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Extracts from the Wartime Memoir of
Thomas Goddard WOOD, RAAF 411423

Transcribed by Kristen Alexander


3 Squadron Kittyhawks at Amiriya, during the Battle of El Alamein [Imperial War Museum.]
 

 

Note: This memoir has been transcribed from a photocopied typescript and includes errors, abbreviations and inconsistencies.  In the interests of readability I will correct errors, spell out abbreviations, write dates in full and, where appropriate, insert punctuation and pagination. Where explanatory text is required, I will include this in either in text square brackets [xxx], or as footnotes. - K.A.
 

 

Tom WOOD.  Service history preceding memoir extracts...

 

·        28 April 1941: Enlisted. No. 2 Initial Training School, Bradfield Park, NSW, 8 weeks.

·        26 June 1941: No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School, Temora, NSW, 8 weeks. 14 Course, ‘A’ Flight. Tiger Moths.

·        25 August 1941: No. 1 Service Flying Training School, Point Cook, Victoria, 16 weeks. Demons. Gordon Scribner was on the same course.[1]

·        22 December 1941–16 January 1942: No. 1 Operational Training Unit, Nhill, Victoria. Wirraways. Jock Perrin was an instructor.[2]

·        22 January 1942: 25 Squadron (City of Perth) Pearce, WA. Five pilots were posted from No. 1 Operational Training Unit—David Ritchie[3], Gordon Scribner, Pat Fox[4], Norm Dean[5] and Tom Wood.

·        24 January 1942: 3 Squadron, c/- No. 1 Embarkation Deport, Melbourne.

·        9 March 1942—Sailed from Melbourne for Middle East on Tai Yang.[6]

·        15 April 1942: Arrived 3 Squadron RAAF base, Sidi Haneish.

·        6 May 1942: No. 71 (Middle East) Operational Training Unit, Carthago, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

·        9 June 1942: No. 1 Middle East Training School (C & R Course) El Ballah, Egypt.

·        15 June 1942: 3 Squadron RAAF, Middle East, Landing Ground 102.


 

 

Page 12

 

Nhill, Victoria. No. 1. Operational Training Unit (22 December 1941–16 January 1942). Wirraways.

 

Prior to being posted to Nhill on 22 December 1941, I was posted to 23 Squadron (City of Brisbane) at Archerfield, Queensland. This posting was later amended to number 1 Operational Training Unit, Archerfield.

Pearl Harbor had just happened and Air Board was in a ‘flap’. No. 1 Operational Training Unit was eventually formed at No. 2 Air Navigational School, Nhill.

The instructors at what was supposed to be an operational training unit were all staff pilots with no operational experience and were quite useless. Fortunately, Jock Perrin took the unit over and, being an ex 3 Squadron pilot, was able to impart some knowledge to us. As it was summer and extremely hot, flying started at 0500 [5.00a.m.]. The prevailing wind came from the direction of the town, which was in a direct line from the normal runway. This enabled us to fly up the main street (at Hotel veranda level) legitimately!!

My only claim to fame was shooting a ‘drogue’ (air to air target—an oblong pennant on a wire) down. As the poet said ‘it fell to Earth, I know not where!’

 

[Insert photo: C.A.C. Wirraway, similar to the ones we flew at Nhill.]

  

Page 13

 

We finished flying at No 1. Operational Training Unit, Nhill on 16 January 1942, had a short leave and were then posted to 25 Squadron (City of Perth) at Pearce, W.A.

We left Sydney by train to Albury, Melbourne, Adelaide, Port Pirie changing stations at each point, then Trans-Australian Railways to Kalgoorlie, changing again to Perth, where we arrived on Saturday 24 January 1942. There were five pilots posted from No 1. Operational Training Unit, Nhill: Pilot Officer David Ritchie (officer-in-charge of party), Sergeant Norm Dean, Sergeant Gordon Scribner, Sergeant Pat Fox, and self (Sergeant). The officer-in-charge, (David) travelled first class and the others second class.

During the trip across the Nullarbor the train was delayed several hours owing to heavy rain and several washaways on the line. As we had arrived in Perth late Saturday afternoon, David Ritchie phoned the Squadron to seek permission for the party to attach to the Squadron the following day. ‘That’s quite all right’, said the adjutant. ‘You needn’t come back at all—you have been posted back to No. 2 Embarkation Depot in Sydney.’ (Bradfield—on the station where I had commenced my air force career at No. 2 Initial Training School in April, 1941!)

On the trip across the Nullarbor at one of the hold-ups, Dave Ritchie introduced me to an Englishman. (I think he was in the British civil service) who had spent considerable time in India. The highlight of the conversation was having a myth exploded. At this time, Merle Oberon, one of the current stars of [the] screen, claimed that she was born in Tasmania. This Englishman claimed he knew her as Queenie Thompson, an Anglo-Indian prostitute who was born in India and as far as he knew had never been to Tasmania! To my knowledge I was one of very few people who knew of her background until after her death. When I told this story it was never really accepted.

Whilst in Perth we were billeted in the Palace Hotel[7] (a leading hotel of the standard and era of Petty’s, Sydney[8]) for the weekend and advised to present ourselves to the railway transport officer at Perth railway station to collect our movement orders. We spent a quiet weekend, during which I ate my first dozen oysters.

