Gordon Bourner #6403285 Royal Sussex Regiment. War Time Account.

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Introduction

Gordon Bourner – Private Number 6403285, Royal Sussex Regiment – began his training in Brighton in January 1940 (having enlisted in September 1939?). This is his account of his wartime life.

Gordon, my father, wouldn’t talk about his war experience all the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s (I was born in 1950). In 1986, now retired from work, he responded to my requests to record what had happened to him. This is his account (transcribed and organised by my husband and with Dad’s approval). Some pictures have been added.

Dad’s account focuses on the events leading up to his capture at Amiens in May 1940, the immediate aftermath as a war prisoner and, much later, his escape in late 1944. Even in 1986 he didn’t want to reflect on his five years in POW camps. He reached Odessa in early March 1945, where he was able to board a repatriation ship.
Dad died aged 77 yrs in 1996

Linda Neaves (nee Bourner)

[Note; the original of this account is handwritten in pencil]

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PRIVATE NO 6403285 ROYAL SUSSEX REG

POW NO 722

CAPTURE

In September 1939 Chamberlain declared war on Germany.

When a man received his call up papers two options were available: either he obeyed the call for military service or he tried to become a conscientious objector on religious grounds. When I received mine in September 1939, at twenty years old, I reported for military training at Brighton; I considered my country, especially its way of life, worth protecting.

Brighton Training Camp – Gordon far left

Brighton Training Camp Gordon Far Left

Brighton Training Camp Gordon Far Left

We were issued with uniforms (known as Battle Dress) and a 1918 rifle. Training began immediately. Pay was two shillings (10p) a day, or fourteen shillings a week, half of which I allocated to my parents because we were a large family needing all the financial help possible.

After only six weeks training we received orders to go to France. Our task was to try and delay the German advance for as long as possible. We were known as the B.E.F: British Expeditionary Force.

We left Brighton to go to Southampton by rail, and crossed the English Channel for France at nightfall, a journey that was particularly frightening because we were together below deck. When we reached Le Havre we were bundled into a massive hanger and each given a tin of mixed vegetables to eat. After two hours we were transported to a field some miles into the countryside. An advance party had already erected bell tents so that we were now officially under canvas. Our training continued with the addition of route marches (intended to keep us fit!) relieved by our weekly trips to Rouen for a bath and peanuts. Our camp field was ringed with Bren Guns mounted on tripods, installed to scare off spotter planes which had found us and were becoming a nuisance. (A Bren Gun was an automatic weapon which could also fire single rounds.) Suddenly, we had orders to go and help the Second Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment at Arras.

We travelled by rail in cattle trucks which rolled so slowly that on any incline we would jump out and stretch our legs. On the perimeter of the railway station at Amiens our convoy came under fire from German Stukka bomber fighter aeroplanes. The Stukkas attacked in their famed vertical position (which accounted for their accuracy). They machine gunned the leading carriages where the officers travelled in comfort, and bombed the cattle trucks where the rest of us travelled.

Grabbing my boots and great coat, I jumped clear from the train and made for a siding of trucks. Whilst I dived for cover under the rear wheels of the outside trucks, my friend, who had run with me, lay between two carriages with no real cover at all. Bombing became intense and I felt a blow on my steel helmet. I froze- and, prayed. When the raid had finished I looked up to find my friend’s head had been severed by a piece of shrapnel; it was this that had struck my helmet. I recovered his identification tags, by which time I was soaked in blood.

Tired and dispirited, I returned to the convoy where the survivors of the raid were ordered to make their way to a small wood and re-group. A church army van had dropped back, and it stopped to offer us jam sandwiches. When I eventually reached the serving hatch I was offered corn beef. Because of my physical and mental condition I was promptly sick. I handed over my friend’s identity tags to the driver of the van. Many young soldiers had been killed in the raid. One vivid memory is of a truck of engineers that had been blown to pieces. We had had to step over the bodies of these unfortunate engineers, a sickening sight for a twenty year old. With all these thoughts, I lay down under a hedge for the night.

