Robert John Clucas – Experiences of a Prisoner Of War
BY PRIVATE R.J.CLUCAS. POW No 33597
INTERVIEW BY ENID ENGLAND
As edited by M.L.Clucas
The Prologue June 22nd, 1942: In Egypt, 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigade is allocated defense sectors of the [Mersa ] Matruh fortress. As the Kiwis dig in, they see the 8th Army streaming past them in retreat, not looking demoralized. British troops have withdrawn to Matruh, 180 miles from Alexandria.
Rommel’s tanks charge across the Egyptian frontier south of Sidi Omar, avoiding British minefields. His aim is to swing around British defenses at Sidi Barrani and Sollum, reach the sea at Matruh, surrounding the 8th Army. Rommel’s drive is unopposed, and a good thing, too, he’s down to 44 tanks. In any case, Rommel is surrounding an empty bag. Ritchie has withdrawn the 8th Army to Matruh
June 24th, 1942: New Zealand extends the life of its Parliament for the duration of the war and not more than 12 months following war’s end. Government and Opposition agree to a war administration of seven government and six opposition leaders. Three months later, the administration falls apart anyway. June 25th, 1942: Gen. Bernard Freyberg holds division officers’ conference at Matruh for 2 NZ Division. The enemy is 80 miles away and driving hard. 2 NZ Division will not hold Matruh, move south into the desert and meet Rommel head on. Freyberg looks over the Matruh defenses, and makes a few caustic comments about them being a trap with no exit. He instead selects his position to make a stand – Minqar Qaim, a 100-foot high escarpment that runs east and west, south of Matruh. [Claude] Auchinlek takes decisive action, firing the exhausted Neil Ritchie as boss of 8th Army. Auchinlek believes a stand at Matruh will be a repeat of Gazala, and cost the British their only remaining force, 2nd New Zealand Division. As Auchinlek broods over the maps, he decides that it’s more important to keep 8th Army in being than hold ground. The army’s communications and organization is a shambles. Auchinlek will fight; then withdraw. He spews out a stream of orders. No more “box” tactics. Concentrated artillery fire will be used. Infantrymen will be motorized, combat forces streamlined. Studying the map with his aides, Auchinlek selects a point where 8th Army will make a stand, a whistle-stop 60 miles from Alexandria where the Qattara Depression in the south and the Mediterranean in the north will deny Rommel his advantage of mobility. The railway station is named El Alamein.
June 26th, 1942: 2nd NZ division starts deploying onto Minqar Qaim. At dusk, the Luftwaffe hammers 21st Battalion and kills 60 Kiwis. The division is organized into four mobile groups after being relieved of fortress duties by 10 Indian Division. Right after midnight, Auchinlek fires off orders to 8th Army. The army will withdraw if and when the Axis advances. Erwin Rommel is promoted field marshal, and receives an extremely ornate baton from Adolf Hitler. He only carries it once — the day he receives it. Meanwhile, Rommel’s tanks attack. Deutsches Afrika Korps is down to 60 tanks. The Italian 20th Mobile Corps has 44. But Rommel’s ace in the hole is 330 guns of all types, including captured British 25 lbrs [pounders] and 29 88mm Krupp guns. The Afrika Korps will advance astride the southern escarpment with 20 Italian Corps in support. The Afrika Korps will drive the British armor east, while the infantry cut off the coast road east of Matruh, trapping more British infantry. That evening, the Germans attack, blasting through the Sidi Hamza Ridge.
June 27th, 1942: At 9 a.m. in Libya, the 2nd NZ Division is laying mines when enemy tanks appear 4,000 yards away, and shell the mine-laying party. The Kiwis finish their job and pull out, and the tanks come no nearer. Instead, the Germans bring up 105mm guns, shelling the New Zealanders while their vehicles move east past the Kiwi defenses, shelling the defenders as they go. One shell splinter wounds Gen. Freyberg in the neck — his 30th scar – and Brig. Lindsay Inglis has to take over.
