Walter (Bill) Gossner

Walter Gossner’s Capture and Escape

Walter Gossner, a Private in the 2/15 Infantry Battalion, Australian Army,  was captured in North Africa in 1941 and, up until late 1943, was a POW in Italy where he remained until the Germans took over his POW camp.

With typical German efficiency they came into the compound at noon and told us to be ready to march out at 1 p.m.

Speculation was rife as to our destination. Many were of the opinion that we were to be sent home. However a German guard told us we were bound for the fatherland and in an incredibly short time we were marched to a railway siding about 3 miles away and 4000 of us entrained and going north. It was a lovely moonlight night and the trip through the Brenner Pass was most impressive but few of us were in a mood to appreciate the grandeur of the scenery since while we had been in Italian hands we heard the most frightful stories of atrocities, alleged to have been inflicted on British POW’s in Germany. (During the year I spent in German POW camps I found the treatment to prisoners of war far better, generally, than that in Italian camps.)

We passed through Villach and went on to Spittal-on-the-Drau and from there were drafted into parties ranging in numbers from 20 to 50 men and sent out to various jobs in Southern Germany and Austria.

At this time thousand of POW’s were passing through Spittal every day some going north to Germany proper and others to various parts of Europe at that time under German domination.

With 10 other Australians I was sent to a camp at St. Igidi on the Vienna side of Marburg and found the camp occupied by Scots and Tommies. They were great chaps and did all they could to make us comfortable.

From here I transferred to a camp near Graz and from there at short intervals from place to place until finally I joined a camp at Marburg (1046/GW). This camp appeared to me to offer fair chances of escape through Yugoslavia and a small group was formed to discuss tentative plans to get in touch with Yugoslavians who were known to be pro-British.

There were 104 prisoners in this camp and since some of them were inclined to talk a lot, the escape plan was not generally known.

At this time we were repairing the Klagenfurt-Vienna line and working about 20 miles from our barracks and about a day’s march from the Austria-Yugoslavia border. Andy Hamilton and Les Laws had made contact with a Yugoslav living near where we were working and whom they discovered to be strongly pro-British. He promised to attempt to get a message through to a Yugoslav partisan patrol thought to be operating near the border almost due south of where we were working. He also told us of a girl working as a dental mechanic in Marburg who would be able to give us valuable assistance in the matter of maps and information of the partisan patrol’s whereabouts south of the border.

To meet this girl I paraded with toothache and after carefully feeling my way, approached her for the necessary assistance. She also gave us her best wishes for a safe journey.

(She was executed shortly after our breakaway.)

It was now early September and a message came through from the partisan patrol saying we were to be prepared for a quick get-away from the job at any moment.

It should be explained that we travelled to and from our job in our own train consisting of an engine and two carriages. On dropping us at the job the train would either wait at a siding or return to St. Lorenzen station about 2 miles away.

From 80 to 90 of us went to work daily, the remainder of the total of 104 made up barracks staff, sick, malingerers, etc. who stayed at camp.

When the 20th September arrived without any further word from the patrol (portion of Tito’s 14th Brigade) we became anxious, since unless the escape could be made before mid-October our chances would be greatly reduced due to the arrival of the cold weather.

We could not attempt to carry to the job anything in the way of equipment for the trip through Yugoslavia as occasionally we were searched at the station from which our train left.

The great day arrived on September 27th 1944.

On this day 84 of us had gone to work. On getting out of the carriages our 18 German guards and three civilian engineers were immediately covered by a strong force of extremely well armed Yugo partisans. The few of us who had hoped for this event hastily explained the position to the others and in a matter of minutes the whole party was away. One German guard was killed when he attempted to get away; the remaining 17 with the three civilians were placed under guard and taken with us.

The get-away took place at 7 a.m. and we traveled fast all day with a short stop for a meal provided by the patrol.

At about 6 p.m. we halted and the German guards and civilians were lined up and sub-machine guns turned on them. They were left as they fell. After this callous execution we moved about two miles south and slept as best we could. We knew what to expect now should we be re-taken.

