Before describing my involvement in Operation Chariot I should explain that this forms part of Where Next-a record
of my journeyings, 1919-1959, which I produced in 2002.
I joined the Royal Navy in April 1936, aged 16, to train as a member of the Communications Branch. In July 1937 I
Left HMS Ganges (Boys Training Establishment) as a Boy Telegraphist. Further training onboard the battleship HMS Revenge was followed by eighteen months service on the China Station (onboard the cruiser HMS Cumberland, then the destroyer HMS Delight). I would normally have spent two-and-a-half years in the Far East but, with the outbreak of war in Europe, the Delight and other destroyers were sent home, arriving at Portsmouth at the end of December 1939.
The first half of 1940 was spent in convoy work and the Norwegian Campaign. In July, off Portland, the Delight Was attacked by about fifteen JU87 dive-bombers. The ship was lost, twenty five of our ships company were killed and quite a few wounded, including myself (gunshot and shrapnel wounds). I spent nearly seven weeks in hospital at Weymouth, then joined Coastal Forces.
I JOIN COASTAL FORCES
On 12th September I travelled by train to Portsmouth, thence on convalescent leave, returning to Portsmouth on 5th October. Two days later I joined HMS Dolphin (Fort Blockhouse), the submarine depot at Gosport, prior to joining Coastal Forces, comprising of small craft such as Motor torpedo boats, Motor gunboats, Motor launches etc. Later on, Coastal Forces had its own headquarters base, HMS Hornet, a short distance away, in Portsmouth Harbour.
I had started my sea-going career on a battleship, then another, next a cruiser, then a destroyer. Now, on 7th November, I travelled to Poole, Dorset, to stand by my new ship, HM Motor Launch 144. Building was being completed in the Dorset Yacht Company boatyard at Hamworthy, nearby. For a few days the coxswain (a Petty Officer) and I were billeted at the home of an elderly lady whose nephew was Hedley Verity, the Yorkshire and England cricketer, who later, as a soldier, was wounded in Sicily, and died in an Italian Prisoner of War camp. He was an Army paratrooper, I believe.
On 11th November 1940 we commissioned the 144, our ships company numbering 11 only, with two Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officers, the C.O. being Lieutenant J. Gibbons, who had been in the RNVR since before the war broke out. Quite a number in Coastal Forces were peace-time reservists, others were men who were in the Royal Navy for hostilities only. If promoted to officer rank they were given RNVR commissions. Some, like the Coxswain and myself, were RN regulars (Active Service a confusing description, I thought!) A few weeks later I was advanced to Leading Telegraphist.
During the next three months we initially carried out the various trials a new craft has to undergo. E.g. Engine, speed, communication, compass trials, etc. and then operated from Fort Blockhouse and from Bursledon on the Hamble river, a few miles from Southampton, carrying out a variety of duties. Whilst at Fort blockhouse we experienced several heavy air-raids on Portsmouth and the harbour. In particular, one night when we were hit by one of the mainly incendiary bombs raining down. Fortunately we prevented any damage to our craft.
On 7th March 1941 we left Fort Blockhouse and, at noon, arrived at Newhaven in Sussex. This was to be our base for the next few months as one of the eight boats (numbers 137-144) in the 5th ML Flotilla. We tied up alongside the railway jetty from which the cross channel ferries would go over to Dieppe, in normal times. We also used their building as workshops and as accommodation when a spare crew arrived later. The base was later given the name HMS Aggressive and was to become a very busy place as the war progressed. One of our main duties would be Air-Sea Rescue in the English Channel by day, and night patrols, looking for German E-Boats over towards the French coast. These E-Boats were bigger and faster then us but, particularly by moonlight, we would appear to look like small destroyers which might deceive them!
We would operate in pairs along with an RAF High Speed Launch and out patrols would last for 48 hours, lying off Dungeness Signal Station by day. A signal from there would send us dashing off to the area where a plane was reported to have come down. We rescued a number of British, Allied and German airmen but sometimes we would only find dead bodies, rubber dinghies or wreckage. The weather would vary from being very pleasant to very rough. These MLs, though of wooden construction, could withstand severe buffeting. Damage on one occasion resulted in our going to Shoreham for repairs. On several occasions whilst on air-sea-rescue duty we would sight a floating mine. We would then sink it (blow it up) by rifle fire.