The regiment split up and my section took up position in a chateau by the roadside; Rommel’s tanks were opposite us about 300 yards away. We captured a Belgian tank that was in retreat, in which we discovered looted cigarettes and wine; the driver was kept under guard. Two days later tanks were spotted in a wooded area to our rear. Everyone cheered thinking that they were our relief but when they emerged into the open our hopes faded – they had black crosses on their turrets!

The following day we prepared ourselves for attack, taking up positions on the road. Mortar bombs were soon falling on us, thick and fast. (Ironically, we had been “ticked off” for not shaving!) To reply to the attack we only had 1918 rifles, Bren Guns and one anti-tank gun, which failed after one round when the bolt broke. The mortar shells we had were only smoke bombs, although we had ordered H. T. ones. With these inadequate arms, we faced tanks and light artillery troop carriers with mounted machine guns. After two days of bombardment the trees around us, which had given us some cover, had been systematically stripped of all their leaves and most of their branches, leaving us fully exposed. The captured Belgian tank was deployed, under pressure, to advance, followed by our troops in an arrowhead formation.

This formation, used in the First World War, was totally inappropriate for the present situation. The result was that we had only advanced a few hundred yards when the tank was destroyed and, with no cover my friends were mown down; Captain Cook, I remember, lost his arm. By late afternoon we were surrounded by German tanks and forced to surrender. (Before we were rounded up we rendered our rifles useless by throwing away the bolts and smashing the butts against the trees.)

Once rounded up, we were forced to march to the damaged tank and step over our dead comrades. We were then lined up and searched; anything of value was taken from us. Fortunately, I had enough presence of mind to hide my ring in my hair, where it remained undetected. The soldier who searched me was able to tell, just by looking at my papers, which regiment I belonged to and where I had been billeted in Brighton. It seemed that he also had been at the same Brighton station before the outbreak of war. He spoke perfect English and assured me that the war would be over in six weeks, but that I would never be allowed to return to England as I was required to be a worker in Germany.

Suddenly, a young tank officer was called to mow us down. Before he came he decided to test his guns. The noise alerted a middle-aged officer who demanded to know why he was wasting ammunition. When he discovered the tank officer’s intention, the latter was sent packing and we lived. I was now a prisoner-of-war.

PRISONER

We were marched off to a nearby field for the night, at the mercy of the elements. For the next six weeks or so the pattern of being herded along from sunrise to sunset, and sleeping in the open at night was to be our unchanging routine.

On the first day, we joined 4,000 French and Belgian prisoners of war, and after about four hours marching we stopped by a village for the guards to change. Some French villagers gave us some soup. (Our steel helmets came in very useful here.) After a while, I came over very cold and felt ill. A kind French lady could see my condition and she asked her husband to help me. He promptly put me on the top of a huge boiler and gave me some cognac to warm me. I lay there asleep until our new guards arrived in the late afternoon. The Frenchman woke me, gave me a round cheese and wished me luck. We marched on, eventually stopping for the night in a huge brickyard. I made myself a bed of bricks which was just as well as it rained heavily- all night. Fortunately I had kept my greatcoat, which saved me from getting soaked.

During the seemingly endless march no food was provided, so that we were forced to raid crops from the fields. With 4,000 prisoners of war ahead of us, the British troops were generally left with the peelings left from their spoils. A typical midday meal consisted of stewed grass, nettles and peelings. I was constipated for two weeks! On one occasion, while waiting for a midday meal, a squadron of Stukkas flew over us, very low; I remember that this was particularly frightening.

The marching was arduous. If any one of us felt that he could not manage it and fell out of line he had to face a crucial decision: either he could force himself to complete the day’s journey, or he would be shot through both legs and left to die; there was no one available to care for injured men. However, many soldiers took it in turns to carry their injured friends, leaving them to be tended when we passed through a village.

