- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Leslie Charles Drane
- Location of story:
- Germany POW +
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 November 2004
“Counting Your Blessings.”
The Memoirs of
Leslie Charles Drane.
My Memoirs by Leslie Charles Drane.
As it is now the year 2000 — the Millennium I have been asked by members of my family to place on record as many of the happenings to me of the 20th Century that I recall in my 86 years.
It all started on September the seventh 1914 at Wherstead Road Ipswich, where I was born [weighing 13lbs]. My father George and mother Edith had a family of seven. The first two boys Elvin and Cyril died very young. My eldest sister Phylis came next, followed by my sister Win, then Fred. Five years later I arrived, and Harold eighteen months later.
I started school, aged five at Wherstead Road Infants, and then moved on to the Upper School, from there, aged eleven I gained a scholarship to the Central School, a local grammar school, where I remained until I was fifteen.
At that time 1929 the country was in a deep depression [In America the Wall St. crash] so there was much unemployment. I was able to get employment with Tibbenham, Furniture Manufacturers, as office boy at the magnificent wage of eight shillings a week [40p]. As there was little chance of advancement there I was able to get a much better job, and pay in 1937 with Churchman`s Cigarette Manufacturers, in the sales office where I remained until 1969 when I took redundancy retirement.
From 1926 [the year of the general strike] until 1933/4 the country was in a deep depression, so life was very austere, I recall when I was about eleven that it was considered lucky to have half an egg a week, and at Christmas to have the luxury of a chicken for Christmas dinner, unlike the affluences of today, at Christmas the toy in the stocking cost about sixpence.
Broadening my horizons.
At about the time I left school at fifteen I decided that I would like to see places, to develop my body and get as much fresh air as possible. With my school friend Bronc [Harold Brown] we took up cycling. When we joined the Ipswich YMCA we made some very good lifelong friends, and had the opportunity to do lots of walking at weekends. Although we only had a few shillings a week pocket money, we joined the tennis club, rugby club, and rowing club.
I recall when I was sixteen I had saved enough money to buy a good lightweight bicycle from Jack Blasby. I decided to visit my aunt Em in Coventry with Bronc, but through over confidence, and being complete novices we made mistakes. We set off at midnight completely unprepared for the extreme cold at night, we also took the wrong turning, and that added an extra 30 miles onto our journey. We rode all day and arrived rather weary at midnight the next night. We were very saddle sore, having cycled 170 miles in 24 hours!
With the lads from the YMCA, we often went to Southend, Yarmouth, or London for a day’s cycle ride on a Sunday, or a good hike to Cochester or the seaside, on one occasion walking to Orford in one day [44miles]. I had managed to get myself very fit!
When I was seventeen and still enjoying cycling, Sam Dowsing, Freddie Warren, and I decided that to ride to Lands End would be quite a challenge. It was pretty gruelling with tent and blankets, and clothes in our saddlebags. Our first stop was Basingstoke 129 miles — we did the 400 miles in four days and found the hills of Cornwall hard going.
Our social life was rather restricted but we joined the Junior Imperial League and we were able to attend dances in the evenings for sixpence, and that’s where we learnt to dance. This was in and around the Ipswich area.
In 1935 still very keen on cycling, Bronc and I decided that we would make use of a weeks holiday that Bronc was having from his new job at Churchman`s. We started off on our bikes on a Saturday afternoon, and reached Cambridge that evening, and for the next three days cycled in pouring rain on the A1, until we reached Keswick.
On the Wednesday we had a days climbing in the Borrow dale valley. Setting off home the next day in a heat wave, via Carlisle, through Lancashire, and Warwickshire then cross-country to Cambridge. We arrived on the Saturday evening with only four shillings [20p] between us. It was one shilling and nine pence for a grotty bed so the next day we had only sixpence left (to buy a bottle of tizer) for our journey home from Cambridge on the Sunday. The cost of that 700 miles in seven days was £3 each. A worthy effort!!
From 1935 onwards it was motorcycling. I bought a rather splendid Sunbeam for £11, and next a 500cc Norton and finally a 750cc Twin BSA. Which I still owned [having stored it] until I returned from the war.
In 1936 I went into Ipswich hospital to have my tonsils removed. A month later whilst on the pillion of Freddie Warrens new Velocette we were involved in an accident at Chelmondiston in which I lacerated my face [still scarred], and damaged the top of my spine, which is still troublesome.
