Lieutenant Robert King


Memories of Lieutenant Robert King when a Prisoner of War in Germany 1943-1945.

Bob King was commissioned in the Worcestershire Regiment in March 1942. In November 1943 he was serving with the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment as 3 inch Mortar Officer.


This would not have been written but for two friends who persuaded me that these reminiscences would be of interest. I was and am still unconvinced but it is important that the minutiae of history are recorded because so much has been lost in the past.

At the outset I must make two matters absolutely clear. First I was a prisoner of war for just seventeen months. This was a relatively short period. Most of the POWs were incarcerated for much longer periods. Many were taken in France and Belgium in 1940, some were in Greece and Crete in 1941. The majority in my camp were taken in Tobruk and the Western desert in 1942. By November 1943 the German Army knew that it was going to lose the War so some of the arrogance that POWs had to suffer in the previous years had gone. Secondly, even in the darkest times our situation did not compare with those in Japanese Camps. All that could be said is that because of our own experience we were better able to imagine the horrors that they had to endure.

‘For you the war is over’ are the words that it is reputed captors used on securing a prisoner. Certainly the prospect of death in battle was removed and the odds on surviving considerably shortened. It is only right therefore that any article about life as a POW should pay tribute to those who did not survive: to the 36 old Tettenhallians and to those of Queens’ College at Cambridge who fell in the two World Wars and in particular to the fifteen Officers of the First Battalion the King’s Own Royal regiment who were killed during the five days fighting on the island of Leros in November 1943. Many were my friends.

To revive the memories of fifty years ago I have relied on two books both privately published. ‘ For You the War is Over’ by Gordon Horner is beautifully illustrated with his drawings and water colours.  ‘ Island Prize-Leros 1943’ is by Edward B.W.Johnson M.C. Ted Johnson commanded 13 Platoon of the Second Battalion The Royal  Irish Fusiliers  during the battle and his book is a graphic account of what took place. He has been good enough to read this article and to correct a number of inaccuracies. I met Ted for the second time when we both returned to the island in 1988. (See Postscript). He has a tale to tell of our first meeting but that must wait for another occasion.


In any Prisoner of war Camp there was a preponderance of lawyers. No one knows whether this was because they were unusually gallant, or just bad at map reading.

On the 16th November 1943 the island of Leros in the Dodecanese surrendered to a German invasion force landed by sea and parachute. Enemy intelligence found after the War revealed that it expected to take the island in one day. In the event it took five notwithstanding that the British defending force had no air cover and the German dive-bombers, JU87 Stukas and JU88s, could bomb at will. Casualties on both sides were high. The German Paratroop Battalion of 470 men lost 62 killed and 100 wounded. The First King’s Own in which I was the three-inch Mortar officer lost over half its officers, 15 killed and 4 wounded.

The surrender was announced at about 5.30pm on the 16th November. I was with Maurice Constable, the Signals Officer, at the time and he had a map reference for a cove in the south of the island. He understood that if we flashed a signal in Morse from there at night we would be picked up by submarine. We managed to reach the spot undetected and flashed the signal at intervals until daybreak. Although we heard the noise of engines out at sea no answering signal came. It was not surprising, the Navy had sustained heavy losses, six Destroyers and three Submarines sank, ten smaller ships sunk and twelve ships were heavily damaged. We had already decided that once the Germans were in the vicinity we would give ourselves up so as not to imperil the locals who had suffered a great deal. About 10.30am on the 17th a German patrol found us. We were treated courteously enough.

All the prisoners were assembled in the main harbour of the Island of Portolago. We spent the nights of the 17th and 18th in the open air. Fortunately it was dry and warm. On the late afternoon of the 19th the Officers were herded below decks of a German Destroyer bound for Piraeus. None of us slept much that night. Apart from the discomfort we were fearful of being blown out of the water by the Royal Navy. We arrived in Piraeus in the early morning and were marched to a temporary prison camp outside Athens. I recall two things about that march. Pipe Major Mulhern of the Second Battalion the Royal Irish Fusiliers piped a stirring march to lift our morale much to the consternation of the German Guards. My abiding memory, however, is of marching below the terrace of the Hotel Grand Bretagne watched by German officers eating breakfast in the open air. I vowed there and then to return one day and drink in that renowned European Hotel. I did, but it was twenty-three years later.

