One Man's War as Remembered after 40 Years
By the Reverend Ernest Robert Ball, SSM
Reproduced with the permission of Trevor Bell, www.rangitane.co.uk, holder of the original manuscript.
After the German invasion of France in 1940, it was rightly assumed that an all-out attack on Britain would shortly follow. Consequently the British Government stepped up the implementation of plans for providing some measure of safety for those least able to protect themselves. One of those was a scheme for transporting to the Dominions those children who had relations or friends in those parts who were able and willing to receive them. The body responsible for carrying out the scheme, the Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB), had to find some adults to look after the children on their way to their various destinations. The Church was anxious that every ship carrying children should also have a chaplain on board; but this could only be managed if he went also as a children's escort. Apparently the Bishop of Sheffield was asked if there were anyone in his diocese who could take on the job for one of the projected voyages, and his enquiries reached the SSM priory at Parson Cross. It so happened that I was then due to be transferred from the priory to other work, and so the Director (Fr Reginald) informed the Bishop that I was free to go.
The ship to which I was assigned was to sail from Liverpool where we then had a priory, and I stayed at the priory until the various contingents arrived. The first to come were the escorts, and we met each other and our chief, a Salvation Army brigadier, in an old schoolroom. There were about a dozen of us, including two nurses, but only one other man. Some of the group were Australians returning to their homeland, for it was to that country that we were to take the children under our care. I cannot now remember when it was that we were taken across the river to see the ship in which we were to sail. We found her to be the Nestor, an old medium-sized coal-burning ship of the Blue Funnel Line. She was apparently well known for her exceptionally tall funnel. The accommodation was all of one class, and much too grand for the kind of passengers she was to receive.
Shortly before or maybe after this occasion, there was a gathering of escorts and CORB officials at the Lime Street Station to meet the train bringing from the south some of our young charges. They were taken to an orphanage at Fazakerly, which accommodated all the children and their escorts until the ship was ready to sail. There I was allotted the eight boys who were to be under my care. They were a mixed bag as regards their ages, backgrounds and temperaments, and I was soon to discover what a difficult task I had been required to undertake.
The ship sailed on August 20th. The river was so rough after recent storms that she could not be brought alongside the place where we had expected to embark, so we were taken out by lighter and boarded the ship at her anchorage. Before leaving the shore the escorts were required to show whatever papers they were carrying. (My crossword puzzles, cut from copies of The Times, were viewed by the officials with some suspicion.)
It was late in the day when the ship left the comparative shelter of the river for the open sea, and the following morning we passed within sight of the hills of northern Ireland. By that time I had begun to get sea-sick, but a sympathetic steward produced a concoction that speeded up my recovery. When I was able to venture on deck, I saw to my astonishment that we and (as I learnt) another children's ship were in the middle of a large convoy, shepherded by destroyers. It was obvious that the text of my sermon at the traditional Sunday morning service would be 'he took a child, and set him the midst of them'.
One needed to be specially trained or gifted to provide the children with interesting and useful occupations during the many days of our voyage. My own incompetence was painfully evident. It might be thought a simple matter to manage such a small group of boys, but for me it was far from easy. They were accommodated in a suite on the port side close to my cabin. Their ages ranged roughly from six to fifteen. There were three pairs of brothers, of which one pair was from Liverpool and consisted of the oldest and the youngest in the group. These last, the only northerners under my care, were agreeably quiet; but while the older boy was steady and reliable, his little brother was apt to cause alarm by his sudden disappearances, when searchers would eventually find him in some remote part of the ship. The most difficult in the group were the two boys who were unaccompanied by brothers. One of these was particularly troublesome. He was evidently from the London area, and gave the impression of having a somewhat shady background. He took delight in causing annoyance, and incited the other boys to do the same, mostly at meal-times. A curious feature of the meals was the continuation of the peace-time practice of supplying each person at each meal with a printed menu card. The boys chose to have all the advertised alternatives and to keep the cards as souvenirs.
Some of the escorts were teachers, and they undertook to hold classes for a part of each day for which the children were grouped according to their ages and attainments. This not only provided some occupation for the children but also compensated a little for the break in the course of their education. My chaplaincy duties consisted mainly of a daily mass (sparsely attended) and a morning service each day for the children. There was also the 'captain's service' on Sundays which I was deputed to take. This was held in a public room, where for the occasion a Union Jack was draped over a small table, and about three instruments played by members of the crew accompanied the singing.
There came a day when we found that the rest of the convoy had melted away. Our own ship, which had been sailing west with the convoy, now turned to the south and later to the east to drop anchor off Takoradi on the coast of West Africa. Lighters came from the shore carrying bags of cocoa and I think some gold. Those children who had autograph books were as eager to get the signatures of the African porters as they had been to get our captain's, and most of the men were able to comply. Our course from there was in a southerly direction, roughly parallel with the African coast. We passed through the doldrums and experienced several days of close drizzly weather. Though the sky was overcast, the old ship's doctor, whose notions were somewhat old-fashioned, insisted that the children wore their hats when on the open deck. The children were also required to take a daily dose of quinine before and after our visit to Takoradi.
