Lance-Corporal John James Bird
Unit : Medium Machine-Gun Group, Support Company, 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment
Army No. : 4923103
Jack Bird was born on the 22nd July 1912, and had been employed in Walsall as a clerk at Talbot Stead Tube Co. Ltd. before joining the army and the South Staffordshire Regiment on the 24th June 1940. Having passed the necessary medical tests when the 2nd South Staffords were converted to the airborne role in late 1941, Jack departed to North Africa with them in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily on the 9th July 1943. Travelling in an American Waco glider, carrying a jeep, two ammunition trailers, and 10 men, the flight over the Mediterranean was largely uneventful until they neared land when approximately two or three miles from the coastline they began to see searchlights, flak, and tracer fire. Still having some distance to travel before they cast off, it came as a surprise when the tow rope released them and their Scottish pilot shouted that they were about to come down in the sea. The pilots managed to ditch the glider in the sea remarkably well, in spite of the gale and rough seas battling against them. Although the wings kept the glider afloat, the fuselage sank beneath the waves and the water was soon up to their knees. Jack and five others managed to break their way out, whereupon they climbed onto the wings, but the remaining four men were not seen again and are presumed to have drowned. It was standard procedure for the towing aircraft to drop a dinghy in the event of the glider landing in the sea, but there was no sign of this and so the group could only continue to cling to their craft. They were all wet and cold, and though it seemed as if the glider was gradually drifting closer to the coast, where there appeared to be quite a battle raging, they were in fact drifting further away from it and by morning were 7 miles adrift. However with first light came the very welcome sight of the British invasion force. The bay was littered with all manner of ships, and invasion craft were beginning to ferry the troops ashore. Jack didn't think that any of these would stop to pick them up, but an officer on one of the assault boats called out to them and paused to take them aboard. One of the Commandos in the craft asked Jack Bird "What mob do you blokes belong to?", he replied "We're airborne troops.", to which the man said "Fuck that for a lark." and pulled out his flask and offered Jack a drink. The assault craft carried on to the shore where the Commandos departed unopposed, and then took Bird's group back to the fleet where they were left in the care of the crew of an armed merchant vessel named the 'Ulster Queen', where they received fresh clothes and bacon and eggs. After resting, they and other survivors journeyed out to the many ditched gliders and salvaged what equipment and ammunition they could from them. With this unpleasant duty done the group were put on a ship bound for Malta, and rejoined what remained of the 2nd South Staffords in North Africa a month later. Jack and many others of the battalion felt that many of their losses had been sustained through tug pilots deliberately ditching the gliders in the sea rather than braving the flak to drop them on target. He wrote "It was resented by those who came back that so many good men lost their lives through the tow planes releasing their gliders without a chance of them making their dropping zone, and this episode certainly did no good towards furthering the entente cordiale between British and American troops in this area."
The 1st Airlanding Brigade was shipped to Italy on the 9th September 1943, and their brief stay here was one that Jack looked back on with great affection. Though there was always the threat of it, there was little in the way of enemy interference, and with a population who couldn't do enough for the troops there was always plenty of time to sample the food, culture, and the various distractions that the local womenfolk are ever willing to extend to visiting soldiers.
Jack Bird kept a war diary of his experiences at Arnhem, and subsequently as a prisoner of war. The diary was donated to the Staffordshire Regimental Museum by his family after his death, and I am deeply indebted to the Museum for their kind permission to reproduce extracts here, and also to Jack's nephew, Craig Wood, for all of his extensive help in compiling this story.
At approx nine o'clock on a certain sunny Sept morn (Sunday the 18th to be exact) we took off from Broadwell aerodrome and I think all the RAF personnel turned out to give us a good send off - personally wished they had taken our places in the gliders and we had been doing the waving off. 1st Airborne Div had been standing by since D Day for an airborne operation, and we had been briefed for 16 operations, all of which were cancelled, as you can guess it was a pretty trying period for us.
Anyway as we rose into the air and made for the Channel I said to myself 'This is it!' and got stuck in to my haversack rations. The sky seemed full of gliders on either side of us, and we swept along in formation; the weather being perfect. Saw rescue launchers cruising about in the Channel waiting to pick up anybody who had the misfortune (?) to come down - needless to say our luck was out. Then we were over the Dutch coast (the time being about one o'clock) and below could be seen the flooded areas, and of course down went one or two gliders - wonder where they finished up! We were encountering flak and it could be seen coming up at us, but luckily our glider was not hit. We carried on to our DZ which we reached at about two o'clock, and after being cast off by our tug plane (which were Wellington's by the way) we sailed down to make a perfect landing, although there was not much room and gliders lay all over the place - many had come to grief and some were on fire, but the majority seemed to have come down OK. Out we jumped and took up defensive positions around the glider whilst the kit was unloaded. Then we moved off to the battalion rendezvous which was a place called Regus Camp. There we picked up the rest of our MG Platoon (which I belonged to) and then waited for the bn to form up for the move to our objective - Arnhem. Our detachment were behind A Coy. Passed through Wolfhezen late afternoon and there was much damage done by our bombers, especially to the railway station. I think Holland is the cleanest country I have been in, and I was struck by the colourful and picturesque appearance of the houses, which from the air had a dolls house look. What a pity that this lovely country had to be wrecked by war. The Dutch people were genuinely glad to welcome us, and greeted us with cheers and showered us with fruit and pointed out the direction that the Germans had taken (I thought we were on a similar job to Italy, but events proved me wrong - very much so). All along the road were signs of a hasty retreat by Jerry - kit and equipment strewn all over the place. Saw a German staff car wrecked on a crossroad, the four occupants inside dead, one sprawled grotesquely out of the door which he must have flung open in an attempt to get out - this looked like a bit of 'strafing' from our fighters. Nice work! By this time we were approaching Arnhem and things were warming up. Snipers were all over the place and we had to move warily. The town was looking lively and fires were blazing. We halted and there seemed to be a hold up in front, but after about an hour we moved on again into the town and spent the night very uncomfortably - thanks to snipers.
