A description of what my granddad did in world war 2, including prisoner of war camp
| War Diaries and reflections on what my Granddad did in World War 2
This year is the one hundredth anniversary of World War One and a time to remember the sixteen million plus people who lost their life as a result of it. This led me to thinking about the Second World War, which resulted in sixty million plus deaths which was about 2.5% of the population of the world at the time, and the role that my granddad played in it.
The following account is based on a war diary that he wrote with some assistance from his Regimental Association and some further research that I have done. The parts in speech marks are direct quotes from my granddads war diary. Although some historians argue the official start of World War Two a generally accepted date is September 1 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. On the 3rd September 1939 Britain and France declared war on Germany "I remember rushing from chapel on September 3rd to hear an important announcement by Neville Chamberlin..... it was that we were at war with Germany" The speech, which was broadcast at 11.15am has become one of the most well known in history and this is a short extract from it "This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany"
Neville Chamberlin was the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister at the time. History has judged him as a controversial figure for how he appeased Hitler and then subsequently put the country to war when it was unprepared. He resigned as Prime Minister as he saw the need for a coalition government to get through the war but Labour and the National Liberal Party would not work with him and so we was replaced by Winston Churchill. He remained part of the War Cabinet but died of Cancer six months later. Conscription- having to join the army by law- was introduced at the outbreak but, as was the general feeling of the country, my granddads grandparents (so my great great grandparents) said "it won't last long, be over before you are of age to go" Sadly, this was not the case and on 18th June 1940 my Granddad turned 18 and as a an adult male who was not required in an essential industry, he worked in a grocery shop, he was eligible for conscription. On the 1st July 1940 he attended a medical at Wyle Cop School, Shrewsbury and was passed off as fit. On the 18th July 1940 he was called up for service and transferred to Seaton Barracks, Plymouth.
So from working as an assistant in a grocery shop and one month after his eighteenth birthday he was "called up for service" I cannot begin to imagine what this felt like, people may have been more patriotic to their country back then and maybe there was a sense of adventure but I suspect their must of also been a massive feeling of fear, not knowing what was going to happen and a sense of loss of having to leave behind family and friends.
My granddad was attached to The Duke of Wellington Regiment of West Ridings which was infantry regiment; they had a history dating back to 1702 and subsequently disbanded after 304 years in 2006 to become part of the Yorkshire Regiment. "First few days spent getting kitted out with uniform etc... no rifles, I joined the motor transport section as I could drive. We did guards as well as training and had first taste of war when on duty one evening in August in gun position with a Bren Gun (light machine gun) we were dive bombed by German Aircraft... this became quite a regular thing...as we were near a RAF camp" I think this may have been RAF Mount Batten, Plymouth which operated from 1917-1986.
In September 1940 "just at dusk a lot of activity by naval ships in the harbour, next morning the harbour were clear" He would later discover from his friend who was in the Pioneer Corps that the boats had gone to assist the attack on German boats on the French coast, this was to be Operation Sea Lion, the German plan to invade southern England which was abandoned on 17th September 1940 "for weeks after German bodies were picked up off our coast." The military decided that Plymouth was no place for an army training camp so transferred it to York.
On the 9th October 1940 my Granddad and others were transferred to York by rail "on arrival at York station at 3am it looked at very dismal place as we marched to barracks and saw all the walls around York and our barracks, but next morning at light it looked much different" I find his first impressions of York slightly amusing, he must of grown to love the place as after the war he moved there and became a honorary Yorkshire man. I can`t help but thinking if he was not transferred to York then I would probably not be here today telling this story. At York there was no specific accommodation and the new arrivals slept "on the floor of the gymnasium for the next week, putting our things outside during the day"
On the 16th October 1940 he was sent home on leave for ten days "Dad picked me up in his baby Austin. At this time I didn't know it would be the last time I would see home until March 1945"
He returned to York barracks on 26th October 1940 and "did extensive training and guard duties" Downtime was scarce but there was some and one night he went out on a blind date set up by his friend "We met on a dark night (black out) walked to the cinema, before I could see what my pal had picked up for me and were pleasantly surprised at my good luck. She was a pleasant, smashing lass" That girl, who I supposed must have been sixteen at the time, was seven years later to become his wife and they would have four children, my mum Sue, my Uncle Michael who sadly passed away in 1997, my Uncle Stephen and my Aunty Jackie. They would have five grandchildren me, my sister Lisa, Jackie's children Laura and Hanna and Stephens's daughter Lilly Rose. They also now have one great grandchild Laura's daughter Olivia Iris.
