Knowing that I was a journalist (actually a photojournalist) he told me wanted his story to be told. I imagined Sunday magazines or newspapers would be very interested but it was rejected everywhere I sent it. As I got deeper into the story, I decided it deserved to be a TV or radio production. Meanwhile, after a great deal of research and luck, I located John 'Jackie' Hipkin and Lewis McMahon, two of the other boys on his ship and I learned of the incredible stories of 'Milag'.
After a couple of false starts, the following pitch for a documentary about the boys was accepted by Pier Productions and a long wait then ensued for a decision on a commission from the BBC. Finally production was scheduled for transmission 18 months ahead. By then John's health had began to deteriorate rapidly and by September 2004 Lewis McMahon had sadly passed away.
The programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2006. During the making, John and Jackie were reunited. What is published here is the original 'pitch' but being a documentary, the final programme would be its own narrative after the participants had given their interviews and the programme couldn't cover everything in the time slot.
Just after the story aired, the British Government announced it would pardon all the servicemen executed for 'cowardice' in the First World War as a result of the 16 year campaign for justice for them waged by Hipkin.
THE CABIN BOYS' WAR
By Nat Bocking
During the Second World War more than 10,000 boys, some as young as 14, went to sea in the Merchant Navy. Many died for their country transporting the vital supplies and war materiel. It is little known that over 1 in 4 merchant seamen were killed in enemy action, relatively the highest loss of life amongst all the services.
If they were captured, these boys got the same treatment as adult prisoners but their youth did not make them any more resilient or adaptable. Under the Geneva Convention, non-combatants under 18 must be repatriated but these boys were interred like other servicemen. The conditions they endured often caused psychological and physical harm. Many suffered in ways children today cannot imagine. With the passage of time these boys have become a growing proportion of the living veterans of the Second World War but few of their stories have been told. Perhaps now it is their turn to be listened to.
In June 2006 the BBC enabled two men who had served together as cabin boys aged 14 and 16 to meet for the first time in over sixty years, ever since the German battleship Scharnhorst sank them and sent them into four years of captivity. On the left is John Hipkin who has called Tyneside his home all his life. During his short seafaring career he was known as Jackie. His shipmate John Brantom lives in retirement in Suffolk.
John Brantom's father served in the First World War in the Royal Flying Corps. He speaks with pride of his father who was "a very good engineer". With the outbreak of the Second World War, his father's work testing and inspecting materials for a small arms factory had moved him and his family from Woolwich Arsenal to Swansea. One day when John was 15, he and his older brother had a punch-up. "It was over something stupid" John leaves it at that but John went down to Swansea's docks. "There was a ship there and it had a notice, they were looking for crew and that was it, I was away." With Britain at war, John knew he had the choice of running away to sea or "going into the Army or the Air Force or whatever, sometime." John certainly would have known of the dangers of a life at sea but to a teenager the money would have been very attractive. Because the work was 24 hours a day, a cabin boy earned the same as a skilled craftsman ashore and there was danger money as well.
Once at sea on the S.S. Roy, John admits he had his regrets about his rash decision but he could only think ahead now. He was going to make his fortune in America or Canada. John's mother Winifred was desperate about her youngest son when her letters to the address he telegrammed her came back uncollected. John finally wrote to his mother. His letters tell her he was sorry he had run away to sea but he was all right. He'd even won a gold pocket-watch off a fireman in a card game but his trousers were too short and his coat was too small and the weather was bad but he'd been allowed to steer the ship. He didn't tell her the Roy's captain was a harsh taskmaster and sometimes he stood on watch for 18 hours at a stretch. His 16th birthday passed unremarked. He often helmed the ship because the bridge was short-handed since many of the crew had not returned from leave, hence the captain's willingness to take John aboard. John endured the storms and freezing weather of the North Atlantic in winter and once heading around the Orkneys, he glimpsed a German submarine slipping beneath the waves.
John unintentionally parted company with the S.S.Roy in Newcastle. Whilst he was ashore, the ship slipped out of port with his belongings and papers aboard and he spent a lonely Christmas in a seaman's hostel. In the New Year John found another ship. The oil tanker 'Lustrous' [6,156grt] was going to Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles and he joined as a galley boy. "They couldn't get any seamen and they wanted two more" so they took him on. The Lustrous left its last British port on 13th February 1941. The coal burning tanker was empty, 'running light'. On board John did the 'black pan' cooking. These were the leftovers of the day's meals that the firemen coming off watch got with their supper. John was new to cooking so he didn't do it well. "I'd peel spuds, bring up stuff from storeroom. A meagre sort of job" is how he recalls it. The rolling sea and the layout of the ship had its dangers. "The cabins were aft. I took food up to the bridge. It was a hellava job to get up there and back." On board were three other boys, all 'first timers': Nicky Holmes, Lewis McMahon and bunked below John was a 14 years old Geordie lad John 'Jackie' Hipkin but as each boy was on a different watch pattern, they hardly saw each other.
