Signalman John Stephen Mepham
Unit : 2nd Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment
Served : Italy, North-West Europe (captured).
Army No. : 6396152
POW No. : 17937
Camps : Stalag VIA, Marlag und Milag Nord, Stalag VIIIB / 344
Jack Mepham was born on the 23rd April 1911 and joined the British Army on the 16th January 1930. He served with the 2nd Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment in India, Egypt and Sudan, and when the Second World War began with the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was wounded and taken prisoner at Hazenbrouck on the 28th May 1940. According to his Red Cross record, he was first taken to the Faculté Catholique hospital at Lille in Belgium on the 15th July, before being transferred to Enghein on the 1st October and then Stalag VIA on the 11th November. On the 26th November he arrived at Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, but was moved to Stalag XB on the 6th March 1941 and subsequently to Marlag und Milag Nord on an unspecified date before returning to Stalag VIIIB on the 9th September 1942.
As a consequence of his wound, he was considered for repatriation to the United Kingdom and, on the 17th May 1944, was one of several hundred mostly British prisoners of war exchanged in Barcelona, Spain. The following are Red Cross documents, translated from the original French by Paul Cressingham, Jack Mepham's step-grandson, detailing their repatriation.
International Committee of the Red Cross Geneva
I have the honour to submit the attached report on the prisoner exchange that took place in Barcelona May 17th 1944.
Sirs. Please accept my very best regards.
Delegate of the C.I.C.B.
The Exchange of
German and English Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees - Barcelona, May 17th
The International Committee of The Red Cross was asked by the German and British Governments to help their representatives assist with the exchange and repatriation of convoys of prisoners of war from Germany and North Africa which was to take place at Barcelona.
In response to these requests The International Committee of The Red Cross has taken the following steps:
1) Dr. Marti, head of the delegation in Germany and Dr. Schirmer, deputy head of the delegation, were asked to accompany the convoys travelling from Germany to Barcelona.
2) M. Jean-Pierre Pradervand, head of the delegation of The International Committee of The Red Cross in North Africa was asked to accompany the Swedish ship Gripsholm travelling from Algier to Barcelona and back.
3) Mr. Frederick Arbenz, delegate of The International Committee of The Red Cross in Spain, was asked to go to Barcelona to assist his colleagues from North Africa and Germany. Following are the different reports of the International Committee delegates.
The Report of M. Jean-Pierre Pradervand
The ship Gripsholm arrived in Algiers May 14th at 14.00 hours and already had on board a number of German prisoners of war from The United States of America and Canada. 404 further German prisoners of war, from all over North Africa, were then boarded. The embarkation started at 16.00 hours and was completed at exactly 18.00 hours. The boarding was extremely well prepared and was completed with no problems. The prisoners of war were transported from the hospital at Alma to the port of Algiers by the regular ambulance service.
The loading of the ship was carefully controlled and revealed that boarded were:
1) 164 German prisoners of war of the British forces comprising 13 officers and 164 soldiers
2) 143 German prisoners of war of the American forces comprising 7 officers 105 soldiers and 31 protected civilian members of staff. Gefreiter Aulich, number 81G40530 was not embarked, and in the opinion of the English and German doctors was not fit to travel.
3) 97 German prisoners of war of the French forces 8 officers and 89 soldiers. Gefreiter Spillner, number 6069 was also not embarked, and again in the opinion of the English and German doctors was also not fit to travel.
The delegate of The International Committee boarded the Gripsholm Thursday 15th May at 15.30 hours. The ship left Algiers docks at 17.30 hours and anchored off the port for 26 hours before starting its voyage for Barcelona.
On his arrival on board the delegate of The International Committee made contact with the officers of the ship and the German prisoners of war. It was immediately apparent that the organisation on board of the Swedish crew and British medical personnel was impeccable. In addition, the American Red Cross had a member on board, who throughout the voyage distributed games, cigarettes, chocolate, clothes etc. to the German prisoners of war. The delegate of The International Committee also noted that the prisoners of war who had boarded the Gripsholm in The United States had also been provided with US dollars that allowed them to make purchases from the ship's canteen. However, the German prisoners of war from North Africa either have no money at all or only French currency which they cannot use. This group, unlike their compatriots from America were unable to obtain items from the canteen on board.
The food was good and attached as evidence is a menu from 16th May 1944.
