Sapper Alfred Parker
Unit : X Troop, 11th Special Air Service Battalion
Army No. : 1877817
The following is Alf Parker's account of his wartime experiences. It is not complete and sadly makes no reference to Operation Colossus, but it does record in considerable detail his escape from P.G. 78.
The War Story of Alf Parker
1939 to 1945
I left school at the age of 14 years and eventually managed to get a job at a small motor repair garage owned and operated by Fred Fellows. Fred Fellows was very highly skilled and knowledgeable Motor-Engineer who struck up an immediate rapport with me in the 4 following years. I became pretty knowledgeable myself in motor and motorcycle engineering. Both employer and apprentice were very interested in motorcycle Reliability Trials and Grass-Track racing and after I obtained my driving licence at the age of 16 I rode in as many events as Fred was financially able.
At the age of 18½ I started my own business repairing motor-cycles and at the same time designing a new and better type of machine, incorporating under-slung petrol tanks in pannier fashion using a "Rex Acme" engine purchased for 5 shillings. A spring frame was a must of course, many hours were spent working on this "Special" and the income from the business was not enough to finance the project. After 6 months I obtained a job at Hatfields who were the "Standard" and "SS" agents in Sheffield. I was employed as an improver mechanic and enjoyed the work.
At this time it seemed that a war between Germany and Great Britain was a distinct possibility with the further possibility of conscription plus a public mood that encouraged young men to see army life as a glorious opportunity for adventure. Came that evening of September 1939 and the radio speech by Chamberlain, England was at war! I didn't go to work the next morning, but instead went to the Cutlers Hall where recruiting was already going on. Outside was a big notice saying that only people over the age of 21 would be accepted as recruits, but a man came down the queue to tell all that they did not ask for birth certificates so if anyone was under 21 all they had to do was lie. This of course is exactly what I did!
In due course I was told that I would be expected to catch a train for London and then change to Shorncliffe where I would be met by army authorities and be directed to my new quarters to receive army training in 3 days time. After getting back home and telling my mother what I had done and experienced the anguish which was apparent in my mother, I also felt very upset and would have liked to go and cancel the enlistment, but of course that would be impossible. I spent a large part of the time waiting by listening to the radiogram and lots of Vera Lynn records.
The morning of my departure was very upsetting for my mother and for me. But the excitement and uncertainty soon dispelled thoughts of home. Changing stations in London from Saint Pancras to Victoria was filled with wonder; everything seemed so franticly busy. It was more by luck than judgement that I managed to actually get on the train bound for Shorncliffe. On this leg of the journey I met another young man by the name of George Mays from Lowestoft, who also was a motor mechanic, so we both shared a common interest. We remained friends until we were split up 8 months later when I joined the Special Air Service 11th unit.
There were a lot of recruits on this train about 80% to 20% civilians and the army characters were met and then marched to a field containing about 500 bell tents. Each block of 12 men were allotted a particular bell tent and told to collect blankets and ground sheets after a lorry bringing them had arrived. At this time the rains came with a vengeance and everybody went in to their allotted tent. Those who had overcoats sat on them; those without simply sat on the wet grass. The torrential downpour continued all night and the wet gradually crept inside the side walls. There was no light and all that could be done was to talk and tell jokes. Fortunately one of the characters in our tent was a born comedian and so the night went by. All the civilian clothing in which everyone was dressed became unpleasantly damp and smelly. At 6 o'clock reveille by which time the rain had stopped, a sergeant came round to each tent and apologised for the lack of ground sheets and blankets. He told us to make our way to a large tent at the corner of the field where soup and some bread would be issued. Then at 8 o'clock gas masks would be issued, followed by instruction on how to use them.
Later on everyone was marched to the barracks proper and allocated a particular room and bed. Very Spartan indeed! And so 4 months of army training began. George and I had both joined up in the expectation that we would follow our trade. Instead we found that being in the "Royal Engineers" meant a lot of trench digging and marching to the firing butts (about 7 miles away) and all sorts of uninteresting occupations such as hours and hours of drilling on the parade ground, inspections and fatigues. No one was allowed out for 3 weeks and a miserable time was had by all.
By the end of the course Christmas had arrived and one week's leave was allowed. We were told that very shortly afterwards most of us would be sent to operating units and be in France by the end of January 1940. Within a few days of returning from Christmas leave, the whole training battalion was posted to their respective permanent units and by a stroke of luck George Mays and I were posted to the 238 Field Company of the Royal Engineers. George and I were both motor engineers and shared similar interests. He came from Yarmouth and knew a lot about sea fishing and the large engines used on the trawlers. We just naturally got on well with each other. Within a few days the training unit was split up completely and spread itself all over the army.
Strangely there were only the two of us detailed for the 238 Company and owing to a bout of very cold and snowy weather, we arrived at Kitchener barracks in Aldershot late in the afternoon in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. We were met by the Sergeant Major who seemed to be a very nasty sort of bloke. He warned us that we were expected to be on parade the next morning with all buttons shining, gaiters freshly blancoed and boots shining. Then we were detailed to sleep in one of the many barrack rooms. When we found the room we were greeted with a scene of frantic haste as every man diligently went about the work of polishing buttons and cleaning all kit ready for tomorrow's inspection. There was a blazing fire going but in spite of that the temperature away from the immediate area of the fire was cool. Consequently we were given the last two beds which happened to be farest away from the heat. We found that this Company was in fact a Territorial unit, which had been raised in Paisley near Glasgow, and it seemed that they were all related. The gusto which they put into the polishing seemed to us unnatural and all this work continued on to past midnight. We were feeling a bit unsure of ourselves; we were by comparison a couple of real slouches.
Finally we managed to get some sleep but were soon awakened by the bustle of more polishing and final preparations for the morning inspection, the time was 4-30 am! Breakfast was at 6-00 am. When we entered the mess room it was crowded, but at least warm. Porridge was being doled out by a cook and there was no limit as to the amount each man could have. It was the whitest porridge I had ever seen, so I had a good helping. On returning to our table we discovered to our dismay that it was quite heavily salted, so both George and I just couldn't eat it. Fortunately, there was plenty of bacon and eggs afterwards and plenty of hot tea (with sugar), we didn't go away hungry. On returning to the barrack room there was the last final sprint by the rest of the room to get everything into perfect order. George and I honestly couldn't improve on our kit and except when compared to their kit, seemed OK to us. The time of first parade rolled on. George and I were pretty apprehensive when we finally stood in line for this inspection and to our great delight only a quick walk round by the C.O. took place. Instead we were marched off and for the next 2 hours were marched up and down the large gravelled barrack square, right turn left turn, wheeling, counter-marching, in fact everything in the army manual. This program continued for the next 4 days by which time we were all completely fed up and I was footsore.
On the 5th day we had a break with nothing to do for most of the day, so in the early afternoon George and I decided to go for a look around the barracks and then go into the town. It was a strict rule, that nobody was allowed to walk across the barrack square, only marching was allowed, but as we got to the square with the intention of walking right round the perimeter, we heard a motorcycle being ridden round the square by a Captain. Captain Whimster was his name and later we found out that he was in charge of the transport section of the Company. We of course stopped to watch the fun as he tried to go round the corners in speedway fashion. He wasn't very good at all and after a couple of circuits he came a beautiful purler right in front of George and I. Naturally we ran forwards and helped him to his feet, can one of you ride he asked and I said I could. Then take it back to the Company office for me would you. At that time we were about diametrically opposite the Office. So I picked up the bike, started it up and then went round the perimeter of the square as fast as I could, making 2 beautiful fast broadsides round 2 corners, then bringing the machine to a stop exactly in front of the door of the office. I waited for the Captain and George to finish their journey across the diagonal of the square. "Where did you learn to ride like that?" he asked. I explained that both George and I were motor mechanics and I had ridden on the speedway. He had not been informed that 2 motor mechanics had joined the Company a few days ago. The facts were that out of a strength of 35 army vehicles and 12 motorcycles, only 5 vehicles and 3 motorcycles were serviceable. "Get to the 'MT' lines straight away and concentrate on getting them all working. Forget parades and get on with the job!" he ordered. Both George and I were delighted.
We lost no time in changing into our fatigues and reporting to the MT Sergeant, a S/Sgt Nicky Lynton. From then onwards life changed for us both, rarely did we ever have to go on official parades. Of course this was soon noticed by the rest of the unit and caused a lot of ill feeling, which later on resulted in my being attacked by two brothers. Both George and I were placed in Headquarter section, but we were made responsible for all vehicles of A, B, C and D Sections. We were both happier now and cheerfully waded into the work of getting every vehicle completely roadworthy. There was an older man who was a Corporal who had previously been responsible, but he was so badly home sick and in not very good health himself that the vehicles had been allowed to deteriorate. Shortly after we had transferred into the transport headquarter section he got his discharge from the army and went back to Glasgow and home.
During this particular time we did have to do a very short session of marching but for a special occasion, namely a visit by the KING. On the appointed morning we were all up extra early and given a very searching inspection by the CO, then marched to one of the main roads through Aldershot where we were arranged in a particular fashion to await the King. About 2 hours later, by which time we were just about frozen stiff, we heard a lot of parade commands coming from the road a quarter of a mile to our left. We were instantly brought to attention and only just in time to see about 5 Rolls Royces go past our unit travelling at about 65 miles an hour. In the second one sat the King looking straight ahead and that was it. On returning to our barracks George and I changed into our fatigues again and got back on our job. Headquarter unit was to travel 3 weeks ahead of the main unit and go with all the vehicles. By the middle of February all the vehicles were in good order when we finally set of to go to Southampton where we were to embark for France.
There had been a delay in the channel due, we were, told due to "U" boats. Our ship was not yet in port, so it was necessary to waste 3 days in Southampton. We were lectured repeatedly about security and of course had no idea when we would actually sail. So to fill in some time, I went to an address in the city to meet the family of an acquaintance from Sheffield. After some difficulty I found the family. Southampton had been severely bombed for some time and when I did find them, it turned out to be a pretty bad experience. The family had been bombed out of their house and were living in an air-raid shelter under really bad conditions. I felt very sad about the meeting mainly because of their obvious embarrassment due to a very low standard of living. After getting back to the schoolroom where we were being accommodated on the floor and generally very poor living conditions, George and I decided to go into town and have a feed at a hotel. I can't remember the name of the place, but I do clearly remember the wonderful steak the chef served us with and a bottle of wine to follow.
The next morning we were marched to the docks and boarded the boat, which had been an Isle of Man holiday boat. Our section of 50 men were placed right in the nose of the boat 2 decks down. It was quite a comfortable place with bunks on each side that tapered towards the front, was thickly carpeted and I looked forward to a pleasant time aboard. The boat sailed within an hour of us boarding and the convoy assembled out in the channel, then set of for Le Havre straight away. The weather was fairly windy which caused a lot of rolling, but didn't effect George and I, although there were some bods who didn't like it much and began to get seasick. After about an hour there was an alarm due to "U" boats and the convoy stopped. Whilst we had been making headway, about 25% of the passengers became seasick, but after the boat came to a standstill the numbers increased so much that it appeared almost everyone became sick and in a short time the decks became awash with sick. George and I were not affected and were able to have a big meal of hot tinned "Maconaci" stew, which we thoroughly enjoyed. I went to the stern of the ship on a high deck to watch the heaving as the ship sank in the trough and then righted itself and rose 50 or 60 feet above the sea. After a few minutes I began to feel sick myself, so went back to the forecastle cabin to settle down again.
Eventually we moved on again and the motion became easier and soon after we came under the protection of the land at Le Havre. We docked next to the hulk of a large liner, which had got on fire and then sank just before the war. Strict orders were given that nobody was allowed to land until the following morning, but quite a lot of people, including George and I managed to go ashore and make our way into the City. A great time was had by all, especially after we found that the cost of French wine was so ridiculously low, there were plenty of thick heads the following morning. We collected all our transport, which had come on a different boat from another dock, but had to wait in a gigantic building at another dockside. I remember the many posters "Defence de Fumer" all over the place. The cold wind swept straight through and it was not possible to get out of its way. Finally late in the afternoon our transport was put ashore and it seemed like heaven to get inside the cab of a 5-ton Leyland truck, one of only 3 impressed vehicles (Civilian) which had normal closed in cabs. All the other vehicles were army types and of course the driver was exposed to the elements. George and I always travelled in one of these closed in types so that we could carry our large toolboxes and keep them warm, (at least that was our excuse).
Finally, when the last vehicle was ashore and assembled together, Captain Whimster in the leading truck set of for our next destination a farm near the village of Bolbec. Here we were housed in a large barn, which was very draughty, but filled with dry hay. There were 2 levels and after we had spread out mountains of hay everywhere and lit about a dozen paraffin hurricane lamps and with the aid of 3 blankets each were able to get a bit of sleep. Outside the barn was a sea of mud and the following day George and I spent a very uncomfortable time preparing the transport for a journey by train. The weather was extremely cold and at least froze the mud, making it easier to get about. The biggest wonder to me was the fact that we didn't accidentally burn the barn down to the ground after a few little flare-ups! Finally all the transport was loaded on to the open trucks which formed the train and anti freeze was put into all the cooling systems.
We travelled in ordinary railway carriages but with little heating, owing to a drive to save fuel, so the journey couldn't be called comfortable. We passed through Lens, and then on to a place called Carvin, where we detrained and discovered that the antifreeze in the radiators hadn't done its job properly. Within a few minutes of starting up the engines, boiling started. The air cooled motorcycles of course were unaffected and our final destination, a place on the bank of the De La Hte Deute canal, so the officers had to make the journey on the back of a pillion seat and didn't seem very pleased about it. George and I had an extremely uncomfortable time using blowlamps to get the water circulating through the whole of the systems. It seemed that the water had turned to jelly in the pipes and failed to go round the system until it had been warmed enough to allow free circulation. As we got each vehicle to run without boiling, each driver was told to make his way to the canal and motor along until met by D Rs. Consequently George and I were the last to arrive at our temporary quarters, which were located in an old "Music Hall".
We obtained some food and then got some blankets so as to prepare for a night's sleep when we were told by a Sergeant that we had been detailed to do picket duty over the transport lines this night. We pointed out that we had been working harder than anyone else in the section all day, but to no avail, our own transport Sergeant tried to intervene on our behalf but was overruled. We of course were livid with rage because of the unfairness, but it was clear that because we were both English, whilst all the rest were from Paisley. It was an attitude which was to show up many times in the coming events. Accordingly, we reported for our picket duty and were surprised that our own sergeant Nicky Linton was the picket commander. As a result, both George and I made ourselves a comfortable position on top of a 30 Hundred Weight Morris truck which carried nothing else except blankets. We lost no time in getting between a good layer of these blankets and were only disturbed because of being much too hot for comfort, we knew Nicky would not bother us!
We returned to the "Music Hall" the next morning feeling good and ready for another days work, but found that all the hard work had been done so we were able to look around at our ease. The Music Hall was at one side of a large area of water and connected to the canal by a wide entrance, which allowed barges to be manoeuvred into a large basin. Several barges were undergoing repairs of many kinds and I was intrigued to see how the wooden hulls were being patched by the boat builders. Later in the day we took a truck for a test run to Carvin and after dark saw the flames of a steel mill shooting out and lighting the sky. We assumed that the authorities knew what they were doing and were able to stop the display at a moment's notice. The music hall had at one time been the home of a fairground type organ, complete with hundreds of brightly coloured figurines. When we arrived back at our sleeping quarters, we found these figurines all over the place and being thrown about with no respect for their value to the complete organ. Finally when it was time for the section to move on, I think the organ was absolutely useless.
The cold weather continued and after leaving the canal behind and driving through slush for some miles we next came to a place called Seclin. It was early afternoon when we arrived, but true to army form our officers had to find somewhere for the section to sleep, so we just sat and waited until a place had been found. Someone decided to buy some bread and butter from a local shop and seemed very pleased with their purchase, so I decided to get some too. I suppose we were all fairly hungry, but after tasting the "De Pan De Bair" and finding this French bread to be absolutely delicious, we all had a really good feed and washed it down with French wine. Our next sleeping quarters were in a French garage and not a very clean one at that. There was a large double door big enough to allow large agricultural machinery to pass. Also the ground was just earth mixed with some oil, a very unpleasant place! On top of this, even when the doors were closed, there was a gap about 7 or 8 inches under the door which allowed a mighty draught to sweep the place. We did all we could to stop the draught, but never really had complete success. There were about 50 of us and all we were able to muster was a few bales of straw.
Fairly naturally, nearly everyone went out in the evening to visit the local drinking shops to take some of the chill away. George and I returned early and proceeded to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. I laid my blankets out on the ground and then lay down on one edge, rolled myself over and over until I was like a kind of cigar. This made the best use of the available blankets, of course being careful to finish rolling exactly where I wished to sleep. This method of making a bed ensured the maximum warmth from the available blankets. The draw back was the fact that ones arms were inside and with little movement, however I soon went to sleep. I was awakened some time later when the rest of our unit started arriving back from their "Pub Crawl". Most of them were drunk in varying degrees and I just lay there knowing that things would eventually settle down. Unfortunately 2 of the drivers who were brothers had shown a dislike to George, as well as myself. Both came very near to me, shook me and then started to pass insulting remarks about George and I. At first I ignored them completely, but this made them more insistent, until finally I told them to cool off-and get sober. This simple remark infuriated them both and they both stood over me, legs astride, one at my head and the other at my shoulder level. One of them then give me a fairly gentle punch with his fist to the left, then the other brother knocked my head the other way. Then the first one knocked my head the other way again but harder. I was trying desperately to free my arms all the time but had really suffered already and only just conscious. Fortunately one of the other Scotsman stopped them doing further damage.
I could only lie there still wrapped in my blankets and fume at the injustice of the treatment I had received. Eventually all the noise subsided. As everyone went to sleep I cried at first to myself, then as I began to recover, resolved to get my own back. So, after about a couple of hours, I got up and dressed fully, then went outside into the cold night air and walked for half an hour. On my return all was very quiet, except for a few snores, but I was still livid with rage. I picked up my rifle, intending to smash the butt into one of the brother's faces, but fortunately realised that a swinging blow to the head could quite easily kill the bloke. I was in no mood to stop however, so I stood over the first brother, his head between my legs. He lay on his back and carefully lining the butt with his head I drew it back about a foot then helped it on its way to the side of his upturned cheek. There was a crunching feeling and blood spurted from a split jaw about 4 or 5 inches long. He lay there for a second or two, then let out a high pitched scream and I only gloated and told him to leave me alone in future. Within a minute everyone was up and milling round me and his bed. The sergeant major came out of the office which he had made into his private sleeping quarters. He ordered my arrest immediately, then questioned us both, eventually releasing me. The sergeant major was an Englishman and did know of the ill will between the Scots and the English. Later he privately told me that I had done the right thing and there was never any more trouble between the Scots and English.
We only stayed at Seclin for 2 nights, then moved on to our permanent base at Cysoing. Headquarter section was housed in a very large house. The officers' mess took up the whole of the ground floor and NCOs on most of the second floor. The rest of us packed into two rooms on the top floor; each wall was lined with two-decker beds, a very cramped arrangement indeed. Most of the top floor was occupied by a very large room which housed a big water tank about 20 feet by 15 feet, but this room was securely locked. After one night in one of the small rooms, George and I decided to look into the locked room. When we told our MT Sergeant Nicky Linton about this room, we told him that we wanted some peace and quiet in order to do some studying. He unofficially gave permission for the two of us only to move in. In a short time we had made ourselves very comfortable by making a small room partitioned off from the main space. We had our own large window and could step out on to a small flat area outside, really home from home! No one else was allowed into "Our Place" and for some time we were very well satisfied. Later however the unit cobbler managed to get permission to set up a space near a window on the opposite side to carry on his trade during the day only.
We were a very hard working pair and were excused practically all parades and simply did our own job. Keeping 50 vehicles in top trim was definitely a full time job for only two mechanics but we both enjoyed it immensely. We spent a lot of time "testing" vehicles and bikes and it wasn't long before we found an old pottery site on which was a series of old kilns with the tops removed, leaving a kind of a wall of death track on the sides. We used to spend heaps of time on the walls and it wasn't long before Captain Whimster realised what was going on, but to our delight he willingly joined in the fun. At the weekends we organised the Leyland truck to take a party to Lille for Saturday afternoon and during the week I used to go on long trips to test a vehicle, so managed to see quite a lot of the French countryside. There were a number of Estaminays in the main street of the village where we could buy egg and chips and plenty of wine at very low prices. Occasionally there was a cockfight organised by the local people, so all in all we enjoyed our stay in Cysoing.
Then one evening, George and I were sat in our den reading, when all of a sudden there was the sound of a machine-gun going off. My first reaction was to think of the bloke responsible getting court martialled for such an act, but then a German plane went across our line of vision out of control, with tracer bullets going into his fuselage. He was diving at an angle of about 30 degrees to the ground and a second later we heard him explode as he hit the ground somewhere near the wall of death track on the other side of the village. At the same time other guns opened up, most were using tracers, so we had a birds eye view of a very exiting development. That night there were repeats of the same sort of thing right through and at dawn it continued.
Captain Whimster told us to get everything ready for a move very soon, but in fact we had been doing our job well and everything was ready, so George and I had little to do just then. One of the section Sergeants came into the shop where we were having a drink. He was in a sorry state, having been shot up by a German Stuka he said. I was disgusted because his nerve was completely shattered and he was obviously of no further use to the British army. The next day the whole 238 Field Company came together lined up and ready to go. Our plan was that one mechanic travelled in the middle of the convoy and the other at the rear, both with a full kit of tools and in one of the 'impressed' trucks. I had a 5-ton Leyland and George had a 5-ton Dennis. Our route took us first to Tournai then across the Belgian border onto the main road to Brussels.
