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Part 1:Youth

Part 1b:Army
Part 2:University
Part 3:Africa
Part 4:Teacher
Part 5:Fieldwork
Part 6: Retiremnt


Britain declared war on Germany and Italy on 3 September 1939. General Jan Christiaan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, declared war three days later. I remember cycling to school from our home in Heron Road, eagerly speculating with Alastair Dark how the war (which was how we referred to World War 2, then and later) would affect our lives: we had little inkling of how drastically they would be disrupted.

Many members of the opposition National Party were against South Africa’s participation in the war, some being fanatically pro-Nazi. One of the most extreme was Oswald Pirow, who resigned as Minister of Justice in order to support Hitler. All of us in the forces loathed Pirow, and it still galls me when I drive along a major road in Cape Town named after this infamous man.

Given the divided opinions about the war, Smuts declared that there would be no conscription, and soldiers would not be required to serve outside South Africa unless they chose explicitly to do so. These volunteers were identified by orange shoulder tabs, which were worn with pride.

Guy in the Fleet Air Arm. 1940

In July 1940 Paul and I were both home for the vacation, I from Rhodes and Paul from his last year at Maritzburg College. We wanted to get involved in war, partly from patriotism, partly from what we saw as the adventure and glamour, and partly because neither Paul nor I was content in our respective institutions. Paul was impatient to be away from the restrictions of school, and I was too immature to be taking advantage of my time at university. Influenced by Guy, who was already a decorated pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, we aimed to join the South African Air Force. Guy was an irresistible model and hero to his impressionable younger brothers.

Dad was then in Addington Hospital, recovering from abdominal surgery. It was not a matter of asking his permission, because we had been brought up to make our own decisions and Dad knew that nothing would stop us from joining up. I had a twinge of guilt because Dad looked so frail, but he gave us his blessing, asking only that we stay together so that we would be able to look after each other: ‘I shall worry about you boys, of course, but I shall worry much less if I know that the two of you are together.’

Paul and I readily accepted this stipulation, because we got on well despite our different interests. During the following five years we were frequently grateful to Dad for this request. We found that the worst parts of the war were made tolerable by the close fraternal support that we developed: only after Paul’s death, in 1986, did I fully appreciate how close a bond we had forged.


DWB, Dad and Paul. Durban, 1941

In our careless, youthful way we thought little of the feelings of our parents, who did not impose their anxieties upon us. Dad remarked to a friend at the Durban Club that he was concerned, because all three of his sons were serving in the forces. His friend replied that he was even more concerned, as not one of his three sons showed any signs of wanting to join up. Dad told us that he felt very proud of us.

Paul and I had hoped to join the South African Air Force and be trained as fighter pilots, but we met an obstacle: the minimum enlistment age was eighteen and a half and I was only seventeen years and two months. Paul, being eighteen months older, would have been accepted but we were committed to staying together. We could have waited until November 1941, when I would have reached the requisite age, but we were afraid that, by the time we finished our pilot training, the war might be over.

While Paul and I were walking on the Esplanade, considering various alternatives, we paused at an army recruiting office with an improbable, exciting poster calling for volunteers for the cavalry. The poster depicted a gallant young horseman galloping on a sturdy steed while dodging enemy fire. Cavalry? In 1940? While pondering this we were hailed by Aubrey Davies, whom we knew from sailing, who was a member of the recruiting staff. He told us to ignore the cavalry poster and said that he could offer us a much more exciting option – as dispatch riders. ‘How would you like to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles?’ We were won over at once, and followed Aubrey inside the office to fill in the forms. Fearful of being rejected again, I put the date of my birth back a year, making it 23 May 1922 (instead of 1923). The recruiting sergeant drily remarked we had a clever mother as the age difference on our forms showed an interval of only six months, but he cheerfully admitted us to the Second South African Division Signal Company, allocating us our army numbers, 3738 for me, 3739 for Paul.


Paul and I spent a few weeks in Durban, where I learned to ride a motorcycle (Paul at 18 could already do everything), not the promised Harley-Davidson but a more manageable BSA 350. We then went to a large army camp at Potchefstroom (always referred to as Potch), a hundred miles south-west of Johannesburg. My first few weeks there were a shock. Like millions of others throughout history I had to adapt, quickly, to vastly different circumstances and to different sorts of people. I was embarrassed by the toilets, which offered no privacy, being in long rows where squatters chatted companionably to their neighbours. Paul was prepared for this, both by his experiences of boarding school, and also by his more robust temperament. I would get up at about 4 a.m. to avoid the embarrassment of sharing this hitherto private office. At one early-morning session I was joined by Bill Payn, a popular teacher at Durban High School, who had joined the army despite being forty years old. Mr Payn jollied me out of my discomfort, saying, ‘Dave, everyone has to shit, and this is the way we do it in the army. You will get used to it.’ Although I never really got used to it, it did become less upsetting.

What was more important to me were my new friendships, the most significant being with Ernest (Jake) Jacobsen. Jake’s parents had recently died and Ouma informally adopted him, inviting him home whenever we went on leave to Durban and treating him like her own son, and he became like a brother to Paul and me. We were all ‘Don Rs’ ( dispatch riders), and considered ourselves superior to the radio operators, the motor transport and the other sections of our signals unit. This attitude of superiority was unwarranted for it was the radio operators who did the most effective work. We may have added some glamour to our unit but I have no clear idea of what contribution we, as dispatch riders, made to the course of the war.

Jake. Potchefstroom, 1941

Another significant new friend was Leslie Rubin, an attorney in Durban. Many years later, when I asked what he recalled, Leslie wrote to me:

I remember the day, not long after I had joined up, when [your father] whom I knew well as a senior colleague – Brokensha and Higgs was one of the older legal firms in Durban – came up to me as I was on my way to court, and said he had heard I was with the Second Division Signal Company. ‘My two boys are in the same unit and I would appreciate it if you would keep an eye on them.’ I sought out Paul and David as soon as we got to Potch and saw them from time to time thereafter, the last time being after we had gone to North Africa, at Amiriya. The vivid picture that remains with me is of their being almost inseparable, Paul a most conscientious, devoted and protective older brother and David very shy and usually looking serious and thoughtful, with very blue eyes.

(Leslie was later made an information officer, stationed in Cairo. After the war he was vice-chairman of the Liberal Party, and a senator representing Africans in Parliament; we met again in 1960 when he was Professor of Law at the University of Ghana. We later met both in California and in the Cape.)

Other new friends included several young Afrikaners. I cringe now when I think how superior, with no justification, we English-speaking Natalians felt, regarding Afrikaners. (The population of South Africa in 1940 was about 11 million, including 2.3 million whites – ‘Europeans’ – of whom about half were Afrikaners.)

A disproportionate number of Afrikaners joined the army, partly because of their relative poverty: the depression of the 1930s had caused many Afrikaner bywoners (those who squatted on farms, having no land of their own) to leave the farms and migrate to the towns. My closest Afrikaner pal was ‘Piet’ Pieterse, who came from a poor background and had recently spent time at a reformatory for juvenile offenders. Despite our differences, we had a close and affectionate relationship. My heart always gladdened when I saw Piet’s gap-toothed grin; he would embrace me, calling me Dawie, or my klein dafodel, and laugh uproariously. Piet was killed at Tobruk two years later, our first fatality.

I had a few other such close friendships, which resembled what the Australians call mateship, a relationship between two soldiers with intense affection and occasional homoerotic undertones (Billany, 1952). Such mates would be emotionally extremely close, and mutually dependent.

DWB,Ted Harris, Paul.Potchefstroom 1940 ake. Potchefstroom, 1941

Other memories are less happy. Once, I ordered the driver of a bakkie (a pick-up truck) to move away from the road, to allow the convoy to pass. A woman sitting in the open back of the truck spat at me. I did not pay much attention; in any event we wore full face leather masks to protect our faces from the stones which were thrown up. But Bennie Burke, one of my fellow dispatch riders, was furious at this insult to me and, taking out his revolver, forced the passengers, all Afrikaners, to get out of the truck and stand with their hands up until the convoy had passed. What the woman had

Dispatch riders. Potchefstroom, 1941 Middle row from left: 5th Dickie, 6th Paul, 3rd from end DWB, end Jake

done was not surprising, for in that part of the country there was much anti-army and even pro-Nazi sentiment: many had bitter memories of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902. I recall this incident with mixed feelings because it probably only increased the woman’s antipathy.

A surviving letter from me to my parents, headed ‘Potchefstroom Aerodrome, November 13th, 1940’, says: ‘The DonR’s are not neglected. Yesterday we went out for practical map reading and were invited in for tea, all seventeen of us, by an Afrikaner farmer.’ So not all Afrikaners felt the same way.

One of our instructors was an old (probably about forty years old) Afrikaner regular army sergeant major who gave us excellent advice on the maintenance of our motorcycles, and the tracing of faults in an internal combustion engine. His advice stood me in good stead many years later, when I did the maintenance of my own Land Rover in the bush in Tanganyika. He amused us by recommending that we take a bacalav (a balaclava helmet) to the desert, because the nights would be cold; later we were grateful for his advice. He also told us that we should carry a bar of Sunlight soap so that when the enemy fired into our petrol tank we could repair the holes with the soap. Our motorcycles were never fired on by the enemy, but in 1956, when Bernard and I were driving our old 1939 Chevy in Rhodesia, from Bulawayo to Maleme Mission, we bumped on a stony ridge, rupturing the petrol tank. In the pouring rain we found soap and plugged the leaking tank, gratefully remembering the old sergeant major.

When we had weekend leave, from 1200 hours Saturday until 2359 hours Sunday, we liked to go to Johannesburg, which was two hours away by train. I recall with pleasure being invited to homes where there were soft beds with clean linen, privacy, nicely prepared and properly served meals and all the other little luxuries that we had taken for granted before we joined the army.

Potchefstroom was the home of one of the major Afrikaans universities, where many of the students and staff were vociferously anti-British and pro-German, causing tension and hostility in relations between the army camp and the university. When the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 – from two British colonies and two formerly independent Afrikaner republics – English and Afrikaans were both declared official languages, and the new nation had two national anthems, the familiar God Save the King and the new Die Stem van Suid-Afrika: ‘The Call of South Africa’. Troops were allowed leave to go into the town, where, at the end of a film at the local cinema, the two national anthems would be played. Everybody stood up for Die Stem, but when God Save the King followed, some students would try to push their way out. This resulted in farcical scenes, with soldiers steadfastly standing to attention and ignoring the blows until the last note of God Save the King was sounded, after which there would be a free-for-all fight.

The troops would return from weekend leave in Johannesburg on the last train, alighting at a small siding, a mile from our camp. One night one of the stragglers, a small and mild and popular man, was found with a broken leg, having been attacked by a group of townspeople. In retaliation, an angry mob of soldiers invaded the university, thrashing all the students they could find. (Neither Paul nor I took part in this reprisal raid.) My fellow soldiers boasted that they had found a grand piano, played God Save the King, forced the students to stand to attention and then thrown the piano over a balustrade. They had also spilled books in the library, which sickened me: it was too similar to what Hitler’s thugs were doing in Germany. This was not my scene.

A happier memory is of army manoeuvres. In Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) we had great opportunities to ride our Harley-Davidsons along bush and desert tracks, camping out at night and having mock battles. Later we went to the eastern Transvaal, near Barberton, and on one occasion mechanical trouble delayed me. Trying to catch up with the convoy, I took a short cut along a remote dirt road, but I rode too fast and was thrown off my machine. I realised that I had broken something (it proved to be

DWB. Durban, 1941

my collarbone) and I had a bad time, in pain, on this lonely road, until I was rescued by an Afrikaner farmer who put me and my Harley-Davidson on his truck, and took me to rejoin the others. As soon as the bone had healed, I got on my Harley-Davidson again, determined to prove that I was not afraid.


After nearly one year at Potch, we spent six weeks at Oribi, in Pietermaritzburg, a staging camp for troops waiting to go ‘up north’. At Potch we had been accommodated in barracks, but at Oribi we slept in bell tents, eight men to a tent. Pietermaritzburg is bitterly cold in winter, so this was not a comfortable period. We were granted leave generously though, and were often able to hitchhike the fifty miles to our home in Durban.

