Naval History Homepage and Site Search



AND SO ...

7. CAPTURED  ..... at Sphaxia, on to Suda Bay, steamer to Salonika

on to Chapter 8. "Germany and Stalag VIIA"


No need now to guard the harbour boom, so all of the small craft like us just helped out whenever and wherever needed: unloading stores, towing sinking craft to shore, dodging bombs and firing our machine-guns. On the night of 27th May 1941 we were ordered to leave Crete and make for Alexandria, going round the West coast of the island. We took on fuel and as darkness fell 1030 left Suda Bay for the last time. Tommy Andrews and I took turns about on watch in the Engine Room during the night and as dawn came up at fivish next morning Tommy relieved me, so I made my way for’d to light the bogey and put on the kettle for the morning cuppa. (Battle of Crete Summary)

The entry hatch to the foc’sle moved in a small arc, riding on runners. When leaving the space I used the back of my head to operate the hatch. It was thus that, pushing it back, my head moved back and I was looking at the sky, to see two German bombers rapidly overtaking us.

I quickly gesticulated to those on the bridge, pointing to the sky, and soon the action stations alarm was shaking the air. One at a time, the bombers began dropping single bombs. Here I must praise the Able Seaman, Tommy Shiels, who lay flat on his back with just a bucket over his head as a sort of protection, watching the falling bombs and guiding the skipper to steer to port or starboard. The first plane missed with all its bombs. The second plane began the same sequence, dropping single bombs, which, with Tommy’s aid, the skipper was able to avoid, but there were some near misses which couldn’t have done much good to the hull. On its last run the plane dropped two bombs and one of them blew off the bows of the launch, back to the for’d bulkhead of the Engine Room. The engines were stopped to assess the damage. Next the bombers took in turns strafing us with their heavy machine-guns, wounding Bill Sams in his backside and causing damage to the wooden dinghy. Those planes continued the sequence of all enemy planes, machine-gunning after crippling a vessel, ‘just for the hell of it’, we learned later in conversations with German fliers. When possible the lads were returning fire with the machine-guns, but the two planes had us well pinned down, alternately coming in on their strafing runs. Eventually they ‘buggered off’ and the first job was to slap lots of first aid bandages on Bill’s bum. With the bows missing, the only hope was to travel stern first. Tommy Andrews dived over the side to inspect the rudders; they were hopelessly out of line, with no hope of carrying out repairs. I suggested we might be able to remove them and steer with the engines, but Tommy thought it not possible. Those bombs had done more damage than was realised. I checked the engine room bilges, but could see no sign of leakage. Besides the six-foot long wooden dinghy there was also a wooden raft and the skipper ordered us to abandon the launch.

For my part, I was sure that old 1030 would remain afloat and was perfectly willing to take a chance and remain aboard. But the order had been given and we had to obey. Six could use the dinghy; Tommy Andrews climbed onto the raft, which was towed behind the boat and three of us swam and alternately hung onto the ratlines on the sides of the boat. I started off as a swimmer; luckily I put my engine room boots in the boat and went over the side wearing a khaki shirt, shorts and my Naval issue belt, in which were some sixpences - one with a hole in it, which will crop up later in my story. Because of his wound, Bill Sams lay in the bottom of the dinghy, a couple were rowing, skipper was steering and the passengers were baling. I believe some of the bullet-holes were stopped up with tinned sausage. "Lucky is the girl who marries a matelot." In the water my horizon was lost. I remember seeing the 1030 riding low in the stern; having lost the bows and the three-pounder gun this was to be expected. The skipper decided to make tracks back to Crete, which was not visible. The Mediterranean was warm at that time of the year, so off we moved, each in his own way. After swimming for a short while I looked back, expecting to see the 1030, but there was no sign of her. I put it down to my loss of horizon; nobody commented on her sinking and to this day, more than fifty years later, I am convinced she did not sink.

