Merchant Seamen as Prisoners of War
The Man from Timbuctoo
Article from Daily Express, 10 Feb 1943
By Montague Lacey
|Peter de Neumann||The King was surprised when pinning the George
Medal on Second Officer Bernard Peter de Neumann, 25-year-old hero of the Merchant Navy,
to hear that it had been won two years ago.
"There was no time to tell the King the story." said Neumann after a recent investiture.
Here is the full story told for the first time - another epic of the sea - and the Merchant Navy. Neumann is just back in England from Timbuctoo, in what was Vichy [French] territory. He lived there for months with 51 other white seamen in a mud-walled hut eating little else but rice and wearing a skirt he made out of his bed sheet.
|Outbound, Ship Bombed by German Planes|
|Chapter 1||It opens in February 1941. Neumann's ship, bound for South America, was bombed by three German planes off the north-east coast of England. For his bravery during this action Neumann was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd's Medal.|
|Homeward Bound, Ship Torpedoed and Sunk|
|Chapter 2||Neumann's ship does its repairs at sea and
continues the voyage to South America. Coming back to England, his ship was
torpedoed 1000 miles out in the Atlantic.
"The U-boat fired two torpedoes at us, and when we were in the boats surfaced and fired 25 shells at us. We all escaped, but the first shell, went 10 feet over the top of my boat loaded with men."
"We were adrift for five and a-half days, living on biscuits and water. Then an American ship picked us up. They were grand fellows, and treated us very well."
Survivors Served in Cruiser for Three Weeks
|Chapter 3||"Some hundreds of miles off Capetown we
were taken aboard an armed British merchant cruiser, although the American skipper wanted
to take us on to Capetown." Neumann, his captain, and seamen served aboard the armed
cruiser for three weeks - although they were survivors.
"We stood-to many times at action stations, and we liked it," he said. Then they were landed at Freetown. Neumann heard that a ship was leaving for England the next day and an officer was wanted. He volunteered and was signed on. He had nothing but his working sea-suit.
Ship from Freetown Attacked by Vichy French
|Chapter 4||The next day Neumann's ship was stopped by a
French sloop. The Frenchman signalled 'Turnabout". The British ship
refused, the captain calling through a megaphone that they were going on. The French sloop
swept the decks of the ship with a machine-gun.
"When they saw we weren't frightened and were going on, they opened up with their big gun. Shells were going right through our ship," said Neumann, so we decided to take to the boats, lay off and see what happened."
Camp at Konakry
"Eventually we were picked up and taken as prisoners to Konakry, a two hour trip. Native guards marched us to the camp in the swamps. We were wet through, and they gave us no food until the evening."
"We were there for two months, crowded ten men in a mud hut. It was the height of the rainy season, and it poured through the grass roof. All that time we only had rice to eat and were continually drenched. The sanitary conditions were worse than the Black Hole of Calcutta."
"We had a path 30 feet long and seven feet wide for exercise. We were allowed one wash a day and the 52 of us had to get it over in five minutes."
"We were not allowed to get in touch with anyone from the day we were captured in June until we arrived in Timbuctoo on October 10, 1941. Every day men fell ill with malaria and dysentery. I must say that the French medical men did all that they could and were very kind."
Skirts from Bedsheets
|Chapter 5||Neumann was a prisoner at Timbuctoo for ten
months. He never wants to hear the place mentioned again. He and the other
British merchantmen were put in a mud building. Round it was a 10ft high mud wall.
Native sentries, with loaded rifles and fixed bayonets, patrolled inside the wall.
The white men lived on rice and cous-cous (a sort of coarse bran). They soaked this in goat meat gravy, but they never had any meat.
"We had no books to read - nothing to do for ten weary months", said
Neumann. "We started stupid arguments to pass away the time. Sometimes we had one glass of water a day, and then we could not wash".
"We all grew beards. There was nothing to shave with. Our uniforms wore out, so we took the sheets off our beds and made rough skirts out of them. That was all we had to wear. We did not get any Red Cross parcels, although they tried to get them through to us."
"I blame the Vichy French police for the treatment we received. We looked upon them as Gestapo agents under the control of the Germans. We were released on December 12 and handed over to the British."
|Chapter 6||Neumann is to marry on Saturday. Then he goes back to sea again.|
Return to Merchant Navy: Prisoners
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