HOMEWARD BOUND VIA POLAND, RUSSIA AND ITALY
I suppose that at this point one could say that this was the beggining of the end of the war for us. We new that we were homeward bound but could not foresee the dangers we would experience or the route we would finally take.
That first morning we moved off, a small group of ten, along the rutted, churned up road along which the Russian tanks and advancing force had approached Ruckenwaldau. Just outside the village we saw the first signs of the fighting as many corpses were still lying in the hastily dug German trenches. They had been there for over a week and were almost covered with snow. Then on into the forest where the trees were broken and smashed by the advancing tanks and shell fire.
On arriving at the first village we presented our note of authority to the Russian officer in charge who gave us a note allowing us to draw a ration of bread. We then walked on into the country until we found a farm barn where we could spend the night. Being the depth of winter, the daylight hours were short and we could only walk from about 9am to 3pm. Some days were even shorter as dark, low, snow-laden clouds hung overhead and we had to struggle on in sub-zero temperatures between -20 and -30 degrees. The biting arctic wind and driving snow made the conditions even more severe. So we battled on into a devastated, dismal landscape. Forlorn, forsaken, derelict farmsteads dotted the dreary scene and, the churned up snow and ice on the roads reduced our progress to a snail’s pace. The carnage left by the fighting often barred our way as burnt-out tanks, broken and overturned carts with dead horses still lying in their harnesses were strewn across the road.
During our daily hike we collected eggs from barns, caught chickens and raided farmhouses for potatoes and any canned or bottled vegetables we could find. Herds of lowing, un-milked dairy cows were encountered and we gratefully eased their plight by milking them. As the day drew to a close we made for the nearest farm and found an empty barn, preferably with a supply of straw for warmth, and prepared a large stew with all the items we had collected during the day and added a portion of “The Pork” and other ingredients from our Red Cross parcels which we had saved. This was the only hot food we had each day and so it was made thick and nourishing while the supplies lasted. Hot tea or coffee was made for breakfast with bread and spread and during the day we managed with bread only as that was all that the Russians supplied to us.
Unused to long walks we were in a bad state at the end of the first two day’s struggle as our bodies ached with the strain of battling through the thick snow and over the rutted roads. On the third day of our journey we stopped in a small village to report to the Russian Commandant as usual. While our Bombadier was away we sheltered against the wall of a house and I had the grissly experience of standing on a heap under the snow and discovering that it was the body of a German soldier. No doubt there many hundreds of such corpses buried under the snow which would not be found until the Spring thaw set in.
At this point I shall digress for a moment to mention the most inhumane and dastardly deed perpertrated by Nazi Germany and the Hitler Regime. It was the extermination of political prisoners and Jews in the gas chambers of German Concentration Camps. During the time that I was a prisoner I did not meet many Germans, such as those in the village of Ruckenwaldau, who appeared to know very much about their existence. I am quite sure, though, that anyone living in the larger towns and cities must have been aware of the fact that they did exist and, amongst officialdom they must have known of the exterminations. On two or three occasions on the Kommando we encountered parties of these prisoners clothed in the striped pyjama suits. Both men and women were used to load heavy timber logs on to railway trucks. They were thin, emaciated and almost too weak to work but, somehow, tenaciously they struggled on determined to survive. We managed, surreptitously, to slip some food to them when the guards weren’t looking but we realised that the effect would be minimal. It was more a gesture to indicate that there was Hope ahead and that someone felt that they mattered in a world gone mad.
I mention the above because, on that third day, our small party, which had grown with the addition of some Frenchmen, was joined by a small group of Jewish Czechoslovakians who had fled from one of those camps after the Russian advance. I was talking to Les Bowles at the time when two very emaciated girls came up to us and asked, in English, if we were British soldiers. I said, “Yes, we are”. They grasped our arms and, with tearful emotion, pleaded with us to protect them from the Russians who had constantly tried to molest them since they had left the Camp. I could see that their situation was desperate and I was quite sure that they could not have survived much longer in the intense cold and without adequate food and protection.
I spoke to Bdr. Louis Halgreen who agreed to take them along with us and we decided that each of the girls would be cared for by one of us for protection and Harry, a Kiwi, Les and I undertook to assist them on the walk. Altogether there were seven in their group, the other four being males. Walking was, in fact, the major problem because of their weakness. We overcame this by annexing some bicycles on which the girls were able to sit while we pushed them along. It was slow, punishing, tiring work especially on the hills but, at least we made progress.
At the end of that day we stopped earlier than usual as we were exhausted and we needed to be sure of a good shelter for the night. We needed more time to prepare an adequate hot stew to feed the additional members of the group and to make sure that they were going to be warm enough. We realised that our starving Jewish friends needed to eat well in order to build up their strength to face the days ahead. (Anyone who has visited the Holocaust Memorial in Israel or has seen photographs of the survivors of
those Camps will realise the difficulties we faced in caring for our new companions. )
The girl who became my “wife” in case of interference by Russian soldiers was Marta Blochova and her friend was Lisa. The name of the third girl was Hana Podzemska. I cannot recall the names of the others but amongst the men was one who had been a prominent musician in the Prague Orchestra. They were all young people-like us-but the years of malnutrition and terrible conditions had taken their toll. All had had their heads shaved and their joints were swollen and deformed with arthritis and I doubt if that musician would ever be able to perform again.
That first night’s meal for them was a feast and, after we had all had our fill, we gave them the pots to finish off. The pots were literally scoured clean as they scraped out every morsel and shared it out carefully between them. For safety, we decided that the girls would sleep between two of us, wrapped in our blankets, for their emaciated limbs would need all the heat they could get. I think that that night they slept soundly for the first time in weeks. For me it had been a tiring but rewarding day as their gratitude and appreciation had made the whole effort worthwhile.
Our meandering route from village to village took us through Sprotau and the town of Glogau and then on to Steinau on the Oder River. Each below-freezing, gloomy day with biting winds taxed our energy to the extreme and wore down our morale. Progress was slow and we were beginning to wonder just how far and for how long we would have to continue wandering from town to town before we reached some semblance of order. The task of pulling the little four-wheeled carts loaded with our supply of pork and other food and utensils, carrying packs on our backs and taking turns in pushing Marta, Lisa, Hana and one or two others who were also unable to keep walking, was beginning to take it’s toll. Russian soldiers were a particular menace for we were never quite sure of their unpredictable attitudes and behaviour. There was the occasion when one came galloping along the icy road and the horse slipped and threw the rider to the ground. Furiously, he beat the horse with his whip and then turned on our little group. He checked through all our gear and then took the newest, thickest greatcoat he could find from one of our fellows.
Watches were their greatest delight and at Steinau, on the Oder River, I encountered the most desperate event of all my POW experiences. We had all gathered in the centre square of this fairly large town in order to report to the Town Commandant as usual and to draw a ration of bread. Several Russian soldiers joined the group and were asking questions, which our Czech friends interpreted. Suddenly one of them took my arm and led me away into a narrow alley amongst the rubble of demolished buildings and indicated that he wanted a watch. He already had several on his arm and I showed him my arms to indicate that I did not have a watch. I did, in fact, have a Longines wrist-watch without a strap which I had obtained from an Italian POW in Abyssinia and which I had kept safely sewn into one of the seams of my great-coat throughout Italy and Germany. This Russian was most aggressive, however, and pulled out his heavy calibre revolver, cocked the trigger and thrust it into my stomach and started shouting at me and pushing me around. Les Bowles had seen us walk off and, fortunately, appeared at the end of the alley. I very quickly made up my mind that my life was worth more than the watch and let the Russian have it. I was petrified in case he did not understand my gestures as I took off my coat and searched along the seams until I found it and took it out and showed him that it had no strap and was not working. Broken or not he grabbed it and, with a great feeling of relief, I happily accepted his kicks and hits as he let me go back to the group. I was totally petrified for hours after that episode.
At this stage, too, the tall Grenadier Guardsman, who was always cheerful and sang, “You are my Sunshine”, began to limp rather badly and we found that he had some small shrapnel wounds on his leg which were infected. Having no medical supplies with us we eventually stopped at a large old building complex comprising a church, a school and cloisters inside a high wall. We rang the bell at the heavy door set in the thick walls and were surprised when it was opened by a nun. She was surprised too as she let our rather dishevelled, motley group into the large entrance hall while she went to summon the Mother Superior. The Monastry had escaped damage and had been left intact by the Russians and the Nuns were nursing many people and children there. The plight of the Guardsman was explained and his leg was examined. By this time it was badly inflamed and swollen and it was obvious that he could not continue walking under such trying conditions. He had to be persuaded to stay and have the fragments removed and we were as loathe to leave him behind as he was to stay in the strange, hostile war-torn country. It was a hard decision to make as we knew that their food and medical supplies were extremely limited and we were very unhappy to leave our friend behind. We managed to leave some of our own meagre food supply with him as we took our leave of those brave Nuns. I am quite sure that he would have survived the ordeal and it would have been interesting to hear of his experiences in the Monastry and his Homeward journey. Each day of the march dragged on with agonising slowness. There was no improvement in the weather conditions but, somehow, we seemed to keep the cold at bay by constant movement during the
day and by preparing the large stew at night and wrapping up in all our clothes to sleep in. Each step was a determined effort to keep going and survive. Our Jewish proteges, however, were responding remarkably to the generous hot meals we managed to prepare each night. It was becoming more difficult to find food at farms as we moved away from the front into Poland. We still managed to find potatoes and turnips, but poultry, eggs and milk were harder to find and vegetables had disappeared. The remnants of “The Pig” were still a vital part of our diet and I am sure that the fat was the main ingredient in our diet, which kept the cold at bay. I am also sure
that our Jewish friends had long since been forgiven for partaking of that forbidden food in order to recover and survive.
The meandering route after Steinau took us on a wide circle to the north of the beleaguered city of Breslau, which was totally surrounded by the Russian forces and was being unmercifully pounded by bombs and artillery. The endless barrage continued day and night and the night-sky was alight with the flash of guns and burning buildings.
At last, after weeks of walking, we arrived at the very ancient town of Oels, where we were directed to the 14th Century castle and home of the Crown Prince of Mecklenburg. (See the postcards of Schloss Oels). Oels is situated about 30 kms to the North-East of Breslau and the constant pounding of artillery and the deep rumble of the battle dominated all our thoughts as we realised that danger was ever near and that we still had a long way to go before we would escape from an underlying fear of the Russian attitudes and conditions.
The Castle and Great Palace were immense and the river Oels flowed through the vast Parklands and it was a weary but thankful litle group of displaced people and POW who straggled through the Schlosseingang-the old archway which led into the inner courtyards, servant’s quarters and to the main entrance. The main Palace building was three stories high plus two stories in the attics and there appeared to be hundreds of rooms. The main stairway was of magnificent, polished timber and the walls were lined with many oil paintings of previous Royalty. Most were now badly mutilated and defaced by the Russians. Gorgeous, priceless sets of china in display cabinets were lying shattered and everything was desecrated in some way or other. The broad, wood-panelled stairway and ballistrade was marred and splintered by wildly fired bullets merely to cause wanton destruction. Our rag-tag, weather-beaten, weary little column joined the growing number of other displaced people who were reporting to the Russians. There were already some British POW there with some officers and so we were directed to leave our Jewish friends and the Frenchmen, who had been part of our group, and to find billets on one of the attic floors with the rest of the British fellows. Marta, Lisa and Hana were very, very sad to be parted from “their Englishmen”, but they were in the same building, on the floor above and Les, Harry, Jack and I promised to visit them and still care for them while we remained in Oels.
Each day more and more refugees and displaced people streamed into the castle area, filling the rooms and overflowing out into the parklands. Meals were being prepared by Russians in a field kitchen and were mainly thin stews and bread. We all had to be very patient as the long queues moved slowly but, the food was hot and we were still able to augment the quantity with the few remaining rations of our own. The four of us still collected food for our Czech friends, who were still suffering from their privations but had made remarkable progress since they had met us. Marta, Lisa and Hana, whose heads had been shaved in the Concentration Camp were, now, no longer ashamed or shy of removing the head scarves which they had constantly worn, as there was now quite a thick covering of hair and they were no longer “bald”.
