Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, All Veterans.
I was shot down, south of Musus, Libya, on the 23rd January 1942 at approximately 9.30 a.m. in a Bristol Bombay. I can assure you this aircraft was travelling. It’s a big aircraft, ninety-four foot wing span and sixty-six feet long. But when a shell of that magnitude hits it, believe me it just knocks out everything.
Prior to the shell, we were struck with machine guns and point five Bofors guns. The plane was on fire as we came down through a cloud bank 1,000 feet above the ground – just like a shooting star. By the time we had dropped about 800 or 600 feet the plane was alight and the shell landed to the immediate right of me, behind the first pilot and to the left of the second pilot. This shell was built by the German armament company, Krupp.
The burst of the shrapnel caused havoc in the forward compartment plus also some parts of that shrapnel entered into the back area of the plane and into a pilot, the replacement pilot that we were flying with. In fact, it took an arm off. My friend the navigator, Tony Carter, was killed instantly. The first pilot was injured in the right leg badly and had it amputated later that day.
I myself was partially protected by the transformer and receiver, being the wireless operator. And I was only lacerated on the right leg, the abdomen and the right shoulder. But unfortunately, I was badly burned on getting out of the aircraft.
I didn’t realise how badly hurt I was until the second pilot asked me would I assist him in getting the first pilot out through the escape hatch in the forward cabin. Well he dropped on me. I then realised that I was ill. I was haemorrhaging, and I just completely passed out.
Being wounded and in the hands of the enemy you would expect that there would be very little notice taken of me by the enemy, but I was carefully rolled onto a stretcher and placed onto the back of a truck together with the other wounded.
We were transported for two and half hours to a little place called Antelat, right in the south of the Gulf of Sirte, where there was a fifth field hospital of the German Panzer Division, the 15th Panzer Division – the tank division.
In the selection of the wounded which were possibly twenty-five or thirty, they went not by nationality or whether they were enemy or their own people, but on the difficulty of the wound that they had to operate on. I was number three.
The first two were German pilots who had been shot down by Hurricanes, and they had abdominal wounds the same as myself. Unfortunately for them they died on the operating table.
The German doctor operated on me and saved me. I had fourteen stitches in my abdomen. There was no such thing as x-rays or waiting for later surgery. They just do it and get it over with. And he cared for me for the next six or seven days in that field hospital, daily coming in to dress that wound. He was a young man, in about I’d say his late thirties.
He was actually a German doctor who went to England after the First World War on the advice of is father to get proper instruction in operating. He was an abdominal surgeon in Harley Street. He used to go regularly back to Germany to do consultations on the Nazi big wigs. In August ’39 they wouldn’t let him out. And he said to me “Jack, they don’t’ trust me. I’m only second in charge, I’ll never be in charge”.
But we became, not friends, but very, very close and on the eighth, no the seventh day he came and said “We don’t take wounded back to Germany. Only the fit. We’ll be passing you over to the Italians”.
He wrapped my abdomen in a bandage, a wide bandage and inserted two overriding stitches to hold the wound together. “Cos”, he said, “you’ll be going by truck, on the back of a truck four hundred miles to Tripoli”. It took us four days and he gave me eight ampules of morphine. The morning we left, he injected an ampule into me and said “Jack, at night time inject yourself and in the morning inject yourself”. He forgot to tell me to do it before we got off the truck or onto the truck.
The first night we arrived at this little field station and I was rolled off the stretcher onto another stretcher in this little field hospital. I can assure you it hurt. And unbeknown to me of course – I was partially unconscious and drugging myself from then on. It took us four days.
There was only one road from Antelat to Tripoli and of course that was filled with military traffic. So, we used to run off into the desert. Unbeknownst to me, and during that trip, I must have suffered badly. I don’t know, because I was unconscious most of the time.
When we arrived at Tripoli, I was taken to a field hospital – it was a POW hospital – and put in a private room. I was too sick and too silly to understand what that meant. An Italian nurse came and looked after me and she said – she spoke perfect English – “I’m here. I’ll have to undress you and attend to your wound”. Well not only wounds, I had shrapnel in my leg. She said “We won’t worry about that. It will probably work itself out”.
Every stitch broke on that journey. Fourteen on the abdomen, plus the two over-riding stitches. So you can imagine I’d bled out. This had dried in the sun and was caked hard on my abdomen. She said “I’ll have to give you a drug”, and I had one ampule left and she shot me into the leg. I don’t remember it, but I do remember looking up one time and she was just lifting her head up like that and I could see tears coming down her eyes. I didn’t know how bad the wound was. I never saw it. But I can assure you that it was very severe. I was five months in Italian hospitals.
And I must tell you what I feel.
The word is compassion.
That German doctor could have quite easily snuffed me out. Hard to say it, but he saved my life and he had two German pilots die before me. The compassion he showed made me realise that he was an ordinary individual, exactly the same as you people here. He didn’t want to go to the war but necessity forced him, the same as we didn’t have to go to war either but we volunteered to go, to protect the Empire. He was so kind to me. For years I’ve been trying to trace that German doctor without success. I would like at least to speak to his family.