Morning came (Sept 19th) and we tried to get to the bridge, but things apparently were not going 'according to plan' - the paratroops on the bridge had been cut off and all attempts to reach them were in vain. I don't think many of those boys got away. By this time Jerry had got onto us with his mortars, and was giving us a hell of a time. This went on all day - well until late afternoon, when it seemed to be 'every man for himself' and one of those 'strange withdrawals' took place, but I don't think it was 'according to plan'! I got on a jeep which was one of a long column of vehicles pulling out of Arnhem in the direction of Oosterbeek. But I soon decided that riding was not good for my health after being fired on as we went along, so when the column stopped owing to the leading vehicle encountering trouble, I nipped away behind the houses and had a 'breather'. Meeting two or three blokes on the way I got as far as a railway station where we stayed for a while owing to attention from snipers. One by one we made a dash for it and carried on across country until we came to Oosterbeek. There, in a dugout on the bank of a stream in front of the old village church, I met up with some of my mob. I decided to 'muck in' with them as I could not see any sign of my platoon. Everybody was busy 'digging in' and didn't need any encouragement either. Personally the deeper the better.
We were a mixed lot - four or five of our signal pln, two men from C Coy, an orderly room clerk, and myself. An NCO from the signal pln was in charge of us. On our left there was a mixture of duty coy men (about forty) in position, and behind us were sited a battery of howitzers. I spent most of my time in that spot from 19/21 Sept, and it was very lively at times believe me. According to my reckoning I escaped being 'bumped off' only by the skin of my teeth on two occasions, still my lucky star must have been with me (as it was at Sicily). Much of that time was spent pressing our brackets into Mother Earth as mortars plastered down on our positions. In company with L/C Chillingsworth I was manning a Bren gun which was covering a crossroad at about midnight on Saturday evening (Sept 23rd) and it was 'all quiet on the western front' for a change. Jerry must have thought it was too quiet as he started slinging mortars over. Anyway we didn't take much notice until one dropped about fifteen yards away, and the next one landed right in our positions. 'Willy' was badly hurt, receiving a bad wound to his right side. I was dazed for a bit, but after pulling myself together I looked around for Chillingsworth and he was staggering about shouting 'Oh Jack I've been hit'. So I went to him and quietened him down, and Cpl Pegg went across the R.A.P. for a stretcher, and putting him down on it we carried him to the R.A.P. This place was absolutely crammed out with casualties, many dead and many more dying. There was not an inch of room on the floor so you can guess what a job we had with a stretcher. However we accomplished the journey and carried him into the M.O.'s room. I waited outside and after a while one of the orderlies came out and I asked him if there was any chance of Chillingsworth getting better and he said that he was in a bad way but they were operating right away, and he didn't give much hope for him. I asked him if he had seen Cpl Pegg and he said 'Yes he's over there' and pointed to a body which was covered with a sheet. Well this shook me as he seemed OK when we carried the stretcher across. As I went and had a look at him and saw he had been hit above his left eye. He was very quiet and seemed to be asleep so I left him. I was told afterwards that L/C Chillingsworth died next day, but I think Cpl Pegg recovered and was taken prisoner - I shall never forget the cries of the blokes for water (while I was in the R.A.P.) and the trouble was, unfortunately, that there wasn't any water. I know that because I asked the M.O. for a drink as he was making his round, and whether he thought I was 'bomb happy' or not but he gave me a very queer look and told me there was no water.