We called at Dover several times and whilst there had occasional experiences of shelling by the German guns on the French coast an eerie experience, as explosions would occur without any warning. My duties took me to the signals office in Dover Castle, from which Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was later to oversee the D-Day Normandy landings. On 27th July we took part in a small raid ourselves, landing a number of soldiers near Cap Griz Nez. Throughout our patrols near the French coast we were occasionally bombed or shelled by suffered no damage.
Unfortunately ML 144 met her end in September. I was due to go on a weeks leave when we were told one more patrol had to be carried out before the boat had its periodical check-up. We now had a spare crew in the base at Newhaven and the telegraphist willingly took my place. I watched the 144 slip out of the harbour. At dusk the next evening, somewhere off Dungeness, ironically, she hit a floating mine. The accompanying ML went to the rescue but five of the crew, including my relief, lost their lives. So, suddenly, our ships company was broken up. We were a happy company during our time together and we were all proud of our little ship. I doubt if the same comradeship is to be found anywhere else as on a small naval ship. We, who survived, had lost some fine shipmates.
I remained at the base, assisting with maintenance work on the other launches of our flotilla. It was at about this time that the Swedish ship Gripsholm was in Newhaven Harbour. Bearing large red crosses on her hull, she was to take part in an exchange, with the Germans, of wounded prisoners of war being repatriated. Little could I know that, in a few months time, I would myself be a POW in Germany.
On 11th November I left Newhaven and proceeded to HM Signal School, HMS Mercury. The school had been moved from Portsmouth to Leydene House, the residence of Lady Peel (actress Beatrice Lillie) some seven or so miles from Petersfield in Hampshire. My C.O on ML 144 was to take command of a new Steam Gun Boat (SGB) in a flotilla led by Peter Scott, son of Captain Scott of the Antarctic, and offered to take me with him, if approval was given by the drafting authorities, however I opted to take the course linked to my advancement. How different my future would have been had I gone to the SGB I shall never know!
A hectic four weeks instructional course ended on 10th December. On the following day I went off to Portland, in Dorset, to join HMS Attack, a shore establishment and headquarters and drafting centre of Coastal Forces.
After nearly a month at Portland I was off again, on 6th January 1942, to the little fishing town of Brixham in Devon. There I joined another ML, Number 192, leader of the 20th ML Flotilla. Lieutenant Commander W. L. Stephens RNVR was C.O. and Senior Officer of the flotilla.
On 12th January we sailed for Weymouth, our base. During the next few weeks we were engaged on air-sea rescue and patrol duties, with weather varying from good to occasional very uncomfortable periods. We were due to pay off our flotilla and hand it over to Free French crews on 2nd March however on 28th February we found that plans had been changed. We hurriedly prepared and put out to sea, arriving a few hours later in Southampton. On arrival work was begun, fitting new guns and two upper-deck fuel tanks, and indication that some fairly lengthy journeys lay ahead of us. But to where?
On completion of these alterations we sailed to Falmouth along with three other boats from our flotilla. Soon we were joined by others from Dartmouth (7th Flotilla) and Falmouth (28th), making a total of 16 with our C.O. as Senior Officer of all MLs. We were then to find a Motor Gun Boat and a Motor Torpedo Boat and, later, an old United States of America destroyer (re-named HMS Campbeltown) in our midst. Another ship, the Princess Josephine Charlotte, carried a large number of army commandos. What was it all about?
Over the next three weeks we were joined by an additional four members, including a telegraphist, and took onboard a variety of extra stores. We carried out various exercises, including a dummy raid on Devonport dockyard and a journey to the Scilly Isles to accustom the soldiers to travel on small craft. The weather couldnt have been much worse! All preparations were carried out under extreme secrecy and it was not until we were, as a group of 19 vessels, some distance away from the harbour, on 26th March, that we all found out where we were going and why. Operation Chariot had commenced.
The only enemy-held port in Western Europe with a dock large enough to take the German battleship Tirpitz, presently in Norwegian waters, or other large ships requiring repairs, was St.Nazaire in France. The dock, La Forme Joubert, also known as the Normandie dock was built, I believe, for the crack pre-war French liner of that name. The object of the operation was to put the dock and its ancilliary equipment out of use and to damage the ports use as a U-boat base. The Chief of Combined Operations was Admiral Lord Mountbatten, our task force being led by Commander Robert Ryder R.N. and Lt. Colonel Charles Newman, in charge of the commandos. Cdr.Ryder, as a Lieutenant, some years earlier, had been in charge of a sailing trip, the Penola, on an expedition to South Georgia. He also, when due to come home on leave from service to China, sailed, with some fellow officers, not by the normal means, i.e. a warship or passenger ship, but in a Chinese junk, the Tai Mo Shan. Lt.Col. Newman, a civil engineer by profession, was a Territorial Officer in the Essex Regiment, prior to becoming a commando.
