Gunner John Bell
Unit : 293rd Battery, 74th (Northumbrian) Field Regiment, RA.
Served : France, North Africa (captured).
Army No. : 916823
POW No. : 250793
Camps : P.G. 70, Stalag IVC.
I left school when I was 14 years old and started work as 2nd Boots in The Crown Hotel, Penrith. It was hard work. I had to go around at midnight to make sure all the people in the hotel were in their rooms and their shoes were outside the door ready for me to pick up. I used to carry a large butcher's basket for them. I had to write the room number on each sole of the shoes so I would know who they belonged to when I took them back. I took them to the janitor's room then I put black or brown polish on them according to their colour. That used to take about one hour for the lot. It would be about 1 o'clock in the morning. I used to practically drop into bed. The following morning I was up at 4.30am, down to the janitors room, polished the shoes and then took them around the hotel rooms on tiptoe and put them at each door. This was usually between 6.30 and 7.00 o'clock. Then I went down to the servants' quarters, and had a slap up breakfast. The only two good things about the job was that you had plenty of good food to eat and you got plenty of tips. The snags were that you only got one half day a week off, which was from about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I used to go to bed and stay there till the following morning. In those days, this was normal work for young people. I was there for about 9 months and then left and came back home.
I was at the dole-school in Jarrow for a while so that my parents could claim 2 shillings from the dole. Your parents, if they were not working and on the dole, could claim for family, even those between 14-18 years. Once you were 18 years, you claimed for yourself. Of course, they used to hand it over to my Grandmother for my keep, for what it was worth. This was in 1932 and the North East, like Scotland, South Wales, Yorkshire and Lancashire was full of people who were practically all unemployed. I got a job with my Uncle Jimmy when I was around 17 years old, heating rivets for him in Palmers Shipyard, it was also hard work, but every job in those days was hard with long hours. This lasted for about 6 months, and then we were all laid off. His son Jimmy, was heating rivets for him in Swan Hunters, Wallsend in 1935, when his Dad was crushed by a plate.
At 18 years old, I went to Watford on a 6 months scheme to be a Fitter Improver. When I was in Watford we were taken by the Instructors up to Watford Bypass to see the Jarrow Hunger Marchers on their way to London. After my 6 months course, I was given a job in Addlestone, Surrey, as a Fitter Improver. It was a good job and had good digs, but I was the only Geordie there. Of course, there were a few Scots and Yorkies and we got on well together. The rest were Cockneys, and we had more fights than enough with them. I had a battle outside the factory after work with one, and gave him a good hiding, and that made it worse at work. The Jocks and the Yorkies started leaving the factory, so I did the same.
Shortly after that, I came home and got a job on the Ballast Hill in Hebburn New Yard. I was nearly 20 years old then. I worked there until I was just turned 21. My pal Albert Wilson decided to join the local Territorial Army. We went to Hebburn Drill Hall but the 293 Field Artillery had been sent down to South Shields, where the Regimental H.Q. was. The Shields Battery 296 was in the R.H.Q. in Bolingbroke Street. The 293 Battery in Hebburn had heavy Ack-Ack Guns and we didn't fancy those. We saw a Sgt Hutton who was a signaller, and all the signallers from 293 Battery went down with the guns, because they were field signals and no good for A-A Guns. He took us down to South Shields, and we joined the 293 Battery there. This was in February 1939. The same month, we both got a railway warrant from the dole to go to Tidworth, Wiltshire, to start work on a site to build new Army Barracks next to the Regular Army Barracks for militia men being called up. We lived in bell tents in a field not far from the Barracks. There were six of us living in each bell tent. There was a N.A.A.F.I. canteen nearby where we used to buy our meals as, apart from our wages for working, we received 24s.6d. lodging allowance. We were there for about 3 months, when I was put on a job with some other workmen, hand penning a road. It was a hard job, rough on the hands, and back-breaking. We all demanded 1 penny an hour extra for doing this job. The Foreman in charge of the job refused to give us the extra money so all of us on this job walked off and demanded our cards. The following day, we went to Bulford Camp as the same sort of work was going on there, and we started immediately. Albert, when he got to know where we were working, left Tidworth, came to Bulford and got a job with us. We lived in huts, not bell tents, but there were more battles than enough. So on a Saturday after finishing at 12 o'clock we went into Salisbury and looked for digs there. We found a good lodge and asked if we could move in the following day. We settled down in our jobs and the months rolled by.
In July and August we were watching the regular soldiers, whose barracks were close to where we worked. They were loading lorries with all sorts of gear, ammunition, food, clothing, etc. We used to ask them what was happening. They said "There's going to be a War". We laughed it off.
WWII - Mobilisation / Dunkirk 1939 / England 1940
On the Friday (1st September) before war broke out, there was general mobilisation notices posted on walls in Amesbury and Salisbury. As we were going back to our digs from work, I told Albert we would have to pack in our jobs the following day and go back up north as the notices were for Reservists and Territorials to report immediately. We told the landlord in our digs that night, and got our pay and cards. We paid our digs when we went back and on the Sunday, caught the train from Salisbury to Waterloo, then the tube to Marylebone and from there the train to Newcastle.
We went home, then reported down to the drill hall in Tyne-Dock. The Sergeant Major told us we should have reported on the Friday. We told him we had been working down the South, and had paid our own fare up from there. When we got our fare refunded, we only got two-thirds of what we had paid as that was what the Army paid for the fare of each soldier, we complained but never got the difference. We were given a medical check by a Doctor in the drill hall and we were both A.1. Then we went to a small room at the end of the drill hall and saw the paymaster and received our uniforms, did gun drill, rifle drill and route marches, then caught a troop train which took us to a place called Northbeach in Gloucester. When our guns arrived, we took them in convoy down to Larkhill, Wilts. to calibrate them.
Albert and I took some of the lads to Bulford, which we had only left about six weeks before. We were at Larkhill about a fortnight, then back to Northbeach. In late November we were inspected by the King (George 6th) at Witney in Oxfordshire, as we were the first Territorial Division to go abroad in the Second World War. In the middle of December we were sent home for a week's leave "single men first" and married men got the Christmas leave to say goodbye to their wives and children.
About the 6th January, we were sent to Southampton to embark for France, our guns and trucks had gone over the week before, a destroyer guarded us going over and we landed at Cherbourg. We travelled from there with our guns, about 300 miles to a French village, not far from Alencon. From there we moved to Bouvelles. We were billeted in the barns amongst bales of straw and used to get a lot of laughs as the barn rats used to run over your bed through the night and some of the lads were afraid of them. We used to get into Armiens a lot, as it was only about 3 miles away, but we could only go on alternate days. The French Troops used to go on the other nights as they got a lot less army pay than we did so they paid less for any food and drink they bought. The reason they put us on alternate days to the French was because, before we arrived the French and British troops were allowed to go into the city together but some of the British troops were in this Estaminet, and were half tight, they then saw the French troops pay a lot less for their drinks than they did, and asked the reason why. They would not accept the reason the French waiters told them and started on the French troops. There was a big battle in the Estaminet, and the place was smashed up. The Military Police were called in and French and British troops were arrested and that was the last time they were allowed in Armiens together.
We left Armiens and went to the Belgium border to a place called Douvren. All these places including Armiens were a big battleground in World War 1. We went once to Vimy Ridge and saw the Canadian Frontline, and the German Frontline, they were about 100 yards apart. There is a huge statue on the top of this rise and around the plaques on it, are the names of the Canadian soldiers who died there, a quarter of a million men. Things were quiet at Douvren where we were billeted till about the middle of May. We knew something had happened because Jerry bombers especially Stukas, started bombing us. After a few days, we were told we were moving into Belgium.
That night we set off at midnight in convoy, I remember the Military Police with Belgium MP's directing us through the frontier. The first town we came into was Tournai, and the civilians were giving us bottles of wine. Before this, Belgium had tried to stay neutral, and that was why the Maginot Line, which the French had constructed, was only between France and Germany. The Belgians would not let the French out as it's against their border. It was a big mistake the Belgians made, because Jerry came through the Albert canal into Belgium and spread out behind the Maginot Line, the British troops got the bulk of the fighting. Then, because our guns and tanks, were no match for the Germans, apart from the fact that the Germans had over a million troops against us, and we had only three and a half hundred thousand troops - we dropped into action at the other side of Brussels, doing a bit of firing, then we would get an order to pull back. We eventually arrived back at the Belgian border. We had our guns aimed across the bridges at the road where the Jerrys were coming down, when we could hold them no longer, the bridges which had been mined, were blown up by the Royal Engineers. At the battle of Arras, we advanced, but the French on our right retreated and the Belgians packed in. We had to pull back because we were nearly encircled. It was more by good luck than judgement, that we got back. Our Officers did not know what was happening. The Fifth Columnists were causing chaos, one of them dressed like an MP was on the cross-road, and directed a troop of Artillery up this road, where the Jerry was coming down, it was nearly the finish of the troops. The majority got back. Anyway we kept retreating.
At one place, we were firing in front of us, behind us, to our left and then to our right. We realised we were surrounded. The 6th, the 8th and the 9th D.L.I. were our infantry who we supported, they came from our front to our rear and engaged the Jerry infantry there. We had his tanks in front of us, and when the D.L.I. had punched a hole through his lines, we were ordered to go through it. We were glad to get out of that. The B.E.F. led a charmed life. But if we had as many troops as the French, I'm not saying we would have beaten the Germans, but we would have created a stalemate.
After many encirclements, and getting out, we were nearing Dunkirk. At the time, we knew nothing about what was happening there. We came to this huge road block of trucks, the drivers were wrecking the engines. We were amazed when this M.P. came up and told us to spike our guns, and head for Dunkirk, we couldn't take it in, our Officer came back and verified it. We put a shell down the muzzle, a shell up the breech, got two drag ropes, we fastened them together, then fastened one end to the firing level and played the other one out. The Sergeant took hold of it, laid flat, told us to get farther back, pulled the rope. The two shells met in the barrel and burst it. We were a bit disheartened to lose the gun, but all the gunners felt the same, and case we could not get past with all the vehicles in front of us wrecked. We got through cars and trucks and made our way to Dunkirk.
Albert got fed up with walking and told me he wasn't going any further. In the meantime, in one of these trucks, looking for something to eat, as we were very hungry, we found a seven pound tin of Corned Beef. Nearly all the grub that had been in the truck was gone. I opened the tin with my jack knife, which all Artillery men had on lanyard, and we started to eat it. I spotted one of the lads form the battery coming down the road, he was a Cockney and he had a three quarter bottle of whisky. I said I would give him the corned beef for his whisky. He accepted the swap and was away down the road eating the corned beef. I gave the whisky to Albert, and he had a good swallow. I had a drink after him, then I said come on Albert and away we went. When we got near Dunkirk, we saw all the smoke. Actually a few miles before that we had seen smoke, but we did not realise that Dunkirk was on fire. An MP was on duty, turning us to La Panne Beach.
When we got on the beach it was pandemonium. Jerry was bombing the beach with Stukas, his fighter planes were strafing and his long-range guns were shelling us. We were there two days, if not more. I forget now. It was chaotic, you formed a line at the water's edge, and when the Jerry planes come over, you ran for cover in the sand dunes. Some got hit. There were dead and wounded everywhere. At last we managed to get on a Navy Cutter. When it was full, they took us out to a large M.T.B. When the M.T.B. was full of troops, it upped anchor and sailed out to this large ship, about half a mile out in the water. It had scrambling mats over the side, which we climbed up. The M.T.B. then went to the position it had come from, dropped anchor and waited for sailors on the cutter to fill it up with troops again. We were on this ship a few hours, and were glad when it upped anchor and started out across the channel, as some ships lying at anchor waiting to be filled up with troops were being strafed by fighters or bombed by Stukas. Anyway, the ship we were on, was an armed Merchantman called H.M.S. Esk, it took just over two hours to reach Dover and we were glad to see the white cliffs.
WWII - England 1940
We arrived at Dover and disembarked quickly, then the Esk was quickly away back to Dunkirk. The Navy were doing a grand job. The M.P.'s at Dover were directing us on to the train, in the siding. We were given tea and a bun by the W.V.S. which we were glad of, and a field post card on which we told the family and my Gran I was alright, and then gave it to a civilian to post out of the train windows. The train took us to Reading. We could hardly get through the stations on account of the civilians clapping us on and some shaking our hands and also giving us cigs and sweets. You would have thought that we had won a victory instead of suffering a defeat. There were trucks outside the station for us.
After about 10 minutes drive, we stopped outside an army barracks which, we found out, was called Tilehurst Barracks. After a week, we were then moved to Reading Barracks, they made us fall in. The following morning they called out the units that got out of Dunkirk. If your unit was called, you fell out, and were given a railway warrant, and proceeded back to your own unit.
About a fortnight after, Albert and I thumbed a lift outside the barracks to London, as I knew our Marty lived in Willerden Green, although he had just got married. He got a shock when he saw me and Albert. We stayed with him for a week. Marty and his wife looked after us well and gave us money to have a drink. Marty took us to Paddington Station and bought us both a single ticket to Reading as he was worried that we might get picked up by M.P.s in London.
When we got back to the barracks, we were stuck in the Guard Room for the night. Next morning the C.O. took a strip off us, but sent us to see the Transport Officer who told us our regiment was in Okehampton. Before we went, we asked the Paymaster if it was possible to get some money as we had drawn no pay for a fortnight. He checked our pay books, found out it was right and gave us a week's pay. We got to Salisbury, found out that we had to wait for a connection to Okehampton and so went to see our old landlord and stayed at his home that night. The following morning we caught the train to Okehampton. Our unit wasn't there. The whole of the 50th Division were at Knutsford. When we arrived there we got 2 days leave, that's all any of the B.E.F. got, as we were going to be the front line soldiers if Hitler invaded England. As we had been in action, we were classed as old sweats. We came back from leave and the full 50th Division moved down to Dorset. Each troop was given a Ross rifle and 50 rounds of ammo. We were given Infantry training as, at the moment, we were waiting for field guns.
We were billeted in Melrose Abbey in a village called Askerwell. All the houses had thatched roofs, it was only a few miles from Bridport. We received French 75 mill field guns. They were the old American type 75 mill, they had wooden wheels, which shows how old they were. There was such urgency to get into position with the guns, we tested them by firing into Portland Bill, of course, the Navy had warned shipping. We went into gun-pits, dug by the "Pioneer Corps" on a rise, it was about 400 yards to the end of the cliffs in front of us, the D.L.I. were entrenched. The village behind was Litton Cheyne, we had bell tents behind us, hidden under trees for camouflage. We did 24 hours on the guns and 24 hours off. When we were off we used to go to Litton Cheyne to stretch our legs and have a cup of tea, beyond that was out of bounds. We were all penned in the areas. Our division, the 50th was covering from Portland Bay down to Bridport. We saw some dogfights above us between Jerry planes and Spitfires, because we were told Germans knew there were no Ack-Ack guns for 10 miles along the coast. That's why our planes used to catch them coming into that area from across the channel. There were a lot of German planes flying low over our heads, back to France, sometimes you could see they had been hit and they were limping back home. Some crashed into the sea. Well as they used to say "Hitler missed the boat"
In late September we went to Tiverton in Devon and received new twenty five pounder field guns from Woolwich Arsenal. Late October after we were efficient on them, we went to Okehampton, and tested them with live ammunition. They were great guns. We returned to Tiverton in the middle of November, and day after day gun drill again and again. Early December we did a diversional scheme on Exmoor, it was snowing and cold. At night we just slept in our trucks. The scheme finished and we returned to Tiverton, and received Khaki drill. We knew then we were going abroad again, very shortly. Then we got orders that guns, gun towing vehicles and gun limbers had to be taken to Port Talbot for shipping abroad. Our sergeant, Jim Mills, myself (being Limber Gunner) and our driver Bill Handyside travelled down with our gun. We left them at the docks, spent the night in a billet at Swansea and the following day we travelled back to Tiverton.