Our arrival at Cape Town was an unforgetable experience. There was of course the famous spectacle of Table Mountain, which few of us had seen before, with the city below glittering in the bright sunshine. It was our special delight to have arrived at the beginning of the southern spring, when the days are warm and sparkling and there is such a dazzling display of flowers and foliage. I guess too we were all glad to step ashore after enduring many days of the constraint and tedium of life at sea. During our stay, there were treats for the children provided by a local organisation, and the escorts were thus freed for a while from their usual responsibilities. I took the opportunity to call on the warden of a boys' home, as the Director had suggested. One of the staff there took me for a drive around Table Mountain, and I remember how astonished I was to see on the trip many arum lilies growing wild. We spent a few days at Durban while the ship's coal bunkers were replenished. We were kept off the ship while the work was in progress, and used the time for seeing as much as possible of the city and its surroundings. Our activities included visits to the Indian market and the sea-shore, a coach trip to the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and after the children had gone to bed the novel experience of a rickshaw ride.
The next stage in our voyage was mostly in cold cloudy weather with a choppy sea. We went well to the south, apparently to shorten the distance to those ports in Australia for which we were making. The first port at which we called was Freemantle where we parted with those children (none in my group) who were for Western Australia. The ship stayed there long enough for all of us to be taken to see the city of Perth, the State capital. The next stop was at Melbourne, a very different city and evidently a much older one; the solidity and solemn grandeur of some of the buildings in the central area brought to mind those survivals from Victorian times to be seen in many English towns and cities. A memorable occasion during our stay was the visit some of us paid to the Botanical Gardens, while the children were being entertained elsewhere; and there amidst the garden's floral splendour we had for lunch the finest salad I have ever known. After a week-end in Melbourne we went on to Sydney where our voyage ended.
Sailing through the beautiful approaches to Sydney harbour was as thrilling for us as it must be for all who have the same experience. We passed under the famous bridge, and were met at our berth by those who were to receive the children and by press reporters and photographers. At our parting with the children the only one of my group to shed tears was the boy who had given me most trouble on the voyage.
I do not think I saw any of the other escorts again after we left the ship, except at a reception at Government House, attended also by escorts from an earlier ship. Those of us who were to return to England had to remain in the area for several days while arrangements were made for our homeward passages. During the time of waiting I had the good fortune to be put in a hotel in the suburb of Manly, where the fare provided showed none of the war-time austerity that England was having to endure. It was a welcome change to be able to relax and enjoy the balmy spring-time weather, and to get some swimming in the local bathing-pool I did not spend the whole time in Manly. For one thing the Director had advised me to get in touch with John Hope at Christ Church in the city, and as a result I was invited to preach there on the Sunday. There was also some sight-seeing in and around Sydney, which included a trip to the Blue Mountains.
At last arrangements were completed for the return to England. Apparently the other returning escorts with whom I had sailed on the Nestor were to go back by the way we had come, though not on the Nestor which was required for some other war-time project; but I was booked to go first to New Zealand. I made the short voyage on the Batory, a passenger ship belonging to Poland, and the cabin allotted to me had such luxuries as a private bath-room. There were escorts on board from another children's ship, amongst whom was a big middle-aged Scotsman with whom I became acquainted. He told me with evident delight that he was taking back to his people in Scotland a large joint of meat which was being stored in the ship's refrigerator.
We landed at Wellington, and during the few days we were there attended another official reception where there were escorts who had brought a batch of children to New Zealand. What I chiefly remember about Wellington was the widespread use of timber in the construction of public and other buildings. We were not there long enough to get bored, for we who had come from England with various parties of children and were to return there were told that the ship which was to take us would be sailing from Auckland, and we should need to join her there. There would however be some delay, so we had time to see something of the country. I chose to go alone by train to Napier, which was still partly in ruins after an earthquake. The following day I went on by coach through the pumice country to Rotorua, where I joined a group of former escorts also intending to sail for England, We stayed for about a week at a small hotel in that fascinating place. Memories include the prevailing smell of sulphur, the large and somewhat sinister lake near by, the croaking at nightfall of thousands of frogs in the lake-side marshes, and the numerous steaming vents and bubbling mud-pools in the neighbourhood, which occurred even in the graveyard of the Maori church beside the lake. I also remember visiting the near-by Maori village of Whakarewarewa and seeing there the geysers flinging with great force columns of steaming water high into the air at regular intervals.
Our little group had to leave Rotorua in time to be on board when the ship was due to sail, and we made the journey by rail; but when we got to Auckland we learnt that the ship would not be sailing for several more days. The cause of the postponement was that the loading of the ship (with foodstuffs for Britain) had been held up by a strike. We were therefore faced with the problem of finding somewhere to stay, for we could not expect to be allowed on board while the loading was in progress. I did not have enough money for a hotel, but for the first night I managed to find a bread-and-breakfast place. For most of the remaining time I stayed by kind invitation with a parish priest whose name I had been given by Fr Reginald. During these days the tedium of waiting was relieved by trips in the neighbourhood to view some of the coastal scenery. Some charitable people also organised a party for all of us who had been children's escorts and were shortly leaving for England. At this party my Scottish friend and I were pressed into accepting from a local resident, who had held some diocesan post prior to his retirement, an invitation to spend a night at his home. We were lavishly entertained, and were much impressed by his sub-tropical garden of which he was evidently very proud. Little did I guess what a contrast in our circumstances there would be not many days later.
