Private Geoffrey Morgan
Unit : "C" Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 14416066
Geoffrey Morgan joined the 2nd Battalion in 1942, and served with them throughout the campaign in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. The following is his account of Arnhem and his subsequent life as a Prisoner of War:
The whole Brigade was re-formed and based in the Grantham area. It was here that Major Dickie Dover was appointed to command C Company with Dickie Morton as 2nd in command. Between February and August we were put on alert for a number of possible operational drops into Europe which never materialised until September 17th 1944 when we set off for Arnhem - the Battle, code named "MARKET GARDEN"
Here I quote from the final official briefing held at Montgomery's Head Quarters on 10th September 1944 - "On the narrow corridor that would carry the armoured drive, there were 5 bridges to take, they had to be seized intact by airborne assault" It was the 5th, the crucial bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem, 64 miles behind the German lines that worried Lt Gen Browning, the deputy commander of the 1st Allied Airborne Army. Pointing at the Arnhem Bridge on the map he asked - "how long will it take the armour to reach us?" Monty briskly replied "2 days". Browning said "We can hold it for 4" and added " but Sir, I think we might be going a Bridge too far……" How prophetic!
However on Sunday the 17th September 1944 this massive Airborne assault started. Some of you will no doubt recall that day as you looked up into the clear blue sky and saw hundreds of Dakotas, some towing gliders as the air armada crossed over our coast on its way to what proved to be an "intelligence blunder", to put it mildly. Much has been written about Arnhem and I will not go into the whys and wherefores suffice it to say that my own "C" Company which had a compliment of approaching 150 lost over 100 men. From the moment we hit the deck it was chaos and incidentally I thought that the film "A Bridge Too Far" was not a bad portrayal of events although the "fact" was more bloody. "C" company's objectives were first to take the rail bridge at Arnhem, which incidentally was blown up as we approached it, and then to take the Gestapo Head Quarters.
I'll not go into the next few days of my life. After 42 years you might think the mind would dim but the days from drop to capture have been indelibly etched into my life in the most detailed way and I would try and give you a picture of the 24 hours before I was taken prisoner. It was during the fight to take out the Gestapo Head Quarters in Utrechtsweg, Oosterbeek where we had been fighting from house to house and burning them as we left as we were forced out by German fire, that it had really become a matter of survival and my section, eight of us had broken into a house that evening and we had started to consider surrender. It's a difficult topic and there comes a time when pride has to be swallowed if you do not wish for certain death. We were tired hungry and out of ammunition and we decided if at all possible next morning we would surrender. Here again we had to accept that they might not take us prisoners
You must realise there was continuous machine gun fire, the houses were ablaze and there was the continuous hum of Tiger tanks. Dawn came and we were in the basement and there was quite some activity in the street above. There was a grating which gave us light and air. The immediate question was how do you surrender.
Had any of us got a white handkerchief or anything white. Corporal Barnett felt in his pocket and pulled out a rather dirty looking piece of rag, handed it to Captain Marchin/Morton who proceeded to tie it on to a broken bamboo cane which he then poked through the grating. To our horror a burst of machine gun fire blew it to smithereens and the next thing we knew was a hand-grenade rattled through the grating. With fantastic presence of mind Sgt/Cpl Buchanan/Barnett grabbed it and threw it through a door in the basement out into the back garden where it exploded within seconds.
This was surely the end - No prisoners were being taken. At the time I jotted some notes down of our thoughts - Will our luck hold out; Mates are dying one by one; severed limbs; blown to pieces; minds are slipping; 8 of us no more than 22 years old; we've seen so much for men so young; we've been together through violent times in the desert, on the beaches; now like brothers, like foxes we're trapped and the baying hounds are at our throats; not one of us will let the other down; is this the end. We have done our best, our lives were not lost in vain - but why so young.
I wrote a note on a scrap of paper which simply said " If by chance this scrap of paper comes to light pass it to my mother - Maybe Mother, Dad would at last be proud of his wayward Son - 25th September 1944"
I look across at Geordie Erby, Ginger Loney, Pop Stoksey, Dinger Bell, Irish Barry, Mac Jackson and Warsaw Barnett I read their minds; would we be burnt alive. Surrender is in no-ones vocabulary.
