Information for Veterans and their families
Richard Feltham's Journal
The complete journal of Richard John Lillico Feltham ("Dick") who was a medical officer with the 20th battalion, NZ army, the same battalion incidentally as Charles Upham, VC and bar.
Dear Mother and Dad,
I am laid up with a mild dose of jaundice, and yesterday while lying in bed, feeling very well and very very bored, I suddenly had the brilliant idea of writing you a long letter about some of my experiences in the "bag'. I know you would like to hear what really happened during those long months and the writing of all this will help to pass the time a little more quickly. I'll try and give you a précis of the more interesting events from the time I was taken prisoner to the day I landed in bonny Scotland.
I suppose you are fed up to the back teeth with war stories but you may be interested to hear what your own little Dickey had to undergo. We were in the scrap about a month before the fatal day and it began at Mersa Matruh. After carrying out a small rearguard action to cover the engineers who were finishing a mine-field, we pulled out 16 miles into the desert and joined the rest of the division. There we waited for three days till the Goons had surrounded us. This was done to delay his advance as he could not go any further down the coast with a whole division on his lines of communication. For two days they attacked but our losses were very light indeed and only because our ammunition was running low was it decided that we should have to break out of the position we were in and retire to Alamein.
What a night that was. At midnight all the trucks, cars, guns and other vehicles were lined up six abreast ready for the break through. Then the infantry went in with bayonets and carved a hole through the Goon lines. As soon as the hole was made we started the trucks up and, nose to tail in the pitch dark, we dashed through the gap. It was a terrible experience belting along in the dark with bullets, shells, grenades and what not whizzing in from all sides. I could see the tracer shells coming from a long way off. They appeared to be coming straight at me then would whiz just over the cab of the truck with a most awful crack. Tracer shells are very funny (peculiar) in that respect, they seem to be coming, very slowly until they are right up to you and then they are gone before you know it. However, we eventually reached Alamein and spent the next 14 days in small attacks to keep the Goons busy. I won't dwell on this part very much except to say that I went in with several charges and did not enjoy them at all. The first one I went on was at night and as you can imagine was keyed up to a fair pitch of excitement in expectation of what was to come. We started off in dead silence and after a few hundred yards I began to think "well, it will be starting in a few minutes", but the minutes passed and nothing happened. We took the objective and there was nobody there. It sounds like an anticlimax, but it was a big relief at the time.
Well, we made several more attacks (not so quiet) and on the 14 July were told that we were to make a big attack that night and that on the following day we were to go out of the line for a rest. We went 6000 yards that night against very stiff and hot opposition. At dawn we were on our objective which was a small knoll overlooking miles of flat desert. Unfortunately the people on our flanks had not made the grade and we found that we were virtually surrounded. What a horrible day followed. We were on solid rock with no cover and no chance of digging a slit trench even, and then the Goon just belted away all day with everything he could lay his hands on. That was by far the longest day I have ever known. Our casualties were very heavy and I was in the rotten position of having large numbers of wounded with no method of evacuating them. All I had was a surgical haversack and so was not able to do much more than give morphine and put on the odd bandage. We had been told that the trucks would be up in the morning, but of course they didn't arrive.
By the end of the day we were all pretty tired and miserable. It is no fun to see your friends with legs and arms off, dying slowly, and knowing that if only they could be got to a hospital they would have a chance of living. One Lieut. I knew very well had his leg shattered from the hip right down. He knew he was going to die and asked me to give him some extra morphine. In all it was a ghastly day and I hope I never have to undergo another like it. At sunset the Goon tanks came racing up the slope and were amongst us almost before we knew it. All those wounded who could walk were marched off and I was left with about 25 badly wounded men and no water. However a goon in a tank drove up and gave us a small can of water. By next morning several of the men were dead and I covered them with stone with the help of a man who had turned up from some where during the night. At about 10 oclock in the morning our own guns opened up and we had the doubtful pleasure of being shelled by our own 25 lbers.
At 2 o'clock we managed to get a goon to bring a truck and take us all to an Italian dressing station where I must say we were treated very well. By degrees we were shifted back to Mursa Matruh to a tented fly trap which was supposed to be a hospital. Once there reaction seemed to set in. I became terribly tired and washed out and to make matters worse got a bad dose of dysentery which lasted for six weeks. When I tried to sleep I had terrible nightmares, and to top it all I began to realise for the first time that I was a blasted prisoner of war. I thought a lot about you all at home, and wondered how long it would be before you would get definite news of me. It must have been a rotten time for Bobby.
I was at Mursa for 2 weeks and then one day was suddenly shifted out along with a Scots padre. We were taken by lorry to Badia then to Tobruk where we spent 2 days without food and very little water. The Italian troops in the back areas were easily the lowest form of life it has been my lot to come in contact with. While we were there I saw 2 Indian soldiers shot for no reason at all. We left Tobruk on a lorry sitting on a heap of empty shell casings and had a very uncomfortable trip to Benghasi.
What a hell-hole that was. We were put into a building with a lot of other officers (most of whom had been taken at Tobruk) and the conditions were revoltingly filthy. The flies were worse than I had seen them anywhere, the food was practically negligible and the latrines defy description. The men, in a cage next door, were even worse off. Every morning a number of them were taken dead off the lavatory seats, most of them having died from malnutrition and dysentery. I was there only a very short time thank God and my next move was by air to Bari in Italy.
Bari camp was a little better than Benghazi but not much. We did have water there but the huts were dreadfully overcrowded. I still had the diarrhoea and was feeling pretty low by this time. The diet was a peculiar one. The Italian camps were fed on what the surrounding country produced and the Bari area seems famous for its tomatoes, grapes and sugar beet. We had soup twice a day made from the tops of the sugar beet, not very sustaining and together with the other articles of diet, not much use to a chap with dysentery. The bread ration was very small and we felt hungry most of the day. In all it was pretty miserable and if one had no sense of humour it would have been really grim. There is always a lighter side to everything and I well remember an incident which happened one night. In a bed next to me was the secretary of the Wanganui Hospital Board (you will know him Dad, a good chap) suddenly he burst out laughing. We had been sitting round in silence, all very hungry and all feeling very sorry for ourselves. This peal of laughter made everyone sit up and take notice. When he had stopped laughing we asked him what the joke was, he said "Ive been thinking, and have just remembered the old adage - laugh and grow fat - so I thought I would have my supper."
After a while we began to got Red-Cross parcels and life began to look a lot more rosy. One day I saw Doug Dymock and had a long talk with him through the wire. I was at Bari about two months and was not sorry when I was told that I was being moved North to do some work. At this stage I was in rather a poor condition as far as my clothes were concerned. I had one shirt (almost in rags), my one pair of socks had been discarded weeks before and my boots were just about falling apart. I had a blanket that I had pinched from an Italian at Mersa and my small army pack with a towel and the shaving kit given to me by Mr Sandford before I left Raetihi.
The seat of my shorts was torn but they still hold together. So one fine morning, together with a padre and two South African M.0.s I left Bari for good. We were told that we were going to St Peters Castle and we began to think of an old castle somewhere in the Alps with moat etc. - but more of that later. We had by this time got over the first shook of being prisoners and had lost the despondency of the first few weeks. In fact we were becoming a bit cocky.
We were hustled like so many animals on to the Bari station with a strong armed escort. When the train came in the guard opened the door to a crowded third class compartment. We put our luggage on the platform and refused to move, on the grounds that we were officers and as such were entitled to travel in a first class carriage. The Italians are very "class" conscious, and the guard who was a sergeant, rushed away, as we thought to get an officer who would put us in our place. He rushed back a few minutes later and hurriedly tipped a very angry crowd out of a first class compartment and pushed us in. The train was very crowded, with Italians of all types standing in the corridor. This was our first victory as prisoners, we were more cheered by the fact that we had brow beaten our keepers than because our journey was so much more comfortable. And so we arrived at our new "home", Castel San Pietro.