It was only when we arrived at the camp in Athens that we were able to meet up with others from the Battalion and discover who had survived and who had not. When we met we involuntarily shook hands. Something we had not done between us before. The significance of a handshake has never been lost on me since. We also discovered something, which was to be with us to a greater or lesser degree for the next seventeen months-hunger.

On the 3rd December we were transported to Germany by train in cattle trucks. The journey took thirteen days and the conditions were not pleasant, particularly as during the latter part I developed dysentery. We were first kept in our transit camp at Moosburg near Munich (Stalag 7A) It held 18,000 prisoners, many of them Russian. After a day or so I was admitted into the Prison Hospital where I was well cared for by an American doctor and British orderlies. Although I took a long time to recover I have never had any recurrence over the last fifty-five years nor suffered any side effects. I spent my first Christmas in captivity in hospital. Not an easy time.

It was not long after I returned to the Main Camp that we entrained once again for the shorter journey to our first permanent camp, Offizier Lager OFLAG 8F, Marish Trubau, on the Czech border.


OFLAG 8F was a comparative luxury. It was a former Czech military academy. It was centrally heated and the accommodation was bearable. We slept in two tier bunks around a room with central tables. We also had lockers. The bunks were slatted with loose slats. Occasionally we had to donate one of these for shoring up a tunnel being dug as an escape route. Apparently when a tunnel was discovered in the Maize prison in northern Ireland it was shored up by bed slats. The prisoners had asked for extra slats complaining of bad backs. Clearly the guards were not old enough to have been POWs.

The camp was highly organised. There was a camp university and it was possible to study almost any subject; certainly languages, history, English literature and maths. The lawyers being either independent or awkward, however you might like to see them, were not part of this but formed their own Law Society. Of the two thousand officers, one hundred were lawyers. The Society had a library of textbooks provided by the Red Cross. A number of its members were Barristers or Solicitors who had qualified before the War. They ran courses for those studying for Bar and Solicitor’s Examinations. Arrangements were made, presumably on the basis that if one was studying with a view to furthering a career after the War one was unlikely to be trying to escape or to be a general nuisance.

With a camp of two thousand officers there was an enormous wealth of talent. The first night that we arrived we saw a production of ‘An Inspector Calls’ by JB Priestley.  To us it was like being in the West End. There was also a camp orchestra, a Night Club in which Tony Sampson entertained with his trumpet. There were many artists and some magnificent paintings survived the War. The library was a great haven for escapism. The most popular books were by Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. The ingenuity displayed from making costumes for drama to preparing scores for orchestral concerts was incredible.

Ingenuity and innovativeness were also put to more serious causes. There was a secret radio made from parts many of which were bought in via foreign workers who were always in and out of the camp. Every night a BBC news bulletin was read in each room at about six o’clock. One reader would go around the camp while prisoners (Stooges) stood guard. In the event of the appearance of a German Guard the cry ‘Goon Up’ would go out. The Germans were always referred to as Goons. This was long before the days of Spike Milligan. The organisation of the Camp was that the prisoners were under the command of the Senior British Officer (SBO) who would communicate directly with the Camp Commander. Each room was under the control of the Senior Officer in that room. The whole system was designed so prisoners could dominate the moral high ground. This became increasingly important during the latter days of the War. 

One Red Cross parcel a week meant that we were reasonably fit, fit enough to play games including rugby. We had a rugby pitch, which differed from most others in that it had a telegraph pole in the middle.