The 21st Panzer Division surrounds 2 NZ from the north, while 15th Panzer drives south of Minqar Qaim. The reliable but battered 50th Northumbrian Division counter attacks from the north to open a corridor to the Kiwis, but runs into superior German fire. The 9th Durham Light Infantry is completely destroyed, but 1st Armored Division, south of Minqar Qaim, holds off 15th Panzer all day. Gen. “Strafer” Gott, commanding 13th Corps, exhausted from the retreat, orders 13th Corps to pull out. Gott is out of touch with the situation, and believes 2 NZ Division has been destroyed. 1st Armored can withdraw, which denies 2 NZ its armored protection on the southern flank. The message reads, “It’s all over. The New Zealand Division doesn’t exist.” Inglis shows this message to the ‘groggy’ Freyberg, who, despite his wounds, is livid. He believes (rightly) that Gott, ignorant of the situation, is leaving 2 NZ out to die. At 8 p.m., Inglis summons his officers and reveals that the division is surrounded. The only possibility is a breakout to the east. 4 Brigade will attack by bayonet, and the rest of the division will drive through in a solid column. The division will have to use every vehicle it has, even water carriers, to break out. Zero hour is 10:30 p.m. Brig. Howard Kippenberger assembles his 5 Brigade, packing his trucks to the limit. Men squeeze onto Bren carriers and anti-tank gun portées. 4 Brigade attacks the enemy at Bir Abu Batta, the 28th Maori Battalion leading the assault. In the battle, 4 Brigade destroys 1st Battalion of the German 104th Infantry Regiment. During the battle, Capt. Charles Hazlitt Upham, a Christchurch farmer in the 20th Battalion, leads an assault on German positions. For his exceptional valor, Upham receives the Victoria Cross. It is his second of the war, and Upham goes down in history as the only combatant to twice earn the decoration, thus making him the British Commonwealth’s greatest single soldier. Upham will later be captured by the Germans, and be sent to Oflag 21C, the notorious Colditz prison (from which Airey Neave escaped, mentioned earlier). He will return to New Zealand after the war, refuse honors and knighthoods, and quietly tend his farm, march in parades, and help the families of wounded veterans until his death in 1994. During the battle, 5 Brigade runs smack into enemy tanks, and a small and spectacular battle results, the night filled with tracer, shot and shell. Freyberg himself, head swathed in bandages, jumps out of the front of his truck, and, in his squeaky voice, remarks, “My God! Another Balaclava.” Another high-ranking officer hops out of his truck to fight. Kippenberger later writes, “For a few moments we ran on amid a pandemonium, overtaking and being overtaken by other frantic vehicles, dodging slit-trenches, passing our crashing into running men, amid an uproar of shouts and screams. I recognized the men as Germans, pulled out my revolver and was eagerly looking for a target when suddenly there was silence and we were out running smoothly on level desert. We were through.” June 28th, 1942: As British troops withdraw from Mersa Matruh, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel orders a concentric attack on the town, to cut off the British retreat. The British pull out slowly, but with skill — one column zips through Rommel’s own headquarters — but the Germans claim more than 7,000 PoWs. NZ Brig. Howard Kippenberger goes to see Gen. Strafer Gott, commanding 13th Corps, to find out what’s going on. Gott tells him that the 8th Army is going to keep retreating. 2nd NZ Division will retire down the Nile, evacuating its rear bases. Gott says 2nd NZ will probably ultimately go all the way back to New Zealand. Kippenberger is infuriated. “We are perfectly fit to fight and it is criminal to give up Egypt to 25,000 Germans and 100 tanks, and to lose as helpless prisoners 200,000 base troops.” Gott says that 2 NZ Division is battle-ready, but very few other people are. All across the world, the Axis is on the advance. Despite the victory at Midway, the Allied picture is bleak. Egyptian leaders and nationalists ponder alliance with Hitler. Indian nationalists discuss offers from Japan of independence and alliance. American industrial power has yet to make itself felt. Allied military forces are in retreat or inferior to their Axis opponents. For the Allies, this is the darkest hour of the war.
On 26 June, not wanting to be trapped in Mersa Matruh by Rommel’s flanking manoeuvre, Fryberg moved 4 and 5 Brigades (6 Brigade was left out of battle and took up position in the Kaponga-Box in the Alamein line) south into the desert to an escarpment at Minqar Qaim. By the end of the next day, British forces around Mersa Matruh were forced back and the New Zealand troops found themselves under attack, isolated and virtually surrounded by 21 Panzer Group of the Afrika Korps Panzerarmee and the Italian 20 Corps. Facing the possibility of annihilation or capture, Fryberg decided he would break out on the night of 27-28 June and retreat eastwards to newly forming defensive position at Alamiem. Unfortunately, Fryberg was wounded in the neck by a shell splinter while checking forward positions and command fell to Brigadier L. M. `Whisky Bill’ Inglis.
The surprise night break out was launched with ferocity just after midnight, with 4 Brigade leading the attack, a bayonet charge through the German lines. There were nearly 900 vehicles lined up nine abreast (5 Brigade’s transport got lost so they had to clamber aboard any vehicles wherever and however they could. Led by Bren carriers and antitank guns, the infantry surged through the position of 21 Panzer followed by waves of charging vehicles. Pandemonium ensued.
To the New Zealanders, the break out at Minqar Qaim was a dramatic and heroic charge but the Germans were unhappy with what they thought were atrocities perpetrated during the fighting. (The engagement cost the New Zealanders nearly 1,000 casualties.) From 26 June to 21 July the New Zealanders had suffered 4,721 casualties – 822 killed or died of wounds, 2,080 wounded and 1,819 taken prisoner.
