By Grant Hays, Custodian
Prior to joining the Army in October 1940 as a Warrant Officer Class 1, Ormond Poppleton had been a fireman in Wellington for about eight years. His primary role was to organise a camp fire service in Waiouru which was being built at the time.
By the following August, Ormond had had enough of the cold Waiouru weather and applied to be transferred overseas. He reverted in rank to Private and in September 1941 headed off to Egypt. He joined 22 Battalion and fought in Gaza and Syria before coming back to the desert where he was involved with the breakout at Minqar Qaim before being captured in the battle for Ruweisat Ridge in July 1942. For most they would have felt their war was over – for Ormond the adventure was only just beginning.
On his way to the Prisoner of War (POW) camp at Benghazi he saw Mussolini standing on the side of the road gloating at all the Kiwi POWs being driven past. Ormond was transferred to several camps steadily moving up through Italy until he took the opportunity to escape from a camp near Trieste and tried to make his way to Yugoslavia. After several weeks fighting with local Partisans, he was recaptured by the Germans and sent to Stalag 18A/Z in Austria. Here he was caught with a concealed camera, and was tried by a German military court martial and sentenced to three months solitary confinement in a camp at Gravdez in Northern Poland (noted along with Colditz as the most disciplined camp you could be sent to). While being transferred, Ormond made a run for it while at Dresden Railway Station and promptly gave himself up to the civil police as they would have to feed him. He was eventually handed back to his guards but jumped off the train near Lintz. The freedom was short-lived however as he was caught by a squad of Hitler Youth.
The Germans were rapidly running out of patience with Ormond and sent him under strict supervision and solitary confinement to Colditz (Oflag 4C) until they could sort out who he was. He ws eventually sent to Wolfsberg (Stalag 18A) for a further three months solitary on bread and water. As the Allies began to close in on Germany, the POWs were moved to Markt Pongau (Camp 317). On a dark and wet night, he slipped through the double barbed wire fence with a fellow POW who spoke German, caught a train, which without realising it was in fact a German troop train. But with luck on his side they escaped the train and began a six day walk before making contact with the American forces that got him a repatriation flight to England and home.
In 1995 he was awarded a QSM (Queen’s Service Medal) for services to the community, especially the RSA in Palmerston North. Ormond died in November 2003. You can find Ormond’s signature on the National Army Museum’s Prisoner of War wall.
Read about other Kiwis at War.