Tom shipped out from Liverpool in June 1940 and spent some months in North Africa until, in March 1941, he was sent to Greece.
Two days later we all boarded ship going we knew not where. We had to sleep in the vehicle cabs. I was unlucky enough to be on deck. A few hours out we hit a storm. The captain said it was the worst storm he had ever experienced in the Mediterranean: We had to keep getting out and tighten the fixing ropes and wheel blockers. We were about three days at sea when we were told our destination was Greece – the coast line was just visible in the distance.
We docked at Piraeus the Port of Athens. We moved to camp overlooking the harbour. We were in tents. It was pouring with rain and sleet – a good welcome after the warmth of the Libyan dessert.
When we had settled in we had to move equipment up to Salonika. The worst of this was a four trailer mobile laundry. It was huge and much too big to travel through the mountain passes.
John Hurst and myself took the first journey not without some hairy moments. We had a Ford V8 four wheel drive – we were thankful for that. The conditions of the passes were unbelievable but I thank my guardian angel once again for seeing us through.
There was a crowd waiting in Salonika to get the units working. They gave us a big cheer when we arrived, a slap up meal and a few lovely beers. Next morning we went back to Athens and started moving about 50 tanks to the front line, not a task to look forward to.
It was now snowing hard and blowing a gale. We preferred to sleep in our cabs than the tents. We had about 3 months repairing vehicles before the bad news came that the Germans had taken Salonika. They had taken over the Italians. We were being bombed from daybreak until sunset.
We were about 20 miles from Salonika and could hear the gun fire going on. We were camped near Larissa when our sergeant major opened the door of the old barn where we were sleeping, fired a few shots in the air and told us to get out. It was every man for himself. This was not a very responsible way for a N.C.O to act. I didn’t see him again.
In the next few days we made our way mainly at night to Kalamata with Germans on our tail. There were about 10,000 men queuing up on a beach. We were being shelled and there were some savage fights going on not far from us.
We hadn’t slept for three days but I can say we were wide awake. In the confusion I had lost John. When I found him he was shouting to me from the front of the queue to join him, which I did. The officer in charge saw me and told me I would be put on a report when we got away, which of course we didn’t.
As night fell we were told to be alert for the sound of ships in the harbour which as the fighting eased we could hear the engines throbbing as the ships arrived. It was pitch black. We couldn’t see a foot in front of us. Gradually the fighting all but stopped. We couldn’t hear the engines. We moved into what I could only describe as a miniature Cheddar gorge. We were exhausted. We slept through to morning.
I woke as the dawn was breaking. There was a strange eerie silence. A German officer on top of the ravine hailed us with a loud hailer. Speaking perfect English he sarcastically shouted Good Morning Soldiers you are now surrounded by our elite fighting men put down your arms and join us up here. We will try and work out if you could be useful to us .We had no option but to do as he said. It was hard to grasp that we were prisoners of war. They marched us to the beach and told us to remove all our clothes. They made us queue to dust us over with a delousing powder and pushed into the bay. We found out later that they were under the impression that we were infected with body lice – most of their soldiers were. I told John I was worried because I couldn’t swim. He told me to lay on my back and flap my hands about and he would try to give me a bit of support – it worked.
They walked us around the village to a field with their vehicles surrounding the area. We had to queue to be questioned by about 50 officers about the jobs we were doing - most of us invented things like cat burglars etc. They asked how many men there were beyond Kalamata. We answered with our service numbers.
We still hadn’t had any food by the next day. We were hungry and bad tempered. There were about 8,000 men in this patch and all night long the Geri were using the vehicle lights to keep a watch on us.
On the third day an army truck unloaded our long awaited food and a large urn. The food consisted of 3 goats crawling with maggots. The chaps cleaned them the best they could and put what they salvaged into the urn with plenty of water and dandelion leaves and nettles. When it was shared out there wasn’t a lot but it went down well.
The following day we were told there was going to be a high ranking officer coming to address us. This turned out to be none other than the awful Herr Himmler a wicked man if ever there was. He spoke to us through an interpreter telling us what a wonderful world it would be when they had won the war and all the P.O.W’s would remain in Germany until it was rebuilt. We all booed and laughed at his speech. He was a very angry man and thinking of it in later years I think we were lucky to get away with it.