John admits that he found it hard making friends with the crew and besides he didn't expect to be there that long. "I was a bit of a loner as a kid. We were going to Curaçao and I was going to make my way to the States. That was my ambition. What I wanted to get away from I didn't know". As the crew were all Geordies, John felt they stuck together and he was an outsider. "I wasn't a good at making friends. "They were kind to me but I was a loner. I didn't mix much there or in the camp."
Off the coast of Scotland, the Lustrous joined a convoy of about 70 ships. "There was a four funnel destroyer as an escort but after the coast of Ireland it turned back and we were on our own. We knew subs were there but didn't give them a thought. We put it out of our mind." The Lustrous was a 'Defense Equipped Merchant Ship' and carried a 4-pound gun. Merchant seamen believed that was like waving a red rag to a bull. Some D.E.M.S. only had a small gun welded onto the deck that could not be manoeuvred. They were manned by Royal Navy gunners who became articled to civilian ships with the rest of the crew. Of the 24,000 Royal Navy gunners who sailed in the Merchant Navy, 3,000 were killed.
The voyage of the Lustrous was uneventful at first. There were storms but the sailor's thoughts were on the warmer climate coming in the southern latitudes. On the morning of February 22 1941, around 10 am, the ship's gunner told him "do you know we've got a raider astern of us?" Soon the naked eye could see a white spot on the horizon of the bow wave of the German battleship Scharnhorst heading towards them. With its sister battleship the Gneisenau, the Scharnhorst was raiding the North Atlantic convoys in 'Operation Berlin'. With a maximum speed of 11 knots compared to the Scharnhorst's 31, there was little the Lustrous could do but await her fate.
The Lustrous turned out to be a disappointing prize for the Scharnhorst. Running empty, there was to be no cargo of valuable fuel to take home to Germany. "They told the radio operator not to send a distress signal. I don't know if he did or not but the Scharnhorst told us to take to our boats." The Lustrous' captain gave the order to 'abandon ship' but then a shell was fired into the radio shack. John thinks, based on histories of the Scharnhorst, that radio operator Tom Porter was defying the Scharnhorst and warning the convoy of their position. Three lifeboats and a raft were launched. John was one of the last to leave the ship. "I can remember I was sitting in the boat when I realised nobody's got any cigarettes or anything so I hopped out to get two tins of tobacco." After the boats were clear and well astern, the Scharnhorst started shelling the boat again. "We rowed by the propeller to keep clear of the boat. We must have got half mile, maybe a mile away from it. They blew the boat and it stood on its nose and slid right down. The propeller was still turning." Somewhere off Newfoundland at approximately 47-12N/40-13W she must still lie.
For John and everyone with him, that moment is forever etched in their memory. "I wasn't scared. I had no experience of it. It seemed as if this went on all the time. The ship's captain was in the same boat as me. "Well, we've got two options" he said, "we're 2000 miles to South America and it's the same to England, so which way do you want to row?" A few hours later, I remembered I had tobacco and papers and everyone had a fag. We didn't know what to do. The Scharnhorst went off and we could hear in the distance heavy fighting. I'm not sure but I think there was one boat in our convoy that fired back on the Scharnhorst. We didn't see any damage on it when it came back." What John's crewmates learned later was that the Scharnhorst had gone off in pursuit of another tanker which luckily escaped while the Gneisenau went in pursuit of the passenger-cargo ship 'Harlesden' which was about fifty miles away. One of the Gneisenau's seaplanes tried to destroy her but only managed to knock out her radio mast but the Harlesden was eventually caught and sunk.
When the Lustrous survivors saw the Scharnhorst returning, John recalls one of the lads said "we'd better say our prayers now because they're coming back". The captain said "I expect they'll blast us out of the water" and I said "they'll have a hell of a job because they've got all their guns stuck in the air". They had put their guns upright. We hove-to and went to their port side." John was only frightened by his ordeal when it came to leave his lifeboat and climb onto Scharnhorst. The swell of the sea enabled the German sailors on the deck to pick people out of the boats by their arms. "I looked down and I could have been sick" says John as he crossed the yawning chasm on the rope ladder between his boat and the ship.
