Lance-Corporal Eric "Bill" Sykes
Unit : No.6 Platoon, "B" Company, 7th Parachute Battalion.
Army No. : 14410195
Memories of a Young Soldiers Life, Before and After Serving with the Durham Light Infantry
My name is SYKES, Bill Sykes, a nickname derived from the character in Charles Dickens Classic novel, "Oliver Twist". I was a member of the Durham Light Infantry for a very short period of time, from the 27th of January 1943 through the 8th of September 1943 before transferring to British Airborne Forces with whom I served for the next six years.
This is an account of the World War Two experiences of a young man born on the 14th of December 1925, in the Northern industrial town of Huddersfield in the County of Yorkshire, England. This story really starts for me on Sunday the 3rd of September 1939, the day that war was declared by the British Government against Germany. As a young boy of thirteen years of age, as I sat listening to the BBC radio broadcast at eleven o'clock on the morning of the third of September 1939, the chilling words of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came over the air waves with the message "The Army of the Third Reich has marched into Poland and consequently we are at war with Germany".
I was vaguely familiar with the events in Europe leading up to this moment, but I must admit that those words filled me more with a feeling of excitement, than a realization of the horrors that the world was about to witness. Due to my youthful optimism, or my lack of a realistic approach to the seriousness of the situation, I failed to recognize that in a matter of a few years I myself would be very much involved in a personal fight to survive the rigors of war. That very night, the air raid sirens sounded for the first time, (albeit a false alarm), and the early elation of the morning suddenly turned to one of concern for personal safety. In Britain, the early years of the war for the civilian population were centered mainly around the deprivations of rationing, (which involved food, clothing, petrol, and most of the everyday necessities), plus the inconvenience of the eternal blackouts. The people of Britain somberly watched the German invasion of the Low Countries, (Belgium/Holland), and the fall of France, leading to the dramatic evacuation from Dunkerque of members of the British Expeditionary Force by an armada of small ships.
During the summer months of 1940, the people of Britain had reason to celebrate the air defense of their small island by the pilots and men of the "Royal Air Force". Those brave men, in the face of overwhelming odds, fought and defeated the mighty German Luftwaffe in what was to be known as the "Battle of Britain". Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous speech summed up the occasion admirably, "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few". Nightly bombings of the small island by the German Luftwaffe continued. A number of major cities throughout Britain were all but obliterated, with heavy civilian casualties and enormous property destruction. Throughout all of this, the people of Britain were steadfast in adversity and their morale remained high.
My entry into this conflict came about exactly as I'm going to describe. I, (as a sixteen year old), due to one of many reasons, volunteered for several branches of the British Armed Forces only to be turned down because of being "under age". !!! I found a solution to this small problem by forging my birth certificate and changing the date of my birth from the 14th December 1925 to the 14th December 1924, and to this very day my British Army records still carry that date.
Scene: Royal Marine recruiting office in the city of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, late Summer 1942, I've just been turned down for service by a towering, magnificent specimen of a Royal Marine Sergeant with the words, "You've changed your birth certificate lad, come back and re-apply when you're eighteen years of age". Being a somewhat street smart kid, I wasn't going to deter what I considered to be so insignificant a thing as a birth certificate. So, I walked along a passageway into the Army recruiting office. There sitting behind a desk was a very relaxed and amiable recruiting Sergeant. The warm glow emanating from this very red faced individual attested to the fact that he was obviously feeling no pain from his encounter during the lunch period with several pints of the local brew. Dialogue: Sergeant: "Come in son. Do you want to join up" ??? Me: "Do you want to see my birth certificate Sergeant"??? Sergeant: "No son, you look old enough to me. Just sign on the dotted line, here, here, and here, and here's your five shillings, you are now a member of His Majesties Forces". HONEST--That's exactly how it happened. The last sixteen weeks of 1942 was taken up by rigorous basic training at Berwick on Tweed on the Scottish Border. Was it cold--well, if ice on the sea is cold, "IT WAS COLD". !!!
Life with the D.L.I.
From Berwick on Tweed I was posted to a Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, (The good ol' D.L.I.), and stationed in County Durham at Brancepeth and Barnard Castles. A pretty spooky experience for a young soldier stood on night guard in an old castle that had peacocks strolling the grounds. Ever hear the spine chilling screeching of a peacock, by the moat of an old castle, in the wee hours of the morning. Very Frightening. During my time with the Durham's, I marched through the city of Newcastle on Battle of Britain day--now here's an interesting thing--we young Light Infantry soldiers marched at an incredibly fast pace with rifles at the trail and consequently had to give the rest of the parade a head start of ten minutes. Honest, no kidding. I spent some time at Tow Law, but for the life in me cannot remember why. I participated in a physical training display, which I was very proud of as I certainly looked the part of a very fit, well trained, and disciplined young soldier. I certainly should have looked the part because we, as a group, practiced incessantly. I was also press ganged into becoming a member of a theatrical group that performed a respectable rendition of Shakespeare's "Henry the Fifth". "Once more into the breech dear friends once more, or fill up the wall with our English dead". I still remember those words to this very day. Both of these actions took place in the grounds of the Bowes Museum. Perhaps there are still old photographs in the museum of those two momentous occasions of 1943. Another thing comes to mind, the marching song of the young members of the D.L.I. "We are the good ol' D.L.I. We'll meet the enemy by and by, every man in the Regiment is willing to do or die---Cor Blimey". What am I saying, I don't remember being willing "to do or die" for anyone, at any period, then or now.