The ship on which we were to sail was the Rangitane, a liner of 17,000 tons. We left port late in the Afternoon on Sunday November 24th, but the ship halted for the night before reaching the open sea. (If the intention was to mislead any possible spies on the mainland concerning the timing of the ship's progress, it would have failed; for after dark the blacked-out ship was several times caught in the beam of a searchlight posted ashore.) As the ship drew out into the Pacific the feeling among the passengers, which may not have been shared by the Ship's officers, was that we had nothing to fear from enemy action until we were crossing the Atlantic some weeks later. We were blissfully unaware that disaster was so near.
Then a couple of days later I was aroused from sleep just before daybreak by the sound of banging. I did not know what it was, but did not think there was any cause for alarm until I heard screams and the sound of shattering glass. There was no doubt now that our ship was being attacked. I got out of bed, put on a few garments over my pyjamas, and joined other passengers in the area where we had been told to assemble if anything of this kind should happen. There was then a strange period of silence. We were too stunned to speak; the gun-fire had stopped, and so had the ship's engines; and no sounds reached us from other parts of the ship. We seemed to be stuck in that place for a long time, waiting as instructed for the signal to go up to the appointed places for getting into the boats. My confused state of mind is shown by my momentary venture back to my cabin to collect, not the things which would have been most useful later on but, a travelling clock. The only break in what seemed a long vigil was when stewards came by helping along a distraught and partly-clothed woman who had apparently received some injuries.
We eventually made our way to the open deck above. In the faint light of dawn we saw the dark shapes of three small ships of which one had deck-work which suggested passenger accommodation. I clambered into one of the undamaged boats, and we pulled away from the Rangitane, the oars being manned by members of the ship's crew. Any hope of escape by rowing away from the area was quickly dashed when a motor launch suddenly appeared, and we were ordered to row towards the nearest raider. Among the stores on our boat were cigarettes and rum. These were passed around, and then a young member of the crew threw overboard the rest of a large box of cigarettes lest, he said, the enemy should take them. Later, when smokes were hard to come by, we were to regret his act of bravado. The sea was quite calm, but before we had gone the full distance I was ignominiously sick.
Our reception as we clambered up the side of the raider was decidedly grim. Facing the top of the rope-ladder was a dark doorway, flanked by a couple of sailors with guns in their hands. We went through the door and descended to a narrow passage which led to a room where all the prisoners were herded together. (Many needed to use the toilet in the corner. This soon overflowed, for no one then knew how to work the flush.) After some time we were interrogated by a German official who confiscated whatever money we had except for small change. We were then distributed among similar rooms close by. There were about a dozen of us in each of these with enough space to move around. The room I shared contained a table, benches, and hammocks; these last were stacked in the day-time and slung from the ceiling at night. (We found that the toilet in the corner was flushed by means of a foot-pump which sent the contents to some outlet above). We were kept in the same place for several days, with little to occupy the time beyond waiting for the next meal and bed-time. I cannot remember what we were given to eat except for the inevitable black bread.
The raider, and presumably its partners, did not linger near the place where the Rangitane had been attacked, and we were soon aware that the enemy ship was moving away at high speed. Our direction was evidently northwards towards the equator, for as the days passed it became increasingly hot in our quarters. We found out that before the raiders moved off the Rangitane had been torpedoed and sunk. We also learnt that about twenty people had been killed during the attack, including I think my Scottish friend. The saddest case was that of one of our fellow-prisoners who had lost both of his sons; they had been with him as members of the Rangitane's crew.
On our raider were some of the wounded, among them a young woman (the only woman on board) who had been a children's escort. She did not survive, and I had the task of saying the prayers and words of committal when her body was given to the sea. I had to write down for censorship as much as I could remember of the form of service. The committal took place at dusk, and for the short time required the ship's engines were stopped. The prisoners were taken up to the open deck, where incidentally we had our first glimpse of daylight and our first breath of fresh air since we came on board several days before. We formed a bedraggled group on one side of the bier facing the German sailors in their best uniforms lined up on the other side. The circumstances of the occasion added to its sadness - the stillness, the dull sky and fading light, the gentle motion of the oily-looking sea, and the gloomy solemnity of the naval ceremony. The captain chose to make a speech (of which we were given a translation), blaming the British for what had happened, while eulogising the one who had been killed by his gunners and had died on his ship.
A few days later we were all transferred to a large hold amidships. There the tropical heat and humidity were particularly trying, especially at night when the hatch was battened down. Bread issued in the evening often acquired a coating of mould by the following morning. There was little we could do to occupy the time between taking down the hammocks in the morning and putting them up again at night. Some sat and talked, and longed for a smoke; some played cribbage, using the cards and scoreboard someone had managed to save; one man had an accordion, and we had to endure the frequent repetition of the only tune he could play. The only book we had was a novel that none of us would have cared to read under other circumstances. We were obliged to share one razor blade a day, and after several had shaved the blade became too blunt for further use; consequently many chose to grow beards.
Our life together needed an organizer, who could also deal with our German overseers on our behalf. At first this role was assumed by the Rangitane's purser, being the highest ranking seaman among us; but he did not have the qualities required, and there was an evident unwillingness to acknowledge his authority. The man who took over the job, and soon proved his capability, was a most unlikely candidate. It was alleged that he was a naval rating who had been on his way to England as a passenger to face a court-martial.
