I WAS taken prisoner during the rearguard action that contributed to the successful evacuation of Dunkirk, having been wounded and lost my sight, writes Jimmy Shepherd. I was still confined to bed when we arrived at Stalag 9c in the Thuringia Forest. There a British medical officer asked me if I would like someone to read to me and as a result of that very brief reading it was suggested that my new-found friend Lord Normanby should teach Braille to me and my two blinded colleagues.
Pieces of cardboard were obtained and we inserted matchsticks through the cardboard to learn letters of the Braille alphabet. Lord Normanby had discovered the alphabet in a French dictionary. This was the beginning of a Braille school in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Starting with three incompetent pupils, it ended with 28 students, fully qualified in these studies and ready to take their rightful places in the outside world. Lord Normanby was the man who made it all possible. He had no favourites. To him we were all the same; to us he was our beloved teacher and the greatest of all men.
He persuaded the German authorities to transfer all blind prisoners to the camp, which came to be known as the 'Blind Men's Camp'. In 1941 we were told for the first time that we were to be repatriated. We left Germany in a Swiss train bound for the French coast but after a few days waiting at Rouen we were put back on the train, when the Germans changed their minds. Lord Normanby stayed with us day and night.
As we disembarked after our return journey he urged us not to let ourselves or our country down. 'Remember,' he told us, 'the Germans will derive great satisfaction from seeing us return, but when we step on to that platform we will hold our heads high and sing at the top of our voices 'Land of Hope and Glory'.' This we did, to the astonishment of the Germans waiting at the station.
Through the efforts of Lord Normanby, we were eventually repatriated. It was a measure of the respect the Germans had for the man that they permitted him to accompany us home to England in 1943. Repatriation was not the end of his association with the blind, however. He was immediately offered, and accepted, a seat on the Council of St Dunstan's, the organisation working for men and women blinded in the Services, eventually retiring as Vice-President in 1980.