Sydney Walter Edmonds Military Service.
During a trip to Devon in the summer of 1994 we met a truly remarkable man at a bed and breakfast in Launceston run by his beautiful and charming daughter, Avril. His name was Sydney Walter Edmonds, and he was in excellent health, cheerful and energetic despite his 85 years. With much prompting and encouragement he agreed to tell us of his war years.
Sydney Walter Edmonds was born March 29, 1909, in the town of Ashburton (Newton Abbot) in Dartmoor in Devonshire. He was one of five sons of John and Mary Edmonds. John, born in Stokenham, Devon, was a wheelwright. Mary was born in South Pool, Devon. Alonzo, his older brother, was been born in Newton Abbot, Devon. In 1933, Sydney married Doris M. Pridham in Tavistock, Devon. As World War II approached he was married with one daughter, Avril Edmonds Colwill who now lives at Withnoe Farm on Tavistock Road in Launceston, Cornwall. He was part of the Civilian Reserve and had only been to London once when war was declared.
At 30 years of age, he was activated into the army. Following training in Devon, he was sent to Glasgow where he was put aboard a 26,000 ton ocean liner, the S. S. D'Orontes (at right), that had been requisitioned by the government. They sailed for Newfoundland accompanied by a huge convoy consisting of carriers, destroyers, etc. This convoy provided the necessary protection against stalking German submarines active in the Atlantic. As a noncommissioned officer he was assigned a private cabin. The civilian staff on the ship provided him tea and services in his cabin; he was not familiar or comfortable with all this attention. The convoy remained off Newfoundland, but they never docked.
They next traveled to Freetown in West Africa and then to Cape Town, continuing around the horn of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay. There, he was transferred to the MV Devonshire (at left). Being from Devon he always thought this to be an interesting coincidence. The ship was launched in 1939 as a troopship carrying 250 passengers and 1150 troops. From Bombay they next went to the Persian Gulf and sailed up the Tigris-Euphrates River toward Basra, Iraq. The whole journey had taken seven to eight weeks. An accompanying ship, the S. S. Lancashire, got crosswise in the river and became grounded blocking their passage. It took several days to free it. (Mr. Edmonds in recent times accidentally met another soldier who was aboard the Lancashire, and they enjoyed reminiscing about the incident.)
They disembarked at Basra and went in convoy to Baghdad, where he had the picture shown above taken. This was at the end of 1941. They were stationed near Lake Hor al Habbaniyah (red ballon in picture at right). He was a member of the 97th Field Regiment Artillery, 10th Indian Division. The commander of these forces in North Africa was General Claude Auchinleck, known to his troops as "The Auk". He was later replaced by General Montgomery. They traveled across Trans-Jordan, Egypt, and Libya. The map at right shows Mr. Edmonds’ locations as he fights his way to Egypt. One of his jobs was to keep vehicles running during battles. This he deemed a good job while advancing, however, if retreating, he was at the "front"! During one of these battles he was urgently repairing a lorry when a German armored car approached and an officer, in perfect English said, " For you, soldier, the war is over.". This was June 1942.
Mr. Edmonds and six other captured soldiers were treated well by the Germans, receiving medical attention and food. Ordinary German soldiers were friendly and several said they did not want to be in the war. The first night as prisoners brought a surprise. They noticed that the Germans were not posting guards; in fact, all were going to sleep. Mr. Edmonds told his mates, "If we can pinch some water we should try to escape." Being in the desert, it was essential that they have water. Several days later they were successful in stealing two containers of water and that night they quietly walked out of the camp. The moon was very bright and they were anxious that at any moment the Germans would awake and fire on them. It didn't happen and they marched into the desert. Unsure of what to do they decided to head south believing that friendly troops were more likely to be in that direction. They later encountered an unmarked armored vehicle that turned out to be British, and they were returned to their unit.
The fighting that followed was fierce and Mr. Edmonds encountered many close calls. While eating a bread and sausage one day, an Italian mortar shell exploded, killing the soldier next to him, Chappy Groom from Hitchen in Hertfordshire. (Chappy was Charles William Earnest Groom. Charles was a gunner in the Ninety-Seven (The Kent Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. He was born in 1920 to Ernest and Dora Groom of Whitwell, Hertfordshire. He was killed June 16, 1942. His burial site is listed as Knightsbridge War Cemetery (at right), Tobruk, Al Butnan, Libya Plot 4 D. 18. -UK, Army Role of Honor) A fellow soldier on his other side lost his foot. Mr. Edmonds was covered with blood, yet miraculously none was his own. He did later suffer an injury as he walked under a large gun when it fired and the noise was so loud it left him deaf in one ear for three days. His hearing did return, but never to a normal level.
