Having escaped from France in 1940, John Rossiter, RASC, was shipped out to Egypt in early 1941. He takes up the story as he has just received orders to embark for Greece.
Amryha –› Alexandria –› Piraeus –› Athens
On March 24th, I celebrated my 24th birthday in the ‘wet’ canteen. Next day went to Alexandria, and embarked aboard HMS 651, a naval supply vessel. Australians, New Zealanders and Tommies were aboard. Set out with another ship, the Cameronia, for Greece, after 36 hours we arrived at Piraeus, the port for Athens. The Greeks went mad with joy as we were driven through the streets. Finished up that night at Glyphada camp, all under canvas. The only rations we had were bully beef and biscuits, however after two days we were allowed to go into Athens. There food was plentiful in all the cafes, drink was cheap and amusements up to date. Had a few days looking at the Acropolis, the Parthenon and many other historical places.
Athens –› Larissa
Once again was picked to go forward. There were 12 of us got on a train at Athens. The country we passed through was rugged and mountainous with small farms dotted up the mountainsides. Finally arrived at Larissa. Here were the bulk issue stores at which I was to work. The town looked as though it had been blitzed, some weeks previous an earthquake had destroyed half the town. Had about 3 or 4 earth tremors which nearly scared me stiff, it is a nasty sensation when one feels the earth underneath ones feet shudder and tremble, and to see in the walls of the houses. On Easter Sunday, Germany declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia. One day, early in the morning I saw a dogfight between 3 enemy planes and 3 Hurricanes, 2 of the enemy were shot down to the loss of one of ours. That afternoon about 70 German planes raided Larissa; they dropped their bombs on the town and smashed up our airfield and most of the planes. I took shelter in an open grave in a nearby cemetery; it was hellish to hear the scream of the bombs, the explosions and not knowing where the next one was going to land. Our billet received 3 direct hits, 3 men were inside but luckily none were killed, only slightly bruised. Most of my kit was destroyed. The stores also caught one or two bombs.
Evacuation. Larissa –› Athens
Got orders to evacuate in a hurry. Got on a goods train loaded with Serbian evacuees. Early in the morning while still pretty dark, a plane came over and gave us the once-over, again no one injured. It took 44 hours to do the 150 miles to Athens. From Athens went to the Glyphada camp and again given orders to evacuate, went by lorry to the port and went aboard a Greek collier, took on a lot of food and water. A Jerry reconnaissance plane came over and we were expecting a big raid, however nothing happened.
Athens –› Thebes –› Athens
About half an hour before we were due to sail, an officer called 10 of us ashore again. Went back to HQ in Athens and spent the night. Next day we loaded lorries with supplies and moved off north towards the front. We got up to Thebes after a few raids and while we were in the town 12 enemy planes decided to give us a hectic time. We took shelter till the raid was over; just then our staff car came back with orders to turn round, making our way back to Athens. Apparently the front line was split up, and no one really knew what the position was.
Athens –› Corinth –› Argos –› Kalamata
On the way back we were attacked and machine-gunned several times but fortunately no one of us received injury. After a very trying journey, arrived back in Athens. Spent a few days in semi-idleness knowing that a general evacuation was inevitable. One night we went by car to a station in town and after waiting 5 hours got on a train. When we got near the Corinth canal bridge, several planes attacked us, from there onward to Argos we were constantly attacked. Arriving at Argos we took to the hills to avoid enemy attacks as much as possible. Towards evening, we saw great convoy of lorries forming up under the trees, so we went down and made inquiries. Once again the situation was grave, Jerry was pretty close and the port was under constant attack, so a decision had been made to evacuate the port and carry on to the next one. (Ulster Prince burning in harbour many hours). About 12 of us got on a lorry, but after only a few hours it broke down, we split up and clambered aboard different trucks, after only an hour, the one I was in conked out, so once more had to get on another. This time I got in with a lot of Cypriots; they had plenty of room but would not give up any of it. All through the night we drove up and down, over rivers and along dangerous mountain passes with a drop of hundreds of feet down the pass for any careless or unwary drivers. Just after daybreak we got to a small village called Thea; here we hid the lorries and ourselves in the orchards and orange groves while enemy planes flew up and down bombing and machine-gunning anything and everything they saw. Nighttime came and once again on the move this time to Kalamata. Spent another terrible day dodging bombs and bullets, our only arms were rifles. In spite of all the danger our hopes were pretty high and a few amusing incidents kept us cheerful. One dark night we formed up and marched down to the beach and here we waited for several hours but no boats came in so we moved back up in to the hills just before daybreak. We split up and tried to get some much needed sleep; food was gone and there was no hope of getting any during daytime. On the night of April 28th small arms fire could be heard coming from the town. An advance guard of Huns had taken the pier. As I crawled down from the hills towards the town a shell exploded on the bridge just in front of me; three chaps were badly wounded. I helped two Australians get them on a lorry, which took them to a first-aid post. Had to keep dodging when the shells came screaming over. Out in the harbour, 2 cruisers and 5 destroyers had crept in under cover of darkness. The pier, now in enemy hands, had to be recaptured. We formed up and attacked, about 40 Huns were killed and 10 taken prisoner; one artillery piece and several machine guns captured. A checkup on our side revealed a loss of 4 men killed and several wounded. The pier was ours again. First of all the wounded were sent aboard, we were in high spirits, thinking that we would all get away, suddenly and unexpectedly all the vessels turned round and made for the open sea, we were amazed and depressed, apparently we were being deserted for no reason at all. Later found out that Italian fleet was waiting outside the bay to attack our ships as they came out, however, by leaving us behind they were able to give the Ities a trouncing, if we had been aboard we would have impeded the action.
