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Harrowing wartime diaries made into book

By Toby Neal | Telford | Features | Published:

Secretly-written wartime diaries by a captured pilot detailing his harrowing experiences as a prisoner have been turned into a book by his daughter.

Spitfire pilot John Shanks of Pattingham.

It was only when the Albrighton home of Spitfire pilot John Shanks was being cleared for sale after his death that a battered brown leather suitcase was found in the attic containing the diaries, photographs, and documents, relating to his wartime experiences.

Life as a prisoner was tough, but worse was to come at the end of the war when the prison camp was evacuated and he and other prisoners were forced on what became known as The Long March, trekking hundreds of miles westwards in freezing conditions, with little food, and often trudging through thick snow.

Daughter Jeni Kingston said: "He wrote the diaries while he was incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland during the Second World War and, until their discovery, we knew nothing about his wartime experiences.

John Shanks is bottom row, third from right, in this photo which may have been taken while he was a prisoner at Stalag VIIIb, although that is not confirmed

"I have now finished transcribing them and have a publication date of January 28."

The resulting book is titled To Hell In A Handcart.

Jeni, who lives near Albrighton, said: "It was quite a gruelling and humbling experience for me to learn about Dad’s experiences, and to realise I was the first to learn of the physical and mental torment he sometimes went through.

Photos of prison camp life were among John Shanks' memorabilia

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"Even in his early 20s, dad was an erudite, pragmatic man with a deep-seated moral compass and an abiding love of his family, King and country. It’s an interesting read.

"With the 75th anniversary of the liberation and subsequent repatriation of prisoners of war incarcerated in Europe just around the corner, I want to get his story out there."

John Shanks hailed originally from The Hollies Farm, Pattingham, and went to Wolverhampton Grammar School.

In this diary extract John tells how he was captured

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When war broke out he signed up for the RAF and became a Spitfire pilot. He was captured after crash-landing in France during the Dieppe operation of August 1942.

During his time in captivity in which he ended up at Lamsdorf – that is, Stalag VIIIb – he secretly wrote diaries which he was able to keep hidden from the German guards and eventually bring home as a remarkable record.

He died at the age of 93 in October 2014, by then living in Albrighton, and the diaries and other memorabilia were found in the attic in October 2017.

To Hell In A Handcart is published by Matador and costs £8.99.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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