looked greener to my father and we moved to Booborowie in South Australia where he took up farming again and somehow he seemed to have gone broke on that. I think we must of moved from Booborowie to Berry on the Murray [River] about 1924, dates meant nothing to me at the age of four or five.
He worked on an experimental farm and then moved to New South Wales to a place called Erigolia near Rankins Springs where he became a share farmer. We had some years of drought, which took us into the Depression, and then he moved closer to and onto the irrigation area
at Griffith where things didn’t get any better. In 1936 after some years of Depression, we moved to Queenstown in Tasmania. Where I worked in the mines until 1939 when I joined the air force.
I was held on reserved until about the middle of the year and I was called up on the 6th November 1939. I did a wireless operators course and when I had completed that course I joined 3rd Squadron, which was going overseas to the Middle East, and we left Sydney on the 15th July 1940.
As an army co-operation squad where the training was straight out of 1918 as a wireless op [operator] There were seventy-nine wireless operators out of a squadron strength of two hundred and ninety, roughly about a quarter were wireless operators.
As I said, the training was straight out of 1918 and we were suppose to man the communications with the army flying over the trenches and spotting for the guns, all which proved inapplicable and then to desert warfare and 3rd Squadron turned into a single-seater fighter squadron and we remained a fighter squadron
throughout the war, and we stayed overseas until the end of the war. We started off in Egypt and finished up in northeast Italy in 1945. There was a surplus of wireless operators and they split the compliment of
wireless ops from 3rd Squadron into the other two army co-op squadrons that were in the Middle East at the time, the 6th Squadron in Palestine and 208th Squadron in Egypt. I was part of the contingent that went to Palestine and we didn’t get down into the desert until the fall of Bardia, which was
early January 1940. From there on we relieved 208th Squadron and after the desert campaign was virtually completed I found myself up at a place called Ajdabiya in from the Gulf of Sidra from February
until Rommel made his push on the 1st April 1941 when we retreated from Ajdabiya on the day that Rommel moved northwards forty miles away. We moved out of Ajdabiya the day that he moved in and went out
through Antalāt and camped over night at Antalāt and the following day we went to Masus [Zawiyat Masus] and we left Masus and we could see the dust of Rommel’s advances armoured sections. Through to the escarpment east of
Benghazi through to Barce, then it was decided that we’d take an advance right back to Barce and do some aerial reconnaissance and nobody knew where the German forces were.
and one lived in an atmosphere of dignified poverty it would be described as a situation that few would realise the severity of which they were hard years for a large part of the
Australian population. After my father had failed to succeed on the land we went to Tasmania where he took a job with the forestry department and became the forestry officer up the Gordon River. The forestry established a house twenty odd miles up the Gordon River where my father supervised the
harvesting of Huon pine, there were several families, the piners and the Huon piners up the Gordon River. All of whom joined the army and most whom were taken prisoner in South East Asia and Singapore or thereabouts
and they never came back to harvesting Huon on the Gordon. They removed the house they built up the Gordon and my father ultimately finished up in Queenstown. I worked in the West Lyall open cut as a miner and I was studying at the time
from 1937 until 1939 when I joined the air force. From then on I never went back to work at Queenstown.
some of whom were killed in action, and I have always held them in considerable reverence. My name sake, my uncle Eric was a Light Horseman and wounded at Beersheba, ultimately killed playing polo in Adelaide,
and that must have been in the late 1920s. My mother’s brothers two of who incidentally fought in the Boer War and went to South Africa and took up farming in the Transvaal and finished up dying there.
One of my father’s brothers was killed in action in France and two other brothers went to New Zealand, both are now dead of course, so that pretty much accounts for my
uncles. My father was medically unfit he had very serious surgery and was fortunately rejected for the army. So I held my uncles in considerable regard.
gone through the transition from the magic lantern to television, man on the moon and all sort of advances that one couldn’t envisage them ever happening.
One became more self sufficient in ones conduct and amusements. One of my firmest recollections was the freedom one enjoyed as a boy in the outback of New South Wales where one hunted, shot and
carried on with reckless abandon. I was horrified to see the other day where some school child and took a live round of ammunition to school and his parents were ostracised, or his father was for permitting this heinous deed. We use to take a rifle to school and shoot rabbits on the way and no one thought twice about it.
I’d shuddered to think what would happen today if a school child took a rifle to school. We ultimately gave it up because it was a waste of time, we had to drive ten miles in and ten miles out to primary school in outback New South Wales in a horse drawn vehicle. We couldn’t waste
too much time shooting rabbits, so we ultimately gave it up, or didn’t do it very often. We had a pet Wedged Tailed Eagle that use to eat a couple of rabbits a day so we had to keep it supplied. We generally made our own amusements in those days.
It wasn’t the age of instant gratification like the present ages, our expectations were not great.
Having said that what do you mean exactly?
One of my recollections was when I joined the RAF [Royal Air Force] Squadron in Palestine and these Englishmen they are the greatest complainers on earth, they use to complain about the heat and the conditions and so on.
When we got down into the desert they’d complain about the dust and the heat, and North Africa wasn’t never any worse than outback New South Wales to me. But I thought after all these people come from a moderate climate and desert conditions were probably not very conducive to their enjoyment.
When we got into Germany with the snow and the freezing temperatures they use to complained bitterly about the cold so it seemed that they would complain about anything. We were not altogether well adapted to change. Whereas
my upbringing, no hardships, no weather or no conditions of weather were any worse than I had experience in my period of growing up regardless of where one was. Apart from the fact that the winters of Northern Germany were
pretty miserably, there was six inches of snow around the place with inadequate food and it was a most unpleasant existence. I once swore that I would never live north or south of the tropics again but low and behold, I ultimately came to Tasmania.
despite the errors and failures that have occurred in the British scheme of things, the society to which we belong
has probably made the greatest contribution in the civilising process of any nation on earth. One has lived through dictatorships of the proletarian, one has lived through Nazism and been subjected to certain stringencies under it. One has lived in Italy
during the Mussolini regime and one has seen the collapse of these systems. And one has realised that, from those small isles in the North Sea, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales,
they have made the greatest contribution on any nation on earth to the civilising process, and after all you are here from Ceylon.
When you joined up were you going as part of the Empire?
Things have changed, its difficult to compare the modern concepts with those, which existed in 1939. You weren’t alive then but even without consulting his
parliament the prime minister of the day Menzies, on behalf of Australia declared war on Germany by virtue of the fact that Britain had declared it and no one objected, it was expected of us and we expected it of ourselves. I don’t suppose that state of affairs will ever exist again,
it existed twice in twenty odd years from 1914, it happened and in 1939 it happened, it was only a space of a generation in between. It was just a normal expectation, Britain was at war so we were at war.
Things have changed, it won’t happen again, Britain might be wise enough not to get itself involved in another one anyway.
Recruiting of a single seater fighter is a simple procedure, it is a pilot and nobody else. When one gets into Bomber Command with multiple duties such as pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator, gunners there is a difference in
duties and each compliments the other. Everyone is dependent upon the other and bomber crews become very involved with each other.
Again it depends on the aircraft that they are flying, some only have two. The Mosquito for instance has two a pilot and navigator, observer, whatever you’d like to call them. The same thing with the Beaufighter,
the Flying Fortress carries a crew of nine and so it goes on.
procedures that go with it, such as direction finding, its not so terribly involved. It was a matter of constant practice at Morse code and radio theory and what have you.
