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Time to say thanks

 

Australians Frank Cox and John Crooks recently repaid what they call a “debt to humanity” by making a substantial donation to the Australian Red Cross in recognition of the assistance they received from the Movement some 65 years ago when they were prisoners of war (POWs).

 

It was in Greece in April 1941 that Frank and John, both with the Signals 1 Australian Corps, were captured by the German troops. John was taken to Corinth, a ‘transit’ prisoner-of-war camp, where he saw his men for the last time and first came into contact with ICRC delegates. “They brought with them a supply of ‘goodies’, of which I scored a toothbrush, a box of matches and a ‘neck to knees’ nightshirt,” says John. “I was grateful for the first two, but I was relieved that I had disposed of my camera, so I could not be coerced into having a photograph taken of me wearing the nightshirt!” Rations at Corinth were meagre, but the generosity of the local Greeks, who passed food to the POWs through the camp’s fence, enabled John to keep reasonably healthy.

From Corinth, John was sent to the Salonica (or Thessaloníki) camp, where he met up again with Frank. Their memories of Salonica, or the ‘horror’ camp as they call it, remain vivid: “The bed bugs were huge and food was scarce.” Their time together was brief, however, as shortly after John’s arrival, they were moved to different camps. They both travelled to their new camps by the same means of transportation: cattle trucks tightly packed with up to 40 prisoners.

Frank describes the trip as “five days of sheer hell”. “The weather was warm, and there was only one small wire-covered opening for air,” he relates. “We had little food, and there were only odd stops for water and the toilet. Nearly everybody suffered from diarrhoea, and with no means of sanitary disposal, the stench was unbelievable.”

Extremely weak, close to collapse and infested with lice, Frank eventually arrived at Stalag XVIIIA in Wolfsberg, Austria. There he remained for 12 months in appalling conditions and was exposed to sights he describes today as “man’s inhumanity to man”.

Hard labour

Frank’s life did not improve following yet another move, this time to Groppenstein, a former Nazi youth camp. Here he endured hard labour working in a road gang, carrying out tasks that included breaking rocks with a pick and shovel. The work was gruelling, the days long and winter’s onslaught made life harder than ever. For Frank and the other POWs, the arrival of Red Cross parcels at the camp brought “a ray of light in a sad, dark part of the world”.

From Groppenstein, Frank was sent to Stalag XVIIIB, in Spittal, Austria. A baker by profession, he was given a job in the kitchen. However, an act of sabotage saw Frank thrown into a brick cell, where he remained for 21 days, following which he was forced to work in a quarry hauling rocks. The heavy labour and harsh conditions took their toll, and he spent lengthy periods in Spittal’s hospital. Although Frank was
moved back into the kitchen, his health continued to decline and in early 1944, on the ICRC’s recommendation and with its assistance, he was repatriated to England, and then to Australia.

John’s trip to Oflag VB in Germany took longer than Frank’s, but he was luckier, as the German soldiers allowed the cattle truck doors to remain open. Supplies provided for the trip were scant, and without the food given by communities, the prisoners would have arrived at their destination in an even worse state than they did. “The locals did what they could to help, and this was particularly so at Kraljevo, Serbia, where they threw bread, wine, cake, eggs and sugar into the trucks,” says John, likening it to “manna from heaven”.

From Oflag VB, John was sent to Oflag VIIB, and it was from there in mid-April 1945, with the Allies advancing, that he and his fellow POWs were ordered out of the camp and forced to march for eight days to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg. “It was amazing, but somehow during the march, Red Cross parcels continued to arrive,” says John. “This helped to raise spirits and keep us going.” It was at Moosburg on 28 April 1945 that John’s war ended, when American tanks rolled through the gates of the camp.

Home sweet home

In Australia, John, now 87, settled in Melbourne with his late wife, Nancye, with whom he had two children. Studies undertaken during his time as a POW enabled him to fulfil a long-held ambition to work as a communications engineer in the Postmaster General’s Department. Encouraged by his family, John wrote down his wartime experiences, and his book, My little war, was published in 2006.

Frank, 92, returned to his hometown Melbourne, and with wife Clarice had five children. Before retiring, he worked in the food industry and played an active role in the community, which included serving as a councillor for 33 years. In 1981, he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in recognition of his community service.

Explaining today why they felt they “owed a debt” to the Red Cross, Frank and John said Red Cross parcels had helped to keep them alive. “Had it not been for these people with their packages of food, I, and many others probably, would not have made it home,” says Frank. The visits by Red Cross delegates checking on conditions in the camps were also important. “These visits really buoyed the prisoners up,” they say.

Being able to keep in touch with their families during these dark times via Red Cross messages also helped to keep their spirits up. However, there was a period when they were first captured during which they had no contact with their families. “This caused our families considerable anguish, and you can imagine their relief when they received Red Cross messages advising them we were alive and well,” says Frank. It seems fitting, therefore, that the donation Frank and John made to the Red Cross will be used to reunite families separated by conflict or disaster around the world.

Reflecting on that time long ago, John and Frank say there were sights they wish they had never seen: men dying where they stood, their bodies ravaged by hunger and disease. “I still tremble now at the thought of what transpired when Russian prisoners started to arrive. Their condition was such that many simply died as they were unloaded from the trucks,” recalls Frank. These remain painful memories, and they find it easier to talk about the kindness shown by ordinary people and the camaraderie among the prisoners, which included sharing what food they had — even the contents of their Red
Cross parcels!

Providing humanitarian assistance to Australian POWs during the Second World War was one of the major tasks of the Australian Red Cross, and Chief Executive Officer Robert Tickner says the gesture to repay the Movement “is both touching and magnanimous”. The friendship between Frank and John forged in Salonica in 1941 is stronger than ever, and the two remain in regular contact.

 


Repatriated prisoner of war Frank Cox (crouching) feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, London, 1944.
©FRANK COX / AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS

 

 

 

 

 


From left to right, Frank Cox, John Crooks and Robert Tickner, chief executive officer of the Australian Red Cross, on 12 July 2007.
©AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Reception of Red Cross parcels at Spittal camp in Austria, 1942.
©AUSTRALIAN RED CROSS

 

 

 

Pauline Wall
Pauline Wall is ICRC communication delegate in Sydney

 

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