Pictures

Walter Collings in 1945

Corporal Walter Collings

 

Unit : No.10 Platoon, "A" Company, 1st Battalion The Border Regiment

Army No. : 3606306

 

Walter Collings was born in Liverpool on the 15th July 1922. His grandfather owned a poultry and dairy farm, and from the age of 10, Walter was assigned his own flock of poultry which he continued to maintain until joining the Army, having previously been a member of the Home Guard since turning 17. While he was waiting for his posting to the 1st Border be processed, Collings volunteered to serve aboard one of the Royal Navy's understaffed Minesweepers for a single week. He joined it in Edinburgh and was charged with manning a Hoskiss Machinegun. German air attacks upon shipping was a frequent occurrence, and though his maritime service was very brief it was considerably action-packed, and it was with some relief that he was set ashore at the end of that week.

 

Joining the 1st Border, Collings was assigned to A Company's No.10 Platoon, and he took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Like so many others involved in the 1st Airlanding Brigade's assault, his Waco glider was released from its tug far too early and the craft ditched into the sea. The impact of the landing forced Collings through the roof of the glider, and it was from here that he helped to haul a number of his men out into the open before the lower half of the glider flooded and partially sank. Other men forced their way through other exits, and as they were too far out to swim for shore, which was just as well because Collings could not swim, they clung to the wreckage for the next 10 hours until they were picked up by a British gunboat at 8:00 the next morning.

 

Sicily was not his only experience of a crash landing. Whilst training in Hampshire with Hotspur gliders, the tow rope broke away moments after take off, at the height of only 100 feet, and a heavy landing was made on the airfield which resulted in a few bruises for the passengers. Without being given much chance to gather themselves, they were quickly re-enplaned and towed into the air once more, this time successfully. On another Hotspur flight the tow rope came into contact with a wing, forcing the pilots to immediately cast off. The men believed they were going to die, but in the event a safe landing was made without injury to any personnel, though two hedges were ruined as the glider came to a halt.

 

At Arnhem, Collings had obtained the rank of Corporal and commanded No.1 Section of A Company's 10th Platoon. What follows is his personal account of the battle:

 

Our battle position for the last six days was north of the Hartenstein Hotel which was our H.Q. The KOSB was to the right of this position. Of those left from our platoon I was senior NCO with sixteen men not all from my own 10th Platoon.

 

We came under a heavy barrage of mortar fire that was exploding on contact with the trees and causing shrapnel casualties, myself included. Andy Hannah, of Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire, Scotland, one of my best friends, was hit in his head and eye and lost two fingers. One finger was sewn back on and his injured eye was removed, both without anaesthetic. My other great friend, Jack Crawford of Bishop Briggs, Glasgow, came through without a scratch. How, I just do not know!

 

We were the advanced section covering two paths through the woods (at Westerbouwing 20.9.44) when Andy came and told me that a tank was coming towards us. We soon realised it was on the path to the left and coming very fast, so I got the Piat anti-tank gun and positioned myself on the corner of a small cottage and then all hell was let loose. Unknown to me, my platoon sergeant and officer were on their way to my section and before I could fire they came around the corner at the same time as the tank came into view. It opened fire killing Sgt J Hunter who fell right beside me. The officer lost his mind and was running all over the place, the tank still firing. Jack stood up out of his trench firing his Bren gun from the hip giving me time to move position, then I saw a red flash and Jack falling back into his trench. By this time the tank was away and being engaged by another platoon. The engagement had lasted about two minutes. I ran over to Jack's trench, looked in and there he was without a mark; a piece out of his flying smock, and a grin on his face. I said "What the hell did you do that for?" All he said was "I don't know". What a friend to have in a tight spot and we had many more before the end. Andy later told me he saw Jack actually kill the german tank commander and with this brave act certainly saved my life.

 

We were guarding a path in a different part of the woods when three truck loads of Germans started coming down, we engaged them, then all was quiet, then they felled a couple of trees across the path. I had my binoculars and could see them crawling behind the fallen trees, so I got Jack sighted on the spot from which they had emerged, and every time one came out I'd call to Jack and he would let go with his replacement Bren gun and the Germans soon gave up that idea. They then brought up a loudspeaker and asked us to give ourselves up saying our task was hopeless, and for us to think about our Mothers, Wives, and Sweethearts. They then played some records of Vera Lynn songs to touch our hearts but it would not stop us from trying to do the job we all came to do, in fact it gave our spirits a boost.

 

Later on that day Sergeant Burton from another company came and asked if we would go into a bayonet charge to clear a patch of Germans who were giving his group, about twelve men, a rough time. We agreed that he would move his men into line with us and on his command we would all take off, hell for leather, shouting and cheering. The Germans did not wait for us to reach them, they took to their heels and ran. I do not blame them, the noise we were making was enough without the bayonets.

 

We took some other German trenches and I helped Jack to clear a couple dead Germans out of his trench so he could position his machine gun ready for action. All the positions we had were either in woods or on the edge of woods; this particular one being on the edge with a view over an open field with woods on three sides and a road about eight hundred yards away facing our positions at the end of the field. While we were there the Germans moved up into the wood on our left. We could hear a lot of movement but kept quiet awaiting our chance to surprise them. After about an hour we could plainly hear them talking and their mess tins rattling. They were about to have a meal and that was a bit much for us, having had very little to eat ourselves, so we gave the area a good burst of fire and all went dead quiet.

 

All was quiet for a couple of hours then four German trucks stopped at the top of the road. Troops got out and took up positions to advance down the field towards us. I decided to wait for them to get nearer to us before we opened fire so we would get as many as possible, also before their mortar section was able to locate our positions. There were about sixty to our seventeen. They were about half way down the field when suddenly a Vickers machine gun from lads on our side, opened up on our right. They had waited until the German troops were in line with them and were able to kill them all without us firing a shot. Within seconds the German mortar section got back on the trucks while a couple of Germans carrying a red cross flag ran down the field to their troops, but as there was nothing they could do they went back to the trucks and moved off. Jack and I went to check on the Vickers crew but found them all dead. We had no idea that they were there - we were very lucky.

 

We moved our position to a ditch in the woods, I thought it would give us the advantage over the advancing German troops. We decided to have a brew up; you know the old saying "when in doubt, brew up" - it was very welcome. I will always remember one of our Bren gunners who I asked to reconnoitre lower down the ditch coming face to face with a German doing the same, both so surprised they turned and rushed back to their group, it was one of the lighter times during the battle. Later we came under fire and returned it, I remember Johnnie Brett a few feet from me suddenly pulling his red beret off, looking at it, putting it quickly back on and firing like mad at the Germans, he showed me his beret after this engagement - a bullet had made a hole in it just over his right ear.

 

In this same position an officer from another regiment came and ordered me to go with him and take the piat anti-tank gun and one man to destroy a german mobile gun which was causing a lot of havoc at a crossroads in the village of Oosterbeek. I brought it to his notice that being the only NCO with the men, my priority was to stay with the men. My words fell on deaf ears and I was told that if I refused, I would be on open arrest. Naturally I did go, and Private Pilling, 18 years of age offered to go with me - who, I'm sorry to say, later lost his life. He was from my home town of Liverpool, and we used to go on leave together. We did our job, then found our way back, moving in and out of gardens and over fences. We were glad to be back with our group. Most of the houses had holes knocked through the walls to the next house and you could walk through a row of houses without being picked off by german snipers who were very good at their job. Being a sniper for a couple of years I knew how to be careful of them. An instance came to us very soon after a glider pilot came and told me he knew where a sniper was and asked if we would help him to flush him out. I told him it was a fools errand and what the consequences would be, but he was set in his mind. Three of us started with him but he was brave and foolish. Waving his revolver he rushed ahead about twenty feet instead of moving forward together. One shot rang out and he was dead and, although we opened fire, we had no idea just where the sniper was. Sadly we had to return without him.

 

Whilst we were in these positions an NCO came and told me to report to a road junction about half a mile away from our position. I informed the men what we were going to do, and off we went moving in single file. When we reached this position we found it devastated, the German mortars had got there before us and had destroyed the two heavy guns and crews. I talked over the situation with Jack and decided to move back to our old position again, so I called out to the men to follow Andy back to our old positions, at the double, with Jack and I bringing up the rear. We looked back and it was being very heavily mortared and I felt relieved that we had got out in time without any casualties. We got back to our old positions without any further trouble and awaited the next attack having by this time very little ammunition left, or food or drink. Our only food was Compo rations which we chewed on during the battle, and all of us were very tired and weary; days and nights were just as one.

 

On the next day a glider pilot came and asked if we would cover their withdrawal to new positions as the perimeter, now known as the cauldron, was getting smaller. I agreed with him that on his whistle we would move back to the trenches that they had left. I know now that it was a mistake as no sooner had we taken up positions, the German mortar bombs started to rain down on us and we suffered a lot of casualties. Andy and myself were two of them. L/C Halliday from another platoon was killed in the same trench as I and from that moment on we ceased to be a fighting unit and became separated.

