World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                       Walter Hobson

Walter Hobson's Service in the Forces - Part 1

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: *WALTER HOBSON*, Dr. Johnson, Sgt. Holmes, Jack Slingsby, Len Hoy, Dickie Clayton, Major Cleaver (My C.O.), A.J. Cronin, Pony Moore, Walter Wilson, Bill Cotton, Reg Sykes, Jack Richie, Jerry Strachen, Sgt. Major FrieCol John Frost, Bill Bennetl, Brian Watts and Jack Wright
Location of story: UK, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Austria, Switzerland & Germany
Unit name: West Yorkshire Regt., ATT K.O.R.R., Parachute Regt. 2nd Battn. ATT Royal Sussex
Background to story: Army

Walter Hobson

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Walter Hobson.

*This story tells in graphic detail, of the incarceration within the many P.O.W. camps that the contributor of this story was forced into, during WW2. It also describes the squalid, degrading and sub-human conditions that he was compelled to endure, not only within the camps, but whilst ‘on the run’ from them. The deaths of and devastating injuries to his colleagues, whilst actually in his presence, are also described………Bill Ross.*
*************MY SERVICE IN THE FORCES************
**************WALTER HOBSON********************

It was the summer of 1938, and all the talk those days was of whether Germany would try to grab extra land to help create a super race of pure Germans. In order to do this would they go to war? Some leaders said no; others said yes. The Minister of Defence was "Leslie Hore-Belisher" who upset Neville Chamberlain when he decided to introduce conscription. In order to do this, he decided to call up all males between the ages of 20 and 21 years. This was called Hore-Belisher's Army, later nicknamed "Hore-Belisher’s Rabble".

As I was approaching 20, I knew I would be called up but it was supposedly only for six months. In the mean time, I met a lovely girl from Broomhill. Her name was Lily Bickerdike. We were very close and on 3rd of September of that year, we were married at St Mary's Church in Wombwell. Everything went well for us as we went to live with her father. Her mother had died when she was only 9 years old, so she had it rough. At the age of 14, she was left to look after her father and brother and she did very well in the circumstances.

The following March we had a baby daughter whom we called Maureen, and then I was called to the St George's Hall in Barnsley for a medical. There were seven doctors who were doing the examining and the chairman was my own doctor from Wath-upon-Dearne, Dr. Johnson. He knew my medical history so I was passed Al. After that, we went to the recruiting officer who asked us what we would like to join. As I was a bricklayer I said the Royal Engineers. He said I would have trouble getting into this unit, but in July 1939, the first batch was called up and their uniform was gray flannels, light blue shirt and a black beret.

In the meantime, Germany decided to move. They began invading Europe. Our Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain and he went over to Germany to try to talk peace with Adolph Hitler. He came away waving a piece of paper saying, 'Peace in our time'. After that Hitler invaded Poland and as the Germans were going down the Danzig Corridor, our government decided enough was enough and on the 3rd of September 1939, declared war on Germany.

In the meantime all our reserves were called up including the Territorials, and so the inevitable happened. I was called to appear at Fulford Infantry Barracks in York on 16 October 1939. There was a railway warrant and we were met at York Railway Station by soldiers and an officer. He called our names and we got on to lorries which were to take us to our various camps around York. I had left a wife and baby daughter, 7 months old, and I had no idea how long for; certainly not the six months as we had thought when called upon. It turned out to be 6 years and 115 days which included two and a half years as a P.O.W. The regiment I joined was the West Yorkshire Regiment, The Prince of Wales’ Own 14th afoot. My pay was 2s (10p) a day of which I had 1s a day to pay for my wife's allowance. My training was completed by Christmas 1939 and my first posting was at a Military Station in New Walton, near Grimsby, where I was on guard. It was a big admiralty station. We had a few incidents there: there were some big radio transmitter pylons and they were the only ones with which the fleet in the Far East could be contacted, so they were vulnerable. There was a fence all round and each guard went patrolling from one pylon to the other, met the other guard; if all was Ok, back again to the other guard and checked all was Ok there. On this particular night, on the other side of the fence, there was a figure. I challenged him. There was no answer. We were supposed to challenge three times. By the third challenge, I shoved one in the spout (started to load the gun) and I was just about to let bang, when suddenly: “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” It was a horse! Well, you know, we’d gotten a bit scared because of somebody taking a pot shot at us from out of the woods.

About a week later, I was on the main gate. To get into this camp, people had to have a password, one that used to change every week. It was broad daylight on this particular day, and a big chap came to me and said, “I’ll need to go into your camp.” I said, “Do you know the password?” “Oh, the password doesn’t worry me, I’m in charge of a big naval unit.” I said, “Listen, do you know the password?” “No,” he replied, “can’t you let me in?” I said, “No, you can’t go in unless you know the password.”

He was determined he was going in and I was determined he wasn’t. So I thought, “Oh blow this.” I’d my bayonet fixed and I was ready. I shouted to the guard commander, a corporal. He said, “What’s all the fuss about?” So I explained to him, and he said to the man, “Right, you’re coming with me.” So he took him to the guardroom. Apparently, it was a test; we didn’t know that. He was a naval man, but he was in civvies and he came to see if we were on our toes. I was glad in a way; we were only there about three weeks actually.

After that, we went back to Fulford Barracks and a couple of days later, they said, “SELBY!” So, we went to a place called Barlow. Well, we’d never been there before; it was a big ammunition dump. “Your job’s to guard this,” we were told. Again, there was a fence all around the place. We were told, “Nobody’s allowed anywhere near.”

I was on duty one day, and there was this man who came walking up. I said, “Excuse me, what are you doing here?” He said, “I’m the farmer, I own all this land so I can go where I like.” I said, “Oh no, you can’t.” He said, “Oh, I can.” I said, “You go only where I tell ya.” He said, “There’s nowt you can do about it.” I said, “Listen, I’ve got a rifle here, so you walk down there to the main gate, or else!” “Or else what?” he asked. “Or else I’m goina shoot ya, that’s what!” “You wouldn’t dare,” he retorted. “Try me,” I said. Anyway, I took him to the end and handed him over to the guards who were on the main gate. They took him into the guardhouse. I never heard any more about that incident.

Shortly after, I received a letter from home, from my wife who’d had a baby. The baby had been taken ill, so I went to the C.O. and asked, “May I have compassionate leave?” He said, “I’m sorry, all leave is cancelled, what do you want leave for?” I said, “My child’s very ill at home and I want to go and see her.” He said, “I’ll see what I can do.” After a couple of days, he said, “Well, I’m sorry, you can’t go.” I was determined that I was going; I got my kit together and I set off, and I was going through a wood. But I didn’t know that the Military Police had got wind of this, and they were waiting for me. They took me back and I explained the situation to them, so they said, “Look, we’ll let you off this time, but don’t let it occur again.”

I thought, “Well, my child’s ill, I’ve got to see her.” So, I tried again, and they caught me again and took me to the old man. He said, “You’re determined to go home and we’ve told you that you can’t go; all leave’s cancelled.” This was at the beginning of 1940 when all the trouble started. So he said, “If it was possible, I would let you go.”

A few days later, we went back to York and I got leave from there. Actually, I overstayed my leave. I’d only got a week, but my daughter was improving. She’d had rheumatic fever. Whilst I was at home, I received a letter saying I had to go back, but I also had a letter from my doctor saying I was sick. It was a bit of a fib, provided by Dr. Johnson at Wath-upon-Dearne. He said, “What do you want a letter for?” I said, “My daughter’s ill and I’ve overstayed my leave, but I’ve been told to go back.”

When this letter came, it said that I’d to report to Pontefract Barracks for a medical inspection, so I, like a clown, went to Pontefract, into the barracks and asked to see the C.O. who sent me to the Medical Officer. I went in to see the Medical Officer, who said, “Where’s your unit?” I said, “Well, they’ve moved me from York, up to Scotland.” He said, “Can you get back tonight?” I said, “Look, I thought I was here for a medical inspection.” He said, “You’re having one now. If you’re fit to travel from Wombwell to Pontefract, you’re fit to travel to your unit. So, first thing tomorrow morning!”

I’d no choice, so when I got back, I explained to them what had happened, why I’d overstayed my leave. They accepted it, luckily. After that, they brought us back to York where we started learning firefighting. I had to go on a course, to Catterick, so I went on the course which lasted a fortnight. Back at the barracks, they said, “We’ve got a job for ya. On the low moor, there are 7,000 A.T.S. and your job is to train them for firefighting.” “Ooh,” I said, “seven thousand?” They said, “Yes, you’ll be all right.” So I said, “What’s the alternative?” He said, “Well, there’s another job at Morecambe, Lancaster K.O.R.R.’s. You go there as a tradesman.” I said, “What trade?” He said, “Well, you’re a bricklayer aren’t ya?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You’re going as a bricklayer.” So I said, “Right, I’ll take that.”

They sent us off to Morcambe, where the site was a holiday camp that’d been taken over by the Military. There were two bricklayers, a painter and decorator and a clerk. While there, we built a magazine, for the ammunition. There was a tower, which we reinforced. We went into the officers’ mess where there was a stone floor, and they’d caught rats. They said, “We wanna get rid of the rats.” So I said, “Take the floor up, and get as much broken glass as you can, spread it all over, then put the concrete back.” “Do ya think that’ll cure it?” said one of the officers. I said, “Rats don’t like glass.” We tried it out, and we did it.

There were two of us brickies, and a Platoon Sergeant Major (P.S.M.). We used to get 20 to 30 local lads and they were our labourers. Everything we wanted, we had to just take it; we used to go down to the holiday camps that were deserted, and we took railway sleepers, lines, sand from off the shore and pebbles for making concrete. We made a big concrete car park for the lorries, and when we were finished, we were attached to the King’s Own Royal Regiment (K.O.R.R.’s). Their headquarters were in Lancaster. When all the work was done, they said, “Right, you can stay with this unit and become K.O.R.R.’s, or you can be R.T.U.’s which means, Return To Unit.” I said, “Is that back to York? Well, yes, I’ll go back to York then.” So this other bloke, Slingsby, said, “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

A painter and decorator, whose name, funnily enough, was A.J. Cronin, was a brilliant pianist; he could play with or without music. He used to keep us entertained in the NAAFI after we’d finished work. There was a concert party that came, and the leading lady of this concert party, decided to make use of our open-air swimming pool. Somebody came running into the NAAFI and announced: “C’mon, Lady Veronica is in the pool and she’s hardly got oat on.” So we all ran to the pool and crowded round. She’d gone into the pool but she didn’t have a swimming costume, she wore only her bra and panties which, as soon as she went into the water, became transparent. Obviously, she was afraid to come out of the water, so someone from the concert party stood with a big cloak at the top of the steps and she climbed into it. That was at Middleton Towers, just outside Morcambe. All the little huts that had been part of the holiday camp were now our billets. That place was built from the remnants of a ship that sank just before the First World War. When one stood on the sea shore and looked back, it actually looked like a big ship whose funnel came out of our cookhouse. The Japanese had built it.

After this, we went back to our unit at York; I was on the 2nd Fifth West Yorks., the first Fifth were on a draft for Norway. What they did, because they hadn’t quite enough men in the First Fifth, they took some of our lads and I was one of them. They said, “We’re wanting volunteers for Tank Hunting.” I thought, “Tank hunting? I’ll put my name down for that. This meant learning to drive Bren Carriers. Now, when we got back into barracks, they found out there were too many of us, so they said, “You six, back to your unit or………,” they always gave us an alternative, “……you can stay behind in the M.T. and learn driving. So I said, “Right, I’ll stay behind and learn driving.” They took us between Wetherby and York, and we were driving up and down there; it was a civvies car, a baby Austin actually. After that, we moved to Wetherby where we were stationed at the Race Course. There were no proper billets; we used a tote hut that had no water supply. What they did was, they got a big tarpaulin sheet, placed it on the ground, put the stakes up to about a yard high, and they filled it with water for the fire brigade to use. It was also for us to drink, bath and shave etc. It was the only water we had.

One day, they said, “Right! Full kit, gas masks on!” And they gave us a verbal message with which we had to run round the course, then give the message over to the next man, and so on until it had been passed to all of the men who had to run round the course before passing it on. The message was: “Send reinforcements, the enemy’s advanced.” We were not to take our masks off, so we had to shout as loud as we could. By the time we’d all gone round, the message became, “Send three and four pence (16.5p), we’re going to a dance.”

They then moved us off the race course and down into the village. In that time, we were put on a craft for France to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), but about a week later, we were told that we were not going to France, “…they are coming to us.” So they sent me and another lad from Leeds, Walter Wilson, to a garage, Webster’s Garage, where there were about 20 beds. Our job was to look after those beds for when the men from France came and we were to make sure they had a bunk each.

Walt, Lily and Maureen.

                                                                                                                                      Walt, Lily and Maureen

From Wetherby, we were moved to Scotland, to a place called Stenhousemuir, we were actually billeted in Larbert, but I contracted pneumonia and was taken to Denny cottage hospital, where I stayed for a few days. A nurse came to me and told me I’d some visitors.

My mother and wife appeared. I said, “What are you doing here?” They said they’d received a telegram saying that I was seriously ill and that they could come at once and see me.
My next posting was at Royal Sussex where we were helping the farmers make hay etc. One day, a truck pulled up and a man shouted, “Private Hobson, you’re wanted at H.Q.” So I had to climb aboard the truck that already contained some men, and a couple of officers. One of the officers said, “Are you one of these who’ve volunteered again?” “Volunteered for what?” I asked. “Volunteered for the paratroops.” “Well, yes, but that was some weeks ago,” I responded. He said, “Well, you’re going for an inspection. Are you married?” I said that I was and he told me, “Well, you’ll not pass then.”

I went to headquarters and had to see a medical officer and the recruiting officer. Three of us passed but the two officers failed on medical grounds. I joined the paratroops, so they sent me to Hardwick Hall in Chesterfield. That was in 1941. All the different units of the British Army were congregating. We were told that we were going on intensive training, then we were to go to Ringway at Manchester. We were told, “You are to do seven jumps to qualify for your ‘Wings’.” Well, at this stage, I was granted weekend leave, so I went home and told my family. They said, “You don’t think much of your wife and kids, if you’re going parachuting.” When I went back to the unit, I saw the C.O. and said, “I’ve thought it over and I can’t go through with it. I have a wife and child.” The C.O. said, “What? You’re putting them first?” I said that I was. So he said, “You’ve a choice, you can either go back to your unit or stay here as a Sergeants’ Mess Waiter.” I decided on the latter, so I was looking after the R.S.M. I got leave at weekends plus ten shillings extra per month. The person who was in charge of the mess funds etc., asked me, “Will you look after the bar for Saturday night’s dance?” I said, “I’ve never done anything like that.” He said, “You’ll be alright, there’s nothing to worry about, just carry on supplying drinks etc.”

There were some barrels of beer, and we’d made some ramps for them. The idea being that we would place a bucket under the barrels and turn the tap on. But there were fumes and we would have to inhale them throughout the evening. At the end of the night, the R.S.M. came and said, “HOBSON, YOU’RE DRUNK!!” I told him that I hadn’t touched a drop all evening. He said, “Don’t argue with me, you’re drunk.” But he said, “Back to your billet!” The next morning, I was up on a charge: drunk in charge of the bar. I said, “I’ve never had a drink sir.” I explained about the fumes that I’d been forced to inhale and that they made me intoxicated, so I was discharged (acquitted).

Later on, I was chatting with the sergeant and the R.S.M. and they kept telling me to come and do my jumps. In the meantime, the Second Battalion had done their jumps. I said, “I’ll do ‘em on one condition: when I’ve completed my jumps, I’m in this unit.” So I went to Manchester where I was to jump with the Fourth Battalion. When they formed the battalions, they issued us with red berets, and when we received our ‘Wings’, they went onto the shoulders. We had to do seven jumps to qualify for this. The first two jumps were from a balloon, actually, barrage balloons. They were made from canvas and were filled with Helium gas. At the bottom was a basket with a hole in the bottom, called the aperture. Four of us went up with the instructor, and when we were ready, we jumped, one at a time. We dropped approximately 120 feet at 119 miles per hour before the chute opened. We were about 800 feet high. Now, the first jump wasn’t bad, but the second jump was worse because by then, we knew what should happen, what shouldn’t happen, when it could happen and when it couldn’t happen. So that’s when we became a little scared. But, after that, we did five more jumps, but this time from a plane, which we called the Flying Coffin. The reason we used that plane was that it could slow down to 90 m.p.h. This was so that when we jumped, the stick of ten men would land as close to one another as possible. If a man hesitated for a couple of seconds, that could equate to twenty yards on the ground, which, between one and ten, could be a long way.

It eventually took just over a week to get the jumps done and the results in. On the third day, two of the lads were off sick, so they said, “There are just eight of you in your stick now.” I was number one; what happened was, the plane used to fly all way round Tatton Park, in Manchester, and when it got to the park itself, we’d drop out; four or five of us normally. I was number one and everything was OK, our chutes opened all right. But the plane went around again for the second lot to jump. The first one out got what we call a Roman Candle. If we didn’t drop out of the plane in the correct order, the slipstream would hit our legs and it would twist us. That twist would prevent the chute from opening. With no air in the chute, the canopy couldn’t expand. This is what happened and we were only 800 feet up anyway. I went running over to him and he was still alive. The blood wagon came over with the ambulance. An officer leapt out and shouted, “Back to your chutes, back to your chutes, leave it to us.” They took him away, and told us later that he’d broken his spine at the top and bottom, but would be jumping again in six months time, but we never saw him again, so we don’t know what happened.

When we’d done our seven jumps, we went back to Hardwick Hall from where we did more training, comprising various jumps all over the country. We were doing a drop at Blandford, and there was a lad called Lance Corporal Jack Skeets from Liverpool. When we dropped him, he landed on the Vicarage roof. His chute was over his head and his feet had gone through the slates. The vicar came out and was furious, shouting and bawling that we’d damaged his rose gardens. We said, “Never mind the roses, what about him up there?” What he did was, he broke all the slates all around him and he disappeared into the loft. A few moments later, he came walking out of the front door; he wasn’t hurt at all.

Next, we went to do a drop at Newcastle, and when we were flying over York, one of the lads said that he felt sick. He’d gotten airsickness, which is worse than seasickness. He said, “What should I do?” I said, “Use your helmet.” We had rubber helmets with strings that we’d tie under the chin; people thought we were Poles because that was part of their dress. So, he vomited into his helmet which he then emptied through the aperture, so somebody in York probably got a helmet full of vomit.

After this drop, we were told we could command anything we wanted to help us on the exercise, and it was always against the Home Guard. As we were running down a lane, there was a team of firefighters with a fire pump. Our officer said, “We’ll take this over.” “What for,” we asked. “To put our equipment on.” The firemen said, “You can’t take this, we’re going to a real fire.” The officer said, “Never mind that, ignore ‘em.” Our driver was reversing backwards and forwards, and he got stuck straight across the lane, so he couldn’t move either forward or backwards. So the officer said, “Oh, leave it, leave it.” So we left ‘em to it.

So, our next move was to Bulford barracks on Salisbury Plain. We were sent two fuselages to practise jumping from. We were short of ammunition there, but they sent me and a lad called Reg Sykes, from Huddesrfield, to guard these fuselages. But while we were nosing around, we came across a box that was full of belts, full of 303 ammunition actually. Something they’d overlooked, so I went to the an officer and said, “We’ve found a lot of ammunition.” “What is it?” he asked. “303,” I replied, “it’s in those fuselages.” So he said, “Don’t tell anybody, get your mate to come with me.” We took him back to the fuselage, then we carried the boxes back to the unit. We started going everyday onto the ranges, shooting and all the other lads were saying, “Where’s B Company getting all their ammunition from? They always seem to be firing.” It seemed that the R.A.F had mislaid it, so it became ours.

In February, 1941, there was a raid going on over France and it was intended to take radar equipment from a place called Bruneville. C Company, which comprised of all Scottish units (although ninety percent of them were Yorkshire men), was going to do it, their numbers made up with a few from our unit. They went over to France and were dropped at Bruneville. They managed to salvage part of the equipment they wanted, and all they lost were six men. One of the men who was badly wounded, called Jerry Strachen was wandering in the woods and the lads managed to get him back

Into 1942 now and the men had had embarkation leave, but because about fourteen of us had just had leave, we weren’t allowed embarkation leave. Well, I had a job at headquarters, looking after the order room. When I was in the order room, I found a full pack of leave papers. For them to be of any use, there had to be a stamp on them and I managed to stamp them. They had to have a signature of an officer, plus, there had to be a note across the top, in red ink, “Permission to travel by rail.” So, I acquired a bottle of red ink and wrote on them all: “Permission to travel by rail.” I took ‘em back into the billet.

We said to the C.O., “It’s not fair that we can’t have leave.” He said, “If you get all your stuff packed, we’ll let you go on leave.” We got done and were ready in five or six days. Then he said, “Well, you can’t go today, we’ll see about tomorrow.” This went on for a few more days. I said, “Oh, he’s kidding us, this’ll drag on until the rest of the lads are back, then it’ll be too late.” So I said, “I’m going.” So what I did, I gave the lads a pass that I’d pinched. The sergeant got to know and he said, “What are these passes you’ve got? Let’s have a look at ‘em.” He said, “Can we have one?” I said, “On one condition: if you’ll sign ‘em.” So he signed ‘em, T.S. Tyseman (Major). They looked genuine. We hadn’t much money, but we set off from Bulford. I had a railway ticket that said on it, Darfield to Chesterfield. I rubbed it and rubbed it until it was impossible to read what it said. Anyway, it got me all over the country.

We hitch hiked from Andover into London, and then across to King’s Cross from Paddington. Who should come on the train but the Red Caps? “Now then soldier, where are you going?” asked one. “We’re on leave sir.” “Got a pass? Where’s your pay book” I got my pay book out and showed him my pass. “Fair enough,” he said as he handed them back. We got onto the train and used what money we had to get a single ticket to Sheffield. Anyway, I arrived home; I’d never any money when I arrived home, I used to rely on others. I stayed at home for a week; I’d arranged with a lad from Beighton, Sheffield. He said, “I’ll see you on the station, half past six, Sunday night.” So when I got there he came flying up to me and said, “Have they been?” “Have who been?” “Have the police been for you?” “No.” He said, “They’ve been to our house.” I said, “Why didn’t they take you in?” He said, “Well, when they came, they’d got the right house, but a different name.” So the bobby who came to his house said, “Have you got a pass?” So he gave him that pass that I’d given him, the policeman said, “Oh, they’ve made a mistake.” But what I didn’t know was that the police had been to our house after I’d left. I lived with my father in law. They said, “Does Private Hobson live here?” He said “Yes, but he’s just gone back to his unit.” He said, “Oh, they’ll have made another mistake I suppose.” But I didn’t know this, so when we arrived back at camp, we went into the guardroom and said, “We’ve come to give ourselves up, we’ve been absent without leave.” “How long have you been away?” “A week.” “Well, there’s nothing here; we haven’t got you as absent. Well, where’s your kit?” “In the barrack room.” The Officer said, “Well, go and get your kit and bring it back.” So we did that and went back to the guardroom and they kept us in. They said, “Monday morning, you’re up in front of the C.O.” So, in front of the C.O., I had my Company Commander with me. The C.O. said to him, “What sort of man is this?” He said, “He’s OK.” The C.O. turned to me and said, “How long have you been in the army? “ “Since 16th October 1939.” “Well, you’ve been in long enough to know better, why did you go home?” he said. I said, “Well, I’ve a wife and child at home, we weren’t allowed embarkation leave and we are going abroad, and I wanted to see them.” He said, “Are you putting your wife and family before the country?” I replied, “Yes, I am.” He said, “Will you accept my punishment?” I said that I would, there were no choices otherwise anyway. He said, “Fourteen days’ pay, fourteen days confined to barracks, fourteen days in the clink.” Well, that was OK, we were living relatively well during that period. After eight days, the guard came in and said, “Right you lot, back to your unit. We’ve been ordered to release ya.”

We moved off the next day, we went in convoy to a place called Greenock, in Scotland and from there, we embarked on different ships. We were actually, the largest convoy that had ever left the shores of Britain. The ship we went on was the P&O Liner Strathmore. There were 7,000 troops plus the crew on that vessel. We were zigzagging in the Atlantic for 17 days. When we went through Lisbon, we were surprised to see that it was all lit up. That was because it was neutral. But what we didn’t know was that we were going to North Africa. On board the ship were the first rockets that I’d ever seen. They said that they were going to give us a demonstration. The rockets were in blocks of 48; they were about 2’6” long. When they were fired, they were fired by electricity and they all went off together.

                                                                                                  Jack Sligsby, Dickie Clayton and Walter in Morcambe, 1940

One day, I was on duty, on watch, when somebody said, “There’s a submarine.” But the submarine was one of ours and it was somebody visiting the flagship. So, we continued into North Africa and we landed in Algiers. After we landed, they took us to a village called, Maison Caree, just outside of Algiers. There, we were billeted in a schoolroom. We used to do a bit of bartering with the locals, and on this particular day, by the front window and overlooking the town, there was a bloke wanting a shirt. We were wanting Francs. So we showed him a shirt, told him how much we wanted for it, 60 Francs, he said “OK.” We told him we wanted him to throw the money up first, which he did. A that point, an officer came in and we had to dash away from the window. Ten minutes later, when he’d gone, we threw the shirt down, and another Arab joined the first, and they started fighting over the shirt. A big Arab came onto the scene and asked what was going on. Then, what he did, he grabbed the shirt, took his knife out and cut it in two, then he gave them half each and they were happy with the arrangement.

We were there a fortnight or so; the aerodrome was called Maison Blanche. We were supposed to take off from there and go towards Tunisia and smash up three emergency landing dromes. The first day, it was cancelled; Jerry came over and dropped bombs all over, but in the meantime, he dropped a lot of novelties. Now, these novelties could be toys, even sweets. Our R.A.F. officer picked one up and put it in his pocket. A few minutes later, it exploded and blew both his legs off. So we were called into the hangar and the officer gave us a lecture. He told us that if we found any novelties, leave them alone. “If you find any, put them in petrol cans and leave them.” We’d already spent one night in the hangar and this one lad had picked up a propelling pencil. On it, it said, USA. I slept next to him in the hangar. I said to him, “Is that your pen?” The officer said to me, “What’s going on here?” I said, “He’s got one here, a propelling pencil or a pen or something.” He picked it up and said, “Get it outa here!” We went out to the drome, onto some spare land and placed the pencil under a tin, and twenty minutes later, that tin went sky high. It was amazing the amount of explosive that could be packed into such a small device.

The next day, we all embarked on the plane and Major Frost said, “Right, we’re off.” But the dispatch rider came over and they said it was cancelled again, but he ignored him. We flew round the first emergency drome, and there was nothing, Jerry had gone. At the second one, we dropped on him (Jerry), but we said we’d missed him by five minutes. After that, we were all assembled and we were told we could take any means of transport we could get to help us. The containers that carried equipment were all in different colours, they were white, red, yellow etc. Each section had its own colour. But ours wasn’t there at all. They told us that some of them had dropped out of the plane over the hills before they arrived at their destination, so all we had were a Gammon Bomb and a killing knife that we carried in a secret pocket on our legs, plus a Sten gun and a few rounds.

We’d 25 miles to go to what was supposed to be the next emergency landing drome, and it turned out to be Tunis Aerodrome. On the way there, an Arab was coming along with a horse and cart. Our officer said, “Right, that’s ours.” We started arguing with him, but we couldn’t understand him. The officer knew a bit of French and he gave him a ticket saying that he would be re-imbursed, so we took the horse and cart. We put all our spare kit into it. We decided that Brian Watts would be in charge of the horse and cart. We were going up a particular road; one section in front, our section was on the right, and another section on the left. All of a sudden, the German mortars opened up. The first mortar bomb landed right in the middle of the platoon. Half of the men were ‘done for’. So, we laid flat down and a German scout car came up the road and it stopped opposite us. At the side of the road, we’d one section, and Sergeant Homes was laid among that section. An officer leapt out, and he hadn’t seen us. Sergeant Holmes took out his Gammon Bomb and was just about to throw it, when they spotted him, so they turned the guns on him and just blew his leg off. Then they turned around and left, just scarpered. Each man carries some Morphine, for in case they get wounded. So what we did, we pumped him full of Morphine, left him two or three water bottles, and left him near some rocks. There was no hope for him; we just did what we could.

Next, we went on towards the aerodrome, but first, we were told that we could make a brew (tea). We had a tin full of methylated spirit, but it was solidified. We would take the blades out and cross them, and it made a stove that we could put the meths. tin on, and the water, and boil it up. Also, we had two little bottles of purifiers and sterilizers. This was so that we could fill a bottle with any old dirty water, add the tablets to it (one was white and the other blue). So, two of one sort would purify it, but it had to be left for fifteen minutes, then put one of the others in and leave it for ten minutes or so, then it would be fit to drink. They were only small bottles and each man carried two of them.

Anyway, we lay on the side of the hill and we’d just started to brew up, when the Stukas came over, hunting for us. So, we took our helmets off and placed them over the stove, so they wouldn’t see it. We lay perfectly still. Stukas scream terribly when they’re dive-bombing. They didn’t find us on that occasion however.

Night came and we went into Tunis Aerodrome, although there were guards all the way round it. We just cut the wire and went through. We wrecked all the planes in there, throwing Gammon Bombs at them. After three to four hours, we started to withdraw. After we had gone some way, we were laid across a hill and straight opposite, and across, were German machine guns; they had held us down. One of my friends, Len Hoy from London, was just taking aim, when a bullet hit his finger and smashed it, Naturally, he started shouting and bawling. Then, as for Major Cleaver, they must have fired the equivalent of a 22 pounder and he stopped that all by himself. It killed him outright. His batman was rolled over down the hill with the blast, but he got up and was all right apart from being dazed.

It was clear that that machine gun had to be silenced, we knew that, so one of the lads went down the valley, back up the other side and along the side until he was underneath the machine gun, and then he threw a Mills bomb. He came back and everything was alright for about ten minutes, then a German tank came along. The soldiers climbed out and manned the machine gun and started firing again. So, the same lad wanted to go back, which he did and did exactly the same as before. But the third time, we said, “You’ll not be so lucky again.” So they wouldn’t let him go again.

We stayed there until nightfall, by which time everybody was shattered. But they said, “Right, when Colonel John Frost blows this hunting horn, it’s every man for himself; you’ve got to try and get back to your own units.” Four of us teamed up and were going in what we thought was the right direction, daylight came and we were desperate for something to drink, when we came across a farm, but the occupants said they didn’t want anything to do with us. We said we wanted water. At first, they thought we were Germans, but when we said we were English, that did it. Now, they definitely didn’t want anything to do with us. So we said that if they didn’t give us some water, we were going to shoot ‘em all, so they brought us some jugs of water. They threw them at the gate and went back indoors.

We drunk the water, then set off across an open field. I said to one lad, a corporal, “There’s some tanks coming, three tanks.” He said, “Oh, they’ll be ours, we’ll be alright.” As they were getting nearer and nearer, I saw the big black cross. I said, “Eyup, it’s Jerry, what are we goina do?” Well, I’d a Sten gun, George said he’d a rifle, another one had a rifle and the corporal had a Sten gun, and apart from a Gammon bomb apiece, that was all we’d got. So we said, “What can we do? We can’t fight tanks with this lot.” So the corporal said, “Give ourselves up, are you all in favour?” By that time, they were getting nearer, so I said, “Right, we’ll give ourselves up.” I dropped my Sten gun on the ground and put my hands up, so did George. The other two kept their guns in one hand and put the other hand up. All of a sudden, rat tat tat tat…..a machine gun fired from a tank; it was only 20 yards away. The corporal stopped a full burst in his guts. That killed him outright; another lad stopped just one above his private area, then they held their fire. An officer jumped out: he spoke perfect English. He said, “Up Englander, on your feet, get up! For you the war is over.” He said, “I SAID GET UP!!” I asked him, “Can’t you see they’re wounded? Then I said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” We had a look at the corporal, but he was gone. The officer came and searched us. I asked, “Can I attend to this wounded man?” He said, “Yes.” So I took his trousers down and put him a dressing on, the best I could. Then I said, “What about him?” He replied, “You and your friend there, dig a grave.” So we started digging a grave and we only got it a foot or so deep, when the German said, “Right, leave it, come with us now.” There were a lot of the locals around, so the officer said, “They’ll bury him.” I thought, “Yes, I know what they’ll so, they’ll strip him and take all his clothes etc.” But anyway, we had to leave him. The German took us further up the field, and he said, “There’re some of your friends around here, I want you to go to ‘em and ask ‘em to surrender.” “What if they won’t” I asked. He told me, “Well, if they don’t we’ll just kill them.” I said, “What about me?” He retorted, “Well, you’ll be with them.” I shouted, “Hang on!” He said, “Do as I tell you.” Then, there were some tanks, behind us, and a big German with a machine gun behind me, and I was walking up to some things that were like cactus bushes. When we were half way between the tanks and bushes, ……de de de de…they started firing. I got down on the floor, flat. The Jerry said, “UP, GET UP AND DO YOUR JOB!!” I was scared stiff I can tell ya. I set off walking forwards; I’d got my red beret, which I was waving. Then all of a sudden, there were yellow dusters waving on a rifle, so everybody held their fire. Nine men and a sergeant came out, but one man didn’t want to give up; he didn’t want to be taken prisoner. All they’d got in the gun was one round, and he took it. They’d run out of ammunition.

They searched us all and took us. The first thing they went for was the killing knife in the secret pocket. The German said, “Put your berets on.” Then they made us get on top of the tanks, which were red-hot. They took us through into Tunis where there were quite a lot more prisoners. They shoved us into a big building of some kind; I don’t know what it was exactly. But inside there was quite a lot of sugar beet. We’d had nothing to eat for a few days, so we got stuck into the sugar beet. It was alright as far as we were concerned, it was something to eat.

We were there for a couple of days. Then they took us back onto the aerodrome where they said, “We’re taking you to a camp.” A Junkers 52 is what they took us in. There were about 20 prisoners and an officer, and only about 5 Jerries and that was including the pilot. He only flew about 50 feet above ground. We flew from Tunis to Sicily. The officer said to us, “I think we’ll take over this plane, there’s enough of us. You can overpower these. Can anybody fly the plane?” So one bloke said, “Well, I’ll have a go.” The officer said, “Oh, what was your job?” He said, “I used to drive a tank.” The officer replied, “They’re not the same at all.”

So, we decided to pack it in as a bad job. They landed in Sicily and we were in a camp. I think it was Castle Meltrama, or something like that. The Sergeant Major, who was in charge of the camp, was called Friel and he was from the 2nd Battalion Para’s. I took notice; just outside the main wire was the cookhouse and the Italians were in charge of it. There were a couple of men who came and brought some equipment into the cookhouse. They stopped and went to the bar for a drink, then they got straight into the wagon and drove off. They were never searched, not once. I said to Sergeant Major Friel, “There are three of us who want to get away, can you help us?” He said, “What’s your plan?” I told him about the wagon, but I said, “It’s no good us going unless we’ve got some food.” So he said, “OK, I’ll get you a job in the cookhouse.”

What we did then was that we pinched what we called cobs, and we pinched some sugar and some onions. So, we got this bread, warmed it against the fire, broke it into crumbs and mixed it with the sugar. We believed that with bread and sugar, along with the onions and a drink of water, we could last all day. Our idea was, if we could get to the shore, we could get across to Malta, which was about 56 miles, I suppose we thought, “That’s our chance.”

We had it all planned for Christmas, 1942. The same night as we intended to go and were all prepared, four of the lads jumped the wire and were caught. After that, they were taking us out into the parade ground, every twenty minutes throughout the night, so we’d no chance. It was all in vain. Later, they moved us on; I think we did a month in that camp, then we went through Messina Straits into Italy. Near Naples, there was a camp known as Camp 66, Capilla.

                                                                            Walter and Lily with Rossolino, Marko and Perio Mutti, and Ray and Renie Lax

As we were going into the camp, some lads at the other side of the wire pointed to me and shouted, “Wot tha doin’ ‘ere (Yorkshire dialect: what are you doing here?)?” I said, “Sem as your, bi’ looks on it (Same as you by the look of it).” They replied, “We berrid thee!! (We’ve buried you!!).” They’d buried somebody in my name. So I said, “This is the resurrection. Anyway, wot ya got there?” He was brewing some tea in a mucky, dirty, black old tin, and in it was some tea that was as black as ink, and he said, “It’s tea, why?”

Well, we hadn’t had anything for six days actually. He said, “Duz tha want a drink? (Do you want a drink?)” I said, “A do, arh (I do, yes).” So he passed the tin through the wire and we all shared it. That drink, although there was no sugar and no milk, it was as black as ink in a mucky old tin, and I say this, it was the best drink of tea I’ve ever had in my life.

Anyway, they took us into the camp and there were allsorts in. We were there quite a few months before they moved us. Some lads escaped and got caught again. The chap who organized the escape was Bill Cotton. From Capilla, after a few months, they decided to put us in working camps up and down Italy. They took us to a camp that was near the Port of St. Giorgio, which was a transit camp: 146. There, I saw the biggest cheese I’d ever seen in my life. This cheese, it was seven feet diameter and it was about two feet thick, tapering off to about a foot think. It came into the camp, and it had been manhandled. It had to be cut up for all the prisoners. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it was food. Then they inoculated us, through the chest. It was red hot that day, and we’d to go up four or five steps to the medical room, to be inoculated. As the lads were coming down, with it being warm an’ all, they were fainting and falling over. There were only about six of us that it didn’t affect; it didn’t affect us at all.

We stayed there for a few weeks, and I saw my first tornado. It came straight through the middle of the camp; it was taking beds and all sorts of stuff up into the air. I thought I saw also, my first, what we called a blower. It was an Australian who invented it. I’ve seen a replica of it in that camp called Eden Camp (Theme museum in Malton, North Yorkshire). What it is, with the tins that we got from the Red Cross parcels that we were receiving, we could make different things. The blower was an automatic fireplace. We used to get one tin, a klim tin. Klim is milk spelt backwards. Inside it, we would make a fan, out of the tin, and put it on an axle, try and get something to wind, and that went on to a pulley; then we found something like a cotton bobbin and placed it onto another one, then onto another axle. We’d get bootlace or string, anything that could be used as a belt. If you turned it slowly, the big fan under the fireplace would be going 50 to the dozen. It would blow enough air to create a fire from a couple of matches, a bit of paper and a cigarette packet. That was enough to brew some tea. It was a marvelous invention. I never saw it again until I went up to Eden Camp, a couple of years ago (approx 2003); there was one in there.

From there, we went into the fields working for the Italians. In this camp we were at, there were about 200 of us in a big 3-storey house, and there were only about 20 guards. Whilst in the fields. We would be planting riceand haymaking etc. We became friendly with a few of ‘em and we used to get all the news from them, because some of them could speak a bit of English and we learnt a bit of Italian. One day in particular, they were all excited. We asked one of them, “What’s the matter?” He said, “La Dulci Vie.” We didn’t know what that meant, so when we got back to the camp, we asked the interpreter whose name was Carlos. “Now then Carlos, there’s summert going off, what did they say? They said La Dulci Vie.” He said, “That means Mussolini has gone.”

