Sergeant John Frederick Gilbert
Unit : Royal Army Ordnance Corps, attached to the West Yorkshire Regiment.
Served : Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Crete (captured).
Army No. : 4536393
POW No. : 95899
Camps : Stalag IVB, IVA.
John (Jack) Gilbert was in the army pre-war (West Yorks Regiment, Ordnance). When war broke out he was stationed in Palestine. The following is the account of his war.
Egypt to Crete
We had a miserable Christmas in 1940. We were on 24-hour standby in Egypt; forever being told we’d be off next morning. We eventually left just after Christmas. We embarked on the Ulster Prince from Alexandria. On the trip to Greece that boat did everything but turn upside down. Everyone was sick! I’ll never forget our arrival. It was evening and the reflection of the setting sun lit up the windows of the houses of Pireaus. The Greeks gave us flowers.
My base was in Menidi. Our job was to create a depot to hold the stores. Trains would come in from Pireaus bringing goods from the ships, and I had to make sure the site was right. There was a ravine, full of snakes, running through the camp, and a humped-back bridge provided a crossing place.
I had a gang of 250 local labourers as well as 60 women who garnished the camouflage nets. Initially, our only transport was a man and his horse and cart. We paid a day’s wage for him and a day’s wage for his horse and cart. We were expecting a visit from the Brigadier, and just as he arrived, the horse and cart came clip-clopping over the bridge. ‘What’s this?’ he said. ‘You’re allowing civilians in your depot?” We replied, ‘No Sir. This is what the British Army deemed fit to give us as transport.’ We got a sharp look, but the next day, three lorries were delivered by Canadian troops.
Sometimes we were invited to the labourers’ homes. The staple diet seemed to be rabbit stew but they would often place three or four hard-boiled eggs by your plate. If you ate them they’d give you more, yet they were so poor. Once we realised, we made sure we never ate them all. Sometimes we went to Athens where you could get a cream cake and a brandy for the equivalent of 5p.
Around April the Germans pushed us out of Athens and we moved to Crete, where I did the job of Sergeant and Quarter Master. A lot of our lads were poorly kitted out. They had no trousers, only shorts and it used to get chilly in the evenings, so I would drive out and scrounge at other depots. One day I saw some civilians and Greek soldiers jump into the ditch. I had no idea what they were trying to say, but I followed. Suddenly, we were surrounded by Austrian Alpine troops and taken to a little airstrip at Malami. I was made to sit with my hands on my head for what seemed like hours. Then I noticed a German helmet on the ground nearby. I reached over, put it on, and slowly stood. I walked away, all the time expecting a bullet in my back, but somehow I managed to get back to my unit. We escaped over the White Mountains, sleeping in caves, but our freedom was short-lived. One morning, we were woken by a German voice saying ‘For you, Tommy, the war is over!’ We were force marched back over the White Mountains, shipped to Athens and then to Germany.
Initially I was taken to Mühlberge transit camp. The barrack rooms held up to 400 prisoners. The beds were three tiers high and we were in blocks of four backing onto each other with just a foot between the beds for access. Crammed in. It felt like Dante’s Inferno.
I reported a toothache. The following morning there was a shout: “Those for dental treatment step forward.” The dentist brandished a pair of forceps, glanced in my mouth and took the tooth out there and then, no anesthetic, nothing. I yelled my head off. It bled for ages.
One morning, 120 of us were put on a train to Grüberstfeld. We got off the train, then marched for five miles through heavy rain. Next morning we started plate laying to prepare for railway lines. I worked for nine days solid, without a break, although I couldn’t be forced to work because I was an NCO. The ninth day was a Saturday and I was told I was working again on Sunday. I said ‘I’m an NCO and I’m not working.’ I was told my Sergeant’s stripes were not recognised, so I produced my AB64, my army pay book. You were not supposed to keep them when you were fighting but there wasn’t much in it, only records of inoculations, promotions etc. I got the day off. A small victory.
This was in October. We were there until March, when we started to rebel. We said, ‘That’s enough, we’re having a lay in!’ The Governor (a short man with a Hitler moustache and a hairnet!) threatened to get soldiers on motorbikes to machine-gun us down. While he ranted the German medical orderly who was standing behind him (a nice old boy, who sometimes slipped you half a cigarette) shook his head and motioned us to keep quiet. ‘Don’t believe a word,’ he was signalling to us. ‘Stand up to him.’ Which we did, and within two days we were sent to Salig 4A, division headquarters.
