By Dave Homewood
When war was declared on September 3rd, 1939, Clive Dunn was living with his Welsh collie puppy in a basement flat in Crawford Street, Marylebone, London. Immediately after the declaration of war, air raid sirens sounded across the city. This sent panic stricken citizens rushing for their shelters, thinking a German attack was imminent. Clive decided he did not wish to be buried in his basement, so he and the pup emerged into the street and wandered around. He found there was no-one else about, everyone was taking shelter. He waited for the expected thousands of bombers, but found the sky surprisingly empty. The mounting tension was somewhat forgotten when he saw a humorous figure approaching, dressed in a tin helmet, flowing gas cape, oilskin trousers, gumboots and a gas mask. The figure had a whistle around his neck, and carried a wooden rattle. As he neared, a sound which Clive describes as like a “talking fart” came from the mask. The figure waved his rattle, and stamped his wellies. Clive pressed his ear to the gas mask, and nervously listened. The figure ordered “You ought to have a muzzle on that dog!” Stunned by this comment, Clive looked at the eight weak old black and white pup, and tried to imagine a situation where it would go berserk and need to be overpowered and muzzled. He couldn't..
The gas masked ARP Warden ordered Clive to get below into the shelter. Clive and the dog made their way down into the basement of a large building in the company of a dozen or so other citizens and hundreds of cash registers which were in storage. Eventually the all clear sirens sounded and they emerged back into the street. One man who had been in the shelter was annoyed that London was still intact and the whole exercise had been a waste of time. Clive Dunn’s war had begun.
The very next day, Clive decided to join the Royal Navy. So he went to the recruitment point at Whitehall, but on inquiry he was told he would have to sign on for either eight or twelve years service. He thought this was a bit much, so decided against it, and wandered down to the London Central Recruiting Depot to join the army. However they were only taking on cobblers and butchers. A sergeant asked his age, and when he replied “Nineteen” the sergeant told him he would soon be called up anyway, and turned him away. However Clive was impatient, and wanted to join up now, so he started off towards the Air Force office in Holborn. But he met a total stranger on the way who asked where he was going. On saying he was off to join the RAF the stranger explained that he needed to have Matric to do so. As Clive had failed by five marks on the French exam, he had no chance.
Disheartened, he decided to head for home. On the Underground tube, an advertisement on the carriage wall caught his eye. ‘London Auxiliary Ambulance Service - Volunteers report to...’ He went home and thought about it, and then decided to join the ambulance service. So he reported to the Seven Stars Garage, Goldhawk Road, for an interview. On arrival he found rows of vans converted into ambulances. Some were even from Harrods department store. He was accepted and would receive three pounds ten per week. His first eight-hour shift was to begin at eight o’clock the following morning.
With this descent and steady income that ambulance work now provided, Clive was able to move to a flat in Bayswater. He studied first aid and passed the exam by 98%. He couldn’t wait to try it out. Then one night there was a yellow stand-by warning, a sign that a raid was imminent. All the ambulances were to report to various points in the city and await the attack. Clive’s big moment, everything he had trained for, had arrived. In the excitement of the first mission, he jumped onto the back of an ambulance, fell off, and sprained his ankle. He became their first casualty!
In the Spring of 1940 Clive received his call up, and reported to the HQ of the 52nd Heavy Training Regiment at Wool Station, Dorset on May 2, 1940. Here he was trained to be a soldier and readied for service in the Royal Armoured Corps. During breaks in the training, Clive and his fellow recruits would climb through the barbed wire onto the beach and bask in the summer sun in tin hats, trunks and, if the siren sounded, gas masks. A nearby RAF station would dispatch Hurricane fighters overhead and they would watch them disappear over the horizon.
One day German bombers dropped incendiary bombs nearby, starting fires on the heathland, and Clive and his comrades were tasked with quelling the blazes. Suddenly an invasion alert was signalled and they found themselves dug into slit trenches in the middle of nowhere with four rounds of ammunition each for their rifles. As they awaited hoards of Nazi parachutists, a Lance-Corporal arrived with jam sandwiches for the men. Someone asked him “How long have we got to stay here mate?” The L/Cpl replied “Till the Germans arrive and then you’ve got to shoot them.” Clive complained “We’ve only got four bullets each.” and the Corporal retorted “You’ve got more bullets than sandwiches. There’s a war on!”