Much has been written about escaping. Sufficient to say that it was essentially a team effort expertly organised with maps, false papers, foreign workers’ clothes and money. As far as I know there were no escapes from 8F. Although a tunnel was under construction we were moved again before it was completed. Because of the advancing Russians we were moved west to OFLAG 79 on the edge of Brunswick (Braunschweig)


Again we were housed in a substantial building, this was a Luftwaffe training establishment. The one question we all asked ourselves was ‘How was the radio transported?’ At the end of the War I was told that it was secreted in the Red Cross parcels. If this was the case it was in flagrant breach of all the undertakings given to both the Red Cross and the Germans. Its discovery would have had disastrous consequences but the radio was our lifeline and in war one lies and cheats. Ted Johnson tells me however that at the time he believed the ‘canary’ as it was called was stripped down into little pieces and farmed out to reliable people to transport in their own kit.

At the start, life at OFLAG 79 continued as before. Plays continued to be produced by John Grimes of the Daily Express and ex dramatic critic of the Yorkshire Post, including O’ Neill’s ‘A Wilderness’, ‘The Corn is Green’ and ‘The School for Scandal’. There was a splendid performance of Iolanthe and it has been my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan Opera ever since. My abiding memory is of a revue, full of wit and humour. The final scene was a blacked out Piccadilly Circus full of New Year revellers. Finally they drifted away leaving just two policemen slowly patrolling the deserted stage. Suddenly all the lights of Piccadilly, including the circulating windmill went on. Even after fifty years the impact of that scene is still with me. The affect on an audience who had not seen bright lights for nearly five years can be imagined. Although the performance was repeated on several nights, no one who had seen it gave away the secret of the ending to future audiences.

The War was now making its full impact. There was always a map on display showing the progress of the Russians on the Eastern Front. This was marked up in accordance with German bulletins so as not to disclose that we were being informed by the BBC.  We all knew that the Second Front was coming and there were two sweepstakes run on it. There was a map of the coast of North West Europe divided into small sections bearing the title ‘Buy your strip of beach’. Whoever bought the strip where the Allies were first to land would take the sweep. The other was on the date of the landing. Here there was a chart showing how the stakes were being laid, the majority for dates in June. These were designed not only as diverting pastimes but to undermine the morale of the German Guards.

We were also on the flight path of Allied air raids on Brunswick (very close), Hanover and Berlin; streams of U.S. Flying Fortresses by day and RAF Lancasters led by Mosquitoes by night. It appeared to us that the RAF was the more accurate. Night after night I watched from my bunk through a window where a marker flare appeared in exactly the same position. It was then time to repair to the cellars .At last the inevitable happened. On 24th August at about 11am eleven bombs hit the camp. Fortunately most of us were in the cellars. None of the buildings were seriously hit but the cookhouse was demolished, electricity and water cut off and the drainage system was smashed. There were forty POW casualties, three fatal. The Germans suffered more heavily.

As the year progressed conditions deteriorated.  The German Guards became more assertive.  There were more spot checks and searches.  It was a strategy to disrupt these as much as possible without provoking dangerous situations.  We were normally counted twice a day.  It was in everyone’ interests to get these over as quickly as possible and we would speedily line up in threes so that the count could be easily accomplished.   If it was decided to disrupt the count it could be done in a number of ways.  One was for no one to stand still but to move round changing places with each other.  This would make a count impossible.  A more subtle method was used when the count took place inside which it did in bad weather.  The count would take place on the ground floor.  At each end of the building was a staircase leading to the second floor and to the cellar.  After the count had started the first three in the line would nip down into the cellar at one end and attach themselves at the other end.  The Germans would then find that they had three more than they should have.  They would start the count again.  The three at the end would then slip back again.  This meant that this time there would be three less than there should be!  Whether the Germans even twigged what was going on I do not know.  It was all a question of how far one could go.  A misjudgement could have tragic consequences.  An Indian Officer was shot dead crossing the trip wire laid inside the perimeter fence trying to retrieve a deck tennis quoit.

Simple tricks of deception proved to be the best.  When an escape took place it was not possible to disguise this for more than forty-eight hours.  Thus if three chaps got out, the SBO would go to the German Commandant after forty six hours and tell him that eight prisoners had escaped.  Five would be secreted in the attics, thus at some future date five could be got out without being discovered missing.

