Staff-Sergeant John Oliver McGeough
Unit : No.6 Flight, "C" Squadron, No.2 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 6030074
John McGeough was born in Dublin on the 11th June 1923.
It has always been my ambition to be a soldier. At school - the Christian Brothers, North Brunswick Street, Dublin - my mind was not always on my lessons, although I was always particularly interested in the Irish Language, but rather on a picture which hung on the classroom wall. This depicted Irish soldiers in the service of France in the mid 18th century - dressed in their green uniforms fighting the British. I still remember the caption on the picture:-
On far foreign battlefields from Dunkirk to Belgrade
Lie the soldiers and chiefs of the Irish Brigade
And Fontenoy and Fontenoy had been a Waterloo
If it were not for those Irish soldiers there brave, valiant and true.
The picture and caption fired my imagination and I was determined to sit the civil service examination, when I was old enough, in order to obtain entry to the military academy for training as an officer cadet in the Irish Army - "Ovglaig na Heireann". My ambition was known to my family although actively discouraged by my paternal grandmother who often urged me to take a nice job as a bank clerk instead. However, due to family circumstances I was not able to complete my education and we moved to Birmingham in the summer of 1939. I was then 16 years old. Sometime after the outbreak of war in September 1939 the government decided to form a home defence force in case the country was invaded by the Germans. At that time this was a strong possibility. The force was named the Local Defence Volunteers - later on it was to become known as the Home Guard. I joined at Piddock Road Police Station, Smethwick and proudly donned the denim uniform with the LDV armband on the left arm and the cap badge of the South Staffordshire Regiment.
My determination to join the regular army was becoming greater and at the end of December 1940 at the age of 17 1/2 years. I went to the recruiting office at the Blue Gates Hotel, High Street,' Smethwick to enlist. I told the recruiting officer that I was 18 1/2 years old so that I would not be rejected on grounds of age. I was most anxious to join an Irish regiment and asked to enlist in the Royal Ulster Rifles, Royal Irish Fusiliers or Ennis killing Fusiliers. After consulting some papers which were on the desk in front of him the recruiting sergeant told me that the regiments I had mentioned were up to strength but that he could enlist me in the Essex Regiment then stationed near Southend-on-Sea. In retrospect it is obvious to me that I was conned by the sergeant - he had most probably been told to fill vacancies in the Essex and that if I had persisted it would have been possible to join an Irish unit. So it was the Essex for me. Not being very worldly wise at that time I did not consider any other branch of the army like the Royal Armoured Corps, R.A.S.C., Signals, etc. I was fated to be an infantry-man and I'm glad I did because I enjoyed the training so much.
I was posted to the 70th Btn. The Essex Regiment in January, 1941 and was provided with a rail warrant to Upminster where 'D' company were billeted in a school hall. Most of my fellow recruits were Londoners - sharp, confident, and very worldly wise. I soon learned all about life and surviving in the army from them. In a short while though I knew I had good comrades and so they remained for the rest of my time with them. It was at this time also that I began to be known as Paddy (as all Irish-men in the army) and this was my name for the rest of my service career. The training we received was first class - all aspects of the role of the infantry-man was covered - drill, weapon training, route marches, attack and defence drill, night exercise, camouflage and most important - regimental history. Although I was Irish I was so proud to be a member of the Essex Regt. and to wear the Gibraltar Castle Badge on my cap. Our battalion was designated as one for young soldiers and on completion of training 'D' Coy was posted to R.A.F. station Hornchurch (Essex). Our particular role there was aerodrome defence against possible airborne attack and defensive positions were dug and manned all around the perimeter of the airfield. This was rather ironic in that I later became a member of airborne forces and knew what kind of measures the enemy would employ to counteract any attack that we would make upon them.
By this time I had been promoted to the rank of acting unpaid Lance Corporal. I presume this must have been a testing period because I eventually became a full Lance Corporal. By July 1942 I had been promoted to Corporal and was in charge of a 3" mortar crew. Around this time I attended these courses - a P.T. course at Cherry Tree Camp, Colchester, a snipers course at Gorleston near Great Yarmouth and a junior N.C.O.'s course at Stainborough Castle, near Barnsley. At the conclusion of the latter I was recommended for a commission - much to my surprise. On return to my unit I was interviewed by my C.O. Lt/Colonel R.A. Chell., D.S.O., M.C. and Bar, but he evidently concluded that my background and education did not warrant him sending me to officer Cadet School.
