My Halifax crashed
while on a mission over Belgium.
In the early years after the war, there was so much that I wanted to put behind me, and yet the irony was that I still wanted to remember those experiences too, and it has taken fifty years to begin to record some of the events of the period January to May 1945. Some of those memories are still very vivid, others are somewhat hazy, and still others have seemingly disappeared altogether into the unconscious. What I have recorded is, however, to the best of my knowledge, an accurate account of those times, so that you, my family, may know a little about those interesting and traumatic months.
During the later part of World War II, while serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, my aircraft crashed while on a mission over Belgium. This is my account of that crash, my subsequent capture, and of my time spent in various P.O.W. camps, up until the end of the war.
I wish to express my thanks to my family for their encouragement, help, recording and preparation of these memoirs.
Second row, in the middle, Sgt Douglas H. Lawrence, RAAF
In the latter part of World War II, I was attached to Royal Australian Air Force 462 Squadron, which was equipped with Halifax heavy bombers. Before my final mission, the Squadron had been moved to an airfield in Norfolk, in the east of England. I was wireless operator on the Halifax heave bomber “Z5-N” call sign "Zebra Five November".
Our Squadron’s task was to divert the attention of enemy fighters away from the main bombing force by dropping strips of silver paper of varying sizes. The effect of the silver paper was that instead of enemy radar plotters being able to ‘see’ incoming aircraft, all they could see on their monitors was snowy screen, like an unturned television set, thus confusing (we hoped) their ground controllers. I suppose another way of putting it was that we were the bait while the big group of aircraft did their damage somewhere else.
The morning of my last mission, January the 6th 1945, began like so many others in England during the winter. Grey overcast sky, cold, and generally bleak, with a thin layer of snow across the airfield. The morning was generally free, and after a hot breakfast in the mess hut, I caught up on the washing, ironing, letter writing, playing cards and generally “saw what’s going on”. After lunch, the station was put on standby, which meant that no-one was to leave the airfield and no outside telephone calls could be made. Shortly afterwards, the three required aircrews were called in for the briefing sessions to explain the night’s mission.
The briefing was held in a special room, with desks, a blackboard and in particular large map of the area nominated for the mission of the night. The Commanding Officer began, who then handed over to the Intelligence Officer, and then Meteorological Officer, and all times and information were carefully noted. After this general briefing session, the navigators had their own detailed session, discussing compass bearings, diversions, cloud cover, any expected anti-aircraft activity, time over target, airspeed and all other relevant information. We signals blokes were given our bag of codes, had the code of the day explained, were given call signs, and times for listening for radio messages from the Air Controller in charge of the mission, regarding any changes in instructions. The pilots, too had their separate briefing. We then all collected our parachutes from the packing room, and heard the same old story of “If you have to use it and it doesn’t work, bring it back and we will replace it for you.”
My job, as the radio operator, included checking all the aircraft signals equipment, including the receiver, transmitter, intercom and the oxygen equipment. I also had to check and clean the crew’s helmets, and treat the inbuilt microphone diaphragms with anti-freeze.
We had a crew of eight for the mission that night, instead of the usual seven.
Pilot Officer Mervin Rohrlach from Kimba, South Australia.
Sgt John Sanderson, the navigator, from Tebay in Westmorland.
Flt Sgt Norman Scott, the bomb-aimer, from Hildenborough in Kent.
Sgt Eric Baker, the rear gunner, from Sedgley in Staffordshire
Sgt Viv Topham, the mid-upper gunner, from Tiverton in Devon
Sgt Joseph Beardsmore, the engineer, from Dudley in Worcestershire
Myself, Flt Sgt Doug Lawrence, the radio operator, from Unley, South Australia.
The extra man for that night was Flt Sgt Leslie Mannell from Griffith in N.S.W.
The mission for our crew and the other two, was to fly to the Ruhr Valley, a heavily defended area, dropping our load of silver paper strips on the way and on reaching Frankfurt, we were to return by another route.
For me take off was always exhilarating. Watching the four engines explode into life with a huge puff of smoke. Then seeing the increase in the speed of the propellers, feeling the lurch as the plane strains and leaves the dispersal area and taxies slowly to the end of the runway, and then the wait for the green light from the control tower. When the all-clear was received, there was the deafening roar of the four engines at full throttle and the surge of power as we increased speed down the runway. At times, I used to stand next to the pilot, and watch the white lines on the ground ahead, disappearing at increasing speed, then suddenly the ground drops away, and the feeling of speed gradually disappears.
It was always an exciting time, but little did we realize that this would be the last mission of Z5-N.
We took off at 1620, as all our missions were night flying, headed south east over the English Channel, and began climbing to our assigned altitude of fifteen thousand feet, and setting course for Belgium and the area of the Battle of the Bulge.
After take-off all headsets were tested again for good intercom and the gunners rattled off a few rounds to air-test their guns. The arm and the ground crew would have already done their loading and checking on the ground, but it was routine to test the .303 calibre turret Browning's in the air, once over the English Channel. All the head sets were tested for good intercom, and the transmitters checked with the control tower for both morse and speech transmission. It was then complete radio silence, except for talk between crew members.
