Compiled from diaries
By Rodney Pocock ©
The 24th August 1939 was a bad day for me, up to then life had been carefree and happy, but from then on life altered beyond my control. It was in addition, Derek’s birthday, one, which I shall never forget; today he is also on my mind. I know that Kit will do everything possible for him and her advice will be every bit as good as mine to him, but nevertheless I cannot help feel that I am neglecting him at his most important time of his life, I feel that I have let both Kit and him down through being in the position that I am today. What the result will be only time will tell. I had thought quite a lot about the boy’s future and it was my intention that firstly they should have a better education than I had, I had not decided what to put them to, although in my own mind I didn’t want them to be soldiers; I cannot say anything against soldiering, but it is a hard life, especially after a good home life, which I consider I had, although I was too young to realise it at the time. However I was lucky and got through the hard period, but if it could be avoided I did not want my boys to go through this unnecessary hardship, then came the 24th August 1939.
I heard the motorcyclist long before he reached my quarter, and knew what it meant, mobilize, it didn’t worry me at first because I had done it twice before and everyone knew exactly what to do, I was of the opinion that nothing would come of it as on previous occasions but as the day wore on and orders we received to get ready to move so my spirits got lower and lower and the more worried I became, I was thinking of Kit and the boys; if war was to break out what would happen to them, it wasn’t as if they were in their own country, supposing Italy came into the war and made for the Canal what would happen to them. With all these thoughts in my head I had to remain on duty, when I wanted to be home with them, it was Derek’s birthday and he was having his party. Eventually orders came down for us to move, I had to go home and tell Kit, and how downright miserable I felt about it all, should I ever see them again was my chief worry. That night we entrained and went off and to make matters worse I had an attack of lumbago, that small train was, I thought, the worst one could experience, but since then I have suffered much worse.
At Suez we were destined to remain for almost 12 months, life was a semi peace and war type, and very early on I missed my home comforts, but fortunately I was able to get home once a fortnight for 48 hours, and how I used to look forward to those visits, I used to live from one fortnight to another. food I missed greatly, although that issued was good; it could in no way compare with what I was used to. The lack of home comforts hit me hard, after so many years of married bliss; the lack of privacy came so very strange. My first bed was on the railway platform, my second on the Pilgrims Quay, the third was in an old store together with about 70 troops and the fourth eventually in the Officers Mess but not before a 12 month had elapsed. The unit was split up all over Suez, and my job was to maintain good discipline was extremely difficult, there was nowhere that I could go to get away from it all, until I met an extraordinarily kind friend in Joe Buhagier, who permitted me to use his club like a Sergeants Mess. This made a world of difference to me in more ways than one, but my 48 hour leaves were what I looked forward to most If the war had continued in this manner, it would have been a good war, but such was not the case, some time in May or June 1940 it was decided to move ail the families, this came as shock to me, and all kinds of thoughts went through my head. It was one of the most unpleasant jobs one could wish for to assist in moving of the families, if I ever see them all again. The scenes at Moascar and Kantara are ones that I am not likely to forget The families were off to Jerusalem and so war became more like war, I could not keep my mind off what was likely to happen to them, and inclined to blame myself for having them in the country, but then aerial warfare commenced, I was pleased once again that they were at least for the present in a safe place, but how I missed my fortnightly trip. I walked back through the Married Quarters during the evening on which the families departed, it was like a cemetery, I looked at my old quarter of which Kit and I had thought so much and had spent so many happy days. So back to Suez, I have many memories of this place, not so much with the town itself; because seldom did I go out, but of the different people I met and the acquaintances I made. A thing I shall always remember was the departure and return of the pilgrims to Mecca in the ship called Lan Zum, which was the old troopship Leicestershire and was eventually sunk in Mid Atlantic.
Our orders for active service arrived on 15th August 1940, the CO and I, as acting Quartermaster, which duties I had been carrying out for some time, attended a conference at Middle East HQ at which we received our orders, and they were to be ready to embark at 12 noon on Saturday 18th August 1940 and proceed to………… and there to make a landing to help the Black Watch. This did not sound at all good I knew that I had my work cut out to get the Battalion ready, but on the journey back my thoughts were with Kit and the boys, this appeared to be the last straw, having suddenly to go into action on Saturday without seeing Kit, however duty is duty, and I had a job which kept my time fully occupied. I had the Battalion ready by the time appointed, the warship to carry us arrived, HMS Terror, and then the order was cancelled, I was relieved, and for once had an evening off. A few days later I was ordered to prepare a meal for the returning Black Watch whom I knew very well because they came out on the same troopship, HMT Nevassa from England. They suffered only a few casualties; I managed to give them a good meal for old time sake. About this time orders came for the families to proceed to South Africa, I managed to get 7 days leave to Jerusalem, with Kit and the boys. I was sorry to see how they where living, it must have a been a rotten time for Kit, but looking back she was doing the best she could under the circumstances. I cannot say I enjoyed myself, it wasn’t a leave on which one could look for enjoyment Our minds were far too full to think of enjoyment It was likely to be the last time that we would see each other and it came to an end all too soon. I returned to Ismailia, the journey being a nightmare, on arrival I walked through the Married Quarter area, the garden of which Kit and were so proud was in a shocking state. After a short while the families moved to South Africa, I was able to get to Kantara to see Kit and the boys, but I could only see her for a short while. Kit gave me a letter on this occasion, which I treasured, but unfortunately had it taken away from me when I was captured, by that time it was well worn and had been a great comfort to me. I had to take my last farewell in the railway carriage and how very down we felt I can still visualize the look on Kits face as we parted.
The next few days were horrible for me, I had more work to do man was necessary and that kept my mind occupied. But when it was broadcast over the German radio that they knew of the embarkation of the families and intended to sink the ship, I was dumbfounded, I had plenty to do in the daytime but the nights were dreadful, sleep I could not. In the meantime we moved to Cairo, where we were fitted for the desert. Here it was that I got my first letter from Kit, how jubilant I was that she was safe and comfortable. I had no idea what South Africa was like; her letter put me at ease. Our stay in Cairo was very short, I managed to get out a couple of times to the pictures and once to a cabaret, but I wasn’t very interested. I was still missing Kit and the boys so much I wasn’t used to being in a town on my own.
At the end of October 1940 or the beginning of November we moved up to Sidi Haneish and occupied a portion of the southern face of the Baggush Box. Here I had a very good dugout which was well sandbagged and sheltered from the sand storms. On the whole I was quite comfortable, I had a good safe store and was able to use a fairly good Officers Mess.
We were moved up for the 1940 push to a place about 30 miles south of Sidi Barani, but did not take a very active part except to collect prisoners by the thousand. For one night only there was nothing between us and the Italian lines, it was on this night that HMS Terror shelled Sidi Barani, the vibration was terrific even the sides of my dugout began to cave in. On the 9th December 1940 we were relieved by the 6th Australian Division, the relief was not carried out as smoothly as expected. I was sent back with my echelon to Sidi Haneish, a distance of about 100 miles, starting early in the morning with instructions to prepare for the Battalion who would move at about 1600 hours, everything was prepared, hot meal, etc in time but no battalion arrived. At 2000 hours I got worried and went to Brigade HQ to find out what was wrong, they got in touch with Army HQ who informed us that the relief would not take place until a day or so later. This meant I had got to return to the Battalion post haste knowing full well that they had no rations for the next day. Hurriedly I collected my convoy together again and at 2300 hours off we went, on reaching Matruh one of the water carts developed a puncture. I told the other vehicles to RV outside of the town. I stayed behind with the water cart and consequently got mixed up in an air raid which was not too pleasant, however we got over this difficulty and continued down the Siwar road, to a track which led across the desert Just as we turned off the road the bombers started up again and at that moment one of the lorries burst into flame. Things became a bit tense for a moment or so but we managed to put the flames out and proceed on our 30-mile desert drive with the damaged vehicle in tow.
It was bitter cold wind a head wind, direction finding was very difficult, I had judged that we should be back in position by daybreak, when that came there was no sign of the Battalion. I thought I was lost, but my luck held good and about 0615 hours came across HQ, they were still sleeping but they were rather pleased to see me. The move took place the following day, quite satisfactorily. We stayed at Sidi Haneish a few days’ then moved back to Ameriah, to refit once again. This put a lot of work on my shoulders, whilst others could go into Alexandria for a bit of recreation, I had to remain in camp.
We celebrated Christmas Day on the 23rd December 1940; because the following day we were due to entrain for Port Said. A good dinner was supplied to the troops together with beer; under the circumstances all had a good time. The following day, the 24th, we duly entrained for Port Said, reaching there on the 25th and men embarked the HMT Dunera. Once aboard I was able to have a good rest and some good food. We set sail about midday and went down the Canal, spending the evening anchored in Lake Timsah. Some went ashore, but I didn’t, I knew it would start me thinking again although from where we were I could see the bathing beach we used to use and that brought back sufficient memories. The following day we passed through Suez, I saw Mrs Buhagier and Maude standing outside their house, I found out later they did not realise it was us. We waited in Suez Bay and who should come aboard but Jack Steer, we had a couple of drinks together. The same day we set sail for Port Sudan, where we arrived on the 31st December 1940.I felt a new man having had the first rest since August and some real good food. Our stay in Port Sudan was very short, I went to the pictures on occasion but did not enjoy it On the 19th January 1941 we moved or at least Battalion HQ did, to a place called Tokar. We were now forming the Northern Column for the attack on Eritrea and consisted of HQ and 3 companies, one company remained at Port Sudan. Our task early on in the campaign was to attract as many of the enemy as possible to our front in order to draw them away from Keren, this we succeeded in doing, drawing about 8,000 to our front. We had to make our force appear very strong, this we did by erecting big white tents and making dummy petrol dumps. The tents were never taken down and as far as I know may still be at Tokar being eaten away by white ants, while I was there they kept eating the ropes and making the tents fall down. Whilst at Tokar I visited Suakin, the deserted city, it was a very interesting to see the place as it was left years ago with no living soul in it. From Tokar we advanced nearer to Eritrea to a place called Aqiq, HQ being at Itaba. Here we suffered our first casualties. Private Carter being killed in action. We had some interesting times including swimming, but a lot of travelling.
I must mention how we got flooded out one day and a night. It had been a very quiet and hot day but one could see that up in the mountains it was raining, in the evening it came on to rain in our district. We were encamped near a dried up river bed, during the night I heard a noise like thunder which gradually faded and then I heard a lot of noise from the troops, so we decided to get out of bed and find out what was going on. On getting up I found I was standing in about 6 inches of water, my bed fortunately was standing on a little mound of earth, everywhere else was about 3 feet deep including the stores, the water had come down with such force that it washed one of the 160 pounder tents down to the seashore some 5 miles away. The damage was enormous, our vehicles had been dug in and the pits were full of water, the drivers had their work cut out to get the vehicles moving. I was supposed to move off with rations at 1000 hours but could not form the convoy up until 1600 hours and then the going was very heavy, I had my doubts as to whether I would get up to the line or not, however I had to make the attempt and so started off. I was dressed in tin hat, shorts, canvas slippers and a ground sheet with a belly full of rum. The vehicles were continually getting stuck but with hard work and hard swearing we crept slowly forward until we met an enormous obstacle, a river bed, which had previously been dry, was now full of water. I went through with my PU (a small load carrying vehicle known as a “pick up”) and managed it, the next vehicle, a 30 cwt, got stuck right in the middle, we tried to get a 15 cwt across and that also got stuck, here was a pretty state of affairs. The first thing to do was off-load the vehicles, halfway through this job; the sound of aircraft was heard. It might be one of ours, but no such luck! 3 Italians, I didn’t know whether to duck my head under the water or what to do, but after circling round us they dropped their load and went off. We sorted ourselves out again, no damage, and carried on getting our vehicles out.
After a time we were successful and continued our journey reaching the battalion at midnight, they were getting worried about the next day’s food, rations were issued early the following morning. For once I got a liver on, I issued some sugar to Polly’s company and some ‘bloody fool’ spilt some paraffin over it, in consequence I had to repeat the whole journey, I was not all pleased. It was at this position that the Battalion got attacked from the air, I arrived shortly afterwards and nearly blew myself up by running over an unexploded bomb. The Battalion mounted an attack on Korora, the first time unsuccessfully, one man being killed and one taken prisoner. Frank Day’s platoon experienced some difficulty but got out all right, the second attack was successful. We now advanced to a place called Elghena, being reinforced by two other units, by now our supply route was getting too long and it became necessary to operate from another base, Mersa Takli, which had been taken by B Company. Arrangements were soon made and we pushed on to Cub Cub, where we had a small battle, and from there on to the Mesclet which overlooked the Keren – Asmara road. My supply point was back at Cub Cub and B Echelon was at Chemelette, this meant I was travelling 100 miles daily with rations over a terrible track and hills, it was not unusual for one or two of the vehicle springs to be broken. The country was mountainous, one platoon had a position on top of a mountain, and it took the other two platoons of the company to maintain them. I had great difficulty in keeping the Battalion supplied with boots. Orders were eventually received to cut off the Keren – Asmara road, but shortly after we started Keren fell and the attack was called off, during this move we received some casualties from mines.
Before leaving this part of the country I must mention the animal life at which we had some laughs at their antics, there were all kinds but mainly baboons, all day long one could hear them barking and they would appear at all kinds of places, it was most disconcerting when having a s… to be surrounded by a gaping ring of baboons. One day Tiffy, Chalky and RSM Greenfield climbed a hill, which was occupied, by a colony of baboons, when they got to the top they were promptly chased back down again, I never heard so much noise in all my life as they hurriedly came down. Often I would be going up to the line with rations when in front of the would be a family of baboons on the way to their watering place, they would appear in single file led by the father, a big grey whiskered old boy, he would bark at us and then we would pull up and watch them pass, following the old boy would be about 20 or 30 others all gradually getting smaller in size, the last chap being about as big as a rabbit, the very small ones were carried on the backs of the mothers, I could watch them for hours on end. The lions were the things that really worried me, I used to hear them sniffing around my tent, I lay as still as a mouse, in the morning I would inspect their footprints. One day I issued John Callan with a new pair of boots, the following morning he had lost one on looking for it found it chewed up by one of these animals, I was not at all pleased as I had taken a great deal of trouble to get them for him. Another day we shot a hartebeest for fresh meal, the butcher took the carcass some way away to clean and skin and bury the entrails, that evening the CO visited the area and parked his car over the spot where they were buried, in consequence he got no sleep. The jackals came along with all the other animals in the vicinity and dug up the entrails making a hell of a noise.
After the fall of Keren we were taken back to Chemelette and there told we would have a ten days rest, but did we, a couple days later we were ordered to move and capture Massawa. We started off on the evening of 1st April 1941, and moved back just short of Cub Cub where we struck off for the coast, we drove all night and I can remember saying at daybreak when we stopped for a tea break, what a good way of spending ones wedding anniversary. Later that morning we came to a place called Oblette and had to pass up the worst river bed that I had ever come across, in places there was up to 30 inches of loose sand and of course a large number of vehicles got stuck, there was a lot of swearing as the troops dug out and pushed their vehicles through, even my light vehicle got stuck. However we eventually got through and arrived at a place called Mersa Cub on the coast, here we caught up with Polly’s company. After the Battalion had once again collected together we pushed on down the coast, the going was extraordinarily rough and in places the sand was very soft. My vehicle was put out of action by a broken spring so I left it behind to come on later. The advance was stopped that evening because of a destroyed bridge, which when we reached it was still burning. I was pleased for the halt because my vehicle was repaired and caught up with me. That evening I had a bathe in the sea which was wonderful and for the first time in my life I found I was worried by land crabs, I dug a hole for myself to sleep in and the damn things crawled over me all night.
The next morning the Sappers had sufficiently repaired the bridge for us to cross over. We passed through some plantations and a village when the speed of the convoy slowed down considerably because we were entering the Massawa defences eventually stopping before evening fell. B Company who were the advance guard had been told to push on as the town had supposedly surrendered, but they ran into a fairly hefty barrage when most unexpected, so had to be brought back and a proper attack organised. That night I had to go up with the cook’s lorries, as they had had nothing to eat all day. After having issued the rations I went to the Officers Mess for something to eat myself, I cannot say I enjoyed it because at that moment they started to shell us, which was not at all pleasant. That night I went back to B Echelon area and the following day we were shelled by a naval gun in Massawa fortunately with no effect. That afternoon I was ordered to go back for rations, a job that took 3 days to do and on my return the Battalion was still in the same place. During the trip back conditions were not too pleasant, we had the Oblette riverbed to negotiate however the Sappers had considerably improved this. We managed to take advantage of a good swim that compensated for a lot. After rejoining B Echelon we continued to be shelled quite a lot again fortunately with no effect A few days later the attack was delivered during the early morning and was successful but lost 17 killed and 65 wounded. We did not enter Massawa that night but very early next morning, I was one of the first of the Battalion to enter. We met one of our platoons that had been captured the previous day. The town was crowded with Italian soldiers and sailors, 11,000 in all, it took a good 3 days work to round them up. I took over a Naval barracks for the Battalion, with an extraordinary good cookhouse, which had been put out of order by the Italians was soon put into working order again and I was able to give the troops some good feeds. The officers were quartered in an Italian headquarters offices and supply store from which I was able to extract some good stuff including wine. I lived in a room with Tom Roe, a jolly good sort, the room had been an office of some description, the previous occupant had lived fairly well because amongst other things we found a store of Apricot brandy, very good it was too, this together with the wine that I was able to scrounge caused a never ending flow of officers visiting us.
The heat was terrific it being practically impossible to do anything after 9 is until 5 pm except sweat. This heat and the dirtiness of the barracks combined created the worst smell that I have ever experienced, after cleaning the barracks thoroughly it was still awful, I eventually traced it down to some dead natives and a meat store in which the cold storage apparatus had gone wrong. The smell even made some of the captured Eritreans vomit when it was removed. It was necessary for me to draw rations at 5 am owing to the heat I used to attend the slaughter house at that hour and watch the animals being slaughtered and bring them straight back to the cookhouse and have them cooked as it would have gone bad. I did not mind doing this at such an early hour because I was able to scrounge liver and kidneys, which I loved at the time, and used to have them for lunch, I was rather disappointed when the CO remarked at lunch one day “take this liver and lights away and bring me some bully”. Another job I had was to look after 604 Italian officers, I took great interest in this and did it to the best of my ability, I could not have done so if I had realised what treatment I was to undergo in their hands at a later date.
Things were much better organised after a week or so, although I did not get much time to myself, some officers visited Asmara and other places but I couldn’t find the time. Fish was plentiful, we hired a couple of smacks that supplied the Brigade under RASC arrangements but in the usual way it was not issued fairly. On one occasion I took the law into my own hands and removed a box full, which had been reserved for Brigade Headquarters, good fish it was too. My health was not all that I desired at this period; I felt very much run down and had a bad thumb, I was also worried about Kit because I had not written to her. My job had been so tiring that at the end of each day I could hardly undress through being so tired. Since coming to the Sudan it had been one continual grind, the least distance I had travelled daily over the most difficult country was about 120 miles. I was receiving mail quite regularly, I believe that this was the only thing that kept me going, had I missed a mail I would have said to myself ‘blow it’ and let things get on the best way they could. Our stay in Massawa came to an end about the end of April or beginning of May 1941,I cannot remember exactly but I was pleased because of the heat and feeling run down.
We embarked on the ‘Ethiopia’, I was responsible for loading the ship, the crew refusing to do it, it was not very difficult but the men manning the donkey engines were not very efficient but we managed after bit of difficulty with some of the transport The harbour was full of damaged and sunken ships, I never counted them but it was a great number. There was a danger of us being attacked by 2 Italian destroyers that were loose in the Red Sea but the journey was completed without incident. Unfortunately I developed a temperature and had to remain in bed, it was terribly hot and I never recovered until Dr Bapty lanced my thumb with a razor blade. My thoughts whilst in bed were of course all about Kit and the boys; I had no fear of anything else. We were told before disembarkation at Suez that we would be staying there at least 10 days to refit and rest, this suited us all very nicely having spent so much time previously. The first people we saw on the quayside was Joe, Mrs and Maude Buhagier, quite like old times, they were under the impression that I had been wounded because my arm was in a sling. Jack Steer was also there; of course we partook of a few drinks together. The troops were permitted ashore until midnight that night, I was invited to Joe’s house for dinner, so got on with unloading the ship as quickly as possible whilst doing so orders came through for us to entrain that night, leaving the MT to travel by road, as the troops had been given leave until midnight this caused rather a stir. However I got my dinner with Joe, it was jolly good after all we had been through. The scenes on my return to the harbour were not what one considers to be quite up to the standard of a well disciplined Battalion, poor old Joe Greenfield blotted his copybook and had to be left behind together with the other absentees which was unavoidable owing to the short notice given.
