John Keay was born and brought up in the Midlands. He joined the Army in June 1939. After basic training he was transferred to 4th Queen’s Own Hussars and taught to drive a tank. In August 1940, his regiment was shipped out to Egypt.
After 3 days we were told that our tanks had arrived, they were on flat wagons at the railway station at a place called Tel El Kabir, a small village about 8 miles from El Taag. We eventually got them back to camp and our troubles started. In soft sand the bogeys kept getting blocked up and buried. We had to wait while metal roll-up strips were sent out to us. When we got stuck we had to get out and place these strips under the tracks, move to hard sand get out and collect the roll up strips. At night it went very cold after the heat of the day, so we were allowed a rum ration to warm our stomachs.
Randolph (Churchill) was now a Major and we had no trouble in getting our ration. He was in charge of tank rations and we carried a couple of gallons in our tank, he never drank it, so we had his share. We were under Wavell's command now and in the 7th Army. Whilst waiting to go forward to Mersa Matru we were halted for 2 or 3 days. The C.O. in charge of our regiment had a brilliant idea, he told us that we were to dig large holes and bury as much dry sand as possible, that man was in charge of a regiment and didn’t know that after 10mins. in boiling sun, the sand we dug up would also be dry dust. When challenged he said ‘well at least it will find us something to do’. We had tanks that were worn out and wanted some attention, but the sand came first.
We later moved up the desert, we took thousands of Italian and Libyan prisoners. Well we didn’t beat them in combat, they just gave themselves up at the sound of the first shots. We captured a lot of Italian buggies, they were much superior to our worn out tanks, they had a lorry front with steering wheel and rear tracks for propulsion they were great for desert travel. The Italians were in a poor state and all they wanted was ‘aqua’ (Water). I remember one day as we were resting one came up to me and pleaded for a drink. I could not give him any out of my water bottle as it was checked as to how much we used, so the best I could do was to put his dixie under the tank radiator and give him some from there. He offered me a handful of notes. I do not know, what currency they were as I refused them, but whatever it tasted like he drank it.
After 2months we were sent back to Cairo for a weeks rest. Ray and I went into Cairo and stayed at the Palace Marina Hotel. We had a very exciting week and enjoyed ourselves. We decided to go to the Pyramids and were very disappointed. It was a very filthy place at that time and a number of dead bodies lay around the bottom of The Sphinx, all maggot ridden, people walking about, taking not a bit of notice of the situation. We were pestered to death first by men with a basket of oranges on their head trying to sell them, next by little boys wanting to clean your boots, and finally little boys trying to sell their sister for half an hour. They we very hard people to convince that you did not want any bargains. We assembled back with our unit, only to be told that we were to make our way to Alexandria.
We boarded the cruiser Ajax. As we left port we passed by the French fleet, we couldn’t count the number of naval ships that were anchored there, but as we passed them, the crew of the Ajax gave one loud boo, and once we knew why, we joined in. The reason being they would not help to escort us to Greece, they were afraid of Italian aircraft attacking them. We steamed in line ahead, Ajax, Bonaventure, York and Gloucester across the Mediterranean line ahead, to cut down the risk of hitting the mines that the Italians had laid. We were surprised that on boarding the Ajax, we had to hand in our 45 Colts (Revolvers), the reason being that the only people allowed arms on board naval ships were the Marines.
After 23hours we landed at Port Piraeus, within 1 hour we were all ashore and the ships were on their way back to Alexandria. They had to be at least 2hours from Greece before daylight, out of range of German & Italian aircraft. We had waited 3 days just outside Piraeus for our tanks to arrive.
We put them on flat train wagons and were told that we would be taken to Corinth by train and then drive all the way to Northern Greece. That was a journey of a lifetime, over the mountains and through the mountain passes and tunnels. We were 2 weeks travelling. The only drawback was that in the 2nd week it was snowing and freezing, and believe me it got cold up those mountains. We eventually arrived at our destination a place called Yanitse on the coast in the far north of Greece.
After a couple of weeks the weather picked up and we were allowed to bathe in the sea. Everything as regards the war was very quiet. Germany had not declared war on Greece yet. We spent most of our time digging slit-trenches round and about our camp. We had to dig the trenches in the shape of a dogs hind-leg, so that when the Stukas machine gunned you, you could get to the best cover which ever way they came. They usually came down from the sun, so that you never saw them until it was too late.
We did not wait long for things to happen as regards Germany, they made one sudden attack and they were at war with Greece. The very first attack we had was from the air, we were casually taking things easy, when out of the sun came about 5 Stukas, they dropped bombs all round and amongst us, it was so quick we never realised what was happening. I was talking to my friend Ray between 2 tanks, when suddenly this Stuka came down right for us. He opened fire and a burst of bullets ripped into the ground in front of us and continued to rip Ray’s haversack to pieces. The bits floated about like dandelion seeds, the bullets had all gone between us and we were only 3feet apart, neither of us were touched. We only had one casualty on that raid, one of our tank crews wireless operators had a splinter of shrapnel tear his arm to shreds. I went to him and held him down on the ground with my hands round his armpit trying to stop the bleeding, he was screaming ‘why me, why me?’; lucky for me the medics were soon on the spot and they took over. I was so glad to see them, I had never been in a situation like this before and I was dead scared, but I was soon to learn that these things happen all the time in battle, and believe me they got worse.
All next day we were pounded by the Stukas and it led to the German panzers crossing the border. Funnily enough they were led by German soldiers on motor cycles and sidecars. We had the Anzacs with us as infantry and boy what a day they had picking them off, at this time a 2nd lieutenant had taken command of my tank, Randolph had disappeared, I never saw him again.
The German tanks were armed with 2 pounder shells and all brand new tanks. We were armed with .05 machine guns, mostly used for shooting rabbits, and tanks that were so old that if you turned too quick the track would come off. Out you had to get, take the connecting bolt out of the track, rewind it round the sprockets and re-connect it. We did this so often that it only took minutes, especially with those Stukas machine gunning us.
We read a lot about the RAF and what they did in Greece, but I can honestly say that we were the front line troops from day 1 in Greece and I only ever saw one Hurricane plane in the sky. We saw plenty on our retreat, but they were still boxed up in crates and had never been assembled and just left there, not even destroyed. We used to say ‘did did dab dab hark to the sound of the wailing Morse, where the bloody hell is the Royal Air Force?’. It just proved what a cock up the Greece campaign was and why it was never given any publicity.
Just a few words, we went to help Greece and we evacuated most successfully. You try telling that to the men that I was with for the next four and half years. We were just sent as gun fodder. Anyway, the German tanks broke through and our regiment lost about 50 tanks on the first day. One shell hit the caterpilar on our tank and killed the lieutenant. We were told to retreat. The sky was now full of German planes. As they came down to machine gun us, they came so close in their dive that they used to put their fingers up to us as they pulled out of the dive, on top of this they had a scaring device fitted to their planes, as they dived they developed a terrifying scream which almost deafened you. We started to retreat, but the roads were so packed with everyone else retreating that we had to make a stand while the roads cleared. The Australians were with us and they were fantastic in their operations. They were the only force that was still united and under a commander, we were in a position of every man for himself.
The German tanks kept rolling on and our number of tanks in our regiment were getting less. We were joined by some tanks of the 3rd battalion tank corps. An officer from that Regiment took over what was left of us, his name was Major Carey, he only had one eye, he had a black shade over the other, but he was a Godsend to us. He was a regular old-soldier and a born leader and I am sure that through him I managed to save my life. He commanded our retreat, we held the Germans one day, and retreated the next. Without him we would not have had any organisation, we being the last line of defence saw all the devastation and horror and death on our way back.
We had to come over one mountain road at Larisa and the Greeks had withdrawn the day before, they had mules and donkeys etc., and the Stukas had caught them in the pass with nowhere to go. The pass was just a suicide area. We came through in the dark and had to drive over dead bodies of men and mules, we could not stop to move them, we had to be through by dawn or we would have been caught the same. We made it to Mount Olympus and were told that we had to hold the pass for 24hours, so that the rest of the army could retreat in some sort of organised way.
We were down now to 7 tanks, but we had a company of Aussies and a battalion of New Zealanders with us, and I can honestly say that if we had had air support we would never have left that main mountain pass. Those Anzacs were truly great soldiers, it was a pleasure to have a chance to fight with them, but the pressure from the sky was just too much for us. We were given the task of blowing up the road through the pass, the engineers laid all the charges in 3 separate places, and when all our lads had come through, Major Carey went and blew three great craters in the mountain side. That gave us at least 24hours before the Germans could advance further. We also had a chance to get out of range of the Tiger tanks, but not the Stukas. Lucky for us they did not carry armour-penetrating bullets, so that when in the tank and the top was closed you heard the bullets playing a tune as they bounced off. We had no answer to them, our .05 machine guns could not elevate to fire into the air; if they had been able to I am sure that from day 1 those Stukas would have suffered great losses. We blew the road and retreated and things went a little quieter, the Northumberland Hussars covered us while we retreated and as we had not slept for 3days and nights, we pulled into a little spinney and had some food, a wash, and slept. I don’t know how long we slept, time didn’t matter anymore, it was survival that counted.
