As dawn broke, on the 23rd of May 1941, I was in no mood to appreciate the beauty of the islands of the Aegean Sea, so near and yet so far as they appeard to be. During the night, their dim outline had provided the necessary impetus for us to strive even harder, as we paddled the Carley float towards land; but in the cold light of a new day, it became heartbreakingly evident, we had made little progress. The prevailing currents had apparently kept the raft in virtually the same area as the previous evening.
Again and again we asked ourselves, ‘What happened to the destroyers?’ ‘Why hadn’t they returned to pick us up after dark?’ We would never know the answer to that question.
My thoughts returned again to the dramatic events of the previous day aboard Gloucester… The continuous air attacks during the forenoon, with ‘near misses’ that had destroyed or badly damaged most of our boats and Carley floats … The frequent reports passing through the TS of the alarming shortage of anti-aircraft ammunition… The brief respite at noon, barely time to draw soup and corned beef from the galley, (the last substantial meal we were to have for a long time)… The resumption of the air attacks, increasing in intensity, until several direct hits, including an ariel torpedo, slowed Gloucester down, until she was dead in the water, on fire and sinking… The struggle to escape from the rapidly flooding 6" TS, and the effort to reach the shambles of the upper deck… The trauma of abandoning ship and then being machine-gunned in the water… The elation on sighting and reaching the Carley floats that had been cast overboard by the cruiser ‘Fiji’ (But for this generous gesture our casualties would have been much higher; it was tragic that ‘Fiji’ was sunk later that day, with heavy loss of life, including most of her Band).
I was brought back to the reality of the present situation by a wave sweeping over the raft. The wind had now freshened and waves were frequently breaking over the float. I gazed again at my six dead former shipmates in the raft. We had been fourteen at nightfall, two more would die before we were picked up later that day.
‘Why’ I thought. ‘Why had men who were not wounded, with everything to live for, given in so easily, so soon, with hardly a struggle?’ We had certainly done our best to encourage them to keep going; to try to get them to take their turn on the paddles; to urge them to keep moving their limbs as much as possible to aid the circulation; but it was all to no avail. We learned later that a similar tragic situation had occurred in all the other rafts. Unbelievable as it may seem, several hundred men, the majority uninjured, had expired in less than twenty-four hours, without fear or complaint, as if seeking death willingly… ‘Why?’
It was a subject that we, who were fortunate to survive, were to discuss later at great length, and we could only conclude that perhaps the following facts could have influenced their minds, sufficiently, to cause them to lose all hope and thus abandon the struggle to survive.
1. The feeling of hopelessness, that grew as the night wore on, when it became evident that the destroyers were not coming back for us, and the grim apprehension we then felt, that daylight would see the return of the Luftwaffe, and the machine-gunning again, with all its horrors.
2. The firm conviction we all held, that Gloucester would not have been sunk if she hadn’t expended all her anti-aircraft ammunition. We had been so proud of the fighting efficiency of our ship, this was a most bitter blow to swallow. We knew that early on the morning of the 22nd, a signal had been sent to the flagship reporting the precarious state of our high-angle ammunition; only 18% remaining; but this report had either not been received or was ignored. The reason has never been explained. Naval historians writing years later, have agreed that the use of Gloucester and ‘Fiji’, with such a shortage of anti-aircraft ammunition, was a gross blunder, and that both ships should have been withdrawn from the operation and returned to Alexandria to re-ammunition.
3. The recollection of the hard times we had endured, during the previous twelve months operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the casualties we had sustained during that period, could have caused those who died that night, to decide… ‘Enough is enough.’
Perhaps these three facts could have been the principal cause of the tragedy?… ‘Perhaps?’ We shall never know.
I can think of no more fitting obituary to all those who died in Gloucester’s final action, than the words of Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Cunningham, in his autobiography, “A Sailor’s Odyssey” ( Hutchinson, 1951)… “Thus went the gallant Gloucester. She had endured all things, and no ship had worked harder or had more risky tasks. She had been hit by bombs more times than any other vessel, and had always come up smiling. As she left Alexandria for the last time, I went alongside in my barge, and had a talk with her Captain, Henry Aubrey Rowley. He was most anxious about his men, who were just worn out, which was not surprising as I well realised. I promised to go on board and talk to them on their return to harbour; but they never came back. I doubt if many of them survived, as they were murderously machine-gunned in the water. Rowley’s body, recognisable by his uniform monkey jacket and the signals in his pocket, came ashore to the West of Mersa Matruh in Eygpt, about four weeks later. It was a long way to come home”… “It was indeed.”
It must have been late in the forenoon that we heard the sound of aircraft, and then sighted two, flying low over the sea, dropping flares; and as they came nearer we recognised, with a feeling of dread, the yellow painted noses of our adversaries of yesterday; but to our overwhelming relief, they soon disappeared.
Shortly after this encounter we sighted a small vessel which, after executing frequent alterations of course towards and away, causing acute anxiety and frustration with every movement, finally to our immense relief, came alongside the raft and we were hauled inboard.
