RETURN TO ARNHEM 40 YEARS ON - SEPTEMBER 1984
by AD Llewellyn-Jones, Capt 1st A/L A-TK BTY, RA He wrote the following article for the Pegasus Journal, pages 78 - 87 of the December 1991 issue.
Unless records are accurately made very soon after actual events, fading memory can play odd tricks. Ex-soldiers returning after 40 years were probably of inaccurate recall. For the 1st Air Landing Anti-Tank personnel, there was an underlying ingrained determination to ascertain truth. Records of the battle, and there have been a great number, (from Field Marshalls to Privates), have stated their version of the military fiasco. There has been not one mention of an anti-tank gun being used. Yet, we who were there knew what we had done in those hectic days, and were proud. Bewildered perhaps, but not bitterly so. Time has eroded any personal ill feeling. Sad for those who fought so bravely. They are now recorded at Oosterbeek cemetery. Just names on tombstones. It was this search for accuracy that motivated many Battery survivors to the 1984 Pilgrimage. No-one was seeking glory. Just to recall as nearly as possible, the hectic happenings of those days, not forgetting those who have since died, some of whom suffered related ill effects.
For many too, there was the dread feeling, that the Dutch must resent and be bitter at the destruction of their property, the death of so many innocent people, the deprivation that followed. We brought infinite misery, in those hopeful days of September 1944. The anti-climax must have been enormous, and harrowing. This anxiety as to Dutch attitudes to the 1944 intervention that raised their hopes and left them to the mercy of a resentful enemy, was a most important motive for the return. The same question was asked, time and time again. "Why are you so kind, generous, patient and forgiving?" The answers are given quietly with enormous sincerity. "You came to liberate us, no matter what happened afterwards, it was not your fault. Always we will be in your debt." A feeling of humility creeps into one's most inmost soul. The cliches of respect and honour gain true meaning. A religious patina lightly covers one's inmost personality.
The people of Amhem have made the return of the battle veterans, one of relaxed and quiet reception. There are very few commercial intrusions. Sales of souvenirs are confined to well-run sources. Flags are much in evidence but they do not assault the mind. They record, but do not gloat. To return to Elst by bus was difficult. An enquiry as to the correct bus number and location, meant going into an adjacent shop. "Just wait a minute, and my wife will take you there in our car." Refusal did not offend, but neither did it devalue the quality of the offer. The combination of the tie and the grey hair of veteran age, brought out instant kindness. And this from people, to whom we had come to say "We are very sorry".
The Battery mustered eighteen veterans for the return. Sixteen of us in a small hotel at Elst, some 8 kms from Arnhem, and 2 with old established Dutch friends. Elst is a small town, rebuilt after 1944. It marked the furthest north that 30 Corps/Gds Armd Div were able to advance from Eindhoven, attempting to relieve the 1st Airborne Division and Polish Para Bde: north and south of the Arnhem road bridge. The Germans, partly as a military necessity, but more to avenge the poor Dutch premature celebration of liberation, reduced the village to rubble.
The British coach arrived at the Hotel on Wednesday the 19 Sept 1984 from Hull, via Rotterdam. Exit was not rapid. Two of the party were already established in the hotel, which had three floors, without a lift. Much of the baggage was carried by wives, in the main the younger partner. It was agreed that carriage of suitcases would be undertaken by the fit, up the always steep stairs common in Holland. Excluding those with bad sight, recent illnesses, incipient asthma, emerging arthritis, and the by-products of modern industrial life, the porters were busy, all three. The landlord demonstrated the merits of high productivity with low labour intensity, by making tea, coffee, opening the bar, allocating keys, answering questions about the town and serving snacks. Battery members were augmented by veterans from other formations. At the evening meal, there were 40. This was served at six, so that a celebration near Arnhem could be attended. The whole meal was served by one elderly waiter. All was well unless you asked him a question. If you asked for a beer you got an extra bowl of soup, or saying 'no' to soup, you were deemed to have forfeited the next course. The Dutch must have an acute sense of the cost of human employment. The Landlord himself served us breakfast. Bread, tea, excellent coffee, slices of cheese and ham, were on the table early. Boiled eggs were brought in, as each table achieved its quorum. No-one grumbled, the total cost was modest.
The evening event was at Renkum. We lost our way, and in fact continued to lose our way on each successive day. It mattered very little as all roads eventually went via Oosterbeek, and we followed the other coaches. The hall was immense. The stage as far away as a good 6dpr anti-tank gun needed to shoot at a German tank. The Dutch showed their culture and country habits through the ages. We were too far away to see much. To get a drink you first of all had to buy tickets. Being British, we all enjoyed getting back to normal, queuing twice for a single objective. The Poles were much in evidence, some having been allowed to visit from Poland direct. At any time the stage was empty, Polish dancing would start, and gather momentum. They expended much energy, made noises like Scots. In each dance men were refused all notice by their partners for the first few slow bars of music, and then were rapturously received as the tempo increased to a wild crescendo. With enough vodka, and a bitter cold night, then the whole process had obvious attractions.
It was here that serious attempts were made to recall people and events. Even after 40 years, you would think we could recall how many guns we took, but we could not. Sixteen 6 pdrs, yes no doubt. But how many 17pdrs? it was thought that two were lost on the LZ, when the noses of the Hamilcars hit a soft potato patch, and the whole glider somersaulted onto it's back. No 17pdr got to the bridge, that was certain. One went into action. The gun team was well represented. Another one was thought to have been deployed. So only two were lost at the LZ? We were not sure.
Thursday the 19 was a tour of the battlefield. In order not to upset the established pattern, we first of all got lost. We were not far away from the DZ/LZ of Wolfheze at any time, but the new autobahn meant that we had to go a long way before returning on the other side. At Wolfheze, a welcome cup of coffee, in the rain. The landlord managed to look surprised at the number he was serving. He offered small glasses of brandy at bargain rates. One of the wives was drawn to the one-arm bandit, and promptly won 70 guilders, which was a better omen than we had had 40 years before. Out on the heath, it was as deserted as on that fateful Sunday in 1944. In the centre is a small road, with an isolated house. It still bears the name of Jonkershoeve, it brought back instant recall. It was the original assembly point for Brigade Headquarters. We never went there, as the landing and drop were so good we moved off straight into the suburbs of Arnhem.
"I don't think we came over the railway line, but I do remember coming in low over some power lines, and thinking we were going to be electrocuted." "I can't remember the railway line, but we came right towards a small wood in front of us, and the glider on the left went hurtling through some trees that tore both the wings off, but they seemed alright." There was slight disparity in identifying the area where the gliders came in. But the general location was clear. In the midst of our cold confusion, rode a little old lady on a Vespa. She held up a card, on which was pencilled 'Lt. O'Neill'. We asked if she was looking for the said 'O'Neill' and why? She pointed to a small house towards the centre of the LZ, surrounded by trees. So small, we had not seen the house, though aware of the copse. "Because", she said, "He came through my roof that Sunday morning." She laughed when she spoke. We all caught the contagious feeling. "Yes, he is alive", she said, "because I have heard from him many times and this time he said he would come". Once again we did our best to cover our guilt. Here, after 40 years, was a delightful old lady looking for a roof-top intruder, who she wanted to welcome back to her home in the middle of what could best be described as an airborne concentration of glider and parachute chaos, on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Perhaps for a day or so the parachutes had a value as material for clothes, the wooden gliders as fuel. But German retribution was not far away, and the penalties were dire.
