Ed Gamble’s WWII Experience
After the East African campaign we thought and felt that we were invincible – the best trained – the best armed – the best led – and part of the best army the world had ever known – we were GUNG HO – The next fort please.
After East Africa , Egypt was a bit sobering – Gerry’s nightly capers over Helwan and subsequently Mersa Matruh were mainly pie in the sky. We dug in and laughed him off. When we crossed the wire on 22nd November 1941 we had had (to the best of my recollection) only ATTACKING training – Meet the enemy head on and knock him – Bayonets – The lot
We had no training in how to handle a defeat or repulse – No rearguard action preparation. It was (perhaps understandably) never contemplated – we were invincible! We had taken a quarter of a million Italian prisoners in East Africa and now we’d do the same to the Heines (Germans). O YES!
The Sidi Rezegh battle started at approximately 2 pm on the 22nd Nov and ended after dark on 23rd Nov, by which time most survivors were to some degree battle happy.
When we heard that fateful order “ Every man for himself – Run for your lives” it was bloody shattering. We were all in the bag!
I was captured at about 7.30 pm by a German patrol, one of whom spoke perfect Oxford English. No one could ever forget that terrible thirsty march to Benghazi – the filth, thirst, and terrible hunger
That first night we just lay huddled together for warmth, but I don’t think many, if any, managed to sleep.
The following morning we were rounded up by our German captors, transport arrived for the wounded and officers about noon with still no sign of any food or water. We were told we would receive such that evening. After the transport left we were told to fall-in and were marched off down the road in the direction of Benghazi. A ragged band of approx 2000 miserable and disillusioned troops.
At sunset, our tongues sticking to the roofs of our mouths, and our legs feeling that they did not belong to us, we were halted and told to sleep in a circle.
The food? The water?
Tomorrow they said! There was none available that night!
Tired, angry and frustrated, those who had a drop of water left in their water bottles, wet their lips and tried to settle down to sleep. We were now so exhausted that a very cold night could not prevent us from sleeping.
During the night the Italians arrived to take us over. After the cold efficiency of the Germans, the Italians introduced a more human element of slapdash and muddle. The Germans had a few words to say, jumped into their vehicles and vanished. The Italians shouted, exclaimed, fixed bayonets, posted guards all around us decided they were too near, too far, too many, too few.
Before it was properly light, they all began shouting,” Avanti, Ho, Ho!” and we scrambled stiffly to our feet
We were to fall in threes, no in fives, no in fours. The officers and N.C.O’s harangued one another over this point but eventually got us moving, without any final ruling.
We trudged on across a valley past several enemy camps. The further we went the lower our spirits sank. They sank, if possible, below zero. The glare struck up at us from the sand as fiercely as the sun overhead. We began to feel thirsty as never before. Men were collapsing and being helped by their friends, who were on the point of collapse themselves.
Every time we asked where the water was – we had almost ceased to care about food – our guards said, “ One more kilometre.” They brought up a truck which travelled slowly alongside us and picked up those who couldn’t go any further, but you had to be in a pretty bad way to qualify for a ride.
The men began to sit down, refusing point blank, to walk another step. Just about then two trucks, one loaded with cases which obviously contained food of some sort, and the other carrying a tank of water, came past and travelled just in front of us. This was irresistible, we shuffled and tottered on.
At about 1p.m. the two trucks stopped. We crowded round them like a loose scrum. The Italians said, quite naturally, that they couldn’t issue rations properly to this clamouring mob.
The officer prisoners still left with us tried to organise us into sections, and after a great deal of squabbling for preference, the sections were queued up at the trucks in turn. Each man received half a biscuit, and about a quarter of a pint of water, which was just enough to make you thirstier.
The Cape Corps and African sections had been left till last, and before their turn came, the water ran out. We would have been justified in making a protest. Instead we just turned away sadly with the angry look of beaten animals. I felt like crying with rage.