We had no idea where we were going this time, early next morning we realised where we were, in the afternoon we detrained at our old place Sidi Haneish but this time on the West face of the Baggush box in relief of the Leicestershire Regt with whom we stayed for a couple of days before they left for Crete, it was here that I spent my birthday, a terrible sand storm raged all day but I was compensated by receiving a letter from the CO saying that I had been Mentioned in Despatches. Shortly after this we again met our old friends the Camerons, Douglas had been wounded. The same day we moved back into our old position on the south face of the Baggush box, I went into occupation of my old dugout and storeroom, how long we were to stay there was not known. My stay was short lived, because one evening I was sent for to the orderly room and told to proceed on leave the next day for 7 days, I told them I did not want to go and I really didn’t although I knew it would do me a lot of good, besides where was I to go, I hadn’t been anywhere without Kit and the boys, without her I was lost, there being nothing to interest me and I didn’t want to go loafing around Cairo. The CO would not take no for an answer and the following morning found me on the leave train to Cairo. Arriving there the same evening I had not the slightest idea of where to go, I thought of the place where I believe Frank Day and Bob Evans spent their honeymoon, but I couldn’t find it so I trekked around Cairo looking for some place to stay the night, eventually I got a room in the National Hotel, it was only a bathroom as the hotel was full but I didn’t mind as I intended it to be temporary, it was on the top floor a devil of a way up. I had the first thing I wanted and that was a steaming hot bath. I never had anything to eat that evening except bits with my drink because I couldn’t pluck up courage to go into the dining room, I went out, had a haircut, went to the pictures and saw “Gone With The Wind” in colour and so back to my attic bathroom. During the night the air raid alarm sounded, there was a lot of running about, I was called but being on the 9th floor I decided to chance it and stay put, nothing happened. It was during the raid I decided to spend time at Suez where I did at least know a few people. I rose early the following morning and had breakfast in the dining room before all the ‘posh erbs’ of BTE and ME were astir, paid my bill, which was a quid, pointing out at the same time that I had been accommodated in a bathroom and not in the grand suite. I then went up to the Citadel to collect some of my kit and look at our base store, from there I went to the station only to learn that there were only two trains a day one at 7 am and the other at 7 pm, so I had all day to wait the time being about 9.30 am. So I went for a walk around Cairo like a lost sheep, but whom should I bump into but Tommy Lyons, what a godsend, he of course was away from the unit at the time. We had some drinks and lunch at the place where he was staying. I phoned Suez to book a room at the Miser but Joe Buhagier would not hear of it and insisted that I stay with them. That evening I floated off to Suez where I was met and entertained by Joe, how very kind they were all to me but I could not shake off my feeling lonely and missing Kit, they did everything possible to entertain me, I must have been a hard guest to entertain. I used to go swimming and pigeon shooting and to the pictures with them, on the whole except for this lonely feeling I had a good time and a real good rest, which did me the world of good. On my last day they drove me to Cairo in their car and in the evening had dinner at the Heliopolis House and then to see “Gone With The Wind” again. They wanted me to stay the night with them at the Heliopolis but again I was frightened of imposing on their good nature, so I refused, in consequence I was too late to book a room spending from midnight until the train departed walking up and down Cairo station, which was not at all pleasant and purely my own fault and so back to the desert.
The Battalion were still in the south face of the Baggush box, the time being occupied by training and improving the defences, my own dugout was unproved and well camouflaged. I was quite comfortable and safe neither was I overworked being able to write very regularly to Kit and look forward to the receipt other letters, parcels and papers. The PRI sent to Alexandria weekly for supplies of vegetables etc, but the CO was not satisfied with the results, and so I was given a two-day break and performed the job. We left Sidi Haneish about 8 one morning and arrived in Alexandria at about midday, a distance of 130 miles approximately. I visited Mrs Evans with a letter from the CO and she very kindly asked me to stay for lunch but again I got that silly feeling and refused for no reason whatsoever except that I felt out of place. I then engaged a room at the Windsor Palace Hotel being asked by the reception clerk if I wanted a single or double room, I naturally asked for a single and got one, I found out later that if the reply had been a double room the necessary partner would have been supplied. After my usual hot bath, haircut and shampoo, I sallied forth to do my shopping and how I hate that job. I went to the NAAFI at Mustapha Barracks and bought a lot of stuff beer, shaving soap, whisky, gin etc. Now entering Mustapha Barracks reminded me of the ‘good old days’, I simply had to go and visit the site of our old tent where we used to spend our holidays. I then went to the market place and ordered a lot of vegetables, cabbages, and tomatoes etc, which were for collection the following morning, the rest of purchases I also left until the following morning. The rest of the day was at my disposal; once again I got that lonely feeling not knowing what to do with myself and once again missing Kit. I went to the Anglo American Club and had tea, this again brought back memories of our holidays, from there I went to the pictures came out quite early and returned to the hotel for what seemed a long evening. I would have given anything to pluck up courage to visit a cabaret or some such place but on my own I could not. The following morning I adopted my old method of breakfasting early to avoid the rush of Base Officers, being picked up by Glue and Baker, who looked very red around the eyes. Immediately afterwards, I then collected my purchases of the previous day, made some more which included such things as vivid pink pyjamas for Ali Bates, a couple of flat irons and a visit to the Nile Cold Storage for odds and ends such as sauces etc, from there to Mrs Evans to collect purchases made by her and so to the Matruh Road for the long run back. I must say that I was always pleased to get back to the company of the Battalion, I disliked intensely having at any time to leave it and go out amongst strangers had I been able to go out with Kit of course it would have been different, without her and away from the Battalion I was lost. Leave to South Africa was in operation about this time, but as others had been in the country 10 months longer than I had, I was bottom of the roll; I hope I managed to cover my disappointment well.
At the end of July or the beginning of August 1941 we moved to a place called Jarabub, a distance of about 300 miles across desert, this and the return journey was a nightmare for the. For the move I was allotted seven 10 ton vehicles to move my stores, of course they were far too heavy for such a move, I spent most of the 300 miles digging them out of the sand. The route taken was for the majority of the distance across virgin desert and so from the very outset the going was unknown. The vehicles were driven by RASC drivers who had very little experience of desert driving; the CO took the opportunity of practising driving in desert formation, my position as usual at the rear of the column. The pace set was about 15 miles in the hour, which was naturally far too slow for the heavy vehicles, in consequence they either got bogged in the sand or increased their speed so much that instead of being at the rear they were at the head of the column. I therefore had to adopt tactics of moving by bounds, but I was liable to get lost owing to continually changing course, at the end of the day’s trip I was able to report all vehicles in, which was something. Next day we continued very much as for the previous day and reached Girabub via the Melfa Pass. The column was strafed from the air just before reaching the pass but suffered no casualties although one burst came uncomfortably close to my PU. Jarabub was reached in the late afternoon and looked a proper one-eyed hole, the temple of Sinuses being the only place of importance; the rest of the place was huge hills and loose sand. The 4/16th Punjabs had removed the Italians prior to our arrival. I moved back towards Siwar the following day and established B Echelon at about 10 miles from Battalion HQ but in doing so I had to cast off my 10 tonners. The going was so bad that they couldn’t make it, we had to off-load on to 30 cwt lorries and continue the trip in them hoping that I had seen the last of 10 ton vehicles. The whole district which we were now occupying was most uncomfortable, the heat was terrific, I have never seen so many flies and midges in my life, it was necessary to wear a sand fly curtain on one’s helmet in order to get a bit of comfort and above all the water was salty consequently all of us had the ‘runs’, sometimes it was not possible to use the authorised places. It was nothing to visit the latrines 7 or 8 times during night and it was impossible to get a good cup of tea because the milk just curdled.
One of the lighter sides of life during our stay there was the supply of fresh meat which could not of course be brought from Matruh because owing to the heat it just went bad before it reached us, it was therefore decided to send our meat on the hoof. One evening just before dark two lorries reported to me loaded with live sheep, the drivers bringing the instructions how they were to be distributed the following morning, but what was I to do with them in the meantime. The shepherd instinct in me rose to the occasion, in my stores I had some wire netting with which I had a pen made, in order that someone could keep an eye on them I had it constructed within the vision of the sentry. Before dark I had them herded together and was very proud of it too, I also arranged for our Battalion butcher, who by the way was doing batman to me whilst Glue was on leave, to commence killing our Battalion share at some godforsaken hour of the morning. Having done this settled down for the evening and went to bed, about midnight I was awakened by ‘baa baa’ and looking out I saw all my sheep disappearing over the desert, what a game ensued. By morning I was still about 10 missing, so careered around the countryside looking for them, the last of my flock was not found until midday. However alls well that ends well I had some nice liver, bacon and kidneys for my evening meal. During my trip round looking for the sheep I came across a water hole sufficiently large enough for about 20 men to have a good swim. I tried it out myself it was jolly good but very salty so that one just floated in it, you did not sink. I used to lay in it with the sun on me. I organised bathing parties but told the men to keep it quiet or we should have the whole Battalion and that would spoil it, however someone must have spoken out of turn because one afternoon the CO and said he would like a bathe, of course next day a company turned up hence forth my private pool became a public one.
At this period I was missing Glue very much, he had gone on leave but in the meantime diphtheria had broken out in the Battalion and no one was allowed to leave or join, so had to put up with Blaber who did his best but was far and away below Glue, I couldn’t rely on my early morning shaving water and tea neither did I look as clean and tidy as usual. Ben Dalton was the other officer with me and his batman was on a par with Blaber, so we did not live at all well in the mess, I was highly pleased when Glue eventually rejoined. The spot I had my bed erected was not very comfortable being under a cliff but it was safe from air raids, one day I was able to lay in bed and watch an RASC convoy being bombed in perfect safety. Our stay came to an end about the end of August or the beginning of September 1941. When we were ordered back to a site on the coast opposite Kilo 41 on the Sidi Barani road, west of Matruh. The trip back was uneventful taking two days, again I was allotted 10 ton vehicles but this time I knew how to manage them, the rest of the Battalion were carried in them, many a lorry load pushing like hell.
I was not too badly off in the new spot, had my stores in a cave and had my old camp bed erected under a brick wall, with Glue again doing batman to me I was back in my old stride. Our stay here was fairly short after about 10 days we were moved farther along the coast to a small spot called El Shamas, turning off by the Kilo 101 on the Sidi Barani road. From this position we fitted for the November Push, we were also issued with Battledress, I had much fun in the fitting of this, it being the first time since the outbreak of war that we had worn it. About the 7th November 1941 I was sent off to Cairo to collect canteen stores etc, this was a distance of about 350 miles. I started off one morning at 6am arriving at Abbasia at 4.30 pm the same evening, not bad going but the good going had its effects, immediately after arrival I went into a barbers shop and promptly fainted, I came to with Glue reviving me. It was too late to do any business that evening so I put up at the Garrison Mess and went into Cairo but again I did not know what to do with myself. I went on the verandah of Shepherds for a drink but got ogled by a terrible lurking wench so made my way out and back to the mess. Next morning I did my business of buying stores at the NAAFI etc, went to the bank to get some money and there met Ben Dalton, how pleased I was to see him. We went to his hotel, the Carlton for lunch and arranged to meet him again in the evening; we met in Jimmies Bar, which was extremely good and from there on to a show and so back to the mess. It was the last evening I was to spend in Cairo and it turned out the best I have spent in that town. The next day at about midday we started our return trip, staying the night on the Alexandria – Matruh road, joining the Battalion the next day.
On the 11th November 1941 we started our move forward for the push, the first few days we spent at Sofafi then a few at North Point and so by a series of night moves to our position West of Sidi Omar, B Echelon was just inside the wire, south of Bir Sherfersen. It was my job to draw rations from the supply point by day and take them up to the Battalion by night, this was quite easy all the time the Battalion was stationary but once they got on the move it became increasingly more difficult. While the Battalion were in this position, west of Sidi Omar, I had to go up to them so as to reach them after dark. For the first trip I was given an escort of anti tank guns but after that I had to do it on my own, unescorted, and as German columns were all over the place it wasn’t too pleasant a job. To make matters worse the Battalion laagered each night fairly close and it was easy for me to miss them in the dark. On the day of the attack on Sidi Omar, B Echelon moved outside the wire to a spot about 5 miles along the Trigh El Abd. The following morning we got the message that the Battalion had attacked and suffered heavy casualties, I immediately went up to them entering Sidi Omar by the north gap, I passed poor old Dickie Deacon on the way and then saw the dressing station which was a bad sight with Doc Bapty working like a hero. I met the Brigadier and the CO by a Jerry 88 mm gun and felt very proud of the Battalion when the Brigadier said “what do you think of your boys now! Quartermaster”. The dead were still lying about, the Battalion had certainty done a good job and a few days later it was realised how very important it was. The same day I had to go back for more rations, B Echelon had in the meantime moved to Bir Sherfersen, this time I had to move by the south gap of Sidi Omar and got Frank Day to give me a route in order to avoid the minefields, as both the other Quartermasters of the Brigade had been blown up by mines everyone was saying it was my turn next. Following Frank’s instructions I push off and got about 3 miles into my trip when Jerry artillery opened up on my convoy, we did a very smart right wheel and got behind a hill everything being alright except that a U bolt on my truck was broken but managed to make Bir Sherfersen in fairly good order. Having replenished, I went up to the Battalion again the following day, but having distributed my stores found that I couldn’t get back again as Rommel’s tank column had broken through and we were more or less surrounded. I began to wonder what would happen to the rest of B Echelon, during the night the whole of the 4th Division HQ started pouring into Sidi Omar, I kept a sharp lookout for my column but they did not arrive until the following morning; I was greatly relieved when they did. Now the importance of the capture of Omar proved itself otherwise the 4th Division would have been put in the ‘bag’. So here we were in Sidi Omar in a good defensive position. Jerry in occupation of Omar Nuord and his tank columns all round us. I was allotted a good trench with dugouts and was responsible for my own protection, it became a veritable fortress, I had Jerry mortars and machine guns and an anti tank gun and felt quite proud of my command. I only had to give the order to occupy alarm posts once and that during the afternoon when attacked by tanks but they were beaten off by the Artillery, who suffered a lot of casualties. I had a very good view of it from my trench, we also got shelled regularly but to no effect, I don’t think we had a casualty from this. I used to sleep at Battalion HQ trench in case I was wanted at any time, it was my habit to sleep on the top of the trench, early one morning, 4 am, I awoke to the noise of aircraft, I looked around, the place was lit up by flares, I very soon went to ground and spent the next 2 hours there being strafed from the air. It was found out later that the attack was by our own aircraft, the Fleet Air Arm; I met some of the pilots later in captivity and had much pleasure in telling them what I thought of them.
Owing to the rationing of water I had been unable to shave for a considerable period, must have looked a horrible sight. The CO insisted on my photograph being taken before I was permitted to shave my beard. The Battalion got a very good write up on the Omar action, Quentin Reynolds the famous American broadcaster was present during the show and was able to give an eyewitness account of it as well as writing in the press. After a short stay in Omar we pushed on, dates I cannot remember, but I know that it was just one hell of a rush until we reached Martuba just east of Derna, but before getting there we had halts at various places, at one of these by Bir Dudar, B Echelon was strafed by low flying aircraft, Sgt Smith was wounded, the same aircraft that attacked us also attacked the Battalion. It was at this place Doc Bapty and Harry Hawkes got wounded. During this move it was as much as we could cope with to keep up with the Battalion who were continually on the move although I got up to them almost every night but the last mad rush up to Martuba had me licked. I chased the Battalion for 2 days reaching them late one night, the CO asked me how much petrol I had got and when I told him 400 gallons, he said that was no bloody good, I never felt so disgusted in all my life, nevertheless I chased off before dawn and by 1000 hours managed to collect some and replenish the Battalion. The next day B Echelon moved into Derna immediately after it was captured, the area allotted to the was on the aerodrome amongst some of the biggest bombs I have seen, on the landing fields were almost 150 destroyed aircraft, a very good sight, in this position I was in front of the Battalion so had to take rations back to them, I met the CO on the way back and he wondered where the hell I had sprung from. Shortly after this I moved B Echelon up with the Battalion, it wasn’t a comfortable position by any means but I didn’t have so much travelling to do. Derna was a nice looking place from the escarpment but there was nothing in it.
We spent Christmas 1941, such as it was, at Martuba, I travelled to Tobruk on Christmas Eve in the pouring rain, 100 miles or so and got nothing for the troops except 20 Players cigarettes each. Shortly after this we moved to Barce, B Echelon leading, the road was washed away so we had to make a detour, it took us all one day to do the trip in the pouring rain, not at all pleasant. We occupied some barracks at Barce for a couple of days, but I found it better to sleep in my truck it was more comfortable. I did a very good deal with a farmer in Barce; I got some pig and piglets in exchange for some bully beef and biscuits. I arranged for them to be slaughtered overnight and carried them with us to Benina next day for issue to the troops; we reached there on New Years Eve 1941. We stayed at Benina nearly a month, I was very comfortable erecting my camp bed in a house opposite Battalion HQ together with Frank Day, Archie Edwards and Ali Bates, I had a vivid red eiderdown for my bed, of which I was very proud, water and electric light was on tap and we had a very safe air raid shelter underneath the scullery. My office was next door in the Meteorological office and my stores were next door to that in two civilian shops, on the whole very comfortable. For once we had a good officers mess in the local police station and we fed very well. Life here was fairly quiet except of course for air raids, but my shelter was very efficient and although bombs dropped very near, no damage was caused, however the anti tank platoon suffered casualties. I bought a watch in Benghazi for one of the boys, a unique watch too, it showed half time at football matches by twisting the dial, later on I damaged it and eventually threw it away in disgust. Letters from Kit came through here quite well and how I used to look forward to them, I was writing regularly too. I was told that I might get a job as escort to prisoners to South Africa, how I prepared and looked forward to this even going so far as to get some extra kit up from the dump and Sticky split it up, wanted and not wanted on voyage but as it turned out all to no avail.
About the 25th January 1942 we got our orders to prepare to move on Plan A or B, A forward B back, on the morning of the 26th, Plan A was put into operation and we moved forward to a place called Ghemins arriving there about 1600 hours. I had previously been told that petrol would be available at this place but on arrival found out that the dump was to be at Benghazi, consequently I had to send all the way back again to get a load. I did not go up to the Battalion because my petrol lorry had not returned. It was my intention to move B Echelon area on the following morning the 27th January 1942 but this order was not carried out. Early on the 27th the CO returned from leave, I couldn’t tell him where the Battalion was because I had not been told. My ration convoy was due to leave at 1045 hours but after getting all prepared the order was cancelled, I was in two minds whether to disobey the order and take a chance. At about 1400 hours a conference was held at Echelon HQ, which was interrupted by a ground strafe, the Cameron Highlanders lost their petrol lorry by fire, I dived for cover in doing so I damaged my watch. At the conference we were ordered to return to Benghazi in the neighbourhood of Benina aerodrome and to leave there at 1800 hours the same evening. Eventually we got on the move, my party was about in the middle of the convoy, and we halted as ordered at the aerodrome and started to prepare tea being under the impression that we were not leaving before 1800 hours.
On the previous day I had been joined by Sgt Ettridge with his anti tank gun, about 1630 hours I received a message from the Brigade Staff Officer ordering me to send the anti tank gun forward to the head of the column as German tanks were coming down the Benina road. We suddenly received orders to push on and moved down the Benina bypass, after going some way along the column turned off toward Benghazi and halted. I went along the bypass to find the reason for turning off and came across Sgt Ettridge with his gun and a platoon of the Welch Regiment He said that tanks were ahead and what should he do, I could only tell him to hang on until the convoy was through. Turning about I went along the column and came across a captain in the Indian Medical Service and asked him what the hold-up was, he said he was in the Medical Service and did not know what to do. I told him which way to go and also get a move on.
The column moved once again until we came across the Welch Regt HQ busy packing up and blocking the road, after a lot of swearing the road was cleared and we were able to get on. Once passed the Benina and Barce road junction I breathed a sigh of relief and pushed on steadily for Karmusa as I hoped. After travelling for another 5 kms I came across Mike Allden BMTO, he asked me to send forward any guns that I had got because the head of the column had come up against a road block, I therefore sent my two bren guns forward, a short distance on I came across the rest of the column halted on the road. On going forward I found out that the roadblock had been established at El Coefia, by this time darkness had fallen and it became difficult to find out what was holding us up.