So we said, "Since you were here that day, did you see the gliders land?" "Oh yes, what a sight. They came in over there in that corner, and some crashed into the trees. Later some came in over in that part of the heath." We were not very far out, and now doubt had been dispelled. A new wave of truth searching surged through our minds.
On Sunday the 17 Sept 44, the order of battle was unusual. Because the very large open heath(s) chosen as Landing and Dropping zones were very vulnerable to armour, anti-tank guns were glider-borne before the parachute drop. Taking off from Manston for Horsas, and Boscombe Down behind Halifax bombers for large Hamilcars, we formed a long column of aircraft somewhere over Bournemouth. We then flew along the south coast towards Holland. Fighters weaved around us, like shepherd dogs. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions went under and above us. There will never be such an enormous number of aircraft in the sky in such concentration ever again. For half an hour the Divisions crossed their respective flight paths. They raised all our spirits by the visual impact of invincible might.
The first of the 6pdr guns was due down at the LZ at 13.30 hrs. We landed at 13.32, just coming over the trees before the open ground. The orders were to get the gliders as far away from the dropping zone in the centre, as possible. The glider pilots, exceptional men of quality, came down as near to stalling speed as possible, and ran the gliders into light thicket. No shots were fired, exit from the glider broke all records. Jeep and trailer out with great precision. The main danger was the incoming horde of other gliders. Some of the Horsas had their wings ripped off by thin trees. Being made of laminated wood, they shed their wings like flying ants, but there was little other damage. For the big Hamilcars it was different. The 17pdr gun was attached to a vehicle called a Quad, 4-wheel drive, and somewhat bulky, the crew sat in the vehicle during the flight. Without a nose wheel, they somersaulted onto their backs, when the nose got into soft ground. It was unforeseen. A tragic accident that the heath landing zone should have been interspersed with small sandy soft potato patches. The Horsas skidded over without any problem, with the nose wheel ploughing a furrow over soft ground. Many of the 17pdr gun crews were killed on impact, as the weight of the gun tower crushed them. Some were hanging upside down. One pilot was caught with his right foot partly severed by linkage. One was taken out of the wreck, and given morphia. Extricating crashed gun crews took time. Dutch people with bicycles collecting parachutes which by now were falling into the DZ in large numbers, gave every assistance.
By 15.00 hrs it was clear that tanks were not going to assault the DZ. The paras were moving off on their 3 axis approach towards the Bridge. The 2nd Battalion under Lt John Frost was the column nearest to H.Q. of the Anti-Tank Battery. The Battery commander, Major Arnold, and several of his officers, with 'B Troop of four 6 pdr guns, plus strays from 'C' Troop, tacked on the end of the Frost advance, nearest the River Rhine, and going hard for the bridge.
This account is of that attachment to the 2nd Battalion. The advance was orderly and quick. There were a few slight halts, as houses were searched on the evidence of the Dutch residents. A barge was shut down and sealed, said to contain 6 Germans. At any slight excuse, we were escorted into Dutch houses and shown pictures of their gracious Queen. An order was issued to control the intake of Apricot Brandy, free flowing in celebration. The senses of all were required for rapid reaction. Action and death was bound to break out. Halfway to the bridge, the large railway bridge on the right suddenly reared it's great Meccano steel form in the air, and died into the Rhine waters, looking ashamed at such mechanical folly. If a formation had been put nearer that bridge, we speculated also on our 1984 return, it could have been taken - perhaps.
Late that Sunday evening we were at the north end of the bridge. At that time we had little idea that it might be too far. The paras deployed all-round the bridge. Brave men made the explosive safe. Enemy contact was minimal. The contents of the strong pill boxes were barbecued. Casualties by the Paras were high. German soldiers were always efficient and ruthless.
Battery HQ was in a house with a walled garden, from the corner of which we had a clear view of the dark road under the bridge. One gun was slotted in at that corner. Four were marshalled in a builders' yard on the other side of the road, ready to go into action when an armoured attack was made. That night was fairly quiet. Had we then got to the bridge in time, and in surprise? Would 30th Corps come thundering over the South end next morning, and would we after all be relieved in 48 hrs?, the standard last message in any briefing, usually rewarded with unprintable remarks.
Monday morning was different. Deploying anti-tank guns in paved areas has a major problem. The muzzle and velocity is such that the recoil is vicious. The spades at the end of the trail arms need a good grip. From under the bridge a light tank was spotted, and the gun outside Bty HQ was ideally placed. The adrenalin flowed, and the excitement of action and destruction created hectic reaction. The gun spades were not into the pavement edge, nor firm against any strong barrier. The gun was laid, order to fire given, and through the anticipatory excitement, the gun ran back about 50 yards, injuring two of the crew, There was no visible damage to the tank. It remained hidden in part of the gloom of the underpass of the bridge. The gun was recovered, with some difficulty. The two injured became extra inmates of the local Dressing Station. This time the gun was firmly wedged. The Battery Office Clerk, who had never fired a gun in his life, being much happier typing nominal roles, was taken out of Battery HQ to help man the gun. This time the tank under the bridge had advanced into full view, and looked to be deploying its gun straight at the 6pdr. The aim was true, the tank was hit, it slewed round and blocked the road. It was not a King Tiger nor a Panther. Probably a Mark 3: but the feeling of success was immense. 1st Anti-Tank Battery were the first formation to take their guns to battle by air. This may well have been the first tank destroyed by an airborne gun.
No longer was there any absence of war. It was all around. Armoured cars and light vehicles were coming along the bridge, from the South. The Paras took many of them out with PIAT hand-held weapons, but it was a short matter of time only until the weight of armour must increase. At this time, none of us knew that the S.S. Viking [Hoenstauffen] Division and the S.S. Herman Goering [Frundsberg] Division had just been equipped with new Panther and King Tiger tanks. Both of these types were equipped with 88mm guns. Both Divisions were in a siding just outside the main railway station of Arnhem.
The side of the bridge, from the angle of the gun near to Battery HQ had a light parapet, some 2' 6" in height. This obscured the gun's aim. With 3 rounds, a V was cut in the side, and the gun laid onto this mark. Standing on the wall nearby, gave a better view for the observer, and to the cry "Standby - Steady - Fire", much success was achieved. This one gun dominated that part of the approach road, and gave the Paras much relief.
The problem with the other guns was where to deploy them. Line of sight and angles of fire were very restricted. All the armour on the second day came from the South, the big tanks from the North had not then arrived. With guns attached to their jeeps, and crews ready to move out to any suitable place, the officers were running around on intensive reconnaissance. Gun sites chosen and agreed by the Paras, they returned to collect a unit. The Germans had now got their act together, and with merciless precision, started to drop their deadly 81mm mortars. At the end of the bridge there were three towers, all in German hands. All ideal as observation posts. The yard where 4 guns were waiting became an inferno of intensive fire. Gun crews were ordered out into the road away from the-concentration, but in many cases the jeep tyres had been destroyed. It was impossible to steer or even drive a jeep on its metal rims. One gun and crew were caught as they left the yard, and, out of control, it smashed into another. A unit driven by a very brave young officer made it out into the road by the HQ, but here the blast from a mortar killed him, though this was not known until later. What was seen, was a jeep and a gun in tow, careering round the wide road near the bridge, until it finally drove itself into a wall. He had been killed before impact. To many, this was the first time that unmarked death had been experienced. It was to happen many times in the next few days. Two junior officers leaning against a wall, and apparently talking to each other. Both quite dead, without blemish or mark on their uniforms. A whole slit trench of a gun crew in front of Bde. HQ with all three killed by blast. The absence of blood making the method of death macabre and sinister. A sort of cheating of a hero's worldly exit. After battle did they have a diminished entry into the gates of paradise, as they had not bled, like Christians, from the foe?