I wonder which cinema they went to?, it would be nice if it was the Odeon which opened in 1937 as that is somewhere I have been myself but this was the tail end of the golden age of cinema and from my research I have discovered there were at least six cinemas in York at the time, of which the Odeon is the only remaining one but is now run by another company. I also wonder what film they went to see, two of my favourite films were out in the cinema that year Rebecca and the Grapes of Wrath as well as two classic Disney films one being Fantasia and the other Pinocchio but it could have been one of hundreds of films.
In February 1941 "rumours that we were to be moved again became real. We were issued with a tropical kit and told we were to be leaving for destination unknown in three days' time" The journey started from York Station and from there went to Gourock in Inverclyde, West Scotland " where we boarded the liner Strathdean, where we stayed for a further three days, then pulled out to sea, where we joined with more ships to form a very long convoy, sailed across the American coast, and then down to Sierra Leone, then to Cape town" Strathdean was a P and O ship that started life in 1937 taking passengers and mail to Australia, between 1939-1945 it was relinquished to the army to transport troops. Subsequently it was sold to a Greek company in 1963 and scrapped in 1969.
The ship stopped at three days in Cape Town to refuel and restock supplies and during this time my Granddad visited the city. From their they sailed on and " we learned our destination was the 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment but as the fighting in Sudan was drawing to a close, we sailed through the Red Sea to Egypt, where we disembarked to await the arrival of the regiment" In total the journey from the UK took eight weeks.
The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales Own) was an infantry unit with a history dating back to 1658. In 1958 they became part of the Prince of Wales Own Regiment of Yorkshire and then in 2006 part of the Yorkshire Regiment.
On arrival in Egypt he was transferred to El Cantara base on the east bank of the Suez Canal near the Great Bitter salt lake. At the camp he did more training and guard duties and acclimatised himself to the heat of the Sahara, he had never been out of Britain before!
On the 21 April 1941 he formally joined the West Yorkshire Regiment who were in urgent need of reinforcements due to losses Eritrea as part of the East Africa campaign. Time was spent training as well as "one trip up to Palestine to collect Italian prisoners to put on a ship to Australia. One of my very close friends fell asleep while guarding them and finished up in a Field Punishment Centre"
His battalion was then moved up the Nile to assist the Eighth Army, who were a British led unit of commonwealth soldiers formed as part of the North Africa Campaign. " Rumour has it be we being airlifted to China, in fact they were been sent to Iraq. They set out via Palestine to Kirkuk, an Iraqi oil town. On the way they dropped me off at a hospital near the pyramids, Apparently I suffered Sand-fly fever" Sand-fly fever is a virus caused by a bite from the sand-fly, rife in the Sahara desert, which can cause fever, eye pain and headache, in rare cases it can be fatal. On the 12th September 1941, now aged nineteen, he was discharged from hospital and returned to El Cantara base to await reposting with hi unit, but this proved difficult as they were continuously on the move so this proved difficult. Instead he was attached to the service corps unit as they were short of drivers " We made one hazardous journey across the trans Jordan route to Al Aqabh on the Red Sea taking supplies and engineers to build a port" this journey tool ten days and then he returned to Egypt. As his regiment were still away he was attached to New Zealand Maori division who were formed in recognition of the Maoris contribution to the First World War, they existed from 1940-1946 and gained an excellent reputation as a battalion and were instrumental in ending the siege of Torbruk. As part of this battalion, on the 25th October 1941 he moved up the Nile to Sollum to take part in Operation Crusader.
