Sergeant Norman F. Shute
Unit : 2/1 Field Company Royal Australian Engineers, 6th Division.
Army No. : NX3627
POW No. : 23400
Camps : Stalag VIIIB/344
Escape from Germany
by Pushbike, Train, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, R.A.F., British Army
to Eastbourne, England
As far as possible I am going to record a full account of my escape from a prisoner of war camp to England. It has already received a romantic publication but in these next pages I am recording the actual events as they happened.
Firstly the geographical country through which I passed on my way to Prague. The main direction travelled was westward. Between the border of Poland and Czechoslovakia lay the Sudetes range of mountains rising to about 2500 feet, part of which lay west of Mahra Trubau.
There were two roads over these mountains, one from Mahra Trubau to Zwittau, the second to Leotosmittel; inside the Czechoslovakian border. From here the land dropped down to rolling hills to Luze then comparatively flat to Prague.
From Zwittau to Prague was a first class auto-bahn, and a first class road from Leotosmittel. Between these two highways lay a series of bye-roads in a network which connected village to village leading in the general direction of Prague. The country was agricultural partly woods with many streams flowing through.
Secondly the military should be explained from Saturday to Monday when I made my break.
Several surrenders had taken place on the western front, but none in the east to the Russian. From Glawitz in Poland the Russians had taken Dresden Breslau and Opplen in the north and Linz Vienna and Bruno in the south forming a V with Glawitz as the base. We were situated about 50 kilometres from Glawitz.
On Saturday fighting broke out in Prague and the Czechoslovakian Liberation Army broadcast for allied help. German tanks advanced on Prague from the north. The Americans advanced from the west but stopped 70 kilometres from the city. The Russians advanced from the north and took the city on Sunday, thus practically closing the V. On the same day they moved up from the south.
By this time the German army was in a panic retreat with one aim of getting out of the V before it closed to surrender to the Americans.
We received our last news about the military position and from then on had to guess the situation as best we could.
Arthur Grey a New Zealand staff sergeant was in charge. We were to wait until it was safe to go and then try to get into Czechoslovakia and get help to get through to the allied lines. He took a nominal roll of the New Zealanders, Cullen of the Englishmen and I took one of the Australians.
Hilde was American born of German parents. In 1939 she went back to Germany to visit her relatives. When France fell she went to live with her grandmother and waited for arrangements to return home. Late that year her grandmother died and she inherited the farm and under Nazi law had to work on it. She was classified as a land owner and German citizen. However in late 1942 her land was taken over and worked under the supervision of her uncle and she went to work for the Harbichen Timber & Brick Company. When they received P.O.W. labour of British, New Zealanders and Australians she was the interpreter. Although rather reserved at first, she had to be - she helped us to obtain a few extra comforts. Winter time through her we obtained a little extra coal and plenty of wood to keep our barracks warm. Occasionally news, fresh straw for our palliases etc.
Alex Kane (a New Zealander) and myself had the job of grooming two horses every Saturday down at the office. With a German girl, Olga, we used to work and talk to the two girls.
Toward the end of the war we discussed what was going to happen. When I told her our plans and suggested she should join us it was accepted.
On Saturday I finalized my plans with Hilde. We decided to delay the getaway as late as possible because I was in uniform. I thought it would be safer to get into (Chzech) ahead of the Russians. Then when it seemed safe to travel on. If things moved fast I was to meet her on Sunday, but if possible wait until Monday. Our plans were to travel by Leitosmittel in Czechoslovakia and then by the back roads onto Prague.
On Sunday the home guard was called out. We could hear occasional gunfire and heavy transport retreating through the town. Plans were being made to evacuate the civilians (where to I do not know).
On Saturday the reserve supply of food was given out without the need of ration cards rather than leave it for the Russians.
The weather was stormy and muddy under foot. We all kept our personal necessities to a minimum and food to a maximum because we did not know what to expect.
Also rumour had it that the Russians were sending our chaps to Odessa on the Black Sea.
Sunday night four Englishmen made their escape. Naturally the guard was doubled, (a usual German procedure) after the men had gone. Incidentally our guard consisted of an Army Feldwebel (Sergeant) and ten helpth fosterns (Home guard).
Some came Monday morning and our first problem. No one was to work that day ---- so Alex and I told the commando fuehrer we wanted to return 10 groundsheets to the timber waggons. He gave us a guard and I got ready. I had my battle dress on, wrapped a blanket around my waist and put a great coat on. With the groundsheets over our arms we were marched down to the timber yard gate. Here we met Frau Mountnor who said there was no work and that her husband (the yard foreman) was driving transports helping in an evacuation. The guard wanted to march us back but we said we would put the blankets in the Smithy's shop. Leaving him talking to a few anxious women we walked around the brickworks to the Smithy shop.
Here Annie (a german girl who worked in the yard office) range through to Hilde at the main office about a ½ mile away.
Then we returned to the guard and told him we were to harness the horses for the "Boss" and when finished would return to the Lager. He was rather hesitant but finally went away.
Hilde came up and said on returning would ride the bike up and we would ride back to the town where she had a room. All I had to do was to get the bike in the machine room which was owned by the yard foreman.
Unfortunately the guard was sent back. I climbed down a flue of the brickworks amongst the soot and dust. Alex allowed himself to be caught, and after a search by guards and civilians they gave up.
After the guards had returned to the Lager Annie again rang and Hilde returned riding her bike. They pretended to work but every now and then would look for me.
About three o'clock I finally came out of my hiding covered in soot and dust. Hiding the bike she went round to Herr Mountnor (who luckily was home) and asked him could she have the key to the machine shop as she told him I had left a camera (bought for 200 cigarettes and a packet of coffee from a Red Cross parcel plus one film) and a few articles for her.
Returning I wheeled the bike out, and while she returned the key, pumped the tyres up.
We then rode out to Triebensdorf to her farm. When we arrived about 7 o'clock, I cleaned up while Hilde got everything necessary for the trip ready for an early start next morning.
