Staff-Sergeant Bernard Black
The bed made up for me was on the ground floor at the back of the house and I had been instructed by Joost that in the event of uninvited visitors I was to cross the room below the level of the window, make my way through the wash-house and hide in the chicken coop which was in the back yard. Unwelcome visitors would be indicated by Joost calling out to the dog. At least this is what I understood him to mean though I was by no means certain since our conversation was limited in the main to my slight knowledge of German and Dutch.
Although I spent a somewhat restless night, the morning found me alert and refreshed. I washed in my room and I was also given some hot water for shaving and I took the opportunity to tidy up my side burns. Fortunately my hair was not too long since Phil and I had what the Americans called "combat crops" in late August. However it was roughly the same length all over and very untidy. We ate a simple breakfast consisting I think of porridge and black coffee surrogaat. During the morning Joost produced a dark suit which was quite a reasonable fit. We were of similar build though I am slightly shorter. I also tried on his tweed overcoat and this too seemed to be OK The shoes were at least a size too big but by using an extra pair of thick socks and having the laces as tight as possible they presented no problem. A clean shirt, tie, scarf and hat, completed the rig-out and after trying on everything I returned to my uniform since my guide was not due for about two hours.
During the morning Joost and I chatted while Min busied herself with her household chores, pausing occasionally to join in and on at least one occasion to provide a cup of black coffee. I am unable to recall everything we talked about but I remember that our communication improved considerably - it had to, there was no one to interpret for us. At one stage we compared the population of the Netherlands with that of London; at that time they were not dissimilar. Joost also told me of some of the efforts of the locals when trying to score over their German occupiers without having to suffer any punitive consequences. At one time a favourite occupation had been to whistle and call "Hess! Hess!" after members of the Wehrmacht. When they were taken to task, they would blandly and politely explain that their dog was called Hess and "Hess is gone!".
Soon it was time for me to dress up in readiness for my little walk. This I did and Cor arrived. Making sure that I understood that I was to give him a start before I followed, we went out through the back yard into the garden. We then climbed over the fence to a small passage which separated the garden from the church. Cor set off and I followed. Although aware of the need to keep my distance I was anxious not to lose him. At one corner a man came around on a bike and as he came towards me startled me by calling out a greeting. I nodded and mumbled as he rode by. At another corner we passed two men in conversation. One of these wore a dark overcoat with an astrakhan collar. On his head was a black homburg and under his arm he carried a briefcase. As I passed in pursuit of Cor, it seemed to me that he gave me a piercing scrutiny.
Some distance ahead of me, Cor had stopped, opened a gate leading into a back garden, and then stood to await my arrival. Inside the back garden was what appeared to be an electrical transformer and standing next to it was another Dutchman who shook hands and then led the way into the house. Passing through a storeroom we came to a staircase which ascended in a square stairwell. Waiting for me at the top of the stairs was a smart looking man who wore horn- rimmed spectacles.
He greeted me and escorted me into a large room which was at the front of the building. It was a living room on the far side of which was a bay window. This part of the room was the dining area and seated at the table, looking out of the window was a lady who was introduced to me as his wife. Coming across the room to greet me she offered me a cup of tea which I accepted. Looking out of the window I saw that it looked out across what appeared to be the town square.
There was a little time before my host was to make his contact. Arriving soon after I did was the man from the street in the astrakhan collar. I was introduced to him and he too was offered a cup of tea. We chatted for a few moments and I indulged myself momentarily by picking up a cue and striking a ball on the small billiard table which was there. Then, with his wife by the window, astrakhan collar and myself standing by the billiard table, my host opened a cupboard and took from it a telephone. He then sat in his arm chair and plugged in the cable to a socket on the skirting board. "Oranje, Oranje, Oranje ...."
After this obvious identification, there followed a rapid conversation in Dutch which to me was completely unintelligible for the most part except towards the end except to wards the end when I think he referred to ".... heb ik hier de Engelsman." A few moments later he handed me the instrument. "Staff Sergeant Black speaking." "Brigade Major here" came the reply in the first English voice other than Phil's that I had heard for nearly three months. "What happened last night?" I asked. I cannot recall exactly the words of the conversation which followed but his reply was to the effect that they had not seen our signal; that they had not been able to come close enough because the boat they had wanted to use had not been serviceable. My response to this was one of surprise that we had not been seen as we had been flashing our signal for nearly three-quarters of an hour. I was assured that they would make another attempt that evening half an hour later because of the tide.
At this stage I pointed out the dangers to the group who were in hiding and waiting to be taken off. I emphasised the difficulties in assembling them and bringing them to the rendezvous. They had been successfully concealed after the previous night's failure but they now had to repeat the performance of making their way after dark past German posts out of town and along the road to the dike. Once there they would be exposed to waiting once again for a boat to respond to the signal.
I expressed my concern, that while we hoped to make the second attempt that evening, a third attempt would prove impossible from our end. The Brigade Major assured me that they would make their best efforts to pick us up and passed me on to "the Commando Officer in charge of the operation." Our discussion centred round the problem of sending light signals which could be seen by the British and yet remain unobserved by any watching Germans.
I recall that the Commando advised that the light should be shielded "by some tubular object like a mortar bomb case." After further assurances that they would do all they could to pick us up, I handed the telephone back to the Dutchman who rapidly concluded the proceedings and rang off. A few moments later he returned saying it was time for me to go. He and his wife wished me luck and shook hands as I left them, descending the stairs to where Cor was waiting to guide me back to the Ringelbergs. Pausing by the gate to make sure the coast was clear we travelled as before the same route in reverse and reached the Ringelbergs without incident.
There was little else to do except wait and pray that the forthcoming second attempt would have a successful outcome. I felt as though there was something I should do but now I must remain passive once again. I hoped that what I had said would prove to have been some use but my feeling was that I had only fulfilled the requests of my Dutch hosts and underlined the urgency of their situation. The results were out of my hands but at least I could assure the others that the British were coming to fetch us that night.
After changing back into my uniform I thanked Joost for the use of his clothes, and we passed the rest of the afternoon attempting to converse. There were a couple of interruptions by callers knocking at the door which saw me crawling in the direction of the chicken coop but on each occasion the all clear was given before I actually got there.
The afternoon wore on and with the dusk came Phil and Jork. Phil was eager to know how things had gone. I told him about the Brigade Major and the Commando Officer and that it was on for that evening. Min prepared some food and we all sat round a table while she served us with some hot soup. There was again an atmosphere of mounting excitement in the midst of calm control. Once again it was time to go; we donned the raincoats and trilbies and after thanking Min we said goodbye.
As before under the guidance of Joost and Jan we left the town and made our way along the road which led to the dijk. This time as we met van de Beek he explained that he thought it was wiser if only a small group went to the beach to make contact while the bulk of the party waited in the empty house which lay nearby in the lea of the dijk. He suggested himself, his colleague Chris Wisse, and Herman; it seemed he sought my approval to this. It was an eminently sensible precaution and I readily agreed.
Inside the empty house were the others; again there was the low hum of conversation amid the general air of expectation. I exchanged some words with Marius, my friend from the previous evening. Then sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall I found myself next to Jork. We talked quietly. Through the medium of my limited German we exchanged the words of daily greeting in English and Russian. Repeating them and correcting each others pronunciation. "Guten tag .... Good day .... Dobre djin .... Dobre utro .... Good morning .... Dobre banikoff .... Good afternoon .... Spokani noces .... Good night."
I have no idea whether what I have reproduced here makes sense, I only know that it represents the memory of what I heard and thought it meant .... a mutual token of friendship from the extremes of Europe thrown together in a foreign land. It was also a way of passing the time of waiting. Occasionally there was a lull in the whisperings of conversation during which ears were strained to catch the hoped for sounds we all longed to hear.
"Shhsh. Listen .... is it .... could that be the sound of a boat's engine? It must be." The quiet excitement mounted. Soon van de Beek would return to tell us that they were here. The sound faded and was no more. More waiting and listening. Nothing. Then came the other policeman, Wisse. They had heard the boat, they thought they had seen a light flashed from it. Then they had lost it again. He returned to the beach and rejoined van de Beek and Herman. The minutes ticked away and in the little house the air of expectancy was being replaced by misgivings. Could it happen again? Were we all to be disappointed a second time? How long had we been waiting this time? It was already more than an hour past the appointed time.
Van de Beek and the other two returned. Sadly we would have to abandon the attempt again. He went around to the other members of the group and told them of his decision and what must now be done. The other policeman and his wife would go along the road before us and would give warning of any difficulties. Pushing their bicycles they set off along the road. Some way behind, another small group was just setting off in the same direction.
A mile or so to the west the dim lights of a car could be seen; it seemed to be on the road near the dijk when it changed direction as though the road swung away; a few seconds later it disappeared. At about the same time from the direction of Zierikzee another light was being waved. It looked as if Wisse was giving a warning of trouble.
Those who had set off in the same direction had seen it too and were returning towards us. There was a quiet consultation with van de Beek. We retraced our steps past the house and leaving the roadway came into the shadow of the dijk melting into the darkness of its grassy slope. The policeman mounted the dijk diagonally with most of the others following; I was towards the rear and as we faded into the cover of the dijk we were spread along its side with those who had been in the front nearer to the top and those in the rear like myself only about a third of the way up. Hardly daring to breathe, we waited in silence, listening and watching for whatever trouble Wisse's light had warned against.
When it came, it was not from the direction that Wisse and his wife had taken along the road. Looking in an easterly direction towards the top of the dijk past the other members of our group, I could see the silhouettes of two German soldiers coming towards us along the top of the dijk. They were barely five yards away from where the policeman lay and about twenty yards from my position. With their rifles pointing ahead of them they were advancing slowly towards us.
