Private Allan George Surgeson

 

Unit : 2nd Battalion The Royal Durban Light Infantry, South African Land Forces.

Served : North Africa.

Service No. : 274344

POW No. : 2475

Camps : P.G. 82, Stalag IVB.

 

Just before my father passed away he wrote a few pages which he grandly titled "The Life and Times of Allan George Surgeson". Although we had heard snippets of his experiences as children, as is so common with ex soldiers a lot of the memories were never told. What was fascinating for me is the information I had never heard before. I still believe that he left a lot out of his story, bits that were just too painful to remember.

 

Tessa Campbell (nee Surgeson)

 

My father, Allan George Surgeson, joined up in 1940 at the age of 17, in Durban, South Africa. He enlisted with the 2nd Royal Durban Light Infantry. Towards the end of 1940 his battalion together with the Natal Mounted Rifles, the Kafarian Rifles and others left Durban by ship for the Middle East. He fought at Hell Fire Pass then on to Tobruk.

 

My father was one of the 30 or so thousand taken a prisoner of war at Tobruk. He wrote the following in his memoirs:

 

"We were taken first on foot, then truck, all the way to a place called Derna. On the top of the escarpment overlooking the harbour, on a barren piece of ground, surrounded by barbed wire 7 feet high. We waited more than 2 months. The conditions were very bad, there were no buildings or tents, and we each just had a two metre square of semi waterproof ground sheet and one smallish thin blanket. Many of the POW's had dysentery by this time, which made a person not only sick but very weak, consequently the long drop was a very harrowing experience."

 

After about 2 months he was taken by cargo ship to Italy. My father wrote the following: 

"The trip by cargo ship to Italy, which took three days, was a welcome change, even though our captors had mistakenly loaded large boxes of books (so they said) instead of food rations for the prisoners. We arrived at Naples (It was said by some writer or other, giving praise, evidently, to the Port of Naples), see Naples and die. Well we were nearly dead when we arrived. Can you imagine 2000 sick soldiers down in the cargo holds for nearly three days, there were fights to get to the ladder to be the one of the ten let out every fifteen minutes. After the first day I was gradually pushed and shoved with a little help on my own, closer to the ladder. You dare not sit down, even if there was room enough, if you wanted out, and most did, you simply had to stay awake and be on your feet. Somehow I found my left hand gripping the ladder and my one foot on the first rung. A big chap on my right got his foot on the second rung and forced his way in front of me; I let him have his way and was easily able to follow in his surge forward. It seemed like ages, but at last my head came above the deck and I realized just how bad the smell was below."

 

"What to do with my fifteen minutes before being sent down into that hell hole. Well I got lucky, they mis­counted or something and the next moment another 10 were scrambling up out of the hold, so I said to myself, I must be the 11th for which they won't be looking for, so I stayed away from the action and was able to remain on deck for the rest of the trip."

 

"Because of the mix up with the rations we didn't get, they said when we landed we would get a double portion. Two bun sized loaves of bread and a small tin of Italian bully beef (most probably horse meat) which we scoffed down even before they put us into the cattle trucks. What they didn't tell us was that the double rations was to last us for the next two days. We were being taken to a partly completed P.O.W.'s camp 82 at a place called Laterina in the province of Tuscany."

 

"We arrived hungry, dirty and very tired, and were made to walk from the train for about three or four miles to the camp. It was a new camp, not yet completed, but much more organised so I thought at first, until I found out that the ablution block was only a very slight improvement on our previous long drops, this one had a roof but no sides to it, able to sit twenty, instead of the ten, as before. After no time at all, there were at least fifteen thousand P.O.W.'s in the camp, so if your tummy was worrying you at all, you had to be there early or stand for some time in the queue. If your maths is good, you could probably work out roughly how long the average chap would have to wait in the queue. (Ghastly thought). I spent my 21st Birthday in that first Italian camp 82 in Tuscany, not knowing it until about three days later when someone happened to know the day and month and I overheard them talking.  (My father's birthday is 20 August 1922 so this would have been 20 August 1943)"

 

"An English chap, about my age, Freddie Poole and I joined a group of chaps digging a tunnel which we hoped would come out on the other side of the seven foot double security fence. Our tunnel was never completed because the Allied Forces made some very fast and dramatic pushes up the coast of Italy, leading to an almost collapse of the prison camp personnel, guards throwing away their rifles and simply disappearing. Fifteen thousand prisoners simply pushed down the fences and off they went. Freddie and I waited another two days to see what would happen, then collected discarded shoes, shirts, trousers and whatever and then we decided to leave as well."

 

"It was wonderful to be free, your own boss, until we started to get hungry. We caught a chicken and roasted it over an open fire. It was then that we realised how important salt was, not only for our diet but to our taste buds also. We roamed free for about two month, and during that time became friendly with a farming family by the name of Sisto Boscagli whose address I still remember: 88 Pienza, Saint Anna, Tuscany. (My father spoke about the Boscagli family with great affection. Typically he did not like to say too much about the war to us children but was always willing to speak about the Boscagli family)"

 

"German troops were coming into the area and it was obvious that our presence at the farm, if discovered, would be a danger to the Boscagli's, so we moved out. Two weeks and a lot of miles later we were picked up unexpectedly by a German patrol and taken just outside Rome for interrogation. (My father once told me that when they were picked up a German soldier hit him across the face with the butt of his rifle and broke his front teeth) We were joined by other small parties of P.O.W.'s and moved to a makeshift camp until we eventually, after months of travel by road on foot, by motor trucks and eventually trains we arrived at Stalag 4B south of Berlin."

 

"Stalag or Camp 4B was located halfway between Berlin and Dresden and slightly east of Leipsig. If you draw a line between Leipsig and Cottbus where you intersect the River Elbe, is roughly where the Camp was."

 

"Survival in a camp of forty or fifty thousand P.O.W.'s was a personal responsibility. There were, over the next eighteen months, a few suicides, many let themselves go physically and mentally."

 

"Having an active creative mind, I started collecting tin cans, cardboard, string, bits of wire and what have you. Some in the camp started to receive, besides the occasional Red Cross parcels, a personal parcel from their home town and family."

 

"So after roll call, which started every morning just after 5 am in summer and after 6 am in winter, I would start cutting, flattening, bending and shaping tin mugs with handles, trays or plates to eat from. An enterprising chap nearby I noticed was making dart boards from strips of cardboard tightly bound together with wire and strips of tin. It took him a week to ten days to complete a dart board, so while he was doing that I was making sets of darts. I could complete two sets of darts, by the time he had his dart board completed. Darts were very popular, especially with the English lads, who would form a club and so share the cost of a dart board - fifty cigarettes. Cigarettes became the camps trading vehicle, one cigarette = two shillings. A set of darts cost ten cigarettes."

 

"A half pound of tinned butter or jam fluctuated between forty to sixty cigarettes depending on the demand. Every day around the edge of the parade or soccer field there would be as many as fifty or a hundred traders and buyers looking for a quick or profitable sale."

 

"Besides the activity and the kicks I got out of creating, I think the most important aspect was mind control, if one's hands are actively doing something you enjoy doing, then one's mind is automatically engaged and so stimulated, negative thoughts and actions are dispelled."

 

"I survived a total of three years P.O.W. when sadly some didn't and some were badly scarred in both mind and body."

 

"The day arrived when the Russians, not the Americans as we expected, opened the gates and let us out. The closest city was Dresden, so groups of P.O.W.'s were organised and we were on our way, south-east. Dresden was very badly bombed, but we were billeted in a vacant school complex. From there, within two weeks we were flown out to Brussels, Belgium, where we were stripped, de loused and given British uniforms. Feeling almost human again, we were flown across the English Channel and eventually arrived by train in Brighton. I made my way to London by underground, got lost for a while and went back to Brighton, where I knew I would get a decent meal at the canteen for free, plus a gift package of cigarettes and books of food coupons which I took with me on my next trip which was to Guildford - Surrey where my Aunt Constance's parents lived. I stayed a week or so and moved back to Brighton when I heard that they were putting up lists of those chaps who wanted to fly or boat home. I opted for the boat trip, arrived in Cape Town and travelled by train to Durban. My whole family were there waiting as the train pulled in."

 

Return to POW Stories Menu