In the summer of 1942 a call was made throughout the army for volunteers for the airborne Forces. The call was for parachutists, gliderborne troops and "a limited number of men for training as glider pilots". At the same time men were wanted for the Reconnaissance corps at Long Melford in Suffolk. I was very taken by the idea of being in the airborne forces and I volunteered for glider pilot training. Why glider pilot? I honestly do no know why as I never had any particular desire to fly and my knowledge of aircraft was limited to silhouettes which were used in aircraft recognition training. My company commander and sergeant major tried to dissuade me from leaving the Essex Regt. It was obvious, they did not want to loose one of their N.C.O's - if they had raised no objection it meant that I was not an asset to the regiment so I felt pleased that they wanted me to stay. However, my mind was made up and after a short while I was sent to R.A.F. station Cardington in Bedfordshire for some days to undergo educational, physical, psychological and moral fitness tests for the role of glider pilot. Failure rate at this early stage was probably as much as 25%. I am pleased to say that I was accepted for training - much to the chagrin of my sergeant major. A short time later I was en route to Tilshead camp on Salisbury plain - it being the reception camp for trainee glider pilots. In order to enhance the reputation of the Essex Regt. I arrived about 9pm at Tilshead with all my webbing equipping blancoed a light green colour. I was told there and then that it was the incorrect colour for the glider pilot regt. and that it better be the approved colour before morning parade. So after a long and tiring journey and before getting my food I had to set to and change the colour of my equipment. My reaction to this instruction was noted as were my reactions to all other instructions during my time there - this being a form of character assessment. As glider pilots were expected to fight individually as infantry or collectively as a combat unit all facets of infantry skills were taught at Tilshead. I did not find this difficult due to my previous experience but volunteers from the non-infantry arms of the army had great adjustments to make. Drill instructors strictly enforced the parade ground standards of the Brigade of Guards and glider pilots were, in consequence the peers amongst war time flyers for bearing and turn out. The regime at Tilshead was very hard - every moment of the day was occupied in demanding physical and mental tasks which proved too much for many of the volunteers and every day men were being R.T.U - returned to unit due to not being up to the standard required. I was determined that this should not happen to me - I was an Irishman and ex-Essex Regt. and no way was I going to let my country or regiment down. So I persevered - each day was a challenge with increasingly demanding tasks to be carried out and increasing satisfaction gained when they were accomplished. Some instruction was also given in elementary flying knowledge although up to this stage we had not seen any gliders. After several weeks at Tilshead the course was successfully completed and I was very proud to be awarded the red beret - the symbol of the airborne forces - together with the army air corps badge.
In August 1942 I was posted to No 16 Elementary Flying Training School at Burneston near Derby - not a glider in sight on the aerodrome but a number of Tiger Moth and Magister single engine trainers. My great day came on September 17th 1942 when I went solo. I was graded "average" as a pilot as indeed were most of the course. Having completed the course at Shobdon on 6th April, 1943 I reported to no 1 HGCU (Heavy Glider Conversion Unit) at R.A.F. Brize Norton near Witney in Oxfordshire. Here glider pilots were introduced to operational gliders - the Horsa - which was the mainstay of the gliderborne troops. Its wing span was 88 ft and it could carry 26 troops and their equipment. It was towed by albermarle or Whitley tugs and communication between tug pilot and glider pilot was by radio or telephone line using the tow rope. As one can imagine this proved very useful if the glider was out of position - the tug pilot could make his feelings known in no uncertain terms. Later on in my flying career when being towed by a Halifax I could hear in my earphones the words of the rear gunner reporting "Glider Airborne Skipper". This phrase has remained in my memory to the present day and is one I always associate with glider flying. At Brize Norton we were soon converted on to the Horsa and I particularly remember the very steep attitude adopted by the aircraft when full flap was applied and the quick loss of height which consequently followed. I took to the Horsa like a duck to water and loved every moment that I piloted it. Troops were often carried to give them air experience and it was my plan always to stand by the emplaning door as they came aboard and invariably almost every man would look straight into my and my co-pilots face obviously trying to assess what kind of pilot they were entrusting their lives to. I am glad to state that over the years I have always delivered my passengers safely! Our conversion course finished on May 15th 1943 and we all felt that now we were really and truly glider pilots set apart from the rest by our red beret and the glider pilots flying brevet - the lion with blue wings.
In August 1943 orders were received for the 1st Btn of the regiment to proceed to North Africa and we embarked on a troopship at Liverpool en route to Algiers. The voyage was fairly uneventful although there were a couple of submarine scares - one in the Bay of Biscay and one as we neared the Rock of Gibraltar. We did not stop at Gibraltar and eventually tied up in Algiers harbour. On September 9th we embarked on a Dutch ship - Princess Beatrix - and were told that the Italians had surrendered. This was not unexpected news as we knew that it was on the cards. We sailed into Taranto harbour and saw a number of Italian warships tied up there and still manned by Italian sailors. Sailing into the harbour behind us was H.M.S. Abdil with 400 men of 6th (Royal Welsh) Btn on board. It struck a mine and sank very quickly with the loss of 58 men and 154 injured. For some-time afterwards as the dead were washed ashore we were responsible for collecting the bodies, removing their identity discs and assisting the Padre whenever necessary. It was fortunate for us that the Germans had decided not to make a stand in the Taranto area so it meant that our landing was unopposed. We moved up country to Putignano near Bari where we were billeted in the local school. Our duties there were not very arduous - training mainly and again no flying.