We liked to go dancing at the Blue Lagoon, a popular and genteel night-club where Paul could take his girlfriend Jil, whom he married after the war. My partner was Shirley May, who lived near us and whom I had known for many years. She was good company, but, looking back, I can now see that I was never seriously interested in girls.

Dad allowed Paul to borrow his car and, one evening, driving home after dropping off the girls, we picked up a British soldier who asked if we could take him to a brothel. Paul, ever enterprising, found a man who agreed to be our guide, taking us to a modest house near the Durban Botanic Gardens. What stays in my memory is the aplomb with which Paul handled the whole situation as we accompanied our new friend inside – only for a beer, not for the real business of the evening. It was, literally, my first multiracial party: the ladies of the house represented all South Africa’s racial groups and were all marvellously at ease with each other and with their waiting male customers, a cross-section of our gallant allies. An evening to be remembered. After many false alarms and after being told – accurately – via German radio, that we would be sailing on the Ile de France (a luxury liner converted to a troopship), we embarked for Suez, and spent the following year in north Africa.

Paul. Durban, 1941


Army life in north Africa was not particularly stressful. It became increasingly clear that we dispatch riders were hardly an essential part of the plan for victory, but we had many opportunities to enjoy ourselves. We were camped first at Mersa Matruh, two hundred miles west of Alexandria, then we moved a further two hundred and fifty miles west, to camp on the outskirts of Tobruk (now Tubruq). The only civilians we glimpsed – and that very occasionally – were small bands of nomadic Bedouin Arabs.

Despite the terrible disadvantages, the desert had charm, almost a fascination, which affected most of those who lived and fought there. The vast distances, the deep silences, the tricks of light, even the spartan conditions had a profound effect on the soldiers who were in this desolate wilderness … Because there were so few civilians, and thus few distractions, the armies … became such closely knit organisations that the word family best describes them. The Desert and its ways produced, in addition to peculiar ideas of dress, the invisible but distinctive styles of companionship, loyalty and decency which were never found in any other theatre of operation.

(Lucas, 1978: 28) During the war, General Smuts’ wife, universally known as Ouma (Granny), took a special interest in the welfare of the South African troops: ‘my boys’, she called us. She insisted that all South African troops on active service outside South Africa should receive a daily tot of brandy, and two hundred cigarettes every week. In those days nearly all of us smoked, and nearly all of us enjoyed the brandy: we saved the tots until we had free time and could have a party. There were no health warnings about Commando Brandy and Springbok cigarettes. Paul, by then our platoon sergeant, and I shared quarters, usually dugouts, which we made comfortable. We even had the luxury of a real bath tub, which we had found abandoned in the desert. With wells nearby, water was not a problem. Dad later told us that when he met our general at the Durban Club he asked, ‘I don’t suppose you would have encountered my two boys?’ and the general replied, ‘Indeed I have; I used to envy them enjoying their bath, when all I had was a canvas basin.’



Top: Ouma Smuts, Pietermaritzburg. 1940.Photo: Ouma Brokensha

Above: Jimmy Daniel, Alexandria, March 1942


Another pair of brothers, preparing their dugout, found a plague of sand fleas. To eliminate them, they poured what they thought was paraffin over the sand walls and set it alight: the fuel proved to be petrol, and one brother was critically burned. This was a sad reminder that in any war a high proportion of casualties result from accidents.

At this time I had a new mate, Jimmy Daniel. He was my age, with an exuberant personality, and was a great companion. He had been a mechanic at Kempster Sedgwick garage before the war and was in MT (motor transport). We became close friends and I often spent the night, with Paul’s permission, in the enormous cave where the MT unit had established themselves. It was cold in the desert at night and Jimmy and I would cuddle up to sleep; I heard one of our friends say, with no hint of criticism, ‘Look at Jimmy and Dave, sleeping like two puppies.’

Jimmy joined our group when we went on leave to Alexandria – we liked doing everything together. Although we did not end up in

DWB on his Harley-Davidson (note socks drying). Western Desert, 1941/2

the same prisoner of war camp, after the war he asked me to be godfather to his first-born son, whom he called Warwick, after my middle name. Sadly I lost touch with Jimmy many years ago. Paul was much better than I at keeping in touch with our wartime pals, but I was having my own battles trying to settle down at university, and sorting out my sexual identity, and then I left South Africa.

On one occasion I was sent out with dispatches to a contingent about fifty miles south in the Qattara Depression. I set off on my Harley-Davidson but soon became lost – easy to do in that trackless desert – and in any case I do not have a good sense of direction. I was eventually found by a group of New Zealanders, who took me in for the night as it was too late to return to base. I asked them to send a message to my camp but this did not get through and, later that night Paul, worried by my absence, woke up the general and had him organise a wide search for me. When I returned to camp the next day, I was embarrassed to have been the centre of so much attention, but also overcome with love for Paul, when I realised how very concerned he had been. We rarely articulated our emotions.

Towards the end of our stay in the desert there was a serious shortage of spare parts for our Harley-Davidsons. An expensive machine might be abandoned because a simple piston ring was not available – a dramatic lesson for me in the importance of maintenance. (Much later, studying development in Africa, I encountered many instances of failure of elaborate development projects – water, roads, irrigation, transport – for lack of adequate maintenance.) We relied more and more on Dodge and Chevrolet trucks, but even with these there was often a problem finding spare parts. We formed a gang composed of both dispatch riders and MT people, the aim being to steal (we preferred scrounge) vehicles from other units, in order to keep mobile. While I am ashamed of some of my wartime activities, I have no regrets about our gang, it was all for the common good. The captain in charge of MT (who, after the war, asked Paul for a reference for a job as a car salesman) turned a blind eye to our activities, gratefully signing the forms we presented.

The genius behind our gang was an unimpressive, slight, shy man, Doug Lonsdale, a clerk in MT, who converted our stolen vehicles into apparently legitimately acquired trucks and motorcycles. This entailed giving them new registration numbers and ensuring that the records tallied with the stock of always-changing vehicles. One night we struck gold in Alexandria, finding not only an unattended one ton truck but also two motorcycles, all standing outside the Officers’ Club. We fortunately had a three ton truck, into which we loaded the motorcycles while one of us sped away with the one ton truck. In the back of the three ton truck, Doug told us which numbers to put on our new vehicles. It was all very exciting.

Once I found a BMW motorcycle, the best machine that I had ever ridden, abandoned in the shifting battles that were taking place around us. Near Tobruk was a fine stretch of brand new tarred road along which I tried it out – it was wunderbar. Then I noticed, riding at great speed towards me, another young man dressed as I was – clad only in shorts. As we got nearer each other, something indicated that he was not one of our boys, that he was German. The same realisation must have come to him, for we both turned abruptly around, giving each other a friendly wave, and raced back to our respective bases. ‘One of the most important requirements in the African campaign was the ability to identify quickly and at long range men or vehicles encountered in the desert’ (Lucas, 1978:

22We were never far from the coast and were often able to swim in the sea. Paul and I taught many up-country boys how to swim, the Mediterranean being an ideal learning environment. We were not over-busy; I remember halcyon days on the beaches, swimming, wrestling, talking, dreaming, playing jukskei. (Jukskei is a South African DWB and Paul. Tobruk, 1942 game, similar to the American ‘horse-shoes’, played originally with jukskeie or yoke-pins.) We fashioned rough pegs to serve as jukskeis. Even in winter when the Mediterranean could be chilly, we swam whenever we had the opportunity. While on the beach we were naked, and when I recall those scenes, we seem like figures on a Greek vase..

DWB and Paul, Tobruk, 1942

We had leave about every six weeks when we could go (usually by train, sometimes by road if any of our transport was going) to Alexandria or, less often, to Cairo. Looking back at our two or three day leaves I am struck by what a callow youth I must have been. Many other young soldiers (Bernard especially) used their wartime leave to good advantage, to explore sites of cultural and historical interest, and to meet local people. Now I realise how much more there was that I could have done. But we always went in our little group of five, with Paul inevitably the leader. We did see the pyramids, and wander around a few markets, and we saw, with little understanding, a few ancient buildings. But I do not regret the luxury of ice-cream or cake or iced coffee at Groppi’s, the famous Alexandria café: what a joy after the usually gritty and dull meals in the desert. I should say though, in fairness to our army cooks, that they could produce tasty meals under difficult circumstances: I remember particularly their delicious bully beef frikkadels (rissoles).

Returning from one of our leaves in Alexandria, on a late train packed with mostly drunken troops from different countries, I became separated from Paul, and an Australian threatened me, with no provocation. I wondered if my last day had come when this huge man swung at me in the crowded train corridor, but he did not connect, as his mates held him and the liquor slowed his reflexes. Suddenly, in a sequence that could have come from a movie, reinforcements arrived in the shape of our little gang led by Paul. Then there was a general mêlée, Australia versus South Africa, with me, the unwitting cause of it all, sheltering in a corner. No great harm was done, apart from a few bloody noses, and we all ended up together, sharing a case of beer that someone had thoughtfully produced.

Unknown, Bennie Burke, Paul, DWB. Giza, 1942

But the real enemy was not far away. We had heard much about General Rommel, and we did not underestimate his leadership, yet we never seriously considered that he might defeat us. Even though we were at divisional headquarters, we had only a hazy idea of the respective strength and potential of the two armies. Tension and uncertainty mounted throughout June. By this time Paul and I had become bored with our lives as dispatch riders and I had reached the magical age of eighteen and a half years, so we applied for a transfer to the South African Air Force. Knowing that the usual channels would have taken a long time, we asked Dad to help us (he was then a judge, and the ‘old boy network’ was very effective). He did intervene, and we were expecting every day a signal telling us to return to South Africa for training as pilots. If the attack on Tobruk had taken place just a few days later we would have been on our way south to begin our training. This thought haunted me (and Paul, though he was more philosophical about it) throughout the years of being a prisoner of war. I used to think that it would have been more glorious, more manly, to have been a fighter pilot than a prisoner of war who had done little of any consequence before being captured. But when we returned to Durban after the war, I learnt how many of our school friends – Gordon Henderson, Albert Clarke, Laurie Chiddell, one of the Shippey boys, and many others – had joined the South African Air Force as fighter pilots and had not returned. At first reluctantly, then gratefully, I came to prefer being a live non-hero to being a dead hero.

The twenty-first of June 1942 was a confusing day at Tobruk, starting early with German aircraft coming in low and firing at us, and with us fleeing in all directions. This was the first time we had been under fire. I lost track of Paul, who had been out with Jake, in a truck, delivering dispatches. They picked up some wounded soldiers and took them back to hospital, then noticed that Piet Pieterse and McAlpine, another of our DRs, were swimming in the bay. Paul and Jake called to them to come out quickly, as the situation was dangerous. The four of them carried on to the Indian Brigade, unaware that the Germans had broken through there. They were hit by a shell from a tank which killed Piet, severed McAlpine’s arm, and, seriously wounded Jake in the head and arm – but left Paul unscathed.

When Paul, thinking that Jake was also dead, returned to find me, I asked where Piet was. Paul ignored me, just saying ‘Come on, we’ve got to get out of here.’ I repeated my enquiry about Piet, and this time Paul, angrily, and close to tears, said, ‘Piet’s fucking head was blown off. Come on!

Jake was discovered later the same day by an Italian medical orderly, who had been sent to the field to see if any men were still alive. The orderly got him to hospital, and later he was taken to Italy in a Red Cross boat and transferred to Parma Hospital. Jake was later sent to Camp 54, Fara Sabina, where, to our surprise and mutual delight, we met up again.

Paul and I were strong swimmers, and we had had plenty of recent practice in the Mediterranean, so we decided to head for the coast, with the intention of hiding up until nightfall, then swimming the six miles beyond the perimeter of Tobruk, from where we thought we could easily walk until we found Allied troops. Little did we realise that by then Rommel’s forces were far beyond Tobruk, and were pressing on to Alexandria. Four others were with us. Who? I do not remember, but this was the inevitable ‘little band of followers’ that Paul attracted, especially in a crisis. When we were making our way to the coast, a young second lieutenant, who had only recently joined our Company, timidly asked if he could join us. ‘No’, said Paul, quite brutally, ‘you would only be in the way.’ The lieutenant then offered to share his bottle of gin, and this became his passport to joining our little group.

