JOHN STEPHEN MORUM – HIS-STORY AS NARRATED TO HIS DAUGHTER HELEN. [added comments – by Roy, his son]
We both signed on [John and his brother Ross] when the war broke out, with the First Witwatersrand Rifles. That regiment was later broken up because of being under strength and we were both transferred to the Signals Corps. After almost a year of training our section was attached to the Mounted Rifles in the 2nd Division of the S.A. Army and in 1941 were sent to Egypt.
We were based near Alexandria and between times managed to visit the sphinx and the pyramids. Then we were sent out to Tobruk in 1942 as a garrison. While there I had an amazing escape from injury. Three of us went out in our section’s light van which had removable arching bars which acted as support for canvas covering. The canvas was off at the time. We were bound for a nearby oasis to fill several large empty water drums. The truck went into a spin on a thick sandy patch (the desert is not all sand) and the driver lost control, the truck rolled over sideways, came to rest on its wheels again and I, in the back of the truck, found myself hanging from one of the overarching bars with my legs drawn up. The water drums (5 of them) were scattered around. I sustained a slightly cracked rib!!! The driver had two broken ribs and the front passenger a broken arm – but even so they were also lucky.
The next alarming thing was Rommel’s whirlwind dash around Benghazi and the sudden withdrawal of our artillery right back to El Alamein. We had very little armament left to withstand Rommel’s tanks and General Klopper had no option but to surrender. We were hustled on to ships and taken to Italy. There had been a possibility of our being torpedoed by our own Allied submarines but we weren’t! We landed at a small harbour high up on Italy’s east coast near Venice and then trucked to a place near Treviso about 60 kilometers from Venice where there was a prison-camp.
For six months we lived on the smell of an oil rag, our meagre diet consisting mainly of polenta and pane` (thick mealie meal solidified) and bread. Ross lost about 50 lbs in weight and I about 40 lbs! Then Red Cross food parcels started coming through from the Allies and we began to pick up slowly.
In September 1943 the Allies invaded Italy and the Italians signed an armistice and declared war on Germany!!! The latter sent large forces into Italy and continued to invade the country.
When Italy changed sides our guards were withdrawn after telling us that the Germans had taken over and advised us to make for the mountains and find refuge with the contadini (the Italian peasant farmers) until the Allies pushed the Germans out. This we did and lived for a while with a farmer, helping him to till his fields. We had been told that the Allies had promised the Italian public by some means other than radio that they would be compensated for sheltering p.o.w’s who were on the loose.
Inevitably the Germans got wind of this and sent out patrols when they could spare the men, which they could not do all the time as they had their backs to the wall.
Three months after we had been taken in by the farmer, Sandro, we had gone out to different fields (we always took our few possessions with us) one of the farm hands came running saying “scapa, Tedeschi” – “flee, Germans.” I ran off and hid amongst an outcrop of stones and trees. Sandro just carried on as usual. Unfortunately Ross was spotted having had less cover to hide in, but well away from the farm-hand he had been with and he was taken by the patrol. It turned out eventually to be better for him as will be seen later. Three months after that, in March 1944, I got fed up with waiting for the Allies to arrive and decided to try to get through to them as it seemed that the German patrols were becoming infrequent. However, a few days after I set off I was spotted and taken at gun-point.
I was sent to a dispersal camp in Munich, Austria and then to a coal mining camp near Auswich (later I discovered that was where the Germans gassed so many Jews) in Upper Silecia, Poland, to assist the Polish miners. Niwka Grube [Now operated as a museum mine. StalagVII B camp] was the name of the mine. At that time I was back to my usual weight of 160 lbs thanks to the Red Cross parcels and what the Italian farmers lived on which was also based on polenta, but supplemented by potatoes and other vegetables, plus a thin stew of whatever meat was available, mainly pork and chicken. Exercise by digging and weeding in the farm fields had also helped.
The Germans fed us adequately in order to enable us to dig coal and provided us with rough overalls. Luckily I still had my army great-coat and boots because winter is severe in that part of Europe, but my socks had worn out long since. In the mine it was of course warm to hot so at the rock-face we just wore overalls and boots.
It was in the mine that I had another narrow shave. I was clearing at the face after the blaster had done his work and one of the miners shouted a warning in Polish. The man next to me jumped back and I was just a bit too slow in doing so. A big solid lump of coal slithered down the slope of the loose face and squashed the top joint of my right-hand index finger. If I had been just a second slower it would have caught my whole hand. I still have the black scar.
In December 1944 the Russians were advancing from the east and the Germans were retreating on all fronts. We, the p.o.ws, were put on the road and were given to understand that we were to head, under the armed guards, for Austria. What the intention was I don’t know, but the outcome of the war was by then an inevitable German defeat, so perhaps it had something to do with an exchange of prisoners.
When we left the Nivka camp it was snowing and snow-ploughs had banked up about 5 feet of snow at the road-sides. We slept in barns in the hay and dared not to remove any clothing, especially boots which were frozen stiff. I had wrapped bit of cloth around my feet before we started the march but could not keep my toes from working loose, so they got frost-bitten and ever since they have given me trouble. We had been stumbling along for about 2 weeks when either an American or Russian plane dropped a bomb which fell very close to where I was and blotted out one of the guards and the blast knocked me and two others into the snow at the side of the road. The three of us were dazed and bruised but otherwise intact – we agreed that we had guardian angels!
A week later in January 1945 an American tank suddenly appeared over a rise in front of our marching column. Our guards threw down their guns and disappeared in the opposite direction! The Americans shepherded us to their temporary base camp, took our names and numbers etc., deloused us and flew us to Holland where our clothes were burned, we were fitted out anew by the British after being spray bathed and then flown over to England. There I found my brother waiting for me!!! What a re-union we had! He had been sent by the Germans to a working camp in Holland and liberated about six weeks before I arrived. The South African army representatives in London had been assembling enough of their troops to ship them home. In the meantime my brother Ross had telegraphed our mother about my arrival. He had been staying with our Aunt Florence Morum in her house in Chislehurst, Kent. I stayed there also.
Not long after my arrival we were notified that our passage had been booked and we had an enjoyable voyage, meeting some old acquaintances on board. We docked at Cape Town and went home by train to Queenstown on leave pending demoblisation. Ross, from Holland, had managed to get information (through the Red Cross) to our mother that he was well but did not know what had happened to me. I hadn’t been able to do that, so for about a year she had had no news of me, but she said she had known somehow that I was alive. Our homecoming in 1945 was a joyous one.