Malta, Leros, Lag: the 4th Buffs, Part II
Leros to Lag
It is very easy to write about war in a matter that interests everyone by focusing on battles and their heroic or tragic moments. It is much more difficult to write about the events leading up to it, and even more so to garner interest for whoever was left behind to pick up the pieces. After the Battle of Leros, the Buffs and Lt. Morgan were sent to Athens to start their next chapter as prisoners of war (P.O.W.). Julie Peakman writes of this journey that:
The soldiers were squashed into the hold, and were plunged into darkness as the hatch was closed, each man struggling to find a small space to rest. The stench was horrendous, the unwashed bodies smelling of putrid sweat. The heat climbed, and no air was coming in. Men were urinating in their helmets, and the overpowering smell of ammonia led to retching. They cracked open the hatch and called to the guards to let six of them out at a time for some air, and to empty their helmets.
The officers’ experience was a stark contrast to that of other ranks. Although Lt. Morgan recounts an Italian band entertaining them as well as great food (in comparison to their previous stint on compo rations), he also expresses his concern towards the lower ranks whose conditions in their respective camps were only somewhat known to them at this point. Anthony Rogers’s book includes an anecdote by Lt. Geoffrey Hart in which an Italian Colonel was kicked out of his new bunk to accommodate two British officers: resentment towards the Italians among the Germans was more than palpable at this point.
Before long the Buffs boarded a train that would take them deep into the Reich. En route, the Officers enjoyed an overall jovial experience, while others undertook daring escapes across central Europe. Although the men endured terrible cold (and some even got sick and parted ways to reach a hospital) Lt. Morgan writes of coffee and rationed but hot meals. They were definitely aware of their location as he recounts reaching Salonica, passing through Yugoslavia, arriving at Belgrade and even singing Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube’ while crossing the Danube. In Budapest, they experienced snow which Lt. Morgan writes “was the first since 1939.” Without a doubt, a touching temporal experience for him, perhaps also inducive of nostalgia.
By the 15th of December the men were at Moosburg, South Bavaria, where they would be imprisoned at Stalag VII A, the largest P.O.W. camp at the time. Accommodations were not up to standard for Morgan’s rank as he writes of hope that they will soon move to a proper officer’s camp. The privates and corporals, in significantly more packed and discomforted train trucks, arrived a few days later. The men would spend their Christmas here toasting “the King and Absent Friends”. As Claire Makepeace notes, one must understand that the P.O.W.s really lived two lives: one as prisoners in Germany, and the other as husbands, fathers, and sons desperately trying to keep living a normal life back home, albeit far away from it.
At Stalag VII A, Lt. Morgan was also imprisoned alongside Italian and American officers, and even recounts the ghastly sight of Russian soldiers as “mere skeletons”. The dire state of the Russian prisoners of war are also noted by others from Leros. Reg Neep recounts:
One night a guard dog was released into the Russian compound where it attacked the prisoners, but they retaliated by killing the dog. It was then skinned and eaten raw, the skin and bones being then thrown back over the wire.
The men would spend a few more months at Moosburg before leaving for Oflag VIII F at Mahrisch Trubau, modern day Czech Republic in April. Here too they were welcomed with the ever present ‘Red Cross Pack’ which were also delivered to them en route. The contents sustained their recipient but also allowed Lt. Morgan and others to bribe their German guards with cigarettes and treats, both luxuries the other ranks did not enjoy as fully. Lt. Morgan was also welcomed by his friend ‘Pistol’, who had previously been sent to Lukenwalde for interrogation. Morgan was more than satisfied with the new camp. Interestingly, he notes that an important feature was the daily chirping of a bird. This, according to Julie Peakman, was a reference to the BBC radio whenever they could get signal in hiding from their camp guards. Already, the men had to learn to do things in secrecy to retain their humanity.
Their re-acquired state of high class in a biscuit factory turned Oflag (‘Offizierslager’, ‘officer’s Camp’) was short lived. As the Allies marched closer to the Reich’s borders, they were moved in their entirety to Oflag 79: the largest officers’ camp in Germany. At their new camp in Brunswick, Lt. Morgan makes a stark realisation: “I reckon this move is a bit “off-side” as this new Camp is a Luftwaffe Barracks and too close to a big Aerodrome to be healthy!”.
Despite this, the men settled into their new location and reality. By 1945, as the allied bombing campaign inched closer to their camp, Lt. Morgan writes of ‘bomb happy cases’, and even ‘excitement’ as the Allie’s bombs and gunfire were heard from the distance. Equally content and overwhelmed with anxiety of being a bomb target, the men could only brace themselves for the unknown, as they always did. Being a P.O.W. is a perpetually liminal state. The men were confined behind barbed-wire for being soldiers, for their military skills they could re-employ against Germany should they be released. However, the men felt completely powerless and anything but fearsome line infantry. P.O.W. are stuck between the army and civilian life, both of which were the only identities they knew hitherto but cannot possibly return to until the war ends. This confused state was often a source of renewed frustration. Lt. Morgan seems to address a resolution of such tensions (among unimaginable others) in his first Christmas as a P.O.W.:
Hoped very much that news that I was a P.O.W. would have by this time arrived home, otherwise Xmas would not be a very cheerful one for them. Went to bed at 9.30 feeling very much at peace with the World. It was a White Xmas as we did have a spot of snow.