Lieut.-Colonel Lavender then appeared and decided to attack but as his Battalion was not with him, my B Echelon were used but as they only had rifles it was unsuccessful, one private was killed and two others were wounded. A Carrier of the 4/16th Punjabs came along and that got knocked out, the 65th Anti Tank Regt brought up some 2 pounders, they suffered the same fate. The road by this time was rather crowded, then the Welch came along causing chaos, 2 companies went into attack but that was the last seen of them. At about 11 pm the road behind us was blown up, as were the dumps in Benghazi. I gave instructions for any papers of importance to be destroyed. During the night we received various orders from the head of the column telling us to prepare to move, I saw the wireless truck being destroyed and several officers leaving the column. At 5 am on the 28th January 1942 a message was passed down the column telling us to destroy our vehicles and to do as best we could, but we were not to set them on fire. I gave orders to do this and set off for the coast with Fred Hearn, Baker and Glue, by this time it was just getting daylight. Between the road and coast was a bog and a hell of lot of water and in working our way round this we got very dose to the road block and were fired upon by machine guns and a 2 pounder, this caused us to take cover quickly, the only place this could be done was in the water. We started off well and truly wet and what food, cigarettes and matches we had were in a sorry state. From this position we could see our leading troops of our column being taken prisoner, some of our lorries tried to dash by, some being successful owing to the Germans being otherwise occupied but only a few lighter ones managed it.
We eventually reached the coast rather the worse for wear, here we met up with several others who were drying themselves, I knew we were fairly safe from their armoured vehicles because of the terrain, but before halting to dry ourselves I decided to go along the coast a bit farther. Fred Hearn I left behind with some of his own troops and I continued with several of my men, I tried to get them to travel in small groups but they continually joined up. I eventually picked up with Padre Jones and later in the day Lt Green RE, during the afternoon I called a halt for a spell for two reasons, one to decide on my next course of action and the other to bypass the village of Driana under cover of darkness. I decided that the only possible way for me was to make for Tocra and then turn inland. The food Glue and I had was not much good after being soaked in salt water. Padre Jones had half a bottle of gin and a bar of chocolate and Jack Green had nothing, while we were resting Mick Allden and some of the Brigade staff came along. A corporal of the Welch Regt came along with a platoon, I advised him not to go on in daylight otherwise they would be caught at Driana, he did not take the advice and was caught. Just before dusk we started off again the going was dreadful and the night got very cold. We passed Driana without incident and continued on well into the night and eventually stopped for a sleep making holes in the sand in which to get a bit of shelter but it was too cold to sleep.
In the early hours of the 29th January 1942 we moved on again, it being my intention to reach the outskirts of Tocra that night but everything went wrong, the going was worse than the previous day in some places we were close to the road and had to move with extreme caution because of the enemy traffic on the road. In other places we had to wade into the sea and then into sand dunes, it rained and the wind was terribly strong. I was trying to keep to about 4 miles in the hour with the 10-minute halt but in this I was frustrated because Padre Jones could not keep up. During the afternoon the Padre said he could go no further, I hadn’t the heart to leave him behind so we had another long halt and a bite to eat. We were all very hungry and dying for a hot drink but we had to conserve what very little drinking water we had leave alone heat any up. Later on in the afternoon we pushed on for another 10 miles or so and I could see that all of us were nearly done for the day, having but very little to eat so once again we halted for the night. It was far too cold to sleep and in any case I couldn’t, I lay thinking of Kit and the boys and what would the Regiment think of me if I didn’t get back somehow or the other. So after a sleepless night we moved on again the ground was even more worse than the previous day, some places we had to scramble over rocks, in others knee deep in sand and in one place walk ¾ mile up to the waist in water. This was far too much for the Padre and Jack Green but I didn’t weaken this time and left them behind. Our own pace was much slower at this stage and must have looked a motley crowd; I had to make the halts much longer.
The night of the 30th January 1942 was much like the others sleepless for thinking and cold. By this time we were nearing Tocra which I knew we could not pass in daylight so decided that we would get as close as possible during the day, once again we moved off so as to get a good rest before nightfall. We reached an old building on the coast in which to hide during the day, it had some occupants when we arrived, one RAF and two RA. Our water had run out by this time so we dug a hole in the sand, but we only got salt water out of it however we warmed it up and put 0X0 in it, not what one calls good. We took advantage of washing our feet in the sea, which refreshed us considerably, but the weather was too cold to make it pleasant. All afternoon we rested, I prayed for a cloudy night as the fort at Tocra was quite close to the foreshore. At dusk we started out it was cloudy; I was excited thinking this would be one of the last obstacles but my hopes were dashed to the ground. The sky cleared and it was just like daylight. We came across a water hole at which we had a good drink and all filled our water bottles. We got within ½ mile of the fort when we could see it was useless so we just sank down behind some bushes and tried to sleep. On the morning of 1st February 1942 we pooled what food we had which was hardly nothing and then as expected we were rounded up like a lot of sheep. I was taken away from the troops and put under a guard and given a bottle of water some biscuits and bully. How terribly degraded I felt, what would happen to Kit, what would happen about money, how would she manage, what would the Regiment think, all kinds of things went through my head in fact I felt like crying and couldn’t eat what had been provided for me.
I was taken into Benghazi to the Headquarters and was interrogated; I must have looked an unholy sight with my beard and being unwashed, in any case they took me for an Indian and at first refused to believe I was English. While waiting to be interrogated an Italian officer spotted my leather jerkin under my greatcoat and told me to take it off, feeling very truculent I made out that I did not understand and then a young squirt held a tommy gun at my chest but at that I had to burst out laughing because the gun was loaded, I was soon put on my back by five of them and the jerkin removed. After this I was given a drink of brandy but although it burnt my throat and made me feel dizzy they didn’t get anything out of me. After this I was taken to a farm building and put under guard, who kindly gave me some cold “sbilly” which though cold was most acceptable. I that tried to sleep but was interrupted by a visit from the Italian Commanding Officer who cross-examined me but found it was useless. I again lay down but as usual sleep was a long way away as were my thoughts. Later I was taken outside and put on a lorry with a lot more prisoners who included my own men. Padre Jones and Jack Green and we were all taken to Benghazi POW camp. It was here I thought I was at my lowest but worse was to come, conditions were awful, no water, no food, no latrines or cooking arrangements. I was looking forward to a hot drink this being the 1st February 1942 I had not had a hot drink since the evening of the 27th with the exception of the 0X0 taken while on the coast. One of the first persons I met in the camp was Mick Allden; altogether there were 30 officers in one small room and about 1000 troops, including Indians, who were in other buildings. There were about 10 beds in the place but they were naturally all taken before my arrival. No blankets were issued while we were in the camp and on the first day no food either. Never shall I forget that first night lying on a cement floor with just my greatcoat over me, it rained and the wind blew the whole night through, sleep would not come although I was tired out. I thought of all kinds of things, how long would it be before Kit knew that I was safe, what would happen to my pay, my future career and so on through the long night. On Monday the 2nd February 1942 I was up and about early trying to keep warm and looking forward to a hot drink but it was not forthcoming, we were all issued with a tin of Italian bully and a biscuit for the days ration, in our room we made a wood fire although there was no fireplace and made ourselves a stew such as it was and so passed the second day. I can still visualize that evening, the room full of smoke and some 33 officers sitting around the fire all silent and one could see them thinking of home, that night I spent alternatively lying down and getting up to have a warm by the fire. I certainly did get a bit of sleep that night but still I was restless. The following day Tuesday the 3rd February was much like the previous, rations were the same, it was cold and raining. I visited the troops and they were like me, downhearted cold and hungry.
Midway through the next day the 4th February 1942 we were moved and only given two Italian biscuits for the days ration, we were then herded into lorries, 36 to a lorry and moved to Ghemins where we stopped for the night in an old fort, but out in the open. I tried to sleep in the lorry but couldn’t owing to the cold and there being very little room so I got out of the lorry and walked about until I met Mick Allden who had scrounged 3 blankets so we lay down together under a lorry from which we got a bit of shelter. At dawn on the 5th February 1942 we moved on again this time to El Agalia, a distance of 200 kms, we reached there late in the afternoon stopping only once on the way to fill our water bottles. I am afraid I was very quiet and hardly said a word the whole journey. Here the officers were separated from the troops and were searched everything of value and our knives were taken away from us, after the search we were given a very small roll of bread as our days ration. The officers were then herded into a small room for the night there wasn’t sufficient room to stand leave alone lay down, the troops were put into a compound and could dig holes in the sand, never shall I forget that night. The following morning, the 6th February 1942 I went into the troops compound and Sgt Smith gave me 20 cigarettes for which I was most thankful, in the early hours we were issued with a roll and a small tin of bully, Italian bully is not like ours its about a third of the size and looks like very bad brawn. I saw a soldier here barter a Rolls razor complete for a bread roll. I also saw a disgusting exhibition by “so called” officers who joined the troops queue for an extra issue of rations and thereby making the troops short, I had much pleasure in letting off steam for once. By 9 am we were on the move again travelling all day until 10 pm to a place called Baurat, how I ever managed to complete that journey I do not know, standing up in a lorry for the whole day with nothing to drink and just the one roll, I was able to keep the wind off because Mick Allden had given me one of the blankets. That night we slept in a wooden hut, it wasn’t particularly warm and I was far too tired and hungry to notice anything I simply lay down and pulled my greatcoat and blanket over me and went to sleep.
The following morning before it was light we were called and counted and marched to a cookhouse and given a hot cup of coffee, what a blessing although it had no milk or sugar I never appreciated a drink more, I had been without a hot drink since the 27th January and this was the 7th February 1942. We were given our usual ration and by 9 am were on the road this being the last day of the journey we arrived at Tarahuna Camp at about 4pm that afternoon. (Tarahuna is about 30 miles from Tripoli). The only incident on the last day’s trip was that our lorry nearly overturned and we were all thrown out. One can imagine that I was not feeling too grand; my memories of the trip are vague but can one wonder at it when one is low in morale, and smokeless and hungry my head was aching with migraine. However we had reached a staging camp and conditions might improve. On arrival we were not allowed to get out of our lorries for some time owing to the non arrival of an officer so had time to view the surroundings, barbed wire everywhere, one building on its own which appeared to be the Officers compound and in it I saw Charles Woodbridge, how the devil he had got there I do not know. I also saw an orderly disappearing into the compound with a lot of cigarettes, thank goodness I thought, but later on I was terribly disappointed. We eventually received the order to get out to be checked and counted, whilst this was in progress an Italian went up to Mick Allden, who was wearing a mackintosh, and tore his coat apart to see if he had any ‘pips’ up, at this Mick said “Take your hands off me you bugger” at this the Commandant who was standing about 10 yards away took offence and with a very loud scream just rushed at Mick swinging his arm with the intention of hitting Mick, he missed and pushed Mick up against an Italian who in turn gave Mick another push and so he disappeared into the cooler for 7 days solitary confinement After the incident all the officers were marched to a building, not the officers compound and locked up for the night. When we asked for food, we were told that we had had rations for the day, blankets we would get them tomorrow, cigarettes we had to be in rations for a week before we were entitled to any – that was a WEEK to go. The room in which we were put was just sufficient for us all to lay down hard up against one another, the floor was tiled so the least said the better. In the same building I met RSM Newton and some of his platoon. During the night the bloke sleeping next to me urinated himself which also included me, he had the sauce to say his cork had come out of his water bottle, I told him that his flies was a funny place to keep his water bottle.
Sunday the 8th February 1942 dawned, I looked forward to breakfast not knowing then that Italians do not eat breakfast but we were called out for coffee such as it was, it was served from a copper, we had to wait while about a thousand troops were served and of course by that time it was stone cold. Then followed a very strict search at which they took all my money and also all our blankets, we were then ordered to complete a Red Cross form with all our particulars etc, and to complete a blue post card which I sent off to Kit. After being issued with 3 blankets, a mess tin and a spoon, we were moved into the officer’s compound. Here we were unlucky for beds, as there were already about 70 officers in a very small area however I was used to hard lying by this time. Reaction now set in, I had nothing to do, very little to eat, no smokes and lots to think about, after my very busy time this was all very strange to me. I was at very low ebb and couldn’t find anything to do, I just lay on my blankets and thought and what didn’t I think about. A few days of this I realised that I must pull myself together or I am certain that I should go out of my mind, gradually I pulled myself round, I attended church regularly, watched all games of bridge and attended all the impromptu lectures that were arranged. It was hard to keep oneself clean, the water was always being turned off and the lavatories did not work. The lack of smokes hit me the hardest, the issue was 35 a week but of course we only got 30 but I rationed myself successfully saving all my fag ends for my pipe, I am pleased with myself that I have refrained from walking round picking up other peoples stub ends as a lot did.
Food was scarce, we each received 2 rolls a day, every morning at 9 am, we had a cup of coffee at 12 noon ½ a dixie of macaroni and water and another ½ dixie at 5 pm, once a week we had a very small portion of meat, Camel, I think, mixed in pasta, sometimes in lieu of pasta we received rice. At times we could supplement this, advances of cash were made to us and a Padre was permitted to proceed to the local village and purchase what he could but he was only ever able get dates at an exorbitant price, they were worth it, I eked out more with my bread but hunger pangs were for ever there. About 14 days after my arrival a lot of officers were moved out and I promptly claimed a bed and some more blankets, that night I had a real good rest, the beds were of a canvas pattern I had 3 blankets under me and 4 over me and did I sleep. And so this type of life started to roll by, I have been used to dealing with men all my life but now I was mixed up in a different class altogether, the usual spirit that is common among the troops was entirely lacking among these officers, it was self first all along the line, very senior officers took advantage of their rank to obtain extra food. However life had its amusing incidents, I remember two, the first when a party of us went for our first bath, we were lined up and marched off, we undressed in a room separate to the bathroom and issued with a towel about the size of a pocket handkerchief and a piece of soap the size of a caramel, we then entered the bathroom which was of the shower type each standing under a shower in our nakedness, we were then kept waiting some time whilst a doctor inspected us for flea marks, he found some on a colonel and a major, of course giggles from the subalterns and then came the funny part, the water was suddenly turned on for not more than 1 ½ minutes, at the start it was freezing cold and by the time we got a lather going the water was turned off so one was left standing half lathered up, never did the water get any warmer than tepid. The second amusing incident was the fitting of clothes, for this we were conducted by an American speaking Italian with a proper Yankee twang; he also performed the duties of interpreter for us. The chap in front of me wanted a pair of braces, the Italian could not understand so it was explained they were for keeping his trousers up, “Oh” said the Italian “You mean suspenders why don’t you talk English”. I purchased 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants which I never had the nerve to wear, they were made of calico and came down below the knee where they were tied with tape, they were shaped just like a pair of riding breeches. I also got 2 shirts, green in colour these I had to wear because I had nothing else but I used to feel very conspicuous in them and dumped them at the first opportunity. For these I was charged a most exorbitant price, after the transaction I found I was broke.
On the evening of the 23rd February 1942 we were suddenly raked out of bed at 11 pm and told that we were moving, the prospects were not at all good, not that we had anything to pack. Mick and I were now mucking in together, we decided to visit the kitchen on the scrounge for food; all that we could find was dry macaroni, so with that we filled all available pockets. About 1 pm we were put into lorries and after a wait of a couple of hours, moved off. We arrived at daybreak feeling very cold in Tripoli docks. I was very relieved as the lorry was overloaded and we had a reckless driver, he nearly tipped us out when driving through the town. We were then taken aboard a cargo boat, unfortunately we were the second party to board and in consequence the positions obtained by Mick and I was far from good. No 1 hold was allotted to officers and we were on the third deck down, lying on steel plates is not at all comfortable to say the least and for a quick getaway if necessary, it was hopeless. It was the evening of the 24th February 1942 before we moved, so we were able to do bit of exploring, the boat had 4 holds, 2, 3 and 4 were allocated to the troops, 400 to a hold. Conditions were terrible before we started and I dread to think of what they would be like before the end of the trip. I met some of our lads on the boat and heard that others were put on another that was to accompany us. In the harbour we could see the results of our bombing there being several damaged and sunken ships, outside the harbour we could see a hospital ship that had been sunk.
Late in the afternoon of the 24th February 1942 we put out of the harbour, we saw a convoy arrive which showed their respect for the Royal Navy because it consisted of 4 cargo boats with an escort of 13 naval craft, 3 of these craft formed the escort for us, our convoy being 2 ships carrying POWs and the escort. Like proper POWs our morale went up because we all thought that we would be rescued by the Royal Navy, we had a laugh to ourselves because immediately we left harbour all sailors and soldiers escorting us unlaced their boots, removed putties, undid jackets and donned lifebelts, we had no such comforting equipment. As soon as we were out of port we were all ordered below and hatches put on, this was not at all good. There was just one little electric light so that we could just see, I laid down next to Mick on a cold steel plate and tried to get some rest, but who could, my thoughts were about the hopeless position I was in if anything did happen. I got a position quite close to the steel ladder leading up to the next deck and knew that I had to move quickly if it did happen. Then of course I got hungry during the day we had been issued with 2 biscuits and a tin of Italian bully, of this I saved half for my breakfast, but gave way to temptation and ate it knowing full well that if I didn’t I should lay awake thinking of it. I eventually dropped off to sleep only to wake up at a resounding crash, what a rush for the ladder, I managed somehow or other to maintain my self control and didn’t join in the crush because I had heard the noise before, the anchor was being dropped but for what reason I did not know, of course this episode drove all sleep away, there was just no hopes of it for me. The next morning the 25th February 1942 the officers were allowed on deck for a time and saw our escort had diminished by one and the other POW boat was missing. The troops were in a terrible condition and it wasn’t until after a very strong protest that they were allowed up for air, a hold at a time. During the morning we got a hot cup of coffee and the same ration as the previous day. All day long we were creeping along the North African coast and nothing untoward happened, but conditions were gradually getting worse, there was no drinking or washing water and only one latrine for the 1300 on board. On the 26th February 1942 we were allowed up on deck again, the troops were in a terrible condition, dysentery had broken out and the men could not get up on deck to relieve themselves, on protest from us the troops were again allowed on deck whilst the holds were cleaned out. Rations were the same as for the previous day, the sea air made us feel hungrier. During the day we passed Lampadusa and Pantalera, off Pantalera we had a scare, we missed a mine by about twenty yards, I was leaning over the side at the time and saw it. Some aircraft appeared and action stations were taken up but it turned out a false alarm, it was their own planes on patrol.
During the evening we arrived at Palermo on Sicily and put into the harbour, the entrance being closed immediately we entered. There was one regrettable incident that I noticed whilst on the trip, we had been kept short of food during the trip and had very small rations at Tarahuna, but nevertheless midway across, a Lt Col and a Major and two friends who were employed in the cookhouse at Tarahuna suddenly produced some cheese, bread and dates and commenced a sumptuous meal, obviously from rations that should have been issued to us. This caused a lot of discontent, after they had finished some dates were left over and the Colonel ordered the friend to throw them overboard but we stopped him, saying that we would throw him over if he did, Mick got them and washed them, then had two good meals off them.
We stayed at Palermo until the evening of the 27th February 1942, we were allowed up on deck until we set sail, but we were getting hungrier and disappointed at not being rescued. The boat steamed ahead all night on the 27th as fast as it could go, British submarines being in the vicinity, arriving at Naples early morning of the 28th February 1942 getting our first view of Vesuvius and the Isle of Capri. In peacetime it must have been a beautiful sight and could have been appreciated but from a POW vessel unwashed, unshaven and extraordinarily hungry it was the last place we wanted to see. The saying see Naples and die, I saw Naples and nearly died of hunger. As soon as the boat docked the officers disembarked, we asked for food but were told that as soon as we had bathed and had been fumigated it would be supplied. So with lighter hearts we marched off, it all turned out very funny, on arrival at the fumigation centre we were all given a small bag and told to strip and put all clothes in the bag, including all the kit we were carrying, we were also told not to put any leather wear in. Our bags went one way and we went the other into a gloriously hot shower bath, it really was wonderful, in addition I managed a good shave, men wrapped in a towel proceeded into a another room where we waited in our nakedness for our bags to come out of the fumigator. What a shock we got when it did arrive, our khaki was nothing but creases especially my greatcoat, and they never came out for months. I then felt in my pockets and to my dismay my pipe was still in it, the stem in the extreme heat had turned into a letter ‘C’. I had also forgotten the leather work on my braces as everyone else had and the tabs just broke, that was all my damage, but some of the others, a Padre forgot his leather gloves they came out in miniature, wouldn’t fit a doll, another fellow put his breeches in with leather grips of course the grips shrunk to about one inch, he had to frantically cut them off whilst everyone was saying hurry up we are hungry don’t keep us waiting.
We all rushed out when ordered to fall in, formed up under our own steam all because we had visions of food, away we marched, straight on to a train, what about food? Yes, you shall get some immediately everyone has been fumigated, 1200 troops to go through, it had taken us 100 officers moving very quickly exactly one hour. It was now 9 am and true enough we were made to sit in a carriage until 7 pm before we got a bite to eat and then all we got was two very small rolls, I just couldn’t resist temptation and ate mine on the spot. I had been sat in a third class carriage all day but just before we moved that evening some of us were lucky enough to be put into a first class carriage, I obtained a corner seat, as soon as the train moved off I fell asleep, arriving next morning at Capua station. We marched through the town to the camp, visions of food, but before getting any we were subjected to a search lasting about 2 hours and then when we did get it, it was coffee and soup only.
For the first 2 days at Capua I lived in a wooden hut, with a bed made of 3 wooden boards and 2 trestles, but no mattress, after that we were moved into a place called the Infirmary which was slightly more comfortable, I had a little shelf on which to keep my belongings, such as they were, 3 jolly good blankets and a mattress, and lavatories and wash house were inside the building. We had our food in a tent, which would only hold a 100 and as there was 300 in camp we had to do our feeding in 3 sittings not that we got much, every morning at 8 am we got a cup of tea, the tea coming from Red Cross parcels to which we were looking forward to receiving, at midday we received a plate of rice or macaroni and our bread ration, sometimes a bit of jam or an orange at about 4 pm, we got another plate of soup and once a week a bit of cheese then just before dark another cup of tea providing the fuel issued to the cookhouse had lasted the day out After being at Capua for 4 days we received our first and last Red Cross parcel in the camp, the scale was one between three but nevertheless it was grand, I made my portion last a week the biscuits, salmon, cheese, sardines, bully, butter, jam and prunes, it was simply wonderful to be able to eat a bit of bread with butter was, well I just cannot express how I felt. With the parcel were 50 cigarettes or should have been but we never got them, I was however given an English cigarette, I must have been weak or something because it just knocked me dizzy. By this time I had been able to send a message to Kit over the Vatican Radio and also send a letter and a postcard home. I was also getting more settled and finding out things, I got myself a new suit, some pyjamas, socks and handkerchiefs from the Red Cross store, in addition some soap and toothpaste. I tried to set an example and kept myself clean and well shaved although in order to save blades I grew a moustache, which was not a success.
The thing that worried me most was money, I found out that I was paid at the rate of £13-3-11 a month out of this I had to pay for my food which was 12 Lira, the rate of exchange being 72 to the £, on working this out I found out that Kit couldn’t possibly draw the same amount of money she had previously done, this worried me beyond words but there was nothing that I could do about it except be very judicious with everything. We stayed at Capua until 23rd March 1942 before being moved to a permanent camp, Capua was only a transit camp. During this time I was trying to think out a programme of work for myself in order to keep my mind occupied when I got to a permanent camp, soon the problem was solved for me, I was elected to the Mess Committee, who gave me the job of supervising the of cooking of rations and kitchen staff. Before taking over I took every opportunity of studying my co-POWS, the more I studied them the less I understood them. Of course on the whole they were much younger than I was but I do not think youth could account for everything, I know that we were hungry- Bloody Hungry – at all times and the food was not even a quarter enough but instead of occupying their minds and trying to forget about the next meal, they would just lay on their beds and think about it and what’s more they would talk about it and spread the melancholy feeling. It was quite uncomfortable to sit at the meal table, everything was drawn for, so that nobody should have more than another, if 7 oranges were on the table naturally they were not all the same size and so 7 bits of paper were made out and numbered then each one would draw for first choice and so on. the same used to occur with the bread ration. When the mess waiters brought a plate of soup in immediately all heads would turn to look at it in order to ascertain of the plate whether or not it held more than it should have done. I also knew morale was very low, none could have been lower than mine but some never washed or shaved and just lay in bed with the exception of meal times. We were given an advance of cash with which to buy items from the canteen but they were always very few and the price exorbitant, after 2 or 3 days I stopped buying anything except my weekly cigarettes of which in Italy there was no free issue but we were allowed to buy 35 each week. Before leaving Capua I went into the cookhouse and had a chance of learning the working of Italian administration so as to be ready for the new camp.
A civilian contractor ran the messing arrangements for the officers and he was responsible for supplying all our food. Some of this he had to purchase from the Italian Government, the value of which was about 3 Lira, the balance of the daily 12 Lira was spent as he thought fit and we had no say in the matter at all, once a week he was supposed to supply meat or one egg per officer for one meal and for another fish or cheese together with vegetables and fruit daily and jam once a week. The main item issued of was course macaroni or rice, which was flavoured with tomato puree. The cooks were our own POWs, mainly South Africans who knew but little about it and again thought only of themselves. I was able to reorganise things when I went in, the first thing I did was to sack the cook NCO and thereby improved the messing immediately, I then cut down on the waste vigorously and with the cooks it was unpopular until they got to know me. I dread to think what people outside a POW camp would think of some of the dishes I made up. One extraordinary dish was cauliflower stalk rissoles, the issue of meat came up and was not sufficient for 50 let alone 300,I was at a loss what to do, some cauliflowers were also bought, to make up the weight. I had the stalks and the leaves cut off, and boiled. The meat was also boiled and then minced as was the cauliflower stalk, some rice and macaroni I held back from a previous meal was added and made up into 300 rissoles and they had tomato soup, rissoles, cauliflower and an orange each. Another day I got a whole lot of chestnuts had them boiled and peeled put through the mincing machine, all kinds of things added, so more rissoles on the menu.
By this time I left Capua I was quite ready for our new camp of which we had heard all kinds of glorious things. On the morning of the 23rd March 1942 we moved, I looked quite smart in my new suit, my greatcoat was rather creased still, my baggage consisted of my small haversack with my cleaning and washing kit and a cardboard box, which I scrounged from the cookhouse, was my attaché case for my pyjamas etc. For rations I had an apple, orange, slice of cheese, hard-boiled egg and a bread roll, I felt as if I was off on a Sunday school treat. It was a glorious feeling to be outside the wire again on the way to the station which was managed without incident We were very comfortable in the train, we passed through Naples, had a close up view of Vesuvius, the Isle of Capri and Pompeii and so up into the mountains to a place called Padula. Our camp here was a brand new one, No35 and I was among the first arrivals, it was a very old building, rooms on the ground floor and a huge dormitory on the top, it was built in a hollow square. We soon made it comfortable, spring beds, sheets, 2 pillows, 2 mattresses, 1 chair each, 1 table and cupboard between two and 3 very thick blankets, but oh so very cold. Previously the building had been a monastery but now electric light and water had been laid on, neither very strong, the supply of water was very bad as was the latrine accommodation. The cooking facilities were very bad, but I could see a way of improving them but as the only food we could get was macaroni and onions there was no need for immediate improvement Later on the food improved when a contractor arrived but for about 3 or 4 weeks we nearly starved. The dining room held 250 and was an old Chapel by the monastery, very old but must have been beautiful in its day. There were 500 officers in camp and as time went on everything improved especially when Red Cross parcels arrived.
So, with almost 23 years service as a regular soldier I found myself well and truly in captivity, not a good position to be in and in consequence I was very low in morale, my thoughts were continually with the Regiment, what would they think of me, was I in any way to blame, could I have done or rather ought to have done anything more to avoid being in this position, my thoughts would then rocket to Kit, how would she be able to manage. The nights were terribly long and sleepless due to two reasons firstly I found out that hunger keeps the mind alert and being alert caused the second reason, which was this continual thinking. I was reasonably comfortable as regards accommodation, a good bed and bedding, although the building was very large, cold and damp, after all one could not expect a palace. I soon settled down to my corner cot and under the circumstances could not grumble, although I have been more comfortable as a single soldier in barracks. I missed my married bliss more than I care to say though there is nothing to beat home life. It will do Derek and Rodney good to always remember this. I have always appreciated my home comforts, I probably have not shown it as much as I ought to have done but if I am lucky enough to get out of this with my life and to once more to have a home of my own, Kit will never have cause to complain of lack of appreciation. This single bliss was hitting me hard.
I had a very good pal in Mick who remained with me throughout the Italian days, I also had Glue, my batman, and Baker, my driver, with me in camp, in addition to others of the Regiment, the only other officer being Charles Woodbridge. I got to know quite a number of people but nobody that I had known very well before capture. There were several officers of our Brigade who were captured at the same time as me. Other than Mick the only ones that I really interested in were Arthur Woods, a regular QM of the RA, whose wife was down in Durban under the same conditions as Kit, Ernie Cox of the Sappers, whose father had been RSM of the Buffs. The monastery in which we were in was very old, with great thick walls, which were very damp, high ceilings, which also were very damp. It was built in a hollow square, senior officers were allotted the ground floor, which consisted of rooms, and each set of 3 rooms having its own toilet and convenience and held about 12 to 14 officers. In addition they had a small garden to each set, altogether there were 23 or 24 sets of rooms, originally each set of rooms was occupied by a monk. The officer occupants of these rooms were known as Wing I, I had the opportunity of moving into one of these rooms due to my age and being a Quartermaster, but as Mick could not go with me I decided against it The majority of the junior officers were housed on the upper floor which consisted of a huge corridor running around 4 sides of a large square, about a 100 officers being allotted to each side of the square and were known as Wings 2, 3, 4 and 5. There were only 2 stairways to this upper floor; one a very rough arrangement and the other a fine piece of work. Electric lighting had been installed but the load on the local power station was so increased it was very poor indeed, in fact of a night time one could only read when immediately below, the eyesight of several must have been ruined through this. All the windows of the upper floor were on the inside of the quadrangle so that we could see was what went an in the square below, outside of the windows was a balcony about a yard wide on which we used to sit and in the summer and in the evening to watch the most glorious sunset, if Italy has nothing else to see these sunsets were worth watching. The conveniences on this upper floor were bad, for the 400 hundred officers accommodated on this floor there was not more than 10 sit down toilets and 30 wash basins, this number was eventually increased but never a sufficient number to be adequate.
The view that I had from the French window by my bed was not very inspiring, in the quad was a path around the outside with a series of paths that led to a fountain, that did not work, in the centre, the paths were laid out like a Union Jack. Looking to the left I could see 2 wooden huts, which were increased to 4 at a later date. Three of the huts were used for housing the orderlies and the other was used as a recreational hut, jammed in between these huts was a small squared off portion which was apparently the burial ground for the monks. To the right at the far end of the quad was another wooden hut, which was used as a library and canteen, when there was anything to sell. Looking straight ahead all that I could see Wing 5 but over the roof one could see some high mountains in the far distance, I could just see the peaks of these and usually they were snow covered The view from Wing 5, the opposite Wing to ours, was of the village of Padula on the hills behind us, this was very picturesque.
Outside of the building to the west was a place called the paddock on which we used to play football and take our daily exercise, it was surrounded by a huge wall with barbed wire mounted on top, and inside the wall was a double apron, which was lit up by electric, light every few yards and sentries as numerous as the lights. Around the football pitch was a track, oval in shape like a running track, which had been made by the prisoners endlessly walking around in circles. The only other places I have not mentioned are the hospital or infirmary in which for a long time there were no medical stores whatsoever and until the time that we came away no serious illness could have been treated. Next the showers, the only type of bath in camp, one could obtain a hot shower once a week and then the water was alternately hot and cold, running for 4 minutes cold and 2 minutes hot, 21 officers could bathe at a time. There was no actual mess but we did have a dining room. in which 250 could sit down at a time, 12 to a table.
Cutlery and china was supplied, excluding cups and saucers, all the time I was in Italy I had to drink out of a Canadian butter tin with a handle I managed to fit, in consequence I never really enjoyed my ‘brews’. We started off with a full set of crockery, breakages will always occur and they did more than necessary, we found out to our dismay that it could not be replaced, when we left the place we were eating off aluminium affairs which were shaped like a pie dish. The room in which we dined had been fine 100 years ago but now was not so good, it was an old chapel and was quite lofty. The windows were very high up but had no glass and in order to keep the birds out wire netting was put up, this served as a good roost for the numerous sparrows that used the place.
Across one end of the hall was a huge picture depicting the Last Supper, but of course was now very dilapidated, it used to show up more plainly during the damp weather. On one side of the hall was a very fine pulpit made of polished marble that was resting on an eagle carved out of stone, a very fine specimen indeed. Around the walls to a height of 10 feet was a lot of panelling which would have looked very nice in its day but now was home for the biggest rats I have ever seen. The floor was of a very fine mosaic was for our stay covered with wood so we never had the opportunity of seeing it, this hall was used to hold our entertainment, a stage being erected from the dining tables.
The camp at the beginning was commanded by Colonel L of our Brigade but he went off to the Senior Officers Camp 4, Colonel F, New Zealander took over for a short while until the arrival of Brigadier V, but he could not get on with the Italian Commandant and was continually being confined to his room until he was moved and then Brigadier M took over and remained Senior British Officer (SBO) whilst we were in Italy. The Adjutant was a New Zealander by the name of Charles Hutchinson, a small man with a ginger moustache, a very big one at that, a right good Adjutant he was too, everyone looked up to him. The Camp Quartermaster was one Arthur Woods with whom I was very friendly. The usual day was 8am, cup of coffee, between 8 and 9 am a check parade at which we were counted, another between 11 and 12 am, lunch first sitting 12.15 pm, second sitting 12.45 pm, check parade between 1 and 2 pm, cup of coffee or tea at 4 pm, evening meal at 6 pm and 6.30 pm, another roll call during the course of the evening and we had to be inside the building by 9.30 pm. During the first month the camp being a new one began to get organised, many educational classes on all kinds of subjects were formed, programmes of lectures of all kinds and entertainment were arranged.
During this time also we were made up to the strength of 500 officers and 140 other ranks. The officers coming from Sulmona, Bezzanello, Bari and have course our party had come from Capua. The other ranks were used to do the various jobs of the camp, cooks, mess waiters (l to 48 officers) and batmen (l to 10 officers). The officers were Naval, Military, RAF, Fleet Air Arm and Merchant Service, some could be called officers in the true sense of the word but others no. I realise that it was a very trying time for all, war news looked very black, morale was very low indeed, but quite a few forgot that cleanliness is next to godliness and went unwashed, unshaven generally looked most filthy, a bad example to officers against whom we were fighting. I felt very miserable and low in spirits and seldom said a word to anyone but Sticky and Mick, but I did clean myself up to the best of my ability and changed what washing I had at least once a week The other ranks did our washing for us but how they managed under the conditions I do not know. On the other hand I could see why these officers were getting into a state, the weather was terrible, we were 2000 feet up in the mountains which didn’t improve matters, it rained like hell, news was so very bad, no news from home and above all the great shortage of food, all conversations were on the subject of food, which of course made them more hungry. In addition we were all going through that very bad period, the first 3 months.
I very soon realised that I had got to do something to occupy my mind or I should go round the bend. I had a job of work to do which kept me busy during the day but the evening hours lagged, I couldn’t read owing to the lights, my thoughts were for ever with Kit. And so I studied accounts in my spare time, languages I could not cope with being of the opinion that if anyone wanted to speak to me they could do so in my own language. I also took over the duties of Wing QM to give me something additional to do. I learned to play bridge and other card games and so passed many an evening but this was in the very early days when one didn’t know how long the war was going to last, there were all kinds of forecasts and bets laid, on the whole it looked never ending, if there had been a date to look forward to it would have been so much better and so I and an agreement with myself to live from birthday to birthday commencing with mine for 1942 and then on to Kit’s and so on. I also found this craving for food was disconcerting, although I was dealing with the food of the camp. Unless one has been through the pangs of hunger one does not realise how disconcerting they can be, your mind just cannot rest, it is not the same hunger as one feels after a hard days work, then one knows that the feeling can be satisfied, but when you have just had a so called meal and still feel hungry knowing that after the next meal the feeling will be the same, then one begins to think and it is the thinking of it is so disastrous, but one just cannot but help think about it and the mind wanders back over those tasty meals that are enjoyed so much, how many times I thought of the meals that Kit used to give me, I used to miss them before capture but now it was a 100 times worse. No wonder that some of the younger ones who wanted more food than I began to lose their self-respect. It worried me to see myself falling away but nothing could be done about it so I had to grin and bear it.
My job as assistant Catering Officer was to draw the rations for the officers and to supervise the cooks and their work. The facilities for cooking were not at all good because we only had boilers, if they had been better at the time we first went to the camp they would have been of no use because there was nothing to cook. As the camp was new there was no arrangements made for a contractor to supply food until after our arrival, in consequence our first two or three weeks were very thin indeed, there were of course no Red Cross parcels arranged for us. Every morning I went to the QM stores which was outside of the quadrangle with a fatigue party of other ranks to see the food weighed and carried in. The only bit of trouble that I had in the early days was with the bread; this was made up into small cakes about the size of a doughnut, each cake was an officer’s ration. The Italian QM wanted to give me them by weight, but after my Capua experience I was wide awake to that one, it simply meant that on some days I got one for each officer but on other days the bread would weigh more and I should not have enough to go round. After a lot of arguing I used to count the correct number out each day and chance the weight. The only other items that I had to draw at this time was salt, sugar, cheese on 5 days a week and meat on the other two days, tomato flavouring, rice or macaroni on alternate days, coffee and a very few split peas and vegetable, this consisted of something not unlike cabbage but when cooked was tough and looked like grass, the last item was fuel wood with which to cook, this of course never lasted the day out. That is all I had to deal with during the first 2 or 3 weeks in consequence the meals consisted of early morning coffee, lunch was soup from the split peas, cheese and bread ration, coffee again at 4pm, evening meal consisted of macaroni and cabbage and that was that. When meat was issued all we could do was to chop it up and make a stew. Mark you this was costing each officer 12 lira a day, somewhere about 3/6d per day, no wonder that there was a lot of discontent.
The arrival of the contractor improved things a bit, he was responsible for supplying goods other than that supplied by the QM, who now stopped issuing cabbage, therefore the value of the food supplied by the QM was somewhere in the region of 2 lira per officer, the contractor could spend the remaining 10. At first the contractor supplied an orange and an apple a head plus a better type of cabbage, and wouldn’t put himself out to do anymore and so after a long argument with the Commandant, the contractor was sacked and a new one substituted. This one proved to be a contractor to beat all contractors, a proper rogue and fully alive to the famous black market of which he didn’t mind taking advantage of if we were willing to play. Then ensued a period of 3 or 4 months when we lived, at tops under POW circumstances, until the Commandant got the sack and things were tightened up again. In the vegetable line we did very well except for potatoes which were like gold, but as each type of vegetable came in season so we got it and any amount, however the contractor did it I do not know, fruit and nuts were also supplied in large quantities. Then the black market came into play, seldom a day passed without he didn’t supply meat, then potatoes arrived and ham, extra cream, cheese and butter. It was my job to get this all into camp without being seen; by various schemes I managed it.
With all this food at my disposal cooking was made much easier, I was able to produce some real good feeds. At one period I had two barrels of condensed milk and was getting in a weekly supply of eggs, which were not always sufficient for one per officer, and so I used to serve stewed apples and pears with egg custard, my sweet rice dishes with condensed milk were delicious. With the addition of meat and plenty of vegetables of all kinds I could serve 2 good meals a day consisting of soup, entree and sweet. Chianti and Marsala were also obtainable and served with the evening meal. By this time Red Cross parcels had arrived and everybody was happy, tea was taken from the parcels once a fortnight and put into the cookhouse, so instead of the coffee we served tea, everybody was happy and spirits went up. One sunny morning this all came to an end, trouble arose over the black market, somebody had been left out. The black market had been supplying the canteen as well as the messing. One of the items being ice cream which was supplied by one of the Italian officers friends from the local village, another ice cream merchant in the village hearing of this tendered his wares for sale but was refused by the Italian officer, in consequence this second merchant wrote away to the Italian War Office who in turn sent an General to investigate. The balloon went up good and proper, I had to hide everything that could be labelled as coming from the black market, what a job; at the time, I had besides other things, 17 hams, valued at about 17,000 lira, hanging up in the kitchen. Some were dumped into the already cooking meal, in the soup and cabbage, and disposed of in various places, crates of jam were buried, chocolate and cakes in the canteen were quickly issued out and eaten as soon as possible, making certain that the coloured wrappings were all burnt. All officers had to join in with this eating; some of the chocolate was as much as 15 shillings a bar but it had to be tucked away. The General and his party found nothing except a very satisfied looking lot of officers, some looking very sick. The outcome of it all was that the Commandant and some officers were sacked, it was rumoured that the Commandant was punished heavily but it was never known for certain. And so ended a glorious 3 or 4 months, things went back to normal again, although we were getting more than we were getting at the beginning, gone were the days of extra meat, eggs etc., and we got down to hard facts again. With these vegetarian meals and macaroni or rice one felt absolutely blown out for about half an hour but then it all turned to wind and water and after a good belch or a visit to the lavatory one was just as hungry again.
The happy feeling that had been in camp also began to go and so the old days were back again, until just before the camp came to an end we could get no fruit or nuts and the only vegetables available were onions and pumpkins, two more wind and water making vegetables I have yet to eat. As time went on and everybody including the civilians were feeling the pinch the QM tried to come the ‘Old Soldier’ with me by cutting the ration by unfair means, one method he adopted was to adjust the scales but I countered this by stepping on the scales each morning, I knew my correct weight because the QM used to weigh me periodically, so by this means he was frustrated. The next method was to weigh everything in sacks or containers and try and gain a bit that way but it didn’t work either. Finally his last method was to try and tamper with the scales after I had tested them by taking me out of the way and getting one of his soldiers to fix it up, but my fatigue party noted what was being done so I insisted on being weighed again. I complained to the Commandant after that things improved, they improved to such an extent that at Easter 1943 he gave me a bunch of grapes and an egg.
In my humble opinion a POW has many things to be thankful for and of these things the two most important, firstly getting away with his life and secondly the British Red Cross Society, he has got away with his life but without the great assistance of the Red Cross the life he has been so lucky in ‘getting’ away with would not be worth living. He is at times solely dependant upon that wonderful organisation for his existence, even down to food. True the detaining power is responsible for feeding a prisoner but in actual fact the food is only just sufficient to keep one alive, were it not for the supply of food parcels I am certain that there would have been more cases of malnutrition. It is in the standing camps of course that most assistance can be given, in actual fact they come into operation much before that eight or nine days after I was captured I completed forms as to my identity so that the Red Cross could be informed, a few days later I was able to write a letter and postcard for despatch by the Red Cross. On arrival at a transit camp in Italy, through the auspices of the Red Cross I was able to send a wireless message to Kit telling her of my whereabouts. I believe that this was the first notification that Kit had that I was a prisoner, (hen of course came the issue of the first Red Cross food parcel together with the cigarettes, although it was only one parcel between three it was a godsend and never can I show enough thanks for it.
The state of a POW on first capture is horrible, he probably possesses just what he stands up in, if wounded probably less, I was lucky being in battledress which of course was in a terrible state, I had my greatcoat and a small haversack containing my towel and shaving gear. At the transit camp I was able to draw pyjamas, a change of underclothing, soap, handkerchiefs and toothbrush sufficient to say the least to make one feel clean. I was under the impression that I should have to wait for those from Kit, which would be goodness knows when. At Campo 35 it was not a very long wait before they got into their stride good and proper, first to arrive was the food parcels then the clothing following that came books and recreational stores, regarding the clothing I assisted at the issue and there was sufficient to complete each officer with what he wanted and also to create a reserve for future use. It consisted of battledress, greatcoat, boots, socks, shirts, vests, pants, pullovers, handkerchiefs, laces, braces, pyjamas and blankets. The woollen underwear was most acceptable as the majority had light underwear as used in North Africa and was of little use in the terrible cold and wet spell we went through soon after arrival.
Quite an adequate supply of books of all descriptions arrived and a good-sized library was formed, this eventually became enormous as private book parcels came through. Sports kit and games very quickly arrived so that we had not to wait until the arrival of ‘next of kin’ parcels. Above all the food parcels played the greater part and were always welcome. In Italy we were issued with three kinds English, Canadian and New Zealand and one period we received what was called bulk issue, that is instead of being done up in small parcels the food came through in bulk, it was the same as was contained in the English parcels. Some officers preferred Canadian whilst others other types but I was only too pleased to accept what came my way, I was only too thankful to receive it. With each food parcel was issued 50 cigarettes that greatly assisted with the 30 that we could buy weekly from the Italians, which in no way could be compared with English cigarettes. Parcels were issued on the scale of one a week for each officer and it wasn’t until the last few months in Italy that we were able to do this. At first there was a divergence of opinion as to how the parcels should be issued, whether the meat go into the mess or to the individual, for my part I was quite willing for it to go into the mess and so improve the messing but the majority were for retaining the whole of the parcel and only at odd periods contributing towards messing. This consisted of putting one meat roll and a packet of tea into the mess once a fortnight, as I worked in the kitchen I was aware of the assistance it gave.
Individual cooking was therefore the order of the day; many happy hours were wiled away at this, everyone formed up into syndicates and made stoves of all descriptions and shapes. At first no fuel could be obtained, it was not until the Italians noticed the monastery began to disappear that they woke up to the fact doors etc., were being chopped up for fuel, after that we were able to purchase fuel wood at the usual exorbitant price, but it used to see us through and their monastery was saved from vandalism. My syndicate consisted of Mick, Ernie and Fred Harris soon constructed a first class ‘stufa’ as they were called, it was made out of tins but for cooking there was nothing quicker. Our cooking pots we also made, in addition I had my English dixie, Mick had his Italian dixie and we also rose to the heights of a ‘pukka’ flying pan, so we were all set. Although I was in a syndicate Mick and I used to share our food the other two did likewise and it worked out a very good arrangement. One being on duty each day, every morning one got up and made the early morning tea, in the summer I used to do this regularly at 6 o’clock which was the best part of the day sitting out on the balcony in my pyjamas and drinking it after having delivered it to the others in bed. I used to invite my other early rising pals around for an early morning brew, when we would sit and watch the PT enthusiasts going through their exercises and the hardier ones strolling off for an early morning cold shower. With the morning coffee we cooked breakfast, Mick and I sharing a tin of whatever we decided upon, by this means we had breakfast each morning of the week. At 10.30 am we would make another cup of tea and another immediately after lunch. With our afternoon tea at 4 o’clock we would eat some of our bread ration with cheese or jam or I would make pancakes or custard. Just before retiring another brew and cheese and biscuits. This on paper sounds a terrific amount in actual fact it was fairly small, it had to be little and often.
Mick and I were very frugal, thinking of (he winter ahead when owing to the state of things parcels would not arrive and so as to cover this we gradually made a stock which we left in stores and how pleased we were that we decided upon this policy because when others had to forego breakfast we were still able to carry on. On the whole and especially during the black market days stewed fruit and custard etc., but afterwards it wasn’t so good but we still had some tasty meals especially when egg flakes were introduced into the parcels. Even this wonderful parcel was abused though which to my mind was disgusting, I didn’t mind the bartering that went on such as exchanging cigarettes for chocolates or jam and marmalade or such like. It was really funny to see the trail of people walking round with tins that they wanted to exchange it looked just like a market. But what I objected to was the selling of parcels for cash or throwing dice for them. This practice was very prevalent during the days of the black market mostly by those people who had greater access to it. I am glad to say that these people got the cold shoulder and the practice ceased immediately it came to the notice of the SBO who came down on it with a heavy hand. I have no hesitation in saying that once the black market stopped that Red Cross food parcels were the only things that kept me going. Some people of course got food parcels from the Middle East and home regularly they were well off, but I didn’t, nevertheless I managed quite well and shall be forever thankful.
During those early days how I longed for news of home. Kit had always written to me very regular and now I was missing them more than ever, I couldn’t tell if she knew I was safe or not, whether anything had happened to her in the meantime, supposing it had what would happen to the boys now she was Mum and Dad, a thousand and one things used to flash through my head. As Kit was in South Africa would it have been better to have notified Mum in England and let them pass it on to Kit, how I used to sit and ponder over this. Arthur Woods’ wife was in Durban and there were several South Africans who had been captured in November 1941 and they had not heard at this period, that was 5 months, had I got to wait as long. Mail gradually began to drift through but it was all for (he longer serving prisoner. It used to be issued daily at about midday, a quarter of an hour before the time of issue practically the whole of the camp would assemble in one corner of the quad awaiting the issue. All kinds of rumours used to circulate – big mail this morning or poor mail this morning! A look of expectation on everybody’s face, I realized that I couldn’t really expect a letter so early, but used to attend each day, and witness the look of joy on each recipients faces he received his letter or the look of wonderment if he was lucky enough to receive two, the look of disappointment on the faces of the unlucky. I often had a lump in my throat as I turned away unlucky, but nevertheless I was there the next day. I continued to attend; I knew that one day I must be lucky although I used to feel it more each day when I never received one. Until at last one arrived, I was standing very downhearted at the outskirts of the crowd, the small pile of letters had nearly been distributed when POCOCK was called, I was so excited I could not say ‘HERE’ and Arthur Woods had to shout for me, now was it from Kit – my heart thumped as it was being passed back – No! it was from Dad in Eastbourne – my heart sank a little, but I knew that it must have news of Kit. I couldn’t open it in the crowd I wanted to be out of it and by myself, so I went up to my bed and read and read and read. I felt a different man; this letter would at least last until one from Kit. The excitement lasted for several days, so excited was I that I never made a note of the date. The mail from England then began to come through very regular, although the first letter sent off by Dad did not arrive until 6th September 1942, some 6 months after posting. However no matter how much I appreciated letters from home, I was still longing to see Kit’s handwriting once again.
How much longer would it be, some mail had begun to drift through from South Africa, but still Arthur Woods was unlucky and as long as he was I could expect to be the same, we tried to console each other. The method of distribution was altered and the letters were placed in pigeonholes bearing the initial letters, mine was in a different box to his, daily we used to look in each other’s box. The much looked forward to day arrived, I approached the box from some distance away I could see that there was one solitary letter in the ‘P’ hole, a coloured envelope – not English – could it possibly be mine, two other ‘P’s’ arrive before me pick it up and put it back – my heart starts thumping -I pick it up – its face downward -I see Mrs C Pocock – thank God it’s mine. I stand and look at it, study the postmark. I go to find Arthur Woods in his store, ‘were you lucky, Arthur’ – ‘No – ‘were you’ – yes, sorry I can’t stop’, the look of disappointment is too great, I go away to find a quiet spot to sit down and read, I select a spot near the fountain in the middle of the quad and read, read, read, then lay back relieved to think of Kit. How happy I am, but this is not the first letter she has written – however news is news, I am for once happy and that nights sleep the sleep of the just. The second letter written by Kit did not arrive until 25th October 1942 but in the meantime I received others from her. The date of receiving the first letter from Kit was 28th June 1942 and then they used to arrive generally about once a month. The second letter received from Kit was sent on the 27th May and I received it on the 27th July almost a month after receiving my first one from her. All the time I was in Italy I was able to send a letter to Kit every Sunday, my letters must have been very uninteresting, I wanted to tell her how much I loved and appreciated her, but I didn’t, because of the censors. In addition to the Italian censors there was also an inside censor, as this was done by our own officers who were not as confidential as needs be, I decide that I would leave out all sentiment and make up for it on my return. To home and Kit’s home I sent a postcard off every other Sunday. Everybody was very good to me and wrote very regular and how I used to appreciate it, many a sad day was brightened by the receipt of a letter, they proved to be milestones passed in the life of a POW.
Private parcels of all kinds began to come through after about 2 or 3 months, but the majority were English and therefore like letters I did not expect anything until sometime about September, I set this date and eventually got used to the idea that I should receive nothing until that month so that I was never disappointed. I also knew that Kit was unable to send cigarettes from South Africa so I didn’t expect any, smokes and had to manage on my Red Cross issued plus those purchased from the Italians – 30 a week, by judiciously saving my stub ends and smoking them in my pipe I found that I could make ends meet. One day in June or July I was sitting in the cloisters talking to Butch Cowland-Cooper and Padre Rees Davies, we were talking of parcels, the Padre was telling us of his disappointment a few days previous. His name had appeared on the parcel list for the first time, he went to draw it expecting a clothing parcel but when it was opened it contained 50 hymn books from the Middle East, I actually saw him draw the parcel and admired his pluck, the look of disappointment which appeared on his face was controlled immediately and he had to laugh about it although I know how very hurt he must have been. While we were talking of this the shout went around the quad that a parcel list had been posted, I said to Cowland-Cooper, “I know that it won’t affect me so shall not trouble to go along and look”, after a pause he said “Well I might as well you never know”, so off he trotted he was gone about five minutes and when he returned he said “Thought you wouldn’t get any parcels you jammy bugger” I replied “You cant pull my leg. Butch” “Can’t pull my leg you lucky sod you are on the list for ten”. This of course I simply could not believe and nothing could move me, until he said he would give me his evening meal if he were wrong. At this I began to sit up and take notice, so very nonchalantly strolled along to the notice board, quite prepared to be had for a fool but true enough my name was on top to receive 10 parcels, it was the talk of the camp. I could not draw them before 10 am the following morning, I had all evening to ponder about them, who could they be from, Mick and I put our heads together and had a rare old talk on the subject. Sticky joined in trying to decide whom they were from. I got but little sleep that night thinking about them and was excited as a small boy, 10 o’clock wouldn’t come quick enough to satisfy my curiosity. The great moment eventually arrived and I got 10 parcels each of 2,000 cigarettes each what a Godsend.
I realised of course that they were not all mine but for the lads who were captured with me as they were addressed to Camp 66. I left 9 parcels unopened in store and took the remaining parcel of 2,000 out and issued them out to the lads and officers of the Regiment. The name of the Regiment was high; everyone in camp was talking about it. They had even more to talk about a few days later when I received another 9 parcels and Charles Woodbridge received 6, all from the Regiment I was now worried as to how I was to forward them to the troops, so applied to the Italians, at first they would not play at all, and them I decided to sell them to certain officers as there was such a shortage and get their regiments to pay Major Colver for them. But eventually the Italians agreed to get the addresses of the senior NCOs, after a time I sent off parcels to the NCOs with instructions to distribute them evenly amongst the men of the Regiment in the various camps, I heard later that these had been received safely. Altogether Charles Woodbridge and I received 86,000 cigarettes from the Regiment, how proud I was of it at the time and cannot praise the organisation enough which sent them so promptly, I suspect Major Colver and Jack Hanlon of having a hand in it since those days I have received several parcels of 200 cigarettes from them and I know that the men have done equally well and that they are as thankful as I am.
My first clothing parcel arrived on 5th September 1942; on this occasion I knew the day before that it was a clothing parcel so instead of laying awake all night wondering what it was or who it was from, I lay wondering what was in it, my excitement was like that of a small boy at Christmas. When the time came to draw it I found myself trembling. Of course it had to be opened by the Italians in my presence, if ever I wanted to hit anyone it was the unfortunate officer who opened my parcel, not that he was in anyway careless about it but just because I was so excited and wanted to do it myself. The outside wrapper had been sewn on and in places was sewn to the towel and pullover in which it was wrapped, the officer was most careful to see that he damaged nothing, which made him all the longer in opening it and I got so impatient. Immediately he had passed it I took it up to my bed before I went through it. Then Kit, how pleased I was with it, you could not possibly have done better, everything that I required to set me up, however did you think of it all. Also how very proud of you was I, because everyone agreed that it was the most useful parcel they had seen. I shall only be able to show my thanks after I get out of this and never enough, my dear.
What a place and under such circumstances to celebrate ones fortieth birthday, but Mick decided that celebrated it must be and so we got to work, at this period the black market was in grand form and I was putting in full time in the cookhouse and had shall we say rather more chances of putting on a good feed, but I did not want to take too much advantage of my employment. The strength of our party was to be four consisting of John Barker, Jack Green who had walked along the coast with me, Mick and myself and was to be held during the evening after 2nd sitting, as much cooking as possible to be done on our own stufa. The day dawned, Mick spent the afternoon in preparation, all that I had to arrange was the sweet and wine, which were easy. We both had a good store of tinned foods; in addition Mick had received an American food parcel that helped considerably. I prepared the sweet during the afternoon in the cookhouse, I borrowed a tablecloth and crockery from the mess and at 7.30 pm we all sat down to a nicely decorated table. Mick was chef and waiter and right well did he do it, first soup, obtained from Mick’s American food parcel, lovely thick and creamy, followed by fish, herrings and tomatoes, from our own Red Cross parcel, nicely fried, entree was cold bacon and fried eggs, real eggs Sticky obtained these from an Italian Carabineri, during each course wine was served, then of course came the sweet which was my contribution and is really a story in itself.
By various means and over a fairly long period I had accumulated about 7 days bread ration, which did not amount to much, 7 doughnuts, which of course were very stale, in addition I had raisins from a Canadian food parcel and custard powder from a British parcel, together with some margarine. This I took to the cookhouse and started off, the bread I grated up very finely crust and all and mixed the raisins in and added some condensed milk from the mess until it looked like a suet pudding, but a bit on the small side. The cooks were called into conference, what could we add, a couple more loaves were added as were 4 or 5 eggs, ½ lb pound of margarine, 1 lb of sugar, 6 apples minced up and also in went 2 lemons, now it began to assume enormous proportions. Next we rolled it up in a bit of cloth, it then measured 22 inches, but how to boil it was the bother, it would just go into a tea bucket, so in it went and on to the fire it went and boiled for an hour and a quarter and by then was 6 inches round and 2 foot long, a real good looking pudding. My next problem was the custard; one small packet of custard powder was insufficient for a pudding of such gigantic measurements. Here again the cooks came into play, the milk used was condensed milk about ½ water and ½ milk, but then we decided it was far too thin, at this point the head chef decided to take over and said that he would make the custard for me and By George! Did he produce a masterpiece, he quickly turned it from ordinary to egg custard by adding 19 eggs, it should have been 20 but he dropped one, plus some more condensed milk. The final result was absolutely delicious, never before or since have I tasted the like and what is more, there was plenty of it, a whole soup tureen full. After this was prepared I had to smuggle it up to my bed cot, it was so big that I had to make 2 trips and even then could not shut my cupboard door. When we were ready for the sweet John was sitting with his back to my cupboard, so I said to him, hand out the sweet, John. He casually turned around to do it, and put his head into my cupboard and said “Good God Almighty what is this” and his eyes nearly popped out and even more surprised when he was told to hand out the custard. Now at this stage of the proceedings we were fairly full and satisfied however John who was 6 foot and had the appetite of a horse was still game so were we. The pudding, up to now I had been a little dubious as to what it would taste like and hoped that the custard would cover the taste, but it was a pudding to beat all puddings, simply grand, we each had enormous helpings and decided to save the balance for the next day, but John couldn’t wait till the next day and commenced eating it on his way to bed. We finished up with coffee, cheese and biscuits and Marsala. After a game of cards we just lay back on our beds and slept it off. The only one to suffer any ill effect was Jack Green who suffered from indigestion, but I enjoyed it immensely.
As our camp was a permanent one there were but few changes because the accommodation was insufficient but early in 1943 quite a large party did arrive. They were subject to the usual scrutiny by other and older prisoners, I walked by their baggage to see if I could recognise any names but couldn’t so assumed that there was nobody that I knew, afterwards retiring to the cookhouse to prepare a meal for them. 1 had occasion to go to the orderly room to find out the exact numbers when somebody said to me “I saw an officer with your badge up Poey”, I immediately shot over to the Infirmary where they were being temporarily housed, walked in and said “ anybody of the Royal Sussex here”, there was a chorus of yes and met eleven officers of the Regiment, what a surprise, I knew none of them except one by name, but they knew all about me, they being of the same Battalion that I had been PSI. Mick and I soon got moving and had them all up for tea and a feed; I issued them with cigarettes that had been supplied by the Regiment. What talks we had they lasted well over a month, all about the Regiment, all the people I knew, the laugh their CO had when he heard of my capture. Two came from Eastbourne so I heard a lot about home. The only thing that suffered was our food store that was sadly depleted in
I have mentioned before the subject of food and it must crop up again in the telling of this story. Among the prisoners in camp were a number of farmers who decided that we should produce as much of our own food as possible and they soon got to work, but nothing much could be produced, a very few seed potatoes left over from the previous year which did not come to much and gave us about one potato per man, a very small amount of spring onions and but very little of anything else, that was all in the market garden line. From the contractor 3 pigs or shall I say piglets were obtained, they were fed on the swill from the mess for a time, one unfortunately got killed by a gate falling on it during the night. We made some soap from it; mind you there were 500 officers. We were therefore left with 2, these thrived for a time and grew, but as times got harder there was but little swill from the mess and so they had to go without. It was a funny sight daily to see these 2 pigs when let out of their sty run straight across the quad to the cookhouse. Owing to the shortage of food it was decided to kill them off, early one morning Pte Feist killed them in the presence of the agriculture class. The pigs were not very big but there was high excitement in the camp at the prospect of a bit of pork. But alas there was trouble ahead, we had slaughtered a pig without the authority of the Italian Government and so contravened the law of the land, the police therefore removed the carcasses. Everyone in camp was highly indignant, several meetings were held between the Italian Commandant and the SBO, eventually they came to an agreement, we had to hand over a certain amount of pig fat to the Italians and we could have the rest. The evening that they were consumed the pigs heads were paraded round the mess with musical honours; we each got a minute portion of pork. That was the last of the pigs.
