When Glafcos Clerides left office ten years ago, he was the last head of state to have seen active service in the Second World War. In this 2003 interview with Michael Theodoulou of The Times he reminisced over his wartime experiences
WRITTEN off in a premature obituary after being shot down over Hamburg, Glafcos Clerides was equipped by his war experience to play a key role in Cypriot politics for decades and ultimately to secure an invitation to join the European Union.
His resilience and resourcefulness as a prisoner of war are legendary.
“Except for plotting escapes there was very little to do, so one of the exercises I did was to sit down and try to find out how people behave,” he told The Times. “You learn to be patient. And you learn something that is very important as a politician, to expect difficulties and find ways to overcome them. You realise then that human beings have a common factor: those who can endure the adversities and those who break down. If you see the result of those who break down, you decide you are going to survive.”
Having spent a year in chains, he endured a forced march on a starvation diet across Germany in winter and escaped three times.
His final attempt was successful, enabling him to be in London for the VE Day, although he needed nine months in hospital to recover. Shrapnel buried in one leg become what he called souvenirs of the war. His bravery was commended in dispatches.
Clerides was studying law in London when war broke out and immediately volunteered to join the RAF. He saw action in the Battle of Britain, then trained as a pilot and joined Bomber Command.
He was working as a wireless operator gunner when he had his first brush with death on a freezing night in January 1942. The Wellington had had its doors removed and was stripped down to make way for a single, huge 4,000lb bomb for a raid on Hamburg.
The crew was cosmopolitan. Clerides was accompanied by an Australian rear gunner, a Scottish front gunner, a navigator from the Midlands, and a Welsh pilot. After dropping their bomb, the Wellington was approaching the German coastline when it was caught in a hail of bullets.
The front and rear gunners were very badly wounded “and died in the drink”. The pilot and navigator also came down in the sea, but survived and were picked up by a German air-sea rescue seaplane.
Clerides was wounded in a leg, but managed to bail out from 8,000ft, breaking a leg on landing. He was taken to a hospital at a camp for French PoWs in Bremen, where a medical student removed most of the shrapnel and put his broken leg in plaster. Within weeks came his first escape. On being told that his plaster was to be removed the next day, he hacked it from his leg with a penknife, tied his bed sheets together and used them to ease himself down from his window to the ground.
Wearing overalls and carrying a bucket and broom, he posed as a street cleaner as he headed for the Netherlands, but was recaptured within four days. He was then taken to a big prisoner of war camp, Stalag VIII B near the German border with Poland in what is now Polish territory. There 1,000 PoWs including Clerides were chained to each other for a year in a special compound.
When the year was up, he was ready to break out again. Working parties used to leave the camp and he calculated that it would be easier to escape from one of those than to attempt to tunnel out. With a Yugoslav prisoner, he slipped away one night from a guarded house outside the camp. They made their way to Yugoslavia, first by train and then by foot, trudging through winter snow to the Dalmatian coast.
They were recaptured as they tried to cross by boat to Italy, where British forces had landed. The Germans suspected Clerides was a partisan. He was held in Yugoslavia in a prison for partisans for six weeks where “every morning there were executions”. When confirmation came from Germany that he was an escaped PoW, he was returned in chains to Stalag VIII B.
There he spent a further two years before his third escape, which came after Russian forces captured Warsaw and advanced on the German border. He was among 10,000 prisoners on a forced march from the camp across Germany to the French frontier.
“A much smaller number arrived,” he said. “Most of them died of dysentery.” The marchers covered about 30 kilometres a day and slept out in the snow. “Our ration was three boiled potatoes and two slices of bread.” Near the French border, he slipped away. The American Third Army flew him to England in time for VE Day.
For Clerides, the war taught him the vital lesson of peace. “I saw Hamburg after we bombed it – 1,000 aircraft dropped 4,000 tonnes of bombs within five minutes in a built-up area. It was something unimaginable. You saw houses folding like little packs of cards and you realise that there are women and children there. When you witness that you begin to have a belief that problems should be solved by other means than war.”
Leading from the front
Statesmen who were their countries’ last leaders to have fought in the Second World War
Ezer Weizman, Israeli President (1993-2000), RAF pilot
George H.W. Bush, US President (1989-93), Navy pilot
Wojciech Jaruzelski, Polish President (1985-90), served with First Polish Army in liberation of Warsaw
Helmut Schmidt, West German Chancellor (1974-82), soldier in the Bremen air defence; later captured by British Army
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, Soviet General-Secretary of Central Committee (1966-82), Red Army political commissar
James Callaghan, Prime Minister (1976-79), Royal Navy
Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister (1964-79), RAF
Georges Pompidou, French President (1969-74), served in 141st Alpine Infantry Regiment near Maginot Line
John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (1968-71), served in RAAF in United Kingdom, Singapore, and Darwin