With the advent of better radio equipment as the war wore on it became simpler. The T283 combination that was standard throughout the RAAF, Canadian air force, and New Zealand air force,
it required a bit more expertise to use effectively than it did the automatic radio machinery that came into be later on in the war. I think it was the main transmitter receiver,
even for fighter aircraft that was subjected to all sorts of problems without the skills of a wireless operator to operate it, and any improvement on it would have been quite an improvement. Undoubtedly as the war was on more sophisticated radio equipment was invented
but all that was beyond me, that happened after my active period. We weren’t issued with radio sets in prison war camps.
Was it understood at the time that codes would be very important to the war effort?
Yes. You don’t want to shout your intentions to the enemy. As it turned out Rommel had a great advantage. Rommel had a signals intelligence unit 621 which comprised
of a bunch of very skilled radio people who did crypto. It was captured on the 10th July 1942 at the commencement of the El Alamein battle, but that’s a different story. Where Rommel had a great advantage in that
he knew his enemies intentions as it happened. He was never able to replace the skills of unit 621 in the length of time he was in Africa. Britain, bearing in mind had ultimately, with all the intentions of
joining the command, a tremendous advantage in warfare.
At what time did they say you were going to be stationed here or in Australia, did you knew where you were going?
When one passed ones course one then had the opportunity of joining a squadron somewhere or other, New Guinea, Darwin, Brisbane,
Amberley, Victoria, Pearce in Western Australia, I think they were the only stations. Which was New South Wales, Amberley, Queensland a station near
Point Cook, and Point Cook was a training station and there was another aerodrome only a few miles away. Pearce in Western Australia, and I wasn’t aware that there was on in South Australia. The air force was in it’s infancy in those days and I volunteered initially for Port Moresby and or Darwin, and then
I got to know that 3rd Squadron was going overseas so I got myself transferred onto that.
how could it be otherwise, that’s why I didn’t volunteer to join the Victorian one, which meant only five miles away from Point Cook. The course split itself up and quite a few of us went to 3rd Squadron and went overseas, a few,
others went all over the Commonwealth. The first member to lose his life was a wireless operator flying a Hudson out over the Coral Sea and it went into the drink only a month or two after we passed out.
Others met varying degrees of misfortune, some were in it short periods of time which happens in warfare. The first air force prisoner was John Parr who was captured when Tobruk was being invested,
going around the wireless sets on the guns firing into Tobruk in a sand storm and ran into, before they had realised they had gone too far, and in turning around they had driven within a hundred yards of the perimeter of Tobruk in a sand storm. Where you couldn’t see too far ahead
of you, and come under intense fire and one member was killed, Vic Jarvis was killed and John Parr was machine gunned behind a camel bush for half an hour before he was taken prisoner. It is said that the poor old guy lost a stone in weight and I’m sure he did. Ten days afterwards
he was recaptured by the diggers who took Tobruk. There was John Parr brandishing a pistol and he had several hundred Italian prisoners under his command, they had surrendered to him.
I was to meet John Parr in England four years later in London, when I came out of Germany and he was there in some capacity or other. He’s now dead, as are many of ones contemporaries
and that was sixty-four years ago.
When you were traveling through these allied countries did you feel that they were on your side so to speak?
A bit more supreme in India and in Egypt, she was running a mandate over Egypt, the British High Commissioner Sir Miles Lampson was
virtually to dictate the procedures that was expected of the country, they weren’t too happy about it I’m sure, as history has turned out. Britain was dominant in the field in India, Egypt and Palestine.
When we moved into Libya again there was a very different society under the Italians who had taken it in 1912 and they lost it in 1943.
You see we were living in a period of concentrated history, the concentrated changes of the historical process and just adapted to the changes as they occurred, what else could you do, it was already made.
When we moved to Helwan we transferred to a single seater fighter squadron and we had wireless operators so they flipped us into three bunches. A third stayed with 3rd Squadron and a third went to 208 RAF and another third went to Palestine to 6th Squadron at Ramla,
half way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I was a member of the contingent that went to 6th Squadron. 208 did army corps, so called with the advancing troops in the first Libyan campaign which terminated at the end of February 1941 where the Italians were driven out of
Cyrenaica. Then the dominant infantry division the 6th Division Australian AIF and it came back to Egypt and went immediately to Greece where it met up with a degree of disaster. When the Greece and Crete campaign
failed where the Germans in a month or so concurred the whole of Greece and then moved onto Crete our troops had to either escape assisted by the Royal Navy or become prisoners of war. That denuded Africa, wayward forces in Africa,
and it was at that stage that the Africa Korps was sent to Africa, it had initially landed in Tripoli in February 1941 and then had a thousand miles or so of coastal desert to traverse and begin
its attack on the 1st April 1941. I was at Ajdabiya inland from the Gulf of Sidra at that stage and we had been there for some six weeks and we had relieved an advance flight of 6th Squadron RAF had relieved its equivalent to 208 Squadron and we were there for some six weeks
before Rommel began his push on the 1st April 1941. When we commenced our retreat from Ajdabiya on that same day. The Africa Korps occupied the airstrip that we vacated on the same day that we left it. So we slowly but surely we went out through Antalāt and Masus,
Antalāt we camped the first day and Masus we moved to the second. We moved then from Masus on the third day and we saw the dust of Rommel’s armour advancing in the distance when we left Masus. We went back to Barce and onto the lead to Derna
and I think we arrived at Derna on the 5th April and on the 6th it was an advanced flight Hurricane aircraft back to Barce. Back to Barce to fire a bit of advance reconnaissance
to try and find out where the Africa Korps happened to be. We got somewhat near our destination when one of our aircraft dropped a message on us to tell us to return. When we returned we were diverted out into the desert road
away from the coast road and at the junction of the Derna, Mechili, Gazala, Berta and Tobruk road we ran into a German anti tank and machine gun post and we were taken prisoner. Five miles from the Derna drome, which was our destination
and that was on the 6th April 1941. In the early morning of the 7th April the headquarters company of the 2nd 8th Field Ambulance ran into the same place where we were held prisoner and at the back of their convoy was a staff car containing General Neil and O’Connor,
and they were taken prisoner. I remember as the story goes the lead truck was driven by Private Bill Carey a farmer from Kangaroo Island and I only rang him last night and he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease but a great old warrior, old William. Another one of the
members on the truck realising that we were being held by Germans much to their surprise they had never seen one before. Bluey Taylor who now lives at Port Augusta or somewhere, went back along the line of traffic in the dark to tell them that they were being held by Germans. When he approached the last vehicle
which was the staff car, a senior officer stuck his head out and said, “What is holding us up my man?” And Bluey said, “The Germans has got us.” General O’Connor said, “Impossible.” And Bluey said, “Well what’s that fellow coming down here?” In the dark down came a German storm trooper with a machine gun at the high port and O’Connor looks at him
and said, “What a bloody mess,” and so it was. The German storm trooper said to O’Connor, “Rouse.” Which they have got a habit of saying, so O’Connor roused, “get out”. Two senior officers of the army of the Nile were captured at that moment
by the Germans. That was on the 7th April, two days later General Carton [de Wiart] was sent out by the British government, he was a bit of an expert on retreats, he had organised the retreat from Norway, and was sent out by the British government
to Cairo to go to Greece to advise the Greek army military. They landed at Malta in a Wellington bomber and the machine was serviced overnight and on the
9th April they took off for Cairo in the dark. Unbeknown to them the Germans had, I think, marched into Greece on the same day that they had left, on the 6th April, my dates I am a little bit unsure of. They got to the Gulf of Bomba
heading to Cairo when the engine cut out. The skipper instructed Rush Jenkins, a New Zealand navigator, thinking they might have exhausted one wing tank of petrol, to even up the petrol in the wing tanks on the Wellington, and 1A I think it happened to be.
