Jack Emeny’s wartime story (1938 to 1946)

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Jack Emeny’s story by his son Kenneth

My Dad was born at 45, Manderville Street, Darnall, Sheffield, England on the 26th April 1921, to Louise William Samuel Emeny and his wife Kate Eliza (nee Bagshaw), who were married on the 9th of March 1907. His father who was originally from Leytonstone, Essex was employed as a Railway Wagon and Carriage Carpenter. When Dad was 11 years old his mother died of septicaemia as a result of a burst appendix.

His father remarried later the same year to Nellie Smith. The family lived at 18, The Green, Whiston, Rotherham, England which later became 2, Turner Lane. Dad attended Whitby Road Junior School Darnall and Wickersley Senior School. On leaving school in 1936 aged 15 Dad started work as a haulage hand at Orgreave coke ovens.

On 26th April 1938, his 17th Birthday, he enlisted in the Army Reserves York and Lancaster regiment, at the Army Recruiting Office 123, Surrey Street, Sheffield. On 24th October 1938 he completed his initial training and on the 26th May 1939 his annual training at Pontefract Army Barracks, between working at the coke ovens. 2nd September 1939 Dad was mobilized, “called to colours” at Pontefract.
8th February 1940 he was posted to Royal Army Service Corps Training Centre Staveley, joining the 2nd Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment.

4th August 1940 Dad was posted to Egypt, sailing from Liverpool with convoy WS 2 made up of 11 troopships and 5 military store ships via; Freetown, Capetown, round the Cape of Good Hope, Durban, Mombasa, Perim Island through the Red Sea to Suez, disembarking on the 19th September 1940 onto lighters (sea going barges) at the anchorage in Suez Bay, Dad was at sea for 46 days. He then travelled overland to Cairo where he was admitted to hospital spending 20 days reasons unknown.

The Army Personnel Centre has refused me a copy of Dads medical records due to The Access to Health Records Act November 1990. 9th October 1940 Dad was discharged from hospital and joined his Battalion at Sidi Bishr Camp just north east of Alexandria.

Dad stayed in Egypt until the 4th November 1940 when he ‘shipped out’ (travelled) with the Battalion to Crete, to become part of the garrison on the island. His ship was the cruiser HMS Ajax landing in Souda bay on the 5th November 1940 the arrival was met by an attack from the Italian Air Force. On the 5th December 1940 he was admitted to hospital and discharged on the 10th December 1940, reasons unknown.

Battle of Crete.

31st December 1940 Crete the 14th Infantry Brigade was reformed around the 2nd Battalion York and Lancaster and the 2nd Battalion Black Watch. 16th May 1941 they were joined by the Leicestershire Regiment. The 14th Infantry Brigade were tasked with the defence of Heraklion airfield. From early May 1941 air attacks on Heraklion increased until the 20th May 1941 when German paratroopers were dropped at Maleme and Heraklion airfields. The three battalions of the 14th Brigade inflicted massive casualties on the German paratroopers dropped at Heraklion.

After this the Germans did not try to land any more paratroopers at Heraklion instead they built up forces outside the perimeter. Before the German forces were able to complete the encirclement of Heraklion a company from the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, from Tymbaki on the south coast joined the defence.

The German forces from Maleme landed four more companies of troops in the vicinity of Heraklion who linked up with survivors of the first landing and launched counterattacks on British positions. The fighting at this time was extremely fierce but the York and Lancs held their positions. The command of the Allied troops on Crete was entrusted to Major General Bernard Freyberg, who on the 28th May 1941 ordered the evacuation of the island. When the men heard of this they could not believe it, to them the battle of the last 8 days had seemed to be going well.

29th May 1941 in the early hours Dad was evacuated from Heraklion (Crete), sailing to Alexandria (Egypt). The ships of Force “B” involved in the evacuation of Allied troops were heavily attacked, with over 200 Crew and 800 of the 4,000 troops being killed, wounded or captured during the voyage to Alexandria. The destroyers HMS Imperial and HMS Hereward were sunk and HMS Decoy damaged. The cruisers HMS Dido and HMS Orion suffered massive bomb damage.

27th June 1941 in a letter to his stepmother he wrote;
“Well I think you will have heard about us in Crete I got off alright and was one of the last. I have lost all my letters and photographs that I had. I cannot tell you much about Crete as you will know but we were fighting left and right, hand to hand the last week. We were bombed for six hours on the sea coming away”.

10th July 1941 Dad moved overland from Alexandria (Egypt) to Damascus (Syria). The 2nd Battalion York and Lancs were sent with the 14th Brigade to quell the Vichy French forces in Syria. On their arrival in Damascus they found the Vichy French had already surrendered.
The Battalion remained in Syria on occupational duty until mid October 1941.

