Today is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand — a National Holiday when we honour those who have fought and died for our country.
Many families have stories to tell about grandfathers, uncles, fathers, brothers who have served in our armed forces, voluntarily or otherwise. Some who returned; some who did not.
So in commemoration of ANZAC Day I have decided to share my grandfather’s story — in his own words. (Or at least the first part of it!)
My father’s father, Henry Arthur Gregory, served in the British army during World War Two. He was captured in Italy and imprisoned in Germany’s Stalag 383 POW camp (Hohenfels, Bavaria) for a while before a daring escape towards the end of the war. Thirty years later he typed up his memoir of these experiences and thanks to modern technology we’ve been able to scan and convert to text.
It’s about 7,000 words, so today I’m sharing the first part, which tells of his capture by Germans and transport to the first staging camp, instilling in him a lifelong hatred of garlic…
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR
by Harry Gregory
It’s very difficult to know where to start… memories are memories and time is time, and over a period of 30 years the memories turn to facts in the mind and time is something which becomes confused and out of sequence… where the facts in this story are facts, the timing might be out… if I say “about 3 days” it could be one day or a week, but I will try to be as accurate as possible.
I was a [British] Sergeant in charge of a Bofors Gun. It was Swedish made and used mainly for anti-aircraft work, measured 40 mm and fired at the rate of 120 rounds per minute. I had a detachment of 10 men, who lived together, worked together and played together.
Shooting down German bombers
We came through from Algiers to Bizerta attached to the Americans stationed on aircraft defence of their aerodromes and petrol dumps. We had quite a bit of action in Bizerta and shot down two German bombers one night — that was the night a bomb fell on one of our other guns and killed some of our mates. I still have one twelfth of a flare parachute we salvaged near the gun pit — beautiful white silk.
Later, when we landed in Italy and it was found that the German Air Force was no longer a threat, we lost our guns and were turned into front line infantry troops, and spent our time clearing out the villages in the mountains in the centre of Italy. At this time it was snowing and very cold.
The Germans were just ahead of us most of the time, unless we caught up with them, or — in the case of the capture of myself and 6 of my men — when they caught up with us.
Captured in the Italian mountains
The mountain troops who were our hosts were hard core professionals, dressed in white snow clothes and very expert at their job. They gave us cocoa, and bread, and cigarettes, and marched us over the mountains to their headquarters. It took about four hours to reach the dugouts, and until you were within five yards of the entrance they could not be seen in the snow and trees.
From then it was a matter of going further back to different headquarters under different guards until we were put into a camp of prisoners picked up from various parts of the front. It was here I met my first Australian soldier, along with New Zealanders, and of course American and British.
We had by now reached the Northern part of Italy, and one morning marched to a railway siding where a train of cattle trucks were filled with troops. The trucks had a message written on them which ordered that each truck was to be loaded with “8 horses or 50 men”. In between were guard vans with German troops and Alsatian dogs, not on leashes, and liable to attack anyone who stepped out of line. They were well trained dogs and obeyed a command spoken in German. I have seen 10 guards and 10 dogs look after 1000 men on the march, and I never saw a man step out of line nor attempt to annoy a guard when he had a dog with him.
Cattle truck, 50 men, one bucket
The journey through the Brenner Tunnel was held up for two days and two nights. We were given to understand that the R.A.F. was bombing the line just north of the Tunnel and it was not safe for the train to leave — so there we stayed in the dark. We were given no food nor water. One bucket for 1atrine purposes was not emptied and it became a work of art to find it in the dark. After the first day we just didn’t bother. What was the difference whether it overflowed where it was or where you lay.
I can honestly say that 50 men can just about lie down in a cattle truck, but if someone moves in the dark, someone else had to move over. You got to know a person by his voice and were apt to think that the deep voices would belong to a big man, but this is so often not the case.
Every day we had a round black garlic sausage thrown into the truck. The door would slide open and a hurricane lamp placed on the floor; the sausage would come flying through the air to be caught by anyone lucky enough to be in the way. I cannot remember how anyone managed to get a fair share or even if they did. I know it put me off garlic for the rest of my life. Still no water.
Crazy with thirst
A few miles north of the tunnel and running parallel with the line is a river some 200 yards away from the track. One man from each wagon was given a bucket and told to fill same with water and bring it back for his mates, and if he was foolish enough to drink before he had reached the wagon and everyone had had their fill, he would be missed out of the drinking parade. This, of course, was torture for the man concerned as it meant quite a few trips to the river to satisfy 50 men. I actually saw one man go crazy — eyes bulging and mouth frothing when the bucket was passed to him. He had to be restrained and I heard later that he had to be put into a mental hospital for treatment.
We made plans to escape through the floor of the truck and had pulled up a floorboard when we began to get into the more populated parts of Austria. The sidings of the towns we passed through were piled high with railway wagons and trains scattered about the lines and tipped on top of one another.
Still no food
We saw wagons loaded with machinery on their sides and rails buckled. It was a slow job getting through — all by courtesy of the Allied bombers. We saw troop trains loaded with soldiers going to the front and would cheer it with the “V” sign. The cheering and jeering grew louder because no one fired at us. Soup kitchens had German soldiers lined up for soup coffee and buns. I suppose it was coffee although the coffee was ‘ersatz’ and made from nuts and beans… And still we were not fed.
Shunting and stopping and going forwards and backwards took two days before we arrived at our first big camp holding about 6000 men.
It’s amazing to read this first-hand account of one man’s war experiences, and I’m so thankful he wrote them down. I will share the next installment, involving arrival at Stalag 383, in time. (Click on Harry’s WWII memoir for all posts.)
Lest we forget
[edit 25 April 2016] I posted the final installment of my grandfather’s memoir on ANZAC Day 2016. The subsequent posts are as follows: