- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jack Place
- Location of story:
- Egypt and Europe
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 25 May 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Anne Wareing , of the Lancashire Home Guard on behalf of Jack Place and has been added to the site with his permission….
Egypt and the Desert
Jack joined the Scots Guards in 1937 a few weeks after his 18th birthday. He was in Egypt with his best friend Johnny Fellowes when war was declared.
September 1939 we had some leave owing, so we went to spend 10 days in Alexandria. I was swimming in the Med when somebody was frantically waving at me, shouting that war had been declared.
We were sent into the desert to build defenses, to a place just west of El Alemain, to the ‘white sands’ of Mersa Matruh on the edge of the sea. As a dispatch rider I was given a motor- cycle, it was impossible to ride ‘off road’ due to the soft sand, so I was given a Ford pickup and the engineers constructed roads of chain mesh to enable the vehicles to cross the soft sand.
Once Rommel arrived with his Africa Corp it was a different kettle of fish. He drove all before him, not stopping till he reached the Libyan border with Egypt, that’s when the powers that be decided it was our turn. The Scots and Coldstream Guards were sent into action on a freezing night in November (sounds silly freezing in the desert) but an hour after the sun went down the temperature dropped till if felt it was freezing.
We went up onto the escarpment at Sollum, making as little noise as possible as we approached the border wire. As dawn broke we attacked Fort Caputzo, which was held by mixed Italians and Germans. The Germans did a disappearing act, leaving the Italians, while they took a better defensive position.
We took the Fort and surrounding area and came up to a number of sangers (stone barricades). With two or three others, I fired a few short bursts into the nearest sanger. The noise is always worse when bullets are ricocheting of the stonework. I stopped on hearing someone screaming, ‘Stop, stop, for Gawds sake.’ I thought it was one of our blokes who had got a bit ahead of us, but it was an Italian. An American Italian who had come over to Italy to visit his mother. The poor devil had been put in uniform and sent to fight the Inglesi. Our attack had been more of a feeler than anything else, so we rounded up a load of prisoners who were glad to be taken without getting injured. I think they preferred singing to fighting.
Some of the men got jobs back at base in the Suez Canal zone, or if you were even luckier, manage to get yourself escorting prisoners of war to camps in Durban, South Africa. Funny how we managed in the desert for months on end in the conditions we found ourselves in, corned beef and biscuits day after day, very little water, hardly enough for drinking. As for washing our clothes the only way to clean them was with petrol, there was a better supply of petrol than water. The trouble was after a few washes in petrol, when you tried to take your shirt off while it was wet with sweat, it stuck to your back and ripped into pieces.
Dive bombed by Stukas
We were dive bombed many times by Stuka’s Junker 87’s but the worst one was at el Adem a small aerodrome well inland. We got well and truly hammered; the ground was so hard that we couldn’t dig any decent slit trenches. But Johnny and I managed to find what must have been the only soft ground and managed to dig down about two foot. We heard them coming again and sprinted for our dug out and dived in Johnny on top of me. This time they were really close. The last bomb was almost on top and I heard Johnny grunt, then something warm and wet ran over my hip. It was Johnny’s lucky day; a piece of shrapnel had taken the buckles off his belt and torn the top off his water bottle. It was warm water I had felt, not blood and inch lower and it would have severed his spine.
As we approached civilization and the outskirts of Benghazi a few others and I cautiously approached the first houses. On one side, I saw what looked like a respectable out house, which could have been a toilet, oh! Luxury I thought, but a New Zealander, probably thinking as I did opened the door and triggered a booby trap. It didn’t kill him, but it meant a ticket back home. The most harmless things could be booby- trapped.
Johnny and I got split up again in November 1941, he back to his own Company Left Flank, me back to G Company.
Italian Bersagleria Regiment
One night with a bloke from Coventry I was sent out on listening patrol. I had to go out about two miles on a map reference and was to return just before dawn. We spent a cold miserable night and never a sound.
Packing it in with nothing to report, I took a back bearing and we started off. I didn’t bother packing the bearings as I could dimly see what I thought was my tyre tracks. In the distance I could see a group of vehicles and drove straight up the middle and started to slow down. Connors hissed for me to keep going and when I looked over to my right I could see blokes lying asleep in the trucks, some of them wearing the fancy feathered headdress of the Italian Bersagleria Regiment.
