The most memorable portion of our first three months as a German war prisoner was the train ride from Italy to Bavaria. Our Pullman was a standard boxcar of the 40 and 8 variety that we shared with an unusual group of fellow prisoners. In the five days it took us to make what should have been an overnight run. We learned the essentials of communal living in adverse circumstances.
After our capture on the Anzio beachhead in late February, we were detained for two weeks on the front lines where we helped run the medical aid-station for a German combat unit. (Bulletin. Feb. 1964) All during that interesting interval we had been pounded day and night by our own ground and naval artillery. It was a great relief, finally, to say goodbye to the sounds of combat, the 1027 Panzer Grenadiers, and ride their supply truck into Rome.
In Rome we were cooped up for ten days in one of the sound stages at Cine Citta, where the Germans had established a temporary prisoner-collecting compound. When they had accumulated enough officer-prisoners to make up a load, we were off again by truck to a camp on the outskirts of Siena, about 60 miles away to the north. It was from Siena, two weeks later, that our train journey began.
A few days before leaving Rome, we were joined by the bumptious group of officers who were to be our box-rat companions on the trip through northern Italy and the Alps. They arrived in a bunch, assured and unintimidated: a mixed bag of individualists. Excepting two young American airmen, they were all British or British Colonials. Most were English, but the group also included two Scotsmen, four Indians, a Welshman, a Canadian, a Rhodesian and a New Zealander. They sported a few odds and ends of battle dress. But for the most part they were clothed in disreputable peasant rags. They had many bonds in common. All had been captured more than a year before during the African campaign, and all had once been in the same camp at Chianti on the Italian Adriatic. In September 1943 during the brief interval between Italy's capitulation and the German take-over, they had taken advantage of the confusion and escaped into the mountains. There for six months, alone or in groups of two, they had hidden out with friendly peasant families and lived off the countryside. After the Anzio landings, expecting Rome to be liberated momentarily, they had worked their way toward the Eternal City and freedom, only to be picked up by an extensive Fascist drive and recaptured.
They were wise in the ways of prison camp life. All were great scroungers, magnificent conversationalists, and adept in the techniques of German-baiting. Like all "old prisoners." their many months of confinement, along with their period of isolation in the mountains, had given them plenty of time to philosophize, day dream about the future, and develop eccentricities. John Mayne, a Regular Army Commando and Veteran of the Dieppe and Tobruk raids, planned to emigrate to Australia. Peter Foulsham would return to London and study law. Howard Davies would come to the States, buy a Packard roadster, return with it to Rhodesia, and write animal stories. Richard Edmonston-Low, the Canadian, would seek his future in New Mexico. Keith Esson longed to return to Christ Church in New Zealand and open a book-store. Lock Creighton would go back to Edinburgh. Kalvan Singh planned to stay in the Army and become a General, as did Athon Naravane; Dudley Saker, whose father was Director of Education for India's Central Provinces at Nagpur, would enter the Diplomatic Corps. They all had interesting stories to tell.
On leaving Siena, our visions of traveling through northern Italy in troop-train fashion disappeared when a 14-car freight pulled into the siding. Lt. Col. Trendel, the ranking officer in our group, insisted that as officers we be kept together. He demanded special accommodations from the German train commander. After much loud argument, the thirty of us were given a boxcar to ourselves and, as concession to comfort, the bare flooring was covered with fresh straw. As all other cars were strawless and packed with 50 prisoners, we considered our lot fortunate.
Even with thirty men there is not much room to spare in a small European boxcar. Each of us staked out a small bit of wall space as our own, but sleeping stretched out was an impossibility, and had to be done in shifts. Our possessions, by now reduced to one knapsack or cloth bundle apiece, came in handy as backrests or pillows. (It was undeclared but understood that no one violated the territorial rights of his neighbors.)
We were locked in from the outside and the sliding door sealed shut. The only light within the car filtered in through slit-like vents near the roof at each end of the two sidewalls. With a boost, a tall man could get an eye up to one of these, and report on the outside world. But the view was so limited that it was hardly worth the effort. Once a day, usually in mid-morning, the train stopped on some isolated stretch of track. The doors were opened, and two or three carloads at a time were allowed out to stretch their legs and perform necessary evacuations within a watchful ring of armed guards. At these stops we were issued a bread ration for the day, and given a canteen-cup full of hot ersatz coffee.
Our food ration issued initially for the entire trip was one can of compressed meat per man. It was euphemistically labeled beef, but was unmistakably horse. We were cautioned by our companions to ration it to ourselves carefully. Most had experienced boxcar travel before on their way from the toe of Italy to Chianti. They knew that prison trains had the lowest rail priority, and that what might he one day's travel in distance, could well he a five or six day trip in time. They had learned also that hunger is the most powerful of man's instincts. No matter how great one's altruism, trying to appease a chronically empty stomach brings out all of one's selfish cunning, and it is fair game to take any advantage available.
As a result, we evolved a unique way of dividing our daily ration of three loaves of bread. We split into three groups of ten, each with a chosen representative. The three agents then drew straws to determine first, second, and third pick of loaves. After the first day, second would move to first, third to second, first to last, and so on in daily rotation. Each group of ten divided itself into two groups of five, again each with a chosen leader. The two leaders then alternated days of cutting the group's loaf in half; on the day when one cut, the other had first choice of the halves. Each group of five drew straws to determine the order in the cutting rotation on their half-loaf; when number one cut, number two had first choice and number one automatically got the last segment. Even with our ingenious system. the cutting ritual was intently watched -- each man calculating which piece seemed the biggest and his chances of getting it. It was amazing with what micrometer precision the last choice man could divide a loaf.
We adjusted quickly to our cramped existence. No experience is entirely bad if it can be shared in common with others. We talked and dozed and slept without much regard to time of day. We discovered a few dried tobacco leaves mixed in with the straw; cut up and rolled in newspaper, they were enough to make five community cigarettes which we shared ceremoniously. We learned to interpret the sounds of the wheels, and the creaks, groans and clanks of the ancient wooden car. We were stopped more often than we were moving. Occasionally we waited for hours on some siding for other trains to pass. Our route took us through Florence and Milan. One night we were halted in the rail yards beyond Bolzano long enough to be bombed by our own planes. (Jerry Perlman and Bob Schlisler, the two teen-age American flyers, insisted indignantly that the raiders could only have been British.) On the morning of the fourth day we did get to see the Alps at a stretch-stop above the Brenner Pass. It was frustrating to know that neutral Switzerland was only a few miles away. But snow still covered the ground, and the wind and cold were so severe that we were happy to load back into our car where straw and body heat could warm us again.
Our journey ended undramatically at Stalag VIII C. a large, long-established camp filled with prisoners from all nations. There, a few miles north of Munich in the town of Moosburg, endless rows of bleak, wire-enclosed barracks awaited us. Yet to all of us, the prospect was appealing. The prisoner of war lives only from day to day to day. Food, a bath, warmth and a straw-palleted bunk of our own lay ahead. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
(c) The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, "The Doctor's Lounge", May 1969, Vol. XVI No.5, p.20