“As a girl, I knew that my dad had been a prisoner of war, but I also knew it was something that we must never speak of,” says author and poet Maggie Brookes. “Dad and I were very close, but there was a gap in my understanding of him.” The missing piece of the jigsaw was revealed in a surprise find 65 years after the war ended.
Alfred was born in Stoke Newington, London, in 1920 and left school at 14. As soon as war was declared in 1939, he joined the 64th Medium Regiment of the Royal Artillery. It was during this time that he met Harold Gudgion, who became his best friend.
In 1940, war was raging in North Africa and the 64th was shipped out to fight Rommel’s troops and the Italians in Egypt and the Middle East. At this point Maggie’s knowledge of Alfred’s war became misty.
All this was to change. Harold had dictated his wartime memoir onto tape, and when he died in 2010 his son John also discovered a set of diaries that Harold had kept as a POW in Italy and Austria. He had hidden them in a hollow tree so that the Nazis couldn’t confiscate them.
Alfred was mentioned on almost every page, so John transcribed Harold’s shorthand notes and gave Maggie a copy of the memoir and the diaries. “It was astonishing to receive the diaries, but also very daunting. I was scared that I would discover something about my beloved dad that I didn’t want to know.
“However, once I started to read them my initial fears soon gave way to huge delight. Harold described a day in the desert when trucks were abreast going into battle. He looked over at Alfie Brookes in the next vehicle who shouted, ‘It’s my 21st birthday today!’ I could just see Dad as a handsome young man who was full of exhilaration.”
As the war progressed the memoir developed a darker register. In June 1942, Alfred and Harold were captured by the Germans near Tobruk in Libya. “The prisoners were kept in Benghazi for months, guarded by sadistic tribesmen. Harold remembered soldiers being hung up by their wrists with leather bands, and left in the desert heat.”
Alfred and Harold were later moved to a POW camp in northern Italy. After the Italians surrendered in 1943, the prisoners thought that the war was over. Several, including Harold and Alfred, escaped and hid in a barn roof for two days.
“They were recaptured and Harold, Alfred and the other escapees were made to stand in front of a firing squad. But they were given a last-minute reprieve, and were instead beaten with sticks and rifle butts.”
Harold and Alfred’s friendship sustained them through the horror, hunger and isolation of life as a POW. Both men survived the war, and were demobbed to London. Their friendship lasted a lifetime, and they were each best man at the other’s wedding.
“I was amazed that Dad had no bitterness in his heart. He used to call his former captors ‘our German cousins’, and hosted exchange students from Italy and Germany. He lived life to the full, enjoyed travel and had a rewarding career.” Alfred passed away in 1996, aged 76.
In 2007, an old soldier told Maggie a story about a Czech girl who hid in a Nazi POW camp, to be with her British soldier husband. Maggie wrote the story as the novel The Prisoner’s Wife, using Harold’s diaries to provide authentic and fascinating detail. “I feel closer to Dad now that I know more about his wartime experiences. The piece of the jigsaw that was always missing has at last been found.”
Gail Dixon is a writer and regular contributor to Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine