South London Memories: Captured by the Nazis

To mark Remembrance Sunday, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is sharing remarkable stories from its online audio archive – Voices of Liberation. Eric Richards, a resident of Herne Hill, was captured by Nazis in the Netherlands and was imprisoned not far from the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and made a daring bid to escape.

The remarkable story of Second World War veteran Eric Richards, now aged 94, who was wounded and captured during the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands – is released for the first time via CWGC’s online audio – Voices of Liberation – which preserves veterans’ and the public’s memories of the Second World War.

Eric joined the army in late 1943, beginning his training as a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. He volunteered for the Airborne forces and saw his first overseas action at Arnhem.

Eric recalls that as a new recruit he initially found it hard to fit in with this tight-knit group of hardened veterans.

He said: “In January 1944 it came up on our standing orders that 10 of us would be posted to 4 Para to make up for their losses. They didn’t like us very much ‘cause all these guys had been in North Africa, got a medal up and we hadn’t got anything. And they’d all been together for six months to a year, but we were new boys.”

Eric’s unit fought in the Sonnenberg area, just outside Arnhem, during the battle, and held out for nine days before they were called on to evacuate on September 25. As they were pulling out, Eric was wounded in the leg. Unable to continue fighting, Eric, along with many other wounded, surrendered to the Germans and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany.

Eric added: “We got briefed, got our ‘chutes on, and… we took off to where we jumped at Ginkel Heath, outside Oosterbeek. And that’s all we knew. We never got into Arnhem. Never saw the place.

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

“It was bucketing with rain and we got called in to wrap material around our boots because we were gonna go and try and cross the river.

“Ten o’clock at night the whisper came – we’re moving, make no noise. During that period, a machine gun opened up and I got hit in the leg.” As he was being taken into captivity, Eric was surprised by a German soldier’s act of kindness.

He said: “The Germans put on a coach for us to take us to the barracks at Apeldoorn and we all got in it and sitting beside of me is a German soldier with his arm in a sling. They’re dropping him off at the German hospital. On the way there – he could speak quite good English – he showed me photographs of him on the Russian front in his white uniform. “Where do you live?” he said and I gave him my address.

And do you know, he wrote to my mother via the Red Cross to say I’d been captured? And I thought, “what a funny world.” We’d been trying to kill each other, hadn’t we? But this is one of the ironic things of war I suppose.”

Eric was imprisoned about 4km from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where one day he made a daring attempt to escape.

“In February (1945), myself and another chap done a stupid thing. We decided to escape. Now, you couldn’t get out of the camp wire but we used to go out getting firewood about 8km away. If you volunteered for that you get extra cigarettes. We gets down there and a German forester comes up in his old green uniform and said ‘We don’t want you today, we got these fellas’.

“And we saw these chaps in striped pyjamas. We didn’t twig what they were. It was Belsen, wasn’t it?

We was about 4km from Belsen. We didn’t even know it was there. And I said to this guy: “This is now our chance to go. It’s the only chance we’ve got. ‘Cause we were out the camp… So I shouted out ‘toilet’ in German and off we went.”

Eric was recaptured and was eventually liberated by American forces. This November, the CWGC is urging the public to contribute to the archive and share their connections of Remembrance.

Commonwealth servicemen and women are commemorated in CWGC war cemeteries and memorials across the world and today, these iconic sites of remembrance remain places of pilgrimage for veterans and descendants.

The archive aims to pay tribute to those who gave their lives and shine a light upon these places of remembranceAndrew Fetherston, chief archivist at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “We believe that by capturing these stories from the public we are creating an archive of international importance and a lasting legacy for those who died for our today.

“We want people to share their connections to the war and our cemeteries to ensure that as Commonwealth nations we have not forgotten their sacrifice”.

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