A P.O.W.'s journey

Contents

Hamish Neale was born in Grove Street, Nelson, in 1914, the middle child of a family of seven. His father owned Neale and Haddow, Grain and Seed Merchants of Nelson (1868-19861). The family moved to Stoke to live in Whareama in Neale Avenue - which had been built for an English couple and was equipped with servants' quarters, not children's bedrooms.

Hamish attended Nelson College. After qualifying from Otago Medical School in 1937, he worked as a house surgeon at Wellington Hospital, where he met his wife to be, Gwynneth Laver, a nurse, who he was not to see for six long years. They re-met in 1945 and enjoyed 60 happy years of marriage together.

A P.O.W's Train Journey  
Victory in Europe V.E. Day parade in Trafalgar Street, Nelson in 1945 to celebrate the end of the war in Europe.  The Nelson Provincial Museum, Kingsford Collection,  160560
Click image to enlarge

When World War 2 was imminent in 1939, Dr Hamish Neale joined the Territorials and transferred to Burnham Army Camp. After the outbreak of war, he volunteered for the Special Forces and shipped to Egypt with the 4th Field Ambulance, a unit in the 1st Echelon and worked at the Second Tenth General Hospital in Cairo.

He continues:

In 1941, when Greece was threatened by Mussolini's Army and the Nazis, the 2nd NZ Division was deployed south of Salonika in the north of Greece. The Division retreated after the German onslaught and the collapse of the Greek Army - it was a fighting retreat down to Attica where many of us were taken prisoner, and those who were not were evacuated to Crete.

Along with British Prisoners of War, we were held for a couple of months in the neighbourhood of Athens. Then shifted in cattle trucks- 1000 to each train load- to Germany and Poland.

An hour or so north of Athens, the train stopped and we were all ordered out. We were ordered to march past some tar-drums into which we must put any objects which could be used as weapons. There were wild and barbarous threats such as: "Anyone found with such an item in his possession will be hanged from these trees here."

Later the train stopped because bridges and tunnels had been blown up as we retreated in the earlier battles. So now we marched for a day over the Brailos Pass and down again to the plains about Lamia in Thessaly. Then we were loaded onto another train, eventually arriving in Salonika where we were unloaded and marched to a Greek Army Camp where we were kept for a few weeks.

There was one meal a day which consisted of a good thick barley soup with here and there a strand of meat. The meal was served by the Serbs who had been taken prisoner before us and had been the camp cooks ever since.

Mules and donkeys were used extensively for transport by the Greeks and Yugoslavs and we believed that the cooks supplied with one of these deceased animals would gut and skin it, cut off its legs and throw the rest into the big soup cauldron. Fossy was an English surgeon, and a very good one too, but when not at work he had a tendency to drift off into metaphysical spheres where he became inaccessible to my more pedestrian mind! So we were sitting there in silence when Fossy began shoveling around a large bit of meat in his soup- lucky devil I thought - as it kept slipping off his spoon. Finally we both peered into his tin, and there we met the reproachful gaze of a mule's eye! I didn't wait to see, but I suspect Fossy ate it, as the eye was good protein.

One day we were told we would be moving by train the next day. That night about 11pm we awoke to the sound of machine guns firing into the parade ground from the watch-tower at each corner of the camp. Someone had found a culvert which passed surface water under the perimeter barbed wire. A bunch of P.O.W.s were lining up to follow the leader and escape by crawling through the drain - they had been spotted and the machine guns opened fire.

Next morning as we lined up to march to the train, we had to step over some corpses - the product of the previous night's shooting. One thousand of us were loaded into cattle-trucks - 25 I think it was to each closed truck. We could all sit on the floor together at the same time, but we could not all lie down at the same time and, of course, there was no bedding.

We were off to somewhere- we knew not where. As we boarded the train, we were each given what we took to be the day's rations: two small tins, each containing four olives wrapped in a fig leaf and immersed in some kind of preservative fluid, plus a round stone-hard biscuit about four inches across. We promptly ate the lot - not realising it was our food for the entire journey. It took us five days to get from Salonika to South Berlin.

We were a mixed bunch in my truck: two officers of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, two Cambridge Dons who were captured in Crete long after the fighting was over (they were gun-running for the Cretan resistance and probably had the job because of their knowledge of Greek). The rest were a mixture of Aussies and New Zealanders.