Headquarters was a castle called Honstein, set in beautiful mountain scenery. We went before Colonel Schmidt, who told us, ‘You were supposed to go to an NCOs camp, but I have a job for three of you in Prossen in the parcels department.’ We were going to run a post office!
The International Red Cross sent supplies of food and clothing to POWs, which were distributed via the parcels department. All nationalities were represented: French, Polish, Yugoslaves, and later Italians and Dutch. The parcels came in by railway wagon and we’d unload them. If it was a mixed delivery for all nationalities we’d form a chain. Every parcel was counted off the wagon. We’d call the count in French or German or English, whatever language we were taught. The parcels would be separated by nationality, then we’d check the address and make sure each parcel was secure, before sending them to the camps. Each parcel contained a tin of margarine, which wasn’t nice (you could cook with it but it tasted terrible on bread) a tin of jam or marmalade, a tin of bully, meatloaf (horrible stuff) a slab of chocolate, tea and coffee. A lot of the boys didn’t like coffee. Boxes with coffee in had a red stencil; those containing tea had a black stencil. I’d swap some of the coffee boxes with the French. Some camps asked specifically for tea. We tried to make sure they got what they wanted.
Occasionally, we’d get tea chests delivered from Canada. They were fantastic. A large box of very palatable biscuits, a half-pound slab of chocolate, real dark chocolate, not the blended stuff we used to get, tins of cheese. But that wasn't often. I also got parcels from the Rotary club in my home town, Rotherham and received clothing parcels from Canada. I got a hand-knitted pair of socks once, and on trying them on, felt something prick my toe. I thought someone had left a needle in, but it was a note. It had been screwed up and the edges were sharp. It read: To whom it may concern, and was from two Canadian spinsters who had a fruit and poultry farm. They adopted me and over the years sent me shirts, a lumber jacket, a pair of lace up walking boots.
My other job was as welfare man. If blokes had trouble at home, say their wives had run off with somebody, I’d have to write a report to the Red Cross on my little portable typewriter because if a wife nipped off, her allowance was stopped.
Life went on reasonably well. The Germans let us go for walks on Sundays, with a guard of course. Prossen had some beautiful countryside. As time went by, if we wanted to go off on our own, we’d give the guard a couple of fags. They trusted us. We would go for a beer in a guesthouse or inn. The beer was homemade, sweetened with saccharin, no strength to it. We shouldn’t have been there, but nevertheless, we were regulars at one particular place, and one Sunday a man and a woman sitting near us asked, “Du bist English?” I replied that I was. “So are we. From Manchester.” They were two of a trio of acrobats who had been with Sarasani’s Circus. They were on the run, staying in village after village. If they heard Gestapo were in the area, they’d go somewhere else. We started taking them chocolate, cigarettes, and so on, and one day they gave us a radio. It was a Volkset, a little brown Bakelite thing. It was raining, so I had my ground sheet with me and walked into camp with the radio under my arm covered with the ground sheet. We had to hide it, of course. In the corner of our room was a sandbox for fire. One of the Frenchmen was a carpenter, so no one would think it unusual if he was seen with a saw. He cut the bottom out of the sandbox and raised it high enough to take the set. He made a door out of timber, using invisible hinges. We had that radio from 1942 until the end of the war. We would listen to the 10 o’clock news with someone posted outside the barrack room to warn us if a guard was coming. The Germans never found it!
These little jaunts made life bearable. One Saturday we played football against the other nationalities using the Hitler Youth sports field at Badschandau, two miles away. The guard who accompanied us was well over seventy. He had a wound in his hip from the 14-18 war. I’d taken some refreshment: something to eat and homemade beer, spiked with wood alcohol. We left him on a bench and he was quite happy, knocking back the booze I’d concocted. Halfway through the match he was asleep on the bench. By the end, he was completely sloshed! Two of the lads walked with him, arms around his shoulders. I followed behind with his rifle over my shoulder. We walked through the gates of the camp and the gate guard’s eyes popped out! I think we gave him a few cigarettes to keep quiet. No one in authority ever found out.
We didn’t try to escape that day. It wasn’t worth it. All the bridges were heavily armed. You had to be well prepared for an escape. The only way to do it was on foot cross-country. Stalin hadn’t signed the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners so the Russians didn’t get anything from the Red Cross. They had to rely on German rations so when they escaped, the first thing they did was seek food. They would murder for food. You might get out of your own area but you’d soon come into somebody else’s. It didn’t seem worth escaping the Germans only to be killed by a starving Russian.