In North Africa the Germans were overpowering and the position of Mr. Edmond's regiment deteriorated. The gravity of their situation was made clear when they learned that all of the officers, except one 2nd lieutenant, had been airlifted to safety, leaving them with no orders and little hope. Mr. Edmonds and his regiment had been the last line of defense before El Alamein. There were many injured and dying soldiers and Mr. Edmonds helped to dig numerous graves. Each Sergeant, with a group of twelve soldiers was told to get back to his own lines, but shortly after this they were captured. It was now July 1942. A German soldier approached Mr. Edmonds and seeing the spoon and fork he always kept in his vest pocket, grabbed it and thrust it up into his neck causing him to bleed profusely. Fortunately a German officer came over and strongly admonished the soldier and sought medical attention for Mr. Edmonds. They were held for a week and then marched to another site. It was during this march, as they were strung out across the desert, that Red Cross lorries appeared. The lorries were there to pick up soldiers unable to complete the walk. Mr. Edmonds, though quite healthy, told his mate, why not take a free ride, so they faked difficulty and were picked up. The lorry driver was a German who had lived in London for many years, spoke perfect English and had been conscripted by Hitler while on holidays in Germany.
Later they were handed over to the Italians and transported to Benghazi and put aboard a ship for Italy. The ship was damaged in an accident (it ran into wreckage from a sunken ship in the harbour) and water poured into the hole. The prisoners thought this would be the end of them. Italian engineers were called in and suggested that the ship just pump the water out during the voyage. This was successful and they arrived safely in Taranto, at the heel of Italy on the Gulf of Taranto. From there they were marched to Brindisi (Camp 454) and to Bari both on the Adriatic Sea. Next they were sent to Capua (Camp 66) and Benavento, north of Naples. The Italians treated the soldiers very badly. Many were beaten and received much abuse. Rocks and old fruit were thrown on them by the civilians as they marched. Mr. Edmonds found that by making his body in the shape of a ball he could deflect some of the blows from the guard's rifle butts. The camp was on a hill with an open pit latrine dug at the top of the hill! Rain would wash sewage from the pit into the area occupied by the prisoners. The camp was covered with crawling maggots. The Italians were afraid to come into the camp for fear of typhoid, etc., which was rampant. They did receive some shots from the Italian medical personnel. He was later transferred to Camp 53 Sforzacosta Macerata, south of San Marino. It is shown on the map below.
After the Italians surrendered in September of 1943, the Germans decided to send them to Germany for labor, though, as an officer, Mr. Edmonds would not be required to work. They were shipped by train and this was for Mr. Edmonds one of the worst experiences of his life. Forty-one prisoners were placed in each train car and locked in with only a pail of water and a loaf of bread. Each day the door was opened and new bread and water were placed inside and the door locked. There was no toilet break, no airing out of the car, no opportunity to move around and no removal of the dead. This went on for the complete trip through the Brenner Pass. It was hot during the early part of the ride in Italy, but got progressively colder as they went north. In the mountains the cold air was hard to endure. Thousand of former Italian soldiers were shipped at the same time to provide slave labor.
While imprisoned in Italy they had heard rumors of the gas chambers used on the Jews. Therefore, upon arrival at the prison, Stalag IVB in Muhlburg on Elbe in Germany, they were terrified when they were told to remove all clothes and go into the "chamber" for a shower. They fully expected to be gassed. Their relief was indescribable when warm water flowed from the threatening shower heads.
While in the camp the prisoners had news every day of the war. This was achieved through the use of a crystal radio whose pieces were smuggled in by various soldiers. Mr. Edmonds brought in one piece. The radio was hidden under a chair in the British commanding officer's office. His German counterpart often sat in the chair as they discussed camp problems. Each morning there was a news announcement that quickly spread throughout the camp. The German soldiers made many efforts to find the radio but were unsuccessful. Eventually the guards relied on the prisoners for news. They first learned of the Normandy invasion from the prisoners. The German guards in this camp were usually elderly soldiers, often veterans of the First World War. Their treatment of the prisoners was good.