So that long day passed. When tired and no longer able to swim or hang on to the ratlines, some of those inboard changed places with us in the water. Official records estimate that we took twenty hours to reach the shores of Crete and we worked out that we swimmers each spent nine hours in the ‘oggin’ We had no drinking water, but some tins of food had been thrown into the dinghy. These turned out to be tinned turnips; even turnip water can taste like champagne, given the occasion. Little did I realise that turnips would figure large in my diet for the next few years!

When the coast of Crete came into sight we spotted an island and made for it to search for water, but found none, so a last effort had to be made to reach the coast. A short distance from the coast it was my turn to climb into the boat and row, but by now we were all so weak that we seemed to be making no progress. Bill Sams suggested that we stop rowing and say a prayer, asking God for his assistance to complete the rowing. This was where I opened my big mouth. I can only plead weariness and frustration, as I said: "If we did more rowing and less praying we might get somewhere!" As soon as I had spoken I could have bitten off my tongue. Everybody gasped in surprise, none louder than Bill, and inwardly I knew that I would have to pay for that remark. A coldness came over me and for a moment I felt a state of isolation. This I remember as though it were now.

We carried on rowing; those in the water swam ashore and we ended up by a stream of fresh water flowing down to the sea. So we had all the water we could drink and discovered a camp of New Zealand soldiers. The Kiwis had a meal going, which consisted of a dismembered goat boiling away merrily in a large container. Each of us was given a crusty cob of bread and we fished out a piece of goat for a meal. The New Zealanders told us that an evacuation was taking place at night at a small village called Sphakia, some distance along the coast. A Cretan guide was waiting to take the soldiers there and it was decided that some of the crew should go with them. I had my Engine Room boots, so I was one and, together with the Sub-Lieutenant, the Coxswain, Tommy Shiels, the Able Seaman and Syd Pownall, the Ordinary Seaman, I said ‘cheerio’ to the skipper, Tommy Andrews, Bill Sams, Lofty Newman and his opposite number. First ones to reach Alexandria would order up the beer in the Fleet Club. They rowed away and we started the overland hike.

Our Cretan guide was proudly showing us the contents of a tin which he evidently prized and at first I couldn’t make out what the wriggly looking things were, until he proudly told one and all that these strange objects were human ears, cut from dead Germans! We commented that he would be in a bad way if Jerry ever caught up with him. One of the comedians among the Kiwis said he had wondered what were the chewy bits in the soup. We seemed to be walking endlessly and there was no doubt as to the value of the guide. Eventually we reached the headland, looking down on the valley of Sphakia. Here we halted to be identified by Redcaps, Army Police. Some Cretans were begging for ammunition; they were going into the mountains to continue the war.

The five of us, being Navy, were told to go down to the beach to register and be given priority in the evacuation. We arrived and reported to the Naval Captain in charge, who told the Sub-Lieutenant to take us to a spot that he could identify early next morning, when he would collect us to be put aboard a warship for evacuation. By this time it was late evening and we found a circle of boulders. Subby left us and, being the end of a long day, we just dropped there and knew no more until the rising sun woke us next morning. The Sub-Lieutenant had not collected us so together we rushed down to the beach and there met the Captain who told us that the Subby had been evacuated! We had been left behind!

As night was the only opportunity for evacuation, we surmised that we would be taken off that night, but the Captain would hold out no hope of any further visits by warships. There had been huge casualties amongst the warships; the Luftwaffe had sunk and damaged so many that the ability to carry out any sea actions against the enemy, let alone evacuations, was severely weakened. At this time of year there was a full moon in the clear sky, with very short nights of darkness. These factors served to assist the Luftwaffe and handicap the Navy, whose ships could not steam far enough away from Crete to be out of range of bombers when dawn broke. And so we spent the forenoon amongst the boulders on the heights above Sphakia, dodging the bombs and bullets supplied by the Luftwaffe, those ‘persistent bastards’, as Noel Coward called them in a film about H.M.S. Kelly, which was also sunk in the battle for Crete. We had no aircraft to defend us, so for the Luftwaffe it was open season for hunting, but this time it was concentrated on a few thousand of us congregating around Sphakia.