Next morning I joined up with No.1 MMG Pln who were out in front of the church in defensive positions. It was there that I met Ernie Young out of our platoon, also Jimmy Renwick, a geordie boy and one of the best. He had a remarkable escape from injury, a mortar dropping right in the trench, but luckily for him it was a dud. All day Sunday we didn't have much respite from Jerry, what with his mortars, SP guns, tanks and aircraft, he gave us hell, and still there was no news or any sign of us getting relieved, so it looked as if we had 'had it'. There was a rumour going around that an evacuation was going to be tried to get us across the river, and this was tried. However orders were given out by Major Buchanan that we would commence to move for the river at 1145pm on Monday night (25 Sept). I spent biggest part of that Monday inside the church, which by now was practically in ruins, and the spire was practically down, but the walls still provided good cover. I was with Jimmy Renwick but lost sight of Ernie Young who left the church and I never saw him again, where he went to I don't know. In the early part of the evening soldiers of the Dorset Regt came into the church. Apparently they had come across the river to contact us, but not many had got across, most of them were killed or captured. Well Jim and I found some grub and had a scoff, which was badly needed in my case anyway. Then we waited for the order to move and left the church for a slit trench, where we encountered 'Mucky' Hall. By now it was dark and raining, so the weather would be in our favour, so we dozed until the time came to move, and this came soon enough. It was an eerie procession that wound its way out of the village and set off across country for the river which lay about 1½ miles on our left. It was a long column and of course we had to move cautiously and quietly, so naturally it seemed a long way as we had to halt frequently on account of flares, very lights and machinegun fire, which troubled us. After about two hours we reached the ferry, and our feelings can be visualised when I say that for the job of evacuating about eight hundred men there was only two small boats, each of which held about fourteen men. The men were told to line up in an orderly manner, but they were beyond control and were dashing about and shouting and generally making enough row to waken the dead. The officers were helpless to deal with things, most of them being more concerned to get on the boats. In the move up to the river I lost contact with Jimmy Renwick, but I met up with him later. I could see it was hopeless as regards getting across, as by now it was 3 o'clock and would soon be breaking dawn. Many men tried to swim across but it was a very fast moving current, and the majority of those who attempted it were drowned. Daylight came and with it I gave up hope of getting across, as we were caught like rats in a trap, exposed to murderous machinegun fire which came from left and right, and alas behind us. The last boat to go across was riddled and I doubt if there were many alive when it reached the other side. Dozens of men were shot as they attempted to swim across as they had to face a veritable hail of lead. I should imagine Jerry was enjoying himself immensely at the plight we were in. There was not a vestige of cover on the river bank at all, and tracers were weaving about in all directions, and I saw plenty of blokes get hit, but I suppose as there didn't seem to be one with my name on it I was fortunate. It would now be about six o'clock and there seemed to be no escape from the position, and shortly afterwards from somewhere a white flag went up, and this was followed by more. This did not however stop the machinegun fire from Jerry, but there was such confusion, or maybe he thought it was a ruse on our part.... because I'm quite convinced that Jerry never anticipated taking such a bag of prisoners as there were about five hundred of us.
At length we were picked up by Jerries, who were jubilant as they escorted us into Arnhem, where we went to their Div HQ for interrogation and to be searched. On the way, as we marched into town, a photographer jumped from a car and started taking pictures, but when the lads started giving him the 'V' sign he packed in. I noticed many Tiger tanks on the road which had been knocked out by our guns. After the search had been completed I found myself in a party about seventy strong and we were marched out of the town in the opposite direction to that which we came in by, to a camp, but after a while we were marched back into Arnhem and taken to the railway sidings there. By now it was well after noon and we had our first meal in captivity, although I won't insult the word - for I'm firmly convinced that Jerry doesn't know the meaning of the word as regards feeding prisoners of war, anyway that was my experience during my short period of captivity. We had four tins of meat and a loaf between about eight men, so you can see there was not much meat. After this huge feed we were lined up and counted - this was a continual source of amusement to me for they never tired of counting us, and I think it was just an example of the German mentality. Then we were set to work in a warehouse adjoining the sidings and we emptied it of all its contents, which I put at five hundred tons, roughly, comprising rolls of wire, iron bars, etc. It was loaded into trucks, each holding about thirty tons.
We slept for the first night in a disused garage, but when the RAF got busy we were moved to a place on the outskirts of Arnhem. The funny thing about it, a bomb was dropped on the garage so we were fortunate in our move. I might mention that we saw the Typhoons send down their rockets on many occassions, and did it do us good. The guards used to beat it when our planes were about and left us to it, except our unfriendly little sergeant who used to whip out his revolver. I don't know whether he thought any of us were going to make a break for it, or whether he intended to bring one of them down. I might add we were being guarded by Luftwaffe troops. I reckon that as Jerry had lost most of his planes this was one of the jobs they were doing. We were treated fairly well and would receive our rations before we went out in a morning, usually it comprised a third of a loaf, a portion of butter, and cheese. This we would eat at mid-day and then we would get soup at night when we got back to our billets. While we were working on the railway we used to get apples & pears, as many as we could eat. These were got out of trucks which were in the sidings, so we got plenty of fruit - you lucky people. Who wouldn't be a prisoner of war.
Another job we went on was to a big shoe warehouse, situated nearly on the river bank, and it was emptied of its stock of shoes, slippers, and wellington boots. This was much easier work than loading trucks. I also loaded asbestos sheets, huge ones they were and I might say we managed to crack quite a lot of the sheets in the process of packing them on the lorry, which didn't worry us a lot. The last job we were on was right in the centre of the town and we had to haul crates of electrical apparatus up a flight of steps and on to a lorry, it was hard graft. While on this job there was a raid and a bomb dropped in our vicinity, we also saw a fighter hit and the pilot bale out. There was a German civilian in charge of that job, he spoke fairly good English and he told us that he had been a recce pilot in the Luftwaffe but of course he was now out of it, and he was working in Berlin now for an electrical firm and this was his job sorting out the stuff which would be any good to them. He told us how bad the bomb damage was in the German capital, and he was under the impression that London was in a similar plight and the people starving - we tried to convince him otherwise but to no avail. Although it was easy to see that they knew their day of reckoning was at hand. He said that the RAF could have shortened the war considerably if they had not made doubly sure of their targets, meaning that they would bomb a target one night, and next night would bomb the same target again, and in his opinion this was a waste of bombs - Since then I've been more than half way across the Fatherland and I have never seen such devastation. Italy was bad, but this was ten times worse. However to resume our civvy allowed us to go and look for food when our job was done so away we went. Of course, no need for me to tell you that Arnhem was now a deserted town, so we had plenty of scope and we found all we needed in the cellar of a big house. Bottled fruit, jam, wine, what a celebration we had that night. I think much of the stuff was left behind as we left the next day.
