Lieutenant Edmund Filford Scrivener
Unit : No.10 Platoon, A Company, 1st Battalion The Border Regiment; 1st Airborne Division.
Served : North-West Europe (captured).
Army No. : 292013
POW No. : 601
Camps : Oflag 79
Edmund Scrivener was born in Fulham, London, on the 10th September 1916, the third of four children. His grandfather, Richard Scrivener, was a stonemason and had built the Victoria Monument that stands outside Buckingham Palace. Edmund became a cub reporter with the Evening News but parted company with them at the age of 17. He became a grocer and, in 1936, married Elisabeth Ball. In 1939, he joined the Royal Artillery as a private soldier. Eventually he was promoted to Lieutenant and transferred to the 1st Border, a gliderborne battalion of the 1st Airborne Division. He fought with them at the Battle of Arnhem, where he was captured. The following account, "Episodes From an Uncertain Memory", begins shortly before his capture. To read the remainder of his story of the Battle, go to http://www.pegasusarchive.org/arnhem/edmund_scrivener.htm
I came to a long gully, and met a glider pilot in a bit of a state. He asked me if I could fire an anti-tank gun, and when I said yes he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the end of the gully. There was a six-pounder, its crew dead around it, and one round of ammunition left. What a scenario for Errol Flynn! Iíve never moved so fast in all my life. I clambered up to the gun, shoved in the round of ammo and looked around for the tank. I couldnít find it! They found me though. A hail of bullets hit the metal shield and white-hot bits of metal flew off, some of them into my leg. I fired my shot off Ė God knows where it went. It wouldnít have done any damage even if it had hit the tank. I slid down into the gully and limped away to the First Aid Post, where I saw again that young soldier. He neednít worry anymore. The MO wrapped my leg up; it wasnít very serious, just a bit awkward to walk, and made for the door to try and find my way back to my platoon. The MO stopped me. He had received information that we were surrounded, and it was only a matter of hours before we were captured. He would appreciate it if I would stay and help him with the walking wounded. We got a bed sheet, pinned a red cross on it with some red curtains, and hung it outside in a prominent a place as we could. Then we just sat and waited.
As dawn broke there was a hammering on the door, and when I opened it there stood two Germans with guns at the ready. The MO and I gathered together all the wounded who could walk, and lined them up outside. We straggled off to captivity.
When I limped out of the first aid post at Arnhem, and joined a long parade of prisoners, I had mixed feelings. Firstly, that I had got away so lightly, and a strange feeling that it wasnít me at all; it was a dream and I was watching this drama being enacted from the outside. Some rather edgy Germans with nasty looking guns soon brought me back to reality. They had managed to gather together some Lorries to carry the walking wounded, and the prospect of getting a lift brought a sudden worsening of my war wound; in fact it got so bad I could scarcely walk. The ploy worked, and we scrambled aboard and were carted to a huge shed in a town called Apeldoorn some miles north of Arnhem. There we were sorted into other ranks and officers; the other ranks marched off to a Stalag somewhere and the officers locked into cattle trucks and taken off on a tour of Germany that ended in Offlag 79 at Brunswick. When it comes to being a prisoner of war, itís the other ranks that come off best. They are allowed to promise not to escape, and therefore the supervision much more relaxed. Indeed, many of them were sent on farms, where their food rations were supplemented. Not so the officers. We were forbidden to give any promises of good behaviour, and were expected to take every opportunity to escape that offered itself. We, therefore, were much more closely guarded, and never given the chance to relieve the boredom by working outside. For some, who had been prisoners for a long time, as long as five years in some cases, it became just too much, and they slowly mentally declined. When they were eventually released they were afraid of freedom and took a long, long time to recover. Some never did.
Offlag 79 was a very large group of barracks that had been the home of a German parachute regiment, and after being photographed, finger printed, and given our name rank and number, we were allocated to a room in one of the large three storied buildings.
I recall with some amusement how we had it drummed into us that never were we obliged to give the Germans any information other than our names, rank, and number. In spite of torture and death, our lips were to be sealed. The Germans didnít seem to be interested in any information apart from our names, ranks, and numbers which they were required to pass on to the International Red Cross. They had separate camps for Army, RAF, and navel personnel and I was more than a little surprised to see standing in front of me in the queue at the table to give our names, ranks etc, a sailor! Complete with bell bottoms. The look on the face of the German officer when he looked up and saw him was worth at least three months of my incarceration. An airborne sailor? It appeared that he was on leave while his brother was piloting a Dakota that was dropping supplies at Arnhem, and he had been invited to go along for the ride. Some ride, they were shot down and captured! The poor soul was absent without leave until he got back home.
