- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jack Lawrence
- Location of story:
- Kent, India, North Africa, Austria
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 December 2003
This is the story of my father, Jack Lawrence, who died this year, 2003. He fought in the North African desert, was captured, escaped, and walked home across a Europe in chaos. Most of his war memories emerged as distinct and miniature stories told to us over and again since we were children. In the last few years of his life I managed to write some of these down, rescuing them just in time from the creeping fog of dementia. I will start by painting a general picture of his war, then will tell some of his favourite stories, and finally will describe his great escape adventure.
PART I : JACK'S WAR
Jack grew up in the Kent countryside, the son of agricultural labourers, one of five boys. Life was tough in the thirties, and they moved from job to job and house to house. As a young boy, Jack read about Clive of India and it became his ambition to go to India. He left school at fourteen years old and joined the Army - the Royal Artillery, known as the Gunners. His Mum waved him goodbye on the bus, tears in her eyes, and he didn't see her again for eight years.
In September 1936 he arrived in Woolwich as a "student". In October 1937 he went to Hyderabad Sindh as a "trumpeter". He was the Colonel's trumpeter, the right-hand man of the regiment. (Hyderabad Sindh was in the North West Frontier Province - then part of India and now in Pakistan). India was hotter than he ever imagined it could be. He sometimes ate with the Indian soldiers. Other British soldiers didn't like this and beat him up to teach him a lesson but it didn't stop him.
In September 1939 the war started and he was posted - still only seventeen - to Egypt as part of the Middle East Liberation Forces. Jack was in the 1st Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, Fourth Indian Division, under General Wavell. (The other half of Wavell's command was the Seventh Armoured - the Desert Rats.) Jack was very proud of serving under Wavell and thought he was a great man, whose later reputation as a failure was unjustified.
He spent three months in Cairo and had a fine time. He had his photo taken wearing a fez. In those days Cairo was a very pleasant, affluent, and civilised city. Jack even dated local girls. (See "The Seven Stages of a good date"). In January 1940 he moved to Mersa Matruh, where there was good swimming. The Italians invaded but his Division spent the time fortifying and waiting for a whole year. While there Jack broke his nose in a bumpy truck ride (See "Jack's first war wound"). Finally the first Libyan Offensive started. Jack took part in the fighting at Sidi Barani in January 1941.
The Fourth Indian were pulled out halfway through the offensive and taken to the Eritrean campaign. (The rest of the army pushed on to Al Agheila but weren't allowed to continue as they were needed in Greece. Jack thought this was terrible and blamed Churchill). Jack fought at Keren in March 1941. This is where Jack was caught short in Death Valley... In Spring 1941 they were moving back past Alexandria, and Jack tried to abscond to visit his brother Tom in hospital in Alexandria. However his plan was foiled and he never saw Tom again, one of the great regrets of his life. They continued on to Libya, trying to stop Rommel's offensive. They failed and Rommel took Tobruk.
Jack was then moved to Syria, going through Palestine. (Jack said the drive along the Golan heights was the scariest he can remember). Jack fought at Damascus in June 1941. He was there on his 19th birthday. They moved into Beirut, where the chicken story took place. Then they went back to Alex again; then back through Palestine again to Syria, where they fought the Iraquis, trying to protect the Palmyra pipeline. Then they were back to Alex again and Jack took part in the second Libyan offensive during November/December 1941. They pushed the Germans back as far as Al Agheila, where according to Jack they were stopped by the salt flats. In January/February 1942 Rommel started his second offensive. Jack was driving an ambulance which got separated from the rest of the column and he was captured by the Germans in February 1942.
Over the next few years Jack was moved a lot, from hospital in Tripoli, to a camp in Italy, hospital in Brindisi, and a camp in Austria. Life was always fragile, but the Germans were fairer to them than the Italians. Its hard to put together a coherent narrative, but there are lots of stories. Finally, in late 1944 Jack escaped, while being moved from one camp to another. He hid on a farm, then walked across Europe as the Russians and the Allies swept across it, finally arriving in Paris and flying home to England. His Mum and Dad were fine but brother Tom was dead ...
Jack stayed in the Army for a few more years. At first he was stationed in Woolwich, but was posted up North for a bit (scene of the "Friendly Pint" story). Jack said he turned out to be good at office work and could have been promoted if he'd been prepared to travel, but he wouldn't. He met his wife Lou in Ramsgate while visiting his Mum. After they were married in 1947, he was stationed in Woolwich and then in Larkhill, until he got TB and was in hospital in Surrey for a year, after which he was finally discharged.