Deeds of great bravery were quietly completed. 6 pdr rounds of ammunition, ready to explode at any time, were quietly taken from the bonnet of a burning jeep, and loaded into an undamaged one. Guns were unhooked from wrecks, and hooked back to runners. All the time the mortars. They make no sound, like an angel of death. They were so accurate, the concussive blast was lethal. The splinters affected everything for yards around. There was speculation to see if one gun could be deployed to shoot off the top of the church, overlooking the square of carnage, and reciprocally observable. But there was no way. All four 6pdrs with their vehicles in that yard became casualties. Monday night was quieter than day, but the mortars still fell like hail. A new weapon was now deployed. The mortars were firing into houses, again with precision, with phosphorous bombs. Once through the roof, the house was soon on fire. Arnhem houses had plenty of timber, and were old and dry.
In a town square dominated by commercial and civil activity, tanks reign supreme, and, unless defending infantry, have efficient hand-held anti-tank weapons. In 1944 the PIAT was the only stand-off weapon. It was a hungry arm, needing plenty of ammunition, placing a constraint on the carrying capacity of a parachute force. Tanks can surmount rubble, enter and emerge through buildings they have shattered en-route. The big gun, 88mm could silence anything in its way, by direct fire. They were not very suitable for explosive shelling. The other defect, welcomed on numerous occasions was the inability of the gun turret to depress, or raise its line of sight, through any great angle. Thus the gun on the corner of the Battery HQ was firing at a tank, and at the same time having to brace themselves against the collapse of the high wall behind, that was systematically being destroyed by a tank, firing a line of armour-piercing shells twelve feet above their heads. The tank was destroyed. The wall remained intact, until next day. Anti-tank personnel, not required on the remaining guns took over several houses near the bridge as defensive/offensive posts. The trick was to choose a house that was not already burning, or had another burning building adjacent ready to set it alight.
Tuesday was a day of consolidation for the Germans. Paras at the end of the bridge had no idea of the position of other troops from the Division. Radio contact was nil. The only information was from a private portable carried in a Battery Jeep, and tuned to the BBC. The news was not encouraging. Euphemisms, such as 'Our forces are meeting strong resistance' hardly seemed to match the situation. Casualties by the third day, were high. The cellar of the school that Lt Col Frost’s HQ was a gloomy hospital of wounded and dying. Every hour increased the occupation rate.
The whole built-up area around the north end of the bridge was slowly being burnt. It was organised burning by the Germans. They ordered troops to occupy certain buildings to pick off defenders as they attempted to escape the collapse of a burning building, running from conflagration. The builders' yard in which the anti-tank guns had been assembled was a panchromatic blaze of burning fabric and unmixed paints and solvents. As soon as the tanks could enter in force, the selective phosphorous mortaring of certain houses would be unnecessary, the whole area could be reduced to flames. This was to happen on the Wednesday.
By darkness on Tuesday evening, the bridge held area was occupied by small isolated pockets of resistance. Observation was best from the upper floors, but burning started from the roof and swept downwards. Progression out of the inferno was down to ground floor, then rapid exit to a new 'safe house'. Availability was getting scarce. and possible occupants even scarcer.
On Tuesday night a prolonged drizzle began. The intensity of the fires reduced the moisture. In a row of several houses, most were soon burning. They faced inwards onto the square. The bridge, gloomy in the night damp air, on the right. It had been impossible to evacuate all the civilian occupants. Some of whom were unwilling to leave. At this time, and up to the final cease-fire, German troops at the bridge behaved with complete propriety. They respected Red Cross flags, made from make-shift materials, carried by obvious civilians, wishing to withdraw. In one house an elderly but alert old man disappeared into the cellar, to emerge in the colourful full dress uniform of a senior officer of a Dutch Cavalry Regiment of the First World War, complete with sword. It took a long time to persuade him that the position was virtually untenable, and that collapse of the bridge attack was close. It was pointed out that if he was in uniform he ran the risk of being killed as a combatant. As a civilian he might possibly be allowed to get across the burning square to some sort of safety.
A bizarre incident followed. There had been some confusion as to the identity of the remarkable Major. Some five members of the 1st Air Landing Anti-Tank Bty, were crouched in the entrance of a house. The upper part of the house was ablaze, and in a short time a quick exit would be necessary. The problem was where to go. Only the Bde. HQ seemed to be not on fire at the time. It was agreed that each man should run zig-zag across the square at ten second intervals, and make for Bde. HQ. Just as the first man was set to go, across the square came a lone figure. It was raining slightly. He had a black umbrella. Under it we discerned a figure, but only as he came closer did we realise it was a Para. officer. His smock was undone, and hung down between his legs like a raped skirt. He came to us at the door and said, "How are you chaps getting on? 30 Corps are on the way, and should be with us tomorrow, in fact we could hear their guns from south of the bridge earlier today. So we just have to hang on through tomorrow, and then we should be OK. Glad to see you are in good heart, keep up the good work." In 1984 the exact words cannot be vouched for, but the incident made such a lasting impression that for once memory is probably indelible. He turned away from the door and walked quietly and methodically back over the square. He was not shot at, though this did not diminish our appreciation of his quiet bravery. I have always been convinced that the Germans thought he was an eccentric old woman, as that is what the silhouette looked like. But we were greatly encouraged by this act of quiet bravery. I have always thought that it was, Digby Tatham Warter who later lived in Kenya, as also did Lt Col Dobie
Encouraged by the short somewhat ghostly visitation, the first man was sent off across the square. Troop Sgt. Quinn?, a tough Glaswegian with a short but colourful vocabulary, stuck his head out to see if any sniper or machine gunner was readily visible. A quick tap on the shoulder, and the first man was off, running a series of side-stepping jinks, to occupy his mind, over the next hundred yards. A bullet hit the pavement in front of Sgt. Quinn's well-polished boots, and he promised the man on the other end of the gun a sanguinary farewell to this world. Out of 5, three got to Bde HQ.
The heat in the square was rising. This brought out the buds on the many trees flanking the roads. into leaf. But for death, blessed in some cases, the wounded, wretched in all forms, the scene had a Dante-like beauty. The light rain refracted the light. The pace of activity was still so hectic, that sleep had not tempted the brain into oblivion. No rest for three days, and only one meal had certainly sapped potential energy. If there had been peace for only ten minutes, many would have collapsed where they stood.
With so many casualties in the buildings, the Germans now needed to clean up the whole bridge offensive. All other Divisional troops were cut off at Oosterbeek. The Poles would later be isolated over the Rhine. 30th Corps would be unable to advance further north than Elst, although in due course their big guns could hit targets around Arnhem. Radio communication was still dead. It was only in 1984 that the proximity of both 1st and 3rd Battalions was known. On September 19, 1944, they could have been a hundred miles away. Without their heroic fighting efforts, the 2nd Battalion at the bridge would have been blasted out of existence in the first two days, even without tanks.
