The 8th of May is celebrated as “VE Day”, or more correctly, “Victory in Europe” day. It marks the cessation of hostilities in Europe, and a change of focus to the war in the Pacific. Germany had surrendered, and it was time to count the cost and bring the soldiers home. This year marked the 70th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in Europe.
Along with the 1st South African Brigade Signal company he embarked for Egypt from Durban on 09/10/1941, disembarking from the Mauretania in Suez on the 21st of that month. Barely 2 months later he was captured at Sidi Rezegh , being reported missing on 05/12/1941. He was confirmed as a POW on 15/02/1942. He was not alone, alongside him were a lot of other South Africans who were soon headed to POW cages.
It is difficult to know what he went through, he did not speak about it too much, and I did not know what were the right questions to ask. All information I really have is what I have been able to glean from his service record with the UDF, and even that information is sparse.
I do know that he was confirmed as being held at “Camp 52” on 01/02/1942, and he was presented with a pocket bible at this camp on 16/07/1942. Campo 52 was situated in Chiavari, a small town in the Province of Genoa, Italy and is situated near the Entella River. I had believed that he may have been amongst the POW’s who were on board the “SS Nino Bixio” that was torpedoed by the British Submarine HMS Turbulent, on 16 August 1942. However, by then he was already in Italy so it is very unlikely that he was on board that ill fated ship.
I know nothing of what happened to him between when he was given that small bible, and the rest of the war. At some point the POW’s were handed over the to Germans by the Italians, and I know he preferred the Italians to the Germans. He may have been involved in some of the forced marches of POW’s, but cannot confirm it, and he is is not here to tell the tale. There is a good read about the POW’s at http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Pris-_N78986.html although it does deal mainly with New Zealanders.
You can bet the time behind the wire was fraught with danger and fear, as well as inactivity, inadequate rations and over zealous guards. It is difficult to know what effect that time had on him. I have read all manner of theories over the years about soldiers who have ended up in captivity, but none have really described the father I once new. The only saving grace is that he was not a prisoner of the Japanese.
When the war ended on 8 May 1945, I am sure that all of those behind the wire were overjoyed because now they were the ones who were able to lord it over the guards that had been lording it over them. And of course there was the chance to go home. The record cards report my father as being repatriated to the UK on 31/05/1945. How he got there I do not know, and neither do I know where he was housed in the UK between then and when he boarded the ship back to the Union of South Africa on 26/08/1945. I do not even know which ship he sailed on either, but he arrived in Cape Town on 11 September 1945 and was then sent to Pietermaritzburg.
From there he seemed to have been on leave, until he was due to report back on 13/11/1945. Whether that was at Pietermaritzburg or Johannesburg I cannot say, however, the record confirms him as being at the dispersal depot at Hector Norris Park in Johannesburg on 20 November 1945, and he was finally discharged on the 28th of that month with the rank of Lance Corporal.
The Second World War had ended with VJ Day on 2 September 1945.
It is difficult to know what went through his mind as he sat with all those other soldiers for those 3,5 long years in captivity. My father was a reader and I hope that there was a lot to read during that time. I also do not know how much the whole experience affected him either, and how it affected his marriage to my mother. I have no answers to any of these questions, and to be frank I have never considered VE day in quite the same way before. The one thing I am sure of that VE day was an important one for him and all those held in captivity by the Germans, I do not know where he was held in Germany, so do not know how the bombing or advancing armies on either side affected them, but, you can bet that 70 years ago, somewhere in Germany, a group of South Africans was celebrating, and 70 years down the line we are looking back on this day and remembering those who did not come back. My father was one of the former, and fortunately not one of the latter.
© DRW. 70th Anniversary of VE Day 2015-2018. Images migrated 30/04/2016