 

For the last three days or so our heavy guns across the other side of the Rhine had been engaging the German positions in front of our perimeter. It was a great boost to our morale to hear these heavy shells whistle over our heads and landing about a thousand yards away. We all thought that at last we were going to be relieved from this sheer hell but it was not to be. I was taken prisoner on Wednesday 27th September 1944 still not knowing that our divisional survivors had crossed back over the Rhine. I had my leg dressed by one of our orderlies before being captured. Most of the mopping up had been done by then by the Germans. I was treated well by our captors and given a cigarette by the officer who said "Well done" and shook my hand. Being a non-smoker I found the cigarette very relaxing. We did our best; the tanks were our down-fall and I was glad it was all over.

 

I was taken by one of our jeeps, driven by a German, to the Hotel Schoonoord - first aid post. On our way there I saw a jeep full of Germans blown up by some of our lads. Gunfire was still going on in the area from troops like ourselves who had no idea of the evacuation. I was put into an ambulance with five other wounded and we were last in a convoy of ambulances. Temptation was too much for the driver and his mate. They stopped at some wrecked shops in Oosterbeek and looted as much as they could but by that time, they had lost the convoy so they headed into Germany, stopped at a house and gave the loot to friends. They then took us to a German front line first aid station, a church, with beds about a foot apart. We were put at one end. There was already a very badly wounded RAF Airgunner in one of the beds and German wounded were being brought in and out all the time. Our wounds were not treated whilst we were there. The nicest gesture was that one of the German wounded walked along the bottom of our beds and dropped a cigarette on each one. We were moved from there to an interrogation centre where I was put in a small cell with a barred window and a bed. The door had a small grille with a wooden shutter through which the guard looked in on you. The next day two guards came and took me across the courtyard to another building about a hundred yards away where I was taken into a room and offered a chair, then a cigarette which I refused, then the questions started. All I gave was rank, name and number. This went on for three days, then on the fourth day I was told to make my own way to the room. I managed the passage way but when I came to cross the courtyard I did it on my hands and knees to the office. When I got there I was quickly asked the same questions and told to return to my cell, so once again I crossed the courtyard on my hands and knees. This went on two or three times a day with reduced rations plus less daylight. They kept the shutter over the window closed, but what the hell, I was never a big eater anyway. This went on for another five days, then on the ninth day the shutters were opened and I was back on more rations.

 

The next day, five of us were put in a lorry with four Americans and taken to Cologne Station. On the platform we had a very frightening time. A German civilian tried to get a crowd to take us off the guards and lynch us. An American Airman who could understand German said not to do or say anything as it was serious. The man had lost all his family in an air raid. Extra soldiers had been sent for to protect us. The only thing one could recognise from the station was Cologne Cathedral, all other was devastation. The train came into the station and was bulging at the seams and I hope I never see anything like this again. People trying to get out, others trying to get in through windows as well as doors. They were crying, screaming, shouting and children became separated from their parents. Then came our turn - no room - but the worst was to come for the civilians who were ordered out of the first coach, about seventy of them, and they would not move. Next the soldiers started dragging them out one by one. It was heart breaking to watch as they were, in looks, no different from my family and other relations in England and some had been on the train from its starting point, and all for nine of their so called enemies, us. Eventually the train got moving, then came the British or American fighter planes. About four times the train was stopped because of them. Each time the soldiers got out and hundreds of civilians also. We were told we would be shot if we tried to get out, so we did not.

 

Eventually we reached our destination where we boarded a coach then we were told we were going to an American POW camp but on the way, once again, the coach stopped, the soldiers got out and we had to stay. Then we watched a wonderful sight of a daylight raid on Munster. We were told later it was a one thousand bomber raid and it was devastating. Our coach tried to get through Munster but in the end had to make a detour and eventually reached the POW camp where an American saw I had only one boot on and gave me a pair he had spare. I had only possessed one boot since I was wounded. A few days at this camp and we British were moved again. We were put in cattle trucks with hundreds of others and we were on our way on a long journey to POW Sagan. We got there and were told a meal was ready for us. Macaroni - the trouble was most of us had nothing to put it in or eat it with. I was lucky that a chap in my Regt., D Coy., gave me half his mess tin, but I watched others use windows with three pieces of glass in, to have theirs put on, and others used their red beret. So now we were in Stalag 8c - soup and mint tea.

 

I had settled in but was still dressing my wound. I had a powder which I sprinkled on it and would tear the mattered piece off the bandage. I had also teamed up with Arthur Green and started to talk of trying to escape. We started to check on all the possibilities. We tried to join a working party for that purpose but were refused that by our Senior in charge because of our reason for the request. By this time my leg had healed up and we had started to get fit for walking, by walking around and around our compound, doing a bit more each day. Also I tried to learn as much German as I could. It was boring in the camp and the only thing that was on our minds was escape. Arthur had heard that his wife was expecting a baby and he became more determined to try and escape. Soon our chance came when the Russians were drawing near and we were moved out of the camp.

 

The first stop came - our first chance to try and escape. We found a water tank about twelve feet up and approximately two to three feet square. We both managed to squeeze into it, although a tight fit. We took up our position in the tank about 5.30 a.m. and listened to the noise and bustle as the prisoners were roused for breakfast, then fell in, ranks of five, to be counted. Then there was, I thought, a half-hearted search to find us. About 9.00 a.m. we were about to make a move when we heard voices. It went on for about twenty minutes and we heard someone climbing up to the tank. A head popped over and I spoke to him. He was a boy of about twelve years of age. He said to stay hidden and he would bring someone at night, and off he went. Well we were feeling a lot of pain from being cramped in the tank and decided to get out and stretch ourselves. It took us about ten minutes before we could climb down because of the pain in our legs. Eventually we made it, but oh what a long wait there was, we nearly gave up and moved on. Then we heard someone approaching, so we kept quiet until the boy spoke and with him was an old man about seventy-five years old. He took us to his room, gave us small pieces of bread and an egg cup of Schnapps. I found I could talk to the boy and we could understand each other. I found out that he had lost all his family and he was Polish, as was the old man. The boy's name was Jan Polinski but I never did know the name of the old man. For two days I joined the queue at a shop to buy small pieces of bread. Jan gave me the money and the old man supplied us both with rough civilian clothes. The Germans were served first, then the slave workers etc. last, and although they were all very short of food not once was there any trouble when the bread ran out.

 

We said our goodbyes to them both and moved on. We did a lot of walking during the night and the second night we slept in a deserted factory cellar which was black as pitch. We were going to move but hearing movement and voices decided to stay another day. The roof of the cellar had a round hole in it and we decided I should climb through on Arthur's shoulders to see what was there. There was a large circular platform about twenty feet in diameter and about 18 inches off the floor and beyond that were slave workers sitting and standing around. We decided to leave the cellar and go and see the slave workers and try for some food. We each had a small bag with bits and pieces that we had collected, so in we went - put our bags on the straw and looked around and oh what a mistake I had made for leaning against the walls were German rifles. We got up and started slowly for the exit but were stopped before we got to it and asked who we were. I pretended I could not understand them so a German officer was called in and I did the same to him. He went out and came in with a private soldier and I was told to go with him. Arthur tried to go as well but was stopped. We looked at each other wondering if we would see each other again. I was taken out into the yard thinking of what I was going to do when the opportunity came. Imagine my surprise when the German stopped at a lorry, rested his rifle against it, got into the cab and handed me a packet of biscuits (Knackerbrut), then went off back to the factory. Can you imagine the look on Arthur's face - he thought I'd had it - we could have hugged each other with relief. We sat back on the straw and polished off the biscuits. Later that day we noticed one of the Germans taking an interest in us and did not like it. We turned away from him but each time one of us glanced over to him he was watching us. Later on that evening the Germans started to lay blankets out ready for sleep. This German did the same and came and crouched down near us and very quietly said, "You are English", which we just nodded in answer. He then said, "Don't worry I will help you get away".

 

Later he said he had been a P.O.W. in the 1914-18 war in Canada and that day a lorry had stopped at his village taking all the old men and that they and hundreds more were going to the Russian Front as front line troops. In other words gun fodder, the first attacking wave, us included. Later that night, true to his word, he came over and told us to come but to leave our bags. He spoke to the guards saying that we were going to the toilets. When we got to the toilets he told us which way to go, shook our hands and wished us luck. I have often thought of that man, old enough to be my grandfather doing this defiant act. He hated the Nazis and knew that he would never see his wife and daughter again.

 

So once again we were on our way. My mind here is a bit of a blank, I remember walking through the countryside and reaching a farm. There was a large pond and a dead horse lying part in the pond, also quite a lot of bomb craters made not many hours before we reached there. We knocked at the farmhouse door but got no reply, tried the door which was unlocked so we went in. We called out and went into each room. There was a fire in the living room and by the looks of the furniture etc. in the house the people must have been wealthy. I put a knife, fork and spoon in my pocket. Arthur did also. We did not stay very long as we guessed the people were maybe in hiding somewhere near and in all probabilities women only.

