Information for Veterans and their families
I had the privilege to hear from Jim who was also on the Forced March and was a PoW. He is going to provide me with some of his memories and experiences during his time in the PoW camps.
This is a story that happened in Poland in 1940. It was so cold the only work the Germans could give was loading coal at the rail yards.
Someone thought it would be a good idea if we could take some coal to the Polish women. There were one hundred prisoners and each one put lump of coal under his overcoat, when we marched off they dropped it in the snow. The Polish women and children ran out and picked it up.
The sequence to this story happened fourteen thousand miles away, here in New Zealand. My youngest daughter, who was going to teachers college here in Auckland, met a girl at the college and told her the story of the coal. She told it to mother, and unbelievably, her mother was one of the little girls who, over forty years ago, had picked up the coal! I would like to add here what prompted the men to get the coal for the polish women was they earlier at the risk of being shot, gone out at night and hidden food for us to find when we arrived at the work place the next morning. We got the coal for them to show our appreciation for their kindness to us.
Early in 1938, I was working for a builder as a joiner’s apprentice. I lived with my grandmother and worked there for nearly two years. I enjoyed working there until my grandmother told me my aunt wanted to see me. She wanted me to work for her on a big house which she owned and I thought it would be good working on my own. I left my job and went to work for her. I had to reconstruct the inside of the house and turn it into flats. She had a cottage built at the back of the house and she wanted me to finish the inside of that too. I worked there for a while but did not receive any wages and one day I got fed up I caught a tram into the city, were I met a recruiting sergeant and, after listening to him, I decided to join the Army, where we were fed, clothed and had a weekly wage, 100% more than I had been used to.
In 1939 at the age of 18 I joined the British Army in Birmingham. In May I reported to the guards’ depot in Caterham, Surrey. We were put into squads and given six months training. After that training, we went to Epping Forest and lived in tents in transit until we were posted to the Tower of London. Whilst we were posted there, our duties consisted of guard duties at Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London and St James's Palace. The First Battalion was in France and ours was being formed in the Tower. During our stay in the Tower of London the training was done in the moat below the road to Tower Bridge. Between training, we did parades and marching in the parade ground rehearsing the Presentation of the Colours to the 2nd Battalion by King George V. Some days we would have recruiting parades through London, which would take most of the day.
When the Germans invaded Norway, the British decided to send a force to Norway - the Welsh Guards - as a part of that force. The day we were due to leave I got German measles and was taken to hospital in London. When I came out of hospital I was sent to Camberley to join what was left of the company. I was then given 48 hours leave, before going to Holland. While on leave, my aunt persuaded me to stay a bit longer and she got a doctor to say I was sick and he give me a medical certificate to cover me. The doctor made it appear that I was tired and needed a rest. I was immature in those days and believed in what my aunt told me. That morning there was a radio announcement for all troops serving in HM Forces to return to their units. When I presented the certificate to the Sgt. Major I got screamed at and was told that everybody was tired and was placed under open arrest. On that day the company was packing up to move out. The Germans had invaded Holland and a force of Irish and Welsh guards were sent to the Hook of Holland to rescue and bring back the Dutch Royal Family. We were taken across on channel boats and came back in destroyers of the Royal Navy.
The whole of this episode is told by Captain Dai Tilley of the Welsh Guards. Eight days later we were in France.
Jim gave me a little of his background:
I am 83; I have a wife and two daughters and four grand daughters. I joined the army before the war in the Welsh Guards before going to France in 1940. I was in a Force of Welsh and Irish Guards sent to the Hook of Holland to give safe passage to the Dutch Royal family and government, and slow the German advance in the area. The whole thing was kept a secret - it came to fore with an article on the Internet by Captain Dai Tilley who tells the whole story.
I was taken prisoner of war in France at the time of Dunkirk. We were marched across France to Luxemburg where we were loaded on rail cattle trucks - seventy men to a truck. The summer of 1940 was very hot and dysentery was very bad. We spent four days in those trucks until we got to Poland.
Jim sent me this picture and says:
This is a photo taken in 1943 at a place called Finkenstein.We were in a working camp for part of XXB.