That afternoon we saw some Army bods carrying a large, opened-out white sheet over the hills and, dozy me, I couldn’t understand why until a loud moan echoed around us. We had surrendered and, with the others, I was a Prisoner of War!

Remember the haircut on that New Year’s Day just five months before? Take heed, you readers, there could be something in that story, especially if you happen to be on the Isle of Man.

When the realisation sank in, my bowels just voided themselves. In deep humiliation I dashed to the beach and into the sea to cleanse myself. I stripped off and dhobied out my shirt, shorts and underpants in the sea water, not so successfully but better than nothing. There was a number of fellows busily engrossed in the same occupation. I came out of the water wearing my belt, socks and boots and spread my clothing on the beach, to dry in the hot sun. Then I saw a remarkable sight. An Australian soldier took off a boot and sock from one foot, put the muzzle of his rifle in his mouth, and with his big toe he pushed the trigger, blowing out the back of his head. According to his chums, he had been a P.O.W. in the first war and had vowed never to be taken again.

The strafing had stopped and then the planes came over, dropping leaflets warning that anybody found carrying a Commando knife would be shot. These knives were vicious weapons, comprising a brass knuckle-duster in the handle and a long, sharp, pointed blade. The Germans had battled with the Royal Marine Commandos and didn’t think too much of the knives. A Naval Officer who, like us, was a prisoner of war, appeared to tell us Naval ratings that our Royal Naval Pay and Identity Books were highly valued by the Germans - for what reason, he did not specify. Accordingly, they must be destroyed. So a fire was lit and our pay-books torn to pieces and burned. It didn’t occur to us until later that now we had no means of identification; yet the soldiers were allowed to keep their pay-books. When Jerry took over Suda Bay there were umpteen blank pay-books in the York Stores, taken from H.M.S. York.

The card POW's were allowed to send back home after being captured. This one was sent June 1941

So there I was at the beginning of the next stage of my life: a long-haired, bearded matelot in khaki shirt and shorts, somewhat soiled, a naval belt and a few photographs, a sixpenny piece with a hole in it, socks and boots, at the mercy of my captors. I hadn’t seen any Germans since the capitulation, but from somewhere word came to us to stack all weapons without damaging them; that would be treated as sabotage; steel helmets would also be collected. Bolts from rifles literally rained into the sea so the rifles would not be operable and bayonets were snapped to pieces, good only for scrap. Next came word from somewhere that we were to make our way north, back to Suda Bay.

Having dashed down to the sea to effect my ablutions, I had lost contact with the rest of the crew and, being a stranger among thousands, I began the treck north. Some of the Army bods were carrying packs and aluminium dishes, called ‘tin gear’. I passed numerous dead bodies and it never occured to me to take the ‘tin gear’ and eating irons - out of respect for the dead, I suppose. One thing I should have collected was a water bottle; the day was turning out to be a hot one. On the trail German paratroopers were stopping and searching, breaking the blades of the soldiers’ penknives and lifting wristwatches. One took my wristwatch, given to me by Mabel several years previously as a birthday present. The watch was not working through immersion in the sea all those hours ago, but there and then I vowed that one day I would seek recompense in the watch department. Several times on the trek I was stopped to relieve a soldier who was digging a grave for a corpse. Dig so much and then move on when another P.O.W. stopped to take over. Occasionally at a burial point I asked for tin gear and a water bottle from the growing pile of dead men’s effects, but no luck; this was going towards the German war effort, I expect.


