Fred ‘Sonny’ Cripps
Fred was born in Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire, 30 miles from the village of Waddesdon where the Cripps family had lived for hundreds of years. In 1937 he set sail for South Africa. Family information on why he did this isn’t clear. He was an accomplished musician and played in a band on a cruise ship, this seems to be the accepted reason why he went. However, I have sourced passenger lists from his voyage and he is listed as a passenger, not crew.
I grew up with a story from my grandmother. She always told me that I was named after a ship that my grandfather had been on in the war. Both my parents say they were unaware of this when choosing my name. My grandmother is no longer with us and so I’m still unsure of the truth, but Fred’s story threw up a massive surprise once I started my research.
Fred volunteered for the Union Defence Force on 1th April 1940 at the age of 25. He was assigned to 1st Brigade, South African Corps of Signals. This unit became part of the 5th South African Infantry Brigade and the 1st South African Infantry Division in August 1940. The unit was posted to Marsabit in northern Kenya as part of the East African Campaign, fighting against the Italian army and local tribal groups in Abyssinia and Ethiopia. In May 1941, the 5th South African Infantry Brigade were sent to Egypt to bolster the allied forces against Rommel’s push towards the border.
In Egypt, the brigade was assigned defensive duties at Mersa Metruh while the Allied forces prepared to lift the siege of Tobruk in Operation Crusader. The South Africans were assigned to protect the left flank of the 7th Armoured Division and were the most southerly of the allied forces as they pushed forward on the 18th November 1941 when Operation Crusader got underway. The various moves and counter moves between the Allies and Rommel’s forces culminated in a massive battle around Sidi Rezegh, an airfield south of Tobruk. Unfortunately for the 5th South African Infantry Brigade they were caught between both German and Italian armoured divisions as they attacked the 7th Armoured Division.
From Wikipedia on the battle on 23rd November 1941: By 1315 a major tank battle was underway between Axis forces and 7 Armoured Division. At 1555 – 1st SA Division were passing a signal to 5 SA Brigade when the brigade interjected “wait…..” Those were the last words received from the 5th SA Infantry Brigade. Some units retained some form of unity and managed to escape east through the New Zealand and Indian fronts. Against the German tanks, the South African infantry had no real means of defence with limited Anti-Tank capabilities, they were compelled to use 25-pounders in a direct fire role. By the time the panzers had broken into the rear of the brigade, the artillery had been subdued and all anti-tank capabilities had been destroyed. By nightfall, all that remained of 5 SA Brigade was “…little groups of disconsolate prisoners…..between frequent flares and the light of burning ammunition.” “The 5th SA Brigade had been caught by an overwhelming force in the open desert, quite unprepared and without inflicting any negligible damage on its opponents.” The battle had resulted in a victory for the Afrikakorps, but the 7th Armoured and 1st South African Divisions had not been annihilated and the loss of the 5th SA Brigade was not enough to set off the loss of almost 50% of the Afrikakorps tanks which went into battle. At 0100 on 24 November, Brigadier Brink reported to XXX Corps that 5th SA Brigade had “ceased to exist as a fighting formation.”
Fred was captured on that day as his unit was overwhelmed. The heavy cost of the day’s fighting to Rommel’s forces earned it the nickname ‘Totensonntag‘ or ‘Death Sunday’ in English.
This map has been used with the kind permission of Akhil Kadidal. It is taken from his book The Road to Tobruk. If you have an interest in learning more about the North Africa campaign and his other work on World War II then please take a look at his page which has a wealth of information with more excellent maps to help understand how engagements took place.
From Sidi Rezegh, Fred was marched across the desert to the port of Benghazi in Libya. On the 8th December 1941 he was loaded, along with around 2000 other allied POWs, on to an Italian supply ship named the MV Sebastiano Veniero, the ship in the picture below.
If you look closely on the side of the ship you can see the words ‘Jason – Holland’. The ship was originally named the Jason and it was captured in Holland and renamed. This is the ship my grandmother told me I was named after.
The ship began its journey to Italy, but on the afternoon of 9th December 1941 in a storm, while sailing close to the south coast of Greece, it was torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Porpoise. There is speculation on whether or not the commander of the sub knew there were POWs on board, however, my view is that the ship would need to have been sunk regardless so as to prevent it taking vital supplies back to Rommel’s forces. Around 300 POWs were killed when the torpedoes hit, but the ship did not sink. The Italian crew abandoned the ship, however a German merchant seaman stayed and worked with the POWs and their officers to run the ship aground on the shore of Greece. The picture below, taken by a German officer in Greece, shows the ship at the moment it was run aground at Methoni.
For a detailed account of what happened to the Jason take a look here.
Once the POWs had managed to get off the ship they were faced with a force of Italian and German troops and swiftly re-captured. Fred then made his way to Pilos, Kalamata and eventually Patras, where the camp was called ‘Dysentery Acre’. Many of the POWs suffered horribly with exposure to the winter weather and the illnesses they already had or contracted.
