by Robert Waddy
On Sept. 1, 1939–at the age of 18–I went to a party at a pharmacist’s home in North Vancouver. The pharmacist was a good friend who had given me the opportunity to train as a boxer above his drugstore. While at the party I heard that the Germans had invaded Poland, an event that elicited ultimatums from both Britain and France.
Two days later–on Sept. 3–Britain and France declared war on Germany and my immediate reaction was to head to the Bessborough Armouries where I enrolled in the 83rd Battery, part of the 15th Coast Brigade. My motivation stemmed from the fact that my father had been an officer in the Royal Flying Corps and several of my friends were serving with the artillery on the West Coast.
After a two-month stint at the armouries I was sent to Yorke Island in the Johnstone Straight, approximately 200 miles north of Vancouver. I trained on 4.7-inch-calibre guns and was soon transferred to Ferguson Point in Stanley Park while still part of the 15th Bde. I was a lance-sergeant but had to revert to the rank of gunner to go overseas with the 16th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. Our unit was shipped to Windsor, Ont., where we were stationed at St. Lukes Barracks. From there we went overseas via Halifax on the troopship Battory.
I attended gunnery school in Colchester, England, and was eventually deployed in Saint Agnes on the Cornwall coast. By August 1941 our unit was redeployed on mobile ack-ack guns along the south coast of England.
While stationed at Gatwick airport I met and fell in love with Audrey Beasley. She was the daughter of the dairy farmer whose land our unit was camped on.
I continued to box and fought several matches under the Marquis of Queensberry Rules, and soon our unit’s main job was to man the gun towers used to fire on the German planes involved in hit-and-run raids. The planes would fly in over the English Channel, drop their bombs or strafe ground targets at random, then try to make good their escape. Our job was to try and knock them out of the sky.
In February 1942, while stationed at Selsey-Bill, a call went out for volunteers for commando training. I accepted and was sent to the Isle of Wight for indoctrination. In all, 26 members of the 16th LAA went on to become members of the Combined Operations Organization.
After my training I went on leave and visited Audrey and her family. I returned to barracks on the evening of Aug. 17, 1942, and got into a poker game that lasted most of the night. Early next morning our sergeant told us that all leave had been cancelled and that our unit was being deployed. The 26 of us ate breakfast and then left for Portsmouth. After boarding the mother ship Edna we were told a raid was on and issued hand grenades, Tommy guns and rifles. However, we didn’t know exactly where we were heading until much later.
During the wee hours of the morning we were lowered from Edna into assault landing craft. There were roughly 80 men in our craft, including the 26 in our unit and approximately 50 members of the Royal Regiment of Canada. We hit the beach at dawn–at around 5:30 a.m. It was broad daylight and our craft was the first to land.
The beach there was extremely narrow and was commanded by high cliffs. We had a terrible time because we advanced directly into an ambush. The Germans were waiting for us on the cliffs and one officer from the 16th LAA had his head blown off before he stepped off the assault craft. The enemy machine-gun fire was incessant and men were falling everywhere and the dead and wounded lay around my feet. I remember running through the confusion with my Tommy gun firing from my hip.
Not very many men made it over the heavily wired sea wall at the head of the beach. The rest of the troops together with reinforcements from the Black Watch were pinned down by mortar and machine-gun fire.
Our unit’s job was to climb the cliffs and take out the ack-ack guns, but this proved to be an impossible task. The German guns could fire 140 rounds per minute, something that played havoc with the Royal Air Force. Only a handful of men managed to climb the cliffs, only to surrender later. Of the gunners in my party exactly half were killed on the beach. Before climbing the cliff, I spent some very anxious moments under enemy fire while trying to help push a landing craft off the beach.
Ordered by an officer to climb the cliff, I lost track of a comrade who had been shot in the foot. Slowly, I began my journey to the top of the cliff. When I was roughly 100 feet above the beach I found a cave and took cover. While sticking my head out I spotted an officer about 15 feet away. He motioned me over to his position and then ordered me to get a rope. However, there were no ropes and not wanting to argue with him, I stayed in the cave for about half an hour by which time the officer had left.
Eventually I made my way to a copse over the top of the cliff where I met up with the lieutenant whose foot had been badly damaged on the beach.
Although strafed by our own aircraft, we stayed in the copse until six that evening. Our position gave us a panoramic view, especially of the dogfights overhead. Sometime later a German officer on a loud speaker threatened to annihilate any of the raiding troops who did not surrender.
Soon after a captain from the Royals and myself made our way over to the German position. We only had to go about 600 feet to where about 50 of the enemy were waiting. The Canadians had been severely beaten, but those of us who survived had no choice but to roll with the punches.
Taken prisoner we were marched to a convent, arriving around 7:30 p.m. We remained there for about two hours while intermittent strafing runs continued. At about 10 p.m. the Germans took us out and marched us down to the marshalling yard where we were accompanied by SS troops. We were loaded onto boxcars–about 50 to a car–and told that if anyone tried to escape the wounded would be shot.
Four hours later we were hustled out of the boxcars and marched to a cement factory where we were given our first drink. After that a German officer–perhaps a brigadier–lined us up and threatened to shoot every fifth prisoner because he said some German soldiers had been found tied up and shot on the beach.
Fortunately, the threat was not carried out and we were sent to Avenue Huele and told that the French had built the facility to hold German prisoners of war. The irony was not lost on us and we remained there for about a week.
During that time I volunteered to work in the cookhouse where I noticed that the German bread came in kilos. A loaf of black bread sometimes weighed three kilograms. Being young and somewhat reckless, I suggested to our guard that the Germans should have used the bread to bomb London. However, the guard did not laugh at this. Instead, I was beaten for my attempt at humour.
