Edwin Lynch

Part One

Edwin Lynch joined the Royal Artillery as a Gunner in an Anti-Aircraft Battery. He saw action in Norway before being shipped to Egypt and then Crete.

 Crete and capture

Meantime Hitler had been making threatening noises towards the Balkans, and with the Italians moving into Albania, the island of Crete was seen by the British Command as of strategic importance. So on 5 November 1940 our battery was taken on HMS Ajax of River Plate fame to Suda Bay on the island. The first troops ashore - the Yorks and Lancs Light infantry - had landed the previous day. The autumn and winter passed quietly on the island, but in the spring the Axis forces attacked Yugoslavia and Greece. As in France, the domination of the air by the Germans made a decisive impact and, after much tough rearguard fighting, the British and Anzac troops had to be evacuated - another difficult and costly job for the Navy. Many of these troops were brought to Crete.

The next obvious move by the Germans was to attack Crete. That came towards the end of May in the form of para and glider troops from the air and an attempt at landing troops from the sea. The Navy dealt successfully with the latter and for the first three or four days the airborne invaders suffered very heavy losses. We learned afterwards that at the time the German commanders considered asking permission to abandon the attempt. Whether or not Hitler would have agreed is another matter.

In the event the Germans managed to take Malame airfield and so to bring in sufficient reinforcements to subdue the British resistance. Again, air power had proved decisive. The British and Commonwealth troops withdrew over mountainous country to the south coast of the island and the Royal Navy had another perilous evacuation on its hands. It came in at nights to take off troops but was subjected to intense bombing in the morning light en route for Egypt. Many ships were lost before the evacuation was called off, but not before some 13,000 men had been lifted from the beaches.

Our own position on the Akrotiri peninsula was cut off from the rest of the island as soon as the Germans had captured the village of Suda, across the bay from us. So a surrender was arranged and we were - rather tamely - "in the bag". It was two or three weeks before we were shipped to Greece, during which time food and water were very scarce. Because we spoke a little German, a friend and I managed to get jobs in a paratroops' cookhouse (well after all hostilities had finished, I hasten to add!). We were well treated - but why shouldn't they be generous, having just won a famous victory? But their proportion of losses had been so great that Hitler never used massed paratroops again. Whilst I was working in the kitchen, a paratrooper told me that they had sunk HMS Hood - which came as a shock, but came back a few days later to tell me that the British had sunk the Bismarck. Honours even, then!


Early days as a POW

We were eventually taken by sea to Salonika on the Greek mainland and quartered for some six weeks in an old Greek barracks. Here conditions were bad, food minimal and the heat troublesome. Added to this, we all became infested with lice, on which cold water had no effect. We were required to do daily mass exercises, at which some always keeled over from weakness. Apart from that there was no physical ill-treatment.

We were in poor condition when we were transported by railway cattle trucks to various German centres – I was fortunate to find myself in Stalag XVIIIA at Wolfsberg (Carinthia) in Austria after three days and nights of extreme discomfort. After registration we were sent out to working camps. In the first place I spent the very severe winter of 1941-42 digging land drains. This was really only trial by cold, because the sumpy ground froze too hard to dig. I was glad after a few months to be transferred to railway work, mainly replacing old track - heavier work, but dry. (This was at Work Camp 11072/GW in Gradnitz, south of Klagenfurt.) The hugely important event of that first winter was the arrival of our first Red Cross parcels - five kilos of unbelievable goodies per person per week! The uplift to our morale was immense, quite apart from the effect of the additional nourishment physically. Although strictly forbidden, we used the contents occasionally to swap with the guards or civilian workers for things such as eggs. In exchange for a small packet of tea it was possible in country areas to obtain up to 25 eggs.


Preparations for escape

Time passed fairly uneventfully and I began to think of escaping. I found that an Australian friend - Ken Gollan - was thinking along similar lines and we spent the winter of 1942-43 and the early spring of 1943 making our plans. Having decided that we should cross the German border at the nearest practicable point, this ruled out Switzerland; the occupied territories having no attraction for us, our choice fell on Italy. We chose June 1943 as likely to have the most favourable weather and the Allies were then fighting in Sicily. Our final plan was based on obtaining civilian clothes, walking off the workplace at Klagenfurt station and boarding a slow passenger train to Villach. From there we would walk to the valley north of the Tarvis Pass (less than 20 kilometres as the crow flies) and cross the border on foot. Having crossed the frontier, we would board a goods train travelling south from Tarvis (Tarvisio) and travel as far south as we could down Italy. We would then "break into" an Italian POW camp, get stocked up again with food and, after a rest, escape again and continue to make out way down Italy towards the Allies, who - we hoped - would by that time be on the mainland. We reasoned that if we could escape from a German POW camp, getting into and out of an Italian camp would be relatively easy, on the basis that the Italians were less disciplined that the Germans.

Having settled our plans, the next move was to obtain civilian clothes and store up food. Ken made an excellent compass from a darning needle, which he magnetised by leaving it for a week on the permanent magnet of the loudspeaker which the Germans had erected on a post in our compound. The same speaker gave regular bulletins on the tonnage of British ships being sunk by their submarines. At the time we took these figures with a pinch of salt but after the war we found that they were probably true. Ken mounted the needle in an empty brilliantine jar and it made a very effective compass.

We had no definite starting date as we knew that four others were also planning to escape. There would inevitably be a tightening up of check parades and we should have to plan accordingly. On a particular Saturday the four made a perfect getaway - two from their workplace and two in the evening through the toilet wall, which was only made of matchboard. Check parades had become slack and we covered up the absence of the first two to escape by getting the two cooks (not normally on the check parade) to lie under the blankets of the escapers and feign sick, waiting until the Kommandant on his inspection had passed through the rooms then jumping out of bed and letting themselves be seen as cooks.

The next day was a free day with no check parade until midday when a policeman arrived to tell the Kommandant that two escapers had been caught at 1 o'clock that morning. This was a blow to Ken and me, and an even greater blow to the Kommandant! Apparently they had been stupid enough to cross a railway bridge at night, in spite of knowing that at that hour all such bridges were guarded. The Kommandant took it very well - no expected display of temper - but, of course, restrictions were intensified, doors locked earlier and working parties more closely watched and counted.

We set to work straight away collecting biscuits and chocolate and obtained two pairs of blue overalls from fellow POWs. One half of the camp was working just outside Klagenfurt station, where we made a cache for the food and clothing under a pile of railway sleepers. Restrictions had been placed on the drawing of tins from the Red Cross parcels and, what was more of a nuisance, a rough search of haversacks was made in the mornings on leaving camp to ensure that no large quantities of food were taken out. We got over this by distributing the biscuits and chocolate over a dozen or so people and collecting them during the morning tea break. We crammed them tightly into the two haversacks which we replaced among the sleepers. Things were now getting tense as far as the two of us were concerned.


The getaway

On the following Saturday we made our escape. As an interpreter, I was well known to the guards and the civilian workers and, once seen on the location, would be called upon from time to time to deal with problems. On the other hand, Ken was not so well-known either to the guards or the civilians. Half the POW workforce was, as I have said, working close to Klagenfurt, the other half some kilometres from the camp in the other direction. As interpreter I was allowed to decide for myself which workplace I went to, so if I could get to the Klagenfurt site without being seen and hide myself away, nobody would miss me and it would be assumed that I was at the other workplace.

Accordingly, on the morning check parade I stood in the rear rank and made myself as inconspicuous as possible. I had already arranged for a "bodyguard" of the bigger men to crowd me in at danger spots on the railway track along which we walked to work - some three kilometres from the camp. It was, of course, a help that the check was on the total number of POWs in the camp – and not of the individual parties. We invariably straggled out into a long line, leaving the guards with the slower ones; on this particular morning the line was even more attenuated than usual. I kept well to the front surrounded by my "minders" - so by the time I reached the workplace at Klagenfurt I was at least 150 metres from the nearest guard. I may add that a subsidiary reason for so masking our escape was to avoid any particular guard getting the blame for it; they were a decent lot and the German Army could be severe in handing out punishments.

So far so good. However, to my great consternation, when arriving at a railway crossover immediately before the workplace, I found the civilian foreman waiting for us and seemingly looking straight at us from a few feet distant. But as I passed him I was blotted out by the bodyguard and made straight away for the wooden toilet which played a crucial part in our plan. Ken remained with the rest of the party but I am sure his mind was anywhere but on the work! At regular intervals a scout would approach my rather smelly hiding place to let me know the position - in particular where the guards were standing. The one contingency we could not provide for was that one of the guards might need to use the toilet, but fortunately none of them did.

We had intended catching the 9.21 train to Villach and at 8.45 I changed from my battledress into the blue working overalls. The fingers of my watch moved to 9 o'clock and I began to get anxious, as Ken should have joined me by now. It was 9.10 when he joined me and matters were now very critical. By sheer ill-luck a guard had stationed himself close to our cache of food and other items, and only in desperation did Ken manage to snatch most items and join me in the cramped toilet. Unfortunately he had had to leave his jacket, which contained several useful things. By now our nerves were very much on edge.

I could see through a crack in the lavatory door that the nearest guard was 20 yards away. Ken had by this time changed into his overalls and we stowed the two haversacks containing the food in a large cardboard soap box which we had acquired and our army clothes we placed in a homemade rucksack. It was now or never. The smell, humidity and temperature inside the toilet were getting unbearable. We emerged through the door, which was fortunately on the side farthest from the guard, and walked obliquely for about 10 yards to take advantage of such small cover as the toilet provided. We just had to keep going, yet we dare not run for fear of drawing attention to ourselves. After what seemed an eternity we reached the shelter of a fence which effectively cut us off from the guard's field of vision. Before reaching the main road we had to pass the local office of the railway repair firm who employed us. The girl who paid out our wages - "Blondie" to us - and therefore knew most of us by sight could well have noticed us as we passed the window. But nobody appeared.