15th October 1941 Dad moved overland with the 2nd Battalion York and Lancs from Syria back to Egypt, to a staging camp on the outskirts of Alexandria; from here they sailed to Tobruk (Libya) to relieve the besieged Australian 9th Division.

Battle of Tobruk, Operation Crusader 18th November – December 30th 1941.

21st November 1941 the 70th Division of which the 2nd Battalion York and Lancs were an infantry component, launched a break out offensive from Tobruk named Operation Crusader, driving the Axis forces from the city perimeter and joining up with the 8th Army advancing from the south east and finally lifting the siege.
26th November 1941 Dad was wounded in action at Ed Duda during this operation.

26th November 1941 Dad admitted to 62 General hospital Tobruk.
3rd December 1941 Dad transferred to Alexandria on the hospital ship
HMHS Somersetshire and then by road to 15 General hospital Cairo (Egypt).
11th December 1941 Dad transferred to 2 Command Depot Cairo.
16th January 1942 Dad readmitted to 15 General hospital Cairo.
21st January 1942 Dad discharged to 2 Command Depot Cairo.
5th March 1942 Dad transferred to 5 Command Depot Cairo.
(A Command Depot was a military convalescent camp).
9th April 1942 Dad discharged to 1 Base Depot Almaza Cairo.
11th April 1942 He arrived at 1 Base Depot Almaza Cairo.
29th April 1942 Egypt Dad was transferred to the Green Howards, the reason for this;
28th February 1942 the 2nd Battalion York and Lancs shipped out from Egypt heading for India to help stop the rapid advance of the Japanese army in Burma, this was while Dad was recovering from the injuries he sustained at Ed Duda, 3 miles south east of Tobruk.

6th May 1942 Dad joined his new Regiment the 5th Battalion Green Howards.
The 4th and 5th Battalions Green Howards together with the 4th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment made up the infantry component of the 150th Infantry Brigade, which was assigned to a defensive position at Sidi Muftah west of the Gazala line.

Battle of Gazala

26th May 1942 Rommel launched an offensive, bypassing the Gazala line and
striking at the British armoured reserves to its rear. Although he defeated the British
tanks he found himself without supplies as his logistics convoys could not penetrate the Gazala line. The Italians finally located the 150th Brigade at Sidi Muftah.
A series of increasingly heavy attacks were organised by elements of three German and two Italian divisions, with air support from Stuka dive bombers. Finally with the enemy under the direct leadership of Rommel, the 150th Brigade suffering huge losses, isolated and ammunition exhausted they were overrun on the 1st June 1942.
3,000 survivors of the 150th Brigade were taken prisoner and in the weeks that followed shipped out from Benghazi to Italy and then on to prisoner of war camps.

24th June 1942 Granddad received a card from the Red Cross that Dad was a POW.
29th June 1942 Granddad received a letter from the Infantry Office that Dad was posted as “missing” on the 4th June 1942
14th August 1942 Granddad received a further letter from Infantry Office that Dad was at PG Campo 65 PM 3450 POW camp Altamura – Gravina Puglia (Italy). This was an awful camp men died of starvation before the autumn of 1942, when Red Cross parcels began to arrive. The camp was filled with rows of emaciated men sitting or lying down to conserve their meagre energy.
The Commandant at this time was believed to be corrupt and selling food, boots and clothing intended for the prisoners.

29th May 1943 Dad arrived at Campo PG 52 PM 3100 POW camp Coreglia – Chiavari Liguria (Italy). In a letter and card he wrote; “this is a much better camp”.

8th September 1943 the Italians surrendered to the allies, Dad hoped like a lot of other prisoners at the camp that he would soon be on his way home. Instead the following day they were transported by rail in cattle trucks to Germany.

29th September 1943 Dad arrived at Stalag VIIIB POW camp Lamsdorf (Germany), now Lambinowice (Poland). This was one of the largest camps housing thousands of prisoners from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Greece, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the United States. It also administered a large number of Arbeits Kommandos (work camps).

March 1944 Dad was moved to Poland to work down the coal mines. He began at work camp E739 working down the Paryz (Paris) coal mine in Dabrowa. August 1944 he was transferred to work camp E563 to work down the Robertsgrube (Roberts Shaft) coal mine in Bory Jaworzno.
22nd October 1944 in a card sent from E563 he wrote; “pit at Treeton is much better”.
November 1944 Dads promotion to Corporal came through; in reply to a request he had made 6 months earlier. N.C.O.s were not allowed to work in the mines, because of this he was moved back to Germany on the 7th December 1944 to Stalag VIIIC, Zagan. The weather was bitterly cold but the prisoners were only allowed one blanket each and there had been no deliveries of Red Cross parcels for some time, so Dad volunteered to work in a sugar factory with the idea of escaping in mind. 16th January 1945 he arrived at work camp E303 sugar factory in Breslau.

