In commemoration of Remembrance Day, in honour of all the men and women who have fought and died in war, I’m sharing the third installment of my grandfather’s memoir of his experiences during World War II.
I started this series on ANZAC Day earlier this year, and have been sharing the 7,000 word memoir in stages. The first two installments were:
In part 3, we pick up the tale just as Harry Gregory (my paternal grandfather, a Sergeant in the British Army) and a New Zealand sergeant called ‘Smithy’, who have been prisoners in the German POW camp Stalag 383, have decided they will NOT participate in a long forced march across Germany the next day.
Instead they take their lives into their hands and attempt an escape…
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR (part 3)
BY HARRY GREGORY
Our hut was built on a piece of land which sloped from front to rear, so that under the floor was a space — about one foot at the front and about three feet at the back. We prised a few boards up and made a shallow trench that held the two of us. Then, with a bottle of water and what clothes we had, we lay on our backs with our faces about six inches from the bottom of the floorboards.
The others in the hut put back the boards and brushed dirt and dust into the cracks to hide the joints. So we waited most of the night and into the dawn.
In the morning we heard the prisoners being paraded for roll call, and then what we had been afraid of actually happened — the guards searched the empty huts with Alsatian dogs. We had one dog within six inches of our noses, sniffing and whimpering. We both held our breath and I remember thinking, “I hope they don’t fire through the floor.”
It was a horrible moment of time until the dogs were called outside and the guards went. Then came a time of suspension — no moving, certainly no talking. Would the guards look UNDER the hut from the downward side? And if they did, was our trench deep enough?
Well, I can tell you this, they DID look under the hut and we looked them straight back in the eyes. There are two reasons I can think of why they did not drag us out — either they could not have cared, thinking that the fewer men who would be on the march, the easier for them; or else the bright sun made the darkness of the underneath difficult to see into.
I rather think it was the sun in the eyes, because the German soldier is usually very efficient.
Grins on faces
Things became very quiet after the departure of the men. They must have looked a raggle-taggle lot — 1500 men with tin cans tied to their middles, and all kinds of gear which was not army issue. They were mostly unwashed and unshaved.
We waited for hours, and it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon when we heard an English voice shouting “Is anyone there?” We crawled from under the hut and found that we were not the only ones to have missed the march.
They emerged from here and there: from under the floorboards, from the rafters in the cookhouse, even from the latrines where they had hidden next to the sewage pits. They didn’t smell of lavender but they had grins on their faces. We did hear that there were a couple DOWN the pits, but didn’t see them, so can’t confirm the story.
The hospital at the other side of the camp was occupied by a number of sick patients and a British Medical Officer who sent out a message that he would not be responsible for anyone if any man left the camp. What a lot of rot. What did he think we were going to do? Sit around without guards and wait for the S.S. troops who were roaming around the countryside to take over again?
We heard later that this did actually happen — a detachment of S.S. troops returned to the camp and took charge. They manned the towers and took over the hospital; they locked up the men who had stayed behind and had obeyed the medical officer’s orders not to leave.
Two bicycles, a blanket and a piglet
Smithy and I looked around the camp and found everything but food. We found clothes, books and handmade blankets of various colours. One of these I took; it was a heavy woollen multi-coloured blanket which someone had spent a great deal of time making. This was the only thing I took back to England and we used it for many years, even bringing it to Sydney when we came in 1948.
We decided to lie on our own bunks for the night, and when the sun started to rise we walked away from the hut for the last time. We did not see anyone else around the camp, but leaning against the late Commandant’s office were two bicycles. One was a lady’s without a cross-bar — that’s the one I got! We rode out of the gate which was open, expecting a shot across our bows… but no shots.
We were away in the open country and came across a farmyard on our right. Do you know what we found in the barn? A few sacks of maize, and in a pig sty there was a little piglet. It was soon a dead little piglet and hanging over a fire. (I can’t remember where we got the “fire” from, because later on that day I had no matches.)
It wasn’t very long before we were both very very sick. The pig was too fresh of course, and the maize was indigestible. I never have eaten maize since, but I was never put off roast pig.
Smoking with the enemy
After a rest, we mounted our trusty steeds. We didn’t know where we were going; all we knew was that England was westwards. Pedalling along, we turned a corner and came upon a stone bridge over a river. Sitting on the bridge were a dozen or so German soldiers, looking very bedraggled and dejected.
Smithy put on speed and went through them. I thought, “What the heck. Here we are, we can’t do a thing, if we’ve had it that’s it.” So I stopped the bike, put it against the bridge, pulled out a bit of cigarette, put it in my mouth and asked one of the soldiers for a light.
He took out a match and lit my cigarette. I looked him straight in the eye and winked. He smiled and turned away. Smithy was waiting a hundred yards down the road, and I caught him up walking my bike. I remember thinking, “What a crazy world. Here we are smoking with the enemy — hope they don’t put a bullet in our backs.”
Don’t be fooled, Harry and Smithy are not out of the woods yet… There’s still quite a lot of the story to go as Harry and Smithy navigate their way through war-torn Germany westwards towards England. But that’ll be in the next installment.
Lest we forget.