The Long Journey
The concluding episode in Michael Whiteman’s epic account of his days as a P.O.W
From the Danube to Rye
The next day, the same thing, but we had hardly started work when the sirens blared, we were taken under the sub-way at the station which we weren’t too happy about, as we thought that was what might possibly be bombed. Anyway, as soon as the all clear was shouted we came back over the river to the farm, we didn’t go back to the town again, thank goodness. At about six o’clock in the morning round about the 17th April we moved off to another ferry along the river, it brought us to the south side of the Regensburg, where we went into another farmyard. It had been kept very clean, the buildings were all the way around a central yard. We occupied one of the buildings away from the main house. It was while we were here that the air-raids started again over the town. The day after this nasty one, we were told that a party of POWs were crossing the river on the railway line when it was bombed, killing twenty of them. We were not very happy about this, after years of being POWs then suddenly so close to going home this had to happen. We were on the move again, but started off just at dusk. It wasn’t safe to move in daylight. Even then at night, a long way off we could see a chandelier hanging in the sky soon after the bombers were coming in on target. We stopped close to a main road that night, or rather day, and on again the following evening. The following morning we stopped at a large farm, all in one end of a large stables, a load of Germans arrived with their horses and light horse drawn guns. They disappeared again while we were asleep and so the last marching night came. We arrived at a nice little farm overlooking the road about three or four hundred yards away. The 25th April, that evening, we were sure we could hear a slight rumble a long way off. The farm people let us have some potatoes which we used on the old pig boilers again. When you are a POW boilers are very useful.
IT seemed a bit quiet the next day, but we were sure something was happening somewhere. The 27th April, yes there was the rumble of guns. The 28th April, yes, definitely near, and nearer. We were becoming excited now, the morning of the 29th April the guns were not very far away, we were just waiting and wondering. We found that all the guards had disappeared except for one. He said he volunteered to stop to hand us over to whatever army that came along. Along the road came a few disarranged German soldiers, then an odd tank, then another pulling another without fuel. One was on the edge of the village turned round to face the oncoming army, but it did not fire, it was a bluff. Then at twelve-thirty pm. slowly came an armoured car with the Yank flag flying, it was followed by tanks and a few infantry, a few went into the village with no shots fired. We shouted and waved, what a glorious sight, a couple of tanks came up to the farm and the Yanks just said “Are you OK guys?”. We said “We are now”. What a day. They asked us if the guard who was left was OK to us, we said “Yes he was”.
I must say that all the guards we had for the four months we were on that march were very good to us. Later that day some of the K Rations were brought to us, we felt we were living in luxury again. The next day a truck arrived with a few Yank soldiers with their powder guns. We were smothered back and front down the insides of our uniforms. All over, it was DDT, we all looked as though we worked in the flour mills, we had to give ourselves a good shake and to hold our breath. We all weighted ourselves on the farm scales, we were all very light. I weight 7 3/4 stone, instead of 10 1/2 to 11 stone! The long march with no food took its toll, but we all made it, which was better than a lot of the others who were also on marches.
The USA packs of food kept coming, the weather was now warm and sunny, we had to walk down to the village and look around. The Yanks had taken over some places for their own ends I guess, a few of the lads found a wireless which was put into the kitchen of the farmhouse. We seemed to get on OK with all the farm people. Then came the 8th May we just managed to get the wireless onto London programmes, we heard Churchill speak and Big Ben strike Midnight and we all went mad. It was officially all over, bar the shouting, what a relief now for all of us even the farm people said “Danken Goot”. I think that it was on the 10th May when the Black Service Cops arrived with three small trucks, open top. We packed in having to stand, we held onto the sides and each other, the white dust from these funnily made roads, making us look again like millers. These darkies drove like the clappers, it was almost frightening, we didn’t want any mishaps now we had got so far, about an hour and a half later and we arrived at Landshut Aerodrome.