The day was about 6th October and we went by transport about fifty miles nearer the frontier. My memory is a little vague regarding my movements until I reached Limburg, where I had my first taste of stalag life at Stalag XIIA, which I should imagine to be one of the worst stalags in Germany, if not the worst. It was not until later that I had the sense to keep a rough sort of diary. Anyway we moved in stages on our way to Limburg and made the latter part of the journey by rail - and this entailed numerous changes and gave one an idea of the terrific damage to railway stations, rolling stock, etc. At Oberhausen we were given a bath and had our clothes 'de loused' - I can tell you this was a great relief as I was in a filthy condition, not as bad as I was to get later, however. We were interrogated here, again, at Wetzlar, which was the official one as fingerprints were taken and a photograph as well. I wish I could have seen it afterwards, I'll bet I looked like a real 'wanted man'. We were given a meal at Wetzlar which will long live in my memory. The administration here was admirable, and the camp was run by an American colonel, and in the words of the Yanks he was a 'great guy'. As soon as we arrived we were taken to the dining hall and it was a sight for sore eyes to see the way it was laid out and all spick and span, with drawings adorning the walls which depicted various subjects, including some luscious pin up girls. It was evening when we got there and there was a sing song going on, which unfortunately ended on our arrival. It was a real treat to sit down at a table once again and the meal they gave us fully justified the occasion. First came a plate of soup, followed by corned meat and mashed potatoes, and we finished up with cheese and biscuits and real G.I. coffee. Unfortunately, we had to leave this paradise the next day. I would not have grumbled if I could have spent all my P.O.W. life at that camp. Here also we received some very badly needed kit, chief item being a greatcoat, RAF type, mine gave me much faithful service. Then we got towels, underwear, socks, shaving kit, tooth brushes, tooth powder, and cigarettes. Did we feel on top of the world, I should say the morale went up 100% plus.
Next day we had to move at dinner time, but before leaving every man received an American Red Cross Parcel each and the Colonel gave us his blessing and sent us on our way rejoicing if that was possible under the circumstances. So we wended our way to Stalag XIIA at Limburg, with our parcels tucked underneath our arms, and arrived there late in the afternoon. By the time we had been searched it was getting dusk, and in this light my first impressions of a Jerry stalag were grim. We were marched through the camp into the British compound, which was already crowded out. There were about two hundred of us, and we were split up into four groups, taken to a tent, or rather a marquee, and told to find some place to sleep. As there were already men asleep on every available inch of the floor space and it was pitch black, so it can be imagined the language and remarks which were hurled at us as we groped about trying to find a bed place. Strange to say, we were eventually accommodated. In company with my partner in crime, Jimmy Renwick, I eventually got down amongst some of our comrades from the South Staffords.
Next morning we were outside at six for roll call and by the time we had received our rations it would be nine o'clock, this was a daily occurence. In the light of day it looked a terrible place. The entire British personnel were housed in four marquees, each one had at least 700 men in it, just sleeping on the floor with a bit of straw thrown in if you were lucky. The sanitary conditions were indescribable. They were filthy and the stench was nausiating, still when you consider that about five thousand men had to use these facilities, it was a wonder disease was not prevalent. Fortunately, I was not there in the summer, but it would be intolerable. The medical facilities were farcical in this place too. There would be about 50,000 prisoners in the camp including Russians, French, Indians, Italians, Africans, and others, also there were many Americans numbering more than the British. Apparently it was only a transit camp, but in spite of this fact conditions could have been improved. This place must have been high up on the Red Cross 'black list'. What a contrast to Wetzlar. Our Red Cross parcels made us very popular amongst the other prisoners, but I might add that wherever you went your parcel accompanied you, for there was much thieving. In fact, the night we arrived, one fellow used his parcel for a pillow, but he awoke to find it gone. Other fellows had the contents taken and the empty box left. Its surprising what hunger will lead to, and our rations only consisted of a fifth of a loaf, a bit of margarine, and sometimes cheese, jam, or sausage meat. In addition our diet consisted of a drink of coffee (ersatz) after morning roll call, then about mid-day some very watery soup, and sometimes at night we had more soup - and so to bed. One retired about five o'clock for by this time it was dark and besides having no means of illumination there was nothing else to do, and you had to get down early on your floor space otherwise it meant groping about in the dark, and when you wanted to visit the latrine it required some sense of direction to find your way successfully back to your bed. I lost my way one night on the return journey and had resigned myself to spending the rest of the night uncomfortably in the gangway when someone lit a match nearby, and to my surprise I found out that I was not more than three yards away from my bed.