At end of that long day, the first in captivity, and I just lay down in the grass. I remember looking up at the sky, dotted with millions of stars, presenting a clear picture of infinity and thinking to myself, "What is up there?" The next I knew it was daylight and I had been awakened by the voices of men trekking by. Everything pointed to another long day and I followed the herd. I remember a copse of trees where Jerry had set up a water tanker, which was greatly appreciated. Because I had no water bottle I had to drink from my cupped hands and I was allowed to douse my head under the running water. What a treat that was; the sun was beginning to play on top of my head. From the copse came a terrible smell and on passing I saw the body of a Maori soldier in a crotch in the branches of a tree. The body was swelling, filling the spaces between the branches, and looked huge. Somebody was going to have an unpleasant job when burial time came for that corpse.

That evening at another checkpoint we were told to keep going; there would be ‘Essen und Kaffee’ at the camp. I spent another night sleeping in the grass, to resume next morning walking towards Suda Bay. About noon the camp came into sight. It was in the grounds of a hospital, already wired in with barbed wire. We were shepherded in by armed guards, who were drinking juice from tins of pineapples, obviously from York’s Stores. Nobody was allowed to touch the discarded tins; captivity had begun. As we entered the camp we were forced to form into lines of sevens; at one end of the line a loaf of brown bread was issued and we had to scrum around the holder, in order to receive a share. The difficulty was finding a soldier who had a knife with a blade, after Jerry had enjoyed breaking the blades. One did materialise and the loaf was hacked into seven pieces and shared. I stuffed my piece into a shirt pocket and wandered around, hoping to find a member of the crew. Amazingly I discovered a group of Naval bods, and amongst them was a signals bod named Ted Collins, who had also attended King Street School, so I joined the group.

Materially speaking we were all in the same boat. We had very little between us so the first job was to scrounge and pool. Now, my children have often laughed at me for storing items which could ‘come in handy’, so here must have been the beginning of that apprenticeship; when starting with literally nothing, anything acquired would come in handy. The first item was a small marquee tent, which some of the sailors had liberated from the large building in the grounds. Part of this became a hospital in which the injured, wounded and sick were treated. At least we had accomodation, but very little else. So some matelots were detailed to scrounge around the building and Yorks Stores. In the compound area the part bordering Suda Bay was not wired off, so swimming was allowed, for reasons of cleanliness, I suppose, but for a time I and many of my companions had had enough of swimming and strangely enough not too many soldiers seemed to want to indulge. So Jerry sort of relaxed the guard in that area. Now around there in early June were rows and rows of tomatoes, all green, but not for long. We decimated those rows in no time at all and then paid for it.

I am going to tell you a story which will illustrate mine. An old lady’s pride and joy was her elderly cat, which became badly constipated. So she took it to a vet, who confirmed the condition and prescribed a laxative: one teaspoonful of the mixture to be given in food three times a day. The lady misunderstood, so instead of using a teaspoon she used a tablespoon for the dosage. On the second day her cat disappeared and she frantically searched high and low, but to no avail. Later, she asked the postman if he had seen her cat. "Yes," he replied, "it’s on the common with three other cats." "Whatever are they doing there?" she queried. "Well, m’dear," he answered, "one is digging, another’s filling in and the third is looking for fresh ground."

And this is exactly what happened to us, except that green tomatoes were the laxative and there was a working party enrolled to dig trenches, fill in and mark out plots far from the living area. So it was once again a case of dashing to the sea, where swimming had suddenly become very popular. Thank goodness this time for the hot sun to dry the shorts quickly! Perhaps for you, the reader, this story is unpleasant, but all I can add is: try starving, then feast on green tomatoes and manage without toilet paper! I hope the sea will be warm, should you ever experiment!

