Today is Easter Sunday, and I can’t think of a better day to add a post on Niel Nye, who was a chaplain in Camp 59, to this site.
On a deep, personal level, Niel felt Easter represented hope and renewal. As a Royal Air Force chaplain, it was that spirit that he sought to impart year-around to soldiers fighting in France and North Africa, and to the interned POWs of P.G. 59.
I’ve mentioned him on this site before.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from David Osborn, who wrote, “I was researching family history for a friend of mine (Christopher Nye) when I came across this page which amazingly contains a letter, handwritten by his father Niel Nye:
When David contacted me he had already shared the page with Chris, and he told me Chris “was absolutely delighted to read the letter, and he recognised his father’s handwriting instantly. He is extremely grateful to Ms. Stewart that she shared the letter with you—it is a priceless piece of his family history that he would otherwise never have known existed.”
David put me in touch with Chris, and Chris and I exchanged a number of emails:
“My dad was a remarkable man who had a remarkable war.” Chris wrote. “After he escaped from P.G. 59, he had an exciting four months travelling south to meet the American forces as they drove north. He had several near misses and I recall him telling me of his adventures when I was about six, sitting in a bath that became colder and colder (but I didn’t notice, as I was so wrapped up with his story!!). When he got back to the UK, his adventures continued: he was appointed chaplain to Bomber Command, then went across to Europe a few days after D-Day. He was one of the first British officers to relieve Belsen concentration camp and, after the German surrender, set up a leadership training college in Hamburg to help with the German reconstruction. When he finally returned to England, he was appointed as vicar in three different parishes (Clapham, Morden, and Maidstone), and then joined the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff as diocesan missionary. He was finally appointed as Archdeacon of Maidstone. He retired in the 1980s and died in 2003. His obituary in the London Times covered half a page!
“I will look out his biography which is hand typed (so I can’t easily send it electronically) and will post you a paper copy, if you like. It’s not brilliantly written (to quote your docs, he was never that academic!!) but it covers the basics of an interesting life.”
I was thrilled to receive the manuscript in the mail about a week later. It’s a fascinating, candid, frequently intimate account of his experiences—spiced throughout with rich humor. From his first memories of childhood in Bromley (in Greater London, England) to a very active retirement after leaving his position as Archdeacon of Maidstone, I was captivated by the tale!
Today I’m sharing the several chapters that cover Niel’s wartime years.
What I’d know until now about Niel had largely been though what historian Giuseppe Millozzi had written about him in his dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, and through The Memoirs of J. H. Derek Millar, published by Casa della Memoria in 2008. (See the post mentioned above for details.)
As an officer and clergyman, Niel played a key role in the life of the camp.
Niel was born Nathaniel Kemp Nye. However, he disliked the name Nathaniel and always went by “Niel.” He and Budge had three children—David, Mary, and Chris.
Niel died in 2003, at the age of 88.
Here is his World War II story:
Before being ordained, my vicar had served in the Indian Army, as a “scout” on the N.W. Frontier. It was no great surprise, therefore, when I told him in November 1937 I wanted to become a chaplain in the Forces.
My first choice was the Navy, but at Admiralty House I was told that the youngest age for a chaplain was 27 years and I was only 25! At the War Office I was interviewed by a very off-hand and sardonic young chaplain who hardly looked at me, asked me where I had been at school and whether I played “ruggah”—and then agreed to put me on a waiting list of over 100 and warned me not to expect to be called up for a year or two! I was furious and went off to Bush House to the RAF Chaplains’ Department.
My treatment here was quite different. I received a warm welcome—just because I was young: some fatherly advice and a promise to be in touch again within weeks. In January 1940 I went to Halton, Bucks—entering my allotted billet a civilian with a suitcase and emerging half an hour later as a chaplain in officer’s uniform, with a squadron leader’s stripes on my cuff!
There were five of us—new chaplain recruits—under the care of Padre Cox, a veteran of the First World War. We had to learn how to march, to salute, to say prayers on the parade ground each morning before about 3,000 men, and to visit Halton RAF Hospital! With no amplification I found the bellowing of the Lord’s Prayer (and one other) singularly infuriating and useless, but in those days it was in line with compulsory church parades and the myth that we were a Christian country! Preaching at the Sunday morning parade services of 1,000 young men was a real challenge and not easy.
The officers’ mess was once Lord Rothchild’s ancestral home, with Baroque decorations and dripping with gold leaf! The food was superb and the whole set-up was like membership of an expensive London club—deep leather armchairs, two full-size billiard tables, and a simple, comfortable bedroom. After my lifestyle at St. Helier, it wasn’t long before felt quite guilty. When the chaplain-in-chief visited us two months later, I naively asked if I could go back to my parish where there was real work to be done! Once again, we assessed the situation well and within another two weeks I was posted to the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] in France. This was the pre-blitz period of “the phony war”. I travelled on Good Friday and was given the care of nine different units, all about 10 miles apart in the Amiens and Arras area.
For the most part, I managed a weekly visit and a little service in each place (not always Holy Communion, but sometimes that as well). The only transport available for me was a 500 cc despatch rider’s motorcycle, so the MT Sergeant gave me my first lesson on it in a French ploughed field. I only came off once and thereafter found it far more useful than a car in negotiating refugee traffic.
At that time, there was trust in the Maginot Line and for the RAF the main enemy was boredom. With permission from my CO [commanding officer] I organized a number of outings to Vimy Ridge and the trenches preserved from the First World War. A lorry with 30–40 men made an occasion for pastoral contact for me, which was very valuable as a chance to know and be known by the men.
One of my units was a reconnaissance squadron. A flying instructor pilot agreed to take me flying in a gypsy moth and we had a bet as to whether he could make me airsick! It was an open-cockpit biplane. He looped the loop, inside and outside, “fell away”, stalled, and dived—all of which was exhilarating as well as frightening—but he did not make me sick! However, when the Germans began their blitzkreig, breaking or bypassing the Maginot and Seigfried lines, sweeping into France, Belgium, and Holland, things really became hot. It was a time of terrible confusion—roads blocked by columns of fleeing refugees with carts or wheelbarrows or prams. Old men and women, young mothers with babies and tiny children, were all trying to keep ahead of the Germans. The roads were frequently strafed by Stukas, and each “run” left a trail of dead or dying people and animals. Neville Shute’s story The Pied Piper describes it well. As padre, I saw my own job as being alongside the RAF men, doing anything whatever that would be of practical help to express God’s love and presence in the thick of it. The event comes to mind when I was in Amiens. The stationmaster of the central railway station was a fifth columnist. He had given the Germans the time of arrival of a troop-filled train—so that as it emerged from the tunnel to offload the soldiers it was heavily dive-bombed.
I think this was my first real baptism of fire! Bodies and bits of bodies were scattered all over the platforms and in the iron roof supports of the station. What do you say to a young boy that is fully conscious but has had the lower half of his body blown off? Army padres were there, so after two hours I returned to my RAF unit. The noise of my motorbike prevented me hearing another plane strafing the road I was on, and it was only by a fluke I was not killed. I had stopped to have a pee—and a small bomb cratered the road only a few yards ahead of me!
The RAF were ordered to evacuate from Boulogne, leaving Dunkerque for the Army. There were no signposts at any of the road junctions, and the whole countryside there is very flat so finding one’s way wasn’t easy unless you kept in convoy. Once or twice I found I was driving in the wrong direction and only gesticulating old men warned me I was going straight towards the advancing Germans.
On arrival at the Boulogne docks, the scene was chaotic. Huge 10-ton lorries with high-tech radio transmitters, etc., were being put into gear and driven over the quayside into deep water. The driver would jump clear at the last minute. All kinds of ships were being used to take on board men and lighter equipment and to escape to England. My turn came, and together with a crowd of tired and dispirited men we sat dumbly waiting to see the cliffs of Dover appear. My most vivid memory of that time was the awful waste of transport, crates of spare parts for planes, and heavy air force equipment—all of which had to be sunk or blown up to avoid it being captured. At that time, we did not know about the army’s withdrawal from Dunkerque three days later. Nor did we realise the full extent of France’s total collapse and the Nazi invasion of Europe.
After a few days leave, I was posted to Wyton—a large aerodrome near St. Ives, Cambridge. There were three bomber squadrons, all operating flat out to forestall an invasion, sometimes air crews were doing three or four sorties in a day. This was the “run-up” to the Battle of Britain proper, and our planes sometimes limped home on two or even one engine out of the four still working: some never returned.
The CO was Group Captain “Pussy” Foster—a man easy to hero-worship. He pulled my leg, but gave me great support and I know how much he cared for the aircrews, many of whom were less than 20 years old. (I met him in Italy later as an air vice marshal.)
During the London blitz many of the men were worried about their homes and families. The CO agreed that it would be valuable to have a guesthouse to enable people to have a break from the bombing and to be with their husbands for whom home leave was often impossible. I found a private school in St. Ives, previously the large rambling vicarage. Mrs. Turton lived there alone, as her husband was “away”. She readily agreed to hostess and manage the place as an RAF hostel/guesthouse—especially as rations and bed linen would be provided from RAF stores. Although the CO called it “The Padre’s Brothel”, I think it did a useful job and was going well when I left.
