Cec Donelly (VX46836) War History - Home
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Cec Donelly (VX46836) War History

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C. DONELLY V.X.46836 2/3 L.A.A. EX. P.O.W.

I enlisted on the 29/7/1940 and was drafted into the 2/3 Light Anti-Aircraft Artillery. I was stationed firstly at Caulfield and from there sent to Werribee. At both places we were stationed at the racecourse where we slept on straw palliasses in the concrete stands. Our training was done at Werribee and in December 1940 we sailed for Palestine on the ‘Mauretania’. Other ships in the convoy were Queen Mary, Aquitania, Dominion Monarch and Awatea. After some time in the desert we were then shipped to the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.

The German intention was to invade Crete by sea but the British Fleet sank all the invading boats and barges. The Island was then bombed solidly for two weeks, then Paratroopers were flown in of which hundreds were shot down and killed before the Germans finally made a landing at Maleme.
Here they set up a landing strip and finally overran the Island
The British ships ‘Imperial’, ‘Dido’, ‘Orion’ and ‘Hereward’ sailed in to evacuate the troops who boarded the ships during the night of May 28th.1941. At 5.30 am. on May 29th.,under heavy Stuka attack, the ‘Hereward ‘,the ship I was on , received a direct bomb which went straight down the funnel. Quite a number of our soldiers and British naval men were killed when the ship was hit, others went down with the ship but the majority jumped overboard and were picked up some hours later by Italian torpedo boats.

I had been in the water about six hours and have no recollection of being picked up by the torpedo boat. We were taken up to the beach of a small Island and, according to my mates, I was laid out with the dead bodies. Luckily, I eventually became conscious and, with others, was sent to Rhodes Island for three months, the first three weeks of which were spent in hospital because of exposure in the water.
We were issued with one set of underwear, one pair of socks, one pair of boots –mine were size 9-I take size 6-, one pair of trousers, one shirt, one jacket and two blankets. These were all the possessions we had as all our belongings went down with the ‘Hereward’.

We were then shipped to Italy and sent to a camp at Capura and from there to Bolzano in the north of Italy near the Brenner Pass. After some time we were moved to camp 57 at Gruppignano near Udine close to the Yugoslavian border. This infamous camp was under the command of Colonel Calcaterra. Details of this camp can be read in Malcolm Webster’s book, ‘An Italian Experience’ and Alex Barnett’s book, ‘ Hitler’s Digger Slaves’.
We spent about twelve months at this camp and were then sent to work in the rice fields on the Lombardy Plains for the next twelve months. Here our beds were three tiered bunks with thin straw mattresses. Our daily rations were as follows;

Macaroni or rice 66 gms
Bread 200 gms
Cheese 50 gms
Beans 30 gms
Coffee – made from acorns – 7 gms
Vegetables 30 gms

Meat and bone- which we were allotted every second week – 150 gms.
Macaroni, beans and vegetables- possibly stale cabbage leaves- were made into soup in the camp kitchen and when cooked it was very thin and we were each issued one ladle at 11am. each day. In the afternoon we were issued with a bread roll. These rations were 7% above starvation point and this was our daily menu for twelve months.

Three hundred and eighty cases of beri beri went out of the camp in one day to the local hospitals.

The camp was crawling with lice and rats and we were allowed one shower a week.

In the winter we were often without water because of the intense cold and would have to melt snow to obtain water.

Hut searches were often carried out for hidden radios, maps and compasses so we were stood outside in the bitter cold of winter or the heat of summer from 8am.till night fall. Sniffer dogs were used and often turned on the men. At one stage I was imprisoned for a month in solitary confinement as some of us protested over the lack of food. I was handcuffed for ten hours a day for this period. My daily food consisted of two slices of dry bread and a drink of water. Bed was the floor with no blankets. It was impossible to walk after a month so I had to crawl back to the huts.

Red Cross parcels eventually came through but with much irregularity. These were supposed to be issued each week but if there was any trouble amongst the men they were withheld and sometimes the Italians stole some of the parcels so this meant the remaining parcels had to be shared. It was reported that an Italian Major was imprisoned for ten years for stealing parcels.

The contents of Red Cross parcels were:

Evaporated milk 400 gms

Lunch biscuits 250 gms

Cheese 250 gms.

Cocoa 250 gms

Sardines 500 gms.

Pork meat 375 gms

Corned beef 375 gms

Sweet chocolate 340 gms

Sugar 125 gms

Powdered Orange Cons. 200 gms

Prunes 500 gms

Instant coffee 125 gms

Cigarettes 2 20’s pkt.

Smoking tobacco 1 60 gr pkt.

This camp, 57,at Gruppignano, was known to be the worst camp in Italy.

