Author Maggie Brookes knew her father had been taken prisoner in the Second World War. But it wasn’t until after his death and the discovery of a gut-wrenchingly detailed diary that she understood the extent of the cruelties he endured at the hands of the Nazis.
As a child growing up in London, I was always thought of as a ‘daddy’s girl’, and our relationship was incredibly close. While I knew him as Daddy, to others he was Alfred Arthur Brookes, born in 1920.
Every evening he checked under my bed for wolves. He trudged out to the allotment on one rainy night to rescue my favourite doll. He sang to me (though he always got the words wrong). He was interested in everything, self-taught and knowledgeable about art, theatre and travel. His death in 1996, when I was 41, was devastating, but his overwhelming passion for life remained my enduring memory of him.
Throughout his life we discussed anything and everything, but there was one area that he would never share with me: his service during the Second World War. He would talk willingly about his childhood, his family, meeting my mother and everything that came after the war, but he never spoke about anything between 1939 and 1945. While my mother, Joan, told many tales about her experiences as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse with the Navy, serving in hospitals in different locations around the coast of England, Dad never said a word. I only found out he’d been a prisoner of war because Mum once told me – and I knew never to ask him about it.
It wasn’t until my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary that I got a glimpse into his secret past when Harold Gudgion, my father’s lifelong best friend and fellow veteran, made a moving speech about my dad’s calmness andcourage. I’d known Harold my whole life, but I didn’t fully understand at the time that he was referring not only to their time actively fighting during the war, but also the three years they spent as prisoners of war together. It would take me 20 years after Dad’s death to discover the full, extraordinary details.
I had spent many years as a journalist and BBC TV producer, but this was the most astonishing story I’d ever come across. As I began my research, reading first-person testimonies to find out what life was like in these camps, I discovered that when Harold had died in 2010, he had a stash of diaries and had also recorded his memories on tape for his son John to transcribe, in order to leave behind a record of his experiences.
Harold’s diaries and memoirs covered the years between 1942 and 1945, including the years he spent imprisoned with my dad first in North Africa, before moving on to the Carpi Camp in Northern Italy and then to Zedlach in Austria. My dad – Harold’s brother-in-arms – featured on almost every page. When I first began to read, I was afraid of what I would find. Might they reveal aspects of my beloved dad that would spoil my memory of him?
I soon learned that Harold and Dad had met as gunners in the 64th Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery, a battalion of young men including many volunteers from North London. Dad was 17 and Harold was 21. Most of their comrades were of similar ages. Their emblem was an elephant and they were nicknamed ‘the elephant boys’. In November 1940, after their basic training, they were posted to North Africa. Dad had always loved to explore new places and these pages showed where he’d caught the travel bug – a long sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, along the east coast of Africa and through the Suez Canal to Egypt. Over the next 18 months they were posted to an astounding number of places: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
Seeing Dad mentioned for the first time sent such a thrill through me. He made his appearance as Harold was describing an advance through the Egyptian desert on the eve of battle: ‘In broad daylight under a clear sky I was standing up at the front of our truck… and I suddenly realised that in the truck next to us there was Alfie Brookes and he shouted across above the noise, ‘I’m 21 today.’ It was with mixed feelings that I pictured Dad, young and handsome, fully alive in that moment and filled with excitement, knowing he would soon be charging into battle.
Later Harold described the terrible day in 1942 when they were captured in Egypt by the combined German and Italian Panzer Army Africa. Seven thousand British soldiers were taken prisoner in the same battle. With only the clothes on their back, and amid a great crush of men, Harold tells of how ‘we spent the night in pens along the way westwards, and I had the great good fortune to meet up with Alf Brookes.’
I read in growing horror as Harold described the tented encampment at Benghazi in Libya where they were guarded by ‘trigger-happy, thoroughly unpleasant, totally unsympathetic’ tribesmen. One of their punishments was to string a man up against a wall with leather manacles, holding his body up crucifix-style so that his feet were off the ground. He would hang like that, without food or water, throughout the heat of the day, and when his tormentors decided, they would signal to the man’s friends that they could take him down. I couldn’t bear to think of my lovely, gentle dad faced with such abhorrent treatment. Harold wrote: ‘Abominably we were kept in Benghazi for over three months.’ He doesn’t say if either of them were tortured, but he does say, ‘We had arrived as soldiers, we left nearer animals.’
Eventually they were taken to Sicily, a sea voyage of three days in the pitch black hull of the ship, before being carted across Italy in cattle-truck trains. After five months of inhuman treatment, they arrived at a permanent camp in Northern Italy. I felt a sense of relief that perhaps the worst was over for Dad, but while their treatment improved slightly, the trials of living as a prisoner soon became apparent. The camp was on low-lying land which was boggy in winter and mosquito-ridden in summer. There Harold and Dad experienced the excruciating boredom of prison camp life for almost a year.