But now on Tuesday evening. came the first big tank. A King Tiger advanced up the ramp from the north, and stopped short of the school building on the west side, occupied as Bde. HQ and, in the basement, a hospital. The 1st Bty. had one gun left. The 6pdr from the corner near to what had been Bty. HQ, now like almost everything else, just rubble. It was hand-pulled by Bty. personnel, that included the Bty. Cmdr., Bty. Capt., 1 Troop Commander, 1 Sgt. And two gunners. It was moved in great haste and, to some surprise, arrived safely into a gun position directly in front of Bde. HQ. Dug in quickly. There were very few rounds left. Distance to the tank was not far, but the angle upwards was quite steep. The tank saw the gun, and attempted to depress its gun. The round went through the building some 20 feet above. Two anti-tank rounds were then fired, and amid a shower of sparks, the second one was a hit. But King Tiger tanks were very heavily armoured. It went up the ramp a few yards, then trundled back down the ramp, out of sight. It was apparently not affected by the strike. To protect this last important centre of resistance, and to favour the wounded in the cellar, the gun was moved from the school courtyard to a soft grassy patch just in front. Nearer to the main road that went up the bridge ramp. The gun was dug in. Two slit trenches for the crew were excavated in record time. It was clear that this whole movement was carefully observed by a German OP in the Church tower, just behind the school. The tank did not return. The mortar fire did. The gun was so damaged as to be useless. Three crew members were killed by blast. The last volunteer officers withdrew to the school, suffering superficial mortar bomb splinter cuts. No lasting damage, but plenty of blood loss. Weariness, lack of sleep, loss of blood took its toll. More occupants for the cellar at Btn. HQ.
It is now known that a cease fire was arranged, and kept to by the Germans, to care for the wounded and bury some of the dead. In the midst of dimly-lit confusion, an officer recalled a Dutch doctor saying, "If you can walk, I am able to get you out tonight". He replied , "Of course I can walk". "So", said the doctor, "just stand up". That was the last he could recall, until waking near a railway siding, with cattle trucks being marshalled for evacuation as Prisoners of War. The place must have been near Arnhem, and quite rural. A German soldier removed a soldier's red beret as a souvenir. It was promptly handed back by a scowling hard-faced officer. Little Dutch children walked around quite freely, making a V sign on the sides of their faces with the hand furthest away from German sight. They even smiled. The Germans looked weary, and more shattered than those in their care. They were either arrogantly young, but disciplined, or old and weary of privation, danger, good surrender material. My watch was taken, but promptly returned.
The train went south to Oberursel. On the way in a siding near to a large industrial looking town, we had hurried evacuation. Allied fighters came streaming down in line, strafing the railway. Crouched in a grassy slope, hundreds of yards away from the assaulted trains, the short interlude would be observed. Admiration for the young crews of anti-aircraft 20mm guns, grouped in 4's, could not be concealed. 4 sets of 4 guns, were located through the marshalling yards. No guns were silenced, no aircraft shot down, but a train on the far side was alight, and obviously full of fuel. We were ordered back on the train, and went off into the night. It was probably Friday or Saturday.
Next morning we again stopped at a very large marshalling yard. The large doors of the truck were always open. Sitting in the doorway legs hanging out, was a young soldier, he looked about 14, with a Schmeisser across his lap. He made it clear that any move towards escape when the train slowed to a crawl, which it did very often, would receive a generous blast. British POW's were working on the railway at the marshalling yard. No-one was allowed to speak, but the gift of pantomime is never far away. They wished us good luck, and sympathy. They pointed out the work they were doing was directed to cause as much harm as possible, without being disclosed. Bolts were slackened a turn, and wooden keys moved out of place. It was a practical demonstration of that enormous British gift for messing people around. It was the inner strength that causes us to have heroes, and at the same time to sustain a long strike, or cause wilful damage to supporters of other football teams. The elderly guards had no hope of supervising such naturally organised capacity for chaos.
All Division personnel had been well briefed on correct procedures if taken prisoner. Typical scenes were enacted. Officers who had had experience, but later escaped, gave sound advice.
Oberursel was a Luftwaffe transit camp. For some time the Germans were undecided whether to treat Airborne personnel as Army or RAF. Confinement was solitary, in a small room. The light was a single bulb. There was no window. Heat could be provided from an external control. No water. No sanitation. No towel. It was impossible to judge the passage of time when light was constant. Interrogation followed exactly the pattern of which we had been warned. No need to say anything at all, as everyone else had given them all the information they needed. So we could please ourselves. The advantage of answering questions was that we would be treated better by the army, and not drift into S.S. hands. Name, rank and number was the reply. The interrogation officer would then quote salient facts about the Battery, and personnel. It was impossible not to be astonished at the breadth of inside knowledge. All officers' names were known, with full details of locations back in UK. Name, rank and number. Thank God for the accurate briefing. Offensive dirt was beginning to make one's person somewhat nauseating. Eventually taken to the bathroom, given a minute piece of soap, and allowed a short shower. A Wing Commander of the South African Air Force arrived at the stand-urinal, and said in a whisper that the Allied Forces had had an enormous defeat in central Europe, and the casualties were enormous. The best thing was to co-operate with the Germans, as they were going to win anyway. Rapid exit of Wing Commander. What effect this would have had, without the prior briefing, is not known. But the mind went back to the Village Hall at Heckington. Major Deane-Drummond talked to the Battery. He had had a legendary escape from a hospital in Pescara, by climbing out of a bathroom window, and walking round the two sides of the building along a three inch ledge. His later escape by hiding in a cupboard in the German occupied house for many days, was even more spectacular. In his Heckington talk, the intrusion of a South African officer, apparently without sinister intent, and purely coincidental, had been specifically mentioned. At Oberursel therefore, events were the actual enactment of a well-rehearsed play. No problem in keeping to name, rank and number. No physical effort was made to detach more information. But conditions were hard. Always the light. Always the thought that being locked up was for ever. Sometimes excessive heat, so that thirst was acute. Then a swift interrogation. Apologies for the beastly behaviour of just a few of the resident soldiery. Cigarettes were pressed, schnapps proffered, and the constant theme that there was nothing they did not know already anyway.
From Oberursel to Wetzler. Here, on a green hill overlooking the town, and surrounded by silent forests, was a Hitler Youth camp, converted to a more subtle and insidious form of interrogation. Everyone spoke English, and were young. Plenty of good food, Schnapps, water. Most precious of all, soap. Apologies, even more humble for the nasty events in Oberursel, but here all was civilised in keeping with the new Germany that would emerge to counter Red Communist hordes. The great thing was to get your tongue wagging. It took a major effort of will, to refuse or restrict the unusual supply of good food and drink. Again, personal and formation details of the Battery activity were highly detailed.
The reason for such effort became known on the fourth day. German artillery officers were convinced that British gunners were using radar to direct their guns. I had been an instructor at an Artillery OCTU and had been originally trained as a field gunner. I knew nothing about radar. I had not the slightest idea how it could be used for field gunnery. I had been in an Anti-Tank battery for a long time. The Germans eventually understood that their investment in my welfare had nothing to offer in return, and so I was taken for a quiet walk to the edge of the hill overlooking the town. There was a short chat about the prospects for the war. They were both convinced that defeat for them was only a matter of time. Out in front, some 5 miles away, was a large hill overlooking the town. The senior officer explained that the town had been bombed many times, but the important and vital optical factory of Leitz had been located right into the side of the hill, so that visiting bombers or fighter bombers could not get a proper run in. This small piece of casual information was to prove useful later on.