 

So off we set again. The following day we came across a horse and cart, an old man and a girl of about fifteen years. After talking to them for a while I learnt that the girl was his granddaughter, the only two left of their family who were Ukranians. They gave us some soup and I had another talk to him. He said they had been told to go to a camp for Ukranians and wanted us to go with them to protect them and their belongings from robbers. He seemed very frightened of that happening but we did not like the idea, also it was not the way we were heading. They had a days ride to Breslau. All this time we had been walking. I was so glad the American had given me a pair of boots that were made for walking. We set off again and came to a small town. We came to a prison compound with just a shed in it. As we got near we saw a terrible sight. Jewesses were standing by the wire grasping it with their hands. They were in a terrible state. Their eyes looked black and set in holes in their heads and they had no hair. We passed here as fast as we could going further into the town wondering if we had really seen what we had.

 

Soon we saw some young slave workers. I went up to them and told them we were English and asked if they could help us. They took us to their camp but could not give us food until they had worked the next day. They lived in a large army type hut with two-tier bunks, about fifty boys and girls mixed, about sixteen to twenty years of age. I had spoken to a number of them trying to find out how the war was going and if there were a lot of soldiers about. I had by now picked up a bit more German, although I guess it was a mixture of German, Polish and Ukraine, but I was happy to be able to understand most of what was said and also to be able to answer questions. Whilst I was talking to a group, a whistle started to blow and before I knew it I was grabbed by one of them and pushed on a bottom bunk, blanket over me and someone beside me. Then came the German voices and the door was opened, shouting "Snell, snell", which means hurry or quick. I kept very still as the footsteps moved down the hut and back and the door was banged shut. Then the blanket was pulled off me and there was a girl with a big smile on her face next to me. Then they were all out of their bunks again and there was more talking. The questions I tried to answer were all about England. They did not like the Nazis or the Russians and I well understood why after what they had told me. That night I slept in a bunk and the girl bunked in with her sister. Next morning a whistle in the hut woke me up and I looked at my watch. It was 5.30 a.m. (the watch belonged to Andy {re: Arnhem}. He had lent it to me during the battle so I could change guards regularly. I was pleased to be able to send it back to him after he returned home). Work started at 6.00 a.m., their breakfast could only be collected in the factory. We went with them and found that they were making clothes for the German troops. When the food, if you can call it that, came, we hid under the sewing machine tables. Afterwards these young people shared the food with us throughout the day. We stayed in the factory until 4.00 p.m. when they finished and we said our goodbyes and moved on.

 

It was on the second day after we left the Ukranians that we met another escaped P.O.W. He was a Russian marine called Nicoli Bestrienka. He told us that he was going to meet some other friends of his and they were all going to a farm run by a Polish farmer for a meal and invited us to go with them. We agreed. It was about five miles away and well on the way there we met his friends, five other Russians. We quite liked Nicoli, but not his friends, but we kept with them and decided to leave them during the night. We arrived at a farmhouse and went into a large kitchen. It had a table about twelve feet long and forms either side of it. In the corner of the room there was a washing boiler like the one mother used to do her washing in. It was steaming away and I wondered what they were boiling. It was not long before we found out. The farmer's wife came in and said something to the Russians which must have been in Russian for I could not pick a word out. Nicoli looked at us and told us in German to sit at the table. The Russians and Nicoli sat at the head of the table. Then the lid was taken off the boiler and out came boiled hens. We were given one hen each which was put straight on the table, no plates, no knife or fork but we were too hungry to worry about such things. Then we were all given a jam jar full of drink and what a shock I got - it tasted just like methylated spirits. Neither Arthur nor I could drink it. A Russian sitting next to me asked for it and we gladly gave it to him. Then we got a jar of water each, how anyone could drink the first drink, I do not know but the Russians enjoyed it though and got a bit merry. Nicoli came over to us and said they were going out but we could stay at the farm for a couple of days. After they had gone we talked about our next move and decided that we would stay another day. I spoke to the Polish farmer and learned that the Russians had gone out to steal and loot and we were not happy about that but there was nothing we could do about it. We slept in the kitchen on the stone floor and the farmer gave us some sacks to sleep on.

