Isadore Schrire was a South African doctor working in London on the outbreak of war in 1939. He wrote this engrossing and highly entertaining memoir of his experiences as a German-held prisoner of war in 1956.

There's very little in the book about his family background and social circle prior to his Army service. Instead Schrire marches straight into his war with the briefest of brief accounts of his introduction to Army discipline and then his service as a RAMC doctor with an unnamed Field Ambulance with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940. The reason for his studied vagueness about his unit becomes obvious early on: Schrire regards his commanding officer as a pompous fool. And, even if he's not prepared to name him, he's never afraid to make his disdain for the man clear.

(From clues within the text, it looks like Schrire's Field Ambulance was part of the 12th Infantry Division, a second-line formation which was still under training in May 1940. The infantry troops of that unit's 36th Infantry Brigade were the 5th Buffs and the 6th and 7th Royal West Kents.)

Schrire writes in a forthright but easy conversational tone, much as if he's sharing some amusing anecdotes with friends over a few drinks in his favourite posh bar. He's definitely 'uppercrust' and somewhat condescending in his outlook (well, he is a doctor), but he also has the wit, warmth and wisdom to carry us fully into his world. If I were casting him for a movie version of the book, Hugh Grant, David Niven and Dirk Bogarde would all fit the bill.

His attitude to the war is predominantly that of a bemused spectator, but he also writes with the firm moral tone of a man who knows right from wrong--and who suddenly finds himself thrust into a series of acute situations that are both truly evil and deeply unpleasant.

The BEF and the Blitzkrieg

One May 10th 1940, he's having lunch with an Army colleague at the Hotel de la Poste in Rouen, when news of the Blitzkrieg comes through. His Field Ambulance get the orders to move. He wryly describes how a night convoy of lorries means his driver beside him muttering endless four letter words while acting as back marker for the rest of the unit's vehicles. Suddenly they've taken a wrong turn and are lost in the night for a while. But then, miraculously, they find themselves at the head of the convoy:

'Early in the war I thus learned a most valuable lesson. If the situation demands that one should do nothing, one should do nothing.'

Schrire doesn't disguise his contempt for one officer who somehow manages to wangle his way back to Bologne and home. And for another, also unnamed, who deliberately breaks cover and wanders up the road to surrender. His unit meanwhile, is eventually overrun. In the confusion of battle, the infantry battalions they are supporting, the Royal West Kents and the Buffs, don't even know the location of their Advanced Dressing Station, near Acheux, so his unit treats hardly any casualties from their own brigade. And then the Germans arrive.

Schire goes on the run with a Private Egan ('What he didn't know about scrounging one could spit in the eye of a mosquito!'), but after several days they are captured.

From there his progress is a march to Doullens, where he is separated from Egan and the rest of the Other Ranks. There's a further march to Meppen on the Dutch border and then he's packed off by rail to the first of his many POW camps, Oflag 7A, where over 1,000 British officers are held in the former castle of the Bishop of Saltzburg. Twenty-five of these officers are RAMC doctors. In the two months he spends there, Schrire loses 40 pounds in weight.

Though Schrire doesn't mention it, at some stage here he was allocated the German POW number 967. He's sparse with names and exact dates throughout, but two friends and colleagues he does name are James Cameron, the Medical Officer of the Rifle Brigade, and Victor Jessop, a peacetime doctor who served as an infantry officer with the the Queen Victoria Rifles.

One of my favourite moments in the book is Schrier's description of a lowly Lieutenant accidentally stepping on the face of the Major General sleeping in the bunk below him at Oflag 7A. One very flustered senior officer later and Schrire suggests to the Lieutenant that he should be, 'Boswell to my Dr Johnson.'

'When living in London before the war, I had dined and wined throughout the length and breadth of Soho and Mayfair.'

He regales the young man with mouth-watering memories of all the top restaurants in London. The officer dutifully notes everything down in an exercise book. Moving briefly forward six years, and Schrire recalls meeting the Lieutenant again by chance in the 'Coach and Horses, Notting Hill,' where the one-time fellow POW cheerfully tells him he's now in the middle of eating his way through that list!

'Some of the restaurants had, unfortunately, been destroyed by bombs and the standard of postwar catering in London had dropped drastically, but he was enjoying himself immensely.'

NEXT PAGE, continued.


Stalag Doctor by I Schrire, first published 1956