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Cover illustration: Liberated by Graham Lees All other drawings and illustrations except photographs and documents by Graham

Lees Printed at Snap Wangara, Unit 6, 34 Prindiville Drive, Wangara, WA 6065. Telephone: (08) 9409 7833
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents ..................................................................................................................iii Foreword v Introduction .......................................................................................................................... ix Chapter One. Salerno........................................................................................................... 11 Chapter Two. Battapaglia ..................................................................................................... 19 Chapter Three. Capture........................................................................................................ 29 Chapter Four. Stalag ............................................................................................................. 39 Chapter Five. Camp Life ...................................................................................................... 43 Chapter Six. Passing the Time .............................................................................................. 49 Chapter Seven. The Second Front ........................................................................................ 59 Chapter Eight. Evacuation ................................................................................................... 63 Chapter Nine. The March .................................................................................................... 67 Chapter Ten. The Thaw ........................................................................................................ 71 Chapter Eleven. Zeigenhaim ................................................................................................ 77 Chapter Twelve. Liberation .................................................................................................. 81 Chapter Thirteen. Home at Last! .......................................................................................... 85 Afterthought ........................................................................................................................ 88

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By Graham Lees, Len’s elder son
As I sit before my word processor, bringing together and editing this account of my father’s experiences as a prisoner of war, sixty-seven years after the events took place, I realised something I had never fully comprehended before. My father suffered all these things without complaining! Oh, he probably whinged like the rest of us, and probably was reduced to anger and tears at times. He wouldn’t be human if he didn’t! But he has never dwelt on his suffering, never felt he should receive special benefits or privileges for what he went through. He has always just thanked God he survived it. A lot of soldiers returning from major conflicts suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think my father was truly blessed because I never recall him suffering in this way, as many others did. I saw it among men my own age after the Vietnam Conflict and it tore their families apart and led to very miserable lives. After the war, things were very tight in England. Rebuilding took all the resources the country had and didn’t supply many comforts. Housing was very hard to come by because of the Blitz and the population explosion which normally follows any major war. Because Industry was not yet geared and reorganised for peace time, he couldn’t work in his skilled trade as a compositor in Print. So, instead of making a fuss, this beautiful, strong man gathered his family together and took them to a new life in Australia. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, either. All his relatives, friends and everything he had grown up with were in that cold little country in the Northern Hemisphere. But he brought them to a better life in the sun and in the Light of God’s care. He has never regretted it, either, although I know he often fondly remembers with nostalgia, the country of his birth. God bless my father. I am sure He watched over him all through his time in Italy and Germany and I know when the time comes, He is going to reward him with a very special place for all he went through for us. All of us!
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Foreword

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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me . . . Psalm 23:4

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Introduction
The war in the Western Desert was over! A couple of weeks of Rest and Relaxation, just sun-baking on the beaches of the Mediterranean. When the sun got too hot, just slipping into the cool sea. It was a wonderful life, but how foolish we were: no warnings of the dangers that lie ahead in the weeks and months to come, no warnings that the the sun’s rays were deadly to our soft, English skin. But that idyllic life was now over . . .

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SALERNO

ITALY

N
R

COMMANDOS
TUS CIA

46th INF DIV RANGERS

NO

56th INFANTRY DIVISION
GULF OF SALERNO
US 36th DIV

RI
SEL E

PRESTUM
To Naples

OPERATION AVALANCHE, SEPTEMBER 8, 1943 Gulf of Salerno, Italy
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RIV

ER

VE

BATTAPAGLIA

Chapter One. Salerno.
Rumour, rumour, rumour! It seemed the only news we got turned out to be rumour: we are going back to England for landing again in France, we are off to the Far East to fight the Japs, it can’t be Italy because we all know they are about ready to throw the towel in and call it a day! Where ever, whatever it was, we felt sure it was going to involve a beach landing. The sand was washed from between our toes and we were back in full marching order. Those sunburnt backs were again to carry the full equipment that would see a landing party through the first assault and into the first few days. General Harold Alexander’s 15th Army Group (comprising Lieutenant General Mark Clark's US 5th Army and General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army) were ordered to prepare for the landing of troops on mainland Italy. For the next few days the command was “Get your kit on. Check you have got everything in the way of gear. As many Mills bombs as you can clip onto your webbing belt. Two Bren Gun magazines in each pouch, your .303 bandoliers are around your neck, gas cape rolled and secured on top of your small pack, entrenching tool and water bottle secured, first aid kit
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and hussif (abbreviation of ‘housewife’ or sewing case) secured in small pocket. Big pack with greatcoat, blanket, groundsheet and rations packed away and those who could manage it, either a pickaxe or spade tucked down behind your large pack.” Our training involved climbing down a cargo net from the deck of our troop carrier into the bobbing landing craft, being especially careful not to drop anything onto the troops already seated. The crew of the landing craft would ensure that you dropped right into the seat allocated and everything was done over and over until we achieved maximum efficiency. This wasn’t always as easy as it sounds with all your gear clanging around you: your rifle refused to stay on your shoulder and tangled with your hand grenades and Bren pouches and your spade got caught up in the rungs of the rope netting ladder. Once safely on board with thirty two men and the platoon commander (whose batman was carrying most of his gear in addition to his own) the little craft made its way to the looming shoreline. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to get a clear run right up to the beach, but more often than not we would strike a little sand bar, the gates would drop and we would land in two or three feet of water. It was imperative that your arms and ammunition didn’t get a soaking, so you rushed the beach, through the small waves, with most of your gear held above your head. After several day’s practice, even the weakest and dumbest got the hang of it and or landing drill was in the order laid down in the infantry training manual. We were training on the north coast of Africa, with soft, sandy beaches, but we were told to expect much different terrain for the real thing. Our officers and NCOs, were briefed with the
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use of TEWTs (Tactical Exercises Without Troops: a large tray filled with earth, shaped to form the relief of the battle zone, using lead toy soldiers and tanks) we were effectively acquainted with the terrain without actually seeing it. Eventually our destination was revealed. It was to be in the Salerno area of the Amalfi coast. Our unit, the 8th and 9th Battalions of the 56 London Division, Royal Fusiliers, was allocated the objective, the town of Battapaglia, about four or five miles inland to the west. It was to be reached on the second day by midnight, secured and we were to wait to be relieved by the Fifth American Army. We were given this information with another morsel of news which really cheered us up. On September 2 Italy had capitulated to the Allies and that resistance would not be as severe as anticipated. The general atmosphere was more lighthearted and we saw recent pictures of Salerno beach almost deserted, except for a couple exercising their dog. As I said, our mood was almost lighthearted and a lot of anxiety diminished as we prepared for the landing. I guess even more so for some of the single lads, as we were issued two condoms for each man! Most of us used them to protect our wristwatch, paybook and and money from the waters of Amalfi Bay, but no doubt a few chaps had visions of beautiful, easy women, welcoming the invading Tommies with open arms! The M/S Sobieski was a passenger ship built for the Polish Ocean Lines and converted to a troop carrier for the evacuation of the last of the Allies after Dunkirk, and the Battle of Dakar, an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the French port in what is now called Senegal in
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September, 1940. She was also used in transport of the 18th Division of the British Army to defend Singapore. But her service now saw her carrying the Royal Fusiliers to meet their landing craft at Operation Avalanche, the code name for the landings at Salerno. Anxious anticipation really keyed us up as we waited for the time to pass until H-Hour. Some of the lads spent the time sitting in a corner writing final letters to loved ones and gave them to the sailors on the mother ship to post. Some played cards while others played tunes on mouth organs or guitars, which they reluctantly left behind. Others sought a secluded spot where they could say a silent prayer. The majority just sat around in awkward groups, not knowing what to say. To most of us, sleep was completely out of the question. Just before dawn, as expected, word came down that we were to get ready. We hoisted our kit onto our backs, adjusted and readjusted our webbing many times. Pockets and pouches were patted and the contents re-examined. Our arms and ammunition were checked and rechecked, then checked again. What we were going to do when we landed had been discussed and we were all sure of the drill. Whatever happened, we were to advance as best we could to our objective. Each man knew what he was supposed to do, but in every mind there was that lingering dread of doing something wrong. While our first objective was the beach, what were we going to meet in the hinterland and in the town of Battapaglia? Our landing craft drills were tested and we transferred to the landing craft without a hitch. A few chaps got seasick as the boats had been evacuated well out at sea and the ocean wasn't as
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smooth as we had encountered in North Africa. They quietly slid towards the coast and we all felt miserable, not the least because the stench of vomit was now quite strong. As soon as we came within firing range of the shoreline, we realised that this wasn't going to be a cakewalk. There should have been naval bombardment and aerial support to soften the German's up, but this was dispensed with in order to achieve the element of surprise. But it didn't work. Jerry had seen us coming and peppered us with small arms fire and forced us to keep our heads below the armour of the craft. The first few seconds of gunfire always creates a confusion in the mind and even drills will never eliminate that. A thousand thoughts flashed through every mind, but we were professional soldiers and our determination to survive soon crowded them out. We landed safely just a few yards from the beach before disaster struck! The order in which we were to disembark was laid down firmly: The platoon lieutenant was first to leave on the right hand side of the gate with his runner and batman to the left. The platoon serjeant followed the officer on the right and then the sections, led by their corporals followed left and right. Although I had my third stripe, I was only considered a lance-serjeant and was in charge of the first section disembarking. However, the runner followed his officer out and stepped on a land mine which was laid about ten or twelve feet from the waterline. Lieutenant Jones had leaped over it, not being encumbered by so much equipment. The runner's lower body and legs sustained dreadful injuries in this mix-up which led to all sorts of confusion. I ran down on the left hand side to even up the order and in so doing, escaped hitting that land mine and almost certain death.
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At the top of the beach where we found the platoon serjeant had been injured in the neck and shoulder, while the platoon commander had been been put out of the action in the land mine blast with a severe shrapnel wound in his thigh. So it was all down to me as the next senior NCO and before I had a chance to fully realise the weight of that responsibility, we had to clear a pathway up the remainder of the beach. This was achieved as quickly as possible by a member of the disposal squad as we gave him covering fire. Each landing craft had support specialists and I believe this brave man disarmed four or five anti-personnel mines which would have ripped us to shreds just as the officer's batman had been. Jerry didn't give us any peace, but didn't like our Mills grenades which we lobbed on him to shut him up and we managed to regroup just beyond the beach. As I said, without any higher rank to command us, it fell to me to lead and fortunately, I had a very reliable and experienced corporal who took on the duties of the platoon serjeant. After we were captured, though, I never saw or heard of him again. Only having been a section commander, I hadn't been privvy to any of the O-Groups, so other than the few scanty orders conveyed by the serjeant and lieutenant, I had little idea of our planned tactics. All I really knew was that we were to secure Battapaglia and wait for the Yanks. If I haven't described the landing in fine enough detail, it is because with the rush of blood, my concern for myself and my platoon as well as the German bullets ripping past me all the time, I wasn't in a position to notice a lot of how the assault was going. All I know is my heart
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was pumping, my mind racing and my objective very clear! To get off that beach as soon as possible before we were added to the statistics. Although it was a dark overcast morning, it was getting quite light as we plotted our route to Battapaglia and again ensured all our equipment was intact and in working condition. Anything badly damaged was discarded then and there. No point lugging useless equipment with us.