There were many escape plans and it took 5 or 6 months to dig one tunnel (dug by Western Australian miners) from which about 40 men escaped but most were recaptured next day. Punishment for trying to escape was severe beatings andimprisonment. The method used to disperse of the soil from the tunnels was to cut sleeves out of old shirts and attach them to the inside of the leg of the trousers and fill with the soil. It would then trickle away whilst walking around the compound.

Fences of barbed wire, about 15feet high, with an inner entanglement of wire, surrounded the camps. At each corner was a sentry box with a searchlight and a guard armed with a machine gun.

When Italy capitulated I was loose for sixteen days before being captured by German S.S. (Secret Service) troops. During this time I lived on what food I could find, mainly maize in the field and a few grapes if I was lucky. Some days I didn’t have any food at all. Once captured, I spent the night in the Turin gaol before being sent to Germany in cattle trucks. These trucks were so crowded it was impossible to lie down so we all had to take lying down in turns. This trip took three days and three nights. We were put into camp 344 then sent to a working camp, Lager 741,which was situated in Zwittaw near the Czechoslovakian and Old Sudatenland border. At this camp we were deloused, showered and issued with a new set of clothes. There were no lice in this camp in Germany. Here we were issued with extra food:

Bread 500 gms

Meat (old horse) 100 gms (not every day)

Coffee 150 gms (once a month)

Margarine 25 gms (believed to be an extract of coal)

Sugar 25 gms

Jam 25 gms (occasionally)

Cheese 10 gms

Oats 10 gms

Potatoes 500 gms (in soup)

Occasionally we had sauerkraut with caraway seeds. At one stage we were snowed in so no food came into the camp. We lived on swedes and mouldy black bread.

The coldest temperature during this period was 28* below and the warmest was 21* below. We wore all our clothes to bed and had two blankets but nothing would warm us, it was so cold. At this camp we worked for twelve months on building construction work and had to go to a quarry for stone for the foundations. This was during the severe winter so had to remove the snow and ice before we reached the stone, which was quarried with picks.

We were treated well by our guards who were older men and had been in W.W.1 and been POWs themselves. They were A1 compared to the stand over tactics of the Italian guards. I spent 2 ½ years in Italy and 1½ years in Germany. When the war ended we tried to reach the Americans at Pilsen about 500 miles away. We walked for days and everywhere we looked there were people going home. The roads were packed and 3 million came into Prague. The Germans bombed Prague for four days so there were dead lying everywhere. We met the Russians on 9/5/1945 at a town called Jablene (pronounced Gablene) on the Czechoslavakian border, then wewere caught up in a fight with three SS armies who would not surrender to the Russians. The SS were trying to get to the Americans in Pilsen. We eventually got to Prague where we spent five days. Whilst there, we saw the Russian victory march in that city. Upon arrival in Pilsen the Americans took us to Regensburg. On May 14thwe left by plane for Reims and then on to England. We arrived home in Australia in July 1945 on the ‘Stirling Castle’ after being away 1669 days.

The two most important things to come out of these events were the appreciation of our freedom, our country and the companionship and comradeship of the men.

One chap in our camp worked from the age of twelve on a station property at Tharlawindi in New South Wales. When war broke out he rode his horse 600 miles to Sydney to join up. He could neither read nor write. He celebrated his sixteenth birthday in the prison camp.

The Hereward by W.Dellar C.Troop 7th. Battery 2/3rdL.A.A.

It was early in the morning of the 29thof May
When she received the warning of Stukas on the way
‘Hereward, that grand old ship, a destroyer of the fleet
Was sorely overloaded with evacuees from Crete

Guarding her two mother ships, unable to manoeuvre
A fighter to the last, as records well will prove her,
Her four point sevens flinging death into the skies
Mingled with the chatter of her multiple point fives.

A near miss shook her plates and like noisy thunder,
One landed down below split boilers and pipes asunder.
With motive power silenced and guns destroyed on deck,
She lay upon the ocean a helpless floating wreck.

To leave the burning ship, was the order of the day,
Without panic or confusion but a little less delay.
Throwing floats and wreckage overboard and discarding all our gear,
We quickly followed after into Father Neptune’s care.

A south east swell was rolling, the water icy most,
As we bravely struggled onwards towards the distant coast.
Above, the Stukas glided to the object of their quest,
Till battled scarred and burning she slid to her last rest.

For five long hours we labored at the mercy of the seas
Till rescued, wet and weary, by the Ities M.T.B’s.
Some killed on board by shrapnel, some perished in the sea,
And we picked up at long last, live in captivity.

But when the war is over, and we are back at home,
We’ll think of them in future years who lie beneath the foam.
Those comrades of our hardships, and pals of high degree,
We’ll remember at reunions and drink to their eternity.

Written 5/10/41 at Prato Isarco (POW camp).