Their faces had filled out too and their eyes were no longer deep, sunken, black-ringed sockets. Their whole group, in fact, were recovering well and, in the evenings, when Les and I went up to see them, there were moments of laughter and an obvious relaxing of the tension they had felt on the long walk. There was, too, a great feeling of expectancy as their thoughts turned to their return to Prague and their homeland.
Nearly all of their group could speak a little English and they were all keen to learn more and to hear about our homes and our country. Yet, underlying these moments of relaxation and the need to blanket off the horrors of their existence in “the Camp”, one could still sense their fear of and their concern for what still lay ahead. What had happened to the rest of their families? Would any others return? Lisa’s husband, Marta’s mother and father and all the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. Would they be there? So difficult for us to imagine when we knew that all our loved one’s at home were living in safety and comfort. They had seen so many people exterminated that they could only pray to God for Faith and retain an unquenched flame of Hope that “Someone” would be there or would be coming back. I could only hope that, despite the tremendous upheaval of my own experiences and emotions, my own fears and uncertainties of the Russian control, my own concern and efforts, as well as those of my fellow travellers, had helped to restore in them a renewal of Faith, Hope, Love and Trust.
Meanwhile the days seemed to drag on as our Russian “Liberators” appeared to be in no hurry to make any arrangements for our departure. When our Senior Officer enquired whether any message had been sent or received, the Russian Commandant replied, “Da, Da, (Yes), I have sent a message to the Central Commander. ” When he was asked if the message had been sent by radio or by telephone his reply was, “I have sent the message by horse and cart. ” We realised that Russian wheels grind extremely slowly
when it came to the problem of re-routing thousands of people from so many countries. We were certainly not the first priority. Motorised transport was obviously used very sparingly to save fuel and, as we had noticed on the whole of our walk, most of the transport had been by lightly built four-wheel carts drawn by two horses. These could traverse almost any terrain, especially the churned up, rutted gravel roads and snow-covered countryside.
On one occasion the Russian Commander issued an order for a concert to be held in the main hall in the Castle. It was a large hall with an impressive stage and magnificent curtains and the floor had a wonderful dancing surface. No doubt, many elegant and colourful balls and receptions had been held there with Royalty in full regalia. Now, many of the beautiful chandeliers were damaged, the curtains were torn and many fittings and furnishings were defaced and lovely statuettes broken. Nevertheless, the concert was arranged and we gathered in the hall for the show.
What a cosmopolitan collection of people-all war-weary, battered, tired, undernourished, afraid, unsure of our immediate future but we all shared a common thought-Survival and a quick return to our own countries. There were Sikhs, Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Yugo-slavs, Czechs, S. Africans, Canadians, British and many other European nationalities. All colours and creeds bound by one thought. Let the war end soon and let us all return Home.
Strangely enough, apart English, the main common language wasGerman, for many of us had learnt enough as prisoners to be able to communicate with others. I spoke to Josef, a Yugo-Slav in German and we got along famously. Lisa and Marta had been most useful on the long walk as they were able to speak to Poles and Russians and, in that gathering in the hall, they translated for us when we tried to converse with some of those folk. The only Russian words I picked up were Kleb-bread, Da-da-Yes, Nyet-No, Speechki (Literal)-matches, Anglichani-English and a few others. The Russian Alphabet is difficult and our translations were purely phonetic.
The impromptu concert was quite successful with the various items performed by folk from many of the different nationalities-songs, dances and musical renditions on a strange variety of instruments. The Russians certainly enjoyed it and applauded vociferously, being well stoked up with the inevitable vodka. They also smoked the most ghastly cigars and their cigarettes were made with coarse, stick tobacco, which they wrapped in a square of rough paper and rolled up like a toffee. They poked a hole at one end and lit the other. Lots of flame to start with and extremely strong to smoke. I only tried it once.
Another week or two passed until, at last, there was a large enough contingent of British POW to fill a train and we were told that we would be leaving as soon as motor transport was available to take us to a town where we could board a train which would take us to the port of Odessa on the Black Sea.
We were told that we would be moving out in batches to a transit point and Jack Roberts, who had been a close friend for over a year on the Kommando at Ruckenwaldau, decided that he was going to go on the first batch. I begged him to stay and wait for us all to go together, but he was determined to go in case he missed the first train and so would take longer to get away from Russia. I had noticed that he had become very taut and strained over the last weeks of the walk and was sorry to see him leave.
Les and I spent quite a lot of time with our Jewish friends and were also able to leave the castle and take a walk into the town of Oels. Many buildings were badly damaged and there was an air of desolation in the almost deserted streets. We were curious to see how the people lived and went into some of the homes and apartments. Everything was topsy-turvey and looting must have been extensive for clothes were thrown around, furniture broken and food cupboards empty. We collected some jerseys and warm jackets for Lisa and Marta but beat a hasty retreat to base when we discovered a dead person under a bed. It appeared to us that no effort had been made to clear up the dead and we wondered how many thousands were still lying buried under the rubble and snow.
Farewells under many circumstances are sad but I knew that this one would be traumatic. Under the severe and common suffering of the “Walk” we had shared many experiences. The dangers, the cold, the weariness and the tension had given us all a common bond and I could only hope that in some small way we had helped our Czech friends to survive. They were all desperately sad but were deeply grateful for our help and their whole party tearfully embraced us in turn. Then, with a special kiss and a hug from the
girls, Les and I walked to the door, turned and simply said, “Shalom. ” No other farewell could have carried so much feeling, both to them and to us. Our mutual trust had grown through adversity and an underlying faith that, with Godâ€™s helps all would be well. The words of Psalm 23 came to mind and seemed so pertinent, “Though we walked through the valley of the shadow of Death, we feared no evil. For you were with us. Your Rod and your Staff comforted us. ”
Farewell my Friends!