Minutes later reality took over - we heard the urgent yelling "Rous Rous" which meant come out. What a terrifying moment, as we climbed the steps out on to the pavement, hands up, looking down the barrels of two German machine guns. We are frisked and shoved into the back of a tracked vehicle. Whisked away for interrogation. Our war had surely ended but we were not going to be shot. We were herded into cattle trucks to go to we knew not where. 40 of us in one truck with a couple of bundles of straw and not to be let out for 3 days.
It was now that we had a chilling experience when after a long wait in the station, night was falling when we felt a terrific impact from behind and we started to move. We seamed to be going for ages and increasing speed - it was now dark. We were on a downward incline when with a crash we came to a shuddering halt - absolute silence complete darkness 40 bodies all over the truck.
Somebody said after peering through the bars, that we seamed to be in some large rail sidings. Then within minutes we heard the heavy drone of aircraft overhead and suddenly bombs started to explode all around. Dawn broke and we were miraculously unscathed. It transpired that we were in the centre of the German steel industry at Essen during one of the biggest raids by an armada of British and American planes. Later that day we were herded into other trucks and we were now on our way to a POW camp.
We ended up at Stalag 11B at Fallingbostel, rather a bedraggled, tired and depressed bunch of fellows to start a period of captivity
Perhaps I should give you some idea of the layout of the camp. There were over 9000 in the camp men of all nationalities.
Life in the camp to start with was comparatively quiet after 3 years spent nearly totally in the front line. The routine became monotonous. Dysentery was rife and although we received red cross parcels, food was scarce. Continual roll calls and the worst thing of all was the death and burial of fellow POWs. We used to have to try and make up an orange box type of coffin and flanked by guards a bearer party would go through the camp gates to an area set aside for these burials. We had a bugler and he was allowed to sound the last post and I can tell you I found this distressing when I realised here we were burying a comrade whose relatives were not even aware of their loved ones death in a far off prison camp - it seamed so hard.
Then came the opportunity to move to another camp, Stalag 357 not very far from Stalag 11b. It came because volunteers were wanted at 357 to perform menial tasks including the chipping of mortar from bricks taken from buildings that had suffered bomb damage. About 20 of us volunteered and with something to occupy our minds life seamed more amenable.
One evening however I was having a chat with a fellow from the 1st Parachute Battalion by the name of Frank Eccles when he asked me if I had ever considered escaping. Indeed I had not and I felt that I was reasonably safe, but didn't of course know what the outcome of the war was going to be especially after the Arnhem debacle. And being fit agreed we would chat about it further and formulate a plan.
Any plan had to be put before the "man of confidence" who in a prison camp was usually the senior ranked NCO who liased between the POWs and the Germans and he had to be totally satisfied that any escape would in no way endanger any of the prisoners in the camp. We had in fact considered a straight escape over the wires at night but considered it too dangerous because the wires were pretty daunting and there were too many German observation posts filled with searchlights.
One of the other tasks we had volunteered for was the emptying of sewage from the pits at the end of each Nissen hut into a cart known as a "Coffin". The procedure was we filled this coffin and accompanied by numerous guards would pull it through the main gates out of the fire lager and empty it in a pit several 100 yards away. For several days before the planned escape we would, on the last trip leave the coffin full of sewage at the head of the pit. The escape plan was, that on the last trip one evening our mates, there were 8 of us on the job, would distract the guards while Frank and I climbed into the coffin one at each end and the mates would proceed to fill it with sewage.
In the camp there were of course many different tradesmen and before the appointed day we would get the camp tailor to make us a couple of waterproof bags out of old army capes. We were then to be pulled through the main gates to the pit, await night fall, get out and so start our escape. We put the plan to the M of C a man called Dixie Den and he approved.