In January 1944 1 was posted to "C" Sqdn No 2 wing of the regiment at R.A.F. Tarrant Rushton near Blandford in Dorset. 'C' Sqdr. was the Hamilcar Squadron. The Hamilcar was a very large glider in fact the largest in use by the British Airborne forces. Its wing span was 110" ft and carried a 7 ton Tetrarch tank complete with its 3 man crew or equivalent weight - for example two bren gun carriers. It was towed by Halifax, Lancaster or Stirling four engined bombers. Constructed of wood and metal it was a high wing cantilever monoplane with its flight compartment on the upper portion of the forward fuselage seating two pilots in tandem with dual controls. Access to this compartment was by a ladder on the inner starboard side of the fuselage, through a latch in the top and along the centre section. The nose of the fuselage was hinged to starboard for loading. Adjustable vehicle rails were fitted to the floor of the fuselage and the overall height with tail down was 20 ft. I was very proud and thrilled to be in the Hamilcar Squadron - the only one in the regiment. I am not sure if the pilots of "C" Squadron were specially selected - all I know is that it was a great honour to fly the Hamilcar with its tank on board.
In April first pilots were requested to pick a second pilot to form permanent crews - prior to this there was no such arrangement. My choice was Sgt. Henry Woltag - first generation Polish jew - whom I had met in the mess on several occasions. He complemented me being outgoing and a smile a minute whereas I tended to be of a more serious disposition. There is no truth in his assertion that in fact he picked me when I was drunk in the mess! So there we were a most cosmopolitan crew - an Irishman and a Polish Jew. But although I say it myself, we were a good crew and because of our background were even vigilant not to let ourselves be outdone.
The R.A.F. ground crews marshalled the gliders ready for take off - seven Hamilcars and thirteen Horsas towed by 298 Sqdn and a further seven Hamilcars and 14 Horsas by 644 Sqdn. The equipment allocated to each glider was stowed aboard - in my Horsa [chalk number 376] there was a 17 pounder anti-tank gun, a jeep to tow it, a bombardier of the Royal Artillery with four gunners, and an R.A.M.C. doctor - Lt Randall (of whom more later). It was expected that the Arnhem area would be fully secured in three or four days at which time the 52nd Lowland (Scottish) Division would be flown in to the airfield at Deelen and the glider pilots would be flown back to the U.K. from there. We had been assured that German opposition would be minimal and many looked upon the operation as a "piece of cake" - but it was not to be. However, we were all in high spirits as we boarded our gliders on the beautiful Sunday morning and were confident that the operation would be a great success. We were fighting fit and eager to go. Each glider had a number chalked on in white chalk - mine was 376. The rum and coffee received just before take off was most welcome.
From 1030 hrs onwards the combinations started to take off at 45 second intervals. Soon it was my turn - the Halifax tug moved forward and the tow rope became taut. We moved along the runway - a slight application of brake to keep in correct position behind the tug - Henry read out the speed to me and then it was time for me to ease back on the control column and lift the glider into the air. Over the communication system I heard the rear gunner of the tug report "Glider Airborne Skipper" and then the Halifax became airborne. I kept the correct position relative to it and gently we climbed away from Tarrant Rushton (not to be seen by me again until 1984). It was a most beautiful September morning with good visibility and flying conditions were very good. We had to arrive over the assembly point at Aldenburgh on the coast of Suffolk at the same time as the other gliders which had taken off from various airfields in order to form the main force. To make times coincide we flew there via an indirect route over the Bristol area. When we arrived at Aldenburgh the sky was filled with gliders and tugs, Dakotas with parachutists aboard and on the sea the air sea rescue launches of the R.A.F. The whole area was back with aircraft en route to the Dutch coast a most amazing sight. Glider pilots and the troops they carried with them were not issued with parachutes. This was because the glider borne troops were not trained as parachutists and it would not have been good for their morale if the pilots had parachutes and they did not so if we were shot down it was just bad luck - we could not abandon the aircraft. This did not cause us undue concern because the idea of being forced down did not appear to be a possibility - after all the R.A.F. were providing fighter cover and attacking flak sites.