The local gentry would sometimes write to the CO to offer hospitality to aircrew. Sometimes this caused embarrassment. Tough, tired cockney or Yorkshire lads, often deeply frightened and traumatised after raids over Hamburg, didn’t really feel comfortable eating thin cucumber sandwiches sitting on Sheraton chairs. That may overstate the case—but when another such invitation came from Mrs. Lucy Boston of the Old Manor House, Hemingford Grey—the CO sent me to spy out the land before replying. The solid stone house was 11th century—not very large but utterly authentic. It stood in the centre of a large, homely garden, beside the river. It had 3′ thick walls, tasteful rugs, a huge inglenook fireplace and three dogs: a Dalmatian, a terrier, and an Alsatian. Mrs. Boston herself was a person of great character, vital and sensitive, and we seemed to click immediately.
I reported all this to the CO, and it was the start of a strong bond between many, many aircrew and other personnel and Mrs. Boston at the Old Manor. Beds were always made up and ready, the door was never locked, so it was not unusual for crew members to return during the night from a raid and, after being de-briefed, to go to the Manor for a long sleep and rest and bathe in the river.
During my time at Wyton, I organized a series of ENSA [Entertainments National Service Association] concerts and more serious lectures. It was helpful to be near Cambridge. One such visitor was Miss Dorothy Sayers, the writer. At that time, we were flying Sterling bombers and the CO agreed to her wish to see inside the cockpit. The entrance is under the belly of the plane, about 10′ from the ground. I remember having to make myself a human ladder so that this enormous woman could scramble up my back to climb inside, and the same in reverse when she had seen enough! I also had two very delightful padres posted to me for their first assignment—and it was good to share our ministry together.
Life in the Officers Mess was a bit hectic. Besides all the administrative officers—adjutant, stores, transport, intelligence, signals, and finance and engineering—were the squadron commanders and their crews. Sometimes tension was very high when crews were missing, or a specially dangerous raid was being planned. Sometimes there was a mad romp to let off steam. I was beginning to understand the psychology of this: not to be shocked by the songs, language, and rags that went on. It was all understandable, and my only positive contribution as a padre seemed to me just to be there to be part of it all and available for anyone who wanted me.
Most of the day would be spent going round the workshops and hangars. My office was in the NAAFI building. People were easily able to pop in for a chat; and, of course, there were letters to be written or visits made when crews went missing. We also had a “satellite” airfield a few miles away where rows of aeroplanes were lined up, deliberately camouflaged badly as they were all dummies, for decoys! I had plenty of pastoral work to do.
Budge and I were now engaged. She was teaching at St. Nicholas School, Fleet, Hants. She came once to stay for a weekend—I found her lodgings in a tiny cottage nearby with an old lady who kept grumbling about “that dreadful Mr. Hilter!” The CO was kind enough to have us to dine at his home and it was good to see behind the “official face of authority” the fun-loving husband and his delightful wife. I was very proud of Budge, whom they obviously liked.
By the spring of 1941 the war situation in the U.K. was less acute. The fear of invasion was over, but of course bombing continued and then the buzz bombs, self-propelled by a jet engine. When the buzz of the engine could no longer be heard one ran for cover! Our aerodrome was only once bombed while I was there, not badly.
Another focus of the war was in the North African desert. I was quite surprised when the Air Ministry informed me I was to be posted there in 10 days. Knowing this could be for some time, I telephoned Budge (Thursday evening). We agreed to get married at once. On Friday I picked her up at Fleet and drove her to her home at Chiddingfold and obtained her father’s permission. Then I drove to my home at Putney to tell my parents, and on Saturday we went to Westminster for a marriage licence and to buy a new uniform. Saturday evening I drove back to Wyton to take the Sunday services and obtain “discharge papers” from various departments who had to sign that I owed them nothing. I left the station at 11.30 p.m. Sunday evening, I said all my “goodbyes”—and having been given a five-gallon drum of petrol by the MT Warrant Officer as a wedding gift! As it was powerful stuff and leaked a bit, I found myself beginning to get drowsy. After a roadside nap, I reached home for breakfast, collected licence and uniform, and eventually arrived at Chiddingfold Church on Monday, 30th June, at 2.30 p.m. to be married by my ex-vicar Godfrey Brooke-Hunt. The weather was perfect. The service was followed by a very, very lovely gathering on the lawns at Prestwick, Budge’s home. Children from her school came with other staff friends. At such short notice numbers were not large apart from “family”, and my best man was Richard Reiss, who had already let me have the use of his sporty Morris 8 car.
As soon as possible, within the bounds of courtesy, Budge and I drove off for our honeymoon of five days. My well-travelled brother David had arranged for us to stay at “The Gateway to the Cotswolds”, at Burford. The weather was idyllic—and very hot. Our bedroom was on the first floor of the 16th century inn and had a most beautiful view. But we were both tired, so after a light supper we agreed on an early night.
Hardly had we climbed into the great double bed when we heard a low rumble, which rapidly became louder. Distant gunfire? No—just an armoured division of tanks and lorries which had decided on that night to evacuate Burford, climbing up the hill to the main road and turning right where our hotel was on the corner! I could have touched the helmet of the RSM directing the traffic from my low bedroom window! The noise and dust were awful. If one shut the window one could suffocate with the heat—and with it open our love-making was impossible. Next morning at breakfast we added up our petrol coupons, halved them, and decided to go as far west as we could. We ended up at a small hotel in Llangollen, N. Wales.
Saying goodbye a few days later was a pain I shall never forget. I travelled by train to Liverpool, boarded H.M.S. Orcades (a luxury liner converted to troop carrier) and set off for Cairo. Because of U-boats, our route was first westward across the Atlantic, then southward to the Cape (S. Africa) and so north to Alexandria and the Suez Canal. Our only port of call was at Durban, where we stayed for 48 hours and had a chance to go ashore. The welcome was terrific, and Anglophiles were queuing up at the docks to take us for a tour and a meal. I hoped I might have seen my brother Mark, who had then been at Prieska for two years, but he sadly arrived in Durban an hour after we sailed away again.
On arrival I was posted to a vast RAF stores depot just outside Cairo. It supplied the Desert Air Force (D.A.F.) with everything from new aircraft engines and wings to pith helmets and toilet rolls. The front line was then near Tripoli, over 1,000 miles westward along the North African desert road. Apart from conducting services and being available as a padre, I followed my philosophy of doing whatever I could to make people aware of God’s presence. There were two things I remember doing. One was the effort to organise and work with Arab labour to make a football pitch, mixing mud transported from the Canal with the inevitable sand. The other was the making of a chapel in an empty stores hangar. It could seat about 100, but the floor was bare concrete. As at that time the famous Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo was doing very well out of officers of all the Allied forces; I approached the manager to ask if he could spare any rugs for our chapel. I was quite surprised and pleased when this Muslim produced a vast carpet that had been in the hotel foyer and, though worn in parts, was a marvellous and colourful asset for the chapel.
Soon my wish was granted to get “nearer the action”, and I was posted to the forward squadrons of the D.A.F. Air Force bases and airfields obviously had to be well behind the front line. I think my first base was inland from Tobruk. We were of course all under canvas and it was the time of desert sandstorms. My transport at the time was a Ford pickup truck, and I remember once the CO asked if I would drive into Tobruk to pick up a aval rear admiral from the docks there. The road zig-zagged up an escarpment out of Tobruk to join the main east-west road and had been cratered by bombs and was clogged by dumped vehicles. Huge recovery lorries dragging their tanks or armoured cars were all driving into Tobruk as we drove out of it and an air raid was in progress. A narrow potholed road, pitch darkness, and clouds of dust made life a bit hazardous as one kept just missing being hit! The admiral was so cool and encouraging, and only once did we slide off the road and drop a foot onto the sand. I was as glad to deliver my valuable charge to the CO as he was to arrive, and he was very appreciative of my driving!
Our next move was to Fort Michele, about 150 miles west. As we had little warning, I was sent to Tobruk again to pick up the squadron’s mail. I could easily catch up the convoy later en route, and we’d had no mail for some time. I saw this as something practical I could do which would mean a lot to the men. The track the squadron followed joined the “main” road after a very few miles, so when I reached that junction I assumed the convoy was ahead of me and pressed forward. At that time I had a batman/driver, a rather a surly chap and an ex-ambulance driver in civvy life. It was late afternoon when we reached Fort Michele and it might have been a film set for Beau Geste—a real fort with turrets made of sandstone and glowing rose-coloured in the sun. The airstrips there had been littered with great chunks of rock, to make them unserviceable for our aircraft to land.
As we waited, realising we had overshot the convoy, a ferocious group captain arrived. I had met him before in Cairo and his negative view of padres had been made very clear. But now both he and I, and my driver, buckled to, to remove the rocks. It was quite remarkable to see the gradual change in his attitude from indifference to friendship as we waited for the convoy to arrive. When the job was done, I decided to have a closer look at the fort. There were swarms of bluebottle flies everywhere, a horrible atmosphere and smell, and, when I opened a door, I found several human corpses of Italian soldiers. We could do no good there, so we returned and soon after the convoy arrived as it was getting dark. Next day a continual series of explosions in the fort proved to be the sappers (Royal Engineers) setting off all the booby-traps left for us by the retreating Italian Army. I was thankful my visit the night before had been brief!
