Information for Veterans and their families
THE LOST SIX YEARS
1939 - 1945
by Derek Hunnisett
First Published in the UK in 1983 by Derek Hunnisett.
Revised and reprinted in 2008
Text © Copyright Derek Hunnisett 1983
The moral right of Derek Hunnisett to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No
part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form (including
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without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
MY DIARIES. THE SOURCE DOCUMENTS
FOR THIS BOOK
This is a story and an account of my wartime experiences of call up with the Royal Sussex Regiment, service in France and Belgium with the B.E.F. and my time as a Prisoner of War. This was a very different kind of war from that experienced by the fighting forces but still a war nevertheless.
I am not only writing for myself, but for all my comrades and others who were P.O.W.s. We were fighting, as I believe it, humiliation, boredom, loss of freedom. At times we suffered mentally and physically from the guards and civilians alike.
However one thing stood out, during the whole time I was out there; the British, more than any other nationality, refused to give way to their suffering. They caused trouble where they could and tried to keep their morale at the highest level, come what may. I couldn’t have served with a better group of men. Sometimes there were a lot of fights between ourselves, mostly because we were so hungry and had to watch every crumb, but our differences were soon forgotten and we were friends again.
If anyone was in trouble or sick, (with the exception of the odd one or two, as is always the case) not one refused to give all the help that they could, no matter how badly off they were themselves.
I kept a diary for most of the time from when I joined up. There were times that I had to hide them but I always managed it somehow. Sometimes they were sewn in my clothes, sometimes in my boots or clogs. If upon reading this story it seems a bit short and abrupt in places, it is where I have copied my notes at that particular time, so the narrative isn’t everything that happened. I have, however, put down all that I can remember from my entries and memories.
While in France and Belgium we seemed to do a hell of a lot of marching before coming to grips with the enemy. When we did it was short and brief but we endeavoured to do our best with the weapons we had. They were, unfortunately, not of the standard issued to our German counterparts.
The treatment we received whilst P.O.W.s varied with the guards. Usually the older ones weren’t too bad but the young ones were very provocative and overbearing. They liked to show their authority both physically and mentally. They never came to understand us though and often said we were mad and would laugh at anything. Perhaps they were right as if things went wrong or were bad, we always tried to laugh it off. The guards had a very poor sense of humour. I remember one occasion at Mogilno in Poland, a guard (a good one as it happened) tried to show off his strength to us, in the process of which someone pinched his rifle….. he didn’t think that a bit funny!
I can’t praise the Polish people enough, they were wonderful. The risks they took, trying to get food to us, were unbelievable at times. Very often we witnessed them getting beaten but it never stopped them trying again. I will always admire their courage, the women as well as the men.
There is one thing I will always be grateful for and that is the Red Cross Society. I don’t know what we would have done without them. Also to my family and friends who sent me out clothing and cigarette parcels. They were a godsend to me.
I was in our sailing club house on the beach at Eastbourne with all the members listening to the announcement. I don’t think it had sunk in what changes to my life this would bring. As soon as the announcement was over I, with several others, pushed off in our boats for the usual days sailing. It was a lovely day with a good steady sailing breeze. We hadn’t gone 500 yards when the air raid sirens started wailing the warning signal. (It turned out that they went off all over the country as a test). We didn’t know then and thought “Blimey they soon got over here”, but we kept on sailing as we thought it was no use going back; there was no time to get to shore before the planes could arrive and we would be just as safe where we were anyway. Within a few minutes the all clear was sounded.
On the 18th of September, two days after my 21st birthday, I received by post an official letter from the War Department stating that I was to attend for a medical examination for the Armed Forces at Hastings on the 25th of September. On the day, I arrived at Hastings in high spirits. It was a good job that I didn’t know what was in store for me in the future or I wouldn’t have been so eager to join up. Arriving at the centre we had a very thorough medical test, which I passed A1. I then signed a form stating which Armed Service I wanted to join, Army, Navy or Air Force.
Naturally I wanted to get into the Navy, so I signed accordingly, with a second choice of the Royal Tank Corps, as it was then called. I then received the princely sum of one shilling, plus five shillings extra expenses, which works out at 30p at today’s rate. I was still in pocket at that time though.
On the 11th of October I received my enlistment notice to report to Chichester, Sussex for service in the Royal Sussex Regiment on the 16th of October 1939 at 10am. So much for me signing for the Navy or the Tank Corps. The last unit I wanted to be in was the Infantry. (Still I suppose walking keeps you fit!). I was also sent a P.O. for four shillings (20p) advance pay. (I was rich).
On the big day, I set off by train for Chichester
after saying my farewells to family and friends. I’m afraid my family
weren’t very happy at my leaving but I must admit I did feel a bit
proud to be going. It seemed to me I was about to do something useful.
The thoughts of the realities of war were a long, long way away to me
at that time.
The first two days were spent getting fitted out with uniform, rifle and all our small kit. Then came a hair cut, although I had only just had one a couple of days before. Throughout we were getting the general idea of routines etc. All this was done at a leisurely pace with everybody being friendly and helpful. We thought, “This is a bit of alright”, but we had a rude awakening on the third day.
At an unearthly hour the Sergeant stormed into the room shouting “wakey wakey, come on you lot, outside in one minute, jump to it”. When we lined up outside in ranks of three, he was at it again, yelling “that was a lousy turnout, you’re in the Army now. You haven’t got your mother to wait on you, I’m your mother now and you will do as I tell you at the double. Left turn, quick march, left right left right, come on come on, pick ‘em up, get in step you”. Phew, I think all our heads were spinning a bit. I had heard of what Sergeants were like but thought it was just an exaggerated joke. I was wrong!
From then on it was intensive training, hours on the parade ground, drilling, marching….which we never did right for our dear Sergeant. From each exercise to the next, everything was done at the double. By the end of the week we all ached in every limb. Some moaned about it but surprisingly I was quite happy.
What I enjoyed most was the weapon training and
P.T. in the gym. I palled up with a couple of decent chaps, one in particular,
Hugh Holford. Although the majority were alright, the odd one or two didn’t
mix very well and couldn’t settle down to the strict discipline.
When we did rifle and marching drills, we had to shout at the top of our
voices “two, three” between each operation, so that we all
did it at the same time. God help anyone who dropped his rifle, as some
did. The Sergeant was on him like a ton of bricks.
The second weekend I still hadn’t got a pass and I was down for church parade on the Sunday. I paid a chap to stand in for me and slipped out of the grounds through a gap in the fence that was made especially for that purpose, without the Sergeant or Officers knowledge, and went home. When I arrived I was treated as someone special, although my mother was a bit worried that I had come home on French leave. Getting back to the barracks on Sunday night I couldn’t find the gap in the fence in the dark. I was getting a bit worried as I thought I would have to go through the main gate, passing the guard and guardroom and a few days in the glasshouse. What a relief when I, at last, found the gap, lifted the wire and was in. I did that quite a few times and was never caught.
We had a lot of training with the rifle, the bren gun and the anti tank gun covering how it worked, how to strip it down, how to put it back together and how to cure any stoppages etc.
One day, while on parade, the Sergeant asked for volunteers for boxing, which I did with some others. We were then marched to the gym, put through a course and thinned out to the best at each weight. I was lightweight and spent a lot of time training for the Inter Company Matches. My company, No.1 Training Company, got through to the finals which were held on the 4th of December 1939. We lost as a Company, only winning two fights out of eleven. I won mine with a knockout in the first round.
On completion of our eight week basic training we were all pretty good at the drills on the square and could strip and reassemble the Bren and anti tank gun to the satisfaction of our Sergeant….infact he was quite human towards the end. It was a very hard eight weeks but, I think, we all felt better for it.
I.T.C. The Royal Sussex Regiment
On the 11th of December we packed our kit and moved out, our destination was Seaford in Sussex for final training of a more practical nature.
Seaford suited me fine as it was situated just over the Sussex Downs from my home and I was able to get away nearly every weekend, with or without a pass. Arriving at Seaford we were split up into Platoons and marched to our billets which were empty private houses. Each Platoon consisted of about twenty four men. The cookhouse and mess were in one large building where we had to march in Platoon order and assemble each morning.
It was bitterly cold that winter and the billets
weren’t all that comfortable. We did get some fuel sometimes, for
a fire in the evenings, but spent most evenings in a pub.
On the 31st of December we went to Steyning on a firing course. It was a grand week - like a holiday – with no drilling or parades, just firing on the range with the rifle, bren gun and anti tank gun. There was good food and concerts were arranged on a couple of evenings. My total score was 164 out of 200, so I was quite happy. I wasn’t so keen on firing the anti tank gun though as it had a terrific kick on it. However, it was a very enjoyable week and we were sorry to go back.
Back at Seaford it was pretty rough. Up at 06:00 hrs, out into the cold (and it was COLD) , doing P.T. before breakfast, route marches, going all over the Downs on manoeuvres, bayonet practice and crawling through mud and ditches come snow or rain. There were humorous times as well. One awkward chap threw a hand grenade and it landed at his feet. The Officer in charge yelled “Lay down you stupid !******! you’re dead!”. Another time, whilst on exercise, we were guarding a post. Someone was approaching and was challenged, “Who goes there”. Back came the reply, “Me”. The Lance Corporal burst out laughing, “Come in Harrold you stupid !******!”. It was a good job the Officer wasn’t there. I and my mate thought we would be clever on one of the cross country runs. They were always over the same route depending which way we started, so we knew which way they would return. We tailed off the group and then hid in a barn until they came back. Unfortunately an N.C.O. at the back saw us rejoin the runners and we were put on extra fatigues all week. We didn’t think it funny at the time and didn’t try it again.
On the 15th of February I was picked to join a firing party at a funeral of one chap who had died. (Not through the war).
On the 13th of March I was transferred to the Holding Battalion, still in Seaford but in a much bigger house. The Holding Battalion was the final stage before going overseas. Hugh Holford was still with me and had been since we joined up. The training still carried on but with a more definite object in mind. The training was pretty tough. We did lots of route marches with full kit, took part in exercises all over the Downs and practised making use of available cover when attacking gun positions. Mock battles took place, attacking enemy positions and defending our own. I suppose it had to be strenuous in order to toughen us up. It did that alright and I’ve never felt so fit. I really did enjoy it. On the whole the chaps I was with were a good lot but I did lose things from my kit, they just disappeared. We didn’t get any sympathy from the N.C.O.S and Officers if any of our kit was missing and were told to replace it somehow which we did by “borrowing” from someone else! I think the Army teaches you to be a good thief but we never pinched anything from our own mates.
One day my brother Syd came over on his motor bike to visit us. He treated Hugh and me to a drink in a pub and then we took him back to our billet. During that day we had both been on cookhouse fatigue and we had brought back dozens of cold sausages, so we all three had a good tuck in of bangers that evening. I don’t think Syd was very impressed with our sleeping quarters though.
On the 29th of March we were supposed to have gone on draft, but it was cancelled. Then on the 13th of April we had a kit inspection. After packing all our spare kit into our kitbags we stowed them in the store and at 12 noon went home on embarkation leave. That was on a Saturday. It wasn’t a very long leave - it went much too quickly – but I had a great time. It was hard saying goodbye to everyone and I was beginning to realise more now of what might be in store for me. Up until now I had enjoyed it all, but saying goodbye, and knowing I was going overseas, it wasn’t so good anymore. It was particularly hard saying farewell to my mother, who came to see me off at the station. She was trying hard not to cry but I know she was very near to it. That was the last time I ever saw her, standing waving at the station.
On the 15th of April 1940 we started off in the morning with a kit inspection, packed everything in our kitbags and paraded outside our billet. We then marched to the station at Seaford where the train left at 11:30 am and arrived at Southampton at 3:15 pm. We boarded the Isle of Mann packet boat, The Louth, of Liverpool at 4:00 pm. The boat was packed but Hugh and I managed to find a reasonable space to kip down. We sailed and anchored off the Isle of Wight for about two hours before getting under way again. The sea wasn’t as rough as I would have liked it to be, just a gentle swell, but it was plenty rough enough for some. Hugh and I went up on deck but it was dark and we couldn’t see a thing but we had a wander around and I quite enjoyed it. There was a cold wind blowing, so we retired to our little space and endeavoured to get some sleep. It wasn’t comfortable though; there were quite a few being seasick whilst others were playing cards or singing. Others were just trying to sleep.
In the morning, as dawn was breaking, we went on deck, once more, to watch the French coast approaching. We arrived at Le Havre, in France, at 6:30 am. After mooring up we formed up in Companies and disembarked on to the quay. We were marched into a large building and were issued with a meal of bully beef, biscuits and a mug of tea. We then boarded a train for Rouen. The carriages were very basic and they rattled and shook all the way. We were very interested in watching the countryside slip by as, for most of us, it was our first time abroad. We waved wildly to the girls we saw on the way and they were just as enthusiastic in return. We arrived in Rouen at 5:45 pm. It was pouring with rain and we had a five mile march to camp, so we weren’t feeling very happy. To cap it all we were detailed to a bell tent that leaked like a sieve. (It must have been one from the Great War). It looked as if it had been raining for a long time as there was mud everywhere. It didn’t look a very promising camp. We settled down in the tent and I got out a bread pudding, that my mother had given me, and shared it out between us. It didn’t last long but was appreciated by all.
There was a lot of red tape, fatigues, guard duties, trench digging and route marches. On the 17th of April, Hugh and I went into Rouen for the first time (we had been issued with French money).. We made straight for the Salvation Army Hostel and had a good feed of eggs and chips. We then wandered around, sightseeing and having a glass of wine at several places. It was quite a large town, with a lovely cathedral, but it wasn’t very clean – not to our standards anyway. What amazed us were the toilets, which were just open places on the side of the streets. Considering we didn’t speak French we got on very well – they knew what we wanted anyway. We just pointed to the bottles and said “Vin rouge s’il vous plait?” It was a long walk back to camp; we weren’t drunk but nice and full.
The next day we moved to another tent because ours leaked so badly. The new one wasn’t much better, it still leaked. We were woken early by someone lifting the walls of our tent saying “You want paper Tommy?” It was a French girl selling English papers. We tried to get her to come inside, to see which papers she had, but she wouldn’t. (Wise girl).
There was every Regiment you could think of camped
in tents and a lot of rivalry between us with each trying to outdo the
other. The food wasn’t bad and there was plenty of it.
Coming to a large square we were amazed to see a train coming down the middle of the street. The buses were packed to overflowing with lots of people hanging on outside because of lack of room inside. We had a walk along the River Seine and I saw a barge that I had often seen in Newhaven harbour. We then found ourselves in a rough quarter of the town (it was in the side streets off the main thoroughfare) but decided to get out of there as soon as possible. We didn’t like the look of some of the men there and the looks they were giving us. It turned out later that that part of town was put out of bounds as several men had been waylaid and robbed.
We finished up in a very nice café where we met Bo Standing (who I knew from Eastbourne) and a couple of other chaps from our lot. It turned out to be a very nice evening but a rather wet one (inside). I don’t remember anything of the five mile walk back to camp – all I remember is waking up the next morning with what I thought was someone banging my head with hammers! I certainly celebrated Syd’s birthday that day.
Hugh and I were getting a bit browned off as we didn’t seem to be doing much except endless fatigues, route marches etc. On the 5th of May we heard that they wanted volunteers for 2nd battalion at the front, so we volunteered. Collecting our kit, we were taken to the station in an army truck. We left Rouen at 10:00 pm and arrived at Arras at 6:15 am. We had a short stop for breakfast before carrying on to Lillers, where we were picked up by lorries, finally arriving at a farm at Sainghin at 6:30 pm. We were billeted in a barn and were just settling down for the night when an N.C.O. shouted “Where are the new arrivals?” I was just going to answer when a regular soldier was with told me to keep quiet. Hugh spoke up and the N.C.O. said “Right, outside on guard duty”. I was glad I kept quiet.
The next morning I put on my uniform which had
been hanging on a nail. As I was walking down to the cookhouse for breakfast
I felt something slip down the leg of my trousers. I removed my gaiters
and to my surprise a mouse ran out. Thankfully it hadn’t started
biting! There was a roar of laughter from everyone but me, although I
saw the funny side of it later. The farm we were on was a very small one.
There was an old boy there who had hundreds of miniature bottles of wine
and spirits and he did a roaring trade with us.
Soon after we moved to St Floris where there was
another air raid and one plane was shot down in a dogfight but the RAF
then disappeared. Two German prisoners were brought to us. They were Air
Force men and very arrogant, trying to throw their weight around, but
they were soon taken down a peg or two. They were very quiet when we last
saw them being taken back to H.Q. (wherever that was).
We eventually arrived in Brussels to guard the British Embassy, where I went straight on guard duty. Guard duty was a bit of a farce there as the courtyard, where we were, was packed with civilians going in all directions. There were Belgian soldiers on guard as well. We didn’t like it much as we had to march up and down sloping arms and standing to attention, as if we were on a parade ground, while the Belgians were strolling about with their rifles over their shoulders, smoking. Talk about British Army bull! The Belgians thought it was funny but we didn’t by a long way.
I didn’t get to see much of Brussels as we were too busy on guard duty for most of the time and there were a lot of air raids. There was a hell of a lot of civvies packing up and moving out. In the latter part we were burning a lot of stuff from the embassy; it looked like they were getting ready to leave as well.
At daybreak on the 17th of May, the shelling and bombing started with heightened intensity. We were being hampered with hundreds of civilians not knowing where to go. All the Belgian Army had gone now. Then we received orders to withdraw. We were being attacked by the Luftwaffe that was screaming in low over the city and there was no opposition at all from our aircraft. Tanks were coming up fast behind a barrage of artillery. All the time we were retreating through Brussels the civilians we passed cheered us. I don’t know if they thought we were going against the Germans or if they cheered just because we were British. We were hampered by hundreds of civilians who didn’t know where to go. The Belgian army had gone and we had to withdraw. We were being attacked by the Luftwaffe, all the way, with the tanks close behind.
