A Brief Synopsis of my period of service in the 2nd World War
By Alan G Glass, May 2000
The 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, TA was formed in early 1939, and I enrolled on 1st May of that year. The unit was composed almost exclusively of young ex-Wallasey Grammar School students (of which I was one), and being a Territorial outfit, we were mobilised well before the outbreak of war. I was 20 years old.
Our first assignment was sapping under bridges around Boston, Lincolnshire, carrying roads and rail links across a maze of rivers and canals. Having reached the abutments we excavated a chamber to accommodate explosives in readiness to destroy these bridges. Apparently The Wash was expected to be a possible invasion point by the Germans. The work was hard and unpleasant – eight hours on and eight hours off – and when we emerged from our tunnels we were covered in black, slimy clay and the easiest way to get clean was to dive into the nearby river/canal.
Thence by convoy of 10 passenger liners to Egypt via Durban, South Africa for half of the convoy – the other half called at Capetown. After a short stint in the desert we were recalled and shipped to Greece on three naval destroyers (all of which were subsequently sunk by enemy action). We made our way up to the north of the country near Salonika and prepared two major bridges for demolition – both road and rail bridges had 18 spans. Gun cotton and gelignite were used – the former to cut steelwork and the latter to destroy the piers supporting the spans. Thoughtfully the Germans, who built these long bridges, had incorporated chambers within the piers, saved us a lot of work and all we had to do was pack them with large boxes of ‘jelly’ for effective demolition.The bridge roadways were cut by suspending a cradle underneath, placing boxes of gelignite on the cradle and then hauling the whole contraption up tight against the under-surface of the roadway. Explosives always take the line of greatest resistance. Gun cotton was ideal for cutting railway lines.
We then went across country towards the Albanian border to lay landmines. At this location we noticed a line of aircraft heading west and wondered who or what was their target. We were soon to find out – it was us, as out of the sun came Stukas, the screaming dive-bombers, a dozen or more, one after the other. Our only defence was our old 303 rifles and three Bren guns shared between the whole squadron – not much good against Stukas.
Retreating south, with the Germans not far behind us, our section of eight men was ordered back to destroy two small bridges just outside the town of Lamia on the southern side, but north of the pass of Thermopylae. The bridges were perhaps a mile apart, and while three of us (including me) remained at the first one, the other five men, including the corporal in charge, went downstream to deal with the second bridge, taking the transport with them. The plan was for them to blow their bridge, return with the transport, we would blow ours and then evacuate via Lamia and head south.
On the second day there was an odd feeling that things weren’t quite right. One of my companions went downstream to find out what was happening, and he came back, breathless, to report that there was no sign of the other party – they had blown their bridge and departed, leaving the transport on the wrong side of the river. At this time we could hear and see the German half-track vehicles entering Lamia, thus effectively cutting off our retreat in that direction even if we had transport. We decided it was time to make ourselves scarce, we blew our bridge and started walking as the sun set – no map, no compass, just instinct – and we had to put distance between us and the Germans, so we headed in the direction of the coast. We waded through rivers and streams and staggered across vineyards – very difficult terrain – and just before first light we came under machine-gun fire. When we shouted that we were British we got another burst of fire, so we decided that discretion was the safest move and sheltered behind a stone wall until daylight before revealing ourselves. It was a New Zealand contingent that had fired at us, on the assumption that we were the enemy masquerading as British. They gave us a good meal – bally beef stew with added raisins – and sent us on our way south, on foot!
We came across a small stone aqueduct, about two feet deep and two feet wide, running from the foothills towards the sea. It was gushing with hot water, just the right temperature, so we stripped-off and luxuriated in a welcome bath, only to be interrupted by a low-flying plane which opened fire on us – what cheek! We had seen it coming and smartly ducked down behind the aqueduct.
Eventually we got a lift into Athens, to try to re-join our unit, but nobody had heard of the 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron, and we were ordered to join a company of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, which had just landed at Piraeus, and they immediately set off south towards Corinth. Unfortunately they were without combat experience, and when the convoy of large, sophisticated mobile workshops halted for a break, the CO permitted them to line up in close order – no dispersal, no camouflage – they were sitting ducks, and sure enough over came the Luftwaffe, this time with heavy bombers and strings of bombs. So my friend and I opted to strike out on our own. By chance we came across an abandoned truck loaded with rations – tinned fruit, tinned milk, rum, biscuits – naturally we made the most of this bounty! But Carnation milk, thinned down with water from a stream, was regretted later. The milk disguised the fact that the water was brackish and later we suffered terribly from thirst, worse than hunger.
At a town called Navplion, situated at the end of an inlet from the sea, a passenger vessel coming to evacuate troops was grounded on a sandbank. Whether by accident or design, we don’t know (there was a great deal of fifth-column activity in Greece, and the pilot may have been a member). In the confined space of the narrow waterway at this point the ship looked like the Queen Mary, but of course it was a much smaller edition, and was in fact the Liverpool/Belfast steamer ‘Ulster Prince’ or ‘Ulster Monarch’, which I had seen many times in the Mersey. Naturally it was a sitting target for the Luftwaffe.
By the time we reached Kalamata the Germans weren’t far behind, and we sought refuge in a cave on the seaside, but to no avail. The Germans winkled us out with the obvious words “Gentlemen, for you the war is over”. The navy had come to rescue as many of our troops as possible, but the Germans had by now taken control of the town and the jetty, and the navy ships were obliged to stand off and send lifeboats which took off some wounded personnel, but they had to depart well before dawn to avoid bombers. The upshot was that about 30,000 of our troops were taken prisoner.
