Sapper Tom Carpenter

 

Unit : No.2 Platoon, 9th (Airborne) Field Company

Army No. : 14435606

 

Sapper Carpenter was captured during the Battle of Arnhem and was involved in the famous Arnhem Bridge action, where he was badly wounded in the back by a shell fragment, hampering the movement of his arms for some months thereafter. The following is his account of his time as a Prisoner of War:

 

Soon after our arrival at Stalag XIB, possibly the third morning, we were stumbling out to early morning roll call when we heard an authoritative English voice barking out orders like "come on chaps, get fell in quickly." Standing out there taking this morning parade was Regimental Sergeant Major J. C. Lord {of the 3rd Parachute Battalion}. He stood there as though it was his parade ground at home, with the German guard commander to his rear and side. He looked immaculately dressed in battle dress with one sleeve cut back above the elbow of his injured arm neatly sewn, with a sling supporting his arm. He stood at ease, and then called us to attention. Many of the lads mumbled, reluctant to conform. He again stood us at ease then immediately to attention, and then smartly turning to the guard commander, handed the parade over to him for roll call. After the Germans were satisfied that the numbers were correct R.S.M. Lord dismissed the parade. It was a very important start towards getting some sort of control over the running of the British compound. His next move was to sort out the fair distribution of rations by forming small units of eight men, using the not so badly injured to help those who found difficulty in mobility. Two men could easily collect the rations for the eight-man section. He then steadily built a team of senior NCOs around him, names like R.S.M. Bill Kibble and CSM Day come to mind. Many of the senior N.C.O.s volunteered to stay at XIB, even when they could have moved on to less austere surroundings. XIB was to become known as the hell of Soltau Road and later arrivals at the camp immediately volunteered for "Arbeiter commando groups" (work parties).

 

Eventually we were moved into huts, which had housed some Polish civilians, men and women, who had been rounded up during the Warsaw uprising in August, September '44. The four huts stood in a larger compound surrounded by the usual barbed wire and goon towers. The parade ground was about the size of an average football pitch, the huts were designed for about two hundred but already there were in excess of four hundred in two of them and this was to get worse in the coming months. In mid October some of us walking wounded were allowed to visit the lagerette. The huts were up close to the main gates in their own compound and housed some four hundred seriously wounded 1st airborne men who had arrived by hospital train. In the second week of October, the senior medical officer was Major Smith who had a medical team of "Royal Army Medical Corps" personnel. This hospital was without heat or light except for hurricane lamps with very little paraffin available. The conditions were little better than in the main lager at this time, other than for trained medical staff keeping an eye on the wounded, medical supplies were little more than fifty or so paper dressings and bandages per week.

 

On our walk to the lagerette we were looking forward to getting some medical treatment for our many and varied wounds which had received no treatment, in my case since Kassel almost three weeks ago. My right arm was useless, the intense pain, which pulled on my back with every step taken, was causing me to stoop in order to try and ease myself. We had to walk under guard about ten of us at a time, and on our arrival we stood around at the entrance to one of the huts waiting to be called in. When my turn came I was first seen by an orderly who took details of when I was hit, when I was last treated, was it bullet or shrapnel etc. He then set about removing what was left of the 9 handkerchiefs and the paper dressings, which were just a sodden mess. How these R.A.M.C. personnel had steeled themselves to the job of cleansing the putrefaction of these unattended wounds I do not know. The vile smell alone was enough to turn the strongest stomach.

 

After doing his best to clean the entry wound he called for an officer, Captain Green, R.A.M.C. who asked a few questions and then did a little probing. With nothing found by the prove he told the orderly to apply an Aqua Flavine dressing. He then looked at my leg wound and prescribed the same treatment and said I should return in two days. Although I felt a little more comfortable on the shoulder, nothing much had changed as the dressings were already becoming soaked as we entered the Lager. It was about this time that a civilian photographer appeared at our compound. We were each given a board and in turn, our photos were taken with a few details - name, rank and number. On my board was the number 117901. How long before the Red Cross people, family and friends at home would have to wait before notifications of this new status we had no idea, but at least we were now on record as a being.