As I remarked previously, my association with the D.L.I. was of relatively short duration. I joined the 70th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry in January of 1943, and left to join the Parachute Regiment less than a year later in September of 1943. The 70th Battalion was a young soldier demonstration Battalion to the School of Infantry. The wars we fought on the North Yorkshire moors is nobody's business. During my time with the D.L.I I participated in several exercises involving live fire demonstrations to groups of Officers, including the renowned General Wavell. I remember well his remarks after the demonstration, that we the young soldiers of the D.L.I. had used more live ammunition in one four-hour demonstration than his troops in North Africa used in a month. Incidentally we had a five percent casualty allowance.
One exercise involved advancing under a creeping barrage of twenty-five pound artillery shells. On this particular occasion one of the gunners laid back 100 yards, instead of forward one hundred yards, a shell fell into a group of people and we suffered several losses. I remember that occasion well as I was a member of the burial party for one of the young officers. Another exercise involved giving battle experience to Churchill tanks by firing live ammunition at them as they crossed our front. One further exercise involved an infantry advance behind Churchill tanks to breech a minefield. The troops were initially towed behind the tanks in small boat like structures until we reached the minefield. Advancing in this manner over rough moorland terrain was not the most comfortable manner of transportation, to say the least. Upon reaching the minefield the Tanks would stop and the troops in the "so called boats" being pulled behind them would release pins located at the four corners of the structure and the sides would fall away allowing the troops to disembark. The Churchill tanks equipped with flails, (A large rotating drum with chains attached), would then proceed through the concertina barbed wire obstacles and enter the minefield. Their objective was of course to explode the mines and allow the Infantry to advance through the gap created. Much of the debris from the flails was thrown up into the air and we spent a very uncomfortable period trying to dodge the incoming missiles, churned up by the tanks, which were now raining down from the heavens above in our direction. Towards the end of the summer, members of the Battalion were selected for overseas duty in North Africa to reinforce a battalion of the D.L.I. that had suffered heavy casualties in the western desert. As I remained behind with what was left of the 70th Battalion I decided that now was the time to make a move.
Fortuitously, at that time, a recruiting team from the newly formed Parachute Regiment was "Looking for a few good Men" and having nothing more exciting to do than guard duty and fatigues, I thought why not. The fact that the members of the Parachute Regiment received additional flying pay obviously didn't influence my decision. I like to think so anyway, even if it isn't true. !!! In order to ensure that the young soldiers of the D.L.I. would give a good account for themselves with the Parachute Regiment, our Commanding Officer. (whose name I forget), decided that the few who had volunteered should be given a toughening up course on the moors in the vicinity of a small village about ten miles or so from Middleton in Teesdale, called Harwood Langdon Beck.
We were installed in tents adjacent to a derelict farmhouse and spent our days and many nights trudging the moors in all kinds of weather. I remember one night exercise that involved hiking to the highest point in the area (could it be named Cross Fell--question), from which one could stand at dawn and view six Counties, if my memory serves me correctly, Northumberland, Cumberland, Westmorland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and Durham. Unfortunately, a thick fog came down that night and completely enveloped our small group. We spent a very uncomfortable night trying to keep warm until finally we managed to get thawed out by the watery early morning sun. One of our small group wandered off during the night and fell over an escarpment and broke his arm---lucky for him that he didn't break his neck. Another hike took us across the moors to High Force Waterfall--at that time the falls were running pretty full. One couldn't blame us lowly paid soldiers for seeing some of the finest scenery of Northern England at the Government's expense. Could one. !!! Perhaps one of these days before I depart this earth, I could or perhaps should attempt to repeat this adventure.
So, on to "The Parachute Regiment", which culminated in my participation in the "D" day Invasion landings by parachuting into Normandy on the night of the 5th/6th of June 1944 and eventually becoming a Prisoner of War of the Germans.
Life with the Parachute Regiment
As remarked previously, I transferred from the Durham Light Infantry to the 7th (L.I.) Battalion of the Parachute Regiment and joined them at their Physical Training Depot at Hardwick Hall in Chesterfield on the 9th of September 1943 for a six weeks physical toughening up course. Up until this point in my Military career I thought that my original "Basic Training" at Berwick on Tweed had been rigorous--how wrong could I be. The physical training for the Parachute Regiment was probably the toughest physical exertion that I was ever subjected to. Many of the "volunteers" didn't make the grade and were "RTU'd" (Returned to unit), due to physical or psychological limitations. Then there was the matter of eight qualifying parachute jumps at what was then a small grass field runway at Ringway, Manchester. How times have changed, Ringway is now an International Airport.