In 1937 through Bronc`s influence I was able to get a job in the Churchman`s office with better pay and prospects. We were able to have a good holiday, especially at holiday camps. We had, in fact, had our first one in 1931 at Caister for 38/- [thirty eight shillings] a week. They were very good years until 1939 when the threat of war with Germany loomed.
It was obvious even in 1938 that there was grave danger to this country from the aggressive Nazi party in Germany and in the summer of 1939 it looked serious enough for eighteen-year-old boys to be called up into the forces. At this time a number of my friends and I joined the local branch of the Territorial Army, the 67th Medium Artillery Regiment that was eventually equipped with 6 inch Howitzer guns. After two weeks training in August, at a camp in
Brighton [a real Karno`s army!] I found myself as a sergeant with no experience of army life.
A few anecdotes from the early days of our Karno`s army which was made up from civilians from all walks of life.
· Our RSM who was a metal worker in a foundry.
“Wash down those abortion benches.” (Ablution)
“Put that scum on the camilages.” (scrim on the camouflage)
· One officer, a farming type, in charge of a route march with the squad approaching a cliff edge, and being unfamiliar with the command to stop which of course was “Party Halt,” yelled, “Party whoa!”
· In the very early days at our first practice camp in Brighton, whilst doing a roll call a very new sergeant went down the list of names and repeatedly called for Sgt Grant and got no reply - “Whoops that’s me,” he exclaimed!
· An inspection of the cookhouse by the officer at mealtime. “What have we got today Merton?” (A bricklayer) “ Duff for the men Sir!”
The Outbreak of War.
On September the 3rd on the declaration of war we were mobilised to the drill hall in Ipswich. As we had no equipment it was a question of training until we were equipped, whilst still living at home during the winter of 1939/40 — it really was a phoney war.
However when it was considered that we were sufficiently trained we moved to the West Country at Wickwar a village between Bristol and Bath for manoeuvres in readiness to join the BEF [British Expeditionary Forces] in France. We were given embarkation leave in May 1940 during which time the Luftwaffe had been heavily bombing the British Isles, but on our return from leave our billets had been occupied by troops who had been driven out of France at Dunkirk, so we just avoided being caught out in that shambles!
With most of our forces being lost there we were the only mobile medium artillery regiment in the country.
For the next few months the Luftwaffe was heavily attacking Britain especially London, which was blitzed, and in which much damage was done. This period was called the Battle of Britain, because of the large number of aircraft involved. Although inferior in numbers at the start of the battle the RAF emerged in the autumn of 1940 victorious, having destroyed thousands of German aircraft, so avoiding the possibility of an invasion along the south coast.
Because of the damage the Spitfires and Hurricanes were inflicting on the German bombers there was the possibility of the Germans parachuting onto the RAF aerodromes to put them out of action. We moved to Thaxsted in Essex — the 232 battery of our regiment and dug our guns in, pointing to Debden airfield some six miles away near Saffron Walden with the object of destroying the runways should there be any aircraft landing.
On reflection, I recall vividly the narrowest squeak and most frightening moment of my life at Debden fighter aerodrome in August 1940 whilst the battle of Britain was being decided. Whilst on light duties through having my leg in plaster with a damaged ankle- I took some fifteen lads to the aerodrome for a bath parade. Within ten minutes of arriving, there was a German bombing raid with 32 planes unloading all their bombs at once with no warning. Being mobile all the lads just made in to the shelter and safety. I was in the open, heading for the sergeants mess, and was flung into the air by the first bomb, and was watching 190, one hundred pound bombs falling around me - the nearest only nine feet away, and twelve within fifteen yards at one time. The bath that I would have used had a direct hit. I was lucky to only have a shattered eardrum and severe shock!
After a short while at Thaxsted we were moved to the south coast to Dymchurch on the Romney marshes with our guns laid on the coastline at Dungeness for the possible invasion, which didn’t happen. As a complete regiment we moved under canvas to Amersham in Buckinghamshire to do more manoeuvres for increasing efficiency.
Early in 1941 we were moved to Sevenoaks in Kent, as I knew that I would be posted abroad we decided that we would marry in April [to Irene Edith Irving], having first met at the Churchman’s Sports Club when Irene was sixteen.
We were married at St Matthews Church, Ipswich on April 2nd 1941.
Married life was all too brief with a few days now and again when we could be together in the three months before I finally went to the Middle East in July 1941.
