From deceiving death, paraded as a Prisoner of War across prison facilities in Europe and being ‘mourned’ by a family who assumed he was gone, the life of World War II veteran Mark Rodrigues is anything but ordinary.
World War II was fought between the Allied and the Axis forces that consumed the lives of over 60 million people and ultimately sowed the seeds of the present world order, and 95-year-old Mark Rodrigues is among the few who live to tell the tale.
Having suffered substantial losses in the early stages of World War II, the British Army looked to mass conscription. It was during that time that the then 18-year-old Mark was enlisted as part of the two-and-a-half million soldiers that Britain sourced from India.
“I was in my late teens. Therefore, I decided to forego my education and decided to join the British Armed forces,” he says.
Mark then had to undergo intensive training for three months in Pune, following which he was posted at the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre to fight for the Allies on May 26, 1941. After three months of additional training at Cairo, Egypt, Mark was posted at the Egypt-Libya border to work for the 19th Indian Field Ambulances as a store sepoy.
To rescue a section of Allied Forces cornered in Tobruk in Libya, the British Army, under Commander-in-Chief (Middle East) Claude Auchinleck, drew up a daring action plan — to launch an offensive from Egypt-Libya border in November 1941.
“The Axis forces had aerial cover, so our 11th Brigade’s convoy faced severe bombardment by low-flying aircrafts during our advance to Tobruk. It was on one such occasion that I jumped off a running vehicle, severely injuring my left palm and dislocating my finger joints," Mark says.
Though rescuers managed to pull Mark to safety, they were eventually surrounded by German forces in a counter-offensive which was launched by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Desert Fox).
“It was during that moment I came across the horrors of war. I witnessed a supply truck that was severely bombed, with the driver’s dead body still in the seat with a missing head. Even now I am haunted by that vision,” he says quietly.
Mark was among the several soldiers who were designated as Prisoners of War (POW) and held captive by Germans for a month at Tobruk.
Simultaneously, the British Army command wrote to his family in India that Mark was taken as a Prisoner of War, and his status was reported as ‘Missing’.
“My family lost all hope of seeing me and presumed I had died on the battlefield. Bells were rung and the 3rd day Requiem Mass was conducted at St Sebastian’s Church in Mangalore,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the German forces attempted to transfer the PoWs to another detention camp in Europe.
“In the middle of our voyage, our prisoners’ cargo ship was torpedoed in the Mediterranean Sea. As the ship sank, the prisoners and the crew tried to stay afloat using a wooden plank. With no means of communication, we were stranded in the sea for over two hours when a passing Italian (Axis) escort ship rescued us. Other captives and I were contained in the ship’s cargo hold,” Mark says.
While PoWs were generally treated poorly, the Italian Navy personnel noticed a rosary around Mark’s neck. “He was surprised when he learnt I was Catholic and he escorted me away from the rest and I was fed the most delicious Italian meal. It was the first time I had such food and I still cannot forget its flavour,” he laughs.
They docked in Greece, and the locals, who were encountering Indians for the first time, generously shared fruits and other edibles as the PoWs continued to be paraded on the streets. It was during the journey from Greece to Italy that Mark wrote back to his family in India saying he was safe, six months after he was first assumed missing.
PoW camp bombed
From Italy, Mark was against transferred to PoW camps in Venice, Annaberg and then to Epinal, France. In Epinal, the camp was mistakenly bombed by the friendly fire of an Allied bomber. “I scaled an 8-foot-high barbed fencing to escape the explosion and escaped the splinters by inches. I lost my hearing partially, but others were not so lucky. I saw a fellow detainee running around on having caught fire ... Many died on that day,” he says.
Mark was then flown to a PoW camp in Germany, and after a debriefing at another such camp in Munich, Mark was sent home from Heathrow Airport in London in 1945.
Life after war
On his return, Mark married Emiliana in 1955 and, in course of time, the couple had six daughters. A war hero, Mark was promoted as a store havildar. But due to his hearing loss, he failed the medical test and was de-rostered from the force.
Mark continued his education, completed a DGRE course and earned his diploma in Draughtsmanship and Licentiate in Mechanical Engineering in Madras. The ex-serviceman was re-employed in the defence establishment, where he gained knowledge and experience through associate membership of the Institution of Automobile Engineers (India) and studied and did his research in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). He served for over 30 years, and retired as a Senior Scientific Officer (DRDO Scientist).
Even at this grand old age — and despite severe hearing loss — his memories of his glory days are still fresh. He has a few handwritten notes about his experience that tell the stories of other Indian soldiers who participated in the war.
Mark, smiling mischievously, admits to having carried a diffused bombshell from World War II, which remains in his possession. He has set them up near the entrance of his house.
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