In our new situation we met with some who had been prisoners on the raider before we arrived. These were the few survivors from the Turakina, which had bravely but unwisely fought back when under attack, and had lost all its officers and most of its crew. Among the survivors was a young cadet whose ability to speak German was to prove useful, though not immediately since the German warrant officer with whom we dealt could speak English.
Now that the raider and its partners had got well away from the area where there was some risk of being discovered and attacked, we were allowed on the upper deck for a short time in the evenings. It was good to get out of the stale atmosphere below for a while and to see the light of day. We were confined to a roped-off area, but the objects that could be seen did not deceive the eyes of experienced seamen, and I overheard some of their comments. What appeared to be packing-cases or life-boats were simply screens concealing guns which could be quickly exposed. We found that the ship had not only plenty of guns, but also had been carrying mines, and still carried torpedoes and even a small sea-plane. We also learnt (or were meant to believe) that those who manned the ship were highly qualified in civilian life.
An alarming break in our placid but dreary existence came one day when the hatch above was suddenly closed and secured. We then heard the hum of a lift which we took to mean that ammunition was being carried up to the guns. There was also the sound of crashes on the deck above as though the guns were being cleared for action. We could not tell what was about to happen. Had our raider been sighted by a British warship and were we about to be attacked? There was only one man, a Pole, who remained unperturbed and behaved as though unusual had occurred. The rest of us stupidly followed the lead of those who put on the life-jackets brought from the Rangitane, and laid flat on the deck. We should have realised that if indeed the raider was about to be shelled and possibly sunk nothing we did could affect our chances of survival, for we were hopelessly trapped. While we waited there came a tremendous convulsion of the ship and everything loose in the hold crashed to the deck; but there was no further disturbance. It was evident that the commotion has been caused by the raider's own guns.
What had actually happened was that the Germans, intending to smash up the installations on the phosphate island of Nauru, had sighted several ships off-shore unable to enter the harbour because of adverse conditions. They naturally seized the opportunity to sink the ships, after firing a few shots to obtain their surrender. The men on board these ships were given time to leave, and as far as I know no lives were lost. Our own raider now became packed with prisoners. The newcomers included the crew of a Norwegian ship, and the Australian officers of a British ship together with its Filipino crew. The last were crowded together on the 'tween-deck immediately above the hold we occupied, but were taken off the raider when we were well away from the island.
Another break in the monotony of our life was the celebration of Christmas. We were able to have a service in the morning, which was held on the 'tween-deck; the sky was visible through the open hatch above and we could actually see by daylight. The service was necessarily undenominational, not only because of the different persuasions among us but also because we had only one book. This book, belonging I think to one of the Turakina men, had a hymn section in which were some of the familiar carols, and copies of these were made in pencil on scraps of paper. It was a poor sort of religious observance for such a day, consisting merely of prayers, readings, and carols, but even so it was a real and moving act of worship. For our mid-day meal the Germans gave us a treat - New Zealand lamb (from the Rangitane?). In the evening we were taken to the wardroom for a film show. It was then that we verified the real name of the ship, for the motif of the tail decoration was the constellation 'Orion'. The show included a propaganda item in which we saw Hitler receiving the homage of masses of soldiers marching past in serried ranks, contrasted with the spectacle of the British royal family at a boys' camp taking part in the action-song of the chestnut tree. We did not make the intended inference, for the ages of the princesses made it obvious that the pirated film had been made long before the war when the boys' camp patron was only the Duke of York.
Bound for Europe
Early in January there occurred a big change in our circumstances. We knew we had reached some islands, for some of us managed to get a glimpse of dark-skinned men in canoes coming to the ship to barter with their bananas for stick tobacco. We learnt later that the other German ships, in order presumably to conserve their dwindling stocks of food and to have more freedom to get on with their raiding, had dumped their prisoners on an island, from which they were eventually rescued. We, also unwanted, were not so lucky. Instead we were transferred somewhat later to a supply ship which having delivered its cargo was to take us to Europe. Like the raiders, it masqueraded as a neutral, but its proper name was Irmland. Its stores we found were Japanese, so it must have come from that country, and perhaps had been laid up there a long time, judging by its shabby and rusty state. Why we in particular should have been kept as prisoners to be taken on this ship all the way to Europe remained a mystery; but it was understandable that the young New Zealand airmen who joined us from the other German ships should not have been set free. They showed no dismay at having to share our plight and proved a welcome addition to our company: their high spirits had a cheering influence on us all during the many weeks of our long voyage.
Our new conditions were a great improvement on those we had previously endured. We were allowed the freedom of the forward part of the ship from six in the morning to six at night, but were excluded from the part aft of the bridge by wooden partitions. Our area included the forecastle, which contained a sea-water shower. There seemed to be few members of the German navy on board, but no doubt they would have been well able to deal with us should we have caused any trouble. The ship was otherwise manned by merchant seamen whom we rarely saw. Any medical treatment we might require could be obtained from a young German doctor. We were able to have Sunday services, either in our living quarters or on the open deck, with uncensored sermons. I was even presented with an English Bible and a copy of the 1927-28 Prayer Book in its original yellow paper cover, which the Germans had somehow acquired. The food was plentiful though somewhat starchy; combined with lack of exercise it may have accounted for the paunches many of us came to have. Once again our 'admirable Crichton' came to the fore and organised our life very competently.
