My own battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, got off Malta a few weeks after we left, they also came to Palestine to get their stamina built up after the Malta siege. They got the job of defending one of the other islands. After a couple of weeks, they were all taken over by the ferries that were taking prisoners, so I made a good move by joining the paras, otherwise I’d have been with them. It worked out that they were captured about 12 months before I was, but during that 12 months, I got back to England and home on leave, which was the first time I had been home since I joined up.
After coming off the island of Kos, I went back to Palestine. It’s not difficult to imagine our grubby state after being on the island for 10 days, laid in trenches, no baths, no change of clothes, no shaves, hardly anything to eat. It was like getting off Malta all over again.
After a few days’ rest, we were on leave again for a week; plenty of wine (women but no song) and grub. I’d seen quite a bit of the Biblical side of Palestine, but I’d never been to Jerusalem, so I intended to go while on this leave. I queued up at the bus station, waited ages, but there was no bus, so I nipped across to the nearest pub. Anyway, I couldn’t have saved Him. He’d already arisen from the dead and was probably the cause of all this present trouble. After our little holiday, we were back at the wheel with more stiff training, until mid December 43. We got the wonderful news that we were on our way back to England, and down to Port Said again, only we were going the right way this time.
We boarded a troop ship, what a difference from the one we left England in during 1937. It was crammed full, we slept on the decks, hammocks or any space available. The allies had control of the Med. now, so there was no worry going back until we got near to Gibraltar. There was a big sea battle taking place on the route we were taking, so we had to be diverted around the Azores, which was a long way round, so instead of landing in Southampton, we docked in Liverpool on the 5th of January, 44. I’d sailed out of Southampton on the 5th of January 1938, six year to the day.
With all the docking at Liverpool, we were very lucky we didn’t capsize, as I think everyone on the boat was on the dockside. It really was frightening, but it all worked out OK. The battalions all went their own way, we the 11th Para battalion, left from Lime street Station and headed for Leicester, to a place called Charlton. From there, I went on that holiday, the first since I’d joined. I set off to go home to N.I., frightened, not knowing what to expect. They didn’t know I was coming, so it would be a shock to them also. I arrived at about 8 pm, in the middle of January, so you can imagine the pitch black night out in the hill of ‘Corick’, a couple of miles from Draperstown, Co Derry.
The paraffin lamp was lit, but there wasn’t much light; the half door was shut, so I knocked on it. I had to wait a bit because nobody knocks on doors over there, they just walk in. Eventually, a lass came to the door and stood a while. All she could see was my brass buttons shining. She shouted at the top of her voice, “IT’S JOSEPH!” Then there was a mad rush and I said, “Can I come in?” I don’t remember what the answer was.
The lass that met me at the door was my youngest sister, Catherine. She was about 10 when I left, but 17 now. You can probably imagine the crowd of strangers I’d walked into. I recognised my two eldest sisters, Helen and Mary, my father and step mother, but don’t forget, they had a second family, 3 boys and 3 girls. They were: Johnny, Patrick and Peter, and Winnie, Sally and Anna. I think that was all of them; oh, not quite, there was Jessie and Nellie, a couple they had adopted, as if they didn’t have enough kids of their own.
I just walked in, dumped what kit I had on the floor and got the best chair in the house offered to me. What happened after that, I can’t remember. I just explained my journey, how long leave I had and everybody just sat about looking at me. What went through their minds I don’t know; mine was just blank. I had no conversation in me at all. I just spoke when I was spoken to; it was a completely different world from the one I’d come from after 7 years.
They all hugged me, naturally, but I can’t remember my dad even getting off his chair. I think he was lost at what to do, so he did nothing, but it hurt. It was because of him that I left, and it was because of him that I’d never gone back until now. I shouldn’t have gone even now, but I knew there were big things ahead for me, so this was probably my last chance of seeing them all, and them of me.
