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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

In The Bag

Kevin's memoir was written between 2001 and his death in 2006.
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05 Aug 1940

My army career began at the Caulfield Racecourse where the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had established a Recruit Reception Centre. I had turned 21 the previous October and had been working for almost six years in Oaklands, a small town in the New South Wales Riverina district. I was ready to move on. At Caulfield, we were kitted out with the basic necessities and uniforms. We also got some basic instruction in marching and parade drill.


This went on for three weeks after which we were sent to the Balcombe army camp on the Mornington Peninsula for basic weapons training. We were also inoculated in preparation for travelling overseas. In September, I was assigned to the advance party of 30 men to go to the 2/23 Battalion, which was located at the Albury Showground. Albury Grammar now occupies this site. The 2/23 was then renamed the 2/23 Training Battalion.

In WW1, the Australian army was called the Australian Imperial Force – the AIF. So when volunteers were called for to form a Division following the outbreak of WW2, it was called the 2nd AIF. The Battalions that fought in WW1 such as the 23rd Battalion (Albury’s Own) were called the 2nd 23rd but written simply as 2/23.

While at Albury I contracted the mumps and spent six days in the Albury Base Hospital then was given a week’s sick leave. My parents lived in nearby Wangaratta, so I went home to convalesce. When I returned to Albury, I found the camp almost deserted. The men formed the nucleus of the 2/29th Battalion and finished up in the 8th Division in Singapore and Malaya and eventually prisoners of war of the Japanese. The 70 or so men that remained in the camp – most had just returned from leave like me – were invited to put their names down for various units such as Signals, Engineers, Artillery, and Transport. I loved motor vehicles and didn’t hesitate to nominate the Australian Army Service Corps as a truck driver. My application was successful, and I was posted to the AASC’s Moore Street in South Melbourne, just around the corner from Victoria Barracks. I received driver training and got my army driver’s licence. OverFor the next four weeks, I spent much of my time ferrying new army trucks from the Ford Plant in Geelong to Port Melbourne from where they would be shipped overseas.

In mid-December we were ‘invited’ to put our name down for an overseas posting. I was out on a job at the time and later found that two of my mates, Jack ‘Bluey’ O’Brien and George ‘Aspro’ Aspden both put my name down. Bluey put it down for the 7th Division and Aspro for the 8th. The duplication wasn’t picked up and my name was down for both the 7th and the 8th. In the end, I was sent to neither. I was allocated to the 6th Division.

On December 20th 1940 we were told we were going overseas and given 14 days pre-embarkation leave. Bluey O’Brien married Nora O’Keefe at Dookie the next day. I was Best Man. After spending Christmas with my family in Shepparton I travelled to Oaklands for a ‘send-off’ by the local Returned and Services League. A week or so after returning to South Melbourne, we were sent back to the Balcombe camp to prepare for departure. The 6th Division was fighting in North Africa so I had a pretty good idea where we were heading. The Balcombe camp was a rather pleasant place save for the actions of a sergeant who had it in for me. He had wrongly accused me of being AWOL at South Melbourne and wanted to charge me. I sought a redress and won the hearing but that made is attitude towards me even worse. We completed our admin and wrote our Wills and finally we were ready to depart.

Kevin in Oaklands, NSW, on pre-embarkation leave. He is holding his cousin, 18 month-old Bernadette Rourke. Prior to enlisting in the army, Kevin had worked in Oaklands for his uncle Kevin Rourke as a clerk in a Stock & Station Agency. He never saw her again. Bernadette died suddenly in January 1943 aged 3½.  

16 Feb 1941

We departed Port Melbourne on the converted passenger liner, the Mauretania. At Balcombe that morning, reveille sounded at 4AM. We were entrained at Mornington for the one-hour trip to Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station. Our exact departure date was supposed to be a secret – we weren’t even allowed to phone our families yet it seemed that all of Melbourne new about it. The Comforts Fund ladies were on the platform at Flinders Street ready to dish out hot meat pies and cups of tea. And my aunt, Tress Rourke, a nun at the Port Melbourne convent, knew because the children in her class told her. Many of the kid’s fathers were wharfies they all knew that a ship was arriving during the night to pick up troops.

Tress and another six nuns walked down to Station Pier to see me off. I wasn’t expecting her but in the sea of khaki it wasn’t too hard to pick out a group of seven nuns. Each one gave me a medal depicting their favourite saint. When they returned to the convent, which had an uninterrupted view of Station Pier, they hung a white sheet from the upper balcony and waved me farewell as the ship sailed. I was very touched by this gesture.
RMS Mauretania, Station Pier, Port Melbourne, 1941 

We sailed through Port Phillip Heads at 6AM and then down the west coast of Tasmania. At 4PM we joined three other ships, the Niew Amsterdam which had sailed from New Zealand and the Aquitania and Queen Mary which sailed from Sydney. HMAS Sydney joined the convoy as the escort ship. We arrived in Fremantle on February 10th and were given a day’s leave. The Queen Mary was too big to enter Fremantle Harbour so unfortunately the troops on that ship were denied leave. She had 8th Division troops on board and was heading to Singapore so any troops from that Division who were on the other ships like Aspro had to switch and were taken out to the Queen Mary on Lighters. Aspro and I said farewell and wished each other good luck.

We departed Fremantle on February 13th. Our escort now included HMAS Perth. After four days sailing in convoy, the Queen Mary and the Sydney set sail for Singapore while we continued north to the Middle East. The navy escorts, with their bands playing on the ships’ bow, used their fire hoses to create huge water fountains and sprayed the troops as each ship passed by.

Eleven days after leaving Fremantle we sailed into safe harbour in Bombay and were ferried ashore in Lighters where we were allowed to take a few days leave. Some of the men took the opportunity to ‘play up,’ repeating the episodes of the WW1 troops when they too were bound for the Middle East in 1915.

I was eventually transferred to a Dutch troop ship, the Westphalia. After a hot, slow voyage (we dropped anchor for a couple of days en route) we sailed through the Arabian and the Red Sea. On March 17, we arrived at Port Tewfik, Suez. We were ferried off in lighters and put on a train. We travelled by rail alongside the Suez Canal. By this time German aircraft flying out of Syria had dropped magnetic mines in the Canal and all shipping traffic had been suspended.

In due course we arrived at El Kantara where we crossed the Canal. Then we boarded another train and crossed the Sinai desert to the Beit Jirja Camp in Palestine. Along the way, a fellow soldier who was a student of bible history told us that Moses had frequented the nearby mountains and that the land we were now in was then known as Caanan, the land of milk and honey promised to the Israelites. We all agreed they did not get much of a deal. At Beit Jirja we did daily route marches to recover the conditioning that we lost on the voyage. Then we were on the train again, back to El Kantara, through Cairo, and eventually we arrived at our destination, El Amyria, some 12 miles from Alexandria where we were given another day’s leave. By now I was taken on strength by the 17th Brigade’s Head Quarter Company.