The afternoon was burning on to its greatest heat. I found myself longing for the night to fall. I knew that it would probably be to cold to sleep, but it would bring relief from the sun, which now seemed to me a brutal thing. Anything is tolerable if you can see an end to it, but torture of this kind, to which there appeared no reasonable limit, was beginning to make me feel as if something must give way soon; my legs, my lungs, my heart, my brain. I wondered dully if I was mad. They said thirst made you go that way.
As the sunset we staggered past the El Adem aerodrome, and appeared to be heading straight for, of all things, a lake. It was nothing more than the late sun reflecting on the mud in a vlei, but it deceived most of us. The Africans and Coloured men who had no water at all, yelled with delight and even began to run, gasping, “Dam-toe” in their exhilaration.
Before we could reach this purely fake ‘dam’ the guards swung us left down the El Gobi track. Our pace slackened almost to a standstill. The Italians said we must go another kilometre or they wouldn’t give us any water. We went the kilometre, and then stopped. They said another kilometre but we refused to move any further. They brought the trucks of food and water down to us.
As before there was the uncontrolled rush to the trucks and nothing was given out until some organisation was established. It was now dark and the blackout made any organisation useless.
I received a quarter tin of Italian bully beef (50grams) and a half biscuit, which was about as much as anyone got; but what I really wanted was water. This was only available to the strongest and those with the most cunning, who went up several times and worked their way on to the front of the queue again and again. Men fought for water like Hyenas. In two days the Axis and the desert between them had knocked 2000 years worth of decency out of us. Or so it seemed at the time.
The next day, our guards applied the last and most excruciating turn of the screw. They made us march again. I remember scores of men falling on their faces, and licking up the tiny puddles of muddy water in the road. When we reached an Italian camp somewhere west of Tobruk, we were given a rest. I estimated we had walked 20 kilometres. Few of us had had more than a sip of water in three days since our capture, and none had had more than a biscuit and a mouthful of meat all told. Add to this that many of us had blisters on our feet, some as big as fried eggs.
From here we were taken on trucks to a fenced paddocks about 25 kilometres west of Tobruk. We arrived after dark fully expecting to be told to lay down for the night. To our amazement an efficient Italian officer organised us quickly and we found us issued with food – A 200 gram tin of bully beef and a biscuit each and as much water as we wanted! It had the effect of a miracle. We began to laugh and talk good-humouredly again. It rained that night, and we had no shelter, but we didn’t care. The thirst march was over, and the world seemed endurable again.
Need I say anything about Rommel and his ‘Africa Korps’? Physically and mentally they were as good as we were. But they were better armed and superbly led.
Rommel wanted to get rid of us as soon as possible – so he handed us over to the ‘Verdampte Tzigeuner’ – “The Dings or Ities”. The Ities also wanted rid – they weren’t equipped to handle large numbers of prisoners. Water, food and shelter were a problem. The camp was makeshift – no buildings or tents – Rommel visited us there and apologised for the lack of accommodation and food.
After three days in the paddock we were put onto trucks and driven to a camp in Benghazi. Here we stayed a week. Everyone cold, half starved and dysenteric. We were housed in some Italian barracks. The tiled floor was like an ice floe.
I was there from the 24th Nov to 8th Dec. Although we didn’t realise it or show it, we were mentally disorientated. I mention this because of what happened later. But being in a group helped to some extent, but not totally.
So now we come to the ‘San Sebastian’. Originally a British cargo vessel commandeered by the Ities early on in the war.
On the morning of the 8th Dec 1941 we were lined up at the harbour where this single ship was tied up. This was our first sight of the ‘San Sebastian’.
As I remember it we were grouped into 100’s, issued with blankets and food. One blanket, one tin of meat and one bun and told that this had to last us for 2 days. I was sharing with an ‘A’ Coy Jock called Eddie Milward. He carried the food and I the blankets.