After an uneventful voyage the Gripsholm arrived Wednesday May 17th in Barcelona where the exchange took place.
The Gripsholm, which had to unload a cargo of parcels sent by the American Red Cross International Committee for prisoners of war held in Europe could not leave Barcelona until the evening of Friday May 19th and arrived in Algiers, without incident, Saturday May 20th at 14.00 hours.
The delegate for the International Committee also added that the medical department aboard The Gripsholm was very well organised and that the food was the same for both the German prisoners of war and the repatriated Allied prisoners of war.
Reports of Dr. Marti and Dr. Schirmer
4 hospital trains were provided by Germany to transport the prisoners of war and the British and American civilian internees to be repatriated to Marseilles. Where it was expected that they would be embarked May 16th 1944 aboard the hospital ship Gradisca which would take them directly to Barcelona. The two delegates of the International Committee planned to accompany the convoys, and to this end Dr s. Marti and Schirmer each accompanied one of the trains, the first from Berlin to Marseilles, the second from Luneberg to Marseilles. There the delegates embarked aboard the Gradisca.
Each train was carrying an average of 260 prisoners of war and civilian internees, and the grand total was 1042 persons. Included in this figure were a number of British prisoners of war who should have already been repatriated in Gothenburg in October 1943, and prisoners of war from Italy who also should have been repatriated in September 1943.
The 4 convoys progressed slowly from Germany to Marseilles without incident, except for the case of one airman who was mentally ill and had to be hospitalised in the city of Lyon.
The two reports of the delegates of The International Committee who made their journeys from Germany to Marseilles separately can be found below.
Dr. Marti's Report
Dr. R. Marti joined a convoy, which before reaching Berlin, had collected a number of wounded and sick prisoners of war from Stalags VIIIB, XXID and a hospital in Neu Stettin. The convoy comprised 240 sick and wounded prisoners of war, members of the medical staff and also included 4 British civilian internees, one Norwegian, a second from Denmark, a third from Germany and a fourth from Belgium. In addition to the delegate of The International Committee aboard the convoy were various German personnel responsible for the care of the prisoners of war. The convoy left Berlin on May 13th 1944 at noon.
The hospital train consisted of 15 carriages, 8 of the carriages contained 30 beds in each for the repatriated, 1 carriage for the German medical and other staff, 1 carriage with a dressing room and compartments for the junior train staff, 1 carriage for the administrator of the train and his senior staff, 1 carriage for the train drivers, a kitchen wagon, a boiler-wagon and a store wagon. The 8 carriages occupied by the repatriated are all of the same type: 30 bunks arranged in tiers of 3, 18 bunks on one side and 12 on the other, arranged lengthways along the carriages. In the centre of the carriage there is a small area where the prisoners can meet and platforms at each end of the carriage. The weather is cool and the train is heated. The Surgeon General of the train and his assistant visit the patients every day at 10.00 in the morning. German medical staff, aided by British medical personnel change dressings once a day.
The train travels slowly and stops several times every few hours, but the morale of those being repatriated is excellent.
The food however, in the words of the prisoners of war is “not quite enough”, although the rations are exactly the same to those of the German troops on board and those given to the delegate of the International Committee. These same rations were also to be served to the repatriated German prisoners of war returning on the trains. The rations may seem insufficient to the British and American prisoners of war because they were not allowed to take the relief (Red Cross) parcels that they regularly received, and are used to, in the camps with them. The prisoners of war could only bring cigarettes on board with them.
Rations on the trains are: -
700 grammes of bread per day
800 grammes of meat and sausage per week
38 grammes of butter per day
45 grammes of jam per day
35 grammes of sugar per day
100 grammes of Swiss cheese per day
25 grammes of cocoa
An extra 30 grammes of sugar per day (in the cocoa)
35 grammes of condensed milk per day
Patients in need of a special diet also receive: -
800 grammes of vegetables per day (potatoes and spinach)
3 eggs per day (2 at noon and 1 in the evening)
20 grammes of sugar, and extra sugar for diabetics
and for everyone:
9 grammes of ersatz coffee and 4 grammes of tea per day
The bread ration was 700 grammes but was reduced to 500 grammes after the first day, as some of the prisoners had thrown away some bread that they did not like. However on the intervention of the delegate of the International Committee the ration was immediately restored to 700 grammes.