When we arrived at the rocky coast, we found a small cove, which we thought would allow us to escape detection from the Fieseler Storch – an early and very effective ‘short take-off and landing’ aircraft – which we could see in the distance, obviously searching for Allied soldiers. In the confusion of leaving camp, I was clad only in a pair of shorts, now my only worldly possession. (Today, when I consider the vast array of possessions which we deem necessary to make life supportable, I think almost wistfully of that early liberation from things.) We shared the gin, passing the bottle round from mouth to eager mouth. After my one-seventh share of the bottle I was drowsy and, as no aircraft were in hearing or in sight, I slipped off my shorts and dozed in a convenient rock pool.

My afternoon reverie was rudely disturbed by a sudden burst of gunfire, very close, and the appearance, round the corner of our cove, of two German soldiers, shouting for us to raise our hands and surrender. I felt as though I were on stage, naked, and made a dash for my shorts. This made the nervous Germans think I was reaching for a gun, and brought another round of fire, even closer, so this time I very quickly raised my hands, as the others had already done. I felt embarrassed, not only at being a hands-upper, but also because I was ‘starko’ – as though this were not the right script; people did not get captured without clothes. Reassured to see that I had no lethal weapon, the Germans allowed me at last to put my shorts on. They told us that a Storch had spotted us, and reported our position and numbers to a ground patrol, which had been sent to round us up. They said they would be handing us to their Italian allies, apologising, ‘We and you, we are the real soldiers, but the Italians …’


pic1942–1945: PRISONERS OF WAR

The total strength at Tobruk, including British and Commonwealth troops, was 35 000, of whom 25 600 were captured. Major-General Klopper, commanding our Second South African Division, was bitterly criticised, both at the time and after the war, for surrendering to General Rommel. During our POW years, there was occasional tension between British and South Africans, because of General Klopper’s surrender: later historians exonerated him from accusations of cowardice, pointing out that he was out-numbered and out-manoeuvred, and that he had no choice.

The sheer numbers of prisoners presented great logistical problems to our Italian captors, who were not well organised at the best of times. But we were not thinking of logistical problems, just dully wondering what would happen and how we would adjust to our new status. Army life, with its relative loss of freedom, should have prepared us to some extent for our new state, but I think most of us just could not imagine such a total deprivation of liberty. One POW book, The Melancholy State ( Wolhuter, n.d.), uses the phrase adopted by Winston Churchill, a press correspondent and POW during the Anglo-Boer War in 1899: ‘It is a melancholy state. You are in the power of your enemy, you owe your life to his humanity, your daily bread to his compassion. You must obey his orders, await his pleasures, possess your soul to his patience … You feel a constant humiliation in being penned in by railings and wire, watched by armed guards and webbed about with a tangle of regulations and restrictions.’

We wondered how long our captivity would last: although we were prisoners for just under three years, Paul and I seldom believed that our confinement would last more than six months; perhaps this optimism was good for our morale.

Of the days immediately after our capture I remember little with any clarity; it is all a blur of hunger, thirst, dirt, crowded lorries and general discomfort and anxiety – and, in my case, a feeling of guilt. Another South African POW ( Rosmarin, 1990) shared my feelings: ‘After I was captured, I developed a shocking guilt complex. Hands-upping to the enemy without any real resistance, I had not fired a shot in anger.’ (In South Africa, a hands-upper was a derogatory term for a member of the Boer forces who surrendered to the British in the Anglo-Boer War.) ‘It was as if I had committed a cowardly act. The “chucking in the towel” haunted me for many months of my POW career. I had let my country and family down. I often tried to justify my actions, but always returned to the same conclusion.’

We were put into large trucks, like cattle trucks, and transported nearly seven hundred miles west. The first day was the worst, one of the grimmest of my life, although we were not treated brutally. I need to stress this aspect, because the term POW often conjures up images of movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, or A Town Like Alice, and the unspeakable horrors of the Japanese camps – or, to take a more contemporary example, of POWs in Bosnia, or the US Guantanamo camp in Cuba. We did not endure such suffering. We were hungry, but for the most part we were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

When we joined the army we knew of the dangers, although, being young, we never thought that anything disastrous would happen to us. Most discomforts that we experienced were the result of inefficiency, wartime shortages and transport problems, rather than of any deliberately inflicted cruelty. And quite often our difficulties and shortages were shared by our guards, and by most of the enemy civilian population. In fact, from reading accounts of other POWs in Italy and in Germany, it is clear that Paul and I were relatively lucky: some of the others had much rougher experiences.

We spent the third night of our capture, at Derna (Darnah). We did at least have some cover – unlike many others – in a very crowded army barracks. On arrival, we were put through what was to become a boringly familiar routine, being assembled in rows of three, told to march, and counted. The guards kept getting the numbers wrong, amidst much excited shouting; then we would have start all over again. Our fatigue, hunger, bewilderment and general misery all conspired to make me, and a fellow prisoner, careless. I was on the right of one of the rows of three, with Arthur Winter immediately behind me. Each time we were counted, and recounted, a grimy Italian guard clapped his hand on our shoulders as we filed past, calling out the numbers: uno, due, tre, quattro … Arthur and I watched with impatience, scorn and distaste as the inefficient guard messed up the counting yet again. We also involuntarily flinched away from his grubby paw. Apparently our refined reaction offended him, for, when the counting was eventually completed, he called Arthur and me out of the ranks, and took us to a small office.

When an officer followed us in, I thought that everything would be alright. I can still see the small, elegant, unsmiling and clean young lieutenant, smelling of perfume and soap, watching us impassively. The guard then struck me, without warning, a hard slap across each cheek, and repeated the process on Arthur. As the officer had ostentatiously taken out his revolver, there was nothing we could do. The slaps did not really hurt, what was hurt was our youthful pride. I was furious – and powerless. When we rejoined the others (our little gang then numbered six), Paul was immensely relieved to see me, and to learn that I had not suffered any dire penalty. Let me say now that this was the only time that I was struck during the whole period, so there is no need to wonder if worse is to come in the way of beatings.

Later that day we were lying on the concrete floor in the barracks, tired, dirty, hungry and, above all, thirsty, as we’d had little to drink since we’d been captured. Then the same guard appeared, obviously looking for Arthur and me. I turned away, just hoping that he was not going to call me back for more ‘lessons’. But he offered me a large water bottle – two litres, and full. I looked at him with as much scorn as I could muster, muttering ‘bugger off’, and determined that I’d rather die than take anything from this creep (ah, youthful pride). Fortunately, and not for the first – nor the last – time, Paul intervened with wiser counsel, reminding me that I had to think of the others in our little gang. Some prisoners, we knew, had bartered their wrist-watches for less water than I was being offered. So I accepted, with as much grace as I could summon, and found myself shaking hands with and being embraced by my new friend. Oh, how good the water tasted, and how sweet were the remarks of ‘Good old Dave’, even though I knew that it was really good old Paul who had saved the day. We rationed the water carefully among the six of us.

I do not remember how long the rest of the journey took. There were often long waits and delays, then we would drive along at a fair speed, passing small Italian colonial farms, then there would be more stops. It was not a pleasant trip, and later Bernard told me that, like many others, I tend to blot out unpleasant experiences from my memory.

We finally arrived at our destination, Tarhunah, fifty miles southeast of Tripoli, in what is now Libya, which was to be ‘home’ for the next five months. (In the 1990s, Tarhunah acquired a notoriety, allegedly having a large underground chemical weapons plant.) It was a tiny settlement, an old army camp, with barracks, in which we slept. The whole camp covered about two acres, with a strong wire perimeter fence, and soldiers guarding the six hundred or so POWs. Once again we had our little syndicate, consisting of Dickie (our senior DR platoon sergeant), Tubby Trout, a calm cheery Englishman who had migrated to South Africa before the war, Stan Smollen, who became my benefactor, and Paul and me.

Such a group would today be recognised as a ‘support group’. We did not consciously forge the group for mutual support, but it undoubtedly served this purpose, and helped us to keep up our morale. A few prisoners let themselves go, neither washing regularly nor minding their general appearance, but our leaders, Dickie and Paul, were strict about the standards expected from our elite group, and these included daily bathing and shaving. We washed, quite satisfactorily, in a tin-helmet, two thirds full of water, using an improvised washcloth. We had one razor between the five of us, and I proposed that I should have first go, on the grounds that I had the lightest beard, but Dickie disagreed, and I became the last, often struggling with a blunt blade. I had no toothbrush, nor did most of the others, so we used our fingers, coated with ash. A dentist later told me that this was an efficient form of dental hygiene.

I acquired a shirt, I do not remember how, but I do distinctly recall being presented with a greatcoat by Stan Smollen in about September, when the desert nights were beginning to get chilly. When it was cold, Paul and I shared one blanket, snuggling up to keep warm, and the greatcoat was a blessing. Stan, one of the few POWs who did not smoke, bartered cigarettes for this greatcoat for me. When he gave it to me, I had to try hard not to weep, it was one of the most welcome presents I have ever had, and one of the most disinterested gestures I have known, a pure act of love. (Paul and I met Stan again after the war, at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg: he had become a successful businessman.)

Food was short at Tarhunah, largely for logistical reasons. We were hungry all the time, and we were seriously alarmed when one prisoner died of what was said to be beriberi – certainly as a result of malnutrition. The single medical orderly used this death to try to upgrade our diet, but with little success. What I remember most clearly about the hunger were the dreams, and the collection of recipes; we all dreamt of food, telling each other of the mouth-watering meals we had seen in our dreams. Many started obsessively collecting and recording recipes, a habit which I avoided; such indulgences were not tolerated in our group. Grown men would earnestly exchange recipes, for anything from chocolate cream cakes to roast chicken dinners, with the avowed intention of cooking these delicious meals when they got home. But these were true South African males, who had never cooked anything in their lives, and who were most unlikely even to enter their kitchens when they returned home. Among this large group of virile young men there was hardly any talk of sex, and no erotic dreams were reported: we were too hungry.

We lined up for food in the late afternoon, waiting eagerly, desperately, for the cooks to ladle watery soup into our bowls. The cooks were selected prisoners, who received extra rations, which put them in an invidious position. When they dished the food into my bowl I noticed how shiny their arms were, how glossy their hair, unlike the rest of us, who had dry, parched skin and hair. I did not resent the cooks having their privileges, as they were our only connection to the outside world.

During the five months in Tarhunah we received no mail, no parcels, no visit from an International Red Cross representative – all of which later made so much difference to our POW lives in Europe. Our prisoner cooks were allowed to go to the local market, with a guard, to buy supplies. They managed to have brief conversations with local Bedouin traders, and brought back news, and rumours. To our amazement, dismay and, at first, our incredulity, we learnt that the Allies were being solidly trounced by Rommel; it was not until the following year that the tide of war turned in our favour.

The most exciting and hopeful news brought by our cooks was a report of a small British unit operating in the desert, which was harassing the enemy behind the lines, and which had planned to rescue some POWs. Then we had the dramatic news that Tarhunah camp was one of the targets, and we were told that if we wished to be rescued, we had to be ready for some initial walking, and we also had to save some rations. The latter was not easy, but we managed to save some non-perishable scraps of food, and many of us went for long walks around the inside perimeter of the camp fence, in preparation for our anticipated rescue. Day followed day, and nothing happened. Our cooks could only surmise that the unit’s plans had changed, probably because they feared that the Italians had learnt of the proposed attack on Tarhunah.

At Cambridge in 1947, I became friendly with Alex Jandrell, who had commanded a South African Air Force bomber squadron in the desert. He confirmed the existence of the Long Range Desert Tactical Unit, having provided it with support. Later I read a book ( Shaw, 1945) about the daring exploits of this unit, and discovered that Tarhunah had indeed been one of the proposed targets of a raid, but plans had had to be changed. This was one of the first of the many disappointments that we had to endure.

What did we do at Tarhunah? There were few books, as hardly any of us had had the foresight – or the opportunity – to bring any, when captured. Paul and I had a copy of Gone with the Wind, which I read, right through, several times, losing myself for hours in that convoluted tale of love and war. (We still had that book in Germany, and towards the end of the war, Horst Mainz, our camp commandant, asked Paul for a letter to say that he had treated us humanely. Paul wrote the letter, and, to hide it from any zealous Nazi, I sewed it into the binding of GWTW, which Paul gave to Horst.)

