‘A1. You sure?’ I asked the Army Medical Officer who declared me fit for service in September 1939.
I was 20 years old when war broke out. Having suffered measles and diphtheria as a child, I was stunned by the assessment, but there it was – I was fit to fight and, having registered for military service, there was no going back.
I joined the Royal Artillery, Northumbria Field Regiment, as a lance-bombardier,
and we were sent straight to Northern France. The rest of my regiment were great Geordie boys and I was happy to be serving alongside them. I was made a dispatch rider and it was my job to lead ammunition lorries to our position and relay messages back from observation posts to our regiment. I had some narrow squeaks, and was blown off my motorbike a number of times. Despite this, we were confident. ‘We’ve got Jerry on the run,’ we boasted as we fired our 24 howitzer guns at them.
We were wrong. In May 1940, we blew up a bridge along the Bassey Canal, and I relayed the message back to the observation post. There was a padre there who said to me: ‘All being well, you’ll be back in England this time tomorrow.’ I asked if he’d been drinking! ‘We’re miles from the coast,’ I protested. But that night, sure enough, we were on the move… to Dunkirk. The road was hell and it dawned on us as we marched that we didn’t have Jerry on the run, quite the opposite. It was chaos; an inferno of noise and fire. We were repeatedly dive-bombed by German Stuka bombers. I’ll never forget the terrible wailing scream they made as they hurtled through the sky towards us. The closer we got to the beach, the more desperate things became. It was pandemonium. Bodies littered the beaches; there were explosions, blood, fires and such noise. I saw an ambulance on fire full of burning bodies, which stopped me in my tracks. It was the very image of hell. This was the real war.
We ended up in a ditch being dive-bombed. I saw men from my regiment with their brains splattered everywhere. I have to get out of here I thought. I know this sounds strange, but I suddenly heard a woman’s voice behind me that sounded like my dead mother’s, urging me to get out the ditch and take to the fields. It could have been hysteria-induced hallucinations, but I did as she told me and legged it. I found a motorbike hidden under a bush, got on it and rode like the clappers towards the beach.
I was blown off my bike up against the side of a burning French truck, which took the skin off my back, but all I could focus on was getting onto the mole and one of the Navy destroyers. The instinct for survival was so strong inside me. I had a sweetheart at home, Joyce, and I knew I had to make it home to her.
I was nearly there when I saw my Commanding Officer Jack, crouched in a doorway clutching his head and moaning. A piece of shrapnel had sliced through his helmet and embedded it into his skull. ‘Leave me,’ he begged, as I tried to pick him up. ‘I’m done.’ But I wasn’t leaving him to die there. I managed to get him onto a destroyer and he made it back to England. After a couple more days up to my waist in seawater, trying to get on a small boat, I finally made it onto HMS Vanquisher. Jack survived. He ended up with severe injuries and lost the use of his legs. Years later he tracked me down to thank me. My own survival at Dunkirk is more mysterious, but I like to think my mother had a hand in it.
Our regiment – or what was left of it – reformed and we were posted to the Middle East, to the hell that is the desert. Dunkirk had death and destruction in the sand, and so too did Tubrok. Once more, my survival instincts were tested to the full. In June 1942, our garrison was under siege for 241 days and we had to pull out. On the forth night out in the desert, we ran into a strong German armoured division and we were surrounded on all sides by Panzer tanks. Four of my regiment were blown up in front of me, and I was trapped in a bunker with their blood-soaked bodies. I had no choice but to surrender. I didn’t have a white flag, so lifted up a stick, which was shredded by machine gun fire, along with my hand.
‘Come on Tommy,’ said a German, peering over the bunker. Maybe it was because the Germans knew how hellish the desert was, but there was a mutual understanding between front-line troops, almost a strange kind of ‘esprit des corps’, despite being on opposing sides. He treated me with respect as he took me to have my hand bandaged up. Sadly, that respect ended with the front-line troops as I was marched towards the coast and Tripoli. Here, in the prisoner of war camp, I saw Mussolini. He came to gloat over the prisoners with a look on his face as if to say, ‘I am the victor.’ From here, we were taking by boat to Naples. I was starving and exhausted and losing the feeling in both legs. We survived off Red Cross packages, and kept the packs of five Players cigarettes they sent to bribe the Italian Guards.