Next we had to cross the Corinth Bridge, the bridge over the canal. On our approach to the bridge (the only way south) we found that most units had abandoned their lorries or jeeps etc., because they could not get over the bridge, because the Stukas were machine gunning them and blocking the bridge. If the bridge went, we all went. Luckily we could push most of them out of the way, but we had the ordeal of having to bury many bodies before we could cross, mostly Greek soldiers. We had to bury them as a type of wild dog were starting to eat them, we could have shot them but ammunition was getting scarce, and we might need it later. By this time the German forces had caught up with us and started to fire at us, so as everyone else was over, the Aussies blasted away while we tried to get over. But someone thought that we were Germans and started to fire at us. We held back for a while to try to find out what was going on, and after waiting for sometime we saw the Aussies cross the bridge and as we were getting in range of the Germans we decided it was time to go over, when bang, the bridge dropped neatly into the canal. If we had moved 10 minutes earlier we would have been blown to kingdom come. Luckily for down the canal bank the R.E.’s had built a pontoon as a safeguard earlier, in case the Germans blew the bridge to foil our escape. So in the end we managed to cross the canal, but to this day no one knows who blew that bloody bridge, not even the War Office.
We crossed the canal and were ordered to get back for a rest, we were getting exhausted, so we went clear of the fighting and slept. When we woke up the sky was full of coloured parachutes over the area where we had yesterday evacuated. We down to 3 tanks and a company of Aussies and this was the heaviest of our fighting during the campaign. The records state that 285 Germans were killed or wounded and we lost about 50 but now we had to get back much quicker, we retreated to just outside Kalamata, and we met up with 4 tanks of 3rd Battalion tank corps and a company of New Zealanders. We were told we had to hold the main entrance to Kalamata for 2 days whilst the Navy evacuated all the men that had accumulated on the shores, about 2000 men.
The first Germans we had to engage were on motor bikes and sidecars and had only small-arms fire power and were no match for our tanks. Major Carey gave the order to attack and with the New Zealanders we actually took about 100 prisoners, but the good things didn’t last long. The tiger tanks came into view, we hid out all that day and the Navy evacuated what men they could. The fleet had come for us, the Gloucester, York, Bonaventure, and Ajax. We held the Germans until about midnight, one New Zealander earning the VC. The Germans brought in a cannon machine gun, if it had carried on firing it would have killed everyone of us, he made one sudden dash straight for the gun the surprise worked, he dropped a grenade amongst the crew and up went the gun and crew. He raced back and was not even wounded, it was a miracle, he was later awarded his VC whilst a POW
We were still the rearguard as we had been from day one. We were the last to get onto the ships. We moved back to the beach, our turn came to get into the small lifeboats, but to our horror they went and left us, we had no choice but to surrender.
Surrendering was much harder than fighting, and although our superiors had surrendered a lot of the remaining forces did not know, so as it was every man for himself everyone had a different idea, some laid down their arms and said enough, whilst others kept on fighting. We were still holding the Germans outside Kalamata and were told that a unit of Greeks were still in front of us, so we went forward and managed to help them retreat. They went up the hills and most likely went to their homes. One of the officers came over and thanked us, but on his way back a shell from a Tiger tank burst right on him, he died immediately. As we went back towards Kalamata we saw the fruits of war, dead bodies everywhere and men with bandages, all blood-soaked and stained red. Major Carey came to me and put his arm round my shoulder. ‘My son I am sorry to say we can do no more, we have nothing to be ashamed of, but we must give in or be killed. We owe it to ourselves to live’. We put up a white flag and sat on the roadside and waited for the Germans to come. It was the most frightening time I had encountered, bullets flying past your ears was nothing to that wait we endured.
At last it was over and I was a POW. The conflict had cost us 209 aircraft, 4 Transport ships, 2 Destroyers, 21 other ships, 12,000 casualties, 104 Tanks, 400 Guns (heavy) 1,800 Machine guns, 8,000 Vehicles. A complete disaster. Will politicians ever declare why we were sacrificed, especially when we were needed at home or in the desert. I have read in many books that most men in Greece were not actually fighting men, they were not organised for fighting. Why in the hell were they there? They were evacuated; we were sacrificed to evacuate them. Within the next few days we were rounded up and I was taken prisoner on the 6th May 1941.
The first task after surrendering was to bury our dead. The battle of Kalamata had caused the death of about 100 from each side. I shall never forget that day, we had a large long wheel-base lorry and about 12 of us went searching for bodies all around Kalamata. We came back to a place where other prisoners had dug a mass grave. We had an officer with us who took all particulars of each body and his belongings, both German and British, and the point that struck me most was that every man had photographs of loved ones in their pockets whatever their nationality.
Well a new life starts now. I had not had news from home for over 6 months, and I was never in a position to write myself. They had news at home that I was missing, believed killed. My Mother took it so badly that she was taken ill and was invalided into bed from which she never recovered, but she took hope (as my sister told me later) by talking to my Angel.
The first day I was taken to join others already in a large field. We were hungry, tired and exhausted. After the burial fatigues we were glad to lie on the grass, go to sleep, wake up and ponder what the hell are we doing here, and what in heaven is in store for us?. We soon found out.
The 2nd day I thought it was going to be my last. A water supply had been laid into the field for us to have a drink. The supply was very weak, so a German guard was detailed to ration the water at the tap. Half a dixie each. About a dozen men in front of me led by a large hulk of a man; just like Garth. He was an Aussie, the biggest and strongest man there. He had his water in his Dixie but accidentally it slipped from his hand. Naturally he held it back for a refill, only to be told to go away in abusive German language. He walked up to the guard picked him up with his left hand to about a foot from the floor and biffed him with his right hand. The guard was out cold; he laid him down and put his rifle alongside him. What happened next I don’t know. I had no water, I was over the other side of the field in record time waiting for the retaliation to come. Luckily it did not affect me.
Next day we were given a large biscuit each about 6 inches across and ¾ thick, it was from captured Greek emergency rations. You could not bite it or break it. You had to soak it in water for half an hour before you could eat it. After you had eaten it your stomach swelled so much you had to undo the top button on your trousers, but it stopped the hunger bug.
After 1 week in the field (Just like a flock of sheep), you could not find a blade of grass, we had eaten it all. It was not so bad after it was boiled in a tin hat. I was walking round the field one day trying to find anyone I knew, when I saw a fellow with a few lighted twigs on the ground and he had a sparrow on a piece of wire grilling it. I thought to myself I wonder if he is going to feed the hungry 1000? On the 7th day we were given a large bowl of soup, they had cooked all the horses that had been shot by the Stukas, never the less it tasted good.
On the next day we were rounded up and told to get ready for a march, we were to march back to Corinth. The march took us 6 days and nights; we marched for 4hrs and rested 4hrs, then repeated the sequence. We had biscuits and water on the way once a day, but a couple of times we stopped opposite different fields with different crops, sometimes we could steal some potatoes or a Swede or turnip etc. The time had come to remember Uncle Jock our instructor, he made us fit and we were in better shape than our guards when we eventually arrived at Corinth.
We were at Corinth in a large compound right on the side of the bridge that we had fought over, the bridge still in the canal. The weather was warm and fine so being out under the stars didn’t affect us. We had a Dixie of soup each morning, we all tried to be one of the last served, it was thicker nearer the bottom of the boiler.
One day we had a loaf of bread to share between 6 men, now the problem was sharing it evenly. The problem was solved, we would draw straws for who cut it and the one who cut had the last piece after the others had selected theirs, I have never seen such an even cut. At night we would lie down in rows next to each other and all would go quiet. It looked as if we were all lying there waiting for burial, then all of a sudden a voice would sing out, that same voice every night, and what a beautiful voice he had. He always started by singing ‘A Nest of Robins in her hair’. I think that the title was ‘Trees’. After his solo everybody that could sing would join in with him and 1000 voices singing in the dark with hope in their hearts in those conditions has to be heard to be believed. A lot of smaller incidents happened, but it would take a lifetime to record them all.
We were next marched to Salonica over the mountains that we had just fought over. We went over the road that our tank Commander had blown, the three craters in the mountain-side were still there, but the German engineers had bridged them, so that transport could cross. This march was the same as the last, except that we were getting weaker and losing strength and also we were losing men by illness. The Germans did bring along a couple of wagons to carry the men who could no longer walk. Our shoes were wearing out now and our feet were getting sore, but after a week we arrived at Salonica.
We went into a old Greek barracks, all the interior had been stripped of beds etc., and all floors were concrete. That was our beds for the next 6 weeks. After 2 weeks most of us had dysentery, we had one bowl of soup each day, it was more or less like water. Our toilet was a large ditch dug on the far perimeter of the compound. Just imagine 1000 backsides, most with dysentery was unbearable. Next we found that we were all lousy and the lice were getting into and under our skin. We shaved every hair off our bodies, I was bald, I had what we called a sunshine roof. A rep from the Red Cross visited us and told us he would do something about the lice, but could not help us much as we were not recognised prisoners. He told us we would soon be off to Germany, given a number and then they could act, and also notify our next of kin.
Next day we were all marched down to the beach, told to strip and put our clothes and belongings into a chamber for delousing. We then had to walk down to the waters edge where a German stood with a large canister strapped to his back and a spray gun in his hand. ‘Hands up’ he shouts and sprays under your arms, around your privates, ‘turn round’ and all over your backside, the burning was terrific. We were told to jump into the sea, and that made it ten times worse. I remember lying in the water with Clive Dunne (the actor) we were in agony, but as we lay there things started to ease, and soon the smarting went. We had got rid temporarily of the bugs. Then the worst journey of all began we were put into a cattle truck about 40men in each truck. The weather scorching hot, the doors were locked and were not opened for 3 days. We had to use a Dixie for toiletry and we broke a large hole in the air vent in the top corner, then used a spoon to discard it.