Word was getting about that we were destined for Greece. We had heard that the Germans began invading Greece on April 6th. On April 9th we boarded another Dutch transport ship, the Pennland, a sister ship of the Westphalia, and set sail for Athens the following morning. We were in convoy with two other ships and were escorted by two cruisers and three destroyers. A bomb raid by high-flying Italian aircraft caused no damage but it gave us quite a scare.

ATHENS

13 Apr 1941

We arrived in the Athens port of Piraeus and disembarked on Easter Sunday morning. This was exactly two months after leaving Fremantle. Allied forces had already been fighting in Greece for a month. My Brigade, the 17th, was under the command of Brigadier Parrington, a British officer. Its three infantry battalions were the Australian 5th, 6th and 7th. Its support units were a mix of Australian, New Zealand and British troops. We were in the last convoy to arrive in Greece.

Upon arrive, the infantry battalions were sent by rail to a destination north of Larissa where they were assigned to defend the mountain passes in that area. Our group now called a ‘composite company’ were taken to a camp at Mount Hymettus on the outskirts of Athens. Our first job was to dig slit trenches for shelter in the event of an air raid. The ground was hard and stony and enthusiasm was lacking – at first. The arrival of a bullet riddled staff car and a chat to the driver caused us to have a re-think. The following day we experienced out first air raid. Needless to say we hugged the bottom of our trenches when some bombs fell close by.



This photo was taken by a street photographer. Kevin had to pay ‘up front’ and call back in the afternoon to collect the print. He never really expected to see the photographer again and was pleasantly surprised when he emerged from a crowd of people with the photo in his hand.

15 Apr 1941

I enjoyed six hours leave in Athens with several others and managed to visit most of the famous Greek tourist icons including the Acropolis and the Parthenon. We fraternised with the locals who were very friendly.

17 Apr 1941

A strong rumour circulated that our group of about 60 was about to be sent to the Athens aerodrome to defend it from an attack by German parachutists. This did not sound very appealing to me so when an officer visited our camp seeking 14 drivers, I was one of the volunteers. We were taken to a motor pool and I picked up a one-ton Morris truck. We collected ‘walking wounded’ from a casualty clearing station and took them to a hospital ship at Port Piraeus, about 12 miles from Athens. After lunch a Captain, a Lieutenant and I took a load of food out to one of the aerodromes. On the way back I had my first taste of coming under fire. A German aircraft strafed and bombed us. A piece of flying debris cut the back of my hand. I began to review my decision to volunteer for this job.

18 Apr 1941

I was given general driving duties which included setting up supply dumps of fuel, food and ammunition for the retreating infantry. This continued for about a week. At times we back-loaded lightly wounded soldiers to various casualty clearing stations. We slept in our trucks at our base in suburban Athens and initially survived on bully beef and biscuits. We then we approached our civilian neighbours to cook for us. They agreed and the food was served in generous quantities. It was the best tucker I’d had since leaving Australia.

26 Apr 1941

The rate of the German advance had stepped up a notch and was closing in on Athens. Lacking resources such as air cover, artillery, and naval support, the brass decided to evacuate all Allied troops to Crete, embarking from the city of Kalamata. We joined a large convoy of trucks and drove south. My vehicle was full of soldiers I’d collected late in the afternoon. They had become separated from their units in the prevailing confusion. After travelling on narrow unsealed roads and through mountainous terrain, our only guide was the dark shape of the truck ahead. It was a bit scary at times. Refer Map 2.


KALAMATA

We eventually arrived in the port town of Kalamata on the Peloponnese Peninsula. We saw units of the 17th Brigade moving towards the beach but were unable to join them. Instead we were told to destroy our trucks and wait until tomorrow night when the boats would be here again.  


27 Apr 1941

I sheltered with others in nearby olive groves which German aircraft bombed and strafed throughout the day although I never saw anyone get hit. Then, as dark fell, we were marshalled into groups and marched to the wharf area to wait until the ships arrived. However, our wait was in vain. The ships never came and when the following day dawned there was a general dispersal to find a safe place to wait out the day. (Refer side bar on Page 21).

28 Apr 1941

I joined a small group that found shelter in the hills and so had a grandstand view of the Port as it was being bombed and strafed by German aircraft. At sundown we made our way back to the beach area. The next intimation that things were not well was when artillery shells started to burst among us. As the destroyers disappeared into the darkness I still felt confident that we could hold the beach for one more day, and that the Navy would be back that night to pick us up.

29 Apr 1941

I awoke at six in the morning and at 6:30AM was amazed to see the arrival of a German staff car carrying a senior officer. I later found out that the officer was the General of Germany’s 5th Armoured Division. He was met by our senior officer, Brigadier Parrington. It sunk in that I was now a Prisoner of War. After the war, I read that Parrington sent a message to German headquarters at 5:00AM, that no resistance would be offered after 5:30AM. I watched all of this from 50 yards away and was left stunned. Around 8,000 of us were taken prisoner.

Captain Gray ordered us to “pile our arms” and clear the beach area. But along with many others I destroyed my rifle and along with my ammunition threw it into the sea.

Then we were marched off by the Germans. My mate and I now took stock of our belongings. We each had the clothes we stood up in, an overcoat and a groundsheet and some underclothes of sorts. I also had a couple of tins of bully beef which I shared and I also had a small amount of Greek currency. The next day we were squashed into a train for the 160 km trip to Corinth.

The train was on a narrow gauge line, 40 men to a wagon, 35 inside and five on the roof. We had an overnight stop in Tripoli (Greece, not Lybia) and were forced to sleep in an apple orchard without blankets. It was cold! At Corinth, we were accommodated in old Greek army barracks. This became our first of several POW camps that we would experience in the coming months.

Narrow gauge train wagon used to transport POWs from Kalamata to Corinth.

CORINTH

The Corinth POW camp was primitive. Our beds were on cold concrete floors with our coats our only blankets. Some of the troops that came later had to sleep in foxholes because the barrack blocks were already packed. Our toilet facilities were just a trench in the ground, about four feet deep. Good balance was essential. Our drinking water came from two wells and although there was enough to drink, washing ourselves was a dream. We stank!

The food was nothing to write home about for we only got one bowl of lentil soup a day, and each week we were issued with a giant brick-hard Italian biscuit. Although some olive oil softened them, they still weren't satisfying and we were becoming hungrier and hungrier. We were held in the Corinth camp for 37 days, from May 1st to June 6th.

I have strong memories three events that occurred while I was in the Corinth camp.
  • Tensions rose when a visit by Himmler himself was announced. We were obviously not impressed by his arrival and reacted accordingly. Our protest actions caused a furore among the Germans. I saw Himmler drive by in his open Mercedes staff car. The SS indulged him with lots of ‘Sieg Heils’ and heel clicking.
     