For the first hour we had no problems, then suddenly a squadron of Stukas flying overhead took fancy to us and started to attack. For the first time so far I was really frightened, there were only fields at either side of the road and no cover anywhere. The convoy had stopped, so I got out of the cab and ran as fast as I could into the field. It seemed the only thing to do. They dived down and opened up with their machine guns and strafed the road. We could only fire at them with rifles, which seemed to me like spitting into the sea, the surprising thing was that practically no damage was done to our convoy and no one injured.
There were a few scares of this type all the way into Belgium. It was during one of these stoppages that I witnessed a sad episode. The convoy had come to a standstill and I had stopped near a house on the outskirts of a small village, shortly after a man came out followed by his wife. He had a pack on his back and was obviously fleeing from the Germans, but she was pleading to him to remain with her, but he had made up his own mind. He eventually departed, a pack on his back and in a direction opposite to the one we were going, her tears and pleading, made it difficult for him to finally wrench away, turn his back on her and go. I felt very sorry for them both, but this was war!
The pace of our advance was painfully slow because of long hold-ups, due to I think practically the whole expeditionary force was using this same road and being harassed by Stuka attacks from time to time. However, the convoy carried on into Belgium and after darkness had fallen, there was a very long hold up. The weather was warm and dry and during this particular stop I and the rest of the men in the cab decided to have a nap by the side of the road, by putting on one of the official gas capes which had been issued to every one. I found that simply laying down in some thick grass was a very good bed and I went to sleep quickly, only to wake up later in dead silence and no sign of any transport other than our own. I quickly woke up the other blokes, started the engine and motored on as fast as we were able and thankfully after about half an hour caught up with the convoy. This time the convoy had stopped to allow all the drivers to get rested, so no one was any the wiser that we had been absent.
The next day we had our breakfast on the roadside from tinned soup, some bread and tea which the cooks had made in a house on the roadside which had been evacuated. We soon moved on again and the way ahead was less congested than previously, so the pace was faster and we started to enter the outskirts of Brussels. I remember marvelling at the cleanliness of the buildings and the pleasantness of the countryside. As we penetrated the outskirts, we were heartened by the friendly attitude the people showed to us as motored along. By the time we had reached the city area, there were crowds of people on both sides of the road, all cheering and smiling. Every time we came to a standstill we were besieged by the people and given all sorts of gifts, bottles of wine, beer, flowers and good wishes. It was all rather marvellous and I wished that we could have stayed longer, but we just kept on moving towards the Germans.
Not long after leaving Brussels behind we arrived at a place called Leuven. Here we halted and as all the population had departed, we found plenty of houses to accommodate the whole Company. George and I were lucky in choosing what had been the local Doctors house and were very comfortable indeed. There were some musical instruments laying about the place and a Metronome, all the other blokes were helping themselves to whatever took their fancy, so I took the metronome.
After spending one night in this delightful house, we moved on the following morning. We next stopped about a mile away at the bottom of a lane where there was a clearing and a hard flat area which George and I designated as our MT repair line. There was a farmhouse and yard right next to our "lines" and the farmer and his wife were busy preparing to evacuate the farm. They owned a large collie type dog which was extremely friendly with me, however the couple who spoke enough English to make themselves understood told us that they were fleeing from the Germans and that they had packed as much as possible. We could have the farm and everything in it, rather than allow the Germans to have it. That afternoon they departed and invited us to use the farm and take care of it as much as possible. That night we slept in their beds, but made sure that none of the other blokes took advantage of the situation and looted the place.
There were about 6 pigs in their stys along the lower side of the lane and when the Company Cooks asked if it was possible obtain a pig in order to supplement rations which had failed to arrive, we both suggested one of our pigs. The condition of all the transport was first class, so George and I had nothing to do, so we decided to kill one of the pigs. Neither of us had much idea of how to do the job, but we tried. First we lured the best sized one to a grating in the side of the sty. Then carefully lining up a rifle with the exact centre of its for head pulled the trigger. The beast just flopped down dead, or so we thought. A second later after opening the door to go inside and stepping in, the pig got up and lunged towards the door, which was hastily slammed, shut. The pig charged round the sty at full speed, we could only look on in horror. After several revs of the sty we took aim again and fired another 303 into its head, but it didn't seem to slow it down, so a third and then a fourth was fired. Then, after what seemed a very long time the pig slowly sank down dead. Unintentionally we had cruelly killed the pig, however we tried to 'bleed' it by cutting its throat. Unfortunately the bayonet we used wasn't sharp enough, so all in all we had made a mess of the whole thing. We walked up the lane to the temporary 'cook house' to tell the cooks, who were delighted to have something to cook and of course, every one else was pleased with the results of the butchery.
The weather was fine and warm and life seemed good for a day or so, then one night we were detailed to go to a map reference where a 30 hundred weight general service truck was stuck. We both decided to go together and on the way to the map reference, we were stopped as we were ascending a steep hill near the top, to be warned that we would be in direct line of sight from the Germans. Luckily at this time the moon had disappeared behind a cloud, so we could proceed. After cresting the rise the road veered to the right and but for the darkness we would have been sitting targets. We could see tracers going both ways behind and in front of us, so we were glad to arrive at our destination, which was not in sight of the enemy. The problem with the truck was due to an oil pressure warning light, which was glowing a very bright orange colour, the oil pressure was ok, it was a faulty relay only and quite safe to merely cover up the light with some insulating tape. We were soon on our way back and felt a bit funny being so near to the actual German front line.
The next day an artillery unit moved into a large field behind 'our' farmhouse and set up their 6" howitzers in a line facing a forest on the other side of our lane. Later on we went to bed soon after dark and slept well in the comfort of really springy beds. Suddenly in the middle of the night we were awakened by a mighty bang and the roof of 'our' house just fell on top of us! We quickly evacuated thinking a bomb had dropped, only to discover that one of the howitzers had opened fire with its barrel pointing over the top of 'our' house. We went to a position behind the guns and as dawn broke were treated to an interesting display from these guns. They were pointing about parallel with the slope of the forest and when they fired, we could see how the mast from the gun seemed to bend all the trees into a travelling valley as each round was fired. The officer in charge was very concerned that we had not been warned. We were henceforth forbidden to go in front of the guns when they were being fired and had to get permission to go and retrieve all our gear from our farm house and all our tools.
About 11 o'clock, the whole Headquarter Section assembled at the top of the lane ready to move back to Leuven again amidst a lot of artillery activity. We came to a stop quite near to the Doctors house which we had occupied a few days previously and almost naturally, took possession again. I believed the whole of the British artillery forces were in intense action at that particular time. There were heavy guns seemingly at every possible position and the stink of cordite fumes was very strong everywhere. Cattle in the fields had not been milked for some days and the cows were in pain. Although the cooks had unofficially asked George and I to kill a cow, we had both had enough of that sort of thing! Anyway the official rations actually arrived so there was normal food for everyone.
As the day went by, the cordite fumes became overpowering and a word went round that a gas attack had started. To my shame I wasn't able to find my gas mask! It was quite a serious offence and I dared not report the loss to get another one issued. Instead I frantically search around to try to find a suitable place which could be made gas tight. I didn't have any luck however and for the rest of the day was very worried. In the middle of the night, we were all alerted and told to prepare to move back again. The number of explosions was fantastic, plus the noise of vehicles racing up and down the roads. By daylight there seemed a lot of the 'Big Guns' had burst their barrels and probably killed the crew in each case.
We eventually moved at first light, but only a few miles and then stopped at another small village, from which all the people had at evacuated. We had a ball collecting eggs and trying our hand at milking cows. There were several cows in their stalls in one of the farms we went to and I decided to try my hand at milking a very good-looking cow. I obtained a bucket and a proper stool, then moved into the stall alongside the cow. The cow's udder was tight with milk, but the cow's tits were very sensitive to the touch and as I took a tit in my hand the cow winced and then put one of its feet on top of mine. I'm quite sure it knew what it was doing because although it could easily have crushed my foot and really hurt me, but instead the pressure came off, but only enough to stop hurting. Never the less I was unable to get away in spite of hitting the cows side with my clenched fists. I got a bucket full of milk in a short time and after some pressure had come off its udder, it lifted its foot and I got away. I often wonder what happened to the thousands of cows which must were not milked for a period of over a week at least, probably they died? I can say that we were well supplied with farm products during this time, but in fact there was so much action that food for once was not a leading concern.
Surprisingly, George and I had little to do, the transport had started out in very good condition from Cysoing and we were seeing the results of our hard work of those days. All the problems which showed up on the vehicles were of a very minor nature, but we always made a special point of giving a good long run after even a small malfunction. At least that was our excuse for making interesting trips about any place we happened to be in! As we approached Brussels, we crossed over a bridge, which looked like a smaller edition of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then the whole unit stopped, so as to prepare the bridge for demolition. Everyone in the company, except those who had a very good reason for being excepted were put to work in the preparation for blowing. George and I of course were automatically excused because of some trouble with a vehicle, so that for a few hours there were only about a dozen men left behind, to do certain vital jobs.
Later on in the afternoon, after all the work had been completed, we were left with a few hours to wait and so went for a walk around this very small settlement. Almost every house was deserted and some of the guys did a bit of looting without anyone to stop them. Quite near to where we had parked most of the transport was a small shop, which had been selling beer and wines. Naturally this attracted the attention of a few guys and before long the door to the cellar which covered a loading ramp into the cellar was opened. Within a few minutes, crates of beer were being passed from the cellar to more guys in the street. I arrived in the middle of this activity and being Parker by name and nosy by nature, decided to go down the ramp, so as to explore the cellar. After looking round, I decided to climb some steps up into the quarters above. There was another door at the top of these steps, which I promptly opened, only to be confronted by the sight of a whole family seated round a fire, obviously discussing their future plans. In a panic I quickly shut the door and bolted down to the cellar to escape and warn the others. Everyone immediately stopped the operation and bolted the same as me.
Shortly afterwards, the main company arrived back from the bridge and the proprietor of the shop was soon there also. The outcome of the exercise was a hefty payment by our CO to compensate for the loss of the contents of the cellar. It was a poor recompense, if you consider that the value of the Franc would have declined to zero shortly afterwards and we were all given a strongly worded warning. The following day we reached the outskirts of Brussels and there was a dramatic change since we last motored through it. The streets were deserted and silent and most depressing. I was glad when we had finally left the city behind. It was obvious that we were retreating fairly fast, but the importance of events didn't really interest us much, we merely carried out our orders to the best of our ability. The attitude gradually spread, that what we left behind would be picked up later by the Germans, so a degree of looting seemed to be OK. Our kitbags tended to become heavier generally.
We were all glad that air attacks were not so often at this time, but the retreat continued with occasional stops to enable the company to prepare a bridge for blowing, or generally to slow down the Germans who were never very far behind us. Late one afternoon we arrived at Ronse and pulled in to the grounds of a large old country house. Before many minutes had passed, orders came from above to move manpower back to a demolition job, but most of the vehicles had to remain behind. George and I and three or four other men were left behind, mainly to watch over all the equipment which was spread out in the grounds of the house. The Leyland 5 toner and the Dennis, both loaded with 5 tons of Amatol and Guncotton slabs each were the only large vehicles which went to the demolition site some miles back, leaving a large amount for 6 men to guard. George and I did a few small repair jobs on a few vehicles, which we completed in about an hour, thus giving us a lot of time to waste.
The house in whose grounds we were parked proved to be completely empty and after making sure that in fact the place was at our mercy, we all did a trip right through the full house, picking up various items as we did so. In one of the upstairs rooms was a large safe, locked of course, but we were all Engineers and in the vehicles parked outside there was tons of explosives. It was a small job to arrange a few slabs of guncotton round the lock and then detonate the charge, of course we were careful to go outside while the long length of fuse was lit When we went back to examine our handiwork, we got the shock of our lives. The force of the explosion had done a great amount of damage even to the bottom storey. There was plaster everywhere and it was no longer a nice place in which to live. Of course we were all very worried about what would be said when the rest of the company returned. Fortunately, when they did return, it was only to pick up the rest of the transport and then immediately move through the town of Ronse and on towards the small village of Amougies.
We stopped here so as to give everyone time to sleep, some sections however still had to carry on with certain jobs. Our next stop was at a place called Avelgem. After crossing a river at this stage it was discovered that the company water truck had gone missing. George and I were ordered to go back and bring it back. We collected our tools and set off back the way we had come, eventually finding the watercart just beyond Amougies. We found that the high-tension cable to the distributor was broken and the driver had run the battery down in trying to start it. We hooked up to our own battery and in a few minutes got it running again and set off back straight away. A few minutes later while traversing a long straight stretch of road we saw a German plane land on an aerodrome alongside the road we were on and by standing up could see a number of other aircraft already on the ground. Obviously the Germans were in full possession of the landing ground. That was sufficient incentive for us to hot foot along the road back to our own unit. We must have broken all records for speed on the way back to Aveldem.
Soon after getting back, the unit was on the move again and after passing through Kortrijk, started to head south towards Lille again. We pulled into a riding school at Tourcoing where George and I lost no time in setting up a repair shop. To our delight we found all the signs of recent occupation by a British Light Aid detachment, who it seemed had been told to get out at very short notice. Consequently the various buildings were full of all sorts of spares for motorcycles and vehicles. Surprisingly, there was not much for us to do in maintaining our fleet, so it wasn't long before we began to raid the spares. We first had quite a lot of fun using the oval horse track as a speedway track, which soon made us think of building a bike with a short wheel base and steeper castering angle like a typical speedway style bike. We both started enthusiastically to build our 'specials' and in a very short time had a couple of really handy race bikes, which to our delight were looked on by our transport officer Captain Whimster with real interest and before long he shared our fun on the track.
We stayed in this location for nearly a week and only left a few times to go to some breakdown within about a 20 mile radius. Then one night we were told to go to a map reference near Armentieres where one of the 5 toners was in trouble. George and I set off immediately and made as good a time as possible in view of the heavy traffic on the roads. As we went through Armentieres which had been bombed we had difficulty getting through owing to a team of horses laying dead across the main road at a dogleg in the road. Shortly after, we found the 5 tonner and managed to get it running again fairly quickly. Then we went back into Armentieres but took a wrong turning and found it necessary to reverse and turn back because of bomb damage. In the process George, who was driving accidentally reversed into a shop window which happened to be a jewellers. At first we were horrified and expected trouble with at least the jeweller, but after quite a long time about 3 to 5 minutes, not a sign of life showed up. After quite a lot of shooting and knocking at the shop door, there still was no response. When we were quite sure that the street was empty of humans except ourselves, we had a look in the shop window and helped ourselves to a few hands full of the wares like gold rings and trinkets, then casually drove off.
The next day the Company came to rest at a small farm just outside a village and everyone took it as a rest period after a week or more of very irregular sleep patterns. The cooks put on a very creditable feed for all and everyone was really relaxing after the lunch. It was beautiful day, bright sunshine and all quiet when a single German spotter plane went lazily overhead. Then about 5 minutes later a squadron of Stuka's arrived and started to dive-bomb something at the other side of the village. A few minutes after they had departed, a squadron of normal bombers arrived and dropped a lot of incendiary bombs. We just looked on, there seemed to be no danger to us. Then another squadron of bombers arrived, but this time started dropping their bombs on our squadron. This came as a shock to me and to everyone and I dived under a farm cart, which was the only cover for fast use. I just sat there and suddenly an incendiary bomb hit the ground about a foot away. Luckily it failed to ignite and after a few minutes, after I had made sure it was in fact a dud I returned and picked it up.
[Note: Alf Parker's narrative ends at this point and resumes with his escape from P.G. 78 in September 1943, two and a half years after being taken prisoner during Operation Colossus. The George he refers to from this point on is not George Mays from the above account.]
Sulmona and Escape Back to England
There had been a cheese issue, 2oz per man, so George & I decided to use some breadcrumbs we had saved to make a concoction of hot cheese and breadcrumbs. We had collected a small store of wood and duly put our very highly efficient little tin stove to use. This stove we had made from Red Cross tins and recirculated the hot gases from the tiny fire so well that we could boil a full billy - about a pint and a half of water on a very small piece of wood. One could hold a finger in the final exhaust without any discomfort. We had got the fire going well and the cheese was giving of a beautiful aroma, when we heard some bods lower down the compound talking loudly about a giant swarm of bees coming our way, then a few seconds latter someone shouted "The Planes"! At this George and I walked a few yards to get a view. Certainly there did appear to be a swarm of bees in the distance up the Sulmona valley. A few seconds later it became obvious that they were planes all flying in a gigantic formation. Suddenly a small Italian fighter plane swept down from the right firing his guns. There was a quick response from the formation and the fighter didn't make another run. By now the actual shape of the planes could be seen and I saw a Flying-Fortress for the first time. There must have been at least a 1000; all apparently heading straight for the prison camp, then suddenly they began to release their bombs. The sky underneath them became absolutely thick with falling bombs, each one adding its own scream to the already fantastic crescendo of terrifying noise. There was nothing we could do to protect ourselves. The guard on the central watchtower provided us a small distraction by first climbing down his access steps then hesitatingly climbing back up. He finally deserted his post completely to the wild cheers of the prisoners. The bombs had at first appeared to be coming directly towards the camp but fortunately when the first bombs actually landed they were on Sulmona itself and about half a mile away from us. In Sulmona there must have been chaos and also a lot of people killed. It appeared that the railhead must have been the main target but the sheer weight of bombs that fell in a space of not more than 3 minutes must have been devastating. Our carefully prepared meal was now a burnt offering and completely uneatable, but this time we didn't mind.
The excitement that night was intense and the roving patrols were visibly shaken, it seemed obvious that the Italians wouldn't stand for much more of this, I don't think many prisoners slept much this night. An order came through the next morning that we were all to parade on the football pitch at 12 noon so as to be addressed by the senior British officer (a South African) and there was much conjecture about what was to be said. This was one of the few times we had been allowed outside the high surrounding walls. The parade time arrived and we all stood before this traitor. He explained that the Italians were in a bad way and after he had given careful thought to the situation, had decided that in view of the fact that some of us may be thinking of escaping, he had decided to issue an order forbidding any attempt to do so. He followed this up with a warning that in the event of anyone escaping and getting back to British lines they would be charged with disobeying orders and Court Martialled immediately. George and I could hardly believe our ears. However on getting back to our quarters, we both resolved that if an opportunity to escape arose, then we would not hesitate to grasp it. We then quietly checked that our escape was still hidden intact in one of the outside walls. The Italian roving patrols were kept going and security was as tight as ever.
Two days later another "Swarm of Bees" appeared on the horizon to the north and a repeat performance was given to Sulmona. The next day the Italians gave permission for the men from one compound at a time to have a walk outside the high wall and inside the barbed wire defence system beyond. Our compound's time was to be 3PM, surprisingly although George and I were waiting at the gate before time, there were only about 20 others interested in seeing what lay beyond the walls and some of the outside world. At 3 o'clock the gate was opened and George and I went out and turned down to the right. We intended to walk all round the camp and try to spot any weak places in the defence system. There was a main camp road along the lower front and to the left a gate which was not used very much but had a lot of barbed wire entanglement both on it and surrounding it. There was a house just outside the wire. Here we turned right and walked past the solitary confinement block where I had served 30 days last Christmas. These were on our right and on the left a few yards further on was the edge of the football pitch. We already knew there was a very strong defence system of barbed wire on the lower side beyond the football pitch. We then went on to beyond the football pitch and arrived at the Italian Administration buildings which was on the left with some Italian barrack rooms on the right. We then continued to the main entrance to the camp, which of course was very heavily guarded, then we turned right again and started to climb a fairly steep hill on that side of the camp. There was a line of sentry boxes behind barbed wire fences 20 ft high spaced about 100 yards apart. Then there was a slit trench behind each sentry box, followed by two more 20-ft barbed wire fences, then a deep area liberally strewn with loose barbed wire. All this was under the ever-watchful eyes of the sentries, - there was little doubt it was pretty difficult to get out of Sulmona!
On reaching the top of the hill and turning right again on our left was the same pattern of wire defences, but beyond the loose wire was wilderness disappearing into the first slopes of the mountain and this looked the most promising to us. We continued along the top edge of the camp and arrived at the next corner. Here was a wide farm type gate set diagonally across the corner. Beyond the gate was the semblance of a roadway, but which was completely overgrown and obviously never used. There was a sentry in his box on the far side of the gate and the gate was not quite closed. We spoke to the Italian guard in our broken Italian and it seemed that he was only too pleased to break the monotony by talking with us. After about 5 minutes talking I mentioned a very large red flower some 30 or 40 yards away on the edge of the faintly visible track. We all marvelled at its size and beauty, then after another 5 or 6 minutes talking I casually pointed out that it would be nice to take it back with us to our quarters. Then a few minutes later partly by sign language and partly in broken Italian we asked him if he would let one of us go and collect this particular specimen. At first he gave a negative wave of his hands, then after a few gentle prods from us he finally shrugged his shoulders and put his fore finger across his lips in a furtive way, then signalled for us to go and collect the flower.
We went through the gate, walked to the flower then started to try and pull it out of the ground, however the earth was very hard and stony. "We're out!" Almost together we voiced the same thoughts, "Shall we make a run for it?" We turned towards the south and bounded away. We kept on running into the thicket until we could run no further and then dropped to the ground while we recovered our wind. We furtively lifted our heads to figure out just where we were. The Sulmona valley stretched out below us and we were able to spot some traffic moving north and surmised that it was a military convoy and German. After laying there for some time it became obvious there was no pursuit so we then took stock of the situation. We had left all our escape gear intact inside the camp. All we had was what we stood in, - no maps, no food and no aids of any description. The only thing in our favour was the fact that the weather was fairly warm and dry. We decided to head south keeping to the high country away from any roads which could be used by the military and hoping that we could get some help from high country farmers. Having decided on a plan, we immediately began to carry it out by setting off to the south and gradually heading up the slopes to our left. We continued on until it was dark and then found ourselves overlooking a large village, which of course we dare not go into at this time. The hillside we were on was quite steep, about 45 degrees and quite thick with grass and weeds. Finding a spot where there was a small hollow we simply lay down together as close as possible and fell asleep.