Next morning after rising early and breakfast we were ready to go. The bikes were loaded. On my bike across the handle bars I had Hilde's overcoat, my greatcoat, and a ground sheet from the timber waggons. Along the horizontal bar was a briefcase. On a carrier at the back was a suitcase of food and blankets strapped on the top. A rucksack on my back carried Hilde's clothes. Hilde had a basket with food on her handle bars and a small rucksack on her back. I found it a bit difficult to mount but managed somehow.
We said our goodbyes and were on our way. However we had not gone far when we almost met with disaster.
Hilde was just in front of me when it happened. I was riding past several tiger tanks on the side of the road which had run out of fuel and were awaiting their fate. (The Russians at the time were about 25 kilometres away).
An S.S. officer walked into the middle of the road and held me up at pistol point. I do not think I spoke better German than when trying to convince that officer to let me go.
The conversation went as follows:
G: "English where are you going"
Reply: "The war is over - I have been set free"
G: "The war is not finished - listen" (We both could hear gunfire not far away) "You are an enemy of the Reich and I shall kill you. It is my duty"
Then some of his men saw my field service hat.
G: "What hat is
M: "I am Australian, I was captured on Crete"
G: "Where did you learn to speak German"
M: "As a prisoner" (He then pulled back the action of his pistol and it was ready to fire. It was a Walther similar to the one I had "obtained" on Crete.
M: "Are you Bavarian?"
M: "The men who caught me were blond men and healthy ---- (Here I got stuck for words)
G: "Yes I was a Bavarian but now I am a German - an SS officer who has sworn allegiance to my Fuehrer - the war is going bad for us but we are not beaten"
We were about two feet apart when he raised his pistol. I know I went pale. I was weak and sweaty. I was thinking that soon he would be riding away on my bike. However after a tense moment he lowered his pistol and said "go and good luck. What is it like as a prisoner?" I couldn't reply.
So I rode off to a nervous and terrified Hilde waiting outside a village. Passing an emergency landing field we saw German airmen destroying their planes, about 40 Fokker-Wuffs. They were one of their top fighter planes but were useless because they had no fuel.
The road was one continuous flow of traffic heading west. German civilians with all their worldly possessions on carts. Fear written on their faces they trudged westward. Some had horses and carts, others cows in harness, some pushing carts, others carried food in a rucksack on their back.
We passed a column of Russian prisoners in a state of exhaustion with a heavily armed guard with them. They were carrying picks and shovels and were evidently used in digging defences.
Hungarian S.S. which were fighting for German with their horse-drawn transport added to the confusion. The horses were bags of bone, with their drivers holding the reins asleep. Heavy German gun tractors minus their weapons held right of way. They just ran into anything in their path while soldiers on foot tried to clamber on them for a free ride.
Desperation and fear of the Russians was evident, signs of an orderly retreat absent. Girls rode with the soldiers.
The German weapon of propaganda, one which had preached terrible tales about the Russians was now putting fear into their own countrymen. Complete panic reigned. It was survival of the fittest. One soldier could be seen talking over a map with his comrades then pointing west. Gunfire was increasing in the east. Children were trudging along beside farm carts holding their mother's hand. Men were cursing each other, they were nervous and irritable. The once proud and respected German officer was now a man defeated and broken trying to get away from the "dreaded" Russians.
So Hilde and I passed along the road through Altstadt to the foot of the mountain range, which lay between us and Leitosmittel, and the protectorate of Czechoslovakia. As we rode along the sun dispersed the clouds and cleared the sky, and it was not long before I was sweating. At the foot of the mountains we made our first mistake. Here we learnt that the longest way by road would have been the best. Instead we took a short cut but the track proved too hard for us and we had to unload. Eventually we rejoined the road again - it was too steep to ride and we had to wheel the bikes. On a corner by the roadside we had to rest at a point which had a panoramic view of the fields below.
The road was absolutely jammed with traffic of all kinds. The fields had no-one working in them. By this time Mohr Trubau was under shell fire and the chudding of artillery could be heard. After a brief spell we went on and eventually reached the top. It was about midday so we had a bite to eat.
Here I had better record our food supply. Several jars of meals preserved with carraway seed, white and brown bread, hard boiled eggs, a bottle of fruits cured in brandy. Judging by its age I think it was a family heirloom. (It was only for medicinal purposes). To these rations my share was a tin of cocoa, some chocolate, army biscuits and raisins saved from Red Cross parcels.
Getting water from a pump at a deserted forester's house we ate our lunch and rested only briefly.
Laying on the grass we watched horses pulling up over the climb lathered in sweat, trucks were boiling, and people weary. The heat of the noonday sun was taking its toll.
From here we had a downhill run for several miles and were able to free wheel most of the time. From thereon of the shortage of petrol for the German army was becoming evident. Men were leaving their trucks, some trying to destroy them, others by using explosives and then making their getaway without arms on foot. Looting was rife and people who were not fleeing were stealing from the trucks to get food, clothing and what else that might be valuable.
Just before reaching the auto-bahn running between Leitosmittel and Zwittau we had another spell. By now the strain of the day's travelling was telling on us, particularly on Hilde. We were covered in dust, our faces sunburnt and our bodies weary. The rucksack on my back was rubbing away the skin and I was bleeding slightly. However we were soon on the road again and then had a lucky break. While pedaling along a well organised convoy passed us. To my surprise I saw Alex Kane, Forbes and Kirkby, riding in one of the trucks. Further on the convoy stopped to find out what the situation was, but were unsuccessful.
I had a talk with Alex and learned what had happened in Trubau. We parted about 5 o'clock and soon crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and rode into Leitosmittel. The town was deserted except for a few men who seemed to get a great thrill watching the Germans retreat. Here I decided I would try and get a carrier for Hilde's bike. Putting on my field hat I approached a Czech and greeted him in German. I apologised for using that language but said I knew very little Czechish. I explained who I was and what I wanted. He seemed only too pleased to help and without much trouble I had a carrier fitted to her bike. I put the big rucksack on it and relieved Hilde of hers. This made a big difference and after thanking them and refusing four kilos of bread we pushed on hoping to travel a few more miles and then camp for the night in a village.
