First Printed: 2003, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, UK
My story starts in the days before the Second World War really started, when I went to join the Admiralty in London as a junior clerk in the office dealing with the building of the new battleships which were to play such a part in the coming conflict. There I learnt the disturbing news that the Germans were building new warplanes in 1937 six times faster than our new building of planes for the Royal Air Force. There was a lot of sympathy for the Germans at that time and admiration for what the Nazis had accomplished in bringing their nation out of the despondent state they had been in before. Many of the upper classes had connections in Germany and visited there to learn about this new development in Europe; Sir Oswald Mosley had formed his Fascist Party and at first had great success. Two British tabloid newspapers supported them, at least until the darker side of Nazism and its pogroms against Jews, left- wingers and others began to be understood and their support began to fall away.
In April, 1939, Sir Lesley Hore-Belisha announced the doubling of the Territorial Army - this would mean the increase of 350,000 men to the Territorial Army and was presumably meant as a signal to the Germans that the British were at last beginning to take the Nazi threat seriously, although there had been previous increases in the Navy and Royal Air Force. As a warning, however, it failed completely as the German military plans were by then fully advanced. In London it was confidently believed that the French Army were almost impregnable behind the Maginot Line and that it would be hardly necessary to establish a really strong British Army. We expected to organise a British Expeditionary Force to take over the defence of the Franco-Belgian frontier if threatened while the French were to man the Maginot Line. However the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, did not believe in the reality of the German threat. In this he was encouraged by the unspoken attitude of the German General Staff, who were not at all keen on a war in the West? The German Generals had been brought up in the age of the prolonged stalemate of the Western Front of the Great War.They distrusted the ideas of General Guderian who had been given the task of building four (Armoured) Panzer Divisions and of arranging their Air Support in a quite unprecedented way. He had however the strong support of Herr Hitler. Our General Staff had also been brought up in tactics of the Great War and they did not appreciate the possibilities of tank warfare, either. Many had been brought up in the traditions of colonial wars with the ultimate use of cavalry and they were proud of the use of British infantry armed with the efficient Lee Enfield rifle. British tank regiments were few and armed with an Infantry - support tank designed for advancing at walking speed and a Light tank designed for scouting purposes only.
However all this was unknown to me and I responded to the call by enlisting in the Essex Yeomanry, a local unit of Artillery based in Chelmsford. I was a young lad of eighteen, rather immature, and I joined a queue of other young fellows at the Chelmsford Drill Hall all anxious to do there bit, and quite ignorant of what they might be letting themselves in for. There were no artillery pieces actually in Chelmsford and I was taken on as a recruit signaller. We spent the summer on army drills and a summer camp, which was pleasant enough. Our Instructors were mostly old soldiers who had served in India and they treated us young recruits very gently. The tensions between Britain, France and the Axis powers got steadily worse, culminating in the seizure of Czechoslovakia and invasion of Poland...and on the 1st September The Territorial Army was mobilised, Reservists were called up and Britain made preparations for war. The Essex Yeomanry, like most other Territorials, were not properly equipped for war and quite untrained and we did not expect to be taken as part of the British Expeditionary force to France.
Although the wireless and newspapers put on a brave front, none of us relished the thought of a bitter struggle with the Germans in the style of the First World War. The Germans were reputed to have over fifty divisions mobilised whilst we could only mobilise a minimum number and levels of Army equipment were low, most of the rearmament program had been devoted to the needs of the Navy and Air Force. The French had a much larger army mobilised. After three months of the “phoney war” in a bitter winter during which we made little progress in training, we were made part of the First Cavalry Division and shipped off to Palestine as part of a force made up largely of Yeomanry Cavalry units still equipped with horses. We met some of them in training in Palestine and fine, handsome fellows they looked with their horses. Equipment was scarce and hard to come by but gradually we were rearmed with more modern weapons and equipment as they arrived across the seas, notably the new 25pdr artillery pieces which were to prove so successful in the war and other new equipment although we were left with very few rifles and no machine guns of anything but Great War vintage. The first few months of our arrival were spent in tents and we lived in almost idyllic conditions since we were camped next to the seacoast near Nathanya, then a small Jewish settlement. Here I was trained to be an army driver in Regimental Headquarters and given a small truck to drive in the arid land.