Then occurred one of our worst shocks. We reached the main road and turned into it, when no less a person than the camp Kommandant rounded the comer on his bicycle and rode towards us. This was truly a test of our disguises. Apart from my overalls, I was wearing a Tyrolean hat which I had "bought" from an Italian worker to cover my rather conspicuous fair hair and I now felt vulnerable and rather stupid. The Kommandant rode past without a glance!


Getting the train

With considerable relief we turned into the station road but, as soon as we could think clearly again, we realised that we had probably missed our intended train but we could not be sure. We went into the station and I bought two tickets to Villach. I was blissfully unaware that Ken, standing in the vestibule, was anxiously watching the movements of our (late!) employer, the storekeeper. Fortunately he appeared not to recognise us. But each narrow squeak jangled the nerves still further. On our way to the platform a woman asked Ken where a certain train was bound for and I had to intervene because of his very limited German. By the time we reached the platform, the train had departed and I saw that the next train to Villach was at 11.40 a.m., which meant we had two hours to wait. I then turned to see a well-known railway official approaching. He was usually dressed in full Austrian rig including, for much of the year, a cloak which, when it swung free, led to his being known as die Fledermaus (the Bat). When I had once explained that to him, he seemed to take it as a compliment but I wasn't risking a word with him this time! Ken and I ducked behind a kiosk while he and his entourage passed. We had seen enough to realise that hanging around the station was bound to lead to some sort of trouble. It also meant that effectively we would have only moved a couple of hundred yards from the point of our escape in two and a half hours, whereas the essence of our plan had been a quick getaway by train, putting a good few miles between us and our workplace before any alarm was raised.

So we re-traced our steps out of the station and hid under a nearby hedge. It was not long before our feeling of insecurity increased and we realised that the safest place was among people in the open. Pulling together the remnants of our courage we emerged warily from the bushes and walked into the main street, Bahnhofstrasse, and sat on a bench by the pathway. It was obviously the safest spot in town, with plenty of people moving around, yet we still had the strong feeling that we would be picked up because, if we had been missed, the first place they would look would be the railway station.

So we took our lives in our hands and boarded a street-car going in the direction of the Wörthersee, bought our tickets and settled down for a 20-minute ride. We got off at a quiet stop, crossed a canal and sat on a bench under a plane tree. For the first time we began to feel comparatively safe and to regain our sense of humour. After all, we were still free and we had had some amusing (if nerve-wracking!) adventures. If only our luck would hold ... Time passed quickly and we boarded a return car to the station, where we got off and hurried once more into the vestibule. As our first tickets had been punched it was necessary for me to buy two more, which meant joining a queue. I was delighted, though not a little embarrassed, when a very genteel elderly lady suggested to me that she had probably more time to spare than I had and would I like to take her place in the queue! I thanked her and did so. If only she had known! We had little time to spare and hurried to the platform where the train was waiting. What a shock we then had when we saw that it was the Belgrade to Munich Special. It was almost certain that on this type of train we would be asked for passes, which is precisely what we had planned to avoid.

We were now being carried along by events. At this stage there was no turning back, so we scrambled into the first open door and moved into the corridor. By this time we had already had more than our share of unpleasant surprises, but now came one of the most potentially dangerous. There, standing directly in our way, was Blondie, whom I have already mentioned as the person who paid our wages. She looked at me and smiled, and said something I was too confused to understand and, rather rudely I fear, I pushed past her. As for Ken, he had at one time done some electrical repairs in her office and had had quite a lengthy conversation with her in French. Now she remembered Ken and spoke again in French to him, to which he briefly replied. Later I asked Ken what his feelings had been at this juncture and his reply "Hopeless!" had coincided with my own. There can be little doubt but that she knew what we were doing. The train whistled and drew slowly out of Klagenfurt station. From where I stood, it appeared that Blondie was fumbling in her handbag and the thought came to me that she was going to scribble a note and pass it to a railway official - possibly through the window. My heart sank when the train slowed to an unscheduled stop at the next station. Minutes seemed an eternity until we started moving again. She had not given us away,

Into the hands of the police

By now the reader may be becoming a little cynical at the succession of shocks we suffered in the course of using up two and a half precious hours and at this stage only having distanced ourselves a few kilometres from our workplace, but these were the events as they happened. The next happening - not unexpected - was a voice along the corridor "Ausweis bitte" - "identification please" - and soon it was our turn to face the Gestapo. Bluff was now our only weapon. "Ausweis bitte". Frantically making up a story as I went, I replied that we were French volunteer workers, that we had repaired two lorries in Klagenfurt and that we were now on our way back to our camp in Villach. Rather non-plussed by this, he still insisted that we should have identification documents - everybody did! I told him that we were well-known to the Railway Police at Villach station, as he would find out if he accompanied us to their office. I had hoped that this might reassure him, but he said that is just what he would do. I guessed he would be loath to leave his train and also that we might give him the slip in the busy station.

As soon as he had passed on, I told Ken the story I had concocted and that we should make a dash for it as soon as the train stopped in Villach. But we were unlucky: by the time we had opened the door, the Gestapo man was there waiting. Clearly he wanted to get back to the train quickly. So off we set – dawdling, without making it too obvious. We eventually got to the police office and in we went.

Whenever I think of the events of the next quarter of an hour, I wonder whether they ever happened. Seated behind a large desk sat the Inspector in all his glory, including First World War decorations. Scattered round the room were his minions and behind him a particularly evil portrait of the Evil One. Our escort clicked to attention and made his report in the approved fashion: "Herr Inspektor, two Frenchmen without identification documents". The Inspector looked at us for some time and then said to me "You are no Frenchmen - you are English. I recognise you as the interpreter at the railway camp here in Villach". I was flabbergasted. I was an interpreter at a railway camp, but at Klagenfurt, not Villach, and he could not possibly have seen me before in his life! Clutching at a straw I told him that what he said was correct and he dismissed our astonished escort insinuating that he must have misunderstood what we had said on the train. Off hurried our escort, only too pleased to have disentangled himself from the incident and to be getting back on his train.

For the first time that morning I could see the slightest glimmer of hope and so did my best to play a nonchalant, at ease, role. But for Ken it was much more difficult because of his poor German. All he knew was that we had been picked up on the train with no papers and were now under arrest by the Railway Police. He lit up a cigarette saying he would smoke that one because the others would soon be taken from him. Those were not, of course, his exact words! I told him to shut up - nor were they my exact words!

On entering the room I had placed the carton containing the two food haversacks beside the Inspektor's desk, hoping that he would therefore assume that they contained nothing extraordinary. It still lay there. The Inspektor was perfectly friendly. I had repeated to him the story about repairing lorries in Klagenfurt and he asked whether we could not get our camp Kommandant to supply us with passes so that we could travel on the railway unhindered. I was surprised that he did not know that, whereas French POWs could move about without guards, British POWs could not. I told him that we had had passes but they had been withdrawn for endorsement. (It was true that they had been issued, but by mistake, and had been quickly withdrawn). The conversation had by now become quite casual and I thanked the Inspektor for his courtesy and for his suggestion about obtaining passes, which I would pass on to the Kommandant. At this point one of his officers asked whether he should accompany us back to the camp in Villach, but the Inspektor said this was unnecessary. So, bidding the assembled company good day, I slowly picked up our box and motioned Ken after me out of the door. Mercifully - and to his great credit - Ken followed like a lamb. It seemed to him that the impossible had happened - which it very nearly had. We were free!


... and out again!

However, I had not liked the attitude of one of the policemen in the office and there was still the danger that he might take it upon himself either to follow us or to telephone the Villach Kommandant to ask about us. So I gave Ken a quick account of what had transpired and how it was that we had been able to walk out of the office. I suggested we should get out of the town and into the woods as quickly as possible. Ken agreed and as soon as we had crossed the town bridge over the River Drau - or Drava - we headed for the country. The Drau is a large river and it was essential to cross it en route for Italy. We threw caution to the winds and almost ran once we had left the town, stopping only to drink from a well on the outskirts. On we went for an hour or so, until we were clear of habitation.

We found ourselves a safe position hidden from the road, threw ourselves down and for the first time that day burst into laughter - largely out of relief from the tension we had suffered since early morning. Much of our amusement was directed at the police for letting us go, although I have since wondered occasionally whether the Inspektor had an idea of what we might be up to!

We ate sparingly and took stock of our position. We found that in our haste to get out of Villach we had placed the Villacheralp - a small but awkward range of mountains - between us and the frontier range. Our plan had been to walk down the valley between the two. But this did not at first worry us unduly - after all, we had already overcome some fairly formidable difficulties. In fact, it proved to be our most serious setback and a tough nut to crack.


Towards the border - a difficult journey

At first we travelled very cautiously, moving only at night. Progress was difficult, as we had deliberately chosen a period for our escape when there was no moon. In the darkness we had to force our way through stunted trees which formed an undergrowth to the pine forest in which we found ourselves. We moved literally an inch at a time - and blindly. In places the trees were interspersed with swampy ground, through which we had to wade. After some hours we emerged on to higher ground, only to find something worse - broken white rock. Almost every step was a balancing feat and fraught with the danger of breaking an ankle. We slipped and fell frequently because it was too dark to see where we were stepping. We eventually became too exhausted and lay down where we were and slept.  In spite of our compass it was difficult to keep a sense of direction and we used up four precious days of time and rations before reaching the southern foot of the mountains. For three of those days we had been without a drink, except for some sips of brackish liquid out of a cart rut. We now came across a small pond and plunged our faces into the cool water, followed by our feet.