On the day of the 27th June 1942 we were getting shelled heavily by the German Artillery at Mersa-Matruth and by evening they had completely surrounded the N.Z. Division. I belonged to the 5th Brigade and we were ordered to destroy respirators, blankets, etc. and to carry as much water as possible as we have to march all night. Meanwhile the 4th Brigade had to go into a bayonet charge to fight a way out.
After we had marched several hours we came out to a big convoy of trucks waiting to pick us up, (and try to get us away as far as they could before the sun got up).
When we arrived at the convoy our own Battalion trucks were full, our officer received instructions to put us on what trucks he could get us on and the first truck he came to was an Italian Diesel six-ton, loaded with landmines and petrol, and seventeen of us were put on it including our Officer (who was later killed) our Sgt. and Corporal. After we had been sitting there half an hour we moved off, in the meantime our tanks were going to make an opening through the Jerrie’s line and let us through.
We weren’t going very long before we more or less ran into Jerries Panzer Division , then they started to shell us and eventually we were hit , there was a terrible explosion with the petrol and mines, resulting in everyone being badly wounded or killed and I was the only one who came out without a scratch , when I got up to get away from the fire the Jerries put a machine gun on me, I soon went down and something seemed to say to me to turn round to face the bullets, they were actually kicking up the sand around me but not one touched me , believe me you can lie flat when being machine gunned. After they thought they had killed me they ceased fire and I could hear my badly wounded comrades calling for help. I got up and was helping pull them away from the fire when the German infantry came in to mop us up and this was when I was taken prisoner at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning the 28th June 1942.
Being the only one that could stand up, I stood up and raised my hands, they came up to me three of them and they were a wee bit savage, they walked up to me and put their tommy guns into my stomach and the third man searched me taking my wristlet watch first and then my emergency chocolate. There were three other chaps walking wounded a little further away who the Jerries took away with them leaving me as I was unwounded one to look after the badly wounded men, amongst whom was Jack Burrows of Halswell one of my best pals and Burt Leveritt of New Brighton. The other two men were Sgt. Thompson who was badly wounded and Nobby Clark both were from the North Island.
About seven o’clock they sent a truck out to pick up the badly wounded men and me. The first thing the German Doctor told me to throw away my tin hat and said to me “FOR YOU THE WAR IS OVER” then I had to help him lift the wounded chaps into the truck and then we went to the German Dressing Station. I then helped to assist them to fix up my wounded ‘cobbers’. I was pleased to see how well the Germans treated my wounded comrades. The Germans then gave me a pass to get through their lines to try and find an ambulance.
First of all, I walked through the Panzer Division, resting after their night’s brawl, while I was walking I was afraid I’d walk onto a landmine, after all this time I was getting hungry and thirsty so enjoyed my first meal of desert snails as a prisoner. A little further on I meet a German patrol on a motorbike he came up about the width of a road from me, and I put my hands up showing the piece of paper, while he stood straddling his motor bike he pulled out his revolver and fired two shots over my head, I didn’t flinch or do anything suspicious because the next one would have gone through me, he came up to me and read the piece of paper and put me on the back of his motorbike and took me back to the convoy of German ambulances and when I got their mail and were busy reading it.
The German Officer could speak perfect English, I asked him for a drink of water and he got me a bottle of coffee and I drank a little of it, then he said to could I drink some more and I said “yes” so I drunk that bottle full and he got me another and I drank it also as I didn’t know where my next drink was coming and thinking I wasn’t getting along badly with him thought I would ask him for something to eat he gave me a piece of army bread and then detailed an ambulance with a spare driver to pick up my wounded comrades 8 kms back.
These two chaps could both speak English and they seemed very friendly towards me and gave me cigarettes and spoke of London and New Zealand. When we arrived back to where these wounded chaps were the Panzer Division was just on the move. My wounded comrades had already been picked up and when we drove up to the place a German Staff car drove up to us and told us a vehicle had already picked then up and my mates had thought that I had been shot because I was away so long.
These two chaps handed me over to a tank that was standing by that wouldn’t go. I thought short of fuel.
When the two ambulance men left me they shook my hand and wished me “luck” and I was then on my own again and felt a little uneasy as I didn’t know what was in store for me. I wasn’t very long with these two when a German Cpl. drove up in one of our trucks and the tank crew handed me over to him. They also handed him a revolver and the thought ran through my mind he would drive me out into the desert and make me step out of the truck and shoot me.
Whilst driving in the truck together I thought he seemed very uneasy and the atmosphere between us wasn’t at its best as he was watching me and I was watching him. I had an old packet of cigarettes with two squashed cigarettes in it and offered one to him, anything to break the ice, but he wouldn’t take it, and got out one of his own and offered me one. He seemed a little more at ease from then, in fact became quite friendly.
The next thing I did was to pull out my photos and showed him Tommy’s little boys and a photo of my home. He seemed very interested in them, with that he pulled out his own photos. It turns out that he was a young married man with two children. What made speech so difficult between us was he only spoke broken English.
A little further on he asked me if I wanted a drink, I said “yes” so he stopped the truck and in the back he had a bottle of English whiskey. At first I reneged on the whiskey so he drank it first as I thought he was going to get me tight and get some information from me. So just to be friendly I took a mouthful of it. My motive was to try and be friendly as I still had in the back of my mind that he might try and shoot me. His job seemed to be driving amongst the tanks and keeping them up in position. We bumped across the desert at a fair speed and saw Rommel in his staff car driving around that same afternoon.
Field Marshal Rommel
Towards evening the British started to shell the Jerries and they had to halt and put their big guns into action firing back. All our shells seemed to be landing too short, but worst luck when the German started firing it wasn’t long before they sent up smoke amongst the British lines. The German Corporal then handed me over to some Officers and I was searched, one of them could speak English, but before he handed me over he gave me a lot of English cigarettes and our Army Emergency Chocolate and a tin of fish. We shook hands which I thought was so strange.
I was handed over to a truck loaded with 48 Indians. What surprised me the most they didn’t put me in with the Indians but put me in the cab with the driver. The two guards that were guarding us were standing on the running boards with their revolvers drawn, but the one that was standing alongside me offered me cigarettes.
I travelled with them for about an hour and then joined up with another truck that was carrying ten New Zealanders. I was never so pleased Kiwis so much in all my life. They then mixed up the two loads as there was overcrowding in one truck. We travelled back to Fuka Aerodrome and spent the balance of the night in a gun pit.
Early the next morning we moved and joined up with other trucks of prisoners on our way to Sollum but, before reaching Sollum, we had our photos taken by the Germans for propaganda purpose. From Sollum we went to Tobruk, and there on we went with the Italians. From Tobruk we went out into the desert on our way to Derina, then to Benghazi arriving there a week to the day I was taken prisoner. It being 4th July exactly 12 months from the first time I went into Burnham Camp. I also spent my first birthday in Benghazi. While at this camp we received our first letter cards to write home on.
When we arrived at Benghazi it was summertime, we were dressed only in shorts and all that we owned we stood up in. After we were there a while the Italians issued us with groundsheets which we could make into little tents for keeping the sun off in the day time and the dew off us at night. The sand was very cold and very hard to sleep on. Our hips became very bruised and blue looking after a matter of time. We had no mess gear and no blankets. I was in this camp for 103 days. It wasn’t long before we became very lousy, we all grew beards and the water had to be carted to us by trucks, therefore it was heavily rationed. I have since been told there was an average of 8 a day died in this camp (mostly dysentery).
On one occasion when our tongues were hanging out for a drink, the Italian guard wouldn’t let the water come in until someone threw out a good watch to him. Some boys made escapes and managed to get away but the majority were caught again and brought back and tied up.
The daily ration was 200grams of bread and 7oz of Italian bully [meat] and a ration of water which wasn’t much, as time went on we received a ration of 2 ½ cigarettes a day but the Italians had a habit of forgetting one or two days in the week. All the time I was there I kept reasonably good health as I was very fit when I was taken prisoner. Just as an illustration to show you how weak and thin we were the Doctor wouldn’t allow us in digging the latrines to work more than 2 ½ mins or 6 men to the quarter hour. I was so thin I could put my fingers round the top of my arm.
While we were at Benghazi we weren’t registered prisoners but as soon as we went on the boat to sail to Italy we were registered as POWs. The voyage to Italy as a rule takes 36 hrs it took us 5 days, we were battened down in the hold 1,500 Indians and 500 white men, no sanitary arrangements at first but they eventually gave us some petrol drums. They gave us rations for the first three days the other two we just went hungry.
The boat that left a few days before us was torpedoed (the Jontzen). The day before we left the harbour was bombed by American liberators. On this boat was where I first got dysentery. When we arrived at Brindissi, we were told we would get a meal, but when we arrived there the people told us that they didn’t expect us ‘so we’d had our meal`. We then got on a train and had a 5hr train journey to Bari and we had to march 3kms to the camp. As we were marching through the streets we noticed a lot of old men and woman weeping at the terrible state we were in.
When we arrived at Bari camp we slept in an old canal about the width of a street, it was the coldest night I have ever spent in my life. I was hungry, cold, lousy, and had dysentery. Next morning they took all our particulars, what were our particulars? What was my occupation, who was my mother, who was my farther, and where we were taken prisoners etc. after that we were moved into camp to be bathed and deloused commencing by cutting our beards and hair with close cutting clippers.
The camp was in an olive grove, tents with loose straw in them to lie on and we were issued with two blankets a dixie and spoon. We found it very cold there; all the time I was there I was miserable with dysentery and gradually getting worse. While we were there we received our first Red Cross food parcel (one between seven of us). We stayed here from the 19th October to 25th November when we sailed away by train to Campo 57 the worst journey I have done in me life as we all had dysentery and were all shut in. We arrived in Undine in a shocking state.
