Sergeant Douglas Smithson
Unit : No.10 Flight, G Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
I was surprised at the number of activities that went on in the camp. The Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other denominations had services. Theatricals were popular - many counties had clubs. Football was played almost continually except when it was under water or 9 inch deep in snow. I sang in the choir as we were getting ready for Christmas even, though no one would say that I was a good singer but I have always enjoyed singing and if someone was in pitch nearby I could keep with them. I was a founder member of the Dickens Fellowship and very much liked reading aloud. The book chosen was Pickwick Papers. The group began with six members and all read. After four meetings the room was full and we had to cut down on the number of readers. I started to give lessons in Building Construction to Staff Sergeant George Greenwood as well as attending the class in it. I took over this class after Christmas and ran it until we left.
Christmas was starting to become something special. In November we had started to save a small portion of rations out of the parcels we were now receiving. [The parcels varied from one parcel to 2 men per week and up to 4 men to each]. At this time all in the room messed together. Someone got two green and white check tablecloths from somewhere. Others made little lamps out of used powdered-egg tins, oleo-margarine and short lengths of unravelled pyjama cord. [I never got near any pyjamas and wondered how they came to be there? Possibly by men who had been in the camp much longer than I had and had them sent in a personal parcel. Point to note, I never received any message of any kind as a POW.]
Christmas Day arrived and after a very enjoyable Carol Service we set out 49/12 ready for our Christmas Dinner. The tablecloths were put on the two tables we had. We laid out the home made plates [Tins from parcels bashed into shape for plates, dishes, mugs and even knives and forks] and what ever things we had. We placed the lights along the centres of the tables as well as four small home made Christmas trees. These had been made from pine cuttings brought into the camp for fuel. Kenyon-Omeroyd had made a menu for each of us out of brown paper. We all signed each other's menu along with our home addresses. Word must have got around the camp. We had to hold up the start of the dinner as there was a constant stream of "Kreigies" coming to have a look at the lay-out. We certainly had a feast that day.
I managed to sing myself hoarse at the two later services we had, one being in the Lazerette [Hospital]. I have just read my rough diary and find that we also sang at a service on Christmas Eve. I also noted that the effects of eating was not too pleasant as I did not get over the "s--s" until Thursday 28th December. I had a rest from any activities until New Years Eve when we saw the New Year in, playing Monopoly until 01-00hrs on the first of January 1945.
The New Year came in very cold with constant snow showers. On running across the football pitch to the showers [we had one now and then] I got a touch of frost bite because I had started running across without my side hat which had flaps which covered my ears. I had to spend the next hour rubbing my ears. I now fully understand why the Germans have ear muffs when they are outside and wearing a trilby.
The Germans sent round a news communique fairly regularly and we find that it is usually in agreement with any of our own news. Now and then we are able to see a German newspaper. The lists of casualties are written in a Gothic script and seem longer than ours that I have read when in England. One day we were slow in turning out for parade and therefore had an extra one as a punishment. Some punishment, usually very hilarious.
I am now busy and attending more classes. One on public speaking, another being a Bible Class led by V. Victor Cooper. He hopes to become a Methodist Minister after the war. He has been a prisoner since being shot down when piloting a Hampden in a raid on the Kiel Canal at the beginning of the war. Think of it, a POW since September 1939 [Now January 1945]. He has put his time to good use. He can speak French, Spanish, Italian, German and at the moment is starting on Russian. He told me that he learns the grammar of a language in about six months; after that vocabulary is the only necessity. I spent a few years learning French and am now left with only a smattering for my visits to France. I do not think my English is too good either.
The New Year continued with constant snowfalls and icy cold weather. Our activities of play and study started again. When I write this now I wonder what life would have been like at University. Some of the prisoners who have been in captivity a long time have had the chance of taking degrees and passed them. There is nothing stable enough for study of that kind now. Rumours abound about the war situation and possibilities of our movement from the camp. I have remarked before that I had no news from home and only found out the family situation when I telephoned home from Derby on my way there when on repatriation leave. I wrote many letters and cards but they only arrived home after my own arrival there.
One of our ways of passing time was to get into conversation with the ferrets; our name for the German guards who wandered about the compound seemingly with nothing to do. Their real job was to watch for any clandestine activities. Only once did I hear about anything of that kind and that had been found out. A tunnel had been started some time before I arrived. During my time in the camp, some of the sand from the tunnel stored in one of the hut roofs started to sifter through the ceiling boards. A ferret spotted it. That was the end of the tunnel. As far as I was aware, every one thought the war was so near it's end that any chance of escape was not worth the candle. The only time I tried was in Holland near Amersfoot which, I mentioned earlier in these jottings. To return to the points I was making about the ferrets. We often managed to have things brought into the camp by them. We had things from the parcels they wanted and they would exchange things we wanted for them. Examples were cigarettes of ours and cutlery of theirs. Some POWs became very proficient at barter. We also exchanged some of our parcel contents for other things. I did not smoke so I exchanged my cigarette ration for chocolate. I had thought for some time that when we moved the German organisation would be likely to fall apart, and therefore the food situation would deteriorate. Chocolate was one of the basics of food, along with bread. The chocolate was mainly American and named a "D" bar. It came in the American parcel. I had stopped eating my ration some time before Christmas and had saved eight bars at that time.
One aspect of our life was the absence of privacy for oneself or for any private conversation. We used the circuit for this purpose. The circuit was a well-trodden path round the edge of the compound and just inside the trip wire. Every day a stream of prisoners could be seen tramping, together or singly, round it. Everyone walking the same way and at roughly the same speed. We talked about anything but mainly ourselves. We found out much about each other. Walking with Kenyon Omeroyd a friend from 49/12 I heard about much of his life. He had been shot down in Northern France, where he evaded capture by living with different families in France and Belgium. Once he stayed in a flat above where a German platoon was billeted and every day he walked past some of them when going out. I was very interested in part of his pre-war life. He had a sabbatical from his university and toured Greece and Eastern Europe, making a living giving lessons in English. He managed for almost a year but then had to be returned to England by the British Consul as he had run out of money.
The circuit was, indirectly, the cause of sadness in the camp. One morning the air raid warning was sounded. This meant that prisoners had to stay in the hut they were in or if they were outside, go into the nearest hut even if it were not their own. A young airman did not hear the warning and decided to go on to the circuit. This he did by going out of the rear door of his hut and on to the circuit there. It was not unusual for the circuit at the back of the huts to be empty. He set off walking. Had he gone out by the other door he would have seen immediately that the compound was empty and known what was wrong. By chance a German soldier, not connected with the camp, saw him, took his rifle, knelt on one knee, took aim, fired and killed him. At the Court of Enquiry held by the Germans they excused the soldier by saying that the Airman should not have been outside his hut and that the soldier's family had all been killed in the bombing of Cologne. Such is war.
During my stay in Bankau the Theatrical group put on two shows. The first was a kind of pantomime and called "Pantomania". The opening scene brought the house down. It represented the beginning of "Macbeth" with three witches gathered round a cauldron over a fire and singing about toil and trouble. That is, until they opened out and it could be seen that the cauldron was actually a "Blower". [A crude machine made out of klim tins, string and a base board. The klim tins were fashioned into various parts. Cylinders, fans, cranks and fire grates to hold the fire, which was made by burning any wood or cardboard available. The string was plaited to make the cable to drive the fans by turning a handle. The fans blew air up through a form of chimney on the top of which was placed a tin full of water to be boiled.] There were many variants between the American and British models. The American having a double-form of drive and the British a direct one. There was a more simple affair called a smokey which had no forced draught. Water, about a pint, in a tin took about five minutes to boil.