In the main the weather had remained favourable. Once when it rained hard we were in a thicket which sheltered us fairly well. The nights were, however, quite cold - particularly noticeable when our clothes were wet. Our most serious concern was, however, the fact that we had used up a large proportion of our food, which had now shrunk alarmingly. Another disturbing fact was that we were still some fifteen miles from the frontier with some difficult country still to cover. The only answer was to abandon night travel in favour of early mornings and evenings, when we could better see where we were going. By doing so we could move more speedily and avoid difficult or dangerous areas.

The immediate objective was to cross over to the other side of the valley, hug the frontier range and tum into the Tarvis Pass, maintaining a height of a couple of hundred feet. This we considered would offer us the best chance of avoiding detection. To get to the other side of the valley we would need to cross a small river and a railway line. The river would be the more difficult of the two. To reach it we found ourselves having to cross yet another stretch of broken rock similar to that which had given us so much trouble before. This time, however, we were crossing it in the twilight, which enabled us to make reasonable progress. From the mountainside we had left we had been able to scan the valley and to decide that the best place to cross the river was probably at a small village, where there would almost certainly be a bridge of some kind. We knew that all important bridges were guarded, but this particular bridge probably did not warrant a sentry. We had also become accustomed to moving about fairly noiselessly. So we decided to approach the bridge after dark and keep it under observation for an hour or so, during which time any guard would have betrayed his presence.

As darkness fell we moved into the village. It was quite small and was served by one narrow road which ran through the centre. From the road we could hear the river and judged it to be some 60 yards distant. We found that the fields on either side of the road were swampy and in places the slime rose well over our boots. Our discomfort was added to by a steady drizzle, but this probably helped to keep the road clear of villagers. So we were able to keep to the road, following it to the centre of the village, where it was joined by a track leading to the river bridge. Before taking the track we hid by the roadside in a cluster of poles leaning tent-shaped against a tree, which gave us excellent cover while we assessed the extent to which the bridge was used. Our cover served to hide us from a passing gang of youths who seemed a little worse for drink. Things became quieter and just before midnight we set off for the bridge.

We met no-one en route to the bridge and the rain had stopped, raising our spirits considerably. Before crossing we paused in the shadow of a convenient bush. We could make out the outlines of a wooden bridge. The noise of the swiftly-running water would drown that made by our boots on the wooden planks. There was no guard at our end but we took the precaution of throwing a few stones towards the far end of the bridge. After waiting for a while we crossed. It was an exciting moment because had the bridge been guarded it would probably have brought our enterprise to an end - as had happened to our erstwhile colleagues.

The railway track was not far away and seemed deserted, although there was a light burning in a watchman's hut some hundred yards away. Unfortunately I made rather a noise as I slipped on loose stones at the edge of the track and then caused the signal wires to swish, but there was probably no danger as such noises would frequently have been caused by deer, of which there were plenty in the area. From the side of the track we saw the occasional dimmed lights of vehicles passing along the road leading to the Tarvis Pass - our immediate goal. At this point we suffered a further discomfort when, on going through a hedge, we found ourselves up to our middles in a cold swiftly-flowing stream. It was pitch dark and we must have gone round in circles in the water because, although it was probably not more than 20 feet across, it seemed ages before we scrambled up the opposite steep and overgrown bank. We met no more hindrances before crossing the road, although at one point we had to hide while a policeman passed by on his bicycle.

We were now only two or three miles from the border at its nearest point and, after crossing another small stream, we rested a small way up the mountain, well content with our progress so far - except for the hunger. Tired from our efforts and in spite of our wet clothes we were soon asleep. The border was now too close for us to take undue risks by moving in the daylight, so it was dusk the next day before we moved again. The track we first chose proved too precipitous and uncertain, and we had to retrace our steps down to the road. From our daylight observations we knew that the road ran into the foot of the mountain at a point where the mountainside was unclimbably vertical, thereafter parting from it again before bending up the valley.

Before re-crossing the road (intending to make a detour from it round the vertical part of the mountain) we took the usual precaution of stopping to listen. The tap-tap of what was clearly a woman's footsteps greeted our ears, as did her voice and that of a man. This seemed strange and, as the sounds moved down the road towards the convergence, we lay in the darkness puzzling as to their significance. Soon the footsteps and voices returned to a point opposite to our position and the drill was then repeated. From this we deduced that a sentry of some kind wearing soft-soled boots had provided himself with a companion from among the village girls. Clearly this had been a stroke of good fortune for us, because had he been alone we would not have heard his approach until he was very close and we would probably have had to make a run for it. We allowed sufficient time for them to reach the far end of their patrol, then re-crossed the road with the object of walking in a large loop in the fields before rejoining the road at the other side of the restriction. Our intention was then to leave the road and climb up a safe distance onto the mountainside and from there to walk across the border.

The loop we followed was a liberal one and so was the swamp we found ourselves in! The further out we went, the boggier it got. Then we were waist deep in water and our progress was further hampered by clinging rushes and our weakness from lack of food. It was largely down to good fortune that the point at which we regained the road was well beyond the mountain's vertical section. Tip-toeing across the road we ascended a few feet up the mountainside and fell asleep in a small clump of fir trees. We seemed to have developed a talent for finding any water that was around so our clothes were hardly ever really dry, which brought us discomfort but, fortunately, no harm. Now that we were near the border and facing some steeper climbs, we resolved to set out at dawn to make sure we were travelling in the right direction.

This we did. We climbed the rocky cliff facing us and, on reaching the top, were entertained by three small foxes playing in the watery sunlight. Presently the vixen hove into sight and drove her playful offspring from our view. Having reached the top of our climb, we were pleasantly surprised to find a plateau of about a mile across which led to a further ridge, which we guessed would form the border. The plateau itself would not be difficult to cross, so we rested on the fringe of woodland intending to cross it towards dusk, so as to avoid being seen on what was fairly open ground.

It was now that we were to suffer the most unexpected and intense physical discomfort to date. A cloud of thousands of mosquitoes descended upon us and we found it impossible to ward them off. The torment was excruciating. Our hands and faces were bitten hundreds of times to the minute, notwithstanding the fact that we were wiping masses of the pests off our faces with our hands. The effect of the bites was extremely depressing. I noticed that Ken's eyes appeared to be glazed - as mine probably were - and we simply had to move out of the semi-shade in which we were standing and which the mosquitoes seemed to prefer. So, although we were now in an area which was likely to be scanned by border police, we stepped out into the open - anything to escape the mosquitoes!

As we stood deciding the route to follow, three figures emerged from the trees a hundred yards or so forward from our position – a man and two boys with bulging rucksacks. We decided they were probably smugglers and, if so, that we had nothing to fear from them. Their somewhat furtive behaviour seemed to confirm this view. We followed with our eyes the route they had taken and, after a suitable lapse of time, followed them. We got to the foot of what we hoped would be the last ridge but, when we tried to follow it round into the neck of the Tarvis Pass, we found our way barred by extremely thick undergrowth intertwined with dense weeds. We must have taken more than an hour to cover the couple of hundred yards involved. It was exhausting work and, as rain had again fallen, we were wet once more. But having emerged from the undergrowth we took comfort from having so far overcome all the difficulties we had faced and knowing that we could only be a short distance from our first major goal - the frontier.

The night was dark by now and, as the ground had taken a rather alarming sideways slope, our progress was slow. We eventually came to a standstill on an almost precipitous face and decided that it was too dangerous to continue until dawn broke. Not daring to move, we planted our feet against some small trees growing out of the mountainside and went to sleep in an almost vertical position. We slept soundly but when the dawn came we saw how fortunate we had been that we had not slipped during the night.

We scrambled up the remaining slope and came upon a small track - probably used by somebody engaged in some illicit cross-border business. We followed it cautiously and at last came across our reward for all our efforts, in the form of a small granite stone with "D" on our side and "I" on the other. For some moments we stood staring at the stone which encapsulated so much effort on our part, then quickly jumped over it, as if we feared that fate could at this last moment somehow deprive us of our just reward. We stood at last in Italy, with the thought that even if we were recaptured at this stage we had escaped from Germany. Of the considerable number of POWs who had escaped from their German captivity since the beginning of the war, relatively few had managed to cross its borders. We actually crossed into Italy at 6 a.m. on Sunday 1 July 1943, on a sunny morning, and our spirits were high.

We pushed on for about a mile through beech trees, before coming to a mountain stream where we stopped for a brisk wash and shave. Breakfast? … aye, there was the rub! Our store of food was now very low - just a handful of crumbled biscuit and chocolate in the bottom of one of the haversacks. But we felt our luck was holding and we expected to get some early fruit in Italy, so we took a mouthful apiece and continued on our way to Tarvis.

The going was easy. We were now well into a region of beech woods and the carpet of new and rotted leaves made walking pleasant and noiseless. We suddenly found ourselves in a clearing that extended right down the mountainside, at the bottom of which was a building which appeared to be serving as an Italian frontier barracks. The Italian flag was flying and the troops were on parade. We thought that crossing the clearing might prove exciting, although it appeared to be deserted. Down the other side of the clearing ran a barbed wire fence about 10 feet across and just above us was a concrete pillbox. The wire joined the side of the pillbox and, provided this was unoccupied, we should be able to climb over the wire at that point. Having waited to ensure that there was no life in the pillbox or the clearing, we crawled carefully across the open space towards the pillbox. The look-out down at the barracks must have been either asleep or non-existent, for we reached the pillbox without a shot being fired, in spite of a notice on a tree in German and Italian warning would-be adventurers that they would be shot. The pillbox was empty, so Ken entered it through its small door in search of food, but “the cupboard was bare". We crossed the wire via the top of the pillbox.