Our first sight of Holland was Schouwen island, then across the mainland to Nijmegen and then a turn to take us to Arnhem. The bridge over the Rhine was soon visible and easily recognisable from the pictures we had been shown - then the landing zone at Wolfheze became visible (on the battle plan it was zone "Z") and again was easily identified. Having picked out my particular landing site in a field bounded by woods on two sides and a farm track on the other I made preparations for the landing. We were at a height of 2500 feet and I asked my tug pilot to make one or two slight alterations to course so that when I cast off I would be in the right area to enable me to land successfully. This he did and I pressed the red release knob - the tow rope fell away and the tug flew off towing it behind it. I was now in free flight and flew around for a very short while to plan my final approach and to ensure there was no risk of collision with other gliders, 350 were to land on first lift and 300 on second lift. Henry must have been concerned as he said to me "For goodness sake get down - you never know what is going to happen". I put down half - then full flap and as the glider was fully loaded kept my airspeed at about 85mph and touched down on Dutch soil - not a shot having been fired.
Several pilots misjudged their approach and five Horsas came in over us - did not make the field - and crashed into the wood adjoining. We did not have time to investigate or to render any assistance as our orders were to unload and proceed from the area as soon as possible. We went round to the tail unit of the glider to undo the four quick release bolts which held it in position - remove it - and get the gun and jeep on to terra firma. The time was 13.40 hrs so we had been airborne approx 3 hrs 10 mins. Then came the Dakotas and the sky was full of many coloured parachutes - there were over 2000. One could not be but impressed with the sight. There is a Dutch song "Op de grote stille heide" but on this occasion it certainly was not quiet on Ginkel Heath near the glider landing area. We experienced a little trouble with one of the bolts but in a short time we were on our way. I saw that back from where we had landed there was a crashed Hamilcar - it had turned over on its back on landing the crew were dead. It had also come from Tarrant Rushton and one of the crew was a friend of mine - Sergeant Brackstone. It was then that things began to assume a more serious note as the realisation came that death was a possibility for all of us. Henry (or 'Wally' as he was known) and I rendezvous with other glider pilots and started to make our way to Arnhem via Wolfheze and Oosterbeek.. Near Wolfheze there was a mental institution and some of the inmates were wondering aimlessly around the area terrified and bewildered. I am not quite sure how they came to be free - it may have been due to the fact that the R.A.F. had bombed the area before our arrival. It was at this time that we nearly became casualties due to carelessness of one of the tug pilots who had been cast off from one of the gliders which arrived after us. He dropped the tow rope too soon - almost on top of us. The tow ropes were "Y" shaped fitted with heavy metal couplings - three in all - one at each of the extensions of the rope. We narrowly missed being hit by the couplings which could have caused serious injury. As we left the landing zone we saw some German P.O.W's who had been in the area when the parachutists descended and were captured by them. Although those were the first enemy troops we had seen we were too busy to give them more than a cursory glance. I am almost certain that there was a uniformed woman amongst them. We passed Wolfheze and then were ordered to halt and dig in for the night. This we did and took cover in a wooded area - and still no opposition. During the night however, we were subjected to heavy mortar fire and the trees were set alight so it was necessary to evacuate the position rather quickly.
The following morning we continued towards Oosterbeek and at the junction of Wolfheze Weg and Utrechtseweg saw the first German dead. A staff car (a camouflaged Citroen) had come down the road from Wolfheze and had been shot up by men of the 2nd Parachute Btn at about 1600 hrs on Sunday afternoon. Major General Kussin, German field commander at Arnhem and three others in the car were on a reconnaissance mission and were unlucky to be spotted by the parachutists. Shortly after leaving the scene of the ambush we reached the Hartenstein Hotel at Oosterbeek and there I was to remain for the rest of the battle. Henry, myself and a number of other glider pilots were detailed to defend Divisional H.Q. which was set up in the hotel so we set to and dug slit trenches in the grounds at the rear - ready to repulse any enemy attack. It was not long before we carried out patrol duties and on one occasion having reached the junction of Maria Weg and Utrechtseweg were pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. We could not see where the gun was - the area was heavily built up and it could have been in any of the houses in front of us. The bullets were just missing us and in retrospect it appears to me that the gunner could not get any more depression on the machine gun and on this occasion we were lucky. We endured the situation of lying flat on the roadway, expecting to be hit any time, for about twenty minutes before the firing ceased and were able to withdraw to the Hartenstein which was only a few hundred yards away. Whilst on patrol on another occasion when things were comparatively quiet a single shot rang out and a snipers bullet passed in front of my face just missing me and the back of the head of the man in front.