Suddenly van de Beek sprang to his feet just in front of them at the same time shouting "Hands up!" (had he stayed on the ground one of the Germans would have tripped over him two or three steps later.) Immediately two shots rang out in rapid succession. The first came from the nearest of the two Germans who must have advanced with safety catches off and fingers on the trigger. The second came from the pistol of van de Beek. One of the Germans gave a cry and fell headlong down the dijk I could not see what happened for the next few seconds as the members of our group came rushing down the dijk past me and scattering in all directions. Another shot rang out from the top of the dijk from the direction where I had last seen the two Germans. I fired my revolver in the direction of the flash and moved rapidly away from the dijk towards the house to gain cover.
The sound of running footsteps could be heard along the road and also splashing through the fields nearby. Backing around the side of the house I nearly collided with Herman and Phil coming in the opposite direction. None of us had a very clear picture as to the whereabouts of the two Germans or the rest of our group. We hurriedly decided to move away from the house moving cautiously some fifty yards or so to the west along the base of the dijk, then climbed to the top and over the sea-wall. As quietly as we could we crawled to the water's edge and then continued crawling in a westerly direction.
After about a hundred yards we stopped and after a hasty consultation decided that in case we were caught it would be better not to be wearing civilian hats and raincoats. These we left half-buried in the shingle and continued, this time just keeping low, in the same direction, the noise of our faster progress covered by the sound of the sea and the wind. We stopped three times more in the next mile. The first of these was to avoid detection when a flare was put up. The second was to observe a patrol of Germans advancing at the double along the top of the dijk in the direction from which we had come. The third was to decide that we were now far enough away from the flares and the sporadic firing which could be heard in the distance.
We left the beach and crossed the sea-wall and descended the dijk quietly. To our left was a farm close to the dijk. We turned away from it and walked along the road. Not far away was a road junction and beyond it were flooded fields with other farms. We were uncertain as to our best course of action but finally returned to the farm near the dijk. The house itself was not very large and nestled in the lea of the dijk. Across the yard stood a large barn which we entered quietly. We knew that not far away there was probably a German post from which the patrol had come. Nevertheless, since we had slipped by, we would perhaps be safer for two or three days until the hullabaloo died down.
At the far end of the barn was a loft or high platform with a ladder giving access. We mounted this and went above. There was some hay up there though the bulk of what hay there was in the barn was nearer to the entrance. Occasionally during the next hour, there came the occasional sound of light machine gun and rifle fire, mostly short-lived and not always from the same direction. Whatever was going on, we were better off out of it for the time being. We had no idea what was happening to our erstwhile comrades or whether they like us had managed to avoid trouble for the time being.
We spent the next three days in the barn; to be precise from just before midnight on the 7th until about 8 p.m. on Sunday 10th December. Most of the time we were in a mental turmoil; torn between the desire to move to a more familiar place where we would feel safer and yet aware of the need to stay put until the hue and cry had died down. Added to this we wanted to know what had happened to the others - had they managed to escape and hide in their own familiar surroundings or were they in the hands of the Germans?
Above all we felt let down. Our own people had failed not only us but also the Dutch resisters who were risking their lives. No doubt those other members of the underground who had not been trying to leave the island would be in for a more difficult time as a result of the incident of the 7th. We were depressed, cold and tired. More than that we were angry. By comparison the additional problem of food and drink seemed at first to be the least of our worries. However, we had absolutely nothing and there seemed to be no way of obtaining anything at this stage since we were reluctant to leave the barn just yet.
We remained in the loft where we could see the full length of the barn. Around the middle of the day a farmer or farm-worker came into the barn. We watched him closely while remaining unseen. To our surprise he seemed to be behaving suspiciously and was apparently concealing something in the hay at the far end. After he had gone, we decided to investigate. One of us, I think it was Herman, went below and returned with a large tin of catering pack size but unlabelled. It was somewhat dented but still intact and of American origin. After a brief talk to decide whether we should deprive the Dutchman of his jetsam we opened the tin to find that it contained full cream dried milk. This cheered us up. We had food - the only problem was how to eat it. A mouthful of milk powder brings its own problems. We needed water. While skirting the barn the night before we had seen rain butts out at the back. However we were reluctant to risk being seen outside because of the possibility of a German post nearby.
Eventually the need for water became overwhelming. The only suitable receptacle was a dirty old wooden milking pail. We cleaned it as well as possible with handful of straw and then we pulled straws to see who was going outside for the water. It was Phil. When he returned we found that the receptacle was ideal for our purposes. The technique developed as follows. First a handful of dried milk in the mouth; then with one's face in the pail the mouth was filled; the milk was then mixed by swishing the water around in the mouth; then finally the mixture was swallowed.
Our lot was now improved. We had milk and water; for the rest there was little else but conversation and waiting. During the second day most of our talk centred around the need for information and food. When darkness came we went over to the house and knocked quietly. The farmer came to the door and we went inside the kitchen. On the table was an oil lamp and by its light we could see that the other occupants of the room consisted of two women and two small children. The man seemed more afraid than the women. He wasn't pleased to see us and he was less pleased at the idea of us staying in the barn. His news was scant but apparently some Dutchmen had been caught by the Germans. He was unwilling to help us and wanted us to us to leave. I told Herman to ask for some food and to tell him that we would leave. He gave us some apples and we left, but only as far as the barn.
We decided to stay for another night and felt that as long as the farmer thought we had gone it would give us some measure of safety. The next night would be the third and if we left soon after dark we could hope to get into Zierikzee and I could find the house of Joost Ringleberg. In fact this is what we did. Cautiously we made our way back into Zierikzee in our stockinged feet. There my daylight experience of 7th enabled me to find the back garden which we entered over the fence. We quietly tapped on the back door. Joost appeared at a small window and when he saw who it was he let us in. Min busied herself making some porridge for us.
They were both relieved to see us and also very upset. Some of the group had been hanged that day in Renesse - they thought ten. Among those hanged had been van de Beek. This was shattering news. It was unthinkable that we should stay. Joost gave us directions that would take us to a place in the neighbourhood of Schuddebeurs where he thought it would be safe for us to hide. As soon as he thought it was safe he would try to reach us with food. We finished the porridge that Min had prepared for us. Sadly we said goodbye and left by the way we had come. With great circumspection and still carrying our boots we made our way out of the town. Several times we stopped and in quiet discussed where we were and in which direction Joost had meant us to go. Several times in our uncertainty we retraced our steps and tried another way.
It would soon be light. We were lost although we knew where we were. We were definitely in the neighbourhood of Schuddebeurs. Phil and I had been unable to understand Joost's directions for finding the place where he intended us to hide. Herman had no doubt understood the directions but we were all confused. We recognised the area from our walk into Zierikzee with the Ringelbergs in the early hours of the 6th December.
We made our way along the Oude Polder Dijk to the Wijde Linie. It looked to us as solitary and deserted as before. We decided that it would have to do as a temporary hiding place even though it was not where we had been directed. I think all three of us felt rather insecure. Phil and I would have felt better in the more familiar surroundings of Nieuwerkerk or Ouwerkerk. Herman would have been happier if he'd been able to return to Sirjansland. We were also worried because if Joost came looking for us a couple of days later as he had promised, he would be unable to find us. The news we had received in Zierikzee had been shattering even if not completely unexpected. All these things weighed heavily upon us and added to our confusion and uncertainty.
We decided to risk it and spend the daylight hours in the farmhouse and then in the afternoon as darkness approached, we would retrieve the boat which had been sunk in the shed at the side of the house. The house itself had a central entrance and passage on each side of which were the ground floor rooms. The stairs from the passage led above to a central attic (zolder) off which were small bedrooms overlooking the forecourt and the road along the dijk. Everywhere in everything thought to be of value had been removed and what was left had been discarded and scattered all over the floors both upstairs and down. It was like a nightmarish hangover from a jumble sale. In modern parlance it had been thoroughly turned over, just as the house in the Molenstraat had been between the time we had abandoned it and the night of the 5th.
We needed the rest, and lay side by side on the bed which was about the same level as the bottom of the window. By turning our heads to one side we could see along the road at the top of the dijk. Lying there we quietly discussed our predicament and what we hoped to do later in the day.
At about 11 o'clock in the morning, two German soldiers came into the house. Phil and I had been through this before another couple of looters. We waited quietly. We could hear them talking below and kicking the rubbish aside as they rooted about for anything of value. There were no rich pickings left for them and after two or three minutes, they left the house without even bothering to come up the stairs. We breathed again and no doubt our heart beat gradually returned to normal once again.
At about midday, we were disturbed again, this time by two Dutch labourers. Waiting quietly as before, we saw one come up the stairs while at first the other one stayed below. This time the one who first came up the stairs spotted Phil's boots among the rubble and bent down to pick them up and examine them. At this we showed ourselves, leaving Herman to tell them and warn them off. Herman spoke to them for a couple of minutes and then they left. We were quite worried about this turn of events as we knew that the previous week all men between 17 and 40 had been ordered to report to the Germans and that any able bodied men in the area were either divers in hiding or were working under German supervision.
We had only showed ourselves to prevent the loss of Phil's boots. We knew how frightened the locals were and who could blame them when, two days earlier, ten of their number had been publicly executed. We discussed with Herman the chances of being given away by the two labourers - they were obviously working in the vicinity and we were loath to make ourselves scarce in the daylight. Our best hope lay in the onset of darkness and we returned to the little bedroom to sweat it out.