Now quite hungry, we ate some wild raspberries growing nearby, then scanned the valley to determine the best way of crossing it. Having decided on the likeliest spot, we made our way down diagonally to it. At this stage we had to be rather careful, as all around us were signs and sounds of activity - wood chips and trestles for sawing wood. We soon found ourselves looking down the chimney of a woodman's cottage. His dog barked at us but nobody seemed to pay him any attention. In the valley there were the usual three obstacles - river, road and railway. At dusk we came down to the swiftly-flowing river, following a track which led to some planks placed across rocks on the river bed and which served the village as a bridge. The water was whipped into spray by the rocks and its phosphorescence guided us across the planks. Crossing the road and the railway proved easy and we moved along the western side of the valley until we reached the outskirts of Tarvis. There was a distinct contrast between the sustained tension we had felt on the German side of the border and our more relaxed state now that we had reached Italy. We climbed a short distance into the woods above Tarvis and bedded down. The singing of some Italian soldiers in a barracks on our side of the town kept us entertained until we fell asleep.


Getting another train

The day broke fine and we spent the whole of the morning observing the railway system raid out below us. The station was on a loop from which the track ran north and south disappearing below the mountain on which we were seated and the contours of which restricted our view. For a long time we were puzzled by the fact that the steam engines from Germany were replaced at Tarvis by electric engines in duplicate, and that a quarter of an hour later back came the single engine. We decided that there must be a bypass rail at the next station where trains could pass and the additional engines could be let through. We also decided that Tarvis was too busy a place at which to clamber aboard a goods train and so we skirted the valley during the late afternoon, keeping the railway under observation and arrived at the small town of Seifnitz. It must have owed its German name to the fact that this area, the South Tyrol, was once part of Austria and had long been a bone of contention between the Austrians and the Italians.

It was almost dark when we arrived at the Seifnitz goods yard and our enthusiasm to board the first train to pull in nearly ran us into trouble. A goods train arrived at virtually the same time as ourselves and, without giving ourselves time to reconnoitre, we made a rush for it, not noticing that the goods yard was fenced. This we had to climb over and as I was astride the fence, a lantern was flashed in my face. For a moment I sat transfixed, not knowing whether to sit still or retreat. Whoever was holding the lantern was clearly just as confused as I was, which gave me the chance to fall back over the fence. We scampered back up the hillside, not stopping until we were well clear of the town. We decided not to make a further attempt to board a train that evening, but to try again the next day. The pile of railway sleepers which we had noticed just over the goods yard fence would provide good shelter from which we could dash to board a train.

The food situation was now getting desperate. The natural food we had expected to find had not materialised. The only things we had found were some small potatoes which Ken had dug up with his fingers and some very unripe apples we had plucked from a tree. Neither proved edible, despite our hunger. Our crushed biscuits were finished and the only item left was a thin smear of Yeastvite Extract. We dared not cook the potatoes, lest the smoke from our fire gave us away, so we tried to eat them raw with the remains of the Yeastvite. A raw potato is just inedible.

The next evening at dusk we made our way down to the goods yard, climbed the fence with difficulty and hid behind the sleepers. During the evening the area was quite busy but by 10 o´clock it was relatively quiet. At ten minutes to midnight a goods train came to a standstill beside us and there was the customary flashing of lanterns. The previous evening we had noticed that there were about four guards posted at intervals along the trains. We waited until the shouting showed that the train was about to move off, then made a dash for the nearest truck. Ken was first and pulled himself up on to the buffers just as the train was about to move off, then reached down and pulled me up onto the buffers beside him. By now the train was moving at running pace and Ken had timed things to a nicety. We waited until we had left the signal box behind before climbing up and over the back of the truck. Meantime we found riding on the buffers with our heads just over the back of the truck quite exhilarating! We dropped onto the steel floor of the empty truck and found it reasonably warm and comfortable. But whenever we passed under the lights of a station, we found ourselves involuntarily making ourselves as small as possible, in case anybody looking down on the truck might see us and ring the next station.

However, we were really moving now and crossing bridges that we could not possibly have crossed on foot without being picked up. We travelled until about 4 o´clock in the morning, by which time we must have covered some 70 or 80 miles, and we decided that we would alight at the next stop, search for some food and travel on the next night. The train stopped at 4.30 a.m. at the small station of Chania and we could hear the guards talking on the platform side of the track. We had previously removed our boots, as the empty steel truck echoed every move we made. First we dropped our boots over the non-platform side of the truck, then followed them ourselves. Landing in our stockinged feet on the stone chippings, even from a height of six feet, was a painful business. But our main concern was to get into cover as quickly as possible, so we carried our boots, ducked under the signal wires by the side of the track and slithered into the nearby maize plantation. Apples had failed us, so had potatoes, and we had pinned our last hopes on green maize cobs. Alas for our stomachs, the cobs were only just forming. We were now very hungry indeed and decided to put our Plan B into operation, namely to get into a POW camp, replenish our stores and continue our journey south.


On to Plan B

We knew there was a camp at Udine, which was no great distance, so as dawn brightened into daylight, we walked down the deserted village street. The ironic thing was that such people as we met paid no attention to us at all. Even a carabiniero coming towards us wanted to pass us by with a rather self-conscious look. We weren't having this, however, so using the only Italian I knew (memorised for this occasion), I asked him where the nearest camp for British POWs was situated. Either his wit or my Italian was poor, for he obviously had not understood. Still looking very sheepish, he beckoned us to follow him and we went with him to the railway station buildings, where we met the authentic Italian police - swarthy individuals in gaudy uniforms with lots of braid and badges. Our guide referred to one of them as Brigadier, which we afterwards found to be equal to a British sergeant. They all seemed to be non-plussed and, after various attempts at questioning us, gave up and led us away to the village lock-up. This was part of a private house and consisted of a strong cellar with a grating for a light and furnished with a contraption resembling a table top which served as bed, table and seating accommodation. We were quite content to rest.

In about an hour one of the police unlocked the door and beckoned us to follow him. We had only taken a few steps along the corridor when our nostrils were assailed by the unmistakeable and wonderful smell of cooking! Our escort directed us into what served as a mess room and motioned us to sit down. We needed no second bidding. Neither did we need to be invited to begin when the woman of the house brought in steaming plates of spaghetti topped by tomato sauce. This was the first hot meal we had had for two weeks and we really did it justice.

Then came an extraordinarily funny interview with the local head man - a mass of gold and old lace. He tried us in pidgin English, French and Italian, and finally gave it up as a bad job. He understood no more about us at the finish than he did at the start - but he managed to complete reams of reports! The story we had decided to pitch was that we had been captured by the Italians on Sicily, had been transported to Naples and from there had escaped on a train intending to make for Switzerland.

While we were being interviewed I noticed on the wall a large military notice of recent date and signed by Badoglio. There was no mention of Mussolini in spite of the fact that it appeared to be a mobilisation notice. Falling back on a bit of French and Latin, it was easy for us to get the gist of it. This notice would not in itself have struck us as significant but, coupled with the fact that one morning just before crossing the border we had heard one Austrian worker greet another derisively with "Heil, Mussolini", it was obvious that something had happened to the dictator. However, we thought it might not be diplomatic to try to ask the police about it! Ken particularly enjoyed our interrogation, as he had not had a smoke for more than a week and he gladly accepted the constant offer of cigarettes. By now we were feeling human again and we asked to be able to wash and shave and were given the use of the kitchen sink. We much enjoyed the abundance of clean water. At the time the old cook constantly rolled her head in the most pathetic manner and appeared to be offering prayers for our souls. Our impression was that she expected us to be shot.

Our ablutions completed, we returned to our cell, stretched out on our bed and slept to late afternoon, when we were awakened by our guard and taken to the railway station. By now our fame had spread far and wide and practically the whole of the village turned out to stare at us. Our train drew in and we were soon on our way to Udine and, we assumed, to a nearby POW camp. After the austerity of the Austrian trains which we had used from time to time, this Italian train was the height of comfort. Drawn by a powerful electric engine, the coaches were beautifully sprung and upholstered, but a German couple in the compartment fairly oozed contempt for their Italian fellow-travellers. They were very much the Herrenvolk! Time passed pleasantly enough and we alighted at Udine, whence we were driven away in surely the world's smallest Black Maria. Even as a rabbit hutch it would have been condemned back home as inadequate. To our surprise we arrived at a very solid building with a rather pretentious façade.

Very soon any doubts as to our whereabouts were removed by the multiple steel doors and grilles through which we were conducted for further interrogation and to have our fingerprints taken. We thought this was a bit too much and protested, but the functionaries pretended not to understand us. We protested again when they required us to strip for a thorough examination. We had never been subjected to these indignities by the Germans and we began to dislike the Italians with their garlic breath. From there we were taken to a cell which was to be our home for the indefinite future. Meantime we had repeated the Italian for “prisoners of war” but this had impressed no-one.

We took stock of our cell. Escape from it would have been very unlikely. The walls were very thick and there was just the one window or grille which, we subsequently found, was checked morning and evening by the warders. The door was reinforced by steel plates and locked securely. Night came and with it torment. We had noticed during the afternoon that the walls were pitted with small holes and the white-washed surface immediately surrounding them was blackened by burning. The mystery was solved by the appearance of a plague of insects. They descended in dozens as soon as it was dark, dropping audibly onto our sheets. Each bite was like a prick from a hot needle but, at least as far as I was concerned, there was no accompanying irritant. We soon expended our few matches by burning as many of' them as we could as they left their holes, just as the previous occupants of the cell had done. Others we killed as they crawled over our sheets - we could just see them by the dim blue night lighting. The smell as they were crushed was revolting. The cell was uncomfortably hot and we subsequently found that it was better to sleep as much as possible during the day.