Within minutes of this, half a squadron of Hurricanes roared over them and headed out to sea. Then they witnessed a most terrifying sight. Hundreds upon hundreds of German bombers in a deadly formation, accompanied by scores of enemy fighters. The Hurricanes got in amongst them and all hell broke loose. Clive described it as “the most exciting and unreal sight in the world - there seemed to be dogfights everywhere - planes were falling out of the sky - it was a hair-raising mixture of shrieking machines and vicious gunfire.” A number of parachutes descended, but they landed far enough away as to not disturb their viewing of the action. They cheered as a German bomber fell out of the sky and hit the ground with a huge explosion. Clive later read that the battle he witnessed was actually the main showdown of the Battle of Britain, and it was the action which inspired Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make his famous “Never in the field of human conflict” speech.
A few days later the men were being given a lecture on trench warfare. They stood on the regimental cricket pitch with rifles and fixed bayonets. As they received instruction on thrusting a bayonet up where a Gerry would not like it, Clive noticed a low flying plane coming directly towards them. He did a double take, and plainly saw a swastika on its tail. Clive alerted the sergeant that it was “one of theirs” and the sergeant’s war cry turned to a yelp of distress. He screamed “Break ranks!”, and the men ran for their lives. Clive reckons he broke three sprint records, his braces and a cubic foot of wind as he dived behind the wall of the firing range. The bomber dropped its stick of bombs directly onto the cricket pitch. One recruit was killed and another received shrapnel in the buttocks.
After finishing his training, Clive was posted to a crack cavalry unit, The 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in Market Harborough, East Anglia. The unit no longer had horses and was now equipped with light tanks. On the first morning he was told to drive a 15 hundred-weight truck full of patients with toothache to the dentist in Newmarket. He had never driven anything so large, so the journey proved exciting for all involved. After dropping the patients off, Clive was in a hurry to get some lunch, so he parked the truck in a paddock of horses. On return to where he thought he’d left it, all he found was horses. There are thousands of horses in that area, and one field looks very much like the next. His mind went blank, and all he could think of was the court-martial for losing a 15cwt truck. He eventually returned to HQ after searching without success, where he was told by someone that the truck had been found and could they please have the keys back. The next day he was reassigned, to painting tanks.
Soon they were told that the 4th Hussars were being posted overseas, and the Colonel-in-Chief, Winston Churchill, was to visit to see them off. A special demonstration of their shooting skills was put on for Churchill. The weapon was the .45 pistol. Although proficient with rifles and bren guns, most had never fired a pistol in their lives. Despite the men shooting from just fifteen yards from the targets, which resembled oversized dart boards, Churchill was subjected to a totally inept exhibition of missing. When it came to Clive’s turn to shoot, an embarrassed officer escorting the PM called forward a sergeant who was a crack shot instead. He hit the target’s outer rim, delighting Churchill, who beamed “Well, at least he hit the target!”. The PM went away happily and Clive was spared the indignity of also missing the target in front of him.
The regiment was given leave before embarkation. Clive spent a night in London, which was
by now in the grip of the Blitz. He witnessed for the first time the thousands sleeping in the underground and the searchlights lighting up the night sky in search of German bombers overhead. He went from here to Sheffield for a few days to see his parents Bobby and Connie, who were entertaining camps and factories in the industrial city. Then it was back to the regiment at Market Harborough. The 4th Hussars soon packed up and left for Liverpool, where they spent three nights under heavy bombing. In the early hours of the third morning they climbed the gangway without fanfare, and boarded the SS Orcades, which slipped quietly out of the docks towards the sea.
Clive enjoyed the three weeks on board, and soon got used to the rocking and rolling of the ocean. The convoy headed west across the Atlantic to within a few hundred miles of the USA, a course designed to fool the enemy, before doubling back. Apparently Lord Haw Haw, the Nazi’s radio propaganda man, announced to Britain that their ship had been sunk. Luckily this was just another of his nasty rumours. Clive spent hours watching their escort ships weave back and forward looking for U-boats. To keep the troops amused they were subjected to endless life boat drills, exercises on deck, and put on bren gun guard at night.
They docked for a stop-over at Durban, South Africa. Clive was pulled in a rickshaw through Durban by a Zulu, and was shocked to see signs everywhere segregating the blacks from the whites. Soon they were back at sea and making their way up to Egypt. On arrival, they unloaded all of their equipment and tanks and settled into a transit camp called El Tahag. Staying under canvas, they experienced all the displeasures of the desert, from raging dust storms to freezing nights on duty with the eerie howl of desert dogs in the distance.
Clive was instructed to carry out a familiar task, painting the tanks. This time they were to be a desert sand colour to suit their new surrounds. Once painted, they took the tanks into the desert on a battle exercise. Many trucks and troops got totally lost, and Clive began to wonder if he should have joined the Navy after all. Then out of the blue Clive was again instructed to repaint the tanks, back to their original olive green colour. This began many rumours about where they were going to next.