However we had a bit of bad luck. The front axle of Hilde's bike seized and we were between two villages. As it was getting late we decided to camp in the open beside a creek for the night. After a wash and a bite to eat we settled down for the night. Although I was tired and weary I slept very lightly.
The rumbling could be heard closeby of the retreating army. Occasionally there was a blinding flash illuminating the sky as ammunition was destroyed. Star shells lit up the sky and the distant sound of guns told us that the Germans were still at war with the Russians.
The Germans were retreating through a country where their rule of domination and tyranny left a deep mark on the lives of the people who were now out for revenge. They took every opportunity to seize weapons and use them to their own advantage. Although up till now there had been no open defiance, saboteurs of the liberation army had been harassing the Germans. They wrecked trains, destroyed bridges, attacked suppression patrols and in most cases proved to be an irritable thorn. On Saturday this army openly defied the Germans in Prague. They fought tanks with rifles. Women played their part and the heroism displayed inspired a general uprising leaving the Germans with a new danger.
As the dawn broke on Wednesday, the traffic still rumbled by, we were left in a predicament. A seized front axle - no news of the military position and a sore and stiff body. I removed the wheel from Hilde's bike and went to a village to try and fix it while she packed. My plan was to push on to Chrudim and wait for the Russians. It seemed to be a good position to be in, between the two main highways running to Prague and a nice easy days ride. I did not see why we should waste time waiting here as we were still a good way to Prague.
I went off hoping to fix the wheel and push on but I only succeeded in stripping the complete thread. Returning, we pushed the bikes to the next village and tried to exchange something for a new wheel.
When we reached a lane leading to the village we were met by three men and the following conversation took place in German:
Czech: "What is your trouble"
M: "We need a new wheel for this bike. Do you think I could exchange something or buy one at the village. Do you know anyone who can help us"
Czech: "No - you will have to return to Leitosmittel to buy one but you need an Eisenshine Card" (This card is similar to a ration card for food - you were only allowed to purchase ironware with this card).
Hilde: "That is ridiculous. We do not need cards now the war is over for Germany".
Hilde then turned to me and addressed me in German. The Czechs muttered amongst themselves and addressed me in Czechish. Hilde pleaded in German and the reply was in Czechish. Up to this stage we had been conversing to each other in German. Why I do not know! Exasperated I said to Hilde in English "Lets push on - we are getting nowhere". Imagine our surprise when the biggest of the three men said in perfect English - "Are you English - you speak English". From then on our troubles were over.
They took charge of us and we went up to the local village bakery. Leaving the bikes in good hands to be repaired we went inside and were served with coffee (with a little cream) and bread. While enjoying these refreshments in walked a very striking and imposing man. He was over six feet tall, and was dressed in an open shirt and a tailormade brown sports coat, and a pair of dark green riding breeches. Highly polished riding boots and a pistol under his coat completed his outfit. He was the area commander for the Liberation army. He sat down at a desk with an open map, pointed out places and explained things in detail to four men. They then took an oath, put white arm bands on their sleeves and left.
The man came over to us and greeted us cordially. This sincerity to help us, his firm handshake etc, gave me immediately a feeling of confidence. I told him of my plans to follow the auto-bahn to Konitz Gratz, but he stopped me. This town was in the hands of the Russians. There was fierce fighting to the south of it. The Russians had also taken Nem-Brod on the southern road to Prague. He offered us advice which we readily accepted. We were to proceed to a town about 10 miles along a road. Here we were to ask for the liberation headquarters and get directed to Chrast and so on to Chrudim. He wrote us out a letter guaranteeing the protection and help of the liberation army.
So with a new wheel, a safe conduct pass and a memory of kind friends, we started off. After a short journey we reached the town. Just before entering the town we saw another example of the once might of the Luftwaffe. This powerful airforce which helped to bomb a pathway to victory across Europe lay scattered and broken in the field surrounding a huge bomber aerodrome. Well over 100 planes of various types and gliders lay destroyed. Most of the destruction was the work of the partisans.
On entering the town we had to dodge a group of machine-gunners mounted on bikes. They were retreating from the north and signs of nervous fatigue was showing on their faces. They were apparently carrying out Hitler's last command "Germany shall defend herself to the last village and the last man". Shortly after this he committed suicide.
Contacting the partisans we were supplied with a guide and escort and diverted to a road leading southwest. Here the road was void of retreating Germans and for the next four miles we climbed a gradual slope with cultivated fields on either side. Reaching the summit our escort left us but our guide who had met us in the town took us to a nearby village where we had a hot meal and cakes. Just before leaving we were given about 500 Krona.
From Luze we had a nice run downhill through the woods and fields. Luckily we had a guide because all the signposts were turned around pointing in a different direction to the name given. At Luze at the foot of its Gothic Cathedral our guide pointed out our road and departed. Leaving the town we had a rest for about an hour on the side of the road.
Continuing on we were soon to be caught up amongst a retreating German army. They were on a road coming up from the southeast and panic was again evident. Trucks were racing along the road, tired horses trying to gallop and soldiers without arms trying to get a lift. Where they were going I do not know. At a cross road we met a partisan group guarding an ammunition dump and they directed us onto Chrast.
The Germans were retreating through the town when we got there. However I contacted a partisan group who took me to the town Mayor. He was rather an elderly man and very anxious to help. He had a worried expression and taking all things into account was doing a very responsible job. He was wearing the uniform of the Czech army with a white arm band on his left sleeve. He was very concerned about us when I told him I wanted to get to Chrudim and advised us not to push on. However he said we could stay in Chrast as official guests and offered us accommodation in the local hotel. This was not necessary. Yarnoseck, who had taken us to the Mayor offered to take care of us. When Yarnoseck led us to his house we were followed by a crowd of curious people. I was wearing my field hat (1939 issue), it was old and battered but it created a lot of interest. Arriving at the house we were taken to the kitchen where we met his wife, son and two daughters. We had a meal immediately while a curious crowd looked through the door and windows.