On the second day one of the warders brought in some illustrated magazines and our eyes lighted straight away on the full-page picture of Marshall Badoglio on the front cover of one of them and bearing the caption Nuovo Capo del Governo. This could only mean one thing, namely that Badoglio was the new head of the government. We wasted no time in questioning one of the Italians about Mussolini. He made a horrible grimace and drew his finger across his throat - the universal sign for murder. In fact, at this stage Mussolini was not dead but was being held by Badoglio's forces. He was later "rescued" in spectacular fashion by the Germans. The discovery of Mussolini's downfall made us very hopeful, since it pointed towards Italy's collapse, although we knew from the supplies of guns and vehicles which we had observed over recent weeks going down into Italy that the Germans would put up fierce resistance to any Allied landings on the mainland. The same afternoon we were joined by a further five British POWs, who had escaped from Austria and who were able to give us the latest news. They had been caught just south of the border, so Ken and I squeezed what satisfaction we could from the fact that we managed to get a little further down Italy and also that we had not actually been caught (although it could be argued that giving ourselves up - albeit planned - was even more inglorious!).

The food in the jail was poor, consisting of rolls of maize bread around 9 a.m. and some soup at midday. We were allowed out of our cell for two hours’ exercise, which consisted of walking up and down a walled-in compound about ten feet across and forty feet long. The walls were too high for us to see the prisoners exercising in adjacent compounds. After a few days we became so weak from lack of nourishment that walking for two hours involved risk of blackouts, so we squatted on the ground for most of the prescribed period. The only benefit from the exercise period was the fresh air it provided, which was welcome as our cell was by now overcrowded and the small bucket in the corner by way of a convenience was only emptied once a day and was most unpleasant. After about five days, during which our number had increased to about a dozen occupying two cells, we were interrogated by an interpreter accompanied by the Mayor of Trieste! The interrogator spoke excellent English and knew London well. He held the army rank of colonel and was sympathetic and apologetic about the conditions we were being held in. The mayor was an unpleasant-looking man but fortunately had no English. His presence demonstrated the influence the politicians still held in military affairs.

We still maintained our story of having been taken prisoner on SiciIy, but the arrival of the other POWs from Austria made it less credible. Ken and I had agreed at the outset that we would not use false names, in case something went seriously wrong, in which case we would merely have been registered as "unidentified", with all the trouble that would have caused our next-of-kin. The colonel said that he would have to forward our descriptions to the German authorities and we knew that, as far as this escape attempt was concerned, the game was up. There remained one slender chance, namely that Italy might crack up quickly, and that the Germans might pull back to their border, with the Allies possibly landing near to Trieste. A few more miserable days passed and the colonel returned - this time alone. He told us we had been identified by the Germans and would have to be sent back, at which I decided to put the cards on the table. I said that the Allies would soon take over the whole of Italy (never dreaming that it would take two years of bitter fighting for them to do so!) and that, if he held onto us until that happened, we would be able to speak well of him to the Allied authorities. How much this impressed him I do not know, but he promised to keep us as long as he could. This he did and managed to hold on to us for a further seventeen days.

By that time we realised that no miracle was going to happen and were not sorry to leave a thoroughly unpleasant jail. Before leaving we had a visit from an Italian Roman Catholic priest, with whom we were able to converse in French, and we asked him to take a message to the British Camp Leader at the British POW camp about eight miles away, but he was too scared to do so. From the few occasions on which we had had contact with our non-POW fellow inmates, we discovered that most were in jail for political offences, many of them being Yugoslav communists, some of whom had been incarcerated for up to two years. The long-termers were allowed to do certain chores such as sweeping the corridors and bringing round water which was passed through flaps in the cell doors. By using a mixture of French and German, we were able to get news from them and an occasional packet of cigarettes for Ken. His matches were long finished but he found an ingenious method of ignition. Using a razor blade he first whittled a small pile of shavings from his toothbrush handle then, using his penknife, he eventually produced a spark by striking it against a small fragment of lighter flint he had kept. The spark set fire to the highly inflammable pile of celluloid fragments and, when he had a cigarette, he could smoke. Ken used this method for several weeks, by which time both our toothbrush handles had become but shadows of their former selves.

Whilst in the jail at Udine we met a rather strange figure. On one of the two occasions on which we were allowed a shower we were confronted by a large figure with flaming red hair. The guards had stayed outside the shower room and we were surprised to be addressed by him in English. His manner was most odd and he told us he was a Canadian officer and had been shot down over Hamburg. His story was that he had not been captured by the Germans but had made his way to Italy, where the Italians had picked him up. He also said he was on Secret Service work. His strange manner and his unlikely story persuaded us that we should keep clear of him, as he could well have been a "plant" - not that we were carriers of any information useful to the enemy. We never saw him again.

On the eighteenth day seven of us were taken away, Ken and I remaining together. Indeed the manacles and chain which held us all together prevented us separating even had we wanted to do so! This arrangement infuriated us because the obvious intention was to degrade us in front of the civilians. It was also against the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war, but in our circumstances an appeal to Switzerland was a non-runner! The guards left nothing to chance and during the half-hour we had to wait on the platform we were conscious of a good deal of sniggering from the assembled travellers - most of the girls eating ice-creams (which didn't endear them to us) and their escorts looking as though a spell in the military would have done them good. It reminded me of an incident soon after our capture on Crete, when we were being marched through Chania guarded by German paratroopers. A small group of recently-liberated Italian soldiers celebrated their freedom by jeering at us, but very quickly took to their heels when one of the paratroopers ran at them with his tommy-gun. There was no love lost between the two Axis allies.


Back to square one - familiar ground

We arrived, still manacled, back at the frontier station of Tarvis to be handed over to the Germans. This in itself proved to be a strange procedure: the Italians at one end of the station removed our manacles and motioned us to move forward to the other end, where the Germans awaited us. These turned out to be an SS patrol - hence the Italians' desire to keep their distance. But the Germans caused us no problems. Apparently we were the first British soldiers they had met and they were somewhat curious about us. We were soon seated in a small office and into a discussion on a number of topics from the Jewish question to British Colonial policy!

There was one particularly extraordinary event whilst we were there. One of our number showed an admiring interest in a motorcycle belonging to the patrol and was invited to take it for a spin round the roads. This was on the condition that he was back in 15 minutes or unspecified trouble would befall his comrades! Even those of us who were not convinced Christians prayed quietly to ourselves for his safe and timely return and were mightily relieved to see him back. Our train duly arrived and we were soon back at the main camp at Villach.

Here we were locked in a large hut, given some food from Red Cross parcels and managed to get a shower. After the first sound night's sleep for several weeks we were put on a train to Landeck, near the Swiss border, where an interrogation camp for escaping prisoners of war had been set up. Midway the train had stopped at Innsbruck, where German Red Cross girls supplied us with soup and hot water for a brew of tea. After the self-inflicted privations of the past few weeks this all seemed very civilised and certainly could not have been set up on our account.

At the reception room at Landeck camp we were questioned by an interpreter, who hammered out our statements on a typewriter. He must have known that this was a complete farce, because no-one's stories included any of the crucial details of their escapes, such as how they went and who (if any) helped them in any way. Ken and I had agreed on what our answers would be, so that no-one else would be incriminated. Following the questioning we were taken to a long, low building containing single cells. These were very small - roughly 7 feet by 5 feet, with a small window high up near the ceiling. One thin blanket was provided and even by day the cells were damp and cold. The camp itself was well above sea-level and often wreathed in cloud.

We were able to converse with other prisoners in the cells by shouting and the result was a veritable Babel - some 40 voices yelling in almost every known European tongue. In our block alone there were French, Russians, English, Serbs, Poles and one Swiss. Things brightened up when a Frenchman started a song going - "J'attendrai" - which was very popular in Europe at the time. Everyone sang their own words but we were more or less unanimous about the tune. The first night was very cold and we were very glad to see the dawn. During the morning we were allowed out into our particular compound and were glad to enjoy the sunlight.

The Swiss told me that he had enlisted in the French Army at the outbreak of the war but had been captured in 1940. He had made several attempts at crossing into Switzerland but had always been caught. It must have been very irritating for him to be at Landeck, because from the camp we could see the border range with Switzerland. That afternoon we were removed from our cells and taken to a barracks where we were all housed together: a cosmopolitan crowd, with one thing in common, namely that we were all would-be escapers. Conversation flowed - a sort of POW language, using German as a lingua franca. Ken and I became particularly friendly with some Serbs and found them to be very stout people. On one occasion some other Serbs in the adjoining compound who were on the camp "tailor's" staff threw a small package of food into our compound for their hungry compatriots. The latter insisted that we should share every scrap with them. One of them cut each morsel into four exact parts and passed them round. A few weeks later I was glad to find that those Serbs in static camps were beginning to receive Red Cross parcels provided by the American Red Cross.

Whilst at Landeck we were required to work, so the next morning I reported sick. All I got for my trouble were some pills and a chit for light work. This turned out to be a job in the tailor's shop and consisted of cutting some old and dirty French uniforms into small pieces to be used for patching. By the end of the day I wished I had gone with the others who were mixing concrete. I did not bother to report sick the next morning. The food consisted of bread and ersatz coffee in the mornings and soup at midday and in the evenings. Some Russians who were working in the kitchens were given liberal quantities of soup in the evenings and brought what they could not eat into our compound for us. In my experience this was a unique situation - in all other cases it was the Russians who were very badly treated and it was us who helped them where we could.

After ten days at Landeck we were moved to a camp at Markt Pongau (probably Stalag 18C) - hardly a move for the better as we soon discovered. Here it was a case of "Once more into the cells, dear friends!". This establishment was definitely built with an eye to discomfort. The cells were brick-built and the only item of furniture was a bench which served as a bed. We were allowed one blanket per man and as a consequence spent some very cold nights. The menu was the same as at Landeck, except that both quality and quantity were even lower. The jailer was a particularly evil type, compared to those to whom we had previously been entrusted. He made no attempt to manhandle any British prisoners, whereas at every mealtime he beat up some unfortunate Russian. In the case of the British, his form of reprisal was to fling open the cell door and, if we didn't jump to it quickly enough, to slam the door again quickly so we went hungry. After missing out once or twice, we decided discretion was, in this case, the better part of valour.