We were misled about the castle part of our destination. There was an old ruin of a castle near the hospital but no moat or anything as romantic as that. Actually the building was an almost new school that had been converted for use as a hospital and was everything that Bari was not. It was clean and in place of the wooden two-storied double beds of Bari we as the medical staff had hospital beds of very good quality. I think this place was a propaganda hospital, but it was much better equipped than any of the other hospitals in Italy, some of which were dreadful. When we arrived the hospital was full of British and allied soldiers, both medical and surgical cases. The hospital overlooked a very pretty valley and we felt that we would be fairly well off working there. We had arrived with some odd scraps of bread in our pockets, and were agreeably surprised when the first meal consisted of more than we could eat. However, we kept the bread just in case the first meal was a flash in the pan.
But whatever else we had to put up with in "203" we always had plenty of bread to eat. I think I will give you the names of the staff (both English and Italian) at this stage, with a little note about each to save any confusion.
Capt. Grusin - one of the South Africans, a very good physician and a
born comedian. Commonly known as Gru.
Tenente-colonello Agostino d'Agistine (can you beat it) - a shouting pompous
blown-up little ass, feared by all the Ites and laughed at by the British.
In charge of the hospital and known (to the British) as Agos-dagos.
And that is about all of the staff as it stood when we came into the picture. There were about 600 patients and we had plenty of work for the first 6 months.
The trouble was that we had very little to do as relaxation and after the novelty of new surroundings had worn off we began to notice the time lagging. At first we were allowed to buy newspapers (for what they were worth) but as soon as it became evident that the Axis forces were not going to capture Alexandria then all news was smartly cut off. It was then that we were fortunate enough to contact the local communist in the shape of the electrician. He would cone into our room nearly every day on the pretext of seeing if our light was working properly and once inside he would tell us all the news in very fast Italian and go as fast as he could. We made him a present of some tea on two occasions just to keep -him interested. We had, for the first 6 months, the large number of two books, probably the worst books ever written, but we all read them and enjoyed them too. One was "The Grey Knight" by Mrs de la Pasteur. The other was Thomas Hardys "Tess of the Durbervilles". We were taken for walks 2 or 3 times a week but there were only three routes permitted and we soon got sick of those walks.
Slowly but very surely the bogey of boredom sneaked up on us; we played bridge till we were sick of the sight of cards; for 8 weeks we kept ourselves amused by running a sort of bogus medical society. We held a meeting every Monday evening, suitably dressed in white ties made from bandages. Each of us had to read a humorous paper on some alleged medical subject. Proceedings were helped by some wine we managed to get. Some of the papers were quite funny, especially two of Grus. One was called "Sick Parade" and was a report of the conversations in the waiting room of a veterinary surgeon. The other I am afraid was called "the effects of pregnancy on the unmarried father," - rude perhaps, but very funny.
After 8 weeks we ran out of ideas and the society was disbanded. Then I did a tapestry (since lost in the Russian advance) but the monotony was getting pretty bad and we all began to bicker and fight. We had been cooped up in one room all this time and without exception were getting nervy and jumpy. One day we had a real row and Fanny Lee later lost his temper with one of the Ites and was moved to a straff camp in double quick time.
Fanny was replaced by two others, both good types. One was a middle-aged Australian "Pop" Levings, and the other an Englishman called Lancaster. Then just as we were getting too used to one another the collapse of Italy came very suddenly.
You can imagine how high our hopes rose. We were informed that we were to stay put until relieved by our own troops. Day by Day we sat watching the road really believing that our tanks were just around the bend; it seems silly now but at the time we had no information and were prepared to believe anything.
Anyway, our moving was out of the question as we still had about 400 patients, and many of them were unable to walk. Teste offered two of us a ride South in a car but after talking it over we decided to turn the offer down on principle.
After days of anxious waiting the Goons said that we were to be taken to Germany and our hearts dropped to our boots with disappointment. One morning, they came and gave us one hour to have all patients ready to board a hospital train. Just after that order was issued a flight of 72 flying fortresses passed overhead and pasted Bologna to the North of us. We literally rocked the buildings with our cheers as we imagined that the Goons would not now be able to take us past Bologna, the only route they could possibly take us. We still fondly imagined that by the time that they had repaired the railway our troops would have arrived on the scene. No such luck of course. The bombers had messed up the Bologna railway station all right but there was still a double track rail which completely by-passed the city. And that is how we came to leave Italy, after I had been exactly one year at Castel san Pietro. There are countless things I could tell you but I have tried to stick to the broad outline as it were in an attempt to give you some idea what life was like in the camps I was in while a "prignionera de guerra". We were very disappointed at the turn events had taken, but that disappointment was tempered a little by the fact that we were actually moving after such a long time in one building.
Reading through this, I feel that there has been so much left out that it really does not give you a very good idea of what Italy was like. I'm sorry it is such a muddle. Every time I try to think of things that I have forgotten to mention, such a flood of memories come back that it is impossible to sift out the things that might be of interest to you. I have not even mentioned the roll calls - those long and tedious waits in the hot Bari sun while the Ites (never a mathematical people) tried repeatedly to count us; nor have I mentioned that famous Character "Daft Demetrius" - a monk from a nearby monastery in Castel San Pietro. He wandered around the hospital in a flowing red robe, and was definitely "on our side". Every now and again he would come shuffling along the corridor, hands folded in his large bulky sleeves, looking rather like a pious Chinese mandarin. He would sidle into our room, quietly produce a large bottle of very good wine from each of his voluminous sleeves, and then shuffle out without a word. Incidentally, he was a prisoner in German hands during the last war and wore allied ribbons on his cloak. These things were amusing, and helped to pass the time, but there were other times, when, with nothing to do, one would just sit and gaze through the barbed wire and think of how things might be at home. It might sound sloppy but a great deal of our spare time was taken up with thinking of home - a habit which invariably gave rise to severe fits of depression.
Well, that is all about Italy that I am going to put in for the present. I hope it gives some idea of existence "behind the wire".
The journey to Germany was interesting but uneventful. We went through the Brenner Pass and the first big town we came to was Innsbruck. I saw some women, about mother's age, literally shovelling manure from a railway truck, and thought that these Germans would be a tough bunch to defeat if their women all worked as hard as these were doing. It wasn't until sometime later that I realised that the women were not German at all, but that I had had my first glimpse of Russian slave workers. We went through Munich at night so did not see anything of that city, and finally arrived at Lamsdorf in Silesia,, not very far from Breslau.
The country around Lamsdorf was flat and uninteresting, it was also the site of a big prison in the last war. I was at this camp for one month, locked in a small compound with about 20 other officers. All our patients had been taken off somewhere else and we had nothing to do, but I for one enjoyed the rest after a years toil in Italy. After 4 weeks we were suddenly given one hour's notice to move, and so set off on a hectic trip across Germany to Rotenburg, near Kassel. What a hell of a journey that was. It only took 24 hours but in that time we changed trains 10 times, and arrived at Rotenburg in some disorder.
Rotenburg (Oflag 9A/Z), consisted of a large three-storied building, surrounded by barbed wire and set in rather an attractive valley. After being herded through the double barrier of wire we were put into a large hall and ordered to strip. While we stood naked, the goons went through our meagre belongings and then handed back our clothing bit by bit and allowed us to get dressed. The search over we were allowed to go into the main part of the building, and there almost the first people I saw were W.A.0. Canavan (Ohakune School) and Tony Johnston (Taumaranui). It was good to see someone I had known at home and they were able to give me lots of news from N.Z.
(There has been a break of nearly 8 weeks in the writing of this letter on account of my illness. However I will now try to get it finished in good time without any further delays).
When I met the two above chaps I tried to tell them the little news that I had been able to gather on our trip across Germany, but found that they were more up to date with the news than I was, the reason being that there was a "canary" (wireless) in operation in the camp. Remembering the search that I had just undergone, I wondered how on earth such a valuable article of furniture had found its way inside the "wire'. I discovered later that it had been brought from another camp inside a medicine ball. This ball had been so much in evidence during the trip and subsequent search that the goon had apparently paid no attention to it at all. The German could never see the obvious. There are two very good. stories illustrating this fact, and both of them are true.
The one concerns a British Sergeant major who was in charge of a camp in Grauduenz (on the Vistula South of Danzig). There was a wireless in this camp and it was the custom of the operator to write out the B.B.C. news once a day and circulate the written copy throughout the camp. One morning this N.C.O. was reading the news of the day before when he was told that there were two men in plain clothes to see him at the main gate. He, thinking they were the long-overdue International Commission, put the news on his bed and went down to the gate to welcome his guests. However, they were not the expected Swiss but a couple of Gestapo. They immediately searched our friend and then told him to lead the way to his room. On the way to his room he suddenly remembered the news sitting there on his bed for anyone to see. He did some hard thinking, and when the procession had reached his room he had decided what to do. They went into his room and as soon as he had closed the door he offered them each a cigarette. They both took one. The sergeant then quickly patted his pockets in search of matches, pretended that he had none, saw the paper on his bed and hurriedly twisted it into a taper, lit it at the fire and then lit their cigarettes. The rest of the paper was thrown burning into the fire of course and the danger was averted.
The second story was told me by one of the members of the last Swiss Commission to visit us before we were released. In a small working Commando in Southern Silesia where the men went out of the camp every day to work in the fields the Germans had become a little slack in the method of searching. They would sometimes search and sometimes just ask the men if they had any contraband. On one occasion a Tommy approached the Gerry guard house with a small wireless wrapped in his jersey under one arm and three eggs in the other hand. When the Goon guard asked him if he had anything to "declare" the Tommy said "three eggs". He held these out under the Gerrys nose. The eggs were confiscated and the Tommy walked on into the camp still with the wireless in his other arm. I know that sounds a rather tall story but I was told it by a very amused Swiss and I can quite imagine it happening.
To get back to Oflag 9A/Z. I was there for about 5 months and managed to fill the time in quite well. There was a good library and lectures on all sorts of subjects were given every day. Although the grounds were very small, we were able to get out about once a week to a nearby field for a game of football. The monotony was occasionally relieved by some exciting event. While I was there, two men tried to escape through the wire one night. They had cut their way about half through the wire with a pair of home-made cutters when they were caught and bitten by the Alsatian dogs which were kept patrolling between the building and wire at night.
When I left Rotenburg work was proceeding on a very ambitious piece of tunnelling. The tunnel began on the second floor of the building (in a lavatory) and went along and then down in the actual substance of the wall. The wall was just thick enough to allow them to burrow down it and to leave a thickness of one brick on each side of the tunnel. This fine piece of work had got down to ground level and had begun to reach out in the general direction of the camp perimeter when the Goons found it.
There does not seem to be anything else left to tell you about Rotenburg, except that by the time I was sent away to work I was glad to got a job once more. Our quarters were very cramped at Rotenburg. The room I was in housed 16 officers and was the size of the dining room at Raetihi, certainly no bigger. Beds were two-storied wooden bunks and there wasnt much room for anything else when we were all inside at once.
Well, after about 5 months I was sent to Thorn to work as a medical officer at Stalag XXA. Thorn you will see on the map as being about half way between Warsaw and Danzig, on the Vistula. I was posted to Fort Fifteen. When I was told that I was going to Fort Fifteen I wondered what sort of a place it could be. Approaching the fort there was not much to see except a very large solid steel gate which appeared to be set in a small cutting. There were trees on both sides of the gate as well as behind it. Once inside the gate I saw that the fort was much bigger in extent than I had imagined it to be from the outside. There was a dry moat running right round the fort.
Instead of writing an ordinary letter this week I thought I would 1ike to continue the over-due description of my experiences in the "bag". Bobby and I have just seen a picture called 'The Captive Heart" - a fairly faithful record of some of the phases of Prison life, and it has been a stimulus for me to finish this long- promised description. I think I had got up to the stage where I was arriving at Fort XV at Thorn, and will carry on from there.
Thorn is a small town on the river Vistula about 100 miles south of Danzig. The prisons there were housed in three old Polish forts - British prisoners were in forts XIII, XIV and XV, and I was sent to act as M.O. in fort XV. From the outside Fort XV looked like a small grass and tree covered mound. The road leading up to the forts "back-door" was blocked at the entrance by a pair of solid steel doors, the width of the road and a good thirty feet in height. Coming up the road, this steel door was the only indication that one had of what comprised the mound beyond. Inside the steel doors was a small yard and a second set of iron grill gates which lead onto a bridge. This bridge (about 30 yards long) crossed the dry moat and led into the fort proper. The entrance to the fort at the far side of the bridge was 1ike going into a railway tunnel - a tunnel from which branching passages led to the rooms in which we lived. This meant that our rooms were well underground but they each had a window which looked out onto the moat, and across at the brick wall on the other side of the moat. I am sorry this sounds so confused. I will try to draw a plan of things as they were.
This moat was about 40 feet deep and the same across and was dry except for a small trickle of a stream in the very centre. The walls of the moat were straight brick walls both on the inner and outer side. The highest level of the fort was the undulating path P (shown on map), from which the grassy ground sloped steeply outwards towards the inner edge of the moat and inwards the sunken "platz" PL on each side. The "platz" was about size of a tennis court and was well down (about 50 feet) below the level of the path. During the day we had free access to the top of the fort, reached by inside tunnels which emerged through steel doors at E. From outside the whole thing looked like undulating grassy mound, plentifully covered with trees and of course the moat was quite invisible to outside observers unless they came right up to the wire.
Looking across the moat bridge at the entrance to the fort. Sorry it is such poor drawing but it will give some idea of the place.
It was early evening when I was turned loose on this side of the bridge by a "goon" soldier. I plodded across to the tunnel entrance on the far side carrying my worldly possessions in a kit bag, very much unheralded and unannounced. Just inside the fort I met a corporal of the R.A.M.C. who took me to the second room on the right (marked above) occupied by the M.0. He was an Australian by the name of Meyer (known to all as "Quag"myer). He was very pleased to see me as he was feeling lonely) Being the only officer in the fort he had spent a lot of time on his own, and besides had just finished six weeks "stuben" arrest for calling a bunch of Jerries a lot of "murdering bastards". He told me all about the fort - it was for "non-arbiters", in other words, N.C.O.s who had refused to work for the Germans. Well, we settled down for the night with the prospect of some pleasantly quiet days together in this room, which really was quite comfortable except that it had only 2 beds and a table with 2 chairs as extra furniture. But next morning in came the Germans with orders for Meyer to move and in an hour he was gone.
I was left as M.O. and the only officer in the fort with about 400 N.C.O.s to take care of. There was very little work to do and plenty of time to fill in, as I soon found; but the men in Fort XV had been there for 4 years and more and were adept at passing the time. The temptation for them to volunteer for work in the fields, just to relieve the awful monotony, must have been pretty strong, but with very few exceptions they had flatly refused work of any kind and took a pride in their attitude. Having sampled a little of that boredom myself I have every admiration for those fellows - how they stuck it for so long I dont know. They even made little badges out of tin-foil - a laurel wreath surrounding a shovel with a broken handle, and underneath the words "NIX ARBEIT". They wore these "medals" which infuriated the Germans, but of course they could do nothing about it.
My first taste of this "new life" came the following morning. I was sitting reading one of the few medical books available when a sergeant-major of the guards came briskly into the room, saluted smartly and handed me two pages of writing with the words "Times Sir". Then with a request to burn the pages when I had finished he went out, leaving me with a summary of the B.B.C. news of the night before. After the careful and secretive way in which news had been passed round the Oflag I was startled by this casual way the "non-arbiters" handled their news service.
Later it was pointed out to me that there was only one way the Germans could enter the fort (i.e. over the bridge) - a fact which gave them plenty of time to destroy any evidence of this nature. In fact internal "security" in the fort for this reason was excellent although to my mind the men ran too many unnecessary risks.