Among the patients and the repatriated were 9 patients with mental disorders, including 4 cases with severe suicidal tendencies, 2 of them trying repeatedly to jump out of the train windows, but they are very closely monitored by the British medical staff. Injections of scopolamine are able to calm the crises of high excitability.
The convoy of 4 trains travel about an hour apart and use the Strasbourg-Vesoul-Lyon line. However one train diverts to Nancy to collect the internees from Vitel camp in Mulhouse, this took place on May 14th at 22.15 hours. Dr. Marti joined this train and the delegate of the International Committee took this opportunity to visit the camp. It contained 296 British prisoners of war, including 22 sick. The visit was completed without incident and the train containing Dr. Marti arrived in Marseilles on May 16th at 06.00 in the morning.
Dr. Schirmer's Report
Dr. Schirmer travelled by car to Annaburg, Berlin on May 13th, accompanied by representatives of the German authorities responsible for the exchange operation. They arrived at Annaburg at 13.30 hours where he attended the loading of the prisoners of war from the nearby camp. The prisoners of war travelled by foot to the train from the camp, a distance of 800 metres. Some of the seriously ill were transported by ambulance. The delegate immediately made contact with British Major, Dr. Till and the more senior officers of the medical staff in charge of the transportation of the repatriated.
The loading of the train was completed with no problems and in 10 minutes all 8 carriages for the prisoners of war were fully loaded. The train left Annaburg at 15.00 hours.
Dr. Schirmer describes the train as follows: A “van”, a store wagon, a kitchen carriage, a carriage for the medical staff, a carriage of compartments and dressing room for the train staff, 8 carriages of 30 beds each for the repatriated prisoners of war and a boiler-wagon. The train is similar to those used by the German army for the transport of wounded German soldiers. Each carriage for the prisoners of war contains 30 bunks arranged down both sides of the carriage in tiers of 3. Each carriage has 20 windows and is very well lit. In the middle of each carriage is a 'panel' which serves as a table for writing etc. and a furnace, which should the central heating fail, could be used in extreme conditions. There are spacious platforms at each end of the carriages so that patients can be easily loaded on stretchers. The electric lighting is good and during the night there is a pilot light. One member of the German medical staff sleeps in each carriage during the night.
On top of each carriage is a large red cross on a white background. Moreover, the staff of the 4 hospital trains re-painted the red cross signs to ensure that they were highly visible. There are also red cross signs on both sides of the carriages.
The staff is composed of two doctors, a medical sergeant, another sergeant, 18 soldiers and four other members of the medical staff who are in charge of the cooking. The composition of the prisoners on this train is: -
New Zealanders 9
South Africans 7
The number of civilians is as follows:
San Salvadorian 1
These comprised 7 male and 22 female.
The civilian internees travelled from several different Ilags to board the train at Stuttgart. The women are placed in a special carriage and the men share the carriages of the prisoners of war. The civilian internees had with them a lot of luggage which was loaded into the wagons by members of the German Red Cross. Amongst the civilian internees the delegate noted the presence of the American war correspondent Larry Allen , with whom he had the opportunity to speak many times.
Those being repatriated had received orders not to bring any Red Cross packages with them as the food on the train was good. They were allowed to take tea and cigarettes on board.
On 14th May 1944 the rations were: -
300 grammes of bread
300 grammes of white bread
45 grammes of jam
4.5 grammes of tea
30 grammes of sugar
100 grammes of peas
400 grammes of potatoes
40 grammes of pork
30 grammes of lard
32 grammes of butter
70 grammes of sausage
4.5 grammes of tea
On the train are nine prisoners of war suffering from stomach complaints that require special meals and are served food which takes the form of semolina, pasta, milk and soup. A prisoner suffering from diabetes also receives food in accordance with their dietary needs.
Hindu prisoners of war received a vegetarian diet.
The food on the train is sufficient; however, the general opinion of those being repatriated is that they ate better in the camps because of the supply of Red Cross parcels at their disposal. The delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross is served the same food and realises that although it is sufficient in quantity and quality, it is not very nourishing. The delegate added that the same menu will be served to the repatriated German prisoners on the return journey from Marseilles to Germany.
Breakfast is served at 8 am, lunch at 12 noon and dinner at 6 pm. The meals are served by the German medical staff. Each prisoner receives a plate, a cup, a spoon, a knife and a fork.