I don’t know what we were expected to do as there were only two platoons of us and the Artillery; we saw no other military at all and seemed to be on our own. We knew the Germans were coming up fast behind us and we didn’t waste any time in marching all that day and night. On some of the roads there were hundreds of refugees on the move, all carrying their belongings with them, some on carts and some just walking. They all looked scared and bewildered. Every now and again the planes came swooping low and firing along the roads. We gave help as much as we could but there were so many of them, I’m afraid there wasn’t a lot we could do. It seemed so pointless shooting up helpless civilians.
We met up with a small convoy and got a lift to Edde (Possibly Lede), where we managed to get on a coal train and arrived back in Lille in France. We went to the R.A.S.C. camp for a meal and a good sleep. We had no idea where our battalion was.
The next day, the 19th of May, about twelve bombers came over and knocked the hell out of us. Later we were on the march again and carried on all night, being machine gunned by fighter planes for a lot of the way. We seemed to be forever diving in and out of ditches at the side of the roads. We shot down one German plane as it came over low but that was more luck than judgement I think. We stopped at a small deserted farm and surprised two spies with a radio. We soon overpowered them. They were both French and we left them with a group of French soldiers. I doubt if they lasted long as they weren’t being treated very well when we left.
We arrived at Armentieres at 6:15 pm. on the 21st
of May. There were a lot of women and children killed here, and there
was no food for the refugees. Although we tried to find some we had little
in the way of success. Five of us were just going in one house on the
outskirts when we were fired on from inside the house. No one was hit
and we scattered for cover very sharpish. Three of us opened fire at the
windows and door while the other two managed to get close. They threw
in grenades and then there was silence. After cautiously getting in we
found two men in there, both dead, with some radio equipment. There seemed
to be a lot of spies about, called fifth columnists. We felt very pleased
with ourselves when the others came and found it was all over. I don’t
know whether they were French or German as they were both in civvies.
We were marched off again arriving just outside Hazebrouck where some of us were guarding a crossroads. I went straight on guard duty with the Ack Ack guns. The Germans were, by now, bombing and shelling non stop. Also Stuka dive bombers came over, the first we had seen of them. They made a terrible, demoralising sound, as they came almost straight down, emitting a piercing scream all the way. They were very accurate in their bombing.
The bombing became so fierce that we had to withdraw.
We made our way to a wood, using ditches and cover as much as we could.
The wood wasn’t very dense and had a road running through it. We
were told to stop anything coming through. We were split up again, leaving
only three Platoons and some Artillery. I did manage to get a little sleep
that night, the first for about three days. My feet were all swollen and
Suddenly we saw them coming towards us. The Officer called “Hold your fire” but they were coming ever nearer through the trees. I kept thinking “For Gods sake hurry up and give the order to fire!” as they seemed to be getting very close. At last the order came, we opened up and they all scattered back like rabbits. It was a nice sight to see them scattering and disappear – some didn’t though, they stayed where they were, very still. All my fear had gone now; I don’t think I thought of anything really; now that we had started doing something it took our minds off other things. The fact that we were firing on other living people didn’t enter our heads; all we thought of was to keep them away from us.
They kept attacking and getting closer throughout the morning and then my blasted rifle jammed. I had had trouble with it before and got down in the trench to fix it and as I did there was an almighty explosion right on the edge of the trench. A hand grenade had landed there and as both my mates slid back into the trench, dead, my fears had come back. There was blood everywhere and I couldn’t hear a thing for a few minutes as the blast had deafened me. I thought Jerry would follow it up and be on to us, so I scrambled up and started firing as fast as I could at anything I could see. All around me our boys were doing the same and we beat them back for a while. Then came the order to withdraw, which we did in stages, with heavy covering fire. When we had reformed further back I found that Hugh was still alright – we were glad to see each other and said we would stay together from now on.
By now we had retreated towards the edge of the woods and decided to try to get out and hole up somewhere outside, but we were beaten to it. As we approached the edge there were bursts of machine gun fire and Hugh, who was about two to three feet in front and to the left of me fell screaming “You bloody !*****!” I dropped flat with bullets flying all around, I had never moved backwards so fast and so close to the ground. I looked around for Hugh but he was beyond help. He was laying so still and in an unnatural position. How I survived without a scratch I will never know, as we lost a lot of men there.
We scrambled back, what was left of us, and made our way to another part of the woods. We could hear the Germans behind us, shouting. We came to another dip in the ground and tried to make another stand to beat them back, but there were too many of them for us. We managed to get to the edge at another spot and the Officer, who was still with us, said “It’s hopeless, look.” As we peered out into the open we saw a line of Tanks and Infantry. One chap said “God, it’s the whole bloody German army!” We could do no more with those out there in the open, just waiting for us, and we could hear the others coming up behind us, so we took the bolts out of our rifles and threw them away. The Officer went out waving a white handkerchief, with us following.
The Germans ran forwards shouting “Hans Hoch”
and marched us back to their troops, jabbing with their rifles to keep
us moving. They lined us up, (there was only about fifteen of us left
out of three platoons) and ordered us to turn out our pockets. I had three
hand grenades in my pouches and, without thinking, threw them on to the
ground with the other things. I thought my last moment had come as they
all jumped back, started shouting and levelled their rifles. They pushed
me to one side, I’ve no idea what they said but we got over all
that and they returned all our private possessions. One of them said “For
you Tommy the war is over, we will be in England in two weeks.”
Apparently they said that to every P.O.W. when he was caught.
The Germans who overran us were the crack storm
troops, the cream of the German Army. They treated us quite well, on the
whole. They gave us some soup and bread and treated any who wanted medical
treatment. There were some in Red Cross trucks though who were wounded,
and if looks could kill we would have died on the spot. After a while
they took us further back, in trucks and handed us over to a camp where
there were hundreds more British and French P.O.W.s. The French looked
as if they had come prepared with many having suitcases or kitbags packed
with food and clothing; there was a very bad feeling between us. I hadn’t
got anything to put the stew in that they were dishing out but after hunting
around I found an empty pear tin, which I used. It had to do for the coffee
as well, as I couldn’t find anything else. We slept in the fields
ringed by armed guards. It was a bit of a shambles but the weather was
kind to us and stayed dry.
We marched all the next day and got another half a tin of stew and three biscuits at 8:00 pm. We passed thousands of refugees on the road and it was heartbreaking to see the state some of them were in and the way the Germans treated them.
On the 30th of May we were up at 5:00 am. There was no food and I passed out for a few minutes before we started marching again. I guess it was down to lack of food and exhaustion. We marched for the rest of the day and into the night. At 12:30 am on the 31st we were given a loaf of bread between six men and a tin of watery stew. My feet were in a hell of a state by now, swollen and bleeding. I had to cut the sides of my boots to get them on.
The guards we had now were a lot different from the ones who had captured us. They had treated us as fighting men and with a certain respect. The new ones, though, were very arrogant and abused us all the time. They were always shouting “Los Los Schnell” which means, roughly “get a move on quickly”. These were the first words that we got to know.
I met two of my mates, John Matheson and John Bedford. We were up again at 6:30 am on the 31st. I had a drop of stew in my tin and a loaf of bread between six men. I don’t know what their bread was made from but it tasted like sawdust (about the size of one of our small tin loaves) and the stew was watery stuff with nothing much in it – more like cabbage water.
We arrived outside Cambrai at 6:45 pm but there was no more food. Thousands of prisoners were there, including French and Belgians. They seemed to get all the grub; we didn’t get any. I went to Cambrai on the 3rd of June with a small party to clear the station. I managed to get some jam and dripping that I pinched from a store. Back at the camp it was a meal of stew and six to a loaf – plus the jam and dripping that I shared with the two Johns. While eating what we had I heard my name called out and much to my astonishment a chap came up to me called Joe Kerr. He was a friend of my brother Syd, who lived across the road from us at home; he was in the Tank Corps. We exchanged a quick greeting and then he dashed off to try to get something to eat, saying he would see me later but I never saw him again.
I have no idea of how many miles we covered during the days on that march. Several of our men were shot for either not moving quickly enough for them or loosing their temper and shouting back at the guards; that was fatal. In our weak state it was hell. We were all feeling very low in spirits still and couldn’t march in step but just kept going as best we could, putting one foot in front of the other. They always said “Only another two kilometres” but it stretched on and on. We were in a perpetual, stupefied daze; our only thought was that we had to keep going.
The next day we left Cambrai station crammed into cattle trucks, seventy men to a truck. We were locked in and there was only one tiny barred window in each corner. We had no food at all. It was terrible in those trucks; there was no room to move about, much less lie down and we had to stay in the one spot all the time. That night was pure hell. Every so often someone would shout “Where’s the bucket?” and it would be passed over our heads to the person, he would use it, and back it would go over our heads to the window to be emptied if possible. More often than not more came back in than went out. It’s just impossible to describe what it was like in there. They let us out in the morning, before we got to the station. There was a quick dash to the edge of the embankment, row upon row of bare bottoms and then back on the train.
We stopped at a station in Belgium and had a slice of bread at 6:30 pm. We moved off again at 8:00 pm. without getting off. We tried to get a bit more organised that night. Half of the men crammed tighter at one end of the truck (if that were possible) and the other half tried to lay down and get some sleep. Even the there were six or seven pairs of legs on top of yours. You would struggle to get yours on top, get some sleep, and then wake up to find your legs numb and at the bottom again. That went on until it was time for the other half to have a go. I don’t think it was much better - I do know I didn’t get much sleep – and the bucket was in use all night long. By now the atmosphere in there was pretty high, to put it mildly. We stopped at a place for about three hours. It was near a town or a station but I don’t know where. There was an air raid and the chap by the window was trying to peer out of it and give a running commentary of what was happening. We didn’t feel very safe in that confined space. It was a very slow journey, with lots of stops, but they never let us out once.
At 8:00 pm on the 6th of June we arrived at Trier, on the German/Luxembourg border, and were marched two miles to a prison camp. We were given a loaf of bread between six men and a piece of cheese at 11:00 pm. When we divided the bread up between us, one chap cut it up into as equal portions as he could (with all the others watching him like a hawk). He then put them under cover, held one portion, called out “Who’s for this piece?” Someone would say “me” and so it went on until everyone had had his share. It was the fairest way as no one could say that someone had had a bigger piece than he had. It was the luck of the draw; the system worked very well and was used all the time I was there when there were things to share.
The next day I was up at 6:30 am. I had a tin of coffee and then lined up and waited six hours for bread and jam which we never got. We lined up again for tea at 8:00 pm and still didn’t get any. At 9:15 pm we were marched off to the station at Trier and crammed into cattle trucks again. (Still 70 men to a truck.) At 11:00 am the next day we stopped and were given a piece of bread and a bowl of soup by the German Red Cross. That was the best meal since we had been captured. I tried to keep the bowl but they were watching too closely.
9th June. The previous day and night on the train had been terrible; it was only stopped once to let us out and line the embankment to stretch our legs etc. Two of the men were very sick, although we were all feeling pretty rough. If you can imagine seventy men crammed tight in there, the weather was very hot, there wasn’t a lot of air and the stink was unbearable. It was hell.
We arrived at Schubin in Poland at 8:00 pm. We scrambled out and then marched about two miles (it seemed like twenty) to a Stalag. John and I helped a sick man all the way, with us holding him up as he walked between us. Some Polish women gave us coffee and bread on the way and, for a change, the guards allowed them to. The country was flat, which was a blessing I suppose as at least we didn’t have any hills to climb. It was very dusty and hot and I felt very dirty. What wouldn’t I have given for a nice hot bath? The Polish women we met tried to talk to us but I haven’t a clue what they said. They didn’t look very happy or very well off; I don’t think they could afford to give us what they did but they seemed to be pleased to do so and we appreciated it very much.
Schubin was a small P.O.W. Stalag. A Stalag is a main camp where there are hundreds of prisoners and acts as a centre for working parties. There were Polish P.O.W.s there as well but we were separated from them by a barbed wire fence. Around the entire camp there was a double wire fence with sentry boxes, spaced at intervals and manned by guards with machine guns. The sleeping quarters were long huts fitted with two tier bunks. Roll call (Appel) was held every day at 7:00 am and 6:30 pm. We were supposed to stand in rows of five but they lasted so long (the Germans were terrible counters and they had to do it about four or five times every roll call) and we were so weak that we kept dropping down to a sitting position. This didn’t help their counting, or their tempers and they would start shouting threats of all sorts until we stood up. Then they would start again until they finished to their satisfaction.
During the next few weeks we did nothing but dodge the camp fatigues, such as emptying the latrines and clearing the compound etc. The daily routine consisted of roll calls and lining up for meals. Breakfast was a piece of bread and coffee. Dinner was soup or stew (there was no difference) and a potato. Tea was a piece of bread with either a spoonful of jam or margarine, or a piece of sausage, and coffee. The bread varied between four and six men per loaf and were still of the same size. They were black and very coarse, just like sawdust. The German Army had the same sort of bread issued to them.
During this time I sold my pocket watch for a loaf of bread, a packet of tobacco and forty pfennigs to a Polish P.O.W. It was a Polish loaf, which were about a foot across and four inches thick. The watch didn’t work but it didn’t seem to worry him.
One day I saw some chaps looking through the seams of their clothes. I didn’t know what they were doing at the time but I soon found out when I became lousy as well. We couldn’t get rid of them however hard we tried. There was a canteen there but it wasn’t of much help as we never had any money issued to us. All we had was what we could flog to the Poles but nobody had much to flog. There wasn’t much to buy in it anyway and it was mainly for the Poles who had been there a long time and were paid a little for working on outside farms although I did buy a loaf of bread with the forty pfennigs.
On the 22nd John Bedford and I volunteered for a working party, hoping to get some extra food. After three quarters of an hours marching we arrived at a farm and started work on a threshing machine. In the afternoon we filled palliases with straw. We got an extra loaf between twenty men! It worked out as a very thin slice each, so it was hard work for nothing.
We mostly spent our time walking around the compound, talking mainly of food and what we would buy when we were home. We went to sleep thinking of it and woke up thinking of it.
On the 23rd, three hundred men were selected to move out the next day. Harold Spencer, John Bedford, Shorty Rickard and I were picked but John Matheson wasn’t. He had been pretty sick for several days now and we were sorry our little group had been broken up. John Matheson felt it badly and we were sorry to leave him behind.
We were up at 4:00 am, issued with a third of a
loaf of bread and half a sausage, and moved off at 5:45 am for the station.
With fifty men to a truck it wasn’t quite so cramped as before,
and it wasn’t such a long journey, but we were glad to get out when
we finally reached Poznan at 2:30 pm. They then marched us through and
around the town in, what we later found out, was a victory march for them,
and to show us off to the Polish people. The Poles were very good to us
(or at least they tried to be). They attempted to get food to us on the
way but were beaten back by the guards with their rifle butts. There was
one teenage girl being beaten on the ground. We all started shouting and
moving towards them which made the guards concentrate on us. They fired
their rifles over our heads and it got a bit ugly for a time, but we were
pleased to see that they had left the girl and she was being helped back
by her own people. All around the town there were scuffles with the Poles
when they tried to give us food. A lot got away with it but some didn’t.
We didn’t get anything to eat that day – they couldn’t get the fires going. The next day we did get a watery stew and a drink of coffee late in the afternoon but that was it for the day.
On the 27th we went on a working party, road building, and managed to get some bread from the poles. They were very good to us and took a lot of risks. Every day after that, while we were there, the routine was more or less the same. Roll call morning and evening and three quarters of an hours march to the road works. The work sometimes varied to working in a sand pit or cleaning out a building. We spent our evenings bug hunting in our clothes – we were crawling with lice by now, it was impossible to keep them down. We were getting one meal of soup per day (it was just like cabbage water and two drinks of coffee (I heard they made it from burnt acorns – it was horrible anyway).We never saw any water, that all went for cooking, so most often we went dirty. It was no wonder we were lousy.
On the 30th of June there was nearly a riot. I don’t know what started it to this day but I was sitting in the moat with my mates when there was a lot of shouting. The guards came running out on to the drawbridge and started shooting into the moat. Everyone scattered for cover and then started to throw stones, or anything we could get hold of, at the guards. They then brought out the machine guns and opened fire so we retreated into the fort. The guards came in, in force, and threatened to shoot some of us but it eventually quietened down. Miraculously no one had been hit. Soon after the Sergeant in charge of the camp came round and asked everyone to sing as loud as they could. We did and created a terrific din – it was the only way we could show the Germans our contempt for them. I think they thought we were mad.
On the 2nd of July I sent my first card home to my mother and father. I wrote that I was very well and being treated well. I couldn’t do much else as I didn’t think it would get to them if I told the truth. Also they would worry a lot more then. I was getting very thin and I kept putting fresh holes in my belt.
On the 9th of July Typhoid had broken out and John was very ill – as if we didn’t have enough to cope with. A quote from my diary reads “meals very bad here, goes straight through us, men falling while marching to work, it’s terrible here, barely enough to keep going, steadily becoming weaker.”
The entry for the 23rd reads “ I managed to get a few potatoes so we cut them up into as thin slices as possible and ate them raw in our soup. My ankles are very bad now, they are both poisoned and I have got a rotten cold. Altogether I feel pretty lousy. Had to get rid of what was left of my socks. I haven’t any others to wear. Swapped some tobacco I had left from selling my watch (I didn’t smoke then) for a very small blanket. (It was very welcome at night.)