Quite independently, John's shipmate Jackie Hipkin tells a similar story. Motivated by his own experience as a boy, he has spent his retirement tirelessly campaigning for pardons for soldiers executed for desertion in the First World War. Profiled in a BBC2 documentary he said: "it was great to be at sea it really was. We were part of a huge convoy arranged in rows and there was a magnificent sight. I've never seen so many ships together in one place. It was rather an uneventful voyage. No planes, no submarines, thank God, and when I came up that particular morning it was to see that we were alone. The convoy had obviously dispersed during the hours of darkness and each ship was proceeding at its own speed to its destination and we thought, this is great. You don't expect German battleships loose in the Western Atlantic while we have the biggest navy in the world, it's just not the thing to expect" When the order came to abandon ship, Jackie was in his cabin. "I was putting on my lifejacket. I whipped open the lid of my suitcase and on the right was a 50 box of Woodbine cigarettes, a present for my father. [There was duty free in those days too] On my left, my Sunday school bible and, because I'm right handed, I instinctively grabbed the cigarettes and stuffed them down my life jacket and got out of that cabin as quickly as possible. Three lifeboats had been lowered and that's the first time I was really frightened because I'd been told and read about the seamen in open boats being machine-gunned and this is what I was afraid would happen to us".
Aboard the Scharnhorst was a German 'PK' propaganda film crew and the sinking of the Lustrous and the rescue of its crew was filmed for German newsreels. John and Jackie and their shipmates can be identified in this film. In photographs taken by the PK crew (which have been located), John can be seen climbing from his lifeboat and cabin boy Lewis McMahon was filmed being questioned by the Scharnhorst's captain Kurt Hoffman. Contacted sixty years later, Lewis recalled with a chuckle "I told him a pack of lies."
The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been busy that day, sinking five ships totalling 25,431 tons and the photographs show the unfortunate crews on the deck. There are young and old faces. Many are covered in diesel or soot. Each is grateful for their lives. Jackie's youth impressed the German sailors. Every now and then a guard detail would take one of the prisoners from below decks to be questioned by an intelligence officer. When Jackie's turn came, the officer asked him how old he was and when Jackie told him, there was a short conversation in German. After a few perfunctory questions, the guards took Jackie away but Jackie began to worry, as they didn't go back to the hold where the other prisoners were. To his relief the guards took him to the galley where they stuffed his pockets with sweets and pastries.
On the 26th February the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau had a rendezvous near the Azores with the tankers Ermland and Friedrich Breme to refuel and transfer the 180 prisoners to the Ermland by bosun's chair. During the next month the prisoners stayed at sea on the Ermland while it shadowed the battleships in their raiding of merchant ships, sailing as far south as the Cape Verde Islands off Africa while more ships were sunk. John and Jackie and other prisoners were kept busy building and painting false structures to disguise the guns. Then on March 19th the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau set a course for Brest. "The Germans put out propaganda that we were coming in on the Scharnhorst so the RAF wouldn't bomb it" John has read somewhere.
On 24th March the Ermland arrived at La Pallice near La Rochelle. Another 'PK' crew filmed the prisoners disembarking from the Ermland and a photo was sent to England for its propaganda value. A month later it was published in the Daily Mirror. In the meantime, on 1st April 1941, the owners of the Lustrous, H. E. Moss & Co, had written to Mrs Brantom and all the next of kin of the crew: "it is with deepest regret we have to advise that vessel your son was serving in is now gravely overdue, she must be presumed lost..." The letter requested for wartime security that this information be kept confidential, only the next of kin were informed if a ship was missing.
John still has the cutting from the Daily Mirror of April 22nd 1941 where he can be seen clearly. Incredibly, his mother in Swansea saw this picture. It was the first real news she had of his fate and she immediately wrote to the Red Cross saying he must be alive. How anxious the reply of 14th May from the Red Cross must have made her feel although their position is entirely correct: "we do not think it is possible he is in the picture as we know these men were captured several months before." The delay in publishing these Axis photos wasn't unusual. The Daily Mirror of March 11 1941 has an Axis photo of the survivors of the Rawalpindi that was sunk in November 1939. Somebody must have checking on these things because then on 16th May another letter came from H. E. Moss: "we are pleased to tell the whole crew of your son's vessel have been landed safely at Bordeaux" although they could not confirm any specific details.
Usually the first news to come of a prisoner of war is a letter giving their camp address. Article 36 of the Geneva Convention says each prisoner is entitled within a week of his 'arrival in camp' to send a postcard to his relatives informing them of his capture and the state of his health. This became known as the 'capture-card'. John wrote his in 27 April 1941 but it may have been held up going via Switzerland because in late May 1941, H. E. Moss wrote again to the families to say the cook of the Lustrous had somehow managed to send a letter home to say he was a POW but no further details were available.
From La Pallice the merchant seamen were taken on a five-day rail journey to the transit camp St Medard en Jalles, known as Frontstalag 221. Conditions at this camp are variously described in official reports as 'terrible' and 'horrific' and speak of a lack of food, clothing and sanitation. The prisoners were then taken on to Paris by train. The carriages were rolling antiques John recalls. He watched some prisoners escape from the slow moving train as it got close to the border of Free France. He made an attempt himself but a guard spotted him climbing out the window and stuck his rifle in his back. The guard then sat next to John for the rest of the journey. When train was moving slowly, the guards would walk beside it to deter further escape attempts. The trains could go no further than Paris because of its gauge so they were then transferred into cattle trucks. All John knew of where he was was that the sidings were in sight of the Eiffel Tower. There was little food and water but in Belgium people had tried to help the prisoners by passing food through the doors. When they reached Germany, the civilians spat on them. More people escaped from the cattle trucks but John had the same guard from French train. When John looked at the open door of the cattle truck, the guard looked at John and pointed to his rifle. His second warning was one word..."bang".
A New Zealand Government report describes the foul conditions in which the Merchant Navy prisoners were taken on to the POW camp at Drancy near Paris before being moved onto 'Stalag XB' or Sandbostel in Germany. In this notorious concentration camp were Poles, Slavs, Russians, British and Canadians who were treated very badly. John was taken out every morning at 6 AM to work in the fields. "Breakfast was dry bread and water and soup of muck." He worked every day until 6 PM. "All the time it was arbeit, arbeit, arbeit! If they saw you slacking, they would slash you with a stick. I used to come back to camp so whacked, I collapsed on my wooden bunk." In the huts the men were stacked 4 high, 70 to 100 people crammed into one room. Because they were under 18, John and Jackie and the other boys, as were all merchant seamen, were supposed to be repatriated under the Geneva Convention but as the Lustrous was armed, the Germans conveniently claimed she was a combat vessel and so could put them to work. "The men worked, mind you, not the officers" Jackie points out. Amongst many surviving British and Commonwealth seamen and their families, a feeling of injustice still burns at the lack of support successive British Governments have shown for their claims for reparations from Germany for their forced labour.
A caption on a photograph on a Merchant Navy website reads: June 1941, digging peat in the Sandbostel Concentration Camp. The young boy to the right of this picture is the 15 year old Deck Boy Frank Walker, POW No. 87343 from the ship SS Automedon, 7,528grt, (A. Holt & Co.) sunk by the raider Atlantis on the 11th November 1940. 8 dead, 97 POW's.
Jackie Hipkin recalls "They (Germany) had no prison camp for seaman at all so they sent us all, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy personnel, to one compound in the big camp at Sandbostel. It's difficult to think of this being a camp with 30,000 men from all nations, the place that became a charnel house. The atmosphere, it's a death camp. The Yugoslav soldiers were crammed into barracks much more closely than the British were. We had more food than they had. Red Cross parcels came to us but not to them and they were so weak, they were collapsing, they had no energy and it was death for them. And the Nazi scale of racial values, the Slav peoples were just about at the bottom of the pile and of course they were treated as almost non persons, in fact, when they died, they weren't even given a marked grave with a name on it so they were just dispensed with as worthless. The military mind can turn to humiliation of those in its charge so very, very easily. I think in any kind of nation we have to be constantly on the guard against the abuse of power I hadn't been there two months, I'd just turned 15 and I went to collect our soup for the barrack rooms each day and we went through the Yugoslav compound into the French compound and it had become a practice with us to allow the starving Yugoslav soldiers to dip their dixies into our sauerkraut soup or fish soup or whatever it was. It was the lousiest of food but it was very important to them and this was accepted by the guards who accompanied us until one day we got a guard who didn't like what was happening and he shouted 'halt!' to a Yugoslav who had just got his dixie full of our soup and he panicked and he ran and the soldier upped with his rifle and shot him in the back. I was just a few yards away from him. I was 15 years old. I never seen anyone die and to see the first death at 15, which was really a cold-blooded murder, has stayed with me all my life. I prayed for that man's soul for long time afterwards and it's as if it happened yesterday really. I can't ever forget that." The horrors of Sandbostel continued throughout the war and were well documented and photographed by its liberators. In April 1945 British soldiers found prisoners dying at the rate of 150 a day. Some of the British prisoners there had been captured at Dunkirk in May 1940 and some Canadian prisoners were found in shackles. John recalls his own tale of horror too: "we would throw bread over the barbed wire to the Yugoslavian prisoners and I saw a prisoner shot for stepping over the warning wire to pick up a piece of bread that had fallen short."