Our march was directed along the German supply route to the coast; the Germans were preparing for the invasion of Great Britain. As we marched we saw the supplies being taken for the invasion. Significant amongst these supplies were: pontoon bridges (to be stretched across the channel), tanks, an array of artillery and many specialist troops. The purpose behind the Germans marching us along their supply route was to protect their line from attack from the British Air Force. However, R.A.F. aeroplanes did often “have a go” so that on many occasions we had to dive for cover, usually into the closest ditch.

Eventually, after four weeks, we reached the Belgian border- a line down the high street in a village. We continued marching to the foot of Trier Mountain. Our route was to take us to a prisoner of war camp a third of the way up the mountain itself, a route that was wet, cold and steep. On the morning following our arrival we lined up to be photographed. We had identification discs hung round our necks on which were chalked our details, then, click, the photograph was taken. Next day we were given metal identification discs to be worn round our necks at all times; I was the 722nd prisoner up to that point.

I developed an intense toothache. I was particularly worried as our doctor had informed us that we had no drugs nor dressings. When I sat down with other prisoners of war waiting for dental treatment, an orderly confirmed what the doctor had told us. The room cleared, I was the only one left. I went into the “surgery” and sat down. The doctor looked into my mouth and said that one of my molars had broken off and was full of decay. I elected to have the remains extracted. Two hands clamped across my forehead like steel bands; I felt someone’s knee on my chest. The doctor used a pair of builders’ pliers for the operation, having first advised me to pray- I did.

The camp on Trier Mountain was a distribution centre. Soon we left there, heading south. At one point we had to cross a small bridge, where we had to pass dozens of local people who shouted abuse at us. For “good luck” a woman broke away from her line and spat into my eye, telling me that I was an “English pig”. Had I been able to retaliate I would have pushed her into the water running beneath the bridge.

We continued to a railway station south of Luxembourg. We stopped by a river to wash, and even a part bath here was welcome as I was filthy. I was surprised to learn that my sunburnt hands were not sunburnt at all, just dirty. With the aid of some sand and the water from the river, I changed colour and smelt better. When I took off my army sug boots, I saw that I had worn the soles (studded soles at that!) down to the ground; I was through to the paper lining. I bound the boots with anything to hand: wire, string- anything.

Next day, we were put aboard cattle trucks, although we were not told where we were going. We were loaded about fifty to a truck with no toilet facilities and scarce food. (I do not think I should give the full, unpleasant details here.) Under these conditions, the journey seemed to go on forever.

Map Of Europe Showing Gordon’s Journey From England To Poznan Poland

Map Of Europe Showing Gordon’s Journey From England To Poznan Poland

Our destination turned out to be a small village outside the town of Posan; Posan was large enough to be a city. The weather, by now, was very hot and dry. We lined up, but with very few uniformed guards. Instead, we now had plain clothed security guards, complete with pistols in their hip pockets. On arrival, we were herded to a fortress, just outside Posan, called Fort Winiary. As we were marched along, our guards made announcements to the public through loud hailers: “These are Churchill’s soldiers, sent to free you.” The townspeople saw only filthy boys!

We were housed in the cellars of Fort Winiary. These were at moat level, having windows only two feet six inches long and one foot six inches deep and iron grills; there was no possibility of escape. We were put to work carrying out tasks that were forbidden under the Geneva Convention, but then we had not been registered as prisoners of war. These tasks included unloading tanks and field guns, captured in Russia; loading guns and other munitions, plus goods and uniforms for the front line. Sabotage was carried out in many ways and, unfortunately, I was caught filling the oil sump on a truck with sand. With a group of other soldiers, I was sent to a punishment camp at another fort for six months. This was June 24th 1940, my twenty-first birthday.

Two soldiers were waiting on the drawbridge of this second fort to shave off our hair. To begin each day our food ration was three hard tack biscuits (4″ by 2 1/2″ by 3/8″) and a small piece of sausage but there was a bigger problem with this food than its meagre amount: the biscuits were as hard as marble! Once again we were in cellars, but unlike Fort Winiary there were no bunks provided. Instead we had to sleep on straw placed on bricks – which were damp. Washing facilities consisted of ice cold water from a pump and green German soap (one bar per month -2″by 1 1/2″ by 3/4″) which produced no lather. When the soap ran out, sand was the only, painful, answer. Each morning at seven o’clock we went out in working parties to a site three to six miles away. We began work on site at about eight o’clock not returning until six or seven o’clock in the evening. We worked alongside Polish people who, because of the German invasion of their country, were particularly kind to us. They gave us some of their rations even though they barely had enough to survive themselves.