At about two-thirty in the afternoon we knew that our fate had been sealed. A group of heavily armed Germans, some 16 in number, could be seen approaching along the dijk road. They were in files and as the leading file came abreast of the farm they spread themselves along the road and faced the house. The leaders after satisfying themselves as to the positioning of their men, detached themselves and crossed the forecourt to the entrance of the house.
From our viewpoint as we lay on the bed the scene was self-explanatory. This was a collection job. There was nowhere for us to go and nothing more to be done. Going into the attic towards the top of the stairs, I shouted "Kamerad!" and showed myself with hands upraised. Below stood an Oberleutnant and a Veldwebel. In response to their signal, I led Phil and Herman down the stairs. The Veldwebel removed the revolver which hung in front of me by the lanyard around my neck. A brief search revealed this to be our only weapon. He also removed my prismatic compass which he deemed to be a great prize.
The Leutnant spoke English and as we set off for Zierikzee with our escort, he suggested that our lot would be much improved on our arrival since we would be given hot coffee to drink. Some little way along the road, we passed a small group of Dutch labourers working on a drainage ditch. Here the Oberleutnant left us, mounted a small motorcycle lying at the side of the road and rapidly departed in the direction of Zierikzee.
We continued under escort which was now commanded by the Veldwebel. Once or twice he attempted conversational gambits the first of which was one we were to hear several times in the next couple of weeks. "For you the war is over!" This seemed to be an English phrase known to many members of the German armed forces as I am sure many ex-P.O.W. will remember especially late in the war. For many of them it was probably a kind of wishful thinking which reflected a kind of envy that the war was not yet over for them.
We approached the town from the same direction that we had done on the two previous occasions but we skirted it to the east and we were brought to a small villa on the eastern edge of the town. This was the Kommandantur and we were led into an orderly office which adjoined the Kommandant's office. We were allowed to sit. Here we could observe for the first time elements of the Wehrmacht hierarchy in action. In charge of the office was a Staps Veldwebel which rank if paralleled in step was equal to my own but in effect was more like that of a W.O.11. One of his clerks came in for what seemed to be a roasting for some minor dereliction of duty and stood smartly to attention with hands on buttocks interposing occasionally "Ja Herr Stapsveldwebel .... Nein Herr Stapsveldwebel .... Jawohl Herr Stapsveldwebel!"
Most of our escort had been dismissed but an Unter-Officier and two men had been retained to keep an eye on us. After a few minutes I demanded to go the toilet. I was taken along a short passage to the W.C. and allowed to close the door behind me. I hadn't really needed to go in the normal sense but I had realised that the pocket Dutch dictionary in my pocket had the name of Luitenant Schaap's son written on the flyleaf. I needed an opportunity to dispose of that.
We were in the orderly room for something like a couple of hours. One of the first arrivals was I believe the island commandant who breezed through the orderly room and into his office beyond. This seemed to be the signal for much to-ing and fro-ing, the first called being the Stapsveldwebel. Others came and went in succession. One of these was the Oberleutnant. On his second trip through the orderly room I stood up and addressed him. "Herr Oberleutnant ?" "Yes, Staff-Sergeant ?" "What has happened to that cup of coffee you spoke about?" "Yes, of course. Ein moment." Some minutes later we did in fact receive a cup of warm, black, ersatz coffee. For me the coffee was relatively unimportant though welcome. What mattered was that I had laid down a foundation for dealing with the Germans which seemed to bear out the efficacy of the biblical precept "Ask and thou shalt receive." I was to find this very useful on several later occasions. For a German it was probably synonymous with "Demand what you want." It was important not to be afraid to ask. The wisdom of asking lies in the receipt of an answer as an old army colleague once told me relative to his amorous conquests, "You'd be surprised how often they say yes!"
Wehrmacht personnel were not the only ones who progressed through the orderly room. On two occasions civilians were invited to scrutinise us through a half-open door. The first of these was by a young woman and the second by a rather tall man, in appearance more like a farmer than an office worker. I returned his stare; momentarily I thought that he was the man who had come around the corner on his bike and greeted me in Dutch while I had been following Cor. After some reflection I dismissed this as unlikely.
Eventually the commandant called for us to stand before him in turn. The Oberleutnant stood by him. As I recall, I just stood to attention and recited my number, rank, and name. This appeared to suffice (for the time being) and I was returned to the orderly room. There then followed something which I found rather strange. The warrant officer after hunting around produced a razor blade and proceeded to strip away not only the badges of rank from our smocks but also those and all other Divisional insignia from our battle dress. Some little while later we were escorted outside and brought into a house some distance away. Here we were kept under guard, sleeping on the floor.
We remained in the custody of those guards during the next two days. We were fed in much the same way as our custodians were. It seemed to be the custom for one of the guards to bring some hot food each evening, stew or broth, and with it he brought a ration of bread and wurst for the following day. The facilities were rather primitive consisting of a newly dug trench in the back garden.
On the midday after our capture there arrived suddenly in the house a Wehrmacht Veldwebel who questioned the corporal in charge about us. It was another demonstration of German rank - it was made obvious that a German sergeant was a fairly big wheel. The corporal (unter-officier) although by Hitler's orders to be saluted by private soldiers, was yammering and standing to attention for this pure-blooded Aryan, for so he appeared. It seemed as though he had some reservations about whatever it was he was being told about but uncertain as to his position and lacking in clout he could do no other than comply with the newcomer's wishes.
Apparently having heard that there were 'gevangenen' along the street he decided that they were to be placed at his disposal. He had just returned from some sort of patrol duties with his section and was about to take up residence in another house just along the street. Saying to us something about 'Arbeit' he then ordered us to 'Komen sie mit' and strode away. Our guards indicated to us that we should follow and he led us out to the street.
There stood a trek-cart stacked with gear and equipment and behind it was a tethered cow which was being milked by one of his men. Two or three others were unloading the baggage from the trek-cart and dumping it on the pavement. It was made clear to us that we were expected to act as porters and remove it into the house. This was not a course of action of which I was in favour. I had no reservations about the performance of menial tasks when necessary but to become a personal servant of this arrogant superman went against the grain.
The difficulty was that I was unsure of the outcome of open rebellion. I carried the first items of baggage up the stairs and dumped them on the floor in the room he indicated. He asked if I spoke German to which I replied "Nein!" He then asked, "Parlez-vous Francais?" to which I answered "Oui!". He then told me to go below for some more baggage. When this was done I was to "Machen le lit". I went below muttering as I went. Passing Phil on the stairs we exchanged comments which reflected on the parentage or lack of in Veldwebels.
Arriving at the bottom of the stairs I turned the wrong way to the back of the house still muttering. There in the kitchen was his personal milkmaid was scalding a large pan of milk on the gas stove. As I walked by I continued muttering to the effect that if he was a Veldwebel then I was a Stapsveldwebel. A few moments later his lordship came after me so that I could take some more of his luggage and "machen le lit". Continuing my muttering I went through the house, I indicated that I regularly passed Veldwebels through my fundamental orifice each morning. I did however take another piece of baggage up the stairs.
In my absence he had now put up a clothes line in his room and hanging from it were some freshly shot wild duck. This endeared me to him even less and I made it my business to distance myself from this bed he seemed keen on me making. Going down one flight of stairs I went in one of the rooms on the landing. A few moments later he came in pursuit. He had apparently received the message. "Je suis Veldwebel" he said, "et vous?" "Je suis Stapsveldwebel" I answered calmly. He then demanded to know where my badges of rank were. With some difficulty I explained that they had been cut off with a razor blade in the Kommandantur. "Et votre kamerad ?" he went on. "Aussi Veldwebel," said I. "Et votre andere kamerad ?" "Gefreiter," I replied. It was a pity but I couldn't hope to win them all. Phil and I were then excused fatigues as senior N.C.O.'s but Herman as a Gefreiter had to continue.
Later that day just after dark, we were taken out in the street again. Standing there was an open farm cart drawn by a horse. We climbed aboard accompanied by our guards. The corporal sat at the front next to the driver, also a German soldier. My recollections of the first part of the journey that followed are rather hazy and almost dreamlike. After reaching the end of the street and making a couple of turns we entered the town through an archway and turned again into the square. I have a vague recollection that I recognised some of this from my view out of the window on the 6th but I also had a very strong feeling that I must put this from my mind and not recognise anything about the middle of Zierikzee.
I was not so naive as to imagine that the cursory questioning in the Kommandantur would suffice. There was more to come for us. The Germans had caught us and hanged ten of our companions from the nights of the 6th and 7th. They now had us and though we did not yet know where we were going, we knew that between us we had information that they would want. Whatever happened we must take care not to betray anyone. No doubt it was such thoughts as these that make my memories of the departure from Zierikzee so dreamlike.
My reverie was disturbed by a change of sound. The clatter of horses hooves and the rattle of wheels on the cobbles were diminished and accompanied by the splashing and swishing of our progress along the road through shallow water. I recalled the night in mid-November when Phil and I had mounted the tower in Nieuwerkerk and listened to the sound of horses and carts in the distance. Then, we had thought that they were travelling from Zierikzee in the direction of Brouwershaven. Were we going in the same direction, I wondered. Before very long we would know.
The journey must have lasted about an hour when we entered the town. After twisting its way through some streets the cart came into an open square which led to the harbour. We stopped and got down from the cart. We were glad of the chance to move and stamping our feet helped to relieve some of the stiffness induced by the cold and the discomfort of the cart.
Surrounded by our guards, we were marched along the quay side at which were moored three or four small ships. Alongside one of these we halted while the corporal went into a building just back from the quay side. There seemed to be a fair amount of activity going on with people bustling about going hither and thither. Many of these were German soldiers who were on the deck of one of the ships. There were also three or four Wehrmacht officers who also went on board and appeared to occupy a small saloon. The corporal returned with a Veldwebel and there was some discussion with a naval officer who was wearing a duffel coat. He also went on board and after a few moments returned with one of the officers from the saloon.
