Gunner Robert McBride
Unit : Royal Artillery
Served : North Africa (captured)
Army No. : 1500264
POW No. : 140378
Camps : PG 78, Stalag XIA
My Days in the British Army
by Gunner Rob McBride 1500264. Royal Artillery. From July 1939 to April 1945
I am not an advocate for war. Any kind of war causes death, suffering and untold misery. Out of war sometimes will come frustrations and laughter. This is the story of my war, or the very small part I was permitted to play in it. After all these years, I often think was it all really worth it. Why countries of this world cannot live in peace remains to be seen. The wars which have occurred since 1945 are still a reminder, are countries better off afterwards?
July 1939 on the eve of the greatest war in history, aged 20 I was called up in what was then called the first militia. Living then in Birkenhead in Cheshire I didn't have any great distance to travel to my first camp which was at Arrowe Park, Birkenhead. I thought it was great, a soldier in the British Army. I think even then we were half soldier and half civilian, for we were issued with the regulation uniform, and for walking out, were given grey flannel slacks and blue blazer. Once I was asked by a passer by which army did I belong. The blue beret which went with the walking out dress didn't help matters either! But, true to tradition we were given a hard time on how to be a soldier, we were drilled by regular soldiers who really knew their job, and after a few months of Physical Training we were really fit and raring to go. It was hard work but fun. Six months of this and back to civvy street. Little did we know in just a few short months what lay in store for us.
One morning on parade we were informed by our commanding officer that war had been declared on Germany, there was deathly silence at the news, gone was our six months training, now we were in the British Army for the duration. It made me think, was this the war to end wars, or did it make any difference to us the soldier. We were given seven shillings per week, that was the basic pay then for a private in the army, even so, one shilling of that had to be sent home to ones mother, who if one was killed or maimed could get monetary assistance from the authorities! On six shillings per week pocket money I couldn't afford to throw money around, with beer at 6d per pint and cigarettes 11˝d for 20. I seemed to manage somehow.
After a few short months at Arrowe Park we were moved to Saighton Camp at Chester (the camp is still there). A brand new camp then, we were responsible for fitting it out at first with beds, wardrobes and other fittings which are needed in the barrack rooms. Primarily we were given training on Anti Aircraft-guns. 3.5 and 4.5. I think then these guns were the most modern forms of Anti-Aircraft in the British Army, they were used extensively in the defence of Britain. But having had infantry training we could of course by used for almost anything which could occur in the coming months.
At Chester we were even taught how to drive Army trucks which at one time nearly caused nasty accidents, with half a dozen soldiers on the back of the lorry and the learner driver doing his best to control the vehicle, we had some very near escapes. The sergeant instructor, I remember, sat with the starting handle on his lap, and woe betide the unfortunate who made a mistake, a starting handle across the knuckles is a painful thing!
I was not long at Saighton Camp. The Battery had billets at Immingham, Lincolnshire, South Shields, and at that time the invasion scare was at its height, and we weren't allowed for any reason to leave the gun position. Then came the day when the battery was entrained for Easthampstead near London, where we were fitted out with khaki drill shorts and shirts, topees and the rest of overseas kit. We were told under no circumstances to tell any of the civilian population of our destination, quite right too, but after being issued with overseas kit we were given a route march dressed in our khaki drill and topees. What the villagers thought as we marched was anyones business. So much for warning of spies and careless talk!
In true Army tradition we were then entrained for Burock on the west coast of Scotland! where on a wet windy morning we arrived and were promptly led to a tender which took us out to our waiting ship the M.V. Georgic, a converted passenger liner of some 20,000 tons. On board we found out were contingents of all the services, including the R.A.F. Next morning we sailed off in convoy with about 20 other ships escorted by Naval destroyers. Next day on board was utter chaos, nearly 5,000 troops with seasickness! Men were lying in the gangways, just asking to be put out of their misery! Vomit was everywhere, fortunately the sea didn't affect me or my pal. Next morning at breakfast about 20 troops only turned out, needless to say there were double rations for all! Fortunately this situation didn't last for long, it took about three days for everyone to regain their sea legs. Thereafter it was a full attendance at meal times!
We knew we were sailing in dangerous waters for the second day out a ship in the convoy (which was carrying the other half of our battery) was dive bombed and hit in the stern. This ship had to turn back into port, the ship couldn't steer, so escorted by a destroyer was soon out of sight over the horizon. I did learn much later the troops on board were given a fortnights survivors leave!
Life on board ship went very smoothly, we had the usual drills with rifles which we fired at imaginary raiders, each troop were given fatigues, my pet fatigue was stocking the ships bar with beer etc! The Georgic must have been a wonderful cruise ship in peace time, with its huge dining room and state rooms one could imagine what the other half enjoyed in peace time, and here we were five decks down, sleeping in hammocks!
Our first port of call was Freetown on the west coast of Africa, we weren't allowed to go ashore but I think we took on water and stores, but it gave us an idea what an African town looked like from the sea, with its palm trees and natives in their canoes who were at the ships side diving into the water for pennies. Next day we sailed again, our next port of call, Capetown. We awoke to find the ship quiet & still, we were in Capetown. Going on deck we looked at the lovely city with its tall white buildings, and, dominating everything, was the unforgettable Table Mountain. We had been given shore leave, and with a host of instructions on how to behave we walked down the gangway to find rows of private cars lined up on the Quay. The civilian population of Capetown had kindly come down to the Quay to take the British troops into their houses.
I, along with two of my friends were approached by a young lady, who asked me would I like to go with her, of course, saying goodbye to my pals, I said yes and seating myself in her car she drove out of the dock area and into the city. We were, she told me on our way to her mothers bungalow on the outskirts of the city. After about half an hours drive we arrived. I was made most welcome by the young lady's mother, her husband she told me was away working in Kimberley at one of the diamond mines there. I was royally entertained by my hosts who made quite a fuss of me. They said their pitied the British soldier coming so far to go to the Middle East, to fight on that front. Time at the bungalow flew and my host took me back to the ship with the promise of a meeting the day after.
Next day we met again and we went into the city to the Main St, Adderley Street. At precisely noon every day the sirens sounded and two minutes silence was held in remembrance of the troops at the front. From Adderley Street on to the gardens, to look at the flowers the trees and the aviary. I had promised to see the young lady the next morning, but on awakening I found the ship in motion, we were on the high seas. I never saw my young host again, but she did send letters to me which I received in the desert. She did give me the day before we left Capetown an ivory rosary which I did keep until some months later. We did find that the love of Capetown had been too much for some of the troops, they had missed the ship, whether intentionally or not we never found out, but I quite understand the feelings of anyone landing at the Cape, it's such a wonderful place with a glorious climate, it must have been too much for quite a lot of the lads for they just didn't come back. I wonder where they are now.
We were on our way to Egypt. Our first stop was at Aden where about three hundred R.A.F. personnel disembarked: we felt rather sorry for them because the heat was overpowering. On into the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal, the Georgic docked at Port Tewfic after a voyage of 15 days. Everything was new to us, we were in a strange and beautiful land. Rows of Army lorries awaited us, and embarking we thought where next. It was after a few hours drive we finally arrived at Giza, about two miles from Cairo. Given our tents to sleep in we arranged our kit and started to look around us. Whichever way we looked there was sand and still more sand. To the west of us stood the Pyramids of Giza, an awe inspiring sight. I have since read they took 20 years to build with a workforce of 100,000 slaves! There they still stand after nearly four thousand years. To the east of the Pyramids are the Sphinx, seeming to be guarding the huge monuments behind them.
At the camp we were then given a drill on 25 pounder field guns, which was a little difference from the Anti-Aircraft guns on which we had been trained, but still the 25 pounder was an excellent weapon, especially when one can see the damage they can do. My pals and I had a few trips into Cairo by taxi. I remember the arguments with the taxi drivers over the fares, we always thought we were overcharged on fares!
The day arrived when we were ready for the front line where our enemies the Italian soldiers were dug in, in well concealed dug outs. Our battery found itself attached to an Australian infantry regiment. The Australians were a fine body of men, friendly and real good fighters when in action. Our first baptism of fire came one morning. We weren't happy about it, but the Australians told us they always fire at us around this time. So it's wise to be near a dugout when the firing started. We were at that time known as Wavell's 7th Army or Wavell's desert rats. The name stuck with us having the desert rat emblem painted on our trucks. The number of troops in the desert at that time was 30,000, quite enough to keep the Italian soldiers in their place. Then came the attacks.
Every attack was at 5.30 am and each town on the coast was surrounded by a ring of fire. We opened up after a bitter cold night, having had orders from the observation post way out in front, first Sidi Barrani, Bardi, Tubruk, on past Tubruk, and then we were ordered to Barce for a well earned rest and to restock our ammunition. It was whilst one day I was busy cleaning the gun when I heard someone in the distance shouting my name, it was a pal of mine from the other Battery. He told me he was on the ship in the convoy which had been attacked. They had turned back he said, and had had a fortnights Christmas leave. We were always the unlucky Battery. Whilst we had Christmas 1941 at the front they had been enjoying a two weeks survivors leave at home!
At that time Rommel came into the news and he took over the Middle East front, German troops were taking over from the Italians. Shortly after taking part in a tank battle we were told to limber our guns and go on the retreat, we were faced with German troops who knew how to hit back. We made for the only tarmacked road (the coast road) and were ordered to make for Tobruk which must be held at all costs. 10 miles from Tobruk we were ordered into the desert to intercept a German Panzer division who were attempting to encircle Tobruk. We were sent back as a stopgap now I know to slow the German forces while the defence of Tobruk could be made more secure. We were in fact successful, we did slow the German advance, but in doing so we were taken prisoner of war by the German Panzer corps. This happened near the Fort Mechilli due south of Perna.
I did have thoughts of being wounded or even killed but never did think of being taken prisoner. It's an awful feeling when the soldier is told by the commanding officer to cease firing, to leave the guns, grab what he can of his personal kit. (This is where I left the rosary given to me by my Capetown host). What happens now went through my mind, we hadn't long to wait. The Panzer tanks came over to us and the crews alighted. Looking at the German soldier, was in some ways like looking at ourselves, our dress was, except for the hat and belt very similar. The Germans came over to us and spoke to us in English. They were, they told us, confident they would be in Alexandria in a few days. One asked me had I any Egyptian money, because he said I wouldn't be needing it anymore! He was right in the assumption I wouldn't be needing money but so wrong in thinking he would be in Alexandria in a few days!
Mechilli is just a white castellated fort set in the middle of the desert. 200 troops were taken prisoner and the whole of headquarters staff. I think two Generals were taken prisoner also. We were kept outside of the walls of the fort for four days, in charge of us were Italian troops. One thing the human body needs is water. During the red hot days we were kept there we had no water at all. When on the fourth day water did arrive it came in diesel oil drums, but we still drank it. The fifth day found us in Derna: we were given food in tins which had been in a fire and the tins were badly blown, but being hungry the contents were eaten. Derna a peacetime coastal resort had been badly bombed and shelled and we stayed in some bombed out houses guarded by our Italian troops.