M/S Sobievski was a Polish passenger ship built for the Polish Ocena Lines to replace the aging SS Kościuszko and SS Pulaski; a sister ship to the MS Chrobry. She was named in honour of the Polish king Jan III Sobieski. The ship was used as a troopship in Operation Ariel, Avalanche and the Battle of Dakar. She was also used in transport of the 18th Division of the British Army to defend Singapore. At the end of the war she was sent to bring home the remnants of that division’s Cambridgeshire Regiment that had survived captivity at the hands of the Japanese in Malaya and Thailand.
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Royal Fusilier’s cap badge

Royal Fusilier with Tommy Gun
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Chapter Two. Battapaglia.
As we trudged along the farm tracks and laneways to Battapaglia, we stopped for a tea break when suddenly there was a commotion in one of the barns. We all snapped to, ready for a skirmish with the German Army, which we were sure were going to burst forth with all guns blazing! Although we hoped there would only be a section or so, we were ready for anything! Instead, the barn doors were flung wide open and a very pregnant mare trundled out between the shafts of a flat topped cart, probably used for hay carting. Standing like Boadicea in her chariot was my fellow serjeant and best mate, Sid Judd, brandishing a whip. He had loaded all his platoon's equipment and packs onto the cart to transport it into Battapaglia, while the rest of the company had to lug theirs on their backs. I wished that I was the professional scrounger and dodger that Sid was. Always on the lookout to make the job of the men in his command a little easier, he had the respect and love others only dream of. Although the mare probably didn't think much of the assignment, the men of 12 platoon were highly delighted and marched out behind it in sections, only carrying their rifles and ammunition.
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My platoon looked on in envy. Why couldn't their serjeant think of something like that? Although I mumbled “Sorry, fellas,” it was a bit feeble and didn’t help their shoulders much! I never saw Sid again until after the war. Although he thought he saw me later in Italy and reported to my wife, Eve, that he had seen me alive, it was obviously a case of mistaken identity, because, by then I was captured. Along with Serjeant Hogan of 11 platoon, Sid and I made a pact while still on the Sobievski, that we would promise to contact our respective wives if any of us got into any trouble or were reported missing. Sid made his way through enemy held territory after we had retreated from Battapaglia and returned to the beach, avoiding a few German patrols on the way. We became great friends with his family after the war and spent many happy holidays together until we left for Australia in 1957. He once told me that after being injured on the beach at Salerno, my platoon commander, Lieutenant Jones had been taken back to England where he gained a succession of quick promotions and by the end of the war was a Lieutenant Colonel. Unfortunately, Sid did not stay with us for long after our departure to Australia and died suddenly. I always thought his willingness to show the way to his men hastened his untimely death. It wasn't very long before we had our first skirmishes with the enemy. There was a lot more Germans in the vicinity than we initially expected and they were determined not to leave us alone. Progress was slow, but we were making enough headway to reach our objective in plenty of time.
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Extract from "The Evening News", London, Thurday October 7, 1943.