In the euphoria of being saved, the nationality of the crew, with their strange uniforms and unfamiliar language, did not unduly concern us, as we gratefully accepted mugs of water and hunks of bread from them, and it was only when we were hustled down into the forepeak of the boat, which to our astonishment was crammed with other Gloucester survivors, did we learn the crew were German! And then it slowly sank into our waterlogged brains, that we were now prisoners of war! But our gratitude in being rescued, indeed, in being alive, overshadowed all thoughts of what the future held in store for us; which, in view of the events that lay ahead, was perhaps just as well!
Early that evening we were landed, on what we later found to be the island of Kythra, and as we disembarked we noticed the body of one of our former shipmates lying on the upper deck. He had died shortly after being picked up. We buried him three days later. On the rough cross that one of the survivors had fashioned from boxwood, his name was inscribed with a red-hot nail, …Ordinary Seaman Kenneth Bicknell, aged 18 years, HMS Gloucester…
I would like to think his body still lies there, on a hillside on the island of Kythra, overlooking the area where Gloucester went down; but I presume his remains have long since been removed to a War Graves Cemetery.
The island was occupied by a German Army unit of company strength, who escorted us to a large house on the waterfront, there to be arrayed, (those who were able to stand), against a high wall in the garden.
Standing in this ominous position, facing a squad of German soldiers with their rifles only too obviously operational, did little for our morale, and caused me to wonder why they had gone to the trouble of rescue, if we were now to be shot! The answer to that question was qualified to a certain extent, when a tall German, obviously an officer, came forward and said in excellent English, “You bastards can thank your lucky stars you were picked up by the German Navy; if it had been left to me, I would have shot the bloody crowd of you!” He followed this very ‘reassuring’ opening address with first the good news. “We cannot feed you.” “We have only sufficient rations for ourselves.” The good news? “I will inform the local population that some of their gallant allies have arrived uninvited, and if they choose to feed you, so be it!” He then turned about and stalked off.
Whilst trying to assimilate this outburst, we were counted, and then herded none too gently into the house, where we collapsed on the bare floorboards and sank into blissful unconsciousness.
When we opened our eyes the following morning, it took some little time to fully comprehend our whereabouts, as the dramatic events of the previous forty-eight hours, slowly seeped through our fuddled minds; but the apprehension we felt concerning the future, was eclipsed by the agonising stiffness of our bodies, and when the guards opened the door and ordered us outside, it was with the utmost difficulty that we dragged ourselves into the garden. However, with the aid of the sun, our aches and pains slowly began to ease, and before long our bodies regained a semblance of normality.
We now had the first opportunity of identifying our fellow survivors, and discussing the fates of former shipmates and messmates. I was then able to establish that at least six members of the Band had got away from the ship and had been seen in the water, but their final fate was unknown.
There were seventy-eight survivors on Kythra: two officers, (the Navigator and Surgeon Lieutenant), and seventy-six ratings, including a Sergeant and six Marines. It would come to our knowledge later, that a further five survivors had been picked up and landed on another Greek island; they would join us at Salonika. We were then still hopeful, that some of the ship’s company might have been picked up by our own forces or perhaps some rafts may have reached Crete, but alas, this was not to be. It was many months before we received confirmation we were the only survivors from Gloucester. Eight-three from a ship’s company of nearly eight hundred! The full casualty list was not published by the Admiralty until June, 1945. Our ravenous hunger was now our most immediate concern, so we were more than delighted when a party of islanders with a convoy of donkeys carrying baskets of food, arrived at the house around midday. These good people were to feed us every day, and without their magnificent assistance we would have been in dire straits. A doctor accompanied them, and with the assistance of the Surgeon Lieutenant, tended to the wounded. These were later flown by seaplane to the mainland.
It was on the third day of captivity that we learned, through an English speaking guard, the reason for the hostile reception accorded us on arrival by the tall officer. Apparently he was one of the few survivors from a flotilla of coastal steamers and caiques, attempting to reach Crete to land weapons and stores, which were intercepted and destroyed by our surface forces on the night of 21/22 May, and according to him the survivors were machine-gunned in the water! The guard also informed us that the vessel which had picked us up, had been engaged on an air/sea rescue operation, searching for survivors from this flotilla, and quite by chance had come across Gloucester survivors! We realised more than ever, how extraordinarily lucky we had been!
On the 4th of June, we sailed from Kythra in three caiques, on a journey which would take us from the sunny Mediterranean to, eventually the cold Baltic Sea! Unfortunately, we would be denied the personal services or expert guidance of Messrs Thomas Cook or Thompson Ltd., on this very exclusive tour!
In retrospect, we had little to complain of concerning our treatment, during the thirteen days spent on the Island of Kythra. Thanks to the local inhabitants, we had received adequate food, and although only possessing the clothes we had been wearing when picked up, our feet had become used to the absence of footwear and Kythra had prepared us, certainly physically, for the grim rigours of the future of which then we were fortunately ignorant!