The other show was a straight play, "Journey's End" by R.C. Sherriff. I was fortunate to go to the first performance. Somewhere in the middle of the play the word "Hun" is used. At this performance, on the actor saying the word, the German Commandant, who was sitting on the front row, jumped up and stopped the play, saying that the word "Hun" could not be used with regard to Germans. On profuse apologies being made and their word given that the word would not be used again, the play was allowed to finish. In our situation it was an emotional experience. However the following night and the second performance, the actor was so engrossed in his act that he forgot to say German instead of "Hun": This time, on the play being stopped, there was no reprieve. The audience saw only half a play.
I have a note in my diary that on the 15/16th, Mon/Tues of January some of the men were making bags and cases to carry their belongings in, ready for any sudden move. I thought there was some sense in this, so I altered my kit bag so that I could carry it slung over my shoulder with the draw cord fastened to my belt and so leave my arms free. I also thought about what things I could carry over a long distance as it was clear to me that we should not have transport. Some of the RAF types must have thought we should be on a Sunday School outing as they were filling attaché cases with belongings they had collected over months and years.
On Wednesday, on returning from a choir practice and having a coffee in the billet; word came round that we had to be ready to move in an hour. It was bedlam: any food uneaten was scoffed immediately. Egg powder, syrup and porridge were mixed together and also eaten; we also tried to make a stew. After the panic, things did settle down a little but rumours flew round the camp like fire. One of them was that the Russians were only about ten miles from the camp. We could hear gunfire in the distance but to me it was much further than ten miles. Nothing happened and at night we had a fine intercession service. I had the Padre and Vic Cooper sign my New Testament along with their addresses. Thursday morning and we expected to go then but were told that it was off and we might be here another day or two. Settled down and then were called out on parade about 17-30hrs ready to go. NO! Returned to billets after messing about for half an hour. Next a Russian air raid with bombs dropping close by. We now thought we should be here all night but were called out again at 21-00hrs. NO back into billets and told that 03-00hrs. Friday was the time for the off. That time passed but at last we left Bankau at 04-00hrs. That was the last I saw of my main POW camp'. I was not sorry to go but very much wondered what was in store for us.
19th January 1944. After the excitement of the last few days we at last moved from Bankau at 04-30hrs on Friday the 19th of January. The wind was very strong and the roads icy. We found it difficult to walk on the ice and I was very glad of my kit bag being free of my arms. I had in it as far as I remember, spare socks, shirt, underclothes, towel, soap [small piece], razor [a few blades we had sharpened on the inside of a mug], a little bread, [I never liked eating everything until some more food had been given us]. I think I had a "D" bar of chocolate. I also carried a New Testament and a shortened version of Pepys' Diary, my own diary, my mess tin, a mug, a table knife and a spoon. I may remember other things as I go along.
I was wearing, at the time, two pairs of long johns, two long sleeved vests, one British Army shirt, one pair of thin American Army issue socks and one pair of British Army issue woollen socks, boots, battledress trousers and jacket, RAF side hat which was opened out and buttoned under my chin over an Army comforter with a scarf round my neck. Over my cap and head I had cut up and re-sewn a pair of summer issue underpants, the remains of which I had sewn into mittens to wear over my gloves. I had tried to change my American Army issue overcoat for a British Army or RAF one but there were no takers. The British coat was much warmer than the American one, may be not so smart looking but warmer.
Approximately 1300 POWs had started out from the camp trying to march in threes but after forty yards we were slipping and sliding all over the place. We had to walk as best we could. Many chaps had tried to carry too much and the side of the road soon became the recipient of cast off goods. The column consisted mainly of RAF aircrew and maybe 50 glider pilots. We walked through Kreuzburg and again my diary records again how difficult it was to walk on the snow and ice. After Kreuzburg we continued to a small town called Konstadt and through there to a little village where we entered a barn for the night. We were very tired, as none of us were fit and all short of adequate food. The last ten kilometres I helped to push a dogcart; it helped to keep us on our feet and was a change from walking. The name of the village was Winterfeld. We had walked 28 kilometres. I was able to keep a record of the march because the names of the villages and towns were still in place as well as direction signs and distances in kilometres.
20th January. Roused and on the way, no food, there no time hanging about but the guards have a job to get everyone on the move. We are tired and no one wants to go out into the cold. At last we are off and I find that once we are walking I become warmer although it is not enjoyable. We can not march in step. We just trudge along, each one, in some way turns into himself and there is very little chat.
We set off at 06-00hrs and walked 12 kilometres to a brickyard near Karlsrhue and spent the rest of the day inside one of the kilns. For the first time since goodness knows when, we were warm. The works were not in use but kilns take a long time to cool completely. There were a lot of wooden racks left about and it did not take long to get fires going. It reminded me of how we used to sit round campfires and tell stories when I was in the scouts. [The troop was run by Ralph Whitely Assistant Scout master and the Scout master Mr Crosland. It was attached to St. Stephens Church Lindley.] We rested and slept until 03-00hrs. Sunday morning.
21st January. At 03-15hrs we were on the road again and trudged on and on an awful march under terrible conditions. Snow, ice and cold, men falling out on the way. We hoped, but were not sure, that a truck was following up to look after anyone too ill to walk. After 41 kilometres we were put into a barn near an unknown village and given a few biscuits, almost like dog biscuits. They may have been, as the dog handlers usually had a mouthful of dog food when they opened a tin of food for their dogs. We understood that we were likely to be there for a few days; we needed a rest. When we arrived we had turned out some cows and billeted down in their place. It was really warm. The idea of being there for a few days was terrific but as usual, armies do not work like that. In the middle of the night we were aroused and after a lot of bother, an odd shot being fired [in the air] we got moving. The time was 03-00hrs. The reason given for the move was that "Joe" was following up fast.
22nd January. Monday morning about 11-00 hours and we were in another barn close to a village called Schonefeld and not far from a larger town called Brieg that was shelled soon after we had left. We had only walked 15 kilometres and would have managed if we had had some proper food. We often mingled with German refugees as we walked and I still found it a sad sight. I thought at the time how desperate they looked and wondered how they would fare in the winter that was now upon us. Most walked alongside carts, some drawn by horses but most by hand. We passed one family as they tried to push a motorcar filled with their belongings. It was a pathetic sight as there was no way that they could save what were obviously their most important treasures. We had everything to carry but in most cases it was only what we needed to exist under the then present conditions. We still hoped that the war would soon be over and that we would return to our homes, in most cases, intact. I have just reread that last sentence and it has almost made me laugh as I remember my thoughts at varying times on the march when I was really very low. But, the war was not over! We were so tired that when we had a break often minutes in the hour which we had finally persuaded the Germans to agree to). Before lying in the snow we always told the men around us that they must not let us go to sleep as we might be left behind when the break was over. That would be fatal as there was no way that we could survive on our own.
23rd January. Left Schonefeld at nine and had a long walk of 25 kilometres to Wansen, a fairly large town. We had not had any bread ration since the start of the march and now our morale was getting low. There is a kind of soup kitchen with us but we have had only a few cups of very poor soup so far. This was certainly one of the low points of the march as the entries in the diary are very short.
