WW II, a British focus



memories of Pte Tom Barker
1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008poppy.gif - 1571 Bytes

The bulk of the British Army after WW2 was de-mobbed in easy stages.

My de-mob number which was 27 coincided with my actual release date, because on that date my Seven Years with the colours expired.

My contract with the Government in September of 1938 stipulated that I serve seven with the Colours (active) and Five with the Reserve.

Now my active Seven was completed I was free to do as I wished with one exception, I could not leave the country permanently.

I could go abroad for a holiday but had to notify the War Office where I could be reached should an emergency arise.

We had lived in and trained for six months at Stirling Castle, then transferred to Wellington Barracks, Aldershot. I was then moved with my Regiment, 1st The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, to Palestine where we assisted the British/Arab Palestine Police. We also assisted the Trans Jordan Police and Glubb Pasha’s Arab Legion.

The riot act was read out in Haifa Square and the whole district came under Martial Law and a curfew imposed.

Then War was declared and the Argyll’s saw action attached to the 4th Indian Div where they took Siddi Barranni with the bayonet. The first victory of WW2 over the Fashists Moved to Crete and on the boat I was issued with a snipers rifle and told to get on with it once we landed. I had had no training as a sniper but I did hit every thing I aimed at, I suppose it had all been jotted down in a little book during training at Stirling Castle.

Trouble with being a sniper I found was that anything I did was not recorded nor did I have a witness to any action. In short I was on my own and when the rest of the Regiment embarked to leave Crete I was left lying on the ground having been hit on my steel helmet that saved my life.

Two Australian soldiers who were making for the beach hoping to be taken off by submarine at night found me the following day and carried me to the beach.

The sub did not turn up as we hoped but Germans did and I was transported to Salonika where we were housed in an old Army barracks now turned into a prison pen for POW. The place was bed bug ridden and rat ridden and the toilets were blocked and the whole place reeked of decay. I was with some others who got down a drain to escape but that was foiled by a dead body that had been overcome by the foul gas in the drain.

We all had to back up to get out of the stinking slimy tunnel but some one dropped the heavy lid and the guards were alerted and the last four of us were caught and beaten up. I don’t know what happened to two of the others but myself and another bloke were locked in separate rooms and told to stay quiet and we would be interrogated later.

I spent a long time locked in a dark room and lost all sense of time until finally I was interrogated as to who organized the escape attempt and where were we going to be safe housed in Salonica. After the beating with rubber hoses, myself and another were left to die in an old barrack room.

Ten Greeks were taken at random off the streets of Salonica, one was a twelve year old lad and another an old Lady.

They put the ten against a house wall and shot them. They were left there until some Greek people loaded them onto a cart and took them for buriel. We were then informed this would happen each time any one tried to escape. There were no more escape attempts.

Then I was found by some of our blokes and carried in an old overcoat onto the cattle wagon that was to be our home for the next week. The other man had died.

I sat in the corner of the wagon most of the time because each time I got stood up I would pass out. I was advised to stay seated because I might hit my head on some of the iron fittings inside the wagon and since there was no doctor available and no way of stopping the train it seemed pointless tempting fate. Since there was not a lot of room to lay down to sleep most sat and slept then the one that had been stood changed places. I was grateful to the others that they allowed me to remain seated.

I did however rouse myself when we were passing Zagreb near Belgrade and I looked out of the window at the huge sign with Zagreb printed in huge black letters then the floor rush up to meet me and I was out for about three hours.

The train took us to a French run camp called Luckenwald. All the formalities of becoming a registered POW were applied here. Fingerprints and photographs were taken and noted, and each of us got another number, mine was 12244. From this camp we were split up and sent to forced labour camps. The meaning of the phrase meant if you don’t work you don’t eat, and if you don't eat you die. And if you die you get buried. So having survived thus far the spirit is willing to take it a step further and ponder the possibilities of, ”if you have to go, arrange it so you can take some of these bastards with you”. But to do that you have to stay alive.

The first camp I lived and worked in was Stalag 3D Teltow. The second camp was Stalag 404 Grossbeeren. I had been a POW for two years when they moved us again.

It was at Stalag 4B the work party was side tracked to so that we could all have a shower and be given food for the rest of the long march. It was in this shower I swapped Identity Disks with Harry Tenny and he became Tom Barker. And joined the work party I was supposed to leave with. I survived a couple of identity checks and was grateful for an air raid that saved me from a finger print check.

On reflection I think I was more immature than most because I would have been shot on the spot had the Germans known. So too Harry Tenny had the Germans had an inkling what was going on. The one excuse the Germans could have put forward for both executions would have been the number of trains that had been derailed due to tampering whilst in the vicinity of our work party.

I often scooped sand into the axle bearings when the guard was other wise occupied.

But now with the Russians closing in on Berlin on one side and the Allies closing in from the other side we awoke one morning to find the guards gone and no one manning the machine guns or wire.

Having seen the plight of many who were here with me, some were from POW camps that had been in Italy and when the fall of Italy was imminent the camp leaders had advocated, “sit tight and our people will come and get us”.

But our people did not get them, but the Germans did, and transferred them to Germany.

The bloke in the next bed to me saw me packing a tin of food and asked if he could join me. The bloke was a Royal Air Force Sgt Navigator and I was supposed to be R.A.F. Sgt Tenny.

The real Tenny was on a work party somewhere in the wild blue yonder.

I was leaving because I having been in various camps for four years I did not fancy another four or eternity in a Gulag in Siberia if the Yanks and Russians couldn’t agree about who was to run Berlin

We left the camp and managed to elude many SS that were scattered in pockets in the woods.

We crossed the Elbe River accompanied by two yank soldiers who had escaped from another camp.

We stopped the night at a tiny woodshed of a house where the next day a American jeep came and took the two Yanks who were with us. The officer in the truck tossed us some ‘K’ rations and said, “sorry bud, but we ain’t got the room to take you all”

The two of us walked on and suddenly round a bend a column of trucks appeared and all the guns of the troops in the trucks were trained on us.

We were beckoned to approach and looking at the guns we obeyed, then we were asked what we were doing in this sector that had SS troops still in it.

We were told to keep walking in the direction we had been originally walking, and it wasn’t long before another Yank Officer in a jeep came speeding up to us and told us to jump in. On reflection I think the Officer who saw us in the first column of trucks radioed to this Officer who came out to verify who we were and to keep tabs on us.

On arriving at an air strip we were told to stay put on the side of the runway.

Air Marshall Tedder landed on the airstrip in his private Dakota airplane. On spotting us he air lifted us to Reims and it was there I was interrogated and deloused then put into the bomb bay of a Lancaster Bomber. I arrived in England and jumped out and rubbed my face in the grass. A nurse ran forward with tears streaming down and she said, “that was so emotional”

I think most people there had wet eyes.

After being issued with a new uniform and other gear I was sent home on leave. The clothing coupons and petrol coupons and food coupons suddenly took me back to the POW camp where one had to hand in a coupon to get a bowl of weak cabbage stew once a day. Then I got another leave added. And a further leave was added. I did not know it at the time but I began sleep walking. I was sent to a resettlement unit in Oundle near Peterboro. Then I was then sent to Aldershot and discovered it was a de-mobb unit.

But I had problems. Authority bugged me and I was becoming a renegade, I could not sit still and I was avoiding others.

Tree shadows would move and I would suddenly be wet through with perspiration, if I had had a gun I would have shot the shadows because of sudden reaction.

When I joined the Army, I and others were moulded into what they wanted done more or less like a trained dog at the snap of the fingers. The hand takes food to the mouth and the mouth opens automatically to receive it. This is what is termed as automatic reaction. Trouble is, it is like a tattoo mark, once you have it you cannot get rid of it. It is there for the rest of your life. In other words they made me aggressive and it worked, but it probably saved my life on many occasions but cost the other bloke his.

Some might say, “be gratefull you were a POW, it probably saved you from death in further actions, but I would remind the reader that being a POW one is under the same bombs as the enemy that is being bombed. Not only that, the S.S. and Gestapo under the orders of Hitler, were at liberty to enter any POW camp and take out and shoot who they wished on any pretext.

A POW is in danger all the time not only from spiteful guards, but angry civilians and the bombs of one’s own country. A free soldier is well fed and free to do as he wishes in his own time and is only under threat when in action.

Remember The Fifty who were recaptured then shot. They were recaptured POW and should have been under the protection of the German Government. But they were murdered by Hitler who gave the order.

However my demob number came up and I fell into the cue that was meandering past the counter where the girls were dishing out parcels containing, cigarettes sweets and lots of other goodies. Then we went into a room and chose a suit. Since the suits were “off the peg” one had to wait a day to have the ill fitting suit altered by a tailor.

And the last time I talked to an Officer was when I got to the gate and he asked me if I wanted to sign up for further service. I said in jest, “yea mate, if I can stay at home” “I say, you can’t hold a pistol to my head just like that and make demands” he replied hotly. I smiled and walked off in my new gray pinstripe suit clutching a railway warrant that was taking me home.

I will always remember that train ride. From Kings Cross to Grimsby, then Grimsby to New Holland. The last leg was from New Holland to Barrow Haven then the last stop was Barton-on-Humber and home.

I was alone in the compartment as the wheels made that same clackerty clack I had heard when I was a lad. The same old water colours were on the walls of the carriage.

I must have been miles away as I watched the telegraph wires outside the window climb up then a telegraph post would flash by and the wire would go down again, then the whole thing would keep repeating until the train began to slow down and finally stopped.

I was greeted by a porter who informed me the war was over. I thanked him. Then I walked to the gate and handed in my ticket and passed a gray haired old man. As I passed he spoke, “Tom?” He was my father. We shook hands and that was my welcome after eight years away.

We walked more or less in silence until I could see my mother outside the house shading her eyes against the sun. Then she ran into the house and was weeping as I entered the house. We hugged for a long time and Dad said a bit awkward, “I’ll put the kettle on”

We talked and during the day the rest of the family popped in to say hello and I met some new people but it got to be a bit much and I had to go for a long walk.

A garden party was held at the local hall for the returned soldiers and a gift to show the gratitude of the local merchants and people for their freedom for life was three pounds fifteen (that was about seven dollars and fifty cents Australian) to each of the returned men. There was a long silence and it became oppressive until one man suggested they keep it or donate it to the Red Cross.

I would go to Thornton Abbey to walk the mile to the village of Thornton Curtis again as I did when a lad running the mile to shool and back at 4 o’ clock

But sadly the little farm labourer’s cottage was gone and in its place was a new bungalow.

The farmer who my father had worked for had a daughter who married, and the couple now lived here in this new cottage.

The Railway Station was also closed and trains did not stop here any more. One had to catch a bus in the Village now.

The chapel opposite Sargeant’s farm was also gone and the place was covered over by stinging nettles and tall weeds and grass.

I went down to London to join the Palestine Police and since I spoke some Arabic I thought I could polish it up and live it up in the land of milk and honey. But I overlooked the fact that I still had Five years to serve in the Army Reserve. So the officer chided me, “my dear chap, we could not possibly incur the wrath of the Argylls by pinching one of their own, good Lord we would never hear the last of it”

I was going to work one morning in my car and the vehicle coming towards me suddenly turned into two, and there were two roads. I pulled over onto the grass and stopped the car. It was mid afternoon when a policeman pulled up in a car and woke me. I thought he was German and began babbling in German but then he began to make sense and I realized where I was and I lost control. The cop was very sympathetic and he followed me as I slowly made my way home again.

A shadow of a tree moving on the grass would suddenly turn into the shadow of a man and I realized my mind was playing tricks. In the repat place at Oundle one afternoon I was lost to the world, leaning on a five barred gate enjoying the scenery of the sunny summer afternoon. In the grass field about a hundred yards away I could make out a group of our lads. Some were reclining on the grass propped up on one elbow while others were stood and all seemed to be chatting. Then a young officer came down the lane and instead of walking by, he suddenly veered and came over to the gate and said, “ My goodness, you were miles away, enjoying the scenery, what?”

I grinned but was curious because I could see no guns or activity going on apart from they looked like moving mannequins “what are those chaps supposed to be doing in the field?” I asked him.

The Officer looked into the field and then back at me and smiled let’s go and have a cup of tea” he said

I was mildly surprised because I never expected to be served tea by an Officer. “you sit there” he said upon our arrival at the kitchen, and he put he kettle on the stove and made the tea and we sat and chatted. Then he told me the men in the field were not men at all but cows grazing on the grass and two were laid down chewing the cud.

After many visits to the doctor I picked up and thinking I could put it all behind me I got married and settled down. I worked at various jobs and did not cease working even though we moved to Australia.

But when I retired at the age of 60 the manure really hit he fan.

One day I went out to mow the back lawn only to find a bloke hanging by the neck strung up by barbed wire to the clothes hoist. I was back to square one. I found out later my wife had washed our son’s Army uniform and hung it out to dry.

I would see people I didn’t know in the back garden only to be told there was no one there. I still sometime s hear very faintly the weeping and cries for help of wounded men and would lay wide away and the nights seemed endless. I would watch the curtains as the dawn light would creep in. One time in repat hospital I was afraid to go to sleep because the same nightmare would occur. I was in the drain again in Salonika and the air was foul and hot, the tunnel was about three feet across and one could not turn round in it It was pitch black down there and if a machine gun had been fired down the concrete tunnel it would have blocked it and no one could get out.

I still cannot go into a crowded store, I get so uptight when some faces remind me of blokes long gone. One I time I sat waiting to get a haircut in the crowded barber’s shop and I saw the reflection of the blokes face in the mirror and I was jolted like an electric shock, I was looking at the bloke who was shot by the Blondy guard near the veggie patch. I was in tears and had to leave. I was asked why on a bus tour I walked away from everyone else so I could walk alone, I don’t know the answers.

Someone suggested I don’t want to get too friendly even with family because it hurts so much to lose them. One day the family took me to the air show at Peirce W.A.

My son gave me his binocs and said look at the paratroops coming down, they reminded me of Crete. Then a huge Hercules transport plane came over low and was so noisy. Then some one was yelling at me and I got confused. I looked round but no one was familiar and I felt like I did when I was a kid at Cleethorpes and had got lost. The Herk had only just cleared the field when two F15 Fighters came hedge hopping and firing machine guns.

Suddenly I was back on Crete and it was if a giant blender was mixing the noise and people running about. I discovered later it was a practice show and the guns were firing blanks.

But on rare occasions it gets a little too real and I awake struggling with a shout only to be subjected to the relief of tears. Today at almost 80 I can nap and still hear the faint crying for help and shadows that set my pulse racing but I am learning to live with it.

I tell myself it is the wind in the eaves of the house. Whatever?

2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.
Tom Barker