Chickens were also obtained, I had 12 hens and 2 cockerels in the kitchen yard, eggs were very few, they all died of Gapes and went about yawning, I used to watch the roosters doing their stuff, very interesting. But the rabbits were the funniest of all, we started off with a very few and intended to breed, it was calculated by the ones that knew that by Christmas there would be sufficient rabbits for each officer to have one and we all looked forward to the future rabbit stew. The PMC made announcements in the mess periodically as to their welfare, but we never got above a 100, the announcements would be something like this “Gentlemen since my last report our rabbits have increased by 12 but as one doe has eaten her young the total is not so much as last week” the lack of food was affecting them as well. Little Jimmy Wrench was OC Rabbits, he was an Air Gunner not much bigger man a rabbit himself but a jolly fine fellow he slept a few beds away from me. I used to go and watch him feed them, they were kept in a garden behind one of the quarters and there were rabbits of all shapes, sizes and colours, he used to put in a lot of time tending them and it was a pity that he didn’t get better results for all his hard work. The Italians kept some rabbits as well in a nearby garden, one day one of them found its way into our pen so we had a ‘buckshee’ rabbit in our run. Mick spotted it, everybody had played the game with our rabbits and none had been taken for private purposes but with a rabbit belonging to the Italians, it was different. Mick very soon grabbed it and that night he and I sat down to one of the best meals that we have had in the mess, it was done to a turn, I scrounged the vegetables to go with it. There eventually came the day when all of the rabbits had to come to an end, this was a great day; we had a grand rabbit stew. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it as previously the only way to get a feed on rabbit was to go into hospital or as it was known the infirmary, when the doctor might order a rabbit for the patients as a change.
I did not look forward to Christmas 1942 at all, for one thing, I was far too homesick and wanted to be at home to enjoy it, but it so happened that I was far too busy to think about anything else other than my work in the kitchen, the day was a great success as far as the kitchen was concerned, I never got my Christmas meal until 5pm and then in true cooks fashion I couldn’t eat it all. The crowning glory was, though, at I2 o’clock when I was just drinking the health of Kit, I received a letter from her, goodness knows, how I blessed Kit for that letter. Preparations for the day had to be started several days previous. Mick was responsible for the decorations of the hall and very well it turned out, at one end of the hall a bandstand was erected and the other end he painted a huge old fireplace, this was really a masterpiece and looked for all the world as if it was a real log fire, even down to the flickering, on the far side of the hall was “Ye Olde Englishe Bar “ from which the wine was served.
I was responsible with George Marfell for the kitchen work, it was no light task, we had to make two sittings of the Christmas lunch owing to the lack of accommodation, and this of course made things more difficult. The usual Red Cross Christmas parcels had not arrived so we had very little to work with, but were given 60 Indian parcels, which included some very useful commodities such as flour, dhal, sardines etc., and by collecting odd bits from here and there we were able to put on an excellent meal, many could not eat it at all.
First course was soup, made from split peas and milk; it did not take a lot of work except grinding the split peas up. Entree was baked bully with onions, peas and mashed potatoes obtained from the contractor. The bully was very tasty, we did it by slicing it up and laying it in dishes over a bit of cooking oil and some cold fried onions and put it into a huge old bread oven that we got working, a very good sized helping was served. The sweet took quite a lot of work, it was supposed to be a nut trifle, it was made from custard, macaroons, walnuts and candied preserved fruit and it was very good. The savoury was a Canadian biscuit and sardine cooked in the oven and served with a cheese sauce, this proved to be very tasty, in addition there were nuts and oranges on the table, Chianti and Marsala were served. Every officer had contributed a present of some description and handed out by Father Christmas during the meal. By the time the 2nd sitting had been completed I was tired out with the rush of things, but was very pleased that things had gone so very well. I went up to my bed to have a wash and change before having my own meal, thank goodness I did because the 2nd sitting wanted me in the hall and make a speech which I managed to dodge, my Christmas present was a quarter ounce of St Julien.
Boxing day was the troops Christmas dinner, I did the cooking for them whilst officers came in and did the serving, my part of the show was a success, but the officers part was not quite up to standard. In the evening a fancy dress dance was held, I didn’t go myself because I detest fancy dress but I saw all those that did dress up, the dresses of some were absolutely marvellous however they thought of them I do not know. About half of them went as girls, some of course looked “real old bags” but others looked real good and could have been taken for girls, after the show they all paraded around the wings, I was in bed, several of the “bloody girls” coming along and kissed me goodnight. Wherever they got the stuff to make up their dresses I do not know but there were all shapes and sizes. For New Year we put on another big meal, which was much appreciated, this one included a Christmas pudding we concocted and turned out well.
Towards the end of June 1943 things were going very well in North Africa and badly for the Italians, invasion was feared, rumours began to drift through that we were going to move, at first we wouldn’t believe it, assuming that the Italians would pack in before then. This caused a lot of talk regarding the best way of dodging it, we realised that we all couldn’t escape, all manner of ways were suggested. Eventually the order came through for the whole camp to move in two parties the first 250 to move on 25m July 1943, I was detailed for this party to take over the officers mess, so any plans I had made went to the wall, I was under orders and most disappointed, I was hoping to hide up and await events, but as they say “Orders is Orders”. I diligently prepared to move, by now I had quite a respectable amount of kit and found it necessary to purchase a box for 125 Lira in which to carry it, in addition to a kitbag that Kit had sent me and a suitcase which I had purchased for a pound or so. It was arranged that the first party was to proceed fairly orderly, but had to cause delays if possible. Everything was laid on, on the afternoon of the 24th our heavy baggage was searched and packed, I sent my box on. The tin store was issued out, about this I had a good row because I was busy all day in the mess and when I went to draw my store it had been issued out, I lost quite a lot of stuff including condensed milk, 6 tins of butter and meat roll, all of which would have been extremely useful, however it was gone and couldn’t get it back.
Orders were issued for us to move at 0700 hours on the 25th July 1943, in my usual silly way I was ready far too early, I made a cup of tea and had breakfast, it had been arranged for reveille to sound at 0530 hours, but that hour came and nothing happened, so we all laid about, soon everyone was saying whets happened there was no sign of an Italian in the quad, no movement whatsoever, the dormitories were just one buzz, we were of course hoping for a delay, every days delay meant a better chance of getting back, by 7 o’clock everyone was keyed up. At that time I was looking out of my window when I saw the RC Padre running into his quarter and then another fellow running as fast as he could go across the quad, face was as red as a beetroot, this fellow was Bungy Williams, I had never seen him move so very fast before so I knew something important had happened, then an Italian officer came in and told us that Mussolini had been sacked, in 2 minutes the quad was full of chattering officers, just like monkeys, I never heard such a noise. Would there be an Armistice was the first thoughts – the move was off for the day anyway – the war was to go on and we were under 24 hour notice to move.
The next few days of nothing else but rumours, prisoners were watching trains arriving and quickly the news would spread around camp – Train in! Train departed! An officer was at the station looking after our heavy baggage and he kept sending messages up – Station Master knows nothing about special trains! Etc, A blackboard was set up in the middle of the quad with the latest news relating to the move such as – No train expected today – Station Master knows nothing! In this state of unsettledness we lived for a couple of days when a General arrived, he was shocked to think that the first party had not left, he promptly returned to Naples or somewhere and got things moving, mind you we were quite happy about things, as was the Italian Commandant, he knew which side his bread was buttered and I still believe that he would have done nothing had not this blasted General arrived. Anyway on 30th July 1943 we got orders to move the following day and a ‘Fred Carno’s’ army it was that moved. Our heavy baggage had been taken down to the station, the rest we had to carry, some had nothing to carry their baggage in and one saw shirts sewn up at the bottom and kit put into the sleeves being tied around the neck, really one could not help laughing. The march to the station was about 2 miles; I was carrying a kitbag, suitcase, haversack, water bottle, a blanket, and a box with my food in it, a Red Cross parcel complete and unopened and my greatcoat. It was a test of strength, I soon realised that I was not as fit as I thought I was but somehow or other I managed it but it took me a long time to get over it. Afterwards I had a good laugh about it, it all looked so very funny 250 British officers struggling along the road loaded with baggage and about 100 Italian soldiers escorting them, by the time we station was reached they were in as bad a state as we were, the column was stretched out for a least a mile.
At the station we were counted and checked and the number did not come correct, so we were all shifted right away from the train and individual names called, this was done amid a lot of catcalls etc., we were told to be quiet as this was a very serious business. Eventually it was all correct; there was a sentry to each compartment, one to six officers and an Italian officer to each coach. It took a lot of settling in with all the baggage; in addition we were issued with another Red Cross parcel so we were all right for food. At each end of the train was tied a piddling little Red Cross flag, I am sure no one could have noticed it. Being July the weather was very hot and before the train started most of us had peeled off our clothing and had a drink of water, when I went to refill my bottle from the lavatory I found that there was a very limited supply. None of us knew where we were going, except that it was up North or how long it would take us. By 10 o’clock we were on the way, very shortly after we got our first shock, the officer in charge of our coach insisted on all windows being closed and blinds drawn and the sliding doors shut, soon the compartments became like ovens. I got more and more ‘browned off* and we all had to keep drinking water, to make matters worse the sentries were posted inside the compartments so we couldn’t do anything but bear it. Eventually trouble brewed, we opened the windows, but the Italian officer kept looking out the side of the train and spotting the window open created a fuss, the damned little squirt, and as a last resort and to set an example he placed an officer in the next compartment to ours in irons. That rather shook us, so we complained to the OC train but got no satisfaction. Finally we booted the Italian sentry out of the compartment because in the heat he began to smell and while he was out of the compartment we smashed the window and cut the fastenings of the blind. This caused a helluva row but we just didn’t care. At first we thought we were going through Naples, at least we started off in that direction, but for obvious reasons that had to be changed, thanks to the RAF. In consequence we changed direction at a junction of which I cannot remember the name. What I can remember is the cries for water “Aqua, Aqua” was the shout, but there was nothing doing.
All the afternoon we proceeded in the direction of Foggia, which meant going from one side of Italy to the other through the most awful smelling tunnels, we began to wish that we hadn’t smashed the window. At dusk we arrived at Foggia, first thing we did was to make our sentry, who by now had been tamed, get out and fill our water bottles. We saw for the first time damage done by the RAF, it was pretty. Whilst we were there the RAF appeared again, quickly our train was shunted into a tunnel out of the way. I haven’t said anything about feeding because for once we had plenty with our Red Cross parcels but nothing from the Italians except bread and a bit of cheese, no arrangements were made for a hot drink of any description and water was very hard to come by. During the night we got on the move again, I got to sleep but was far too cramped and hot to sleep for any length of time. The following morning we passed through Casserta a place not far out of Naples, where we should have arrived at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. We were now proceeding northward at midday we arrived just outside Rome and saw the effects of the RAF visit a couple of days before, we were pleased that we were not there at the time. Only the railway and a nearby aerodrome was damaged but what damage. At each station at which we stopped there were cries of “Aqua! Aqua!” sometimes we were successful, others not, no food was issued all that day, so we kept up a cry for it, rather as a nuisance than for requiring it. Speculation was rife as to where we going, at 12 midnight on 1st August 1943 we passed through Florenze and on the morning of 2nd August 1943 we arrived at Pircenzia more dead than alive, the lavatories were blocked and full, there was no water and we were not permitted to leave the carriages to urinate. In fact there was quite a scene in our carriage over urinating, an officer did it in a biscuit tin and put it in the corridor, the Italian officer put it back in again and in doing so knocked it over, so the officer who did it had to mop it up. After we had been at Pircenzia for an hour or so it was found out that we had been taken to the wrong station, in true Italian fashion. Then ensued a right royal row, our SBO, a captain in the RN absolutely refused to move unless something was done for us. Threatening that we would all leave the train and do a sit down strike, this got the OC train thinking, he sent for a doctor who arrived with a General. Soon all the windows were opened and certain officers of the Italian army got their balls chewed off, what is more we got supplied with water and given two rolls of bread but nothing to drink.
During the morning we moved off again in the same direction that we had come from, late that evening we arrived at Bologna, a station that we had passed the previous night. The organisation on arrival was much better, transport was arranged for our heavier baggage, but I carried my Red Cross parcels, suitcase and haversack, it was about 3 miles to camp I just about managed it. On arrival at the camp we were subjected to the usual search, I was far too browned off to worry about it at all and just sat down with Mick where we were and waited to the last, lucky for us the camp although a new one already had a few occupants who sent us out some tea to drink, whilst the others were all rushing through the search Mick and I sat and had a good meal. Whilst waiting we saw through the wire two officers of our Brigade who we did not know were captured. At 1 o’clock in the morning Mick and I were searched and passed into the camp, during the search Mick nearly ‘dropped a brick’ we were both bending down undoing our stuff, the Commandant, who spoke English was standing by us, when Mick not realising he spoke English, said to me “I wonder what the racket is here”. I made faces at him and did everything I could to get him to shut up, but he gaily went on, saying whats the matter with you, fortunately the Commandant moved off, so with a packet of fags we were able to palm our way through getting quite a lot of food stuff in that otherwise we should not have done, the searchers were also very tired and browned off. So once more we were inside the wire again, we were allotted our beds for the night and after a wash we got down to it. One funny thing happened regarding escapes, whilst passing through Bologna, the night before 2 got off the train and by the time we reached camp were already in clink. That night I slept good and proper in Campo 19, but for how long.
The 2nd party from Padula did not arrive until a fortnight later, we kept saying lucky buggers they will get away with it, but eventually they did arrive, they had an even rougher time than we did because it was their intention to get away. Excitement apparently after we left, the Italians had a roll call at which a lot were absent, in their hideouts, but they were all rounded up after a lot of time and trouble. They were made to live in the quad behind barbed wire, they also had a much worse trip than we did, the Italians realising the plans that had been made they took all their boots away which was a drawback. In addition they were attacked from the air and had to spend a night in a field, only one got away.
Campo 19, this camp, a new one for POWs was originally an Italian barracks as far as we were concerned it consisted of 7 buildings, one for a hospital, 5 for housing the prisoners, each holding 300, and one for the kitchen and canteen. The building in which we were built in the shape of three sides of a square, the front side of each was split up into small rooms holding about 10 each and the wings into bigger compartments, I shall call them that because one could walk right through them, each held 20 officers. For space we were rather cramped, the beds were not so comfortable as at Padula being of canvas pattern. We each had a stool but no table, the washrooms were very elaborate and there was a good water supply but often cut off owing to the visits of the RAF. The lavatories were awful, being of (he squat fashion like those used by the Arabs in Egypt, although the flushing system was very modern when the water was on, all one had to do was to press a button and jump for it otherwise you risk a wet bottom. The bathroom, I didn’t know too much about although it was allotted to us once a week, I only ever got one hot shower.
The canteen was very good we were able to get more cakes and bars of chocolate and nearly every day we were able to obtain wine but no beer. Facilities were not extraordinarily good, one could walk around and around the barrack square, but in the heat of the day it was a bit too much. Outside walks were very good; they took place at 7 o’clock in the morning and were quite pleasant, the countryside was very interesting we were able to note things that would be very useful to us later on. I went on several of these walks, but it was a shame that we were accompanied by a large number of sentries that took the gilt off the gingerbread. The cooking facilities here were excellent, the cookhouse itself being very modern. The messing was much better owing to the fact that Red Cross parcels went into the mess or at least such of it as required. We got out parcels weekly, they consisted of biscuits, margarine, jam, sugar, chocolate and milk, the rest went into the mess. This with the items issued and bought from the Italians we were able to live reasonably well, plenty of green stuff but no potatoes, the bread issue was much better here. Nearly every morning we were supplied with coffee, porridge and an apple for breakfast, lunch used to consist of a soup and salad and about twice a week a sweet and an issue of wine. Supper was soup and something from the Red Cross parcel. We were able to get plenty of hot drinks, hot water being supplied from the cookhouse, we used to take our dry tea along and add the water at 10, 2, 4 and 8. All this time the news was extremely good and we were optimistic how long would it last. Mail was very bad but that was only to be expected although I did very well. Private parcels came through and I hoped for my long lost next-of-kin, but was unlucky, however we soon all settled down and were reasonably comfortable and we were not troubled much by the Italians. The end came suddenly, we were not caught unprepared but were certainly let down but that is another tale.
We got news of the Italian Armistice at about 7.30 pm on the 8th September 1943 the day before Rod’s birthday, it came as a surprise but on the other hand we were not unprepared. The news was brought in by an Italian officer, and soon the whole place was agog, at the time I was playing dominoes with Martin Verity a very placid gentleman who calmly remarked to me “Carry on it won’t make any difference” Later on the SBO gave it out officially and ordered us to remain calm until further orders, he was then going outside to see the Commandant. Rumours were very rife – we had landed here and we had landed there – our forces will be here in the morning – everything would be all right. Whatever plans we had made went awry from the beginning from, information that we were able to obtain, the Italian Commandant had promised us all assistance but none was forthcoming. The Protecting Power Representative who had visited us the week previously had said that under no circumstances are we to be handed over to the Germans. That evening we all packed our kit, just what we could carry and what was required in the case of emergency, and in addition we all received a Red Cross parcel each as reserve food. Later in the evening we received more orders, firstly that no one was to leave camp independently, some had already broken this order and gone over the wall. Secondly we were to sleep or at least remain fully clothed for the rest of the night and thirdly if the Germans arrived during the night, the alarm would be sounded and that we were to make a dash for it. These orders were based on the information that the Germans were already around the camp even before the Armistice was announced this proved to be absolutely correct. Bologna was at this time the HQ of the German forces.
At 4 o’clock they came, the Italians had opened the front gate but no others, the Germans came in the front gate, Mick and I managed to get to another gate which had just been opened when I suddenly remembered that I had left my water bottle behind, I went back for it, then a lot of firing broke out, what happened was that as soon as they got out of the gate the Germans fired down the road, the first lot caught it, some managed to cross the road into the woods but the Germans were prepared for it and the Italians had let us down without a fight because the Germans were all over the camp. Had I not gone back for my water bottle I would have been in the first rush, when I returned I was met by a German officer with a tommy gun who said “Go back British officer” I went back and met Mick. We could see the others being rounded up and put in between the barbed wire fences. We managed to keep clear for an hour but were eventually put in with the rest. When dawn broke we were prisoners of the Germans, we were herded in between the barbed wire as tightly as sardines with machine guns all around us, it looked very much as if we were all going to be shot where we stood, which was not a very pleasant thing, to say the least. It was Rod’s birthday one that I am never likely to forget and all my thoughts were with Kit, what a way to go out.
It rather pleased us to see the little ‘shits’ of Italians being rounded up and taken away as prisoners, In the meantime those who managed to get out were being brought back, one had been killed and 3 wounded, a German officer afterwards told us that he had been told that we were all armed, which was entirely untrue. After the Germans had searched the whole camp we were counted and let back in, but were put under 24 hour warning to move, actually we remained in the camp until 14.30 hours on the 11th September 1943, in the meantime we just lived in a state of unsettledness hoping against hope, I felt perfectly bloody because I had a roaring cold. We had no news but plenty of rumours, which were all untrue. When we received our orders we were told that we could only carry a very amount of kit, as we had to march 25 miles to a place that was outside the fighting area, consequently we had to destroy a lot of stuff. Food was the main thing knowing that it was most unlikely we should get any. A lot of officers were still very optimistic and of the opinion that they would not get us away, I felt too bad to worry, however motor lorries eventually turned up and we were piled into them, they had covers over them and were grossly overcrowded, I do not remember much about it because I fainted and didn’t come round for an hour or two. We were taken to Modena where there was another camp, but instead of going to the camp we were taken to the station and put into goods trucks, this was the last straw. Later in the evening the trucks were all barb wired up and we realised where we were bound. No food was issued but they gave us a very small amount of hot coffee to drink early in the morning. I was lucky and had a blankets others didn’t, the number in the truck was 25 just about enough room to lay down it was all just too horrible for words.
Whilst at Modena station the officer POWs from Modena camp were also brought into the station and put into goods trucks next to us, I have had some hard sleeps but never one quite like that night. I cannot remember much about the journey to Germany because I was feeling so very bad and miserable, the cold that I had made me feel awful and my feelings were exactly the same as those when I was first captured, I was still very much ashamed of myself at being a prisoner. We left Modena during the night of 11th September 1943 and arrived at Camp V11A that was at Moosberg in Bavaria during the morning hours of 14th September. Several got away whilst on the trip by various means, but we were unlucky through being in an all steel van and in addition a sentry was posted outside. We were fairly well off for food purely because we had Red Cross parcels, no food was issued to us at all during the whole journey, although on the night of 13th September at Innsbrucke food was put on the train and we were given some more coffee. The food was not issued out to us until we arrived in camp, our main cry was for water, at every stop we tried to get out and get some but it took too long to unlock all the trucks. There were no arrangements for lavatories, if the sentry happened to be nearby he might open the truck and again he might not, altogether it was just too bloody. What we could see from the trucks was little because the only windows were high up, there were only 4 and they had a crowd around them all day trying to get a bit of fresh air. All I could see was the top of the Alps as we went through the Brenner Pass, the farther we went the lower got my spirits, Phil Groves helped considerably to keep my pecker up during the trip. One thing I shall never forget was the rattle of machine gun fire as we went through tunnels, the sentries just opened up and let rip. Occasionally we were caught up by other POW trains, one I remember carried Italians, they were more crowded than we were and the cries of ‘Aqua!’ reminded us of our last trip in Italy they were getting it back alright.