Life in the desert made a deep impression on me: the utter stillness at times, the vast space, and limitless vistas of sand. I had to travel between several squadrons, all frontline fighter planes. There would be a kind of leapfrog progression westward—one squadron moving forward while others operated, and then vice versa. I remember a particularly fine wing commander, Charles, taking off on a raid and less than five minutes later he was shot down. The plane burst into flames, but he was literally blown to bits. I scraped together what remained of him and the medical orderly found a small box was adequate. On another journey to an Australian squadron, I came across a number of tanks—German, Italian, and British. All were battered and broken and in several there were still bodies present, with the inevitable swarms of flies.
Air Vice Marshal Cunningham paid us a visit and asked me to organize a “leave centre” in the town of Benghazi. I had authority to requisition what was necessary to make a hotel near the seacoast into a place where men could go for a short break and general cleanup and rest without having to go all the way back to Cairo, nearly 1,000 miles east.
I remember the fun of finding the right property—run by Arabs—and requisitioning four fascinating hairdresser’s chairs, rather like a modern dentist’s chair, pneumatically motivated. But it all came to nothing, as this was the moment when Rommel had taken command of the German “Africa Korps”. The Allied Forces retreated.
Luckily, my home squadron was just south of Benghazi, and I returned to find that everything was being sent back eastwards. The NAAFI [Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes] had also created a depot in Benghazi, but the staff had already fled so as I was for two days involved in helping to cater for the remaining men it gave us all joy to feed on an unlimited supply of tinned peaches and pears, and cigarettes, ad lib. Once our planes had returned to refuel, the remaining staff left posthaste and I remember rolling a 40-gallon drum of petrol under a Mustang fighter plane—whose propeller was bent—and, using a trickle of petrol as a fuse, seeing it burnt out, as other unserviceable planes had been treated.
I was the last to leave the aerodrome, and I remember so vividly hooting my staff car (a new Humber Snipe) and driving round looking for my batman driver, now a nice Scot, Norman Blair. I was just about to leave, assuming he had gone with the last truck, when he arose from some rubble, tucking his shirt and quite oblivious to the urgency of getting away. I pointed him to the German tanks on the distant skyline, a rim of low sandhills! As we shot along the road back into Benghazi, we had to do a circus act—driving fast through what we hoped would be a gap between two fiercely-burning lorries on either side of the narrow road. When we got into Benghazi and joined the one main coast road going east, we found it jammed with military traffic, armoured cars, lorries, petrol bowsers—mostly Army. Having in mind the German tanks I had seen advancing from the south, I left the road and drove to the head of the column to find out the cause of the blockage. It seemed to be no more than an officer dithering as to whether there was or was not a German tank hidden in a small Arab house about a half-mile ahead! I emptied my car of four passengers I’d picked up, but one Scots Guards colonel said he would come with me as I shot ahead to find out the truth. I did. About 20 yards from the white building I jammed on my brakes as the long nose of a tank’s gun poked through the window. As my passenger fell out on the “near side” of the car, so did I on the driver’s side and almost simultaneously a shell exploded in my ear. The terrain all around was flat sand, and I then saw two bodies of soldiers. The German tank commander came towards me and quite courteously took me into the house as prisoner. It was rapidly growing dark and soon the troops in Benghazi began an offensive on this house as well as the other German tanks that had now arrived to reinforce the cutting off of the road eastwards. We were allowed to leave the house and lie flat on the ground some way away—but it was a really frightening experience to be under heavy fire from one’s own troops with no shelter at all. Next morning the firing stopped and the Allies in Benghazi surrendered to Rommel. About 2,000 troops, mostly of the Indian Division and a few from the RAF, were caught.
The colonel who had been my passenger had dropped into a ditch after vacating my car and managed to escape. Sadly, he informed the authorities he believed I had been blown up with the car—so I was reported “missing—believed killed”. It was several months later that the Red Cross “found me” in a POW camp in Italy.
The experience of the North African desert was never to be forgotten. If one has to fight a war, what a good place to do it! But all the agony of broken planes, tanks, lorries, and human bodies of every country were dwarfed by the immensity of sand and sky and the vastness of space. I had a portable wind-up gramophone with me, and Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 seemed to “breathe” the desert and still do for me.
Celebrating the Eucharist on a packing case for an altar (covered by a colourful Arabic blanket bought in Cairo) or on the tail flap of a lorry, or under the wing of a plane, with 50 or so men gathered round—these memories are quite indelible.
Once an Arab appeared with a string of 12 horses! “Would the gentlemen like to ride?” (In very basic English!) Yes, we would. Having procured a football and a dozen yard brooms from stores (you can’t really sweep up the sand!), we all mounted and played polo! My own mount, a lusty stallion, soon decided it was time to head back home, wherever that was, and I only managed to halt him after a mile or so, with his owner galloping after me! One also had to shake one’s desert boots before putting them on—scorpions were not too rare and very vicious. I nearly stepped on one but saw it in my tent just in time.
Prisoner of War
“For you the war is ended”, said the German officer next morning. I was taken back into a barrack-like building in Benghazi, and soon about 30 officers joined me. They were a mixed bunch, but all of us were suffering from shock. Not the obvious shock of an engagement, but of being captured! This was particularly acute for those who were regular soldiers, as it meant the end of all hope for promotion—and there were two full colonels and several majors among them.
At this point the senior German officer spoke to us—“You will now be handed over to the Italian Army for your transportation to Italy. They are, how do you say, ‘Our RASC’!” [Royal Army Service Corps] We were bundled into a convoy of filthy Italian lorries and the long journey back to Tripoli began.
All the way we passed German reinforcements going east, as the Nazis pressed forward towards Cairo. Any escape was out of the question, as the guards were quite fierce (fearful?) and there was no cover of any kind, apart from the dust, fine sand-like flour that penetrated everything.
Twice we stopped for a break of three days each, once in an empty Italian barracks and once in the desert, surrounded by rolls and rolls of barbed wire. I remember a Colonel Lavender giving me his Indian brass drinking mug, beautifully engraved, to use as a chalice. I had a tiny hip-pocket New Testament and knew the Communion Service by heart. An Italian guard gave me a little red wine and two people gave some of their precious bread-biscuit, so I celebrated the Eucharist. In those conditions, with about 400 attending, it was a most moving occasion. Who knew what the future held for us?
We then moved on to Tripoli—another few days’ delay and then down to the docks to embark in cargo ships for Italy. Our ship had three lower decks or cargo spaces. I found myself in the lowest hold, with about 50 others and only just enough space to lie down. The journey from Tripoli to Sicily was only two days, but the ships ahead of us and behind us were both sunk—there was no identification on them as carrying Allied POWs. I should mention that our daily ration of food en route had been one square biscuit, like a dog biscuit, and a small tin of meat, like Kit-e-Kat. As I had been a vegetarian all my life (by habit, not by principle) I had no scruples in trying to eat the meat—but after each attempt I was sick. So, I swopped my meat for a biscuit, and lived on two of these daily, plus a kind of swill we were given for an evening meal. By the time we reached Tripoli a number of men were ill, I among them. I vividly remember trying to climb up the fixed iron ladder from the lowest hold, up to the fresh air for the one hour’s break we were allowed a.m. and p.m.—for those who could make it. I only managed this once, as by now I had caught amoebic dysentery and was very weak. The next few days are very blurred, but I was taken to hospital in Naples and remember waking up to the luxury of lying in a real bed, with rough sheets. I was extremely weak, and the male nurses were not unkind. Going to the loo was an ordeal as it was the old-fashioned kind—two foot-shaped pads in front of a vast hole but with no seat or anything to hold on to. The squatting position was required—but with dysentery the urge “to go” is almost continuous, and being weak I fell back several times. I remember being glad the hole wasn’t larger!
Gradually I got better and after two months was strong enough to be sent to a POW officers’ camp, in the old monastery of Capula. What a mixed bag it was, about 900 in all—Army, Navy, and RAF officers from the lowest ranks to full colonels, Admiral Cowan from the First World War—and everyone in between! As this included those with only wartime commissions, the senior officer had organized almost a university range of lectures and studies. Anyone who was an expert in anything could gather a class. I remember learning about Newcastle coal miners from Major Pomfrey, who owned a mine; an undertaker had us rolling in the aisles with his reminiscences; beekeeping, languages, mathematics, all had their following and it really helped the time to pass. We slept about four to a cell which had been built for one monk. But the weather was glorious and the food, with the beginning of Red Cross parcels, adequate.
Red Cross parcels contained chocolate, tinned rice, tea, coffee, concentrated foods and other goodies, and 100 cigarettes. The Canadian parcels were better than the British, as Canada had no food rationing. An item of great interest and competition was the making of a cooker for heating the food and cooking. The fuel to be used could only be paper, straw, wood chips, leaves, twigs (sometimes damp) and just anything one could find that would burn. This “fuel” was put under a tin can (the “pot”) but would invariably need to be fanned or blown up to stay alight. This developed more and more ingenious ways of gearing high-speed fans to tunnel the air into a jet which would set ablaze the first spark and burn up old socks, dried dung, dead nettles and any splinters of wood one could find.