I was at a loss, so the pubs came to my aid; I spent all my time in them. When I arrived home at night, they would all be in bed. I stayed in bed until opening time next day. Nothing was too much for them to do for me, but I wasn’t used to being cuddled. I suppose I should have settled down and tried to accept it all, but I just couldn’t. It’s all right saying so now, but the wildness has all left me now. I’ve Mary (the girl I later married) to thank for that really. She was a lovely innocent girl, and she treated me as I needed to be treated. Anyway, more about that later.
My leave was coming to an end. I was gradually getting used to my surroundings, there were plenty of parties for me. The old fellow and I had a few chats and I drained a bottle of whisky. I eventually had him in tears; he did have feelings of guilt, I could see that.
The town people got a dance organised in the Town Hall for me and another chap who was also home at the time. He was in the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but he didn’t join the Paras. The dance was OK, everyone was a stranger to me, but they presented us with supper at the vicar’s house, plus a ten-pound note each. That was a decent sum in those days. It was a sad day when I left; everyone was in tears, myself included and the old fellow. He came with me to Magherfelt, to the train. We had a good talk on the bus, on the way to the train. He made me promise to come back home after the war was over. He offered me the Corick Farm. I often wondered if I had gone back, would he have kept his word? I didn’t go back and had no intentions of doing so, but at that time, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was just going to get shot I suppose. The battalion re-formed at Melton Mowbray and there we stayed until the final day. We had plenty of standby scares, one South of France, one Belgium and one North Holland. It seemed that our troops were advancing too fast for us to get there. That is why they dropped us so far in front at Arnhem on the 17th of September 1944. I dropped on the second day, the 18th of September, which was my 26th birthday.
What a welcome we got on that day compared to the one before. There were planeloads shot, out of the air, gliders piling up everywhere, on their noses, on top of the trees in the woods, but once again, luck was with me. I got down safely, but I lost all of my kit, which was hanging from a rope around my waist. Imagine that, the rope was shot and I was unscathed. I crawled around, trying to find it; all my 48-hour rations had gone and my rifle. I did find a rifle, but the butt was smashed; every time I fired it, I had to bang the butt back into place. I wasn’t lucky enough to find anything to eat.
We were scattered all around the dropping zone but no-one seemed to know what was happening or where to go. Someone shouted, “OVER HERE!” So we headed for the woods and got formed into groups, then headed for Arnhem and the bridge. It was about 7 miles away and all the way, we didn’t have a shot fired at us. There were plenty of shells and mortars and the unlucky ones copped for them. My group got right to St. Elizabeth Hospital, which was within sight of the bridge. There we ran into our first opposition, rifle fire from the railway banking behind the hospital. We all dove for cover and we only had one casualty, Tommy Armstrong, a pal. A bullet went right through his haversack, which was packed with all sorts of ammo, grenades, mines and bullets. The bullet came out of the bottom and through the drinking mug, which was hanging on the bottom, then it went through his heel, but only through the hard flesh. He was taken to hospital but was soon back in action again.
The firing eased off, so we moved across the hospital grounds to the railway banking and could see no enemy. Where they go to, God knows, there were a few Jerries dead. I don’t know if we got them, or who. We could see right across the railway; there was a road, about 400 yards away and coming down that road was a full company of Jerries. They had their 2 scouts out in front of them. That was my first shot at the enemy. I fired at the first scout and he fell. I couldn’t fire again because I had to bang my rifle butt back on, remember? But I managed to get the other scout as he ran forward to help his mate. I fired and he fell on top of him, so I did do a little bit towards winning, but there was the company of Jerries at the back. I shouted to our officer in charge, but he said, “Hold your fire.” We realised then that he was yellow and didn’t want to give our position away, actually - his position. He could have opened up because we got hunted out as tanks were coming up behind us. A broken rifle was no match against a tank, neither was a good one.