  • We became infested with body lice. The Germans came up with an amusing scheme to kill the blood-sucking insects. They took our clothes and steamed them. While that was happening we were sprayed with disinfectant and told to swim in the sea. A couple of miles separated us from the ocean. Because of our lack of clothes, most of us had to walk naked down the main street of Corinth with the locals having a good look. I found this embarrassing and humiliating. 
  • On the morning of May 20, a German padre said Mass for us Catholics. All though the service, the priest had to pause as flights of low-flying aircraft passed overhead. We found out later that they were carrying German parachute troops to attack Crete. 

While in the Corinth camp, Kevin’s parents were formally notified that their son was officially on the ‘Missing’ list. This caused considerable heartache, especially when the news broke of the loss of 500 men during the evacuation.

SALONICA

06 Jun 1941

I had suffered badly from dysentery in the Corinth camp and I badly wanted to get away from Greece. On this day I got my wish. We were marched to the railway station. We hadn't even left the station yards when I realised this was not going to be the Orient Express. Again it was a narrow gauge line and some men had to ride on the roof.

We arrived at Grevia at 3AM and were herded out of the train. We were then marched 40 kms over the 5000 ft Brailoss Pass to a rail head near the town of Lamia. Apparently a rail bridge had been blown up and the train could go no further. With the arrival of dawn the day grew hot.

The hot weather, powder dust and lack of water made it a very tough day. The lentil soup diet at Corinth wasn't coping with our physical needs either. The guards also felt the heat and they became irritable and unpredictable. Escape became the main focus of my thoughts. Then I realized that my emotions were getting the better of me particular when I noticed that the guards were accompanied by Doberman and Alsatian dogs. 

This next train was on a standard gauge line and so had larger wagons. We were loaded in, 55 men to a wagon. Most of us had to travel standing up or sitting on our haunches because of the cramped conditions. There was no air ventilation except for two openings in diagonal corners. The air in the wagon was foul but it was us who were responsible for the stench. I considered myself lucky because I was located near one of these openings though I soon realised that there was a price to pay. The men did their ‘business’ in their tin hats and the ones closest to the opening had to empty out the contents. The wind often blew the contents back onto me. This was a very unsavory task especially given that dysentery was still rife.

Next stop was Salonika in northern Greece. We were forced to double-march the couple of miles from the railway station to the camp. This was a ploy intended by our captors to humiliate us in front of the local people who lined the street but who were still inclined to cheer us.

We soon came to realise that we would be here awhile. Salonika No. 1 was the name we gave to this Camp. I rated it better than the last one at Corinth. The food was a little better for a start. We got two bowls of soup accompanied by a slice of bread and a cup of tea. We were also given an anti-malaria tablet. We remained there for two weeks and were subjected to long parades which involved lots of counting. Each day we were sent to either the docks or the rail yards to load and unload cargo. This probably accounted for the increased food ration. The guards had no personality or sense of humour whatsoever. They especially disliked the British lads and their hostility towards them increased by the day.

A few days after we arrived, Allied prisoners captured in Crete began to arrive so we were then sent to another camp a couple of miles distant which we unimaginatively named Salonika No 2. We weren’t required to work at this camp so our soup ration returned to one bowl a day. As a result of our meagre rations most of us experienced short fainting spells, especially if we stood up suddenly. After a few days we were each issued with 200 grams of bread and a 4-ounce tin of meat and were then taken to the rail head and pushed aboard cattle trucks, 55 men per wagon. With the doors firmly pinned, the train set off for Germany through Greece and Yugoslavia. While we were being loaded into the wagons, a German Brass Band on the platform played Roll out the Barrel.

We departed Salonika in hot weather on 24 June. The wagon got as hot as an oven and we were soon experiencing distress. The body lice had returned, not good news with so many men crammed in together. Once again we had no room to lie down. We travelled at night to avoid Allied aircraft. Although the wagons were kept locked, the conditions were tolerable. Each wagon had two windows. The daylight hours were spent lying idle at sidings. There was no toilet, not even a bowl. Again, we had to do our business in a tin hat.



We entered southern Yugoslavia but no joy came out of it. There was no tucker, no water and now no windows. The Jerries boarded the windows up. Another hot spell tired us out.

It rained for most of our fourth day on the train. Lucky for us we were able to catch some of the water in our tin hats but this only relieved our thirst for a short time. Our arrival at Belgrade was a great relief because finally the guards opened the wagon doors. The Red Cross arrived and gave us some lemon-flavoured tea. It was heaven. After that we were given time to go to the toilet privately. The next day the train stopped at Maribor in northern Yugoslavia and some wagons were dropped off and the men sent to a camp that we later came to know as Stalag 18B. Our next stop was, thank God, our last. We had arrived at Wolfsberg.

WOLFSBERG

Eventually we arrived at a large POW Camp at Wolfsberg called Stalag 18A. ‘Stalag’ is an abbreviated word for ‘Stammlager.’ On arrival we were counted, then given some potato soup and were finally taken to barracks. We were given a bunk and two blankets. We were then deloused by being sprayed with disinfectant. Our clothes were taken away for steaming and we were led to hot showers after which our clothes where returned to us.


30 Jun 1941

On this day we were then formally registered as prisoners of war. Once this was done we had the protection of the Red Cross. We were then photographed, fingerprinted and injected with God knows what. I was now, Kgf. 3705 Byrne, K.A.



Each day for the next two weeks, we were paraded at 4AM and counted. At 6AM we were given a mug of coffee and piece of bread for breakfast. Our next and only other meal for the day was dinner at 2:30PM. You would appreciate that this was not a very popular routine with the lads.

Wolfsberg was an old city constructed in the days of the Roman Empire. Although many of the huts in our camp were recently built, the old Austrian Empire Army Headquarters was still standing. This camp at various times held POWs from France, Russia, Italy, Serbia and Poland. From what I remember and from what I heard, it was the best run POW Camp in all of Germany. In one respect 18A was an administrative centre. Its primary role was to provide labour to various sub-camps in the region. Officers and senior NCOs, according to the Geneva Convention, were not allowed to be put to work so they were housed according to ranks in ‘Oflags.’ Army, Navy and Air Force personnel were housed separately. Air Force personnel were housed in ‘Luftlagers’ while Navy seamen were housed in ‘Marine Lagers.’ They were guarded respectively by German air force and navy personnel. Americans, Russian and Allied forces were held separately but as the war dragged on some Oflags housed multiple nationalities.

The internal administration at Stalag 18A was handled by a senior NCO, Warrant Officer Cooper. He had a German title which translated to ‘Man of Confidence.’ WO Cooper was the go-between us and the authorities. He was allocated a staff of about a dozen prisoners of war to handle paperwork, such as keeping personnel records of those dispatched to the various work camps.

