William Redman—Captivity, 1941–45

William Redman was one of 20 men recorded in Robert Dickinson’s Address List in his journal, “Servigliano Calling.”

To date we have learned more about three of these fellows: Fred Druce, Jack Davies, and now William Redman.

In February, Jo Millard of Littlehampton (Sussex, England) wrote, “I have been researching my family tree, and I always knew my Mother’s brother was a prisoner of war in Italy but never knew where, as he very rarely talked about those days.

“Just by chance I stumbled onto your site and saw his name and address. So I now have a little bit more of the puzzle that is my family.”

Two months later, Jo sent her uncle’s story, which she found archived at the local government records office.

William’s POW Story

In due course, I joined up and very soon found myself in the Middle East, where I met up with Sef [William’s younger brother] in Cairo. After a short spell in the Artillery base, which was at Heliopolis—the biblical “City of the Sun”—I got posted to a unit somewhere up the desert. I was miles away from anywhere and after a while our captain warned us to be ready to move “up to the wire,” as the sappers would be cutting the wire for us to go into Libya.

The wire was a monstrous affair, quite eight feet high, four feet at the base, and tapered up until it finished at two feet at the top. It was one mass of barbed wire. I met up with a chap who had been with the Long Range Desert Group. He came with us to the quarry in Germany [the quarry—described later—was a work camp in Grimma, Germany]. He told me that they ranged all over Libya and as far as he knew the fence was all around the country.

We went through the cutting and turned south. There, in the vast uninhabited interior, we spent our time on maneuvers, getting ready for “the big one.” We had several skirmishes with the Germans and Italians whilst we prowled around there. Not too bad. I cannot remember if we lost any men. Then one day we were ordered to pack and go north to take up our positions for attacking the Germans, who were dug in around Tobruck. It was in November 1941. We opened up at about 10,000 yards according to our No.1, who timed another gun’s shell explosion. It was the commencement of the Battle of Sidi Rezegh. The 6th Tanks came through our guns, and their commanders, with their heads out of the turrets, waved gaily to us as they rolled on towards the enemy.

Many years afterwards I met with one of them who remembered the occasion well. He was Major-General H. Liardet, our chairman of governors at Rosemead School. [William worked as handyman at the school in Littlehampton before he retired.] He was a major at that time. We had many talks about the battle when he came to the school. However, I got roped in on, I think, the 23rd November 1941, and so commenced my stay as a POW.

I spent Christmas Day in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Brindisi [in southern Italy] under a tent of Italian ground sheets. There was a latrine trench dug across the field in heavy clay. The weather was raining day and night, so nothing drained away, and going over to the trench we found one morning two Scots guardsmen drowned, face down, in the mire. It transpired that they were suffering from dysentery and were too weak to use the trench and fell in.

After Christmas, about 150 of us were taken to the railhead and went north by train to a place called Servigliano, near Pescara, on the Adriatic coast. It was in a mountainous district and I well remember the bells of a nearby church ringing in the New Year of 1942 as we went through the gates.

It was to be another three years and five months before I tasted freedom again. The camp was an old Italian cavalry barracks, and it consisted of about 10 buildings, each holding 140 men. We had the first one. It was a terrible winter, deep snow all January followed by heavy frosts during February. I did not take my clothes off from before I was “in the bag” to when the weather broke in early March. I had not washed or shaved, as there was no water available—only for the cookhouse.

Then, when in March the weather became milder, the Italians brought in two portable baths, similar to the port-a-bins now used on building sites, these baths were fitted with long mirrors. When I saw myself in the mirror I was aghast. I did not recognize my own body for I was covered from head to foot with fish-like scales of dirt. The shower removed most of the dirt. We only had a short while under the shower.

After that, I used to get up early and go into the washhouse with two Rhodesian fellows, one of whom had a canvas water bucket, which we filled and poured over our heads. After a few days the dirt was all cleaned off. I could not shave, although I had two or three new razorblades given to me by a South African in exchange for fags (if you had fags—in all the camps I was in—you were “in the money”). Shortly after I was cleaned up, a chap in my battery came into the camp who had a razor—a Gillette—which was in two parts in a little case. This I borrowed and after a struggle shaved off my beard. I grew two more after that one, but not from choice.