It was a routine flight until, over Belgium, our bomber received an enormous impact, causing extensive damage and loss of control of the aircraft. The cause of the damage was, and remains unknown. There were no reports of fighters in the area, nor was there any report of anti-aircraft fire. There was no search light activity either, otherwise I would have seen it from my little observation window, so the mystery remains. I was knocked unconscious by the impact, and do not remember it occurring.
When I regained consciousness, I can remember looking around at my radio equipment and seeing a great hole in the nose floor of the plane, in the place where the navigator and bomb aimer worked. They had disappeared. Another great hole was in the side of the plane opposite my position, and just in front of the starboard engines.
You know, while I was assessing the situation, I can recall only two thoughts rushing into my mind. I thought of Mum, and then I looked at the large transmitter on the desk in front of me. I remember that not long before, in our radio room at the Squadron, I saw a similar set, completely flattened as result of a crash. They were my only two thoughts, except of course, for the immediate danger, so I reached out and clipped on my parachute which was lying on the floor next to the big hole by the starboard engine.
What happened next is a bit of blur, because one moment was standing by this big hole in front of the engine, and the next I was floating down to earth. I have no recollection of actually jumping or of pulling the rip-cord, but I do remember looking up and seeing a brown package about five feet above my head. I thought for a moment that my parachute had become detached, and that it was falling at the same rate at which I was falling, so I reached up, and tried to grasp it, and it was only then that I saw this beautiful, large white canopy against the black sky. What a sight, and my only words were “Thank you Lord”.
Falling was a delightful feeling with no apparent movement just a sense of being suspended above the moonlit earth, and it really looked beautiful until I saw the explosion below me, as our aircraft hit the ground. There were eight in our aircrew that night, and now seven of them had been killed. What a waste. Two of them were married and one had a little girl of five or six. Although the sensation of falling was negligible, falling I was. Very soon the ground began rushing up to meet me, and rather quickly too. I tried to remember the drill for landing - knees together, bend them slightly, feet together, back to the wind and don’t forget to roll when you land. Then the ground met me at about the same rate as if falling from eighteen to twenty feet. There was no need to take the parachute back. It had worked, and thus I qualified to join the “Caterpillar Club”, having saved my life by the use of an Irvin parachute.
My landing was in a large open area, covered in snow with a few large rocky outcrops. I was fortunate that I suffered no injuries to feet or legs, as many had done when they fell either the wrong way or in the wrong place.
My first job was to hide the parachute, and I quickly dug a hole in the snow and buried it. I was also wearing a “Mae West” and this too, was buried in deeper snow. I have sometimes wondered who found them when the snow thawed, and what became of them. If it was a Belgian farmer, then his wife would no doubt have access to a pure silk dress.
Where was I? Which way do I walk now? Who am I likely to meet? Where do I hide if the necessity arises? The aircraft lay a burning, crackling wreck about half a mile away, and I even thought I should go there for home strange reason. It couldn’t have done any good though, as I didn’t see any other parachutes in the air as I was coming down. I presumed the others did not get out, and this was later proved to be correct. The immediate problem was "Where am I?” and “Which way do I go?”.
After returning to England in May, I checked some maps of the area, and determined that we had crashed somewhere near the Belgian town of Jemelle (We have recently discovered that the crash site is approximately 2kms from the town of Hargimont). The bodies of my fellow crew members who all died in the crash, were buried in the Marche Military Cemetery, which was near the crash site and after the war were reburied in the Hotton War Cemetery, Belgium. I was later given a photograph of their graves.
First things first. There was plenty of heavy gunfire in three directions, north, west and south, and I thought this was all about five to ten miles away at the most, so I determined that I had landed behind enemy lines in the Battle of the Bulge. I headed east. Not far across the field was a roadway, and on reaching the edge I heard a vehicle approaching. I hid behind a small bush. The car was carrying three upright German officers, driven by their chauffeur. It passed within ten feet of me. Soon all was quiet again, so I decided to follow along the side of the road for a little. I rounded a corner and walked smack into a German soldier who was guarding a command post, and was immediately apprehended. I was apparently not as far from the front line as I had thought. So ended freedom.
I was ushered inside an old building, out of the cold, and stood before an officer. I cannot remember whether he spoke English, but I gather he was quite surprised to see an airman, because all he wanted to know was “Where did you come from?”.
The next hour was spent watching German soldiers play cards, with what looked like a whole deck of picture cards. I wonder what the game was called? At the end of this hour, I was put in the sidecar of a motorcycle outfit and driven for a few miles through the night to a camp of some kind, where I as treated exceptionally well for the rest of the night. Coffee and food was in good supply and there was no sign of bad feelings by my guards towards their enemy. Sleeping was the only problem, as there was no bed or pillow, and I was very tired. I removed my flying boots, and used them as a pillow, and slept on the concrete floor. When daylight came, my flying boots were still under my head. They could have been quite easily stolen during the night by some unscrupulous soldier which would have left me to walk in my socks, and that wouldn’t have been very funny in the middle of winter. I was given a good breakfast and then I sat in the back of a German staff car with an officer while we drove further back from the front lines. It is interesting to note that the officer was reading his Bible while escorting me to the next stopping place, where a very junior officer asked for my watch - a parting gift from my Mum and Dad - and when I refused, he asked me again, this time with a Luger pointing at me. I gave him the watch. I wonder where it is now, and have the new owners ever thought about the story behind this little wartime souvenir.