The eight qualifying parachute jumps, consisted of two, or was it three, from a captive barrage balloon at 800 feet and five or six more from what even then appeared to be an ancient aircraft, the "Armstrong Whitworth Whitley". I don't suspect there are many people still around who would even know of the existence of an aircraft called a "Whitley", let alone recognize one. Our Drop Zone from the aircraft was at nearby Tatton Park and included one drop into trees, and another into water at night. Dramatic experiences for a young teenager who had never been inside an aircraft before, let alone flown in one. Once again the selection process took its toll and only the courageous, or stupid, survived.
After qualification I was posted from Ringway to the 7th Battalion (L.I.) of the Parachute Regiment, who were stationed at Bulford Camp near Salisbury. From that day forward until "D" day, (the 6th of June 1944), we were subjected to intensive training for our upcoming role in the Normandy Invasion landings. We may not have been the most intelligent bunch of soldiers a'serving of His Majesty the King, but we certainly were the fittest--and we were "very well trained".
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the War that Night
Now comes our moment of glory. !!! The night of the 5th of June 1944. After being cooped up in guarded camps with no exit for a week or so gambling away the French currency that had been provided we hit the road for the airfield to embark on what was going to be for some the "biggest gamble" of their lives. We embarked in sticks of eighteen men into four engined Stirling bombers just before ten o'clock on that balmy June evening. I remember with nostalgia the ladies of the "Women's Royal Air Force", (our parachute packers), standing around the embarkation area with tears in their eyes handing out mugs of hot sweet tea. I don't know what was in that tea, but it sure got me through the night. I talked to the members of the crew of the Stirling just before take off. When I questioned them about the drop zone, they assured me that they had flown over the area in Normandy several times in the preceding weeks and "KNEW THE EXACT FIELD" on which we were to be dropped. More about this later.
The take-off and journey across the English Channel was quiet and uneventful until we reached the French Coast, then all hell broke loose. The parachute exit door in the floor at the rear end of the aircraft was now open and the inside of the fuselage was continuously illuminated by the explosion of far too close for comfort anti-aircraft shells which were peppering the outside of our aircraft with shrapnel. Not a pleasant experience. !!! Once free of the aircraft, I found myself drifting across a moonlit road into an apple orchard. Landings, by relatively small round parachutes can be hazardous to ones health at the best of times and especially so if you are trying to guide an unguidable chute to a landing between a row of trees, even under moonlit conditions. By the way I forgot to tell you, in addition to all the accouterments of war located upon my person, I had an eighteen-man rubber dinghy strapped to my right leg.
My particular job that night was, (if the bridges over the river and canal at Benouville, near Caen, were blown), to ferry my group across the water. As a rubber dinghy is not much of a protective device against the large hob-nailed boots of my companions it certainly was not much of a protection against bullets or grenades especially if they were being fired in my particular direction. I was not looking forward to this task. !!! Getting back to the landing. Remember the crew of the Stirling who "KNEW THE EXACT FIELD". Well--They may have known the exact field but they sure as hell didn't know the right river. But there again, give them the benefit of the doubt. The airspace on the coast of France was blanketed with aircraft of all shapes and sizes, thousands of them, and so perhaps we can forgive them the small error in navigation of a mere twenty miles or so. It was pretty obvious after the shortest period of time, even to a dumb kid like me, that the fighting was going on a long way from where we had landed and therefore "WE MUST BE IN THE WRONG PLACE".!!! I was later to realize that we were well behind the German lines. My major worries at that time were the two grenades that I was carrying, and, where was everyone else. !!! The first thing I did, after disentangling myself from the nylon parachute, was to discard the rubber dingy as it was pretty obvious that we were up the creek without a paddle. I didn't fear much, but after seeing the devastating effects that grenades can have on the person I was scared to death of the vague possibility that one of the pins securing either one of the grenades that I carried in my pouches may somehow get detached and cause my instant demise. Before take off from England I'd hammered those pins in so tight that it would have taken a hacksaw to get them out. Funny the little things that worry you at a time like this. !!!
The thirteen days after our parachute drop were spent in spasmodic contact with French Resistance groups. Unfortunately two members of the group that we parachuted with on that night were killed in action sometime during this time. As we were continuously on the move, (making our way towards Cabourg, where the real fighting was taking place), and being constantly harassed by German patrols, our short encounters with various small groups of the Resistance was more of a case of self-preservation than heroics. The French Resistance groups provided food, Calvados, and local information as to German positions.
