Private Thomas Emyr Davies
Unit : Mortar Platoon, HQ and Support Company, 1st Parachute Battalion; 1st Airborne Division.
Served : North Africa, Sicily, North-West Europe (captured).
Camps : Stalag IVB
Tom Davies joined the South Wales Borderers at the beginning of the Second World War. In January 1941, he volunteered to join the 11th SAS Battalion, later renamed the 1st Parachute Battalion, with whom he fought throughout the later stages of the North Africa campaign as well as taking part in the Invasion of Sicily. In September 1944, Davies was captured during the Battle of Arnhem. To read more of his experiences there, go to http://www.pegasusarchive.org/arnhem/tom_davies.htm
'The tanks started to pepper the houses where we were sheltering with cannon fire, shaking the walls like canvas. Clouds of dust rose from the crumbling plaster and broken masonry, and glass flew everywhere. A platoon officer lay on the floor bleeding profusely from a shoulder-wound which we had bandaged as best we could and C.S.M. Martin, an exceptionally tall, raw-boned ex-Grenadier Guardsman, who was next senior in the room, did his utmost to keep our spirits from flagging by the occasional wisecrack.'
'We had already disposed of any documents or maps that we thought could be of any use to the enemy by setting fire to them. Our position looked pretty hopeless now, with our ammunition just about gone and the men utterly exhausted, having had no sleep for a couple of days. Suddenly, there was a brief lull in the shouting and firing from outside in the street. This awful silence seemed more frightening than the hitherto raucous noise of the Germans as they moved in for the ‘kill’. Bill Wilson growled in his broad Scots accent, “What the hell’s happening now?” As if in answer to his query, a stark shadow fell across the doorway and a young German soldier, closely followed by two companions, appeared. They could not have been older than seventeen. Their guns jerking about in their hands expressed their nervous and excitable mood as they shouted “Hinder hoc”, their eyes darting quickly about the dimly lit room. I am certain that one thoughtless or careless move on our part would have been suicidal. They would surely have blasted us to ribbons.'
'We motioned meaningfully to our officer lying on the floor making gestures to suggest that they would attend to him. They beckoned the three of us out of the dust-filled, battle-scarred room into the bright daylight where more of our captors stood, the flashes on their uniforms indicating that they were soldiers from the S.S. Panzer Division. They were lined up in the garden at the rear of the house, their fingers itching on the triggers of their guns. We were escorted along the road and bundled unceremoniously into the waiting trucks to be taken back behind the enemy lines away from the scene of the fighting, the noise of battle in the distance like the faint thunder of a far off storm as we travelled through the pretty Dutch countryside. The people of the villages we passed through seemed a little afraid to show their true emotions for fear of reprisal action by the Germans. This was clear from one incident when a jolly old stout lady shouted out something which we could not understand as she waved encouragement to us. She was given a short blast from a Mauser gun by a fair-haired German fanatic escorting us. She staggered back against the wall of the house but as the truck was rounding a wide bend in the road we could not tell whether she was mortally wounded.'
'After we had been travelling for about two or three hours, we eventually turned into a large fenced enclosure, which appeared to be some kind of botanical garden. Large groups of dishevelled and very weary prisoners of war like us - British, Polish and Dutch - were either sitting or lying stretched out on the grass. In the centre stood a building like a small block of offices outside of which stood a party of Dutch civilians who, judging by their white, strained faces and anxious looks were obviously pleading for their lives. This was evident by the despairing gestures they were making to a couple of lean and hard-looking German officers, whom one might have guessed were accusing them of collaborating with the Allies. Despite our own plight we felt a great deal of pity for them, being victims of circumstances brought on them in which they had no say, many of them having been put in a dangerous and compromising position through no fault of their own.'
'Hours later, we were taken to Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany and there, at an interrogation camp, put into solitary confinement for a period of time in little wooden cubicles. They were rather like the ones used for changing in when going bathing, the object being, no doubt, to lower one’s spirit before being questioned. This certainly proved to be the case with me. The longer I was kept waiting, the more exasperated I became. The feeling of loneliness increased and I felt an overwhelming need to speak to someone. After an unbearably long wait, I was taken to a large government building. As I was marched, with an armed guard at my shoulder, up the wide stone steps and along the highly polished corridors, I was very much aware of my wretched appearance from the contemptuous stares from the sturdy, well-developed office girls. With swastika armbands on their shirts, they were obviously the product of the fanatical Hitler Youth movement.'