It has three coxes, one of either side of a central one, the two unbeknown to Rush, the two side coxes even upped there, interconnected the petrol supply, and the one in the centre was the jettison. But Rush turned that on so next to no
time the next engine spluttered and conked out and General Carton [de Wiart’s] aircraft fell down into the Mediterranean, so he was taken prisoner the next day. Within three or four days three senior generals of the British army were captured by the Africa Korps. Its just as well the other two, Jumbo Wilson and General Wavell
weren’t there at the same time because the whole senior officership of the British army would have been captured.
Italy I suppose, or Crete, no Crete hadn’t been occupied by that stage of the game so probably from Italy. I never saw an Italian aircraft in those few months in daylight. The aircraft that we had to contend with were all German
which would come over in support of the Africa Korps, I would take it. The day before we evacuated Ajdabiya we were subjected to an air raid, we had got a message from base to expect an attack at
eleven o’clock, the bombers were escorted by fighters. We had got this message early in the morning and 3rd Squadron was to fly up and give cover, fighter cover. We hardly believed the accuracy of this sort of intelligence but it was found out to be accurate because 3rd Squadron had flown from Benghazi, one hundred miles north and took up
position in the sun a bit before eleven o’clock. Flew around in the sun invisibly and at about quarter to eleven over came two Messerschmitt 110s, and 3rd Squadron descended on those and shot down one and it went into the earth and exploded
about a mile away from us. The other was hotly pursued. It pushed its throttle through the gate and took off at great speed and out distanced the pursuing Hurricane. 3rd Squadron had virtually been flying
for an hour and a half and still had one hundred miles to return and had limited fuel supply so it formed up and flew on back. A few of us took a vehicle and went over to where this plane had hit the earth, and before we got there over came fighter bombers and we turned to go back but they out distanced us to go back on our guns.
And they laid their bombs right across the anti tank defenders position, the Royal Horse Artillery were defending us with ack-ack [anti-aircraft] guns and took off unmolested. 3rd Squadron in the meantime was heading its way back to its base.
I remember Squadron Leader Jackson looked at his fuel in the Hurricane and discovered that his needle was on empty and he turned to come back just in time to see the bombs drop. By the time he landed back on the airstrip we got back to our gun,
three bombs had gone off within a nine yards radius of us, and our ears would have sung if we had been on it and we would have been uncomfortable. The gun next to ours, the gun layer was dead, his clothes were burning and his ammunition was alight.
The officer in charge was wounded, two others were wounded on the gun. Just as Jackson landed and taxied by us. Reading the accounts of Jackson’s memoirs two other pilots
claim to have engaged German 110, which they didn’t. Jackson fueled up and went off and the other two pilots that made these claims, one was dead within a week and the other one in six months, and Jackson was ultimately killed weeks later over Port Moresby.
The three active participants of that squadron were dead in no time, in just a few months. Its interesting how, reading the history of these events, how everything comes together.
between our advance post at Ajdabiya and base. At the stage that we left Ajdabiya on the 1st April, there were four wireless operators from 3rd Squadron, four Australians handling the
communications. It was our duty to send and receive messages to send back to base, the results of our aircraft reconnaissance and to receive instructions from base. It was the same as any normal wireless organisation.
My old partner Snow Campbell was a hand operator of some note, and nothing he liked better than to sort out a message in amongst all the interference that was occurring. At one stage he was trying to get a message back to base and was bothered by constant repeats.
So he sent a mixed signal which interpreted ‘put a competent operator on‘ only to find the operator at the other end was the commanding officer of 6th Squadron who began his air force career as a wireless operator. He was highly annoyed to have this indignity placed upon him.
It took our commander at Ajdabiya some time to calm him down so I’m told. Our duties were duties that normally become the lot of wireless operators anywhere.
the tail end of March 1941 when a couple hundred motor vehicles turned up at [Al] Uqaylah down at the southern end of the Gulf of Sidra. That came as a bit of a surprise to us but bearing in mind that the British intelligence doesn’t tell everybody everything they know.
That was our first encounter with the presence of the Africa Korps and that virtually occurred overnight. They probably would have done several hundred miles down the coast of Africa during the
previous day or night so they just appeared much to the surprise of everybody. Our forces were in a very weakened conditions, 6th Division had gone to Greece, the 7th Armoured Division had gone to Egypt for refitting, there was virtually nothing in
the way of the Africa Korps to impede our advance into Cyrenaica, which they did. There was a generalised panic on it, it wasn’t altogether to the credit of British command that we indulged in the situation
of the Benghazi handicap.
Can you tell us about the state of the weapons and the equipment used against the Italians and the Germans at that stage. Were they up to date machinery, obsolete, what was the state of their condition on what you had seen at the time?
Air forces’ weaponry lies in its aircraft rather than the equipment of its ground forces. They were flying Hurricanes and they flew to exhaustion. The army was depleted, its arms were poor, and the tanks had gone out
of Cyrenaica back to Egypt. The remaining forces were very poorly armed and the 9th Australian Division, which ultimately had taken over, had not left Australia. They only left Australia about November 1940. It had hardly got itself established in Palestine before it went down to the desert. It was untrained,
poorly armed and it was that division that had seconded itself in Tobruk, which held Tobruk, and it learnt quickly and it became a great fighting division. But it learnt the hard way, not by exercises in the field but by one of Germany’s supreme commands, the Africa Korps.
Rommel couldn’t break his way into Tobruk much to his annoyance. The 6th Division had a more aggressive spirit than the retreating forces that
took part in the Benghazi handicap.
the medical treatment of whatever casualties happened to occur at that period of time. This was the commencement of the investment of Tobruk, where truck loads of wounded came into the hospital. It was run by Major Ken Beans from Adelaide, a mild little fellow and
Dr Levin from New South Wales. Major Beans in one instance, and Captain Levin in the other. They, plus the 2/8th Field Ambulance to which we attached ourselves in the hope of finding it easier to escape, conducted for the first month all the treatment of the wounded that came back from Tobruk,
which were mainly members of the Africa Korps and Italians. I have got vivid recollections of the Germans wearing calf high boots made of canvas – leather boot at the bottom of it and canvas up the calves of the legs. They use to prize these boots
possessively, so much so the only way to keep in contact with them was to wear them all the time. I remember the pervading odor that I associate with wounded Africa Korps was the smell of rotting blood and stinking feet and that olfactory memory lasted for years.
It has disappeared now after sixty or seventy years, but that lasted a long time that olfactory memory of this peculiar, unpleasant odor of stinking feet and rotting blood.