The Swedish delegate from the Swedish YMCA was visiting the camp and they asked the Germans if we could have a photo taken. The Germans agreed and we had to change all our clothes to look presentable. I am the 4th from the left in the front row (click to enlarge the picture).
24th May 1940
The weather was very hot, the Germans had marched us behind their front line. On capture they searched us and warned that we would be searched again and if they found anything like weapons or knives they would put us up against the wall and shoot us. I just undid the buckle of my equipment and dropped it to the ground including my emergency rations, which I later regretted, if I had known what was to happen to us, I would have kept my equipment on and taken. the chance of not being caught because for two weeks we just starved.
We found ourselves in a big field with thousands other PoWs of all races.
The night before our company had been ambushed in suburbs of Bologna - some were killed and some badly wounded. They were carried to a French dressing station to be treated and looked after.
The Germans wouldn’t give us water, we became desperate for drink. I spotted water coming out of a three storey building I drank some and straight away I realized it was drain water the result of which I became very ill with dysentery. I was taken to the French Red Cross who told me to take charcoal. Some potatoes were burnt black which helped the horrible pain.
The Germans ordered us on the road where we began to march for the next two weeks. The French women put buckets of water on the road side, the Germans came along on their motor bikes and knocked it over, they gave us no food and nothing to drink. We went on like this until we got to Luxemburg existing on only what we could find in the fields.
We were put into cattle wagons - seventy men to a wagon, with only a small window for air. The journey was hell. The wagon was filled with the stench of dysentery.
After two days they let us out for a wash down where the train engines filled up with water.
After four days we found ourselves in Poland We were taken to XXIB in a town called Schubin. We slept in the open and were lucky the weather was good and the nights warm. Here we discovered lice had moved into our clothing.
The Germans registered us as prisoners of war and we were given identity tags. Now through the Swiss Red Cross our families would know we were alive.
During this time food was still non existent, the only thing we had to eat was potatoes boiled in their dirty jackets, these were given out between 9am – 10am each morning. One morning we got our daily ration of potatoes and a man put his down for a second and it was gone - luckily the thief was spotted and caught. In the camp the toilets were a series of pits - the thief was taken and thrown into the pit half full of foul smelling human waste. A big crowd stood watching the whole thing - everyone learned a lesson that day - there never was any more stealing after that.
After the Germans registered us as PoWs they put us into working parties. They asked for carpenters, as I had served as joiner before the war I put my hand up.
There was one hundred men in the party and were sent to a place called Znin in Poland, when we got there they put us to work on a canal digging the clay banks and moving it in skips after a few days we protested to the Germans which was a big mistake we were charged with inciting mutiny and got three months in the lock up that was a area fenced off with barbwire and a tent to sleep in. it was a very confined space. It was the autumn of 1940 was very cold at night sleeping in that tent. Here I witnessed the first escape attempt, a few men got together and decided to tunnel there way out, every thing went well, the tunnel had gone under the barbwire but they miscalculated and dug to the surface too soon one of the guards stamping his feet to keep warm the ground gave way thus exposing the tunnel. I think this would have been one of the first escapes using a tunnel, it was about august 1940.
After three months they sent us back to the main stalag where they put us to work digging up graves in a Jewish cemetery taking the gold from the corpses, we refused and quoted the Geneva convention to them but they wouldn’t listen, it was only after some of us took a beating that the Germans took us back to the main camp. We were then locked up in a building, we slept on wooded bunks with straw, the place was infested with rats, and they would run along the overhead beams sometimes fall on you while you slept. One of the men was a musician he carried a penny whistle in his pocket it was an easy way for him to play his music, and every night he would entertain us, playing all the modern music of those years. He took no notice of the rats running across the floor. We made darts out of nails, and see how many rats we could get. We made it into a competition.
