Story of L/Cpl. Wilfred Slater (5249747) - 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment

Wilfred Slater was born in 1913 and at the age of 20 he signed on as a regular soldier with the Worcestershire Regiment and after initial training at Norton Barracks was then posted to the 1st Battalion. During his army service he served in Palestine, Sudan and Egypt.

In June 1942 he became a Prisoner of War at Tobruk, with others of the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment.

In 1992 Wilfred wrote down his memories so that one of his grandsons could use it as part of a school project.

Wilfred died a few years later in 1998 at Dudley in the Midlands.

Below is a copy of L/Cpl Wilfred Slater's story which was kindly supplied to this website by his son Keith Slater.


Wilfred Slater's own story


"Not being much work about in the early 1930s, my pal and I decided to try and join the army. Off we went to the drill hall in Trindle Road Dudley. Unfortunately, they passed my pal but not me because they said I was too small. After four months, I tried again and I passed. I joined the Worcester Regiment which was stationed at the Norton barracks, Worcester in May of 1933: that was the end of my civilian life for 12 years.

After 12 months at the Norton barracks for our initial training, all of us new recruits were posted to Aldershot in the south of England for about 3 years. It was during this time that, on one of my home leaves, I met my wife Jennie (Parkes). We were married in 1937 at the Dudley registry office on 31st July.

In 1938 we were posted to Palestine (now Israel) in the Middle East to act as peace keepers between the Arabs and the Jews. We travelled by ship (H.T. Neuralia from Southampton) to Cairo, Egypt, and, after unloading our transport and goods off the ships, we loaded our trucks with equipment and supplies and set off for Jerusalem, (Palestine, Israel). After a hot and dusty journey, we set up camp in Bethlehem, which was very exciting: we saw the Lords Cradle and other historical sites.

1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment leave for Palestine

(The photo opposite was taken on board the H.T. Neuralia at Southampton on the 15th September 1938 as the 1st Battalion left for Palestine. Centre left in uniform is Field Marshal Sir Claud Jacob an to hid right is Brig.-Gen. Grogan V.C., Colonel of the Regiment).

After being there for a few months, our company was sent to Hebron, because of the increase of unrest. On getting there, to my surprise, I met my pal that I had tried to join the army with in 1933; he was now in the military police. After a while in Hebron we were posted again to a place called Khartoum in the Sudan: that was when I first tasted and smelled death. We were making our way to a place called Asmara on the east coast of Sudan, when, just north of Asmara at a place called Keren, we were stopped and engaged in a big battle with Italian soldiers. One night everything was silent until we heard the rumbling of tanks and all the heavens broke loose. We were in the hills and our artillery opened up a barrage of firing shells which lasted for about 2 hours non-stop. Towards dawn it stopped and there was a lot of shouting. As we were driving forward through the mountain pass, we could see lots of dead Italian soldiers. We finally got to Asmara, where we stayed for about 3 months.

Diving north to the Nile river in Egypt, (it is now 1939 and towards the end of my six years in the army, which is the time I had signed up for), we were told that Churchill had declared war on Germany. We were sent to the desert in North Africa to a place called Knightsbridge just outside of Tobruk. There we were posted in groups called boxes. I think we were put there to be sacrificed just to stem Rommel’s forces but he smashed us up. We had nothing to fight with mind you: this was before Montgomery came on the scene with his great armour and troops with American help.

(It was February 1942 when the 1st Battalion took over defence of Tobruk as part of 29th Brigade.)

One day, while we were in our compound, the bugle sounded, “Come to the cookhouse”. There was an uproar as the Germans opened a barrage of concussions shells which were meant to keep our heads down. In the meantime my mate and I dug a trench, drove our bren-gun carrier over it and got underneath it. After about one hour, when the shelling had stopped, we heard the rumbling of tanks coming toward us. We peeped out of our trench to see German soldiers getting off their tanks to defuse the land mines which were all around our box position and starting to move towards us. We were very frightened and did not know what to do. My mate said he would take off his shorts and put them on the end of his rifle and hold it up, which he did. German and Italian soldiers came over to us pointing their guns down at us. At that moment I thought our time was up, but a word from the German stopped them from firing at us.

The German who seamed to be in charge shouted ‘Raus, raus’ (‘get out, get out’). I tried to make the German understand that I wanted my haversack which had some cigarettes in it. When the Italian heard cigarettes, he tried to get them but the German stopped him from having them. The German shouted and pointed for us to go back to their lines. As we were walking back we could see some of our own lads being blown up by our own mines.

When we were passing their large tanks, the officers on them were taking photographs of us. We got to their headquarters and they gave us each a blanket and told us to get down for the night and that we would be moved on in the morning.

Next morning we were taken to the docks and crammed into the hull of the ships and taken to Italy. When we got there, they marched us along the streets to the prison camp. On the way, the Italian people started to shout and spit at us, but our lads took no notice and just laughed at them; one of my mates was hit across the head with a rifle butt for laughing.

Wilfred Slater driving in the desert (1942)

Cremona (Crémone), North Italy

On arrival at the camp, which had barbed wire all round it, we were pushed inside and were there for a long time before they brought us a cob of bread and a cup of water. We dug a hole in the sand and lay down, it was very peaceful. We chatted to each other about home and what we thought was happening there and how we could just eat a big slice of bully meat, we were so hungry.

We were there for a very long time; every one was lousy - we would try to delouse ourselves but it was useless. I saw one of my mates with part of his stomach being eaten away; he was taken away in what we called the meat wagon. After a long time there they moved us on by train, cattle trucks, and they piled us in like sardines. If we wanted the toilet we had to urinate where we stood; anything else and we had to pass it to one another until they were able to throw it out of a small window. We finally arrived at a place called Cremona, Italy.