The next evening the same Sergeant returned and asked me to go with him if I wished to hear the news. We went down to the ground floor and along to one of the end rooms where, to my surprise, were a group of men sitting around a table on which was a slap-up 5 valve wireless (even to the polished cabinet) and they were listening to Tommy Handley! One man was posted at the window carefully watching the bridge, but the rest were enjoying every minute of the broadcast. The wireless ("canary") was kept under the floor of the bathhouse, next door to the room in which the news was received. It was certainly a great morale-raiser to hear the good old B.B.C. after so many months of nothing. How this and other wireless sets came to get into the fort would take too long to tell and perhaps is best left unsaid till I see you.
At the time I arrived at Thorn there were 5 wireless sets working in Fort XV as well as one set not working. This latter was kept hidden in an "obvious" place so that if the Germans did carry out a search they would find this set and go away satisfied. This very thing happened after I had been at the fort no more than about 3 weeks and here is what happened.
Johnnie Fulton, (see later) one of the M.O.'s in the district was ill, and I had to go to Fort XIII to do his sick parades each morning. One day I was coming "home" complete with German guards, with 2 eggs in my pocket (a gift from the padre - but where he had acquired them I dont know)- and I was struck by a strange "Je ne sais quoi" about the entrance to the fort. The outside steel doors were shut - a rare event except at night. I looked at the guard and he shrugged his shoulders and said "Gestapo'. Bidding a fond farewell to the eggs I left them in a ditch and marched into the fort. What a sight was there! Four hundred Gestapo police had been let loose in the place for 3 hours and had turned the place upside down. My first thoughts were of the wireless and I didn't hold out much hope that it had survived. I was taken to my room which was in a shambles. A nasty looking goon shouted at me to undress for searching and I refused, saying that I was "protected personnel" and produced 'my identity card (enclosed) which has "Nicht Kriegsgefangen" printed across it (i.e. "not a prisoner of war"). The Goon saw red, and grabbing the lapel of my battle-dress tried to rip it off. I am sure I would have hit the blighter then and there if Maxwell (the medical orderly) had not grabbed my arm and pulled me back. The German security officer of the area; a much more reasonable man, explained to me in English that I would HAVE to undergo a search sooner or later so I stripped and was searched, not without some muttering on my part about the doubtful parentage of that Gestapo hound.
An hour or two later the b.....ds departed with their booty which included the non-working wireless set. As soon as the coast was clear and the last German had crossed the bridge the Corporal O.C. Wireless came and told me what had happened. For some reason or other the wireless had been out on the table in his room instead of under the floor in the bath house. The bugle blew for the daily roll call, and he was going to leave the wireless on the table till after the roll-call. Before leaving his room he happened to glance out of the window and was horrified to see the column of police doubling across the bridge into the fort. He put the to canary to rest in record time and had just got back to his room when the Gestapo arrived at his door.
Four police to each room, they searched everything. Bedding was pulled to pieces, clothing torn, every scrap of paper saved for further scrutiny. Here and there pieces of wall were pulled down and all the ground on top of the fort was gone over with detectors. Then they came into the bath-house. The corporal O.C. wireless was officially O.C. bathing and was required by the Gestapo to stand in the room while it was being searched. He stood there and sweated blood while by his side (and this is gospel truth) stood the O.C. Gestapo - a civilian - little knowing that he was standing right over a 5-valve wireless separated from it by about 1 inch of floor boards. They emptied the tanks and boilers, they tore down the furnace and chimney and they found nothing.
The Gestapo chief gave the signal to depart and as he was about to follow his men from the room he took a pace forward and stamped hard to test the resonance. If he had stamped before taking a pace forward it would have been a different story for the corporal, but his fairy was watching over him.
That story sounds almost too good to be the truth, but believe me not one word of this account has strayed from the straight and narrow path. I have been very careful to keep to facts ever since I started this effort - just in case you think there is exaggeration in spots. Some of these tales do sound far-fetched but later ones will sound even more so, but honestly, they are if anything very conservative.
I quickly settled down to life in fort XV - a life of boredom punctuated by interesting episodes. We rarely saw the Germans inside the fort, a fact which made life much easier and more pleasant. Now I remember only the amusing things that happened and forget those lonely hours when I sat alone in my room with very little to do and less moral energy to do it. Every meal for several weeks I had to eat alone, a sort of sop to custom and an endeavour to keep away from the men as much as possible in the interests of discipline. The men were very cheerful and friendly, always courteous and polite and during my stay in XV not one incident of unruly behaviour occurred - due entirely to the sense of discipline and high morale of the inhabitants of the Fort.
One day two very meagre-looking men in civilian clothes were thrust into the Fort. The Sergeant Maj. was suspicious of the pair and asked me to question them. I called them into my room and asked for their story - it was a curious one. 'They said that in 1941 they had been occupied in some commando-cum secret. work in Tunisia where they had been captured by the Vichy French and interned. There they stayed in a jail in Tunis until the 8th Army crossed the Mareth Line - then they were released but were picked up by the Germans and flown to Germany. Then they were taken to Berlin where they were court martialled and sentenced to death. (Such a sentence in Germany had to be followed by 3 months "grace" while the British Government was informed). Awaiting sentence to be carried out they spent the time in solitary confinement in Berlin prisons. The three months passed and turned into six. At the end of 12 months solitary confinement they were told that their case had been reconsidered and that they were recognised as British soldiers - hence their appearance in the fort.
Well, it sounded fishy to me,, but they spoke good English and certainly looked the part - a pair of physical and mental wrecks. I thought that if their story was true they must have had a hell of a time and needed all the help we could give them. On the other hand they might be "Stool-pigeons" put in by the Jerries to got information. They had no proof of their identity and we could not accept them as "one of us" for security reasons. So I gave them red-cross food and ordered everyone to be careful not to discuss anything except the most ordinary everyday matters in front of the two newcomers. It must have been pretty hellish for those chaps - I discovered later, on return to England, that they were genuine enough.
I had pointed out to them that under the circumstances we couldnt take them into our confidence, and they certainly saw our point of view. They had done a very dangerous job, had lived within earshot of a firing-squad for 12 months expecting every day to be their last, and then having gained the comparative safety of a prison camp and the company of their fellow countrymen they were denied the comradeship which would have meant so much to them. Yet they didn't grumble and even thanked me for the trouble I took to make them as happy and comfortable as I could under the circumstances. They were just two examples of the fine type of Englishman I met in the "bag". It is interesting to know that when war broke out one was a travelling salesman and the other a "counter jumper" in a drapery shop in Liverpool.
It was at Fort XV that Maxwell (the medical orderly) played his fanfare for the visiting German General. That was a practical joke with a touch of genius - but I fancy that I told you about that episode in my previous letter so won't repeat it.
After about 2 months of my semi hermit existence Fort XV was suddenly closed down. My friends were shifted to one camp and I was sent to Fort XIII.Fort XIII was an exact replica of Fort XV but it housed the ordinary Tommies who were sent out on working parties each day. In this fort the officers room was in the same position relatively as it had been in fort XV, but here I had some companions.
The officers at this stage were as follows:
Padre Latham: A wee man from Durham. Known as the "Kleine" (small)
The day after I arrived at Fort XIII Johnnie Fullton became sick and went off to hospital (Fort XIV) leaving me all the work,, which in this instance was heavy. It included two large sick parades each day and the care of patients in three wards. Of course there was a good deal of malingering but I didnt mind that as long as the men were honest with ME. I encouraged the men to get out of working for the Germans if they could put on a convincing "act" - a highly unethical state of affairs but very amusing on occasions. Once a week the German M.O. held a sick parade to check over my list of men on "light work" and "excused duty" and it was a long and tedious day when that occurred. But the sight of some "wag' coming into such a parade doubled up with "lumbago", his face the picture of misery, was somehow very funny when perhaps I had seen him a few minutes before kicking a football around on the Platz.
