Title KEN BLAKE - INTERVIEW Description
I was in the army for 8 years and 256 days.
I joined the Territorial Army with 7 comrades on the 1st March 1938 because my local army barracks had a very good billiard table and bar. When war was declared me and my comrades were alarmed because we had joined up mainly to play billiards!
In 1939 I was sent to France with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) as part of the 4th Battalion of the Royal East Kent Regiment to hold back the advancing German forces. It was the first battalion to land in France. The battle raged through France until we came to the episode of Dunkirk. My squad was one of the last out of France. As the troops came into Dunkirk some were appointed to the defensive shield round the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and I was one of them. This was to allow the troops to escape from the beaches. When the signal came for us to leave it was too late to get on the boats and we were told to get out the best way we could. We decided to go up the coast and came across a Renault car. We managed to get it going and all piled in. We finally escaped from the port of Le Havre on the last destroyer leaving occupied France. Only a quarter out of the 800 in my battalion got away.
When I came home there was no stopping. We were re-trained and re-equipped and were then sent to Malta where I was part of the defence of the island during the siege. If we had lost Malta we would have lost control of the whole of the Mediterranean. It was a wonderful combined effort by the navy, army and air force. I had a job servicing Spitfires. For my efforts during this campaign I received the Maltese George Cross. The George Cross is the highest medal in the land except for the Victoria Cross.
The Battle of Malta was over and we moved on again to North Africa where, to my surprise, I became part of Sir Winston Churchill?s 234 commando brigade. Our objective was to capture the Aegean Islands just off the coast of Turkey. I was on HMS Eclipse on the way to the Aegean Islands when it struck a mine and the front end of the ship was blown up. Hundreds of the lads were drowned but I had had a tip that there were lots of mines in the sea and it was safest to stay at the stern of the boat so I survived. I took my heavy clothing off, climbed onto the railings and managed to get hold of a cork life belt. There was a young fellow sitting on the railings and he was screaming. He?d been blinded by the blast and I could do nothing for him. That haunts me even today. In those circumstances the golden rule is every man for himself; so I jumped. I didn?t realise it was 60 feet above the water. I hit the sea with a wallop. There were hundreds and hundreds of lads around me badly burned. The whole sea was on fire. I had a bit of common sense and realised I had to get out of there as quick as I could so I swam and swam for 5 hours and was finally picked up just as dawn was breaking. I was in hospital for a bit and then rejoined my own unit.
A powerful battle took place and I was captured by a German commando and put on a ship bound for Athens. From there we were loaded onto a cattle truck and transported right across Europe to Germany and a hard labour camp in Leipzig. On that journey, 3,000 of the lads died.
I survived the labour camp right through to the end of the war. At this point myself and 4 of my comrades decided to escape. It was a terrible night and the German guards didn?t like standing out in the pouring rain. We got under the wire and made a run for it. The objective was to make it to the American 8th Army at Gera which was south of Leipzig. We travelled only at night sleeping during the day. Half way, we lost one of the fellows. He was so ill we had to leave him. We were almost at the end of our tethers. We had no food and our clothes were in rags, but then we came to a road and saw an American tank. A couple of G.I.s came racing out thinking we were Germans so we put our hands up and started shouting that we were British POWs. They took us in charge. I was in a terrible state. I had tuberculosis and weighed 3? stone. They were so kind to us. They moved us to another American base and I was flown straight back to England.
On arrival in England I was placed immediately into an army hospital to recover. However I did not. My injuries and experiences, such as the labour camp, were severe and preventing a full recovery. So the doctors decided to take a sample from my lung to investigate why. When they did this they found diesel oil from the boat that sunk in the bottom of my lung! After intensive treatment I made a recovery back to full health. I had 8 years in hospital altogether.
I was discharged from the forces in Dover Castle in Kent, and was given a pension of ?2 a week to live on, so I came home but was still very ill. After a few days my mother suggested that I go and visit relations in London, so I did. I went and stayed with them for a few days and whilst I was there I met a girl called Ruby. Ruby worked in Sainsbury?s and everybody knew her. Within 3 months of meeting her we were married. She cared for me and got me back to full health.
Interview by Alex Brook
Keywords Dunkirk, Malta, Aegean Islands, POW, George Cross Collection Overseas Battle Fronts Place Dunkirk Year 1940 Conflict World War Two File type image Record ID number 73
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