Lockdown Medal

by Graham Kirby


W e might feel that we deserve a medal for being in lockdown for several weeks. It is unlikely one will ever arrive.

Neither did one arrive for those imprisoned for much more extended periods in prisoner of war camps during the Second World War.

For Cyril Kirby, my late father, the position was rectified some forty years after the war had ended, when an 'unofficial, retrospective' medal arrived in the post. It was a gift from his friend Albert Tyler, with whom Cyril had shared Red Cross parcels for two and a half years in the Sulmona prisoner of war camp in Italy.

The medal's accompanying leaflet states:

'... it indicates the veteran was deprived of freedom and if worn in conjunction with service medals should give the observer an indication of the particular hardship endured by the wearer.'

That hardship began as Cyril was driving an army truck towards a crossroads where what appeared to be a 'red cap' military policeman (actually a German fifth columnist soldier) was directing traffic onto the road to Tobruk — and into a trap. The convoy had been targeted as Rommel's army needed transport and petrol.

Extracts from Cyril's memoirs record:

Sulmona was a big camp of concrete huts built inside several large compounds, with a separate block for the guards.

In due course, Red Cross food parcels began to arrive, and these made all the difference to our lives. If the supply was good, it was one parcel each, otherwise one parcel between two.

The British parcels arrived in boxes of cardboard tied up with string.

The emptied boxes provided fuel for cooking, and the string for various other purposes — including making a clothesline over our beds.

The average Red Cross parcel contained: a tin of condensed milk, a tin of meat and veg or similar, sugar, tea or coffee, a small tin of cream cheese or a round packet of ditto, margarine, jam, another tin of meat or fish, chocolate; and variations of the above.

A tin of fifty cigarettes (Woodbines or Gold Flake, etc.) came separately.

We built up a library within our room by pooling any books we brought with us, together with those received via the Red Cross. They were all eagerly read. I have a list of two hundred and two books read over my time in captivity.

I had also brought some hairdressing gear so I could get my own hair cut and that resulted in me becoming the unofficial barber.

One day, we heard that Italy had capitulated, and, that night, we cut a hole in the wire fence at the rear of the camp. Albert and I, and a number of others, left the camp for good — and, so, nearly two and a half years behind the wire ended in the darkness of an early evening.

Seven weeks of freedom in the hills ended in our re-capture. We were transferred to other German camps until eventually we were handed over to the Americans at the end of the war.

On arriving home, the hit tune played for us was, 'Don't fence me in'.

Graham Kirby is a resident of Kidlington village, Oxfordshire.
Readers interested in acquiring a replica of the prisoner of war medal can find further information about it here.