Library Reference Number: 124
My Recollections of Dixie Deans, MBE
Three and half years spent as a prisoner-of-war brings one into contact with so many types of human personality and character, friendly and otherwise. In wartime, some of the most gruelling, harsh and unpleasant situations, seems to produce individuals with the ability to rise above their predicament, and go on to help and assist others in their shared environment in which they find themselves. Some experiences one tries to forget, there is one person however, who remains in my memory for all the right reasons, who shared in my enforced confinement, his name was Sgt 'Dixie' Deans. In post-war Britain, he became the first President of the RAF Ex-POW Association which seemed quite a natural step, as during wartime, his considerable leadership abilities commanded respect not only from his fellow prisoners, but also his German captors. Towards the end of hostilities, he guided 2,000 fellow prisoners through war-ravaged Germany to their eventual freedom. Before then, he had arranged for one prisoner to escape, set up a residence in Germany where he arranged an escape route for other escapees - all masterminded by Dixie Deans. Not satisfied with all that success, he passed valuable intelligence to the Allies which had an important bearing on the successful outcome of the war. In briefly describing my own experience of becoming a prisoner-of-war, I can then express my recollections of how it came about my path crossed with that of Sgt Dixie Deans.
I bailed out of my badly damaged Wellington aircraft over Benghazi at 1 a.m. on the morning of 7th September 1941. A band of wandering Arabs whom befriended us, unfortunately turned out to value the bounty offered by the enemy more than our friendship, turned us over to the Italian/German forces; not before making off with our parachutes, and anything else they could lay their hands on. Thus started a long series of solitary confinement, interrogation, prison camps, travel in cattle trucks and hardship which was to last over three years and seven months. Those events may be summarized as follows:-
Location Dates Details
Apollonia (Lybia) 8th September 1941 - Left Apollonia 11th September 1941
Arrived Derna 11th September 1941 - Left Derna 17th September 1941 by Junkers 52
Arrived Crete 17th September 1941 by Junkers 52 - Left Crete 17th September 1941 by Junkers 52
Arrived Athens 17th September 1941 by Junkers 52 (placed in solitary confinement) - Left Athens 22nd September 1941 by Junkers 52
Arrived Salonika (Greece) 22nd September 1941 by Junkers 52 - Left Salonika 22nd September 1941 3 days sleeping on floor of railway guard's van
Arrived Vienna (Austria) 25th September 1941 Placed in police prison cell - Left Vienna 28th September 1941 by passenger rail express
Arrived Frankfurt (Dulagluft) 29th September 1941 RAF POW Interrogation Centre - Left Frankfurt 4th October 1941 3 days solitary/interrogation: then 2 days rail
Arrived Lamsdorf, Stalag V111B 6th October 1941 - Left Lamsdorf 13th May 1942 by Cattle truck, 7 months confinement
Arrived Sagan, StalagLuft 3 14th May 1942 by Cattle truck - Left Sagan 10th June 1943 3rd Class rail, 2 days, 13 months confinement
Arrived Hydekrug, StalagLuft 6 12th June 1943 3rd Class rail for 2 days - Left Hydekrug 17th July 1944 by Cattle truck, 13 months confinement
Arrived Thorne, Stalag 357 19th July 1944 by Cattle truck & 2 days by rail - Left Thorne 8th August 1944 by Cattle truck, 2 1/2 weeks confinement
Arrived Fallingbostel, 355,357 10th August 1944 by Cattle truck and 2 days by rail, - LIBERATED! 16th April 1945, 9 months.
Total = 3 years 7 months confinement
It will be noted that even having been shot down in North Africa, the Germans took great pains to ensure that we, and all other POWs, were taken to Germany for imprisonment and interrogation. Dixie Deans having been forced down in Holland, was also made to follow a devious route to Germany before our paths crossed, his locations being Stalag Lufts 1, 3, 6 and 357.
On 10th September 1940, Sergeant Pilot James Deans, No.77 Squadron, took off from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in Whitley bomber P5042. His target was Bremen, but his aircraft was hit by flak and he crash-landed 38 km ENE of Zwolle in Holland. He and his four fellow crew members were immediately taken prisoner, and one of the first statements announced by one of his captors "For you the war is over" was later found to be empty words in the extreme, for with Sgt James Deans, some of his greatest achievements in the Allied war effort were just about to begin. Not for 'Dixie' Deans (as he became known) did he accept defeat and become the quiet submissive prisoner. Nor did he become abusive or upset his captors - just the opposite, by displaying his natural quiet but persuasive leadership qualities; he commanded respect from his fellow POWs and eventually the respect from the Germans, because of his numerous quiet, firm decisions which defused many nasty, dangerous situations.