Back at home, Mr. Edmunds' wife Doris and daughter Avril had moved to London to be with her sister. Their house in Devon was sufficiently large that she would have been required to house five evacuees from London. This was too much for a young wife with a small child. Each week they sent a package to him, but he never received a single one. However, during his early confinement he did receive a Red Cross package each week. These contained food, but more importantly, they contained cigarettes which were very valuable and provided commerce with the German guards. As the war worsened for the Germans, the packages arrival dropped to one every two weeks, then three weeks, finally to one a month, then none. The prisoner's didn't resent the loss since at this point conditions were also very difficult for the guards.
Mr. Edmonds and one of his mates escaped from the prison with the help of Russian prisoners who risked their own lives in doing so. They were able to avoid capture for several days until some children spied them in a hayloft and reported them. While free in the German countryside Mr. Edmonds regretted his stubbornness in not taking the German language lessons offered in camp.
Following his capture he was told they knew exactly where he was at all times. They were punished with seven days of bread and water and then sent for several months to a prison camp near a Jewish concentration camp. He thought this camp was at Zeitain. Here he saw the extreme brutality inflicted on the Jews. Most in the concentration camp, denied food, were unable to walk and were seen crawling on their hands and knees in the compound. Regularly he saw the bodies being thrown in quicklime. He was later returned to Stalag IVB.
The South Africans in the camp successfully captured the German Commandant's dachshund dog and butchered it. A soup was prepared that many were privileged to sample, including Mr. Edmonds. Naturally the Commandant was furious and commanded that all prisoners were to stand at attention until the culprits were exposed. He threatened to shoot every third prisoner if they did not confess. No one came forward. This lasted three days. Fortunately he did not carry out the threat.
There were many Americans in the camp. However they were not very compatible with the British soldiers. The British relied heavily on discipline to keep alive under such severe conditions. Each day they made their beds, washed, shaved, trimmed hair and put a crease in their trousers. The Americans were content to remain unkempt and rowdy. The Germans recognized the conflict and moved the Americans to another camp.
Across the way from Stalag IVB was a camp for Russian prisoners. Their treatment by the Germans was quite brutal. As Mr. Edmonds said, "No Red Cross packages for the Russians." He saw double amputees digging for potatoes in the mud. Red Cross inspections of all the camps were held, but no prisoner felt safe enough to complain about treatment.
Stalag IVB was liberated by the Russians. As news of the impending arrival of the Russians circulated, the German soldiers deserted and made their way west in hope of being captured by the Americans. They were justifiably terrified of the treatment they would and did receive from the Russians. There were 6,000 prisoners in the camp when liberated. Mr. Edmonds' weight was 7 stone (98 pounds) at the end and he was covered with boils and lice. He had lost much of his hair, not all of which returned. The Russians told the camp they had no food for them and that they must forage on their own. Each day 6,000 men flooded the countryside scavenging anything edible. A horror they encountered was complete German families, including children, hung in their homes, preferring suicide over the anticipated torture and death at the hand of the Russians.
The camp was situated between the small villages of Burxdorf and Neuburxdorf about 6 km east of Mulhberg. Stalag IVb was a huge camp, holding up to 16,000 men. In 1942, British, Australian and South African soldiers arrived after the fall of Tobruk.
As the war neared its end and the Germans were being pressed from both the East and the West, the volume of prisoners became so large that the Germans were overwhelmed and most prisoners stayed in camp. The result was that camp numbers swelled beyond what it was designed for and the POW's suffered the consequences - lack of bunks, bedding, clothing, and most of all, food.
When the Soviet Army arrived at the camp in April 1945, there were about 30,000 crowded into the facilities of which 7,250 were British. About 3,000 died, mainly from tuberculosis and typhus. They were buried in the cemetery in neighboring Neuburxdorf, 8 km NE of Mühlberg. Today a memorial and a museum commemorate them.
Mr. Edmonds eventually was flown from Halle, Germany, to Brussels in July 1945. The pilots of the Dakotas (similar to a DC-3) were far too playful in flight for his taste. They would try to touch wings, they would fly right above each other, and indulged in a variety of other acrobatics. Mr. Edmonds thought that it would be ridiculous to survive the war and then to die in this manner! They were finally flown in Halifax bombers to England from Brussels. When he got to Tavistock there were no buses to Chillaton where his wife and daughter were staying. Determined to get home, he walked the last six miles while two cars ignored his signal for a ride. His daughter Avril remembers his arrival with tears and joy. She did not recognize him. During his absence she had slept with her mother each night and was quite upset that she was put out of the room that night! Avril and her mother had survived the numerous air raids in London. She recalled many times walking along the streets when the air raid alarm sounded and a passerby would take her hand and lead her to a shelter.