We were awakened by the sound of a motor vehicle, which seemed very near, plus the fact that we were frozen stiff and damp. The noise of the vehicle was receding as we watched it make its way up the main street of the village and disappear as it turned left out of sight. It was a German light military car and the road actually passed almost directly underneath where we had been asleep, the dirt road was only about 20 yards away from us. We had a perfect view of the whole village, which was really a collection of poverty-stricken buildings spread out in a very untidy way. Even the main road through it was ill defined; and of course just dirt surface, - cows, chickens, goats and dogs wandered everywhere, but there was no sign of any living person at this time. It was about 4-30 am and the sun was just beginning to come up, the cocks were crowing, the dogs were barking and it looked more like a model from where we were perched. We were both very hungry and decided to risk going down to the village, as there was definitely no sign of any military presence. We felt that should there be any negative response to our appearance then we could run as fast as they could. On scrambling down to the roadway we almost landed at the feet of an Italian old man who was walking back towards the village and after he had got over his surprise, we introduced ourselves as Escaparto Prigioneeres Ingleesy. To our great surprise he spoke back in English with a strong American accent, he assured us that he disliked the Tadeski as much as we must do and that he would be only too happy to help us. He warned us that not all the people in his village might think the same as he did, so it might be better not to advertise our presence too much in case someone informed the authorities. There was still no sign of life when we walked down the main street to his home which was about the third hovel on the right, he introduced us to his wife who seemed quite friendly also. She didn't speak English but she instinctively knew we were hungry and started to make us a breakfast of four eggs each and a big thick slice of home made ham. It was the best meal we had had for over two and a half years. The old man was no friend of Mussolini and said he would be glad when the war was over and some pleasure brought back in to life. Finally he got his wife to pack us up some food to take along with us. We considered ourselves very lucky indeed and left before any other villagers had seen us.
We continued the same way that the German car had gone earlier this morning and turned left at the end and almost straight away started a steep climb. Having spent about 2 hours in Cansano and now making our way to "Campo di Glove", we felt that just now would be safe to keep to the road because there was no traffic and felt we would get plenty of warning should there be any. In fact the only thing we saw was a shepherd with about 200 sheep heading towards us. We didn't bother to hide and when we drew level with the shepherd, he was very friendly. By now the sun was beating down and the roadway was real mountain stuff, hairpin bends and all. The shortest route was straight up and across the road but after giving this method a trial decided to stick to the road until coming within sight of Campo di Glove. We decided not to risk going through this town so we veered to the right and started to make for Palena. The Italian at Cansano had warned us that there might be a German officer in Palena and it might be best to go towards Villa-Santa- Maria. Of course he didn't know if there were any Germans there so we would have to find out for ourselves. After by passing Campo di Glove and rejoining the dirt road again we found the going easier as we began to descend. Then 3 or 4 miles further on we came on a row of houses, which were set about a l00 yards back from the road. There were about 6 or 7 houses only and all looked somewhat tidier than the average Italian scene. We decided to go nearer, where an Italian was chopping wood. He was very friendly and after a few minutes conversation invited us into his house. Incidentally he also spoke a bit of English with an American accent. We took one step down into a small garden before reaching his front door then went into a very neat and tidy room. His wife greeted us in a friendly way and asked if we would like some Munjary then led us into another room beyond. This next room was also very neat and tidy with exquisite home made furniture but the view we got from this room was absolutely breathtaking. The ground in front of this house fell away almost vertically into the valley almost 2000 ft below then rose again about half a mile away up and up into the sky at least 2 or 3000 ft covered with brightly coloured vegetation as far as one could see. It was truly fantastic! We enjoyed a very good meal and a few glasses of wine before thanking them for their hospitality and departing on our way towards Villa-Santa Maria. There didn't seem to be anyone about when we left and I think the rest of the houses were empty. However we left in very good heart indeed and made very good headway for the next hour or so.
The going had been fairly level but gradually begun to become steeper and steeper and the ground stonier leading into a sort of mountain pass. We carried no water bottles and gradually got very thirsty indeed. After another hour of this and a continuing stiff slope we both began to feel some distress, the sun was blisteringly hot and all we could see was parched land everywhere and no sign of Villa-Santa-Maria. Eventually we just had to sit down and rest. A few minutes later we heard some noises of someone following so we hid behind a large rocky mound and waited. Two young Italians appeared over the brow of the hill travelling in our tracks. As they got nearer we were able to size them up and decide that they were not likely to overpower us in the event of a skirmish, so we showed ourselves. They turned out to be quite friendly and also had a large army water bottle each, both almost full. They allowed us to drink our fill of the life giving water and then explained as best they could that they were deserters from the Italian Army and were on their way home to Taranto in the far south. They were very keen to help us on our way if we would vouch for them if we came on the British Forces. We all knew that the Allies were advancing up the country and although we did not speak each other's language, it was surprising how much understanding we were able to exchange. It was decided that we would travel together and whenever we came to a town or village, one of them would go and enquire the whereabouts of any Germans in the locality, we would then act accordingly. With their help, we found it easy to get food from the villagers and also obtain a picture of the movement of the German forces, so the arrangement was very fortunate at the time.
About an hour later we came within sight of Villa Santa Maria and approached to within about 300 yards of the first buildings. Then as arranged one of our new found friends went ahead to enquire what the situation regarding Germans in occupation was. 10 minutes later he returned and assured us there were no Germans, but warned that occasionally they did pass through the town in vehicles but mostly on their own business. He had also contacted some friends who would be prepared to shelter and feed us. So we all walked confidently into the town and went to the house of his friends. They were a bit apprehensive at first, but nevertheless gave us some food and coffee, then showed us where we could sleep for the night in a fairly clean stable. George and I were a bit worried in case we were being set up for denunciation to some passing German patrol. Shortly after, a sudden air of excitement swept through the town, as a small convoy of Germans went past! Obviously the Italians were not friends with the Germans, so afterwards we felt more secure. We could hear the sounds of war further south and estimated it was about 50 miles away, south of Foggia. The Italians seemed to get friendlier and offered us a few glasses of wine, but as there was a black out anyway, we soon went to our straw and slept. We were awakened by the endemic noise of cocks crowing and after a leisurely wash down at the water point in the main street, we returned to our friends house and were provided with a breakfast of eggs; and ham, brown bread and a glass of wine. These peasants were definitely not short of good food and showed no stinting towards the four of us. They suggested that we stay with them and vouch for them when the Allies arrived and were quite confident that the Germans would lose the war. We explained, as best we could, that we were anxious to get on our way again. Our new found companions were of a like mind, with Taranto the centre of their dreams. They had heard that their hometown had been heavily bombed and were very anxious to get home and see their relatives. So, shortly afterwards we shook hands with our benefactors, wished them well, as indeed they did with us and off we went on our way south. Our stay in Villa-Santa-Maria had been a very pleasant interlude and we felt better able to cope now.
Our next aiming point was the town of Trivento about 15 miles south east and although we went across country whenever we came to any small settlement, we would get one of our Italian friends to actually go in first and make sure there were no Tadeski about. If all were clear, then we would follow. We found the average Italian peasant did not like the Tadeski any more than us and noticed a show of friendship towards the English and Americans. They were all heartily sick of the war and with their attitude had little trouble in scrounging food to keep us going. We did have the occasional scare when coming near a track suitable for motor vehicles, when the occasional small convoy of Germans went by, especially when we were near a small settlement. Our Italian friends did make a mistake when we arrived at Trivento. After doing our usual reconnoitre and getting the wrong message we boldly entered the town, only to discover that there was a small detachment of Germans actually there. However after learning of the Germans we simply kept on going through the town without stopping. We saw only one German and he was apparently going about his normal duties and didn't give us a second look.
Our next aiming point was the town of Lucito about 8 miles away across country which turned out to be quite rough and steep going, but there was no sign of any Germans at all. Before arriving at Lucito we came upon a very large vineyard with great tanks showing above the trees. Our Italian friends introduced themselves and us to the few people there who seemed very friendly and who offered us some food as well as a very clean stable to sleep in. They said the Germans were unlikely to come there as they were too far from a decent road, so we were glad to accept their hospitality for the night. Blackouts were in force here of course and after the sun went down there was little else to do but go to bed, which we were all thankful to do anyway. After being awakened by the usual cock crowing, we all cleaned up in quite a civilised wash house, before our hosts brought a really good breakfast with plenty of wine to wash it down with. When we left about an hour latter we were in really high spirits. We passed through Lucito without incident and decided to keep fairly.
About seven or eight miles further on we came to a big junction in the road. We got a very good view from above as we approached and saw that the other road was very bushy with all sorts of German traffic. We decided Campobasso was no place for us and headed south-east, across the main road in the direction of Leisi about 9 miles away across country, This was very hard going and we decided to try travelling along the main roads and risk being stopped by Germans. After finally getting on to the main Campobasso to Foggia road we were able to get along faster and the German traffic went on its way and we on ours. There was little difficulty in finding a stable to sleep in and scrounging food from the small farmers we contacted and within 2 days were on the outskirts of Foggia. Foggia was a very busy place indeed and although there was a lot of Germans about, no one took the slightest notice of us, we were all about equally badly dressed. I remember the large concrete blocks off flats all looking the worse for wear and what seemed great crowds of Italians pouring out of them. There were far to many German troops in the place for us to risk finding a place here for the night, so we continued on.
It was late afternoon when we cleared Foggia and headed southeast, but here the concentration of Germans was fairly intense and we deemed it wise to keep away from the main road now. We crossed a main road and started to approach a village on a hill, but were stopped because of a sudden burst of machine gun fire which appeared to come from the northern side of the village and firing over the top of the village south. This firing continued almost continuously. The tracer bullets gave quite an interesting display, gradually other guns joined in and made the spectacle even more interesting and spectacular things went on for most of the night. This night was spent in the open, luckily the temperature was fairly warm so we were able to close our eyes and get a bit of rest. It was obvious now that we were getting close to the actual front line. We increasingly came near German artillery positions but managed to get past without being spotted ourselves. There were plenty of trees and underbrush so it wasn't very difficult to remain out of sight. By the same token we finally broke into a clearing which was occupied by a big gun and its attendant crew. Luckily, they were so engrossed in loading the gun that we just had time to quietly do an about turn. We creeped slowly sway without being seen.
After a few minutes we came on to a rough track and turned right on to it. We continued downwards for an hour or more until we spotted a farmhouse ahead. One of our Italian friends went on his own slowly to investigate the situation and 20 minutes later returned looking very pleased. He explained that the farmer was very upset because the Tadeski had been and taken all his sheep and cattle as they retreated and now there were no Germans left. We then went on to the farm and the farmer confirmed what had been said to our friend. On further questioning it became clear that in fact the hated Tadeski had gone. The tragedy was that the farmer had given us the wrong information or that we had misinterpreted the message. Unfortunately we were overjoyed and thought we had by strange chance walked straight through the front line and that the British troops were on the other side of the valley. We could hear the occasional burst of Bren gun fire on both flanks but not on our sector, we wrongly assumed that Gerry had gone. So the 4 of us shook hands with the Italian farmer and his wife and set of on a continuation of the track we had come by.
Beyond the farm was clear open space, only an odd tree here and there, about a mile away was another farm and our intention was to call our way past. However after walking a hundred yards only, there was a sudden small volley of small arms fire coming from our next calling point. At the same time George burst out, Christ, there's a Gerry observation post up that tree ahead and to our left. I spotted the glint of his field glasses at the same time. We were all in civilian clothes and apparently hadn't a care in the world, we hoped. So all we could do was to gradually change our course so that our track took us well behind the farm. We had been spotted, so we just walked at normal speed across an enormous field which sloped down to our right to the bottom of the fairly shallow valley and about a further half a mile away was covered by a large area of forest. We had got to a point a little past the farm, when Bren Guns fired us on from the other side of the valley. Bullets were landing all around us. At this time we noticed that the track which we had been on originally after passing the farm became lined up with a natural Fault Line and the track was 4 or 5 feet below the ground level to the right, thus providing natural cover from the German forces. We naturally set off running as fast as we could to reach this cover and at the same time veering left towards the forest at the bottom of the valley. We safely reached the track and cover when there was a shout of "Achtung" from a small party of Germans leaving the farm heading down the track towards us about 100 yards away. They were armed with sub-machine guns and fired a few shots in our direction. It was evident they were short on range so we continued running. This track veered to the right and as we rounded it there appeared a party of Italian civilians, all young men stretch out in a long line with their hands held above their heads as they emerged from the forest. We thought that there was a force of Germans behind them, so I said to George, "Dump everything British and try to pass off as an Italian".
By the time the party from the farm had caught up with us and the Italians were near. We realised that there were no Germans behind the Italians. They had heard the Germans firing at us and had thought it had been meant for them. It was too late to do anything about it now, anyway the Germans by this time were all around us and indicated for us to proceed up the track towards the farm. When we reached the farmyard, which was hidden from the British line by a large haystack and some outbuildings, we just milled around until a German officer appeared out of the farmhouse. One of his men acting as a very poor interpreter generally questioned the men in the crowd and everything seemed pretty informal and friendly at this time. Then after about 5 minutes, the officer suddenly brought the proceedings to a stop and ordered us to form up in military fashion. We were all then searched and everything of value taken away. We were then led to what appeared to be an out house to the main farm building, but which was a chicken house, liberally covered in droppings and the rickety door was closed on us. George and I by prior arrangement kept away from each other and spoke to no one, only our Italian friends knew that we were English. Looking through the large cracks in the door we could see the Germans struggling to get a very large gun out of its position and hitched to a gigantic tractor. We looked at each other and I thought to myself, it looks as if they are retreating and will leave us locked in here.
After about 10 minutes the door was flung open and a tall fine looking German stepped into the room. He counted the number, then said "Ah the thirteen apostles" then he pointed two fingers to one of the Italians including George and said "Prima duee" and signalled them outside. A few seconds later there was a number of revolver shots and it was obvious they had been shot. A feeling of absolute horror overcame me and I looked desperately around the room for a possible way of escape, but to no avail. The Italians were in a frenzy. "Mama Mia" they cried, some went down on their knees and prayed to Almighty God. A few seconds latter the door was flung open again. The same German came to signal out the next two. I strode up to him and cried "you can't shoot me, I'm English". He looked down at me questioningly, "Eine Englander?" he said frowning. "Yes I'm an Englishman" I replied. "Eine Tommy" he next asked, to which I blurted "Yes I'm a Tommy". With this he took hold of my arm and led me outside to a waiting officer. This officer spoke to me in English with a strong Oxford accent. He asked me who I was and how did I come to be in this situation. I told him my rank and service number and that I was an ex prisoner of war and had escaped from Sulmona Concentration Camp.
While this questioning was in progress, the chicken run was being emptied two men at a time. As they came out of the door, they faced about 30 Germans formed in a semi-circle leading to the entrance to a square large walled in enclosure with a gateway. As they arrived at the gateway the Germans were shooting them in the backs. I watched in horror until they had all been shot and said "Oh God you've shot my best friend". The tall German, on hearing this, suddenly looked agitated, pointed to the bodies, "eine Englander?" he asked. Quickly I realised my delicate position and replied "No an Italiano". He looked very relieved. They then turned their attention to me again. They pointed to the other side of the valley and were curious as to how I had managed to get where I was. I told them again that I was an escaping ex prisoner of war from Sulmona PG 78. They seemed to be quite friendly and lots of them came to talk to me to give their English language an airing. I was very impressed by the great numbers who spoke fairly good English. Later I was to find that the standard of education of the average German was better than mine, certainly I had no difficulty in making myself understood. They had quickly got back to the job of preparing to move their position and it seemed that they were fairly used to these massacres. In fact the shooting we had heard earlier was probably the same drill, I suppose the German Command did this sort of thing in order to toughen their troops and make them more bloodthirsty.
Finally everything was ready I was loaded into a 3 ton truck, along with about a dozen Germans and had just actually started when a motor cycle and sidecar suddenly arrived. We stopped and I was off loaded in to the sidecar, with a guard on the pillion we then set off on our own. As soon as we left the cover of the haystack and farm building we were fired on by the British forces on the other side of the valley. Fortunately there was only about 250 yards before making some more cover. This was the farm we had visited earlier, but now we motored straight through. About 5 minutes later we came to a tar-sealed road where we turned right. We then went in a dead straight line north for about 8 or so miles arriving at a place called Cerignola where we spent some time trying to locate the proper army unit. Eventually we swept up to a very impressive looking entrance to what appeared to be a stadium of some sort, surrounded by a very high wire mesh fence.
Inside the large gate was straight drive leading to some impressive buildings and as we drew up to the side of the gate, a high ranking German officer was strutting down the drive, hands behind his back. The driver and the guard sprang to attention and saluted the officer but I just scrambled out of the sidecar and stood there. The officer came straight towards me and said "ah the Englishman". Obviously he had been expecting me. He spoke perfect English and then said, "I suppose you realise that you are in a very dangerous position being in civilian clothes." Suddenly the effects of the last hour swept over me and particularly my denunciation of George at the murder site. "You've killed my best friend you bastards, you may as well finish me off as well" I blurted out. At that moment I was almost wishing to die, because of the wrong I had done to George. The effect on the officer was remarkable. His whole attitude changed to one of concern. "How long is it since you had a square meal?" he asked. "I've forgotten" I replied. "Just give me your name rank and number" he said, "and then come with me". I gave him these details, he wrote them down and then he led me back towards the main buildings. He entered what must have been the caretakers living quarters, quite a well appointed place. He ordered his batman to run a hot bath for me and while I waited he talked to me in a very friendly way. I volunteered the information that I had been in the same parallel unit to him - he had a parachute emblem on his uniform. I found that he knew more about the raid that I had taken part in way back in 1941 than I did myself. After a really good bath, they gave me a clean shirt a new pair of trousers, underpants and socks, then treated me to a meal which was the best I had had for over 2 years. He told me the war was going against them at present time and that I would be in the charge of a parachute regiment that had been pulled out of the front line for a rest. He said that if I would sign a parole and promise not to try and escape, then I would be given a very good time. I told him that to do so would be unthinkable. He then told me that as soon as they had gathered a big enough party of prisoners to make it worthwhile, we would all be sent back to Germany by train. He told me that I would be expected to work for which I would be paid and that if I co-operated life could be fairly pleasant. An hour later as it was beginning to go dark, the driver and guard who had brought me here returned to collected me and take me away. I shook hands with the officer and we each wished each other luck.
The ride lasted only a few minutes when we arrived at an Headquarters tent set in the edge of a forest. I was to spend about 4 days being centred here. The men of this unit had been told of my arrival and that I was a paratrooper also. They soon crowded round, anxious to test out their English. The concentration of vehicles and masses of war stores all carefully camouflaged under the trees amazed me. I was kept up half the night talking, they issued me with a ground sheet and blankets, a straw mattress, tooth brush, tooth paste, soap, clean towel, I half expected to get a pair of pyjamas, but no. We sat and talked and drank until I fell asleep. I was awakened by my guard in the morning, who took me for a wash then to the field toilets, which were very clean, then to the field kitchen where I lined up in the queue along with the men of the unit. I was given exactly the same food as the others, even to the same extra issue of cigarettes, 2.1nd chocolates. In fact I was given a bit more than they were, because I looked hungrier I think. All the time they seemed keen to practice their knowledge of the English language on me. They kept on warning me not to try and escape, as they said they had orders to shoot to kill if I did attempt it and they assured me they wouldn't like that. Everyone in the unit was resting and a lorry was sent into the town of Cerignola to do some looting. An hour later he returned with the back of the lorry choc-a-block full of all sorts of things, large roles of cloth, curtains, office desks etc, all simply useless but also a great pile of chocolates, cigarettes and sweets. These were all carefully sorted and counted, then divided by the number of men in the unit, including me and so I was handed about 300 cigarettes a pile of sweets and chocolate. Everyone in the unit shared a large quantity of bottled wine and a really happy time was had by all. I found that at this time all my wish to escape disappeared and I felt a pang of conscience. That night I slept very soundly and later realised that as the evening wore on I must have been given a drug in one of the drinks so as to relieve the strain on my guard.
The next morning after our ablutions, my guard told me that I would be going to another unit today, so about 10.30 I was put into the sidecar and of we set again. We motored for about 3 hours. I saw lots of allied aircraft about and several times we got a scare when one of the planes came near to us. However finally after some time the new Headquarter tent was located; the driver dismounted and went into the tent. After a few minutes I heard voices raised in anger and out stormed an officer red faced excitingly telling the driver to take the Englander somewhere else, he had enough troubles of his own. This scenario was repeated more or less 4 more times during the day and I loved every minute of it. Apart from the constant danger of attracting an allied fighter on to our tail it was good. The three of us became quite friendly and all saw the funny side to the situation. We had no food all day and finally when they decided to return to their unit, still without getting rid of me, we all looked forward to some food. On arriving back at Cerignola and reporting to the headquarter tent, we were quick to go to the field kitchen where we given a really good meal. The rest of the night was spent talking and drinking the wine from the mornings looting trip, and so another day sped by.
