Ted Lynch of Horsham
I was born in London in 1918. My father spent 22 years in the Navy, and fought in The Great War. My family moved to Ware in Hertfordshire when I was six months old. I enjoyed my youth there, as I was interested in the countryside.
In the 1920s and 30s, things were difficult in the country, with high unemployment. My father had his share of that. When it came to leaving school, I wanted a job that was reasonably secure. That's why I chose local government. I was working in the Treasurer's department at Ealing Borough Council when war broke out.
I went to a few German classes in the evening, just as a matter of interest. That was to prove an advantage. I joined The Territorial Army a year before the war, so I was called up in June 1939. We all knew that the way Hitler was going, it was inevitable something was happen.
I joined an anti-aircraft battery based at Acton. In June we were sent for firing practice before manning a gun site on Hampstead Heath. We then prepared to go out to Finland, which was involved in a nasty little war with the Russians. But it was over quickly. Then Hitler invaded Norway, and because we had Arctic kit, we were sent there.
Our resistance efforts collapsed and we were evacuated. We were lucky to get out as the convoy of boats was heavily attacked by the Germans and we were forced to scatter. I eventually returned home on an Irish cattle boat that had transported food to soldiers. I can still smell the meals in my nostrils now!
In August 1940, I embarked on the SS Andes, but for where I did not know. Our first landfall was at Freetown, Sierra Leone, and we then stopped in Cape town before arriving in Port Said, where we manned a gun site for six weeks. But with Hitler looking towards the Balkans and the Italians moving into Albania, Crete was seen by British command as being of strategic importance. So on 5th November our battery was taken on HMS Ajax to Crete.
The Germans attacked Crete in May 1941. When they took Malame airfield they were able to bring in sufficient reinforcements and the British and Commonwealth troops withdrew and were evacuated. Our position on the Akrotiri peninsula was cut off from the rest of the island. Our surrender was arranged, and rather tamely we were captured.
It was a few weeks before we were shipped to Greece, but because I spoke a little German, I was given a job in the troops' cookhouse. Whilst there, a German paratrooper told me they had sunk HMS Hood, which came as a shock. But a few days later, he told me we had sunk the Bismarck!
We were taken to Salonika on the Greek mainland, and six weeks later were transported by cattle trucks to various prisoner of war (POW) camps. I found myself at Stalag XVIII-A in Wolfsberg, Austria. I spent the severe winter of 1941/2 digging land drains, before transferring to railway work.
I remember the arrival of our first Red Cross parcels – five kilos of unbelievable goodies per person per week. The uplift to our morale was immense, quite apart from the effect of the additional nourishment physically.
After a time, I began to think about escaping. An Australian friend called Ken Gollan was thinking along similar lines, and we spent the winter of 1942/3 making plans. We would try to cross into Italy, where the Allies were fighting, when the weather was favourable. We considered breaking into a POW camp when in Italy, to stock up with food, then escape again after a rest. We reasoned that, if we could escape a German POW camp, getting out of an Italian camp would be relatively easy!
Four other prisoners were planning their own escape. One Saturday, they made a perfect getaway – two of them through a toilet wall and two escaped disguised as cooks. Two were caught that night and as a result, the Kommandant of course ensured camp restrictions were intensified.
However, we had a plan. We obtained blue overalls from fellow prisoners and collected food. Every morning, there was a rough search of haversacks to make sure no large quantities of food were being taken out of camp. We got over this by distributing biscuits and chocolate to over a dozen fellow POWs, and collecting them during the morning tea break. We made a cache for the food and clothing under a pile of railway sleepers at Klagenfurt Station.
The following Saturday, we made our escape. As an interpreter, I was known by the guards and would often be called upon to translate problems with British POWs. This meant I would work at the site near Klagenfurt station or a second site in the other direction. We thought that if I could get to Klagenfurt without being seen, the Germans would assume I was at the other site.