We struggled along to Campo 57 which wasn’t very far away (about two miles). When we arrived at the camp we were all searched and the worst of us were put in the camp hospital. I was one of the five that went in. They bathed us and deloused our clothes and gave us a complete outfit of clean underclothes and an Italian uniform. I stayed there from Monday 27th November 1942 to Friday, where they couldn’t do anything for our dysentery so they sent us to Undine Civilian Hospital. The sisters there were very good to us with what they had to do with. Since coming to this camp we were on ½ per man per week, plus English cigarettes. I stayed in the hospital until the dysentery stopped (by needle injections). The priest in there was very good to us boys. I was sent back to the camp hospital and I stayed there till the end of March in the meantime I developed Beriberi.
In the first week of February 1943 I was on full parcels. In April in this camp we got a complete issue of clothing (battledress, greatcoat, boots, etc.), and by that time it was starting to get warm. I also received a clothing parcel that month from N.Z. House. I also received my first letter as a prisoner from Cairo from Sheena. In the warm weather I was shifted from the convalescent hut back to the compound. Sports had started, cricket, baseball and tennis, I took part in these games. I was here until September 13th 1943.
Mail and parcels came through quite good but although this camp was very strict it was very good. We also received popalari cigarettes (terrible things). On everything we wore had a big red patch nearly 6 inches square, our backs and on our right leg. I never had to go out to work while there, only camp fatigues. A lot of boys built a Catholic Church made from stone that was beautiful. We had some wonderful concerts while there run by the boys. This camp was a terrible place for thunderstorms. It was also great to see what the boys made from tins, such things as suitcases, billies and blowers [cookers] etc. (the blowers were used to cook Red Cross food, we had a special area of the camp set aside for brewing up.
There was a Catholic Padre and a Protestant Padre and they held services every Sunday. During the week we would have hot and cold showers regularly. There was also a good library in the camp run by our boys; we also had a canteen where we could buy fruit in season, tomatoes, pudding powers, tin openers, etc.
While we were there we received one lire a day for buying these articles. When Red Cross parcels were regular we had a cup of tea at 7 O’clock, dinner at 10:30, tea at 4:30, on Thursdays and Sundays we had meat, Tuesdays and Fridays were our cheese days, Tuesday was also our parcel day. Each parcel before it was issued had every article punctured. We did get a little news while we were there as we use bribe one of the guards. I met some very fine chaps while I was at Campo 57; there were New Zealanders, Aussies, Tommies, Ghurkhas, Indians, and South Africans in this camp.
When Italy capitulated we had to move in our countries to Austria by train.
Prisoners packed into a cattle truck on a train being taken from Italy to Germany in September 1943
The first thing we did when we heard that Italy ‘chucked it in’, we tore off our ‘red patches` off and really thought we would be home for Xmas, some of the guards threw their rifles over the fence and everyone in the camp was in high spirits. It was here nine months after being captured that I met Jack Burrows and Nobby Clark.
On the night of the third day after they had ‘chucked it in’, the Germans came around in the middle of the night and they stayed there the next day more or less just resting.
The next morning they gave us ½ an hour to pack and be ready for the road. We were advised to travel light as we may have to a lot of marching but it turned out we went by train to Austria.
The New Zealanders left first. Before leaving the camp one of the German Officers gave us a lecture and it was interpreted by the Protestant Padre telling us if we gave them any trouble they had a flame thrower and would be shot. If anyone was found staying behind in the huts would also be shot.
The German soldiers were lined up either side of the road to the station and we marched down between them. It was very hot when we left Italy; exactly two years to the day since leaving N.Z. we had a very hot trip on the train to Austria. It was the prettiest place I have every seen. We were put in an old Russian camp the name of which was Markt-Pongau, and we stayed there ten days and were severely searched. We were then given identification discs (metal discs).
We received one meal a day and we noticed it was becoming colder. We left Austria and went to Gorlitz known as Stalag VIIIA. While marching through Gorlitz, the German children were waving Swastika flags and were spitting at us. In this camp there were forty-seven different languages spoken, it was situated close to a big German training [camp] and every day we used to see the Germans doing manoeuvres and training.
While we were there we were graded for different work. I was graded for coal mines; we also had our photos taken and also impressions of our thumbs taken. While there we weren’t issued with blankets, but we slept in good huts on stone floors, we also had electric light. In the pen next to ours were hundreds of Russian prisoners in a shocking state. Also in this camp they kept big Alsatian dogs, we stayed there five weeks, and we received the odd food parcels while there.
