Prisoner of War: WW2 Archive Donation

A donation of objects, photos and documents was recently given to The Tank Museum Archive and Supporting Collection, detailing the long and illustrious career of Major (QM) Reginald Horace Arthur Beales MBE RTR. Beales joined the Army during the First World War and went on to serve in the Second World War, when he was taken prisoner at Tobruk by Rommel’s newly arrived Deutsche Afrika Korps.

Beales was posted to the Machine Gun Corps and arrived at Bovington in 1917 for training, where his interest, and aptitude, for all things mechanical, saw him retained as a Driving & Maintenance instructor. After the First World War he rose through the ranks and his first overseas posting was to the Driving & Maintenance Wing, at the Smalls Arms and Mechanical School, Ahmednagar India.

Ultimately however, this period of relative peace was cut short by the start of the Second World War, and WO1 RSM Beales was back to the UK before joining the recently formed 2nd Armoured Division.

Black and white photograph of Beales sitting at a desk, looking into the distance.
Amongst the wealth of items in the donation, are a number of photographs chronicling Beales service career, including his time in India.

2nd Armoured Division arrive in Libya in March 1941 and are sadly captured at Mechili, on 8th April, by Rommel’s newly arrived Deutsche Afrika Korps. As Beales account puts it; he was now in the `bag’.

Watercolour and pen painting of two tanks travelling across a landscape. There is smoke in the background.
Beales’ account includes water colours, drawings and various photographs of camp activities, including theatre productions.

It’s at this point of his capture that Reggie’s hand-written and illustrated account enters the story and provides an insight, not only into Beales experiences of P.O.W.s, life but also those of his fellow captives. Part of the collection is a very eye-catching, and helpful, summary and outline map titled: ‘My Bag Travels’ detailing his journey as a P.O.W. from North Africa to camps in Italy and ultimately Germany.

Interestingly, Reggie’s P.O.W. ‘itinerary’ includes a brief reference to being `Free in Italy’ on the 9th September 1943. Following Italy’s Armistice on the 3rd September, there was a mass breakout by Allied prisoners from most Italian P.O.W. camps.

In the case of Reggie, and around 600 of his fellow P.O.W.s, the camp’s Italian commandant, Colonel Vicedmomini, advised them that they should breakout that morning, with German troops arriving just a few hours later.

Unfortunately, Reggie didn’t supply any specific details of his exploits going on the `lam’, but it appears from other P.O.W.s accounts, that after marching away from the camp into the countryside that they were assisted by local families, whose children brought the escapees Red Cross parcels to sustain them, despite the threat of German retribution if the P.O.W.s were not found and the meagre resources they had for themselves.

Although a small number of P.O.W.s managed to escape and complete a `home run’ Beales taste of freedom apparently lasted three weeks before he was recaptured by the Germans and subsequently sent to Germany. Firstly, to Mooseburg, Bavaria, Stalag VII-A, the biggest POW camp with approximately 76,000 POWs, for a couple of months, then on to Mahrisch/Trubau, Oflag VIII, now in the Czech Republic, which was a camp for officers. Reggie was interred in this camp for five months and during his stay acquired two Escape Maps produced in the camp itself showing the areas around Hannover, Bremen and Hamburg.

His last camp was at Brunswick, Oflag 79. Here, Reggie would have been part of population of 2,500 British and Commonwealth officer P.O.W.s. Although the camp has been described by contemporaries as `dreary’ in appearance, it certainly was not lacking in activities for the campmates. Beales would have been able to join societies, go to lectures, partake in, or just watch, musical and dramatical endeavours and religious services. There was reputedly even a night club `The Rum Pot’. However, the German leaflet that Reggie kept `To All Prisoners of War!  The Escape from prison camps is no longer a sport!’ shows that it was a deadly serious affair if they left the `safe’ confines of the wire.

There are a number of other references to Reggie’s time in captivity, the contents of a Red Cross parcel, and the careful logging of rations which a trained quarter master would have kept, but it’s his Tank Journal obituary in 1962 where Reggie’s character and humanity are really spelt out. Following four years as a P.O.W. it’s clear that he remained unbowed and that he was an inspiring figure to others: “…from the verbal and written reports of his fellow POWs he achieved his finest service to mankind.

Scan of a leaflet, the colour of the paper is light brown with a red outline. It is covered with black text telling British Prisoners of War that if they tried to escape they would now be shot on sight.
Leaflets like this, referencing British ‘illegal warfare’, were used to threaten and intimidate P.O.W.s to make sure they stayed in the camps.

“In the words of one senior officer, he made a most profound impact during this unfortunate interlude, by his shining example of cheerfulness at all time, and by his consideration and thought for others. It has been said that it was his refusal to recognise depression, and his manner in dispelling frustration under difficult circumstances, which materially assisted those unable to bear the strain of the deprivation of liberty.”

Following his release from captivity after VE Day, and a period of leave and rehabilitation, Major Beales, promoted in 1948, served as QM at the Gunnery School and then the D & M School. In August 1951, Major Beales MBE was in command of the Museum’s Mark V when it took part in a demonstration of AFV obstacle Crossing at Bovington to an appreciative audience. He retired in the mid 1950’s, after 37 years service, and remained very active in the Bournemouth Old Comrades Association until his death in January 1962 aged 63.

Find out more about other items from The Tank Museum Archive & Supporting Collection here.

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