Able Seaman Peter Boast
Served : Mediterranean (captured).
Service No. : P/FX107642
POW No. : 1194
Camps : Marlag und Milag Nord.
When the war broke out I was 14, and working for a timber merchant in Southampton, where I had a timber contract with my brother, unloading timber from ships coming from Norway.
I joined the navy in Christmas 1939, when I was 15. I went to HMS Victory in Portsmouth, Nelson’s ship, where we learnt all our basic seamanship while living in barracks in Portsmouth. This was basic training to become a seaman, usually 4 months but they cut it down to three because of the war. Once this was finished I was sent to a gunnery school at Whale Island and I passed out as a gunlayer (my job was to "lay" the gun on a warship, move it up and down). I was then sent to a destroyer called the Afridi. I joined this ship at Rossithe in Scotland, but just before she was due to sail to Norway I was sent into barracks with suspected appendicitis. I was very, very lucky because the Afridi was sunk at Narvik - I wouldn’t have been here! I was returned to Portsmouth, where I was assigned to the battleship HMS Rodney. By this time I had been promoted to able seaman. We were stationed at the home fleet base at Scapa Flow in the Orkney’s. I was only on Rodney for about 3 months - a few of us got a bit bored and volunteered for "combined operations". We were sailors more or less trained as infantry. I left the Orkney’s and travelled on a troopship called the Andes to Durban in South Africa. There we completed our training in a camp called Assegai. We were there for about two months and then we were sent to another base camp at Alexandria, in Egypt. We were there for a few weeks when we were told to pack up within 24 hours heading for somewhere in the Mediterranean, but we didn’t know where. There were about 30 of us, officers and men, and we embarked on a destroyer, HMS Petard. We were told, when we got on board, that we were going to the island of Leros. The crew on board Petard seemed very nervous at taking us aboard because they knew they had to take us through what was called "bomb alley" - between the island of Cos and Rhodes, both of witch were held by the Germans. We were bombed all the way to Leros. We were billeted in a house on the waterfront in Leros (Leros is both the name of the island and the town). The harbour was full of sunken ships. This was about August 1943. Our job was to clear the harbour of wrecks and mines placed there by the Italians still loyal to Mussolini. On the island with our company were two British army anti-aircraft units from the Highland Light Infantry and the Durham Light Infantry regiment.
Altogether about 2000 British troops plus some allied Italians. We were just sitting around waiting for something to happen. And something did! On the last day of October I think the harbour was heavily bombed all day. Early the next morning we woke to the sound of gunfire and the sky was full of German paratroopers dropping all around on the northern side of the island where the German troops were. I remember two of them landed a few feet away from us where we were sitting in a slit trench. They saw us and thought we were going to shoot them but we didn’t. They got into the slit trench with us and gave us their revolvers.
Then we were sent to assist the army anti-aircraft unit. We were marching up to the gums carrying some shells for the British gunners and a bomb fell quite close to us. Some of the gunners were killed and others of us got shrapnel wounds. I got shrapnel wound in my leg. We were walking wounded and were sent down to a German field hospital. By this time the island had been overrun. The whole battle lasted about 10 days. We were given the job of picking up and burying the German and British dead and collecting their discs.
The British and Italians who had survived were all marched down to the waterfront. We got onboard a German transport ship, which took us to Piraeus in Greece. This was very scary. One of the officers told us the sea was full of German submarines. We made it to Piraeus by the end of November. We all had to march off the ships in a propaganda march. German newsreel cameras filmed us for propaganda purposes. We gave the thumbs up, V-sign etc. The Italians were told to carry our stuff but the British refused to allow the Germans to treat the Italian POW's badly and we were made to carry our own stuff.
We were put on a train of cattle trucks with barbed wire across the windows. There were 100 of us in each wagon. We really were packed like sardines. It was very difficult to find room to sit down. We moved around so people could take turns to sit down and sleep. The trip took 18 days. We went through Greece, Bulgaria and Romania into Germany. We stopped on railway siding at night. We were all very hungry; all we had was one loaf of black bread a day between 4. The bread made us very constipated! We were a mixed bunch- mainly army, some navy, a few airforce. All of us on the train were British.