What dramatic days. Thousands of displaced, homeless people. Those from countries in Europe had seen their towns and homes destroyed. Many were mere children, lost and alone. The great upheaval of War had destroyed the whole foundation of their lives. Some of us, of course, had come from thousands of miles away, from many parts of the world and we still faced a long perilous journey with language problems, food problems and transport difficulties and were solely at the mercy of Russian obduracy.
Our transport finally arrived late in the afternoon and we threw our few belongings and ourselves aboard. Our Czech friends were there to wave a sad farewell as the convoy drove off through the castle gates. Open trucks in the heart of a bitter winter were not the most comfortable means of transport and we huddled together for warmth, clothed in almost all the clothes we possessed. The convoy rumbled on into the night, over rough roads, through villages and towns and we were hard put to it to keep our spirits up. As usual, every group has its joker and as one Cockney “Wag” said, as we passed a cemetery, “We’re now in the dead centre of the town. ” I vaguely recall passing through the towns of Chestokowa and Gleiwitz, and after a journey of some 200 kms, we arrived at Katowitz. We were all so stiff and sore that it was agony to climb down from the truck but we were glad to escape the biting wind and cold and enter our new billet which was a school building.
We were glad to find Jack Roberts again but he was on the first floor and we were housed on the second so he did not join forces with us again as he was still determined to get away first. In the end it made no difference as we eventually all left on the same train.
As soon as we were settled Les and I bedded down and had a few hours sleep. Then, in the afternoon, Les went downstairs and went across the street to a small house to see if he could get
some hot water for a Brew. An old man came to the door and Les, using his best German, spoke to him and was invited inside. The old man offered him food but Les refused and just brought back the hot water. After we had had our Brew and some food we decided to go across and take some of our loose tea to the old man. Here was more drama. We were let in and the door locked behind us and, then, out came three lovely young girls. They were between 16 and 19 years old but were not all his daughters and were keeping
themselves safely locked up inside and out of sight of any Russians. Food was becoming a problem for them but they still had a good supply of potatoes. We still had some loose oats from a parcel and the following morning we went over and made some porridge for them all. The real crunch came when the old man pleaded with us to marry two of them and get them out of the country with us. This, of course, was totally impossible. The oldest of the three had been to France and spoke French fluently and all were college educated and were really quite beautiful. They were Polish Roman Catholics and the father said he could arrange for a priest to marry us properly. He had it all worked out and even said that we could divorce them as soon as we reached safety. He really was desperate and I am sure that he had tried others before us. Les and I actually went back and spoke to the Senior British Officer but, as he pointed out and as we already knew, the chances were minimal when one considered that we would have to pass through the Russian Authorities before we would be released to the British. This, in fact, proved to be correct and several chaps who claimed to have married German, Polish and other European girls who were accompanying them, were actually held in Russia for several months. I have Elfryda’s address but the old man was made to understand that his request was impossible.
Delays continued but, I suppose we had to accept that tremendous damage had been done by the retreating German Forces,
who had blown up railway lines and signals. Also the guage of the
German and Russian tracks differred and that was the reason for
transporting us so far East by road. Finally, we were off again and
marched down to the Katowitz station and boarded a long train of
large cattle trucks with three tiers of wooden bunks at each end
and a stove in the centre for heating and cooking.
Each truck held about 50 to 60 persons-10 to a bunk, lying
across the width of the truck, and jammed in like sardines. The
train consisted of about 15 trucks which meant that there were
between 800 and 900 POW on board. Les and I were in the second
truck behind the locomotive, but Jack was near the end of the
train. I walked up and down the train and found several fellows I
had known from Gorlitz and there was a general buzz of excitement
and expectancy when the train eventually pulled out of Katowitz
station. Progress was slow as there were frequent and prolonged
stops. The countryside was still blanketed with snow and a biting
wind blew the icy air into the truck. We all tried to get as near
to the stove as possible for warmth, but those that couldn’t lay
in their bunks, huddled in their blankets.
Our first long organised stop was at Krakow and we were
given permission to go into the town as the train would be
staying there all day. Many of us left the station and walked down
a long road to a large gate in the ancient walls of the Old City
– this was Forians Gate-and the road went on into the historic
Market Square with the Catholic Cathedral and the Cloth Hall, a
beautiful building with many archways, containing many shops where
the traders displayed their wares. Some of us actually found a
dining room in an hotel where we were able to have a meal of
148Ãœj ÃœÅ’thick lentil and potato soup with a hard, coarse roll. I cannot
recall how we managed to obtain the money to pay for it,
but it was at this stage that we started selling redundant
clothes for Roubles. I have recalled this scene many times since
the war and, in 1987, I returned to Europe on an Eastern Boc tour
with my wife, Enid. I was astonished to find that my memory had
served me well for there was the Old City wall, Forians gate, the
Cloth Hall, the Cathedral and the Great Square. We visited it in
high Summer and the square was alive with crowds celebrating
Corpus Christi but memories flooded back as I recalled the
bleak, snow-covered square and the depressingly, desperately
despondent people trying to eke out an existence under the harsh
We returned to the train in the afternoon and were soon on
the move again through the endless snow-bound country. Now and
then we passed groups of German POW working along the line and
they were a pitiful sight to see as they were gaunt, weak and
staggering from hunger and cold. I saw several collapse in the
snow as we passed and they had to be lifted to their feet by
their comrades. The boot was now on the other foot. They were the
vanquished and we the victors. Their future was doubtful and many
would not survive the harshness of the winter weather, the hunger
and the brutal Russian treatment. Many of the chaps on the train
jeered as we passed by and I could only feel that they were
reaping what they had sown.
Disaster struck the train one morning while we were at a
siding. For some unknown reason, the train had been divided into
two parts. The locomotive and several trucks had moved ahead to
take on water and coal. While this was in progress, the back
portion’s brakes were unable to hold on the icy, slippery track
and the whole lot gathered speed down the incline and collided
with the back end of our portion with a tremendous bang. Two
trucks mounted the back of our part, causing a great deal of
damage to several trucks and I knew that there would be many
casualties. I scrambled off the train and ran back, with a terrible
feeling of impending doom, fearing for my friend, Jack Roberts. Oh!
