Private Jonathan Wilkinson
Unit : "B" Company, 5th Battalion The Hampshire Regiment
Served : Tunisia (captured)
Army No. : 5511996
POW No. : 81828
Camps : P.G. 66, 82, Stalag VIIIA
After completing my apprenticeship with Southern Railways in Southampton, I volunteered and joined the Hampshire Regiment with initial training at Slade camp. On 8th January 1943 the 5th Battalion embarked on the H.M.S Leopoldville from Gourock on the Clyde bound for North Africa. Nine days later we landed at Algiers, and were immediately shipped onboard the 'Ulsterman' to Bone (now Annaba). We became aware that a fresh German offensive was expected south from Mateur in northern Tunisia. On the 31st January we left Bone for the allied front line at Kzar Mezouar (Hunts Farm). Here we joined the Leicester Regiment at a strategic location at the head of a narrow twelve mile defile on the route between the German forces at Mateur and the allied communications centre at Beja. A powerful Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) under Oberst Lang was moving swiftly southwards as part of Operation 'Oxhead', and included 14 Tigers and 60 Panzers. The group formed part of the crack German 2nd Div of Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
Battle of Sidi Nsir
There was growing concern that these powerful tanks would break through our limited defences, which were awaiting reinforcements. The 5th Bat dug in at Hunts Farm under Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham. Most of our officers and men were fresh out of England with no battle experience. Our A and B Companies were then sent some twelve miles ahead up a narrow valley to relieve the 1st East Surreys at the isolated outpost of Sidi Nsir. The small railway station became our HQ. We were then given the dangerous job of occupying craggy hill top positions, listening/monitoring German movements, and holding any advance of tanks down the narrow valley below. We were supported by 8 25-pounder guns of 155th Field Battery RA, but were well out of range of our heavy artillery positioned at Hunts Farm. German patrols of experienced Barenthin paratroopers approached our positions for the first time on 20th February, and we began to take fire and casualties – Bill Morgan was killed, shot in the head. German Messerschmitts began to strafe the valley. On the night of the 25th we received heavy mortar and machinegun fire. The dawn of the 26th brought the German attack as a long line of Tigers, Panzers and infantry began to advance down the narrow valley towards us. Our positions suffered heavy mortar fire. The tanks were held up by minefields and our artillery fire. My unit B Company bore the brunt of this first advance and eventually after fierce resistance we were overwhelmed losing all but two of my mates. I was captured and taken behind German lines, a POW after less than six months in the army. Overnight we were left out in the pouring rain, a mate and I tried to escape back to our lines under cover of dark – but soon ran into a patrol. That night we slept on a bed of rocks.
After the war, I learnt that the resistance at Sidi Nsir where all were ordered to hold positions, helped to delay this crack German Corps for some 48 hours, giving time for extra mining of the road and the reinforcement of Hunts Farm. The German attack was successfully repulsed. I am really proud of my Hampshire mates who ‘fought like the Tigers on our regimental badge’, and the brave RA lads whose guns were knocked out one by one. Later Newnham wrote to our colonel ‘these lads were tougher than anything I have ever served with, or hope to serve with. There was no suggestion of a waiver – every man stuck to his rifle, his bren, his mortar to the end’. Only 9 of 130 RA men survived the action, which is well described in ‘Last Stand! Famous Battles Against The Odds’ by Bryan Perrett 1991.
Life as a POW in Italy
My mates and I were herded together, left out in the rain and refused food, before being marched to the port of Bizerta, where we were handed over to the Italians. Some of my mates were so hungry they exchanged their rings for scraps of food. On the 4th March, 276 of us were packed into the pitch black cargo hold of the S.S Congo. With no food, drink or toilet the four days at sea seemed a lifetime, and many lads died during the voyage. Arriving at Naples on 8th, we were roughly treated by German soldiers and spat at by Italians. Then we were marched to P.G 66 Camp at Capua, where we were allowed to recover – even allowed to play football, box and hold concerts organised by Harry Schwartz. Here I was given a small diary and I began to keep a secret record of my experiences. Three lads made an attempt to escape and made about 15 miles before they were recaptured. Paratrooper Pte Smith was shot. The 21st April was my first birthday as a POW, and two mates George Brown and George Howells gave me their chocolate rations. On 31st May, the sky was full of allied aircraft and we thought the war would soon be over!
After three months ‘rest’ we were ready for work, and we were transported north to Laterina camp. Here we heard that Mussolini was dead and the Italian guards nearly went crazy with delight. 23rd August we were moved north to Camp 82XV at Borge San Lorenzo where we began to build a new sugar cane factory. On 8th September, ‘Peace with Italy’ and the guards became more relaxed. I found that I could slip under the camp wire to scrounge extra food in the surrounding farms and fields. One foray found me face to face with a farmer, but instead of being reported he treated me to a slap up meal. My attempt to escape ended in failure after two days. Thoughts of freedom were ended when the Germans arrived on 13th, and we were quickly transferred to P.G 19 at Bologna in cattle trucks. Two days later we were on the way to southern Germany.