It was now 3 a.m. on the morning of April 29th and a staff car pulled up close to where I was standing; it carried Brigadier Parrington who told an Aussie major he had been to see the German general and that at 5 a.m. we were to surrender. Those who wished to fight on could do so, those who wanted to try to get away also had a few hours to try to do so, the general terms were that we were to lay down our arms at daybreak and give ourselves up. More than half our men had no rifles and the rest of us were short of ammunition, against us was a complete Panzer division supported by Stukas as well as half a division of Infantry. To combat them we had about 10,000 men armed with rifles with only one or two machine guns, a few thousand were Cypriots, Palestinians and Greeks, a very undisciplined rabble who were always in the way. There remained nothing for us but to accept the surrender terms, so just after 5 a.m. on Tuesday April 29th we laid down our weapons and became prisoners of war of the German Armed Forces. For us the war was over, once more we could rest in peace, not worrying about bombs, shells or bullets, the food situation was bad although Jerry tried to feed us, the rations were very poor. Spent three in Kalamata sleeping under the stars on the sand.
Kalamata to Corinth (South-side) by Cattle Truck
One day we were bundled onto a train of cattle trucks, there was no room inside and [we] had to clamber on top, we rode like that for 18 hours, all the way up to Corinth where we were put into a big camp containing thousands of British and Colonial troops who been captured in different places. No food was given to us for two days. During the day it was scorching hot and at night freezing cold. No accommodation for us so I and three pals dug a pit in the sand and at night we got inside and huddled close for warmth. After a few days we found lice on our clothes and bodies. We kept ourselves clean by bathing everyday, washed our clothes as often as possible, all to no effect; the lice stayed. In a way it proved blessing, because it kept a man busy catching and killing the damn things, and having something to do, however unpleasant, passed away the weary hours. The first meal of the day was about mid-day; roughly ½ pint of boiled rice sometimes sweetened with molasses. About 4 p.m., received either a piece of bread or one biscuit. That was our daily ration. Sometimes we got a bit of goats milk cheese or a drop of oil, which we used for various purposes. We were allowed to buy figs, raisins, currants and beans from Greeks who brought their produce into camp. With these things we supplemented our daily ration and without them could not have survived. We began to get pretty weak and a slight walk made one feel awfully tired and the old heart began to thump. The daytime was spent in washing, playing cards or sleeping, the latter was favourite with most of us; it made one forget the pangs of hunger. Sometimes had to stand in a queue for 4 or 5 hours for drinking water or to draw our meagre rations. To make things perfect, dysentery swept through the camp and laid many of us low for weeks. Blackouts became frequent amongst us, a funny sensation, but not unpleasant, one can get them just standing up without falling over. Everything just fades out and the head feels empty; it lasts only for a few seconds. One day, we were informed by the Hun, that an Italian and German victory parade was to be held and as we saw the enemy flags we were to salute them. As the flags were carried past, we all turned our backs on them so that, by not seeing the flags we were not bound to salute them. This made the Jerries and the Dagoes mad. One Australian started making fun of the proceedings and a group of mad Ities gathered round him, he panned one or two of them and then a general fracas started. The Dagoes drew knives on us, so we decided that discretion was indeed the better part of valor and made a dive for our billets. 3000 mad Dagoes charged after us and the Hun had to intervene with machine pistols and rifles.
Corinth (North-side) to Gravia by Cattle Truck
Early in June we had orders to move, all of our clothes were put in fumigators and we, with only a loincloth, were marched through the streets to the sea, there we were sprayed and had a dip in the sea. From the camp at Corinth, we were marched about 5 or 6 miles to a railway siding on the other side of Corinth canal, loaded into trucks just like cattle, about 50 men to a truck. As the train entered Athens it slowed down and a small Greek boy of about 9 years tried to pass a food parcel into the next truck. A Jerry let go with his rifle shot him through the arm. This was a perfect example of German culture. Spent a very short time in Athens and once more set off in cattle trucks. Not allowed out of trucks for long periods and men suffering from dysentery had to makeshift as best they could, old empty cans or bits of paper, which were slung out of the small openings as we travelled.
Gravia to Lamia by Forced March
Got to Gravia about 2 a.m. one morning and found that the next part of the journey was to be a forced march, owing to damage done to bridges and tunnels by our Royal Engineers. The march was a nightmare, the first 7 miles was up the mountain pass, very few stops for water or rest. Old women who tried to give us food and water were brutally treated by our guards. All through the heat of the day we kept going, about 7 or 8 miles from the top to the bottom of the mountain. The loads we carried became heavier with each mile, only bare necessities such as a blanket, greatcoat and spare bits of clothing, but they seemed to be millstones with each step. Many men collapsed and had to be helped along. The last stage of the march was dreadful, a long straight road about 8 miles long, feet churning up a thick dust which got in eyes, nose and throat. There seemed to be no end to this road and we trudged along it almost in agony, eventually at 4 p.m. we arrived at a small railway siding at Lamia, where we were able to get a bath under an engine-refilling pump. Feet were sore and blistered; many men were in a bad way. After a checkup it was found that one Britisher had died and also 5 German guards, it shows the stamina we must have had to endure such a horrible march after more than a month on a starvation diet.
Lamia to Salonika by Cattle Truck
Once more riding in trucks under filthy conditions until finally arriving in Salonika. Here we were forced to run through the town, as we went through could see people sitting in cafes and restaurants eating and drinking, it was almost unbearable. Eventually arrived at a Greek barracks, taken over by Jerry for interning prisoners of war. Here at last we were able to get a little rest and the food improved a little (but very little). A day or two after we arrived, a big batch of our troops who had been captured in Crete were brought in. They had been forced to surrender on June 1st. The accounts given for the battle for Crete were proof of the courage and determination of our small and poorly armed forces. The might of the German Luftwaffe was thrown against this gallant body of British and Empire troops. The enemy losses were enormous and own pretty heavy. If our chaps had received air support, Jerry would never have captured the island. Some days we had to go out working on dock wharves or railway sidings. One day I was sent to a hospital used by Jerry for his wounded, here I had to help carry stretchers in and out of operating theatres, sometimes being forced to help with dressings and to watch whilst doctors operated on wounded Jerries. Was able to get extra food from some of the Greek nurses and was able to satisfy my hunger, however by this time my stomach would not take large quantities of food. It had become so accustomed to very little that it had contracted become much smaller. After only a week in this camp, a large number of us were marched several miles in pouring rain to another camp just outside of town. This place was filthy and crawling with lice, bugs and other insects. The hot season was just starting, and an epidemic of malaria was feared by all, quinine was issued occasionally. Conditions were so bad that we began to despair, one day a Greek Red Cross van brought in some food to be shared amongst us, how welcome that food was can be shown by the fact that after everyone had satisfied his hunger, a brighter feeling of cheerfulness pervaded the camp. After 14 days in this camp, marched back to the other one where we spent a few more days. At last came the news for which we had been waiting, Russia was in the war against Germany (June 21st 1941). Rumours began to fly round like wildfire about Russian advances, looking back on it I believe that Jerry spread most of them to keep us in a better frame of mind, so that we would cause less trouble.