Two destroyers, HM Ships Atherstone and Tynedale, escorted us for most of the 400 mile journey but didnt take part in the run up the River Loire and subsequent action. The submarine Sturgeon also played a small but important part, providing a guiding light at the mouth of the river.
Accounts of the operation are well covered in several books. Some time after the war ended The Attack on St.Nazaire by Cdr.Ryder gave a factual account and a later book, The Greatest Raid of All by Brigadier C.Lucas Philips, included experiences of many survivors. A more recent book Storming St.Nazaire, by historian James Dorrian, is the result of much research and interviews given a few years ago by the dwindling number of those who took part in the raid, including myself. Only a handful of the small craft were to make the return journey and, of course, it was not intended that the Campbeltown should return, its mission being to plough into the dock gates and, when the explosives in her bows were activated later, to burst open the entrance to the dock. Commandos onboard the destroyer and MLs would attack a variety of installations and other targets.
Casualties were very heavy. Of 622 personnel (Army and Navy) who took part, 169 were killed, many were wounded and many taken prisoner. Nevertheless, the operation was very successful, the dock being immobilised for the rest of the war, and a further seven years. A large boost in morale of the French people also resulted! Five Victoria Crosses and many other decorations were awarded. During the latter part of the journey and until we were some distance up the River Loire, the Campbeltown flew the German Swastika flag, instead of the White Ensign, and the small craft flew no flags, to look as if we were a group of German vessels. The Campbeltown, an ex-US four-stacker destroyer had been altered to look like a German MÖWE class ship. It had two funnels! Once the bluff was seen through and the shore batteries began firing, the Swastika was lowered and White Ensigns hoisted by all our vessels. Heavy gun-fire from shore batteries gave the small craft great difficulty in landing troops. ML 192 (my boat) was shelled, set on fire and went out of control. Four of our crew were killed, as were about twelve of our commandos. Only a few managed to get ashore as we came alongside the Old Mole, a projecting pier in the river. We had to abandon ship and swim ashore not far, but the water was very cold and tracer bullets seemed to be everywhere. Miraculously I wasnt wounded. I joined up with my C.O. and half a dozen others and, a few minutes later, ran into several German soldiers. There was little we could do. Suddenly we were their prisoners. Raus! Raus! Hande Hoch! Raus! they shouted at us, and it was easy to guess what they meant! Off we went, doubling along a few short streets, then into what appeared to be a small courtyard behind a building. We were relieved of our steel helmets and cork life-jackets, then lined up with a wall at our backs. Some of our captors began fixing bayonets on their rifles. We feared the worst but soon guessed that they were more jittery than we were. We knew why we were at St.Nazaire; they didnt, at this point. Was this part of a larger invasion?
We were taken to what appeared to be a store at or near the U-boat pens and one of the collecting points for prisoners. A German Army Colonel walked in and said Ah, for you the war is over. It wasnt, of course, but a sudden change of direction. A few hours later, and with our clothes drying in the morning sunshine, we were each interrogated at the local headquarters by a German Major, complete with cloak and monocle. Through an interpreter, he asked a variety of questions and received some very funny answers. He asked me what the British reaction had been to the recent fall of Singapore (a sore point but I said nothing). He then said that he had known the R.A.F Officer, C-in-C Singapore, as a friend before the outbreak of war. It was whilst Lieutenant Commander Beattie was being questioned that a huge explosion took place. He smiled, no doubt guessing correctly that it was his ship, the Campbeltown, blowing up and breaching the dock gates, towards which he had earlier conned her, under tremendous gun-fire.
MY INVOLVEMENT IN OPERATION CHARIOT
The normal complement of these MLs included two officers and one telegraphist (the latter doing any visual signalling required). A flotilla leader carried a Leading Telegraphist (myself on ML192) and a signalman. For this operation a third officer, a motor mechanic, a seaman and a telegraphist joined us, making a total of 17.
During our time in Falmouth we carried out various exercises in preparation for what lay ahead. I recall collecting a spare battery for out loud hailer, making a jury aerial as a spare, should ours be damaged, an d a daily visit to Cdr. Ryders erstwhile HQ in a sea-front hotel, where he had a small staff. I would collect any signals to pass to my C.O. Lt. Cdr. Stephens.