A Johannesburg lawyer, Lionel Cooper, then thirty years old, organised a series of lectures, a sort of primitive POW adult education college, such as sprung up in most camps. Lionel was a superb organiser, and persuasive in getting both speakers and listeners. I attended a series of lectures on economics, and on law, both given by Cooper himself. There were also single lectures: Cooper persuaded many to give at least one talk, ‘Come on,’ he would say, ‘there must be something in your life that you can share with us.’ I gave a prosaic talk on the need for South Africa to produce more goods, and not to rely on imports.

One of the lectures featured a surprising intervention: the speaker told of his work with the police unit responsible for preventing IDB (illicit diamond buying), describing a dramatic chase on the border of Bechuanaland (Botswana). During question time, another prisoner followed up with so many details of this chase that eventually the policeman said, ‘Ag, it was you I was trying to arrest,’ and his questioner admitted that he had been heavily involved with IDB. It was indicative of how suspended we felt from normal life, that the man felt no threat in making his admission.

We also played cards, of course, and a great bridge competition was organised, the first prize being an unopened pack of fifty Springbok cigarettes. Although I have not smoked since 1977, I can easily recall the glittering attraction of that precious prize – the last intact box of ‘real’ cigarettes left in the camp, when most of us had not smoked a real cigarette for months, having only occasional puffs of inferior Italian cigarettes when one of our group scrounged one. Dickie was very strict in that we were never allowed to barter food for ciggies.

Paul and I had often partnered each other at bridge, and we knew each other’s style of play intimately, so we had high hopes when we entered the competition, which was spread over several days. There was much excitement when we did well enough in the initial games to get into the quarter-finals, the semi-finals, and then, oh what a giddy thrill when we reached the FINALS. No professional game of bridge has ever been more intently scrutinised. We played on the ground, using a blanket as a table, watched by a circle of hundreds of men – for all of us, players and spectators, such events provided a welcome escape from the pangs of hunger, and anxieties about the future. We had all sorts of advice from our group on the day before the big match, and we were carefully looked after, like prize thoroughbreds. (‘Come on, Dave, better have an early night, get a good rest, our big day tomorrow.’) I do not remember the hands that we played that morning, over sixty years ago, but I distinctly recall the thrill when I picked up what looked like a winning hand, and my elation when Paul’s bidding confirmed that he could provide good support. There were great cheers from all when we won.

The cigarettes were meticulously rationed to make them last, with the four of us (Stan being a non-smoker) sharing one cigarette, three puffs each: again, as the youngest, I was last in turn, which I accepted despite having (in part) won the precious cigarettes. We presented a few of them to special friends outside our group. Much as I enjoyed our escapist games of bridge at Tarhunah, I have seldom touched playing cards since then. And I have not smoked for thirty years.

Apart from bridge, some prisoners gambled for money, Crown and Anchor being a popular game. They did not use real money, all of which had long gone to the Italians in exchange for cigarettes, or soap. No, the gamblers, in all earnestness, used IOUs, some racking up debts of thousands of pounds. After the war some POWs tried to enforce their gambling debts. Dad had become chairman of the newly-formed South African Prisoner of War Relatives’ Association and, with his legal background, said that these debts were not legally enforceable – unlike normal gambling debts – because of the unusual circumstances. His opinion delighted the losers, and angered those winners who had thought they would be rich.

What else? Impromptu and non-denominational prayer meetings were held on Sunday mornings, much better attended than church services had been before our capture. We all had one, very urgent prayer for the Almighty, ‘Please, God, get us out of here, quickly’. Many former doubters, agnostics and sceptics (among whom I’d include both Paul and me) attended the services. At one of the meetings, an earnest Cape farmer prayed long and loud for rain in the Cape, possibly having heard that there was a shortage of rain there. Another impatient petitioner interrupted the prayers: ‘Fuck the rain, fuck the Cape, just see that we are freed.’ We were single-minded in our needs and desires.


By early December 1942, prisoners began to be moved, in batches, to Italy. When our turn came, we were transported to Tripoli, where we spent two days at the docks, sleeping in the open under a bridge.

Some French prisoners had killed, cooked, and eaten a cat – or so it was alleged, rumours were so rife throughout our captivity that it was often difficult to know what was true and what was not. Hungry though we were, this horrified us, and if we had not been put aboard our ship, the Col de Lana, that day, there would have been serious riots.

From Tripoli to Naples, where we landed, is less than six hundred miles, but our voyage lasted five days as we zig-zagged in order to avoid attacks by Allied aircraft or ships. The first day or two were bearable: although we slept in the hold, the guards allowed us to go on deck fairly freely in daylight hours, until an RAF aircraft appeared from nowhere, flew low over the ship, machine-gunning the decks. Despite being in danger ourselves, we were so overjoyed to have our first sight of one of our fighter planes that those of us on deck spontaneously cheered and waved. The Italians, one of whom had been wounded, were furious, and kept us below decks for the remaining three days, not even letting us on deck to use the ‘over the side’ privy – and there were no facilities below.

The crowded and fetid hold soon became extremely unpleasant, with the movement of the ship causing all the muck to roll to and fro. These days were the worst of the war for Paul. They were bad for me, for all of us, but for the first time Paul faltered, which worried me, as he had been my rock. At one time he called out, ‘God? There is no God.’

The only prisoners who behaved with poise and dignity were a group of Sikhs, who stayed in a corner, prayed, talked quietly, and remained imperturbable while ignoring the incredible squalor and filth all around them. Ike Rosmarin (1990) reports a similar scene. He and at least five thousand other recently-captured POWs were in a ‘disorganised and filthy cage’ at Benghazi, where ‘a display of great courage by the turbanned Indian soldiers’ (Sikhs) ‘of the famous 4th Division greatly impressed. They refused to eat the small portion of tinned horse-meat as it clashed with their religious beliefs. They were starving but wanted no sympathy.’



We arrived in Naples in early December 1942, walking – trying to march briskly – from the docks, through the streets to join our transport. A vivid memory is of our passing Neapolitan women who were weeping, and suddenly realising that they were crying for us. It was only then that I felt sorry for myself, I had not realised what pitiable creatures we must have looked, undernourished, dirty, in ragged and threadbare clothing Fortunately, an improvement was in store for us, as we soon arrived at our new camp, Camp 54, at Fara Sabina in the Sabine Hills, twenty miles north of Rome. Here we found a well-organised camp, with beds, blankets, new uniforms, showers, reasonable food and our first mail, as well as our first Red Cross parcels.

Paul and I were overjoyed to be given a large batch of letters, many of them in Ouma’s dear, familiar handwriting, on her Basildon Bond blue stationery. We took our letters to a secluded corner of the camp, so that we could read them in peace. Although it was December, it was a clear, sunny day, and we sat on boulders near the perimeter of the camp. We opened the letters eagerly, not bothering to put them into chronological order. We soon realised that something was amiss, as we anxiously read out to each other such lines as ‘everyone has been so kind … people all thought so highly of Guy … what will become of dear Margaret and Deirdre?’, neither of us wishing to accept what each phrase made more certain – that Guy was dead. Today, more than sixty years later, I easily recapture that awful moment with all its details. To me Guy had seemed invincible, I never thought that he might die. We dragged ourselves back to our fellows and told them the news. There followed an endless procession of friends, and others whom we hardly knew – they all knew about our heroic elder brother Guy. They solemnly shook our hands, muttering ‘Sorry Paul … sorry Dave.’

When we met Dad in Brighton after our release in May 1945, we learnt that Guy had been serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable, on convoy duty between Mombasa and Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He had been due to return to Britain where he would have been stationed in Wick, Caithness, with his own squadron and where he would have been reunited with his wife Margaret and seen his baby daughter, Deirdre. Guy had seen Deirdre only once – soon after her birth in January 1942, when he was on 48 hours leave; he took a taxi from Wick, but snow blocked the way and he walked the last few miles.

The senior pilot of 888 squadron was Guy Brockensha [sic], an RN lieutenant, handsome and of great charm, who had won a DSC in Norway flying Skuas and was our guide in South Africa since he hailed from Durban where his father was a judge. On August 6th 1942 occurred a mysterious tragedy to which no satisfactory answer has yet been given. Guy Brockensha disappeared from the ship during the night. Before anchoring in Mombasa the ship was searched thoroughly but no trace was ever found. An enormously popular Lieutenant RN, already decorated with the DSC, he was an excellent pilot, a good sportsman and so far as any of his closest friends knew Brock hadn’t a care in the world. He was happily married to a beautiful Scots wife in Wick … In over forty years since his mysterious disappearance, no satisfactory explanation has ever been offered. The whole ship was depressed over the loss of this popular and brave shipmate … Finally on 24th August we left Mombasa and proceeded to Durban where Brockensha’s parents came aboard and spoke to all his close friends. A very sad interlude, with little that we could say, except to offer condolences. At least they left the ship knowing that they were parents of a very fine and brave son.’ ( Woods, 1945) .


TOP: Guy and Margaret on their honeymoon. 1940 ABOVE: Guy, in the centre. Fleet Air Arm, 1941

Dad told me that he had spoken to the ship’s captain, also to the surgeon, who mentioned that Guy had complained of abdominal pains, the surgeon suggesting that Guy get checked out when next in port. He could only surmise that perhaps Guy had felt sick and had gone to the side – he slept on the open deck of the aircraft with just a low guard rail – had lost his balance and fallen overboard during the night.

I was reluctant to accept that Guy was dead. After all, I told myself, he was a champion swimmer, perhaps he had swum for hours and then reached the shore but had suffered amnesia. For nearly thirty years he used to appear in my dreams, looking older, and asking, ‘Dave, don’t you recognise me?’

Returning to our POW camp, and on a happier note, we were overjoyed to see the first of the all-important Red Cross parcels, which we were to receive, with occasional interruptions, for over two years. The contents varied a little, most of the ones we received coming from the Canadian Red Cross, neatly packed cardboard boxes of about 15" � 8" �6", each weighing 11 lbs, and divided between two men. Sometimes, when supplies were short, more than two men shared one parcel. They contained tins of Klim (powdered milk), salmon, sardines, Nescafé, corned beef, meat roll, jam, butter, packets of plain biscuits, cheese, tea, salt and a slab of Neilson’s chocolate.

When we received these ever-welcome parcels, we were on a better diet than most civilians in either Germany or Britain. We knew that the Germans lacked many of our luxury items, and a thriving trade in coffee and chocolate soon sprang up, but I did not realise, until after the war, how privileged we were compared to the British. Paul and I shared our parcel, and later, in Germany, I shared with Jake; we trusted each other completely, and never quarrelled over the division of the contents, as some others did. After our hungry months, a few men were still obsessed by food, and would watch their partner jealously to see that they were not cheated of one raisin, one sliver of chocolate, one pat of butter. In such cases, the solution (Solomon’s, originally) was to take turns, one dividing the food, the other choosing his share; but even with this system there were still arguments, as decisions had to be made as to when to open each item. We also received a few most welcome book parcels, and, if they were not stolen, cigarette parcels – sent by our families.

SG Wolhuter, also a South African POW, dedicated his book to ‘The International Red Cross, without whose merciful work many of us would not have survived the prison camps of Italy and Germany’. He wrote, ‘We were dumbfounded when we first saw the contents of a Red Cross parcel, which contained luxuries beyond our wildest dreams. I am convinced that without them few of us would have survived the internment in prison camps for nearly three years

and our gratitude was such that no man who experienced the benevolence and charity of the International Red Cross is ever likely to believe that there is a more worthy cause in the world’ ( Wolhuter, n.d.: 39).

Similarly, another POW writes, ‘it was when we received our first parcels from the Red Cross that our hungry days were forgotten … on my return to South Africa in 1945 I joined the SA Red Cross Society, carrying out my POW vow. My wife and I have up to now 90 years of combined voluntary Red Cross service. I have tried to repay my debt to Red Cross in this way … However, if I live another hundred years I could never completely erase what I owe Red Cross. Nor can any former POW’ ( Rosmarin, 1990: 103).

Jake. Fara Sabina, 1943

Harry Mortlock, who had been in Tarhunah with us, was in poor shape when he was re-united with his older brother Jack, who had been in Camp 54 since August 1942. After that they stayed together, like Paul and me, for the rest of the war, coming to the same camp as we did in Germany, where we became close friends. As far as I know, Harry and I are now the only survivors of our POW group.

