WWII Tommy Shields - the POW who escaped back into camps almost as many times as he escaped out of them(permalink)

Posted by Editor Northern Ireland on Friday, 5th September 2003 Last updated Monday, 15th September 2003

Article and interviews by Bob Crookes

Tommy Shields in
the Red Sea in 1939 Larne man Tommy Shields joined the Royal Navy in 1936 when things were alright in the world and he was enjoying a sunny life with the Mediterranean fleet when war was declared in September 1939. His ship, HMS Gurkha - a Tribal class destroyer - was immediately recalled for Atlantic convoy duties. They returned to Rosyth and went straight out into the very cold North Atlantic still equipped with their kit that was designed for life in the Mediterranean, it was definitely not designed for Atlantic winters. The only extra comfort was very hairy woolly long underwear donated by a monastery.

 Audio Clip 1:
at the start of the war

HMS Gurkha was detached from the convoy duties and sent to aid the evacuation of Norway and participated in the very first moves of the Norwegian Campaign sailing with HMS Afridi and a force of cruisers and destroyers from Rosyth on 7/8th April 1940.
Tribal class Destroyer HMS Gurkha in 1941
On the 9th April at 1400, the force was attacked by Ju88 and He111 bombers. One bomb hit Gurkha's aft end and blew a 40 foot hole in the starboard side and very soon the stern was awash and she had a 45 degree list to starboard. All the lights were out but the wounded were brought up and laid on the fo'c'sle. Many were blinded by fuel oil and everyone had to cling to the guard rails or anchor chains to keep from falling overboard. Some made it to the boats and Carley floats.

It was now getting dark and cold but Tommy and a few other gunners were still manning their guns as best they could but eventually the Captain was obliged to abandon ship. Tommy, with few others, survived and lying in the oil covered sea he had to watch his ship slide under the sea not more than fifty yards from him. Fortunately one of their sister ships, HMS Aurora returned to look for survivors and he was rescued; there were only 190 survivors. HMS Gurkha was the first British destroyer to be sunk by air attack.

 Audio Clip 2:
Norwegian Campaign

He was returned to UK and after a few days 'survivors leave' he was given the strange job of travelling backwards and forwards on the Torpoint ferry the main link between Devon (Plymouth) and Cornwall though never having been told why he was there or the exact duty he was on Actionless and bored he and a friend volunteered to join the hazardous small boat crews who manned the motor launches and motor torpedo boats. He was lucky and left his backwards and forwards life and was assigned to ML1030 which returned him to the Mediterranean Fleet and eventually they were tasked to Crete.

 Audio Clip 3:
Tommy joins ML 1030

ML 1030
Life took a quick turn for the crew of ML1030 and very soon they were in the thick of some of the worst action Tommy had seen since he was off Norway. After very fierce attacks from the air they managed to survive the German invasion of Crete but when it became obvious the Germans would take the island they were ordered to take their motor launch back to their base in Egypt.

 Audio Clip 4:
attacks in Suva Bay

    Harold J Siddall was a stoker on ML1030 and he had written his own war memoirs.before his death in August 1997 In his memory those memoirs have been recorded in a web site by his son and daughter. There, Harold, when writing about their attempted escape from Crete back to Egypt, recalls some of Tommy's heroic action in an effort to save ML1030 from the attacking German planes.
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    The following sound clips from the BBC Sound Archive were originally transmitted in the General Overseas Service this first clip is the original signature tune and introduction of 'Marching On' a programme on which the other archive clips would have been heard

     Audio Clip
    Opening of 'Marching On'

    By 1941 the BBC had correspondents throughout all the theatres of war and most of the activity in the Mediterranean was covered from Cairo. The German invasion of Crete started on 20th May 1941 and was witnessed by an Englishman (name now unknown) who was resident on the island and who managed to escape to Egypt. This was recorded by him for the BBC in Cairo on 31st May 1941

     Audio Clip - 1941 BBC archive recording of a broadcast about the invasion of Crete.

    The sudden and unexpected air invasion of Crete in April 1941 was a hard fought battle with the Germans eventually won but not without huge casualties. This is a BBC archive broadcast from 5th June 1941 where an unidentified New Zealand Army major gives his eyewitness account of the air invasion.

     Audio Clip - 1941 BBC archive recording of eyewitness account of the invasion of Crete.

