World War Two veteran recalls life as prisoner of war

Ron Collins sitting down in a suit wearing a poppy and his medals, with Salisbury market square in the background full of people
World War Two veteran Ron Collins, 102, at this year's Poppy Appeal launch in Salisbury

At 102, Ron Collins is as old as the Poppy Appeal. Captured by the Germans in Greece in 1943, he spent two years in the Stalag Luft I prisoner of war camp near Barth in Germany, surviving on Red Cross parcels and dreaming of his escape.

This is his account of life under those harsh conditions.

When Ron Collins went to war, he was just 22, still "rather immature" and had never been abroad before.

He described getting captured by the Germans simply as "unfortunate."

Speaking to BBC Radio Wiltshire, he explained how he had been an RAF radar mechanic, stationed in North Africa.

When the Italians switched sides to the Allies in September 1943, there was a rush to secure their territories.

That is how Mr Collins, from Salisbury in Wiltshire, ended up being captured after the Battle of Leros.

'Cloud of parachuters'

One of the Greek Dodecanese islands, Leros had an Italian garrison - strengthened by the British - but it was lost to the Germans.

The Allies lost the battle for the island in 1943 when Mr Collins was in a 12-man unit.

"We knew there wasn't much hope for us because the Germans had a superior set-up," he said.

"We had no air cover. When we saw this cloud of parachuters coming in, we burned all the equipment and headed for the hills."

They came across a British army unit and were almost immediately given rifles - not their expertise - before being put in a trench.

But they were caught and Mr Collins remembers being taken from Leros in two ships, with the majority of those captured being Italian.

'Poor chaps'

"They shot 20 of the Italian officers, on Hitler's orders, because they were traitors," he said. "Those poor chaps."

One ship was sunk by friendly fire, he was on the other.

He said: "I think of all those poor chaps who died. Every year the same. It's awful."

They were used for propaganda purposes, being paraded down the streets of Athens, with "silent crowds of Greek people as we went by".

Mr Collins said: "You were dishevelled, hadn't shaven and the German guards are all smart.

"We were taken in a cattle truck with barbed wire and straw for a few days up to the Balkans. Eventually, I was taken to Frankfurt."

Solitary confinement

Mr Collins was put in a Dulag Luft, a transit prisoner of war camp, where those captured from air forces would go before being taken to longer-term camps.

"I was put into solitary confinement, then interrogated," he said.

He then remembers being shipped to the Stalag Luft I prisoner of war camp, near Barth in Germany.

There were around 9,000 people, with more than 7,500 of them Americans.

Conditions were not good for anyone, even the guards, and they were all reliant on Red Cross parcels.

"The Germans were suffering themselves," Mr Collins said. "If it wasn't for the Red Cross parcels, we wouldn't be here.

"The Red Cross sent barley soup. I used to collect it in the boxes - it used to set like a jelly - and used to shove it under the bunk. When I got really pushed, I used to carve a bit out."

Escape committee

Escape was always on the prisoners' minds, but Mr Collins said: "You didn't talk about escaping. There was an escape committee - you had to meet certain requirements to be involved in escaping."

To meet those requirements, you needed a good reason and to be able to speak German.

"I saw two who were going to escape," he said. "Every day, a horse and cart used to come and take away the rubbish.

"They got into the rubbish. Unfortunately, fire coals were emptied onto it - with smoke coming out - and before the main gate, they had to jump out."

It was in another of the camps, Stalag Luft III, that 50 prisoners were shot when they tried to escape through the tunnels - the basis for The Great Escape film.

At Stalag Luft I, Mr Collins said: "We only lost one. A sentry in a tower, he shot one chap, an American."

He said there was one positive to the camp - lots of talented Americans: "They formed an orchestra and they used to play. The Germans were only too pleased to give the facilities.

"Once we were occupied, we weren't giving them any hassle."

The prisoners were eventually released by Russian tanks - but then everything "fell apart".

The guards disappeared, so thousands were left with no food or water. In the end, the Americans came to rescue them.

"When I came out, I had ulcers down my legs and I was obviously thin," said Mr Collins.

"Fortunately, I was sent for six months convalescence. With my mum's cooking and all the rest of it, I was all right."

His capture had had ramifications for those back home too, with his family going months without news after receiving a telegram to say he was missing in action.

Ron Collins wearing a suit with poppy and medals stands next to Salisbury's mayor and cuts his birthday cake, which is shaped as the number 102
Mr Collins was given a birthday cake at Salisbury's Poppy Appeal launch

It was not until later when he was at a camp that the Red Cross told his mother he was alive.

When Mr Collins arrived back in the UK, he was dropped off just seven miles away from his family but he had to be taken up north for a debrief.

First though, he wandered off: "It started to rain. I made for a barn for cover. I opened the door and there was a chap there in wheelchair. I chatted to him - I wrote a note for Mum and he took it to her."

Later, he found out she had kept that note and it is still in the family.

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