On the 27th a crowd of us got together and had
a sing song. It brought back a lot of memories; we sang all the old songs
and it was a very good evening. My ankles were in a hell of a state by
now and it was a job walking, let alone working. They were chafing on
the boots due to having no socks. By now I also had a lovely beard. Tempers
were very short and there were frequent fights. There was a good one in
our room between a Scot and an Irishman who beat the hell out of each
other and five minutes later were the best of pals again. All the fights
started from nothing really but at the time the little things seemed more
On the 24th of August, I couldn’t believe it but a guard pinched a loaf of bread and gave it to us. I also found a packet of tobacco that a Pole had put in a sand truck for us.
Three of the men back at the camp were beaten up by our own men for letting the guards take a photograph of them giving a Nazi salute. They were beaten up pretty badly and had to be sent to hospital in the town. I bet they didn’t do that again. We were terribly lousy now and every seam in our clothes were full of lice and eggs. We would burn them out with lighted cigarettes and matches but it was a hopeless losing battle. I swear my shirt would have moved on its own if left on the ground.
On the 26th of August we were paraded outside with all our kit and marched to the station. At 1:00 pm we left, fifty to a truck, and arrived back at Schubin at 5:45 pm. We were glad to get away from Poznan – nothing could be worse than that place.
Back in Schubin Stalag on the 27th of August we found that the place is better organised than when we were here last. However it was still a scramble to get our food and still the same watery stew and six men to a loaf. The bread issued at breakfast was supposed to last for tea as well and I was becoming expert at cutting it up into as many thin slices as possible.
I had a medical inspection and at last I had something to put on my ankles. Also two pieces of flannel were issued to us to use as socks. I had to have my hair and beard cut off so I was now as bald as a coot. I also had a bowl issued so I was able to throw away my old pear tin. I had got quite attached to it but I wasn’t sorry to see the back of it as it was getting a bit battered and rusty.
I sold my wristwatch to a Pole for five German Marks. I didn’t like getting rid of it, as it was a twenty first birthday present from my parents, but I’m afraid I was too hungry to be sentimental about it – I’m sure they wouldn’t have minded under the circumstances. I also swapped my shirt for a loaf of bread. (I threw in the lice for nothing!)
On the 4th of September I had my first Red Cross issue. It consisted of one tin of milk, a third of a tin of marmalade, half a bar of chocolate ten fags and three cheese spread. It went down well – I had forgotten what things like that tasted like. On the 7th I was issued with a Polish Cavalry greatcoat. It came down to my ankles and went around me nearly twice. I also got a blanket, pants and two more squares of flannel for socks.
With the money I got for my wristwatch I was able to buy extra bread, jam and biscuits from the canteen, which opened for one hour a day. The British still hadn’t any money to spend, apart from what they could sell their personal possessions for to the Polish P.O.W.s.
It was very monotonous there with nothing to do but wander along by the barbed wire fence between roll calls and queuing up for our meals and rations. We talked endlessly of the food we would buy when we got back home. One good thing about being back at the camp was that with less marching my ankles were getting much better. Although there wasn’t much to do there we were glad that we were away from Poznan. Also we did get a bit better food, although it still wasn’t very good. There were a lot of men there that couldn’t take it and went round the bend. It was pitiful to see some of them and some just died.
I met John Matheson there again. We were pleased to see each other and had a lot to talk about. He hadn’t been away from the Stalag and he looked worn out and thin. I wondered if I looked the same to him but we were to part again. I was picked to go on a working party on the 9th and he wasn’t on it – or any of my mates for that matter. I didn’t like to stay in the Stalag for long as it was very demoralising and I hoped that this working party would be better than the one at Poznan. I didn’t think it could be any worse.
On the 9th of September, thirty of us were issued with one third of a loaf and, after saying cheerio to all our mates, we paraded on the compound and moved off. We were cheered off by all the other men as was the practice when any party left. Upon arriving at the station at Schubin we were put in a cattle truck and we moved off at 8:00 am. After a very slow journey we arrived at Mogilno.
Mogilno was a very small town and in better times it would have been a peaceful, pretty place. When we alighted from the truck we were taken to a hut and given a bowl of soup, which was quite thick for a change! We were then marched through the town and came to a convent on the outskirts. (This was a Benedictine Monastery not a convent.) We were billeted ten to a room and given a loaf of bread between four – a big Polish loaf too. We thought that perhaps our luck had changed at last because we had been treated better this day than at any time since we had been captured.
The convent was built on top of a hill overlooking a very wide river. There was a twelve foot wall running along one side and then about thirty feet between the wall and the convent, which had a church adjoining it. This was locked to us and the guards. We had a good sized room with a stove in one corner. The Fuhrer (Officer I/C) came around to each room and said that we would get bunks later on and hoped we would be comfortable. That was the first time that anyone had said that to us. He was only a little chap but he seemed very human, especially considering what we had seen of the Germans so far. We had a meal of thick pea soup later and we all hoped that this was a good sign that this would be a good camp.
Our job was to build a barbed wire fence around the rest of the building, from the wall and get the place organised for a P.O.W. camp for more men who would come in later on. The camp was to be a base for road building.
That week, until the 15th was the best time I had known since early May. The food was better; thick pea soup, more bread (four to a loaf and Polish bread at that) and we received a lot more extras that the Poles slipped to us over the wall. Even the guards didn’t take much notice of this. When we had to go into town for anything the locals always put bread and tobacco in places where we would find it. We built two tiered bunks in each room and I had a top one in the corner. Although the windows were barred we had a fine view over the river which was about one hundred and fifty feet across. The guards were quite good and turned a blind eye to what was going on, when the Poles gave us things. Some evenings, when it was fine, they let us sit on a flat parapet on one side of the building. One chap in our room had a beautiful tenor voice and would stand on the edge singing songs like Ave Maria; it sounded lovely over the river as the sun set. (Poland had some of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.) The Poles and the Germans had rowing boats on the river and they would stop for ages below us, listening to him. We closed our eyes, dreaming that everything was at peace and tried to forget where we were for a while. I think that was the most relaxing time of the whole period while I was out there. The work was easy and the guards didn’t bother us. However alas, it couldn’t last.
On the 16th of September one hundred and seventy more men arrived. They brought with them a Red Cross parcel between three men, for us. It was a grand birthday present for me as I was 22years old that day. I had a wonderful drink of tea and each one of the boys in our room gave me something from their parcels. Looking back on it now it seems strange what they gave me; one spoonful of sugar and jam, a square of chocolate, three or four prunes and so on. Little things they seem now but believe me they weren’t little things to us at the time. Food was the only thing we had to give and it was a sacrifice to part with anything of that sort. It was a birthday that I will never forget.
From then on it wasn’t quite so free and
easy. The guards tightened up on the discipline (there were a lot more
of them now) but the ones we had the previous week were still pretty good
if they were on their own.
By the 23rd of September the Red Cross parcels were all finished. What a difference they made to our rations. Most of us paired up with another chap so that we shared what we got; it went further that way. Willie, the guard, gave us twenty four small fish that he had caught. We shared them in our room, boiled on our stove and they went down well. (Although I don’t know what they were.) There was great excitement as some mail arrived. We all waited patiently until it was handed out but I waited in vain as there was nothing for me. How I envied the others who were lucky and received one.
The rations were in very short supply again and the Fuhrer was trying to get us extra. He seemed to be upset because we were short and came round to our rooms and apologised for not being able to get more. He said that he had to make do with what was sent to him. He seemed to be quite a good chap and fair, for a German.
On the 27th I had a good day. Three of us went into town to unload coal from a railway truck, with two guards, one of which was Willie. We finished early, at about dinner time. The Poles gave us thick pea soup with bread and instead of taking us back we just sat around until the usual time we would leave. The guards even got us some extra bread from somewhere.
Until the 13th of October the food was very short. Our Red Cross parcels were long since gone, the stew was watery (though thicker than at Schubin and Poznan) and it was six men to one of the small German loaves. We got a bit extra from the Poles, if we were lucky, and sometimes, if we were with Willie, he would slip us a packet of fags. Whatever one managed to get was shared out between us in our room. We were lucky in having a good crowd in our room who all mucked in well. Some rooms didn’t and this led to squabbling. Fights were fairly frequent when food was short and you always get the odd one who will try and take advantage. Coming back one day I caught one chap coming out of our room, which was empty at the time. He was only up to one thing and I got stuck in straight away. Then the others came along and he was a bit the worse for wear when he went.
On the 13th of October we had our second Red Cross food parcel, one between two this time. I also got paid 7 Marks 35 Pfennigs so we could order bread now and it was brought to us from the village. We also brought razor blades, pencils, combs and notebooks; it made a big difference and everybody was feeling a lot happier. With the food from our parcels we made all sorts of concoctions. I made a cake from crushed biscuits mixed with raisins and a little dried egg powder; we thought it was smashing. Biscuits soaked and then fried made a nice change. (Although, much later when we had a Canadian parcel, the biscuits in them, when soaked, swelled up a lot thicker than the English ones.)
Poor old Willie got ten days confinement for getting us coffee on one job. Someone must have shopped him. He was one of the best Germans I met out there and was always trying to make things easier for us. I should think he was about 45 to 50 years old and he came from just outside Berlin.
He had a wife and two daughters. He hated the war
and he didn’t have a good word for Hitler. However, as with all
the others, he was scared to show too much familiarity towards us in front
of the other guards.
From the 22nd of November thousands of troops marched through Mogilno. Six of us were in there one day when a column marched through and there were a lot of brown shirts with them. One of them chased a Polish woman on the side of the street, knocked her down and started to beat her in the face with the butt of his rifle. He was shouting and screaming at her all the time but nobody took any notice of what he was doing. It was agonising to watch and be helpless to do anything.
On the 12th of December we went to the road works but it was too cold to do any work and the ground was frozen hard. We lit a fire and stayed there until it was time to go back.
The next day we left Mogilno to go to Schubin for de-lousing and stopped there for two days. After being de-loused we were issued with underclothing, mitts and socks (two more squares of flannel). I tried to get some boots and a shirt as well but was unsuccessful. We then left and returned to Mogilno at 4:30 pm.
On the 20th of December, thirty of us were told
to dig up graves in a polish graveyard and break up all the headstones.
We refused to do it, whereupon the guards cocked their rifles and took
aim. We were scared they were going to fire but we didn’t move and
still refused to dig up the graves. They then lowered their rifles and
marched us back to camp, shouting and abusing us all the way. We were
locked in the guardroom for the night with nothing to eat or drink. The
next day we were marched back to the cemetery and told to get digging
but again we refused. We went back to the guardroom and an argument took
place between the Fuhrer and our camp leader. The outcome of it was that
we were to just take the headstones to be broken up or we would be sent
back to Schubin to be put before higher ranking German Officers where,
our leader said, we might come off worse. At least we didn’t dig
up any graves, which was what we objected to.
24th of December, Christmas Eve. The guards got us some beer from town, which we bought with our money. We had a nice sing song and some of the boys were drunk. The guards were also drunk and two of them fired into our window because a light was showing. Christmas dinner was pea soup! and we finished off with prunes and custard from the Red Cross parcels. We had a church service in the morning. After dinner we played cards until the evening and then went along to room 7 and spent the rest of the day with Taffy and Nick Dobson. We had a supper of bread and cheese, cake and tea. What a Christmas this year – everyone was feeling very low and depressed.
There was little work being done now as it was too cold and the ice on the river was two feet thick. I have never known it so cold. It was very funny seeing the horse drawn sleighs travelling about. They all had bells on them because they run so silently on the snow. The Poles cleared a stretch of ice on the river and there were a lot of people skating. We had a grandstand view from our window. If a German fell badly we would all give a cheer, although I doubt if they could hear us.
From the 1st of January 1941 until the 11th of March we didn’t go out to work because of the cold. During this time we were issued with Red Cross parcels on three occasions; one between two, one between three and one between four. Also we received two payments of three Marks and forty Pfennigs and one of one Mark and fifty seven Pfennigs.
To relieve the boredom we made our own amusements. I made a ship model whilst others did various things, like drawing, playing cards etc. We had five mouth organs sent to us, via the Stalag, from the Red Cross, with which we formed a band. I played one of them but the time went very slowly for us.
Three men escaped through the wire but were soon caught and brought back. They were half frozen and were beaten up on the Fuhrers orders. After that the Fuhrer made us parade outside for at least an hour, morning and night, and we were just about frozen ourselves by the time we got back inside. He also opened all the tins in the Red Cross parcels so that we had to eat all the perishable items first, within a day or two.
A load of clothes came in from Schubin. I managed to get a shirt at last; it was white and did it feel good! I also obtained a pair of Dutch clogs. They weren’t very comfortable and were too big but at least they were drier and warmer than my old boots, or what was left of them. It was terribly cold and we often lay in our bunks listening to the wolves howling. The guards told us that they came this way from Russia when it was cold and it gave us the creeps hearing them.
One Sunday we had a treat and those, who wanted
to, were allowed to go to Mogilno, to church. Most did and we must have
looked a strange lot marching to church; most had greatcoats too big for
them, there was an assortment of hats and balaclavas and most wore clogs
in which it was impossible to march properly, so we just shuffled along.
It made a very welcome change and a Padre had come from Schubin for the
Then, on the 19th of February, I had one from my mother! I sat on my bunk and read it and re-read it over and over again. It was a most wonderful feeling to hear from her at last and after that I started to get them more often.
Everybody was getting fed up and tempers were getting very short. The slightest thing would start a fight. It was a lot better when we were working, although when we did work we would always go as slow as we dared. I see from my diary that I had a fight but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was about or who with, so it couldn’t have been very important or about much.
After the 11th of March the weather improved a little, although it was still very cold. We started to go out on small work parties again. I was glad that we didn’t get winters like that at home.
The Fuhrer left and another took his place but
he was no better than his predecessor. I received a clothing parcel from
home that contained a shirt, a lovely pair of socks and a pair of shoes.
The shoes were no good for working in but it was good to get out of my
clogs and into them when I got back from working.
I had been having trouble with toothache and managed to get permission to go to the dentist. He apologised because he didn’t have much cocaine as it was mostly going to the troops. By hell did it hurt – it wasn’t properly numbed.
On the 23rd the Fuhrer and all the guards were replaced with a fresh lot. We were sorry to see Willie go but not most of the others. We hoped that the new lot would be better.
The weather was turning hot now and it seemed to change very quickly with little in the way of spring. I finished another model ship and sold both of them to the Polish chimney sweep who came in every now and again. He got permission from the Fuhrer and he gave me cigarettes and bread for them.
We received another Red Cross parcel, one between two, unopened this time. The new Fuhrer and guards were quite good and they didn’t bother us a lot. In fact our camp leader got permission for us to have a swim in the river but it poured with rain on the day we were going and didn’t get another chance before we left there.
We were asked for volunteers to go to the station to collect a load of personal clothing parcels. There was no shortage of volunteers but when we got the sacks back to camp and opened them they were in a right mess. All of them had been torn open and all that was left in mine was a balaclava, a pair of pants and a sewing kit. I could have wept after waiting so long for a parcel from home. There were some very angry men in camp that day. We complained to the Fuhrer but he was unable to do anything about it.
4th of June. It was very hot and we didn’t go to work and were told to pack up our things as we would be moving the next day. We had more kit by now as most of us had received clothing parcels from home and had spare clothes. It would have been nice to get a new tunic and trousers though. New boots would have been a godsend as my feet were not so good again, as the clogs chafed them badly.
We were sorry to be moving as we had got settled now and the guards were pretty good. Now the weather was better and the work wasn’t that hard most of the time. We were getting some Red Cross parcels and mail through and it was a lot better than what we went through before we had arrived here. Through the winter we had organised whist drives, had sing songs with our mouth organ band, played cards, made models and had various discussions. (These often turned into arguments.) It could have been a lot worse; we were in comfortable quarters. Even so, we got on each others nerves at times and the time went slowly. When I made my models I managed to get some cotton, paint and glue from one of the guards. He was very interested and often came into our room to see how it was coming along.
The stove in our room was on the go most of the
time we were in there. When we received our food parcels and wanted to
cook on it we had a “Two up” system that allowed us to cook
in rotation. It was always “two up” on anything we had to
share in our room and there was never any argument over that sort of thing.
The chimney sweep came two or three times while we were there and I have never seen anything like it. He was a Pole and dressed in black, trousers, jacket and top hat. His top hat was always full up with fags which he shared out I each room and he cleaned the chimneys from outside, standing on the chimneys themselves. Neither of us could speak the others language but we managed to make ourselves understood to each other. He hated the Germans, as all Poles did that we met. They were a fine lot of people out there and took a lot of risks and beatings for us. They would always help if they could, slipping food to us, which was the biggest help they could give us. If it wasn’t for the food parcels and the extras from the Poles we should have been in a bad way. As it was we were still hungry most of the time.
The thunder storms out there were just fantastic. I have never seen storms like them with continual lightening and deafening thunder. It was a really frightening and marvellous sight. In one storm we had, the church spire on the convent was hit by lightening and what a crash it made. Every house had a lightening conductor fitted to the roof and they needed it.
One day a chap came running into our room and said that an accordion had come from the Stalag and asked if anyone could play it. I said that I could knock out a tune but couldn’t play it well. I went along to his room but when I got there I found that it was a button accordion, not a piano accordion, which was a lot different. I tried it but didn’t get on very well. We were very disappointed as nobody else could play it and it would have gone down well with our sing songs.
That last evening there we packed our kit so that we could carry it easily but we didn’t like going as none of us fancied going back to the Stalag. It was much better on a working party (If it was like this and not like Poznan). The time goes much quicker when you have less time to think and it was very boring in a Stalag.
On the 5th of June we marched to the station and boarded the train in cattle trucks, leaving Mogilno at 8:30 am. We stopped at Poznan for a long time and those of us who had been there before were hoping that we weren’t going to the fort again. Much to our relief we eventually moved off again and arrived at Grätz (Now Grodzisk Wielkopolski) at 6:00 pm. We then had a two mile march to the Stalag. (Listed as Stalag XXI C/Z).