E72 BUETHEN [Hohenzellern mine]
Then my working party moved to Poland to one of the biggest coalmines on the continent (six thousand Germans worked in it in peace time), it was a very up to date mine everything was electric. It was well ventilated. I was working at a level of 1,660 ft below ground. We were issued with working clothes with a suit of Denhams [denim], a pair of boots leather, and a carbide lamp. We worked three shifts a day; sometimes we worked thirteen day weeks, sometimes twenty days and sometimes twenty-seven day week. Then we would have one day off then start another shift. Morning shift they called “Tag shift” afternoon was “Mit Tag” night shift was “Nacht shift”. From the time we left our camp every day till the time we got back was roughly 11 ½ hours.
The guards first of all taking us to the bath-house to change our clothes, after we changed our clothes we went to the top of the pit and once we were underground the civilians took charge of us. From the time we started off for work until we got back we were given no food, and worked like slaves. When getting to the bottom of this shaft we went on electric trains to our own abtiling or section. When we got to our destination we were detailed by a civilian overseer, then we would have to walk for ten minutes or so to our work. All the time spent in coming and going on the job in our time then we worked a straight 8 hour shift. I was smiching in other words shovelling coal. The seam of coal was 30 feet high and it was good coal. When we knocked off work the next lot picked up the shovels and we went back to the top of the shaft to be met by our guards, we then went over to the bath-house and had hot showers then back to camp.
The air was quite good down the pit, it was a very dry coal therefore quite dusty, it was very warm down below and all we wore was cotton underpants and boots we were as black as niggers by the time we knocked off at night. At times the work was very dangerous. Most of the labour was forced labour or prisoners with German civilians in charge of different groups of us. Up on top a lot of work had to be done by Russians, Ukraine’s, polish girls, and the Germans girls worked in the offices but no girls worked down the pit. Hohenzolleren Grube (coalmines) we were known as Grube-Arbeiters (coalminers). I was there nine months. Just outside this camp was where the first shots of the war were fired right on the border of Germany and Poland.
An order came out that all the different nationalities had to go to different camps, so us Kiwis moved further into Poland to a place called Sosnoweic and the name of the Grube was Miloweic known to us as E535.
We travelled by train from Buethen to Sosnowiec and changed trains at Katowice, travelling in small parties guarded by one guard as they could not spare anymore guards. There were seven in my party. We travelled from Sosnoweic by tram to Miloweic Grube our camp was an old school. In this particular coalmine was mostly Poles with the German overseers, it was a mine that the Germans had taken from the Poles. Before the Germans took it over the Poles had flooded it. It was a smaller mine and not up to date like the Hohenzellern mine. The level I worked on in this mine was 900 feet below ground. They used many pit ponies and they were in a lovely condition and really well locked after but, just before we left, the army commandeered them all and put in Ukraine ponies and they were in a shocking state. I looked through the stables and how well they looked after their horses. This particular mine was colder and wetter to work in.
I worked, in the main, in the maintenance section we didn’t have to work so hard some days but other had to do heavier work such as carrying big heavy pipes. Six men to carry 500 lb steel pipes up a grade of one in three feet and to carry them 400 yards. We had to carry 7 water pipes per shift. We were allowed 15 minutes in the middle of the shift for “fruh- stuk” (cup of tea or bite to eat).
We did quite a lot of racketeering amongst the Poles in the way of tobacco we could buy a pound to a pound and a half for a chocolate, 7 kg of bread for a chocolate, a kg of bread was 2 ½ pounds. We could also buy 100 saccarhines for 10 cigarettes. The hardest part was to get these articles into the camp as we were searched. We could also buy 6 or 7 kgs of flour for a chocolate. For our Christmas dinner we bought a rabbit which cost us four chocolates. Chocolate was worth 100 marks before we left this camp. The guards at this camp were really a bad lot. I was in this camp for six months and in this time I received several letters and parcels.
THE LONG MARCH
POWs who did not succeed in escaping could only await the end of the war for their liberation and repatriation.
With Soviet victories during 1944 putting camps in eastern Germany and Poland under threat of being overrun, the German authorities determined to evacuate the POWs to the west. Later Allied successes in the west would force similar action in western Germany.
For the POWs these steps initiated a period of great trial. Some of the POWs moved by train but most were forced to evacuate their camps on foot. For POWs whose diet had long been inadequate such exertion was an ordeal. It was made worse by atrocious weather during the winter of 1944–45. In the confusion of the march, food supply arrangements became haphazard. To add to the dangers, some of the POWs’ guards, resentful of the obvious decline in their country’s fortunes, took out their frustration on the men in their charge. A New Zealander was shot dead when he bent down to pick up bread thrown to him by compassionate civilians.
Some of these POW movements ended when the groups arrived at large camps in central Germany, which were eventually overrun by Allied forces. Others continued to move until the end, when their guards generally disappeared and Allied units soon arrived.