When the Protecting Powers forced the Germans to build another camp for merchant seamen, John Brantom was marched from Sandbostel and put to work felling trees and building the huts. Jackie Hipkin recalls "we left Sandbostel late in I941. They had eventually decided to build a special camp for merchant seamen, Milag it came to be called, Marine Internee Lager. It was completely different. It was a much more tolerant regime than Sandbostel. There was companionship in the camp. It was a Merchant Navy camp so really these were not soldiers, sailors or airmen, these were men who had spent all their lives at sea. In fact we had men in their seventies, men who would normally have gone to sea until they died and they'd been to every place you could think of, every port you could think of in the world. They were permanent history and geography lessons themselves. It was fascinating." But despite the camaraderie Jackie had, the loneliness he felt and the lack of nourishment, both physical and spiritual, took its toll. John Brantom evidently became very depressed as winter wore on. He was also put to work in local farms. "Very cold, hungry and miserable" is how he describes his feelings. The rosy camaraderie portrayed in films set in POW camps was for most a fiction. It was possible to feel desperate loneliness despite being surrounded by 5,000 men. Jackie Hipkin relates: "the lowest point in my spirits came in late 1943 where there was another Christmas coming up and everybody was still going to be there and really, the despair was such that I could have taken my own life then. It was so easy to do in a prison camp. All you had to do was cop your leg over the warning wire that was 12 feet away from the main barbed wire and the machine gun towers would have opened up immediately. I'd actually seen that happen once. If it hadn't been for the faith, I may have stepped over that wire and I would have missed out on so much that was good in the rest of my life." Jackie places his survival in the hands of god. He discovered his faith at the Stella Maris chapel established in the camp and with the encouragement of the padres who had been sunk on their way to Africa on the Zamzam, he took advantage of his confinement to better himself and studied for his school certificate. After his liberation he took his 'O' and 'A' levels and eventually became a schoolteacher.
John admits that being young and naive, he was taken advantage of. He reckons only the parcels from home with warm clothes saved his life. "I moved hut a few times as I didn't like the company. You had to ask permission to move huts. I think I moved three times, no four, actually. I had nothing to do with the crew of our ship. I'd say hello if they walked past me but I don't know why. I wondered if they thought I was a jinx or something, that's how I felt. You see, being like that, they were all mates, they all knew each other, they'd been to school together, they all went to sea together and they'd been to sea before. They were strange. I had only been on it a few days. They urgently required someone. When I looked at it I thought, dreadful old thing but it was useless, and I was put on it." His sense of isolation and feelings of being an outsider seem typical for an adolescent under the circumstances and it was amongst other 'outsiders' that he found company. "In the hut I got on well with the majority of people. We had Nigerians there, you see in those days the white people wouldn't mix with the Nigerians or the Jamaicans. We had a bloke there named Andrew Daisy, a bit of a character in the room I was in. In all the huts the Englishmen were all 'lord of the manor' and all that. But I went into one of their (coloured) huts and that was a bit taboo but that didn't worry me, we're all human beings far as I'm concerned. I didn't know of this 'race-chase' sort of thing as they used to call it. Some people wouldn't go near them. They'd walk away go to the other side of the road. There was a Canadian boy I know who was a bit scruffy, but he was all right, he washed, he shaved as best he could but I got on well with him. I can't remember his but I got to know him because it was one of my ambitions to go to Canada. There were cliques. In another section of a hut was a load of boys who worked in London Docks and they stuck together. They were football fans and actually some of them had played for West Ham. After the war I drove a lorry and one day I went down to King George V Docks and there was an old steam crane that ran on rails and I looked at this chap, (the driver) "you were a prisoner of war weren't you" He looked at me and said "yeah, right, why?" I said: "I remember you, you were in room 29." He said: "where were you?" I said opposite and he said: "right, you're the bloke you used to be pally with that filthy tramp of Canadian." I said 'we're all human beings' and he walked away and didn't want to know.
