- Kelly Morgan & Sophie Parker
- BBC Wiltshire
At 102 years old, Ron Collins is about the same age as Poppy Appeal. Captured by German troops in Greece in 1943, he spent two years in Stalag Luft 1 POW camp near Baltic, Germany, surviving on Red Cross parcels and dreaming of escape.
This is a record of his life under such harsh conditions.
When Ron Collins went to war, he was only 22 years old, “pretty immature” and had never been overseas before.
He described his capture by the Germans as simply “unlucky.”
In an interview with BBC Radio Wiltshire, he explained that he was stationed in North Africa as a radar mechanic with the Royal Air Force.
When the Italians defected to the Allies in September 1943, there was an urgent need to secure territory.
Mr. Collins, from Salisbury, Wiltshire, was thus captured after the Battle of Leros.
Leros, one of the Greek Dodecanese islands, had an Italian garrison that was reinforced by British forces, but was lost to German forces.
In 1943, while Mr. Collins was serving in a 12-man unit, the Allies lost the battle for the island.
“We knew we didn’t have much hope because the Germans had a good setup,” he said.
“We had no air defense. When we saw the swarm of parachutes coming in, we burned all our equipment and headed for the hills.”
They encountered a British unit and were almost immediately given rifles rather than their expertise, and were then forced into trenches.
But they were captured, and Mr. Collins remembers being taken from Leros in two ships, most of whom were Italians.
“They shot 20 Italian officers on Hitler’s orders because they were traitors.” “Those poor bastards.”
One ship sank in a mutual attack, and he was on the other one.
He said: “I feel for all the poor guys who died. It’s the same thing every year. It’s awful.”
They were used for propaganda purposes and paraded through the streets of Athens with “crowds of silent Greeks as they passed by.”
Mr Collins said: “You were poorly dressed, unshaven and all the German guards were smart.
“We were taken to the Balkans for several days in cattle trucks loaded with barbed wire and straw. Eventually we were taken to Frankfurt.”
Collins was taken from the Air Force to Dulag Luft, a POW camp that POWs pass through before being transferred to long-term camps.
“I was put in a cell and then interrogated,” he said.
He recalled that he was then transferred to Stalag Luft 1 POW camp near Bath, Germany.
Approximately 9,000 people participated, more than 7,500 of whom were Americans.
The situation was not good for anyone, including the security personnel, and everyone was relying on Red Cross parcels.
“The Germans themselves were suffering,” Collins said. “If it wasn’t for the Red Cross parcel, we wouldn’t be here.
“The Red Cross sent me some barley soup. I collected it in a box and it had hardened like jelly. I shoved it under my bed. When I was really in a corner, I would hollow out a little bit and eat it.”
Prisoners were always thinking about escape, but Collins said, “We didn’t talk about escape. There was an escape committee. You had to meet certain requirements to participate in an escape.” Ta.
To meet these requirements, for good reason, I needed to be able to speak German.
“I saw two people trying to run away,” he said. “Every day, horses and carts came to carry the garbage.
“They ended up in the trash. Unfortunately, the coals from the fire were dumped on top of the trash and smoke came out, so they had to jump out just before the main gate.”
At another camp, Stalag Luft III, 50 prisoners were shot and killed while trying to escape through a tunnel, which was the basis for the film The Great Escape.
On Stalag Luft I, Collins said, “We only lost one man. He shot an American man on the lookout in the tower.”
He said there was one good thing about the camp: there were many talented Americans: “They formed an orchestra and played well. The Germans provided the equipment. I was very happy about it.
“Once we got into it, we didn’t give them any trouble.”
The prisoners were eventually freed by Russian tanks, but then everything “fell apart”.
With the security guards gone, thousands of people were left without food or water. Eventually, the Americans came to their aid.
“When he was discharged from the hospital, he had ulcers on his legs and was noticeably thinner,” Collins said.
“Luckily, I ended up recuperating for six months. Thanks to my mom’s cooking and everything else, I was okay.”
His capture also affected those back home, and his family was not heard from for months after receiving a telegram that he was missing in action.
It wasn’t until he was in the camp that the Red Cross told his mother he was alive.
When Mr Collins returned to the UK, he was dropped off just 11 miles from his family but had to be taken north to report.
“It started raining, so we took shelter in a barn. When I opened the door, there was a guy in a wheelchair there. I chatted with him. I wrote a note to my mom, and he took it with her.” “
It was later discovered that she had kept the note and it is still in the family.