Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Book - Smiling German in tank said: 'Come on Tommy. For you the war's over'

IT all began for Stephen Staples, from Daybrook, in July 1940.

It's a date emblazoned in his memory, after which life would never be the same again.

He has documented his tale of capture in Tobruk, experiences in prisoner of war camps and his eventual escape in a book called Caprice Italien – British Style.

Lieutenant Bombardier Staples, now 93, said his incredible journey began manning guns on his own doorstep. "I was stationed at Yorker Site 276 HAA BTY RA at Gainsford Crescent, off Oxclose Lane, then on to Sugar Site at Beechwood Road, Aspley," he recalled.

"It was while there that I fired a 3.7 HAA gun at a German plane which came in over Wollaton Hall. I was the one who pressed the firing handle down. We didn't hit it, but we scared the occupants of Wollaton to death when the shrapnel pieces from the shells dropped down upon them!"

Stephen stayed with this unit until they were captured in Tobruk in June 1942.

He was among troops shipped to Egypt. "Although we were not told where we were going it soon became clear that it was Tobruk," he said.

"My unit was the headquarters staff of the 68th Regiment, Heavy Anti-Aircraft Royal Artillery, billeted about a mile outside Tobruk, just past the famous Hell Fire Corner sign.

"This was our second visit to Tobruk. The first occasion was when we had passed through on our way in the advance to Benghazi, which hadn't lasted long before being chased back again by our old friend General Rommel and his men, who now sat on the perimeter of Tobruk, amassing his forces for the final attack on the town."

The men lived in dugouts and earned themselves a famous nickname. "The Germans called us Desert Rats and the name stuck. It is now carried with pride by all who served there," Stephen said. On June 20 Rommel unleashed a surprise attack on Tobruk and a succession of bombing raids involving every German and Italian bomber in Libya – plus some from Crete.

Stephen said: "I expected to be killed as there didn't seem any alternative. The tanks veered away and gave us some respite for a short time, but then I heard an ominous clanking about 50 yards away, and there advancing towards us was a Tiger tank – the pride of the German Army.

"I pulled the cocking handle out of my rifle and buried it, then I raised my hands the best way I could in a prone position. I braced myself expecting the machine gun to riddle me. The tank pulled up barely ten yards away, the turret cover flipped open and a smiling German officer stood up and shouted 'Come on Tommy. For you the war is over'.

"The tanks circled around us, herding us into the centre. Then all hell let loose. Three German Stukas had begun their dive directly overhead. We dived under the projecting front of the nearest tank. If it had moved we were dead."

It was the start of a trek to a succession of prisoner of war camps. At the time of his capture Stephen describes himself as 23, very fit and weighing 13 stones: "When we first set eyes on Camp 78 Sulmona in Italy, I weighed about nine stones, was physically exhausted, mentally very depressed, dirty, lice-infested, hungry, dehydrated and wearing the same shirt and shorts in which I had been captured three months earlier."

The camp was home to 3,000 British and Commonwealth officers and other ranks captured in North Africa.

In September 1943, as the Italian government neared collapse, the inmates of Sulmona heard rumours that the evacuation of the camp was imminent. They awoke one morning to discover that their guards had deserted them.

"A mass meeting was held and we were informed that arms were to be airlifted to us and that anyone leaving the camp would be classed as a deserter. We waited days but no arms came. We decided that it was just a ploy to keep us together," Stephen added.

He joined a small group – one of many – who escaped into the hills surrounding Monte Morrone and set off on a hazardous journey which eventually led him to Naples on June 20, 1944 – two years to the day when he had been taken prisoner in Tobruk.

Later, long days were spent in this country at York Hill Barracks, before Stephen was sent home for three weeks' leave. He said: "When I reached the Midland Station in Nottingham – the same platform I left three years previously – it was a Sunday morning.

"I sat on my kit bag in the entrance hall but found out that there were no buses until mid morning. So it was a case of hitchhiking and my luck was good as an ATS girl driver with a small truck was going to Bestwood Camp.

"I eyed every shop and every inch of the way along Mansfield Road. I stopped at the bottom of Morris Street, thanked the girl and began to walk up the hill.

"At 7.30 I was alone. I had dreamt of this moment many, many times, but not like this. Just one person I knew would have been enough. I knocked on the door. I was home. The next three weeks were spent meeting family and friends but it didn't seem real. I couldn't take it all in. I needed time to myself."

Stephen was demobbed in June 1946.

"I was discharged at York and so it ended, back home and free at last. But my street had moved on from 1939 at a very fast pace. Everything and everybody had changed, there was no looking back," he said.

"A few weeks after getting home, an Army sergeant came to see me about re-signing. I was out at the time – and I still am!"

Stephen, who has lived in the same house in Daybrook since 1948, worked at Home Brewery and then spent 30 years on the coal face at Gedling pit, retiring in 1979 at the age of 60.

A few copies of the book remain available from Colin Staples on: 0791 0452 012.

From: http://www.thisisnottingham.co.uk/Smiling-German-tank-said-Come-Tommy-war-s/story-16660980-detail/story.html

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