The grief when I found that his truck had been wrecked and he had
been killed. What a dreadful emptiness I felt as I realised that,
had he but been patient and stayed with me he would still have
been alive. He had been so determined to get back home as soon as
possible and, now Fate had stepped in. My own Faith was shattered
as I recalled all those who had been killed at Ruckenwaldau in
the Russian attack and here, again, poor Jack being killed when so
near to returning home. They had all survived so many dangers only
to be snatched away at the end. But then, the whole war was death,
destruction and disaster and, as I sat and wondered, I remembered
my own “near misses” and I knew that I must continue to live with
Faith in order to survive. Ultimately, when I finally reached home
I was proud to visit Jack’s mother and share with her the many
experiences I had shared with Jack in Germany, in Stalag 8A and on
the Railway job at the Kommando 10001 at Ruckenwaldau, and the
final episode amongst the Russians. I hope I helped, in some small
way, to alleviate the grief of her loss of a son at such a late
stage of the war. His Homecoming had been so near! 149Ãœj ÃœÅ’ The accident caused a long delay as arrangements had to be
made for the dead and injured to be removed to a hospital
and, then the train had to be re-assembled and the damaged trucks
moved off the line and the line repaired. Our journey then
continued down through the Ukraine to Lvov and then slowly on to
Odessa. Latrine stops were made periodically, usually away any
villages, and all the POW would disembark and move off through the
deep snow. No privacy for the few women who were on the train, but
who cared. Dropping our pants and baring our rears to the
icy, bitter conditions was punishment indeed.
We were all trading clothes for eggs, bread, honey and any
other food we could barter for. As the days passed and as we moved
Southwards the weather began to warm up and so extra socks, shirts
and even great-coats were traded for food. Like so many of the
towns and villages we had seen in Germany and Poland, here, too,
there seemed to be only women surviving. The Ukranian peasant
women all appeared to be alike. They all dressed in thick, grey,
padded jackets and skirts, knee-high boots and all wore grey
scarves on their heads. They seemed to be friendly and kind and
their trading values were generous.
At last the long train journey ended and there was Odessa on
the Black Sea. I was overjoyed to leave that train and the
discomfort of sleeping ten to a bunk and the intense cold and the
tragedy of Jack’s death. We were marched from the train to
barracks in the city and were, once more, back with the whole army
“Bulldust”. Many forms to be filled in, in great detail, with long
interviews by British Intelligence staff. We had to explain how we
had been overrun by the Russian forces and describe the events in
which our POW friends had been killed and wounded and supply all
their names. We had to describe how we had been treated by the
Russians how we had cared for the Czechs. It was a time consuming
process. The Intelligence Officers checked each of us on our
knowledge of our country and hometown. What was this landmark?
What was the name of this street or mountain and so on. This was
all done to sift out any German trying to escape from Europe and
find sanctuary in another country. Finally, we and our clothes were
de-loused and all our belongings checked. The British Mission now
took control of us, but the Russians were still very suspicious,
and questioned many of us over and over again if they were at all
doubtful of the truth of our statements.
Then the long-awaited, great day dawned. We were marched to
the harbour and boarded a British ship. What a relief! The strain
and tension of nearly three months of exposure to the extreme
winter cold and the uncertainty of our lives from day to day
under Russian control had taken it’s toll and a feeling of
delayed shock set in. The British ship’s crew were magnificent and
did everything to make us comfortable and help us to forget the
trauma of our ordeal.
The Allies had made terrific sacrifices to assist the
Russian war effort and the dockside was piled high with supplies
and hundreds and hundreds of vehicles, Fords and Chev’s, lined the
quays. It had done little to improve their attitude to Allied POW
– I think, to them, we had been expendable as their whole endeavour
150Ãœj ÃœÅ’and war effort was directed to the total defeat of the hated
Germans who had devastated their country.
How wonderfully exhilarated I felt as I stood at the railing
and watched the long line of men climb the gangway and step on to
“British territory”. All the tension, tiredness and worry simply
slipped away. When all was ready, the gangways were lowered and the
hawsers let go “fore and aft” and the ship moved slowly away from
the quay and out towards the open sea to join the escort. I stood
at the stern and watched Odessa fade into the haze as daylight
faded and the curtains of relief closed on another traumatic
Soon, orders were given and we assembled at boat stations
while the Commodore made a formal welcoming speech followed by
the O. C. Troops. Each of us received a Pamphlet of Welcome aboard
the H. M. T. Circassia from the Commodore and O. C. Troops on the back
of which were the words of Psalm 126. How poignant the words were.
“When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, then were we
like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter and
our tongue with singing. ” How true for our hearts were overjoyed
at our new-found freedom. There was also a card of “Best Wishes”
from “The Red Cross”. We were assigned to our quarters and messÂªdeck. Strict orders were issued re lights and smoking on deck
and, much to my surprise, I discovered that I would be sleeping in
a hammock. Then followed our first meal on board. White tableÂªcloths and proper utensils set the scene and the hot, tasty,
nourishing meal was fantastic. The issue of half a loaf of white,
white bread with lashings of jam and “Butter” was, indeed,
astonishing. Such abundance was over-whelming.
The following days were unforgetable as the little convoy
moved, steadily, Southwards towards the Bosphorus, the Dardenelles
and Istanbul. Gone was the dark, icy, penetrating winter scene of
the forlorn Ukranian plains and the constant fear of impending
disaster as the steady beat of the throbbing engines bore us on
towards the sunny “Med” and our next destination.
One of the first chores, which had to be attended to, was the
handing in of all our old clothes and clobber, which had to be
destroyed, before we were issued with a complete outfit of British
battle-dress, underclothes, shaving gear and other kit. At the same
time we once again showered in wonderfully hot showers, shaved and
had hair-cuts to rid ourselves of any last vestige of lice. What a
glorious feeling to be really clean and clothed in new, fresh
clothing again. Gone was my well-worn, home-made POW cap and the
little attache case in which I had kept all my small souvenirs
and diaries. Fortunately, I managed to save my diaries and notes
and photographs which have enabled me to write this account of
all my experiences and travels.