Salonika to Marburg / Maribor by Cattle Truck
Orders came that we were to be sent to Germany. Rations were given out to each man for 5 days. 5 dry biscuits and 3 cans of meat per man. Marched to the station where we were herded like cattle into trucks, 35 men in each, the doors locked from outside. After only a few hours the stench of sweating bodies was almost overpowering, we sat on the floor naked, trying to while away the weary hours for hours on end, sometimes even for 24 hours. We had to do our business in old cans and empty them out of the small windows. After a couple of days we stopped at Belgrade for a short time, allowed out of trucks for 3 minutes only in which to do everything. I managed to get a wash and fill my water bottle. The Slav Red Cross gave us some biscuits and meat and cigs, indeed a Godsend. Letterforms were also given to each man, so that he could write a short message home, however after filling them in, the Hun took them away and destroyed every one of the letters. Continued our journey for another 2 days under the same appalling conditions, finally arriving at Marburg in Yugo-Slavia [now Maribor, Slovenia]. Here we were put into big buildings lousy with vermin, straw for bedding, and crowded like sardines. In spite of it all, it was indeed a relief to be able to breathe some fresh air and to stretch our legs. Here, the food was better than any previously given to us but still not sufficient to keep a man fit and strong, by this time I had shrunk in weight to about 8 stones, a loss of 28 lbs. Here also our photographs were taken, fingerprints and other particulars, [identity] numbers were given to each man on a disc; mine was 8167. After a couple of weeks we were issued with the official Prisoner of War card to send home. Received a delousing towards the last week in July. On the July 27th about 400 of us, all ranks were sent out to work compulsorily. Into trucks once more, with rations for 1 day only.
Marburg to Gleisdorf, Unterlaßnitz, Hart & Labuch
At a small town called Gleisdorf 40 men were taken out of the first 2 trucks; I was amongst them; also my three pals. 20 of us went into a 3rd class carriage for the next stage of our journey, finally reaching Unterlaßnitz.We spent the night in a Gasthaus. It was a farming community and the farmers had asked for English PoW’s to help them with their work. They were friendly enough, which was indeed a change after all we had been through. They brought us bedding and food that very first evening. An amusing incident caused us to have a good laugh. A short stocky man with a fine walrus moustache gave some food and coffee to Arthur Johns and a woman gave some to Curly [?], the guard told them afterwards that these two people had picked out Curly and Arthur to work for them and by giving them food had the first claim on them. Next morning, 11 of us were still without farms to work on, one guard took us up through the woods, up the hills for about 2 miles until we came to another small community. Here, we were met by the Burgermeister, who told the guard where we were to go. I and another chap were the last two to be fixed up and got to a farm a goodish way from all the others.
The farm was run by a chap about my own age, Karl Puchas, with his mother and sister. We were given food and sent out to work straight away. Our billet was an old disused farmhouse; we all had to walk back at nighttime and were locked in by the guard who had a room to himself. (It was July 29th when we arrived). The corn was being harvested at that time, several times during that first summer I suffered from blackouts owing to my emaciation. Work started at 6 a.m. and finished about 9 or 10 p.m. The first Sunday [August 3rd] we moved our billet to another farm. We had to share soap and shaving gear as some of the chaps had nothing at all. The second Sunday [August 10th] we moved again. The women had to do our washing and darning. It was very difficult as we did not know the language and for a long time we conversed in sign language. Once a month we were issued with 2 letterforms and 4 cards per man with which to write home. It was September that we had a pleasant surprise; one day Red Cross food parcels and cigarettes arrived from England through the International Red Cross, Switzerland. Not so very long afterwards we received our first mail. The work went on from harvesting the crops, then to vegetables and on to winter; raking leaves for cattle fodder. On October 25th it snowed very hard and it stayed down until April 1942. The snow reached a depth of 4 ft. It was the coldest winter in Europe for 140 years. We were poorly clad and had to go into the woods felling trees to provide fuel for the following year.
About April ’42 we received 3 pairs of army boots between 8 of us, all were small sizes, so the chaps with the smallest feet were lucky. Being the senior N.C.O, I was picked by the chaps to represent them in any complaints or requests to be made to the German Commandant. By this time I began to get a fair knowledge of German. Next-of-kin clothing parcels began to arrive and once more we began to look a bit more respectable. The second year began with plenty of hard work. In March and April we began ploughing and sowing the year’s crops. In June we had to mow the grass with scythes and so on to haymaking. The weather was very nice indeed, very hot and not many wet days. On these wet days we were given jobs in the outbuildings, no slacking allowed. So we went on to harvest again and the same routine as the previous summer and autumn. With food from the farmers and Red Cross food we had all put on weight and our muscles hardened again. So we went on through ’42, ’43, ’44 and part of ’45, same work year after year. At Xmas, Easter and Whitsun we had 2 days free from work. And on various Holy days a half-holiday. All the farm people were Catholics and went to church as much as they could, so long as it did not interfere with their work. We got to know the news with clockwork regularity, not only the enemy version but also BBC communiqués. Sometimes we got the news from radios on the farms. It was forbidden, under penalty of death, for any of the Germans to listen to enemy propaganda but we were able sometimes to persuade them to tune into an English or American station. During winter 1943 we saw many fires in [the] Marburg direction about 40 miles away.
