Part 1 - "Missing in Action - Believed POW"
Chapter 1 - Becoming a POW
As part and parcel of their training, service personnel are prepared to expect and deal with accidents, wounds and even death but seldom give a thought to how to handle captivity. The extent of their preparedness goes little beyond knowledge that they are covered by the rules of war, and they only have to give their service number, rank and name under interrogation. They know it is their duty to escape if they possibly can, and in doing so to gather as much local intelligence as they can to pass over to their own forces.
They know they must still recognise the authority of rank, although this is recognised and interpreted in different ways in different armies and even in different units of the one army. They are prepared that officers and men will be separated and that discipline will be enforced according to the will and traditions of their captors, but will vary according to local conditions and local commanders. But they are ill-prepared for the shock of the unexpected, and shattering of their immediate close-knit fraternity and its unwritten rules and customs.
QX6959 "Snowy" Drew (2/15 Inf Bn) described his capture on the Derna escarpment: "I could not adequately describe the feeling of utter dispair, as we were marched up the road with our hands in the air. Being taken POW is a very traumatic experience".
QX19163 Lt Ken Bradshaw (2/7th Fld Coy, RAE) describes his feelings: "at the moment of surrender there is a disbelief that it is happening. In all pre-imaginings of battle, you think of death, wounds but never of being captured. I suppose, given full commitments, fanaticism or some hope, there could have been a fight to the death".
VX40591 Lt Barney Grogan (2/23 Inf Bn) is pragmatic: "All I can say on the subject is that it was either a few bayonets through the stomach or a POW. I decided to be a POW. Believe me, it did not take much deciding. I would be no good to anybody dead".
VX31279 Eric Edwards (2/24 Inf Bn): "My first reaction was one of total disbelief. We had been trained to fight, knowing well the chances of being killed or wounded, but nobody had prepared us for being taken prisoner. I was shocked and disappointed".
But when realisation finally sets in the brand new POW does some very heavy thinking, and gives himself a crash course on survival techniques. As the confusion dies down, so does his chances of breaking away diminish. He can't react instinctively to orders, and the ones he does get are often unintelligible, or if expressed in his own language, unpalatable. His immediate mates have disappeared, and with them the opportunity of discussion and making joint decisions. As time ticks by, he is more and more organised into a situation that grows increasingly beyond his own control and any prospect of escape or of being rescued fades away. His accustomed limited freedom of action is gone. He can't even control his own accustomed hygiene procedures not even his personal toilet needs. He enters a whole new and different world, with no idea at all of how long he will be there or what it will be like. He is entirely on his own resources, and to some extent has to take on a new individual identity.
He is now a POW.
Narrator WX17240 Ted Faulkes 2/32nd Inf Bn.
"I was taken POW with "A" Coy of 2/32nd Inf Bn on July 17, 1942, near Trig 22, at Ruin Ridge, El Alamein. We had taken our objective the night before, but instead of staying put at that point, we were ordered to go further forward. Subsequently we were surrounded by German tanks and armoured cars and completely cut off. After quite a hammering our Company Commander surrendered to the German forces.
"After being searched, we were made to walk westwards, being guarded by several armoured cars. After several miles walking we came to large gathering of German tanks and at the same time our artillery opened up and were dropping shells all around us. The Germans then halted and allowed us to take shelter on the lee side of their tanks until the barrage was over. We were surprised at their generosity. During our walk we were given a water ration and we finally got to El Darba and our first barbed wire cage.
"The following day a German officer informed us, in very good English: "For you the war is over unless you act silly or do something rash". We understood his message!
He also told us that the war in Africa was the Italian's war, but that they were there to help their good friends. The Italian arrangement was that all POW had to be looked after by the Italians and therefore he was going to hand us over to them at El Darba and he wished us "good luck".
"From El Darba we were taken by trucks (standing all day) via Mersa Matruh, Tobruk, Sidi Barrani, Derna and Barce, to "The Palms" camp outside Benghazi. Everybody was very thirsty and hungry as the rations were mean. As well as being hungry and thirsty, we were now being eaten alive by lice which were as big as white ants.