The first few weeks passed and I had more or less settled down to the routine when one day after doing some exercise on the Platz I had a severe pain in my back - the same pain I had as a schoolboy. Next morning my legs gave way while I was coming back from the bathhouse and I had to finish the distance on my hands and knees. After a rest I went slowly to the R.A.P, to start the sick parade but the pain was excruciating and was really getting me down. I stopped the sick parade on one occasion and felt a little better after vomiting into a bucket, but I doubt whether I've ever felt as miserable as I did that morning. But everything has its lighter side. After the sick parade I was sitting hardly daring to move and thinking what a bloody existence it was, when the door opened and in came two Tommies supporting between them an Aussie Corporal whose plight was exactly the same as mine. We just stared at one another for about 30 seconds and then burst out laughing - both stopping short when the laughter caused more bouts of pain. So we sat and giggled, almost becoming hysterical in the end. It all sounds so silly now, but such happenings as these were all that made one day different from the next, when anything was a welcome change from daily routine.
I stayed in Fort XIII until halfway through the summer of 1944 when quite suddenly we were ordered to move and the entire camp was shifted about 2 miles to what was commonly known as "Einheit III".
"Einheit III"(pronounced eyenheit dry") was just an ordinary camp consisting of a few rows of wooden huts on the sandy plain and surrounded by barbed wire, sentry boxes., machine gun posts etc. -(See the film "Captive Heart" and you've seen this and many other camps like it in Germany). The officers were given a room at the end of one of the huts and we set about making our new home as comfortable as possible.
These huts were prefabricated frail wooden affairs raised about 18 inches off the ground on wooden piles and as draughty as they come. However, we didnt care. It was summer and the war would be over long before Christmas - I'd heard that same statement before the two preceding Christmases but still believed it.
We were all very soon well settled in and life once again took on its monotonous routine - but this time with a difference. I think everybody's temper was getting a little short. We were all inpatient for the war to end and most of us not a little disappointed as the months dragged on towards Christmas and the end of the war seemed no nearer.
The five of us began to have little quarrels - we had been living together for too long and constantly got on one anothers nerves. Annoying little habits became more noticeable and tempers were lost over trifles. One lost the desire to read although there were plenty of books at this time.
Outside there was nothing to see. The country round about was almost dead flat and my god how dreary - and every view was framed in a meshwork of that damned barbed wire. We all had our fits of depression, mail seemed to be coming in less regularly and one found it increasingly difficult to see the funny side of things.
Then the winter came.
How bitterly cold it was. Clothes hung outside to dry even on the finest day became frozen to the line and could only be got off by softening them with warm water. Fuel supplies became low and we began to run out of stocks of Red Cross parcels. Even the sanitary arrangements were deplorable. The lavatories consisted of a shed, some 150 yards from our hut, built over a long concrete pit covered with concrete and pierced at intervals with holes about one foot square. At one end of the hut the pit was open to that piercing cold wind which swept across the Northern Polish plains, so that when we used the lavatories the icy wind whistling up through the holes made the cold almost unbearable.
Even in the sickroom conditions were not much better. Half an hour before I started sick parade a fire was lit in the grate and the entire day's ration of coal for that fire place was burned in an attempt to warm the room. Every day for the week before Christmas, dressed in battle dress, greatcoat, scarves, balaclava and mittens I began the sick parade with the temperature inside the room between 5 and 1O degrees below zero. Water in bottles was frozen and everyone was miserable. The coal ration per room was one shovel full per day.
Christmas that year came as a welcome relief from the monotony. Somehow we felt that this must be the last Christmas behind the wire, and we looked forward to the New Year with much more hope than we had done previously.
A few days after Christmas I was transferred to work in the hospital which had been shifted from Fort 13 to a camp similar to the one we were in and known as the "Russian hager" or "Copernicus harger". This was a very large camp cut up into blocks of about a dozen huts, one block being the hospital for the British and French P.O.Ws in the area.
If Einheit III had been dull and dreary this place was a thousand times worse. What a depressing outlook! One side of our compound was bounded by a road but the other three sides had just huts and yet more and more barbed wire. The neighbouring blocks housed Russian prisoners in every stage of decay. Men with bilateral amputation above the knee shuffled round in the snow with the stumps of their legs wrapped up in dirty bits of sacking. Their wounds were healed but the Germans had made no effort to ease their lot by giving them any sort of artificial stumps. Their clothes were indescribably tattered and filthy, and all were in a state of severe malnutrition. During the course of the war some thousands of Russian prisoners had died in this camp and were buried in a common grave only a few hundred yards outside the main gate.
Every day a sort of tumbrel cart rattled past out the entrance to the camp with its load of naked bodies which were tipped unceremoniously into a hole - and that was that.
So desperate were the Russians for food that if one of their number died during the night his body was propped up on his bed till after roll call so that others might have his meagre food ration. As often as we could we smuggled tins of Red Cross food to their hospital, and occasionally they would come through the wire for more at night - many of them being caught in the act and being shot by the sentries - and no questions asked.
The British staff of this "hospital" were:
Capt. Lake R.A.M.C. Surgeon
There were two things which made Copernicus bearable for me - one was lots of work, and the other was the presence of David Wild. David Wild, a tall thin Englishman, a Master at Eton before the war and back there now, had a fund of stories and sense of humour which 'was infectious. He had the happy knack of making us forget our plight and could stimulate a discussion which enlivened an otherwise dreary evening. I remember one of his stories and will try to tell it as he told it to us.
One day before the war I was supervising examinations at Eton. The boys were writing a three-hour paper and regulations were such that if a boy finished his paper before the three hours were up, he had to remain seated quietly at his desk until time was called. On this occasion most of the boys were unknown to me and I was looking round when I spotted the fattest boy Ive ever seen. He had finished his paper and was sitting killing time. I just couldn't resist the temptation, so wrote on a piece of paper the words "Have you a fatter boy than this in your class?", sealed it in an envelope, called the fat boy forward and instructed him to deliver this note to Mr a friend of mine in a neighbouring classroom. The fat boy returned saying there was no answer. About five minutes later the door opened and in walked the most weedy specimen imaginable - buck teeth, untidy long hair, and thick spectacles. He put an envelope on my desk. I told him he could go and then opened the envelope and read my friend's reply, which ran "No! But have you a more effete member of the aristocracy than this?"
I had hardly become used to work in this hospital when things really began to happen. One day we were jogging along as we had done for the best part of 3 years, and a couple of days later we were involved in the most exciting and anxious time Ive ever known. One moment we were prisoners with no immediate prospect of a break in the inevitable boredom, and yet three days later we were free! I will draw a plan of the area on the next page to help you understand this part of the story. (Never drawn - J.)
It began for us on the 17th of January when our canary informed us that Warsaw had fallen. This to us was really significant. Our camp was 4 or 5 miles to the East of Thorn (see Times Atlas) but on the road running from Thorn to Warsaw.
We were about 180 kilometres from Warsaw and also we knew that Thorn was the next German strong point after Warsaw on that line. Thorn was well fortified and was completely ringed by two huge anti-tank ditches - the importance of this was that we were between these two anti-tank ditches and also on the road along which the Russians were advancing. We talked things over that night and decided that we had better be prepared for any eventuality - but considered that in all probability the Germans would move us out of the battle zone before the fun began.
Next day the Germans made no announcement and we had to carry on as if nothing had happened, but inside the huts we organised the men into little groups, told them to get prepared to move out, to throw away any unnecessary kit and to carry only food.
All that day down the road at the side of our camp came columns of the retreating German armies, pouring back into the stronghold of Thorn. The sentries were obviously becoming scared. Still no word from the Germans. Rumours came into camp of hurried evacuation of German civilians from Thorn and the wireless that night reported rapid advances west of Warsaw. The position was getting tense. Snow still lay thick on the ground and the days were bitterly cold.
At 3 am. next morning January l9th we were awakened by the German Camp Commandant stamping into our room with shouts of "Raus! Alles Aus!" He said that we had to be prepared to move within half an hour when transport would be arriving.
Hurried preparations were made. My bed cases (12 in number) were transferred to stretchers and in half an hour all was set for the move. Nothing happened. At 6 am. the Germans returned, told us there was no transport and that we would be moving shortly on foot. We protested that such a more was impossible, we just couldnt carry the men who were too sick to walk and demanded to be left as we were.