Our gang of captive sailors began to turn up with liberated bits and pieces, including a metal tripod with a hook and a fairly large iron pot. So we had means of cooking, but nothing to cook. I decided to walk along the beach and follow the headland in an effort to enter the village at Suda Bay. Much to my surprise, there were no guards to stop me and entering the village was easy. Lying on the ground in the square was a dead horse, at which a number of Cretan women were busily hacking, but not making much of a job of dismembering the animal. There was a lack of men; I learned they had gone into the hills to avoid Jerry and, presumably, to continue the fight. The outcome was that I finished up with the horse’s head, which seemed to be quite heavy. I was taken into a house and given wine and cake, which was consumed in no time; the whole household was so sorry for me and I sat in an old armchair and promptly went to sleep. When I awoke I found I had the horse’s head in a pillow case, together with a large supply of raisins, half a loaf of bread, an empty tin and an old kitchen knife. The elderly lady, who could have been the grandmother, was gesticulating for me to leave because anybody sheltering one of the enemy would be in serious trouble from Jerry. It seems that the old horse had been brought into the square and shot. The Germans told the people to help themselves, which was where I came in. And so I tramped back along the coast and at the marquee there was a fire under the pot, with lots of miscellaneous items being cooked. So I dropped the head in and we waited for the soup ‘à la Pferd-Kopf’ to materialise. How wealthy I was, owning a tin and a knife, with raisins for desert.

Every day Jerry held roll calls and we were made to form up in rows of seven; there a loaf of bread with a small tin of bully beef was issued to the end man, and of course there followed the scrum by the other six around the possessor of the eats. For me this did not last for very long; one morning a batch of us sevens, instead of being given the customary loaf and tin of corned beef from the York’s Stores, were marched down to the jetty in Suda Bay. Here was berthed an old Italian tramp coaster, loaded with coal. We were issued with all types of containers: baskets, bags, wooden boxes, ammunition containers and anything else that would serve. There were two gangways to the coaster and we formed two lines and started unloading the coal. I had had experience coaling the Fumerole and was pleased that I had not been detailed to go into the hold to load the coal into the make-shift containers. We had had no daily issue of food and Jerry kept promising that eats would be forthcoming. ‘Kaffee und Essen’ was the chant behind the rifles of the guards, but none came, the only concession being a tub into which water was flowing from a hose, and nobody was allowed to linger very long there. We toiled all day unloading that coaster; hungry and fatigued, the line moved slower and slower, harangued by the guards and becoming familiar with two new words: ‘Los’ and ‘Schnell’. Finally the coal was moved from the coaster into lorry after lorry and I was looking forward to the promised ‘Kaffee und Essen’, so frequently promised, and then a cleansing swim, once we were back in the compound.

But not to be. Some lorries drew up, loaded with bread and tins of bully beef from the York’s Stores and we all thought that this was the recompense for the day’s toil. Well, it was in a sort of way. We lined up in single file, each to be given a loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef, doubtless all thinking that Jerry wasn’t such a bad fellow after all. Upon receiving the victuals we were marched up the gangway and down into the holds of the coaster. The hatches were battened and we could feel that the thing was under way! We had been told nothing, just the interminable "Los, los!" as we were chivied into the holds. The hold into which I had descended, filthy with coal dust, was illuminated by a couple of deck-head lights, enough to sort ourselves out and create enough space to lie on the bottom of the craft. My knife and tin were in the marquee, so once again I had very little in the way of possessions.

The deckhead lights were soon extinguished. For my part, I was too tired to eat and there was nothing else to do but sleep. Early dawn saw the hatches removed and containers of fresh water lowered into the hold. We grouped together to share a loaf and a tin of bully beef, washed down with the water. Later in the forenoon came the turn of our hold to be emptied. We were allowed on the upper deck to stand under hoses jetting sea water. We certainly needed it - and to use the stern of the coaster for bodily functions, where crude iron bars fashioned as seats served for the purpose. While drying in the hot sun, German parachutists came around with notebooks, asking for the names of our girlfriends. They told us that when they dropped on and captured England they would look after our girls, because we had been honourable opponents! There were some strange names and addresses put into their books.