We were given a week's leave, married men got Christmas (1940) week to be with their family (some of them would never see them again). In early January we travelled from Tiverton to Glasgow, in fact the train went right down to the Docks. We got off the train with our kit and went straight up the gangway onto the ship. We were there about six days because the workmen had not finished their job. After they finished, we sailed up to Gourock and hit a sand bank. We were all taken off till the divers went down and had a look to see if there was any damage. Everything was OK so we went back aboard again. Through the delay, our ship missed the convoy and we were stuck in the Clyde for another week before we sailed.
WWII - 1941/1942
We had ten Destroyers with us and an old Dorsetshire Class Cruiser. There were three ships in convoy and we travelled abreast. We were the Troopship, whose name was "The Duchess of Bedford", it was a P & O Liner. A port boat was on one side of us with tanks on for the desert and on the other side a ship full of ammunition, but there was plenty of space between us. The Destroyers were placed, three each side of us, two in the front, and two in the rear with the old cruiser. We travelled due North, then turned and travelled due West. We were only about 350 miles from America when we turned and started travelling South East (we were told by the crew of our ship).
We had a few scares with the Destroyers dashing here and there, dropping depth charges. One morning, after about a week at sea, we looked out and realised the Destroyers had gone. The crew told us we had passed the Meddy and were out of danger zone for U-boats. The Destroyers were away back to Liverpool for another convoy. On the tenth day, we went into Freetown. As we went up the river, we saw a couple of big boats half sunk, the river was shallow and their keel was on the bottom. They had been bombed and sank by the Italian planes operating from the Vichy French in Dakar, which is about 300 miles from Freetown.
We were given our first dose of quinine (liquid quinine) and it was horrible but we had to take it. The Merchant Navy crews, and some of the crew from the Cruiser, were allowed ashore, but they would not let us 3000 troops go. After three days in Freetown, we left en-route for Cape Town which took about 12 days. Before we arrived, we were assembled by the O.C. - Troops and lectured on behaviour in Cape Town. There were cars at the dockside waiting to take us either to town or their homes (the civilians with the cars were mostly British).
Some of the lads accepted going to their homes, but Albert, Kipper, Eddie Weirs and I just wanted a lift into town, We were amazed at all the food in the shops and the clothing and at night it was ablaze with lights. We were well received if we went into a shop to buy anything and they wanted to give it to us for nothing, but we didn't want it that way, then they would only take a fraction of what it cost (the same happened before, in England, at the W.V.S). We would go in, order a meal or just a snack plus tea or coffee and there was a box at the door where you could put money in if you wanted to when you were going out. There was also writing paper and envelopes so you could write letters home, leave them and they would stamp and post them home for your. We were sorry when, after just over a week, we left Cape Town and turned to go up the Indian Ocean. We passed Durban, Mombasa, the Seychelles, and although we stopped at Mombasa for a day to refuel, we went into Aden fourteen days after leaving Cape Town. From Aden we went up the Red Sea, then into Port Tewfick, the start of the Suez Canal.
We left the ship, went by trucks to a place called Qassasin on the "Sweet Water Canal" where our guns were. After a fortnight there we went by road up to Libya. We were a few weeks in the line, nothing much happening when we were pulled out with our guns, trucks, etc. and after about three days arrived in Port Said. All of the regiment, apart from the Limber Gunners, Drivers and Sergeants were put on an Australian Cruiser called the "Hobart" and sailed away. A few days after that we followed on an old tramp steamer, nobody knew where we were going.
The battle for Crete was going on at the time, but we knew the Army were evacuating troops from there. The crew told us we were going to Cyprus. At the time the Army thought Jerry was going to invade Cyprus after Crete. Anyway we arrived at Famagusta and when everything was unloaded from the ship, we picked our guns and trucks up, the trucks being filled with petrol in the meantime, and set off inland. We were lying just outside Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. We had the Cypriots digging gun-pits around the coast line for us. After about 6 weeks, we got orders to pack our kit, we were moving out but we were leaving all of our trucks, guns, etc. behind. We arrived at Famagusta again, and three Destroyers were there. We climbed on board. The one we were on was called the "Jervis" built in Leslie's shipyard in 1938. Kiipper worked on it, and one of the O.P.'s called Billy McAndrews, a Hebburn lad, also worked on it as a Fitter. We, all the gang, (Kipper, Albert, Wears, Melvin and myself) spent our time down on the mess deck drinking tea and eating. The following morning we arrived in Port Haifa, Palestine. We all went ashore, and picked those guns and trucks belonging to the troops who had gone over to Cyprus in our place. They were brand new guns and trucks. The troops had come from England with them.
After a week at Netanya, not far from Haifa, where we had been sent, we pulled out. We did not know where we were going. We went through the hills of Jericho, into the Jordan Valley, then across the Jordan desert when, in the distance, we saw Arab Horsemen who swung around to flee. When we got the order "Halt Action Front" we stopped, brought our guns into action, got the range and the order to fire. In the meantime, some of the D.L.I.'s (our Infantry support) went by us, on our flank in bren gun carriers and they started firing as well. Then when the remainder of the Arabs had disappeared, we stopped firing.
Our officers told us why we were going to Iraq - The Iraquian Levees, under the command of Pasched Ali had taken the oil wells over and all the Europeans, Engineers and so forth were under house detention. The Germans at the time were fighting in the Caucaucus and, if they drove the Russians back, part of their army could come through the Caucaucus then Iran and Iraq and it's oil would be stopped for the west. Anyway, we went into Iraq, past Habbanya R.A.F. Station and chased Levees with the R.A.F. bombing them through Baghdad then at Kirkuk they made a stand, but an Indian division had landed at Basra and had come overland, they came up behind them and had some Ghurkas with them and between us we gave them a good going over. The Levees broke off fighting and we released the civilians and other white personnel at Kirkuk which is called K1 pumping station and it still is. We pursued the Levees right up to the Iranian border then we came back to Mosul Town, which is also near the Iranian border. From there we went back to Kirkuk as Raschud Ali had been air lifted by the Italian Airforce to Italy out of our reach. There was order in Iraq again, and after a month we moved out as a unit had come to relieve us.
We were on the move again this time to Libya, we went across the Sinai Desert after we came out of Iraq. Then across a bridge into Egypt and stopped at Luxor. The journey from Kirkuk to Egypt took us about a week, as we were just travelling over a 100 miles a day. At Luxor there was general maintenance of guns, and all vehicles, and we got a bit of time off to look at the Sphinx and Pyramids, then we moved up into the line again at Gazala in Libya. We were doing our stint of patrols which would last about 6 days, as there was a battle. The Front was static, till early May when Jerry moved against us, and we stopped him, but he bombed our mine fields, came through, and overran our sister regiment 72 Field Regt, RA (they were part of the 151 Brigade) then fanned out behind us.