The next day we were assembled and marched to railway cattle trucks and packed in like sardines – no food, water or toilets. There were holes drilled in the floor for toilets. We were there for a day. By morning we were desperate for water. Eventually we were supplied with water through a hose pipe which was poked through the door grills. We had to be quick and take what we could in the short time they gave us. We later heard a lot of shouting and noise. We were on the move again.
The next day we had another stop. Water supplied the same way and stale bread for each truck. It was becoming intolerable. The men were falling exhausted on the floor and giving up. I thought my little guardian angel had deserted me but, worse was to follow. The trucks started to rattle and shake. We found out later the brake system had failed on a four mile downhill run – lucky again I think.
At last the guards were opening the doors. We were ordered out and told to clean the trucks with water from a small lake nearby. We were then told to strip and get into the water to have a decent clean up. We had to drink from this. We had no alternative.
We lost track of time and didn’t really know how long we had been travelling. Our guard was a good man who told us he didn’t like the Nazis. He showed us photos of his wife and family and told us he was Austrian and we were in Yugoslavia.
We were rounded up and put in a small compound. We were once again surrounded by small armoured vehicles with their lights on all night. Perhaps they thought we would try and escape but we were exhausted and most of us had dysentery.
We were in a sorry state and collapsed and slept the night through. Luckily, it was the month of May and the spring in Yugoslavia is just like home.
Our peace and quiet was broken by the guards shouting, blowing the horns on the vehicles and prodding us with their bayonets. A lorry was driven into the compound, three guards jumped out from the back and lowered the rear and side flaps. One sat inside with a machine gun. We feared the worse but I suppose it was their way of showing their authority.
We were lined up and given a piece of bread and what looked like a small square of fat bacon and a mug of strange tasting coffee. Some were too ill to stand. They were taken away by the food lorry. We don’t know what became of them. We didn’t see them again.
The train we arrived on was suddenly on the move and about an hour later another train load turned up. These poor chaps were in an awful state. We wanted to give them some help but were not allowed to. The next day they were marched into our compound. They were Australian and New Zealanders with a few of our troops taken prisoner of war further down from the Kalamata canal.
They told us that most of the officers had got away by Sunderland sea planes. They were front line soldiers and many had been badly wounded, several of them had passed away on the train journey. They were thrown into shallow graves near the lake. We noticed the Germans had removed their identity disks. When we asked our friendly guard what was going on. He said the Red Cross would be notified.
The following day we were put into groups of twenty and thirty and given some more awful looking dark bread and marched through the village to a large quarry. We were given sledge hammers and told to get working or no food. One of our groups of a few hundred were marched to the airport and told to load aircraft. The Australian sergeant with them refused telling them it was against the Geneva Convention. There were a lot of shouting and threats but they held out and the sergeant was classed as a bit of a hero.
The rest of the P.O.W’S were marched to a large group of what looked like farm buildings – old and in poor condition. In the weeks that followed they had to make them tenable. This was to be our sheltered accommodation for a couple of years. It was called Marburg on the Austrian/Yugoslav border.
It was a boring two years except for the occasional excitement.
Christmas1942. The hut we lived in was situated on the side of a steep bank. We decided to dig down and out through the side of the bank. The planning had been going on for many months. We decided it was now or never. The tunnel wasn’t the difficult part. We had a wooden stage effort for a bit of singing and there was a panel out of this that enabled us to do our digging excursions. It was surprising how much we were able to take out each day. There were a few snags we had to overcome. The main one was which way we went when we got out. We couldn’t plan a direction. There were mountains in the distance. We assumed to be the Austrian/Swiss border.
Christmas evening we arranged a sing song. We had a New Zealander with us who could sing well. His singing attracted the off duty guards which gave the impression all was well. - We were even given a good applause. They cleared off and put our nights out for the night.
We pushed the remainder of the tunnel out and we were away. One snag was a raised hut by the entrance gate of the compound. This was managed by two guards with machine guns and search lights, which made it difficult.
We had collected enough food from our Red Cross parcels to last us for a few days. We walked by night and rested during the day. The area was woodland – we had plenty of cover.
The fifth day out we were resting in a copse near a town (there were four of us) when we heard the noise of dogs. The two German Sheppard dogs barked and growled at us until two armed police came along. One laughed his head off when he saw what the dogs were barking for. We put our hands up. We were taken to the local police station where we were given water and some square pieces of meat.
We were kept in the cells until the following morning when two guards came to take us back to the compound. We were kept in a hut next to the guards and fed on bread and water for a week and then we were told to get packed to move on. In the meantime we had information from one of the guards that we were about a day away from the Swiss border.
We were marched to a place called Tremmersfeld in central Austria where were worked on Quarry’s again One day we were hammering away with these awful sledge hammers when I suddenly felt shaky and shivery, couldn’t get enough energy to stand up. I sat on a rock and gave up. Two guards came over with their bayonets prodding and threatening. I didn’t understand them. I tried to move but my legs wouldn’t respond. They called over two of my mates who managed to get me on my feet but I was feeling so ill I went down again. The guards let them take me back to the hut. I climbed into bed and flaked out.
The following morning I was woken by two mad Germans with fixed bayonets shouting and prodding me. Why wasn’t I outside on morning parade? I tried to get up but when they saw my neck and face twice its normal size their faces were a study of shock. One guard almost dropped the riffle. They shot out and came back with the commander. He spoke English and was a little more sensible. He told me to try and get up. He went away and returned and told me to get my belongings. I did as he asked. When I looked at myself in the mirror it was my turn to look shocked – no wonder they ran off.
The officer and a guard returned an hour later. The officer told me I had Mumps and I was to go to a hospital which was an hour away. I had mixed feelings about this as men had moved camps and had not been heard of again. I was at their mercy. I was taken to a railway station. I was put in a carriage on my own with an armed guard outside. I don’t know to this day where I was. It was a large hospital and very comfortable. To my delight the doctor was an Australian and the ward I was in were all British soldiers with war wounds – some very ill. They told me they had very little medical help – no pain killers or tablets of any kind. The doctor told me the only gain I would have is rest and reasonable food. I was there about a week. I had to return to my old draughty hut.
When I returned I walked through the gate to be recognised and given a great welcome back.
About a quarter of a mile from our camp was a massive group of buildings which was a bearing factory. We often had air raid warnings. One day we had an alarm early morning. The guards were shouting and getting us out into the square. We could hear the bombers overhead. We all started running – guards as well.
It felt like freedom again. We crossed a railway line that led to a factory. We ran as quickly as our legs would take us as the terrible noise of bombs falling. A weird sort of noise and thud in the ground just ahead of us, gravel showering over us. I was hit in the back and others badly wounded. We found out later it was an unexploded bomb landing between the railway line and a few yards from us. We must have had a guardian angel. We ended up in thick woodland, no guards in sight we kept walking right through the night we got through the woods the following morning only to find our not so friendly guards waiting for us as we got into the open fields.
It took all day to march back to the camp – we were exhausted. Our clusters of huts were intact but the factory was flattened. We all cheered until we saw the rows of bodies all laid out. I can still see those awful scenes so clear today. The camp seemed half empty.
A couple of weeks later we were on the move again. This time to a place on the slopes of the Austrian Alps called Deutshlandsburg. There were about 150 of us now. We were put into groups of 20 and posted to the farms around the area with a guard to look after us. This was like a dream come true: beautiful countryside and better food with help from the farmer and his family.
My first job was ploughing with Oxen with a lovely old man by the name of Louie who must have been at least 90 years old a wonderful friendly character. The Oxen were stubborn and would only move if they wanted to. When they walked the front legs would splay out and land on your feet too often – I had to lead the creature and the old fellow would guide the plough. My feet were very bruised and sore when we finished the days ploughing. Louie would bring us squares of fat bacon with a piece of dark bread.
We soon began to feel much better and the lovely fresh air was a tonic to us. The farmer and his wife were a little offish at first but after a few weeks when they realised the guard (an Austrian) was a decent sort we all got on well.
The information that was coming through to us was promising as well. Our guard kept us as up to date as he could. We heard that the Allies were advancing through France and the Nazis were on their way to defeat. This sounded too good to be true and we treated it cautiously.