Early on the morning of the 7th, we arrived at the badly damaged Port of Piraeus where the reception committee of German Military wasted no time in showing their hostility and enforcing it with their rifle butts as we were herded into vehicles.
After a long trip, we arrived at a transit camp on the outskirts of the City of Corinth.
The conditions in this camp were appalling and the ten thousand odd British and Commonwealth prisoners, captured in Greece, were existing in holes dug in the sand, with no medical or toilet facilities, with a daily food ration of a loaf of bread between ten men, a cup of ersatz coffee and a bowl of cabbage water soup. It was no surprise that many were showing signs of dysentery and other complaints, and we learned that ‘trigger happy’ guards had been responsible for numerous deaths. The Germans had already commenced moving large groups of POWs to the North of Greece, and we therefore considered ourselves very fortunate when we learned we would be leaving this dreadful place within thirty-six hours!
We marched to Corinth railway station, and after being issued with a loaf of bread and small tin of meat paste, were crammed into cattle trucks, fifty to a truck; the doors were locked, and we set off on a journey we would remember for a long, long time. It was impossible for everyone to sit down at the same time, and there was certainly no room for anyone to lie down. It soon became a situation of survival of the fittest; the bigger you were, the more space you could command! There were fourteen from Gloucester in the truck, and we were fortunate in being congregated in one corner, where we introduced a watch-keeping routine. Seven sat down, whilst the remainder stood and endeavoured to keep the mob at bay! After approximately four hours, we would then change places.
The only ventilation came from four small grilles, high up in the sides of the compartment, each approximately two feet by one, and being in Southern Greece in June, the temperature can be well imagined! Two large tins had been provided, one for use as a toilet, and the other containing the drinking water, which by the time the soldiers had drunk from it and filled their water-bottles, and we had scooped out what remained with our hands, it was empty, and the biggest ‘pongo’ in the truck then took possession of it as his throne!
The toilet tin was a different story. The last person to use it had to remain sat on it until the next customer required its services. The fact that several of the soldiers were suffering from dysentery didn’t exactly improve the situation, so what with the stench, the temperature, the lack of drinking water, and the chaotic cramped conditions, it made the ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ appear like a drawing room in Buckingham Palace! But unlike those poor unfortunates of long ago, our ordeal was about to be terminated!
We had been travelling for something like twenty hours or more, when the train screeched to a halt, the doors flung open, and with the guards shouting “Heraus” “Heraus” we thankfully crawled out into the glorious fresh air! Dawn was just breaking, and whilst trying to gain normality, the guards goaded us into the semblance of a square, and a German Officer addressed us, speaking through an interpreter. It was brief and to the point. “Due to your action in demolishing rail bridges and tunnels during your retreat through Greece, from here onwards, you will be marching!” “Any prisoner who falls out or tries to escape, will be shot!” He obviously had a sense of humour, for he added, laconically, “Don’t rush, this isn’t Dunkirk!” So began a memorable marathon! Destination, Salonika.
At first, we welcomed the release from the nightmare of the train journey, but as the sun rose higher in the sky, the lack of food and especially water, began to take its toll, but on approaching the first village, once again the good Greek people came to our rescue. They were waiting with bread, fruit, eggs, and above all, water! At first, the guards attempted to prevent this magnanimous gesture, but they soon relented and we gratefully received the villagers’ offerings. It was to be the same at each village we passed through! We knew that they could ill-afford their generosity; they were a poor people in a poor country, ravaged by war, yet they gave what little they had. They were magnificent!
We approached the foothills of a range of mountains, and began ascending a steep winding pass. As we neared the summit, a British Sergeant Major marching beside me, said, “Do you know where we are?” I mumbled something like, “No, and I couldn’t care less!” Ignoring my obvious lack of interest, he continued, “We retreated down through this pass, eight weeks ago”. I replied, “How very interesting” or words to that effect. He pressed on, “This is one of the most famous passes in history! This is Thermopylae! Around 490 BC, three hundred Spartans under their leader, Leonidas, held this pass against the full might of the Persian Army under Xerxes, and died fighting to the last man!” His brief discourse on ancient Greek history went right over my head and I muttered something like “Good show” as I stumbled on, ‘picking out the soft ones’, with my bare feet! But then I was suddenly struck by the full significance of what he had just said, and I retorted, “Pity you bastards hadn’t followed their example, then perhaps I wouldn’t be here now!” As they would say today, it went down like a lead balloon!
From the summit of the pass we could see the town of Lamia on the horizon, our objective on that first day, and at the foot of the mountains we were blessed with our first respite, before moving on to the town, to spend the night sleeping in a damp field.
Looking back after so many years, I have ceased to wonder at the strength and resilience of the human body, when I think of the treatment mine was subjected to during those early weeks of captivity; but it made me appreciate for the first time, the amazing ability of nature, to adapt the human body to meet the most outrageous of circumstances.
By the time we reached Salonika, days later, the column was certainly depleted. How many escaped or died during that journey, we never know. The subject of escape had been discussed by Gloucester survivors whilst at Corinth, and we had concluded it was better to forego any attempt to escape, until such times as we had been registered with the International Red Cross, to spare our next-of-kin further distress and anxiety.
