Amazing War Story – John Humphrey
The incredible true story of a daring soldier who escaped not once, but twice, from separate prisoner of war camps.
I first met John at the end of the summer in 2022. I was excited to come face to face with this legendary Chelsea Pensioner to hear his story, as I had been told it was a corker!
For those of you that don’t know, a Chelsea Pensioner is an Army Veteran who lives at the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London. The hospital was first founded over 300 years ago by King Charles II, who demanded by Royal Warrant that a hospital should be built to look after veteran soldiers who had been ‘broken by age or by war’.
Over the years I have been to the hospital many times and they used to have a wonderful museum. Sadly, because of Covid, the museum had to close it’s doors and visitation to see the pensioners was strictly invitation only, with proof of a negative test. So I was extremely lucky to be able to go and see the men in scarlet once again.
John at this point was 100 years old but was still bright as a button and the story he told me was truly an Amazing War Story.
John had joined the army in 1936, aged just 14. He first saw combat in 1940 when he was posted to Africa where the British Army was fighting the Desert Fox, Rommel. The British forces were pushed back, and John, with other members of his unit, became involved in the siege of Tobruk. Sadly, during a particularly heavy assault on the 21st June 1942 he was injured, he thinks by a grenade or a shell, and was knocked clean out. When he came round he saw two German soldiers standing over him, one of them saying the immortal line, “For you Tommy, the war is over”.
John was then transferred to a hospital in Benghazi, Libya where, once recovered, he was given new clothing, a surplus Greek Army uniform. John had arrived in just a pair of ragged shorts and ripped shirt and was pleased with the new clothes, if a little mystified by their origin.
Once he was on his feet again, he was moved to a prisoner of war camp in Brindisi, Italy and from there, on to another camp at Ancona (the official MI9 records differ saying he was transferred to Monte Urano, but John thinks this was a clerical mistake).
Nevertheless, whichever Italian camp he was in, he knew he had to escape, but to do so he knew the only way to successfully make it through enemy territory was to speak and understand the local language. The only problem was he didn’t speak a word of Italian, so freedom seemed utterly impossible.
There was only one thing for it – he would just have to learn the language. Over the course of a year, using a phrase book he had received in a Red Cross parcel, John painstakingly taught himself Italian. Every night, he would go and practise his new found language with a friendly sentry until he felt confident he could speak it relatively fluently.
During the months of painstaking Italian revision, John also devised an escape plan. The surplus Greek uniform he had been given in hospital had actually been a godsend. John realised it was very like the Italian uniform and with some alterations, he thought he might be able to pass himself off as a guard.
On the 13th September, the escape was on. Posing as an Italian guard, John ‘escorted’ two of his friends, Williams and Duff, to see the camp commandant. Stopping at the main gate with his ‘prisoners’, John, in perfect Italian, explained to the other guards that these two had been ordered to see the commandant, who was based in the outer perimeter of the camp. Incredibly, the gate sentries fell for it and the trio walked through … but they weren’t out yet, there was still the main outer wall to get over.
Hiding between some buildings until nightfall, the trio needed to find a way to climb the perimeter wall without being spotted. Then an opportunity arose. An argument erupted between some soldiers at the other end of the compound and, without hesitating, John and his mates were up and over. They were out!
They quickly travelled on foot as inconspicuously as they could, John speaking Italian to any passersby when needed. Then, on the second day they bumped into a farmer who quickly realised who they were, telling John that his uniform wouldn’t fool anyone. For a horrible moment they thought they were going to have to dispatch him, but the farmer wanted to help. He took them back to his farmhouse, gave them civilian clothes, fed them and sent them on their way.
The next day they stood by the edge of the road as large German convoy passed them, taking soldiers to the front. At the end of the column, a motorcycle pulled up next to them. The German officer looking at them suspiciously asked John in broken Italian where the nearest place to get water was. John answered as best as he could, pointing to a nearby town. The German smiled and replied that they needed to be careful, there were three escaped POW’s around here and with that, he zoomed off. John realised that it was a coded warning that the German knew who they were but, miraculously, decided to do nothing.
The three men continued their journey towards Allied lines, when one day they were suddenly surrounded by a motley looking crew of soldiers in Jeeps. With their hands up, it quickly became apparent they they had been ‘captured’ by Popski’s Private Army, a British Special Forces Unit that operated behind enemy lines. They had made it!
But that is not the end of John’s story. Upon returning to England, he volunteered for the airborne forces and completed his parachute training in July 1944. It wasn’t long before he saw action and on the 17th of September, he parachuted into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.
Unluckily, John was at Arnhem Bridge and once again ended up being captured. He didn’t speak German, and the thought of having to learn a new language was distinctly off putting!
This time, John and his friends from the 1st parachute Squadron Royal Engineers were transported to a transit prison camp at Emmerich, a small town just inside Germany. Whilst they were being escorted in, John spotted a small outbuilding. Quickly, in the confusion of friends being reunited together again, John decided to take a look at one of the buildings. Once inside, he discovered that it was the prison cook house and more importantly, there was a potential way out – a small window covered by three iron bars.
Being a trained engineer, John spotted that the iron in the bars was extremely poor quality, the best metals being reserved by the Nazi war machine for weapon and vehicle production.
Quickly, over the next couple of days, John crept into the cook house, and taking his engineer’s knife he had hidden in his underwear (German’s never used to check people below the waist), he used the marlin spike to prise away at the concrete surrounding the bar. To cover the marks, he used fat and ash mixed together, taken from the ovens.
Within a couple of days, he had completely freed the bottom of the bars – they had to move quickly, they had no idea when they were likely to be moved on from this temporary camp.
That night, John and three others decided to escape. Bending the bars back, John, Corporal Charles Weir, Captain Eric Mackay and Lieutenant Denis Simpson all climbed out of the window. John went first and, to his horror, landed less that 30 meters away from a German guard, however, luck was with him once again. The guard was more interested in chatting up a local woman than keeping his eyes peeled, so incredibly all four men managed to escape.
Under the cover of darkness, they made their way through town and out into the open fields. They found a river, which they hoped was the Rhine, so started to follow it downstream, knowing that it would lead to friendly held territory. As they traced the river, they were suddenly passed by a barge. Keeping a safe distance, they kept track of the vessel, which had a small rowboat in tow. They needed that boat.
Eventually, the barge moored up and the German troops disembarked. Quickly seizing the opportunity, the escapees crept on board and ate as much food as they could find. They then boarded the rowboat and started to row down the river, but they were spotted. German troops saw the men escaping and fired off some shots, luckily all missed.
The next day, in the early hours of the 23rd of September, John and the officers had made it to Nijimen and clambered ashore, much to the surprise of some nearby soldiers of the 12th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who challenged these shadowy figures emerging from the river. John had achieved the ‘double’, twin escapes from a POW camp, something only very few brave individuals achieved.
As he told me this incredible tale on that sunny afternoon, I knew I was listening to a truly amazing second world war legend. John is an inspiration, not only to his friends at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, but to all of us, and that’s why I am so proud to share his story with you.
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