I found myself on another working party at place called Leslau in Poland it was from this camp we gave coal to the Polish women. The building was three stories it only had one toilet on the ground floor there were one hundred prisoners, each floor had an old empty oil drum for a night time toilet the men took it in turns to empty them if they got over full it would go through to the floor below, there would be screaming swearing from below for the person responsible to empty it. on this particular day instead of carrying it down stairs they opened the window on the top floor and tipped it out unfortunately at that time a unit of German troops was passing at that very moment and were doused in urine everyone braced themselves for what was to come , with fixed bayonets they charged into the building and up to the top floor knocking men over as they went , the German officer in charge of the troops was in a violent rage he said if he found the persons responsible he take them outside and shoot them with that he took his troops out we just could not believe how lucky we had been. As he was about to go down the stairs he turned his head, and still in a rage, He said I will be bringing my troops passed here for the next two weeks and if only a match stick comes out of those windows I will shoot the lot of you. It was from this camp that eighteen men escaped sixteen got caught and two managed to get to Greece and back to England.
After the Germans registered us as PoWs they put us into working parties. They asked for carpenters and as I had served as joiner before the war I put my hand up.
There were one hundred men in the party and we were sent to a place called Znin in Poland. When we got there they put us to work on a canal digging the clay banks and moving it in skips. After a few days we protested to the Germans which was a big mistake. We were charged with inciting mutiny and got three months in the lock-up that was an area fenced off with barbed wire, and a tent to sleep in. It was a very confined space. It was the autumn of 1940 and very cold at night sleeping in that tent. Here I witnessed the first escape attempt. A few men got together and decided to tunnel their way out. Every thing went well. The tunnel had gone under the barbed wire but they miscalculated and dug to the surface too soon - one of the guards was stamping his feet to keep warm and the ground gave way beneath him exposing the tunnel! I think this would have been one the first escapes using a tunnel this happened around august 1940. the big escapes didn’t take place till later.
After three months they sent us back to the main Stalag where they put us to work digging up graves in a Jewish cemetery wanted us to take the gold from the corpses. We refused to do this and quoted the Geneva convention to them but they wouldn’t listen. It was only after some of us took a beating that the Germans took us back to the main camp. We were then locked up in a building.
We slept on wooden bunks with straw, the place was infested with rats, and they would run along the overhead beams and sometimes fall on you while you slept. One of the men was a musician and he carried a penny whistle in his pocket as it was an easy way for him to play his music, and every night he would entertain us by playing all the modern music of those years. He took no notice of the rats running across the floor. We made darts out of nails and would see how many rats we could get - we made it into a competition.
I found myself on another working party at place called Leslau in Poland and it was from this camp we gave coal to the Polish women. The building was three stories it only had one toilet on the ground floor and there were one hundred prisoners. Each floor had an old empty oil drum for a night time toilet and the men took it in turns to empty them. If they got over full it would go through to the floor below and there would be screaming and swearing from below for the person responsible to empty it. On this particular day, instead of carrying it down stairs they opened the window on the top floor and tipped it out. Unfortunately at that time a unit of German troops was passing and were doused in urine! Everyone braced themselves for what was to come. With fixed bayonets they charged into the building and up to the top floor knocking men over as they went. The German officer in charge of the troops was in a violent rage he said if he found the persons responsible he take them outside and shoot them. With that he took his troops out we just could not believe how lucky we had been. As he was about to go down the stairs he turned his head, and still in a rage, he said I will be bringing my troops passed here for the next two weeks and if only a match stick comes out of those windows I will shoot the lot of you.
It was from this camp that eighteen men escaped - sixteen got caught but two managed to get to Greece and back to England. The camp was Leslau in Poland. I now recall how that escape was planned! The Pow’saws put on a concert. They had a couple of professional musicians and lucky for us they remained in the camp until we were moved, and it happened to be real a good concert. The men decided to use the concert to cover the escape. They invited the guards and they all came - except one man who was guarding the perimeter of the camp. The men worked out how much time it took the guard to walk round the outside of the camp, they cut a hole in the wire and eighteen men were able to get out while the guards were watching the concert! The Germans realised they been had, and so when the escaped prisoners were brought back to camp they had been badly beaten and the rough the treatment went on for sometime. One man was so badly beaten at night he would cry out for his mother.
Here are a couple of photographs that Jim sent to me (click them to enlarge).