The transit camp at Salonika, a former Greek Army barracks, was a slight improvement on Corinth; at least we were accommodated in barrack rooms, albeit unfurnished, and rat and lice infested, but the conditions there were shocking. It was a place of despair and depression, hunger, sickness and death, for dysentery and other illnesses were rife, and the death toll was high. It was ironic, that although the camp hospital boasted the full medical staffs of the former Military Hospitals established in Greece for the campaign, there were few medicines available apart from aspirin and charcoal! (the latter for dysentery). The doctors, in despair, had little to offer except their bedside manner, and as there were no beds in the hospital, this placed them at a distinct disadvantage! Their daily pleading to the Germans for medical supplies fell on deaf ears.
The future looked desperate, so the news of our imminent departure for Germany was received with profound relief, overshadowed however, by the thought of another ghastly journey by cattle truck! We were not to be disappointed! We left Salonika on the 24th June, and if we thought our previous journey was appalling, this was to be a nightmare! To this day I do not know how I survived that dreadful journey. Apart from a short break every twenty-four hours for the issue of bread and water, we were incarcerated in that filthy hell on wheels for an unbelievable thirteen days! In our truck alone, there were two deaths, and in spite of protests, their bodies were not removed for several days. We were never to know the total death toll of that horrific journey. Our ordeal came to an end on the 7th of July, when we arrived at our destination, Wolfsberg in Austria!
Stalag XVIIIA, situated between Klagnefurt and Graz, southwest of Vienna, was an established prison camp, occupied mainly by French POWs, which had been recently extended to cope with the large influx of arrivals expected from Greece and Crete. The British sector was staffed by veteran POWs, (Dunkirk Harriers!), and compared with Corinth or Salonika, was a veritable holiday camp! Accommodation included bunks with straw filled mattresses! and the food surpassed anything we had previously experienced; but alas, it was too good to be true; our stay there would be brief. Within forty-eight hours, barely time to recover from our ordeal by rail, we would be on our way to an ‘Arbeit Kommando’, a working camp.
The short time spent in Stalag XVIIIA was fully occupied with a ‘joining routine’ comprising among other things: official registration, clothing issue and surprisingly, a medical inspection, which though perfunctory, included an anti-tetanus inoculation in the left breast! (Thus there would be no restriction on the use of the arms for manual labour!)
The clothing issue was interesting if only for its variety, and consisted of former French Army clothing. Among other items, I was given a pair of powder blue cavalry breeches complete with 2in gold stripe down each side, which must have at one time graced the legs of a giant Cuirassier! And my neglected feet were awarded a pair of wooden sabots! A vivid green tunic with scarlet facings completed the ensemble! Arrayed for the first time in my former French Army glory, caused one of my ‘oppos’ to remark, "Bandy, at last! Dressed like a real Dogger Bank Dragoon!" So in possession of an official POW number, (Kriegsgefangenen Nummer, 1409), dressed in my ‘Ruritanian’ splendour, and with a swollen left breast, I could now consider myself well and truly, a ‘Guest of the Fuehrer’!
Finally, came drafting into various working parties, and for the first time since capture, we were to be separated. This was a bad blow. We had ever been gregarious, and had always retained that strong bond of comradeship which is only forged in times of extreme adversity, and of which we had certainly had our fair share, both during the commission and in recent months, but we accepted the dispersal as inevitable. I was further disappointed to find myself the only Gloucester survivor, detailed with a group of soldiers, to join an ‘Arbeit Kommando’ at a place called Trassicht.
We arrived at Marlag (M) on the 19th of June 1942, to find the new camp still under construction, with only half of the living accommodation completed, which gave rise to extremely cramped living conditions. However, building progress was rapid, and with considerable assistance from ourselves, within a few weeks all work had been terminated, living accommodation became more acceptable, whilst sporting, recreational, educational and entertainment activities were being developed with increasing momentum. An empty hut of considerable size had been commandeered as a theatre, and was soon converted into an entertainment centre of which we could be justly proud, and included a fair sized Band room.
At the partition of the old Marlag orchestra, I had written to the International Red Cross in Geneva, requesting assistance with the provision of instruments, music and equipment, and I was delighted to receive a large consignment of essential material, including a piano! At the end of August, I was then able to commence work in earnest; but in the late summer, a bombshell was dropped by the German authorities. They announced all prisoners who were not NCOs, were to be drafted forthwith to a camp in Silesia, Stalag VIIIB, at Lamsdorf, for further deployment to working parties, and Marlag (M) would from henceforth be designated an NCO’s camp! The Camp Leader approached the Germans for permission for me to remain in Marlag (M), and very surprisingly this was approved, on the condition I was employed in the camp in a working capacity, and thus came my official appointment as Bandmaster! with the non-substantive rank of ‘Captain of the Heads’ and Chief Bathroom Sweeper!!
I soon found my new working duties not too onerous or time consuming, occupying at the most, two or three hours each morning, leaving ample time for musical activities.
