- Contributed by
- Thomas Emyr Davies
- People in story:
- Thomas Emyr Davies (Tom Davies) ; William (Bill) Wilson
- Location of story:
- Brecon; Hereford; Tatton Park and Ringway Aerodrome; North Africa; Sicily; Grimsthorpe Castle; Arnhem; Stalag IV B Muhlberg, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 January 2005
Thomas Emyr (Tom) Davies, aged 21, on signing up with the South Wales Borderers in 1939
The Germans reluctantly gave ground after a bitter struggle which took its toll of casualties on both sides. We pressed on steadily towards Arnhem. While the rest of the boys went on ahead, I stopped for a few minutes to adjust the bandage I had strapped onto my leg. I was suddenly startled by a thrash of foliage as a few German soldiers came crashing through the bushes. I leapt frantically into a ditch and just froze. To my relief, just behind them were some of our own boys with their Sten guns aimed at the Germans’ backs. They were captured prisoners who were being escorted back to headquarters, a little way behind, for questioning.
Coming to the built up area approaching the town, we had to make our advance by trampling over the neatly-kept lawns and well-trimmed hedges of what were like pretty dolls’ houses, bordered by nature’s last wild fling of blooming colour. It felt like an act of desecration.
As we worked our way up along the river banks to form a bridgehead in the inner perimeter, the role which had been assigned to us, news came back that the men at the bridge were still holding on grimly.
The second lift of airborne troops from England failed to arrive as expected, held back by bad weather at home. Apparently the air stations from which they were to take off were in the grip of a blanket of fog. Ironically the weather at Arnhem was fairly good.
Many civilians took to the cellars of their houses whilst the fighting was going on. Others fled in utter confusion as pockets of resistance held out here and there, whilst many fell victim to the crossfire of machine guns and the steadily falling shells. Nobody knew quite for the best in which direction to advise them to go.
Parts of the town were ablaze as the Germans brought their flame-throwers into action and Arnhem was fast becoming a burning holocaust as shells burst on our positions with searing impact. The merciless bombardment had no pattern, with red streaks of flying shrapnel sweeping the sky and bursts of gunfire springing to life now and again.
One young lad ran around in a wild frenzy screaming as he clawed frantically at his face which was covered with pieces of warm flesh, clinging tenaciously to his skin. A shell had landed directly on one of his companions close by scattering flesh in all directions. The horror and severe shock of this was almost too much for this young man to take, driving him almost crazy.
We learned later that, through a breach of security, the German intelligence service had expected an attack by an airborne force somewhere in central Holland and had kept back an armoured division under the pretence of giving it a refit so that it could be put into operation immediately an emergency arose. Consequently, it was just a matter of time before the enemy, with its heavier fighting equipment, started to get the upper hand, breaking through from the north end of the town. Taking over the houses overlooking our positions along the river bank, they lobbed stick-grenades down on us from their lofty positions, leaving us no alternative but to charge into the cellars at the rear of the buildings where we got involved in some hand-to-hand fighting.
After we had battled our way up the stairs using our hand-grenades, the Germans withdrew to the floor above us by the front entrance leaving us bogged down in the cellars of the houses. Soon we heard the rumble of tanks moving in, systematically working their way up the street. The tank commanders called on us to surrender but we held on, knowing that there was a slight possibility of being relieved in time by the Allies. We had heard heavy shelling in the distance and assumed that this was the British 2nd Army under General Horrocks. There had been a lot of Allied aircraft activity around but in Arnhem itself it was well-nigh impossible for them to distinguish one lot of soldiers from another, such was the confusion, with skirmishes going on throughout the area.
The tanks started to pepper the houses where we were sheltering with cannon fire, shaking the walls like canvas. Clouds of dust rose from the crumbling plaster and broken masonry, and glass flew everywhere. A platoon officer lay on the floor bleeding profusely from a shoulder-wound which we had bandaged as best we could and C.S.M. Martin, an exceptionally tall, raw-boned ex-Grenadier Guardsman, who was next senior in the room, did his utmost to keep our spirits from flagging by the occasional wisecrack.
We had already disposed of any documents or maps that we thought could be of any use to the enemy by setting fire to them. Our position looked pretty hopeless now, with our ammunition just about gone and the men utterly exhausted, having had no sleep for a couple of days. Suddenly, there was a brief lull in the shouting and firing from outside in the street. This awful silence seemed more frightening than the hitherto raucous noise of the Germans as they moved in for the ‘kill’.
