Prominent journalist and broadcaster Barrie Cassidy tells the gripping story of his father's World War II experiences, including as a German prisoner of war.
My father, William Edward Cassidy, survived almost 1,500 days as a prisoner of war. Few had to endure so many.
He first saw conflict on Crete on May 20, 1941, standing beneath the biggest parachute invasion in history. Just six days later he was lying in a field hospital, wounded and captured. Four years after that, virtually to the day, he woke up at a prison camp in Klagenfurt, Austria, to find the gates flung open and the guards gone.
That was the end of an ordeal unthinkable to current generations.
He saw colleagues blown up in front of him; and witnessed the enemy “murdered” with their hands in the air. He survived a five day journey in a cattle train that killed others around him; and then endured near starvation and extreme cold as part of a work gang in the Austrian Alps. He escaped, and helped others escape; then suffered the cruel consequences once recaptured.
And, for more than a year, back home in Australia, his wife Myra believed he was dead.
This is his war story.
MY DAD'S WAR
~ by Barrie Cassidy
Bill Cassidy’s abiding memory as he set sail for war on the 29th of December 1940, on board the Mauritania from Port Melbourne, was of reflecting mirrors and waving scarves.
Among those farewelling the troops was his wife Myra and 20-month old daughter, Pamela. He didn’t know it then, but his little girl was in the early stages of scarlet fever and was admitted to hospital two days later. Because of strict quarantine rules, Myra couldn’t see her for six weeks. When Bill saw her again, she was six.
Cassidy’s first job on board the ship was to look out for submarines. He had never seen a submarine, but then again, he was a member of the 3 Light Anti Aircraft Regiment and he had never seen an anti-aircraft gun.
The journey took them first to Colombo in Sri Lanka, where the troops were transferred to the Devonshire, and then on to Haifa in Palestine. He and a new friend, Lennie Hodgson, volunteered for mess duty, essentially working as waiters, carrying out meals and clearing the tables afterwards.
From Haifa, the 7th Battery headed off in a huge convoy of trucks for the Egyptian port of Alexandria, the staging port for Crete.
They were supposed to be the first Australian troops on the Greek island, but the campaign in Greece had gone terribly wrong and so when they arrived, the island was already teeming with recently evacuated Australian, British and New Zealand troops. The defeat in Greece marked the end of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s so called Balkans gamble. The Greeks lost 15,000 men, either killed or missing, and 30,000 allied troops fled, leaving behind valuable heavy weapons and equipment.
Cassidy and his battery landed on Crete on April 25, 1941, Anzac Day. What he and his commanding officers didn’t know then is that on the same day, Adolf Hitler secretly issued directive No. 28 – Operation Mercury – for the capture of Crete. That directive committed 23,000 troops and an awesome 650 combat aircraft for a surprise attack on May 20. Hitler had signed off on the biggest parachute invasion in history.
There was a real sense in the days leading up to May 20 that an attack might be imminent. Cassidy’s task as a truck driver was to cart petrol and ammunition to various locations and set up anti-aircraft bofor guns around Heraklion airport.
When the historic assault from the air started, Cassidy was by his truck. His immediate superior, Lieutenant McMaster-Smith, told him to take a rifle and join the infantry.
Cassidy remembers looking up and seeing rows of five or six planes dropping parachutes. Then another five or six, then another. And then what seemed like hundreds of gliders doing the same thing.
He told me:
“The sky was full of parachutes. There were thousands of them, and so many of them never got out of their harnesses. They died before they hit the ground. The poor devils didn’t even have time to reach for their guns.
“We took a terrible toll on the paratroopers. The gun crew did their job as well. I looked up at one stage and saw five of a set of six aircraft on fire.
“There was so much happening. Even if you shot and somebody fell, then there was no way of knowing whether it was your bullet that hit him. There was so much going on.
“There were in the end a few prisoners taken, but not many. It was terrible, just shocking. If there were survivors, there would have been just a handful.”
A handful, from the 7,500 who made the jump.
One of the Germans who made it to the ground hid in a hut.
Cassidy was behind the wheel of his truck when an English sergeant called to him: “There’s a German in the hut. Take a rear window.”
Cassidy did as he was told.
The German, surrounded and without a chance, came out with his hands in the air. The sergeant shot him dead.
In relating his war experiences, this is the one time when my father cried.
“We’re getting into things that touch a bit now,” he said.
"We didn’t take many prisoners that day.”
Cassidy went to the body of the German who lay dead. He searched inside his pockets and found a photograph of him with a young woman. His wife? A girlfriend? A sister? He had no way of knowing.
