THERE AND BACK

Jackie Briggs DFM - Radio Observer
25 68 89 Sqns


http://www.rafweb.org/Sqn086-90.htm

In 1941, night fighters played an almost exclusively defensive role. Because their radar interception equipment [AI] was still, at least nominally, secret, aircraft fitted with it were not flown over enemy territory. For example, when I joined 89 Squadron and we flew our aircraft to Egypt, the AI went separately by sea and overland to Abu Sueir.

So, while in the sublime optimism of youth I was sure nothing untoward would ever happen to me, if I had speculated at all on possible fates, being taken prisoner wouldn’t have been one of them.

Late in 1942, after a year's ops in Egypt, I went with my pilot to Malta as one of the Malta Night Fighter Unit, a detachment of 89 Squadron Beaufighters and crews. The siege was still very much in force and we had three Night Fighter crews on readiness with one standing by for intruder raids on enemy bases in Sicily – with no AI, of course.

On a dark (but not stormy!) night in November ’42, I was engaged in an intruder sortie, when Fate took an unkind hand. It was a new and unwelcome experience to find myself at about three thousand feet (yes, upside down and spinning!) struggling out of a crippled Beaufighter, making a slow descent to a rather ungraceful landing – it being too dark to see the ground coming up.

A futile attempt to walk to the coast, an unfriendly encounter with some Italian troops using small arms and hand grenades and forty-eight hours later I was in No. 1 Military Hospital, Palermo, pretty comprehensively smashed about.

I shan’t dwell on the details, but I must admit that the next few weeks were somewhat uncomfortable and it was a relief to be moved to Caserta, where there were some British MOs and medics. Soon after that I was moved again, to Nocera, not far from Salerno, where I began a slow recovery. During this period, a team of medical inspectors from the International Red Cross Swiss branch arrived and pronounced several of us unfit for further service and suitable for an exchange of wounded. I didn’t suppose such things really happened and, hearing no more, soon forgot all about it.

A few months later, I was one of a small party of officers and senior NCOs selected to be accommodated in a makeshift hospital in the centre of Milan ‘to be bombed’. As the Italians told us with relish, ‘by the RAF.’

On Friday, 13th August, there was a heavy raid. Our building was almost destroyed, several prisoners were killed and the rest of us were loaded onto trucks and taken to Bergamo. Some days later the Italians announced the imminent arrival of a hospital train to take away those prisoners who had been selected for exchange.

It didn’t come, of course, and, in fact, Fate was waiting in the wings with another surprise.

Italy capitulated to the Allies down South, a company of SS stormtroopers arrived with trucks to move us to Mantua and thence in closed cattle trucks to a transit camp near Munich.

We five RAF, very much the worse for wear, were handed over to a couple of guards, one of whom was a typical Nazi who never took his hand off his pistol. They took us on a four-day ‘railway hitch-hike’ right across Germany to Heydekrug, Stalag Luft 6, about twelve miles from Memel in Lithuania and, for a few months, there was a pause in my gipsy travels.

Early in May 1944 there was a buzz of rumour that a Swedish Red Cross party was due to visit the camp, but, as before, we heard no more and my scepticism returned. Then suddenly, one afternoon, we were told to stand by to attend the sick bay. This was outside the camp itself but within the main complex: sick parades were always held in the morning, so clearly something was afoot. Examined by a Swedish doctor and a German MO, we were then dismissed back to our huts.

Some days passed until, one evening just before lights-out, our camp leader told us to pack and be ready to leave the camp first thing next morning. This was a bit of a joke – we had nothing much to pack. Anyway, morning came and nothing happened – just as we expected.

But it did happen the following day. Collected by German guards, we were taken to the gates. The entire camp turned out on parade – voluntarily, not for morning ‘Appel’; the POW band, a very good one, played fanfares and jolly music and then we were outside the gates, on a lorry moving slowly away, to the cheers of those chaps left behind.

The lorry drove a few miles to a clearing in the surrounding forest and, standing there, empty, was a little old wooden carriage at the end of a single rail track. The truck withdrew, leaving us in the charge of a German corporal, who kept telling us that we were going home. So we boarded the miniature train and silence fell on the forest. After a while, an ancient shunting engine came fussing round a bend, coupled up our carriage and puffed away down the track to Königsberg, where the carriage was hitched up to a passenger train. The shunting engine departed and the passenger train moved off, trailing our carriage behind.

