[Les Sweetman, World War Two prisoner of war].
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Les Sweetman of Tauranga talks about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. He was captured by Germans in the Western Desert. It had never occurred to him that he could be captured.
He was taken to prisoner of war camps in Benghazi and then Italy. He talks about the camp conditions and the prisoners' treatment by the guards. He was sick with dysentery in the first camp and was shipped to Italy. He says the Italian guards enjoyed humiliating the prisoners.
He was then transferred to a working camp, working in iron ore mines in Germany. He said the German guards were fairer than Italians. The food rations were still poor, but occasionally they were given treats - sugar or cheese. If there were any escape attempts, the extra rations were cut.
Les was part of an escape attempt in Italy. They occasionally worked in the aerodrome; one of the work group could fly and had the idea to steal a bomber and fly over the Yugoslav border. 6 men were involved in the escape attempt, plus two Italian guards who they had bribed. Unfortunately somebody got wind of the plot and the group were separated and sent to different camps.
Les's health suffered during his time of imprisonment. In addition to his early dysentery, he had chest problems and had an accident in the mine. He says being in hospital was good as they were given better rations.
He comments that the treatment of Russian prisoners was worse than the other Allied prisoners. He felt their life was cheap, but found comfort that the prisoners were registered with the Red Cross.
He explains the meaning of the phrase 'walking the wire'. There was barbed wire all around the camp. Walking the wire involved climbing over the barbed wire in front of a sentry box, where the sentry would immediately shoot you. It was the quickest way of committing suicide.
He describes the liberation of the work camp. They could see the tanks approaching, but the German camp commander assembled the prisoners and told them to march away. According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners could not be exposed to any fighting front, and the guards viewed the approaching Allies as such. The guards had orders to shoot every tenth man if they did not comply, so the prisoners marched for a day before the tanks caught up with them. The Allies disarmed the guards and gave their weapons to the prisoners.
He says his main feeling was relief and not animosity towards the guards. The tank drivers passed around food and sweets.
He ends by saying that the lasting impact of his time in the camps is his endurance of suffering. He became so used to suffering and seeing others suffer that he did not notice it any more.
Reference number 324874
Media type AUDIO
Collection Sound Collection
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Sweetman, Les, Speaker/Kaikōrero
Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand (estab. 1976, closed 1988), Broadcaster
Date 06 Oct 1976