Prisoner of War

Capture

Telegram to my parents reporting me missing
Letter to my parents, return of personal items, October 1943
We were in Aleppo sitting on the airstrip when I received an urgent call for our regiment to return to Maadi through Suez Canal and to take the twenty-five-pounder together with the tractors and trucks with us. We crossed the Suez Canal, then went along and back onto the road up to the desert. Once we reached Maadi we were sent north to El Alamein where we spent the day holding Jerry back to allow our men to dig in mines and prepare the main front line for the battle the next day. Even though we had engaged the enemy all day, Rommel had us surrounded by nightfall.

It was three o’clock in the morning, pitch dark and a terrible night when we started heading back to El Alamein towards our front line. Beside me were three ambulances with walking wounded and the really wounded on board each. Jerry let go a shell that went straight through the first ambulance; the next ambulance was hit and then the other. It was horrific. About twelve men in each ambulance burnt to death.

The ambulances and my motor bike were only just filled with petrol. I looked down at my bike and thought, ‘Any minute now my bike is going to fly into pieces’ – but it didn’t. When I got to the front line the Colonel said, “Come here! You’re my only link to the outside world and I need you.” The wireless was just useless at night for some reason; we switched them on and all we could hear was a roar of noise and it was impossible to pick anything up. “You come back here I want you. You’re the only means of communication.” I roared back to where the Colonel was but before I got there, Jerry opened up. The next thing I knew something hit my motorbike flattening my tyre.

It was seventy miles (approximately a hundred and ten kilometres) under dark to get back to our own lines in El Alamein and I thought, ‘There’s no way I can go seventy miles with a flat tyre. It’ll come off the rim and I won’t be able to steer properly after that.’ Despite being well equipped with maps and a compass the tyre let me down and I was left behind. The sun started coming up and everything I could see around me was German. The place was swarming with Jerry and their tanks were moving up to the front line. It was very easy for them to see us as there’s nowhere to hide in the desert. They were high on the hill, picking up anyone moving and I tried desperately to get back to our lines. In the end, I was captured. It was 28 June 1942.

When I joined the army many thoughts of what might happen to me went through my mind – becoming a prisoner of war was not one of them.

Benghazi

I was one of four thousand New Zealanders who were captured in the months leading up to the Battle of El Alamein. The Germans used tremendously large Italian diesel trucks for transport and carting ammunition. A hundred people could fit on board one of them and that day, two hundred of our men were captured and bundled onto the trucks.

When I was prisoner of war I moved around a number of camps in the desert before finally arriving in Benghazi. I was one of the first at the then small prisoner-of-war camp in the Egyptian desert, deep in enemy territory. This camp quickly extended to accommodate the thirty thousand men we lost; Australians, New Zealanders and British, quite a few of them captured at Tobruk. I was at Benghazi for about ten months.

There were about twelve-hundred of us who were eventually sent to prison camps in Italy. Everyone had a card with a number on it and when your number was called you were to be shipped to another camp. The only problem with this was that our side was trying to sink the enemy’s ships and many were torpedoed with our men on board.

My card came up several times but each time I managed to swap my card with someone else. I swapped so many times that I was eventually left in the last three hundred and sixty-five to go. Under heavy shelling Jerry rushed us down to the wharf where the enemy oil tankers were tied up. We were shuffled on one of the oil tankers and ushered into an area of about eight feet (approximately two and a half metres) above the tanks, just big enough to cram in three hundred and sixty-five prisoners. That’s where I spent the next five days; it was just awful. There was very little room and for our toilet facilities we had to use three open drums. On the journey, we ran into thick fog. We knew our planes were looking for the enemy’s ships but we couldn’t see them through the fog. We kept our fingers crossed that if our pilots found one to target through the mist that it wasn’t us.

Extract from letter to brother Tim, 20 June 1943

When I was captured there was 104 of us all told in that area. All the L.A.D. that was missing were there, even old Howard Wilson and R King etc. Howard and I shared a bivouac tent for about six months. You remember Lory Wright? He was there too.