When we arrived we were issued with a Red Cross parcel each, the first time we had one to each man. Men were coming in from other camps all through the night and the next day and we wondered what was going on. Rumours were flying around all the time, like the war was coming to an end or that Russia was coming into the war etc.
On Saturday the 7th we were issued with fifty fags per man and I watched a concert through the window of one of the huts. I couldn’t get in as there were so many there to see it. It was put on by the regular inmates there. It wasn’t a bad camp but they took a long time on roll calls, half the morning sometimes.
On the Wednesday we were issued with two parcels per man. We weren’t supposed to open them as we were told that we would be moving out soon (some hopes!). We did open them and what a feast we had. It was the first time that I had felt really full. We then had another fifty fags issued to us. I only smoked occasionally and all the cigarettes I had I swapped for food; mostly tins of condensed milk. I liked to make two holes in the tin, lay down and suck it until it was empty. It was lovely.
On Friday the 13th of June we packed our kit and marched out at 10:15 am for the station. The train left at noon and we were packed in fifty five to a truck, arriving at Marienberg (now called Malbork) in East Prussia at 4:30 am the next day. It was an awful night as we had more kit now and we were packed like sardines with no room to move. We had a four mile march to the Stalag. (Listed as Stalag XXB). When we arrived we were given a loaf between five men. There were French here as well and they seemed to do better for food than the English.
This was a terrible Stalag. We were always on parade. First there was a roll call, which lasted for about an hour and a half. Then on parade for two men to draw our bread ration of ten men to a loaf! Next was a parade to draw our dinner (a watery stew in large bins), another parade to draw our tea (a spot of jam margarine or sausage) and another roll call at night.
We were issued with new uniforms, at last.
I had a lucky escape while I was there. The latrines were covered pits with a long pole running the length of the pits to sit on. I was just leaving when the pole broke and everybody tumbled into the pit. There was a terrible mess and stink!
More French arrived. We couldn’t get on with them and there were a lot of fights between us, mostly over food, as they were doing a lot better than us. They lost a lot of their food and we always seemed to get the better of them.
On the 20th June, after six days in that Stalag (which was plenty long enough), ten of us moved out to the station. When we arrived two guards told us to get into a carriage. We couldn’t believe them at first because we were so used to travelling in cattle trucks. We didn’t need to be told twice, though, and settled down in comfort. We arrived at a place called Morhungen (now called Morag) and from there had a ride on a horse and cart to a farm near Lebanau. We were billeted in a small farm house that had one room with two tiered bunks, a kitchen (We were to do our own cooking), and one room for eating and relaxing in! All the windows were barred and the outside doors were padlocked.
We were raked out at 5:30 am on the first day there and were put to weeding potatoes and carrots. There were miles of them in huge fields that were bigger than those at home; it was more like a ranch. We had an hour for dinner at noon and then went haymaking in the afternoon until 7:30 pm. A German civilian hit Bill Saxby in the face with a rake because he wasn’t doing it right for him. The German civilians were !******! and it looked like we were going to be in for a good time!
The next day was a Sunday and we didn’t have to work. We went for a swim in the river that was nearby. It was only about two feet deep but after all this time without having a really good wash it was grand (I bet it upset the lice though). We didn’t have any swimwear but that didn’t matter as we thoroughly enjoyed it. We were locked in from 2:00 pm on Sundays until 5:00 pm and again at 7:30 pm but in between we were allowed to wander around the farmyard. There were only two guards in charge of us on this farm.
One of us had to do the cooking, keep the billet clean and collect the rations. Vic Osbourne said he would do it, if we agreed, and that was alright by us. He said that he had done cooking before and, anyway it didn’t need a good cook to dish out the stews we had.
After that not much changed to vary our lives. The routine was work from 6:oo am until 8:00 pm with an hour for dinner. The work mostly consisted of haymaking, hoeing potatoes and sugar beet and digging. It was hard work - I don’t think I have worked so hard in my life – and the German civilians and guards kept us at it all the time with shouts and blows. It was more like slavery. By the end of the first week I ached all over and couldn’t close my hands that were so sore and just one mass of blisters.
On the Sunday at the end of the week, the farm
boss gave us a cupful of beer and said he wanted more work from us! I
don’t know what he expected but we couldn’t have worked harder
if we had wanted to. We went for another swim in the morning which helped
to soothe our aches and pains a bit. The first week had been the hardest
work we had done since we had been out there and the lack of fitness made
it so much worse.
Although the guards treated us badly out in the fields, when they were back on the farm, or on their own, they were quite decent. I think they were scared to be anything else when the civilians were about. I found that during all the time we were out there, they were scared of each other.
On the 7th of July we were haymaking, then later on, bringing the hay in on wagons, pulled by oxen, to be stacked in the barn lofts. It was unloaded from the wagons on to a revolving chute and travelled through a trapdoor in the barn. Three of us had to fork it away and stack it. It wasn’t too bad when the barn was empty but when it was getting near the top it was hell. It was very hot up there and there were not enough men to shift it fast enough, so it kept piling up at the entrance and falling back to the ground outside. In the end they sent up three Polish girls to help us. In between wagon loads there was about three quarters of an hour before the next one arrived, so we got stuck in and shifted as quickly as we could so that we could have a break. So we were up there with three girls amongst the hay and without any guards – it was great! We had the girls with us all the time after that, even when we had to move to another barn. Our mates wanted to change places with us, but we were quite happy with the arrangement as it was! It was very funny trying to talk to them but we very soon made ourselves understood and learned quite a few words of Polish.
During the first week when I got back to the farmhouse I was so tired, and ached so much, I could hardly climb into my bunk (I had the top one again.) and in the nights I dreamt that I was fighting with the hay, trying to get out of the barn. It was murder for the first month and then, I suppose, we got a bit tougher and it didn’t seem to be quite so hard.
On the 21st of July we finished haymaking and said cheerio to the girls, worse luck! We then started loading dung into the wagons and spreading it over the fields. I fell off a wagon and hurt my back. It was agony and I could hardly lift my arms over my head, but I was made to carry on working.
On Sunday the 27th the door wasn’t locked and the guards were not about, so five of us went into the sheep stalls with catapults that we had made. Three stationed themselves outside to keep watch while Jack Baker and I went in shooting pigeons. We got seven between us before we had to come out, because the sheep were making too much noise. We then had to dash back to the billet as the guard was coming. The first one I shot wasn’t dead so I wrung its neck. I must have done it too hard because I ended up with a bird in one hand and its head in the other. They went down very well cooked in the stew.
We started stooking the wheat in the fields and it proved to be another exhausting job. First we tied the wheat into bundles and then stooked them in rows across the fields, which seemed endless. My feet were raw from wearing the clogs and the work in the fields was from sunrise until sunset. It was a long day and I suppose not being in peak condition made it so much worse. We didn’t get much time to ourselves, apart from Sundays and, even then they got us out on several occasions if they were behind or wanted something finished.
On the 20th of August, while forking bundles of wheat on to a threshing machine, I strained my back again. I could hardly move and was off sick with it until the 27th. They had to let me stay off this time; they tried to get me out but it was no good as I couldn’t lift anything, let alone work.
We got all the harvest in by the 4th of September and on the 5th we loaded five hundred sacks of corn onto the wagons, took them to the station and loaded them onto a railway truck. Sacks of wheat are not very light either. After we had finished we were having a smoke when one wagon started rolling towards us. Everybody jumped out of the way but I was too late and got knocked into a ditch, much to everybody’s amusement. When we arrived back at the farm we found a sack of boots had come from the Stalag. None of them were new but, after sorting them out, I managed to get a pair that was size 9. I take a size 7 but they were boots and not in bad condition. I could get rid of the clogs now and hoped that perhaps the condition of my feet would improve. From then until the 4th of October we had various jobs including threshing, dung loading, digging potatoes and digging ditches. We still nearly always had a food parcel each week and I had quite a few letters from home and a clothing parcel.
On the 4th of October we started potato picking. We picked up the potatoes on the fields that had been dug up by the machines pulled by the oxen, put them into baskets and carried them to a wagon. It doesn’t sound very hard but doing it from early morning until night while trudging over uneven ground with baskets, that seemed to get heavier and heavier, it was no joke. By the end of the day my back felt like it was breaking.
On the 17th we started cutting sugar beet and that was another back breaker. One man went ahead between two rows pulling them out with the help of a small fork. Another followed behind cutting the leaves from the beet with a large knife and putting them into small piles. We were bent over all day long and that went on until the 30th. If we stood up for a breather the guards started shouting “Los Los!” and would unsling their rifles, sometimes putting a bullet up the spout and sometimes firing if you didn’t move quick enough for them.
After that there was always something to do on the farm, whether it was making clamps for potatoes, turnips and swedes, making dung heaps or threshing etc. One morning when we went out they kept us hanging about while there was a commotion going on in one barn. We eventually moved off, but not before learning that the civilians had hung a Pole in there. What for, I don’t know, but there was never anything said about it later. They were literally getting away with murder.
On the 16th of December, three of us were picked out, taken to a tool shed and given an axe, wooden wedges and one crosscut saw. We then walked for about three quarters of an hour into the wood with three civilians. It was snowing heavily and was bitterly cold. One civilian, who we called Odd Socks (because when we first arrived he was wearing odd socks), told me to go with him, and we started to fell trees, first making a notch with an axe and then felling it with the crosscut saw. I started off with greatcoat, balaclava, gloves, pullover etc. but I was soon down to just a singlet and trousers. Although it was cold and snowing, I was still sweating like a pig. Odd Socks didn’t stop once for a breather but my arms felt ready to drop off. After felling two or three trees we would then trim all the branches off, saw the trunks up into short lengths and stack them into piles. That lasted until Christmas Eve. By that time I was getting to be something of a lumberjack and quite expert at swinging an axe. However I didn’t enjoy it one bit; I hated these civilians and they hated us. They showed it all the time. Odd Socks was one of the worst of the lot (he was the one who hit Bill with the rake on the first day). I had one set to with him while we were felling a tree that was bigger than usual. I just couldn’t keep going with the saw, so I stopped and stood up for a minute. He started to rant and rave at me and hit me in the face with his fist. The guard was nearby and I heard his rifle click; I couldn’t do a thing about it. Not one of us liked that job and we were glad when it was over. The only good thing was that we did get a bit of extra rations while we were on it. One day, while we were walking back, we came upon a dead deer. It was still warm and the guard let us carry it back to the farm. Vic cooked it and, although it was a bit tough, we thought it made a nice change.
We had a very quiet Christmas and did nothing in particular apart from rest. I read most of the time as we had received some books from the Red Cross, but all of us spent a lot of time just laying there, dreaming of home.
January 1st 1942. Another year and I was still here. I was beginning to wonder if it would ever end. It was bitterly cold and the snow was very deep. I was still working in the woods. Several of the men had frost bitten hands. We had had no Red Cross parcels and our others had been used up. The gaffer on the farm had cut our rations and tempers were getting short again. I had a fight with Jock; during one dinner he started grabbing all the best pieces instead of sharing it out, as we always did. Nobody was saying anything but the atmosphere was very strained. He was the biggest chap in the camp but I tackled him about it and swore at him calling him a Scots !*****! and he just waded into me. At any other time I would never have thought to have a go at him, he was nearly twice as big as me. I got the worst of it and was very sore for a while but he didn’t grab the biggest share after that, so I suppose it did some good. The funny thing was, I got on very well with him before and after the event. He was a decent chap really but when you are hungry, it plays havoc with your emotions.
On the 20th of February we were clearing snow from the roads, shovelling it away on to the sides, leaving a gap that was wide enough for the sleighs to get through. From the road level the snow level was higher than we were and we couldn’t see over the top. The snow wasn’t like at home and we needed to cut it into blocks to throw it aside.
On the 27th some Red Cross parcels arrived again. As a result things improved. It was surprising what a difference they made to everybody’s morale and general spirits.
On Sunday the 19th of March everyone received a new tunic from the Stalag. I also got a new pair of slacks so I now had a spare pair. It was also Hitler’s birthday. The snow was still coming down and we were still clearing the roads in between the other jobs on the farm. The job seemed never ending.
Thursday 23rd of April. Twenty six Poles had arrived on the farm so now there were twenty six men to do the work that ten of us had been doing previously. We left Lebanau by horse and cart, travelled for about twenty five miles, and arrived at Finkenstein (Now called Kamieniec Suski) late in the evening.
While we had been at Lebanau the billet had been quite comfortable and, except for two really bad periods, we had better food. Vic did a good job as cook; when we were getting short, on several occasions, he managed to get a bit more from the gaffer or scrounge some from somewhere. It wasn’t an easy time though; it was no fun being hounded by the civilians and guards alike and being deprived of your liberty.
The work was hell and I have never worked so hard in my life. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have worked at our own pace but we were always being chased, sometimes with blows from the German civilians. There was a big strong Scot by the name of Cassie who stood up to one and was going to belt him but the guard pushed him back with his bayonet. Two civilians then beat him up. The guard didn’t report it but if he had, Cas could have been in real trouble for threatening to strike a German. Even so, we very often came very close to having a go at them. It seemed so much worse that civilians should treat us like that.
However, by making the best out of a bad job and trying to keep our sense of humour, we managed to carry on. We always tried to keep laughing and joking which made the Germans madder than ever.
There were always some lighter moments of course, there always are. I enjoyed two days when we went to Muttersegen (another farm where we helped out sometimes) when they wanted someone to drive the wagon there and back. I volunteered because it looked easy. There were two horses pulling the cart that were harnessed side by side. The driver rode on one and had a saddle like the ones used by American cowboys. I had never ridden a horse in my life but I got on alright and had lots of encouraging shouts and advice from the lads. It was a good job that we were walking all the way and the horses seemed to know where we were going. I ended up being a bit sore in an entirely new place!
As well as horses, oxen were used to pull the wagons and for ploughing. They were obstinate brutes and when they didn’t want to move any faster it was a hell of a job to make them. When they were on their way home at night, though, it was a different story; there was no stopping them and they would go hell for leather, seeming to know they were going home. I didn’t have anything to do with them but Jock and Cas worked with them a lot.
We did some sheep shearing – at least we caught them and helped to hold them. We also looked after the pigs and loaded them on to the wagons to go to market. That was a laugh, and we would sometimes accidentally let the piglets escape, which resulted in men and piglets running around the farmyard.
On the whole we were better off in many ways but if we had not had the Red Cross parcels, most of the time, we would have been in a very sorry state. I know that we couldn’t have done the work on the rations that were issued to us because we would have been too weak. As it was we were still thin and much weaker than we should have been. One thing we were very pleased about was that we had got rid of all the lice. With regular washing and clean clothes they just disappeared, and they never came back while we were on the farms. One thing that we were pestered with on the farm though was flies. There were thousands of them and it was a regular thing, while we were eating our stew, to have to keep scooping them out of it after they had committed suicide by diving into it. We were issued with fly papers but they soon became covered and were useless.
I had to have another tooth out one day and was taken to Riesenburg. The dentist was a Polish woman who said she was doing it in the absence of her husband. It was worse than the other one I had had out. There wasn’t enough cocaine and she broke the tooth getting it out. A lot of my teeth seemed to be going bad – I think it must it must have been too much stew.
The German civilians were a very bad bunch, without a good one amongst them. Although it was our policy to work as slowly as we dared, and to cause as many problems as we could, it wasn’t always possible with them and they treated us very rough. I would still sooner have been on a working party like this, than be in a Stalag. On the farm you didn’t get a lot of time to think and brood, whilst in the Stalags many more seemed to go to pieces.
The highlight of the time on the farm (or any other place, come to that) was when the mail arrived. One man called out the names of the lucky ones and you waited and hoped very hard that there would be one for you. If there was, you would just climb on to your bunk to read it over and over again. It was good to hear from home and know that everyone was alright.
It was late at night when we arrived at Finkenstein and we were put into an old brewery. There were already a lot of other P.O.W.s there. In all we were just seventy strong at that farm. The brewery had two rooms for us to sleep and eat in etc. There were thirty five men to a room that had two tiered bunks around the walls. In one corner was a concrete drainage, about seven feet by four feet, and one foot high. The outlet was blocked up and was covered by boards. I don’t know what it was for originally but later on we made it into a stage for the band that we formed and the little plays that we put on. There was a large stove on one side of the room that could be used for cooking food from our Red Cross parcels. It was nowhere near as good as our billet at Lebanau. In between the two rooms was where the guards and the Commandant were billeted. Their accommodation was much better equipped than ours, of course. At night all the doors were locked and bolted.
There was a barbed wire fence around the front with about fifteen feet between the fence and the building. A cookhouse at one end and a toilet and cooler at the other end. We couldn’t use the toilet at night and we had a large bucket in each room. The one they gave us at first wasn’t big enough and overflowed so they gave us a bigger one but even that wasn’t big enough sometimes. It wasn’t very pleasant at the best of times. At night rats would run about the floor and we would sit on our bunks and throw things at them with shouts of “Got him, did you see him run?” or “Missed the *!*****!. We got used to them and no one was ever bitten, but we had to keep our food out of reach. We didn’t have any lice but there were loads of fleas and we couldn’t get rid of them, and did they bite too.
Finkenstein was a very small village where everybody worked on the farm for Baron Von Finkenstein, who lived in the Schloss (a big house on the same scale as one of our stately homes in England). Everything in the village was owned by him and there were about twenty cottages. When we had been there for a while we were told by the German civilians that some of them had never been outside the farm in their lives and a lot of them had inter-married. I imagine it was like an old feudal estate.
Each morning we had to march to the Schloss and line up outside the gates for our orders for the day. The Baron was always there, although he didn’t give the orders, but left it to the overseers. This included the civilians as well. He was a fat old *!****!, a very typical Prussian. The first day, while walking to the Schloss in the morning, we passed some civilian women who spat at us and shouted something (most likely not very complimentary).