Five Days Next Door to German HQ

"Cut off by German armoured forces in Battapaglia during the fighting for the Salerno bridgehead, these three (from left), Sergt. Danny Hogan of Hammersmith; Lance Corpl. F. Crew, of Shoreditch; and Sergt. S. Judd, of Erith, were among 39 men who hid in a house, next door to which the enemy set up H.Q. They sent out periodic patrols for food and water, and knocked out two machine gun nests and killed eight Germans while searching for an escape road. "On the fourth day Sergt, Hogan and Sergt. Judd got through to the British lines and gave information for our planes and guns to make accurate attacks on enemy positions in the town. Then Sergt. Hogan led another patrol to try to get the other men out, but found the house knocked to pieces. "Meanwhile the Germans had captured 34 of the men, while Judd and Crew escaped to the house next door and hid on the second floor. They got away in the next bombing raid."
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The one event which haunts me to this day, though, occurred when we caught up with a couple of Bren Carriers. These were officially named Universal Carriers, but other than being used as a Bren or Vickers Gun transport, their use was limited. I had been attached to this carrier platoon in England as a motor cyclist and knew most of the men well. I also knew the capabilities and limits of a Bren Carrier. As we approached the platoon, we stepped right into the middle of a fierce argument between the officer and one of his serjeants. The lieutenant, recently promoted and attached to this platoon, had given the order for one of the carriers to advance along a street towards a T-junction which a previous recce had confirmed was controlled by a 25 pounder artillery gun, and Fred, the serjeant, had protested that it would be pure suicide. He suggested sending a foot patrol on another reconnaissance to see if the situation had altered, but the officer “pulled rank” and insisted the carrier go to investigate. The crew was made up of two of the most popular men in the platoon, Corporal “A” and “Blondie W”, two better men you could not wish to soldier with. The platoon had been together in the Territorial Army before the war and were good mates who had seen quite a lot of action together. We watched as the little Bren Carrier set off up the street and as it reached the corner, the 25 pounder fired point blank into it, blowing the carrier and its crew to pieces. Serjeant Fred reached for his sidearm and would have drawn and probably shot the lieutenant if we hadn’t talked him out of it. We were all in shock and furious at the blatantly stupid order. Although the officer realised his mistake too late and was, I think, as shocked as us
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and genuinely sorry, I never heard any more about this incident, But he would have lived with that error for the remainder of his life if he survived the war. We pushed on to to our objective, the town of Battapaglia, and never encountered any really strong opposition: intermittent fire from snipers on several occasions which kept our heads down and sharpened us up. When we tried to find them and quieten them, they had just vanished. We were showing signs of weariness as we hadn’t slept hardly at all since leaving the Sobievski. A few minutes of shut-eye here and a quick catnap there when it was peaceful was about all we managed.. Apart from K Rations – hard protein biscuits and cheese – and a brew up when we were concealed enough, the pangs of hunger started to gnaw away and it was hard to stay focussed all the time, although we knew at any second Jerry could spring a contact or ambush and we dared not lose our concentration, We sustained a few injuries on the way. None so bad as to necessitate sending back to the beach head, just flesh wounds and minor breakages. Although the platoon was down to about half strength, we hadn’t lost anyone since we secured the beach, and our morale was reasonably high as we entered the western approach to the town. The townsfolk had all vanished, probably evacuated when the Germans came, and so we deployed among the devastated shops and offices and took what we believed were advantageous observation points. After posting a sentry roster, I stood the platoon down for the night and took up a position looking straight down the road we believed the Germans would use when they realised we were in the town.
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Panzer Mk VI (Tiger I)
Up till 1941 it was felt that the PzKpfw III and IV were adequate for any tasks likely to be encountered, but this complacency had already been ruffled in France in 1940 when it was discovered that many French and British tanks, especially the British Matilda, were more heavily armoured than their German counterparts. The discovery of the considerable combat potential of the Russian T-34 and KV-I in 1941 therefore showed the German designs to be at a disadvantage. Hitler himself had envisaged the need for a new and heavier tank design in May 1941 and the events in Russia seemed to confirm the accuracy of his 'intuition . The result was a design specification for a heavy tank mounting a 8.8 cm gun and having sufficient armour to defeat all the likely future anti-tank weapons. Two firms, Porsche and Henschel, submitted designs for what was given the design designation of VK 3601, and both firms built prototypes mounting a large Krupp-designed turret. The Porsche design had many novel features including a petrolelectric drive system, but it was not selected for service Production began slowly in August 1942 but soon increased in volume after the personal intervention of Hitler. At the time of its introduction, the Tiger was the most powerful tank in the world. It was armed with the formidable 8.8 cm KwK 36 which had been developed from the 88 cm Flak 18 and 36 anti-aircraft gun. At its thickest, the Tiger’s armour was a hefty 102mm and was thus almost invulnerable to all anti-tank weapons then in use. But its main disadvantage was its bulk and weight. Its bulk was such that it was too heavy for most European bridges and had to be fitted with wading equipment and air schnorkels. It was too wide for most railway flatcars and had to have two tracks — one for action and another narrower set for railway transport, which also involved removing roadwheels and side shields. Weight was 56 tons which severely restricted its battlefield handling, but the Tiger was considered to be a formidable opponent and Allied armies had to evolve special tactics to counter the Tiger. Production ceased in August 1944 by which time 1,350 Tigers had been delivered.
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Universal Bren Gun Carrier
The British Universal Carrier, or Bren Carrier as it was popularly known, was the most widely used of all armored fighting vehicles during World War II. Able to carry between four and 14 troops, the Bren Carrier came in several versions, including machine gun, flamethrower, mortar platform, troop carrier, medi-vac and gun tractor. It was also capable of being glider borne and airlifted with a 6-pound anti-tank gun. From the battlefields of Europe to the jungles of the Far East, this vehicle was involved in every theatre of action during World War II. Many of these carriers were captured by the Germans, who modified them to carry a 37-mm anti-tank gun and called them Panzerjaeger Bren. In fact, the Bren was the only carrier used by soldiers from every nation involved in the conflict of 1939-45. With a service record second to none, and with more than 200,000 built, this World War II vehicle richly deserves its accolades.
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I was weary from the advance, which although it was only about four miles from the beach to Battapaglia, had been dotted with German snipers. And I still had only a vague idea how we were going to secure the town until the Yanks arrived, which they should during the night. But secure in the knowledge that our sentries were posted, I managed a couple of hours of sleep. Not quality sleep, mind you. I doubt anyone had what he would term “a good night’s sleep!” But it was enough to sharpen me up and just before dawn, one of the men on guard shook me awake. “Come and have a butchers at this, Sarge!” “Butchers” was Cockney rhyming slang – butchers hook: look! About a hundred yards away down the road, with the false dawn brightening the sky behind it so we could see its outline distinctly, was a huge Mark VI Tiger tank with its turret swivelling towards us so we could look straight down the barrel of its 8.8 centimetre Fwk 36 cannon. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the most dangerous tank in the world and the pride of the LXXVI Panzer Corps. Deadly accurate sights and well-trained crew made this a fearsome sight and I didn’t wait a second. “Let’s get out of here!” I bellowed, but the four men who were with me didn’t need the advice. But just before we leaped out of the upstairs window, a shell from that awesome cannon burst through the shop downstairs, splintering the glass and brickwork and demolishing the stairs. Infantry are no match for Panzers and we decided to get out of the town as quickly as we could. We had no anti-tank weapons except our PIAT gun (Projector, Infantry Anti Tank)
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which only had a range of about a hundred and ten yards and no-one was keen to get close to this monster to try it out. Against a Tiger, the projectile would have had to strike right at the base of the turret to disable it. Of course, you could always aim at the tracks, which would only immobilise it temporarily. Tom Glover was in charge of the the three inch mortar section and set his weapon in the middle of the street and tried to get an elevation on the advancing enemy. I saw him alone out there, as the sort of chap Tom was, he wouldn’t ask his men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. Suddenly, a burst of MG fire hit him and bowled him over in the roadway. Eve and I were strolling along the seafront at Paignton, Devon on May 8, 1945, my birthday and the day when the cessation of the war against Germany was announced. The lights came on along the front, everybody was coming to the realisation that at long last it was all over and were laughing and joking. A hand rested on my shoulder and as I turned around I just couldn't believe my eyes. It was Tom Glover and his wife Pat! My legs went weak as I recalled that I had seen Tom, with arms and legs jerking as he took that burst of machine gun fire. Badly injured, he had been taken to a German aid post and then sent out to a hospital where he recovered the use of his legs. We spent the rest of our stay in Paignton talking! When our six weeks leave were over, Tom and I were on the same train to Barnsley in Yorkshire for treatment, but that is another story.
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Chapter Three. Capture.
There was no alternative but to retreat. The Americans hadn't arrived to reinforce us and a runner told us that they were still on the beach. They had landed about twelve miles to the south east of us on the other side of the Sele River and had been pinned down by German forces and were in no position to relieve us. So, with the rising sun at our backs, we set off westwards to try to fight our way back to the beach. Our ammunition was very low, our morale even lower and not only did we have no specific orders, we had no map to guide us. Lt. Col. Ted Hillersden, the Regiment’s commanding officer, was wounded, passing command to Major Delforce. The runner told us that Battalion HQ, with the reserve platoon had made their way back to the beach leaving instructions to the beleaguered A, B and C Companies to make their own way back. How and when were not mentioned We were making quite good time and we picked up a few stragglers on our way. We didn’t know where we were, where the other platoons were or what was in front of us! Later in the afternoon we arrived at a river which I think must have been the Tusciano but had no way of telling. It was too wide to cross in daylight and there was no cover if a Jerry patrol saw us.
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It was around 1500 hours and the chaps badly needed a rest and a smoke. We were in a tomato field with quite a bit of cover if we were still and careful: we weren’t too worried about our cigarette smoke giving away our position as they lads had brought “a smoke on the quiet” down to a fine art. Some of them really wanted to risk the crossing and press on to the beach, others to follow the river down to the coast. It was tempting but I had about twenty tired soldiers, and besides which, I was fairly sure I had seen some troop movement on the higher ground behind us and was worried about crossing in the line of enemy fire. Any attempt at a recce to find out the lay of the land would be be spotted by German scouts and we would have been “sitting ducks” to their highly trained and brilliant marksmen. So I told the platoon to sit tight until we were sure which way they were headed. I knew we couldn’t have a shoot-out because no-one had much ammunition left and their automatic rifles and sub-machine guns were vastly superior to ours. I underestimated their intelligence. As they came down the path heading to the gap were we had gone to ground, I leapt up and pointed my almost empty Tommy gun at them and shouted “Hands up!” Then I became aware that the Serjeant in charge had an automatic rifle aimed straight at my chest and a couple of bandoliers of ammunition hanging around his shoulders. He could have blasted me off the face of the earth but instead he said with a very Cockney accent: “No good, Mate. We’ve got you surrounded.” They had been watching us for a while but hadn’t fired a round at our lads.
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I couldn’t believe it! Here was a German Feldwebel, a top serjeant, decorated with a number of ribbons, talking to me, not only in my own language, but in my native dialect! “I thought that would stop you!” he said, seeing my amazement. “You see, I was brought up in London, within the sound of Bow Bells. My parents were German but worked in the City. I was at school there until I was 12 years old when we all went back to Germany.” No need to tell I had very mixed feelings. I was speechless! I had pointed my Tommy Gun at him and spoken aggressively, giving him every right to retaliate. But he didn’t. That was at least the fourth incident that, following the normal lines of warfare I should have been finished off! He rounded us up and said something to two of his men, who marched us away. As I said, we had picked up a few stragglers heading back to the beach. I remember there was a serjeant named Tommy from a machine gun company and a couple of Ginger Beers, as we called the Royal Engineers. What now? we all wondered. What would they do to us, where would they take us? Was there any chance of escape? Little did we guess what sort of life was before us as Prisoners of War. So we marched back to Battapaglia under armed guard. The town was now mayhem with the Naval vessels in the bay laying down a destructive barrage and for what it was worth, the RAF was doing its part as directed. So we had to progress by running a few yards to shelter, wait for the next opportunity, then run again to the next. I darted into one building where a shell had knocked a hole in the display window and threw myself out of sight on the floor. How long I stayed there I wouldn’t
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have a clue: outside shells were making huge craters in the roadway, gas pipes were being hit and sending great plumes of flame and burst water mains were spouting all over the place. When things quietened down a little, I thought I would have a look at the lay of the land. I crept carefully over to the gap where the door used to be. As I poked my head out, the German guard thrust his bayonet in front of it! He had been sheltering just a few feet from me. I was bitterly disappointed at this thwarted opportunity and headed back to where the rest of my platoon was bunched down. We eventually arrived at the north side of town where things were much quieter and appeared to be the mustering place for the increasing number of lads who had had enough. You can’t fight tanks and well supported infantry with empty rifles. At least, if you could, we hadn’t read that part of the Army Manual that explains how! A unit of the Afrika Corps was assigned to look after us and one of the soldiers commented on our shoulder patches which depicted the black cat of the London Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers. He told us that we were known as Kätzchen aus der Hölle – Hell’s Kittens – by Rommel’s troops. But at this moment and in our circumstances I would say we felt more like unwanted stray toms! A few miles further inland from the town was a temporary camp to house the men from the 56th Division who were pouring in from their various points of capture. There was some bitterness that they had been let down by the Americans’ failure to reinforce and relieve us when we arrived in Battapaglia. Also, there was a complete American battalion which had capitulated almost intact just off the beach.
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Each day the Germans attempted to truck a number of POWs to the railhead to take them to the Stazione for transport to the Stalags in Bavaria, but for days they returned still full. The RAF had made such a mess of the roads with their bombs the convoys couldn’t get through. The guards warned us that if any person escaped from the trucks, they would shoot every fourth man. We had no reason to doubt them and when, on one of these trips, a young Naval flight lieutenant who had joined us immediately said to me: “I’m sorry the Jerries made that threat, but it is a pledge we make that if we are captured, our uppermost thought at all times, is that if the opportunity crops up, we must take it. So I’d like you to pass it on to the boys that it is my firm intention to escape!” I passed it on and the lads weren’t a bit happy! I tried to point out that the airman was only obeying orders and that, if the opportunity presented itself, I would also think seriously about it. It shut them up and, at the first opportunity when a guard in the back had joined the other two in the cab, where it was considerably more comfortable, the airman prepared to slip over the side. As the truck slowed at a bend, he dropped over the tailgate and darted into the trees. I can tell you it was a very subdued truckload of POWs who worried about it for the remainder of that trip. If we didn’t get through to the station again, they would be in the column to be counted when we returned and one in four would be shot when it was discovered the numbers didn’t tally. However, the problem was soon solved when after three or four counts which always came up with the hard fact that one man was missing. The guards knew full well that they would be
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the object of their officers’ abuse and had no doubt at all that punishment would be the Russian Front straight away. So after a brief discussion among themselves, a clever solution was reached. There were a number of our lads coming and going with various errands to carry out and the first one to pass us didn’t get very far. He was quickly pushed in to fill the vacant gap in our ranks and off we went to be counted by the duty officer. The tally having been reconciled, we were dismissed to our various groups. Again, I wondered if I were in that situation the German guards were in, would I have had the sense to do what they did or would I have resigned myself to the fact that I had really dropped a clanger. Eventually the day arrived when the roads were repaired and they were able to get our convoy to the train terminal. We debussed and were counted a couple of times, names taken, rank and Army Number checked, fingerprinted, photographed and then herded into covered freight wagons, or boxcars. When the doors were slammed shut, forty to fifty POWs were crammed into each car and the only ventilation was a barred and shuttered grille about six inches deep and twelve inches wide, alongside the doors. As we were pretty well crammed in like commuters on the London Underground at peak traffic times, we had to decide how many could stand, how many could sit, and how many could lie down. The roster for each was rigidly observed. To our horror, we found that previously the wagon had been used to transport coal and that when we lay down, there was about four inches of coal dust on the floor. Every movement caused clouds of choking dust to envelope us. Our short term at the grille was eagerly awaited.
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The only means of relieving ourselves was into a tin can, approximately four inches in diameter and five inches deep. This had to be passed from hand to hand by those men who were standing to be emptied out of the grille. You can imagine that those sitting or lying got splashed each time the train lurched! On the first evening, we were allowed outside to answer the call of nature and to eat our meagre daily ration. This normally comprised a loaf of bread between twelve men and a bit of foul-tasting fish cheese. No matter how repulsive it was, it was nourishment, without which we wouldn’t survive. Then, after this all-too-short break, we were herded back into the boxcar, and then everyone was ordered out again. Except me. A couple of German officers started pushing me around. “Wie haben Sie diese gitters verbiegen?” one officer asked, but I couldn’t understand him. I realised by his gestures what he was getting at and considered this a ridiculous question as they had confiscated all our steel helmets and equipment. No one could have made any impression on these steel rods with their bare hands. I refused to answer or even come to attention. “How did you bend the bars?” he repeated and when I still didn’t answer he grabbed my hat from my head and repeatedly hit me over the head with it. Of course, being made from a bit of my blanket seeing our helmets were taken from us, it didn’t hurt me in the slightest. I grinned and he became really frustrated, but I am glad the other fellows in the truck hadn’t seen him try to humiliate me. In anger he turned away and an officer who had been a silent witness to this little performance came over and spoke to me in English.
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“You will go before a court martial and answer the accusation of damaging German property!” “How do you mean” I asked and got a cuff over the ear for not addressing him “Sir”. “You knew I couldn’t understand or answer that accusation,” I said. “Yet you didn’t interfere!” “A German officer does not query a fellow officer’s method of addressing a POW. Somebody tried to bend the bars so you could escape. I can tell you that when we we reach the Stalag, you will go before a court martial and be accused of sabotaging German property!” I asked him how it would be possible to bend those one inch thick bars with only a tin we used to empty our bladders into, and how grown men were supposed to be able to squeeze through a gap six by twelve inches, but he didn’t answer and stamped off on the usual German officer fashion. Needless to say, when we reached the Stalag at a place called Moosburg, I didn’t hear any more about the incident. At Moosburg, in Bavaria near the city of Munich, the old Kreigies met us with a very warm welcome. The camp was used primarily to move POWs from one working party to another, and at that time, was among the largest in all Germany. It was a sort of transitional camp where all prisoners of war were taken before being assigned out to the other Stalags where they would be put to work for the German war effort. A lot of the permanents had been in there since Dunkirk and had amassed a fair bit of equipment and clothing. We were still in our desert uniforms, khaki drill shirts and shorts, which we were still wearing in the warm southern Italian early-autumn. It was now well into
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November and the Alpine air was very cold. These men generously handed over warmer clothes to us which they could have used themselves. But we were “comrades in arms” and we were really grateful for their hospitality and kindness. We also got the luxury of a real shower to wash the grime from the coal trucks off and shave off our dirty beards. Every man was issued with a Red Cross parcel from Canada and with a change of underwear and had an opportunity to wash the filth out of those we had worn since leaving the Sobievski. Having travelled many miles without any luxuries, the biggest thrill of all was to be able to stretch out on a bed and sleep with complete comfort: not being cramped and crowded. We began to feel a bit “human” again and when we were herded into cattle trucks a few days later, we were considerably happier. They were much cleaner and the train set off through the Austrian Alps destined for Stalag VIIIb, in that part of Gemany that was known as Upper Silesia, near the Polish border.