'The room we entered was sparsely furnished with just a beautifully polished, heavy mahogany table on which was placed to one side a large bowl of fruit filled with thick clumps of delicious black grapes, enough to make one’s eyes water. There sat a very pleasant looking civilian, probably of the German intelligence section, who spoke fluent English with hardly a trace of an accent. He greeted me with a charming smile and said he hoped I would be sensible and just answer a few questions. The sooner this was done, the sooner I would be given something to eat and sent to a permanent prisoner of war camp where I would spend the rest of my time until Germany had won the war. He was amiable but without being excessively so.'
'I told him I was only able to give him my name, rank and number at which he then assured me that they had most of the information they required but just needed confirmation on one or two minor points. The line of questioning followed the lines of which aerodrome we had taken off from, the number of men to a plane, type of aircraft, crew and so on. In reply to every question I repeated my name, rank and number. I asked him if he would expect me to give information other than that which was laid down by international convention if I was a young German soldier taken prisoner in England. His reply was non-committal. Someone naïve enough to imagine they had all the information they needed concerning the airborne landing might think it was not very important giving away some little detail and would thereby add another piece to the huge jigsaw they were putting together. Realising that he was not getting anywhere, the official ordered the guard to take me back to the little cubicle again.'
'After a couple of hours, the men who had been interrogated were shepherded into a large compound where we were given a slice of black bread each, which I ate with the relish of someone who has been given a piece of fruit cake. I was amazed to see one or two of the lads pass their ration of bread through the wire fencing to someone in the next compound in exchange for a cigarette which evidently satisfied their immediate need more than food, even though they must have been as desperately hungry as I was.'
'The following morning, we started our long journey to Stalag IV B at Muhlberg-on-Elbe. I was very disappointed to find that Bill was not on the same draft as myself - possibly the names were taken in alphabetical order. We were packed fairly tightly into cattle wagons which contained two large heavy-lidded lavatory buckets, one for urine, the other for excreta. A loaf of black bread and a small portion of evil-smelling and strong-tasting cheese were to be our only food for the week’s journey ahead of us. We did our best to ration the food on a day-to-day basis, cutting a slice of bread and a tiny piece of cheese for each day.'
'The journey itself was not exactly the most comfortable or exciting I have had in my life. We were continually shunted into sidings for hours on end. Then the guards, who travelled in a separate truck, would unlock the doors of our wagons and pull them aside to allow in air and light, for which we were very grateful. The train would eventually rumble on again and we would be lulled into a deep slumber by the melodic refrain from the tinkling of the lids of the lavatory buckets as the wagons swayed and rattle on. We stayed for a long spell at the sidings in Cologne and the guards allowed us out of the wagons so that we might stretch our legs a little. I think there was very little chance of anyone trying to make a break for it as we had been cooped up for three or four days by then. We were all very stiff and hardly able to walk let alone run.'
'I was greatly impressed by the small expression of humanity by the engine driver who, possibly having a son of his own in the army and hoping someone would behave in the same way to him, showed some pity for us and emptied about half a sack of potatoes on the side of the railway track. Being the nearest truck to the engine, we managed to snatch one each which we unashamedly devoured as if they were apples. Cologne was razed to the ground by the heavy bombing raids it had suffered but, by some miraculous escape, the cathedral steeple still pointed grimly to the sky like the giant finger of some umpire of the gods giving Cologne a ‘bowled out’ or should I say, ‘bombed out’.'
'Our next stop of any length was at Dusseldorf, where we had to change from a wide- to a narrow-gauge line. Passing through the station early in the morning, shepherded by our guards, the place was alive with activity as sleepy-eyed girls and women, probably munitions workers, dashed for their trains. This was evident from the rough state of their clothing, many with scarves tied in turban fashion around their heads. A train had just pulled in amidst a lot of bell-ringing and hissing of steam. Many of the people waiting for the train moved forward on sight of us in menacing fashion but, fortunately, for us were held at bay by the rifle barrels of the guards escorting us. Women spat and jeered at us as they were forced to move aside for us to pass along the platform. It was understandable that many people felt embittered having their homes bombed and razed to the ground, many suffering the loss of loved one, and with the parachute wings on our cap badges and sleeves we could well be mistaken for bomber crews.'