I was driving right through the centre of an Italian Laager. No one stirred and I drove quietly out of the other side. Why I turned left I don’t know, but just over a few miles away I found my own Laager and reported to Colonel Curry what we’d just found. I think they were still asleep when we hit them. We scooped the lot up. No Germans, but half a dozen high ranking Italian officers and part of the supposed crack Bersagleri Regiment. We had to wait a few hours and had a well earned brew while we waited for transport for the prisoners.
I was still with Campbell’s columns when Johnny and I had a couple of hours together, smoking and swapping news. Then on to Sidi Rezeigh , one big ‘cock up’
I think we got mixed up with the 22nd Guards Armoured Brigade instead of the Guards Brigade; somehow we finished up in the middle of a tank battle.
There must have been the whole battalion at Sidi Rezeigh with a few anti aircraft guns and a Battery of South African Artillery.
In the distance, from the east was a great cloud of sand. Coming from that direction we naturally thought it would be our tanks. Wrong. The leading tanks opened up and a couple of our trucks caught fire. A German tank column had cut us off and started to attack. Thankfully our own tanks were coming in from the northwest, but we were still in trouble, the South African 25 pounders had opened up and had a few hits, but they were still rumbling towards us. It was no good blokes trying to get cover under trucks, for more and more were getting hit and set on fire. Two more two pounders were knocked out and still they came on. We could do no good there so I bolted for my truck shouting for anyone to join me, but nearly everyone had their heads down. As I started the engine up Charlie Baird jumped on the running board and we roared off, flat out in third gear. Considering the amount of muck they were throwing at us, Chas and I were lucky to get out.
We headed south and were wandering around the empty desert for two days before we eventually found what was left of G Coy. Apparently Left Flank was run over and Johnny was reported missing, believed killed in action. That really sickened me. We used to think we were invincible. Nothing could touch us. It was always somebody else who got it. But the report on Johnny’s fate upset that theory.
After Sidi Rezeige morale was low. G Coy was reinforced by a new draft, nearly all strangers to me. Charlie Baird stuck with me for a while before being sent back for some reason, he was another one that I never saw again.
It was the 2nd June 1942; another change in my life Regal Ridge wasn’t as secure as Knightsbridge, not having been completely mined. Having dug in we waited for the tanks and artillery to join us. The only thing we had was a paltry 2-pound anti-tank gun and that’s when they hit us with a terrific barrage. Shell fragments flying about, the noise was deafening and we couldn’t see for billowing sand. The 2 pounder, just s6 foot away took a direct hit and just disappeared. Johnson who was manning it was screaming, seriously injured. A close mate of mine McCloud was alongside me and had a gaping wound in his thigh. I was lucky, I got away with a bit of shrapnel or spent bullet in the left knee. All we could hear were shouts for medics. McCloud was struggling with his field dressing and as I went to help him tanks ran over us. Behind the tanks were a mixture of Italian and German infantrymen, an Italian pushed me over and kicked McCloud in the ribs. The German behind him looked somewhat ridiculous in his ‘coalscuttle’ helmet and a cigar in his mouth. What happened next was unbelievable. The Italian who had kicked McCloud looked frightened to death as the German grabbed him by the collar and rammed his luger in his ear. He paused a few seconds, then unbelievably shot him. I know they had little respect for the Itie’s as allies, but that was fierce and ruthless.
We were left for a while sorting out the injured then we were rounded up and marched out of the battle area. Then the start of a long trek across the desert. Night came and we shivered in the cold, all I possessed was what I was wearing. Everything I owned had been lost at Regal Ridge.
Conditions on the journey were dreadful very little food and water, we all suffered from dysentery, gastro enteritis and lice, with no proper toilet facilities. My 23rd birthday 6th October 1942 came and went un-noticed. We were a few weeks into November when we were suddenly rounded up and trucked to Tripoli. Three coal ships were waiting in the harbour. We were stowed down in the hold and with darkness set sale. When daylight came, half of us were allowed on deck given bread and water and allowed to wash ourselves.
We docked at Naples on the 19th November and were taken to the POW camp at Capua. We were put on a weighing machine, I weighed 7 stone 8lbs in Cairo seven months earlier I had weighed 12 stone 2 lbs. I was issued with a pair of Italian alpine britches and a Yugoslavian army jacket. I must have liked ridiculous, but at least I was much warmer.