We discovered from those able to speak English that we were heading for Greece. We were to be allowed on deck once a day and that we must be sparing with drinking water. The hatches would be left off, but nobody was to attempt to climb the ladder from the hold. On top of the hold sat a guard festooned with long-handled grenades. The next day we scrounged a brush and a couple of buckets from the crew and, when it was our turn on deck, brushed up the coal dust as best we could and bucketed it out of the hold and over the side. That period under the sea-water hose was heavenly.

After several days the coaster reached a harbour and we discovered that we were in Salonika, a port in the North of Greece. We disembarked and it seemed as if Jerry didn’t know what to do with us. We were frequently rounded up and counted and spent the rest of the time sprawled out on the dock-side, hemmed in by guards. Our bread and corned beef had long gone; because of the heat, the meat had been literally poured from the tins and the bread had become rock-like. The need for water far outweighed the interest in food. By late afternoon Jerry seemed to have become organised, because the shouts of "Los, los" began and we were formed up to begin the march off. After another count we moved out of the dock area and through the town, where we were clapped by people lining the pavements. We went far outside the town and by now all resemblance of marching order had vanished; we just straggled along, every so often chivied by the guards and rounded up by Jerries on Norton motorcycles - spoils of war, of course.

While on this straggle an amazing incident occured. As a child one of my delights was to spend a halfpenny on what was called a "Lucky Bag". This consisted of a paper bag containing a metal puzzle, a tin whistle or a tiny packet of playing cards, always accompanied by a ‘Locust’, which looked like a dried brown kidney bean, but which was in fact dry, hard and extremely sweet. Now back to my story. In the middle of the road stood a short, fat Greek lady holding out the corners of her apron loaded with dry Locusts, inviting anybody to help themselves. But those beans seemed to be uninviting to the stragglers who, like the Pharisees and the Levite, passed by on the other side. Me, I recognised those beans for what they were, unbuttoned my shirt and rammed as many as I could around my body, nodding my head and thanking her. When others saw what I was up to, they asked what the things were and, learning from me, her apron was soon emptied. If you, reader, ever come across a stick of Locust you will appreciate why I am rambling on so. I wonder if they are still obtainable. If so, be careful when you bite on the bean; when dried it becomes almost like stone. Bon appétit!

Eventually we came to a Cavalry Barracks, enclosed in barbed wire; we were escorted in to find places in the huts and crash down on the floor, which was sparsely covered in straw. Darkness soon came, and with it sleep. Early next morning, when that infernal sun was up again, we were all out on the parade ground to form up in sections of four lines to be counted, seemingly argued over, counted several times again and then just left to stand there. There seemed to be nobody on our side senior enough to act for us and so the four large sections of P.O.W.s just sat down on the hot parade ground. Next to me was a soldier who had helped himself to some of the Locust sticks, so we found ourselves together, chewing Locusts. When he learned that I had no kit other than what I was wearing, he dug into his and pulled out a type of cloth forage cap and gave it to me. At least I now had some sort of head covering. The fellow on the other side of me, also chewing Locust, dug into his pack and fished out a white cotton tee-shirt and gave it to me - a sort of thank you for introducing them to those black beans. They were from the K.K.R. Regiment, all of them Territorials, which had been formed, I believe, from Barnet Gas Works. Bob Towsey and Sergeant Fred Holt subsequently became known as ‘Eight and a Half’ in our Arbeitslager - Work Camp. Later, I will explain why. They were full of gratitude to the Navy for the way they had been treated when evacuated on a destroyer from Greece to Crete. Of course we were starving, so the conversation had to get around to food - Navy food, the soup and bully beef sandwiches, together with sippers of rum and ship’s cocoa! Listening to our conversation was another soldier from the Royal Artillery and when he learned that I was a sailor with little or no possessions, he gave me the smallest of his three rectangular aluminium containers with a folding handle. So I was beginning to become wealthy, thanks to my compatriots on those evacuating destroyers.