During 1944 the Americans started operating from Italy and came first of all in [formations] of 20 or 30 gradually increasing in number month by month. As our forces advanced in Italy so the raids became more frequent. The targets at first were nowhere near us but in Czecho-Slovakia, Germany or Poland. In November about 350, 4-engined bombers took Graz by surprise and dropped many tons of bombs on the railway yards, many hundreds of people killed and wounded. British PoW’s were forced by the SS to go in and clear up the debris and on many occasions afterwards were themselves caught during heavy raids. A few of the planes were shot down near us and once we were able to a helping hand to a Yankee sergeant who had bailed out, there is no doubt but that our presence saved a very ugly situation. Many times we had to duck from the Lightnings, which came skimming over the treetops. Have counted as many as 1500 planes in one day. Factories, trains, bridges and troops became main targets and German planes flew mainly at dusk when our day raiders had gone back to their bases. At nighttime we saw some lovely raids carried out by the RAF. The flares, which we called Xmas trees or Candelabras, lit up the sky for miles around. We knew the end was nigh.
1945. Farming until March
In March, the Russians pushed in our direction; we had orders to march. There were 11 of us in our small working camp, each of us had prepared for such a moment and on Easter Sunday all of us escaped and left the guard to evacuate on his own. On Easter Monday we heard Russian tanks in a village about 10 miles away. I was hiding with Stan Baker and Chas Rogers; the others were in pairs in different places. We expected the Russians to release us the next day, however they retreated after doing a lot of damage. Apparently the push was only a feint, the main objective, Vienna, was captured. For four days the farmers supplied us with food, even though they knew the punishment [was] death for aiding us. SS troops were all around us and to save the farmers from being punished we gave ourselves up. This time we really had to go on The March, once more the kindly farmers gave us plenty of food to take with us.
On Friday April 6th we joined a mixed column of Russians, French and Hungarian prisoners, we only went 5 km to a small village called Nestelbach. Here a Catholic priest gave us coffee at night and again next morning. Early Saturday morning we marched away guarded by police and Home Guard. Arrived in Graz about 1 p.m. The damage done by bombing was terrific. Three Yankee fighters flew over us and although we were uncertain as to what they would do, whether we were recognized as prisoners or not, we kept on in column while the Hun ran in all directions. Taken to a Concentration camp, it was overcrowded with civilian slave workers who were half-starved. All of the column except 20 of us, all British, were kept there. The Commandant in SA uniform almost chased us out. This time we were marched to a cavalry barracks in the middle of the town. Here we received blankets and some bread and coffee. Each of us had blistered feet and was exhausted after the day’s march, about 22 km in all. The German Commandant had to get in touch with higher authority to find out what we were to do. On Sunday a few guards arrived to take us away, at about 3 p.m. we left the barracks. We marched to what was left of the railway station. This was the first time I had seen the station since the bombing of Graz commenced and I was amazed at the incredible amount of damage done. For a radius of 1 mile around the station everything was absolutely flat, rails were turned up, engines lying hundreds of yards from the lines, trucks blown to pieces and black-charred skeletons of wagons lying all around. Away from the target area there was not so much damage.We had to march through all this debris until we came to a single track about a mile and a half from the station; here we had to wait 2 hours for a train. By this time there were 37 of us, one of the chaps decided to make a break for it. When the train came in we split up to give the chap a better chance and as we got aboard a couple of us saw him mingle with the crowd and walk away past the Gendarmerie. After a while the guards had a check up and as we kept dodging about to make it awkward for them, it took them 10 counts to find out that we had 1 man less. They were mad and wanted to know where and when he got away, naturally the same answer was given by everyone, they must have counted one too many to start with. Away we went through the darkness; there was a lot of troop movement as we went along. Eventually we got to a place called Voitsberg, a pretty little town in the hills. Slept in an old hut on bare boards.
Monday 9th. Drew some bread and sausage to last presumably 4 days. This time we had several hundred British and Colonials, as well as hundreds of French and Russian PoW’s. The German officer in charge said that the British troops being the best should lead the column. Set off about 11 a.m. with short intervals for resting, we marched 18 km all of it gradually up hill. When we stopped we were halfway up a mountain. Slept in old barns, bitterly cold.
Tuesday 10th. Set off early after a wash and a bite [to eat], continued climbing until 10 a.m. when we reached the summit, a sign-post told us the height 1,556 metres, higher than anywhere in Great Britain. There was plenty of snow on the top but with the sun shining it was really invigorating, a really grand view from here.