Soon after we arrived in Italy, the Allies invaded Sicily, and we were convinced that in a matter of weeks, or months at most, we would be freed. Perhaps for this reason there was, surprisingly, hardly any organised educational activity, no ‘camp university’ such as had existed at Tarhunah. Partly to pass the time, partly to ‘improve myself’, I took individual French lessons from an English prisoner, Jack Needle, who had been a schoolteacher in Ipswich. Jack and I found a quiet place near the boundary fence for our lessons; he was an effective and a patient teacher whose lessons, without textbooks, provided me with a basic foundation in French. (I tried to make contact with Jack after the war, when I arrived in Cambridge in 1947, but without success.)

We were not obliged to work in Italy, but farm labour was available on a voluntary basis. This had two main attractions: workers received extra rations – even with the Red Cross parcels we often felt hungry – and, second, it gave us a chance of getting out of camp, of seeing new places, even seeing some girls. (A sign of improved nutrition was a marked increase of interest in, and talk about, sex). Some Afrikaner prisoners, farmers themselves, worked on the Italian farms whenever possible, preferring the rhythms of the familiar agricultural routine to the boredom and monotony of camp life. I went on several occasions, especially in the warmer weather of spring and summer. I enjoyed the bumpy ride in the old lorry, passing fields and villages, but the biggest draw, for me, was the possibility of a swim in the River Tiber, which adjoined some of the farms where we worked.

We persuaded our easy-going guards to let us swim in the river during their midday siesta, evolving a simple strategy whereby they could enjoy their snooze without fear that we might escape. We would strip, and place our clothes and shoes in a big pile, which provided the guards with a comfortable pillow for their siesta. (Later, I thought that the sleeping guards in the fields looked like figures from a Brueghel painting.) We had no chance of escaping: naked, and with at best a rudimentary knowledge of Italian, we would not have got far. Twenty of us would dive into the swift-flowing Tiber – then crystal clear and unpolluted – and swim to the end of the field, the rapid current carrying us swiftly along. Then we would run back along the bank of the river, a half-mile, to repeat the process again and again until it was time to dress and start work. What wild whoops there were when an unsuspecting peasant girl entered the field during our midday revels; once, I distinctly saw one girl covering her face with her hands, but discreetly gazing at us through the lattice of her fingers. Lovely carefree moments, these plunges in the Tiber are among the happier memories of my captivity.

A less happy recollection is of being plagued by lice, an affliction mentioned in all accounts of POW life. One vivid picture comes to mind, of a line of a dozen of us, sitting, with bare torsos, outside our huts, backs to the wall in the wintry sunshine, all earnestly ‘reading’ our shirts – one man remarked that we looked like a row of serious old men reading their morning newspapers – and dispatching our unwanted visitors. This plague did not last long.

During the summer of 1943, rumours abounded about the progress of the Allies in southern Italy; we all felt sure that any day would see the welcome sight of Allied troops coming to free us, little realising that much fierce combat lay ahead. On 9 September the Italians signed the Armistice, and we were convinced that our days of captivity were over. The camp guards disappeared at the first word of the Armistice, so we simply walked out of the camp. Later when asked if I had escaped, I had to say that it was a very technical escape, one that happened by default, not by any heroic or ingenious act on our parts. Once again, Paul had his ‘little band’, eleven of us forming a group and deciding to hide in the fields for a few days (the gloomier ones thought it might take a few weeks), relying on local peasants to help us survive until the Allies reached us. We had no inkling of the amount of resistance which would be offered by the Germans, aided by the few carabinieri who had not surrendered.

While we had been prisoners I used to look over the fence at a picturesque Italian hilltop village, a few miles away, and think how impossibly remote and romantic it looked. Now we were able to walk the few miles to the fields of this village, Monte Libretti, and find a remote part of a fig orchard where we thought we could lie low. Even today, when I taste a ripe fig, I am transported back to that beautiful happy valley, when our hopes were so high, and we had no premonition of the bleak days that still lay ahead. The orchard’s owner soon found us, and befriended us, bringing us food every day when he came to work in his fields. He was particularly kind and protective, urging us to take care, and to watch out for the few carabinieri who had stayed loyal to the Germans and who were, he warned us, still a threat to us as they were actively rounding up prisoners who had escaped from Camp 54. But in our new-found freedom and our youthful optimism we did not heed him.

The highlight of our brief stay in the fields – it lasted eleven days – was a nocturnal visit to our friendly host, who invited us to his home in the village. He called for us after dark, when we had made ourselves as presentable as we could, and led us, very silently, through the fields to a main road. On that moonlit evening, I felt a tingle of excitement and anticipation as we scrambled up a steep bank, paused, then scurried across the road; then he led us, up a steep, winding path, to his house in the village. It seemed that we were back in medieval days when we passed a group of smiling women, their skirts tucked up, stamping the wine grapes barefoot. Our host produced the best meal we’d had since our capture. Not only was the simple food excellent and plentiful, but there was wine, a warm welcome from the large family, and lively conversation – as best we could with our limited Italian. Paul got on well with Valentina, the fifteen-year-old daughter, who was casting shy, admiring glances at this bold, handsome stranger during the dinner. It was an important occasion for us, as it removed Italians from the pejorative stereotype ‘Iti’ (pronounced eye-tie) and introduced us to kind, brave, real people.

Perhaps two days, later our host warned us more emphatically about the Germans and the carabinieri, saying that they had information about prisoners who were hiding in the vicinity. He told us to hide during the day, in small groups, and to take every precaution not to be discovered. He promised to keep bringing us food, but told us that he was already under suspicion of feeding escaped prisoners.

Paul, Jake and I hid in a rough shed, full of haystacks. We moved some of the stacks towards the entrance, leaving us a small space behind, where we hid, knowing that we could not be seen from the entrance. A few hours after we had hidden ourselves, we heard shouts as two carabinieri approached and started poking their bayonets into the haystacks. Paul and I, who were nearest the door, surrendered, indicating to Jake that he should stay and take his chances without us. But the carabinieri demanded that the third man come out, and Jake had to give himself up, too. Jake later wrote, ‘When I came out from the back of the hay and approached Paul and Dave, Paul whispered “shall we jump them?” I said, “Look what is in my guts” – the Italian had his .45 pressing into my stomach.’

I first thought, bitterly, that our host had betrayed us, but when Paul and Jil visited Monte Libretti in 1960 they had a warm welcome from the family, and learned the full story. The carabinieri had noticed that our host was taking out large amounts of food to the fields and guessed that he was feeding Allied prisoners. They beat him and threatened terrible reprisals on his family, particularly on his daughter, Valentina, and he was forced to tell them where we were hiding. When Paul told me this, I was ashamed for having for years held onto unreasonable bitterness at what I’d imagined was a betrayal. Paul also reported that the lovely young Valentina had become a stout matron, with missing teeth, and Jil teased him about his Italian sweetheart.

Then began an agonising and traumatic day for me. If Paul’s worst day was in the hold of the Col de Lana in the Mediterranean, then mine was that day, 20 September, when we were recaptured. I can now be more analytical, and see that I was completely unprepared for another spell in a POW camp, so sure had I been that freedom was around the corner.

One of the few men from Camp 54 who succeeded in reaching the Allied lines was an Afrikaner, a quiet, and, we thought, a rather simple Free State farmer, who saw no reason to rely on the British and Americans reaching him, but instead set out to reach them. Against this emergency, he had saved a supply of cigarettes and some Red Cross food items, which he bartered for a donkey, and an Italian peasant’s smock and battered hat. He was transformed into a most authentic-looking Italian rustic, a common sight on every road, and he walked with the donkey about two hundred miles, until he reached the Allies. He became so much a part of the rural landscape, looking simple and urging on his ass, with the mournful Oooh, Oooh, Eh, Ah, Oooh call that Italians use, that no-one thought of challenging him. So much for the genius whom we had condescendingly dismissed as ‘a simple van der Merwe’ – English-speaking South Africans’ prototype of ‘the Afrikaner country bumpkin’. After the war, we heard of others who had made their way to Rome, where they had been hidden, some in the Vatican, until the city was liberated. But most of our companions from Camp 54 shared our fate, and were recaptured.

Our two captors were neither young nor strong, and Jake and I wanted to overpower them and make a dash for freedom. They were taking us to a road less than a mile away, and we could see a German army car, the sun glinting on the telescopic sights of a rifle, trained on us. Our path took us down a valley, the bottom of which was well-wooded, and was hidden from sight of the Germans watching from the other side. Jake and I were convinced that we could overcome the fat guards, and run away down the valley. We had no idea of the distance we would have had to cover in order to reach safety. Paul, however, vetoed the idea, saying it was too much of a risk, and that in any case the war would soon be over. Having promised Dad that we would stick together, I had no choice but to agree.

Anyone who knew Paul knows that there is no doubt about his physical courage, which he has amply demonstrated – most dramatically in beating off the shark that attacked Julia Painting on the Natal South Coast in 1958. I didn’t think that he was lacking in courage, but I was young and impetuous and I was bitterly disappointed that Jake and I could not try our ‘Boys’ Own’ adventure. Looking back, I can see that Paul was right: we had no certainty that we would have been able to take care of the guards, as they were armed, and we were not; also, there was little probability of our successfully reaching freedom. For many years, I had a recurrent nightmare: I was running, with leaden feet, down a tunnel of trees, while behind me relentless footsteps, accompanied by shouts, barking dogs, lights and rifle-shots, were gaining on me, until I’d wake in a sweat of terror and frustration.

So we continued our walk with the guards behind us, through the wooded valley and up the hill. We were welcomed quite jovially by the Germans, who told us to walk along the road, while they drove slowly behind. One German leant out of the car, shouting ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’, but we were not amused. We were then taken by truck to Frascati, where several hundred Allied POWs had been assembled, awaiting transfer to Germany. Jack Mortlock recalled ‘a crowd of Chooms [British POWs] stripping naked and having a good wash at the hand-operated village pump, in full view of the queue waiting to collect water, many of them women and girls who cheered them.’

On our last day in Frascati, a German officer told us that he would see that we were given a good dinner, because he could not say what our POW conditions would be like in Germany. Sure enough, a lavish dinner was produced, accompanied by a ‘Bar Inexhaustible’, to use the term that I later discovered from student parties at the University of Ghana.

That was my first taste of Frascati wine, which has remained one of my favourite Italian wines. Paul, Jake and I were seated at a long table of about twenty-five POWs, including Australians and British as well as South Africans. As it was a warm evening in late September we removed our shirts. Towards the end of the dinner, we were joined by a group of friendly young German soldiers who also took off their shirts because of the heat; I have tipsy memories of a jolly evening with loud conversations and much singing and not being sure who was friend and who was foe: for a brief interlude, it did not seem to matter.

It was good that we had that merry evening because grim times lay ahead.


(I draw heavily here from Jack Mortlock’s diary)

The next day, 25 September 1943, we were put into crowded cattle trucks, to be sent by train to Germany. The journey was not so bad when the guards let us out to relieve ourselves when the train stopped, but this did not always happen. When we were at Bolzano a siren sounded an air-raid warning and the guards locked us in the trucks and went off to the air-raid shelters. A heavy cloud overhead may have saved us from being bombed by our allies, but it was a frightening experience.

When we arrived in Innsbruck it was snowing, the first snow that Paul and I had seen close up. (As boys, we were sometimes driven to Botha’s Hill, twenty miles inland from Durban, to look at ‘snow on the berg’ – the Drakensberg, a hundred and thirty miles away – a magical sight.) We were let out into the snow to relieve ourselves


and handed over to a new batch of sentries who were not so friendly. We then went on to Munich where a German women’s unit (known, ironically, as die grauen Mäuse, the grey mice) provided us with food. The next stop was at Mühlberg a.d. Elbe, where the notorious POW camp, Stalag IVB, is located. (See Vercoe, 2006, for more details.) In the early hours of the morning of 30 September 1943 it was cold and misty, and we were kept waiting at the side of the train until we were marched to the camp where we were welcomed by the camp commandant with the by now all too familiar words, ‘For you the war is over.