That was one of my major recollections of the period I spent at Derna hospital under the command of Major Beans and Captain Levin. The 2/8th Field Ambulance was ultimately replaced by German and Italian medical personnel, and our personnel were put into
prison camps at Derna where dysentery was rife and flies were everywhere, the food was bad. I forget how long one spent there, but ultimately we spent a month or so in Derna and then sent to Benghazi where conditions were much better, although it wasn’t particularly comfortable.
From the time of capture and the next six months, one never saw a bed – one slept on concrete floors. A sure sign of a prisoner of war in a bath house was his calluses on his hips.
Where one enjoyed what comfort there was on a concrete floor. Three of us escaped from Benghazi and took off into the desert and
we ultimately contacted some Bedouins out in the desert. One of our members was a tank commander from the 7th Armoured Division who spoke a bit of Arabic, and assured us that if we broke bread with these Arabs they were duty bound by historic custom to protect us,
which was kindergarten stuff in reality. They opened fire on us the next morning intent on recapturing us and handing us back to the Italian authorities.
Before you do proceed on that story which is extremely interesting, can you tell us please how you actually escaped from Benghazi?
You can understand that being a prisoner of war is hardly the ambition of an ambitious service, no one likes the restraint and the indignity of being a prisoner of war.
You don’t walk out of a prisoner of war camp without being shot so you have got to find a way of minimising the dangers of departing from the restraint. It so turned out that there was a gap in the stone wall of the surroundings of this camp over which
they placed a guard. In keeping this under observation we discovered that the guard, in dereliction of his duty in the dead of night, would disappear, vacate his post. Three officers were occupying the same camp – they were at one end and we were at another. Three officers
taking advantage of this dereliction of this guard’s duty fizzled off through the hole in the wall. The next night we did the same thing. I don’t know where the guard went, might have been with a girlfriend somewhere. But in any case, he vacated his position in front of the hole in the wall. When he did so we took advantage
of it and fizzled off through the hole in the wall and then made off into the desert. Its just as simple as all that.
Can you tell us how you actually ran into the Bedouin?
We walked all night, the remainder of the night, and found ourselves up on the escarpment beyond Benghazi, where 3rd Squadron had occupied it as a fighting aerodrome.
We were noticed by an Arab who followed us and who was a good human sort of a bloke, and who got us a drink from a well. No one was under any illusions as to who we were. The next day we walked further into the desert and came upon a camp of Bedouins
and we made association with them and had a meal. Then moved on a bit and slept the night and the following morning they were standing guard over us. When I woke up each of us had two Arabs and each had a rifle, and when they saw me stirring they put their rifles under their robes. We all woke up and they wanted to escort
us on our way indicating the way we had already come, so we decided that we weren’t going to have any of that. They then produced their weapons and threatened us so we still refused to comply and we just sat down. They went back about fifty yards and kept us covered with their weapons, so there was no future in that so we decided
to get up and rush off, which we did. They made the mistake of running and firing at the same time, which is not good musketeering; they didn’t hit anybody, they were terrible shots. Our condition had deteriorated and this was the middle of July and we had been prisoners since the 6th April, about four months.
They out ran us ultimately and recaptured us, but in the meantime they had sent for the Italians at Port Regeba [Misratah] and then we ultimately refused to go where they wanted us to and sat down, and ultimately a vehicle loaded up with Italian soldiers appeared on the horizon and came and retook us.
Our brief escape was over in two or three days. The officers who had escaped the day before us were captured the day after us, which generally happens in these escapes. It’s very difficult to finally succeed.
You succeeded in part of it but you haven’t succeeded in the ultimate aim. Shortly after that the Italians became aware that the Long Range Desert Group were operating in the desert and harassing them a little bit on their lines of communication, and then moved us up
to Tarhuna, south east of Tripolitania, about a thousand kilometers away into another prisoner of war impoundment.
British adventurers who had probed the Sahara Desert in the intervening years between the wars, interested in the geography and the history of the Sahara. They ultimately established a base at [Al] Kufrah Oasis, way down hundreds of miles south of
the coast, which was taken by the Free French who came up from Chad and took the oasis and passed it over to the Long Range Desert Group in the early part of 1941, a little bit before the time
we are speaking of. They conducted operations sometimes a thousand miles behind the enemy lines for the remainder of the war in Africa, for the next two years. Commanded by these adventurers they ultimately trained the SAS [Special Air Service] who
behaved accordingly, who attacked German and Italian positions on the coast, it’s a very interesting history. They became masters of the Sahara, inventors of the sun compass,
it was an open port where the British Swordfish aircraft attacked the Italian navy, not so long before we arrived there, with torpedoes coming in from the land, and it did a considerable amount of damage to the Italian navy. On the
land part of it, there was a small entrance into an impoundment that Italians called the ‘Mar Piccolo’, a small sea which contained a lot of smaller vessels, corvettes and destroyers and things like that. I remember an Irish air gunner, when we went through into the Mar Piccolo
in a barge, in a mixture of poor Italian and Arabic he said, “Italian in porto?” All the Italian navy in port? And a little guard said, “No, its only half, the other half is up in Naples,” he made the point.
From there we went to Capua, an ancient Roman town south of Naples, and we could see Vesuvius in the distance.
And that was a tented camp on the Volturno River where we remained for a couple of months. Then they transferred all the New Zealand and
Australian prisoners up to north east Italy to Gruppignano to Camp 57. Interesting things happened when we were at Tarhuna, we got two submarine crews in, one almost a complete crew of the submarine [USS] Cachalot, which had received
an intelligence message to intercept an Italian convoy down at Gulf of Sidra, which it did. At the appropriate time along came a German merchant and an escorting naval vessel and the skipper, these were the days when they were supplying Malta, bearing in mind this was the middle of 1941 when the supply to Malta
was very hazardous. The skipper decided to surface and engage with his four inch gun. By the time the submarine had reached the surface the escorting Italian vessel had laid a smoke screen half way around them, because they had picked them up on the Asdic obviously, they got away a few shots. The Italian vessel came half a stern and rammed them and sprayed them
with machine gun fire and did a tight turn and rammed them in the other side and the submarine went down with one man. The remainder all got out and became prisoners of war, a most astonishing state of affairs, usually when submarines are destroyed the crews goes with them. A month or so after that, in the dead of night they ushered, as it turned out a chief petty officer from a
submarine who was in a bad mental state, he was a bit demented. His story was he was in a submarine off the entrance of Tripoli harbour they spotting in their periscope, an Italian merchant marine approaching the harbour and they went full speed ahead to get within torpedo range
when there was a great explosion forage and they had obviously hit a mine and went down to the bottom. They slammed the for’aft doors closed and trapped the torpedo crew for’aft and they were bashing at the bulkhead door
until they drowned. The skipper and chief ERA [Engine Room Artificer] and the coxswain decided to attempt to come up through the conning tower, and I forget what depth of water they were in. Not knowing whether they would be able to open the conning tower when they had flooded that compartment.