As I cast off the old and put on the new, I felt a surge of
excitement at the thought of reaching a new destination and my
impending return Home. I savoured every moment of the voyage as
there was something so definite about the rythmic beat of the
engines, the surge of the bow-wave and the turbulence at the stern
as the powerful propellers thrust us, ever onward. It was as though
the ship, too, felt our urgent desire to return HOME.
151Ãœj ÃœÅ’ Through the Bosphorus, Turkish buildings crowded in along the
shore with the silhouette of the minarets of the Blue mosque and
the Galata tower thrusting up into the sky over Istanbul. Then, on
through the Sea of Mamara, to the Dardenelles and Gallipoli, the
scene of those disasterous First World War battles and out into
the Aegean Sea and past many idyllic Greek islands. The warmth of
the air and the calmness of the sea made me feel heady and the
poem “The Lotus Eaters” came to mind, “as though of hemlock I had
Free to lie in the sun and contemplate a not too distant
home-coming the days slipped quietly by. The convoy pressed on
into the “Med” and turned up the west coast of Italy and, finally,
docked at Naples. I, certainly, had not ever visualised returning to
Italy on my homeward journey but, there I was and the time had
come to say “Farewell” to so many Commonwealth friends with whom
I had shared so many adventures. The Repatriation camp at Naples
was for South African forces only so the remainder of the
returning POW stayed on board and the convoy continued it’s
journey to Britain from where they would be transported to their
various home countries.
I met two very able and helpful Women’s Volunteer Service
ladies at the camp. Mrs. Dimbleby and Mrs. Goodway were wonderfully
kind and gave us all the assistance and information they
could. They weren’t sure what our next move would be but assured
us that we would not be kept there for very long. In the meantime
there were sports facilities available and it was here that I met
Cyril “Cocky” Hammond (4th. Battery) and Les McKnight (5th.
Battery). Cyril and I played several games of Badminton and soon
realised just how unfit and out of condition we were. (Cyril later
became the Western Province and South African Singles champion
and a Springbok). I played again on my return home but never rose
higher than 2nd League. Another coincidence which occured was that
many years later, Les McKnight became a neighbour in Fish Hoek. We
had no wish to wander around Naples and were quite satisfied to
stay in the Transit camp.
Northern Italy was still a theatre of war and South African
forces were very much involved. As expected, our stay in Naples was
of short duration but I must admit that I was amazed to find that
our next destination was to be Bari. At least, this time, we were to
travel in comfort on a passenger train and could appreciate the
beauty of the countryside. The Transit camp was about 15kms. north
of Bari on the coast and was not the POW camp I had previously
been to. It was actually a repatriation point for all wounded or
sick S. A. soldiers who were being sent home and was a hive of
activity for the “Racketeers” who, literally, walked around with
suit-cases full of Lira. The rate of exchange was about 500 lira
to the Pound Sterling. The authorities had limited the amount
which any person could exchange in a month so, having hundreds of
thousands of Lira, was a problem. As soon as we arrived we were
approached by these traders, who offered us the full quota to
convert as long as we gave a half back to them. “Housey-Housey”
and “Crown and Anchor” games were played throughout the day and
there were many almost professional “spivs” playing the boards.
152Ãœj ÃœÅ’Rival groups tried to break each other and I watched a fellow
betting on the Crown and doubling-up every time he lost. He lost
about twelve times before the Crown payed out and he almost broke
the bank. I was happy to make one exchange just to get some cash.
During my stay at Bari there was a gigantic explosion at the
docks and enormous damage was caused to the harbour installations
and several ships were sunk at the quayside. Many workers were
killed and injured and many simply disappeared. Even parts of the
town were badly damaged and people killed and injured by falling
masonry and flying glass. The local population fled into the
countryside as further explosions occurred when the fires reached
other inflammable material. We felt the blast and reverberation of
the explosion at the camp 15kms. away and the glare of the fires
lit up the night-sky.
We were rather impatient to leave and, at last, we received
the long-awaited signal. We were to fly home via Cairo and our
excitement knew no bounds. There was a regular “Shuttle service”
flying from Pretoria to Italy with mail and supplies for the
troops, returning with walking wounded and, now, for the first
time, ex-POW’s. This long flight would be a new experience for me,
as, I suppose, it was to be for most of the others. I had had one
short flight from Young’s field, at Wynberg, in a small, open biÂªplane in 1932. This would be a long flight under rather rugged
Final arrangements were completed and a happy band of POW
boarded the camp transport and were driven the landing ground.
There we boarded a Dakota twin-engined plane. “Daks” were the
“Tramp ships” of the air and were extremely durable and safe. At
the time, however, I can’t say that I felt very comfortable or safe
as the interior of the plane was bare except for facilities for
storing and carrying cargo. Humans were not really catered for. We
finally “took off” in the late afternoon and headed south across
the Med. for Gambut in the Western desert, which we reached around
mid-night. Here we were given a meal while the plane re-fuelled
before continuing the flight for Cairo. Gambut! Here we had been
stationed with the RAF in 1942. Battles had raged back and forth.
Now all was quiet!
The flight to Cairo was uneventful and we arrived in the
early morning and were transported to, of all places, Helwan Base
Camp. Louis Halgreen and Les Bowles, from the Ruckenwaldau work
party were still with me and we, once more, encountered the old
army “Red-tape”. We had to be taken on strength, allocated to
bungalows, draw bedding and adhere to all the usual camp rules. At
least we could come and go as we liked and, Les and I spent most
afternoons and evenings in the City. The Gyppo’s certainly hadn’t
changed since my leave in Cairo nearly three years before but
prices had rocketed since the arrival of the American GI’s after
1942. Helwan was still the dusty, fly-ridden place I remembered and
our whole, small contingent were all impatient to get on with the
journey and complete the “Final Lap”.
How many times had we waited for final movement orders since
Germany? How many more delays would there be? At last, we were off
to the airport and I was relieved to find that we would be flying
153Ãœj ÃœÅ’in a Dakota as there had been a few fatal crashes by other planes
on the long flight down Africa to Pretoria. The take-off was
smooth and the route followed the Nile River to Wadi Halfa, where
we touched down for fuel and a refreshment stop. The flight then
continued to Khartoum for our over-night stop. It had been a long
and tiring day’s flying and, although the meal was plain and the
sleeping quarters a little basic, I had no complaints and I slept
like a log.
