|Their first story of captivity in Germany and of life on a Nazi prison ship was told to the “Echo and Argus” by two Salvation Army Officers, Major Miss Doris Sharp and Major Miss Florence McKenzie, who returned to Rushden on Monday night after a memorable series of adventures.
Major Sharp was born at Wellingborough and her friend describes herself as “one of the London Scottish.” They worked together in London on missionary affairs and were at Ramsgate early in the war. Then, after spending a few weeks with Major Sharp’s sister also a Salvation Army worker at 6, Purvis-road, Rushden, they helped to escort 500 children to Australia under the Government’s evacuation scheme.
Leaving England on August 1st, 1940, they were the only Salvation Army officers among the 32 escorts on their ship a Polish vessel. They reached Australia safely after a voyage of 11 weeks and saw the children landed and billeted.
“There was a Scottish pipers’ band waiting for us,” said Miss Sharp, “and we had a marvellous welcome. We stayed in Australia three weeks and then began the return voyage on a cargo ship, which carried six more of the escort party.
Shelled by Raider
“We had been on the water three weeks and were in the South Indian Ocean, six days from Durban, when fast asleep at a quarter to twelve one night, we heard a crash. The first shell from a German surface raider a converted merchantman had fired the ship, and it was blazing.
Major McKenzie and Major Sharp
in Rushden on Tuesday
“Miss McKenzie was wounded. A shell hit our cabin, and instead of sending us sky-high it was a dud. Some of the plaster lodged in Miss McKenzie’s arm.
“We had to scoot as fast as we could. We had to get into the lifeboat, but it had been riddled and consequently it filled up with water. Then, when we were wondering what to do, the Germans came over in their little motor boat and told us to get into their ship, which we did up a rope ladder!
“When we first got on the raider the Germans did not recognise what we were. The captain, however, had been trained under Muller, who was captain of the ‘Emden’ in the last war, and when he realised who we were he sent men to do the work for us. We were well treated for a week, but the ship was then so full of British prisoners that they had to put us off before they continued with their work.
550 on Tanker
“They had captured a Norwegian tanker on which they still flew the Norwegian colours, and under the false flag this vessel had been used as a decoy. They put us on this little tanker, and then we were anything but all right.
“This prison ship was supposed to be for 38 men, and we were 550. Most were British merchant seamen, and some were Chinese who had worked under the British flag. All were off the one raider.
“There was little food, and it was bad. Three mornings a week at least we had flour and water. At midday we had soup that it was impossible to eat.
“At breakfast, apart from the ‘skilly arrangement,’ we had bread and margarine, but the bread was sour.
“On Christmas morning we had marmalade. They gave us a bar of chocolate that morning, too they pinched it off our ship, but still, we got it! There were cigarettes that morning for the ladies who smoked, and the men had a bottle of gin.
“There were nine women on the ship, seven of our party, one who was there before us, and one who came after she came on in the middle of the night up the rope ladder! We had two doctors of our own who had nothing to doctor us with and could only tell us what ought to be done if there had been any means of doing it.
“We were on that ship for 10 weeks, and then they landed us at Bordeaux. We had a week in camp with the men when they were not expecting anyone to come and had nothing prepared. We had coffee out of cigarette tins, and swede soup twice a day.”
“And you can put a question mark beside the coffee,” interposed Miss McKenzie.
“Then,” said Miss Sharp, “we went for six weeks to a Polish refugee camp. They took us from the men there. Then they put us in a train which we were in four days and nights 550 of us and took us to the north of Germany, where the men went to camps and the ladies to hotels.
“We had three beautiful days and then they gave us postcards to write home the first we were allowed to write. They were exceedingly good, the Red Cross women and the military and naval commanders; they were really very fine.
“They got a little house for us and got us fixed up, the naval commander leaving us the key of the house on condition that we kept the door locked. Unfortunately, however, the Gestapo caught us, and locked the door and took the key with them.
“On the third day we were there the military and naval commanders held a special meeting, and we were told that we should remain where we were. On the same day, however, the Gestapo came, and nine men marched nine women off to prison. These were policemen in uniform. Once I looked round to see if Miss McKenzie was coming, and a man promptly clapped his hand on my shoulder.
“We were with men in handcuffs. On parts of the journey they took us in prison vans, and they met us with police dogs at one station. We were 12 days in a State prison at Bremerhaven, and we had an air raid there three hours long.”
“We didn’t care if we got bombed,” said Miss McKenzie. “They were British. We saw the flares flash by the window.”
From Bremerhaven the two friends were taken to Bremen again in prison vehicles and were there for one night. They spent a week at Hanover and a night at Cassels. At Frankfurt they had “a cage each,” but in some of the other prisons there were nine in a cell without any sanitary arrangements. At Mannheim, Bruchsal (a small country place) and Stuttgart they were still treated like felons.
Just his Habit
“We knew we were aliens,” said Miss McKenzie, “but the point was that we should have had preferential treatment because we were non-combatants. They ordered us about as if we were prisoners, and at one place the old man said ‘When I come you all stand.’”
Miss Sharp: Another said “Heil Hitler. I beg pardon, it is habit.”
From Stuttgart they went to where they thought they were in heaven the internment camp in which they stayed for 18 months until their release. It was a Catholic lunatic asylum at Liebenau, Wurttemberg, where the lunatics occupied the ground floor and 500 internees all women the upper part of the building.
The internees all had British passports. They were of many types, however, and had been brought together from the occupied countries. Many were Jews.
Overlooking the Swiss Alps and Lake Constance, this was the best of the internment camps “the show place.” There were male guards, and the women were not allowed to make outside contacts. They knew nothing of the real war conditions in Germany.
“When the Germans were grumpy,” declared Miss McKenzie, “we knew things had gone wrong with them. Except for having lost our freedom and being away from our country, we could not complain. We were treated all right.”
After a time Red Cross parcels arrived each week. “We can never say enough for the British Red Cross,” said Miss Sharp.
Last November Miss Sharp and Miss McKenzie learned they were to be repatriated. Twenty from the camp were selected to take the place of Palestine Jews who could not be found. They left Germany at night and passed through Vienna. There were long train journeys extending over ten days and nights.
In Turkey the ladies passed into the care of British officials. They went through Syria to Palestine and on to Cairo, where they spent seven weeks. Their homeward voyage from a Middle East port took three months, and they reached England last Saturday. Colonel Mary Booth arrived at the same time, and all received an enthusiastic Salvation Army welcome in London.
“Answer to Prayer”
The two friends look well and declare that they have not suffered in health. They have slept in damp beds without catching cold, and they regard their preservation as marvellous.
“I put it down as answer to prayer,” said Miss Sharp.
“It is nothing short of it,” agreed her comrade.
Both draw a sharp distinction between the worst Nazi elements and the rest of the Germans. In Miss McKenzie’s view, “If they cleared Germany of the Gestapo system it would be a better country, because there are some fine people there.”
“One German Red Cross woman,” Miss Sharp related, “gave me a Bible because I had lost mine. Some of them were exceedingly kind, and we noticed that the majority of those who were kind to us had at some time been in England. Several of the officials had been prisoners during the last war, and they said that the English had treated them so kindly that they would like to return the compliment.”