Four days after I arrived there, on the 27th of April, I was suffering with toothache again and I asked our medical orderly to pull it out for me as it was so bad. He wouldn’t, because he said that he had no facilities to do it, but he managed, after an argument with the Commandant, for me to go with three others into the town to have it out. It was another woman dentist but this time she had no cocaine at all, so two held me down while she pulled it out. I thought she was pulling my head off but, after I got over the shock of it, I was glad it was out. On the way back the guard stopped the wagon at a Gasthaus (Inn) and bought us all a beer, although we had to stop on the wagon to drink it. It went down really well but I would have enjoyed it even more without the sore mouth.
Until the 12th of July we were mostly dung loading, rube hacking and kartoffel hacking. (Rube are turnips and kartoffel are potatoes; hacking is hoeing them up and spacing them out). We also had to do sugar beet and turnip singling which meant going along the rows on our hands and knees, singling out the plants to leave one every nine inches or so. We worked two rows per man and they went on for miles. The guards and civilians in charge came up behind us watching and would often shout “Eine eine bleiben, nicht schwei!!” (leave one, not two!) and back we would have to go, to take out the offending one and leave just one standing. Needless to say, when we could, we took out a lot more than one in nine inches, sometimes leaving quite big gaps. If they spotted them there would be hell to pay. It seems a small thing to cause trouble but we were pleased to think that there would be a few less for the Germans to eat.
Whenever we were on jobs in the fields we were always in one line, two rows per man with perhaps thirty to forty P.O.W.s and about twenty to thirty women, with the guards and overseers behind us. The German women were treated just like us, it was just like slavery. One day there were six Polish girls who had come from the town to work for a while. One in particular was very young and, while we were hoeing turnips, I happened to be on the end of the line of P.O.W.s. She was next to me and I noticed that she was crying. I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t understand of course, but I guess she knew what I had said from the tone of my voice. She showed me her hands and they were just one mass of blisters, no wonder she was crying. I started to do her rows as well as mine and kept it up all day when the guards and overseers weren’t looking. She said something, I don’t know what it was, but the look was enough to know she was grateful. I tried to get her to understand to be in the same place the next day and she must have got the idea because she was next to me for the next three days. I helped her each day but then we were taken off that job and I didn’t see her any more, I think they must have gone back to the town.
At some periods we had a food parcel each week, sometimes one between two and at other times ,none at all. When we had regular supplies things seemed to go much better but, when they were short, morale quickly dropped and tempers became strained. The result was more fights and more trouble with the guards. Food governed most of our moods and was constantly on our minds.
The German civilians were, on the whole, better than those at Lebanau but there were the odd ones who we could never get on with, or them with us. Also several women who hated the sight of us – perhaps they had lost sons, I don’t know.
On July 5th we had permission to go swimming in a lake about a mile away. When we arrived there, we found several male and female civilians sitting around. We waited but they didn’t seem to be going and in the end we just went in and had a fine swim. We didn’t have any swimming trunks so the girls had a grandstand view that day. It was a lovely lake, about half a mile across and roughly circular in shape. It was surrounded by trees and grassy banks. The lake was a bit weedy in places but where it was clear it was fine for swimming and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
The food wasn’t very good there, with four men to one of the small German black loaves and the stews contained very little. We were paid on several occasions and were able to buy sauce, pencils, paper, combs, razor blades and beer. The beer was rationed at so much per man, varying from one bottle to three. (If we could get it, that is). Six of us did alright on the 21st when we were chopping wood at the Gasthaus and we were given four bottles of beer each and five bottles the next day by the manager. He seemed very friendly towards us which was very unusual for a civilian.
On the 31st of July we started the harvest, binding and stooking, and got it all in by the 29th of August. There was no trouble to speak of and during the last few days the Baron sent out some beer for us and the civilians. He must have been in a good mood! The next day we went swimming again. It was very hot and we were brown as berries. The summers there are not changeable like at home and when it is dry it stays that way for weeks on end. When we arrived at the lake there were a lot of girls there but we didn’t bother this time and went straight in and enjoyed our swim. We noticed that they didn’t go away and seemed to be very interested in us! It was a very popular spot and there seemed to be quite a few dotted around the banks, sunbathing and swimming.
Most of the time until the 8th of September was spent dung spreading and then we went on threshing and carrying the sacks of corn up two or three flights of stairs in the barn. The oats were quite light but the barley and wheat were very heavy. I don’t know how we staggered up the last few steps. Several, including me, didn’t and then there were shouts and threats from guards and civilians alike. We used to like being on the threshing machine because we could fill our pockets with wheat and when we got it back to the billet would grind it up in a small hand coffee grinder and use as flour to make cakes. The coffee grinder was in constant use but it was slow work.
On Monday in the last week of October we went pulling sugar beet. It was bitterly cold and when we started we couldn’t feel our hands, they were so cold. We would go hell for leather until we got warmed up and then slow down to a steady pace but those fields just seemed endless. I had my first two days and nights in the cooler then. I had just got back from a particularly bad day in the fields and was feeling tired and fed up. I was lying on my bunk when the guard came in and ordered me to get up and clean the Commandants office. I swore at him and told him to “Weg-gehan, ich bin crank!!” He shouted but I still refused to move. The Commandant then came in and made me go to the cooler. It wasn’t very comfortable in there; it was cold and dark and I just had coffee and bread in the morning. I never did clean out his office though. Anyone coming out of the cooler always got a good reception from the lads and the cook always managed to give him a hot mug of tea and an extra meal.
Jack was very ill with fever and the medical orderly said to give him as much blackcurrant puree as he would take. Having given him all ours, I tried to get some from a chap who had several tins and offered him 50 fags a tin, which was well over the trading price, but he said he wanted it all for himself. We had one hell of an argument and it finished up in a fight. He was bigger than me but I was so mad and desperate to get a tin that I came off best and got a tin for nothing. However, Jack got worse and eventually had to go to hospital. It wasn’t usual for anyone to refuse to help someone that was really sick, but that man wouldn’t help anyone and he was always on his own.
On Saturday the 14th I went to Riesenburg and had another tooth out, on the 18th, had one filled and on the 21st had another one out. There was still no cocaine but they gave me the afternoon off work this time. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t have any teeth left at this rate.
On the 24th of November and the next two days, I was on my own with Karl, doing odd jobs. Karl was about sixteen years old and was one of the “good ones”. He bought me some eggs and we had a very cushy time. We spent a lot of time swapping English and German words. I was with him on the 5th of December as well and we caught a pigeon which I had for my tea. By now it had started to snow heavily.
On Sunday the 15th of December poor old Graff died.
We buried him on the 18th in the local cemetery. He had been going downhill
for a long time and had lost interest in everything. He was one of the
On New Years Eve we worked in the morning but had the afternoon off. We had a concert and dance in the evening that started at 6:30 pm and finished at 12:30 am. Three of us ended up sleeping in one bed. I’m not sure why but it might be that we had too much to drink as we had been saving up our beer for Christmas.
January 1st 1943. I had my breakfast in bed (such as it was) and had a quiet day reading and thinking. I did a lot of that; thinking of home and what they were doing. Later, in the afternoon, we had a whist drive and in the evening, a dance. Earlier we had a piano accordion come from the Stalag, from the Red Cross. We formed a band which comprised of three singers, four mouth organs, one accordion (which I played), one knick knacks (spoons), one improvised trumpet and drums which were made out of different sized tins. We practised in the cookhouse in the evenings and it wasn’t a bad little band. At least it livened things up and we enjoyed it.
The dances went down well even though there were never any girls. It seemed strange dancing with men at first but it was better than nothing. In the beginning a lot of the men couldn’t dance so we organised dancing lessons and, having plenty of time, there was a lot of improvement. Another year was over and again we wondered when this was going to end. What wouldn’t I have given just to be able to go for a walk without any goons watching all the time? At Christmas time we seemed to be more vulnerable than at any other time. We would think of our loved ones at home and, as the years went by, we often thought whether we would ever see them again. Then we would think “Of course we will, this is only a bad dream, it has to end sometime!” and get stuck in with something to do and forget for a while.
We did a lot of threshing up to the 2nd of February. It wasn’t a bad job and was under cover in the barns. During that time, the Commandant had all the tins in the food parcels pricked with bayonets. This was, apparently, because a notice came around from the German High Command asking all British P.O.W.s if they would like to join the Free Liberation Army. Anyone joining would be free and have extra amenities. They would not be put at the front, with the fighting forces, but on non-combatant duties. As can be imagined there was one hell of an uproar and someone smeared the notice with excrement and stuck it on the Commandants door to show just what we thought of it. Needless to say nobody signed up for it but much later we heard that there were a few who did sign, amongst the prisoners in Germany, and that they had a bad time when hostilities ceased.
One day while we were using the conveyor to unload hay into the barn, Taffy decided to climb it as a short cut to the loft. We did it all the time but on this occasion he slipped and one of the spikes went into his stomach and he had to be taken to hospital. It was rather serious but he got over it alright and nobody climbed up that way again.
On the 3rd I went to Reisenburg to a sugar beet factory unloading Kalk (1) (it was some sort of powder and very acid). It made my eyes very swollen and sore. The next day I had to go sick but wasn’t allowed to stay indoors longer than one day. My eyes were very painful for several days after that and it took a week or more before I could get it off my clothes.
On the 5th when we were at the Schloss for our orders, I and seven others were picked to go with five civilians to work in the forest. We collected an axe each, some wooden wedges and five crosscut saws. We climbed aboard a sleigh that was pulled by two horses and after about an hour arrived at a point deep in the forest. One civilian (we called him Snuffy because of his habit of taking snuff in very big doses) told me to go with him. First
(1) Further research indicates that Kalk is either calcium oxide or calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). This is listed as a hazardous material that requires protective equipment when handling it. It can cause severe burns and blindness.
he would look around, select a tree and see which way he wanted it to fall. Then we would cut a vee shaped notch on one side of the trunk with the axes and get down on one knee and use the crosscut saw, one on each side, one pushing and one pulling alternately. I thought that it was the previous year all over again and my arms felt as if they would drop off. Snuffy was better than Odd Socks at Lebanau though and we did have a breather every now and again. When we stopped we hammered wedges in behind the saw, in the cut. When we were nearly through, and the wedges hammered in further, it would start to topple and with shouts of “Achtung Achtung” it would come crashing down. We then trimmed all the branches off and cut the trunk into twelve foot lengths and stacked them into piles. It was hard work, and in thick snow as well, but I preferred it to being on the farm. It was a lot better than the previous year. They were a better bunch of civilians and didn’t keep chasing you, letting you have a breather every so often. We would work flat out until about 12:30 pm, build a large bonfire to keep warm and have our dinner which was brought out on another sleigh. We got more food too but we needed it and the work certainly gave you an appetite. We then sat around the fire until it was time to go back. We spent some of the time sharpening our axes and saws but the afternoon was very peaceful and easy sitting around that big fire.
That was the first time that I had ridden on a sleigh. It was very quiet with just the swish of the runners and the tinkling of the bells that were always on them. Every now and then there would be a crashing nearby as a deer or wild boar took flight through the trees. It was always fir trees that we felled and they were used for fuel for the civilians during the winter. That job lasted until the beginning of March.
On Tuesday the 9th of March I had a go at driving Oxen, collecting tins, stones and wood around the village. In the end I think I was more exhausted than the Oxen because no matter how much I shouted and belted them they just plodded on at their own pace or stopped altogether. I had only one day with them, which was enough for me. I was glad that I wasn’t picked to work with them any more. I had another couple of days with Karl, which resulted in more eggs and an easy time. He told me that he was leaving soon to go in the Army. He wasn’t looking forward to it and didn’t have a good word for Hitler. If ever, during his time in the Army, he should happen to be amongst any English they would be surprised at his attempt at speaking our language. What he had picked up from us had a swear word every other word and it was amusing listening to him trying to speak it.
During March and April we had various jobs. At one time I worked in the gardens of the Schloss and that was the best job of all. It was quite easy and no one bothered us. We were raking the gravel paths, tending the lawns, flowerbeds and transplanting in the greenhouse etc. Everybody tried to get in there if they could. It was so much different out on the farm and by now my hands were hard as rocks. We did a lot of dung loading and wood chopping for the civilians at their cottages. On that job, if the women were alright, you might get a cup of coffee or a piece of bread and cheese (or bacon) to eat while you were there. If you were very lucky you might get something to eat and drink and also be able to swap a bar of chocolate or soap for something. If you weren’t lucky all you would get was a mouthful of abuse and black looks. If looks could kill we would have died on the spot. Every cottage had chickens running in and out, with pigs running loose in the yard.
On the 12th of May we started singling out sugar beet and turnips. On Monday the 17th there was a lot of trouble. The guards that were in post now were a bunch of *!*****!, particularly one who is very trigger happy and we call the bandit. We could never work fast or well enough for them. Any one needing to leave the field for toilet purposes would naturally fall behind and would be chased unmercifully until he caught up. When anyone wanted to leave the field, he first had to ask the guard and then walk back until the guard shouted “Halten sie dar!” (Halt stay there!). He then did what he had to do and then came back. It was only about thirty to forty yards away and it was the same for the women who were with us. On the 25th there was still trouble with the guards. Jack had to leave the field and while he was gone, I was doing his row as well as mine so that he wouldn’t fall behind. The guard came up and saw what I was doing and shouted “Halten sie dar lassen sie du schwine hund!!” (Stop there leave them you pig dog!!). I did until he was gone but just as Jack was coming back the guard spotted me doing it again (he was the bandit). He came running up shouting and unslinging his rifle. I stood up and he started shooting at my feet. I just stood there watching him. I wasn’t being brave, or anything like that, but we had got to the situation where we couldn’t care less. Every one of our boys got up and faced him as well and whether he got cold feet or not, I don’t know, but after a lot more shouting he walked away. We went back to work and it wasn’t until later that I realised it could have been very nasty for me as the shots were very close to my feet. I’m afraid I was shaking for a while but I don’t think I have ever hated anyone so much in my life. When we got back that night the Bandit had me in front of the Commandant who said I was to be put in the cooler for two days when the singling had finished. Two days later on the 27th we did finish and I was glad to see the end as it had been particularly bad this time. I then served my two days and nights in the cooler and it was a change even if not a comfortable one. It was very cold and dark again and the floor was very hard. There was a lot of scuffling going on with the rats but they didn’t come near me, although they were too close for comfort.
From then on it was dung loading, hoeing and various jobs to be done on the farm. One day I was given a horse and plough and was supposed to ridge the potatoes up. I thought that it would be easy with only one horse to look after. When I got to the field, off I went but had only gone about fifty feet when there was an almighty shout and when I looked back there were potatoes all over the place. I had managed to dig them up instead of ridging them. They took me off that job (I wonder why?). They said it was sabotage but it caused a laugh amongst our lads and it was a long time before they let me forget it.
During haymaking we did a lot of scything, which I had never done before. Only about six of us stayed on this job and I got on very well with it. We then loaded the hay on to the wagons. I was shown how to load it properly by one of the civilians for one day and then left on my own with a German girl. If the wagons weren’t loaded in a certain way, when it came to unloading them, they could be in a right tangle. The girl who was with me was young and named Lena. I was with her a lot on the hay wagons and got on well with her. It was quite funny when the wagons were fully loaded because we used to slide down the sides to the ground. When the girls slid down everyone would watch as one or two never had anything on under their skirts! Our eyes nearly popped out but they never took a blind bit of notice. They were all German girls.
We were still doing fairly well with the Red Cross parcels and received quite a few clothing and cigarette parcels. I was mucking out with a chap named Phil now and although Jack was back from hospital, he wasn’t in the same room. Phil hardly ever had a letter from home and no clothing parcels, so I used to share mine with him. He was from Birmingham. I asked my mum to send out my football boots, which she did, and I gave them to him. He was as pleased as punch with them. He was mad about football and a very good player. I didn’t play much but we used to have a game some Sundays in a field nearby, watched by the civilians and guards.
We had our photograph taken outside our billet. We had been promised to have it done for several months but we never thought it would happen. One was all the camp in a group and the other one of our room. They weren’t that good though. We had a lot of dances and, although I was still playing in the band, it wasn’t quite as much, as Vic was learning to play and we would take it in turns. Johnny Morris had a bass come from the Stalag; he had been in the Army as a musician since he was a boy. There was a chap in the other room called Kit Small who had a lovely voice and we used to get him to sing one of our favourite songs, “Begin the Beguine”. (Every time I hear that now, I can see him standing there singing it.) Sometimes on a fine night, on a Saturday or Sunday, we would sit outside and play as a band and there would be a lot of civilians sitting outside the wire listening to us. I suppose it made a change for them as there wasn’t a lot for them to do there. If we happened to play a tune they knew, like “Lillie Marlene” they would join in singing.
In August it was blazing sunshine and we were brown as berries having been out in the fields all day long, wearing just a pair of trousers. We were binding and scything wheat and I had two lovely days. I was scything the corners and bad spots in one corner of the field so that the harvester could get round easier. The harvester was pulled by two horses and it took about half an hour for it to do a circuit before it came next. It only took me about five to ten minutes to scythe and I had Lena with me (no guard or anyone else near us) to bundle up the wheat that I had cut. We would do it as quickly as we could and then go and sit in the corn for the rest of the time. She was a very nice girl and would ask me a lot of questions about what it was like in England, as her boyfriend was a P.O.W. there. I was able to speak a little German by now and, with a little bit of sign language as well, we got on fine. I could have done with a lot more days like that.
On the 1st September we were marched to the Schloss in the morning for orders and I was picked out by Snuffy to work in the gardens with four others, who were regulars. I don’t know why he picked me, unless it was because of something that happened while we were harvesting. We had been bundling the wheat behind the civilians, who were scything, when Snuffy left the field for a few moments. While he was gone I picked up his scythe and thought I would have a go. When he came back he said I was doing fine and bundled up after me for a time. (I got my leg pulled at that, for having a German working under me.) I was given a scythe regularly after that. I had also worked with him in the forest.