I remember that the Regiment had a number of Indian Dhobi-men whose work was to do your laundry if asked. They worked in the open air by the washhouse and their method was to swing the wet clothes singly in the air and pound them on large flat stones. They chanted as they worked and it was said that they sang “Black man, good man," with a bang, twice, then, with a much bigger thump, “White man, and bastard.” On off-days we swam in the sea or wandered around the countryside, which was very sandy terrain with the occasional orange grove. One of my friends was an enthusiastic bird-watcher who became a well-known ornithologist, author of books about birds.
Quite near to our camp was a small Arab village of small dwellings inside a compound. Passing this we were invited inside to meet the headman who lived in a small stone hut of two rooms and we were ushered inside There was a flurry of skirts as the women hastily decamped and we understood that we were not allowed to see them. We were given little cups of sweet black coffee. Conversation was very limited since we had no Arabic and our hosts had little English although we managed to satisfy our host’s curiosity about ourselves and to thank them. We understood that our hosts farmed an orange grove, but that sales had collapsed with the onset of war. When we got back to camp we found that the village we had visited had been declared out of bounds by the army. This was a very sensitive time in Palestine, with new Jewish immigrants flooding in, seeking refuge from the Nazis. In general we found the Arabs very friendly, but some of the more militant Jews were hostile, to the extent of forming the “ Irgun Zvai Leumi” devoted to the founding of an independent Jewish state over all Palestine. There were individual acts of violence against the British, shootings and bombings, particularly by the Jewish “Stern Gang.” The Jews had been incensed by the refusal of the British to allow further shiploads of immigrants to arrive in Jewish ports, because of the growing hostility of the native Arabs. At this time the regiment received a troop of about twenty horses and a similar number of army reservists who were to look after them. It was never very clear what use they could be in a modern war, but they provided very pleasant rides for the officers who were largely at that time Essex landowners. However some horses fell ill and died of an unknown virus attack and the rest were soon withdrawn to an unknown fate.
At the end of May 1940 the Germans overcame the caution of the German Generals and launched their devastating attack on the Western Front. Every day we listened with horror and disbelief to the radio news of the complete debacle on the Western Front and wondered if we might be recalled to defend our homeland. Instead we moved through Egypt to the Western Desert in September of that year. I drove a stores truck through the heat of the barren Sinai Desert on to Port Said and Westwards past Al Alamein. We were still in only a half-trained state, although by then we were used to Army life. We were stationed in a battle zone in the featureless Egyptian Desert close by the actual front facing the Italian Army who had advanced to Mersa Matruh. There were now no tents, and we dug shallow trenches for ourselves in the sand. I remember lying in my personal dugout covered in blankets and greatcoat, for the nights were cold, staring up at the myriad stars in the sky. I was fascinated by the immensity of the heavens and worked out how to find the North Star
Life was becoming earnest and we were training with other regiments. We were out of shelling range, but we were reminded every night that there was a war on by visits from Italian bombers, rather ponderous Capronis who droned overhead and did little damage .By now the British people were realizing that they had a dangerous war on their hands and the Government came into Churchill’s hands. There was a new determination when people realised that the days of phoney war were over.
We were joined by Indian regular soldiers of the 4th Indian Division, very smart and professional they were, too, and the rumour was that we were to attack in the near future. However, before that occurred, I fell violently ill with what was said to be sand fly fever and was bundled off to hospital in Cairo with an alarming temperature and sickness. So I missed the attack on the Italian army at Sidi Barrani and the subsequent triumphant advance along the North African coast. Instead I spent Christmas recuperating and convalescing and did not rejoin my regiment for another two months. They had been held in reserve for the first offensive and went into their first action on the coast South of Benghazi, when our artillery and tanks destroyed the retreating Italian Forces and where I rejoined By that time the very professional Fourth Indian Division had been moved to Eritrea for the attack there, and their place was taken by a raw Australian division who were held in reserve. . Their place in the front line was taken by some elements of the equally raw British 1st Armoured Division, newly arrived from Britain. At this time, too, British and Commonwealth forces were drained off the Middle East to support a forlorn hope of stopping the German advance in Greece. We were now in the front line at Agedabia, confronting an Italian army now bolstered by the arrival of a German Africa Korps of unknown strength but great potential. I was driving a truck supplying stores, petrol and ammunition to the front and we could see the German forces about two miles away; we were exchanging shellfire in a leisurely way. All I remember of our food at this time was that it consisted of bully-beef stew, bread and a coarse margarine. Water was scarce, since the local wells had been poisoned, but we enjoyed a cup of salty tea. German aircraft intent on shooting us up occasionally visited us, but otherwise if was fairly quiet; we saw no patrolling R.A.F.
Then suddenly all changed with the arrival of the German General Rommel on the scene and an unexpected German attack against our front line powered by German tanks; our infantry was not up to the task of holding them, although our regiment scored several hits, and what started as a retirement soon became a rout. Our Army command was weak, chaos was general and we had no orders. I was left behind a ridge where we had laagered without realizing our situation. When I walked up to the top of the ridge to see what was going on, I saw to my horror, a dust storm hiding hundreds of vehicles in flight. Since the rest of my company had vanished, I had to join them in the melee with my truck. This was about six o’clock in the evening, and we drove for about four hours into the desert into the gathering darkness with my co-driver behind a number of army vehicles. We picked up about eight infantrymen on the way, all without arms, at one point I closed with a big truck, which my officer, under some stress, was trying to start I got out and asked if he had any orders, he just told me to go away. That was the last order I received, and I continued the drive. Not long after this, my co-driver, who had taken over, ran into the back of another vehicle and smashed our radiator bringing the truck to a sudden halt. Obviously it could not be easily repaired and we were stuck. When we got out there were no other trucks to be seen. The infantry men asked me what to do; we had no idea where we were or where the Germans were so I thought it best to walk to the main road somewhere to the North West and look for assistance. I pointed out the North Star in the sky and indicated the direction in which I thought we ought to go. We picked up our army packs and trudged off, keeping the North Star a little off the right shoulder. About an hour after, we stopped for a rest; I looked around and all my companions had fallen asleep. We woke at dawn and pressed on, passing an Arab tented camp of black tents on the way. We stopped a while there and the Arabs brought us eggs and water in exchange for a blanket. When we resumed our walk, now in the hot sun, we sighted the town of Benghazi where we thought we would be safe, but when we arrived there we were told at a house that the English soldiers had left early that morning .We were dismayed and very tired but we got ourselves together to continue our effort to find safety, but we were apprehended by an armed body of Italians and we surrendered to them.
We were taken by car to the local gaol and put into a cell there where there already other prisoners, stragglers like ourselves. All of us were taken to interrogation by German troops, but the questioning was not prolonged and we were returned to the Benghazi cell, which held about twenty. We were moved successively to Tripoli, passing large convoys of Axis armour, and then by boat to Naples, through waters where the Axis had already lost many ships, so we were told. We eventually arrived at Sulmona in the Abruzzi Mountains. This was a hutted camp, which had been first used for Austrian prisoners in the Great War. You will be interested to hear of our treatment as Prisoners of War. Generally speaking, it was quite civilised and there was no ill-usage, we were allowed some letters from home after an initial six months of wandering between camps and a fortnightly Red X Parcel which was greatly appreciated, and served to back up our somewhat meagre rations. These consisted basically of 250grams of bread daily and an evening meal of stew with rice and vegetables with occasional meat or fish...This meal was cooked by our own cooks in the compound cookhouse. There were morning and evening muster parades, for numbers to be checked by the guards, but otherwise we were left to our own devices, which included volley-ball and our own entertainments, cards, chess and so on. I made a habit of trying to read the occasional Italian newspapers for information, combining this with snippets from letters home and any other source to make a weekly newsletter, which I then carried, round my comrade’s huts.
