Part 4 - Nominal Roll All AIF POW "Evades" in Switzerland
Chapter 2 - The Sixth Australian Division AIF
In 1939, when Prime Minister Menzies announced that Australia was following Great Britain in declaring war on Germany, the traditions of the volunteer Australian Imperial Force of World War One was the basis on which Australian volunteers were recruited, trained, equipped and formed into fighting units, for World War Two.
Five Australian Infantry Divisions had been identified in the 1914 - 18 conflict, and the psyche of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli was the foundation on which the morale of the Second AIF was based.
Volunteers were again called for a second AIF and the first division to be formed would carry on the tradition of the first war five divisions and would become the 6th Australian Division of the AIF. Most of its formations repeated the identifying numbers and insignia of previous units, the prefix "2" was added and a grey background given to the WW1 colour patches. The Sixth Australian Division was rapidly recruited, outfitted, given basic training and shipped overseas by early 1940. However due to the entry of Italy into the war, providing land bases in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and threatening shipping movements through the Suez Canal, some AIF troopships were diverted around the Cape of Good Hope to England arriving there in June 1940.
As plans were being formulated by General Wavell to use the 6th Australian Division as part of the British offensive into Cyrenaica in December 1940, a re-organisation of the AIF units in the Mediterranean was undertaken by General Blamey to take advantage of the arrival of more troops direct from Australia and the diversion again of those units who had reached England. In addition to the well-trained and experienced troops of the Sixth Division and parts of the Seventh, another division, the Ninth, was formed for operations in the Middle East, whilst the Eighth division was being assembled in Australia, its then unknown and unhappy destination to be Malaysia.
By mid January 1941, the Sixth Division's 18th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Leslie Moreshead, had already been engaged in the fierce fighting against Italian armies which had lead to the capture of Giarubub and Barce, and were then involved in the "Benghazi Handicap" and the subsequent withdrawal into Tobruk.
It was now being readied to be relieved by the newly formed Ninth, to enable the Sixth to take part in the defence of Greece against German armoured divisions invading through Albania. From 1 March, 1941, the Ninth would take over operations in Cyrenaica.
The basic change in the re-organisation of the AIF units in the Mediterranean undertaken by General Blamey were in the divisional structure. Instead of a division comprising 4 brigades, each of 4 battalions, the "new" divisions were to be of 3 brigades and 3 battalions. This re-organisation was unpopular with many unit commanders for many reasons, but for the Sixth Division, their basic divisional structure remained intact. The infantry of the 6th Division infantry would thus be 3 brigades each of 3 battalions, the 18th Brigade (2/9th - 2/10th - 2/12th Bns) being temporarily attached to 9th Division.
The 16th Brigade (2/1st - 2/2nd - 2/3rd Bns)
The 17th Brigade (2/5th - 2/6th - 2/7th Bns)
The 19th Brigade (2/4th - 2/8th - 2/11th Bns)
The "Cretan" Battalions
Whilst Malta G.C. in 1941 was indisputably the most strategic Mediterranean island during WWII, the island of Crete became an immense tactical prize for the Axis forces thrusting forward to capture Cairo and the Suez Canal. The Germans regarded Crete as a potential air base, only a little over 1,000 km from their vital oil supplies in Rumania. Moreover, the elongated island with its mountain spine over 2,400m high also was considered by both protagonists as an ideal naval base. But Crete had no railway system and internal transport was by unpaved roads.
The task of retaining Crete as an Allied naval base was entrusted to General Freyberg of the 2NZEF, who had under his command, the original British brigade stationed on it for its defence, together with 7 New Zealand battalions and 8 Australian ones.
The Australian infantry battalions were the 2/1st, 2/2nd, 2/3rd, 2/4th, 2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th, 2/8th and 2/11th backed up by the 2/1st MG, the 2/2nd and 2/3rd LAA and other support troops, such as artillery, engineers, supply and medical units.
These amounted to some 8,500 Australian 6th Divisional and Corps Troops under the command of General Vasey. Intriguingly, all of the Australian infantry battalions, with the exception of the 2/3rd and the 2/5th, had AIF POW "representatives" in Switzerland.