On the first day in the garden we planted nine thousand pansies. It was a lot easier here. There were no guards with us, only about three German civilians (men) and some Polish and German girls. One day we had been working near the tomato beds (there were hundreds of plants) and it was getting near finishing time. While one watched, to make sure nobody was coming, the rest of us went between the rows and stuffed our trouser legs with tomatoes. The gaiters stopped them coming out at the bottom but, just as we reached our billet, one of my gaiters came adrift and out started to come the tomatoes. The guard at the gate happened to be looking elsewhere and I managed to grab the tomatoes, do up my gaiter and get inside without the guard seeing what had happened – I was lucky! I have an entry in my diary that says there was a big row in the garden and that we were sent out but what it was about, I can’t remember. I should think it was something we were trying to pinch because, if only one of us were involved, only one would have got into trouble. That finished me in the garden for that year, which was a pity as it was a very cushy number.
On the 6th of October we were detailed to turnip pulling. The area we were told to do stretched into the distance and it was just impossible to complete before we finished for the day. As a result we all went slower, which caused a hell of a row with lots of shouting and shots being fired over our heads. We didn’t go any faster but just plodded on at a steady pace, whilst keeping a wary eye on the guards. We didn’t get anywhere near finishing the area they wanted us to even though we were kept out until it was getting dark. The next day they reduced the area but it was still too big to suit us, so again we went slowly and the same trouble ensued. The following day it was reduced again and now we were satisfied and worked normally. It was just as well the Bandit wasn’t there or it might have been a lot worse. Another day we were coming back to the billet after being at the potato clamp all day. There were about ten of us and we were marching along behind one of the guards we called Loony. (He gave the impression he was a bit that way.) He seemed very meek, used to break out singing opera and was always chuckling to himself. We kept crowding him, trying to make him walk back faster, when suddenly he turned and swung his rifle around his head, missing those near him by inches. I don’t know who was most surprised, him or us, as he started to chuckle self-consciously. He had never given us any trouble before when we took the mickey out of him but he still wouldn’t go any faster. He was only a little chap so perhaps he couldn’t!
We heard that Marienburg had been bombed on the Saturday and some of our boys had been killed along with big Lisa, a German girl from the village. We would hear lots of rumours including that Russia was at war with Germany. We hoped it was true and that they would make a big push because we knew we weren’t far from the Russian border. It gave us hope that we might be home by the next year.
Dick, the medical orderly had gone back to the Stalag and we were told that he had gone back to Blighty looking after the very sick and wounded, who were repatriated. How we wished it was us. (When Dick did arrive home he wrote to my Mother – I bet she was pleased to hear from him.)
Some of us were given the job of spraying the fields with, what I think was called, Kunisdung. It was some sort of fertilizer that had to be spread by hand whilst walking along. We carried it in a sack slung around our shoulders and was spread with one hand in a sweeping motion. We walked for miles and at the start the sacks were very heavy, so when nobody was looking we would spill a lot of it out, finishing up with a long way to go with nothing left in the sack but going through the motions with our hand. It made our eyes very sore and, if it happened to rain, we had to pack up. Not before it got soggy though. It was one hell of a job to get it off of our clothes.
For most of October, and until the 20th of November, we were pulling sugar beet, loading it on a trailer and taking it to Reisenburg. One day the trailer got stuck in the snow and, try as hard as we might, we just couldn’t get it out. The Commandant was there and started shouting at us. Phil lost his temper and handed him a shovel and told him to have a go. He had a go alright and beat Phil up with his rifle butt.
When we took the trailer, it was pulled by a wood burning vehicle. (I don’t know what it was called and it just had a small cab with room for the driver and the guard. We would sit outside, behind the cab, and in front of the trailer.) There were usually three of us on it. On one trip, the guard must have been feeling dry, and we stopped at a Shenke (a small inn) and he said we could go in with him for a drink. That was the only time I went in one and when we walked in there were a couple of civilians in there. They gave us a look that was more surprised than hostile. It was nice to stand there having a drink and the owner was very friendly too. We stayed in there for about half an hour.
In December we were threshing for most of the time. They wanted another man to drive a wagon, so I volunteered. There were two horses to a wagon and I had a bit more idea this time and managed a lot better. At least I was better until they started trotting downhill. There was a gate at the bottom and I was bouncing up and down so much that my hat fell off. How I went through the gate I shall never know and it was a good job no one saw me or I might have been taken off that, as well. I did, eventually, get the hang of it and got on alright. It was a lot better than threshing and I only had to drive the wagon as it was loaded and unloaded for me, while I went out of the way for a smoke. I also managed to pinch some wheat and get it back to the billet, to make flour, to make cakes.
On Thursday the 16th of December we were told that we were going on a hare hunt. We thought it would make a change, and be good fun, but were soon disillusioned. It was a terrible day. All of us, P.O.W.s and civilians alike, had to walk for miles and all converge on one spot, shouting and banging sticks, driving the hares to where all the big nobs were. We didn’t see a thing, it took all day and we were worn out by the end of it.
During our time off I was busy making a fancy dress outfit for Phil for Christmas. We planned to have a fancy dress dance. It was to be the uniform of a Roman soldier and I made it out of bits and pieces that I was able to scrounge including old shirts and cardboard etc. The white binding string, when cut short and teased out, went all fluffy and it was just right for the crest on the helmet, which was made of cardboard and cloth. I also made a woman’s dress for myself, made out of old material that I could get! I managed to borrow a pair of stockings from Lena. It was funny trying to tell her what I wanted and what for. With my limited German (that didn’t really cover the subject) and a lot of pointing and demonstrating, she finally understood and I didn’t think she would stop laughing. It cost me three bars of chocolate and three bars of soap, though, before she would let me have them, and the promise that she would get them back. I was lucky in getting to work with her for a couple of days, sorting out potatoes on a machine. If anyone saw me trying to explain, to her, what I wanted they would have wondered what the hell I was up to. She must have wondered too, at first, as it must have looked very suggestive.
On Christmas Eve we had a Christmas Red Cross parcel for each man and I had two hundred fags from my Regiment. We all put two tins into the cookhouse where the cook made a lovely Christmas dinner, finished off with Christmas pudding and custard. We had it all together in our room. It was a great success and it was the best dinner I had had since I left home. We had the fancy dress dance in our room and it was won jointly by Phil and Jimmy Briscoe, so I was pleased about that. The dance finished at 1:30 am and the inner doors were kept open all night so that we could go into the other room as well. The day turned out better than we thought it would, considering the circumstances, but it very nearly didn’t. One chap made a break for it after the guards locked the outer doors and they didn’t hold their usual roll call. It was a spur of the moment thing when he found himself locked out. It was a bit stupid really as he had no coat on or any food with him. He was caught just outside the village and was brought back and put in the cooler. The Commandant went mad and threatened to stop all activities, but he eventually said that it wasn’t our fault and it was Christmas so we could carry on. The guards, however, really got it in the neck for not doing their checks properly. We could hear him ranting at them, which pleased us enormously.
On Boxing Day we had a whist drive in the afternoon and a dance in the evening. It was a very successful Christmas and everybody mucked in and tried to forget things for a while. I wasn’t easy though and it was noticeable that men would suddenly creep to their bunk and read a letter or look at photos from home with a faraway look in their eyes. We all did it at some time or other and it was best to just leave them alone for a while.
On New Years Eve we were threshing during the day but in the evening we had a masked ball! It ran from 9:30 pm to 5:00 am and the Scotsmen came into their own, going wild. I also dressed up as a woman as Vic was playing the accordion over the New Year.
January 1st 1944. We organised a high tea in the other room and the boys were waited on by the “women”, with a dance and games in the evening, finishing at midnight. For the two days I wore the dress that I had made. Several others had made dresses as well but I was the only one with the stockings. It was a good laugh and there were a lot of funny remarks flying around. Although we had a good time over Christmas, we kept wondering, how much longer? Unless anyone has experienced it, nobody can ever imagine what it is like to be locked up and watched over all the time, never knowing when it will end and never knowing what the guards will do next. The most frequent expression was “Roll on that bloody boat!”
All January we were threshing and taking straw to the civilians cottages. I managed to give Lena her stockings back when I was unloading straw at her cottage and I also gave her an extra bar of soap. She was very pleased with that as they couldn’t get much soap and what they did get was a devil to get any lather with, so a bar of English soap is a luxury to them. Her mother brought out a large bacon sandwich and coffee. I didn’t see her father and I didn’t think to ask where he was. I suppose he was in the Army. All the younger men were away and only the older ones were left in the village.
It was during this time that I went sick. I felt
rotten and had a terrible cough and had four days off before I went back
to work. It wasn’t very much of a rest if you went sick. If you
could walk you had to do small jobs around the billet. Only the ones who
were really bad and couldn’t get out of their bunk would get a rest.
On Sunday the 6th of March Albert and Joe made a break for freedom. They went out through a hole they made in the wall, behind their bunk, and into the empty hay barn at the back of the brewery. They then bricked it up and cleared away all traces of it, as did the others back in the room. They made dummies to look as if the men were sleeping in their bunks. The guards took roll call with each man standing by his bunk or in it, and they didn’t find out that the two were missing until the Monday morning. By then they were well away and were well stocked with food and clothing.
We then went carting the wood in from the forest, that we had cut the year before, and took it to the civilian’s cottages. It was heavy work humping the logs on to the sleighs and then unloading them. Once or twice the sleighs overturned on the tracks through the forest, throwing us all off into the snow. This meant loading them all over again. They were wet through and so were we.
Sunday the 27th of March. This was the worst day I had. I came in, in the evening, after taking sacks of corn to Lebunbuck and found that the mail had come. There was a letter for me from home. I was sitting down to my tea, which Phil had got ready, before I opened it. It was from my Father, saying that Mum had passed away on the 19th of February. I just left my tea and climbed on my bunk. Phil saw that something was up and came over. I tried to tell him, but couldn’t say a word, so I gave him the letter to read. Everyone was sympathetic but I just wanted to be alone. God, it was the worst news anyone could have got out there. I could picture her there, as I often did, standing at the bus station waving goodbye and realising that I would never see her again. It must have been a very hard letter for my Father to have sent. I went carting wood the next day but had to pack it up, I felt so rotten. One of the chaps told the guard what had happened and he was sympathetic too and told me to finish for the day when we got back to the farm with the load. Looking back in my diary, on the 19th I had been working in the forest and I distinctly remember, one day in particular, that I kept thinking of her more than usual. I would very much like to think that it was on that day but I honestly don’t know.
Of course I wasn’t the only one to get bad news out there. A lot did, but it’s always worse when it happens to you and our morale would plummet. I remember one chap though who was a bit simple. (He wasn’t always like that but he had cracked up, as so many did.) He was a surveyor in civvie street and had a wife and plenty of money. He had a letter saying that his wife had had a baby boy. He was as pleased as punch to think he had a son. He had been out there for four years; I don’t know how he thought he had anything to do with it – by letter perhaps! – but that brought him pleasure not sorrow.
April 9th. Easter Sunday. We had tea altogether in the other room and had a dance in the evening. We heard bombing in the distance. We didn’t know where exactly but it raised our spirits. During the night of the
10th/11th Ralph and Taffy got off their mark (Escaped) using the same route as Albert and Joe.
We had a Canadian Red Cross parcel between two. They were even better than the English ones and included a big tin of Klim milk and biscuits that were about four inches across and half an inch thick. They were lovely for making cakes and when they were soaked they swelled up and were fine fried.
We had a job unloading sacks of corn in Reisenburg and taking them up three flights of stairs. My legs were like rubber by the time I got to the top and I had to stop a lot of times. We managed to pinch some wheat and get it back though.
On the 27th Hackett got off his mark and on the 7th of May, Eddie and Vic went, all through the hole in the wall in the other room.
We were now planting potatoes. We were required to carry a sack of them on our shoulders and supply the women with them. The women had baskets and we would tip a few into them, which they would plant in rows. When their baskets were empty they would shout for us and we would have to trudge over to fill up again. With the German women, we didn’t like, we would over fill their baskets so they had to carry them themselves, and then move on quickly to someone else. They didn’t like that one bit and would swear at us like hell. We would give them a big smile and say “Danke schon mein liebe!” (Thank you very much my love!), which made them worse. It was quite exhausting as we were wandering backwards and forwards all day over uneven ground with sacks on our backs.
On the 17th of May Kit and Jimmy got off their mark. On the 18th I had another tooth out, again with no cocaine. On the 23rd Coley and Boyle went during the night. We were spraying fertilizer that day and the Baron had just got married. He brought his young bride out with him in a pony and trap. He was in a terrible mood and, I suppose he had come to show off in front of her. He stood up and started to bellow at us and said that if any more escaped, he would see that we were put on bread and water for a month and work through the day without a break. With that we all stood up facing him and our camp leader led us in giving him three good rousing cheers. He went as red as a beetroot, started spluttering and then drove off at a furious pace. (I wondered what his bride thought.) We never heard any more of his threats.
We had a visit from the German S.S. They were a mean looking lot! They questioned us about how the men were escaping but all we would say was “Ich verstehan nicht”. (I don’t understand.) They hunted all around the building, tapping walls and turning everything upside down, but they didn’t find anything. They shouted and threatened but, much to our surprise, didn’t beat anyone up.
Whit. Monday. The 29th of May. Eight men went off
during the night and Phil was among them. (I wondered what the Baron would
say now.) On the 30th and 31st the place was crawling with officers, all
poking around. One officer was a bit obvious when he got some of us on
our own and started speaking in English. He told us that he had lived
in England for most of his life, that he liked the English and wanted
to help us etc. etc. Eventually he got round to asking us how the men
had got away and that he would keep it to himself, as he admired us. All
this was done, not straight out but in a very roundabout way. One of the
boys told him that it was easy. The Germans gave us so little food that
it was easy to slip between the bars in the window as we were so thin.
It was impossible to keep a straight face and he stormed off shouting
“Dummkopf Englander schweinen!” (Stupid English pigs.”).
So much for his admiration and wanting to help us! They never did find
out how they got away. That was the last lot to go though, as we heard
that so many were escaping at that time (not only from our camp) that
the Germans were treating them so badly when they were caught, sometimes
shooting them. As a result our leader said that nobody else was to go.
It happened that I and four others were down to go the next weekend. We
had got all our kit ready to take and had saved up and swapped fags for
chocolate, raisins, biscuits etc. that we could carry comfortably, but
now, that was all off.
June. We were haymaking and loading turnips again. When I was loading hay, I was with Lena again. I think it was mutual that we tried to get together, as she would come over to the wagon that I was allotted to. I seemed to get on well with her but I wouldn’t have liked to work with some of the other German girls. (Although most of them were alright.) When we knew we would be together for several days she would bring me eggs and we would trade for chocolate and soap. It was an arrangement that worked well for us both. I wasn’t the only one to work with a girl, several others did and they got on just as well.
In July I had a spell in the garden again. It was very hot with most days over 100º F and the hottest at 115º F. I only had a week there, unfortunately. On one of the days I had to go into the Schloss (1) itself. It was only into one of the back rooms where I had to take some onions. No one was with me so I had a poke around but all I found was a postcard of the Schloss. Others had gone further and they said it was a really lovely place. It would have been nice to have had a good look around.
I then went on binding and stooking wheat and had a row with the guards who said we weren’t working hard enough. We didn’t speed up and nothing came of it. We heard a rumour that the Russians are pushing the Germans back and that we had made a landing in France. We hope that it’s right.
We were then bringing in the harvest until the end of August. I then had a spell with the horses. I started off with two and then had to have four and was shown what to do by Cas who was good at it. I went very, very carefully at first and nearly came a cropper on several occasions but I got used to keeping the front two going (and where I wanted them to go) and using the back two for braking, whilst not getting tangled with the others. It seemed a hell of a lot to do for a while but, in the end, I got on very well with them. I couldn’t go as fast as Cas, Wally or the civilians – they tore across the fields when they were empty, leaving me and three of the other P.O.W.s behind. I could never get the hang of cracking the whip in front and above the horse’s heads though. It would have been a wonderful sight in different circumstances, seeing the wagons and horses charging across the fields, riders standing up in their stirrups with whips cracking. It was a great sight with them trying to outdo each other while us four trotted sedately behind.
(1) Link to information
on the Schloss
Phil came back and what a state he was in. He was covered in bruises. He said he had run from where he was caught to the nearest town, which he thought was about six miles. He was then beaten up and put into a civilian prison where he was treated badly until he was sent back to the camp.
Septembers work consisted of dung spreading, threshing and picking potatoes. I went and had two more teeth out, so I didn’t have many left now. I didn’t want any more out as it was pure agony and I had passed out this time. There was still no cocaine, with it all going to the troops, or so they said. I had a short spell cooking potatoes in big vats. We had to shovel them out while standing on them. It was very hot work, especially for our feet, and I didn’t like it at all. The potatoes were used for pig feed.
On October the 23rd we started digging and cutting sugar beet. We worked in pairs for this and we were given a set length to do in the fields each day. The Baron slipped up this time and we finished each lot by 11:00 am and 12:30 pm, and that was it for the day. They tried to stretch it a bit but it didn’t work, as we then went slow and got nowhere near finishing what had originally been marked out. It made no difference how much they chased us, so they brought the length back to where it was at first.
I received a letter from my Father to say that Syd, my brother, had got married on the 1st of September. I wished them all the best but how I wished I could have been there for the ceremony. Another winter was coming and I dreaded them as they were so cold. We heard that Karl had gone to Russia; one of the civilians told us. That was one German I did feel sorry for. He didn’t seem like one as he used to joke with us and curse Hitler the same as we did.