We presented ourselves at the railway on Monday (26 January 1942), collected movement orders and tickets (first-class this time, at the insistence of Dave Ritchie), loaded our kits on the train, then stepped back onto the platform to chat. Some little time later an RAAF Corporal wandered along the platform, paging Pilot Officer Ritchie. When he found us (with our help) he told us we weren’t going to Sydney and that we [were] not to proceed on the train. This was just before the train was due to depart. We informed the Corporal that we had been in the Air Force long enough to have learnt that wherever our kit went we went and there that was no time to get the kits off the train ([the] station master was by this time waving his flag) we had no alternative but to get on the train and go with our kits! Which we did!

We arrived at Midland Junction (the Strathfield of Perth) to the sonorous tones of the station master calling, ‘signal for Pilot Officer Ritchie, signal for Pilot Officer Ritchie!’ We claimed the signal which said, ‘Pilot Officer Ritchie and party are to proceed’. This really didn’t alter anything because we were proceeding regardless!

We then ‘proceeded’ without further interruption to Kalgoorlie, where we were to change to Trans-Australian Railways to cross the Nullarbor to Port Pirie. Here, we were greeted with yet another signal, this time telling us that our posting to No. 2 Embarkation Deport, Sydney was cancelled and that we were to report to No. 1 Embarkation Deport, Melbourne (Ascot Vale—we found on arrival to be the local showground) for further posting to No. 3 Squadron, Middle East. In due course we arrived in Melbourne and proceeded to No. 1 Embarkation Deport, arriving about 30 January 1942.

Page 15

On arrival at No.1 Embarkation Depot, we were told we would sail on a boat code-named ‘The Chinaman’ (it really was the Tai Yang—[a] 7,000 ton Wilh. Wilhelmsen Line cargo vessel with a Norwegian crew) on the 5th February, and were given about three days final leave. I had a quick trip to Sydney and back and then the saga began. We were issued with our overseas kit (.38 Smith and Wesson pistol, webbing, tin hats, respirators etc.). We were then advised that the boat wasn’t ready and were given leave until the next morning. This went on for three weeks, getting one and two nights leave at a time and returning by 8.00 a.m. next morning. We were then told to go on leave and report in each morning by phone.

On the 8th March, 1942 we were told to return to camp immediately. This was it. We went to Williamstown the next day and boarded the ship. The vessel had five twin cabins and as there were we five from Perth plus another six we met at the boat, Pat Fox drew the short straw and was allocated the sick bay. The other six passengers were a Doctor (Squadron Leader), an Army Major (who turned green and took to his cabin almost before we left Port Phillip and stayed there until we reached the Suez Canal), three Air Force Administration Officers (John Bothwell[9], Len Smith and Hughes) and an Air Force Signals Officer (Gerry Barnes) who eventually joined 3 Squadron.

We sailed a long distance south from Melbourne, then west across the Southern Ocean (cold, wet and windy), then north to Aden through the Indian Ocean. A reasonably uneventful trip except for rough seas in the Southern Ocean and the Red Sea and engine trouble most of the way. We seemed to have only one engine going most of the way and on two occasions in the middle of the Indian Ocean no engines at all—drifted for 24 hours on one occasion. During the whole trip we passengers did an hours’ watch each during daylight. Only one boat was sighted (friendly). However we learned afterwards that enemy submarines had been in the area where we had been adrift.

It was rather strange, we were issued with revolvers with our kit—but no ammunition. On learning of this the Doctor volunteered that he had plenty and gave the five of us 12 rounds each.

We stopped at Aden and went ashore for 5 or 6 hours, then up the Red Sea to Suez, through the Bitter Lakes to Ismalia, then through the Canal to Port Said. All ships going through the Canal have to have a pilot from the Canal Company. We won a mad Arab who ran us aground (into the side of the Canal) about half way along the Canal. As it was warm we took the opportunity to dive overboard and have a swim while they rigged the gear to winch us off the side. After several hours we got free and proceeded to Port Said, arriving on 11 April 1942—just two days short of five weeks after leaving Melbourne.

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We were taken from Port Said to Cairo, billeted in the city for two days, then by train to No. 3 Squadron base camp at Sidi Haneish. The squadron was on stand down and had sufficient pilots so the Commanding Officer (CO) (Bobby Gibbes)[10] organised the five of us to go to No. 71 Operational Training Unit in the Sudan to get some time on Tomahawks before commencing operations with the squadron.

We left base about 24 April 1942, went to Alexandria, then Cairo for a few days. We left Cairo by train on 1 May 1942, arrived El-Shelal the next day, transferred to a river boat, down the Nile to Wadi Halfa, back on the train, arrived Atbara (a railway junction) at 2.00 a.m. 5 May 1942. Whilst waiting for our next train, as it was getting hot (the temperature reached 127 degrees Fahrenheit—almost 53 degrees Celsius) we were sent to the Army store to get ourselves pith helmets (a vast improvement on a forage cap!), then back on the train to Summit, near Carthago and Khartoum in Anglo Egyptian Sudan where No. 71 Operational Training Unit (a British RAF station) was situated. This was an established operational training unit, local stone buildings etc. where they were flying Harvards and Tomahawks.

We spent about a month there learning combat techniques etc. from experienced combat pilots—a vast improvement on No.1 Operational Training Unit, Nhill which only had staff pilots (excluding Jock Perrin) who had never been in a theatre of war.