January 17th was the last day I worked in the coalmine on the 18th we didn’t work. On the 19th January 1945 at roll call the German Officer informed us that we would be leaving the camp at 2:30 that afternoon. We had to leave the camp on the account of the Russian advance and before leaving our Doctor drafted the men he considered couldn’t stand up to the marching and left them behind in the camp hospital, along with other patients already there including medical orderlies to be picked up by the Russians when they reached the camp. The German Officers also informed us that we could take anything we could carry in the way of blankets, clothing, and food. We were marched out the gates and counted onto the roads and marched to the Grube close by where some of our boys had already marched out earlier in the afternoon. The next day we went on to Bucthen about 15 kms away where we stayed the night, that being the last night we spent behind barbwire. When we did this march it was winter and extremely cold, snow covered the ground the best part of the time. One of the hardest things we found at the beginning of the march was the contrast from working under the ground for so long with everything so black, then having to march in the snow for weeks on end.
The glare from the snow, made our eyes ache. From now on at night we camped in farm outbuildings, some of the boys brought sleighs to carry their packs on. In the early parts of the march they kept us going for four or five hours without a stop, but after getting over the river Oder, they gave us two days’ march and one day’s rest and our Doctor persuaded the Germans to give us ten minutes’ rest every hour, during the day while marching.
The first part of the march we didn’t get anything hot to drink and even had a job to get cold water as everything was frozen. If we carried any water in our army bottles it would be frozen in a very short time. On our rest days we used to get dry rations that had to be cooked, dried meat, peas, beans, and dried potatoes and only a little of each. We used to borrow a copper from the civilians on whose property we were camped so we could cook vegetables, and often had a lot of trouble borrowing a copper. Rations later became very scarce. On the night of the 10th of March 1945 special Red Cross trucks were sent to us prisoners of war on the march the name of the place being “Luck”, it averaged about 4 parcel per man also included cigarette, from then on parcels came at different times. If it hadn’t been for the Red Cross I don’t think many of us would have made the grade [survived]. Although at different times we were able to scrounge mangels, turnips, and potatoes unknown to the guards. By this time we were getting road weary, our boots were worse for wear.
In March we were issued with a letter card to write home but no-one ever received the same, also we were issued with pamphlets asking us to fight with the Germans against the Russians, and everyone treated it as a joke. Whilst at the last camp we had two radios which we bought from the civilians with chocolate and smuggled into our camp, needless to say we had it well hidden. The Germans got suspicious and had thorough searches for the same and in the end we had let them find one (it being the dud of the two). The other radio was kept well concealed and just two or three got the news and wrote it out fully and read it out to us in our huts every evening round 8 o’clock. Our Doctor when leaving the camp took charge of the radio as his medical equipment was being carried by horse drawn wagon and when camping on the march. He always received the privilege of staying at a boarding house as he was a Medical Officer.
Most of the places we stopped had electricity on so he got the radio pugged into a light socket and wrote out the news in brief and read it out to us in different cow sheds or on the road to us, unbeknown to the guards. We considered it as good as a meal to us to hear the news. On the march we saw hundreds if not thousands of evacuees on the road mostly elderly men, woman and children, everybody seemed to be in a terrible state simply fleeting from the Russians. When passing through Czechoslovakia the woman and children were very kind to us they threw us biscuits, buns and bread knowing it was forbidden to do so. The German guards became very nasty at them doing so and we were issued with orders that if we stepped out of our column we would be shot. A day or two latter one of our boys was shot while picking up a piece of bread. During Easter we stayed at a big factory at Swarzenfeldt this was beside an important railway line. The station a little further on was bombed at different occasions so much so that they had to shift us. While we were still there we had to go on different occasions and help to fill up bomb craters and renew railway lines that the Allied planes had bombed. Nurenburg wasn’t far away and we could see our planes bombing every day. We then moved away and in the next few days crossed the Blue Danube, the weather was becoming a little warmer by this time.
As we were coming up to the bridge across the Danube the air raid sirens were going and we had to halt, it was some time before permission was given for us to cross. The bridge was a two-way railway bridge with a footpath only and we had to go across in single file, the name of the town we were coming to was called Regensbourg. The bridge was fairly high and had a swift flow river. As I was about the middle of the bridge, the first wave of American bombers came over luckily their job was to bomb the railway station a few miles away. We found out later that there was an ammunition train in the station, also an ammunition factory close by. The next wave of planes that came over was to bomb the bridge and they sure made a job of it, resulting in a lot our boys being killed or badly wounded. By the time I was off the bridge just a matter of a few chains, the bombing and the strafing was nerve wracking and we really thought we were all going to get cleaned up [killed]. We had been on the road since 5 o’clock that morning, the raid took place at 4:30pm. Some of the German guards were also killed and wounded, after everything was over the guards rounded us up and marched over to some trees until nightfall, they then marched us all night. The Germans idea was to get us away from the town for fear of us being bombed again that night. Marching us through back roads and forests, from then on we slept during the day and marched at night on account of the bombing of our own planes.