A lot of German bombers and fighters were there, all now immobile. A lot of the lads had already arrived and were swarming about, many of them were washing and dipping into a huge water tank, so we did the same, it was good to get rid of all the white dust. That night I slept under the wing of a fighter with my mates, then next morning, we were all put into sections of twenty eight, when your number came up for your section, that was your plane, and so excitedly we boarded our Dakota and flew to Brussels, Belguim. There were so many planes waiting to land that we had to circle for twenty minutes before we could get down, then when empty the planes could get up and away. We lined up on the way off and were handed tooth brushes and paste and all the toilet things. We went to a hostel and given food coupons, we had a walk around Brussels. After having our baths we were feeling good, except for our uniforms which were not a bit grotty. Midday the next day we found our meal coupons would finish, so we went to get more, we were told that the lads at our hostel should have gone home on this day. We were given another day’s coupons and told to stop in the hostel until we were called for. So we had an extra day here. Late morning on the 13th May we were eventually taken to Brussels Aerodrome. It was a bit of a shambles really, a number of wooden seats forms were formed into a long “V” shape with an opening at the point end, as each Dokata taxied along like a taxi service, the side door would open. The RAF lads in charge of the drome field would slowly count through the number that the pilot would allow, the Yanks would only allow 28 bods to fly. We were so surprised that 36 or 37 were allowed. Only the RAF lads would have done this I’m sure.
An so we moved down the field and turned round to take off. Another moment of suspense – we were suddenly told, right lads all come to the front and cram over the front wheels close as possible. I think the RAF lads were enjoying this really at our expense. Well we’ve just had a full load of fuel and the wind is a bit strong and we want the tail to life off the ground so we can take off. So we did start moving, again hanging on the each other as we got towards the end we started to life off. Loads of tall trees coming towards us. To us it seemed as if we wouldn’t make it. It didn’t seem to be a lot of space, from us to the tops of the trees. Once up and flattened out we went back to our bench seats along the sides of the plane.
What a sight it was to see the Cliffs of Dover again after five years. I remember May 1940, it was the last thing I looked at as I walked from the sand dunes and wondered if I might ever see them again? And so to a large airfield near Aylesbury. Once again we had to cram up over the front wheels to a safe landing. A lorry took us to one of the large hangers, where we were ushered behind a screen, a quick check from three or four doctors. I guess to see if we were still alive.
The other end of the hanger a long table was set with food, scones, buns and cakes. I’m sure I hadn’t seen anything like this since Sunday School parties. We were all so embarrassed I think really with our dirty uniforms, and having all these young WAAFs behind us like butterflies fluttering about trying to make us eat as much as we could. Our stomachs were far from eating, only small amounts at this time. They had shrunk so much over the past few months with practically nothing to eat as normal. And so taken to our barrack room quarters by an NCO we were told, on your beds find the telegrams and to just put home address and to put home in 48 hours. Now this was latish afternoon, so the grams would not reach home until the 14th May.
We were now handed our all new uniforms and all clothes, plus boots and kit bag. We showered and dressed in all new outfit, had a meal what we could eat of it, and spent the evening at the NAAFFI, not late to bed. It was still lovely, fine weather. We sat on a grass bank, the WVS were there to kindly sew all our tags etc on our tunics, paybooks, pay – and everything that had to be done was sorted. Even our ration books were ready for double rations to help us fatten up, before going back for training. Yes, I did say training.
What a joyous day to arrive at Rye Station on the 16th May 1945, afternoon at 3.15pm after travelling from High Wycombe by train earlier that morning with a full kit bag. It was Feb 1940 when I was last at this spot. I could not believe it to be true for my mother and aunt were patiently waiting for me . The telegram I sent said 48 hours and it just about made it. My first words were “How did you know I was on this train?” They didn’t say, but I am sure earlier trains were met? We walked up the station road, kit bag on my shoulder. My cousin happened to be going home from shopping, she had one little boy walking and a little girl in a pram. The kit bag was put across the pram which I was pleased to get rid of the weight on my shoulder, and off we went to Tillingham Avenue where I lived with my aunt. A lot of chatter, but my head was still in a whirl. I still could hardly believe that I was home after those long years living behind barbed wire. I fetched my uncle in from the garden. He said “Hello Jim, good to see you again”. He always called me Jim. He was a lovely man. We all had tea. That evening I phoned the best girl ever. (A story at the end about her). I stayed at home for a day or so trying to acclimatise myself to civvy life again. At this time I could not bring myself to walking up through the town, knowing everyone I knew would stop me to speak. Instead I pumped up my old bike tyres and went round the back road to Rye Hill and biked to my Mother’s on the Wittersham Road, Peasmarsh. It was quiet up there, where I could collect myself.