I worked hard with my gallant crew, day after day, night after night. They were all instrumentalists of below average ability, and in many ways it was a case of the blind leading the blind! I, as a ‘one badged musician’, was probably typical of many of my pre-war contemporaries. I had joined at the age of fourteen with no knowledge of music, and at fifteen and a half, after little more than twelve months musical training, found myself on my first ship with a violin in one hand and a cornet in the other, musically completely bewildered, wondering what it was all about! But in the eyes of my companions in Marlag, I was a RM Bandsman, therefore a paragon of musical virtue! I therefore had no alternative but to do the best I could, for them and myself; in teaching them I taught myself.
Our hard work began to show results, and by the end of 1942, I was able to provide a pit orchestra for the first pantomime produced in the camp. Thus began my introduction to arranging. Without the guidance of a teacher or a text-book, it was trial and error all the way, and I was in the fortunate or unfortunate position of being my only critic! The pantomime proved an outstanding success and gave me every encouragement for the future.
One of the theatrical producers, a keen singer, had received the libretto and piano score of HMS Pinafore and suggested we co-operate in its production. I concurred, but with no orchestral parts available, I had to devote many hours of hard work arranging the score. It subsequently proved very successful, and later we continued with Gondoliers, Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. In some ways it proved an advantage not having the proper orchestral parts, as I was able to adapt and juggle with the instrumentation, to accommodate the varying standards of technical ability of the members of the orchestra and the singers, especially those playing the female roles. I hated to think what Sit Arthur Sullivan would have thought, or Doyle Carte for that matter, leave alone the Performing Rights Society!
My efforts in producing a dance band received a boost, when through the ever fabulous Red Cross, I received a complete set of ‘Big Band’ instruments, straight from the manufacturers, The Martin Company of Elkhart, Indiana. Once the band had reached a reasonable standard, I was able to incorporate it into a series of shows I produced myself, which featured the orchestra on stage, and included a small group, ‘Four Hits and a Miss!’’ comprising piano accordian doubling trumpet, string bass doubling piano, guitar, myself on fiddle and an excellent singer, a leading seaman, who performed dressed as a female! This group probably became the most popular feature in the many variety shows produced in the camp.
Our general living standard was always at variance, and depended on the supply of food parcels with the occasional tobacco and clothing parcel from home. As long as these were in evidence, life proceeded as smoothly as could be expected, and as trouble free as the Germans permitted, but we could never be guaranteed a regular uninterrupted supply. Sometimes it would be weeks without them, and then, living on the basic German ration issue, we would know the full meaning of hunger with all its attendant miseries, and later, when the magical cry went round the camp, ‘Parcels have arrived!' the clouds would roll away, and our world would return to what we considered normality!
The food parcels contained packets of dried fruit, and these provided the basis for the production of homemade wine with which to occasionally lift our spirits. It was a simple process. The dried fruit would be boiled, sugar added, and then the mixture fermented by the addition of brewer’s yeast, purchased from the guards. Some potent concoctions were produced in this way, but as any home wine enthusiast is aware, after bottling it should be left to mature; but we couldn’t wait that long, and the wine was usually drunk within a few days of production, with sometimes unfortunate results! This problem was later overcome by the technical expertise of the ‘Tiffies’ in the camp, who in the winter of ’42 produced the first ‘still’, whereby the wine was distilled, and an even more potent and dangerous beverage, a mixture of alcohol, ethyl, methyl and fusel oil was produced! The fusel oil, highly poisonous, could be partly removed by straining the spirit through either charcoal or crushed biscuits. Later, the engineering experts perfected the Super Still, the Mark III, in which the mixture was double-distilled, and the final result, apart from being much stronger, would have most of the poisonous agents neutralised, or so we thought! This ‘Elixir’ was probably more potent than any liquor that first saw the light of day in a bath-tub in the USA during the days of prohibition!
A neighbour of mine, a Colour Sergeant, Royal Marines, was recognised as the distiller, ‘Par Excellence’ of Marlag (M). His formula was a closely guarded secret, but I did know that in the elaborate process in which he lavished the most painstaking and thorough dedication to detail, it was distilled a second time, thus becoming quadruple distilled! My first, (and last), sample of his ‘Snake Bite’, as he called his bottle of dynamite, was an experience I will never forget. As it entered the mouth, the sensation was akin to receiving a strong injection from a dentist, with immediate effect! The whole mouth, teeth and gums became instantly anaesthetised, and when it hit the stomach!? Fortunately I had been warned by my neighbour of the drastic effects of this stage of the experience, and had taken a firm grip on an immovable object, otherwise I would have taken off and floated around, like a modern-day astronaut in a state of weightlessness! This genius in the noble art of distilling assured me he rationed himself to two drams daily at ‘Tot Time’! At his funeral, two months later, I couldn’t help but think somewhat irreverently, whichever place he had departed to, once he had introduced them to his ‘Snake Bite’, it would never quite be the same again!
