World War II was a short affair for Joseph Horace “Jim” Greasely. Conscripted on the first draft, the Ibstock, Leicestershire native trained for seven weeks with the 2nd Regiment, 5th Battalion Leicestershire, landing in France at the end of that eight-month mobilization period known as the “Sitzkrieg”. The “Phoney War”.
Over 80,000 British, French and allied troops were taken into captivity during those calamitous days in June 1940, leading up to the final evacuation from Dunkirk. On May 25, 1940, Horace Greasely became one of them.
He would spend the next 5 years as a German POW.
When he was eighty-nine, Greasely wrote the story of those five years with the help of “ghostwriter” Ken Scott. The book is called “Do The Birds Still Sing In Hell?” It tells the story of a 10-week death march across France and Belgium and into Holland, followed by a three-day train trek into captivity in Polish Silesia, then annexed to Germany.
Stalag VIIIB 344, Greasely’s second PoW camp, was a marble quarry/labor camp near Lamsdorf, where PoWs worked marble to form German headstones. There he met Rosa Rauchbach, the 17-year old daughter of the quarry’s owner. Rosa was a German girl working as camp interpreter, successfully hiding her Jewish roots in the Belly of the Beast. Greasely was 20 and single, at the time. The pair was soon romancing under the nose of prison guards, snatching time for trysts in camp workshops and anywhere else they could find.
Later on, Greasley was transferred to an annex of Auschwitz called Freiwaldau, 40 miles away. The only way to carry on the romance was to break out of camp, so that’s what he did. He met Rosa no fewer than two hundred times in the nearby woods, creeping back to camp under cover of darkness, every time.
There is some dispute about whether Greasely “escaped”, or not. This particular camp was so remote that security was lax, the guards believing escape to be suicidal.
Furthermore, while Nazi captivity was notoriously savage toward eleven million victims of the holocaust and Russian POWs, German attitudes seemed relatively benign toward fellow signatories to the Geneva Conventions of 1929, particularly their fellow “Anglo-Saxon”.
British historian Guy Walters has called the escape story “fantasy”, citing ‘old men with failing memories teaming up with sharp-elbowed ghost-writers to ‘recall’ increasingly fantastical stories of ‘derring-do during the war’.
Walters goes on to explain that “Working camps for NCOs such as Greasley were not the tightly-guarded places conjured up by our collective imagination, which is weaned on images from Colditz and The Great Escape. In fact, bunking out of one’s camp to fraternise with local girls was hardly unusual, and certainly not ‘escaping’ in the sense most of us understand it.”
The camp to which Greasely was assigned was liberated on May 24, 1945. He later heard that Rosa had died in childbirth, along with the baby. He would never learn, if the baby was his.
There is a striking image of a prisoner of the era. Skinny and bare chested, a lone captive glares in defiance through barbed wire into the eyes of Heinrich Himmler.
On seeing the 1941 photograph, Greasley asked: “Who is that with me?” There is some question as to whether the image is Greasely’s, the cap is Russian, but Ken Scott insists it is he. Greasely’s widow Brenda agrees, explaining that POWs wore whatever they could get. Besides, she says, “Although he was very thin then, I definitely recognize Horace without his shirt on!”
The identity of the man in the image may never be known, for certain. Horace Greasely passed away on February 3, 2010. In a greater sense, it may not matter.
The image may be captioned “The Last Great Act of Defiance”. Whoever it is has summoned the totality of all contempt and engraved it across his face. The man is symbolic, the POW faced off through barbed wire, with one of the most powerful men of the Third Reich. As if to demand of this former chicken farmer turned wannabe Ubermensch, “Who are YOU, you Son-of-a-Bitch”.
The Telegraph newspaper, would seem to agree. The Himmler image was published with the former POW’s obituary, along with the caption: “Greasley confronting Heinrich Himmler (wearing the spectacles) in the PoW camp”. Once one of the most feared visages of the thousand-year Reich, the Nothing had returned, to Zero.
American film producer/director Stratton Leopold, executive producer of Mission Impossible III and The Sum of All Fears is working on a film with Silverline Productions, depicting the Jim Greasely story. Ghostwriter Ken Scott tells the UK Mirror: ‘I can say it will be a mix of German and British actors and they are A-listers’. I’ll keep an eye out. That’ll be fun to watch.
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