There were however some unpleasantnesses. The period between six in the evening and bed-time seemed long and dreary, but our boredom was often mitigated by the liveliness of the New Zealanders; on at least one occasion they put on a sort of cabaret including a boisterous demonstration of the old Maori greeting. The area we occupied was the upper part of the hold, separated from the power part by an iron deck. We had to sleep on straw mats laid on this deck with our own clothes for pillows, for there were not hammocks or bunks. The sanitary arrangements were very primitive. At night we used a large wooden barrel, which was emptied over the ship's side when the hatch was lifted in the morning; it was a difficult and precarious task getting it up the steep stairway to the deck above, especially when the sea was unsteady. In the daytime we went into a wooden shed erected on the deck above, in which were parallel horizontal poles for sitting, and beneath was the concave side of a split ventilation funnel with its curved end over the side of the ship.
The weather stayed generally hot and sunny throughout our slow progress across the Pacific. There was little variation in our life from day to day except for the Sunday service and the weekly issue per person of a packet of ten mildewed Japanese cigarettes. We were obliged to wash both bodies and clothes in sea-water; but one day when the sky was overcast and rain began to fall we all stripped and rushed to enjoy a fresh-water shower, providing amusement for our captors and a subject for their cameras. It was no joke for us when after we were covered in soap the rain stopped and we had to swill once again in sea-water.
One old seaman among the prisoners broke his pipe, so I gave him the one I had received as a parting gift from the choir of Liverpool parish church; there was no possibility of my having it back after he had used it for smoking tea-leaves. Another old man was given a bunk in the forecastle where he laid hopelessly ill, having been deprived of the liquor on which he had previously depended. He died during the voyage, and I had the duty of conducting the committal of his body to the sea.
Since it was obviously impossible to take the short route to the Atlantic though the Panama canal, our ship was obliged to turn south with the object of rounding Cape Horn. The weather than became much cooler, but not as cold as it would be at other seasons since it was summer time in the southern hemisphere. Circumnavigating that notorious cape did not happen to be much of an ordeal. The sea was a bit choppy, low cloud obscured the sun and visibility was poor on account of the prevailing mist and drizzle. I think we must have gone south of Tierra del Fuego since the only glimpse we had of land was on our port side.
The weather became clearer and warmer as we sailed northwards into the South Atlantic. There we met with another raider and later with a pocket battleship. From both we received more survivors from sunken ships, Canadians and Greeks. The latter came aboard carrying large and cumbersome wireless sets, presumably of value to their owners but never likely to be used by them under German supervision. The newcomers were quartered in the lower part of the hold, beneath the one we occupied. Shortly before and during the arrival of the other ships, we were told to stay below; but we did get a glimpse of the battleship, the von Scheer, by visiting the loo on the deck above.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful, though for a landsman it was a little exciting to see for the first time the yellow Gulf weed floating on the sea far out in the ocean. As we drew near our destination there was the possibility that we might be seen by other ships, perhaps even by some unit of the British navy, or by aircraft; but apparently that never happened. We entered the Bay of Biscay early in April, and the ship anchored at nightfall near the mouth of the Gironde river. That same night there was an air-raid further up the river, and when in the morning the ship was on its way to Bordeaux we saw the smoke where bombs had been dropped.
Bound for Germany
At the wharf where the ship berthed several officials came on board, some in uniform. When they had concluded their business, we were all ordered ashore and taken to a camp at St Medard on the outskirts of Bordeaux. The camp was a small wire-enclosed compound on a roadside. We were accommodated in long wooden huts, furnished with two-tier bunks; to sleep in a bunk however hard could almost be counted a luxury after spending so many nights lying on the slanting surface of an iron deck. In the evening of Good Friday I held a simple service with those in the hut where I was billeted. Soon after our arrival a Frenchman came briefly into the camp from whom we bought Gauloise cigarettes, paying him with the coins the Germans had not bothered to confiscate. (He must have known how to get the money exchanged, and would then have made a handsome profit.) One memorable incident was when a squad of German soldiers marched past the camp while some of our men were rowdily singing outside the huts. The officer in charge of the squad came up to the fence and shouted furiously in English 'Your airmen bomb by night and you sing by day'. I suspect that they had suffered some unpleasantness during a raid the night before.
We were kept in that camp just long enough for arrangements to be made for our transport into Germany. As far as I remember we were unable to have any religious service on Easter Day, perhaps because it was then that our move began. We left Bordeaux by train in fairly comfortable second-class Dutch coaches and were adequately fed en route. Our progress was necessarily slow, for the train had to avoid disrupting more urgent traffic on the lines. There was talk of attempts to escape from the train into unoccupied France, and I think one man did succeed in getting away. We were four days on the journey, sleeping at night in the seats we occupied by day. At Chartres and again at Brussels we were regaled with bowls of soup produced in each case by a local unit of the Red Cross. One small incident occurred after we had crossed into Germany which revealed something of the national characters of those involved. While the train was being held up where the backs of houses were close to the line, children from the houses scrambled for pennies thrown from the train. This was fun and an agreeable diversion for the captive passengers, but it was evidently disapproved by the military guards and other German adults.
Our first camp in Germany was in a flat, sandy, and desolate part of the country somewhere in the north-west; the landscape included some sombre-looking clumps of conifers. It was a large camp and had three sections: one contained, in our time, Yugo-Slav prisoners, but had previously held French and then Russian prisoners; another section was for the Royal Navy; we were put in the third, which as for non-combatant seamen of all nations. The New Zealand airmen were no longer with us; presumably they had gone to a camp for men in the same service. On arrival at Sandbostel we were made to take showers, and while we dried (by evaporation) our clothes were fumigated; but these were later exchanged for items from a mixed collection of uniforms.
