anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 13 - POW Marriages

Charles Fraser/Johanna Wirth

When Italy capitulated to the advancing Allied armies and signed an armistice, many "evades" took advantage of the general confusion, to leave their camps and Corporal Charles Fraser of the 2/24th Infantry Battalion was one of the 420 Australians who chose to go for Switzerland and was successful in getting there.

He was sent to the small village of Turbental where Johanna Wirth was born and there they fell in love.

After almost exactly a year in Switzerland, the French border near Geneva was freed by the Americans and nearly all the British POW were repatriated including most of the Australians.

Charles Fraser was discharged from the AIF soon after his return and resumed life on his farm in the Otway Ranges, in the general area of Colac Victoria. It was an isolated farm, somewhat primitive by Swiss standards,with the nearest neighbour more than a mile away.

But Charles could not forget the girl he had left behind in Turbental and he and Johanna decided to marry. Johanna came out to about the furthest place she could imagine from Turbental on the "Oriana" with some other war brides and brides-to-be (but none from Switzerland apart from herself).

Charles and Johanna were married at a civil ceremony in Melbourne in 1947.

It was a somewhat lonely voyage on the "Oriana" and an isolated life on the farm at Gellibrand, but Johanna quickly adapted herself to local conditions, although it was probably as much of a culture shock to her as arriving in Switzerland had been to Charles.

They had two children a son Edward, and a daughter Patricia.
Brian Smith/Roesli Climens

Brian Smith was a private in the 2/24th Battalion and was taken prisoner at Tobruk in 1941. He escaped for 2 days, was re-captured and attempted a second escape from Benghazi. After being at large for 6 days, without food or water with a day temperature of around 118 degrees F., he was picked up by a party of Bedouins and handed over to the Germans.

He was shipped over to Italy and was in several camps, being in one of the work camps in the Vercelli area when Italy capitulated and the 170 members of the camp walked out.

After a number of usuccessful attempts to get to the Swiss border, Smith met and joined the group lead by George Rhodes which finally achieved success (see Story of George Rhodes 2/24th Inf. Bn. George Rhodes omits from his account that he volunteered to be anchorman to lower his colleagues over an ice precipice, and made a perilous jump down to them unaided).

Roesli Climens, an operatic soprano of the Lausanne and Vienna Opera, left Vienna in 1937 for a contract with the Lausanne Opera and was advised to remain in Switzerland because of the political unrest in Austria. Its annexation by Hitler justified these fears and sealed her chance of return to her parents and closed the book of happy Viennese memories. Marooned in Switzerland, she remained with the Opera House and augmented her income with private concerts and language lessons, as she was an accomplished linguist.

She met Brian Smith when he and two other Australian "evades" sought instruction from her in the German language. Romance blossomed during discussions in halting German and English upon the folly of "evades" marrying as Smith expressed himself in no uncertain terms upon the dangers of racial inter-marriage and his instructress was an avowed man-hater. The argument was settled nine months later, when the couple married in Lausanne, three days before the general repatriation of all Australian "evades" from Switzerland back to Australia.

Roesli Smith/Climens travelled to Australia as a war-bride via Paris, London, Scotland and Liverpool and the couple set up home in Geelong, Victoria.

While Roesli had ambitions to follow her operatic career in Australia, those ambitions were not fulfilled and the couple seperated. She returned to Europe and Brian Smith moved from Geelong to the Mildura area and dropped out of sight.

He is thought to have remarried there.

Bill Rudd/Caty Oosthoek

When Caty Oosthoek and her mother left Holland in their car to drive to Geneva where they had rented a holiday apartment for the winter sports season, they were puzzled by the large number of British cars travelling in the opposite direction through South Holland and Belgium. At first they thought there must have been a big regatta somewhere along the coast, but as the intensity of the traffic was increased by growing numbers of young men on bicycles with packs on their backs, they began to realise that some sort of mobilisation was taking place.

By the time they had driven through the Vosges Mountains and crossed the French/Swiss border at Geneva, they knew that Hitler had invaded Holland and that Neville Chamberlain had issued his ultimatum on Poland.