We had quite a cook’s tour from then on. I went to Sidi Bran, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Adjaderly, (Ajedabia), Sertie, Misarata, Homs, Tarhuna, Swamee and then sailed from Tripoli. We arrived in this country (Italy) on the 7th January 1943. I landed at Naples and have been seriously ill in hospital (Camp PC 206)

Italian Camps

P.G. 206, Italy
We arrived in Italy on 7 January 1943 as walking skeletons and they wanted to build us up before we were sent anywhere else. I was sent to Camp P.G. 206, a Red Cross hospital camp near Naples where I was treated for malnutrition for nearly seven months.

P.G. 57, Italy
On 23 July 1943 I was sent to a northern Italian Camp near Udine, P.G. 57, a farm work camp. I was prisoner-of-war at this camp in Italy for a while near the Austrian border and a tunnel that went through to Germany. One day the Germans pulled up with a whole lot of cattle trucks and loaded us on board. On 28 September 1943, we went through the Austrian tunnel to Germany arriving at a big marshalling camp, Stallag V111-A, Gorlitz, on the modern Polish-Germany border. From there they transported us to coal mines because they were short of men to work in them.

Map of POW camps

Stalag VIII-B

Stalag VIII-D was a German World War II prisoner-of-war camp (Stammlager) located at the outskirts of Teschen, now in the Czech Republic. It was built in March 1941 on the grounds of a former Czech barracks and later known as Stalag VIII-B. The camp was created as the base camp for a number of work-camps (Arbeitskommando) for prisoners-of-war working in the mines and industries of Upper Silesia. By early 1942 the Germans housed 7,000 prisoners from Belgium, France, Poland and Yugoslavia. In June 1943, it was placed under the administrative control of Stalag VIII-B Lamsdorf and was renamed Stalag IV-B/Z.

In November 1943, there was another reorganisation, Lamsdorf was renamed Stalag 344, and a large number of prisoners were transferred to Teschen, which became Stalag VIII-B. Because of these organisational and number changes there is considerable confusion in accounts of prisoners, even in official German records.

 At the end of 1943 within Stalag VIII-B Teschen comprised 50,000 Soviet prisoners, and another 10,000 from other countries, including Great Britain, the Commonwealth and Italy. In general, the conditions in the main Teschen camp and in all the sub-camps were deplorable.

– Ed.

Stallag VIII-B, Germany

On 28 November 1943 I arrived at Stallag VIII-B Lamsdorf, Germany and Eisden Coal Mine was the first mine I worked in. We worked two thousand feet (approximately six hundred metres) down, twelve hours a day. We went down into the mine in wagons contained in a big cage. There were eight wagons in each cage which travelled at ninety feet (approximately twenty-seven metres) a second. When one wagon went to the bottom the other one went to the top. Eight empty wagons went down and eight full ones came up and it went on like this all day.

My initial impression on the first day down the mine was that the Germans were very good at keeping the air as clean as they could. There were tunnels that brought the air down; most coal mines have big tubes but they had an eight-foot (approximately two and a half metres) square tunnel. The air that came down was so cold any drip of water froze. We had a big job getting in the tunnel to knock off the icicles that could block off the air tunnels. It was quite a job but it kept good air going. We’d be in the mine for ten minutes at a time and then had to get out because the coal mines themselves were very hot.

We were given only one meal a day and needed to make it last; one poor little spud, a cupful of cabbage soup, a little square of bread, a level teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of ersatz coffee, which was made from nuts and wood shavings. It was the same colour but didn’t taste anything like coffee although it may have been better for us because it wouldn’t have had the caffeine and tannin that’s in today’s drink.

When I was a prisoner-of-war I felt so far away and thought I’d never get home again. I not only wanted to see my home and family again but I also wanted to see how the war ended, who won, and it kept me going. It looked as though we weren’t going to win it and we all thought we were going to stay in Germany forever.

One thing that strikes me is that we were learning so many languages and we were also creating a language of our own – a prisoner-of-war language. It was quite amazing the words we used. We talked amongst ourselves in a unique combination of Arabic, Italian and English. We found a lot of words in German were similar. If we stayed there forever, we would’ve ditched speaking English entirely, as we would have spoken our own language.

News

It was big thing to know what was really happening in London while in the camps. Three radios were operating during my time as prisoner-of-war at one part of it. The camp inmates produced the Tiki Times every day. It was printed out and read aloud every night. We included news from London, which was a big help as it let us know what was really happening.

