Days of horror
Lt Col Chanan Singh Dhillon (retd), a prisoner of war during 
World War II, gives a first-hand account of life in a camp

Exhausted soldiers take rest in the jungles of Burma on the Eastern Front during World War II
Exhausted soldiers take rest in the jungles of Burma on the Eastern Front during World War II

A number of Indian prisoners of war (PoWs), kept in temporary camps in
A number of Indian prisoners of war (PoWs), kept in temporary camps in North Africa, were used as labourers to help in the German war effort File photos

DURING the World War II, a large number of Indian prisoners of war (PoWs) were kept in North Africa in temporary camps at Bengazi, Sirte, Agela and further west up to Tripoli, the capital of Lybia. The purpose of retaining majority of the Indian PoWs in North Africa was three fold. Firstly to use them as labour to help in the German war effort in the desert, secondly to make them join the INA legion, raised in Germany by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and thirdly to delay the registration of Indian PoWs as per Geneva convention as their registration would give them the rights of PoWs.

Gen Erwin Rommel, however, refused to use the INA legion on the war front.

Despite General Rommelís refusal to use the legion, the German authorities still continued to keep it intact. They also continued to enlist more Indian PoWs into the INA from the newly captured troops. There were even reports from various camps about coercing the prisoners to join the INA legion by keeping them on scanty food.

I was among the four-dozen PoWs, who were brought to the Agela camp from Benghazi in the first week of July 1942. We were assigned the job to load ammunition on trucks and fill diesel into tankers manually.

By afternoon we had developed blisters on our palms. For lunch we were given stale and dry chapattis, which we ate by soaking them in coffee. By 3.30 pm, nine of us stopped working and told the NCO through sign language that we are being forced to work against the rules of the Geneva Convention. The NCO threatened to shoot us. One of the sentrys fired in the air. Panicking some of our comrades restarted the work, and the rest of us had to follow suit.

At night the guards served us a mug of macaroni and coffee and we retired to sleep on the bare floor and in the same clothing, which we had worn since our capture by the enemy on June 29, 1942.

Next day we were again taken to the arsenal dump early in the morning. By midday the blood was oozing from blisters on our palms. Exactly at 3.30 pm the whole group again struck work. The NCO called the officer who threatened us to fall in line. We refused and held our ground.

Meanwhile, an army staff car came there. A young German subaltern and a senior officer got down. I stepped forward, explained our predicament and showed him our bleeding hands. The officer ordered the Italian officer to relieve us forth with and dispatch us to next camp. We were then taken to the Sirte PoW camp late at night.

Next afternoon we were told to reassemble. Two Indians, one in neat safari suit, wearing a turban and the other in a white cap, white kurta and dhoti, addressed us and called us to join the legionís struggle to free India from the British rule.

We asked them whether the German Government had agreed to air-drop us on the Indian soil to join the freedom struggle there. We found them fumbling for answers as it was clear that they had been tutored to play the part.

That sealed the discussion and with-in half an hour we were told to embark on a waiting military truck. We reached a big PoW camp at Tripoli near the harbour. The sanitary conditions in the camp were very unhygienic. Most of the PoWs were suffering from dysentery and anaemia.

Slowly the news trickled in that the British Army has stopped the German Army at Al-amein and stalled the German advance towards Cairo. The Americans had also declared war against the Japanese and Germans after an unprovoked attack on the Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in June 1942. There were also reports that American marines were on their way to the ports of Tunis and Algeria with-in next few weeks and the allied naval forces had become active in the Mediterranean.

On October 9, 1942, we were told to vacate the camp. There were around 3,000 Indian PoWs at the camp. The first lot of about 700 prisoners were made to embark in a frigate, hastily converted to carry passengers by providing wooden ladders for climbing down into the basements. The convoy of rag-tag frigates, big and small, sailed at mid-night to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

At about 4.30 pm on October 10, 1942, we were formed into groups to do offer our evening prayers. As we commenced our prayers there was a deafening bang, and we saw seawater gushing into the basement. The bang caused commotion and panic all round. We rushed to the only ladder to reach the deck. The ladder in the second basement had broken down due to unruly rush and only a few PoWs managed to reach the deck and remainder remained trapped in the basement.

As we emerged on the deck the ship captain sounded the signal to abandon the ship. We saw the Atalion guards and staff of the ship being issued with life-saving jackets. When we also asked for jackets the Atalions refused. A tussle developed to grab the life saving item. Some of us succeeded and Mohammed Shafi, alias Hafiz, and I jumped into the sea. Many followed suit. The non-swimmers tried to cling to us and we had to push them with difficulty. The hot chimneys of the sinking ship had made the seawater nearly boiling. We grabbed a broken wooden plank, Hafiz on one side and I on the other.

The sea had become very rough by the time the frigate sank. At about 8.30 pm the waves surged high and tossed us in the foaming sea. My companion lost control. As we emerged out of a high wave, Hafiz disappeared under the water leaving me alone to continue my fight against death. Within minutes of his disappearance a bright light focussed on me. When my saviours pulled me out I was completely drained of energy and was in a semi-conscious state. Had they been late by a few minutes I would have also met the same fate as my other comrades.

By a twist of fate our rescuers were Germans and the ship was torpedoed by a British sub-marine.