We were very cold and I was very scared as we waited for the searchlights to scan the area and then swing away. Lance was the first one to brave the escape.
‘Okay, I’m off,’ he said. ‘see yous later.’ He climbed out, scaled the fence and tore off into the night towards the haystack. Soon after, the light swung on to the hole again, but without revealing the contents, due to the depth of the hole and the angle of light. We cowered in the corner nearest to the tower from which the light had come. No one knew why the hole was being dug, but we now suspected it was for potato storage or for a new washhouse to be joined to the Russian compound.
As soon as the light had gone, Lofty followed Lance’s example without mishap. The guard with the Alsatian had passed just before Lance had made his escape. They were heading away from the river along the perimeter.
‘I think you’d better go next,’ said Les to me.
‘Do as I say,’ said Les, as the searchlight swung back over us.
As soon as it was dark again, I nervously rose, climbed out and ran to the fence, climbed to the top, but before I could swing over and jump to the ground, my tunic caught on the barbed wire and it tore a button off as I fell. Nobody heard the thud and I ran off to the haystack, joining the others.
Soon after the light had swung around again, Les arrived, stumbling through the paddock, puffing heavily.
‘We can’t stay here,’ he panted. ‘Let’s get off to the river,’ and he ran out into the darkness, followed by the three of us. We got into the water, but unfortunately there was no shallow margin along which to walk. Before we knew it we were neck deep in freezing, fast-flowing water. I had no time to express my relief that no one had been killed during the escape so far. I was quite amazed that such a foolhardy escapade had gone without any hitch apart from tearing my ill-fitting and bulging tunic.
‘Jesus, it’s cold,’ said Lofty. ‘It’s about a mile to the bridge and I’m going to get there just as soon as I can and get out. I’ll wait for you there.’
We all waded silently and quickly downstream through the water, sometimes forced to swim, until we came to the bridge. Here it was dark and there was very little space between the bottom of the bridge and the bank of the river. We crouched there, shivering, and listening to the noises above, largely drunken singing by German soldiers returning to their barracks from the town. ‘Lili Marlene’ was the most popular number. This went on spasmodically for about two hours. Occasionally a lorry also crossed. We shivered and froze.
‘Perhaps we should cross and go down the left bank,’ said Lance.
‘It’s far too broad with a strong undertow, probably,’ said Lofty. ‘We’ll just have to wait until the traffic on the bridge has gone. Then we’ll cross the bridge and go down the left side of the river and cross the railway and turn left. Ian can go first. If we meet anybody, we’ll just say ‘Heil Hitler’. If we get challenged we’ll just have to charge the guy, knock him out and chuck him in the river.’
‘That’s a good plan,’ said Les. It sounded silly to me.
After another half an hour we had not heard anyone on the bridge for twenty minutes, so we decided to cross.
In the middle of the bridge we encountered a bicycle-riding drunken soldier proceeding towards the camp from the town. The bike was swinging about with a light on the handlebars.
‘Heil Hitler,’ I said.
‘’litler,’ replied the intoxicated cyclist. We hurried along. It was a long bridge and before we reached the end of it the cyclist came back towards us with a drawn pistol.
‘Halt,’ he said in German, waving his pistol, ‘who are you and where are you going?’ He had sobered up, apparently.
We were about to turn and charge him when I noticed a staff car approaching from the town with the headlights on us and the guard behind. I quickly realised that the escape was over, so I turned and addressed the guard coolly in German, saying that we were returning from a working camp. I lie well when frightened, I found.
By this time three soldiers had alighted from the staff vehicle and, realising that the bicyclist was drunk, they asked us where was our postern and why we were out so late. I replied that the postern had deserted us to urinate just before we started crossing the bridge. I didn’t think this sounded very convincing.
‘But you’re going the wrong way if you’re returning to the Stalag,’ said one of the Germans from the staff car, drawing his pistol also and demanding that we hold our hands above our heads.
Ian Ramsay (VX10100) was born in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 18 August 1919, enlisted in January 1940 as a twenty-year old, and subsequently was captured by the German army in Greece in 1941.
He was discharged in July 1945.
Frank ‘Lofty’ Mcdonald (VX1015) was born in St Kilda, Victoria, Australia on 20 November 1917, enlisted in November 1939 just before his twenty-second birthday, and subsequently was captured by the German army in Greece in 1941.
He was discharged in September 1945.
Les Ridge (VX1428) was born in Denilquin, New South Wales, Australia on 6 September 1905, enlisted in November 1939 as thirty-four-year old, and subsequently was captured by the German army in Greece in 1941.
He was discharged in 12 April 1944.
The author writes, “He had snowy white hair due to shock and distress from the time when he had accidentally killed his wife while driving home from a party. This had quite deranged him causing an addiction to alcohol and a sadistic enjoyment of disorderly conduct.”
“He was always prone to talking in his sleep, but soon he started shouting wildly and fell out of bed and tore about like a lunatic until he was hospitalised and later repatriated.”
Further, “Les bought a pub, became an alcoholic and died in the repatriation hospital four years after the war ended.”
Lance Pepperill is somewhat of a mystery as his name doesn’t appear on the Nominal Roll. The author writes that Pepperill and Les Ridge “had been forever Absent Without Leave”, prior to their capture. Pepperill did escape and made his way to Budapest, “Lance was able to get in touch with a relative, his mother’s cousin. She had married a Hungarian while teaching English at a school there just before the war. She and her husband were able to shelter Lance and finally provide him with papers enabling him to stay.”