Robert Cunliffe

“I had volunteered to join the Territorials in 1938 and at the end of August, 1939 I was called up to the regular army. The first stage was reporting to Moscow Mill Barracks. I was Private Cunliffe, No 887652, of 154 Battery, 52 Light Ack Ack Regiment, The Royal Artillery. From Moscow Mill we moved to Aldershot on the 7th September to await transfer. On the 14th September we went down to Southampton and were shipped across to Cherbourg. From there we went by train to Douai. This was the period of the ’Phoney War’ and I spent the Christmas in Templeuve. When the offensive started we were moved back to Douai and then up to the Belgian border; then through Reims and the general retreat. We were engaged in what was called ’leapfrogging’, that is defending the convoys from air attack. This lasted for about two weeks all the way to Dunkirk. I waited about two days, on the beach and in the water, for evacuation and was picked up by a navy rowing boat and taken to HMS Skipjack, a navy minesweeper, which delivered us across the channel and landed us at Folkestone.

From Folkestone we were transferred to a camp in Exeter where I stayed for five days and was then given seven days survival leave. On return from leave I was based first at a camp near Rampton guarding against parachute attack and then to a camp at Sherwood Forest where we were kitted out for the Middle East.

After a ten day embarkation leave, I returned to Sherwood and from there we journeyed to Liverpool where we boarded a 27,000 ton ship called the Dominican Monarch. It was August, 1940 when we set off, calling at Sierra Leone on the way to Cape Town, where we were granted 3/4 days shore leave. Then off again up the Indian Ocean, where we landed at Port Tufik, Egypt, after a journey lasting five weeks and covering 12,990 miles. Some wit on the ship asked the Captain if he would go round in a circle before docking so as to make it a round 13,000 miles.

We were at Ben Yusif, close to Cairo for two weeks and then moved up to Tobruk, again guarding convoys of troops. After two weeks we were pulled out and moved to Alexandria where we boarded a cruiser called HMS Berwick and sailed to Greece.

We stayed at the Continental Hotel in Athens for two-three weeks waiting for kit and then moved to Trikkalla for three to four weeks before moving on to Larissa to guard an airfield. During this period there was a very severe earthquake. Then it was on to Janina on the Albanian border guarding another airfield where I spent Christmas, 1940.

The German offensive began in April and I had seven days leave in Athens before rejoining my unit and starting the retreat. We got to T Beach and the last destroyer to leave was crowded. The Captain was swearing and cursing that he must get under way. My mate Jackie Bringle jumped aboard and held out his arm for me to jump, when I got a second premonition. Something told me not to go. I refused his offer. The destroyer sailed and was bombed and sunk an hour later with all hands lost.

I was wounded by shrapnel, and the next day was captured by the Germans. This was on the 28th April, 1941 and lasted until the 25th May, 1945.

I joined about ten thousand other prisoners near T Beach, where for three months we were systematically starved, a lot to death. We were then marched and transported by train to Salonika. Practically everybody had dysentery. We were then packed into cattle trucks, sixty to a truck. Try to imagine sixty men in a sealed up box with one biscuit and a boiled egg each, all with dysentery, no toilet and kept in there for four days travelling. At the end of the journey the door was opened and we dragged out fifteen dead.

Once we arrived at the permanent camp I developed diphtheria, which as a result of malnutrition turned into polyneuritis, which is total paralysis. I spent about six months in the civilian hospital, which was staffed by German doctors and Yugoslavian sisters in Marburg on the Yugoslavian/Austrian border.

I spent the next three years in a work camp situated on Mahrenberg farm, which was owned by a Mr Suppanz.

Shortly before the end of the war we were moved from Mahrenberg farm to Kapfenberg in Austria where we were placed on a work detail filling in bomb craters at an airfield. After about three months with the Russian advance getting nearer, we were force marched for Kapfenberg to Marktpongau. One night we went to bed and the guards were in place and the next morning when we woke up they had all gone. The Americans arrived at midday and released us. We were debriefed by the British and then taken by an American Dakota aeroplane to Reims in France. We stopped overnight at an American camp where they laid out some tables filled with cigarettes and candy, gave us a bag each and told us to help ourselves.

The next day we were flown to England on a Lancaster and given a special reception and meal. Next to each plate was a twenty pack of cigarettes.”

(Information provided by his son, Robert Cunliffe.)

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