We then flew back to Cairo on 7 June 1942 in a Bristol Bombay (took ten hours in contrast to six days to get down). The next day we were sent to No.1 Middle East Training School at El Ballah, near Cairo, to do a short conversion course on to Kittyhawks. Then, on 13 June 1942 back to Cairo and then the next day to Wadi Natrou (on the Cairo–Alexandria desert road). On 15 June 1942 [I] flew in an Oxford from Wadi Natrou to Casferete, then by Kittyhawk to Gerawla and then on to Sidi Haneish in another Kittyhawk to rejoin No. 3 Squadron at L.G.102. [Landing Ground 102.]

[Insert photo of Harvard]

Page 18

On arrival at 3 Squadron base camp at Sidi Haneish, we learnt that the Squadron was operating from Gambut, but things were far from clear as Rommel was making a concerted push. We were advised that no further aircraft were to be flown to the Advanced Landing ground. At this time, Rex Bayley arrived from the front and said they needed more aircraft. I didn’t need much urging and the two of us literally ‘stole’ an aircraft each and flew to Gambut, to find on arrival our lot had evacuated and the Germans were coming in the other side!

We flew back to Behira, then on to Sidi Azeiz and as Bayley was running short of fuel, landed near a British tank corps. They used 90 octane fuel (we used 120), we both took on about 40 gallons each and flew back to the Squadron at L.G. 075 at Mischeifa. Miraculously nothing was ever said, even though Bayley had bent his prop through a bad landing!

The first weeks on the squadron were rather hectic as we were retreating almost daily (six landing grounds in 12 days), often taking off from one landing ground and returning to another if you were lucky enough to be on the last operation of the day (otherwise we had to travel by truck.) During one of these moves we slept under the stars, with nobody within miles, only to discover that during the night half the British army had over run us. I had a truck parked near me with one front wheel about six inches from my head and the other six inches from my feet. How some of us weren’t killed I don’t know! During this time on one operation I was flying No.2 to Nicky Barr (who was CO at the time), we were attacked by some Me109s and Nicky was shot down, finishing up a POW who eventually escaped in Italy.

By the end of June 1942 we had settled in at Amiriya on LG 91 where the squadron remained until after the El Alamein battle in October. For a desert situation we were reasonably comfortable. Sergeant pilots were not entitled to camp stretchers but CO Bobby Gibbes refused to have rank discrimination between his pilots and by fair means or foul (I think foul!) he organised camp stretchers for ALL his pilots. We were four to a tent (at various times I shared with Gordon Scribner, Garth Neill[11], Garth Clabburn[12] and Dick Hickson) and Pat Henning, our steward, made our tent even more comfortable by ‘carpeting’ the floor with blankets overlaid on canvas. Rather than separate Officers’ and Sergeants’ messes, as is customary, we had a Pilots’ mess which non-flying Officers were invited to join.

It was at this time that the ‘five little nigger boys’ who had left Melbourne together became fewer. Norm Dean was LMF’d[13]—then there were four. Pat Fox was wounded, hospitalized, and taken off strength—then there were three. Gordon Scribner was killed in combat[14]—then there were two. I got shot down—then there was one, David Ritchie who finished his tour and returned to Australia.

At the beginning of August we were stood down for three weeks. During this time I had a week in Cairo and had my 21st birthday there on the 10th August 1942. Also whilst on this leave I had my third haircut since leaving Australia. The first was by a Norwegian steward on the Tai Yang, the second by a big Negro in the Sudan and this time a French barber.

[Insert photo: digging a slit trench.]

Page 21

[Insert, an undated news clipping from The Sun’s Special correspondent with the AIF]

Flew ‘Blind’ into 70 Nazi Aircraft

Western Desert, Wednesday. Sergeant Tom Wood, of Lane Cove, Sydney, flew into 30 Messerschmitts and more than 40 Stukas with his cockpit smothered in oil preventing him from seeing. The oil pipe burst as the fleet of enemy planes was sighted by RAAF and RAF flights which had gone on to intercept them. ‘I didn’t want to miss the fun’, Wood told me. His horrified colleagues saw two Messerschmitts dive on the blinded pilot. German bullets tore through his Kittyhawk, from propeller blades to tail and then Squadron Leader Gibbes, of Manly, and Sergeant Caldwell of SA, swooped down on the attackers. Alternatively dipping the nose of his fighter to peer through the reflector sight and straightening up to fire his guns, Wood continued in battle until seven enemy planes had been destroyed and some badly damaged. The rest fled. The Australians, who included Joe Holder, of Toorak, went after the Stukas. It was a complete mix-up, with aircraft whirling everywhere. Squadron Leader Gibbes, who now has eight certainties and many probables to his credit, got bursts into the Messerschmitts in this battle, but he is not claiming them as probables. The squadron now has a total of 192 certainties. Another Australian fighter squadron is nearing the 100 mark, although it has been operating less than a year. A member of one of these squadrons is Flying Officer Harold Martin, of Indianapolis, formerly of the Eagle Squadron, who is the only American serving with the RAAF in the Middle East.

    [Typed insert of undated, unattributed article; hand annotated ‘This happened on 1/9/42.]

‘Desert Mix-Up’

Sixty seconds of fighting were packed into each minute by several Australian aircrews in one memorable desert mix-up.

Sergeant Tom Wood of Lane Cove, Sydney, flew during Rommel’s offensive, into the midst of 30 Messerschmitts and more than 40 Stukas with his cockpit screen so smothered in oil that he could not see through it. The oil pipe burst as the fleet of enemy planes was sighted by the RAAF and RAF fighters, which had gone out to intercept them.

‘I didn’t want to miss the fun,’ Wood said afterwards.