The wireless in the room was broadcasting in Czechish and about half an hour after our arrival street fighting was in progress in Chrudim. An hour later news came through that the town had been saved with the help of the Russians.
I now want to describe Yarnoseck and his family. He was a farmer typical of all European men on the land. He had his fields, cows horses and farming equipment. He talked with a slow drawl and was proud of his nationality. He was well respected by his wife and children. He and his family made us feel at home. He was well accepted in the local community. This in turn increased because he had an Australian soldier and an American girl staying in his house. His wife was a quiet woman, very capable housewife and also a good farmhand. For his son this was perhaps the greatest day of his life. An Australian soldier had become his friend. He was about 18 years old, worked with his father on the farm and hoped to be a farmer himself one day. He liked to walk around the town with me and he became my friend and guide. Both the daughters were younger than the son, were rather shy but soon became very friendly with Hilde. They all made us very welcome. We conversed in German, often Hilde helping me out.
Another friend was Janomis Loula, a chemist. He spoke Czechish, German, Russian and English. The reason he spoke so many languages was that he could study books in chemistry which were not in his language. He was also a very sincere man and helpful.
Another chap was Stanislow Rybenskey who had a large house just out of town. He was a jovial man who thought the war was an unnecessary event and our arrival as an historical one. We also met several other officials both military and civil.
After talking for about an hour we went to bed. I slept in the son's bed, while Hilde slept in the girls' room.
All through the night transports could be heard passing through the town and an occasional rifle shot.
I had breakfast in bed brought in by the younger daughter, while the older girl weighted on Hilde. I then cleaned up my uniform and boots. Hilde more or less the same to make ourselves more presentable. After lunch the welcome took place.
The road leading to the square was lined with people waving flags and flowers. Yarnoseck escorted us to the dias in the Town Square where his family and officials were already waiting. Loula acted as interpreter and no German was spoken.
They were waiting for the Russians but would also like to welcome us as the first members of the allied nations to enter the town. There was much cheering and Yarnoseck and his family, because of us became part of the official party.
The Town Mayor came forward and after we saluted each other and shook hands he welcomed me, not only as Mayor, but also as the commanding officer of the liberation army in Chrast, as the first military person to enter Chrast after the liberation of Czechoslovakia from the Germans. He then welcomed Hilde and a small girl presented her with a bouquet of flowers. We were then introduced to other army and town officials.
In two cars and an escort the Russians arrived soon after. An army major introduced the Russian general to the Mayor - then it was my turn, Hilde and other officials. With much saluting and handshaking introductions were made. With much ceremony they kissed Hilde's hand. The general made a speech from the bonnet of his car. Both national anthems were played and they took their farewells. Chrast was now officially liberated and the celebrations began.
It was here that I got my impressions of the Russian Army. Soon after they started to pass through the town on their way to Prague. It was a ragtime army. Gun teams drawn by horses, American trucks, horses and carts, tanks and self propelled guns. They were not in convoy but just in an endless procession. They appeared to be a scruffy lot, naturally in a happy mood. As they passed they accepted gifts of flowers. Quite a number of carts had girls on them wearing medals. They seemed to have an abundant supply of Vodka. They didn't seem to have much food or worry about it. Their rations consisted of bread and English and American tinned meat. Their guns were of all calibre, some American. Most of the horses were a small Siberian breed that got along at a jog trot. Occasionally a staff car came along but they never moved over for it, they just waited their chance to move faster along. Officers rode with men and distinction and respect were unnoticeable. However ragtime as they were they had certainly done a good job.
That night there was much entertainment with a concert and dancing at the guest house. I went to bed about midnight, while the Russian army rolled by. The night before it had been the German army retreating.
Next day came an invitation to have lunch with Rybensky and afterwards attend the funeral of seven partisans killed in the recent uprising. We had lunch on the verandah. After lunch we rode out to the village where the funeral was taking place. The ceremony was taking place in the open with an altar built under a tree. The coffins were covered with flowers while fellow partisans stood by. A priest conducted the ceremony and blessed the coffins. They were then placed on carts and taken to the cemetery. It was a very sad occasion as all the men who had been killed came from the small village and were married and had children. It was rather a high price to pay for freedom. When the coffins were lowered into the ground a volley was fired by the escort. They were heroes and were given their last resting place. The bereaved were "honoured" by our presence and showed their gratitude.
On returning to Chrast we had our photos taken with army and civilian officials. Several were taken of Hilde and myself alone. We also signed an official book for the town's record.
We were then shown through a hot house garden where orange and lemon trees and other plants were cultivated. The temperature was kept warm in winter with charcoal burners when it was 30º below outside. They managed to keep it throughout the war and the fruit was given to the children.
That night Loula told us that a train was going to Paroubice next morning about 8 o'clock. Before retiring we packed what was necessary. We gave the bikes to the children, the groundsheet and rucksack to Yarnoseck. To his son I gave my camera. They offered us food and money which I declined because I hoped to reach Prague that night and perhaps American or British troops.
Next morning the family and friends took us to the station. The 8 o'clock train arrived at eleven, a much crowded train full of displaced personnel. I think Hilde shed a few years and I had a lump in my throat as we said goodbye to a wonderful family. With a few handshakes and cheers we got on the train and once again on our way.
The first stop was Chrusim. Here I realised after seeing the bomb scarred town how lucky we were stayed at Chrast.
At about 2 o'clock we arrived at the devastated town of Paroubice. This town had a very large synthetic oil plant and received much attention from the R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. The railways and oil works were badly damaged but the town hardly hit. German P.O.W. were already working, clearing up the debris under the supervision of Czech army guards.