Once at sea, my C.O told me where we were going and why (up till now it had been a well kept secret, only known to a few). We were in fairly close formation so visual signalling was mainly used by the small craft and when we would proceed up river there would be very little wireless communication required, so I was given another task. Some of these MLs, including ours, had dual steering. The coxswain was to be on the secondary wheel on the open bridge, instead of in the wheelhouse, but there were no duplicate telegraph controls to pass orders to the engine-room. It was therefore decided that I would be in the wheel-house, operating the telegraphs as instructed from the bridge above via a voice-pipe, with an eye on the echo sounder whose pen recorder showed the depth of water below us. Behind me would be a loudspeaker connected to the W/T office equipment below, should any signals come that way. We had a dummy run during the afternoon. During the run up-river I was alone in the wheel-house in almost complete darkness, only sufficient light to enable me to do what was necessary. At first it was fairly quiet but as we progressed it was obvious, from the noise, that we were firing and being fired on.
Soon I realised that we had been hit several times, then that the engines had been put out of action. Orders from the bridge became difficult to hear but then I did hear the order to Abandon Ship. We were a few yards from the Old Mole. When I managed to get out on to the bridge (the jammed door having made this difficult) the scene around me was worse than I could have imagined. Our launch was on fire and everywhere searchlights, gun flashes and burning craft lit up the surrounding area. I joined a soldier (commando) on the upper deck and we dropped over the bows into the water. We helped to push a Carley Float, with a few personnel onboard, towards the landing steps or ramp a short distance away, to join up with other survivors. The time must have been shortly after 01.30 on the 28th, Zero hour for the Campbeltown to reach the dock gate.
LIFE AS A PRISONER OF WAR
After interrogation, we were taken in lorries to a POW camp near the town of Rennes. This camp (Front Stalag 133) housed French Colonial prisoners from North Africa, and was a rather unpleasant place. We slept on the floors of our huts, everything was very dirty and washing and lavatory arrangements primitive. It was here that we were registered as POWs, given numbers (mine was 18622 and I still have the small metal plate with that number and the camp number on it). Details of our names, ranks and Service official numbers would then be sent off to Geneva for the International Red Cross Organisation. Those POWs who were wounded were taken to an improvised hospital in the vicinity and would join us later when fit enough.
On 4th April we were taken by bus to the railway station to be transported to somewhere in Germany. The four-day journey was to be the worst I was ever to experience. Our transports were cattle trucks. On each was painted in French Eight horses or forty men. The grills, through which the horses, or cattle, could look, were boarded up for us. I believe there were about thirty-six of us in our van with the only amenities a five gallon oil drum container as a lavatory. Lying down or sitting was difficult, sleeping only sporadic. We were given bread, corned beef and water and told it was to last two days, but as Ive said, the jounry lasted for four. We did have one break on the way, at Aachen, where a plate of soup was provided and welcomed! It was then that I thought of a remark made to me by my father when I was about 13 years of age. My mother had prepared some Scotch broth and I had moved the vegetables to one side, drinking the liquid. Some day you may be glad of a plate of soup said my father. How right he was!
On 8th we arrived at Tarmstedt Ost railway terminus, thence to the village of Westertimke, on Luneburg Heath, and into part of Milag camp nearby. This compound housed a large number of Merchant Navy personnel, of many nationalities (as civilians they were classed as internees) and together with Marlag (for Royal and Allied Naval personnel but not yet completed) was to form Marlag und Milag Nord camp, some 30 kilometres south-east of Bremen. The Army commandos were still with us but shortly after were sent off to Stalags (for Army personnel). One day, shortly after our arrival at Milag, we were fallen in to be counted (a two or three times daily routine which we were to experience for a long time ahead). The German Commandant called Lt Cdr. Beattie out to the front. He, no doubt, wondered what he had done wrong. The Commandant then announced that her had heard, on the radio, that Lt Cdr. Beattie had been awarded the Victoria Cross and congratulated him. We all cheered! Ten days after our arrival at Tarmstedt a group of us were back there again to board another train wooden seats, and blinds to prevent us seeing anything of the countryside, but much better than our previous rail journey. We travelled via Bremen and Oldenburg to Wilhelmshaven and thence to the German Navy Barracks where we were put into solitary confinement (not cells but, in my case, a large room with a number of beds and nothing else, except for a few mice scurrying about). A couple of boring days followed. A paper and pencil would have been welcome but there was nothing to do except look out of a window. I could see a number of Naval and Military people walking along the road well below where I was. The only other object of interest was a clock tower, but the clock was stopped, at ten minutes past six. It reminded me of the last two lines of Rupert Brookes Grantchester poem:
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
There was no honey for tea that day or for a long time after!