On the third morning, things livened up somewhat. It was evident that the whole unit was preparing to move their position, trucks were being loaded, the rest period was over, However, the driver told me that I was definitely going to another unit today and about 10 o'clock we set off again. Once again it was practically a repeat performance of yesterday and towards evening we returned once more to Cerignola. This time however the whole unit was actually ready to be on the move, waiting only for darkness. We managed to get a packed sandwich each and washed it down with a bottle of wine. I was put into the back of a 2 ton truck along with several others and as soon as light faded we moved away. After about an hour's travel, there was a few spots of rain, so we stopped in order to put a tarpaulin sheet over the back of the truck. Ten minutes later, the heavens opened and water found its way everywhere. From then on things were uncomfortable to say the least, I think I had the best place being sat right in the middle. The convoy moved slowly on all night with frequent long stops and although it was most uncomfortable I slept (I really now think that I had been drugged). We were still on the move at first light and the driver and his companions in the front cab were becoming agitated because of a wrong turning and becoming lost. The track which we were on was getting steeper by the yard and eventually it was obvious we could go no further. It was fast becoming light and already allied planes were about. The track was quite narrow; the only bit of level ground was a small yard in front of an Italian farmhouse. There were several tall narrow haystacks perched precariously on the edge of a steep drop but this was the only space to manoeuvre, so the driver reversed on to the yard. As he did so a couple of the haystacks were pushed over the edge. The old farmer and his wife were outside observing all the commotion. When the haystacks were knocked over, the old man was livid and started calling the Germans "bastardoes". The sergeant in charge calmly took out his revolver and at point blank range pulled the trigger. The effect on his wife was devastating - I can never forget the tragic look on her face. When I objected, I was curtly told that I should think myself lucky not to have been shot also.
We started down the track again and they were able with the aid of light to finally locate their rendezvous, by which time there were lots of allied aircraft looking for targets. Our new quarters turned out to be a tie factory, naturally camouflaged by a light straw roof set on poles above low rickety tables used for airing the tiles before firing. Strangely, although it had been raining all night, this place seemed to be dry. The German soldiers encouraged me to share in the organising of what was to be our living quarters for the next few days and by evening I began to feel ill. By the next morning I was feeling very ill indeed and kept shivering with cold. They willingly piled their own blankets on to me and soon got a doctor to examine me. He gave me some tablets and left some for me to take later. I went to sleep and woke up the following day feeling very well again. Obviously he had put me to sleep so as to relieve my guards of their duty for a day. I was asked many times in a nice way if I would sign a document promising not to try and escape but in the nicest way said no. They were quite nice about it and I really think meant it when they said they wouldn't have liked to shoot me if I did try to escape.
About mid-day one of the men said that I would be going to another unit this afternoon. Sure enough after a good meal, I was taken in the sidecar of a combination, with my guard sitting on the pillion seat armed with a tommy-gun. We went to 3 different units, the procedure was first to locate each particular unit then be directed to the headquarter office, in a farmhouse or large tent. The driver would disappear into the office then a few minutes later out would come the driver, followed by an officer breathing blue smoke and waving his arms. I gathered from my two companions that they were being told in no uncertain way to take the bloody prisoner somewhere else he had enough on his plate as it was. This scenario was repeated at every unit, of course the distance between each call took an hour or so of travelling, the weather was beautiful, the sun blazed down. Occasionally we had to run for cover whenever an allied fighter came near, but I think we all enjoyed ourselves. The next day was almost a repeat of the previous day; the three of us became very friendly indeed. However, when we next returned, it was evident that the unit was preparing to move on. I realised that I was a complete nuisance to them and did entertain for a short time that they may cut their losses and shoot me. I really think that the fact of having fair hair saved my skin, all was turmoil and I could gather there was a big problem in keeping a prisoner.
Finally the general of the unit said that I would travel with him and his driver! And so started one of the most fantastic nights of my life. There was a large flag on the radiator, which signified that we had priority of way and although the German army was really on the move that night, we encountered many traffic snarl-ups. That flag was a miracle worker. We arrived in Bari in the middle of the night at the same time as lot of allied bombers. The result was complete chaos and even the general's vehicle came to a stop. He told me to keep close or he would be forced to shoot me and I was not at that time in any mood to try, having been on the go all day and now all night. Bombs seemed to be dropping everywhere and in a strange way I felt a bit sorry for the general who was almost as helpless as me. By first light the shambles became apparent. There were hundreds of dead bodies all over the place and they were being collected into heaps at the side of the roads. All in all it had been a ghastly night. Later on in the morning the general decided to move on in order to get some sleep. So we motored north about 10 miles and after traversing some narrow twisting roads came to a farm. The general went inside the house and came out a few minutes later with a sergeant. He told me that this unit would look after me from on, then we shook hands and wished each other the best of luck. He climbed into his vehicle and ordered his driver on. The sergeant spoke extremely good English and his first words to me were "Do you know how to treat chickens?" We were walking up an incline towards the farmhouse and as we got near I could see a lot of Germans chasing after a mass off chickens and then wringing their necks. It dawned on me what he meant and when he waved me forwards I joined in the chase. The poultry were going in all directions and after running after one in particular suddenly realised I might be out of sight of the main party shortly, so speeded up on the uneven ground. At that point one of the Germans was converging on his particular chicken, there was a shout from behind and the game was up! After being led back to the farmhouse, the sergeant chided me and told me if I tried again they would definitely bring my life to a close. This was a small unit of about 12 men only and I was led into the living room, which was fairly comfortable. I sat down in a chair and went to sleep. They were a friendly lot and allowed me to sleep all morning.
I was awakened in the early afternoon by one of the party holding a glass of wine and insisting that I take a good swig. They had raided the farmer's wine cellar and there was a row of bottles all waiting to be drunk (They said). I obliged at first but didn't wish to get drunk and furtively poured my wine in to a large base of an indoor plant whenever I got the opportunity. This party went on all afternoon. There were about 7 or 8 men plus the sergeant in charge and was treated by them as if I was really one of them. Of course they began to be under the influence of all drink which was being consumed. Outside the door into the farmhouse, was a very large Alsation type dog firmly attached to the wall by a thick heavy chain. There was room to get past this dog, but it was a bit unnerving for anyone coming into the house to have this dog lunging at them in a frenzy of bad temper, jaws dripping and straining at the chain. To say it was a bloody nuisance was an understatement! I mention this at this time to help to understand what I was forced to witness later. Everyone seemed to be very happy under the influence of lots wine. I had managed to dump a lot of my wine into my friendly plant pot, so believe that whilst not stone cold sober I think I was completely in control of my actions, although I managed to make them think that I was really drunk. The sergeant came to sit by my side and told me that their unit was going to move off as soon as it went dark. Then he said it would be a good idea for me to drive his vehicle. During the day I had mentioned that I was interested in motor racing and found out from him that he had been to the Dunlop jubilee meeting at Castle Donington in 1939. Of course at first we had both enjoyed talking about our mutual interest, but it now turned out to be embarrassing. I had told him that I had been at the same meeting and also that I told him I was a motor-mechanic, hence his request. I told him that I was not prepared to help my enemy in this way. In answer he took out his hand pistol, pointed it at my chest and told me that I had no option because he would be beside me and if I still refused to drive he would pull the trigger.
I did try to brazen it out, but luckily for me everything changed at last minute. About an hour before we were due to start moving, they all were brought up short by the sergeant and from then onwards there was hard activity packing on the vehicles all the last minute details until the light began to fade. Finally everything was ready; everything checked and ready to start. A last quick look round the farmhouse, then out. The brute of a dog lunged at us all for the last time. The sergeant picked up an old rusty buck which was lying there, approached the dog which was still straining at its chain and at a safe distance brought the bottom of the bucket hard down on the dog's nose. Blood immediately streamed out of the dog, but enraged the animal even more! Every time the dog lunged the rusty bucket was hurled at its nose, - this went on for a long time until the dog became weaker and weaker and its rage gradually turned into a wail of defeat. However the sergeant kept on striking the dog until it lay in a pool of its own blood and died. Each time I tried to turn away from the site a gun was pointed at my head and I was told to keep looking. We moved down to the sealed road and I believe that had I been asked to drive I would not have refused and yet miraculously he never asked me to drive. By morning, we had reached a new position, which seemed to be 3 or 4 separate farms all very close together. The owners had departed. Here it seemed as if we had joined up with a larger unit and I was first in the hands of one unit then an hour later transferred to another unit.
Finally after a few of these changes, the sergeant of the night before came along in a small open tourer BMW, a very sporty looking car and told me to get in. Off we went to another farm close by where the farmer had left. We had the place to ourselves and together we gathered some eggs and bacon from a pantry. He had already brought some German bread with him. We milked a cow and then made a really good meal. Afterwards he told me that he personally had taken responsibility for me and that if I escaped, he would be in deep trouble. At first I didn't realise the implication. After we'd eaten our fill and began to feel sleepy and he started make himself comfortable for a snooze, in a casual way got me to say that I would not go away if he went to sleep. With that he went firmly to sleep. I was very tired myself and was tempted to sleep myself, but my conscience worried me. I had a walk outside and could hear and see signs of activity from the Germans in the adjacent farms, but if I had walked away, I'm quite sure that I would not have been recaptured. Obviously the sergeant was going to sleep for some hours and there would have been no alarm until he awakened. After about an hour I woke him up and told him that if he went to sleep again then I would escape. I was surprised how he accepted the news. He first suggested that we both make a cup of coffee, then whilst we were drinking it, said that he would have to hand me back to the main party where 3 men would be required to guard me. He pointed out that I would not have such a good time, as with him. I never found out what his particular duties were but had a suspicion that he was attached to their security service. Anyway, after finishing our coffee we went to his car and set of back to the main unit where he officially handed me into their care. We shook hands, wished each other the best of luck and parted.
The new unit merely included me in the section so that everyone could keep their eyes on me, always keeping me in the middle of a group. I always had plenty of company, because lots of ordinary guys came to talk to me in English, so the time passed very pleasantly. In the early afternoon of the following day, I heard an American officer who was being escorted towards me suddenly say almost demandingly, "Come on you guys, who's got a cigarette?" The Germans treated it as a huge joke and seemed to be only too willing to offer him one. Of course I was very pleased to see someone on my own side again and I gathered from him that he had been shot down the previous day. He was totally unhurt and was a very happy go lucky type and in the few times we could talk together, I learned that he was keen to escape also. The following morning we were informed that they had captured some more prisoners and we would soon be joining them today so that it would be practical to send a batch of 40 or 50 on their way to the Fatherland. Sure enough about an hour later a small truck arrived, manned by the German military police complete with their ridiculous looking and seemingly impractical large metal breastplates. They seemed to be somewhat aloof from the ordinary Germans, but didn't object to some hand shaking with our previous warders. We both got in the back of a small truck and with a few cries of "Good Luck" from the Germans we were on our way.
About half an hour later we entered fairly thick woods and saw a concentration of armaments spread out under the trees and carefully camouflaged from large tanks to big guns, thousands of them! Our truck went through to a clearing in which was a twin towered religious looking building and stopped near the two towers. It turned out to be an Italian graveyard, under each square tower was a room and each room separated by the roadway into to a walled in graveyard. The room on the left was being used by the Germans as a temporary jail. A sentry outside opened a door and allowed us both to pass in, The room was filled completely, standing room only, with a German armed with a tommy gun sat in each corner. The men inside were from the "Green Howards" except for one US marine. After a few pleasantries I moved away from the corn, away from the Germans in the corner and asked one of the Green Howards if they had been closely watched since capture and had there been many opportunities to escape. Almost at the top of his voice he denounced me, saying they were all quite happy to be prisoners and were not going to allow anyone to spoil their privileges by trying, so of course I was forced to let it drop. I knew that the Yank I had come with was keen to escape anyway. A few minutes later the American marine came to me and said that he was very keen to have a go at the first opportunity. Unfortunately his left arm was in a sling and broken!
The time was about 3.30 and about an hour later the door was opened and a German told us all that we could go to the farmhouse nearby and be fed. A few minutes later we were placed in a very large room, the floor of which was thickly covered with apples. They told us not to eat the apples because we would shortly get some good soup. Sure enough, a few minutes later we were led to a field kitchen a hundred yards away and given some delicious thick soup. Also we were allowed to have as much as we desired. The two Americans and I ate all that we could plus a bit more, I in the surety that I would need all my stamina in the immediate time ahead. After everyone was well fed two lorries appeared, and then two sports cars driven by their military police complete with tommy-guns and breastplates. All the prisoners were loaded into the back of one truck and so with a car in the lead then our truck followed by the second truck with about 20 M.P s aboard and another sports car, they all seemed to be armed with a tommy gun. By the time the convoy started to move off, the daylight was beginning to fade. The road was fairly good but with loose metal and a very twisting terrain through a mountainous area. The two yanks and I got near the tailboard of the truck and it was obvious that to attempt to make a run for it would have been suicide.
About half an hour went by as we slowly wound our way to the railhead at Campobasso. There were lots of hairpin bends to negotiate and about midway on our journey our driver went too near the right hand side of the road whilst going round a right hand bend. His rear wheel went over the edge of a very steep loose embankment and we stopped. The Germans told all the prisoners to get off and form up in threes on the road above the lorry. Then they told us that if we would help them to get out of the situation we could look forward to rest in the warm and dry waiting room at Campobasso station. Otherwise we could choose to stay out here for the night waiting for their own engineers to arrive, pointing out at the same time that it looked like a very wet night was likely as a few spots of rain came down. To the Yank's and my surprise all the Englishmen except me heartily volunteered to get the truck out. So, the attempt got under way, the Yanks and I fighting to push it further in, while everyone else tried to get it out. I'm pleased to say the 3 of us won and so the truck was well and truly in a very bad position indeed. The Germans didn't loose their cool, merely shrugged their shoulders as much as to say "what else could we expect" however they seemed to get some pleasure when it later started to rain and pointed out that we would be here all night.
After about 20 minutes a really massive recovery vehicle complete with hooks, crane, winches, tow-bars, in fact every conceivable piece of equipment needed to get motor vehicles, even tanks out of a rut. In short time they were organised, the prisoners were lined up in threes above the wreck and a searchlight shone on the group and the wreck. They then set about attaching cables etc to the wreck. While they were absorbed in doing their thing I moved my position so that I was on the back row with the two Americans on my left. I whispered to the Yankee pilot, I wonder where those blokes are that were in the car and truck which was following us. If I took one step back I would be in darkness compared to the light beam. He replied 'Go on boy, Take a chance!' and at that I took a step back then very slowly turned to the right, then very slowly walked away. I had gone about 20 yards when I passed the sports car, which had followed us. There was someone sitting asleep in the passenger's seat, so I just kept going at the same leisurely pace. The moon was rising and I could see fairly well to a distance of about a 100 yards. The hedge on the right hand side was unbroken so far but after passing the car I saw a group of people ahead and at the same time saw a large gap in the hedge. Without hurrying I turned into the gap and immediately found myself at the corner of a big ploughed field with a hedge on my right at right angles to the road. The surface was soft and wet and the going much more difficult, however after getting out of earshot, I started to run for all I was worth. After going about a 100 yards further there was a sudden break out of small arms and machine gun fire from the region of the wreck, I could only assume that the two Yanks had also had a go and had been spotted. Obviously I will never find out what really happened.
I was well clear now so I stopped and sat down on a stone to recuperate, then continued on in the same direction until I came to a vehicle width track across my present track. The moon was fairly bright, but it was a cloudy night. On the other side of the road was a thick forest, so I decided to turn left here rather than go straight into the forest. After starting I found the going much easier. I got into a marching mode and strode on, until about 10 minutes later suddenly heard a field telephone. I stopped and listened then heard a voice ahead and just discerned a sentry at the end of large area covered with tents. Luckily for me the end of the forest marked the beginning of a flat area on which the tents were pitched so at this point I turned into the under growth, fearing to traverse a wide clear area beyond the trees, in case I might be spotted. The going was now very slow indeed but I kept on going at about 45 degrees back and on rising ground. Keeping my direction was not easy due to the clouds, which often put me in total darkness. In spite of these difficulties I eventually arrived at a broad strip of clear grass about 40 feet wide, a fire break! I turned half right into the fire break area, the going was a lot easier and its direction nearly due south so all seemed to be going well. Suddenly I heard a field telephone again and stopped dead to listen. This time there was no human voice, only movements in the grass on the hillside on my left. It then dawned on me that I had merely heard a bell attached to a sheep or a goat, all the same it was quite a fright!
I continued on with rising ground to the left falling away to my right and heavily wooded. Gradually the trees became less and less until there were none. I walked on in the same direction until reaching the start of a dry stone wall, then after a short distance another dry stone wall forming a track, at this time I saw about a mile ahead on my left a farm like building. I knew from past experiences that many of these high country farms were usually empty, so I thought it a good idea to get to it and maybe get some sleep out of the wind if I could find a clean dry spot. After continuing between the two stone walls, about 35 feet apart for about 10 minutes, a dog I had been aware of for some time, took a different tone and much to my horror saw the dog heading towards me. It was so close that there was no time to take any evading action. It was very big dog indeed and I saw visions of me being torn to shreds. There was only one way to deal with the situation, stand my ground and fight it. At the back of my mind I imagined that if I could grab its two front legs and tear them as far apart as possible it would kill the animal, so stood my ground and waited for the onslaught. Half a second before it reached me the dog suddenly stopped dead in its tracks and then scampered whining back the way it had been coming and out of sight and sound. I now felt a bit surer of myself and after a short stop to think, decided to get to the farmhouse which was about a quarter of a mile away.
After reaching the farm I went inside and found it completely empty and filthy, so ruled out the idea of bedding down there. After going outside again and scouting around I found big store of dry hay, then found a suitable spot in a small depression away from the farmhouse in which to bed down. I went back several times to collect enough hay for a bed and then lay down to sleep. I fell asleep immediately and was awakened by what I thought was a rifle in my midriff. It was in fact an old man with a shepherd's crook stick. He spoke to me in Italian and with the word "Questa" coming into the dialog I said " Io Ingleesy escaparto priginary de gwara". He took his stick away and helped me to my feet and so I did my best to explain that I wanted to get as far as possible from the Tadeski. He then waved me to follow him and led me to the bottom of mountain scree, which went upward at an angle of about 30 degrees. He indicated that there was safety for me near the top of the scree and so I shook hands with him and started up the side of the scree. It was getting quite light by now so it was fairly easy to keep climbing in spite of trouble with loose surface. Eventually I saw on my left a large grassy valley, the sun was now rising and the grass was fairly deep and inviting. I made my way to the upper side so that I was able to lay down in the sunshine and again had a sleep. This time I was awakened by low flying American fighter planes, which were starting their dive from the top of this small mountain and machine gunning the German positions in the valley below. I knew that the forests they were aiming at were in fact chock-a-block with every sort of arms and ammunition. They started their gunnery a short distance ahead of where I stood and as they passed sometimes 5 feet above my head the ammunition clips were showering around me. The sight was unforgettable and went on for an hour or more, by which time the forests below were burning from end to end, accompanied by many explosions. To watch one squadron after another diving down to nearly ground level, firing their machine guns and also dropping bombs was a tonic to me. By the time the Yanks stopped the sun was very hot and it must have been about 11 or 12 o'clock, so I again gave attention to my next move.
I went up the slope and away from the scree and after 10 minutes came to the top of the rise and saw ahead of me the top of a house. At the same time I saw an Italian at the other side of another small valley. He made his way to me and I to him and we met in the hollow. He was quite friendly and spoke a little English with an American accent, so I had no difficulty explaining who and what I was. He told me that he hated the Germans and would be only too pleased to help me. He led me in the direction of the house I had seen and on breasting the next rise I saw a very big valley about 5 miles across and a small village close by. The first house we came to belonged to him and he introduced me to his wife who was quite friendly but could only speak Italian. They made me a drink of goats milk base with 3 raw eggs, a big spoon of honey and topped up with wine and after drinking it down I felt like a new man! They then took me to a higher level at the back of the house into a large room, which held a large double bed with white sheets and was very cosy looking. The rest of the room was filled with sacks of wheat and farm produce. He told me that the road to this village was not good enough for the Germans to use, so they had not been bothered by the Tadeski and were not likely to be bothered in the future. He also said that the rest of the villages equally hated the Tadeski, so there was no danger in the other people knowing of me. They would like to help me in order that I would speak for them whenever the British forces eventually arrived. Although I did not really want to stay with them, maybe a day or so stay might be in order, to allow the allied forces to get nearer, but that would be all. I was glad when the daylight began to fade and lost no time in going to my bed. However after falling asleep it was not long before I was awakened by a very active breed of bug. I got out of bed and although there was no light, after moving the top sheet back, I could see the bed was covered in little red bugs scurrying about at lightening speed. Always having been very allergic to any creeper in bed, it was obvious that I would not get any sleep tonight or any other night in that bed, but I did not want to hurt the feelings of my new found friend. As it was a warm and dry night I went outside and had a long walk and found a grassy bank on which to lie down and had a fairly long sleep under the stars again. Then waking up as it began to come light, I made my way back to my "official bedroom" so that my friend did not suspect that I had slept in the open, of course I also resolved to move on that same day. I told my friend that I had had a strange feeling that I must move on and he seemed to accept it easily. After having a breakfast of eggs and ham with bread and coffee, I shook hands with him and his wife and then headed south east on my own.
My actual direction was simple. By heading towards the noise of war was a reliable guide and so long as I did not go too close to main roads I felt quite secure. As I crested a rise in the land I saw on my right about 3 miles away a train heading southwards, then below the railway which was perched on the side of the next mountain, was a road junction below the railway. From this it was obvious that I would soon come across a busy road, the road running roughly north must have been the main road to Campobaso likewise the railway line. The next train towards Campobaso was a goods train loaded with military equipment, so it was plain the Germans were pulling out of the area, this of course cheered me no end. After reaching the main road I found it very busy with traffic, mostly German, but I crossed it without trouble and not following any tracks, continued southeast. The land was hilly - mainly grassland and just before dusk, I came on a large farm. The Italians were quite friendly and gave me a good meal, then showed me a very clean stable and invited me to sleep there for the night. They confirmed that the Germans were in fact moving north, but they felt secure because the road to their farm was very bad. The noise of war was getting very close now and I got up in the night to witness the sky filled with tracer bullets coming from both directions. The next morning I was beginning to feel the excitement of the possibility of getting back to England and home. The Italians gave me a very good breakfast of bread, a green concoction with onions, paprika with plenty of olive oil. I thanked them for their help, shook hands and then left.