It so happened that they were able to and they cascaded up to the surface with their Davis escape apparatus on. By the time they got to the surface the coxswain was dead and the other two survived. There was an Italian torpedo boat cruising around and seeing the explosion
gravitated to the scene and took them aboard and stayed there for twelve hours and no one else came up, so that crew perished in their submarine. The chief ERA was somewhat upset and he had
to come to grips with the death of his crew. There were two survivors from that submarine and the other one it was the total crew minus one man. Such are the fortunes of war, interesting enough that crew from the Cachalot and the other
two survivors were repatriated in early November 1941 with some peculiar deal between the Italian government and the British.
police organisation and it was under the command of a Colonel Calcatero from the military police, and it was confined to Australian and New Zealand troops at that stage of the game. We were under their control because we had a bad reputation with the Italians, their propaganda is a peculiar sort of propaganda.
They magnified their enemy, which was us, into blood suckers and drinkers of human blood, perpetrators of atrocities and all this sort of thing. The last way it would seem to me to infiltrate a nation into the nature of their enemy.
There we were the blood suckers, the drinks and torturers, murders all put under the military police control. This was at the beginning of winter of 1941 and 1942, which was the severest winter that Europe had suffered for some fifty years. We were all in desert kit, in barracks where the wind
just whistled through. We were reasonably uncomfortable you could say, the food was pretty good. The camp was especially established with a purpose, under the foothills of the Julian Alps to our north,
Yugoslavia to our east, Austria to our north, the Golden Isles and the Alps to our west and there we were. We occupied number two compound and number one compound had already been occupied by fellows captured in Greece, 6th Division mainly.
I think there were only two air force fellows, Tom Commons and myself, at that stage of the game, in the camp in our compound. The rest of them were 9th Division people captured in
Tobruk and a few people captured in Greece, a few New Zealanders captured in Greece. Ultimately we were joined by a few South Africans and a few more airmen.
one could divine the nonsense from actuality. I don’t think we had a radio in Camp 57, I can’t remember it.
Later on when we got to Germany we had radios in the camp. We were able to, every day when we were up in Poland we use to get BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] broadcast, the operators of the radio set would go around the camp reading the news bulletin.
Enemy papers, all describing the war their way, which one was able to interpret properly, sort out the truth from the nonsense, so we were kept well informed. We could tell from there
casualty list in the Italian papers that things weren’t going too well for them at times. We became aware of that in Yugoslavia, from their death lists in their papers and stuff like that. Often I remember in Germany
we would get air crew in that had only been shot down a fortnight or so before and they were giving us the latest and we were ahead of them, we knew more than they did.
The colonel took us into the church, I remember, the hut that was used as the church, and demonstrated this shrapnel bullet which the Germans used, a seven point something service rifle. The bullet consisted of a brass tube, which contained nine
steel pellets and when it was fired the rifling of the barrel cut the brass tube into four slices. Then the four slices of brass and the nine pellets went on their roving way and at close range all these penetrated together. They then spread out into the lungs, and in this case Wright,
and there they stayed causing immense internal damage. A great improvement on the dumb-dumb I think you will agree, but to the Italians they considered that conformed to humanitarian principles. The colonel pointed out that in the First World War no prisoner ever escaped from Italy and no prisoner was going to escape from
his camp or any camp in Italy. Any attempt would meet with the same fate as private Wright. You have got to understand that prison of war camps are setup to stop escapes. They had machine gun posts around the outside, posts manned by riflemen, search-lights roving the wire
all night, so it’s difficult to walk out of the place. You could so only with great peril. Anyone contemplating an escape has to take into account the fact that if he wants to escape he must escape alive. You devise ways and means of achieving that end, to minimise your risk
and maximise your chances of departure. The confidence of the colonel stimulated ambition to prove him wrong. We sampled…. unless you can buy some
subterfuge and disguise yourself and move out of a camp in the normal traffic, which is very difficult to do. The only other way is to dig a tunnel or escape through a hole where the guard is not guarding it, as we did in Benghazi. In digging sewage pits you get the idea of
what the soil is like underneath, whether it was ‘tunnelable’ or not. After enduring the El Alamein battle, which began in July 1942, the Italian security diminished due to the pressure of incoming
prisoners and they opened up a new compound, number three compound, which had joined the compound that I was in. We discovered a bunch of huts in a row and the last of that row was up against the wire, or nearest to the wire so we attempted and they started to fill hut number one
furthest away from the wire, it couldn’t have come as a greater turn. We started to dig a tunnel from the hut nearest the wire, the huts were raised on a concrete foundation, not very thoughtful of them because no one could see through, underneath the foundations and that concrete prohibited it, and it also left a space under the floorboards.
Our engineering member, I think it was Noel Ross, and the tribe started to dig and we found that ten feet under hut number whatever it was, near the wire, was capable of constructing a tunnel. We calculated that by making the tunnel as small as possible we would
be able to dispose of the soil under the floor boards of this hut to be unseen by anybody outside of it. We worked out a distance to a crop of millet, that we would need to go one hundred and forty-five feet to come up in the millet.
There was a machine gun post on the corner of the compound and the tunnel would have passed the guard box ten yards or so one side of the progress of the tunnel. So we made a tunnel
about twenty inches wide and thirty inches domed to about three feet, to give us head room which was just enough for a bloke like me to sit in, you try sitting in a twenty inch tunnel, by thirty-six inches high and there is not much room.
Fortuitously it use to be the habit of the authorities to search every hut once a week, pull up all the floor boards and make everyone take all the possessions out, dismantle the beds, and they didn’t do it in this compound while it was being filled with
prisoners from El Alamein. It enabled us to keep digging unmolested.
and they wouldn’t be any trouble, fairly unimaginative of them but it helped us. If you know anything about mining and geology it was an alluvium of gravel,
stones and things like that, some of them quite big. Damp with moisture but not flooded, we’d be covered in mud, in a sandy sort of mud, but there was no water on the floor. So we
ultimately got to a stage where we struck a band of conglomerate that we couldn’t dig through and we had to come to the surface before we got to the crop of millet. We ideally hoped to emerge in the crop of millet where we wouldn’t be seen by the machine gun posts close by, not very far away.
We were stuck with it and we had no alternative because we had pretty well filled the under floor space with soil from the tunnel so we had to come up regardless. We ultimately finished and came up through the grass roots,
I forget now the distance but maybe a hundred odd feet. We were through the wire and underneath the wire and we were up to the grass roots. So at the end of October, I think it was nineteen of us escaped through the tunnel one night and
took off to the hills, so much for Calcatero [camp commander], ‘no one will escape from his camp’. Fortuitously he was on leave and his relief got the blame despite the fact that the tunnel took us six weeks to dig, and he was still in command when we started it. He was just fortunate that he wasn’t there when we all fizzled out of the hole at the end.
There we were, all of like purpose, we didn’t seem to need a chain of command, everyone played their part, took their turn at digging it, and we had to maintain pretty heavy security because we had recipients in the camp who were known informants.
We fortunately managed to complete the whole enterprise with reasonable security – word had got around a little bit but it was treated with proper secrecy anyway. The recipient of the knowledge knew what was at stake, they didn’t run around the place shouting out, “There is a
tunnel being dug.” I noticed at one stage, we would keep the area under observation, a fellow would come along and lay a blanket over where the tunnel was underneath and start playing cards, and one would knock off and put his ear to the ground, word had gotten around. We watched these stinkers and think to ourselves,
‘you shut up you so and so or else’, but they never divulged it.
Did people just know what to do did they, like in that instance they didn’t have to be told, cover this up, they just instinctively knew what their role was to play in the escape?