When we returned from each day’s work with certain guards we were made to stand on parade for an hour before being dismissed. We knew that we would manage only a few hours sleep for, unless we rose between four and five a.m. we would not be able to wash even then we had to pump the water for each other; but personal cleanliness was vital if we were to survive. During the day our food ration had been one loaf of bread per five men, a portion of sausage or German quark cheese. This all took a lot of swallowing as the brown military issue bread was dry and stale and, often, covered in green mould. When we got back from the day’s work we were given soup to supplement the bread. These soups varied in flavour between, mostly, fish, swede, mixed vegetables, sauerkraut, potato, celery. (It is because so much of my diet during this time consisted of soup that my teeth have suffered, because of lack of exercise.) As a matter of interest the fish for the clip fish soup was sent by the main road from the coast. The fish were then dressed, cleaned, hung in huge sheds to cure and then packed into store until required, mostly during the winter months.

We were regularly given food on our way to work by ordinary people, usually young and sick with hate, who would contrive to sneak us the food without the guards seeing. However, on one occasion a young pregnant girl was caught in the act. She was forced to march with us to our place of work, where she was taken away by the S.S. guards escorting us. This incident will always remain vivid in my mind.

At the end of our six month stay we were sent to erect some barracks for Russian prisoners who were expected at any time. The temperature was thirty degrees below zero, so cold, in fact, that our eye lashes would become frosted.

Gordon, Far Right, Building New POW Camp In Poland

Far right: Gordon – building new POW camp in Poland

A Pole had been contracted to empty a sump, draining the contents into a tank on his horse and cart. One day, on his way to servicing the area tank, he passed the buildings we were erecting. The poor horse dropped dead right by us. The guards offered us the dead horse to supplement our meatless rations. No sooner said than done! That evening our meal was delicious!

Following the above job, we were transferred to a recognised camp: Bau and Arbeits 21. We now stood a chance of getting Red Cross food parcels to supplement our rations. On one particular day a huge loud-speaker was erected and we were told that an important message was to be relayed to us. The message came from “Lord Haw Haw”, a Scottish officer who had turned traitor. He was trying to entice us to join the German ranks fighting on the Russian Front and, thus, obtain our freedom. To my knowledge there were no takers. We worked at a huge factory complex that had been carved out of a huge wood and measured ten miles square in area. Factories of every kind, producing a wide range of products, had been built here, those requiring outfall facilities being situated by the river which ran from our camp.

The hoped-for Red Cross food parcels did begin to arrive, which was wonderful; except that the German soldier issuing them would open up the parcels, pile tins of food on top of each other and drive his bayonet though the pile. This meant that the contents had to be eaten as soon as possible, which was not a problem – provided you did not mind syrup mixed with fish! We received one parcel between each two men. Private parcels were also coming through from relatives, and I received some from my fiancee, to whom I sent my permitted one card per month.

Camp Photo, Gordon Front Row, Second From Left

Camp Photo, Gordon Front Row, 2nd from left

I had been in the war for three years marked by the arrival of my elder brother Reginald Bourner who had been taken prisoner in Italy and sent to our camp. His arrival was not only pleasant for me personally, but he also brought up-to-date news of the war, news that was quite hopeful. Indeed, we had become aware that an increasing number of German soldiers were being sent back from the fighting fronts to work in the factories. They were exhausted and had been sent home as a punishment when they refused to fight. This indicated the failing of the German war machine which was being fought on a front that was 3,000 miles long and too big to manage.