World War II had begun.

But what they did not in the very slightest suspect, was that before their planned stay was up, that neutral Holland who had allowed the former German Kaiser to reside at Doorn, near Urecht, in the beautiful rolling country just south of the Zeider Zee, Holland would also have that long-standing neutrality brutally torn from her.

The infamous attack on Rotterdam on May 5, 1940, meant that they could not return to their native country and they would have to stay as stranded tourists in Switzerland for the entire period of the war.

When AIF "evade" VX 39694 Spr Bill Rudd, 2/7th Field Company RAE, who had been promoted to Sergeant during his stint as a ski instructor in the Swiss "camp" of Adelboden, was seconded to the British Consulate in Geneva for special duties, he first stayed near the Consulate on the Quai Wilson, on the shores of Lake Leman, but later moved to cheaper accommodation in the old city of Geneva on the other side of the lake.

Under the unofficial but rigid rules of practical diplomacy, certain areas and specific cafes and bars were off limits to Allied personnel, whilst others were equally off limits to Axis personnel.

One particular cafe close to the University, was frequented by a group of Dutch refugees, "evades" and other Allied symapthisers and in that cafe, "La Clemence", Sergeant Bill Rudd from Melbourne, Australia, was introduced to Caty Oosthoek of The Hague, Holland, who like most well-educated Dutch and Swiss girls, was fluent in at least four languages.

They were married in a civil ceremony in Geneva on February 14, 1945, by which time most of the other British and Dutch patrons of "La Clemence" had already left for their own countries and homes. This was not without its beaucratic problems, for Caty, unable to obtain the consent of her own father in Holland, had to obtain permission from the local Dutch Consul in Geneva to act as his proxy, while Bill had to obtain the permission of the British Military Attache in Bern.

Shortly afterwards, Bill was sent to the AIF reception camp at Eastbourne, Sussex, England, where his rank of Sergeant was substantiated. He elected to join the reception camp staff. He was put in charge of waste disposal and billetted to St. Andrew's School.

Back in geneva, his wife Caty had managed to obtain a position with the Netherlands Legation in London and was soon in England.

Some way of other, a small flat was secured in Greenwich, and due to the magnificent efficiency of Southern Railways, he was able to commute between Eastbourne and London, a journey of exactly one hour. The 6am train had him back in Eastbourne well in time for "waste parade" each day.

UNRAA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation, was recruiting "officers" who could handle European languages and refugee re-settlement problems, and his application to join was accepted.

He was discharged from the AIF in London and returned to Julloville in Normandy and from there was sent to Haaren in South Holland. This transit centre was located in a former Roman Catholic Seminary which had been used by the German Occupation Forces as an interrogation and concentration camp.

He subsequently found out that a cousin of his wife's, a Dutch naval lieutenant who had dropped by parachute back in Holland to liaise with the Dutch underground, had been betrayed and had been executed in that Seminary.

By this time Bill had added Dutch to his other working language and was able to make contact with his father-in-law and allay certain misapprehensions. Among these was an impression gained from an illustrated Dutch dictionary Arie Oosthoek had consulted when the news of his daughter's marriage to an Australian had finally reached him. In his dictionary was an illustration of a "real Australian" - depicting an aborigine with a spear and woomera!

Regretfully, he was unable to meet Caty's brother who too, had been captured by the Germans while serving in the Dutch underground who had been taken the the notorious German concentration camp at Dachau and did not survive the atrocious conditions.

Everntually Caty too managed to return to Holland and early in 1946, Bill and Caty left Rotterdam for Washington in an Americal Liberty ship returning empty to New York. Rather than go to China for furter work with ANRAA, Bill resigned from that service in Washington and he and Caty crossed the United States to San Francisco whre the "Mariposa" eventually returned them to Australia.

"Mick" Crofts/Margrit Dietz

In the Swiss "evade" camp at Heiden, near the border with Austria, "Mick" Crofts elected to wear civilian clothes and organise himself a job with a local plant nursery - Dietz and Son.