There was a remarkably democratic system for filling work vacancies. WO Cooper’s office would post notices of requests for labour and sought volunteers. This system worked fairly well in our favour - at least it was better than being ‘shanghaied.’ I reckon there was safety in numbers and avoided farm jobs, despite the probability of better or more plentiful food. I also avoided small parties of 30 or so men. In any event, these jobs filled quickly. Eventually a notice was posted seeking a party of 200 to go to Klagenfurt and I quickly put my name down.


KLAGENFURT, CAMP 10029GW

I was successful in being selected for the Klagenfurt work party. Klagenfurt, 60 kms to the west of Wolfsberg, with a population of about 70,000 people, was the capital of the Austrian province of Corinthia. To the south there is a mountain range that more or less marked the border between Austria and Yugoslavia.

On the 12 Jul 1941 we were again transported by train, this time to Klagenfurt and were directed to work for a wealthy construction contractor, Adolph Rabaul. Our camp had been erected in 1939 and occupied an area of about five acres in the suburb of Waidsmandorf. Barracks lined two sides of the perimeter, each with six rooms referred to as huts. Each hut contained bunks for up to 20 men, two tables and a pot belly stove. The third side was kitchen (which we called the cookhouse) and a mess hall. In the middle of the compound was an ablution block with cold showers and wash troughs. A 10-hole septic tank occupied the fourth side of the camp. The camp itself was surrounded by a double barbed wire fence. There were four watchtowers equipped with searchlights. Another building was the camp hospital which was equipped with 12 bunks. The German guards were quartered in a building at the camp’s entrance. 


We must have looked pretty scruffy lot as we marched the four kilometres from the railway station to Waidsmandorf. Our uniforms were ragged; string and wire held our boots together. We wore foot rags instead of socks. This was a common practice in Europe at the time but was very foreign to us. Still, we marched in step and with our heads held high. On arrival we were ‘counted in’ and sent to our billets to dump our belongings. We were given a hot meal of soup and potatoes which were ate sitting down at a table, something we had not done for months.

After our meal, the Camp Commandant welcomed us and hoped we would be happy in his camp. He then announced camp rules and finally that the following day would be treated as a holiday so we could get settled. He said that we would be expected to work 55 hours per week, the same hours as the civilians, for which we would be paid 70 pfennigs daily.

A number of public holidays would be recognised each year, 1 May, Good Friday, Christmas and New Year’s Day and we would not have to work on those days. Our wages would be paid monthly in Lager Geld (camp money).

The Commandant also announced that a man of confidence would be appointed. All these instructions were given in German and were relayed to us by an English-speaking corporal with an odd accent. He said “the head man he loves you as his children and that it is no good you try to run away from your home else you will be catched and banished (he meant punished).”

This photo was taken just outside the mess hall. The ablution block is the immediate building. To the right is A Barrack Block. B Barrack block is to the left.

CAMP LIFE

Then came the usual routine. Reveille at 6AM, work parade at 6:45AM. On weekdays we worked ten hours but on Saturdays we only had to work five. We were locked in our huts at 9PM in winter and 10PM in summer. A bucket was provided and placed in the porch of each hut for use as an overnight toilet. At evening lock-up, the guards would collect our trousers and boots which would be returned when the huts were open next morning. This practice ceased when we managed to cause chaos by purposely mixing trousers and boots between the huts.

Our huts were reasonably comfortable. Each bunk was fitted with a straw filled mattress and had four blankets. The lack of food was the main problem. Our bread ration was 200 grams daily. This, and a mug of coffee (or what passed for coffee), was breakfast. Our midday meal Monday to Friday was a mug of soup and the evening meal was more soup and a couple of potatoes. Twice weekly, some meat was added to the soup. It didn’t improve the flavour but I guess it added ‘body’. On Saturdays and Sundays, only one hot meal was served, at about 2:30PM, and this usually was maize meal (porridge), and the same on Sunday. This was hardly a diet to survive on when working 55 hours per week.

The camps POWs were a mix of Australians, New Zealanders and Britons. The Brits of course were a mix themselves. Apart from the English there was strong representation from both Wales and Scotland, and some from Northern Ireland.

Klagenfurt was essentially a rural community with some light manufacturing. Upon settling into our new camp, we were in good spirits and considered ourselves tourists. The war would be over in six months – or so we thought! The last thing we expected was that Klagenfurt would be our home until the last stages of the war – and that was nearly four years away.

In August we were visited by representatives of the International Red Cross and after a couple of weeks our conditions improved. Soreness from the train trip vanished and our health gradually recovered. Greatcoats, boots and British uniforms were issued to us. When we first arrived at Klagenfurt we were issued wooden clogs. I could never get used to them.

Then, at the end of September, Red Cross food parcels arrived. Sugar, tea, cheese, sweets and tinned food were some of the articles of food which together weighed about eight pounds. As well, we received a ration of 50 cigarettes per week. I found them very useful for trading purposes. The arrival of the Red Cross parcels greatly relieved our food problem and for the first time in five months we weren’t starving and were even able to put on a little weight.

The Red Cross also arranged for supplies of medication to the camp hospital which was in the charge of a New Zealand medical orderly. Any problems that he could not handle were referred to the local hospital where we received excellent attention.

For the first couple of months the camp cookhouse was staffed by Germans and the early meals at weekends were so scheduled to enable them to have time off. The Commandant was approached with the suggestion that we prisoners should run the cookhouse and he acceded to our request. The meals did not improve greatly but at least we now had two hot meals at weekends. Also two older POWs (one of whom was Tom Laracy) were allowed to become full-time camp staff with the duties of keeping the compound clean and establishing a vegetable garden. The garden provided vegetables which together with the ingredients supplied by the Germans, helped to put a little bit more body into the soup.

The next concern that we had was the appointed ‘Man of Confidence,’ the senior ranking soldier in the camp. However, from our point of view he was not very active on our behalf and an approach was made to the Commandant to move him on. Not everyone is suited to this job. It requires a good deal of tact and diplomacy and dogged patience. To our surprise the commandant shared our view and agreed a change could be made. He suggested we hold a democratic election which he would oversee. Our preference was for a Corporal of the Australian Army Service Corps but as the nominated soldier had to hold the rank of sergeant, a stripe was borrowed and Bob got ‘promoted’. He was duly elected and did a great job on our behalf until the end of the war and, as well, satisfied the German administration. We were probably the only camp in Germany to have selected our own Man of Confidence.

The relationship between prisoners and guards was a formal one. I tried to be one hundred percent formal for I believed none of the guards could be trusted. One in particular was a little ‘trigger happy'.