A notice was posted with a list of names who were to be the first line of reinforcements. Clive’s name was on the list. He asked what it meant and was told that when the regiment goes into the front line, he would remain behind in reserve. He was most insulted. Drawing on his experience in the Ambulance Corps, he decided to volunteer to go in the first wave as a medical orderly. He was accepted, but was later to discover that he was the only man chosen as a stretcher bearer, which by the very nature of things, actually requires people in pairs. He spent several weeks in the medical tent learning from an experienced medic. The Medical Officer was Captain Eden, cousin to Anthony Eden.
After a brief period of leave in Cairo, where he took in some of the seedier sights in that city’s narrow back streets which were out-of-bounds to soldiers, he returned to El Tahag before the regiment prepared to ship out. They relocated to a transit camp west of Alexandria, so many assumed they would soon be fighting in the Western Desert. However this was not the case. They boarded HMS Gloucester at the port of Alexandria and set sail north-westwards. The next day they docked at Piraeus harbour in Greece, unloaded, and set off along the coast road till they set up camp in woodlands. Clive was able to look around Athens, where he saw a procession of wounded Greek soldiers returning to great acclaim from their desperate defence of Albania against the Italians.
They then moved on, over snowy hills and mountains and down into the plains of Macedonia. As they moved Northwards, the Greek citizens lined the streets and threw flowers and bread into their trucks. On arrival near the front, they set up camp. Soon some of their light tanks, equipped with just machine guns, went into combat against the larger German Panzers. The obsolete British tanks had no chance. As the Germans advanced into Greece, the British began to retreat. They were continually dive bombed, and found they were defenceless against these aerial attacks. General Wavell, in charge of the Mediterranean campaign, was so busy fighting Rommel in North Africa he couldn’t send reinforcements to Greece. On the retreat Clive saw just one Blenheim bomber and two Hurricane fighters attempting to give them air support. He found there was a lot of confusion, and the troops often had to wait hidden in ditches while the officers worked out their next move. On one such occasion as he squatted in a ditch, a 15 cwt truck pulled up adjacent to him, and he overheard the conversation between a Brigadier and a fellow officer. The officers did not know where they were, and to cap it off, they had lost their map!
The retreat was hampered by the narrow roads being blocked with bombed trucks and dead mules. After several days the officers decided to regroup the vehicles in the column which had gotten spread out. Many tanks had already been lost to the dive bomb attacks, which hit several times a day. So they foolishly gathered all the vehicles together on a high plateau, and enemy dive bombers now had the pickings of easy targets. Clive and Captain Eden were kept very busy as stretcher bearers and medics. The wounded were told an ambulance would take them south away from the battle, but Clive doubted an ambulance could get into the area due to the terrain. Furthermore, he hadn’t seen a single ambulance during the whole campaign. The bombing continued, and Clive narrowly survived an attack when he was exposed to bombers while treating a wounded man in a truck.
They soon found that if they hung off the edge of the plateau, they were fairly safe, as the Stuka pilots were not too keen to dive at the vertical cliff face. As one particular raid began, Clive and another trooper saw an unattended Bren gun, and the urge to shoot back overcame them. The trooper grabbed the gun, and Clive loaded it as a Stuka dived at them. It was headed straight at them, and Clive yelled “Fire!” One shot rang out and then the gun jammed. Clive yelled “Sod it!” and they dived over the edge of the cliff to take cover. The experience made Clive doubt his abilities as a fighting soldier. He wondered for years whether he had loaded the gun wrong. It wasn’t till after thirty years, by which time Clive was famous, that a chap approached him in a bar, and admitted he was the trooper. The man apologised and admitted that he had mistakenly set the Bren to single shot.
When night fell, they moved on again, heading south totally unopposed. They finally arrived back at Pireaus, and were assured that preparations had been made for their evacuation. The next morning while Clive was cleaning his rifle, he put a round up the spout and absent-mindedly fired it into the air. Hundreds of nerve-wrecked soldiers hit the deck, and he had to apologise all around for his mistake. What was left of the regiment were told to assemble on the beach, and the CO addressed them, saying that HQ had suggested that they would be tasked with escorting German PoWs to India. Clive and others were much relieved to hear this, and he fancied a nice, easy cruise to India. But the Major said “However, I told them that, after all you have been through recently at the hands of the Germans, I could not trust you to guard the enemy.” The CO had instead volunteered them to engage the enemy in a rear guard action. This decision was not a popular one.
