WW II, a British focus  




On the 18th May, we came to a village that, like everywhere else we had passed through seemed deserted. We found a dispatch rider with a puncture in the rear wheel of his motorbike. The rider was obviously nervous and asked for help. Memories of asking for volunteers came back to me, preventing me asking again. I told L/Cpl. Moore to take the platoon on to the next junction and do what they could whilst I helped with the puncture, since I could catch them up on my bike. That made sense anyway. It took a good half hour to strip the heavy 500cc machine down to get the wheel free and the tyre off. Not bad I suppose, but we experienced some trouble remembering the sequence of re-assembling, so had a few nuts surplus. It seemed sound enough though, and suddenly inspired I asked if I could have a ride on it as I had never ridden one before. Reluctantly, for he would obviously have preferred to have got going, he agreed and showed me what to do. It was an exhilarating experience taking it a hundred yards up the road and back again without mishap. He still had his gear to strap back on to the rear and was about to do this when a bren carrier appeared zig-zagging all over the road. Without stopping, someone yelled 'Get to hell out of here, we've been hit. Jerry's right behind us!' I got cracking on my bicycle since he could catch up once he had fixed his pannier.

Now that I had got on the move again there did not seem to be any particular panic. It was a beautiful day with the warm sun and everything green. After my little ride on the motorbike I felt rather good, especially as I could now see something across the road about 450 yards ahead. As I drew closer I could see men clad in blue-ish type uniforms, probably French. How had they got into the act? They had not been seen since we entered Belgium on 10th May. I looked up again as I drew closer but no longer saw any movement. Then, suddenly, 'Crack!' A shot rang out and a bullet hummed past my head like a bee. There was now, not ten yards away from me, having appeared from behind a tree, a German soldier pointing a large pistol at me and firing again. He called 'Halt! Tommy - halt, hands up!' What the blazes was I supposed to do? My rifle was firmly strapped to the crossbar and the bike was still rolling along although the fixed drive was now carrying my feet around instead of me peddling it. Slowly I came to a halt. With my thoughts racing I glanced at the ditch, then back to his nibs with the pistol. I could see several more beside each tree. Funny, I wasn't scared, shaken certainly but bloody angry. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Nothing had ever been said of a procedure in the likelihood of being captured. It seemed I had no option but to put my hands up as the bike became stationary.

'Come, come here Tommy, the war for you is over'. I let the bike fall to the ground and moved across the road to meet him. One searched me whilst another unstrapped my rifle and expertly operated the bolt to empty the magazine, and then threw it into the ditch, which I could now see was not big enough to shelter a dog. As I was marched further along the road I could also see the object in the middle of the road was another small artillery piece as I had seen set up on the road at our first confrontation. It had a shield and the aperture of the muzzle was about two inches diameter, an anti-tank gun I imagined.

Pulled right into the hedgerow on my left was an old open tourer car with a twin-barreled machine gun mounted. There was a box on wheels hooked on behind and onto that no doubt, the anti-tank gun was hooked. The one that had fired and called to me had a lot of silver braid. I learnt he was an Unter-Officier, equivalent to our sergeant. The others appeared to be in their mid twenties and all had campaign ribbons as though they had done all this before, probably in Spain and Poland. They were clearly confidant and efficient, working almost to numbers with a casual indifference that had to impress me. I saw there was a narrow lane through which they had come cutting me off and that was that.

I was ordered to sit up in the back of the car and had only just sat down when, with a roar, the dispatch rider came charging down the road at high speed. Not having had time to conceal themselves, he saw them and tried to turn his bike, but came an awful cropper spread-eagled across the road. He got up without serious injury, was searched, and bundled in with me. L/Cpl. Smith his name was and he looked terrible causing me to wonder if, despite my best efforts, I looked the same. After standing up in the car and surveying all around over the hedge top with binoculars, silver-bits ordered the unit to move on.

The short journey took us to a farmyard that was alive with Germans who came to have a look at us with some curiosity. They were all armed to the teeth. Many had machine pistols, all had rifles and stick grenades in their belts and boot tops. There were several heavier machine guns on the ground and long belts of ammunition for the guns seemed to be everywhere. Having reported, silver-bits came and sat in the car with us saying that we had to wait. He could speak quite good English and soon engaged us with an update of what, as he knew it was happening. He told us that their Panzer and armoured units were already deep inside France and heading for the coast. No doubt our side would be cut off completely and forced to surrender when the war would be over and we would be able to go home. This sounded like a lot of propaganda and I said so. What about the Maginot Line? They had passed it. What about the Ark Royal then? Your lot claimed it had been sunk and it hadn't! 'Ah, yes, you are right but now it has been sunk'. We got warmed up into quite an argument along those lines whilst Smith kept silent until he nudged me. I turned my gaze to see a Jerry pulling himself upon the running board with a pistol raised. The bugger was going to bash me and as I leaned away, silver-bits shouted at him and he promptly dropped back. He explained that our audience, seeing us arguing, thought we might be coming to blows.

After a while, with ourselves still in the car, it was backed into an open sided barn and two guards posted. This did not stop one or two bringing us a bottle of beer apiece and later, some dark bread and sausage. They tried conversation but without much success. The farmyard had gone noticeably quiet and after a while they all turned out and formed up on parade. Now their uniforms were clean and they only had their rifles. Apparently they had done their bit and were now withdrawing. As they began marching out, we were called out and tacked onto the end with the same two guards armed to the teeth, which was something of a joke with their comrades, comparing the disadvantage between us.