Our short enjoyable honeymoon in Seven oaks in Mrs Webb`s digs was still in dangerous times, one thing I recall was of our sneaking up from Sevenoaks with Roy Sherwood and his wife Hester to London in the blitz to go dancing at Hammersmith Palais to Oscar Rabins band - a smashing night getting back at 4.0 am.
In July `41 we left Sevenoaks to embark for an unknown destination, leaving by train to Avonmouth, and then sailing on the Rangitiki to Greenock to join our convoy. Conditions were not good- a very old converted New Zealand refrigerator ship, and we were very overcrowded- I believe around 2000 troops on board.
We crossed the north Atlantic towards Newfoundland and then headed to the Azores- sometimes unescorted, surrounded by enemy u-boats, because of our ship breaking down. We eventually arrived in Durban for repairs that took seven days; we had spent 67 days at sea!
As we sailed round the Cape, our convoy was split, with our half heading north along the east coast of Africa to Egypt while the other troop ships headed for the far east carrying Suffolk, Norfolk, and Cambridgeshire infantry, who eventually landed at Singapore after it had been taken by the Japanese. They sailed straight into captivity that meant death or three and a half years of horrific imprisonment.
Many died building the Burma Railway. Travelling through the Red Sea we finally arrived at Port Tewfik in Egypt in October 1941. The whole regiment unloaded, and then moved into tents at Quassasin to acclimatise to the desert conditions. With sand and flies every-where and of course the semi tropical temperatures, we wore only topees and shorts. When we had organised ourselves as a regiment, we were moved to Mersa Matruh to be ready for action. I remember the few days we were there. For most of the time the sand storms were so bad it was difficult even to see your hand in front of you. When it did stop the wind changed round, and blew it all back again!
In December, whilst we were still at Mersa, I finally received a telegram from home to let me know that my son Michael was born and everything was OK. Wonderful news! Except that a few days later Dick Ransby who had had a letter from Grace let me know that Irene was on the danger list in hospital through a very difficult birth, anxious times, because I could do nothing about it.
Our first Wartime action in North Africa.
Our first action was in December when we bombarded Halfaya Pass at Salum, to eventually capture some 8,000 besieged Germans, who had no food or water. Also at this time 250,000 Italians led by their Commander surrendered themselves to us!
Early in 1942 we moved to part of the Gazala line which stretched from the Mediterranean for 150 miles down into the desert. This was the front line 500 miles from base. Actually our gun was the first one of the line stretching to the south, facing the Africa Corps.
This was a defensive position, which we held for a few months. Not very comfortable conditions — such as a hole in the sand, a slit trench with a small bivouac tent over it. Being hundreds of miles from base, and relying on supplies, especially of food and water getting through without being attacked — there were times when we were rationed to two pints of brackish water [one water bottle] full for all purposes for two days! So no washing or shaving — with the temperature at 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit they were thirsty times! Meals were mainly bully beef and biscuits or tins of meat and veg`. We did have a bath when it rained heavily on one occasion!
Fairly frequently, starting at 4.30 in the morning we went forward through the gap in the minefield into no mans land to find targets. Taking up a position with no shelter from the sun, and returning to our lines at dusk. Gruelling! It was a good job we were fit!!
At about this time Ray and I were laid low with sand fly fever for several days. Rather similar to malaria so we were lying in our tiny dugout pouring with sweat and feeling pretty groggy, and weak. Soon after this we were able to get a few days leave in Cairo.
At least we got away from the noise of the guns. I was not impressed with the filthy, shabby place, also I had a raging earache in my damaged left ear, so on the way back to the battery I called at Tobruk hospital hoping to get some relief from the pain. The very helpful specialist suggested” Just imagine you have n`t got an earache”. It persisted until I arrived home in 1945.
On this journey which was by goods trucks on a single line railway running beside the road close to the Med` we had another encounter with the Luftwaffe. Two Messerschmitts shot up the locomotive with canon fire, killing the driver, they then proceeded to strafe up and down the train. Naturally we all baled out of the goods wagons, and ran away from them onto the flat desert; unfortunately for me one of the aircraft changed direction, and decided to swing round and fire across the trucks just in the direction I was going. I changed direction just in time!!
At about this time Ray was ill with colic, and was sent back to Cairo for treatment, so luckily was not about when our inept generals bungled things later.