We went into the town and bought two bottles of soft drink and had lunch from our own supply of food and then returned to the station.
While waiting for a train to Prague, several trains passed through crowded with people who had been brought to Germany and used as forced labour. They were now trying to return home.
The trains sometimes consisted of up to 90 carriages and open waggons, very overcrowded. Some were on the roof and between the carriages and a few even travelling on the coal tender. Despite the heat and overcrowding they were happy to be free and going home.
Eventually our train arrived consisting of waggons and carriages. Fortunately we each had a seat. They were wooden like the old Sydney trams. So started another long weary journey. However the scenery while still clay like was very pleasant. The train had to crawl through the marshalling yards at Kolin, which had been completely destroyed by bombing. The track had just been repaired and was of temporary measure. Here I saw an engine that had received a direct hit. The front part a mass of jagged pipes and metal, was about 50 feet from the cab. I also saw a trainload of German tanks, just a mass of torn junk. At Kolin we had refreshments, a glass of water.
About midnight we reached Prague. The station had received several bomb hits and had been damaged by artillery fire. The awnings over the platform lay twisted and we had to climb over these to reach the main assembly platform. I hesitate to describe the scene here. It took us about half an hour which was a distance of about 50 yards. People were lying asleep on the floor, others were arguing, some exchanging goods. The babble of about eight different languages helped to increase the din. People were trying to push luggage waggons through the rubble and crowd and the station staff trying to keep order. It was by far worse than Paddy's Markets at Sydney on a Friday night.
Eventually we passed out the only exit into the dark street. We did not know where we were, where to go, let alone where and how to get accommodation for the night. However a voice spoke to us in French. I said I did not understand. Then suddenly we heard someone speaking English. The lad who spoke was one of the hundreds of Czechs wandering the streets of Prague trying to help people like Hilde and myself. It was their way of showing their appreciation to the allies and they were very obliging and helpful.
Finally we got accommodation at the Hotel Splendid, one of the last in Prague which overlooked a huge park. It was crowded so I was asked to share the bridal suite with an Englishman while Hilde had a small room downstairs. To say the least it was a magnificent room. I had a bath in the pink bathroom (there was also a blue one) then slept till about lunchtime.
Joining Hilde we went down to the lounge room. Here we created a bit of interest to the other guests, who were mainly of the Russian General's staff. They asked us many questions about different places etc. The language was either German or, to my amazement, English.
After lunch it was decided to go on a sightseeing tour. The party consisted of Russian soldiers and girls, Czech business people, Hilde and myself. We were broken into groups of two and three and off we went. I was accompanied by a Russian service girl. She was rather a big girl proportionally, and wearing black top boots, navy blue skirt, khaki tunic with brass buttons, leather waist belt and a khaki forage cap with red piping. It was an attractive uniform and a tommy gun was slung across her shoulders and a pistol on the hip completed the ensemble. We wandered through the streets of Prague, past shell torn buildings conversing in German, Czechish, Russian and English. However with the aid of our hands and occasionally drawing diagrams on the footpath we made ourselves understood. My escort (I say that because she took my arm and I learnt never argue with a tommy gun) told me about her medals (she had four). She worked on a farm and seemed to be a very capable person. I told her about Sydney, the sea and the ocean. She told me she had never seen the sea or ocean.
The sights of the old capital with its historic buildings and river plus the company made it a very pleasant afternoon. The streets and alleyways of the town often had an armed guard standing on the spot where some Czech soldier had been killed. Often there was a photo of the hero and it was surrounded by flowers.
Every time we passed such a spot we both saluted together and passed on.
On returning to the hotel we exchanged hats and created quite an interest wearing them. We returned to the hotel for dinner and vodka, or vodka and dinner.
After dinner we went upstairs to decide our next move. In fact we were going to get transport that day. However it had been a good time and we had no regrets.
Next morning I was taken down to a Red Cross centre. They were running three trucks to Pilzen to the American lines but were full for the next three days. There was a train available but this had been commandeered by the Russians who were moving troops and guns to a forest where the German S.S. were holding out. Returning to the hotel I told Hilde the news. I then heard a bomber overhead and saw it was American. Looking down I saw, much to my surprise, Alex Kane and Chunky Parnell. I hurried downstairs into the street and attracted their attention. They had reached Prague the day before and were befriended by a Czech army officer and his American wife. The officer spoke English and was taking them down to the Red Cross centre.
It was then that I learn't of Kirkly's death and Forbes being wounded. After leaving us near Leitosmittel they proceeded north west to Gratz. However during the night the convoy swung south west. Entering a town they ran into a Russian formation heading up from Linz. The four of them left the truck and entered a street to try and get into the open. A Russian tank swung round a corner and Kirkly, who was leading, received a direct hit and Forbes badly wounded by shrapnel. Dragging Forbes with them they took cover. The tanks (with Russian girls on the back) quickly destroyed the convoy and transports, and the Germans taken prisoner. When the Russians heard what had happened they were extremely sorry, but it was an unavoidable incident. Kirkly was given a military funeral and Forbes put in care of a small Czech hospital. The Russian commander gave Alex and Chunky a written authority to travel to Prague with the Russians. (Since arriving back home I learned that Forbes reached England safely and after a short spell in hospital returned home). It was an unhappy event and both were badly shaked and one of our party lost.
Walking with Alex for a short distance I arranged to meet him that afternoon. I started to return to the hotel. I saw an American jeep with a star on it. Entering the shop I met an American soldier and asked him if it was his. The answer was no but he took me to a barbers shop where the Lieutenant was having a shave. I told him the position I was in and we all returned to the hotel. While his men were enjoying a bath we made our plans. We were to leave Prague about midnight so that left us free to meet Alex.
Making the room their H.Q., the Yanks cleaned up and went out sight-seeing. I know two of them saw no more sights than Russian Vodka.