By the end of October 1941, mail began to arrive from home. Then, in mid 1942, I received a clothing parcel from home which contained among other things a knitted pullover. This was a huge help in keeping me warm during cold winters. The first six months were spent mostly with getting ourselves organised and learning to live amicably with our fellow hut members. In my case I shared my hut, B5, with 15 other fellows, five Australians, two New Zealanders and eight from the British Isles. I later moved to B2. All the men had greatly varied backgrounds and were from different army units. With the long and tiring working week, we were generally too tired to do anything other than sleep at the weekends, apart from doing the necessary chores like washing our clothes and trying to patch up our gear. So there was little time for the irritations.
18/01/1942 B2 Block. Not everything went smoothly. Kevin has a black eye in this photo. Back Row: G Richardson, I Lipsett, K Byrne, C Connor, A Eason, C Colebrook, A Walker, J Whitehead, Jock Robertson. Front Row: G Harrington, Tug Wilson, E Furkin, F Falla, F Murcott, W Chamberlain, W Keast
The German-produced four-page newsletter, The Camp, arrived monthly. It contained snippets of news and events in other camps. As well, it contained war news but with a decided German slant. During 1942 and 1943 when the Germans were on a winning streak, our life gradually became easier and the German attitude towards us seemed much more relaxed. Whilst this euphoria lasted we were able to obtain more privileges for ourselves, for example, the cold showers were upgraded to hot and we also had hot water to wash our clothing. This was a big plus. We were also able to negotiate the purchase of some sporting equipment and even slight improvement to our rations. A canteen was set up where we could spend our wages on a range of souvenir items as well as razor blades, etc., but nothing edible. Among the items that featured were postcards of the local scenery. These were later confiscated during one of the many searches of our gear on the basis they could be an aid to escape plans.

On a couple of occasions, as a special treat, we were allowed to purchase some barrels of beer. It was a pretty weak brew. However some barrels were ‘purloined’ and were used in the making of a very potent home brew. It packed a kick but had an atrocious taste. Only the desperate drank it.

A wireless set had been acquired by devious means, and smuggled into the camp. From early 1943 the London BBC news broadcasts were regularly circulated. The wireless survived many searches by both guards and the Gestapo. The latter would make surprise raids on our camp and conduct body searches. From the winter of 1943, coal for huts was rationed. Each morning the inside of the windows were covered with ice. This occurred when the outside night temperature dropped to -25°. Occasionally, the temperature fell to as low as -30°.

New arrivals in our camp brought news of working conditions in other camps and some of those were pretty tough both in the conditions and in the camp itself. The German bosses were difficult as were the guards. Punishments for even minor infractions were inflicted. They included holding up mail and the suspension of the Red Cross parcels for a few weeks.

SECURITY

The camp was managed by a Commandant, a Sergeant, a Corporal and 16 Privates who performed different duties. The emphasis was on the camp being clean and tidy so there were lots of inspections. The Germans managed their internal security using three different groups. On regular occasions we would be visited by the Area Commander, an army colonel, who would have us paraded. While he gave us a pep talk, the camp guards would carry out a search of our huts. These searches were no great hassle as a warning was usually given ‘on the quiet’ of his impending visits.

Visits by the Gestapo and the army security service, the Sicherheit Dienst, were a different matter as such visits came as a surprise to all. On these occasions we would be lined up in front of our hut and individually searched whilst a couple of the goons would thoroughly ransack the contents of each hut. They would go through our gear and pull our beds to pieces. I can’t recall that they ever found anything apart from a few minor items gathered as souvenirs. The safety of our wireless set was always a worry but it was obviously well concealed and was never found. Had they ever found it, the man whose bed was closest would have been in bags of strife. To have a radio in the camp was regarded by the Germans as a very serious matter.

Camp discipline, as imposed by the Commandant and the guards, was no great problem. We were generally left alone so long as we kept our huts clean and tidy and didn’t aggravate in any way. However, on several occasions we had mutual differences and as punishment had our concert and sporting activities temporarily halted or an early evening lock-up imposed. Our approach was to always present a united front in any disagreements with our captors, to always march smartly to and from the various jobs, and to ensure both camp and personal hygiene was of a high order.

Escape was always uppermost in our minds however the Germans had fairly good security outside of the camps. Escaping was not generally entertained as a possibility. There were a few guys who tried it but they were caught within a week or so. It was a breeze to avoid capture within 30 kms of the camp's boundaries, but after that it was very difficult to get past the permanent controls which existed on both the railway and roads. The mountains in Yugoslavia presented the best opportunity but there were still trouble spots. If you ran into the Croats or Slovenians they would automatically hand you back to the Germans. If you were able to dodge that lot you would meet the Serbs who would force your enlistment the Partisan forces. The escape route to Italy was out of the question and a saying went along with it, 'out of the frying pan and into the fire.'

A group of three prisoners decided that ‘jumping the rattler’ (train) would offer a good chance to get away. So, one night they hid in a wagon in the local rail yards believing its destination was Innsbruck, which is not that far from the Swiss border. However, the following afternoon, the truck was shunted onto a siding and the first inkling their plans have gone astray was the sound of voices speaking in Italian. They had arrived at a rail yard near Venice. After an uncomfortable six weeks in an Italian goal, they were returned to Stalag18A at Wolfsberg and spent 28 days in the bunker. Another cove (prisoner) was more inventive. Dressed as a girl he stole a bike and all went well until the chain came as he was cycling through a small village. A gallant German soldier came to his aid but his makeup didn’t pass muster once the soldier got up close.


WORK PARTIES

Adolf Rabaul was a construction engineer who had his finger in many pies. Typical of his contracts from the city council were cleaning out and deepening drainage ditches and canals, street construction and the laying of cobblestones, and the building of apartment blocks for which we dug the foundations and poured the concrete footings with hand-mixed concrete. In winter, we de-iced tram tracks and shovelled snow. Due to our previous diet, we did our first month extremely hard. My hands were soft so I got blisters from ‘swinging the banjo’ – that’s what we called shovel work. I was told that urinating on the blisters would harden up my hands. It didn’t work!

Winter was very tough with daily temperatures around the -20 mark most days. It was so cold that the moisture was frozen out of the snow. At least this meant our feet kept dry. But when the thaw came, it was wet and muddy underfoot and most of us suffered from colds.

We also worked on the installation of water and sewerage pipes and then later, repairing damage done after the bomb raids. One job that I rather enjoyed was a six-month stint working for a furniture removalist. This job provided an opportunity for a ‘scrounge.’

My mate and I hated shovelling snow so we wangled a job unloading coal wagons at the railway station. This job wasn’t as bad as it sounds. There were 10 of us to unload five 20-ton wagons, two to a wagon. Generally we finished the job in five hours, six at the outside. We then had a hot shower and returned to the camp. Another plus was that we were picked up in a truck and taken to work and often we would get a ride back as well. Also, each day my mate and I would put a bit of coal in our ‘bludging bags’, not much, but enough to keep our stove going into early morning. Also, we were able to establish a reserve under the floorboards. Most of us had bludging bags. Some were small for scrounging scraps of tucker when we unloaded edible items from the railway trucks. The bigger ones were used for the unexpected that turned up now and again. The guards checked us as we return from the various jobs but were fairly lenient, particularly if they got a small percentage of what we had taken.