It was done generally by the participants, most of whom intended to escape, not all, we had a few who didn’t. Not very difficult, all you had to do was dig a hole, dig and get rid of the millet and put up with the
unoxygenated air. We had to develop an air pump to give us a bit of an air supply otherwise people started to get faint. A lamp wouldn’t burn in it and even those that did gave off so much carbon that you breathed in carbon, and outside you ran black mucus down your bloody nose and so on.
I remember coming across the compound from a shift digging and I blew my nose and everything was black, I was dripping black mucus. and I went into the kitchen and old Charley Stewart was in charge and he looked at me suspiciously and he said. “What have you been up to?” And I said, “Charley you haven’t seen anything, you shut up.” He shut up while I washed myself and
blew my beastly nose and got rid of all that beastly carbon.
just worked like that. I got put into the clink for ten days for being rude to an Italian interpreter in the middle of it all, and I was hopeful that they wouldn’t finish the tunnel and fizzle off before I got out again, but they didn’t. Fortuitously it just worked as we hoped it would work.
I remember Russ Jenkins, I was in charge of administration in this compound, and Russ Jenkins was the observer who let the petrol out of General Carton de Wiart’s aircraft over the Gulf of Bomba, and Russ handled the mail or something and he was a New Zealander. The majority of the blokes who were in
the hut where we were digging this tunnel, were New Zealanders. I was over there one day, I wasn’t even digging, I was over there for some administrative problem, and I was standing there talking to someone and who should burst through the door but old Russ Jenkins and he wants to talk to his countryman. He was approached by his hut commander, and he said, “Where are you going?”
And he said, “I want to talk to…” He said, “We don’t welcome strangers into this hut.” Russ looked at him in total disbelief, he had never heard anything like it in his life before. He queried this, and the bloke said, “Things have been going off,” and that made it worse and Russ was accused of being a thief. He looked at him in horror and anger he said, “Fuck you George,” and walked out.
I thought he was going to say, “What is that fellow doing here?” And he didn’t even see me and I was only a few yards on the other side. I went back to the office and there was old Russ sitting there black with rage, and I said, “Christ you don’t look too happy Russ.” He said, “I have never been so insulted in the whole of my bloody life before.” I said, “How come?”
And he said, “I went into the bloody hut over in the other compound and they accused me of being a bloody thief.” So our security wasn’t too bad because here was one of our work mates and he didn’t know.
one of our electrician cobbers [friends] took the conjugant, the electrical conjugant from the ceiling and just left the bare wires and we used that as a pipe. We had to have a high-pressure apparatus, not a volumetric one. In the great escape in Germany
they used a volumetric forge, a blower taking a large volume of air at low pressure through like that big, made out of tins from Red Cross parcels. We didn’t have the brains to do that.
All I could think of was a large bellows which delivered air at pressure which was needed for this narrow alluvium, so that gave us a minimum air supply at the working place. Without which we couldn’t have done it because there wouldn’t have been enough air to sustain a bloke doing hard work. Plus
a light made out of a wick in a tin of fat, sort of primitive candle. Even so, we were breathing carbon as I told you before.
Put yourself in the same position and you could adapt yourself to digging a tunnel couldn’t you, if you felt so inclined, and if you didn’t feel so inclined you wouldn’t be invited to. Just recently here,
I’m the dining president of the dining group that meets once a month in the Tasmanian club and we invited a guest of honour, some notable, to address us on some subject in which he has expertise and we have now been going for some twenty-eight years. I got a telephone call here at one stage of the game from an acquaintance I knew
and she said to me, “In your prisoner of war life did you ever know a bloke called John Dwyer?” I said, “Yes I did, we had a John Dwyer who helped dig a tunnel out of Camp 57 in the north east of Italy.”
She said, “I’ve got his father here who is Professor Terry Dwyer, in the medical school here,” who I knew. Never for a moment associated, and he wanted to know whether I knew his Dad and I remember him, he and a fellow called Costello and someone else. I’ve got the names on the charge sheet of our tunnel escapee.
They escaped and they were members of an artillery unit in Greece and they escape in a boat from Greece and rowed across the Mediterranean and landed on the shores of North Africa, and hearing traffic they rushed to the road to be ridden by the Africa Korps.
That must have been about late April 1941 they had done this monumental trip in a rowing boat across the Mediterranean only to be recaptured again and they were enthusiastic escapees, as you might image.
I was able to tell the father of Terry that I knew him because I had met him after they rowed ashore in east of Tobruk. Had they gone ashore another forty miles eastward they would have met up with our own forces,
so they spent the next four years as prisoners of war.
But how would you move it, you said where you put it but how did you actually move it around the ground?
We constructed sledges and passed the soil from the face back to someone pulling the sledge, who put it into a sledge and then who pulled the sledge back to the shaft. It was then pulled up by other helpers and deposited under the floor boards of the hut. We were cooperated with magnificently by the occupants of the hut,
by these New Zealanders who comfort we upset considerably. When they moved into the hut we assembled them and told them that there was a tunnel going on under their feet and told them what was expected of them, so it unfolded. They were happy enough to cooperate,
bugger the enemy up, nothing they liked better, so it just worked well. I forget how long it took us, it was some months and during which time no search was conducted in the hut, they searched everywhere else but not in that compound. They started off with
one hut, I think there were six in a row and they filled the first hut first and didn’t search it the first week. Then they filled the next one and searched the first one and while the second one was being filled, they didn’t search it, and in the mean time we were digging this tunnel hoping that we would get it done before they got to that hut.
or the borders of Trieste in those days, nebulous state Trieste that interposed itself between Italy and Slovenia. Not in existence anymore, it was given to the Italians I think, I don’t know, either the Italians or the Yugoslavs. We were only about twelve miles from the border
and then it was the province of Slovenia and the capital of which was Ljubljana some sixty or ninety kilometers away. Bearing in mind the times, the Axis armies had occupied Yugoslavia, the [Dragoliub] Mihailovic’s forces [the Chetniks] were fighting Tito forces and both fighting the enemy, and
there was a concentration of troops in the northern part of Yugoslavia. While I was in the prison for being rude to the Italian they brought in an Australian lieutenant put into the cell next to mine and we communicated to each other. He had been taken prisoner
in April 1941 and here we are now in October 1942. He had spent over a year with the civilian population in Yugoslavia and was ultimately given away and recaptured by the Italians. He had jumped a train
going into Germany in April 1941 and had spent the next year or more in Yugoslavia, and he was then taken prisoner again and he was put into the cell next to mine and he was convinced that he was going to be shot. I think he probably wasn’t. If they were going to shoot him they would have shot him long before. It was the habit of shooting all the prisoners in Yugoslavia, both sides, they all shot prisoners.
and took another train from Carpi to Udine to where this camp was which was an English camp, and the morale was poor it was established in mud, there was six inches of snow everywhere. The warrant officers in charge of the camp were racketeers on the men’s bread, and everything was wrong with it.
There I met Arthur Cotton who had been banished from number one compound in [Camp] 57, a year beforehand for a bit of a revolt that went on when the Italians decided to shave everyone’s hair. Cotton was banished from the camp and he managed this, and I don’t know how he did it, to be transferred back to 57.
I didn’t last long before I got put into the clink again. When I was being escorted to the prison we passed the sick bay and the medical officer want to know what was going on and I got stuck into these Italian guards and they told me that Cotton was next.