Operation Crusader lasted from 18 November 1941 to 30th December 1941 and was fought across Libya and Egypt, it was a major offensive of the western desert campaign and the first victory over German foot soldiers of a British led force, and it eventually led the end of the siege of Tobruk in Libya.
The battalion he was part of were attached to the Xiii corps who were a British commanded commonwealth force. When the offensive started on the 18th November "we did not see the enemy until late morning. We were attacked by a small force of Italian troops on the shore at Sollum setting up camp. Next morning at dawn we went down the escarpment (steep slope or long cliff) and attacked. Caught the enemy with complete surprise. Took 180 prisoners plus 50 ladies of favour, 25 soldiers killed and seven ladies. We had no casualties"
On the 19th there was another attack "the Maoris jumped off (the escarpment) and went in with fixed bayonets, 35 Italians killed, four prisoners, five Maori casualties not serious." On the 20th there was another encounter including a dive bombing and the enemy retreated, however they returned later " complete with the 21st Division tanks" This was a Panzer tank division that was part of the Deutsches Afrirakorps " We were engaged in battle for about three hours but were outnumbered. We lost our bouffer gun (anti-aircraft gun) and our three twenty five pound artillery guns. A lot of casualties. Our officer, a Scottish Captain, 13th army asked us to make a last charge with fixed bayonets but it was hopeless. He dropped dead at my feet. We that survived, about 60 out of 250 were marched away as prisoners"
The word doesn't do justice but you could say he was one of the "lucky" ones from his battalion, 190 of them were killed in action. As well as having to deal with the death of people who had no doubt become close friends he would have had to deal with the shock of been captured and just not knowing what was going to happen next. Not knowing what was going to happen led to him taking a risk. When he was being marched away as a prisoner "at one point we were right on the escarpment and a lot of large rocks. A small group at the rear dropped into these rocks and lay there all night"
He managed to escape, if he had been caught he could have been shot, they waited until morning and then spotted a vehicle coming towards them "lucky for us it was British belonging to the LRDG" This was the long range desert group who were a reconnaissance and raiding unit "we pulled ourselves on board and drove back to find the 4th Indian Division had moved in just ahead of us. We helped to bury our dead and then tried to get as much salvaged as we could. We made six out of our fifteen vehicles capable of running. I found my rifle complete where I have dropped it under my lorry and all my personal kit was not damaged"
He was then attached to Sikh Battalion of the "Red Eagle Division" i.e. the 4th Indian division, which was part of the Xiii corps formation. This was the first Indian division to go overseas, although some Indians had made it to the rank of Captain the Officers were all British, this was still five years before Indian independence. The division was essential the war effort and as well as North Africa they saw action in East Africa, Syria and Italy. Over the next few weeks the division marched towards Tobruk crossing the border into Libya. With the help of the 7th armoured Brigade they saw off several attacks from the enemy. The 7th armoured brigade was formed in 1938 from the garrison troops stationed in British controlled Egypt. From 1940 onwards they were involved in battles against the Germans and Italians in North Africa. They earned the nickname the "desert rats" and are still in operation, currently based in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
The battalion marched onto Gazala, which is 37km from Tobruk. On the 15th December 1941 he was part of the allied assault on the Italians at Gazalla, there was "some success was gained on the night and centre flanks during the early morning. But we were halted by stiff opposition and attacked by heavy tank formations. We were overrun by heavy tank formations. We were overrun by early evening and were taken prisoners"
Prisoner of War
So after sixteen months of active service he was taken as a prisoner again and this time didn't manage to escape " We were handed over to Italian troops and marched for 36 hours without food" On the 17th December 1941, the captives made it to Libya`s second city of Benghazi where they were given " some food but no facilities here, just a wire enclosure" They stayed there for two nights and then boarded an Italian warship and set sail for Crete " We set sail at night, a number of ships in convoy, We were attacked by the British Navy, although shaken a couple of times we managed to get to Crete"
Crete had become part of Greece in 1913, previously part of the Ottoman Empire. Greece fought on the side of the allies and Crete had been occupied by the Germans. From Souda bay in Crete he was put on board another ship on 1st January 1942 and sailed to Piraeus on the east coast of Greece, seven miles southwest of Athens "On the morning of the 2nd of January we were taken on a two hour drive in lorries and put in a large warehouse, were given reasonable food whilst here..... We just slept in our clothes for warmth, no blankets or bedding here"
On the 27th February 1942 he was put on a ship to Italy "conditions on board were terrible, being down in the hold and one meal a day" On the 5th March 1942 the ship arrived in Brindisi on the Adriatic coast of Italy. My Granddads war diary states "taken to Tukurana camp" but I believe this to be a typing error when it was written up, further research I have done suggests it was P85 Tuturano transit camp in Puglia in southern Italy. He was registered here as Prisoner 139861.
