John Humphreys OBE DL - THE GREAT ESCAPIST
Insider readers may remember that we promised to let you know more about the incredible Second World War escape stories of John Humphreys OBE DL, who featured in our Chelsea Pensioners article in Issue 37.
As you may remember, as a Sergeant he moved his section back from Derna to Tobruk during the Allied withdrawal in 1941, remaining there during the Siege of Tobruk. Tobruk was captured by the Germans the following year and the 35,000-strong garrison taken prisoner of war:
‘When the Germans broke through, I got injured and woke up surrounded by a couple of them who looked down on me and said: “For you, Tommy, the war is over.” I can still see them now if I close my eyes, two big fellas, looking down on me. They were very good to me and sent me to hospital, but once I was out, I was a Prisoner of War and they sent me to Italy.
‘The camp in Italy was a soul-destroying experience. You didn’t know when the war was going to end. You lived on a quarter pint of soup, and small pieces of bread and cheese. That was your daily ration. When it was gone you were starving. I stuck it for so long and decided that I was going to escape somehow … so I got hold of a Hugo Italian Grammar book and I studied it until I had a large vocabulary. I realised I would have to practice, so I found a sentry who looked bored stiff in his box all day. I thought, “Oh, I’ll try my Italian out on him.” He was quite happy talking to me. We talked on and on and after about three months I acquired his accent. I didn’t know it at the time but he spoke the Italian version of ‘Oxford English’. He obviously came from a wealthy family who had kept him out of the war by getting him a job as a sentry. Once I was fluent I decided to make a break. When I had been taken prisoner I was wearing shorts and a shirt – tropical uniform – but in the winter the Red Cross gave me a Greek army uniform, which looked very much like an Italian one. With a little bit of alteration I looked like an Italian soldier.
‘I had two very good friends in the camp and I said to them: “I’m going to make a break for it, do you want to come?” One day after roll call in the evening, I marched my friends in front of me, up to the corner and said to the sentry in the box: “I’m taking these two up for punishment.” He waved us forward and we made it through the wicker gate and on. It was as easy as that! We went up to the Italian army barracks and scrambled under the buildings and lay there until it was dark. We then made our way to the wall and climbed over and that was it – we were out!
‘We had a little discussion about which way we were going. It was decided we would go South, where I thought we might eventually be able to steal a boat and try to sail across the Med. We moved by night hiding whenever we saw or heard enemy troops. We lived off the land, pinching eggs and so on when we could. On one occasion we found a farmer who was willing to swap some of his civilian clothing with our military kit. What he gave us was practically rags but we did at least blend in better. The clothing meant we could now move during the day, as long as we avoided roads. The incidents that come to mind of that time are the river crossings, which were hard because one of the others couldn’t swim so we had to tow him between us, all the time wary of Germans potentially guarding the bridges. We also had two scares with enemy troops; once with the Italian military police, and the second time with the Germans. I was about to cross the autostrada when a column of German trucks came towards us, at the tail end of which were a lot of motorcycles and side-cars. They all want past me except the last one, which stopped right opposite me. I thought, “Oh no, surely not.” To have come all this way and then be captured again would be devastating. However, the German soldier asked me in very bad Italian where he could get water, so – hoping the relief flooding into my face wasn’t too readable – I told him there was a river about half a kilometre up the autostrada. He gave me a very odd look then buzzed off in his side-car. From now on we were doubly careful and kept well away from any road or track which might be used by the Germans, but we still got our meal in the evening from farmers wherever we could. Failing that it was back to tomatoes, figs and whatever else we could lay our hands on. We must have been eating fairly well by now as I felt fit and well and could walk all day quite happily.’
John eventually found his way back to Allied Forces where he reported in and was debriefed. We pick up his story again during Operation Market Garden in 1944, after four days of intense fighting for the Rhine Bridge. Operation Market Garden was the largest Allied airborne assault in the Second World War and had one simple aim: to secure three bridges along the main axis of advance to Berlin, outflanking the strong German defenses of the Siegfried line, thus accelerating a rapid armoured thrust towards Berlin. Over several days, from 17th September, Allied forces were dropped in to landing zones several miles away from the bridges, and tasked with capturing them from the enemy. The only ones who made it past enemy fire and reached the bridge at Arnhem were the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and B Troop of the 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers, one of whom was Corporal John Humphreys:
‘It was 1400 hours when we landed on Sunday the 17th. We waited for what seemed like a long time before starting to march on the bridge. The landing had been unopposed – we had caught Jerry having his Sunday lunch – but he was alert now and starting to show it. Bursts of machine gun fire came ripping through the woods, mortar bombs were falling, and men were dropping all over the place. It seemed all hell was let loose.
‘We managed to secure one end of the bridge. From there we went into a school which overlooked the approach to the bridge and started to prepare it for defence. My first position was at a circular window overlooking a park, armed with a Bren machine gun. My friend Syd Gurran was my number two on the gun, passing me magazines when I needed them.
‘It was not long before the Germans started attacking in earnest. They came across the park in armoured half-tracks, heading straight for us until they were stopped by the sheer volume of fire we directed at them. This fire-fight went on for what seemed a long time, but eventually they pulled back and there was time to reload the magazines and get ready for the next assault. I turned to Syd to ask him to help with loading the mags and saw that his head was down as though he had fallen asleep. It was Monday morning by this point and it had certainly been a long night, but I was surprised that he could fall asleep. I shook him and as his head turned towards me, blood poured out of his mouth onto my para smock. He had been shot in the head and chest and had died instantly.