If my army career was a joke, my time as a prisoner was a sick joke. It seems incredible that my six months as a guest of a crowd of pantomime Germans really happened, and I havenít made it all up. The farther one gets away from the events of the past, the more one wonders about their authenticity; but I couldnít have made all this up, could I? I have tried my best not to be economical with the truth, but it may be that some of these events as I describe then are but an approximation. Which is true of all autobiography. Anyway, why make such a big deal of it any way? After all I was a prisoner for only six months out of a life, so far, of 73 years. Well, you may be interested; itís good for a laugh.
The camp was in one of three woods that were about half a mile away from each other. Of the other woods, one was empty, and the other had a Herman Goering aircraft engine factory, the latter being a target for American bombers. Unfortunately the yanks chose the wrong wood. Our camp was bombed and the aircraft factory left intact. They knocked hell out of Offlag 79, fortunately before I arrived, but a considerable amount of damage was done; worst of all the cookhouse was flattened, which meant that we had no hot food except German coffee which was made from acorns and tasted vile. Miraculously no prisoners were killed, indeed one of them saved the life of a German soldier, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross! Imagine fighting a war and the most prestigious medal you get is from the enemy.
Our name for the Germans was Goon, and most of them were unfit for active service because of age, or had been wounded. Some had very nasty frost bites from service in Russia, missing fingers and toes and ears hidden beneath black patches. One of them spoke to me in quite good English and, after searching in his pocket while I held his rifle (!!) he produced a photograph of his wife and children and told me their names. I told him of my two girls, and then looked him straight in the eyes and said, ďWhy are we fighting each other?Ē He hesitated for a long while, as if he had never asked that question before, then his eyes began to fill with tears, I touched his arm and walked away. To tell the truth I was damn near to tears myself. What utter stupidity. There were we, ordinary family men what ever language we spoke, trying to kill each other. What madness had we come to? We smiled and admired each others children, and then done our best to make them orphans. If that doesnít qualify us for the Looney bin, what the hell does?
The rest of the time in the camp would have been very enjoyable if we hadnít been so bloody hungry. We had nothing else to do, so we spent most of our time just making a nuisance of ourselves. Every morning and evening we had to parade our barracks and were counted, and about once a fortnight were kept from going back to our rooms while they searched looking for any forbidden belongings. We had three radio sets hidden away, and were told every day of the content of the BBC news, which displeased the goons no end because it meant we were learning the one thing the goons never wanted broadcasting; that the Allies were winning. The amazing thing is that the radios were never discovered. We also used to make ourselves a little stove to heat up some of the food from the Red Cross parcels, and the occasional cup of cocoa. These were forbidden because they operated on wood, and since the only wood around was in their buildings, we were gradually pulling the barracks apart. Had the war gone on for another year the entire set of barracks would have collapsed. On some occasions, before they let us back in the buildings they would check us against their files. For each of us they had a card on which was recorded our names, finger prints and photograph, and it was this last that they wanted to check. They would often find that though the photo showed a clean shaven man, there stood before them a fellow sporting a splendid beard. He was marched off to the photographer and soon another photo adorned his card, this time with a beard. Alas, the next time they checked the photo boasted a beard but he didnít. Off to the photographers again, and so it went on.
At least twice a day a couple of goons would wander into a building, hoping to catch somebody up to no good, but as they were spotted cries of ďGoon upĒ would be heard all over the building, warning anybody who was up to some nefarious activity. Even the goons would join in the fun, and upon entering would themselves shout out ĒGoon upĒ before starting on their tour. Whether they realised that they were warning us of their presence I donít know. They must have been incredibly stupid if they didnít. But food was the problem. There was nothing to do all day but think about being hungry. The rations dealt out to us from our captors were a bare minimum; a few boiled potatoes a day and a small piece of black bread once a week. And once a week was enough; it tasted awful. However, with the Red Cross parcel every week, which about the size of a shoe box and contained all sorts of goodies like cigarettes, corned beef, dried milk, spam which made life bearable. But it couldnít last. By Christmas the country was in such a state that no trains from Switzerland, or Lorries from Sweden could get through, and soon the number of parcels dwindled first to one a fortnight, then to one a month, and finally stopped completely. Life was no longer a joke and some astonishing trading went on. Those who didnít smoke had saved up their cigarette ration and now began to trade them in the most avaricious way. I saw gold watches worth hundreds of pounds change hands for a packet of fags. These so called officers and gentlemen indulged in the kind of greedy behaviour that no private would have dreamed of sinking to.