Our camp was situated overlooking Salzburg and every day the air force were overhead bombing the rail marshalling yards. We would watch the bombers coming over and the German fighter planes getting amongst them. We would watch the huge bombers suddenly dip and start to plummet towards earth with the crews bailing out. This was happening every day whatever the weather.
One of the best jobs on the farm was grape picking. After they were picked they were put into big tubs and treaded on to extract the juice which was put into large jars and placed in the cellar to ferment. We were taken into the house and given wine samples with our guard joining in but we had drunk too much and behaving rather foolishly which didn’t go down too well with our friendly guard.
A few months later we were told to pack the few possessions we owned. The whole farm family waved us off. Old Louie was breaking his heart – poor chap. As he waved us off he called out that he would be 100 in a few months’ time and wouldn’t see us again and wished us the best in the future.
We met the other men we hadn’t seen for a long time and started a long walk to Berchtesgarten which took about 5 weeks. It was April and we were lucky to have decent weather.
We found ourselves in a large compound where there must have been about 10,000 men from all over the area. Since leaving the farm we had got back into a sorry state again: we were thirsty and very hungry. We were getting very angry and the guards (there were about 100) were very restless. That night we kipped down where we stood. Early in the morning we were awakened by what sounded like a massive battle going on in a distance. We knew that very soon we were going to be free.
We heard silence. The guards were looking out from their barracks and the next moment they were filing out putting their armoury in a pile in front of them and standing in line.
We knew something was going on. We heard the sound of tanks and lorry transport coming. It was a black unit of Yanks. They didn’t hang about. They confiscated the entire German armoury and bundled the Germans into a truck and away.
An American officer told us to queue up for food. They handed out white bread, tins of meat and cigarettes - a day to truly remember for all time.
The next day some of the men wanted to wander off but were advised to stay put by the American officers. The reason for that was apparent the next morning when a convoy of American trucks lined up, taking about 30 men at a time to the airport about an hour’s drive away, onto a Dakota transport plane and flown to an air field near Brussels. There we were given showers, new clothing and a series of medical checks and food we hadn’t seen for four years. No words could describe how we were all feeling.
The old guard who had watched over us the last three months had gone. We would have liked to have said our farewells and thanked him for making our circumstances bearable.
A few days later we were packing our new belongings and queuing up to get into Dakotas about 30 men to a plane sitting on the floor and feeling all’s well in our worlds. I am sure if they told us to sit on the wings we would have. A couple of hours later we landed in Oxford. It all happened so quickly.
We had to go through another medical check, another wonderful meal of steak and chips with jugs of lovely tea. We were assembled in a large hall and a speech from some Brigadier welcoming us back and given passes for 3 months leave (we were under the impression that we would be demobbed).
The same day we were driven to the railway station. I had to wait 2 hours for my train but nothing mattered. I was the only one that caught the Bristol train. By the time it came there were only a few chaps waiting. I don’t know how long the journey was to Temple meads. I caught a taxi to the door at Wells Road in Knowle and opened the gate to a rapturous welcome and more cups of tea. To think only a few days ago I was still a P.O.W.
I had to spend another 12 months in the army before I was posted to Aldershot and demob. The army and I parted company for ever. The last twelve months were not very memorable and the least said about them the better.
There is one incident that I think is worth mentioning. I had to report to Catterick barracks on my first day back and passing the square I passed an officer and didn’t salute. I was put on charge and put on toilet duty.
I managed to get a week’s leave to meet Jean . I purchased an old Vellocete motor bike and we had some good fun touring the local area. I proposed to Jean on trip to Portishead on the back of the bike and bless her she said yes.
I had to return to Catterick. Jean came to Temple meads station to see me off, there were a few tears. A few weeks later on another few days leave Jean and I fixed a day for the wedding. I returned to barracks and applied for leave to get married. I was given Friday to Tuesday. The wedding went well and our honeymoon was spent at the Gaiety cinema in Wells Road.
I returned to barracks at 5am. I snatched a couple of hours sleep to be woken at 7am. We had an hour to wash and shave and to get on parade. We washed and shaved in cold water. The parade was a disaster. I was accused of not shaving by the sergeant major. I had to report to him in an hour. He put me on attention outside his office every morning for a week with full kit. That just about finished me with the army.
A time to remember and a time to forget.