The one on the left is an early photo of Jim with his sister after he arrived back in England. The one on the right was taken a few months later we the returning PoWs were given double rations by the Government for three months which helped them to get back on their feet.
The German in charge of the camp was a huge man built like a bull and the men nick-named him "The Bull". He had been a PoW in the first world war with the British and someone had taken his watch. That person walked past the camp with a girl on his arm and said, "..look Fritz what I got for your watch..". He never forgot that, and now he was in charge of British prisoners he took out his revenge on us every morning and night. He would line us up into three’s to count, the temperature was below zero, and we stood in deep snow - he would keep us there as long as he felt like it and if one of us did something to annoy him he would take a rifle from one of the guards and would charge into the PoWs swinging the rifle in front of him knocking down the unlucky ones.
Our daily trips to the rail yards were working loading coal. We would pass a barbed wire compound filled with Jews. When we walked past them they wore the yellow star of David and they would stand close to the wire and stare at us with a helpless look in their eyes. Whatever we had in our pockets we would throw over the wire to them - it was not very much. The Germans stopped us from doing it again. It was a pitiful sight to see those poor people and children behind that wire. Every one breathed a sigh of relief when we were moved back to the stalag XXIB, but this was short lived.
I found myself once again in working party of two hundred men loaded on train heading for a new destination which turned out to be Marienburg, East Prussia, Stalag XXB. Our final destination was a place called Finkenstein. It was a farming village, obviously most of the men had gone into the German army and they needed us to do the work. It was a state farm - thousands of acres of farm forest and lakes and run by a Nazi who they called "The Inspector". The locals were scared of him. He wore very fine clothes and was always in riding britches and boots. We called him "Yaya" because every sentence he spoke always ended in 'ya'. He rode a beautiful grey horse and this was the way he kept his eye on the work and workers.
camp was a very old building it had two wings separated by a smaller area
which housed the guards. Each wing had a hundred men in it and this was
to be our abode for the next four years.
The next morning we were paraded in front of the Nazi Inspector, who told us if we did not do better the next day our food would be cut back. That night the men talked about it and decided to put on a show for their benefit. The guard said "very good you are doing better today!", but he had not noticed the boys chopping out a lot more plants than they should have been, reducing the final volume of the harvest. After a while the men learned how to disrupt the work without being obvious.
Every day the Germans would march us to the centre of the village which would be a daily routine for the next four years. There, the Nazi Inspector would be waiting for us. He would then tell the guards how many men he required for the different jobs. Some men were located to specialist jobs like the wheelwright, farm hands for milking cows, shepherd, also gardeners and men to work with the horses and oxen as there was no such thing as tractors there. The transport was all done by horses and wagons and in the winter the wheels were taken off the wagons and replaced by sledges.
In 1943 I was ordered to work on the horses. I had never been on a horse in my life but here I was expected to ride and drive four horses pulling a heavy load. After quite sometime I managed to move them in the right direction. I must say I enjoyed working with the horses even though it meant being woken up by the guard at 3am every morning to groom, feed and harness them ready to start work at 7:30am.
It was inevitable that something would happen to me, not having the knowledge of horses. The wagon was loaded very high and everything was going very nicely when a German army convoy on its way to the Russian front, came up from behind going very fast and spooked the horses. The wagon hit a power pole and disintegrated, loosing the entire load. Fortunately the German foreman saw the whole thing, which was lucky for me.
The subject of escape often came up in conversation when we were sitting around at night. The Germans locked the doors at 7pm and the lights went out at 9pm. There were some very well educated people in the prison camps and they were able to teach others. I myself got to learn to read music from a mate who was a bandsman in the Royal Scots and it now enables me to enjoy playing the organ.
Another mate of mine got talking one night and we decided to give it a go to try and escape. We waited for our opportunity and away we went. We soon discovered that this escaping thing could be very nerve racking with the convoys going to Russia. The area was swarming with troops and we managed to keep going for three days. We were very tired and went into a barn and fell asleep in the hay. We were woken by a farmer pointing a shotgun at us. He handed us over to the Police and we were put in the cell for the night. We gave the policeman in charge some tea that we had saved from a red cross parcel to make us a cup of tea, we got no cup of tea or the packet of tea, we did not see him again until we picked by a guard to take us back to the stalag. We did not push our luck we thought it safer not to ask for our tea he was a pretty hard looking character.