After a long time, Jerry seemed to lose all interest in us, so we slipped away from the barracks square and found one of the numerous horse troughs, filled with water. I was glad to strip off and wash all over, albeit without soap. I rinsed my khaki shirt and donned the tee-shirt, hung my wet shirt on the barbed wire fence and sat in the sunshine, watching the shirt dry. Buzzes abounded throughout the barracks: when the food was coming, what it would be; the Red Cross representatives were there; Red Cross parcels had been seen being unloaded; almost all buzzes appertained to food. Upon reflection, Jerry must have been caught with his trousers down, with so many captives continually being brought into the barracks. The only contingency must have been to lock us up; food must have been very low on the list of priorities. We had plenty of fresh water in the horse troughs, but for me, my stomach began to think that my throat had been cut! Towards the end of that first day we were made to return to our barrack rooms and form up once again with others into sevens. We were counted and counted; the fellow at the end of each seven was given a loaf and, once more, we packed around him as he somehow shared out the ration. Next, in came some German soldiers carrying a dustbin containing what they called soup. Lucky me, who had a receptacle, had a ladle-full of something or other, and, accompanied by the bread ration, it didn’t touch the sides going down! There was nothing left but to bed down on that meagre layer of straw, using my somewhat clean shirt for a pillow.

I was awakened next morning by a word I was never to forget; a German soldier carrying a rifle with fixed bayonet, screaming as loudly as he could: "‘Raus! ‘Raus!" and threatening to poke anyone who didn’t move quickly enough. Everyone made sure to take all his belongings; I put my shirt on and, carrying my dish, went to join the others around the perimeter of the barracks square. Once more in lines of four, it seemed the numerous German soldiers were having counting lessons, judging by the number of times we heard "Eins, zwei, drei, vier" and so on. Like the previous morning we were left standing and eventually sitting. It was here I discovered I had a horrible itch around my neck and under my armpits. All around me blokes were taking off their top clothing and I did the same, to discover that my tee-shirt was riddled with lice around the neck band and in the seams of the sleeves. Right well did James Hilton write: "No man has lived until he has starved and had lice crawling over his body." Boy, I was living! This was my first confrontation with those transparent, repulsive insects, mainly discernible by the blobs of blood to be seen in their bodies - my blood, incidentally. It seemed that everyone on that barracks square was occupied in the same job of work. Killing lice! I can picture the scene now. I was delving into the seams of the tee-shirt around the neck and arms, finding them and squeezing them. I remember one wag shouting: "Never mind the big ones, it’s the little buggers you want to go after; the big ones are full up!" I don’t know whether or not we laughed; I just concentrated on the killing fields. When satisfied that I had decimated all the lice in sight, the next job was to wash the vest and myself in a horse trough, using the vest as a flannel, then putting it on the barbed wire and standing guard until it had dried in the hot sun. But simple washing was not good enough. Like the others, I had forgotten the eggs laid by the ‘big ones’ and each morning saw us carrying out a manual delousing routine. Pardon me if I have a little scratch whilst writing!

The hunger pains began to make themselves felt and I later learned that lice can always be found on undernourished human bodies. There was an issue of food only at the end of each day: seven to a loaf and a ladle of what Jerry called soup; it could have come from a horse trough and been warmed up. Recollecting the bread issue, I am reminded of the first time I saw a loaf of sliced bread and was immediately struck by the fact that all through the years of captivity the bread ration was no more than the equivalent of four of those thin slices. As the days passed hunger became the scourge; after each morning parade and being counted, delousing became the occupation, something at which I became skilled. Squeezing lice was one thing, washing the clothes was another, but it could not remove those damned eggs. Thus the daily routine became the same - as well as seeking the shady side of the hut. It was as hot as hell in the hut and as hot as hell in the sun.