“But it made me think,” he said. “It could so easily have been the other way around. I never searched another pocket after that, I can tell you.”
When the guns fell silent, Cassidy was ordered along with one other soldier to take a utility and investigate every gun position in the area. The bodies of dead Germans were thick in the paddocks. At times, there were so many of them on the road into town, that the two of them had to get out and clear a path.
In the days leading up to the blitz Cassidy took a truck from Heraklion across the island to Maleme to pick up a load of vegetables. He had a local Cretan along as a guide. The Cretan insisted, and Cassidy knew no better, that they should take just a half tray of vegetables and leave room for goats that the Cretan had somehow acquired. Once back at Heraklion, the quartermaster was so unimpressed that Cassidy was not asked to make the next trip.
It fell to his mate, Lennie Hodgson, the man he had become so close to on the voyage out, to take the next trip. That was on the day of the blitz.
Cassidy never heard from him again.
Then 40 years later, he visited the war memorial in Canberra. He ran his eyes down the list of those killed from his regiment. Heriot, Hill, Hitch… Hodgson. After all those years, the sense of loss was still overwhelming.
The Germans came close to abandoning Crete after that appallingly botched raid. However, amid all the carnage, they did manage to capture one airfield, Maleme, and that gave them an important strategic victory — just enough to carry on.
With one area secured, they were able to bring in many more troops in relative safety.
On May 22, Cassidy was told to drive to a small aerodrome at one end of a narrow valley and help some British soldiers move a Bofor gun. When the job was done, he found himself “seduced by the quietness of it all”. After days of conflict, nothing stirred. The morning was there to be enjoyed. So he stayed for breakfast and in those moments, out of a clear blue sky, six enemy planes attacked.
Cassidy joined the line of soldiers feeding shells to the crewmen who in turn, drove them into the gun’s barrel. Two soldiers sat on top, one to control the gun vertically, the other horizontally.
A direct hit smashed the weapon to pieces. The soldier last in line feeding the shells was killed instantly and remarkably lay slumped across one of the gun’s seats. Seven crewmen were wounded. Cassidy took shrapnel to his right side. Had it hit inches away, he would have been killed. Those who could run, walk or crawl scrambled to a nearby church to seek shelter as the air attacks continued. Hundreds of tracer bullets ripped through the windows.
Cassidy was hit again, right alongside the shrapnel blast, while hiding under a pew. Again, he had missed death by inches.
When the shooting stopped, those who could crawled along the valley floor to a dressing station. Once his wounds were treated, Cassidy asked if he could go back and retrieve his truck. But he was told to go instead to a nearby makeshift hospital for further treatment.
To his amazement, both the allies and the Germans shared the hospital under a Red Cross flag.
But that didn’t guarantee the safety of the patients. On the second day, the hospital was bombed. He never did know which side was responsible.
“They made a huge mess,” he said. “One of our blokes, a chap called Tom, had a bed under the verandah and when I went looking for him after the raid, I saw his bed had been blown to pieces.”
A few days later, a squad of Germans walked casually into the hospital and announced: “Your mates have gone and you are now prisoners of war.”
Cassidy was to learn after the war that the survivors from his group at Heraklion evacuated to a boat, only to be sunk at sea. Many of them, including two from his home town, Stanhope, drowned. If he had made it back to headquarters, he would have been on that boat.
As it happened, he was flown in an old troop carrier to Athens.
He had never flown in his life and his nerves were not helped by the constant sight of fighter planes through the narrow windows.
From Athens, Cassidy was taken by truck to Thessalonika to the north. That was the beginning of the worst nine months of his life.
The Thessalonika compound, he said, was disgraceful.
“The superiors didn’t care what the prisoners wore, where they slept or what they ate.
“The barracks were two storeys high with the guards’ mess at the top. They would walk around the ramp and throw crusts to the starving prisoners below. Then they would watch them fight each other for the scraps. To them, it must have looked like a lolly scramble at a picnic.
“I had just arrived and I used to think ‘thank God I’m not hungry enough to do that.” Within a week, he knew precisely how they had felt.
Hundreds of prisoners were loaded like animals onto an open cattle train for a torturous five day journey to prison camp, Stalag 18, at Wolfsburg, In Austria.
They were put 20 to a truck with just enough room to lie down.
The train had one toilet stop a day.
“The blokes behaved pretty well given the awful conditions. We would put our pants on at night, and then take them off during the day to pick off the lice.
“I really can’t remember being given any food at all during that trip.”
Some, who had started out in a starved condition, died on the way and were left at the toilet stop.