After three days of living hand to mouth we were taken on lorries to a place called Sabratha due west of Tripoli. We were sent there to await a ship which would transport us to Italy. Sabratha I found was extremely hot, the barracks we were kept in had no ventilation and very little of anything else! After three days at Sabratha we were taken once again by lorries to the port of Tripoli. It was there we were badly treated by the fascist element of Mussolini's army. The fascist troops searched us and stole anything of value they could, taking away mostly watches, wallets and rings. I have hated fascists ever since.
After a period of humiliating treatment by these troops we were taken down to the quay to embark on the ship, which was to take us to the Italian mainland. We boarded the ship, a brand new cargo boat fitted out for troop transporting. On board everyone was issued with a life belt and ordered to untie our bootlaces, just in case we had to go overboard quickly! Our destroyers and submarines were taking a heavy toll of enemy transport at that time.
We arrived at Naples without incident. I did hear later that ships had been torpedoed with British prisoners aboard. Disembarking on the Naples quay we were quickly shepherded into waiting railway carriages: where next. We arrived a few hours later at Capua. This was a tented site in view of the volcano Vesuvius. The Italians hoping to clean us up, first shaved off all our hair, I didn't mind this, my hair was full of sand anyway! We were issued with blankets which had lice, which didn't help matters. Then were told to put other blankets into a delouser which was later brought to the site. We never did in Italy quite get rid of lice!
After a few weeks at Capua we were put on a train for the far north of Italy to a place called Prato al Isavco which is just on the Austrian Italian border. Arriving at the station Bolzano we were attacked by American bombers, I don't know who unlocked the doors of the trucks but after the first wave of bombers we scattered into the town to find shelter. A half dozen of us found us with some terrified civilians in an air raid shelter in the town. My pal and I thought about escaping at that time but were captured once again by the local homeguard who had an ancient shotgun, but we weren't going to see if the shotgun, ancient or not worked.
Back again we were taken to the station where we found the station in a mess. The engine which had pulled our train had had a direct hit and was lying across the tracks useless. After a panic stricken few hours, a train was found and off we went again, on the last stage of our journey. Arriving at the mountain station of Prato al Isavco, we were told we would have to walk about eight kilometres to our new camp. This with no food no water and blazing sunshine. We started off quite well and in ranks, but after a few kilometres found the whole 200 prisoners stretched out along the road, stragglers were everywhere, the guards were doing their damdest to keep us together but being tired, hungry and thirsty we didn't care what happened. After a long, long time we reached our new camp, which was situated on the roadside & near to the railway station.
When we saw the site we had to smile, a half dozen large wooden buildings with big red crosses on the roofs! Our Italian camp commander marched into the camp, he started hitting prisoners who were sitting down. The riding crop he used really did hurt. The commandant told us that he had seen the guards at Buckingham Palace and we had to be soldiers like them! This was a good start we thought. Anyway we were dead tired and really didn't care what he did with us. The commandant was told in no easy terms that we were not Guardsmen, and that we had had no water or food for 24 hours. After that he calmed down and allowed us to fill our canteens with water. We were then allocated a hut and given a blanket and straw mattress, settling ourselves in our huts we ventured outside. We smiled, the camp was on the roadside with not a sign of anything to keep us in, our thoughts were on escaping, and looking at this it was easy.
Next day we were given work to do, putting up barbed wire to keep us in! The guards here seemed friendly so we didn't mind doing the work. After a week we were behind barbed wire erected by ourselves! Later on Red X parcels did appear which really helped the Italian ration of rice or macaroni. About 1000 yards away was another camp which was taken over by Australian troops. It turned out later that this camp was by far the best as us prisoners of war would be in. We were allowed to go on walks escorted by a guard, being summer there was no shortage of grapes or apples and we always arrived back at the camp carrying bunches of grapes and pockets full of apples!
Sports internationals were held between ourselves and the Australians. Every Saturday the wire would be lined on the outside with the villagers who thought this was great, and I must say they showed their appreciation by applauding when any race was won.
One of our main occupations were brewing tea and of course to brew tea one needs wood or a fire, first the timber huts suffered to such an extent that after one particular storm one of the huts leaned sideways! Our commandant was very concerned, and asked why the hut leaned at such an angle. I think he knew after a while it was due to stripping the interior, and then the roof space of timber. Anyway later on he did allow parties to go outside the camp for the sole purpose of collecting wood! The camp commandant had turned completely regarding his treatment towards prisoners. He even opened a small shop where we could buy small sweets etc. with the camp money, but he did once stop our pay once to pay for repairs to the wooden huts.
As I say this was the best camp we had been in, but like everything else good it must come to an end at sometime. We were told that the camp would be unsuitable for us in winter, and that a new brick built camp had been prepared for us in the centre of Italy. We were very sorry to leave this camp. There was no walk back to Bolzano. The commandant had brought the train up to the local station for us to entrain there. My last sight of the commandant was him standing on the station platform giving us with his guards a full salute as the train passed. On the station too were the local villagers who had come to pay us their respects, his opinion of the British soldier certainly had changed in the last few months.
We travelled this time not in the usual goods wagons but in everyday railway carriages, such comfort indeed for us prisoners of war! We travelled for hours due south and after an uneventful journey we stopped at a station in the Aquila valley a station called Sulmona. Disembarking we were made to walk to the camp which lay at the foot of a mountain about four miles distance. On reaching the camp we saw great stone walls 15 ft high with a layer of barbed wire on top of the wall & quite different from the last camp, where one had only to look over the barbed wire to view the wonderful scenery.
On passing through the gate we saw long brick built huts about 80 ft in length. On either side of the compound were 5 long huts. A veritable prison indeed, faces all around me were looking miserable after the last camp with its wide outlook this gave the impression of being walled in which in reality we were. After being detailed 80 men to a hut, we were told to go inside and put down on a bed our miserable items of kit. Coming outside again we were then counted and double counted, we stood on the parade ground for about 3 hours being counted and checked. The Italian officers couldn't quite make up their minds on a correct count.
Sulmona didn't for me have many happy memories. One great drawback was food, one small loaf and a dish of so called "soup" which was nearly clear hot water, and that was a mans ration for the next 24 hours. Sometimes we did get an issue of Red Cross parcels for which we were eternally grateful. Without them many prisoners of war would have surely perished. The longing for food was always in a prisoners mind, I often thought about food I left when I was at home in England, just wishing I had it at that moment.
The thoughts of a prisoner are always on freedom and that meant escape, but to scale the 15 ft walls in full view of an armed guard was something different altogether. This meant one other method of escape to tunnel. Many tunnels were dug but to my knowledge none succeeded. One day the cart carrying bread and pulled by an old horse was going to the top camp outside the walls, when the wheels of a cart went over a tunnel which had been dug, of course the wheels sunk about two feet in the earth, another tunnel was discovered. After that spot searches and checks were made by dozens of Italian troops, who stormed into the camp carrying long iron spikes to dig into the ground, to my knowledge no tunnels were found in the camp this way. Spot searches were made for knives etc, but the guards rarely found anything. I used to keep my knife in a bucket of washing water at the foot of the bed, no guard ever thought of looking in the water. Quite often the guards were made to look like fools for they rarely found anything.
Sometimes we would receive a ration of vino, which to my palate was extremely rough. The Irish corporal in charge of our hut used to give cigarettes or a ration of vino, and of course with about 10 rations of vino he would end up blind drunk. This particular Corporal Patrick McKibbon will be remembered by me for his nightly prayer, he would ask before lights out "Is yer all in" and after an answer of "yes" he would give his nightly prayer "Another day of captivity and another day towards freedom".
A day dawned when an Italian delegation came to ask what our trades were as civilians. Of course we answered anything that came to our heads. I remember answering that I was a farmer, our corporal who worked in a Belfast shipyard said he was a window dresser, and one bright spark said he was a hangman. The Italians gave him a wide berth after that. These incidents were the happy side of a prisoners life, but still the shortage of food was uppermost in everyone's mind. The camp barter or money was cigarettes. Anyone with a stock of cigarettes could live well, and of course in our compound were the usual cigarette barons. I know of men who would barter the whole of a Red X parcel which he hadn't yet received for cigarettes, a craving indeed! A few personal parcels did arrive from home but I think out of the dozens of parcels sent to me by my mother only three did arrive. Someone, somewhere down the line did well out of the British prisoners parcels.
We were, once a month, allowed to write home. The letter consisted of one sheet of paper and I was told later that quite often half of my letter arrived at my home blacked out. A few prisoners did devise a code in the letter to home which amazingly was never broken. By this method we did get news which was hard to come by at that time.
In Italy we did no manual labour, so it was up to the individual himself to keep his mind active by any means within his power. Classes were started on any subject at all. Radio, languages, mathematics to name a few subjects were given freely by men who were proficient in the subject. A concert was held every month in one of the huts which was empty. A stage was built, scenery was made and instruments were obtained from the Red X. I must say that the quality of the shows which were performed was really high. Women for the shows were no problem, men were made up in drag and on stage really looked the part. One chap who used to play drag quite often had a body guard when he was walking around the camp!
A thousand men in one compound and not a woman in sight, that was the impossible situation. One bad memory occurred at a Christmas concert, one chap from the audience left the concert hut to go to the latrine, half way across the compound he was shot dead by a drunken guard, his body was left lying in the snow. The guards would let no one approach to help. The poor man died. The guard was taken off duty and never seen again, a full report was made to the Red X over this murder but I never really knew what the outcome was. It was a life wantonly taken by a drunken guard on a defenceless prisoner. There were cases of spies sent in as prisoners to gain information on escapes etc, but were quickly taken out again when found out.
Winter in Italy can be very cold, with 6 inches of snow on the ground in winter, but the summers can be extremely hot. In winter we had in our huts our homemade fires, each fire was made out of tin, and incorporated a blower system which was powered by a small fan driven by a handle, this method gave the maximum of heat from the minimum of fuel. All our cooking utensils were made from tin cans, plates, teapots, knives, spoons, cups, were all made from Red X parcel tins. The string from the parcels made by sandals. When string was plaited it made a strong sole for sandals, and I know mine lasted the stay in the camp. We also made small stoves from tins, with (you've guessed it!) chimneys made of tins, which, on looking from the outside of the huts one could see plumes of smoke coming from numerous tin can chimneys! Of course fuel was hard to obtain. Eventually our wooden beds disintegrated as plank by plank went into our hungry stoves. Quite often the inside of the hut was like a Hells Kitchen with clouds of woodsmoke filling the air! Many an argument was caused by fires which wouldn't burn correctly. I saw quite a few fires thrown out of the windows by an irate fellow prisoner who was in close proximity to the offending fires!