Concentration Camp 53
We went by train northwards to a town Macerati near the coast on the Adriatic Sea to Campo Concentramento cinquantro tre ‘Concentration Camp 53.’ It consisted of three huge buildings fitted out with wooden two tier beds with straw filled mattresses. There were in the form of a block, housing 8 men. Life went on, still everlastingly hungry and living day to day on rumours about the way War was going.
I think it was sometime in March, there was a rumour that the POW camp at nearby Chaoli was being closed down. American prisoners captured in Tunisia were to be housed there and the British inmates would be coming to 53. it wasn’t a rumpur this time because one evening they arrived. We were all out to greet them despite the pouring rain. I was stood shivering when a lad I knew came through and said. “Your mates coming through Jackie”and as I few more came through I saw Johnny. He’d wrongly been reported killed at Sidi Rezeigh. He looked clean and smart in his battledress with a kit bag on his shoulder. I shouted “Johnny” he looked round and glanced at me. I don’t think he recognized me in my alpine breeches and Yugo jacket, with my head shorn of hair. He stared a few seconds, then hesaid, “God Jake, what have they done to you?” Self pity and emotion overcame me and I almost burst into tears. Then we were hugging each other like a couple of schoolgirls. The Italian sentries pushed them all away from us and marched them off to the next compound. He turned and shouted “I’ll catch up with you in the morning Jake.”
I hardly slept that night and in the morning when the barbed wire between the compounds was opened, Johnny was the first through. We talked for hours and hours, he told me he had been captured in Sidi Rezeigh, shipped to Bari in the south of Italy. The Italians didn’t have many prisoners when he was captured and Red Cross parcels were issued regularly, so he hadn’t lost much weight. He’d always been a gambler and good at bartering, thanks to which he sorted me out a battledress uniform within a few days. I looked respectable at last, he also managed to get me a wool vest and long johns. It was great to get rid of the ridiculous gear the Italians had fitted me with.
In a prison camp the saying ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ was certainly true the things we made from empty parcel tins were amazing. Despite feeling better life was tedious and we lived on rumours, wondering if we would ever get home.
A representative of the Geneva Red Cross came to visit. We were fed the minimum amount of calories to survive but the Red Cross parcels when available made all the difference.
Feeling fitter and stronger I began thinking about having another go at getting out. After another 3 prisoners had tried, it was decided me and 2 others who had escaped and had been recaptured, were to be transferred to another camp north of Sulmona. A few weeks after arriving we heard on the camp grapevine of the Sicily landings, this cheered us up no end, more so when a few weeks later landings were made on the Italian mainland at Salerno and Anzio.
Bombed on the POW train and a short escape
We were rounded up to be moved again and driven to the nearest railway station and crammed into steel cattle trucks, between 60 and 80 to each. On the second day we arrived at the town of Bolzano, which is at the foot of the Brenner Pass it was while we were in the station that we got caught in an air raid. Being bombed is always a frightening experience, but when you’re penned in a steel truck it’s terrifying. Every bomb that came screaming down got louder and louder until I thought this must be the one. Suddenly someone banged on the door, opened it wide and we were able to jump out. Hundreds of prisoners were fleeing the station. I must have been walking and running for hours when I came across a small farm house where an elderly Italian asked me if I was English, said ‘German Pigs’ and gave me bread, cheese and wine. I went a few miles before settling down to eat, but after a couple of hours I heard shots, single and then machine gun fire. We were pinpointed the short- lived freedom was over, we were soon back on that damned train.
Concentration Camp at Moosberg
On through Brenner and into Austria, to a huge concentration camp at Mooseburgh. Here our heads were shaved, we were put through a de-lousing centre, finger printed, photographed and issued with a Kreigsgegffangenen (War prisoner) identity plate on which was stamped my number K.G. 139569, which was worn round the neck. 60 years later I still have it with the original string.
It must have been the biggest concentration camp in Germany and Poland. There were thousands upon thousands of mixed nationalities; the French compound one side, the Russians on the other. We didn’t know at the time what they were doing to the Jews, but the way they treated the Russians was diabolical. Guards with fierce German shepherd dogs patrolled the camp and they often set them on the Russians as a bit of sport.
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