Dresden: A Survivor’s Story

Winchester, Friday 1st May 2015

Victor Gregg was born in London in 1919 and joined the army in 1937, serving first in the Rifle Brigade in Palestine and the Battle of Alamein, and then in the Parachute Regiment at the Battle of Arnhem. He was repatriated in 1946 and now lives in Winchester.

Victor has written a trilogy about his life: King’s Cross Kid, Rifleman, and – to be published in September 2015 – Soldier, Spy. He has also written a short ebook about his experiences in Dresden during the firebombing.

You can read an extract from Dresden, A Survivor’s Story below.

Dresden, A Survivor’s Story

Victor Gregg with Rick Stroud

Chapter One: A Note of Remembrance

I wasn’t new to murder and bloodletting, I had enlisted two years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. By the time I was twenty one I had taken part in one major battle and various smaller ones. I had been in fights where the ground in front of me, as far as the eye could see, was littered with the remains of what had been, a few hours earlier, young men, full of the joy of living, laughing and joking with their mates, these young men were the enemy, or at least, had been.

As each year of the war went by the fighting got more ferocious, new weapons were introduced and fresh young men became the targets. Through all this I somehow remained a sane person. I returned to England in late 1943. After fighting in North Africa and then Italy I rebadged as a member of the 10th Parachute Regiment, bound for the shores of Britain.

Home in England and lauded right left and centre as a hero, which I knew I wasn’t. I got married to a girl I had met on my embarkation leave way back in 1937. I was full of beans with not a care in the world, I had experienced so much that I thought of myself as indestructible. After all, I was still in one piece, whereas a whole load of the lads I had joined up with were now laying doggo under a stinking desert sun.

And then, as if it was all part of some great plan, in September 1944 I was hurled from a plane with a few thousand other men, the majority of whom were much younger than myself and had never fired a shot in anger. We were to fight the battle of Arnhem. For the next seven days the small fields and hedge-grows of the battlefield became strewn with the dead and mangled bodies of British and German young men, all going to their final resting place in the belief that they were offering themselves up for sacrifice for the good of mankind. It all left me unaffected, my mind was conditioned by military life to accept that killing your fellow man was normal.

In the end we lost the battle and the lucky ones that survived were marched into captivity laughing and joking, not a bit downhearted. The fact that the fields through which we were marched away had become one huge cemetery didn’t cause me, or the lads with me any undue concern. We thought that this was what war was all about – men killing men, each of us determined to be the last man standing.

Along with another small group of the lads captured at Arnhem I landed up at an arbeitslager, a work camp in a small insignificant German village to the south of the beautiful city of Dresden. The work consisted of cleaning the streets, working in the fields pulling crops from the ground and sometimes shoveling coal for the railways.

We had all volunteered for this work to get away from being shut up in one of the huge POW camps. Even so I made two unsuccessful attempts to escape, after which the camp commandant decided it was time to teach me a short, sharp lesson. He sent me and another bloke, my mate Harry, to work in a soap factory about eight kilometers from the camp. We had to walk there and back every day. This was the beginning of February when the snow came from the skies in the shape and size of dinner-plates, so he gave us each a pair of wooden clogs which later on would save my life.

Eventually the two of us managed to sabotage the factory by causing a short circuit in the electrical system. The whole place caught fire and the building collapsed in a crescendo of smoke and flames.

After that we were marched in front of the officer in charge of the police of Dresden. This smart official told us that our fate was out of his hands. There were strict penalties for sabotage, we were to be taken to a place where we would wait our turn, along with other poor sods, to be executed. For the first time since I had joined the army I felt the floor moving.   This sod was going to have the pair of us shot. Harry didn’t seem to care, ‘Something will turn up’ says he, and something did.

~

Chapter Two: The Grim Truth

Next we were taken by car to a building that stood in a paved square right slap bang in the center of Dresden. Then we were frog-marched up a set of stone steps under a brick built archway, and thrown into a long wide room which extended the length and breadth of the building, it was full of prisoners. Above the heads of these luckless men was a large domed roof made of large panes of glass. The place was so crowded that at first glance it seemed impossible to find a place to sit. In the center of this den of iniquity were two huge forty gallon drums almost full to the brim with excrement, the place stank to high heaven. The other prisoners seemed to have given up any hope of survival, they were a listless and forlorn bunch. The pair of us refused to bow our heads and it wasn’t long before we were taking the mickey out the situation. Harry went walkabout and discovered two Americans who were in for looting and like us were waiting execution. The yanks they didn’t seem to be too happy about the situation, they told us that the Germans took thirty prisoners away every morning and that’s the last anyone ever saw of them.

It must have been well past midday when we first entered this hellhole and soon after we arrived a trolley was pushed into the room by a couple of guards. The yanks told us that this was the main meal of the day. The inmates fed themselves by putting their open hands into the large container to scoop out with whatever concoction had been served up. Harry and I decided that we weren’t that hungry and gave the offering a miss. Day turned into night, and with a push here and a shove there the pair of us managed to claim a small portion of the floor to ourselves All that was left was to have a kip and await developments on the morrow.

This was the evening of the 13th of February 1945, a date of infamy if ever there was one.   At about ten-thirty that night the air-raid sirens started their mournful wailing, and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The people of Dresden thought that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford in England then, in return, Dresden would not be bombed. The sirens stopped and after a short period of silence the first wave of pathfinders were over the City dropping their target flares.

From inside the building we saw the flares through the glass cupola, filling the night sky with blinding light, like enormous Christmas trees they floated to earth dripping the burning phosphorus onto the streets and buildings.

As if in slow motion the inmates of the prison began to realise that they were trapped in a cage that stood every chance of becoming a mass grave. The guards had scarpered to what they believed to be a safe hideaway. The had locked and chained the doors from the outside and to cap it all the heavy pulsating throb of hundreds of heavy bombers began to fill the air and getting nearer and louder by the second.

Harry who had been chatting to the two yanks suggested that it might be a good idea to kick some of the other lesser types away from the wall and for the four of us to get down as low as we can as a means of survival if the worst happened. The wailing of the petrified prisoners who had experienced bombing in other German cities got some of the others in such a state that they were banging on the doors and shouting and crying to be let out, naturally to no effect. As I said before, the guards had all hotfooted it.

The flares were still wending their way to earth when the first of the bomber streams flew over the city, dropping thousands of incendiaries along with which came the first of the bombs, a whole string would hit the ground, one after the other in rapid succession like a drum roll and through the glass cupola the night sky changed from a bright whiteness to a dull red glow that danced, getting brighter and brighter before fading and dying. The bombers passed over in a never ending stream.

By now it was bedlam inside the prison. Then, without any warning, about four incendiaries burst through the heavy glass roof, breaking it into fragments and shredding the luckless men under the cupola into pieces. The phosphorous clung to the bodies of the injured men turning them into human torches. Nothing could be done to help them, it was impossible to extinguish the flames, and so the screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of the other prisoners. Thanks to Harry the four of us were away from the glass roof and close to the wall, alive and uninjured.

Not for long though.   The raid had by now been in progress for the best part of thirty minutes and it must have been one of the last wave that dropped the blockbuster that landed outside of the building, blowing in the whole of the wall.   All I could remember was being picked up by a giant hand which threw me over to the far corner of the building, nearly fifty feet. The next thing I knew I was being covered in brickwork and rubble and then everything went dark.

~

Victor Gregg features in Tony Robinson’s Victory in Europe, which premieres on Discovery Channel at 9pm on VE Day, the 8th of May. You can also watch an exclusive, extended interview with Victor here.

Dresden: A Survivor’s Story is available at Amazon.co.uk.

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