The engineer types were inevitably better at this than the senior officers and more cerebral types.
After a month a new order was issued removing all officers of major/squadron leader upwards—so I was taken to Piacenza in Northern Italy [P.G. 55 Busseto]. This was an ex-convent, immaculately clean, but with only a small garden to exercise in. The percentage of regular officers was much higher, about 65 percent, and there were seven padres for about 85 POWs—rather a high proportion! The sense of resentment and bitterness at being captured was much more obvious. I shared a bedroom/cell with Padre Rogers, an old Etonian regular army chaplain. We did not seem to have much in common.
When the Red Cross sent a representative from Geneva, some of us chaplains asked if we could be split up and sent to OR (other ranks) camps, and after a week or so this was done. I was sent to Campo 59 at Servigliano, near Porto St. Georgio on the northern Adriatic coast.
At Piacenza we had one escape attempt. The major in charge of the canteen had bought a large barrel of condensed milk, which we had gradually consumed over a month—a half cup full was a great treat. When empty, he scrubbed the inside, fixed a handle on the inside of the lid, and practised being carried inside with two guardsmen orderlies carrying it as if it was empty! When the lorry came to collect it all went well, rolling it as a beer barrel, until it jolted from path to street. The jolt made the handle come unstuck and the round lid tip up. A sentry pushed it straight, and put his hand on the hair of the escaper! All hell broke out as only those who know Italians can imagine. I remember seeing the major with his head just showing above the barrel, utterly cramped and squeezed, but surrounded by an Italian officer and six guards with fixed bayonets all round the barrel!
Just before leaving Piacenza an army padre arrived: he had an MC [Military Cross] from the First War, and I was to replace him at Servigliano. He warned me that the camp commandant was a nasty bit of work and advised me to be firm about my rights from the start.
I had one Italian armed escort to take me by train from Piacenza to Servigliano—through very beautiful rural country, with little towns perched on top of the hills. It was early summer. On arrival, I met the colonel commandant, who greeted me courteously and talked about “cooperation for the good of all”. I saw my chance to request that church services would not be interrupted by the “check-parades”, which usually happened twice daily but not at regular times. He assured me that his was also a Christian country, and no such thing would happen.
On the first Sunday all went well. One hut was free of beds and available for any indoor activity, including Sunday worship. The camp held about 2,000 men from all three services. The food was very minimal; there were no Red Cross parcels yet. It was very hot and dusty, and at one time there were only two water taps available for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.
I had a room in the brick-built sickbay, where the two doctors also lived, Derek Millar and Aidan Duff. We got on well together and they were very supportive. There were 12 beds in two wards.
On my second Sunday, we had just started the service when the first bugle sounded. There were always three calls. The first was a preliminary warning, sometimes up to 20 minutes before the second bugle call, which meant people must go on parade, hut by hut. The third call was sounded when the colonel and his carabinieri (like our Military Police “Red Caps”) entered the gate to take command for the great counting.
In view of what I had taken as a tacit understanding with the colonel at our recent meeting, I reassured those 300 men present not to worry. Almost immediately a tapping on the window came, and I saw the little Italian interpreter, Marozzi, signing violently for me to stop! I told him of the colonel’s promise, told him I would shorten the service but that we intended to finish it with dignity. Obviously, the men were in no mood for a sermon, so I suggested we sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” (all verses!) and after a blessing should go on parade. At that moment the third bugle sounded. The colonel soon was remonstrating at the window, and the men were singing most lustily! I heard a few orders being given outside, but we were all to be surprised. At the very moment that I nodded to the Scots Guards RSM to open the double doors of the hut for the men to leave, a posse of some six guards told to rush the closed door reached it. They naturally charged the thin air and tripped and tumbled over each other in chaos—to the total amusement of those already on parade, watching, and all of us at the service. For this offence I was sentenced to two weeks solitary confinement. But, as I was a chaplain, I was allowed to stay in my room. This was on the ground floor, with a window which one could easily converse through—and climb through. I remember doing this most evenings when everybody walked round the camp perimeter before the 10 p.m. bugle confining them to their huts. It was fun to see, from the outside, the guard studiously guarding an empty room.
When Red Cross parcels arrived, there was a quite noticeable drop in numbers at the daily evening prayers and Sunday services. This was sad, but not hard to understand.
Life in the camp then was quite reasonable. We were allowed one weekly postcard to send home. Parcels from home were all opened first, and books were often ripped apart lest they were hiding maps, knives, or money. My wife and family now knew I was a POW, and letters were very, very precious. I asked them to send me a priest’s office-book, which they did. But the lovely leather binding was ripped off before I received it.
There was quite a brisk trade in bartering, and non-smokers (not many in those days) had a great advantage. There was the same ingenuity in building all kinds of blow-cookers. I believe some can now be seen in the Imperial War Museum. The great cry was always for fuel! There were no trees or shrubs in the camp. Sometimes, in desperation, people would take one of the slats from their bunk bed. They were easily removable, but it made life a little perilous for the man sleeping underneath if it was taken from the upper bunk. In the middle of the night one man was nearly smothered by having his partner from above fall on his face—both being fast asleep at the time. The guards were supposed to inspect the huts weekly and there was a lot of slat-swopping and camouflage when this happened.
Another bit of fun was the making of “bombs”.
Some parcels contained a tin of dried lemon crystals which made a refreshing effervescent drink. If one puts a tablespoonful into a small Nescafé tin and mixes with it some sand, charcoal and a little water, and then quickly rams home the lid, there is just time to hurl it at the wall under the sentry’s feet before it explodes with quite a retort. When this is done in the dark from a hut window the thrower cannot be identified! The Italian soldiers guarding us were mostly very inferior troops—grade D or E. They were easily frightened.
We had several attempted escapes, but the tunnels were usually discovered before they were finished. The two brass altar candlesticks I had bought through the interpreter were very useful implements for digging! One young petty officer from the Navy got away but was returned after five days and later died of pneumonia in our sick bay.
We insisted on “full military honours” for his burial in the local churchyard, at which I functioned. The coffin was put on a handcart, drawn by his friends, and covered with the Union Jack. A local undertaker had made it. A POW naval escort of eight marched on either side and beyond them a file of Italian guards. The carabinieri “RSM” [regimental sergeant major] had made them oil their bandoliers, belts, and boots, but they were a pathetic sight—like a turnout of dwarfs in comparison with the naval lads, who were as smart as they could be.
I remember saying the graveside prayers, nodding to those who would lower the coffin, and then having to stop them while a tiny, little bent-up old man (the undertaker, presumably) dived out from behind another gravestone holding a huge 15″ screwdriver. All the lovely brass fittings were taken away before the coffin was buried. It was quite bizarre.
At Christmas, we were not allowed a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, but I persuaded the guards to cooperate for an early morning Communion. We placed the long tables in the hut on their sides, end to end, to make a convincing cattle trough, filled with hay. With straw strewn as a thick carpet and the altar occupying the middle table, they then tied an ox and an ass to the pillars either side. By candlelight the altar and the live animals looked wonderful. We had about 100 communicants.
When the warmer weather came and the food parcels were consistent, the spirit in the camp was good. We had a brass band, we had boxing matches (very short rounds!) and I captained my first and last international rugger match—between England and Scotland! Aidan Duff (6′ 2″) captained Scotland. Also, what little news trickled through showed that the Allies were doing well. This was a tremendous boost to morale.
The time finally came at the beginning of September when Italy gave up, much to the fury of the Nazis. The colonel called us “officers” to his quarters and said, “We are now your friends!”—but insisted that we, as officers, should be responsible for preventing anyone leaving the camp. He waved a buff note which he claimed he’d received from our War Office, ordering all troops to remain in their camps until Allied trucks should arrive to take them home. This made sense, for some of the men had been POWs for 3–4 years, captured in Greece or Europe. The Italian girls were attractive and anxious to make friends now, and about 2,000 men let loose would have created mayhem.
When we saw the guards in their towers round the camp walls being doubled and given machine guns, and when the rumours began that it would be German trucks arriving to transport us so that we would continue our captivity elsewhere, we were in a real quandary. We shared our concern with four of the best RSMs—regular soldiers. We decided to make the men organize themselves into groups of 10, with an NCO [non-commissioned officer] in charge of each group—they were told to prepare for an emergency evacuation, choosing what they really wanted to take with them, and once outside the camp they should get away from it as far as possible and not linger in the little town nearby. We agreed that three long blasts on a whistle would be the sign for everyone to attack and scale the 10′ walls round the camp simultaneously; this plan was accepted, and we had no more jibes of “whose side are you on?”
We also arranged through the interpreter to have those who were really quite ill in our sickbay (about six) to be moved to the local civilian hospital. Later, reports post-war state that they were very well treated and hidden from the Germans.