24th January. The entry for this Wednesday reads. "Stayed to-day at Wansen. The M. O. is doing a great job but we are in poor shape."
25th January. From Wansen we had another long march [Probably not long if you are fit.] of 30 kilometres to Heidersdorf. We were dead tired but we got our first piece of bread, i.e. one third of a loaf. There was one interesting happening on the way here. We were walking along one side of a shallow valley when we saw another column of POW on a road on the other side of the valley. We could talk to one another by shouting and soon knew that they were from Lamsdorf, a much larger camp than ours in Upper Silesia, but some distance from Bankau. Shouting was our only connection.
26th January. Food was ever on our minds. The entry for this Friday says that we had two half cupfuls of soup and that we roasted some potatoes and they helped the inner man. Our morale tended to go up and down according to our own situation. At that time we had no knowledge of the war and we could only think of what was going to happen to ourselves. The guards were not much better off as far as knowing how the war was developing. They were not much fitter than we were. Many of them were getting on [relative to ourselves] and any younger were not in the Al category.
27th January. Set off from Heidersdorfat 11-30 hours after hanging about for most of the morning. Had a very tiring march of 18 kilometres getting to Pfaffendorf about 17-30 hours just on dusk. Orders were given that we were to continue the march at 0-30 hours tomorrow. Our thoughts were unprintable. I notice that food, tiredness, snow and cold are the major topics in the diary. I did remark that the countryside had altered and that there were more hills in the area. I also remarked that because of the hills and the snow, walking was being made more difficult than ever. Fortunately we did have a little longer rest having two hours longer than we had been told. I think that some of the Germans were also in a bad way and they needed a rest as well.
28th January. Where the knowledge came from I have no idea but the grape vine informed us that the prophet Nostrodamus had made a mistake and the war had not ended today; until then I had never heard of him. Apparently he foretold there would be a major war and that it would end today. This was Sunday and we set off at 05-30 hours doing 24 kilometres to Stamsdorf, passing through Schweidnitz on the way. Schweidnitz was the largest town we had seen, although, as it snowed all the way, we did not see much. The cold was said to be minus 20 degrees. The billets were in the various buildings around a farmyard and we were very cold.
29th January. Very cold all day. Expected to move all day and to set off at 17-30 hours and then have transport. Could we hope? We did set off at 18-00 hours but this march became a nightmare. We got caught in a blizzard. One of the guards died and we had no knowledge of how the prisoners had fared. Whilst we were trudging up a slope a German Officer's small staff car tried to pass the column but was unable to move up the incline. The Officer got out and in sign language and forceful German told us to push. We pretended not to understand and carried on walking. Out came the revolver [automatic]. We pushed. He did not threaten casually. At last we came to a village barn more dead than alive. The village was named Peterwitz.
30th January. Tuesday and we rested all day. There was no further news about transport. Stayed there all night as well. There had been a rumour that we were going to Sagan, the camp from which almost 50 POW had been killed after escaping.
31st January. First thing in the morning we learned that we were not going to Sagan as it had already been evacuated. The latest rumour now, is that we are to set off at 07-00 hours in the morning and walk 18 kilometres to some awaiting transport. My diary notes "Oh yeah!"
1st February. Yes, we did set off at 08-30 hours and had a short walk of 14 kilometres and arrived at another barn. I could write a treatise about German barns. This one was about 6 kilometres from Goldberg. Here we were very crowded and had only one consolation and that was that being very crowded made us a little warmer.
2nd February. We had had so many false rumours that we were becoming despondent. I was feeling very low and had very little optimism left. I did say in the diary that "Joe" was only 60 kilometres from Berlin and that the war should not last much longer.
3rd February. Remained there all Saturday without any more rumours and no more about moving. I was still feeling very low owing to lack of food. I did learn that the name of the village was Prausnitz. Most of us just lay on the floor of the barn and talked about anything. Often too tired to do even that.
4th February. Managed some kind of wash under a tap in the yard of the barn and heard from the Padre that we were to have a service that morning as it was a Sunday. Two services were held, one for the RCs and another for the Anglicans and Nonconformists. Vic Cooper helped with the Anglican one and very uplifting it turned out to be. We sang "Jesu Lover of My Soul" to Hollingside and read the Twenty Third Psalm. The Padre gave a short address. Short but good! It was not possible to stand out in the cold for any length of time. The singing was surprising as very few were musical but at least we were enthusiastic. More rumours again. Germany is in a bad way and another surprise "We are going to leave to-morrow by train" The diary "Can we hope?"
5th February. Yes! We were roused at 04-30 hours and were able to move out at 06-30 hours after the usual waiting and shouting. Not from us, there was no hanging back. It was just breaking daylight and to me quite a shock as most of the snow had gone. The thaw had been very rapid over the past two days. We had had some bread and the starvation routine had eased. The walk was only 7 kilometres and we were soon at the railway station for a town called Goldberg. There the cattle trucks were waiting, just the same but this time we welcomed them and jumped in almost with pleasure. We were crowded but nothing like my previous encounters. I did not even count the number in our truck. It was uncomfortable but at least we could hope that we were going in the right direction.
At 13-15 hours we moved off. The snow having gone, it was good to look out and see the fields, which were now green; most had been seeded and the crops had grown under the snow. Leignitz, was our first stop, where we waited some time. Away again at 15-50 hours and travelled through wooded country for three or four hours. The next stop was outside Sagan, this turned out to be for the night. The diary says it was uncomfortable. The wooded area did look gloomy and I can understand POW wanting to escape.
6th February. 05-30 hours and we were away arriving at Cottbus about 12-00 hours. The journey was frustrating as we had many long stops but at least we moved and were reasonably warm. Drew into a siding at about 17-30 hours and stayed the night. More binding and groaning. We should be used to it by now. The bread is getting low and some of the men are without any. I was lucky and had managed to keep a days ration in front of me. There will be no issue whilst on the train.
7th February Still in the siding and rumour has it that an accident is the reason or the hold up. At last we moved at 17-30 hours travelling through the night with many stops and passing through Falkenburg.
8th February. Stopped again and more rumours. First, this is where we are supposed to have been travelling to. Second, true but we are to move on as the camp is full. Third, truth at last, we are released out of the trucks and marched up to our new camp about three miles From the station. The town is called Luckenwalde and is about 60 kilometres S.S.E. of Berlin. Rumours still persist that we are here for only a few days but that is as maybe. As Asquith once said "We must wait and see." We have somewhere to rest with possible food. The conditions are not good being similar to Limburg but not so crowded. Most of the glider pilots were in the same hut but there were also many RAF. I have now teamed up with a Sgt. Observer called Norman Waller an ex-Police Sergeant of the Metropolitan Police. The numbers were around 300/350.
Spent most of to-day getting to know our compound and settling in the hut. George Waller has been made hut leader. Not an important position as it really means that he dishes out food or parcels, if any, that we may have. The hut is not so crowded as at Limburg but otherwise is similar. There are no beds so we kip on the floor, better than the straw that was available, as the straw becomes alive and that is no joke. The camp is very large and consists of a number of compounds with 5/6 huts in each and each hut housing 300/350 men. At the entrance to the camp there is a forlager for the German guards, administration and lazerette. Down the centre of the camp runs a road with a turning space at the bottom. I never knew how many compounds there were but in the camp were servicemen from Britain, France, America, Russia, Italy, Poland and a number of central European countries. The few Italians must have been taken prisoner when the Germans carried on fighting in Italy after their surrender. There were a few from India, probably our own forces.