We were allowed out into the air twice a day for exercise, which consisted of being marched up and down a roadway for an hour in the morning and the same in the afternoon. We refused to be rushed at this - in fact we were too weak to hurry. This exasperated the Germans and on one occasion one of them ran up behind one of the last men and struck him on the head with his revolver butt. The pace did not alter. The Frenchmen in the next compound (not in the camp for punishment) used to shout us the news in French as we passed and one morning we were delighted to hear that the Allies had landed on the Italian mainland. We were immensely encouraged by this and all sorts of extravagant estimates were made as to how long it would be before they had taken Italy!

The thing that most British POWs were really missing was tobacco. I was very fortunate to be a non-smoker so my most serious craving was for food. Ken used to go through the seams of his pockets many times each day in the hope of finding just a few grains of tobacco to roll up in a piece of newspaper. What he did find was really only dirt or fluff which, when he did manage to light it, simply crackled and smelt horribly. Occasionally a cigarette would be thrown to us from over the fence. The person picking it up would, when the exercise period had ended, light it in their cell, take a few draws then carefully throw it lighted through the ventilation space in their inner wall and through the corresponding hole in the cell opposite. Sometimes it missed, of course, to the accompaniment of curses and groans. Soon someone found a piece of string and when this was tied round the cigarette it was possible to swing it through the holes with less risk of the cigarette falling to the corridor floor. The effort put into these endeavours simply illustrated the general dependence on tobacco in those days.

Meantime we had heard that the doctor now dealing with sick parades was a Russian, so one morning I reported sick, to see what became of it. He proved to be a Serb rather than a Russian and he gave me a packet of American cigarettes. Fortunately the accompanying guard stayed outside in the corridor, although my guess is that he received the occasional packet to ensure his discretion. For the sake of appearances he gave me some pills and marked up my report that I should see him again the next day. I was received back in my cell with great enthusiasm and the lads smoked again! I duly saw the doctor the next day again and received another packet of cigarettes and a French novel to read. Small incidents like this went a long way to relieve the sheer boredom of imprisonment. Markt Pongau was not a happy stay; being deprived of our braces and bootlaces meant that we had to shuffle everywhere with our hands in our pockets, which was demoralising and added to our slowness on exercise.

After eight days we were moved to Spittal-an-der-Drau (Stalag 18A/Z), a more civilised camp altogether. We were met by a German interpreter known affectionately to everyone as the Frog, who bade us welcome to the jail and, tongue in cheek, hoped we would enjoy our stay. Off he went to the Kommandantur to get our sentences for escaping, which on his return he announced as 16 days’ solitary confinement with two days bread and water, two days with food. This was greeted by the assembled ranks with ironic cheers and some rather rude suggestions which he took in good part. He had a soft spot for escapers and was well regarded by the British. The doors were opened and in we trooped, about 25 in all. The cell block was of similar construction to those at Landeck and Markt Pongau - a central corridor with cells either side. Blankets were distributed one per person but the guard was lax and we all trooped round again until the pile was exhausted. The "solitary confinement" was ignored - most of us chose to sleep two to a cell.

Our eating arrangements also proved more liberal than our sentence provided for. The British camp leader had unofficially negotiated an improved diet with the Kommandant, whereby the prisoners serving sentences received butter from Red Cross parcels on the bread and water days, and two drinks of coffee instead of water. This proved to be the thin end of the wedge. What actually arrived was butter, jam, cheese and cigarettes. These were carried in a sack in the mornings to accompany the coffee. A POW from the main compound was permanently employed to look after our interests, his qualifications being a "hard neck" and resourcefulness. He and an assistant were escorted into our compound by a guard carrying the coffee and the swag bag. The guards must have known quite well what was in the bag but, as they each received a standing reward of five cigarettes per trip, they were not likely to be over-observant.

There was, however, one fly in the ointment, in the person of an assistant interpreter whose attitude was not well regarded by the POWs. Consequently when he addressed a parade, he received a barrage of catcalls much less kindly than those with which the Frog was normally greeted. This, of course, did not improve relations but his school-ma'am type lectures were an irritation. The result was that he was not receiving any sweeteners in the form of cigarettes and, as a reprisal, he took to snooping. He got to know - or at least to suspect - that extras were being smuggled in to us and one morning slipped quietly into the compound to await the delivery. He posted himself at the door of that end of the cellblock farthest from the gate in the wire through which the goods would be carried. The coffee and other items came at the appointed time and Ken and I were able to hiss a warning through our cell window to the escort as they passed. The man carrying the sack had no time to retreat, as he was being observed by the sentry in the sentry box overlooking our compound. What he did was simple but psychologically clever. He took two tins of honey from the sack, held them against himself as though trying to hide them and continued straight round to the barrack door. Here he was immediately pounced on by the triumphant German who failed to pay any attention to the remaining sack of goodies. This was quietly passed down the waiting queue of POWs and thrust down the first toilet pan on which a POW then seated himself.

In the meantime, flushed with success, the interpreter had placed the two tins on the doormat to lecture us on his own astuteness and our stupidity. He declared he had confiscated the two tins but when eventually he turned to pick them up he found that we had confiscated them back! He was livid and started to frisk those at the front, but he was too late. The man at the front of the queue had managed to pick up the two tins and had passed them back along the line similarly to the sack but this time they had been thrown out of a cell window onto the grass outside. However, as frequently happened, we had been a shade too clever for our own good, because the interpreter reported the incident to the Kommandant, who was annoyed, not at what had been going on with the extra rations, but that we had allowed ourselves to be caught. The result was a stricter regime with the food, but the guards soon began to miss their "extras" and things quietly reverted to normal.

In the cell-block the evenings were convivial. The evening of our arrival we had heard scratching noises along the corridor and had already noticed a piece of bent barbed wire on our high window ledge. We then realised that cell locks were being picked so we joined in. Eventually someone shouted that they were out in the corridor, whereupon they went along to the small office at the end, got the bunch of keys and unlocked all the doors. Card schools were set up and people moved around, swapped escape experiences and generally relaxed. Around 10 p.m. one person locked us all in again and returned the keys to the office. In the morning, even if the guards noticed the one unlocked door, they would have assumed that it was missed in locking up the previous evening.

Having served our sentence we were transferred to the main compound to await being sent to disciplinaire camps for six months, where conditions were a bit tougher and the rules more stringently enforced. Meantime we spent a few idle and comfortable days and were pleased to be given news bulletins from a hidden radio, from which we learned that the bridgehead at Anzio had finally been secured.

"Ah, well - what next?", we wondered.


Part Two



Tossing the Quack

Eventually we were listed to go to various work camps on the disciplinaire circuit. In these camps the discipline itself was a bit stricter, and the barracks and compounds a bit less congenial. Tins from Red Cross parcels had to be opened on issue to prevent hoarding for escapes. Roll-calls were more frequent and life generally was intended to be less comfortable. We were intended to spend at least six months in these camps.

I was sent initially to a camp at Schladming, where we were put to work repairing and replacing railway tracks - work with which I was, of course, already familiar. Post-war Schladming was developed as a winter sports area of some note, but our time there was less pleasant due to the fact that our huts were placed under the mountainside and so permanently in the shade during the winter in a sort of permafrost and extremely cold.

My mind turned to getting off the disciplinaire regime as soon as I could. Escaping again was one possibility, but unless it proved successful it was a lot of trouble to go to possibly to end up in a similar situation. Furthermore the war was clearly going against the Germans in the east and we were optimistic enough to begin to think that an Allied invasion of Europe must soon be on the cards. In fact, of course, victory in Europe took longer than we imagined.

One way of getting off the disciplinaire regime was to get sent back to main camp as sick and unfit for work, and staying there long enough to be struck off the list and from there to be sent out to an ordinary camp. The British Army operated in a somewhat similar way, when identity with a unit was lost after a similar lapse of time in a depot. This process had to begin by persuading a German doctor that one was genuinely sick and needed medical attention only available at the main camp. There was a certain amount of risk in this because Arbeitsverweigerung, or refusal to work, was a crime second only to giving the Führer a kick in the uncomfortables, and one might have ended up in a certain military prison in Poland which had a particularly bad reputation.

"Tossing the Quack", as it was called, came in various forms: some ingenious, some plain stupid. As camp interpreter I sometimes became involved in these, as it was my job to explain to the German authorities what the POW thought he was suffering from. One of the simplest and most successful frauds was perpetrated by a POW who started to hang out his blanket each day with a large wet patch on it, but without saying anything about it to the guards. Eventually one of them asked about this and was told in a matter of fact way that the person concerned had a chronic kidney problem and had to wash out the blanket each day as a result. Most Kommandants had a fear of one of their prisoners dying in their charge because of the resultant enquiry by the Swiss Protecting Power, with all the interviews and paper work involved. So as soon as the Kommandant heard about it, he packed the man off to the main camp on some pretext or other, without waiting to refer the case to the doctor! An example of a stupid attempt was that of the Australian who tried to induce an ulcer by glass-papering his shin.

After a couple of months I decided to try tossing the quack myself, partly because a particular opportunity presented itself to me, in the form of a Blinddarmentzündung (appendicitis) suffered by one of the guards. On his return to duty he insisted on going over every detail with me, including the pains and discomfort he had suffered prior to his operation. I encouraged him in this and soon built up a detailed knowledge of what was involved. Armed with this I duly reported sick and was escorted down to the village doctor.

