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Aberdonian dodges death in Italy and Germany

by BBC Scotland

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Contributed by 
BBC Scotland
People in story: 
James Dale Thomson
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Contributed on: 
14 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Claire White of BBC Scotland on behalf of James Thomson and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I joined the TA in 1939 aged 20. There was an influx to the TA at this time. Our generation thought we'd show Hitler our might.

On 6th June 1942 I was taken prisoner in the Western Desert. Four of us were travelling to an observation post in an armoured car, as we did every day. A German armoured car sneaked up behind us and blew off the front of our car.

The four of us were taken prionser and marched to a German unit where we met with others who had been taken captive. One Captain said 'I'm not going to a prison camp!' and at the first opportunity recommended we 'Run!'. Four of us did run away and we were shot at by Germans. I was the only escapee to survive.

We eventually ended up in Italy in the hold of a ship en route to Germany. We travelled from Tripoli to Naples. Two of the three ships making this journey were sunk by the Royal Navy. Again, I was lucky to be on the boat which survived unscathed.

I spent one uneventful year in a prison camp in Italy. The Germans then loaded us 60 at a time into cattle trucks bound for Germany. We embarked on a 6-day journey without fresh air or supplies. We survived on scraps of food left over from our prison camp boxes.

In Germany a group of us were sent to work in a flour mill. My job was to bag flour and label it; white flour for the upper echelons of German society and black flour for the common people. On occasion I deliberately mixed up the flour labels and I was sent to a copper mine as punishment.

After working in the copper mine for a couple of days I was marched into the manager's office. He complained that I was causing him a lot of bother. We were unruly prisoners who were always arguing with him, so he sent in the troops to teach us a lesson. They threatened to shoot us if we moved in a siege that lasted eight hours. For the first time during the war I felt frightened. Eventually we complied with what we had been asked to do eight hours earlier, but we were still denied adequate rations.

After I had served for two years in the copper mine the war ended. We made our way home in drips and drabs and I travelled back to Haywards Heath via Brussels. It felt wonderful to touch UK soil again.

In England we were re-clothed and given railway passes to return home. When I arrived at Aberdeen station my mother walked straight past me. She didn't recognise the boy that had left her weighing 13.5 stones. He now weighed just 8 stones, but she soon remedied that with some good home cooking.

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