There was also a canary working well and we had a good news service. The first day, we heard that Russian were only 70 miles From Berlin. Along one side of the camp is a wood. Our hut was on the opposite side and overlooked a road, which ran alongside the outer wire. This wire stretched round the whole of the camp and at a distance of about 50/60 yards from the compound wire. Each compound had a gate to the adjacent compounds, each with a guard. The gates to the road also had a guard. The Americans were in tents [similar to marquees] alongside the wood.
At this time we had no Red Cross parcels but the German rations were more regular. A typical day's ration was better than at Bankau, being 1/5th of a loaf of bread, almost a cup of soup, part of a spoonful of sugar, about one cubic inch of margarine and 5/6 potatoes pre-boiled in their skins; the latter usually having a large amount of rotten ones among them. The margarine and sugar often missed. Now and then we had something called spread; I think it was intended to be jam. This was entered in the diary as a little [very little].
I must have managed to get some razor blades from somewhere as I exchanged some for German Marks [the first time I had any German currency] and then bought [changed them for] some soap powder of very poor quality. There must have been some trade with the outside but I never found out anything about it.
There was a library in the camp, which I made use of as often as possible, although books were not always available. There were also gramophone records in the camp. Symphony concerts were held which I enjoyed immensely. I heard many of the artists I had heard and seen in England.
Parades were held once a day and became very much a trial. The Germans had to get the count to tally but this was very hard to do as there was always someone sick and this made for miscounts. This had then to be repeated and some of the men passed out through the long time standing, which was often an hour or more.
On Friday 16th February the Defending Power's Representatives visited the camp. During this visit, they came into our block and whilst there were looking around and talking with Pete Thompson the camp leader. One of our younger prisoners took off his shirt and showed what lack of food did to the prisoners. His ribs were showing through his skin just as the old nags did when we saw them on the cinema before the war. After they had gone, I took my own shirt off and tried to look at myself I found that I could get my fingers and part of the palm of my hand to disappear up under my bottom rib. I was shaken and wondered what my weight had fallen to. I guessed at about 7/8 stones [at that time, young and fit, I had weighed 11 stones.] Later, when the Defending Power's Representatives had departed, Pete Thompson came round again and gave us a report on the visit. He said that the Defending Power's Representatives were trying to get some Red Cross parcels through to us but that was really the business of the Red Cross. They also said that we could expect conditions to get worse rather than better.
As time moved slowly on, I met an Irishman who had been taken prisoner at Dunkirk. It could have easily been me. We had quite a time talking about our movements there but he was more interested in what it was like in England when we left. That was the norm. Long time prisoners always wanted to know about England with particular news about their area or county. Phil, the Irishman, lived in England so I could tell him about many of the places I had been billeted in when I was in the 246 Field Company Royal Engineers. There were many Irishmen in the camp and not all from the North. I often thought it was strange for men from the South to join the British Army and Air Force. At Bankau, there was, in our hut, a RAF pilot from Dublin. When finishing my time in the Army before demobilisation, I was stationed in Belfast. Saturday teatime and having my tea in Bobby's restaurant, I looked across the room at another table and there was Paddy; we had quite a chat. He was on re-pat leave and would be out of the forces before me.
Being relatively close to Berlin and Potsdam we heard many of the air raids on them. Some of these became very heavy. The German news reported them as being very serious. The guards are now resigned to losing the war although there is no relaxing of their watchfulness. They talk more freely to us and there is more barter between them and some of the prisoners.
Around this time in March I was not too well. I think that the dirt from the food we were given had affected my stomach and I had severe pains with indigestion. The soup and potatoes were often very dirty as the cookhouse was not very particular with regard to hygiene. The potatoes were always boiled in their skins and not washed or cleaned in any way. This day was not a happy one as we were told that the night before, three men of the RAF had been shot for raiding the Red Cross parcel store. The name of the RAF was not too well liked for some time. These are for all Allied Prisoners and the Germans had nothing to do with them except for the guarding of the hut where they are kept. At that time there were only a few parcels there and nowhere enough to make an issue. There were also some special parcels for the Lazerette and only for the seriously ill prisoners. I never knew what happened to those who were shot.
The weather was now fairly good and we could almost think of spring. March had come in like a lamb. We had been electing a new Man of Confidence as Ron Meade, the one we had at Bankau, was taken ill on the march and did not get to Luckenwalde. As usual in war, I never heard what happened to him. The only news I had of any sick at Bankau and not able to walk, was that they were freed by the Russians and finally repatriated from a port on the Black Sea, Odessa I think. John Snowden was elected as the new Man of Confidence. In the short time he had been working, he had got a canary for us and we do not now rely on the Army for any news. I feel that I have not explained what a Man of Confidence does. His job is to liase with the Germans and discuss any matters of difference between them and us. He has therefore to be free from any clandestine activities that may be underway.
At this time we learned what we had had to eat on the Hunger March. We were all interested to know what we had existed on during those terrible days.
Rations for the Hunger March from 19th January until 8th February 1945, including 3 days in the cattle truck:
Per person 2 3/5ths loaves 11/2 lbs. Margarine. 23/30ths of a tin of meat. 15 1/2 biscuits [large] 30 1/2 biscuits [dog biscuits] 3/5th cup of barley. 1/5th cup of flour. 1/5th cup of sugar. The cookhouse [type of field kitchen] provided 20 potatoes. 8 cups of soup [mainly barley] and 2 cups of coffee.
To us another brilliant day. Wednesday 7th March. News was announced that 80,000 parcels had arrived in the camp. A train, which should have gone further into Germany, had arrived in the station at Luckenwalde and was held up there because of the situation ahead. A meeting of the S.B.O. and the Medical Officer had decreed that there was no need to try and keep them for any situation that might or might not arise in the future. Each of us was to have one and then half each week. The euphoria that arose could not be described. Our wildest dreams come true. For all except me! I had another bout of indigestion and could not eat anything. I just looked at my parcel.
The next day I went to see the Medical Officer and found that he had nothing but advice to give me. Saying, as he laughed, not to eat anything for a day or two. I did this and in a couple of days I was fit again and now had a whole parcel to go at. Another great news item was that the Americans had crossed the Rhine.
The compound is now a hive of activity. Blowers and smokies are on the go all the time. Tin bashing is another popular job. This takes the form of bashing any used tins, first flat, then shaping, by cutting and pressing, into plates, mugs, dishes or any other article desired. I went into the wood with a wood gathering party and returned with enough to keep the blower going for some time.
The war must be nearing the end as I have been given my pen back, which had been taken from me on entering Bankau. I had then been given a receipt and never expected to see the pen again but on producing this ticket, which I still have, the pen was returned intact. Even in a prison we do have surprises. Another surprise was that when I looked at my diary, I found that on the same day I had given some "Vick" to Phil, the Irishman who had a cold. I must have carried a number of first aid things with me. I know that I had some Germalene because I always kept some after being knocked down by a car in Ripon on my first free Saturday after joining the Royal Engineers. The scars only responded to Germalene: Nothing the Army gave me did any good.
Wednesday 14th March. To-day I visited the Lazerette to have my ears syringed. I do make a lot of wax and due to the general dirt they needed syringing. That though was not the real reason for the visit; it was only an excuse. We wanted some more wood and on the way back from there we passed a copse where we could pick some up. The German Doctor [said to be the Doctor for the Romanian King] looked in my ears and brodled about in them and caused me quite a bit of pain. I wondered if he guessed that the real reason was not my ears and made sure that I did not go again. He may have really been clearing them out. I shall never know.
All the men in our block have been X-rayed; another surprise. I never expected the Germans to waste X-rays on us. The reason was said to be the high incidence of men reporting sick.
St. Patrick's Day, my Grandmother's Birthday. Due to the number of Irishmen in the compound it became a real feast day. Gambling for cigarettes was carried on in many places, played with either cards or dice. Some of the organisers became very rich as cigarettes were used in the place of money. Stalls were set up and trading carried on for the exchange of goods and food. The dealers took a payment in cigarettes according to the amount of goods exchanged. I also watched both a Rugby and soccer match. I can not remember what the teams were.
Time goes on and the weather being good, morale went up as well. The war was also going well and Montgomery was reported to have said that we were into the final push. This feeling of euphoria was not held by everyone and I was astonished when Vie Cooper came to me one day and in very low key asked me if I really thought the war would be over soon. Vic was one of the men I most admired in the camp, being very clever himself and also doing a great deal of good but now he was very much unsure of himself, and asking someone like me to re-assure him that the war really was ending. I had some doubts but not that the war was not ending but because we had no idea what some of the Germans might do before it actually ended. I had not forgotten what the German S.S. Feldfabel had said about us in the garage, on our march through Holland. I had never met men who thought about other men as he did, there could be others.
Our life was now disrupted by our own Air Force and the D.S.A. Air Corps. Daylight bombing was taking place almost every day. Mosquitoes and medium bombers flew over the camp, which meant we had to go inside the huts. At times I stayed by the door and chatted with he guard. They were now under no illusions about the way the war was going but they still had their duty to do. My diary contains many references to the war situation as we were daily informed of the situation in both Europe and Asia. They were intensely important to us at the time but not to people 50+ years after.
I realise that the tone of the writing is now about the good things but it is important to know that we lived a very poor existence. An entry says that we had a breakfast of fried bread and a few fried potatoes - very few. We had been on 10 to a loaf, which was now slightly better at 8 to a loaf. The loaf weighed 2000gms and we had that, only for the day. We sliced the bread as thin as possible and used a knife and fork to eat it. The amount of bread we had varied almost from day to day. Two days after I noted that the ration had gone up from 10 to a loaf to 8 to a loaf. It returned to the old ration of 10 to a loaf. One day we had a photo check and were standing in ranks of five for two and a half hours. Our main worry is the fact that the future is an unknown quantity and anything unpleasant can still happen. This was a feeling that I find myself unable to explain. I still can't. The prisoners who had been in captivity a long time found this a very terrible emotion and explains the reason why Vic Cooper asked me for an assurance that the war was really coming to an end. Another feeling of depression was the lack of home news, especially for the married men who had not been prisoner long. I and others taken around the same time never had any news from home.
For a short time we had been free from rumours about ourselves and were beginning to think that we should be here until the end. Alas, this was not to be. On Tuesday the 10th April we had reports that we [ie the Bankau contingent] were to move almost immediately and 300 men had orders to stand by, ready to move, on the morning of the 12th. The 300 were ready then we also were warned that we could expect to go in a day or so. On the Friday morning the 300 left to march to the railway station but at night they had not left the station and later returned to the camp. We came to the conclusion that the Germans are not able to run the trains in the direction they wanted. Some prisoners had speculated that the reason for the move was to go to the area of Berthesgarten where it was said that Hitler was going to make a last stand. There they were to be used as hostages in the way that selected prisoners from Colditz were to be used.
Excitement is increasing every day. Friday night, three prisoners tried to escape, foolishly in my opinion at the time. Two were shot; one died instantly, the another in the afternoon and the third was brought back to the camp.
Movement about the camp is easier and the gate between our compound and the next has been destroyed, the wood being used for firewood. It shows what unarmed men can do with a little co-operation. The gate had one armed guard standing by it, although we were not hindered from passing to and fro as we wished. So three men started talking to the Guard and as time passed others wandered through and pushed against the upright gatepost as often as they passed. After a few days of this the upright became very loose in the ground. The next day some bother was created in the hut nearest to the gate. The Guard went to see what was the matter and during his absence a well organised gang, with stolen wire cutters and iron bars, quickly cut the attached wires, prised the post out of the ground and in seconds it was carried into another hut and there cut and chopped into smaller pieces. A very fast bit of work! We benefited from some of the wood, it had been a large post. There were no repercussions and the Guard was not replaced.
Friday the 20th.April and more rumours going about. A flight of Marauders [U.S.A. medium bombers] flew low over the camp. Guns from the surrounding fronts are much louder. German surplus staff left. Ground alarms set off in the area and more rumours of evacuation. Still, with all this excitement I had a walk round he camp with George Waller; it was great. The tension could be felt in the atmosphere and flashes at a distance of about ten miles were all around us except for the North. We hardly went to sleep back in the hut but of course we did; the excitement tired us out.
Saturday the 21st April and I was awakened by a chap standing in the doorway and saying that the Germans were moving out. I, among others, bounded off the floor and through the door to see what was going on. It was true. Along the road by the outside wire [60 yards away] platoons of Germans were stationed about 40 yards apart with NCOs and Officers standing near. After a few minutes a whistle blew and they all stood up and set off walking away from the camp. The watch towers were empty and no German personnel could be seen. We were on our own.
Work had now to be done in organising ourselves. The Army was immediately formed into guards and pickets for our own protection. Shortly afterwards the Wing Commander came round to inform us of the situation. The Norwegian General being the highest ranking officer, was in charge of the camp with the Wing Commander under him. He also told us that the Russians were surrounding the town and camp and that we could expect to be liberated either that day or the next. Some men, in their exuberance, ate what food they had left but as usual I wanted to see some more food before finishing mine.
A couple of men had picked up a two bicycles from somewhere and were riding down the centre road when one of the cycles slowly collapsed under one of the riders and he ended up on the ground. There was still fun to be had. There was also the other side of life. A German S.S. Major came into the camp at night and warned us not to show any lights. Clearly we were not yet entirely liberated.
Sunday the 22nd April. This is the day when we are truly free. The first surprise was that the text of the reading for the day was Galations Chap.5 verse 1.
Early in the morning a spearhead of Russians forces came through the camp consisting of a few infantrymen and a number of tanks. They freed their own prisoners by giving them a rifle each and marching them out of the camp. We understood that they would be attached to units in the area and that any food they wanted could be obtained by the use of their rifles. That was all that these Russian forces did. At the end of the road the column turned round and re-passed us as we lined the road. We were very excited and threw cigarettes to them, which they accepted and seemed quite grateful but little was reciprocated, one or two only, throwing back cigars.
That evening six of us made a celebration meal on the spur of the moment. The meal was made up of; first a sandwich: bread - spam - cheese - spam - bread and mashed potatoes. Next a cold pudding made out of cocoa-ground bread-nuts-raisins and margarine. Cocoa and klim mixed together made a cream. We finished with slices of bread spread with margarine and pineapple jam. A small amount of German sugar and saccharin we had was used to sweeten the tea we drank. The following attended the meal:- W.J.Hudson from Bristol, George E.Waller from Ilford, H.Eckford from Newcastle-on-Tyne, Robert E Stubbs from Sunbury-on-Thames, Arthur Newton [Spinner] from Stockport and myself from Huddersfield. It was quite an event.