It was winter in Germany. Some of us were only wearing shorts- we were dressed for the Mediterranean. There was thousands of prisoner’s there- we were housed in huts. There were no facilities there. The men had made what they called blowers out of tins. We were taken into the showers, where our heads were shaved and we were deloused (they spray a powder on you and you shower it off- gets rid off all the bugs etc.) We got clothing from the Red Cross through Switzerland. Then we split into army, navy and airforce prisoners. We navy were put on another train which took us right through Bremen. We took a train to the naval camp at a place called Marlag and Milag Nord.
The camp was in a little town called Westterkinkeid (or something like that). One camp was merchant seaman; the other was for navy. There was an Airforce camp there to but we did not realise this at the time. Basically we ran the camp ourselves, just like in the navy. There was a petty officer for each barrack. So there was a commandant and guards but otherwise we more or less looked after ourselves. The Germans were fanatical about keeping clean. They were obsessive about counting us. Each morning at half past 6 was Appel, where they counted and recounted us.
The camp was reasonably clean. We had bunks and straw palisades (mattresses). There were eight bunks to a room and a stove in the middle of the room which we burnt wood on. We had a library; a very well stocked one set up by the Red Cross. Some of our petty officers liked classical music and had records that we could listen to. It was possible for us to get a musical instrument through the Red Cross and learn to play it. We organised sports events and there was always something to do. For food we had soup once a day (at lunch), a bread ration, and a Red Cross parcel to share between two each fortnight. They contained cigarettes, cocoa, coffee, cheese, chocolate, powdered milk - pretty good parcels. The Germans actually paid us - 15 pfennig a week (the British did the same for German prisoners). I spent about 5 months in 1944 at a working camp near Darmstadt, then came back to Westerkinkeid. By the latter months of 1944 things were beginning to get really tough. Red Cross parcels were no longer getting through.
The German navy (each branch of the forces had POW jurisdiction over their opposite numbers in the Allied forces) treated us very well. They guarded their own prisoners very jealously.
By the end of 1944 it had become a matter of just waiting for the war to end. Once I saw the amazing sight of over 1000 planes flying over to bomb Bremen. This was in the daytime- the American airforce. We saw the big flying fortresses flying over with their bomb doors open. It made our hearts bleed to see the planes being shot down, and seeing the Americans bailing out with their parachutes open. It was agonising to watch.
We were eventually released in March 1945. We heard the guns getting closer and closer and we knew they were not to far away. On the first of April the Canadians rode into camp. It was a Canadian-Scottish regiment. We were told to stay in the camp because there were German snipers everywhere. We had to stay in the camp for another 6 weeks. Then naval officials arrived to sort us out and told us in no uncertain terms that we were back in the navy. We were told to get back to Britain in 4 weeks time. We were put into army trucks and we were carted off to Brussels (Belgium). In Brussels we were put onto air transports and flown back to an air base in Britain. There (once again) we were deloused, issued with new naval uniform and interrogated (had we heard of any atrocities?), and then I was given six months pay and was sent on leave for 6 weeks. I arrived home in late June. Southampton looked terrible - it has been laid waste by German bombing. There was no beer and no cigarettes, everything was rationed. After my leave I was back in the navy doing minesweeping in the Malacca strait clearing Japanese mines. Then I was demobbed and joined the merchant navy as a quartermaster onboard the Queen Mary. We took thousands of American bodies back to America.
I can honestly say I never suffered physically or mentally as a POW. Being a prisoner never really worried me. I look back on it as a sort of adventure. But I definitely would not like to see another war. In Germany there was only about 4,000 navy prisoners and 150,000 or so British army prisoners. As in Britain the German navy is the "senior service" and the German navy would never let anyone interfere with their prisoners. They did their best.
Thanks to Patrick Broman for this story.
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