his office where I drew the illustrations on duplicator skins and the script was typed in by a Madame Rose, a pretty young girl from Alsace-Lorraine, my nearest contact with a woman for over two years. There were many girls working in the camp administration but fraternising beyond the contact required by the job was strictly forbidden and difficult even though P.O.W’s were the only fit, young males available and, with our comparative abundance of cigarettes, soap and chocolate, the richest!
One day, the captain burst in and quizzed me furiously about radios and the supply of B.B.C news daily to the German Officers’ Mess. It was one of his pet hates and radio hunts were a regular feature of his routine. True, we had a camp radio or two (the French had dozens and I once saw a raid produce a whole waggon load from their compound) and we did send a B.B.C bulletin to the Casino but this was not new and didn’t justify this sudden personal attack and even threats of firing parties. I played dumb and survived and then realised that the real reason was the suspicion that I was playing fast and loose with Madame Rose who was also his mistress of the moment. Perish the thought!
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However, nothing further happened but I was allowed no further direct contact with the lady.
One other brush with authority also proved almost fatal. The Divisional Political Governor (Gauleiter) for the Vienna area was no less a person than Baldur von Shirach, the blonde godlike leader of the Hitler Jungend, and one of those to get his come-uppence at Nuremburg. One grey, wintry day I was returning with a party from the Paketpost, marching in single file along a flagstone path through a sea of mud and slush. Turning the barrack corner we were confronted by a party of obviously high- ranking Nazi officials, all brown uniforms, swastikas and gold hilted daggers. Our options were: to halt, walk through them, or round them. No-one gave an order and the leading file, a short cockney comic shouted “dahn”t touch it…. Walk rahned it!” The ensuing laughter brought howls of rage from von Schirach, for he it was who was “honouring” us with a visit, with demands that we all be immediately punished, put in “der Bunker and Geschossen.” Guards surrounded us and we were rushed off to an uncertain fate. However, thanks to the intervention of von Pamperl and a glib story that the laughter was the result of a joke being told and nothing to do with the brown-shirted company, we survived.
Escape from this camp was not easy but even if successful the journey from the centre of Europe to anywhere was a daunting prospect. The few who tried it, if not caught, soon gave up. Even that was not always easy. I know of one man who, having surrendered to a local police station in southern Austria, was given his train fare and told to go somewhere else to surrender. Much has been written of the difficulties, dangers and high drama of escapes but these were mainly confined to certain high security camps or those with a hostile Commandant. The official German attitude accepted that it was a soldier’s duty to escape and punishment was comparatively mild – a week in “der Bunker” for a first offence. This is best illustrated by an official notice posted in all camps after the Allied crossing of the Rhine, which read:
“TO ALL BRITISH P.O.W.’S.”
“ESCAPING IS NO LONGER A SPORT AND FUTURE OFFENDERS WILL BE MORE SEVERELY PUNISHED.”
I did, however, contrive to make an expedition or two to the local town Bruck-An-Der Leitha. These were arranged by a friendly Austrian Sergeant-Major in charge of the Paketpost, Feldwebel Mayerhofer. For a consideration he passed a Frenchman, Jean Lecorre and myself out through a side gate and we walked to the little railway station to go into Bruck. On one occasion I particularly remember we joined in the singing of carols with a bunch of children riding on a massive wooden snow plough pulled by a team of horses under a beautiful blue sky through the snow- covered countryside. A very happy memory!