There must have been a circus at some time or other in Salonika, because one day the compound gates were opened and some German soldiers brought in a camel. They took this ship of the desert to the so-called cookhouse and promptly shot the beast, whereupon it just collapsed in a heap on the ground. They knew we were hungry, they said, and this was our meat ration. Stewed camel sounded good, and Jerry wasn’t so bad after all, but then a British Army Medical Officer appeared on the scene to inform us that camels had a strain of syphyllis in their systems. So the dead camel was forbidden to us. The carcass lay there for hours in the sun, until a Greek civilian came into the compound on a tractor, hooked up the dead beast and hauled it out of our compound. Was that M.O. right or wrong? I wonder what camel sandwiches taste like.

We were shunted from hut to hut while Greek workers whitewashed the inside walls and it was here that I learned of a racket being worked. The Greeks were bringing tins of British Army jam into the compounds, hidden in the cannisters of whitewash. "What have you for a tin of jam?" Some of the fellows had Greek money; there was the odd wristwatch which had escaped the frequent searches, but for me, no dice! No jam! In the centre of the parade ground was a large manhole cover; one day a number of armed Jerries, together with dogs, came into the compound and the manhole cover was lifted. After a time some of our P.O.W.s climbed out and were hustled away. The cover was over a main sewer which led out to the sea and had become an escape route, kept very hush-hush. The buzz was that Turks in boats were receiving rewards for transporting our lads to Turkey, but it was presumed someone had tipped off Jerry and that route was closed.

And so the long hot days passed; louse-hunting in all my clothes, which by now had become contaminated, soaking and squeezing out the apparel and watching it dry on the wire, then searching for shade and waiting for sundown and the Lebensmittel, a seventh of a loaf of bread and a ladle of something or other. The constant talk was about food, the army bods always bringing up the subject of the food given them on the evacuating destroyers, plus of course the tots of rum. One humourous event occured. An English-speaking German officer came among us one day, with a German soldier carrying a cricket bag, in which was all that was needed for a game of cricket. He was trying to organise a game because he wanted to learn the rules, ready for when he and his lot conquered England. When asked how it was proposed that England be conquered, he replied that it would be done by dropping paratroops. When we told him it would be his last drop, he replied: "Ja, ja." But I don’t think he took our remark in the way it was intended. Nobody offered to help with his game of cricket; the general opinion was that it could become a propaganda exercise. There was already talk about a football match being held in another compound, but how anybody had enough energy in that heat to play football was beyond me.

And then one day it rained and it rained; the water came down like stair-rods. Everybody had the same idea, we all stripped off our clothing and stood under the roofs of the huts, from where the rainwater was pouring. We were laughing and shouting to one another: "After you with the shampoo; pass the Pears soap; you look like you need carbolic," and so on. Of course there was no soap or shampoo, just the exhuberance of being reasonably clean. The sun broke through the clouds and it soon dried us. But that day sticks in my memory as a time when my spirits were lifted, if only for a short period.

Despite the buzzes, nobody seemed to learn anything from Jerry; perhaps they didn’t know anything either, but one morning after the interminable roll-call, the side of the human square on which I was standing was marched into an empty compound and isolated. Then the buzzes flew thick and fast; were we on the move? Again there seemed to be no-one in our company senior enough to find out what was to happen to us. We were seemingly isolated. Some of the Army bods had small packs with them, containing such essentials as shaving gear, underwear, an enamel drinking mug, the set of three aluminium dishes and eating irons in the form of a folding spoon and fork. The Army issue pocket knife had a tin-opener, the knife blade having been snapped off during one of the many searches. Somebody would have scissors, so now and again I would cadge a loan to trim my beard, or somebody would do it for me. Because of my beard and being a sailor, which was held in high esteem, I was called Jack, and that name stuck with me through the years of captivity.

During that day the skies clouded over ominously, but no rain came. That evening there was a special numbering session in the hut and after the issue of bread and whatever it was we were told that next day we would begin the journey to Germany, to enter



on to Chapter 8. "Germany and Stalag VIIA"
back to Contents Page

revised 27/9/11