Now everything was in chaos and after a couple of days, they didn’t take us out to work so we knew something was wrong. I and a kid called Jack Richie (he was in the R.A’s) who came from Morden in Surrey, decided to “pump it at the back.” We found, like a hole in the wire and we got out through there and were in a maize field. The maize was 9 feet tall. We arrived at a road at the end of the field; we saw a bus coming, one of the local busses, and we stopped it. We climbed aboard the bus. We’d no money, but they knew what we were. We were going down the road, and when we looked out of the back, there was a German tank following us, so the bus driver put his foot down and shot into a village called Lanziano. He stopped and said, “You must get out.” So we ran through a passage and the bus went on its way. Jerry continued following the bus. I don’t know if they ever caught up with it, but if they did, there were only Italians on it.

We ran through a tunnel and into a big shed. There were all Italians telling us where to go. There was a little door at the back, but they said, “No no no, you stay here.” So we went back into the shed, and when everything had quietened down, there was a bloke, an Italian, who took us to his house and said, “Right, you can stay here.” They took my mate Jack to a woman. I thought, “I don’t like the idea of being here on my own, I can’t speak Italian and they can’t speak English.” But, they gave me a meal; they took me out to a café, a dino. They’re all dinos there. When I got to the café, who should be in there but Jack, Jack Richie. He said, “Where are you staying?” I said, “Well, where I am, I’m not too happy about.” So he said, “Hang on, at this café, there’s an old woman and her daughter. Whether they own it or not, I don’t know.” Jack went away and when he came back, he said, “It’s alright, you can stay with us.” So I fetched my gear and I stopped at the café with them. One day (we used to eat in the café), we were having a meal, when two Jerry officers came in, looking all round. Naturally, we were in civvies by that time, they’d found us some civilian clothes. When the Jerries went out, they had a word with the landlady and she came back and motioned us into the storeroom round the back. In the storeroom were hundreds of bottles. We were to lie down while they piled a load of bottles round us and they said, “Stay there and don’t make a sound.”

In the meantime, there were more Jerries, they must have sent for some. They came searching all over the place. Anyway, they couldn’t find us so, after what seemed ages and ages, they came and took us back out and they said, “I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here now.” That was because the Jerries had got wind of somebody having split on (escaped from) them. Another family took us down to their house on the outskirts. It was the Mutti Family, man and wife, Rossolino and Santa, and two sons. Rossolino’s brother was Giorgio and his wife was Margarita. Margarita’s brother was a Catholic priest and that family looked after us; in fact, they got me and Jack a job with the local builder. We were building on a farm, Opadro Nepasque’s farm. They were paying us, about 30 liras, which was pretty good for those days.

We used to go out with the lads at night. The Mutti family didn’t take any money off us. They said, “We’ll get a cheque from Mr. Churchill when the war is over.” Well, I’d had my boots on and I wanted some shoes. The Catholic priest brought me some shoes that had a silver buckle on. I said, “I can’t go around with that on.” So they cut the buckle off, it was all right, they fitted OK. Anyway, we were helping the Italians in a yard one day, we were getting Indian corn which we would strip down to the seed, spread it out on the ground, let it dry, then they used to put it in the sun to dry, and that was part of their food. One day, we were doing this, when somebody came running up shouting, “Tedski come viar.” That means Jerry’s coming, so we flew down a path, out into the street, and there was a scout car and two lorry loads of Jerries coming up the road that we were running up. Some Italians were running with us. I said to Jack, “We’ll have to get off the road.” There were two D.R.s, two jerry D.R.s and they were gaining on us, so an Italian motioned us towards a pathway, which was only about four feet wide. We knew the lorries couldn’t get down it. But these D.R.s were following us and we were getting further and further away. When we got down to the bottom, which was where we were living, there was a big hedge, so the Italians (they were deserters from the Italian Army and the Jerries were rounding them up as well)……….we jumped over this hedge and we didn’t know where we were landing. We landed in a garden, then ran into the fields. But of course, we got away then and the Italians were with us. They said, “Stick to us, we’ll look after you.”

We had to cross some water that was about four feet deep. So we took all our clothes off, put them in a bundle and held them on our heads and waded through the water. When we got to the other side, we dried ourselves on our shirts, and we got dressed again. Then they took us to a farm. The Italian had a word with the farmer who said, “You can’t sleep in the house, but if you like, you can sleep in the barn.” He gave us something to eat and something to drink, cheese and bread etc. The next day, they decided to go back into the village, Lanziano and when we arrived there, the Jerries had rounded up about 17 escaped prisoners who were living in the village. We didn’t even know about them; one of them in particular was helping in a bar, and they named it after him. Quite a lot of lads got away in the meantime; nearly all ex airborne lads.

From there (we couldn’t go in any more houses), they took us to a little island. There was just one entrance to it; it was where two rivers made a V sign. We lived there for three or four days and we built a tent from leaves and twigs, grass and hey etc. and made it comfortable. The Italians used to come and feed us. Altogether, by the time we were done, there were eight of us in this tent. This Mutti family came up one day and said, “We’ve been in touch with an escape organization that’s working with the British Government, and we’re taking you through to Switzerland.” “Oh,” I said, “lovely. When and how?” He said, “We can only take you in twos.” So I said, “You and Jack go first.” Well, we set off this particular day, and there was Giovanni Mutti, and me and Jack, all three on bikes. We made quite a mess of riding the bikes at first, until we got used to them. We moved from Lanziano to Milan.

When we arrived in Milan, there were no incidents, everything went well; they took us to a house that had been bombed. Apparently, it was his and Margarita’s house. We left the bikes there, then he took us to another house that belonged to a butcher. Apparently, it was the butcher who was organizing it all. Giovanni said goodbye and we didn’t see him again. The butcher took us to his house and we said, “Tomorrow, we’re going through.” He had a car; not many had cars in those days. Anyway, he put us in his car and he said, “Put your hand down into that pocket in the door, there’s a revolver. Take it and don’t hesitate to use it if necessary.” We were going up a road, to where everything was deserted, and he had a word with somebody. He came back and said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t go today. Those guards, we don’t trust them.” So he took us back to his house, and we stayed overnight. Apparently, it wasn’t his wife whom he was living with, it was a fancy woman. To go to the toilet from our room, we had to go through their room, so we could see all that was going on.

Anyway, the car came again for us, and it was past teatime, it was starting to get dusk. He took us through to Verdoner Aloner. I think that’s what they called him. He stopped the car and said, “I’m going now, cheerio.” He handed us over to a chap, and this chap………..well, as I said, our Italian was very poor and their English was even worse, so it was all signs. He took us along a railway site to where there was a girl. He handed us over to this girl, then he said goodbye. The girl took us across a field, and then she just whistled. A bloke came and he took us through a lane, where there was another bloke waiting; a lame bloke with a stick. He took us to a house that was three storeys high. We were on the top storey. He said, “Ten o’clock tonight, we’re moving.” In the meantime, as soon as you got into one of their houses, it was wine and bread, and biscuits and whatever, oh, cheese, always cheese. So, we had something to eat, then, at a given time, he took us up a lane onto an old railway track. We followed the track up and then he gave a little whistle. He said, “Stop here.” There was a concrete blockhouse. He said, “Go into there and stop there.” So we went into this blockhouse and a while later, we heard a whistle. “Come on English, Englander, Inglessie.” I said to Jack, “I’ll go out and see what it is, and if I shout ‘it’s wrong’, get out of that window at the back.” There were no window frames, just a hole. So he said, “Yeah, OK.” I went out and there were two guards there. They said, “Where’s your friend?” I said, “Alright Jack, come on.” So he came out; then they marched us up a track to where there was a wire at the side (we’d three guards by this time), they said “Soldi, soldi,” that means money. I said, “Oh, they’re wanting our money.” We’d got what we’d been earning doing the bricklaying. I said, “Just gi’ ‘em a few bob, don’t gi’ it ‘em all, we might want some later.” So we gave them a handful of notes. Then they took us to the wire and they’d made a hole in it. They sent us through and told us, “Head north! Keep heading north.” We’d already been told that, and that we were to avoid towns. So we set off and it was moonlight, dark and cloudy. So, we were trundling on, then we came to another wire, a big wire with bells across the top. As soon as the wire was touched, the bells rang.

