World War 2 stories aren’t always about the bravery and triumph of D-Day, or the nail-biting escapes and defeats surrounding the evacuation of Dunkirk, or the fall of Malaya and Singapore.
Sometimes they involve inner struggle, the mental endurance exerted by men cocooned in prisoner of war camps - fighting material privations, waiting for news of the war outside, and wondering when it will finally end.
One such British POW was Coldstream Guards officer Roger Mortimer, whose letters have recently been published in the book, ‘Vintage Roger’.
Here, his son Charlie gives a taste of his father’s wartime experiences.
Article by Charlie Mortimer
My father Roger Mortimer was born in 1909 and educated at Eton and RMC Sandhurst.
He was subsequently commissioned into 3 Coldstream Guards, then stationed at Chelsea Barracks.
He reported for duty on the last Sunday in January, 1930.
For the following eight or so years he enjoyed a rather leisurely existence, the barracks being barely twenty-minutes’ walk from his parents’ house in Cadogan Square.
Official military duties beyond drill practice were minimal by today’s standards and much time was spent on the racecourse, in the hunting field or enjoying London’s club and nightlife.
Each officer was allocated a ‘soldier servant’ who took care of his personal requirements and could look forward to 20 or so weeks annual leave as well as most weekends off.
In the spring of 1938, by then a Captain, my father sailed with 3 Battalion for their Palestine tour during the ‘Arab Uprising’. A posting he clearly enjoyed.
Returning in 1939, and hoping for some long overdue leave, the outbreak of war in September put pay to those plans.
Instead, he found himself on manoeuvres, in command of a Searchlight Militia Battery, in Arrow Park, Birkenhead.
The following February, he was dispatched with the 1 Coldstream Guards as part of the British Expeditionary Force’s efforts in Northern France/Belgium in what was initially called ‘the Phoney War’. This was a period at the beginning of the war when military action in the western theatre was very limited.
Though, ‘Phoney War’ notions aside, some months later, Roger found himself fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the German advance on the Dyle Canal in Belgium.
The shell that exploded nearby him certainly wasn’t ‘phoney’ either - he was knocked unconscious and left for dead, reported incorrectly at the time as having been ‘killed in action’.
When he came to later, he found himself a prisoner of war (POW, or Kreigie), surrounded by German soldiers.
In his new status as POW No 481, he was destined to endure the next five long and challenging years behind prison walls.
Still a comparatively young man, this was the beginning of a period of incarceration that then had no known closing date.
Just a few weeks earlier, he had written home that he was “unlikely to get leave until the end of June” (1940), little imagining that instead he would, by then, be adapting to life as a prisoner.
In the way that best-laid plans can often go awry, this meant learning to live within the spartan conditions of Spangenburg Castle (Oflag IX A/H) - a prisoner-of-war centre for officers deep inside Germany - rather than relaxing at the Mortimer family home in Chelsea.
Fortunately, Roger had good mental habits he could rely on during his time in captivity.
My father was a very modest man and his post-war success as a racing journalist and author came not through calculated manipulation and jostling for position, but through being very good at what he did.
Above all, regardless of the circumstances, it was his humour, intelligence and decency, together with a quiet resigned acceptance of the status quo, that got him through.
In a letter written shortly after he was captured, he wrote:
“I suppose after thirty years of ease, a little discomfort is good for one but I hate never having a bath and having only one set of clothes.”
In the camp, he and Sir Fred Corfield, aka ‘Dungy Fred’, later a QC and an MP, concealed a radio they called ‘The Canary Bird’ in, among other imaginative places, a leather medicine ball.
This enabled them to share news from home, and it was quite an achievement for someone so hopelessly impractical.
Yet, his success at winning small personal battles like this to help keep his spirits up shouldn’t conceal the ongoing challenges he faced.
Adjusting to life as a prisoner required any number of admirable qualities such as courage, resilience and resourcefulness.
This, together with some less obvious ones such as tolerance, good manners and, probably the most important of all, friendship combined with loyalty.
In later life, the vast majority of my father’s closest friends were those he made while he was a prisoner.
As I grew up, I got to know many of these friends and thought of them as extended family.
I now look back on my father and his friends, and I remember with huge affection the shared modesty, yet also strength of character; the sense of fun and generosity; and the great spirit each of them possessed.
At my father’s thanksgiving service in 1992, his close friend and fellow Coldstreamer, Brigadier Raoul Lempriere-Robin observed:
“I always feel it is quite out of keeping for anyone who has not himself been a prisoner of war to expound upon the realities and consequences of life as such.”
For his part, this is what my father had to say on the matter in a letter to his friend Peggy Dunne in 1944:
“I think prison has done me very little harm and some good. I am now far better read, far less smug and conceited, far more tolerant and considerably more capable of looking after myself. One thing I have learnt, when times are really hard and difficult is that the veneer of birth, education etc is shown to be amazingly thin.”
And in circa 1985, to my sister:
“When I think of some really splendid friends who were killed in the last war, I wonder if they would reckon they had been swindled if they could see England as it is today. Incompetent politicians, corrupt trade unions, punks, muggers – charming. The only good result of the last war was getting rid of that dangerous lunatic Hitler.”
And in conclusion, and in his own words, as said to me on numerous occasions:
“There was never time as a POW that was quite as bad as the first term at my preparatory school (Wixenford, now Ludgrove).”
His thoughts related to my sister and I aside, ‘Vintage Roger’ is written around the roughly seventy letters my father wrote to the aforementioned Peggy Dunne. His correspondence to her was in response to letters that were sent to him, though hers, sadly, haven’t survived.
She was a married lady with three children whom he barely knew and who’d been persuaded to write to him by their mutual friend Ronnie Strutt (later Lord Belper, and also a Coldstreamer.) Clearly, Ronnie was not a great letter writer himself.
The letters span a period from just before my father was captured in the Spring of 1940 until late 1944, and paint a vivid portrait of life as a POW during the Second World War.
To pick up a copy of the just-published book ‘Vintage Roger’, click here.