There followed more discussion which deteriorated into a slanging match. As far as I could tell the argument centred around where we were to be accommodated. The officers refused to have us in the saloon with them and those responsible for us refused to have us on the deck. The impasse was finally resolved by the skipper who decided that we should travel below and not on the deck. After sending for one of his sailors he turned to me and said jovially "You are English, eh? Do you know Harvich? Before the war I am many times in Harvich!" After this the sailor arrived and we were led on board.
Going below we were taken to an enclosed hold which until then had held only an engine and the engineer. Now there were nine of us. The engine, a diesel, was chomping away steadily with some of its moving parts exposed to the care of the sailor whose tools appeared to be a large oil can and an oily rag. Connected to the engine was a linkage system and a long metal rod which travelled upwards diagonally and disappeared through what from our end was the ceiling and from the other end was probably the deck. The sailor was friendly and asked us in German where our homes were in England. Phil answered London and when I answered Manchester he led me to the other side of his engine to show me the nameplate which proclaimed "Crossley, Manchester."
Some few minutes later the engine burst into a louder and more rapid rhythm as the arm controlling it was operated from above. We were on our way. The voyage lasted for about half an hour. I don't think any of us enjoyed it. After getting under way, the engine steadied down for a while and then sprang into violent life again for about ten or fifteen seconds. This happened some seven or eight times, each time coinciding with the sound of the bottom of the ship scraping on the seabed. As a glider pilot, I had always admired, from afar, submariners without ever once wishing to share their experiences. Cooped up in this steel container with a smelly Crossley Diesel roaring away to maintain our forward progress was nearer (in my imagination) to submarine experience than I had ever wanted to be. Things quietened down again and after the ship had come to a standstill, we all went above and disembarked. To our surprise we had returned to Brouwershaven - apparently there had been the problem of poor visibility besides the lack of sufficient depth of water.
We disembarked with our escort and after standing around on the quay side while arrangements were made, we were taken along an alleyway to a building which appeared to be a small school. Here we remained overnight and most of the following morning. Then we returned to the quay side and were taken into the building alongside the quay in which there were a couple of Wehrmacht clerks who seemed to be in charge of travel arrangements. We sat around waiting for several hours. At first I wondered if the Germans were reluctant to operate their ships for fear of air attacks but this was not the case. It was largely a matter of tides and visibility - it was very misty.
During this period of waiting we were subjected to frequent doses of "For you the war is over" as various members of the Wehrmacht entered and left. Accompanying this was also the question "Who will win the war?" Whenever we answered this question our answer was usually discounted by the questioner with the remarks "Deutschland der Krieg winnen! Neue waffen! Vouw Eins, Vouw Zweil" On one occasion to support this opinion we were shown a German Army colour magazine with articles and illustrations of how the Vl and V2 were helping Germany to win the war. One of the transport clerks tried to demoralise us by giving the figures (German) for the Airborne Divisions casualties at Arnhem. His colleague claimed to have seen us in the streets of Nieuwerkerk during September. We didn't place much credence in this though it was possible that the search of Nieuwerkerk could have followed an observation of our activities the previous day.
In the middle of the afternoon we went out once more to the quay side and boarded the small ship once again. This time there was no confrontation or argument about us. We travelled on deck with our guards and perhaps forty or so soldiers who either were going on leave or being posted. There was still some mist about and there seemed to be some repetition of the previous night's problems. Ours was not the only ship in the sea way. At one stage we hove-to within hailing distance of a small armed vessel - possibly a corvette. There was quite a lot of shouting and it seemed as though they were having difficulty in making their way from one marker buoy to the next. Eventually we arrived in the harbour at Ouddorp on the island Goeree-Overflakkee. From here we walked from the harbour until we reached the tram terminus. Next to this was a cafe and our guards took us in there. Near the counter at one corner there burned a combustion stove.
The better to keep an eye on us we were directed to sit between this and the counter with our guards on the other side of the stove. They decided to have a cup of coffee and though we had no share in this it was quite pleasant to be warm. Behind the counter was the proprietor and a young woman in her late teens. She appeared to take great interest in us; when she looked in our direction she winked frequently and when she had her back to us she went about her tasks whistling "Roll out the barrel." When she was certain that we were both on the same wavelength she appeared to be waiting for an opportune moment. When this presented itself she passed a small parcel over the counter unnoticed by all except Phil. I slipped it into the top of my smock and acknowledged its receipt with a wink and a smile. "What you got there then Blackie?" muttered Phil quietly. "No idea," I replied. "We'll see later."
Some little while later we went outside and boarded the tram which was to take us to Middelharnis. By the time we arrived there, it was dark and we stood for some time in the entrance to the tram station. After a while a car pulled up outside from which stepped two soldiers. There was a brief exchange which resulted in Herman being taken to the car with a new escort. It disappeared into the darkness and returned about fifteen minutes later this time to remove Phil.
The guards who had accompanied us from Zierikzee were making preparations to return. One of them went to the ticket office to enquire what time the next tram back to Ouddorp was due. Soon the car returned once again and I too was whisked away sitting on the back seat between two armed guards. For me this was quite strange, I was not used to travelling on the right hand side of the road, especially at night. Going round corners in the dark on what to me was the wrong side was somewhat unnerving. There was also the effect of not knowing what was to come. Where had Phil and Herman been taken? Was I soon to be reunited with them? What was in store for us? I had the feeling that we would soon know. Just before the journey ended the car followed a street which ran in a circular direction as though along a crescent.
When it stopped it appeared to be under a sort of archway to a building. I was taken up some steps to the entrance and then down some steps along a passage. The passage was shaped like a short L in each arm of which was a cell door. I was in a building which was either a police station or a courthouse. The guards opened the door to one of the cells and pushed me in. From the darkness of the cell there came the quiet whispered question - "That you then Blackie?" "Phil," I whispered in reply, "Is Herman here, too?" "Yes, Sarge," came the reply, "I'm here."
The cell was dark and though there was a barred window it let in very little of the light outside. In any case there were no street lights just a cloudy sky above. For a time we sat on the floor talking quietly about where we were and what we thought was likely to happen. I remembered the gift from the girl in the cafe and took it from inside my smock. As I had surmised it was food wrapped in kitchen paper. It had been hurriedly prepared and consisted of a substantial chunk of bread and a smaller chunk of a sticky substance which on investigation proved to be an artificial kind of honey. We shared this as well as we could. Phil and I still had possession of our jack knives which we had used for cutting bread and sausage. It proved to be very enjoyable if somewhat sticky.
There was little in the way of comfort in the cell. There was a low wooden bunk along one wall and though we took it in turns to stretch out it was no more comfortable than the floor. Set in one of the other walls was a door which opened into a built-in closet which was rather smelly.
Early the next morning we were taken from the cell and given chairs to sit on at the end of a passage or small anteroom. From here we were taken one by one to be questioned by our captors in different rooms. Sometimes only two of us were away at the same time; sometimes one would return to find that there was already someone sat there only to be removed again for more questioning. The next session of questions were usually in different surroundings and from a different interrogator than on the previous occasion.
Anyone who has served in the forces during wartime is usually well aware of intelligence briefings which instruct the serviceman that in the event of capture he is only required to give to the enemy his number, rank, and name. In fact he is cautioned against ever giving any information other than this as the results of any small and apparently harmless pieces of information can be collated by the enemy and the aggregate could produce vital intelligence. My first two or three interviews were a repetition of my number, rank, and name given in response to the statement that as a prisoner I was required to identify myself. After this response I was told that this was insufficient to which I replied that it was all that I was permitted to say.
My main interrogator was an Oberleutnant who wore the insignia of the Afrika Korps across his sleeve. At the third session he took from his file an envelope which he emptied on the desk in front of me. The contents consisted of my stripes and crowns, airborne flashes, pegasus badges and my pilots wings. He asked me if these were mine and I remember replying that if they were the ones that had been removed from my uniform, then they did indeed belong to me. He asked me to show him from which part of my uniform they had been removed. This I declined to do. He then reiterated the need for me to identify myself to which I replied that I had already done so by giving my number, rank, and name.
After several more thrusts and parries he changed his tack. "If you are what you appear to be," he said, "then you are a member of the British Airborne Division which fought bravely but was defeated at Arnhem. There were at Arnhem many Dutchmen who took up arms and attacked the German Army. These are not proper soldiers but terrorists. When the battle was over many of these Dutchmen tried to escape and some of them took uniforms from the British dead in order to avoid being punished for their crimes. How do we know that you are not one of these? You must prove to us that you are who you say you are before we can treat you as a prisoner of war." I told him once again that I was 884545 Staff Sergeant Black. B.
His next ploy came a little nearer to the nub of the matter. "You must realise Staff Sergeant that the circumstances under which you were captured were extremely delicate." Internally I might have agreed with him but I was certainly not going to admit it. I believe I told him that I realised nothing of the sort. He went on again - "last week we captured ten Dutch civilians after they had fired on German soldiers. Before they were hanged for sabotage they told us that they were trying to escape and that you were with them." I told him that I didn't think it mattered who had said what or whether there was any truth in it or not. I was a British soldier, my duty had lain in avoiding being taken prisoner but now that I was a prisoner my only duty was to give my number, rank, and name.
He went on to give me a lecture about the ethics and rules of war and the difference between terrorists and professional soldiers. He further went on to suggest that since we appeared to have been on Schouwen since September we must have had help from these so called resistance people. I continued to resist his arguments and reiterated that we had only persisted in trying to avoid capture. He wanted to know who had hidden us and who had given us food. I told him that there were enough empty houses on Schouwen for us to obtain the food and shelter that we required. I think at this stage I was turned over to his colleague. It may have been thought now that since had actually departed from my number rank and name to at least deny any knowledge of what they were talking about that I was going to open up.
The new interrogator began by offering me a seat and a cigarette, both of which I accepted. He went on to make similar suggestions to those I have referred to above and sought my co-operation in confirming what he suggested. I continued to deny any knowledge of what he was talking about and only admitted hiding in empty houses. With this chap it seemed to me that if he thought I was co-operating he offered me another cigarette but if he thought that I was not he opened the packet and after taking one for himself, ostentatiously left the open packet pointing in my direction without offering me one.
Things continued in this way for some considerable time with movements between rooms and interrogators and occasional returns to the waiting area. At every moment we were all three either collectively or individually under close guard and had no opportunity to exchange more than the movement of an eyebrow. The day wore on and the battle of wits continued.
I felt at this stage that I was just about holding my own and could only hope that Phil and Herman were doing likewise. There was very little respite for any of us. Our opponents had a team and could interchange, confer and take a break. We could only do our best and hope that we would give nothing away. If once we did give the impression that there was something to be found out then no doubt we were in serious trouble for I was certain that they would go to any lengths to discover such information. I was also aware that this was the biggest danger in departing from the number, rank, and name routine. Once you have said one word more than this you have to continue to the satisfaction of your questioners.
It is difficult to be certain after such a lapse of time how long this pattern of probing continued. At one time we were returned to our waiting area and given a plate of stew. Later I was taken to one of the rooms that I had not been in before. Seated in front of a large table was Herman. On the table at each side were two bright lamps which shone directly into his face. Opposite him behind the desk were his inquisitors. There was another Wehrmacht officer who I had not previously seen. This one appeared to be Herman's principal questioner. Seated alongside him were two other men in dark suits. Also in the room were two soldiers standing next to Herman and of course two more guards who had just brought me in. I was given a seat behind him. Then followed a short question and answer session in which Herman was admitting that we had been in Zierikzee, that we had been on the dijk, that he had been taken there by van de Beek and that after the shooting we had escaped. After this Herman was removed and the questioning was directed at me. Why had I lied? Did I want to be treated as a terrorist? I must tell the truth if I wanted to be treated as a prisoner of war.
My questioners then referred to what I had heard Herman telling them. The details of what he had told them were a cock and bull yarn and now I was expected to corroborate his story without having heard it in its entirety. We were up the creek without a paddle. All three of us. If we now refused to tell them enough to satisfy them, they would know that we had something to hide and the pressure would no doubt increase. This would be particularly so for Herman; he had family members living in Coevorden in the province of Drente. They had already referred to him in their questions to me in a manner which suggested that they had already challenged the legality (in their eyes) of a Dutchman in British uniform. They had to be convinced that they knew it all; that they had caught everyone concerned; that we neither knew anything nor anyone not already known to them. In this there were two things in our favour.
It would be comparatively easy for Phil and me to maintain our ignorance of the language and the surroundings from which it was our duty to escape with whatever assistance was given to us. Although this would not apply in the same way to Herman, the one circumstance which favoured the acceptance of our story was the execution of van de Beek. Joost had told us that he was one of those who had been caught and hanged. Herman had indeed stayed in van de Beek's company from the morning of the 6th until the evening of the 7th while we had been in the care of the Ringelbergs and the company of Jork Mikkenian.
In the sessions which followed I admitted that I had been on the dijk waiting for a British boat to take us off when we had been discovered by a German patrol. We had met up with the others in the dark. I did not speak Dutch. No I wouldn't recognise anyone. I didn't know where I had been. I had been taken in the dark and collected in the dark from the empty houses we had stayed in. Yes Phil and I had been together while de Leeuw had been with someone else. Yes there was someone who had worn a uniform. It took much longer than it takes now to write about it. I cannot be absolutely certain of all that was asked or answered but that was about the gist of it. I presumed and hoped that Phil was following a similar line of thought.
The questioning ended and we were returned to our cell. When the door closed behind us and the footsteps receded I immediately started on Herman. "Herman, just what the hell have you been telling them?" In fierce urgent whispers we compared notes on what we had been asked and what we had admitted. During the next hour or so we discussed the direction that future questioning might take. Where lay the danger? At what stage might we have to say "I don't know!" and not be believed. Would we have to say "I'm not going to tell you!" and suffer the consequences. Had we between us managed to satisfy our captors that we had no information that they wanted? Only the future would show.
The following morning was rather different than the previous one had been. There was daylight coming in through the barred window and the sounds of Middelharnis. The most noticeable was close at hand. A civilian standing on the pavement outside was whistling and then he began to sing quietly the same tune. It was the chorus of a popular cowboy song. "Oh-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy, yi-yi-yi, oh-a-ti-yi-yippy, yippy ya." He then moved away somewhat before returning to treat us to another couple of choruses punctuated by a verse. I think it was meant specifically for us rather like the girl's "Roll out the barrel" in the cafe at Ouddorp. It was, to my mind, a symbol of both sympathy and support - that someone out there was thinking of someone inside and although the anonymous whistler was unable to offer anything more substantial it was a small boost to our morale.
There were other sounds too within the building. Heavy footsteps in the passage outside the cell. The peephole in the cell door was opened and through it I could see one of the guards peering in and then going to the door of the other cell to open it. There then appeared two other figures in German army uniform whose hands were bound behind their back with rubber covered wire. They were accompanied by another guard and pushed roughly into the cell and locked in. The first guard returned to our cell and closed the peephole. The brief glimpse of these two unfortunates had shown me that they were rather swarthy in appearance as had been Jork. Undoubtedly they were Armenian and probably they were in custody for desertion. We wondered if Jork had been among those captured and hanged on Schouwen or whether he was still at large.
Later in the morning the cell door opened again and this time the guard knew who he was looking for. Pointing to me he said, "Kom" and led me away while his colleague locked the door again. Taking me up some steps he brought me into a large room at the top of the building. Waiting there for me was the Afrika Korps Oberleutnant. "Good morning Staff Sergeant" he said cheerfully, "I have some good news for you! We are now satisfied that you have identified yourselves. When I make my report I will recommend that you will be treated as prisoners of war. You will probably be moved from here tomorrow and sent on to a proper camp." I thanked him politely for telling me and began to move with him towards the door where the guard was waiting. "Oh, there's just one more thing.." he went on and my heart sank ".... what did you do with the motor cycles?" "Which motor cycles are you talking about?" I asked. "De Leeuw said that you had two motor cycles in the glider when you landed," he replied. I then asked him if any trace of motor cycles had been reported by those Germans who had first come to the abandoned glider. As he paused thoughtfully I went on, "Perhaps De Leeuw is mistaken, after all he was not the pilot. He didn't sign the loading manifest." This seemed to satisfy him and he signalled to the guard that I should be returned to my cell.
As I left him my heart rose with cautious optimism. According to what he had said the interrogation was over for the moment and they appeared to be satisfied. Perhaps the worst was over but we would have to be careful. When I was back once more in the cell, Phil and Herman were still there. It had crossed my mind that they too might have been taken out for some "afterthought" question but it was not so. Naturally they were curious to know what had happened to me. Very quietly I told them what had gone on and what I had been told about our future. They too were very pleased but I went on to advise caution referring again to the previous night when we had tried to forecast future questions. Maybe we were out of the wood but we must be on our guard for possible traps.
The rest of that day continued without incident as far as we were concerned. We were given food and left undisturbed. It began to look as though what I had been told about the Germans being satisfied with the information they had, might turn out to be genuine. Nevertheless nagging doubts continued in the background. Were they finished with us or was it only for the time being while they thought out more questions? What was happening now on Schouwen? Had we given anything away that could jeopardise the safety of those with whom we had been in contact? As things were at that moment, there was little we could do to control the situation apart from caution and vigilance.
We were aroused early by the guards and taken outside while it was still dark. There we were put on to a lorry, about the size of a three tonner. They had also a couple of horses with which they towed it up and down the street in order to start it. It ran on gas that was produced by a stove that burned logs. The stove was situated just behind the driver's cab and the spare logs were stored in sacks at the back occupying quite a lot of space. Eventually when the engine seemed to be running to the satisfaction of the driver, the horses were dismissed and the lorry proceeded on its way. It did not have far to go. Only as far as the harbour which lay a couple of streets away. We went on board what was more or less a standard type ferry such as might ply between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Our escort took us into the saloon and we sat around a table to await the departure. Just before it left the harbour, the Afrika-Korps Oberleutnant came on the scene. He came over and exchanged a few words with the guards and then he invited me to cross the saloon with him and to sit at the table where he was the sole occupant. I thought at first that he was just being sociable in order to lull me into disclosing some snippets of intelligence and I was naturally guarded throughout our conversation.
He started by offering me a cigarette as I sat down. I accepted this only with the proviso that I could have two more for my comrades. He agreed to this and no sooner had I sat down than I was up again and walking across the saloon to the surprise of the guards and the pleasure of Phil and Herman, the unexpected recipients. I then returned to the Oberleutnant, thanked him once again for the cigarettes and sat down again. He spoke at some length of the battles in the western desert at times waxing lyrical. It was his opinion that modern wars should always be fought in such places since the opposing forces could engage each other and decide the issues honourably without inflicting casualties on innocent victims. He likened the contests between the armies to the meetings of knights of old in tournaments. It was altogether rather idealistic and perhaps he was rather self-indulgent with his reminiscences.