On May 15th 1942, our sappers lifted the mines in front of us, and then moved forward into No Man's land, then turned south, the other part went North, and the South Africans went with them. We were well into the desert when we turned west, but at times we had to fight our way out. The South African's had got out to Tobruk, but the Germans surrounded them and they took about 11000 S.A. prisoners. We did not know this till we got to Bit El Telata, we, the 8th Army were coming in dribbles. After three days we were sent back in, as Jerry was coming in too fast. There were only eight guns out of twelve now, and we passed the remainder of our guns coming out, as we were going back into action again. We were heading for Sollum, but were told by soldiers coming back that Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Tobruk had fallen. We pulled off the coast road about 30 miles out of Mursha Matruth. We had a company of D.L.I.'s with us, but nobody knew what was happening, our Officer 2nd Lieutenant Poole-Hughes, was the only officer with us, and he didn't know much either. Later that day we got Captain Cheeseman, a good officer, he was in charge of the eight guns. The following morning there were very few British trucks going back.
We got the order Tank Alter, and took post, but A Troop had to take the tanks on as we, B Troop has to pull out. We went onto the coast road down towards the seashore and dropped into action again. We could hear A Troop guns firing but we realised that some of the guns had been knocked out, as the firing was getting weaker and then there was no firing. Captain Cheeseman came back down to us and told our N.C.O.'s what had happened, all the guns had been smashed up by the tanks. We were ordered to limber our guns by the Captain and pull out, we went along the seashore parallel with the coast road on our right and the German's were on the coast road, they stopped and started to fire, but the shells were too high and went into the sea. Slowly we got ahead of them and pulled onto the coast road, and went speeding down towards Mursha Matruth, we had to stop, before we got into Mursha Matruth, our Engineers jumped out of a slit trench and stopped us. They had mined the road, as they had been told that there were no British Columns outside it. Anyway they lifted the mines then we went past and told them about the Jerry tanks behind us. They soon put the mines back and followed us down the road. We were in Mursha a few days with Jerry shelling and bombing it, when we were told by our Officer we were going south on a map reference as the Jerries were encircling Mursha. We pulled out and, after a while, we stopped at what was our map reference and got the guns into action (there were now only four guns). With us we had a company of D.L.I.'s and when our trucks were about a couple of hundred yards behind we all dug slit trenches. We were there about three days and Jerry had sent some tanks in but they were few and we drove them off. Then our Sergeants asked the Officer why we were staying, the Germans were going past us, and we must be well behind their lines. He said he could not move until he got an order.
WWII - Prisoner of War
All hell broke loose when a couple of nights later, the Jerry infantry opened up from behind us and shot our trucks up. The D.L.I.'s were engaging them, we couldn't do anything as we couldn't shell our own wagon lines. Some Jerry infantry had come close and opened up, our Sergeant got hit in the thigh. We got behind the gun limber and I put a field dressing on him. The next thing I saw was a young Jerry infantryman come out of the darkness and shout "Hands Hoch" we looked at him, not taking it in, when his mate came up and shouted "Snell". We were marched off the guns, and made to lie on the sands, no blankets, and told to go to sleep. We were that tired that it didn't take us long to drop off.
At first light, Jerry came shouting and bawling at us, we could not understand them, so we just ignored them, they started pushing us about, till we actually got to know what we had to do, we had to bury our dead. The majority of the dead were D.L.I.'s. After that was finished we had to fall in, in threes, and told to march away, we went for a few miles, then the Jerries handed us over to some Italian troops.
The first thing they did was search us and they took anything from us that was valuable, watches, rings, amulets, even some photographs, such as soldiers' wives, sweethearts or any photo they took a fancy to, they were scavengers. There was some fighting and gussling over the photographs, till the Italians started using rifle butts to smack us about, so the lads just handed over what they wanted. We marched about two days across the desert, and we saw these Jerry soldiers coming over to us in trucks, they were base soldiers. We were trying to make them understand what the Italians had done to us and they made the Italians return everything they had taken from us, and then started slapping them about. We laughed our heads off, although we were tired, thirsty and hungry.
That night we were sleeping in this Wadi, when there was a rumble of trucks. I was half asleep and our driver Billy Handyside was shaking me. He said it's the 7th Armoured Division, it had broken through Jerry lines at Mursha Matruth and was heading for the British Lines. I was still sitting putting my boots on, when they started firing at us. I dropped flat and Billy dropped screaming, he had his hands around his face. I got them pulled away and his mouth was wide open. I realised he had been shot through his jaw. I had an old handkerchief which I put around his jaw and fastened on the top of his head. A few of the lads had managed to get on the British trucks, but a lot were laying around wounded, naturally, what happened was, we were behind the enemy lines and the 7th Armoured Division thought we were either Jerries or Italian troops, because it was dark and they could not see that we were British P.O.W.'s. The following morning was a shambles. The Italians had no medical supplies, so we could give no treatment, they started to march us across the desert. I had my Sergeant on one side with a wounded leg and on the other side was our driver with a broken jaw. We marched another two days like this with wounded men being helped by their mates or other soldiers.
Eventually we saw a lot of buildings in the distance and when we got nearer we realised it was Tobruk. We marched about 140 miles across the desert from just outside Mursha Matruth to Tobruk. At Tobruk my two mates Jimmy Mills and Bill Handyside were taken to hospital with the rest of the wounded prisoners and I never saw them again until after the war. After a couple of days in Tobruk we were taken down to the harbour and put on board a German Cargo boat. The Italian guards tried to put us down the holds, but there were too many of us. The Captain and all the crew stopped them, because the Jerries had no liking for the Italians and vice versa. Anyway, we set off up the coast to Benghazi.
One incident on the ship, which made us laugh was this Italian soldier, he was leading our lads a hell of a life, of course he had a rifle, we had nothing. The following day, before we got into Benghazi, the Italian Officer lined us all up, and through this British prisoner, who could speak a bit of Italian, he asked us if we had seen this little Italian soldier as he was missing, nobody had so that was that. We got off the ship, and were marched through the streets, thirsty and hungry, to the camp outside the town, it was a terrible camp. The Italians had no interest in us and we got to know in the camp about the soldier who went missing on the ship. He had laid his rifle on the deck and was standing looking out at sea, when a couple of our lads crept up behind him and with one of them on each side, they toppled him over into the Meddy, then they slung his rifle in after him. All this happened in the early hours of the morning and naturally it was very dark and none of us ever got to know who the two were. We lost one of our mates with dysentery, Geordie Melvin. It shook us up at the time, but there were many dying that you got hardened to it - if it was possible - Geordie and Kipper Heron joined the Territorials together, they both served their time as welders in Leslie's Shipyard.
After about two months in Benghazi about 800 of us were marched back down to the docks, put on board a ship and straight down the holds which were fastened down and we were all in darkness. We were in those holds for four days, no water, no food, and the place stank of urine and human excrement, we had the place allotted to us where we sat and you could not move anywhere, we were packed like sardines. When the ship stopped and dropped anchor, we had an idea we had reached land, then the seamen took the planks off the holds, and we were nearly blinded by the light after being four days in the dark. We were lying about half a mile from the wharf side, so they had to take us there in small boats, still no food or water.