It was customary in the British army to take a break on the march of a few minutes every hour. These did not, they just kept going giving me cause to wonder how their feet coped in the jackboots. They did not look comfortable. The march continued all night with only one break during which they produced rations, presumably issued before leaving. During the following morning we entered another large farm complex where we were put in a barn full of bales of straw leaving us very little room to move about. The doors were shut but through the gaps we could see our same two guards outside. After a while, what looked to me like large black coppers were brought into the yard and fires lit underneath while several wearing white aprons and rather incongruous chef hats performed around them. Later, with smoke belching from the chimneys and steam from the contents, a whistle blew and they all paraded with their mess tins. When they were all were served, one of the cooks came over and demanded our mess tins that we had been allowed to keep. It was obvious that they did not like ours, shallow and oblong. They were certainly not designed for a diet of soup as was bought to us, which to be fair was quite good.

We decided to sort out what was left of our gear. They had not emptied my valise out having only foraged in it so I turned it out onto the ground. I had a towel, vest, pants, shirts, boot dubbing and brush, soap and shaving gear. I also had my wallet with photos and the souvenir money I had found. As I picked one item after another, the little pistol rolled out and I dropped the pants I was holding to cover it. I thought hard and looked through the gaps again to see if our guards were still there, they were. 'Smithy, ever think about escaping?' 'All the time' he replied. 'Well, what do you think of this?' I pulled my spare pants to one side revealing the pistol and explained how I had found it and that it had been overlooked. Smith thought we should have a go there and then and suggested that I go first and he would follow. I peered out again at the gear the two guards sported and again at the little pistol in my hand with its single shot and hammer rusted solid. 'No' I said. 'If you think we have a reasonable chance bluffing them with this, then you must go and try first'. He didn't want to, so, passing it off laughingly, I dug a hole in the earth floor and buried my would be souvenir.

Settling down on the straw we slept right through to next morning when we were disturbed by a large cook wearing a chef's hat asking for our mess tins. They were still dirty from the soup, we'd had no opportunity to wash them. We grabbed handfuls of straw and scoured them out and finished the operation with dirt whilst Fatso looked on with a screwed up nose. He took them and brought them back with hot steaming coffee, that is, the ersatz kind. Without milk or sugar it did not taste much like coffee, but did have a flavour that was not unpleasant. It was welcome together with another piece of their dark bread and slice of sausage. Half an hour later the whole company was on parade and marched off out on to the road with our personal escort tacked on to the end.

Another long day of marching with few breaks but in the late afternoon we came to a junction where a small church or mission hall stood. We were separated and taken in where we found three other prisoners with a guard. They were medical orderlies who had stayed with the wounded. We were now five with one guard, the company having carried on.

There was no water and we were desperate for a thorough wash. I wanted to change my underclothes but there seemed little advantage at this point in putting dirty clothes in my valise. Perhaps an opportunity would present itself. We were now very dirty and hungry. Evening drew in and the guard made it clear we were there for the night. There was no straw but huge curtains hung from the tall windows. Since the place looked as though it had been neglected for longer than the war, we pulled the curtains down in a shower of dust to make bedding. We were too weary for anything else but sleep.

The guard woke us at the crack of dawn and had us sitting in a row on the verge of the road. Apart from the building there was nothing but open countryside, then suddenly the sound of a machine gun opened up. The guard swung his rifle off his shoulder and dropped to one knee whilst we keeled over flat on the grass. The noise was repeated and then it could be seen, not far away: a woodpecker attacking a telegraph pole. The combination of clear air and dry timber had produced the effect. Having recovered we enjoyed watching the beautifully coloured bird, the first I had seen.

About an hour we sat there, and then we heared the sound of marching. Soon a column of French prisoners came into view. Looking disheveled they were not marching, more shuffling along. They carried bundles and burdens of such quantity that I wondered if they had a kitchen sink too. Our guard indicated that we would be joining on the end, would be taken to proper camps and given work to do, but the war would soon be over and everyone would go home.

The column seemed unending and as an hour passed I fell into a deep depression remembering what Silver Braid had told us. These French prisoners seemed indifferent to their circumstance as they ambled past chatting cheerfully. I had noticed on our two previous days marching, looking across the fields to other roads seeing endless columns of German soldiers going South, all with more light arms, machine-guns and small mortars than I had ever imagined. Some on bicycles, whole companies cruising along bedecked with belts of ammunition gleaming in the sun. I had noticed too how basic much of their equipment was. The magazines of their machine pistols little more than tin cans, an officer using a box of coloured chalks as you would buy a child, and their dispatch riders had skimpy two-stroke motorbikes that could be lifted over a hedge and driven across the fields. Everything apparently cheap, but plentiful. There was something else too. Apart from a few of the open Mercedes tourers painted dull blue-grey, there were no tanks or armoured cars at all which comforted me with the hope that their initial success would soon run out of steam.

The day wore on without a break in the column. Thousands passed. It was not until late afternoon that the end came in sight where, quite separately, marched some forty British with a C.S.M. at the head. They were marching properly in three's with heads up. It was C.S.M. Dean of the Service Corps leading, a man who subsequently earned himself quite a reputation for maintaining morale and negotiating conditions under the Geneva Convention whenever possible. That night we were steered into a field where a lorry tipped a load of the small dark loaves, which were rationed out one between five, and we slept on the grass where we lay.

This journey became known as the 'hunger march' and was often referred to after the war. It took several days to progress up through Belgium into Holland near Maastrict, each night spent the same way. Along the route we passed through a number of the small villages and towns where some friendly people remained. Various help was offered by these people, putting out buckets of water which the guards frequently kicked over. Pieces of bread were thrown and occasionally someone would rush out with eggs or other food. An egg was easily dealt with if lucky enough to get one, by cracking one end and sucking the contents down like an oyster. If anyone fell out, a lorry followed behind, they were put in and when the lorry was full, it would drive up to the front again, but rifle butts ensured no one hung back to be picked up intentionally.