They were given a .45 pistol each, plus a rifle and a bandolier of ammunition, and they set off from Athens to protect the southern shore of the Gulf of Corinth against a possible seaborne German landing. That night as Clive stood and watched across the water, he saw a constant stream of headlights motoring down the mountain roads. He thought the entire British army must have been retreating. In reality it was actually the German army advancing. While carrying out a reconnaissance patrol, Clive heard a tremendous explosion, and one of the ships in the harbour became a casualty to the conflict.
The next day they continued to move along the coast by lorry. They were continually forced to stop and run for cover away from the road when dive bombers attacked the convoy. When a German armoured brigade was detected as heading their way, they dismounted and took up positions in the rocky hillside to attack it. After an anxious wait, the column arrived and the hillside rang out with a fusillade of shots. After a while Clive heard an order yelled to return to the lorry. The Captain laid out his plan, that they would set up a bren gun in the back of the lorry, and all lie flat except the bren gunner. They would drive to the main road where the Germans were coming from, make a sharp left with all guns blazing and high-tail it down to Kalamata where the Allied forces were being evacuated.
Unfortunately the bren was still halfway up the hill. When several of the other men ignored the
Captain’s order to fetch the gun, Clive volunteered. Once he’d retrieved the weapon it was mounted on the truck. They piled in and took off. Then they stopped, turned around and retreated to where they’d come from. The Germans had now advanced so close that their madcap scheme of escape was foiled.
They took off down a track leading into the hills, but soon found it petered out. They decided to destroy the lorry. While others carried out this destructive act, Clive was posted as lookout. He ventured into the wood and climbed a tree to watch for advancing SS troops. Wondering how on earth he was going to cope when they did come, he was startled when a Maori soldier approached, armed to the teeth. The New Zealander was grinning from ear to ear and seemed to be enjoying the thrill of the situation. He gave Clive a Mills Bomb, and then went on his way to wreak havoc somewhere.
Clive was called back to the others, and found the men with three officers who were preparing to fight in the hills. As they were standing there, a red faced squadron commander ran past at the rate of knots and shouting that two-thirds of the men had been captured. So they took to the hills.
Over the next few weeks they made their way over hills and gorges, into villages and snowy countryside. The intention was to make it to the coast, and somehow find a vessel to get them to Crete. Having started off with seventeen men, they picked up other stragglers and were soon up to a strength of forty or more, with three or four officers. On one occasion when they stopped to rest in a field, they later awoke to find that several of the men had had their rifles and pistols stolen by locals. Some villagers shared their own meagre food supplies and goat’s milk with the British troops. The men clubbed together and raised enough money to buy a mule and hire a guide. They loaded the mule with rifles, blankets and ammunition. This was fine for days until they were climbing a steep mountain path and the animal slipped. It fell over the side and all the men could do was watch horrified as it tumbled over and over, shedding it’s load as it went. It finally reached the bottom, and should have been dead, but this incredible mule got up and happily walked away into the scrubland, as if nothing had happened.
The days were extremely hot, and the nights bitterly cold. Water was extremely scarce. Eventually after three weeks of this mountainous trek, they finally glimpsed the sea. They could also see German patrols, and limited movement to night time. The guide, Peter the Greek, continued to lead them without fear. They found a cave with a six foot opening, which extended 15 kilometres into the earth. They were told ancient Greek armies had used the cave as a hiding place, and this is what they did too. They hid for five days in the cave, only seeing daylight for one hour a day. Women from nearby villages risked all to bring them baskets of food.
They eventually emerged from the cave and headed for the sea. Once at the coast they settled into a rocky cove, and stayed there for several days right next to the beach. By now the men numbered around 70 strong. On one night while looking out across the sea, Clive saw the violent flashes of a naval battle taking place. It went on for hours and gave him some hope that at least someone was still resisting the Germans, as the Greeks had long capitulated. During the days he would spend time swimming in the sunshine, while they waited for the officers to make their next decision. A Major had set off in a captured dinghy towards Crete and vowed to send the navy to rescue them. But they waited in vain, hungry and thirsty.
Word got to them that Germans were patrolling the area, and while the others dispersed to hide in the hills, Clive was ordered to stay with a Sgt Edwards who couldn’t walk. He got this task due to his medical abilities. The Sgt had bumped his knee in a fall, and it was now so swollen he could not move it. Clive slept among the rocks nearby the Sgt, and awoke to machine gun fire and saw the German patrols approaching. The Sergeant told Clive to go, to leave him, so he made off inland as quickly as he could. As he clambered over the rocks two corporals joined him, and followed him. As the sound of gunfire faded behind them, Clive rounded a bend in the rock and came face to face with a German soldier, his finger nervously poised on the trigger of his rifle.....