I explained the symptoms I had had and he was clearly concerned - not to say puzzled! He asked me for a specimen of my water (they always do, don't they?) but I explained that I could not do so, having only recently been to the toilet. So he gave me a bottle and told me to come back with it full on the morrow. This gave me my chance. The next day I filled the bottle as instructed, but coated the cork with a large blob of condensed milk from the tin in my Red Cross parcel and gave the bottle a good shake before handing it in. I had no idea what the effect would be, except that it was bound to show a high sugar content.

Sure enough, a couple of days later I was called down to the surgery and told that I would have to go to the hospital at Villach for a further examination. By now my feelings were becoming a bit mixed (thoughts of Arbeitsverweigerung looming large!) but I was now on the back of a tiger and could not jump off. I had to go through with it. In due course I reported with small kit to the hospital and in next to no time I was lying on the operating table, scared stiff, looking up at two young German army doctors. They pushed and prodded and I grunted as my second-hand knowledge suggested I should. Then, after what seemed an eternity, they threw me a lifeline - exactly as the Superintendent of Police in the same town had done months before! They gave me the choice of either having an operation there and then, or of going to the other main camp at Wolfsberg, where it could be performed by a British Army doctor who was held there. Again, it was obviously a question of responsibility if something should go wrong with the operation. So here I was, back exactly in the same position as with the policeman: dying to go along with their suggestion, but afraid of showing the huge relief I felt! I said that I understood their position but thanked them for their consideration - again, exactly as with the policeman. Afterwards it seemed that I spent most of my time pulling the wool over the Germans' eyes and thanking them for the opportunity of doing so! I must have been a plausible liar in those days. At the same time it would be churlish not to pay tribute to the humanity of the individuals concerned. But as the saying goes, c'est la guerre!

So far, so unbelievably good. Here I was, having literally escaped the chop, on my way back to the main camp where I only needed to stay for 10 days or so to get off the disciplinaire list. Persuading the English doctor to keep me there for that period should be a doddle.

Well, it wasn't.

We had a blazing row. He was a major and I was a private, but in those circumstances it didn't make any difference! His point was that he was running a hospital with some very sick men in it and too few resources and he couldn't waste his time on a lazy so-and-so like me. Well, that really fired me up! I told him that it was the duty of every POW to try to escape and to cause the Germans as much trouble as possible. This I had done and was only asking him for food and shelter for 10 days. He obviously had second thoughts because he finished by telling me (in army terms) to get lost! This I did, taking my medical records with me.

I hung around for about 10 days, scrounging meals where I could and sleeping where I could find an empty bunk. My plan was now to get onto a farm because, with the war going against Germany, food would inevitably get scarcer whereas farmers would be the last to go short. So off I went to one of the camp doctors clutching my papers. "Blinddarmentzundung!" he said. "How do you feel?" I replied that I was feeling better but thought I needed building up and perhaps farm work might be the answer. At which the doctor exploded: “You English are mad - you all think that farm work is easy. Well it isn't and the hours are long. But if that's what you want, so be it but don't blame me!" I said I wouldn't and, once again, thanked him before bidding him good day. Back to the old routine.


Pastures new

So, after a week or so, I was on the move again with no idea where I would finish up. In fact it was south-east, towards the Hungarian border in Oststeiermark (Eastern Styria). Here the camp (839/L) consisted of an empty farmhouse to accommodate the dozen of us. Water was from a pump and electricity was generated by a waterwheel at the next house belonging to the local farmers' leader (Ortsbauernführer). In the depth of winter it became very cold and the wheel iced up completely by about 5 p.m. but the guards managed to scrounge some oil for a few oil lamps.

We were allocated to various small farms in the area. A Scot and I were sent together to one up the hillside about a mile from the camp. The farmer was a morose individual in his forties who had recently married a pretty and charming girl from the next valley. She was the daughter of the Ortsbauernführer for that valley and the marriage was clearly an arranged one. I felt sorry for her, especially when she got pregnant by him. I could have imagined a better alternative!

We got our own breakfast in the camp, the rather meagre rations supplemented by our Red Cross parcels. We each got milk from our farms. It was then up the hill to the farm. Ours, like most, was a mixed farm with a few cows, some pigs, two bad-tempered horses and two unreliable oxen which I was to look after. Also a few chickens. The workforce consisted of the farmer and his wife, his sister and her illegitimate lad, an old labourer who lived under a pile of blankets in the loft and us two POWs. The two of us tolerated each other but were not great friends.

As I spoke reasonably good German by now, it was interesting to get to know the local folk really well and for their part they were interested to hear our views. I shared many of their confidences, some of which they would not have dared to share with their own compatriots. The Nazi web of informants was, one gathered, well organised.

My two oxen and I sallied forth most mornings early, according to the jobs for the day. In spring and summer the first job was usually to cut clover as feed for the cattle. With a freshly sharpened scythe (which I had to learn to use) the blade fairly sang as it bit into the clover. Most mornings there was a fairly heavy dew and so the damp clover stalks offered good resistance to the scythe blade, which made it easier to cut than when it was dry and was rather pushed by it. The cows usually stayed in their sheds and were looked after by the farmer's sister Murtzel (a corruption for Maria). I also used my oxen for harrowing, ploughing or just carrying stuff about. I said earlier that they were unreliable and on one occasion when I was ploughing with them, they suddenly and with one mind turned and went at a gallop, trailing the plough, back to the farmyard. There were lots of sparks as the plough struck stony ground and plenty of noise. Into the farmyard they clattered, with me running unenthusiastically behind them. At the entrance to the yard stood the farmer's brother, who then did a most courageous thing. He snatched a wooden pole from a pile of them and stood his ground. As the oxen neared him, he hit one of them a fearful clout across the nose. The poor beast reared up in his tracks and brought the whole thing to a sudden halt. It was a very brave thing to do, considering that the oxen themselves weighed several tons, as I found out for myself on one occasion when one of them stood on my foot and rendered it completely numb!

Being a small farm, the work was varied and I got round to doing most things. We made cider from our own apples and there were apples and cherries to pick. As we set out in the mornings, we took cider with us in a large earthenware crock, out of which we all drank communally. Not much ceremony was stood on at this farm. For example, although we each had our own knife, fork and spoon, we wiped them on the table cloth between courses and after the meal! Mostly I worked with old Eddie the farm hand and we soon became good friends. In good weather we sat down together for our elevenses – Jause, as they called it. A slice or two of rye bread with sliced smoked bacon went down quite well with a few swigs of cider. The old man loved his cider and, if the sun was shining and warm, lying back in a hedgerow suited us both well. In the autumn and winter we worked together in the woods felling trees and sawing them into metre lengths. Each farrow was assessed to deliver up a quota of timber in relation to its area of woodland. I became skilled at splitting these lengths down the grain using wedges and sledgehammer. As good foresters we always made a fire, which we started by searching out pieces of pine where the resin oozed out of a damaged branch. When cut into small slivers it quickly ignited.

Harvest was, as the German doctor had warned me, a time of long hours and tiring work. The artful farmer set us off to cut a field of, say, oats in echelon fashion with the women leading. One of them would start and the second followed at a five-yard interval and so on with us bringing up the rear. This meant that we were shamed into keeping up with the women, which was not all that easy because they had learned to scythe as children, whereas we were novices. This meant that we frequently stuck the tip of the blade into the ground, which, in tum, meant more frequent sharpening. Even using the whetstone effectively has its own skill.

In the heat the rye and barley were uncomfortable to deal with: the whiskers were barbed and stuck to sweaty skins causing much irritation, particularly in our case as we were wearing shorts. Once I fell foul of a boring insect - boring in the literal sense. I was unloading in the barn and began to feel an irritation in a place not easy to scratch. When I had the opportunity to look, I saw that a small black body with tiny legs had embedded itself in what for a man is the worst possible place! When I got back to the camp in the evening I mentioned this to a guard and his suggested remedy was immersion in a can of petrol. "That will drive him out", he said. I declined that helpful suggestion, but he did say that the bite could lead to Blutvergiftung (blood poisoning) and that I should see the village doctor in the morning. This I did and Dr Fuchs found my predicament quite amusing but his red-headed and decidedly voluptuous wife found it even funnier! There could have been circumstances in which I might have enjoyed her bending over my prostrate body, but this was not one of them. But between them they did what had to be done and I suffered no permanent damage. Actually it led to quite a pleasant friendship, though at the cost of the whole village getting to know my misfortune.

Winters were very severe, as they tend to be in central Europe, and whatever the work there was no let up from the cold. When the sun shone in a bright blue sky, it turned the woods in their deep snow into fairyland, but didn't raise the temperature very much. However, there was one winter activity which I found particularly pleasant: Schnapps brennen, making schnapps. That was basically down to old Eddie, but when there was any spare time I was more than pleased to give him a hand - more by keeping him company than anything else.

Down in the cellar of the farmhouse was a still, consisting of a copper vessel heated by a wood fire, out of the top of which came a tube which descended in a spiral through a wooden bucket filled with ice. Into the copper vessel were put the pressings left over from the autumn's cider making, plus a little liquid. The alcohol resulting from the heating of the mulch came off in a colourless vapour which then condensed and dripped into bottles. The essentials were to keep the fire stoked and to change the bottles from time to time. The occasional sampling was allowed and the little old man's eyes were soon misted over. Many a tale he told me of his youth. His surname of Böhm was derived from where he was found as an infant - Böhmen or Bohemia, in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the trappings of glitz and the Hapsburg Court still remained.

What proved to be a day to be remembered was that on which the pig was killed. The man who filled the role of slaughterer was the local Gasthaus keeper, known as Der Krauslerwirt. His family name was Krausler and his occupation was called "Wirt". It was an old Austrian custom to put the two together. In the same way, the local miller whose family name was Schieder was known as Der Schiedermüller. First thing was to fetch the Wirt, which I was sent to do with my oxen and cart at about 8 a.m. He came with his set of knives already sharpened and was met by the farmer with a glass of schnapps (the first of many during the day!)