                                                                                                       Jack Ritchie and Walt as POW's

I said, “This must be no man’s land that we’re in, I reckon if we get through that wire, we’ll be in Switzerland.” But under the wire, they’d put bits of wood and bits of railing etc., so I got hold of one and pulled it back. Jack crawled under, and when he’d gone under, he shoved it back for me.

We set off through the fields and we came to the mountains. I said, “Oh, these must be the Swiss Alps.” I started climbing up a mountain, but it got dark. We tried to follow what we thought was the North Star, but all of a sudden, I disappeared. I went rolling over; I’d fallen down a ravine. I was in a right state. I could hear Jack saying, “Walt, weer ah tha? Weer ah tha? (Yorkshire dialect, Where are you?). I’d smashed my shoe and it’d made a blister on the side of my foot. Anyway, I scrambled back up, set off again and got back down, then through the fields and arrived at a road. We were marching up the road, when all of a sudden, we could hear, clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp. I said, “Oh, it’ll be the Swiss police.” I said, “Wi’s eter gi’ us-sens up sometime, (We’ll have to give ourselves up sometime), it might as well be now.” This was about 3 o’clock in the morning. Anyway, we went straight to ‘em; it was two German guards. “Andioch! Andioch!” And we were in civvies. Anyway, they prodded the bayonet into us and told us to walk on, put our hands on the back of our heads, and all this stuff. They took us to their headquarters and they got this Jerry officer out of bed. He was grumbling and grousing. I could hear him swearing, and he kept saying something to us, but I couldn’t tell what he was saying. . I sez to Jack, “Wot the dickens e on abart? (What’s he talking about?)” So he said, “Are you English?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Why didn’t you say so?” I said, “Nobody’s asked us.” He said, “What do you think I’ve been asking you for the last ten minutes?”

So, he asked us what we were doing, we told him we were escaped prisoners. Where had we been etc.? So he said, “Right, lock ‘em up.” So they shoved us into a…….I don’t know what it was, a coalhouse or what. When we got inside, there were a lot of spuds, potatoes; that was our bed. Anyway, the next morning, they whipped us out; they said nothing about washing or anything like that. They took us through to a big hall, like a school hall. Inside the hall, was a series of desks, and there were two at each desk. We found out that one was a German officer and one was an interpreter, and there must have been twenty of these. They took us in one at a time and they sat us on a stool in the middle. We’d arranged what to say beforehand; it’s a good job we had. I said, “For goodness sake, don’t tell ‘em who’s helped us. If they say ‘weer’ve ye got yer clooers, tell ‘em wi’v pinched ‘em (If they say (where have you got your clothes, tell them we’ve pinched them). And tell em, ‘look, wi’v bin livin’ offer t’land soorter thing’ (and tell them ‘look, we’ve been living off the land, sort of’).”

Anyway, they set off asking questions, they asked them from different points of view, and they’d ask us the same question three or four times in different ways. What they wanted to know was, “…….where are you from? What camp have you escaped from? Where have you got your clothes? Who had given them to you? Who has helped you? How have you been living?” Well, we daren’t tell ‘em for the life of us. I mean, they’d have gotten into trouble wouldn’t they?

They put us into jail, Milan Jail; we’d got fourteen days for escaping. When we went in, there were some more lads in there. We’d got a blanket, cut it in two, half for me and half for Jack, and that was our bed. In this room, which was about 10 by 10 (feet), there were seven plant pots, well, I called them plant pots, in the corner, with just a board round, like a shield. That was our toilet. Seven of us had to live in that place. They used to let us out for one hour a day, and that was for washing and toiletry etc. Apart from that, we were locked up, on the top floor in Milan jail. I’ll never forget that; not very happy days. But I guess it was all part of living in those days. After we’d spent the fourteen days in there, they took us to a barracks. There were some more lads, about seven of them. Of course, we were dressed in civvies, and they were in a mixed uniform comprising green trousers and light blue jacket. On the table in front of us were a loaf of bread and a tin of jam. We got to talking, and one of ‘em said, “Are you English?” “ I said, yeah, what about you?” “We are.” They said, “You don’t look it.” “I said, “No, we were in civvies and this is the uniform they’ve given us.” Anyway, they came with us; I’d a pair of light green trousers, a blue jacket and a khaki, French cap. Oh, and a grey shirt, and that was it. That was our uniform; anyway, we’d to stay in these barracks, under guard. The officer came one day and said, “You come with me.” He took Jack and me; we went into a house, attached to the barracks. There were two women in; one was his wife. She’d never seen an Englishman, so she wanted to have a look at what we were like. Ha! Ha! We were on show. Anyway, we stayed in those barracks for about a month, and, there was a Serbian Sergeant Major, whom I got pally with. Me and him, we used to wander as far as we could around the barracks. We couldn’t get out, there was no way out. But then, we found a road out of the back. We’d to get through the wires. I said, “Sithi, wi’ ‘n gerart er ‘ere (Look, we can get out of here).” I said, “Well, wi’s e’ te’ get prepared (we’ll have to get prepared), get some food.” So, we decided to get some food and said, “Right, tomorrow, we’re going.” Just me and him. But of course, I was taken bad with pneumonia wasn’t I? I was in a right state; I didn’t know what it was, I thought it was just ‘flu. The Italians, whom we’d been bartering with, through the window, wanted to know where I was, and they sent a doctor. Jerry let the doctor come in and attend to me. He gave me some pills and what not, took my temperature and told me to keep wrapped up. Well, the Sergeant Major, he went without me; he went on his own and got away. I was still a prisoner.

They took us through the Brenner Pass, then into Austria. We went to a camp there, near Moosburg, and at this camp, there were a lot of civilians. There were men, women and kids, and there was a compound, full of French and Belgians, but the compound that they put us in was full of Americans and English. There were long rows of beds, three storeys high, no bedding at all. One day a week, they used to take us into this big concrete blockhouse thing. It had no windows in, just one door that we went through. In the middle of the ceiling, was an aperture, and they used to put a hose pipe through, with water, cold water of course. That was our bath, but before we went in, we’d to take everything off, and the clothes went on a belt, then on to the end to be deloused. We got our clothes, well, we might not have got our own clothes, but we got some. Anyway, what we didn’t know was that the ‘shower’ was a gas chamber. If they didn’t want to put water through, they would put gas through. I thought, well, I’ve been two or three times in there, and when I think about it afterwards, they could have done away with us couldn’t they? So, we stayed there about a month, after which they took us through into Germany, to Camp 11B. There, we had to work in the iron ore mines. They used to march us off in the morning, around 4 a.m. if we were on days; we’d march about three miles, work a shift, come out and march back. If we were sick, that didn’t matter, we still had to go. I did quite a few weeks down the pit there. It was boring, tiring, all the lot, and I’m goina tell ya, it was heavy work, very heavy.

They started to let us use the baths after a while, but they didn’t provide us with anything, no clothing or anything. We used to get bathed, then get back into the same clothes that we’d worked in because that’s all we had. One day, they decided to let some of us work on the pit top. We’d a nickname for all the deputies: one we called Fishface, one we called Weasel……..well, I can’t remember them all, but there were all sorts of funny names. But while we were down the pit, we had settling lamps and Fishface had a stick; all deputies had sticks, as you know, they do in our pits. What he did, he got hold o’ one o’ our lads, and he was brayin’ (Yorkshire dialect, “hitting”) ‘im wi’ t’stick, so we went across to him and took his stick off him and threw it away. Then he started with the lamp, so we took the lamp off him. Anyway, they had us up in front of the camp Commandant and we explained what had happened. He let us off that particular time.