'We continued our way towards Muhlberg, dozing off and half-waking to the sheer blackness of night. I seemed to sense a strange dislocation of time, past and present. Here we were, rolling along on the railroads of Germany, completely at the mercy of our captors, with all the events of the past week or so racing through my mind. At the same time, I felt an odd sense of security, as if going home to the valleys of South Wales for a spot of leave, awakening for a few moments in the darkened railway compartment just a little concerned not to drop off to sleep again and miss my stop.'
'We finally arrived at Muhlberg in a much weakened condition. A few of the boys collapsed to the ground when alighting from the wagons and had to be assisted for the half-mile or so tramp from the little railway siding to the prisoner-of-war camp. At the camp, Stalag IV B, crowds of inmates had thronged at the entrance with the hope of recognising someone they knew. A new intake of prisoners was always a great event at the camp, with hurried questions, charged with excitement, thrown from all sides. We shuffled on slowly through the main gates of the camp. This was a very slow process as each batch of prisoners had to have their particulars taken, then had to be de-loused, bathed and inoculated as a precautionary measure against the possibility of any outbreak of disease.'
'I was approached by two pals of mine from my old platoon. They had been taken prisoner in a previous operation at the invasion of Sicily. Roy Harris, a chubby, well-built lad from Bristol, who had a perpetual grin on this cheery face, and ‘Titch’ Cartwright from Manchester, who always spoke in a secretive sort of way as his eyes darted this way and that, giving him a mischievous impish look. After breathlessly asking me the news regarding the fate of some of the lads, they discreetly asked me to hand over to them without being observed my A.B.64 which is the soldier’s pay book. Without further ado, I let them have it. They slipped away and were back again in a matter of minutes with the pay book, altered giving me a rapid promotion to the rank of sergeant. The idea was that Non-commissioned Officers had the privilege of remaining in the camp and could not be used for working parties or ‘commandos’ as they were called. This could be quite an arduous and often dangerous experience involving such work as clearing the debris from railway lines, marshalling yards, railway junctions, roadways, bridges and ammunition factories destroyed by the heavy bombing raids which created such devastation in the big towns and cities, as the Allied bombers rained destruction down on all strategic points disrupting the lines of communication. Others were sent out to work in factories engaged in the work of boosting the German war effort. There were of course advantages in going out to work. Firstly, the prisoner was given extra rations of food as the camp rations were just sufficient to keep one alive and were certainly not enough to enable one to cope with a day’s work. Secondly, the chances of making a bid for freedom were greatly enhanced.'
'Red Cross parcels, containing chocolate, cocoa, butter, sweets and many other goodies, which the prisoners of war had previously enjoyed, had ceased coming through from the International Red Cross centre as the Allied air forces concentrated on destroying everything that moved along the lines of communication. As the net slowly closed in on them, it was as much as the Germans could manage to feed themselves and we were considered as just an extra burden on their hands.'
'We moved desperately slowly through the camp reception buildings to a point where we were ordered to strip off every stitch of clothing and tie them into bundles. These bundles were collected by a guard who took them away for fumigation treatment in huge vat-like steam boilers. We then went through the de-lousing treatment, standing there in all our naked glory. Some wag behind cracked, “Roll up! Roll up and see the greatest show on Earth!” but I am afraid our masculinity was not presented at its best just then. Letting out a shivery giggle, we moved on, not too enthusiastically, for the next treat in store for us which was to be given by the bored-looking white-coated German doctor who was dispassionately loading his hypodermic syringe for the next injection into the pectoral muscle. Judging by the way he jabbed the needle into the flesh, it was obvious it was also getting a little tired of its work and needed a change. Apparently, some time previously there had been such terrible outbreaks of typhus at prisoner-of-war camps that the Germans were taking no chances of further flare-ups. The disease struck the victims with the effect of a heavy cold, leaving them trembling violently, the fever spreading through the body until death mercifully took over. We were told that the bodies of the Russian POWs were dragged and bundled into lime pits with no more feeling and respect than would be given to the carcasses of animals. They would be sprayed with lime, the white foam bubbling and hissing as it burned into the tangled mass of flesh and clothing.'
'The next move was across the yard to the bath houses, where, coming from the showers were a bunch of the most pitiful specimens of manhood it had been my misfortune to see. I later learned that they were Italian POWs. They were walking skeletons, their fleshless ribs protruded prominently like bird cages, their legs were ankle-thick to the top of the thighs and their eyes seemed to glow from the deeply-sunk sockets of their skull-like heads. The chalk whiteness of their faces gave them a ghoulish appearance; such was man’s inhumanity to man.'