Following the war, Mr. Edmonds tried his had as a fish monger and lumberman. He had hoped to have his own business, however the poor post-war economy prevented that. He was offered a number of positions at Heathrow Airport in London. One in the flight control area was attractive and suitable, however he felt his hearing, damaged during the war, would prevent him from doing a good job. Instead he chose to work in the baggage area, a job he enjoyed very much. He met many celebrities during his time at Heathrow, including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. He cheerful disposition and charm served him well in his work and was appreciated by all who met him.
Mr. Edmonds refuses to accept that he did anything special. He maintains that he just did his job, and that many did the same. We will leave it to the reader to decide. One piece of further evidence of the special character of this man is provided by an event that occurred when he was 76 years of age. Nine months after his wife's death, while placing flowers on her grave, he noticed a burning home. With no concern for his safety he raced into the burning building, avoiding falling timbers and carried a woman to safety. The elderly and confused woman was reluctant to leave the fire and it took much effort to remove her. He raced to the vicarage and the fire brigade was called, too late to save the house. For his heroism he received an award and was featured on the national news. The courage and valor shown by Mr. Edmonds should be an inspiration to us all. We write this to insure that his descendants and all free people will remember his deeds and the debt we owe him and his fellow soldiers.
In January of 2015, we reconnected with Avril, she was still living in Launceston and just return from a trip to Cuba. She reported that her father had died in August 14 (18), 2008, five months short of his 100 birthday. He remained lucid and upbeat to the end. We know no one who deserved it more.
Below is a writeup from Wikipedia that provides some details of Mr. Edmonds unit. Following that are some relevant photographs.
India and Iraq January–May 1941
Claude Auchinleck while Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army.
Promoted to full general on 26 December 1940, Auchinleck was recalled to India in January 1941 to become Commander-in-Chief, India in which position he also was appointed to the Executive Council of the Governor-General of India and appointed ADC General to the King which ceremonial position he held until after the end of the War.[
In April 1941, RAF Habbaniya was threatened by the new pro-Axis regime of Rashid Ali. This large Royal Air Force station was west of Baghdad in Iraq and General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, was reluctant to intervene, despite the urgings of Winston Churchill, because of his pressing commitments in the Western Desert and Greece. Auchinleck, however, acted decisively, sending a battalion of the King's Own Royal Regiment by air to Habbaniya and shipping Indian 10th Infantry Division by sea to Basra. Wavell was prevailed upon by London to send Habforce, a relief column, from the British Mandate of Palestine but by the time it arrived in Habbaniya on 18 May the Anglo-Iraqi War was virtually over.
North Africa July 1941 – August 1942
Following the see-saw of Allied and Axis successes and reverses in North Africa, Auchinleck was appointed to succeed General Sir Archibald Wavell as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command in July 1941; Wavell took up Auchinleck's post as Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, swapping jobs with him.
As Commander-in-Chief Middle East Auchinleck, based in Cairo, held responsibility not just for North Africa but also for Persia and the Middle East. He launched an offensive in the Western Desert, Operation Crusader, in November 1941: despite some tactical reverses during the fighting which resulted in Auchinleck replacing the Eighth Army commander Alan Cunningham with Neil Ritchie, by the end of December the besieged garrison of Tobruk had been relieved and Rommel obliged to withdraw to El Agheila. Auchinleck appears to have believed that enemy had been defeated, writing on 12 January 1942 that the Axis forces were "beginning to feel the strain" and were "hard pressed". In fact the Axis forces had managed to withdraw in good order and a few days after Auchinleck's optimistic appreciation, having reorganised and been reinforced, struck at the dispersed and weakened British forces, driving them back to the Gazala positions near Tobruk. The British Chief of Imperial General staff, Alan Brooke, wrote in his diary that it was "Nothing less than bad generalship on the part of Auchinleck". Rommel's attack at the Battle of Gazala of 26 May 1942 resulted in a significant defeat for the British. Auchinlek's appreciation of the situation written to Ritchie on 20 May had suggested that the armoured reserves be concentrated in a position suitable to meet both a flanking attack around the south of the front or a direct attack through the centre (which was the likelihood more favoured by Auchinleck). In the event, Ritchie chose a more dispersed and rearward positioning of his two armoured divisions and when the attack in the centre came, it proved to be a diversion and the main attack, by Rommel's armoured formations, came round the southern flank. Poor initial positioning and subsequent handling and coordination of Allied formations by Ritchie and his corps commanders resulted in their heavy defeat and the Eighth Army retreating into Egypt; Tobruk fell to the Axis on 21 June 1942.