As I mentioned earlier boredom was the main curse we had to fight. We had to really think the day before what one would do on the next day to beat this scourge. Many beautiful things were made by soldiers who had not forgotten their peace time professions. I saw a Churchill tank made out of tin cans, every part moveable. Another made a wonderful model of a Grandfather clock which incidentally kept perfect time, the wheel, cogs, face, all made out of tin cans. Little did the Red X know what use we made out of their food parcels.
One inmate I call to mind practiced on a penny whistle for hours, much to our disgust! But practice paid off for him, he managed to obtain a concert flute sent in the camp by the Red X and he became quite proficient and as he learnt the flute so he taught himself how to read music. I myself obtained a mandolin which I did learn to play quite well, and together we formed quite a passable musical ensemble! Professional violinists could be heard in the compound practicing their scales, men came from all walks of life, if one was thirsting for knowledge, someone would be there to help him. This then was our way of fighting boredom and the thoughts of food, hunger was with us all the time.
If one was ill, it was up to ones pal to pull him through, for a man had to be very ill indeed to be sent to hospital. I remember being afflicted by a raging toothache which I stood the pain for as long as I could, in the end I reported sick and was brought before an Italian doctor who unfortunately wasn't a dentist, but the same doctor volunteered to pull out the offending molar, which he did without any anaesthetic! It was painful but the toothache disappeared!
Escapes were few and far between, but sometimes the more audacious escapes succeed. One day Italian workmen were in the compound working on the structure of the huts, they had been at this job for some weeks. One day two prisoners decided it was time to go! Dressing themselves in the manner of an Italian workman they stole one of the staging planks the workmen were using and a man at each end of the plank calmly walked to the main gate. We watched this escape with bated breath, the guard opened the first gate, the men walked through up to the main gate. With hardly a glance the main gate guard opened up too! Our men were out! This was one of the successful escapes! We never saw the men again, whether they made it to England I shall never know, but the very audacity of the escape pulled it off.
Any punishments were quickly dealt with, it generally meant fourteen days in prison, which was situated at the back of the compound. Then it was up to the friends of the man concerned to bring in the prisoners food. As far as I know no prisoner was illtreated in the prison, but being confined to a small cell for a fortnight wasn't something to look forward to.
In a prisoners life news is a must, everyone followed any news with the greatest of interest. No newspapers were allowed in the camp, but somewhere, someone always had the choicest news. Sometimes news came via a coded letter, and in the camp someone had a secret radio, who, we never found out, but a news bulletin was read out at night in the huts by the hut corporal. This news, sometimes bad was one of our topics of conversation. The radio was never found and continued to give us the latest news right to the end of our confinement at Sulmona.
The Italian guards could be bought, with our issue of soap from Red X parcels we could obtain bread or cigarettes. One would go to the guard and say "Fane for sopani" (Bread for soap), the guard would nod his agreement and a swift exchange would take place! Later on the guard commander grew very suspicious of the contents of the Red X parcels and he ordered every tin had to be examined which meant of course every tin had to be punctured! Thus we couldn't even attempt to store our food, tins containing soups and other perishables had to be eaten more or less right away. One reason for this of course was anyone attempting to escape couldn't take any tinned food with him. Our escape did come later but under very different circumstances.
The news that evening was good, our troops had made a landing in Sicily. It won't be long now we thought. To try and escape now or wait until our troops meet up with us? Weeks later the news was unquestionably getting better, the landing had been successful, and our troops were coming up from the south, and had made another landing at Bari on the eastern coast of Italy. But of course we didn't take into account the presence of German troops in Italy. By this time the Italian guards and the commander himself knew we were in possession of the latest news, and at this time the guards grew very lax in their duties guarding us prisoners. Now was our chance to escape!
We had already made our plans weeks before. I and my pal had worked it out in every detail (or so we thought). Other prisoners too were planning to escape but kept such information to themselves. The wall was our greatest obstacle, how to get over it. One day we found the first gate open, a lot of guards had disappeared, that meant the outside wire was the only thing between us and freedom. It happened one moonless night, furtively walking through the first gate we came to the outside wire, we had a small plank about three feet long with us, which was to lift the wire to allow us to crawl under keeping very quiet and not making a sound we got through the first barrier then came the second wire. Our hearts were pounding, prising the wire apart with our plank we crawled through, and lay breathless on the outside.
We were so far undetected, we were free, the guards hadn't seen us, we lay very still for about one minute then crawled away to the shelter of low lying bushes. My friend and I had made it! Our plan which we had gone over many times was this. We would live on the mountain for a few days until the hue and cry had gone, then make our way to Bari. At this time our position on the mountain would be overlooked, and the search for us would be continued elsewhere. So much for the plan, but to carry it out was a different matter.
After two days stay on the mountain we thought here goes and attempted to climb the mountain and bypass Sulmona, the main object of the escape was to keep to the fields and countryside and try to live off the land once our rations had gone. But our luck was out! Try as we might we couldn't climb the mountain! Near to the summit we came across a form of shale which afforded no hand or foothold whatsoever. Many times we tried but to no avail. There had to be a change of plan. Our final decision was this, we can't climb the mountain so we shall have to stay where we were and try to live on berries and other growing food we came across. So that was it. We would stay here until our troops came and set us free.
It being midsummer, we weren't unduly worried. The nights were cool but the days were warm and sunny. Our rations would last out for a week if we were careful. The only worry was water. We knew that we couldn't go long without water, and by now our water bottles were half empty. We had to do something. Scouting around we could hardly believe our luck, near the lower slopes we came across a well. We now could carry on hidden for quite a while with water in close proximity.
One morning we went to the well as usual to find it dry, apparently the hot dry summer was the cause. Now what to do? Mid summer and no water. We couldn't carry on without the precious fluid. Next day we ventured lower down the mountain where we spotted another well. It was in the middle of a small clearing, around the well was a stone wall built about four feet in height. The coast seemed to be clear, so with our water bottles over our shoulders we walked across the clearing. About halfway across we were shattered to find ourselves looking into the barrel of a machine pistol which was held by a German soldier of the desert group. With a smile the German asked us to put up our hands, he then told us he had been sent to the well to wait and look for us. We were in the bag again! Freedom is sweet, and our weeks of freedom on the mountain was now a thing of the past.
The German soldier seemed quite friendly towards us, apart from his belt and hat, he was as far as dress was concerned had the same uniform as we. With a smile he asked us in good English to accompany him, and we followed him further down the mountain to where his companions were camped. We were not searched, but asked many questions of how we had managed to escape. Then after the interrogation, was given our first drink of the day, Schapps! After a few mouthfuls of Schapps on an empty stomach we found ourselves getting quite tipsy along with the German soldiers. To them all this seemed quite a lark! And to us it seemed quite a change to be feted by our enemy.
After a few hours we were then taken down to the camp, and put once more behind the barbed wire. We were not punished in any way, but left to go back to our huts in the compound. It seemed that during our absence the Italian soldiers had capitulated and the camp had been taken over by a German division of ex desert troops. To try and escape now was an entirely different matter. The German guards were definitely trigger happy, and one didn't dare go near the wire in case a hail of bullets came his way. The German guards would let us go out of the walled compound but as I say to go near the outer wire would be courting death.
Food was at this time in a more critical situation. No Red X parcels now, but back to a small loaf and half bowl of soup for 24 hours. We wondered if our troops would advance quickly enough to set us free but we still had a lot to learn regarding the German physiology: he would not free any prisoner until it was absolutely necessary. He wasn't going to let us go but our next step was back into Germany itself.
It was about this time that two British soldiers attempted a daring escape. As I had stated before our uniforms were very alike except for the hat and the belt, in many cases we actually looked alike. Two of our soldiers made belts and hats similar to the ones the Germans were wearing and proceeded calmly to the main gate. The guard was about to let them pass through when a German sergeant walked out of the guardroom. Our two men forgetting to salute the German sergeant were told to halt. It was only then the sergeant after close scrutiny found that two British prisoners were trying to escape. To our amazement, for we were watching closely, the German N.C.O. proceeded to lay down the law to the sentry on duty. My knowledge of German was at that time nil but we could see the way the guard cringed that it wasn't by any means complimentary. Taking of the pseudo hats and belts the sergeant of the guard told our boys to go back into the camp. We gave a sigh of relief, apparently the sergeant admired the audacity of our two would be escapers!
A few days later we were ordered to get our kit together and be prepared to march to the town of Sulmona. We had been prisoners now for two and a half years and I know I wondered what comes next. Arriving at the station we were herded into goods wagons, the type with sliding doors. About 40 men to each wagon meant that there wasn't enough room even to sit down. Still we had to make the best of it. The train slowly pulled out of the station. There was no way of knowing what went on outside the trucks having no windows but only a small ventilation louvre near the roof.
The knowledge that once we got into Germany it would be extremely hard to escape spurred many of us into making plans to escape from the train. The first thing we tried was to pry the floorboards of the wagon apart, and to escape that way. After many hours of travelling we managed to get two floorboards free, just enough to slide through. Three men managed to get away by this method until the train finally came to a halt and the count of prisoners and absence of floorboards gave the game away. We were then told by an irate German officer the next time anyone escaped, one in ten would be taken off the train and shot. That statement put an end to further attempts!
We were not fed on the journey, but had a few stops to get drinking water and stretch our legs. The rest of the journey was uneventful. We, after days of stop and go travelling, we slowly pulled into Bolonzo station. Our thoughts went back to 2˝ years ago when we first arrived at this station. At the precise moment we pulled into the station so the American Fortress bombers bombed the station! To know one is being bombed by your own allies is bad enough, but to be locked in a goods truck is really hell. The first bombs started to fall, which really shook the station. Next thing we knew the doors of our truck were being pushed back, to this day I don't know the brave men who risked their lives to help us out, we didn't stop to ask. We bounded out of the truck, and my memory is of a German guard and running head and neck out of the station! I lost the guard and found my pal running by my side. We made for the centre of the town, by mutual agreement and found ourselves in a civilian air raid shelter. To say the civilian population was scared was putting it mildly. We, the two [?] soldiers in their midst were scared too. It was our first experience of daylight precision bombing by the American Air Force.
We talked while we sat in the shelter about making another escape. Our plan was to go immediately after the raid through the town and make our way to the outskirts and hide up. There, my pal who had a good knowledge of Italian said he knew friends in the city of Padua, that then was the plan. After an hour of furious bombing everything went quiet, and making our way to the entrance found ourselves on the way to freedom. We had not gone half a mile when we were stopped by the Italian equivalent of our home guard, the man in civilian clothes would have shot us on the spot, and I didn't want to argue with his shot gun. My friend spoke to him in Italian and told him who we were, and that if we were harmed in any way the Germans would have something to say about it. The guard calmed down, which in the circumstances was a feat in itself after the bombing the Italians had had!
