Read The Long Way Home Online

Authors: John McCallum

The Long Way Home

This ebook edition published in 2012 by
Birlinn Limited
West Newington House
Newington Road

Copyright © the Estate of John McCallum 2005
Foreword copyright © George Robertson 2005
Introduction copyright © Trevor Royle 2012
About My Father copyright © Ken McCallum 2012

The moral right of John McCallum to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored, or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-85790-234-4
Print ISBN: 978-1-84341-060-7

Version 1.0

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library




About My Father

Author’s Preface



The Rt Hon. the Lord Robertson of Port Ellen KT GCMG Hon FRSE PC (Secretary of State for Defence 1997–99, Secretary General of NATO 1999–2003)

We all know the great war stories – the deeds of inspirational bravery which make movies to be seen over and over again. We recognise and revere the great war leaders
and personalities. Their names are in lights, on books and on statues. We have whole libraries devoted to the origins of wars and the impact the conflicts have had on our history.

But wars affect ordinary people in extraordinary ways as well. Lives are disrupted, affected and even ended by forces far from the lives of the man or woman in the street. People are taken from
their peaceful way of life and faced with challenges they could never imagine. Some of the greatest stories – about the ability of accidental heroes to rise to dizzy heights of achievement
– are never heard.

Here is one such story: three telephone engineers are plucked from obscurity and thrown into a maelstrom of adventure. The story has all the ingredients of a modern airport novel –
courage, daring, sex, love, cunning, innocence, humour and incredible luck. But this is not fiction – it is for real. The three Scottish heroes of the action then returned to obscurity after
their amazing exploits. For decades, because of the Official Secrets Act, their story could not be told. Luckily, sixty years later, one of them has published this account.

When I read this book in manuscript, I could not stop turning the pages. The early events made the old Scottish word ‘gallus’ come to mind, but as events unfold, you realise how
determination, resourcefulness and sheer bravado can move mountains – or at least the bars of a prisoner of war camp.

Those of us who, almost every Christmas, watch
The Great Escape
, would never have guessed that nearby three Scottish guys had been doing the same thing on the same day. And unlike the
more famous escapees from Stalag Luft Drei, these three made it home.

At this point in history, anniversaries of the First and Second World Wars have brought home to a new generation how much we owe to those who gave up their comfortable lives so that we might
live in peace and safety. Old men, and women too, with blazers and medals nowadays leaning on sticks are living legends. Ordinary people, like John McCallum, Jimmy O’Neill and Joe Harkin were
called upon to do extraordinary things. And, collectively, they guaranteed our precious freedom.

This is a great tale – with a deep message. Read, enjoy – and reflect.

George Robertson


Given the millions of people who served in uniform during the Second World War it is not surprising that so many ended up as prisoners of the enemy. The exact numbers will never
be known as some combatant nations were tardy both about keeping records and ensuring the well-being of prisoners-of-war (or POWs as they are known) but the figure must run into several million.
During the first campaigns in Poland in 1939 and in France the following year the Germans found themselves having to cope with over 2 million enemy POWs, and the British Expeditionary Force left
behind 50,000 soldiers during the retreat from Dunkirk during the same period. Amongst them were John McCallum and his mates from Glasgow. Later in the conflict there were equally heavy losses
during the fighting in North Africa, the Balkans, France and north-west Europe.

In theory the conditions meted out to POWs were governed by the Geneva Convention of 1929, which superseded the original Hague Convention of 1907 on the treatment of prisoners in time of
conflict. This was a wide-ranging piece of legislation which contained 97 articles outlining the work of the International Red Cross as a neutral agency and spelled out the rights and treatment of
prisoners-of-war. The main terms of the Geneva Convention were that prisoners were to be removed promptly from the battlefield; if wounded they were to be given adequate medical care; once in
captivity they were to be treated and fed no worse than troops of the host nation; under interrogation they could refuse to provide any information other than name, rank and service number; freedom
of religious worship was allowed; International Red Cross inspection teams were permitted to visit permanent camps and escape attempts were to be punished by one month’s solitary

The convention was agreed by all the major powers except Japan, which signed but did not ratify, and the Soviet Union, which did not sign at all on the grounds that no soldier in the
country’s armed forces would ever allow themselves to be taken prisoner. That failure was to have far-ranging consequences during the course of the conflict. On the Eastern Front, captured
German soldiers were subjected to casual brutality, provision of food, and medical care was basic, if offered at all, and living conditions were squalid. Mass executions were commonplace. By the
same token many senior German officers argued that as the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention the German Army was not bound by its terms and the treatment of captured Red Army
soldiers was equally appalling. Most frontline units in the fanatical Waffen SS had a rule that prisoners were not to be taken, basing their rationale on the Nazi-inspired argument that Slav
peoples were ‘sub-human’, but they were not alone in encouraging the execution of prisoners. During the retreat to Dunkirk over a hundred soldiers in the Royal Norfolk Regiment were
machine-gunned after surrendering, and of the 10,000 RAF aircrew who survived being shot down over Germany several were lynched by angry mobs of civilians. The worst incident of this kind was the
so-called ‘Great Escape’ of March 1944, when fifty British prisoners-of-war were executed following a mass breakout from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in Lower Silesia.