Of course, we didn’t know where we were bound and the German either didn’t know or wasn’t saying, reiterating only that ‘you go home now’. Perhaps he was worried that we might escape, but none of us was fit enough.

Our carriage ‘changed trains’ several times – literally – reaching a marshalling yard at one point, where our carriage, with us aboard, was shunted into a siding by pushing our coach up a gradient to roll down the other side and crash into the other rolling stock; a rather unsettling procedure for the occupants. Next morning we were hooked up to a train full of troops and we could, perhaps, have been forgiven for hoping that we wouldn’t see any Allied aircraft – after all, I’d already enjoyed the attentions of the RAF in Milan and might not get away with it this time; but that part of the journey passed without incident.

In due course, we arrived at Anaburg, a typical Schloss near Dresden, complete with conical tower, quite attractive and, by POW standards, reasonably comfortable.

There were around a thousand POWs, mostly Army, some Navy and about twenty-five RAF. A week or two passed with neither news nor activity and we became sceptical again.

Interest was renewed when a hospital train arrived at a halt quite close by and we were put aboard, glad to find that there was a bed for everyone. The train then trundled leisurely across Germany. I suppose it was quite tricky to slot it between troop movements and scheduled services, with the possibility of disruption by the Allies.

We crossed safely into France, stopping briefly once in a station – most waiting was done away from towns – and, after some four days, arrived at Marseilles. I wasn’t counting chickens yet. The operation could still be aborted and we were still in enemy country and the best way to meet possible disappointment was to expect it. But we quickly detrained and were taken a board a small coastal vessel, allocated hammocks and presented with one bottle of beer each. Some chaps couldn’t cope with the hammocks, but we all managed the beer and most of us managed some sleep, having given up wondering what tomorrow might bring.

Day dawned and we sailed into – Barcelona! All our doubts dissolved, for once we were off the ship we were on Spanish soil and POWs no more.

In a large dockside shed we were welcomed by a Colonel MO, who pointed out the imposing white ship at an adjacent mooring and said that as soon as the Germans were off, we would go aboard. Our immediate concern was food – most of us were ravenous. We needn’t have worried.

The ship – the Gripsholm, a 20,000 ton liner still fitted out for passenger service – spent all that day taking on provisions, while we selected cabins and settled down to a lifestyle we had almost forgotten about. Meals were served in first-class fashion, offering everything we had dreamed about for a long time. I still have some of the menus, which were printed daily.

While we crossed the Med, we were given some (Canadian) uniforms and offered medal ribbons. There was a pretty fierce storm that night, but it had blown itself out by morning, when we arrived in Algiers to a breathtaking welcome.

British and American bands gave marching displays and contingent of nurses came aboard carrying great baskets filled with sweets, cigarettes and other comforts. Meanwhile, those troops going south disembarked and we then sailed, through the Straits of Gibraltar, out into the Atlantic, round the top of Ireland and into Belfast. The weather was calm and we enjoyed a pretty luxurious cruise.

The Gripsholm was a ship sailing under International Red Cross authority and must have been the only troop-cum-hospital-ship sailing at night with all lights ablaze.

We entered Belfast to a fanfare of sirens and cascades of water from the fireboats, to be towed up-river past numerous Navy vessels, all with sailors manning the docks in salute. We landed, were given tea and buns and put aboard an American troopship, which took us across to Liverpool, to another welcome from the Mayor and Corporation, where we RAF were taken by coach to Weeton Hospital for medical checks.

It was the end of May 1944. I didn’t know, of course, that D-Day was imminent, no doubt accounting for our wide Atlantic approach to a port not on the mainland. Sweden, though neutral, was not necessarily a friend. A few days later, I was met at Paddington by my parents and my sister. As the detaining powers had often pointed out, for me the war was over.

Actually, it wasn’t. I managed to ‘stay in’, still flying occasionally for almost another year, to be retired on medical grounds on 8th May 1945 – VE-Day!


Sgt Briggs

Commissioned

Jackie, aged 90

Links & Notes

89 Squadron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._89_Squadron_RAF
Stalag Luft 6 http://www.b24.net/pow/stalag6.htm
MS Gripsholm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_Gripsholm_(1925)

Jackie died in November 2011
Photos source: Mike Briggs

page last updated 30 May 2013: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010