After a lot of argument the Germans agreed to let the sick men and a skeleton staff remain, and left the choice of staff to us.
We were faced with a difficult decision. Would it be better to encourage the men to remain behind or would they have a better chance in the open countryside on the march? We expected the Germans to put up a fierce fight for Thorn. We knew the position of local fortifications and that there were plenty of guns and troops in the town. If Thorn was defended then the area of our camp would be the centre of the battlefield. On the other hand the weather was bad, the nights were intensely cold and this was the biggest factor against going on the march. But the weather was just beginning to improve and on the whole most of us considered that the open countryside was preferable to the possibility of being mixed up in a battle. We decided to present both sides of the argument to the men -tell them it would probably be better to got out while the going was good, but to leave the final choice to them.
Numbers of them wisely decided to go. They moved out of Camp with German guards shortly after 8 a.m. and we watched them go with rather mixed feelings. Capt. Allen went on the march, Lake, David Wild and I remained in camp. We three sat down and tried to think out what sort of precautions we could take for the safety of the patients. There were not nearly enough slit trenches for every one to take shelter, and the ground was frozen hard, making it impossible to dig more. Under the cookhouse there were some cellars, and we were considering giving orders for all patients to be moved up there, when our deliberations were interrupted by a heavy air-raid on Thorn and a low-flying machine-gun attack by squads of fighters on some nearby railway yards.
During the "shemozzle" a group of our men from Einheit III who were marching past our gates were pushed into our camp and their guards left them with us. They included Cookie (Capt. Cook) and old padre Gallaher. This brought our total strength up to 150 or thereabouts.
It was decided that we could all squeeze into the cookhouse cellars and so as quickly as possible we had everyone shifted in to their new quarters. By midday the shift was complete and we sat awaiting events. The cellars were none too roomy and damp. I had 12 stretcher cases to care for - three of them with pneumonia, one case of T.B. peritonitis and one poor follow a schizophrenic, a raving maniac. What a picnic! Poor old Eddie Dawson. I had to keep him strapped to a stretcher with two orderlies constantly in attendance. Luckily I had managed to grab two boxes of German Evipan and most of the time had to keep him quiet with intra-muscular injections.
The day passed and evening brought no change in the situation. Late that night we heard the sound of track-vehicles in the distance and several bursts of machine gun bullets passed across the camp close to the cookhouse.
Next day, January 20th things seemed a little more quiet. There were a few air raids but nothing also. At dusk we saw what we took to be a German patrol sneaking up the road, and a little later, excitement ran high when our pickets reported what they took to be a Russian patrol passing in the opposite direction!At about 10pm. some Russian artillery, from somewhere in the woods to the East of the camp, sent a few shells whistling over our heads into Thorn. The anxiety of waiting for something to happen was making us all a little nervous and jumpy. At midnight things settled down., but we expected the dawn to bring some unpleasant surprises.
January 21st. At first light, German patrol troops were seen moving back down the road to Thorn. An hour later we were thrilled by the sight of a Russian patrol, in white cloaks, moving carefully over the snow. At this stage we could still see the Germans about a mile down the road towards Thorn behind the second anti-tank ditch, What a tense situation,. It is not a pleasant sensation to be hiding in no-mans land, able to see troops of the opposing armies and expecting any minute to have a battle around our ears.
We had persuaded a Russian prisoner to act as interpreter for us, and he sneaked out to the wire and tried to contact the Russian patrol - but without much success. Thereafter, we could only sit in our cellars and hope for the best.
The day passed quietly enough. No more patrols were seen and we just sat, and waited. Just after dark the Russian artillery began shelling again and soon the sky over Thorn was a deep red from some fire which had broken out. A terrific explosion right over the cookhouse made us all jump, keyed up as we were after so many hours of waiting. The whole building shook and dirt poured in through the air-vents at the side of the cellars. A quick inspection showed a hole blown in the roof of the cookhouse at one end.
It was thought to be an air-burst ranging shot from the German artillery in Thorn, and had gone off right above our cookhouse. Unable to do anything about it we just sat there silent and miserable waiting for the worst to happen. Five minutes, ten, thirty then an hour passed and no further shots came. We expected that. The first light of dawn was the time we feared most - that is when most attacks begin, So we went on waiting, Nobody could sleep. Nobody talked. We just sat and waited, The hours slowly dragged on and as dawn approached so also, down in the cellars,, the tension increased. Ever so slowly the sky began to lighten, but still nothing happened. With daylight our spirits rose. Somehow we felt comforted by the light - at least we could see what was happening.
We began to hope that the Germans had evacuated Thorn. We could see no sign of the Germans down the road but then neither could we see any Russians. At about 8 a.m. a small group of Russians came down the side of the road by the wire. One of them came through the wire and we waited eagerly to hear what he had to say. Through our interpreter he told us that they knew who we were, that the Russians were expecting the Germans to counter attack in this sector at any moment and that we were given ten minutes to get out of the camp. We were told to get behind the Russian lines just as quickly as we could. Believe me, we lost no time. But first we had to cut holes through two sets of wire large enough for stretchers to be passed through, and we had no wire cutters. Cookie found a spade and with all his 14 stones behind it started hacking away at the first obstacle. It seemed to take an age but finally it was cut and then there was the second fence. This too seemed painfully slow but at last we were out and on the road. Slowly, dreadfully slowly it seemed, we got the stretcher cases onto the road and then began one of the most strenuous days of my life. Up that road we went, taking turns at carrying the stretchers, slipping and sliding on the icy ground and hoping like hell that the Germans would delay their attack just a little bit.
It was an uphill grade and the road was ice-covered and slippery. Russian, French and British prisoners jostled up the road in their hundreds. Soon we gained the comparative shelter of the woods but nobody thought of stopping for a rest.
Advance groups of the Red Army passed - first a few members of a patrol in their long white cloaks, then odd groups of infantrymen. A Cossack Officer rode past, a drawn sabre in his hand, and then a small cart with the body of a dead German soldier overtook us. Occasional shots rang out from somewhere in the woods and we passed more groups of Russian infantry as we slipped and struggled with the heavy stretchers.
And so it went on. No thought of what had happened - I don't think any of us appreciated the fact that we were free at last, we were too intent on putting the miles between us and Thorn.
When we had covered about five kilometres we were ordered to halt and to sort ourselves into nationalities. We lined our men up and took a roll call, nobody was missing. I think most of us were a bit dazed by the happenings of the last two hours after those days of tense waiting in the cellars.
Regular groups for stretcher bearers were organised and in a few minutes we set off again. This time we marched in orderly columns, British in front. We settled down to a marching pace (slow, on account of the stretchers) and, resting from my turn at stretcher-carrying, I began to take an interest in my surroundings. Although cold, it was a beautifully still and "crystal clear" morning and the snow covered trees were pretty to see. It was wonderful to be walking along without German guards, I wasn't a bit tired but felt happy and glad to be alive. Then suddenly I found myself thinking - "My God, Im free. Im out! Im really free. Im on my way home! All those days and nights of loneliness and longing are over. Im really free. Im on my way home! Soon Ill be seeing Bobs and Christopher. Gosh, isnt it great. Maybe a few weeks will see me back in Raetihi. I wonder what Mother and Dad are doing now? How soon will they Know what has happened to us? No more barbed-wire thank God".
Realisation of freedom came to me suddenly, just like that. One reads in novels of people shedding tears of happiness. Well, it certainly happened to me. I found that I was crying, with tears just pouring down my cheeks, but I didn't care. It was great to be alive. When I had recovered I looked around. Nobody was talking. Everyone was quietly plodding along obviously absorbed in his thoughts, and several faces were wet. I'm sure that in those few minutes of "reaction" we all thought of home, and how wonderful it was to "on our way" at last.
On and on we plodded, with no time for a rest. We began to pass bigger units of Red Arm troops and what a disorderly rabble they looked. At first there were groups of infantry - very Mongoloid types - and all their transport was horse drawn. Then a small group of cavalry, followed perhaps by a single tank - a few trucks would slither by, then more infantry. A Russian officer drove past in a gig with his girlfriend on the seat beside him. The roads became more congested; Cossack infantry, tanks, artillery, more infantry and horse-drawn vehicles surged down the road - terrible congestion and utter chaos.
A Russian interpreter at the head of our column kept telling the oncoming traffic who we were - and as the trucks passed we were received with shouts of "Anglecani", "Angleski", and "Amerikanski."
Reaction began to set in, The initial stage of excitement was wearing off and I began to feel the effects of the anxiety and tension of the past few days. We began to stumble and slip on the road, longed to put the stretchers down for a few minutes. Arms and legs began to ache and collar bones were becoming tender from the pressure of the laden stretchers (we were carrying them at shoulder height).
Wouldnt we ever stop for a rest? Then, after covering about 12 kilometres in all, we were directed off the road to a small farmhouse. Gratefully we lowered the stretchers to the ground and sat about resting our weary limbs. Where were we? What were we going to do? Nobody seemed to know - or care, for that matter. After about an hour we were told that fit members of the party would have to continue on foot to a place called Alexandrov and that the stretchers would be sent by transport as it became available. Padre Gallaher was showing signs of exhaustion so we made him stay behind with the unfit and soon we were on our way once more.
(Alexandrovo is a small town only about 8-10 kilometres from Thorn, but in order to avoid the battle front we had had to travel in a wide semicircle - hence the apparent discrepancies in distances).
We moved along more quickly now, anxious to reach this town before dark. However, time and again we were held up by the congestion on the roads and darkness saw us still with 5 or 6 kilometres to go. We left the road and out across the snow-covered fields, just a long line of hungry refugees plodding wearily in the footsteps of those in front. I think it was "Cookie" who gave a short summary of the situation with the words: "Consider yourself nothing more or less than a bloody refugee now, Horace!". At least, it was after midnight, we straggled into Alexandrovo. It was snowing, the streets were deserted and there wasnt a glimmer of light from anywhere. I don't know who was leading the column (or rather "mob") but somehow they found billets for us in the school - a large barracks of a place that had been a Gestapo police school the day before. There was no light inside or out and confusion is hardly strong enough to describe the state of affairs.
French, Russian and British P.O.W.s stumbled about in the dark but finally got settled down for the night. When things had calmed down a little I went with a guide to the local hospital where our sick had been sent. It was a small hospital run by some nuns and they had made our fellows very comfortable. We had a meal at the hospital and I was persuaded (without much resistance on my part) to spend the night on a comfortable hospital bed. Next morning I went back to the School and found things much more shipshape. Polish volunteers were cooking soup for the hungry hundreds and everyone was happy. A Russian officer arrived, said he was the direct representative of the Soviet Government and that he would look after our welfare. He told us that transport would arrive in a day or two and that we would not. have to walk another step.
Later that morning I went back to the hospital to see how the fellows were getting on and found the place very changed. Hordes of Russian wounded had arrived and the place was filled to overflowing. On the floor, all along the corridor lay wounded waiting their turn for treatment, there were no Russian doctors about, all the work being done by the Polish staff of the hospital, and offers to help from us were turned down flat.
During my whole 8 weeks as a guest of the U.S. S.R. I saw absolutely nothing (or almost) in the way of medical organisation. What little we saw on the trip to Odessa was futile and very inefficient.
Before leaving the hospital that morning, while upstairs talking to the Padre, I was attracted by a commotion outside. I went to the window and saw a stretcher containing a wounded German Officer being carried down the steps of the hospital. As I looked, a young Cossack Officer hurried after the stretcher, drew his revolver, and shot the German through the head. It was a ghastly exhibition, but even more nauseating was the sight some few minutes later, of Polish children stripping the body of its clothes as it lay in the street.
Two days later we were given orders to move and without delay set out for a town some nine miles away. (Needless to say on foot!), This was Ciechocinek ("check-o-chee-neck") - known to the Germans as Hermans Bad. (Hermans Spa - named after none other than H. Goering himself). We were billeted in the Pension Home (postcard enclosed) - and were reasonably comfortable. It had recently been a German military hospital and there were tons of beds with thick springy mattresses - but no blankets. We found a large dump of coal and as there was a fireplace in every room we soon had that building really hot.
Any day we expected to move on, and every day brought various Russian Officers- all with the same story - transport will be here, tomorrow or the next day. Most of us wanted to push on to Warsaw on foot but were persuaded to wait, and wait we did.
Five weeks we waited there and they seemed like years to a bunch of ex POWs eager to got home. The Russian food was poor (no fats sugar or anything to go with the bread) although we did get some extras from the Poles. One day I was asked to go and see a Polish kiddie with pneumonia. I had some M & B and in 48 hours or so the parents were all over me with presents of food saying that I had worked a miracle. In about two days I had a practice worthy of the name - the village insisting on paying me with food. Besides all this I had our own sick to care for (they had arrived by horse drawn cart a day or so after us) and my time was pretty well filled.
At times it was embarrassing to be plied with Polish politics while we were technically the guests of the Red Army. The Poles hate the Russians and lost no time in saying so. All the villagers I spoke to were in a high-pitched state of apprehension for the future and the reason was obvious. The Russian Armies were swooping through their country; rape, pillage and murder were rife. There was very little difference between this and the German occupation, and many Poles tried to get us to take them in as one of us so that they could escape to England. I know that this Russo -Polish antagonism is an old, old, story and I know a lot of the blame rests with the Poles, but neither side seemed to be trying to meet the difficult situation in any way, and I am sorry for the Poles.
There are so many stories I could tell of Ciekochenek that most of them will have to wait till I come home. I will put a few headings down as a reminder and will tell you about them when I come home.
900 Lithuanian Jewesses
American medical Officers watch
The "Swiss" woman and the two children
The Russian lorry driver and the bottle of vodka
Five weeks we stayed at Herman's Bad, and just about every day the Russians promised us transport within 48 hours. They would not let us send a nominal roll to the British Embassy in Moscow - instead they made lists of their own in Russian phonetics! When they read the list out to us the only way we could tell who it was supposed to be was by following the procedure on our own lists and calling out the names after they did. Yes, it was a muddle, and the red tape far outdid anything I had experienced anywhere before. The whole town was plastered with crude and rather childish placards of propaganda - the only thing they seemed to do at all efficiently.
One interesting fact which emerged during those weeks was the ignorance of the Russians on world affairs. They have obviously been very much filled up with the wonders of Russia and most of them firmly believe that most of their engineering projects are unique. For example they didn't believe that London had an underground railway and most of the drivers of trucks insisted that their "Studebaker" lorries were made in Russia. I am sure all of this was part of their domestic propaganda. The authorities did their best to prevent our men from talking to Russian soldiers. On one occasion we tried to explain to a Russian what we understood by "free speech" and instanced that in British countries one could say anything. We asked this fellow what would happen if he criticised his Government. He replied that in Russia they too had freedom of speech - that one could "criticise" the Government. Then he said, "Of course, if you say anything against the Government you will be put in jail!"
The ordinary Russian soldier seems to be a peace-loving sort of fellow, and most of them were fed up with the war. Another thing which was interesting was the fact that the Communist Party are by no means universally popular but most of the ordinary Russian troops are scared to say or do anything about a change of Government - they are ruled by the secret-police, who appear to have even a greater strangle-hold on the country than the Gestapo had in Germany. The Russians are scared of their secret police. But for all this I liked the ordinary Russian, he was friendly and helpful, fed up with the war and interested to learn about our way of life (as we were to learn about his) but all the time he was obviously scared of the secret police, and if another Russian appeared while he was talking to us he would break off the conversation and walk away.
Then one afternoon quite as much a surprise to the Russians as to us, fifty American trucks arrived and by midnight we were on the road. Snow fell as we started off and it the coldest journey I can remember. However midday next day saw us at a place called Brischen(-?) where we were to entrain for Odessa. The following day we were marched to the train and our almost "unbelievable" journey to Odessa began.
