Howard Holmes War Memoirs
I was a private in 15th platoon Hawke’s Bay Company which I’d joined in December 1940 when I was 23. After seeing action in Greece and with little in the way of weaponry we were taken off on the “Ajax” and landed on Crete and stationed at Galatas.
We had plenty of action during the airborne invasion of Crete by the Germans. At one time I was commanded to be a runner to headquarters about a mile away. The previous runner had been killed by a sniper, so you can imagine the way I took the message with a lot of zigzagging and rolling to avoid getting hit. Another time, we were with a British officer called Farram, moving along behind a tank, chasing the Germans out of the village and I had to be a runner to another company’s headquarters. While I was away, a couple of our jokers were blown up.
Eventually we retreated along the road south to port of Sfakia over the mountains. Along the way our platoon engaged the Jerries off the road and suffered casualties. We went through an old village which was in ruins, but some low walls remained. We tried to shelter behind them but two guys, just ahead of me, stood up and got shot through their bodies.
Our platoon officer told us he would try and find our company and if he was not back in a certain time, we were to make our way to the beach head, about 30 kms. I told him to take my watch knowing that he had lost his. We never saw him again. (He did send my watch home).
After a couple of days being harassed by Stukas we were in some caves overlooking the beach. We couldn’t get off the beach without an officer or without our own outfit. Narrow lanes led down to the beach where the British navy was waiting with orders to shoot anyone trying to muscle in on other outfits. Some British officers told us to destroy our weapons, put hands on heads and make our way back to the hills where the Germans were covering us with machine guns, etc. The island had capitulated the night before on June 1, 1941.
We were marched back the 40 kilometres over a period of days back to Galatas where the British army hospital had been turned into a prison camp. Very thirsty and hungry. No food issue for days and hundreds trying to get water out of wells. We were with a number of thousands behind the wire. Food for months was porridge (sacks of oats had been for hospital supply and the hospital had run a big bakery).
The German Alpine troops guarding us used to let us out at night to gather grapes. They’d count us as we went through and told us if the number coming back didn’t tally, no-one would get out again. Hunger was the main problem and I volunteered for working parties because they offered the chance to scrounge from the Cretans.
I used to go out on working parties shifting rations from warehouses to the wharf to be shifted to Germany(had been British foodstuffs) There was a call for tailors .At one time I made for curtains for an officer commanding the ack ack. He was living in one of the houses nearby. He was an Austrian – spoke better English than myself and said the Austrians would be the first in line troops. Hitler had not been sure of their allegiance. He allowed me to get a picture of Christ from a church which I eventually took with me to Germany and was featured in the church at Lamsdorf.
Food was the main problem. Our guards were mostly good, being Alpine troops. Then we had Hitler Youth who were keen to show their authority. Shooting happened often. I was on Crete for 6 months. Christmas Day 1941 was spent on the wharf at Suda Bay behind the wire. A quarter of a loaf of bread the Christmas fare.
Loaded onto a Bulgarian troop ship, down the bottom hold. Huge seamines chained all around the hull. Three salted herrings a day was the food. Someone found a kerosene tin full of lard and a sack of sultanas hidden in a locker. Everyone, our numbers being a hundred,( we were the last batch from Crete), grabbed handfuls of both. Imagine the experience climbing up the ladder for ablutions on the ship rail, wind blowing. Everyone getting a shower when venturing up.
We landed at Salonika after stopping at Athens ( Port Pireas) lousy and very dirty. I had clothes made out of tents. Snow everywhere. Got deloused at Salonika . Stayed there 2 weeks in prison camp , then loaded onto train. Packed into horse wagons and a bale of straw, frozen straw. We were jammed in tight, standing and a small opening for fresh air. Let out once a day for ablutions always at a railway station to show the civilians our sorry plight. A lot of blokes had dysentery and couldn’t wait for the daily stop. A small loaf and a tin of bully beef rations for a week. Two weeks on this train , some died. Made it to main stalag in Upper Silesia in Poland VIIIB Lamsdorf – This camp was the servicing stalag for all working parties in the area. About 10 – 15 thousand in most of the time – comings and goings.
We were deloused and had a shower. Had to shave every hair off our bodies. A typhus epidemic was raging. Rusty blades didn’t help. Freezing cold winter. Worst winter for years.-1942- Blood everywhere.
A special camp for the prisoners from the Russian campaign was nearby. Some had typhoid but they had no medical help. Everyday for weeks on end, horse-drawn cartloads of human skeletons could be seen coming from the camp. (When someone died from starvation or typhoid , the other prisoners would eat the body to live.)
We tucked into our meagre rations of watery soup, sauerkraut and potatoes and after the experiences of the previous 2 weeks thought the camp was “heaven”. We had a couple of blankets each, the power was on, we had water to wash in and we had doctors and nurses from the Red Cross.
A doctor from Dunedin, Dr de Clive Lowe (had married cousin Gwen Humphries) came and asked for New Zealanders. Told him who I was and he said he had a letter from home saying one of my uncles had died in an accident in Kaiti (Gisborne), but when he gave the name , it was my father who had been killed – knocked off his bike. He didn’t know if I was POW or missing. I didn’t get a letter for a year.
That night we were woken by a big commotion and people telling us to get out of our bunks. The blankets had been deloused with gas and the fumes killed about a dozen people through sleeping with heads under blankets.
After 2 days , the Germans offered an extra ladle of soup to prisoners who would clear snow off the German officers’ barracks so I volunteered. While working I saw a bloke all dolled up, gaters, polished buttons, etc. with a dixie of tea. Couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen tea for about a year. The soldier said he worked in the tailor’s shop. I said I was a tailor and asked if I could get a job there. He said they were all from Dunkirk and there was no way I could get one. The next day I knocked on the camp commandant’s door and asked for a tailor’s job. He called me a scarecrow, but sent me to the tailors’ shop. Proved I was a tailor by putting a seat in a pair of pants and doing a good job. In fact the officer slapped me on the back with delight saying most of the blokes in there were hopeless, so got a job and new clothes from the Red Cross. Boots and socks replaced the wooden clogs given on arrival.
Finished up with 5 NZers in the department as I had approached the officer on their behalf. Bert Chamberlain was one of these, and his friend , Arthur Todd, who wasn’t actually a tailor but was allowed in to sort clothes in return for cigarettes given to the officer.
Slippers were made for wearing in the barracks by sewing up scraps of material and getting the chaps in the shoe shop to sew on the leather soles. If the guard came round you always had a legitimate piece of work to cover up what you were doing. These slippers could be exchanged for cigarettes which were saved up and used for bribing the guards. Got into rackets – supplied the repatriation blokes with all types of clothes as they got no issue. I had access to the Red Cross store because the German officer had given me permission when I bribed him and could help myself to singlets, shirts, socks and jackets which I’d sneak in to the wounded prisoners. They gave me soap, cigarettes and chocolate which I gave to the guards to look the other way. Only working parties got provided with old and new clothes.
Also made sergeants’ and corporals’ stripes and sewed them onto uniforms. Blokes who had their paybook could get an officer to sign it with a false date to the effect they were promoted in the field. Anyone who held rank could not be forced to work, so officers signed to stop people working for the Germans in mines or on railroads.
Volunteered for a working party out of Blechhammer . We had a tunnel under the guard house and across the road. some guys were able to get to the camps for the forced labour workers, maybe swap clothes with say a Frenchman and have a night in their barracks. A lot of women were in the forced labour camps so the tunnel gave the opportunity for some POWs to fraternise.Was there 6 months then Dr. Gorrie (first British officer caught in war at Narvik), a German officer, two of my mates (Bert and Arthur), and an English bloke in charge of camp, planned an escape, with the help of two women. The German had been up the Russian front where cold had affected his heart and he was in charge of the guards commanding the camp. Every so often he was examined to see if he was fit enough to return to the front. On these occasions, Dr. Gorrie injected him with something which made him look very ill. The German was going to take them to the nearest working party by the Swiss border and instead of going to camp they would get off at a railway station and make their way to Switzerland.
Arthur Todd received a special invitation for the day they were to escape so we swapped identities. This meant going to Genshagen to a propaganda holiday camp Christmas 1943 for two weeks – entertained by Berlin Opera Company, fancy dress ball. I was dressed as an admiral. Enjoyed all the food. Visited Potsdam palace and Berlin Sports Stadium. The Germans were trying to get us to volunteer for the British Free Corps to fight the Russians. We were interviewed by a British bloke who was in charge of the camp. Everyone reckoned he was a Nazi but he would ask you about the bombing and how the civilians were. It turned out he was with MI5 and was sending all the information he could get from his meetings with the Nazi hierarchy.
