From Calais to Colditz

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  • Author:
    Philip Pardoe
    A rifleman's memoir of captivity and escape.

    This is the wartime story of Philip Pardoe, who in May 1940 is a young platoon commander in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. His battalion has remained in the UK while much of the army is shipped over to France to form the BEF. During the so called phoney war Pardoe’s Battalion has been drilled and exercised extensively how ever he mentions not having had the chance for much live firing. He admits to being vaguely aware that things are not going well in France for the allies, so its no surprise when they are mobilised from their billets in villages near Tidworth and told to move. Firstly they drive into eastern England, as there are fears that the Germans may launch an airborne assault. This wild goose chase takes up several days before they are told to head to Southampton, driving themselves (Bren gun carriers and lorries) through London down to the coast.

    They arrive in Calais together with the rest of 30 Brigade. The port already shows sign of battle damage and is full of (proper) refugees and disinterested French soldiers. Pardoe and his battalion deploy just to the west of the port not far from the present day channel tunnel terminal. They are soon in action trying to hold back what they think is an exhausted under supplied German attack, however they are being besieged by 3 armoured divisions with plenty of air support.

    The defence lasts only a few days, before they are forced back into the town itself.

    They given the order to break out and try to head for Dunkirk, however the enemy are already in the town and Pardoe and the few men still with him surrender.

    Exhausted, hungry and thirsty they begin a long march across northern France and Belgium into Germany.

    He and his fellow officers are placed in variety of camps mostly cramped, filthy a few are very awful. Lack of food is a constant worry but escape is attempted frequently. Pardoe has three break outs ranging from a few hours to a couple of weeks on the run.

    This gets him sent to Colditz for the rest of the war. By this stage of the war and knowing the fate of 50 escapers from the 75 who came from the Great Escape attempt most of his fellow prisoners sit out the rest of the war in Colditz.

    After liberation in April 1945 Pardoe returns home and stays in the army.

    I found Pardoes story fascinating but also a little frustrating as it was a subject I was keen to learn about. However he often skips details which could have made the story more thrilling. For example he mentions many of his platoon but we are not told of their fate. He makes several references to the mental effects of confinement had on the prisoners and gives the reader the impression some of officers did not behave as was expected but again there is no specific detail. I can only assume that he didn’t want to dredge up these incidents and not offend the reputation of fellow officers.

    Poor diet is a recurring theme but the officers still receive their army pay which allows them to buy extras, at one camp this included beer wine and even ice cream!

    The tone of the book changes mid way and I lost a little sympathy when he describes the great theatre productions that were put by the prisoners, being issued by the Germans a bottle of wine a month which allowed them to throw parties. During winter they go ice skating and have massive snow ball fights. Yet the other ranks were forced to work on farms or in the forests I don’t think they had much chance to frolic in the snow or theatre.

    He did describe life at Colditz in more detail, maybe because he was here longer. Again he hints at the discomfort and mental pressures imprisonment had on him and many others. I am glad to have read the book and would recommend it, although the gaps in some of the detail may likewise frustrate the reader, however it is an amateur effort cobbled together from notes and memories, and during confinement Pardoe was wary of writing too much down that, if discovered by the Germans, would have lead to punishment by the Germans.

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