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Identification photograph taken during World War 2 in Stalag 344. Len is in the back row, on the far right in front of the window. The stamp on the obverse read “Fotogufnahine genehmigt! Dieser Prufvermerk (indecipherable) schriftliche Mitteilungon. Stalag 344”
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Chapter Four. Stalag.
Arriving at Lamsdorff, we were glad to get out of the stinking stock trucks and were glad of the short march from the station to the Stalag. Although it was bitterly cold it was about four or five miles away and we could hear the drone of enemy aircraft and the sky was lit with searchlights sweeping back and forth across the stormy clouds. Just outside the camp we stopped at an amphitheatre to be identified, recorded, photographed and issued with a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, most of which ended up unread as toilet paper, it was late in the evening. We got to hate that amphitheatre in the ensuing months as we had to parade there while the frequent hut searches were carried out. Sometimes we were left out there for hours, standing at ease, not allowed to smoke nor talk and sitting down was absolutely verboten! Then we got what we had been longing for: we were deloused and given a hot shower. We also got clean underwear and were issued with secondhand battledress. Some of the blokes who were last through got Polish or French uniforms and were not very happy about this, but it was soon corrected when the next consignment of supplies came through from the Red Cross. Some of the POWs at Stalag VIIIb had been there since 1940. They had been captured at
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Dunkirk and marched across Germany and were institutionalised to a point that they had no other conversation except Stalag gossip. After they had drained us of every scrap of news of the various theatres of war and the outside world, particularly “When will the second front start?“ they retreated back into their shell and the familiarity of captivity. To introduce any new idea was rejected as unthinkable and I suppose it was a sort of defense mechanism, as they would say today. They had suffered the humiliation of being captured, starved, forced to work for the enemy war effort and treated like slaves. All they cared about was survival and the end of the war was the only light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we fell into their way of life. But these old Kreigies were wonderful to us and in exchange for any bits of news we could give them about Blighty and how the war was going, they gave us what warm clothing they could spare. Polish and French greatcoats, battledress trousers and occasionally a jumper, so threadbare from two or three winters, but all gratefully received by us. The Stalag housed over 10,000 British, Commonwealth and American soldiers and airmen, as well as Poles, Russians and other European prisoners of war in an adjoining POW camp (VIIIf ). I believe there was a compound for naval ORs as well. It was such a pleasure to be able to walk with relative freedom around the compound after the cramped days and nights in those railcars. With only the barbed wire fences between us and the forests and fields instead of small grills to take turns in peeking through, we relaxed into a degree of what could be termed “normalcy” of Stalag life. It was the base for a number of Arbeitskommandos which housed POWs who worked at
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factories, farms and mines in the area. All private soldiers and lance corporals were sent out to working parties while senior NCOs worked around the compound. We were housed in barrack huts which had eighty-four beds in twelve banks, each bed was about two feet wide and five feet ten inches long. Tall chaps could not stretch out properly. The base was made up of pine slats, about a third of which had been taken to shore up a tunnel or build a cupboard to keep possessions in. We had a difficult job keeping the thin straw mattresses from sagging through the gaps. However, we overcame this by making a netting with string which we brought up from the Station which had been used to secure the cargo. I was allocated a vacant bed on the bottom tier which was next to a thirty year old man who had been taken prisoner when France fell in 1940, and had happened to live in the next town to me back in England. He was really hungry for news and any spare gear he had, he gladly handed over. I was really concerned for him as he had really “dropped his bundle” and had no desire to live a “normal” life. He was employed in the German OR cookhouse and when lunch was over, he was allowed back into the compound. Tommy would stretch out on his bed, day after day and only move for the 1700 hours rollcall, and he would get out of that if he could convince the German guards he was kranken. I tried hard to get Tommy to join Johnny and myself for our daily walk around the perimeter of the camp but he insisted he was okay, thank you very much. I didn’t see him when we eventually marched out of the camp or at any time during the long walk to freedom. I doubt if he would have even survived the first night. Around the perimeter of the camp were fences about thirty feet high with coils of barbed
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wire on top. There were two of these fences, with coils of barbed wire in between and then a “trip wire” another ten feet inside this fence. Nobody was permitted to step over this trip wire and any breaches of this rule would be met with a burst of machine gun fire from the “goon towers”, sentry boxes on stilts built every hundred yards or so just outside the fence. The walking path was about another ten feet inside the trip wire. I was extremely fortunate to be assigned the job of being in charge of the crew responsible for keeping the room clean and tidy. This was absolutely essential with so many men living in a confined area. The tables and forms had to be scrubbed every day, but needless to say, we didn’t have any soap, disinfectant or scrubbing brushes, but there was plenty of sand in the compound and we used this to remove the dirt. The German Officer in charge would inspect the Barrack Room almost every day and if it wasn’t up to standard, we could expect reprisals. The hardest task was when we took our bunks to pieces to kill the bed bugs. We had no disinfectant unless one of the lads stole a drop from the dining rooms and in the winter, the water froze before we could even get it out of the pail. We overcame that with good old British ingenuity. We cut milk tins from the Red Cross parcels into the various parts we needed and with a few bits of wire, we created a fan forced “blower“ that could act like bellows on a fire made of a few scraps of wood, cardboard or dried leaves and get it hot enough to boil water within a few seconds. This way we brewed tea or coffee, made porridge or fried a dried egg which we ate with the German bread which we soaked until it was soft enough to fry. In this way we made sure our food was well cooked quickly and didn’t get a chance to spoil.
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Chapter Five. Camp Life.
Airmen from RAF, the RCAF and RAAF were not put on working parties, but this was no obstacle for the boys in blue, who were always looking for an opportunity to escape the confines of the Stalag. There was not much chance of escaping from inside the Stalag as the wire fence and goon towers were a huge deterrent, but quite a few tunnels were authorised and other daring attempts made to get through the main gate, concealed within the various vehicles which serviced the camp. Without the Germans realising, the air force types would simply swap identities with a soldier assigned to a working party. The airmen were all very intent on escape and the Kommandos were a good means of doing so because security was not so tight. I have been told that each airman was issued with the certain necessities to plan and execute an escape. Compass, maps, emergency rations and a little German currency were provided, but the ability to convince the escape committee that they had a fair chance of making it home was the greatest asset. If they could see a flaw, they would forbid the escape as failure could jeopardise a subsequent, better planned attempt.
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Switching identities was a common occurrence in the Stalag. A swap-over system from Army to RAF and vice versa was worked out until it became almost perfect. No details were overlooked. Size, height, weight, complexion, colouring were matched and the men would have to have a detailed knowlege of each other’s family, the district they came from, schooling and work experience. One of the most essential things was dialect. It was pointless for a lad from Scotland to take on the identity of a Cornishmen. The swap-over had to deal with mail from family, so caution had to be taken that wives and girlfriends were aware of the switch, but crouched in such language that the German censors were not alerted. One of the men in our combine was an ex-London policeman who had been a welter weight boxing champion in the Guards. His name was Dave Manson. There was a South African chap who was assigned to a working party near the Polish border and he wanted to get back to the the Stalag so that Dave could coach him. They found a fellow who was pretty keen to get on a working party and decided to swap identities. The trouble was, this swap-over, Keith Manson, no relation to Dave, had a crook foot and was therefore not eligible for the Kommandos, but this way, he could get his chance to escape. In due course, with Dave to coach him and teach him everything he knew about the pugilistic art, he became a pretty handy sort of boxer. Of course, the real Keith was out on a working party, but the identity swap was so complete, that this chap became Keith Manson. Occasionally a tournament was arranged and Keith was matched with another chap in his weight group, a Leading Seaman Tommy Barnham, who had been a professional in civvy street.
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But of course, a problem arose when each boxer had be to examined by a German Medical Officer to ensure no-one was going to get badly hurt. Keith was masquerading as a man who was medically a cripple and was worried that the swap would be discovered and he would be sent back to the Kommando. “What happens if I’m found out?” he confided in me. “Well, you’ve got so far, you must take a chance,” I told him. “You can’t back down now!” He needn’t have worried. After seeing the MO, he came excitedly over to where Dave and I were. “He didn’t even look at my legs!” he reported, happily. “He just put the stethoscope on my chest and said ’Yes. He’s fit!’.” I don’t know whether this gave him added drive and motivation, but he was pronounced winner on points at the end of his bout! Who says the Germans are thorough and efficient? Not this time! Another little story about Keith Manson involves the news we got on a sercret radio about the second front opening up after the landings at Normandy. Many bets were made as to when the war would be over with most of the blokes putting their money on a pre-Christmas surrender. Keith announced very loudly and publicly that “If the war isn’t over by Christmas morning, I’ll strip down and dive into the water reservoir!” This was a huge tank which held the fire water as the chance of being bombed was always omnipresent. Who knows what the condition of the water was. It was certainly pretty foul.
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As we all know, Germany resisted the second front until May, 1945, and on Christmas Day, 1944, Keith kept his promise. He begged, borrowed or stole a pick axe and exerted a great deal of effort hacking through the thick ice on the surface. Eventually he had a hole big enough and, applauded by a big crowd of spectators clad in thick overcoats, he plunged in. The crowd roared its approval and thought it great fun! I am not sure of the truth of the rumour which went around the compound, but it is said that the Germans thought it was a good idea to clean up and dredge the reservoir before it froze over again, so a working party was formed from the Christmas revellers. While they were doing this, parts of a body were found, believed to be from a “very disliked guard”. One chap who was heir to a fortune from his family’s businesses, gambled over one million pounds that the war would be over by Christmas and I heard he honoured every bet, right down to the last penny. Another, with a not-so-promising conclusion was made by an idiot that if the war wasn’t over by Boxing Day, he would strip down and let his off-sider defecate on him in the middle of the football pitch. This bet was also honoured, witnessed by a large crowd which included many Germans who were convinced these POWs were right around the bend. I am afraid they were right in one way, as quite a number of normal blokes went right off their faces when they learned that families and dear ones had been killed in air raids on Britain. Generally it was pretty peaceful in the Stalag. The only really big event was that after the raid on Dieppe by Canadian forces in August 1942, some German prisoners were found washed ashore with their hands bound with rope. Hitler became furious and ordered all Canadian
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prisoners have their hands tied together in retaliation. When the Canadians found out about this, they also retaliated and bound all German prisoners in POW camps in Canada, and the British joined in. So in an escalation of this practise, the Germans tied the hands of all Allied prisoners of war with string each morning, then unbound them in the evening. I believe the Aussie POWs were exempt because the Prime Minister of Australia, John Curtin, gave an order that no prisoners of war were to have their hands tied, and Hitler honoured this by excusing the Diggers and by putting them together in a separate barrack room. This tying and untying was taking a colossal amount of time to do, and instead they decided to use handcuffs and about eighteen inches of chain. This was deemed the solution, until one inquisitive prisoner discovered a few days later that the cuffs could be unlocked using the key from a bully beef tin. A chap would report to have his wrists manacled in the morning and would be wearing a greatcoat. When he paraded to have them undone in the evening, he would be in his shirtsleeves. So, to the amusement of the prisoners, this practise was stopped and we all regarded it as a victory to British ingenuity!