After 3 days we arrived at a station in Bulgaria. The doors were opened and out we all got. The first thing was for most of us toiletry. The station was alive with women but we had no choice, we were embarrassed but they realised the situation. I think that they had been put there by the Red Cross. We had not had a bite or drink for 3 days, so if you miss a meal don’t say that you are hungry. They fed us with bread and soup and biscuits and we felt a lot better. My clothes were getting bigger or was it me getting thinner, my bones were beginning to show now. We were all wondering how much longer we would last. Back into the wagons for another 3 days, then we arrived at Wolfsburg in Austria.
We all climbed out into the goods yard. We were so weary that we could hardly walk. One fellow from our truck fell down and a German guard ran to him and told him to get up. As he got up this guard gave him a kick. Nearby a German officer saw him and immediately came to him. I don’t know what he said but he was raving at him, he then took his cane he was carrying and hit him on the top of the head and then gave him a mighty kick on the leg, that officer was to become the Camp Commandant and I must say that at all times he treated us as soldiers, so life at Stalag 18A began.
We were counted and given a number and identity disc, mine being 3052. We then went through delousing procedures and then we had soup and biscuits and so many men were allocated to each hut. The huts had 3 tier bunk beds with a paliasse filled with straw, so the first thing we did was to get a good settled rest and some solid sleep. After a couple of days we were interviewed by 2 British Medical Officers to find out if we had any major complaints or injuries. We had to select one man from each hut to represent us, the best man being one that could speak German, rank did not mean a single thing now we were all as one.
After about a week the British Red Cross visited us and took all our details and promised us that as soon as they could they would notify our next of kin. About 3 weeks later we were issued with a pre-written card which stated ‘I am a POW in Germany, I am well and being treated fairly’. We had to write our POW number on to it and then address it to our next of kin. How long it took reach home I do not know. The days began to roll by and we kept ourselves fit, we did our voluntary P.T. and were given two bowls of soup a day now. God knows what was in it, but at least we were not deteriorating.
After 6 months we were well organised, we got through the first winter OK. We had organised a shoe repair shop, a tailors shop, and now we had an escape committee. That is when life really began. To escape from Wolfsburg was a tough proposition, but things were made easier when we were sent out to a camp at Grossreifling, well into the mountains about 50 men there and they had been out working at a lumber yard, cutting up trees into ó foot logs to be delivered to the paper mills.
Escape 1 (Grossreifling)
They already had a couple of men planning to escape and when I told them that that was what I was interested in, I was to be involved with their plans, but not to go with them this time. We spent every night debating when to go, how to go, and the big question was where to go. We could make for Switzerland or go to Yugoslavia to try and meet up with Tito’s partisans, who were very active right through the war. Also we had to estimate the time it would take because of the food situation. Whilst this was being sorted out, we had a windfall, the Canadian Red Cross had sent every POW, a Red Cross parcel. In it was a large tin of powdered milk, a tin of egg powder, a tin of ham, a large packet of hard biscuits, tin of bacon, fifty Gold Flake cigarettes in a round tin, a large bar of chocolate and a tablet of soap. Well what more could you ask for if you were going to try and make for home? But one drawback, the Commandant insisted that every tin was opened as you wanted it, the parcels were stored in a back store by the guard-room, and each day you were allowed to have what you wanted out of it. The work was heavy but the food was sufficient, so the work kept us fit.
Two weeks later we had a parcel from the British Red Cross. We had tea, coffee, sugar, chocolate, toothpaste, soap, razor blades, Spam, mixed veg etc. But the most vital things were the chocolate and the soap, because we were working amongst the civilians and chocolate and soap were a great bargaining power. I was one of the lads to go to the paper-making factory and my job was to keep putting the logs into a great wood-pulping machine, assisted by two young girls, who had young children and their husbands in the forces. We were not supposed to talk to each other, but after a couple of months we were friends, and they told me all the news that was about, mostly bad news at that time.
Well, after our discussions at camp as regard escape, we needed a local map, a compass and a large map. First of all I gave the girls a little chocolate, then a bar of soap, they had not seen any for 2 years. I then put the question of my necessities and the price that they would receive for them. They did not like the idea at first, but about 2 weeks later one of them came to me with the maps, on condition that we did not let her friend know. That was OK by us, she had 2 full blocks of chocolate and 2 bars of soap. The point was we were always searched when going into camp, so one of my mates went with me to the toilets. We took off our shoes and socks, ripped the two maps in half and wrapped them round our feet, put on our socks and shoes and walked very uncomfortably back to camp. We had our pockets etc. searched, but our shoes were no problem.
We had a man in the camp who told us that if we could come by a magnet, he would make us a compass, so a few days later we came across one from a German worker. We spun him the tale that we were going to make toys for the local kids, we told the guard on being searched what we had done, and no trouble, he said that we were good men; we told him we needed a very small file, and 20 cigarettes was our price. We had the file and lots of little tools also, the man who wanted them got to work quietly and he cut a razor blade up to make the needle. He spent hours until he perfected it. He then used one side of the magnet and the pointed side of the needle and made it magnetic by rubbing them together. He then made a little box about as big as a match-box, inserted a pivot in the centre, made a small indent in the centre of the needle and hey presto we had our compass and it worked perfectly.
Then one of the two men that we were planning to help escape was taken ill and was sent back to the main camp at Wolfsburg, so I was allowed by the rest of the lads to take his place. The weather was hot and the nights were warmish. It was July, we had been behind barbed wire for 14 months and the news that we kept getting was very disappointing, so we agreed to try our luck.
There was a night-shift working at the mill, so it was agreed that we would be put on that shift, the guards were more relaxed at night and less of them, a lot of girls worked nights and they would spend hours talking to them. We would say ‘toilet’ to them and it was too much trouble for them to go with you, they had not had any escapes before, so they just waved you by to the toilets. We did this each night and we found a loose tile in the ceiling and a large gap above it. Each night we would take a little of our rations and put them there, we put our haversacks, bars of chocolate, biscuits, maps and compass, our spare socks and shirt and our personal belongings, the lads at camp changed me a lot of chocolate for my cigarettes, so we had enough food to keep going for 2 weeks. We expected to eat from the fields as well. The night came for an adventure that I knew little of what I was doing. I had no experience of such things and no idea what would happen if I were caught.
Escaping from here was very easy; all we had to do was distract the two guards for about 20 minutes. This was arranged with the rest of the lads, we went up to the guard and asked to go to the toilets, as usual he waved us by, at the same time one of the other lads tipped a handcart over and rolled on the floor holding his leg. Both guards rushed over to him, the rest of the lads all rushed to the scene; that was it. We got our packs from the roof, walked to the rear of the mill, climbed over a small wall and into the night. That was the last I saw of Grossreifling. We walked along a track high up into the mountainside, the higher we went the safer it was, because the German guards would be looking for us. We climbed until daylight broke and then decided to hide until dark. This was easy because the woodland was so thick you could hide forever.
We did not light a fire the first day to make a drink because of the smoke giving us away, so we had biscuits and water and a couple of squares of chocolate and got our heads down and went to sleep. During the evening we worked out our plans, so that when dark came we could proceed. We worked it out that if we kept on the mountainside we could follow the river for most of the way, then cross the river on the Yugoslav border and follow the railway line into Dubrovnik, this being the centre of partisan activity. We walked steadily on through the second night keeping well up the mountain, we were startled frequently by wildlife, mostly deer, they would be lying down, and when we got close to them they would suddenly jump up and run.
At daylight we decided to rest again, we found our position on the map, checked our direction with the compass, and the bark on the trees. The green bark and moss was always facing north. We were going due south, so direction was easy. This went on for a week, we had not met or seen anyone whilst on our trek, we were free and beginning to enjoy it.
During the second week we decided to come lower down the mountain and it was nearly our downfall. We came round a bend in the track and found ourselves in the middle of a small settlement, it being dark and no lights about we kept going. Halfway through we heard voices coming towards us, ‘get into this ditch quick’ Tony said and into it we tumbled, four people passed by us and things went quiet again, so on our way we went.
On the outskirts of the settlement was a vineyard and rows and rows of red grapes, so we had a feed of red grapes, we regretted it a few hours later, we wasted our sleeping time by having the runs, so we went back up the mountain and decided to rest up for a couple of days. We found a spot where we could see for quite an area round us and we were safe, so we sunbathed and got quite a tan, it was lovely up those mountains.
We were in our 3rd week now and our rations were getting low, so we had to think about starting to steal. Tony had a bright idea, we would catch a rabbit. There were rabbit holes everywhere, ‘take out your laces from your shoes’ says Tony, next he ties the laces together makes a noose with a slip knot in the end, lays it over a rabbit hole and ties the other end to a stick and knocks it into the ground. We waited for a couple of hours and crept back, we saw rabbits going in and out of the holes and never touching our trap noose, we made it smaller but we never caught a rabbit.
We had been on the run a month now, and we had to take more chances, we came down to the river and walked miles along its bank. In places along the way we found fields of vegetables, swedes, potatoes, onions turnips etc., so we did not go short of food.
The Yugoslav border was reached so we had to cross the river. It was a fairly wide river with a gentle flow. Our plan was to strip off, walk naked across the river, me holding our packs and shoes and Tony holding our clothes above his head. I made it OK, the deepest part coming to my armpits, but Tony hit a sudden drop and went under, the clothes escaping from his grasp. The flow of the river started taking them downstream, so I dropped the haversacks, ran down the riverside starkers, dived into the river and caught our clothes. Meanwhile Tony made it to the bank, lucky for us it was a very forsaken area, so into the trees we went, found a sunny spot on the edge of the wood and laid our clothes out in the sun to dry. I must say we had a good laugh later as we got dressed.