Every day I held fast to the hope that one day, some way, I would see my Joyce again. We were moved so many times, I lost track of time and which country we were in. We were treated with no humanity and half starved. Hope comes in strange ways though. I remember looking through the bars of my cell one morning at dawn to see Mount Vesuvius rising up through the morning mist. When we were transferred to Rome, we arrived to see the Vatican bathed in the milky light of a full moon. I clung to these images of beauty, as a reminder of why I had to stay alive. I know I’m a terrible romantic, but it’s this that kept me going through some dark times. I knew I had to escape, to somehow to make it home to Joyce and to my beloved church, St Mary’s in Sunbury. At night, I’d close my eyes and remember the sound of its church bells pealing out on a Sunday morning. When asked by the British Red Cross to identify myself in eight words for my relatives to know I was alive, I sent the message, Keep the old bells a-ringing.
But then, hope began to die. I woke one morning and realised I couldn’t feel my legs at all. Escape was now impossible. I was inspected in the infirmary by the camp medic, who realised the starvation diet they had me on had affected my nerve endings. The infirmary was full of British soldiers dying from internal injuries from the rifle butts slammed into their guts by Italian guards. The International Red Cross were touring camps in the area so the camp authorities got scared and quickly moved me under guard to a civilian hospital in the Ferrara area.
Here, I was nursed by the most wonderful Italian nuns. One in particular, a young nun, took pity on me and sneaked me bread and tinned meat. ‘Dog?’ I joked to her one day. She smiled briefly, a fleeting, mischievous smile, which lit up her face. ‘No, kitten.’ Her English was broken, but she was kindness itself, bringing me coffee she had roasted from ground acorns. ‘Why do you do this?’ I asked her one day. ‘We are enemies’. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘We are all God’s children.’
Whilst I was in this hospital, I was used as medical guinea pig and given some groundbreaking treatment, by a young Italian doctor by the name of Antonino Alessi, a lieutenant in the Italian army.
‘You’ll never walk again if it fails,’ he warned me. It was a risk I was willing to take. He injected serum containing Vitamin B into my lymphatic glands with a huge needle. It was so painful, three nuns had to hold me down. ‘Now you know what it’s like to have a baby, huh?’ he joked with me. There were a few invectives, I don’t mind telling you! One of the nuns wagged her finger at me and said in Italian: ‘There’s no paradise for you’.
The pins and needles signalled the return of feeling in my leg and amazingly, two weeks later, I was ready to walk out of there. Before I left, the young nun who sneaked me food snipped off her crucifix and slipped it into the lining of my jacket. ‘May God protect you,’ she whispered, before the Germans hauled me back to the prisoner of war camp.
The war raged on and from there, we were transferred to a camp in the historic city of Dresden, Germany. Now I was better, I was put to work making bricks in a factory. They may have had my body, but they didn’t possess my mind. I carved images of my church in Sunbury into the clay to remind me of home.
One afternoon, we were working outside when we saw flares light up the sky. I knew instantly what it was. ‘There is trouble ahead,’ I warned our guard. ‘That’s Bomber Command. The British are coming to bomb Dresden. We need to leave, now.’
‘You are wrong,’ replied the guard. ‘The RAF will never bomb Dresden, we did not bomb Oxford.’
Eventually, he was persuaded otherwise and we fled back to the POW camp outside the city. The next day, February 13th 1945, was Ash Wednesday, which was ironic as there was nothing left of Dresden but a great cloud of ash. Bomber Command had razed the city to the ground. In the chaos and destruction, I finally saw my opportunity for escape and I took it.
Me and my pal, George, managed to hide amongst a crowd of refugees fleeing the ruins of Dresden. Then we found an abandoned car and drove it until it ran out of petrol. After that, we went by foot in the direction of France, hiding in barns and eating whatever vegetables we could take from gardens. We were filthy, exhausted and starving… But we were free.
Eventually, we came across an American unit of GIs who saved us and flew us home to Britain. And so my war finally came to an end. I was reunited with my sweetheart Joyce, whom I married a year after the war ended in my beloved church. Never had the sound of church bells sounded so sweet.
Aged 99, I lead a less eventful life now, and 72 years on from the end of the war, I have learnt to forgive my captors. As a dedicated Christian, I believe in love and forgiveness. I treasure the crucifix that nun gave me and I get it out often to remind me of the power of humanity and love in the darkest of days. I am also, so they tell me, Britain’s oldest bell-ringer! How I wish that Italian medic could see me now, climbing the bell tower stairs. I would shake him by the hand and thank him. I truly never thought I would make old bones.
Kate Thompson is the author of three saga novels published by Pan Macmillan and set in wartime Britain. Her next book, The Allotment Girls is out Spring 2018.
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