These two or three moves away from the front line, had us heading towards a small, town called, I think, La Roche. There in a large hall, I met up with a group of about one hundred American soldiers who had obviously been captured in the battle area. The hall must have been a collecting or assembly area for captured personnel, as men came drifting in at regular intervals. We must have been in this hall for a couple of days, and the only food was black bread and very weak dehydrated vegetable soup, but at least it was something.
I have tried to consider my mental state during those first few days, and I suppose I was living in a state of shock and confusion. I had been knocked unconscious by the impact or explosion or whatever caused the damage to the aircraft, then the parachute fall, with the extreme cold and lack of oxygen for a few minutes. There was the mental impact of being classified as a prisoner of war, and then the realisation that your friends are all dead, and I did not know if I was ever going to get home again. The mind can, after a while, become a bit out of tune with what is happening, and the only thing that really mattered was to do the right thing by those around you, so that I could survive.
By this time our squadron would have realised that our aircraft Z5-N, was missing, and within a few days, the news would have been passed on to those in Australia. My Senior Squadron Radio Officer, Flight Lieutenant Max Barcla, made the following brief entry in his diary:
“SUNDAY, JANUARY 7, 1945: Now at our new station in Norfolk. Doing highly important work acting as protection for the main stream. Results highly successful. The less details the better. Lost Roherlach’s crew last night. W/Op was Curly Lawrence, a nice lad of boyish appearance. We have a couple of 21st birthdays in the Section this month, only kids - or perhaps I’m getting old. They certainly do a good job. Last night’s effort was rather warm. Cookson was holed in the rear turret. Did my sixty first operation the night previous. Went as “spare bod” with Col Jackson, and rode in the mid-upper turret on the return journey. The effort was bomber support for the attack on Hanover. Bit of flack about, but it didn’t worry us. Got off track coming home & our own defences at Antwerp took a dim view of it. Searchlights got hold of us and we stooged on nice and straight and level just to show them that we were friendly & not attempting to evade them. Evidently they weren’t satisfied, & the next thing we knew, some……”
Over the Mountains
Morning came with a cold mid-winter wind and we were marshalled outside the hall. We were lined up in a column, in threes, with guards each side of the column, and set off. So began our three or four day walk through the snow covered mountains, with our heads pulled down as far as they would go into our jackets, and our hands stuffed deep into pockets. Our first night along the mountain road was spent in a large barn or shed, which had straw on the floor. We were given one blanket for each four persons, so it was a case of cuddle up close to keep warm that night. One of the Americans with whom I shared a blanket was a chef in civilian life, so being hungry, we four talked of food. We each discussed our favourite dish. Some of the American dishes were a little strange to me, but I managed to explain my favourite of steak and kidney pie with mashed potatoes and green peas. Our talk didn’t help to ease the hungry feelings we had, but it helped to pass the time on that very cold night. Can you imagine four under one blanket, and then one becoming a bit cramped - “O.K. blokes, all turn over - one, two, three, turn!” Then we would settle down again for another half hour or so.
The next morning was again cold, windy and overcast with light snow falling. The guards bought us some rye bread, and one of them, I noticed, was even bribing a couple of Yanks by refusing to part with it unless they gave a watch or some other article in exchange.
Again we were marshalled into our three ranks for another walk along the mountain roads, through snow which was at times at least twelve inches deep. Our eyes were continually looking for something to eat, and occasionally we found a piece of sugar beet by the side of the road. This turnip like root was not particularly appetizing, and was rather harsh to bite leaving a dryish taste in the mouth. After a couple of bites it was tossed away. It was while walking on the edge of these ice covered mountain roads, that I slipped, and if it wasn’t for the quick action of a young Yank, I could have ended up under the wheels of an army truck which was going in the opposite direction. That was two close shaves in one week.
That night we arrived at a town which I believe was called Euskirchen. Our walk so far had been about 50 miles and we were again put into a large barn and fed on dehydrated vegetable soup. There were three American airmen in our group, and these three lads and myself were separated from the Army soldiers, and brought into a room well away from the main group of men. The Americans were seated on the floor at the back of the room, and I was stood in front of a small table facing a “Lance Corporal”. For some reason he was most antagonistic towards me. Perhaps it was because he saw the “Australia” flash on my uniform, and he knew that our heavy bombers had been inflicting severe damage in his country. Perhaps some of his family had been hurt, I don’t know. He asked me, “How many civilians have you killed”, and I just answered, “I don’t know”. He didn’t like that answer, and one of his little off-siders became very aggressive. The next thing I remember, I was on the floor with blood coming from a cut over my eye. The Americans were also questioned and they later told me that I had also been kicked while I was down. My mind is a blank about that part of the episode, obviously the result of the concussion. Anyhow, after threatening to take me outside to be shot, I was marched outside by an angry soldier, with a gun at my back, through a large courtyard, and back to the barn. By this time I was a bit scared, and was almost at the stage of not caring what happened. On arrival at the barn, the German sergeant in charge of the prisoners took one look at me, and expressed genuine anger at the treatment which I had received. He went to quite a bit of trouble to find water and a cloth to help me clean up, and gave me a drink to help overcome any shock. A beer would have been better.