The medicos summoned him and declared him sick and put him in bed, while I spent a fortnight in prison he lavished in luxury in the sick bay. When they let me out they sent us back to Camp 73.
apart from the intermediate, Cotton and I managed to get back to 57 and was transported back to 73, and I was there until Italy capitulated in September 1943. That meant that one spent the tail end of winter in Camp 70 at Carpi, and the summer.
Italy capitulated and the Germans tactically attacked the camp without failing and imprisoned the Italians and took over the guarding of the camp. Where they got on the vino [wine] and fired shots all over the place and generally let off a bit of steam and then
moved us through the Brenner Pass into Germany through Austria into Bavaria. We finished up in Bavaria at Camp 7A Moosburg, forty kilometers northeast of Munich, a staging camp full of Russian prisoners
and various others. We were there for only a couple of months and then we moved to central Germany into Camp
11A at Altengrabow in the winter of 1943. When the battle of Berlin was going on and the air force Bomber Command was attacking Berlin, and we were on the southern end and sometimes the bomber stream flew over us
in terrible weather. You’d hear the rumble of bombs that went on for hours. I suppose Berlin must have been eighty miles to our east.
How did they treat the Russians, can you tell us about this incident, or incidents that you saw?
For instance one night in the hut of which I was in, there was a commotion and in the dark when everyone had woken and had discovered what the cause of the commotion was. It was a
bloke woke up and found a body creeping around inside the hut and taking the boots and depositing [them] outside a window, and he grabbed this bloke and it turned out to be a Russian. The Russian wriggled out of his coat and darted out the window and took off.
When we investigated there was a pile of boots on the other side of the window, the Russian had obviously been let out of his compound by the German guards who were probably subjected to some sort of bribery, into our compound and he was preceding to pinch our boots, they didn’t have any. He was apprehended and managed to get back to his compound without his coat.
The next day when the Germans were acquainted with this and pointed out to us that they didn’t mind if we killed the Russians, they said, “If they try again kill them.” We were concerned about treating them any too gently.
Hardly the sort of conduct we had contemplated to perform upon our allies. The Germans didn’t hold Russian life in any regard at all. I wasn’t witness to any atrocities but others by anecdote in other parts of Germany had seen some terrible things.
I never talk about anything that is not proven in my experience, there is no point in recounting other people’s episodes.
staging camp more or less, it wasn’t a camp where people stayed in it for long durations, people came into it and moved out of it. Germany had a lot of industry and a lot of farm labour was supplied by slave labour, prisoners of war, and prisoners of some description whether from the east.
Everyone had to do some work that was suppose to work, within the limits of the Geneva Convention. Sergeants and above weren’t compelled to work, they could volunteer occasionally. Corporals and below were compelled to work if the detaining power wanted you too.
People who elected to work on farms generally were treated well and fed well. You lived a much better life than someone in the compound but I didn’t want to work for them. I didn’t join up to do other than
play a part in destroying there economy rather than kicking it along, so I never worked in Germany, I never worked anywhere.
there was no bombing no shooting, no firing going on. For the time we were there it was the only time I was in Germany where one didn’t hear a shot, or bombs going off or aircraft flying about,
apart from the fact that we didn’t get any bombing down in Litchburg. But in central Germany it was a common occurrence and in Poland it didn’t happen. If anything, this period that one spent in Poland between April 1944
and September or October 1944 was probably the less unpleasant part of ones POWs life. The enemy left us along, fed us on rotten potatoes but Red Cross parcels arrived and we played sport, we had a volley ball team.
I lived in an air force hut full of air force prisoners all of whom had been shot down from somewhere or other. A wide variety of airmen kept falling out of the air in those days.
We all got along well with each other, they were all nice people. The characteristics of aircrew is that they are all facetious fellows, they were part of an organisation in Bomber Command and suffered a sixty percent casualty rate,
forty-eight percent death rate, so there was no point other than being happy to just be alive.
At the commencement of spring, and I forget the date of this, we got two clear days when we were at Altengrabow and the US [United States] Air Force came over in great strength. We were at the southern extremities
of the main bomber stream while fighters were active. There were great attacks and firing going on in the air as these Flying Fortresses in great numbers, flew on to bomb Berlin.
I remember one Fortress that had started in the light, and pouring black smoke and a (UNCLEAR) [Messerschmitt or Junkers] couldn’t resist the temptation to get on the stern of this crippled aircraft and must of got a bullet fair between the eyes from the rear gunner, and went into the earth full bore.
It taught him to be a bit more circumspect to attack a B17 [Bomber] from the stern, where he had two fifty calibre machine guns looking at him over open sights. So he didn’t get an opportunity to fire before he was dead.
I often wonder what happened to that crippled aircraft that still had about five hundred miles to go to get to the French coast, and he probably never made it.
Three of us fizzled off from the marching column, we had escaped from it and the column was stretched out and we were being guarded by the Vulcan fellows, poor old Germans ruthless and toothless, old enough to be one’s father, not very enthusiastic about the role they found themselves in.
We took the opportunity when the column was extended to dive into crops of trees where we waited for some hours until the column had passed. We then decided that we were too close to the road and got out onto the track again and then made for a crop of trees in the distance only to find two of the column guards
had also absconded. The British were closely pursuing us and they were determined to give themselves up only to find that they weren’t as close as they thought. In seeing us they halted us and we came to an agreement that they would escort us.
If we were apprehended by German forces, they would say that they were detailed to look after us as we had fallen out sick. If the Anglo Americans caught us we would protect them, so that suited us. We were proceeding then towards the Elbe and letting the column getting further away from us.
We came to a village and they would go to the bergermeister [mayor] and get a billet and we would be billeted. I remember we were billeted in the inn house of a village of a single street and two Typhoons [dive bomber] were flying around above us armed with rockets under their wing.
We prevailed upon the crowd of the house to boil a copper full of water so we could wash in a tub. As one bloke was about to step into this warm bath the Typhoon’s attacked the village. One our members was up on a crop of trees performing a call of nature
and over him these things lined up on the village firing twenty millimeter cannons and rockets. Cannon shells came cascading around this defecating prisoner who thought he was being attacked. He came rushing down, holding up his pants, in high consternation but they blew the centre of the village apart and then departed.
the tactical air force was teaching Germany who was winning the war, by shooting up all small villages about the place. Bearing in mind that these aircraft are piloted by eighteen year olds and war was coming to an end so they had to exercise their fire power, which is a very exciting procedure when
you are in command of an aircraft like a Typhoon loaded up with rockets and privy to a cannon, it makes a lot of noise and does a lot of damage. They were instilling in the German memory that the Allies were winning the war.
The following morning the guards became a bit apprehensive, they pointed out that if the Gestapo [German internal security police] came to investigate this aerial damage and found us there they would shoot the lot of us. So they decided to move us out at dawn the next morning. At midday we hit the Elbe, we traveled over the Elbe
in a punt. Only to discover our marching column were only a few miles ahead of us, they had pulled up for a rest for a few days. So we rejoined the column there where we had escaped from. The guards,
which seemed to take it all in a matter of course, our guards said, “We will do it again when you are a prisoner some other time.” They then marched us north towards Schwerin and then we got to a little village called Kiplitz where we established ourselves.