We didn't stay long enough in any one particular area in order to establish personal relationships with any particular group of the Maquis. It was really one-night stand hit and run operations as we traveled North West towards the area where the real war was going on. During our wanderings around the French countryside we had the occasion to use another of our "friendly" recognition devices, a yellow scarf which was to be waved in order to establish identification. One day an American "Thunderbolt" fighter appeared to show more than a passing interest in our small group, so we got out our yellow scarves and waved them like mad. The pilot obviously didn't recognize our "friendly" intentions and strafed us with everything that he'd got, machine guns, rockets, the lot. I can see to this very day the huge radial engined aircraft barreling down at treetop level with guns blazing. I finally forgave the perpetrator, but, I can assure you we never waved to anyone, friend or foe, ever again.
Finally on the thirteenth day, (unlucky for some), the group of seven that I was with, eventually got ourselves into a predicament where we were pinned down in a ditch by machine gunfire and suffered the "ignominy" of capture. To our questionable credit, I must say that we were some of the first of the "all conquering" invasion army to enter the city of Paris, albeit under armed guard with a German tour director. The German guards were very proud to show us their recent real estate acquisitions, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, etc.
An Expanded Account of the Events Leading up to my Capture Behind the German Lines
We took off from Fairford, Gloucestershire, around ten o'clock on the evening of the 5th of June 1944 in a Stirling Bomber, which had a mixed crew of British and Dominion Air Force personnel. The flight was uneventful until we crossed the French coast where we came under heavy anti-aircraft fire. After parachuting out of the aircraft, I landed in an apple orchard somewhere between five to ten miles inland from the coast and to the east of the river Dives. An accompanying aircraft dropped a number of containers nearby which had illuminated recovery lights attached. We opened a couple of the containers and found what we believed to be artillery shells. The parachute drop was followed by two weeks of hit and run encounters with German forces. On or around the 18th/19th of June, as we headed NW towards the coastal town of Cabourg, we crossed a river, (or tributary), which we assumed to be the River Dives. Many miles further on, (or so it seemed at the time), we crossed a road into a field, which we found later to have thick impenetrable blackthorn hedgerows around the four sides with the only entry and exit being through a corner gate. This field was located at the base of the western slope of a hill, which had an elevation of several hundred feet.
The crossing of the road by the six of us took some time, as a horse and cart vehicle with four/five German soldiers came down the hill at intervals, went round a bend in the road and a half hour or so later returned. This allowed at least one member of the group to cross the road and enter the field during each trip. At that time we did not know that around the bend in the road was a machine gun post covering the cross roads and that the machine gun could be repositioned to cover the field that we were located in.
Shortly after the six/seven of us had crossed the road into the field we were engaged by heavy machine gun fire and pinned down in a water/mud-laden ditch. After what seemed to be an eternity, the machine gun firing stopped and a couple of grenades were thrown into the ditch by German troops entering the field through the open gate. Luckily we were far enough from the gate to avoid most of the blast except of course for the shower of mud, water and other debris. As we were at an obvious disadvantage it appeared futile to attempt to fight our way out of our predicament through the one point of exit as it appeared that we would certainly be killed so unfortunately we had no other solution than to surrender. Our captors, who appeared to be somewhat older German soldiers, escorted us to a village on top of a hill and incarcerated us in what appeared to be a small medieval type village jail. My recollection is of a small one-room building with a barred window.
Some time later, the six/seven of us, were taken outside, ordered to strip naked and line up against a wall to face what appeared to be a firing squad. A very irate German Officer, possibly of the equivalent rank of Major, (obviously from the German Intelligence Corp--who spoke perfect English), severely and loudly reprimanded the German officer in charge of our pathetic small band of conquering hero's and informed us that we were going to be taken away for individual interrogation. Our clothing was searched and everything, (apart from our clothing), including personal effects was confiscated. We were then ordered to get dressed and were taken away for interrogation. Under the circumstances, I'm afraid that I do not remember if we were interrogated in the village or taken away by truck to some other location. But I do remember that we were interrogated individually. I believe I was number 4 out of the six/seven to be interrogated. My interrogation went "something" like this: (Remember this is not a verbatim account, it is only my remembrance of a conversation that took place many years ago, and as such is recalled as accurately as possible).
Interrogation (As well as can be remembered).
Q: What is your regiment and what was your military objective in Normandy.
A: Sykes Eric, Lance Corporal, 14410195.
Q: Once more, what is your Regiment and what was your military objective in Normandy.
A: Sir, you have my answer. I can only give you my name, rank and Service Number.
Q: What would you say if I told you that you are from the 7th Battalion of the British Parachute Regiment and that your Commanding Officer is Colonel Pine-Coffin. (I would have liked to have said that I was astounded-But I didn't).
A: Sir, I am not in a position to verify or deny your statement.
Q: What Company of the 7th Battalion were you in.
A: I cannot confirm or deny that I was a member of the Battalion you mention.