'Clothed again and feeling somewhat fresher, I felt that I had regained my identity. The psychological effect of a uniform, giving one a sense of belonging is amazing. The hut to which I was billeted consisted mostly of R.A.F. personnel (flying crews) and a fine bunch of fellows they were. Each hut had its own ‘Hut Commander’ who had the responsibility for maintaining discipline and the allocation and issuing of food rations to the men in his charge. Food was issued once a day, around mid-day. It was invariably soup made from horse meat with great chunks of fat floating on the top. The lads had a standing joke regarding the number of horses that were being killed at the Russian front. The soup was brought to each hut in a large iron cauldron with handles on either side. Each man was ticked off the roll of names of the occupants of the hut as he received his ladleful so that there was no chance of anyone doing a ‘double shuffle’ on the food. In addition to the soup, there was a loaf of black bread to every eight men. This was measured out and cut with meticulous care into what we hoped to be equal portions. We looked on anxiously as each man was apportioned his share fearing that one might be given a short measure and at the same time trying hard to assume an air of indifference, it being of the utmost importance not to lose one’s dignity. Sometimes there would be a variation in the soup issue, perhaps we would have millet (a sort of maize made into something resembling a weak porridge). Something quite special would be pea soup. This would be the subject of much speculation and excitement among the lads as this lack of decent food day after day gnawed at the mind as well as the body.'
'The beds were two-tiered little wooden bunks with flat strips of wood serving as a base. With a blanket wrapped tightly around one’s body, one could have a decent night’s sleep. There was no undressing and getting into bed wearing pyjamas or such like as the new intake, such as me, would not be in receipt of any such home comforts. So, apart from taking our boots off, we slept in our uniforms. It was just as well really for when winter came, with its bitterly cold and frosty nights, there seemed to be a constant stream of men running across to the ablution block, making for the toilets throughout the night, accompanied by the beam of the searchlight directed from the high guard towers, which stood well above the compound. The reason for continually wanting to urinate may have been the effect of lack of sufficient food.'
'The guard tower also contained a heavy machine-gun and anyone passing beyond the toilet block after lights out and going in the general direction of the high, double-thicketed barbed wire fence which surrounded the compounds would be welcomed by an angry burst of machine-gun fire from the ever watchful guards at the tower. Each compound had a similar guard tower on either side. There were compounds for Russians, Poles and Italians, and transit compounds for the working parties which were continually coming and going as required by the Germans to meet the emergencies as they arose.'
'The Russians in their drab clothes were a particularly pathetic sight. Big-framed men who seemed to bend forward as if they did not have the strength to stand upright, giving the appearance of large vultures as they clung on to the wire fence which separated the compounds. They were invariably rummaging around the refuse bins in an attempt to scrape tiny morsels of food from seemingly empty tins. They had existed for two or three years on the paltry camp rations and had not enjoyed the comparative luxury of the Red Cross parcels which the other nationals had received. They were hard-looking men with the world’s miseries written on their faces.'
'Roy Harris, our friend from Bristol, was on friendly terms with one of the more fortunate Russians who from time to time was detailed to go out to the nearby village on a working party. This usually put the Russians in a position where they could scrounge some extra food from sympathetic villagers or perhaps pick something up on their own initiative. As a result, Roy would, on occasions, slip around of an evening from his hut close-by with a tin full of some concoction he had made up resembling porridge. He would tell me that he had obtained a bag of chicken corn from his Russian friend Nik, ground it down to a fine powder and then put it in water which he boiled, stirring to make quite a dish. I could usually tell when he had something to share by the expression of extreme pleasure on his face which he would try very hard, but not too successfully, to hide as he pushed his way past the lads who had congregated around the small stove at the centre of the hut. This we were allowed to light in the evening thanks to the generosity of the Germans who periodically also allowed us a small ration of coal.'
'Talks were organised at the various huts on different evenings of the week. These were given voluntarily by speakers who felt that they had something special to tell, many of them professional people in civilian life. One such speaker was a professional footballer, a former player with Wolverhampton Wanderers football club, famous, just prior to the outbreak of war, whilst under the management of Major Frank Buckley, for the issuing of pep pills to the players.'