That brilliant Field Marshall Rommel decided to make a move in early June `42 by driving down into the desert and coming up behind us, thereby taking our generals by surprise. We were hurriedly rushed to Ben Hackin to support our forces that were engaged in tank battles- and losing! We were also called on to help the infantry at Knightsbridge who were also being beaten. Thus, there was a general withdrawal to Tobruk through the gap in the minefield under heavy bombing attacks, so once again this was supposed to be held as the Aussies had bravely done in 1941.
This was not to be — having gone without sleep for three days and nights, and digging and sandbagging a very large gun pit in order to defend Tobruk we later found out that the South Africans had not bothered to put up any defences, and left it wide open for the Germans to move into.
When the Germans decided to put in their attack very early on June 21st `42 we, of course did quite a lot of shelling to stop them, but they were very determined as all the German forces were, and their Stuka dive bombers appeared to pick on us, and in one instance one dropped a very large bomb to destroy our gun from about fifty feet up and luckily it dropped a yard or so outside, rather than inside our gun pit which would have destroyed us all.
To be told that Tobruk as a garrison was to be surrendered to the Germans, came as quite a shock and was unthinkable — to think that 33,000-seasoned troops were just to be handed over. Of course every thing that could be useful to the Germans had to be rendered useless which meant destroying, lorries, guns, tanks, stocks of food, and petrol (One million gallons) in all, totalling 9000 vehicles.
We had no idea what the future held for us, in fact, it could be pretty grim in view of the stories told by propaganda of forced labour, concentration camps, extermination programmes. When we had been herded into a makeshift P.O.W. Camp, and been inspected by Rommel my reaction was to lie down and sleep for quite a long time something I had n`t done for some days; from then on the problem of having a little to eat, and drink for days on end really started.
I recall a little tale concerning a friend of mine in our battery. Harold Peake. He was taken prisoner at the same time and unfortunately went to a camp south of Tripoli, well into the desert. The Commandant was a brute — an Italian pig that deprived them of food, and they were exposed to the extreme heat in the day and bitter cold at night with no sort of accommodation or protection from the elements. Many died from dysentery and starvation. After six months Harold, who was a chubby cheery healthy 13 stone chap became ill, very ill, and eventually they did something about it. He was operated on for sceptic pneumonia for which they removed a rib without anaesthetic, and his weight had dropped to six stone. Some two years later I met up with him in our camp and he had regained his weight despite the pigswill rations — What a constitution!
After two weeks the Germans moved prisoners by lorry to Benghazi away from their front line at El Alemain. I recall the transport well — that fifty of us were put into, an open three ton truck, all standing, in a temperature well over , with no food or water for 500 miles with a drunken Italian driver, and when we arrived at Benghazi there were no facilities, no camp, no food, no water for several days.
Transit to Italy.
The next move was very early one morning, to march to the docks, and go on board a cargo ship that had brought supplies to the Afrika Corps, and was returning to Italy. About 2000 of us, many very weak, and ill from dysentery were crammed like cattle into the bottom of the ship, and we were there for five days with two dog biscuits, and a small tin of horsemeat to last the journey.
I heard later from a friend who was taken prisoner that the cargo ship, which had left before us with 1000 P.O.W.`s on board was torpedoed by the Royal Navy, and only 37 survived. We finally arrived at Brindisi in Italy, somewhat relieved after that frightening experience of possibly being torpedoed.
In typical fashion, the Italians who had been given the responsibility of looking after all the prisoners of war whilst the Germans got on with fighting the war, did not have a clue how to cope with so many, in fact their own army was a shambles. When we landed we were taken to a dried up river bed where, eventually after a day or so they were able to find a ladle of soup (macaroni, tomato puree, nettles) all very primitive, with no shelter or sanitation.
Our next move was to a transit camp at Bari with actual buildings, and plenty of water for drinking and washing. As far as clothing was concerned everyone had a minimal amount, in fact, just what we were wearing at the surrender, shorts, boots, steel helmet, some of us with shirts some without.
After a few days, they had found somewhere to put us so it was a train journey in cattle trucks to a site just north east of Rome, near the village of Fara in Sabina, POW camp 54. We were there for the next year. This camp was surrounded by vineyards and lovely countryside, When we arrived they were just erecting the outer fencing and putting up some largish marquee type tents, of course no food or drink organised! That took a few days to happen. Luckily it was around August 1942 so it was pretty warm, warm enough to breed fleas and lice in plenty. Our staple diet whist there was a small amount of rice and a ladle of soup, a bap sized piece of white bread, and some acorn coffee, twice a day. I recall we did have some rice but in very small quantities.
