My father became a soldier when he was 19, joining up to be part of the big adventure that was called World War II. It was late January, 1940 when his first letter home arrived from his training camp in Auckland, where he was part of the NZ21 battalion (5th brigade), along with his older brother Cliff.
With ANZAC Day upon us again, I decided to re-read the small collection of correspondence that charted his progress through training, being sent to England in readiness for action in the Middle East and then three-and-a-half years in prisoner of war camps in Greece, Italy and Poland.
The letters are frustratingly short, determinedly cheerful. The thin and fragile pieces of paper, with Dad’s distinctive copperplate writing, leave me trying to read between the lines.
In the beginning of course, it was all fun. The training camp at Papakura was not hard for a young man from a family of 11 children, and already used to physical work. The first letter is upbeat, looking forward to final leave before shipping out.
I have been having a hell of a good time…it is just like one big holiday. Cliff and I are in the best Company in camp. We have an over-strength of fifteen and only the best of men. We went out to the range today…I can put a hole in the target now…
And a social life too, that this handsome young fellow – known to all as Mac – was not going to let go to waste. He writes that some others question his age “but I told them I was 23”.
They have concerts here about three times a week and I know some of the girls. I don’t waste any time now, I have got more cheek than Ned Kelly.
Then the real adventure starts. An undated missive from HM Transport, sometime in March 1940:
Just a few lines to let you know we are alright. We called at our first port and had a good time, but we don’t know where we are going because the army won’t tell us.
There is plenty of water around us now. I don’t think I have ever seen so much water before. We have seen quite a few shoals of flying fish. I have also seen a swordfish and a whale.
There’s a gap in the correspondence, the next letters dated August 1940, from Aldershot in England. His brother Cliff, he says, had been transferred to 6th brigade three weeks before and he hadn’t seen him since. The letters are full of news about the places in the UK he’s seen – and wants to see. There seems plenty of leave and it’s still a big adventure.
We are having a pretty easy week. We went out to see Windsor Castle last Friday and gee it’s a thing to see. The two Princesses are staying there at present, the King and Queen came down on the weekend. It is wonderful inside. We saw where the king was buried. The castle itself only covers thirteen acres of ground so you can see she is some size. I’m going away for seven days leave shortly and I just don’t know where to go as there are so many places I’d like to see.
But then reality creeps in. Air raid warnings, bombers flying over “all day long”.
One night we counted 80 in two hours and they were still going over.
By September, he was in Leeds and the realities of war were coming thick and fast.
There has been an air raid on here today and one Hun plane came down and machine gunned the street but no one was hurt. One of our planes was brought down here this afternoon but the pilot got out safely.
There is hardly a day goes by but what there are bombs dropped round us and at night the siren goes about five o’clock and you don’t get the all clear until about half past five next morning. It never keeps us awake now as we are used to it and we know he never hits what he aims at. You should have been here on Sunday when one of our planes brought down a German bomber. It was only about a hundred yards away from our camp and we went down to have a look at it and all we could find of the pilot was his head and one foot and his plane was just a heap of tin.
And to his older sister:
We are up an hour before daylight and in full battle dress. It is great to watch the dog fights that go on here but the only trouble is you have to look out for a stray bullet. When a plane is crashing is the worst time of the lot. If you can’t see it you would swear it was going to come right down on you and you just don’t know which way to go. We wear our tin hats pretty often now as it is a lot safer.
We get quite a few bombs dropped around us now. There is hardly a day goes by but what there is a raid. Three of us tried to get into the Air Force as air gunners but they won’t transfer from one to the other. I am just as pleased now after I have seen some of the crashes.
And a few days later, another letter:
Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and kicking. We had a bit of excitement here the other day. We were just coming home from a swim when they dropped a bomb about thirty yards in front of our bus. We all grabbed our tin hats and crouched down as near to the floor as we could. We were waiting for shrapnel to come though the roof but none ever came. Two of our boys had their heads cut open. They dropped about fifteen bombs altogether and killed eighteen people and quite a few hurt but there wasn’t much damage.
For a couple of months, life seemed to settle in to a pattern, including a week’s leave in Wales, plenty of girls, great hospitality from the locals in the village where they were living, and “the only trouble is it is too cold”. Christmas 1940 came, with a rum issue and a bottle of beer, parties and the novelty of snow.
January 10, 1941, At Sea:
Just a few lines to let you know that everything is OK. We have left England for where I don’t know yet but I suppose you will by the time you get this. This trip isn’t as comfortable as the first one but there you are we have got to put up with these things. We are sleeping in hammocks and it is alright. Cliff and all the rest of the old company are on this boat so we see quite a lot of one another.
By mid-year, the letters were coming from Greece (the island of Crete) and then Cairo. Full of reassurances that all was well, the countryside was very pretty , the weather lovely and “I have never eaten as many eggs and oranges in my life”. And that after being in the front line on Crete, where “there are still a few of the boys missing”, seven days leave was “just the thing we needed” and “I am feeling my old self again”.