At daylight the following morning we were able to examine the partisans in detail and found that they numbered 70 and all had been specially armed for the job. We now split into parties of 12 POW’s with four partisans to each section and spent the day under cover.

At 5 p.m. we reassembled and had our first meal of the day; fresh meat and black bread acquired by a Yugo foraging party.

Soon after dark we fell in, in single file, 10 men to each squad marching five metres between man and ten metres between squads. About 40 partisans scouted at the rear of this long drawn-out line, ten at the head of the leading file and the remaining 20 scouting on our flanks.

I happened to be in the leading file with two other Aussies, four Tommies and three New Zealanders.

At about 2 a.m. in clear moonlight we were crossing a wide-open field when from directly in front a hideous chattering of machine gun fire broke out. They had opened up at about 500 yards and were using tracer. The four Tommies, for some unknown reason broke away from the adjacent cover, drew the fire from the machine guns and were literally cut to pieces. Others took cover in the spruce forest from which we had emerged only a few minutes earlier. All pretence at organized movement had now disappeared. The main party with the partisans could plainly be heard crashing through the undergrowth and going down the hill. A few bursts from the partisan machine guns drew a series of savage bursts from the German spandaus and it was obvious that the German force was of far greater strength than that of the Partisans.

In the general confusion I made a wide detour and went around the German position. After an hour I rested and summed up the situation. I was now on my own and felt a strange relief at being separated from the main party. From the start the idea of marching in such a long line through country swarming with German troops had worried me.

I decided to travel due west for one night and then to strike south in an attempt to get to the Adriatic and from there join British and American troops in Italy.

It was impossible to travel along the valleys, which in Northern Yugoslavia run almost due north and south and to keep out of trouble I had to put up with the rough going in the mountains.

For two nights I travelled in a generally southerly direction and met no one. For food I gathered a few vegetables from farms on the fringe of the forest, which, perforce, I had to eat raw and after ten days on this diet found that I was able to eat only enough to keep me going.

Every night in the valley below the mountain I was on, fierce skirmishes between partisan and German patrols occurred. No heavy stuff was used, mostly machine guns and mortars. One could almost judge the strength of the opposing forces as the Jerries were using mostly spandaus, the peculiar spang of which is unmistakable. The Yugos were using mostly Bren and Sten guns supplied by Britain and dropped into Yugoslavia by air.

On the fourth night after the ambush I struck my first trouble when I almost walked into the arms of a small German patrol. They challenged and opened fire as I scrambled through the undergrowth but abandoned the chase after about 300 yards.

At about 3 a.m. I was again challenged and fired on but this turned out to be a partisan patrol. The leader knew of our escape and offered me his schnapps flask. I took a generous swig and regretted this when I realized that I was expected to take a drink from the flask of each member of the party. Fortunately the patrol consisted of only four men. Although I am very partial to Yugoslavian schnapps, I preferred to be quite sober when finding a hideout for the day.

Here it should be explained that on challenging, the Yugoslavs always added the word “partisani” whereas the German gave the harsh “halt” and if no password was at once given, opened fire.

Any conversation was carried out in German, a smattering of which I had acquired in prison camps. A partisan patrol always included one member who spoke German in order to interrogate any Jerry they might capture. The Yugoslav’s hatred of the German was so intense that mostly they disliked speaking his language.

On the following night I had gone only a short distance when a partisan patrol challenged me. They proved to be a scouting party from a strong force preparing to attack a nearby village occupied by German troops. I was asked to join them and asked if I understood their weapons. A lad standing near me carried a Bren gun and when I asked him where his No.2 was he said he proposed to operate the Bren himself. I joined him and at about 1 a.m. we attacked and hell broke loose and we realized that we were up against a strong, well-armed force. The partisans decided to carry on with the attack and did so for about an hour. Our casualties were heavy and mounting. My gun mate and I had run out of ammunition and he had gone to see if he could get fresh supplies when the partisan leader decided to withdraw. Leaving a small force to cover our retreat, we took with us as many wounded as we could carry and got out.

I left this party in time to get a good distance away before an avenging patrol was sent out. The party wished me good luck, gave me some schnapps and we parted company.

