As VE Day approaches I’ve been reading the diaries my father kept as a prisoner or war. In early May 1945 he was in a work group in the Austrian Tirol. British forces were close, but the country in between was occupied by heavily-armed SS troops. Although there had been a local capitulation on 2nd May, locals said the SS wanted to fight on.
For Dad the final days of the war held jubilation, high drama, and needless tragedy. In previous posts I have described the murder of the SS officer’s family near my father’s camp, and the bizarre circumstances of the surrender of the Hungarian division. It was a Hungarian officer who told Dad that British troops had reached Lienz, just 20 miles away. The officer agreed to drive Dad and another sergeant there, through SS ‘bandit country’.
Fortunately the road to Lienz proved clear. Dad’s description of contact with Allied troops is unemotional: ‘on the outskirts of Lienz we ran into a British patrol [and] we found ourselves in the thrilling company of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.’ He’d known 3 years in captivity, escaped once, and endured punishment beatings and a mock execution as a result. He’d known such starvation that he wrote of one camp ‘we marched in as soldiers, we crawled out as animals’. And yet his first contact with free British forces earns only the label ‘thrilling company’.
The local situation was still volatile. In London, crowds packed the Mall to cheer the King and Queen. In Lienz ‘the night was marked by a good deal of shooting; not rapid fire, but well within view a number of houses or other buildings were burning fiercely.’ The Argylls promised to send transport to extract all the British prisoners of war, so after a celebratory beer the two British sergeants returned to their camp. It must have seemed strange to be chauffeured by a newly-surrendered Hungarian officer.
The good doctor
The entry for Dad’s last night in a prisoner of war camp shows more warmth, but surprisingly it is for the local Austrian population. In particular the local doctor had not only cared for their ailments but found other ways of alleviating their situation, frequently at great personal risk. Perhaps a dozen of the British PoWs gathered in his home that night for a farewell bottle, staying until several were incapable of climbing back up the hill to the ‘Lager’. Dad wrote ‘he was a brave and charming man, and I honour his memory.’
I suspect that ‘fraternisation’ stretched way beyond the doctor’s kindness. When the promised transport arrived the following day, ‘leave-taking was a wretched business, everyone seemed sorry to lose us, and all the women and girls were crying. And so we said “Auf Wiedersehen” and not good-bye, and if ever the opportunity occurs I shall most certainly return.’
Return, and afterwards
Dad reached home in June 1945. His own parents had suffered, in a different way; Dad was an only child, and comrades in his unit had seen his truck hit by tank fire in 1942, during the retreat to El Alamein. My grandparents received the dreaded telegram ‘Missing, Believed Killed’. They endured six months of uncertainty before they knew he was alive and a prisoner of war.
I always thought it strange that Dad talked so warmly of Austria, the country of his later imprisonment. Perhaps it came from the deep camaraderie of that work group, which endured for decades afterwards. Perhaps it was the warmth of a local, rural community largely untouched by Nazi politics. The Tirol had been kind, but I think some of his earlier experiences as a prisoner damaged him. His generation, though, did their best to pull themselves together and get on with life.
Dad lived to be 93. One of his fellow escapees in Italy, a man who stood beside him facing the firing squad in that mock execution, was Best Man at his wedding. They became lifelong friends.
Posted on VE Day, 2020, in honour to all those who served in that war, and those who waited.
With the VE Day commemorations approaching, I opened my father’s war diaries, curious to see his entries from May 1945. In those last few days of the war I found tales of predictable jubilation, unexpected pathos, and deep, needless tragedy. I had planned to spend this week in preparations for Draca’s launch on 14th May, but instead let me share some of Dad’s experiences. His war ended with enough drama to fill a different book.
First, some background. Dad was an artillery Sergeant who fought with the 8th Army in North Africa. One bloody, chaotic night in 1942 his unarmored survey truck stalled in the sand in front of a German tank. They were close enough to hear the turret motors whine as it swung to engage, and for the tank’s shell to pass right through the truck without exploding. Starvation and ill-treatment followed; he wrote of one camp ‘we marched in as soldiers; we crawled out as animals.’ He escaped once, from an Italian camp, was recaptured by the Germans, and faced a firing squad as punishment in a mock execution. In the random lottery of warfare other escapees were less lucky; the experience of burying their brutalised bodies scarred him more than any battle.
From late 1943 he worked in an arbeitskommando, a small labour camp. Their task was to cut a road into the mountainside in the Austrian Tirol. A large chalet they called the ‘Lager’, high on the mountain, became home for 40 or so British NCOs. In comparison to the larger camps, conditions were relatively benign; the local villagers were not hostile, occasional Red Cross food parcels arrived, and their guards seemed content with life remote from senior supervision.
Dad kept a diary throughout his captivity, writing in fine pencil in stolen Italian school exercise books. It is miraculous that they survived; at times Dad buried them in the ground to hide them from searches. My brother painstakingly transcribed them, and recorded hours of Dad’s reminiscences. These too he edited, printed and bound. His efforts preserved Dad’s experiences for future generations.
In the entries below Dad’s words are in italics.
May 1945: Regional capitulation
Wed 2nd May 1945
According to German reports Hitler died yesterday in Berlin and Admiral Dönitz has become Führer. The villagers have been expecting capitulation this week but Dönitz says they will fight to the last against Russia. Matrei [the nearest town] is by all accounts crowded with SS troops, Luftwaffe and ack-ack personnel. We shall certainly hear if not see a little gun play.
IT IS OVER. Over the radio this evening has come the amazing news that the whole German army in northern Italy and southern Austria has capitulated … I don’t know anyone who has had more than a couple of hours’ sleep.
Jubilation and feasting, then needless tragedy
The guards left the gates open, and most simply disappeared. The first action of the British prisoners was to break open the food store.
Thurs 3rd May 1945
Almost everyone up early, bringing everything from [the store] into the house and cooking tremendous breakfasts. I am sure that every single man has at least 3 complete [Red Cross] parcels and we are all living at an amazing and undreamed of standard. Today we have been roaming all over the village and making the most of this new freedom.
[We] were sitting in the canteen when [a villager] suddenly walked in and said that 6 men had been shot by the SS on the Mitteldorf track. I immediately went down there with a fugitive German Sgt Major, half expecting to discover that one or two of our fellows were involved. Instead, however, we saw the most ghastly sight imaginable. Not more than 400 yards below the village an SS Captain had just shot his four young children, his wife, and himself.
The children’s ages ranged from 4 to 11; 3 girls and a boy. All the bodies lay across the path, 3 of the children together, and the Captain, his wife, and the boy side by side some 5 yards away. Every one of them had been shot through the centre of the forehead, yet one of the children had obviously tried to run away for a trail of blood lay some yards along the path, but a loose coloured silk neckerchief was the only sign of a possible restraint.
Whatever his crimes or fears, one cannot visualise the state of mind of this Nazi that led him to such a cold-blooded destruction of his wife and innocent children. There was nothing we could do; even among ourselves we were lost for words. It struck us forcibly that this was not a situation in which [the PoWs] could helpfully become in any way involved, and we gently returned to the Lager.
The last days
The SS man’s family was one tragedy among many thousands as the war drew to an end. The valley below the ‘Lager’ was descending into chaos; by early May 1945 there were rumours of British troops within 40 miles, yet well-armed SS troops choked the roads and villages. They might not have accepted the local capitulation. The last days of the war for Dad would be momentous. I’ll share those entries over the next few days.