Once a month three men had to go to Reisenburg with the wood burning cab and trailer to fetch flour from the mill. I went several times and we nearly always managed to pinch some flour for ourselves. This month I went and was caught stuffing a small sack into my blouse by the civilian in charge there. He went berserk, called the guard and wanted me shot, but we had a decent guard with us and he managed to calm him down. In the meantime, while all the shouting was going on, Harry got a large sack and hid it underneath the trailer, so we did better after all. On the way back we had to sit on the back of the cab but a Pole, who was with us, tried to get to the trailer to fill a small sack he had with flour but he slipped, fell under the wheels and was killed.
December started with us threshing oats which was an easy job because they are so light. We kept ramming them into the machine trying to get it to jam up. It would start to groan and then slow down and then the civilians and guards would start shouting “Langsom, das ist zu viel, langsom!” (Slowly that’s too much, slowly!) We would then slow up but gradually increase it again and sometimes we would succeed and it would grind to a halt. They would shout, holler and threaten but it gave us a break while they cleared it. Barley was the worst to thresh. All the bits came off the ears and stuck to our jackets and trousers so that in the end we looked like porcupines and they were murder to get off.
Christmas Day. We all gave the cook something from our food parcels and he cooked a smashing dinner which we ate in the other room. In the evening we had a concert and called it Panto Mania and it was a great success. The guards and the Commandant came in and sat in the front row. One of the chaps was quite a good comedian and he made a lot of jokes about the Germans and the guards, in particular. They were roaring with laughter, but they didn’t know what he was saying. If they did, they wouldn’t have laughed so much. It seems such a little thing now but it pleased us to think we were getting back at the Germans. On Boxing Day fourteen of us had tea together and then a dance in the evening. When we were in bed, Albert Stage, (we called him Stagger.) went through his repertoire of monologues – and he knew a few too. He was a Geordie and he kept us in fits. Some of them were very ripe and god knows how he remembered them all.
The Kitchen in the basement.
Monday the 1st of January 1945. We had high tea in the other room and a dance in the evening. The Christmas/ New year didn’t go down so well as in previous years. Everyone was getting very despondent and low in spirits. We didn’t seem to have the heart to do things so much and tempers were getting frayed. The best of friends would have their differences and finish up fighting. I had my share, the same as everybody else, but it didn’t make any difference to our friendships afterwards. It did relieve the tension that had built up, though.
In January we were stacking wood and threshing. The snow was very thick and in places you could only see the tops of the trees. The snow was very hard and you could walk on the top quite easily. Half of the men were constantly clearing areas but I didn’t get to do much of that.
On Friday the 19th we were loading hay in the barns
when a guard came running out and spoke to our guard. They told us to drop
everything and stop what we were doing. They then marched us back to the
billet. On the way we saw the civilians loading all their belongings onto
wagons and it looked as if they were all pulling out. When we got to the
billet we were told to pack all we could carry, the rest would have to be
left behind. They told us that we would be moving out in the morning because
the Russians were advancing and we had to be clear of the area. The guards
didn’t look very happy but we were in high spirits and glad that the
Russians were coming.
We sorted out all of our things in order to carry as much as we could. We had kit-bags or haversacks, many of which we had made ourselves. I had two German haversacks that I had pinched at some time and I gave one to Phil and kept the other. I also had a small German knapsack that I tied to my belt. Early on the 20th we loaded ourselves up and mustered outside and the left. We passed the civilians who were all preparing to leave and I saw Lena, but not to say goodbye. I waved and she waved back but she never smiled and I expect they were wondering what was going to happen to them. The roads were covered in frozen snow and were very slippery and made it difficult to walk with all our kit. We soon realised that we had too much to carry and started to throw things away that we thought we wouldn’t need. I was carrying the accordion and that was the first thing that I got rid of. It was a beautiful instrument, and I was very sorry to part with it, but there was no way that I could lug that around.
We stopped at a farm on the first night after covering about thirty five miles. Straight away we went on the scrounge for some wood to make sledges, or something that we could load things on to and pull along on the ice and snow. Cas came back with a horse and sleigh. God knows where he got it from but the guards said he could keep it and take it with him as long as he looked after it. They then put some of their belongings on it with his.
We split up into parties of about six men and each carried different items. When we stopped during the day this allowed us to get a fire going and have a hot drink with as little delay as possible. One had the wood, another the tea, another the milk etc. We made a small stove from one of the Canadian Klim tins which were about four inches in diameter and three in depth. It was an ingenious device and would boil snow in about six minutes, using very little wood.
We had to make a start very early the next morning when, all of a sudden, the guards were shouting and swearing and forcing us on; they seemed to be in a near panic. We could hear the guns of the armies behind us now and we thought that they must be coming up fast. It was easier with the home made sledges, but still difficult going on so slippery a surface. To make it worse the guards kept us almost at the run now. We marched all that day, all night and all the next day with only a few very short stops. The guards were going mad now, shouting all the time, and anyone falling behind, they shot. It was hell and we were nearly dropping by the time we halted for the night. We were too tired to make a hot drink and have something out of our food parcels. We knew that we wouldn’t last long at this rate as we were not being given anything to eat.
It seemed as if we had only just dropped off to sleep when we were chased out again. It was only about three or four hours and then we were on the march again, stumbling along on the slippery surface. We hardly knew how to put one foot in front of the other as it took most of our time to stay upright. We could still hear the guns faintly in the distance. We arrived at a very wide river, the Vistula, and it was frozen solid. The German army was there, urging us across, as they were going to blow it up. We crossed the ice and after we had gone about three miles we heard it go up. It went on, in the distance, up and down the river. This was, apparently, to hold up the Russians for a while.
The guards were very shaky now and we didn’t try to converse with them at all as they would shoot on any pretext. It was snowing heavily all the time and was bitterly cold. This was the worst forced march I had ever been on and the weather couldn’t have been worse. After a time all thoughts seemed to go from our minds and we just kept going, numb, both inside and out. Our one aim was to keep moving. At one time we stopped, for something or other, for about half an hour, right outside a farm house. After the usual scramble to get a fire going under our stove and having a hot drink, three of us slipped around the back and pinched three hens. They made a noise but nobody came out. That night we stopped and we cooked them in little pieces on our stove – they went down lovely!
Each day we made an early start with our clothes wet through and bitterly cold. We marched about thirty miles a day, but it seemed more like twice that as we could only take short steps on the slippery surface and often fell. Sometimes we would hear shots behind us and wonder who had been shot. We would look around to see if our little party was still intact and no one was missing. At one stop Phil came up with a cigarette he had got from somewhere and shared it around. He said “take it easy!” and I did, as I went out like a light for a few moments. By now our food was getting very short. We caught up with a lot of refugees on the road. They were a pitiful looking lot but we didn’t feel any sympathy for them at the time. They were mostly women, children and older people and probably didn’t want the war anyway, but I couldn’t forget what the French and Belgian people went through on the roads in 1940.
By the 30th all our food was gone and, although we have some tea left, we were getting in a bad way. We slept for a few hours each night, mostly in barns and the guards were still pretty rough. We started to slow down a little, partly because we were leaving the Russians behind and partly because we were worn out. We were a very ragged looking lot. I only had the clothes I was standing up in; I had thrown away the entire surplus because I just couldn’t carry it any more. I did have a spare singlet and pants and was trying to save them for when the march ended, if it ever would. I was wearing two balaclavas and a Polish hat, a pair of gloves, a pair of mitts, two pullovers plus my uniform. I had a scarf wound around my face with just my eyes showing and I was still cold!
One day we arrived at an Air Force Stalag (Stalag Luft IV at Tychowo). It was deserted but we found some American Red Cross food parcels and there were enough for one between four men. They were a god send but I’m afraid they didn’t last long.
On the 5th of February we were plodding on and it was snowing a blizzard and bitterly cold when everything went blank. I vaguely remember the others helping me and then getting me a place on the sleigh. I was in a daze until after we stopped that night. I was in a pretty bad way then and very grateful to my mates who helped me. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t as they were still shooting any who fell out at the rear. None of my mates were in very good shape themselves. I was lucky we stopped in that farm all the next day and they gave us coffee and watery stew, for a change.
A couple of days after that we spent three nights in the open fields. Bloody hell it was cold. Our six man group huddled together in a row and, every now and again, the outer pair moved to the middle so that we all got a “warm spot” in rotation. Needless to say we didn’t get much sleep. During each night, one or two died of the cold. We were getting very weak and walked like zombies now, thinking of nothing except to keep going. How we did I shall never know but, I suppose, the will to live can be very strong in any circumstances.
We passed one small farm, went around the back and found a rabbit in a hutch. The farmer was still on the farm but I didn’t think he would mind if I borrowed it!! As he wasn’t around I hit it on the back of the neck, stuffed it in my haversack and beat a hasty retreat. I had only gone a few hundred yards when the damn thing started to struggle, so I hit it again and made sure this time. We cut it up into small pieces and cooked it at the next stop and it went down a treat.
On the 14th of February we had spent the night in a barn loft and in the morning the guard came in shouting “Aus-steigen Aus-steigen Los!!” (Get out get out quickly). There was only one ladder to get to the ground and we started to come down it but had to take our turn. That, though, was too slow for the guard who started to get impatient. He started shouting (as only Germans can shout) and then lifted his rifle and started shooting. Derek Rawlings cried out, he had been shot in the back. We didn’t wait for the ladder then but jumped down, by which time Derek had collapsed. He was one of our six. During the night our poor old horse had died so, not being able to pull the sleigh our selves, we were unable to put Derek on it and we took turns to help him along as best we could. We complained to the guards at the next stop for the night and, much to our surprise, they said he would be taken away for treatment the next day at a Stalag or a hospital. He was in a very bad way the next morning and barely conscious when the wagon came to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him in the end.
We had another two nights in the fields – another two nights of hell. I didn’t know how much more I could take and was feeling bad again. I had dysentery now and that didn’t make it any better. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they had given us more food but we got very little and, on some days, none at all. A couple of guards went ahead every day and were supposed to arrange where we were to sleep and arrange food but they certainly didn’t do much of a job. Perhaps they couldn’t as there were so many refugees on the road, mostly on wagons that were piled up with everything but the kitchen sink. They looked very pathetic but at least they weren’t being shot at by planes like the ones we saw in France. I know they didn’t look any worse than us! Sometimes when we stopped for a while we did manage to dig up a few turnips or swedes, but not many as the ground was so hard. We stopped at one small farm and there was nowhere to sleep except for the pig sty. It was already occupied by the residents but we soon had them out and kipped down. That was the only time we were really warm but did it stink!
On the 17th of February we stopped at a farm and two men slipped out somehow. I don’t know how they got out of the barn as it was locked. It was full of hay and some were smoking until we got them to stop; if it had caught fire we would have had no chance at all. In the morning the guards kept us waiting outside for two hours and then told us that they had caught the two men and shot them.
On the 18th we arrived at Netze and went to another farm. It was a terrible place with no food. We were put into a barn but I was in such an awful state that I spent most of the time outside I had dysentery so bad that I had to throw my underpants away, including the spare pair I had been keeping. I’m afraid I didn’t smell like a bed of roses now! I had had about as much as I could take and I doubt that I could have marched any further. In the morning a Medical Officer turned up from somewhere and took the names of all the chronically sick and I was one of them. We were taken to a railway station on the 20th of February and put on a train that arrived at Neubrandenburg at 8:00 pm and were then taken to an American Stalag. (Stalag IIA is listed as situated at Neubrandenburg). I had been on the march for a month and it was by far and away the worst time since my capture. It was atrocious weather, towards the end barely any food and the guards were in a terrible mood. In some ways they were nearly as badly off as us but they did have food and a covered sleigh in which they took turns to rest. When we had to almost run it was just plain hell and I never want to go through anything like that again – I don’t think I could. In all we did about six hundred miles. It wasn’t ordinary marching, owing to the state of the roads, and we could only shuffle along with short steps, to keep our balance. It was carried out in blizzards for much of the way. The snow was deep when we had to sleep in the fields but on the roads it was flattened hard with all the traffic of Army convoys and refugees. The Army convoys that passed us were not the confident, victorious Army that we saw in France but were silent and grim looking. I suppose we should have been happy to see them like that but I’m afraid we had too many troubles of our own to think of that; it might have passed through our minds but that was all. I was very upset at leaving all my friends, they were a good bunch but I had had to change my friends several times over the previous few years. One thing I had learned over the last month was that when the going gets hard it brings out both the best and the worst in anyone. I couldn’t have had a better lot of mates and they were always there for each other even though it was an effort at times, because everyone was feeling rough.
The March commenced on the 20th of January and continued after I was taken to Stalag IIA. The following places are where we stopped during the course of the journey and there are others which I am unable to give a name to, either because it wasn’t known to me or it was in a field, out in the open.
We reached Gross Tychowo on or after the 6th of February as the Stalag there was empty. The Stalag had been evacuated on the 6th of February and the prisoners from there had commenced their own march westwards.
My march had finished 25 Kilometres west of Jarmen, at Netz(1), where we arrived on the 18th of February, before I was evacuated to Stalag IIA. My records show that we had covered a total of 546 Kilometres at the time I left the march.
(1) The final point reached on the march was just south of Demmin. (Which the author remembers as Netz). I have been unable to locate this but I think he may have this confused with a village called Pentz.
Wednesday the 21st of February. I was very sick
by now but it was good to be under a roof again and to be dry and warm.
This was an American Stalag with American and Italian permanent P.O.W.s,
but it seemed to have been turned into a hospital camp, more or less.
Men kept drifting in, French, Belgians and Dutch as well and most of them
were sick or exhausted. We were housed in long huts kitted out with two
tiered bunks down each side. Each nationality was in a separate part of
the camp. The food wasn’t any better than what we had been used
to in all the other camps but on the 22nd we had a food parcel between
three, on the 24th one between four and then on the 24th a Yankee parcel
each. I couldn’t touch anything for over a week but lived on burnt
toast and something horrible the M.O. gave me. It was lovely staying in
bed for a while. I didn’t have to go outside for roll calls; they
came inside and counted us in bed. I caught up on my lost sleep.
When anyone was well enough to stand, we were made
to go outside for Appel (Roll Call). A lot still couldn’t stand
for long and kept sinking to the ground, much to the annoyance of the
guards who still couldn’t count very well. Mac and Tom moved out
on the 12th. They volunteered to go. Harry, Jim, Ralph and I didn’t;
I had had enough of volunteering for things. In any case I didn’t
feel very strong yet.
We got friendly with a few Yanks but on the whole I wasn’t very keen on them. Most had been taken at Arnhem and many were a bit loud mouthed. We would swap things for cigarettes, tea, chocolate and milk mostly. One time we swapped our tins of coffee with them, but first we tipped out the coffee, three parts filled it with sand, put apiece of card on the top and then topped it up with coffee. Needless to say that didn’t last long. If they bought a tin later they used to have a good rake around inside, but it was a good fiddle while it lasted.
On Easter Sunday April the 1st there was a football match organised between the English and Italians, so we went to cheer our side on. The Yanks who we had palled up with said to take a club or something, hidden in our clothes, as sometimes there was trouble. I didn’t take a club but I had an Army belt that was a lethal weapon. It was studded with buttons and badges that I had collected over the years and was completely covered. It was a good game and there was no trouble but then the English scored right at the end. A fight started between two players that quickly spread to the spectators and soon there was a free for all between the English and Italians. The Italians produced knives so we were glad of the clubs etc. We got out of there as quickly as we could. The Yanks said “We told you so; we had the same trouble with those guys.” The Italians weren’t liked by any of us out there.
The stove in the hut wasn’t big enough for all the men to cook the food from their Red Cross parcels so we made another stove from Klim tins and did our cooking on that. We organised games with the Yanks, or at least others did. I didn’t go in for them as I didn’t think I would last them out. I was happier to watch and we never had any trouble with them.
We would spend a lot of time just walking around the barbed wire compound talking of what we would do when we got home, and what we would buy to eat. I always said that I would buy a fresh, hot white loaf, cut it down the middle and put half a pound of butter and a pound of cheese in it! (I never did though.)
We spent a lot of time with the Yanks who we palled up with, talking of all sorts of things. One of them who I got particularly friendly with was, James B Bell of Albuquerque, New Mexico. He gave me his address and said that he would like me to go and see him when the war was over. He said his father owned a farm over there. He broke his leg as he landed, when parachuting into Arnhem and was picked up by the Germans. It couldn’t have been set very well as he had a very bad limp.
The guards didn’t bother us a lot apart from at roll calls. We would get them a bit exasperated at times. As we lined up in fives, we would close up as much as we could and then, when they had counted and passed us, some of the chaps at the back would bend down and sprint to the end of the rows so they were counted twice, resulting in the Germans coming up with a lot more men than they should have. We would also do it the other way around so they would be short on the numbers. There would be a lot of counting, re counting and discussions, much to our amusement. They found out what we were doing, in the end, and made us spread out a bit so they could see through the ranks to the back. They got a bit mad when they found out but nothing came of it. I think they were getting a bit scared by now as we heard rumours about the Russians pushing hard and the British and Americans advancing towards Germany.
By the end of April the weather was getting very hot and we spent a lot of time sunbathing when we weren’t on roll calls or getting our watery stew for dinner. About four men had to collect the dinner from the cookhouse in large bins. At tea time the black bread would be dished out with some jam, or what have you. I was getting brown again, what with lying in the sun and walking round and round the compound. All the mail had stopped and I hadn’t heard from home for months. The last letter I had received was at the beginning of January. I was feeling a lot better but still didn’t have the energy to play games. I did have one game of football but was very glad when it was over. I felt whacked and I never had another game.
One thing that was very unwelcome was that we were becoming lousy again. We hadn’t seen any while we were on the farm, only fleas, and I would far prefer the fleas to the lice; they were filthy things. Another problem was that I didn’t have any clean clothing to put on.
