Uncle Harry was one of the strongest influences in my childhood. He was actually my great uncle (Tom’s brother and Mum’s uncle). He was born on 24 October 1905 and died on 16 November 1991. Harry was quietly spoken and rather serious but had a sense of humor.
When I was small, Nan used to picked me up from school and I would wait at her flat for Mum to come and collect me after work. I have clear memories of Harry (and my Uncle Tom) often dropping by to visit Nan while I waited for Mum. Harry was especially interested in my academic progress and I still have books he gave me. I believe it was he who introduced me to Dickens and Trollope at a young age, and I still enjoy their works. He was an avid reader, something he shared with Tom. With hindsight, it amazes me how articulate they were despite having had such little formal education.
Harry was called up at the start of World War 2 (because of the age difference, Tom served in World War 1 and several of his brothers in the Second World War). He was a gunner in the Royal Artillery (305th L.E.E. Searchlight Battery) and ended up serving in the Mediterranean.
He sent the following card home for Christmas in 1940.
Harry wrote in the card: “My love and greetings to all of you and may more peaceful happier days be very, very near.”
There is also a quote from Dickens: “Many happy years, unbroken friendships and cheerful recollections.”
I have a letter that Tom wrote to him, dated Wednesday, 17 June 1942.
Tom wrote: “Clear the Mediterranean, Harry. At the moment it looks as if Rommel is not going to allow that to happen, not awhile anyway. He seems a wise owl but no doubt he will come unstuck shortly. That new gun he has got has certainly helped him. Still, the battle has only been on a week so our lads still can paste him. It must be murder in those tanks in this weather. They are bad enough wobbling along the roads. We are all hoping that you can manage to stay in your present abode or keep to your original place of residence since your landing for I should not like to see you on the move towards Libya. No doubt there will be plenty of reserves sent there if we have received a lot of casualties for the wireless has given it out about the losses being heavy on both sides. “Who stopped General Wavell over a year ago from going on further than Benghazi?” The question was asked in Parliament a few weeks ago. None of this would have been on now. Still, we shall keep blundering our way through, I suppose… [Brother] Len is sending you some books today. You must have quite a library out in your part now… I wonder how long it will be before you get your other pip [promotion to rank of ?] … If you get around Sidi Beach [in Thessalonika, northern Greece, close to where Tom fought in WWI] or Alex[andria, Egypt], have a pint down to me.”
Four days after Tom wrote the letter, Rommel captured Tobruk, a strategically important port in Libya that the British had captured from the Germans in January 1941. Harry was taken prisoner around that time and spent the next nearly three years as a POW.
In another letter, dated 8 July, (Grandad) Tom wrote to (Uncle) Tom [who served in the Air Force and was stationed in Khartoum] that:
“We had some bad news this morning. Poor old Harry is reported missing. My one hope is that he is a prisoner of war, which I am pretty confident that he is… The date Harry is reported as missing from is 21st June… the same day as Tobruk fell or surrendered. There were 25000 of our boys taken then, so I think it is a pretty safe bet that Harry was amongst them. Today we have had two letters from Harry, one dated the 8th May and another the 10th May. In one he states he is up the field and looking forward to his leave. Poor chap, he has got it.
The remarkable thing is this. The last letter received by air mail from Harry, which Gran had last week, was dated the 8th June. Harry was posted as missing on the 21st June and today is only the 8th July, a month to the day of Harry last writing. It looks very much to me as if Harry was sent up for the defense of Tobruk. It comes into line with Harry’s capture, if capture it is.
If we can get another letter from Harry, posted after the 21st June, we shall have to think of something after Tobruk. .. I wish one of us had been with him. Perhaps his brother-in-law, who is in the same battalion, has got away and will send a telegram.”
Two days later, Tom wrote again:
“Since writing the last letter, we have heard that Harry’s brother-in-law is also missing. We also had two more letters from Harry saying he had moved up the line with the South Africans [2nd Infantry Division, also captured at Tobruk].”
From what I have read on the Internet, Harry would have been shipped to Italy and spent some time in a camp in the north of the country. When Italy surrendered, he appears to have been transferred to a stalag in Lower Saxony.
On the Internet, I found the extremely interesting recollections of another soldier, Peter Walker (go here). He seems to have been in the same camps as Harry. I now quote from his fascinating story:
“One night a fleet of ambulances turned up outside the camp and we were on the move again, eight to an ambulance, with what hand luggage we could pack in the time allowed… [At a] French railway station on the Franco-Italian border…we got on the train that was to take us to sunny Italy. We went through Turin, Alessandria, to Modena and arrived at the little town of Carpi in the Po Valley. From there we marched to our next home for nine months. This was the Italian POW camp – Campo Concentramento di Prigionieri di Guerra No. 73.
The camp was large – capable of holding about 6,000 prisoners – and quite new. Constructed for prisoners taken at Tobruk and El Adem in the summer of 1942, it held British, Australian and South African troops.
The food from the Italians was marginally better than what we had received in France and consisted of an artificial coffee drink with a small baguette type loaf of maize bread first thing in the morning, followed by about a pint of rather watery minestrone soup at midday and again in the evening the same soup. Red Cross parcels were only one between two men per week. As a result of the shortage of solid food the camp was busy at night with people tripping to the latrines.
In Hut 23 the main way of passing time was in conversation, reading when one was lucky enough to get hold of a book, and a pastime that was new to us ex-internees, cracking lice between two thumb nails.
In the spring we played a very vigorous form of touch rugby. The soccer players in the camp thought that we were mad and, as we played all through the summer, so did the Italian guards. We enjoyed it though. The hut 23 ‘Wasps’ playing in army vests, dyed yellow with a stripe of black round the middle, became the Champions of Settore 1.