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Chapter Six. Passing the Time.
The Red Cross were wonderful in getting supplies to the Stalag. In addition to the food and clothing parcels which were an absolute necessity, they also managed to arrange a fair bit of clothing and some sporting equipment. This gave a great amount of release to the prisoners who needed their morale lifting and “Internationals” were organised. Australia and England formed Cricket XIs and staged an Ashes series. But the most popular by far was football. Full National strips were made up and there were enough league players to make up squads and officials, team managers, referees and linesmen were made up of former professionals among the Stalag’s contingent. These matches were real morale boosters, with the crowds of supporters being so vocal that if you closed your eyes, you could imagine you were at Stamford Bridge for an International game! This may sound frivolous now, but with the preparation, the game and the celebrations after, the whole mood of the camp was lifted and a great service was done by the Red Cross in getting, boots, balls, nets, shirts and shorts. It gave you a purpose in life, even inside the barbed wire.
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Some Kriegies who had been in Stalag since Dunkirk, probably Canadians, had sent letters home requesting that the Red Cross try to get them ice skates. The Germans issued these during the day and took them back at night, and there is a photograph of an icehockey match in progress on the football field after it had been flooded and frozen over. I don’t believe they had the co-operation of the retaining power to use hoses to flood the field, so I imagine a bucket brigade must have been organised. However, I really envied the freedom they experienced as they glided to and fro around the pitch. Other sports were played, particularly Rugby, volleyball and tennis quoits. The Yanks and Canadians had their baseball and softball tournaments and although we didn’t know much about their rules, we watched with as much gusto as they had. Gambling was rife, cigarettes, always plentiful, were the currency of the Kriegies, and card games and betting on results of matches were always organised by those who were involved. Of course, the Australians loved their two-up and if you saw a circle of Diggers in the compound, you could be sure within seconds you would hear the cry: “Come in Spinner!” That first Christmas was hard to take, although we had a gramophone and records of Carols and songs, it was hard to conjure up thoughts of folks back in England: our loved ones, tucking into their roast rabbit, potatoes and pudding. When we opened our eyes to the reality of our surroundings it brought us back to the realisation that we were Prisoners of War in Germany. Thoughts of home would often bring a tear to my eye.
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I remember I saved and scrounged dried fruit and sugar and baked a sort of Christmas cake, but it was a pretty miserable affair compared with those we remembered from before the war, even though we had been in a depression. It was more the thoughts of families and friends and the wonderful spirit and good cheer we always associate with the festive season. But the chaps in the combine reckoned the “joe blake” was pretty good and devoured it right down to the last crumb! My very good friend, Johnny Green, a bombardier in the artillary, occupied the bunk next to mine, and during that winter, we spent nearly all of our time in the barracks, lying on our beds for the extra warmth of our blankets. Being restricted in our outdoor activities meant we had to occupy ourselves indoors, and a lot of chaps started learning Chess and Bridge. Many lads became expert at these games and, although my cleaning duties meant I couldn’t normally join in during the afternoons, but Johnny was looking for an partner at Bridge and was very patient at teaching me how to play. Eventually the Bridge sessions involved as many as twenty players. It was activities such as this which kept us sane during that long, bitter winter and which taught me a game I have enjoyed ever since. The more studious POWs studied law, medicine, surveying and accounting under teachers who had been practitioners in civvy life and eventually got their degrees in many subjects. Correspondence courses were also available for subjects where there were no teachers available. A lot of chaps learned second languages, did courses on literature, mathematics and history.
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GOON TOWER

SEARCHLIGHT

BARBED WIRE FENCE

LO

W

ER

LI

M

IT

O

F

SE A

LATRINE BLOCK

RC

HL

IG

HT

TRIP WIRE EXCLUSION STRIP MARROW PATCH

BE AM

ESCAPE TUNNEL

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Others, who had been actors and musicians before the war, produced and performed many plays and musicals, recitals and choral pieces. Particularly popular were the musical comedies, the female roles always getting a heap of wolf whistles and cat calls. Everyone in the compound would attend and they were a great way to keep morale high. Without these diversions, I am sure a lot of men would have really dropped their bundle. Some of the lads in the compound were given permission to grow vegetables. The Kommandant decided that this was a worthwhile way to keep his charges occupied and would provide a bit of extra nourishment to supplement our Red Cross parcels and the dreadful fish stew and sauerkraut they served up. On this particular strip of ground in the Palestinian compound, just inside the wire fence of the perimeter, the would-be market gardeners planted an English marrow among their other veges. Every day they fed and watered it with bits of wool which ran from tins of water to give it constant irrigation. It grew to a tremendous size and a competition was held. Two cigarettes was the price of a ticket and the winner would be the person who correctly guessed the weight of this huge courgette. During the day it was lifted onto a crate to display its size and the fellows who were running it were highly delighted with the response they got. A few days later, the buzz went round “Go and look at the marrow!” A crowd was gathering and everyone was in a jovial mood. The crate and the marrow had been cast aside to reveal an escape hole leading just a few yards under the wire to the outside! It was obvious that this was a brilliant plan. It was alongside the latrine, almost under the goon box. The crate was hiding the entrance and it took only a few seconds to move and get
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into the hole. It was never disclosed how many men got away, but the “gen” was that ten men escaped that night. The searchlights on the goon tower could sweep one hundred and eighty degrees on a fixed axis, but couldn’t be shone down on an acute enough angle to illuminate the vege patch right next to the fence, so the tunnellers just had to wait until the light passed and quickly run over to the wire, tip the crate aside and start their nightly digging. The frustrated guards took their fury out on the marrow, and I am sad to report it did not survive the severe bayonet assault it received! It goes without saying that the Kommandant removed gardening privileges after that! I had been fortunate enough to be assigned to the compound that contained all the camp workers. It was called 38a but was known as the “Racket Compound”. A lot of the men held down pretty good jobs and were the envy of the rest of the Stalag. About twenty of the Rackets compound used to be transported down to Lamsdorff Station to unload and store Red Cross parcels. Sometimes the contents arrived in bulk and had to be distributed fairly to each compound. At other times they were in boxes, one to each man when numbers permitted. Those men on the “Parcels” group were told that they could eat from the Bulk food but must not, under any circumstances, take any food back to the Stalag. This meant that the German ration for those men was not needed by them during the six working days, so was available as “seconds” for the men in their room back at Stalag. Small groups of men would band together and share their Red Cross parcels. They called these groups “combines” and the idea being that, by organised management, the combined
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number of parcels could be used by the most careful member to make the contents last longer than would be possible if one man tried to make his parcel last until the next one was issued. Invariably this job fell to me as, being employed cleaning the room, I was never far away. I formed a combine with Johnny Green, Dave Manson and a big chap from the Royal Army Medical Corp, Joe Farley. Not only did we share our Red Cross parcels, we became really good mates as well. One of the lads knocked up a small table and a couple of forms from Red Cross three-ply boxes and we used to sit just inside the door of the Barrack Room away from the crowded tables. It had its drawbacks: the cold draught each time the door was opened, although, on the credit side, we did get the fresh air. In the smoky confines of the hut, that was really welcome. Also, the Germans made frequent inspections and on entering the door, they expected the nearest POW to call the room to attention and would get quite irate if we were a little slow getting out of our seat. There were periodic inspections of the whole compound when everyone would be marched outside to the amphitheatre where the guards could stand around the raised perimetre and watch us with rifles loaded in case some hot head tried a quick getaway. Then soldiers would turn the barrack rooms just about upside down, dismantling various pieces of homemade furniture while their Alsatian dogs sniffed at everything. Sometimes we were outside, sitting on the cold ground from 0900 to as late as 1500, then we would have to march back in and try to reorganise our kit and bedding.
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In our barrack room, a hole had been dug under the stove with space just large enough for three men to lie down for a limited period. The reason for this hiding place was that a lot of POWs from working parties were wanted for crimes against the German war effort, mostly sabotage of the plant in the factories and mills, starting fires on farming properties, removing rails on train tracks and interfering with gas, water and electricity supplies, all of which caused inconvenience and loss of production. The safest place was to get back to a big Stalag and lose themselves in the masses of men incarcerated there. These unheralded searches meant that every POW in the amphitheatre had to have his photograph and fingerprint records checked. Those men who were making themselves scarce because they didn’t belong there had to hide so that the guards wouldn’t arrest them on charges of not having an identity. When a few of these men were inside the Stalag, it was essential that they be well hidden or face a firing squad. I know for a fact that this rumour is true, because the hole was under the stove in our barrack room! It was a huge affair in the centre of the room, big enough to heat even the corners. On one occasion, there were four men in hiding and trying to occupy that small space would have been completely impossible. Three of them managed to remain undetected because one man gave up his place. He waited until the room had been searched and when he was cornered, made a dash for an open space where the dogs pounced upon him. I am not honestly able to say what happened to him as security among the “brains” of the Stalag was exceptional. He, and men like him, were the unsung heroes who hardly got a mention.
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During the winter days when we were snowbound in our huts, I used to go scrounging in the bins for any woollen garments that had been thrown away and laboriously unpick the knitting, Then with all this wool, I crocheted a thick blanket which was the envy of the other prisoners. How I loved that blanket, which I still had when we marched out of camp a year later. If you were to ask “What, in your opinion, was the biggest eye-opener while you were a prisoner of war?” I would genuinely have to rack my brain and I couldn’t put them in order of merit. I remained in the “comfort” of the Rackets Compound the whole time while I was in Stalag VIIIb. But I know that some of the compounds and kommandos had it really hard, especially in winter.