All went well as we were bundled through the main gates, but we were soon to hit a real snag. Just as we passed the gate the air raid siren sounded and our mates pulling the coffin were ordered back to their huts inside the camp. What this meant was that it was still daylight and we were now left in our stinking conveyance between the outside of the main gates and the gates of the fire lager. For three hours we awaited night fall and when it came we were to put it mildly, high on smell and low in spirits. Frank had sustained a small knee injury in North Africa and as we climbed out of the coffin he found it difficult to straighten from the 3-hour crouched position. In fact he was depressed and although physically he was of far greater stature than myself I had to bolster him with words of encouragement. The problem now was to get out of the fire lager which was bounded by a strong wire fence similar to that which surrounded the actual camp area. This was to prove a major difficulty and could well have scuppered the whole escapade. We waited for the air raid siren to go which meant that all the camp searchlights were extinguished. Frank then climbed over the wire, the rolls of wire and the outer wire successfully and I started to do the same but as I was climbing the last outer wire, the all clear siren went and the searchlights re-appeared. I was at the top of the wire and the searchlight beamed round and I was caught in its rays, should I jump or if I stayed motionless would I not be a sitting target. Luck was with me, I hung there, the light moved away and I flopped to the ground. We immediately ran to the cover of the nearby woods. The moon shone through the trees as we sorted ourselves out. Our plan had been to pose as Belgian POWs who incidentally worked on farms in Germany, and this was helped by our previous issue of long Belgian Greatcoats and forage caps in the camp. Incidentally we had no contact with the resistance movement. When we were in the woods we changed our clothes and buried the dirty ones. Now reasonably cleaned up I looked at the escape compass (2 trouser buttons) and we set off in the correct direction. There were however two further incidents that night which we could well have done without in that I wanted to get as far away as we could from the camp. We could not afford to be near the confines when dawn broke and there were about 10 hours before this time. Firstly we came to a clearing with a lake, the night was quiet and it was warm for the time of year, and to our amazement we saw in the moonlight two figures swimming and there on the lakeside were the uniforms of two prison guards. In a moment of thoughtfulness Frank suggested we nick them and might use them. I could cot contemplate a more stupid idea and I dragged him away under cover. There was little doubt he was scared but he realised the folly of his suggestion. The second incident occurred when we tumbled on a railway line and could hear what proved to be a goods train labouring very slowly. Frank suggested we could jump on to it because it must be going up to the front line. Wrong again, my compass and notes said it was going back into the heart of Germany. So that idea was dropped.
But we were now on our way and we hoped that our plans for stand ins on the several daily roll calls within the camp would work. In fact we found out afterwards that we were successfully covered for about six days, and of course by this time we were well away.
For the first 8 weeks we travelled by day as Belgian POWs, working on the land. This was the time where my knowledge of French came in very useful because we would approach the workers, I might say with great trepidation sometimes, for information and food.. I vividly remember being given a couple of food dockets and some German money, being told of the whereabouts of the village shop, and next day standing in a queue for two black bread loves. In the country turnips, eggs and potatoes were available and we probably did better for food away from the camp than we did inside.
There were of course many incidents, I remember walking down this country lane and could hear the unmistakable sound of marching feet and the typical singing of German troops on the march. I said to Frank just keep going and as we got abreast of them the officer gave a heil Hitler salute and we responded likewise. This event however brought the word "collaboration" into my head, and from then on I was loathe to approach workers as I became doubtful of the possibilities of someone shopping us.
We were going through a forest when suddenly there was a burst of machine gun fire followed by yelling we fell into a ditch and just lay there. I suppose the commotion was a hundred yards away from us. The shooting went on for about half an hour and then there was silence. We lay there till dusk and next day when we spoke to a Frenchman it transpired we had been in the middle of manoeuvres.
All was going well however we were on course. We could hear the sound of heavy gunfire and realised we were not far from our goal, the Dortmund Emms Canal which if we could traverse would bring us to friendly territory
We decided now we could only make progress at night. It was too dangerous in daylight. We reached the canal one night and we had the most remarkable piece of luck. When we came across a waterlogged rowing boat. It was too much to expect that any oars would be with it and we were right. With some considerable effort we dragged the boat onto a small reed bank. We tipped it over and got most of the water and sludge out and could not see any holes or splits. We then put it back in the water and it floated well with only a little seepage. It was however too late to make the crossing that night especially as we had nothing to act as oars so we pulled it out again and prepared to stay under cover and the following day to make the crossing on the following night. We moved back from the canal to a dilapidated barn which we had passed a few hours previously. We climbed up into the top of the barn where there were bundles of dirty straw and made ourselves comfortable preparing to spend the last daylight hours before a hoped for successful return to the allied lines.