The good life of Krieges, now faded. Photographed and finger-printed, I became a card-holding member of a large band of reluctant visitors to the great Reich. At Limburg, an enormous camp, the first realisation of the vast numbers being held prisoner. It was transit only. It held many Russians, Poles and mixed colours. Although I wrote many letters from the final POW camp at Brunswick, the only message that got home was from this unlikely place. The whole place had a pervading smell of human decay. Not the sweet smell of death, but the rancid odour of those who had no sanitation, steeped in their own filth. They were in grave danger of losing their souls. It was said that the Russians, having caused a disturbance, the Germans had released two powerful Alsation dogs into their compound. That night the skins of both were flung over the wire. They had been added to the parlous rations. There was also the story of the man who had died. They drew his rations for a week before disclosing his demise. Both tales are common, and almost certainly apocryphal. But the Russians looked the part.
By train to Oflag 79, at Aquarium near Brunswick. From the railway station to the camp was a walk of 10 kilometres. The town of Brunswick contained an important tank factory. The whole place had received a 1000 bomber raid some short time before. Amongst the hundred or so officer POW's being marched through the town, were some in blue uniforms. The escort's main job was to keep civilians from lynching these air crews.
It was wet when we arrived at Oflag 79, located adjacent to an airfield, that never seemed to be operational. A hard looking officer addressed us in harsh terms. "For you the war is over. There will be no escape. Anyone who tries will be brought back to this camp in a Klim tin (a dried milk tin, some 5" in diameter and 5" deep)."
The camp was large. The largest officer prisoner-of-war-camp for Western Allies. 6-7000 officers could be accommodated in a series of two-Storey huts, though only the bottom rooms were occupied. Non weight-carrying walls were made of compressed straw mixed with lime and cement. There was a great deal of timber. The risk of fire was very considerable. We were met by a reception committee. who allocated us rooms in lettered blocks. There was much interest in the latest news from the war front, and detailed interrogation of everything that had been observed in the three weeks between capture and arrival. I had worn a thin blue scarf to the Arnhem battle, and inside this I had a silk map some eighteen inches square, of the central Europe communications system on one side, and physical features on the other. I had been searched a dozen times. Our airborne smocks were confiscated because they had compasses built into the clip buttons. The red beret had gone for a souvenir. Watch had gone. An identification bracelet stolen. Dog tags were left. The scarf, that was an old souvenir of three years, and the worse for wear, was taken from me many times. It was not considered worth stealing. Firm fingers ran over it to feel if anything was hidden inside. So, complete with scarf and map I arrived at Oflag 79. The officer who de-briefed us was impressive, painfully efficient. I related my Wetzlar conversation with the two senior officers, who had mentally given up the war as lost. With the help of the map, I was able to show where they said the Leitz factory was located. The problem of a fighter bomber getting a proper run at it. It was made clear that I was to lose my map, though I could consult with the 'Committee' if it was required for proper use. It was clear that there was a system of getting information out to Allied Intelligence. HOW, I do not know. The BBC news, neatly typed, was distributed to all huts every evening, and read to an anxious audience. It never failed. The Germans obviously knew that this went on, as spontaneous raids were common. The radio was never found. The news was always circulated. Human ingenuity and skills have no bounds. If news could get in, I must also assume that information could be sent out. By Christmas 1944 I was told that the Leitz factory had been accurately bombed by Mosquito bombers. This came from the same officer who had cross-examined me on arrival.
Some of the inmates had been prisoners since Dunkirk. Many were from the Tobruk surrender. They had first been to Italy, then when the Allies landed in the South, were sent to Marisch Trubau in Czechoslovakia. From there, they had walked a very long way west under fierce German escort, as Russia made advances.
With Red Cross parcels arriving regularly, on a one-a-week basis, prisoners of war were not undernourished. Some had settled into a cosy way of life and lost the zest for making matters more difficult for their captors. There was a large, well-arranged Red Cross library. Inmates included every profession. Intellectual diversions were infinite. Any language, any discipline that did not require apparatus, any period of history. Arguments on erudite subjects were flourishing. Constraints in philosophical understanding caused by syntax, were discussed by Logical Positivists, from notable Universities. Not all were anxious to hone their minds against the stones of wit and wisdom. The enormous air raid on Brunswick, some 8/10 kilometres away, shortly before our arrival, had reduced the nervous systems of some, suffering badly from the camp confines, to nervous acceptance of the worst expectation of misery. We were to be marched towards the German Alps, or worse still we would be abandoned to the Russians, they said. There were many Poles. To them, the possibility of falling into Russian liberation was worse than their current incarceration. For the first time, many of us realised the dread that Poles had for Russians. Now, with solidarity having made us aware of the slavery of Eastern Europe, understanding is easier. But need it have taken 40 years?
But these were the less determined of the camp inmates. It was getting colder, and sweater and scarves were given to us. The Indian officers being particularly generous. Most rooms were occupied by 6 people. in 3 double bunks. We were invited to a 'brew up' and a precious cigarette or a half pipe full, as we were objects of curiosity. Our morale was still very good. We were not only fit, but hard. Inmates played volley ball, the Gurkhas always winning, or walked very briskly round the open spaces, who so allowed, But they had been too long away from real battle rigour.
In the first two weeks we were issued with half Red Cross boxes. Although the contents were excellent, we were still hungry. The boxes were a supplement to POW rations. These were collected from a central cook house. It was acorn coffee for breakfast. with a slice of dark brown all bran bread. Midday was a bowl of weak watery soup with one potato. Evening meal was more soup and two potatoes. To this meagre input the Red Cross parcel was a valuable and necessary addition.
Cigarettes were currency. Prunes were bought by the skilled to be distilled into a high alcohol drink. This was known as 'ish'. It was lethal stuff. Three months later, one tablespoonful became a near general anaesthetic. In food starvation conditions, it needed one cigarette to buy. It was largely an Australian monopoly.
Everyone was a cook. Making hot puddings was the loftiest culinary skill. Recipes were exchanged. Everyone swore theirs was the best, though all too careful not to exchange any product. for judgement. Cooking required heat. Human ingenuity knew no bounds. Many were highly skilled. Because fuel was so short, maximum advantage had to be taken to promote its efficient use. The result was a 'Stufa' probably of Italian design from POW camps in Italy. There was a receptacle for bits of paper or wood, or straw or whatever. The pot holder was some 12 inches away. The heat was transferred to the bottom of the pot by a metal tube, through which a draught of air was blown at variable speed. The whole thing was made from tins. Different qualities of tins being used for various parts. Every room had one. Most people had their own. In one room a prisoner had made, entirely from tins, a working clock. Admittedly he was in his third year. There were expert forgers, who could produce a passport or travel document. All they needed was a photograph of passport size. The face did not matter, only the size. When wood had been available, skilled carpenters had made props and furniture for the 'Rumpot' theatre. A Restoration play could be performed with absolute integrity. Church on a Sunday morning was well patronised as we gathered to hear the King James bible read aloud. Perfect in its punctuation for expounding to others, the actor officers, of whom there were many, could relish their weekly public appearance. Play reading was frequent. Those who were hesitant as to their ability, could risk their voice and minimal movement, to critical scrutiny, without appearing to be 'acting'.