All the time that I was there it was not possible to delineate our and the enemy's territory - we did hold the Hartenstein and its grounds but away from there no one knew whether friend or foe was in the next garden, house or street. Constant vigilance was required and we fully expected that at any time the Germans would attempt to overrun our positions at the Hartenstein but our morale was high and we were determined that they would have to fight for every inch of ground. The tactics they adopted however was to try and knock out Divisional H.Q., not by frontal assault, but by subjecting the comparatively small area we occupied to an intense barrage of mortar and tank fire which rained down on us day and night increasing in ferocity as time went on. Being an ex mortar man myself I appreciated more than most the expertise with which they laid their barrages and this combined with the sound of tanks moving up to shell us caused us great anxiety especially as the casualties from shrapnel started to mount up. Nothing is worse than to see comrades killed and even more distressing than the outcries of pain from the wounded was our inability to do very much for them other than dress their wounds with our field dressings. The R.A.M.C. doctors with us did what they could but the full medical facilities required were just not available. At one time the collection point for our dead was by a rear wall of the Hartenstein. In spite of all this morale remained good and the only exception I have personally seen to this was when a junior officer started to tell everyone who would listen that the situation was hopeless. He was at the end of his tether and was removed from the defensive positions into the Hartenstein. I had no contact at all with Dutch civilians in Oosterbeek but whilst in the Wolfheze area not long after the landing several of us were invited into a local house where we were given water to drink and fruit to eat. The young girls there were very anxious to obtain parachutes left behind by the parachute troops in order, I presume, to make blouses and underwear with them. Seeing a number of those smiling faces took our mind off the tasks which lay ahead of us. At the Hartenstein there was not let up from the murderous fire which continued to be poured down on us and one could not fail to have some sympathy for the German P.O.W's who were held by us in the tennis court area. I often wonder how they felt being on the receiving end of their comrades fire. They, like us, also suffered casualties.
And so the days progressed - patrols, stand to's, noise, fire, flames, cries, rumours that we were to be relieved by the 2nd army, dirt, depression (but never a thought of surrender) and a conviction that it would all be right in the end. We witnessed acts of extreme heroism by the R.A.F. crews who flew in Dakotas to supply us - proceeding on straight and level courses in order to drop much needed supplies in designated areas which, as our parameter shrunk, were more often than not in the hands of the enemy. So a lot of their work and the casualties they suffered were in vain. My luck held out until Monday 25th September when during a particularly heavy mortar barrage I was wounded by shrapnel in the left hand and Henry's back was peppered by minute bits of the same shell. Neither of us were seriously wounded but at the same time were not able to man our positions. I made my way to the regimental aid post near the Hartenstein - for some reason Henry did not come with me and I did not see him again until after the war. To my surprise I found that the R.A.M.C. doctor who dressed my wounded hand was Lt. Randall who had been a passenger in my glider. I feel that if I did nothing very much at Arnhem I may have indirectly saved many lives in that I got the Lt. safely to the battle area. I did not have time to leave the aid post after treatment as it was taken over by Germany infantry and all of us in there were made P.O.W's. Those of us who were able to walk were marched outside and lined up.
At this time we expected the worst - were we going to be shot? However, to our surprise we were treated very well by the sergeant i/c and his men. We were thoroughly searched and none of our personal possessions were taken from us. We were surprised then they let us keep our R.A.F. issue watches which would have been very good souvenirs for them. Some of my colleagues had pictures of wives or sweethearts and complimentary remarks were made by the German soldiers when they studied the photographs and then returned them. After a short while we were taken under escort to St.Elizabeth Gasthuis, Arnhem. This was a prewar hospital and it was now manned by German, Dutch and British medical personnel and both our own and enemy wounded were being treated there by the medics who co-operated in their humanitarian work. After about a day those of us who were fit to be moved were put on lorries and taken to a Dutch army barracks in Appeldoorn. The barracks had, of course, been taken over by the Germans and was used as a collecting point for P.O.W's. From there we entrained for Germany and found ourselves in Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel near Hanover.
En route we passed through Munster and it was strange to see the platforms of the central station full of German soldiers waiting for trains. As we proceeded out of the station we saw squads of women - very slavie in appearance - repairing the track under the supervision of railway personnel. On arrival it was necessary that we be registered so that our details could be sent to the Red Cross and our families notified of our whereabouts. We were given cards on which we could write short messages such as "I am a P.O.W and am slightly wounded" - these were broadcast to England together with ones number, rank and name. Back home in Smethwick my mother was contacted by several people who had heard my message broadcast so she knew that I was alive. During the supply drops at Arnhem I had been photographed by an Army Film Unit Sergeant and my mother saw me on a film in the Princess Cinema, High Street, Smethwick - much to her surprise. Eventually she was notified officially that I was a P.O.W. Whilst at Fallingbostel the humour of the British soldier came to the fore. A German captain had an announcement to make and for the purpose all the P.O.W. were collected together on the parade ground and he mounted a dais to address us. The first word he uttered was "Gentleman" and immediately there was an outburst of whistling, cheering and clapping from the assembled throng. The fact of being called gentlemen - a title normally reserved for officers - appealed to the motley throng. The German officer must have wondered what the cause of the merriment was. At the end of a few weeks we had all been registered and given our P.O.W identity discs. These were rectangular metal with the stalag number and individual number stamped on - the middle was perforated so that one half could be easily removed and the other half left with the individual. My number was 117374 and unfortunately I do no have my disc and I do not remember what happened to it. I do however have one from Stalag VIIIC - the number on it is 75452 - I don't know the individual to whom it belongs and am at a loss to know how my own went missing and how I came to be in possession of the one I now have. Perhaps some day it will all come back to me. What experiences I could write about if only my memory was not so bad.