When all of us were ashore, we were marched through the town which was Brindisi - it is on the heel of Italy. The civilians were trying to give us water, but the guards were trying to stop them. Brindisi is also a holiday resort, and when we went up this coast road, the sea and beach on one side, and hotels on the other side, we saw a lot of German soldiers at the hotel windows, they were throwing cigarettes down to us and when we were trying to pick them up they were filming us, nearly every one of them had a camera. Then one of our lads started shouting "Leave the cigarettes, they only want to take photos for propaganda purposes". Very few of our lads then touched them and if any had picked them up, and put them in their mouths, one of the lads near him would pull it out and stamp on it. We realised it was the station we had been heading for, then we saw the trucks and we were herded in like cattle again, 40 in a truck. After a few hours locked in again, sweating, thirsty and hungry we moved out of the station. We travelled about three hours, then the train pulled into a siding. The guards opened the truck doors, and motioned us to get out. We were lined up and counted again to see if anyone had hopped it, from going through Brindisi to the station, the laugh was they had counted us as they put us in the cattle trucks at the station. A queer race of people which we were to find out were the Italians, and cruel into the bargain, but we led them a dance and even the jerries, although they were their allies, they had no time for them. An ordinary German soldier could make a sergeant in the Italian army stand to attention, when he was talking and he could do nothing about it.
The place we arrived at was Bari. From the station, when we arrived we were marched to a P.O.W. camp outside the town. There were all nationalities of P.O.W.'s here. West African Rifles (Black), British and South African Troops. We got on alright with the South Africans of British descent and the Blacks, but we couldn't get on with the South Africans of Boer descent. They tried to treat the Blacks like animals. We, the British had a big fight with them and they moved all the SA's to another camp.
Shortly after that we were sent to a permanent camp, but it was a long way in cattle trucks from Bari. We were the best part of 24 hours travelling and then we marched to another small siding and the train we got on was like a scenic railway, this time we were sitting in proper carriages but they were rather small and only took a few of us at a time. It had to go uphill all the way.
When we had all been transported to this station in the hills, we were formed up again, counted then marched off to the camp which was not far away. The camp was PG 70, we were the first P.O.W.'s in there and we were in No 1 compound. Eventually, when there were 2000 P.O.W.'s in they started No 2 compound at the finish there were 4 with 2000 people in each, so there were 8000 P.O.W.'s in PG 70. After a lot of argument I got myself a wood cutting job. There were eight of us in the party, we used to go into the Italian quarters to cut it. If they had left the wood in the compound with the P.O.W.'s it would have all been stolen to make fires for tea, little puddings and so forth, which we received in our red cross parcels. Without these parcels we would have all starved to death, mind you, when there was none, some lads died of starvation, others with dysentery, T.B. and a form of Yellow Jaundice.
We, in the wood cutting party used to tell our mates to come near the wire and when the Italian guards moved away from us, we used to sling the wood over for the lads. The wood we cut up was for our British Cooks to make "skilly" for the P.O.W.'s. It was terrible, and there was no filling in it. It was 90% water, with a bit of turnip, gherkins and other Italian vegetables but our M.O. in our camp had said we would slowly starve to death as there were very few vitamins in it.
After about a year there we knew our troops had beat Jerry in Africa and the Italian soldiers were telling us the war would be over very soon. It was for the Italians, they signed a separate peace with the Allies, but the Germans fought on. The Italian guards left us in the camp and just disappeared. We knew Jerry would try to take the camp over, so the majority of us just beat it.
We started to walk south to try to join up with our troops who had landed in the South of Italy and the Yanks at Salerno. We were starving, footsore and tired. We used to walk all night and at first light in the morning, we used to go into the woods off the coast road which we walked on to find our way south. Jerry was sending tanks and trucks everything like that down this road to try and stop our troops from advancing.
After about 10 days walking we were captured by Jerry again, and after being shoved all over the place, we were put in cattle trucks 40 men in each one, and after arriving at Verona, we were left in the station and all the guards took cover, we were bombed by American Flying Fortresses, they made a mess of the station, but they never hit our train. We went through Brenner Pass into Austria, then into Southern Germany, where we halted in some woods. The trucks were unlocked, and opened and we were thankful for fresh air because after being cooped up for four days the trucks stank of urine and refuse, but what could we do. We were hungry, thirsty and tired. The Jerry guards had S.S. Troops with them, who had alsatians on leads, we did not know why they were there and why we had stopped in these woods. We found out later as we were marched and came into a clearing and saw the huts, it was a concentration camp. We found out later that they had moved or done away with the people who had been there before us.
It was a terrible place, very little food, and in a couple of weeks we were in bad way. Next to us in another barbed wire compound were Russian P.O.W.'s who had incurable diseases. One day we saw one being brought out by four Russians. He was naked and they were half dragging half carrying him. A P.O.W. with us, a Russian Jew, who had lived in Palestine and had joined the British Army had been talking to them across the wire, and they said when anybody died, they stripped them, took their bodies to the pit, then poured quick lime over them, which burned the bodies to stop any germs going around the camp. Eventually we were lined up one day and marched out of the camp. We marched a long time and then we came into this small town, which we got to know was called Muhlberg. It was the main camp. We were going to Stalag IV.C.
There were about 2000 P.O.W.'s in this camp, all British, the majority of them were permanent staff, they all looked well fed and had clean battle dress. We still had our khaki drill uniforms, short pants and khaki drill shirt, most of us were all ragged. We had a hot bath and they gave us erjatz soap which was hard just like pumice stone and old an old rough hessian type towel. After the hot bath a Jerry was sitting in a seat we had to go to him. He had a big paint pot, the stuff was like creosote, and smelt like it. He dipped the brush in the pot, daubed it around our private parts and our armpits, it didn't half sting. We were then given these old battle dresses, which had just come out of a de-lousing machine, and were all creased, but we were glad to put them on as they were warmer than our old tropical gear. Before we had our bath, we had all our hair cut off with sheep shears, not even a quiff - bald as a coot. we got our P.O.W. number and had our photographs taken, mine was 250793.
We were in the Stalag about 4 weeks when about 100 of us were detailed to be sent on this job. We did not know where it was, nor what it was. We marched down to this station, and were put in a "civilian train" - we had one carriage to ourselves with about 10 guards. We travelled about 3 hours, of course in between, the train was stopping at stations for the civilians to get on and off, we got off at a place called Brux. We were lined up and marched off by the guards, and as we progressed we saw wooden huts, and some with barbed wire around them and the usual guard towers around. We stopped at the tower outside the gate, the guard made the one inside open up, and we were marched inside. As usual they counted us. We were then taken and given a straw palliasse and two thin blankets then marched to this block. There were 6 rooms in a block and every room had 24 men in them. We were told to get into one and pick a bed. They were double bunk beds. I picked the top one, put my palliasse on it, then made my bed with the thin blankets. We were given some thin soup, a couple of pig potatoes with their jackets on and we put them in the soup. We also got 300 grams of black bread. We wolfed the lot down and then got into our bunks and went to sleep.
The following morning we were roused out of bed by the German guards, lined up outside, then marched out of the gate for about a mile and then we saw this, what we thought was, a large trading estate. We were puzzled seeing all these gantries with all these heavy pipes on them, and they went for miles around the place and then onto these big dome like tanks. One of the lads asked a guard what sort of factory was this and he said "Benzine Fabric", a petrol factory. We had seen all of these wagons, full with coal, and all around us for miles we could see coal mines. They brought the coal here from the mines, it was then processed and from it was made petrol, ammonia, margarine and a lot more by-products.
We told the guards this was "War Work" and P.O.W.'s were under the "Geneva Convention" forbidden to do war work. We were left for a while as the guards had gone to see their officers. Later the guards came back with a "Feldwebel" who started shouting at us and the guards unslung their rifles and prodded us through the gates into the factory. About ten of us were sent to work for a firm called "Thieme". They worked on these 12" pipes, cut them to size, put bends on some of them, then put them on a small cart, dragged them to these gantries where the Jerry tradesmen who we worked with, were waiting for us. We then climbed up onto the gantries, fixed a block and tackle where the Jerry indicated it had to be put, dropped the hook down to the pipes and one of the lads had to bite around the pipe with the chain, then had to pull on the chain till the pipe was up against us. We then got it into position, then put a washer on the flanges and then put the bolts in it and fastened it to the next pipe. It was a boring job apart from the fact it was heavy work and we were living on starvation rations. Only the Red Cross parcels kept us going. God help us if the people couldn't get through, Jerry would still make us work on the rubbish he was giving us.
