We owe it all to men like him
VIDEO While world wars raged during the early half of the twentieth century, ordinary people found themselves performing extraordinary feats. As we prepare to remember their heroism on Sunday , MATTHEW WARD meets Douglas Beckett who escaped from three prisoner of war camps.
WHILE world wars raged during the early half of the twentieth century, ordinary people found themselves performing extraordinary feats. As we prepare to remember their heroism on Sunday , MATTHEW WARD meets Douglas Beckett who escaped from three prisoner of war camps.
The world may not be a totally stable place today, but wars are fought on far-off battlefields, or by secretive surveillance operatives in ways which rarely affect our daily lives in Suffolk.
It is a far cry from times when the fields of Europe ran red with the blood of young men fighting bayonet to bayonet in the trenches, or in the skies above the English Channel.
But the minds of the generation that faced down Hitler's Nazis, easily slip back to a time when the threat of invasion of their beloved homeland spurred them on to gamble their lives without question or complaint.
Douglas Beckett answered his country's call with the threat of war looming in 1937, giving up his peaceful existence as a polisher and restorer of antique furniture. It was the start of an adventure that would see him taken captive in Greece, escape from three prisoner of war camps, trek across the Alps on foot during winter, and come close to death in the hell-on earth of a Nazi concentration camp.
Now aged 89, he has spoken of the experiences for the first time to anyone outside of his own family - experiences which left him unable to talk about his experiences for four years after he returned home at the end of the war.
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Douglas, who lived in Sturdy Lane, Ipswich at the time, signed up at his local recruiting station on April 13 1937, aged 19. He was a keen boxer and hoped that army life would give him the chance to indulge his passion.
But at the same time he was aware of the deadly threat growing in a resurgent Germany ablaze with the evil of National Socialism - and that he may be called upon to face it.
Douglas joined up with Royal Armed Ordinance Squad and after training in Portsmouth he was posted to York. He said: “We were on standby for a while until war was declared - then the next day we found ourselves getting off a boat in France.
“We spent most of the time to start with unloading weapons from the ships - there was no fighting for a while, then all hell broke loose.”
After being evacuated from Dunkirk he was posted to Egypt, and then sent to Greece, where he said: “The Germans fought us from Mount Olympus to Kalamata, at the other end of the country. We had no aircraft - the Germans ruled the skies, and killed as they pleased.”
Less than a year after war had broken out, he was captured and sent to the first of many prison and punishment camps that he would live in as a captive of the Nazis.
Before being shipped to Austria, he managed to write a note to his mother on the only scrap of paper he could find - a cigarette packet - and gave it to a Red Cross worker to deliver.
The note, which read: “I am quite well - do not write” was the last she would hear of her son for several years.
He managed to escape twice, without making it far before being recaptured, and each time was transported to a different punishment camp, with a stricter regime and harsher conditions than the one he had just escaped.
But on the third attempt he and New Zealander Sam Hoare made it to the Alps, and made the perilous crossing on foot in ten days. He said: “Sammy was a small man - I was twice his size - but he had more courage in his little finger than most have in their whole bodies. No-one tried to escape in winter time - it was madness, but Sammy was a madman.
“We were waist deep in snow at times - we ate snow and vomited up a black substance, because of the impurities. Sammy kept me going, wouldn't have made it without him.”
After arriving in Hungary on Christmas Eve, they handed themselves into neutral Hungarian forces, and were interred at the castle home of Count Andrassi.
But again it would not be long before he was forced to move on - Hungary was invaded and German parachutists dropped onto the castle in the middle of the night. Douglas said: “We heard that the Germans shot the count and his staff, but we didn't see it.”
Because he and Sam had fake passports, provided for them by the British embassy in Hungary, they were treated as civilians rather than soldiers, and transported to a concentration camp near Belgrade on the banks of the Danube.
What he saw and experienced there has haunted him ever since.
He said: “When I think about it now, it is the smell that I mostly remember.”
Rows of eastern European prisoners would be led away, never to return. He knew they were being taken to gas chambers or to be shot. He said: “Fifty or 60 people would be taken away on carts every day, dressed in striped uniforms. We all knew they were being murdered.”
Human life had little value in the camp - and as time wore on even his own started to seem worthless to him. Delirious with cold and hunger he threw down his tools one day when told to muck out a toilet, and he refused to pick them up and continue working even when a camp guard put a gun to his head.
He said: “It wasn't because I was brave - I had just had enough. I didn't care any more.”
The guard spared his life, which allowed him to make one more last-ditch attempt at freedom.
Sneaking away into the night with Sam again, they made it as far as a nearby hamlet where they encountered a German patrol. Sam managed to evade them - and went on to meet up with friendly resistance forces, and eventually was flown to England. The first thing he did was find Douglas's family and tell them he was alive and well.
Douglas, of Colchester Road, Ipswich, said: “They had thought I had been dead for 14 months, after the Germans told the Red Cross there was no way we would have survived going into the alps on foot in midwinter.”
Months later, American tanks rolled into view and Douglas, who had no idea the Allies had landed in Europe, and thought Germany had all but won the war, was a free man.
He returned home and two days later met Hilda, marrying her two months later. She worked for him when he re-started his work restoring and polishing antique furniture, and they had four children, and adopted two more.
Years later when he needed to stay in hospital for an operation to remove a hernia, one of his sons bought him a pair of blue-and-white striped pyjamas. They were identical to the ones he had seen so many people wearing as they were carted away to be murdered in the camp.
He said: “There was no way I could wear them - never in a million years. Even though they were a present bought with good intentions, I had seen too many people die wearing them.”
See tomorrow's Evening Star for the memories of two Suffolk police officers who served in the Falklands.
Do you know where Sam Hoare is? Contact Matthew Ward on 01473 324789 or e-mail email@example.com.