It must be remembered however that he did have a captive audience since at this stage I did little except listen. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked him if he had learned his English in the U.S.A. since he spoke with an American accent. He told me that he had learned his English in Germany but that he had spent a couple of years in the states. During this time he had spent several months "hoboing" around. He described this as the only way to get to know the country. I remember also that he expressed surprise that "you British are the allies of the Russians." Not to be outdone, I expressed the surprise of the British that "you Germans are the allies of the Japanese." He took this debating point in good part. By this time it seemed as if the voyage was nearly over. He gave me three more cigarettes. I thanked him again and returned once again to the others.
Before long we had arrived at what I think was Helvoetsluis. There appeared to be several small ships of the German Navy and as we left the harbour area we saw many sailors. From here we went to Briel where we were taken to an army headquarters and after some delay we were brought in front of a German Wehrmacht Colonel. In turn we were questioned by the Colonel who was advised by one who appeared to be a Hauptman in the Luftwaffe. Neither of these spoke English and so every question was delivered by a private soldier who spoke with an impeccable Oxford accent.
I was the last to be taken in and questioned. It was pure farce. The Herr Oberst was a dead ringer for Eric van Stroheim. Had it really been him, the Hollywood director would have given him a short scene in which he had studied the report of the Afrika-Korps officer. He would then have proclaimed "Ach! If there is anything more to find out about these terrorists, I am the man to do it."
In reality there was need to take care and go through the formalities. He delivered each question with considerable force and accompanied by banging on the table in front of him. By the time it had been translated and expressed in more gentle than bullying tones, something had been lost. "Unless you tell us all you know about these terrorists, we'll have to hang you!" .... "What have you done with the secret radio?" .... "We know you were splashing in the sea to signal to the boat!"
Really it was quite laughable but of course I daren't show it. Instead, I replied politely that I didn't know what he was talking about. The Hauptman leaned over and whispered in the Colonel's ear. Then I was questioned about Vl's and V2's. They wanted to know how much damage was being done to London. I again expressed my ignorance of what they spoke about. The interview did not last long. We were removed and continued on our way.
Later that day in the early evening the lorry noisily made its way through the Maas tunnel and into Rotterdam and thence to Schiedam. Here we were billeted for the night in a school. One of the prominent administrators here was a bearded Unter-Officier who had been stationed in Paris and took great pains to show us how well he could speak French. Phil and I turned this to great advantage by talking him into giving us back our watches which had been handed in to his office for safe keeping with whatever documents were accompanying us. He went into the office and returned with the two wrist watches.
I believe our stay in Schiedam was limited to one night and the following morning found us seated with our captors outside a Wehrmacht canteen which overlooked the river Maas. Some distance along the road, the driver was trying to start the lorry which had brought us from Middelharnis. Clouds of smoke poured from the stove behind his cab and it needed several runs on tow, up and down the road, before the engine was working satisfactorily.
Meanwhile as we sat there a German woman came to clear the table. She spoke to the guards about us. Then addressing us she asked, "You are English?" When Phil and I nodded she went on, "They should shoot you - you make my sister's house break!" Seeing Herman shake his head and hearing him say that he was Dutch, her verdict on him was that he deserved to be hanged, though she gave no reason for this.
Before long we were on our way again on a journey that brought us to a small transit camp consisting of perhaps half a dozen connected wooden huts just outside the town of Woerden. Here we were locked in a barrack room which had tiered wooden bunks on both sides of the room; in the middle stood a table and benches. At one end there was a barred window which looked out on an outside world whose nearest representative was a guard permanently on duty. The other end of the room contained the door to the corridor. At the side of the door at head height was an observation window about a foot square. Also at this end of the room was a combustion stove.
Some seven or eight prisoners were already in residence, British Army from various units. Only one of these remains as a clear memory; he was one of the Arnhem survivors who was nursing a badly wounded elbow. He had had some medical attention but in the main he appeared to be responsible for attending to his needs with whatever assistance he could obtain. He told me the Germans were short of medical supplies and that their own troops were given priority. The crepe paper bandages which covered his wound seemed to support this statement.
It did not take Herman long to discover that the next room held some Dutch prisoners. It was possible to talk to them through a small hole in the wall. We were to see them each day as we were taken outside the huts for exercise although on these occasions there was little opportunity for conversation. This was because the two groups had to walk on opposite sides and in opposite directions along the roadway that ran along the outside of the huts. I think two of these were wearing their 1940 uniforms but the rest were in civilian clothes.
On some days the two groups were taken out for exercise separately and on other days there was no exercise at all. Sometimes the exercise period was interrupted by the appearance of a couple of Typhoons or Tempests in the sky not very far away. Whenever they arrived on the scene our exercise was either curtailed or cancelled. There was never any air raid warning and the Typhoons never did anything more than weave lazy patterns in the sky above only to be replaced later by two more. We deduced that they were on the lookout for launching sites for the V2 rockets. Certainly no rockets were ever launched while they were overhead. Our deductions seemed to be confirmed on the day that we left the camp when a couple of miles along the road, the early morning mist was disturbed by the launching of a rocket just a couple of miles away.
In the main we were treated quite well at Woerden. The guards were mostly middle aged and in a couple of cases behaved quite generously towards their prisoners. One, an Austrian, appeared regularly every morning and brought in some tobacco and cigarette papers which we shared. Another surprised me on one occasion by giving me the eye through the observation window as he walked up and down the corridor. After he had done this two or three times I decided to find out what he had in mind.
It was Christmas day and I was fairly certain that his only motive was one of goodwill. I banged on the door shouting out that I needed to go to the toilet. He let me out and escorted me to the ablution room along the corridor. There he gave me a packet with four or five cigarettes in it which I gratefully accepted. He also told me that he had a loaf for me but that I would have to wait until the next time he came on duty in four hours time. After being returned to the barrack room we shared the cigarettes and later in the day I went to the toilet when he came on duty and he came across with the extra bread.
We spent about a week at Woerden from about the 20th to 27th December. I have two other pleasant recollections of our stay there, both concerned with food - in my opinion the primary preoccupation of most prisoners of war. The other main preoccupation was not as many people may suppose, but was in fact news. The first of these pleasant memories concerned Christmas Day itself. The Germans allowed a couple of Dutch Red Cross members to come into the camp and give us a Christmas dinner of turkey and hot vegetables. It was a memorable occasion probably because it was unexpected. The other occasion preceded this by a couple of days. It was the custom for one of the prisoners to go to the kitchen at mealtimes to bring back whatever ration of bread was available and also some tea (usually made from sea weed) or black coffee (also ersatz made from acorns). On this evening as I went to the kitchen, the cook was very angry since he was being reviled by his comrades for burning the porridge. Apparently none of them were going to eat it and it was to be thrown away. With my limited German vocabulary I insisted that the food must not be thrown away; that the prisoners were not having enough food to eat and that we would eat the porridge, burnt or not. The cook himself was in no mood to listen to what I had to say but eventually my persuasion prevailed and I returned to the others in triumph carrying a large urn full of burnt porridge. We not only devoured it but we even scraped and ate the bottom half inch which was really burnt.
Two other memories remain of this short period at Woerden. They were not unconnected by the weather which was very cold. My guard of the extra bread showed me a newspaper which was full of German success in the Battle of the Bulge and the map printed on the front page looked quite ominous. It gave him little pleasure as I think he was looking forward to the end of the war, in our favour rather than his. The other incident was to look out of the window and watch the locals trying to celebrate their holiday period, skating along the canal which was not very far away. It was in marked contrast to the view as we travelled through the devastated areas of Rotterdam a few days before. The main impression had been one of misery. There had been many people searching in the ruins for anything that could be used as fuel. Others who were either on their way to work or home rode bicycles which had no tyres. In place of these they used a number of pieces of wood strung together in the manner of a necklace around the rim. As they rode along they were accompanied by a noisy clatter. All looked cold and underfed. Here not many miles away, those we saw had brought out their skates and since they were not at such close quarters gave an impression of invigorating pleasure. Had they been clad differently, the scene they presented might have come from a seventeenth century winter landscape by Avercamp.
Our Journey from Woerden started in the early morning when we had seen the launching of the V2 rocket referred to in the last chapter. Some of the other occupants of our barrack room were to be in transit though we had no idea for how long we would all be together or for how long we would be travelling. Though none of our captors had given any indication the apparent generosity of the rations we were given suggested that it might be for more than one day.
We travelled in what was more or less a northerly direction and at one point in the journey came into the town of Amersfoort. We passed very close to what was obviously a concentration camp. Behind the wire were shaven-headed prisoners whose striped garb was adorned with the Star of David. Not far away was a large barracks and here we took on several sacks of sawn wood for the gas producer. We continued on our way at no great speed and in the early evening the lorry pulled into the forecourt of what appeared to be a cinema. Here we were taken to the rear of the building and remained there all through the night in a large kitchen seated on wooden chairs around the room in the centre of which was a large wooden table. I had persuaded all the others to eat all the rations that we had been given. Some of them were at first reluctant wondering what they would do for the morrow. I pointed out that it was the duty of the Germans to feed us and that if we had no food left they would have to provide more.
In charge of this establishment was a Wehrmacht Veldwebel who greeted us in English on our arrival and from time to time looked in on us in the room where we sat with our guards. He was rather a 'hail fellow well met' type of character having been an 'homme de confidence' in a small P.O.W. camp. When he discovered that I was a senior N.C.O. he went out of his way to be friendly. Somewhat idealistic he was in favour of cease fires on Christmas Day with football matches between the opposing forces. He admired the English, was not too happy about the Canadians, and detested the Poles.