Bill Wilson growled in his broad Scots accent, “What the hell’s happening now?”
As if in answer to his query, a stark shadow fell across the doorway and a young German soldier, closely followed by two companions, appeared. They could not have been older than seventeen. Their guns jerking about in their hands expressed their nervous and excitable mood as they shouted “Hinder hoc”, their eyes darting quickly about the dimly lit room. I am certain that one thoughtless or careless move on our part would have been suicidal. They would surely have blasted us to ribbons.
We motioned meaningfully to our officer lying on the floor making gestures to suggest that they would attend to him. They beckoned the three of us out of the dust-filled, battle-scarred room into the bright daylight where more of our captors stood, the flashes on their uniforms indicating that they were soldiers from the S.S. Panzer Division. They were lined up in the garden at the rear of the house, their fingers itching on the triggers of their guns. We were escorted along the road and bundled unceremoniously into the waiting trucks to be taken back behind the enemy lines away from the scene of the fighting, the noise of battle in the distance like the faint thunder of a far off storm as we travelled through the pretty Dutch countryside. The people of the villages we passed through seemed a little afraid to show their true emotions for fear of reprisal action by the Germans. This was clear from one incident when a jolly old stout lady shouted out something which we could not understand as she waved encouragement to us. She was given a short blast from a Mauser gun by a fair-haired German fanatic escorting us. She staggered back against the wall of the house but as the truck was rounding a wide bend in the road we could not tell whether she was mortally wounded.
After we had been travelling for about two or three hours, we eventually turned into a large fenced enclosure, which appeared to be some kind of botanical garden. Large groups of dishevelled and very weary prisoners of war like us - British, Polish and Dutch - were either sitting or lying stretched out on the grass. In the centre stood a building like a small block of offices outside of which stood a party of Dutch civilians who, judging by their white, strained faces and anxious looks were obviously pleading for their lives. This was evident by the despairing gestures they were making to a couple of lean and hard-looking German officers, whom one might have guessed were accusing them of collaborating with the Allies. Despite our own plight we felt a great deal of pity for them, being victims of circumstances brought on them in which they had no say, many of them having been put in a dangerous and compromising position through no fault of their own.
Hours later, we were taken to Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany and there, at an interrogation camp, put into solitary confinement for a period of time in little wooden cubicles. They were rather like the ones used for changing in when going bathing, the object being, no doubt, to lower one’s spirit before being questioned. This certainly proved to be the case with me. The longer I was kept waiting, the more exasperated I became. The feeling of loneliness increased and I felt an overwhelming need to speak to someone.
After an unbearably long wait, I was taken to a large government building. As I was marched, with an armed guard at my shoulder, up the wide stone steps and along the highly polished corridors, I was very much aware of my wretched appearance from the contemptuous stares from the sturdy, well-developed office girls. With swastika armbands on their shirts, they were obviously the product of the fanatical Hitler Youth movement.
The room we entered was sparsely furnished with just a beautifully polished, heavy mahogany table on which was placed to one side a large bowl of fruit filled with thick clumps of delicious black grapes, enough to make one’s eyes water. There sat a very pleasant looking civilian, probably of the German intelligence section, who spoke fluent English with hardly a trace of an accent. He greeted me with a charming smile and said he hoped I would be sensible and just answer a few questions. The sooner this was done, the sooner I would be given something to eat and sent to a permanent prisoner of war camp where I would spend the rest of my time until Germany had won the war. He was amiable but without being excessively so.
I told him I was only able to give him my name, rank and number at which he then assured me that they had most of the information they required but just needed confirmation on one or two minor points. The line of questioning followed the lines of which aerodrome we had taken off from, the number of men to a plane, type of aircraft, crew and so on.
In reply to every question I repeated my name, rank and number. I asked him if he would expect me to give information other than that which was laid down by international convention if I was a young German soldier taken prisoner in England. His reply was non-committal.
Someone naïve enough to imagine they had all the information they needed concerning the airborne landing might think it was not very important giving away some little detail and would thereby add another piece to the huge jigsaw they were putting together. Realising that he was not getting anywhere, the official ordered the guard to take me back to the little cubicle again.
After a couple of hours, the men who had been interrogated were shepherded into a large compound where we were given a slice of black bread each, which I ate with the relish of someone who has been given a piece of fruit cake. I was amazed to see one or two of the lads pass their ration of bread through the wire fencing to someone in the next compound in exchange for a cigarette which evidently satisfied their immediate need more than food, even though they must have been as desperately hungry as I was.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.