Jim Bennett

This is an extract from Jim's story, written in his own words.

Since 14 years of age I have been a cowboy, shepherd, deer culler, farmer and of course soldier. I believe I was reasonably successful at all, but it was as a deer culler, hunting and roaming the hills, that suited me most of all. I spent a year in the South Island (New Zealand), climbing in the Southern Alps, shooting Thar and Chamois. It was really something and was to play a large part in the years to follow.

I had been culling for about 3 years when war broke out. My mate, Bob Skudder and I decided to enlist when we were shooting in inland Patea. We hopped in Bob's car and drove down to Napier and enlisted. It wasn't long before we were called to Trentham. I didn't think much of the three months at Trentham, marching up and down, with the likes of bank clerks teaching me how to use a rifle. I was put in the Mortar Platoon. The mortar is a heavy gun but I weighed 12 stone and was pretty fit.

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Finally the day came. We left from Wellington. It seemed like the whole town was there to see us off. The ship was the 'Mauritania'.

(After a long voyage, with stops in Australia and India, Jim arrived in Egypt.)

Now, at this stage, we were a different brand of boys. We did long route marches. No surplus fat on now. I would say that most of the boys would have been the fittest they'd been in their lives. We lived in tents in the desert. Not bad, but of course mighty hot. As time dragged on, we did get a little news of the war. The Gerrys were now in Yugoslavia. Things are beginning to hot up. At last it is out, we are headed for the Suez Canal and Greece. This means a celebration. The grog will flow. It's dirt cheap. I pride myself on my ability to hold my liquor. I was sober as ever, but another mad drunk bugger on a motorbike ran over me and wham. Down to the hospital with a fractured jaw and a knee that wouldn't work. The boys said that I wouldn't be going with them. I was an ideal patient until the day when the boys came in to say goodbye. I was dressed, ready and waiting. I swore and cursed and said "You can't stop me." In the end I was on my way to Greece. Anyway, there was no-one to take my place on the gun.

We were taken by cruiser over to Greece. As I remember, it took most of a day and a night. The first thing I saw of note was the place where the first Olympics were held. It looked in fairly good repair for its age. Our tent was put up in some old ruins. We were told we would be meeting the Huns in about a week's time. We could hear the fighting in the distance and by the sound of it they were making good progress.

Our plan was to retreat in stages. The Aussies who were with us had heavy artillery, 25 pounders that did a good job. I saw them knock out 17 big tanks. A runner came up and said our gun would take over. What an afternoon! The sun was blazing down. Soon the Gerrys were within range. We had 400 bombs and got rid of them all before they broke through. We were all fair buggered, standing there with our hands in the air. Luckily none of our crew were lost. I just had time to throw the gun sights away and that was that. We had come from New Zealand to Greece and in just three weeks of fighting we were prisoners of war. I'd left a good job to volunteer to come to this so and so place to fight and to kill people I had not seen before.

Early next morning we were on a route march back the way we had come. We eventually got to a compound of sorts. The water was putrid and gave most of us dysentery. We all lost a lot of weight. I reckon from 12 stone I went down to 6.

Time dragged by. Summer was here. Over 30 degrees in temperature, food not good and in short supply. Then came the day. We were marched to the railway and put into cattle trucks. We were crammed tight. We were heading for Austria and our permanent camp. I don't know if we were lousy before we got on the train or not, but when we got off the following day, we all were. We would spend all day delousing ourselves. First our pants, then our jackets and singlets. Then our socks if we had any. Lastly our hair; I would do my neighbour's and he would do mine. When that was done we'd heave a sigh of relief and then start all over again.

Eventually we arrive in Austria, on the outskirts of a little town called Wolfsberg. We actually had huts to sleep in. We were given road work to do and soon felt a lot better.

The Russian compound was next to ours. They did not belong to the Geneva Convention, which meant there were no rules or restrictions for the Germans regarding them. What we saw was horrible. I have seen men who must have weighed 18 stone starved down to 6 stone or less. No flesh on their arms or legs; their eyes seemed to have sunk into their heads. It was winter time and daily a bulldozer dug a big hole and the previous night's corpses would be pushed in and covered over.

Of course we were all quite fit again. At this stage we were getting a Red Cross parcel of food once a week. It was not long before we received letters from home. These things made life worthwhile again.

Austria, from what I saw of it, is not a very big country. Unlike the Germans, who are a strict sort of people, the Austrians are quite friendly. Much of their country was similar to our South Island. The more I saw of this country, the more I liked it. It was the mountains. They fascinated me. I would stand and stare at them for hours. As a deer culler, they reminded me of Mount Cook.

As time passed, I became restless. The Swiss Alps right in front of me, Switzerland a free country and my ability as a mountaineer taunted me. I had heard that there was an escape committee at the Stalag and so I decided to send them a letter at the first opportunity. (Jim must have been in a Work Camp at this point.) This wasn't long in coming. A chap who had 'picked up something' was to be taken to the Stalag for a check-up. He wasn't long in coming back with a parcel for J Bennett, Lance Corporal. In it was a rope, long and strong enough to hold three times my weight. On one end of the rope was a long narrow piece of steel with a hole through it. It was magnetised to act as a compass.