“What I do remember is coming into a station at a little town on the Danube River, and would you believe the Red Cross were waiting for us with lemon tea. That was the best drink I have ever had in my life. I remember it so well that I can even tell you who I shared my cup of tea with. It was a bloke called Curly Elliott from Wangaratta.”
Stalag 18, as it turned out, was temporary. Within days Cassidy and 30 others were sent to join a working party in the Austrian Alps.
The conditions were unbearable. They were given just a cup of soup a day. Temperatures often dropped to -30C.
“When we got home at the end of the day, we would take our boots off and caked ice would fall from our feet,” Cassidy recalls.
“I remember trying to keep the cold from my ears by wrapping a singlet around my head. It was the same singlet I was wearing when I was hit with shrapnel on Crete; no good for anything else.”
In just a few weeks Cassidy lost almost three stone. He worried that he might not survive much longer. But just in time, he and ten others were chosen to go down the mountain to help out at a farm at St. Vite.
The first thing he saw was a group of prisoners boiling potatoes for the pigs. They got first in the queue.
Back in Australia, Cassidy’s wife Myra knew nothing of what had happened.
The fact that he had gone missing while working alone as an Australian with a group of Englishmen, complicated his situation.
The first telegram arrived at Myra’s home in Bendigo Street, Prahran, in early June.
“W.E.Cassidy missing. I regret to inform you that V X32438 W.E.Cassidy has been reported missing. The Minister for the Army and the Military Board extends sincere sympathy. Signed, The Minister for the Army.”
Then, on June 26, even more worrying news arrived. A second telegram told her that W.E.Cassidy, who has been
“…previously reported missing, is now reported wounded in action and missing.”
That was it. It was impossible to get any more information. And the family had powerful people trying on their behalf.
John “Black Jack” McEwen, who went on to lead the Country Party and who was Prime Minister for a few days after the drowning of Harold Holt, was then Minister for the Air.
McEwen was a neighbour at Stanhope and had acted as chairman at Bill and Myra’s wedding in that town in April, 1936.
He took a personal interest in Cassidy’s fate and, in a letter to Bill’s parents, assured them he had sent a special cable to Egypt to try and find out what had happened.
“Mrs McEwen and I again extend our sympathy to all the family in your worry, and trust that early and favourable word may soon come to hand. In the meantime, you may be sure that I shall continue my efforts by cable to get some word.”
That word did not arrive for more than a year. It was May 31, 1942, when a third telegram arrived confirming that Cassidy was alive, and a prisoner of war.
Life at St Vite for Cassidy and his colleagues was tolerable. He milked the cows, ideal for a man with a dairy farming background, and at night he slept on hay bales in the barn.
But the prospect of freedom was overwhelming. The guards were predictable and lazy. Cassidy persuaded two Englishmen, Les Copping and “Brookie,” to make a run for it. They stored up chocolate, tin meat and butter. Then one spring morning, they pretended to go off for a bath but ran instead for the creek and the dense forest beyond.
Their only plan was to follow the railway line to Switzerland. They slept in the forest during the day and walked at night, raiding vegetable gardens along the way.
On the fifth night, the heavens opened up. They lost sight of the railway tracks in pelting rain and so when they came across a large barn, they eased the door open and let themselves in…only to walk straight into a platoon of sleeping German soldiers.
A sentry bailed them up and feeble attempts to argue they were French came to nothing. The sentry spoke excellent French and they had none.
The three men were sent back to Stalag 18 and were locked in full view of other prisoners in small cramped boxes. They stayed there for 28 days, and fed nothing but bread and water.
Once free of the box, Cassidy and his co-conspirators were sent to a disciplinary camp, with extra guards, at nearby Waldenstein.
Twice more, Cassidy tried to escape. But both plots were foiled, Cassidy suspects, because of a snitch in their ranks.
The prison was an old castle built on the edge of a cliff. At the foot of one wall was a crude sewerage system that ran into a creek. When the first prisoner was lowered down on a rope, he discovered the guards had just recently placed bars across the escape route.
“We had to haul the poor bugger up again,” said Cassidy.
“He got himself covered in crap for nothing.”
The second attempt ended when a darkened corner of the camp was suddenly lit up with a new searchlight, just as the first prisoners were trying to crawl to safety.
Cassidy did, however, help two prisoners escape while he was at Waldenstein.
He approached two guards on duty as a distraction for his colleagues and asked them to explain the difference between a hectare and an acre. The guards got down on their knees and started drawing in the dirt, and while they did, the men slipped quietly into the bush.
His role was never suspected. In fact to the contrary. One day a guard approached him and said: “We’re sending you to Klagenfurt – the best camp in Austria.” And it was.