The following morning, after a wash and shave and breakfast
we were ready to go. There was a postponement, however, as an
earlier flight, which had left an hour before, had to return
because of an engine failure. This was hardly reassuring for us
but, eventually, we climbed aboard and off we went. The pilot and
crew were a friendly bunch and invited us into the cabin to see
the view. The plane was not pressurised so we flew under 10000 ft.
and, following the course of the Nile again, we could easily see
the villages and inhabitants below. Juba was to be the re-fuelling
stop and it was good to step down and walk about for some
exercise and to enjoy the refreshments before flying on to Kisumu
for the second night stop-over. At Kisumu the quarters were far
better and the evening meal was served in the main mess and we
were waited on by well trained waiters. We also had access to the
bar and enjoyed a couple of nicely chilled beers before turning
in. Sleep eluded me for a long while as thoughts turned to home.
Was it possible? Only one more night-stop and two days flying and
I would be back in South Africa. So many thoughts came crowding
in. Who would be there to meet me and how much had we all changed?
Kisumu is surrounded by hills and it was here that there had
been some tragic accidents. I must confess that I faced the takeÂªoff with some trepidation but I need not have worried as the
pilot made no mistakes and the “Dak” took it all in her stride.
Turning South, we crossed the Equator and left the northern climes
behind, and flew over the heavily wooded tropical forests of
central Africa. Tropical thunderheads built up ahead and, on
occasion, the pilot would alter course to take evading action by
flying around the turbulence. From time to time we could see herds
of elephant, buffalo and other game on the vast plains below.
The monotonous droning of the engines lulled my thoughts and
I was pleasantly surprised when the pilot announced that we were
descending for our re-fuelling stop at Tabora. How soon the hours
had slipped away and we were all pleased to have a break for a
meal and enjoy a stretch of the legs. Then, off we flew again to
continue the flight to Ndola for the night stop. Could this really
be the last night before my return to the Union?
Each of us was experiencing an inner excitement and it was
most fitting and opportune that we were taken to the Ndola Club
for dinner and accommodation for the night. An impromptu, jolly
celebration began as Les and I realised that we would soon to be
saying good-bye to Louis Halgreen and others with whom we had
shared so many experiences. I was rather glad that the party was
of short duration as I was eager to have an early night in order
to be fresh for the expected excitement of the morrow. The
tropical night was hot and humid and I restlessly tossed beneath
154Ãœj ÃœÅ’the mosquito net. The hours passed slowly and I welcomed the dawn
as I was eager to begin that final leg of the journey.
The take-off was smooth and I no longer noticed the
uncomfortable seating arrangements. The pilot kept the altitude
below 10000ft. as we sped homewards, skirting the huge white, woolly
cumulus clouds, and we could see the Rhodesian bushveld, farms and
cultivated lands drifting by far below. No stopping now and we
cheered lustily when the pilot pointed out the Limpopo river
passing beneath us. Home country at Last!.
Those last miles seemed endless but then, there was Pretoria
and the pilot circled once and then took the Dakota down for the
final approach to Zwartkops Aerodrome. As we taxied in I could see
a large, excited crowd at the barrier, cheering and waving and, as I
reached the exit, my heart was pounding and I was shaking with
excitement. What a thrill as I caught sight of my sister Mary, Kate
and Arthur amongst the crowd. I joined the others in a mad dash
for the barrier and was overcome with tears of Joy and Happiness
as we hugged and kissed in the overwhelming emotions of the
moment. What a Welcome Home. WHAT A CLIMAX to nearly five years of
hardship, endurance, uncertainty, fear and privation.
Our arrival was filmed by “The African Mirror”, the weekly
newsreel which was shown at all the cinemas in the country and, as
we were almost the first group of returning POW, the news media
gave our return a large coverage too. It was VIP treatment as we
all went into the adjoining hangar for tea and eats and were then
taken to Roberts Heights Camp for registration and were given
immediate leave. I decided to stay over in Pretoria for a few days
to be with Mary, Kate and Arthur to celebrate with them and relate
some of my adventures and then I would arrange some leave in Cape
Town the visit my father, who had been ailing for some time.
Being the first batches of POW to return we were still very
much under Army regulations and had to go through the whole
rigmarole of enrolling at Roberts Heights Camp and being taken on
strength again. The “RED TAPE” hadn’t changed-forms for everyÂªthing from blankets and billets to Mess and Library tickets.
Signatures for every item of equipment as though we were joining
up all over again. After all the fuss I was given ten days leave
and was soon on my way to Cape Town.
I was lonely on that train trip to the Cape. Suddenly, no
close army pals, only strangers and I felt a little uncomfortable
in the presence of civilians. The scenery of the Cape mountains
was a sight for sore eyes, however, and I was thrilled to see Table
Mountain appear out of the morning mists. It was good to be Home
but, somehow, so many things seemed different. None of my friends
were there as most were still either prisoners or away “Up North”
in Italy. My Father was not at all well and the excitement of my
return was almost too much for him to handle and he tired very
quickly. Nevertheless, he appreciated my safe return and the
stories I had to tell. I was kept busy visiting the Survey office
in the City Hall and recounting my experiences to Mr. Tredgold, my
Chief, Eric Bullock and Mr. Wilson, Gordon’s father. There were also
“The Anxious Annies” to meet and, one afternoon, I attended a
meeting to greet all the wives, sweethearts and friends of
155Ãœj ÃœÅ’fellows in the Regiment. They had kept things going on “The Home
Front” and were all eager to hear, first hand, information of my
experiences as a prisoner, the conditions, hunger and privations
and any news of any of the chaps I had been with. Beryl Brink had
not heard of Lex since Italy’s collapse. He, like so many others,
had escaped to the hills and lived with the peasants until the
end of the war. Mrs. Shackleton, Paul’s mother, was a tower of
strength and their committee had toiled unceasingly for the war
effort and “The Boys up North. ”
I was really eager to be discharged as news was received of
more and more POW being released by the advancing Allied forces
in Germany and being sent to England. South African POW were being
gathered at Brighton and had to await the availability of
shipping for their final journey home. My orders were to return to
Roberts Heights for my discharge but, on arrival, I was told that
the 2nd. Ack-Ack Regiment was now attached to the Air Force and I
would be transferred to the Lyttleton base. Once more, the same old
routine. I had to hand back all my gear and sign off strength at
Roberts Heights and, with a small contingent of other Ack-Ack
chaps, was transported to Lyttleton, where the whole procedure had
to start again. There were about 15 to 20 items to sign for such
as:-Bungalow allocation, blankets, Mess room, kit, canteen, library,
gym, armoury, sports and so on. To add to the confusion, all the AckÂªAck files were missing and we all had to re-attest and re-join
the army!. The files must have come to light later on as the
remainder of the returning POW were not subjected to the same
I was then enrolled on a six-week rehabilitation course
which consisted of morning parades starting at 0630hrs. for a
cross-country run, followed, after breakfast, with games and PT
until mid-day. The afternoons were free and I was off to Pretoria
to see Kate and Arthur at their boarding-house, Edinburgh House, in
Skinner St. Mary had returned home to Beaufort West. I was quite
happy with this opportunity to “get fit” again after all the
privations of POW life and my poor condition showed how much life
in “The Cage” had affected me.