PART II : STORIES FROM THE DESERT WAR
THE SEVEN STAGES OF A GOOD DATE (late 1939)
Jack was in Cairo having a fine time. He met a nice Egyptian girl who spoke English and they went out together. They went to the museum, and then found another museum, puzzlingly called the "Museum of Hygiene". As they climbed up a spiral staircase Jack was embarassed to find them going past increasingly graphic naked statues, culminating in a man with his penis falling off. It was the seven stages of syphilis. They left and he walked her back to her house. Out came a man with a policeman's uniform and lots of stripes who shouted "Get lost, Tommy !" - so he did.
JACK'S FIRST WAR WOUND (1940)
This was in June, near Jack's birthday. Jack's unit was out from Mersa Matruh, reconnoitring and playing dirty tricks (e.g. driving with brush behind to look like a whole division). Jack was sitting on the back, with a green lieutenant in front. They fell behind and the lieutenant ordered a short cut - straight into the sand dunes. Jack was flung across the inside of the vehicle and hit his nose on the girders holding the canopy up. His nose was like a lump of jelly.
SIDI BARANI AND THE CANTERBURY DENTIST (JANUARY 1941)
In January 1940 Jack was moved to Mersa Matruh, where there was good swimming, and lots of fortifying and waiting. They dug holes 60ft underground to build offices. The Italians invaded in September 1940 and fortified at Sidi Barani. But still Wavell kept them waiting until he had accumulated enough troops. Finally they started in January 1941. They plotted the Italian positions and practiced driving within half a mile at 3 a.m. and pointing guns at them. Finally they did the real thing, drove up surrounded them and opened fire while they were shaving - it was pandemonium. The Fourth Indian Division fired the first shots.
Usually of course this will be told as a heroic tale, but sometimes we heard the real horror of it. Jack related how once in a dentist's surgery in Canterbury in the 1960s he was put under by gas while having a tooth extracted. While coming too, he found himself being held down by the dentist and assistant, as he was struggling violently. He realised he had been re-living the battle of Sidi Barani. He was manning a gun with several chums. A shell exploded nearby with a blinding flash. As the smoke cleared and Jack pulled himself together he looked around and realised he was the only man on the gun still living.
CAUGHT SHORT IN DEATH VALLEY (EARLY 1941)
A few months after Sidi Barani Jack was in Eritrea, ploughing through a valley in mountainous country, attacking Italian units 6000 ft up in the mountains. Bombers were flying through the valley and the Italians were shelling down on them. The valley became known as Death Valley. The shelling had stopped for a while. It was the middle of the night and Jack needed a shit. He took his shovel forward of the guns and dug his hole. While his trousers were down, the Italians started shelling again, and he had to finish his shit in a desperate panic...
Some time later he was in another valley nearby. He heard the bomb whistling towards him and dived to one side of a tree - the shell hit the other side. The blast caught his watch and broke it, but he was otherwise unhurt. Jack often wondered how he was still alive.
MISSING TOM (SPRING 1941)
After the Eritrea campaign, Jack's unit was driving past Alex. He had received word that brother Tom was in hospital in Alex - his boat had been sunk. Jack planned to temporarily abscond, and had warned his Indian driver that he would jump out near Alex. But as they approached, an officer jumped into their vehicle, told the Indian driver to leave and ordered Jack to drive him. The officer said "Sorry Lawrence. You're not going to see your brother. The Germans have broken through in Libya and we have to go and fight them." Jack never saw his brother Tom again.
Tom recovered and served on another ship, but this was also sunk. He spent some time in hospital in Gibraltar, and was then sent home, a mental wreck. For some while their Mum looked after Tom, and got sacked for not being at her job. Eventually Tom was committed to Chartham, where he died in April 1945. When Jack got home from the war in June 1945 he didn't know Tom was dead. Brother Jim met him and took him straight down to Brighton to stop him asking Mum questions. Jack wanted to shoot the man who sacked Mum.
CHICKEN DINNER IN BEIRUT (JULY 1941)
After the Syrian campaign, Jack reached Beirut, then a peaceful place. Jack stole a chicken, looking forward to the best dinner for ages. But he had tasks to do, so he tied the chicken to the underneath of the surveyor's vehicle. When he got back the vehicle had gone. Someone told him it had been needed and had been taken off. "What did they do with the chicken ?" said Jack. "What chicken ?" they said.
YES I'M A PLUMBER ! (1942/3)
Jack was in a prison camp in Austria. He was carrying heavy sacks of cement. A guard came along and said "I need a carpenter, a plumber, and an electrician." Jack jumped up and said "I'm a plumber !" He'd never done any plumbing in his life, but it was better than carrying cement. Jack went off to do the plumbing, guarded by the Austrian guard, who was a weedy looking chap with at least three coats on. His Luger was sticking out of his back pocket ...out of foolish humour, Jack pulled it out of his pocket, stuck it in his back and said "Hande Hoch !" The guard nearly shat bricks, but Jack realised he couldn't get away, so he slapped the guard on the back and put the gun back.
