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Memories of a 2nd Lieutenant captured in Tunisia and life as a P.O.W. - Part One

by bedfordmuseum

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. John Kenneth Clark
Location of story: 
Oxford, UK, Sedjenane, Tunisia.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2005

Part one of an edited oral history interview with Mr. John Kenneth Clark conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“When I went up to College, to St.Edmund Hall, Oxford. I was given the choice of declaring myself a Conscientious Objector or joining one of the Training Corps. I don’t know who decided how long you stayed because I was 18 when I went up before I was due for call-up but I stayed for four terms and I spent a day and a half a week in training. It was a strange life in a way - it was half Army and half University. I used to spend a day and half a week on training and then you’d had all your other studying to do as well. And then after four terms I was called-up, there were a lot of young men like that.

I went into the Infantry. I had very mixed feelings, I didn’t really want to go. I was reading Modern Languages, that is why I got a job as an Interrogator after the war. I was in the Infantry Training Corp at Oxford and then they called me up for a month’s selection and then I went to an Officers Training Unit. I had to stick it out until I was taken prisoner in Sedjenane, Tunisia in 1942.

Mr. Clark was at that time a 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment, commanding the 8th Platoon of ‘A’ Company.
Well, it was in Northern Tunisia. It was hilly country about 1,000 feet, 2,000 feet high hills and the Germans attacked and got round us and they did a sort of a pincer movement like that and so we had to get out there and we were put in a small village. And I was put on a small hill, a very small hill just outside the village with the rest of the Company behind me. All day, when I was on this hill, you can imagine the hill like that, the Germans were coming that way and I wanted to put my men along the top of the ridge there so we could see them coming because there were bushes about this high. Instead the Colonel put me back on this side where I couldn’t see anything until they came over the top of the hill because of these bushes. Well, the Germans came and they attacked all that day, they attacked the Company behind me. They didn’t see us. I said to my men, ‘Hide amongst the bushes, dig a hole and hide because they’ve got the advantage and only fire if you are seen’. Then I sent a man back to the Company Commander to say that it was a hopeless position, could I withdraw? The man was killed by our own machine gunners, he was a nice chap, I liked him very much. So I just sat there waiting and then again in the middle, about six o’clock another Officer came out and brought some food for us because we hadn’t had any. And I said, ‘Could I withdraw?’ and he said, ‘no, you’ve done a bloody good job’ and I thought I hadn’t fired a shot!

Then in the middle of the night, about three in the morning, imagine me there and I heard sounds from this side of marching feet and the Germans came up. Fortunately, I’d got them all dug in around here, I saw them marching as near as that window there, I could hear them talking in German. One of them looked round to exactly where I was and I had a little hand grenade and I threw it and there was a big bang and then there were several shots fired and then they moved away and attacked the Company behind. They were driven back and about half an hour later two Germans came up — as near as that window — picked a body up and I stood up and I said in German, ‘You’re prisoners!’ Because I could speak German and they said, ‘we are stretcher bearers, you can’t shoot us.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to take you prisoner’ and they said, ‘oh, no you can’t. We just want to take our Company Commander back to the First Aid Post.’ So they went off back again and my Sergeant kept saying, ‘Shoot the buggers, shoot the buggers.’

We’d been there all day and the next day, the next morning I got a message from the Company Commander, he sent somebody to say we were to withdraw, which we should have done earlier. And that day the Germans attacked again and they got round, in a pincer movement they got round us so we had to get out before we were cut off. I was left with three light machine gunners and myself to cover the withdrawal because of course everybody can’t go otherwise there is chaos, so I was left with these three machine gunners for half an hour. The Germans attacked but they didn’t take our position. After about half an hour I was just going to blow the whistle and get the men to go and one of them shouted out and I went to have a look and he’d got all his toes shot off one of his feet. So we carried him down to a hole in the ground and it’s very difficult to put a bandage on your toes actually, I hadn’t realised. We tried all ways to get one on and of course he was very upset. Then I looked up over the edge of this hole and a machine gun fired at me, the Germans were near and I thought oh, dear! Three things we could do — we could try and carry him in which case we would all be shot because we can’t move fast enough or we could surrender or I could leave him and try and get away with the others and I didn’t want to do that. So I said to the three blokes, ‘There are three things we could do, which shall we do?’ So they said, ‘You decide.’ So I said, ‘Right, well throw your sten guns in the pool and we’ll surrender.’ I could speak German and when the Germans came up I started talking in German to them and they were alright. We gave them some cigarettes. It was the most difficult decision in my life! I don’t know whether it was right or if it was wrong. But if I’d left him I wouldn’t have been very happy. Perhaps I ought to have done, I don’t know and if we’d tried to carry him we would have moved so slowly they’d have hit us.

There were three light machine gunners and myself as an Officer. We were separated, Officers went to one camp and the others went to another camp. I used to get bored with the conversation and I used to leave the Mess and go and meet two Intelligence Corp Sergeants with whom I had a lot more in common. I was very conscious of being at the bottom of the ranking in the Officer’s Mess. There were one or two other young ones. I was happy with my Platoon although most of them were a lot older than me.”

Mr. Clark has a full account ‘Battle Honour in Tunisia pp.55-70’ published in ‘People At War’ edited by Michael Moynihan, David & Charles Publishers, plc., Newton Abbot, Devon. 1989. ISBN 0-7153-9457-6

Please see ‘Role Reversal in Civvy Street’, ‘Out of the bag in drag’ and ‘Role reversal’ — three other stories submitted to the BBC ‘People’s War website on 16th February 2005 by Bedford Museum on behalf of Mr. Kenneth Clark.

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