Ofcourse, a big source of anxiety was the lack of communication with home. The men could communicate with their family (to an extent) and slip back into their ‘ordinary’ civilian lives through text. In such conditions, even something as simple as a letter from home could take up the position of an entire person, a fragment of a loved one, or a relic of someone one holds dear. Lt. Morgan did receive letters from home, directly mentioning his Father. He had already “cabled home” on the 20th of November while still a fresh P.O.W. in Piraeus, near Athens. He also recounts clear instances where life back home was transported into their Oflag. On the 3rd of June, “the men still celebrated “H.M. The King’s Birthday” with a parade.” On Christmas of 1944, they even listened to the “King’s speech”, which they thought was “very good!”. In this speech George VI states: “In our thoughts and prayers are also with our men who are prisoners of war, and with their relatives in their loneliness and anxiety”. The men tried to live in England, in the Oflag. On the other end of Europe, British people back home tried their best to facilitate their efforts, even if through such a simple message.
Tolerating such frustrations for years, it should not be surprising that the eventual transformation from prisoner to civilian was an exceptionally overwhelming experience for many. The first thing Lt. Morgan did was “walk “outside the Wire” with Phyl. It was a beautiful day and I just can’t describe what it felt like to be a free man again.” Soon enough food parcels started coming in. On being liberated on the 12th of April in 1945, Lt. Morgan writes: “Had first “Egg” for over 18 months for supper in the evening.” It is both interesting how something as simple as an egg surfaced so poignantly in his memory as a marker of his new state of being, not to mention that he could recall the last time he had an egg in Egypt or Leros.
Food is a recurrent feature in P.O.W. memoirs, including in Lt. Morgan’s. From being garrisoned in Malta to fighting on Leros, his rations and gastronomic bravados are mentioned, sometimes in great detail. Most notably, during the battle when he eats whatever could be mustered from compo rations into palatable meals. Despite enjoying the privileges of his rank and status Lt. Morgan still endured hunger. Writing of Christmas in 1944, Morgan recounts:
Even though only a ½ Parcel we all had an excellent day with more than enough to eat, our stomachs, it must be remembered, have somewhat contracted since last year!!
In the P.O.W. camps the men were so starved that returning to a normal diet proved painful. Cases of sickness were not uncommon and are mentioned. Ted Jhonson also recounts: ‘“There was a fantastic atmosphere when we were liberated. I went out in search of food, and came back with a loaf of bread and a Luger pistol. I ate the whole loaf in one go. I had one hell of a bellyache.” Just a month earlier, Lt. Morgan records his weight at 8 st 9 oz, or 51 kg. The day they were liberated, food features as a souvenir in and of itself. Morgan records the menu on the day (a common practice across British forces). Indeed, the odd moments where good food was found or concocted became some of the more enduring memories for the P.O.W.s Bob King recounts:
We would become obsessed with anything to do with food. It was not unusual for someone to be unable to sleep at night because he could not get his mind off, say, a bacon sandwich. Lectures started about food. An officer called Acton who was a fellow of the Institute of British Bakers and who had been employed by Cadbury gave us exotic recipes. I returned home with twenty-seven recipes for everything from Rum Babas to Chung Wings. Those who had been in the wine trade took orders for post-war deliveries, South African fruit farmers promised deliveries of tropical fruits. It was a world of fantasy.
Soon after P.O.W. camps became populated, fully fledged camp economies can be observed. Lt. Morgan recounts: “Pistol sold the watch he bought off Freddie in Alex for 1000 Cigs.” This event corroborates Lt. Gordon Horner’s memoirs, stating that “The richest man in the camp was the man with the most cigarettes.” Lt. Morgan even documents the records of his German bank account, but the Oflag had its own system of values. Besides their own ‘currency’, the men developed their own parlance ‘behind the wire’ with phrases such as ‘goon up’ or ‘golden balls’, the precise meaning of which (for some) are yet to be deciphered. However, one can surely see the picture of the Oflag as a community if displaced individuals, forming their own identity, thrust into camaraderie amidst the pressure of surviving imprisonment, whilst living their life back home through thoughts and letters.
The Oflag as ‘place’ in itself, and perhaps an ersatz piece of England, come to fruition in Lt. Morgans account of Camp societies and entertainment venues. The men had no choice but to make the camp their home, even if temporary. Lt. Morgan recounts: “I started reading Economics as well as Book-keeping and attended “Economic Geography “,” Political Theory” and all “Business Lectures”, (the forming of Partnerships, Limited Companies, etc). This was a pretty busy period and the days fairly slipped by.” Morgan also provides us with a list of camp societies, including but not exclusive to the ‘insurance’, ‘theological’, ‘Highland Dancing’, and ‘mountaineering’ society. The variety of skills and professions among the men also allowed for lectures, not to mention running the ‘Rumpot’; a recreation room turned cabaret, organising concerts, and even cinema shows. According to Adrian Gilbert, they participated in such activities and organisations to get out of their claustrophobic bed spaces and participate in a sort of social life they created for themselves. Of Course, the other ranks were kept busy through labour. They were sent to repair roads, work in oil refineries, mine shafts, and farms. Some, like Fusilier MacTaggart, were even sent to Leipzig to clear debris caused by the allied bombing efforts.