After three days of rumours, we demanded to see the commandant but were always put off with excuses. We gave him a deadline for that night at 10 p.m. With no sign of any change, we blew the whistle! There was a nearly full moon and it was an early September night, the 3rd I think. [The escape in fact occurred on the night of September 14, which was indeed the night of a full moon.] All hell seemed to be let loose, the men were cheering and as they all stormed the walls, using bed boards as ladders, the guards were firing their machine-guns. We (two padres, two doctors, and a dentist!) rushed to the gates and burst into the commandant’s office. Aidan Duff was over 6′ 1″, and we insisted that the commandant order the shooting to stop at once, using the Tannoy. He knew the game was up, and under verbal and physical arm-twisting he did give the order and opened the gates of the prison camp.
We had a horrible foreboding that we should find carnage when we returned [from the office] but, having toured the perimeter, we found no casualties at all. The guards must have fired into the air only. We then picked up our packs and made our own getaway.
Firm evidence since shows that the German convoy of lorries in fact arrived 40 minutes later. Because most of the men did not believe us and went to the local cafes, etc., about 80 percent of them were recaptured and taken away that same night to remain in German hands until the end of the war.
It was a quite wonderful feeling to be free from the smelly, dusty, arid prison—Campo 59! It was a warm night. Although we were physically weak and undernourished, we knew we must keep walking to get as far as possible from the camp before resting. It had been a long day, with a lot of tension and worry. Now we could relax and be responsible only for ourselves—Derek Miller and Aidan Duff (doctors), Alan Hodgson (dentist) and myself. The two other padres had left camp earlier.
We walked all that night and most of next day, keeping away from roads. The vineyards and orchards gave us good cover and Aidan had a little compass. We had all agreed that it would be better to go south rather than north to the Swiss border; it was more rural, and mountains and hills were easier to slip through than the industrial towns. Also, we hoped we would soon meet the advancing Allied troops coming from the south.
Towards evening we saw a farmhouse on a hilltop, with only a dusty road leading up to it. We were very hungry and tired, having only eaten a few grapes and figs en route, with some bread we’d brought with us. We decided that Aidan, who spoke a little Italian, should approach the farm to see what kind of welcome he’d receive. The short answer was very warm indeed! The old man and his wife had lived there all their lives but the son and daughter-in-law, like many Italians we met later, had been to America, made their fortune there, and now were able to buy their own land and farm at home.
This family insisted we all stay with them. They lived simply, but the food was plentiful—pasta, pasta, and then more pasta, but with fruit in plenty.
They all hated the Germans, and to them we were the heroes they were privileged to entertain! We were so grateful and soon began to feel the benefits of better food. We slept in their barn, but they insisted all meals be eaten with them.
The Germans had made it very clear that anyone housing POWs would be shot and have their houses burnt down. These people knew the risk they were taking but pooh-poohed the idea that anyone would bother about them. They were wrong!
We had been there nine days when on a Sunday, at lunchtime, we were all sitting round the farmhouse kitchen table. One of the farmhands rushed in to say a German patrol car had been sighted coming up the long road which ended at this farm. Like lightning, we were all packed off into one of their vineyards nearby while the old couple dismantled the table places and hid all the food and any trace of our presence. The patrol must have turned back again, but often this was just a ruse to make people come out of hiding and the Germans would suddenly reappear and catch them out. Our friends were taking no chances, so we stayed hidden until about 11 p.m.! We had with us the young Italian couple (who would also have been conscripted for forced labour). At this point, they told us to stay while they cautiously crept back to the farmhouse to see what was happening, promising to return with food later.
We waited another hour, rather worried and very hungry. Then we heard footsteps and a clinking of metal. We “froze”. In fact, it was the whole family, all coming to join us with two donkeys! One was laden with panniers of food and wine, the other was piled high with feather mattresses and “duvets”. They suggested it was far safer for us all to spend the night there. After a very good meal, we slept altogether in one great bed under the vines—thirteen of us. Alan said it was the first time he’d slept in the same bed with another man’s wife and with her husband there as well!
After a few more days of idleness, sleeping, and eating, I began to get more and more restless and wanted to get moving. The other three agreed with our hosts that it made more sense to remain there and wait for the Allies to reach them—a matter of a few weeks! There was no bad feeling when I decided to proceed on my own alone. So, we said our goodbyes (I learnt after the war that all three were recaptured there a few weeks later and taken to East Germany until VE-Day).
[Note: In contrast to Niel’s account of the escape, J. H. Derek Millar in The Memoirs of J. H. D. Millar describes having left the camp with Corporal Howard Jones, who had served him in the sick bay. He wrote, “This was rather than going with Aiden Duff, who I didn’t feel had the absolute urgency to get away, as I had.” Millar, who describes spending time in the countryside, interacting with Italians, eventually is guided on foot by Italian Lino Papiri to San Benedetto. There he and several dozen other escaped POWs board two fishing boats, ferried by brothers Nicola and Liberato Lagalla, and are taken down the Adriatic coast to Termoli. How can we reconcile Derek Millar’s and Niel Nye’s accounts, both written decades after the war? My guess is that, whether they left the camp together or not, they likely crossed paths while on the run, shared some time together, and eventually parted company. Millar recounts a meal with an Italian family that is similar to the one Niel recounts, that was interrupted when a German lorry appeared suddenly—in both accounts no one knocked. It turned out to be a passing convoy. Perhaps this is part of their shared experience.]
I cannot possibly give a day-to-day account of my journey of nearly two months. I had an old sack and found a serviceable thumb-stick. I was in faded blue battledress, which wasn’t quite as obvious as khaki, so I didn’t look too different from a peasant. I had no knowledge of Italy, so tried to keep direction by the sun and one or two words of advice from old men working in the fields. What follows are just some of the things, that for reasons I hope will be obvious, I have not been able to forget.
The first was when I was going along a mountain track as it dropped down to a hamlet. A man was sitting on a rock, filthy and crestfallen, and I semi-recognised him as an American GI who’d arrived at the camp as a POW only a month previously. He was feeling ill and fed-up. A farmer whom I approached said we could sleep in the stone hut where there had been goats! He also gave us a little food. When I awoke next morning, the GI had gone—and so had my silver cigarette case, which Budge had given me, and which had eluded many a body-search by guards! I was angry.
Walking across country I met two others and then two more, all in bad shape physically. We were in an area of hills and small, rocky mountains, at the bottom of which was a small town. I found a deep but low cave, large enough for two but rather claustrophobic, being only about 2½ feet high! It was safe for one night and dry (as it was now raining), but one knew Italy had small earthquakes and the feeling of having a mountain of rock on top was a bit frightening! So, next day we found a much larger cave with a concealed entrance. The five of us agreed to share it. They were all pretty weak and one had a nasty carbuncle on his foot. I took my sack and went to some of the outlying houses begging for food. It was a daily trip, and we stayed there ten days—and some more escapers arrived, making our number up to nine. We could light a fire in the cave, and I remember boiling water, putting some precious bread into an old sock, and putting a hot poultice on this man’s foot. It worked and his carbuncle healed enough for him to move on. The cave could have been seen from the town by anyone with binoculars or good eyesight, and so we were very careful.
One man seemed to be getting very feverish and ill, so I found my way to the town doctor’s house. Although one of the posters about the penalty of helping escaping POWs was pasted on his wall, he said he would give my patient a bed if we could bring him down the mountain to him. With an old blanket as a sling, I and his friend carried the sick man down, but hardly had we delivered him into the doctor’s care when the hooter sounded—the warning of a German raid to scoop up men for forced labour. The doctor could not take the risk so we had to return to our cave, but several young Italians helped to carry him, as they also fled into the hills where no German patrol could find them. A few shots were fired, but there was no follow-up.
By now a good RSM from my camp, Mr. Hegarty, had arrived with a friend, and after a day or so with us in the cave I decided they could all look after each other and let me continue my pilgrimage! They agreed. I don’t know if they were caught. For the most part people on the farms were willing to give me food. The weather being hot, I wore my blue shirt open at the neck and on my upper chest I had a large scar. One dear old lady was very generous because she thought I’d been wounded—but in fact it was the result of an enormous boil I had had during the leanest time in camp before Red Cross parcels arrived. I’m afraid I did not confess the truth!
Soon afterwards I fell in with two friends from my camp whom I had known fairly well. One night we slept in a hay store. The heavy oak door was off its hinges, so we put it in place as it was raining and getting colder—about the end of September. During the night the wind blew in this door, which landed on my upturned face. I still remember the bang and the feeling of being shot. Luckily, I was only bruised.
Soon after leaving them (two’s company… !) I met a paratrooper, Sgt. Burns. He was a dour Scot, walking on his own but quite glad to join forces with me. He had drawn a picture for me in the camp, in my POW scrap book, and was quite an artist. I had the sense to realise how valuable his paratrooper’s training would be as we got nearer to the front line. Already signs of German occupation were more frequent, and the Italians were less willing to help us and more jittery and apprehensive. I was to be very grateful to Robbie Burns.