After a few days all POW’s were transferred to a site outside Corinth, and then force-marched to a railhead, loaded into cattle trucks (eight horses or 50 men!) – no toilet facilities and hardly room to sit down – four days and nights without being allowed out to stretch our legs. At one point in northern Greece we had to de-train and march via a detour to re-join another train, on account of a demolished bridge that we ourselves had blown up – and the guards were none too gentle with laggards! And so via Belgrade and Zagreb to Austria.
We ended up at a holding camp at Wolfsberg Stalag 18A, and from there sent out to working camps. I finally ended up in a 250-man unit on the outskirts of Klagenfurt. (Work Camp 10029/GW) Here our boys quickly got things under control, i.e. we organised a system that was to our advantage. This is how it worked; prisoners were hired out to civilian contractors who were required to sign for ten hours’ work per day, per man, and to pay the military authorities accordingly. Naturally we did our best to actually work as little as possible, and the civilian employers were not getting value for their money. So it was suggested to them that it was to our mutual advantage to come to an agreement on the amount of work expected. Since most jobs were of the pick-and-shovel variety, the original ‘contract’ was, say, three cubic metres per man for a day’s work. When this proved too onerous, and took almost all day to complete, we would decline any further contract and ‘work normally’, i.e. leaning on our shovels most of the time! So the employer was forced to re-consider terms and reduce his requirements. By steady pressure of this sort, most jobs could be accomplished within a matter of three hours – after which we were free to return to camp, the employer having signed for ten hours per man.
Thus, when volunteers were called for in the afternoon, a small party could then demand at least a further 10 hours which would entitle them to the next day off. On one such job I negotiated 30 hours per man – three days off! The system worked quite well and everybody was happy. But some guys were a little over-ambitious and saved their entitlements until they had accumulated as much as four to six weeks – and then the war ended and they wished they had utilised such free time more economically!
When the tide of war was turning in favour of the Allies, large numbers of American planes – flying fortresses – passed over en route to targets in southern Germany or Czechoslovakia. Batches of 50 were counted heading north and re-counted on their way back to base in Italy, amounting in total to 1200-1500 bombers. However, once a week Klagenfurt was the target, including our camp on one occasion. Seventeen of our fellow POW’s were killed in one raid, and they had been prisoners for almost four years. It was very sad.
Let me conclude this necessarily incomplete account with a typical anecdote in the life of a POW in Germany: it transpired later that most camps acquired, by fair means or foul, the materials necessary to make a radio receiver capable of homing-in on BBC news broadcasts (ours started with a basic ‘cat’s whisker’ crystal set). In one camp the technicians involved were desperate for a certain component – let us say it was a condenser – and it was suggested by some bright spark that the camp commandant’s telephone installation would be a suitable source, and in due course the opportunity arose to relieve him of this particular item. Of course, as expected, it wasn’t long before the commandant was unable to use his phone and the reason became apparent. So a parade of all POW’s was called and he addressed the assembled ranks in no uncertain terms. He followed this up with a large notice for all to see, reciting the Riot Act, and ended his diatribe with the words “Remember, the commandant has the power” – under which, a little later, someone added “Yes, but who has the condenser!”
At the end of hostilities, and before our own troops arrived, the camp gates were thrown open and we were free to leave. I and the others from our camp were flown out from Klagenfurt airfield to Bari in southern Italy, and then to the UK in RAF bombers manned by a Rhodesian crew – they all seemed so young.
After a few months at home I was discharged from the army, having served (according to my discharge certificate) six years and 171 days with the colours, with a total service of six years and 294 days. I was a POW for four years and one month.
A little later – January 1946 – I sailed for Nigeria in a new job. But that is another story.
naturally, I suppose, one tends to put the more unpleasant aspects of POW life
to the back of one’s mind and focus more clearly on the lighter moments.
This applies, for example, to the winter months when we were obliged to
exit the camp in large numbers to march to the town centre through deep snow and
spend all day clearing the roads.It
was no fun going out at daybreak on a cold morning, with only a slice of bread
and a cup of ersatz coffee for breakfast. Icicles
9 or 10 inches thick at the top hung from the eaves of the huts and stretched
down to the ground, and our army issue boots were not intended to cope with snow
on this scale and rapidly became soaked, like wet cardboard. This
was one area of work in which we could not operate the ‘contract’ system and
in order to keep warm, there was no alternative but to keep moving – a
miserable and tedious job.
article was written for a millennium project in the village of Tremeirchion,
North Wales, where my father lived from 1959 until his death in June 2002. He
seldom spoke about his wartime experience, so this was an unusual departure.
on to survive a horrendous air crash at Idris airport Tripoli in September 1955,
and ceased working in Nigeria in 1957. When he retired he was company secretary
for a building firm.
be most grateful to speak to anyone who knew him during the war, or can cast
light on the location of the work camp – I visited Stalag 18a last April, and
intend travelling to Greece to visit some of the places mentioned.
Bodfari Road, Llandyrnog, Denbigh, LL16 4HP. Tel 01824 790280. E-mail: email@example.com
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This was one area of work in which we could not operate the ‘contract’ system and in order to keep warm, there was no alternative but to keep moving – a miserable and tedious job.
This article was written for a millennium project in the village of Tremeirchion, North Wales, where my father lived from 1959 until his death in June 2002. He seldom spoke about his wartime experience, so this was an unusual departure.
He went on to survive a horrendous air crash at Idris airport Tripoli in September 1955, and ceased working in Nigeria in 1957. When he retired he was company secretary for a building firm.
I would be most grateful to speak to anyone who knew him during the war, or can cast light on the location of the work camp – I visited Stalag 18a last April, and intend travelling to Greece to visit some of the places mentioned.
Bodfari Road, Llandyrnog, Denbigh, LL16 4HP. Tel 01824 790280. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org