As we walked to the workplace, some of the bigger POWs helped crowd me, so I could not be seen by guards at danger spots. Gradually, the line of workers straggled out along the route, but I was being well hidden by 'minders' and was at least 150 metres from the nearest guard when we reached Klagenfurt.
Once there, I hid in a wooden toilet. The one contingency we could not provide for was if a guard needed to use the toilet. Fortunately, none did. We intended to catch the 9.21am train to Villach, so shortly before 9am I changed into my overalls. Ken joined me at 9:10am but matters were now critical. By sheer ill luck, a guard had stationed himself near to our cache of food. Only in desperation did Ken manage to snatch most items before joining me in the cramped toilet.
Through a crack in the door I saw that the nearest guard was only 20 yards away. But it was now or never. We emerged from the toilet, and after what seemed like an eternity, we reached a fence which obscured us from the guard's field of vision. We then passed the local office of the railway repair firm that employed us, where Blondie – the girl who gave us our wages - could have noticed us, but nobody appeared.
We reached the main road when no less a person than the Camp Commandant rounded the corner on his bicycle and rode towards us. Apart from my overalls, I was wearing a Tyrolean hat which I had 'bought' from an Italian worker to cover my fair hair. Now I felt vulnerable and rather stupid. The commandant rode past without a glance.
We bought tickets to Villach, but each squeak jangled the nerves. A woman asked Ken where a train was bound for, and I had to intervene because of his very limited German. By the time we reached the platform, we had missed the train. The next train to Villach was two hours away.
We knew that hanging around the station was bound to lead to trouble, so we hid under a bush. As our insecurity increased, we decided we would be safer amongst people. So we walked into the main street, and feeling comparatively safe we started to regain our sense of humour. After all, we were still free, and had some amusing – if nerve –wracking adventures!
We returned to the station, and what a shock we had when the train arrived. It was the Belgrade to Munich Special! It was certain we would be asked for passes on such a train, but there was no turning back. So we scrambled aboard, moved along the train and who should be directly standing in our way but Blondie.
She remembered Ken, as she had once had a lengthy conversation in French with him. There can be little doubt that she knew what we were doing. My heart sank when the train slowed to an unscheduled stop at the next station. Minutes seemed an eternity, until we started moving again. Blondie had not given us away.
Then a voice called 'Ausweis bitte' meaning 'papers please.' Frantically, I made up a story, saying we were French volunteer workers returning to camp in Villach after repairing trucks in Klagenfurt. I told the guard we were well-known to the Railway Police at Villach Station, as he would find out if he accompanied us to their office. I hoped this might reassure him, and that he simply wouldn't bother. But we were unlucky – at the station the Gestapo man was there waiting for us.
We went to the office, where the Inspector had a portrait of Hitler behind his large desk. Our escort clicked to attention and reported 'Herr Inspector, two Frenchmen without identification documents. The Inspector looked at us, then said to me 'You are no Frenchman – you are English! I recognise you as the interpreter at the railway camp here in Villach!' I was flabbergasted! I was an interpreter, but at Klagenfurt!
Clutching at straws, I went along with it, and the Inspector dismissed our astonished escort. I tried to be nonchalant, and the conversation became quite casual. The Inspector even asked whether we could get our Camp Commandant to supply us with passes so we could travel unhindered! Bidding him and his company 'good day' I motioned Ken out of the door and we were free!
I didn't like the attitude of one of the policeman , and thought there was a danger he would follow us or call the Villach Commandant. So we ran out of town and headed into woods. We crossed the River Drau, stopping only to drink from a well until we found a safe position. Then we burst into laughter – largely out of relief!
In our haste to escape Villach, we had placed a small but awkward mountain range called the Villacher Alpe between us and the frontier range. It proved to be a serious setback. At first we travelled very cautiously, moving only at night. In darkness, we had to force our way through stunted trees and wade through swampy ground and streams. At higher ground, we were faced with broken white rock, and we fell several times in the darkness.