Life as a POW in Southern Germany
On 19th September, after 3 days by train in a cattle wagon with 60 mates and no food, we arrived at Stalag VIIIA Gorlitz Mays, near Dresden in South Germany. This was a holding camp for POWs, with over 500 of us in a hut. I received my POW ID 81828. Here we were allowed to play football and I learnt to box under the guidance of Ambrose (ABA middle weight champion) and John Evans (Army light heavyweight champion). On 6th October, I received my first Red Cross parcel for 2 months, and my new POW kit. We were sent out to work in local Kommandos (work camps).
Life as a POW in Upper Silesia. On 5th November 1943, we were pushed into another closed cattle wagon at Stalag VIIIA Gorlitz Mays and transported to the extreme cold and snow of Upper Silesia. This was to be my ‘home’ for the next 14 months. At the first kommando Zabrzec, we worked on railway sidings and often saw young dejected German soldiers on their way to the horrors of the Russian front. Here we took the chance of ‘lifting’ extra food from the supply wagons – right under the guards’ noses. We devised numerous diversions like building snowmen and snowball fights, while Jackie Hicks and I helped ourselves to the ‘spuds’. This went well until guards found peelings had been left in one of the huts. We also did our share of sabotage by uncoupling wagons to delay supplies going to the front.
A ‘reward’ for this behaviour was being sent to Kazimer on 10th February 1944, where we were forced to load coal underground in the Pecan and Saturn mines. Work was extremely hard and dangerous, conditions were dreadful, with 13 hour shifts, light failures and rock slides. However I was befriended by August Saravara, a Polish mining engineer who insisted that I worked with him in the disaster and rescue squad! A matter of from the frying pan into the fire. I have often wondered how we survived working in the pitch black with roof falls, continual danger and narrow scrapes. These Katowice/Gliwice mines are now regarded as some of the most dangerous in Europe, and I remember my time in these mines as the hardest of my pow experiences.
In the dark mine tunnels, I had some of the most harrowing times of my life with rats like dogs, falling timbers and rocks and the challenge of getting back to the surface through a labyrinth of passages. Going down each night in the cage I kept up my spirits singing ‘You are my sunshine’. Despite the exhausting work we still looked forward to football matches, especially the occasional match against the guards. We were forced to work through Christmas with no celebration, but we did have a special Christmas treat was the ‘gift’ of half a horse’s head between 400 of us - which made a very thin soup. A special treat for me was to wrap my clothes for delousing around a can of condensed milk… it came out like caramel.
During this time we had no idea that just 20 or so miles from our camp was Oswiecim – and the notorious Auschwitz death camp. Luckily I was able to keep fit and pull my weight during this time, but many of my friends were not so fortunate.
Escape Attempt Fails – Only Four Days of Freedom
Early January 1945 we heard rumours that the Russian troops were advancing rapidly from the east (began the offensive on 12th), and German soldiers were starting to pull out with some panic being surprised by the speed of their advance.
On January 19th on the eve of a full parade, Jackie Hicks, Alf Forester, a young lad who could speak German and Polish, and I decided to try to escape and wait for the Russians. We worked out that if we timed things we could scramble, undetected by searchlight, into the roof of our hut via the air vent. This we did one at a time. We heard the lads falling in for parade, and the counts. Then we heard shouting as the guards started to search with German shepherd dogs – but despite gun fire into the ceiling we were not detected. Luck was on our side as they were in a desperate hurry to leave and could not waste any more time searching.
We intended to stay put in the roof until the Russians arrived, but thirsty and hungry, and pestered by the young lad who wanted to see his Polish girlfriend, we ventured out the second night. Dodging the soldiers, we made it safely to her house. We were just having a warm drink when a German ‘home guard’ walked in. It seemed an age for the ‘penny to drop’ but he eventually covered us with his gun and marched us out into the street. We were handed over to the Vermacht.
I often wonder what would have happened if we had remained hidden and had been ‘freed’ by the Russians. There are many stories of men who had very rough treatment being sent 2,000 miles to Odessa for shipment home ... and those who did not return.
We were marched to a Div HQ, questioned and pushed into a damp cellar with some Russian prisoners. I slept with my gear and a little food as my pillow, but in the morning the food had gone! On 24th January, we were put on a train to Ratibor (Raciborz) at the start of our long march west back into south east Germany. Three days later the Russians liberated Auschwitz.
The Long March West Back To Germany
After three days of walking and train journeys in the freezing cold we left the Russian POWs and joined a British column. We had our first meal for 4 days. This was the start of a 88 day, 800 mile march in the freezing cold and snow of Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia and south east Germany. With little food or shelter our 250-300 man column was forced to march 10 to 15 miles a day (Geneva Convention set a maximum of 20km), through country lanes between 46 small villages. We slept where we could in barns, farmyards and haystacks. I now understand that this was just one column of thousands of allied pows retreating through eastern Europe before the Russian advance. In the cold and snow, suffering from hunger, frostbite and exhaustion we had no idea where we were going, but I kept a diary of the village names. Only recently, with the aid of the internet, it has been possible to translate the old German place-names and plot them on a modern map of the Czech Republic. We skirted north of Olomouc towards Moravska Trebova, then north west to the outskirts of Hradec Kralove, westwards round the top of Praha, back into Sudetenland and Marianske Lazne and into Bavaria in Germany.