While at this stalag I met a New Zealander, an old kriegy named Bill who was a Secret Service man. He spoke about five languages and had organised many P.O.W. escapes, and had himself escaped. He told me many interesting stories of his experiences. There was a Greek who had become attached to Bill as he was the only one who could speak his language, and he followed him wherever he went. There were quite a few air raids, both by day and night, and during daylight raids all prisoners had to get under cover and anyone disobeying stood the risk of being shot at. In fact one day four Americans in our tent were shot but were innocent victims as the bloke who was gawping up into the heavens escaped. The Russians were treated badly here as at all the camps I was in and it must be born in mind that they had no such organisation as the Red Cross to help them. In constrast the Indians were given preferential favours, having very clean quarters and their turnout was first class. However it must be taken into consideration that they had been prisoners of war for two or three years, and this was just another bit of Jerry propaganda, but clever nevertheless.
I had now been officially registered as a P.O.W. and received my stalag disc, and could now write home. Although I had managed to send a card from Wetzlar saying that I had been captured but that otherwise I was well - in the soup! Sometimes the Kommandant of the camp would take a stroll around the camp but never came into our compound. He looked a real Prussian, being over six feet in height, and a scar on his face, and he had a big black Alsation for company. The guards had to smarten their parade up when he was about. Nice chap. I trust by now he's had what's coming to him, the swine.
On Oct 24th at about four o'clock in the afternoon we were marched from the camp, about two hundred of us, to the railway, about a quarter of a mile away. There were some cattle trucks lined up and into these we were herded (50 men per truck) and we spent the next five nights and four days like sardines, the only time we saw daylight being when the doors were opened and our rations dumped in. There was a milk churn in the truck which was used as a lavatory and I recollect it being emptied once only, so this was another nuisance to be endured. The smell from this was nearly, I repeat nearly, as bad as the Limburg cheese they dished out on this trip, it was all but walking about. My best recollection of this journey was of a Pole who was in our truck, and he would persist in sleeping with his boots on at night. Naturally he had a few nice things said to him when he trod on everybody's toes, and as he could not understand English, and he also seemed to trifle on the simple side, he had a rough time.
It was impossible to get any proper rest as one was in such a cramped space and had to get up to stretch your tortured limbs to get a little relief. Frequently the train stopped and was shunted into a siding on account of air raids, and we heard bombs dropped. When the doors were opened the guards would barter bread (probably our rations by the way) for soap, fountain pens, or anything you had to offer in exchange in the way of kit. We finally climbed down off this truck on the morning Oct 28th, and were we glad to be able to breathe fresh air again. It was a spot in the heart of the forest that we had stopped at, and we were taken along a path which led through the forest until we ran into the familiar surroundings of barbed wire and machinegun posts, which told me we had reached our new stalag.
First impression struck me that it was a cleaner camp than XIIA. We went through the usual search here, which was not as thorough as the previous one at Limburg. There we were marched into a compound and greeted by many old pals, mostly NCO's who had left Limburg before us. I gathered that this was Stalag VIIIC, and it was in Sagan, in Upper Silesia, and the nearest town of any importance was Breslau. I was fated to spend the next four months in this camp and to have some good and bad times while here. Anyway we were seen by the British camp leader and afterwards distributed among the various barrack rooms. These were brick buildings of considerable age divided by a wash place in the middle. As yet there were no beds, but there were boards to sleep on and it was clean. We had some macarone soup, and it was very palatable so Jimmy and I had ourselves another boulful, to which we did full justice, and then we lay down to a good nights sleep which we needed after our arduous journey. The occupants of our room were composed of glider pilots and parachutists, in all about two hundred men.
Arrangements here were a great improvement to those at Limburg. Just down the road from our camp was Stalag Luft III from which that mass escape attempt was made and about fifty RAF officers were shot. Of course this event took place many months before. There was a big open space in the compound, and it made a grand football pitch, which was much used. The latrines were about a hundred and fifty yards away from the barrack blocks and was kept clean, a very different state from Limburg. The main road ran along the boundary of the camp, so we did get a glimpse of life occasionally. The South Africans, most of them prisoners taken at Tobruk, Benghazi, etc in the early days of the African campaign were in a compound about five minutes walk from ours, and we often visited them. Unlike us, they were well established here, and they had made themselves very comfortable, and had built their own theatre and produced and staged their own shows. They also had quite a good orchestra. I saw and enjoyed two or three shows there, the 'Pirates of Penzance' being first class, both in the staging and the costumes, which were marvels on ingenuity and initiative, considering the material they had at their disposal. They also showed films in the theatre, and I saw two shows, the first one a German propaganda film, which had to be shown, otherwise they would have been unable to show our own films, and the other was an American film with Henry Fonda starring, and a feature with the Marx Brothers in. They helped us laugh and forget our cares and woes for a while anyway.
There were working parties, or Kommandoes as titled by the Germans were sent out from this camp to different places - coal mines, sugar beet factories, granite quarries, and other factories. Some were good billets, and some weren't. My mucker in Jimmy Renwick clicked for a job in a granite quarry and I was down to go with him, but at the last minute I was told I was not going and naturally I was disappointed as we had been together for some time. Another thing was, if you were able to get out on a working party you had more opportunity for getting a bit more grub, besides the chance of making an escape. No one above the rank of private was allowed but I knew many NCO's who swapped with privates who were down to go out, and even R.S.M.'s did it - promotion was cheap. However, to return to Jimmy, he was only gone about a fortnight and then he came back. I met him and he looked as if he had been having a rough time for he was thin and had a poisoned thumb, which troubled him for a long time afterwards. Indeed, it was touch and go at one stage whether or not it would be necessary to amputate it, but I'm glad to say he escaped this misfortune. After he had told me his experiences, I was not sorry I had stayed behind, for the weather then was very wintry.