Something like six months after my brother’s arrival we were becoming aware of reconnaissance air flights from the American air force. Air raids soon followed. The American aeroplanes would line up at one end of the factory complex and blast everything in sight. In subsequent raids 5001b and 1,0001b “time bombs” were dropped, the Americans having first warned the public of their intentions by dropping warning leaflets. Our camp ran parallel to the river, and the latter would have been used by the attacking planes as a navigational guide. Our camp should have been lit up at night for the planes to avoid. However, the Germans would light up the whole factory complex, thus leaving us at great risk. Fortunately the raids were made during the day time. These raids gradually became a way of life, increasing in frequency until they became daily occurrences. Warning was given when the attacking aeroplanes crossed the River Danube. As factory workers we got out of the factory complex double quick! Sometimes I got on the German workers’ bus, clambering up the ladder at the back and lying flat on the roof. The driver would see me, but he did not stop me until we were about ten miles into the surrounding countryside.

Near to us were two concentration camps, one for Jewish men and the other for Jewish women. These people, who were mainly intellectuals or professionals, worked alongside us in the factories. Food was even more of a problem for them than us. On one occasion, one of them stole a spoonful of sugar, but he was discovered. For this offence he was hung on one of the specially erected hanging posts by the roadside. On another occasion fellow prisoners were forced to watch four prisoners hung. (I did have a photograph of this incident, but I lost it, along with my other personal possessions, in the rush to escape, that you will read about later.) One particularly frightening job assigned to these Jewish prisoners was to dig out from the factory any unexploded bombs; there was no telling whether these bombs would explode. Such incidents did little for morale, which was lowered even further when we witnessed the condition of some of our comrades; some had become so bad that they were certified insane and had to be repatriated.

The reconnaissance aeroplanes must have sighted the nearby working oil complex, as one fine Sunday the sirens wailed warning that planes had followed the river to bomb the complex. We rushed to the shelter we had built. When the bombing began, we were the first target. We heard an ear-splitting whine and the first bomb landed at one end of our shelter; a flame shot through the shelter itself and out the other end. The roof collapsed on us, but as it had been constructed of poles covered with turfs no-one was injured. However, some comrades in a concrete bunker in an adjacent camp were hit very severely. A bomb had dropped alongside this bunker collapsing its sides. Nine men had been killed and others were trapped, screaming for help, inside. “Your planes did the damage; you dig your men out” we were told. Manoeuvring huge pieces of concrete would have been unpleasant enough under normal circumstances but it was made particularly harrowing accompanied as it was by the screaming of our friends.

By now a radio had been constructed from parts obtained by bartering – chocolate worked wonders! According to the news, following years of being pushed about by Rommel’s tanks, our troops were resting and re-grouping ready for a new initiative. Meanwhile Russia was turning onto the offensive, supported by American and British convoys carrying supplies via the North Sea. After years of depression, such news was very welcome, and whilst I considered how speaking in German for so long (vital if I was to survive) had resulted in my beginning to forget my own mother tongue, the news that the Russian advance was gaining momentum was supported by the occasional distant rumble of guns.

We were told to be ready to move at any time. However, two friends and I discussed the situation carefully and decided that now would be the time to attempt an escape. We were frightened that the Germans might seek reprisals against us as they were forced to retreat. We planned to go east to the Russian Front, but had I known what was in store my decision would have been very different.

ESCAPE

The following morning the whole camp was marched westward; but my two friends and I were not with them. The previous evening we had cut a hole in the perimeter fence in the darkness between the probing searchlights. Once through, we made for the Belgian civilian camp hospital and, much to our relief, we were given shelter. We were given broom handles to be used for protection if necessary because German soldiers, including retreating young stormtroopers, were looking for any escapees. We were posted to keep an eye out on the wood as break-ins had been reported. Soldiers continued to search the camp hospital, keen ones searching the beds. On one occasion, driven by hunger, I went to the cook house for some food. As I entered the open doorway I saw a stormtrooper, with his back to me, demanding food at gunpoint. I vanished, silently, before I was spotted or I would have been shot without question.