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Stalag 344 Blower

This was device “kriegies” used to heat water quickly and efficiently in German Prisoner of War camps. My father described it to me and I tried to represent it in a drawing. The Klim tin on the left containes propellor like fins which fit snogly and can be turned by the handle on the front. This creates a draught by sucking sucking air from the aperture on the left and jetting it through the square tube connecting it to the burner. In the burner were twigs, leaves, cardboard and wood shavings which, fanned by the air, burned very hotly and could boil a dixie of water in seconds.

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Chapter Seven. The Second Front.
And so the days wore on. Spirits were very high on June 6th, 1944, when the Allied landings at Normandy opened up the Second Front and the end of the War became a reality. Since the fall of Italy, good news had become a bit scarce, but now the whole Stalag came alive. With the Americans and the British Allies moving across France, how long could it last? This of course, coincided with the Russian drive westwards into Germany so that the Germans really had a headache with two fronts to defend, particularly in the east where hundreds of POW camps were located. Thanks to a secret radio which escaped detection, we got all the news from the BBC before the Germans got their version of the events. This radio was built from a variety of parts and valves which certain goons supplied in exchange for desirable items from our Red Cross parcels: jam from England, chocolate from America, butter from the New Zealand parcels and what I think was most desirable was real coffee from Canada. These parts were collected and assembled by technicians from the RAF and hidden in a small space in one of the dysentry latrines, the last place a German inspection would think of looking.
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Late each afternoon, a group of trusted prisoners of war would gather to hear the latest news and then immediately the broadcast was over, dash off to the various barrack rooms and relate what had been said. This, more than anything else, boosted the morale of our men, and we all eagerly waited the next instalment, especially during those summer and autumn days of 1944. I developed a really nasty dose of shingles late in 1944. There was an opinion before the war that if this rash joined up around your body, you would die, but the MO disproved this as mine did just that. He brought this to the attention of the other patients in the camp hospital to allay their fears, and mine as well, I can tell you! While I was in this hospital, on the night of November 17, we heard the drone of a huge number of bombers overhead and rushed to the windows. The sky was full of them, six hundred and thirty American B17s and B24s in all, which we learned later had conducted one of the huge strategic assaults on the benzine plants. These massive factories at Bleichhamer and Heydebreck, near the concentration camp at Auschwitz, synthesized around three and a half million tons of this petroleum substitute which was vital to fuel the German war effort and their total destruction brought the fall of the Third Reich closer. Miraculously, because intelligence agents working among the Allied prisoners of war there were able to warn them of this bombing raid, none of them were killed or injured. Over 70,000, including civilian workers were employed at these plants and the supplying coal mines Stalag 344, as VIIIb was now known, along with the nearby VIIIf, housed 90,000 Prisoners of War, many of Eastern European and Russian origin. The Germans didn’t want to be around when this lot was liberated!
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Christmas 1944 was a sombre affair. The Germans had withheld our parcels after the frequent RAF and USAF bombing raids and at times we were in very low spirits. Despite Keith Manson’s lark, we knew the Russian front was only miles away and that something dramatic would have to happen very soon. One bright spot was that a bunch of guys in our compound had been diligently saving raisins, prunes and various other necessities to make a wicked brew. You would be doing it a grave injustice to call it a drink! They let this evil brew ferment under one of the beds and with the addition of a bottle of vodka traded with one of the guards, They presented this on Christmas morning. I am pretty sure the Guards knew about it as the smell alone was enough to lift a steel helmet off your head! Danny Kenny, a Scots lad who slept in the bunk above me, awoke me about six. “Have a wee drap, Laddie. It’s goot!” I went through the motions but even the smell burned the linings of my nostrils and I dreaded to think what it would do to my insides. The buzz went around that two of the lads were so ill from drinking it that they died a few days later. I can’t vouch for that, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

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Benzene
A method is described for producing synthetic benzene and its derivatives for use as major gasoline extenders. A feedstock material containing carbon (limestone has been used) is mixed with lithium metal in a stainless steel vessel, evacuated, and heated to 2,000 F. The molten metal attacks the carbon in the feedstock to form carbides, with a conversion efficiency of 90%. The material is then allowed to cool and water is added to form acetylene gas, which is catalyzed to form benzene with a conversion efficiency of almost 100%. The benzene is consistently pure; any sulfur or ash is left behind, regardless of the sulfur content of the feedstock material. Other feedstock materials considered are charcoal, coke, high sulfur coal and various types of organic wastes. The estimated cost of the product, using low grade coke or coal as the feedstock material, is $15-$20 per barrel.

