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Famous British POWs

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Famous British POWs

1. Michael Bentine CBE

Bentine was called up for service in the RAF. He was appearing in a Shakespearean play in doublet and hose in the open-air theatre in London’s Hyde Park when two RAF MPs marched on stage and arrested him for desertion. Unknown to him, an RAF conscription notice had been following him for a month as his company toured. Once in the RAF he went through flying training. He was the penultimate man going through a medical line receiving inoculations for typhoid with the other flight candidates in his class (they were going to Canada to receive new aircraft) when the vaccine ran out. They refilled the bottle to inoculate him and the other man as well. By mistake they loaded a pure culture of typhoid. The other man died immediately, and Bentine was in a coma for six weeks. When he regained consciousness his eyesight was ruined, leaving him myopic for the rest of his life. Since he was no longer physically qualified for flying, he was transferred to RAF Intelligence and seconded to MI9, a unit that was dedicated to supporting resistance movements and helping prisoners escape. His immediate superior was the Colditz escapee Airey Neave,

At the end of the war, he took part in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. He said about this experience, “Millions of words have been written about these horror camps, many of them by inmates of those unbelievable places. I’ve tried, without success, to describe it from my own point of view, but the words won’t come. To me Belsen was the ultimate blasphemy”. (The Reluctant Jester, Chapter 17)

2. James Clavell

Following the outbreak of World War II, at the age of 16 (or 19) he joined the Royal Artillery in 1940, and was sent to Malaya to fight the Japanese. Wounded by machine-gun fire, he was eventually captured and sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp on Java. Later he was transferred to Changi Prison in Singapore. Clavell suffered greatly at the hands of his Japanese captors. According to the introduction to King Rat, written by Clavell, over 90% of the prisoners who entered Changi never walked out. Clavell was reportedly saved, along with an entire battalion, by an American prisoner of war who later became the model for "The King" in Clavell's King Rat. By 1946, Clavell had risen to the rank of Captain, but a motorcycle accident ended his military career.

3. Roy Dotrice OBE

He served with the RAF from 1940 to 1945 during WWII, and was imprisoned in a German POW camp from 1942 to 1945.

4.Clive Dunn

Served in the British Army with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars during the Second World War. He was captured in Greece and spent four years in prisoner-of-war and labor camps in Austria. Called up in 1940, Dunn joined the 4th Hussars and was eventually posted to Greece. He spent months in the Greek countryside doing his best to avoid the enemy, but was eventually captured by a German patrol. Dunn remembered two weeks as a prisoner near Corinth with “thousands of starving and dysentery-ridden British, Indians and Palestinians”. He was then transported to Austria. “We were packed into cattle trucks like rotten sardines, smelly from diarrhea and dysentery, with no food, one petrol can for water and one for use as a latrine.” The journey took seven days. On arrival at the POW camp the prisoners gave the guards a list of their civilian employment. Dunn remembered that after so long without food, 70 per cent of the 2,000 men claimed to have been butchers or cooks. During his time as a POW, Dunn became unofficial medical orderly, camp leader and cleaner. On one occasion, after spending hours persuading the camp commander to let him buy supplies from a village shop, and days compiling a list of necessities with the men, Dunn returned with everything he had been allowed to purchase: three razor blades and a box of matches. After liberation, he remained in the Army until 1947,

5. Denholm Elliot CBE

In World War II, he joined the RAF, training as a sergeant radio operator and gunner and serving with No. 76 Squadron under the command of Leonard Cheshire VC. On the night of 23/24 September 1942, his Handley Page Halifax bomber took part in an air raid on the U-boat pens at Flensburg, Germany. The aircraft was hit by flak and subsequently ditched in the North Sea near Sylt, Germany. Elliott and two other crewmembers survived and he spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Silesia. While imprisoned he became involved in amateur dramatics.

6. Terry Frost RA

Frost first began to paint whilst interned in a POW camp during the Second World War where he met and was taught by Adrian Heath while a POW.

7. Michael Goodliff

He joined the British Army at the beginning of WWII, and received a commission as a 2nd Lt. in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in February 1940. He was wounded in the leg and captured at the Battle of Dunkirk Goodliffe was incorrectly listed as killed in action, and even had his obituary published in a newspaper. He was to spend the rest of the war a prisoner in Germany. While in captivity he produced and acted in (and in some cases wrote) many plays and sketches to entertain fellow prisoners. These included two productions of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one in Tittmoning and the other in Eichstatt , in which he played the title role. He also produced the first staging of Noel Coward’s Post Mortem at Eichstätt. A full photographic record of these productions exists. After the war he resumed his professional acting career. As well as appearing in the theatre, he worked in film and television. He also appeared in The Wooden Horse in 1950 and in other POW films. He suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1976.