We arrived at Moosburg in the early hours of 14th September 1943, in the dark but were not detrained until after daylight. After we had detrained to make certain that everyone was out, hand grenades were thrown into the empty trucks. We had to carry our baggage but thank goodness it was only a short distance, it was surprising however the amount of baggage that was dumped, simply because people were not strong enough to carry it, I just about managed it and that was all. The camp was a transit one we did not expect to be too comfortable, neither was we. We marched up to the camp and once again I was behind the wire, not a strange feeling but a strange country. At first the officials would not believe that we were officers, this rather put them off, but eventually were convinced. We were kept queued up all morning before anything was done regarding searches etc. But they did give us a piece of paper on which to send a message to our next-of-kin, whether Kit ever got it I do not know. I tried to get a wash under a tap but it was stopped, with 25 others I went to the lavatory accompanied by a big Alsatian dog and a sentry, if one did not keep in the ranks, this bloody great dog flew at you. The place we had to use was disgusting there was no water flush of any description, the pans were full up, however bad it was I did my stuff, maybe it was the thoughts of the Alsatian that made it so easy, but I very soon got outside. Mick, Phil and I eventually got through the search at about 3 o’clock, I had my Advance of Pay Book taken away and the searcher pinched a tablet of soap that I had, it was no use complaining it only slowed things up.
We were then marched off to a bungalow, a hell of a way off, it was the biggest camp that I have yet come across, there were 30,000 prisoners held in the camp who consisted of 22 nationalities, and miles and miles of barbed wire. The bungalows came as a shock, 200 of us were in one, the beds were made of wood and 3 tiers high, and so if you had a restless sleeper above you were unlucky. To sleep upon we had bags of hay and we were issued with one damp blanket, 4 French prisoners were in charge of each bungalow and seemed to have made themselves quite comfortable, the latrines were the same as previously described. For exercise there was a bit of a compound, in the next compound to us were Serbians on one side and Russians on the other and eventually British troops on the last. Tables were in each bungalow but only sufficient for about 50 to eat off; so what food we got we used to eat on the grass outside. Shortly after we arrived in the bungalow we were issued with the rations that were put on the train at Innsbrucke, never have I enjoyed anything so much, it was a good chunk of German bread and a piece of pork fat, but how good it was, lots of people could not eat it but I did, theirs as well. Later in the evening we got German tea and potatoes, quite a good amount and how we enjoyed them. Next day we got potatoes and beetroot that was also very good. It was the conditions under which we were living that were difficult, there were no plates, knives, forks or spoons, and on the whole we liked the German rations much better than the Italians. We got margarine, sausage, sugar and bread issued, but the potato stew we got was the pits, cabbage and potatoes were just pushed in together and what a slush it made. We received German tea to drink that was not to my taste, but as we had our Red Cross parcel tea we got over it. We all considered the German bread ration was bigger and better than the Italian, I enjoyed it and used to scoop up anybodies that did not require it, with the aid of the parcels we lived quite well, there was always the thought that shortly we should move again and what would the next camp be like. The washing facilities were very bad here; we had to wash under a pump, one pumped while the other washed. During the whole of this time I managed to keep Sticky with me and how very good he was too, never shall I be able to repay him. He was forever willing, would do anything for me, give me anything and was always in good spirits, you may bet, Kit, that it took some doing to keep cheerful with me. The day after we arrived a train load of officers also came, among them were Ernie Cox who was with us at Padula and John Stanton, a regular of the 2nd Bn but when captured was adjutant of the 5th, I was forever in his company after that asking him questions. I had never met him before as he was commissioned just prior to the war but he knew all the people that I knew, he was able to tell me about Jock McCully, Bob Whistler and a hundred and one things. Sticky thenbrought me in the news that there were 3 of our lads captured in Tunis in camp, L/Cpl Kealy and two others, one I managed to wangle him into our compound and had a good talk with him about the Battalion and how they got on after I was put in the bag. Shortly after this some more other ranks arrived from Italy, including some who were collared at the same time as I was, but I never saw Chalky White or Lawrence or any of those I wanted to.
Next to our compound were the Russians, they were most amusing and just did not give damn for anyone, and they used to get out of their compound as easy as winking and right under the eyes of the sentries. Between each compound was two fences about 10 feet high and 10 feet apart, in between there was just masses of loose barbed wire, but it made no difference to them as soon as a sentry turned his back they were up one fence, jumped into the middle up the next fence and into our compound before you could say “Jack Robinson”. They were almost starved, we gave them whatever we could, and they took all our leavings. Not only did they take our leavings but also anything they could lay their hands on, one had to keep a very sharp eye on ones kit. We had to start a system of sentries on every two windows as they used to hop in during the night, but you couldn’t blame them they were hungry and I had every sympathy. One night after lock up, we saw a movement in some old blankets that we were not allowed to use, on investigation we found one hiding under them, we gave him some food and sent him out. Food for us was short enough but they were kept even shorter, rations used to be issued out according to the bungalow strength, on one occasion one of them died, his comrades buried him under the floor of their bungalow and continued to draw his rations until the smell gave them away. On another occasion, owing to hunger they refused to go out to work, so the dogs were sent in to turf them out, the Russians killed the dogs and threw the bones back. Their working parties used to make me laugh, they were adept at making jobs last out and just obeying orders and generally annoying the sentries, for instance, there was a party digging near our compound and we watched them. The German sentry told them to stop work and fall in, when fell in he noticed that they hadn’t got their shovels and had to send them back for them, next they left their picks and lastly the wheelbarrow. Eventually he got them altogether with their tools, he then said ‘Quick March’ on looking back he saw his wheelbarrow left behind. And so it went on they did it all so solemnly, but with a sly look at us, we just had to laugh and give them a cigarette each much to the annoyance of the German sentry.
There was much glee in camp when we saw the Italian Military Commission from Berlin arrive, they told us that the Germans would not last another 6 months, they were very wrong. All the Italians were sick and sorry for themselves and thought they were hard done by, some even tried to get us to exchange Red Cross parcels, we might have helped any other nationality but not Italians, we considered them the lowest of the low. After a few days they started sorting us out into two parties, one to go to the Senior Officers Camp (known as the old mans camp) and the rest of us to go elsewhere. I could have gone to the SO Camp had I so desired owing to my age, but it meant separating from Mick and Phil. Arthur Woods, Bert Hyde, Fred Hearn and Titch Yeates, all QMs, went and I have not heard of them since. There was a lot of wangling to get on this party because it was considered that the camp would be much more comfortable. I had my doubts and preferred to remain with the gang, I thought that I would be far happier with the people I know, although a change is as good as a rest.
On the 20th September 1943 we left Moosburg, 6 days after we had arrived there, it seemed like months to me. Both parties went on the same train but of course the juniors had to leave first, under the command of Nod Ormerod, we had to parade at 3 am in the morning, it was naturally raining and we had to carry what kit we could there was no conveyance of any description. After being marched round in small circles we eventually went through the inevitable search and got through very easily. As we got through the search so we were formed up into batches of 37, marched out of the gate and down to the station. I had the shock of my life, as we went through the gates a German stood there issuing rations. It was raining, very cold and dark when into my hand was pushed something very cold clammy and round, I wondered what on earth it was almost dropping it in my shock, but it felt like food, one doesn’t let go of that, it was a lump of sausage which later on I enjoyed very much. During our march to the station the rain eased up and as it wasn’t very far we arrived there comparatively dry, we were also almost the first to arrive, so we were quickly entrained, this time we were 37 in a goods truck, which was not at all comfortable, we got some idea of the length of the journey from the fact that there was a latrine bucket with a lid on it installed in each truck. Once we got into the trucks it began to rain cats and dogs, we were not immediately shut up and with much glee we watched in daylight the arrival of the old mans’ party who were leaving on the same train, they did look a bedraggled old lot.
Although we were 37 to a truck we were more comfortable because there were benches on which we could sit, I was fairly comfortable for a while until rain started coming through but I didn’t get too wet. Phil and I were in a truck together being parted from Mick and Clem Smith. I cannot remember much about the trip; one cannot see too much from a truck, I know we went through Munich. We were in the train all day and all night; by sitting on the baggage I had a very good nights rest. In the early hours of the 21st September 1943 we arrived at Strasbourg and detrained leaving our heavy baggage at the station to be carried by lorry, I only chanced my small suitcase on that, carrying my blanket and food. It was not far to go, we marched out of the station yard and got into a procession of trams. We had a fine view of Strasbourg although it 8 o’clock in the morning, the town looked rather deserted. We had a tram ride for about 20 minutes and then a short march to our new camp. But what a place, being called Fort Bismarck, it was below ground, surely we were not going to spend the rest of our days here. Morale went down considerably, spirits rose again when we were told that it was another transit camp.Phil and I still kept together, we got a room about the first floor down, Mick and the others were on the floor below. Mattresses and blankets were issued as were washing basins, the water supply was very bad, it being turned on only about twice a day and when it was, there was just a mad rush to the 2 very small wash places, which had 24 taps in each, whilst every one of the 1000 officers tried to get sufficient water with which to wash, we had to use the same water over and over again. Cooking arrangements were bad, we received as food the usual potato skilly twice a day, it used to come up in a jug, potatoes with skins on and dried cabbage all mixed up together, fortunately we had our Red Cross parcels to fall back on and were able to make porridge and tea for ourselves. Whilst we were there we also got issued with 4/5 of a parcels each, which we most gratefully received. In each room was a stove, briquettes were issued but not a sufficient amount for general use, consequently we found it necessary to strip the place of wood, the barrack damages charged us on leaving were simply colossal, but that we didn’t mind. 25 to 28 Officers lived in each room, normally they would not hold more than 10 beds, but to hold that number, no beds were provided but simply 3 sloping shelves one over the other and we laid in rows of 12 on the bottom, 12 in the middle and the remainder on the top, those unfortunate enough to get a top shelf were within 3 feet of the ceiling, had a devil of a climb to get into bed and when in dare not sit up for fear of bumping their head. The latrines were again appalling and insufficient, on lifting the seat maggots could be seen crawling about – it was most disgusting. Daily a lorry turned up and pumped the cess pits clear which created a vile smell.
For exercise there was a moat 100 yards long, it was continually full of prisoners walking up and down. One thing helped us here was we were given an advance of pay, which came in very handy because we were able to buy a bottle of beer each day, German lager beer is not to be recommended, but there was nothing else. It was also from here that I was able to send a letter to kit by Air Mail. The weather during our stay at Fort Bismarck was terribly wet, the moat got terribly muddy and everything in the building became cold and clammy and being so dark was very dismal. There were the usual incidents which lead to stricter roll calls and where more ferocious Alsatian dogs came into play, these used to frighten me beyond words. One unteroffizier who used to be very fond of the use of dogs, eventually arrived from another camp we were in, he first appeared on a roll call and was greeted by all the POWs barking at him in imitation of dogs. He must have felt the biggest fool on earth, he looked it anyway. Some officers were moved a few days after our arrival, going to Offenburg, so the accommodation situation was eased very slightly, but not the food situation. On the afternoon of the 8th October 1943, the fort was suddenly invaded by a lot civilians, later we realised that they were the infamous Gestapo, they promptly started searching us very thoroughly, it didn’t worry me in the least as I had nothing to offend, they certainly were very efficient at their duties. German sentries were outside of rooms in the corridors, so it was practically impossible to do anything. This was our first taste of these gentlemen, next day 9th October 1943, how pleased we were to get out into the real fresh air from our damp old dungeons.
While it was still dark in the early hours of the 9th October 1943 we were paraded ready to move off. What was termed our heavy baggage had been taken away and searched by the Gestapo on the previous afternoon. It was a lovely march to the station that morning, across the fields and through the country, we passed through a village at 7 am, it looked grand, how I wished that I was free to roam around this little old Alsace village. We never marched through Strasbourg but around the outskirts and consequently passed through several picturesque villages, we had to march for 2 hours or so, but I enjoyed every minute of it, it was a grand morning, it would have been more so had we been free. The sad thing about it was that it made me feel very hungry, I went along the road eating my days ration and enjoying it at the same time drinking in the fine air and admiring the view. It seemed very strange to see civilians so near at hand, the thing that had amazed us up to the present was that we had got out of Fort Bismarck without a personal search, but not for long on arrival at the railway siding we saw the same group of Gestapo awaiting us and before entraining we were again well and truly searched, nothing being missed, after which we were once again herded into came trucks, this time 41 to a truck, each time we moved so the number had risen, there were bets flying about as to the number when we next travelled, so far we hadn’t moved again.
Phil, Mick, Clem Smith, Ernie Cox, Dick Bettington and I managed to keep together, we either had to stand or sit on the floor of the truck, there was no room for seats. During the day we passed though several places of interest and saw some fine old buildings, at about 4 pm we arrived at our destination, Weinsberg. There was only one incident on the trip, to Skipper Palmer, which necessitated the amputation of his arm and was later repatriated. The camp is only about 5 or at the most 10 minutes from the station so it was not long before we were all again safely behind wire. The camp at first appearance looked like an ordinary British hutted camp surrounded by the usual double fence of wire with sentry lookout boxes all the way round, to the north of the camp was the village of Weinsberg, a very pretty village from what we could see of it with its castle on top of a hill, to the east a wide expanse of cultivated countryside mostly grape vines, and in the distance the hills topped by the Black Forest to the south, a hill which obscured the view, but was very pretty being covered with grape vine and fruit trees. To the west nothing could be seen. Before being allotted to our rooms various orders and instructions were read over to us. The bungalows were more or less uniform in size and shape and consisted of 12 rooms, some had more. The room I was allotted had 12, 4 of which were smaller than the other 8, a small room had 8 occupants and the larger ones 14. This was grossly overcrowding, beds were of iron frame with wooden boards and in order to accommodate the numbers had to be placed in tiers of three, once again the top man was unlucky. We were also issued with a mattress, 2 sheets, 2 very small blankets, a towel, knife, fork, spoon, mug and a bowl. This was the first occasion since I had been a prisoner that I was the proud possessor of an earthenware-drinking vessel. In addition in each room there were cupboards, one per man, stools and a table in (he small rooms and two tables in the large rooms, plus the brooms etc. The conveniences consisted of a washroom and 6 lavatories of a type that I had never seen before and very cold to the arse and most uncomfortable.
At the outset I was put into a small room with Mick, in this we remained until 4th January 1944 when we moved into a big room and where I still am today, 24th August 1944. We were not as comfortable as in Italy, there being no privacy, the first few days consisted of falling over each other, the rooms were also very stuffy, the blackout had to be down, so there was no ventilation, we cured that after a time by taking the windows off their hinges. When fires were lit the whole place filled with smoke and was most uncomfortable, the fumes being most disconcerting. In our room we put a ban on cooking so that the atmosphere was kept tolerably clear. The previous occupants of the camp had been French and therefore the cleanliness of the camp and buildings surprised me, my previous experience with them had proved them to be dirty, but the Germans must have smartened them up the rooms all being spotless. Eventually the numbers in the rooms were down to 12 and 6, which is not too bad but not good. The room in which I am today I have been in over one year with the same occupants, Mick, Phil, Clem, Ali McMath, Dennis Pike, Derek Slingsby, Fred Crowdy, Jack Shaw, Jim Burnley and John Stuart.
The camp held over 1,100 prisoners, just about a 1,000 of whom were officers including South Africans, New Zealanders, Australians and British and later on some Canadians joined us. The occupants of our bungalow, which numbered about 115, were in the majority, British. Nine bungalows were used as living quarters; one had the usual offices such as the bank, post office, library, RC and C of E Churches, lecture and study rooms. Two other buildings, one used as a mess and the other as a theatre and gymnasium constituted the main part of our camp. There was also a hut allotted as a hospital, but any urgent cases went into the local hospital. At the outset the only place for exercise was to walk up and down between the huts, a distance of about 200 yards, later walks were started which made the facilities for exercise far better. Cooking facilities in the cookhouse were I believe very good but the best results couldn’t be obtained owing to the severe rationing of fuel. Meals had to be served in 2 sittings owing to one building which was really a dining room being allotted as a theatre. We could obtain a hot shower once a week, but this did not start for some time, my day was Wednesday but again overcrowding came into play, sometimes it was 3 or 4 persons under one shower which was not at all satisfactory. Laundry was sent out of the camp, some items were done free, or at least at the expense of the German government. It was sent once a fortnight it came back neither clean or dry, during the summer it was the practice to do our own.
Outgoing mail, monthly we were allowed 3 letter cards and 4 postcards, the letter cards I sent off to Kit every Sunday or Monday, on the Sunday on which I had no letter card I used to send 2 postcards leaving myself with a postcard a month to send to Aldershot or Eastbourne but later on I altered this, wherever Kit was I never sent a postcard but used it for Derek and the other home. The Germans in camp did censoring so that there was no delay like that in Italy. Incoming mail was delivered on roll call being distributed by duty adjutants, censoring was again done by the camp authorities so there was not much time lost I had a long wait for mail in Germany, so did we all come to that, but it was worse because I was so downhearted. The first batch I received on the 91h December 1943 redirected from Italy were from Kit written in July and August, although very interesting they were out of date. How I used to look forward to a letter and then on the 8th January 1944 I got my first one from Dad, how pleased I was, but (he news (hat Kit was on her way home was most disconcerting because I realised that she would expect to find me at home or at least free and I had disappointed her. It caused me several sleepless nights, however 10 days later I received a letter from her on the 19th January 1944, goodness how bucked I was to be free of nothing to worry over, from then on I had no worries. I bought a drink of beer round the room on the strength of it there was no stopping me. Just a few days previous to receiving Kit’s letter I got two from Mum and one from Alf, so altogether I was doing quite well.
I was not far behind the others with my clothing parcels, on the whole I was not badly off for clothes, my biggest shortage was pyjamas, I had to leave one pair behind in Italy in the rush, but this was remedied by the ever sure Sticky, who still had a pair that I had given him early on. But nevertheless the receipt of a parcel is most exciting the feeling is absolutely grand, something from home, the impatience with which one stands and itches whilst the parcel is being undone, the excitement of checking it over, in addition the slab of chocolate that goes with each parcel absolutely makes it, especially if any additional has been added, although I know that I shall never get it now, I am forever looking for the parcel that was sent off from South Africa. I received 2 parcels very close to each other and on each occasion I ate the chocolate whilst I was checking the contents and putting my stuff away tidily and felt much better after it. My first cigarette parcel I received on the 5th April 1944 from the Regiment, they were gratefully received as I was smoking the horrid French ones, then very quickly I received 600 within three days so that just about put me on my feet and I have not suffered any shortage until now when I am down to my last 50, but something will turn up sometime or other.
This same old subject crops up again, one must realise that hunger comes before everything else, it is for ever on ones mind, one can think of nothing else or talk of anything else when you continually have the feeling of being unsatisfied. At first and in Italy I really could not understand those who were affected by it, but then I have never been a big eater, it took some time to affect me and now that it has I can readily understand it. I have watched the gradual deterioration and wander when it will stop and who will stop first. I first felt the strain during the early days in this camp; we had the winter to look forward to when one requires more food to keep themselves warm. There were no Red Cross parcels so that we were dependent on the Germans and whatever food we had brought with us, I fortunately had a small stock.
The French had been in occupation of the camp; but it appeared that they in no way assist in the administration in such things as cooking, it having to be done by the Germans, who were quite naturally not interested in the job. In consequence the same procedure was carried on for the first few days that we were there, it was not at all good. Each morning we received a jug of German tea, which I might add takes a lot of getting used to, the majority used it as shaving water. For the midday and evening meals we were given tickets and had to hand this in before obtaining a meal, the French must have been a bunch of rogues. These meals consisted generally of potatoes cooked in skins and barley or dried vegetables all stewed up, sometimes we received the potatoes separately but generally the food during those early days was most unsatisfactory. In addition we received a bread ration of about 300 grams (10 ozs) but the bread could in no way be compared with English bread. This was far heavier and closer, in size it compared with a slice of bread, 10 ozs of English bread would be at least twice the size. The issue of margarine for a week varied but was generally about 2½ ozs, you must agree not very much, especially as it was made from coal. Jam and sugar were also issued weekly and each officer received 2-2½ desert spoons full of each commodity, sometimes we received a very small issue of cheese. On this we had to exist, no wonder we got hungry the bread ration was sufficient for one meal only and the rest never lasted more man two days. I can assure you that a man with an empty stomach loses his courage, he just gradually weakens, with a full stomach one can really face the future but not so empty. I decided there and then that with all my future dealings with men when requiring a good job of work done that I would ensure a good meal before starting.