"After about a month at "The Palms" camp, we were trucked to the big, main Benghazi camp near the Benina Airport, which is about 5 miles from the port town of Benghazi. In this camp there were several thousand POW including Australians, South Africans, English, New Zealanders, Indians, Senegalese and Cypriots. We were in open desert here, but some were lucky enough to have small two-men tents. Food and water were extremely light i.e. 2 Italian army biscuits a man per day, and one very small tin of horseflesh between 2 men per day. Some prisoners with dysentery died in this camp. Flies, lice and fleas were unbearable. Also from this camp, we could see the American Liberator bombers sinking Axis shipping in Benghazi harbour.
"Towards the end of November 1942, a very emaciated group of us, of all nationalities, numbering about 500, and in our rotting shorts, walked the five miles to Benghazi port. Here we were herded down into the holds of a very rusty and dilapidated ship. We had already heard stories about the survivors of the "Nino Bixio" which had been full of POW and had been torpedoed near Greece, and we thought a similar fate might be awaiting us.
"The bottom of the hold I was in was soon awash with excreta, urine and vomit, so they decided to transfer some of us out of that hold. As I was going up the ladder the guard at the top on deck began shouting at me "Basta, Basta". I didn't know if he was calling me a "bastard" or he wanted me to go "faster", so I kept going up.
"When I got close to the top he hit me in the chest with his rifle butt, knocking me down about 10 or 12 feet. My back was badly injured and I could hardly walk for several days. I eventually found out that "basta" meant "enough".
"We landed at Brindisi after three days and as we staggered through the streets we were spat upon, abused and pelted with garbage. We had not eaten for three days and the guards enjoyed it. From Brindisi we were taken to a camp called "Santa Fara" near the port of Bari.
"In Brindisi, 12 months later, the New Zealanders in the Eighth Army were welcomed with open arms, garlands of flowers and shouts of "Viva". At Santa Fara we received our first Red Cross parcel, but we only had a small taste of "proper food" as it was 1 parcel to 10 prisoners. Also we were issued with British Army battle dress clothing also courtesy of the Red Cross. It was here that we had a proper wash after 6 months without one.
"After about one month at Santa Fara, where for the first time I saw men eating grass and leaves of olive trees, we were again walked to Bari - a distance of about 5 miles. Once again we were put on a train in cattle wagons. The only ventilation in those wagons were four apertures, about 12 inches square with bars, and one situated at each top corner of the wagon and impossible to see out of. Two days and two nights we spent in these wagons as the train headed northwards.
"Eventually we arrived at Campo Prigioneri di Guerra PG 57 which was at Gruppignano near Civvidale and Udine, 75 miles north east of Venice".
Narrator QX12264 Ted Kent 2/3rd Anti-tank Regiment.
"When Tobruk fell and the Germans were coming towards the Suez Canal, we were sent down to meet them and we met them at a place called El Alamein, 70 or 80 miles from Cairo. We had only a short line of supply whereas Rommel had two or three hundred miles to bring his supply of ammunition and petrol and things, but anyway, we were sent right up to the front and got there about two or three o'clock in the morning, got our gun in position and had to dig slit trenches to lay in before daylight.
"The ground was so hard that sparks were coming off my pick and after about an hour's work we had a hole about two feet deep. Just after daylight shells started coming over, and of course we were all underground so we were fairly safe unless there was a direct hit, but they sent us out there for five days. We were supposed to be relieved but they didn't have enough men, so they sent out some more food and water and told us to stay there. So, anyway we stayed there under the ground all day, we could see the Germans four or five hundred yards away. They were sending over mortar bombs all day on us. They're a bomb about as big as a pineapple, they make a hole about three feet wide and about two feet deep in the sand and shrapnel goes everywhere.
"That went on for a week or ten days, I suppose, and then this one afternoon, this bomb hit the edge of the slit trench I was in and buried me in sand. I had another man in the trench with me who had a machine gun there. It buried me head and shoulders in the sand and it took me all my strength to pull my head and shoulders out of the sand. When I opened my eyes and looked, blood was spurting out of my leg everywhere. So I put my finger in the holes to stop the bleeding. This other fellow never got any shrapnel in him, but he got a bit silly with the blast anyway, but he bandaged me up. We always had dressings in our pockets for that sort of thing. He put field dressings on my leg and they sent off for stretcher bearers.