The spokesman for the prisoners in our section was a Captain Lewis, who had been engaged in gun-running during the Spanish civil war. He was unsparing in his efforts for our welfare and outspoken in his dealings with the authorities. The feldwebel in charge of our section, a big man with the name of Rompa, seemed equable and competent, and spoke English well. (It was said that before the war he had been with a shipping company that operated regular sailings to America.) He had a somewhat sardonic sense of humour. Once when forbidding the practice of hanging clothes to dry on a stretch of wire inside the camp's perimeter, he added that it was not to be taken for the Siegfried Line - an allusion to the boastful song popular in Britain before our soldiers were driven out of France.
Soon after our arrival I was called into Rompa's office. There with him was a British army chaplain whom at first I did not recognise. Then to my astonishment and delight he was revealed as Geoffrey White, who had been a student at Kelham while I was there. He had been with some of the troops who had been unable to get away when the Germans swept into France. After his capture he had been put in a camp with a lot of other chaplains, and since he could be of little use there he had asked to be transferred to a camp which had no chaplain; and that is how he came to be with men of the Royal Navy at Sandbostel. He was able by this time to correspond with people at home, and so in a letter to Kelham he managed to convey the news, by a cryptic message, that I was still alive. The news was passed on to my mother, who had never given up hope, though she had heard nothing about me for several months. Another consequence of this meeting with Geoffrey was that I could borrow from him the means to provide communion in my own section; on the same day every week a cardboard box containing vessels, wine, and wafers was passed to me though the sentry at the gate in the fence separating the two sections. I had to celebrate of course without vestments, and having neither altar nor chapel I made use of a table in an empty store-room where the communicants assembled.
Each of the huts in which we lived had a central corridor with three or four large rooms on each side containing a number of three-tier bunks; but at the ends were smaller rooms, four in all, with two men in each, usually ships' officers. At the beginning I was in one of the large rooms where I was allocated a top bunk. (The man in the bunk beneath was much annoyed and used very nautical language when my boards collapsed and he received the sudden weight of my bed and body.) Captain Lewis thought it was unfitting for the camp chaplain - for such I had to be since there was no other clergyman among us - to be placed with the 'other ranks'; so I was transferred to an end room, which I shared with a first mate. We had a small stove on which we could supplement or improve the German issue of food, using for that purpose a billy-can acquired by trading with the Yugo-Slav soldiers through the fence between our sections.
One of the jobs I undertook was to teach English to the Greek sailors, a task both pleasant and profitable: pleasant, because they were so courteous and keen; profitable, because after each class I was presented with a packet of Greek cigarettes. I also started a Bible class, but this was ruined by a group of fundamentalist missionaries who had been on an Egyptian ship sailing to Africa; they used my class for propagating their own peculiar views.
The camp was no health resort. During that summer several of us spent some days in a make-shift hospital being treated for dysentry. There were also some cases of diphtheria, and I think there were some deaths from that cause. I went to see one or two of these patients in the proper hospital adjoining the camp. Our lavatories were made repulsive by an invasion of maggots, apparently coming from the cess-pool beneath.
In those days, still early in the war, the German guards tended to be somewhat arrogant, but there was no serious trouble between them and us. The worst incident was when a nervous guard fired at something in the dark, and the bullet ricocheting against a post, entered the room where a trawler skipper was sleeping. He woke to discover a bleeding stump where one of his little fingers had been.
In the autumn we were moved to an all-British camp, for which the German navy was responsible, known as Marlag und Milag Nord. It was in two sections separated by a stretch of open country, Marlag being for the Royal Navy and Milag for the merchant navy. In our section were some of other nationalities who had been serving on British ships, and a few like myself who had been passengers. The camp was roughly mid-way between Bremen and Hamburg. The surroundings were like those at Sandbostel, except that there was a village near by (Westertimke). Many of the prisoners in the camp had been brought from other places and more arrived from time to time. At first Captain Lewis retained his position, and so did Rompa; but later they were replaced and left the camp. I suspect that the former was removed because of his forthright and persistent demands on behalf of those he represented.
Soon after we had settled into the new camp I received another big surprise. Among those who had not been with us at Sandbostel was the Salvation Army officer who had been in charge of the children on the Nestor. He had been returning to England by a different route from the one I had been allotted, but his ship had suffered the same fate as the Rangitane. We arranged to have an undenominational Sunday morning service, for which he was able to provide some Salvation Army hymn-books. All our sermons had to be censored before they were delivered. There were a number of Roman Catholics in the camp and these were served by Canadian priests and laymen belonging to an Order with work in Basutoland.
For Anglicans I was granted a room in an empty hut which I made into a chapel. This was furnished with benches and with a table which I used as an altar. A carpenter provided cross and candlesticks, a young American embroidered a frontal, and an amateur artist painted a large picture of the risen Christ for the wall behind the altar. (The American had been picked up, badly injured, by the German submarine which sank the ship on which he was a passenger.) The chapel was used mainly for mass and evensong. In a remarkably short time I received, largely through the efforts of Fr Reginald who had friends in high places, all that was needed for the fitting administration of holy communion, and even two sets of coloured vestments. During the time that I was in the camp I had one baptism and ran a confirmation class for about a dozen men whom I admitted to communion at the end of the course. (Subsequently, back in England, I was able to present for confirmation one member of the class. He was later killed when a flying bomb destroyed his house).