The horrified Squadron Leader, Bob Gibbes of Manly and Sergeant Norman Caldwell of St. Peters, South Australia, saw two Messerschmitts dive on the blinded pilot. Their bullets tore through the Kittyhawk from the propeller blades to the tail. Then Gibbes and Caldwell swooped down and scattered them. Alternately dipping the nose of his fighter to peer through the reflector sight and straightening up to fire his guns, Wood continued on in the battle until seven enemy planes were destroyed and some badly damaged. The rest fled.

The Australians who included Sergeants Joe Holder of Toorak[15], Rex Bayly of Pinnaroo[16], South Australia, and Warren Thomas of Malvern[17], South Australia, were acting as top cover for RAF fighters. The fighters joined by Bayley and Thomas went after the Stukas and the other four Australians got among the Messerschmitts.

‘It was a complete mix-up with aircraft whirling everywhere’, Gibbes said. Gibbes, who has now got eight certainties and many probables, got bursts into other Messerschmitts in this battle, but is not claiming them as probables. The squadron now has a total of 192 certain victims.

Another Australian fighter squadron, although it has been operating for less than a year, is nearing the hundred mark. During the recent fighting they have been mostly escorting RAF bombers and strafing enemy troops, vehicles and supply lines. They operated without loss. Harold Martin of Indianapolis, formerly with the Eagle Squadron, was the only American serving with the RAAF in the Middle East, until the big Allied offensive in North Africa in November, 1942, when Admiral Darlan was captured.

An Australian bomber squadron also helped the RAF to give Rommel the battering which prevented his move eastward ever getting really under way. They sank lighters in which Germans were bringing supplies from Tobruk to Mersa Matruh, and a few days later successfully attacked an enemy convoy in the Mediterranean.

Page 25

On 16 September 1942, we went out on an interception and found six plus Me109s, SSW of El Alamein. A dog fight ensued during which my aircraft was hit in the wing root with a 20 mm canon shell which exploded, shooting bits of metal all around, including into my ribs and legs. I was slightly stunned and groggy but managed to get back to LG 91 and, after a fashion, overshot the strip and stopped among the oil drums, the propeller stopping just before hitting an oil drum. I was carted off to a casualty clearing station for X-rays and sulphur drugs, back to the squadron and then off to the beach camp at Dekheila for 3 or 4 days with Charlie Coward[18] who had just finished two tours straight and was a bit of a nervous wreck. He was a beaut bloke but his condition didn’t help me. I was back flying again on the 24th September and on operations by the 27th September.

At this time ‘Gibby’ told me he was recommending me for a Commission, which was effective from 27 September 1942 but as things turned out I was not to know that it had been granted until some two years later!

Apart from operations, life became reasonably normal. Captain Frank Hurley visited the squadron for several days as an Official Photographer, taking many feet of film (now in the [Australian] War Memorial, Canberra archives). He also had with him films from his trips to the Antarctic with Mawson etc. which he showed us and also told us of his experiences. At our base camp I was also fortunate to meet Air Vice-Marshal Lord Tedder, who was Commander-in-Chief Western Desert. [sic][19] Later, during the build-up for the El Alamein offensive, General Montgomery arrived to give us a ‘pep’ talk on the general plan of the offensive. There was nothing secret about it, he just had the idea that everybody should know the general plan.

[Insert photo: Along Cairo–Alexandria desert road, April 1986]

 

Page 26

On the 20 October 1942, I was scheduled to go on an 8.00 a.m. sortie. I got in my plane, it wouldn’t start. It had a flat battery. I was rescheduled for an 11.00 a.m. sortie—a bombing raid with us as medium cover. Had a skirmish with two Me 109s which I managed to outmanoeuvre, but unfortunately I was attacked by two more who outmanoeuvred and eventually shot my rudder control wire, forcing me to crash land. I got out of the aircraft, opened up the hatch to get [my] water bottle and survival kit, but the 109s started to strafe. I ducked from side to side of the aircraft, then dashed off into the desert and curled up under a small saltbush. Some minutes later a German jeep arrived, the occupants of which spread out and started a ground search. It wasn’t long before they found me.[20] Their first words to me being, ‘For you the “var” is over’. I was taken back to the German air strip where I was placed in the custody of several pilots in their dugout, offered food and some attempts at conversation. It was at this time that my career as a prisoner of war began.

[Inserted, unattributed clipping regarding the posthumous promotion of Rawdon Hume Middleton; Photo of Tom Wood taken in Cairo for Officer’s identity card; and photo of John Upwood, Norm Caldwell, Tom Wood, at Stanley Bay, Alexandria, 1942. More photos on following page]

 

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[List of prison camps and dates]

Country

Camp

Dates

Africa

 

20 October 1942

 

Luftwaffe interrogation camp

20 October 1942

 

Mersa Matruh

21–22 October 1942

 

Bardia

23 October 1942

 

Tobruk

24 October 1942

 

Derna

25–26 October 1942

Italy

 

 

 

Lecce

27 October 1942

 

PG 75, Bari

28 October 1942–2 March 1943

 

PG 47, Modena

3 March–29 March 1943

 

PG 35, Padula

30 March–31 July 1943

 

PG 19, Ruffilo (Bologna)

2 August–11 September 1943

 

Cattle truck (40 hommes au 8 chevaux)

11 September 1943–14 September 1943

Germany

 

 

 

Stalag VIIA, Moosburg

14 September–20 September 1943

 

Fort Bismarck, Strasbourg

21 September–9 October 1943.

 

Oflag VA, Weinsberg

9 October–28 October 1943

 

Stalag Luft III, Sagan

1 November 1943–28 January 1945

 

[Insert: photo of Tom’s father, 1943]


 

 

Page 30

During the afternoon of my capture, I was flown by Fieseler Storch (small communications plane) to an interrogation centre about 30 minutes flying from where I had been captured. It was a small cabin aircraft designed for a pilot and passenger only. As I was a ‘desperate character’, apart from the pilot and I, there was a big German guard crouched behind me. He insisted on shoving his Luger, fully cocked, finger on trigger in the middle of my back. As we were only several feet off the ground the light aircraft bounced and I was prodded in the back at each bounce!

