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Ben Dixon's War

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project war veteran Ben Dixon reminisced about his time in the RAF and in Prisoner of War camps. This is his story, in his own words:

Benjamin Dixon, born 3rd April 1921. I was 18 when the war started. I had been working for a jobbing builder firm in Park Road called Suggitt. In June 1939 his son mentioned that had I looked in the newspaper, they were applying for wireless operators, air gunners, and observers and pilots to join the RAF Voluntary Reserve. So I went down and they accepted me. Our headquarters used to be in the old Market in the caretakers room, and we used to go up twice a week for practice. We used to do a little bit of Morse code and things like that and they told us all about the sights for the machine guns and things. Then we moved into Surtees Street, I think. There was a public house there, the Volunteer Arms, and we were right across the road in a big house. We were doing a guard duty outside and a bloke came running out of the Volunteer Arms across the way and said “the war’s started!” They’d just got the announcement at 11. 

About two or three weeks later we got our actual call up. We all amalgamated down the town. We didn’t have a full uniform. Some had a shirt, some had trousers, some had a jacket – part of the uniform. Only what they handed you out, so you took whatever there was for the time being. We went to Prestwick in Scotland. We stayed on Prestwick aerodrome and we got a couple of free flights on aircraft just to give us practice. After about three weeks they posted us to Adamton House, a big mansion right on the outskirts. A unit came from Scotland, and a unit came from Hamble, down south. They converted the stables into classrooms and we used to do our Morse and our theory down there. Then we were posted down to Digby, a big fighter operational ‘drome. They didn’t know what to do with us. They stuck us in this billet and nobody knew we were there for a fortnight. Somebody found us and then they gave us jobs washing up and clearing the runways of snow. We got all the jobs that were going yet we were supposed to be trainee aircrew. They put us on guard and we’d never even seen a rifle. Then they had to take us and show us how to manage the guns. The chief armourer said “I’ll take you every day and show you how to take the machine guns to pieces and put them back together again. So we got a very good training there. Then we were posted to Cranwell to do another radio course. Then they sent you to Dorset to RAF Warmwell where we did our gunnery course in old-fashioned planes called Harrows. When we were down there the lads were coming back from Dunkirk. What a pitiful state they were in. It gives you your first glimpse of what war was like, seeing them coming off the boats. Then we went to Benson and we had to do an operational training unit. You would go up with an observer and a pilot and train as a crew. It was a way in to the operational squadrons. Then we went to an operational squadron near Nottingham, and they were Fairey Battles. It was a bomber aircraft like a big version of a Spitfire. There was the pilot’s position and a navigator could get in front and then there was the wireless opps and a gunnery. It was open - you pulled your canopy back and then you were out in the open air. We did a couple of trips then. The barges were building up ready for the invasion so we used to do trips over there and bomb the barges. It was only across the Channel and back, like, it wasn’t too risky. We still got the flack and suchlike. I was a wireless operator/air gunner.

They did away with the Fairey Battles and brought in the Wellington aircraft. We were just about to go operational, flying in the Wellingtons and I got posted. I got sent to a conversion course first at RAF Finningley. I was supposed to practice on the Hampden aircraft – never got on it yet. They were on circuits and bumps. They used to lose quite a lot of people on circuits and bumps. What it was, they used to train the pilot to take off and land at night, but he always had to have somebody else with him, you see, so they used to take a wireless operator or something like that. So if he went for a burton, you went for a burton. Then they posted me down to Lindholme, and that was an operational squadron, 50 squadron, actually it’s a well-known squadron. Some of the Dambuster blokes were trained on there before they went onto special squadrons. I joined this crew, we had two pilots, but one did the navigation and one did the actual flying. There was the wireless operator and the gunner, the navigator and the pilot in the Hampden. As I say, I’d never been in a Hampden, they said “report tonight” and we was on ops. Mind it was a reasonable one, the first one I did, we went to the channel ports. We were getting one every third night or so. And then we got one to go to Hanover and we did another one somewhere else, then we got a trip to go to Bordeaux, the River Gironde.

We had to go down country to St Evals where the navy loaded us up with the mines, cos we were going what they called “gardening”, laying mines. We got to the mouth of the River Gironde. In those days we had no instruments for navigating. You had to draw it out and take the wind off and everything. The wireless operator could get a bearing out from England, but when you got so far out the signal didn’t go far enough. So it all depended on the navigator. Anyway, we dropped the mine in the mouth of the river and the pilot then said “we’ll go in and drop the bombs” - there was like an oil works off the shore. Everything was so quiet for a bombing raid, I never saw a ha’porth of flack come up or anything. I think we must have been the first in. On the run in, all at once there was a violent shudder. The wireless operator shouted “hello, pilot, what’s the matter?” but we never heard anything so we thought “there’s something up the creek now, like”. So the laddo jettisoned the hood at the back, but we couldn’t bail out cos we didn’t know what height we were. Then all at once we hit – just a violent crunch and all the aircraft just started to rip up and fires were going, everything sparkles. All I could think of was “he hasn’t pressed that button to say bombs gone”. Actually it was silly, because if they were going to go they would probably go as we hit the deck. But I couldn’t get out until he got out, he completely blocked my way. Cos the way I got in, that had gone, all crunched up on the floor. So he started to get out. I started to get up but my foot wouldn’t go. I pulled like merry blazes. My flying boots must have been a bit bigger than I should have had, so the one that was trapped came off. So he got out on the wing and I got out. It was pitch black. We hadn’t heard from the lads at the front. When I tried to walk off my leg just went. I had to crawl off the wing and things were setting afire then, she was starting to blaze. I clambered away about 25 yards from it. Couldn’t go back to help them – I think they were dead in any case already.