The reason for our being at Wilhelmshaven then became clear. Each of us was to be interrogated this time by German Naval Officers. Our group consisted of officers, and ratings such as myself, involved in communications: about fifteen or twenty of us. I was shown British newspapers with front page news of the St Nazaire raid but if it was hoped to prise any more detailed information from us I dont think they would have any success.
I recall my questioner, an Oberleutnant, asking me Where is your birthplace? (I think he meant my home address). I refused to tell him. According to the Geneva Convention we were only obliged to give our name, rank and service number. He then said, rather sarcastically, It wont do the Great British Empire any harm for us to know your birthplace. I, rather cheekily, replied It wont do the Greater Third Reich any good to know. He changed the subject but not before telling me that a Norwegian sailor had died whilst there and we didnt know his birthplace so it made matters difficult! Actually we were treated quite correctly.
After interrogation I joined the others who had been questioned, then, next day, we returned, again by train, to Milag.
On 24th April we were moved to Stalag XB (Sandbostel). This camp housed Naval POWs, until Marlag was to be ready for occupation. Other prisoners included French and Yugoslav soldiers, also some Russians in a separate compound. We were accommodated in tents. On the 9th June my C.O., Lt Cdr. W.Stephens and another officer, a submariner, escaped but were re-captured four days later. They were later sent to Colditz Castle, Oflag IV C, but after a short while L.Cdr Stephens escaped, along with Major Pat Reid, author of The Colditz Story, and reached Switzerland. Later he arrived back in England after an eventful journey via Spain, etc.
On 19th June all R.N. personnel were returned to Westertmimke, and into Marlag, which consisted of two compounds: Marlag O for officers, Marlag M for other ranks. The Geneva Convention decreed that officers and N.C.O.s (or equivalent Naval ranks e.g. Chief and Petty Officers and Leading Rates) were not required to work for the enemy power (though this was not observed in the early stages of war). I referred earlier to the sinking in 1940 of HMS Glorious; there were very few survivors. The only officer, the Warrant Telegraphist, was in Marlag when we arrived. From conversations with him, I learned that his rank had been ignored at first and he, suffering from frost-bite, etc., had had a pretty rough time. After the war, in 1946, I met him in the Naval Signal School and had a brief chat. Two years later he died, in Malta. Five years as a Prisoner of War and he died three years after! When I go back to Malta I always visit his grave.
Some time after our arrival in Marlag M, those junior to the above ranks were sent to Lamsdorf, Stalag VIII B, from where they would be assigned to working partied. Two days after this, all remaining personnel in Marlag M moved over to O compound, whilst washplaces and other buildings were still to be completed. We were with the officers for almost two months and during that time a few attempts at escape were made, the biggest being made via a tunnel (named MABEL, I believe) dug underneath one of the wooden huts, the exit to be a few yards outside the outer wire fence. I played a small part as a look-out, sitting at the end of the hut near to the fence, reading a book and with a switch nearby to control the light in the tunnel and so alert the diggers when a sentry approached. Unfortunately, the few who got out were soon re-captured.
One day whilst walking around the perimeter of the compound (inside the wire, of course) with an officer from the Vandyck (mentioned earlier), we came across a swarm of bees which had alighted on one of the bushes. My father was a bee-keeper so I had some knowledge of how to handle a swarm and my companion had had experience also. We thought we might be able to do something with the bees, to set up a new colony, if we could get some necessary equipment. A request to the Commandant elicited the reply that he, too, was interested in bee-keeping but couldnt get any materials so there was no chance for us. Next day, the swarm made off again, to alight else-where, I expect. On 12th November we moved back to our own compound and gradually settled into some sort of routine.