By early 1944 it became obvious things were starting to go our way in the war. Conditions improved and there was a gradual change in attitude towards us. For example, our working hours were reduced from 10 hours a day to six. On most jobs we worked with civilians and generally got along quite well with them. However, to my observation, a ‘Nazi Austrian’ tended to be a ‘Hitler fanatic’ and if in charge of the job would endeavour to make our life uncomfortable by being petty to the extreme. A non-Nazi was generally an amiable person but often had always to appear otherwise for fear of being ‘dobbed in’ by other civilians.

The average civilian worker was in fact not much better off than us. If he was directed to work on a job by the labour exchange he was forced to comply. Failing to do so meant he would not receive his food ration cards or his owed wages and he would be eventually sent to Strafe Lager – a punishment camp. Consequently his family would suffer. His movements were limited to a radius of about 15 km from his place of residence and he was required to carry identification. Listening to foreign radio news was forbidden as was criticising the authorities. This was classed as defeatism and carried a severe penalty. There were always informers among his fellow workers. When the air raids became more frequent and damage to housing intensified, the average non-party worker was among the last to receive aid. The Party bosses and their associates came first when the labour and transport were allocated to clear away bomb damage.

On April 20th each year, the occasion of Hitler’s birthday was marked by almost every home and building throughout the city being decked out with Nazi banners. Shop windows would be adorned with flowers and either a picture or statuette of the Fuhrer. Some would even burn candles. After our first winter, we managed to reduce the hours of our working day to around seven or eight hours by making a contract with the foreman to do specific tasks and when completed be allowed to return to the camp. This worked well for both parties and apart from when we were called out to clean up after bombing raids, this arrangement lasted until the end of war. Repairing rail tracks and filling in bomb craters were added to a list of chores when the air attacks began in 1944. Some tensions developed between civilians and us POWs when the air raids started. I recall being one of a gang called out to clear railway track damage following a heavy bomb raid. The bomb destroyed houses adjacent to the railway station. We were abused and spat on but then I suppose if your home and contents had been destroyed it would be natural to take it out on the nearest enemy national’s. However this animosity was displayed for only a short period of time.

‘Swinging the banjo’. August 1942. Kevin is in the digger in the left foreground. By this time the men had been in 10029GW for 12 months but were still to recover their weight loss.
Cookhouse duty in the temporary kitchen. The first one burnt down. Jeff Gilbert in the foreground was killed in bomb raid 1944. Kevin is in the background of the photo.

STAYING SANE

Most of the fellows in our camp enjoyed fairly good health. Early on in our captivity, our diet deficiency led to illnesses from which a couple of men died when I was still at Wolfsberg. Two suffered heart attacks at Klagenfurt; one was fatal. Apart from persistent winter colds and the occasional crop of boils, my health was pretty good right through. Our dental requirements were attended to by a civilian dentist. With my top teeth now in a bad state of decay, I decided to brave the issue and had 12 of them pulled out. This necessitated two visits as he would only extract 6 per visit. They were painful visits but it was still better than suffering toothache. He made a denture plate for me which served me well until war’s end. We had to pay for his services. This we did in Lager Geld which the camp authorities converted to civilian money. This was no problem as we had little to spend our wages on anyway.

We obtained packs of cards and reading material through the Red Cross. I learned to play bridge and joined the fanatics in the inter-hut bridge tournaments. Early in the piece we had to amuse ourselves. In the evenings after lock-up, certain subjects would be vigorously discussed with the topics usually connected to politics and religion. We would also have singalongs. Our morale and physical condition greatly improved following the issue of new clothing and the arrival of Red Cross food parcels. The Red Cross also provided books, playing cards and other stationery. After a few months went by some musical instruments were acquired by barter. Bartering (trading) was a risky for parties. If the Gestapo caught us out there would be heavy penalties.

THEATRE GROUP

Some of the men had musical talent and others had stage and stage production experience. With the support of the Commandant, camp concerts were organised. The quality of our concerts was upgraded by the arrival of a British soldier who was a very competent pianist. We approached the Commandant requesting a piano and he gave his full support. In fact he sourced the piano and it was purchased using camp funds pooled from our wages. He even helped by obtaining material and clothing for costumes, especially the dresses worn by our ‘female’ stars. Some the productions were of a very high standard, not only the acting and singing roles but also the musicians and set designers.

Melody Makers
 There seemed to be no shortage of men willing to audition for parts in musicals and plays. In addition to the acting and singing roles, there were also plenty of volunteers for stage assistants, set designers and artists.

Scene from 'Rookery Nook'
The Ghost Train - a mystery thriller.

Scene from the 1943 Christmas Pantomime, 'Aladdin'
Stage Assistants 'Aladdin'

EMPIRE GAMES

We also ran athletic carnivals and could possibly lay claim to having the first Empire Games. We put down a tennis court and again acquired by barter the necessary racquets and balls. The net was made from the string that came from around the Red Cross parcels. In winter, the edges of the court were banked up and the court filled with water. This became our skating rink. Soccer was played with sides of eight and the good old Aussie game of Two-Up was popular with all.

A good turnout for a football game
Team Australia
Stan Pendlebury wins the 75 yeard sprint
'Our Girls' Novelty Football Match
A Two-Up 'School'
Our camp library had a boost when we furniture removalists came across a store of English books. Our ‘gaffer’ allowed us to keep them – for a consideration of course. He even delivered them back to the camp and cleared it with the Commandant, assuring him that all was square and above board.

SPIRITUAL LIFE

The spiritual aspect of our POW life was catered for by three Wolfsberg-based Padres who made regular visits 10029GW. Father Juneau was a French-Canadian priest who was on a ship en route to Africa when it was torpedoed. He looked after the Catholics. The Church of England fellows had a Reverend Hobbling. The remainder were cared for by a New Zealander, John Ledgerwood, a Presbyterian minister.

Before the war, Rev. Hobbling tended to the parish of St John’s Wood in London, a rather posh area. He then became an army padre and was captured at Dunkirk. He was interned at an Officers camp for a year but then asked to be transferred to an ‘other ranks camp’ hence his arrival at Stalag 18A. He eventually adjusted to the “culture shock” (his words) and became very popular until his death during a bombing raid on Wolfsberg’s rail junction. His was a very sad loss. The visits by each padre were welcomed by all, regardless of their creed, and their services were very well attended.

AIR RAIDS

24 Oct 1943

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in late October 1943, Klagenfurt suffered its first air raid of the war when 150 or more Liberator bombers flying from bases in central Italy attacked the railway station area in a raid that lasted 30 minutes. Considerable damage was done to the rail yards and two houses surrounding the yards.