Both the orchestra and dance band made good progress during the first months of 1944, and two more large scale musicals were produced, Student Prince and Merrie England. The latter was produced under particularly difficult circumstances, as rehearsals coincided with a long period when the camp was without food parcels, and constant hunger did little to assist the efforts of both the cast and orchestra.
Spring, 1944, I directed my efforts to the formation of a military band, or rather marching band, which proved less difficult than anticipated, and although limited in its repertoire of marches, proved very popular at soccer matches and similar outdoor functions. During its preparation I encountered a difficulty with side drums. These were made in Marlag, but with no batter heads available, I had to settle for three-ply wood as a substitute. These served their function quite well, but it must be confessed that during the preliminary three beat rolls, the unsuspecting bystander could get the impression a joiner’s shop had taken to the streets!
I settled in quickly in my new surroundings as an Officer’s servant. The progression from the questionable respectability of a ‘Captain of the Heads’ to the prestigious position of a ‘Gentleman’s Gentleman’ was promotion indeed! And it proved a far more pleasant task than my previous ‘Non-Substantive occupation’, whilst permitting plenty of time for musical activities. I enjoyed playing under ‘Smuts’ Rogers again, and welcomed the change from the responsibilities of a ‘Bandmaster’?! to the less demanding role of a performer. I naturally missed my colleagues in Marlag (M), but was grateful to ‘Smuts’ and the officers for their efforts in arranging my transfer.
Escaping activities were much in evidence in the Officers' camp, and several successful attempts had been made through the medium of tunnels and other means, but unfortunately all concerned were recaptured. One of the most original and audacious escape stories of World War II took place at Marlag (O) in the spring of 1944, and after the War, provided material for both a stage play and film, ‘Albert’ RN.
The origin of ‘Albert’ is an interesting story. One of the officers had been a successful amateur ballroom dancer before the War, and had offered to present an exhibition of ballroom dancing in one of the camp’s variety shows. To assist with his performance, the theatre workshop produced a life-sized dummy with movable limbs, made with a wire frame and covered with ‘papier mache’. Thin strips of three-ply wood were attached beneath the feet of the dummy and extended to the soles of a pair of shoes worn by the dancer. Thus the movements of the dancer were followed exactly by the dummy. A glamorous gown worn by the very life-like partner completed the illusion, and the performance proved very entertaining.
Later, a member of the escape committee came across the dummy, discarded and forlorn in the ‘props’ room of the theatre, and the seed was sown for the birth of ‘Albert, RN’! The scene of the escape centred around a large bath-house sited outside the Merchant Navy camp, Milag, about a mile from Marlag (O) and it provided a hot shower each week for the prisoners of all three camps.
Groups of fifty to sixty men from each camp were marched to the bath-house after being carefully counted by the guards, and on completion of their ablutions, were again carefully counted before being marched back to their respective camps. The Officer selected to escape concealed his civilian clothes and other essential items beneath his greatcoat. The limbs, head and body of ‘Albert’ had been cleverly adapted to be quickly dismantled and re-assembled in a matter of seconds, and before leaving the camp, ‘Albert’ was dismantled and the various parts distributed and concealed among members of the bath party. In the bath-house, with the guards remaining outside, ‘Albert’ was quickly assembled and dressed in the escapee's uniform, complete with balaclava, whilst the officer concerned hid in the roof. Once darkness had fallen, he changed into civilian clothes, left the unguarded bath-house and took off on his bid for freedom. Meanwhile, on the completion of bathing as the prisoners were assembling outside, sufficient noise and commotion was created to distract the attention of the guards, whilst ‘Albert’ was escorted by two prisoners to the rear rank of the detachment, giving the impression he was unwell and required support. The most crucial moment was the counting by the guards, before the march back to camp. Amazingly, success was achieved over several weeks without the Germans having the slightest inkling of what was taking place under their very eyes! The escapees had to be ‘covered’ at ‘appel’ (roll call) in the camp, but this presented few difficulties.
The end to ‘Albert’s’ brief but brilliant career in the Royal Navy came one day during his assembly in the bath-house, when the disastrous discovery was made, the legs were missing! It was quickly decided to continue as previously and hope for the best! What followed was pure farce! Two guards counted rear rank, one in the normal manner, but for some reason, the other decided to count the feet! ‘Donner and Blitzen!’ Twenty heads, nineteen pairs of feet! It became hilarious! That rear rank was counted and re-counted by all the guards, including the Feldwebel! But try as they may, they could not improve on twenty heads and nineteen pairs of feet! But finally, ‘Albert’ was rumbled and all hell broke loose! The game was up, but ‘Albert’ had served his country well during his very short period of service! Of those who escaped through ‘Albert’s’ efforts, only one reached home, a Lt James. Unfortunately, the others were all re-captured.
One of these officers decided, instead of civilian clothing, to wear his RNVR uniform in his bid for freedom. Incredibly, he travelled openly across much of Germany in his uniform, and almost reached the Swiss border before being re-captured. His identity papers described him as a Bulgarian Naval Officer attached to the Kriegmarine! His name? I Buggeroff!