An Italian nurse spent every day for four more days when I was there, nursing and feeding me only. She bought a bowl of food and said “The intravenous injections are now stopping. You have to eat, otherwise you’ll die”. She bought in a bowl of pasta. I used to enjoy pasta at an Italian restaurant in Brisbane before the War. I tried to eat it but I couldn’t. I brought it up. She went out into the garden and there was a quince tree. She picked one or two quinces, I’m not sure. But she boiled those up for me and laced them with sugar and said you have to eat. And I ate it.
That girl – she was older than I was, much older, she was in her fifties I would imagine – showed me compassion that she didn’t have to show. But she did. It made me realise that they’re just nice people. Just like any of us.
Then I was shipped to Italy, to a place called Caserta, which is a suburb of Naples, on a vessel that used to come to Australia, the Aquila. It was then a hospital ship. The matron in charge was Countess Ciano, Mussolini’s daughter. We were in the bowels of the ship with all the prisoners and I couldn’t walk. I had to be virtually carried if I wished to go to the toilet. She individually came around and spoke to all of those prisoners in that horrible area, the bilge area. She spoke to every one of the prisoners. She didn’t have to do that either but she did it. So, I must say that I didn’t realise until probably seven or eight years later just how marvellous it was. How well I was treated by them. The compassion I was shown – by the enemy.
Billy Rudd was taken at Alamein and came into the prison camp in P.G. 57 in Grupignano, near Udine on the Trieste border. We never knew each other in that camp, but he was the same age. We met after the war and we’ve become very, very good friends.
In the prison camp when I was shuttled off to Germany, in September 1943, the train was cattle trucks with fifty to sixty prisoners of war in each truck. There was only one window letting air in. The sick and the wounded stood beneath it so they could get fresh air. We took it in turns to walk ‘round the ropeway inside, on the inside of the actual truck to get a breath of fresh air, because it did become rather fetid when we were stationary. It wasn’t so bad when we were moving because the wind came through the cracks in the floor.
Now our prison camp Stalag IVB in a little place called Mühlberg, south of Berlin, east of Leipzig and north of Dresden. There were thirty-three different nationalities. At times there were thirty-five thousand prisoners in that camp. At times, down to twenty-two thousand. There were approximately eight thousand British prisoners of war. Two thousand Air Force in our compound, of whom there was only one hundred and fifty-five Australians. Norm Ginn and I are the last survivors.
Please consider that the ordinary people in Germany were hungry also. Just as we were hungry. For instance, this meal that you’re going to eat or finish today, contained more calorie value than the Japanese prisoners of war were given in a week.
I’d like you to think about that.
How we’ve lasted so long I don’t’ know. There’s fifty-three Japanese boys still alive in Australia and fifty European. There’s forty odd in our membership in our ex POW Association in Melbourne. Lovely to have Billy here today.
We had to get on because of the lack of food. Everybody was hungry. The rations that we got in Germany were slightly larger than the Japanese POWs, but unfortunately the potatoes were four years old. Spud farmers would recognise it. If you bury potatoes for four years, they’re not much good when they’re dug up. These were shipped to the prisoners. We’d see truck-loads of these potatoes come into the camp. They’d hose them, boil them, and most of them, about 80 percent of them, would be black. More likely, 90 percent of them. But we ate the little bits of white on them that was left, and threw the rest away.
Our daily soup ration was millet or sugar beet or pickled vegetables, which was three hundred mils a day. I did not know of any case at all when those thirty-three nationalities in prison, did not get on with each other. Some certainly played football. They had football teams, the round ball style. But they took their venom out on the football field. There was no sort of international fighting amongst them, each nationality. It was surprising, but it taught me the lesson of tolerance. Be tolerant. It’s amazing what it does.
I only know one case of an Australian prisoner of war stealing in the three years, three months in which I was held captive. He was punished, and sent to Coventry for a month by Australian fellow prisoners. I don’t know of any other cases that occurred. But respect that was shown to us in that camp, all one hundred and fifty-five of us. We had responsible positions throughout.
During this time, of course I couldn’t lift anything because of the ruptures in my abdomen. I had a lump of protruding flesh and weeping wound about the size of a chicken egg. Roughly a small egg, which, when I came back to Australia had to be removed and I had to be resewn. They fixed the five ruptures plus two hernias which I had developed also whilst I was there.
Now the respect that we showed each other and the respect that was shown to us by our fellow prisoners was fantastic.
When you look at the world today and you can think of compassion and tolerance and respect. We’ve dropped a long way mate in the Articles of War, and of living in this world. I only wish that those three words would become part and parcel of our beliefs today.
I don’t know whether you are aware, buty I’m wearing a tie today which was presented to me by the Rats of Tobruk two months ago. The Rats of Tobruk were a funny mob. They were taken prisoner, no sorry, they were surrounded about a week ago from today. That’s seventy-nine years ago. There’s still some five active members in the Rats of Tobruk Club down in South Melbourne. I thank them very much for giving me this tie. It’s very special.
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Delivered without notes and greeted with a sustained standing ovation