KA guard arrived at the police station to take us back to the Stalag. He was a real nasty type. He must have planned something for the weekend and having to pick us up must have spoiled his social life so he was very bad tempered and because we did not move fast enough for him, he picked up his bike and threw it at us, causing both of us to have cuts and bruises.
On arriving at the Stalag the Germans put us into the cells until the next day. Then we were taken in front of a high ranking officer who interrogated us about why we escaped, where we were going and then told us it was impossible to get away because there were too many troops in the area, as we had seen for ourselves. He sentenced us to three months in the lock up, which was constructed out of a hillside with each cell measuring just over three feet wide by six foot long and the height under six feet. The cell was lined with barbed wire walls and ceiling so that when you stood up your head would be raked by the barbed wire the bed was a board, it was two foot wide which sloped to one end which made it difficult to get a nights sleep.
For meals, one day was watery soup and the next day a slice of bread. It was very damp and cold sleeping in those cells with just one blanket. I used my big army overcoat that helped to keep me warm. After I was released I was sent back to Finkenstein.
The German NCO in charge of the camp was very unpleasant to us for a few days after we got back but we managed to weather the storm and things slowly got back to the old routine.
Dances were organized to break the monotony. The guards were approached to have the lights left on longer. After a lot of asking and pleading they finally gave us permission. The dancers in the camp taught the non-dancers. To start with, the music was supplied by a few men playing mouth organs but slowly instruments started to arrive from the Red Cross in Switzerland and the music got better.
If the work was not up to the Germans satisfaction, they would threaten to stop the dances. As time went on the guards were replaced with older men, the younger ones were sent up to Russia. The teenagers were also taken for the army and they also took dogs by putting food on the tanks. The dogs learned that when they saw a tank it meant food so they strapped explosives to the dog so that it saw a tank it would explode on contact. The dogs in the village disappeared.
The winter of 1943 was below zero temperatures and heavy snow falls. The wagons were changed into sledges. There were four teams of horses sent into the forest to load logs. Out of the four teams I was the only PoW driving the horses, the rest were Germans. We came to a part of the forest track that cambered quite steep and we got them into a trot. The next thing I saw was my wagon passing me, completely out of control, it hit the trees and was a total wreck. It was late when we got back to the village and the inspector was waiting, looking at me because I was the only one with horses not pulling a wagon. The foreman in charge of the horse teams told him what had happened the first thing he said was "sabotage". He then said "I will see you in the morning". After I put the horses away, the guard who took me back to the camp said, "you have done it this time; you are in big trouble". I think because of the shortage of labour, and the fact that we knew the work, we got away with more than we normally would have and so it was back to the daily routine.
The Germans would only allow two men to go sick. One day, four men were genuinely sick. At the morning count they discovered four men missing so the German sergeant in charge of the camp sent in a guard with fixed bayonet to get two of the men out. They didn’t care how sick the men were - two had to go work. Because this was what was laid out in their rules, for one hundred men only one could go sick regardless.
From time to time the Germans would send out a search party from the main Stalag. It always happened while we were at work. We were lucky they never found anything because the men were very careful and had good hiding places.
By the end of 1943 the age of the guards was around fifty years old.
1944 came around and we only had one aggressive guard left. The others were much quieter. There was one who came into our room one night. He heard the chaps playing music and one had a violin. He said "do you mind if I could try". He took the violin and started to play. We soon saw that he was a real professional and the music was magic. From then on for two or three nights a week after the lights were switched off, he would stand between the two rooms and play. When he finished the men would shout at the top of their voices "More! More!" He would then say "one more and then I must go". We discovered he was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
1944 was the year that some of the men got frostbite, including myself. We had to walk six kilometers in wooden clogs to see a doctor. It was a waste of time because he didn't do a thing. They kept us waiting to see someone we thought would be a doctor but after waiting quite a long time they decided there was nothing they could do and so we had to walk all the way back to camp. In the mean time, the warmth of waiting room caused the frost bite to thaw which turned it into excruciating pain and walking back in the snow wearing wooden clogs in our condition was terrible.