After many months there, during which we learned of the Axis attack on Russia, of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the American entry into the war, also of our loss of Tobruk and the fall of Singapore, I was moved with others to working camps, first to a camp building a new hutted camp to house prisoners from Tobruk, then to a camp building a worker’s estate close to Rome near the main airport where we could daily see German aircraft coming in to land and on one occasion we were able to see the air bombardment of Rome by American aircraft to very little opposition. Not a lot of damage was done and the attack was more of a gesture than anything else was. There we learnt of allied victory in North Africa and Sicily and the invasion of Southern Italy. Then came the Italian Armistice, we were moved en bloc by train to a large holding camp to the North of Rome, and we were told to stay in our camp until Allied troops arrived, but we were also told that the Germans, far from retreating, were pouring reserves into the country and I decided to leave the camp which was not hard to do since the Italian guards were leaving their posts in some disorder. With a companion I walked into the local hills which were not far away; we were about 40 miles North of Rome; by then I had learnt a lot of colloquial Italian and I had no difficulty in establishing a friendship with a local peasant who brought us food. What was surprising was that this man in common with others in his hill village had himself about six small and narrow strips of farm land scattered all over the village area. On it he grew grapes, olives and beans and kept a donkey and a pig. The peasant got up at sunrise at his home in the village, loaded his donkey, and trudged off up the hills to the particular strip he was working on before moving on to the next strip.
He took a hunk of bread, a piece of bacon and a flask of red wine with him for his lunch. He finished work by collecting wood for the fire at home where he returned about 4pm. This was a system, which had lasted generations and was terribly wasteful of time and effort. The evening meal was usually simple, a stew of bacon and beans, or perhaps a Polenta, this was basic corn-meal, made up into a paste and boiled in a large black iron pot until the wife deemed it was ready. She prepared a large scrubbed board which she put over the kitchen table and poured out the porridge-like corn meal all over the board; she covered this with herbs and small bacon pieces in a thick tomato puree. As this cooled, it solidified; the members of the family were given a fork each, and ate their way into the centre of the table, fortified by a glass of red wine each. We had, optimistically, hoped for an allied advance up Italy in quick time but it was not to be. The German grip on Italy had consolidated and there were German soldiers everywhere, it was becoming an anxious time for our Italian friends since there were Fascist sympathisers everywhere; giving help to an Allied prisoner was an offence and it was rumoured that the whole village could be burned as a reprisal. My heels, which had been badly blistered through wearing no socks, were now healed again.
But before I could think of travelling down South where the Allied forces were an early morning search by German soldiers found two companions, hiding in a tiny hut and me. As luck would have it, this search coincided with an early visit by our Italian friends; I just had time to shout in Italian, “Go away, the Germans are here!” And they were able to make their escape. We were brought to a camp containing about a thousand others. Then taken to a railhead and entrained for Germany in the traditional cattle-trucks, forty men to a truck, for five days during which the heavily guarded train wandered through the Italian mountains, through Austria and into Southern Germany before we were let out. We were marched a couple of miles to a transit camp, which I think was Muhlburg, although it might have been Moosburg. Here there was a huge camp containing thousands of Prisoners, mostly Russian who were separated from us. This camp was patrolled by German guards with very vicious dogs who were let loose occasionally, particularly at night. One night the Russians captured two of the dogs in their compound and killed them; they left notices outside the compound gate saying they had killed and eaten them- “Thank you very much.” Winter had arrived in Germany and with it heavy snow-falls
We eventually came to our destination, the city of Dresden, and then to a cement factory, where we were put to work making heavy cement items. We were never told what these were for. The hours were long, from Six to Six, and we were worked hard but our quarters in the factory were clean and orderly and we soon learned that much life in Germany was being run by Prisoners of War, mostly Russian and French although most European nations were represented. This was because all able-bodied German males were conscripted and away with the German Forces .The guards were wounded or unfit men. Those at the factory lived more or less adjacent to us and were generally amiable. They seemed to have no great quarrel with the British, although this was not always the case. However, one wounded guard who was particularly amiable used to bring his guitar at evenings into our quarters and sing sad German songs. He regaled us with stories of the first German advance into Russia when they came so close to Moscow that they could actually see the distant Cathedral spires, when Stalin brought out large reserves of well trained Russians from the Far East who “Whipped them back “--- his words. He told us that the Germans had not been trained to meet the intense cold, that their clothing was inadequate, their guns and vehicles froze. He was soon posted away.