 

RSM Lord was beginning to instill self-pride and discipline into the compound and with the aid of home made brooms made from scrounged branches and twigs of trees, the floors of the huts were already looking cleaner. The problem of getting rid of the lice was ongoing and a never ending battle right up to liberation in April 1945, but you would find men everywhere trying to kill the million of lice eggs which always seemed profuse in the seams of shirts etc. We fully realised our present situation was a world apart from the way we had been raised. Unless someone has lived through such an experience it is not possible to imagine how it was. Men within prison camps made up a culture that could not have existed in any other circumstance. They came from all walks of life and nationality. We shared a close relationship and, as a unit of 8 men, we shared everything - a razor, a bit of soap, even the very elusive toilet paper. We helped each other through bouts of depression or doubt. We laughed together in adversity. One of us could always come up with a light remark to overcome an unpleasant situation of which there were many.

 

Food was always a main topic, always a remark like "Oh what I would do for a slice of toast and dripping. Our basic diet had now become, after morning, roll call, erzartz coffee (burnt acorns) 1/3 rd of a pint at around midday, 1/2 pint of watery soup, either pea, barley, swede, sauerkraut or whispering grass soup, so named by us and which contained all the disposable parts of vegetables. The sauerkraut soup would turn our inside upside down; I for one could not stomach it. At about 1700 hours we would receive an eighth share of a 1 and a half kilo loaf of black bread with sometimes a spoon of jam followed by a third of a pint of mint tea. All the foregoing was subject to allied air activity so that on many a day we were deprived of at least some of the ration, the effect of poor rations was starting to show as we were all looking gaunt and pale. In early November the rumour was circulating that Red Cross parcels had arrived and everyone was on a high with anticipation, but nothing arrived that day in the compound.

 

The following day started in the usual way, RSM Lord's roll call parade at first light followed by the German count, which was still the farce of count and double check. Then at about 10am on my visit to the lagerette this day I met Joe Sibley another 9th Field Company man of HQ platoon. Joe had spent his early years in Germany and so was very fluent with the language. Our meeting was brief but he was able to tell me of two more of our chaps who were in the hospital block, Sappers Jack Everitt of number 2 platoon and Charlie Postans. Joe said he would try and arrange for me to visit them next time I was at the hospital, which would be in two days time. I received my treatment, a cleaned and dry dressing. I knew my condition was worsening by the day and stood no chance of improving until the foreign body was taken out. Once again by the time I had reached the compound gate the dry dressing was saturated with putrescence. Such condition in any of the limbs led to an amputation of which there were many at Stalag XIB during the 8 months we were incarcerated there. On passing into the compound we were met by excited comrades telling us that Red Cross parcels had arrived. Our group had collected to be shared between four men. On entering the hut it was like waking up on Christmas morning as a child with excited groups of men rummaging through boxes about 10" by 10" by 5". It was an American Red Cross parcel. There would be a change of diet this day, with an American parcel including an issue of 100 cigarettes.

 

Along with the arrival of the Red Cross parcels another unexpected development occurred that day. Many of our compound guards were acting furtively, some were concealing loaves of bread, other potatoes, even frying pans, inside their great coats. Our first introduction to the barter system, indeed the first time we had anything that interested our captors, everything was short or even totally unobtainable in Germany by 1944 so the guards seemed willing to take a risk of being caught for genuine coffee, spam, cigarettes etc.

 

Our group quickly agreed between us to forgo half the cigarettes in order to try for extra bread and potatoes. There were three in who were compulsive smokers, so we agreed they shared the rest between them. Contact was made and that evening we obtained a 3 kilo civilian loaf and some potatoes, and after our diet of watery soup and black bread the civilian bread was certainly more satisfying and filling. It was of a greyish colour, certainly doughier, made with rye, I believe. Every group by this time had home made implements made from scraps of all the items found or scrounged over the previous weeks including Heath Robinson gadgets for heating our acorn coffee or herb tea. I had no idea who was the inventor but they had appeared out of the blue.