That afternoon Hilde and I went sight-seeing again with Alex and Chunky, their host and hostess, two other ladies and two American ex P.O.W.s. We wandered through the town up to the castle and cathedral on the hill. We were shown over this ancient church and climbed its lofty spire to a lookout. We had a magnificent view of Prague. The town lay below us with the river winding through, the old buildings, bridges, parks and narrow streets. Further out there were more modern suburbs. The castle was to be the residence of Dr Bennes when he returned in the near future.
Strolling back to the town we said goodbye to our friends then had dinner. After we went upstairs to pack, while the Yanks were sleeping off their sight-seeing.
Packing did not take me long. With a razor and toothbrush in my greatcoat pocket, I was ready. I then went down and paid our bill, which was two hundred and thirty one krona for the both of us.
About 11 o'clock the two other Yanks returned from a dance and with six of us in the jeep left Prague and its kind people, the Russians and my Russian girl.
Prague is probably mending its wounds, but it is one place I want to remember as it was when I left. A glorious old world town, with its opera house, castles and cathedrals, its winding river, locks, stone bridges and water wheels. Also the Hotel Splendid and the sacred spots of remembrance to the fallen and the tribute paid to by the people to their heroes. A people who had suffered for six years. They could now laugh and say "Relief was a long time coming but worth praying and waiting for".
The last memories of Prague and Russians are those of the Russian service girls on traffic duty. Small and efficient they controlled the movement of traffic with a series of flag signals. Also a squad of soldiers marching 14 abreast singing in harmony, going to the cathedral to pay their respects to the Czechs. The few hours spent with them were experiences well worth having.
My impressions of my first ride in a jeep were not very good. Sitting high in the back, cold with wind, we were at least heading west.
Along the cobblestones of Prague we joined the main highway - still terrorised by the S.S. - to Klutory a town near the Bavarian Alps where our new found friends were stationed. For miles, as we travelled along, the road was littered with transports of all kinds, just left as the men made their escape to the Americans. I cannot describe it, except to say the number of vehicles was unaccountable.
After about 1½ hours we ran up against an American tank across the road. Exchanging greetings and obtaining the password. Refuelling we drove on. For a while we were lost, then found the main road again and just as dawn was breaking, arrived at their billets. Without a second invitation - had our first sleep behind the American lines.
Breakfast that morning consisted of K rations. Here a German woman cooking for the Yanks told me she liked cooking for them. They were informal and carefree, not particular and bombastic like the Germans. After breakfast we were taken to an ambulance unit and placed in their good hands. I went up to the office of the officer in charge of civilian administration, but he was out. Returning back to Hilde we had a sleep in an ambulance until lunchtime.
We had lunch with the Commanding Officer of the unit and had a good discussion on general affairs. After lunch I was told to report to Capt. Dent. Entering the house I was met by a Padre who took me to the Captain and said he would look after us. Walking out of the building he said in a quiet voice "would you mind if I asked you your religion". I told him I was a Baptist and he also was a Baptist Minister back in America. Given a jeep for the purpose I went and fetched Hilde and her belongings and drove back. Leaving our belongings we were taken to a Red Cross Officer. There Hilde was able to send a telegram to her parents. Returning I stopped for a moment to watch a group of German P.O.W. cleaning the American tanks.
At Hilde was a Roman Catholic she was introduced to the R.C. padre. We were also introduced to his batman, a chap about my own age.
When the bugle sounded we walked over and joined the "chow" line and received our evening meal. After dinner we all conversed on general topics and also about America. These two men were very sincere and worked in a happy manner together. Padre Cigars had his billets in a milliner's shop so he generously outfitted Hilde with a fresh wardrobe. I scored a pair of pyjamas and towel. Transport was arranged to take us toward Regensberg next morning.
The next morning we again joined the chow line for breakfast. The cook looked at Hilde and me, mumbled something about being too thin and gave Hilde three eggs, while I received five.
After breakfast we went down to the transport lines. While waiting the padre was called over to Capt. Dent. When he returned he told me that an Englishman was also travelling west. He came over and told me he was in the 34th regiment and was captured at Dunkirk. Now the British soldier takes pride in the name, not number of his regiment.
He was exposed as an S.S. officer escaping in a British uniform. He was taken away for questioning.
Soon the truck arrived and we left for Regensberg. It was a bright sunny day and our journey took us over the Bavarian Alps back into southern Germany. We wound up through the mountains with tall pines on either side while creeks flushed with winter snow raced downhill. Occasionally we passed a quaint Bavarian house with its high roof and wooden exterior decorations.
We arrived at a village where Americans were stationed. An American officer came over and he asked us to lunch. Talking together he found out I was from the Australian engineers and captured on Crete, while he was serving with the American engineers. We had a good yarn about things in common. Lunch consisted of tinned liver, sweet corn and fresh potatoes, followed by fruit and custard - coffee or lemon drink.
Resuming our trip we continued downward through the Alps to a cross intersection and into a refugee centre. A girl came across dressed in skirt, slacks and a pistol. These girls were members of the Free French and were helping to sort out refugees trying to get home. She spoke English and said she would send us out to the main road to get transport to Regensberg. While we were waiting we were invited over to their mess for refreshments. We were then driven over a partly damaged bridge to the main road where an American provost was stationed. Hilde and he had a lot to talk about as he came from the same area as her family.
Finally we were on our way again. We were racing along at about sixty miles an hour when the driver was pulled over by a provost on a Harley Davidson bike.
M.P. "Why such a hurry soldier, you were doing 65 an hour. You know 40 is the limit."
S "The O.C. [Officer Commanding] said I had to be back in Regensberg by 20.00 hours."
M.P. "Sorry soldier. I'll have to give you a ticket."
S. "Hang it, the C.O. tells me to hurry, you book me and I get fined 65 Dollars."
M.P. "Sorry soldier. I don't like booking you but you know the rules. 40 m.p.h."
The driver received his "bluey", the provost went one way and we drove off to Regensberg at 40 m.p.h.
Next morning we contacted the civilian officers administration. Regensberg was a collection centre for both P.O.W. and refugees. There they had to prove their identity and nationality and destination.