The weather came better after mid-March and we all appreciated it. I received my first letter in March. It was from Eve. In it she told me that Father was in St. Richards hospital at Chichester. He had been taken in for a strangulated hernia operation but was recovering well. I had letters from Kate, Auntie Waites, and Flo, all of which gave me satisfaction because of their style of writing. I spent many happy hours deciphering them. [Kate and Eve were William’s older sisters.]

There was one amusing incident—the chap who slept next to me was a Scots guardsman from whom I bought his letter cards for the usual fags. He told me that he was—in civvy street—a man servant in a big house in Murreyfield, quite a nice bloke for a Scotsman. Well I went to the toilet early one morning and there he was raking about one of the holes with a stick. He said he rushed out to be sick and forgot to take his top plate out and it had shot down into the cesspit.

However, he reported his loss to the camp leader and in the camp came a bullock drawing a cart with a big tank on it, and the Italian who brought it spent most of the day emptying the pit surrounded by POWs who gave a big cheer each time he drew a bucketful out. He never found Scotty’s teeth. So camp life was not all gloom and doom.

Christmas came again, much better than 1941. We had received Red Cross parcels—what a blessing they were. Shortly after, early in the new year, the occupants of huts 1 and 2 were moved out, so that was the last time I saw Campo Concentramento 59 P.G. di Servigliano. It was the first week in January 1943 when we entrained and moved off. We went north and finished up in Campo 53, close to Ascoli, still on the Adriatic coast.

It was a big place, one of Mussolini’s dreams. It had been built as a sugar refinery to refine sugar from the sugar beet. It had never been used as such. There were about six large buildings and many smaller sheds and garages, as well as a large open space. There were about 6,000 POWs in the place already and our crowd moved into the last building, which had all new bunks and a big heap of straw-and-string mattresses to be filled with straw.

After about three weeks I was waiting in my bunk for my day’s rations when I heard a voice say, “Is there a chap named Redman in this hut?” Yes over here. This fellow came around, stood in front of me. I did not recognize him. He said, in a wavering voice, “don’t you know me?” It was Bill Searle, an old friend from our infant school days.

That morning I received a letter from Mother to which she said that her baker’s brother was in my camp. Who was her baker? By the same mail Bill had a letter from his wife saying that I was in his camp. The baker was his elder brother, Bob. Bill had been a POW since June 1942. He was in a terrible state. Dressed in rags, as were many others who came into our hut seeking our friends. I had had one or two parcels from Grace [William’s wife] during 1942, so I fixed him up with several items of clothing, etc.

When a few days passed by Bill’s lice, that had left him for my clean straw, made themselves felt on me, so I had to go to the delousing hut to be treated.

Sometime in February or March, Bill bought Arch Peacock around to me. He is a Littlehampton man who lived in Wick, and he had just arrived in 53 and was in Bill’s hut. I did not know him, but I knew of his older brother Perce.

Arch and I remained together until we went to Mulberg. Bill had been sent to a working camp in Italy some time earlier.

On the 3rd or 4th September 1943 we found, on getting up, that the Italian guards had all vanished from the camp. Well, what a to-do. We learned that the Ities had thrown in the towel. We all poured through the main gate to enjoy our sudden freedom. It did not last long. The north was occupied by the Germans, while the south was full of Germans fleeing north to escape from the British and Americans, so we were roped in after a few days of freedom. We were put on a train, in cattle trucks, for the long journey to Germany. On all of my train journeys on the continent, why did the trucks have square wheels?

After a long tedious journey we finally arrived at Stalag IVB Mulberg, which was somewhere in the centre of Germany. It was a very vast place, covered many acres, with countless huts and other buildings and, I think, a station where the trains came in.

I understood it was where the Jews were stationed in the big round up of 1933. There I left my friend Will Nagle, with whom I had mucked in since I was at Benghazi. I met up with him there. He had been in the bag since June 1941 from a do with the German tanks. He was a regular with the 4th Tank Regiment—a very nice bloke. He had had a rough time in the Jerrys’ hands and was in a poor state. We learned in Stalag IVB that people of the rank of corporal and upwards were exempt from work camps in Germany and, as he was a corporal, he decided that he had enough of working for the Jerrys and would stay in the Stalag. So I went on my travels again in the company of all strangers.