Our rations consisted of 250 grams of black bread daily and an evening stew of potatoes or barley with vegetables, meat was very tightly rationed, although I remember receiving an occasional Red Cross parcel, perhaps one a month. Through our daily work we had contacts with prisoners of other nations, and I was able to carry on with my task of gathering information to make a weekly newsletter. I remember that we heard of the landing of the Allies in Normandy at Midday on D-Day when an excited French Prisoner arrived in the factory saying - “ Les Allies sont debarques en Normandie .” Great elation among us, together with not a little apprehension. I had learnt enough German by then to be able to follow the course of the war fairly closely from the occasional German newspaper.
Shortly after this I was moved with about 20 other British P.O.Ws to a Horticultural Centre close to the bend of the River Elbe, where we could see the mountains of Czechoslovakia in the distance. This was tempting as a possible means of escape but it was not very certain that arrival in Czechoslovakia would lead to freedom and the war seemed to be coming to an end anyway, with the rapid Allied advance through France and the Low Countries. Life at the Horticultural Centre was comparatively easy; There we were overseen by German agriculturalists and the work in the large glasshouses was done by people from all the occupied countries, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia; we were put to work in the potato fields and tomato fields. A Latvian, a former professor scolded me, with whom I was working on an agricultural machine, “Why were the Anglo-Americans allowing the Russians to occupy and Communise Latvia?” I had no real reply to this.
When the winter of 1944 came we were abruptly moved to Leipzig where we were incarcerated in an old schoolhouse in the centre of the city with bombed out apartments all around us. Together with about six others, I was sent under guard daily to the buildings of the Leipzig University, which had been bombed, to assist in clearing some of the rubble. There I was put into the control of Heinrich, a fifty-year old German who had somehow managed to escape conscription. He was an unusual character, very spry and active, who supposed to be working as a carpenter repairing damage. He took me into a spare room where he was working on restoring cupboards and after a few minutes of work and halting conversation in my inadequate German, he suddenly said “Sit down now, we won’t work any more!” He carried on to explain that he was a Communist who hated Hitler and all his works and that he had always disagreed with this war and was not going to do anything to further it. With that he brought out a flask of coffee he shared with me. He seemed genuinely pleased to be able to talk freely to someone he knew would not report him to the Nazis. At Christmas, he brought me a small raisin cake baked by his wife. Often one heard the drawn - out wail of the Air-raid sirens and no more work was done. Leipzig was being regularly visited and the area around the Main Post Office and the Main Railway Station was a pile of rubble. One day when the Allied bombers came particularly close, I remember seeing the Superfortresses right overhead the University and dropping bombs; I dived under a table and saw Heinrich dancing around the room with his arms raised, shouting “Bring the bombs down and let’s finish the war!”
Our stay at the University buildings was short, we were switched to other work and I never saw Heinrich again. We were sent daily to clearing the rubble round the Main Post Office, fearful of the next raid: in the later days of the winter, 1944, and spring of 1945 there were at least three raids every twenty-four hours but not all on Leipzig itself, the aircraft passing over the city on their way to attack other targets. There was a frequent rumble of exploding bombs and anti-aircraft fire and we could sometimes witness the Allied bombers being attacked by German rocket-propelled aircraft, which occasionally resulted in a Superfortress being brought down. That winter was very bitter with temperatures down to minus 20 degrees Centigrade and our rations were cut right down, we got no more parcels but we knew that the war was coming to a close. With the Russians close to Berlin and the Western allies over the Rhine, the Nazis grew increasingly desperate and they were beginning to lose control. Horse drawn transport was beginning to appear on the streets where occasionally could be heard the cry from an unknown flat, “When will this war end?”