We carried on into Yugoslavia and made for Dubrovnik. We made it in six weeks, taking it into account that we were hiding all the way it worked out about 10 miles per day. Well we had to decide, now what next?.
We thought that we would have been picked up by the rebels by now, but we had not seen a sign of them and yet the bills were supposed to be fill of them. We decided to let ourselves be seen more, so we went close to a little village just outside Dubrovnik. Nearly there we were approached by a young girl, she came up to us and said ‘Hello, you are English soldiers’. At first we said that we did not understand English but she looked straight at me and said ‘I can tell that you are English by your eyes, I spent 5 years in England before the war so I can tell’. She turned away and ran down the road to the village. We did not know whose side she was on, was she going to the Germans and how in hell could she tell by my eyes that we were English?
There was a small hillside by us so we decided to try and hide up there, half an hour later the hillside was surrounded by Yugoslav police, about 20 of them, they came up the hill, we went down the other side and went bump right into 4 police coming up that side. They all had revolvers in their bands and 2 came forward and shouted ‘Hands Up’. I immediately did as I was told and the police came to within 10 feet of us. Tony did not comply so quick, he just walked up and said ‘OK George I’m yours, I’ve got no armaments in my pocket’. Little did he know that they did not understand him. The policeman then shouted at him again ‘Hands Out’. At this point I was about 6 feet from the gun, I was looking straight down the barrel, his hand was shaking, he was really scared. I shouted to Tony, ‘for Christ’s sake put your hands up or he will blow my bloody brains out’. Thank God he obliged.
We were then joined by about 20 police, they marched us down to the local cop shop, put us In a closed in van and took us to Dubrovnik Police Station. They took our credentials and asked what we were doing in Yugoslavia. We explained that we had escaped from Grossreifling in Austria and were trying to meet the rebels in Tito’s Army. They then put us in a cellar under the police station, it was massive. We went down a set of steps in one corner and the bottom 3 steps were under water, the whole cellar had nearly 3feet of water. We had to take off our trousers and pants and wade over to the bed in the middle. The bed being a large block of wood with a pillow carved at the top it was brilliantly carved all in one piece. The water came up to within one foot of the top of the bed. We waded, over climbed aboard, dried ourselves the best we could and then got dressed. We lay there thinking what’s next?. They put a guard with a rifle halfway up the steps, he was elderly and was bearded and looked rough. we talked about what was going to happen to us, were they going to flood the cellar and drown us?., There was only one way out, up those steps. We decided that if we saw the water rising we would make a sudden rush at the guy on the steps. He had a rifle that was completely out of date, it was an old French rifle about 5ft 6in. tall, so by the time this guy could handle it we guessed that we could beat him to it. We lay there, we dare not sleep but we survived the night.
Next morning we were taken upstairs into the station reception. We were taken to the toilets, were allowed to wash and shave and make ourselves look like soldiers again. We were then given a breakfast of steak and onions, about a pound of steak each covered with loads of onions, just cooked, red hot, and delicious. The policeman in charge said ‘Englander steak and onion good’, meaning that the British main meal was steak and onions, we agreed.
Later that day the German military came, they questioned us and then handed us over to two German guards. We picked up our belongings and down to the railway station we marched. We travelled for the next 3 days from one station to another, having soup and bread, the same as the guards at each station. Eventually we arrived at Llandeck, a town on the Swiss border. How close to freedom we thought, we were taken into an army camp, put into a cell in the guard room, given food and locked up for the night. Next morning we were taken into a room, told to strip off and put all our things on the table. This we did, and then they took us naked into a side room, a German officer sat at a desk, a German soldier by his side, he was the interpreter. He asked us where we had come from, which way we had come, and how we had come, our names, numbers, army numbers and regiments, why had we escaped and the main question was, who had helped us on our way? I said that as a British soldier I only had to give my name and number. It was my duty as a British soldier to escape and try to return to my unit at every opportunity. I was amazed at the reply. He said ‘You are a good soldier, but I have to punish you just the same, you will have 7 days bread and water and then be taken to back to Wolfsburg’.
We went back into the first room and collected our clothes, they had been thoroughly searched and certain articles taken away, i.e. matches, compass, maps, and my watch, it was only a very cheap watch, it cost £1 out of a Littlewoods club paid at one shilling a week, but my Mother bought it for my 17th birthday, so it was sentimental. I got dressed and then asked the Interpreter to take me back to the officer, my knees were knocking and my heart was thumping as I went in. ‘I have a complaint’ I said, ‘I have had my watch stolen and I know that German officers do not steal, so could you please find my watch’. I explained the value of the watch and the sentiment involved. He shouted out at someone in the next room to come in, and although I did not understand much German at that time, I realised that someone was having a roasting and presently my watch was produced. I thanked them for it and was marched down to the cells.
The cell consisted of a wooden bed with a straw pillow and two army blankets and a slop bucket. Tony was right opposite me on the other side of the passage, so we had no problem in talking to each other. The guards changed each day and some were good to us. They never let us use the bucket in the cell, they let us go to the toilet at the end of the corridor and when they had their soup they always saved some for us and were eager to hear all about us, why we were fighting and who would be best off at the end of the war, I still haven’t found out yet.
The seven days up, we were taken on our way back to Wolfsburg by train. It was a two day journey, mostly waiting in railway stations. At last we arrived and were taken to the camp commandant, he gave us a lecture and then gave us another 7 days bread and water, into the boob as we called it we went and were surprised to find it full, about 10 cells and 6 men in each cell. They had bunk beds 3 high each side. The doors were not locked, so we were able to use the toilets in the passageway whenever we wanted to. They had a pack of cards in our cell, so I had plenty of time to learn how to play Bridge.
After 7 days we went back into the camp compound amongst the 1000 other POWs. We were each given a Red Cross parcel, and by now we found that a large stove had been put in each hut. The top had an area of about 6ft x 3ft very flat and hot, you could cook on it, and make as much tea as you liked. We cooked and ate the whole parcel in two days. The parcels were issued out by our own men and controlled by them. We were to have one every 2 weeks, so what with the parcels and the soup that the Germans gave us we were soon to start putting on a little weight again. We were also given 50 cigarettes every 2 weeks, they were Gold Flake and in a small round tin. I did not smoke so I exchanged my cigs. for chocolate etc. The days were rolling by and winter approaching, so the thought of going on the run again had to wait.
Just before Xmas we had a surprise, a bag of mail had arrived. We all paraded in the compound hoping that there would be one for me in the sack. I was lucky; I had 2, one from my wife and one from my sister Francis. They were short but very acceptable, and I was pleased to hear that everyone was well. It was almost 2 years since I had last heard from home. We were allowed to send a card every month, but it never happened very often, I was not available most of the time, my idea was to deliver that card.
We wintered in I8A, lads coming in and going out all the time. Some were working local in Wolfsburg and had managed to bribe some civilians into producing a wireless set. I never knew where it was hidden; it was a secret that only those in whose hut it was knew. About every 2 nights the word would go round the camp, ‘The baby cries tonight’, so every one knew that we had to distract any Germans roaming inside the camp away from that hut at a certain time. Later a news bulletin would be passed around, so we were kept up to date with the BBC news.
The mail started to come regular now, but alas the news that a lot of men got was, that their wives or sweethearts had fallen for the Yanks. We started to call it ‘The overseas mail’. We knew who had had it, as they pinned it up on the side of their beds. One night on our radio bulletin the radio was interrupted by Lord Haw Haw, who said, ‘All you British soldiers are away from home fighting for your country and the Yanks are sleeping with your wives’. It was propaganda, but by the amount of overseas mail that we were getting there was a lot of truth in it.
A camp was opened up next to ours and it soon filled up with Russian prisoners. They had come all the way from the front and they were in a terrible state, they were dying by the hundreds. We had the task of making up crude coffins, and putting 3 bodies in each coffin, and then loading them on to a lorry. Where they went then we never knew, but it grew in l000s over the winter.
The spring came, the weather was good; it was 1943. Tony was sent out on a working party I never saw him again. I volunteered to go to a working camp so that I stood a better chance of escaping again. I was sent to Grafenstein to work on the railway, relaying new lines. It was a small camp, about 100 POW. The barbed wire was doubled, with rolls of it in between, and about 10ft high; a gun post on 2 of the corners and 2 Alsatian dogs on parade. After about a month I teamed up with a lad from Stoke. We decided on our plan of escape, we had to go through the wire at night. The guards did not man the gun posts after dark, the dogs were our problem. They walked round the outside of the wire and so, as the sun was hot, we decided to sunbathe in the corner furthest away from the guardroom. We took a few biscuits with us and when the dogs came by we threw one to them. Each evening, after work, we would do the same thing, the dogs got to know us and we made friends with them.
Escape 2 (Grafenstein)
We started getting our kit together, one fellow had a good map so we made a copy of our route from it. We had no compass but we could rely on the tree trunks for due North. The Dolmesch of the camp, or the interpreter as you would say, he was our go between, our leader. He had in his possession a small pair of wire cutters, he let us have them on condition we left them in a pre-selected hiding place on the railway, where we were working. We agreed, the rest of the lads said they would help us, although a few were not so eager for us, it meant that a little commotion would occur after we were found missing, and not everyone had the guts to face it, or wanted to be any part of it. They just wanted to work and sit it out and wait for the war to end. I can honestly say that that was not me.
