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The War Years

by Newcastlelibrary

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Archive List > World > Germany

Contributed by 
Newcastlelibrary
People in story: 
Trevor Charles N Gibbens
Location of story: 
Germany
Article ID: 
A6038453
Contributed on: 
06 October 2005

Trevor Charles Noel Gibbens was born on 28th december 1912. The family lived near Kew Gardens until Trevor was 10 years old.At the age of 8 Trevor was sent to Temple Grove Preparatory School in Eastbourne.At Cambridge Trevor studied medicine and in October 1936 he joined the Jarrow march as a medical orderly.
The War Years
His clinical years were spent at St Thomas's Hospital in London and he graduated in 1939 at the age of 26. In October of that year he had been due to start a job as a houseman at St James's Hospital in Leicester and in the meantime had been working as a clinical assistant at the Maudsley Hospital. The outbreak of war in September caused Trevor to write to the British Medical Association offering his services for emergency work in anticipation of the widespread bombing of British cities. This letter having indicated that he was temporarily unemployed, it was passed to the War Office and within a very short time he received orders to report to the Royal Army Medical Corps depot at Crookham. He was posted to the First Bucks Battalion of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry and went with the regiment when it was sent to France in December 1939. The next few months were spent living in various barns around Le Havre. It was apparently a bitterly cold winter and matters did not improve until the spring when the regiment moved up to the Belgian border. In his memoirs, Captivity, Trevor states that few demands were made on him at this time by fit and active soldiers, and he was able to be of service to the local civilian population whose doctors had all been called up to serve in the French Army.
The German offensive began on 10th May 1940 and within a matter of days it became clear that the war would not follow the pattern which had been established in the 1914-18 conflict. His regiment suffered heavy bombing as it moved into and through Belgium; "We ate our dinner round the table and when the enemy dropped mortar bombs down the street outside, it was amusing to see everyone preserve a stiff upper lip and pretend they were of no importance, though the soup tended to be spilt on the way to the lips"(Captivity,p16.). In the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force which followed, Trevor's regiment was ordered to defend the town of Hazebrouk, some 20 miles north of Dunkirk. They were bombarded from all sides and he was required to tend the wounded and dying in a cellar for 4 or 5 days before surrender took place on 27th May.
The next 5 years were to be spent as a prisoner of war in Germany but its clear from Trevor's account that they were not wasted years. Doctors were in demand, and this allowed them to change camps more frequently than other prisoners so that the effects of boredom were at least delayed. Required to look after prisoners of many nationalities, Trevor added a smattering of Italian and Serbo-Croat to his already proficient French and German. A period in a repatriation camp for wounded prisoners was followed in 1942 by a move to a typhus hospital at Egendorf where he was actually employed looking after some of the few Russian soldiers to be taken prisoner. He describes them as being in quite a pitiable condition and he greatly admired their spirit. His warmth towards them had been fostered by his reading of War and Peace a few months earlier and he saw in their characters many of the qualities described in the novel.
A considerable amount of freedom was allowed at the typhus hospital but overt rule breaking was punished. One English orderly was placed in solitary confinement on bread and water rations for several days and on the pretence that the man might need medical attention, Trevor attempted to smuggle some chocolate to him. The attempt was discovered and, knowing that when the matter was reported, he would be returned to his POW camp, Trevor, along with one of his fellow English doctors, decided to escape.
They did so that night but although they managed to reach Frankfurt they were recaptured within a few days and spent the following 6 weeks in semi-isolation and on near starvation rations. The period from November 19442 to June 1943 was spent in another POW camp and this was followed by a move some 300 miles east where 'we should have serious medical work with the British prisoners and there was no question of escaping' (Captivity,p72). This camp Stalag 344, was the hub for a large number of smaller satellite camps and work units in the district which together housed many thousands of prisoners; it was here that Trevor started his major work as a psychiatrist, and here that he was to remain for the rest of the war. He took charge of the psychiatric ward and was soon joined by two other doctors, one of whom, Turner McLardy, had been at Maudsley with him in 1939.
Trevor took a keen interest in men who were suffering from neurotic illnesses which had developed as the result of their experiences in the war - 'I became completely absorbed in the treatment of the neurotic patients we admitted, going back to the ward after supper so I could hold psychotherapy sessions in peace, and also to make a trial of hypnosis, since most of them were cases of long delayed battle hysteria'(Captivity,p77). Much of his work at this time was to be useful preparation for his subsequent career. A great deeal of time was spent presenting cases to the Commission which toured POW camps deciding whether ill prisoners should be re-patriated, and the job of distinguishing genuine from other cases was not always easy. The first repatriation of prisoners took place in October 1944 and Trevor accompanied these prisoners to their port of embarkation. He was later awarded the MBE in recognition of his work with psychiatrically disturbed POWs. Further repatriation trips were to follow until, in the face of the Russian advance, the camp was evacuated by the Germans in early February 1945.
The journey which followed had to be completed on foot, in deep snow, and lasted 7 weeks. Trevor kept a diary during this period. Conditions were grim; sickness and diarrhoea were rife and of course doctors were not immune to these or any other problems, including despair and weariness. No two days were the same, and mood could alter rapidly in the course of a day:
Sunday March 18th
Very disturbed night from bladder and fleas and bed collapsed completely onto the padre. Up at 6.30am, got away with Sergeant Knight at 9.30am. Sick parade luxury, 10.30am to 1.15pm, 1.45pm to 4.00pm, back in the Russian camp, gulped down some soup and did a quick round of the English, 5.00 to 7.00pm. Supper again in half light. Beautiful violin playing in the Russian camp again last night. Went to the Russian doctor's room and chatted with him and the interpreter til 9.30pm while the violin played. Candlelight, very pleasant. (Captivity,p150).
Liberation took place on Easter Monday, 2nd April 1945; save for 1 month, he had been a prisoner of war for 5 years.

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