At this time my feet started to give me trouble. One night in getting away from a patrol, I had stubbed my toes on rocks. My French boots had no protective toecaps and several days later when I removed my boots found that a toenail from each foot had been knocked off and become infected. One could not take the risk of being caught barefoot in this area for occasionally it was difficult enough to get away from an enemy patrol when shod.

On the night following the scrap with the Germans I found the going much better as the mountain had opened out in a plateau like top and good progress south was made. For two nights everything went well, but on the eighth night on my own lost a lot of time dodging German patrols and realized that my troubles were by no means over as this area was teaming with Germans. Here, too, I found that the strain was beginning to tell on me, as I was unable to get any sleep during the day’s lay-up. Perhaps lack of food played a big part in the deep feeling of depression and also anxiety for the main party of which I had had no news since the night of the ambush.

On the evening of the 10th night out from Austria I once again met a Yugo patrol and when I explained the route I had followed they expressed amazement that I’d got through. They told me that an English soldier was in their company only a couple of miles away and one of them conducted me there.

The Tommie was a man named Maltby who had become detached from the main party shortly after the ambush and had been passed from one partisan patrol to another, travelling south. When he left the main party the partisans were still with them and our fellows were carrying two members who had been wounded by German machine guns.

Maltby elected to throw in his lot with me in the attempt to get through to Italy. We were given the valuable advice on the disposition of German troops in the country ahead and warned to be careful for the next few days since numerous German patrols were still operating to the south.

We stayed that night and the following day with our Yugo friends and on the following night, with two partisans who were going our way, went on, traveling south.

The partisans assured us that it was quite safe to ravel along the edge of the valley, although I did not like the idea as now our chances of getting through looked fairly sound and thought a little extra caution at this stage would pay. However, we thought these chaps should know what they were doing.

At about midnight a fierce engagement started on our left flanks about 300 yards away and so many tracers were flying low over us that we thought the attack was directed at us. We went to ground and when the fire swung away we made a hasty get-away only to run into a Yugo scouting party. They were glad to see us and took us to their farmhouse a couple of miles away and plied us with schnapps and wine. It looked like developing into a sort of party, which, under normal circumstances, I could enjoy. These were not normal circumstances so we had one for the road and pushed on, the two partisans with us.

Just before daylight Maltby and I decided to get into the mountain and lay up for the day but were prevented by a deep escarpment, which we could not get through. It was obvious that our Yugo friends did not know this area well. Here we made a mistake which cist the two Yugos their lives and gave Maltby and I the most horrible fright for we set down near a farmhouse to wait for daylight and went to sleep.

As day broke one of the Yugos stood up. From directly in front and from our left flank the nerve-wracking chatter of machine-guns broke out. The two partisans were killed instantly. Maltby scrambled down the steep hill in an endeavour to take cover in some trees. I darted round the edge of the barn, climbed to the hayloft and burrowed under some hay.

As Maltby disappeared from my view he appeared to be completely enveloped in tracers from the enfolding fire and it seemed impossible that he could survive.

I found that I had dug my way down through the hay to a sort of hatch through which hay was dropped to the stall directly below. This was a concrete enclosure about 10x8 feet. The only cover was a large heap of manger hay and dung and by burrowing under this I had some cover. Two Jerries passed me just as I had got under this noisome mess and fired a short burst into the stall. It appeared that they did not know of my presence there and had fired on spec. After about an hour I came out, had a quick look at the two partisans, saw that nothing could be done for them, found a break in the escarpment and started for the hills.

Shortly afterwards I met a strong Partisan patrol which had been attracted by the shooting. I reported the foregoing incident and passed on to the south. The patrol proposed to follow the Germans north.

Before parting they gave me some food and advised me to be very careful when crossing the Sava River as the Germans had quite a few machine gun posts staggered across the river. I reached the river in pitch darkness and swan across without making enough noise to attract the Jerries. The water was bitterly cold so kept going to keep warm.