The young, nervous German soldier pointed a rifle at Clive, his finger on the trigger. Beyond him another Nazi soldier squatting behind a machine-gun, and several others with rifles. Clive half raised his arms in surrender. The two British corporals who had been following him did the same. For them, their war was now over. A German corporal advanced and took Clive’s pistol. Once he was disarmed, the young German soldier relaxed his aim. The German corporal then stripped the British soldiers of their belongings, although Clive was allowed to keep the photos of his parents from his gold locket.
The prisoners were interrogated by an interpreter as they made their way over the hills to the road. Clive was forced to carry the unloaded machine-gun on his shoulder. In his starving condition, it very nearly finished him off. They finally arrived at the German headquarters, a converted goat farm. Here Clive saw more Germans with mules, and more prisoners. The Nazi troops were quite civil, even sharing their cigarettes with the POWs There was no food or water for them though. He soon realised the guards paid little attention to them, so at 3:00am Clive considered an escape. Just as he was about to make a move, two shots rang out, changing his mind.
The next day they were given water and biscuits, and loaded onto lorries. They drove for hours to the port of Argos. Here they were imprisoned in a dry dock, which was freezing at night and roasting hot in the day, and generally left to starve. Ten days later they were again put into lorries and taken to Corinth. Here they were imprisoned in old Greek barracks, now run by the SS. On arrival the barracks were full, and Clive had to sleep in a slit trench. The conditions were appalling, but he did meet up again with his old friend David Bradford, whom he’d joined the army with. Food that could be found was priceless in the camp, David gave away his gold engagement ring to some Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a quarter loaf of bread. He and Clive could make one mouthful last for ten minutes.
Soon they were on the move again, marching in the hot sun towards Athens. Here they boarded a train for Gravia, where they were once again forced to march on foot. By the end of the day the prisoners, most sick or wounded, had marched over 30 miles with little food or water. Next they were loaded onto another train, packed tightly into cattle trucks. This terrifyingly cramped journey ended at Salonika, where they stayed for a few days in an old army camp. Locals tried to throw them food, but were beaten by the guards for doing so, and men fought over the scraps from the camp kitchen.
After this stop, they were again packed onto the train. After three days and nights, travelling in these appalling conditions, they arrived at Belgrade station, where they were allowed out of their wagon and given a piece of corn bread and a ladle of soup each. Once these morsels were consumed, it was back on the train once more, and onward towards Austria.
After many more terrifying hours travelling in these dirty, cramped and sickening conditions, the train finally arrived at its destination. They alighted, somewhere in alpine Austria, and staggered on for a further half an hour to Wolfsburg concentration camp. The guards continuously lined them up to be counted, over and over. They were put into showers, and then given a new set of clothing to replace their own tatty, lice ridden uniforms. They were also fed, and then put into a compound.
Next day they received no food whatsoever. They lined up to tell a German clerk their prewar occupations. In an effort to get some food, around 70% of the 2000 prisoners claimed they had been butchers. Clive told the truth, saying he was an actor. After the interviews, the Germans sorted where they would put the men. Clive was one of fifty who was taken to the town and again put on a train.
Hours later they stopped at a siding, and were forced to march miles through the night up an alpine path with the smell of pines filling the air around. They arrived at a cabin, where they slept. Next morning they could see the place they had stayed was a mountain village called Pruggern. This was to be Clive’s home for the next few months. They were there to widen a mountain track, on a cliff face, with picks. The prisoners pretended to be working hard on the road, but in fact they never intended to finish the job for Hitler, bluffing their way by waving their arms about and looking busy.
The only enjoyment the prisoners could derive in this place was making fun of the guards. Their diet consisted mainly of just potatoes, which caused problems to some. Clive developed a large lump under his arm and was marched off to a doctor, who squeezed it, causing Clive to pass out with pain for a short time. For three days he couldn’t move his arm, which meant he did not have to work on the road.
Morale was very low. The only relief was the arrival of the Red Cross parcels, filled with margarine, oats, bully beef, prunes, sugar, cigarettes and chocolate. Escape wasn’t an option. When two Irish prisoners decided to try, a British staff sergeant went straight to the guard commander and told him. The Austrian guard shouted at the Irishmen, threatening them with his pistol. Clive and others were shocked that the staff sergeant had narked. Other’s thoughts of escape were now forgotten. Shortly after this incident, Clive found an audience for an impromptu performance, when two friends asked him to do a routine from his days as an actor. He did the well known routine of the family of funny faces trying to blow out a candle. About fifty men watched enthusiastically, really lifting his spirits.
