Grandpa was a POW

22:39, Apr 25 2014

There is something about The Last Post when you hear it played live. Something that brings goosebumps, something beyond its stark lonely sound that really does force you to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died in war, the contribution and suffering of those who served.

I'm too lazy to get up for a Dawn Parade so I won't have heard The Last Post trumpeted live yesterday but I remember it so well from grandpa's funeral.

My grandpa, Alfred Rawlings, belonged to the 20th Battalion. He wasn't the luckiest of soldiers. He spent more time as a prisoner of war - in Egypt, Italy and Germany - than he did fighting. But he did come home alive.

In 1991 he wrote a small book called Diary of Life in a Stalag. It's a bit of family history that I'm ashamed to say might have slipped quietly away had it not been written down.

He wrote it decades after he had returned home, married my grandma, had four children and (at that time) eight grandchildren. But the distance from combat and war camps had given him time to reflect.

So while he tried to capture the sense of adventure and mateship, he reflects on the Latin inscription he often saw at a church in Ravensbourne in Dunedin where he grew up.


It read: "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" (it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country). "I doubted whether it had ever been that for a man mortally wounded in a battlefield or for my two brothers who were later to die in the air force," he wrote.

"What loss in human lives, causing sorrow and distress to those who have to hear that news, and to somehow go on living."

He fought for a brief time in the desert in Egypt but was first taken prisoner on December 1, 1941. He and many of his fellow soldiers walked out with their packs held high in their hands. It was not a long stretch as they were freed by Christmas Eve that year.

By July 1942 he was taken once again and held in an Italian camp for over a year until they were freed and did what many freed prisoners in northern Italy did, kept clear of Germans while relying on friendly Italians for food in exchange for work.

It was not to last long and eventually he was captured again.

He was taken to a camp in Germany and in March 1944 he received a letter addressed to Private A A Rawlings, prisoner of war number 256332. The letter informed him that his brothers, Les and Ray Rawlings, had died within five weeks of each other on active service. Ray had done 27 raids as a bomber pilot. Les was a pilot with the Mosquitoes.

Although he was grief-stricken, the only thing that took some of the pain away was knowing his mother had died a year before having to hear that news.

Grandpa's story is not one of those ram-raiding heroic wartime tales. Yet he lived to tell it.

Back home in New Zealand, he struggled. He had a breakdown and was sent to a soldiers' home for some time. He became a committed Christian and retrained at teachers' college, spending 24 happy years as a teacher. By all accounts, a teacher who could be distracted from the curriculum if asked about war stories.

As a kid, I spent hours on grandpa's knee. There was a lot of Peter Rabbit and Golden Books but I was never that interested in his war stories. I don't know why. Perhaps they seemed so difficult to relate to. Perhaps he never told them with a sense of adventure having had so long to look back at the loss.

In 1983 he visited England and the gravestones of his two brothers, buried next to each other. A photo shows an old man between the grave markers, a hand on each stone.

Grandpa died 11 years ago. He is buried in a section of the Timaru cemetery dedicated to returned servicemen.

The Press