Memories of World War Two
A couple of years ago, I put together a Memory Book for the family of Leonard Chandler, a much loved husband and father who had fought in the Second World War and escaped from German captivity, not once but twice. His remarkable story is an amazing reminder of that important part of our recent history.
I’ve written several books for people who lived through the war and it makes me all the more passionate about the importance of recording family stories for future generations. I’ve also met many people who regret not having written down the memories of their mothers, fathers or grandparents. If there is anyone in your family with a story to tell, please call for a chat or contact me here. My number is 07957 598348. You can read some of the things people have said about their Life Story Books here.
In the meantime, here is an extract from Leonard’s book. Sadly I never met this remarkable man and the book was written based on his personal notes.
We were outnumbered and had to surrender. I went to raise my hands in the air (an embarrassment no one ever forgets) but when only one arm went up, I realised that I had been wounded.
There was blood everywhere and I initially thought I’d lost my arm. However, a bullet had scored my right wrist and arm and the wound wasn’t as serious as I first feared.
Our guttural voiced captors ushered us out onto the now deserted road and marched us to a nearby church. I was clutching my injured arm, which I had managed to cover with a first aid bandage and was soon noticed by a German Field Doctor.
Luck was on my side and he quickly stitched me up, reassuring me in excellent English that the war would soon be over. The church was full with a mixed assortment of captured soldiers, exhausted and lying about in the pews, many of them sound asleep.
We followed suit and were asleep within minutes, only to be woken by the sound of gunfire and bombing presumably from the beaches some way in the distance. The night passed and early next morning we were on our way under shouts of “Rous Rous!”
We marched or straggled along most of the day, with an occasional rest. A different, more aggressive set of guards then took over. As we passed through French villages, locals tried to pass food to us but we usually received a hefty push in the back to move on. Eventually we entered a large field, containing a makeshift camp which had been prepared for us. We ate our first food of bread and coffee and fell asleep.
Next morning, we sorted ourselves out and the British soldiers formed themselves into three ranks to continue marching.
I must admit, even our German guards were envious of our organisation skills. As the column continued on its way, the remainder of POWs, all of varying nationalities (including French, Belgian and African), were herded like sheep by the guards.
It was a sorry sight indeed but someone in our ranks started to sing “Roll out the Barrel” and the rest of us soon joined in. This was followed by “Hang out the Washing on the Siegfried Line” which certainly helped to keep our spirits up and the Germans couldn’t understand how Prisoners of War could be so positive.
However, as the day wore on, exhaustion took over and when we were allowed to pause and rest, we simply dropped down on the side of the road to ease our weariness. Thoughts of escape kept going through my head and I was on the constant lookout for opportunities.
I searched for a slope on the edge of the road with bushes and trees in which to hide. I didn’t relish being a POW for who knows how many years? The hunger pains were also hard to bear which helped to focus my plans.
My chance of escape eventually came. The guards were resting and several were not keeping a sharp enough eye on the line of prisoners.
I decided that, if the conditions were right, I would go at the next break. The incline of the road was fairly short and the ground sloped away towards some bushes. The undergrowth looked thick enough to hide in. There were trees in the background and I decided that it was now or never. I willed the guards to order us to halt and finally the call came to rest.
Everyone collapsed on the edge of the bank, some stretching out to sleep. I fell like the rest of the POWs but quickly rolled down the slope towards the bushes, hoping that the branches would give me enough cover.
I lay perfectly still and fortunately the bracken camouflaged me well. I waited for a shout or a shot but nothing happened. I didn’t dare move further into the trees until the prison column had moved on. It seemed like hours.
I finally felt safe to move and began to make my way carefully through the wood. After putting some distance between the column and myself, I looked for a nearby farmhouse.
A sudden noise made me dive for cover and I spotted someone ahead. He was also in uniform and seemed to be doing the same thing as me. We met up and he told me he was a Koyli soldier and his name was Don. He had escaped from a similar stretch of prisoners earlier on.
We made our way to a clearing and found a small track which eventually led us to a farmhouse. There didn’t seem to be any sign of life so we went round the back and tried a door. Fortunately it was unlocked. Luck was with us as we entered into a kitchen and helped ourselves to food on the table before encountering two elderly folk in a side room. They were clearly terrified of us. I tried to ask for a “carte” (map) of some sort but had no luck.
We decided to move on and find another way. However freedom was short. After getting clear of the track we started to head back to the cover of the trees when the shouting of two unarmed folk alerted a nearby group of Germans. They spotted us and we were captured POWs once more.
We were bundled roughly into the back of a lorry and I thought that this would be the end of me. We were once more “in the bag”.
It was some time before we stopped. The two guards jumped out and ordered us to do the same. At least we had been spared the marching.
We arrived at a sort of factory compound and were shoved inside. The place was like a disused warehouse or maybe a brewery and there were stables or kennels attached. It had high walls and a couple of huge gates with sentry positions.
The place was filled with all kinds of troops and there were several unidentifiable soldiers who had lost their uniform.
We stayed here for several days and there was always a mad scramble whenever food appeared. Life went on!
Escape Number Two
Once more I began to look for means and ways of escape. One option was to make it over the wall and I quickly spotted several possible footholds in the brickwork. With a little help, it would be worth a try.
Don had been looking for any pals from his regiment and I found a group of fellows also doing their homework for escape. I gave my opinion and three of us decided that the wall was indeed the best bet, especially if we could get a diversion of some sort (just like the movies).
There was a tap in the courtyard which supplied the compound with running water and arrangements were made for it to be turned on at an agreed time during the night. We hoped that the noise of water hitting the cobbles would attract the sentries’ attention. The plan was in place and we waited for zero hour.
The tap was started and we made a dash for it. I found the footholds in the wall and scrambled up. Don followed me and we were the first ones to climb over. Sadly, those behind us were slower and small arms fire could soon be heard. Only the two of us made it and I never found out what happened to the others.
We fell to the ground on the other side and our smooth landing was thanks to sheer good fortune. We performed an Olympic sprint to the cover of the trees and disappeared into the woods.
Lights appeared behind us but we managed to escape the confusion and make our way to a railway track before collapsing with exhaustion on the embankment.
I struggle to remember the sequence of events that followed.
We tried to walk at night, as far as possible, heading for cover during day. We lived off the land by foraging for sugar beet and stealing eggs from farms. We were always on the lookout for food or clothing and ways to find our bearings.
The railway line proved the best bet and there was always a quick dive for cover when open ground exposed us to other people.
We realised that our ‘stolen’ clothes and berets would class us as spies rather than uniformed prisoners of war but there was nothing we could do. The fact was printed on our minds very clearly and not a pleasant thought.
As we continued we became much bolder and began to walk in daylight, keeping mainly to the railway line. Whenever a station came into view we would make a detour and hit the road or find another route.
On one occasion we were sitting on the edge of the road and several passers-by had a good look at us. Then before we could do anything, a party of armed troops marched past. We were sitting a stone’s throw away from recapture but fortunately they simply marched on by and went on their way. This boosted our spirits and we soon became more confident…
About Leonard Charles Chandler
As a member of the Territorial Army, Leonard Charles Chandler received his ‘call up papers’ to report for duty on the third of September 1939. After training he was soon sent to France, where he served as an OP signaller (Wireless Operator) in the Royal Artillery. In the retreat he was captured near Dunkirk.
This memoir, written by Len much later in life, records his two escapes from the Germans and his long journey across France and Spain to Gibraltar in the early years of the 1939/45 war. In crossing both France and Spain he must have covered in excess of 1500 miles.
On his return to the UK he was decorated with the Military Medal for his heroism by King George VI.
Later in the war he served in the Number One Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, in IV Corps in Burma and was awarded the Burma Star Service Medal. This led him to join the Burma Star Association.
In 1994, Leonard was one of the founder members, when the Epsom branch of the Association was inaugurated and became secretary. He held this post until 2009 when ill-health forced him to stand down. He was then made Vice President in recognition of his services to the branch.
Sadly, after facing ill-health and with much courage, he died on the fourteenth of September 2010, at the age of ninety.