The March

As the Soviet armies resumed their offensive and advanced into Germany, prisoners were taken from the camps and marched westward in groups of 200 to 300, on what was to become known as “The March”. One of the reasons given by the Germans was to delay their liberation. January and February 1945 were among the coldest winter months of the 20th century in Europe and many prisoners died from the bitter cold, exhaustion and the lack of food. The lucky ones got far enough to the west to be liberated by the American or British armies. The unlucky ones were ‘liberated’ by the Soviets, who instead of turning them over quickly to the western Allies, held them as virtual hostages for several more months, until the British agreed to hand over to the Soviet Union, POWs of Soviet origin who had been fighting with the Germans. This left the British Government with little choice on the matter, even though they were understandable reluctant to hand these men over to the Soviet Union for their inevitable execution. These soldiers from states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia for example, had fought with the Germans in an effort as they saw it, to release their own homelands from Soviet occupation and oppression.

20th January 1945 the evacuation of Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf and the sub camps under its control began. When the guards gave the order for the camps to be evacuated, the POWs quickly gathered what few possessions, spare clothing, food and cigarettes they had and packed them in to empty Red Cross boxes, or wrapped them in bundles that they could carry. There was snow on the ground when the evacuation began and some POWs made sledges out of the bed boards so they could pull their belongings. The groups of POWs were marched from the camps on three main routes; northern, central and southern, across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany passing other camps and collecting other POWs on route.

25th January 1945 Dad was one of 300 prisoners of war evacuated from the work camp in Breslau, they started out westward. After “marching” for 2 weeks in atrocious heavy snow and freezing conditions, with little or nothing in the way of food or shelter, on the 19th February 1945 they arrived at Stalag VIIIC, Zagan a distance of over 100 miles, where they were allowed to rest for a day. The German guards then forced them to start moving again because the Russians were closing in behind them. “Marching” continuously for another 39 days and covering a further 286 miles, they arrived in Hanover on the 19th March 1945 and were taken to a concentration camp on the south east side of the city. In the camp the food was very poor and water was in short supply. There was considerable illness and disease among the prisoners and in the 5 days that Dad was there 2 died. After 2 days they were put to work filling bomb craters on the railway tracks.

24th March 1945 around 8.30 a.m. under the cover of a RAF air raid on the marshalling yards where they were working, Dad and his friend George Oakes who he met at the sugar factory in Breslau and had been on the “march” with, escaped.

For a 6 nights they kept moving west and during the day searching for food and hiding where ever they could. They reached Minden but could not get across the river Weser. The only bridges that the Wehrmacht had not blown up to delay the advancing Allied forces, were heavily guarded. 30th March 1945 they were eventually captured and taken to a German infantry barracks in the town. After 3 days they were moved to a prison for political prisoners.

An American, Corporal Aldrick was put in with Dad and George, at the same time all the political prisoners were removed from the prison, leaving only the 3 Allied prisoners and one Germany N.C.O. who had been charged with assisting an American airman escape. There was also the prison Commandant and 8 guards. The Commandant and the German N.C.O. proposed that they, the 3 prisoners and the guards were to stay at the prison until the town was taken by the Allied forces.

4th April 1945 they were liberated by the 6th British Airborne Division.

9th April 1945 Dad was repatriated and transferred to 90 Reception Camp, Vache Park Estate Chalfont St Giles, England. After 2 days he was posted on 42 days leave.
1st July 1945 Dad was attached to 3 Army Selection Training Unit, Richmond.

10th November 1945, Dad married Marion at St Mary Magdalene’s Church Whiston.

Marion attended Catcliffe Junior and Senior School. When she left school in1940 she started work at Guest and Chrimes foundry and brass works. She spent the war years as an artillery shell case grinder.

23rd November 1945 Dad was attached to 5 Infantry Training Centre, Richmond.
21st April 1946 Dad was transferred to 5 Holding Battalion, Richmond, (North Yorks).
9th August 1946 Dad proceeded on release leave.
29th August 1946 He was Demobilized from the army.
30th August 1946 He was transferred to Army Reserves.
He then returned to work at Orgreave coke ovens.

Dad was a prisoner of war for 2 years 309 days. Prisoner Number 30820.
He “marched” over 386 miles from Breslau to Hanover in 53 days.
After he escaped he walked a further 48 miles to Minden.

Dad never spoke to me about his time in the war!

Main references:

  • Dads Army Service Records.   The National Archives War Office Records.
  • The York and Lancaster Regiment 2nd Battalion records.
  • The Green Howards Regiment 4th and 5th Battalion records.
  • Dads letters and cards, given to me by Jacqueline (Dad’s half sister).
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