‘Tuesday saw the attacks grow stronger. We were up against two panzer divisions, the 9th and 10th. They had been regrouping in the woods north of Arnhem. The attacks they put in were of company strength but luckily for us they had to cover open ground to get an attacking position, so we let them get quite near before clobbering them with everything we had.
‘During the afternoon they brought up a Tiger tank and positioned it straight at us. The gun slowly turned until it was pointing straight at the top floor of the school, so we nipped down to the second floor and waited, knowing the gun couldn’t be depressed to aim any lower. As the shell tore through, the whole building shook and dust and brickwork flew everywhere. We survived. I had my one and only meal that night. A dehydrated meatblock boiled up in a mess tin with water. We had been told to hold the bridge for 36 hours, after which we would be relieved by the 2nd Army, but 48 hours had passed with no sign of them.
‘Wednesday dawned wet with drizzling rain but that was the least of our worries. The town was in ruins, buildings were burning, and one of our resupply Dakotas had been shot down. The Germans had taken out most of our pockets of resistance around the north of the bridge and it looked as if we were the only ones left. We remained in the school where it was difficult for them to get close to us, so they began to target the building with a mixture of high explosive and incendiary mortar bombs, hoping to burn us out. Our captain got us all together and said, “We will let them get very close before opening fire, and then, if they succeed in breaking in, we will go up to the first floor and fight from there, moving on up until we are on the top floor. From there we will fight to the last man and the last round.”
‘It occurred to me that he too must have read Beau Geste and I wondered who would tell Brenda [John’s future wife] what had happened to me. She wasn’t my official next of kin and as far as I knew she had no idea where I was. I had written a number of letters and asked one of the NAAFI girls to post them at intervals whilst we were away. I didn’t want Brenda worrying about me.
A rifle grenade came through the window at this point, killing my mates Jock Gray, Twiggy Hazlewood and Joe Simpson. The numbers fit to fight were decreasing and ammunition was running out with no chance of resupply. At this point however, it appeared they had exhausted frontal attacks and would use mortars to bomb or burn us out instead.
‘Mortar bombs began to drop non-stop and fires broke out everywhere. By late afternoon the whole building was on fire and it became obvious we would have to leave. Our captain ordered those of us who had automatic weapons and any rounds left, to go out first and hold off the enemy while the badly wounded were brought out and laid out in the ruins of the house next door. By now we were all filthy, not having washed for four days. I was unrecognisable – covered in dust, blood and soot. I lay on the patio outside the school with a Stengun and one almost empty magazine.
‘In a short while everybody was out. The school was collapsing and fire raged through it, cremating all the dead it now contained. Mortar bombs began dropping around us and our now wounded captain said we had no choice but to surrender. I was determined not to give in and I managed to make a run for it with four others. One was hit almost instantly and another did not make it much further either. The remaining two and I crossed the road, dived into the cellar of a house and then proceeded to go over different garden walls towards a tram depot to take refuge. We hid under a tram, hoping to hold off until nightfall. I remember thinking, “All I need to do is jump this wall and I we will be on the Rhine”. My hopes were rising as the minutes ticked away, but then my heart sank as I heard the sound of enemy tank tracks nearing us and saw the barrel of a gun being lowered to point straight at us. A German voice shouted in English, “If you don’t come out, I will blow you out.” Well, there didn’t seem to be any point arguing with that great big gun stuck in my belly and my back so I walked out, hands up, with my two comrades behind me, thinking “This is it”.
‘They were good to us, considering we had killed so many of their friends. However when one of them went to take my beret, I knocked his hand away and told him to leave it alone. It was at this point that I hid my big Jack knife down my trousers. By the next day we were in Germany somewhere and taken to a small transit POW camp near Emmerich. I knew we would not be there for long before they took us to another camp further inland and I thought to myself, “I am not going to spend another year or another birthday in captivity,” so I started thinking about how I could escape. Upon arrival I had noticed a small brick building near the camp boundaries, so I went over to investigate – it turned out to be a cookhouse. The best thing of all was there was a window with five bars in it, so I jammed the door shut and got to work picking all the cement out from underneath the bars with my Jack knife. Then I went to the stove, mixed some ash with water and smeared a paste over my handiwork.
Later that evening I recruited two officers and two soldiers and we escaped through the cookhouse window. We walked through the night until we were close to the Rhine, where we waited a day in a small hut until it was dark again, and as luck would have it a barge stopped and moored up just near our hut. When the crew came ashore, we jumped in to their rowboat, shoved off and drifted with the current all night – we spent at least 12 hours in the boat and ended up at Nijmegen bridge.
We were covered in blood and dirt, and when we made our presence known to the first British soldier we could find, I thought he was going to faint. Over the next few hours we were able to wash and eat, and were interviewed and photographed in front of Nijmegen bridge, which is almost identical to Arnhem bridge. We were forbidden to say anything about our escape.’
There are few escape stories to rival John’s, who must surely be one of our greatest, and most humble, living escape artists.