We also saw the bombing of Rome during this time. During that hot summer I went down with sunstroke with a temperature of F for five days. Needless to say we only had a minimum amount of food whilst we were there. The Germans were taking all crops so the Italians were also very short of food themselves. As far as sanitation was concerned, with around 2000 in our camp, all we had were two holes about six feet by six feet, and very deep with a plank across the top. You had to make sure not to get dizzy and fall!!
During the next few months everyone was losing weight, and it was obvious that the tactics used were to weaken the body, the mind, and the spirit so that there was less chance of anyone wanting to escape.
There was no chance of mail to or from home, although eventually in the new year 1943 some was getting through to us, and also a trickle of personal parcels with useful toiletries and warmer clothing, also some cigarette parcels being sent from the firm and family. Many didn’t arrive needless to say, and the Italian officers were never short of British cigarettes. Throughout, cigarettes from home were the currency for food during our three years of captivity.
By the time we neared Christmas, morale was pretty low, and nobody moved about unnecessarily. One blessing had been the warm sunny weather of Italy, and no shortage of fresh water. Of course the main topic was food and the lovely meals they were going to have when home in the future.
`Roll on a long time, ` was a favourite expression - wanting time to pass more quickly. Fortunately we had some clever signals lads in the camp that managed to assemble a working radio - this was hidden under the seat of the smelly unhygienic toilet, so keeping us informed of the progress of the war. In our hut we had a large poster size map of the various fronts with pins to move as our forces made some ground. The Italian interpreter came into the hut pretty regularly to find out what was really happening in their war. They really did believe the BBC.
We had a good crowd of N.C.O.`s, mostly sergeants in our tent. I volunteered to be in charge of one of the large tents, which held fifty other ranks. Quite a few were of tank crews who had been defeated in the battles in the Knightsbridge area. When dishing out the meagre rations like four bap sized rolls to five hungry blokes who were watching like hawks, I felt that I managed to do that rather well. I think they trusted me.
Fortunately amongst the many friends in our hut I palled up with Pat Ashworth a 6` 4” gentle giant, a Nottingham territorial anti aircraft gun sergeant, who had been under Stuka attack for a very long time in Tobruk harbour, before being captured.
He realised how very bored every one was so he decided to form a concert party, as there was quite a lot of talent in the camp. He actually wrote a pantomime, using toilet paper to write it on (there was nothing else), and of course it had to be his version of Cinderella. The stage was actually planks laid across the scaffolding of some permanent building being built inside the camp.
We had nothing in the way of props so it was dialogue only! I had been part of the entertaining group doing a bit of singing with the makeshift band, very often in the hospital tent to cheer them up. Pat of course had to be the bad Baron with his great sense of humour, and I was one of the ugly sisters, and the other sister (Steve Crook) being a 5`4” tough little bricky. Our only costumes were sheets purloined from the beds. We put on this show just before Christmas with morale at it`s lowest, and we hardly got a peep out of them.
A day or two later, we had our first delivery of Red Cross Parcels. A 10lb parcel to be shared between four of us. [I only received one personal parcel from my wife, mainly cigarettes, chocolate, and warm clothes of mittens, scarf, and a grey roll neck pullover.] After this we were asked to do the show again, and what a reception we got! They thought it was super, and in fact a POW. Camp just down the road wanted to see it, so we walked there, under guard, and the show was a great success with them.
Having been six months `in the bag`, and having little to eat during that time our stomachs had shrunk and I recall the rather painful discomfort of a gnawing stomach. As a Christmas day treat our pathetic captors went to town, and let us have two ladles of soup for our Christmas dinner. Being unused to such a great feast I remember writhing with a great stomachache for three hours.
Boredom and hunger were the predominant part of our lives plus everyone losing weight and strength, but cheered only by the fact that our army was driving the Afrika Corps out of North Africa. By October `43 Mussolini the great dictator was assassinated, and his great armies (in number only) surrendered leaving our camp unguarded.
Freedom and recapture.
Taking the opportunity and knowing that our forces had landed at Salerno, some miles down the coast of Italy about half a dozen of us including Pat and Steve decided to try and link up with the army there. We were not really fit enough to tackle that journey by the donkey tracks in the very hilly terrain (the Apennines), so progress was very slow. We actually covered twenty miles in eleven days, living off the land (grapes and tomatoes) until an Italian civilian betrayed us to the German paratroopers who had arrived in our area. They were very young trigger happy Hitler Youths!