When General Freyberg was ordered to evacuate his troops from Crete, despite the valiant efforts of the British Navy, many of his men found themselves encircled by German paratroopers - abandoned by Allied HQ - it was literally every man for himself.
The battle for Crete was a "touch and go" situation, and many historians feel that had the Allies succesfully sabotaged their own aerodromes to deny final German access, Crete could have been held, despite the overwhelming German airpower. Casualties were extremely high on both sides.
Whilst most of the ANZAC POW taken by the Germans ended up directly in Germany, some POW escaped immediate capture by hiding out in the Cretan hills where, as subsequently was also to be the case for the Ninth Division in the lower Alps of Italy, they received vital assistance from the local peasant population. Those Australian POW who were handed over to the Italians or later, recaptured on the island of Crete or in Greece, ended up in Italian prison camps, most notably Campo 78, Sulmona for the officers, and Campo 57 Gruppignano, for the ORs. These POW were later to be joined by Ninth Division POW from the fierce battles around El Alamein.
Thus it is perhaps fitting that the stories of the AIF infantry POW, who comprised over 70% of all escapees to Switzerland, should start with those of the "Cretan" Battalions.
Nonimal Roll of Swiss AIF POW escapees "Cretan" Battalions
Unit History: B1 "The First at War" - "Sydney's Own"" - The 2/1st Infantry Battalion, E.C. Givney (Editor), Sydney, 1987.
NX11450 Sydney Clifford Ina Chard - entered 28.09.43, left 22.09.44
Unit History: "Nulli Secundis" Log. 2/2 Australian Infantry Battalion AIF
Captain Alan John Marshall (Editor).
NX2281 Alfred Norman Gill entered 03.10.43, left 23.09.44
Unit History: B4 "White over Green" The 2/4th Battalion and reference to 4th Bn. The Unit History Editorial Committee (Cecil Chrystal, Chairman) Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1963.
NX5531 Alton Charles Creasey - entered 16.11.43, left 22.09.44
NX11212 George Brian Elliot - entered 22.09.43, left 20.12.44
NX13300 Dudley Rees - entered 04.10.43, left 07.09.44
Unit History: B6 "Nothing Over Us" - Story of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion, David Hay, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1984.
VX3439 Lt. Athol Hunter, MC. - entered 18.11.43, left 26.08.44
Unit History: B7 "The Fiery Phoenix" - The 2/7 Australian Infantry Battalion 1939/46 - W.P. Bolger and J.C. Littlewood (F.C.Folkland, Editor), 1983.
VX9584 John Desmond Peck DCM - entered 22.05.44, left 01.11.44
VX4690 John Bryan Green - entered 17.11.43, left 23.09.44
Unit History: B8 "The Second Eighth" - A History of the 2/8th Infantry Battalion, E.G. Davis (Ed.), Melbourne, 1984.
VX6027 Ronald James McDonald - entered 03.10.43, left 23.09.44
VX4360 Lt. Ronald Houghton Jones MBE - entered 03.10.43, left 23.09.44
Unit History: B10 "The 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-45", H.M. Binks Ed.
WX1662 Harold Thomas Digwood - entered 24.09.43, left 03.10.44
VX3439 Lt. Athol Hunter MC, 2/6th Infantry Battalion
Lt. Athol Hunter was a South African, born in Johannesburg in 1914, who was visiting Australia at the outbreak of WWII and decided to enlist in the AIF. On August 23, 1939, he enlisted in Melbourne and embarked with the 2/6th Inf Bn on March 1, 1940 as a probationary Lieutenant. He was wounded in action in the fighting around Corinth on April 5, 1941 and became one of the 351 members of his battalion to be captured there.
He escaped from a POW camp near Athens on July 5, 1941 and lived with various native Cretan families until re-captured by Italian troops on November 12, 1941.
During this period he trained some Greek officers in the use of the Bren gun and hand grenades. After his re-capture, he became an inmate of various prison camps in Greece and Italy, including Kokina Hospital and Ayeroff Prison among others. His record shows he escaped from captivity no less than 7 times from November 1941 to October 1943.
When the Italian Armistice was signed, he was in Campo 19 - Bologna with a group of British officers being taken into further captivity in Germany on the infamous "Moosburg Express". He was unable to escape from that train before it reached the transit camp of Fort Strasbourg. But on learning that Fort Strasbourg was going to be closed down, he and a RAAF officer - Fl/Lt. Geoff Chinchen - decided to hide in the Fort and not be included in the party that was leaving it.