Each night we spent a little time working on the little window in the hut. We cut the screws in the hinges and just placed them back loose, cut the bars almost through and filled them with wet soil, it dried and was hard to see at a glance. The guards were very lax, nothing had happened here before, so they took it for granted that nothing would happen at all. At night they would come to the door and shout ‘All In’. Someone would shout ‘Ja’ and about 4 locks would be put on the door, they then left the dogs to patrol the wire, and assembled in their hut to relax for the night.
We noted this for several nights and noted that on one particular night in the week, the camp commandant was away, his night off. The guards then were more relaxed and we decided that was the night to go. We had kept up our evenings of sunbathing, just to make friends with the dogs, and a biscuit a night was their reward. We decided to try for Switzerland. If we followed the local railway line to Graz, and then followed it to Landeck we were nearly there.
The night came and all was ready. The guard shouted ‘All in’, ‘Ja ja’, and locked up. We said our thanks to the lads, and took the window out, it nearly fell out. We pulled at the metal bars and out they came. I climbed through and Mike passed me our kit and out he came, a packet of biscuits in his hands. We went to the corner of the compound and the dogs came. I spoke to them quietly and Alf gave them a biscuit, they were very quiet and friendly, so the time of proof came. The guardroom was closed and no one was outside, so I cut the wire. As I cut it Alf folded it back, I made a gap of about 2 feet to 3 feet wide. It took a long time, there was a lot of wire. At last we came to the last strand, as I knelt down cutting it, one of the Alsatians came up to me and I thought he was going to bite my face, but he only licked me. Alf gave him another biscuit. We stood up picked up our gear and were on our way. We got to the point on the railway line to hide the wire cutters, this done we decided to walk along the railway line itself until daybreak and then make for the wooded hills. We were startled as we started walking, it being very dark, we had not expected the dogs to go with us but they did. We walked for about 5 hours and covered a lot of ground. We then went up the hills and rested for the next 5 hours. We went to sleep and the dogs lay the side of us. Towards evening we moved on and when dark, we moved to the railway and followed it, daylight and back up the hills. After about a week we came to Graz. We decided to go up the mountainside and go round Graz. Our food was getting low now, and we were afraid that the dogs would get that hungry that if we went to sleep they might eat us.
Up the mountainside we came upon a little homestead miles from anywhere. We wanted water, so we decided to risk it and ask. We told them that we were Auslanders on holiday, walking the mountains. They fell for it and gave us potato soup and bread and wine. We told them we had found the dogs, and if they wanted them they could have them, so that was the last we saw of the dogs. We hurried away as fast as we could in case the dogs got free and tried to follow us, but they did not. We found different kinds of food on our way, one day we found a patch of young onions. Can you imagine what a meal of young onions can do to you, they nearly burnt our insides up. We had lots of apples and pears and grapes, and potatoes, we ate them raw.
On the 3rd week, we were nearing the Swiss border. We threw caution to the winds and decided to go for it. It was a decision that was our downfall; we were walking in daylight down a lane, when all of a sudden a German truck came round the bend with about 6 soldiers on board. It was suicide to run so we tried to bluff it out. We kept walking and hoped that they would drive by, but our luck ran out. They stopped and questioned us and arrested us. They took us to an army camp close by, put us in a guardroom cell, gave us a feed and then took us before their commandant for interrogation.
The same questions as last time, the same answers. Next day we were on our way back to Wolfsburg. At Wolfsburg we were given 14 days this time, well I was, it was my second time, Alf only got 7 days.
The boob was still full, the boob was a very long wooden building with a building on one end used for mending shoes and a building on the other end for sewing and mending your clothes. Well the second day in there we had an air raid. The Yanks were overhead, they dropped a stick of bombs, the first hit the cobblers shop, the second hit the tailors shop. The blast and vibrations tipped our beds over and all six of us lay in a heap in the middle of the floor. The only casualty was a Guard on the corner of the camp. The rest of the 14 days went by, and back into the compound I went.
There was some mail waiting for me, 2 letters, one from my wife and one from my sister Frances. The one from my wife was to tell me that she was pregnant and it was up to me to decide what to do. It was my overseas mail. I pinned it up on my bedside and joined the Club. The letter from my sister was ironic, she said ‘you have a lovely wife and son waiting here for you so keep smiling’. You don’t smile a lot when you have just read those letters. After a lot of thought I notified the Red Cross to file my divorce, stop her allowance, but keep the payment up for my son, so they arranged with the War Office for that to happen.
I wanted to go out on another work party, but was not allowed to because I had twice escaped. The chance came when 2 close friends were about to be parted. One was detailed to go to a place called Theeson, the other to stay in Wolfsburg. I had an idea, just change names and number with me and I will go in your place and you stay here in my place. Well you were only a number anyway, and I wanted the honour of getting home before the war ended.
So next day, I was on the train again, this time near the Yugoslav border with a new name and number. I was Sam Adamson, 4262 or a number like that at Theeson, the work consisted of making roads inside and through an aircraft- part making factory.
The camp was about 2 miles away and we marched down every morning and returned at night. I soon made a friend who wanted to get home or at least try. He was a Cockney named Ernie. He was much older than me, he was a regular soldier before the war, and had just finished his time when war broke out. We started making plans for our getaway. This was not going to be easy. They had already had a couple of escapes, and the POW’s there were not eager to have their liberty, i.e.:- parcels, and mail stopped. So we had to keep this one secret.
Escape 3 (Theeson)
We were in Austria, but only just over the border from Yugoslavia. The main town nearest to us was Bleiburg. The main railway line ran from there to Split in Yugoslavia so we thought that we would try and jump onto a goods train. If we could make it we would be right in the middle of the partisans; now how to escape. As we marched down the narrow road every morning we noticed that we went round a sharp bend and all round the bend was a deep ditch. Now the 2 guards that always took us always walked one in front and one behind the column. We reckoned that if we got in the centre of the column the first guard would be out of sight for about 2 minutes. In that time we could drop into the ditch and hide until they passed, it was risky but worth a chance. You got to the point that danger never enters your head, so that was our plan. Ernie had made a friend at the factory, a lady who did not like the Germans. Her husband and Father had been killed on the Russian front and she hated Hitler. She lived about half an hours walk from the factory and I honestly thought that Ernie was falling in love with her. He confided in her and she agreed to help us. Our plans all made, the day came.
On the morning, I spoke to two New Zealanders. I knew that I could trust them and anyway, they would know in about half an hours time. I asked them to get into the rear of the column and on approaching the bend to slow down, so as to stretch the column round the bend giving us more time to hide. Luckily we did not have to take much kit with us, Ernie and his lady friend had taken care of that. We were to get to her house, she had taken the day off and was waiting for us. The plan worked perfectly, the one Kiwi, stopped just right to tie his shoe-lace, on the bend we jumped into the ditch. The rest of the lads were taken by surprise, but we shouted to them to carry on as if nothing had happened. We lay dead quiet, my heart was pumping out of my chest, as clump, clump the German guards feet passed about 2 feet from my head, then all went quiet, we had made it.
We waited until all was clear and made for this lady’s house; it was all alone in a secluded spot, so there was no one around to see us. We went into the house and all was ready for us. There were two complete outfits of clothes, a suit, shirt, and tie. I was not happy with this idea, if caught in civilian clothes you were liable to be shot, you were no longer a soldier. I agreed to put them on over my battle-dress until we reached the railway station and then I would discard them. Ernie kissed his lady good-bye and promised he would one day return, I often wonder if he ever did.
We walked across the fields and by dusk we were just outside Bleiburg Station. I discarded the civilian clothes and felt relieved. We remained hidden until dark, then we tried to find out in the goods yard which trains went to Yugoslavia. We sorted out a couple of wagons that were loaded with gravel, the sort that is used on the railways. They had a ticket on them that said Split. We decided to take a chance. The wagons had high sides, so plenty of room to hide. We did not have to wait long, we could hear people shouting and talking and we started moving. The night was warm so we made ourselves comfortable on the stones. We travelled for about 1 hour before we stopped. We had no idea where we were or where we were going, just hoping.
After a short stop we were on the move again and travelled through the night. We went through one station and I noticed the name Leoben, I remembered that name when I was being taken to Wolfsburg, we were going the wrong way! We were going North, we wanted South. The next time the train stopped we jumped off and unfortunately we were spotted by some workmen. We made for the fields, but the local police were soon on the scene and we were caught. They took us to a police station where they handed us over to 2 guards who took us back to Wolfsburg 18A.
The usual questions, the usual answers, only 7 days in the boob. It was my first time, (I was Sam Adamson). I came out of the boob and met the fellow I had changed with, we were back to ourselves again. The year was rolling by now, the weather very cold so I decided to settle down for the winter.
A couple of weeks before Xmas I was detailed to got to a working camp at Tainach-Stein (10911/GW?). There were about 40 POW’s there in a small camp. They had settled in very well. They had Red Cross parcels every week and getting private parcels from home, mail was regular. The parcels from home consisted of woollen goods, socks, pullovers and books. So I decided to stay the winter and not try to escape. I noticed that to escape from here was going to be easy when the time came. After a couple of months I had made friends and joined in the daily routine with the rest of the lads, they were the best gang that I had joined so far.