Meanwhile the women had heated up gallons of water and had taken down from the wall a large wooden bath. The farm buildings formed three sides of a rectangle, with carts and other vehicles coming in and out at the open end. Various people appeared: neighbours, the farmer's brother and others, and there was a general bustle and air of expectancy. The pig was freed into the central area, the most prominent feature of which was a huge manure heap. At first the pig was pleased with its relative freedom but, as people started to move in on it, it sensed what was afoot. The idea was to manoeuvre it into a position near to the wooden bath. Soon all hell broke loose: the pig rushed squealing and grunting in all directions and the people were running hither and thither, dung flew everywhere as did chickens and ducks, but the executioner still sat with his schnapps to keep up his courage, which made the farmer's face even more morose than usual (meanness being another of his less attractive attributes). Confusion reigned until the pig became sufficiently exhausted as to be pushed to the side of the wooden bath. A collective heave and it was in and the job done, with Krauslerwirt cursing all the while. Thereupon the women appeared with their buckets of scalding water and threw them over the carcass, then set to work with old dessert spoons scraping away at the bristles - not a pretty sight but effective. There then followed cutting up with Krausler getting more and more vocal. The day wore on, with the women chopping up the fat into small pieces which they then fried. Eaten with rye bread and washed down with cider, it was very tasty, and Eddie and I enjoyed it for our elevenses for some days. Meantime Eddie, who was very good on the harmonica, was belting out the Radetsky March and other old favourites; all the old stories associated with the occasion were trotted out, but eventually the heady mix of schnapps and cider brought a silence and it was time for me to take the slumbering Krauslerwirt home.

It was a nuisance to have to harness up the oxen just for this, but there was no alternative. So down the hill we bumbled, to be greeted at his side door by his wife with her no doubt usual words Schau, da ist er! "Look, there he is!" She always knew what to expect!



The largest landholding in the area was that of Baroness Marie von Lentz at Reitenau, where she and her three young sons lived in the Castle. Prior to the war she had had a beautiful estate on the eastern border with Czechoslovakia, but Hitler took this for a flying school and gave her Reitenau, which he had removed from its previous Jewish owner. The Castle was built around a quadrangle and had three storeys. The Baron had held a diplomatic post in South America for a good many years. The sons' ages ranged from 11 to 16 years and they were very well brought up. The Baroness, a charming lady, spoke excellent English. Until almost the end of the war she had an estate manager and a Jäger who looked after the hunting and the forestry. There was an estate secretary of about 22 years of age and an elderly lady who had been the boys' nanny, together with other servants who had served the family in various roles.

It seemed to me better sense for me to be where most of us were (and for several reasons suited me better!), so I persuaded the guards and the Baroness to this effect. I moved to employment at the Castle shortly before D-Day. The former nanny was very pro-British but very discreet about it, and we soon worked out an arrangement for me to hear the BBC news most days. In the corner of her room was a radio and she placed next to it a basket of apples. She went along to her storeroom just before 9 o'clock each morning, leaving me alone with the radio whilst I made a jug of tea for the nearest POWs and, of course, picked over a few apples. Care was essential over this; I was very conscious that it would have been concentration camp and perhaps death for her if we had been caught. It would have been less serious for me.

Whilst I made good friends among the Castle family and staff, I was well aware (as were the others) that one or two could not be trusted. The village postman was one of these, having lost an arm in the war and become bitter against the Allies as a result. To revert to the radio, I heard about the D-Day landings at 9 a.m. but, for security reasons, had to keep it to myself until the evening. This was followed by the tragedy of Arnhem, which made very sad listening. The battle in the east was now creeping into Hungary and some of the Baroness's relatives were moving into Austria, using farm carts to transport what few belongings they could bring. It was noticeable that the SS were volunteering for escort duty for them - no doubt being well rewarded for their trouble. I had a long conversation with a delightful old couple who had got out of Dresden before the main bombing. They were very nostalgic about the pre-World War I days, before Europe went mad. According to them, Queen Victoria held great sway over Europe via the crowned heads, many of whom were related to her.

The Baroness´s three boys were different in character: the oldest eventually took over the Estate from his mother, the youngest became a diplomat like his father, and the middle one trained as a missionary-priest in Africa, a far cry from the lad who once took me for a sleigh ride round the Estate while he fired at crows from between the horses' heads!


Local tragedies

Christmas 1944 came and went, and the war was getting ever nearer to Germany. The colossal tank battle at Kursk finally broke the German army in the east and the Allies had fanned out from their bridgehead. The fierce battle in the Ardennes was the last critical battle in Europe. We regularly saw American bombers overhead going to strike at the Romanian oilfields and the industry at Wiener-Neustadt. Unfortunately some were shot down. One American airman, badly burned, was brought down from the hills in a farm cart on his way to hospital as I was returning to camp, and I was able to give him a drink of the milk I was carrying. Eventually the Russians crossed the Hungarian border but, in the meantime, very unpleasant things were happening locally.

A sort of a partisan group had been set up and the Ortsbauernführer was taken by them. He pulled out a knife and tried to cut his throat, at which his captors - who were his friends in "real life" - were most upset. The would-be partisans had no organisation at all and certainly no effect on the war. On one occasion a lad who worked for the Baroness held up with a pistol two SS men who wanted to take two of her horses. He took them to a farm which was the partisans' headquarters and from which they escaped at nightfall. This brought in a posse of fully armed Berlin police who were in the area and who mortared the farm and hanged the farmer. The Baroness was arrested and questioned, but was lucky to be released. The boy was made to dig his own grave and was shot. The local Bürgermeister was charged with not telling the authorities about the presence of the "partisans" in his area and was flogged and shot, as was his son. Before doing so the SS burned his house down, leaving his wife with nothing and nobody.

These actual incidents in a very small area demonstrate the utter brutality the police and SS were prepared to use to prevent or suppress the slightest sign of resistance, however ineffectual in the context of the war. Earlier in the war a woman whom I knew came up to me in tears to say that her husband, who was in the Afrikakorps, had been shot for an apparently self-inflicted wound.

Eventually our guards decided to leave and, with most of the camp, set off westwards. I had a few things to attend to so decided to meet the Russians. They had already sent a greeting, by way of a mortar shell fired against the Castle wall under a window where I was eating a boiled egg, at which I dived under the table to finish it off! After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the Germans and the Russians, in a sparse sort of way, the Germans disappeared and a few Russians came in. We had had a few Ukrainian girls working with us at Reitenau and, with this moment in mind, I had established the Russian translation for "I am a British prisoner of war". Very impressive it would be! It turned out to be a damp squib. The first Russians I saw were in a ditch and the officer was using field glasses to try to spot the German positions. So I stood there - and stood there! I don't think he understood what I said, or was in the least bit interested in who I was. He would have been interested, had he known that I was carrying a gold watch given to me for safe keeping by one of the staff at the Castle. I came to the firm conclusion that there was nothing to gain by hanging around here, so I too set off walking westwards. I left the gold watch at a farm en route, giving the name of its owner. I am pleased to say it was returned to him in due course.

Getting towards the city of Graz I hitched a lift on a farm cart full of Mongolian soldiers and their weapons. They seemed completely mad - much relieved, no doubt, that the fighting was virtually over for them. But I felt uneasy about them, particularly when the driver whipped the horses into a gallop going downhill on a metalled road! Sure enough, the cart started to sway out of control. The road was about 10 feet above the field level and we were heading for disaster, so I took a deep breath and rolled off into the road, which promptly knocked the breath out of me. I was off just in time. The cart and all its contents ran off the road and finished in an almighty crash in the field below. I didn't wait around because with that momentum there must have been serious casualties.

I carried on walking into Graz and picked up a lift on another cart, this one being driven more sedately by a Russian officer. Ere long a tearful Austrian woman stopped him and said that she had been raped twice during the night and her husband taken away - could he possibly help? He clearly couldn't understand her anyway and his shrug of the shoulders was expressive enough. I began to meet up with more and more British POWs and all recent stories were the same: the Russians were taking their revenge on the German nation via the women. I have to say that this is exactly what the Nazi newspapers had said when the Russians had first entered the Reich. It was all rather horrible and there was nothing we could do about it, but it persuaded us all to get to our own lines as quickly as possible.

We marched as a group and eventually came to the meeting point between the Russian and British Armies - somewhere in Kärnten (Carinthia). There were obviously problems there with people standing around. Next came one of my biggest bits of luck. From the distance came the first jeep I had seen and standing in it was a small bearded individual in British desert uniform. He got to the checkpoint and, wonder of wonders, spoke in fluent Russian! In a quarter of an hour or so we were through. If the Russians had taken a closer look, they would have spotted the beautiful Polish girl in our midst, dressed in Army uniform, being brought through by one of the British POWs. One could only have guessed what her fate would have been. Afterwards we learned that the figure in the jeep was known as Colonel Popski, the head of a little group of British soldiers who had operated under him in the desert and had become known as Colonel Popski's Private Army.

We were transported to Klagenfurt airfield and flown down to Naples in Dakotas, sitting on the floor. Here our luck was out, because a returning planeload of ex-POWs had crashed en route. The order had gone out to return by boat. So we were stuck in Naples for a couple of weeks before this could be organised – bad tempered and champing at the bit to get home. Each morning a persevering officer laid on lorries to transport those who wanted to visit Pompeii to alleviate the boredom. But there is an obstinacy about the British (or a propensity to cut off their nose to spite their face) and most of us declined. We came to regret this in later life, of course.

Arriving home eventually, there was leave and then odd duties in such salubrious places such as Hull docks and Waverley Station in Edinburgh. Fortunately the war in the Far East soon petered out following the Bomb and then, after nearly seven years, I was…




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