There were about 200 officers in Marlag O, 800 of us in M and 4000 in Milag. Marlag O and M were the responsibility of one German officer, Milag under another, and in overall charge (i.e. of Marlag and Milag Nord) was Kapitan zur See Schuur, equivalent to Captain R.N. The Commandant in charge of Marlag (O and M) was Kapitan Leutnant Backhausen and, later, Frigaten Kapitan Rogge. In charge of security (the responsibility of the Abwehr) was Ober Leutnant Gussevelt who had spent some time in the USA before the war and whose English was reasonably good. Captain Nottman, Merchant Navy was Senior Officer in Milag. Day to day contact with the German staff was through a Man of Confidence. The Senior British Officer was Captain D.Graham Wilson, C.O. of the Vandyck. For Marlag O it was Lt Cdr. Jackson and, for M, Chief Petty Officer Graham (both submariners incidentally). Between the two Marlag compounds was a piece of ground partly occupied by the German offices, stores etc., Milag stood on slightly higher ground a short distance north of us.
I have often been asked questions about life a s a Prisoner of War. How were you treated? What about food? How did you pass the time? Many books will have been written about POW life. One in particular, Prisoners of the Reich by David Rolf, a historian from Birmingham University, deals with a number of camps, including Marlag, and based on interviews given by ex-POWs, including myself. Ill try to answer some questions now, however.
We were accommodated in large wooden huts, each divided into about eight rooms, each occupied by fourteen men, who slept in two-tier bunks. A stove, with sometimes an inadequate supply of fuel (winters there can be very cold), supplied the heating and cooking, such as the latter was! A table and home-made chairs completed the furnishings. The first room I was in had eighteen occupants, some in three-tier bunks. Someone wrote on a piece of cardboard, placed above the doorway:
Abandon Hope all ye who enter here,
attributed to Dante, over entrance to Hell!
Another notice announced:
Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.
The food supplied by our captors consisted of what was given to their base line troops, i.e. those in barracks. It wasnt much, but if we had a Red Cross food parcel each week to augment it, we managed to have a good meal and snacks each day. If supplies of parcels were held up, and we had none for a week or two, we would cut down on exercise. Football (soccer) was popular but the ground was hard, with little grass, so some games, like rugby, werent played. The arrival of some U.S Navy personnel saw the introduction of baseball. By the way, we also had quite a few members of the Canadian, Australian, Norwegian, Greek and other navies. One hut, or part of one, was occupied in the latter days by Free French Navy personnel. We also had a few Italians (as prisoners) after the surrender of Italy, but we had no contact with them.
One building was used for a variety of purposes. Church services were held there. We had an Army Chaplain (Himself, of course, also a prisoner) and some who were lay preachers. The hut was also used a theatre and many good shows were put on straight plays, musicals, operettas, etc. Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were always popular and it was surprising how much talent there was in the camp. I believe that permission to perform some of these shows had to be obtained from DOyly Carte or whoever, perhaps from the Performing Rights Society even in those circumstances.
With regard to clothing, our next-of-kin could send, every three months a parcel containing such items as underwear, socks, etc., but no other garments which could be classed as civilian wear. When taken prisoner, I was wearing a polo-necked jumper and trousers. Shortly after, we were given the opportunity to choose items from a large heap of clothing. For some time after, I wore a jacket (French Army Officers type, I believe) and a pair of jodhpurs, tucked into my socks! Later, a consignment of khaki battle-dress arrived from the UK. We then looked more presentable.
For many of us it was an opportunity to study. Classes in several subjects were organised and examinations were taken. Exam papers were sent out from Britain and held in a safe place in the German Commandants office until the correct day and time. The exams were properly supervised, the papers sent home and some time later we would receive the results, which were also sent to our next of kin, in my case my mother. I successfully took several City and Guilds and Admiralty exams. I took the London University Matriculation exam in two parts. I passed in the first. The second took place later, by candlelight, as an RAF bombing raid was taking place not far away. The papers never arrived in England but I doubt if any of us would do well in those conditions.
There were many others who would study subjects, not with a view to exam taking, but to keep their brains active. For example, some studied German or other languages. One of my room-mates took up Swahili, his tutor being an officer who had retired to live in Kenya for several years before returning to active service when war broke out. A correspondence course between the two compounds allowed this to take place! Some POWs learned to play musical instruments. Books to study and musical instruments, sports equipment, etc. were sent out by the British Red Cross, YMCA and other organisations. To them and the International Red Cross Society we owed a lot of gratitude. It helped so much in many ways.