After a rest, started on our way again, down hill this time. Got to the bottom about 6 p.m. My feet were badly blistered and the Achilles tendon in my right foot was strained and swollen. A snow water stream was used by most of us to have a bathe. Billeted in a draughty old barn, however with a bit of straw was able to get a good night’s sleep.
Wednesday 11th. Set off a bit later today as we were only supposed to have an hour’s march ahead of us. The sun was scorching and we had to go over a dusty road. Halted for a rest about 2 miles outside Judenberg. Yankee planes flew over without molesting us.
The party of us from Unterlaßnitz, about 16 of us, had to go in a different direction to the others, to join our old company. Stopped for a short rest by a huge steel works in Judenberg, here most of us were a bit nervy as the works so far had escaped bombing and it was just about mid-day, the time when raids usually started. As we rested an English speaking woman slipped us a parcel containing bread, bacon, cider in a bottle and 20 cigarettes. She took an awful risk, the penalty was death, she doesn’t know how we blessed her. Away we went again, our hearts were lighter, as the packs were on a wagon instead of on our backs. Arrived at a little village about 5 miles out of town, Aichdorf. This was to be HQ for 4th Coy 891 Battalion, however we were the first ones to arrive. We scrounged some potatoes, swedes and a few other vegetables from the farmers and set to work cooking a meal. Made a good thick stew and had a magnificent meal. Made a brew of tea and cadged a smoke, then sat back and rested, oh boy! what luxury. (All of us carried a blanket, great coat, toilet kit and a change of underwear, also a few tins of food from Red Cross parcels, as well as the food the farmers gave us, by now sadly depleted.)
Thursday 12th. The day was spent in doing odd jobs, such as washing clothes, having a bathe in the river and a shave. Late in the afternoon the main body of prisoners in No. 4 Coy arrived, they had been on the march since Good Friday, the day on which we also should have joined them. They went the long way round and spent several days in Bruck camp. They were all in a bad way, had been force marched for 3½ hours solid, without any rest and when one of the German guards remonstrated with the officer, he was shot dead on the spot.
Friday 13th. Drew rations for 3 days, 1 kg of bread for 2 men and 1 lb of meat between 5 men. The 3 days will probably have to stretch out as the rest of our rations have done, as a matter of fact we did not get any more bread issued for 10 days.
Saturday 14th. Resting and playing cards all day. Finished up today with a fever.
Sunday 15th. Repetition of previous days. Finished bread ration today, all the grub, which I carried from the farm, is also gone. Still feeling pretty rough.
Monday 16th. Got rations, 2 small biscuits for 2 days, a bit of meat and a little fat. It was so much that I and most of my pals ate the lot in one go. At 6 p.m. some Red Cross parcels arrived, it worked out at just a little more than half a parcel per man, also 13½ cigs. With chocolate and cocoa, coffee and soup [soap?] did some trading with the farmers for bread. Fever gone.
Tuesday 17th. Cooked a stew for about 6 of us who pooled our meagre rations, also managed to knock off a chicken.
Wednesday 18th. Drew rations for 7 days, 1½ oz butter, 4 oz meat, 2 oz salt, 3 oz sugar, 8 oz dried peas and veg and a little fat, no bread or biscuits. Have got to march on this. 8 of us pooled all rations and managed to get 5 loaves between us.
Thursday 19th. Set off on the march, passed through Judenberg at 9.15 a.m. Got an old cart and 16 of us put our kit on it and pulled it along. Marched for 25 km with occasional rests. Spent the night in a draughty old barn. Unzmarkt.
Friday 20th. Set off at 6.30 a.m. Now going through mountainous country. Had to snatch a meal during rests from food scrounged or stolen from farmers. 29 km today, slept in barns in Murau.
Saturday 21st. Started off at 7.20 a.m. The weather so far has been very hot during the daytime but ice-cold at night and morning. Arrived at a pretty little village called Predlitz at 5 p.m. after doing 22 km. Slept in a barn as usual, but with plenty of straw and hay to lie on.
Sunday 22nd. 7 a.m. off again, snowing higher up the mountain a mile or so away, 10 minutes later crossed border from Stiermark into Salzburgerland. Started snowing on us about 8.30. Arrived at a small village [Moosham] about 1000 metres up, several inches of snow. The barn was the worst so far.
Monday 23rd. About 6 inches of snow, a bitter cold wind. Made two false starts, covering 2km and turning back. Midday made another start and carried on until about 4 p.m. arriving in a hamlet called Tweng. 14 km. My feet were really bad by now and my ankle was giving me a lot of pain, however many chaps were worse than [me] so I swore to carry on until I dropped, a few lousy Huns were not going to lick me so easily.