8. Adrian Heath

Heath served in the RAF as a tail gunner in Lancaster bombers in WWII, but spent almost the entire war as a POW, during which period he became friends with and taught fellow POW Terry Frost to paint.

9. Sam Kydd

Early in the war, he went to France with the British Expeditionary Force, but was quickly captured, spending the rest of the war in Stalag XX-A a camp near Thorn in German-occupied western Poland. Kydd later wrote of his experiences as a POW in his autobiographical book For You The War Is Over.

During his internment in the German prisoner-of-war camp, where he remained for the next five years, he took command of the camp's theatrical activities - devising and staging plays. He felt so strongly about his work there that, when he was offered repatriation after three years, he turned it down to continue with his theatrical work. In recognition of his valuable services during these years, he was awarded a pair of drama masks made by the Red Cross from barbed wire.

10.Desmond Llewelyn

The outbreak of WWII in September 1939 halted his acting career; Llewelyn was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the British Army, serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In 1940, he was captured by the German Army in France, and was held as a POW in Colditz Castle for five years.

11. George Miller DSO MC

His second published book Horned Pigeon tells of his service in the 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade in North Africa. As a second lieutenant he was in command of a scout platoon of Bren carriers and motorcyclists. He had an uncomfortable time with the second in command of his battalion Major Vic Turner. His scout platoon was overrun by Rommel's advance at Gazala in the Libyan desert. For a time he and some of his platoon evaded the Germans but eventually he was captured and briefly brought in front of Rommel himself. He was handed over to the Italian army who took him to the prisoner of war camp Campo 66 in Capua in the Padula Monastery. After a number of escape attempts he was moved to Campo 5 at Gavu, a high-security POW camp, where, like Colditz the 'escapers' were confined. One of his fellow inmates for example was David Stirling who had established the SAS.

After the Italian surrender the Allied prisoners were entrained for Germany. Millar and a companion jumped from the train in Germany. Millar and Binns made their way from Munich to Strasbourg where they were separated. Millar continued to Paris and then Lyon. While in the south of France he was found by the SOE section run by Richard Heslop DSO codenamed Xavier and Elizabeth. He volunteered to stay in France and fight with the Resistance. When Heslop refused Millar asked Heslop to recommend him to SOE for the future. Finally, after more than three months on the run, made it across the Pyrenees and over the Spanish border to Barcelona. Back in London he pulled strings and managed to get into F Section of SOE, and was prepared for a return to France by Vera Atkins and Maurice Buckmaster among others. He was parachuted into the Besancon area of France just before D-Day and returned to England three months later when the US Army pushed the Germans out of that part of France. On his return took a month's leave, rented a cottage in the country and wrote the manuscript of Maquis, the nickname of the French Resistance. In this immediate and vivid account he drew on his journalistic skills to describe life living in the woods with the Maquis, various sabotage missions against the railways and trying to organize the villages before liberation by the Americans. He meets Paul, an American radio operator, the competing local resistance chiefs, and eventually joins the locally famous Boulaya Maquis sold well and was followed by Horned Pigeon which was based on 'prolific notes I had dictated...to a shorthand typist, during the month's leave following my escape.' The second book 'was, if anything, more successful than the first'.

12. W.H. Murrey

At the outbreak of WWII, Murrey joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and was posted to the Middle East and North Africa. He was captured south of Mersa Matruh during the Western Desert Campaign in a retreat to El Alamein in June 1942 by a tank commander from the 15th Panzer Division who was armed with a machine-pistol. A passage in Mountain magazine (#67, 1979) describes the moments after his capture:

To my astonishment, he [the German tank commander] forced a wry smile and asked in English, 'Aren't you feeling the cold?' ... I replied 'cold as a mountain top'. He looked at me, and his eyes brightened. 'Do you mean – you climb mountains?' He was a mountaineer. We both relaxed. He stuffed his gun away. After a few quick words – the Alps, Scotland, rock and ice – he could not do enough for me. Murrey went on to spend three years in POW camps in Italy (Cheti) Germany ( Moosberg, Brunswick) and Czechoslovakia (Oflag VIII-F in Marisch Trubeau). While imprisoned, Murray wrote a book entitled Mountaineering in Scotland. The first draft of the work was written on the only paper available to him: rough toilet paper. The manuscript was found and destroyed by the Gestapo. To the incredulity of his fellow prisoners, Murray's response to the loss was to start again, despite the risk of its loss and that his physical condition was so poor from the near starvation diet that he believed he would never climb again. Nevertheless, Murray was deputy leader to Eric Shipton on the 1951 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, but failed to acclimatize at altitude and so was not included in the 1953 team. He also explored part of the Api group in Nepal with John Tyson in 1953.