We had quite a mixture, Australians, Kiwis, Maoris, English, Welsh and Scottish. So you can guess the good humoured banter that went on. But we were all the best of friends and helped each other. I have to mention this, one Kiwi, the smallest man in the camp, had a hobby of knitting. Somehow he had got hold of some knitting needles (chocolate and soap again) and he used to mend all our socks, he never mended them, he just undid them and re-knitted them. The only trouble was they were always 2inches shorter when finished, but the holes had gone. The winter was very bad and we had to do very little work on the railway, everywhere was frozen solid. All the young guards were replaced by old men Dads Army Men, two POW's were chosen every other day to go and help the guard fetch the rations from a village about 4 miles away. We pulled a sledge, as no other transport could travel, about 2feet of snow lay on the roads.
This one particular day me and Maori were detailed to go. The guard was about 65 - 70 years old, and looked it. It was freezing very hard, he had a hard job walking, so we put him on the sledge and we moved much quicker. We got to the store depot, loaded up and started to return. On the way back we were passing a farm, the guard said ‘we will go and ask for a hot drink’, he knocked on the door, an old man opened it and shook hands with him, apparently they knew each other. We went into the kitchen and out came the Muste (cider) and the Schnapps (alcohol). The glasses came out and we were told to help ourselves, next came home-made bread and lumps of speck they called it, it was a kind of boiled bacon, but very fat we had quite a meal. I did not go so much on the Schnapps, it was like fire-water but it warmed us up. The Muste was thick and very potent. We had a couple of drinks and refused anymore, but the old guard was lapping it up, as fast as he emptied his glass the farmer filled it up. Time to go, he could not stand, he was drunk. We were in a little high spirits as well, but we were in full control. We asked the farmer for a blanket to wrap round the guard. Then we placed him on top of the rations. Maori slung the rifle on his shoulder and away back to camp we went. On the way back he could not resist firing a couple of shots into the air, ‘just to try it’ he said, to escape and spend the night out would have been sudden death. On arrival at the camp, the Commandant took over. The old guard had turned blue with cold, he was carried to the railway station and taken to hospital; we never saw him again.
The parcels suddenly stopped and food was very short. We were going hungry again. About half a mile from the camp was a fowl pen, full of hens. We decided to break out at night and help ourselves. The guards were very lax. The weather being bad, it was stupid to escape. The guard room was by the main gate and was never locked until 10 o’clock at night. The guards were always inside the guardroom by a fire, so for two men to disappear for half an hour was easy. The two men went, they took an old mail sack with them and returned later with five hens in it, they had screwed their necks. They came in and put them under my bed still in the sack. We waited for the guards to come round and lock up, in they came. We had to stand by our beds so that they could count us. As they came by my bed there was such a commotion under my bed, I realised that the bag had life inside it and was making an awful noise. I shouted ‘for Gods sake make a noise, the fowl are alive’. Someone broke out in song, others started banging on anything they could quickly find, the noise was terrible. The guard that was counting us pointed to his head and said ‘Englanders alles crank’, he meant that we were crackers. ‘Good night’ he said, and locked the doors, finished the hens off, and then skinned them, it was easier than plucking, we already had a stove with a fire in it, and a large jam tine, so we boiled the fowl one at a time. By the time dawn came we had had a feed of chicken. Next day we took the skins and feathers with us to work on the railway and disposed of them.
The next 3 months rolled by and the spring came. The complete guard was changed, out went all the old ones and in came the Hitler Youth. From the start they were bastards, they had all food distribution transferred to the local guest house. The old lady cooked all meals and made all the bread, we just collected it and shared it out amongst ourselves. It was coffee and bread for breakfast, potato soup for dinner and a kind of large dumpling for evening meal. Our drink was a kind of tea made from wild mint, the same every day. She certainly helped herself to our rations.
We had a bag of mail come about March, I had a couple of letters from my sisters and a parcel from a friend. Who that friend was I never found out. Luckily the guards were very lax on opening tins and if you gave them a few cigarettes you were Ok. On opening the parcel it contained a large tin of St. Julian Tobacco, a tin of boot polish, and a tube of toothpaste. There were large letters on the tops of them OWC. I found out later that it meant open with caution. As it happened I had no problem and was given the tins, the guard just broke the seal on the lids and gave them to me. Really I never dreamt that it would be otherwise, I thought that I had tobacco, boot polish and toothpaste. The Australians always liked to roll their own cigarettes, so I decided to give them some of my tobacco. I completely opened the tin and grabbed a handful. I was amazed, it was full of little bits of metal, so on to a piece of paper we tipped it all. We had quite an audience by now and everyone trying to guess what it was all about. Anyway we eventually sorted all the pieces out and realised that the tiny pieces all had male threads on one end and female threads on the other end, which meant that they screwed together. This we did, it took a long while to sort out but eventually we ended up with a pair of wire cutters, capable of cutting barbed wire. The tin of boot polish contained a small compass, and the tube of toothpaste was none other than a pure silk tightly rolled map of the border line of Yugoslavia. I think that someone was trying to tell me something.
Escape 4 (Tainach-Stein)
The spring of 1944 came so I decided to try my luck again, this time I went with 2 Aussies, it was ironical, the guards were having a booze up and singing session in the guard room, no one on guard outside at all, so we picked up our gear and rations that we had and collected and just walked out right past the guard room.
We had heard rumours that the war was going very well for us in the Mediterranean, so we decided to try and make for Italy. We roamed those hills and mountains for about one month, going into the small villages at night and stealing vegetables from the allotments and gardens. They were very young veg as it was spring, but we lived on them. At last we came to the Brenner Pass into Italy. We decided to go up the mountainside and watch what happened there, before going through. We were amazed at the activity, train loads of German tanks and military were coming back from Italy into Austria. We holed up for the night, but about midnight we had to go higher up the mountain because the RAF were bombing the Pass and some bombs were not on target. They were dropping a little close to us, but it cheered us up to hear them, and we thought how close we are to them, yet, they are free and we are stuck down here, just as we thought that all was clear a next raid would start, this went on until dawn.
When light came we set off up the mountainside and saw the damage. There were railway trucks and railway lines all wrapped round each other. We decided not to move that morning, we just stayed there. We watched large numbers of men arrive to start opening the Pass, quite a number of British POW's were also brought in to clear the mess up. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon the sky was suddenly filled with Flying Fortresses all in flights of 14 planes each. We tried to count how many, but it was impossible, some came and bombed the Pass again, whilst others just came down machine-gunning anything that moved. They even machine-gunned our lads down there, this was the same again on the next night and next day. We had no chance of getting through that pass and to go over the mountain top was a little too professional for us, so we changed plans and decided to make for Switzerland. We travelled mostly by night and slept and rested in the daytime. We lived off the land, young turnips, swedes, potatoes and tomatoes, but we were well and not hungry. We enjoyed our freedom as we walked those mountains.
We had been out seven weeks now. We were able to wash and shave and keep ourselves clean. We washed our pants, vest and socks and dried them in the sun, which by now was very hot. I say I washed them but it was only in mountain water and by now they were changing colour, but the sweat was out of them.
We were getting nearer the Swiss border every day now and were having to take more chances, the border being guarded not only for foreigners but for their own men who were now beginning to realise that they could not win. But alas, we ran straight into an Austrian Police Patrol. Before we could disperse they had us covered with automatic rifles, I was now getting used to looking down gun-barrels.
They took us to Llandeck, (the first place that I went to). I was put in the same cell as two years ago, the usual routine. The main thing that they wanted to know, was who had helped you. As I was going through the procedure of interrogation I was told to strip off and go into the next room. As I entered I noticed a man already sitting there, he was very young looking, had ginger hair and wore glasses. I sat by the side of him and started talking to him. He was scared stiff, I reassured him that I had been here before and he had nothing to worry about, just tell them that as a British prisoner you only have to say your name and number and that it is your duty to escape, ‘hang on’ he said, ‘I have not escaped. I am here for fraternising with a German girl’. This was a very serious crime talking to German girls. I said you will probably get about one months bread and water but they will not harm you. But he said, ‘I have been having intercourse with her and she is expecting twins’. ‘Oh dear’ I said ‘I have no answer to that’.
I was not kept in the boob or sentenced there, but sent back to Wolfsburg for punishment. Into the Commandants office I went. ‘You again KY’ that’s how he pronounced my name. He gave me 21 days boob and said in his broken English ‘KY if you escape again I shall shoot myself’. He meant that he would shoot me himself, boob over and into the main compound.
Next week I was detailed to go to a camp up the Tyrol. A place were no one has escaped, and was more or less impossible to. On the way there, we were on a railway station just outside Graz. We were waiting for the train to come and as I sat in the waiting room, the guard sitting next to me - a German soldier - came up to us and started talking to us. He spoke fairly good English. From the start we did not like each other, he asked several questions, to which I always answered downgrading him. Then the final question came, he said why should a little island like England rule half the world. I should have kept my mouth shut, but I had to say, ‘Well you see, you think you are great but you are not, We think we are great and we are’. He picked his rifle up and hit me with the butt smack on the jaw. I put up my hand to stop the second blow and caught the full blow on my wrist, what happened after that I don’t know.
I woke up in hospital at Graz. I had a broken jaw and a broken hand, my hand was in plaster and my jaw tied up with a bandage right round my chin and head. It must have been during the night when I fully regained my senses. I was in a large ward full of German soldiers, most of them with limbs missing, caused by frost bite on the Russian front. The nurses were very good to me and one nurse had learned her skills in Scotland, so we spent a lot of time talking to each other. I had no reason to stay in bed, so I helped the nurses in the small way that I could, helping to wheel stretchers about and empty bottles for the injured.