When winter brought snow, work on the road was much more difficult. Parcels arrived from Britain, supplying the men with new battledress and boots. Until this time they had worn Austrian civilian clothing, and clogs. Once more they looked like a part of the British army. With new boots, their footwear problems caused by the clogs were over, but the cold still caused moustaches and eyelashes to freeze. It was the coldest winter in Austria for forty years.
When the weather began to warm up, they were shifted to another prison. This was on the top of a three storey school in Liezen. There were just two rooms, and over twenty men were squashed into each. The rooms were filled with bunks, and a few tables, and the barred windows looked into the town square. They had no outdoor compound, and once locked in, it felt very claustrophobic. The only time they went out was on work parties to build council flats or work on a new slaughterhouse.
Clive found he now had the responsibility of not only medical orderly, but also interpreter. Then he was also voted camp leader. He had to pass on all messages between the prisoners and the guards, negotiate their working terms with the Germans, accompany sick men to the doctor and sort out any disputes. This was something he didn’t enjoy, especially as he spoke very little German or Austrian. But soon Clive negotiated to have the Germans take their photos so the prisoners could send them home to their parents. He also arranged for the men to be taken to the cinema, and for a weekly football match on a nearby field. These requests were readily agreed to by the Austrian guards.
The Germans paid the prisoners for their work so as to not be accused of slavery. Unfortunately this camp money, or Lagergeld, was useless, as Clive found after being taken to the shops with a long list of goods to be bought for the 50 men. The shop owners would only sell him three razor blades and a box of matches. A few days later Clive was taken to the shops to try again. On his return, a huge Nazi flag had been hung on the prison. His escorting guard said a high ranking official was passing through the town, and flags were being hung on all buildings. One of the prisoners took offence, and reached through the bars to set it alight. Other prisoners eventually extinguished it. Then the guards rushed in, and pushed the men out into the street. Villagers were calling for blood, and the guards asked Clive, as camp leader and interpreter, who had lit the fire. Everyone remained silent.
A German sergeant-major arrived and said if no-one owned up within five minutes, they would begin shooting one in every three men. Clive had to translate this threat to his friends. Then a young girl from the village claimed to be a witness, and picked out the culprit. The man she picked, called George, was innocent, but despite the insistence of his alibi, he was marched off to the village cell. As the prisoners were going back indoors, a fellow inmate collapsed in guilt and admitted to Clive he had lit the fire. He wanted the Germans to know, so George wouldn’t be harmed. Clive had to translate this to the guards, and George was released, while the real culprit was marched off to the cells. Clive had to assist the man to make a statement admitting the lighting of the flag. When Clive returned to the prison, he decided to resign as camp leader. He continued as the interpreter however. The privileges Clive had secured were taken away, but the commandant did allow the photo session to go ahead.
Soon all British NCO’s were moved from the prison, as only troopers were allowed to be forced to work under the Geneva Conventions. A new intake of prisoners arrived to replace them, all privates and troopers. Two of them, Andy and Bill, became close friends with Clive. They decided to attempt an escape, not to get back to Britain, but to go to the pictures. They made a copy of the key which locked them in, and from that time on they could all come and go as they pleased at night while the guard slept in his bunk room. One prisoner who took advantage of this was having an affair with a woman in the village while her husband was away in the German army. One night, as Clive was about to let this man in again, the guard approached. The prisoner didn’t hear Clive’s signal to hide, and continued to knock. The guard opened the door, and surprisingly welcomed him in and locked the door. Bribes of Red Cross cigarettes kept the guard quiet, but new locks were fitted the next day.
During the winter, the prisoners were used by the Germans to cut ice from the frozen river Enns. This ice was given to the locals to store in their cellars until summer. After several days, around thirty prisoners developed chills and high temperatures. Clive had to administer aspirins to them, which were in short supply. One day Clive and his friend Andy decided to put on a concert to cheer everyone up. They wrote some sketches, and prisoner George Parrish played an accordion. The audience loved it.
On another occasion some of the prisoners were sent to work in an ammunition factory. This was the first time any of them had been detailed to do war work. The men refused, quoting the Geneva Convention, but the army forced them to work at gun point right through the night. Back in the prison Clive was unaware of the situation. He had brewed up tea for the workers several times, awaiting their return. By the time they finally did get back, a high ranking officer had decided that forcing British soldiers to do war work was too much hassle, and the idea was dropped.