I must emphasize at this stage, that this is the only time in my four months in Germany, at a very difficult time of the war for the Germans, that I received rough treatment. There were quite a few occasions, however, when I was shown compassion. In any branch of the services, there is always a Small minority of men who like to be a law unto themselves, but the majority have more than an ounce or two of compassion, irrespective of the colour of the uniform they wear.
Next day, more walking over the snow covered roads through the mountains, fifty minutes walking and ten minutes rest. People do stupid thing at times, and I must have been really out of my mind this day, because what I did made the guards who were walking with us quite angry. I don’t think I set out to anger them, but just to annoy them, which I certainly did. Our column had the American officers at the front, then the soldiers, and then we four fliers at the back, This is the most difficult place to be in a column, because of the caterpillar like movement as it moves. I didn’t like it there, and gradually made my way o the front with the officers, only to be sent back again by the guards. This happened a few times and it was evident that one or two of the guards were becoming quite annoyed. I eventually stayed back, but it could have been rather nasty, I suppose
Toilet stops were usually in villages along the way, and there were, of course, no toilets, so it wasn’t unusual to see sixty or seventy men lined up by a wall, either standing or squatting, and the few civilians who were still living there were of course, the onlookers. What great candid camera shots these stops would have made.
Somewhere during these few days of trudging through the mountains, and during a rest break which turned out to be longer that usual, I volunteered or was volunteered for a stretcher bearing party. Maybe I was chosen because I was an airman. With a couple of guards, four of us carried two stretchers a hundred yards or so into the forest area, to the site of a crashed Mosquito bomber. Our job was to get the two bodies out, and take them to a guard post somewhere. It was not the most pleasant task, as their head injuries were horrific, and also, when I looked at the dead pilot’s identification tag, I discovered a name which was familiar to me. Anyhow, the task was completed, and we were able to resume our stroll. I have presumed that it was during this recovery and stretcher bearing episode that I received mild frostbite to all my fingers, a condition which didn’t finally disappear for three or four years. Each winter I experienced numbness and peeling of the skin as a result. It’s a wonder that my ears and nose weren’t affected as well, because I had no head covering, since my flying helmet was lost a few days before. I say ‘mild’ frostbite, because if it had been really bad, I am sure that the end result could have been far worse. As it was, the condition made things a bit awkward for awhile.
Our walk that day finished early in the afternoon in a railway yard, where we were loaded into cattle trucks, with standing room only. It was desperately cold and the roofs of the trucks were ice covered, with icicles hanging down from the edges. Our numbers had, by this time, swelled to over two hundred and we had no idea where we were going, other than that it was east. There wasn’t any food for the next day or two, much discomfort and a lack of hygiene neither were there any episodes which might have caused problems with the guards. What could we have done anyway. It was just a case of put up with the conditions we were in, and look forward to an improvement in the near future.
One young American soldier became mentally disturbed, but not physically violent, and his friends did their best to try to pacify him. He kept yelling about “silver bullets” which related to some comic strip which he had enjoyed reading, where a silver bullet was the only way you could kill some particular villain, the young soldier died after a few hours, and the Germans took his body from the train.
At one time while travelling through a heavily forested area, the train stopped suddenly, and all doors were rapidly opened, to the cries of “aircraft”. We were all urged quickly into the forest, and soon heard the rattle of aircraft machine guns as they strafed the train. We each tried desperately to hid behind a tree, and hoped that the pilot’s aim was directed towards the train and not us. However, it was soon over, and we were back in our cattle truck accommodation and moving again to our unknown destination. A few more hours, then it was out of the train again, walking towards a large damaged city, where we walk across one of the few remaining bridges, then another mile or so, before once again being shown into another large hall, where all our clothing was checked for some purpose or other. We were told that there was a shortage of woollen clothes in Germany, and our excess would help the war effort significantly. I had, all this time, been wearing my sheepskin flying boots, and two pair of thick socks, a very apologetic guard, and I believe him to be genuine, told me that one pair of socks must be donated to the comfort fund. I didn’t mind because my feet were quite warm. I was still able to retain my thick singlet, shirt, two pullovers, and battle dress jacket. He could have quite easily have taken a bit more, but my luck was in, as I had been checked by a nice guy.
On arrival at Frankfurt, we four airmen were taken from the train, and the hundred or so soldiers were moved further inside Germany to places unknown. After a short walk, we boarded an electric tram, and our guard delivered us to the interrogation centre at Oberusel, a few miles out of town. Here we were showered, and while we were enjoying this luxury, our clothes were no doubt, being searched for escape equipment. We were then placed in solitary confinement cells for the two or three days of our stay. Our only communication with others was by morse code against the wall of the neighbouring cell, until we got caught and told to stop.
The accommodation was rather Spartan as the cells were only eight feet by six feet, with a small barred window six feet above the floor. they were furnished with a bed made of floor boards on which was a straw mattress, so the only exercise was walking backwards and forwards and doing any other exercises we could think of to keep the blood going, prevent stiffness, and to keep our bodies from fading away too much. Food was fairly much the same day by day Rye bread and ersatz coffee for breakfast, and rye bread with barley soup for tea.
The only other drink available from the waiter was peppermint tea, whether we liked it or not. Luckily my room, and the others I suppose was equipped with a heater, like the oil type you sometimes find in homes, so used it to toast my bread for breakfast. I was taken to the Interrogation Office on a daily basis, and he always asked the same questions, name, rank and serial number and always got the same answers, name rank and serial number.