After the abortive attempt on the life of Hitler in July 1944, the OKW (The German Supreme Command), ordered that, as a mark of loyalty to the Fuehrer, the normal military salute would be replaced by the Nazi salute, forthwith. This had amusing repercussions in Marlag (O).
At appel, the first few mornings after this edict was introduced, the wags of the camp introduced their own interpretation of the Nazi salute! When the Commandant arrived at the parade ground, and as the Senior Feldwebel went forward to receive him and raised his arm in the Nazi salute, we would all shout in orchestrated chorus in our ‘kriegle Deutsche’ (POW German), ‘Wie hoch ist die scheisse heute, Feldwebel!’ (How high is the sh.. this morning, Seargant Major!) then, according to the angle of the Feldwebel’s arm, would come again from us ‘Never it can’t be that high!’ or ‘What, so low!’ or similar ribald remarks! The Germans were not amused!
In the New Year we received a welcome addition to the orchestra with the arrival from a camp in Belfort in France, of several civilian internees, including a Benedictine monk who was a former Principal Oboe in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Tommy Reilly, the well know Harmonica player and his accompanist, and a brilliant young Persian violinist, who had been studying at the Paris Conservatoire before being interned by the Germans. However, we only had the pleasure of their company in the orchestra for a few weeks before all entertainment was brought to a complete standstill.
At the end of February 1945, nearly two thousand RAF and Allied Aircrew from the notorious Stalag Luft III camp at Sagen in Eastern Germany, arrived at Marlag. They had been moved out of their camp in January and marched by the Germans in below freezing temperatures, enduring appalling hardships, before arriving at Marlag, several weeks later. To provide room for them, the whole of the personnel of Marlag (M) were moved into the Officers’ camp, where all available space, including the theatre, was utilised for accommodation, bringing an end to all entertainment activity.
During this period of upheaval, with almost double the number of prisoners in the camps, to our great surprise and delight, we received a large consignment of food parcels, the first for several weeks. They could not have come at a better time, especially in view of future events, but how they managed to reach the camp through the chaos of Europe’s transport system, in those last few weeks of the War, was a mystery!
At the end of March 1945, we learned from the BBC radio reports on our clandistine camp radio, that our forces were closing in on Bremen, less than thirty kilometres to the west of the camp, and soon we could hear the sound of gunfire, increasing in intensity, which created an atmosphere of excitement and expectancy. This reached a climax on the morning of the 2nd of April, when the Commandant, ‘cleared lower deck’, and announced he had received orders to depart later that day with most of his guards, leaving a small detachment to hand over the camp to our forces!
We were jubilant! And amid scenes of great rejoicing, we waited to welcome our liberators; but our celebrations turned to bewilderment and deep consternation when that afternoon, a detachment of over one hundred SS type ‘Feld Polizie’, stormed into the camp, ordered us to pack whatever we could carry, and be ready to leave within one hour!
‘Procrastinate! Procrastinate!’ was the message from the Senior British Naval Officer. We most certainly agreed with his sentiments, but it is difficult to be dilatory when ugly looking customers are prodding you with SMGs and screaming, ‘Heraus! Heraus!’ but procrastinate we did, and it was late evening before we left the camp, after being issued with whatever Red Cross food we could carry.
We headed out of Marlag in an easterly direction, the Air Force POWs in the lead, and even Hitler’s supermen had problems marshalling and guarding such a motley collection of irascible and ‘bolshie’ POWs, who must have numbered well over three thousand! We had no idea where we were going, and we had a suspicion the Germans didn’t know either! Our only hope lay in our forces to the west overtaking us. Just after midnight, we halted and rested until dawn when we set off to face a day we would never forget!
The first planes were sighted around 1000 hours. We took little notice; we knew they must be ‘friendly’, and even when they dived towards us and we recognised the RAF markings, we were perplexed rather than perturbed. With the Red Cross insignia prominently displayed the length and breadth of the column, we were confident of being recognised as POWs; then the rockets and cannon shell came screaming in!
I was fortunate to be alongside a shallow ditch into which I dived, thinking, “this can’t be real! My God, they’re RAF planes!” and in the ensuing nightmare of noise, chaos and screaming, I looked up briefly to see the Senior British Naval Officer, a Destroyer Commander, walking calmly down the middle of the road, ordering everyone to disperse to the fields on either side! I needed no second bidding, and joined my colleagues in a mad scramble away from the road.
After the planes had disappeared, we staggered apprehensively back to the shambles of the road and saw the tragic consequences. The SBNO who had displayed such courage in ordering our dispersal, was lying dying in the road, and among other casualties, were three survivors from the AMC ‘Rawwalpindi’, sunk in 1939! To have been captive nearly six years and then to be killed at the very end of the war, and by the RAF! It was more than tragic! Why then had this dreadful thing happened? Surely they could have seen we were POWs? But our bitterness and anger was reserved for the Germans, for having evacuated us from the comparative safety of the camp.