In the same room as me were six Canadians, and while we were getting our parcels we all set aside the packet of sultanas that each parcel contained that we eventually put into a globe shaped lamp shade with sugar and left them to ferment. The theory was that in a month or two we would have some delicious white wine. It worked! We found some bottles and decanted the precious liquid into them, to discover later that the bottles had been used before to store paraffin. Came the day for our booze up, we got stoned out of our minds and created some mayhem, but no ill effects, except scowls from our fellow inmates. One chap, a South African Colonel, ventured to protest, but when the six Canadians advanced on him he took to his heels. I have never discovered why Canadians and South Africans hate each other so much, but they do.
If we were to accept all that one sees in films and on TV, then we should have spent every moment of the day in planning escapes, but towards the end of the war it just wasnít like that. Mind you, there was what was known as the cloak and dagger dept., who seemed to be able to get up to the most amazing antics. There were even two men in the camp that the goons didnít know were there. I knew because I found them tucked away in the corner of the attic when I was up there trying to find some wood for my stewfor. They hadnít seen me so I made my way to the office of the SBO (Senior British Officer) to warn them of the two shady characters who were hiding in the roof, only to be told politely but firmly to keep my big mouth shut or else. I later discovered that these two guys had been planted there to help in any possible escape plan. If somebody wanted to escape one of them would take his place in the roll call for two or three days, and then disappear back to his hidey-hole. This left the goons starting to search for a runaway who had actually taken off days before. While I was there one chap made the attempt but he didnít get far; he was brought back and spent a month in solitary for his impudence.
Another, and only other attempt, was a laughable mass escape that literally collapsed. In the basement the walls consisted of large stone blocks about two feet square, and a group managed to lever two of the blocks out and started digging a tunnel. They were fortunate in that they were able to surreptitiously dispose of the earth into the bomb craters left by the yanks. It turned out to be an appalling wet winter, and when they had dug themselves under the fencing a whole section of the barbed wire fencing, and the poles that supported it slowly subsided and leaned over at an angle of 45ļ. We were all lined up for roll call at the time, and captors and captives alike watched fascinated as the twenty foot high fences collapsed. And that was the end of any bursts for freedom. Without decent food we were too weak to try a breakout, and we just sat back and tried to survive until our liberators arrived, which they did in the form of a huge red-headed Irish American Sergeant and a squad of GIís. The guards trotted off happily to the guard room and dumped their arms, and then vanished. All night long we had heard the sounds of battle going on in the distance, but fortunately the fighting by-passed Brunswick. The freedom we now had was a bit of an anti climax; we had nowhere to go. One or two brave spirits set off to find food, without much success, and another chap and I went and had a look at the Herman Goering works. It was a mess. Workers, who had been draughted in from countries the Germans had overrun, wreaked their revenge on that place and then set off in search of some of their tormentors. They found one or two.
Because our camp had once been a parachute camp, it had its own airfield next to it, and we were told that we would be repatriated by air as soon as possible. There was some delay in finding available aircraft, which wasnít surprising, but after a fortnight suddenly, out of the blue, a whole crowd of very dilapidated looking Dakotas landed neatly dodging a number of craters. Half were flown straight to England, and my half was taken to Brussels where we were deloused, fed and bedded for the night. I remember going into a large hall that crammed to the ceiling with every kind of food that a human could eat. All free! Cigarettes too. Maddeningly our stomachs had shrunk, and we were able to eat very little. The next morning we were flown on to England near Aylesbury, and driven to a sort of staging camp where we were given battledress, passes, money and identity papers. It is said that it is happier to travel than arrive, and on that train journey to the north I was so happy that I almost didnít want it to end.
When I arrived at Lynemouth, Elizabeth had gone to Ashington to queue outside the butchers to get a few sausages. Winston, Elizabethís younger brother, set off to fetch her, and when the women waiting heard the story, pushed her to the front of the queue. Geordies are like that. Whatís more, I came home a hero. A wounded veteran of Arnhem. (I had to keep reminding myself to limp) Stand back, give the lad a seat, and buy him a drink. What a phoney I was. Six years in the army, two weeks fighting, well skulking in a wood, six months idling in a POW camp, and I come back home a hero. They even let me into the cinema for nothing. My red beret was the Open Sesame! Shamefully I made the most of it. My two brothers had done more fighting in an hour than I had done in six years. Praise God they also came back alive. Truly, the Scriveners are like whiskersÖ They always come back.
How it was that we escaped with our lives God alone knows. I must ask him when I meet him. As Iím sure I shall in due course.
E. F. Scrivener 1992
After the war, Edmund Scrivener became a teacher and was also an Acting Member of the Questers Theatre, Ealing, probably the largest and most prestigious amateur theatre in the country. He retired from the teaching profession in 1981, having held the post of Deputy Headmaster. After suffering a stroke, Edmund Scrivener died in January 2003.
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