'Another amusing talk was given by a member of the Home Guard who had been taken prisoner on the south coast of England in 1940, but I don’t imagine for one minute that there was anything funny in it at the time. What a relief it must have been for his family, who could not possibly have had any idea what had happened to him, to hear through the International Red Cross Association that he was alive and well as a prisoner of war somewhere in Germany. One could well envisage the scene of his capture and the circumstances which had brought it about. A remote and rugged spot on the coast, one of those nights when the moon comes out briefly for perhaps only a few seconds in a heavy, clouded sky, showing a lonely figure keeping vigil, wishing away the hours till he would be back home by the cosy fireside again, while, unknown to him, a landing party from a German U-boat lying surfaced in the murky waters of the Channel, was making a reconnaissance along the rocky cliffs. Troops from the U-boat descended upon him without warning; their mission - to take back a ‘sample’ of the troops being used by the British for defending that particular stretch of coastline - accomplished which would assist them in forming a full picture of the opposition they would encounter should they decide to invade our shores. However, at that time the British were also very busy in counter moves by constantly juggling the troops around with the deployment of mobile columns along the coastline giving the effect of having more troops stationed at these points than there really were.'
'We also had a nice little camp library which had built up over the years through the good work of the Red Cross and other sources by means of parcels from home. Many of the books were old and the worse for wear but nevertheless there was quite a lot of really good reading material to be found among them.'
'Weeks passed by as winter drew on, the night skies reverberating to the heavy ceaseless drone of flights of Allied bombers carrying their loads of death and destruction to the big cities of Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden, all of which formed a huge triangle miles beyond our camp at Muhlberg. The ground shook and windows rattled in their frames with the vibration as they passed overhead. Then, in the distance, the muffled reports of the bombs as they rained down on their targets, the searchlights sweeping the sky with rapier-like flashes in a frenzy of desperation, trying hard to hold the aircraft in their beams whilst the anti-aircraft batteries pounded away at them.'
'Christmas Day, 1944, came and was spent much the same way as most other days apart from the evening when a few of the lads got together to sing a few carols. It seemed ironic however at this time of peace and goodwill to all men as we sang ‘Silent Night’, that the background accompaniment was the ominous drone of the heavy bombers as they carried on relentlessly. Our thoughts at this time naturally turned towards home, our families and friends, wondering how they would be celebrating Christmas. I reflected on past Christmas days with the huge tree in the living room studded with beautiful decorations and gaily-coloured lights with presents stacked neatly at the foot of the tree; a sumptuous spread laid out with carol singing around the fireside later. Even now all over Britain, rules and regulations were being bent at the different camps and air stations wherever possible to make Christmas Day a truly wonderful time of thanksgiving for the birth of Christ.'
'The news from the BBC bulletins told us that the American and Russian troops were making great strides deep into German territory. These were given out periodically by the hut commanders who obtained the information from a secret radio, the whereabouts of which was known to only a few of the escape committee. The information was released after every precaution had been taken that there would be no possibility of the untimely intervention from one of the guards.'
'It appears that, as the war went on and the Germans became extremely short of food, some of the guards, particularly those who lived outside the camp, were not above a little bribery. Previously the British POWs, well-supplied with such foods as butter, sweets and cocoa from their Red Cross parcels which had come through pretty regularly up until the last twelve months, were able to exchange these for wireless parts like valves. Also there was quite a lot of radio equipment and escape material such as compasses, maps and money getting in through ordinary parcels sent from home, perhaps hidden in sports kits sent by some society or other; but, of course, these are not to be confused with parcels sent by the International Red Cross, which contained nothing other than the official items stated and were of the highest integrity.'
'I was thankful when the hard, bitterly cold winter months were behind us, as there had not been a blade of grass to be seen anywhere in the camp. One would have thought the door had been slammed in the face of Mother Nature and she had been told ‘Keep Out’. There was nothing to be seen but hard-trodden earth giving everything a cold and soulless appearance but now there were distinct signs of spring in the air. This was evident by the long high grass which could be seen between the barbed-wire fence growing on a hillock some little distance away from the camp. As it swayed gently to and fro in the breeze, I experienced a wonderful feeling of hope and expectancy, this being the first budding growth of nature I had seen from inside the compound since I had arrived as a prisoner and I was convinced that this was an omen that all would be well for the future.'