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In town we did a little shopping and visited the home of the local Nazi leader. A typical Austrian businessman, owner of a canning factory and several local shops, he was the biggest local man and when the Nazis came, he became the biggest Nazi, the only alternative to escape, or perhaps worse, with dire results for his large family. By this time, like many of his compatriots, he was beginning to realise on which side his bread was buttered. The French had been in the area for years, many since Dunkirk. They worked in the town and all over the area and had a well-established organisation. Jean and I met many [times] and passed on messages to various groups and even had a “secret” meeting with the local underground organisation in the bedroom of a Polish girl working on a farm nearby. Through Jean and his friends I was invited to join a party in a secret hideaway being prepared for the time when the Russian army reached the area. Meanwhile, life in the camp became more bearable and complex. The theatre group’s productions, mainly musicals, became more ambitious. Thanks to the Red Cross, and German co-operation, the orchestra, now a very competent 11-12 piece group acquired new instruments and the performances became very professional. Towards the end, even a new, complete theatre building was on its way from Sweden, but in fact did not arrive before we needed to vacate.
The Red Cross and Y.M.C.A supplied a new library to supplement the regular supplies of “Mein Kampf” from our hosts. These too served their purpose when broken up and hung on a string in the latrines. The technical books and study courses provided by the Y.M.C.A were first class and it was even possible with their assistance to embark upon a degree course of study. We also received a generous supply of art materials in all mediums and I was able to indulge my own love of painting in oils. Canvases were a bit of a problem but I discovered that old Italian army shirts when treated and stretched made a very adequate painting surface. All this of course had to be shared with our comrades on the working parties spread over a large area, requiring a great deal of liaison work supplemented by the occasional visit. Whilst this kept everyone occupied and mentally alert it did not entirely prevent the odd periods of depression. Despite the encouraging news of allied progress we received daily, one occasionally wondered when it would all end. At such moments of depression I am sure we have all consoled ourselves with the thought that somewhere there are those worse off than ourselves. For myself I would look at the plight of the Russian prisoners, housed in animal-like conditions, fed on the barest rations, unprotected by the Geneva Convention and written off by their countrymen. Their condition was highlighted by their treatment even in death. Some 50-70 yards from our barrack room was an isolated wooden shack. The naked bodies of dead Russians, and there were many, were piled up in this shed. From time to time a lime-filled farm cart would trundle up and the corpses were unceremoniously loaded up for disposal, lord knows where. By contrast, on the rare occasion when a British soldier died there was a proper military funeral always attended by an official German representative.
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Among the Officers responsible for our compound there was an elderly benign Oberleutenant named Auer with whom I occasionally had to deal officially as a part-time interpreter and whom I occasionally accompanied on his walks around the camp. He was a very pleasant old Austrian gentleman, caught up unwillingly in a situation of which he did not approve, but felt powerless to influence, and I enjoyed our informal chats together. Some years later in Godalming I became friendly with a young man who earned his living mending watches for the local jewellers and acquaintances in pubs. His name was Leo Ackroyd. I learned that in fact he was Austrian by birth. On naturalisation he adopted the name Ackroyd as it happened to be that of the current Lord Mayor of London. Leo had been brought out of Austria just before the Anschluss, by the M.P for Westcliff-on-Sea and had spent his boyhood in that gentleman’s home – Box House on Minchinhampton Common. After further talks with him I discovered that his original name was Auer and he was in fact the son of my old acquaintance Oberleutenant Auer in Stalag xvii (A).
Although buried in the centre of Europe, the war had not passed us by. Below us in the valley the main railway line through Austria and Vienna passed via Bratislava to the eastern front. Trains passed continually along this lifeline carrying supplies to the hard-pressed German forces in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They were subject to frequent attacks by US fighter bombers from Italian bases who roared over our camp to drop their bombs below us and close enough to rattle and occasionally shatter our windows. Their drop tanks littered the countryside and “window,” silver foil to counter German radar, festooned every hedge and tree for miles. We had a grandstand view, too, of the mammoth daylight bomber raids on the Vienna area by the US Air Force. Wave after wave of Fortresses passed over us to home in on the big Danube bend at Bratislava and then turn in front of us up the river to Vienna, to be followed in a few minutes by the heavy crump of bombs on the airfields and other targets in the area. It was a great sight to see this mass of tiny silver fish high in the clear blue skies pressing relentlessly on through the puffballs of ack-ack explosions and the occasional attempt at interception by the German Air Force. Fortunately we saw few casualties, although the occasional unlucky American airman was brought into the camp.