The following day most of the nationalities except the British and the Americans moved out. We thought that we should have to wait for the Allied and Russian forces to meet before we could be moved. As the situation was very fluid we had been ordered not to go out of the camp. Not everyone obeyed but I felt that it was best as hundreds of released prisoners milling around the district with trigger happy Russians having recently taken part in fighting could make for dangerous happenings.
On Tuesday the 24th we each had a quarter of a Canadian Red Cross parcel issued. Whilst looking at it and deciding how to use it and as usual sitting on the floor, a chap shoved his head round the door and asked I there was anyone from Yorkshire there. I responded and said that I was. He then told me that there was a Norwegian Officer outside wanting a Yorkshireman. I got up and went to meet him. The Officer had with him an infantryman acting as interpreter. The officer then asked me if I knew anyone in the camp from Huddersfield. On my telling him that I came from there, he was very pleased and continued by asking me if I knew anyone called Brook and that he was in textiles. I explained that I knew many Brook[e]s as it was a common name there. He carried on saying that his family traded with a firm in Huddersfield and that they had become friends. He wanted them to know that he was OK as he had been a prisoner since the German attack on Norway and there had been no news either way. I promised to do what I could when I returned to England.
We carried on talking with the help of the interpreter and was invited to bring a friend to their mess to have afternoon tea the following afternoon. After sprucing ourselves up, Spinner went with me and were met at the door of their mess by a batman and taken inside. Rather a shock, a long table was laid out with mugs and plates, the General at the head and Officers down each side. We were led to places at the opposite end to the General. In very good English he welcomed us and apologised for the tea making excuses for his companions who, he said, would be bombarding us with questions in variable standards of English. He also explained that until recently they had not had contact with people outside themselves and the Germans and that English was the language they all understood was most important to their future life when back in Norway. I responded by saying that it would be very enjoyable and explained about there being many Brookes in Huddersfield and a little more about the Town. We were then given our tea with a certain amount of palaver and different interruptions from differing Officers all wanting to ask questions. [After the war, with the help of my father I was able to contact the right Brooke. He was a cloth merchant trading under the name of Brooke Taverner. He had been on Special Constable duty with my Father and without knowing it I had met Mr Brooke in the Police Box when he and my Father were on duty during one of my leaves earlier in the war.] On referring to the diary I find that I had made an entry that we were given some soup, and in that soup, there was more meat than we had had from the Germans during our entire POW period.
One day our childish humour came to the front: Spinner and I were walking down the centre road when we were passed by a wagon. On the back were some bods carrying some nude females. As they passed everyone roared with laughter. It was only as they got nearer that we could see that the nudes were only dressmaker's models. Where they had got them from is anybody's guess.
Friday the 27th April. Walking towards the main gate this morning I met [along with hundreds of others] the first American troops from the Western front. There were three of them in a scout car along with a newspaper reporter. They promised to report back and send trucks and ambulances as soon as possible. [I have a photo of this in my album.] On the 29th I had a hot shower; the first since our arrival in Luckenwalde, an event in itself [We did have cold showers.] Today a Russian Repatriation Officer arrived with his staff bringing some food and extra clothing.
We were now able to go anywhere in the camp, so I went to have a look in what had been the Russian Compound. I had always understood that the Russian people were not Christians. In this compound was the strangest surprise that I had at any time as a prisoner. I have had a rough time during my captivity and have often been very despondent and wondered if I should get through. The treatment of the Russians was worse. Their government had not signed the Geneva Convention and virtually cast out any serviceman taken prisoner. At times we had a whip round to see if we could spare anything from our parcels. We always found something and threw the tins over the fences into their compound. The stories we heard, of how they had to live when in captivity, were unbelievable unless you had met the men.
Rations were given according to numbers counted on parade. In our case, prisoners sick and in the hut were counted. Not so in the case of the Russians; so ill men were carried on to parade. Some who had died were thrown down the abort [w.c.] in order that the total would remain as high as possible by fiddling the count, when on parade. The crowding in their huts was also much greater than in ours. I have given the approximate size of a hut and how they held 300/350 men. The huts used by the Russians were even more crowded. Tuberculosis was rife; one prisoner died the day the camp was liberated. Their huts were much more crowded than ours and yet these non-Christians had set aside a complete hut as a church. Considering the tools they had to work with, it was magnificent. The inside pillars had been decorated with coloured capitals and a raised knave made at the East End with wooden rails. Around the walls had been painted the Stations of the Cross. For our Christian Services we used a room about a quarter of the size of a hut and that was one used by the Frenr.[I have a photo of the inside of the Russian Church.]
The first of May has arrived and we Glider Pilots have been told to get ready for a move. There are still local outbreaks of fighting in the area and we have just learned that we should have moved a week ago but that fighting and movement of refugees stopped it. We are definitely spectators of a war. Fires can be seen and guns heard all around us now. The watch towers even have spectators upon them looking at whatever is going on; shell bursts and fires can be seen. We learnt afterwards that there had been a large battle in the area and 160,000 German prisoners taken. There had been a lot of noise but I am not sure about the numbers.
The 2nd May. People at home are now talking about what to do on V.E.Day [Victory in Europe]. We are not sure of our fate. The reports and rumours change almost hourly. Our move by train is definitely off but some Americans have already moved to another camp about six miles away. Not knowing what is going to happen is one of the major worries of POW life and the cause of many upsets in individual lives. There is nothing we can do except hope and pray.
We were now getting food from the Russians that had been taken from the Germans. The Russians did not have the same way of waging war as our own forces. The lived off the land they had occupied and thus we had packets of differing articles of food some of which we had no idea how to prepare. One such was a kind of semolina which when cooked, would not drop out of the pan even when the pan was held upside down. It was still eaten! No sign of trucks from the American forces and my diary is full of questions as to their possible arrival. It is now Saturday and we still speculate. Some of the Americans are leaving to try and make their own way to the River Elbe where their own forces are said to be. I had just finished writing about the non-arrival of American trucks when I read that they did arrive that Saturday. Unfortunately only two trucks came and those only due to a whip round by the unit from where the scout car came. We did hear that the largest surrender of troops in history had been made to General Montgomery in NW Germany, Holland and Denmark.
Each day and the anxiety on the men's faces deepens. There were reports that some American trucks had arrived on Sunday evening but that the Russians would not let them be loaded. Their Senior Officers said that they had to wait until they had permission from their High Command in Moscow. They now had another reason for not letting us go; we had to be registered and that meant that a list had to be made of all the Allied prisoners. This nominal roll had then to be sent to Moscow and permission awaited from there. On Monday the 7th May our latest "gen" was that, if the permission did not come through, the Senior British Officer would march us out without it. I was doubtful about this, as the Russians do not submit easily.
Tuesday the 8th May, "V.E." Day. What a day for us. In the morning we climbed on the trucks twice and were ready to go. The second time, before getting out of them shots were fired near the leading truck. We got down and returned to our huts. The Russians tell us that this is a Russian controlled area and that they have made plans for our evacuation and that it will take place in a few days. It was almost a fortnight since they had first entered the camp. They also said that anyone moving by themselves would be interned at the Elbe. Back to our huts. We realised that we must be in the camp for some days more.
