Captain Anthony W. Lister

 

Unit : Royal Artillery.

Served : France (captured).

Army No. : 71023

POW No. : 808

Camps : Oflag VIIB.

 

Anthony Lister was taken prisoner with the British Expeditionary Force in France in the Battle of Calais, 1940, and was a prisoner of war for the next five years. With his great technical knowledge of radio, he had a specific job which was to set up secret radio receivers, to gather all kinds of information about the progress of the war, particularly from the BBC. He was ordered not to escape, so that he could do this job, and was even involved, as one of the technical engineers, in the so called ‘Great Wire Escape’. He spent much of his time building wireless sets into, amongst other places, the backs of chests of drawers. As for an aerial, he even got one of the unwitting Guards to hold the ladder whilst he put it up! It was hoped he could relay any information gathered from the Germans around the camp about troop movements, German morale or similar information that would be of use in Britain as well as information of missing persons. The information was passed back to the UK in coded letters. Another important part of his work was to receive and pass on information and messages from Britain, in particular BBC broadcasts that provided up to date news about the course of the war. News was passed on to all POWs, but the camp guards never caught them doing this, and never managed to locate any of their secret radio receivers. Throughout, he worked very closely with Mike Quartermaine, who later became his brother-in-law. before he died in 2002, Anthony Lister agreed to record some of his experiences of life as a POW and the following accounts, as far as possible in his own words, are a small part of his recording:

 

One of our main aims in camp was to confuse the Germans and they were very easy to play off one against another. There were several factions, the Wehrmacht who liked to think they ran the camp, the Guards, mainly but not entirely German, and ourselves, the POWs, and from time to time the S.S. who were extremely unpopular (especially amongst the Germans). We always managed to line any two of these groups up against a third, usually internally.

 

Major Jack Higgin - Jack Higgin of the Welsh Guards, a most delightful man, was a leading light in camp and organised a very efficient intelligence service in addition to being extremely effective in liaising with the Germans. On one occasion the Commandant, who was disliked intensely, had a roll-call at midnight which did not finish till 6 or 7 in the morning. The reason why it dragged on so long was that the prisoners somehow made sure that each time they were counted, it came to a different number. Of course this did not go down at all well with the Guards as they had had to stay up all night. This guaranteed that there would be no more midnight roll-calls. Not long after this event one of the German NCOs went to see Jack Higgin privately and said "I believe you can get rid of Commandants if you don’t like them? If this is true, now is a very good time to practice it". Jack said "I don’t know where you got that story from". However three weeks later, one of the POWs walked out of the camp dressed as a German guard, in a uniform made by someone in camp, and got as far as the camp gate, about 200 yards before he was captured. What happened? The Commandant’s head rolled, and he was removed.

 

Building a Radio - Building a radio in camp was relatively easy. Given a number of bits and pieces you can make almost anything. Oddly enough, one of the most productive things the Germans ever gave us was a set of loudspeakers. They put them up all over the camp to give orders and instructions for everybody. Well, we waited till they were going nicely, then one day when it was turned off we nipped up and pinched all the loudspeakers. The Germans did notice, but nothing happened. The useful part of a loudspeaker is the transformer. What you can do with a loudspeaker transformer if you try hard enough is beyond belief! The Germans noticed but nothing happened. They never caught anybody individually and the transformers were most useful. Mike Quartermaine (my future brother-in-law) and I had the strictest instructions never to speak to a German if we could avoid it.

 

The Story of the pig - The pig story was about three or four months earlier. Well, old Blatterbauer (the Commandant) had two things in life: one he was bloody-minded and tiresome, loathed by everybody, and secondly, insisted on everybody saluting him properly. To his great mortification he was doing a Saturday morning inspection, and he found that one of his NCOs was keeping a pig in the British cookhouse, so hell was let loose in a way that nobody but a genuine German sxxt can do if he tries. He turned out the Guard Company and turned out everybody within range. So eventually the pig was ‘arrested’ and put on a 4-wheeled cart used for taking milk round the camp. Then a procession was formed, including the pig, which made its way towards the main gate with half of the Guard in front, with tin hats and fixed bayonets, and half of the Guard behind, with the rear brought up by the German hierarchy, including the Commandant. As the first half got to the gate, the POWs formed a tremendous guard of honour, and gave the pig the imperial royal salute, whereupon everyone, including the Germans at the front of the procession, all got the giggles. A wave of giggles floated back along the procession as the second half of the guard passed, until eventually it got to the Commandant coming past, by which time the guard of honour had degenerated into a scruffy looking lot of old bxxxxrs with their hands in their pockets, whistling “Deutschland Uber Alles”. And he got furious and put them all under arrest including the German adjutant, but no-one paid any attention to that – they were all laughing too much themselves, so he had nobody left on his side at all. And as for the pig, well I think that was probably eaten (by the Germans). The German guards thought it the funniest thing that ever happened! They definitely did have a sense of humour, and were on the side of anyone who gave them a good laugh. They were nothing like the Gestapo, who were generally very unpopular, and nobody liked them at all.