With others who had been rounded up we were herded into the City of Rome, and in the grounds of a chateau, which was the heavily guarded HQ. of Kesselring, a field Marshall responsible for all their forces in Italy. As usual, we had nothing to eat or drink. As the allied forces had heavily bombed this place the previous day, and did considerable damage — we were rather concerned that they might decide to repeat their bombing!
On the move again — Stalag 4B.
After a day or two we were on the move again- we knew not where! We were herded into the goods wagons that were used for moving the Jews, with fifty in each, all standing, a bucket in the corner, and a piece of black heavy rye bread each.
The journey to the Fatherland was quite an experience. We were locked in the trucks, far too overcrowded, taking turns to sit down with no space to lie down to sleep or rest. Many of the chaps were weak with dysentery, and the only ventilation was through two, three by two foot grills, high up, one at each end, which meant taking turns to have a breath of fresh air. Through breakdowns we finished the journey with sixty in the truck, so you can imagine the atmosphere for the five days! Our journey had taken us to the north of Italy, through the Brenner Pass, and the Austrian Alps, finally arriving in the heart of Germany at 3 o’clock in the morning, hungry, thirsty, and rather exhausted. It was a very grotty, and foreboding place with armed guards and dogs at the entrance of what had been Stalag 4B, a concentration camp for the Jews.
The Camp was situated between Leipzig and Dresden, near to Colditz. This was to be our abode for the next twenty months. Morale was at its lowest ebb.
We were allocated to a cheerless wooden hut (53B), and just lay down to relax and recover, but no — within the hour came the guards with their dogs, we were herded outside, to have all our hair removed in an undignified manner with a sheep shearer, each one of us turning the handle for the next victim. This was at 4 o’clock in the morning on a very cold October night. My hair took nine months to grow back to normal. Pat and Steve aged fifteen years on that journey.
The huts were about sixty feet long with just one entrance; one half of the thirty-foot width was taken up with three tier wooden beds, jammed very closely together, so each narrow gap was the access for nine chaps. We found as time went on that we were managing to sleep on less and less slats to support our grotty palliasses. These slats made good firewood as the large stove in the centre of the hut, used up a lot of wood in order to warm the place up! Sometimes sleeping on only three or four slats meant we had to be careful that we didn’t fall through onto the chap in the bunk below! The other half of the hut consisted of a few tables and seats made from crates in which the Red Cross parcels had been sent.
As far as toilets were concerned a bucket near the entrance, when we were shut in for the night had to suffice; needless to say it was overflowing by the morning. Fleas were also a constant problem.
At night we had just one twenty-five watt bulb for the whole hut. Actually, when the RAF intensified the night bombing in the Berlin area towards the end of the war, we were blacked out for twenty-six nights in succession, when the RAF`s mosquito aircraft were hammering them!
At the end of the hut was a concrete washhouse without windows, with one long concrete trough. We found that we were allowed to have one bath a month in another concrete building again with no windows, which I am sure had been a gas chamber. We were closely packed in, the water was steaming hot and we emerged looking as red as lobsters!
On the question of privacy this was nil when you think of 10,000, hungry, fighting men who had been very fit, when captured, just milling around in the restricted area day after day, year after year — just deteriorating. One humiliation I recall clearly in the German camp 4B, which had no doubt been the holocaust for many years for the Jews, was the dreadful outdoor toilet. A concrete building cold and cheerless, and very much open plan with no partitions, just a dozen holes cut in a long wooden seat, and tilting forward making sure that it wasn’t comfortable. The pit below was cleared by Russian (soldier peasants) from a camp next to ours, where they were treated abominably and had less to eat than we did. There was a daily handcart carrying their dead to be deposited in a lime pit close by.
Our compound was actually quite large, 73 acres, with many huts similar to ours, housing 10,000 prisoners of war from allied forces. I believe there were 26 different nationalities at any one time. It was mainly used as a transit camp. As time went on (slowly of course) although everyone was starving we were cheered by the encouraging news of the progress being made in the war zones in Germany and Japan by new arrivals straight from home. These were bomber crews freshly shot down, parachuting, and later captured at Arnham, including some from Ipswich, also a few from the D Day landings, and some Americans from the Ardennes.
With such a lot of closely packed chaps we found that almost everyone wanted to talk not so much of their war efforts, but of their lives and families, their jobs, and what they hoped to do when the war ended (which looked more likely as optimism grew). It seemed that you knew so much about those near you. Occasionally to relieve the boredom we had lectures given by business and trades people about their jobs, and it was quite surprising how many tricks of the trade and rackets were exposed!
To pass the time and to keep active quite a lot of activity was going on (although not too active) amongst groups of chaps such as bridge matches, which sometimes went on for a week. Some spent a lot of time acting to put on some excellent show, there were also lots of classes going on, during this long, long wait when we were deteriorating through malnutrition, many of us did our daily walking exercise to try to keep fit, I think that I walked hundreds of miles within that compound round and round within the perimeter. Occasionally mail arrived from home, although we did not know just what was happening with rationing, enemy activity, or how my wife was standing up to everything after her tough time when Michael was born.
In the early part of 1944 when the Allies were making good progress, and after I had been transferred from Italy to Germany I received a letter from home which had been sent to Italy six months earlier to say that my dad had died the day before.
My dad was seventy when he died during the war in 1943. He was a big strong broad shouldered sixteen stone placid man, who had worked all his life on the railway. (LNER). I never knew him to be ill, he was hard working, kind and conscientious, and started life off as a callboy, and ended his fifty years as a rail man as a mainline passenger driver. He was a good man. He deserved more than ten shillings a week pension.
In that long time without mail I had no idea that he had been ill.
After a long time waiting for the expected invasion, it arrived in June 1944 and raised the hopes and morale of everyone, although, because of the poor food rations we had over such a long time, most of the chaps were rather skinny by this time. The front seat we had of Allied bombing and their successes heartened us. I recall one daylight raid by 1400 American bombers on Leipzig (25 miles away), and it was possible to feel the ground moving, also the RAF did a night raid on Dresden — a very dark night with a very large number of bombers (1000+) flying very low, right over our camp. Our lights went out, but it was possible to read a newspaper by the light of the flames of the burning city, some 45 miles away.
We rarely received Red Cross parcels, and of course our intensive bombing was to blame, so they said.
At this stage of the war at the end of 1944 we were expecting the Fatherland would be beaten, and we might, after our two and a half years of captivity be on our way home. Not to be — our forces were halted at the Rhine, by what was left of the German army, who made one last stand despite the severe conditions of ice and snow in the Ardennes. Many Americans who were captured, and brought to our camp, suffered severe frostbite, having come straight from training in very hot conditions.
It was about this time that the pigswill (sauerkraut, turnips, horse beans, swedes, bad potatoes, and black rye bread) began to affect my stomach, and I became rather ill with acute gastritis, and severe yellow jaundice. My friends realised that I was in a bad way, with a very high temperature, and they managed to get me admitted to the hospital in the camp that was small and only able to take a dozen or so. A New Zealand doctor, and British medics who had a stock of Red Cross medical parcels ran it. I was kept in the hospital for six weeks as my stomach gradually improved with liquids, soups and light foods. When I went back on the normal swill I tried to avoid it by eating as little of it as possible for the next two months or so, until we were finally released
At the end of April 1945 we knew that the Russian troops, were getting closer by their heavy gunfire, and when the great day arrived two Russian horseman arrived, bristling with rifles, and guns, to open the gates, and we were able to walk out. Apparently the guards had fled. What a Day!!
The town of Mulhberg some two miles away by the river Elbe was very near Torgau where the American and Russian forces linked up. With this new found freedom (What a wonderful feeling) we made our way to Mulhberg, a small town, to find that it was a ghost town — not a soul in sight, they had all fled in terror from the approaching Russians whom they knew were out for revenge for what the German troops had done to their people, and their country when they invaded.
The locals had just left everything taking just what they could carry. On one trip into this small town with my very good friend Don Sherwood with food the objective, we found in the cellars, preserves, sugar, and of some coffee grinders. On another occasion we were lucky enough to find a deserted food warehouse full of all kinds of groceries, which meant sacks of mixed fruit, bags of wheat, sugar, and crates of tins of milk. So making good use of the grinders we were enjoying porridge, three times a day.