John did make some friends and unsurprisingly he gravitated to avuncular relationships. "There was nobody in the camp really who tried to look after the younger people. They (the officers) weren't bothered with us. That was the trouble really. We were all a bit wild. John's face cracks into a smile when he talks of an older man, then in his forties, who was tall and had a straggly beard. "I was friendly with old Aggie Weston, the artist. He did a lot of murals and he had a pal called Rainer. I got on well with them. I don't know why, I always liked misfits. He (Aggie) had a curly pipe and he used to blow flames out if it while he was painting. He used to do all the scenery for the camp theatre and was a clever bloke, mad as a hatter. They all came from Wales or Liverpool. Aggie Weston, a boy named Trevor, another boy 'Freckles' Parson. He lived with an auntie in Bootle. Aggie would get John excused from the work parties by saying he was needed in the theatre. Aggie's nickname comes from Dame Agnes Weston who founded retirement homes for sailors. Another good friend to John was another older man - a steward on the P&O liner 'Orama' but the memory of his name has gone. John also became friends with George Glossop. He was a Hawaiian guitar player of Caribbean descent from Tiger Bay who had been to America and performed in the Ziegfield Follies. He was working his passage home on the ship 'Trelawny' when he was sunk by the Scharnhorst's sister ship Gneisenau on the same day as the Lustrous. Both ships had been in the same convoy and 1 crewman was killed, 39 were taken prisoner. (George is next to John on the photo taken at Brest) In Milag Glossop performed as part of 'The Plantation Choir', a quartet of 'coloured' guitar players. John wrote home in December '42 asking for a guitar as George was teaching him to play. Glossop is probably the subject of a drawing made in the camp hospital by John Worsley. George was diagnosed with cancer and was to be repatriated but died in 1944 aged 36. To honour his friend, John dug his grave and sadly he dug several others before the war ended.
One of John's other 'friends' was William 'Wally' Fulton who John describes as someone who lead him astray but the acquaintance made life more comfortable for John. "He was a Scottish boy, about 24 or 25. He used to run the gambling in the camp. He had a 'wheel of fortune'. He'd worked on the Glasgow ferry gambling. He wasn't in it for life (in the Merchant Marine) he was like me. He wanted to get out of everything that was going on in England." Wally gave John the nickname 'Slim' as John was by now 6' 1" tall and weighed 10 stone, a name which he kept throughout his time in the camp. John often kept Wally's contraband and money in his locker while Wally wheeled and dealed "anything from a box of matches to a diesel truck" John told his mother in a letter home. "He used to walk around with 500 lagergeld in his pockets when nobody was allowed more than 30" he later recalls. When the Germans repatriated some merchant seamen in 1944 for health reasons, Wally was one of the lucky ones to get away.
The chief currency in every camp was cigarettes and John was a smoker but remarkably, considering the comfort of nicotine, he gave it up while in the camp. Not being a user of the tobacco that was sent from home enabled him to obtain his necessities. Highly prized were packets of 'St Bruno' but most prisoners smoked 'Kerbstone Shag' he jokes. John feels remorse at his unwitting involvement in a fraud perpetrated by the mess officer who ran the camp's kitchens. "That was naughty. I was set up." John says. "I can't remember his name but he took over the running of the business of the canteen, feeding the camp. There was a chap there who was a chef, he was off the Orama, and all he and his cronies set out to do was make a lot of money and they did. They took over the feeding and they had all the best of everything. They fed the officers and didn't worry about the ratings, which is a well-known thing. The camp surgeon there was Major Harvey. He had a very beautiful diamond studded pocket watch. The watch was going to be raffled off to build a new kitchen. It was supposed to be for the camp. I used to keep to myself walking around the camp for miles. He (the mess officer) said to me. "I want that watch. Will you go round and collect them money?" It was about 5 marks a ticket. He had two books of raffle tickets. One was normal and one had all one number on. This I found out later. Out of fairness he bought about 200 tickets. He was drawing marks of the Germans left right and centre and off the poor old POW. We used to get 40 marks a month and he used to come around and we had to pay extra for the cooking. Mind you the food was better, because at first it was dreadful. He and his cronies had fitted up the book with the number he had. I sat in the crowd to watch this and he stood up and he said: "the chap that's done all the ticket selling is John Brantom. Out of fairness to everybody, he should come and pick the ticket." I put my hand in took it out, and he said: "that's one of mine." Everybody groaned. I felt I knew. I was disgusted with myself. I went to see Major Harvey and I said I'm ever so sorry about that sir, I was not involved. And he said he could have bought one ticket and won but I said I knew for a fact I sold him a book and a half but what I didn't know was none of the other tickets went in. They put the 150 tickets he put in and a load of paper underneath. For his camp lagergeld, which was worth nothing, he'd got a Cartier watch. His plan was to go off to Australia. He'd got it all worked out. I hope the bastard dropped down dead when he got there."