After seven days we were once again loaded onto boxcars–about 40 to a car. Many of my comrades were frightfully wounded. One sergeant-major had an eye that kept falling out of its socket. The PoWs were given a loaf of bread and a can of meat, but the meat looked a lot like dog food. We were shipped by rail through France, Belgium and the Netherlands and along the way the civilians who saw us were told we represented Churchill’s Second Front. Our captors had no sense of decency and they forced us to relieve ourselves in front of these people.
The trip to Stalag 8B in Lamsdorf, Germany, took 12 miserable days, and many of us threw up while others got severe diarrhea. At the station of our destination we saw Russian prisoners and learned they had been subsisting on very meagre German rations. These men were nothing but skin and bones and their eyes were black and sunken. At Lamsdorf we joined about 25,000 other prisoners of war who had been captured at Dunkirk, Greece, Crete and North Africa. The barracks there were made of concrete. It was a very grim place and we slept on very crowded bunks. Each of us had only one blanket to keep out the cold.
There were roughly 200 men to a barrack block and the crowded living conditions made life miserable to say the least. We were allowed only one cup of water a day. The PoWs came from all walks of life and varied occupations, but everyone seemed to have one thing in common: The need to find ways to make confinement a little more bearable. During the first few weeks at Lamsdorf we did get some Red Cross parcels.
On Oct. 8, 1942, the Germans ordered us out of the barracks and lined us up to proclaim once again that German soldiers had been tied up and shot at Dieppe. The Germans were terrified of commando raids and wanted them stopped and supposedly they had demanded that the Allies cease and desist or they would shackle Canadian PoWs. Churchill refused to comply so the Germans tied us up with the string from our Red Cross parcels. Some of the German soldiers back from the Eastern Front refused to carry out the order and just left the prisoners on parade until the Volkstrum came into camp and tied us up. Going to the latrine while tied up was a problem and we were humiliated by the fact that the guards who marched us to the 60-hole outhouse also had to pull our pants down and watch us conduct our business.
We were tied up for 96 hours at a time and then ordered out of barracks at four a.m. One morning we were told that the Fuehrer is a most kind man and that
in future we would only be tied up 18 hours a day, not 24. This announcement brought cheering from the PoWs.
Meanwhile, rations were so meagre that some of the prisoners were starving. Only three members of my anti-aircraft battery were prisoners in Lamsdorf, four others had been placed in a Luftwaffe camp. Throughout our stay the Germans constantly threatened to shoot us for the Dieppe Raid.
On Dec. 19 I was among several prisoners who boarded a passenger train for Dulag-Luft. While there my captors thought I was a flight lieutenant who had been flying Wellington bombers, and so over a period of 10 days I was interrogated by German officers. They wasted a lot of time doing this, but I felt it best not to correct them since “the master race had no sense of humour.”
On Jan. 10, 1943 I was moved to Stalag Luft I near Barth in the Westphalia region of Germany. This was one of the best camps I would be imprisoned in during the war. We lived six to a room, had flush toilets and running water and got Red Cross parcels regularly. During my incarceration I acted in several stage plays, played soccer and rugby and opened a boxing club where I fought three bouts before being moved to another camp.
In late October 1943 we were headed to Stalag Luft 6 in East Prussia. We travelled in boxcars, about 50 to a car, and we used a large garbage can as a urinal. In addition to the guard in the caboose who had a machine-gun, the Germans placed a guard in each boxcar. But in spite of such precautions some of the air force people were ready and willing to escape. They had brought hacksaws, maps and compasses and an air gunner friend managed to use a hacksaw to cut away the wire covering the boxcar’s window. Word spread and I was scheduled as No. 3 to go out the window. However, a warrant officer second class–scheduled as No. 7–, pulled rank and took my place. This man was never seen again by us, and we suspect he died under the wheels of the train.
The rest of us escaped and were on the loose for eight days. Three of us stayed together; sleeping during the day and travelling at night. Food was scarce, but we ate concentrated chocolates and other rations for energy. On the eighth day we were spotted by a group of schoolchildren who reported us to the authorities. We were picked up several minutes later and handed back to the Luftwaffe. They took away our shoes and sent us by train to Stalag Luft 6 where each of us spent 28 days in solitary confinement.
In July 1944 we were evacuated to Lithuania. Fifteen hundred of us, including American and British PoWs, were packed into the hold of a 2,000-ton coal ship called the Inster Berg. The trip took three days, during which time we were shoeless and given no food. The temperature inside the ship was over 100 degrees. Water was handed down on a rope and bucket system, and conditions were made worse by dysentery and sea sickness. When we landed on July 20 we were lined up and tied two by two. The Germans manned machine-guns in the woods and about 16 or 17 members of the Kriegsmarine fixed bayonets and prodded us up the road at the double. I still have two scars on my back from bayonet wounds.
From then on until the end of the war in Europe I was moved three more times–from one PoW camp to another. During that time I escaped at least one more time, was caught and interrogated. In early January 1945 the Russians advanced again and the entire camp at Stalag 344 was marched out on a minute’s notice. Thousands of us marched nearly 300 miles through Austria and Bavaria, and along the way we were constantly strafed by our own aircraft. Two of my friends died this way. The column stretched over 30 miles and the conditions while on the road were deplorable.
Eventually we ended up at Stalag 12D which was liberated by the American army on April 17, 1945.
I was eventually flown to Brussels for debriefing and not long after that was on a plane bound for England. Audrey and I were married July 21, 1945, and I can honestly say the only good thing that came out of going overseas was meeting and marrying that lovely lady.