At the interrogation centre I was given a form which the German officer alleged was required by the Red Cross (of course it was a fake) and he told me if I filled it in completely I would be given a British Army great coat (a supply of which were hanging around the wall) and sent to Germany. If I didn’t comply, I would be handed over to the Italians! I finished up with the Italians at Mersa Matruh next day, where I was put in a tent and left on my own most of the day. During the afternoon a ‘stooge’ joined me. He purported to be a Fleet Air Arm pilot (spoke perfect English) with a good supply of maps shoved in his flying boot, cigarettes etc. We chatted for a while and he mentioned that he thought the ‘six hundred and first’ Spitfire squadron was operating. Whilst I had been suspicious of him, that phrase put me on guard as the squadron was always referred to as ‘six-O-one’.

From there I was moved by truck in daily stages to Bardia, Tobruk and then Derna (housed in the local gaol). I was then flown out in a three engine Savoia transport (me the only prisoner—the rest [were] Italians going home on leave) to Lecce in southern Italy and put in a tobacco warehouse overnight. As I was on my own I spent the daylight hours reading the names on the wall and found that Jack Donald[21] (ex 3 Squadron) had been there about a month earlier. From Lecce I was taken to PG 75 at Bari (a normal POW transit camp). This was a comfortable trip sharing a first class compartment with an Italian officer who was my escort and three Italian soldiers outside in the corridor as guards. I enjoyed smoking his Seraglio cigarettes.

After about three months I was transferred by train to PG 47 at Modena, in northern Italy, where there were a lot of South African and New Zealand prisoners. Whilst here I met Captain Charles Upham, a New Zealand army officer who had gained a VC and Bar (he was the only person to be awarded the VC twice in World War II). He was quite a character—he kept his VC in his tobacco tin! After about three weeks at Modena I was moved south again to PG 35 at Padula. This was a monastery which had been built in the 15th century. It was a huge building, built around a courtyard about 100 yards square. There were 24 monks’ cells, chapel and refectory on the ground level with a cloisters all the way around. In one corner was a magnificent marble staircase to the top floor, which had originally been one huge hall (four sided) for the monks to walk around in contemplation. During our occupation, upstairs was broken down into numerous dormitories. During the various moves around Italy I noticed that a lot of the farmhouses had little bunches of something hanging outside their back door. It was not until years later that I realised it was little bunches of garlic hanging up to dry!

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After about four months at Padula, the Sicilian campaign had started so we were once again moved north, this time to PG 19 at Ruffilo, near Bologna. It was here that I met up for the first time with a few of the pilots from the squadron (Geoff Chinchen[22], Jack Donald, and Mort Edwards[23].)

About a month after our arrival, the Italians capitulated and we were in effect ‘Free’.[24] The Senior British Officer suggested that we would be safer staying where we were but it wasn’t long before German troops moved in and took the camp over. We were loaded into railway cattle trucks (there was a sign in each truck which actually said ‘40 hommes au 8 chevaux’—40 men or 8 horses!—and headed northwards on what was to turn out, in various stages, to be a six week trip to Stalag Luft III.

We spent three days in the cattle truck the first time before arriving at Stalag VIIA at Moosburg in Bavaria (via the Brenner Pass). During this trip one of the POWs cut a hole in the floor and crawled out and opened the door, which was locked again by the guards.[25] This happened about three times. This camp was occupied mainly by Russians and we only stayed for a few days, obviously while the Germans organised the next move. The Russians were getting out of hand and the Germans put their guard dogs in the compound. Sometime later the Russians threw the dog skins over the fence—I won’t vouch for the authenticity of this story.

Back in the cattle trucks again and on to Fort Bismarck at Strasbourg (in Alsace-Lorraine). This Fort was quite old having been built in the time of the Franco-Prussian troubles. The guards weren’t wise to the ways of prisoners and as a result lost equipment and a considerable numbers of prisoners. One ruse—the guard on patrol was enticed to stop his foot patrol and stand and listen to an officer playing bagpipes. Whilst he was stationery and occupied at one end of his beat, POWs scrambled up the wall and through the fence at the other end. Geoff Chinchen and several friends made their escape from Fort Bismarck by bricking up the entrance to a small tunnel (of which there were many) and hiding out until we were all evacuated.[26]

From Fort Bismarck into cattle trucks again and off to Oflag VA at Weinsberg (about 40 kilometres north of Stuttgart), which we understood had been a French Officers’ camp. We remained here for a couple of weeks. At this time the Air Force prisoners were segregated (the German system was that each of their armed services looked after prisoners in the same service) and after five days travelling we arrived in Stalag Luft III at Sagan, eastern Silesia (now Poland)—about half way between Berlin and Breslau.

Stalag Luft III has been well documented by professional writers (The Wooden Horse, by Eric Williams and The Great Escape, by Paul Brickhill who was there in my time) and also on film (not very accurately in patches).