The camp now settled down to listen to Churchill, Trueman and Stalin announce the end of the war. Many of the huts had radios placed in the doorways and round these huts were gathered crowds of many nationalities to listen. When Trueman and Stalin spoke, the later with an interpreter, there was not much attention paid but as soon as Churchill started to speak there was absolute silence. I have never been so emotionally effected. The atmosphere was electric even though many there could not understand the words. As I am typing this I can feel it as it was, over 50 years ago. At night we listened to the King, another emotional moment as most of us knew that the King had difficult in articulation.
The day after "D-Day" we had a parade before the Wing Commander but were told nothing new, only that we did not know when we should be moving. That evening I went for a walk to a little village half a mile from the camp. There were not many civilians about but it did seem as if life might soon become more normal. There had not been any destruction that I could see. We try to be phlegmatic about the wait for repatriation. The weather is now very warm and pleasant with many men sunbathing. A small lake has been found near the camp and a few of us have been swimming there; George Greenslade is our best swimmer and has found a point where he, can dive in. I want to see the bottom before I dive; one never knows what there is under the water. Diving or not, it was a very pleasant interlude. We had given up listening to the news as much as we had been doing, as most bulletins seemed to refer to the thousands of released POW arriving back in England. We knew that we were not on the list for a quick repatriation. The weather was so good that I washed my battledress. I was doubtful about the outcome as I did not have a lot of soap but it turned out OK.
I had an interesting time one afternoon. I was walking round the end of the camp near the wood and near an open and rough area of ground when I saw that four young boys were playing at something that resembled Cowboys and Indians [May have been Germans and English]. They moved about enjoying themselves when another boy arrived. The game stopped and the four got to their feet approached the newcomer and gravely shook hands and clicked their heels. He was put on one of the sides and the game recommenced. When I was about the same age, I played on the first world tank and field guns on Lindley Moor. We were never so formal when we played our games. In fact I do not remember shaking hands formally until I was in my teens, never mind about eleven years of age.
On the afternoon of Sunday the 13th May the glider pilot group moved to another hut which was alongside the hut used as a food store for the camp. A Russian civilian was in charge, about a dozen of us were to help in the fetching and distribution of the food to the two cookhouses. It was good to have something positive to do and at times was also very interesting. On our second day of duty six of us went into Luckenwalde to the bakery there. A Russian Sergeant was in charge and under his orders we had to load the cart with a required number of loaves. After taking off our jackets and putting them on one side we loaded the cart by passing the loaves as if they had been rugby balls; pleasant, as they were not as heavy as bricks. Going back to the camp we saw many civilians about and youngsters who trailed after the slow moving tractor drawn cart. They asked for bread, they were short now. We soon knew what the word "brot" meant. On our third or fourth visit and having found out that our duty did not mean any extra ration, without any planning, we decided to do something for ourselves. The next day we took off our jackets as usual and placed them on top of one of the piles of loaves around the room. On finishing and our cart being loaded we all climbed aboard and travelled back to camp. There we took our jackets into the billet, returned and off loaded the cart. What a shock, when it was seen that all of us had somehow managed to get our jackets entangled with a loaf.
I have mentioned the German children asking for bread; on another occasion, passing some old sand quarries we were asked for some by a boy about ten years of age. We threw a spare loaf to him. He knelt down, with another four children gathered round, he started to break the loaf into pieces without a knife. He had to kneel in order to get his full strength to bear. It was a very pathetic sight. Never, at any time in my childhood did I go without food.
A few days later we realised that having enough bread was not enough and that sugar was needed and that had almost become a craving. I knew nothing about the preparations but took part in the action. To understand, one must appreciate the way the store was run. Round the edge of the store were placed the bulk stores; these were mainly bread, rice, sugar, tins of milk, packets of dried onions and potatoes. The two cookhouses were in different parts of the camp. When the Russian civilian in charge was preparing an issue for the two cookhouses, he would sit on a chair in the middle of the room to watch us carry the required amounts of the differing stores from the piles around the edge of the room to two separate piles in the centre. When the two piles were complete, the cart was moved along the outside of the hut and by a window in the middle of the wall. This window was opened and through it we had to pass the various stores from the two piles in the centre of the room in to two piles on the cart.
On the inside and by the window was a table and two chairs. The drill was as follows. Two men were on the cart, two on the table and two on the floor by the table. Others brought the stores from the pile to the table. Potatoes, bread and sugar were in sacks weighing about one hundredweight. I did not know, but before we started loading, the men inside had managed to move a spare half- hundredweight of sugar from the edge to the centre pile without the Russian noticing. I was on the inside of the window and standing on the table. We had loaded the potatoes and the sugar when another smaller sack was brought to the men on the floor who passed it up to us on the table whispering at the same time that this was ours. We had no time to think and called across to our hut, alongside the stores hut, for someone to come out and pick up the sack. This was soon done. We shared out the sugar and from then, to the end of our time in the camp, we were never short. I would add that we only felt that we were getting what we should have had. The rations from the Russians were no better than we had had from the Germans whilst prisoners. I have never felt guilty.
The camp is now being turned into a displaced persons camp and non-German workers are being billeted in the camp. I never knew the numbers but it was in thousands. Some of them were women and on the first day that they arrived the Medical Officer issued a notice to say that they had all been medically examined and the result was that very many of them had VD and we could take that as a warning. I thought at the time that it may have been true but it could also have been to stop any bother that there might have been with the prisoners, and to keep us all on the straight and narrow path until we got home. I also thought there was little chance of trouble as our libidos were very low.
One day I had an interesting experience. Walking near our billet I got talking with a Polish soldier. He was about twenty and at the beginning of the war his Father and older Brother were taken away to work for the Germans. Later when he was about sixteen the Germans ordered him to join the German Army. At first he refused but on being told that his Mother would be shot unless he did, he joined. He was in the Army and fought against us on "D-Day". Around that time he was taken prisoner by the Allies and brought across the Channel to England. Here he was given the option of joining the Allied Polish Forces or remaining a POW. He chose to join the Polish Army and returned to France to carry on fighting against the Germans. This time he was captured by the Germans and ended up telling me his story in Luckenwalde. I suppose that, at the time, it was not as unusual as it sounded. Many nationals of countries conquered by the Germans could have done the same but it did appear strange to me for a person to have fought on both sides in the same war. I met him a few times and we managed to understand each other although we could not speak the other's language. We both knew a little French and German although his German was much better than mine. We drew pictures on paper [we had a little now] and used gestures when all else failed. It was surprising how we could talk [?] about a variety of subjects and know what each other meant.
The prestige of the British Forces and Britain was terrific among the other prisoners and displaced persons. This esteem suffered a blow when the Dutch D.P.'s almost beat us at Football. The Dutch people followed Association Football in England before the war and we had a very high reputation. [Huddersfield Town was often mentioned; pre-war they were in the First Division.] Losing the game was very much on the cards as none of our players were as fit as those in the Dutch team but a good lead at half time was held on to and we were not humiliated, as we might easily have been.
Saturday the 19th May. Fetching bread in the morning and a swim in the afternoon. We were lazing about in the evening when the siren went! We knew what that meant but could it be true? The news was true!! We were to leave tomorrow. I said good bye to as many friends as I could and then gathered all my things together - not a long job and then spent the longest night of my life. At least it seemed so.