When we were on the pit top, my first job every day was to get two sacks of dandelion, clover and such as that to feed the rabbits for the deputy. Well, because I had been messing with the soil, on my hand I got a wicklow. I was in pain, I couldn’t go to work because my fingers had swollen up. I said to the Medical Orderly, “Look at this hand.” He said, “What yer done?” I said, “It’s a wicklow, well, I think it is.” So, they got a German doctor who came in on a Friday. He said, “Right, we’ll have to operate.” They didn’t give me any aneasthetic or anything, he just ordered a German guard to hold my arm, and he just cut it. I nearly went mad. A couple of days later, it was still swelling up and there was like, yellow stuff coming from it, so I showed it to the orderly again and he said, “I’ll show it to the officer when he comes.” When the medical officer came, he said, “Oh! I’ve cut it the wrong way, I need to cut it up, over and down on the other side.” He said, “Get him ready for Friday.” So I said to the orderly, “What can I do?” So he said, “Can you get any salt?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, the only salt I’ve seen is in the German cookhouse.” But, I managed to get some salt, and I got some boiling water, put the salt in and I kept bathing it and squeezing it until I got all the puss out. Then when the doctor came on Friday, he said, “Oh, an abscess.” So he got a pair of tweezers and pulled the abscess out, and do you know, I can still feel that to this day; it still affects me after all that time, and that was 1943.

After a while, the R.A.F. came over, bombing, and each hit seemed to be on farms all around. On this particular day, came the order: “You’re not going to the pits today, you’re going to clear up these farms.” The farm that we went to, we were getting all the debris out of the way, and there was a big whicker basket in the middle of the farmyard. We went to this basket, and after a while, I could hear this clucking, so I went over and saw an egg. I got the egg and I managed to get it back to the camp in one piece where we boiled it. And that egg, six of us shared it. It was a novelty. None of us had tasted an egg for several years prior to that day.

They decided to move us again. Now, we stayed in the same camp, but they moved us to different works. This place where we were working, we couldn’t understand it at all. They were making a big ramp, and we were supposed to be working on it, but we wouldn’t. We were having our own way. The ramp was built on a hillside, and there were some wooden steps. I said to the lads, “We can get out here.” We climbed up a shaft, and there was a trap door at the top. We opened the trap door, and we were out into the fields. We all three got out, but there was somebody else. They said, “Have you told somebody else?” I said, “No.” But who it was, it was a German who’d followed us, and he took us back. He took us into the office, and the officer went wild. When we got back to camp, they said, “After all we’ve done for yer……….” I said, “Well, it’s our duty to escape and we were trying to escape.” Anyway, we fouled it up.

They took us on a march and they were trying to get us through to their lines. We marched all day and then they put us into a building for the night. We set off the next day, and as we were marching down a road. I said to this lad with me, “Geoff,” I said, “Look, work your way to the back.” So we went from the front to the back, and a corporal said, “Wot ye playin’ at, you two?” I told him, “We’re goina get away.” He said, “Don’t bother.” “Why?” I asked. He said, “’Cos we’re heading for the Yanks.” So I asked, “How do you know?” He said, “Can’t you hear that rumbling across the back?” I told him, “I thought it was Jerries.” He said, “That’s not, them’s Yankees.”

We were marching down a road, when all of a sudden, we stopped, and the Jerries stated to mumble among themselves. There were some tanks coming along, all Yankees. They threw us some cigs and they said, “We’ll be back.” So, what happened was, we took over, so the guards that had been guarding us, we were guarding them now. We took their rifles and everything off of them, now they were our prisoners. The Yanks did come back about half an hour later, and they said, “Take ‘em down that road there, and you’ll find a lot more.” There was a big field full of Jerries. One of the Yanks said, “If there’s any o’ these that’s ill treat yer, any that have done anything to yer, now yer can get yer own back.” But they were all old soldiers and what have ya?

They took us into a village and they got whoever was the Lord Mayor, I’ve forgotten what they called him, and they said, “Right, all these lads have got to be billeted.” There were families all saying, “Come to my house, come to our house.” There was a little lad, about eight years old, and he got hold of my hand and said, “Come.” Anyway, we went to his house, and they (the boy and his mum) kept us, just us two, and, apparently, her husband was out fighting the English. We were with them for about five or six days. Then they took us through to a big camp that was full of Yankees, and there were a lot of women-Yankee army women. They were like our A.T.S.

                                                                                                                     Missing In Action Letter

They were feeding us. The only snag was that their urinals were ditches and we’d to crouch down on the ditches. We were exposed to the world, but that didn’t matter. Anyway, we spent about a week there, then they said, “Right, you’re lining up for documentation, ready to go back home.” We were queuing up all day. There was only one table at the end, so they said, “Right, that’s enough, you can all come back tomorrow.” One of the lads said, “I’m going, I’ve found a way to get to the front.” So he got to the front all right; he was from the Sherwood Foresters, and he got away a day before us. But what we learned later was that the plane he went on, crashed and they were all killed. So in a way, I was lucky.

We got through, to an aerodrome, and eventually, we were back home. We landed back home in Buckinghamshire, High Wycombe I think it was. When we got off the plane there, the Women’s Voluntary Service were waiting for us. They took us, two to each lad, to a big hangar where we were deloused. They shoved a hosepipe up our trousers leg, down our breeches, up our jacket sleeve, and there was a white powder. We needed it ‘cos we were well loused. Then they took us to a camp. At half past one in the morning, I was having a shower in this camp. Next morning, when we went for our meal, who should be in charge of the camp? An old school mate o’ mine, Sid Hurst. He sez, “Eyop, there’s hundreds passed through me and you’re the only one I’ve known.” So he said, “I’ll tell ya what, I know you’ve not had a lot to eat, but you can have as much as you want here, but take a tip from me. Only have a bit.” He said, “They’ve been gorging themselves, then they’ve been sliding under the tables and passing out. They couldn’t take it.” Our stomachs were only as big as a golf ball. He said, “If thuz owt tha wants to tek back wi’ thi’, I’ll fill thi pack. (If there’s anything you want to take back with you, I’ll fill your pack).” But all I was bothered about was getting back home. In three days there, we had two pay parades, no, it was less, it was a day and a half. We got all the documentation and took a train, and we set off back home.
We got to Sheffield station; we’d to make our own way from there. I managed to get to Wombwell station, then I got the 70 bus outside the station. Who should be on it? Some girls from the munitions. One in particular, instead of stopping and helping me carry my kit, went flying home. She said, “Your Walt’s comin’ dahn t’lane.” My daughter then was six years old, and there’s her and about six or seven mates, all came flying up the road, and she was saying, “That’s not me dad.” I said, “Ah, but I am old love.” I picked her up, and all the kids carried my kit. When I got home, there was a big thing over the door, “Welcome home Walt,” and all that. It was something I’ll never forget for as long as I live. After that, I think I got about 28 days leave, and then we’d to go back, to Gosforth, in Newcastle. All different units were there, and we had a bit of training. I had to go in front of the Medical Officer and I was declared unfit. They said, “You can have your release,” but I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want it.” “Why?” I said, “Well, I’ve been in touch with the man I used to work for, and he’s assured me I can get out of the army on Class B to do my regular work, bricklaying.” He said, “Oh, fair enough then, we’ll let you have that.”

In the meantime, what they did, they sent us to Ilkley on what they called a C.R.U., a Civil Resettlement Unit. We could wear civvies or uniform. They’d take us round all different places of work in England, northern England, Yorkshire etc., We went to Johnson and Johnson, we went to the Labour Exchange, painters and decorators, allsorts. If we saw a job we liked, they’d try and get it for us. The kid I was going around with then was, Bernard Crossley-Dent from Leeds, and he was a painter and decorator; they got him a job. I said “I have got a job to go back to,” which I had, back to the old firm where I’d worked as a brickie. I think we did seven weeks there, at Ilkley. The A.T.S. were looking after us. It was back to Civvy Street then, and that’s about it.
I know, when I look back, I didn’t know how lucky I was. I was very very lucky.

                                                                          Walter and The Mutti Family and other Italian friends on a post war visit to England