German Army Units increasingly passed through the area in a last bid to stem the Russian tide. Some units leaguered up in the camp and village for a while and on one occasion I was able to discuss the Libyan war with some veterans of the 21st Panzer Division. A pleasant interlude when we swapped desert stories amicably and dispassionately. Most would have preferred to be going back to Libya rather than into the cauldron of the eastern front. One memorable night we were awakened by air raid sirens and heard planes, I learned later to be a Pathfinder Force, dropping a line of fires over the camp and way beyond the Danube. They were followed by waves of bombers and some while later we heard the crunch of bombs and the whole northern horizon was lit up by massive flares which reminded me of the times we watched attacks on London whilst on guard duty in New Park Road at
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Cranleigh. This was a massive and highly successful attack on the oil installations at Zistersdorf north of the Danube.
The Russians drew ever nearer and we knew their nearest troops were approaching up the valley of the Leitha towards Wiener- Neustadt to the west of the Neusiedler See and we were in danger of being isolated. The authorities decided it was time to evacuate and set off toward the Allied front in the west. Now was the time to join my French friends in our hideaway already stocked up with food. However, the countryside was swarming with Volksturm (trigger-happy Home Guard) and groups of the notorious Todt Organisation, Nazi labour groups. All the bridges were guarded and it was suicide to venture out unescorted. Our Laager Commander Hauptmann Fuchs refused to provide an escort and advised me and my friend to stay with him and beat it hot foot to the Americans which we were forced to do. It turned out for the best in the end. Our French friends managed to make it and to persuade the Russians they were friendly, but were taken back to Odessa and arrived home some three months later than us. Russian planes began to appear over us and the morning before our departure a Squadron of Stormoviks, their Stuka look-alike, bombed us. The only casualties were in the German guard barracks. Some said the Russians must have known their target but as the huts hit were only 100 yards from us I must confess to being more sceptical.
At last, on the morning of Sunday April 1st we filed out and headed westward. It was Easter and a beautiful sunny day. How much more fortunate we were than our comrades in Poland and Silesia who had set out earlier in dreadful wintry conditions. We straggled out through the little village of Somerheim just as the villagers came out of church and amongst them I glimpsed for the last time a dark curvaceous beauty known as Mitzi Dietrich, who had enlivened the day for many P.O.W’s (and nights?) as she undulated past the Briefpost on her way to and from the Commandant’s office where she worked. Our pace was slow. The P.O.W’s were in the main fit but most of the guards were elderly or unfit and they found the going hard. My little group carried our kit and food store on a truck taken from the Paketpost. For a shot of schnapps every odd kilometre or two we also carried a guard’s kit and his rifle. Their presence now was merely a token and their function was to protect us rather than restrain us. We ambled down to the valley of the Leitha and soon found ourselves on the verge of the battlefield. We spent the night at a farmhouse with the noise of armies on the move all around us. Seated dejectedly on a wall, I spotted the once dreaded figure of Hauptmann Hankiewicz, now a pitiful object surveying his shattered world. His next and last appearance was at the end of a rope in a cherry orchard near Brauman. The French can often be sentimental but not forgiving.
The next day we crossed behind the German front lines but close enough for a two-way traffic of artillery fire to pass over our heads. Our party was many thousand strong and growing all the time with the influx of others from outlying camps whose routes converged on ours. Many of our old friends rejoined us in these first days. That night we carried on and even marched right
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through the middle of a blazing aerodrome. A very vulnerable position. We rested later but soon after dawn we continued on our way. At mid-morning we crossed a broad canal. After the passage of the British contingent the German soldiers on the bridge stopped a large column of Poles behind us and their engineers blew up the bridge. As they did so, a party of Russian tanks swept up to the other side, a bare 100 yards away. Recognising us for what we were, they did not open fire and with much waving of arms we went our separate ways – they up the river valley to the Danube and Vienna, we up the hills into the Vienna woods and on into rural Austria.