"The stretcher bearers never came.
"About two or three hours later, I was laying there wounded, fighting going on heavier, and then it got dark. The Germans had got up close to us and a couple of young fellas came along and said "they're right up on us down there". They had their bayonets on their rifles, so I knew they must have been pretty close and I was just laying there, then I heard someone say "retreat to the station". The El Alamein station was about a mile away somewhere. Then it was all quiet. I thought, "Gee, they must be gone".
That was the end of the war by the look of it, so I was laying there for another quarter of an hour and I see these shadows coming up in the dark. The Germans, and they stopped talking about fifteen yards from me, then one of them saw me. He said "Come on out". I said "I can't, I have been wounded", and one of them understood. They come over to look at me and make sure I didn't have any guns, and then they just left me there. And strangely so, I went to sleep then during the night.
"The next morning, I woke up just after daylight - a few shells were going over, and I had a look out of the hole. There were Germans everywhere, they were going up to where the front line was. A couple of big German tanks came along, one or two of them saw me, they said "you wounded are you?" and I said "Yeah!" They couldn't do anything for me, so they went off. I looked out of the hole and thought "Gees, I'll have to die of thirst here". I had some water in the hole with me, so I had some food, and was laying there for perhaps two or three hours.
"At midday, I remembered some fruit buried in a hole a few yards away, so I crawled out of the hole and tried to find this tinned fruit, tins of peaches and things. There were eight Germans on a gun about a hundred yards away, they had a truck there, and they saw me. One man was sent down to get me. He came running down the hill with his rifle pointing at me and I thought "Gee, he'll shoot me straight away". He jumped into a hole about thirty yards away and he says: "Come here" and I said "I can't, I'm wounded, you come here". So I showed him my hands, showed him I didn't have any guns in them and so he came over pretty cautiously keeping his rifle fixed on me all the time. He saw I was wounded, and there was blood all over me legs and and bandages on my thigh. He picked me up and put his arm around my waist, and I put my arms around his neck and he hobbled me up to their gun on one leg and laid me on the ground and searched me.
"Then the officer told him he could give me a drink of water, so he gave me a drink of water. Then they sat me up on their truck and I just watched them for the next hour or so while they cleaned their gun. They weren't doing any shooting.
"Half an hour or so later, they started up the engine and turned around and took me back a mile or so, to where their first aid post was. Well they let me off there and I lay on the ground there with about 20 other gentlemen wounded. It was my turn to shelter in the tent where the doctor was. I thought "Gee, I'll be getting some rough treatment here", but they took me in and lay me on the table and the doctor was as gentle as anything, gave me a real good dressing, just like the doctor in Warragul. Then he put me out in an ambulance, and I stayed there an hour or so.
"They gave me a good meal and they took me back a couple of miles to where their field doctor was. A long tent he was in. They kept me 2 or 3 days there, then I was put into the ambulance one day, with another fella, to take the long way across the desert. We stopped at this place, a clearing station it was, and they took me out of the ambulance, and I see the flag pole, the flag of Italy. By God, they'd handed me over to the Italians now. From then on it was pretty awful. They said nothing, they were short of food and supplies. Their treatment was a bit rough, they didn't like the Australians anyway.
"I was there 2 days, then I was put into the back of a big truck, a semi-trailer truck, I just lay on the floorboards with about 20 other prisoners there too, but they were Woggy. They could walk around. The guys'd look at you as you lay on the floor, that was the worst half we'd ever spent. Then we got to another hospital, a field hospital, and spent another day or so. Ambulance again, a long way the next day, we finished up in Tobruk. There was a big fort there, where the Australians had held a siege there for about nine months, then the Germans had captured us. There was a big hospital there - tents that held about 16 men around the sides, the next tent would be about fifty yards away.
"The next morning, a couple of big burly blokes brought a trestle table into the tent and someone said "It looks like we are going to get our wounds dressed today". We hadn't been dressed for several days, so they were pretty messy. The doctor came in, he looked more like a motor mechanic - an old grey dustcoat on - and an Italian nurse, who spoke a little bit of English. Anyway they got the young fella next to me first, he was about 19 and he had shrapnel in his leg too. They took the bandages off, had a look at the wounds and started gouging out the shrapnel from his legs without painkillers or anything - these two burly blokes holding him down. He was kicking and yelling but they got it out of his leg and bandaged him up. Now I'm watching this from about six feet away, I thought "Gee, I've got to suffer that next".