'Often, when lying on my bunk at night just before going to sleep, my mind would take over with wild fantasies devising ingenious plans for escape which seemed absolutely brilliant and practically infallible but with the coming of morning, faced with reality in the cold light of day, I soon justified myself for not doing anything about it, thinking it utterly absurd and not at all practical, making all manner of excuses for myself such as it would not be many weeks now before we would be liberated, so why take a chance and perhaps get killed or maimed for life trying to do a bunk at this late stage in the war.'
'It was April 1945 and the camp buzzed with the news that President Roosevelt had died. It seemed such a tragedy that he had not lived to see the eventual complete capitulation of the German armies as he had been very reluctant to bring the United States into the war in the first place, being profoundly influenced by American opinion against doing so, but the cruel blow struck by the Japanese in their fateful attack on Pearl Harbour left him no alternative. He was a great diplomat, who did much in bringing greater understanding in the easing of any situation that might have threatened the bond between Stalin and the strong anti-Communist Winston Churchill. One felt that, if Roosevelt had lived and had been in office at the cessation of hostilities, he might well have helped considerably in creating an organisation for ensuring world peace which might have stifled any seeds of mistrust that were eventually to bring about the Cold War.'
'It became increasingly evident in the bulletins we were receiving from the BBC that our camp was in the sector likely to be overrun by the Russian forces rather than the American 8th Army under the command of General Patten, which was still a long way off to the west. Not many days had elapsed before we could hear the faint reports of distant artillery and, with the coming of daylight one morning, we discovered that the regular guards and the commandant had left the camp, leaving in their place elderly guards, many disabled and obviously unfit for front line duty, who were members of an organisation similar to the British Home Guard. We assumed that the regulars had been taken out to reinforce the troops in the lines, where the Germans were putting up stout resistance but having to give ground all along the line.'
'That night, Titch Cartwright and Roy came around to my hut, their faces hardly able to conceal their excitement. As they approached me they whispered hurriedly speaking together with great enthusiasm, “Come on Dai! We’re making a break for it tonight!” Titch’s large eyes protruded from a face creased into a big grin, expressing what we all felt now that we were going to do something positive at last after all these months of just waiting for something to happen. “I’ve got a map and wire cutters,” Roy blurted out.'
'I knew he had something to do with the escape committee at the camp. I felt that a great weight had been lifted from me, sensing that it was just a matter of hours before we would be turning our backs on Stalag IV B with its vast conglomeration of humanity representing practically half the nationalities of the world. Reflected in many was the indomitable strength of spirit given them by really believing with every fibre of their being in the just cause for which they had been fighting. Some showed the pathetic frailties and shortcomings of others, many perhaps having learned by letter of some tragic circumstance such as homes demolished during the blitz or losing someone very close or the infidelity of a wife or sweetheart being too much for their war sick and love-starved minds and bodies to cope with, resulting in them being frustrated almost to the point of despair.'
'After lights-out, we made our way through the barbed-wire fencing by wriggling on our bellies through the gap we had made in the wire, which we were very careful to put back in its original position. There was a huge glow in the clear, cold starry sky from large fires away in the distance and the flashing and muffled reports from what we assumed to be heavy artillery fire. Eagerly we broke into a run. We had not covered many yards when I fell into a little dip in the rough ground surrounding the camp. Titch, hard on my heels, almost fell over me. “Up Dai!” he gasped as I struggle to my feet. Then he added, after taking a deep breath of the cold night air, “We’ve got a long way to go yet!”. We all chuckled nervously, giving vent to a wonderful feeling of exuberance at the joy of being as free as a bird and the prospect of the adventure confronting us.'
'Figuring our chances of not being missed until roll-call the following morning, our immediate concern was whether the Germans had blown the bridges over the rivers and canals and, if they had not, whether they would be guarded by sentries. Fortunately, our fears were unfounded. It soon became apparent that they had commandeered every available man of fighting age in a last desperate attempt to hold the Allies from pushing deeper into Germany and on to Berlin. All through the night, we plodded on relentlessly, hacking and floundering our way, often through quite thick undergrowth, travelling across fields and woods to keep away from the main roads and built-up areas and especially from any signs of fighting where the pockets of German resistance held out. Roy checked periodically on his compass when we stopped for a breather, pushing on again as the cold air started to chill the sweat we had worked up.'
