Extracts From the book
Post date: May 13, 2012 12:52:53 AM
18TH April, 1999.
Today I finally finished writing “The War Story” – as it came to be known by the family. In November 1989, after I had retired from full-time employment and as we were about to set off for South Africa, Jeremy suggested I should write the war story and on the 19th December, 1989, I wrote to him, “Today I have started writing No 124280.” So it has apparently taken me almost nine and a half years to write it. Of course, I have not worked at it all that time. I also wrote five other little books that were published and some others that were not published but, whenever the publishers’ interest waned, I would do another chapter or two of “124280”. Last year it became clear that there were no more demands from publishers for my books, so I turned my thoughts to getting this work completed – and here it is at last, for what it is worth.
I have told my story as I saw it and as I remember it. Naturally, I cannot always recall the names of the many men with whom I associated, so I have made up some of them. Similarly, I cannot remember the exact words that people spoke, but I do recall certain characteristic phrases. Furthermore, since I am more of a story-teller than an historian, I have sometimes invented the dialogue, merely in order to carry the action forward and make the telling of the events more interesting. So, it is my hope that the book which you hold in your hands will prove to be not merely informative, but also occasionally amusing and entertaining.
When writing an auto-biography, one has to choose between what is of interest to oneself, and what may be of interest to the readers – if any. If one is famous, then one simply chooses those incidents which illumi-nate the path which brought one to fame but, as I am not famous, and did not do anything particularly daring or exciting during the war, I have had to choose other criteria. I decided that my only readers would probably be my children and grand-children and they would perhaps be interested in learning how my experiences had helped me in the process of reaching maturity. If this is so, then my labours will be well re-warded.
I must now thank all those who have borne with me patiently over the past nine years in which this has been germinating. At various times I have inflicted odd chapters on different members of the family. Jeremy has helped me overcome many of the technical problems I have had in using the word-processor and setting up the pictures in my computer. Timothy and Christopher have also given help and advice in this field but, naturally, Eileen is the one who has had the most to bear. She has sat patiently knitting for many hours, while I have read aloud every word that I have written. With great patience and forbearance, she has listened and advised me and, without her encouragement I would never have completed the task. So to all of these I say, thank you.
On the 28th December, 1948, a taxi drew up outside our little flat in Oribi, in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The driver helped me with Eileen’s suitcase and then she and I got into the back. I leaned forward and said, ‘Mater Dei Nursing Home’, as casually as I could. Then, as I glanced at Eileen, she grimaced as she felt the next contraction starting and I immediately checked my watch to time it. We knew in detail what was supposed to happen and, according to Dr Grantly Dick Read’s book, “Natural Childbirth”, we still had plenty of time. But then per-haps Eileen is not an “average” mother, I thought - and she wasn’t, but that’s another story.
The taxi driver, who must have taken many anxious mothers and fathers to the nursing home, saw through my thin pretence at calmness and sought to ease the tension. ‘I see you are wearing an old army jacket,’ he said. ‘Were you also in the show?’
‘What show?’ I asked impatiently.
‘The last show - you know, the war.’
‘Oh that? Yes,’ I replied. ‘I served for five years.’ I did not want to talk about the war at this moment. I had other things on my mind.
‘What rank were you?’, he persisted.
‘Artillery, eh? So you were another of us - a bloke just filling a num-ber.’
‘How d’you mean?’ I asked. I was getting irritated by this man.
‘I mean you didn’t do anything in particular. You weren’t one of the heroes who won the war, were you?’
‘Well, I gave five years of my life, if that’s what you mean - and for the last three, I was a prisoner-of-war,’ I retorted.
‘That’s exactly what I mean,’ he explained. ‘To you it seemed like a hell of a big sacrifice, didn’t it? In a way, it ruined your life but, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, all you did was fill a number for five years. Now you are back where you started with nothing to show for your five years, except a few scars - some visible and some invisi-ble.’
I grunted in reply to that, for I was far too concerned about Eileen and the baby, but his words came back to me in the years that lay ahead. So here, for what it is worth, is the story of No. 124280 - a very ordinary young soldier.