Like other camps, the internees organised for themselves many activities. The camp's theatre was popular because of the number of professional actors and musicians who had been captured on liners. Actor Henry Mollison was passenger from Australia to UK on the Delambre when he was sunk by the raider Thor and he became the camp's leading impresario. The theatre enabled many escape and subversion activities. The escape of Lt. Mewes with the aid of a dummy became legendary and was immortalised the play and the film Albert R.N. Cricket and football had many teams and leagues but gambling was widespread and by far the most popular pastime. John recalls that when American prisoners came to the camp, within a few days they had acquired, from outside judging from the construction, proper gaming tables of their own. John remembers gambling went on most nights. One of the most successful casinos was run by Kenji Takaki. Born in Liverpool of Japanese ancestry he was a fireman who became an actor whose work reflected his POW camp experiences. His heritage confused the Germans and during a visit to Milag by a Japanese general, the Germans offered him repatriation to Japan but he told them "I'm a Scouser". 'Jimmy', as he was known, appeared in both the play and film of The Long the Short and the Tall and played the Japanese sergeant in the film A Town Like Alice. In Milag he made his fortune with a roulette table made from a bicycle wheel 'liberated' from a guard who had leant his bike against a hut for a moment. Jimmy generously used his money to bribe guards for subversion activities and to obtain a harmonium for the chapel and two pianos for the theatre but looked set to retire comfortably 'after the war' but at liberation he came in for a shock. The POW Exchange Commission would only honour the camp's lagergeld at 30 Reichmarks per man and so Jimmy redistributed his fortune amongst the camp.
As the Allies fought their way across Germany after D-Day, the retreating Germans used the camp as a human shield. During a night when heavy shelling could be heard twenty miles away, John and a few other men brazenly took an opportunity to escape. The power was knocked out and a makeshift ladder was put over the fence but as John jumped from the top, he tore open his arm on the barbed wire. Bleeding, he ran through the night as far as he could and then collapsed delirious in the forest. He found he was near to a farm he had worked on where the farmer's wife had been kind to him. This time she hid him in a shed and brought him food and clothes. Around them there were increasing sightings of Allied aircraft and German forces in retreat. John started to walk towards the coast and the approaching Allies and a few days later he 'found' a motorcycle. After riding for a half hour, he saw a column of tanks on the road up ahead so he began to ride towards them at full speed. Seeing him approach, the soldiers took defensive positions and were about to fire on him when someone said: "Stop! He's one of ours." John had approached them on the wrong side of the road. Even so, the armoured division thought he might be a spy and John was kept a prisoner for a few days until a soldier in the regiment who was the son of his family's landlord recognised him. Flown home in a Dakota, he stepped off the train at Swansea to be met by his father. The boy who ran away to sea had returned as a man. Noticing that the station was covered in bunting, John said "this isn't for me is it?" "No, you silly bugger" said his father, "it's V.E. day."
After the war, neither John or Jackie didn't bother much with reunions or ex-PoW associations but John recalls one encounter with his past with emotion. "That old boy off the Orama. He was one of the repatriated ones in 1944 because of his age. He was a nice old boy. My mother was assistant almoner at Kings College Hospital on Denmark Hill. She told me "I've been talking to an old boy and he thinks he knows you." The surname Brantom isn't very widespread and the old man had asked Mrs. Brantom about her name. "I went in there and it was him. He grabbed hold of my hand - he could hardly speak- and said "I remember you." In the camp he gave me a cardigan, he said to me "you still got my cardigan?" 'Not now' I said. I told him 'I got to go off because I've got to go to work but I'll come and see you tonight.' When I got home my mother said the old boy had died that afternoon. He was about 70 or 80. That was about 1952. He had remembered me from the camp all that time."