TUTORANO POW CAMP
What amazes me was his lack of bitterness and the sense optimism when looking back at the event "shown to wooden huts which were real luxury, double bunks and two blankets. Food did improve; one hot meal each day, macaroni stew, a small bread bun, a teaspoon of olive oil and some days a small piece of cheese" I remember once my mum asking Granddad if he wanted macaroni cheese for dinner and he said he had enough to last him a life time in Italy. In the camp there was "quite a black-market in bartering"..... "We supplemented our ration by selling off to Italian soldiers any surplus things we had, fountain pens, knives etc in exchange for bread" He was given a card to send home to his family which must have been a relief as he had been reported missing for four months. In September 1942, now aged 20 and nearly two years since he left the UK, he was moved to another Prisoner of War Camp, P65 Gravina also in Puglia "had only been there two weeks when I came down with Pleurisy, and then Malaria" Pleurisy is a condition where the coating of the lungs become inflamed and causes sharp chest pains, shortness of breath and a dry cough, it is usually caused by an underlying virus, which spread rapidly in the conditions he would have been living in. It can, in rare cases, be fatal as it can cause blood clots. Malaria is a tropical disease spread by mosquitoes and can be spread to humans by a single bite, its symptoms include high temperature and vomiting and if left untreated can be fatal.
The start of 1943 sent mixed blessings, "We got our first red cross packages which made a big difference to our meals.. But I were in hospital again with malaria. Back out three months then back in hospital with malaria again"
Another bit of fortune came "In June they were looking for work parties to help with various jobs not connected to the military side. We had information one was for farm work. This came from an Italian sergeant who was brought up in London, went to Italy on holiday as war broke out; an artillery sergeant who I knew recognised him as a school pal of his. He was in charge of 20 of us on this farm in Congriola..... We lived it up here with the help of our Italian friend... fruits of all kinds were there for the picking: tomatoes, potatoes and eggs. A chicken went missing sometimes. I had the job of milking the goat" This ended on the 25th August and he was put in another camp P132 Foggia, Apulia, Southern Italy. On the 8th September 1941 Italy surrendered. Mussolini had supported Hitler since 1936 and Italy joined the war in June 1940. Mussolini was a popular figure but lost support after defeats over the Italian army in North Africa and the Balkans, he was ousted in July 1940 and replaced by Marshal Badoglio who negotiated Italy`s surrender.