Tuesday 24th. Left at 8.30 a.m. In the pass above us it was snowing hard, we were about 1200 metres high and still climbing. Snowploughs had to clear the way in front. It was so steep that the whole 16 of us pulling our cart had a hard job to pull it along, finally at 11.45 reached the top. Tauernhöhe pass, a height of 1738 metres (about 5600 feet).
By the wayside the snow was over 6 feet deep and a driving head-on blizzard slowed us up considerably. It was hardly believable, only 48 hours earlier we had been scorching and now we were freezing. By the roadside were the bodies of Russians who had collapsed and been left to freeze or had been shot. Kept going downhill until 3.15 when we reached Untertauern, still over 1000 metres, where we spent the night in a draughty old barn. 16 km today.
Wednesday 25th. Left at 8 a.m. As we proceeded down the mountainside the snow was less deep, the sun came out and was pretty warm. We could see the green fields only a mile or two away below, while we were still surrounded by snow. It was like stepping from one country into another. About 10 a.m., many hundred bombers and fighters passed over us, I think they must have known who we were by now. Passed through outskirts of Radstadt. Got into a large village about Noon. Altmarkt. Here we received a bread issue and were able to make a fair meal. Had a bathe in stream icy cold, shaved and cleaned up, the first time had been able to do so for over a week.
Thursday 26th. Off again at 8 a.m. Stopped for a rest of 1 hour at midday. Arrived in Annaberg about 3 p.m. 24 km.
Friday 27th. Off at 7.30 a.m. and carried on with short rest intervals until 3 p.m. when we arrived at Gölling. Have been heading for Salzburg for the past few days and only just found that we are bound for Markt Pongau, so have to change our direction in the morning. 28 km.
Saturday 28th. 8 a.m. start and after 3 hours got on to the main Salzburg road, marching through a narrow pass [Pass Lueg], which was being prepared for blocks and gun sites, which were to be defended by SS troops. Passing us were many Jerry troops and one of them passed a few cigarettes to us.
Please note that there appears to be some confusion here. From Gölling the march would pass through Werfen before Bischofshofen on the way to Markt Pongau. I have transcribed the text as written in the journal.
Marched through Bischofshofen where it started raining, marched on for several hours soaked through. That night had to try to sleep in wet clothes, most of the night I kept awake. Werfen was the village. Done 22km this day
Sunday 29th. Started off about 10 a.m. and reached Markt Pongau about 2.30 p.m., had to wait a couple of hours outside. Got put in a wooden hut, no beds or blankets. Expected to get rations but none forthcoming until Monday.
Heard some BBC news, the first real news since the march started.
Today, 4 years ago, I first marched into a PoW camp, once more I march into a PoW camp, but this is my last one, the war is nearly over.
Monday 30th. Received Red Cross parcels, 1 between 4 men and had a meal after 36 hours fasting, got 1-eleventh of a kilogram of bread from the Hun. So the next few days were spent lying about and queuing up for Red Cross parcels when they arrived.
May 1945. Markt Pongau –› Salzburg –› Brussels –› England
Lots of rumours keep going around and everyone is keyed up until on Thursday at 7 a.m. we heard from BBC news that German forces in Northern Italy, Tirol and Salzburg had surrendered unconditionally to Gen. Alexander. On Friday May 4th had no parcels left, in a bad way for food. In the Afternoon, Lord Lascelles, Kennedy’s son, and another highly placed officer, who had all been prisoners, passed through our camp on their way to contact the forward Yankee troops. It was to be a mission of mercy to send food to our camp, also troops to protect us from SS troops who were still roaming around fully armed. On Sunday May 6th I was able to go to Mass for the first time since early 1941. The priest was Father Paul Juneau, a French-Canadian, well known in Stalag XVIIIA. Went to Confession in the evening and to Holy Communion the next morning. Afterwards, Dick Harris and I decided to go out to scrounge some food. We took a blanket, pullovers, socks, chocolate and soap to do some trading with the farmers. We crawled through a small hole in the barbed wire and set off. We walked from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It was a scorching hot day and as we hadn’t had anything to eat since the previous day and then very little, we were in a bad way. We had done about 15 km before we tried a farm; we got some milk pudding to eat, and swapped a blanket and soap for about 5 kg of flour, some potatoes and carrots. Went back over the hills and managed to get 3 loaves of bread, some butter and bacon to take back to the rest or our gang of 8 men. Got back in camp about 6 p.m. completely exhausted after covering about 25 miles or more. A couple of pals got a good meal going in a short time and I felt a lot better after it. In the evening we heard the good news, Germany had surrendered unconditionally, the war in Europe is at last over.