So we were on our way back; we did see the bridge though, plenty didn’t. We retreated about a mile to a farm and dug in, which was easy, as it was sandy. It seemed as if we were going to be OK for a bit. Now on this farm there were some chicks, yes, big Rhode Island Reds. By the way, the farm had been shelled and wrecked; the coal shed was on fire and there was a lovely big smouldering heap of coal. What a lovely fire on which to roast a chicken. I’d been to the house and found a saucepan, a lovely big one. I caught and plucked a chicken. All the vegetables you could want were in the gardens. I got the saucepan onto the fire when someone came and picked me to go on patrol. The Bren gunner, a sergeant and myself were sent out to find out where Jerry might be. We’d gone quite a bit before we made contact at the end of this village green. We were hidden in a hedgerow, when over the top came a tank with a whole company of Jerries. I was in good view, so I asked for the Bren gun. All I could do was get a good burst in, then run, hoping to get as many as possible. I got them in my sights, ready to press and spray. I pressed and nothing happened, and they were getting closer, so I asked the sergeant for his Sten gun (which was only a toy at the best of times). Guess what, that didn’t work either, so I grabbed my own rifle and let go right into the middle of them, so surely, I must have got one of them. They were closer now, so it was run for our lives time. I jumped a wire netting fence; I swear it was 12 feet high. I ran all the way back to, our positions. Jerry had sneaked up on them, so we were off into retreat again. The chicken was still on the fire and I wondered since, did somebody find it before it boiled away.
The reason the guns didn’t work when asked to do so: I mentioned the sand earlier; we were ordered out without having time to dust down our weapons. The Bren gun was covered with sand, the Sten had an earwig right across the firing pin, but my busted rifle worked once again, so that’s another notch on my butt. That’s 3 to my credit now and I’m afraid, that was it.
It was getting dark now, so we kept going back until we came to the area around the church and Kate Horst’s house. I had attached myself to the Bren Gunner as he had lost his mate and my rifle was useless. He was from Dublin too, and belonged to my old regiment. We dug in at the bottom of Kate Horst’s garden. There were some apple trees, so we helped ourselves. The thing is, everyone else around the area did likewise, so they didn’t last long. I had no rations, as I’d said, but my gunner shared what he had with me, so we were soon without. I lost all trace of time, just stuck in the trench. The both of us fired an odd shot in the Jerries’ direction to let them know we were still there. The trouble was that they answered it. There was plenty of mortar fire from them too, we had none of course.
We were once having a mashing (brew) and Dennis, my mate, lit the little gadget we had and I was reaching to the top of the trench for his knapsack, to get the tea mixture, and Dennis said, “OK, I can reach it.” He did, and a lump of shrapnel hit him on his right arm. If I’d reached up, it would have got me in the head or a bit below, so I would have been a head case. He had to go for First Aid which was in Kate’s house, which was packed with the wounded and dying. All around the outside of the house were bodies.
Dennis stayed in that night, so I was on my own. I had to stay with the gun; there was nowhere to go anyway. He got back the next morning with a very bad arm.
All this time, we hadn’t seen an officer anywhere. Where they operated from, I don’t know. A couple of days before the end, we were asked to gather in the church leaving someone to mind the guns, so Dennis got the job and I went to the church to get a low down on the state of things. We did get a bit of warm stew, about a ladle each.
It was Major Lonsdale who addressed us; all he could tell us was what we already knew, that we’d had it. But we did have a slight chance if the Yanks could get through, which they didn’t. We hung on for another couple of days. Finally, the word came through that we were getting out. We were ordered to head to the river as there were boats laid on to get us across. As we were nearest the river, we were the last to be told, so the line to the river reached almost back to our trench. This would be about 10 pm and the line moved about 10 paces every hour, which meant dawn was on us before we got near to the river. By then, there were no boats left; Jerry had seen to that when daylight broke out.
They say 2,000 got out, 2,000 were killed and as many were wounded, so at least 4,000 of us were taken prisoner. We were all spread along the river (The Rhine) not knowing what to do. Some tried to swim, some did, some drowned and some were swept away, as the current was very strong. I tried to swim, but it was too strong for me. Jerry was still firing at us, spraying the river. It was awful to see so many drop dead especially when it was supposed to be all over. They were falling so fast, I couldn’t see myself making it, so I kept picking out objects on the bank, such as a daisy, a stone, a match and saying to myself, “Shall I reach that daisy, that stone, that match?” and I did. Luck was with me again. Jerry rounded us up and marched us into Arnhem, to a yard where they’d got all the rest of the airborne stragglers.