They took us to another camp where they split us up into small groups and we were sent out each day to different farms to labour.

The farm I was at, the farmer was very kind and fed us well. One day, when we were taken back to the camp, the officer in charge told us to go back to the farm because the British had landed in Salerno, south of Naples. When we got back to the farm the farmer had us build ourselves a hut on the edge of the field. He sent us food and milk each day. One day he asked us to go up to the farm house. In the house was a woman who spoke perfect English. She said that she had arranged for us to be taken to Switzerland through an organization and that the farmer would give us some clothes, money and get us some train tickets straight through to Lecco in Northern Italy. From there we travelled on bikes with two girls to get to the next station. When we got there, one girl told us to watch her go to a man carrying a brief case and when she leaves him we should follow him. That’s what we did. When the train stopped, we followed the man off the train. He went up to another man and gave him the brief case. We followed the other man up towards the Alps until we came to a camp which was full of soldiers from different nationalities. We met the leader who said we could stop there and they would give us food - if we helped them at night to go out and sabotage targets. We said we would not because we were told that we were being taken to Switzerland. We left the camp and made our way back down the Alps. On the way down, chatting to ourselves, there was a man behind us who asked us if we were English. We were a little frightened but we said ‘yes’. In broken English, he said ‘good’ and asked us to go back to his house as his wife is English. They made us very comfortable: we had something to eat and a good wash. They said they would get us a ticket to get back to the farm in Cremona.

When we got back to the farm and the farmer saw us his face dropped. After we told him what had happened he told us to go to the hut until morning. The next few days he sent us food. One day the girl from the farm came in with a man who said he had escaped from the fascists and asked if he could stop with us. We said ‘yes’ and gave him some food and drink.

The next day he said that he would go out and get some food. We said ‘no’ but he went anyway. About one hour later, two soldiers came rushing in with revolvers and told us to get out. When we got outside, the field was surrounded by soldiers with guns aimed at us. We were told to go down the lane to a lorry which was full of our lads. They said that the girl and the man had told the Germans about us because they had put a reward on all prisoners of 1800 lire for each British prisoner.

They transported us to a Fascist headquarters: inside there were photos of Hitler and Mussolini on the walls. After questioning us, they packed us all into cattle trucks and transported us to Germany. We arrived at Bitterfeld (North of Leipzig) and split up again into small groups. They took our group to a house in a street called Hillerstrassen. We were kept in a room upstairs with a guard and were taken out each day to work in a graveyard: we had to dig and clean graves. We were left in charge of an old man who must have been 80 but who was kind to us. One day we were in the graveyard when the sirens sounded. We heard a terrific roar and we looked up to the sky to see that it was full of planes:



there must have been 1000 planes. The old man said “Your comrades”. The next day the old man told us they had bombed Dresden.

After a while we were transported to a permanent camp in Czechoslovakia (Stalag IV C at Wistritz). They put us in huts which held 12 prisoners each. The guards came in every morning shouting ‘Raus, raus’ to take us to a factory, again putting us under the charge of an old German because all the young men were at the Russian front. Some of my mates tried to dodge going to the factory, but when they were found out they were marched to the square and had all their hair cut off: the Germans called them ‘Churchills’.

It was a Christmas morning and the sirens sounded. The guards paniced and told us to line up outside if we wanted to go down the mineshafts for safety, which most of us did, but there were some who stayed in the huts because they did not think our soldiers would bomb on Christmas day. When the all clear sounded we were marched back to the camp. When we got there, to our shock the huts were flat and the lads who had stayed in the hut where dead. We heard later that the reason they had bombed was because the Germans had bombed London on Christmas Eve with doodle bombs (flying bombs). The camp was rebuilt and carried on as usual.

One day we were in the huts when one of our blokes came running in shouting we are free. The camp commandant said we could go because the Russians were getting closer. We did not need to be told twice so we all rushed to the gates, pushing aside the guards to get to the main road. German people were fleeing the Russians, the soldiers were throwing away their guns and bread and we were picking up the bread and eating it. There were lorries, carts, cars and women with children all fleeing to the American lines: they were all scared of the Russians. On the way I tried to say to a German soldier in the best way I could that I wanted his dress sword and if he did not give it to me that the Americans would cut his throat. He soon handed it over to me (I still have this today).

When we arrived at the American post they were glad to see us and gave us whatever we wanted; they even turned everyone out of a hotel and told us to settle in as we would be moved out to get a plane home soon. As night fell they asked us to come down to the lounge and have a drink with them. While I was having a drink, an American soldier came to me and asked if I wanted a German revolver as a souvenir. I said ‘yes’. “Leave it to me,” he said. The next morning the American found me and gave me a revolver: it was a Lugar (I do not know what happened to it when I got back home).

Stalag IV C at Wistritz

A few days later we were taken to an airfield - I can’t remember the name. Whilst we were waiting for the plane, I noticed a small bag on the ground. I picked it up and opened it to find it was full of kroners: into my bag it went. When I got back home, I gave them away (I was not in my right state of mind). When the plane arrived it was a Wellington bomber. As we got closer to England, the pilot shouted “Out there’s the White cliffs of Dover”: was we glad to get back home! When we landed, we were greeted by lots of R.A.F. girls. As we got off the plane each one of us were escorted by one of these girls: I got the one about 14 stone! We were taken to a large place for a bath and rigged out with dress uniform which we never had during our previous years. We were then taken for a good meal. After that, all my pals parted to go back home. So our different ways we went, not knowing what to expect!"

P.S. I did not know until I got back home that my younger brother George was killed in action in a tank battle in the desert, only 50 miles from where I was taken prisoner. Trooper George Dennis Slater (320098) Cavalry of the line posted with 3rd Kings Own Hussars K.I.A. on the 21st November 1941 (Alamein cemetery Egypt).