On the 27th of April at mid morning I was sunbathing and talking to Harry when somebody came running up shouting “The guards are packing up and moving out!” We all dashed out to the wire and sure enough they were all marching off and leaving us. We gave them a rousing cheer, “Get a move on or the Ruskies will get you.” They didn’t look at all happy. The Camp Officer called us all out on parade and said, “Men it is very nearly over, the Russians will soon be here now, but just because there are no guards now, don’t go outside the camp under any circumstances. There are troops all around us; we will be a lot safer just staying put and waiting. In the meantime everybody is to get stuck in and dig trenches in the compounds.” We spent the rest of the day digging trenches and had two and a half food parcels per man issued to us. We all felt very happy and worked with a will, knowing that it was coming to an end at long last.
It was April the 28th and we heard the guns in the distance and they were getting closer all the time. That evening we put all our things together and went into the trenches. During the night there were rockets going right over us; that was the first time we had seen or heard rockets. The planes going overhead were huge four engined bombers and we had never seen anything like them before either. It was like hells inferno all night long but after a while I went to sleep for a short time. My mates couldn’t understand how I could sleep through the racket, but I did. We seemed to be right in the middle of the battle, with tracer and firing going in both directions, but not one shell or bomb fell on the camp. How I don’t know; each side must have known we were there. We didn’t see anything of the Armies but it wasn’t a pleasant night, having the bombardment going on and being able to do nothing but sit tight and keep our fingers crossed that nothing dropped on us. Eventually the shelling stopped in our area but it still went on as the Russians advanced past us. Still we saw nothing but, as it was quieter, we climbed out of the trenches and stood by the wire, but it was too dark to see anything. There were flames from something burning in lots of places further out and we could hear the sound of armoured vehicles passing.
Sunday April 29th. Early in the morning a great shout went up some where, “The Russians are here!” and true enough they came in the gate and were met by our Officers. Everyone was going mad and cheering. This was our first day of liberation and for the first time in five years we were free from German rule. It was a wonderful feeling, and we welcomed the Russians, but what a rough looking lot they were. They all had slant eyes of the Mongolian type and were armed to the teeth. They also had women with them, but they looked more like men than women, with nothing at all feminine about them. They left soon after and didn’t seem to have much time for us.
We put our flags up at the gates (I don’t know where they came from) American, French, Dutch, Belgian and Italian, but we tore the Italian one down. Later on in the morning several men came running into the huts shouting, “Come on the bloody Eyties are ransacking the Red Cross stores!” Out we poured out, arming ourselves with anything we could get hold of, and ran down to the stores which were just outside the camp. We had quite a fierce battle with them for a while but soon got them out and back to their own quarters. The Americans and British then organised a guard over the stores but a lot had gone missing. That didn’t help our relations with the Italians. We all disliked them and I’ve never liked them since.
Harry and I went on the scrounge to see what we could find in the German quarters but we were too late. Already a lot of men were there and some had had some good finds for souvenirs. I was lucky to find a bayonet with the Feldwebel ribbon on it but there was nothing else worth taking. A Felwebel is the equivalent to our N.C.O.
May 3rd. Four of us went into Burg Stagard, a small village about three miles from the camp, to see what we could find. It was also a chance to take a walk on our own free of guards. It was so good to be free of restraint and interference and to stop when we wanted to. The village was deserted apart from some Russians. We did find a little food, some cheese and bacon, but not much. We went into one house that we thought was empty, went upstairs and found a very old German woman. She was scared stiff and told us that she was too weak to go away and that she had nobody. She also said that the Russians had been pestering her. There was nothing we could do so we left her some food and went on our way. The Russians didn’t bother us but they didn’t look particularly friendly either, so we didn’t try to be friendly with them either. They were a really rough looking lot.
The next two days we did the same, just taking a walk. Each day we went to see the old lady but on the third day she had gone and we didn’t find out what had happened to her. The Russians took no notice of us at all in the Stalag. We had run out of food for our usual stews and they didn’t organise anything for us. We were just living off the last of the Red Cross parcels.
On the 6th of May we were ordered by the Camp Officer not to go far outside the camp as the Russians were giving our boys trouble. I didn’t see it myself but apparently, on the road to Burg Stagard the day before, they stopped a lot of our boys, pushed them around and stole all their loose belongings. Harry and I had come back early and I think it must have been after that when it all happened.
May 8th. We all gathered in the Dutch compound as they had a wireless set and had fitted up loudspeakers. Winston Churchill was going to make a speech at 3:00 pm. In it he said that the war was over and the Germans had surrendered unconditionally. There was cheering and singing and we all went wild. We thought thank God, we will soon be able to go home now, but we hadn’t reckoned on the attitude of the Russians who still didn’t take the slightest interest in us; although they did give us a loaf between two men the next day. The same day news came from somewhere that there was a bombed train just outside the camp, in a valley amongst the trees (There were woods on one and a half sides of us.) and that it had a lot of supplies on it. Of course Harry and I wasted no time in making our way there. When we arrived we found the train, all trucks with two hinged lids over the top of each truck and hundreds of men going through it to see what was to be had. All the food had been taken by the Russians but there were three trucks loaded with wine and there was a Russian standing on each one handing out bottles of wine to the men. It started off alright, and then the Russians would only give out the wine to the French, Belgians, Dutch and Italians. The British and Americans were ignored and were getting frustrated. The lids of the trucks were propped up with a baulk of timber and one of our boys knocked the timber away, causing the iron lid to come down right on the Russians head. There was blood everywhere but within seconds there wasn’t a Briton or American in sight, we just disappeared. Harry and I had four bottles between us that we had taken in the confusion and we made a hurried departure back to the camp. We drank the Russians health and wondered if he had a headache! Not that we had any sympathy for him.
On the 11th we had to organise parties to go out into the woods and cut down the British and American men who had been caught by the Russians, while wandering about in there, and they had strung up in the trees. Although, by then, we had been warned by our Officer not to wander about outside in anything but large parties. Some men still did and paid the penalty. We had thought the Russians were our allies but now began to think that they didn’t seem to like us very much.
One day while out on a trip to the woods, looking for our men, we came across a German girl. She was absolutely petrified and didn’t have a stitch of clothing on. She was scared stiff of us but we managed to calm her down, covered her up with some of our clothes and gained her confidence. She told us that she had been taken there by several Russians and raped; she didn’t know by how many. We took her back to the camp and fitted her out with fresh clothing, although they were all male ones. The Officers took charge of her and I don’t know what became of her in the end. By this time we were beginning to hate the Russians as much as we did the Germans.
On May the 15th the British and Americans were
moved into the German barrack buildings. It was better accommodation;
brick built and had rooms that would accommodate fifteen to twenty men.
We hadn’t been there long when a fire broke out in our room, although
it was soon put out. The Russians, who were giving out a loaf between
two at the time, ordered no fires and all stoves to be taken out. We had
a big one in our room and we just tipped it out of the window. It went
with an almighty crash and the Russians shouted a bit but nothing came
of it. We were all getting a bit browned off by now. There was no food
left and the Russians weren’t giving hardly any. Our Officers were
trying their best but the Russians weren’t listening.
Early in the morning on May the 17th a convoy of Russian trucks pulled up outside our building – we could hardly believe our eyes. They ordered us out and lined us up with our kit and allotted us to trucks. We didn’t need to be told twice to climb aboard. They were taking us to the Americans. They were terrible drivers, closing up, then spreading out, going fast, then slow. We eventually arrived at Schwerin at 12:30 am on the 18th and slept in the Opera House. We still hadn’t had any food given to us but we didn’t mind so much as we knew we would soon be in American hands. I don’t think many slept that night!
On Friday the 18th of May, during the morning, the G.I.s arrived with their convoy of trucks. They gave each man a packet of biscuits and a pack of cigarettes. We were pleased to see them and they made a great fuss of us. We left at 11:00 am and what a difference in their driving to that of the Russians. They tore off at speed, hardly ever slackening and kept closed up all the way. All the drivers were coloured and we were jolly thankful to see them and the back of the Russians.
We were in the best of spirits now and after a very happy ride we arrived at Luneburg, at an American base, at 4:30 pm. We were told to disembark from the trucks and line up in ranks of three, after which the American Officer welcomed us and spoke a few words. He told us that by that time the next day we would probably be in England, just in time for tea. What a rousing cheer he got, and he got an even bigger one when he said “I won’t keep you any longer, file into the mess and eat as much as you want, I expect you are hungry.”
It’s just impossible to express how we felt
when we went in. There were rows of long trestle tables and benches and
the tables had real tablecloths on. And the food; what caught my eye first
was the bread, it was white! The first white bread I had seen for five
years. The whiteness of it seemed to dazzle my eyes. We had sausage and
mash, bacon and bread and jam. We could eat as much as we wanted; it was
an amazing sight to us and one I will never forget. I had thought for
so long of how much I would eat when I was free but I found that I couldn’t
eat very much at all. I did get through one lot of sausage and bacon,
and one slice of bread, and then I was beat. I just couldn’t manage
a thing more. The other lads were the same and we started to fill our
pockets with sausages. The N.C.O.s came around and were very amused and
said “You don’t have to do that, if you want any more go to
the cookhouse.” We very sheepishly put them back on the tables.
Although not one of us could eat a thing more, it was hard to leave all
that food behind. After five years of going short, and pinching anything
we could get, it went very much against the grain to leave it there.
Saturday the 19th of May. Early that morning we marched to the mess for a breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, marmalade and tea. I was still unable to face a lot and continued to be for some time after I got home. I think I enjoyed the white bread again, more than anything, it was so soft. The rest of the day was ours, to do what we liked, while listening for our names to be called out.
A lot of time was spent crowding around the G.I. Army girls, just to hear them speak. I don’t know what they said, and it doesn’t really matter; we were so engrossed in just listening to the girls speaking English. All over the camp you could see little groups of men and you could bet your boots that in the centre was a girl. I don’t know what they must have thought, but they certainly got a lot of attention that day.
The names started to be called out and, one by one, I said goodbye to my mates who I had palled up with – especially Harry. The number of men that were left began to dwindle. I went to dinner but could hardly eat a thing. The thought kept entering my head, “God, what if they run out of planes!” There were only a few of us left when, at last, my name was called. I made my way to the designated spot where we had to gather and we were taken to the airfield by truck where we boarded a plane, a Dakota. I was seated right at the front, behind the navigator’s compartment and there was a small window that I could look out of. We taxied to the end of the runway and a plane was taking off just in front of us. Bloody hell!! It went up a little way and then came down with a crash – a proper belly flop! They towed it out of the way and it didn’t look as if anyone had been hurt. Then it was our turn so I prayed and kept my fingers crossed as we took off and were on our way.
It was the first time that I had been up in a plane and none of us ever thought we would go home in one. We always used to say “Roll on the boat” but this was much better. Everyone was in high spirits, singing and laughing, except for one chap who was terribly air sick. We landed in Brussels to refuel and then took off again. I couldn’t help but think of the last time I had been in Brussels. It was exactly five years and one day since we had been driven out of there by the Germans. I was certainly a lot happier than I had been on that day but then I thought of Hugh Holford and wished he was still with us. The chap who was sick was asked if he would like to stay behind and take another plane when he felt better, but he said “I’ve waited too long to give up now, I’ll go if it kills me.”
It wasn’t a long stop and soon we were airborne once more. We were on the last lap and were soon over the French coast. We could see where the bombs had fallen as the coast was pitted with blast holes. Everyone was craning their neck to get a first glimpse of England. Then we were over the English Channel; there wasn’t much shipping on the water and what there was looked like toy boats. The Canadian navigator gave me his radio earphones and I heard a dance band on it – it was Joe Loss. Then we crossed the English coast; everyone was silent for a few moments and then all hell broke loose. You never heard such a noise as we made. We were singing and laughing and I know, for one, I was very close to tears. We were so very glad to be nearly home once more. The Canadian pilot spoke to us over the intercom but for the life of me I can’t remember what he said. At last we came in to land at Dunsford in Surrey. Even then we could hardly believe it; that same day we were in Germany and now we were home! Everything had happened so fast since we had left the Russians. It was five long years since we had last been on English soil and our feelings were indescribable.
Saturday the 19th of May 1945. It was 8:00 pm when we touched down at Dunsford. The doors opened and we filed out, down the gangway, to be met by Officers, Red Cross nurses and W.A.A.F.s. There was no military discipline and we just walked to the hangers where the nurses and W.A.A.F.s kissed us as we passed into the building. It had been kitted out as a mess with tables laid out for tea. They treated us as if we were V.I.P.s, which I think, surprised most of us. During our time in captivity we often wondered what our reception would be like when we did arrive home. We had the idea that, being prisoners, we wouldn’t be very welcome to some people. As a matter of fact, while we were on the farm at Finkenstein, we spent a lot of time, towards the end, boxing and wrestling with the idea that if anyone took the mickey, we would be able to give a good account of ourselves in fighting back. I’m pleased to say that it never happened, we were wrong in what we thought and everyone went out of their way to help us to settle down again.
While we were having tea there were endless people coming around to talk to us and answer our questions. Then they brought around a telegram for each man to send off straight away to our families to let them know we were alright and would be home soon.
After we had tea and filled in the telegrams, we boarded some trucks and we moved out. I don’t know which route we took but then nor did the driver as he got lost. What a ribbing he got from us, but we didn’t really mind. It would have taken a lot to dampen our spirits as we were, to say the least, in a happy frame of mind that night. If we passed any girls on the way they all got a very noisy reception and they must have wondered what was going on, but they all waved back at us.
After driving around for hours we eventually arrived at Lingfield in Sussex, at a reception camp for P.O.W.s. It was getting late by then and we were straight away put into a nissen hut to sleep. We had real beds and I slept well that night.
Sunday the 20th of May. We were woken up early the next morning to the shout of “Wakey Wakey, come on lets have yer!!” by the Sergeant. This time it wasn’t in the tone of voice we remembered from so long ago. He got a lot of remarks but he took it in good part, grinning all the time. We had a good breakfast, saw the Medical Officer and we had a good shower to get rid of the unwelcome passengers that we still had with us (lice). We were then kitted out in a new outfit. After that we had an interview with the Officers. They wanted to know how we were treated, if we had witnessed any atrocities and, if so, by whom. The rest of the day was taken up largely in signing paperwork. We were given some money and another telegram to let our people know we would be home the next day.
After tea about six of us went out together and what a feeling that was; we were really free at last and could go where we pleased. We walked down the country lanes in a very happy mood and came to a pub where we spent the evening, singing and drinking (although I found that I couldn’t drink very much.) One chap was playing the piano but it wasn’t a very good one so we thought we would improve it and poured beer in the top. Unfortunately it didn’t improve it and it didn’t do much for the landlords temper either. All of us were in very high spirits, some worse than others. We staggered back to camp and the guards at the entrance didn’t say a thing. I suppose they must have guessed what would happen when we went out. We weren’t the only ones like that by a long way and I didn’t need any rocking to sleep and had another good night.
Monday the 21st of May. I was issued with a new service pay book and a leave pass until the 12th of July. We left for Haywards Heath in Army trucks and caught a train to Victoria at 7:45 am. where I caught a train for Eastbourne. I finally arrived at Channel View Road and while walking along the road to No. 76 a woman who lived opposite (I didn’t recognise her at first.) called out “Is that you Derek? Welcome home.” The house was decorated with flags and a welcome home sign had been put up. I’m afraid that my first impression, when I saw that, wasn’t very good. I thought, God why did they put that up for everyone to see! I still had the impression that it was very degrading to be taken prisoner. I very nearly went around the back, but in the end, I didn’t. The front door was unlatched and I walked in, dropped my kitbag on the hall floor and went into the dining room. My eldest sister was standing by the window and we were both so overcome by emotion that I don’t think either of us could say a thing for a few moments. I know that one of my first thoughts when I walked in was “God what a tiny room this is”; it seemed to close in on me. Soon after my Father came in and there was another tearful reunion. I was really Home at last.
The next days were one round of visits. My brother, Syd, had got compassionate leave from the Air Force and was arriving the next day. I was at the station to meet him and his wife Win. One of the first things he said to me when he arrived was about my teeth, or lack of them. We had endless things to talk about and it was a very happy time.
It seemed very strange to be in a house again; everything seemed to close in on me and I couldn’t bear the windows to be closed. I certainly didn’t like being in a room with the door shut. It took a very long time for me to overcome this fear and I still hate the door being closed even now.
My leave went all too quickly but I had a grand time. It was so good to be able to go where I wanted and when I liked. I had some bad dreams but it was lovely to wake up and find that it was only a dream. Phil came to see me, he was on his honeymoon. He didn’t waste any time in getting married and we had a lot to talk about. I visited all my relations and was made welcome wherever I went.
The 12th of July came around and I had to report to Hodgemoor Wood near Amersham, Bucks. I was back with the Army once more, with its discipline, but it was quite an easy time. There were more medical inspections and interviews. We were given papers with lots of questions, all so simple a child could do them. We felt disgusted with them and the majority of us didn’t answer them. There were also a lot of simple tests, putting tools together. They only needed two or three nuts and bolts to complete them and we didn’t do these either. I think they must have thought we would come back like a bunch of half wits. Nothing was ever said about us not doing the tests. They then asked if there was anyone who wanted to volunteer for the Army. They didn’t get anyone; we hadn’t been back long enough to forget the last five years and want to volunteer again for the Army.
We spent most evenings in the pub as there was nothing else to do there. After going to a Military Hospital nearby for further tests and X- Rays I was discharged from the Army on the 27th of July 1945 as unfit for any further service and sent home with a disability pension, plus one hundred and seventeen days leave. Altogether I had served a total of Six years and thirty one days in the Royal Sussex Regiment.
16/09/1918 – 27/10/1990
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