Page 32

On arrival at Sagan, I and another RAF officer (observer) Ken Sharp were allotted space in Hut 105, Room 7, in North Compound. The huts were divided down the centre with a corridor with double doors at each end. At one end there was a room on each side (Wing Commander Dickie Milne occupying one) and at the other end one single room (occupied by Squadron Leader Vic Wood) and a night toilet. This was a water closet which fed into the main pit some 100 yards away. Down one side of the hut there were about six rooms with six to eight officers in each and on the other about four rooms plus bathroom (with hand basins and cold water shower) and kitchen.

We joined four others—twins Dick and Eddie Barnes, Les Ford and — Gill. They were all RAF—Dick Barnes had been a pilot/navigator, Eddie a gunnery leader, Les Ford had been in a photographic reconnaissance unit and Gilly had been a gunner.

The set up at this camp was quite different in that each room drew their allotted rations (plus Red Cross parcels) which were pooled and we were responsible as a mess for cooking our own meals. The communal kitchen had a reasonable sized fuel stove, with oven, and the individual messes were rostered from about 12 noon to about 7.00 p.m., with an hour each, either on the top or in the oven—not both. It often happened that by chatting with your cooking mates you could get a small share of either the top or oven. We were lucky that we had our rostered time at the end of the cooking period which allowed us to have hot food at night. The only food the German kitchen provided was an allotment of boiled potatoes most days. It was amazing what could be done with the few things we had. (See the two menus—Christmas 1944 and Leslie’s 25th birthday.) [Note incorporated into Wood’s typed account.]

Our sleeping accommodation were bunks—wood straw palliasse on bed boards. The trouble was most of the bed boards went to help shore up the tunnel walls! I gave my boards away and used an Italian sheet suspended from head to foot of the bunk.

Each night we were locked in the hut [from] about 10.00 p.m. until about 7.00 a.m. next morning. Every night a German captain came around and counted heads. The first I encountered was Herr Pieber (an Austrian) who every night greeted us with ‘Good evening Shentlemen’, [sic] counted us and walked out saying, ‘Good evening Shentlemen’. Later he was replaced and this character always came around at 1 or 2.00 a.m. when we were all asleep. I many a time woke up with a torch shining in face, with this character holding up the corner of the blanket so he could see me. He apologised profusely one night saying how sorry he was and that he hadn’t meant to frighten me!

During each day we had two appells (roll calls), one about 8.00 a.m. and the other at 4.00 p.m.

During the summer we walked around the circuit [i.e. the compound perimeter], played or watched softball or cricket or watch the Poles play volley ball. A Canadian friend and I spent a lot of time just throwing a homemade softball to each other. In the winter we watched or played football (soccer or rugby), played bridge and if there was a decent freeze the Canadians played ice hockey. I saw my first snow in the winter of 1943/44 but the winter of 1944/45 was a lot earlier and more severe and they were able to make an open air ice rink. I took the opportunity to teach myself to skate (after a fashion).

Page 34

I became attached to the security side of the escape organization and did at least a one hour shift each day on security. I might mention that security within the camp was of a very high standard. We arrived in Sagan in November 1943 and the big escape from the hut next door occurred the following March [during the night 24/25 March 1944], and none of we ex-Italian POWs were aware of what was going on until a week or so before and then only because the two Barnes boys were on the work force and were to be on the tail end of the escape. I also spent a bit of time making shorts, altering uniform trousers and the like. Quite time consuming, unpicking and re-using the cotton!

Just prior to my arrival at Sagan the Americans were moved from the several different compounds to their own compound which was referred to as ‘God’s Little Acre’. This compound soon got full and the Americans began to spill back into our compound. A real league of nations as there already were British Commonwealth (UK, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Newfoundlanders—it was still a colony), Poles, Norwegians, Czechs, Belgians, Danes and a few other nationalities who had joined the RAF.

After the June 1944 Normandy landing the American daylight raids were built up and if we were on their flight path we were locked in our huts. It was during one of these air raids that I wanted some wood from our little wood heap which was outside our window. I climbed through the window as usual and when I landed on the ground realised what I had done. As I was within 50 yards of a sentry box I jumped back through window without touching anything. This was a jump of some 5 feet through a 3ft by 3ft window from approximately one yard from the base of the building. I could have beaten Jack Metcalfe that day![27]

When there was an escape of one or two people there was chaos. It is difficult to describe the chaos after the ‘goons’ had lost some 76 Kreigies in one escape![28] They eventually knew how many but, having established that, the next thing was to establish who. An outdoor office was set up in the snow, near the parade ground, with tables and chairs. The goons sat there with boxes of ID cards with photographs—we filed up and announced who we were and after identification we were allowed to move on. This counting and identifying seemed to take most of the day. It was inevitable that some of the escapees would be recaptured and returned, this news filtering through daily for the next few days. Then of course came the news of the massacre at various locations and from then on I don’t think anyone felt safe but nevertheless things went on as usual—the goons trying to keep us in, whilst we tried to get prisoners out.

There was quite a lot of talent in the camp—theatre, music, drama etc. and various shows were organised. John Casson was notable for his contribution as an actor and also as a director and producer. Rupert Davies, later famous as ‘Maigret’ was also involved.

