The returned POW Bible story made headlines in both England and Northern Ireland. (See also “Bible Returned to Family after 70 Years.”)
A comfort in battle and prisoner camps, pocket Bible lands home after 70 years
John Bingham and Mary Blaxland
The Sunday Telegraph (London, England)
7 March 2015
Clockwise from left: the Bible’s inscription alongside a picture of L/Cpl Albert Douglas and wife Ellen; the Italian Servigliano labour camp; Sapper George Alan Boanas; and Mr Douglas and his wife on their wedding day
IT WAS a special delivery more than 70 years in the making—from the battlefields of North Africa and a series of Prisoner of War camps to a village social club in Hampshire.
When Margaret Boanas handed over a small leather-bound wartime copy of the New Testament to Paddy Douglas last month, it marked the fulfillment of an undertaking linking both of their fathers since 1943.
Two years earlier, in April 1941, Mr. Douglas’s father, Albert, then 31, was carrying the pocket Bible when he was captured by Rommel’s Afrika Corps at Barrani, Egypt, while serving with the Royal Army Service Corps in North Africa. Inside it, the Lance Corporal, from Belfast, kept a precious photograph of himself and his wife Ellen, whom he married two years before the outbreak of the war.
A devout Christian, he drew comfort during his captivity from a handwritten inscription on the facing page carrying a verse from the book of Joshua, reading: “Be strong and of good courage, be not afraid neither be thou dismayed for the Lord thy God is with thee.”
He carried it with him as he was shipped across the Mediterranean first to a holding camp in southern Italy, then further north to Camp 59 at Servigliano where he and his fellow prisoners were put to work in a labour camp.
It was during one such work party in 1943, that he and another British soldier seized a moment of opportunity and made an escape. They spent months passing from place to place, sheltered by Italians, and finally crossing into Zermatt in Switzerland. He walked into the village on the day of his wedding anniversary.
He was eventually transferred back to the UK just before D-Day, weighing just six stones. He later said his faith had kept him going.
Among a smattering of personal possessions he was forced to leave behind as he escaped was the New Testament. But, crucially, inside he had added a new inscription in pencil, only now faintly visible, giving his home address and service number, adding: “If anyone should ever find this book will you please return it to L/CPL Douglas, Belfast, Ireland, as it means more than all the world to me and is of great sentimental value.”
One of his fellow prisoners, Sapper George Allen Boanas, a driver from 4 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, retrieved it, resolving to return it if ever he had the chance.
Sapper Boanas’s ordeal as a PoW would last until 1945, when he was freed from the Stalag Luft IV labour camp in Poland. He was then passed to the care of the Americans.
When Mr Boanas wrote to the address provided in the Woodvale area of west Belfast, he learnt that the house had been demolished and drew a blank.
“My dad always wanted the Bible to be returned. It had been kept in beautiful condition which is testimony to just how much he had looked after it,” said Ms Boanas. She later sought the help of Roland Clarke, a friend’s neighbour who researched family trees as a hobby.
Through his connections in the Royal British Legion, Mr Clarke found Mr Douglas’s service records and placed a small appeal for help in the organization’s magazine. That, in turn, was picked up by Sunday Life, a Northern Ireland newspaper.
A clipping of the article was posted anonymously to Mr Douglas’s son, also called Albert but known by his middle name Patrick, a former major in the Royal Irish Rangers, who lives in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.
Mr Clarke arranged a meeting in his village sports and social club where the Bible finally completed its journey back to the Douglas family.
“It was emotional. I had done something that my father wanted done for 70 years,” said Ms Boanas.
Mr Clarke said: “It felt wonderful. Paddy was in tears, it was so emotional for him to have the New Testament with all of his dad’s writing, it was quite unbelievable.”