They tried to keep themselves occupied and fit: Harold began to teach my dad German; they played endless hours of bridge and poker; Dad carved an entire wooden chess set that was instantly confiscated by Nazi officers. The diary also revealed – somewhat surprisingly – that my dad had taught himself to knit: ‘We were laden with kit… and a great quantity of wool for Alf’s new knitting fever.’ I never saw Dad knitting, but as a child I wrote an essay for school about him always picking up new ‘crazes’ which he’d throw himself into for a few months, perhaps a lasting influence of life in the camp. But I never saw him play cards – perhaps he’d played enough games to last a lifetime.
Before the war, Harold had worked at a solicitor’s office and he passed on his knowledge of shorthand to my dad, a skill they used to make notes about the escapes they were hatching and their two abortive attempts to get away. As the Allies advanced up the leg of Italy towards their camp, all the prisoners assumed they would soon be liberated.
On 8 September 1943 their Italian guards vanished and Harold wrote in capital letters in his diary, ‘It is over!’ I could only imagine their stomach-churning disappointment when the Nazis swept into the camp and ‘the swastika was run up the flagpole’. Instead of liberation, they were to be moved north into Austria, and Dad and Harold seized this chance to escape.
Because Dad never smoked, they were able to save his cigarette rations from the Red Cross parcels as currency to buy clothes to disguise themselves. Breaking free from the camp, they hid in the roof of a barn for two days and a night until they were discovered and hauled out and put in front of a firing squad. I read this with my heart in my mouth, imagining the terror they must have felt in that moment. But Dad apparently thought, ‘I wish they’d get on with it, I don’t think I can stand here much longer.’ As I am here to tell this story, I know the firing squad was stood down. Nobody knows why. Perhaps they were just trying to terrify Harold and Dad into submission.
What followed was terrible to read: ‘We were formed into a circle and made to hold each other’s shoulders. The Nazis formed up two or three deep around us and we were made to charge round… while they hit us with rifle butts, tree branches and the helves [handles] of picks.’ The 12 men who suffered this brutal attack ‘shared a quiet satisfaction that there had not been a murmur or groan… from any of us.’ I wept, and I knew now what Harold meant when he praised Dad’s calmness and courage in his anniversary speech. It was only made worse by my knowledge that they would have to face another year and a half of imprisonment as they were transported by railway cattle truck from Carpi to Markt Pongau in Austria.
Having grown up on films such as The Great Escape and the Colditz TV series, I’d imagined that all prisoners of war were cooped up in jails for years, plotting ways to break out. I hadn’t realised that the majority of POWs – Dad and Harold included – were actually put to work outside the camps. All prisoners below officer rank were offered work, and Dad and Harold took the first opportunity they could to volunteer in order to leave the mind-numbing boredom of the camp.
They were taken high up into the Austrian Alps to build roads – back-breaking physical work on very poor rations – and locked up under guard at night. But for them, it was better than being cooped up. They were hungry most of the time. Pages of Harold’s diary are about food – or the lack of it – and the huge importance of the Red Cross parcels that kept them from starvation. Now I understood why Dad would never throw away a single scrap of food, and why he’d taken on two allotments when he married Mum, to ensure he could always feed his family.
In May 1945 the war in Europe ended, POW camps were liberated by the Allies and the slow process of repatriation began. Harold’s entries towards the end of the war spoke of the way their friendship had carried them both through their terrible three-year imprisonment. Although they hadn’t known each other before the war, they discovered they both lived in the same part of North London and so travelled home together, eventually arriving by tube.
They remained lifelong friends, and Harold wrote: ‘By happy chance we had served in the same regiment, the same battery, the same troop. It had taken well over six years of our 20s… somehow we had survived together. Nothing can match that sort of association. On both sides, no other candidate could possibly truly serve as Best Man.’ And so, in time, Dad was best man at Harold’s wedding, and when Dad met Mum, the favour was returned.
It was painful to read of my darling Dad suffering as he did, but I’m profoundly grateful to Harold for writing everything down, for ensuring the notebooks were preserved throughout the war and to his family for sharing them with me. Reading them brought Dad close to me in a new way that I will forever cherish. Through them, I discovered that he had always been the calm, quirky, funny and courageous man I knew, even under the most terrible of circumstances. I wish now that I could have spoken to him about his experiences, but know that he would have changed the subject and wanted to look forward not back.
In the 1960s, my parents opened their home to Italian and German exchange students. Dad used to say it was a small way of trying to ensure that nothing like the war they had known would ever happen again. Now that I understand the treatment my father endured as a prisoner, I’m more amazed than ever at just how admirable and forgiving he was as a human being. I’m full of gratitude that I am the daughter of such a wonderful man.
Maggie Brookes’s debut novel, The Prisoner’s Wife, will be published by Century on 16 April, price £12.99.