Everywhere in Europe the Allies and the Russians were
advancing and putting the final nail in the German coffin. I had
been home since the beginning of April and, now, suddenly it was
all over. The British and American forces crossed the Rhine river
and raced eastwards and the Russians made the final assault on
Berlin. Hitler and a small group of his “Hangers on” committed
suicide in their bunker in Berlin. VICTORY in EUROPE-9th. May
1945. Great were the celebrations throughout the Western World,
although there was still Japan to defeat.
In Pretoria, the occasion was celebrated with a 21-gun salute
from the hills above the City. The troops to fire the guns were
drawn from the camp at Robert’s Heights and, I, being a gunner, was
“chosen” to be one of the gunners. I had not fired a 25-pounder
before as my experience in the C. F. A. had been on the old 18Âªpounders of 1st. World War vintage. I enjoyed the parade and felt
that it was a reward for my service and POW experience. (The 25Âªpounder shell case in my possession was one of the rounds fired that historic occasion). After the “shoot” we were all invited to the Sergeants’ Mess for free beer and a great party ensued. I eventually tottered back to my bungalow to recover and, after a
long sleep and a shower, I dressed and caught the Duty Bus in to
Town and went to see Kate and Arthur, where they were all having a
party and celebrations were in full swing. I managed to keep going
until well after midnight but, having missed the last Duty Bus, I
finally gave in and staggered off to bed at the flats.
The days slipped by with the Physical Training in the
mornings and leave every afternoon. It was at this time that I
plucked up courage and went to see Jack Robert’s mother. It was a
sad and traumatic moment but she deeply appreciated my visit and
my description of our camp life and my friendship with him. There
was a good canteen in town with good food and dancing every night
and I went there with some trepidation at first. I didn’t know the
latest tunes and my dancing was very rusty, so I was a little
hesitant about asking girls for a dance. I did meet one, Lorna
Moriarty, with whom I became quite friendly, and, with a group of
her friends, I spent many a happy evening at the canteen. There was
many a time when I missed the last Duty Bus and had to sleep on a
bench in the Pretoria Railway station until the first one in the
morning. This got me back to camp just in time to fall in for
Roll-Call and change into shorts and “takkies” for the early
morning cross-country run before breakfast. My condition improved
rapidly with all the exercise and the wholesome meals and I was
adapting rapidly to my new found freedom.
Before the course ended we were all given a thorough medical
and dental examination. I was passed fit and the dentist expressed
his surprise that my teeth were in such good condition after the
deprivations of POW life and the poor food we had been given. At
last the course ended and I was sent back to Cape Town to await
my discharge. I was given extended leave and decided to visit my
sister Mary and her family at Beaufort West for a few weeks. Once
again there were parties and dances and a great fuss was made of
me as a returning prisoner. I took the opportunity to find my way
to Denis de Villiers’ farm, La-De-Da, to visit his Mother and
Father. They were delighted to meet me and were so pleased to hear
about some of our adventures and prisoner experiences. Of course, I
had not seen Denis since September 1942 when he went to the Lucca
hospital with Harry Rose-Innes, so could not give them any up-to-
date news of him. That visit cemented my friendship with the de
Villiers family which has lasted a lifetime.
I had been back in South Africa for five months and was
still in the Army whereas, many prisoners were now returning by
ship from Britain and were given an immediate discharge. Some of
my pals, among them Eric Sunde from 8A at Gorlitz, were already
back at work in the Survey Office at Newlands and I was desperate
to obtain my release as soon as possible and I finally got my
papers on the 9th October 1945.
My orders were to report to the Brooklyn Air Base at
Ysterplaat, near Maitland, where I signed the necessary forms and
received a gratuity of Three hundred pounds and Five pounds,
seventeen shillings and sixpence in lieu of 9 days leave. There
was also a Thirty pound clothing allowance and Twenty-five pounds
for drawing instruments. All told I had served five years, one
hundred and fifteen days and walked out of the base with a
wonderful feeling of “Freedom”. It was back to “Civvy Street” and
the office and, as all my Army pals returned, there was an endless
round of reunions. A great meeting place was the White House Hotel
in Strand Street, where Eddy Emke was the manager. As an ex AckÂªAck gunner, he made everyone welcome and on Fridays it became a favourite oasis.
The Regiment held a Reunion Ball at the City Hall and most
of the members of our gun crew were present. Another dance was
held at the Cecil Hotel, at Newlands when nearly all of our gun
crew from Abyssinia and the Western Desert were present. Only
Denis and Pierre de Villiers and Borgstrom were absent, while
Gordon Jolly, Paul Shackleton and Borgstrom had not been
prisoners. I celebrated my 27th birthday on the 28th August and a
few days later, on the 2nd Sept the Japanese surrendered to the
Americans. Six years of a bitter conflict had finally ended.