Pictures

Ronald Wollaston

A group at a work camp

A letter to Ronald Wollaston's family confirming news of his being taken prisoner

Gunner Ronald Victor Wollaston

 

Unit : Royal Artillery

Served : Crete (captured)

Army No. : 29894

POW No. : 5651

Camps : Stalag XVIIIA

 

Born 1921

 

I was captured on Crete and taken to a place called Wolfsberg and to Stalag XVIIIA and this was our main camp. There were two or three big camps; with Russians in one part and two or three other nationalities as well. The Russians had typhoid and were dying off. The only people that would treat them were our Medical Officers that were with us. The Germans were frightened of the typhoid. Our Medical Officers practically cleared it up.

 

I shall never forget our first Christmas there. We got near the wires where they were nearly touching each other. We were singing carols in all different languages. Funny really.

 

They held Theatre Productions. One was Pygmalion. It would have been at the end of 1941. The first photo was taken at the top of a mountain. That's me in the top right hand corner. In peace time it was where climbers used to go up and spend the night; then they used to come down again the next day. We stayed in a big house on top of the mountain and we started going out from there on working parties. During my time I went on quite a few working parties to different places.

 

The first place I went to was an iron ore mine and they had us down inside and we used to rake iron down on one side and stone, etc. on the other. That's how they used to take the ballast away, but The Red Cross got to hear about it and they took us out of it to work outside. We used to work on the railway and they used to run the things round the outside to shoot all the waste over the side and we used to keep shifting these lines over a bit further. That's what the first job was.

 

Then I went on to another one. We were building a dam halfway down the mountain for electricity. That was a deadly job because you were right in the mountains and when it was winter it was dreadful. Our fellows were dying with the cold.

 

We were relying on Red Cross parcels really for food. The German food you couldn't eat it; sauerkraut; the cabbage stuff. It was blinking horrible, made you sick. We used to get one parcel a week when they started getting through to us, and we used to get about half a dozen of us together and join up with the parcels and it used to make it go through the week. You just had to rely on that, more or less, because what you got off the Germans was next to nothing.

 

There was one place I was in, and I had wisdom teeth trouble. Two of my wisdom teeth made my face really swollen. So two guards took me round to the local village doctor, an Austrian. I'll never forget it! I went into his house and he had a little back room and it was late afternoon. It was gradually getting a bit dusk and he had no lights or anything like that. He might have had a paraffin lamp but that is all. He said to me "I'll have to do it out in the yard." So he took a chair for me out in the yard and in the meantime, there were about half a dozen kiddies come round there and they were saying "Oh, an Englander" and they were going to watch this. So, I had to put on a brave face; I couldn't do anything else. The doctor said "I'm sorry, but I can't give you anything for it because everything we've got has all gone to the front for the soldiers." So anyway he had to yank these two wisdom teeth out, with nothing for the pain. He did a good job of it because I was in so much face trouble that I didn't mind what he did.

 

At a later date, I had a great big carbuncle come up on my neck and it was huge. I went to the same old chap and he had to lance it. He couldn't give me anything for that either. He put a dish around my neck and he lanced it and then he showed me afterwards. He said "look at that". It was all the colours of the rainbow.

 

I had quite a few things go wrong with me but anyway, I weathered the storm and got through these things and eventually the last place I went to was a place called Marburg and it was well down on the borders going towards Yugoslavia. That was our chance then. It was our great opening, as it was getting towards the end of the war and we thought "well, we are going to make a go for it sometime or other". As I said earlier, they used to run a little carriage down there with a steam engine on the front of it and it was only a single track. They used to take us out to this place where it was and then they used to leave us and the train used to go back. We had eighteen guards with us this morning. There were quite a crowd of us. There were about fifty chaps; something like that. Anyway the day before two of our chaps had got away because they knew they were blowing the lines up. The partisans thought that if they could get in touch with them, they could lead them back to where we were.

 

So they did and we got there and unloaded and beside it they had some big boxes with all the stuff for doing the railway. We were just opening that up and all of a sudden there were screams and shouting and out of the top firs were all these partisans. There were about forty of them, including a couple of women. They acted as nurses but they had grenades hanging all round them and were fully armed. Anyway they came down there and they had these guards straight away because they were poor old chaps, a lot of them. Some had been out to the Russian front and then come back. They were doing these types of jobs in prisoner of war camps and the partisans got them. There was only one that got away. He shot down the mountain, slipped down and slipped down. They said they wouldn't fire on him because if they had shot at him it would have given them away, because the sound in the valley would have gone right the way through it. If they heard rifle fire it would give them warning and they would know something had happened; whereas they wanted us to get as far away as possible, before this German could get through to anyone.

 

We started off then. We walked all day the first day, and then after that we were only going to travel at nights. What they used to do was get their food from out of the fields. If they wanted a cow, they would kill a cow from the farms. They used to get permission to do it and then they used to cut it all up and put it on poles and then we would carry it; one in the front and one at the back. We were carrying food and things like this and we travelled all that day and then late in the evening we rested. We were going to start after that going only at night. We were hiding in the pine woods but all of a sudden we heard aircraft coming round and we thought "oh blimey, they've got the warning now. They are looking for us." But it wasn't; it was the RAF and they were coming round dropping supplies to these blokes. Apparently they had got through to them, by wireless and told them that they had got us all and they were getting stuff and we went out to help and collect it. It came down on parachutes. There were rifles and hand grenades fully primed all ready to be used and there were khaki uniforms being dropped for the partisans.