Once we were walking along a road with hills on either side. Someone had given us a raw egg and we were looking forward to cooking it later. We could see the road ended at a farm about a mile away at the head of this valley. We thought we heard the throb of a motor—but behind and ahead there was nothing. Then, round a slight bend, we saw a finger-post pointing up the hill. We also heard the engine clearly now, and German voices, so we dived for the only cover, 10 feet from the post— some scraggy bushes by the roadside—and froze with our heads down.
The lorry full of soldiers stopped—a soldier got out and came up to the post. We knew we must have been seen but in fact no, the soldier returned to the lorry and it went back along the road we’d come. Apart from shock, and raw egg dribbling down my inside leg, we were alright.
When we approached the farm—which seemed so remote as to be safe—we saw the farmer watching us approach. We asked the usual question—in pidgin Italian—“Io prigioneri de guerra—per favore—avete voi mangari”, etc. In Italian he replied “What do you call this, and this, and this?”, pointing to his coat, his boots, his face, etc. When we replied in English, he said (in broad American!) “I guess you critters are OK—come in!” He told us how Germans had been dressing up as POWs, asking for help and news of any other Allied POWs in the area—and then rounding them up. On this occasion we passed his scrutiny. We were just rejoicing in our good luck, as we pulled off our boots, sitting on the straw with two enormous oxen breathing down our necks, when he came rushing back, insisting we leave at once “Pronto, pronto!” He had seen that the lorry full of soldiers we’d met had turned back and was coming to his farmyard. In spite of his obvious and natural terror he saw the point—that no way could we leave his farm without being seen. He must hide us there. Quickly, he fetched an old black-out curtain, shoved us under a standing pile of bean-sticks and tucked the material over us. By this time, it was getting dark—but from our spot we watched the 15 or so soldiers pile out, brew up, settle for the night in the barns, and gradually fall asleep. At about 3 a.m. we heard a whisper—the farmer had come to rescue us. Stick by stick, he made a hole we could creep through. We climbed a ladder from the ox stall to a trapdoor, and through this he led us into a warm, inviting kitchen above the cattle. He gave us soup and pasta—and asked if we would like to meet another POW! He opened what looked like a cupboard door, but which in fact was more straw, he whistled quietly, and after some rustling another sergeant appeared!
We needed no prompting to realise we must add to his risks by staying, so we started off again, at about 4 a.m.—but warm, well-fed, and encouraged! We walked far enough away to be safe, but were so tired we just had to sleep. Although it was now raining, we slept on the ground until daybreak—about three hours.
We walked all that day in the open country until we came to a village in the evening. It was the only place where we were not helped and had the dogs set upon us. One man gave us half a loaf and told us the Germans were very active in that area. He advised us to cross the mountain range we could see about three miles away and by the shape of the outline of one—“Gran Majella” (the big pig—or hog’s back!)—he explained where we should find the track to follow. Beyond these hills there were no Germans.
[The Majella is a major complex of mountains in the Apennines. My Italian friend Carlo tells me that although “maiale” means pig, it’s likely not the origin of the mountain’s name—but that locals, amused by—or perhaps confused by—the two words’ similarity, came to view the mountain ridges as the back of a slumbering boar.]
It was now getting dark, but the rain had stopped. We walked on, crossing the fields in a beeline to the foothills, and found the track. It was a hard slog to the top and down the other side—all in the dark and quite steep in places. As dawn came we could see the little hamlet at the bottom, which he had described—“Pietracamilla” (butterfly). [This hamlet seems to be Pietracamela. However, the name does not translate to “butterfly.”] But my paratrooper companion’s instinct told him to wait on the outskirts in hiding until people woke up and we could see if the place was as safe as we’d been told. A barn in a field seemed just right. We opened the door—and found it full of Germans sleeping and snoring. Luckily, we’d been quiet, so we gently shut the door and tiptoed away—only to come face to face, round the corner, with the sentry! He was as staggered as we were! “Drop flat, move right” snapped my friend. There were rows of tomato plants handy, and a few feet away was a fairly noisy brook. The hail of bullets from the sentry and his mate and the noise of the water covered our movements as we slid sideways and dropped down the banks into the water and made our escape. All the soldiers were rudely awakened by the shouts and the shots—but probably were too sozzled with sleep to make a chase of it. It could be that they thought we were commandos and were too scared. We, needless to say, kept walking!
There was another time which I cannot forget. We had reached a point only a few miles from the front line. To keep direction we could not avoid going along a winding, metalled road cut into the mountainside. On the left of it was a steep drop to the River Sangro, 150 feet below; on the right was the rock face of the mountain, stretching upwards, and the bends in the road made it impossible to see far ahead.
We waited for darkness—and just had to risk following this road. We had reached the point of no return, about a mile into the pass, when we saw the masked headlights of a German patrol car driving towards us. Only one thing was possible—crash-dive to the grass verge, freeze, and hope not to be seen.
We did just that—and the car did not stop. But I realised I was being held from falling down to the rocks below by a small blackberry bush—very prickly. It was quite a shock, and we were glad to reach open country again after another mile or so.
As the mountains petered out, so the River Sangro broadened—and we knew we had to cross it. We knew we were getting near to the front from the sound of gunfire, but it was sporadic. We waited again for a dark night—but the pale grey stones of the riverbed (it was not in spate) did not provide cover. Walking out from the trees to cross about 150 yards of stones, and then wading through about 25 feet of water, made us feel very exposed—and anyone watching could not have failed to see us. But all was well, and the other side we found an empty cottage with a bit of food left behind. We ate it and slept well into the morning. It was cloudy and dull and raining hard—but crossing the Sangro had seemed like Caesar’s Rubicon.
A peasant told us where the German line was formed. They occupied a town on a hilltop and along its ridge—overlooking another valley and small river. We had to approach that “line” and once through it would be in no-man’s-land until we met up with the Allied front line.
Again we waited a day or two in the empty cottage—until there was a cold, moonless, and cloudy night with plenty of rain. We were told that there were machine-gun posts every 100 metres along the ridge. This had young trees and some scrub, and a rocky spring flowed down to the valley.
We figured that about 2–3 a.m. guards would tend to be less vigilant and would not expect anyone coming up from behind them. We crept forward at a point halfway between two gun posts, tiptoed over stones, and found the stream which covered any noise. We could hear the coughing and spitting of the sentries—but there were no shouts and after about an hour we were through—out of enemy-held territory!
We decided not to risk being shot by our own troops so waited until morning before continuing our search for them. Their position had been moved the day before, so we had another few miles until we reached Foggia on November 1st—All Saints’ Day.
This town was held by the Canadians. There was no sense of danger, but the troops we met were very offhand at first and wouldn’t really listen to what we were trying to say. Then one of them cried “They are so ruddy scruffy they must be escapees!” We asked him to take us to his CO, who was more friendly. After a good meal in the officers’ mess, we were both carefully grilled and found it not entirely easy to convince their intelligence officer of our story. But a few telephone calls were exchanged which seemed to be satisfactory and Sgt. Robert Burns was sent to the Army HQ and I was sent to the RAF HQ We said goodbye to each other—but I have not heard of or from him since.
I was flown to Oran on the North African coast—then to Gibraltar. Finally, I was able to fix a lift from there to Lyneham, an RAF station in the West Country (Wiltshire), from where I was able to telephone my home and my wife and travel by train to Waterloo.
I have three overall impressions of this two-month adventure. The first was that I was too weak and hungry to be able to think of much else beyond day-to-day survival. My brain seemed to go into neutral: prayer was very basic.
The second, especially when I was begging for food to supply my “patients” in the cave, was a vivid recollection of St. Francis. Assisi was not all that far away, the terrain was similar, and I remember how good it was to be free from any baggage, mental or physical—only the urge to survive, utterly dependent on other people’s generosity. But I didn’t much like the occasional howling of wolves at night!
Lastly of course there was immense relief and gratitude to have come safely through the ordeal—nothing like as bad as many, many others faced, but nevertheless, for me, quite exciting enough.
At the awful moment before capture, I was totally convinced that the tank which had shot up my car in the desert would continue a yard or two further to squash me flat. I shall never, never forget the flash of panic that was followed by a quite “unearthly” sense of peace—that all was OK. I “saw” a wonderful vista like a garden welcoming me and I remember asking God to let Budge know I was alright and that she shouldn’t worry—this was the end. That experience of near “dying” has remained with me ever since and helped me cope with many bereavements. I am so grateful for the gift of my Christian faith.
After returning home I was given two months leave to get fit mentally as well as physically. Part of this was spent at my home in Putney, part in Budge’s home—Prestwick, near Chiddingfold—and part on holiday in Devon, with some very good friends of my parents, the Le Quesnes, whose proper home was in Sark, then occupied by the Germans.
We had started a baby on our honeymoon, but sadly Budge had had a miscarriage. This required an operation some time later and she was painfully convalescing from this when I reached the U.K. My doctor sister, Rene, was living at home in Putney at the time which was a great help to Budge as she needed proper nursing. However, only just out of bed and on her feet, she insisted on making the journey to meet my train at Waterloo. (Of course, I knew nothing of this until later!) What a reunion that was! But hardly had we embraced when the sirens sounded for another air raid. We hurried to the Underground for the journey to Putney.