I was writing home fairly regularly as we had two postcards per week and a letter card once a fortnight, but I'm afraid I made myself a nuisance as every time I wrote I asked for cigarettes and chocolate. But I never got any, although I learned on my return home that two or more parcels had been sent, neither did I receive any mail that was sent for me, and this was a big disappointment for mail was eagerly looked for by everyone, although those old 'kriegys' used to get mail through. By now I was adapting myself to stalag life, which is largely dependent on the way you look at things, and always hoping for the best and never letting things get you down. I'm sure it was this faith that kept me going and my confidence was never shaken that I would see England and home again, although at one time it looked rather doubtful. I endeavoured to keep myself clean, and also kept myself fit by taking an hours exercise daily in the shape of walking round the compound. I must also say that I felt the benefit of this later. Many of the fellows never washed and would lie in bed all day, only getting out for roll call in a morning and afternoon, and for 'skilly'. I must say this accounted for the way the South Africans acted towards the airborne troops, for there was no love lost between them. However there were faults on both sides. There was this to be said in defence of us, we were captured at the worst possible time, when things were getting bad in Germany and transport was getting worse, and the Red Cross stuff was not arriving. I must say that the Springboks were good to us in many ways, but what got their back up was the fact that the clothing they gave was being bartered over the wires for food or bread from the Ruskies. As I have previously mentioned the South Africans had plenty of kit, whereas we had none, apart from that issued at Wetzlar, nor did we get any Red Cross clothing until it was too late, and yet when we vacated the camp, the stuff was strewn about on the floor, also books which must have cost pounds were also kicking around on the floor - I'll return to this subject later.
There were many instances of thieving which increased as our rations decreased. I've known blokes put their bread ration down, turn around for a moment, and when they've turned round for their bread it had gone. This was about the worst crime in stalag, and any culprit who was found out received short shrift. The usual punishment was a 'bashing' and then a visit to the latrine, where the culprit had to get into the trench, and he got pissed on by all who were present. Maybe you think this a drastic measure, but I can assure you the crime fully merited the punishment, and it was a sight never to be forgotten to see anyone who had undergone the ordeal, and it was an ordeal. Rations were small enough without anyone pinching them, and I know because I had this happen to me - Jimmy Renwick vowed he'd chop the blokes hands off if he caught him, but he never did. I found out from experience that the safest place for your bread when you got it was in your stomach and then nobody could take it. Doing this meant a long wait until your next meal which was soup next day, and as the bread was lobbed out at tea time there was about seventeen hours between. As your ration of bread amounted to about two ordinary slices, there being six men to share a loaf, and it got worse, finishing up at about nine men to a loaf. The weight of these loaves were 1 kilo and they were dark brown and tasted like sawdust, but you were so hungry that it tasted good, as will anything else. I've relished potato peelings, which we used to wash, then boil them, afterwards frying them. There was a great deal of bartering carried on between prisoners for food, even the guards took part in the practice, and the Poles used to do most of the bargaining as they were able to speak with the Germans and the Russians. Bread and potatoes were in great demand, but it depended upon how many cigarettes you were able to offer - and the South Africans always seemed to possess plenty. All we had were Red Cross issues and those sent from the Luft camp. However, as a smoke soothed your nerves, it was only the chaps who didn't smoke that were able to save any cigarettes for bartering. In short cigarettes were worth their weight in gold - I've seen a yank give a £1 note for your cigarettes, he must have been wanting a smoke badly. For a loaf of bread, forty cigarettes were the usual 'market' price, a butter ration was worth three fags, and a sugar ration two fags. Of course prices varied according to the cigarette situation, if plentiful prices went up, and came down if they were scarce. We used to receive fifty cigarettes every time we were issued with a Red Cross parcel, which did not happen too often, and we were never fortunate enough to get a whole parcel to ourselves, it was either two or three blokes to a parcel. As a matter of fact, the last Red Cross parcel I shared in was between fourteen men, so you can imagine what I had.
By now, Xmas was coming on the scene, and what a way to celebrate it - in a stalag (not my idea of fun and games, by any means). Still there was not much I could do about it. This time before Xmas was a rather lean period, but relieved by an issue of a Red Cross parcel (1 per three men) which did cheer us up somewhat. My Xmas fare went as follows, for breakfast fried egg, meat roll and fried bread and a cup of sweet tea - dinner was macaroni soup. High tea consisted of curried rice & veal, diced vegetables & macaroni, followed by the Xmas pudding (stalag variety), potatoes, sugar, cocoa, butter, and a custard made from cream, rice, jam, and more sugar. Using one's imagination it tasted slightly like the pudding we would have been eating at home (one needed a vivid imagination, too). These meals were interspersed throughout the day with brews of tea and cocoa, and cigarettes. That was Xmas Day 1944 in Stalag VIIIC, not to be repeated, I hope.
