Last ANZAC Day I began posting installments of my grandfather’s World War II memoir. The first post told the story of him getting captured in Italy, the second was about life in the German POW camp Stalag 383, and the third detailed his daring escape and teaming up with a New Zealand sergeant called Smithy. Read them all here.
In commemoration of ANZAC Day today, I’m publishing the fourth installment, which describes a particularly memorable day in their flight…
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR (part 4)
BY HARRY GREGORY
I can’t remember how many nights we slept out — I know we were hungry. One day I do remember was a sunny one. We hadn’t eaten since the pig episode and came across a small cottage at the corner of two roads. It was an English type of house, built of stone with flowers and shrubs in the garden. It looked very cozy.
Bread and cheese
We decided to see what was what — we needed food. The door was opened by a chubby, middle-aged hausfrau who was very taken aback to see two British uniforms at the door. They asked us in and we sat at a cleanly scrubbed plain wooden table eating bread and cheese.
We were feeling better when the door opened and a German officer came into the room. He wore an armband with a red cross, so we guessed he was a doctor or a medical orderly. His head nearly hit the ceiling when he saw the two of us sitting down at the table.
He asked us (in English) what we were doing, and I told him we were two British officers attached to the advance guard of the American tanks which were “just down the road and getting nearer”.
He went pale, threw his arms in the air, and told us that he had better go to the next village about 1/2 mile away, and tell the burgomaster and the town council to get ready for the takeover. After shaking our hand, he left.
We sat down and finished our bread and cheese. On leaving, we looked back and saw a huge white sheet hanging out of the window, and reckoned we had taken a village without a shot being fired! Can you imagine two British officers, unshaven, riding bicycles, without weapons, riding ahead of the American Army taking surrenders?
The medical officer was true to his word. When we arrived at the next village, the burgomaster and town elders were on the steps of the Town Hall awaiting our arrival. We were also surprised to see a number of British soldiers standing around. They said they’d been in hiding for a few days and had come out when told the Americans had arrived. They were surprised to see us, and to hear that we were the army of occupation.
We demanded that all arms and ammunition be put on the Town Hall steps, and as I personally did not want to be armed (we thanked our lucky stars for that decision later that day), told a Corporal that we were leaving and for him to do what he wanted with the arms.
So away we went, and just after noon we heard a car coming up behind us, and dived into the ditch at the side of the road. We poked our heads up and saw a little V.W. car holding the six British soldiers we had left at the village. They gave us a wave and passed us at a great speed.
I felt very stupid and thought how silly we were sitting in a ditch, while the other blokes were going home at 60 miles per hour. But then a minute or so later we jumped off our bikes because we heard the sound of machine gun fire up ahead.
Tables turned again
Smithy and I had a little meeting, and as usual yours truly opened his big mouth first. “I’m going on, mate,” says I. “Could be some of ours…” Famous last words.
We were going around a bend in the road with a wood on the right hand side. On the left hand side about 100 yards away was a detachment of German soldiers sitting down having a cuppa. (We didn’t know until after the war that at that particular time the German Armies were retreating from General Patten who was advancing at a rate of knots.)
I waved and they waved back, with great big grins on their faces… and do you know why? They could see around the corner. Across the road were four S.S. soldiers with rifles pointed at our heads. We fell off our bikes and put our hands up. Caught again!
The V.W. and its six men had tried to crash a barrier put up by the S.S — hence the shooting. The driver was killed, the car overturned, and five very dejected men awaited our arrival with the S.S. doing the entertaining.
I remember thinking as I fell off my bike: “I’ll keep my big mouth closed in future, and listen to Smithy’s ideas first.”
In the custody of the S.S.
We were taken a couple of miles back into the woods, and found ourselves in the S.S. Headquarters — an ancient castle with drawbridge and moat. We were all questioned separately and must have given the same answer: “We were all escaped P.O.W.s trying to get home.” The doings of the S.S. were known to all of us and we thought we were to be shot. Hitler had given such an order, and we had heard on the grapevine about a number of escapees who had been re-captured and killed by gunfire.
Again we seem to have been lucky, because the officer in charge told us we were to be taken back to the Bavarian mountains by two guards, and that they had instructions to shoot if we attempted to escape.
I reckoned the time I had come nearest to being killed was when I had rounded the corner and faced four rifles — it’s no wonder we both fell off our bikes. I wouldn’t give them any more chances. Or so I thought!
In the next installment, Harry and Smithy (and friends) deal with re-capture, but eventually do in fact meet up with American forces.
Lest we forget.