The whole synthetic oil plant had across it's main gates in huge letters "DER HERMAN GOERING FABRIC". All of the tradesmen were Germans and were exempt from the forces. The Jerry who was over us was called Walter, all he was worried about was getting our Red Cross cigarettes, swapped for food of course. He did well out of it otherwise he wouldn't have bothered. If he had been caught he would have been put in the Army in a penal battalion on the Russian front. They didn't last long as they were starved, not fed like the ordinary German soldier and they were all given suicide jobs to do. I worked with this little Jerry welder, pipe fitter and plumber. He did three trades in one and like all the other Jerries in the factory knew they had lost the war. He used to tell me in broken German for me to understand, that all he wanted was to return to this home in Ashersleben just outside Dresden, when the war finished, to his Frauen und Kinder.
A Czech worker called Slanek worked with us, and three French P.O.W.'s. The Froggies had been there since 1940 (now 1944) and one of them called Kanak, a huge fellow, used to tell me about the vineyards he had in the South of France and how he longed to get back to them. He, like all the French, hated the Germans, but Kanak was the only one who openly showed it. I got a laugh one day although I was starving - Willi the German asked me to ask Kanak the time. I did not know much French, so I asked him the time in German, "Wie Spat es?" Kanak looked at me shrugged his shoulders and said "Ne Pas Comprend" being French for I don't understand you.
One of the other French P.O.W.'s told me Kanak would not speak German, nor would he try to understand it, like the rest of the French P.O.W.'s he had been there nearly 4 years. After that if Willi asked me to find out what time it was, I used to ask Kanak in French which was "Quelle Heur est il? he then answered in French and I had to tell Willi in German. We were hungry, but we got a few laughs. All of the civilian workers, also the rest of the P.O.W.'s used to think we were daft on account of us always having a laugh, more so the Germans, but we used to tell them "You have all their countries, but you haven't and never will get ours".
We were roused out of bed in the morning at 4.30 am, nothing to eat, one of us used to go over to the cookhouse and bring a dixie or erjatz coffee over, it was horrible, it tasted like sooty water, we used to take an old tin which we saved out of our red cross parcel and put some coffee in it, take a drink of it, rinse our mouths and then spit out and threw the rest away.
We left camp at 5.00 am got to the factory at 5.45 am started work at 6.00 am, breakfast time was 8.30 am. We hadn't anything to eat, but we all used to go in the cabin with the civilians especially in the winter as your feet were frozen with the snow as the clogs we wore let the water in as the uppers were all patched, and the patches were hanging off. We had no socks and we were given "foot rags" two bits of linen, one for each foot and these were cold even in the summer time.
We started to get air raid sirens going but it was a break for us as we used to get a spell from work and we never saw any planes. But towards the end of May 1944 we had our first air raid, when the sirens went we thought it was another false alarm, but over came these American B.20 Bombers. They were in 4 or 5 formations. I forget now, but they came from different directions to bomb the factory. At first we were dumbfounded, but when the bombs started to fall down, we were off our marks, making for one of the main gates. The factory was roughly 5 square miles in size and had about 8 gates in it. The gantry where the pipes were fastened was hit a few times, the flames were travelling along the pipes which carries the oil, petrol and other by-products which can be got from coal. The ones which carried petrol and oil were the worst, as the flames travelled all round these pipes into the huge petrol and oil tanks and they were exploding. Anyway, we reached one of the main gates and put as much space we could between us and the factory, but we were grabbed by some soldiers and marched back to our lager.
We were kept away from the factory for over a week as there were a lot of unexploded bombs which were lying about. Our job was to dig the dead out of these small air raid shelters which were just below the ground level. It was hot and smelly work as all the bodies had decomposed. We dug them out and laid them in lines on the ground. The guards had to go through their clothing for identification. One young guard who had never been in action used to tell us what he was going to do when he went up to the front. We used to kid him about it and the older German guards who had been in action either in Africa, against us, or on the Russian front, couldn't be bothered with him. After a couple of hours work we had the bodies out and they stank. All of a sudden this young guard collapsed. One of the old guards gave him a drink of water to bring him round. After the guards, like us, used to say to him "Primma soldaten" which means good soldier. We used to laugh our heads off. It was little things like this that made us forget how hungry and tired we were as we were working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. You had to have a fever or something like that before they would let you stop work.
I was sent to jail in the camp for a fortnight for drying my foot rags in the forge. I was supposed to be working. Our "ganger" a Jerry shouted S.S. coming, and he disappeared, our lads with him. I was trying to get my foot rags on, to put my feet into my clogs, when this young SS fellow came in. He called me all sorts of names in German and then shouted "Was bist du?" I said "Kriegsgefangener" "Was Soldaten?" I said "ein Englander", more shouting in Deutch, then he was on about "Arbeiten fur der Seig" meaning working for victory as if we had an interest in their victory. I had taken my Stalag Disc out of my pocket which I knew he would ask for. He took my name and number, glared at me and walked about. About a fortnight later when we had returned to the Billet after our work stint, we had just had our skilly which was just a bowl of hot water, with a few bits of turnips and carrots in it, a couple of what we called "Pig Tatties" because that was what they were supposed to be for, not human beings, we also got our 300 grams of black bread, which were supposed to keep, to eat at work the following day, but we used to break it and dip it in our skilly, and eat the lot as we were really starving. This guard came into the hut, shouted my name out and said "Komm mit du biste fur der bunker" meaning come with me you are going into jail.
I spent fourteen days in the jail, it was grim, your rations were cut down and we were starving to begin with. We were "roused" at six in the morning and had to put our bed outside in the corridor, your bed was comprised of three pieces of wood 6 feet long by six inches wide, two small trestles about 8 inches high, and an old pallias full of flattened straw. I do not think the straw was changed from the time we came into the lager (camp) till the time the Russians freed us. You rinsed your face, went to the toilet, then back in your cell, which then had nothing in it, you then either sat on the stone floor or walked around the cell to keep yourself warm, as there was no heating in the cells. About 7 o'clock at night the guards opened the cells, you went to the toilets, came back, took your palliasse, trestles and the three boards into your cell. A bit later on you were given about half the rations you got working and that was a day of your life in jail. The laugh was in the camp, there was that many "Englanders" due to go into jail, there was a waiting list. By the way, these cells we were only 8 feet square and we were all in solitary.
I went back to work after my fortnight in jail and was glad to be able to talk with somebody and to get back on full rations, although I was still hungry. The Russian front and the German front was so close to us and the Russian fighters, at times, used to fly over the factory and machine gun us, but the factory being that big, there was plenty places to shelter in, only when the American or British Bombers came over did we run to get out of the gates into the fields for cover.
Christmas 1944 rolled on. The Red Cross managed to get Xmas parcels through to us and we were glad as we were in a bad shape, as with the Red Cross parcels being stopped for a while, we were slowly starving to death, as what the Germans were giving us to live on wasn't enough. Christmas Eve (1944) we sat in the billet and listened to the Gerries in their camp singing carols half drunk, but the carol that made us think of home was the German carol "Heilige Nacht" or in English "Silent Night" we all started to sing it in our huts. Christmas morning naturally we were all off work till after Christmas. We got our Christmas parcels and started trying to make a bit of a Christmas dinner, about eleven o'clock, the sirens went, there was heavy snow on the ground, in fact the snow had been lying since October, when it had started to snow, it was very foggy and we were saying we would not get bombed on Christmas Day. But, we heard the planes and knew they were the Yanks, we rushed out of our billets and headed for the potato cellars, as that was about the only bit shelter in the camp which was safe, except of course a direct hit.
They hit the camp with some of their bombs, and carried on straight through the factory, and made a right mess of it. When it was all over we went back to our huts, ours was burning so we lost everything, more so our stuff out of the Christmas parcels. There were nine of our lads dead in the camp, and a few taken to Hospital who had been wounded, so we never had a Christmas dinner, in fact it took us hours before Jerry got us pushed into a hut, which was crowded to begin with.
We went back to the factory after Christmas, the poor old Russian P.O.W.'s had been there right over Christmas. The Germans had them trying to tidy the roads that had not been blown up and serviceable so they could get the trucks in to clear some of the debris out of the plants, to see if they could make some part of the factory work again. Early spring came, even the German workmen were not working, they would only work when a squad of SS Troops would come around the factory looking for saboteurs, or anyone that wasn't working. Shooting was common-place now if they caught you not working, they could shoot you where you stood. We took our chances like the Jerry workmen, we used to go around in the factory trying to find something to eat, as the Germans had cut our rations right back.
In March 1945 we started to see the Jerry troops coming back and people had to be there to actually see them, and believe it, the smart and tough Germans were no more, the way we saw them anyway. He was like us starving, lousy and nearly asleep on his feet, some of them were practically barefooted, quite a lot had frost bite, and these were the base soldiers. We began to wonder what the front line soldiers were like, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but we never passed any comments now with the Germans, as it would only take a wrong word for him to shoot you and he would get away with it. Life was very cheap then in fact if they knocked you off, there was one mouth less to feed, even the German soldiers were starving and they were fighting for their country.
Towards the end of March, there were still German troops coming back on the main road in front of our camp and we could hear the artillery and rifle fire, now very distinctly, we knew the front line was not very far away. More so our guards were packing all stores to pull out and we did not know whether to hop it when we were took to work, or wait till the Russians over-run the camp, because we knew the Germans had no place to take us to with the Russians coming from the East and the Americans coming from the West, and there was only a couple of hundred miles between both Forces.
Coming Home 1945-1946
One morning in the beginning of April 1945 we heard explosions in the camp, we jumped up, out of our foot rags and clogs on, as we always had all of our clothes on in the middle of winter, as it was that cold, with only one blanket issued to us, and apart from that, the sudden air raids on the factory and us so near it, you had to be ready for a sharp exit. We found out that Jerry was pulling out that day and leaving us, we went around the camp, keeping out of the Jerries road, but having a look at the stuff they were leaving behind, mainly food because we knew that there would be no hot "skilly" or bread now that they were going and we did not know if the Russians had any food with them. We had been told by different sources that they were just living off the land as they went along. We saw lots of footwear near this hut which the Germans had left, as the Russians were only a few miles away and they were in a hurry to pull out. There was a free fight over food and footwear amongst us as the Germans disappeared.
I got a pair of German's boots, tried them on and they seem to fit alright, but in any case, if you threw them away you would not get a pair at all and with your clogs gone, you would be in your bare feet. We went and had a look at the air raid shelters the Germans had made us dig a few months previous because if we were in the line of fire we might be shelled in the camp. Then, where the German flag had been flying on the flag staff, we put up a make shift Union Jack one of the lads had made a week before.
A few days went by then there was no more Jerry transport coming down the road we knew then the Russians could not be far behind. A few shells passed over the camp but none came into it. We then saw Russian infantry coming across the fields, some came around to the gate, as they had seen the makeshift Union Jack flying on the flagpole and realised who we were. They had bottles in their hands and offered them to us to have a drink. One lad had a sniff and said that there was petrol mixed with the vodka, so we told them in broken german as, they being front line soldiers, would understand a bit of german and none of us could speak enough Russian to be understood. We told them we had "Keine Essen" which means no food. They told us to go down to the village just outside the camp and get anything we wanted.
Our sergeant, who was in charge of the camp, had also been sent to Stalag when we first arrived here. His job had been to look after our rations and so forth in the camp and as a go between for us with the Germans. We let a few days pass by and when we thought things were quiet in the village, the sergeant let us go down, telling us if possible, to keep out of the road of the Russian troops. We went down for there was very little to eat in the camp, we got a shock in the village, all shop windows had been broken and everything taken out of the windows. I picked up an old tobacco pipe and put it in my pocket, but we were only interested in grub. Some of the lads got drunk with the Russians, but the majority of us refused because the Vodka they had, as I said before, was half petrol and it would not do our stomachs any good, more so we had been starving for 3 years. Later on we found out that some of our lads had been taken to hospital and the doctors had to use stomach pumps to rid them of the Vodka and petrol they had drunk.
We got a bit of grub from the villagers who wanted us to stop with them as they knew that if there was a Britisher in the house, the Russians would leave that house alone, but the majority of us went back to the camp, as there were too many people getting shot by the Russians and women raped, we wanted no part of it. Apart from all that the sergeant in the camp was solely in charge of us and had said anybody who stepped out of line would be reported, when we reached the American Lines.
We had a Russian come to our camp to see about our welfare, we told him we wanted food, but mainly transport to get to Southern Germany, to the American Lines, he said they had no food to give us, but we could go by cattle trucks into Russia. Then they would send us down to Odessa, we would be eventually sent to England by boat. (A few of our lads accepted).
When I was in an ex POW camp just outside Aylesbury in October 1945 I met a couple of them in the camp, and they told us they never got to England until August 1945. We set off from the camp we were in, to walk to Southern Germany, but after about 4 days we were all separated. There were crowds of refugees all making for the American Lines. Like us, they were starving, and we helped them as best we could, with the gear they were carrying and at times some of the kiddies.
We went into the rhubarb fields which the Czechs were growing and ate that but it went straight through you. Another hazard were the Russian troops out on patrol as the area we were in now was "Sudaten Land" part of Czechoslovakia, that Hitler had taken from them in 1938 and there were a lot of Germans living there at the time. They wanted to come under Hitler so he took it and called it the "Protectorate", they had a better standard of living than the Czechs with being German, the Czechs hated them. The Russian troops on patrol used to hold the columns up at crossroads for identification checks, because a lot of German troops had thrown their uniforms away and dressed as civvies, but they had no civilian ID and the Russians knew that they were "Wermacht", they were put to one side, and they let the rest carry on to the West. The SS they killed straightaway, when they examined them and found the "Toten Koff" tattoo or Death's head on their hand.
I started to limp as these Jerry boots were too small for me and my right foot, two of my toe nails were black. So I slung both of my boots away. My mate was Geordie from Consett and we used to share our parcels, they called him "Geordie Armstrong" and in civvy street he was a butcher. Typical Geordie nothing got him down. After about 4 days we heard that Americans were sending six wheeler troop carriers to pick POWs up and take us into Regensberg in Germany. I was stopped by this small red cross US truck, the Officer had seen me limping. When he saw my right foot and the two black toe nails, he made me sit down and came back from the truck with his leather bag, took some medicine gear out and told me to look the other way. I felt my toes going very numb after a few minutes he said "OK Soldier you'll be alright now. When one of the Ambulances comes along, stop them and they will pick you up", and then he went back to the truck, got in and away it went.