Going up the ladder to get onto the ship Milward was ahead of me. At the top of the ladder was an Itie officer counting us. (We were new to P.O.W. life and each man should have carried his own food and blankets.) Between Milward and I the Ding put his arm out and signalled me to stop, Milward went on forward to the Forward Hold The Ding motioned me to the Aft Hold and I put up a big scene that Milward and I were together and I had to join him because he had the food etc! The Ding officer (as is typical of Ities) put up a big scene and started opening his holster, which held a nasty looking piece of weaponry.
O.K. I understood that language and moved off to where he pointed. That Aft Hold. I was the first at the ladder and climbed down into the Hold and staked my position at the foot of the ladder. Nearest to the opening in the hatch (and the toilets – 2x 45 gallon drums) for our 500 or more in various stages of Dysentery. The stink was unimaginable but the first night was reasonably comfortable for me – but bloody hungry!
We sailed for Brindisi (or Bari) at dusk. (At that stage 48% of all Trans Med shipping was sunk by allied submarines.) We didn’t know this!!! But being below the water level in the hold was nevertheless rather scary and not conducive to restful, if hungry, sleep. I think Ed Milward slept cold that night but not hungry!
During the night and total darkness we could feel the ship changing course several times.
Besides the P.O.Ws. on board there were numbers of German and Italian soldiers and officers going home on leave. We didn’t know or care how many.
Our escort was a small Italian destroyer carrying a maximum load of Depth Chargers (and unbeknown to us a New Zealand Brigadier General).
To my knowledge not a single P.O.W. and only a few of the Heinies and Ities had life jackets and there was no Lifeboat drill.
We awoke – if any could sleep – on the 9th Dec to clear skies but a strong southerly wind. We were 20 feet or more below the waterline and no idea of where we were or in what direction we were heading. Because of the wind there was a heavy swell
That morning with both toilets drums over flowing we put up a big complaint to the Ities. Towards midday they allowed one man at a time to go up on deck to use the toilets intended only for the use of the Germans and Ities. It also allowed the man to get a few lungs full of clean fresh air. Eventually my turn arrived and I climbed the ladder to the deck. I saw a clear sky and in the distance, about 5 or 6 miles, LAND.
I had no idea of the time – some say it was 4 pm- I thought it was nearer 2 pm. The sea was quite rough. As I stood on the deck watching the distant land I had an overpowering feeling. To stay on deck, don’t go down that ladder!! But what about the other poor bastard waiting for his turn up the ladder. As I took a last long look at the land I saw them – Two white lines of bubbles coming at the ship – One ahead of the other. Torpedoes!!
The first one missed us – The second hit the Forward Hold where Milward was and I should have been!!!
The torpedo must have been about six to ten feet below the surface and as it hit the ship a column of water about 60-80ft high rose into the air. In this column were hatch covers, men, parts of men and other debris. For a few seconds all was quiet – perhaps a minute – then chaos broke out. Nobody took charge. The first lifeboat launched contained the captain of the ship and all his officers and they pulled away from the stricken vessel as fast as they could. From this point on the whole scene was a confusion of disjointed incidents.
For my part my first reaction was to rip off the Hatch covers of our Hold and drag as many men as we could onto the deck – the ship was already going down by the bows and most thought she was going to sink – the deck was now sloping from the stern to bows by about 45 degrees and it was virtually impossible to move about unless you gripped the side rails. After some time it began to dawn on us that the ship was not sinking further than the 45 degrees.
In the meantime total chaos and confusion reigned on deck – hundreds of men – some naked in the wintry Med – had jumped overboard. Hugh wooden rafts were cut loose and fell onto the hordes of men in the water below. No one was in charge of anything. Nobody knew what to do. Because the ship was 45 degrees down by the bows the propeller was half out of the water, and still turning slowly!!
I saw a crowded raft, with 40-50 men on or clinging to it, sucked in by the propeller and pieces of wood and men and parts of men flung into the air. This scene was repeated several times.
Men floating in the water or on Hatch covers or clinging to flotsam were sucked in by the propeller and thrown into the air. Arms, legs, torsos and various body parts flying in all directions.