Thus we passed into the New Year, and on Jan 4th we had a cigarette issue (18 per man) from Stalag Luft III - bless 'em all. Rumours about parcel issue was officially confirmed and it was to be one parcel between two men. On Jan 7 we had a German "reprisal" against full rank NCO's by the taking away of palliases, tables and forms, this was said to be because of the treatment of German prisoners in Egypt (I was annoyed to see the freedom they were allowed in England, maybe I was rather prejudiced). Just to be awkward we were turned out for two roll calls. There was some fuss over Red Cross parcel issue next day - Germans refused to issue parcels to NCO's so privates decided to stand by NCO's - result, no issue. The night was disturbed by shooting - and I learned next morning the sad news that a L/Cpl had been shot. Jan 9 brought stalemate again and I spent the day in bed (recuperating). 30 parcels (1 between 4 men) were lobbed out next day, plus 25 cigarettes per man - unfortunately I was not one of the lucky number, still it was nice to see some food for a change. There was more snow on Jan 11, but the weather was appreciably warmer - but the outlook regarding parcels was still "cold". However, the news bulletin on the war front was good. Parcel issue next day (1 between 2 men) was well worth waiting for. Had a real "brew" to celebrate the occasion and Xmas cake spread with honey, not forgetting with chocolate - also a pukka Xmas pudding and custard. Rather late but welcome nevertheless.
News bulletin again very favourable. After thawing yesterday it had frozen over during night. However I was feeling well - spam sandwiches for breakfast - steak, chips, fried bread for supper. Jan 14: Weather sunny today - sent postcards home - still eating well - beans on toast and honey for breakfast. Baked cake from Yorkshire pudding powder - amazing what one can do with a little ingenuity and the necessary ingredients. Very tasty, spread with honey. News as before. Air raid alarm for first time - last about half an hour. On Jan 15 weather was not as bright - and the Germans were acting awkward too. Made us move all our beds etc from Block 40 to 39 (like moving next door). We were later informed by our sergeant major we may be moved again - News today better than ever, all the lads say "Bash on Joe". Celebrated with a drink of pop (canteen issue). Jan 16 was sunny with air raid alarm at midday - news good. Bulk issue tomorrow and 25 cigarettes per man. Received bulk issue late afternoon which means high living for a day or two - we didn't get any cigarettes. Weather much colder, in fact the coldest day yet. News was good again. Jan 18 (Thurs) with weather still cold, received cigarettes (25) so can smoke again. Best news bulletin yet. On Jan 19 weather was as yesterday - not much happened - had a good supper of stew of beef, potatoes, carrots, peas and fried bread followed by apricots, honey and pancake. And so to bed - news still in our favour. Bulk issue tomorrow and plenty of rumours circulating, none worth taking notice of. I received bulk issue (half per man) and 25 cigarettes (Players), but our bread ration was cut (1 load to 9 men, instead of 6 as previously). Perhaps they are feeling the draught the b______, they should have thought about that when they started it. Next day (23rd) woke up to find snow on the ground but it seems much warmer. Russians doing well according to news - so it won't be long. It would relieve the monotony if I could get a letter from home.
On the 24th January things were definitely warming up for the air activity was very noticeable, and during the afternoon there were streams of refugees on the road which runs along the boundary of the camp, obviously getting out of the way of the Russians, so how do we stand here. Anyway, it's quite an encouraging sign, and shows how things are moving. The weather was much milder on 25th, and we had a clothing issue (I got two nice shirts, they'll be useful I expect). Rumour has it that we move to 25 Barrack room tomorrow - well, it will make a change, find us something to do. The activity in the air is still rather heavy, and the news continues good. Friday (26th) and move off came as predicted, and I settled in, finished bulk issue (roll on next issue). Our sergeant major warned us to be ready to evacuate camp at a moments notice, so it looks as if Jerry is fighting a losing battle on this front. News again good. Sunday (28th) and there were strong rumours that we would be moving soon (in fact it seemed definite) so I made preparations and got kit ready. Wrote postcards (2) but they were not sent. Weather is cold again. Monday (29th Jan) and weather is intensely cold. We saw officers from Stalag Luft III moving past our camp today, so presume we shan't be long now. However, sergeant major said Germans had informed him that we would not be moving - anyway, I don't fancy hiking in this weather. 30th Jan (Tues) weather not quite as cold. We received issue of Red Cross Xmas parcel (1 between 4), not much, but very tasty, especially the Xmas pudding and cake. They say we should get some fags tomorrow. Trying to snow again (31st), no cigarettes, neither butter ration or jam (that's two days they owe us, the b______). No news. Thurs (Feb 1) sees weather much warmer as it thawed during the night. We received 25 cigarettes this morning. Refugees passing camp all day long. No butter ration again. 2nd Feb (Fri) woke to find snow practically gone as it had rained during the night. Xmas parcel issue this morning, so I was "scoffing" well again, and had plenty of brews. No butter issue again. Joe is doing alright. Bash on Joe. Sun (4th Feb): Sunny weather today. Soup time issue altered to 11 o'clock and 3 o'clock - civilian rations are being cut, so I suspect we shall suffer accordingly - it looks like tightening up the old belt again. Bulk issue tomorrow (quarter per man). No butter again. Mon (5th Feb) dull and drizzling today. Received bulk issue in bits and dabs during the day, also fag issue (13 per man) is it the last one? Bread ration cut (1 loaf to 10 men) and no sugar after today. It looks pretty grim - but I reckon we'll come up smiling. No marge. Feb 6 (Tues): Wet weather, refugees still on road - bread ration (1 loaf to 12 men). Nevermind, it won't be long now. News good. Feb 7 (Wed): Weather sunny - news good again. Roll on bulk issue.