Frankfurt to Nuremberg
Two or three days later, I was put on a train and transferred to Dulag Luft where Red Cross facilities were available. This was the transit centre for captured for British and American airmen before they were assigned to a permanent P.O.W. camp.
This place was sheer luxury to what had been over the last week or so. We were showered, given clean clothes, shaving gear, toothbrush, soap and a bed to sleep in, straw of course, and a couple of blankets. The toilets were clean, with tiles on the floor. There was a doctor at the camp and we were given a good physical check up. I was able to get some physiotherapy for my knee which had been troubling me a little. We were also given writing materials, and permitted to post a letter home through the Red Cross agency. Mine never arrived so it was another three months before my parents knew that I was safe and well.
Our few days there was a good rest, and then on to another train, one with real carriages this time, and we headed south to a permanent camp at Nuremberg. Even this train trip was not without a little adventure. While at a station called Bad Homburg, just outside of Frankfurt, the train and the station were strafed by machine guns. Although there was a bit of flying glass about, no one on the train was hurt. The eight blokes in our compartment all finished up on the floor, with the quickest of them on the bottom.
The next day the train stopped again for an air-raid alert and we were very quickly ordered out. Looking out across the top of the train, we could see two or three American Mustang fighters heading our way with all guns blazing. I must admit it was a bit scary as each plane was coming directly towards ME, so the obvious thing to do was run, and I ran. Ten yards or so ahead of me, there was a ditch about two feet wide, the only shelter I could see, and that seemed adequate. As I landed in the bottom of the ditch I felt an enormous thud in the middle of my back. Certain that I had been hit by a friendly enemy, I felt around my back only to find that someone else was sharing the ditch with me, and I was his boot which had wacked me. What a relief.
The aircraft only made one pass over the train, as one of the pilots must have seen the “P.O.W.” letters written on top of one of the carriages. He acknowledged this by doing a wing waggle job before disappearing into the distance, looking for some other target. The only damage to the train was to the old engine, which received a few bullet holes in the boiler, and it didn’t take long before someone could see that there was an opportunity to make a cup of coffee using the hot water spurting out from the boiler. Always look for the positive things to do. During the attack an American soldier was injured when a bullet apparently went through his arm without even breaking the bone. A doctor on the train was able to render some help, so altogether I guess we were lucky, as things could have been much worse.
On arrival at the Stalag at Nuremburg, we were fingerprinted and searched. A fountain pen I had been given at the Red Cross Camp (no ink was given with it), was taken, and I believe some of the other men also had possessions taken, especially watches, with the promise that they would be returned when they left the camp. There must have been a good black market going in and around the camp. Sleeping conditions were very crowded, with bunks three high, and close together, so conditions were not as good as we had expected, but being at this late stage of the war, it was not considered important to spend time and effort on comfort of P.O.W. personnel. To help pass the time I was found a job in the communal kitchen, where the meals were prepared for a couple of hundred men. In our compound food was adequate, and there was always sufficient horse flesh coming in for the meat portion of our diet. This meant there was plenty of stew on the menu. This activity was enjoyable and certainly better than just sitting around all day. As a matter of interest, the Officer in Charge of the small working group in the kitchen, said that he was going to recommend us all for a “Mentioned in Dispatches”, but that was all talk, because he didn’t even know our names, let alone our service history. Good story though.
Back to Frankfurt
The senior officer of the camp came to me after I had been there a few days, and said that I had been called back to the Oberusal Interrogation Camp, on the charge that I had escaped. In reality I discovered that there had been a mistake while I was at the camp the first time. There had been two Lawrence’s at the camp and I was sent out instead of the other one. However, I was ordered to pack my bags, and was escorted to the main gate by this senior British officer, who reassured me that if I hadn’t escaped, then everything would be alright. At the main gate I was handed over to two older German guards, and the gate guard fulfilled his final duty when he handed me a tin of food about the size of a PAL dog food tin, and said that was to be my ration on the trip back. Just to make sure there was nothing hidden in the tin, he shoved his bayonet through the lid for some good measure. My two travelling companions were not at all impressed by the bayonet job, and the possible contamination it could cause, so when we were well away from the camp gate, they took my PAL tin from me and tossed it into the grass by the roadside. I didn’t feel like jumping for joy at the prospect of no food for a couple of days, and as these two blokes couldn’t speak any English, I didn’t really know what they were on about. However, they turned out to be real gentlemen in their fifties at least, and were well aware that Germany was on its last legs and would soon be defeated. As I said they couldn’t speak any English, and I only knew a few words of their language, but during the next three days on the train, we taught each other a little of each other’s language.
To reach the train, we needed to cross the centre of Nurnburg, and I was shown the massive square where some of Hitler’s rallies were held. Then it was on to a tram and then to the railway station where we were given a carriage to ourselves for the trip to Frankfurt. At this time the weather had improved, the snow was gone, the sun was shining, and I was wondering what was going to happen to an “escaped” airman when I reached my destination.