However, by far the most horrible conditions faced by prisoners-of-war were in South-east Asia during the fighting against Japan. Not only did the Japanese army not recognise the Geneva
Convention, but a conviction had grown up that defeat in battle was the ultimate disgrace for a trained fighting soldier and had to be avoided at all costs. That belief led to an almost hysterical
refusal to surrender even when the position was hopeless, and it also lay behind the inhumane treatment of Allied POWs. At the beginning of 1942 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops
surrendered to the Japanese following the fall of Singapore. From the outset no attempt was made to treat them with any semblance of humanity. Food and shelter were restricted to the bare minimum
to sustain life, and most of those taken prisoner were used as forced labour on the construction of the notorious Burma–Siam railway, the supply route that linked Thailand to Burma. The line
had to be cut through 260 miles of mountainous and inhospitable jungle and in addition to the unhealthy and dangerous conditions the prisoners-of-war had to work without adequate food or medical
supplies and were subjected to extreme cruelty by the Japanese guards. A sign at the base camp at Thanbyuzayat welcomed new arrivals with the warning: ‘You are the remnants of a decadent
white race and fragments of a rabble army. This railway will go through even if your bodies are to be used as sleepers.’ Over 12,000 POWs died on the railway and many more were afflicted by
physical and mental problems long after the war.

In stark contrast to the ill-treatment which was commonplace in the war against Japan and the fighting on the Eastern Front, the treatment of prisoners-of-war in Europe and Britain was generally
responsible and relatively humane. Under the terms of the Geneva Convention private soldiers could be made to work while officers were not expected to work and non-commissioned officers were only
permitted to carry out supervisory tasks. This explains why John McCallum and his two colleagues encouraged their families to write to them using the rank of sergeant and corporal in order to avoid
heavy labouring tasks. All sides used prisoners-of-war as labourers, especially in agricultural work, and although the Geneva Convention expressly forbade work which was useful to the war effort it
was obvious that working on the land was of strategic importance. Not only did it help reduce the need for food imports but it freed up men who could otherwise be employed as soldiers.

For Britain, enemy prisoners proved to be a useful reservoir of manpower. All told, by the end of the war, some 400,000 Axis prisoners-of-war were held in around 600 camps across the United
Kingdom, all of which offered basic living facilities. Some were purpose-built camps with Nissen-hut accommodation but most were disused buildings which could be made secure. Ration scales were the
same as those used for British service personnel and all camps offered educational and recreational facilities. While no POW was obliged to work, many took advantage of the opportunity to engage in
agricultural labour or bomb damage repair work because it gave them the opportunity to meet locals and broke up the generally dull routine in the camps. Although fraternisation was not allowed,
many prisoners-of-war struck up friendships and in some cases romances blossomed: at the conclusion of hostilities over 15,000 German and Italian POW remained in the United Kingdom. Otherwise
boredom was the main enemy, and while all camps encouraged educational and cultural activities the harsh reality was that most men had little to do other than wait for the war to end.

With time on their hands, attempting to escape became a popular pastime, especially amongst the officers, who regarded it as their duty to get away from enemy captivity. For Germans and Italians
this was more difficult as Britain is an island. Although there was a breakout of 70 German prisoners-of-war from Camp 198 in Bridgend, South Wales in March 1945, only one German POW ever managed
to escape back to Germany. In 1940 Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe pilot shot down over Kent, was sent with other enemy prisoners to Canada for imprisonment in a camp on the north shore of Lake
Ontario. This allowed him to escape to the USA, which was still neutral, and he eventually managed to get back to Germany after travelling through South America, Spain and Italy, arriving in
Germany in April 1941. In contrast, over 35,000 British, Commonwealth and US servicemen managed to escape from captivity in enemy territory, often with the assistance of MI9, a top secret branch
of the British intelligence services established to assist and encourage Allied POWs to escape or evade enemy captivity. Both Britain and Germany regarded captured enemy personnel as useful means
of gaining intelligence about the other side’s military capabilities. Physical coercion was rarely used, but lengthy interrogations often yielded valuable information: the German Luftwaffe
established a large rear-area transit camp for this purpose at Oberursel near Frankfurt-am-Rhein, while the RAF had a similar facility at Cockfosters in north London.

Even when the war ended in the summer of 1945 the suffering of the POW population did not come to an end. To meet the need for labour, especially on the land, and as a form of reparation, the
post-war British Labour government ignored the Geneva Convention by delaying immediate repatriation and the last German prisoners-of-war were not returned until November 1948. For the Russians it
was even worse. Stalin insisted that all Soviet prisoners-of-war should be repatriated, and an estimated quarter of a million men were sent to gulag camps in Siberia for ‘re-education’
as a punishment for having been captured in the first place. Like the Japanese, the Red Army believed that its soldiers should fight to the last man and the last round.

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