On another trip to the town Don and I found in another warehouse, boxes and boxes containing malt for the younger master race. We took several boxes and found that it was to be taken by the spoonful; in fact we were each drinking a bottle a day!! We were not allowed to make our way home for three weeks, because of lengthy negotiations with the Russians, who weren’t sure that we were allies! The malt filled us out so that I put on one and a half stone in weight, and Don put on three stones! He looked so well and was transformed from a walking, gaunt skeleton, so when he arrived home everyone said that he must have been well fed, not knowing the true facts, unlike German, and Italian POW`s who apparently were extremely well fed over here.
As there was no official handing over to the Allies by the Russians who were keeping us under guard, we decided to leave early one morning, and we walked forty miles that day to a bridge over the Elbe, which had been blown up, but was still passable on foot. When we reached the other side of the bridge we were met by the Americans who had a convoy of trucks to take us to Halle.
They had so much food for us when we arrived even the white bread tasted like cake!! The hospitality was quite emotional, we were back in a civilised world. They actually apologised that they were not able to feed us better food! It was at this time that I vowed that I would never go starving hungry again.
As the Americans were obviously anxious to get us home as soon as possible we were flown in a Dakota transport plane to Louvain just outside Brussels, which was occupied by the RAF. After a delay of two days because of fog we eventually left for England, in the bomb bay of a Lancaster to an airfield just near Beaconsfield. From there we were taken to a large house to be sorted out and sent home. The team of ladies who were so kindly rigging us out with new battledress were mostly “Churchy W I” types, and it was such a nice change, to be with females instead of a milling mob of males after such a long time. We were given passes, rail warrants, ration books, and a bit of cash, and then we were on our way for a wonderful reunion with our families. [Counselling!! - you must be joking!]
On arrival there appeared to be great celebrations taking place of which we knew nothing — actually it was VE Day, May `45
I arrived home in Wherstead Road to be greeted by my wife Irene who had been in my thoughts for almost four years since I had left this country for the Middle East, only a few months after we were wed. Also of course I was meeting Michael, who was three and a half years old, for the first time. He must have wondered who this man was who had come into his life. It was a wonderful feeling to be a family, with the war at an end in Europe, and to feel that the danger and fears of war were in the past.
Although, in a somewhat bewildered state by the change in my lifestyle from the dangers and anxieties of the past few years I was relaxed to think that I had survived (many didn’t), and was lucky to have a family to care for, for the future.
I have to say that when I sailed away on that troopship Rangitiki, I didn’t really think that I would ever come home.
“ I think someone was watching over me!”
During this spot of leave we, my wife and I decided to go to Torquay for a short holiday with Michael, unfortunately it was very brief, for, on plunging into the sea, a rush of seawater got inside the open split in my eardrum that had burst in the 1940 bombing. I had to come home in a hurry, heavily sedated, to be operated on at the Ipswich hospital to repair the damage, luckily successfully.
Although the war in Europe had ended the war in the Far East against Japan had not, so there was a possibility of fresh troops being sent out there, which included me. It was at this time that the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, and brought about their immediate surrender.
This meant that I was released early, as I had entered the army at the beginning of the war. I got my discharge, my gratuity, my civvies suit, and was free to be a civilian again. Actually I returned to the office after being six years and three months in Khaki.
Unfortunately I was not very well, being very jaundiced and gastric which caused me to be sick most days for the next ten years, which ended in 1955, ten years later with the removal of my gall bladder, which had been blocked with stones. My opinion was that it had been caused by the considerable amount of sand absorbed whilst in the desert. It was said that half the German Africa corps were victims of yellow jaundice because of this.
As I am concluding my story on this my 86th birthday I feel that I should briefly put on record what has happened in the past six decades as we will celebrate our diamond wedding (sixty years) next year.
Many times we have said, “ We should count our blessings.”
We have been blessed with a wonderful family of which we are very proud. Our family has a lot of love, loyalty and trust, and fortunately something rare these days - harmony.
Health. Myself: Kidney operations in 1973 and 1982 because of stones.
Irene: Suffered a heart attack in 1995, and a mild stroke in 1999.
Accommodation and Housing.
· 1945 A flat briefly in Silent Street, Ipswich.
· 1946 Half a house with Tommy Wright in Woodbridge Road, Ipswich.
· 1946 Small terrace house in Richmond Road, Ipswich.
· 1947 New semi detached house at Estuary Road, Shotley until 1955.
· 1956 New bungalow Willows, Ipswich Road, Holbrook, our present home.
Michael and Pauline: Amanda and Christopher.
Peter and Terry: Andrew, Simon, Nick and Katie.
Jan and David: Francis.
Leslie Charles Drane September 2000
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