Q: What were your duties in the parachute Battalion. Were you with an Infantry Company, Mortar Company, Headquarters Company. Did you operate a radio.
A: Sir, I was an Infantry man.
Q: Would it surprise you if I said that your target was the city of Caen.
A: Yes Sir, it would surprise me.
Q: Perhaps you had an alternative target.
A: Sir, I have no knowledge of any alternate target.
Q: How old are you soldier.
A: Eighteen years old sir,
Q: Where were you born soldier.
Q: Yes I understand that, but which city.
A: Huddersfield, in Yorkshire.
Q: What industries are located there.
A: You know I can't answer that sir.
Q: Was your Regiment scattered across Normandy as a diversionary tactic.
A: Sir, I do not know the answer to your question.
Q: (Some dialogue in French) Followed by the question: Do you speak French.
A: No sir.
Q: Have you been given training with respect to answering questions if you were captured.
A: Only with respect to providing, Name, Rank and Service number.
Q: Please repeat your Name, Rank and Number.
A: Certainly, Sykes Eric, Lance Corporal, 14410195
Q: Yong man, do you know that I could have you shot.
A: No answer from me. But a great deal of contemplation on my part though.
Q: Enough of this. You appear to be a reasonably intelligent, self confident, but somewhat foolish young man, I can't imagine what the future holds for you, or if for that matter you have any future, but under the circumstances, I wish you well and hope that you survive this terrible war. (I wonder if he knew how little self-confidence I really had at that moment). (In German) "Sergeant, take the Corporal away and bring in the next prisoner".
This is only a synopsis of the questions that I remember being asked. The questions were repeated many times, (often in different form), and their basis appeared to be centered about the possibility of alternative targets and our association with the French Underground during our two weeks on French soil. The Major was quite right I was a very young and very foolish young man who apparently didn't realize the possible consequences of my flippancy. Thank you Major, whomsoever you were, and I hope that you also survived. After the interrogation was over, we were transported to, and held prisoner in the schoolhouse in Pont L'Eveque. Thinking back upon the interrogation, I was more than a little concerned with respect to the statements made by the Major about our association with the 7th Battalion and the name of our Commanding Officer. No one would admit to giving this information to the Major, and the rumor circulating was that he had a nominal role of the Battalion. I don't know where that story came from and I doubt the authenticity of such a statement as I never witnessed any evidence that such a document/documents ever existed. For many years I have tried to recall the name of that village---could it possibly have been Grangues. !!! I guess that I will never know.
So started an uncomfortable three month travel, (mostly by railroad cattle cars), via POW staging camps, such as Chartres and the infamous Stalag 4B and Stalag 12A, to a working camp in Eastern Germany. Not a pleasant experience, but we survived. In my book, one of the first rules of war is personal survival. Our travels across France into Germany, (in very overcrowded railway boxcars--my particular "luxury" coach had several walking wounded who did not survive due to gangrenous infections brought about by the lack of medical treatment and the unsanitary conditions), was rigorous. With many days and nights at a stretch without food, water, ventilation, sanitation, or exercise, and the fear of the potential horror of imminent death during one of the constant strafing by Allied aircraft, took it's toll and many of the "unfortunates" never reached the promised land where "Arbeit mache frei". (Freely translated: "Freedom comes through work"). !!!
Life in POW camp, as I experienced it, was not the cops and robbers theatrics as portrayed in "Hogan's' Hero's", it was a constant battle to survive. (Remember we were latter stage prisoners--when things were also getting tough for the German civilians). We worked on an open cast coalmine from six o'clock in the morning until late afternoon, doing menial hard labor such as filling twenty ton railway hoppers with sand, carrying lengths of iron rail, and wooden rail ties. It takes a lot of shoveling for a bunch of undernourished starving men to shift 20 tons of sand. Although I must admit the long handled shovels made admirable leaning posts. The winter months of 1945 were particularly rough, (even though we worked somewhat less hours due to shorter daylight conditions), as food was not in plentiful supply and the bitter cold took it's toll. Our "daily" rations consisted mainly of a bowl of vegetable soup, 250 grammes of black bread, four or five potatoes and ersatz coffee.
Now Here's Where the Comedy Comes in - Life in Prisoner of War Camps
The rationing of the small amount of available food was a lengthy and precise process, which took the wisdom of a saint and the accuracy of a surgeon to ensure fair distribution. You wouldn't believe the delays that hungry men will endure to ensure that they get their fair share. For instance, the oil drum filled with soup had to be continuously stirred so that the body of the soup didn't sink to the bottom of the barrel when each "Oliver Twist" presented his tin bowl for a ladle of sustenance. Potatoes were counted and sized on numerous occasions during the chain of distribution. The cutting of a loaf of bread, (five men to a loaf), was an object lesson in concentration worthy of a master chess player. The pieces were measured for accuracy and handled by each party for weight assessment, before cutting the cards for priority of choice. Remember, the loaves of black bread had rounded ends, so an allowance had to be made for this small discrepancy. The one meal of the day took untold hours of deliberation and patience, but then, when it may be your "last supper" why not savour the fruits of your labor. !!! Although I must admit I was always more than anxious to get my hands on the small amount of food that would see me through the next 24 hours. Our constant thoughts, and discussions, were centered around food. On rare occasions, Red Cross parcels got through and then we enjoyed the good life for a few days.