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Chapter Eight. Evacuation.
The following day, the Germans told us that they had orders we were to leave Stalag and, as there was no transport, we were to march into Germany so that we couldn’t be released by the Russians. We knew they were only a couple of dozen miles away and there was a lot of fear about how we would be treated by “Ivan” if they got here before we had a chance to get out. So we gathered up the gear we had accumulated over the past year or so we had been there. It occurred to us that we didn’t know how far we would have to march, carrying our gear, so we had to separate it into what we intended to take with us and what to leave behind. Not knowing what we were likely to need made the decision very tricky. We obviously wouldn’t be able to carry very much on our backs, and in our malnourished condition, this would determine how far we would march before we dropped. Then one of the lads happened to notice that the snow flakes were falling heavily and had a brilliant idea. Why not build sledges to haul our stuff over the new surface. We had pleanty of wood: our bedboards wouldn’t be any use to us again, and the ply from our Red Cross crates would help keep them light. From out of their hiding places came the carefully guarded hammers, saws and nails and we decided that our combine of four men would build a good
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sledge. The result was magnificent and was the envy of the other lads and especially so as, when we marched out through the gates, each man was presented with two Red Cross parcels, one a Canadian parcel which was always prized for its quality contents, and the other an English Christmas parcel. This of course, presented no trouble to our combine, but the chaps who hadn’t had the foresight we had, didn’t know what to do with theirs. They had nowhere to carry them except their pockets, so they ate what they could there and then. How we blessed those sledges in the months to come. With my crocheted blanket safely stowed away, I am sure this helped with my survival on those unbelievably cold nights. I cannot remember the exact date we marched out, but it was early in January of the coldest winter on record in that part of Europe. The Russian artillary was getting so close that the Germans could not delay any longer and prepared to evacuate. At 1000 hours we were ordered to the main gate as the idea was that as one barrack room exited from the Stalag, the next would follow behind. But again, despite the thorough German efficiency, this did not occur. Our compound was to be cleared first: between two and three thousand men. Each barrack was emptied and we had to stand in the freezing weather. Someone said that the midday temperature was twenty eight degrees below zero. When we eventually arrived at the main gate, we were counted, each face had to match up with our photograph and our fingerprints taken and compared with our record. This caused terrible confusion as POWs who had swapped identities with RAF types were found out and the Germans were baffled and couldn’t work out why their records didn’t tally.
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So we stood there, having had nothing to eat or drink since breakfast, in a freezing wind which cut right through us, although we wore almost every stitch of clothing we owned. I was in a dilemma. I owned two pairs of boots, one pair very old with a number of repairs and patches, and a new pair I had never worn. Here was the problem: which pair should I wear? In the end I wore the old, comfortable pair which were well worn-in and gave the brand new pair to a chap whose boots were in terrible repair and wouldn’t last long on a forced march. However, I must say that I also had a pair of blue shoes my wife had sent me in a parcel way back in the summer. For some unaccountable reason they had not been confiscated by Jerry as any article of clothing which could have formed a very necessary part of escape gear was always held back. I will mention these shoes again a bit later. Rumour was rife, and one story which has stayed with me was one I never sought to query. It involves a German guard, one whom I am sure did his best to assist the POWs in many ways such as dropping little tit-bits of hints that a sudden search of the compound was inevitable. This was invaluable information and warned us not to leave any items around that would be a great loss to the fellows who went to great pains to conceal them. As we were being checked and rechecked, word went around that this guard, who was a Pole but conscripted into the German Army under sufferance, had made plans to escape as we left the Stalag. Secretly, he was given the uniform of a British soldier, complete with all the extras, such as Red Cross parcels and English personal effects. Details of his plans were not circulated. If it was true, then I know the genuine wishes of all of us who realised that he risked his life as he passed on secret information which had made our
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lives so much more comfortable during that time in Stalag. Although his sources were limited, as he was only a private soldier, he had been highly regarded and respected among the Allied prisoners of war. So we eventually moved out from Stalag 344. It had been home to me for about thirteen months, but many men who had been there since Dunkirk, were completely lost without the security of the camp. Many of these men had become good friends and there was genuine distress and so much uncertainty about the future that I felt sorry for them. Each member of our combine had walked around the perimeter of the Stalag and played as much sport as possible but some of the old kriegies were what we termed “Stalag Happy“ and had lain on their beds every day, hardly speaking a word to anyone. Being dreadfully unfit and with muscles which had not been worked for years, a lot of these poor fellows didn’t even survive the first night’s march. It was 1800 hours when we set off and those without balaclavas and gloves suffered badly. A blizzard was blowing, it was snowing heavily and it was absolutely vital to hang on to the man in front of you. You couldn’t see more than a couple of feet and if you let go, you and the men following were lost. Some were very distressed and crying out from all directions. After an hour, we stopped for a rest, but it just made us even colder. While we were walking, our feet sweated, as we all wore at least two pairs of socks. When we stopped, even for fifteen minues, the sweat froze solid inside our boots. When we resumed our walking, it was like having our feet in stocks until the sweat melted. Whilst that was a relief, those who were not used to walking suffered badly.
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Chapter Nine. The March.
The Germans kept us marching all night and at daybreak we stopped at a huge State Farm where we were allowed to rest for a few hours before setting off again at about midday. For those who had to carry their Red Cross parcels, the best way was to eat it. This wasn’t easy as everything was frozen solid and there was no way to thaw it out. As we had our trusty sledges and our Red Cross parcels in the days to come, we were the envy of those without. I know that some of the chaps kept a record of the number of miles we walked, the towns we passed through and a diary of whether we were able to get some sort of shelter at the end of the day. Very soon on the march we found out that only the first few dozen were able to get shelter in the barns or sheds when we stopped at the end of the day. So our combine always contrived to be towards the front and in this way we often got any bits of food that were available as well. When we were able to get shelter, we crammed ourselves together to get body warmth from each other. Those of us who took our boots off to try to massage our sore and aching feet found that they had frozen solid and we could not get them back on until we had thawed them out a bit.
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We didn’t make that mistake again. If we had the foresight to bring an extra two or three pairs of socks with us our feet would have fared better than those with none to change into. How we blessed those sledges which carried things to make our situation a little more comfortable. We tied them to ourselves at night for safety. They were our most treasured posessions and served us faithfully for over a month until the thaw set in. It stopped being a march after the first day and we just trudged along in our own time. The Germans would not let us use sticks to help us walk, as these could be used as weapons, so walking became more difficult as we grew weaker. Quite often, although on starvation rations themselves, some of the older townspeople took pity on our condition and would share a little of their bread or potato with us. I craved sugar and salt. I remember that one day I got two or three saccharine tablets given to me and I put them in my mouth at once. It made me violently sick and to this day, I cannot face artificial sweeteners. As long day succeeded long day, without adequate food or hot drink, we progressively grew weaker. The column got shorter and shorter. There were rumours about what happened to the lads who dropped out. Many said they heard rifle shots. I think the Russians were nearer to us than we imagined. The German Army had no trucks or wagons and POWs were left where they fell as there was no means to pick them up and get them to a hospital. Many resorted to picking mangelwurzels from the fields. These were like large turnips or swedes. Those who tried eating them without washing them became racked with dysentry and gastro-enteritis and I have seen men die as a result because there was no help forthcoming. The
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farmers used to empty the contents of their lavatories straight onto their fields as manure and to eat the produce without washing it first was virtually the death penalty. Other than what could be scrounged, the only food we received was a loaf of bread between twelve men when it was available, and perhaps a thin slice of fish cheese, which tasted dreadful, but was protein and it kept us going for another day. I don’t know what sort of bread it was, either, it certainly didn’t taste like the loaves we had back in England, but we ate it anyway! I must mention that when a loaf of bread was forthcoming, one man who possessed a table knife had the unenviable job of cutting it into twelve or sixteen equal slices, according to the number of men who had to share it. This was made easier to distribute by picking one suit of playing cards from a deck, the ace being the lowest. After shuffling and cutting this little stack a few times, the man who picked the queen had the honour of choosing his slice of bread first, then jack, ten, nine and so on downwards. Sometimes the unfortunate man who picked the ace only had a wafer-like slice of bread left when it came to the end. As the days passed, so the Germans realised that we could not go more than twelve or fifteen miles a day, although it seemed we walked from sun-up to sun-down, consequently, trying to find somewhere to stay overnight became a problem. It is impossible to describe the agony of trying to get mobile in the mornings. The body ached in every joint, we had blisters on every toe and heel, we couldn’t even feel our frozen feet until we had been marching for a while. There was no hot cup of tea or coffee, no breakfast to warm us up and so we started the day more miserable than we ended the previous one.
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All there was to motivate us was “Raus! Raus!” and if you didn’t move quickly enough for the guards, some would help you on your way with a rifle butt. However, many of the older guards had a certain amount of sympathy and showed it with a less cruel approach and sometimes even small kindnesses. I can’t honestly say that I recall the names of the towns and villages we passed through, except one or two. The chief one was Dresden, a name much to the fore in fine arts, and to a small extent I suppose that we could imagine, the architectural beauty of what had been fine houses, but were now reduced to rubble as we passed through some of the streets the day after the city had been bombed to ruin by the Yank and British Air Forces. Even then, I couldn’t help wondering what mentality authorised the demolition of such a beautiful city and the treasures therein. I remember, as we walked through, a few of the people threw rocks at the men in RAF or American Airforce uniforms. I remember that in 1940 – 41, the Luftwaffe targetted Cathedrals and large churches in Britain, alleging that they had good reason to believe these buildings were housing bombs and ammunition, How low does man’s thinking get in warfare? At some time along the way, I think it was after we left the POW camp at Gorlitz, a number of boys from the Hitler Youth Movement took over guarding us for a while. They were fit and fresh and didn’t take into account that we had been force marched for weeks and were in poor physical condition. They energetically and sadistically used sticks on those who couldn’t move as fast as they required.
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Chapter Ten. The Thaw.
Late in February the intense cold eased and the thaw set in, and many men suffered had frostbite on their faces, hands and feet, which brings me to the story of the blue shoes. My comfortable old army boots could no longer stand the rigours of marching every day and eventually just fell apart. Constant soaking, freezing, thawing and drying out perished the stitching holding them together, and how grateful I was to my wife for sending the brogues and for the strange quirk that allowed the shoes to get past the strict eye of the German censor. They were a little big for me and I had to tie them on with pieces of rag. I don’t know whether it was the rubbing of the loose shoe, or whether I picked up a bit of frostbite on the day my boots fell to bits, but I had a sore place on my ankle which wouldn’t heal. One of the true heroes of the Long March to Freedom was a tall, happy man named “Big Joe” Farley. He was in our combine and he kept a lot of the chaps going with his cheerfulness, as well as a small supply of aspirin and some bandages. Walking up and down the column giving encouragement to the men, he also dispensed what he could in the way of medical help. He looked after my ankle and heel and I think I owe my survival to that tower of strength. As the day’s march drew to a close, we would find Joe a place near the front of the column to get
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whatever benefits that might bring: a bit of shelter from the rain, a slice of bread or a partly cooked vegetable. Because Joe was a big man, he required more food than us smaller chaps, and I know he suffered the pangs of hunger more acutely than most. Joe only wore mittens. He said that gloves got in the way. Because of this his hands got badly frostbitten and I am sad to say that on the day we were liberated, Joe didn’t wake up that morning, but died peacefully in his sleep. Of all the unsung heroes of the march, Joe would be at the top of my list. As the cold days passed and the wet, milder weather set in, so colds and ’flu added to our woes. Can you think of anything more miserable than a runny nose and not a handkerchief or even a piece of paper or a tissue to wipe it on? Accompanied with the throbbing headache from a blocked sinus, we wondered what else could happen to us. Any thought of conversation of merriment went completely and we had to summons every ounce of willpower just to put one foot in front of another. I had to part with my beloved crocheted blanket, my constant companion when it was cold, but when the sledge had to be dumped because there was no more snow or ice for it to slide along, it had to go as well. It was too heavy to carry mile after mile. How I missed it at night when the temperature plummetted. I sorely missed it and would dearly loved to have been able to keep it and bring it back with me! Invariably we walked along a main road or autobahn. Hour after hour as you looked up ahead, the road came to a point at the horizon. Not a bend or rise, not a change of scenery and
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each mile seemed to stretch further and further. Not even the occasional car or lorry to make you move out of the way, just plod, plod, plod. It seemed like an eternity! Your trouser belt had long since been tightened to the last hole. The amoebic dysentry, caused by eating unwashed vegetables, took its toll and a lot of lads just fell by the way, not even having the strength to get their trousers down in the state they were in. Wracked with stomach cramps, these chaps would just lie where they fell. There are several incidents that always flood into my mind when I think of the depths of hunger we experienced and what it drove men to do. One afternoon we arrived at a large State Farm and as we entered the barn I noticed quite a crowd of lads gathered just inside the door. There was a two hundredweight sack of corn, carefully put to one side for next year’s sowing, and normally would not have been looked at. But to our lads it was food. They grabbed handsfull, stuffed it into their mouths and some filled their pockets with it. It wasn’t very long before this was noticed and Jerry came flying in. The men around the sack were lined up and searched. They found one man who had filled his pockets, dragged him before the now quietened gathering and made him strip off his trousers and long johns. Then one German guard belted him with a piece of two inch by two inch timber. This must have been unbearable as all flesh on our backsides had long since disappeared. This lad took our punishment for we were all guilty. By the time they got around to searching us, the evidence had quickly been scattered among the straw. I found out the next day that not all the evidence had
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been lost. The seed had caused movement in our bowels and many of us dropped out to relieve ourselves by the roadside to feel the prod of a guard’s rifle butt as we crouched down. We arrived one night at a huge farm as two Ukrainian girls were carrying a bin full of pig swill across the yard when about ten starving men ran over and knocked the girls aside, then scooped the pig swill into their mouths. Although I was really hungry too, I still had a bit of self control left. Another night, someone caught a chicken in the farmyard. Having nothing to cook this bird with, we just ripped it to pieces and devoured it raw. I was fortunate to get a leg and I remember making it last all evening, savouring the stringy flesh in my mouth to allow my saliva to soften it up enough to swallow. The last days of the march are just a continual blur in my mind: constant agony, gripping hunger and terrible weariness. I just wanted to drop and only the will to live kept me going. But the column of men got shorter, and I seem to remember that only four hundred men answered roll call on the last morning. We longed for the sun to set in the afternoon, knowing that the agony of putting one foot in front of the other would be lessened somewhat. When we saw those in the front of the column drop to the ground as we wondered what the night would bring. More deaths, more hunger and more pain! One thing we did know, we would not be near a tap to wash and shave: we had beards of varying colour and length and our unwashed skin and overgrown hair itched and drove us crazy with the lice that were everywhere. No wonder the townsfolk didn’t want to look at us.
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What would we give for a cigarette, to feel that warm, comfortable smoke in your lungs as it released sugar into your bloodstream and relax you. But none of us had any tobacco left to torture ourselves with the smell. Thinking back, it is hard to remember my feelings as I watched one lad, he probably wasn’t more than twenty-one, dying of dysentry. This was just a couple of days before we were liberated. It wasn’t until I was back in England that I realised Someone had been alongside me all the time.

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Chapter Eleven. Zeigenhaim.
We knew we were nearing the end of that dreaded hour after hour of plodding along and at night the weary men would talk for hours about “When we get home!” The French border, we knew, was just a few miles ahead and we could hear the cannons of Patton’s tanks that were roaming just ahead of the advancing Allies. We felt we were nearing the end of our ordeal, although I could feel no elation about it. I recall vividly that last day of agony we endured. I was aware that I couldn’t continue and I said to Johnny Green and Billy “I just can’t go any further. The army can’t be very far ahead now, I’ll just have to wait here and take my chance!” Reluctantly we said goodbye. It wasn’t easy because we had been together from those first days at Stalag, but I was a burden to them in their weakened state and knew that if they were to survive, they would have to do so without me to drag along. We had reached a little burgh called Zeigenhaim and I sank to the ground as the rest of the column passed by me. I was there possibly half an hour, in agony as the sepsis in my foot had travelled up my right leg making it very swollen and it felt like it was on fire. I felt really miserable and had just about given up hope when I noticed these people approaching me. Two
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ladies and one gentleman, and they were indeed. They each carried a bowl, one containing a boiled onion and another a thick vege soup. I never enjoyed food as much in my life before or since although my ability to digest was very limited and I couldn’t manage much. The other lady brought along a bowl of hot water with which she bathed my swollen ankle, then wrapped it around with paper bandages, which she apologised for and said she had no ointment to soothe the wound. They could all speak a smattering of broken English and it brought a lump to my throat when I realised these dear people had given me all they had! Then they gave me some really good news. There was a prisoner of war camp a kilometre along the road and then these wonderful people went and fetched a barrow, lifted me onto it and wheeled me along to gate of the Stalag which was opened to allow them to bring me into the compound. I often think of those dear souls, and, being a believing Christian, know that I will meet them in Glory one day. As they wheeled me through those main gates, some of the chaps who knew me on the march called out “It’s Len!” and I remember the huge smile on dear old Johnny’s face as we shook hands. It was a French POW camp that we had arrived at, but it was there that my gratitude soon turned to disgust. I know that the French POWs didn’t have much themselves, but as soon as our lads lay down on the ground in a large marquee that had been erected in the compound, some of them came around with half-cooked potatoes. Not to give us, mind you, but to barter with for the rings and watches and any decent clothing we had left!
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What a contrast to the German people who had just saved my life. And the Germans were supposed to be our enemies, while the French were our allies! Even though they were starving, our boys did not succumb to this greed, and needless to say, we never sought out their company. I know that all the French were not like this, but we were so disgusted. After a couple of days, we had orders to parade. Every one of us, those like me who could hardly stand were supported by fitter men, men who had joined us from Stalags on the way and who hadn’t marched as far as us. Then a serjeant major told us that the Germans had demanded that the two hundred men who were the fittest were to be marched out, and that a medical officer, a New Zealander, I think, would declare who were strong enough to move on. There were only four hundred of us, as I said, so it meant that half of our number would have to continue this terrible ordeal. After he had walked along the columns of men, he reported to the Germans that not one man was fit enough to walk even another mile. The Germans insisted, so the MO told us of the verdict and said “I cannot ask any one of you to march any further. If you think you can go on, take one step forward!” Almost every man who was on his feet took that step forward, just about the number required. Those incredibly brave men marched out the next day towards the Bavarian Alps where they were released a couple of months after the war ended. We don’t know what sadistic streak made the Germans order that!
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The next few days passed quietly. The Germans vacated the camp, except for a number of private soldiers who were delegated the chores normally carried out by POWs. We had to give our name, rank and Army number, and what a surprise we had when Serjeants and Corporals were having to cut off their chevrons and revert to their rank of Fusilier or Private! Many of these “Stalag promotions” were organised by private soldiers who did not want to go on working parties. Others who were “Serjeants” were in charge of a group of men, and while they did not actually have to work, were responsible for the men turning out a certain amount of labour. Whatever their motives, they had to revert to their rank which they held when they were taken prisoner, and it is surprising that NCOs you had accepted in the past were actually “Stalag promotions”. I started to get about a bit although my leg was still very painful. The noise of battle grew ever louder and War was again at our door. One fighter pilot mistook the Stalag for a German Army barracks and strafed one end of the compound, scattering the lads who were looking through the wire trying to see what was going on. A few men were killed and injured in this terrible mistake and I believe this strafing was not an isolated incident. What a sad end to a such a miserable episode in those men’s lives!

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Chapter Twelve. Liberation.
Then that afternoon, the big American Sherman tanks rolled along the road leading to the camp. What a wonderful sight it was, the crews sitting on top of the turrets, waving and greeting us. We went forward to welcome them and all the Germans made themselves very scarce. They were mostly Afro-Americans, or Negroes, as we called them back then. I recall one huge serjeant with a grin from ear to ear, approached us and started to hand out biscuits, chocolate, cigarettes and candy. They quickly organised someone to go out and slaughter a sheep in one of the fields and made a big stew with fresh vegetables. It tasted wonderful but anyone who ate too much and who had the amoebic dysentry which attacked anything entering the digestive system, soon became desperate and had to make a rush for the latrines. I was given the task of commanding a squad of young German soldiers to clean up the mess these men made, including those who never got as far as the latrines. There was blood and excreta all over the floors and these young lads added to the filth with their vomit. As fast as they hosed down the floors and bowls, they were fouled again. When another serjeant did his stint in command, this continued, and when I returned, the floors were still just as filthy. I was very happy to hand over my job to the Pioneer Corps when they eventually arrived.
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As I mentioned earlier, we were all heavily bearded, with long, straggly hair, filthy skin and infested with body lice. When it was our turn to go to the de-lousers, I wondered whether we could make it that far without some assistance as we were still terribly weak. But the master serjeant, a burly chap from Brooklyn, soon solved our transport requirements. He picked Johnny up under one massive arm and me under the other and carried us down there to the showers. These men were very kind and cheerful and I recall this spirit every time I meet any black American. When we stripped off our rags, I looked at Johnny. He had no flesh on his bones, which stood out of his skin. “John! You look just like a skeleton!” I commented. He turned to me and said “Mate, I was just going to say the same to you!” When we stepped on the scales, we weighed just five stone. All our muscle matter had been consumed – any spare fat had gone a long time ago – and it was no wonder we were so weak! We were deloused twice a day but it didn’t get rid of those terribly itching lice until well after we arrived back in England. After a couple of days in which we were all registered, our names, ranks and Army numbers recorded, the main Army caught up with Patton’s Tank Division and arrived in camp. We were transported out to a nearby aerodrome where a flight of Dakotas were on the runway to take us back to Blighty. These transport aircraft had no seats for us to sit on, as they had been fitted out to carry freight and vehicles, so we had to sit on duck boards at the back of the fusilage. We didn’t have
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any meat on us and the Air Force were not expecting us, so didn’t supply any cushions, either. These planes were notorious for being tossed around in the sky and that flight across France and the English Channel was absolute agony. The plane would hit an air pocket and drop a dozen or so feet. We were not far behind it, and hit those boards again with a bone-shaking bang. We didn’t even have anything to hold on to, no straps or posts to steady us. The pilot shouted “It’s okay. It’s only a slipstream or something!” but it seemed much worse as our poor, fleshless buttocks repeatedly hit the deck. We weren’t allowed to stand and I remember an RAF aircrewman growling “Go careful!” as we crowded to one side of the plane when the pilot called out “If you look out of the left side you can see the White Cliffs of Dover!” And there was England at long last. We wanted to cheer but I know that a large lump in my throat was too big to swallow! That nightmare was behind us; we were the fortunate ones, we were going home to our loved ones.

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DENMARK
NORTH SEA BALTIC SEA

NETHERLANDS BELGIUM
Cologne

GERMANY
STALAG IXa
Zeigenhaim

Berlin Gorlitz Leipzig Dresden

POLAND
Auschwitz Bleichammer

STALAG 344

LUXEMBOURG

Frankfurt

CZECH R.
Moosburg Munich

as it is in 2012

EUROPE

FRANCE
SWITZERLAND
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AUSTRIA

Chapter Thirteen. Home at Last!
And what a greeting was waiting for us when we landed somewhere in the Midlands in England. There was transport waiting to take us to our quarters for the night! Real beds with real sheets! But before we were allowed to sample these, we were again asked the usual questions “Name, Rank, Unit, Army number, next of kin, date of birth” and whatever else they needed from men who had been prisoners of war for up to five years. Then we were taken to the showers, deloused again, kitted out with brand new underwear, battle dress complete with chevrons, service medals and insignia. But by evening we were all scratching again as those infuriatingly obstinate lice had laid eggs in whatever bodily nooks and crannies and they had hatched to produce another generation to torture us. So we were taken back for more delousing in stronger-smelling insecticide, scalding hot showers and another kit-out of underwear. (I will jump ahead a few days and tell you that on my first night back with my wife, I threw my thick vest to her, saying “Run your nail along the seams, Love, and kill any lice you find!” How romantic!)
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These formalities over, we were taken to a hangar which was all decked out by the Women’s Volunteer Service and Air Force staff and served a feast fit for a king. There were pies, sausage rolls, savouries, sandwiches with meat, cheese and different spreads, then cakes of every description, beer, cups of tea or coffee and desserts. But what these dear, well-meaning women didn’t realise was that our stomachs had shrunk and though we gallantly shovelled it into our mouths, any rich food made us scurry for the lavatories. Before the meal was finished there was a steady stream to the toilet block, followed by another trip to the delouser. But oh, how we suffered that night and well into the next day! Even the “real beds with real sheets” couldn’t calm our aching bellies. The night passed and in the morning we went before a medical panel who were shocked at our condition. Despite this, the head doctor asked us a very ridiculous question. “Well,” he said. “You’re not in very good shape! Would you rather go straight into hospital, or take six week’s leave first?” I don’t think one former POW elected the hospital option and all thoughts of sickness and pain evaporated! We were going home at last, most of us to see our loved ones for the first time in years.

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Although this ends my story of the time I was a prisoner of war, the aftermath is another story in itself. It is told in another literary effort written by my wife and myself and which we titled “Two Lives in Harmony”, which tells of our individual lives before the Second World War, of her feelings during the war, and our lives together since, through seventy wonderful years of marriage in perfect harmony.

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Afterthought:
As I look back over those years, I wonder why I have been chosen to share these memories. I realise so very clearly that a Hand was on mine, leading and guiding me through those days of physical and mental pain. How can I explain that each hour of every day, there was a Hand to help me? It wasn’t until twelve years later, after our little family migrated to Australia, that I learned it was our Heavenly Father who had been with me and my dear wife every step of the way until we were gathered in and when we learned of God’s love for us during those dark days. It was not luck but God’s Hand that had guided us and taken care of us every inch of the way. We are well into our nineties now, my wife and I, and are looking forward to being in His presence for eternity. Len Lees, Kingsley, Western Australia, 2012.
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Leonard Lees was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, in 1918 and joined the Royal Fusiliers, City of London Regiment at the outbreak of the Second World War. After serving in Iraq and the Western Desert, he was part of the landing at the Gulf of Salerno and was taken Prisoner of War at Battapaglia. This is his story, from capture by the German Army, life in Stalag 344, the march across Germany and liberation by U.S. troops, to eventually arriving back in England on April 8th, 1945. Len is now 94 and lives happily with his wife of over 70 years, Eve, in Kingsley, Western Australia. Above: Len in 1942 Below: Len in 1946

Len in 2012

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Psalm 23:4