 

The only way to describe the blower as it was called is that it was like a mini forge. It was mounted on a bed board from one of the bunks and it had and enclosed fan, which blew air through a tunnel to the base of a burner pan in which we placed charcoal. It could burn almost anything and bring liquid to the boil very quickly. Another innovation was a very dangerous immersion heater connected through a lamp socket, through insulated wire attached to two pieces of a metal can, each piece of metal being separated by a non conductor piece of electricity, i.e. wood placed directly into water. It always seemed to work well until someone put tea in the simmering water causing the compound light to dim and flicker and, more often than not, lead to hours spent outside on parade while the Germans searched for radios. By such methods we were surviving on a day-to-day basis.

 

Two days later on my visit for treatment, I did manage a brief visit to see my two ninth field company comrades. At this time Jack Everitt did not seem too ill but Charlies Postans was so bandaged about his face and head, I could not be sure it was him; but he seemed to know me. I was told he was caught by a flame-thrower.

 

The days wore on interminably, and it was at least another month before we received any more parcels. I was just about dragging myself around the compound on our exercise walks ordered by RSM Lord. It was now becoming much colder and the early morning roll call was the most painful experience standing there undernourished, ill clothed and shoddy, some of us now wearing self made clogs with a square of cloth as socks. It was about mid November when something happened which helped raise morale. Many times, when heard back in barracks or encampments, the sound of reveille at six in the morning, would have weary troops hurling abuse at the poor unfortunate bugler, but when we heard ringing out over this bleak enemy terrain it was like a voice from home. Other calls were sounded throughout the day, which helped us judge the time. Once again, RSM Lord had gained a little bit more from the Germans. This time it was in the shape of an ail old Belgian bugle and through one of his earlier batmen, who had served with the corps of drums, we were to hear these comforting calls from then on.

 

Late November at the early morning roll call RSM Lord, who would always pass on any information following the count of heads, announced that Sapper Jack Everitt had succumbed to his wounds in the lagerette and that any comrades wishing to attend his funeral were to report to him at 1000 hours.

 

RSM Lord had a few battle dresses, which he kept in his bed space area, enclosed to form something of an office area and created by panels from the Red Cross packaging cases. He had drilled men who were to provide the honour party and bearers, these always were turned out as smart as possible under these conditions. I was provided with one of the battle dress and a pair of boots and followed the cortege, which was a flat track pulled by two of the trained men. The pine wood coffin was bedecked with a home-made union flag. The honour guard and bearers marching on each side, it was a very moving experience for me, as we passed other compounds, which held Russians, French, Poles etc., to witness them lining the wire, heads bowed in respect. The hillside cemetery was about one mile in total distance and here a brief internment service was held with our German guard watching from a distance, as the bugler sounded last post or reveille.

 

On our return journey I was beginning to flag a little as my pain increased with each step, but as we neared the main gate RSM Lord said firmly but quietly, "Come on chaps, march to attention. Show these people what you think of them", as our armed guards ambled along it was good to feel like a soldier again. I had to return my kit for it to be made ready for the next burial. There were fifty British buried in our eight months incarceration. Eventually the Germans did forbid the union flag being paraded through the camp, but RSM Lord would stop the cortege just outside the main gate and there drape the colours over the coffin before continuing to the cemetery as usual.

 

By mid December we had received letters from home. I had written cards home but never said anything about my wounds so as not to worry them. As my right arm was useless I had to manage using my left, which I found out afterwards, did cause some concern. Christmas came and Boxing day which was to have been our wedding day and the news reaching us in the camp was a little disquieting, as the Germans made the most of the Ardennes offensive and were boasting about pushing the Americans back into the sea. Conditions in the camp were becoming very severe with the sub zero temperatures now persisting and still only one blanket per man. These were extremely cold and long nights and the early morning roll call was a freezing torture, with our extremities ready to drop off. All the guards and goons had extra topcoats and wore nose and earmuffs for extra protection.