I was interrogated by a Dutchman. The Yanks had given to him this job of checking on all German civilians, police and other persons. They claimed that if any S.S. personnel got past him they deserved to. He was one who had suffered at the hands of the Germans and this was their way of letting him get his revenge.
Fortunately I had my paybook, army tags and also P.O.W. tag. A few simple questions and I was handed a paper to fill in and sign. Number, name and rank, unit and where captured. Also a statement that I now came under military discipline.
Hilde had her passport and had to answer questions also. I was told I would be flown out next morning, but as a civilian she had no priority. However she was to be a paid interpreter and also given accommodation etc.
So we said our farewells. They were not emotional. She had asked me for help and that is why we made the journey together. She accepted her position willingly, knowing she was amongst fellow countrymen and could correspond and later receive parcels from her parents. The safe conduct and map we had received when we had the bike repaired she kept as a memento. I kept what was left of the Krona we received at the same time.
I was driven out to the aerodrome that afternoon. Regensberg had been badly damaged. The town had a large marshalling yard and also a Messerschmitt factory, both of which were prime targets for bombing.
At the aerodrome were a mixture of nationalities waiting to be flown out. Here I met Arthur Lake, Jack Slaven and Ernie Lake who had been together since leaving Trubau. Ernie was sporting four Russian stitches in his head. They were helping a Russian tank that was bogged down when a picket snapped. Arthur was suffering from sore eyes. Kirkly's death affected them and what should have been a happy re-union was rather low key.
Next morning we moved onto the aerodrome in groups of twenty four. I had to make a nominal roll of two copies. One handed in before taking off and one to the pilot. However the roll numbered 28.
Soon the first planes arrived and after that at regular intervals. They brought in a load of petrol in 4 gallon tins, some of which were leaking.
The pilot did not want to take 28 men. No one wanted to volunteer to drop out. He was a good sport so we all climbed aboard. Before taking off he asked four of us to come up to the cockpit to allow him to get his tail up. Looking into the cockpit I saw the instrument panel shaking, the wings moving up and down. That, plus the smell of petrol gave me strange thoughts. However once in the air everything went smoothly except we had to stuff bullet holes to stop a cold draught coming in.
Flying along we saw fields and woods. Beneath us often we passed a town, or what was a town, now a mass of rubble, with perhaps a road cleared for military transport. Crossing the Rhine at Karlsruhe we saw the remains of the once western wall. The ground was full of shell holes, trenches and tank traps. Tank tracks added an intricate pattern. Bridges were wrecked and barges sunk. The pattern of tanks showed a tank battle, with guns and trucks burnt out.
As a contrast flying over France we could distinguish the trenches of W.W.I now covered with grass.
Finally we landed at Rhiems. We were served lemon drink and a sandwich. A convoy of trucks driven by negroes with us on board then raced through the countryside at a reckless speed. However I do not know how but we arrived safely at an American halfway house for P.O.W. at the town.
It was a masterpiece of American organisation. The tailboard was let down by two German P.O.W. Led to the showers I only kept what I wanted of clothes etc. and was handed a piece of soap by a P.O.W. Finished showering, a towel by P.O.W. and sprayed with powder. Into a QM [Quartermaster] store received underclothes, kit bag, trousers, shirt, sox, towel, windjacket, cap, cigarettes, candy, soap, razor and boots. All these items were handed over the counter by German P.O.W.
My naked body was fortunately covered by clothes. Taken to a large marquee with stretchers and blankets, I then dressed.
By this time it was late afternoon and I went down to the mess tables, under trees, the mess orderlies being German P.O.W. The evening meal consisted of turkey, corn, potatoes, peas, fruit custard and cocoa. Although it was tinned food it was delicious and one could eat as many helpings as one wanted.
After tea I went down to the shops. Here a notice read "Don't give these..... a thing - service is free". I had my shirt and trousers pressed and boots cleaned.
Walking up to the main building I read a notice above the door "Through these portals walk the best damn soldiers in the world". Being a modest person I had no hesitation in walking through. Inside I attended a lecture "What Happens in England" by an Australian major. It was then to the pictures "Lake Placid Serenade" and then to bed.
Breakfast was conducted in the same manner. Then we were taken out to the drome and made into groups of 24.
The camp was very well run. German P.O.W. labour did all the work. The camp was clean, food good, and in all respects a pleasant interlude. There was also an absence of guards. I spoke to one German about this. He said American M.P.s guarded the camp but it was comparatively easy to escape. However they were well off here - good food etc. There was little chance of getting back to Germany and if they were caught they were handed over to the French. Knowing how the French had suffered during the occupation they thought it safer to remain at the camp.
At the aerodrome we were split into a party of 24 and I once again had to make a nominal roll. Morning tea was served by English W.A.A.Fs from a mobile canteen. Soon after the Lancasters arrived. Handing over the roll to the captain our small kits were loaded in the bomb bay and we were counted on board. We were given flying rations (the trip took about three quarters of an hour) and a life jacket. We sat on the floor but after take off I was allowed to sit in the waist turret. (But don't touch anything).
Changing places again with the gunner he gave us a running commentary as the plane approached England.
The hymn "Land of Hope and Glory" is perhaps a favourite army hymn. I have heard it sung at the dawn service at Martin Place, at Jerusalem, at church parades and once in the western desert. However when the gunner cried "There is the coast", two Welsh soldiers started singing it and soon everybody joined in. Above the sound of the engines outside, I dare not attempt to describe the atmosphere inside that plane.
The plane landed just south of London. The bomb bay was opened and I descended to get my kit. The R.A.F. personnel were helping us to sort out the kits. As I went to get mine a hand with lots of light blue rings on a dark blue sleeve picked up mine and said "Welcome home - can I carry your kit". He was the Commanding officer of the aerodrome and in easy conversation I was escorted to the reception tent. Later when I wrote to my sister, who was then a sergeant in the S.R.A.A.F. at Tocumwal about it, she skited amongst her friends about her kid brother with an Air Commodore as his batman.