Returned to the news that the escape wasn’t successful – all caught. Hung a couple of women implicated in false permits etc. Jerry was sent up to the Russian front in a Penal Battalion for criminals and deserters.
After establishing my true identity I finished up at a camp, E3 ,mostly Dunkirk blokes working on a huge synthetic oil plant- soap, cheese, clothing, fertilizer from coal. I was working as a tailor and also went out on working parties.
Every fortnight we had to return to the main Stalag VIIIB for supplies. These included cigarettes supposedly for the canteen. Instead, the workers sold them at the factory for German marks which went back to the camp escape committee. Cigarettes, chocolate or soap placed on an army bag would almost always satisfy a searching guard that everything was okay.
There was an air raid warning every second day for 6 months because of bombing by the British planes. A bomb got dropped in the barracks. A chap by the stove near where it landed got his leg burnt when the stove fell on him, knocked over by the force of the bomb. I was next to him when it happened and the impact knocked me to the floor where I lay dazed for a while. It was a time bomb. The Jews were always sent in to deal with these bombs. After a lot of people were killed in camp, Red Cross arranged for the gates to be opened. When siren went we carted sick and wounded into civilian bunkers. I would take off into the woods trying to get out of bombers’ area. At one time hitched a ride with some nuns who went into the hills. Of course we had to return to the camp once the raid was over or by dark. Time bombs going off all the time.- ack ack flack, bullets every where. Planes coming down- parachutes -some in camp. A smoke screen always put up like fog. Drums of oil fired mostly by girls in German air force. Everything in camp blown up – toilets , food , everything. The Russians were making a pincer movement on Dresden and the camp was in the middle of it.
Marched out on January 21st 1945. We walked about 20km with a hang of a battle going on all around us. Plenty of food to start with. Reckoned would be released in a couple of weeks. The first day we marched to the River Oder but the bridge had been blown up. The German army was using a pontoon bridge but we couldn’t get across because of troop movement so marched back again to camp. Set off next day. All along the road were bits and pieces people thought they could carry. When we reached the bridge, we were walking across at the same time as some Jews who were being killed if they were lame or weak. Piles of bodies lay on the banks or in the river.
Chased by Russians. Very cold and no issue of food. Locked into barns where billeted. Anyone caught pinching spuds was stood up against a wall all night in the snow. Some shot for trivial reasons . Pitiful defence put up against the Russians by German old people with shot guns, pitch forks.
At one time slept in a pigsty- nice and warm. Another time in a brick kiln factory. One night I took my boots off and found them frozen stiff the next morning. Had to jump on them to make them pliant enough to wear and wore them for the next 6 weeks. Red Cross wagons twice caught up with us. Saved our lives.
Finished up in VIIA Moosburg, out of Munich after 3 months and 900 kms. We were mighty hungry. I remember eating rotten spud peelings at the back of the cookhouse where they used to feed the pigs. Caught up with Bert and Arthur again.
Patton released us 2 weeks before the end of war. (even had a waffle wagon with him). American soldiers transported POWs to the airport in trucks. Planes came in everyday. A bit on the nose that American POWs were taken away first, ahead of long time prisoners. Pilot on my plane was a Gisborne chap, McLernon, whose father had worked with Mac (Eric McCulloch ) in Stonehams Jewellers. I’d been talking to his two brothers , Colin and Sam, who were POWs,a few days before. Flew to Rheims. All American food – fruit salad, ice cream. Too rich. Stayed a while then on to England.
Margate and Folkestone – rehabilitation hotels – medicals and new clothes.I had money from pay in Barclays Bank so me and Arnie Eastwood got a bus to London, drew the money out, at least 100 pounds and blew it . Not much recollection how! Remember seeing a German sub tied up in the Thames.
Returned to base when money ran out. Two weeks’ leave. Went to Lucy Pretty’s in Ipswich. Lucy and her husband had billeted brother Bill at weekends when he’d been in navy and Bill had given Lucy my POW address so she wrote and sent cigarettes to me in the camps. Her house was a castle with maids , huge grounds ,etc. Other places visited were Manchester and Scotland. Enjoyed the company of the opposite sex. Had some narrow escapes!
Finally put on a ship to return to NZ calling at Pearl Harbour on the way.