 

I had now developed a pronounced stoop and hunchback, which was the result of accumulated poisons at the seat of my wound. Although these extreme low temperatures persisted, RSM Lord still insisted on the men taking their exercise walks around the compound. This made sense as often it was colder inside than moving outside. At this time Stalag XIB had started to receive large numbers of American servicemen who had been captured in the Ardennes offensive, many of them with severe frost bite. Most of them said they had been captured at rest camps some as much as a hundred miles behind their lines this was most disconcerting to us. Was the war now turning in the favour of the Germans as they had been trying to make us believe in recent weeks? Our outlook was very gloomy. It is so easy to see the black side when you are starving, cold and very far from home.

 

One morning in late January I was struggling around the exercise field with my comrades making an extreme effort to make one painful step follow the other. Gradually becoming, more remote and distant from them they were making their usual conversation but I could not hear them, I was gradually enveloped in blackness.

 

When I came round I was in the lagerette where I became aware of Major Smith and Captain Green discussing my condition with a German officer. Reasoning prevailed, as I soon found myself with Major Smith being transported to a hospital in Fallingbostel. On arrival I was taken to a room where I was made to stand behind a screen which was part of an early model X ray machine. After a while the medical officer who had been observing with the German operating staff said to me, "that's it, we'll get you back and have that out". On my return to the lagerette I was taken to a small room, which had some two-tier bunks, some of which were occupied by Americans. The orderly said he would be back for me as soon as the medical officer was ready.

 

Some of the Americans started to quiz me about conditions in the lager. The picture I painted, whilst being true, was not easily or readily accepted by them and possibly led to some of them trying to pull the wool over the medical officers eyes in an effort to prolong their stay in the lagerette. This discussion helped pass the time and took my mind off my pending ordeal. Although having endured some five months of agony the thought of having an operation to remove the source of my problem was a little disconcerting especially with the very limited resources available to the R.A.M.C. personnel. They were all trained to operate in the field under harsh conditions of battle, but after some five months of prison camp medicine, cut off from supplies, their options were primitive. After about 20 minutes the orderly collected me and we walked to another room where the doctors were waiting. There was a cabinet, a couple of chairs and a white wood trestle table. One of the doctors reassuringly said, "We'll soon sort you out". I was told to get my battle dress blouse and shirt off, then to lie face down on the table. I do not recollect any administration of anaesthetic - I felt the first cut. I had a feeling of floating, looking down at the scene. When I came round I was in one of the lower bunks in the room with the Yanks. The orderly was close by and told me not to move as there was a rubber tube in my back to drain off the poisons. The Yanks were shouting, "Welcome back Tommy". I had no idea how long I was unconscious and I gradually became aware of something in my left hand. Wrapped in a piece of paper dressing was a chunk of shrapnel one and a half inches by three quarters of an inch, and covered in a green like web, which the doctors later told me was the body trying to seal it off. The immune system I suppose.

 

I was very ill for many days, running a high temperature. The caring attention paid to me by the orderly, who I knew as Butch and his mates was eventually bringing me through. I was being fed at times with a gruel type substance and drink of horlicks. These came; I was told, from the special Red Cross parcels, which were held by Major Smith for the invalids. The lagerette was like an oasis in the midst of the squalid surroundings of the main camp. The luxury of 2 blankets and sometimes more, and the smaller rooms with up to 12 men as against the cold vast barrack huts now containing well over 400 individuals.

 

By mid February I was beginning to improve. It was still very cold with plenty of snow about. I was always thinking of my mates enduring the early morning roll calls and I hated the thought of returning to the compound. A couple of Americans who had befriended me were about to be discharged to the compound and told me to look them up on my return. The one who I knew as Pinky was a Sgt Woods, of North Carolina and the other was Duke, who came from Brooklyn, both had very outgoing personalities. Well into February and our area of Germany was receiving increased air activities both by day and night... {account ends}

 

Tom Carpenter passed away in May 2014.

 

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