 

Next morning they gave us some soup and water to drink. The Russians had not returned and we were not sorry about it. During the morning the farmer rushed in very agitated and said to look out of the window. There was one German (Whermac) coming up a long cart track toward the house. We decided to make a dash for it but the Polish farmer said he and his family would be shot if we ran away. He asked us to go down the track to meet the German. He was very frightened so we decided to do as he asked. I told Arthur that I would go first and he would follow. When I got near the German I decided to bluff my way out and I wished him good morning and walked past and he carried on walking. I got to the road and suddenly heard someone shouting "Englander". I turned and saw the Russians with three Germans guarding them and that was the end of our freedom. As Arthur came to the road I told him that he had no chance. When the German came back he was a bit mad and shouted at us. One of the Germans saw the funny side of it. We were taken into the town of Weiswasser and we stopped outside the police station. Quite a number of German civilians started to arrive and we seemed to be the centre of attention. It must have been something about the Russians. Arthur and I were taken in together to see the Officer who had an English phrase book. He must have been studying it as he asked if we were English. I nodded. Then he wanted to know why we were in civilian clothes. To that I replied that our clothes had become full of lice and we had stolen these clothes. He thought for a while and then accepted my explanation. He told us that we would be sent to an Australian Komando (working party).

 

When we arrived the Australians did not like us very much but we became friendly with one particular Australian called Ron. He told us that he had been a prisoner since Alemain. We were locked in a barn and Ron asked us if we wanted to go out and get some extra food. He had the old German guard in the palm of his hand. I said no but Arthur said that he would go. I tried to get him to change his mind but it was no use. Well I watched Ron and Arthur go to the guard and hand something over. The door was opened and off they went. It was about 12.30 p.m. An hour later there was a lot of shouting and a gun went off a couple of times; then there was a lot of talk at the door. It opened and in shot Ron and Arthur. Within ten to fifteen minutes there were a lot of German voices asking the guard questions. Ron said they would shoot the guard if he admitted that he had let the prisoners out, so they were quite safe. Ron said that they had potatoes, sugar beet and two rabbits. When a German had spotted them at his rabbit pens he had opened fire with his shotgun. They had run but in the process of climbing fences etc., had lost all that they had stolen. Arthur said never again.

 

We were with the Australians about three days when we were put into these old sheds for the night, about 30 of us. Arthur and I decided that early morning we would make our try to escape; we made it and off we ran across the fields hoping our sense of direction was right. We came across some farm buildings close to the village of Stedt and decided to hide up there during the day. In the brick built barn was a ladder attached to the wall going up to a loft that had some old straw on the floor so we decided to get some sleep that we both needed. About 10.00 a.m. we were shattered from our sleep by the noise of engines reving up and voices shouting orders. We crept to the edge of the loft and looked down and our hearts sank for down below was a German artillery unit putting up camouflage netting etc. We looked at each other knowing we were in a very tight spot, from our own fighter bombers as well as the Germans below, if our planes spotted the units below us. We lay back on the straw, our thoughts on what to do next, although many times during our escapes we had different ideas of what to do next we never did anything unless we both agreed, this time I said to Arthur "what do you think" and he said "let's sit this one out", so we did. It was late afternoon when we heard a lot of children's voices and we had a look to see what was going on; they were getting odd souvenirs. Then we noticed two boys starting to climb the ladder to our loft. I was hoping the soldiers would call them down but our luck was out; the boys got on to the loft and saw us. I spoke to them but they were so scared at seeing us they just scampered down the ladder and told the soldiers and they just laughed at them; they thought the boys were joking. The boys ran off and we just waited to see what would happen next. We had not long to wait. The village policeman arrived and started to climb the ladder amid the laughing and joking soldiers. We lay on the straw awaiting his arrival. As he got onto the loft we got up and I spoke to him as we went towards him, but he was so scared he was trying to get his revolver out; it was clipped down and he nearly fell over the edge. Well, it just wasn't our day, so down the ladder we all went and off to the police cell in Stedt which was in the Police House on the first floor.

 

We got no food or drink from him that day or the next. About 7.00 a.m. we could hear voices and the clanking of dishes. Shortly after we could hear this unusual noise and we looked out of our cell window and saw this German spotter plane very low - it seemed to be in trouble, then we saw the reason. One of our fighters blew it up and we crouched below the window as slates and chimney pots shattered to the street below. Then it was quiet and we looked out again and saw civilians and soldiers rushing about. We lay on our bunks and at times tried banging on the cell door to see if we could get a drink or something to eat, but they just took no notice of us. Arthur was looking out of the window and called me to look. There in the street below was the policeman with his wife and children, a hand-cart with some of their belongings, and others with prams, cars and bikes, leaving the village with us still locked up in the cell. We tried to break the door locks off but it was impossible. We lay on our bunks thinking of ways to get out. Around noon we heard someone talking downstairs and doors and cupboard being opened and banged shut. We kept very quiet and had a quick talk, deciding that if they opened our cell door we would take our chance to escape and when the door was starting to open we would hit it together and make a dash for freedom. Well, what happened next - I still have a laugh and a smile about it. The lock was wrenched off, the bolts pulled back and the door started to open. We hit it and the man on the right of the door took the full force and was knocked out. The other got caught with the edge of the door and it knocked him over the banister rail and on to the stairs and as he was sliding down, Arthur and I were stepping on him as we rushed down the stairs. As we got to the door I looked back to see him laying quite still with his feet facing up the stairs. We slowly walked out of the door, up the street and into the countryside on our way to Eisanach. I wonder if those men ever thought about looting again! It was the 1st April and we joked about it being All Fools Day, but we had not come this far to worry about superstition.