He told us then to march in front of him back into the city, where he proudly produced us back into the hands of the German guards. We stopped back night together with 200 more prisoners in a courtyard near the station. Next morning we were taken back again to board our trucks. We found the station in a shambles, the engine which had brought us in to Bolzano had a direct hit, and was now lying on its side a tangled mess of iron. Fortunately the track which we were on was intact and with another engine called out of the station we were on our way to Germany.
An hour later we passed our camp at Prato al Isavco, with found memories of the camp came to the frontier post. After many, many stops we arrived in Germany. We alighted the train to be met by grim faced guards. After a head count we marched to a main camp Stalag 11A, we found this huge camp near Munich to be a transit camp which held 11,000 men. What now, wherever we looked there were guards with dogs, and the dogs were definitely not of the friendly type!
The inmates of this large camp consisted of troops from all parts of Europe including Russians, Poles, Czechs, Italians, Serbs, a real collection of humanity. We were given a hut to live in but without any blankets or mattresses to lie on but we thought, we are still alive so what. The Germans did have a little respect for the British soldier, but above all troops they had the most hate for the Russian soldier who they systematically tried to starve. We did get the regulation small loaf and soap per day, but the Russians got very little at all. One day the German guard let one of the Alsatian guard dogs in to the Russian compound to cause panic amongst them. Shortly afterwards the dog disappeared from view, next day the Russian soldiers threw over the wire the bones of the dog they had killed and eaten. Hunger can make a man do strange things.
Having been told by the German officer in charge that every man who came to Germany had to work or starve, made us think deeply what kind of work would we be put to! After a few days we received a questionnaire by the guards. The information included our battery number, where we were captured and many other questions we knew to be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. We wrote our name, rank, and army number to which they were entitled to know, and under the question of civilian occupation I put "farmer". I thought I won't exactly starve if I get work on a farm! Little did I know where we eventually end up!
At this time in the war, the German manpower was extremely low, with having so many men committed to so many fronts, the civilian workers were very, very scarce, so Hitler used the other form of manpower which he readily had, namely Prisoners of War. One day in Stalag XIA we were detailed off to move the next morning. About 200 prisoners were involved in this move. Rumours were many as to our destination, but with my experience of rumours I found there was always a grain of truth in each rumour that one heard.
Next day found us at the station to await our train, after a period of a few hours our train slowly pulled into the platform, the usual cattle trucks; instead of the usual 50 men to a truck we found we were only 20 to each wagon! The train started we were on our way to somewhere in the heart of Germany. Time dulls the memory to a certain extent but I think we were in the train for two days. We found one morning the train had stopped at a station called Ohlendorf. We clambered out of our trucks, complete with our remnants of kit, and of course many of us still retained our small blower fires. The guards then ordered us into three ranks and off we set marching. Marching on an empty stomach is not to be recommended, but our guards had had exactly the same rations as we had, so who were we to complain!
After an hours walk we came to our camp, a small camp after Stalag XIA: this one was built to house 200 men. Lager 29 was to be our next home, and as it happened our last working camp in Germany. After being paraded in front of the commanding officer we were told that our work would be in the iron-ore mine which was about half an hours walk away. A great many of us were thinking of the work involved in an iron ore mine, would we be working underground or what kind of work shall we do.
Next morning being Sunday we were again paraded before the commanding officer, who told us that our Army particulars would be asked for as well as our civilian occupation. This took a matter of hours and after the usual name, rank & number was asked for I remember saying to the interpreter that I was a farmer in civilian life! I would go on trying to the bitter end! but it didn't turn out at all like that. After being processed we were again paraded in front of the officer who asked through an interpreter "was there a man on parade who in civilian life had been a tailor". My mind worked quickly, here was my only chance to get from working in the mine, my hand went up, and I was told to fall out. The commandant also wanted a camp shoemaker, and this post was quickly taken by an Irishman who had really been a shoemaker in civilian life, incidentally Paddy Ritchie at that time was about 45 and he had told us he had been a prisoner in the first world war!
Paddy and I were taken to the office where we were asked questions about our new jobs. Paddy had no trouble, but I hadn't the faintest idea what the duties of a tailor was, as it happened I could hardly thread a needle, but I had to bluff and I was willing to learn. "But you say you are a farmer" the officer asked me, "There must be some mistake I have never worked on a farm in my life", "my civilian job was a tailor", I said. "The interviewer must have written down the wrong information". My first lesson at bluffing! "Very well, you will be camp tailor, I shall order a sewing machine for you, and when it arrives I shall want you to repair all the clothes of the men who work in the mine". I nodded, both Paddy and I were taken to a room which adjoined the dining room - plus concert hall. We were told that this would be our work room, and we would sleep in the room adjoining the work room. Well, I thought, the first part of my bluff is over, what comes next. To be a tailor without even a needle or thread is going to take some doing. Both Paddy and I thought about our prospective new jobs. To Paddy, shoemaking was his trade, but to me I hadn't a clue what a tailor was supposed to do, and if a sewing machine arrived, well!!
During the coming weeks, Paddy did get his cobblers last, and other materials for his job, but I had to do my sewing by hand, all I had was a needle & cotton, by the end of the first week my fingers were bleeding, pushing needles through thick khaki material! Then one day the sewing machine arrived!! The commandant had kept his word and called my bluff! It was a large industrial machine with the name "Vesta" printed in gold letters on the arm, brand new. Where the officer had obtained a new machine at this time in the war I just don't know. But there it was in all its glory and I didn't know one end from the other! Paddy stood there and roared laughing. "Mac" he said, "He's calling yer bluff, I can see you in the mine yet!" I looked at Paddy "Not if I can help it" "Will you show me how to thread the needle and wind the bobbin, I think I may manage after that".
There being no instructions regarding the use of the machine we had to work from scratch. Paddy, who had used a shoemakers stitching machine did have some idea! After a frantic two hours tuition I declared to Paddy that I was able to carry on with the second part of my bluff! Our British soldiers brought Paddy and I plenty of work, and after a few months very trying work I felt I had finally mastered the intricacies of a sewing machine. I could sew a straight seam and was able to put decent patches in the workers army trousers, but the trousers being full of iron ore dust didn't do the needle any good or did the cotton take kindly to the dust and moisture of the garments. The cotton was second grade and it kept on breaking, which meant threading the needle again and again! But still, I thought even this is better than working below in the mine. From the tales we were told the men were not treated very kindly in the mine by the German overseers. There was one foreman who took an instant dislike to the men, and he bullied and harassed the men right through the shift.
One day the commandant walked into our workshop and said to me would I make him a jacket. I went cold, I looked at him and said I hadn't got the proper cotton thread, nor a tape measure, nor have I any French chalk, "I will get you what you want, don't worry. But I must have a jacket made, the weather is warmer now and I will need a light jacket for the summer." "Right," I said, "I will make you one. Please bring the material and an old jacket to make the pattern with." The commandant turned on his heels and left. I turned round to see Paddy doubled up with laughter. "It's no bloody laughing matter. I shall probably end up in the mine after this!". Paddy still chuckling said "He's called your bluff now Mac". All I could do was agree with him, my bluff had been well and truly called. I didn't know the first thing on the making of an army jacket. One thing certain, I couldn't admit to the officer I didn't know how to make his jacket. I just had to carry on and bluff it out, if I could.
A few days later to my chagrin the commandant walked in with the material, French chalk, tape measure, and a German dress jacket for me to take the pattern off. "Right," I said, "call back in three days for a first fitting"! I had in civvy street before the war a suit made to measure. The above words were said to me by the tailor. I thought this was the procedure I best keep to it. "Here goes" I said to Paddy. I began by taking apart stitch by stitch the dress jacket to be used by me for the pattern. The commandant had asked me to sew this jacket back to its first glory after being used as a pattern. I had assured him that this would be done.
The dress jacket now lay before me in pieces. I had to carry on now! I must say my friend Paddy did come forward with suggestions, which I on my present position clutched at any suggestions forthcoming. The material lay now before me with the pieces of the dress jacket pinned to it. I thought long and hard before I attempted to start cutting with the shears. With a lump in my throat I started cutting very very carefully around each pattern piece, it was finally done, each piece had its corresponding piece firmly pinned to it. Now for the sewing up!
In theory one can't go wrong if you use a pattern to the size required, but I found in practice it doesn't quite work out like that! I sewed the body together, the arms together, then I found extreme difficulty in sewing the arms to the body, somehow the arms didn't look quite right. The arms had to come off again, Paddy suggested that I tack the arms to the body, which I did, then I found that I could match the shape of the arms to the cut of the body! So far so good.
The third day arrived, and of course with it the commandant! In he walked enquiring of his jacket! "You have come for a fitting" I said. I took down the jacket from its hanger in the most professional manner I could muster. "Take your tunic off please" I said then I put the jacket over his shoulders, minus one sleeve. (This was how it was done to my in civvy street!) I then got to work with my chalk and tape measure, although what I was chalking or measuring I hadn't the faintest idea! I only knew that this is the way it is done by a professional tailor! Behind the scenes stood Paddy with a big grin on his face. "Right," I said, "Call back in three days for a final fitting". The commandant walked out. "Mac", said Paddy, "I give you first prize for bluff, I don't know how you keep a straight face!" "Neither do I Paddy. Neither do I!"
The jacket was finally completed but like all good work there just had to be one fault, I just couldn't quite get the collar central! When fastened it just didn't line up central somehow. I did try to correct this fault, but after taking off the collar and replacing it, again it ended up in the same position, just one quarter of an inch out of true! "Perhaps he won't notice it" I said to Paddy. "He won't if he doesn't fasten it" he said. "That's it" I will tell him it looks better with the neck unfastened and being warm weather he may just do that!"
In walked the commandant, "Finished" he said, "Yes it looks good too" I said putting it over his shoulders. He seemed to like it. "Don't fasten the neck, it's too warm outside, it looks better undone." "Yes," he said, "I shall leave it on. Don't forget the dress jacket, I shall want it to wear shortly." "Right," I said, "I am very busy now but I shall make it up again shortly." The commandant walked out resplendent in his new jacket, if only he knew, but my bluff had come off! Later on the count parade there he was in this new jacket, I thought I hope he doesn't attempt to fasten the neck, he will find it just won't fit!
Circumstances dictate actions, when I look back now I wonder at my big bluff, but the job as a tailor was to say the least a cushy number, at least we did get worker rations, which at that time was a godsend. The Red X parcels now were non existent and our two large slices of bread and bowl of soup were the only food we could get.
