Library Reference Number: 035
Shot Down Over Benghazi
Little did Iain Macdonald realise, that having been fortunate enough to successfully bail out of his stricken aircraft, he would spend the following three years and seven months as a prisoner-of-war. The following account is given by Wellington pilot Iain himself who relates some of those harrowing times in his own words........
One a.m. on 7th September, 1941, and we had all landed within close proximity to three Arab tents. The occupants greeted us, immediately taking possession of our parachutes, and in return, handed us heavy, flea-infested blankets. Following this, they indicated in sign-language that we should lie down and go to sleep for the rest of the night.
About 8 a.m. next morning, we were put on camels and taken across semi-desert terrain where we were quickly met by two vehicles containing two Italian officers and several armed troops. Our new Arab 'friends' had already disappeared, no doubt having collected their bounty for arranging our capture.
After being kept under guard in Apolonia until 11th September, we were then taken to Dernia where we were housed in a sort of bare courtyard devoid of anything except a couple of two tier metal beds without mattresses or blankets and where the other two crew members took it in turns to lie on the floor. Individual interrogations followed, and on 17th September, two ultra-smart German Afrika Corps officers appeared, and in excellent upper class English said, "Come away chaps and we will take you fora drive along the coast where you can have a nice bathe at the beach; no need to take your flying jackets."
Needless to say, that was the last we saw of our jackets. We never visited the beach either. Instead, we were taken to Derna aerodrome where we were put on a Ju 52 plane, flying in and refuelling at Crete before flying in the same plane to Athens.
We were taken to what appeared like a sanatorium, and on the third floor we were kept in solitary confinement, not seeing other crew members until 1st October. On the move again, I was taken by German armed guards to Athens airport, there to board a Ju 52 which was crammed to the roof with loot being taken by German soldiers on their way to home leave.
Arriving in Salonica (N. Greece), I was given some brown bread, liver pate paste and a piece of smelly cheese. I was led aboard a German troop train where my armed escort was given the guard's quarters, and I sat or slept on the floor of the guards van for three nights on our journey through Belgrade and Budapest to Vienna where my escort handed me over to a prison on the evening of 25th September, 1941.
The prison cell door clanged shut, and for what seemed like an eternity but was actually three days later, I was transported by train to Frankfurt. DulagLuft Prison Camp, Frankfurt, was the Interrogation Centre for RAF POW and there I was placed in a small, second storey room with barred windows. I was interrogated several times with each occasion becoming more threatening. After three days of solitary confinement, I was taken to the main compound where I met the rest of my crew - for the first time since we arrived at Athens. We didn't realise it at the time, but our future for the next three (almost four)years would be one of confinement behind barbed wire, in prison camps within the Third Reich!
Once the compound was full of Allied prisoners, we were taken en masse by train to Stalag 8B which was close to the Czech border at a place named Lamsdorf. This POW camp contained many soldiers, many of whom had been captured at Dunkirk.
Although some of the Army prisoners were sent out on working parties to farms etc., we were kept in a separate compound and detained permanently behind the wire. Apparently, we were considered a much greater security risk and more liable to make a break for freedom. Consequently all RAF personnel were housed in brick structures with concrete roofs and floors right until the end of hostilities. Our daily rations consisted of weak mint tea in the morning (only fit for shaving) and around noon, some watery swede soup where, if lucky, you might find a piece of horse meat floating about, three potatoes per man, and a loaf of black bread per day between six men. The daily ritual of dividing this bread equally between six men caused lots of friction when it was thought to be unequally divided. The great life-savers were indeed the Red Cross parcels. Each man received one parcel per week and the Germans punctured the tinned food before issuing it as a means to prevent prisoners storing tins in preparation for an escape bid. We also received 50 cigarettes each month and these very quickly became 'legal tender.'
During those years of captivity, we saw Christmas Days arrive and depart, always hopeful we could all be home for the next Christmas. We certainly experienced the saying that "hope springs eternal .."
One person who was a great help was named Dixie Dean, our elected camp leader. Dixie could speak fluent German and could therefore arrange a number of different deals which could benefit his fellow prisoners. He became a legend among RAF POWs and remained our leader at all the various camps where we were in captivity. Dixie also supervised the twice-daily parades where names were called to check for escape bids. At a later date, Dixie's strong leadership was to save many of our lives. On 13th May, 1942, we were marched to the station, ordered into cattle trucks, and after travelling for two days and nights, arrived at Sagan; our new camp being Stalag 3. On 10th June, 1943, another journey packed into cattle trucks took us to StalagLuft 6 (Heydekrug).
While still at Heydekrug in April, 1944, we had a special roll-call, and after Dixie Dean called the parade to attention, we saw that a vast number of German troops were surrounding the parade-ground armed with machine guns. A German Major then read out a statement telling us that fifty British Officers had been shot 'while resisting arrest' at StalagLuft 3, Sagan. This, in fact, was the "Great Escape" and the reaction to this announcement could easily have resulted in a riot and blood bath without Dixie Dean's leadership and example which defused this highly explosive situation! We had witnessed the treatment of Russian prisoners by the Germans and had no illusions about their capabilities.
Further journeys in cattle trucks took us to Stalag 357 at Thorme, and later to a camp south of Hamburg. I was eventually liberated at 11.15 am. on 16th April, 1945 by the 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Div.(the Desert Rats). Suffering from malnutrition, I felt the white bread they offered me tasted like cake!
I still have many memories of the above events, details of which have had to be restricted on this occasion due to lack of space. Perhaps at some later date.