It was the winter of 1944. The Russians were only twenty miles away now. Their artillery was lighting the sky a vivid orange as far as the eye could see. It was terrifying never knowing if one of their shells might fall on our area. Three days after the artillery fire the advance tanks arrived accompanied by foot soldiers searching for “Folk Deutsch”, that is Poles who had assisted the Germans; they wore brown German uniforms with distinctive markings. I saw one such unfortunate man being questioned in the street; he was shot before he could answer!

We were hidden away in the hospital for about ten days, after which we moved towards the advancing Russian army. When we crossed the Russian front line we were soon arrested and taken to a commanding officer. Our identities were confirmed by the prisoner of war discs around our necks. We were then freed and allowed to stay in an empty house. We were given no food but we did find some bottled fruit and other preserves; we took all that we could carry. The following day we were told to make for a particular village and with the aid of a map and directions from some civilians, we set off. This was the start of our lengthy journey through Russian occupied country and Russia itself, a journey throughout which we discovered the Russian soldiers had little interest in our welfare. At each town we stopped at night we were constantly harassed at the point of a submachine gun. On one occasion two soldiers forced their way into a house in which we were sheltering just as we were going to sleep. They searched us and took what they wanted including my wrist watch. I had managed to hang on to the watch, which had been a present from my mother, during my capture, so I was particularly aggrieved at its loss now. I protested, but the soldier simply raised his machine gun, silently.

Snow was now making life particularly difficult. An early start each day was very important as the distance between each village was considerable. The ground was flat and, as far as the eye could see, was covered in snow. In the villages were drifts of snow, up to twelve feet high; paths through them had been cut in order that life could continue. On arrival at one of these villages, we would seek shelter until dawn. The villagers were frightened of the Russian troops and refused to accommodate us, so we had to find a barn or similar shelter from the worsening snow storms. Once, a young couple did offer us shelter as night was approaching and they were concerned that the soldiers would shoot anything that moved after dark. Their home was a humble, two roomed bungalow, and we slept on the floor alongside the three generation family living there. We were given some home-baked bread to eat and allowed to strip wash. At the next village, however, we had to be content with a barn. The farmer who owned it, discovered us at dawn just as we were preparing to leave. As he was armed with a pitch fork, we had to work hard to convince him who we were. Fortunately, he was sympathetic and he sent us on our way with some food, but only after he had left separately as he did not want to run the risk of being discovered with us.

During our long trek the weather had increased to blizzard proportions. Four hours away from our destination we came across German prisoners being herded towards the west. They were facing the blizzard and, despite five years of their ill treatment, I felt sorry for them. During these last ten miles of our journey we also passed a battle area. Bodies of German soldiers had either just been left where they fell or stacked, like timber, by the roadside; some had been put in a copse of trees. Dead horses lay everywhere frozen solid like everything else that did not move; eventually, the horse flesh would be eaten.

And so we reached the village, considerably larger than the others we had passed through, where we were to find the promised house for escaped prisoners of war. Once accepted, we were not allowed out, but had to stay in this large bare house with no amenities at all – not even chairs! Our diet was meagre and I was feeling particularly weak following our long trek. In addition, we had no contact with the outside world. (One officer did try to get through, but was caught at the border.) Overall, morale was low and I was beginning to question whether my decision to escape had been the correct one. I could only hope for, not expect, good news.

One sunny day we were disturbed by a particular shindig. Apparently an American pilot was searching for spare parts from his compatriot’s planes that had been shot down. He wanted somewhere to stay for the night. We saw him walking up the main street followed by the local population. He was 6ft. 2ins. tall, clothed in a brown leather flying suit, and, to us, he looked magnificent; our hopes instantly improved. He promised to alert the consul of our plight and clearly kept his word because after about a week, rumours were circulating about our proposed transportation to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The day before we left we received a bonus of a pig for our rations; this was only the second time in four and a half years that I had tasted meat.