But was homesickness setting in?
Well mum I am still doing OK. I haven’t had any letters from over there for quite some time now. Have you heard anything more of Cliff lately as I can’t find out anything over here except that he is a prisoner of war.
I haven’t seen a place yet that could come up to New Zealand and I have seen a few places since I left home.
It was not long before Mac was also a prisoner, captured in North Africa in November 1941, about six weeks after his 21st birthday.
An undated postcard, printed with a message but signed in Dad’s handwriting, delivered this message:
My dear, Mother
I am alright (I have not been wounded) o
r I have been slightly wounded . I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well. Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address. Only then I will be able to receive letters from you and to reply.
Mac (signature: …………)
Another postcard followed on 20 March (1942):
Dear Mum, I am now in Italy. We have been shipwrecked. We were in Greece. I am in perfect health. I hope all are well. Remember me to all. With love from Mac.
The shipwreck was the Italian cargo ship Jantzen which was torpedoed by British submarines off the coast of Greece on December 9, 1941, while carrying 2000 prisoners to Italy. Dad survived; many didn’t.
There were more letters, dated throughout April and May 1942, from the transit camps, with assurances that he was “in the best of health” and “perfect health” and receiving Red Cross parcels. It’s hard to know if those letters arrived before or after the official telegram to his mother, dated 15 July 1942:
MUCH REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON 21611 PRIVATE CECIL ALBERT CLARENCE PIERCE HAS BEEN REPORTED MISSING BELIEVED PRISONER OF WAR (STOP) THE PRIME MINISTER DESIRES ME TO CONVEY TO YOU ON BEHALF OF THE GOVERNMENT HIS SYMPATHY WITH YOU IN YOUR ANXIETY + F JONES MINISTER OF DEFENCE +
For his widowed mother, knowing that two of her eight sons were now incarcerated in a foreign country, would have been almost too much to bear, I’d think.
But the postcards and messages kept coming from the POW camps. Formulaic, brief and always reassuring. And each one proof that her son was still alive.
Campo pg No. 65
Dear Mum, Here I am again still in good health and hope you are the same. It won’t be long now before we are altogether again. So keep your chin up. Cheerio for now. Fondest love, Mac.
There were other letters too, over this time. Kind-hearted New Zealanders monitored radio broadcasts from the Vatican in which POWs were able to send messages home, and then wrote to the families, in case they had missed this further “proof of life”. There were six of these letters among the bundle my grandmother kept, all in a similar vein:
Dear Mrs Pierce
I heard this message for you from the Vatican Radio tonight.
Pte C.A. Pierce 21611
“I am in good health. There is no need to worry. I hope everybody is well. Fondest love to all from Mac”
I feel sure this will be of interest to you.
By November 1944, the postcards were coming from the notorious German prison camp Stalag 8B (pictured above, courtesy Wartime Memories Project).
Dear Mum, how is everything doing out there. The winter has started here with our first fall of snow. I must wish you all a Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year, & I hope to be back for the next. Love to all. From your loving son, Mac.
That was the final message from my father as a prisoner. As the Allied Forces advanced, the prisoners were marched from camp to camp. One march saw my father trek about 900 miles (around 1450km) over three months, from Lamsdorf in Poland to Frankfurt in Germany. Liberation by the Americans came on April 8, 1945. By then, Dad weighed just six stone (38kg).
Within a week, my grandmother had received two telegrams:
VERY PLEASED TO INFORM YOU IT IS NOW REPORTED THAT YOUR SON 21611 PTE CECIL ALBERT CLARENCE PIERCE PREVIOUSLY PRISONER OF WAR IN GERMANY IS NOW SAFE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM (STOP) THE PRIME MINISTER DESIRES ME TO CONVEY TO YOU THE GOVERNMENTS SINCERE PLEASURE AT THIS GOOD NEWS AND HOPES THAT IT WILL NOT BE LONG BEFORE REPATRIATION.
TELEGRAM 16 APR 45
FLEW FROM PRISON ENJOYABLE TRIP HAVE WRITTEN AIRMAIL HOPING TO HEAR FROM YOU LOVE TO ALL AT HOME ++ MAC
It was over; after six months in England, he sailed home to New Zealand, arriving just three days before Christmas 1945. As promised.
I read these letters now and try to marry them in my mind with the realities of what’s not said. How would he have been different, without those horrific experiences…the bodies, the shipwreck, the privations of the camps, the long “death march”. Things seldom spoken of, or understood by others when he got home to the world he knew best.
April 25 is ANZAC Day, the day we remember the men and women of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. Those who served, those who died – and those who still do – in our armed forces. So tomorrow, I’ll be remembering….
Lest we forget.