It came time to be moved on to a permanent camp and we entrained some time in October. I think it would be interesting to describe our travelling conditions - 40 men to a cattle truck in which about 6ft above floor level at each end was a 2ft square grating and ventilator in the roof. A bucket was supplied for sanitation. As far as I remember we were issued with a loaf of bread to 2 men, some tinned meat and a pail of drinking water. We had our braces and boots removed before entraining - obviously to deter escape attempts. We did not know where we were going but we passed thorough Berlin as I was able to see the sign 'Spandau' through one of the grills. Our eventual destination was Stalag VIIIC at Sagan approx 150 miles south west of Berlin near the polish border. We had travelled about 350 miles from Fallingbostel. As we detrained we were given a pair of boots back - not necessarily ones own - and sizes were swapped in order to get a pair that would fit. As regards clothing - all I had was what I stood up in - and there was half a left sleeves only as it had been cut away when my wound was dressed.
We were marched from Sagan Station to the camp situated in a large clearing surrounded by pine trees. It was divided in two by a road straight down the middle and on the opposite side of the road to Stalag VIIIC was Stalag Luft 3 - this being a P.O.W. camp for R.A.F. personnel. Those of us who were members of the Glider Pilot Regt. were not classed as aviators and were housed in VIIIC. The accommodation was similar to that at Fallingbostel - long rows of single storey timber huts with a heating stove in the middle of each and about 200 men accommodated in multi-tiers bunks. The bunk had timber slats as a base and as the winter progress and the weather became colder those were often used to fuel the stove so that in many cases men were lying on a base comprising perhaps three or four slats spaced out at intervals instead of the usual ten or so which should have been there. As it can be imagined one had great difficulty in resting on the bunks. The food situation was quite bad - the German railways and other supply lines had been attacked heavily and frequently by the R.A.F. and U.S.A.F - and consequently distribution was a great problem and naturally the needs of P.O.W's had quite a low priority. Breakfast consisted of a mug of ersatz coffee (made from acorns) - no sugar or milk. The only thing to recommend it was that it was warm. With it came some bread and margarine. Those who could not stomach the coffee because of its taste used it to shave with as hot water was not available. In the evening there was an issue of soup - commonly called green grass because if looked just like shreds of grass floating in a clear liquid - together with bread. The bread that was issued was very dark in colour, did not smell too good and was full of very coarse fibres. It was however quite filling - but never enough of it.
To supplement our food issue there was an occasional issue of very smelly cheese (I could never eat it) and, a great treat, tinned pork. Hunger was constantly with us especially as the issue of red cross parcels which our government sent to P.O.Ws was very irregular. Normally each man would have a parcel for himself but when they did arrive the number received was so small that the usual issue was one parcel to 14 men. In order to ensure that there was a fair share for all a number of senior N.C.O's were given the task of sharing the parcels so that each man got his correct portion. Sadly, though, one of those N.C.Os was found to be cheating when it came to his own share. This was a very serious offence because of the circumstances prevailing at the time and the person concerned was tried in one of the huts, found guilty, beaten up and thrown into the latrine. Rough justice but stealing was looked upon as a major crime. Occasionally we were marched out of the camp in small parties to a nearby shower hut where we showered - this was a luxury as there was no hot water in the stalag for normal washing purposes. In spite of all our efforts to keep clean we all had lice and liberal doses of gentian violet were applied to combat them - but to no avail. As we returned from the shower hut on one occasion we saw a long column of women being marched along and we were told that they were Polish - maybe guest workers. Under normal circumstances we would have appreciated them but not then - we found that matters sexual were very low on our list of priorities - the assuaging of hunger was our first concern.
In every stalag there was an escape committee to whom all ideas regarding escape were referred and no attempt could be made unless approved by them. Whilst in stalag VIIIC a "no attempt at escape" order was issued - it was felt that the war would soon be over and to risk lives in the interim period was foolish. So no schemes such as those which were tried earlier on in the war were put forward for consideration. Barter was carried out amongst the prisoners - cigarettes obtained from the red cross parcels being the currency - a loaf of black bread was 30 cigarettes. I being a nonsmoker was able to buy a toothbrush and toothpaste and Danny Barker (also a glider pilot) and I shared everything between us. At one stage we were pretty desperate for food and I traded my R.A.F. issue watch for six loves of bread which a New Zealand soldier had obtained somehow - so as far as I am aware my watch is somewhere in the land of the long white cloud.