The next morning we were told to prepare to leave. At noon four lorries arrived and we were loaded on to them, that is pushed in like cattle! While we were waiting to move off one chap attempted to barter with a Russian guard, using his watch for his side of the proposed bargain. Unfortunately, the guard could not hear the watch ticking so he kept tapping it against the lorry’s mudguard until it fell to pieces. The Russian guard turned out to be our driver. He disappeared, and returned holding some raw pig fat. Next, he lifted the lorry’s bonnet and drew off some of the petrol into a bottle, which he proceeded to ‘swig’ between sucking on the pig’s fat as he jumped into the driving seat. We were on the move again after some three weeks’ stay at the “refuge”.

We set off, but after a few hours travelling on frozen, snow-covered roads our driver was incapable of driving straight. We careered over fields and through hedges before, eventually, catching up with the convoy. However, now the leading driver had lost his way and stopped, confused at a fork in the road. Our own officer sorted out the problem so that we were able to continue the journey, reaching our destination where a train was to take us on the final leg of our journey to Odessa.

The train moved off the following day, although by midday it had stopped. (This was to be the pattern of our progress over the next ten days.) Ahead we could see hundreds of German prisoners of war laying and repairing the railway lines. One day we stopped at a point that overlooked a river. Opposite us a huge bridge was being re-built by this prisoner labour. Hundreds of German soldiers were working waist-deep in the water. The Russian guards were sitting on the bank shouting abuse; if one prisoner appeared to be slacking these guards would take pot shots at him: yet another particular, vivid memory.

When we had travelled for about four days into the Ukraine we made our usual stop, and were permitted to disembark and stretch our legs. About half a mile to our right was a village, from which came its occupants, running across the fields to greet us. Bartering began in earnest. I spoke to one lady who had thought that English people were black! Actually, this is not as surprising as it seems, for these villagers were born and died in their villages, never being allowed to travel; indeed, the Germans and we British were the only foreign people they had ever seen. She gave me a pint of milk and wished me good luck.

We eventually reached Odessa. We were stripped of every item of clothing we had, which was then fumigated and de-loused, a process that took about one and half hours. We were also given some soup to eat, for which we were given spoons made of balsa wood that had been hand painted – I still have mine. I also have another souvenir obtained during the several hours wait we had for the ship that was to take us to England. I traded two ounces of tobacco for one of the guard’s cap badges. The badge is shaped as a brass star; its centre is of red enamel and contains a brass hammer and sickle.

Map Showing Gordon’s Route From Stalag 344 To Odessa

Map Showing Gordon’s Route From Stalag 344 to Odessa

We had to wait at the dock gates for some Russian prisoners of war to disembark, and for their ship to be fumigated. In fact, our men had to force these Russian prisoners of war to leave as they were reluctant to do so. We found out why. The Russians seemed to have no time for their returning soldier prisoners, and once they had been given some clothes, including a new great coat, they had no one to greet them. Indeed, once through the dock gates they were actually set upon by the local people; one poor man who did not manage to escape this attack was stripped of everything!

We boarded our ship at tea time aware that we had a naval escort to accompany us. It is difficult to express the depth of elation I felt at being free for the first time in five years. Once aboard we were each given a place setting and a small white loaf of bread (a meal was to follow in fifteen minutes). We each sat and looked at our loaves before tearing into them. The sailors were particularly amused to see loaves of bread being eaten dry.

Once underway, our route took us to Constantinople which we reached at night following some particularly colourful scenery on the way. The passage past Constantinople was very narrow and the lights on either shore were vital aids. From there we headed for the African port of Alexandria, and the Suez Canal. On one day at this point we were allowed to go ashore for about four hours, having first received advice on where and what to avoid. I visited some shops, but I had very little money (an advance on wages was the term given to the amount we had been allocated). The local shop-keepers were intent on tricking our money and possessions from us. We all returned safely to the ship on time except for one sailor who was eventually delivered in the early hours of the morning. He had been stripped of everything except his underpants; even his false teeth were missing, a loss that upset him more than everything else.