In the village of Finkenstein was a Palace and owned by a Nobleman whose title was Graf Zu Dohna. In its history they entertained Napoleon and other famous heads of other states. Napoleon stayed there on his retreat from Moscow. The Palace was beautiful! I have seen pictures of it as it stands today on the Internet it is in total ruins - the result of the Russian bombardment in 1945 after we left.
I was in hospital recently where I met a man in his middle eighties who had been a PoW in Germany. I was telling him about my episode with frost bite and he told me medical treatment for PoWs was nil. He then told me they had taken out his tonsils without anesthetic! He described to me what it was like. The poor man must have gone through agony for some time. If someone had tooth ache the only alternative was to go to the vet.
When my mate and I escaped and were taken back to the Stalag to be interrogated. There were other men there waiting also for the same treatment and we got into a discussion about our situation. One of them was a Jew. He was in the British Army and was captured in France. While we were talking, a German guard came up to us to see what was happening. He got round to talking about the Jews, and to our surprise the English Jew said ‘’I am a Jew and there is nothing you can do about it while I am in this uniform.’’ Not a very wise thing to say. Everybody could not believe what he had said and I don’t think he did. The inevitable happened - they took him away and we did not hear anything more about him again.
Another chap in the Stalag was the nephew of a famous car manufacturer in England. He found it very difficult to cope with life in the PoW camp he signed an I-O-U for a race horse to get some bread. It was quite an expensive piece of bread!
Towards the end of 1945 there seemed to be a change in the Germans behaviour. Rumours went around. Until about Christmas time we could hear the noise of guns in the distance, then it would quiet down for a while. By January, the noise was more distinct and the word was the Russians are getting close. This created an uncomfortable feeling in the camp and also with the Germans.
On the 22nd January 1945 the guards took us out into the compound. They told us to get our things together and each man got a loaf of bread and a Red Cross parcel. For them to give that much food made us realise something was about to happen. They lined us up on the road. This was the start of the march to the unknown. We tried to get the guards to tell us where we were going but they would not answer. The guards had a horse and small wagon to carry their belongings, they were not young men and throughout the march the guards were replaced from time to time, some dropped out. After about three weeks we arrived at the Vistula River which was frozen over. More prisoners had joined the column, which by this time was stretched a long way back. From one side of the river to the other was quite a distance and it took a long time crossing it. The ice must have been very thick at that point but further down the river German troops, tanks and big guns were crossing. It was dark when we went over and it was snowing and very cold. A lot of the men had balaclavas and breathing through them caused ice to form around the mouth area. After about month men started to get weary and hungry. At the end of the days march, a watery soup was given out and most nights we slept in a hay barn. The weather was getting bad. We were going through blizzards, temperatures were below zero and it was about this stage the horse the Germans used for carrying their belongings dropped dead. It had just climbed a short hill, the road was very icy and it just stumbled until it couldn’t go any further. We marched day after day, February past then into March - sometimes we slept in pig sties at the end of a days march, other times in stables, but hay barns was were we slept mostly. It was in a barn that we spotted a farm house about 200 yards away. The other three chaps I was with thought we might be able to get to the farm house and try to get some food. We knew it was a Polish farm and we thought our chances would be good. We decided that I would go. I waited until it seemed quiet and no sign of any guards. It had just started to get dark when I left. I made my way down to the farmhouse and there was a man standing at the back door, he called me into the house he took me into a big kitchen with a long table with a crowd of men sitting round it all eating barley soup. They gave me a bowl of soup. I explained that I would like to take some soup to my three friends but he did not want to that, I then offered him my battledress jacket in exchange for the soup and he agreed. For that he gave me a big enamel bucket full of soup. The temperature was below zero and now I only had my over coat to keep the cold out. As I made my way back to the barn other PoWs were also trying to get back to it. I heard someone running across the yard to the barn and shots were fired. Then I heard the guards shouting "Halt". It was quiet. I then made a run for it and more shots went off. I was trying to keep my head down and I tripped over something and lost the contents of the bucket. I felt very disappointed. I could hardly face my mates. I knew how they were feeling and the look on their faces told it all. The next morning the Germans lined us up on the road to count us. They were four short in the count. They sent guards to the farmhouse while stood in deep snow freezing. It took them a long time. We heard shots and then the four PoWs were brought back having had a beating by the guards.
