Information for Veterans and their families

Gavin Clark

I received the following information and permission to print it from Malcolm Clark, for which I thank him. Please note the copyright if you wish to use any of the story or images.

Malcolm says:

My dad, Gavin Clark, who passed away in 2000, was part of the British Expeditionary Force that went to France in 1940. He was in the Tyneside Scottish - Black Watch regiment and was captured in a small French town/village called Ficheux, near Arras. I took the following snippet from the Black Watch Highland Society web site, which gives some indication about what happened. My dad was one of the young soldiers with "less than 8 weeks service". He may have been on of the same ‘young soldiers (who) charged tanks with fixed bayonets”.

Gavin Clark
(click to enlarge)

The regimental history says that they "went to France lightly equipped in the spring of 1940, and found itself in action during the retreat to Dunkirk with only eleven Bren guns. It made its first and last stand at a cross-roads in the village of Ficheux, which it was vital should be held as long as possible to prevent the enemy cutting off part of the B.E.F. The Battalion consisted of a mixture of some very old soldiers and some very young ones with less than eight weeks' service. Two elderly C.S.M.s were killed behind anti-tank rifles; the provost-sergeant was killed as he clambered on to an enemy tank to try and knock it out; some young soldiers charged tanks with fixed bayonets. This forlorn hope actually succeeded in holding up the enemy for some hours."

Following capture he was marched for about three weeks across France and Belgium into Germany where they were put aboard cattle trains. They travelled for three days and nights, 60 men to a truck, to Poland, first to Stalag XXA at Torun/Thorn and then to XXB at Marienburg where he was until 1944. While in Marienburg, he worked on farms and in a sand quarry most of the time. Once the Russian army started to advance, the Germans retreated from Poland taking the POWs with them. This episode was recently written about in an excellent book you might enjoy, called The Last Escape. Stalag XXB is written about in the book.

Anyway, my dad eventually arrived near Hanover in Germany in 1944 and was liberated by the American army in 1945. By that time he had been a POW for almost 5 years and was in a shocking condition that took a number of years to recover from. He told the story that the British Army classified him as "C3", which, he said, was next to death's door. He was severely malnourished and was suffering from TB. From what he said about the state of his nerves at the end of the war I think he may also have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He spent several months in US and British military hospitals ending up in a TB sanatorium in Weardale where he stayed for a long time until he was well enough to start working again. To give an idea of what how serious his condition must have been, he wasn't able to start work again until 1948 and then could not return to the heavy manual work he had been used to doing before the war.

Health problems, however, were only part of the ill effects the war had. On the personal side, he had not known that his own father had died until he arrived at Durham railway station upon his return home to find that his dad was not there to greet him. Furthermore, because no one knew for sometime after his capture whether he was alive or dead, his fiancée from before the war moved on and married another man.

My dad was always one who preferred the quiet life and, when I was growing up, his quietude would often frustrate me. However, looking back on what he went through - and bearing in mind that he was only 26 when the war ended, so still a young man - it's not really surprising, is it?

To be honest he never really talked much about what he went through and this seems to be a common characteristic of old soldiers in all nations and walks of life. Perhaps they can only really talk to those who have had the same experiences, or perhaps they would prefer to just not have to remember. I have read a few accounts now of life as a POW both published and unpublished and from what I can tell it was very, very rough with extremely poor conditions, never enough to eat or drink, and chronic cruelty and mistreatment. Many died, of course, some through ill health and exhaustion, some through execution. My dad was once put in front of a firing squad with three other men while on work duty, but the German officer didn’t go through with the execution. My dad said that he probably never intended to, but it was extremely frightening nonetheless.

He did outline the story on occasion and would point out places on maps if asked. He also told some funny stories, but about what it was really like, what he really felt, not really. Having said that, he gave an interview to a local historian about two years before he died and I just got a copy of that recording before Christmas and he said things I hadn't heard before, including the firing squad story.