After a week I was sent back to Wolfsburg. I was there for a month and volunteered to go out on a working party. I was accepted and two days later was on my way to Lienz. I had been at this camp only two days when I suddenly broke down. This camp had its own medical staff captured in Africa. I reported to them and collapsed. They put me in a bed in their unit and they certainly looked after me, I had developed Double Pneumonia. A local civilian doctor was called in, I went into a coma.
I don’t know what they did to save my life, but I could feel myself coming out of that coma now. I lay by a wooden panel, and all of a sudden I was dreaming that a hole had come in the panel and a troop of French soldiers were marching through, each one carrying a bottle. Each one hit me on the head as he went by, my head was thumping, the medical orderly and the civilian doctor stood by me holding my hands. I remember the orderly’s words, ‘welcome back son’, I had been unconscious for nearly a week and I have to thank the German doctor for saving my life. They told me that he came to see me twice a day and dissolved tablets and forced them down my throat. I think that my Angel had a little to do with it also. I made a quick recovery and had the chance to shake the doctors hand and thank him. He told me that if I ever went for an X-ray on my chest I was to tell them what had happened, because I would always have scars on my lungs.
I was sent back to Wolfsburg for convalescence, special food supplied by the Red Cross. I was a VIP, I lived well, had about six weeks in Wolfsburg and volunteered to go out again. I was sent to Vorden just north of Klagenfurt. I had heard on the news that Randolph Churchill had landed in Yugoslavia, and was operating from Dubrovnik, that urged me on. A week later I was on my way with a Scotsman.
Escape 5 (Vorden)
Two days later we approached Klagenfurt, do we go up the mountains and go round, or find a way through? We decided to wait until the next day to make up our minds. It then started to rain, so we went down to a little hut on the railway side, it was dry and we were safe for the night. Jock had a search round and found a box full of green boiler-suits, and tools and barrows. He suddenly shouts ‘I’ve got an idea, if you are game’, he said, the last job that he was on was sweeping and cleaning the roads in Wolfsburg. ‘If we put on a boiler suit, take a brush and shovel and a barrow and brazen it out by walking straight through the centre of the town, I bet that we would get through’. Well we were almost in our 4th year behind barbed wire, that is a hell of a long time. So I agreed, I am glad I did, as I think that it was the highlight of my adventures. We never realised that Klagenfurt was the headquarters of the Austrian forces. We put on our overalls over our battle-dress and picked up a barrow and away we went, I pushing the barrow in the gutter and Jock sweeping and shovelling it into the barrow. When we could, we would skip a stretch, when the barrow was fill we would tip it up in a little pile on the footpath. The German forces were walking by us in crowds. Most of them would say ‘Good morning’, some would raise their arm and say ‘Heil Hitler’. One officer came up to us and stopped, I thought this is it. He said something I could not understand, so I just shrugged my shoulders, looked a little bewildered and said, ‘nix forstend, arbiter’. (don’t understand German I am a Yugoslav worker. ‘Ah so’ he said and walked on. Next we came right outside the headquarters, two guards on the main entrance spoke to us. ‘Nix forstend’ we said again, the one guard told us to wait there, the other went just inside the compound our hearts going bumpity bump. Out comes the guard again with a little bag of rubbish throws it in the barrow and waves us on. ‘Heil Hitler’ he says as he waves his hand, under my breath I am saying **** Hitler. We carry on down the main street and we come upon a queue of mostly working people, mostly auslanders. On investigation we found that it was a brothel queue. Jock laughed and said ‘I have a spare tablet of soap shall we make a day of it?’. We were getting towards the other end of the street when a squad of POW's came marching along, they were British, out on a working party. We would have loved to have been able to say hello, but we daren't. It took us all day to reach the railway station at the end. We still had our overalls on. We dumped the barrow and tools and walked onto the platform.
The platform was full of all nationalities and at the one waiting room they were giving bowls of soup to the workers. We joined in and were given a plastic bowl full of soup each. It’s true, the more you go into the open, the easier it gets. We walked down to the goods yards and started to follow the line down to Gravenstein. We took off our overalls and walked until midnight, found a disused barn and settled down for the night. Next morning we were awakened by a dog barking and yapping, and into the barn came two farmers with shotguns. Hey presto, I was looking down the wrong end of a gun again. Back to Wolfsburg into the boob, 4 weeks this time, but Red Cross parcels were about again and the escape committee bribed the guards to feed us. They brought us in two meals a day and tea or coffee several times a day. The guards smoked their heads off, the winter came and Xmas came the fourth in prison. The news was very good the invasion was going well.
I was next sent to a camp just outside Wien (Vienna) the job was making a narrow road over a mountain, about 200 POW’s were there. There was plenty of Red Cross parcels and soup, note that it was always soup. We never had anything else, unless it was just potatoes boiled in their jackets. The first day I arrived, I landed in the hut that was to be trouble, they already had an escape plan, and I landed right in the middle of it. I was shown to my bed, and after putting my few belongings away I lay there thinking when a fellow POW came up to me and shook hands and informed me what they had in mind. They had been there four years and no one had escaped, although they had had several attempts. after telling them of my experiences they were eager to know what to expect if they were able to get away from here and then got caught later. After explaining everything to them and advising them how to travel and when, they told me what they had in mind. There was no way of escape from the work area, it had to be at night from the camp. When lock-up time came at night and all seemed clear, I was amazed to see two men lift the stove from the centre of the room, lift up a large plate that it stood on and reveal a large hole, all neatly cut.
There were 20 men in this hut and all had decided to go at the same time. So all were involved. Down the hole went one man, he took with him a ball of string, two pieces of wood and a little trowel. I was to learn that they were tunnelling out to get under the wire. I watched as, after a few minutes the string was tugged and the man by the hole started pulling it. On the end was a Red Cross parcel box full of soil, he emptied it onto the steel plate tugged at the string and the box was on its way back up the tunnel. After half an hour the man in the tunnel came out and the next one went in. This had been going on for weeks. Each morning every man took a pocketful of soil to the road works and disposed of it. After a while the stove and plate were put back and things were back to normal. I was not actually involved in this operation, except to take my pocketful of soil each morning. All I heard was ‘any day now we will be ready’. It was quite a long tunnel and we had cut our beds down to a minimum of wood for safety props. They worked on a little each night, but when underground in poor light, you do not have full sense of direction, and things went wrong. Along the bottom side of the compound was a very deep ditch with a long pole on the top of it, this was the toilet for 200 men a little lime sprinkled over the top each day. Unfortunately the tunnel went into the corner of the toilet and when the tunnel was about two feet away it all broke in and almost filled the tunnel. The smell and conditions were terrible, the German sentry was soon on the spot and when they realised what had happened they had reinforcements drafted in, had everyone in the camp on parade, and set to work to demolish every hut in the compound, about 25 huts altogether. This was about 8 o’clock in the evening. we had two hours of daylight left and when they had found all that they wanted, they said ‘you can go into your huts now’, we gave a big cheer and started to rebuild our huts.
Next day all mail and parcels were stopped. After a week I realised that this was no camp for me, I had to get away somehow. The best way was to get sent back to Wolfsburg, I had an idea, I had heard whilst in Wolfsburg that a couple of men there had made a rash on their arm and put washing powder plasters on them. the result was a poisoned arm, all swollen up, therefore unable to work. So I got a nice piece of rough rock and rubbed my arm till it bled, then put a plaster of German washing powder on it. A couple of hours later my arm was burning off, and next morning it was like a balloon. I reported sick and was told to rest for the day. Next day the redness had gone, but the swelling was still there. The local Doctor was called in, he asked me what it was, I told him that I had heard that it had been located in Wolfsburg as well, and they called it Egyptian Eczema. He recommended that I be sent back as it would take time to heal, so back to Wolfsburg I went. I saw the German Doctor, he was baffled, they just could not understand it, but it kept me clear of that camp by Wien. Whilst in 18A I was amazed at the things that the lads were getting up to. The latest work dodge was, the Germans had got an X-ray machine and the lads who did not want to go out working would swallow a little ball of silver paper and go sick with tummy ache. They had X-rays and it showed up as ulcers. They were then put on special diets and 6 weeks rest.
The other thing I saw was two lads being split up, one going to one camp and the other somewhere else, they were determined to stay together. The one held his arm on a table while the other hit it with a bed board and broke it. Then the other one got someone in the room to do the same to him, they went down to the first aid room and told the German Doctor that the top bunk bed had collapsed and that they had fallen out of the top beds. It worked, they had their arms in plaster and were as happy as sandboys, they stayed together.
A couple of weeks and my arm got better, it was time to be on my way again. I had been at this camp only a week when the air raid warning went. The raids went on day and night, it was 6 days later when the all clear went. We went to the local villages and helped to collect the dead civilians and help the injured. The worst job I had was retrieving the bodies of four children, blown to pieces and parts of their bodies were up in the trees, we had ladders to climb up and bring the parts down. For days after the children’s tattered coloured clothes just hung in those trees, a grim reminder. I was sad, I always thought that Britain never did things like this, but this was life at the moment and it was war. From that day on I was no longer a boy I was grown up. The local people did not think much of us as expected, so I thought it was time to travel again.