On Tuesday 8th the King spoke at 3 p.m. and Churchill at 9 p.m. Late evening a small body of Yanks came into the camp telling us that food was following behind. The scenes of joy were indescribable.
Wednesday 9th. Extra bread rations, which Jerry had in stock also Yankee composite rations and cigarettes.
Thursday 10th. Allowed out between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Yankee police in town. Friday and Saturday plenty of food and freedom.
Sunday 13th. English and French speaking priests said Mass for all Catholics in the church in town.
As the rest of the days passed we were split into groups of 25 for lorry and plane transport. I went into American HQ buildings to help with the documentation and filing of all British and Colonial soldiers. One evening, after dark I stumbled on some barbed wire and injured a hand and knee, they swelled up and gave me considerable pain for a couple of weeks.
Saturday 19th. 2500 men left the camp on the way home; some of my pals were among them. We were becoming impatient by now and groused and grumbled for another week. Took ill with dysentery on Thursday.
On Friday 25th came the great day. 113 Yankee lorries, each holding 25 men proceeded in column to Salzburg aerodrome. Arriving at the ‘drome, the first 18 lorry loads got into 18 planes, I was in No. 3 plane. It was a Dakota transport, the name of it was Gloomy Sunday; the crew were Canadians. Took off at 10.55. My first time up in a plane, the view was marvellous and I felt grand. Landed outside Brussels about 2 p.m. had some tea, cake and cigs from a Church Army mobile canteen. At 2.30 took off again for England. This time I became sick and felt pretty rough. Had a view of the English Channel and as I saw the shores of England a lump came to by throat. Landed about 4 p.m. at Dulford [?] aerodrome, Sussex. Had a wonderful reception, a brief medical inspection, delousing, and then a grand sit down tea with Red Cross Sisters waiting on us, everyone was simply grand. Taken by lorry to Haywards Heath, slept in a hut on a proper bed with clean pillows and blankets, the first decent bed since leaving England in 1941. Saw my first film for 4½ years.
On Saturday 26th had a good breakfast [at] 7.30, medical inspection [at] 11. New clothing at noon from Quartermaster’s stores. Smashing dinner at 1 p.m. In [the] afternoon passed through M.I.9 about 2 p.m. Had an early tea and just after 4 p.m. had pay, ration cards and railway warrant, got on lorries for the station, special train to Waterloo, and special buses to all mainline stations. Got to Euston and caught 8.45 to Crewe and the 1 a.m. from Crewe to Manchester. Arrived too late for buses, so went to Y.C.W canteen near Manchester town hall.
Got a bus early Sunday morning and arrived in Middleton before 9 a.m. Left my kit in police station and then went to 9 o’clock Mass at St Peter’s. Got home about 10 o’clock.
June to December 1945
During my leave, the Red Cross gave all the ex-PoW’s a tea and concert, the mayor welcomed us back home. The local branch of the PoW Relatives Association gave each of us £15. Went for a Medical at Ministry of Pensions, Sunlight House, Manchester. Health pretty good, heart and lungs sound, but trouble in right ear, recommended for specialist examination. On July 24th received a rejoining order for August 16th. However, a few days previously, Japs surrendered and so I took 48 hours extra leave as announced on radio. Reported to Depot at Norwood, on Saturday August 18th. Put under canvas on camp beds, no proper facilities. Spent a fortnight during which I enquired about my examination. It was not to take place until September 26th so I was sent home on a further 3 weeks leave. Back again on September 25th, next day went to Millbank Military Hospital, where I was examined by an ear specialist; he said nothing about treatment. A day or two later his report came back to the Depot; it recommended me for a Medical Board at Croydon. During all the time between my first examination and the Medical Board had received no treatment whatsoever. The Board I attended on October 11th was only cursory and they marked my [Soldier’s Service and Pay] Book C2 (H.S.). After this I got treated twice a day. A day or two later I was sent to the new Depot at Crystal Palace on Regimental Police duties. This I did until about December 12th. It was unpleasant duty and the hours of duty were staggered over 24 hours. The last week of my soldiering was spent on various odd jobs about the camp. On December 21st at 8 a.m., I along with about 60 others was taken to Olympia where we received our civvy outfits. Handed in equipment about mid-day. In afternoon received release papers, pay and railway warrant. After a short lecture dismissed from my last parade. That evening several of the lads joined with me in celebrating. Spent the night in barracks and next morning, just after 8 a.m. walked out of the barracks into Civvy Street, on my way home.