It was at this time in the camp I had to trade in my watch. It was bought for me when I joined the Army by my mother. It was gold, a good time keeper, and very precious to me. In all the searches we had had I had managed to keep it hidden. I sold it for four loaves of bread to the Polish cook in the camp kitchen. My pal and I at that time were very hungry, so the deal was made that I received a loaf per week for four weeks. The first loaf went very quickly, no butter or margarine, just the bare bread, but to us it tasted wonderful. I did I remember only received three loaves before the fourth loaf was due, the Polish cook was transferred to another camp! Thus I lost a precious loaf on the deal!
At the far end of the dining room was a dilapidated stage. Asking permission we were allowed to work on the stage and make scenery to be used for a concert. The people of the village and Ohlendorf had given an old organ to the camp, and of course in every camp are found musicians. The chap who played the organ was a New Zealander: he could make it sound wonderful when he played the popular music of the day. We had to put on a concert. Who had any ideas!! We decided to advertise. Any man who could give a turn, no matter what, could come onto the stage to entertain. We had a few applications and having a meeting of prospective candidates, we got together enough material to give at least one concert. Scripts were out, most of the dialogue would be more or less off the cuff!
So we got to work on rehearsals. Men who worked in the mine would have to rehearse in their own time, to ask a man to the concert hall after a twelve hour shift to rehearse his act was asking too much, but the men concerned said they would do their best to be ready for the night. Permission was granted by the commandant to carry on with the concert and to decorate the stage in any way we saw fit. One man offered to do the stage background, another the joinery work, another the electricians job and so on. We had no shortage of volunteers!
While preparations were going on, myself and two of my friends decided to make beer. Any kind of alcohol was forbidden, but we said this would be done in secret so no one but ourselves would ever know! How to make beer? We had an old tin bath which would hold about four gallons of the liquid, that would be a start. We scrounged around and came up with a few raisins and currants, and to make yeast decided to toast our bread ration for one day and use this to ferment the brew! Putting the ingredients into the tin bath, the toast was laid on the surface of the brew and the bath was carefully placed underneath the stage floor, where we hoped no one would ever look. The brew we thought would be ready for the concert opening!
After some debate it was decided to invite the commandant and those of the guards who were off duty on the opening night. In every camp was placed a Nazi officer who whilst his duties were few, kept a tight hold on the running of the camp. If this officer happened to be in the vicinity no guard would ever speak to a prisoner. All guards without exception were so afraid to be caught on a friendly basis with a prisoner. The penalty was the Russian front. This then was the one objective of the Nazi officer, he ruled the camp by a silent fear, even our camp commandant who was an ordinary soldier couldn't give orders to the Nazi. That was then the state of affairs in all prisoner of war camps. As it turned out the Nazi officer eventually invited himself to the concert, and to me it turned disastrous!
The rehearsals had gone well, our sketches were word perfect, our organist had his music, and we were ready for the big night. Every day the now obnoxious brew was examined! The bread floating on top of the liquid had gone green mouldy! I didn't fancy drinking it at all! Anyhow I had spoken to Paddy about drinking the brew and it looked to me to be undrinkable. Anyway there and then bread ration or not I decided that not a drop of the brew would go past my lips!
I had decided to appear in two sketches, the first was a parody on the famous Showboat films with the great bass singer Paul Robeson. I who had then a decent baritone voice would be taking the part of Robeson, and a few of my mates including Paddy would be behind me on the stage with blackened faces etc to give a background to my singing. The other sketch was a scene in the desert of a British 25 pounder gun team and a German field gun team, this sketch very nearly proved my undoing!
After a lot of work and many rehearsals, we came to the big night of the show. Before the curtain arose I looked out at the audience to find a packed house, the first two rows filled with the German guards, including the Nazi officer. The curtain rose to the music of the organ, playing popular songs of the day which of course went down with our men, who joined in the chorus. Now for the Paul Robeson sketch. The lights were dimmed, the stage was set with six men lying around on imitation bales of hay. I myself in front of the stage. The curtain rose and I started to sing "Old Man River", I managed to sing about five bars when I heard a titter from the audience. "This isn't meant to be funny" I thought, I kept on singing wandering what on earth there was in the very serious song to laugh about. The titter then advanced into roars of laughter, then something made me turn around. There in the background, lay Paddy with his face blackened, his pyjama coat wide open showing his white stomach, but that was not all. Our friend Paddy had a stupid grin on his face, he was blind drunk! The place was in uproar! Whether the audience thought this was for their benefit I don't know, I managed to finish my song and the curtain was lowered to thunderous applause. I came off stage to be confronted by the commandant, who wanted to know where Paddy had obtained the beer. I had to plead ignorance, and Paddy himself in no fit state to explain was promptly escorted to his bunk.
The next sketch fared worse. I in the script had to call a German officer a bastard. This was to the roar of approval from the British prisoners, but unfortunately not to the Nazi officer who I found to my horror could speak and understand English! I found myself looking down the barrel of a luger pistol by an officer who had very clearly lost him temper. He threatened to shoot me, and only after a hurried explanation from me that it wasn't meant that way at all was I allowed to go. With shaking knees I walked back to the rear of the stage thinking why did I bother at all with the concert. Uneasy peace was restored and the show ended with community singing, which if I remember even the German guards joined in.
Next day I asked Paddy when he had taken the drink, and he explained to me he had drunk a mugful half an hour before the show started. After that he explained he didn't remember anything at all! The wicked brew had proved to be highly overproof liquor. Needless to say after that episode I didn't touch a drop of it. The brew next day was poured down the drain, we were afraid of a search by the guards. The commandant didn't find out how Paddy had got himself drunk. Everyone who was asked pleaded ignorance of the fact that beer had been made! I had to go before the Nazi officer next day who told me in future all scripts for concerts had be brought before him to examine. How can one explain that in our concert there had not been any script at all! As it happened this was the first and last concert to be staged at this camp. The end of the war for us was drawing to a close.
Hunger in this camp was still a major problem, and near the end the situation worsened. The guards felt the pinch as well. Red X parcels had ceased some twelve months since, and we were existing only on the German ration which was just on starvation level. The thought of food was on our minds constantly. We knew the war couldn't go on for much longer at this rate.
One source of news was brought to us by one of the German guards, who really risked his life by giving it to us. This particular guard would only bring news if the commandant and Nazi officer was out of camp. I had a map of the immediate front which I kept hidden, and this was brought out and with the days news the front was brought up to date.
The day finally arrived when after being given the news by the guard, I found that the front was only fifteen miles away! I was amazed, and told the guard he must have made a big mistake, he assured me that everything he had said was correct! This was good news indeed, was the end of the war in sight? After four years, it didn't seem at all possible!! This latest information was passed around the camp and one could feel an air of excitement. Men began to smile again and think of home. How long would it last now...
That evening in bed Paddy said to me "I can hear guns in the distance Bob". I'm afraid I couldn't agree with him and told him so. I listened, everywhere was so quiet but I still didn't hear anything. "Go to sleep Paddy", I said, "You must be wrong". Next evening I knew Paddy was correct, he must have had acute hearing for even I could hear the dull crash of heavy guns. In our little billet we were cut off from the main body of our men, but we could sense even then the excitement in the air.
Next day arrived and everyone knew the end wasn't far off. To substantiate the situation the men were told there would be no work that day. Later on we were approached by the Nazi officer who asked us could we give him a letter of safe conduct, which would be shown to any advancing troops. We declined his suggestion in the usual Army manner by telling him where to go. The next day this officer had left the camp. It was noticed by other men who saw him go that he was dressed in civilian clothes and that he had no badges of rank on him whatsoever. We knew now that time was on our side and that it would be only a matter of days before the advancing American troops would release us from our long captivity. But it was not to be.
The commandant told us he had orders to evacuate the camp and to march us back east into the heart of Germany. He also told us that the guards would stay with us for as long as possible for our own safety. He explained to us that the surrounding countryside was in turmoil and that there were bands of released prisoners who were armed and were looting and shooting everyone who stood in their path. We found that the prisoners in question were Russians, who had good cause to hate the German soldier. It was obvious to us that the commandant and his guard were staying with us for their own protection. But still to be quite fair we had not been illtreated by the commandant or his guards.
Everyone was ordered line up outside the camp with as much food and water as he could carry. We knew we were in a very dangerous situation for American fighters were now overhead and they were strafing anything that moved on the road. We actually watched them fire their rockets at a goods train nearby, making a shambles of the train. This kind of warfare was new to us, we hadn't seen rocket firing planes before.
The count of prisoners was taken and the commandant being satisfied marched us off. We marched all that day due east and then we were told by the commandant that the American forces were very near to us, he said he would not ask his guards to disarm themselves, but he would order them to stay with us.
Next morning we saw our first American tank! We were free! After four years of misery, hunger, we were free! There were, I know, a lot of soldiers including myself who just sat down and wept. The American officer commanding the tank told the guards to put down their arms and said to us the infantry would be along very shortly. We waited by the roadside for the infantry to arrive. Then they came driven in jeeps and various forms of transport. A detachment stopped and told us that they didn't have long to care for us but the village about two kilometres further on would be responsible for our welfare. The officer also told us about a farm he had just passed, and he said we could get fresh milk from the farm. He gave instructions he would meet us in the village in a few hours time, in the meantime he would arrange for our billeting in houses in the village.
We did go to the farm and we did drink milk, pints of it! With the result next day we all had severe stomach ache. This was the first fresh milk we had drank for four years! Before we were parted from our guards, the American officer asked us had we been ill-treated by any of them. We answered no, our treatment had been as fair as was possible and we told the officer than the German commandant had been fair to us, and that he never once illtreated any British soldier. The last I saw of the German troops were being loaded into trucks and taken back down the road we had just walked along. What happened to them I don't know. I only hope they were treated as well as they had treated us.
We were now in the village square, and in front of us was the American officer and the Burgomaster of the village! He told this frightened man we must be housed two soldiers to each German family, and he was told that failure to comply with this order would mean trouble for him. Literally shaking the village mayor said he would do his best. By this time we had been given cigarettes and a small supply of American food by our American friends. About 200 British troops sat in the village square awaiting the return of the mayor who took about 20 troops in intervals to houses in the village.
Then came our turn, and were taken to a house in a typical German courtyard where we knocked on the door. Myself and my Pal wondered who would be our benefactors. The door opened very slowly and two frightened women looked out, aged about 20 years they were absolutely terrified. After a hurried explanation by the mayor, women asked us in, and we were told to sit down. I made my way to a radio which I switched on only to be told it was strictly forbidden to listen to any English station. I then explained to the woman that the American troops were in charge of things now, and after telling me she was sorry explained that it meant the death penalty for listening to enemy stations.