My memory of this leave is not very clear, but I can recall three things. The first was the marvellous relief of being home, safe and alive. (Budge tells me that the first night, just before getting into bed, I frantically thumped and chased something on the pillow, thinking it was a bedbug: it was a small feather!) It was a bit exhausting trying to meet my father’s requests for a full account of everything that had happened. But with hindsight (and maybe he knew this) this was quite therapeutic. It helped to “externalise” some of the fearful images buried in my sub-conscious and to deal with them face to face.
The second thing was my first meal when we went to Prestwick. Mrs. Jackson (Budge’s mother) had taken great pains to make it specially nice. But in those days vegetarians were not so common as they are now—and food rationing restricted the choice anyway—so she decided on a dish of “macaroni and cheese”—not realising that for poor Italian peasants pasta and macaroni was a staple diet—and I had eaten little else for most of the past year or two. Only Budge and I saw the funny side and we kept our laughs for later—they had taken so much trouble. When we stayed in Devon the food was more plentiful—with plenty of clotted cream!
The third memory is rather more personal. Rene had hinted to me that I must be patient and gentle in my love-making because of Budge’s operation. I remember quite vividly a bewildering feeling of depression—bewildering because at first I couldn’t identify any reason for it. Then I realised it was the disappointment of this restraint. I remember so well praying that I might overcome it and be patient, and how utterly marvellous and fulfilling our love-making was in spite of the fact that we couldn’t yet “go all the way”. That experience has taught me so much—but at the time it was a wonderful discovery of how prayer can help. In due time I received my next posting —to HQ Bomber Command at High Wycombe. This was the hub and centre of the vast network of bombing strategy. I was grateful for having previously spent a year at Wyton, seeing first-hand thethree operational squadrons go off on their raids and the tension when some did not return. At High Wycombe there was a much more impersonal feeling of objectivity—almost of being removed from things! There was a high proportion of officers and none of lesser rank than squadron leader. Group captains and wing commanders were plentiful, and there were several air vice marshals—and of course “Bomber” Harris himself, head of the whole command. There were many WAAF [Women’s Auxiliary Air Force] there, too.
The previous chaplain was Berners Wilson, and I much appreciated the drinks party he organised in the officers’ mess in order to introduce me before he left. Budge, now released from her teaching at Fleet, was able to be with me on condition that she found a job. She had two choices—a teaching post in a large state school in the town (to which many years later my son Christopher became headmaster!) or to assist “Dilly”, a Canadian wife with the running of a YWCA hostel and canteen.She chose the latter. It was a valuable asset as the HQ of the American Air Force was also nearby and this provided a good place for friends to meet. But it needed firm handling and was hard work.
Berners Wilson had accepted the offer of a most attractive tithe barn which he made into the camp church. It was large enough to hold about 50 people and had a lovely atmosphere. On Good Friday I took the altar away and put a life-size cross about 10′ high and set in large rocks, with drapes (as at Oberammergau). The chief WAAF officer of the station was always promising to come to a Sunday service but rarely did. She said she would make a special effort on Good Friday, and duly came. A week later I bumped into her and she said “Padre, I kept my promise on Good Friday: but when I entered the chapel, I was quite horrified! I always have used my little book of prayers, which I was given at my Confirmation as a child (she was about 50 years old now), and I couldn’t! The cross made me quite uncomfortable and made the usual prayers seem meaningless: I was very upset!” I felt that at least something had been achieved.
For Easter Day we built the same rocks into a fine rockery behind the altar so that the illuminated empty tomb replaced the altar-cross: a good focus for our Easter worship.
The primroses and other spring flowers made a wonderful “garden”. I have a good photograph of both days.
Here we became great friends with Denys Pouncey—in the accounts department, and later he became Michael’s (our eldest son’s) godfather. Before enlisting he had been organist and “choirmaster” at Wells Cathedral. Needless to say he soon produced a good little ad hoc choir for church services and his piano playing was an inspiration.
During Lent I invited a series of speakers, one of which was Gilbert Russell, both a priest and doctor. He spoke about sexual morality and I well remember one good point he made: that the traditional Christian view (in 1943) was not right
just because it was based on Victorian standards, or the Prayer Book or the Bible. It was right because this was the best way sex worked—the best way to handle this marvellous dynamic and explosive power. I still believe that to be true—with obvious modifications.
My great achievement there was to get Archbishop William Temple to come and address an open meeting in the NAAFI. It was not long before D-Day and although the date was secret one “felt” the big moment was near. I thought it would be valuable to get someone of his stature to talk to all these high-ranking and hugely responsible people about the worth of the effort and sacrifice the War involved. He spoke well and received a good oration.
In “question time” he was asked what he thought of the Americans! (NB it’s 1943!) He answered well: “If you think of them as having once been British you will be continually annoyed at how different they are, but if you think of them as a separate nation you will be continually surprised at how like you they are.”
Archbishop Temple stayed the night with Air Chief Marshal Harris—and I was told to collect him at 9.30 a.m. next morning and put him on the train. I had a small Morris 8 car and duly drove to the house, squeezed him into the passenger seat—and drove off through the surrounding woods. After only half a mile, I ran out of petrol! He was so kind and sensitive to my embarrassment: “You go and get the petrol while I sit and say my prayers—don’t worry at all.” Never have I run so fast with a gallon of petrol!
Harris used to be driven daily at great speed to the Air Ministry. Once in High Wycombe, having jumped one set of lights, he was halfway through the next when a stationary car prevented him going forward. This gave the chance for a horrified young policeman to leap forward to make an arrest—until he saw who was in the car! The driver recalls this conversation. Policeman: “If you go on like this, sir, you will kill people!” Harris, with icy calmness and cold fury: “Sonny, my job is to kill people!”
Soon after this D-Day arrived—great tension, much coming and going, and an enormous sense of achievement shared by the whole nation. There was a local event organised in the High Street, a kind of civil and forces’ morale-booster. The RAF band led a march-past which Harris took—standing on the roof of the porch entrance to the main hotel. I had to give a short address, standing beside him—terrifying. I remember being rather proud of coining a phrase “… Let us all continue to drive out the rats from the sewers of Europe”!!!
Budge tells me the assistant RAF chaplain-in-chief had paid her a visit before this to see if I was willing to be posted overseas again. She was now pregnant and had gone to live with a Miss Gill in a nearby village. With her usual generosity, she raised no objection to my going. Denys Pouncey promised to look after her, so I was posted to an MFH (Mobile Field Hospital) in France.
The tented hospital I was posted to was in a field near Caen. It was very busy with casualties but for major surgery patients were flown to Halton RAF Hospital. Although we were a few miles from the front line, there was plenty of activity and it was satisfying to feel part of it again. The devastation in the little French villages and towns was awful.
As the invasion progressed, so we moved forward—from Caen to Erps in Holland, then to Brussels, where we took over a large civilian hospital and became RAF No. 8 General Hospital.
The civil population was very, very friendly—in France, Holland, and Belgium. My transport then was a 15 cwt Bedford truck—which for some reason had been fitted with a power siren under the bonnet. I think it had been used by the bomb-disposal boys before—and they hadn’t bothered to remove it. I found it marvellously effective in traffic jams—just a touch of the button was enough!
During a lull in activity one of the doctors suggested I might have my broken nose straightened. This would be followed by a week’s leave—so I agreed and timed it so as to be at home when my first infant would be born. Friends I had made among the civilians gave me presents for Budge and the baby. I was past caring about being in uniform and seen carrying a toy horse on wheels—it was so exciting. But at the end of the week the babe still refused to come, so I had to return to Brussels. A week later it was dangerously overdue, and Budge had a very bad time when Michael was eventually born in Guys Hospital, on December 22nd.
I was anxious that at Christmas the wards should be well decorated. I approached some of the larger shops for help. One after another pleaded wartime enemy occupation as an excuse for refusing—until I met Rene, the daughter of Baron Vaxelaire. He was the owner of a large store, Bon Marché, in Brussels. Rene persuaded him to be responsible for one ward—about 24 beds. Not only were the window-dressers sent in to rig up sledges and reindeers and Xmas trees beautifully decorated, he also gave each patient a present together with one for his wife at home. Immediately, not to be outdone, several other stores followed suit.
Christmas in the RAF is generally a pretty beery binge. On this particular Boxing Day, I remember the very starchy matron and the group captain CO both sitting in the mess in front of the lower half of an open window which looked over a basement gap and then at a wall. They were both very merry and were competing as to how many dinner plates, used like Frisbees, they could smash! The noise was horrific, and many people were angry about the irresponsible waste—but it was also very funny to see them “with their hair down”.
As our forces battled their way forward, I was posted to look after two fighter/bomber squadrons well into Germany—on Celle Heath, and some other small units. Two memories are indelible.
First, as it was clear we should be there some time, I thought it would be good to have a chapel! There was a large factory nearby for making wooden pre-fab huts, and it was manned by Russian slave labour. With the impending fall of Germany there was no supervision and the Russians were bored. Our W/O transport was a friend of mine and a nonsmoker. He offered to give 500 cigarettes if I could persuade them to build me a church. This they willingly did—within five days! Made to measure, it was attractive, and with a large brass shell case as a church bell it was well attended. My CO called it “St. Loots in the Pilfery”.