The rest of our journey during the next month was comparatively uneventful. Of the war we saw little more, just an occasional flight of aircraft from both sides and once or twice we heard the distant sound of bombing. But for the rest, we meandered slowly, strung out over many miles to the other end of Austria. The weather varied, with alternate sunshine and rain. We slept occasionally in barns but often wet and cold under hedges and in open fields. The Germans found it impossible to maintain an adequate supply of food and we foraged for ourselves among the farms on our route, obtaining a bowl of soup and rye bread here and there and occasionally a glass of must, a rough but potent cider. Such forays were not without danger as there were wandering parties of Volksturm and S.S around. Our trolley soon gave up and we were forced to part with most of our possessions, including my precious paintings. These I nailed to a tree in a cherry orchard one night and often wondered how the farmer explained to his wife why he had a painting of a nude girl stuck up in his cherry trees.
One weekend we stayed for two days on the farm where Doktor Dolfuss, the last Chancellor of independent Austria, was born, in a little hamlet called Texin. A friend and I stretched out all day in the sun on a nearby farm with a very friendly farmer who supplied us with a good soup, a generous supply of moust and even offered some home-grown tobacco which I graciously declined, still having a plentiful supply of English. The Austrians we met now had a much changed attitude. Although a little fearful of their reception they suddenly began to recall how wonderful life had been before the Anschluss, when the country swarmed with English visitors and everyone expressed great admiration for the Duke of Windsor, who of course spent his honeymoon in their midst. Our attitude too changed. We no longer begged or bartered for food but demanded or requisitioned it. A farmer would be presented with a receipt for a chicken or a dozen eggs signed with one’s name, rank and number and told to present it to the Americans for payment when they arrived. If the Russians arrived first, that would be his hard luck, I did hear that many of these chitties were in fact honoured by the occupying powers.
Our route wandered through Modling, St Polten, Scheibbs, Waidhofen, Steyr and Gmunden on the TfaunSee to Vocklabruck and finally Neukirchen, a tiny village a mile or so outside of all places, Braunau. What a place to end the war. Hitler’s birthplace!
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All in all, it was a pleasant enough journey. In better times one would spend good money on a walking tour through some of the loveliest scenery in Austria, although one would expect somewhat improved accommodation. Neukirchen was only a few miles from the river Isar and we could hear the sounds of the battle for the river crossing quite distinctly. During the next day or two straggling bands of Germans passed through trying to escape to the south. One small group of very young teenage lads were very indignant. They had been captured by the Americans, told they were too young to be P.O.W’s and sent packing with a bar of chocolate, an insult to their manhood!
The presence of these bands, however, made our foraging trips more hazardous. They were still armed and some might still be spitefully inclined. One morning, going up the hill to a small pub, a friend and I walked into a farmhouse built on a level piece of the hillside. All the local farms were of the same pattern, built in a square round a midden heap with the kitchen on the right of the arched entrance. We walked boldly in and threw open the kitchen door to be confronted by about a dozen S.S men slurping soup! After a moment of frozen mutual surprise we slammed the door, hared across the terrace and threw ourselves headlong down the hill, rolling through the scrub as the first shots rang out. Fortunately, their position was too uncertain to justify further pursuit and we escaped, but it was a salutary warning. That day, the village was disturbed by a fast moving motorcade with a large motor cycle escort. It was, we learned. General Goering himself, making his last dash to Berchtesgaden. A few days later we passed him again in Augsberg. This time he was sitting in a cage in the sun, himself a P.O.W. His famous armour-plated Mercedes I next saw again on exhibition in Puttocks Garage in Guildford.