For a long time the Red Cross parcels failed to be delivered to Liezen, but Clive was surprised to be told one day that some packages had arrived addressed to him. His mother had arranged for his church to send a parcel every week, and somehow they had built up to eight parcels all arriving at once. He shared them out, and the prisoners laid on a banquet with the food from these parcels.
After many months of fulfilling the duties of cleaning the prison each day while the other prisoners went out to work, Clive grew tired of the task, and so he handed the job onto another prisoner. He was now detailed to again work on building the slaughterhouse. Due to his lack of experience in the building trade, he generally only carried out menial tasks, but once he was asked by the foreman to build a partition wall. Later in the day the foreman was taking a cigarette break. As he did so, he leant on Clive’s wall, which collapsed in a heap around him!
On another day a concrete mixer was brought in. Clive and his fellow prisoners had to lug wheelbarrows full of concrete up and down ramps all day. When their usual break time came, they were told they could not stop work as they only had the mixer for the one day. Clive decided to make a stand of defiance for his fellow workers, who were worn out from the heavy work. He turned over his barrow and sat on it. The other prisoners downed tools and followed suit. The Nazi builder was furious, and sent a guard to get the camp commandant.
By the time the commandant arrived they were working again. Instead of approaching the builder, the he went to Clive, and asked what the problem was. Clive showed him the work they were doing and asked him to lift a barrow of concrete to feel the weight himself. He then explained they had merely asked for their usual break. On hearing Clive, the commandant told the guards to return the prisoners to the billet. He felt they had done enough work and said they could have the rest of the day off. The men couldn’t believe it, they were expecting to be shot for striking rather than this. However the commandant’s humanitarian behaviour towards the British obviously didn’t please the builder, a Nazi party member, because in two days the commandant was posted elsewhere. Most probably to the
Clive became quite ill with chronic colitis. He had been treated for it many times, and nothing had cured the complaint. Eventually he was taken to a hospital in Rottermann, where he was taken care of by nuns, and was treated to the luxury of a hot bath, something he’d not had for three and a half years. He was allowed to sleep for three days. Then the nuns began to do some tests, forcing him to swallow a rubber tube, through which they drew fluid from his stomach. He could not eat for two days, and for the next three weeks he was able to lie blissfully in hospital. Eventually it was time to return to Liezen, where he regaled stories to his fellow inmates about his trip away.
As the war situation grew better for the Allies, and worse and worse for the Nazis, the Austrians were changing their attitude towards the Germans. An announcement was made to the prisoners by an Austrian guard. He said if Allied paratroops land in the area they had been ordered to take the prisoners up into the hills and shoot them. However, the guard explained that he and his fellow guards had decided to ignore this order, and if the Allies did turn up, they would be taken into the hills and protected till the Allies arrived to liberate them. Also a little later on while making a visit to a dentist, Clive was surprised when the Austrian dentist stuffed a map of Yugoslavia into his battledress for him to use in an escape. Clive later handed it onto another prisoner.
He would sometimes get parcels from home. When a clothing parcel arrived, Clive gained a second pair of boots, several pairs of socks and two woollen pullovers. He also received some French Fern soap from his mother. He once received a letter from his grandmother, who always called him ‘Buddy’, in which remarks she’d written had been censored by both the British and the Germans, resulting in a letter which only read “Dear Buddy... Love, Nana.” Clive wrote of this, “The laugh this letter evoked was worth all the loss of news.”
Despite his time in hospital, Clive’s illness still lingered. By now he could not digest nor enjoy the food from his Red Cross parcels. He heard that he might be able to get treatment at Wolfsburg camp, where he’d originally been imprisoned on arrival to Austria. He convinced the doctor to transfer him there, and so he said goodbye to Liezen for good.
Upon boarding a train to leave Liezen, where Clive had spent several years as a prisoner, he thought back on his times there. He remembered when they had distilled ‘phong’ on the stove, a strong spirit brewed from Red Cross prunes and raisins in an old barrel. He also recalled when a storm had hit the village, and the thunder echoing around the mountains almost bursting their eardrums. One of the bars on the window had been hit by lightning, sending a current across the stove. The same night they had all partied hard for someone’s birthday, and many became quite drunk. Clive had seen that they all laughed themselves to sleep by telling a comic story that he made up as he went.
On arrival at Wolfsburg, or Stalag XVIIIA, he found there were in residence prisoners from many countries. Dutch, Russian, Polish, French, Belgian, English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians and Americans. He was greeted by his old pal Dave Bradford and other fellow 4th Hussar Regiment friends. He underwent medical treatment by British medical staff, and then he was put ‘in smoke’, meaning his records were ‘lost’ on purpose by those prisoners who worked in the German admin building, and the Germans no longer knew he existed there. This was to ensure he wasn’t shifted off to another camp. He had to hide every time the Germans did a roll call. All sorts went on that the Nazis were unaware of. He was shown a crystal set hidden inside a book in the camp library. Every night the news would be listened to, and relayed to all the prisoners within minutes.