All prisoners in Leipzig were ordered to gather in a large square, still under control of the German Army. After a long wait, we were marched in a long column, picking our way through piles of rubble from fallen buildings out of the city. Rumour had it that we were to be marched into South Germany where the Nazis planned a last stand. The column came to a long halt on the approach to a long viaduct. I took an opportunity to slip away from the column and down a bank. I crouched behind a large bush and a few minutes later the whole column moved off, to my great joy. I soon found a tunnel opening enclosing a huge pipe, and I realised that this was the outlet channel from the large gas-works, which was adjacent. I sought refuge in this and climbed on top of the pipe - there was just enough room. I hid there with a companion for four days whilst we listened to the sound of a battle going on in the distance and sometimes overhead. After three days, a German worker found us in our hiding places, “What are you doing here,” he demanded. I told him that we were waiting for the Americans, “So am I” he said. He left and returned a few minutes later with a flask of water.
Then, after a further night when the gunfire had died down, I emerged and made my way to a hut, which contained a number of Polish workers. I asked them if they had any news and where the Americans were. I then made my way through suburban streets to an American artillery Battery, still shelling a Nazi target which was a huge granite memorial column, erected to commemorate the “Battle of the Nations”, 1814 defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte There were cellars underneath the column which were a final refuge for Nazi SS troops. I did not wait to see the outcome of this fight.
Everywhere we saw white flags raised at the flat windows. It was then I realised that my four years of captivity had ended.
The first Americans I met welcomed me and put me on a truck to take me with others down the line. This was two or three days before the Americans met the Russians at Torgau and the war was over. I heard afterwards that the column I had escaped had marched on for a couple of days and came to a halt in the country when the guards deserted and left the prisoners to find their own way. After an interrogation by Americans I was sent to a holding camp and eventually to an airfield from where a Dakota supply aircraft took me home to Lineham. I received a great welcome in my hometown, Witham, in Essex.
But this was not the end of my war. After two months leave, I was recalled to the Artillery and retrained for further service, which was expected to be connected with the offensive against Japan. To my relief, the Japanese surrender made this unnecessary. I spent a further twelve months with the Artillery in various camps before I was demobbed. I spent a lot of this time teaching my fellow soldiers whose education had been somewhat neglected the rudiments of arithmetic, history and geography. I was given an Army course to help me and I taught appreciative audiences. I was finally demobbed in September 1946 and moved to Bath in Somerset to join the Admiralty there. There I was frequently told of the bombing of Bath, where a street of houses had been destroyed and sundry bombs dropped; then I remembered the terrible destruction I had seen in Germany, but I kept my thoughts to myself. I had learnt to appreciate that people of all races had much well in them, although sometimes evil triumphed. I had capped my school French with a fluent Italian and some German, very useful to me in later life when I became an Immigration Officer.
The Britain I came back to in 1946 was a land of shortages of everything; we were still rationed quite severely. Although we were very relieved and happy that it was all over, as a nation we were nearly bankrupt and in debt to the United States. International commerce was at a standstill. Communist Russia was firmly installed over the whole of Eastern Europe and sometimes appeared to threaten us too. We were delighted to have got rid of the Nazi and Fascist threat even at a price. Overall there hung the threat of the atomic Bomb. It is a tribute to the industry and perseverance of our country that we come through the various challenges.
There is a small sequel to my story: One day in the Sixties, I was working as an Immigration Officer in the Ferry returning from Holland to Harwich when I noticed that one of the Italian visitors was called Novelli and he came from Rome. I asked him if he knew a Signor Novelli who was a builder contractor there, Yes, he said, He is my father. I remembered Signor Novelli as a very pleasant man who was contracted to build the P.O.W. camp at Vetralla, who had brought his family to meet us when we were working there. He later wrote to me and invited me to visit him but sadly I never took up the offer.