After the dead and wounded had been disposed of at the nearest hospital, we continued our journey, which had now become a nightmare, as we kept nervously searching the sky for signs of further activity. We were not to be disappointed. Three more attacks occurred that day, causing further casualties, and we then spent a sleepless night hiding in a large wood, scared stiff, as planes flew over at intervals, dropping flares, apparently searching for the ‘enemy’! Early in the morning, the new SBNO addressed all hands, and said, in view of the serious situation which prevailed, he was prepared to offer the Germans our parole, in return for the following: we should be allowed to conceal ourselves as best we could during the daylight hours, and march only at night. We all agreed with him. There was no alternative. The Germans concurred with the plan, and we thus continued our way, hiding as best we could in woods, farm buildings and even villages during the day, and travelling only after dark.
There was still no knowledge of where our final destination was likely to be, although a rumour did circulate that Hitler was intending making a last stand in the Bavarian Alps, and we were being taken there as hostages! The direction of our journey soon put paid to that story! After ten more agonising days, ever fearful of further attention by the RAF, we reached the River Elbe, north of Hamburg, and the following day, ferries shuttled us across to the other side of the river. Once across the Elbe, there was a noticeable easing of tension, and we reverted to travelling by day. Ten days later, on the 28th April, we came to our journey’s end, the City of Lubeck on the Baltic, four momentous weeks after leaving Marlag! Our temporary home was an Army barracks on a hill overlooking the City, and we settled in, only too conscious our long ordeal would soon be over.
We were awoken that first night, by the noise of what at first sounded like an air-raid, quite a distance away, but we were soon aware that it was quite a different sound to that we had experienced at Marlag, lying at night listening to the raids on Hamburg and Bremen. Before long we recognised it for what it was; an artillery barrage! It was the final massive artillery barrage of World War II preparing the way for our forces crossing the last water barrier in N W Europe, the River Elbe at Laurenburg!
The next two days, we were on tenterhooks, and expectancy and excitement mounted as we waited for our liberation! On the 1st of May, we heard the news of Hitler’s death and early the following morning from our elevated position overlooking Lubeck, we soon observed thick smoke rising in the outer suburbs accompanied by the sound of gunfire. By noon the sound had subsided and a strange silence settled over Lubeck, soon to be broken by the roar of engines as below us, along the main road that ringed the city, came the spearhead of the 11th Armoured Division!
It was a moment we would never forget, and even today, forty years on, it remains as vivid in my memory as yesterday.
An hour or so later, with all the excitement and joy of liberation echoing around the barracks, a special unit of the 11th Armoured Division, whose task was dealing with released POWs, entered the barracks to a tumultuous welcome, and almost immediately began their laborious but nevertheless very important task of official registration of all the many POWs in the barracks.
It took two agonisingly slow days before they completed their task and on the 5th of May we left Lubeck, travelling by convoy for the headquarters of the 21st Army Group at Luneburg where, after still further frustrating delays, we finally flew out of Germany in Lancaster Bombers to an airfield in Buckinghamshire, landing on the 8th of May, V E Day!
It had been six years and three months since ‘Gloucester’ had sailed from Plymouth, of what proved to be probably the most momentous years in the lives of those who were fortunate to return. It had been a long commission!
After further administrative formalities at the airfield, we left by convoy for Waterloo Station. As we passed through the country villages in the early evening, the V E Day celebrations were in full swing, and the closer to London the bigger and more rapturous they became. It was a very emotional experience for all of us, and we longed to join in with them as we negotiated the huge crowds in the city on our way to Waterloo, where a special train was waiting to take us to Portsmouth, Naval ratings to Havant and Royal Marines to Eastney Barracks. The following morning after receiving a basic kit and being paid, we were sent on leave.
On the 1st August, 1945, at the end of three months' leave and four years' back pay! I arrived in the early evening at the RNSM, then located in two hotels on the seafront at Scarborough. My first visit the following morning was to the Paymaster, who gave me the good news that I still had a healthy credit balance. He also showed me an AFO (DCI) just published, which stated that former POWs were entitled to a further twenty-eight days' leave! With a handsome casual payment in my pocket and an application for leave in my hand, I headed for the Company Office. The CSM of that era, not particularly noted for his cheerfulness and good humour, looked up as I entered, and said, “Who are you?” I gave him my name and explained I had just returned from leave. “If you’re a Musician, what are you doing in khaki battledress?” he shouted, but before I could explain, he noticed the chit in my hand. “What have you got there?” I told him an application for twenty-eight days leave. He exploded, “What?! You tell me you have just returned from leave, and you have the audacity to apply for more leave?! Don’t you realise there’s a war still on?!” I was back!
Readers will be interested to know that Ken MacDonald’s diary and collection of photographs are on permanent display in the Royal Marines Museum, Eastney, Southsea, Hampshire.
Ken died on the 23rd February 2006. He was the only Royal Marine Bandsman to be held as a German prisoner of war. In January 2007 the current HMS Gloucester scattered his ashes over the wreck of the WW2 HMS Gloucester, off the coast of Crete, where he now rests with his former band comrades. His legacy remains an inspiration to us all. Ed.