One day Danny and I were walking around the compound when we were taken by one of the guards to the camp administration centre where we were told to remove waste paper and general rubbish. let was a great treat for us to have a change of surroundings and to be in a non-military atmosphere - most of the administrators were young girls and older men. As we worked we thought there might have been an attempt to communicate with us but we were just ignored. We were sorry when our brief interlude in the offices came to an end. The Geneva convention stated that senior N.C.O's and officers were not to be made to work outside the camp - so all glider pilots did not have to go on working parties. Working parties left the camp each day to perform agricultural, factory and forestry tasks. Extra rations were issued for this work and whilst it was good to get outside the work was often heavy and debilitating for the junior ranks who were forced to carry it out. In some other camps P.O.W's worked down coalmines.
The Germans did not know that there were no escape attempts being made and they were constantly on the alert. At intervals soldiers in working fatigues would wander around the compound poking the ground with long metal rods trying to find evidence of tunnels. The searchers were nicknamed "Goons" and when one heard the word mentioned we knew that they were just wasting their time. It was not often that one could poke fun at the guards but this did happen. Before roll call each morning one of them had the task of entering the hut and walk through past the tiers of bunks shouting "appel" "appel" (roll call) Alles Aus! It must have been the most unpopular duty as many and varied insults were hurled at them principally about Hitler's parentage and the Third Reich in general. Personalities amongst the guards were varied - some almost ran through to get the task over as quick as possible, others retorted in kind regarding Churchill and some were threatening but there was nothing much they could do. It was a time to relieve boredom as much as anything for us. At no time during the whole of my captivity did I suffer any violence from the German soldiers and never witnessed any one else being physically mistreated. If violence occurred I did not see or hear of it. And so the long, cold and hungry winter of 1944/5 progressed. The bitter wind swept in from the Polish plain to the east of us and there was no escape from it when we stood outside on roll call - twice each day - morning and evening. The length of time taken to complete the head count of prisoners varied - sometimes it took 15 mins and sometimes over an hour. We lined up in rows of five and if there was any discrepancy in the numbers due to absence because of illness or for any other reason we were counted, recounted and counted again - all of which took a great deal of time. One of the guards who seemed to experience great difficulty in getting the numbers to tally was called 'Funf' (after the dimwitted character in the Tommy Handly radio series). When we saw him appear we knew we were going to be there for a long time. There were other times when we had to stand outside in all weathers - this was when the guards decided to search our huts. Without warning a squad would double in to the parade ground and head towards one or more huts. Those inside were ordered out and starting at one end and working towards the other the guards would search the huts for weapons, illegal radios, and signs of any tunnel being dug. Very often possessions and hut fittings would be thrown through the windows and when it was all over we had the job of getting shipshape and bristol fashion again. There was an illegal radio in the camp - where it was kept or how it was obtained I do not know but every evening a runner would come into the huts and read out the B.B.C. news. At this stage of the war it made heartening news for us as the war was definitely going our way and as each day passed the Russians were advancing nearer the eastern border of Germany. This latter fact was to have painful consequences for us in Stalag VIIIC at Sagan.
At 0430hrs on the morning of 8th February 1945 there was a great commotion in the camp and we were lined up outside our huts. It was snowing and bitterly cold and for those of us who only had battle dress to wear it was most uncomfortable. We were eventually told we were to be evacuated to the west on foot and assured that in a few days we would be at another camp. As it happened those few days turned into one month and three days on the road - an experience which to this day makes me appreciate food, shelter and warmth very much more then those who have never been deprived of the basics of life. We were marched to the main gate of the stalag and as we arrived there saw that the guards were issuing great-coats to those who did not have any. There was a selection of Russian, French and British coats and it was pot luck which one got. I and my friends who were without were thrown Russian coats they were extremely heavy and most welcome. They were quite long and had the texture of hairy blankets - fitted with hooks and eyes and a half belt on the back with hammer and sickle buttons. And so out of the gate we went on the road to goodness knows where. As first light came we were still in sight of the camp and we were surprised to see empty red cross parcels scattered around on open ground. How they came to be there or who had their contents is a mystery. The details of the march which ended on 11th March 1945 are to be found in an appendix to this account of my military career but there are a number of reminiscences of the time which I would like to record. We passed over the river Elbe at Riesa and as we did so German army engineers were fixing demolition devices to the bridgework. On several occasions we were mistaken for Russian soldiers by the populace and suffered much verbal abuse. We saw many civilians also heading westwards in horse drawn transports complete with their possessions - as we came abreast of one of the wagons the horse pulling it took fright at the sight of our columns and bolted. An elderly lady who was in the cart was thrown from it and suffered severe head injuries. As we passed through an unknown village a young woman threw a couple of loaves of bread to us from the upper floor of a house. Who was she and why do this in the sight of our guards? We shall never know. Interspaced between the columns were the horse drawn Krangwagens and prisoners who for any reason were unable to continue marching were placed in them. I was able to complete the march and my constant companion was Danny Baker. When we eventually arrived at our destination the soles of my boots were worn through and we were both glad that we were off the road. We found ourselves at Stalag IXB at Bad Orb near Frankfurt and so we had reached another temporary home. The date was 10th March, 1945.