My next task was to scrounge a haversack and some food. Hooray for the Red Cross parcels. Each morning I would take a small tin of meat to a place I had selected under a big stone. Being a corporal, I was in charge of a gang of workers and so I wasn't searched before leaving base each morning. My tin of food was tucked under one arm. I reckoned that, in a month or two, I would be ready. I was pretty fit, it was mid-summer, and I was really looking forward to it.

Everything was working out well. No-one knew there was about to be an escape. There was a sergeant at the camp and I let him know the night before. I wrote a letter to my parents and asked him to keep it and send it to them if anything happened to me. He wished me all the best.

My big day came. I was ready, a little bit scared, but terribly excited. On arriving at the work site, I simply kept on going to where my swag was hidden. I had tried to convey to the guards that I had a weak bladder. Anyway they didn't suspect me. The swag was over my shoulder and I was away up the hill.

The hills had a heavy coating of pines and my anxiety ceased after an hour. My fears eased and I gradually slowed down. I must have been a POW for at least 2 years, and here I was, a free man. Being so close to the Swiss Alps, I reckoned that I had a 50-50 chance of success. I'd had a lot of time to study the mountains and to think back to our own in New Zealand. Gradually I had to admit that ours were not quite so rugged, not quite so steep and not quite so high.

I knew that there was a railway line ahead somewhere and came to it on the third day out. It was dusk and I set off to cross the 4 sets of lines. Halfway across, I heard a train coming and ducked back to a concrete wall on my side. I just made it. I stood under the wall and waited. The flipping train stopped directly above me. It was a troop train. They all got out and relieved themselves over the wall. I reckon I copped the lot. All the bloody good things I have said about the Germans and they turn around and piddle on me. It's not fair.

A week out, and I was out of the foothills and climbing rocks not far from the ice. My hopes were high. Water was a problem. Mostly I got it from the long grass. I would swish my dixie-bowl through the long leaves and catch a few drops each time. Slow work but satisfactory.

The days passed. I was now nearly into my third week of freedom. The food was holding out well. I was nearing the snow and rocks which could be a problem. I would have to be very careful.

A few days later, I was crossing a gully at dusk, that dreaded time again, when it happened. The rocks crumbled and down I went. I got caught up about halfway down, a bit dazed and with a swollen jaw. I managed to get down to the bottom. Next morning, my knee was swollen and I had a fairly big bump on my head.

(Despite resting for a few days, Jim realised that he was unable to carry on and reluctantly decided to give himself up. Two weeks later, he was back at the Stalag.)

21 days in the cooler. This was a room, 6 foot long and 3 foot wide. It had three blankets in it, which was 3 more than I'd had for the last month. On my door was a sheet of paper. Each morning my jailer would tick off my one meal for that day. For three days I received bread and water. The 4th day, I would get full rations, which was a kind of soup. It tasted like it was made from potato peelings. I preferred the bread and water.

The day after I was released I was sent on a train with my jailer to a working camp. It was a quarry. I was amongst real jail birds. They called this a Straflager, a maximum security jail. There was one jailer for every 4 prisoners. My sentence was for 2 years. The prison itself was an old castle with barbed wire fences around it and Alsatian dogs roaming loose. We made friends with the dogs, giving them little tit-bits from our Red Cross parcels. We reckoned it was a good investment.

It was about this time that one of my Aussie cobbers who had a lot of pen friends asked me if I would like one. I didn't have a girlfriend, in fact I'd never had one. I started writing letters to a girl called Joan in England. She would always be my sweetheart but it wasn't likely that I would ever go to England.

(Over the next months, Jim was moved thirteen times from camp to camp. Now the war was drawing to a close and there were rumours of the Russians advancing. Jim was now back at the Stalag.)

Once again I was ready to break out but this time I didn't like the look of things. I didn't know the country. Yet I felt that I had to get away. When the rest of the boys heard I was going, four of them wanted to come along too. In the end we went through a window and away we headed for the hills.

A few days later, we struck gold. We came across a group of people who called themselves the 'Heute Freiheit Kampfer' which means 'Today's Freedom Fighters' and were anti-Hitler. They told us we had two options. One was to go to the Russians and the other was to go to Yugoslavia. Two of us, Frank and I, decided to go with them to Yugoslavia.

Our guide was an Austrian, a lad about 16 but very competent. We picked up lots of people along the road. All sorts: deserters, two German soldiers and even a few SS, the so-called elite. We were about 50 strong now, all nationalities and all going to Yugoslavia. Eventually we arrived at a river. The group had boats sunk in the river which they hauled up with ropes. Frank and I were in the first boat which got across safely. The second one sank and we lost about 20 people as the river was swollen after heavy rain.

(Jim was on the run in Yugoslavia until the war ended. Eventually they met up with British troops and were flown to England. While he was there, Jim went up to Liverpool and met Joan, his pen-friend. They hit it off, got married, and went back to New Zealand. Jim farmed in Gisborne, Te Puke and Rotorua. He retired in Rotorua and had a house on the lake front where he would catch trout in his little boat.
Jim wrote this account shortly before he lost his memory to Alzheimer's disease. Joan and Jim died a few weeks apart in the 90's.)

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Jim & Joan on their Wedding Day


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