Men who could not swim and saw land 5 miles away started praying in groups and singing hymns. The look on their faces was indescribable! They faced death praying!! To this day I cannot bear to hear ‘Abide with me’ or ‘Oh god our help in ages past’ for obvious reasons.
Other men who had managed to get to the sloping galleys snatched half cooked meat out of the boiling pots and drank scalding soup!
After some hours the wind freshened towards the land and some German marine officers shut down the engines, which were churning the propellers, and a measure of calm settled on the floating wreck.
Land now seemed closer; we could see lights on the shore as night was closing in. We could also hear breakers pounding against jagged rocks.
Four A Coy Corporals, Bernie Friedlander (known to us as Buller), Tosty Dickson, a corporal whose name escapes me and I now started making plans as to how we could get ashore. We were all strong swimmers, and finding various ropes lying around, Bernie tied a rope around his waist and we lowered him into what appeared to be calm water, but was in fact oil from the bunkers, torn open by the rocks. We saw him and his rope being hauled out by people on shore. I followed him with Tosty behind me. The fourth corporal brought up the rear. On shore Greek farmers took us to a nearby shed while others took over the ropes we had brought ashore.
I estimated that there had been 2200 prisoners of war on board the ‘San Sebastian’ of which 431 were killed when the torpedo hit and 230 were wounded. We weren’t bothered about the others!
Though we didn’t know it at the time, we had arrived in Methone bay, on the west coast of Greece
The Italians fell upon us on the road through Methone. We were to be marched ten kilometres up the coast to Pilos. We were objects of interest to the local Greek population as they were equal objects of interest to us.
We marched up the road to Pilos. On either side of the road were orchards, vineyards, fields bearing the obvious marks of having once been well cared for, but now showing signs of neglect. Everywhere was becoming over grown with grass. The Greeks did not intend growing any food for the Germans or Italians.
On the hillside above us we saw a castle. This was where we were heading for. Huddled under 20 foot high walls in the narrow courtyard we felt the reality, the sting of imprisonment. The sky blackened and it rained.
At night we were herded into tiny cells 30 men at a time. We sat down; there was no room to lie. No one was allowed out until the next day and over half of us had severe dysentery!
Then a few days later we were loaded on to trucks, amidst much confusion, but no regrets and driven to Kalamata to be entrained. We didn’t know where we were going so we just sat on our wooden seats and nibbled the two small loaves we had been given for the journey.
At night fall we were ordered of the train and marched about five miles into the frosty dark where we were turned into a fenced field and left to our own devices
Some bales of hay had been placed in there for bedding. We tore these open and made warm nests for ourselves with thick layers of it. Sheer luxury after the nights we had spent in very cold conditions.
When we woke we found we were in a rectangular paddock of about a hectare, strongly fenced with barbwire. We were told it was about 8 kilometres east of Patras, on the Gulf of Corinth
The Italians gave us groundsheets, which buttoned together to make little tents like the ones they were living in themselves, and we had plenty of straw to sleep on. Bit by bit they gave nearly everyone a dixy and a spoon. About three quarters of us even got a blanket each. But these were Italian army blankets, only about the size of a maize bag and about as thin. Just as things were beginning to look up problems arose.
Lice put in an appearance. Without soap and towels we had no way of fighting the beasts. What water there was, was only enough for drinking purposes. I saw men with over 80 on their persons.
Then Dysentery took hold of the camp, it saw its chance and moved in on all of the camp inmates.
On top of that the weather broke. The sky grew leaden. The thunder rolled across the countryside like shellfire. Wind like spears blew down our little tents and slashed the cold into our bones. The now sodden ground of the paddock trampled by fifteen hundred pairs of feet, was like a pigpen and earned the place that name.
It is December 25th. But there is no Christmas in the pigpen. The cooks are unable to make us any early morning coffee, which is breakfast, because the wood is to wet. A fine rain keeps us in our tents. At noon we get our two loaves – good bread but only400 grams each. When the cooks eventually get the fires going we stand in the freezing rain to collect our ration. Its warm water with a film of grease on top of it. I throw mine away.