Nearly all of us remained a Milag Nord until our release, which came for some of us in October 1943 and for the majority shortly before the end of the war. The camp probably compared favourably with others in Germany, for the naval command seemed to take some pride in the way it managed what was perhaps the only PoW camp in its charge. There was a hospital in the camp, a dental surgery, a dining hall with kitchens manned by our own cooks, a library, a hall for the big Sunday service and for theatrical productions, and a canteen where we could spend our 'lagergeld' for small requirements. We had a Czech doctor at first, but he was mysteriously removed from the camp and replaced by a British army doctor (a Scot who claimed to be a staunch Presbyterian). The dentist, who was also from the British army, attended to the teeth not only of prisoners but also of several German soldiers who came to him on the quiet. It would be interesting to know what their reaction would have been had they ever found out that he was a Jew.
As the war dragged on the quality of the guards deteriorated, for the best of them were taken away to help in resisting the pressure on various fronts. There was, for instance, an elderly guard attached to one of the huts who could hardly be called soldierly apart from his uniform He had been conscripted into the German army, though his home was in Luxembourg where he had had a civilian occupation. It was soon found that trading could be done with some of these guards, even with those who manned the machine-guns in the corner towers. They were eager to obtain certain items that came in the Red Cross parcels, and gave in exchange eggs, vegetables, and other things wanted in the camp. This trading, which was usually carried on when no German officers were around, was the cause of a tragic incident. One of the prisoners had arranged to meet after dark for such a transaction a guard who was then expected to be on duty in the compound; but it happened that a different guard was there that night and he, seeing someone approaching when all were supposed to be in their huts, took alarm, fired at the man and killed him.
It would now be impossible for me to relate our experience during my time in the camp in chronological order. We had a bad time one winter when trains carrying our Red Cross parcels could not get through because of the weather, and even the German ration was affected. In normal times the parcels from the Red Cross were issued every week, one to each man. They were a great boon, especially those from Canada; and so also were the parcels from relations at home, and those received by seamen from their shipping companies. Cigarettes became so abundant at one time that they were used not only for trading but also in place of cash at gambling sessions.
News about the war reached us in various ways. Some was received which was said to have been broadcast from England and picked up by a receiving set hidden somewhere in the camp. The source of this news could not be authenticated since the location of such a set would have to be a carefully guarded secret, but the presence among us of several wireless operators made it possible. The Germans certainly suspected the existence of a set, and for that reason the camp would sometimes be subjected to a rigorous search. On one occasion all the thermos flasks we had bought from the canteen were impounded; apparently the Germans had somehow got the notion that a receiving set might be concealed in one of them. Some cheering news came to us through a pamphlet raid; copies of the pamphlet were picked up in the camp and translated, and so we learnt about the conclusion of the fighting in North Africa. We also learnt indirectly about the bombing raid in which a dam was destroyed. It became known that some of our guards who came from the affected areas were granted leave to go to their homes to find out what had happened to their families and to render any help that might be required. The most vivid evidence of the war we had in my time was the big raid on Hamburg, when we heard the planes approaching the target, the explosions as the bombs fell, and the anti-aircraft gun-fire, and saw the glare and smoke of the burning city.
The German officer who had the immediate oversight of the camp was tall, elderly, and sour-faced, with an obvious dislike for the British. (It was said that he had lost his sons in the war, which may have accounted for his bitterness). He did not always get the respect he considered to be his due. Once, after a fall of snow, when he came into the camp on a horse-drawn sledge, his attempt to appear dignified in his squatting position looked so ludicrous that a roar of laughter from the prisoners greeted his arrival. On another occasion he ordered a number of men whom he regarded as slackers to run round and round the square where we assembled for the twice-daily 'appel'. This was turned into a farce when a man emerged from the wash-house and joined the runners clownishly swinging his bucket.
The most notable thing about the camp, which could no doubt be said of other camps of British prisoners, was its becoming an almost completely self-sufficient community, in which activities were provided for all kinds of needs and interests. There were indeed some who suffered from long periods of depression, sometimes due to worrying news or lack of news from home as well as to the restrictions of prison life and its uncertain duration and end; there were even several cases of mental breakdown. The majority however showed remarkable resilience and enterprise. We were fortunate in having among us many who were proficient in various ways and could organise projects in which others took part. There were classes in subjects such as mathematics and modern languages. It fell to my lot to take a group in English literature, for which we received from sponsors in England a comprehensive selection of books. (The covers had all been slashed by the German censors, who presumably had imagined that they might find within them some secret messages). Junior ships' officers were able to study for the qualifications they required.
For entertainment we had with us the members of an orchestra from a large passenger ship who had managed to retain their instruments. There were also some with knowledge of stage-craft, and some capable performers including a professional actor. I remember a production of The Student Prince and also a superb presentation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many others were involved in these productions, and much ingenuity was used in devising from limited resources appropriate scenery, properties, and costumes. I had the help one Good Friday of some actors and musicians, together with our Sunday choir, for a three-hour period of readings and music, which was attended by a large number of our fellow-prisoners. There were outdoor activities for the young and energetic. The Australians, for instance, introduced their own style of Rugby football, and some wild demonstrations of this game were enacted on a patch of ground on the edge of the camp There was even a brief spell of swimming one summer in the two deep ponds inside the camp which had been made to provide a quick supply of water in case of fire; but this met with disapproval and was stopped.
