April
26
Categories 1944

Taken prisoner, shot from behind, then in the head

A German image of their attack on the Corinth Canal in Greece on the 26th April 1941. The planes carrying paratroops are seen from above.

As the British attempt to go to the aid of Greece came to ignominious end many young soldiers found that they had been involved in a very short war. Germany had invaded Greece on the 6th April, Greece had surrendered on the 23rd. Desperate attempts were made to evacuate the British and Commonwealth troops but nearly 14,000 were taken prisoner. Bernhard Harris was one of them.

Was he a rotten shot or was I just lucky? As I lay wounded on the ground, the German soldier kicked back my tin hat and aimed his revolver between my eyes. The gun was about 18in away; it should have been impossible for anyone to miss. I must have moved my head at the last minute and the bullet went in over my right eye. I remember a socking great thud at the back of my neck and passed out.

I’d joined the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars before the war as a musician, playing clarinet and piano in an army band, and come to Greece a long way round from Eastbourne bandstand. The regiment had dug in by the bridge at Corinth, waiting for the Royal Navy to evacuate us. At first light on the morning of 26 April 1941, the day we were due to leave, we were bombed.

It had happened before, but this was different. It started with large planes flying very high, dropping large bombs. Then there were smaller, more numerous planes dropping smaller bombs, and then there were hateful dive-bombers with frenzied shrieking bombs. In common with nearly everyone else in the regiment, all I had in defence was a small .38 revolver with six rounds of ammunition. When these were issued, we’d been told, quite seriously, not to waste them! If some soldier hopefully tried to bring down a bomber with a carefully-aimed pistol, we wouldn’t have thought it wasted …

The noise became more frightful and seemed to go on forever. After the lighter bombing came machine-gunning, and when heavy planes reappeared in the sky, we thought of more bombing and took what cover we could. After a slight lull I looked up and saw what appeared to be hundreds of paratroopers, in various colours, coming down and landing all round the bridge.

I made a beeline for my nearest cover, an old 30cwt truck. Under the truck I waited for someone to come within range of my .38 pistol and be fired at, until suddenly I was yanked out by my feet. Contrary to what I thought I’d been told, fighting troops are not in two tidy lines opposite each other, where it’s fairly easy to know who the enemy is and in what general direction to fire. With paratroopers landing all round you, tidy battle lines are as much things of the past as colourful cavalry charges. Perhaps if I’d been more war-conscious I would have worked out such things earlier, but I wasn’t and I hadn’t!

After being pulled out unceremoniously, I stood up and found I was facing two of them. They were loaded with weapons and necklaces of ammunition almost to their feet; small grenades hung from their waistbands, knives were strapped to their legs, and they held small lethal-looking machine guns. One of them kept his gun trained on me while the other relieved me of my modest pistol and six rounds, and searched me. They were probably expecting me to be as well-armed as they were, though I doubt I could have stood up with such a weight on me. Compared with them I was naked, and felt like it.

All the Germans found on me to excite them was a bunch of keys. I’d always collected keys when I came across them and most of these fitted various pianos I’d played. For some doubtless military reason, the Germans seemed to think that somewhere on the key ring would be the ignition key of the truck we were standing by. Despite my predicament, it amused me to think of them trying to start a truck, in the middle of a battle in Greece, with the key of some old NAAFI piano in England. Anyway, I knew that truck, an ancient Austin, would never start with a key. One had to mess about under the dashboard with loose wire for ages before the engine would so much as cough. The driver always said his lorry was made in England before trucks were invented!

When the Germans realized they were wasting their time, the one with the machine gun motioned me to move. I needed little persuasion. He pointed to a cave-like opening 200 or 300 yards ahead, the place where our cooks had been attempting breakfast before the heavens opened over Corinth. I started walking towards the cave, hands above my head as requested, in the usual Wild West manner. Fighting went on all round us and paratroops were still landing. It was very noisy and unpleasant, to say the least, and I never reached our cookhouse.

Walking, hands up, followed by the soldier with the gun, I was hit, stumbled and fell awkwardly. I’d been shot from behind. The bullet entered my left arm on the elbow and, we found out months later, exited from the front. Since that day I’ve said, and been told more often than I can count, that to be hit on your funny bone is not funny. I fell, with my left arm doubled up underneath me, and went out like a light.

When I came to, the fighting was still going on. It must have been about an hour later, because the sun was well up and shining in my eyes. I couldn’t move my left arm and since I still had my tin hat on, I used my right to pull the helmet over my eyes to shield them from the sun, hoping to see what was going on.

Obviously some German soldier saw this movement and came over to investigate. He stood above me and kicked the tin hat back. Now he screened the sun from me, I looked up and found I was staring straight down the end of his revolver. It looked a lot more efficient than the one I’d recently surrendered! The range couldn’t have been more than 15 to 18in. I’ll never know whether the tin hat – its crown on the ground allowing me to move my head – saved my life, or if the paratrooper was just a rotten shot.

Bernhard Harris as a young bandsman in the Queens Own Hussars, pictured in 1938.

Bernhard Hills memoir Barbed-Wire Blues: A Blinded Musician’s Memoir of Wartime Captivity 1940–1943 was first published in 2020. It is a remarkable story of resilience, of how a love of music and a sense of optimism and good humour helped him recover and then not only survive but actually thrive in the most adverse of circumstances.

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