 

A few miles out of the village we came to a row of cottages with long gardens at the front. Two middle-aged ladies were talking at the gate of one of the cottages so I told Arthur I was going to ask for some food; we were still in civilian clothes and looked like slave workers - we were beginning to act and fit the part. I asked the lady nearest to me and she spoke to her friend and said she would give us some bread and off she went to her cottage. I told the other lady we were workers. The lady came back with a piece of bread the size of a pack of cards to share between us, but don't get the idea she was mean, far from it. They were short and that was a wonderful gesture from the heart; the sort of thing I'm sure my Mother would have done in a similar situation. I thanked her and we started on our way again to the town of Eisanach. We arrived in the town and, on entering one of the streets, saw coming towards us a German Sgt. and a Private. Arthur and I had worked out a ruse that had been very successful in these situations. Arthur would move to the offside and I would speak to whoever it was and, if possible, he would move on a couple of yards and stop. On approaching the Sgt. he asked where we were going and I said Eisanach Komondo and he was satisfied with that, so on we went, but about 80 yards away he was calling for us to come back. We had our own ideas so we ran, heard a couple of shots, but never looked back. We knew they were running after us so we turned down a few streets and came to a bridge over a river. We jumped down and ran along the river bank. Then came a big slice of luck; two soldiers were leaning over the fence watching the river go by. I did not know what nationality they were, but knew they were not Germans. I said we were English and the Germans were after us so they said jump the fence and over we went and run with them to some pig styes. I was pushed into one, Arthur into another, then they covered us with straw. The pig kept rooting under it and I just hoped it did not pull the straw off me. In a very short time the Germans were searching the styes. I could hear them coming along the corridor shouting to each other, then away they went and there was the grinning face of Mile, a Yugoslav soldier. I could not make out at the time how quick the Germans were - guess what this was, Eisanach Komondo. What a coincidence, it was a Yugoslav working camp.

 

We caused a lot of excitement in the camp. Mile took us to their quarters and gave us food and drink, all we could eat. Mile said he would take us to a house where we would be safe with German friends. At first we were not keen on the idea, but for some very strange reason a bond of friendship and trust had sprung up between Mile and I from the first time we shook hands, and it is still there with us both. He took us to a house near the river where a young woman came to the door and asked us in. Mile did the talking, then she called her husband and, what a surprise, in came a german panzer Sgt. in uniform. He had been repatriated from the Russian front because of the loss of one leg; one of the lucky ones from that front. Mile said he agreed to hide us up in his loft and Mile would supply our food. A ladder was brought in and we were given some blankets. Up we went and Mile said he would see us tomorrow. The ladder was taken away and we closed the hatch; we had a small candle for light. Arthur and I sat and talked over what had gone on the last two days. Then about 10.00 p.m. the air raid siren went off and the wife banged on the hatch and said they were going to the air-raid shelter and off they went. It was not long before we heard the planes and gunfire. They seemed to be quite a way from us but getting nearer. I pulled the blankets over my head to try and shut the sound out; I had already experienced German raids on Liverpool before I joined the army. Then the next thing, there was one hell of an explosion and we were covered in plaster, slates and bits of wood. I stayed under the blankets until I heard Arthur ask if I was alright. I pulled the blankets off and there I was looking at the sky and stars. We were unhurt and were going to leave the loft until we realised we had no ladder and it was too high to drop down. So we waited for the all-clear and the German couple to come back; they brought the ladder for us and we slept in the living room.