We chatted occasionally nodding off. We listened to the drone of aircraft on their daily daylight raids. They sounded so heavy. Through a gap in the roof sheeting the sun's rays filtered. Then we heard the sound of an aircraft in trouble. We looked out and saw at quite a height smoke pouring from a flying fortress and underneath half a dozen billowing parachutes. The fortress then seamed to stall turned on its side and crashed down like a ball of fire hitting the ground with a terrific explosion. The parachutes followed and we relaxed again. Little did we realise what was going to happen in the next 20 minutes.
The Germans had seen the crash and sent out a unit to round up those that had bailed out and as luck would have it the barn we were in was virtually the centre of their round up operation. We heard the sound of approaching footsteps and quickly covered ourselves with the straw. Before we knew it two had climbed up into the loft and were prodding around with their bayonets. A bayonet caught Frank in the foot. It was all up we immediately got to our feet pulled out our POW Bakelite identity discs and hoped our end was not nigh. We were bundled down the ladder and into the open. With the other Germans were two of the rounded up Americans. We were able to speak to the Americans and only four of their crew had apparently been captured. They were quite upset that their mishap had been the cause of our re-capture.
We were taken to Sulingen interrogated and confirmation was received that we were in fact two prisoners who had escaped from Stalag 357. We spent the next 3 days in the civilian goal at Sulingen and we were then told we were to be collected and returned to the camp. That day four prison guards arrived one of whom spoke good English. We were handcuffed and taken down to the Station, when in the train the guards commandeered a compartment moving the two occupants out. They were quite hesitant in our request to have the handcuffs removed but seamed reasonably happy to do so after persuading them there was no way we would try and make our get away after all we had been through.
The train journey was uneventful until we had to change at Hanover station. Prior to our arrival there had been quite a heavy air raid in the town and the station was packed with people sheltering from the raid. As we were hustled through the crowds we were jostled, kicked and spat at and we were glad to get into the connecting train
We arrived back in the camp eight weeks after our successful get away and were immediately put in solitary confinement. Next day we were taken before the commandant who was only interested in finding out how we had escaped from 357 and we assumed he had had a rocket from his superiors. Frank and I had of course previously planned that we would only say that we had climbed the wires so as not to implicate any of our mates. The commandant did not believe this and we had to go outside the perimeter with an armed guard and point out the actual spot we had scaled the wire. A pretty violent scene followed in that as soon as we started round the perimeter prisoners within started to clap and cheer. This upset the commandant who ordered the guards to fire over the tops of the huts. All prisoners were ordered back into the huts and we continued round the camp. I kept a look out for a possible place in the fence that was scalable and eventually pointed out a spot between two look out posts. The commandant did not believe me and I offered to demonstrate. You will realise that after weeks of living rough our hands were dirty and callused, our clothes disheveled . I then demonstrated the scaling of the wires and as luck would have it I made a reasonably good job of it.
It was then back to the cells after being sentenced to 6 weeks solitary confinement and the saddest part of the escape. As I lay in solitary confinement these thoughts came to me and I scribbled down these words " In the cell 8ft by 5ft, there's time to think and not much more - Through it all I can't believe I'm still here - no scars other than in the mind - no more will I see the twisted bodies of comrades fallen, no more the cries of injured mates - nor the crack of rifle - nor the clank of armoured tracks - no more in Stalag will the last post sound as we lay to rest a buddy - its all over - I'm too young to think sad thoughts - 2 Para taught me all - out of the terrible darkness comes the dawn - with the dawn the sun - from now on it must be better. And so it was, life since has been kind but September 17th is stark and I must remember.
Frank and I were in separate cells and I never saw him again. He had been behaving rather oddly during the latter part of the escape and one of the camp guards told me he had been taken to the hospital at Fallingbostel. At the end of four weeks I was sent back to the original Stalag 11B and was to stay there until release by the allies a couple of months later. Release time was chaotic with Russians Belgians French Poles etc all doing their own thing. Some looting the town for food and drink. Remember many had been confined for years.
When I returned to this country I made inquiries and it seamed that Frank had died in hospital, but to me this has always remained a mystery. The only real blot in a once in a lifetime experience.
Geoffrey Morgan died in August 2001, aged 79.
My thanks to Peter Morgan for this story. Peter wishes to hear from anyone who knew his uncle, Geoffrey Morgan. If you can help, see Veterans Ads for more details.
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