A 101-year-old British Army Second World War veteran has been honoured by the Netherlands for his notable service – including escaping from two prisoner of war camps.
Lieutenant Colonel John Humphreys OBE Dl, a Chelsea Pensioner, received the Thank You Liberators Medal from Lieutenant Colonel Richard Piso, Military Attaché from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
During an event at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, he was recognised for his distinguished military service – particularly his service to the Netherlands.
Serving with the Royal Engineers and the Parachute Regiment between 1936 and 1977, Lt Col Humphreys had initially hoped to be posted to France but instead was sent to Africa from 1940 to 1942.
He spent time in the Western Desert, which was bombed three times a day, every day.
And it was in one of these bombing runs in Libya that he sustained a head injury.
"When I woke up, I was surrounded by Germans who looked down on me and said: 'For you Tommy, the War is over'," he said.
"I can still see them now if I close my eyes, two big fellas, looking down on me."
After receiving treatment for his injuries, he was transferred to a Prisoner of War camp in Italy, describing it as a "soul-destroying experience" – receiving daily rations of a pint of soup and small pieces of bread and cheese.
After getting hold of an Italian phrase book, which he studied intensively, he encouraged a bored sentry to converse with him and perfected his accent after three months.
Lt Col Humphreys received a Greek uniform, similar to the Italian uniform, from the Red Cross and, after some alterations, would pass for the Italian Army uniform worn at the camp.
One night after roll call, with his new uniform and near-perfect upper-class Italian accent, he marched two friends over to the sentry and said he was taking them for punishment.
After he was waved through, he and his friends hid until it was dark and then made a break for it.
The group avoided Italian and German soldiers by living off the land before making it back to Allied forces.
But, after four days of intense fighting for the Rhine Bridge in 1944, he was captured again by the Germans.
"We were sat outside in the ruins and the school was on fire. I didn't want to be a PoW again so I said to what was left of my stick: 'Shall we make a run for it?' They all agreed," he said.
"We crossed the road, dived into the cellars of a house and then proceeded to go over different garden walls.
"One bloke got stuck on some barbed wire on top of a wall. He shouted, 'John help me I'm stuck.' I put my hands on his equipment and pulled him towards me. There was a burst of machine-gun fire. I pushed him back and carried on.
"Eventually, we ended up in a tram depo. I remember thinking 'all I need to do is jump this wall and I we will be on the Rhine.'
"The tram depo was full of German soldiers. We all ended up hiding under a tram. A soldier came over and said in perfect English: 'If you don't come out, I will blow you out.' So, we crawled out."
By the next day he was back in a Prisoner of War camp, but this time in Germany.
He had no intention of staying and immediately set about escaping – having managed to conceal his Army-issued jack-knife before capture.
He took his opportunity and jammed the door of the cook house, chipping away at the cement holding the bars in place with his knife – mixing the ash and water into a paste to hide his efforts.
He ended up recruiting two officers and two soldiers to help him and they escaped through the window.
"We then walked through the night until we were close to the Rhine," said Lt Col Humphreys.
"As soon as it was dark again, we were on the barge looking for what we could find.
"There was a rowboat, we jumped in and shoved off and let the current take us down. We spent at least 12 hours in the boat and finished up in Nienhagen."
Here the group of escapees re-joined the British forces, marking the end of an incredible period in their military lives.