Tom Swallow by Phil and Patsi Swallow

Tom Swallow – War Hero, PoW, Petrolhead and Founder of Symonds Yat Rock Lodge By Phil & Patsi Swallow

Meeting of 11 July 2019

Tom started as a lorry driver at 17 (to earn enough to buy a motorbike). When he volunteered at the start of the War, his mechanical skills led to his being a dispatch rider (although like everyone else he wanted to be a fighter pilot). At 21 he was in Palestine, where the army discovered he was too good at typing to be allowed to enjoy himself riding a motorbike in the desert. He was promoted to Chief Clerk; learning skills that helped him to later run a business. Whilst waiting for officer training, he volunteered to take a column of trucks into the war area and got captured by the Italians.

In Italy, he was held in a disused factory for about a year, with one tap for 8,000 men and 700 men per hut, all lying on concrete floors. Things got so tough that two men a day were dying and shorter men like Tom had to give 10% of their food to tall men, just to help them survive. Men were beginning to just give up (the first sign was often not shaving). They started to hold meetings to try and create a sense of purpose, and Tom began the motorcycle and car club.

Being a group with many different skills, some in the camp built a secret radio and listened to BBC News daily; others developed cookers to maximise the scavenged fuel. Red Cross parcels eventually started to arrive with food and cigarettes. They bribed a guard with 850 cigarettes to bring in a violin and taught themselves to play. Tom was allowed the instrument for 30 mins a day, but was banned from practising near other people!

When the Italians surrendered, the prisoners were warned to stay where they were for safety, but the Germans took them prisoner once more. They were moved in cattle trucks to Stalag IVB in Germany, where Tom was in Hut 53B from 1943-45. Here Tom further developed the club, and The Flywheel was born – a magazine about cars and motorcycles.

They could only produce a single issue of each magazine, handwritten and painted on cheap, lined exercise books exchanged for cigarettes; using red and blue writing ink plus quinine from the camp hospital for yellow. They later bribed a guard to bring a child’s watercolour box to give more colours. At the end of the War individual members of the committee each took out one copy to preserve them. Eventually Tom persuaded them all to donate The Flywheel to the Imperial War Museum, where they remain.

He was repatriated in 1945, with his violin, and walked into the family home after 6 years to his Mum saying “Glad you’re back, one of the trucks has broken down, can you go and sort it out?” He married his sweetheart Lily and started a motorcycle dealership in the Black Country. All this despite having his ileum and colon removed in 1953 due to the prison diet. He refused to be limited by having a colostomy bag and still rode in motorcycle races, and later supported others preparing for similar operations.

He moved his parents Flora and Thomas to Pencraig in the early 60s, where they ran a small petrol station. He followed with Lily and three children in 1966, buying an empty Shell petrol station and workshops in Hillersland that had belonged to the star British motorbike racer Dave Simmonds.

Tom had already seen our famous view from the Rock on a postcard whilst a PoW. When he spotted the old ‘Dame school’ just below the Rock for sale he grabbed the opportunity and restored it into a family home. Next door to the garage at Hillersland was ex-miner Milson Cooper, he and Tom became firm friends. In the 70s, inspired by a visit to Canada and the US, he converted the garage into a motel with four double rooms and a restaurant (Symonds Yat Rock Lodge was marketed as the world’s smallest motel). He trained as a Cordon Bleu chef and once did 40 covers from the tiny kitchen. At the time it was the local destination for a smart meal. Tom and Lily ran it until they retired. In retirement Tom was still very active, he raised over £20,000 for the Red Cross, including donating the royalties from sales of the book made of The Flywheel.