We traveled through the night into Macedonia. At about 10am the train stopped and we were ordered out. We were in a large shallow basin- just pasture and domestic animals. In front of us there were three machine guns with their crews lying in position, about a dozen infantrymen with their rifles at the ready and a small group of officers on a knoll behind the infantrymen.

We were herded outside towards the center of the train. I have spoken to a number of former P.O.W.s who were there and all agree that they too thought the scene was set for our massacre. But finally a large German officer with a curiously high-pitched voice, who we were convinced was going to give the order to fire, shouted as loudly as he could: "Englishmen, all shit". When the men recovered from their surprise, they did their best to comply.

At Belgrade, I was ordered out of the truck again to conduct a sick parade on the platform with all the civilians passing by. There was a little man in a long, white coat and wearing a felt hat, a member of the local Red Cross and a senior German N.C.O. keeping watch. Hardly your normal consulting room! With much nodding and pointing, the three of us agreed that two patients needed to be taken to hospital- one with a large appendix abcess and one with pneumonia.

Back into the train and heading north- in Austria now and I was getting terribly hungry- we'd had no food for some days. Northwards through the night -banging and jolting. Now where were we? Wiener Neustadt, a satellite town of Vienna. I had wanted to see Vienna - well old boy, you don't know it, but you will have to wait another 40 years before you see Vienna as this is not a tour train and the train turns north just before Vienna. The next stop was Salzburg reached just after dawn. I looked up and saw the castle on the hill and wondered idly what music Mozart would be composing now, were he still here.

On north, and into Germany where we stopped at a station- Luckenwalde. The sliding door rolled open and a guard shouted "ARZT" (doctor)- that's me. I got out, the door rolled shut behind me and I seemed to be standing alone on the platform with one guard. There were about 300 Cypriots at the other end of the platform and I was taken to join them. The train moved eastwards, taking the last New Zealanders I was to see for four years! From here on I was sent anywhere the Germans wanted to send an M.O. (Medical Officer)- to any place, to camps of any nationality, and I had absolutely no say in the matter.

The Cypriots and I were marched away to a French P.O.W. camp and in succeeding weeks I received and sorted out trainloads of P.O.W.s from Greece- in effect it was a huge transit camp with the sick and wounded sent to the large camp hospital and others moving onto final camps, mainly in Poland.

When I eventually returned to New Zealand in August 1945, there was no-one with whom I shared the P.O.W. years to talk about life in Nazi Germany, so I largely gave up thinking about it. But now that I am old and partly because children and grandchildren have started asking questions, I think a bit more about it.

An anecdote from Margate

At the end of the war when P.O.W.s were being flown back to the U.K. and New Zealanders were accommodated in Margate, fresh batches would arrive daily in the Mess and there would be shouts of recognition and hand shakes between chaps who had got separated in various battles in North Africa, Greece and Crete.

One day I was having a beer at the bar with a Regular Officer of the Royal Marines based at Chatham, when a young second Lieutenant arrived in the Mess, looked around and suddenly strode across the room with hand outstretched, calling out: "Charley, you Old Bastard!" The Royal Marine officer was horrified and said to me: "Did you see that? That impertinent brat called that Captain an old bastard."

I gave my R.M. friend a short lecture on the difference in language of New Zealanders and others of the Commonwealth including the information that the implications of the words ‘old bastard' depended on, by whom it was said, to whom, in what tone and the circumstances involved.

Then the R.M. officer tugged at my sleeve and asked :" Did you see those medal ribbons that the Captain has on his uniform? Do you know what they mean?" He, of course, knew very well what they meant.

I replied: "The one on the left is the African Star, awarded to those who have taken part in battles in North Africa, Greece and Crete. You will see that everyone here has that ribbon- I even have one."

"What about the other one?" asked the almost speechless R.M. officer.

"Well," I replied,"You will not see a lot of those ribbons around here. It is the ribbon of the Double Victoria Cross."

"Charley, you Old Bastard" was of course Charles Upham, Double V.C.!

Note
Dr. Neale died in 2009. Read his obituary.

2009 

Sources used in this story

  1. Business vitality : celebrating 150 years of the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce (2008) Nelson, N.Z. : Dry Crust Communications, p.32
    http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/223467840

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