During one of his absences I made my first overtures to the guards for a re-supply of rations pointing out that on other occasions at the end of the day the guards had been responsible for collecting the prisoners' rations from the canteen. The Unter-Officier was having none of this and my fellow prisoners seeing what was going on began to have a somewhat lower opinion of me than hitherto. I didn't pursue the topic but waited for the return of the Veldwebel.
While he was talking to Phil I started on the Unter-Officier with my limited German of "mussens, habens, brengens, essens, gehens and so forth. The opening gambit being "Wir mussen essen haben!" When I was well into my stride with the Unter-Officier persisting that we had been given rations for two days and my equal persistence that we knew nothing of this, the Veldwebel decide to intervene. "What seems to be the trouble Staff-Sergeant?" he asked. When I had explained my side he questioned the German corporal who was obviously maintaining his position. Then turning to me he told me that we had been given enough food for two days. Smilingly I replied that if this indeed was the case, there had been little enough of it and that more to the point no-one had bothered to tell us where we were going nor for how long we would be on the road. He then apologised for the situation and said that he would see what he could do. There the matter rested and the night wore on with most of us dozing fitfully and uncomfortably on the wooden chairs.
When dawn came and preparations were made for us to continue our journey, my stock in the opinion polls was fairly low since there was no sign of any food coming and there was in prospect a day of foodless travelling. We boarded the lorry and it chugged its way from the forecourt and into the roadway. As it did so, there appeared from the opposite direction some fifty yards away, the Veldwebel accompanied by a Dutch workman carrying a small sack. They were running in our direction, the Veldwebel in the lead calling out as he ran, "Halt! Ein moment!" We banged on the side of the lorry and shouted out. The lorry stopped; the Veldwebel arrived breathlessly and taking the sack from the Dutchman handed it to me. In contained three loaves. My stock rose again in the opinion polls.
Later that day we were to say farewell to Herman and the others who were to continue together into Germany. Phil and I were delivered to a large mill or warehouse in the town of Enschede. This was a transit camp for Air Force prisoners and was staffed by Luftwaffe personnel. There were four other prisoners besides Phil and me. Three were fellow members of an American Fortress crew, shot down on their first mission. Two of them were air gunners called Tex and Shorty and the third, whose name I forget, was the pilot who I recall came from New York. The other was a Spitfire pilot from a Norwegian squadron of the R.A.F.
During the day we were kept in the office of what would have been the gate house to the factory and at night we were taken up to the first floor of the factory and locked up for the night with a toilet bucket in a fairly large galvanised iron cage. We spent a couple of days here, one of which was New Year's Eve. On this occasion we were visited socially by two or three Luftwaffe officers who had brought with them a bottle of Schnapps with which we all drank to the New Year. They were Focke-Wulf 190 pilots from the nearby airfield. This brief incident was an indication of a certain degree of comradeship between members of similar branches of opposing forces. By this I mean that Vliegers of the Luftwaffe had an affinity with the Fliers of the R.A.F. and similarly members of the Wehrmacht with the Army. Phil and I were fortunate to have a foot in each camp; to the Luftwaffe we were Vliegers and to the Wehrmacht we were Soldaten.
When the next day we were to leave Enschede, we were interviewed by one of our captors. He warned us that we were to be taken into Germany and that we would have to change trains in German cities which had been heavily bombed by the Allied Air Forces. His admonition was to the effect that the ordinary German civilian who may have suffered from the bombing was unlikely to show the same understanding as the Luftwaffe and that we would be well advised not to draw attention to ourselves. This may well have been delivered as a means of making it easier for our guards but there was some force of logic in his argument when he concluded with the words:- "After all, you can hardly expect the guards to defend you against their own people, but they will do their best."
Late in the afternoon of the 2nd January we left Holland and entered Germany. The warehouse in which we were held must have been at the eastern end of Enschede for after walking with our escorts through the rest of the industrial area and the railway sidings we came to the border. Soon after crossing the border we arrived at the railway station for the German town of Gronau. Here we were taken into the waiting room the walls of which were adorned with anti-Semitic propaganda in the form of a couple of coloured posters. Each of these portrayed a Jew as an almost obscene figure in league with American and British capitalism. The slogans which accompanied these illustrations were designed to leave no doubts in the German mind that Jewry was responsible for all the troubles of the world.
The first train on which we travelled took us to Munster which we reached after dark. Here we changed trains for Essen where another change of train took us to Dusseldorf. This time after some delay, what was obviously a main line express arrived. It was drawn by a monster of a locomotive and included flak cars at each end of its passenger coaches. The train was very crowded and there were many servicemen among the passengers. Mostly the compartments were occupied by officers and in one I saw a passenger wearing the uniform of a Nazi Party Official. The train thundered on into the night stopping I think at Cologne and Coblenz. When dawn came we were still rushing alongside what was quite obviously the Rhine. We alighted, I think, at what was Mainz, from where we took a local train in the direction of Frankfurt.
As we left this train it began to snow and we walked some distance before arriving at a tram shelter for the last part of our journey. While we waited for the tram we watched a small boy playing in the snow nearby. He was probably about nine years old but I think he was not unused to the sight of prisoners under escort. He returned our glances by sticking out his tongue in our direction. From the tram there was only a short walk to what was our present destination. This was Dulag-Luft, Oberursel, well known to allied airmen who were taken prisoner; the Luftwaffe's interrogation centre for air crew.
Our escorts handed us over and our reception began with a highly organised processing. It started with a welcome hot shower and at the same time our clothes were taken away for cleaning and searching. When they returned two trouser buttons were missing. These were designed to be used as a magnetic compass and it was obvious that the Luftwaffe knew how to recognise them. Before we dressed again, we too were searched. This included a cursory inspection of the anus. Then we were photographed, finger printed, and questioned as to personal details. At the conclusion of this, one of the staff with a somewhat bizarre sense of humour gave me a slip of paper with a number written on it and said, "Go along the corridor and give this to one of the guards who will show you to your room."
My room of course was a solitary cell. Just before the guard locked me in, I turned to him and tried my accustomed plea for food. His reply was to the effect that I would not have long to wait for some first class food. ("Eine stunde prima essen!") Another humorist! In I went, the door was locked and I sat on the bed to take stock of my new surroundings. It was a hard bed on which lay a palliasse containing a very small quantity of straw, and also a blanket. The window looked out over a snow covered open area. Also in view were other wooden buildings which I think were part of the administration block. Beneath the window was an electric heater with elements enclosed in a rectangular metal case. There were two notices on the wall, one on each side of the door. The first of these threatened severe punishment for anyone guilty of defacing the walls. That was a laugh; the walls were full of five barred gates which previous occupants had scratched there to record their length of stay. The other was beneath a small turnable knob. Its message read:- "If you wish to attract the attention of the guard, turn the knob." I did so and a red indicator arm outside fell from where it had been secured and now was at ninety degrees to the corridor wall. The guard who was pacing up and down the corridor continued to do so. It was more than half an hour before he responded. I asked to go to the toilet and was led along the corridor to the ablution room. There were no other prisoners even though the amenities would have served for perhaps ten or so. Perhaps the reason why the guards did not respond rapidly to the prisoner's request for attention was due to a policy of not allowing more than one at a time to leave his cell.
Phil and I were fortunate in that our stay at Dulag-Luft only lasted three and a half days. The information scratched on the walls indicated that many earlier inmates had been confined for considerably longer periods. However on that first afternoon we had no idea how long we were to remain. After a while there was a considerable amount of noise in the corridor outside - the "Prima Essen" was on its way. When it arrived, it was served from a trolley which trundled from cell to cell. It consisted of a soup plate of hot, discoloured, watery, liquid on the surface of which floated a few iridescent stars indicating that there had been some contact with grease or fat. Also floating in the liquid were perhaps two or three pieces of greenery which resembled short grass stalks. Accompanying this were two thin slices of dry, black , bread. I was given a spoon by the guard who seeing my airborne smock asked if I was a parachutist. "Sint sie vallschirmjaeger?"
If my recollections are correct, we were fed twice a day. In the morning with two slices of bread and some black coffee and in the evening with a plate of soup and two slices. On the first occasion when they served me with coffee, I had to keep my foot in the door to prevent the guard from shutting me in before someone had provided a receptacle to drink from.
After breakfast the next morning, the cell door suddenly opened and one of the staff strode in and searched the cell. I wondered what he was looking for and when he left I also searched it. My search was more thorough than his and revealed a thick, broken, piece of mirror concealed in the palliasse. I had slept on it all night. Soon after this the silence of the corridor was disturbed by the occasional shouting out of cell numbers being relayed to the nearest guards who would then remove the prisoners occupying those cells and take them to the administration block for interrogation. I'm sure I wasn't the only inmate who started to listen for the sound of his cell number being called.
It was the beginning of January and very cold. I found that the best way to keep warm was to put my airborne smock on over my lower limbs and sit with the blanket round my shoulders. This worked especially well when the heater was switched on. On occasions when it was switched off it was possible to restore it by going to the toilet and then going back to the cell when the guard was some distance along the corridor, hoping that he would not observe that you had slyly switched it on. Sometimes this ploy worked at least for a while until the guard or his replacement spotted what had taken place.
My number came up sooner than I had anticipated and on the second morning I was taken to be questioned. I was shown into an office and told to sit down. The interview was very short. The Luftwaffe officer seated behind the desk opened a file which a female secretary brought in for him. Flicking through the pages he eventually stopped and made a great show of humming and hawing and saying "Ah yes! 'D' Squadron, Keevil .... Captain Ogilvie .... here we are, Captain Muir 22 Flight .... Staff-Sergeant Black, Sgt Hudson." He ran through his lists and muttered names. His only interest was to impress me. I was not asked a single question. He even went on to tell me that I might be interested to know that 'D' Squadron was now no longer at Keevil. "They have moved." he said. "They are now at Weathersfield in Essex." I had no idea whether he was telling the truth, guessing, or just trying to provoke me into a reaction. He was wasting his time really though I did respond with "Oh, are they?" That was it. I was returned to my cell.