Every night we listened to the BBC News as it came over our radios. “We are receiving the news at prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII-B,” we transmitted through Morse Code down the radio back to London. The Germans knew we had radios but they couldn’t find them. We hid our radios in a number of places throughout the camp. Some of the prisoners were very handy and could make radios and all sorts of other practical things. One time we pulled the stove to bits and built the radio into the stove. We couldn’t light that particular stove of course. We wrote down the news as soon as we heard it.

One night there was a snow storm and it was very cold and some of our chaps were working on a radio set. On this cold day, the Germans burst through the gates and stormed into our camp. They charged into the building, down the long passage way where seven or eight men had rushed ahead to warn the radio operators. Despite our best efforts to protect them they caught the chaps working the radio. Now this couldn’t happen unless someone in the know told someone at the top. We had no idea who it was but it was someone amongst the twelve hundred in our part of the German camp and it was very upsetting. We were all put on just bread and water for ten days and at that time not many people could stand this sort of treatment, we were all in bad shape.

Newspaper article, Tiki Times
Tiki Times
Polish POW Papers

Wagon Collapse

At one stage I was taken off shovelling coal and given the job of dragging wagons up a steep slope, thirty wagons at a time, and then down the other side of the slope into a tunnel. Once they topped the rise the wagons ran down the slope under gravity by themselves. My job was also to step out and undo the hook on the wagon as it ran by under gravity before reaching a stop further down. I had a place under cover in the concrete wall which I could retreat to if things started to go wrong.

One time I went to sleep on the job. When I came to, I still had the winch and the rope from the front wagon in my hand. The wagons went full bore screaming past me. In the finish, I shut the power off, stepped into the recess and the roof caved in. Anything like that was deemed to be an act of sabotage and you could be shot immediately. A German Commander came down and when he saw the mess he pulled his pistol out and waved it under my nose. “I could just shoot you for this, that is how the law is,” he said in amongst a lot of German, which I understood. He said I’d made a tremendous mess and asked if I was sleeping. Fortunately, in the finish, he burst out laughing. At the end of the shift I stayed behind and put the roof back up as my punishment.

P 535, Poland

After about ten months I was moved to another prisoner of war camp in Szczecinecki, Poland, P 535, which was near Krakow, Warsaw and Auschwitz. I could see the smoke from the chimney stacks at Auschwitz and we all knew what was going on there. While I was in the German coal mines, I noticed everything was spot on with their machinery; electric trains could drag fifty to sixty, three-tonne carriages. Whereas the Polish were only dragging twenty carriages using horses. These horses received terrible treatment and if you were anywhere near them they kicked you.

The Germans were also more efficient compared to the Polish. In Poland above the ground all you could see were coal mine derricks or towers sticking up from every mine. There was a stack of coal a hundred and twenty-foot-high and a quarter mile square (approximately six metres high and half a metre square) around each one of those towers and the stacks didn’t move in the two and a half years I was there. They had no trains or wagons as the Royal Air Force bombed all their railway stations.
My initial impression on the first day down the mine was that the Germans were very good at keeping the air as clean as they could. There were tunnels that brought the air down; most coal mines have big tubes but they had an eight-foot (approximately two and a half metres) square tunnel. The air that came down was so cold any drip of water froze. We had a big job getting in the tunnel to knock off the icicles that could block off the air tunnels. It was quite a job but it kept good air going. We’d be in the mine for ten minutes at a time and then had to get out because the coal mines themselves were very hot.

We were given only one meal a day and needed to make it last; one poor little spud, a cupful of cabbage soup, a little square of bread, a level teaspoon of sugar, a teaspoon of ersatz coffee, which was made from nuts and wood shavings. It was the same colour but didn’t taste anything like coffee although it may have been better for us because it wouldn’t have had the caffeine and tannin that’s in today’s drink.

When I was a prisoner-of-war I felt so far away and thought I’d never get home again. I not only wanted to see my home and family again but I also wanted to see how the war ended, who won, and it kept me going. It looked as though we weren’t going to win it and we all thought we were going to stay in Germany forever.

One thing that strikes me is that we were learning so many languages and we were also creating a language of our own – a prisoner-of-war language. It was quite amazing the words we used. We talked amongst ourselves in a unique combination of Arabic, Italian and English. We found a lot of words in German were similar. If we stayed there forever, we would’ve ditched speaking English entirely, as we would have spoken our own language.