Page 36

After the break through in the Middle East [and] the Tunisian campaign, the Sicilian and Italian campaigns brought us to the stage at the end of 1943 that the Second Front was imminent and that the war would be on its way to a conclusion. After Normandy in June 1944 we thought we could see the end and whilst both fronts (Allies on the west and Russians on the east) began to close in, in Sagan we were closer to the eastern front and on 27th January 1945 we started to be moved west and we spent the next three months virtually on the move, two months of which was spent in Marlag north of Bremen (Tarmstedt). All of these movements were either on foot (in the early stages through snow) or in railway cattle trucks.

On 27th January 1945 at 8.30 p.m., we were advised that we were to move out in 15 minutes. In the event, we didn’t leave until 3.00 a.m. next morning, which gave us time to sort ourselves out to some extent. We shared out what food we had and attempted to make some sort of gear to carry things in. I made myself a rucksack out of a kit bag, some used blanket and others just made a ‘swaggie’ roll. There were also a few ingenious ideas used. During this 98 kilometre trek some people managed to acquire various vehicles e.g. wheelbarrow, pram, sleds etc., even a dish on a string to pull along. As we had to carry everything, we basically took any food, clothing and cigarettes we had plus a few cooking and eating utensils.

It was snowing as we left Sagan and got even colder the next night at Elsinauh (down to minus 27 degrees Celsius). I spilt some boiling water on a blanket which I had on my lap and within two minutes it was a block of ice! We were lucky the following few nights as, after a trek of 32 kilometres, we were put in a glass factory at Muskau. The kilns were alight and the manager was getting agitated at having us there as the glass was ready to be poured. The snow thawed here and the rest of our trek to Spremberg (7 kilometres) was through mud and slush. We were then loaded into cattle trucks (without the Americans who had been sent elsewhere) and spent the next two days travelling north-west across Germany towards Bremen.

When we arrived at Tarmstedt (near Bremen) on 4th February 1945, we were put into a Marlag where we remained until 9th April. At this stage the Western Front was moving closer to us and once again we were on the road! In nineteen days we trekked 149 kilometres, roughly in a north-east direction from just north-east of Bremen, around Hamburg (western side) to within eleven kilometres of Lübeck (Trenthorst). This is mainly a farming area and we were put in paddocks at night and occasionally we had a barn or other farm building to sleep in. It was during this trek that I just missed a bullet in the midriff. We were after straw and a guard got nasty—the chap in front and to my left got the bullet,

At Trenthorst we were put on a large estate (billeted in horse stalls with rats as big as cats!) and the German guards just wandered around without rifles or side arms and tried to become quite friendly. After about five days a British army armoured car arrived and told us the main army wasn’t far away and that we were no longer prisoners!

Page 38

We were told, to stay where we were and two days later British troop transport trucks arrived to begin our repatriation. This was from Lübeck to Emsdetton, back through a series of camps which were normally used for troop movements to and from the war zone. They were all well-equipped with sleeping quarters, kitchens and the like, and were well stocked with food. I had my first white bread for some years.

We were at Emsdetton when the armistice was declared on 8th May1945. The next day, as there appeared to be no panic or orders that we were on the move again, I went for a stroll up to the town. When I returned to the camp I was informed that everybody had been taken to the airfield at Rheine. The Camp Commander (Warrant Officer) helped me gather up my chattels, took me out onto the roadway and flagged down the first vehicle (a 4 by 4) going in the right direction, the soldier in the passenger seat was told to get out and the driver was told to take me to the airfield at Rheine. Instead of being delivered to the spot where all the other Kreigies were, I was dropped off at the Officers’ mess of Mosquito squadron. I shared the Adjutant’s quarters for the night and next morning was taken to the other side of the aerodrome where the rest of the mob were. We were loaded into Lancasters and flown to Dunsfold [Surrey] (near Guildford) in the United Kingdom.[29] As we got off the aircraft, each of us was taken in hand by two WAAFs, taken to a delousing machine (an air compressor with a long spout which blew a white powder up our trouser legs and sleeves—looked great on Air Force blue!) and were looked after by the girls until we were taken by truck to Horsham, and then by train to Brighton where we were quartered in the Metropole Hotel and issued with a full kit (clothing and equipment).


 

 

Details Trek from Sagan–Tarmstedt (Evacuation of [Stalag] Luft III caused by the rapid advance of the Russian Front.)

 

Date

Action

Distance travelled

27 January 1945

8.30 p.m.: 15 minutes to leave camp.

 

28 January 1945

3 a.m.–12 noon: Sagan–Freiwaldau via Halbau, resting Freiwaldau 3 hours. 

28 kms

28 January 1945

3 p.m.–5.20 p.m.: Freiwaldau–Elsinau, (-27 degrees C. during night.)

6 kms

29 January 1945

Elsinau–Muskau via Priebus 8.30 a.m.–6.30 p.m.

32 kms

1 February 1945

Muskau–Graustein 11 p.m.–6 a.m.

20 kms

2 February 1945

Graustein–Spremberg 11 a.m.–2.30 p.m.

7 kms

2 February 1945

4.30 pm to Spremberg Railway Station.

3 kms

2–4 February 1945

Spremberg–Tarmstedt Ost via Falkenberg and Plassa [? Could be Pless] by train arriving 5 p.m. 4/2/45. Station to camp.

2 kms

Total distance travelled

 

98 kms

 

Trek from Tarmstedt (Evacuation of this Marlag caused by the advance of the Allies

Date

Action

Distance travelled

9 April 1945

Left camp at 8 p.m., moved along road about 1 km and returned at 11.30 p.m.