Escape 6 (Success)
I was next sent to a camp at Innsbruck. I had been out of Wolfsburg two days when the Yanks bombed it. They killed quite a large number of Russians and about twenty of our lads, including our padre and medical officer. I settled in at Innsbruck and the spring came, time for me to get moving. The news was that Italy had fallen and the Yanks were in Yugoslavia making for the Austrian border. Things were getting a little hectic now, so the further South you went the worse it was. I went alone this time, I had to go without any preparation or food. It was April 1945, we were working at a woollen mill and the guard had a little car of his own. He kept it all ready for a quick getaway if needed, full of petrol. There were ten of us at this little camp and only two guards. We were in different parts of the mill, spread round.
My chance came I was alone right by the car, I jumped in and was going out of the gate when a Frenchman stopped me and asked if he could go with me. He said that he had had the same idea, he was a right hand driver so I moved over and away we went. It was amazing what we went by, once we had to wait whilst 8 Tiger tanks and 4 lorries came by us. The German army was sure in retreat in this area. We started to run low on petrol, but there were plenty of abandoned trucks about, so we had no problem there. We travelled until dark, no one bothered us, they were all concerned with themselves, and anybody going that way must be mad. We stopped in a little wood for the night. When we emerged next morning we were almost surrounded by German troops. We just got into the car and made for the road. We had to wait a few minutes for German military equipment to pass. A soldier was holding his hand up to tell us to wait. I thought that this is the end, what on earth will they do to me now, but suddenly the German troops passed and this soldier just waved us out into the road. I put my hand to my head in a kind of salute and said ‘Danker Shun’ (thank you).
The rest of the day we threaded our way through the German lines, and not once were we challenged. We stopped in a barn for the night and next morning we crossed the border into Yugoslavia. Here we suddenly found ourselves right in the middle of the fighting, the Yanks were coming, we were in the area that the Germans were trying to hold. The German artillery was firing one way and the Yanks shells were coming from the other. We went up a narrow track to get out of the way. We got out of the fighting and decided to stay where we were until things went quieter. The air was fill of planes of all types, bombers and fighters of all nationalities.
As darkness came the tracer shells and bullets lit the sky up, it was the most frightening experience I had encountered. I was afraid, I was really scared, was I going to get killed now that I was near my objective?. The thing that I realised was that I must not panic. We stayed there all next day and watched the fighting from our little hideout up that track. As night fell we could make out the German tanks retreating, then lorries and men and guns, all on the move. Darkness came and then all went quiet.
At daybreak there was no sign of fighting, so we decided to try and get through. We drove down the narrow road with difficulty. There were deserted tanks and lorries everywhere. We passed a small unit of medical corps collecting the dead and wounded. We didn’t stop to look twice, we kept going. We realised that we were through the German lines, our danger now was would the Yanks shoot us?. We kept driving down this road and all of a sudden we saw a tank coming towards us, then another behind it and more behind that. It was the Yanks, on the left hand side of the road was a passing place so I told the Frenchman to pull in out of the way. As he did so, the leading tank came abreast of us, the commanders head popped up and he let off such a barrage of abuse, ‘don’t you bloody well know you keep on the right in this bloody country’. ‘Yes Sir’ I shouted, ‘I have been here four and a half years, I’m a British soldier I beat you to it’. He got out of the tank and had a talk to me and shook my hand. He asked me what German military I had passed or seen. He then went to his radio and told me to wait there.
The tanks moved on and an officer in a jeep came to us. He asked me all my credentials etc. and told us to get in the jeep. The Frenchman asked if he could keep the car and take it home to France, ‘why not?’ he was told. We went for about 4-5 miles and came to a temporary camp. The Captain took us straight to the mess room, and boy what a feed we had, with snow white freshly baked bread as well. I WAS FREE AT LAST. I had made it!!!.
The Captain came to me later and gave me clean clothes and new boots and socks, and I had a real good wash down. He talked to me about my experiences and where in England I lived. He asked me if I knew Cannock and did I know a certain pub?, yes I did. Would you be kind enough to take a camera back for me and give it to a certain person at that pub, I agreed. It was a most beautiful German military camera in a very costly case. Evening came and he and several other Yanks kept me occupied with drinks and food etc. and wanting to know all about myself. They gave me a couple of blankets and told me to get some sleep.
I had just got settled down (I could not sleep, I was too excited), when the Captain came to me and said ‘Look here I have a flying officer friend, and his Fortress is all riddled with bullet holes, he and his crew are taking it back to England first thing in the morning, they are going to Brighton, would you take the chance and go with them, You will fly over some hostile country but not a lot’. Was I dreaming?, ‘I’m ready to go now’ I said.
Next morning I shaved and washed and said good-bye to the Frenchman and went to the mess for breakfast. Bacon and eggs sunny-side up. I collected the camera, I had no belongings of my own except for a couple of photographs. The Captain picked me up in the jeep and away to the little airfield in Meran, a place close to the Austrian border on the Yugoslav side. The plane was ready, I was introduced to the crew, six of them, someone gave me a leg up under the belly of the plane and told me to sit on the bomb racks until we were airborne, this I did and next I knew we were up in the clouds. I sat there, I can still feel the satisfaction that I felt then as we were flying home. I had tried hard to get home earlier, but always slipped up when nearly there. In my excitement I wiped away a little tear. I lay in the bomb-rack and one of the crew came and asked if I was all right, ‘yes’ I said ‘as long as that man up front knows his way to Brighton’. ‘There is no man up front at the moment’ he said. ‘I am the pilot, the plane is on automatic and will go to Brighton itself’. He said that I could walk about a little if I wanted to stretch my legs. I went to the rear-gunner and looked out. Below us ack ack shells were bursting. he said ‘don’t worry we are out of range of them’; 6hrs later I was on my knees kissing Old England. It had been a long time since my Dad had taken me to Aldridge in June 1939. I was taken into the mess room at the American camp with the crew and we had a good meal. I asked if I could send a telegram home, and then realised I had no money. I asked the pilot to lend me some, but ‘Pal’ he said ‘this is on me’. So they knew at home that I was safe and back in England. I was actually a prisoner of war one day in Germany and free in England the next. Did my angel have anything to do with it?.
I stayed the night with the Yanks and early next morning I was picked up by a 2nd Lieutenant in a jeep and taken to a camp at Hereford. I was interviewed by a Captain in the Tank corps, and given a complete rig out of kit. A new pay-book, one hundred pounds and a rail-pass and 14 weeks leave.
Next morning I was on the train to Birmingham. I could not believe it. I had no guard with me, and everybody spoke English. Stonnall had no transport, so I knew I had to walk a long way whichever way I went. So I went by bus to Walsall and caught the Brownhills bus. Unfortunately it only went as far as Walsall Wood, so I had a long walk to Shire Oaks where my sister Hilda lived. On reaching the Shire Oak Pub on the corner, George Buffton the landlord was just opening the door. It was 6pm, I fell into the pub and was made very welcome, my beers were on the house. I had a couple and then went down Shire Oak to my sisters. When halfway there I saw some people talking in a group outside her house. I waved and all of a sudden they all ran up to me took my kit off me and boy how I enjoyed those hugs and kisses. The first person was a great friend of mine Poppy Swan. I got down to the house to find a great welcome home ‘Jackie’ signs all over the house. After a wash and some food I got ready to go home. Hilda warned me of the state of my Mother, she was very ill. My sister Frances was over the moon as was my Mother and Dad. My Mother cried a little and I noticed that my Angel had pride of place on her little table. I enjoyed my leave and all the hospitality that was given me. I got in touch with the Red Cross about my divorce, I had to sign papers and then wait for 3 months.
My 14 weeks leave up I had notification to report back to Morpeth in Newcastle. I had medical exams and physical exams to find out how fit I was. I was told that if I signed on for three years I would rejoin my regiment, if not I would stay there until I was de-mobbed when the war was finally over. The camp was a training camp, and I was detailed to chauffeur the CO about. When he had finished with me he would say the P/U is yours until 9am tomorrow, any trouble just refer them to me. I was tempted to sign on, I was wondering how I was going to like the lack of adventure when I returned to Stonall for good. Stonall was no place for excitement, but I decided to risk it and go home when I was de-mobbed. The war ended in Europe, we had a great bonfire in Morpeth and everybody danced in the streets and drank all night. Then a few weeks later Japan surrendered, I was on a weeks leave at the time, and bonfires dancing, fireworks etc, where going on all over Britain.
The war over, I was transferred to a camp at Ashchurch, just outside Cheltenham. POW’s were returning to Britain and that was made a reception camp for about 500 of them. I was given a 5 ton personnel truck and detailed as duty driver. I had to take a load of men into Cheltenham at 6pm and return at 11pm every night. The rest of the time I was off duty; a great life, it was called the passion wagon service. I was taken ill whilst here and our MO immediately sent me to Cheltenham Hospital. It was a recurrence of my dose of Pneumonia that I contracted in Austria. I was discharged from Hospital after two weeks and sent home on seven days leave.
It was on this leave that I saw my son John for the first time since he was one week old. I am certain that that meeting made me make up my mind to try to make a go of my marriage, that is another story so I will refrain from that part of my life. I went back to Ashchurch and continued my job as duty driver until the day we were told to pack up our kits and were taken to Hereford barracks, where we were prepared for de-mob.
Well if we had an experience when we went in we had a better one when we came out. We were given a ready-made suit and a trilby. Nothing fitted - as usual - but it was worth it because we all put our suits and hats on looking like clowns and collected our railway tickets home and marched ourselves down to the station, all singing and saying our good-byes to each other. The episode that had started when my father first put me on the bus at Aldridge seven years ago had come to an end.
The rest of my life began.
(Information provided by his grandson, John Blakemore.)