After the invasion of Sicily and the Allied assault on Italy, the prisoners expected a backlash from the Italians, though none came. After the capitulation of Italy on the 8th of September 1943, the camp inmates received orders to stay and await liberation by Allied forces, but the day after the Italian guards had fled, the camp was surrounded by German armoured cars.
We were ordered to pack up what we could carry and were then marched to the nearest railway siding where awaiting engines stood… We were ordered into these – about 50 men to a truck with a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese per man. As soon as the train was loaded it set off on its journey to Germany.
Peter was taken to Stalag IV ‘F’ at Hartmannsdorf near Chemnitz. It was a huge camp with several thousand prisoners of different nationalities. The camp seemed unprepared for new arrivals and they were penned in a compound until the next day.
The next morning the Germans began processing us in groups of a hundred. We had our heads shaved… the next stage was delousing and bathing, where we stripped and our clothes went through a stoving machine to kill any lice, whilst we were painted with delousing ointment in all our private places and passed forward into the shower. Here we had a soapless shower and dried ourselves as best we could on the bits of cloth which the Germans provided. We were then reunited with our clothes and possessions, got dressed and the processing continued.
Having noted our army number the Germans then gave us our German Prisoner of War number. I now became No. 247892. It seems such a little thing but after the first few days as a POW had passed I think that this was one of the most depressing things to have happened. I no longer felt to be a British soldier but rather a German POW.
After having been given our numbers we were next finger-printed and photographed with our numbers in front of us. When the processing was complete we were admitted to the British prisoners’ compound and allotted a hut.
Soon after their arrival, Red Cross parcels began to arrive weekly and morale in the camp improved. The inmates talked about their wartime experiences and their plans for the future and in the Spring of 1944, some brass musical instruments arrived and a small band was established. The evening concerts became very popular.
These concerts soon caught the attention of the German civilians taking their evening strolls and their numbers soon attracted the attention of the German authorities. The guards were ordered to make us put blankets up on the barbed wire, the sight of British POWs enjoying themselves was not good for the German morale, or so they thought. D-Day gave a big boost to our morale which had already started rising with the turn of the tide and the increasing severity of the bombing of German cities, even the Polish slaves looked happier in their misery.
As the early months of 1945 passed, the daylight sky on many days was filled with the lace like tracery of the condensation trails of American planes on their daylight raids. This was a beautiful sight, both visually and from the point of view of morale, tinged with a great sadness when one of these spearheads burst into silver fire and started twisting downwards to earth like a falling leaf. Sometimes little toy-like parachutes could be seen floating down in the distance but other times there was just a flash and then nothing.
With the increased air-raids the prisoners were made to dig trenches. On one occasion a bomb was dropped about half a mile from the camp, after a raid on Dresden, but no-one was harmed. By the end of February the bombing of transport facilities affected the delivery of mail and parcels. On the 21st of April, the Americans arrived.
There were scenes of wild rejoicing as an American tank and two jeeps came driving up the valley to the camp gates, and the odd tear as their crews were greeted, – five years had been a long time. Our two guards had now disappeared into the countryside with our blessing, as they had not been so bad on the whole.
The Americans provided K rations and gave orders for them to remain and keep order between the foreign and slave workers.
On the 25th of April the Americans told us to commandeer what transport we could and then make our way to Gera, where we could be picked up by army trucks and taken to Erfurt to be flown from there as soon as an aircraft was available. The next morning the convoy set off, several vehicles crammed with very happy British soldiers. Reaching Gera by early evening after a very pleasant drive in warm, spring weather we were billeted in private houses for the night. What a luxury it was to sleep in a proper bed after all these years – even if it was a rather peculiar German bed.
The next morning we climbed up into big, three-ton, American trucks driven by the Transport Corps, who drove long hours on what was known as the ‘Red Ball highway’, a route reaching back to the stores depots in France. On this highway they had complete right of way but were now becoming extremely tired. We were bowling along quite nicely towards Erfurt when, all of a sudden, the truck started to lean to the right and after a few moments the lean became more and more pronounced until eventually the truck came to a halt, remarkably gently, on its side with everybody inside all of a jumble. The driver had dropped asleep at the wheel but fortunately the roadside ditch was wide but not very deep and our descent was very gradual. The driver was woken by the accident and we soon managed to get the truck back on the road and resumed our journey.
They arrived at Erfurt in the late afternoon of the 26th of April and a nominal roll was taken. The next morning they were flown to Brussels and then to England.”
This very vivid account gives a good idea of what life must have been like for Harry as a POW. This is a letter he wrote from Germany, dated 7 March 1944.
As mentioned by Peter Walker, Stalag IV F was located in Hartmannsdorf, near Chemnitz and the Czech border.
Long before there was email, there was V Mail (read about it here). It looked like what I used as a teenager to write letters from Spain (an international something-or-other). You wrote the text on one side, the address on the other, and then folded and sealed it. The following picture is of a V mail that Harry sent to his sister Betty from France after he was released. It is dated 23 April 1945 (the date coincides with Peter Walker’s mention of the Americans arriving at the camp on 21 April). Harry had been overseas for 4-5 years and his mother had died while he was a POW.
The text reads:
Am now released and staying temporarily in an American reception centre in France. Have been released eight days and during that period have travelled back from Germany, staying at various places. I hope to be on leave within seven to ten days but will send you more information from the reception centre in England. I have written to Mr. Bond who will advise Kathleen [his wife]. The Americans are treating us wonderfully well and give us everyhting we need. I am quite fit and well and hope you and all the family are the same. Please inform Len and Tom.