It was difficult to maintain a sense of direction, even with a compass, and we spent four precious days of time and rations reaching the southern foot of the mountains. We then abandoned night travel in favour of early mornings and evenings, when we could move faster towards the Tarvis Pass. We made good progress, although we were tired, hungry and nearly always wet.
After climbing a rocky cliff, we were to suffer the most intense physical discomfort in the form of a cloud of thousands of mosquitos. Our hands and faces were bitten hundreds of times, and the effect was extremely depressing, but finally, we saw a granite stone on a mountain track. It had a D on our side and an I on the other. We crossed into Italy at 6am on Sunday 1st July 1943.
We reached Tarvis and after eating some fruit we bedded in woods above the village. It was too busy to board a goods train there, so we headed to a smaller town, Seifnitz. In our enthusiasm to board the first train that pulled into the goods yard, we ran into trouble. We made a rush for it, and I was astride the fence when a lantern was flashed in my face. I fell back and scampered back up the hillside.
At dusk, we climbed the fence again and hid behind sleepers. Then at midnight, a goods train was moving off. Ken pulled himself up on the buffers just as the train was reaching running pace, then reached down and pulled me up too. We found riding on the buffers with our heads over the back of the truck quite exhilarating. After travelling for some four hours, we stopped at Chania, where we sneaked away into a nearby maize plantation, but the cobs were not ready.
We ere extremely hungry, so decided to put our Plan B into operation – namely get into a POW camp, replenish our food stocks, escape again and continue south. In Udine, we approached a Carabinieri officer and asked where the nearest British POW camp was. Italian police then questioned us and we were taken to a village lock-up at a private house, where we were content to rest. The woman of the house brought us steaming plates of spaghetti topped with tomato sauce. It was our first hot meal for two weeks!
The story we pitched was that we had been captured by the Italians in Sicily, had been transported to Naples, and from there escaped on a train intending to make for Switzerland. All the time, the old cook rolled her head and appeared to be offering prayers for our souls. Our impression was that she expected us to be shot.
We assumed we were heading to a nearby POW camp, but any doubts as to our whereabouts were removed when we saw multiple steel doors. After further interrogation, they stripped us for a thorough examination. We had never been subjected to such indignities by the Germans and we began to dislike the Italians. We were taken to a cell, which was to be our home for the indefinite future.
We were soon joined by more British POWs who had been captured and interrogated by an interpreter accompanied by the Mayor of Trieste. Then our descriptions were forwarded to the German authorities. A few days later, we had been identified by the Germans and were told we would have to be sent back to the POW camp.
I decided to put my cards on the table. I told the Colonel that the Allies would soon take over Italy, and that if he held on to us until that happened, we would speak well of him to the Allied authorities. He promised to keep us as long as he could. But just 17 days later, Ken and I, still manacled, were handed over to a German SS patrol.
We were soon discussing a number of topics with them, including British colonial policy, when one of the prisoners showed an interest in a patrol motorcycle. Then, quite extraordinarily, he was invited to take it for a spin, on the condition that he was back in 15 minutes, or unspecified trouble would befall his comrades! We were
mightily relieved to see him return.
We were sent to Landeck, near the Swiss border, where an interrogation camp for escaping prisoners had been set up. In our block alone there were French, Russians, English, Serbs, Poles and one Swiss soldier. Things brightened up when a Frenchman sang J'attendrai, a popular song at the time.
After ten days there, we were moved to a camp at Markt Pongau – an establishment built with an eye to discomfort. Ours was not a happy stay, but after eight days we were moved to Spittal-an-der-Drau, a more civilized camp altogether.
We were met by a German interpreter known affectionately as The Frog. With his tongue in cheek, he hoped we would 'enjoy our stay!' He had a soft spot for escapers and was well regarded by the British. Our sentence for
escaping was 16 days in solitary confinement, with two days with bread and water, and two days with food. However, the rules were ignored, and most of us chose to sleep two to a cell. Our eating arrangements also proved more liberal, as we received Red Cross parcels with butter, jam, cheese and cigarettes!
Having served our sentence, we were sent to Disciplinaire camps for six months, where conditions were tougher. I was initially sent to a camp at Schladming, working on repairing and replacing railway tracks. My mind turned to getting off the Disciplinaire regime as soon as possible. Escaping again was one possibility but another way was to get sent back to main camp as sick or unfit for work. You had to persuade a German doctor you were genuinely sick.
Tossing the Quack, as it was called, came in various forms. Some were ingenious, some plain stupid. I had spoken to a German guard who suffered from Appendicitis, and encouraged him to tell me all about it. Once I had a detailed list of symptoms, I went to the doctor. He asked me for a specimen but I coated the cork with a large blob of condensed milk so it was bound to show a high sugar content. Sure enough, I was told to visit the hospital at Villach for an examination!
Two young German doctors said I could have the operation there, or by a British Army doctor at main camp. I was afraid of showing the huge relief I felt! I must have been a plausible liar in those days. I only needed to stay at the main camp for ten days to get off the Disciplinaire list, and persuading the English doctor to keep me there should be a doddle. But it wasn't!
We had a blazing row. He was running a hospital with some very sick men and couldn't waste his time on a lazy so-and-so like me! That really fired me up! I was only asking for food and shelter for ten days.
I hung around for ten days, scrounging meals and sleeping where I could find an empty bunk. After that, I worked on a farm near the Hungarian border in Oststeiermark. The camp was an empty farmhouse to accommodate the dozen of us prisoners. We were allocated to various small farms nearby, and I was sent with a Scot to work for a morose farmer in his 40s who had recently taken a pretty, charming girl from the next valley in an arranged marriage.
Once I fell foul of a boring insect. I began to feel an irritation in a place not easy to scratch, and saw that a small black body with tiny legs had embedded itself in the worst possible place! The village doctor, Dr Fuchs, found my predicament quite amusing and his decidedly voluptuous wife found it even funnier! Between them, they did what had to be done, and I suffered no permanent damage.
The largest landholding in the area was that of Baroness Marie von Lentz at Reitenau, where she and her three young sons lived in the castle. I moved to employment at the castle shortly before D-Day. I could listen to BBC News there, and learned about the D-Day landings.
By Christmas 1944, very unpleasant things were happening locally. On one occasion, a lad who worked for the Baroness held up two SS men with a pistol. They had tried to take two of her horses. They escaped and this brought in a posse of armed Berlin police who mortared the farm and hanged the farmer. The boy was made to dig his own grave and was shot.
As the War came to an end, our guards decided to leave, and I set off westwards. I hitched a ride to Graz. A tearful Austrian woman stopped us and said she had been raped twice during the night and her husband taken away. I met more British POWs and the stories were the same - Russians were taking their revenge on Germany via its women. I reached Klagenfurt and that had been taken over by the Americans. That was where I came across the Dakotas, which transported people home. We were all very impatient to get home.
After I was demobbed, I went back to Ealing Council, and from there I went to Letchworth, where I met my wife Marjorie. I then worked for what was for the old Horsham District Rural Council, before taking a role in the New Town of Crawley. Upon my retirement I was awarded an OBE, primarily due to my prominence on the council of a professional institute.
After retirement, I was a member of Horsham Rotary Club. I became president for one year, and started the first Probus club in Horsham. That is something I'm proud of as there are now five flourishing clubs in the area.
I think I am surprised people are still so interested in the War and are prepared to make a real effort to mark it. As far as my experiences are concerned, it was fairly disastrous. It's not something I look back on with any pleasure.
I was certainly not a war hero. My story is short on heroics, but I believed it was a duty to try and escape so that the enemy was forced to keep a significant number of troops away from the front line. People can judge for themselves as to how far these objectives were achieved.
This article is based on an interview with Ted by Ben Morris and a talk Ted himself gave to the Horsham Probus Club