We went eastwards and finished up at Grimma. There we disembarked from the cattle trucks (with the square wheels) and marched some eight miles or so, it was dark when we arrived at the quarry. We went in a shed that was fitted up with three bunk beds. I grabbed a top one and was soon asleep. In the morning we went outside. We were in a compound and should see old women pulling loaded trucks about, and our fellows gave the Jerrys the bird but we soon found out that this was normal in Germany—and, indeed, for all the countries of Europe—to have the women doing this type of work. We started work on I think the 3rd October.

I was in the mill, upstairs where the trucks came up from the quarry filled with stone that was tipped into the mill for crushing. These trucks ran on rails and were braked by a man with a timber brake rod, a crude affair. Well the “brake man” was a Swiss civilian—there was number of them in the quarry—and like all of the Swiss were creepers to a man. Scared of the Germans. This “brake man’” tried to cadge fags off me, I told him where to go in no uncertain words.

We had just commenced work on 10th October at 7 a.m. when my companion, a fellow POW, shouted a warning to me. Too late—the full truck was on me. It caught my right leg between two trucks. The Swiss collaborator deliberately allowed his truck to come into the unloading bay without being checked. Well, after the first-aid man in the quarry had fixed me up, I had to wait until a little car came. I was put in the back and off I went to find a hospital. After running around for hours we arrived at a lazarette in Leipzig. [A lazarette or lazaretto is a military or prison hospital.]

I understood it had been a chocolate factory in peacetime but had been turned into a hospital for POWs for the duration. I was taken to the top floor and dumped onto a bunk. Here I stayed until 22nd December 1943. I was the only Englishman there. All the others were French, Russians, Serbs, and Poles. Luckily at that time my French was not too bad.

I will not relate my time in hospital as the nasty events have faded from my memory now, but one has remained—a humorous one. After I had been there several weeks and got used to my crutches, I decided to go down to the outside and have a look around. I found myself in a large yard and in front of me was a range of lavatories, the first I had seen since I got off the ship. I went inside of one and sat down—it was ecstasy. While I was there the air raid alarm went off and my daydream was shattered. I stayed there until the all-clear went and then I struggled back to the ward.

I will not bother to relate the life we spent. As I have said before, the nasty things have faded from my memory now, but another funny episode will always remain. I was working out of the quarry on a farmhouse about three or four miles away. It had been bombed and we had to clear it up. The village where it was reminded me of Toddington [a hamlet near LIttlehampton]. Well, as we approached the quarry after work, we saw a little crowd of POWs waiting at the gate. As we arrived at the gate I was told there was a fag parcel for me. There had not been any fags in the camp for several weeks. This crowd who were waiting followed me to the German’s office to collect my parcel. It came from the boys of Hillyards, the boat builders, and contained 200 woodbines and 200 gold flake cigarettes—what a box of treasures, to be sure.

Well, the gang of fellow POWs followed me back to my bunk and I felt like a lady dog being followed by a crowd of amorous boy dogs. However, I got our camp leader, Stan Kirwin, to go around to all the chaps and give them a fag each—that saved the day.

Our life carried on until about the second week in April 1945, when we heard a commotion in the early hours of the morning, a lot of bangs a short way away. The guards were elderly men who were frightened, as it was the Russians coming. They dropped their rifles and left the camp with us for protection. After wandering around for some three weeks I, with my mate, arrived at an airfield near Magdeburg.

We were taken there by some Americans who had overtaken us on the road. It was completely devoid of any Germans, full of POWs of all types. It was there—whilst I had a cup of coffee and a doughnut (the first time I had had a doughnut like a life jacket) at an American mobile canteen—that I heard Winston Churchill declare that the war in Europe was over. The canteen was manned by American girls—their equivalent to our wartime A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service].

We stayed on the airfield for a few days, and then the British men were sorted into groups of about 20. We were off to Brussels, the first part of our journey home.