CHAPTER 1: WAR BREAKS OUT
My eyes opened and I looked about me. I was still at home in my own bed and I could hear Agnes, our maid, banging the old wood-stove in the kitchen as she lit the fire to make the morning tea. Slowly con-sciousness returned and I remembered that Joyce and I were alone at home and that my father and mother had gone to Tiger Kloof, near Vry-burg (about a hundred miles to the south). Dad was going to preach at another mission station there, and he had taken Mum and our small brother, David, with him. Later, they planned to visit Kuruman, the mission station which was founded by the famous Robert and Mary Moffat; the place where Livingstone had started his missionary work. The reason why I remember all these comparatively unimportant facts so clearly is because it happened on Sunday, the 3rd of September, 1939 - the day when Britain declared war on Germany.
My father was a much-loved Methodist missionary working amongst the Barolong people in a town called Mafeking - an unusual town in that, while it is in the north of the Cape Province of South Africa, it was in those days also the capital of Bechuanaland. The Cape was governed by the South African parliament in Cape Town, but Bechuanaland was a “protectorate” colony of Britain. So there were two sources of authority in Mafeking, one was the Mayor, Mr Truscott, who owned a garage and had been elected by the white residents of the town, and the other was the Resident Commissioner of Bechuanaland who was appointed by the King of England.
As I lay in bed, presently I heard Agnes take the tray of tea through to Joyce’s bedroom. She was eighteen so, of course, it was her privilege. ‘Mike! Mike! ‘ she called out. ‘Come and get your tea.’ I climbed out of bed, pulled on my dressing-gown, went through to her room and sprawled across the bottom of her bed to sip my tea. Normally I would have taken it back to bed with me but, as this was the last day of my school-holidays, I was already beginning to feel twinges of home-sickness. Ahead of me lay the long train journey of a thousand miles to my boarding school - Kingswood College in Grahamstown - and, though I had been doing this journey three times a year for six years, every parting seemed as painful as the last. I wanted comforting, but instead Joyce startled me by asking a question.
‘Mike, do you think there’s going to be a war?’
‘Well, it certainly looks most threatening,’ I replied, adopting my most grown-up manner. Joyce had been working for two years. She was an adult, as far as I was concerned, whereas I was only sixteen and still at school. However, I was about to write the matriculation examination in three months time. Then I would be able to leave school and automati-cally become a grown-up.
‘What are you going to do?’ Joyce asked.
My face clouded. There were so many things I wanted to do - as she well knew. I wanted to go to sea, as an officer, of course, and then be-come a famous writer. I wanted to get a PhD degree (whatever that was) through a Correspondence College. I wanted to be an engineer and erect windmills for farmers all over the country - those were just a few of my dreams . But, in the meantime, my father had told me that I must get a job in the civil service as soon as possible after I had left school.
‘I don’t know, ‘ I replied. ‘I suppose I’ll have to start in the civil service. But I thought that, after a while, I might ......
CHAPTER 2: JOINING UP
........ when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany, General Smuts - the Prime Minister of South Africa - called for volunteers to fight them in Abyssinia (now called Ethiopia). A few weeks later, two large, important-looking, red-faced men arrived in Mafeking. One was Major Fortune and the other Sergeant Matthews. Major Fortune called on the Mayor, who arranged for a public meeting to be held in the Town Hall. Most of the townsmen went to it but I could not go, as I was on duty at ZNB. At this meeting the Major announced that he had been instructed to recruit men from Mafeking to form a battery of guns for the South African Artillery. This was loudly applauded and a dance was held in one of the hotels. Sergeant Matthews, the recruiting sergeant, sat at a table nearby and many men joined up that night, or later went to see him in the Recruiting Office in town. Occasionally I would meet one of them in the streets or at church and they would ask, ‘When are you going to join up?’ and I would mumble in reply, ‘ I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.’
“You know old Koos Hoffman, who runs the cinema? Well, he’s just joined. And you know what? He was gassed in the last war, and of course, he’s really too old. He’s fifty-five. But you know what he did? He told the Major he was forty-four. Imagine it, eh? Major Fortune just laughed, ‘You forty-four?’ he said. ‘ So’s my grandfather.’ But all the same he signed old Koos’s papers. Now, I reckon old Koos is a hero, don’t you?”
Thinking of this recently, I wondered why it took me so long to join them, but the other day I came across a cutting of an article I sent to “The Mafeking Mail” which reveals the cause of my hesitation.
”The Mafeking Mail” was a local publication, which had begun during “the siege” and had continued ever since. Its main function was, of course, to advertise the wares of the local traders, but it also provided a few items of local news, some comment on national and international affairs, and offered a page for “Letters to the Editor”. As, by this time, I had decided I would become a writer, I decided to take advantage of this and sent a letter to the Editor, entitled, “THE CHRISTIAN’S MIND”. It was published on Friday, the 7th June, 1940.