 

We heard two versions of the bombing. One was that it had been dropped on a bridge, the other was that it had been blown up to slow the allies down. Later that morning the Sgt. saw Mile and they decided we would move to another German house, so off we went with Mile. It was a large house, our new hideout, with five women, six children and three old men, all German. We felt sorry for them but soon realised that all they wanted was for us to vouch for them when the allied troops reached Eisanach. Who could blame them for trying. I had a talk to Mile and he said that the allies were not far away and he knew where we could steal a car and head for our lines, so we decided to try. Arthur and I were very firm that, if we did, Arthur and only Arthur would drive the car. He knew more about cars than the three of us put together. We made our plans and in the afternoon set off for the car. Imagine our horror when we saw it was open tourer S/S car, but after talks with Mile we decided to go ahead; we got into the car and off we went. We had gone about 40 miles before we came to a road block and were surrounded by American troops. I called out to them that we were British P.O.W's but no-one spoke to us. I said again "British P.O.W's", then I heard Mile speak and the next minute we all had a rifle stuck in our necks with the Americans saying "one move out of you buddy and its your last". They took us to their camp for interrogation. We explained it all to the Officer, but he kept us for the night and the next day gave us petrol, food and cigarettes and had the star painted on the car. Before we left he wished us luck on our journey home. It was a strange feeling, just like a dream, to know we were on our way home and it was hard for me to grasp after the journey we had both made from Sagan. I must have been in a dream since, however much I try, I cannot remember the journey to Frankfurt.

 

On arrival at Frankfurt we went to an American Army Group explaining who we were and they couldn't do enough for us. They gave us food, sweets, chocolate, cigarettes, petrol and oil. We were also given a pass which said we had permission to travel by any means to our destination. "This pass expires - till further notice" signed by George S. Iredell, 1/Lt Cavalry, Mil.Gov.Pub.SAF O. I have a photocopy of this pass dated 8th April 1945. It was all a wonderful gesture on their part and we did appreciate it. Our only disappointment was that, owing to the pontoon bridge across the river being one way into Germany, we would have to go to Cologne to the bridge out of Germany. We were having a meal with the Americans and it was suggested that we had a word with the officer on guard duty on the bridge that night to see if he could help us by allowing us across. We spoke to the officer and he said to come later that night and he would see what could be arranged. We knew he would be putting himself on the spot but we arrived at the bridge and pulled in out of the way with the car lights out. There was an endless stream of American transport lorries coming across. The officer came to us and said that if a large enough gap between transports came, the guards on the other bank would phone through to him and he would give us the signal to go like "bats out of hell". He asked us to promise that if we were caught on the bridge by traffic, we would push our car into the Rhine to leave a clear way for the transport. We made it with about a couple of minutes to spare. From there we drove through Luxembourg, Namur, Mons, Valenciennes and Lille, then on to Calais and down to earth with a bang. We reported to the British H.Q. then were taken to NAAFI for a meal. Whilst there our car was confiscated by an officer and, after a heated argument with Arthur and myself, he put a military policeman with us and we were put on a train to Brussels, still with the M.P and believe me we were not happy with this situation. Perhaps, with hindsight, we would have acted differently but it still rankles with me. The last I saw of Mile there were tears in his eyes, he so badly wanted to come to England and for what he had done I think he was entitled to. It was a very sad parting for us, after the help and hospitality we had received from Polish, Ukranians, Germans, Yugoslavis and the Americans during our journey to freedom. We arrived in Brussels and were given the hated de-lousing, then we went to the airport and England, with another de-lousing before tea and cakes in the canteen. Whilst there my name was called out - I was wanted outside. It was Pathe news and Arthur and I sat around a table telling other troops our experiences. It was on the news in the cinemas and I have seen it on television in "All Our Yesterdays"; I managed to get a couple of photos. I arrived home the day after, my parents unaware until I knocked on the door, with six weeks leave.

 

One can never forget leaving England for Arnhem on the 17th September 1944. Our glider had "Reply to Croydon" on it. Also the comrades left behind or the hardships of the many who made it possible to complete our journey from Sagan to Calais. I will never forget them and hope the years have been kind to them all.

 

END

 

Of the 16 men under the command of Collings during the battle, 4 were killed; L/Cpl Halliday, Privates Sykes, Stephenson, and Pilling, 7 were wounded, not including Collings himself; L/Cpl Brett, Privates Andy Hannah, Pool, Looker, J Jones, R Jones, and Seale. The remainder of Privates Jack Crawford, Morfee, Blyton, Clarke, and O'Gorman, were the only ones who were unscathed.

 

In 1947 Collings married and later had three children. He began a career in horticulture which took him to posts in Lancashire, Cumbria, Surrey, Essex, and to Poole in Dorset where he was head gardener for 25 years at the famous Compton Acres Gardens. Collings retired in 1987, however to this day he is still employed as a gardener in Poole. He has twice appeared on television in "All Our Yesterdays", with his escape partner Arthur Green, and later on an edition of "Surprise Surprise" where he was reunited with Mile, whom he had not seen since they said their goodbyes in Calais.

 

Walter Collings passed away on the 17th September 2012; the 68th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Arnhem. I am indebted to him for contributing his account to the site.

 

Back to 1st Border

Back to Biographies Menu