On the occasion of Remembrance Day, here is the fifth installment of my grandfather’s World War II memoir (see Harry’s WWII 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, the third detailed his daring escape and teaming up with a New Zealand sergeant called Smithy; the fourth described a particularly memorable day in their flight.
In this post, Harry and Smithy find themselves in the hands of the Germans again, but the American army is not too far away…
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR (part 5)
BY HARRY GREGORY
We set off next day, just six men and two SS guards, who kept looking at a piece of paper with “the address” of where we were going. It was not unusual for them to stop a passing farmer and ask the way.
Most of the time we would try to slow down the walk. There would be one guard at the front and one at the back, and six men getting further apart between. When we were strung out 100 yards, they would “raus-raus” and get us all caught up. We would sit down, take our boots off, go behind bushes and generally slow things down — working on the hope that the longer we took, the more chance the Yanks would come.
The guards knew what we were doing, but didn’t seem to care. In the distance we could hear gunfire and our guards kept turning us away from the front line, but still didn’t seem to want to hurry us. At nights we were left on our own in a barn or whatever, while the guards slept in the house and ate with the farmer (no food for us).
Plans for escape
It was difficult to know what to do. I figured if we tried to escape, there might be a guard outside. They might have planned a trap for us. It looked too easy. As things were so near the end, it would be silly to tempt fate again.
One day when in a wood, we decided it could be a good time to take over the guards. At a particular point in the song “Lily Marlene”, three would jump the front guard and three would see to the back guard. We would then take them prisoner and head for home.
We were on a path through silver birch and ferns, the sun was out and it was spring. We started to whistle the song and were nearly at the “take-over” stage, when I noticed a number of soldiers resting in the shadows just off the path, looking at us through the ferns. I am sure that if we had made a move they would have had our hides. Every time I hear the song “Lily Marlene” I remember that day in the woods.
And then I remember the rest of the day. Because we did not know it at the time, but this was to be the day of days… the day we would be free.
The magic words
About two o’clock we walked through a village where the people spat at us and threw stones. Then we came to a hospital, and we asked our guards for permission to stop and try to get some food. The officer of the Medical Corps spoke English. We told him we were re-captured POWs and asked what he could do for us. We said we were all sick and hungry, and not able to walk any further.
He then said the following magic words: “You see those woods over there? The American tanks are in there, and we expect them through here some time this afternoon. If I help you, will you give them a good report when they come?”
Would we! We would have promised him anything. So he pulled rank, and sent the two guards on their merry way. They were not very happy; but why should we care? We were VERY happy.
Enter the Americans
We waited on the concrete floor of a garage on the edge of the road. We could peep through a hole in the door and see German motor bikes and SS riders tearing along at a rate of knots. Then a period of quiet. Then footsteps walking down the road. And we saw them.
YANKS! Walking down the road looking so unconcerned. I learned afterwards that the other men with me had been POWs for so long, they had not seen an American uniform. I knew their reputation for being trigger-happy and did not want an accident at this stage of the game. I threw my arms in the air and shouted “Hi, Yank, how’s tricks?”
They stopped, gathered round, and shook hands. One shouted, “Hey, here’s a guy who speaks English.” It appears this particular section of Patten’s Army had landed in France from America and had not been to England, so they had not seen a British uniform.
I think I must explain how the American Army used to take a town or a village. They would march through and leave a couple of men in the local police station or in a large house they would use later as headquarters. A day or so afterwards, along comes the rear headquarters administrative staff with chewing gum and ice cream. But the Americans were moving so quickly, they had not much time to really clear out the Germans, who just slipped into a wood or a barn. They would then return later, kill the two or three Americans who were left behind (usually in the houses drinking) and re-occupy the village, take the food, and return to their own unit somewhere in the hills.
Free at last
Anyway, we were given cigarettes, gum, lemonade and tinned fruit. The officer in charge asked if we wanted to go on with them or go back. Once again I did it. “I’m going back. I’ve had enough of that way,” I said. Smithy and I were on our own, because the rest of the men decided they wanted protection. We said goodbye and never saw them again.
Free at last… but only just, as it turned out.
There’ll be one final installment to complete the memoir — perhaps next ANZAC Day? Until then…
Lest we forget