Profile: John Humphreys OBE DL

25th September 2018

The Great Escapist
Name: John Humphreys OBE DL
Regiment: Royal Engineers
Served: 1936-1977

Very few escape stories rival that of John Humphreys - the WWII Prisoner of War who was detained twice and twice evaded his captors, with both escapes as extraordinary as the other. 

Posted to Africa in 1940, John spent some time in the Western Desert which was bombed three times a day, every day, with monotonous regularity. It was during this time that John sustained a head injury and when he regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by German soldiers. 

"When I woke up I was surrounded by a couple of Germans who looked down on me and said: 'For you Tommy, the War is over.' I can still see them now if I close my eyes, two big fellas, looking down on me."

John was promptly captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in North East Italy, which in his words was a "soul destroying experience."

Starving and on the brink of despair, John knew that the only way to keep his sanity was to formulate an escape plan. He got his hands on an Italian grammar book and embarked on an intense course of study, until he had built an impressively large vocabulary. Realising that he'd have to practise with a native speaker in order to perfect his accent and cadence, he found a bored sentry to converse with on a regular basis. In no time at all, John had acquired the accent of this guard and was almost ready to put his escape plan into action.

In the winter, as luck would have it, John received a Greek army uniform from the Red Cross, which looked very much like an Italian uniform. With a little bit of alteration and a near to perfect Italian accent, John easily passed as an Italian soldier. Grabbing his two closest mates in the camp, John confidently marched them to a sentry, pretending to take them for punishment. As soon as they were waved forward, John and his friends made a break for it and were, at last, free! 

Freedom however was unfortunately short-lived for this cunning soldier, and in 1944, John was once again captured by the Germans in Arnhem. This time, he managed to conceal a jack-knife in his trousers, using the blade to chip away cement surrounding a barred window, in order to execute his second extraordinary escape. 

John's story is legendary amongst the Chelsea Pensioners at the Royal Hospital today and few can believe that this unassuming gentleman had the audacity to blindside the German forces on not one, but two occasions during one of the world's fiercest wars. 

 

Royal Hospital Chelsea Newsletter

Stay up to date with what's going on at The Royal Hospital by signing up for our e‑newsletter.

News

View the archive

Brompton Cemetery Seed Sowing
Sowing wildflowers in memory of past Chelsea Pensioners

On 6 May, Chelsea Pensioners and members of the Royal Hospital’s grounds team joined representatives from the Royal Parks, the Royal Parks Guild and the Friends of Brompton Cemetery to sow a patch of wildflower seeds in Brompton Cemetery as part of the Battlefields and Butterflies initiative.

Chelsea Pensioner Centenarians
100 years old and still going strong

Recent research backs up the anecdote that Chelsea Pensioners not only live considerably longer than their peers outside (by over five years, on average), but that their lifetimes once they come to the Royal Hospital are extending, year on year. This strongly suggests that the care and community here contribute to greater longevity – as well as improving quality of life. 

Twitter

Follow @RHChelsea