We left Alexandria for the Mediterranean and home – a magic word for me. On this last leg we were expected to carry out some of the watch duties in order to give the sailors a break. These watches involved perching on high for two hours looking for anything suspicious, ranging from submarines to aircraft. Powerful binoculars made the job easier; waves between twenty and thirty feet high made it more difficult. We passed Malta and Gibraltar and about two hours out into the Bay of Biscay, notorious for its bad weather, sirens warned us that depth charges were being dropped by our escorting ships. It seemed that enemy submarines were after us. Some ten charges were dropped in all, each one shaking our ship.

We reached the English Channel. The ship kept close to the shore to give us a good view of life there. As we neared Southampton we could see cars on the roads, and people waving to greet us home. The greenery of the fields and trees was beautiful, forming a scene I had dreamed about so often.

Map Showing Gordon’s Whole War Time Journey

Map showing Gordon’s whole war time journey

Gordon’s Airmail Letter From Alexandria To Fiancee On Route Home

Gordon’s airmail letter from Alexandria to his fiancée on route home

Transcript of letter
Gordon H. Bourner 6403285 letter
Royal Sussex Reg. post dated14 march 45

My Dearest Joan. Well darling at last I am able to write to you & say, in a short while I shall be at your side once more. This Joan dear is the day we have so egarly(sic) looked forward to for the past 5 yrs. At first it was so hard to believe, freedom was so strange, but now I am sitting on a part of Blighty I am very happy indeed longing for official disembarkation. Pleased to say I’m fit & well in spite of past journeys which you will know of later when we get together. I’ve so much to say & yet I can’t write, strange but true. Its owing to the tense excitement of these …………. circumstances. I must mention that we are receiving the very best attention here & the food is excellent. We are having things I had nearly forgotten the names of. The change of food was so vast, that the lads here did some very laughable things but, now things are getting normal slowly. but old habits still exist at times. The strangest thing is the guards are no more I will finish now dearest give my love to mom & pop & anyone else I know. Longing to be with you as soon as possible.
With All My Love
Your devoted Fiancee
Gordon

This is the last letter Gordon Bourner wrote to his fiancée, Joan, before arriving home. He had been allowed to write letters and cards, limited by size and content, to her throughout his five years as a POW. Joan – who became his wife on his return home – kept 83 of these cards and letters. She died in 2021 aged 101.

Timeline of Private Gordon H Bourner’s (6403285 Royal Sussex Regiment 7th Battalion D Company) War

September 1939 Conscription for all males aged between 18 and 41 (Gordon enlists?)

January 18th 1940 Gordon called to join the 7th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment in Brighton for training.

April 21st 1940 regiment sent to Southampton to go to France.

April 22 1940 arrived in La halve. Under canvas ……

May 1940 regiment ordered to go to help 2nd Battalion R.S.R at Arras.

May 18th 1940 3.15 p.m. train bombed at Amein.

May 20th1940 attacked and surrendered at 7.15 p.m. Now a POW

May 1940 for four weeks, with 4000 French and Belgium POW’s they were marched
to the Belgium border.

June 1940 arrived at a distribution camp on Trier Mountain where they were given
POW identity tags. Gordon was prisoner 722.

Marched for a further 2 weeks, then on cattle trucks to Fort Winiary outside Poznan Poland.

June 24th 1940 until January 1941 sent to a punishment camp Stalag XX1C/H

February 2nd 1941 until August 1941 Stalag XX1D2

September 1941 until mid November 1942 Feldpost

Mid November1942 until mid November 1944 BAB 21 Blechhammer

Mid November1944 until his escape later in December (?) Stalag 344

Walked east to a refuge house behind Russian front lines.

From the refuge house they travelled by truck and train to Odessa. (In the Ukraine)

March 7th1945 (?) arrived at Odessa to board a British ship (HMS Morton Bay ?) sent to take them home.

March 14th 1945 docked in Alexandria Egypt from where Gordon sent his final letter home saying he was free.

March/April 1945 arrived in Southampton.

Map Showing Gordon’s Whole War Time Journey

Map showing Gordon’s whole war time journey.

Map Published By The Red Cross & St. John War Organisation On 30th June 1944 Showing POW Camps In Europe.

Map published by the Red Cross & St. John War Organisation on 30th June 1944 showing POW camps in Europe.

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