I remember a barn caught alight on the other side of a small lake and the prisoners manned the fire brigade pump and gave the barn plenty of opportunity to catch alight before they got the pump in action. Then up the road came an armoured car
which turned out to be from the British 2nd Army. So our prisoner of war life ended right there, we ceased to be prisoners from that moment onwards. That armoured car took possession of the town,
great hilarity. The news of Hitler’s death came to us when we were there so it must have been the end of April or the beginning of May.
So the nation was in the process of collapsing. The armoured car instructed us to stay there, that this was in the area
of the British 2nd Army and a rescue force will be along and collect us and take us back to our own forces. We had been through this in Italy and we were determined to become self-determining we went into a nearby village
where there were Americans that were gathering up the German soldiers into a barbed wire encampment. We pinched a German vehicle and came back and collected our gear.
Met a poor German girl who came rushing out in great distress, on our way back, that Russian prisoners were attacking her father so we stopped and rescued the poor old fellow from the Russian prisoners. They pointed out that Stalin wanted all these characters to send them to Siberia
and they were trying to escape. Little did they know they were going to become the victims – the victims of Stalin’s paranoia and all the prisoners finished up in Katulka and if they were an officer they got shot. We shot the Russians off down the
road and rescued the poor German and his daughter and went back and collected our gear. Then drove to Magdeburg where there was a POW reception centre and surrendered our car to a British soldiers who guided us through the
city to the POW reception centre. We put ourselves in the hands of our rescuing authorities who fed us and ultimately put us in transport and went across to northwest of Germany,
where we were encamped on VE [Victory in Europe] Day when the war officially ended. From there Bomber Command was flying prisoners of war out to England, which was a masterpiece of organisation.
I flew out in a day or two in a 617 Dam Buster Squadron Lancaster, the bomb bay cut away to take the ten ton bomb. We landed somewhere down in the south of England and I don’t have the faintest idea where, and then we were
trucked to Brighton where our POWs section people had setup a reception camp for air force prisoners. There were a thousand or so air force prisoners in Germany, RAAF prisoners in Germany. The army had setup a
POW reception centre in Eastbourne twenty odd miles to our east down on the coast of Sussex. All Australian prisoners were looked after by these POW reception centres. My younger brother was there with the army and he had been in the first campaign
in North Africa over to Greece and Crete and he had escaped from Crete, and back to Australia and up to the Pacific and he got himself on the POW reception centre in 1945 in England. I last saw him in Benghazi on the first attack in Libya and there he was in England, he always got somewhere before I did.
refugees moving westwards with fear, fear from the east, it was reasonable with good reason.
The Russians I didn’t come in contact with them and all my knowledge anecdotal and it is undoubtedly quite factual told to me by people who were there. One bloke was captured by the Russians and had a Tommy gun or its equivalent, thrusting at his hand
and put on a tank and proceeded westwards. They crossed the railway line coming out of Danzig at the same time a trainload of refugees were coming down it. The lead tank put a shell into the engine, and the tanks like a bunch of Indians formed a circle on that side and poured machine gun fire into those
refugees which was pretty barbarous conduct. The sort of thing that wouldn’t happen
in the west, not even in the days of General Patton’s wild movement into Germany, where he shot up everything but they were a bit circumspect about machine gunning a bunch of women and children. Not so the Russians, they had great delight. That’s anecdotal and I didn’t see that,
but quite believable it was that sort of conduct that was expected by the populous of Eastern Germany. They were very anxious to get over the Elbe. They didn’t know at that stage the game that was going to be the Russians that would be influencing the British and the Americans which happened to be the Elbe.
That was worked out but they hadn’t told the Germans then. Hence the troubles that occurred there after the Berlin air lift, remember, all those things, the Cold War that began at that stage.
Its common these days to be anti American and it is said, “What did they do?” They were instrumental in winning the war. They won the Cold War, they re-established
German economics with the Marshall Plan. They made a few mistakes along the way, like Vietnam and so on, because they were new to global power, but what did they do, these are episodes of immense magnitude that affected the history of the world. Americans,
hating America, don’t seem to recognise the magnitude of this, of the American effort of our time.
You are not the first to say that, we have had others that have said the same thing.
One hadn’t spoken to a white woman for five years just about, one had lived in the presence of men. One had used barrack language in the course of events until it became ingrained in oneself, and here we found oneself back in a civilised society.
A cobber who was a Wellington pilot from New Zealand who was in it for two years compared to my four, couldn’t bring himself to use a telephone, believe it or not, paralyzed at the thought of using a telephone. To be entertained by an English family would bring beads
of sweat to our brow, because of the considerable difference in the transition from the society in which we had lived for years
to the one we have found ourselves in. All these things took a while to get use to. I suppose the populous we came in contact with realised our problem or rather
probably realised the changes that one had to become adapted to again, they were probably very kind. So I spent three months in England.
I didn’t organise the organisation any more than any other than the escaping nineteen did, we all played our part. No one more so than anyone else, the organisation seemed to work. Everyone by common consent did what was expected of him. I got banished from the camp
on a charge of having organised the escape. There is a book written in Italian which seems to be under that impression as well, strangely enough. I’ve got a copy of it somewhere.
I was threatened when I got to Camp 73 that I would be shot out of hand if I took over, and all this sort of bull dust. My New Zealander cobber reminded me a few years ago that
at this camp they use to take our walking parties for exercise and I joined one of these parties once and they doubled the guards, I had forgotten it but my old New Zealander cobber reminded me of this.
I considered myself to be a meek sort of a fellow not meriting all this military attention, but you can get a false reputation, undeserved. When I was being banished from the camp the guards had a great time. Every time you pulled
up at a station or changed trains they would tell everyone how I was a ‘leader of an escape’ and what have you, so one became the centre of attention and they dined out on the story. So you can get a false reputation that spreads throughout the land.
‘Rigorous punishment’ and ‘simple punishment’ and that varied depending on your rank. If you were a private you copped the lot, if you were a sergeant you were a little bit better off, and if you were a warrant officer you were better off still. For the same offence a warrant gets a lesser treatment. There weren’t any officers amongst us. Warrant officers were treated more leniently
and sergeants were treated just a little bit harsher, but more leniently than corporals and privates. Warrant officers and sergeants did twenty-five days mixed up with rigorous and simple punishment. The rigorous punishment was greater for sergeants than it was for
warrant officers. The rigorous punishment for corporals and privates was greater than it was for sergeants. In other words, warrant officers got no period in irons, sergeants got two hours of irons per day for the first ten days, or something like that.
Corporals and privates got five extra days, they got a month instead of twenty-five days, and they had four hours in irons per day for the first ten days, all for the same offence. I asked one of my Italian patients years later, forty years later, how this was and he being an old Italian naval bloke he said, “They punished the privates for being silly enough to follow the sergeants.”
Whether he was being facetious…
Is there anything that you would like to say or something that we haven’t already covered to the Australian public or to whoever views this?
One lives through a period of dynamic changes in the history of the world,
millions have died, it’s the luck of the draw that one was a survivor. I suppose one could be grateful for small mercies, that
was sixty-five years ago now, roughly speaking, so sixty-five years of the past.
At the time it was my total adult life. I spent the first six years of my adult life at war as did many others.
It was just one of the afflictions of the times, one went into it voluntarily and one came out of it gratefully.