I registered for transport at the reception tent and then to the welfare hut where once again everything was wonderful.
Naturally the Englishmen were given preference with transport. About five o'clock, four of us boarded a truck and the driver given instructions - "A.I.F. Eastbourne".
England in spring time - we all were amazed at the beauty of the country and villages we passed through. A different sight altogether from Europe.
On the way down we picked up two Wrens (navy girls) in white blouses and bell bottom trousers. Removing my badge I gave it to one of the girls. Removing her round sailors cap, she put it on her head and that was the last I saw of it bobbing up and down as she walked away. It was the only article I had kept since November 4 1939.
Arriving at Eastbourne about 8 p.m. we were served a meal of fresh mashed potatoes, onion gravy and sausages. It was wonderful. Then to bed.
Of the rest of the party at Trabau all the Aussies and Kiwis got through except Kirkly. They were promised transport that night but it did not arrive. Next morning Herr Mountnir arrived and accused Frank of stealing his bike. Frank laughed and said he would not be here if he had a bike. However the boys gave him the clothing and food that they could not carry.
When no transport arrived they disarmed the guards and in small groups headed west.
Hawley stayed at Trabau until the Russians came hoping to go east down to Biskobralia then home through the Mediterranean. Why nobody knows. Nothing has been heard of him since.
Bill, Miester and Cullen got through but nothing has been heard of Fearnett. Parnell, Fox and Morris got through O.K. So did Ernie Lake (with his Russian stitches), Hullen and Slaven. Of the remainder of the English chaps I do not know. However I think they got through. Roy Richards (Baggy) wrote to Alan Caddy, so he is all right. Last October Forbes wrote to Alan Kennedy so he is back home safe.
So my escape or repatriation to England finished. During the 13 days I travelled by bike, train, jeep, lorry and aeroplane. I passed through Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bavaria, Germany, France and England. During that time I dined with Czechs, Russians and Americans.
So concludes the story - written for my own reference and trusting those who read it can understand it.
The typing and duplicating was done by my daughter-in-law, Jenny.
The Factual Account of a Story as Related to Colonel J.C. Hay
Colonel J.C. Hay, or as he was affectionately known as, Jimmy, was one of the original officers of the 2/1 Field Company Royal Australian Engineers 6th Division. The unit was formed on the 3rd November 1939.
Explanations and Extras.
Arriving in Germany late 1941, almost to a man, every German sported a little moustache. (Copying Hitler).
Towards the end of 1943 onwards they started to shave them off - when things were going bad.
The prison cage at Salorika, unless you went out on a working party, boredom set in. However you could join the library. There were about ten books in it. You sat in a row in the shade and after the first chap read the first page he tore it out and passed it on. There could be up to 20 men reading the one book. The last chap collected them together to be used next day. There was one problem, usually about the middle was a slow reader!!
For about a year there was an "Oflag". A P.O.W. compound for officers. (The Germans kept officers separate from other ranks).
We were not allowed any contact with them. However once a week, Arthur Grey, in charge of our party, met his counterpart at the post office. We were asked to trade cigarettes for parts of a wireless. As we were working with Czech of Polish labour we were able to get the parts required.
When Arthur was sorting the mail at the post office he would find a parcel in our bag addressed to an officer. (It contained wireless parts and was wrapped up by members of our party). It was handed over. Next week there would be a parcel addressed to one of our party. It contained the cigarettes to pay for the parts. This exchange never attracted the attention of the guards.
Toward the end of 1942 we received 200 cigarettes a month from the Australian Red Cross. As both Arthur and myself were non smokers this became bartering money. There were a lot of Polish and Czechs conscripted labour working with us. As most of them came from farms or villages we were able to trade with them. The main items were eggs. However we were always searched before entering the barracks. The smuggling problem was overcome by holding our arms out with an egg in each hand, back of the hand facing the German searching us. We were never caught.
Cooking was on a room stove (to provide warmth in winter). The Germans could never understand why we were always boiling water for tea or coffee in the middle of summer.
The story ended where I went to bed. However before retiring I went over to the Sergeants mess to sign in. There sitting at a table was a man I believed dead.
The story goes back to 1941 on Crete. I was sent to the Rethino area attached to the 4th and 5th Greek battalions, where Major Ford of the Welsh regiment was liaison officer. After the island fell we took to the hills. Two months later we were captured and finally reached Germany.
As I was eventually posted missing no-one in the unit knew anything about me. Les Lockhart, the company's fitter sergeant was captured but made an escape from the train going to Germany.
January 1942 at Lamsdorf I met up with Corporal Arthur Dawson. He and I joined up together and he told me about the fighting on Crete. He also told me that Les had been killed escaping from the train.
When eventually Les reached Germany he asked about me. However there was no news.
So we both met that night in the sergeants mess as Eastbourne.
After getting over the surprise and joy of meeting each other we talked into the early hours of the morning.
Meeting in London when on leave Doug asked us to join him at the Journalists Club for lunch. The fourth member of the party was King Watson of the Australian Consolidated Press.
The version of the story published in the Womens Weekly was grossly out of context. It stated that I went out at night skating. How could I. Our boots and trousers were counted and locked in a separate room. I could go on and on. Anyhow, I cannot ice-skate.
Les and Doug thought it a good idea to go home through America. Using the story as a reason for applicants was refused.
So I hope this explanation defuses any thoughts of romance.
Les was an escapee for over three hundred days on Greece. For this he received 3/- a day subsistence money. So I applied to the army for subsistence money while on Crete.
I wrote the following letter "As Colonel Campbell was surrendering the area we took to the hills". I was unsuccessful.
Had I written "After Colonel Campbell surrendered I made my escape to the hills", I might have been ten pound richer.
One has to be captured before one can make an escape.
Copyright: Australian War Memorial. My thanks to Ross Vincent for supplying a copy of this account.
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