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My Willenhall uncle was captured in North Africa

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 26, 2014

By Barrie O'Callaghan

  • My Grandfather John Thomas Robinson on RAF ground maintenance duty during the Second World War

  • John Thomas Robinson, second from the right on the back row, pictured with other RAF ground maintenance crew

  • Caught napping - my grandfather found sleeping on duty at the aerodrome

  • Prisoner of war - Henry, middle of the back row, while in Poland

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IN this anniversary year of the beginning of the Great War, I fell to musing about the service in that conflict of my grandfather, John Thomas Robinson.

None of the family has details of his service, such as which branch (although we believe the Army) or number, and there is no photographic record existing which could confirm this.

He was about 25 at the start of World War One, married to my grandmother Gertrude (nee Edwards), and living in Wolverhampton Street, Willenhall, in what eventually became known as the Irish Yard.

However, photographic evidence of his service in World War Two does exist, and various pictures are enclosed, together with ones of his son Henry Lea Robinson who also served in that conflict, of which more later.

My grandfather was in RAF ground maintenance; you will see from the photographs he was too old for active service by this time. Again, we have no knowledge of his service number, or even the airfield at which he was based.

Grandfather's younger son, Henry Lea, known as Harry, had rather a different war. He was conscripted in 1941 and posted to North Africa.

On his first patrol he had the misfortune to be captured by the Afrika Korps.

Harry was with a lightly-armed platoon, and when they became surrounded by the armoured vehicles of the Afrika Korps, his sergeant yelled: "Duck"!

Those that did survived, those that didn't were machine-gunned down. Harry and the other survivors were put on an Italian ship and sent to Poland, where they worked in the mines for the duration of the war.

When the Germans heard the Russians were closing in towards the end of the war, Harry and the rest of the prisoners were force-marched out of Poland towards Germany.

They were liberated from one of the night-transit camps by the Americans at 6 one morning.

Harry had no bad word to say about the Wehrmacht guards, mostly elderly men, who would sometimes share their meagre rations with the starving prisoners. He and his mates stopped reprisals against these men. His attitude towards the SS was somewhat different; they were discovered stripping Wehrmacht uniforms from dead Germans and replacing them with their own. It didn't work for all of them though. The Poles got wind of what they were doing.

I was quite young when grandfather Robinson died as I would have loved to discuss with him his service in both wars.

However, Harry and I became good friends. He never married, and his ordeal had left him with chest problems which eventually killed him.

He was unwilling to talk about his experiences as a general rule, but became more voluble after a pint or two, and I was more than happy to stand him those.

The terrible years must have seemed endless, and the wartime experiences of father and son could not have been more different.

Barrie O'Callaghan,

6 Firsvale Road,

Wednesfield.

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