“Hitler is the God of Germany, but Germany is the God of Hitler. To achieve more power he lets neither moral principle nor the ideals of civilization bar his way. His religion demands that he should give everything for his state, not that he should love his enemies.” “If his religion, like Mahommedanism, could be conducted in a manner that did not destroy the peace and happiness of others, or pervert the minds of youth, then we would have no grounds for objection. But his is a hateful, fanatical religion that thwarts not only our peace and happiness, but that of smaller and weaker states, and on these grounds we declared war.”
“ ‘We are not fighting the Germans, but Hitlerism,’ is our bold statement, and on this account only is the war justifiable. However, in saying this one is not justified in hating Hitler, for in hating him we violate the very Christian ideals which supply the backbone of our condemna-tion of his policy. Daily we read of his proposed plans for further wicked and merciless attacks, for savage conquests and cruel, unfair victory - reports that prove him to be an unmitigated, godless and barbaric maniac. Can I love such a man? Yes, Christ demands it.Let us root out Hitlerism, even at the risk of losing all. We must try to hate Hitlerism, without hating Hitler, for this is the only way in which we ourselves will not slide back to the barbarism to which he points.”
It is all very idealistic, I know, but it shows that, while I took my religious principles very seriously, I could not help being affected by the strong emotions of patriotism that were sweeping through the country.
Soon after this a booklet entitled “HOW TO JOIN THE FORCES” was published which gave details about joining the army, the navy and the airforce. Again I was told that one could not join anything until one was eighteen – except that one could go to an Airforce Officers’ Train-ing College at seventeen, if you had a matriculation certificate. Wow! That’s it, I thought. I’ll become an officer in the airforce. So, I spoke to my father about it and he wrote to a colleague of his - no less a person than the Chaplain of the South African Airforce - at Roberts Heights, in Pretoria to ask his advice. Back came the reply, offering to put me on the short list for training as a pilot in the Airforce, but I must hurry, he said, because there was a big demand for places. All that was necessary was for me to complete the application form and for my father to sign an indemnity certificate, because I was under age.
..... My imagination was immediately fired up and I saw myself as a fighter-pilot, guiding my Spitfire through the dense clouds. There below me I could see a wave of Heinkel bombers going to bomb the city of Lon-don. I set my jaw and moved the joystick forward to go into a steep dive, but I glanced over my shoulder and saw a Messerschmitt coming down fast on my tail. With a quick flick of the wrist on the joystick I flipped the Spitfire up and over on to its back and there was the ME moving towards the centre cross of the gunsights. My finger began to tense on the trigger . . . . .
Then the picture faded and instead I found myself at the controls of a big bomber. Below us, bathed in the moonlight was a sleeping German city.
“You’re coming to the target zone, skipper,” came the navigator’s voice on the intercom.
“Roger,” I leaned forward and pressed the release buttons. The plane lurched as the bomb-bays opened and the grey cylinders of death dropped, one by one, from the racks. A moment passed and then far below me I saw the flash of bright orange flames as they exploded.
Then suddenly I was down there in the smoke and noise, where the bombs had just fallen. A woman was screaming and also I could hear the plaintive cry of a small child crying in terror. Their cries seemed louder than the roar of the flames and more piercing than the siren. The walls of the house collapsed and a woman came stumbling out, carrying a dead baby in her arms and shook her fist at the plane droning overhead.......
“I’ve decided I am not going to join the Airforce,” I told my mother, as we cycled home together down the dusty road leading to the mission. ........
.......The candle flickered in my bedroom as I finished reading the last page of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” This was the first time I had read an account of the First World War from the point of view of the Ger-mans, and I was deeply impressed. The first thing that impressed me was that they were exactly like British soldiers. They also thought they were fighting for the right and they also had their quota of heroes and cowards. So, it seemed to me, war was just something that happened, in which one was caught up and fought, lived or died and the question of who was right or wrong did not come into it. One simply fought to de-fend those you loved and the way of life you knew. The second thing that impressed me was the wonderful comradeship that existed between the men on the front line. They shared their joys and sorrows, their pleasures and pains and, in spite of their coarseness and crudity, they showed great sensitivity towards each other. But I noticed that this comradeship only seemed to exist amongst the ordinary ranks in the front line, not among the officers. It was only where men endured the greatest suffering that such deep friendship seemed to grow.
But I am a soldier of Christ, I thought. What does He want me to do? So I prayed, ‘Please God, guide me. Should I join the Mafeking Battery or not?’ I waited, but I got none of the sudden inspired thoughts, which other Christians apparently get when they face such dilemmas. So I reached out for the Bible which lay beside my bed and let it fall open where it would, and then I stabbed at the open page with my finger and read the words. It was something about Abraham begetting Isaac and
Isaac begetting Jacob, etc. Not very helpful, I thought, so I tried again and this time it said, “And the Lord said unto Joshua, ‘Arise on the morrow, go forth and meet the enemy and Lo! I will deliver him into thy hands.’
I gulped. Somehow I had not expected such a direct instruction and, certainly, I had not thought I would be expected to take a leading role in the war. However, there was no mistake about what I was to do im-mediately and, presumably, God would show me what to do in due course, when He delivered the enemy into my hands. Meanwhile, I would ‘arise on the morrow and go’ ... unto the Recruiting Office and join up. So, smiling to myself, I blew out the candle and was soon fast asleep..
The next day was July the 8th, 1940, the day on which my brother, David, turned eleven, and the day on which I presented myself to Sergeant Matthews and signed on. My father had to sign the indemnity form because I was below the age of eighteen and after I had presented this, in the presence of the awesome Major Fortune, I swore the oath of allegiance to King and country and, from that moment onwards, for better or worse, I was a member of the 26th Field Battery of the 6th Field Regiment of the South African Artillery and so began the career of Number 124280........
CHAPTER 3: ISN’T WAR A TERRIBLE THING?
......The first piece of army equipment to arrive was a stout pair of army boots. Proudly I brought this home to show everybody and placed them beside the army swagger-cane that Joyce had given me. It was impres-sive – but not sufficient to fight a battle – so we waited. Then a few shirts and shorts arrived but they were all odd sizes and not enough for everyone. So we began to mutter amongst ourselves that this was ab-surd. How could we go and fight the enemy if we were not properly dressed? A purple-faced Major Fortune climbed on the train and headed for Pretoria, while we all waited hopefully and a week later he returned with the news that the uniforms were on the way. We were to leave for Potchefstroom on August the 26th.
On the 20th we were called to parade outside the recruiting office to col-lect our new uniforms. Excitedly we lined up and watched the first man enter the office. Imagine our surprise when he emerged carrying a pair of chocolate-coloured overalls and a forage cap.
“If that’s all we’re getting I’m going to resign,” Dougie Reich muttered. “I’m not going to fight the Germans dressed in overalls.’
“You can’t resign,” Koos Hoffman announced, shaking his head. You had to listen to Koos because he had been in the last war, and he should know. “ I’ll tell you what, though,’ he added. ‘This’ll scare the bloody daylights out of Gerry, when he sees us coming. He won’t know what the hell we are. The poor buggers will think we’re some special unit with a secret weapon. I tell you what, young Garney Muller. I see you’ve brought your camera with you. You take a photo of us, then we’ll send it to Adolf. I bet that’ll make him pack up in a week”......
CHAPTER 4: THE MUSTERING OF THE 26TH FIELD BATTERY
OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN FIELD ARTILLERY
.........While they were going through their painful farewells, I slipped on to the platform and bought my first packet of cigarettes - a packet of thirty "C to C". This was not a sudden impulse but a carefully thought out campaign. I had realised, during my first parade, that, because I had spent the last six years away at boarding school, I knew very few of the men in the battery. Moreover, as the son of a parson, I had been brought up not to drink or smoke or swear and, as far as the majority of the men were concerned, I was barely human. In fact, the only men I knew were members of the Methodist Church. They were Vernon Mat-thews and Neil Dick, both of whom were old enough to be my father and, worst of all, as Vernon had already told everyone, I was "the baby of the Battery".
So, having thought of all this, I had decided that, if I was to be accepted as "one of the men", I had somehow to overcome this apparent "mealy-mouthed" image and develop a few obvious minor vices. I would com-promise between being angelic and diabolic by smoking, but not drink-
ing. I would start with cigarettes and later take up a pipe. Actually, all the heroes in my favourite books and films seemed to smoke pipes. ........