My Granddad was free to leave the Prisoner of War Camp. Unfortunately though the Germans were fully aware of what was happening and so they rounded his group up twelve hours after his release "marched to rail head, put in cattle trucks and moved out of Italy to Germany. Two days journey with hardly any food and in a very cold, damp truck was a rough trip" He spent two days at 4B camp just through the Bremen Pass in the Alps between Italy and Austria. He then moved to Stalag Camp XIA, a huge camp fifty six miles from Berlin that held up to 60,000 Prisoners of War "After a few weeks I became very ill and spent most of the time in hospital helping out medically when able to do so as medical staff were very scarce. During this period of time I saw the first of the thousand bomber raids, the sky black with aircraft. We had quite a lot of airmen in for treatment as men were shot down"
The thousand bomber raids were a prolonged bomb attack on Cologne, the intention been to seriously damage German morale and possibly for them to surrender, it was also seen as a propaganda campaign for the Bomber Squad who had not had much success and so funds were starting to be allocated elsewhere. The diaries do not state how he became very ill but it could have been related to the Pleurisy or Malaria. On the 25th October 1944, aged 22, he was declared by the Medical Board of Geneva Commission as been unfit to be in a Prisoner of War Camp. At this time, the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War had only been in place for thirteen years.
So after nearly three years as a Prisoner of War he was free "but it were February 1945 before leaving Germany" First of all he crossed the border into Austria and spent two weeks in a castle near the Swiss border before passing into the neutral Switzerland "where we were showered with gifts from the Swiss Red Cross" After that they crossed the border into France, spending some time in an American camp, and then heading down to Marseille. From Marseille he boarded a hospital ship to Liverpool and transferred to Chester Hospital for a couple of days before his relatives came and picked him up. He spent some time in Shrewsbury hospital and then "a week later sent home, where I made plans to go to York to see my lovely lass I had left behind in 1941" He didn't have the chance to rest yet though, we were still at war and he was still a soldier. He might not have been fit to fight but he still played his part "When I returned I were attached to 584 company in Coventry..... and a POW camp near Carnarvon"
On the 8th May 1945 Germany offered total and unconditional surrender, with Japan surrendering on 25th September 1945, ending the Second World War. On the 1st July 1946, aged 24, and just over six years after been conscripted, he was demobbed at Ashton under Lyne, Manchester. He was given 56 days leave (he was demobbed by then so I think this means he received some sort of payment for fifty six days) and then "I started back at my old job grocery store. The position were not suitable really, and eventually I moved to York, got my first job there through the Regimental Association and got married 1947, joined the Regimental Association. In total did 21 years as a standard bearer" This meant he held the regiments flag at parades and remembrance events. This was something he was, rightly, massively proud of. The Regimental Association was very important to him, he loved representing them and attending social events with them. I think as well it must have helped him, staying in touch with other people who have experienced similar experiences which no one else could really comprehend. I wish to offer my thanks to the Regimental Association, in later life when my Granddad struggled with mobility and they paid for a scooter for him. They also sent representatives to his funeral, something I know would have meant a lot to him.
I have read thorough these diaries before but I am only really starting to contemplate what he must of gone through. Been uprooted from home, having to fight to save his life, seeing people dying, the chaos of war, not knowing if you are going to live or die or when you would get to return home to see your loved ones and spending three years as a prisoner. I have seen a photo of my granddad when he was in a POW camp and he looked remarkably thin. As well as this he also had several illnesses that could have killed him.
But what amazed me most is the spirit, the passion to just go on and get things done, there was no complaining or bitterness or anger in his diaries.
It is amazing that this is modern history, my Granddad who only passed away in the last decade.
Other observations I have made are the amount of countries he travelled to South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Libya, Crete, Greece, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany. He returned to Germany in later life taking students when he was employed by Askham Bryan College and did mention returning to Egypt but this never happened. I like as well how he fought with different battalions from the last days of the commonwealth, Maoris from New Zealand and Sikhs from India.
My Granddad was an amazing man and I feel humbled to be his grandson, and grandson of someone he was part of one of the most significant events in human history. Out of his experiences, came on positive thing he met Marjorie Hedley on the blind date his friend set up for him in 1940 and married her in 1947. She played her own part in the Second World War, she worked at Terry's Chocolate factory and this was turned into a munitions factory.
At my granddads funeral I remember his brother Stan, who also fought in World War 2 as did his other brother Gwyn, salute his coffin as he was buried, and I think this was a poignant end to his life.