When any new POWs arrived we were always eager to hear any news. We did have a wireless set in the camp, unofficially, parts having been smuggled in so we were able to get news of the progress of the war, until the set was found and the operator given a few days solitary confinement. For a short while we had a crystal set in our room, each of the few components being held by different members then put together for a particular news bulletin. Searches by the guards made it difficult to hide anything. Towards the end of the war we, in our room, were caught out. A number of wooden cabinets, for use as wardrobes, were placed in the huts central corridor. During the very cold weather a few were broken up and burnt in the stoves. Through a sequence of events, the Abwehr searchers came into our room, found parts of a cabinet and reported the matter to the Commandant. I believe he would have turned a blind eye or just given us a warning not to repeat the offence but he had to take it further or be reported himself by the searchers, who were very much junior to him such was the way the system worked. After about three weeks, when we thought the matter had been forgotten, all of us (14 members) were told to fall in by the main entrance gate. There we were told we had been tried in our absence, found guilty of sabotage and given 14 days strenger arrest (heavy arrest) i.e. solitary confinement each.
There were only two cells in a building near to Milag, so it took some time before we were dealt with. We were given bread and water (food brought by our room-mates every third day only), no smoking or reading material allowed and so on. It didnt worry us overmuch as by this time our morale was rising, that of the Germans falling. In nearly 24 years in the Royal Navy I never had any punishment, but the fortnight Ive described was, of course, given by a German Naval Officer.
From a health point of view we had a sick bay, with a few sick berth attendants, and two Naval Medical Officers (for Marlag O and M) who held surgeries at specified times. The senior one was Surg. Lt. Cdr. Knight R.N. The other was a member of the Royal Canadian Navy. If treatment required surgery patients were taken to Milag. There, many major operations were carried out by a Yugoslav high ranking Army surgeon, Dr. Kamenkovic, himself a POW, a tall distinguished looking person, who did an excellent job for anyone, probably including Germans, who needed help. There was also a dentist, in Milag, a British Army Captain. A German doctor on the staff co-operated with our Medical Officers but most medical supplies were sent out to camps by the British Red Cross and other organisations. Without their help, in many ways, the quality of life for POWs would have been very poor.
Earlier I mentioned escape attempts from Marlag. A Petty Officer, and member of ML192s crew, managed to get out but was back inside within a few hours. Getting out of the camp could be difficult but the real problems began once you were outside and required much preparation and ingenuity. A book called Escapers Progress shows how determination and some good luck can succeed. Lieutenant David James RNVR, escaped twice from Marlag. The first attempt resulted in his recapture at Lubeck, the Baltic seaport. He missed, by minutes, a ship which could have taken him to Sweden. A second attempt was successful. His story makes good reading and the film Albert R.N. shows how he did it. He was the only person to successfully escape from Marlag.
I heard the Germans remark, on a number of occasions, that we should not be fighting each other but we should be together fighting the Russians. An attempt was made by the Germans to recruit British POWs into what was called the British Free Corps. Members would wear a German style uniform and be prepared to fight against Russia. I have a copy of the leaflets distributed in our camp. Needless to say there were no volunteers for a variety of reasons!
In the first month or two of 1945 there were signs that the morale of our guards was becoming lower, and our hopes began to rise, but we were always apprehensive as to how we would fare when hostilities were nearing an end. POWs throughout Germany, Poland and elsewhere were being moved westwards, many having to march long distances. On 6th April RAF personnel from Sagan (Stalag Luft III) moved into our compound, we having moved at short notice into Marlag O.
We were not aware that a large number of prisoners had earlier escaped from Sagan. Nearly all were re-captured but, on Hitlers orders, over half of them were to be shot. In fact 50 were shot by the Gestapo, the reason being given that they were trying to escape. In 1948 a number of Gestapo members were put on trial and convicted for their treatment of these RAF escapees, who took part in what has become known as The Great Escape.
Shortly after moving into the officers compound, we were moved up the hill and into Milag, leaving our officers behind. We sought accommodation wherever we could find it, amongst the Merchant Navy men. The first week or two after being taken prisoner were rather trying, not knowing what lay ahead of us. Now the remaining time in captivity was equally uncertain in different ways.
After we left Marlag O a contingent of officers were moved out to march towards Lubeck.. They were put in with a column of German soldiers, which was attacked by allied planes whose pilots wouldnt know that the column contained our POWs. At least one officer was killed and others wounded. The march was discontinued and the officers joined us in Milag. Whilst the officers were marching the German guards tried to weed us (Royal and Allied Navy men) out from amongst the Merchant Navy men to get us on the march as well. It was a trying time. It was possible to crawl under some huts as they stood on short pillars. I was hiding under one when I saw the feet of two guards as they went past. The black shepherd dog with them looked under the edge of the hut, must have seen me, but didnt bark. I think it winked at me! I was relieved. The search was given up after a short while.