The nursery was a seven-day-a-week operation and "Mick" with his jovial and extrovert nature, and with a good smattering of Italian and German, proved a sound acquisition to the firm. There he met Margrit Deitz, daughter of the proprietor and a romance began to blossom. Margrit's father wisely advised her to see Australia first before they made a final decision to marry and they parted when "Mick" was repatriated from Switzerland with a large group of British "evades" on September 22, 1944.

The Dietz family had already accepted "Mick" as one of their own and welcomed the engagement of their eldest daughter to a soldier from such a faraway land.

Margrit finally managed to get a place on a boat taking other war brides to Australia, but not before she had had to overcome tremendous bureaucratic difficulties from both the British and Australian Governments. But despite her then lack of English, she battled her way out to Australia, decided that her first choice to marry "Mick" was the correct one for her, and they married in Australia at Koo-wee-rup a mere few kilometres away from Inverloch, Victoria, where they live today.

"Barney" Grogan/Margo Christ

While Jack Kroger remained in Wil as the Senior Australian Officer in command of all Australian "evades" in their various Swiss "camps" Barney Grogan moved to the British "camp" in Arosa. There he became an enthusiastic skier, but he also found time to court Margo Christ, who lived with her family in Therwil not too far away, and who he had first met while in Basle to attend the funeral of some British airmen who had been killed when their plane crashed in Switzerland, returning from a bombing raid over Germany.

Margo had been for seven years in the employ of Bob Cackett, the British Consul in Basle who lived outside the city on a rural property at Therwil. It was Bob Cackett who gave the bride away when they married in Arosa. Jack Kroger was best man at the wedding.

Barney and Jack with nearly all other Australian "evades" were repatriated from Switzerland having been there for almost a year, and Barney rejoined his unit the 2/23rd Infantry Battalion in Tarakan, Borneo.

Margo with their daughter Paula, who had been born in Basle in 1945, and to whom Jack Kroger was godfather had to remain behind in Europe until shipping was available to bring them back to Australia. Paula was three months old before they were allocated a passage, and they finally reached Melbourne together with other Swiss and English war-brides on the S.S. "Umtali", which before the war was a coastal/passenger freighter of the Natal-East Africa Line - a small ship of 8,135 tons, which nevertheless in 1943 had carried 90 pilots and 7 airgunners through the Panama Canal with 3,500 tons of frozen mutton on a voyage lasting 11 weeks.

Barney was eventually discharged from the AIF, and the family settled down in Mirboo North, a small country town in Gippsland, Victoria, where Barney's family owned the general store. Jack Kroger was godfather to Paula, who was to have five more brothers and sisters - Gary, Trudy, Anthony, Margo and John. 

Barney died in 1986, pre-deceasing his long term mate, Jack Kroger.

Hedy Paula Triffett-Schaefli

Hedy Triffett-Schaefli was born in Aardorf on October 4, 1917, the eighth child of Joseph and Lydia Schaefli-Rieker. Her mother gave birth to her at the age of 44. Her sister Lydia was 20 years her senior and it was in her restaurant the "Froegg" that Hedy was to meet her husband to be.

A group of POWs stationed at Elgg sometimes came to eat at the "Froegg" where Hedy was helping Lydia out, following the untimely death of her husband. Ted Triffett and his mates must have liked the food there, as they returned again and again. As Hedy could not speak English, she and Ted communicated in Italian. A courtship began and romance blossomed. On September 15, 1945, they were married in a beautiful little church in Winterthur not far from her home village of Aadorf.

When Ted and the other Australian POW were repatriated following the opening of the border with France, Ted and his new bride caught the train to Paris and crossed the English Channel. From England Ted sailed back to Australia with the troops on bord the "Aquitania" while Hedy stayed on with a Swiss friend Annie Badcock, in Bude, Cornwall, England.