In the middle of the next night we were taken to be processed in a brutally efficient manner. With the snowy scene illuminated by powerful floodlights, we were registered, giving our name, rank, army number, and POW number. Then we were taken to the barbers, silent, gloomy Poles, who quickly sheared off all our hair with sheep clippers, one turning the handle to supply power and the other wielding the clippers. There were no explanations, we were simply taken from one place to another, just like sheep. After our haircuts, we stripped, and our clothes were put on a portable clothes-horse and pushed into a gas chamber to kill lice – although we had got rid of all the lice in Italy. Eventually, naked and cold, we walked into the hot showers, each being given a small piece of abrasive soap but no towel. After our showers, we passed through a door where a Russian prisoner sat in front of a bucket smelling of creosote; we were told to open our legs and hold up our arms, and with three quick movements the Russian applied the mixture with a mop on our armpits and on the groin area. Then we dried off in a drying room until the doors were opened and we scrambled out to find our deloused clothes all in a jumble in the cold air outside.

Next, at about 3 a.m., we stood in a long, winding line in the snow, waiting to be inoculated. The Italian doctor was grey with fatigue – someone said that he had been on his feet for two days – and the needles were blunt. Until then I had not minded injections and inoculations, but in this surrealistic scene I fainted twice before reaching the doctor. Paul had to revive and support me, and then I fainted for a third time when the doctor wrestled to get the blunt needle into my arm. This experience left me with a needle phobia and for years I would pass out when I had to have an injection or have blood drawn. One kind nurse in Santa Barbara told me that many people, mostly men, had this problem, and she advised me to sit or even lie down if I felt faint. I have conquered this phobia, mainly because today’s inoculations are done with more skill and more speed, and also because I trained myself to be distracted by staring fixedly at whatever friendly image I can find on the clinic wall.

We were marched back and pushed into a barrack room which was already overcrowded with other POWs who grumbled at our intrusion. Eventually we found a place to sleep on the floor but no sooner were the lights extinguished than we were attacked by hundreds of bugs, our bodies soon burning and itching. The next day we went through the whole decontamination procedure again, then we were photographed.

The Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war was for the most part respected by the Germans, at least it was in our own experiences, though not all prisoners were so lucky. According to the Convention, corporals and lower ranks can be required to work, providing that the work is not directly war-related, and sergeants can volunteer to go to a working camp. Paul was already a sergeant, and we debated whether I should pass myself off as a sergeant too, or whether Paul should accompany me to a working camp. We soon decided that the latter course would be the better as we were keen to get out of Stalag IVB as soon as possible. We were reinforced in our decision because in the next compound were hundreds of desperately hungry Russian prisoners; when a man died he would be propped up in the roll-call by his companions so that they could claim his rations. We had the rare luxury, for POWs, of having a choice: we were given the option of working in the Silesian mines with the attraction of double rations, but this did not appeal, so Paul and I, together with Jake, and Jack and Harry Mortlock, arrived in mid-October 1943 at our working camp, Arbeitskommando 1169, in Gorbitz, a western suburb of Dresden, and twenty miles south of Stalag IVB.


This time we were lucky in that our camp was new and thus not infected with insect life. It was also small, with fewer than two hundred South African and British prisoners of war. Soon after our arrival, Paul took over the difficult and crucial role of camp leader.

David Wild, a British Army chaplain captured in 1940, could have been repatriated, but he volunteered to stay on as a chaplain, making it his mission to visit as many Stalags and working camps as possible, to see what he could do to help the POWs. He found that the camps differed greatly in appearance and in morale, a key variable being the character of the camp leader (Wild, 1992). The role of camp leader was similar to that of an African chief or village headman during colonial times. Anthropological analyses of colonial-appointed chiefs point out their delicate position: they had to answer to both the alien colonial authorities and their own people. If they collaborated too enthusiastically with the colonial masters they were regarded as sell-outs and lost the trust of their own people. But if they did not co-operate with the colonial authorities they could easily be dismissed from their posts.

I now appreciate that my brother Paul played the role of broker to perfection, with nearly all the POWs liking and respecting him. We had a fair-minded German camp commandant, Horst Mainz, who had been wounded on the Russian front, as had many of our guards. Even as early as October 1943, when we arrived at this camp, Horst was convinced that Germany would lose the war and he was concerned (partly, I think, for humanitarian reasons, and also to ensure that he was not punished for alleged wartime atrocities) that we were treated as well as possible.

The camp consisted of two dormitory barracks, a central dining room and kitchen, a block for showers and toilets, and the administrative block and guards’ quarters. The camp area was less than two acres and was strongly fenced. The huts were generally adequately heated, but in the winter of 1944/45, there was a shortage of coal for the stoves, and thick icicles hung from the eaves of the bungalows. Inside the dormitories, bunk beds were arranged in fours, two up and two down. Jake and I slept alongside each other on the lower tier; Paul had his own little room off the dining room. Red Cross parcels arrived regularly, until the last few chaotic months of the war.

After the bleakness and privations of Tarhunah, the ramshackle arrangements at Camp 54 in Italy, and the horrors of Stalag IVB, our Gorbitz camp was comfortable: for the first time in our captivity we

POW camp. Gorbitz, 1944

had hot water in the showers, the camp was clean and we were not overcrowded. Horst persuaded his superiors to let the camp keep to the official capacity of a hundred, which we maintained until the final months of the war. He told Paul to provide a list of those who should be sent away, to keep our numbers to the official level. Paul was advised make this selection carefully ‘so that all of us have as good a war as possible in the circumstances’. Paul asked me to help in this delicate matter; some of the newcomers were British, and many of them were put on the list partly because we did not know them at all well and partly because of our cultural prejudice.

Some British POWs still harboured resentment against us as South Africans, whom they blamed for the fall of Tobruk. Several Brits remained, and I remember especially Tosh Tushaw, a bright cockney from the East End of London who told us that he had never been to the West End. Paul promised to take Tosh there after the war, and in May 1945, we had a grand evening together at the Café Royal in the West End. Some South Africans were also sent to other camps – those we saw as troublemakers, given to quarrelling, or those whose morale was low, who did not bother to keep themselves clean and neat. We were not inclined to be sympathetic towards those who did not maintain standards; we realised that it required constant effort and vigilance not to let oneself go.

Paul, Jack Mortlock, DWB, Harry Mortlock, Jake. Gorbitz, 1944

As a result of our selection, we were left with a congenial and compatible group, who helped each other and who lightened the tedium of being inside. Included were several Jewish South Africans who must have wondered if they would be picked out for special and horrid treatment by the Germans. This did not happen, whether from ignorance of their identity or from forbearance I do not know. Hymie Katz (who later emigrated to Israel) once persuaded our guard to make a detour in Dresden so that he could walk across a park clearly marked Juden und Hunden verboten.

Both Horst and Paul discouraged escapes, on two main grounds: first, the likelihood of a successful escape was low, most POWs who had tried to escape from our region having soon been recaptured; second, any escape attempts brought savage reprisals against both prisoners and guards. We could well have had Horst replaced by a sadistic monster, who would have revoked our little privileges, and changed Horst’s loose interpretation of the regulations. We knew that it is a prisoner’s duty to try to escape and Paul would have supported any carefully thought out and feasible plan. Jake and I both chafed under this restriction, having wild notions of escape: when we were working at the main railway station we loaded railway wagons with parcels, each wagon having its destination clearly marked. We thought that we might hide in a wagon which was heading a long way west, arranging for our companions to cover for us, and then let ourselves out as near to the destination as possible. We believed that we could easily find civilian clothes among the sacks in the wagon, but I now admit that this was a harebrained scheme, unlikely to succeed – particularly with our limited German. But it caught our youthful imaginations and appealed to our impatient natures.

The camp was six miles from the Hauptbahnhof, the main railway station, where we were taken to work. We walked the first mile down a pleasant cobbled road (though it was icy in winter), past attractive three storey homes, to the tram terminus at Wolfnitz, where we boarded a special tram that took us to the railway station. Our work at the station was not particularly onerous, and there were always diversions. We worked in three gangs, with the first shift from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., the second 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., and a long night shift of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. At the end of the night shift we had a blissful day and a half of free time in the camp. We were quiet when we were inside the hut, as the night shift was sleeping, at least until the early afternoon. We could wander around the grounds or if the weather was inclement we sat in the dining hut. I would wake after a night shift and see dear old Tim Featherstone quietly going around, as serious in his menial cleaning duties (including clearing out the buckets used as toilets when we were locked in for the night) as he had been when running his sheep and cattle farm in the Cape. Tim, older than most of us, had accepted the job of bungalow orderly because of his poor health.

Our work at the station consisted of loading and offloading railway wagons, placing the sacks and parcels on a moving belt between platform and wagon. A major pastime was what we called ‘mousing’ (from the German Mauserei, pilfering). Jake told me that he never felt good about working for the Germans, but to clear his conscience he told himself that it was legitimate because of our mousing out of parcels, swapping labels on parcels and on wagons, thus causing considerable confusion. One of our German foremen was always kind and easy-going with us, so, as a reward, we replaced his shabby clothes with a full outfit of new clothes that we moused from bags in one of the wagons.

The following passage was written by Jake, after the war, when I asked him what he remembered:

Parcels from Fritz to his Frau in Berlin and from the Frau to Fritz were intercepted by us, socks were removed and replaced by our old worn out socks, and sausages were often consumed. I sent a fashionable woman’s hat to a soldier sitting in the snowdrifts of the Eastern Front.

One morning after night shift we were standing in line after being searched when a big horse and cart came in, and I made the usual Brrrrr sound used by Germans to stop their horses; the horse stopped, lifted its tail and did its business in one big heap on the platform and then walked on. Everyone, including our guards, laughed but not the driver and der schwarze Mann (one of the foremen) who happened to be approaching. He called me to step forward so I walked forward and came to a halt about two inches away from him; he asked for my POW number, which I yelled out in such a loud voice and at such proximity that I misted his glasses: zwei, vier, acht, sieben, fünf, zwei.

Once again the other foremen found the episode funny, and they helped protect Jake from any reprisals for his impertinence. He continued:

Do you remember how we used to practise giving up swearing in preparation for release and going home, but the cobbles on the road were still iced up and very slippery. Marching down early in the morning I would be the first to swear, followed by you, Dave, so our little practice sessions brought no significant result.

We all fretted at our captivity, none more than Jake. Being strong, he constantly teased our German overseers, some of whom never worked out how to treat this laughing giant. One foreman in particular irritated Jake with his non-stop nagging, so Jake simply picked him up bodily and deposited him on the conveyor belt on which we were loading parcels. Jetzt gehen Sie nach Kassel. Auf Wiedersehen, said Jake, as the little foreman struggled in impotent fury among the parcels on the moving belt. I joined in the general laughter, but I wondered whether Jake had gone too far this time; fortunately the foreman was unpopular with his superiors and his complaint was not treated seriously.

During the summer of 1944 we had an unusual visitor, a Britisher in German uniform. He had joined a volunteer force in 1940 to fight the Russians in Finland, and had been captured by the Germans. He then accepted the German offer to join a special unit, the British Free Corps (Britische Freikorps), a unit in the Waffen-SS, formed by the confused traitor John Amery. This unit was told that they could continue their fight against communism, but they would not be used against their own people. We were enraged by this man, especially by the sight of a small Union Jack neatly sewn next to the German eagle on his German uniform. Refusing to listen to his appeal to join his anti-Communist crusade, we advanced menacingly until he reached the locked camp gate, shouting for the guards to let him out so that he could get away from the by now threatening mob. Horst intervened only at the last moment, and told Paul later that he had no time for traitors and that he had wanted to give this man the fright of his life, which he certainly did.

After this visit, our camp was invited to send a small group to Berlin where they would be housed in the Olympic Stadium and have a short course on Communism. I was keen to go, confident that I would not be ensnared by ideological arguments, and eager for a change and what seemed like a pleasant summer holiday. Again Paul vetoed it: he did not like the idea of my going alone, without him to protect me, and he was uncertain whether I would ever come back to his camp. He also pointed out that my going to this camp might be seen, after the war, as a form of collaboration, so I have to admit that he was once again right. On reflection, I think I was naive to believe that I would get a ‘free lunch’. Paul and I had grown used to each other’s company and in many ways were dependent on each other; it was better for both of to stay together, as we had promised Dad.

Perhaps as a consolation prize for my not going to Berlin, Paul arranged for me to join a special six-man labour gang, which worked with a building contractor in different parts of the city. Paul’s allowing me to have this coveted job – coveted as it provided much more variety, even if harder work, than stints at the Bahnhof – was uncharacteristic; he was usually careful to avoid any appearance of favouritism towards me or Jake. The other men on the gang, all Afrikaners, were reserved at first, but we soon got used to each other and they became more friendly. Instead of travelling in a special tramcar, we used the normal ones, mingling with German civilians and soldiers.

