I enlisted in the Army in August 1940 and did my basic training at Caulfield Racecourse. Later I was sent to Albury to join the 2/23rd Infantry Battalion (Albury’s Own). There I had some good fortune which happened while I was on sick leave suffering from the measles. My first bit of luck was I was transferred to the Service Corps as a truck driver, and my second was that I was posted to the Sixth Division. Had I been sent to the Eighth Division, like my mate Aspro I would have ended up in Singapore and a prisoner of the Japanese, or worse.
On embarkation day, Aunty Tress Rourke and another six nuns all walked down to Station Pier to see me off. Each nun gave me a medal depicting their favourite Saint. When they returned to the convent, which is within sight of Station Pier, they hung a white sheet from the upper balcony and waved me farewell as the ship sailed. I was very touched by this gesture.
We sailed through the Red Sea, dropping anchor for a couple of days en route. On March 17, we arrived at Port Tewfik, Suez. We were ferried off in lighters and put on a train. We travelled by rail alongside the Suez Canal. By this time German aircraft flying out of Syria had dropped magnetic mines in the Canal and all shipping traffic had been suspended.
In due course we arrived at El Kantara where we crossed the Canal, and then on another train we crossed the Sinai desert to the Beit Jirja Camp in Palestine. Some student of Bible history told us that Moses had frequented the mountains we saw en route and that the land we were now in was then known as Caanan, the land of milk and honey promised to the Israelites. We all agreed they did not get much of a deal.
At Beit Jirja we did daily route marches to get some conditioning back into us. Then we were on the train again, back to El Kantara, through Cairo, and eventually we arrived at our destination, El Amyria, some 12 miles from the ancient city of Alexandria where we were given a day’s leave.
Word was getting about that we were destined for Greece. On April 9th 1941 we boarded another Dutch transport ship, the Cameronia. We sailed the following morning in convoy with two other ships escorted by two cruisers and three destroyers. A raid by high-flying Italian bombers caused no damage but gave us a hell of a scare. We eventually arrived in the Greek port of Piraeus and embarked on Easter Sunday morning, April 13th, 1941, exactly two months after leaving Fremantle. I enjoyed a day’s leave in Athens and managed to visit most of the famous Greek tourist icons including the Parthenon. But within a few days things began to turn ugly. The Germans had begun to pour resources into taking Greece. It later became apparent that we were landed in Greece to distract German armament away from its invasion of Russia. Our brigade was made up of Australian, New Zealand and British troops under the command of a British officer, Brigadier Parrington. We were not expected to be successful and so we were not resourced with adequate air cover, artillery, or naval support. Was this to be our Gallipoli? We evacuated Athens on April 27th and headed for Kalamata, but unfortunately missed the 17th Brigade evacuation. It was my job as a driver to remain as long as possible to pick up stragglers. For the next two days we were occupied
with fighting the Germans. Apart from air attack on the ship, this was my first and last military action.
Our fate was becoming clear. Communication between us and the navy was lost. On arrival in Kalamata I saw the last of the evacuation ships steaming for the horizon. We knew we were in trouble. We spent much of the next day huddled in groups sheltering from the German Stukas dive bombers. It was obvious we couldn’t make our escape from the peninsula. Around 8,000 of us were taken prisoner. We were soon taken from the beach at Kalamata, squashed into train carriages, and transported to Corinth.
