Monday, 7 December 2015

German tank commander with a sense of humour

Local historian Harold Heys wrote the story of Darwener Peter Medd's war for the Bygones section of the Lancashire Telegraph. He is a regular contributor. Sadly, just a few days after the story was published. Peter passed away. He died quite suddenly in hospital with his family around him. This is a longer version of Harold's Bygones story.
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IT'S OVER 75 years since Peter Medd's first encounter with a German tank. But he remembers it clearly. Instead of the tank commander blasting the Brits' scout car into a million pieces he roared with laughter, swung round and disappeared, still laughing.

Peter, heading for his 97th birthday and as sharp as champagne, explained at his home in Darwen: "Understandable, really. The driver of our pile of junk rounded a corner and suddenly came face to face with this enormous beast. He crashed us into the nearest ditch.

"We lay there dazed, expecting to hear shells crashing around us, but all we could hear was this bloke laughing and ordering his driver to swing round and leave us amateurs to it. They say Germans don't have a sense of humour, but it saved our bacon."

Peter had an eventful war.  A native of Hull, he was out in the first wave with the East Riding Yeomanry and fought in the Dunkirk rearguard. He was captured as he walked back towards the beaches and tripped over a squad of sleeping Germans. Bit unlucky, he reflected.

Peter, who has lived in Westland Avenue for over 60 years, spent five years in Stalag VIIIB in Silesia, south west Poland. What does he remember of that time? Just the constant hunger, he says. He dropped from over 14 stone to seven.

As the Russians closed in, the PoWs were marched west by their captors and his gang joined what became known as "The Death March." Hundreds died from starvation and disease.

It didn't take long for Corporal Medd and a couple of pals to escape and by chance they came across an old tractor unit, full of fuel but abandoned as no one seemed to be able to start it. They did ¬– and embarked on a dangerous 200-mile journey west towards Prague.

The Russians had beaten them to it and they were holed up there for weeks till one day a US General arrived to pay his respects to his opposite number. When he returned to the American lines Peter and his pals joined the convoy on their trusty tractor.  That first meal with the welcoming Americans was, says Peter, the best he has ever tasted. After five years of potato soup, rotting vegetables and an occasional piece of bread it wasn't surprising.

Peter got back to England in the bomb bay of a Lancaster and became friendly with wife-to-be Kathleen as she drove him in an army ambulance for daily hospital treatment. He returned to his job in the civil service and they married the following year. In the early 1950s they moved to Darwen where Peter worked for Customs and Excise.

They loved living in Darwen and had two sons and when Kathleen was struck down with Alzheimers he nursed her for years till her death. He is nearly six foot, drives every day and enjoys daily lunches at Derwent Hall.

"Great company and good food," he says. But perhaps not quite as good as that memorable meal with the Yanks over 70 years ago ...

Peter looks back rather fondly to his days in the Army, even though most of the time he was a prisoner. He recalls that he might have got a quick commission. He was called into the office and was told he was being considered for promotion. "How much does your father earn?" he was asked. "What's that to do with it?"  he countered." Well, your army pay won't cover your mess bills," the officer explained. Peter told him he wasn't prepared to "sponge" off his father and settled for one and then two stripes.

The scout car was ancient enough but the uniforms they wore for training were even older. They'd been mothballed since the end of the Great War.

One thing that stands out was that the French hated the Brits. As our lads were being marched through northern France the locals would spit at them. They put out buckets of water - which the Germans kicked over. "We thought it was a rotten trick," said Peter. "But they explained that it was stagnant water." He got a very bad case of dysentery after drinking some.

And on the night that the news came through of the French capitulation he recalls that the French soldiers marching along with them cheered the news. The French officers were so disgusted that they moved over to be with the Tommies and stayed with them on the long march into captivity across southern Germany.

"Damn poor show after what we'd done for the Frenchies," said Peter.