As Lt. Morgan himself puts it, “”What about getting Home”? One must remember that the men had been deployed overseas since November of 1940; almost a full 5 years away from England. One can only imagine the concerns Lt. Morgan had as his imagination of getting home slowly became reality. Meanwhile, in England, Civil Resettlement Units (CRUs) were organised. According to Clare Makepeace, “this programme was one of the first controlled experiments in social psychology, an early example of ‘therapeutic communities’”. It was understood, even from lessons in the First World War, that P.O.W.s would return as a mass of ‘awkward men’, who needed some form of buffer or even ‘half-way house’ between imprisonment and their return to normal life. It would appear that some of the men from Leros participated in such a programme, Ted Johnson of the Irish Fusiliers was sent to a “European POW resettlement course in Dunbar”. Depression, guilt, anxiety, and a disjointed sense of temporality are just some of the symptoms the programme assisted the P.O.W.s to overcome. Ofcourse, P.O.W.s did not all exhibit the same symptoms, but rather each had his own selection. There is even an attempt to medicalize the P.O.W.s state with the title “stalag mentality”. Makepiece refines the British’ understanding of their returning prisoners; she points at a 1942 article by Major Philip Newman, stating that the traumatic events the P.O.W.s endured would slowly re-emerge, as if repressed emotions needing release:
He wrote of ‘release phenomena’, which he characterised as the psychological equivalent of ‘the bends’ or ‘decompression sickness’. Just as the deep-sea diver’s body exhibits a variety of symptoms if insufficient time is taken to release it from high underwater pressure, so an ex-POW, having gone through the intensity of captive life, would exhibit symptoms of restlessness, irritability and even dishonesty after returning home.
I would argue that to understand the thoughts brewing in Lt. Morgan’s mind about his return home can be seen most vividly in the ‘Daily Mirror’ snippet titled ‘When he comes home he’ll be shy’ which he added to his very own memoirs. Given this explicit selection, one can venture to assume the resonance Lt. Morgan felt with the author’s words. Besides warning of their heightened cynicality, pensiveness, moodiness, and rude language, the piece explains that they, the soldiers held prisoners of war, expect to find their home and country greatly changed, and they might feel alienated until they readjust. Attempting to generally but cautiously speak on behalf of all P.O.W.s, the author states that:
We shall want to go to Dances, Parties etc. but in a great many cases you will find that we shall not be able to stand them for long. And, of course, we shall not be able to hold our drink as well as before our captivity. This will adjust itself in a short time. One thing we would love on our return is a good strong Whiskey! In many cases we shall be rather shy of the opposite sex, not having been in contact with it for so long. This will soon right itself, but at first we may appear awkward, through trying to remember our manners. We shall have the habit of giving our opinions, & arguing on any subject under the sun whether we know anything about the subject or not. Another habit that will be hard to break will be cadging lights from cigarettes & not using matches. Some will have the habit of collecting old junk, saying it will come in handy sometime.
As we get better we will pass through a very irritating stage. You must forgive us our faults in this stage & try to help us through it as much as you can. Now as for our wishes, & these are important, do not try to do too much for us or fuss over us too much, such as to arrange too many amusements or too elaborate a welcome home. Most of us want to be able to slip home quietly without a great deal of fuss. A great many of us I know would rather their families did not meet them at the Station or off the boat, but wait at home. If we do not want to do a thing, do not try to press us to do it. Again, a large number of us, after being home for a fortnight or so, will want to go away by ourselves right away from everyone. Do not try to stop us & keep us at home. It will do us a great deal of good to go on this sort of holiday. Very few will have anything mentally wrong. I am quite sure that after a few months we will adjust ourselves, but those first months may be a trial to our families.
All we ask is that they will understand the confusion of our minds & outlook, and will bear with us with patience until we function normally again.
Lieut. Morgan’s account weaves together a fascinating yet tragic story. However, one should also state what is missing in his account that can often be found in other memoirs, such as quarrels between P.O.W.s, the political life of camps, escape attempts, as well as the pervading sense of loneliness. There are several publications on Leros as well as life for those captured with which one can compare and add context to both Leros and P.O.W. life. However, a closer look at accounts of the likes of Lt. Morgan’s, spanning from Malta to Brunswick, provide a seamless story that may reflect thousands of others. One can understand the 4th Buffs’ context before Leros, as well as the many years spent behind barbed-wire after the crucial event that was the Battle of Leros. Malta, Leros, Stalag VII-A, Oflag VIII-F, and Oflag 79 were all unique spaces that produced such memoirs, and invariably the people that wrote them.