The Corinth POW camp was primitive. Our beds were on the cold cement floor with our coats our only blankets. Some of the troops had to sleep in foxholes because the barracks were packed. Our toilet facilities were just a trench in the ground, about four feet deep. Good balance was essential. The water we drank came from two wells and although there was enough for most to drink, washing ourselves was a dream. We stank! We became infested with body lice so the Germans had an amusing scheme to kill the blood-sucking insects. They would take our clothes and steam them and while that was happening we were sprayed with disinfectant and told to swim in the sea. A couple of miles separated us from the ocean and, because of the lack of shorts, most of us had to walk naked down the main street of Corinth with the locals having a good look. Embarrassing! The food was nothing to write home about for we only got one bowl of lentil soup a day, and each week we were issued with a giant brick hard Italian biscuit. Although some olive oil softened them, they still weren't satisfying and we were becoming hungrier and hungrier. Tensions rose even more when a visit by Himmler himself was announced. We were obviously not impressed by his arrival and reacted accordingly. Our protest actions caused a furore among the Huns. I saw Himmler drive by in his open Mercedes staff car. The SS indulged him with lots of ‘Sieg Heils’ and heel clicking. In early June our captors put us aboard trains destined for Athens. Each train transported 1000 troops so the exercise took more than a week. The sight of the trains cheered me up. I and most of my fellow prisoners had suffered badly from dysentery and we just wanted to get away from Greece. On June 5th I was put aboard one of the first trains out. We hadn’t even left the station yards when I realised this was not going to be the Orient Express. The carriages were cattle trucks and we were loaded 55 to a carriage. Most of us had to travel standing up because of the cramped conditions. There was no air ventilation except for two openings in diagonal corners. I considered myself lucky because I was located near one of these openings. I soon realised that there was a price to pay. The men did their ‘business’ in their helmets and the ones closest to the opening had to empty out the contents. The wind often blew them back onto us and given that dysentery was still rife, this was a very unsavoury task. We arrived at Grevia at 3:00 a.m. The infantry and engineers had blown the railway tunnel so we were herded out of the train and were force marched 40 kms over a 5000 ft mountain pass. With the arrival of dawn the day grew hot. The combination of very hot weather, a powder dust in your throat, and no water in our bottles, made it an extremely painful day. The last few kilometres of the march were sheer hell. The guards also felt the heat and they became very irritable and unpredictable. The lentil soup diet wasn't coping with our physical needs either.
I recognised a fellow from Benalla who was older than most of us. He was a veteran of WW1. He helped me reorganise my pack and gave me lots of encouragement. When we arrived at the train he calmly opened his pack and pulled out some tea leaves. With a wink he told me to sit tight and walked up to the steam engine, opened a valve and managed to get some boiling water. He generously shared his tea with me and another mate and I began to recover. We eventually arrived in Salonika and were double marched from the rail head to a holding camp. As I jogged along, escape was the main focus of my thoughts; my emotions were getting the better of me. The Germans made quite a display of their armed guards with Doberman and Alsatian dogs. This had the desired effect and any escape plans were put on hold. We boarded a train once again, same deal as before, 55 to a wagon. Eventually we headed off, bound for Wolfsburg and a P.O.W camp designated Stalag 18A. When we arrived we were counted then given a feed of potato soup and finally allocated to barracks where we were given a bunk and two blankets. Then we were told to delouse. There were hot showers waiting for us and then our clothes were returned to us. Upon arrival we were given a feed and temporarily assigned to a barrack. We were then formally registered as a Prisoner of War. Once this was done we had the protection of the Red Cross. We were then photographed, fingerprinted and injected with God knows what. I was now, Kgf. 3705 Byrne, K.A. For the next two weeks, each day we were paraded at 4:00 a.m. and counted. At 6:00 a.m. we were given a mug of coffee and piece of bread for breakfast. Our next and only other meal for the day was dinner at 2:30 p.m. You would appreciate that this was not a very popular routine with the lads.
Luck came on July 12th 1941 when I and 200 others seized the opportunity to get on a work detail in Klagenfurt. Our uniforms were a disgrace with string and wire used to keep our boots together. We wore foot rags instead of socks which was a common practice in Europe at the time. Upon settling in to our new camp, we were in good spirits and considered ourselves tourists. The war would be won in another six months. Or so we thought! The last thing we expected was Klagenfurt would be our home until the last stages of the war – and that was nearly four years away. In August, 1941, we were visited by the International Red Cross and after a couple of weeks our soreness vanished and our health gradually improved. Greatcoats, boots and British uniforms were issued to us at last and when we thought all our luck had ended, Red Cross food parcels came from the skies. Sugar, tea, cheese, sweets and tinned food were some of the articles of food which together weighed about eight pounds. Although Allied bombing in 1944 restricted the regular distribution of the parcels, in 1945 we received eight parcels each in a month.