By now we could hear gun-fire and it grew louder. Shells began to whiz over the camp from southwards and directed to roads to the north in pursuit of German units. By the 11th, guards began to leave and soon lost control of the camp, with the RN members taking over. An unfortunate incident took place on the 20th. Some Merchant Navy men (Egyptians or Greeks), thinking the war was over, lit a small fire outside their hut to boil some water. This was near to the perimeter wire and must have attracted a plane. Mistakenly a bomb was dropped and machine gunning took place. Seven men were killed. On the 28th April the camp was liberated by the British Guards Armoured Division, when several tanks and armoured vehicles arrived. In one of the Jeeps was a Naval Officer, Lieutenant Micky Wynn RNVR, the C.O. of the MTB during the St Nazaire raid. He had been taken prisoner but had lost one eye and had other wounds. His life had been saved by his Motor Mechanic (Bill Lovegrove a Chief Petty Officer). He (Lt. Wynn) was later repatriated because of his wounds. Now he had come back, as he said, to liberate Bill. A Union flag was produced and hoisted and we all fell in for a special parade. Next day, army lorries began to move the sick and those longest in captivity to a safer area. On 1st May it was my turn, to be taken by lorry to Diepholtz where we spent the night in a tented camp. The following day we set off and arrived at a village named Borghorst where we spent two nights, accommodated in a disused mill. We slept in racks or shelves where bales of cloth had previously been stored. Not very comfortable but we were enjoying the freedom.
On the 4th I had my first journey by air, in a Dakota plane. We flew from Rheine to Brussels where we were put into hostel premises in the Rue de la Roi. Two days later about thirty of us were transported in a Lancaster bomber and landed at an airfield at Dunsfold in Surrey. We were a mixed bunch but representatives from each of the three services awaited us, and soon we (RN members whose depot was Portsmouth or Devonport) were on our way by road. We dropped off some Royal Marines at Eastney barracks, Southsea, then we were taken to the Nissen-hutted Stockheath Camp, near Havant. It was now around 2a.m. A well organised reception team was ready for us and, after being provided with new uniform (to replace our old battle-dress), paid, given ration cards, railway warrants, having a quick medical check-up, etc. and snatching some sleep, we were on our way around 8 a.m. on leave for six weeks.
Some time later, whilst in London, I met a former room-mate from our POW camp. We went along to a cinema to see the newly finished The Captive Heart. We recognised the location of the filming. It was Marlag Nord!
I arrived home in the Scottish Borders early on 8th May, VE (Victory in Europe) Day. Now I had to adjust to another change freedom, after my three years in captivity.
After my return from Germany at the end of the war and until I retired from the Royal Navy in October 1959 as a Radio Electrical Artificer (Chief Petty Officer) I took various courses, particularly regarding my transfer to the Electrical Branch. I served on Shore Wireless Stations in England and Malta, also at the R.N. Electrical and Gunnery Schools. Service onboard a destroyer, HMS Carysfort, in the Mediterranean, and an anti-submarine frigate, HMS Urchin, in Northern Ireland, was followed by my last commission, at the R.N. Signal School in Hampshire.
After leaving the Royal Navy I was employed for roughly the same length of time (23 years) by G.E.C. Telecommunications in Coventry.
Since the formation of the St.Nazaire Society I believe I missed attending the annual reunions on only about four occasions, the majority of these reunions being held at various venues in London. A few were held at Falmouth and a few in conjunction with visits to St.Nazaire.
I travelled there on the 25th anniversary (by ferry and car)
the 40th anniversary (onboard HMS Yacht Britannia)
the 50th anniversary (onboard the current HMS Campbeltown)
*the 58th anniversary (on a War Research Society coach)
*This was our final visit as an organised group of members and friends.
In August 1981 I attended, by invitation, the Department of Sound Records at the Imperial War Museum, London. The subject of this project was British Prisoners of War 1939 to 1945. The areas covered in the interview included circumstance of capture. The five sides of audio tapes were to be put into the museums archives.
In September 2002, along with five other Charioteers, I attended the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire for the dedication of a chair in the Chapel, in memory of those who lost their lives at St.Nazaire and of a tree in memory of all who took part in the operation. Also present were several relatives, in particular the niece and great niece of William Savage V.C., whose generosity made this event possible.