On 23 May 1944, I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in grand style, thanks to Paul, who had spent his own twenty-first birthday, 6 November 1942, in spartan conditions at Tarhunah, and was determined to give me a memorable time. He wrote a letter to our parents (posted after the war) providing details of the treats that he and Tosh Tushaw had arranged for my celebration. By using the contents of our Red Cross parcels, supplemented by extras obtained by barter (three eggs, a bottle of schnapps, and flour) – the guards appreciated our coffee, soap and cigarettes – they provided a succession of feasts. Breakfast: porridge, followed by fried sardines in tomato sauce with marmalade and white bread; Lunch: spurning the offered sauerkraut, Tosh made a meat roll in batter; Afternoon tea: two real cakes, baked in the neighbouring bakery, made from: 2 heaped Klim tins of flour; ½ cocoa tin of sugar; ½ tin Klim; 1 packet of prunes, 1 packet of raisins; 1 tin egg powder; yeast; baking powder; the kernels of the prune pits; – plus extra ingredients for the icing, which read:


Each cake was nine inches in diameter, and an inch deep.

Paul invited our special friends, including the Mortlock brothers, to share in these feasts – our afternoon tea guests including one Australian and three Brits – and to join us in drinking the schnapps – in tiny sips, with many toasts. The final treat was just enough for Paul, Jake and me. We greatly enjoyed our fried eggs late that night, the first that we had eaten for two years. I had had no idea what was in store for me, with these grand celebrations, and I was overwhelmed.

A few weeks after my birthday, we heard the long-awaited news of the invasion of Europe, on 6 June 1944. We organised a camp sweepstake, guessing the date for our liberation, most of us optimistically opting for dates in August or September: once again, we were way off mark, having nearly a year to wait to be freed.

Paul and Horst were on good terms, Horst allowing Paul to listen to the BBC News on his (Horst’s) radio, despite this being a capital offence for a German. And Horst allowed Paul to visit a young, attractive German girl who regularly came to the camp to collect, or deliver, laundry for the guards. She and Paul had exchanged glances, and some conversation, then Paul persuaded Horst to let him out at night, to visit the girl, who lived a few houses down from the gate. It was highly dangerous, and must have been thrilling and rewarding for Paul.

We had had no dental attention for two years when a German woman dentist came to the camp to examine our teeth. She, the first female dentist most of us had seen, was not only young, attractive and conversable – providing us with our first meeting with a cultured woman for some years – but also efficient. Whatever she used in the wartime fillings puzzled later dentists who examined me, but all agreed that she had done an excellent job.

Near our tram terminus at Wolfnitz, about a mile from the camp, was a small hospital for POWs, run by a pleasant young New Zealand doctor, who looked after me for several days when I had an unglamorous injury: I cut my right index finger opening a tin and the wound went septic. I still have a scar and a slightly bent finger to remind me of my ‘war wound’. I was in a small ward, the only other patient I remember being a Bulgarian, whose main concern was the care of his luxuriant moustache. Each evening, before going to sleep, I watched, fascinated, as he made elaborate preparations, carefully waxing the moustache, admiring himself in a hand-mirror, then winding a cloth around his face.

Dick, a Brit in our camp, had fallen in love with one of the Belgian girls who worked at the Bahnhof, although she was in a different section, which meant that they could seldom meet. A further complication was that Dick knew no French, and the girl no English, so I was roped in as translator, for most of the courtship was by correspondence, in French. The only French I knew was what I’d learnt from Jack Needle in Italy, but this sufficed for me to translate her letters, and muddle through with Dick’s replies. She ended one letter with the salutation, je baise toi doucement. When I told Dick that this meant ‘I kiss you gently’, he thought it a wonderful phrase, and it became the signature in this romantic and probably short-lived affair – I do not know what happened to them. But I do recall the intensity of the looks they gave each other, on their fleeting meetings, and the eagerness with which Dick brought me another smuggled letter to translate for him.

Wolfgang. Gorbitz, 1944.

Towards the end of our stay, in late 1944, a new young guard, Wolfgang, was transferred to our camp, after being slightly wounded on the Russian front. He was my age, a bright, outgoing, good-looking lad, and we became friendly – he would talk to me in English, while I practised my German on him. One chilly, wintry, dark morning, before dawn, Wolfgang was escorting our shift to the tram-stop, down the hill, on our way to work. Jake took Wolfgang’s rifle, putting it on his own shoulder, and shouted out commands, in his idiosyncratic German: Also: schnell! Ein, zwei, drei, du fauler Kerl! Schnell!… while Wolfgang and I chatted at the rear.


We had long conversations about what we would do after the war: we both thought that it would soon be over and that Germany would be defeated, and we both hoped to go to university. I find it difficult today to reconstruct our friendship, our love. We looked out eagerly for each other, were happy in each other’s company, and yet there were no conscious homoerotic aspects. Paul – and Horst – smiled indulgently when they saw Wolfgang and me together, and there was no criticism from other POW's.

Shortly before the bombing of Dresden our camp population had been nearly doubled, by the addition of Americans (and a few Canadians) who had been captured in the Ardennes, in the Battle of the Bulge. By this time we had been POWs for over two and a half years and had adjusted to a routine, and had also learnt how to survive, in good spirits. The newcomers were demoralised and dazed: we were critical of them at the time, feeling superior, and it was only after the war that I learnt their story: some of them had been in the US Army only for a few weeks before their capture, and after being captured, they had endured truly awful conditions, with long marches, cruel treatment by the guards, and little food and water.


The Royal Air Force bombed Dresden in two huge raids on the night of 13 February 1945, causing catastrophic damage, most of which was due to the firestorms created by the bombings. The US Air Force followed with more raids in daylight on 14 February. Estimates of casualties vary widely: ‘the fairest estimate … is that between 25 000 and 40 000 people died in the bombing of Dresden’ ( Taylor, 2004: 448).

Those of us who were in Dresden that night, and people who had no connection with the event, are still divided about these raids. An Australian medical orderly stood on the ground above our dug-out shelter as the bombers were coming over, shouting, ‘Bomb the bastards! Bomb the bastards!’ Being on the outskirts of the city, we were in no immediate danger, but we saw and heard the raids, and it had an impact on the remaining months of our stay in Dresden: I thought I would never get rid of the stench of burnt and rotting flesh that pervaded the city. In Tanganyika, some years later, a particular smell was common after the rains. I never traced its probable vegetative origin, but it recalled strongly and sickeningly those awful days in Dresden.

My friendship with Wolfgang was shattered, with so much else, during those terrible days. Before that, Dresden had suffered only selective precision bombing of military targets, so that Wolfgang, and other Germans, used to ask, ‘Why don’t we surrender now? We cannot possibly win against such air power.’ I missed Wolfgang for a few days, in the confusion after the raids, then when I saw him and eagerly greeted him, he repulsed me, saying angrily, in German, ‘Never speak to me again.’ Horst Mainz told me later that Wolfgang’s sister’s flat had been hit, and some of his family had been killed. I understood his reaction, but I was devastated, being more upset by his rejection than by the thousands of deaths caused by the bombing and the firestorm.

In mid-1992, the Queen Mother unveiled a statue outside the RAF church in central London to ‘Bomber’ Harris, the controversial Air Marshal who had ordered the raids. Protesters gathered, but I had no wish to join them. I know that Churchill ordered the bombings, and I know that British cities also suffered appalling civilian casualties. From my very limited perspective, the bombing did not seem necessary at that stage of the war, and it diminished the pride I had taken as a serving member of the Allied Forces. Jack Mortlock, whose opinion I respected, agreed with my conclusion: ‘It is something that should never have happened, the war was just about at an end, and the Russians were practically in earshot … you will remember the almost impossible efforts to clean up, the thousands of homeless, the scores of children roaming the streets, who had lost their parents and homes.’ The bombing of Dresden was one of the great horrors of World War 2.

Soon after the raids, we went back to work at the station, and the Americans helped to clear up the devastated city. All over Dresden, we had seen notices warning Wer lutiert wird erschossen: ‘Looters will be shot’. Dr Chris Christiansen, the Danish Red Cross representative, who happened to be making one of his periodic visits, told Paul that, under the Geneva Convention, the Germans had the right to apply similar penalties to POWs as those used on their own people, and that POWs who looted were indeed liable to be shot. Paul called a camp meeting and warned everyone about the death penalty for stealing ( Christiansen, 1994). At about this time the Red Cross parcels started arriving only intermittently, and then stopped altogether, a result of Allied raids on the transport system. The stodgy German rations were enough to keep body and soul together, but they were much more of a shock to newcomers than to the rest of us.

One American, clearing up in a cellar, found some schnapps, drank copiously and passed out. He was only saved by the quick thinking of his companion, who told the guards that his mate had been in the tropics and had collapsed from malaria. They managed to get hold of a wheel-barrow, and wheeled their comatose companion back to camp, causing some German women to exclaim that it was a shame the way Kriegsgefangene were treated so badly. Paul repeated his warning that no-one could expect to be so lucky a second time. By this time the Achtung notices had multiplied, many accompanied by chilling photographs of looters, men and women, of many nationalities, who had been caught looting, and who had been shot.

A few days later, another American disregarded the warning a few days later and was caught with a tin of jam which he had stolen. He was immediately tried, with Paul, as camp leader, attending. I was waiting anxiously for Paul to return to find out what happened, but when he did come back, he started to tell me about a good-looking secretary/interpreter whom he’d met. I irritably interrupted to ask about the American. ‘Oh,’ said Paul, ‘he was shot.’ I was initially shocked by what I took to be Paul’s callousness, but I later learnt that he had done all he could for the man, and had pleaded with all the eloquence he could muster, but to no avail. He was probably trying to hide from me his feelings of guilt at not being able to save the man. And so it goes – to echo Kurt Vonnegut’s refrain. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden, his book Slaughterhouse Five being based on this experience (Vonnegut, 1970).

We soon had other worries, as the situation deteriorated daily and eventually we were moved. Jack Mortlock’s diary provides many details of this period.

On the night of April 13, the Feldwebel [sergeant major] told us to be ready to leave camp early the next morning, and furthermore said that the Geneva Convention no longer applied to us. At 0600 on the 14th, we were assembled at the gate and told that we would be taken to a place of safety in the Erzgebirge, a mountain range on the Czechoslovakian border, about 30 miles south of Dresden, and we were to go on foot. We left the camp two hours later, and passed Nieder-Sedlitz, Dippoldiswalde, and Glashutte, finally sleeping in a farm-house outside Liebstadt. On the whole it was quite a pleasant day through the German countryside; a few members of the Home Guard and Hitler Youth were putting up barricades for a battle which was never fought.

I also distinctly remember this as a pleasant day: we had the rare joy of appreciating the early spring; the countryside was beautiful and peaceful, and it was the first time we’d been outside a city since coming to Germany.

Next morning we continued through Gottleuba, and to our destination, a barn in the village of Hellendorf, close to the Czech border, and 10 miles from Liebstadt. The Feldwebel in charge of us was quite a decent German. Our wooden barn was comfortable, with lots of straw, but food had again become a problem. One day we were told that we were to be taken to the American lines and exchanged, head for head, for German POWs, but he emphasised that under no circumstances must we regard this as a sign of weakness on the part of the German Reich.

We were alarmed, at this time, by rumours that Hitler had a mad idea of making a last stand and that he wanted to take as many POWs as possible as hostages, and that we were among those selected. Certainly some guards believed this rumour, as they began to melt away, wanting no part in the scheme.

We left our barn on 8 May, and soon afterwards we were parted from Jack. After many adventures, including commandeering a railway engine, and finding an Australian train driver to make it go, Jack and Harry and their little party reached England on 23 May.

I now take up an account from a letter written by Paul (from England, dated 16 May) to Ouma:

We spent three long weary weeks at the barn in Hellendorf, waiting for the end. That the war was coming to an end was as clear as glass, but when? when? when? we all asked.

Finally on May 8 the Jerry in charge of us, after hinting that the official end of hostilities was not far off, told us that we were being marched to our (i.e. Allied) lines. We left at 7 a.m., a perfect, cloudless day, in a column of about 700 POWs, and at 9 a.m., that same morning of VE Day, we were attacked, bombed and machine-gunned by Russian dive-bombers and fighters. The first attack resulted in bombs dropping a good 50–100 yards away from us, and although the machine-gun bullets came close, we came through that OK.

The country was studded with woods, and we had barely re-appeared from the woods, in which we had been hiding, when the second wave came over. Once again we ducked into the undergrowth and I luckily managed to claw my way under a big rock. Came the first bomb – close. Too damn close – then we had the lot, bombs and bullets all round us, and at one time I thought it was the end. The feeling that we had come all those years and to be caught on the last day of war was horrible. When the planes flew off and the dust cleared, I heard one of the chaps say, ‘Call Paul’. I realised that Dave had been hit, and it took every bit of guts in me to look over to where he was lying. Blood was running down his head and oh it was terrible. I eventually plucked up courage to look at the wound and imagine my relief when I saw that in reality it was only a scalp wound. Evidently a bomb which had dropped close to him had thrown up a stone in his direction, and although he looked a sight, he suffered nothing more serious than a scratch and a headache. A Jerry soldier, whom we met after returning to the road, bandaged his head, and he had not quite finished when the third attack caught us. I can stand a fair amount of fun and games, but by the time the third lot attacked us, I was severely shaken to say the least. Once more we frantically dug our way into the undergrowth, and once more Lady Luck smiled on us. These three raids took place in approx. 10 minutes, my hottest ten minutes since leaving you.

I had heard Winston Churchill on a radio, announcing the end of the war. When I was hit and I put my hand to my head, it was covered with blood, as scalp wounds bleed a lot. My first reaction was anger, not fear, here was I going to die at the hands of our Russian allies and the war was over. As soon as I was hit, Julian Meyer (a lawyer, and later Mayor of Rustenburg in the Transvaal), who had been sheltering behind a small tree, near my tree – I don’t know why we chose these trees, they offered no protection, really – immediately jumped up and ran to me, despite the bullets and bombs which continued to rain down very close to us. I was deeply touched by Julian risking his life to look after me. There were a few German soldiers mingled in with us, but the vast majority of people were POWs or refugees, which must have been obvious to the low-flying Russian pilots. However, Jack Mortlock told me that there was a pocket of SS resisters near us, and he was generally correct. After the attack, we six walked through a desolate landscape, littered with corpses and dead horses.

Paul, Jake, and I, and three others made our way through the woods to Lauenstein, south-west of Dresden, where we were told that we could either wait for the Russian forces who should be there the following day, or head west to join the Americans. We were so tired we decided to wait for the Russians, sleeping that night in a barn in a village. We were soon joined by many Russians; some were friendly, one kindly providing me with a clean bandage for my scalp wound. But most were alarmingly drunk and unpredictable, shooting off their rifles throughout the night, offering us vodka, and behaving, as one of our group remarked ‘just like my farm labourers on a Saturday night’. We were so alarmed by the unpredictability of our new best friends, that the next day we headed west, hoping to meet the American forces.

Walking along a narrow country road, we begged a ride from a Russian soldier driving a tractor pulling a cart. At first we were happy to rest our feet until a horrifying incident happened: the road ahead was lined with hundreds of people with all the bewilderment, fear and confusion of refugees. Most of them got out of the way when they heard the tractor, but one old woman, perhaps too tired to care, perhaps deaf, did not move in time and our impassive Slav simply drove over her, with no more notice than if he had run over a bale of straw, not a glimmer of recognition of what he had done.

The Bürgermeister of the next village told Paul to take the village fire engine, rather than leave it for the Russians, and we were very happy as we drove away on the big fire engine with the loud klaxon hooter scattering Russians out of the way. Our joy was short-lived, as we were stopped by a Russian officer who wanted to commandeer our splendid means of transport. When the officer realised that none of them knew how to drive the fire engine, he said he would take Paul to drive them to Prague. Paul and I clung desperately, pathetically, to each together trying to explain that we were brothers and could not be separated. Jacko Jackson eased the situation when he met a Jewish Russian major with whom he conversed in Yiddish, which broke the ice. Paul showed the Russian how to drive the fire engine and we parted friends.

Our next stop was at Altenberg, about ten miles south-east of Frauenstein, close to the Czech border. At Chemnitz we slept in the Gauleiter’s palatial residence; the chief Nazi must have left his house in great haste, we found lovely soft mattresses on spring beds, a good supply of gin, and hot showers. Instead of five of us sharing one cigarette we were all smoking cigars. We helped ourselves to his food and drink and I took a small Meissen china pair of birds, blue tits, which are still with me, my only souvenir of the war. We were joined in this huge mansion by a few other waifs of the storm, including some French and Belgian girls who had been in labour camps, and we had a jolly party.

We were impatient to join the Americans and decided to commandeer bicycles so that we could speed up our journey. Two of our party of six – Jake (a Seventh Day Adventist) and Jacko (Jewish) refused to steal. I remember my own weak indecision, until Paul said ‘Come on Dave, we have to get out of here, no time for scruples,’ and I took a bicycle, leaving its civilian owner looking very sad, and pedalled away with Paul and the other two.

This is one of those bad memories that most of us accumulate, having done a deed I wish I had not done, with a realisation at the time – and growing ever stronger over the years – that Jake and Jacko had been right. I am not blaming Paul; I blame myself for not having the courage of Jake and Jacko, who, ironically, walked and hitch-hiked and joined up with us the following evening, so we had gained nothing. (I recently read of an American soldier who had commandeered a bicycle in an English village where he had been stationed during the war: after more than fifty years his conscience led him to make a gift of sixty bicycles to that village, one for every young person, as a form of reparation.)

I was ahead of our group of four, cycling along. It was a warm spring day and once again I was clad only in a pair of shorts – as I had been when I was captured at Tobruk. When I cycled past a sign saying, in English and in German, that no Germans were allowed beyond this point, an American soldier stopped me and said ‘Hey, you can’t come through here, you’re a Kraut.’ ‘I am not,’ I replied, ‘I am a South African, I have been a prisoner of war.’ The guard called out to an unseen figure in a tent by the roadside ‘Hey, Sarge, there is a guy here says he’s a South African, whose side is he on? Can I let him through?’ The sergeant emerged from the tent and said to the GI ‘Why, you dummy, haven’t you heard of Jan Christiaan Smuts? Sure he’s on our side; let them through.’ These were the most welcome words we’d heard in three years.

Then they gave us a fine welcome, introducing us, with unnecessary apologies, to PX rations, which we found just wonderful. Our American hosts also told us, with horror, about the concentration camp at Buchenwald, which we saw from the back of the truck that was transporting us. I had a glimpse of those images that still haunt all who have ever seen them – the living skeletons of the few survivors stumbling along, dazed, in their convict-stripe ragged clothes. I declined an invitation to go into the camp: perhaps I should have gone, in order to bear witness. But at the time we were all intent on getting to England without delay. We were driven by truck about a hundred miles to Erfurt, where we were flown to Brussels and on to England, where we were taken to Brighton.


As the war was drawing to a close, Dad, as chairman of the South African Prisoner of War Relatives Association, went to England to prepare for the repatriation of released South African prisoners. Recently my niece Judy asked me whether we had been offered counselling after our release. I had never thought of this before: there was no mention of counselling, though some of the POWs, who had suffered much more than we had, might have benefited.

When we reached the camp that had been prepared for us at Brighton, we eventually found Dad in a telephone box, trying to discover when we were due to arrive. Paul clapped Dad on the back and called out ‘OK, Pop, no need to waste your pennies, here we are!’ Dad, not normally emotional, was never as moved as in that moment when he hugged his two sons. He and Ouma had had so many anxious times wondering if they would ever see us again. Dad had already, in the weeks since the war ended, welcomed back thousands of other prisoners of war, trying, as he told us, not to let his concern for his own missing sons show.

We stayed in England for six weeks – until we could get a passage on a ship for South Africa. Ouma’s sister, Aunt Hilda, lived near Chipping Norton in the lovely Cotswold countryside. She and Uncle Charlie and their daughter Jean had all saved clothing coupons for us so that we were able to buy civilian clothes when we got back. How well I remember my delight in being able to wear ordinary slacks and a bright blue shirt. Paul and I then made the long rail journey to Caithness in the north of Scotland where we had a great welcome from Guy’s widow Margaret and her family, including our young niece Deirdre, then just over three years old. On that first visit to Caithness I developed an enduring love for the stark beauty of the county; Bernard and I enjoyed many visits over the years.

Much of the waiting time we spent in London, where Dad had got friendly with a lively crowd, with whom we had endless parties. Among the people we met with Dad at the pubs and clubs located near South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, were Rita and Marie, ladies very much of the demi-monde. After a long session at a dingy club (at that time pubs in England closed at 2.30 p.m., and it was customary to repair to an adjacent club to continue drinking) we returned to Brighton. The next day Paul, Dad and I joined my cousin Jean and her friends, all proper young ladies, at the Pavilion in Brighton, where a sedate thé dansant was being held. We had scarcely settled in our seats when in marched Rita and Marie, everything about them – dress, make-up, gait, accent, smiles – glaringly out of place. I must have indiscreetly told them the previous day about our plans for that afternoon. I have seldom been so embarrassed, wondering how I could possibly explain to Jean, who had been so kind to us, how we had met such outlandish women. Then Dad stepped to the rescue: before Rita and Marie reached our table, he walked towards them, taking each one by the arm, gently turned them round and led them to the door. When he returned a few minutes later, I thanked him, enormously relieved, and asked him how he had managed it: ‘Oh, I said that it would be best if they went back to London, and I called a taxi to take them to the railway station – and I gave them a bonsella’ (from the Zulu ibhanselo, a gift). Not one word of reproach to me.


Jake (note owl on shoulder) Aunt Hilda, Paul, Dorothy ( Hilda's daughter) olfgang. Gorbitz, 1944

We also met Jil’s mother’s brother Cecil, managing director of Garrards, the Crown Jewellers in Regent Street, who helped Paul choose an engagement ring for Jil. It was Cecil who arranged a celebratory evening at the Café Royal in Piccadilly, where we introduced our cockney POW friend Tosh to the West End, as we had promised him.

When we eventually left Southampton on our crowded troopship, Dad saw us off and we learnt later that he had asked one of the ship’s stewards to ‘look after my lads’, giving him a decent tip. The young steward did look after us very well, inviting us on the first evening to his cabin to enjoy a rum and Coke (our first) and other hospitality followed.

   Centre: Jil and Ouma waiting for our train ~ Durban, July 1945

Arriving at Cape Town, we were put on a train for the final leg of our journey home, and in a few days were met in Durban by Ouma and Jil and other friends, with Paul dramatically holding up an engagement ring which he had bought for Jil in London, as the train approached the platform.

During the nearly forty years that I knew Jil, we had only two differences, one of them occurring immediately after our return that July. The war in the Far East was still being fought, and I announced that I intended to join the air force, hoping to see some action before it ended. It was not from patriotism, but rather a feeling of embarrassment: I felt that my having been a prisoner of war was shameful, believing that I could redeem myself only by taking an active part in the war. (I had to battle this attitude for years afterwards.) Jil was angry, telling me that I was being very selfish and I was not thinking of my parents (indeed I was not). At this stormy time the atom bombs were dropped, and Japan surrendered on 8 August, so there was no question of my staying in the forces. Instead I went back to Rhodes University College just as soon as I could.

Ouma, Paul, Jil

On learning that I was a prisoner of war, friends have often expressed sympathy: now, with hindsight, I can say that their sympathy is misplaced. I suffered few hardships, and those years gave me a chance to mature, to decide what I wanted to do and also to resolve that I would not to be ‘pushed around’ any longer. I have tried to keep that resolve, being unafraid of not conforming, avoiding actions or meetings that are not congenial to me, not doing things simply in order to be polite, or so as not to offend someone. It is difficult to maintain the appropriate balance, but even today recalling those POW days helps me to be true to myself. My wartime experiences surely helped me to commit myself to sharing my life with Bernard, in 1954 – and it did take courage, in those days.

Unlike many of my contemporaries from Durban High School, I survived what those of our generation still call ‘the war’. A major bonus was that my wartime years made me eligible for a scholarship to Cambridge University.

Part 2:University

* Round the World * Bernard Riley memoir * E-mail David *