When he got home, John didn't claim his war medals as he never wanted to be reminded of his camp experiences. He remembers the War Ministry letter came to Swansea. He put it in a drawer and forgot about it. In 2003 John lost his wife Joyce to cancer and then, late in life, his feelings began to change. By telling his story, John came to accept that he could not forget the past. Over time John unlocked the memories he tried to forget. Then, sadly his own health started to deteriorate. He began to show symptoms of Alzhiemers and he wanted what he knew to be recorded so future generations will know what sacrifices his generation made. He wanted the truth to be known, warts and all.
What must never be forgotten, along with the lives lost, is that survivors like John sacrificed their carefree youth. Adolescence is a vital and valuable time when a young person forms their adult identity. To have a childhood under such harsh conditions, lacking in comfort, encouragement or advice, makes an impression on a personality. John was no more damaged than any other survivor of World War Two but by the end of the war he was officially disabled by acute anxiety. His generation's motto "mustn't grumble" is his own and like millions of other people after the war, John just got on with his life again. He was a successful motor vehicle salesman, he fell in love, married, raised a daughter who is well established but John knows the sand is slipping through the hourglass and he may not have long to tell his story. His late wife Joyce had her own interesting war story but he says she never told John or their daughter any details. What little she gave away reveals after investigation that she was an Enigma cipher clerk at SHAEF but was invalided out just before D-Day suffering from exhaustion. For years John had kept his letters from the POW camp his mother had saved with a friend in case he, or someone else, threw them out and wanted to give them to the Imperial War Museum. He used to get the letters out showing them to anyone who'd listen to him. The factual details were, thanks to the censor, few and far between but the short messages attest to longing the monotony, for home life and always looking forward to the future, with plenty of entreaties to "keep dad off the beer" signed by "the black sheep of the family."
Jackie Hipkin is looking forward to seeing the 'cockney' from the bunk above again. Jackie now regrets not looking up any of his shipmates until recently but, like John, he wanted to put his memories behind him and devote his spare time in retirement to his campaign for pardons for under-age soldiers executed in the First World War. Despite not knowing John well, Jackie knows that sharing their common experience will be important closure for both of them. When he learned that Lewis McMahon from the Lustrous was living on his doorstep in Tyneside, he went to see him immediately. Lewis, who was not in the best of health anymore, was "full of memories and recalled many things I'd forgotten." John Hipkin said afterwards.
Over the years John Brantom has received many solicitations on official looking letterheads offering him medals in recognition of his PoW internment or Merchant Navy service that are available by merely paying for them. These despicable deceptions usually went straight into the bin but, as he became frail, each one now caused him concern. John's beliefs he didn't especially deserve acknowledgment was eventually overturned and he was encouraged to apply to the Maritime Coastguard Agency for his medals. John wanted to ensure he got only what he was properly entitled to but with the passage of time, John had lost his discharge papers but he sent what documents he could find. To be eligibile for the 'Atlantic Star' campaign medal requires serving on a convoy in a theatre of war for more than six months unless your service was curtailed by enemy action. Unfortunately only very recently the original 'ships movement cards' had been put into deep storage prior to microfilming before being moved to the Public Record Office at Kew and so are inaccessible for the near future. How long that will be nobody can say as the funds to do this have yet to be found. This caused many disappointments for other merchant seamen and their families who, even sixty years later, have for one reason and another not yet claimed their medals. Like John, they are not prepared to take the advice given to buy them secondhand. The MCA required, with regret, more evidence placing John on the Lustrous and the Lustrous itself in a theatre of war. Unbelievably the photographs of John and his crewmates in their lifeboats and on the deck of the Scharnhorst could not be accepted. What can only be described as a letter writing stink followed but eventually a seamen's charity stepped in to pay a professional researcher to reconstruct the records of John's service. Not enough records could be found to qualify John for the Atlantic Star. There are no official medals for POWs or internees. In August 2003 the MCA sent John his 1939-45 Star and the 39-45 War Medal. John was quite satisfied with that. Then on November 9, 2003, for the first time, John laid a wreath for the Merchant Navy at the war memorial in his village of Holton on Remembrance Day.
John Brantom passed away peacefully on April 20, 2008.
Please note that all the facts in this story have been checked with the best available sources but this narrative is based on the subject's recollections of events over sixty years ago and so errors may exist.