From here on the Jerries had been rooted out although I was told some strong German patrols were operating well to the south. From there the going was much easier and traveled during daylight and at night slept in haylofts at farmhouses. One day I thumbed a ride in a bullock cart and in three of the four miles the old farmer and I traveled together we made short calls at numerous farmhouses for refreshments.

For the next couple of days I walked along a gravel road and called at many farms for light refreshments. I was surprised to find that I was recovering quickly from the rigors of the trip through German lines. I learned that the main party had passed some miles to the east and were making for the town of Semic on the Croatian border and that the two wounded were still alive.

At dusk on the 21st day after the escape, I walked into Semic to be greeted boisterously by other members of the escape party. To my utter amazement one of the first to greet me was Maltby who had passed through the stream of spandau bullets untouched.

Here we first met members of the British and American Army Medical Corps officers who had been parachuted into Yugoslavia to attend to their numerous wounded in the area, among them many girls.

They mustered over a 100 peasants and commenced clearing an area for an airstrip on which they hoped to get DC3’s to land to pick us up and also to transport to Italian hospitals the many seriously wounded. These medical officers were in touch with Foggia airport in Italy and the air force there promised to attempt to pick us up as soon as the strip was ready.

On completion of the alleged airstrip, we assembled there every night to wait for the aircraft. The airstrip was indeed a primitive affair and little as I know of such things it seemed impossible to land a DC3 on such a strip without proper flares etc.

On a certain night we were instructed to stand by and soon after midnight we heard the drone of a plane steadily growing louder. A small line of very small flares was lit to give the pilots the landing direction. The first plane dropped to about 600feet and then climbed away in a wide circle. A radio operator named McGregor had parachuted from this plane and immediately got in touch with the pilot. The plan was to fetch the planes in at short intervals by radio instruction from McGregor. The first machine was not dropping steeply enough and we were fascinated to hear Mac instruct him to circle and make another run. At his second attempt he made a fair landing, switching on his landing lights only a few seconds before landing.

We were lined up in groups of 16 each with 12 wounded in the group. Macgregor had told us there were six DC3’s to come in but suggested this method of grouping in case of an accident to planes in landing or taking off. I happened to be allotted No. 3 plane.

On landing No.1 taxied to the side of the strip and took up a position near his take off point. After an uneventful landing No.2 did likewise. No.3 made a very rough landing but pulled in beside No.2. As each plane landed, groups to board that plane piled in with the wounded in their care. As we climbed into No.3 the pilot left the cockpit and told us his plane would be unable to take off as his port engine had been severely damaged in the rough landing.

We placed our wounded in No.1 and 2 and watched No. 4 land. We now had our fingers crossed as our only chance of getting away that night depended on the two remaining planes making a safe landing.

We saw No.5 make two runs at the landing strip and then pull away telling Macgregor that he would not make another attempt. No.6 made a perfect landing and immediately after the wounded had been evenly distributed among the four serviceable planes, we watched them take off at short intervals. As each plane turned on to the strip the crew called out to our despondent group. “We’ll be back for you tomorrow night.” All four aircraft took off without damage. When they had gone, we went into the hills to await development. No.3 plane had been hidden under the big trees near the strip and as we passed it some rude remarks concerning its performance were passed.

At daylight the following morning we heard planes approaching and from our hide out saw a single D.C.3 with an escort of ten spitfires overhead. This DC3 landed while the spitfires circled overhead to give the mechanics cover while they worked on the crippled machine.

We made a wild stampede down the hill in an effort to reach the plane before the repair job was completed. When we were only a few hundred yards away the two DC3’s taxied to the strip and took off. They left a note for us stuck in the end of a stick on the edge of the strip saying “Spitfire cover cannot wait for you now. We’ll be back tonight.”

We were assembled at the edge of the strip soon after dark that evening. At about ten o’clock a single D.C.3 came over, dropped Macgregor and made a perfect landing to his instructions.

A few minutes later we were airborne and homeward bound.

Walter (Bill) Gossner, PX10, 2/15 Battalion A.I.F.

Walter Gossner was the son of Joseph Gossner and Eliza Ramsay.

Details supplied by his niece, Cheryl Gossner.