1 km

10 April 1945

Tarmstedt–Zeven–Heeslingen 8 a.m.–7 p.m.

16 kms

11 April 1945

Heeslingen–Bakel 10.30 a.m.–4 p.m.

12 kms

12 April 1945

Bakel–Harsefeld 8.30 a.m.–1.30 p.m.

12 kms

14 April 1945

Harsefeld–Grundolendorf–Hedensdorf 10.30 a.m.–2 p.m.

5 kms

15 April 1945

Hedensdorf–Jork–Cranz 10.30 a.m.–4.30 p.m.

13 kms

16 April 1945

Cranz–across River Elbe–Blankenese–Sülldorf 10.30 a.m.–4 p.m. (3 hours Blankenese.)

5 kms

17 April 1945

Sülldorf–Ellerbek 8.45 a.m.–4 p.m.

16 kms

19 April 1945

Ellerbek–Rugenbergen (signpost Hamburg 16 kms, Kiel 79 kms)–Tangstedt 9.15 a.m.–4 p.m.

16 kms

20 April 1945

Tangstedt–Elmenhorst 9.45 a.m.–3.45 p.m.

13 kms

22 April 1945

Elmenhorst–Bad Oldesloe–Klein Barnitz 9.15 a.m.–3.30 p.m.

18 kms

23 April 1945

Klein Barnitz–Poggenpohl 9 a.m.–2 p.m.

12 kms

28 April 1945

Poggenpohl–Trenthorst 10.30 a.m.–2 p.m.

10 kms

Total distance travelled

 

149 kms

 


 

 

Liberated

Date

Action

2 May 1945

Liberated by one armoured car

4 May 1945

Trenthorst–Lübeck–Lüneberg 6 p.m.–11 p.m.

5 May 1945

Lüneberg–Sulingen 9.30 a.m.–4.30 p.m.

6 May 1945

Sulingen–Diepholz–Emsdetten 6.30 p.m.–11.30 p.m.

8 May 1945

Celebrated VE Day sharing bottle of scotch with Camp Commander

9 May 1945

Emsdetten–Rheine (RAF Mosquito Squadron) 4.30 p.m.–5.30 p.m.

10 May 1945

Rheine–Dunsfold near Guilford 6 p.m.–7.50 p.m.

10 May 1945

Dunsfold–Horsham by truck–Brighton by train.

17 May 1945

London

19 May 1945

Leeds

29 June 1945

Brighton–Liverpool–boarded Andes for Sydney via Panama

28 July 1945

Sydney


 

NOTES

[1] Gordon George Scribner, SN 411392, also enlisted on 28 April 1941.

[2] John Rowley ‘Jock’ Perrin, SN O376.

[3] David Vickery Ritchie, SN 405262

[4] Patrick William Fox, SN 406838

[5] Norman James Dean, SN 411294

[6] Wood is inconsistent regarding the name of the vessel in which he embarked. He noted the Taiyang, Taiyan and Tai Yang. http://www.theshipslist.com/ships/lines/wilhelmsen.shtml Notes that it was the Tai Yang. Corrections have been made accordingly.

[7] Built in 1897 and located on the corner of St Georges Terrace and William Street, Perth.

[8] Built in 1842 and located at No. 1 York Street, Sydney.

[9] John Kennedy Bothwell, SN A13822

[10] Robert Henry Maxwell Gibbes, SN O18235

[11] Garth Angus Neill, SN 404773

[12] Garth Edward Sommerville Clabburn, SN 205745

[13] Assessed to being of Low Moral Fibre.

[14] 15 September 1942.

[15] Joseph Steele Holder, SN 401443

[16] Rex Howard Bayly, SN 407416

[17] Walter Warren Thomas, SN 407465

[18] George Cyril ‘Charlie’ Coward, SN O16040

[19] Tedder was appointed as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command on 1 June 1941, with the temporary rank of air marshal. This was made permanent in April 1942. He was elevated to the peerage as 1st Baron Tedder on 8 February 1946.

[20] In his post- war debrief, Wood noted that he crash-landed at El Dheba, about three miles from the coast, and about one mile from the German landing ground. He was picked up by the Germans about 10 or 15 minutes after landing and taken prisoner.

[21] Jack Donald, SN 402231, had been captured on 15 September 1942.

[22] Geoffrey Talbot Chinchen, SN 250704, was captured on 14 June 1942.

[23] Albert Mortley ‘Mort’ Edwards, SN 250711, was captured on 8 November 1941.

[24] The Armistice of Cassibile was signed on 8 September 1943.

[25] Fred Eggleston and Geoff Chinchen present descriptions—with some differences to Wood’s version—of attempts to cut their way out of the cattle trucks en route to Germany. http://www.3squadron.org.au/subpages/Eggleston2.htm and http://www.3squadron.org.au/subpages/Chinchen.htm

[27] John Patrick ‘Jack’ Metcalfe was an Australian athlete who competed in high jump, long jump and javelin events. He is best remembered as a triple jumper and, in the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin, won the bronze medal in the men’s triple jump.

[28] The prisoners referred to the German guards as goons. They referred to themselves as Kriegies, a contraction of Kriegsgefangenen, German for war prisoners.

[29] The majority of prisoners of war from Europe were repatriated to RAF Dunsfold.

 

Many thanks to Kristen Alexander for the arduous job of creating this transcription.

Tom's RAAF Service Record is available online at https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=5255988&T=PDF.
- The last page of this file has some very nice comments from SQNLDR Gibbes regarding Tom's promotion.

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