Consequently, he and Geoff had themselves bricked into a corner of the building they were in, asking their friends to put paper between the brick courses to prevent the mortar setting. They stayed in their corner from 3 am until 6 pm that night. The Germans suspected they were two men short, but could not find them before the train resumed its journey to Moosburg. When the two officers emerged from their hiding place it was dark. They walked all night from the now deserted camp until they came to a foresters hut at Nideck, where they were given food and directed to Hengst, having been warned that Germans were actively patrolling the area.
Next night they crossed the border into France. Again being warned that the Germans were patrolling the road to their next destination - the village of Luvigny -they travelled parallel to the road on the higher slopes, reached Luvigny and crossed from France to Switzerland. Swiss records show that they entered Switzerland on November 18, 1943.
In Switzerland, Lt. Athol Hunter was recruited into SOE operations by Jock McCaffery, the British Head of Station in Berne, who had previously recruited John Peck and Frank Jocumsen to return to North Italy. However because of the contacts Athol had made with the French underground on his escape, he went back to France.
A memo from the Military Administrative Section of SOE HQ to the Head of Switzerland and Italy dated September 22, 1944, mentions that he had been struck off SBO Berne strength and taken on by SOE on August 26, 1944.
Athol Hunter served in the Savoie area of France for four months. He was awarded the Military Cross (London Gazette Supp. No 36931 of 1/3/45). On return to Australia, he joined "Z" Force, but did not complete his training programme.
VX9534 Pte. John Desmond Peck DCM, 2/7 Inf Bn, 6th Division, AIF
Award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
"On 4th June, 1941, three days after his capture in Crete, Pte. Peck and eight other Australians walked out of the PW enclosure at Sfakia, Crete. Two months later, Pte. Peck was captured and sent first to Canea prison and then to a camp at Galatos. Again on 20th August, 1941, he climbed through the wire and was at liberty almost four months before he was re-arrested. Cretan villagers released him within two days. For a time he came into German custody on 28th April 1942, but on 15th May, 1942, he knocked out a guard and escaped from the military prison at Rodi. Although the party succeeded in securing a boat, this capsized during a storm and Pte. Peck was rescued by an Italian destroyer.
Imprisoned in Italy, Pte. Peck left a camp at San Germano Vercellese, where he had been employed on agricultural work, by climbing the wire. A fortnight later he was apprehended once more. At the time of the Italian Armistice, he was released from Vercelli Prison and immediately formed a small organisation to care for PW and send them to the partisans. When at the beginning of October 1943, the Germans dispersed the guerilla force, Pte. Peck arranged to evacuate PW to Switzerland. Early in November, because more funds were required, Pte. Peck got in touch with the Committee of Liberation. Under their auspices he toured many districts to convince PW of the sincerity of the scheme and, during December, induced the Committee to re-organise and improve their machinery for helping POW.
"On 12th February, 1944, Pte. Peck was arrested by the Gestapo. After three months imprisonment he escaped from a working party employed at the Lambrate marshalling yards; when the guards took shelter during an air-raid, Pte. Peck ran in the opposite direction. Making his way to Intra, he met members of the organisation and with their assistance reached Switzerland on 22nd May, 1944."
Authority - London Gazette Supp.No.36961 of 1/3/45. CAG. No. 104 of 24/5/45.
(Swiss Army Records confirm that VX 9534 Pte. John Desmond Peck reached Switzerland on May 22, 1944 and that he was repatriated in 1944. They also record the arrival in Switzerland of VX 9534 Major John Peck on October 22, 1944 and his repatriation on November 1, 1944, by which time most British POW escapees in Switzerland had been repatriated back to Australia. His commission was confirmed and as a Lieutenant he lead the Victorian Unit in the London Victory March following the end of the WW11 in Europe.)
VX4360 Lt. Ronald Houghton Jones MID, MBE, 2/8th Inf Bn, 6th Division, AIF.
Ron Jones enlisted in the AIF on November 27, 1939 and was posted to the 2/8th Infantry Battalion, 6th Division as a private on December 5, 1939. Since he had been a member of the 29th Militia Battalion pre-war, his rise through the ranks was rapid. On December 15, 1939 he was confirmed as a Sergeant and when he sailed with his battalion on April 14, 1940 it was as Lieutenant Ron Jones.
He was then seconded from his unit on August 18, 1940 to 19th Brigade HQ to do an intelligence course and never re-joined the 2/8th Infantry Battalion. He went through the first Lybian campaign with 19th Brigade HQ. In March, 1941 the 6th Division was relieved in Tobruk by the 9th Division to go to Greece, Ron Jones went too, not with his battalion, but with 19th Brigade HQ.
During the battle for Vevi Pass, the 2/8th lost 105 POW, and while the remainder of the battalion was saved when the "Costa Rica" was sunk and were landed in Crete for the defence of that island, it lost another 103 POW to the Germans, including 3 officers - Captain Martin, Lt Phelan and Lt Mumford.
It is unclear where Ron Jones was actually captured but in an unfinished letter,he says:
"Prisoner of war - German paratroops. Plane to Salonika, train to Germany. En route jumped from train into Yugoslavia, near Cacak, Serbia, I think. 1941. Injured left leg in jump. Befriended by a Yugoslav peasant who brought stretcher and took me to village. When leg was better moved into mountains and joined up with Mihailovic's Chetnik forces. Fought in the battle for Rana Bore against German forces. We lost and retired to Bosnia, fought a battle for Carak, but lost again. Retired to mountains in Bosnia, then on to Montenegro. Joined up with partisan forces. Captured in the village of Afterwards. Then after a court of enquiry was accused of espionage. I had just coded a message to war office London when captured by the Italians. I claimed message was for my family in Australia and that a British officer was going to send it for me. I only knew him as "Marko", entered Yugoslavia by submarine in Adriatic ("Marko" was Captain Hudson, an English SOE operative).
"Was sent to POW Camp in Southern Italy and placed in solitary confinement. Boy in camp got message to me and during exercise hour quizzed me by asking questions about Battalion, who was the adjutant etc. I then demanded to see the Camp Commandant who accepted my status as a prisoner of war, being witnessed by the 2/8th boys.
"After six months transferred to another camp near Modena, Italy. German troops moved after the capitulation of Italian forces. After two days, a number of us jumped the wall of the camp into parklands. Rounded up by the Germans, who considered it a great joke. In train again for Germany. Accompanied by Tom Elliot of Queensland fo..." (here the letter ends).
But once again Ron escaped from the train taking him from the officers camp in Bologna into Germany - the infamous "Moosburg Express"- and this time ended up on Italian soil from which he managed to escape into neutral Switzerland, with his mate, Lt. Tom Elliot.
Over 50 British officers did likewise from this train, and they included Capt. Jack Kroger and 12 other AIF officers and 2 RAAF officers. All the Australian officers in Switzerland thus escaped from this one train.
In all 103 Allied officers were missing from it when it reached its final destination at Moosburg, in Bavaria.
Tom Elliot of the 2/12th Inf Btn arrived in Switzerland ex the Moosburg Express on the same day as Ron Jones, and confirms that they travelled there together. Their date of arrival in Switzerland was October 2, 1943.
The companion who jumped off the train with Ron Jones near Carcak was an Englishman named Christie Lawrence who has written a book "Irregular Adventure" E15. Lawrence was a British Commando Captain captured in Crete. Ron Jones told Lawrence to leave him with his injured leg as he was only being a hindrance. Lawrence did, but never made it back to Greece, and returned to Yugoslavia where he joined various guerilla bands. Lawrence bumped into Jones again in the Spring of 1942, at the HQ of General Michailovic where Jones was a figure of some influence. By that time he had learnt to speak fluent Serbo-Croat and had met up with Captain Hudson. They spent the winter of 1941/42 together with peasant families, moving on when informers got wind of their presence and reported them to the Germans or their allies.
As Spring approached in 1942, they starved together in a mountain village, existing on a few beans and potatoes. Hudson still sings a song about this diet in Serbo-Croat. Each day they used to measure how far their stomachs had receded and on one occasion Hudson took a photo of Jones' stomach.
Lt. Ron Jones MBE, MID, was repatriated from Switzerland on September 23, 1944 and discharged from the AIF on DEcember 30, 1945.
Acknowledgments and Thanks to:
The18th Brigade consisted of the 2/9th Inf Bn, the 2/10th Inf. Bn and the 2/12th Inf Bn.
As part of the 7th Division, it had been involved in the fierce fighting in Libya and the capture of Giarabub in March 1941. It retained its Sixth Division rectangular colour patches until the end of the war, despite the re-organisation that saw the formation of the 9th Division from parts of the 6th and 7th divisions. The Brigade fought in Syria, but was not involved in the fighting in Greece or Crete. (See 3A p294-303 and "Lavarack - Rival General", Brett Lodge, Allen and Urwin, 1998 G18 and Peter Brune - "The Spell is Broken", RSL Library Melbourne, 940.5426 BRU G32).
2/9th Inf Bn
Unit History: A short history of the 2/9th was compiled by Keith Hall (2/9th) from articles written by Major Luke printed in early "Fighting Ninth Journals".
No POW in Switzerland.
QX7756 William Edward Bailey - underground in Italy
QX7363 Clifford Frederick Morris - MPD in Germany Jnuary 31, 1945
2/10th Inf Bn
Unit History: B9 "Purple and Blue", The History of the 2/10th Battalion AIF (The Adelaide Rifles) Lt Col Frank Alichin MM, John Burridge, Perth, 1993.
SX6310 Ronald Leonard Douglas - entered 03.11.43, left 23.04.44
2/12th Inf Bn
Unit History: B11 "Of Storms and Rainbows" The story of the men of the 2/12th Battalion AIF in two volumes A.L. Graeme-Evans - 12th Battalion Association Hobart, 1989 & 1991. Vol.1 October '39 - March '42. Vol 2. March '42 - January '46.
QX6017 Lt. Tom Wootton Elliot - entered 02.10.43, left 23.09.44
QX7033 William Francis Griesbach e escaped from Stalag 18B?
TX722 Bernard James Hansen - entered 06.11.43, left 23.09.44
QX3733 Norman Mazlin - entered 25.09.43, left 01.10.44
QX15357 Roy Fairfax Richardson - entered 19.09.43, left 23.09.44
TX75 Joseph Henry Turner - entered 06.10.43, left 23.09.44
TX 850 Cpl. John Kenneth Stein - entered 28.09.43, left10.10.44
TX 2360 Cpl. Loyal Walter Whyman - entered 18.11.43, left 23.09.44
TX 721 Thomas Vernon McOrmond - DOW, Yugoslavia 18.12.44
QX6017 Lt. Tom Wooton Elliot MID, 2/12 Infantry Battalion
Tom Elliot was 2 i/c of "B" Company, 2/12th Battalion and was endeavouring to save one of his wounded men after a failed attack on Post S10 Tobruk, when he was cut off, taken POW and with other 2/12th POW was handed over by the Germans to the Italians who technically, were in command of the Axis operations in the Western Desert - an arrangement that suited the Germans, as it released their troops from guard duties to active combat, and did not tax their food supplies.
Two other 2/12th officers - Captain A.L. Herbert and the O/C of "B" Company, Captain T.H. Vincent - also became Italian POW. Most probably all three ended up at the large POW Camp No. 78 at Sulmona, near Rome. If so, they would have been moved to Campo 19 at Bologna in the north of Italy near Bologna, as the Allied advance from the South, slowly but surely pushed the Germans, who had already been driven out of North Africa, out of Italy.
Lt. Tom Elliot was among the officers who escaped from the "Moosburg Express" the train taking them out of Italy into further captivity as German POW and reached Switzerland on October 1, 1943, the same day that VX4360 Lt. Ron Jones of the 2/8th Inf Bn also arrived. As they were both on the train, they undoubtedly both escaped from it together and travelled together to Switzerland.
Little is known of how they spent their time in Switzerland, but as officers they may have elected to wear civilian clothes, and although limited to the amount of money they could draw, their officer allowance would have been sufficient for them to stay at a simple Swiss hotel and to participate in the various study and recreational courses made available by the Swiss Government and Red Cross.
Like most of his officer colleagues, he was repatriated to Australia via freed France and Naples, almost exactly a year after arriving in Switzerland.