So life for two weeks was full. We learned the POW vocabulary. Joined in the shout of "Goon up" every time a German was seen inside the camp. Examined the defences, and then went away to draw escape plans, some bordering on the insane. The roofs of our huts were very steep, and some were near the outside wire. A fully-qualified engineer of senior rank calculated with plans, diagrams, drawings to scale, the velocity needed to descend down the roof from the apex, on well-greased homemade skis, to clear the first barbed wire fence. The grease needed to promote acceleration was to come from butter rations. More normal persons could see that the escapee would fall some ten feet away from the gutters but still twenty feet short of the fence. He would have one, if not two, broken legs.
All escape plans were co-ordinated through a special committee, under the chairmanship of the senior British Officer. A full Colonel. The commitment to make life more difficult for the Germans, irrespective of the reaction it might create, was very strong. Although in a POW camp, we were still obligated by every means, to carry on some sort of fight. This upset of old established routine, was not approved by some. To the majority penalties that might have to be faced, were accepted. We were still soldiers, we obeyed orders, this was essential, it was the only way to get at our enemy. To heat water, the system was a powerful form of immersion heater. In almost every room there was a plug point. Lights were on for a fixed time each night. Plugs were live almost all the time. Someone had found out that the camp was on a direct line to the Herman Goering tank works near Brunswick. If enough discharge of power was placed on the system, then it was calculated that the main transformer down at the works would be blown. Therefore production would be held up. This was the most practical and sane of the many actions then being calculated.
The immersion heaters consisted of two short pieces of wire, one end of which was connected to an old razor blade. Both ends, making sure they did not touch, were put into the mug of water, the other ends stuck into the plug. Hot water was almost instant. If enough heaters were applied at the same time it was noticed that there was a loud humming noise. The sunken cable got hot enough to show through the wall. Every water heater was instructed to come under the order of the SBO. At a certain time, as many as possible were to be connected to the system, so that the load would be enormous. The effect was considerable. All the wires started to hum, with increasing intensity. The whole of the lighting system went out, and so did the perimeter lights, and the German barracks. Later we were even told that the mains transformer back at Brunswick had been burnt out. I have my doubts. The effect on us was that we had no light, no heat or electricity for the rest of our reluctant stay. The Germans rewarded us by cutting everything. It was beginning to get cold. The western front had stagnated, and the Russian advance was slow. We were going to be very cold.
In November the last Red Cross parcels were distributed on a one-for-6 basis. By this time all tins were opened by the Germans prior to issue. This was because valuable spare parts for the radio arrived in special tins of jam. So, in addition to being cold, a food shortage was imminent. The Medics told us not to worry. 1200 calories was enough for anybody to stay healthy. Many bodies did not respond to this concept. They wanted more. Escape plans were not so enthusiastically conceived, although a pool of appropriate food was stored away for those who thought it possible to make a getaway, and had Committee approval. Matters got worse. It also had a revealing social repercussion. Rations were either bread, soup or potatoes. Soup could be measured accurately into bowls. Bread could be cut to approximately the same size, just slight variations. Potatoes were all different in size and quality. Two per person did not allow for this. Collecting the rations and dishing them out was a roster system for each room. Very senior officers (as rooms were mixed in their rank content) would swear that their potatoes were the smallest. More junior ones would protest that they were always penalised. A system of anonymous choice had to be arranged. 6 portions of soup and potatoes were poured into basins or placed on metal plates. Bread was issued on an individual basis once a week. You could either bash it quickly or spread it out in equal amounts for each day. The camp was full of 'bashers' and 'savers'. Potatoes and soup were put on the table, they were numbered 1 to 6 by the carrying orderly of the day. The other 5, backs to the table, were given a hat with tags 1 to 6, as they drew their number they took the appropriate plate and bowl. Thus ended anarchy, mayhem, even threats against other people's lives.
Food was the central thing in life. Cookery classes and recipe books were crowded. It was impossible to read a novel or a serious book, without mention somewhere of food. People would listen in salivating silence to the well-off talk of Scotts, Rumplelmayers, The Savoy or The Ritz. Commercial minded men took large orders for boxes of Manx kippers or fresh herrings to be sent each week. Cheques were passed, and later met. Fruit from South Africa was a popular purchase. Always food. But worse was tobacco. Cigarettes were money. You could buy almost anything for a cigarette. People invited others to their rooms, offering a cup of something hot, in the hope that the stub of a cigarette at least would be left behind. Committed smokers had dreadful withdrawal pains. Some tried to sell their bread for cigarettes. A puff at a cigarette could cost a slice of bread, and there were few takers. I vowed that I would never in my life ever smoke. I had smoked a little before, I was not being much of a martyr. At the end of our camp life, an Omega watch in gold could be had for one cigarette. Selling food for cigarettes became an acute problem. The senior officer of each room had to watch his colleagues.
Warmth was an acute problem. When we first moved into our room, each bunk had ten 3" wooden planks, on which lay the straw-filled paliasse. After a month we had 9 each, then 8 and so on. The trick was to know what was the minimum required to hold up the body. One at the head, one under the shoulder, two at the base and one for my feet was the least I thought I would get down to. But some got down to just 4. The roof was wood, with tiles. Each room had a knife, converted to a saw. Time was not a problem. The challenge was to remove a piece of timber from the roof, by careful selection and calculation of stress, avoiding the German guards, as it was forbidden territory. So much roof timber was removed in some huts, that a strict order had to be issued to leave alone, otherwise, the whole building would have collapsed. The Germans, in their sullen mood, would not have helped or repaired. At the end of November, the cold was getting more intense. As a gesture to Christmas, a third of a tin of condensed milk was placed outside the windows to celebrate the day. Nothing in the whole world seemed to conjure up peacetime bliss more than eating condensed milk. It was the great elixir of all time. We vowed never to be more than three feet away from at least six tins. For our case, we designed suitable storage locations for the tins. Chocolate also intruded into our plans, but second in importance. All our vehicles, after release, would have enough rations aboard to last a breakdown of a minimum of three days. We were becoming besotted with the concept of food. Books could not be read, as every page mentioned food. It is surprising how true it is. Conversations always drifted from lofty detached discussions into nostalgia to do with food. The little restaurant in South Kensington, where portions were so generous, that one left a great deal, would be visited again, and every crumb would be consumed. The habit of collecting precious table crumbs on the moist end of the finger, became an ingrained habit. It caused distress in country houses, and surprise in the best hotels.
Salt had been a generous constituent in the old Red Cross parcels, and was still available. When we first arrived, old POW's had brought the hot bread or biscuit pudding to a fine art. Diced bread or broken biscuit mixed with sugar, jam or condensed milk, incorporated with dried fruit and dried milk was converted into a hot stodge, reminiscent of schoolboy puddings. The amount of liquid trapped in the mixture gave a warm and filling experience. Puddings continued to be made in our time, but by Christmas 1944, ingredients were minimal. Sugar was unavailable, so salt was added. The hungrier we got, the more salt was needed. For some people this became an obsession, and they became swollen and blotchy. Fortunately, the Doctors exerted common sense through the tight discipline that still existed.