Even though our diet was very poor when we arrived at Klagenfurt, we stayed a fairly healthy group. Some blokes died because of various illnesses, cardiac arrests or accidents. I think we had around four hundred men at the beginning of our internment and we lost around thirty during the next four years. By 1943 my upper teeth had deteriorated beyond repair and a visit to the dentist was necessary. This was a long process for the local doctor would only use the cocaine in small doses and therefore would only remove six of the thirteen teeth to come out on each visit. Two trips were needed and in the end I finished up with a plate for the rest of the war. The population ratio was fairly even with 150 Australians, 150 Britons and 100 New Zealanders. Many activities were devised so time could pass more quickly and we could cope with camp life a bit more. Concerts were held, games of soccer with eight a side were played; sports days were designated and good old sing-a-longs took place. Two-up was popular. In the evening, certain subjects were vigorously discussed with the topics usually connected to politics or religion. The Camp also had its own monthly newspaper surprisingly, called `The Camp'. It included columns concerning the present state of war and P.O.W news and although it was our paper it always had a German slant to it. Our lives became easier during the years of 1942 and 1943 when the Huns were winning the war, probably because we had adjusted and accepted our lot more than at the start of our stay.
Kevin, back row, left, with hut mates in 1942. Several of his fellow POWs were from New Zealand.
The Gestapo and SS would sometimes make surprise raids on us and conduct body searches. The prisoner-guard relationship was a formal one. I tried to be 100% formal towards the guards for I believed none of them could be trusted and one in particular was a little ‘trigger happy. 'The Germans seemed to have fairly good security outside of the camps. Escaping was not generally entertained as a possibility. There were a few guys who tried it but they were caught within a week or so. It was a breeze to avoid capture within 30 kms of the camp's boundaries, but after that there were permanent controls which existed on both rail and road. The mountains or Yugoslavia were the only possible directions to run but still at these there were trouble spots. If you ran into the Croats or Slovenians they would automatically hand you back to the Germans. If you were able to dodge that lot you would have met the Serbs who would have enlisted you in the Partisan forces. The escape route to Italy was out of the question and a saying went along with it, 'out of the frying pan and into the fire.’ From 1944 onwards, it becoming evident as every day passed that the Allies would be the victors, the actual moment that we were free was the best feeling for a long while. In the camp we had (illegal) access to current BBC news reports so we knew what was going on the ‘outside.’
Two nights before the end of our captivity, three mates and I decided to evacuate the premises. We could hear heavy artillery in the distance which seemed to come from the south east. We thought the camp might have become a bit of a hot spot by the next day. After slipping the guard a couple of cigarettes we exited under the security wire of the camp. Following our escape we hopped aboard a train destined for Innsbruck and then finally got off at Villach. We arrived at the Italian border on foot at midnight. We were stopped at a check point and told to wait for British forces to arrive. However after spending four years of our lives in a POW camp we decided to push on a few more kilometres.
Suddenly a dream that was in our minds since day one came wonderfully true. Firstly, a German staff car headed our way, followed by a British staff car with a General's pennant and Union Jack on it. Then a small number of 8th Army tanks rolled up. Trailing them were truck loads of infantry. There were scenes of laughter, cheers and lots of bear hugs. After the celebrating we were picked up by a utility and driven back to Klagenfurt. As we travelled to the camp the feeling among us was one of pride and happiness. I noticed that all the houses that were flying Swastika banners just yesterday now displayed flags with Austrian colours (red and white). Once back at the camp we were told that we'd be flown out of the country.
I was discharged from the Army on August 15th, 1945.On reflection I was lucky. The Japanese POW’s had it very much harder. My friend Aspro was one of the unfortunates who didn’t make it home. The Russian POW’s died like flies. The French POW’s had no morale. Their country was occupied by the Germans so they had no government support from home. Conversely, we had enormous support from the home-front and so our morale, for most of the time remained relatively high.