The first section was extremely hard going with very little food and drink, and freezing conditions and deep snow. We slept in barns, cowsheds and outbuildings, often huddled together in the straw to keep warm. We marched into Sudetenland (ceded to Germany at Munich in 1938 as 'peace in our time') between Bransdorf (Brantice), Freudenthal (Bruntal), Tillendorf (Bridlicna), Lobewitz (Moravsky Beroun), Komaru, Mahr Aussee, Charlottendorf, Ketelsdorf (Moravska Trebova), Lauterbach (Cista). When we reached Benatek (Litomysl) we passed into Czechoslovakia and things improved slightly. Local people were much more friendly and sometimes threw us scraps of food. The guard started to give us rest days. But lads were dropping out and dying, and at times the guards had outbreaks of undue violence. Faces just disappeared. We reached Hermanice on 15th February and marched on to Ostretin, Chvojenec and then Praskarka (south of Hradec Kralove).
22nd February, we rested in a barn at Cisteves (west of Hradec Kralove), and an exhausted Alf Forester talked me into trying to escape. I was not happy about making a break because we had no idea where we were or how we would survive. In the early hours we climbed up to the loft of our barn and hid amongst the hay bales. Roll call came and Alf asked me ‘what are they doing’. They are counting the men… what are they doing, they are counting again… and again oh they are fixing bayonets. They came up the ladder, moving bales and pushing bayonets into the straw. Suddenly Alf let out a howl, a bayonet had pierced the heel of his boot. We then found out that 8 of us had tried to hide at the same time. Our punishment was a freezing night out in a farmyard in Dolni Dobra Voda – but I did find some big ‘spuds’ meant for the pigs. Next morning we were in front of a luger tossing German Major. We felt we were about to be shot. Instead he spoke to me in perfect English (Cambridge University), and we talked about the war… I said ‘you had to carry the Italians’, ‘yes but you had the Yanks’ was the reply.
For the next few days I had to march alone at the head of the column, which was growing daily with the addition of new groups and nationalities. Our route took us north of Prague through Luzany, Libuna (Liban), Judensdorf, Choterov, Lehan (Labem), Drinov, Bratkovice (Cernuc), Rustviny, Krupa, and Horesedl (Horovicky) and on 8th March we passed back into Sudetenland.
We heard rumours that German towns had fallen to the allies and the march would end in 4 days. But the march went on to Lubenz (Lubenec), Klein Werscheditz, Gabhorn (Javorna), Neudorf (Nova Ves), Royau (Rajov), Abaschin (Zavesin). We began to hear news of allied bombing raids on German towns. On 19th March on the way to Unter Sandau (Dolni Zandov) some 300 planes passed overhead and bombed the nearby town of Mariembad. We began to worry about becoming a target for friendly fire.
Two days later we reached Bergenreuth in Germany. Here we were ‘rested’ for 19 days, and the RAF planes were seen almost every day. I ‘jumped’ at the chance to chop wood for the Frau at the local beershop, and was rewarded with extra rations and my third bath in the snow since leaving Kazimer.
On 11th April we began the final stage of our march into Bavaria. At Saussen we were deloused and then continued to Markt-Redwitz and slept in proper billets. Next day we worked on a bombed railway siding before marching to Wiesau. More Red Cross parcels became available as we continued to Wildenau, Altenstadt, Bernreith, Tannesberg, and Konatsreid. Guards became more relaxed as more news of allied advances came through. At Hitzelsberg a number of American fighters flew over us and dipped their wings as I celebrated my third birthday as a POW.
On 23rd April at Thiermietnach we heard that American tanks were only 5km away, and we refused to march further. The guards threatened to call the SS but we knew it was a hollow threat. The guards decided to lay down their rifles and the next day at 1700 hours we were freed by the American tanks.
Freedom 24th April 1945
The next week was spent enjoying our freedom in and around Thiermietnach with trips into Falkenstein, Rodin and Cham. We heard the welcome news that Hitler had killed himself.
Eventually, an American truck took us to a small airfield at Cham where a Dakota C-47 flew us to Rheims on 2nd May 1945. Next morning we were given a full US uniform, and the next day I was the first to see the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters from the front gunner’s seat of a Lancaster. The 8th May the Germans surrendered.
I arrived at home in Southampton unannounced and had 6 weeks glorious leave. No one talked about my experiences, there was no counselling. For months I was not able to sleep in a real bed. Then all to soon, I was sent to Colchester, Catterick and then Berlin with post-war policing and guard duties. I was present at the amazing Victory Parade. Eventually, I returned home to take up my job in Southampton.
Only in the last few years have I been able to talk about my experiences to my family and friends, and participate in veteran and ex-pow activities. Throughout my captivity, I was determined to keep up my fitness levels and I am aware how important was my love of sport in getting me through this very hard and challenging time.
I have twice returned to Silesia (now south Poland), and have just visited Sidi Nsir under the ‘Heroes Return’ scheme.
Jonathan Wilkinson passed away on the 11th February 2011.
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