There, she awaited the birth of their first child, Susan, who was born at Bude. Approximately one year later, Hedy together with the wives of other Australians sailed to Australia on board the "Stirling Castle" arriving in Sydney in October, 1946. Susan was two months old when they arrived there.

Ted Triffet was the third child of Eliza Blackburn and Edgar Triffett. Ted's father had come to Queensland from Zeehan in Tasmania, where his family owned a hotel, in search of gold and excitement, and finally settled down in Julia Creek with Ted and his 10 brothers and sisters. It was into this pioneering family that Hedy, a girl from Switzerland was welcomed. She had exchanged a life in the snowy alpine area of Switzerland for one in the arid pastoral outback of Australia at Julia Creek, Queensland. Heat, flies and a few shops greeted her there, but the bush people had big hearts. Ted had bought a home for his new bride and baby daughter in Julia Creek and greeted them when they stepped of the puffing billy from Townsville, a full one day journey in those days.

Hedy recalls today, her amazement at the flatness of the country north of Townsville and how she thought the rolly polly bushes were sheep. She remembers the difficulty of washing nappies in a small basin on the train and how they changed colour as she was forced to hang them out to dry in the train in the black smoke from the locomotive.

She was now a long, long way from her Swiss home, but accepted the challenge of her new one, and without question, took up her new life as a drover's wife. She was to experience harsh conditions, heat, flies and none of the comforts she had been used to in Switzerland. Gradually she came to love the new friends she met and the easy-going and hospitable neighbours who welcomed her into their midst.

Hedy gave birth to two other daughters whilst in Julia Creek, but only one, Verena (Vreneli) survived. It was the difficult birth of daughter number three and the loss of this baby (and almost herself) that prompted Ted to take his wife and small family to live in Toowoomba in the fifties. Toowoomba, Ted believed, being in the mountains, would be a cooler climate for his Swiss bride. It was in Toowoomba that Hedy lived and where her daughters were schooled, while Ted returned to his droving life in the bush. However after a few years in Toowoomba and as she became more and more acclimatised, Hedy returned to the bush for eight months of the year with her daughters to accompany Ted on his long droving trips sometimes extending over 1,000 miles.

Hedy learned to drive a 5 ton truck, to cook damper over a camp fire and to sit comfortably on a kerosene tin for a seat, while at the same time schooling her daughters, Susan and Vren, with the help of the correspondence school operated by the Queensland Education Department. She would follow the mob of cattle, prepare the meals for the drovers, and often make do with bully beef as a staple diet, much as her husband had done in the Western Desert. Now and again the owner of a property through which the mob would pass, would kill a sheep, which she would salt down and carry in a hessian bag in the back of the truck. About the only things she never learned to be comfortable with were the flies!

As the girls got older, they were sent to the boarding school at St. Ursula's College in Toowoomba and from there, during the school holidays, would often join the parents on a droving run.

After a number of years of being a drovers wife, Hedy finally decided her daughters needed her and a more settled life and in the mid sixties she returned to Toowoomba permanently. There she built and ran Montana Convalescent Home, an Aged Care Centre in 1964 and ran this until 1995.

Following Ted's death in 1989, she retired to the family's holiday unit in Surfers Paradise where she still resides today. Her elder daughter Susan has provided her with a grandson, Richard Gallagher, who is now 19 who remembers his grandfather as a "gentleman with a big hat". She learnt to love the bush and the special people who live there and considers herself truly Australian now. After all, she has lived in her adoptive country well over half a century and knows more about its quintessential character than most of its other citizens.

Her second daughter Vren, has become a teacher and after living abroad and in Canberra for many years, has now returned to Queensland with her husband Peter and lives near Hedy on the Gold Coast. Hedy is still active and after retiring at the age of 77 still enjoys good health.

Following her husbands death she has compiled a album commemorating the role he played during the war and made contact with many of the men who fought with him in Tobruk.

Like many ex-servicemen, particularly POW, Ted rarely spoke about his war time experiences, and when he did, it was largely with those with whom he had served. His story is told with others of his mates in the chapter on the 2/15th Infantry Battalion AIF.

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