The next time I crested a rise, I could see the flashes of guns and the crossfire of machine guns. Immediately ahead was a deep valley thickly covered in trees, so I felt fairly secure in approaching what seemed to be the front line area. About half way up the other side of the valley there appeared to be a line sloping down towards the left and I decided to get a bit nearer to what I judged to be a road. I plunged straight into the thicket of very deep grass, which gave me good cover all the time, heading towards that road. Even after getting into the trees I still found plenty of natural cover and when I heard Germans I merely veered away and continued forwards. By the middle of the afternoon I started my climb up the other side to the road, having lots of rest stops to listen. The occasional German voices had now ceased so I was able to go forward a little faster, the undergrowth was dry and warm and as I got near to the road I just crawled and could finally see the strong shoulder of the highway. It occurred to me that this could be a possible German defence line and very dangerous for such as me. Suddenly I heard a motorcycle slowly going down the road and it sounded very much like a "Norton" side-valve, so I inched my way up the side of the shoulder so that I could actually look at the road. A few minutes later another motor cycle came in to view. It was a Norton with a guy in battle-dress on board! I quickly scrambled up on to the road and waved him down. He soon asked me on to his pillion seat, turned round and headed back the way he had been coming, then stopped at a house about 300 yards back. It was a signals unit and they had just taken over the house, an officer and 8 men. They gave me a wonderful welcome, fed me and plied me with a good collection of wine. The officer whose name I cannot remember was a native of my own city of Sheffield.
We talked all evening and they had plenty of blankets, so we all turned in. I had talked about getting home as fast as possible but the officer warned me that it could take months for me to get clearance to go back to England. I had no pay book or any means of identification so he suggested that I might hitch my way back faster. He said he had arranged for me to go to a guards unit so that they could arrange for my repatriation and accordingly took me there. When I reported, the guard officer who interviewed me, seemed more interested in seeing me dressed properly, pointing out that I couldn't be allowed to wonder about in my part German outfit. He merely said that I would probably be employed for the time being doing the cleaning up etc. He did however tell me that I would eventually be sent to a camp at Taranto, which would deal with me. After leaving his office I recalled what the signals officer had warned me about, so I merely walked out on to the road and started to thumb a lift Taranto. By strange chance the first truck which appeared was a big Scamnel lorry towing a large field gun and the crew of 4 were on their way to the repair depot at Taranto. My worries were over for the time being. The crew were well organised and knew just where to stop for a meal and somewhere to sleep and so with a few interesting stops in small towns, in 3 days we arrived. The army was everywhere in Taranto, so the gun crew simply dropped me before they disappeared into their reporting base.
I soon located the guards unit responsible for blokes like me and went in. The officer who interviewed me was very stiff and correct. He talked about getting me dressed properly, but also said that my only hope of getting home was to get a boat from North Africa. They showed me where I could sleep and said that I would not be allowed outside until I was properly dressed. They told me I would have to wait till tomorrow for a new uniform so I decided to take a lift down to the docks and look round. I was very interested in a large boat which had the bows so formed that they could be opened to form a runway down which tanks were rolling out at the rate of about one a minute. I watched until the last tank had come ashore, then I went halfway up the ramp so as to get a better view. An American seaman came up to me and asked who the hell I was in that rig-out. I explained that I was an ex prisoner of war and hoped to get to North Africa and then back to England. You're in luck buddy he said, come with me and he led me into the ship to see an officer, where I told my story again. Without hesitation the officer invited me to go to Bizerta with them. Within an hour the boat had set sail again to return to Bizerta, I had joined the crew and we were off. I spent one night aboard and was fed on really good food. The yanks certainly provided their men with the best sort of rations, far better than the English fare.
We docked at Bizerta about midday and once again I shook hands with my American friends, then went ashore. Here I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, there were a lot of British and American uniforms about and I asked a Tommy where the Naffi was located. He queried my rig-out and I explained about the POW story again and he then walked with me to the Naffi. We both went up to the counter and he introduced me to the girls behind the counter. Of course I had only a little from a gift from the artillery crew, but they just gave me everything that I wanted. I took my tea and cakes to a table and sat down to enjoy it when a sergeant came and sat with me to talk. I told him some of my story and said that I was very keen to get back to England. He told me there was a staging camp on the outskirts of the town. After he had given me instructions on how to get to it I finished my tea and cakes, went outside and soon got a lift in a jeep right to the entrance of the transit camp. I was led into a large tent come office and another guards officer interviewed me. He was very critical of my dress, he told me to draw ground sheets and blankets from the store and make myself comfortable for the night in any of the 600 bell tents which were pitched on a slope. There wasn't a blade of grass in sight, just cracked and parched ground. Cracks 4 or 5 inches wide and a foot deep criss crossed the whole area - it would have been difficult to find an area in any tent big enough to lay a bed down. All the tents were vacant, evidently awaiting the next batch of troops. I considered my situation and remembered that I had no pay book, so simply walked out of the camp and hitch hiked a lift from an American jeep.
The two Americans in the jeep were very curious about my dress so I had to explain again. They were so interested that they suggested that I stay with them for the night and continue the tale. They also told me that the only sea convoys from Africa set off from Algiers, which was nearly a thousand miles along the coast. They arrived at an area where there was about 20 or 30 large square tents and pulled up outside one. We all went inside and I was surprised at the luxury they enjoyed, electric light from their own batteries, proper camp beds as comfortable as civilian type beds. They had proper wash basins, towel racks, shaving mirrors, really a home from home. They had plenty of tinned food of every description, marvellous hand torches and a pile of spare batteries; in fact they wanted for nothing. I slept the sleep of a contented man that night, the next morning after a good breakfast they took me back into the town. They had given me a lot of information and had suggested that I may be able to get a lift in a Dakota to Algiers. However I made my first stop at the Naffi and asked for a cup of tea and then sat down at a table. A few minutes later a sergeant came in and came to drink his tea at my table; again my dress was the first talking point. I told him that I was thinking about getting an airlift to Algiers, which he thought was a good idea and said that there was a bus every hour, which left from just round the corner from the Naffi for the airport. I finished my tea and went outside to where the bus was due to leave. Five minutes later a bus did arrive with the destination board marked "airport". I boarded, it was an American bus and free and well filled. On arrival at the airport, everyone got out.
There was a very big marquee ahead of me and a queue of army and air force types. They were English and American all slowly moving into the tent, under a sign which said "ALL FLIGHTS OUT". I joined the queue and felt very unsure of myself, when I realised that there were a lot of high ranks before me and in short time behind me. Finally after about 3 or 4 minutes I arrived at a great big heavily constructed oval shaped counter, in the centre were about a dozen clerks talking to the people and moving maps and things about and discussing routs etc. I did have an overpowering urge to make a run for it but held my ground. Finally it was my turn and I told him that I was an escaped prisoner of war from Italy and wanted to get to Algiers. For a few seconds there was a questioning look on his face, then he turned to the left and said, "Quick boy, go to the end of the counter"! I turned and met him as he ducked under the end of the desk, "This way" he almost shouted and we made our way outside on to the airfield where there was a Dakota just starting to taxi. He ran out waving his arms and the plane stopped, the door was opened and I scrambled inside and found the only empty seat. As I went down the isle, I noticed that almost everyone was a high rank and when I sat down, it was beside a Major with a red band round his cap. However he was quite OK and accepted me without any questions. I got an occasional view of the desert below whenever the plane banked and in seemingly no time at all we landed at Algiers.
After taxiing to the unloading point, steps were placed against the rear unloading door and everyone trooped out, but I hung back until I was the last man down the steps. There had been a small group of people meeting this plane who were now dispersing and not many left by the time I got down. At this point I had no plan whatever and just looked round in wonder, when a man dressed in officer's clothing but with "ENSA" markings on his lapels came up to me enquiringly. "You must have taken the seat of (and he mentioned a pianist) I wonder where he is?" he asked. I told him some of my story as we walked towards his jeep, then we sat and talked for some time. Finally he told me that the pianist he was supposed to meet was due here to take a holiday from entertaining the troops in the field and that a hotel with all conveniences had been organised for him for 2 weeks even a woman. If I wished, he could easily arrange for me to have that same holiday. I told him that I was tempted but was so homesick that the best way of helping me was to get me on the quickest convoy home. He told me there was a convoy assembled outside the city at this time, but no one knew when it would leave and he promised to try to get me on it. For now he would take me to a troops' holiday camp for the night. On my arrival at this camp, set up in the grounds of a horse racing course, I met a large staff who normally catered for 5 or 600 troops at a time, but at present was empty. They were all bored, so they gave me all the attention that they normally gave the troops. They cooked me a super meal and waited on me hand and foot, I had plenty of wine and finally they carried me to bed.
Early the next morning, about 4-30am they woke me and gave me a ready good breakfast. My ENSA friend returned to collect me and took me to the seafront where I was loaded into a motorboat and immediately set of to catch the convoy, which had already set off. We drew alongside one of the ships and I was helped aboard through a door in the side of the ship. After getting aboard, I discovered that everyone was a free Frenchman and had difficulty in making myself understood. Suddenly an English man appeared and took me to see an English officer, who told me that there were very few Englishmen aboard except for a small number of prisoners who were on their way to serve long sentences in England mainly for murder. They were housed in what they called 'The Island', which contained 6 cells. The number of Englishmen who were guarding them was rather low so I would find living up there a lot better than inside the ship, which was very crowded anyway. After climbing up to the Island and being introduced to the guards, then being shown the prisoners, it appeared that I would enjoy the voyage back to England. There were lots of blankets and mattresses; the weather was warm and the sea calm. Outside the cellblock was a wide walkway and plenty of space to sleep in, food was brought up to us and it was good and plentiful. All we had to do was let one of the prisoners out of their cells for a few hours a day for fresh air and exercise and to see they were fed. Any of the guards were allowed anywhere in the ship so naturally I visited the engine room and also saw how lucky we were up there on the Island compared to the overcrowded conditions in the ship generally.
The only excitement after passing Gibraltar was when the anti aircraft balloon which was fixed to a part of the Island got its cable entangled in another mast nearer the stern. The cable was simply chopped away with an axe, the balloon and cable floating away. I thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in the open and as we moved north making a wide sweep out into the Atlantic ocean in order to avoid "U"-Boats, still continued to do so, merely using an extra blanket as it became colder. We were told the track was over the top of Ireland and then down towards Liverpool. As we rounded the top of Ireland the destroyers, which were accompanying us suddenly, started to weave about and then started throwing out depth charges, but there were no torpedoes fired at the convoy. Now the weather turned very cold and I did consider moving my bed into the space outside the cells, but actually stuck it out for the complete trip until we arrived in the dock at Liverpool. Of course during the closing stages of the voyage everyone had been receiving disembarkation passes, but I, after being questioned several times, had still not been handed my landing pass. Also to complicate matters, one of our prisoners went missing and as he was a murderer there was big concern. Luckily he was found before we actually docked, but in spite of that I still did not have the Landing pass! Finally it was decided that I would be sent to London under escort, this was big disappointment to me because I had expected to be on my way home to Sheffield and actually at home that same night. However they allowed me to send a telegram to my mother.
My escort and I made friends straight away and soon found ourselves on a train bound for London. After arriving in London, we made our way to the Grand Central Hotel in Marylebone. This was very large Hotel and although it had been taken over by the military, it was being used to accommodate strange characters such as myself. I was taken up to a double room and my room-mate was a Russian about my age. I had been told at the main desk come Guard room that I could go out wherever I wished but only with my escort, so after settling down decided to accompany the Russian for a drink. I had been paid about 50 pounds and after collecting my escort at the "Guard-room" out we went into the London of wartime. We had a drink in one or two pubs and I soon became quite tipsy on the London beer. It was a good job that time was called, because our escort had been drinking also, however we did find our own way back to the Hotel and went up to our room. The Russian decided that he wanted a bath and ran a full bath and then, on trying to get in slipped and hurt himself quite badly. Then I went to bed. After a good breakfast, I reported to the Desk and was told that I had to go to Whitehall M.I.9. Another man came to escort me there, then started 2 days of being questioned in the underground City underneath both sides of Whitehall. Eventually I was taken to the private quarters of the Minister of War and being given tea while I told my story to him and his wife. When I arrived back at the Hotel I was told that I would be given a new uniform, Pay Book, travelling warrant, some money, Leave-Pass and ration coupons for 8 weeks leave. I sent a wire to my mother telling the time of the train I would catch and within an hour was ready to move out. It was a really wonderful time for me and St Pancras station never saw such a happy passenger waiting for his train. On getting aboard, I found standing room only and this state of affairs didn't alter until we had reached Leicester, when a lot of people got off and only a few got on. I was able to appreciate the country from then on and when the Crooked Spire of Chesterfield came into view I began to feel at home. Seemingly minutes later we went past Millhouses Park, slowed down and pulled into Sheffield Midland Station and Home! My mother and sister met me at the ticket barrier and that vivid memory lingers with me still. We took a taxi home and there was a small crowd outside my home to greet me. At that time I wasn't thinking of the future, it seemed more like a dream. The effect of the wartime restrictions, shortage of food, petrol and all sorts of commodities, plus the Black Out made normal life very trying for the people, but I was used to that sort of life.
There were still evening dances at the Cutlers Hall and the City hall and the tramway system was still in operation. My mother had corresponded with the parents of my prison camp friend George Dent whose father and stepmother lived at Barnard Castle near Newcastle. After hearing from my mother that I was now home, they asked if my mother and I would go to see them for a few days and so we made arrangements to make the trip. We were met at the station by George's step brother and when I got out of the car, I heard a 'Lift and Force' pump supplying water to a large byre, just as George had often described it to me many times in the camp.
George's father was a very old man and his stepmother only about 45 or 50 and it came as no surprise when his mother was very concerned as to be absolutely certain that he had been killed. For my part, George had often told me that an uncle in America had placed a large sum of money in trust for his education, accounting for the fact that George had a BSc. degree but spoke in a broad Newcastle accent. Of course they wanted every detail of the episode when George was shot by the Germans, in spite of the pain that caused me. I was shown around the farm by George's stepbrother and spent a lot of time walking up the village main street, then having good plain country food, but I was glad to get away.
After getting back to Sheffield, there was little to do. I had a trip or two into Derbyshire visiting Hathersage, Hope, Grindlewood and Castleton, but all the men and girls were either on war-work or in the services. It was a lonely sort of life. I never missed any of the dances at 'Days', the Cutlers Hall or the City Hall. After 6 weeks of my leave had gone by I met a girl at the City Hall dance who was to become my wife. She worked at a factory which made clothing for the forces and was a very skilled dressmaker. The last two weeks of my leave simply flew by and I knew that she was for me.
However there came the day when I had to go back into the Army, it had occurred to me that after being a prisoner of war, I may have been excused from further service, but that was not so. I reported to The Royal Engineers Training Unit at Kitchener Barracks in Chatham and immediately asked to see the C.O. so as to tell him that my true unit was the 11th Special Air Service Battalion. He explained that I had only been on loan to that unit and had never been officially been transferred. Since then of course the Parachute Regiment had been formed. I also told him that my Flying pay, as well as my 1st class tradesman's pay, so that my pay had dropped from 13/1 per day to 5 shillings a day. I wished to get back into the airborne forces as quickly as possible, but because I had done a lot of studying whilst in Sullmona POW camp, I now felt that I may be able to transfer into The Glider-Pilot Regiment. The out come of the meeting was that he undertook to speed up my return to airborne forces to the best of his ability.
In the meantime I would have to continue with the standard training. So I knuckled in to accept the engineering training and put all my efforts into it. I was a heavy smoker and 40 Double strength Capstans per day was my average. After working out what I spent on them, realised there was not much future in keeping the habit up. It so happened that we had embarked on the demolition part of the course and one night after a normal day of smoking, I could feel the effect of the smoke, so suddenly decided to quit the habit. I flung the remains of a 20 packet out of the window and didn't smoke any more that night and all the next day. But by evening I began to feel poorly, so much so that I went to bed thinking I had a fever or the like. Evidently the chap in the next bed thought there was some serious complaint and without saying anything to me decided to get a doctor to see me. Later on that night at about midnight the doctor came to see me. He looked at me and asked if I had just stopped smoking and when I said yes, he took his own cigarettes out and offered me one. I took one draw; my spirits rose and in a few minutes was feeling quite good. He lectured me and told me that I should stop the habit slowly. The next day I took a 20 packet with me for the day's training and as we all had to leave all matches and cigarettes at the entrance to the explosives area, that is what I did. We were allowed outside that area every hour and I managed to keep my demand to two cigarettes for the whole day. The following day I didn't have a single one and I have never had a cigarette since. So a shortage of cash at that time worked wonders for me.
In fairly short time I was detailed to go to the air selection board in London where I was given an intelligence examination and a medical test. Unfortunately I was found to have an ear infection so, I was sent back to Chatham, but with an appointment to see a Specialist at the Chelsea Hospital in a weeks time. Disappointed but not out I continued with the course and began to feel a bit enthusiastic about the work, but looking forward to the visit to Chelsea. The following week I collected my travelling warrant and the next morning arrived at the Hospital on time and shortly after met the ear specialist. He spent about an hour with me and did some lab tests on the sample, which he had taken from my ear. He then soaked a piece of gauze in some fluid and carefully placed it deep inside. He told me to leave it in position for a full week, when he asked me to return to him for its removal. I wasted 3 hours waiting for my train back by visiting the public library. The following week I returned again and after removing the gauze and looking inside with an instrument declared a complete cure.
After getting back to Chatham, I asked to see the C.O. again and he suggested that I might like to go to the Bridging camp at a place further up the River Medway as they had a lot of two-stroke outboard engines which were out of commission. A mechanic was needed to get them working again, so I volunteered to go there while my transfer arrived. I soon had them all working again and thoroughly enjoyed myself testing each engine by travelling up and down the Medway. I managed to get a few weekend leaves during the time I was there and finally applied for compassionate leave so as to get married. Everything was finalised and I had travel warrants, ration cards and the leave pass in my hands, when a notice arrived instructing me to report to Glider-Pilot training Unit at Larkhill near Salisbury. This threw the cat among the pigeons properly, as it was the start of a very tough course.
Finally I managed to join the Unit a week late. I went on my leave and returned to Sheffield, where the marriage ceremony took place at St George's Church at the top of Broad Lane in the city. After the reception the two of us went to Flamborough Head for the Honeymoon. I am pleased to say the marriage has been a complete success, with 2 sons and 1 daughter all have been highly successful. After a grand week's holiday, the trials and tribulations of Army life had to be faced again and I reluctantly found my way to Lark Hill. On arrival at the guardroom entrance to the unit, the signs did not look good. The guardroom itself was absolutely spotless, everything in perfect position and condition- an air of perfect discipline hung about the place. However, the sergeant major soon appeared and organised blankets and a room and bed for me, at the same time explaining general procedures. Finally he said he expected me on parade the next morning with all buttons polished, my belt and gaiters blancoed and with shiny boots. He told me that the discipline here was more so than the palace guards! I set to immediately to spruce up all my kit and when the room filled up after the days work had been completed, I was alarmed at the fact that everyone started to prepare for tomorrow's morning parade. Naturally I had to join in this striving for perfection, but by the time of the morning parade felt very nervous, especially when two men in the front row were told to fall out. They were sent to report to the guardroom and spend the day on fatigues for having boots which were below the standard required. We were all intensively inspected and about 5 or 6 minutes was spent on each man. By the time it was my turn I was quaking in my boots and yet not a word was said to me after the long inspection. The CO went on to the next man and I breathed a sigh of relief. After this long inspection, we were told to go and get dressed in fatigues, then a programme of hard training.
We attended lectures on airmanship, meteorology, and principles of flight, the Morse code, followed by a hard physical training exercise on about the toughest Battle course in the British Army. During that day 4 men were singled out after morning inspection and sent back to their own units. Every day there was at least one man who would be returned to his unit because he was unsuitable and after the days work we had no time to go out because every minute had to be spent in getting ready for the next morning inspection. After a week of this I was so fed up that I wondered if the promise of flying Tiger Moths on the next part of the course was worth it. That evening I spent cleaning and polishing my kit, the same as everyone else on the course, but allowed myself to be tempted away for an hour in the Naffi. That was the main cause of overlooking the blancoing my gaiters. Furthermore, I did not realise this until parade time the next morning, when it was far too late to be able to correct the oversight. So I went on parade filled with trepidation and certain that I would be the next man to be returned to his unit as unfit. After falling in on parade, I was surprised to hear my name called out and told to go to the company office. My heart sank, however I marched away and went inside the office. An officer told me to go into the CO's office immediately and mystified, I did so. The CO, with a smile on his face stood up and came towards me and heartily shook my hand. He said that I had been mentioned in Dispatches and also my full pay had been restored. After that meeting, the attitude of all the senior staff changed and I had no further fear of being returned to my unit because of some silly oversight.
However, I still worked hard at every part of the course, but now I could do no wrong. Consequently I really enjoyed the rest of the course and by the time I came to move on to Elementary Flying Training and a move to Booker aerodrome a mile south of High Wycombe, I was very fit indeed. About half the original intake for the G.P.R. had been returned to their units and that gives some the idea of how tough the course had been so far. On arrival at Booker, the first thing was a promotion to the rank of sergeant; the quality of our dormitories was much better. We were issued with all the books and notebooks we would need for the course, then the intake was split into two equal numbers, my half were detailed to do our flying at a satellite aerodrome, a few miles away at Denham near Uxbridge. The program was that each of us would receive a day on ground subjects then a day on flying, but a break of half a day in between. I think the weeks we spent there were the happiest days of my Army career.