Following the ‘all clear,’ working parties were sent to the area to help in the repair of the rail tracks and fill in bomb craters. In doing so we had to run the gauntlet of hostile civilians. It was not an enjoyable experience. But I suppose when you find your house in ruins I guess anyone would vent his feelings on the nearest enemy, which on this occasion happened to be us. However, this was an isolated incident.

No more raids were made on Klagenfurt area until January 1944 when more than 200 Liberator bombers of the American Air Force made a raid on the aerodrome some 8 km from our camp. Following this raid, work was stepped up on the construction of air raid shelters on which a number of POWs were employed. One of these was tunnelled into a hillside about one kilometre from the camp. A portion of this bunker was allotted to us prisoners.


I photographed the bunker referred to in Kevin's memoir when visiting Klagenfurt in 2015. The bunker is hidden from a busy road by trees and scrub. Vandals occasionally break in and make a mess of the place. Michael Byrne.
Some 30 km south Klagenfurt is a mountain range call the Karawankan’s and the higher sections of this range are snow-covered all year round. Their height would exceed 12,000 feet. The first sighting of raiding planes on a clear day would be their condensation trails as they passed over the mountains flying northwards at 25 to 30,000 feet. Often large groups of these bombers would rendezvous with their fighter escorts over our area. 

The Germans instituted two systems of alarms. A first alarm would signal women and children to seek shelter. A second alarm signalled workers to leave their jobs and take shelter. The two alarms had different sounds. To us POWs this was a most worrying situation, especially when we were working on a likely target such as the rail yards where the only safe refuge was some low-lying hills at least a kilometre or more distant.

On a number of occasions when we were unloading coal wagons I had to run for shelter. One day when the rail yard copped a heavy attack, we had a ‘grandstand’ view of the rail tracks and locomotives literally flying into the air as the bombs exploded. On return to the job we found our coal wagons unscathed and we had to finish the unloading. On another occasion we again we had a grandstand view of a large incendiary raid when whole sections of the city appeared to be on fire.

Early in 1944 an anti-aircraft battery of eight 88 mm guns were set up about 600 metres from our camp which we were sure would attract the attention of the bombers. They did, and our camp had some near misses until on Saturday, 19 February 1945 we were bombed. This occurred on a day when most of our inmates were inside the camp. When the siren sounded all but about 40 men ran for the shelter. The bombs, obviously aimed for the anti aircraft battery over-carried and hit the camp killing six men and injuring about a dozen. Some of the huts were badly damaged. I was able to salvage most of my gear intact.

Klagenfurt appeared to be on a favoured route of the bomber groups on their way to attack targets in northern Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. Occasionally, aircraft were hit by either anti-aircraft fire or by German fighters. These aircraft, named by us as ‘lame ducks’ would return over Klagenfurt where they would jettison their bomb loads in an effort to stay aloft or to increase their fuel range in a bid to get back to base. At times crews would parachute to ground while others would go down in their burning aircraft. I recall some survivors being held overnight in our camp. They were given medical treatment before being taken away by the Gestapo.

We never experienced any large night attacks apart from a lone bomber or two, referred to by the Germans as ‘nuisance raids.’ They would drop bombs indiscriminately during the night. This worried us as we were locked up in our huts.

Michael Cister’s Funeral Parade, 9 Feb 1944. Michael was just 20 years old when he died of wounds after a bombing raid on the Lend Canal. He was clearing snow from the canal in preparation for ice skating. He was a 17 year old South African Galley Boy on a merchant ship which was torpedoed. He was the first in the camp to lose his life.
Dazed POWs standing and sitting near their slit trenches following the aftermath of the 19 Feb 1945 bomb raid that saw six of their number killed.

LAST DAYS

With all the increased bombing activity a great deal of damage was caused to the rail system. This caused delays to the supply of our Red Cross food parcels from the end of 1943 until the end of the war. We were lucky to receive a parcel once a month. Also, our mail was delayed. The lack of food parcels became evident when we all started to lose weight once again but we reckoned it would all be over by the end of 1944. We were ever the optimists.

However we POWs were not the only people losing weight. The civilians were now doing it hard as well. Long queues of civilians were regularly seen outside the food shops trying to redeem their ration cards, often without success. We felt sympathy for the mothers with young children battling to buy food as well as having to take the children to the air raid shelters three or four times a week.

By March 1945 it seemed to us the end was fast approaching. We were still sent out on working parties but our captors appeared to have lost interest in getting the job done. In March we had a windfall. A load of food parcels arrived enough for a man we eat well for four weeks.

In April, air activity increased. The rail centre and aerodrome were the main targets. Also, fighter aircraft were overhead daily. They obviously knew of our camp and often flew at low altitude. The anti-aircraft battery near our camp was put out of action in late March and was never replaced so our planes now flew with impunity.

Adolf Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1945 was, as usual, recognised by the citizens of Klagenfurt with the usual display of Nazi banners, photographs, etc.. These same banners were hung from house windows on May 7th but on May 8th when the British 8th Army occupied the city, the Nazi emblems had been removed.

On 1 May 1945 the Volkischer Beobachter (a Berlin newspaper) carried the headline edged in black “The Fuhrer is dead” – “He died at his post in Berlin” – “in defence of his country to the last.”

A rumour now circulated that the German forces fighting the British 8th Army and the American 5th Army in Italy, had capitulated. We reckoned there might be some truth in it as the Germans didn’t seem to care if the work parties went to work or not. However, there were a couple of unpleasant instances when a few of the ‘died in the wool’ Nazi types made the atmosphere a bit tense.



FREEDOM



We could hear artillery fire to the south of us in Yugoslavia and there was a rumour that the Russians had captured the town of Graz. To me and a couple of my mates, Jimmy Montgomery, George Richardson and Andy Anderson it seemed that Klagenfurt could become the next hotspot and on May 6th we decided to shoot through and head for Italy.


We slipped a guard a couple of cigarettes and exited the camp under the security wire. We had no difficulty boarding a passenger train for the 45 kilometres to Villach, towards the Italian frontier. After some 15 kms we arrived at a German army roadblock. The Germans advised us to wait there as the 8th Army was expected anytime. We decline and moved on a few more kilometres until we met some French POWs working in a cider factory. They gave us a few bottles of their brew which I recall as being pretty potent and decided to sit a spell. I recall Andy saying “this brew is real good. I can hear the sound of tanks.” And with that around the corner came a German staff car with a white flag flying and British car with a General’s pennant and Union Jack. Following them were four 8th Army tanks and several truckloads of infantry.



We began laughing uncontrollably, the effects of the apple cider, I’m sure. The four of us were put in a utility vehicle and driven back to Klagenfurt. As we travelled along the feeling was one of unbelievable happiness. I noticed that just yesterday all the houses that were flying swastika banners now displayed red and white Austrian flags. The good feelings continued. It was a great sight to see the German troops retreating and hearing them ask for something to eat. We replied exactly the way they did to us four years earlier. “That is bad luck for you because isn’t anything for you Germans.”