Sunday the 20th.May. It took the Russians some time to get organised but at last we set off. We were on Russian Army trucks although they were American manufactured and sent to Russia during the war. We passed through a number of villages, some of which had been damaged. A few times we had to make detours to avoid bridges that had been demolished. One wood we passed through was burning and in it was lying the body of a German soldier. The fire could have been caused by the sun as it was a very hot day. The body had not been removed. We passed near Wittenburg, the only town of note and ended on the banks of the River Elbe near Csauag[?] where we de-bussed. We walked over the river and for the first time felt free. I had now walked over three major European rivers, the Rhine, the Oder and the Elbe. [I know that that is nothing much now but it was then.] The Americans had transport waiting and we were soon moving again. We passed near Dessau, Liepzieg and through Halle to the airfield there, where we were billeted and had something to eat. The airfield had been one of Goering's Headquarters, had a good nights sleep and then a very different breakfast to what we had been used to. [Rice, stewed fruit, peanut butter and coffee.] The orders were that our ongoing flight was dependent on the weather and nothing could be guaranteed but there would be no flight that day. I therefore I went for a walk around the airfield. There were many bombed and burnt out kites as well as buildings. I managed to find a feldwebel's cap which my son, Richard, in later years, soon wore out. Went to a cinema in a disused hanger but remarked that I was not impressed with the film.
Tuesday 22nd May. We had to stand by in the morning but the weather must have become duff and we did not fly. This was getting irksome but at least we knew we were on the way. Wednesday and saw an American variety show in the afternoon and a film at night. I note in the diary that the show was good but it had a remarkable reference about us not being able to eat all the chocolate given us. We were on stand by and yet we did not go. The diary says it all. [At the moment we are standing by --- let us hope this is it--- IT was not it, so we are still waiting --- what agony ---as we get nearer, it seems to get worse.] Thursday and the weather was duff. I only remember going to the pictures.
Friday the 25th May and we moved at last. I had reconciled myself to another blank day. I walked up to the mess hall a little late and on the way passed a couple of glider pilots who had finished their meal. They told me that some Dakotas had landed. My plane number was about 134 so I did not get excited, I thought it would take some time for over a hundred planes to land so I continued to the mess hall. There I met Spinner who was on the same plane as myself. He told me that we had been ordered to go to the airfield. So I cut my losses and returned to our billets and collected my kit bag and few belongings, then moved fast to the airfield. What a sight - about 150 Dakotas in four lines parallel to the main runway. It did not take us long to find our plane, without any bother we climbed aboard. Little time to wait and we were off. That was the last I was to see of Germany for about 45 years until I visited Dusseldorf to see relatives of my wife.
The flight was short and we were soon touching down at an airfield near Brussels. No waiting about and almost in minutes we were climbing aboard Canadian trucks and away into Brussels. The people on the streets must have known that we were returning POWs as they greeted us as we passed. It was a magnificent welcome. At the Canadian transit camp, our arrival was the same but very efficiently carried out. Any sick [not many, we dare not be sick] were attended to and any clothing deficiencies made up. Each of us was given a sheet of the procedures that were to take place. First, we filled in a sheet of personal questions with regard to rank and number, unit and family details but to us the most important things were that flight details would be posted up on their company notice board. There would be no waiting for anyone and anyone not at the meeting place at the right time would miss their plane. As far as I was aware, no one missed their flight. Having been told that we should not fly that day, Jock Broadly and myself decided that we would spend the evening in the city. We had been given some Belgium notes to spend if we wished. We had a drink at an estaminet but were careful to make sure that we did not overdo things and soon moved on. After seeing some of the sights, we thought we would have one final drink and so went into another estaminet. We must have picked an odd one. Inside were some young Dutch soldiers. I did not think they had been in the army long. With them were some young girls. All very clearly, had had too much to drink. Their behaviour was crude, to put it mildly. We could not understand the words of the song they were trying to sing but when condoms were blown up or filled with beer or water and thrown about the room or used as balloons we felt it was time to retreat. We returned to the transit camp and joined in the stories and reminiscences that went on well into the night.
Saturday the 26th May. Orders were posted on the company notice board and we were ready for the flight to England. By truck to a different airfield, this time the planes were Lancasters. I wondered how they could carry passengers. I had only been in Stirlings and they were quite different to the Lancaster inside, having a much larger open area. I need not have worried, 24 of us climbed in. Some were behind the tail gunner, some crowded behind the pilot and navigator and one lucky "bod" in the astrodome looking out. I was sitting under the main spar. We all got in and in no time at all were bounding down the runway and into the air. I usually read if I have anything to read but like everyone else, I was too excited to do anything except talk to those nearby. The first thrill we had was when the man in the astrodome shouted to us that he could see the "White cliffs of Dover" we knew then that it was not a dream; we really were on the way. What can one say about a moment like that! Soon we were touching down at Oakly, not far from Oxford. On touchdown our arrival was unprecedented. Euphoria is the only word. On climbing out of the "Lanc" each ex-POW was taken in hand by two WAAFs and escorted to a reception area. Think ! Having barely seen a woman, never mind being almost carried by one, for nine months, what our feelings were. As we walked we were asked by the WAAFs what our Regiments were and if we were in need of any medical attention. As I was not, I was then led to another part of the hanger where I sat before an officer and answered some short questions about my Squadron who then told me I should be going to a small centre in the Home Counties. There, more particulars would be taken and as soon as possible we should be sent home on "repat" leave. Wherever we moved, there were tables with chocolates and other things to eat. By now I had had my fill of sweets and only wanted to keep moving.
This we soon did and were rolling along the English countryside. The weather greeted us in typical English fashion; it was drizzling and was damp. As we travelled we were greeted by children asking for "brot"? No! For souvenirs! It was early evening when we arrived at the small camp in a wood near Princes Risborough. We were billeted in Nisson huts and soon settled down.
During the evening we were issued with complete sets of clothing along with badges of rank and unit signs. We also had a medical and an F.F.I. After that we had another interview with a transport officer, with regard to our home towns and necessary rail passes. We also sent telegrams to those at home informing them that we were OK and would soon be home. During the night of Saturday/Sunday ladies from the WVS sewed on the badges and etc. that we had been given, so that we could go out during Sunday.
In the morning I went to a Methodist Chapel near the camp and enjoyed the quiet service. During the evening we were given our rail passes and told when the respective trains would depart as well as what would happen to us in the future. There were about 6 or 7 trains setting off on Monday morning and we had to catch the one that was going in our direction i.e. west, north, south and so on. These were all specials and I had to catch the one going north and then decide whilst on the journey how to get to Huddersfield.
Monday morning. No one was late and we were off. I got off at Derby and enquired about Huddersfield. Sheffield was my next stop but as I had time to spare, I telephoned home and found out, for the first time in nine months that all was well there. At Sheffield I changed for Penistone and found out there that I had two and a half hours to wait for the connection. I decided to go up to the Town centre and see if there was a bus going my way before the train. There was a bus but it was no better than the train so I decided to wait and catch the train. Waiting becoming irksome, I rang up home again and had a longer chat with my Mother about the family. I then crossed the street and sat on a small seat by a park waiting. After a lapse of about twenty minutes or so I thought that I would walk down to the station and wait there, thinking it would be more interesting. I had just risen up when I heard "Douglas" being called. I could not think it could be for me as I knew no one in Penistone. The shout became louder and when I looked across the road I saw Arnold Crapper, my brother-in-law, calling out from the window of a van. It transpired that my Mother had phoned my Sister Jessie, who had phoned Arnold at work in Holmfirth. He had picked up the van and come for me. The last journey and I was home.
Thanks to Douglas Smithson and Huddersfield Local Studies Library for this account.
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