The Gift and the Grog
Our carriage had been shunted onto a side line in one particular station on the way, and one of the guards said he was going home for a while as he lived in this town. Before leaving, he made me promise that I wouldn’t try to escape while he was away, as it could be bad for HIS health. Anyhow, a directive had recently come from H.Q. in London to all prison camps, that because the war was close to an end, in the interest of POW. safety, they should not treat escaping as a game anymore, as it was too dangerous. Late that afternoon the guard returned to the train with his wife and two beautiful teenage daughters, who wanted to meet the airman. Not only did they meet the airman, but they bought him a gift. Rationing in Germany was, no doubt, very severe, and the gift these folk bought must have cut into their rations quite a lot, because they had made a cake. When they gave it to me they said only one word, the German equivalent of “German war cake”. I think it was the most touching gift I have ever received, and here again, why would they want to do this kind of thing. Why would they want to give an enemy something, which was no doubt a sacrifice on their part. Isn’t it a pity we can’t contact people like that a few years later, just to be able to say “Thank You”. A force of American Flying Fortresses overhead, brought the remark from one man, “Your planes good. Germany finished”. I agreed.
Next day we were on the move again, and we stopped on a siding to allow a troop train to pass, going in the opposite direction. The soldiers in the troop train asked one of my guards if they had any sugar they could exchange for a bottle of Schnapps. An exchange was made, and the two trains went their separate ways. A few minutes later there was a great shout of laughter. My two blokes had just realized they had received a bottle of Schnapps in exchange for a pound of SALT. Well, we three celebrated the occasions with a toast, and must say it’s the first and last time I have ever had Schnapps. It was truly powerful stuff.
On arrival at Oberusal, these two gentlemen, and gentle men they were, wished me well and handed me over to the new camp guards. After a shower, during which time my bag of clothes was searched, I was ushered into my cell, where I was kept for two days in solitary confinement without any contact with anyone. The officer in Charge eventually called me into his office where they told me I had escaped and would therefore be kept in solitary as punishment. Of course, I denied it, and then began the name, rank and number bit, for about ten days. There was however, a library in the camp, and on request, I was able to borrow a book every second day to help pass the time. This helped relieve the boredom, but the meals hadn’t changed. Rye bread, barley soup and peppermint tea.
One day, this officer escorted me through the camp gates for a hundred yards to the top of a hill and pointed out a palace that belonged to some king or other in the German past. Then, having had my first breath of fresh air in nearly a fortnight, it was back to my cell, where my cold barley soup was getting even colder.
More Train Travel
Discharge eventually came, and together with my bag of clothes and toothbrush (the soap had been pinched by a guard while I was out of my cell) I was placed with a group of airmen and we were put on yet another train for a slow trip back to a Stalag, via Dulag Luft, which was the Red Cross dispersal camp.
It was good to taste some real food again, and I can still see about a dozen of us, sitting at a long table and actually passing bread and butter along the table to each other. There seemed to be an unwritten code, that if something was asked for, as it was passed along, no one must take anything from that particular plate. Until this camp, I had never seen or tasted tinned bacon. The fact that none of us had seen it before made it taste even sweeter.
A Chance Meeting
Somewhere down the track, there occurred one of those coincidences that happen in life, when we meet someone at the most unexpected, in an unexpected place.. We had stopped, yet again, in a railway yard for the purpose of who knows what, and another train from the opposite direction pulled up three or four tracks away. Of course it was an opportunity to stretch the legs, so I did just that, and there, standing a few feet away was a friend from our RAAF training days at Victor Harbor, John Tulloch. Well, the tongues rattled away for the next ten minutes, until the whistle blew, and then it was back to our separate trains, and off in opposite directions. Why would two P.O.W. trains be going in different directions at this late stage of the war? John and I never met again.
Our trip from Frankfurt this time, was I think, through Ingolstadt, and then past Dachau to Munich, before turning north again to Mossburg. It was in the Munich area that we were off loaded and marched to a building somewhere near some large railway yards, and taken to what I can only describe as the nearest thing to a horror camp outside of a concentration camp. It could be that these were some of the stronger or fitter inmates of Dachau, who were bought in as a working party, and temporarily billeted in these huts. Here the inmates, or perhaps they were political prisoners, were all dressed in the typical striped clothing, looked terribly emaciated, and were involved in repairing the railway tracks after the frequent bombing raids. Inside their quarters, there were large boxes like packing crates, stacked three or four high on top of each other, and these were the sleeping places for these poor chaps. Several of our number became quite worried that this was what we were destined for at such a late stage of the war, but thankfully it was only a meal stop, for potato mash soup, then it was back to our train, leaving these prisoners to their misery.
On arrival at the Stalag at Moosburg, we were shown to our compound and were fortunate enough to get a bed in a good wooden hut near the gate. But during the next few days, more and more guests arrived, and conditions began to get crowded. And with crowding and poor toilet facilities, there was always the possibility of health problems. A few of us in our hut somehow managed to obtain medical supplies from the Commandant, via the guards, so that we could treat the most common conditions. The most common problem of all was diarrhoea treatment available for us was a spoonful of charcoal which seemed to help a little. There were two sets of toilets, one with six or eight seats, and there was always a queue outside these. The other was a large open pit, with a crossbar to sit on, but this was not too popular at all.
Life in this compound was certainly not like the television shows with ball games and vaulting horses etc. Just walking and sitting around talking and smoking of which helped to relieve the monotony.
When the Red Cross parcels came in there was always plenty of activity. This was a big occasion. One parcel between four men, and these were shared out as equally as possible, or put together for the common use of the four men. There were always some cigarettes in the parcels, and parcel day become barter day. The end of one hut was designated the “shop” or barter base, and cigarettes became a common currency. It was surprising what could be found for swap, as some of the goods did not seem the stuff that would come in a Red Cross parcel. The arrival of these parcels also signified the preparation of a special meal, a real banquet made from the contents, and this was a looked forward to highlight, which created plenty of activity around the one fuel stove in the centre of the building. There were other home made stoves too, called blowers, made from a timbered box with a metal top and a fan forced flame. Small scraps of wood were used for fuel, and when no more scraps could be found, there was always the floor of the hut which could be used, and it was.
One of the men I shared a parcel with was an Anglo-Indian who went to school. He told me, at Poona. He made the most delightful curry, and although it might have just been just the right strength for an Indian, it was not what I was used to at home, and it was definitely not like mother used to make. One mouthful of this delicacy and I felt as if my mouth was on fire.
The Padre and the Radio
Our “medical” hut had two other purposes. It was used each week for the Church of England communion service, and the same padre held other services for other denominations as well. He was a very popular and versatile chaplain but I guess versatility is a part of being a Padre in the services. It was really surprising how few attended his services and I must admit that although I always sat on my bed, which was just near his prepared table, I never once attended or took part. The other purpose of our hut was more secretive. At one end, and behind a home made partition was a radio receiver, and many eager heads were always bent towards the set when those friendly words “This is the BBC calling” came over the ether. News quickly spread through the compound about the allied army advances, and even the German guards were anxious to find out what was happening on the war front, and somehow the existence of the radio was never discovered. How the components or the set itself, found its way into the camp in the first place was a real mystery.
Flying Fortresses flew over one day, and unloaded their cargo of bombs nearby. On another occasion there was a night bombing raid by the RAF, so we hoped their bomb-aimers were accurate, as the red flashes from the explosions didn’t seem to be very far away, and some of our blokes expressed their concern when the ground vibrated from the explosions. Another day, we were pleased to see some allied jet fighter planes flying low over the camp waggling their wings in greeting.
The end of the war was obviously approaching, and we were now into the late part of April. The American Army, under General Patton, was advancing towards the southern part of Germany, and the rumours began to spread like wild fire about liberation, moving again, and the attitude of the Commandant towards his prisoners. When the liberating army was within one day of us, the guards were relieved of their rifles, and issued with wooden look-alike ones. Why?
There was no resistance when the Yanks arrived, and the guards were quickly rounded up, and lined up outside the compound wire. The low mentality of a few Yank soldiers, and I really hesitate to call them soldiers in this case, was much to the fore when they were calling out to us “Was this guard decent to you or not?”. If someone from inside the wire said “No”, the poor chap away over the nearby sand hill and apparently shot. That was the justice of the sickly kangaroo court behaviour, which I, and many others, found disgusting. These blokes considered themselves the victors, and thought they could whatever they liked. We were later told that many of them had never been battle tried, otherwise they may not have behaved in such a shocking way.
The barbed wire was still there, but we were able to move freely through the gate now, but really didn’t have anywhere to go until evacuation was organised.
My recollections from here on are very confused, and I finding it hard to put episodes into a particular place or time, but even so, they may be of some interest.
The open gates allowed many of us to access to the local brewery and cheese factory which was about one kilometre down the road. There was obviously much tasting of the local products, and some of it was brought back to camp. Personally, I didn’t appreciate the warm flat beer, nor did I like the taste of the types of cheese produced there.
On the Move Again
Another change of camp was imminent, and this time we were checked by a doctor, who was to decide who would walk, and who would go by train. The Medical Officer decided that I should travel in the train, but where we were going, no one knew.
Travelling by train turned out to be a bit of a bonus be the group who were walking were attacked by a couple of aircraft, and there were some minor casualties.
On one occasion, while we were walking through a forested area, we noticed some German soldiers who had been captured, being loaded into the back of American army lorries. What caught my eye was the sorrowful look on the face of one of these men. It was not that he had been captured, but that he seemed to have lost something, from the way he was looking and pointing. The truck moved away and nearby, on the ground, was a photo of a lady and a child.
I have another memory of being in a large warehouse style building, which had been used as a store for the German army. The large group of men we were with soon began souvenir hunting, and grabbed anything they could find from what had been left behind. One chap found a Luger pistol, and many grabbed brand new bayonets still wrapped in grease-proof paper, as well as other bits and pieces.
Our next stopping place was a disinfection station, where we were all treated for lice with D.D.T. powder. It was quite an experience having this powder sprayed under pressure under your arms and down your trousers. It was then on to the “Blue Danube” at Regensberg, and it was from here that we were repatriated to England. At the time I couldn’t understand how the word “Blue” could apply to such a brown river, nevertheless we had a wash in it, but did not dare to drink it.
A Real Bed
That night we were told to “make the best of it” at the aerodrome, as we would be flying out in the morning. Where to sleep was the question so three of us decided to try the local population, knowing full well that the war was still on! We door knocked a couple of houses, asking for a bed for the night and were finally shown into a room with a double bed, and that’s where we spent the night. Three in a double bed under the biggest doona in the world. It must have been at least twelve inches thick. Next morning, before we made our way back to the airfield, we were given a cup of ersatz coffee by the man of the house and his wife. He turned out to be a sergeant in the German army. After expressing our profound thanks for a very comfortable night, we were about to leave when the sergeant decided to give each of us some postcards from his personal collection, as souvenirs, and I still have these in an album.
At the airport, a couple of planes came in, picked up thirty or forty men, then took off again, but the excitement hadn’t finished yet. A J.U.87b dive bomber circled above and then turned towards the airfield, causing a mass movement towards the perimeter for safety. But the pilot had apparently decided give himself up, and after landing, walked up to the Officer in Charge. His plane was soon surrounded by an armed guard, so we couldn’t get a good look at it from close quarters.
My next recollection after this airfield incident is being on the back of an army truck, and being driven through the French city of Reims, and passing the beautiful cathedral there, and then being loaded onto a I aircraft, so I presume we must have been air lifted from Regensgerg to an airfield somewhere near Reims. It really didn’t matter, because we were going ii the right direction, north.
There was plenty of excitement, as V.E. day had come at last, and we were going back to the U.K. The DC3 in which we flew home, was a very noisy plane, and a very safe one too, and after an hour or so we were back on the ground in England, and on a bus to the south coast. Some of us were lodged in the Metropole Hotel, and some in the Grand Hotel on the seafront at Brighton, the very same place which was our first camp when we arrived in England from Australia in 1943. We had, if you like, completed the full circle. The only sour note was that one of the Lancaster bombers ferrying liberated prisoners from France crash landed at its home base, killing all on board.
What a sight we must have been. many of us were thin and unshaven, and wearing a variety of clothes, some of them rather ragged. Somewhere along my travels I had swapped my torn blue air force jacket for an American khaki one I had also swapped my flying boots for a pair of American leather army boots, as the flying boots were getting too warm, with the improvement in the weather.
One of my first priorities upon reaching Brighton, was to write a letter gram back home, but the Air Force were quicker off the mark, because Mum and Dad heard of my safe return the day after I was back in the U.K. Mum later told me that Dad was at his desk (at Keswick Barracks, I think) when the Air Force telegram arrived by special delivery. They had only ever heard that I was missing, believed killed in action, and when the telegram arrived, Dad was almost too scared to open it. When he did, he said the tears just poured down his face in relief. His boss gave him an early minute that day.
We were in Brighton for a week or so, having medical check ups, being interrogated regarding the camps we had been in, and any war crimes we may have witnessed. We were then issued with new identification cards, new informs, and special ration tickets because of our malnutrition. With the new diet we soon managed to pick up some of the condition we had lost while guests of the Third Reich. I eventually regained the three stone which I had lost and no doubt began to look like a normal human being again.
Physically we were pronounced “much improved”, but I guess that a lot of the blokes had emotional scars that wouldn’t be healing for sometime, as many of these men had some horrific encounters.
Another of my priorities was to contact Mr and Mrs Butler at whose home in Berkshire I had spent much of my leave. Mrs Butler had really taken a few airmen under her wing, and took a great interest in all of us while we were away from our homes, and we all regarded her Berkshire Manor House as home, and a place to rest.
I had written to them from the Red Cross camp in Germany, but as that letter as well as the previous letter to Mum and Dad, never arrived. Mrs Buttler told me later that she knew something bad had happened, and was convinced it was Merv, my pilot, and not I who had survived.
We all missed the V.E. day celebrations, as we were still in France, so in a way, the war’s end went a bit flat, but we were more than thankful to be back safe.
From May to the end of July was like an extended holiday, as we were able to get leave passes as often as we liked, so it was an excellent time to catch up on the English relatives, and stay with the Butler family.
Back to the Manor
My first leave was, of course, to the Butler’s farm. The train from London passed through Reading, and then a few miles further on to Newbury, where Mrs Butler was waiting at the railway station. She was a really lovely lady, and I can’t really give her all the praise she deserves, as an understanding second Mum. It was good to be with her again, and despite the many people on the platform, she hugged and kissed me as if I was her own son. I suppose she had quite a few adopted sons during the war, as I can recall sharing her home and hospitality with other Australians, New Zealanders and Americans.
This week was truly relaxing, just sitting around talking, walking through their private wood, wandering the farm with Ann, one of their daughters, attending the Church on the property and being taken on a few car trips through the green countryside. After returning to Australia, I kept in touch for three or four years, and then didn’t hear from them for quite a while. After making further enquiries, I discovered that Mrs Butler had died of cancer, and that Mr Butler had remarried, and moved to another of his properties in Northern England.
Most of Dad’s relatives lived in Berkshire at Reading and this was only a few miles from Newbury, so it was convenient to call on them on at this time as well. I had always enjoyed visiting pipe-smoking Uncle Harry and Joan in their two storey house, and spending the evenings talking and listening to music. Dad’s mother was still alive and was cared for by his sister Nell. They lived in a small cottage just out of Reading, but I must admit that although I made a point of visiting all the relatives as far as possible, most of my leave time was spent doing some sight seeing or relaxing away from the squadron.
I was also able to go down to Torquay to visit Mr and Mrs Topham, the parents of my mid-upper gunner, Viv Topham. They were very welcoming, and apart from visiting some of the local tourist sites, Mr Topham had access to the crypt of the large cathedral in town. He took great pleasure in taking out some of the Bishop’s regalia. The vestments were magnificently embroidered, and I guess they had some religious significance, but to me they were just beautiful garments.