The Germans publicised their own version of daily war news. The Russians were giving them a hard time. One new bulletin mentioned an advance 'westwards' on the eastern front. Then the offensive out of the forests of the Ardennes towards Bastogne, caused great depression. We, who were new to the Camp, knew that the breakout could only be short-lived, the offensive might against the Germans, by this time, was too great for anything other than German defeat. To POW's, incarcerated since Dunkirk, the issue was still one of doubt. Our confidence in the final result of Von Runstedt's excursion was strengthened by the fact that Bastogne was held by an American Airborne Division, whose prowess we knew and greatly admired. Concerts of classical music had been a popular feature of past POW life. German officers encouraged any activity that stabilised attitudes, and promoted resignation and a sense of permanence. Musical instruments had been provided through the Red Cross. A piano was supplied by the Germans. Massively out of tune. Stored in a cold and damp large room, it still provided pleasure to the keen. Many of the officers were accomplished musicians. It was inevitable that social life would soon become impossible, due to the physical strain of food shortage. The cold was intensifying. A concert was arranged. The principle work was Schubert's 'Trout' quintet. Senior German officers were invited. It was an unmitigated disaster. The delightful music quite unrecognisable. Whether deliberate or not, I do not know. The senior German officer, cruelly wounded on the Russian front, and posted to the camp as part of his recuperation, was speechless. He was due to thank the performers. POW senses were numbed by the increasing privation. Schubert would not have recognised one single note. It was introduced, with measured pomposity by a musical historian from the 8th Army. He insisted on pronouncing Schubert as if he were French, that is without mentioning the final 't'. The Germans were not pleased, and thereafter withdrew the use of the piano.
The Red Cross had supplied a gramophone, records and needles. The latter, being made from a most valuable metal, - tungsten, had become very rare. The gramophone had been modified by adapting an exponential papier mache horn, in the style of EMG. Concerts were given in one of the cellars. Each item introduced by an enthusiastic exposition. Two needles had been coaxed out of one of the guards, in exchange for a cigarette. A very high rate of valuation at that time. The camp was in darkness every evening, and air bombardment not far away. The concert was held in the afternoon. Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto, played by Willem Backhamus with the Saxone State Opera Orchestra conducted by Karl Bohm. Each note penetrated the mind. Never was music more appreciated. Here was art defeating material conflict. Culture transcending ephemeral physical deprivation. The soul being liberated from a cold and wasting body. In other words, mental escape. It was the last concert. Needles were unobtainable.
Most inmates managed to remove their facial stubble, not every day, perhaps twice a week. Some grew beards, but this was considered to be a slight weakness of discipline, unless you were from the Navy or Air Force. Certainly 1st Airborne Officers were clean shaven. It showed that a razor blade would be made to last four months. There was no heat of any sort, all water ice cold. Soap was very precious. It was a piece of soda-treated pumice, that cleaned by abrasion. Having a bath was not the nub of the problem. It was getting dry afterwards. We were inured to the cold. We were not infested with personal allocations of lice, I suppose because of the weather. But in late December, stimulated by the idea of Christmas, the decision to wash my underclothes as a gesture to festive purity, became a fixation. The washing would be with cold water only. No soap, just energetic dunking. I had been given an issue woollen vest and a pair of long johns, by some kind long suffering inmate. The need to complete the cleansing before Winter became more intense, was obvious. The extent that we could exert the necessary physical effort to remove surplus water by squeezing and twisting was limited. The two items were damp, if not dry. Next morning they were frozen into fossilised silence, still on the line. After two more days I took them down and placed them on top of my palliasse, but under me, lying fully clothed on top with my one blanket. After three days they had thawed out, and I wore them by day, but not at night. The theory was that by day, some movement being possible, this would generate enough body heat to dry them. My next laundry was April 1945.
Our block was of twelve rooms, six either side, ranks were mixed, as were regiments. Old inmates had settled into common interest, and agreed levels of personal boredom. Tempers could be frayed very easily. One of our six was threatened with strangulation, because he made an unfortunate sipping noise drinking his hot soup. In the next room were two famous cricketers. One was Bill Bowes, a large and gentle giant of a man. The other, Freddy Brown, sardonic, full of dark wit. Bill Bowes had calculated the downfall of Bradman, and we would sit in contemplative awe as the plot was narrated, Bradman, in the right mood, would hook any ball short of a length. Bowes gave him four very fast deliveries, but slightly altering from leg stump to a shade outside the off stump. He then thundered down a straight yorker at maximum speed. We howled with delight. It was as if we had brewed up a King Tiger. Bowes only ever made that victory once. Bradman was the supreme cricketer. The story lightened our darkness.
In a camp of 6000 officers, the conditions that attained for at opening of 1945, inevitably created personal animosities. There was a small compound for exercise. The route, and rotation was governed by unwritten rules, established years before when the pecking order of the camp was retained in terms of military hierarchy. With recent inmates, not yet mentally depressed, and with reserves of physical energy from being recently so fit, the old rumour spreading attitudes of quite senior officers, was unacceptable. We were told that any day now we would be marched to some distant part of Germany to keep us safe from release, and to provide bargaining strength, to some hazy sort of Western cessation. That would leave the Russians bearing the brunt, in the East. We were upsetting the equable conditions in which some had been living for two or three years, and had grown used to. They had sat for degrees, become erudite with the books and lessons, grown narrowly introspective, and wished for no upset. Those who had fought in the Desert had the greatest problem in maintaining their will to fight, however, circumscribed.
All escape plans had to be submitted to a small committee, who vetted the practical possibilities. The cover up was an integral part of the plan. It required, in early 1945, considerable physical fitness to even contemplate an escape. Our daily calorie intake was just sufficient to keep a low energy sedentary life. It was true that extra rations were available, for those whose plans being approved, tried to carry them out.
Tunnels were the classical method, and there were many. The best starting points were from the huts nearest the wire. But the Germans had listening systems. They prodded the ground with sharp rods, and listened to the underground activity. Diversion was a fine art. Thus small excavations, made with considerable noise, were on the go all over, to attract attention away from the main break-out. But food shortage, and winter cold, inhibited even the most audacious. The biggest and best tunnel collapsed, and this time there was not the ability to restart. From time to time, orders were posted on notice boards to say that anyone who escaped would be returned in a very small tin, having been previously cremated. This was contrary to Geneva regulations, but it had a depressing effect.
Each inmate had a card, filed in the POW central office. It showed a photograph, army no., place of birth, regiment and religion. The number was cross-matched to the tags we all wore round our necks. The files were in army no. order, by buildings. So our file box had 72 cards. In theory, you produced your tag from round your neck, and the authorities could find your card, complete with photograph. Everything matched nicely, and Teutonic efficiency was enshrined into the bureaucracy. Christopher Perrin Brown, a distinguished Company Commander from 1st Para Bde, had fought in North Africa, with great distinction. He was a reluctant member of Oflag 79. I do not know to this day, whether his escape plan was approved by the vetting committee, probably not. The method was born out of impulse, and compounded by personal bravery. Not ingredients that you can muster for critical scrutiny. Chris, who had a drooping moustache, was married to a French girl, spoke French and in ordinary clothes looked like one of the Frenchmen brought in by the Germans to work in the camp. Chris had watched them carefully. He even smoked his pipe like a Frenchman, allowing the strands of tobacco to spill over the bowl, like a dock worker in Oran.