A map was now being displayed showing progress on the Western Front.  The progress or lack of it had an increasing effect on our morale.  Arnhem was a bad set back, particularly as some Allied Officers including some from the Parachute Regiment came in as prisoners.

Since I first arrived in the Marisch Trubau, I, with others, had been studying for what was then the Solicitors’ Intermediate Examination.  It was in two parts, Law Papers, and Booking Keeping and Trust Accounts.  I was the only one to attempt both parts.  I was particularly anxious to get rid of the Book Keeping and Trust Accounts, as I knew that if I ever got back to Cambridge I would be exempt from the Law Section anyway.  Sometime in November the Examination Papers arrived via the Red Cross in Geneva.  The responsibility for invigilation was with the SBO.  The Law Society had set special papers for the Intermediate and Final Examinations limited to set books and Law Reports which were available to us so there no questions on recent developments in the Law.  Six sat the Final and six the Intermediate.  At the time we did so the Germans were successfully counter-attacking in the Ardennes.  We began to wonder if it was all worthwhile.  In the event we knew that the scripts had to travel to Geneva and then back to London.  In view of the increasing chaos in Europe we thought that the chance of them arriving at Chancery Lane was remote.  On our eventual return to London on April 1945 an enquiry at the Law Society revealed that the papers had not arrived so we thought that that was that.  About a month later came the news that they had turned up and would be marked immediately and results published three weeks hence.  We all passed.  That we did so was entirely due to the Solicitors and Barristers in the Camp who were prepared to give lectures and tutorials, often without the benefit of adequate resources and in adverse conditions.  Our debt to them was great because for many of us it meant that we could continue to pursue in Law after five or more years break.

Christmas 1944 was bleak and conditions in the New Year began to deteriorate. We were down to half a Red Cross parcel a week. Hunger had a curious effect on us. We would become obsessed with anything to do with food. It was not unusual for someone to be unable to sleep at night because he could not get his mind off, say a bacon sandwich. Lectures were started about food. An officer called Acton who was a Fellow of the Institute of British Bakers and who had been employed by Cadbury gave us exotic recipes. I returned home with twenty-seven recipes for everything from Rum Babas to Chung Wings. I also collected twenty-five recipes for different cocktails. None of which I have looked at until now. Those who had been in the wine trade took orders for post war deliveries, South African fruit farmers promised deliveries of tropical fruits. It was all a world of fantasy. Food was bartered and social distinctions became apparent. The Orderlies, who were other ranks, bartered their marmalade for the officers’ jam, their coffee for the Officers’ tea. The smokers had a terrible time, as they would barter what little food they had for cigarettes. I wonder how many of them are still alive now.

As the Allied Forces moved inexorably towards the Rhine the tension built up. There was the feeling that freedom, which appeared so near would be snatched from our grasp. On the 24th March we learned of the crossing of the Rhine. The SBO addressed the whole camp and said that we were entering the last one hundred days. Those who missed the allusion became somewhat depressed. The risk was that the Germans would attempt to move us east and apparently there were orders to for this to happen. Fortunately the SBO and a German Foreign Office Official who had been in the Camp for some weeks persuaded the German Commandant that it was now in his interests to co-operate with the British

Emotions were beginning to run high, heightened perhaps by the shortage of food.  Most of us had now lost two stones in weight.  A friend explained to me that since he had been overseas he had been homesick only twice.  Once when he first left Britain and now; I knew how he felt.

On the evening of April 11th we began to hear the guns.  They came nearer and shells passed over the camp all night.  I doubt if anyone slept at all.  None of us got up particularly early next morning.  At about 9.00am there was a commotion at the gate.  There were two American Corporals in a jeep with a French foreign Worker looking highly embarrassed surrounded by hysterical British officers.  Many wept openly. It was all over.