On 24 June Auchinleck stepped in to take direct command of the Eighth Army, having lost confidence in Neil Ritchie's ability to control and direct his forces. Auchinleck discarded Ritchie's plan to stand at Mersa Matruh, deciding to fight only a delaying action there, while withdrawing to the more easily defendable position at El Alamein. Here Auchinleck tailored a defence that took advantage of the terrain and the fresh troops at his disposal, stopping the exhausted German/Italian advance in the First Battle of El Alamein. Enjoying a considerable superiority of material and men over the weak German/Italian forces, Auchinleck organised a series of counter-attacks. Poorly conceived and badly coordinated, these attacks achieved little.
"The Auk", as he was known, appointed a number of senior commanders who proved to be unsuitable for their positions, and command arrangements were often characterized by bitter personality clashes. Auchinleck was an Indian Army officer and was criticised for apparently having little direct experience or understanding of British and Dominion troops. His controversial chief of operations, Major-General Dorman-Smith, was regarded with considerable distrust by many of the senior commanders in Eighth Army. By July 1942 Auchinleck had lost the confidence of Dominion commanders and relations with his British commanders had become strained.
Like his foe Rommel (and his predecessor Wavell and successor Montgomery), Auchinleck was subjected to constant political interference, having to weather a barrage of hectoring telegrams and instructions from Prime Minister Churchill throughout late 1941 and the spring and summer of 1942. Churchill constantly sought an offensive from Auchinleck, and was downcast at the military reverses in Egypt and Cyrenaica. Churchill was desperate for some sort of British victory before the planned Allied landings in North Africa, Operation Torch, scheduled for November 1942. He badgered Auchinleck immediately after the Eighth Army had all but exhausted itself after the first battle of El Alamein. Churchill and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke, flew to Cairo in early August 1942, to meet Auchinleck, where it emerged he had lost the confidence of both men. He was replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command by General Sir Harold Alexander (later Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis).
Detailed plan of Stalag IVB
Detailed plan of Stalag IVB, Mühlberg, one of the largest POW camps in Germany. A typical camp was surrounded by a perimeter fence with two parallel barbed wire fences, 1.8 metres (6 feet) apart and up to 3.6 metres (12 feet) high with coils of barbed wire in between. Wooden towers were sited along the perimeter, manned by guards with machine guns and searchlights. A low warning wire ran just inside the perimeter fence. Any prisoner crossing it risked being shot. Armed guards with dogs also patrolled inside and outside camps
Edmonds told of a secret crystal which provided news of the Allies progress. At left is a secret radio made by Captain Ernest Shackleton at Oflag IXA/Z, Rotenburg. Hidden under floorboards and operated by knitting needles pushed through the cracks, the core of this radio was a German film projector. One prisoner would make notes on the news while others kept watch. A news summary was then written out and circulated among the prisoners before being destroyed. After his liberation, Shackleton requested permission to return to Rotenburg to retrieve the radio so that he could give it to the Imperial War Museum.
Paul Bullard was a young artist learning his trade at the Royal College of Art when the Second World War broke out. His studies were interrupted by his service in the Royal Artillery, during which he was taken prisoner by Axis forces and held at Campo Concentramento PG 53 at Sforzacosta in Italy. It is this camp that provides the setting of this painting, which highlights the stoicism of the prisoners in coping with the boredom of captivity. The regular and regimented rows of bunk beds emphasize the repetitive nature of internment and the lack of personal space. Yet the lines and structures are broken up by the lively variety of the prisoners, with drying clothes, draped bedding and dangling limbs refusing to be constricted. There is an impression of restless waiting, of life interrupted but nevertheless continuing. Bullard resumed his studies in 1946, completing them the following year.