LIFE IS AS CHEAP AS A CIGARETTE (1942/43)
Jack was in hospital in Brindisi. The padre has just been in, dispensing cigarettes. In the next bed, there was a man with a split head, who was dying. He lit his cigarette, but the male nurse came and snatched it away from him. This incensed Jack, who lit his own cigarette and blew the smoke in the direction of the nurse. He stormed over but as he bent down to take Jack's cigarette, Jack bopped him. (He was trained as a boxer and packed a punch.) The nurse squealed like a stuck pig. The sentry came in, levelled his rifle at Jack and fired - but Jack rolled off the bed, and the bullet hit the wall above his head. A German officer came in to find out what the shooting was about and Jack explained.
A few days later they were all put down a hole and left there for days - but then the British Navy bombarded the town and hit the hospital he had been in ...
FRAGMENTS OF PRISON STORIES (1942-44)
Jack took a lot of chances. Perhaps when death is so close and so random, it doesn't matter. He refused to do something once that he thought was against the Convention, and the guard put a Luger to his head, but backed down. He once exchanged used teabags for bread to Italians outside the camp, throwing them over the fence. By the time they realised he had run. There were Red Cross parcels. Once his Mum and Dad sent a cake - but it arrived in crumbs.
A FRIENDLY PINT (1945/6)
Well, this isn't really a war story, but part of Jack's military career. He was posted up near Newcastle. Friends from up that way told him he would enjoy himself - people up there were friendly, not stand-offish like they are down south. So the first night there Jack went into a pub in Newcastle looking for that friendly experience. It was jam-packed, and as he tried to get through to the bar people ignored him, despite his polite requests. Eventually he lost his patience and shouted out "I thought you lot up here were supposed to be bloody friendly ! I can't even get to the bar for a drink !". The place froze and all eyes turned and stared at him ... oh dear, thought Jack. Then several pairs of hands grabbed him, lifted him, passed him overhead, plonked him down on the bar - and somebody bought him a bloody drink.
PART III : JACK'S CAPTURE AND ESCAPE
Jack was captured in February 1942. It happened near El Agheila, at the end of the second offensive. The Germans had taken Tripoli. The 4th Indian Division were outside. The Germans weren't engaging them, but going past. They had to get food and petrol, so the 1st Field Regiment decided to try to hit a German supply column. But the Germans responded by sending the tanks in. There was a big battle but eventually the Germans left again. Jack's unit decided they had to leave. Jack was driving an ambulance. The ambulances stopped because they couldn't stand the screaming of the wounded, so they got separated. Then they re-started and then thought they had found the column - but it was the Germans. They put captured British vehicles on top of a hill to entice them.
Over the next few years Jack was shifted around a variety of camps run by both Italians and Germans - a hospital in Tripoli, a camp in Italy, another hospital in Brindisi, and a camp in Austria. Somewhere about late 1944 he was being moved from the camp in Austria to another in Germany. Jack didn't fancy this ... They were being moved on foot and were sleeping on the road in thick snow. Jack rolled down a steep hill into a hedge and hid. It snowed overnight, helping to hide him. In the morning a Frenchman found him and took him to a farm.They hid him in a barn and fed him. In return, he worked in the fields, as long as no Germans were around. When German soldiers came, the girls on the farm hid him in a box and covered him over with apples. The farmer was supposedly dead but it turned out he was in hiding too !
Jack heard that the Russians were advancing through Hungary and decided to find them, and set off with several others who had also been hiding in the vicinity. The Russians interrogated everybody. Jack told them he was an "unteroffizier" which he understood to be the German equivalent of Bombardier, but the Russians thought he was a "Junior Officer", dressed him a second Lieutenenants uniform, and fed him in the officers' mess with all the generals. (His own uniform was unrecogniseable.) The Russians wanted to take him back to Moscow.
The US army arrived on the scene and told the Russians to hold them at gunpoint until there was enough to hold a plane. But Jack wanted to go home .... nine of them set off to walk home, from Hungary back to Austria (through Linz) and then through France to Paris. (Jack was still in his Russian uniform !) There were many adventures along the way - they were starving and stole a horse but had no idea how to go about eating it. They bribed the local butcher with some of the meat to slaughter it for them. Jack made friends with a man from Yugoslavia who many years later sent Jack a photograph and letter that he couldn't read.
Eventually they all got on a train to go to Le Havre. They saw a plane from the Fleet Air Arm landing and asked the pilot if he was going back. The pilot said yes, after doing some jobs. One of the nine (a Dutchman) didn't come but the others flew back to Blighty, landing somewhere near Merrist Wood. Before leaving France, Jack was given a proper British uniform... years later he regretted not keeping the Russian uniform. When he got home, they knew where his Mum and Dad were living (in Northwood) and gave him a train ticket home. He hadn't seen his Mum and Dad for ten years ...
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