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Jack Silcock – Prisoner of War

Jack and Lola Silcock

Jack and Lola on their wedding day 30 September 1939

Jack and Lola Silcock moved to Cambridge in 1958 when Jack was appointed Principal at Leamington Primary School.  They spent the rest of their lives here.  Lola was a Life Member of the Tree Trust (the Lola Silcock Reserve is part of the Cambridge Museum’s Heritage Walk by the Waikato River) and was an active member of the St Andrew’s Church.  Jack was later Principal of the new Cambridge Intermediate (now Middle) School, before transferring to Melville Intermediate School in Hamilton until he retired in 1976.  He enjoyed bowls and held high office in the Cambridge Masonic Lodge.  Lola passed away in 2008 and Jack died five years later aged 99.

In our archives is a memoir written by Jack Silcock in 2001 about his WWII Prisoner of War experiences.  This memoir forms a basis for this article, the second part of which will be printed in a later issue.

Jack Silcock – Prisoner of War

“Time passed very slowly, every man just living from one bite of food to the next.” So wrote Cambridge man Jack Silcock on his experience as a Prisoner of War in World War II.  His unit had been evacuating casualties from the battles of Sidi Razegh in Libya when it was surrounded and captured by the Germans in November 1941.  He was to spend 18 months as a Prisoner of War until his repatriation in 1943.

At the beginning, he thought that his unit would remain where they were, caring for the wounded.  But after four days, the Germans handed them over to their Italian allies, who herded them into trucks to the Benghazi Prison Camp.  On their first night, his unit had to sleep in the open under tents made with ground sheets.  “My cobber and myself decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble so we laid our blankets down in the open, covered ourselves with our greatcoats and made believe we were in a first class hotel.”

They were shipped to Tripoli and on to cattle trucks which were “so packed that there was neither sitting nor standing room.  One grim humourist lifted his head high in the air and gave voice to a loud “Baa” much to the Italians’ consternation.”

After several hours confined in the trucks, Christmas Day 1941 saw the men shivering with cold, hungry, many suffering from dysentery, marched eight miles to camp – four miles uphill.  “There was something about that march up that mountain which told us that, come what may, Britain would never lose the war.”  He wrote that the men sang as they marched, every head held high and every man in step.  “I shall never forget it and it is one of my proudest memories to have taken part in.”

When the men were shipped to Naples, their boat already had a hole torn in her forward hold, and they were herded below and battened down.  “We worked out a system of evacuation should anything happen, but it would never have worked.  Panic would have been inevitable.”  For two days, the men saw no daylight.  Sanitary arrangements consisted of lifting a plank over the hold and using the space below.

In Naples, they were taken by rail to Capua where again they slept the first night in an open paddock.  It was bitterly cold, a wind “blowing straight down from the nearby snow-covered mountains.”  They sat and shivered all that day, relieved only by an issue of hot soup and 250g of bread.  Eventually, they were issued with tents and bedboards.  Playing bridge passed many hours as the cold grew steadily worse and water pooled under their bedboards.  They all developed colds, dysentery was rife and lice were constantly a problem. “At night all sorts of discussions took place in the tent.  Every conceivable subject was thoroughly thrashed out.  One night we even planned a huge chain restaurant business which we would launch when we returned to civilian life.  Food of course was always a matter for discussion.”

Camp Chiavari

On 1 February 1942, they left Capua for a permanent camp at Chiavari, 20 miles from Genoa.  Some 3,000 men were housed in huts of 100 men.  The prisoners carried out the internal organisation.  They decided that they would have one meal of the rations per day with an extra light meal on Wednesdays and Sundays.  Their food was: 6am – a cup of black coffee, 11am – 200g of bread, 11.30am – stew comprising cabbage, 100g of rice or macaroni, meat if it happened to be meat day and one and a half army mugs of water, 5pm – black coffee.  Some men became subject to blackouts and all lost weight.  After several weeks, the Red Cross began to get parcels of food through, which meant another meal a day.  Jack wrote that these parcels saved many lives.

The camp soon developed into a community.  A Welfare Committee was formed, and then sub-committees: Education, Entertainment, Dramatic, Concert, Library and Sports.  Educational lectures on every conceivable subject, presented entirely from memory, were held.  The camp contributed a few lire each for the purchase of musical instruments and soon had orchestral concerts where “the talent was in some cases brilliant.”  When the Dramatic Society presented Of Mice and Men, Jack “lost all sense of being a prisoner of war … as the powerful play of Steinbeck’s, handled by those brilliant amateurs, unfolded.”

In the individual huts, debates, talks and card tournaments were held.  Book parcels from the Red Cross formed the basis of a comprehensive library.  The Sports Committee arranged boxing contests, baseball became popular and board games were played on wet days.

There were no stoves, so the men made them from old tins cut into flat sheets, joined together by a hemming method.  The stoves boasted chimneys, fireboxes, grates, doors, legs and ovens so devised that the flame could pass round them to ensure an even heat.  Even bellows were crafted with concertinaed tins and old material.  These were made with scissors (issued to huts with Red Cross hussifs[1]) and a piece of wood used as a hammer.

Wood fuel for the stoves was scarce.  Green sticks were foraged on working parties and hung up to dry in the huts.  The floors of the huts themselves sagged because the stays below had been used as firewood.  The space between the ceiling and the roof was another source.  “How some of those huts remained standing is still a mystery to me,” wrote Jack.

On Anzac Day 1942, the men held a parade in the camp. “A sort of Nugget was issued to us occasionally and we managed to polish our boots to some degree.  Uniforms were brushed, hats brought out and even badges polished. … I really believe that that parade was as good as would be seen in Auckland or Wellington in peace time.”

After nearly five months at the camp, 106 men – Medical or attached – had to leave for an unknown destination, “which brings me to the most interesting chapter in my Prisoner of War life and to experiences which must be unique.”

“Although the future held unknown but bright possibilities, I was sorry in many ways to leave Chiavari.”

The second part of Jack’s POW experiences continues in a later issue.  Our thanks go to Jack and Lola’s family for allowing us to share his story.

Karen Payne

This article was published in the Cambridge Historical Society’s Newsletter for October 2023.

[1] Small sewing kits wrapped in material and secured with ties – Hussif comes from the word “Housewife”.