Alone in the Mediterranean and heading for Egypt ML1030 was constantly bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe until they were so badly damaged they had to abandon it. In a 10 foot dinghy the ten surviving members of the crew rowed all the way back to Crete.

 Audio Clip 5:
escape from Crete by Motor Launch

After a few adventures in the mountains with Maori troops and friendly goat herders, Tommy found himself captured but made his first of many escapes by quietly slipping away in the confusion and headed back into the mountains. Eventually his luck ran out and he was captured by Austrian mountains troops who, because of his now very long beard and bedraggled appearance took him to be an old man - he was only 20!

 Audio Clip 6:
Maoris, evasion and eventual capture

He was put into into a very unsanitary POW camp in Canea along with thousands of other British and Commonwealth troops but soon found himself being put aboard a ship to be transported back to Germany. Life aboard the POW ship was worse than the camp for they were all put into the hold where their daily ration of food was thrown down to them through the hatches and huge scrums developed of prisoners trying to get something to eat. Fortunately for Tommy, and for some inexplicable reason, one of the Austrians who had captured him in the hills made arrangements for him to be brought out of the hold and made sure he got food. The next thing the POWs knew was that they were docking in Salonika in Northern Greece.

 Audio Clip 7:
POW ship took Tommy from Crete to Salonika en-route to Berlin

Tommy Shields pictured here with his wife at a reunion in Crete in 2003

Then came a long train journey in cattle trucks through southern Europe as they were transported back to Germany and to Stalag IIId in Berlin. There he and the others were required to work, first in railway marshalling yards where he and other POWs immediately set about sabotaging the tracks as he embarked on a series of attempts to do as much damage to the German war effort as he could.

 Audio Clip 8:
POW and sabotage

Other duties included loading barges with supplies for the Germans' Eastern Front. It was here that Tommy and friends 'cultivated' a very pro-British German who supplied them regularly with information from BBC news broadcasts. They asked him to translate their own propaganda messages into German, which he did, although it was returned in the old German script which made life a bit more difficult as it was difficult to copy - they were not to know it probably saved their lives. They then wrote out messages, to slip into cartons of food, telling the soldiers on the Eastern Front how desperate things were at home, how the war was being lost - working on the premise that causing a little despondency for the German troops on the Eastern Front might be worthwhile.

The SS discovered these message and the Irish contingent were interrogated but luckily the SS made the assumption that none of them could possibly have enough knowledge of the German script to have written the notes but they were taken off that duty and given two months solitary confinement just in case!

 Audio Clip 9:
the pro-Brit German

At this time the German Waffen-SS were starting the British Free Corps, a unit of the German Army composed British and Irish nationals (little more than traitors) who were persuaded to join with promises of 'a better life'. History shows that very few POWs fell for the story the SS fed them. Stalag IIId was, at the time the headquarters of the newly formed British Free Corps and Tommy of course, being from Ireland, was a natural to be 'invited' for interview because the Germans thought their best chance was with trying to recruit disaffected Irish. Unfortunately they were not very competent at determining who were the 'disaffected'

 Audio Clip 10:
invited to join the British Free Corps by SS

There were very few pleasures available during these days of captivity in Stalag IIId but the arrival of a priest attached to the Irish Embassy in Berlin led to Tommy and his pals discovering a way to get free cigarettes.

 Audio Clip 11:
going to Mass just for the cigarettes...

It was from this camp that Tommy and his friend Michael Collins spotted a way they might escape and just decided to take their chance with a very unexpected consequence.

 Audio Clip 12:
the first escape... and then back in again!

There were, unbelievably, moments of relief and during one of these Tommy allowed the Welsh POWs to introduce him to the game of rugby - a game he'd never played. With all the enthusiasm of a twenty year old he joined in and took their advice.

 Audio Clip 13:
the broken leg

With a leg well plastered in a German hospital, Tommy was not very mobile and spent his time on a pair of home made crutches. When the POWs were moved to another camp he was not allowed to join the forced march.

 Audio Clip 14:
Wuisterberg and Jacobstal

Another move on to a camp at Mulburg gave Tommy a glimpse of what he described as 'Hades' and the appalling conditions the Russians POWs had to endure. He and a friend Ray Davey persuaded British POWs to donate items from their own precious Red Cross parcels to help the Russians.

 Audio Clip 15:
Mulberg and the Red Cross goods for the Russians

Having been the solitary sailor in army camps throughout the time he'd been a POW the sight of a group of new sailor prisoners gave him a new hope and he decided to reinvent himself as a new POW….and just joined them as they went through the administration process.