We were in sand dunes. I sat there looking at the aircraft burning and my leg was aching like merry hell. I couldn’t put it down at all. I couldn’t see the laddo anywhere. Then I saw two Jerries coming across with rifles. I put me hands up, I thought “I don’t want to get shot – I can’t run away”. They weren’t very keen about being out in the raid, I don’t think. They came over and dragged me along, they weren’t worried about whether I could walk or not. We went to a Nissan hut, and there was the other lad. So that’s how we got taken prisoner. Neither of us could speak German. About half an hour passed and in came a big, tall, slim German officer. He even had the monocle in his eye. You couldn’t have got the more perfect example of a German. He could speak perfect English. You can’t give them information so it was just a question of who you were like. They sent for transport. I couldn’t walk and they weren’t going to carry me so they got a wheelbarrow, put me in and made the laddo push it to the cars! They put me in one car and him in the other. They took me to a big house up the road and there was a medical man who put a splint on me leg, and that eased the pain a good bit. He actually brought me a bar of chocolate. There was a German guard about my age looking after me, so I gave him some of it. I was there a few hours then they took me to the Florence Nightingale hospital in Bordeaux. Then the proper doctors did me leg properly. I had actually broke the tibia and the fibia. The nurses were French (I couldn’t speak French, either) and the Sisters were German. They looked after me and let me write home.

I was taken from there by aircraft to Paris. On board there was a young lad, a German fitter, and he’d broke his leg. We had a good talk on the aircraft, the lad talked about his sister who lived in Oxford. She would have been interred, I should imagine. He was a canny lad. Then they took me to a great big hospital in Paris. It had all the big swastika banners outside. On the way up, there was the laddo, and he gave us a wave. They put me in a big room on my own. They were telling me how they were winning the war. They would ply me with cigarettes on the point that Dunkirk was just over and we had left all our cigarettes in the trucks. So they had more Capstans and Players than we had! It was all a means of propaganda. As I came out of hospital they took me for a couple of hours to an Intelligence Headquarters, and there they interrogated you and asked you what squadron you were with and what target you were bombing and all this kind of stuff. Then they give you a form, British Red Cross, and said “fill this in”. when you look at it, it would say your name, number, date of birth and all that. Then it would say “what is your squadron? Where did you fly from?” It was a con! You didn’t have to be brilliant to recognise it was a con. They had put it under the name of the Red Cross. I think they just tried it in case you were under the weather you might do something silly like that. They tell you stories and you are that bamboozled, you have to be so careful.

Then they sent me from there to Dulag Luft and there they put you in a sweatbox. It was like a little room and they used to turn the heating up, leave you overnight and interrogate you in the morning. But they got very little out of people. I wasn’t there a week and they posted me to the Black Forest and they put me in a convent. The nuns run it. It was a big house with grounds. There I was convalescent with me foot, and in there was one or two of our lads. We all used to sit at one big table to have our meal, and they didn’t cook a bad meal, the nuns. There was a Wing Commander there, he was only twenty-two. Every part of his body had been burned. He had no ears, his lips had gone, his nose had gone, his hands were webs. His body – here he had a tyre, here he had a tyre, where the fat had rolled. How he survived – the pain alone must have been out of this world.

I was there a little while then we went to Stalag Luft 1. Then we were pushed on cattle trucks and taken to Stalag Luft 3. That’s the one where the Great Escape went from. But that was in the Officers’ Compound. We were in the Mens’ Compound. We were one of the first ones to go to that camp. Then they asked for personnel to open up Stalag Luft 1 again. A lot of us had been at Stalag Luft 1 and we liked it. You could see outside, not much but you could see outside, but Stalag Luft 3 it was just complete trees, you saw nothing but a forest. You never saw the outside world, a horrible sensation. I was there about six months and they brought out this idea about going back to Stalag Luft 1 and there was about fifty or a hundred of us said we would go back. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad because they stuck us in the officers’ compound and in there they actually had cold showers. Then I got a job in the cookhouse, there was about ten of us with three big pressure cookers and we used to cook for the whole camp. There was cabbage and taties in the skins and a tiny bit of horsemeat. We had a German bloke in charge of us to make sure we didn’t steal. Then they were going to move all the NCOs again to a place right up near the Prussian border, Stalag Luft 6 I think it was, but they wanted the cooking staff to stay behind. I thought, “I’ve got a fair number here, I’m happy. You don’t know what you’re walking into.” Some of the blokes weren’t very happy that we stayed behind, probably because they never got the chance to stay behind. It was the best move I ever made, because those lads went to Stalag Luft 6 and when it was getting towards the end of the war they evacuated that camp, they tramped down to the middle of Germany and when they got there they tramped them back up again, our lads were strafing them, the food was getting short and quite a number of them never survived the journey. So I was glad I stayed.

Across the road from us, they had put the Russians in there. So when they moved them out they had to decontaminate it, cos they used to die like flies from typhus. We used to try and help them if we could, they were in a terrible state. So then our officers started coming back into their quarters and we moved back into our original rooms. Over there we had no indoor wash facilities. We had to wash outside, the toilets were outside as well. Then they started to bring the Americans in. There was so many of them and they used to segregate the compounds, so there were parts of the compounds and some of the Americans that I never saw. There was about the ten of us cooks in this little room – we were cooking for the Americans now as well. Eventually we got another five or six of their NCOs came to help us cos there was that many, over about 8 000 in the camp then.

I was there for four years altogether in all the camps. The Russians took it over when the war ended and the Americans came and took us out. Typical Americans – we were the first prisoners of war in that camp and we were the last prisoners of war to leave it. They took all their troops out and we were the last to go. 

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