The four men were brought back to join the column. They said one of the Polish men had been shot but they didn't know if he was dead. We continued to march, some days long distances, other days were shorter. Whatever the distance, we just walked and kept our heads down. Some days we would be overtaken by big German convoys, in which case we had to jump into a ditch and lay in the snow until it passed. Sometimes if it was a big one, we would just fall asleep in the snow and would be woken up by the guards shouting at us.
One day we passed about fifty female Jews. I thought we were in bad condition but these poor girls - they were wearing sacks for clothing - and behind them was a very tall woman dressed in a nurse’s uniform. When we got further down the road we saw one of them lying in a pool of blood. Obviously she been shot; in all probability she was shot for not being able to keep up with the others.
By now we were in Germany which was being paid frequent visits by the RAF and the Americans. We were coming to the end of a day’s march a little Scotsman was wandering through the column searching for dog-ends apparently. The only thing he looked for was something to smoke. A couple of days later I saw again and in that short time he looked thin and his face was yellow. We slept in a barn that night and in the morning someone found him dead. He could not be buried because the ground was frozen deep so the Germans ordered that they put him on a farmyard dung heap and that's were he was left. I, along with my mates, felt very sad, that was all the value that was put on life!
Occasionally there was a funny side to all this misery. In 1940, a man got separated from his unit and was wondering across the country trying to catch up with his unit when he spotted a column of men walking along a road and recognised one man as his mate and took off after him shouting "Wait for me Johnny!" His friend was trying to wave him back but he kept going until he caught his friend up and found out he had joined a column of PoWs. It shows how close friendships were in those days.
The closer we got to Germany the more we got caught up in the bombing day and night. We arrived at place called Stendal. It had been bombed the night before and the Guards told us not speak or even look at any one. The feeling was very grim. We were taken to the railway yards which were devastated and we were put to work taking goods out of damaged wagons and putting them into undamaged ones. One of my friends found a block of honey and before we knew it, a crowd descended on him some. Some had home made knives and were digging into the honey, until finally the poor chap had to let go. All he got of the honey was what was stuck to his hands and the wounds to his arms.
We left Stende. We were now East of Berlin and were caught up in the heavy bombing. Sometimes a plane would get hit and the crew would parachute out. As they came down, our guards would shoot at them. When I first saw this happen I made a remark and one of the guards heard me. For this I got a rifle butt in my chest that sent me flat on my back. Things were going bad for the Germans and it started to show in their behaviour and I realised we were getting close to freedom and I had to keep my mouth shut and play it safe. I thought we must be getting close to freedom and it would not be very smart after going through what we had been through to push things. We had a couple of frights when the American planes dive bombed and fired on us but we survived that a couple of times and I still had this feeling we would soon be meeting up with our troops pretty soon.
Now the Germans were taking us South and were running into the dreaded SS troops. The first time we saw them was when we had to cross a bridge and they were laying explosives to blow up the bridge. Our guards had to ask them to let us cross. We had been warned by the guards not to look or speak. As we went over, some of the SS troops were shouting "hang them" and "shoot them", we all moved pretty fast over that bridge, sometime later we heard a big bang and someone said that’s the bridge!
It was now April 1945 and the bombing was very fierce. Planes were getting hit and brought down and we would see pieces of planes floating down. The weather was improving, but the food, once more, was none existent.
As the march progressed we seemed to be getting close to the British and Americans. We noticed that the old guards had gone and new ones taken over.
One day the column came to a halt. We had arrived at a blown bridge. We waited for sometime and then a small American plane flew over and dropped leaflets which said that American troops were about a mile away and would be coming in to liberate all prisoners of war and no harm must come to them.