The actual formal end to our captivity was rather an anti-climax. An American jeep drove into our farm, a couple of G.I’s stepped out to shake hands all round, the guards came out of the kitchen, threw their arms in a pile, murmuring “Gott sei Dank!” (thank God) and shambled off to captivity. A Jock Liaison Officer resplendent in a kilt arrived next and told us that transport would be arranged as soon as possible. I had by then been reunited with my Serbian friend Sacha and we decided to visit Braunau, now in American hands. We purloined a V.W Beetle but couldn’t find any petrol. Rather inexpertly I started to harness a reluctant horse and hook it to a sort of jogging cart. Sacha the artist was even more inept than I was and the horse didn’t speak English, so progress was slow. Eventually, the reluctant Austrian owner, perhaps out of consideration for his animal, condescended to help and we set off for Braumao. We found the house where Hitler was born, inscribed in bold letters “Hier ist Hitler’s Gebortsort” and further decorated with gems of G.I wit. A large black American soldier was sitting in one window, his feet on the window sill, smoking a fat cigar. It was a sight which gave me a lot of satisfaction and helped to make years of “toil and danger” worthwhile. After a few beers and a cigar or two we started back. Sacha decided he would like to drive. The horse had by now learned to cope with my driving English but the transition to Serbian was too much for it and we soon found
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ourselves up-ended in the ditch. We gave up, cut the horse loose and started to walk. The horse apparently knew his own way and trotted confidently back towards home.
We heard the formal announcement at the end of the war on a radio in a barn with Churchill’s accompanying speech and a mere ten days later I walked in home at Nailsworth.
The interval was not without incident. We were driven in American lorries at breakneck speed in clouds of dust across Bavaria to Ulm. We passed through the bombed ruins of Munich at night. It was an eerie place, dark, gloomy and with the stench of drains and death. At Ulm we were quartered in the ancient castle above the flattened town, mainly a pile of rubble surrounding the miraculously intact cathedral. We were bathed, smothered in DDT and given a new uniform. This ritual was repeated twice again at succeeding stages on our journey home. We must have been the cleanest, parasite-free soldiers in the British army and probably the best dressed. The next day was my birthday and we set off to celebrate. In town we met a G.I attended by a German civilian pulling a hand cart loaded with wine. We sat on a window sill in the sun and drank a bottle or two. In town we found an intact pub still serving beer and started to celebrate. Returning to the castle at night we were confronted outside a garage by a G.I with a pistol inviting us to have a drink. Inside a barrel of wine was standing on the work bench and seated on the floor were four or five Americans, each sucking wine through a rubber tube inserted in the top of the cask. We were given a tube each and told to drink at the end of the gun. For the next hour or two we dozed and drank alternately. At intervals one of the Yanks, a big Texan, would struggle to his feet, a gun in each hand, and fire shots through the roof, proclaiming that he was the best top sergeant in the whole goddamned army. Eventually, we struggled out and the big Texan sergeant took us to his billets where he cooked eggs and bacon and coffee and about 3-4 o’clock we staggered into bed. What a birthday! Two hours later at 6 o’clock we were awakened and told we were on the move again. At that moment I would have exchanged another year in the camps for a few hours sleep. We were taken by truck to a local airfield and put on board a flight of Dakotas for transport to Brussels. We sat on the bare floor of the aircraft. The engines were going brmm-brmm-brmm and my head was going brmm-brmm-brmm in unison and although flying almost wing tip to wing tip with others the pilot sat with his feet up reading a comic. Death in one form or another seemed imminent and almost welcome.
Once in Brussels we were taken over by the Canadians, again showered in pesticide and given a new uniform. After all, mine was at least 3 days old. The well-meaning Canadians then made a grave error of judgment. After feeding us quite magnificently they gave us a fistful of money (unsigned for) and told us to report back by 8 o’clock the next morning. I still have no recollection of that night and my next conscious memory is of sitting in the astrodome of a Lancaster Bomber, a sort of inverted fish bowl, stuck on top of the fuselage as an afterthought. The familiar brmm-brmm-brmm had started again but strangely muted in this little bubble world which I at first
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assumed was my transport to a fleecy cloud where I would face eternity, harp in hand, and where, “little black cherubs do celestial chores” according to Dorothy Thompson. When I could at last face the sunlight I looked out onto the sparkling waters of the Channel and the white cliffs of Dover. Travelling over the lanes of Kent I realised the full truth of J. K. Chesterton’s line, “The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.”