We were in cattle trucks - 60 per truck and our journey took 10 days. It was as haphazard as the rest of the Russian arrangements. The train was exactly one kilometre long and the engine driver was the rankest amateur. When we started off the first time we were all thrown in a heap in one half of the truck by the jolt. We soon learned to listen for the crash-crash-crash-crash of the couplings whenever starting or stopping - then we would grab the nearest piece of solid truck and hold on for dear life. We stopped and started so much during those ten days that holding on was almost a conditioned reflex by the time we reached the journeys end. We passed Warsaw at night so didn't see much of it.
Almost all the way to Odessa the country was dead flat, snow covered and indescribably dreary. Our train just plodded on and on sometimes stopping at a siding for 10 minutes and sometime stopping apparently nowhere for 12 or 15 hours. Rations (bread and bullybeef) was given out daily and we were also supplied with cakes of dried Russian tea. At the first stop one of our number disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with a bucket. At the next stop he jumped out with the bucket and raced along to the front of the train. There by a sign language all his own, he managed to indicate to the driver what was wanted, held the bucket under the engine, and had it filled with boiling water - it made very good tea!
There were no latrine arrangements anywhere on the trip and we just had to wait till the train stopped, then jump out onto the rails. There was no room for false modesty as all our stops were at some sort of village or other, and the arrival of the train was the signal for the villagers to turn out to see what it was all about. The country was dead flat and consequently there was no cover. On one occasion I jumped out to "faire mes besoins", and while squatting in the snow at the side of the train heard a voice apparently addressing me. I was a bit confused to find a woman from the nearby village standing in front of me, quite unconcerned, doing her best to start a conversation!
On this trip we passed through several well known places - Warsaw, Brest-Litovsk and Kovel to mention some - and without exception they were reduced to heaps of rubble. The countryside has not suffered much but the towns just don't exist any more except in name. In such a way we travelled for ten days - sometimes bumping along at a good pace and sometimes the train would stop miles from anywhere. It was impossible to go far from the train at any of these stops as we never knew how long the stop was for, and when the driver was ready to start he just started. At Brest-Litovsk we were parked for some hours by a train containing German POWs on their way to Siberia - it was difficult not to feel sorry for the blighters.
A train similar to ours, but running about 6 days behind us, experienced a little Russian rough justice at one of their stops. They had stopped at one town and for some reason the train was being shunted - but with a difference. They shunted it with an engine on each end of the train. The train was broken in half for some reason and when the two halves were brought together again the impact was so great that two trucks were telescoped and three of our fellows killed. The Russian Officer in Charge of the train decided that the local station master was to blame and without further ado, shot him! (Any officer of the Red Army may summarily shoot anyone under him). This train load joined us 6 days after we arrived in Odessa.
My first (and last) impression of Odessa was one of filth. Although it had been besieged for so long it was remarkably little damaged. The streets were muddy and the whole place was drab. We were put through a delousing regime and then billeted in a large building awaiting transport home.
The day following our arrival in Odessa the British Military Mission came to see us and were we glad to see them! They checked our nominal roll and had our names despatched by wireless within 12 hours - it was good to see a bit of "capitalistic" efficiency for a change. The intelligence officer with them was easily the most intelligent member of the species that I had met. He spoke about 6 languages fluently and his descriptions of conditions in Russia were terrific. He summed up Russian conditions as those of "Organised chaos". Wherever he went he was shadowed by Russian police. He said that the most peculiar thing about Moscow was the black market, where it is a Government concern! He said that in Moscow one could buy anything at all if one had the money.
While we waited in Odessa we were not allowed outside the building until after very strong representation on the part of the Military Mission. The men were taken for route marches and officers were allowed out walking, in pairs only! Cookie and I took immediate advantage of this order and made hasty tracks for the harbour. The sea was a beautiful blue, my first glimpse of it since August 1942,, but even more beautiful to our eyes was the sight of two big steamers slowly into harbour - and yes, both of them were flying the good old British ensign. We literally jumped for joy, then hurried back to spread the good news. Excitement ran high that night and we spent the time arguing how long it would take to reach England from Odessa.
Next morning we were dashed to the ground by a message from the captain of one of the ships, who said that he had to go to Alexandria and was sorry he couldnt take us this trip! However, the intelligence officer got busy with messages to the Admiralty and the result was that two days later we were marching down to the docks and at last, on our way.
What a lovely ship she looked. It was the Duchess of Richmond (22,OOO tons). The captain and crew certainly gave us a great welcome and the food was almost too good to be true. We all found that we couldnt eat very much. I think most of us, after stuffing ourselves at that first meal of eggs, bacon, toast with butter and jam, went straight up to the bathroom and were sick. After that we took things more slowly, but it is hard to describe what a pleasure it can be to sit down to a slap up meal and really enjoy eating for the first time for three years. I put on a stone in weight during the trip to England.
We embarked in the evening and the ship pulled out almost at once. Next day we arrived at Istanbul. The next interesting place we passed was the Dardanelles - we saw the Gallipoli memorials.
Naples was the next port of call. We stayed five days there and unfortunately were not allowed on shore. I tried to send a cable home but the war was still on and security forbade it. Butt Adams came an board one evening and it was grand to see him.
At Naples hundreds of troops were embarked and accommodation on board became pretty crowded. Among the new arrivals were several colonels and majors who objected to the dormitory sleeping arrangements and gave orders through the military administration staff of the ship that we were to be moved out of the cabins to make room for officers of higher rank. The ships Captain here turned up trumps by giving a counter order that on no account were we to be moved. A real gent! The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, except for the sinking of an enemy submarine 24 hours out from Scotland.
Sailing past Ailsa Craig and up the Clyde was a terrific thrill. The hills looked so green and peaceful it was hard to believe that we were practically in England (sorry Scotland). All day batches of ex P.O.W.'s were disembarked. Our turn came at 3 p.m. and almost before we realised it, there we were with two feet planted on good old British soil. A train was waiting in the Station, with daily papers on all the seats, and Scots girls on the station were giving out cakes and tea. It was a welcome change to be able to read all the advertisements and to understand everything anyone said without having to scream for an interpreter. As the train steamed along we all leaned out the windows and shouted and waved to anyone nearby. It was dark by the time we arrived in Edinburgh so al1 we saw there was the name of the station - but even that was a thrill.
There after things happened so quickly it was all a little confusing. Ten in the morning saw us arriving at Kings Cross - there a lorry arrived and took us through London to Victoria Station. The Strand, Trafalgar Square, the Mall, Buckingham Palace and lots of other places were pointed out as we hurried by - I would have like to have stopped and had a good look but we had to catch a train for Margate where the New Zealand reception camp was stationed.
That is that. I am sorry that this is such a jumbled version of some of my experiences. Some of the pages seem to verge on the melodramatic, but I have tried faithfully to record what I saw, and what I felt. The emotional upsets on release from prison and return to normal life are difficult to portray so you will have to excuse the stilted passages.
Now a little more than a year after my arrival in England, I am beginning to feel more or less a normal citizen. I am beginning to forget the worst side of the prison life and remember most clearly the funny bits which helped to make life a little more pleasant.
I miss the comradeship that one finds among men in such a predicament, and still feel a little resentment on some occasions. For example, there are plenty of young doctors in London who have held good jobs in hospitals throughout the war, and some of them openly boast of how they kept out of the army. I feel a little bitter on this subject but am beginning to get such thoughts out of my system. Such people are really not worth bothering about, and I feel that although I may be a long way behind them in medical matters little hard work will soon put that right - and on the other hand I have had experiences which in some ways are beyond value. Ive made friends with men all over the world, and Ive had unique opportunities to really get to know men from all walks of life. Friendships made under conditions of privation and danger seem to mean so much more than ordinary friendships.
I didnt enjoy being a prisoner of war, but Ive come out of it with a wealth of experience and knowledge which compensates in some measure for the hardships entailed in gaining it.
Love to you all at home
PS: I dedicate this "effort" to my dear wife whose constant bickering and nagging drove me to completing it.