After a while I was promoted to Man of Confidence at Prossen. Part of my new job was to investigate the civilian factories that asked for POW labour, to make sure they were carrying out direct war work. One day I had a call from a chap I knew from another camp. He was Jewish. He and some others were being taken to a new factory. All the workers selected were Jews and were understandably worried. A guard accompanied me to the factory, which manufactured electric motors for industrial carpet sweepers. We were greeted by a jovial little man in a checked suit. He wanted English workers even though they cost more. I inspected the factory. It was very clean but I wasn’t happy with the exercise facilities. I was told they had access to the Hitler Youth’s football pitch. We were taken around the accommodation, which had single beds (not bunks) lockers, tables, comfortable chairs. The sanitary arrangements were out of this world. The showers were built with Pilkington glass blocks, spotlessly clean. It looked like the boys were going to be okay there. And they were. Thankfully, the fact they were all Jewish seems to have been a coincidence! I don’t think the factory owner knew.
At 5.00am on Monday 7 May 1945 a guard woke me. Our Camp Commandant wanted to see us at 9.00am. We’d guessed why. We still had our radio. We got up and started packing. After four years, we’d accumulated a lot of gear, so we scouted around the village for a cart. The Camp Commandant told us we’d be taken in the direction of the American lines.
‘I’m not sorry to see you go,’ he said. Then his eye caught sight of the radio sitting on the table. ‘What’s that?’
‘A radio,’ we said. ‘We’ve had it for two and a half years.’
‘Gruss Got!’ he cried. ‘I’d have been hung if that had been found!’
It was a beautiful day. There we were with our cart: two pulling, two pushing, the rest walking beside, waiting to take our turn. Around midday we stopped for a snack. At that point our elderly guard decided he’d go home. We agreed, thanked him, and gave him a few cigarettes and some chocolate for his journey.
Towards evening, we entered Czechoslovakia. A farmer housed us in his barn, gave us potatoes and sausages to eat, and after a sound night’s sleep, we set off again early next morning. Around midday, we entered a village, parked our cart by some trees and sat down to eat. The road through the village was busy with civilians, Russian soldiers, ex POWs. Suddenly, aircraft flew over; Russian planes. They machine-gunned the road. It was diabolical. Not only were their own troops there, but civilians too. Most people dived into the woods, leaving behind their few pitiful possessions. Our cart was hit. We emerged from the trees to find our belongings hanging from the branches: a sock here, a shirt there. It was almost amusing! We rescued most things, but the cart was damaged, so we packed the essentials into haversacks and decided to split up into parties of two. Me and Happy Sad, so named because his surname was Sadd, set off, following the telegraph lines. It was hot, so we strolled along. We had plenty of time.
That afternoon we came across a German soldier. He was leaning against a tree, and in the woods behind him, we saw a dozen men in striped uniforms, liberated from the concentration camps. They surrounded him, and when they left him ten minutes later… well what a sight: a mass of blood and rags.
We spent the next two nights in a converted stable in a village, which I believe was called Sobochalbend. It was the Czechoslovakian border the Germans put in when they annexed the land in 1939. People brought us food and drink, wanting to talk to us. We stayed up until the early hours! We rested for a day and were joined by a dozen or so POWs of other nationalities. We got word the Russians were on their way so we bolted the doors and put out the lights. We didn’t want any trouble with them. They went through with lots of noise and shouting.
Next day we saw the Russians properly for the first time. They’d set up a makeshift checkpoint and were checking the papers of all the Germans to make sure they weren’t SS. We didn’t see anything happen, but we were told that at the end of the road where most were sent, was a group of Russians with Tommy Guns.
We’d been walking for a few hours when we came to a crossroads. Down one road came a chauffeur-driven open topped tourer in which sat a couple of high-ranking German officers. By this time there were six of us, all armed. We stopped them and asked where they were going.
‘To the American lines.’
‘You’re going the wrong way,’ we said. ‘You should go this way.’ We pointed to where we’d just come from. We told them they didn’t need their car. Of course, they started arguing, so we produced our revolvers. We took everything they had. My watch was stolen in 1941 so I took one of theirs. We took binoculars and food and saw them on their way – towards the Russians.
Finally, we reached the checkpoint at Regensberg. From there I flew to Rheims, and was finally returned to England in a Lancaster Bomber flown by an Australian crew. I landed in Watford and was met by the ladies from the WVS, armed with char and wad (tea and cake) in one hand and syringes in the other. One of them came at me, brandishing a syringe, which she tried to force down the back of my neck.
‘What’s that for?’ I cried, pushing her away.
‘Delousing!’ came the reply.
What a welcome home!
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