We landed in Oxfordshire to be greeted on the tarmac by a flurry of nurses with chocolate, cigarettes and an abundance of kisses. Back to earth and in the hangar it was time for the old DDT routine. Long nozzles were poked down the back of our necks, up our sleeves and trouser legs, searching out spots no respectable louse could possibly wish to inhabit. We went to a camp at Great Missenden and loads of free beer and other comforts in the local pubs. After yet another change of uniform we were debriefed, paid and packed off home for three months’ leave and only ten days out from meeting our first Yank in Neukirchen. Not bad!
Upon reflection this account seems a little “cosy” and perhaps more enjoyable than it really was but put it down to the effect of time and the mind’s ability to block out the rougher bits. By the same token, any mistakes in names and events should be blamed on failing memory but any libellous allusions are entirely intentional.
[Photograph and caption]: Cruiser tank at Cranleigh, Surrey, 1941
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”H” SQUADRON ROYAL GLOUCESTERSHIRE HUSSARS: FROM JUNE 1942 TILL DECEMBER 1942
BY JEREMY TAYLOR
Knightsbridge and Gazala
On June the 4th 1942 I was called from the echelon to take over command of “H” Squadron from Major White. This date is memorable not only to Old Etonians but also to all members of the Regiment at that particular time on account of the fact that we gave up our remaining Cruiser tanks and were handed over a complement of Honeys which were more remarkable for their age than for their efficiency. However, nothing daunted we spent two days getting them as battleworthy as possible and taking them forward to our forming up position for the Sidi Mauftah battle.
This much vaunted attack preceded by artillery softening up and local attack by infantry proved to be not only ill conceived by Higher Command but also expensive to our Regiment.
“H” Squadron then had myself and Capt. Maunsel in Squadron Headquarters; 1st Troop commanded by John Eckersley, 2nd Troop by Sgt A’Bear, 3rd Troop by Pat Crawford and 4th Troop by Stuart Jones. We formed up on the left in the usual desert formation and about first light moved forward into a practically impenetrable cloud of dust, machine gun bullets and bursting shells. It was quite impossible not only to locate the enemy but even to keep visual touch with one’s own troops. After milling around for a bit wondering what was going to happen next and seeing nothing to shoot at, the offside track of my tank was shot off. As we bailed out to change tanks Mizon my driver was hit in the knee by a piece of shrapnel and Godfrey was shot through the head climbing out of the turret. Fortunately, Bob Maunsel, feeling that something was wrong, came across from his particular hole in the desert, dismounted and helped to gather us onto his tank. He dropped me off onto another tank and took the rest of my crew back to the echelon who were about a mile behind. All this while there was very little of effective battle going on and, as the Regiment had moved further round to the north, the Squadron pulled out and we reformed nearer the 4th C.L.Y. on the right. Here we sorted ourselves out and I got a new crew and a new tank but regretfully found I had bailed out without my unopened bottle of VAT 69. That night we moved with the Regiment back through the minefield and took up a position facing south. Early next morning a line of Boche guns and tanks appeared about 3,000 yards away from us and started business in no uncertain terms. We had two or three tanks ‘brewed up’ pretty quickly but with our 37 mm guns were in no position to reply effectively.
The Regiment then moved round by Bir Beliefa to take up a position on the right of and in touch with the 4th Armoured Brigade who had come up on our left. It was while moving across to this position with the Squadron that I saw the Colonel’s tank stationary and by itself under Bir Beliefa. I saw a figure waving on the ground and went alongside them with my tank. Here
[End of story]