We of course compared the Italian ration with the German, in commodities they could not be compared, but then the entire system of rationing was different The German commodities were the better and more solid but nothing else but the ration could be obtained by purchase or otherwise, although fruit trees abounded in the district no fruit was ever received by us during the whole time I was in Germany. The only addition we did get was some lettuce and spring onions for a short period but that was all. Now, in Italy we were officially permitted to purchase vegetable and fruit as much as we liked within reason, also nuts etc., this made up for the bad ration, we did not mind the exorbitant price they charged providing we could get the stuff. As I said before we did at one period receive some lettuce and spring onions and for a period some cabbage but apart from that the food has been potatoes, dried vegetable (what we do not know) swedes and swede turnips. Not a lot of fresh fruit has passed my lips since being in Germany. In the early days barley was a favourite issue but then we did not get dried vegetable, this increased when the barley was finished.
However fortune turned in our favour, after a lot of persuasion the Germans permitted us to take over our own administration duties such as cooking etc., this improved matters, although for a period the cooks had only the same rations to deal with. We were dreading the approach of winter, I was possibly more man others but thank goodness the Red Cross turned up trumps, we received an ample supply of food parcels and clothing, just in time we were able to have a parcel a week until September 1944. In this camp Red Cross food was used in the same way as at Bologna that is, the parcels were handed over to the mess who issued us weekly with biscuits, chocolate, jam, margarine or butter, sugar, soap, milk and a proportion of the tea, the rest was cooked in the mess being added to the German ration. The messing was thereby improved, but don’t get the idea that we were able to live like lords, far from it. The powers that be worked out that with the two rations put together we were all receiving sufficient food to keep an invalid in bed, that is the exact truth. Take for example a Canadian parcel, which we generally received, meats contained in these are 1 tin bully, 1 tin meat roll, 1 tin of salmon, 1 tin of sardines and a packet of prunes and that has to be made to last over a week. But thank goodness we had them I dread to think what the situation would have been without them. The weather was very mild during the summer we were all able to save a lot of food, hoping of course that before winter we would be out of it all.
A great shock came in September 1944 when a letter was received that we were to go on ½ a parcel a week, again winter was upon us. Immediately this came into force we felt the pinch, food once again became the chief topic, it turned out to be a severe winter, which is not yet finished. I personally dreaded the thought of it. The parcels were stretched as far as possible, but one could only honestly say that we had one good meal a week and that was on Sunday and then only because we only had one meal all day, it was two meals served in one to give the cooks the Sunday afternoon off, one felt satisfied for a couple of hours, when the pains would start again and it was a long wait until Monday midday.
I will try and describe Christmas, which I hope will be the last that I shall have to spend under these circumstances. In order to do this properly I must go back till the middle of December. About this time there were still the super optimists who expected to be home for Christmas. At one period practically the whole camp hoped to be home in time but that dream gradually faded, morale became very low. Red Cross food parcels were finished, things looked very grim, we had no reserve, a letter arrived saying that the Christmas food parcels could not be delivered in time, everybody was in low spirits, food was very short, mail from England was practically non-existent, coal issued was not sufficient to keep us warm. Weather was very cold and wet, 12 degrees below on the 14th. A supply of bulk Argentine food arrived, a good send, 9 weeks issue, but we made it 6 weeks of half issue, so we had at least something extra for Christmas, the morale of the camp went up considerably. So commenced the week Sunday 17th, then came the astounding news and things were going against us down went morale again, things looked black this week before Christmas. The weather although extremely cold was bright and sunny which we know was to our advantage, during the week we each received ½ a Red Cross parcel, which helped out. So arrived Christmas Eve. I had kept a new suit ready for going home, but decided to clean it up and wear it on Christmas Eve, a Sunday, so I arrived on roll call parade ‘poshed up’ to the nines even down to wearing my medal and overcoat buttons polished. I had already been resigned to the fact that there was no mail for Christmas, there had been none through the week and it never was delivered on a Sunday, but this morning the postman arrived, should I be lucky, how I would like one from Kit. The names are being called out, the second one is Pocock, and I go out to collect. Yes! It is from Kit – good! Before I can get back to my place – it is called again, this time Mum, I turn to go back to my place it is called twice more, this time Rod and Bert, this time as I go back to my place there are cries of ‘mail blocker’ all in good humour, but I am far too excited to take any notice. I take them back to my room in grand spirits and read them in solitude; I am in grand form for the rest of the day. It is wonderful of you all to write and how I bless you. In the afternoon I am invited out to tea with Mo Rapheal, a very happy event, tea, biscuits, cheese, jam and margarine were the order of the day, 15 were invited. Sunday night I wrote Kit’s letter and a card to Mum at Aldershot, that night I couldn’t sleep, I was very homesick; and so arrived Christmas morning, I got up at 7.30 and helped to make some tea which we had scrounged by bartering some biscuits. So we had a very strong brew, at 8.45 we all attended roll call, after which I made the others go to Holy Communion while I swept the room and cleaned up. At 10 o’clock, off to breakfast with great expectation, the first cooked breakfast since Christmas 1943. It is a great feeling, extra food; the hall is tastefully decorated with the little we had at our disposal. Breakfast consists of porridge, egg batter, ½ a sausage and extraordinarily good coffee, how very pleased we all are. After breakfast I walk until 11.30 up and down the compound for my daily exercise, on going to my room I find that I have got some Christmas presents, 25 cigarettes from Mick, 20 from Phil, 100 from John Stuart, 50 from Rex Ward, 30 from Jeff Jordan and 50 from Derek Slingsby, how can I thank them enough. At 12 o’clock the room make a brew of cocoa so that I can drink Kit’s health. I sit down on my bed at a photo of her and the boys, I allow my mind to drift, how I am wishing, I sit for 20 minutes dreaming and feeling homesick, I must pull myself together and so I walk up and down the compound again till 1.40, when I go up to the theatre for a cup of coffee and cheese straw and listen to the band play; everyone is wishing each other a happy Christmas, surely this is the last. At 3 pm I go to lunch, how grand it all looks, a menu each of what to eat, the band is playing, there is a cake between 10 of us, how have the mess managed it? Also mince pies or what mince pies look like, my mouth waters. Lunch is served Creamed Potatoes, a real good helping; I serve them, a Steak and Onion Pie and Oh Boy! peas, this is simply terrific. There is no talking, just eating. Next a trifle is being issued out, it is delicious, goodness what a meal, everyone is beginning to smile. Father Christmas arrives and puts a table bomb on each table when it explodes it throws out paper hats, I put mine on, Phil gives me a cigar, I feel simply grand, for once I am satisfied. The cake is taken back to the room and cut up, some eat it I save mine for supper. At 4.45 roll call again, the chatter is about food, everyone is in good spirits. Before 5 pm we are locked up once again, now I am waiting for this, the last event of the day is about to happen, the mess are sending round Ovaltine and a cake for supper, I intend to supplement this with a bit of toast. But what a day it would have been without the Red Cross. With the exception of the potatoes and meal for the pastry the Germans have supplied nothing, the Mess committee and the cooks have done wonders. But give me my home and Kit, home is the place to spend Christmas, I hope and pray that I am with her and the boys for the next. In truth I finish Christmas day, as I started homesick and a miserable 26th. After consideration I conclude that although yesterday I felt full in my stomach I felt I could take no more, my hunger was not satisfied, we are all of the same opinion that our stomachs have contracted to such an extent that they will not hold a normal meal and therefore hunger still persists.
It is now February 1945 we have sufficient parcels to last us until May, in the meantime the German portion of ration is being gradually decreased, for instance the potato ration is only about ½ that we had this time last year, the bread is of a much more inferior quality. I hope and pray that we are not here after the parcels run out my weight is low enough now, I haven’t had sufficient food to keep me warm this winter. Now we have heard that owing to the RAF there will be no margarine or jam issue but instead we will receive in lieu meal or barley. Regarding the food we have in the room, tea is drawn in jugs and we add our own milk and sugar, when we have got it; by very frugal practice I manage to make mine last out every time. The bread is a bit of a problem; it could quite easily be eaten for one meal. Again one had to consider whether it was cut up into thin or thick slices, if cut thin would there be sufficient butter or jam to cover them, by cutting them thicker the spreads could be made to last the requisite time. When to eat it was a problem, I cut my bread ration in two, one half for supper the other I used as breakfast.
So my feeding day was planned as follows: -
0800 – Tea from mess (Red X.) 6 very thin slices of bread, butter and jam.
1100 – Brew of tea made from old tea leaves re-boiled and any cold tea left over from breakfast.
1200 – Midday meal in mess.
1400 – Tea from mess (Red X.)
1700 – Evening meal.
2000 – Tea or cocoa made in room from Red X parcels, bread, butter and jam, 1 biscuit and cheese.
On Sundays it was much the same except that we had no evening meal it all being served at midday and instead of tea at 1400 it was served at 1530. As I write this in February 1945 it has been published in the papers that there is to be a further cut in rations whether it will affect us we do not yet know, but generally it is that the rations for a month at present have got to be made to last 5 weeks or that they are to be cut by 12 ½ %, the fuel is to be cut by 50%. So much for food, I hope that I shall not mention it again in detail, sufficient to prove how weak I am at present is that I find I am unable to do exercise and my practice of getting up early has had to be stopped, I now lay in bed until about 9.30 and have not got the courage or strength to hurry anywhere.
Although I had been in Germany and Silesia before I was not quite sure what kind of weather to expect, it had been a long time ago. The weather in Italy had been cold in winter but in no way severe, the summer had been as you expect glorious, our arrival in Germany was greeted by very sunny and quite pleasant weather almost up to Christmas and then it turned much colder but really not as cold as I expected, it was necessary to wear much more clothes and it was extremely cold during the night and early mornings. I used to sleep in socks and two cardigans but on the whole it was not too bad, though colder than England. Because of the receipt of a Red Cross parcel a week one got sufficient to eat to keep out the cold, the coming of spring made a lot of difference. Walks were introduced which made things a lot better, a sports field was put at our disposal, where I spent some happy times lazing in the sun on my own thinking of home, other times I went on walks they were simply grand, I used to like to roam along alone allowing my thoughts to wander. I should have enjoyed them more so could it have been possible to have a good meal on return, they made me extraordinarily hungry. The return to camp almost broke my heart, the approach to the camp was down a hill the place always reminded me of a pit head, and down my spirits went again. I took advantage of these walks and visits to the sports field on 8 occasions then gave it up because I got so low-spirited. The summer weather was quite warm, shorts and shirtsleeves were the thing, but the sun was too strong for me to read until I was given a pair of sunglasses. At this period I get up at about 6 am and took my bit of exercise, it was grand, the evenings were most peaceful, we were not locked in before 9.30 or 10, and so we were able to have a good stroll up and down the square. This lockup time was quite alright in summer but as winter draws in and the nights got darker so the lock-up became earlier until in December and January we were in our bungalows like naughty school boys at 4.30 and let out again at 7.45 the following morning, I have not been out after dark since being in Germany. But I am supposed to be writing about weather, in November 1944 weather started to be severe, cold weather, cold winds and rain, now we all began to feel the effects of little food, December was extremely cold, snow was the order of the day, I tried to stick it but was far too weak and at the end of December I had to give up my job of QM. During the month of January I was well and truly laid low, I felt such a idiot about it all but I could do nothing and couldn’t keep myself warm. I only left the room to go on check parades and for my food the rest of the time I simply lay in my bed, the only warm place. I have never known it so cold, possibly we should not have felt it had we more food in our tummies, it wasn’t there to be had so it was a case of grin and bear it. I confess that I was in low spirits and demoralised, there is nothing else to say for it, and however I was not the only one. Today is the 8th February 1945 it has been a wonderful day, in consequence I feel much better and am getting more life in me, but I shall not be right until I am once again with my Kit of that I am certain.
Week Commencing Sunday 4th February 1945
A telegram has been received on Friday 9th February saying that we may each receive a food parcel a week from the 1st February, the news was received with cheers, it is grand news, but isn’t the news I was hoping for, looking at it with a sober mind I would much sooner have received good war news, all along it has been my opinion that things have got to get worse before better, and this has thrown a spanner in the works, I was hoping we were now going through our last bad period, but apparently that has to come, we have parcels for 5 or 6 weeks. What will happen, then I dread it although summer will be getting here. The conversation of the camp has changed today, up to now everyone was food conscious, what subject will take its place; I do not know probably it will be the reason why the parcels were sent. It is however a great relief to be above that craving feeling and the temptation to break into next days allowance of food. This evening I have sat down to my usual cup of cocoa and bread and butter, but I feel much more satisfied the cocoa was sweet and milky (two days supply), I could taste the butter and jam on the bread, so on the whole I feel good, but good war news would really suit me better.
Week Commencing Sunday 11th February 1945
A much better week from all points of view, I am feeling the effects of a parcel a week, the strain of eking ones food out has gone, the continual thinking of food has disappeared although one still feels hungry. But how long will it last, our parcels will run out twice as quick and what then?
Week Commencing Sunday 18th February 1945
Hunger certainly affects sleep, I find now that it is better to eat late and I get a good nights sleep. Much the same as last week but sleeping better, don’t feel like taking exercise yet. This has been a record breaking ninth night, the disturbances have been quite long. Quite a good amount of mail this week but I have been unlucky, how I am longing for news of you Kit, it is nearly 2 months since I heard.
Week Commencing Sunday 25th February 1945
This week has been governed by the news that Red Cross parcels are to be cut to ½ a parcel a week. I have been expecting it but thoughts are nevertheless turning towards food. Letter received from Mum during week, much appreciated but one from Kit is what I want, maybe before week is out I shall get one. I never received a letter from Kit after all, felt rather sad about it. The weather is extraordinary, sunshine one-minute snow the next.
Week Commencing Sunday 4th March 1945
The thoughts of everyone are towards food, in addition to Red Cross parcel shortage there is a reduction of German rations, especially bread and potatoes, 40% in the two main items. Next week it has been found necessary to have 1 meal a day instead of 2, there has not been enough for 2 meals.
Week Commencing Sunday 11th March 1945
A more interesting week, I received letters from Kit and Derek. The ration cut and one meal a day took effect this week. I felt very bad at beginning of the week, the Doctor ordered me to hospital, but I would not go, after a day in bed I felt better. Next week I have to feed at the hospital because I have lost so much weight.
Week Commencing Sunday 18th March 1945
A much better week, I have had my food at the hospital and as a result I feel better, not that one gets more food it is better prepared. Weather is very good, shorts is the order of the day. The war is getting much closer and causing excitement daily, in view of recent events there is much speculation as to what will happen to us, I do hope that we do not move. Derek’s letter was very cheering, I am afraid that I will have to destroy all my letters.
Week Commencing Sunday 25th March 1945
What a week, it started off with great news (American Army close) and 2 days of intense excitement thinking we were to be liberated. Then came the order to move, should we be saved, the suspense was terrible. We were hoping for the train to be smashed, but the clouds were too low for flying. Then they arrived, how we cheered but unfortunately the damage was insufficient to stop the train running.
Week Commencing Sunday 1st April 1945
The queerest Easter Sunday I have ever spent; although I am a POW, I am writing this to all intents and purposes a free man, it is simply marvellous. We left camp last night and entrained, the train leaving at 2 am. We travelled through the night a bit cramped, 35 to a goods truck, there were no incidents. This morning at 6.30 we stopped owing to aircraft activity and left the train and are not boarding again before this evening, so we are spending the day sitting by a river and allowed to roam almost anywhere, the guards although many do not appear interested. It is sunny; we can see our strafing planes around keeping clear of a bridge nearby. There are little groups of us all up this valley just strolling it is really marvellous, the scenery is wonderful, we keep hearing the Crump! Crump! – Will the Yanks catch up with us? Last night we got into the train again, did not get far before a halt. This morning, it is our wedding anniversary, so Kit you can guess how I feel. I was hoping to be with you Kit by this date, I know you will be thinking of me as I am of you. We are still only 50 miles from Weinsberg and have left the train and again are all in the open, not such a good place as yesterday, but have managed to make a cup of tea. The sun is shining brightly, our aircraft are strafing nearby. Another night in the train saw us passing through Armsbeck and Munich the following morning, Wednesday 4th April, and arriving back at Moosburg at 11.50, we did not reach camp until 5 pm, we slept rough that night. After reaching Moosburg the first 2 days were grim, no beds, little food except Red Cross parcels, we slept in old stables and cooked our own food, tore the place to bits for fuel. Then we moved, had a bath and deloused, we were allotted huts, which had no beds and were expected to sleep on the floor, and the food was very dirty and served at irregular intervals. Rumours were rife, the next day getting wireless news from England; we are all very optimistic and wondering.
Week Commencing 5th April 1945
I do not know what to make of things. Red Cross are giving us food but have to cook individually, some game, Mick, Phil and I together spend our days cooking under the most difficult conditions and terrible accommodation. I saw Stillwell and Boniface arrive they were a disgusting sight, I visited the troops compound, our conditions were bad but they were worse off, I gave a lot of my kit to them, thank goodness the
weather is good.
Week Commencing 15th April 1945
Conditions are still very bad especially the sleeping accommodation that is infested with fleas, water is now the chief difficulty. We are still cooking for ourselves and Americans have moved into our huts.
Week Commencing 22nd April 1945
The huts have become crowded, hardly any German supplied food fortunately Red Cross parcels are regular. We are still cooking for ourselves, but it is not very good. I am still hoping against hope that all will be ended soon.
Week Commencing 29th April 1945
Rumours of all kinds abound, the SBO sees a SS General during the night. Aircraft are flying around above the camp. We got a wireless message for our camp. Guns can be heard but we have heard them so often, I cannot explain my feelings, I feel quiet, some are excited, we then heard small arms fire echoing around camp and we spot our tanks. Small arms fire continues and Yanks get to the gate at 1000. It doesn’t seem true. At 1245 the Stars and Stripes is raised on a tower in Moosburg, a great cheer goes up. I wonder how longer before I see Kit, I am still expecting to be moved to a Troops Battalion with David. Now rumours are flying around it is no use paying attention not until I put foot in England shall I believe. How shall I word my first telegram? It is a real treat to listen to the wireless, it will not sink in yet that we are more or less free although we cannot move about yet because not far away the battle is raging. I still cannot realise it all everything at sixes and sevens, but it is still German and Red Cross.
Tuesday – Now I have a roaring cold just as I did when leaving Italy. General Patton visited camp and was disgusted at conditions, he ordered our immediate evacuation but it is all muddled.
Wednesday – A horrible day, raining, I feel very bad but must not visit doctor or our ‘25’ plan for the plane will be messed up. We receive information that we have drawn 2nd to move, I cannot believe that. I am going to
see Kit, yet it all seems wrong. We are down to move at 0730, this is altered to 0900 Thursday.
Thursday – We are actually moving, American lorries take us 40 to a lorry, what a crush, Landshutte. Flying conditions are bad and so cannot fly and we are billeted in 28 Regensbergerstrasse Landshutte, 8 of us in a small bedroom, but we can put up with it the Germans have been ordered out of the flat, we raided their larder and found jam, sugar and wine, we had no conscience about it because they would have done the same to our houses. It is a child’s bedroom. I feel sorry for them but eat their food. We might fly home tonight or tomorrow.
Friday – Good soft sleep, plenty to eat, American rations. Hoping to move on today.
Saturday – Still at Landshutte.
At last we land in England at 0820 on Tuesday 8th May 1945.
MOVES AFTER CAPTURE
|1942||1 Feb||Caught at Tocra-taken back to Benghazi|
|4 Feb||Left Benghazi arrived Chemins|
|5 Feb||Left Chemins arrived El Agalia|
|6 Feb||Left El Agalia arrived Baurat|
|7 Feb||Left Baurat arrived Tarhuna|
|23 Feb||Left Tarhuna pm|
|24 Feb||Arrived Tripoli left Tripoli pm|
|26 Feb||Arrived Palermo Sicily pm|
|27 Feb||Left Palermo pm|
|28 Feb||Arrived Naples|
|1 Mar||Left Naples arrived Capua|
|25 Mar||Left Capua arrived Padula|
|1943||1 Jul||Left Padula|
|3 Aug||Arrived Bologna|
|11 Sep||Left Bologna arrived Modena|
|14 Sep||Arrived Moosburg|
|20 Sep||Left Moosburg|
|21 Sep||Arrived Strasbourg|
|9 Oct||Left Strasbourg arrived Weinsberg|
This story was compiled and edited by Rodney Pocock from diaries written during the time his father was in captivity.
The parts of the diary referring to Quentin Reynolds and the action when he was captured on the 1st February 1942 are described in detail at Part 4 in the book by G D Martineau: History of the Royal Sussex Regiment