Most of the blokes were evacuated by air to Bari in southern Italy on May 9th and then on to England by sea. Monty and I (and a few others) slept at the camp for the next four nights. We were flown to Naples in a two-engine Dakota transport, arriving on Saturday afternoon, May 12th. When we arrived there were a number of procedures to go through. We were medically checked, interrogated and given new uniforms.






Our next long flight was to Westcott Aerodrome in England. During the 7½ hour journey, we flew over Paris and could see the damage done to the land and the debris that was spread all over the towns and villages.



Straight after arriving in Westcott, 30 miles south of London in Surrey, we were welcomed by medics who gave us the ‘once over’ with a can of DDT. Cups of tea and food were served by a an English lady. Hearing her speak was strange since we had not heard a woman speak the English language for over four years.

Once we had finished at the airport we caught a train to the Australian POW Recovery Centre at Eastbourne where we were given mail that dated back to last Christmas. We were told that we were entitled to a couple of days leave before heading home, so after I put my name down for the next boat and then took the opportunity to see some of the tourist spots in London.


Boomerang Club
London

23rd May 1945

Dear Mum, Dad and All

Several days ago I received your letters written late in April and glad to know you are all keeping OK. I have already written and cabled you – suppose you’ve received them by this. Well as you can see by the above I am enjoying a bit of leave in the big smoke and believe me it is some big smoke.
I came in from Eastbourne on Monday and since then have spent practically all my time doing the sights with an occasional picture show in between.Contrary to my expectations, London’s scars were hard to find. You have to look for them. Of course, there are patches here and there.

I suppose you have heard of the famous London weather – well we are having a spot of it at the moment. Rain and sunshine change with the hours.I come off leave tomorrow (24th) and go on ‘draft for Australia.’ I reckon with luck I should be home sometime in August and you can sure bet I’m looking forward to seeing Aussie.

As I told you in my other letter I was unable to visit Rome. We were only in Naples a couple of days, from Saturday afternoon (12th) till Tuesday morning (15th) and had no leave. I saw Rome from the air twice – from the Dakota on the way down from Austria and again from the Liberator en route to England.

From my brief acquaintance with Italian towns and their smells I don’t think I missed anything. We also had a good looksee at Venice. It too looked well from the air.Both plane trips were grand and good travelling apart from the crossing of the Alps and Apennines.

It was much better than having to wait for trains and boats, etc. A lot of chaps from Southern and Eastern Germany had to more or less make their own way along to airports etc. And some had some quite good trips, and inadvertently a good time.

It’s certainly hard lines Tony has had to give up his career, but that’s just the luck of the game. Still he may not see much in the Army. His deafness will probably count against him. Suppose Marie will have gone off the deep end by the time this reaches you. I’ll write her in a day or so.

I also had mail from Joan and Terence. Terence sounds every bit the proud Papa.

On arrival in Aussie I expect to be having quite a fair amount of leave and shall have tons of time to tell you all the doings. Certainly it will be much easier than writing. The only souvenirs I managed to collect were a few snapshots – I dumped everything before we boarded the plane.

Yesterday morning I had a look around a few of the ancient joints round about, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, 10 Downing Street, Buckingham and St James’ Palace, etc.

Actually they’re nothing extra and to my mind gazing at the Shrine or Victoria Barracks is about par.
I hope you are not thinking I am a walking skeleton or anything like that, because I’m not. We were in Klagenfurt, Corinthia, in Austria, tucked away in a valley miles from anywhere (except a few bombers) and so did not have to do any forced marches, and apart from a bit of a starve for a week or so, we had things pretty easy.

Anyway, to date two quacks marked me fit and i turned the scale at 11.7. So I’m all right.
Well Mum for the present I must close so for now will close. Hoping to see you in the immediate future.

Love to All

Kevin



HOME

We departed Liverpool on 27 June 1945 and while sailing down the Mersey, we saw the Mauretania loaded with American soldiers. This was the same ship that took me from Australia. We travelled through the Panama Canal where we went ashore for a day. We had another exciting day’s leave when we arrived in Wellington, New Zealand. Then it was on to Sydney where we could officially say that we were home.

After a number of train rides we arrived at Melbourne’s Spencer Street Station. We were then put in cars and driven to an army camp at Royal Park where our parents were waiting. It was very emotional with lots of tears, hugs and kisses. The following day I returned home to Shepparton with my family. My sisters Marie and Pat and my brother Brian were waiting at the railway station.

I still found it hard to believe that I was free. I was greeted with telegrams and letters from relatives and friends. 20 year-old Agnes Monahan called around to say hello. She was just a 15-year old girl when I last saw her in Oaklands. She and her twin sister Veronica (but known as Pos) were nurses at Shepparton’s Una Hospital.

I had 21 days leave but had to return to Royal Park twice in order to finalise my discharge paperwork. I was officially discharged on 15 August 1945. The officer in charge of the administration was a Major Jenkins. For some stupid reason, he was hooked on parades. When he ordered us to line up we refused telling him that we had had enough of parades. He blew his top and got all red in the face and threatened to call the Military Police. We simply told him that while in captivity we received threats from the Gestapo and still survived. That was the last we saw Major Jenkins.

_________________________________________________________________________________

EPILOGUE


By Michael Byrne

Kevin’s parents Michael and Elizabeth Byrne had been farmers at Dockers Plains, about 13kms northeast of Wangaratta, Victoria. The Great Depression years took its toll and they were forced to sell their property. For a short time Elizabeth ran a cake shop in Wangaratta then in 1938 they bought a grocery business in Fryer’s Street, Shepparton.

Any thoughts Kevin might have had about returning to the Stock and Station Agency business were dashed when he learned that his father was seriously ill with diabetes. Consequently, Kevin became a grocer.

The photo below was taken in front of the  grocery shop in May 1946. Kevin had just had his bottom teeth removed. He was now toothless. The younger man in the photograph is possibly a customer. It’s thought that the photograph may have been taken to accompany a newspaper article.

From POW to Grocer

Kevin Byrne and Agnes Monahan soon became ‘an item.’ They announced their engagement and were married at St Brendan’s Church in Shepparton on 6 Sep 1947. 

Agnes Monahan, aged 21

Kevin and Agnes had five children, Michael, Brian, Gerald, Christopher and Annette. Gerald and Christopher died in their infancy.  Kevin’s father’s diabetes worsened and a leg was amputated in 1946. He died in November 1948 aged 67.  His mother Elizabeth died aged 88 in 1979. Kevin joined Peters Ice Cream in 1955 and his career in distribution to him to Wangaratta, Geelong and Melbourne. Agnes died 2000 just short of her 76 birthday. 

Kevin died on 27 Jan 2006. He was 87.

Kevin in 2005, the last year of his life. There is a remarkable coincidence in this photo. In the background is Station Pier, the very place from which he embarked to go to war in 1941.



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