- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Staff Sergeant Bernard Black and Sergeant Philip Hudson
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 September 2005
The cell was dark and though there was a barred window it let in very little of the light outside. In any case there were no street lights just a cloudy sky above. For a time we sat on the floor talking quietly about where we were and what we thought was likely to happen. I remembered the gift from the girl in the cafe and took it from inside my smock. As I had surmised it was food wrapped in kitchen paper. It had been hurriedly prepared and consisted of a substantial chunk of bread and a smaller chunk of a sticky substance which on investigation proved to be an artificial kind of honey. We shared this as well as we could. Phil and I still had possession of our jack knives which we had used for cutting bread and sausage. It proved to be very enjoyable if somewhat sticky.
There was little in the way of comfort in the cell. There was a low wooden bunk along one wall and though we took it in turns to stretch out it was no more comfortable than the floor. Set in one of the other walls was a door which opened into a built-in closet which was rather smelly.
Early the next morning we were taken from the cell and given chairs to sit on at the end of a passage or small anteroom. From here we were taken one by one to be questioned by our captors in different rooms. Sometimes only two of us were away at the same time; sometimes one would return to find that there was already someone sat there only to be removed again for more questioning. The next session of questions were usually in different surroundings and from a different interrogator than on the previous occasion.
Anyone who has served in the forces during wartime is usually well aware of intelligence briefings which instruct the serviceman that in the event of capture he is only required to give to the enemy his number, rank, and name. In fact he is cautioned against ever giving any information other than this as the results of any small and apparently harmless pieces of information can be collated by the enemy and the aggregate could produce vital intelligence. My first two or three interviews were a repetition of my number, rank, and name given in response to the statement that as a prisoner I was required to identify myself. After this response I was told that this was insufficient to which I replied that it was all that I was permitted to say.
My main interrogator was an Oberleutnant who wore the insignia of the Afrika Korps across his sleeve. At the third session he took from his file an envelope which he emptied on the desk in front of me. The contents consisted of my stripes and crowns, airborne flashes, pegasus badges and my pilots wings. He asked me if these were mine and I remember replying that if they were the ones that had been removed from my uniform, then they did indeed belong to me. He asked me to show him from which part of my uniform they had been removed. This I declined to do. He then reiterated the need for me to identify myself to which I replied that I had already done so by giving my number, rank, and name.
After several more thrusts and parries he changed his tack. "If you are what you appear to be," he said, "then you are a member of the British Airborne Division which fought bravely but was defeated at Arnhem. There were at Arnhem many Dutchmen who took up arms and attacked the German Army. These are not proper soldiers but terrorists. When the battle was over many of these Dutchmen tried to escape and some of them took uniforms from the British dead in order to avoid being punished for their crimes. How do we know that you are not one of these ? You must prove to us that you are who you say you are before we can treat you as a prisoner of war." I told him once again that I was 884545 Staff Sergeant Black. B.
His next ploy came a little nearer to the nub of the matter. "You must realise Staff Sergeant that the circumstances under which you were captured were extremely delicate." Internally I might have agreed with him but I was certainly not going to admit it. I believe I told him that I realised nothing of the sort. He went on again - "last week we captured ten Dutch civilians after they had fired on German soldiers. Before they were hanged for sabotage they told us that they were trying to escape and that you were with them." I told him that I didn't think it mattered who had said what or whether there was any truth in it or not. I was a British soldier, my duty had lain in avoiding being taken prisoner but now that I was a prisoner my only duty was to give my number, rank, and name.
He went on to give me a lecture about the ethics and rules of war and the difference between terrorists and professional soldiers. He further went on to suggest that since we appeared to have been on Schouwen since September we must have had help from these so called resistance people.
I continued to resist his arguments and reiterated that we had only persisted in trying to avoid capture. He wanted to know who had hidden us and who had given us food. I told him that there were enough empty houses on Schouwen for us to obtain the food and shelter that we required. I think at this stage I was turned over to his colleague. It may have been thought now that since had actually departed from my number rank and name to at least deny any knowledge of what they were talking about that I was going to open up.
The new interrogator began by offering me a seat and a cigarette, both of which I accepted. He went on to make similar suggestions to those I have referred to above and sought my co-operation in confirming what he suggested. I continued to deny any knowledge of what he was talking about and only admitted hiding in empty houses. With this chap it seemed to me that if he thought I was co-operating he offered me another cigarette but if he thought that I was not he opened the packet and after taking one for himself, ostentatiously left the open packet pointing in my direction without offering me one.
Things continued in this way for some considerable time with movements between rooms and interrogators and occasional returns to the waiting area. At every moment we were all three either collectively or individually under close guard and had no opportunity to exchange more than the movement of an eyebrow. The day wore on and the battle of wits continued.
I felt at this stage that I was just about holding my own and could only hope that Phil and Herman were doing likewise. There was very little respite for any of us. Our opponents had a team and could interchange, confer and take a break. We could only do our best and hope that we would give nothing away. If once we did give the impression that there was something to be found out then no doubt we were in serious trouble for I was certain that they would go to any lengths to discover such information. I was also aware that this was the biggest danger in departing from the number, rank, and name routine. Once you have said one word more than this you have to continue to the satisfaction of your questioners.
It is difficult to be certain after such a lapse of time how long this pattern of probing continued. At one time we were returned to our waiting area and given a plate of stew. Later I was taken to one of the rooms that I had not been in before. Seated in front of a large table was Herman. On the table at each side were two bright lamps which shone directly into his face. Opposite him behind the desk were his inquisitors.