There were of course some attempts at escape. I know of one tunnel which was successfully completed, and several got away but not for long; they were all recaptured, and after a few days in the 'cooler' were brought back into the camp. It was not altogether a waste of time and effort, for it provided through several months a diverting occupation for those who made the tunnel and for those who protected the secrecy of the operation. Only one man achieved a successful escape. He was a third engineer of unadventurous appearance who made long and careful preparation for his solo venture. He was regarded as eccentric, and even condemned by some, for volunteering to work on a farm; as an officer he was not obliged to do such work. At first a guard accompanied him on his daily journey to and from the farm; but he became so trusted that after a while the guard was withdrawn and he was allowed the use of a bicycle to get to his job. One day he failed to return to the camp. By the time his disappearance was confirmed he had cycled a long way from the camp presumably taking with him some suitable items of food saved from Red Cross parcels. After the war I learnt from him that he had gone north, and after some narrow escapes from recapture had reached a port to which ships came from Sweden. He got into touch there with some Swedish sailors, having acquired in the camp some knowledge of their language. By promising a bribe, later honoured by the Consulate in Stockholm, he was smuggled on to their ship, and hidden in a coal bunker while the Germans made their usual search before allowing the ship to sail. His escape had a romantic ending, for his Norwegian fiancee also escaped into Sweden at about the same time. They were flown to England after their marriage, and he received the MBE.
I cannot now remember when it was that we learnt about an impending exchange of the sick and wounded among British and German prisoners. It may have been in the spring of 1943 that a mixed commission of Swiss and German doctors came to the camp to make a list of those eligible for repatriation. It happened that I had previously seen our own doctor about a small lump I had which had recently appeared. He said it was tubercular, and for that reason the commission put my name on the list. Northing further happened for several months, though there was one occasion when those of us on the list were told to get ready to leave; but for some reason unknown to us the arrangements for our departure were suddenly cancelled. Hopes were raised again when we were all moved out of our various quarters and put together into a hut at one end of the camp. There we spent some dreary weeks and, until the hut was fumigated, endured a nightly scourge of bugs.
When at last the time came for us to go, I wanted to stay so that the camp would not be without a chaplain. The trouble I had reported to the doctor had disappeared by this time; but when I pointed this out I was told that the list had gone through official channels and could not be changed. Then Geoffrey White, whom I had met a few times since our transfer from Sandbostel, came to the rescue. His section had been greatly reduced by the removal of many of the naval ratings to labour camps elsewhere; Marlag then had only a few hundred prisoners while Milag had several thousand. The German authorities agreed to allow Geoffrey to take over my job and to go back to Marlag from time to time to be of service to those remaining there.
Before we left the camp our baggage was examined, and to my surprise I was at the same time handed an envelope containing the money taken from me on the Orion. I have but a vague recollection of the railway journey to the place where the ferry crossed the sea to Malmo in Sweden. At Malmo some young and attractive nurses boarded the train to look after us on the journey to Goteborg. They were regarded with speechless awe by men who for a long time had seen only males (except for an occasional glimpse of an elderly frau who lived across the road by the camp. I once saw her with her arm dipped in a bowl of pig's blood - not a very endearing sight).
We had to spend some time on the dock-side at Goteborg waiting in the stationary train for the ships to arrive. There was naturally much excitement when the ships eventually appeared. One of them berthed near by, and when we saw the German ex-prisoners on its decks we gave them a cheer, for they too were going home; but there was no response. There were three ships: one was a hospital ship, another was a Swedish passenger ship, and the third was an old Empress liner.
On board the Empress I enjoyed the luxury of a cabin, which I shared with an army officer, for there were with us former prisoners from a military camp. Our ships had a naval escort until they reached the North Sea, and then they made a smooth crossing to Scotland where other naval ships escorted them into port. On the way we had the unique experience in war-time of sailing on ships lit up at night.
Edinburgh gave us a tumultuous welcome as a fleet of buses took us through the city. I was among those who next spent a few days at a big hotel near Ayr, which was being used as a temporary hospital. I think we underwent a medical examination, and were asked for any useful information we might have brought out of Germany. Provision was made for free travel to our various destinations, which meant for me a rail journey from Glasgow to London on a night sleeper. On our last day in Scotland I and three army officers also going to London were given a sumptuous lunch at a place in Govan, for which our offer of payment was declined. I also had tea with the Bishop of Glasgow under whom I had served as curate when he was rector of Liverpool.
My mother knew on what day she could expect me to arrive, but I surprised her by appearing soon after dawn, wearing battle-dress and carrying a large kit-bag, at the house in Harlesden where she was living with her sister. When I came to learn what she like others in London had been through, I realised how little I had deserved that anyone should have been concerned for me; while I was far away from the theatres of war, at first on the opposite side of the world and then in the safety of a prison camp, my mother had been spending night after night in an air-raid shelter and living by day and night under the constant threat of sudden death. The true heroes were those who so generously gave a heroes' welcome to many of us who had done so little to earn it.