The journey passes without incident. The train stops overnight at the French border on the night of 14th -15th May, at night the trains are blacked out. The sick are visited every day by the German chief physician, the British Major Dr. Till and the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross at 10.00 and 19.00 hours. All necessary drugs are available.
Those being repatriated have told the delegate of the International Committee that during the journey they have been able to sleep very well and are generally very satisfied with the treatment they received.
The train containing Dr. Schirmer arrived in Marseilles on May 16th at 02.00 in the morning.
From 07.00 in the morning, the prisoners of war that had arrived in Marseilles on the 4 hospital trains, are embarked on to the hospital ship Gradisca which had berthed at the new port of Marseilles. Each train in turn moves onto the dock and the prisoners of war move directly from the train onto the ship. Those able to, walk on board, and are immediately allocated to different rooms by the German medical staff. Those prisoners unable to walk are carried on board by Red Cross workers and German medical staff, and are also allocated to dormitories reserved for them. German soldiers and German Red Cross workers carried the baggage on board of the prisoners of war who were unable to do it themselves.
TB cases are placed in a special room, women and children internees are put in very bright rooms on the upper deck. The ship is completely filled by those being repatriated so full in fact, that extra mattresses had to be obtained.
As the time on the ship was very short, the prisoners of war have no complaints for the delegates of the International Committee. The food is exactly the same as on the hospital trains. Officers and civilian internees take their meals in the several dining rooms of the ship, while most of those being repatriated eat in the dormitories where they are.
Those being repatriated are allowed to walk in all parts of the ship should they wish to.
The Gradisca weighed anchor at noon and the crossing to Barcelona took about 11 hours in good weather and calm seas. The Gradisca arrived at 23.00 off the port of Barcelona, where the Gripsholm had arrived an hour before. Both ships are moored on either side of a large quay, separated by a warehouse, about 150 metres away from each other.
The Report of Mr. Frederick Arbenz
Travelling from Madrid, the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Spain arrived in Barcelona a few days prior to May 17th.
On May 16th it was announced that the exchange may have to be delayed as the Gripsholm was somewhat behind schedule. However, on the morning of the 17th, Mr. Arbenz learns that the ship will arrive at 08.00.
On the quay, the only persons present were the civil governor of Barcelona, the admiral commanding the harbour and the delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, all other persons could not be warned in time.
The two ships both entered the port during the course of the morning and the representatives of each country involved in the exchange and the civil governor of Barcelona all decided that the exchange would take place on the same day at 13.30 hours. The Spanish Red Cross, who had given instructions to its nurses and porters that the exchange would not happen until May 18th, had to quickly place a radio call to mobilize its teams on the 17th.
There was therefore a slight delay before the exchange could begin, but quite quickly things all began to work normally. At 20.00 hours the exchange had been completed. From the Gradisca 1043 prisoners of war and civilian internees were transferred to the Gripsholm and 877 prisoners of war and civilian internees were then embarked onto the Gradisca.
Teams from the Spanish Red Cross transported the wounded, and gifts, in the form of fruit, sweets and wine etc. were given to each prisoner of war.
The situation regarding a group of 23 German civilian internees caused some discussions. Finally it was decided to keep the 23 in Barcelona until such a time, prior to 16th June 1944, that the German authorities repatriate a further 23 British civilian internees in exchange for them.
The Gradisca set sail from Barcelona on May 18th at 11.30 am and passed close to the Gripsholm on its way out of port, a few shouts and insults were exchanged between the vessels. The Gripsholm had to be unloaded of 1,600 tons of parcels addressed to prisoners of war in Germany, this was completed on May 19th at 16.45 hours. The delegate of the International Committee in Spain, who had to check the landing of the cargo, said that the work was completed in record time by the freight company Hispano-Suiza Navigacion. Both the Spanish military and civilian authorities, have continued to provide assistance to the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the diplomatic representatives of the various countries concerned both of whom kindly thank them for their support.
The return trip to Algiers of the Gripsholm was completed without incident and the ship arrived May 20th at 14.00 hours in Algiers. Drs Marti and Schirmer returned to Marseilles aboard the Gradisca where they arrived May 19th at 09.00 hours, after a good passage. The two delegates returned to Germany aboard a hospital train with the repatriated Germans and indicate that the German prisoners of war arrived safely in their home country with no problems.
All delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross who participated in this exchange insist that all of the authorities with whom they were asked to work always welcomed them openly and gave their best to help facilitate the huge task entrusted to them.
The Exchange of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees May 17th 1944 in Barcelona
On the 16th May 1944 the press announced that the exchange planned for May 17th would now take place on the 18th due to the Gripsholm being a bit behind schedule. May 16th at 23.00 hours there was still no news of the Gripsholm but May 17th early in the morning, I learned of the arrival of the ship in about 8 hours. On the dock there were only the civil governor, the admiral commanding the harbour and myself present. All other authorities could not be notified in time.
At 10.00 hours the Gradisca entered the port. The representatives of each country involved in this exchange and the civil governor decided that the exchange would take place that same day at 13.30 hours. However, the Spanish Red Cross had already informed their nurses and porters that it would not happen until May 18th and had to make an urgent radio call to mobilise its teams. So for the first two hours it was a little disorganised, but within a short time all was progressing well. The exchange was completed at about 20.00 hours.
1043 prisoners of war and civilian internees were transferred from the Gradisca to the Gripsholm and 877 from the Gripsholm onto the Gradisca.
The difficult situation regarding an extra group of 23 German civilian internees led to serious negotiations. The civil governor with the support of Minister Carro representing the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Mr. Balli, Consul General of Switzerland in Barcelona tried to obtain from the Allied powers leave to release the 23 German internees on the guarantee of the German authorities that, within the space of one month they would, in return, free a similar number of allied civilian internees. These negotiations were unsuccessful and it was therefore decided to keep the 23 German civilian internees in Barcelona and the German authorities have promised to carry out an exchange before June 16th.
Madrid May 27th 1944 International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva.
In summary, from a technical point of view the exchange went well and quickly enough despite the rain. The Spanish Red Cross, as in the exchange of October 1943, was dedicated and deserves mention and the Spanish authorities have given their full support and provided all kinds of facilities. The authorities gave each prisoner a small bag of fruit, sweets and Spanish wine etc.
The Gradisca set sail on May 18th at 11.30 hours and passed close to the Gripsholm on its way out of the port. At that time there was some shouting but everything calmed down quickly.
The Gripsholm left May 19th at 16.45 hours after 1600 tons of packages were unloaded in record time by the company Hispano-Suiza Navigacion, who should be commended for their work.
All of the military as well as the civilian authorities had only praise for the work of the International Committee. The representatives of the allies and Germany warmly thanked the ICRC delegates (International Committee of the Red Cross) and instructed them to send their thanks to the members of the International Committee in Geneva. I would, in closing, also like to bring to your attention all the aid and support that we received from Mr. Balli, Consul General of Switzerland in Barcelona.
Following is a list of all persons present at the exchange:
Supreme Assembly of the Spanish Red Cross
Duchesse de la Victoire
Duc de Hernani
Comte de la Granja
Dr. Luis Valero, Secretary General
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Mr. Carro, Minister
Mr. Terrasa, Advisor
Mr. Correa Veglison, Civil Governor of Barcelona
Lieutenant General commanding the 4th Moscardo Region
Military Governor of Barcelona
The Admiral Commanding Barcelona Harbour
Mr. Wallace, Counsellor of the Legation
Consul General in Barcelona
Mr. Yencken, Minister, who was on his way to Barcelona to attend the exchange when he was involved in a plane crash that cost him his life, also lost were the air attaché and a mechanic who were accompanying him I have sent a telegram of condolence and attached is the letter which I sent to the British Embassy.
United States of America
Mr. Carlton Joseph Huntley Chayes, Ambassador
Colonel Scharp, Military and Air Attaché
Consul General in Barcelona
Mr. Albert, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Berlin
Mr. Kroll, Consul General in Barcelona
and various members of the Embassy in Madrid
Mr. Balli, Consul General
Mr. Meyland, Vice-Consul
Mr. Marti and Mr. Schirmer, who travelled aboard the Gradisca
Mr. Pradervand, Delegate to Algiers
Mr. Greuter, Division of Foreign Interests in Washington, who travelled aboard the Gripsholm and other various members.
Members of the Supreme Council and Mr. Abalo President of the Spanish Red Cross in Barcelona have made every effort to facilitate the task of the delegates of the International Committee and to them all; We are extremely grateful.
Jack Mepham was medically discharged from the British Army on the 30th August 1944. He died in July 1986.
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