 

Old Fergie and the ‘shxt cart’ - Old Fergie, as he was called, was a Glaswegian with a very broad Glaswegian accent. He used to go round the villages in the surrounding areas, around the camp, with his couple of oxen and his cart, emptying all the sewage pits, and in the course of the two and a half years that we were there, he got to know all his farmer friends very well. They were mostly older people who were not really suitable for military service, and they disliked Hitler intensely. They gave him an enormous amount of information, to the extent that they told him things that they would never mention to their own side at all. Fergie kept extremely quiet with the Germans. He would never talk to a German without the use of an interpreter, and even then he spoke in his strong Glaswegian accent. No-one knew that he spoke any German at all. But the point was that he went round in battledress, and he was the only bloke that any German could talk to who could be guaranteed not to pass on what he heard to the Gestapo. Fergie was taken round, initially, by a soldier, because he wouldn’t have known where to go outside the camp. Quite early on, one of these guards admitted that he had a brother serving in the army. Not what you might call first class news, but it was a start. It turned out that the brother was guarding the establishment at Peenemude, the rocket development place up on the Baltic. Based on what he learnt from this chap, he put two and two together, and sent back a report to England. One Sunday afternoon, Mike (Mike Quartermaine) and I were deciphering our incoming radio mail. The first message started off: “The Chiefs of Staff send their congratulations”. We didn’t know exactly what it was about, but what had happened was that Fergie had passed the information about Peenemunde straight back to MI 9, in a coded message. He wasn’t the only source of information by a very long way. There were dozens of other people, but it was an entirely different grade of confirmation. And as a result of this, the RAF went and ‘sxxt on it from a great height’ (August 17th, 1943). I was told afterwards that Fergie had got the map reference of the headquarters building correct to within 10 metres, which caused considerable amusement to us, because the RAF came and sxxt on it, with the main point of impact 10 metres away. However, it didn’t make a lot of difference. The result was that they hit a lot of the accommodation for all the scientists.

 

Another piece of information that Fergie gained was in December 1942 when the Americans had a direct hit and bombed a subway under railway tracks in Munich. They had actually killed almost an entire S.S. battalion, which had been hiding there from the bombing, but they didn’t realise it. Three weeks after this event Fergie was told of it by his villagers, and was able to pass this information on, even though it was never in the German newspapers.

 

Steganography - This is the art of putting cipher messages into plain language text. Messages sent this way and put into censored letters were difficult to spot unless you knew how to find them. It was quick to do but difficult to decipher. Bob Melton, the Chief Security Officer, had a core of 30 letter writers and they were used one at a time to send information back in letters. About 1000 letters were sent and censored weekly. I sent one coded letter to my Mother who realised something was wrong, and contacted the Radio Society of Great Britain but they weren’t sure what it meant. The following week-end my sister Ruth, who was working for MI 9, realised it was special. She took it to London where they recognised it as a coded message, and it was deciphered. It was a request for radio set parts, and subsequently these were received. They came by parcel, and partly through luck and partly through our shovelling parcels around when they arrived, (though we did have a dummy parcel ready in case), they got through the censors. I kept my radio and brought it back to England but have no idea where it went to!

 

Leaving the camp - The Americans were advancing rapidly so we were ordered to leave the camp. However, this was a false start, as we were machine-gunned as we left by Americans not realising we were Allies and 2 or 3 people were killed. We returned to camp and started out again the next day and this time Jack Higgin was to run the show! The German Guards were sent to reconnoitre for barns, where we could sleep “the Guards were given to understand it would be worse for them if they didn’t!” We were eventually moved after a great deal of walking to a huge camp of about 50,000 people which included Americans, Russians and a few British. After a number of false alarms and messages from the BBC, we were at last flown out of Germany to somewhere in Northern France by the Americans, in Dakotas. When we asked the pilot how he knew where to go he said: “I just follow the guy in front!” It was 1945, and the war was now at an end in Europe and after being cleaned up and de-loused a Lancaster bomber took us back to England, somewhere near Cambridge, where nothing much happened. After 24 hours I caught the train home to Gloucestershire. My Mother opened the door and I said "I’m here".

 

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