From 8th Feb to 14th Mar we were marched every day, with the exception of rest days, and as I kept no records of this period except for information I have been able to get since returning home, I shall have to trust to memories, which even now are still fresh. I know it started disastrously, for it had been arranged that all Red Cross food stocks remaining in the camp would be put out on tables and every man would get a share as he left – but unfortunately it didn’t turn out like that. Among us prisoners were some West Africans and as soon as they saw the stuff they rushed for the tables and when we saw what was happening joined in. It soon developed into a free for all, with German guards firing shots over the top of us to stop it. There were quite a number of broken legs and arms after this scramble – and the result of it all was that some were loaded with food, chocolate, fags etc, and the majority were starting out with sweet f.a. (myself included), but in anycase it wasn’t worth the broken legs etc.
The march was referred to in the newspapers as the 'death' march, and so it was for many (the exact number I don’t know), but the conditions were rough and in the first stages we were sleeping out in the open, so you can wonder at men dying. After that, we were a bit better off, sleeping in barns etc. Of course the number of prisoners on the march were considerable as we kept picking up columns from other camps. One of the most amusing things about it to me was the way the guards were changed frequently. They were 'kaput', so what price us. I have often thought since why didn’t I escape, but at the time I was in no condition to do this, apart from not knowing in which direction we were heading. We marched as in England, having a break every hour, and we would march from approximately 8 in the morning until 5 at night, doing about 20 km.
As regards food we existed on what we could find, and I assure you our diet was remarkable. I well remember eating some cow biscuits that I found on one of the farms, and although they were full of maggots they still tasted good to me. We did get a bread ration at irregular intervals – amongst other things eaten were marigolds, potatoes, grass, anything we could find. Another incident I recall well – we were resting on the roadside and the guard came along with some food for one of the horses – it was a shallow trough and no sooner had he put it down and turned round we had ‘whipped’ it and I’m sorry to say the horse didn’t get any. Frequently, people would give us food (if you were fortunate enough to fall out outside any houses during a rest period), but they would only do it if there were no guards about – the civilians seemed frightened to death of the army. There were occassions that I remember when I received potatoes etc from houses but they were very rare. I well remember one woman who only put out a bucket of water and the guard caught her and tipped it over her head.. The boys would wait for any farm cart passing and I assure you whatever he was carrying by the time he had passed us he would be considerably lighter in weight. And the farms we stayed at – the first thing the lads did was to look for eggs, potatoes etc and they led the guards a right dance rounding them up.
One of the nights that we slept out, I remember about six of us pooling our blankets on account of the cold and when we woke next morning there was snow on top of our blankets. In addition to that, some light fingered b…… had stolen some of my kit during the night. Anyway I wasn’t too bothered, it just meant I had less to carry. It was amazing how after the first stages of the march it took little to put you out and blokes would fight over the most trivial incident. I was mucking in with “Smudger” Smith and we would take it in turns during the day carrying the ruck sack containing our kit, but I know there were many times I got niggly because I thought he was letting me carrying it farther than I ought to. Things like that assumed aspects out of all proportion to their importance. I suppose we were getting on each others nerves which can hardly be wondered at.
At the end of the march we found ourselves in Bad Orb and I was suffering with dysentry and clothes infested in lice. This was a very uncomfortable period as I also developed boils (they were more like cysts) and at night trying to sleep with the lice crawling about was not very pleasant. There were no medical supplies available on the camp, so there was nothing the medical staff could do to help us, and we were all in a weak state after our “long walk”, and the barrack rooms were overcrowded and altogether conditions were desperate.
It was a good job we were not there long, for after about three weeks there were signs of a break through and we could hear the noise of battle in the distance – and one night our senior RSM went out of camp and contacted our forces. Upon his return he visited the different compounds and gave us the latest news. He said he was having a meeting with the Germans and he would tell them that they could either stay and surrender to whoever liberated the camp or walk out and take the consequences. He told us to await the liberating troops and not to go wandering over the country side and then we would get home sooner. On 2nd April (appropriately enough it was Easter Monday) at about two o’clock in the afternoon I heard the noise of a tank rumbling up the road, and without stopping for the gates to be opened the tank smashed through the gates and into the camp (the Yanks had arrived). It was a scene never to be forgotten, everybody was shaking hands with the tank crew and they showered us with cigarettes, the blokes were overwhelmed – I know I was. This was the moment we were all waiting for, and now it had materialised it was hard to realize we were free again.
On the 10th April, Jack Bird was amongst a party taken to an emergency airstrip where they were deloused and issued with fresh American uniforms, and for the first time in months Jack admitted that he felt like a human being. Later that afternoon the men were flown home to England, where they were fed and sent on leave the following day. Once his leave was over, Jack was instructed to present himself at the depot of the Lancashire Fusiliers, from where he was soon discharged for being medically unfit.
Jack returned to his pre-war occupation with Talbot-Stead and spent the remainder of his life in Walsall. An enthusiastic and gifted sportsman, he was a very good at tennis and played with a local football team, known as the Jolly Club. A keen follower of Walsall Football Club, he was also on occasion to be seen frequenting the ground of local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers and also Cricket test matches with his nephew. Jack Bird died after suffering a stroke in February 1979.
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