He removed a lavatory seat and shuffled towards the main gate. He was allowed through both the first and second gates, carrying the seat over his shoulder, as if intent on repairs. Keeping his head well down, he found a bicycle outside the camp enclosure, and proceeded to pedal away. The loss of the bicycle eventually gave the escape away, as it belonged to a non-commissioned German officer. But he got as far as the Ruhr. Here he joined a number of Frenchmen on a train. He thought it was moving them north as workers. The direction was right, and he was undiscovered. After an hour, the train diverted to a siding near a coal mine. Everyone was ordered out, and Chris then realised that they were coal miners joining their daily shift. He had no alternative but to join the party, but was given away whilst underground, when obviously he was not a miner, and a Vichy supporter became suspicious. He was returned to Oflag 79 and awarded several weeks of solitary confinement. He was very good for morale. (The facts of this would have to be checked. This is what I was told.)
After his escape became known, the German commandant ordered a full parade, by huts. They wished to know the identity of the escapee. It was cold and wet. The hut from which Chris had escaped was made up to strength, another one was made one short. The authorities now invoked their great German system. Whilst the guards erected tables in the dry hut entrances, every prisoner was ordered to file past a checking clerk. All we had to produce was our disc from round our necks, then the card would be checked and, eventually, they would know who had gone walkabout. But we had all exchanged our tags. I exchanged with a bearded gunner officer, a veteran of Tobruk capture. I produced my disc. Nothing in the hut file box of that number. I was ordered to stand over there, in the open, in the pouring rain. Not one disc matched the system, everyone had changed. We were all standing about as oddities. The nerves of the Senior German officers were near to breaking point, fingers were being moved towards triggers of automatics. The SBO moved to defuse a deteriorating situation. He undertook to provide the name of the missing officer, and therefore the hut. Two fellow inmates were detailed to check the cards, and indicate the one they required. It was now quite late. We were soaked, very cold, but elated at the success of the disruption. The Germans could not understand how we could be so beastly as to upset a well-calculated office system. There was supposed to be a code of conduct between officers. The escape became less irritating to them than the cover up. I will not, for a long time, forget the look on the German guard's face when he found the card that matched the disk I was carrying. So what had happened was that I grew a beard, why had my hair changed from straight to curls, and how had I become promoted whilst still a POW? I said that the cards were incorrect, and that the office administration had made a blunder. "You will stand by that wall, out there", he screamed. By nightfall, there were 6000 officers all standing 'over there by that wall'. There were no escapes after this. By the end of January, few inmates could have walked a quarter of a mile.
Food was short, ambition stunted, and dreams infinite. Cigarettes were supreme. An understanding of inflation is not a difficult subject after the experience of being a POW. Shortage, moving to acute scarcity, made nervous suicidal wrecks of addicts. Non-smoking hoarders, far from being praised for their foresight and anticipatory ingenuity, were vilified as anti-social traitors, taking advantage of human frailty. In 6000 officers of every rank from Brigadier to newly-commissioned subaltern, from famous fighting regiments to captains in charge of mobile laundries, from VC's, DSO's and MC's by the dozen, to men who had been caught too far forward in their first engagement, there was a complete cross-section of all male human life. Vices were few, and mostly petty. Old prisoners who had been bombed whilst in the camp, were understandably very nervous. Those captured at Tobruk were outspoken about the early acceptance of the German offer of surrender, by the South African General. The Poles were more afraid of being released by the Russians than being moved to a new German camp. Technical ingenuity was demonstrated, by daily BBC news bulletins, and the passage of valuable information out, as well as in. The skill of men who could make anything from a box of old tins, clocks, stoves, ornaments, furniture, stills, theatre props. There were men who could forge anything, pick any lock, remove parts from the sanitary waggon on its daily rounds, whilst talking to the guard specifically charged with its protection. With motivation, the human spirit could do anything. With the meagre rations, the strain on the sanitary systems should have been low. It was a matter of wonder and considerable speculation that the amount excreted seemed to be the same, or slightly larger than the intake. Coffee was made from acorns, tea from hawthorn bush clippings, bread from horse bran, and the soup only distinguishable from water by the isolated small yellow pool of struggling fat, the best of which had already been consumed by the emaciated elderly guards. They were hardly any better off than we, the residents.
In the middle of March, a fitful Spring sun warmed the outer stretches of the camp. Without a wind, it was comfortable to sit out. The more repugnant members of the camp guard had abruptly left. Replaced by gentler officers, almost all badly wounded. The Senior German Officer, nicknamed the 'Pig' had disappeared. Nasty things were to be done to him after release. He was a large red caricature of a Prussian officer, without their code of conduct.
It was about midday on April 29, 1945, and we were sitting quietly in our room. There had been plenty of heavy gun fire close to the camp, for some days. The nervous were worse, and the rest tried not to show their apprehension. Around the corner of the door came a well-known voice which said, "I say chaps, some American soldiers have just come into the camp, in jeeps". We went on eating for several minutes, until one of the room party asked for the message to be repeated. This was done, very slowly and methodically. Another pause for several minutes, and then with the news flashing into our addled brains, we rushed out. The 21st Cavalry Recce Squadron of an American Division, were there in the middle of the camp surrounded by the cheering inmates. An hour later, when they wanted to move off, the parts of their vehicles removed by the skilled hands of thieves, had to be replaced before the jeeps could return to their HQ.
The next day, the guards, converted into orderlies, were told to clean up the camp. Electricity came on fitfully. Rations stored outside the camp were distributed and promptly caused dysentery and acute stomach upsets. The erstwhile guards had to dig a vast complex of latrines in the exercise yard. Our own were out of use. The biggest single bliss was a warm shower. I will never forget it. Outside the camp, sullen German farmers met us with the words "Alles Kaput". There were fields of Asparagus, all for the picking. Tinned Polish pork was in plentiful supply. Our own discipline had to be tightened. Ranks became significant, and we were reminded that the War was not over. We all became sorry for the little old men, sick and wounded, who had been our guard, reinforced by the odd evil-minded Nazi zealot. Nominal roles by huts were prepared and bureaucracy became the inevitable by-product of a wish to make an organisation work.
About the end of April, officers began to be called away, transported to Hildesheim, and then to UK. I was fortunate. The officer-in-charge of repatriation, including Oflag 79 was Col. TM Seebag-Montefiore. I had been an instructor at the Ilkley RA, OCTU when he was commanding. Coming down the steps of the aircraft at Blackbush. I said to the WAAF at the bottom that my kit bag contained all my worldly possessions, and was heavy. She carried it on one finger. We were given tea by the WVS, new clean clothes, and had anti-lice powder squirted into personal holes and crevices. I spent three days in some comfortable rest home, before going on leave. From the day of release, I would have officially sanctified everyone.
Battery Officer survivors met in due course at the Mikado Room of the Savoy Hotel, for a reunion. Some had become rotundly fat, to the point of non-recognition. We promised ourselves eternal communication, and had a hilarious breakfast at the Comet-Hatfield. None of us could explain why The Comet, or how we had even got there. I kept the bill for the celebration dinner for a long time, though all subscribed. The amount seemed astronomic. Tea for four would now cost more.
Arvian David Llewellyn-Jones died in Worthing, West Sussex in September 2001.
Written by AD Llewellyn-Jones, Capt 1st A/L A-TK BTY, RA. Supplied to ParaData by R HiltonRead More