But it was also while I was at Celle that I heard about and visited Belsen Concentration Camp. The Army medical corps and the Red Cross had discovered it two days previously. I cannot adequately describe the scene, or the smell: the huge piles of corpses in the huts where other inmates were too weak to move them: the excreta everywhere and the huge pits—larger than two tennis courts—full of the dead—young children, women, and men; some naked, some still wearing shreds of the infamous striped shifts. Then we saw the ovens—some with half burnt bodies.
I asked how I could help. “We need blankets, sheets, clothes—anything you can bring.” I went back to my CO, who allotted me three drivers and four five-ton lorries. With these we went into the Hamburg city centre and demanded these things. It’s the only time I wore my officer’s revolver. People claimed to know nothing about Belsen’s existence—and either out of fear or shame they gave what they could. I remember going into one large office, ordering the man in charge to let us have all the typewriters and seeing him sweep them away with half-written letters still in them—about twelve. Our biggest haul was the interior peace-time fittings of two luxury liners—the Bremen and Italia. Twice we filled the four lorries with woolen blankets, linen and clothing, cutlery and crockery, and delivered them to the camp. The Red Cross were doing their best to cope with recording what they could, hence the need for typewriters.
I remember one of the staff asking if I would take a little girl, aged about eight, for a ride in my car—to see something besides the camp. She had been born in the camp, and her parents were already dead beside her. She can’t have weighed more than 25 lbs.! We drove a little way into the country and came face-to-face with a flock of sheep, with the shepherd in front holding a lamb! It was a live version of the Good Shepherd picture. She didn’t know what “sheep” were! I heard she died next day.
At this point the war was within sight of the end. Hamburg was obviously going to be the city “centre” for N. Germany—for Military Government, various HQ, and a leave centre for the troops. Stanley Betts, senior chaplain RAF in Germany, asked me to find a suitable house for a “Christian Leadership Centre”. Till then this had been based in Brussels. Men needing a little boost to their faith or morale had been able to spend a weekend resting. There would be a talk or two, followed by discussion and plenty of fun. This so obviously had served a need, that now we agreed men could/should come for six days in Hamburg. The longer time would enable us to have a more structured course.
I found the ideal house, with a garden, dropping down to the River Elbe. It had a good little motor-cruiser and its own landing stage. The house was owned by a shipping magnate who had been building U-boats—so I didn’t feel too bad about requisitioning it. The basement had a large room, which could be the dining room, and the kitchens, etc. The ground floor rooms were parquet floored, gracious and well-proportioned with beautiful chandeliers: the bedrooms all had tasteful fitted carpets. It could easily be made to accommodate 25 people and was altogether ideal for our purpose. We called it “Trinity House”.
I organised a staff of a boatman mechanic (ex-German Navy), four women—including a cook—to run the house, and an RAF Sergeant (ex-rear gunner) to see to all the administration, rations, and staff’s payment.
One of the German girls, Anna, had escaped from E. Germany. She was soon followed by her sister, who had “ogled” her way past the frontier guards and had twice been raped. She was desperate to rescue her mother, who was left behind and obviously could not pay the sort of price she had paid. She pleaded with me to arrange an official permission-to-travel document—but the authorities in Hamburg would not make an exception. So, I remember getting some crisp “mil-gov” notepaper. My sergeant typed out the necessary words, and then we put on “official stamps”: one was the catering officer’s stamp, one was the chaplain’s crest—cut out and stuck on—and we got several signatures—mine, Stanley’s, the sergeant’s. Our bet was that it would make the necessary “visual” impact, as few of the Russian frontier guards could read English! Anna’s sister was back in Hamburg with her mother within five days!!
Stanley and I gave the lectures and took a lot of trouble. We began by assuming nothing, but confronting those attending with the state the world was in—really shocking them. This was the springboard for a positive outline of the Christian faith. The afternoon was always free for sightseeing, and the cruiser could take that number round the harbour and down the river. (Once we explored a creek, and as we turned the boat round we saw a corpse come to the surface!)
The togetherness, the lovely chapel (made out of the drawing room), and our availability to listen and talk to anyone privately seems to have made a real impact on those who came. But this is not all!
It soon became clear that we needed a dog around—to help people relax on arrival. Some were a little apprehensive as to what they had let themselves in for by coming. I soon found the ideal answer. A Countess Pollier had a Great Dane, “Santa”, to which she was devoted but couldn’t feed. She was delighted to find it a good home but asked if she might take it for “walkies” weekly. This was the beginning of an important development. She spoke perfect English, and when we had a WAAF group she asked if she might listen in at the back. She then begged us to meet Arend Wolf—a German Naval Officer responsible for demobilizing the U-boat crews. Those who lived in W. Germany could go home. Those from E. Germany were in real trouble. They quite understandably refused to leave the “shelter” of the city and were living in gangs among the ruins—huge piles of tons of masonry. In civilian life Arend had been a lawyer and, having met Stanley and myself, he begged that we might meet a number of his friends who spoke English (our German was minimal). Arend had done a senior scout course at Gilwell (pre-War) and held his “wood badge”, and his friends were as concerned as he was about these German youngsters on the loose. He wanted us to realise how many Germans in Hamburg were as anti-Nazi as any of us. “We were not brave enough to be martyrs, like Bonhoeffer, but we want to renew our Christian faith and what you were saying to the RAF personnel is what we need to hear.”
Before accepting, I spoke with Brigadier Armitage, the “Town Major”, in Hamburg. At the time there was a strict ban against more than three Germans holding any gathering. His response was most encouraging. The Allies can’t stay here forever! Germany must be governed by Germans. If you can gather men of Arend’s quality and give them new confidence in their Christian faith, you’ll be doing something really valuable.”
With this green light we arranged for about 30 Germans to meet at “Trinity House” (the name of the centre, in Blankensee) for a half-day during the few days break between the RAF courses. It was a most fascinating group—highly intelligent, young and not so young: solicitors, businessmen, teachers, two pastors, and several young wives. We did not provide more than bread and soup, as we didn’t want “food” to be a lure. Several of them had to walk six or seven miles to attend. One was a young U-boat commander (of 23 years!), whose arm had been blown off by a Mills bomb after the hostilities had ended. He was keen to join the group, but his words were spat out like a verbal machine gun, so full of despair and hate. (A few years later he was preaching in the pulpit of St. Martins-in-the-Fields).
We started with the question: Is religion important, or is it something meaningful to some people only, like music or art, interesting to “the religious” but not more than a refined hobby?
We did not pull any punches. From our first question we moved to the reality of belief, the mystery of creation, and how one could find out its purpose—if there is one! Then to Jesus and his life, the meaning behind the crucifixion, reconciliation and forgiveness: Easter, the Holy Spirit, prayer, sacramental worship in response. We ended the course by the question: “What can Christians do, collectively and individually, in this present actual situation?” At this point we invited Brigadier Annitage to spend an afternoon with us to tell what could be done. The outcome of that meeting was a unanimous decision and official permission to set up a sister-house to do for Germans what we were doing for our troops.
St. Michael’s House was “born”. I stayed on a few months beyond my de-mob date still trying to find a suitable German pastor to take it over. I left it finally in the hands of Hilary Butler, an RAF padre who spoke fluent German. The idea seemed to catch on, and a similar house was established in S. Germany and another in Berlin itself. But in 1950 the tensions between East and West Germany were at their height.
Although Archbishop Fisher (who succeeded William Temple) was all booked to fly out for its opening, the whole plan was scrapped, as the Russians were accusing us of “training young Germans in military leadership.” The potato was too hot to hold. The Bishop of Southwark came to stay with us in Hamburg to see the state of things in Germany. He was quite impressed with both Trinity House and St. Michael’s House. I drove him around to see something of the devastation of “carpet bombing”, the refugees, the hunger, and thirst—but also the positive signs of hope and promise. We also had a visit from Bishop F. R. Barry, Brian Green, and Sir Robert Birley, then adviser on education to Military Goverenment of the British Zone in Germany (later H.M. of Eton). He said that St. Michael’s House and its work for the Germans was the most positive and recreative work he had seen to help post-war Germany.
It was not all hard work. During one break I drove in my jeep to see my sister Noel in Strasbourg, in S. Germany, and working with UNNRA. Most of the way was by Autobahn, so I was driving fast. I remember enjoying the lovely countryside and total lack of traffic. I was approaching the crest of a rise in the road and noticed what looked like a rope lying across it on the ground. I stopped about 20 yards short and walked forward—only to see that it was in fact the rough edge of the concrete where a crater replaced the bridge that should have been there! Little wonder there was no traffic.
In July 1946, I finally left Hamburg to accept Bishop Simpson’s invitation to become rector of Clapham in S.W. London.
In one sense, I was sad to leave Hamburg. I had made some really good contacts with delightful German civilians and the work at both St. Michael’s and Holy Trinity Houses had been so very worthwhile—a real “mission field”, where the response was obvious and exciting. But it was also obvious that others must be left to carry it on—and I had a marvellous wife and child waiting for me at home.