All in all it was a difficult time, but it had it's lighter moments, have you ever sat on a tall oil drum, (acting as a lavatory), facing a large audience during the performance of your daily bodily functions. You can imagine the "initial" embarrassment. But when you've got to go, you've got to go, especially after standing in line for some length of time.
Escape from our particular work groups was relatively easy, you could just walk away when the armed civilian guards were otherwise occupied. A couple of times during my incarceration, I took off for a few days using the "Sykes" confidence approach. I was very much a loner when it came to "escaping", no cloak and dagger stuff for me, just walk freely amongst the German people as if I had every right to do so. The obvious difficulty was, you can fool some of the people some of the time, etc. It was pretty obvious that I was a POW from my uniform with a large red circular patch on my back, but it's surprising how much you can get away with by using the "I have a right to be here approach". Traveling by a local train was, in my case not very difficult. Get into conversation with someone, preferably an older couple who spoke a little English, and hope that the ticket collector didn't call your bluff when you explained to him that the guard that you were traveling with was in the toilet. I was eventually caught and apprehended by local police for obtaining food without having any local currency. It's called stealing---or in my book, appropriation by reason of necessity. I was heading north for Berlin. Why, who knows, just a whim that perhaps I could get lost in the big city. I guess that this was my contrarian period.
The first escape cost me seven days in a strafelager on a punishment diet of bread and water, and a transfer to another camp. The second pathetic attempt was more like a weekend affair, (modesty forbids me to elaborate upon the precise circumstances). This cost me another week in the "cooler" After that, I resigned myself to waiting for the Allies to come to me, instead of vice-versa. I'm afraid that these two disappearing acts of a few days duration cannot be classified amongst the great escapes of World War Two.
On or around March of 1945 when the Russians were approaching the river Elbe from the east, and the Allied forces were approaching the river Mulde from the west, I decided enough was enough and took it upon myself to make one more "dedicated" try to escape from captivity. The other ones had just been half-hearted one-man protests against the German guards. When I say escape. I use the term loosely as I just walked away. During a march south between the two rivers, the prisoners, (British, American, French, Russian,) were incarcerated in a large wooded area surrounded by German guards at fifty-meter intervals with orders to shoot anyone approaching the perimeter. I, having reached a point of no return, approached one of the guards who asked me where I thought I was going, I answered that I was going back to England and nothing but nobody was going to stop me. As at that time I was down to a frail 100 pounds in body weight and had a severe case of dysentery. He appeared to find some humor in this statement, (or perhaps it was just my poor German interpretation of my intentions), so to my amazement he turned his back and allowed me to pass through the cordon. This lead to a chain of events of many days of pure misery as I was constantly soaked to the skin by cold torrential rain, no food, a bad case of dysentery. What a miserable specimen of the human race I must have appeared. But salvation was at hand, a German family took me under their roof for a few days and gave me a share of the little food that they had and so I survived. I will be forever grateful.
Eventually after many days and nights of aimless wandering, I was picked up by forward echelon troops of the American forces and dispatched to a hospital near Nuremberg suffering from a bad case of dysentery and malnutrition. During my time at this location I met an American Army Sergeant who indicated that he had a Jeep and was going to travel to a concentration camp at Buchenwald, and seeing no one else had volunteered to travel with him, would I be interested. I said certainly, why not. I had traveled this far and survived, so why shouldn't I see for myself the crimes of mans inhumanity to man. Anyway, I figured that in my current physical condition I would be right at home amongst the skin and bone fraternity. Once again how wrong could I be. The scene that I witnessed was one of infinite horror where piles of dead bodies, in various stages of decomposition, were scattered about the camp. The living could not be distinguished from the dead his for me was a place of abject horror, disbelief, and a great deal of anger against the perpetrators of this terrible crime against humanity. To those unbelievers out there, I can personally attest to the fact that Hitler's "Final solution" the "Holocaust", (or whatever one wishes to call the terrible acts of inhumanity), did occur and was as violent and horrific as portrayed in later documents.
Within a week or so I was repatriated by air to a hospital in Nottingham, just in time to celebrate VE day. At "NO TIME" did I ever doubt that I would survive. But then, I was young and foolish. After six months or so of rehabilitation and recovery, on triple rations in order to regain some body weight, I rejoined a unit of the Parachute Regiment and was posted to Palestine for a couple of years to act as a sort of policing mediator between the warring factions in that corner of the world. I must say that this was an out of the frying pan into the fire situation. I felt that my life, once again, was more on the line in this so called policing action than it had ever been during my previous sojourn as a guest of the German Government. One of the many tasks that I was involved in was the processing of refugees from Europe who were trying to enter Palestine illegally on dilapidated ships by entering the port of Haifa, or to be more correct beaching themselves close by. I remember well the arrival of the "Exodus" and the "Star of David" and the transfer of the boat people to detention camps in Cyprus. Contrary to the writings of Leon Uris in his book Exodus, the British troops acted humanely with great restraint, even under constant harassment by the three Jewish factions, Hagganah, Irgun Zwei Lumi, and the notorious Stern Gang. Incidentally, I was in residence at the YMCA on the morning that terrorists dynamited the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
A Walk in the Sand (Memories of Colonel Pine-Coffin)
In the winter of 1943, (after transfer from the Durham Light Infantry), I completed a rigorous physical evaluation at Hardwick Hall, Chesterfield, and obtained my parachute qualification at Ringway, Manchester, before joining the 7th Battalion (L.I.) The Parachute Regiment at Bulford Camp near Salisbury. The battalion commanding officer was Colonel Pine-Coffin. I thought at that time what a peculiar name. !!! I joined the Colonel in our historic parachute drop into Normandy on the night of the 5th/6th of June 1944. Events, such as an error in navigation by the crew of the four engined Stirling bomber, (which was our transport aircraft that pleasant June evening in 1944), by a matter of 20 miles or so, distanced myself from my preordained destiny with a landing in the area of what was to be later known as the Pegasus Bridge, and which culminated thirteen days later in the ignominy of being captured by forward echelon German troops. When I returned to England in May of 1945, after a sojourn as a guest of the German Government, (on an enforced weight reduction exercise), I found that a letter bearing the signature of Colonel Pine-Coffin had been received by my family informing them that I was missing in action in Normandy, presumed killed-or words to that effect.
After three months of medical leave, I reported to a unit of the Parachute Regiment in Bulford camp sometime at the end of 1945, and in March of 1946 was posted to Palestine. It was in the autumn of 1947 that I once again came into contact with Colonel Pine-Coffin under rather bizarre circumstances. Whilst attending a course in accounting at an educational camp in Gaza, with a view to being promoted to CQMS, I attended a celebration party and maybe over imbibed a little---(let's say, in the words of the immortal song, you get a little drunk and you land in jail---actually I did get a "little" drunk but I certainly did not end up in jail. My Company Commander however did receive a notification from the Regimental Sgt Major of the outfit that I was billeted with to the effect that I had been involved in conduct unbecoming/conduct prejudicial, (or whatever), which of course I strongly denied. The outcome of this was that I was called before the Company Commander and charged with a misdemeanor. Whilst admitting that I was present at the alleged incident, I strongly denied my involvement in whatever occurred and protested my innocence and refused to accept the Major's punishment on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Being a somewhat headstrong young Sgt I demanded to see the Commanding Officer i.e.: Colonel Pine-Coffin, and incidentally refused his punishment and demanded, (well requested really), to have an audience with the Brigadier. During our walk together across the hot sand under the blazing sun, the Colonel said that he had taken a look at my records, which were exemplary, and asked why I was being so stupid as to jeopardize my career by continuing to challenge the chain of command with respect to presenting my case. During my post Parachute Regiment years, I must have lost my way career wise somewhere along the way as it was clear that I should have become a lawyer not an engineer. (Only kidding). My answer of course was to clear my record of something that I had not done, especially as it was based upon circumstantial evidence.
The Colonel asked if I was the same "Sykes" that had been under his command in Normandy and who had been missing in action and was presumed killed. I stated yes, I'm afraid so-As I said, at that time I was a brash young man who knew his rights. !!! Well, to cut a long story short I went in front of the Brigadier who gave me a dressing down which was brutal in it's eloquence, especially after I once again demanded to go further up the chain of command to confront the General Officer Commanding Palestine. Chorley, or no Chorley, I knew my rights. I was escorted out of the confrontation with the Brigadier, by Colonel Pine-coffin who suggested that I keep my mouth shut and accept his punishment.
At this point, I felt that the time had come to downplay the incident, accept that discretion is the better part of valor and succumb to the reality of the situation. The result was that I was reduced to the rank of Corporal and sent immediately to attend a course in small arms instruction at Hythe in Kent. You thought that I was going to say that I was sent to Sandhurst to be trained as an officer. I may not have been very bright but I was not dumb either and I certainly had initiative. Well, Hythe was probably as close as I was ever going to get to Sandhurst. Pity really, as in some ways I have always felt that I would have made a good junior officer. (Modest as well).