On our way back there, we were marched through a wood and through an avenue of tanks. The crews all sat on them jeering at us whilst smoking our cigarettes and eating our chocolate, making sure we saw them as they flashed Capstan, Woodbines and Cadbury’s. All these and our rations were dropped in their area.
After an hour or so, they lined us up again, no food or anything. They marched us right across Holland (I think) to a railway siding where there was a line of cattle wagons, but they did give us a loaf to share between 8 of us, before they loaded us onto the wagons. There were 48 in ours, the others too. I suppose half of us could sit if the others stood, so we took it in turns. It was a long journey: Cologne, Frankfurt and other places. We eventually arrived at a POW transit camp where all POW’s are checked through and allotted a camp. All particulars are taken, all valuables, money and details of next of kin. The Red Cross reps were there, seeing fair play was in order. All money and valuables were supposed to be returned after the war, but I never heard from anyone who received anything back. We stayed the night there and I got the job, with half a dozen others, to go to the cookhouse and collect our rations, which comprised a container of their soup, which was really milky. There was coloured water with a few potatoes in the bottom and a bit of something green floating on top. As I stood outside the cookhouse waiting, I saw in a patch outside, some Brussels sprout stalks, if you can imagine a Brussels stalk. It is about 3 feet long, no sprouts, just the stalk. I whipped it up and stuck it under my jacket and got away with it. What a feed I got off that stalk. I had helpers of course, and they had no idea what it was, but they enjoyed it, and so did I. I still like my cabbage stalks.
Next morning, we set off again on another part of the journey, to a camp with POW’s, some from the beginning of the war. I ran into some of my Irish Fusiliers mates. They were captured on the Greek Islands, one of the islands we had left in September 43; what a small world.
While we were in this camp, we got a Red Cross parcel between two. My mate was a chap called Kent from London, also a para. He was one of the young ones who joined us when we arrived back in England. I was in charge of the parcel, we shared it out the best we could. The idea of the Red Cross was that we got one of these weekly and this was our first. It turned out to be our last too, but it was great while it lasted. It contained about 50 cigs, tinned meat, biscuits (which were the army hard tack again, so I softened them with milk), dried fruit, jam, sugar and a 7lb bully beef tin, empty of course. I cut it in half and put the mixed batter in one half and used the other half as a lid. There was a fire in the hut; stacks of red hot ashes, so I stuck it in the hot ashes and left it an hour or so, thinking I had wasted all that good stuff. I lifted it out of the ashes and left it to cool. As we still had plenty of the parcel left, we decided to leave the cake or whatever it would turn out to be, until later. As it happened, we were on the move the next day, to another camp. We went part of the way by truck and marched the rest. It was a long march by the way, through snow. It was well into October by now. While we were in the truck, we decided to open the bully tin, expecting the worst. It turned out to be the most gorgeous cake I’ve ever had. The smell was rich and fruity and the taste was out of this world. Everyone in the truck was amazed at the strong rich smell, but that was all they got. The both of us just scoffed it; sorry I didn’t save the recipe.
We eventually arrived at our camp, which turned out to be our last and final one. As far as camps go, it was the usual wooden huts, well wired in a guarded camp area. There were wooden bunks, one up and one down, two blankets each. I was on top, as all the longer prisoners had the bottom bunks. Some of them had been there for four years, but they had been living pretty good, as they had been getting regular Red Cross parcels and some from home, but the Red Cross was a thing of the past now. The excuse was that the trucks couldn’t get through because of the fighting and the bombing. These trucks were called the ‘White Ladies”. We kept hearing rumours that the White Ladies had been sighted, but we never saw them, somebody did, but not prisoners I’ll bet.