By this time all the guards had disappeared, except two whom we had never seen before. One was a young officer and a private and became very friendly. After about three hours, a jeep drove up on the other side of the river. There were four Americans in the jeep and one of them got out and shouted for us to cross the blown bridge as best as we could. There was only one single beam that was possible to walk on and it meant that we would have to cross single file. With so many prisoners, it took hours to cross. The Americans apologized to us that they did not have anywhere for us to sleep that night. He then said if you go into that building you can find yourselves some bedding. The building was about four storeys and two of us went in to find the bedding while I and the other mate went looking for food. The chaps had found a mattress and blankets and we found bread and something to go with it. We built a fire and just settled down for the night.
The next day the Americans found us a place in a German Airforce Barracks, where we organized ourselves. Two found a bus and went looking for food while the others found a kitchen and got the sleeping quarters ready. That night we celebrated in fine style with roast pork and all the trimmings - we even found a piano to top it off. We overloaded ourselves with so much food some of us were quite sick the next day! We were able to get something from the American medics to take away the discomfort. We were given American rations and lots of vitamin tablets. We thought we were at the Ritz!
We were with the Americans for couple of days. We were then put into trucks and taken to an airfield and loaded into Dakota airplanes - twenty five to a plane - and were flown to Belgium. It was here that one of the planes with twenty five men on board crashed on take off, we all very nervous, after being locked up all that time and for this to happen made men start praying.
We landed in Brussels where we stayed with the British Army for the night. The next day they took us back to the airfield and this time Lancaster bombers would transport us to England. The pilot was an Australian. He asked us if we would like to see the Atlantic Wall and he did a detour and he flew us down the coast. It was a miracle that the troops ever got through those German defences.
We arrived in Oxford, England, where we were fumigated and given new uniforms and leave passes. The next day our dream had come true and we headed for home. It was a different England to one I had left the bombing had destroyed, so many buildings I wondered how long it would take to get back to what it was. After I reported back to my regiment they put us on repairing the damaged houses for a while they used men who had previously worked in the building trade. I stayed in the army till February 1946 and was demobbed in Manchester.
The first thing my Father said was “I thought you would have come home on a stretcher”.
were given double rations for the first six months and in that time I met
my wife and we were married on VJ day. That was fifty nine years ago and
we are still together.
In 1945 places to live where very hard to find.
I didn’t realize how being a PoW for five years had effected me until my wife, who was my girl friend then, wanted to go for a meal. The thought of eating in front of people scared me to death - I just couldn’t do it.
We arrived back in England, and after given medicals we were sent on indefinite leave, which lasted until October 1945. I stayed in the Army until February 1946 when I was demobbed.
When I left the Army I found life very difficult and I moved from job to job.
In those days accommodation was also very hard to find and this went on for two years.
The local council built some very nice houses and because I worked on a farm, we were one of the first to get a new house. We stayed there until 1952 and from there I joined the New Zealand Army (click the images to enlarge them).
I had ten years in the New Zealand Army and enjoyed every minute of it.
I have played a lot of golf and, until my retirement in 1980, I worked on a number of golf courses.
and his wife celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on 22nd August 2005.
What a wonderful achievement! Congradulations to them both. Here is a photo
of their day that Jim kindly sent me (click to enlarge).
sent me through a selection of Red Cross Journals that were sent to families
of those who were PoWs. Read them here.
Jim sent me this wonderful Christmas card he had sent during his time as a PoW in Stalag XXB. Please click to enlarge.
regret I have to announce that Jim passed away at 2am New Zealand time on
13th July 2006. He will be sadly missed by all those who knew him or came
into contact with him.
Here are the eulogy's from Jim's funeral kindly sent by his daughter, Louise. Click each to read it.
Marje contacted me to say her father, Derek Hunnisett, remembers Jim and has a photo of them both in the band. Derek was a member of the Royal Sussex Regiment. His main camp was StalagXXB although he was held at other camps and work party locations. Marje is now in touch with Jim's family and Derek's account will be on this site soon as a personal account with kind permission of Marje and her family.