Because of those personal qualities and acts of quiet courage, Dixie Deans earned the life-long gratitude of thousands of fellow prisoners, was appointed Camp Leader, and throughout the rest of the war busied himself with prisoners' welfare and safety. Behind all those acts of courage, Dixie Deans was also hard at work master-minding an extremely efficient and powerful intelligence network, finding ways of getting important information he gleaned from the Germans, through to Allied agents with whom he had somehow made contact.
Highly secret and sensitive information was given to the Allies which again had an extremely valuable bearing on the direction in which the war was heading. For example, he secured knowledge of the V rocket sites at Peenemunde, which were subsequently bombed by the RAF, and halted the vicious rocket bombardment of southern England. But for the information passed on by Dixie Deans, enabling RAF Bomber Command to destroy German rocket developments, even a greater volume of deaths and destruction would have been poured on Britain by Germany's indiscriminate unmanned rocket attacks.
I clearly recall StalagLuft 3, Sagan, because it seemed a little more bearable as we were confined in wooden huts. These seemed more spacious, as we were provided with 2-tier bunks, instead of 3-tier at Lamsdorf. The whole area was surrounded by double barbed-wire, with machine guns and searchlights. We were well warned that anyone stepping over a certain line would be immediately shot. The camp continued to fill up, as more Allied planes were being shot down, new prisoners being hounded from morning until night by longer-term prisoners demanding information, news from home, progress of the war etc. It was here that Dixie Deans pulled off one of his greatly appreciated accomplishments in StalagLuft 3 by negotiating with German guards in acquiring radio parts, then assembling them to allow fellow prisoners keep up to date with war news. Needless to say (especially for long-term POWs) it was a real morale booster to learn something of the outside world and progress of the war. It was also in StalagLuft 3 (of Wooden Horse note) that Dixie Deans acquired maps, compasses, watches, even railway time-tables and other essentials by similar negotiating skills, to enable suitable prisoners make their escape, and join the escape routes already set up and organised by master-mind Deans.
Dixie also supervised the twice-daily parades where names were called to check for escape bids. Dixie's strong leadership was to save many of our lives, for while we were still at Hydekrug in April, 1944, we had a special roll-call, and after Dixie Deans called the parade to attention, we saw that a vast number of German troops were surrounding the parade-ground armed with machine guns. A German Major then read out a statement that 50 British Officers had been shot 'while resisting arrest' at StalagLuft 3, Sagan. This in fact was the "Great Escape". Feeling at this announcement was running high, and after a stunned silence, a riot would have resulted in an enormous blood bath with a great loss of lives if Dixie Dean's leadership and example had not defused this highly explosive situation!! We had witnessed the treatment of Russian prisoners by the Germans, and had no illusions about their capabilities in mowing down by machine-gun fire anyone who had not heeded Dixie's warnings.
Although Dixie Dean's own wife did not fully understand the full contents of letters she was receiving from her husband, she fortunately passed them on to the authorities who were able to decode extremely valuable intelligence. This was of immense importance to Britain's secret service and crucial to operational planning, and it seems inappropriate that Dixie Dean's only reward for all his sterling effort for his country and fellow POWs was only an MBE. For a man who unselfishly created so many chances to escape for so many, when he could have easily escaped himself; his country's gratitude was never full realised. Sadly, Dixie Deans had signs of sclerosis even in 1940, and finally succumbed to multiple sclerosis on 18th February 1989 at age 76 years.
One of Dixie's final actions during WW2 was to lead 12,000 POWs in a month long march across war-torn countryside, successfully meeting up with British Forces to gain their freedom. This had not been an easy journey, for not only had Dixie and fellow-prisoners to deal with starvation and exhaustion, but the uneasy transition of the German captors in becoming the captives. So much so, that in typical Dixie Deans style, he bullied the Germans into handing over more food and clothing to his POWs also some transport and medication for the sick as they proceeded closer and closer to British lines and freedom.
On 10th September 1940, Sergeant Pilot J A G Deans lost his freedom when his plane crash-landed in Holland.
Like all other POWs, he also lost opportunities of further promotion but gained the respect of fellow prisoners and Germans as well. As a Sergeant, he took command of higher ranks in gaining better conditions and in many cases saved lives and succeeded in maintaining morale. When his captors said "For you the war is over" little did they know, for Dixie Deans it was only beginning
For myself - I was eventually liberated at 11.15 a.m. on 16th April 1945 by the 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats). Suffering from malnutrition, I felt the white bread they offered me tasted like cake!! After 1,305 days imprisonment, it was sheer bliss to be on the other side of the barb wire - and free!