In commemoration of ANZAC Day, I’m posting the sixth and final installment of my grandfather’s World War II memoir. This details the final leg of his escape and flight through Germany with a NZ sergeant called Smithy.
To read all six installments in order, head to the first post Capture and the Cattle Truck, which now has links to all subsequent posts.
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR (part 6)
BY HARRY GREGORY
Smithy and I returned to the village we had passed through earlier in the day. Lo and behold, the same people who had been spitting and stone throwing were now sitting on American jeeps, enjoying cigarettes end drinking wine. It made me so mad.
We went on and sauntered uninterrupted along the road, until we reached another village at about 5 o’clock in the evening. We saw a Jeep outside a house and knocked on the door. Inside were three Americans sitting down and drinking with the burgomaster and his family. They gave us food and drink, and at about 8 o’clock Smithy and I finished up in a great double bed with clean white sheets.
In the morning, we went downstairs expecting to see our American friends, but they had gone. We were now two lost souls in a village on our own. We didn’t know if the burgomaster was friendly. He seemed so last night, but then there were three Americans to look after us. We were given eggs for breakfast — another sign of friendship, or were we being delayed until the S.S. could get back? We thanked our hosts and scarpered as quickly as possible. A few locals watched us pass by, and curtains twitched as we walked.
“Can you drive?”
Smithy spotted it — a near-new, beautiful red Mercedes Benz sports car. It was in a garage, with the door open. When we sneaked in, we found the keys in the ignition. It had a doctor’s insignia on the number plate and looked very inviting.
Smithy said “Can you drive?” and I told him I could but I hadn’t got my licence with me! We pushed the car out of the garage, and let it freewheel down the road with us in the two seats. Smithy started the engine and away we went. I had no fear of a bullet — the Doctor would surely not risk hurting such a little beauty.
We left the village, and after an hour or so passed more American tanks and troops going up to the front. We decided that our necks were too valuable at this stage to get shot at by some wild west cowboy; so we stopped an officer, borrowed some petrol, painted a white cross on the red bodywork, and made a Red Cross flag for the bonnet. And so our car became a Red Cross car for our trip back.
Nuremberg and the Very British Officer
We arrived in Nuremberg, which had been taken by the Americans a day or so earlier, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The Town Square in Nuremberg is a huge cobbled area, and it was empty — no movement at all. So we stopped in the centre of the square, ready to scarper at short notice if necessary.
Then we saw him — a British officer with his stick under his arm and buttons polished. I felt very superior somehow… here I was coming back from where he would be going. I went over to him, threw up a salute. I felt like saying “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, but saw his Jimmy Edwards type mustache, and knew this bloke would stand no nonsense. He scowled at us, and asked us where the hell we thought we were, why hadn’t we shaved, and “why were we dressed like that?”
I could have crowned him. We told him who we were, and he asked where we intended to go, and what were we going to do with the car? I told him I was going to drive it through France (Smithy had said he didn’t want it) and leave it there for collection after the war. “Like Hell!” said he. “Put it in the motor pool and find yourselves somewhere to sleep for the night, then report to the airfield in the morning.” So we knew we were going to be flown home.
“Have escaped from Germany — home tomorrow”
We took ourselves and the car to a Yankee medical unit, where we scrounged a feed and a bed for the night, and sold the car for 200 cigarettes. The last we saw of the Mercedes was the following morning. It was painted khaki with a big white star, and a medical flag on the radiator. I often wondered if the Doctor owner ever saw it again.
We met Marlene Dietrich the next day on the airfield. She was serving out doughnuts and coffee to the troops. I had a set of poker dice I always carried, and I asked her to autograph them for me. I still have them, but the writing has faded with time.
They put Smithy and me in the nose of a Halifax bomber and flew us back to England. We were flown to a place near Reading and given new clothes. I sent a telegram home to Charlotte: “Have escaped from Germany — home tomorrow”. The girl at the Post Office refused to take money for it.
Smithy and I shook hands and said goodbye. One day I may go to Lower Hutt, New Zealand, and say hello. Many years later on Brampton Island in the Barrier Reef, I met a couple who lived in Lower Hutt, and knew Smithy. They told me that when he arrived home, he was given a civic welcome, with the Mayor making a speech, since he was the only man from Lower Hutt to escape from Germany and arrive back before the end of the war. Smithy was discharged from the Army the moment he reached England.
I was given a month’s leave, and did another 12 month’s service. In fact, I was almost posted back to Germany into the Army of occupation. How I scrambled out of that is another story. It was three days later that Hitler died in the bunker in Berlin.
Port Macquarie, 28 years later
In 1973, I applied for membership of the Port Macquarie RSL Club, and this conversation took place:
Secretary: “Can you prove you were in the Army?”
Me: “Sure, here’s my old Army paybook.”
Secretary: “See you have had this one issued in lieu of one lost overseas — that was a silly thing to do wasn’t it? Losing your paybook?”
Me: “I guess it was, but I didn’t have it on me when I was captured.”
Secretary: “So you were a POW. So was I. Which camp were you in?”
Secretary: “So was I. I managed to escape towards the end.”
Me: “So did I.”
Secretary: “Four of us stole a VW and got back to Nuremberg.”
Me: “Smithy and I stole a Mercedes Benz and got back to Nuremberg.” (I felt very superior because ours was a MB.)
Secretary: “Well, I’ll be damned — for it was you who was the person on the ferry at Nuremberg, and I could not get on. For 28 years I have been telling the story of a lanky British sergeant who got on the ferry in front of me and took the last place.”
He grinned, and said, “I’ll put down on your application form that I have known you for 28 years. That will make the committee sit up and take notice.”
And he did… and they did… So I heard.
As mentioned, this was the final installment of Harry’s WWII memoir. To read all six installments in order, head to the first post Capture and the Cattle Truck, which now has links to all subsequent posts.
Lest we forget
6 thoughts on “Harry’s WWII memoir: Home on the wheels of a red Mercedes Benz”
What a great story! I loved every installment.
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Thanks for sticking with it to the end! I’ve found it an interesting and not often considered perspective.
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I love this whole story, Ellen. What a treasure to have this from your grandfather!
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I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kim. Yes, we’re very lucky he wrote it down, and it’s been great for my whole family to re-live it, I think.
A good read from start to finish, thank you.
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Thanks so much for reading! It makes me so happy that my grandfather’s story can be shared with everyone. I think he would be chuffed, were he alive today.