The Commandant is giving us a Christmas present. Some boxes of currants. When they are divided we get a dessertspoon full each
On old years morning the Italians moved us down the road to some woodsheds and locked us up completely in the darkness for a month. Remembering that most of us still had Dysentery and we were only let out to the toilet one at a time during the day, you can imagine the state of the inside of these sheds.
At the end of January the Italians march us through the town to the docks and we are put aboard a large troopship for Bari. We were pleased to be going to Italy as the Italians themselves told how marvellous the place was. We were soon disillusioned.
Arriving in Bari we stood on the dockside shivering in the bitter wind. From here we were marched through the town to the railway line where a line of cattle trucks stood to receive us. In these we travelled down to Brindisi to be greeted by an Italian officer who spoke with an American accent, and who informed us that we would all be shot if anyone escaped. We were then marched through the darkness, rain and wind for 5 miles to what we were to learn was camp 85. It was the pigpen all over again.
At this camp our beards and hair were cut and shaved off and we were sent into Bari for showers but the lice stayed with us. We were supplied with a postcard to send home and inform our people that we were still alive but prisoners of war.
Then we were on the train again. At Gravina we were once again marched into the countryside. Cresting the hill we saw this mass of stone buildings some still under construction. This was Campo di Concentramento No 65 where for all we knew we were going to spend the rest of the war.
We were the first prisoners in the camp. We found we had straw filled mattresses on the bunk beds and they gave us all three blankets and two sheets but the most important thing they hadn’t got was food. They told us we had to wait until the next day. That was when we had our first hot meal in 48 hours. But there seemed to be something wrong, there was not as much of it. Our arrival in camp 65 had coincided with a 50 percent cut in P.O.W. rations. The guards said they would try and get us extra vegetables. When they arrived they were dandelion leaves and turnip tops! But they were edible and welcome.
All this time we had nothing to smoke. In Greece and at camp 85 the Italians had given us five cigarettes a day. But camp 65 was a new one, and no supplies of cigarettes had reached it. Heavy smokers paced up and down the wire begging cigarettes from the guards. Scrambles took place on sick parade for the butts thrown down by the Italian doctor.
So life continued with the main interest being the next meal. Then we were informed that Red Cross parcels had arrived in Gravina for us. They reached the camp a few days later and were immediately locked up in one of the huts. The Commandant would do nothing with them until he received instructions from Rome!
When the necessary instructions were received they were carried out to the letter. Every tin was punctured and every jar opened to ensure nothing was inside the contents other than what the label said. This meant that only on parcel was issued a day. We refused to accept anything under these conditions. After several days the Italians saw the error of their ways and started to issue the parcels only puncturing the tins. But only for one hour a day! This meant that very few were given out each day.
Eventually the system started to work and life settled down once again.
Then in July 1943 the Fascist government of Italy collapsed and the King of Italy sacked Mussolini. We all started to wonder what was going to happen to us. Would we be released or would be transferred to Germany. Whilst negotiations were going on between the Italians we were moved to camp 52. Two days after this we were loaded into railway cattle trucks and transported to a transit camp 40 kilometres from Munich, Germany.
From here the others and I were moved by cattle truck up to Stalag 344 at Lamsdorf near Breslau. Here on the northern borders of Germany we were to learn what winter meant. We were locked up in our billets from dusk to dawn. This far north meant that dusk came at 3.30 p.m. and dawn arrived 18 hours later at 9.30 a.m. And all that time was spent in the dark
It was here, at Stalag 344, I met my first Russians. They were part of a party that went out everyday collecting wood for the campfires. They did not receive Red Cross parcels as we did because the Russian authorities would not supply them to their German captives. So for wood we gave them some of our food and at Christmas we invited them to our Christmas dinner, which they accepted.
Looking around our billet and seeing the large pin-up on the wall, they remarked that we appeared to be more interested in women than food. They being half starved, no Red Cross parcels, showed a great deal more interest in the food we provided.
Before the winter of 1944-1945 ended, the Russian and western armies were racing towards each other across what was left of Hitlers Europe. In Stalag 344 on Germany’s eastern edge we could hear the distant rumble of the Russian guns.
As the Russians slowly approached the border between Poland and Germany the German authorities decided to move us further west. We were marched out in groups with what we could carry, which, being weak was not a lot. We had started our captivity with the thirst march now it was drawing to a close with the ‘Death’ march. It was the middle of winter and we had to struggle through thick snow wearing every item of clothing we had. Which in these freezing conditions was not enough.
In the camp we had been reasonably well fed receiving regular Red Cross parcels but once on the road this all failed and everyone including the guards went without food. Now the guards did not threaten to shoot the stragglers, they did. At least the prisoners believed they did. Any one who collapsed beside the road was left with a guard and a few minutes later we would all hear the shot!
But later when we arrived at the next camp we found all the stragglers following us in on the back of a lorry, grinning guards included. The whole exercise had been to make us keep walking as long as possible and with as few drop outs as possible.
Accommodation at night became virtually impossible to find as the groups in front had already occupied most of the available barns etc. So we often spent the night cowering under a hedge beside the road. After a zigzag march avoiding the main roads we eventually arrived at Stalag 4B at Gorlitz. We were all as emancipated as we had been in camp65. Just skin and bone. It was some comfort then that the 300 who had marched from Stalag 344 would be continuing the journey west by rail! But in wartime rail travel has its own disadvantages.
At a siding a few prisoners were allowed to get out at a time. On the next line a goods train looked ripe for raiding – the more so as the guards were elderly, thin on the ground and hopefully, not very clear-sighted. Two enterprising prisoners forced the door of a goods truck and found it full of cans of meat. The truck was soon empty.
But if the guards had seen nothing a railwayman had been more observant. Looting was a capital crime and he did his duty. He called the Gestapo. They drove the prisoners back into their cattle trucks and announced that two from each truck would be shot
Before the executions could take place, however, both prisoners and Gestapo faced execution from the skies. Out of an innocent sky came a squadron of United States Mustangs and strafed the train, turning it into a sieve and causing many casualties. Gestapo or no everyone was getting as far from the train as possible.
The raid over and dusk making further attacks improbable, ambulances collected the dead and wounded. The prisoners were coaxed back on to the train and the Gestapo threat was forgotten.
At Fallingsborstel, 50klms north of Hamburg, the prisoners were marched into a large prison camp containing almost every Allied nationality. It was grossly over crowded and grossly under fed. As at Gorlitz, indeed as at Gravina in the old days, food was again the obsessive topic. Was there no escape from recurrent hunger?
The Allies were crossing the Rhine and Fallingborstel was to be evacuated this time eastward. But with the Russian advance this move didn’t get very far and finally we awoke one morning to find that our guards had vanished during the night.
A few days later we met up with an advanced unit of the British army. The best sight in four years. Events moved very quickly after that. Transported by lorry to the rear of the fighting. Good grub all round – as much as we could manage! Then transported, by rail, to the south of France. Here we were re-kitted out, medically examined and fed more beautiful food.
It was now April 1945 and though we did not know it, the war was almost over in Europe. After a few days rest in the south of France we were flown by Douglas D.C.8 (Dakotas) to Scotland. Several more days rest and another train journey took us to near London. This was in anticipation of our being shipped back to South Africa.
So it was that I found myself in London on VE day – 8th May 1945. The city went mad. Everyone piled into the streets singing, dancing and waving flags. I doubt that anyone went to sleep that night. I most certainly didn’t!
Then a few days later I sailed from Southhampton heading for Cape Town and home to my wife and a child I had not seen before and who was now 4 years old!
Never was there a sweeter sight than that of Table Mountain as the ship approached Cape Town harbour, having wondered many times over the previous four years if I would ever see it again.