Klagenfurt, for Cassidy, was home for the rest of the war and, thankfully, it was almost civilised. Red Cross parcels arrived regularly, the work was not unreasonable, concerts and cards parties kept the men entertained and any sport that could be played in a confined space was enthusiastically embraced.
Yet, still tragedy struck. In the winter before the war ended, American fighter planes bombed the camp, clearly believing it to be a German base. Two of the three rows of barracks were flattened. As Cassidy fled from one of them, he all too vividly remembers turning back and seeing a large water heater collapse and crush a colleague.
“We could hear the poor devil squealing, but by the time we got to him, he was dead,” he recalls.
Outside, three hospital patients had taken shelter in an emergency trench when a bomb landed just seven metres away. The blast blew the side out of the trench, burying the men in icy dirt as hard as concrete. Cassidy recalls hearing two of the men crying out in anguish, while a third, Alan Easson, a Queenslander, stayed calm and collected, seemingly happy that at least rescuers could regularly get cigarettes to him.
“It took hours to get them out. And you wouldn’t believe it, two of them survived, but poor Alan died the next day,” Cassidy said.
The raid killed eight people, including a fellow Victorian, Jeff Gilbert, from Richmond.
Because Klagenfurt was not akin to the horrors of previous camps, Cassidy rarely thought of escaping. But two colleagues were, nevertheless, desperate to do so and, because Cassidy was by now a trusted prisoner working for a local furniture removalist, they asked him for help. So, when Cassidy heard that a railway truck recently arrived in Klagenfurt was soon to be headed for Yugoslavia, he helped smuggle the men on board. Months later he learned the train had gone nonstop — to Berlin.
Information, or lack of it, was still a great frustration. Regular letters kept them up to date with political developments in Australia, and news of Melbourne Cups and grand finals. But any news of the war was censored.
Some of the men, nevertheless, managed to build a wireless that they concealed in a pit beneath the stove. Courtesy of the BBC, they were finally able to stay in touch with the turning fortunes of the war.
They could barely hide their delight from the guards when they first heard of the allied landing on France.
Then, as more positive news was broadcast, the sense of anticipation built. Eventually, word started to spread around the camp that the war was close to over — and that allied troops were on their way from Italy to free them.
Then one morning in May, 1945, the men simply woke up to find the gates wide open and the guards gone.
What do you do when you are finally free after four years? How do you celebrate?
Cassidy and a friend, Ben Ryan from Newcastle, walked into the city and went straight to a wine cellar where they had previously made deliveries as trusted workers. The owner gave them a bottle of wine and they went outside, sat in the shade of a tree and drank it. And, while they were doing that, the first of the English trucks and tanks rolled into Klagenfurt.
“I can’t remember any over the top celebrations, just the whiteness of their bread. After all the brown and black stuff that we had been eating, that’s what I remember the most,” he recalls.
Even though the men were free, they returned each night to the camp to sleep while the English made arrangements to repatriate them.
After five days, they flew to Bari, in Italy, for a brief stopover on route to Britain. The men helped pass the time by playing a cricket match against the “Poms” on a dirt pitch near the airport. With a sense of pride, Cassidy remembers top scoring with 35, and the Australians winning. They stayed two weeks and then flew on to London.
While waiting for transportation to Australia, Cassidy travelled to a small village outside Edinburgh to catch up with a family who had relatives in Stanhope. To his great surprise, the villagers came out and danced in the street and, before he left, gave him a sealed envelope. Inside was 11 pounds — a small fortune to him at the time. It was some consolation for missing the post-war celebrations back home.
Finally, on June 20, 1945, he boarded a ship for home. The ship crossed the equator on July 8 and arrived in Sydney on July 27, the day before his 33rd birthday.
He took a train to Melbourne and was then bussed to Royal Park, in Flemington Road, for processing — the same place where it had all started five years earlier.
Soon after the war, Cassidy and his wife Myra moved to the old gold mining town of Chiltern, in North-East Victoria, where they lived out their lives.
They had five more children — all boys. Their daughter Pam had seven children of her own.
Cassidy managed a brickworks and was actively involved in the town’s various sporting organisations.
On April 11, 1996, Bill and Myra received congratulatory telegrams from The Queen, the Governor General and the Prime Minister, John Howard, on their 60th wedding anniversary.
Cassidy died in hospital of a heart attack after a prostate operation in 2001, aged 89.
Recently my daughter Caitlin wrote a letter to a troubled teenage friend. She wrote of her grandfather’s worst war experiences and concluded:
“If he could survive all that, surely we can manage adolescence.”
The legacy lives on.