With the two women were two lovely children, both girls who gazed at us in awe, not knowing who we were or what we were going to do. The two young women were still terrified. We were both armed at the time with revolvers, and we were told by them later on that they had been informed we would rape them and shoot them. We realised that to gain their confidence we must make friends with the children. I gave them chocolate and sweets, which had been given to us by the Americans. It happened to be the first chocolate the children had tasted, I must say they really enjoyed it.
Next day my stomach was pretty bad and I told my pal I would stay behind while he went back to the square for more rations. He left the house and I sat on the settee with a blanket around my shoulders. One of the women asked me would I lie down on the settee, I said I wouldn't. I thought life is sweet, and they wouldn't get my at a disadvantage by my lying down. I thought of the revolver lying under my pillow upstairs in the bedroom. I just didn't have the time or the energy to go for it. The women spoke between themselves, and looked over to where I was sitting. Suddenly they made a dash for me and attempted to make me lie down. I did struggled, but after being so weak through drinking milk the previous day, I just couldn't retaliate. But I found to my surprise that they were concerned about my health and had decided that only rest would cure me! My pal arrived back after a few hours and when everything was explained to him (his knowledge of German was better than mine) we all had a good laugh.
We found out that the husbands of the two women were in the German Army, but where they just didn't know, having told us that no letters had arrived from them for months. We did in a way pity them, having had their fill of war, and short rations, they were glad the war for them was over. My pal had brought lots of army rations back with him so we had a nice meal, which was shared by all, and the children again were given chocolate, which they really loved.
We noticed that the footwear that the children had was very poor, and for that matter were their mothers. My pal had heard in the village that there was a footwear factory situated on the outskirts. So next day I felt much better and borrowing the women's bicycles we pedalled off. After about 20 minutes ride we came to the factory, a big building just stacked to the ceiling with all kinds of footwear, and good footwear at that. Around the gate were German civilians who were trying to enter the factory, but were being stopped from entering by the village police. We of course were allowed in, and obtaining a hessian sack each proceeded to fill them up with ladies, childrens and shoes for ourselves! We had to walk back to the house with our load, and when we emptied the sacks of brand new shoes before they women, they just flung themselves on our necks in thanks. Fortunately the shoes did fit and the children were delighted in the little shoes they had. Our two friends now had no fear of us, and we were on the best of terms with the children, I can't remember their names now but to me children are the same the world over.
At night, after the children had been put to bed, we had long conversations about the war and our two countries. Firmly believing they would be raped, the women were greatly relieved to find that British prisoners had been billeted on them. Self preservation was still in my mind. I still kept my revolver, after four years I thought I am not going to be hurt in any way now, but we had no cause to worry over our two women, we did now get on very well together. We were simply billeted with them until transport could be obtained to take us back to the nearest airfield, and we were told that on hearing a bugle call were to come running with our kit into the village.
One day in the village a woman came up to me crying as if she wouldn't stop. She told me that ex prisoners had taken all her belongings including china & silver which had been in her family for generations. After making enquiries of other British troops I found out that two Polish prisoners had been responsible. I managed to contact the culprits and the silver and china was returned to its rightful owner. We felt sorry for the upheaval the war had caused these people, you can say the German people were the cause of the war, but I know most of the German population were as fed up with war as we were. We also felt sorry for the two women we were billeted with, who didn't know whether their husbands were alive or dead.
My pal and I were with the two women for 7 days. Every night we sat around the fire and spoke of our families and of our two countries. Outspoken now the two women spoke out about the awful carnage Hitler had brought upon the German people. They told us before the war started Hitler to them was the saviour of Germany. Also they found it very hard to believe the awful atrocities which had been wrought upon the Jewish people. They knew they told us, to complain to the authorities about anything political would be the awful thought that it would mean the labour camp for them and possible death. So in every case they found it prudent to say nothing and suffer the hardships of very little food and clothing instead. They like the British population were issued with ration books, but the books were virtually useless, the rations and clothing and footwear were nearly unobtainable.
One evening about 6 o'clock we were talking to one of the women when in rushed her friend and she seemed excited and told us that a bugle was blowing in the village square! This was it, our signal to move! My pal and I dashed down to the square to find other troops standing around an American officer. After an interval the officer informed us that transport would be laid on next morning at nine o'clock to take us back to the nearest airport, which in this case was a town called Kildesheim. We hurried back to the house and told the women the news, who looked at us both and burst out crying! They told us then how afraid they had been at first, but had quite grown to like us, and that they would be very sorry to see us go. We told them that we would miss them too. They had looked after us to the best of their ability, and we had shared what small rations they had.
It didn't take long to pack our few belongings and it was late that night before we went to bed, after talking about being reunited with our families at home in England. Next morning we left the house and hugged our two weeping benefactors, who wished us God speed and a safe journey, to the children too we said goodbye, giving them the last of our remaining chocolate. Arriving at the village square we found a fleet of American Army lorries waiting for us, and were given orders to embark. We were off!
Driving past our camp again at Ohlendorf brought back memories, but this time on the other side of the wire and free! After a three hour drive we arrived at the town of Kildesheim. To our amazement it had been flattened! This was the result of one afternoons bombing by hundreds of American bombers. It was a ghost city. The roads had been cleared but it was difficult driving through the rubble of the bombed buildings. The smell of death was in the air, many, many people must have died in the ruins. Alighting at the aerodrome we were put into German barracks to await the arrival of planes which would take us back to England. There must have been some thousands of P.O.W.'s in the barracks, including many American prisoners who were mostly airmen who had been shot down during air raids in the locality.
During the period of days waiting we were fed extremely well by the Americans, and to our amazement every morning had a doughnut line up, when each received a doughnut, coffee and a packet of cigarettes! To while away the time there was an American Jazz Band who played for us. The American women were there too in uniform, and they were very kind, and couldn't do enough to help us. We had to be patient they said. At that time very few planes had landed on the airstrip, which of course had been bombed, but was nearly ready for planes to land and take off in greater numbers. We lazed away for a few days in the German barracks, I must say we ate well and engaged in talking to other P.O.W.'s about their experiences. We were all without doubt unable to realise that we were really free.
After a few days we were given a flight number and were told to listen to the tannoy speaker every day for our flight. If our number happened to be called it meant running down to the air strip without fail. Then came the day our number was called. Dashing down to the air strip we found a Dakota plane unloaded war equipment. We were to be its cargo on the return journey. This flight was to be my first as it was with many others. We watched the plane being unloaded then it was our turn to board. We were told to sit on each side of the plane then the sergeant in charge had a roll call which was found to be correct. We were off!
Taxiing on to the runway, the plane slowly picked up speed, we were airborne! Shortly after taking off we heard a terrific crack at the rear of the fuselage. Hell we thought, we are being attacked! I asked the crew sergeant what the noise was, he replied he didn't know, but we knew that there were still German fighters in operation, I thought to go through four years as a P.O.W. and then got shot down would be just too unfortunate. But the incident passed. I looked at the white faces around me, I'm sure mine was just as white.
We passed over battle grounds where we could see numerous tanks, trucks. From the air at this height (about six thousand feet) details were remarkably clear. So much for camouflage in the desert I thought. The rest of the flight was uneventful and we touched down at Brussels airport. We alighted from the plane to find a change of clothing awaited us, a hot bath and food. It was there I also met the Red X and the Salvation Army people who gave us writing paper, stamps, and many more things for our comfort. I still have the box of water colour paints which the Red X gave to me! And I still use them!
After a wonderful nights sleep, we were that afternoon given Belgian francs and were allowed out of the airport barracks. How great was the feeling of being free. It was hard not to look behind expecting to see a guard following, but no we were on our own and free to go in the town!
The next day we were taken to our plane for home, in, of all things, a Stirling bomber! The tremendous size of the Stirling amazed us with its huge fuselage and four great engines. We boarded the plane and with a huge roar we found ourselves once more in the air, we were on our way to England! I remember asking a crew member why the plane wings were moving up and down, he replied the time to worry is when they don't move up and down. Then he told us we were sitting over the bomb bay doors! If the pilot pulled the wrong switch that would be us away! We were all happy and good for having our legs pulled by the crew, who soon put us at our ease.
Shortly after we sighted dear old England, how well it looked from the air after all this time! The plane rolled to a stop at an airdrome somewhere in the south of England. Alighting from the plane, many of us had tears in our eyes. My next recollection was looking at big "Welcome home" banners strung out over the hangar doors, then an R.A.F. band struck up with music, we felt quite proud. Taken then into bays made of hessian, we were sprayed with delousing powder. I think many of us needed this too! Then covered with D.D.T. were taken into the hangar and given tea and cakes and cigarettes. We were home with our own people. The amazing thing, everyone spoke English!
We were not long at the airdrome. Shortly afterwards we were taken to an Army barracks, where it was I do not know, I only know it was a very pleasant area and surrounded by trees. Once again we were issued with fresh clothing, this time we were more particular whether our uniforms fitted or not. We were helped greatly by the W.V.'s who sewed our badges on our battledress tunics, altogether we were treated as V.I.P's. We were informed by an officer that every effort would be made to get us home as quickly as possible.
Next day we had to parade for examination by the medical officer, who examined us very thoroughly. After day parade that day we were asked not to go outside the camp, for we would be on our way shortly. Rules were made to be avoided, so that night I found myself with a few others in the local village bar. How good the English beer tasted! I don't remember coming home that night, but next day there were a few sore heads in the camp. That same afternoon we were given Railway [tickets] for home. This was it, a months leave at home!
My memory now of the rail journey is very dim. Arriving at Lime Street with a great number of ex P.O.W.'s we scanned the crowds which were now gathered in the station. I said to my pal "I know someone there in the crowd. I will see you later as arranged". I made my way to the edge of the crowd to find the person had vanished. I was sure it was my fiance. Mystified, I waited until my pals came up to me, "I thought I saw my girlfriend, but I must have been mistaken." I said. My two ex POW friends lived on the Wirral side of the peninsular, we said goodbye promising to meet in a few days. I made my way to Central Station where I entered a train for Green Lane Station. Arriving at Green Lane I put my kit bag over my shoulder and walked along Old Chester Road to my home. Not a thing had changed, I felt as if everyone was looking at me, I felt very strange and unsettled too, I was on my own with no guards to tell me what to do or which way to go.
Knocking at the door of my home I was welcomed warmly by my mother. My father had died whilst I was in Italy and my brother was in the forces somewhere in Germany. It was an anticlimax, home, now what could I do? Money was no object, I had in my pocket four years back pay! For a while I was afraid to go out on my own. The knowledge I could go anywhere I liked hadn't quite sunk in. I found this uncertainty very hard to overcome at first. I was about two stone underweight so that was my first thought, I must get back to my usual weight and form. My local doctor told me to eat plenty of fresh eggs and drink plenty of milk, the two things which were rationed!
My two pals and I did meet often in the next few weeks, and we went out for days together, but we were all unsettled. One day the pal from Birkenhead asked me would I like to go into business with him and our other pal. Strangely enough the two pals had no parents living so they were in quite a different predicament than I was. The business turned out to be a large market garden, which had been allowed to run down during the war. It was situated on the Arrowe Park Road, in the Wirral. The three of us decided to give it a go, it would take all our savings and a lot of hard work to make a going concern. I myself knew nothing of market gardening, but I was young enough to learn. The garden covered about three acres and contained two very large greenhouses. So we got down to work clearing the grass which had overgrown the paths and the growing area. I was quite happy with my new life until one day my Pal told me that his Aunt had offered to put money into... [Diary ends]
The following is a slightly different version of Robert McBride's experiences at Ohlendorf, specifically the making of the jacket for the commandant.
Captured at Fort Mechilli (Western Desert – 1941), by Panzer Division.
Handed over to Italian Troops, (Ugh!)
Kept in desert without food or water for 5 days. Given water mixed with diesel fuel.
Taken to Derna on the coast. Lived on dead horse 1 week. Taken to Sabratha past Tripoli.
Shipped from Tripoli to Naples. From Naples to Bolzano (Italian Alps).
Thence moved to Sulmona (center of Italy). Escaped for two weeks.
Taken to Germany. That's where this story begins. Escaped from cattle truck at Bolzano en route.
A TRUE STORY
(Written by Robert McBride.)
Son of Robbie McBride of Hebburn.
This is a true story and the names used are the actual names of the characters involved.
Location: Prisoner of War Camp, Lager 29, Near Ohlendorf, Near Hanover. Time: July, 1943.
Robert McBride, Royal Artillery (Liverpool.)
Paddy Ritchie, R.A.S.C. Magrafelt, N. Ireland.
Tony Powson, R.A.S.C. (Now in Australia).
Herr Klaus, Commandant of Lager 29.
The train jolted to a stop. After about 46 hours in a Cattle Truck we were unwashed, hungry, unshaved and fearful. What the future held, what the camp would be like, what the guards would be like, we were soon to find out. I turned to my mate Tony, "I wonder if it's worth Escaping from Germany." We had escaped twice en-route from Italy where we had been prisoners of war for two and a half years. Freedom had been sweet, if short lived. But escaping from Germany was a different matter, not only the Army, but the civilian population was against us.
Some of the lads in the truck were ill, having been without proper food and water for days. Thinking back, I can admit now that I did get despondent at times, but in the back of my mind was the thought, look after yourself, one day you'll be free, but when? That was the unanswerable question. Tony said, "I shouldn’t try yet Bob, these blokes aren't like the 'Ities' you know, we'll have to be more careful." We had been in Italy up to now and were being transferred to Germany where we knew from the Guards that we were going to have to work with a capital 'W'.
We heard the catch of the doors being released and soon the door of our truck was opened. "Rous, rous!" The German guard shouted "Alle-man Rous!" We found we were in a dead-end siding somewhere in the country. There were about ten trucks altogether, making over 250 prisoners of war. We alighted, and stood in threes, not very smartly. We were always awkward where the 'Jerries' were concerned, it was amusing to see them trying to keep their tempers and pretending not to know we were being deliberately awkward. There were one or two guards with Alsatian dogs and we took no chances with them. We were counted two or three times, the ranks were always moving about just to make it hard to take an accurate count. Eventually the German Sergeant seemed satisfied and away we went.
We were walking for about an hour when we came to a village called Ohlendorf. I mentioned to Tony that it would be okay if we could be billeted on a farm locally and he agreed we would be okay for grub if we were. We thought mostly of food. The guards told us to be quiet and on we marched. After about 5 miles we came to a mine set in a valley, not knowing that it was our place of work for the next 18 months. The camp, Lager 29, was two miles further on.
We arrived weary, and for the most part, all-in, to be greeted by Herr Klaus, the camp Commandant. This is really where ray story begins. "Englander soldaten." Said Herr Klaus. "You are here to work and to do as you are told. Anyone attempting to escape will be shot by the guards. The work you do will be at the mine which you passed on the way here." He spoke through one of our own interpreters, known to us all as 'Jock', a sandy-haired chap with a constant worried look on his face. "Also," said the Commandant, "no knives will be kept by prisoners and all portable fires will be handed in." I Said to Tony, "there goes my bloody masterpiece." It was a small portable fire, bout 16" x 14", used by prisoners of war to brew tea etc., with the minimum of fuel. They contained a small blower unit, which, when in operation produced great heat with a small amount of charcoal. Nearly every P.O.W. had a 'Blower', as they were called, and many hours were spent on making them; so they were given up with the greatest of reluctance.
"Before you are shown to a barrack-room, you will be interrogated," said the Commandant. The interrogation took place in a small office in the compound and was conducted by a German soldier who had evidently learned English in the U.S.A. "Name, rank, number," he said to each one in his nasal Yankee style. "What Battery where you in?" At that we told him where to go. We were only required to tell our name, rank and number. What he hoped to learn from such information I can't imagine; we had already been prisoners for 2˝ years and such information would be out of date.
The main thought amongst the men was "I hope I don't get split from my mate", for it was a big help having a good pal; if one went sick, the other could always look after him to some extent. Many of the men had been pals right through their prisoner days and it meant a lot to them. I said to Tony, "If we get split up, I will give you my address at home and we'll try to meet after the war."
The time came for examination and standing a long time in a long queue, we awaited our fate. The examination by the German doctors was a farce from beginning to end - they just looked at us as we passed and either failed or passed, depending on how we looked. They didn’t fail many either. I knew boys who were really ill, but they were passed for heavy work. I must have looked very bad, for I was failed, probably front the after-effects of dysentery from which I had suffered a lot in Italy. I had lost about 3 stone and the ribs were sticking out of my skin, or almost. Tony didn't pass either, but we were far from happy. We didn't want to work down the mines, it was hard going, but we were in open country away from the bombing and would have a better chance of survival than if we worked in a factory in a built-up area. Anyway, it was out of our hands, we could do nothing about it.
That night in the barrack room there was much speculation: what kind of work there would be in the mine and whether the men could stand it, or on the other hand, which factories would the others he sent to. After fruitless discussions, we returned once again to our favourite topic, food; and eventually I suppose, we all slept. We awoke next morning to the usual cries of "Rous, rous… everyone on parade!" The German corporal in charge made every man, sick as well, get out on parade, lined up in threes outside our huts. We weren't left wondering what was going on for long. It was the orders from the mine regarding the shift work. Names were read out and each man given the times of his shift, that is, all except those failed by the German Doctors. The parade was dismissed and there were not many smiling faces amongst the whole 250 prisoners.
"At least I won't be working down that awful mine I thought, but then I might get bombed in a factory." After being a prisoner so long I didn't want to die. Especially to be killed by planes from own home country. I wanted to go home. After much speculation with Tony, my pal, we made arrangements to try and meet and to at least get in touch with each other's people at home, if either of us ever made it. We were informed that those who did not work would get only 250 grammes of bread a day and workers would get double that amount. 250 grammes was just about starvation ration, and the workers would be hard put to manage - even with double ration.
We returned to our huts to a stormy scene. "Up at bloody 5 o'clock;" said one; "3 p.m. to 11 p.m." Said another; and so on. No-one was very happy about anything. Some were worrying about what it was like to work down a mine. Many of the men hadn't done any manual work in their lives and to be given a pick and shovel and asked to dig iron-ore out of a deep mine was simply terrifying. Next morning, still dark, we were awakened by the now familiar sound of the German Corporal shouting "Rous, rous!" We were not to forget these words in a hurry. A little while afterwards we heard the 5 a.m. shift marching off to the mine.
As the day wore on the non-workers stayed behind and got meagre rations, hunger was our constant companion. Eventually the first shift arrived back, dusty, dirty and covered completely in iron-ore dust. They were worn-out. "That blasted foreman, I'd like to shoot him - he wouldn't give us a minute to breathe." Said one, and most of the others had similar remarks to make. Another remarked, "Our foreman has only got one arm and he carries a pickaxe handle and uses it too." Henceforth he was always referred so as 'One-arm', and was hated by every man who worked under him. Another man said he didn't know if he could stick it, what with the grub and watery so-called soup, not many of them were very fit. Roll on liberty and hurry up Yanks. We'd heard rumours they were on their way and we were grasping at straws. (They did eventually release us).
Next day was Sunday and for some reason not explained we were given a day off, although we had been warned we had to work seven days a week. The huts were visited early by the camp Commandant, who ordered that everything had to "be taken out of the huts and the huts scrubbed out; everything must be saubermachen," said the commandant and from thereon was nicknamed 'saubennachen', which means clean. There were a variety of remarks about the Commandant's ancestors - none of them complimentary. Someone remarked it was a fine day off, having to scrub the hut out, but it was better than the mines. "I have seen the guards at Buckingham Palace, they are smart and clean and I want you to be the same." Said the Commandant. "They get three-square meals a day to do it on." Said one of the lads. "Why don't they send him to the Russian Front?" Said another. In due course the huts were cleaned out and everything put back.
Now we can relax we thought, but no. In the afternoon the usual call of "Rous, rous," and we were on parade again. We were counted and counted again with the usual German thoroughness. Then we were addressed by the Commandant who assured us that if we all worked well we would be looked after. "And now," he said, "is there any man who was a Tailor in civilian life." My thoughts raced, wildly; "Here is my chance to get out of going to a factory". "We need a tailor to repair the clothes and the uniforms of the men of the camp who are working in the mines." Said the Commandant. "Here goes" I said to myself and my hand shot up. "The other men who are not fit for the mines will be sent to work in the factory at Wolfenbuttel". Tony looked at me in dismay; we were going to be parted. The parade was duly dismissed and I was left standing with our interpreter and the Commandant.
I was ordered to walk into the camp office. "Namen?" Demanded Klaus, who was looking through the mens' files. "McBride." I said. He found the form with the details on it. "But" he said, "You are written down here as a farmer." I thought quickly (when we were first asked our occupation a lot of the men said farmers in the hope of being able to work in the open-air and get good food. I actually knew as little about farming as I did about tailoring). "That is a mistake." I blurted out. "I am not a farmer, I am a tailor." I knew nothing about tailoring either, but I was prepared to try and bluff it out. The lads wouldn't give me away if they could help it. The commandant looked at me a bit doubtfully, but eventually declared "You will now be Lager Schneider, to work in the camp for the men. I will get, in due course, a sewing machine and you and the camp shoemaker will work in a room together." My heart sank; what would I do with a sewing machine? I hadn't expected that.
Jock and I were both dismissed and once outside, Jock turned to me and said "You certainly bluffed that, now what are you going to do?" "If he gets that bloody machine for me I'm sunk; I can't thread an ordinary sewing needle, never mind one of them, and I certainly don't know how they work." He wished me luck and off he went. Next day Tony was sent along with others to work in the factory and I wished I hadn't been so hasty and was going with them. We shook hands and renewed our earlier promises to look up each others families after the war. As he went off in the lorry, I thought "my God, I shall miss him after all this time."