There was another Wehrmacht officer who I had not previously seen. This one appeared to be Herman's principal questioner. Seated alongside him were two other men in dark suits. Also in the room were two soldiers standing next to Herman and of course two more guards who had just brought me in. I was given a seat behind him. Then followed a short question and answer session in which Herman was admitting that we had been in Zierikzee, that we had been on the dijk, that he had been taken there by van de Beek and that after the shooting we had escaped. After this Herman was removed and the questioning was directed at me. Why had I lied ? Did I want to be treated as a terrorist ? I must tell the truth if I wanted to be treated as a prisoner of war.
My questioners then referred to what I had heard Herman telling them. The details of what he had told them were a cock and bull yarn and now I was expected to corroborate his story without having heard it in its entirety.
We were up the creek without a paddle. All three of us. If we now refused to tell them enough to satisfy them, they would know that we had something to hide and the pressure would no doubt increase. This would be particularly so for Herman; he had family members living in Coevorden in the province of Drente. They had already referred to him in their questions to me in a manner which suggested that they had already challenged the legality (in their eyes) of a Dutchman in British uniform. They had to be convinced that they knew it all; that they had caught everyone concerned; that we neither knew anything nor anyone not already known to them. In this there were two things in our favour.
It would be comparatively easy for Phil and me to maintain our ignorance of the language and the surroundings from which it was our duty to escape with whatever assistance was given to us. Although this would not apply in the same way to Herman, the one circumstance which favoured the acceptance of our story was the execution of van de Beek. Joost had told us that he was one of those who had been caught and hanged. Herman had indeed stayed in van de Beek's company from the morning of the 6th until the evening of the 7th while we had been in the care of the Ringelbergs and the company of Jork Mikkenian.
In the sessions which followed I admitted that I had been on the dijk waiting for a British boat to take us off when we had been discovered by a German patrol. We had met up with the others in the dark. I did not speak Dutch. No I wouldn't recognise anyone. I didn't know where I had been. I had been taken in the dark and collected in the dark from the empty houses we had stayed in. Yes Phil and I had been together while de Leeuw had been with someone else. Yes there was someone who had worn a uniform.
It took much longer than it takes now to write about it. I cannot be absolutely certain of all that was asked or answered but that was about the gist of it. I presumed and hoped that Phil was following a similar line of thought.
The questioning ended and we were returned to our cell. When the door closed behind us and the footsteps receded I immediately started on Herman. "Herman, just what the hell have you been telling them ?"
In fierce urgent whispers we compared notes on what we had been asked and what we had admitted. During the next hour or so we discussed the direction that future questioning might take. Where lay the danger ? At what stage might we have to say "I don't know!" and not be believed. Would we have to say "I'm not going to tell you!" and suffer the consequences. Had we between us managed to satisfy our captors that we had no information that they wanted ? Only the future would show.
The following morning was rather different than the previous one had been. There was daylight coming in through the barred window and the sounds of Middelharnis. The most noticeable was close at hand. A civilian standing on the pavement outside was whistling and then he began to sing quietly the same tune. It was the chorus of a popular cowboy song. "Oh-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy,yi-yi-yi, oh-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy ya." He then moved away somewhat before returning to treat us to another couple of choruses punctuated by a verse. I think it was meant specifically for us rather like the girl's "Roll out the barrel" in the cafe at Ouddorp. It was, to my mind, a symbol of both sympathy and support - that someone out there was thinking of someone inside and although the anonymous whistler was unable to offer anything more substantial it was a small boost to our morale.
There were other sounds too within the building. Heavy footsteps in the passage outside the cell. The peephole in the cell door was opened and through it I could see one of the guards peering in and then going to the door of the other cell to open it. There then appeared two other figures in German army uniform whose hands were bound behind their back with rubber covered wire. They were accompanied by another guard and pushed roughly into the cell and locked in. The first guard returned to our cell and closed the peephole.
The brief glimpse of these two unfortunates had shown me that they were rather swarthy in appearance as had been Jork. Undoubtedly they were Armenian and probably they were in custody for desertion. We wondered if Jork had been among those captured and hanged on Schouwen or whether he was still at large.
Later in the morning the cell door opened again and this time the guard knew who he was looking for. Pointing to me he said, "Kom" and led me away while his colleague locked the door again. Taking me up some steps he brought me into a large room at the top of the building. Waiting there for me was the Afrika Korps Oberleutnant. "Good morning Staff Sergeant" he said cheerfully, "I have some good news for you! We are now satisfied that you have identified yourselves.
When I make my report I will recommend that you will be treated as prisoners of war. You will probably be moved from here tomorrow and sent on to a proper camp." I thanked him politely for telling me and began to move with him towards the door where the guard was waiting. "Oh, there's just one more thing.." he went on and my heart sank ".... what did you do with the motor cycles ?" "Which motor cycles are you talking about ?" I asked. "De Leeuw said that you had two motor cycles in the glider when you landed," he replied. I then asked him if any trace of motor cycles had been reported by those Germans who had first come to the abandoned glider. As he paused thoughtfully I went on, "Perhaps De Leeuw is mistaken, after all he was not the pilot. He didn't sign the loading manifest." This seemed to satisfy him and he signalled to the guard that I should be returned to my cell.
As I left him my heart rose with cautious optimism. According to what he had said the interrogation was over for the moment and they appeared to be satisfied. Perhaps the worst was over but we would have to be careful.
When I was back once more in the cell, Phil and Herman were still there. It had crossed my mind that they too might have been taken out for some "afterthought" question but it was not so. Naturally they were curious to know what had happened to me. Very quietly I told them what had gone on and what I had been told about our future. They too were very pleased but I went on to advise caution referring again to the previous night when we had tried to forecast future questions. Maybe we were out of the wood but we must be on our guard for possible traps.
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