CHAPTER 5: LEARNING THE ROPES
....... The most onerous piece of equipment was, of course, your rifle. This was a particular responsibility for, as it said in “ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT” , “You must love your rifle, keep it clean and cherish it, because one day it will save your life. It is a soldier’s best friend.” Well, I tried very hard to befriend my rifle. I cleaned it, and loved it and cherished it, and all it ever did for me was get me into trou-ble with inspecting sergeants. When, eventually, I was able to test it out at the rifle range, it consistently fired squonk and bruised my shoulder so, as far as I was concerned, it was no friend of mine - especially dur-ing our first practices in rifle drill.
In those days, when standing at attention, the rifle was held with the butt on the ground beside the right foot. Then, on the order, “Slope Arms”, it was lifted and swung across into a sloping position on the left shoulder, with the butt grasped in the left hand. On the command, “Order arms,” the position was reversed, with the barrel of the rifle brought into a vertical position on the left side of the head, then trans-ferred once more across the body, to the right side and lowered to the ground. You will need to imagine this drill pattern in order to under-stand the difficulties which we experienced on the proud day when we first went on parade, bearing our new rifles and wearing our smart new khaki uniforms and our wide-brimmed ‘cardboard’ helmets.
The Sergeant Major gave the command, “Sloooope Arms” but, as soon as we tried to place our rifles on our left shoulders, they hit the wide brims of our helmets, and knocked them over our left eyes. Each man then tried to rectify the position by cocking his head to one side, or reaching over to adjust his helmet with his right hand.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ the Sergeant Major yelled in anger. Then he gave the command, ‘Order Arms’ This was even more disastrous. As we tried to bring our rifles into the vertical position, they caught the underside of the brim and knocked the whole helmet up into the air. Several helmets fell to the ground and, when the men bent down to re-cover them, they inadvertently banged their neighbours with their rifles. Chaos reigned. The Sergeant Major was speechless with rage ....
CHAPTER 6 : ON BECOMING A SIGNALLER
CHAPTER 7 : THE FUNNY SIDE OF WAR
CHAPTER 8 : THE SERIOUS SIDE OF WAR
CHAPTER 9 : OUR FORTUNES GO DOWN
CHAPTER 10: MY FORTUNES GO UP
CHAPTER 11: GOING UP NORTH
CHAPTER 12: THE FIRST WHIFF OF POWDER
CHAPTER 13: ADVENTURES WITH LES
CHAPTER 14: PREPARING FOR ACTION
CHAPTER 15: OFF TO THE FRONT
CHAPTER 16: LIFE IN TOBRUK
CHAPTER 17: PREPARATION FOR BATTLE
CHAPTER 18: DAWN PATROL
CHAPTER 19: THE BATTLE OF TOBRUK
CHAPTER 20: THE BITTER END
CHAPTER 21: IN THE BAG
CHAPTER 22: CLUTCHING AT STRAWS
CHAPTER 23: BENGHAZI
CHAPTER 24: THE VOYAGE TO ITALY
CHAPTER 25: GETTING ACCLIMATISED
CHAPTER 26: RED CROSS PARCELS
CHAPTER 27: VENTURING NORTH
CHAPTER 28: BACK TO WORK
CHAPTER 26RED CROSS PARCELS
CHAPTER 27: VENTURING NORTH
CHAPTER 28: BACK TO WORK
CHAPTER 29: SPRING IS IN THE AIR
CHAPTER 30: SUMMER TIME
CHAPTER 31: BRIEF FREEDOM!!!
CHAPTER 32: BACK IN THE BAG
CHAPTER 33: LIFE IN STALAG XVIIIA
CHAPTER 34: PASSING THE TIME
CHAPTER 35: BACK TO MARKT PONGAU
CHAPTER 36: THE BEGINNING OF THE END
CHAPTER 37: REAL FREEDOM
CHAPTER 38: THE AMERICAN LIBERATORS
CHAPTER 39: THE LONG ROAD HOME
PART V: REHABILITATION
CHAPTER 40: LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS
CHAPTER 41: THE SOLUTION TO MY PROBLEM
APPENDIX A: ANDY FARIS AND SOME STRANGE CO-INCIDENCES
APPENDIX B: WHAT HAPPENED TO BILL BURNETT
APPENDIX C: ROY BOURNE’S STORY
APPENDIX D: KEN HENTY’S EXPERIENCE AS A BOY IN THE BORSTAL INSTITUTION
APPENDIX E: SOME THOUGHTS ON RELIGION
APPENDIX F: THE RESCUE OF GEORGE, HENRY, HUBERT LASCELLES THE 6TH EARL OF HAREWOOD