Soon he was asked to play the auctioneer in the camp concert party’s next production, The Skin Game. He jumped at the chance, putting everything into it. He was the only professional actor among the thousands of men in the camp. The theatre became the centre of his attention, and one day the New Zealand padre in charge of the theatre decided to do a huge production for Christmas of Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Nights, with full costume, an orchestra and a chorus. Clive was asked to play the female lead, a gypsy princess, in a figure clinging dress and wig. The show was widely appreciated by the audiences. Unfortunately plans for it to run for a week were disrupted when the stove caught fire and burned the shed theatre down.
Following the fire, the theatre group decided to put on a concert to cheer the camp up. Clive visited a hut where a friend Johnny McGeorge had a joke book. He got a few gags from the book for his act, and then walked the twenty or so yards back to his own hut. Suddenly the ground shook with explosions, the camp was being bombed by American bombers who were off track. The raid stopped as quickly as it started, but several huts had been destroyed and the ground was pitted with craters. One of the huts blown up was the one Clive had just left three minutes before, and his friend was killed. Clive, remembering he was a medic, jumped into a crater and rescued a German guard from beneath a beam. The guard scrambled out and ran off without so much as a thank you. Forty prisoners had died in the raid. Following this, and despite being ‘in smoke’, Clive nursed the wounded in the camp hospital. He even assisted the surgeon during operations. He found the Red Cross supplied more advanced drugs to the British prisoners than the Germans even had. The British medics actually deliberately slowed the recovery of prisoners’ wounds so they would have more time off work parties.
Eventually Clive became tired of living ‘in smoke’, so he had the man who worked in the records office to re-find his cards, and he became an official prisoner again. He and a New Zealander who had also just come out of smoke, were put on a train to a village called Gundorf. He was billeted on a farm, with a family who treated him well, and fed him hearty meals. He worked on their farm as a labourer, where the main crops in the area were maize and grapes. The place had a peaceful atmosphere and he easily could forget the war.
At Easter, 1945, the German guard decided they were leaving. Clive found it sad to leave the family, and they too were upset at his departure. They marched from village to village, picking up more and more prison labourers who had been billeted out like Clive. Soon there were more than sixty of them. Then out of the blue, having had enough of the war, the guard simply said ‘Auf wiedersehen’ and deserted. The stunned Allied prisoners cheered him on as he left.
They decided to head west, towards the Allied lines, but soon came to a village with more prisoners, escorted by armed guards. Joining them, the Germans marched them towards Barvaria. They walked for four long weeks, bartering with peasants for food as they went in exchange for woollen socks or scarves. They also ate stinging nettles and dandelion leaves, while some French prisoners collected snails for food. As they progressed, more and more prisoners joined the exodus.
At one village Clive stole a handcart, so they could carry their food and goods. At another village some parcels were discovered in a rubbish dump, and in an amazing co-incidence one of them was addressed to Clive! It contained 400 Sweet Caporal cigarettes, and had been sent by his church. The cigarettes were shared out to use as bartering currency for food. Also here, he met many of his old friends from Liezen. At a farm one evening they found several carts loaded with potatoes. Within minutes little fires had been lit and the men were boiling up their scavenged spuds.
Eventually they reached a camp at Markt Pongau, where they were put into a compound surrounded with barbed wire. Although they were not aware of it, this place was intended by the Germans to hold the prisoners as hostages during the final battles of the war. Again they were starving, so one day Clive and others broke out through the wire and raided a warehouse in search of food. All they found was sacks of sugar, so Clive lived on white sugar, raw or boiled in water or tea, for the next three days.
After almost a week of waiting in this camp, where by now only one or two guards remained, a number of US troops in jeeps arrived. They were at last liberated. After several more journeys, via Salzburg and Belgium, Clive eventually arrived back in England. The war in Europe was now over, but the war with Japan continued. Clive remained in the army, and after a short leave to see his parents, he reported to a base in the north of England. Here he found he had the vital job of picking up pieces of paper around the perimeter, for weeks and weeks. Despite attempts to convince the military to discharge him on medical grounds, Clive served on at Devizes as a medical orderly until the end of 1946 before finally being released from the army. He went straight back into professional acting, and it was at this point he registered with Equity, changing his real name of Robert Dunn to his stage name of Clive Dunn.