Stalag IXB - Liberation
Conditions at IXB were very bad and for the two weeks we were there deteriorated daily in respect of food, warmth and health of the prisoners. One morning when we awoke we noticed that our guards had gone and we were no longer under restraint but still under our own military discipline and we were instructed to stay within the camp confines. We also felt we were safer there than roaming around the countryside. Later on that same morning American infantry appeared on the scene and at last we were with friends. In a matter of hours after our liberation some negro American troops came on the scene and with great efficiency erected shower units - the like of which I had never seen in the British Army - and we divested ourselves of our smelly ragged uniforms and underwear to enjoy the absolute bliss of soap and hot water accompanied by the generous application of de-lousing fluid. As we finished showering we were given American uniforms and I found that I was an infantry corporal! Mobile coffee and doughnut trailers also arrived manned by uniformed American ladies all of whom were impeccably groomed and attractive. It was a mistake however to over indulge in the plentiful rations which were now available to us as shrunken stomachs could not cope and those who did so were very sick indeed. On one occasion I was able to go on a jeep patrol with some Americans who took great delight in shooting at anything that moved and at any domestic lights which appeared after dusk. I also attended the funeral of a British soldier - unknown to me - who died shortly after liberation and was buried a short distance away from the camp.
After two weeks or so we were transported to Frankfurt Aerodrome and flown back in Dakota aircraft to R.A.F. Benson in Oxfordshire coming in over the English coast at Eastbourne. From Benson we went to a centre near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire where we took off our american uniforms and exchanged them for the familiar battledress. On hand were ladies of the Womens Royal Voluntary Services who sewed on our airborne signs, rank marking and flying brevets. The red beret was put on and once again we were British soldiers with pride in our appearance and uniform. Nothing was too much trouble for the ladies and I always remember with gratitude the contribution they made to assisting us on the path back to normality.
Next it was the journey back home to Mum, Dad and family at 24 Stony Street, Smethwick for post P.O.W. leave and as can be imagined it was a very emotional reunion. Over the door of the house was a welcoming banner inscribed "Welcome Home John". I always remember Mum saying to me afterwards that she could not believe that the thin emaciated figure trudging up the hill to the house was her son - I had lost three stone in weight and it must have been distressing for her. Our neighbours came to the house with supplies of eggs, bacon, etc which they gave out of their ration allowance in order to ensure that there would be no shortage of the foods necessary to build me up again. It must have been a traumatic occasion for the Wiltshire family who lived opposite us when they saw me return as there was to be no homecoming for their son Billy who was lost in the Mediterranean on his first ship in the Royal Navy. In spite of all the care and attention I received it was two years before I was fully fit - in the interim period I suffered from neck boils and occasional bouts of weakness and stomach upsets. After six weeks leave I returned to duty and spent some time at No 3 Crash Camp, Morpeth (Northumberland) and Roussilon Barracks, Chichester, Sussex on post P.O.W rehabilitation and training - being eased back into army routine and brought up to date on world events that had occurred whilst we were prisoners. Particular emphasis was given to the Japanese expansion in the far east and the mentality and fighting qualities of their soldiers.
P.O.W. march from 8th Feb - 10th March 1945. Started at Stalag VIIIC (Sagan). Finished at Stalag IXB (Bad Orb).
Barrack Riding School
Barrack M.T. Shed
Total distance marched 605½ kilometres.
Total food issued for 31 day march:
7½ lb loaves of bread
4½ lb meat/sausage
1 oz. lard
5 ozs cheese.
1 mint tea
3 issues of hot soup
There were about 2000 men in our [?] group of whom 53 died. 173 men taken off the march due to [?]. Those of us who completed the march arrived in a dazed exhausted condition covered with lice and dirt. I particularly remember my thick curly black hair matted together in an almost putrid mass. Boots and clothing absolutely worn out. BUT WE HAD MADE IT.
John O. McGeough
S/Sgt 'C' Squadron. The Glider Pilot Regt.
Upon his repatriation at the end of the war, McGeough continued to serve in the Glider Pilot Regiment and in 1946 he was posted to Palestine with the 6th Airborne Division, where the Regiment was employed in fighting the Jewish terrorists. He returned home later that year and was demobilised on the 13th October. McGeough joined the Fire Service and was a Divisional Commander when he retired at the age of 60. An active member of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association, he visits Arnhem each September to pay tribute to the fallen.
Thanks to John McGeough, his daughter, Maureen, and Ramon de Heer for this story and all their help.
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