Fred spent several months in Greece until transported to Italy in May 1942. During this time he was ill with Rheumatic Fever due to the exposed conditions in the Greek camps. However he was well enough to take part in some sabotage of a factory he was working in and was fined 6,000 lira by his Italian captors. In Italy, he spent time in Camps 85 Tuturano, 65 Bari, 70 Monteurano, 75 Torre Tresca. While in these camps he was mainly put to work in farming and labouring. Then, with Italy’s surrender imminent, the Germans moved Allied POWs out of Italian camps. Fred was then moved to Stalag VIIIC Sagan in southern Poland some time in September 1943.
From there he was moved to Stalag VIIIB / 344 in Lamsdorf (Lambinowice, southern Poland) in October 1943.
While in Stalag VIIIB he was assigned to a number of work camps which were satellites to the main camp. The questionnaire he completed once he was repatriated via England in May 1945 refers to the following Arbeitskommado or work camps:
Oct 1943 to Apr 1944 he worked as a Labourer in power station in a place called Beuthen (modern day Bytom, near Katowice the main city in the region.
Apr 1944 to Jan 1945 he worked in a coal mine at a place he calls Schwartes Meer. I haven’t been able to identify exactly where this is, but it is likely to be somewhere in the Katowice/Niwka/Dumbrowa industrial and mining area. The conditions in these mines were very dangerous and POWs were generally used as labourers to support the Polish miners. This means they did the worst and most physically demanding jobs.
Fred’s time in Stalag VIIIB came to an end in January 1945. As with many other Allied POWs, he took part in the Long Marches which were during the winter of 1944-45 when POWs were marched out of their camps and into Germany to prevent liberation by allied forces. He started marching from Lamsdorf in southern Poland on 22nd January 1945. There were two marches from the camp. One went through southern Poland and into eastern Germany via Gorlitz and Dresden ending up south of Berlin. The other march took a route through northern Czechoslovakia into Bavaria to a camp near Nuremburg. I’m fairly sure that the route through Czechoslovakia was the one he took due to comments in his Liberation Questionnaire where he tells of a soldier who died on the march in central Czechoslovakia. These marches by thousands of POWs took place in the depths of a European winter in appalling conditions. Often they slept in the open, went without food and were subject to appalling treatment by their guards, including the execution of those who couldn’t carry on. For a detailed account of South African troops experiences on these marches you can find it here. In his Liberation Questionnaire Fred detailed “The appalling conditions and treatment of men who marched from Poland to Germany from Jan till Apr 1945.” He also detailed the death of a man called Jack Letwin on the march through Czechoslovakia: “There were many cases of both sick and exhausted prisoners who received no treatment whatever, but I am not able to give details as required. The above case was caused through neglect on the part of our MO on the march.”
Fred finally arrived home in Durban during the summer of 1945. He married my grandmother on 22nd September 1945 and was discharged from the army on 27th November 1945.
I never knew my grandfather, unfortunately he died in 1958 when my father was 10 years old. His untimely death also took a big toll on my grandmother who burned all his belongings from the war as she firmly believed what he had gone through was responsible for his death.
As with my other grandfather, the journey of uncovering Fred’s story has had a big impact on me. The times when he could easily have died were many, and I am grateful that he had the good fortune and the resilience to make it home when so many others didn’t.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. If I can help in any way to assist you in your own research, or if you think you may have further information that would help me, then please get in touch using the info on the front page.
Fred’s War Timeline
|15/04/1940||Enlisted – Durban|
|05/12/1940||Nairobi, 1st Brigade South African Corps of Signals. East Africa campaign|
|03/05/1941||Arrived in Suez with the 5th South African Infantry Brigade, 2nd SA Infantry Division|
|01/06/1941||Mersa Matruh, Egypt|
|18/11/1941||Operation Crusader, relief of Tobruk|
|23/11/1941||Tottensonntag ‘Death Sunday’. 5th South African Brigade wiped out by Rommel’s armoured push. Taken POW|
|30/11/1941||March / transported to Benghazi|
|08/12/1941||Loaded on to SS Jason (MV Sebastiano Veniero), transport ship|
|09/12/1941||SS Jason torpedoed by British submarine HMS Porpoise. Cape Methoni, Greece|
|10/12/1941||Recaptured by Italian / German troops in Greece|
|12/12/1941||Marched to Pilos, Greece|
|14/12/1941||Truck to Kalamata|
|15/12/1941||Train to Patras|
|11/02/1942||Transferred to POW camp 75, Bari, Italy. Transit camp.|
|01/04/1942||POW Camp 65 Gravina, Italy|
|23/06/1942||Transferred to POW camp CC 85, Tuturano, Italy|
|01/08/1942||Transferred to POW Camp 70 Monturano, Italy.|
|01/05/1943||Transferred to POW Camp 75, Bari Italy. Transit Camp|
|10/06/1943||Transferred to POW camp 75, Torre Tresca, Italy. Transit camp near Bari|
|15/09/1943||In Stalag VIIIC Sagan, unsure of dates. Documents show transfer from there to VIIIB / 344 Lamsdorf|
|17/10/1943||In Stallag VIIB / 344 Teschen, Lamsdorf, Poland|
|24/10/1943||Work group E727. Labouring at a power station in Mechtal Beuthen, Poland|
|01/04/1944||Working in a coal mine in Schwartes Meer, Silesia, Poland|
|18/01/1945||Long March into Germany via north Czechoslovakia|
|22/09/1945||Married Nana in Durban|
|27/11/1945||Discharged from army. Kings Park, Durban|