A Family Memory -

Dad’s sister Pixie in the WRAF


Some of the Italian guards were bad, stealing the prisoners' food, and using a bayonet to take 'medical samples'. Dad required stitching in hospital on his return to England, and the sight of Italian POWs near his home in Westcliff made him very angry. By contrast, he was well treated in the German naval POW camp at Marlag Nord.

Many POWs tried to escape when the Italians surrendered in Sep 1943, some with help from the Italian guards. Dad was among them and after being recaptured was sent to Germany. At Marlag he learned that his great friend from school days, Geoff Hume (RAF Spitfire pilot), had been shot down and killed, and he determined to avenge him. He had only been at Marlag for a few months, and others had priority for the forged documents and money from the escape committee. Nevertheless, he did get some train tickets and succeeded in reaching the station with his friend, Denis Kelleher. Then Fate intervened. They couldn't find the tickets, and hurried out of the station. Later they heard that other escaped prisoners, on the train they missed, had been discovered. Walking and hitchhiking to Bremen, and pretending to be Dutch, they got food from young German women - who hadn't seen any young men for a while.

At Bremen they secretly climbed aboard a ship heading for Sweden and hid in the bilge water while Germans searched around with dogs. When the ship had left harbour they made themselves known to the ship's Captain, who was very worried about having them on board. A ballot was conducted of the crew, who agreed by majority to take them to Sweden.

In Sweden they might still have been returned to Germany or else detained for the rest of the war, except that Dad was able to contact an old school friend, an influential Swedish Count, who arranged for them to be flown to Scotland. As they were travelling down to London by train, someone who saw their civilian clothes and assumed they were shirking military service, handed them a white feather!

The Admiralty required Dad and Denis to stay in London for debriefing on what they had learned about Germany during their escape. One night Dad left his hotel during an air raid to help rescuers, and returned to find a bomb had fallen on it. Everyone inside was killed; and the next day his family was told he was dead.

When Dad returned he was, for a while, a totally different person. He went 'berserk' and took about a year to recover. Even as a child he hated to be confined, and would slip out of the bedroom window when his father kept him indoors. The POW experience must have affected him severely, even without the abuse. I remember a suppertime conversation when I asked Dad if he thought he might have benefited from counselling after his escape. I wondered if he would be dismissive, but he said 'Yes' without hesitation. Mum was very surprised.

[These memories draw on stories heard long ago, and so there must be things missed and perhaps mistaken. Pixie joined the WRAF, where her mathematical ability took her to the new position of Cine Gun Assessor, sometimes going up in the planes. In the early days of the war, pilots could only shoot down planes from behind, as there was so little information on where to aim the guns from other angles.]

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