 Audio Clip 16:
Tommy becomes a new P.O.W.

Tommy, now properly documented as a naval prisoner, was moved to a naval POW camp near Hamburg called Marlag Milag Nord which he described as 'almost like Butlins' where there were music groups, theatre groups, libraries and courses in virtually anything you wished to learn. However far seeing Able Seaman rank prisoners had passed themselves off as Petty Officer rank leaving very few of the lower ratings to do the mundane work around the camp. Tommy was ordered to clean up the camp but objected pointing out that there were dozens of prisoners of lower rank than him and refused to work. As a punishment he was transferred to a small satellite camp of Marlag Milag Nord in the Harz mountains. Here, at Thale, just a few naval prisoners where confined in a small POW camp situated within a large German Naval establishment that had been moved there from Hamburg - full of naval architects and designers.

GiselaHere Tommy started an improbable relationship with Gisela the secretary of the commanding Admiral. Even sixty years on, we readily understand the incredible risks that Gisela took in establishing this 'special relationship' with a prisoner of war. There is little doubt that had they been discovered it is more than likely she would have been regarded almost as a traitor. Tommy, when discussing this today realises that he could have expected no mercy from the German authorities but at the time as a 22 year old, things looked very different. It is rather wonderful to record that their friendship continued until Gisela's death in 1999.

 Audio Clip 17:
Gisela and cookhouse duty

Tommy Shields' life as a POW certainly didn't seem to follow the routine, boring and stultifying life that was common to most prisoners. He's perhaps even unique as a POW by getting phone calls from the Admiral's secretary to see if he was OK.

 Audio Clip 18:
the only POW to get a phone call?

Tommy and his fellow POW, Jock, who also had a local girlfriend, regularly 'escaped' from their block and out under the wire. They had their evening liaisons without anyone ever noticing that they were in British uniforms. Later in the evening had to reverse the complicated process of escaping to go back into the POW camp.

 Audio Clip 19:
Tommy Shields escaping to meet Gisela

Tommy, (at the wheel of a truck) with German guards outside POW camp at Marlag Milag Nord.

There was an official escape being arranged and a big tunnel digging operation going on but Tommy explained to them that they needn't dig he'd show them where they could get out under the wire but "they were tunnel crazy" he says. and just carried on digging..

 Audio Clip 20:
tunnellers and a smuggled radio...

By now the allied advance was moving through Germany very quickly and orders were given to move the POWs eastwards. Tommy and co were given as many Red Cross parcels as they could carry and were forced march east.

 Audio Clip 21:
two more escapes and an SS checkpoint

Diary page showing Tommy's escape route

Once again free they spent their time dodging columns of German soldiers and hiding and resting up wherever they could until they reached the river Bode.

 Audio Clip 22:
the last escape into a Russian camp and Gisela finds him again

Life at Gisela's was very pleasant - for various obvious reasons - and, since they knew very well that the US Army was advancing in his direction Tommy thought it made sense to stay put till they arrived.

 Audio Clip 23:
The Yanks go through and their old guards ask them to take them prisoner!

Within days the war was over and for many the great adventure was over. Tommy and his other friends who had taken up residence in the area realised that they would have to make their own way back to the British area to stand any chance of being repatriated back to UK. In the end they had to steal a car and six of them bade sad farewells to the Germans who had been so kind to them and headed off on the long journey back home to UK.

However it was not as final as that, for many times after the war Tommy re-visited the Thale area and kept up his friendships with all those people who had possibly risked their lives during wartime to look after him and his friends. His relationship with Gisela was never broken, for they kept in touch constantly throughout their lives. She eventually married a US Army Colonel and went to live in the United States where Tommy and his wife visited them on many occasions. Their friendship was only broken in 1999 when she died.

Tommy Shields (2003)

Pictures from Tommy's Scrapbook

In 1938 HMS Gurkha was tasked to prevent gun-runners getting arms to Franco's men. These are two of the ships Gurkha captured. In the right hand picture Tommy is in the cutter heading out to Aghai as part of the prize crew.

There was no shortage of talent among the ranks of the POWs and this is a cartoon drawn by one of Tommy's friends in Marlag Milag Nord.

When Tommy joined the Royal Navy in 1936, there were several other lads from Ulster joining at the same time. Here is a photograph taken at the time with them all together. Tommy is in the middle of the back row.

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