I managed to get permission to live out and arranged for Joan, my wife to come and stay with me in a delightful cottage as boarders, in Booker-Hill. The weather was marvellous all that time. Of course I had to study every evening, but it was a great pleasure. There were two pupils to each instructor and I shared with an officer. He was very selfish in that he always chose who would fly first. If it happened to be a quiet morning he would go for the first period, usually later in the morning the wind had come up, so I always had the worst of the weather. He was the first to go for his final check prior to being allowed to go solo and I was the last man to get my final check. However after getting his check and then being allowed to go solo, he flew off, did a couple of circuits then came in to land over some trees. Unfortunately he misjudged his position and his undercarriage caught in the trees. The plane crashed, leaving him unconscious upside down, hanging from his safety straps. He was taken to hospital and I never saw him again.
Two days later I was given my check by the CO and after taking off, made what I considered a perfect take off and landing. After coming to a standstill, after a perfect 3pointer, there was a moments silence, then the CO shouted down the intercom" Where the bloody hell were you brought up? I should think it was a pub, the way you pump the bloody handle." I then realised that I had been so keen to be perfect that I had forgotten to set the trimmers and consequently had actually flown the plane every inch of the way by hand. My heart sank as he bad temperdly took over, opened the throttle wide and taxied back to the dispersal point. My heart sank, the normal procedure was for the CO to get out at the end of the role to a standstill, wave the pupil on to go on his first solo flight, but only if he had passed. It seemed I had failed! I got out of the Tiger, almost ready to cry and made my way to the hut where we stored our flying gear. There was only one pupil in there and he only urged me to get to the waiting bus as soon as possible because the other pupils wanted to get back to Booker as soon as I was ready. With a sad heart, I took off my Sidcot flying suit, flying boots and put my helmet, goggles in my locker, then locked it.
I was just about ready to join the crowd waiting for the bus to set of back to Booker, when suddenly the door opened and my instructor came and told me to get dressed again! The CO was going to give me another check. My heart raced and I quickly redressed into my flying gear and ran out with the instructor's reminder to "Trim the Bloody Thing". The CO was already waiting alongside the Tiger and we both got in. "Do a short circuit and land" he shouted above the engine noise. Joyously I headed for the start of the take off run, did the usual cockpit check and he then waved me forward immediately. I opened the throttle and away we went, climbing to 500 feet then turning to starboard, reaching the perimeter of the airfield then turning again to starboard. We went down wind to just past the perimeter then starboard again to nearly the centre of the landing line, then starboard again, then the approach to landing, this time of course I had the thing properly trimmed and guided it down to a very good landing. When we stopped rolling, he got out with a broad smile on his face and waved me forward. I opened the throttle wide and headed skyward again, this time with an unforgettable feeling of joy. I did the standard circuit again and made my approach to land when suddenly the airspeed indicator showed 250 IAS. We had always been taught that in any emergency on attempting to land the best thing to do was to apply full throttle and go round again for another try. That is exactly what I did and rapidly climbed to 500 feet, watching the instruments as I did so, the air speed indicator dial screws had unscrewed, thus allowing the dial to idly vibrate round like a wheel. Part of; if not the most important knowledge for a pilot to be aware of his airspeed just before touch down. As I made another circuit, it occurred to me that I may be able to judge my approach speed, so that on my second attempt coming in over the trees I found it very difficult to avoid stalling and at the same time keeping my speed in check. As the plane dropped to about 20 feet height, I decided to go round again, opened the throttle and flew off. After making two more attempts and seeing the rest of the course shaking their fists at me and making signs for me to come down, I figured that there was another set of instruments in the front cockpit, if I could change over in the air. For the fourth time on the downwind leg I made an attempt. By first undoing my parachute, double checking the trim for straight and level flight, then standing up on the top of the disconnected parachute, I found that due to my own windscreen being edged by lots of sharp corners, the only practical way of changing cockpits was to go out the side first and then step onto the wing root before moving forward and then climbing into the front seat. I started to make the attempt, but after getting one leg onto the wing root on the starboard side I found my Sidcot flying suit was so loose it seemed to catch in every screw and sharp edge. I just did not have the guts! However, after standing up in the rear cockpit, I found that there was a perfect view of all the front cockpit dials. This gave me the idea, that if I stood my parachute on its long axis and sat on top of that, it became possible for me to control the plane, but using the other set of instruments. I went in for another attempt like this, making a very good approach over the trees at a speed of 50. Then I allowed the engine revs to die down and the speed to drop to 45 then to 40 and at this point I pushed my parachute into its correct position in the rounded alloy seat base. I was now in the right position to check my altitude, before pulling the stick back into my stomach and making a perfect landing. Of course by not loosing my head and bringing off the successful landing gave me good recommendation as a pilot.
It was the practice to pick out the best 2 or 3 student pilots and give them a more extended course and I found my name had been put forward for this. However, at this time the Glider Pilot Regiment had lost a lot of their numbers at Arnhem and a few days after beginning this extra course, an order came through that new pilots were needed urgently. The 3 who had been picked out were informed that they would have to join the rest of the course again and go for Glider conversion at Stoke Orchard in Gloucester, between Tewksbury and Cheltenham. This temporary wartime airfield was on the top of a hill and dry stone walls marked the boundaries. The gliders used for training were "Hotspur" by General Aircraft and were 8 seaters with mid wings and beautifully streamlined, made of wood and the controls were usually stiff. The tugs were fairy battles single rotary engines and very powerful and I was intrigued when we were flying in the mornings to see the vortexes formed at the tips of the airscrews and the wing tips. The same arrangements applied here as at Denham, two periods flying then two periods of ground subjects with break in the middle, so as to be fresh for the start of the flying part.
We had fifteen hours to learn to fly the Hotspur. The passing out exercise was to come in at an altitude of about fifteen feet, across wind on the down wind side just outside the perimeter stone wall, release the tow line and then a quick turn to port and flicking over the wall, to land just inside the wall. It was a marvellous feeling and we all got very good at it. In the middle of the Hotspur course we spent 2 nights at Cheltenham airfield doing night flying in Tigers, but in the event we only got about 2 hours each, so it was really a waste of time, but well enjoyed by me. With the usual war time mix up, after 3 weeks on the conversion course, the order came that all the course were to go to operational squadrons. Within 3 days I was posted to "B" Squadron at Earls Colne about 8 miles from Colchester. The gliders used for operations were the "Horsa" and the first one I saw was on arrival at Earls Colne.
After about a week in getting settled in my new quarters which was in one of about 200 such corrugated "blister" huts set up in small groups in the wooded areas around the airfield. Each group comprised a self-contained unit in itself, with one or two set up for admin and the rest living and sleeping huts. I had been detailed for "Circuits and Bumps". I arrived at the designated glider described on the order sheet, expecting to be second pilot. The first pilot didn't arrive for about twenty minutes, so I spent the time waiting for him by looking over the enormous glider from end to end and sampling the controls. Finally when the first pilot arrived, he turned out to be an air force character, a sergeant the same as me. He had been returned from a course in Canada where he had been flying powered aircraft. He made it very plain to me that he considered it a great indignity to be asked to fly a wooden wonder after such a training, so by a fluke we had both been detailed to fly an aircraft which we hadn't flown before. You've flown these bloody wooden things before, he asked and I nodded. Then you can fly it now he answered. The towropes were all attached to its appropriate tug in a zigzag fashion, so that when the tug started up we had no option but to follow, When the tug started up and taxied into the middle of the runway paused, then applied full throttle, the acceleration was a lot more than the "Fairy Battles" of "Hotspur" days, but in general I flew the "Horsa" in the same way as the "Hotspur". When the other Sergeant asked if I was holding it down a bit much, I calmly took my cue and lifted up above the slipstream and carried on. We climbed to a 1000 feet then turned to starboard, just on a normal circuit. After turning again on the downwind leg and still climbing, I assumed that we would do a complete circuit at this height and that at the start of the second we would pull off to land. After making the third turn across wind I saw the end of the runway below on my right first come level then start to drop back. You're leaving it a bit late, the other sergeant advised and I again took the cue and told him to release. The airspeed dropped suddenly and I put the nose down to counteract the loss of power, but realised that I had to turn back as well as lose height. By this time the end of the runway was exactly below a 1000 feet away. Obviously, if I did a normal approach I would overshoot the runway by a mile, so I put on a vertical dive and asked him to put on full flap. Even so the speed built up to nearly 200 as I flattened out. Miraculously we were quite near the beginning of the runway and gave the crew of a control van on the left a big fright and on actual touch down hit so hard that we bounced up, then down again about 6 times before coming to rest. How many hours have you got on these things the other sergeant asked disgustedly and when I told him that this was my first time in a Horsa, he nearly had a fit. Life in the squadron was fairly good and although there was a Tiger Moth for the use of the pilots, the only Tiger flying was done by the CO.
They seemed to have not realised that the few newcomers had not done a proper conversion course on to Horsas I took part in a few exercises as second pilot to Joe Block who had flown on the Arnhem job. We got on quite well. He had been a schoolteacher before joining up in the services. He had done a proper full flying course all the way from Tigers to Hotspurs, then to Horsas and a lot of hours on Horsa's, He was a few years older than I, a Staff Sergeant and we got on very well together. He did all he could to teach me how to fly the Horsa on every exercise, which we did together.
One morning on first parade the CO announced that a couple of tanks had been sent to the squadron so as to practice loading and landing. He asked if anyone knew how to drive these things. I was really surprised when only myself and one other man stepped forward, actually I had never driven a tank before in my life, but had not the slightest doubt that I would be able to cope. There was a "Bren Carrier" and a "T 19" with a 2-pounder gun set in a swivelling turret. The other volunteer didn't seem very sure of himself and I had no trouble in getting the "T 19" allotted to me. With instructions to familiarise myself with the tank and get used to driving it although the steering was by two vertical sticks, one to right and one to left. I realised that the mode off steering must be by epicyclic gears and with break bands to control the amount of drive to each side. After a few experimental drives in the grass in between the trees where the tanks were parked, I soon decided that a drive down to Coggershall, with a call in the "NAFFI" there for a cup of coffee would be an entertaining enterprise and accordingly I set off. Negotiating the tank on to the camp perimeter track, then a sharp left hand bend on to the public road was simple enough and I marvelled how easy it really was on proceeding down a slight incline towards a very steep incline and then across a narrow bridge. As the tank slowed in response to being throttled back, it immediately became apparent that the steering reaction also reversed. By this time I was on the increasingly steep incline before the narrow bridge and to suddenly change my way of thinking between drive and overdrive was more than I was capable of doing at such short notice. The only safe way for me to control the tank was to accelerate. I was travelling at about 30 mph. and it was obvious that to keep even a small amount of acceleration would mean that my speed at the narrow of the bridge would be in the region of 45 to 50 m.p.h. Coming down the opposite hill towards the bridge was an air force character on a bicycle and his speed was quite fast. I succeeded in keeping my speed even though accelerating to such a figure that he only just cleared the narrow part before my tank arrived at that spot. I'm sure he never realised what a close shave he had just received. By the time I arrived in the village I had begun to understand the peculiar characteristics of the joy stick steering and after a coffee, set off back to the squadron feeling in complete control.
In the time following I was called on to drive the tank on to an Hamilcar glider many times, but never did a take off and landing. Then one day there was a big "Flap" on and a parade of the complete Squadron. Everyone had to be there and great efforts made to ensure no body was missing. It took place in one of the Hangers, the doors were closed and then the big wigs announced that a crossing of the Rhine was to be the objective. From now onwards no one was to be allowed off the base, under dire penalties for disobeying the order. Quite a lot vital information was then announced, the battle plan was given, details of individual glider loads given and the landing areas for each glider. The 24th March was the fateful day and immediate preparations were put in hand. After the Parade and for the next two weeks there was real motion preparing everything for the great day.
Three days before the raid a token force of gliders did a Dummy Run" Joe Block and myself were one of the crews chosen from our Squadron. There were about 100 Tugs and Gliders that took part and the fleet went over the channel towards the Rhur, first in the direction of Lille then by a strange coincidence, our combination passed exactly over the very house in Cysoing. I had been billeted there when I was with the B E.F, back in 1940. From 100ft altitude everything was very plain. The course then took us south of Tournai and then towards Mons, then we headed back to England. We had seen the smoke pall over the Ruhr and no German planes were seen in the whole trip. I never figured out what the objective of the trip had been. The final preparations occupied the last days. At 4am on the morning of the 24th March already there was hustle and movement everywhere, first ablutions then careful packing of personal belongings. There was a tense atmosphere, relieved by the need to complete all necessary chores in time to get to our aircraft on time. Breakfast was a really slap up affair, followed by a generous issue of cigarettes and chocolates for all the pilots. I remember wondering whether it would be the last breakfast, but somehow it seemed to apply to other pilots but not to myself. Arthur my close friend was worried but cheerful, considering this would be his first taste of action.
Getting back to our room, we completed packing and labelling our personal gear, then depositing the kit bag in the quartermaster's store, then sitting down and waiting for the truck to carry us to our gliders. Joe Block my first pilot (an older man than me and married with one child) was putting a brave face on the situation. We all knew that we were heading into a very dangerous operation and were filled with wonder.
We arrived at our glider, which was already hitched to a Sterling bomber ready to start up and move in its turn on to the runway. The airborne artillerymen arrived at the plane. A few minutes later our load consisted of eight artillerymen, two airborne light motor bikes and two trailers containing ammunition for a two-pounder gun. We introduced ourselves and made them comfortable in the glider behind us. Unfortunately, the load had been arranged in such away that there were three men immediately behind the cockpit then the bikes and trailers, followed by the other three men. We didn't wait long before the Sterling started his engines. Already the first planes and gliders were taking off and in what seemed minutes our Sterling was moving on to the runway, dragging us with it. The take off run stated immediately, we climbed to 2000 feet then joined a very large formation and headed out over the Thames estuary, then on to our landing zone at "Bunty" a copse of trees just the other side of the Rhine. The sight of such a large armada of tugs and gliders was impressive indeed. We noticed a glider break his towrope and make his way to a landing on unfriendly soil. There seemed to be no opposition from the air, until we had come in sight of the Rhur, with its haze of smoke, the silver sheen of the Rhine was very easy to spot.
On the other side of the river there was a heavy smoke haze and at about a thousand feet, thousands of innocent looking balls of fluff, which in reality were exploding shells. As we drew nearer the balls of fluff were accompanied with a dull thud. We saw one plane hit by one of these puffs, he burst into flames and then went into a steep dive and crashed. The glider, which had been on tow, must have released his towrope, because he went on his way preparing to make a controlled landing. By now we had arrived in the danger area and it seemed absolutely impossible not to run into one of these puffs, the sky was filled with them. The Germans were firing everything they had into the formation. We had released our towrope and were now relentlessly losing height and because of the thick smoke screen, could not distinguish "Bunty". Desperately we held our altitude to slow our speed, hoping to see our allotted landing spot, but this attracted a machine gunner, who got a bead on us, giving us the doubtful pleasure of seeing bullets coming through the floor between us and then further back in the fuselage. On our right, a Hamilcar glider was also getting a similar treatment from another gunner and suddenly a "T 19" Tank just fell out of bottom of the glider. We didn't see what happened to the glider, being engrossed in our own problems. Suffice to say that without the ballast that particular type of glider becomes highly unstable and probably would have turned on its back and crashed. We on our part put our nose down steeply to try and avoid further damage and look for any suitable landing run. There just wasn't any such run, so at a speed of about 190-mph we just ploughed into the area.
Quickly we hit a couple of heavy poles losing our wing ends in the process and then miraculously, after a long run came to a standstill with the fuselage totally intact, we were even able to operate the swing nose so as to get the load out. One of the passengers had been badly hit with machine gun fire and two others had smaller wounds, but plenty of blood! We had started to get the load out of the glider, when a shot rang out and ricocheted off some metal part. Instinctively we hit the ground and then as there were no further shots, we looked up and tried to weigh up the situation. It appeared the shot had come from a house about a 100 yards away, so we decided to give a burst of our own fire and then rush in. This we did and when we entered the kitchen of the house found a Schmiser machine gun lying on the table. There was a woman and a small girl of about seven or eight and a very old man all hiding in a kind of cellar-pantry, but no sign of any soldiers. We had no wish to harm these people so urged them to keep their heads down. We then returned to our glider. By this time it was evident that four or five other Horsas had landed close to us. We made contact with some of the bods from these other gliders and continued to get our load out. It appeared that these other gliders were all Artillery and there was one lieutenant. All of them were bewildered and there first time in action.
Thick ground haze caused by hundreds of German smoke generators was by now cleared, evidently we had been expected, because they had lit the things at the crucial time. It appeared that nobody had been able to see the proper landing area and when our glider had suddenly taken a steep dive, they all had assumed that we knew the way and had followed us to a landing. After studying our maps, it was evident that we were about a 1000 yards away from the correct area and, the intervening ground complicated by marshland and a railway embankment. To the east the ground rose to a long line of tall trees in which hundreds of parachutes of various colours were flapping away, not to mention the fact that there were parachutes all over the place caught in trees and fences. The sheer numbers of parachutes lying around gave us a sense of security, because our attitude was that the paratroops had been there and cleaned up the Germans. Tragically, the opposite was the case, the Germans had cleaned up the paratroops, but we didn't discover this until much later.
Our immediate problem was to get ourselves and the equipment we carried to its proper destination. Accordingly, we unloaded everything from the gliders and assembled eventually two Jeeps, a Two-pounder gun, three trailer loads of ammunition, three and airborne motor bikes. We had also a number of Sten guns and snipers rifles. We lined these up on a tree-lined lane, which went westward. Then we had a conference and it seemed that because of rising water, due to German action, our only course was to head southward, keeping above the flood water until arriving at the railway embankment, then contacting the British over the other side. Because we thought that there may still be some Germans in the trees to the east, we decided to try and draw their fire by walking in small group, making a lot of noise, to a large barn laying on its own in the middle of a large field. If there were no response, then it would be safe for our small force to follow. About 6 or 7 of us set out and made as much noise as possible on our way to the large barn. I was about 20 yards back from the leader, by the time he had reached the barn. It seemed OK to signal the rest of the "Unit" forward and I moved back a bit to await the first Jeep. The Germans allowed the last of the small convoy to come out into open, before opening fire! They let us have everything they had and kept up their machine gunfire for a long time. I naturally hit the ground at the first sound and my only cover was from the crop growing in the field. I just froze and could feel the occasional round going through my small backpack. Eventually the firing stopped and I moved my head to see the back of the barn, where there were three of four blokes shouting to me to encourage to make a quick run for it. After a few minutes I steeled myself then jumped up and ran as fast as I could. We were in a very tight spot indeed. It was obvious that the Germans occupied the whole of the course of trees as far as the railway and our small force was now spent. The drivers of the jeeps were still in their driving seats but riddled with bullets.
The problem now was to get out of the present situation. There were parachutes all over the place, caught in fences, but there was one in a particularly favourable spot. The ground to the west of the barn was level to a barbed wire fence, then rose a bit before slumping down to a stream which was flooded. The course of the stream took it towards some farmhouses and we thought it was a good idea to try to get into one of them and then lay low. To get first to the flooded stream meant leaving the cover of the barn and attracting small arms fire at least, but by judicial use of the parachutes we managed to get to the stream without injury and thankfully sank into its depth. Making our way along the stream proved to be not very easy. It would have been much easier if we could have stood straight up for a time now and again, but every time anyone popped up too much, there was a quick response from the Germans on the heights.
Eventually we got to the cover of the farmhouses and were able to come out of the stream and clean our rifles. To our surprise, we were joined here by three paratroopers who had been hiding in whatever cover they could find. It appeared a good idea to enter the nearest house and make that our home for the time being. After spending more time getting our weapons cleaned and working, we went into the nearest house and found a very nice farm type abode. There was very heavy sideboard against one wall of the kitchen and upstairs there were two rooms and a storeroom with several bags of grain. There was a low door to the outside presumably to bring in the grain. By utilising all the windows in the house plus this grain door it was possible to cover all sides of the house. We stationed our forces to keep watch out of all openings and Joe Block did a roving job over all the positions so as to keep everyone up to date with our situation. Joe also carried a Sten Gun ready give additional support whenever it may be needed. I chose the 'Grain' room, one wall of which was a slated roof at an angle of about 30 degrees. I opened the little door wide and then arranged the bags of grain to give me some protection, the stone protruded above the floor level by about 3 inches. By knocking a couple of slates out on my right, I could cover 2 sides of the house. Because this was such a good position I claimed one of the sniper's rifles. This arrangement was taking place in the kitchen and before I had time to take up my position in the grain room, a German officer started to walk up the garden path to our door. We could see him clearly but he couldn't see into the dark interior. We were all milling around panic stricken and I said, "This is War" and pointed my rifle at him and fired. The effect was devastating, the bullet poleaxed him with a great force and he slammed to the ground on his back. I remember a sudden feeling of utter hopelessness coming over me, as I realised that now we had killed a German at such close range, they would show no mercy forthwith. However, things had to go on and after assigning every man to a door or window for lookouts and warning positions, we each took up our positions. The artillery officer made himself comfortable at the side of the heavy sideboard and Joe Block doing the job of keeping everyone informed and being ready to use a Sten Gun wherever it may be needed.
Then began a day of most unusual events. There was a cry for help from the front of the house and I rushed out of my 'Den' and saw about 12 Germans in line abreast charging down the front garden's very soft soil to presumably to take our house. Several of us were by this time in the room overlooking them and we used rifles and Sten guns to stop the charge. None of them got nearer than 15 yards of the house. At another time, I was quietly looking out from my position, when the from the back of the next house, about 50 yards away, I heard the noise of marching feet, then orders being shouted, giving the impression that there was a major force just arriving. Then shortly afterwards a voice announced in English, backed by the appearance of a German officer announcing that it would be best if we laid down our arms, as we were completely surrounded and had little chance of surviving otherwise. I carefully lined my sniper rifle with its telescopic sights at him and pulled the trigger. I winged him but he was able to get behind cover. There was then a lot of shouting in German and again sounds of marching, but nothing to see.
About five minutes went by, then from one of the upstairs windows of the next house, a white sheet began to be pushed out over the sill. Slowly it unfurled and eventually a black Swastika appeared. A few minutes later a bomb was hurled in a perfect parabola towards our house. I had time to note that it was just like a picture-book bomb, a sphere about eight or nine inches in diameter and a bit of burning fuse sticking out of it, just like a comic opera. It landed somewhere near the centre of the rear wall, where the wall met the ground. The blast shook our house to its foundations and brought down most of the plaster and broke all the windows, but the house still stood and nobody had been hurt. At the side of the house opposite me I saw a door which opened outwards. Suddenly, this door opened and a German appeared with a tommy gun. He pointed it at our house and loosed off a full magazine, then he popped back in again, before I had time to do anything about it. I said to Joe Block, who happened to be making a call on me at that time, "Did you see that cheeky bugger! I'll be ready for him if he does it again" then a few minutes later he did do it again and escaped back before I did anything. So now I set my snipers rifle on a grain bang, wedged it tight and aimed at the centre of the open door. Then I just lay there with my finger on the trigger. Sure enough a few minutes later he repeated the performance, but this time I simply pulled the trigger, he never had time to fire before he was dead.
There were several episodes of a similar nature through the day and many signs that there was a lot of troops hidden behind the houses which surrounded us. There was much stamping of feet, staccato orders in German, I remember thinking "What a lot of trouble they are going to, to try and fool us into thinking there are hordes of them". All hiding behind the various houses ringed about our house it never occurred to me, or any of my companions, that they were genuine. On one of Joe Block's visits to me, he told me that the Officer wanted to see me downstairs, so of course I responded. He was sat in a very low easy chair tucked up to the heavy sideboard. He told me that we would have to get some help before the night was over and as it appeared that I was a paratrooper as well as a glider-pilot, he had decided to send me to get that help! I pointed out to him that we were completely surrounded and that if anyone showed their nose outside they would be riddled immediately. That's your problem, he replied, I expect you to make the attempt just as soon as the light fades. You had better lend me your field glasses so that I can plan a route out I demanded and after handing them over, I returned to my position in the "Grain room" I knocked a few tiles out of the roof at a height to enable me to stand up and view the surrounding land and where ever I looked it was very plain to see that there were definite signs of many troops hiding behind every bit of cover.
The prospects for me seemed very bleak. I continued my examination and noticed a lot of movement going on in an upstairs room of a house about a hundred yards north of our position. Obviously they were trying to get a large gun in position. The strange thing was that I didn't attach much importance to what I was seeing and even turned my glasses on to other things. Then suddenly, all the slates from the side of my hole disappeared and for a split second I must have been silhouetted for all the Germans to see! I dived for what cover there was behind the bags of grain and just lay there until finally the firing stopped, by which time all the doors and door posts were well and truly riddled with bullet holes. After getting my wind back and weighing up what had happened, it was plain where the firing had come from, so from the cover of the grain bags, I planned the next move. First I shouted for Joe Block and told him which house had done the heavy firing and from which window. We then laid our sights on the particular room, then let fly with two snipers rifles - there was no further firing from that house there on.
Just when everything had settled down, I suddenly noticed a shiny black helmet appearing to move from one house about 150 yards away to one a bit nearer to the north about 30 yards distant. What an idiotic thing to do I thought, then to my surprise, another helmet, about a yard behind the first one appeared. This was then followed by another and so on until there were eight or nine of them equally spaced in the grass slowly making their way to the house to the north. By this time I had alerted the others, so I had four to back me up and after each selecting his target, we all fired together, then followed with a long blast from a Sten gun. Only one figure got up and ran! There was then another quiet spell before another sound of firing from the other side of our house. Now of course my lookout position was absolutely first class, being able to see two sides completely and still be in a fairly secure spot. It was at this time that Joe Block crawled in behind me to ask if everything was OK and at that time I saw a party of Germans, about eight or nine of them slowly making their way to our house on my right. "Give me your Sten" I blurted out, snatched it form him and turned it on the Germans and emptied the complete magazine into them. They all fell, except for the last man in the line who managed to crawl back into the cover of the house they had set out from.
There was a shout from the blokes in the ground floor of our house. "Stop firing, we're put the white flag out!" I ran down the stairs past the two very badly injured men who had been there all day and found two or three men frantically trying to repair a torn rag on the end of a long stick. It seemed that they had decided to show the white flag, without telling anyone else, but in the process of pushing it through a very small window in the back door it had become entangled and partly fallen off. From what they told me it was obvious the Germans had seen it, hence the cautious approach of the small group towards our house. "Christ " I blurted out, as my heart sank, "They'll not take us prisoner now". Then without thinking, I grabbed the white rag from them and ran out of the front door then straight towards one of the men who I had just shot. One of them was squirming on the ground and moaning. He was a middle-aged man and I picked him up and threw him over my shoulder like a sack of flower and staggered to the house where he had come from.
I got the shock of my life to see every square inch of the area packed with troops all hiding in its shadow. I was surprised to see them all back away from me, as I carefully laid the man on to the ground, then showed them I was unarmed and indicated that we were all ready to stop fighting. I could almost feel the sense of relief they showed and in a few minutes, they lost no time in rounding up the men still left in the house. After satisfying themselves that there was no one left in the house, they gathered us into a group, then led us all along the same line we had tried to travel that morning. We saw that all the drivers and passengers were still in the same place where they had been riddled with bullets, a few who had been walking were lying near the vehicles and were also riddled.
We were led to a barn in the middle of the field and some sort of documenting was done and we were counted. While this was going on, we noticed that one of the Glider Pilots lying on his back in the field moved his legs up and down. Naturally we pointed this out to the Germans and they took a couple of us to help carry him back. When we got there we saw that the whole back of his head had been shot away and the movement we had seen must have been nerves. We recognised who it was but it would do no good to say now. The Germans didn't allow us to linger very long and we had to return to the barn. Shortly afterwards, we started to make our way into Germany. There were a few wounded in the party, one in particular very badly - part of his thigh had been shot away and the shell dressings we had were totally inadequate, so that two men had to support him as we moved off. During this time the noise of battle went on relentlessly all around us. We could see fox holes being prepared in the fields usually with boys of about fourteen or fifteen standing in each one and armed with a rifle or machine gun. They looked proud to be defending the Fatherland. We asked the Germans if they could produce a wheelbarrow to carry the man with the hole in his leg and as the night advanced we passed a farm from which was produced a large wheelbarrow. Fortunately we had all been given in our first aid kits a supply of morphine ampoules and this made the journey more tolerable for the wounded. Our guards were older members of the Vermach and were just doing their job of taking us to a further staging point somewhere ahead.
We staggered on all night and it was one or two o'clock in the morning before we reached a proper Dressing Station. There we were able to deposit the wounded men much to theirs and our relief. The rest of us continued on our way eastwards for the rest of the night. We got to a place called Borken which had been badly damaged by our bombers, the place seemed to be one great heap of rubble and there was a lot of people about as we made our way along the streets. I noticed that although it was obvious we were British and under guard, the population mainly women and children showed no ill feeling towards us. When we arrived at a stand pipe to fill our water bottles, the long line of Germans waiting to fill their buckets and bottles stood aside politely to allow us to fill ours without a semblance of hatred. I got the impression that their hopes of a better life had completely collapsed. However, we were soon on the go again. It was here that I asked one of the guards if I could take charge of his bike and save him the inconvenience of walking along holding the bike in one hand and a rifle in the other. He was only to happy to do this and I willingly took it from him. I was already on the last row of prisoners and so after walking with the bike for a short distance, I decided to mount the thing to see what reaction there would be. To my surprise the guard smiled and shrugged his shoulders, of course there were more guards behind the column, making escape or attempt very difficult. So there I was slowly riding a bike almost as if I was a guard, I can say that the relative rest that I was getting made my existence a lot more tolerable. Occasionally I was forced to dismount because of lack of a smooth enough track, but as soon it was possible I again remounted and so the night passed on.
Sometime before dawn we arrived at a large farm and were told we would stay here for the day. First of all we were placed in a kind of yard so that only two or three men were needed to keep watch on us. Then individually we were taken into the adjacent large hut, which had been arranged as an office and each man was questioned. Some men stayed in for interrogation a very long time while others were in and out very quickly, so it was easy to know who was giving information and who were stone-walling. When my time came, I had attended lectures about being questioned by the enemy and to every question merely replied "I can't say" and in a minute the German officer knew he would get nothing from me and so finished the interview straight away. Some people were questioned for a very long time. This went on for most of the morning and everybody was very hungry. Every attempt to get some food was met by a promise that there would shortly be a feed. Finally after the last man had been interrogated we were taken a short distance along the road to a very large barn in the middle of a collection of smaller buildings. The large barn had an upper storey, but the floor above was made of boards so staggered to allow air to circulate freely for drying proposes. We were all told to go up there on ladders which we did. The upper floor was separated into compartments and the senior British officer ordered all privates into one of these, while Sergeants and officers occupied the other.
Shortly afterwards, there was a shout from below and the Germans had brought some food to be shared equally. There was a large piece of ertzatz cheese, seven or eight loaves of bread and a bucket of milk. In the upper ranks "Room" there were a total of about 12 men, whilst in other compartment there were about 40 men. The S.B.O. commenced to cut the cheese into equal parts. At first, I thought this was the start of further cutting, but no, an attempt was made to pass the only slightly bigger piece of cheese to the 40 men on the other side of the partition. I objected to this vigorously and told the officers that I intended to escape and that I would report his behaviour to the first authority in the British lines that I encountered. The result of my complaint was that a much fairer share-out of the rations did in fact occur, much more to my liking, but I thought still not really fair. After devouring this meal, there was nothing more to do but sleep, the large gaps in the floor made the place cold and draughty, so sleep did not come easily. We were all very glad to welcome the evening, all day long there had been a constant noise of allied aircraft flying overhead searching for targets and frequently firing machine guns and rockets. Fortunately we had not been spotted. As soon as darkness came the German Army came to life again. We were ordered down to the ground again and again given a small amount of food and a drink of ertzatz coffee before moving off again east.
We went through the town of Goesfield, which was in a complete shambles, so much so that it was difficult to distinguish the road between the piles of shattered buildings. Here again the people were completely resigned and showed no animosity towards us prisoners. After getting through the town, there was a long hold-up, due I think to relieving some of the guards who had moved out of their district. When it became light again, the destination which we had been aiming for had not been reached, so it was necessary for the column to continue marching on in the day. The Allied air forces were everywhere; consequently we were forced to take cover often. The Allied aircraft were everywhere, thousands of them, just looking for targets and often finding good ones. It was very encouraging to see that there were no German aircraft anywhere, so our pilots could fly around with only anti aircraft guns to worry about and it seemed all attacks were at very low levels. The typhoons and tempest fighters with machine guns and rockets were absolutely devastating, picking out their targets and then coming in low. The large anti aircraft guns had little chance to get an effective bead on these fighter-bombers. Once as we were approaching a village cross road where a church tower showed up to one side of the crossroad, a squadron of Typhoons decided to attack. We of course had taken cover in a ditch, which we shared with three heavy tanks. The Germans were desperately trying to get the engines to run properly and being a motor mechanic myself it was obvious that the petrol that they were trying to use was not suitable, because of the spitting and banging. Also the strong smell of paraffin and alcohol hung heavy in the ditch. However we had a good side view of the attack on the crossroad. The typhoons came in at roof top height, shooting their rockets about 6 or 700 yards before. The rockets sped off in front of the plane and with most of them getting bulls eyes, the planes would sheer of to the right or left so as to avoid the explosions. From our point of view we were all delighted, but to the Germans it must have been hell to see the destruction of their own country. The Germans were bewildered and didn't show any sign of hatred to us prisoners, I think that they felt that it was all they could expect from the Allies at this stage in the war. I had a sneaking feeling that they used us prisoners to keep the air force away from both them, and us because from the low flying vantage point it must have been evident to the pilots that we were prisoners of war and so did not attack.
In this way we finally arrived at a railway at a place called Appelulsen, where we were loaded into goods wagons, 60 men to each wagon. The conditions were very uncomfortable indeed, as it was impossible for everyone to sit down. We finished up sitting on each other, half standing and sitting as best we could. We were issued with 12 small tins of food, meat I think. The doors were then closed and after what seemed an eternity the train eventually moved off. The train would slowly move on for a short distance and then stop for a varying length of time, then move a bit further. This went on all the rest of that day and passing through Munster, where through the cracks in the door we could see massive destruction everywhere. I almost felt sorry for the Germans. During this time I had been busy working on the door of our wagon and finally getting it to a state that I was able to open it at any time convenient to me. I also had a small piece of mirror, which I fixed on a stick, so that it was possible to look up and down the train to locate any guards. I think it took over an hour to get through Munster and out into the country again, then slowly on towards Osnabruck. Again the city had been bombed very badly indeed, every where there were gigantic heaps of bricks with narrow roadways cut through the rubble. Even the railway tracks were strewn with the rubble and obviously the train could only move when workmen had cleared a length of track, so the journey was taking a very long time. Eventually we passed over a bridge and it looked to us that there was only one track in use, all the others being missing.
After getting over the bridge our train was put in a siding and as it was now getting dark, the whole train was floodlit end to end. The wagon was filled with airborne and air force people, officers and sergeants only and after I had managed to get the sliding door to open at my say so, it was decided that after darkness and before the almost full moon had risen, we would all escape. However it seemed that the Germans had forestalled our plan and would keep the train here until the moon had risen, so making it more difficult for any attempted escape. Then suddenly the train started to move again and slowly made its way into the country. "Come on then lads", I said "Its now or never." The sudden change of face surprised me. Every excuse for not making the attempt was beautifully explained and eventually after having had the door open for ten or fifteen minutes, I made the statement that I was going myself and invited anyone else who felt the urge. Finally when I had made it plain that I was serious, I was given one of the cans of food for myself. I rolled out on to the step board and shut the door behind me, then waited for a momentary train stop to enable me to drop onto the side of the track.
Although the train only travelled very slowly, it just would not come to a standstill. If I had been able to stand up and then jump off there would have been no trouble, but of course I hadn't forgotten the guards at each end of the train. To simply roll of the footboard onto the rocky "ballast" about 2 feet didn't appeal to me, so I continued waiting for an actual stop. Ironically, when the next halt did occur, it was at a level crossing and I found myself bathed in the light from awaiting vehicle, so could only do my dead-still act and hope that I had not been spotted. My thoughts raced and I imagined that the vehicle was an army type and that a phone call would warn of my position. This gave me the incentive to move under the wagon so that I was a lot nearer the ground and in mid track. I had just got myself into this position when the train actually came to a dead stop. I immediately let go and landed without shock onto the track, only to discover that I was in a station. The train moved on slowly, so I began to wonder if there would be sufficient clearance for me between the usual hanging chains at the ends of each carriage and the ground. Luckily after the first chain had cleared me I breathed a sigh of relief, only to be alerted again when two men on the platform above me came slowly, swinging an oil lamp up to apparently read the label on each wagon. Every time a gap passed over me the light shone directly on me. The only thing I could do was freeze. The train went on its way slowly leaving me bathed in the full light. There was some talk between the men but they didn't see me and after a minute or so, sauntered away.
I thankfully moved off the track into the safety of the platform cover, then moved to the nearest end of the station. The end of the platform marked the beginning of a coal unloading set of bays. I went past these and then turned right into a typical railway yard. I now strode on and had covered about 20 yards when to my horror realised there was a crowd of people assembled near the main gate of the station yard. I just kept on walking, hoping to give the impression I knew exactly where I was going, bearing in mind that I was still dressed in my airborne overall. I found myself walking through the edge of the crowd between one side of the gate and a building, which seemed to be a weigh station. No one seemed to notice as I passed through. I had cleared the crowd and turned left onto the first street before I heard a shout. I started to run and realised that there was a hedge in front of a "cul de sac" however I managed to force my way through the hedge, then bearing to my left generally towards the railway again. After crossing the track I continued on alongside a hedge and after a few minutes came to a narrow road where I turned left and then strode out. I had no map so decided to keep near the railway and get back to Osnabruck and then keep heading towards the battle area from which explosions and gunfire was an unfailing guide. Shortly after striding out I suddenly saw a man coming towards me. He also was striding out, he turned out to be in uniform also and as we passed I just growled, never slowed but kept up my pace. He did the same.
The road gradually turned towards the railway and a school came into view. It occurred to me that I may be able to get a wall map here, so having stopped, I carefully walked around the place to see if there was a caretakers house, but no, so I opened the unlocked door and went in. There were various maps stuck the walls and I chose a suitable one for myself and then left. A few minutes later I arrived at the railway crossing where I had probably been spotted. On the left there was a railway house and in the garden between the house and the track I could see an elaborate water well but after a furtive attempt didn't manage a drop. I wasn't thirsty and had no means of carrying water, but I would have been pleased to have topped up. I did manage to make some noise due to a squeaky handle on the bucket winder, so rather hurriedly made my departure. About 20 or 30 yards along this road there was a street on the right which ran parallel to the railway and without hesitation turned into it. On the left was a row of houses, each with a stretch of garden about 10 yards long to the street. All were attached to each other and on the right was a high fence guarding a variety of railway buildings and equipment, there was a sidewalk only on the same side as the houses. I had realised that to stop and ponder over things was a certain way to attract attention, so had got into the habit of always trying to give anyone the impression that I knew exactly what I was about. Consequently I strode into this street with an air of certainty, only to notice that there was a courting couple stood at the garden end of about the eighth house. At the same time I discerned that about three or four hundred yards ahead was a high brick wall blocking the end completely. As I went past the couple I noticed that he was in a uniform which I judged to be a railway man's. So after giving my usual grunt, carried on in the hope that there would be a way through, but I was not lucky. About 3 houses from the end, I turned in towards the house, as if I wanted to go in. After knocking a couple of times I turned away and strode back the way I had come. As I passed the couple again I grumbled to myself, as if I was in flaming temper. On reaching the end of the road I immediately turned right and soon cleared the village.
I didn't wish to get far away from the railway when I saw a worn track on my right. I took that path and this led me past a farm on my left. As the first signs of approaching dark began to show I thought of finding some sort of waterproof on which to rest my bones during the following day. So I decided to go into this farm in the hope of finding some waterproof material. There was no dog and as I approached the farmhouse everything was dead still. On the right of the track was a large broken down shed and sticking out from it was the end of a piece of tarpaulin sheet. It was very tough; I had difficulty in getting it free from the roof on which it had been nailed. In the process after making a fair amount of noise, I finally got a long strip about 18 inches wide and about 12 or 13 feet long, which I formed into a roll, but could not find anything to tie it up with. There had been no sign of life coming from the cottage, so I approached and on the other side saw the front door and could see into the room. On a table close to the window was a large glass jug full of milk. I carefully lifted the snick of the door and found it was unlocked. After opening the door I could hear lusty snoring from above. I went inside, mainly to get the milk, which I took a big swig of straight away, then looking round I saw a coat and hat hung up behind the door. These I immediately claimed and then after closing the door made my way out of the vicinity, before pausing to change into my newly acquired dress. The tarpaulin was a trouble because it continually kept trying to unroll itself.
As dawn was now quite near I decided to go to ground and after searching couldn't find an ideal place in which to stop for the day so had to settle for a thin area of trees and make myself as inconspicuous as possible. Very shortly after lying down and hopefully sleeping, I heard the sounds of children awakening and realised that a large building at one side of the wood was another school. It seemed hopeless for me to be undetected all day, so I moved away from that spot immediately. By this time it was quite light, so I had to get a move on to find an alternative place. On the other side of the railway I saw a village and between the village and the railway was a rubbish dump over the edge of sharp drop in land level. I had no alternative but to make for it and hope it would be suitable. It was a cold wet morning and after reaching the cover of this dump I unrolled my tarpaulin and realised what an unfortunate shape it turned out to be. If I sat on it with a flap against the side of the bank, I was protected underneath and back with about 2 feet sticking out beyond my feet. Finally I found the best I could do was to bring it up over my head and by lifting my legs up, so that only my legs were out in the rain. I can only be thankful that the weather was reasonably warm, so I didn't start the shivers. Facing me was a line of trees and then a large meadow at a lower level. Considering things, I had been lucky to find such a good spot. By now I was able to hear sounds from the village behind and to my left, I figured that even if somebody came to tip some rubbish over the bank they probably wouldn't see me.
The day went slowly on and I tried to open the tin of food I had been given, but although I battered it hard between two stones, it refused to give up its goodies. There were occasional bouts of rain, sometimes quite heavy and my spirits were not at their best, when quite suddenly I saw two boys making their way along the meadow beyond the trees and although I froze it was to late, they had spotted me. However, I kept absolutely still and could tell that there was some doubt in their minds and after looking hard in my direction they were still not sure. Finally they went back the way they had come. When they had gone, I moved to another part of the rubbish dump, the sounds coming from the village were quite near and to have moved away completely would have been undoubtedly wrong. I just sat there and hoped that the boys would do nothing about it. Night was coming nearer and as the dusk began to form my hopes rose. Suddenly the two boys and a grownup older man appeared furtively looking round as if they didn't want to be seen. They stopped and looked at the spot where I had previously been and I decided to make myself known to them. The older man had an attaché case with him and when the three of them had made their way to where I was. They tried to converse with me, but in a language not German but for once I failed to understand a single word they spoke. It was plain however that they wanted to help me and when the case was opened it contained food and a hot drink of ersatz coffee well sweetened. I had a very good meal indeed and felt like a new man again. I wrote down my name and home address for them and heartily shook hands with them all.
As it was now dark I walked a little way towards the village with them and then set of on my way to Osnabruck and all stations ahead! After walking on for about an hour, keeping fairly close to the railway I noticed that there were a lot of people on the other side of the track walking out of Osnabruck, obviously to escape from the bombing which they expected later in the evening. It seemed to me that they were walking on a good road, so I decided to cross over, I considered my civilian jacket and cap was sufficient to hide my identity. Sure enough when I joined the crowd but going the opposite way I didn't attract any attention whatsoever and I strode out confidently. Everything went well until I suddenly found myself going down a gentle incline towards the Railway Bridge that I had been across two nights ago. The path had closed in somewhat to form a kind of funnel, so if I suddenly turned round I'm sure that would have attracted some attention from the people coming towards me, so I had no option but to keep going. There were piles of bricks everywhere and as I came near to the bridge itself I saw an armed sentry. This rather perturbed me but I needn't have worried because I passed by without a challenge and found myself threading my way over the rubble inside the tunnel. In view of the mess under the track it was an absolute miracle that there was still one track still working. There was another sentry at the other side of the tunnel and I passed without a word, on to a scene, which looked like hell. Everywhere I looked there were gigantic heaps of rubble with a cleared path about 6 feet wide through it all. There were sounds of human beings actually living inside the awful mess. I could only follow the cleared path, which seemed to curve to the right, gradually getting a bit more clear as I left the bridge behind me.
Eventually, the damage got less and I came across the start of a large area of flats, with a few people walking about either on their way to an air raid shelter or coming out of one. They were all intent on their own business and I didn't have any worries, so kept up a sharp pace. As the density of housing and flats thinned towards the outskirts of the city, I came upon what looked like a medieval castle on my left, very much like a child's model, complete with twin roadways leading up to a road which then turned towards the castle proper. There was a space underneath which now formed the entrance to an air raid shelter. I walked on the low road and as I came near the entrance I could see a couple of bicycles propped up against the wall. There was the red illuminated air raid shelter sign and carefully shaded white light, but no sign of life at all. As I approached the entrance to the shelter I saw about half a dozen bicycles leaning against the wall of the shelter and one leaning against a roof support for an overhanging roof. At this point, without hesitation, I lifted the single bike and pushed it forward so as to do a quick mount and ride away at speed, only to fall over head over heals on top of the bike. I badly grazed my right hand as I hit the ground, also skinning my right leg. I picked myself up and ran away as fast as possible away from the scene, resolving to make sure that the next bike I fancied I would look for locking chains before attempting the change of ownership.
I was now on the outskirts of Osnabruck and the road ahead was clear so I quickly got into a marching mode. It was a fine night, the moon quite bright. I made good headway for about half an hour, when quite suddenly realised I was approaching a bridge over a waterway with a sentry on guard. I was getting used to such things by now and had made up a story of being an Italian officer going to meet his wife who was in Amsterdam. So I confidently strode on and even when the first guard challenged me, I trotted out my excuse, "Io Italiano non spracken see deutsche" and with a shrug of his shoulders he allowed me to pass. The guard at the other side must have assumed that I was ok and just nodded as I went past. I then began to enter an area where the road seemed to be heading through a quarrying region. There was no movement anywhere and headway was good then. After about an hour a few people began to approach and then pass by. Gradually more and more people did the same, then suddenly a large group of about one hundred came by, most of them carrying household goods in hand carts and on their shoulders. After almost getting through the group, a very tall German in a uniform, challenged me and after I had done my usual Italiano stunt, he scoffed and knocked my cap off and pointed to my hair. He let go with a lot of words of warning, which I only partly got the gist of. Finally he lost his patience and turned away to follow the group. I breathed a sigh of relief and continued on my way. About three or four minutes later as I approached a village, there was a large barn type building on my left leaving the road in deep shadow and to my horror saw a squad of about 50 German troops who evidently a moment before had just arrived. An officer and NCO were stood in front of the party, obviously just getting organised, the only thing I could do was to walk on the right hand side and go behind the two in full view of the squad. Nothing changed and I just walked on, although quaking in my shoes. After that it was plain that a large unit of Germans forces had just come to the village and were about to take it over. As I approached a fork in the road I passed a large group of civilians who were being read an announcement of some sort by an important looking officer. There was weeping and wailing from the women and children, it seemed to me that they were being ordered to evacuate. I of course could only continue on my way, quickly deciding to take the left fork.
On the apex of the fork, looking at the scene was a German officer, hands behind his back. Each side of the building were parked trucks in the shadow of each building. At first it looked as if I would simply pass on, but as I came closer to him but on the other side of the road, he suddenly came to life, pointed to me and said "Comanzee here!" My heart sank! I slowly walked across to him and he spoke to me. I gave my normal reply and once again my cap was knocked off. Again he pointed to my hair, then said something in German. I looked as dejected as possible, shrugged my shoulders and repeated my Italiano" verse. I got the impression he thought that I was a German deserter, but with my repeated "non spracken see Deutsche" we could get no further. He was getting impatient and finally, after about 5 minutes (to me about 5 hours) he really lost his temper, took his revolver out, and pointed it at my midriff. Then he made a slow statement to me; I could only get a vague meaning from him. He seemed to be saying to me "I believe that you are a deserter and you only pretend not to speak German, however I am going to count up to three and then pull this trigger and kill you." He then started to count eine, swei ---. I just looked at him and the revolver, trying to weigh up the possibility of attacking him before the end of the count. To my surprise he suddenly threw his arms up in despair, kicked me in the arse and I scuttled away like a frightened rabbit. I hadn't realised what a trying time I had gone through until I had reached the security of the open road again, here I just lay down on the large deeply grassed verge and took a few minutes to recover.
I soon started out again and could hear the sounds of war ahead, there was a good sprinkling of people coming towards me but I had no fear of them at all now, but the numbers were increasing, also the occasional military vehicle, but I went by unnoticed. As dawn approached I pondered whether it was wise to keep on going on the open road and decided to hide in a large plantation on the right. First I looked for some clean water, as we had always been warned not to drink from any stream until we had got near its source. After finding a stream dutifully followed it up a hill so as to be near its source, however I didn't get any after all because of obvious pollution. By this time I was fairly high up and had a very good view of the surrounding country. The day was going to be a good weather day; plenty of sunshine and warm, so I tried to settle down inside a heavy earth bank which had been built right around this pine forest. A really good place I thought, but after half an hour my efforts which had made me hot began to wear of until I was shivering with cold. I realised that the wind passing through the plantation and evaporating tons of moisture was also bringing the temperature down quite steeply, obviously I must move on. I decided to risk going on to the road again but of course now in broad daylight and after returning to the road and striding out again, a German military vehicle went slowly past me. It didn't appear to take any notice of me and this gave my moral a big boost. A bit later on as I approached a farm bike on my right, I saw an old man leaning over the half door. Without hesitation I altered my track and walked straight up to him and asked "havati munjary ?" He was quite amiable and beckoned me into the barn, which incidentally was spotlessly clean in spite of the fact that there were several cows inside opposite the living quarters. I was given a really good feed by the family even though not able to converse. After an hour I thanked them as best I could and continued onwards. My confidence was now at its height and I again strode out towards the war noises ahead. On cresting a high point on the road, I could see for some miles ahead and in the distance was a large motorised column coming towards me. I considered it a bit too risky to try and walk past such a strong force, so as there was a fairly large wood about a half a mile ahead, decided to take cover it until I had heard the column go past.
So after going in to the forest I went along a path away from the road and eventually stopped when I heard the sounds of children playing and could see that there was a house at the other side of where the children played. At that I decided to stop and sit down quietly until the column had gone. I chose a spot about two or three yards from the pathway and against the trunk of a large tree, made myself comfortable and relaxed. I was roughly facing the house. I could see the children playing with a ball until the mother came outside and gathered them in. There was quiet for about five minutes before mother and the two children came out together and then started to move generally in my direction. At first I just looked until it was apparent that they were coming along the same path that I had been following, so as they got nearer I just froze, hoping they would pass by without seeing me. The children were still throwing the ball about and they had come level with me and passed me when one of the little girls ran off the path looking for the ball. She suddenly saw me, gave out a scream and ran to her mother who quickly came over to confront me. I just continued to sit and do nothing, I gave my usual speech about being an Italiano and couldn't speak German. She was kindly looking woman of about 30 and tried to speak to me, but of course I couldn't carry on any conversation except in my limited Italian, always being careful to avoid English. She seemed to accept my story about being an Italian worker and made it plain that she would be only too happy to go back to the house and get me some food. Although I was not hungry, I never let an offer of food go without acceptance. This had become a firm habit during my various wanderings. Eventually the woman and the two children returned to the house. I was left wondering if she might ring up some official to report me, but somehow I felt that she was genuine. Sure enough after about ten minutes the three of them came out of the house and brought quite a good feed, with a flask of hot coffee, then after thanking them, they moved of in their original direction, leaving me on my own again After leaving me they went towards the main road and I saw them turn right, before loosing sight of them. I then followed, but aimed to meet the main road about a 100 yards to the left.
By now the column of military vehicles had passed and when I got to the road there was only the odd few vehicles to contend with which were spread out widely. Every time I met a car or truck I obviously looked so much part of the scene that I was unnoticed. I soon began to feel on top of the world. Even when I saw a cluster of military vehicles I just kept on going and didn't raise an eyebrow from the Germans. From the map I had pilfered from the schoolroom five miles the other side of Osnabruck, I figured that if I could cross the Ems waterway, then I would be fairly certain to meet the allied front line before long, so that was my aim. Twilight was coming, but no sign of the Ems and then I did come across a canal but it was in an east-west direction so not the one I required. However it was heading towards the noise of war and the bank provided a good walking surface. Even after all light had disappeared, I was able to keep going because of the reflection from the surface of the water. Before the moon came up it was absolutely pitch dark. When I came level with a lone cottage from which there was the sound of voices, I could not help but sit down on the low windowsill and just luxuriate in the sounds of human beings. There were a few chinks of light leaking from the blackout curtains, but I enjoyed being there for a time. The canal eventually curved to the right and not in the direction I wished to take so I reluctantly left it behind. At first it was too dark to carry on, so I sat down, to wait for the moon to rise. The noise of war was getting very loud now and I began to pass through the German positions, luckily they were far too busy to notice me. Eventually I found myself in the thick of them and I thought it was about time that I should have reached the Eros, but no sign of any water, only light scrub which wouldn't hide a rabbit. I began to feel very nervous indeed, here I was in a very forward position in a doubtful sort of dress and seemingly surrounded with German troops everywhere. Then to make matters worse, dawn began to show. I searched for a likely hiding place to spend the day ahead, but all there seemed to be was light scrub and finally in desperation opted to use a large tree with big limbs feeding into the ground and forming a kind of a trench. I quickly gathered as much camouflage in the shape of twigs and loose leaves as possible before being spotted by one of the Germans and rather nervously sealed into my "Hide"
My position was about five or six yards to the right of the last track I had been using and at a lower level. Only minutes after settling down, I heard a party of Germans come quite near and then there were sounds of digging and much talking, then the sound of motor vehicles moving about, more digging and more talk. Then there was the sound of planes overhead and shooting followed by the sound of planes diving down. There was a sudden outburst of machine gun fire, then a scream of bombs dropping and a series of explosions as one plane followed another amidst a barrage of machine gun fire. All I could do was to keep dead still and hope not to be seen by the Germans all about me. Shortly after the first bombing, I heard another lot of planes arrive, followed by another dive bombing attack like the first, then another and another. All the time I could hear the Germans talking as if they were only a yard away. The bombing went on all day and I lost all hope, just managing to take out a photograph of my wife Joan and my mother and speak to them to say goodbye.
' believe that I must have lost consciousness, because I had been laying on my back all day and suddenly looked up and saw a figure standing over me pointing a rifle with a bayonet at my chest, then realised it was an English soldier. "Don't shoot" I shouted, "I'm English!" "Who the bloody hell are you and for Christ's sake how did you get here?" he shouted. I stood up and quickly assured him that I was an Englishman. I saw that they were part of an infantry unit who were sweeping these thin woods. He called out to his officer, who came over to me and made sure that I was in fact an Englishman. I had only a minute to look back at my hiding place and see that behind and slightly to the side there was a heavy tank. It had been placed in a large hole so that only the barrel of its gun was visible; the top of the tree had been blown away. There were a number of German tanks bearing the signs of direct hits, tracks missing and in all sorts of topsey turvey positions, a few on fire and signs everywhere of a great battle. I personally was quite dizzy and felt that I had dreamed it all. My appearance right in the middle of an infantry front line sweep rather disorganised things and the officer in charge of the unit was anxious to get moving forwards again. They had already wirelessed a message back about my appearance and very quickly a Provost Sergeant appeared to escort me back to an advanced Dressing station. I could see from where I had been hiding, the land sloped towards a bank, which was about ten or fifteen feet high. After we had climbed this bank, I was greeted with a very big surprise, as the land began to fall again towards the canal, which I had tried to reach the night before.
The ground in front was completely covered with hundreds of heavy allied tanks which had crossed over a Bailey Bridge and which had been the subject of the day long aerial attack by the remains of the Luftwaffe. I could see a number of crash sites, but at this time the only aircraft flying overhead were definitely allied and lots of them. The Provost Sergeant and I had to literally thread our way through the masses of tanks which were very close together on the German side of the bridge, even though there were at least a hundred across, more were still crossing the bridge. The noise of machine guns, shell fire and bombing from seemingly hundreds of fighters and fighter-bombers was unbelievable and we had some difficulty in negotiating the bridge at the same time in that more tanks were coming towards us. The advanced dressing station was about a hundred yards to the left of the bridge and although it was plain that I was genuine, none the less, I was kept under strict guard while awaiting further interrogation. After meeting a few bods from Sheffield and exchanging remarks my guard relaxed and we quickly became friends. He was then given an order to interrogate a new batch of German prisoners and he invited me to accompany him. The callous way he dealt with these prisoners rather sickened me when he took their photographs of their loved ones, spat at them, then tore the pictures to shreds and threw them away. Although I objected, it made no difference to him.
While this was going on, the bombing and strafing by the allied planes was in full swing and they were being controlled by an RAF jeep which was tucked in the side of a large barn. They had special aerials and radio gear. When I got near to them I could hear the conversations between pilots of the attacking planes and the ground crew, who were seeing the targets from a different perspective and correcting small errors of direction. The Germans just didn't have a chance. On returning to the ADS to await further instructions I had a good talk with all the incoming wounded troops and met a few who were from my own home town of Sheffield. One man in particular I will never forget. He walked in under his own steam and he had been shot in the chest. To prove it he took his shirt of and there sure enough was a bullet hole in the front and a hole in his back where the bullet had emerged. He was without any pain and treated the incident as a joke! After being questioned by a number of intelligence officers, I learned that I could best get back to England if I made my way to unit located in Amsterdam. I decided to hitch hike my way there and having been given some identification papers, duly set off the next morning. The military traffic was very heavy and it was almost an unspoken rule that hitchhikers in uniform were automatically given a lift. After a few short rides, I stopped a large tank carrier who said he was going to Amsterdam and of course I went the rest of the journey with him. He even went out of his way to get to the aerodrome, which was my reporting point.
The activity on the Amsterdam aerodrome was absolutely fantastic; fighter planes were landing, filling up with fuel and ammunition and taking of again as fast as possible, seemingly eager to get back into the fighting. The shear number of them was amazing. There were great piles of four-gallon cans of fuel marked 130 octane scattered about the service area and everyone seemed to be concentrating on giving the fastest turn round, an unforgettable sight! I managed to get the promise of a flight back to England the next day, so found myself with some time to waste and decided to go into the city. It was easy to get a lift into Amsterdam and my lift giver gave me a long tour of the city. The outstanding thing, which I remember well, was to travel past a very large factory, which had lots of large glass areas, and hardly any of which were broken. Obviously our bombers must have given them a very wide birth during the bombing program. I learned later that it was the Philips factory. Another thing I particularly remember was the large number of children in groups being escorted by Nuns. Of course life in Amsterdam was far from being normal and I was glad to get back to the aerodrome again and glad to go to bed in comfort and a pleasant glow in my mind. The next morning after a good breakfast, I was given details of the flight back to Croydon in England and didn't have any time except ablutions before boarding a Dakota and "on my way home". I remember that although most of the people aboard were senior officer ranks, there was no talking, everyone obviously taking notice of the signs which were posted everywhere "Loose Talk Costs Lives".
On arriving at Croydon I reported to an Intelligence Officer and in a short tithe found myself on the way to Whitehall MI 9. Then after a day of questions, went to The Grand Central Hotel for the night. This was the second time I had been domiciled at this place and enjoyed the experience again. The following day after another stint of questioning at MI9, I was given a travel warrant to go home to Sheffield. After sending a telegram to let my wife Joan know which train and time to meet me at the Midland Station, I made my way to St Pancras Station and boarded a badly overcrowded train. I wasn't worried with the crowding, so long as I was on my way home. At Leicester there was a dramatic reduction of passengers, so I was grateful to at last obtain a seat, but soon afterwards the train slowed down and then stopped due to an engine failure, so there was no further movement for over 2 hours. Strangely I was content to wait until a replacement engine had been brought and then shunted into position. As the replacement engine must have been a lower powered one, the rest of the journey was at a slower pace. This enabling me to savour the delight of seeing the country and the crooked spire of Chesterfield go slowly past, then the passage through Millhouses park and finally into Midland station and home. My wife Joan, my mother and sister were there to meet me and for the first time for a long period I experienced a yearning to cry in gratitude for finally being home.
When I arrived at 50 Oxford St, Joan's mother's house, there was a telegram from Smithy's wife asking if I could ring her if I had any news of her husband. He was one of the men who had been riddled with bullets on the way across the field to the large barn, near where we had landed. I just couldn't tell her what had actually happened, but tried to ease her anguish as best I could. For some time in spite of being home I couldn't shake off the feeling that it was all a dream. A good percentage of the crews from "B" Squadron, about 50% had got back to England more or less straight away and they were quite pleased to see my belated return to hear my account of what had happened to Smithy and others. My personal kit, which I had left in the care of quartermaster's store, had been opened and because of being posted missing in action it had been looted. The people concerned were rather upset when I turned up! I stayed for the night and had a long talk with Major Toler my CO and told him all I knew of missing personnel. The next day I headed under my own steam back to Sheffield. I had been granted 6 weeks leave and as it seemed fairly obvious that the war was in its last phase, I decided to look around for premises in which to start in business on my own. My aspirations at that time were to start in the motorcycle game, build up a machine-shop and in my spare time manufacture a special type Swashplate engined motorcar which I had designed whilst in Sulmona POW camp.
Although there was a lot of empty premises all over the place, I discovered that miraculously most of it had been suddenly been taken up very recently, but finally I contacted an estate agent who had been in the army during the 1918 war. He told me to go and look at some premises on Langsett Road in Hillsborough. I found a bombed out shell, with all the roof tiles missing and the basement filled with rubble, but it was on a very busy main road. I went back to him and told him of its condition and said that if he would lower the rent to zero until I had completed the repairs then I would take it and he agreed. The next day I started in earnest to start the job of rejuvenating the property and decided that a waterproof roof was the first job to be tackled. So after borrowing some ladders from a builder across the road, I climbed up onto the roof and started to make a first clearance, then counted up the number of slates that were needed.
Just after having a break for some food and then going up the ladder again, I was attracted by the Estate Agent shouting up to me. Come down and have a talk, he shouted, so I went down the ladders. You're a trier he said, now go home and rest and leave this to me to repair, then come back in 3 days. He promised to get some men immediately on the job. Later on that same evening I made a trip to see the place and sure enough there were 3 or 4 men working on the repairs and 3 days later a completely new roof had been fitted. Also the basement had been cleaned out and the walls of the shop had been completely re-plastered leaving a really clean and nice shop and basement. The next shop in the same block was occupied by a typical "Spiv type" who had kept out of the services and had been operating a photo enlargement service, using pilfered war department film material. His property was not in good condition and when he saw the new state of my new shop, he said that he had obtained the rental of a shop, which was located in Spital Hill. This was on the other side of the city and on an equally busy main road, plus the fact that there was living quarters behind and above the shop. I lost no time in going to inspect this property and sure enough it was really much more suitable for my purposes, so to cut a long story short we arranged a swap. The only snag with the proposition was the fact that my newly acquired property had been badly shaken by bombs. As a result, the plaster on practically every one of the 6 rooms and the basement was laying in great heaps on the floors, plus the lack of a satisfactory roof. I managed to do a lot of this repair work whilst still on my leave and then after going back to the Glider Pilot Regiment merely to await my demobilisation from active service.
My thanks to John Parker for sending me a copy of his father's story.
For his escape in Italy, Sapper Parker was Mentioned in Despatches. His citation reads:
Captured 16 February 1941 in Italy, six days after being dropped by parachute with one officer and three other sappers on a special operation. Imprisoned in Campo 78 (Sulmona). Released 12 September 1943. With Lance-Corporal George Dent, Royal Corps of Signals, became detached from the main party and on 23 September was captured by Germans near Cerignola. Dent and an Italian were taken out and shot by the Germans. Parker escaped shooting by declaring himself British, but ten other Italians were shot. Parker escaped from the German Field Police on 5 October when the lorry in which he was travelling was ditched. He made his way to the British lines which he reached on 11 October.
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