I walked a few more kilometres with the bandage on and it started to loosen and came off. Geordie and I sat in the ditch. I cut the bandage in half, he re-bandaged my foot and away we went again. Once an ambulance pulled up and wanted me to get on board but I refused as I couldn't get Geordie on it, and I did not want to lose him now as we had been mates for a long time, although he begged me to get on the Ambulance. I knew he would have been miserable afterwards and so would I have been. Eventually after a few hours a six wheeler American Infantry Troop Carrier picked us up and kept going up the road where we had come from, when it was full he turned around and drove back in the direction of the US Army Camp, but it was a good distance from where he picked us up, a few hours in fact. We had a good meal there, but the Yanks did not come near us till we had been fumigated with DDT and a hot shower with Lysol soap.
We were interrogated in fact what you got was this paper to fill in, Rank, name, number, what unit were you in, if married, state wife's name and home address in England, if not married, your parents' address in England. As far as your unit went, you had to put in writing what part of the front you were captured and the date.
The reason for this interrogation was because Jerry soldiers who could speak perfect English had thrown their uniform away, put civvies on, and were trying to get away from the Russians, as if they were taken prisoner of war with them, they knew that there would not be many alive after a few years in a Russian POW camp. As the Russians and the Germans had no Geneva Convention between them, because the Russians ignored it and so did the Germans.
When we were accepted as British POWs by the American Intelligence Team, we were taken to a place called Regensburg, which had a large aerodrome and there were Dakotas taking off with POWs in them, and other planes landing. We were lined up and marched twenty four at a time to each plane as we boarded, were given a bag of boiled sweets to combat air sickness. After a while we took off, there were two airmen pilots on board flying it. One came out of the pilot's cabin and told us if anyone wanted to be sick, there was a bucket at the tail end of the plane. I think the only one who used it was a Cypriot, he had been stuffing himself with American K rations and his stomach, the same as ours, was not able to stand the good food, after so many years of poor food. Anyway the pilot took us over Berlin (I think he just done this to let us see the damage the allied planes had done to it) to us, looking out at it, we thought it would take years of rebuilding before it was the same again.
We were about 2.5 hours flying when one of the pilots came out of the cabin and told us all to get as far back to the rear of the plane as possible as we would soon be landing. Shortly after that we spotted this Aerodrome, the plane circled once and came around and landed. We got off the plane and were marched away sharp as the planes were coming in practically one behind the other and they wanted us off the field out of the road of them. We were loaded on six wheeler troop carriers again, they drove off after about 30 minutes travelling, we pulled into this American Camp, we were in "Rheims in France". We were once again deloused after a disinfectant bath and with only an American Khaki towel covering us, we were taken to the stores for clothing which was not far away.
We were all given American Uniforms, boots, socks and underwear, then went into this big marquee where we got dressed, then into another marquee, where American W.A.C.s gave us a complete toilet set plus towels and 80 cigarettes, or a pouch of tobacco if you smoked a pipe. As we were being taken to the dining hall for a meal we passed huge incinerators and German POWs picking up all of our old gear not in their hands, but with shovels and throwing them in the incinerators, we laughed our heads off at them and told them the boot was on the other foot now.
We were there four days and the Americans looked after us well, plus an open air cinema, and the first film we saw was "Can't help singing with Deanna Durban". I think the majority of us had tears in our eyes after so many years behind the wire.
One morning we were put on an American 6 wheeler truck and taken to Rheims Aerodrome and were put on Lancaster Bombers, all the bomb bays had been taken out and there was enough room for twenty four of us on the plane. They gave us a box of boiled sweets to counteract air sickness and a paper carrier bag each for fear we would be sick on the plane and also a Mae West. About two hours later, we took off and it did not seem long before we were crossing the channel and after that we were told that we would be landing shortly.
When we had landed and got off the plane, some lads were on their knees kissing the English soil. We all had tears in our eyes, realising it had been 4.5 years since we had left England and we were thinking about the lads who went out with us, who would not be coming back. We were given a blanket each by the RAF personnel, who were waiting on the runway for us and loaded onto these trucks standing by. Some of the lads had to be helped on and some were put in Ambulances which were also standing by. They set off and after about half a mile down the runway, turned off onto another road and pulled up at this huge hangar, we got off the trucks some helped by the RAF personnel and went into the hanger and saw that it had been turned into a dining hall. There must have been hundreds of POWs been through here. WAAFs personnel were waiting on the tables, we had a slap up meal and a packet of "Craven A" each.
About 2 hours later, we were led outside and there were busses waiting outside, which we got on. After a couple of miles, we turned off the main road and travelled on a cindered road for a while which took us into this wood and stopped. There were about a dozen Nissan huts spread around in this clearing, we were told to get down from the busses and taken into one of the huts, we were ordered to strip and fumigated again. Then into another hut, had a disinfectant shower and it was really hot water, we were left for about ten minutes, then turned the water off, we were told to come out and given a towel each to dry yourself. We were taken to the stores and given a British Battle Dress, shirt, underpants and vests, also socks and boots plus a hat. We went to another room, got dressed and were taken to our billets. We were in this camp which was only about 3 miles from Amersham.
Any German Marks we had or "Lager-geld" we handed over and got English money for them and after further lectures about not telling too much to the civilians about the ill treatment, the work and the poor food we had to survive on, and a letter on how to adapt to normal life.
About four days in the camp we were told that the Jocks and Geordies who had the furthest to go, would be taken by truck to Aylesbury Station the following morning at 7am and our troop train would leave Aylesbury station at 8.10am. The Taffs, Yorkies and Southerners would leave on troop trains later on in the morning. We left Aylesbury about 8.45am, and it would be about 4pm when we got to Newcastle, and were glad to get off. When I got to Hebburn off the local train from Newcastle and started to walk down the road to my parents house everything looked strange, and it took quite a few weeks to realise that we were home. I was given 56 days leave and then they gave me another 56 days, towards the end of my leave. First thing in the morning when I was cleaning my teeth, I started to spit blood, but after I had by breakfast I would never see any more that day, but the following morning when I brushed my teeth and gargled my mouth the blood was there again.
So eventually I went to see the local Doctor, he explained the circumstances, and advised me to report sick as soon as I reached camp.
I had to report to Horsham in Sussex, so when I arrived there I went to the orderly room, explained what was wrong, and the Medical Officer in charge ordered an ambulance and I was taken to Cambridge Hospital in Aldershot. I was there six weeks, and had every test imaginable, they could not find what was wrong, as the bleeding in the meantime had stopped.
We were getting a lot of P.O.W.s from the Far East and they were in a right state compared to us, they were nearly all bed patients. We used to help the nurses to get things they wanted, and also helped the bedridden patients. I was sent for one day to see Colonel in charge of the hospital, and he had a good talk to me about my case, he said that what we had suffered would have caused the bleeding, but now that I was getting good wholesome food it would stop altogether, so I was given a weeks leave, graded to C2 for two months then reverting back to A1.
Just before my weeks leave was finished, I had a rail warrant sent, and I had to report to Aylesbury. We used to do rifle drill, route marches, fatigues, and so forth, then came the day we were taken to London to Earls Court Olympia, and there we were given our De-mob gear, we then went round London from bar to bar with our De-mob gear, and I do not know how we found the train back to Aylesbury. We were only there a few days, when we got our De-mob papers then a truck took us down to Aylesbury station, a train from there to Baker Street in London, then a tube to Kings Cross where we caught the train to Newcastle, then we knew we were back in Civvy Street, and then we realised we had spent nearly seven years in the Army, which were the best years of our lives, and lads who had never been in the Forces, our age group, were married and settled down, and other lads like us who bore the brunt of the war, it made us feel very bitter
My thanks to Lorraine Malan, John Bell's daughter, for this account.
Offsite Links: John Bell's Memoirs.
Return to POW Stories Menu