Next day I moved my belongings into the room which was to be the workshop. I had only a handful of kit so it took no time at all. In the hut I found old Paddy Ritchie, fortyish, and a man who had been a prisoner in the first-world war. He didn't have a tooth in his head and when I asked him why he had no dentures, he said, "I was fedup with them so, one night I took them and jumped on them." He was a born comedian and that was typical of him. At night he would keep us all cheerful with his funny stories and jokes. How he remembered them all I just don't know, for he never told the same story twice to my knowledge and he had that rare quality, found in the Irish, when he was telling a story, you simply had to listen.
"How are ye Bob," he said to me. "We ought to be okay here, just the two of us, have you got a ciggy?" "Sorry." I said. "I'll try and flog a pair of boots to the Gerry guard." He said laughingly. "You know I think the guards are worse off than us; at least we won't be sent to the Russian front and that's what they're afraid of." Later on, the Commandant arrived. "I want you to make me a jacket" he said. I nearly died of shock. "What, with just a needle and thread?" I said. That was all the equipment I had. I saw Paddy grinning in the background. It was alright for him he was a genuine cobbler. "I can't possible make a jacket without a machine." I assured the Commandant. "I am getting you a machine." He said. I thought "I hope to God you don't." I could hardly manage a patch on the lads' trousers at that time. Well I had to go on with the bluff. "Good." I said. "Get me the machine a measuring tape, some tailors' chalk, some machine needles and thread and I will make you a jacket." "The machine will be here tomorrow." Said Herr Klaus. He walked out. "Paddy;" I said; "that's torn it; what am I going to do?" He was by this time roaring with laughter. "It's alright for you mending bloody boots;" I said; "but I don't know one end of a sewing machine from the other." Paddy was unable to contain himself any longer. "Sure, I can see you being shot yet Bob."
That night seemed, endless. I lay in my bed and thought and thought. "If that machine arrives tomorrow, I'll get thrown out of this camp and heaven knows what they'll do to me." I think I eventually slept. Next morning I approached Paddy on the subject of the machine "Did you ever use a machine repairing boots in Civvy Street, Paddy." "Aye;" he said; "but I think it's a different thing to a sewing machine." "They must work on the same principle, Paddy, you'll have to help me to find out how it works when it arrives." "Bob;" he said; "you are not going on with this surely, you'll have to tell them." "I'm going on with it now I've come this far. God knows what they'll do to me if they find out; I'll have to try." "Okay;" said Paddy; "let's see if the machine comes today. We can try some delaying tactics for a while."
About two o'clock that day, my heart sank, lower if possible. The main gates opened and in walked a civilian with a big packing case on a handcart. "Hell!" I said. "Here comes the bloody machine!" The cart was halted outside the Commandant's Office and Paddy and I peered out at everything that was going on. Now and then Paddy gave a little chuckle. We watched as the Commandant directed the Corporal to bring the package to our workroom and watched him push the handcart to the workroom door. "Holy Mary!" gasped Paddy. "A bloody sewing machine for a fella who can't thread a needle and cotton; now you'll really have to start bluffing." The crate was lifted into the workroom and how I wished they would drop it and do some awful damage. But they didn't; it was left to Paddy and I to unpack the machine.
To our complete amazement it was brand new and bore the name, 'Vesta'. "I wonder where the hell he got this from?" I said to Paddy. "He must have asked Hitler for it specially, or else he's looted it from somewhere." Was his reply. While we were examining the machine the Commandant arrived. "Good?" he asked. "Ya." We both said together. I wondered what was coming next and hoped he had forgotten the jacket. No luck. "The jacket;" he said; "I want it exactly like the one I have on." "Oh hell;" I thought, what now? "I haven’t a tape measure yet, or any french chalk." He assured me I would have them by tomorrow. Then I had a brainwave "Have you an old jacket I can take a pattern from?" I asked. "Ya." He said. "I shall bring it and the material right away." I waited. Paddy telling not to worry that I could only get shot if I made a mess of it. Very comforting!
Eventually Herr Klaus returned with the material and the Jacket I was to use for a pattern. It was his dress jacket, all covered with silver braid and badges of rank. I told him in sign language that I wanted something to pull apart for the pattern and he assured me it was alright, so long as it was put back like new. I thought, "Hell, I wonder does he suspect I don't know a damn thing about it." Anyway, I thought, here goes, and I started pulling the jacket apart. It seemed very complicated, but I tried to keep a note of how it all went together and what was what. Paddy was muttering to himself and chuckling away about being glad he was a cobbler and not a tailor like me. I ignored him as much as possible and concentrated on what I was doing.
I placed the length of cloth on the floor to see if there was enough to make the jacket. I laid all the pieces on it and found there was enough. It was just as well after me pulling the other one to bits. "Anyhow;" I said to Paddy; "I can't do anything until I get some chalk, so I'll leave it until tomorrow; come and show me how to get this machine working." Paddy showed me how to wind the shuttle with cotton and how to work the treadle. After a couple of hours, I was still hopeless at it and what with the cotton breaking and the treadle insisting on going the wrong way, I gave up and hoped things would be better next day.
Next morning there was a queue of lads all wanting something repaired. I wished I'd never started it all, but I hadn't the heart to disillusion them. I took the articles of clothing from them and told them, they'd soon be repaired. I had had to do my own running repairs up until then so I could manage a patch or two and get away with it. Later in the day the Commandant arrived with the French chalk and the tape measure and I thanked him, as if I really meant it, and told him to come back for a fitting in two days. "God help me;" I thought; "only two days to master this machine, not to mention cutting out the jacket." "Well Paddy;" I said, "here goes - it's sink or swim." I placed the pieces of the jacket on the material and proceeded to cut round them. I then tacked the prices roughly together with cotton and hung the tacked up jacket on a nail and tried to forget it until the Commandant was due for his fitting.
I thought I'd better try to repair some of the lads' clothing so after much breaking of the cotton and cursing and swearing at the machine, not to mention running the needle right through my index finger. I finally mastered the art of using the machine and sewing two pieces of material together. It's amazing when one has to do something to save his neck; how he can master the almost impossible. I felt much more confident about the jacket now. Eventually the Commandant arrived for his fitting. "Guten tag, Herr Schneider." He said. I mumbled something under my breath in return and with the tape measure round my neck, hoping to look a little professional at least.
I took down the jacket. Paddy tactfully retired to a corner of the hut, so as not to distract me and pretended to be busy, but I knew he was watching my every move. I placed the tacked pieces of jacket over his shoulders and made a great show of measuring and chalking various places, not having a clue what I was doing. I could see Paddy grinning to himself and gave him a look enough to kill a touchier man. To my surprise, the Commandant seemed very impressed and remarked "Ya, gut", as I assured him it was going to be a good fit. After about ten minutes I decided I could stand no more and asked him to call again tomorrow for another fitting. Before he left he reminded me that he wanted his other jacket sewn together again and I didn't bother to enlighten him as to my worries on that score. I had enough on my plate for the time-being. I would cross that bridge when I came to it.
"Paddy." I said. "For God's sake finish what you are doing and come and help me. How am I going to sew this bloody thing together?" After some discussion I finally decided to get started and after many efforts at getting the stitching correct, I managed to get it to resemble a jacket. I really thought I was progressing, but until now I hadn't even thought about the collar "My God!" Who'd have thought it could be so complicated! Try as I might, I couldn't get it. I started at the centre back more times than I cared to count, but always it ended up 'skew-whiff'. I had to tack it on anyway, as the Commandant was due for his next fitting. I was a nervous wreck and wondered desperately what the hell he would do to me when he saw the jacket. Paddy kept on saying, "Talk about bluff, you 'Scousers' sure beat us Irish to it, but I wouldn't like to be in your shoes when Herr Klaus tries on that jacket." I told him to shut up if he couldn't say anything more encouraging. "Paddy." I said "You can kid even the Germans if you know damn well you have to. I'll just have to keep kidding him on a bit."
When the Commandant arrived for the fitting I thought, what am I going to do about that bloody collar? Paddy cheerfully assured me, "he'll put you up against that bloody wall and shoot you when he sees that lot." I had a feeling he was very near the truth. I put the jacket on the Commandant and made a show of pulling it into shape, I staggered when he said, "Prima, prima". He actually looked pleased with it. I couldn't believe it. I was quite pleased with it myself but up to now he hadn't tried to fasten up the collar. I think it would have choked him and of course, there was no mirror in the workroom. I walked around him trying to look professional, with my tape measure draped over my shoulders and not knowing what the hell to do with it. I asked Paddy his opinion and he praised it to high heaven in a most convincing fashion. "When will it be finished?" Asked Herr Klaus. "By the end of the week, I assured him." "Don't forget to put the other one together again," he reminded me. "I shall need it."
"Paddy." I said after he had left. "I think it will do; that is, of course, if he doesn't button up the collar. I'm sure it will put his neck out and choke him into the bargain." "Well;" said Paddy; "I take my hat off to you; it's not bad at all. But you haven't finished yet. What about the other jacket?" I ignored him. I didn't think it could be put back together - there was a lot of facings and linings that I wasn't sure about. Anyway, I started on acting it all up and fixed on the epaulettes and German army insignia (much to my disgust). It didn't look too bad and when it was pressed it looked better still. However, the collar was still awful and I didn't know what to do about it so I just left it open and prayed he wouldn't try to fasten it. With a glance at the other tunic all torn in pieces I thought I couldn't go through all that again. I just couldn't put that together.
The week-end arrived, and with it the Commandant. It was a really warm day and the men were due to parade. Just before the parade was due to start, in walked the Commandant and asked was his jacket ready as he wished to wear it for the parade. He eyed it hanging up nicely pressed and looking like a Saville Row suit at least. He put it on and started to button up the front. I said, in desperation, "It's very warm today; I should leave the top unfastened, as it is very good material and will be too warm." To my amazement, after a slight hesitation, he agreed and Paddy and I sighed with relief as he walked out of the workroom door and out into the sunshine to inspect the parade. "Well Bob;" said Paddy, "you finally made it. I didn't think you'd get away with it, but it's surprising what a fella can do in a tight corner." I turned and looked wistfully at the other jacket lying there in pieces and wondered where to start. I also had a lot of the lads' clothing to work on, so I pushed the jacket aside and decided to get on with what now seemed 'a piece of cake.' I never did get round to making up the other jacket, always managing to have a marvellous excuse and I even became quite good at the job I had taken on in desperation.
Paddy Ritchie I never saw after we were released by the Americans, but Tony, I met again when I got home and the last I heard of him was from Australia.
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