Sam Brearley was born on 23rd December 1912 at Bacup in Lancashire, and attended Bacup & Rawtenstall Grammar School, matriculating in Maths & English in 1929. He initially started work with his father in building business, undertaking night school classes in Building Construction but his evening leisure was fully occupied performing in amateur shows or as a solo performer at Concert Party engagements in the local area. During the 1930s he went to a singing teacher to improve his baritone voice and then to the Shaw School of Speech training. In January 1937, having seen an advertisement in The Stage for a Repertory Theatre position in Rochdale earning £4 per week as both an actor & an Assistant Stage Manager, he applied and took the job as an apprenticeship into the acting profession.
Sam was clearly a talented actor, since in January 1938 he was accepted for a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art Scholarship (for 1 year & 1 term) run by Sir Kenneth Ralph Barnes (who was director of RADA from 1909 until 1955. He took over the Academy of Dramatic Art five years after its foundation and turned it into one of the foremost acting schools in the world and was knighted in 1938.)
The outbreak of war in September 1939 meant that Sam, following a Pantomime run earlier that year, found that no new shows were being planned. Since his age group (he was 27 years old) was liable for early call up, agents were reluctant to take the risk of employing him. Consequently, he volunteered in April 1940 and by August 1940 was training in administrative office work for the R.A.S.C. attached to 1st Armoured Brigade.
In April 1941, Sam was taken prisoner of war at Kalamata harbour, in Greece, along with 7,000 other allied soldiers.¹ Sam’s war then became that of a P.O.W., which he has recorded as Sam’s Saga.
The Normandy Campaign
From Stalag 383, 50 miles south of Nuremburg
“From the end of 1942 (following the abortive raid by the Canadians on Dieppe in October) the German guards were constrained by an edict from Hitler to place all P.O.W.s in chains, and every morning for almost a year a German battalion would march into camp clanking and loaded up with chains slung over their shoulders, but soon they became loaded up with other things too. Two of them would enter your hut with a bundle of cahins, go through the motions of chaining you up, then out of their pockets would come saccharins, matches, cigarette papers, mouth organs etc to bater for soap, cigarettes or cocoa. They varied their wares every day, and that situation was the beginning of incredible racketeering and the time came when anything – and I mean anything – could be obtained from the outside by certain ‘big shot’ racketeers, with German contacts willing to risk all for the sake of a few thousand English cigarettes.
It was at this time that we acquired illicit wirelesses. There were dozens of sets around the camp acquired from various sources in exchange for cigarettes. Whoever coined the phrase ‘No news is good news’ certainly wasn’t a P.O.W.; the BBC news bulletins were as important as the Red Cross parcels for our welfare. The Kommandant’s ferrets could always manage to discover one now and then, but the main ‘official’ set produced bulletins for the whole duration of the camp. Rowntree jelly squares were set in a shallow tray, indelible pencils stripped to make copying ink and all that became a duplicator to run off copies for distribution.
Of course, we knew about the invasion. We followed it and as the invasion seemed to be moving successfully forward in August 1944 we held a Crazy Week. It started almost by accident, but we spent a week being as daft as you like without being censured because everyone else was as daft as you (we played ring-a-roses & leap frog; we dressed up as clowns & a ‘train’ left for England each day with everyone enacting out scenes of a traditional busy station). I suppose it grew out of a sense of hope and also concern for our immediate future.
Liberation didn’t come for us until May 1945, and we had to endure the extreme cold of January 1945, with temperatures at 23º below zero and no Red Cross parcels to supplement our diets. But at least we had been able to follow what was happening.”
¹The Battle of Greece, also known as Operation Marita, began on April 6, 1941, with German troops invading Greece through Bulgaria in an effort to secure its southern flank. The combined Greek and British forces fought back with great tenacity, but were vastly outnumbered and outgunned, and finally collapsed. Athens fell on April 27th, although the British Commonwealth managed to evacuate nearly 50,000 troops. The Battle of Greece ended with the fall of Kalamata in the Peloponnese (the southernmost part of mainland Greece).
Profile Update August 2012
Sam Brearley died in early August 2012, aged 99½ years. He had lived independently in his own home until a few months before his death, when he became ill and was taken into hospital. He retained his mental facilities up to the very end, but became weaker and weaker and passed away peacefully in his sleep.