Honoured at last: Irishman who escaped a German POW camp
Tom McGrath’s son will receive medals his father won after escaping from Stalag XXA
Stalag XXA: Cpl Tom McGrath, who escaped from the German prisoner-of-war camp in 1942. Photograph courtesy family collection
Until two years ago Tom McGrath had no idea that his father had served in the British army in the second World War. Neither did he know that Tom snr had been one of the unlucky ones captured at Dunkirk in 1940, when so many others got away. But even that was not the most interesting aspect of his father’s war service. In 1942 Cpl McGrath escaped from Stalag XXA, a German prisoner-of-war camp in northern Poland.
Between 20 and 30 Irish-born POWs were held in the camp. McGrath was an Irish emigrant in Britain when he was conscripted, at the outbreak of the war. After he was captured, German prison guards interrogated him, wondering what an Irishman was doing in the British army after all the British had done to Ireland.
On March 9th, 1942, McGrath found a gap in the wire and walked out of Stalag XXA with 200 Reichsmarks in his pocket, a supply of chocolate and some soap. He was wearing a suit obtained by a compatriot.
McGrath was sheltered by locals before one of them brought him by train to Berlin, an extraordinarily risky journey. From there he used fake ID to take a train to occupied Paris. He arrived on August 9th, five months to the day after he had escaped from Stalag XXA. From Paris he made another train journey, to the Spanish border, and crossed the Pyrenees in the middle of winter.
He was captured by the Spanish authorities and interned until April 14th, 1943. Ten days later, more than a year after leaving the camp, he was released and repatriated to Britain via Gibraltar.
Military Medal for bravery
On June 1st, 1943, the London Gazette , the official newspaper of the UK government, announced that McGrath had been awarded the Military Medal for his bravery in escaping from the German prisoner-of-war camp.
He never got to receive it. Instead he went back to his hometown of Portlaw, Co Waterford, and never returned to duty. He worked as a mechanic before meeting his wife, Elizabeth, with whom he set up the Lido Cafe in the village. McGrath died in 1968, when his son was 16.
Tom McGrath jnr recalls his father as a “very kind and generous man” who was respected in the community but was not keen to speak about his past. “That was a time in Ireland when you would not broadcast the fact that you were in the British army,” he said. “Finding this out at this stage of my life was destiny. I knew him as my dad and, like all young boys, had my dad up on a pedestal. He was extremely warm, kind and loving. Nevertheless I never knew until now how high that pedestal was.
“He never spoke about the war. I never knew about his experience. I have since found elderly people who knew him well, and they were astounded to hear the story of his achievement.”
Mr McGrath said he found out by accident about his father’s service when he tracked down first cousins in Waterford whom he had never met. He also discovered that his father never received any of the three medals he won in the war, while serving with the 51st Highland Division.
He wrote to the British army to request the medals, but he was told that his father had forfeited his right to them by not returning to active duty after leave. Mr McGrath won on appeal. He will finally receive the medals that his father won at a ceremony at the British ambassador’s residence in Dublin on Tuesday.
“I am extremely proud,” he said. “It is a celebration of his heroism and resilience. That’s what we will be celebrating. I’m also celebrating having discovered my Irish family.”