'By first light the next morning, we were just about on our knees, completely exhausted when we came across a large old farmhouse tucked well away in the heart of the country nestling among the trees. Making a bee-line for the outhouses, we soon stumbled into a barn where we gratefully dropped on to a bed of hay with every muscle aching with fatigue. My eyes felt heavy and full, our clothes stuck to our bodies with heavy sweat and we soon drifted into a very deep sleep. It was well into the afternoon when we awoke with the sun riding high in the sky. How wonderfully warm, friendly and reassuring it felt after the nightmare journey we had had the night before. After scouting around for some food we managed to collect some eggs from the hen-house despite the obvious show of displeasure by the hens as they fluttered their wings in front of us.'
'We made our way furtively towards the farmhouse itself where a very scared-looking elderly couple, having noticed us coming across the yard towards the house appeared in the porch accompanied by a tired old mongrel. They were both obviously very frightened, the old lady edging closer to the old man as we approached. We tried to explain to them that we were British and had been prisoners of war, that we had no intention of harming them in any way and that all we wanted was something to eat, but such assurance was lost on them. This was evident by the manner in which they cringed away from us whenever we moved near them as we set about making a meal of fried eggs and bread. The old dog sniffed inquisitively round our feet. Our boots, covered with dried mud, picked up from the swampy ground of the undergrowth the previous night, certainly seemed to be quite an attraction for him as he made little clicking noises with his tongue, lifting his eyes to us tentatively as he wagged his tail, no doubt telling us that he was not particularly interested in politics, German or British.'
'Thoughts of my own mother came to my mind as I glanced at the old lady, with her silver hair coiled into a bun, seated on a large wooden settle trying her utmost not to reveal her true feelings. The old man was a big, raw-boned chap, severe in appearance. His clear blue eyes reflected a man of keen intellect who had obviously been a fine fellow in his younger days, but we were desperately hungry, which, at the time, seemed ample justification for what we were doing. After we had had our fill, we prepared a small pack of food for the next stage of our journey. Bidding goodbye to the old couple, we decided to push on again much to their relief. As I glanced back over my shoulder, they both stood in the porch where we had first seen them, their hands raised in a gesture of farewell and I would like to think good luck and with no hard feelings.'
'We made for the comforting shelter of the thick, green foliage of a nearby wood which at this time of year, like the whole of nature, had awakened and burst forth into life. There was much evidence of wanton destruction left by the advancing Russian troops as we passed through the German countryside. Mattresses, which had served them with a good night’s rest, were shown appreciation by being slung out of windows and hung limply over the window sills as if put out for an airing. Tablecloths and crockery lay strewn over the lawns and in many places, coloured bedspreads hung from the windows like huge bunting or flags acclaiming the success of their victorious advances. On one occasion, at late evening, crossing the skyline immediately ahead of us we saw a Russian military unit passing by like a scene from the Napoleonic Wars with its horse-drawn field kitchens, guns and other military equipment, as if the pages of history were suddenly turned back. Generally speaking of course, they were well-equipped, much of which was brought to them through the heroic efforts of the Royal and Merchant Navies as the North Sea convoys battled their way through those dangerous waters and their U-boat menace, braving the elements of the bitter Russian winters on their journey to Murmansk and other parts of the Soviet Union. We learned later that hundreds of liberated Soviet POWs, tattered, emaciated, bloodthirsty men seeking vengeance, had been given arms and ammunition by the Red Army forces to fill their depleted ranks, such was the urgency of their need for reinforcements as the Russian war machine rolled on relentlessly into the heart of Germany towards Berlin.'
'We had decided en route that we should make for Brussels in Belgium, realising that, with its large airport, there was every possibility of a flight direct home from there. Completely satisfied at last that we were far-enough away from the fighting zones to avoid getting involved in any of the skirmishes still going on, we now made our way towards the big motorways which we had previously avoided. Our early attempts at hitch-hiking were unsuccessful. The lorry drivers appeared oblivious to our appeals for a lift as they pushed their trucks along in convoy at high speeds, travelling back empty from the front line, anxious no doubt to get back to their bases before dark.'
'We were just about to give up in despair and pack it in for the night, feeling utterly frustrated by the sort of treatment we had been given, when a big American truck pulled up alongside. “Where are you guys aiming for?” queried the driver, whose helmet seemed much too large for him as it framed his little wizened face. “As far down the line as we can get!” we chorused hopefully. With a jerk of his thumb, he motioned us to hop in the back. We certainly needed no second bidding and had just about clambered over the tail board when the lorry gave a terrific lurch forward almost throwing us to the floor. Laughing heartily, partly with relief, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible as the truck rolled on down the autobahn. At last, I felt we were really getting somewhere.'