While on the march we saw them making road blocks all the way along to try to stop the oncoming armies. Several of my mates couldn’t make the grade and fell out and were shot by the S.S. in the next day or two. It was very difficult from then on to get bread as all the bakeries were getting bombed. From then on any buildings that we stayed in we wrote P.O.W. on the roof, eventually we landed up in a river bed where the Germans more or less handed us over to the Red Cross as they were unable to take us any further or to feed us. We walked on average of 12 to 15 miles a day. Before going into camp everyone was checked off on a nominal roll. This camp was between the main river and a creek, no fences but we were still guarded, later on a Sunday we were released.
In the morning the S.S. troops started digging in all around us and we started to get concerned because if the Germans started to fire on the Americans they would open fire and then fire right into the middle of us, but by midday they were well away.
The houses in the villages close by all had white flags flying by then. Some of our boys were out watching for the first sight of the Americans tanks to come over a hill some distance away and to direct them to our camp. It was now 6 o’clock in the evening two tanks and two jeeps drove up to us, and we all cheered them but it soon died down and everyone seemed to be overcome with joy as it all seemed too good to be true.
There was between 3,000 and 4,000 American, Russians, and Colonial troops in this camp. They told us that they had already that day released two similar camps. They took photos of us and wirelessed back to their artillery where we were situated, they moved off and left us. The first thing we did then was to unarm the guard and make prisoners of them.
That same night we experienced a lot of shelling and for several nights after. Then next day the Yanks told us that everything around belonged to us and just help ourselves in the way of food which we did as these were the people who had kept us from it for so long. We took fowls, geese, eggs, young pigs, and had some royal meals, but “OH! WEREN’T WE SICK”.
There was a biscuit factory close by which we did over [ransacked] and helped ourselves to sugar, biscuits, margarine, jam, condensed milk, etc., in a big way. We also commandeered motorbikes, motorcars, pushbikes, hacks, and wheelbarrows to do our pilfering with. The name of the place we were camped in was” Landshut” Aerodrome which was situated in Bavaria, not a great distance from Munich. This all happened on the 29th April 1945, we lived ‘on the fat of the land’ [with everything there was], and Red Cross parcels.
A few days later we had heavy rain which held up the planes landing to take us away so while we were waiting our Doctor advised us to move into the villages boarding bordering the drome and to stay there till they could take us away. We could not stay in the riverbed camp any longer on account of so many fowl’s heads, feathers, and where chaps had been sick after eating so much rich food.
We were all formed into groups of 28 men that many making a plane load. The day before leaving “Landshut” we were all deloused just a simple operation of pumping powder up our sleeves and down our necks and trousers.
The Americans were very kind to us while we were there and assisted us in any way they could. On the morning of the 11thMay the plane came in to take our lot away making a really wonderful sight we will never forget, we left in an American troop carrier and flew to Rhiems, it was a beautiful sunny morning, they didn’t fly very high and we had a good view of the country we passed over, it was really a good trip. When we arrived at Rhiems there were Army trucks waiting to take us to another drome about an hours drive away, I have since forgotten the name of it; we received a meal at the canteen and never will forget it, there were German P.O.W.s serving in the canteen. They had been captured some three or four months previously in France. We were then put in groups of 24 to be put into Lancaster Bombers.
The first thing they gave us was some wadding to put in our ears and a little box of boiled lollies to keep us from being sick also a “Mae West” [life jacket] to put on as we were going to fly over the [English] channel. They particularly asked [us] to sit still in the plane; we did not have such a good view in this plane as there were no windows like the troop carrier previously, although some of us near the back could see through the rear gunner’s cockpit. It turned out to be quite a good trip; we arrived at a drome called Tangmere in the South of England. The WAAFs were out to meet every plane and assisted us prisoners out of the plane and helped us with our small kits such as they were.
We then got into Army trucks and were driven over to the reception hall, but before going into the hall we were again deloused as previously mentioned. We all thought how nice and kind these girls were to us, in the way they looked after us and entertained us. After tea they put on pictures and supper also a packet of sandwiches and two oranges to eat on the train as our train didn’t leave until 2 a.m. We got on the train at Barnham to go to Margate a journey of five hours. When we arrived at Margate we had breakfast, first thing we did after breakfast we queued for our mail and free cable [telegram] which could be sent home to our relatives. There were ten letters waiting for me. We were all then medically examined, reclothed, inoculated, and paid in readiness to go on leave on the 23rd of May. Our impressions of the English people as a whole were really wonderful.
Providence has really been good to me in that it brought me safely home through some nerve wracking trials also starvations bombing etc.
In conclusion I must pay high tribute to the Red Cross. If it had not been for this wonderful organisation 90% of us would not be here today. I owe my very life to the Red Cross.