Back in Rye after a week, I made up my mind, right you’ve got to face it boy, and so I did. Everyone knew me in Rye. It took me about an hour to get to the High Street from Ferry Road.
I was whipped into Dennis Ironmonger by Old Mr Dennis for coffee. I worked here as a boy of 14. It saved me from walking further along the High Street. Anyway I had made the effort and next time it wouldn’t be so bad now I’d been seen.
I was missing my mates who I used to get around with. My real mate died in Malta in April 1940, even before I was captured. We could always be found in the Conservative Club in the High Street. I did not go in there again. That’s how it was affecting me at this time. Something I had to overcome, I did. During the two months leave I did put on quite a bit of weight, but I could not eat large meals yet. It would take a bit longer, it did help having double rations though. By the middle of July my time was up, and I was send to Morperth, that’s north of Newcastle. We were mixed 1st and 2nd batteries of Search Light Lads. We were put on extensive training, daily rifle firing, going through the gas sheds, running, fast marching, rifle drill, ordinary drill and were we stiff after all that, but it did disappear. We finished up like guardsmen. A gang of us were sent to Donnington, Salop, as MPs on the gates of the camps there, where there was a big Ordinance Depot.
V.J. Night 15th or 16th August, I was on duty, but I did go over the road with others and watched a huge bonfire which was lit. All the ATS girls were there in their pyjamas with the lads doing the conga with a huge drum beating. Quite a sight and a celebration. Everyone feeling so happy that the war had now ended. I was there till the end of October when I was sent down to Westerham. Still MP on the gates and a big lorry camp at Knole Park.
In December I went to Maidstone for the three weeks course in Horticulture, just thought it would come in handy for me later, which it did. Then the last Christmas leave which was nice to be home again for a week. Now for the big 25 group demob, about the third week in January. The long haul from Westerham to Guildford. Hanging about with lots of bods, why was it taking so long? Civvie suits, hats and all the other gear to be dished out. Eventually on our way me and another fellow from Lydd got to Ashford. Guess what? no trains to Rye! It was too late. So we spent a night at Ashford Station, still what did it matter? A night porter went straight to bed for much needed sleep. My leave paid up to the middle of May, and now on Z reserve. So my six months training originally finished seven years, all but one month later. I consider myself very lucky to come home in one piece. My heart goes out to my lost mates when I see their names in Rye Church, where I often go and light a candle with thoughts.
Now to me the most important of all my years away, I am going back to the end of July 1938 when two young seventeen year old girls were sent to Rye Telephone Exchange from Tonbridge. They lodged with my aunt where I also lived. They were both quite shy to start with, probably because of my presence, but as time went by my mate and I got along very well. We made sure that they came to no trouble. By Christmas 1938 we were all one year older and I was going with Molly, feeling more serious as she was too.
My call up came in June 1939, so I was now in Somerset and we decided to become engaged on my embarkation leave, and so I went away, and all those years Molly never missed a week without writing. I wrote cards and letters when ever they were given to us by the Germans as I was now a POW. It was because of this bond between us that strengthened my will power that I am sure made me more positive that I had to make it home.
It was October 20th in 1945 when we were married in St Mary’s Church, Rye, which we both knew so well. I was still in the forces at Salop, and on a weeks leave. Molly stopped on in Rye and was still a Telephonist. At last the de-mob in January 1946 and as I said previously May was the end of me in the Forces.
I moved to Peasmarsh in March 1948 and worked at Peasmarsh Place Gardens. We were both very happy with holidays and joining in Village activities. We reached our Golden Anniversary, when unbeknown to us such a party happened. We were told a few would call in during the day, but on coming in they all stayed over thirty people came and including my employer, Lady Davenport, who stayed for the whole time.
Our love for each other never wavered for fifty-six years, when sadly she had to leave me.
It was Molly who urged me on through my POW years. She was a lovely person The Love of My Life.
I have written this account of my adventures during those difficult times in memory of Molly’s dedication to me over those turbulent years.
From the April 2008 Issue of Rye’s Own
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