We got rigged out with our prison uniforms, comprising old trousers, shirt and heavy overcoat with a big coloured patch on the back to denote we were POW’s. Our camp was Kolumbus, near Bruix, Czechoslovakia. If we were workers, we got the eighth of a loaf, a brown round loaf that weighed about 2lbs (almost 1 Kg). I should say that it was of a very heavy substance; more like concrete that flour or wheat. I’d say that I couldn’t eat it without toasting it, which we did by sticking slices on the outside of the stove in the middle of the hut. We queued up to get a place on the stove. We had some cheese too, which I could never eat; it stank. It looked like a thick candle without a wick. Once a week or so, we would get a piece of German sausage, about an inch, I did like that. Once a day, we got a bowl of stew (shilly). It looked like milky water with bits of veg and potatoes, if you were lucky.
I worked down the coal pit. It was 900 feet down and it took ages to get to the coalface, but that time didn’t count. Our 8-hour shift started when we reached the coalface, so it took 12 hours to do an 8-hour shift.
On the morning shift, we were paraded at 4.30 am, inspected and counted, then marched about 2 miles and we had snow all the time right up to mid March. The cold at that hour of the morning was unexplainable. Our breath froze on our chests, after about half an hour, our coat fronts were white and even our eyelashes froze. We couldn’t blink because it would feel like electric shocks when the eyelashes touched our cheeks. I managed to keep working; we had to otherwise our rations would be cut by half. Often, when we were on our way to or from the pit, our planes would come over and we would have to scatter. During one of these raids, it seems that the men scattered all over the place and a lot of them got to the pit on their own. The Jerries were more frightened than the prisoners, so they rushed as many of us prisoners down the shaft as they could, not for the our benefit, but more for their own. They had no name check on us, only numbers, like twenty down and twenty up. So with all the excitement of the raids, four or five of our lads managed to get back un-noticed to the camp, so when that shift came back up after eight hours, there were four men missing. The shift that was waiting to take their place knew that, so instead of 20 coming up, only 16 did, so four of the 20 going down, joined the 16 who had just come up, to make the number up to 20, for the benefit of the Jerry guard. He was no wiser, 20 in, 20 out, so he was covered. So from that day up to the end, there were 4 men short on every shift as each shift had to be made up. We all got a turn at missing a shift; we called that shift, a Churchill. Believe me, I think it would have been more comfortable to work, because when on a Churchill, we had to hide all day in case the guards tumbled to the scheme. It was for Churchill, for England.
Like all pits, even in this country, we changed our clothes before we went down; we had a shower and changed back into our best (rags) when we got back up. I enjoyed it down the pit. The Russians had all the dangerous jobs, such as at the coalface; they didn’t have to crawl on their stomachs, as in our pits. The seams were so deep, so they blasted upwards until they came to the earth or rock, or whatever came first. That is where the Ruskies worked, sending all the loose coal out to us on the main passageway and into the wagons which we had to hook onto a cable that pulled them to the lift. This cable had to be pulled down to the catch on the wagons; no easy job as the cable was on the move at all times and couldn’t be stopped, except in emergencies. Once, I pulled it down too far (I was strong), and it missed the wagon’s catch, but caught me under the chin. It lifted me up and threw me across the passage, onto the other line which I just missed with my head. I came round after a while. I’d just a few bruises but I had to keep working or starve.
Once, I was tidying up the main passage, picking up the loose coal that had fallen off the wagons. I got caught short and needed a toilet. The first to come along were the shift change hand. They were all Jerries; one of them asked me what I was doing, so I actually asked where the ‘Shisen huizen’ was, but he thought I had called him one instead. What a job I had, miming what I really meant. He finally got my meaning. A similar thing happened one night. I happened to be on a ‘Churchill’, having a game of cards, when one of the other lads rushed in, all excited and shouting, “Get me a plate,” or something. “The Jerry guards have got some fish paste for us, hurry before they move on.” They patrolled round the wire fence, which was close to our hut. He got his plate and rushed out. We were all looking forward to a fish paste sandwich, if we had any bread left. He came rushing back in saying, “Bloody fools, they only asked the time, which in German is, ‘Ish pate’” It does sound like ‘fish paste’, but when you are hungry, everything sounds like something to eat.