"After they'd bandaged him up, they put him on the bed next to me, he said, "They damn near killed me then". I said "Yeah, I see that". He says "Your'e next". They got me on to the table, got the bandage off my leg. It was pretty messy and smelly, cleaned the wounds up, and there were three hollows in my leg there. The nurse said "What is it, bullets?" I said "No, shrapnel". She says "Has it been removed?" and I said "Yes". It was the best lie I'd told. They cleaned my wounds up and bandaged me up, then put me on my bed. The guy that went first said "Gee, you got out of it light". I said "Yeah, I said it was out". He said "They didn't even ask me". So then I told the other fellow with shrapnel to say it was out and they got out a bit lighter too.
"We were there for about a week or ten days, and then the hospital ship came in. It had its anchor out in the harbour because there were so many sunken ships in the wharves, they couldn't come in. They took us down to the wharf in an ambulance, then out to the hospital ship on a barge. Then we spent about 3 days getting across to Italy, Naples, Italy. On the hospital ship it wasn't too bad. They had a bit more food and a bit more medical supplies. There were about two or three hundred Germans on the ship too, going back to Italy to go home on leave. We got to Naples and they carried me down from the ship and laid me down on the wharf. A man with a clip-board came along, he was sorting us out sort of thing. He wanted to know if I was a Catholic, and I said "no" and he just walked off to the next bloke.
"By the time we got out of the hospital it was about dark".
QX5417 James Alexander Wilson, 2/15th Inf Bn
"Late March, 1941, saw the Allied Forces in North Africa begin their retreat before a greatly reinforced German/Italian Force. Along with Headquarters 2/15th, I went as far as El Agheila, the turning point from which our forces began to retreat into Tobruk. I was taken prisoner when our section was surrounded by German tanks outside Derna on the morning of 7 April, 1941. We were kept 2 nights out in the desert and then taken to Derna. The Germans called for volunteers to work at the airfields. A few of us went, thinking there might be a better chance to escape. Italian civilians threw bottles, stones, and hand grenades at us with every opportunity. I received injuries to my left leg when a hand grenade exploded near me. I was given first aid treatment well, as much as could be given with inadequate medical supplies.
"The following day we were all loaded aboard trucks and buses and taken back through Benghazi, El Agheila and along the coast to Tripoli. I came near to being shot by a guard at Benghazi when I could not stand up because of my leg injuries. The doctor intervened and told him to put the gun away. I spent a week or so in an Italian military hospital. I had no complaints about the medical treatment, but the food situation left much to be desired. Hygiene and sanitation was poor too, and for the first time in my life I experienced bed bugs. I was guarded day and night by an armed guard.
"From hospital, I was sent by truck to Sabrantha camp, on the road to Tunis, about 20 miles out of Tripoli. The camp had high stone walls, topped by broken glass. I spent 4 days here, and it was certainly a shock to the system - I had only my battledress, having lost my greatcoat on being captured, had to sleep on a mat on the concrete floor, no blankets, no other covering, and extremely cold nights.
"Our guards here were German, not Italians as previously, of the sadistic, heel-clicking Nazi type. Life soon became a nightmare. Each morning, sick or otherwise, we were roused out between 4 and 5 in the morning by the guards, at one stage, it was 2.30 to 3 am to load supplies for their front lines or unload and stack goods. Breakfast was a cup of substitute black coffee, a small portion of black bread and, if lucky, a spoonful of artificial jam (made by pouring water on a powder). Parade and roll call came next, and we were drafted into small parties, which proceeded to the camp gate where we were issued with our lunch, a small bun of bread and a tin of sardines. Later as food supplies became scarce, this was shared by two people.
"We did not have any means of washing our clothing or ourselves. No way either of eradicating the bugs and lice that plagued us. We weren't allowed to receive or send mail, nor did we have any contact with the Red Cross.
"My weight dropped from twelve and a half stone to eight.
"I was a POW".