 

They collected all this stuff in and then we said to them "well, how about arming us now?", and they said "no, out of the question." They said what would happen was as we were going through with them, if they got into a tight spot anywhere, they would just disappear, and we would be taken back again. They would shoot us if we were armed. So they wouldn't arm us. They told us that for every one of us that they could get free, they got paid by our Government with equipment and munitions.

 

That night we started off again. We were travelling over the mountains. There were quite a crowd of us; about fifty. We used to just keep the fellow in front in sight and that is how we travelled all the time, just keeping in one line. The partisans had mules with them and carried all the equipment on them, and they were going up over the mountains as well. Anyway we got through. They used to get local people, that were farmers etc. who were all friends of the partisans. They used to do the leading in the front, because they knew exactly where the Germans were and their positions. Through the night you might have as many as a dozen different guides changing over and leading you for so long. One particular night, we had to go up over a big mountain and we got nearly to the top of this blinking mountain and all of a sudden there was - in German - "halt who goes there". Well the partisans had so many German deserters amongst them, they didn't know if it was one of them, so they had to tell him who they were. This officer that was with us, a partisan, shouted out what unit he was and different things, partisan. Directly he mentioned the word partisan, the machine-guns started opening up. There were bullets whizzing around everywhere. We shot down this mountain. We slid down it more or less all the way where we had walked up it. We had taken hours to get up to the top of it, but were down there in five minutes. The poor old mules were having to go down there with the stuff. Everyone had to get down. We got down to the bottom of the valley and then they rounded up our blokes, because we had dived in all different directions. There were about half a dozen lost that night, so they must have got it with the machine-gunning.

 

We got to one part of Yugoslavia which they more or less had a lot of holding on. So the next thing was that we were going to get taken out by the RAF. That night there were planes coming over. About four Dakotas were circling round and first of all the partisans gave the wrong signal and the RAF didn't know whether there were Germans down below or partisans. One RAF bloke was crazy on jumping and every time he had a chance of doing a parachute jump he did. He jumped out so low that his parachute opened and he was on the ground in seconds and he had a Very pistol in his hand at the ready. He came right beside us "Cor" he said "you're English blokes, ain't you?". "Yes we are, alright. We are with the partisans". He gave out the signal then with the Very light and that was it. There was a long field and they had beacons, and these partisans were stretched out across this field, right across at intervals and at a given signal they had to light them.

 

The first plane started to come in and they weren't quite in line with it so they went round again. In the end they got the four planes down, which were to take us out. There was a bloke from Winchester; a pilot. He said "any Hampshire blokes here?" And straight away muggins said "I am a Hampshire bloke." "Well get your mates and come in my plane. I would like you to come in my plane" he said. So anyway we went in there and the plane was a Dakota. They had no seats or anything because they had stretcher cases, partisans, a lot of them wounded and they were taking them to Italy. I got into this fellows plane and he went to start it up and he couldn't start it. It wouldn't go! "Oh, I am sorry" he said. He was a proper la-di-da bloke, "I am so sorry for this inconvenience but I am afraid I have got to get in one of the other planes and we've got to leave this one behind. The partisans and yourself have got to camouflage it underneath the end and then you have to take to the hills again.

 

Then they were gone. All my mates and all the others had all gone. They had freed. I am still a prisoner; more or less; not out yet. We camouflaged it under some trees. We pulled the old Dakota round underneath, between the lot of us. We pulled it round under there and made it as inconspicuous as possible and then we went off into the mountains with them. The partisans said "Never mind. We'll have a blooming good time tonight. They had chickens and a big canister of stew. They had wine and we did alright in the end.

 

The funny thing was that in the middle of the next day, all of a sudden there were fighter planes zooming about. At night the Dakotas of the RAF come in without anything with them. We ran from where we were up in the mountains; about three miles up there. We ran all the way down there in time to see the Dakota had come down with the mechanics and fitters; mended the plane; and off they had gone; the two of them. So we were left there. We said to these partisans "Sorry, we are not moving from here. We are stopping here. Germans or no Germans we are stopping here tonight."

 

It was amazing really; they had the same performance. There was one plane come in then for us and it was the same bloke; the bloke from Winchester. "I am sorry about that chaps," he said "You know I am really very, very sorry. Never mind. You're alright now." We got in this plane and the doors wouldn't shut. The door were open and we stood looking down, and as we were flying over we could see where the partisans were fighting down below and then we went over the Adriatic Sea, into Italy and landed at Bari aerodrome, and were taken from there.

 

Before it left this RAF bloke said to me "if you get the chance; I know you'll have a lot to do, because they interrogate you and do all sorts of things. But if you get the chance, come up here to the Aerodrome. I will take you for a trip round." So I did it and everything was free. We went into Salerno 8th Army Rest Camp. At that time they were fighting in Northern Italy, right up the top, and the travel was free. There were half a dozen of us. We said "Come on, we'll go up there and have a go at this." We got there and he gave us a meal and then he said "Come on. I've got permission." After they had gone over a plane and done everything mechanically, they had to give it a run round to see everything was alright. So we had to give our names and then he took us around. He took us all over Rome, Salerno and Naples.

 

A week later we returned to England.

 

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