'Passing along the great wooded areas with the road making a wide sweep as it descended into a valley, we were presented with a panoramic view of the convoys of trucks with their supplies neatly tarpaulined moving towards us in the opposite direction on their way up to the front, looking like little toys set up in some huge scenic nursery. With every cell in the body crying out for sleep and lulled by the hum of the wheels and the gentle sideways rocking of the truck, not many moments later we had passed from the world of consciousness with all its cares to the land of sweet dreams.'
'It was dark when we arrived at the G.I. base at Kassel, where we spent the night as guests of the American army. We needed no great persuasion from the little driver to get into the ‘chow line’, as he called it, where the rations served up to us were something in the nature of a royal feast in comparison to what we had been used to for many months at the POW camp. The bread seemed snowy-white and sweet-tasting like cake in contrast to the sour taste of black bread. The Americans were very generous and, with obvious good intentions, offered to take us to a camp not very many miles away where they said there were British troops stationed; but this was just what we did not want. We realised that, as soon as we had reported in to the British authorities, we would probably be sent to the nearest POW camp for repatriation through the usual channels, which would probably take weeks, maybe months before we would get home to our families.'
'The next few days followed on much the same pattern of pulling in at various American army camps. We took great care in avoiding the British units. On one occasion, we arrived at a base one evening to find a mass of jubilant and excited G.I.s packed tightly around an open stage that had been erected especially for the purpose of putting on a concert where Mickey Rooney was doing his song and dance routine, his antics sending them crazy with delight.'
'We finally arrived at Brussels on 8th May 1945 with one thought predominant in our minds - to get back to Britain as soon as possible. Brussels, the Belgian capital, was a strange mixture of old-world grace and elegance with its narrow, cobbled streets and its stately eighteenth-century mansions and magnificent buildings surrounding the beautifully-designed squares, with barely a stone’s throw away from them the modern very sophisticated buildings and many restaurants and cafés, their canopied entrances adding much colour to the scene. Crowds thronged the streets amidst great scenes of excitement as the news had just been received that Germany had surrendered to the Allies. We learned later that the whole German army had capitulated, the instrument of surrender being signed by General Jodl, the German Chief of Staff, at the headquarters of General Eisenhower at Rheims and by Field-Marshal Keitel the next day in Berlin, the Allied signatory there being Russia’s Marshal Zhukov.'
'The Russians regarded the Rheims capitulation as a preliminary formality as only a junior Russian officer was present. While Mr Churchill was broadcasting the end of the war on 8th May 1945 at 4.00 p.m. Russian radio had been broadcasting the children’s programme, a pleasant little story about birds and rabbits, so Russia did not announce the end of the war in Europe until 9th May. V.E. Day came a day later for Russia. Prague had not been liberated and the western allies thought this a mere detail; the Russians did not. There followed rows over the repatriation of Soviet prisoners and other Soviet citizens whose return was delayed. An angry statement of the Yalta repatriation agreement was made later.'
'After reporting to the authorities at the large airport in Brussels, where all our particulars had been taken, we were told that we would be on a flight leaving for England around midday the next day. That evening, bubbling with the news that fighting had ceased in Europe, Brussels went berserk. Celebrations went on through the night, wine and beer flowing freely from bars and cafés, the streets and squares filled with heaving masses of people singing and dancing, deliriously happy at the realisation that the long-awaited peace had come at last. On reflection, I could not help but think of something I had read recently in the sayings of Lao-Tse, the great 6th century B.C. Chinese sage in his impressive words on ‘War-Victory’.'
'“Weapons are disastrous implements, no tools for a noble being. Only when he cannot do otherwise does he make use of them. Quiet and peace are for him the highest. He conquers but he knows no joy in it. He who would rejoice in victory would be rejoicing in murder. At the victory celebrations, the General should take his place as is the custom at funeral ceremonies. The slaughter of human beings in great numbers should be lamented with tears of compassion. Therefore, should he who has conquered in battle bear himself as if he were at a festival of mourning”.'
'In my story, I have mentioned but a handful of the men alongside whom I lived and fought and consider it an honour and a privilege to have known, those who wore the famous parachute badge on their red beret.'
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