There was a sequel to this incident. When I returned to Palestine a couple of months or so later, (well, seeing that I was in England I had to take a couple of weeks leave to recover from the ordeal, didn't I), the Colonel was no longer in command, he apparently had moved on to bigger and better things. At the first meeting, (upon my return to Palestine from England), with my Company Commander he asked me why I was wearing Corporal's stripes. I pleaded loss of memory. He smiled and asked if I was still receiving Sergeant's pay, and I answered certainly. His comment was "Well Sergeant, as there apparently appears to be no record of your reduction in rank to Corporal why don't you put your Sergeant's stripes back up before anyone notices and resume your duties as platoon Sergeant. Well, what would you do. !!! One can only portray Colonel Pine Coffin as a caring individual who understood the men under his command, especially this brash young Sergeant who gave him such a hard time in the encounter with the Brigadier. "THANK YOU COLONEL PINE-COFFIN".
On my return to England from Palestine, prior to being posted to Germany as a member of the British Army of Occupation, I met my future wife and on one of my infrequent leaves from duty in Germany, we were married on the 11th of September 1948 in the small market town of Marlborough in Southern England. I'm glad to report, that our marriage still remains intact after 57 years. We must have done something right.
I finally completed my seven years of service with the British Armed Forces, in of all places, Germany. "No hard feelings". !!!
Some Personal Observations of my Return to Civilian Life
Upon my release from the British Army, on the 31st of October, 1949, I went back to school to study Mechanical Engineering and became an Engineer with Rolls Royce Aerospace Engine Division. In the next few years my wife Sheena gave birth to two children, Patricia Ann, our daughter (in 1954), and Peter John, our son (in 1958). We, as a family immigrated to the United States on the last day of December 1966 and arrived in Seattle on the first day of January 1967 where I took up an assignment as an Engineer with the Boeing Aerospace Company. After a couple of years of living the good life amongst the beautiful lakes and mountains of Washington State, (rain accepted), we drifted south to work within the aerospace community of Southern California and have remained here ever since.
We have had many triumphs to be thankful for, but one tragedy is forever etched in our memory, the death of our beloved son John of kidney failure at the youthful age of 30 years on the 28th of October 1988. Our daughter Patricia and family, which includes three delightful grandchildren, continue to prosper in the pleasant surrounds of the town of Gaithersburg in Maryland.
A Follow up to my Parachuting History
On the 50th anniversary of the initial 1944 "D" day landings in Normandy, at the age of 68 years, I was proud and indeed privileged to be invited to join a group of American World War Two Airborne Veterans, (members of the "Return to Normandy Association"), to join them on the 5th of June 1994 in a memorial parachute drop into Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Normandy, France. What a great finale to my career as a member of the parachuting fraternity I consider that my association with these aging, and gallant members, of the R.T.N. to be one of the high points of my life and I will always be very grateful and deeply honored to have been allowed to join them in this venture.
On the eve of a new Millennium I would like to leave who ever reads this narrative with these few thoughts:
War is sometimes a necessary and inevitable evil. World War Two was one of those occasions when the people of the free world had to stand up and fight against the forces of evil, regardless of the consequences.
Any person who has been involved in war, will readily attest to the fact that anyone who goes to war and survives is "LUCKY".
Anyone who goes to war and survives with their life and a whole body and mind is "EXTREMELY LUCKY".
We the Veterans of World War Two wish the people of this World, regardless of race, religion, or creed, Peace in our time and a new century free from Hatred, Bias, and the disastrous and horrific effects of war.
The responsibility of ensuring that this pledge is enforced, and does not become a meaningless gesture is within the realm of the youth of today.
We the warriors of the past, charge the youth of today with the Guardianship of the future.
The consequences of not accepting this challenge will result in greater horrors than the world has ever known.
Eric (Bill) Sykes. 14410195, Sergeant, British Armed Forces. A brief personal account of Military Service with the "Durham Light Infantry" and "The Parachute Regiment" (1942-1949).
These are the names of members of 6 Platoon, B Company, that I parachuted with from a Stirling Bomber, (Chalk# 790), (?), into Normandy, France, on the night of the 5th/6th of June 1944: #1. Sgt. Amey. #2. Sgt. Godbold. #3. L/Cpl. Millen. #4. Pte. Coates. (Johnny). #5. Pte. Shute. #6. Pte. Crabb. #7. Pte. Roberts. (Ginger). Killed in action 11th of June 1944. #8. Cpl. Sheldon. (Charlie). Killed in action 10th of June 1944. #9. Pte. Maskery. #10. Pte. Galloway. #11. Pte. McNabb. (Francis)). #12. Pte. McGoughy. #13. Pte. Southwell. (Ernie). #14. L/Cpl. Sykes. (Bill). #15. Pte. Newman. (Geordie). #16. L/Cpl Town. #17. Pte. McInerny. #18. Sgt. Locke. (Bob).
My thanks to Bill Sykes for a copy of his story.
Offsite Links: Huddersfield One - US Newsletter.
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