13. Airey Neave DSO OBE MC

Neave joined the Territorial Army and became an officer of the Royal Artillery in the regular British Army at the beginning of WWII. He was sent to France in February 1940 as part of a searchlight regiment, and was wounded and captured by the Germans at Calais on 23 May 1940. He was imprisoned at Oflag IX-A/H near Spangenberg and in February 1941 moved to Stalag XX-A near Thorn in German-occupied western Poland. In April 1941 he escaped from Thorn with Norman Forbes. They were captured near Itow while trying to enter Soviet-controlled Poland and were briefly in the hands of the Gestapo. In May, they were both sent to Oflag IV-C, which is often referred to as Colditz Castle because of its location. Neave made his first attempt to escape from Colditz on 28 August 1941 disguised as a German N.C.O. He did not get out of the castle as his hastily contrived German uniform (made from a Polish army tunic and cap painted with scenery paint) was rendered bright green under the prison searchlights. He tried again on 5 January 1942, again in disguise, together with Dutch officer Anthony Luteyn. Better uniforms and escape route (they made a quick exit from a theatrical production using the trap door beneath the stage) got them out of the prison and by train and on foot they travelled to Gdansk in Poland from where Neave took a boat to neutral Sweden. He was later recruited as an intelligence agent for MI9. While at MI9, he was the immediate superior of Michael Bentine CBE. He also served with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg investigating Krupp. As a well-known war hero - as well as a qualified lawyer who spoke fluent German - he was honoured with the role of reading the indictments to the Nazi leaders on trial. He wrote several books about his war experiences including an account of the Nuremberg Trial.

14. Donald Pleasance OBE

During WWII Pleasence was initially a conscientious objector, but later changed his stance and was commissioned into the RAF, serving with 166 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. His Avro Lancaster was shot down on 31 August 1944, during a raid on Agenville. He was taken prisoner and placed in a German POWcamp, where he produced and acted in plays. He would later play Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe in The Great Escape where much of the story takes place inside a German POW camp.

15. Ronald Searle CBE RDI

In April 1939, realizing that war was inevitable, he abandoned his art studies to enlist in the Royal Engineers. In January 1942, he was stationed in Singapore. After a month of fighting in Malaya, Singapore fell to the Japanese, and he was taken prisoner along with his cousin Tom Fordham Searle. He spent the rest of the war a prisoner, first in Changi Prison and then in the Kwai jungle, working on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Searle contracted both Beri-beri and Malaria during his incarceration, which included numerous beatings, and his weight dropped to less than 40 kilograms. He was liberated in late 1945 with the final defeat of the Japanese. Immediately after the war, he served as a courtroom artist at the Nuremberg Trails.

16. E.W. Swanton CBE

Swanton served in the Bedfordshire Yeomanry in WWII. He was in the rank of acting major when wounded and captured by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore, and spent three years as a POW. His unit spent time in camps along the Burma-Siam railway, and he contracted polio and lost a considerable amount of bodyweight, but his well-thumbed copy of the 1939 Wisden Crickters’ Almanack boosted morale. He later described playing cricket with makeshift equipment and under conditions of extreme privation and the constant threat of brutality in an article, "Cricket under the Japs", for the 1946 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

17. Charles Upham VC and bar (The most highly decorated man in the British Army in WWII)

Having been taken POW in his second VC action, he was sent to an Italian hospital to recuperate but attempted to escape numerous times before being branded "dangerous" by the Germans. One attempt to escape occurred when a group of POWs were being transported in open trucks through Italy, Upham jumped from the truck at a bend and managed to get 400 yards (370 m) away before being recaptured. He had broken an ankle in jumping from the moving truck. Another attempt occurred when he was being moved between prison camps on a civilian train while guarded by two Germans. Upham was only allowed to visit the toilet when the train was traveling at high speed, to prevent him from jumping through a window. Nevertheless, Upham prised open the toilet window and jumped onto the tracks, knocking himself unconscious. On a third occasion, he tried to escape a camp by climbing its fences in broad daylight. He became entangled in barbed wire when he fell down between the two fences. When a prison guard pointed a pistol at his head and threatened to shoot, Upham calmly ignored him and lit a cigarette. This scene was photographed by the Germans as "evidence" and later reprinted in his biography, Mark of the Lion, by Kenneth Sandford. After this incident, Upham was considered extremely dangerous and was placed in solitary confinement. He was only allowed to exercise alone, while accompanied by two armed guards and while covered by a machine gun in a tower. Despite these precautions, Upham bolted from his little courtyard, straight through the German barracks and out through the front gate of the camp. The guard in the machine gun tower later told other prisoners that he refrained from shooting Upham out of sheer respect, and as he could see German soldiers coming up the road who he expected to capture Upham. Upham was soon recaptured and sent to the infamous Oflag IV-C (Colditz) on 14 October 1944.

Edited by azyeoman
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