On the evening of April 14th we listened to the BBC news no longer in secret.  The following bulletin was read, “Allies have captured Brunswick.  Five miles from the town a POW camp of over two thousands officers and four hundred other ranks has been overrun.  No names have yet been received; but next of kin are being informed as soon as possible.   The name of the camp is OFLAG 79”

Over the next few days we were free to roam the adjoining countryside and eat! Re-action began to set in. When were we going to go home? Each day we were told that the planes would come the following morning. The following morning came but no planes. Each morning we packed up ready to go. In order to disperse the camp library we were allowed to keep two books. I still have mine. ‘My Day in Court’ by Arthur Train, an American lawyer and ‘Life is Sweet Brother’, the reminiscences of Bernard Darwin whose photograph hangs in the new Club house at Aberdovey, one of his favourite golf courses.


On 23rd April, St George’s Day, the morning having come and gone I was lying somewhat disconsolately on my bunk when the cry went up ‘The planes are here’. Looking out of the window I could see the sky full of Dakotas circling the adjoining airport. We collected our few belongings and rushed outside. There we lined up in groups of twenty and were told that we would be flown to Brussels where we would spend the night. Ours was the last group to leave. It was the first time in my life that I had ever flown. We landed in Brussels and were standing as a lone group when an Army Staff Officer came up to us and said the most wonderful words I have ever heard in my life. ‘Would you rather have a cup of tea now or go to England?’ Time puts a glow on past events but I still believe the final stage was pure magic. It was the most beautiful spring evening with a slight mist. As we flew across the Channel there appeared a few horizontal lines as if in a Scarfe drawing, then revealed for what they were: The White Cliffs of Dover.

We landed at Wing in Buckinghamshire to a reception committee of RAF personnel, who clapped us. Why we could never be sure. A brief interview with a WAAF doctor followed, then tea and more WAAFs to talk to. Then in army trucks to our Dispersal camp at Chalfont St Giles through the English countryside and the smell of lilac. The following day we were given another medical, fresh clothes, medal ribbons were sewn on our jackets by ladies of the WVS, issued with travel warrants to travel to Paddington to await the midnight train to Wolverhampton. In the Paddington Hotel I asked for a gin and tonic, only to be told that there had been no tonic since the beginning of the War. At about 5.30am on 25th April, Hubert Waltho, who had been with me all the time as a prisoner and lived in Connaught Road, and I were walking down Wadhams Hill (now part of the ring road) on our way home.

I was on leave for some months, on double rations for six weeks! I was not demobilised for another twelve months but was stationed at Norton Barracks, Worcester, the buildings of which can still be seen on the west side of the M5 just south of the Junction 7, and Park Hall Camp, Oswestry, training conscripts. I finally left the army on Sunday 1st October 1946. On the following Thursday I was back at Cambridge embarking on doing two year’s work in one. Where have the next sixty six years gone?


During the last months at OFLG 79 consideration was given to what we could do as a small contribution to the problems of post war Britain. It was decided to found and run a Boys’ Club in London and before we were released some £17,000 was raised. This year the Brunswick Club celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. The Duke of Edinburgh opened the original Club premises in Fulham in July 1949. The present premises are considered to be among the best in London. The club is now open to boys and girls.

In 1988 a reunion of the British Forces involved in the 1943 campaign was organised on the Island. Some of the German Forces also attended. It was only possible to get in touch with those concerned by newspaper advertisement. I was unaware of this occasion but by coincidence had arranged a holiday at the same time as the reunion.It was an emotive occasion and a very different type of holiday from that we had planned.

For those who love the Greek Islands, do visit Leros. It is a short boat trip from Kos. If you do find yourself there please visit the war cemetery on the shore of Alinda Bay. Ted Johnson describes it in his book:
‘This is kept in immaculate condition by a local Greek, who when I last saw it, was teaching his small son his skills so that he would eventually take over the responsibilities of its upkeep. The Commonwealth war Graves Commission are of course ultimately responsible but their current paid servant there gives his total love and attention to the task as if it were his own garden.’

Of the one hundred and eighty three buried there one third could not be identified. Their head stones bear the simple legend ‘ Known only to God’. Amongst those identified is the body of Lieutenant D.B (Derek) Steward, a great personal friend.

Bob King 

August 1998