Scottish War Blinded veteran meets son of ex-POW comrade

Press Release | 09/11/2019

A World War Two veteran, whose appeal to find his fellow former prisoners of war captured the nation’s hearts in August, has been united with the son of one of the soldiers he was seeking.

Jimmy Johnstone, 98, of Aberdeen, was captured at the 1940 Battle for Saint-Valéry-en-Caux as he fought with the 51st Highland Division. He survived five years as a prisoner of war, predominantly in camp Stalag-XXB in Marienburg, Poland.

His ordeal in the camps concluded with an unimaginable death march through freezing temperatures as the German army succumbed to the Allied invasion.

In a last effort to connect with those who had survived St Valéry, the camps, and the march, Jimmy appealed to find four soldiers he had attempted daring escapes alongside: Jackie Lockwood, Gerald Fury, Bert Petrie and Jim Watt.

Incredibly, the son of Bert Petrie – Sandy Petrie, also of Aberdeen – heard Jimmy’s story and reached out to charity Scottish War Blinded, who have been supporting him with his appeal.

Jimmy (left) and Sandy (right) shake hands

The charity, who support Jimmy due to his poor sight resulting from macular degeneration, was able to bring the pair together in an emotional meeting, with Sandy, 73, representing his father who sadly passed away ten years ago, aged 86.

 

An emotional meeting

Jimmy said: “Meeting Sandy was very emotional as I didn’t think I would get any response to my appeal. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.

“We talked about Bert and life in the POW camps. I spoke about when we met. This was while we were waiting to go into the ‘cooler’ after one of my escapes. I told Sandy what a brave man his dad was. He stood up to the German guards and refused to work until they got more food. The German guard held him at gunpoint but he didn’t give in and they got more food. I admired Bert for that. Jimmy Johnstone (left) and Bert Petrie (right) as teenagers in their uniforms

“I also spoke to Sandy about our return to Britain. The British public’s view of POWs at the time they were released was that we were treated like the German POWs held in the UK.  They had relatively comfortable lives, working on farms etc. Many had freedoms that we never had and it was a different experience for us.”

 

The escape

 Jimmy and Bert had attempted to escape together in 1945 as the Germans felt the pressure from the Russian forces. They and thousands of fellow prisoners of war were forced to march from the camps in Poland hundreds of miles back into Germany.

Extremely malnourished and freezing cold, they were lucky to survive months of sub-zero temperatures with the risk of being shot by Nazi soldiers if they fell behind.

Jimmy said: “I had attempted to escape with Bert and two other men, Gerald Fury, and Jim Watt, on the death march. It must have been early April 1945, and one of the German guards, who said he had been a prisoner of war in Scotland during World War One, spoke to me. The guards with us were all older guards and no longer able to fight. This older guard couldn’t speak a word of English, so we spoke in German. He said to me, ‘You give me a note saying I have been a good guard, and I will take you and your friends to this farm house I know.’

“I wrote a note that actually said he ought to get a boot up the behind, but he thought I’d written a nice note. He was so happy and put it in his pocket.

“He took us away to this farm. It was dark and wet. Three days we were there. Then we heard the Russian advance of shells and the bombs firing around us, so the guard told us we’d have to go. So many bullets.

“When the Americans freed the troops, I remember this American sergeant took the old guard and gave him a right doing over. But now I feel so sorry for that old guard. I regret writing that note now. I believe in the Bible and forgiveness. But at that time after being a prisoner of war for all that time that’s how I’d felt.”

 

'My father would have been delighted that I had met Jimmy'

Bert Petrie was also from Aberdeen, and served with the Gordon Highlanders in the 51st Highland Division. He, like Jimmy, was also captured at St Valéry and endured five years at Stalag-XXA and Stalag-XXB before the march.  

Bert had four children – two daughters and two sons – and his son Sandy says he was compelled to meet Jimmy, not only for himself but on behalf of his father too.

Sandy said: “When I heard about the appeal on the radio, I quickly recognised it was my father being referred to and I was very, very interested to hear the story. They were some of the same stories my father had told me. I felt I would like to meet this chap, and to meet him for my father’s sake too as I know he would have wanted to meet Jimmy.

“My father Bert was captured at St Valéry and was at the same camps as Jimmy. St Valéry is seldom mentioned and often gets lost when people talk about Dunkirk, so it’s important that these soldiers’ stories are shared.

“He had told me about the march. He had also mentioned a friend who had been with him in the camps for five years and had collapsed next to him on the march.

“My father would have been delighted that I had met Jimmy. The years in the prison of war camp made a lasting impression on my father and the stories he told over the years bear a striking similarity to Jimmy's.

“Meeting him, it was very touching to hear him refer to my father. He mentioned him quite emotionally. I found it moving to hear Jimmy say several times during our conversation, ‘If Bert were here, he would tell you.’ I never thought I would sing a verse of "Lili Marlene" with a man who heard the song when it was new.

I would like to add that I am very proud to be part of this most recent chapter. I have the greatest respect for Jimmy and the men and women of his generation, sadly a dwindling group. They saved our civilisation and way of life. It was a privilege to have met him.”

 

'A very sincere thank you'

Jimmy has also received scores of kind letters and messages from relatives of ex POWs across the world resulting from the appeal.

The veteran says he is “overwhelmed” by the public’s response and support of Scottish War Blinded and the media. With the support of his Scottish War Blinded Outreach Worker, Margaret Forrest, Jimmy now intends to write back to as many people as he can.

Jimmy said: “I would like to say a very sincere thank you to the many people who have responded to this appeal, both ex-POWs and family members. I have been overwhelmed by the response and the letters I have received.

“I would have liked to meet everyone but my health prevents this. But in time, I will be in contact by letter with as many people as possible with the support of Margaret, my Outreach Worker. Once again, thanks for all your trouble and interest. Memories are made of this.”

 

Lest we forget

Jimmy has stressed the importance of Remembrance Day. 

He said: “It is really important that as we approach Remembrance Day we remember all men who fought in all battles, those that survived and those who died.’

Margaret Forrest, one of Scottish War Blinded’s outreach workers based in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, said: “I have been supporting Jimmy since he became a member of Scottish War Blinded last year due to his sight loss. When he told me that he wished to put out an appeal to try to find some of his fellow ex-POWs or their relatives, Scottish War Blinded wanted to do all they could to try and make it happen.

“It was an honour to arrange a meet up for Jimmy and Sandy. We couldn’t quite believe it was actually happening. The overwhelming response to the appeal has understandably been very emotional for Jimmy, and it’s been so heartening to see all the messages and stories flood in for him. 

“Thank you so much to everyone who got in touch for Jimmy. This goes a very long way to reassure him that what he and thousands of his fellow soldiers went through and the sacrifices that were made will never be forgotten.”

Scottish War Blinded gives free support to former servicemen and women of all ages, no matter if they lost their sight during or after service. Visit www.scottishwarblinded.org or call 0800 035 6409 to refer a veteran to the charity.