The next morning I was removed from my cell again and taken to another part of the building. This proved to be a collection point for a number of prisoners who were being transferred. We travelled by passenger train and locked in compartments with a couple of guards in each. Our destination proved to be a transit camp at Wetzlar famous for Leitz cameras. Within sight of our camp were drag-lines and buckets but I don't know whether it was coal or ore that was being mined.
From here we were able to write a postcard which had a space for number rank and name, and then a selection of printed messages which could be deleted or left as required. Here also was evidence of Red Cross supplies, the food was suddenly better, there were cigarettes; we were given toilet requisites and I was able to replace my boots the seams of which were rotting from the salt water.
However our travels were not yet over. A couple of days later we were part of a large consignment of air crew prisoners destined for Stalag-Luft One. This time there was to be no changing of trains. The train was a goods special. Each wagon or boxcar held forty prisoners who were restricted to two thirds of the space. The other third was occupied by eight guards who took it in turns to keep an eye on us. It was going to be a long journey - we had each been given a Canadian Red Cross parcel and the guards had a supply of drinking water at their end of the wagon. Our journey took us north to Hanover, east to Berlin, and then north again to the Baltic coast at Barth, in Pomerania. This camp was to be our home until the liberation.
The journey to Barth lasted about three days. Although the conditions were cramped the guards allowed us to dismount from the train on a couple of occasions so that we could stretch our legs at the side of the track. The biggest problem came when everyone was tired and needed room to lie down. In the generally accepted sense this was not possible for everyone at the same time. However a workable solution was suggested by a prisoner who had been in the bag since Tobruk. His name was Charlie Mogolo and he was a Bantu from South Africa who had formerly worked in the gold mines. On his travels he had encountered these sort of conditions before, whereas for the rest of us, mostly American air crew, this mode of travel was new.
We had already talked together and when it was obvious that the majority of us were having trouble finding enough room to stretch out, he turned to me and said, "Baas! You tell feller, lie down so!" He then explained that if eight men lay across the wagon at the end, the next eight could lie in the same way with their heads level with the hips of the first set; the third set's heads level with the hips of the second and so on. It worked. Before long we had five rows of eight reclining prisoners in two thirds of the floor space. Although all the feet were pointing in the same direction, there was some similarity with sardines in a tin.
When we arrived at Barth on the 17th January, we were marched to the camp. We were greeted officially by the German commandant the tenor of whose remarks was to lay down the ground rules and to discourage prisoners from attempting to escape. The main rules concerned those occasions when we would become legitimate targets for the German guards. This mainly involved the warning wire which was a single strand supported on posts about two feet high and about twenty feet in from the defensive rolls of barbed wire and marked the official limit of where we had access.
A similar welcome from senior Allied officers put an embargo on individual attempts to escape though for obviously different reasons. This also included a briefing on the structure on, and maintenance by the prisoners of, their own discipline. The camp had been in existence for some time but had been enlarged considerably and we were placed in the newly completed North 3 compound.
Most of the prisoners were American but the South Compound, the oldest, was populated mainly by R.A.F. Among the new arrivals were enough British to fill one hut. We were welcomed by some of the older inhabitants and those in the South compound sent us some cigarettes. Each hut held, I think, some three hundred, five rooms of thirty on each side of a central corridor. At one end of the corridor was a door giving access to the compound and at the other end a set of double doors. Between these doors was on one side a room occupied by the Senior Officer, and across the corridor a room containing a night box and a sink. The external doors at each end of the hut were secured by a metal bar every night at lockup which took place at nine o'clock.
Before dark we had to close the wooden shutters over the windows and secure these with a wooden bar. After lockup the compound was patrolled by one guard with a dog and of course overlooked by the ever present sentries in the towers. Between 7 a.m. and lockup we were allowed to exercise or play games in the compound and also to visit friends in other huts.
Every morning of course there was a roll-call when all the prisoners except the lame and the halt had to stand on the parade until the German staff had counted everyone and managed to get their sums right. Sometimes this went on for a long time and on these occasions most huts would go into an exercise routine to keep warm. This might be accompanied by a Rhythmic chant like "Come on .... Joe!" and referred to Uncle Joe Stalin and the Red Army. Occasionally there would be a snap roll call at some other time of the day and while all the prisoners were standing there we would see the special group from the Abwehr or security enter the compound. They would select one of the huts and carry out a thorough search, confiscating anything which they considered to be on their forbidden list. For everyone this meant a greater delay before we could be dismissed and for the occupants of the selected hut, it also meant a tidying up operation and perhaps the loss or damage of personal possessions.
Sometimes one or two Abwehr personnel would wander through the compound or into the huts at any time of the day with their ears wagging and hoping to pick up intelligence from prisoner's gossip. To protect against this were two routine orders (Allied not German). The first of these was that each hut would provide a sentry for its door. If any German approached and looked as if to enter, the sentry would shout out an alarm warning. Under American influence the cry was "Goon!" but when the Germans realised the derogatory nature of this, they objected and the cry had to be modified to a dignified "On guard!" The other security precaution was a ban on forces gossip after lockup since it was known that occasionally one of the "Goons" would sit underneath a hut or stand quietly just outside the window.
I have already suggested that the principal preoccupations were food and news. The need for news was at two levels; personal and national. For those who had been in captivity for a considerable period, they had the advantage of receiving personal mail and parcels. Many though were hungry for first hand news from those who were captured later. The new prisoners had not been in the bag long enough to have made contact at home and in any case the German transport system was being maintained in the face of great difficulty and P.O.W. mail and supplies were only at a low priority. Red Cross parcels were an example of this.
When we arrived at Luft One, the rate of issue for the first week was one parcel per man per week to supplement the German ration of one-seventh of a loaf of bread each day and vegetables when available. This was reduced by fifty per cent for each of the next two weeks when no more parcels were issued until about two weeks before our liberation in May. We all sent out postcards (2) and letters (l) each month without any means of knowing whether they were being received or not. In fact mine were not. Those that I sent arrived in the UK, after I was repatriated, with one exception. A friend of mine, Alfred Oddie who was at a seminary at Sutton Coldfield, received a card and notified my parents.
The other sort of desirable news was readily available. Each hut had a speaker system which broadcast German radio and copies of the German news were supplied and posted at the end of each hut. After lockup, however, each hut was supplied with a duplicated copy of "Kriegy News" which was transcripts of B.B.C. service. This was eagerly awaited and passed from room to room to be read to the waiting inmates. Sometimes of course the news was somewhat depressing as for instance the death of Roosevelt. Frequently, though, the news was very encouraging. A particular highlight was the Rhine crossing. Many huts displayed an up to date map on the wall of the corridor. These were often consulted by the guards for comparison with the German radio reports on the progress of the allies.
Most of our time was occupied with some form of recreation. Sometimes it may have been little more than a constitutional walk but often of course we played outdoor games like volley ball. At this time it was often expedient to strike a balance between the conservation of physical resources made necessary by the shortage of rations and the need to keep fit. Occasionally there were routine tasks to be performed in turn like the removal and emptying of the "honey buckets" or night boxes. Washing of clothes was done with cold water and soap which was of an inferior standard.
Indoor games occupied our evenings after lockup - it was surprising how much rivalry could be aroused by the team from one room playing against that from a room across the corridor - at Tiddley Winks. Bridge tournaments too were popular and continued endlessly as one pair played the best of three rubbers against every other pair from perhaps twenty or thirty other pairs. Some six or seven weeks after our arrival there was a transfer of British prisoners from the North to the South compound. For us this was very good as one or two Glider Pilots were there. Among them I think were Captain O'Malley and Lt. Johnstone.
At this time too there was an influx of army prisoners evacuated from the path of the Russian advance in the east. Our senior officers were also involved at this time in making contingency plans to deal with whatever the future situation might require. Amongst these was the was the formation of a field force who might be needed for military duties to give some form of protection to the camp should the need arise. Both Phil and I were in charge of small sections of the organisation in which army personnel were at a premium. I recall that my number 2 was a private in the Northumberland Fusiliers; the rest included four R.A.F. officers, from Flight Lieutenant downwards, and one R.A.F. Flight Sergeant.
Apart from our involvement with the field force, Phil and I saw much less of each other having formed new friendships and interests. I joined the orchestra and regularly played the violin at rehearsals. In the South compound there were also opportunities to attend lectures and classes on various topics. Also in the South Compound one sometimes had a glimpse of the outside world. At weekends the locals used to walk by the wire and often we would see staff and trainees, male and female, from the nearby Flak-Schule.
The month of April brought a great improvement in our food situation. The Red Cross parcels which had been destined for us were thought to be lying in railway sidings somewhere in the now chaotic railway network. The change was brought about by stocks of parcels coming through Sweden and held at the port of Lubeck which was not very far away. Though the Germans had no transport to spare, they did allow Canadian Red Cross trucks through under the Papal and Red Cross flags. These were able to deliver to Luft One and our stocks were rapidly replenished so that almost immediately we were issued with one parcel for every four men, with a further issue before the week was out.
As April came towards its end, it became increasingly obvious from the news bulletins that the Germans could not carry on effectively for much longer. There were signs of demoralisation among the guards. They became less fussy about getting the count right. I saw one move the pins on the map showing that he thought that the Russian advance was even nearer than our map was showing. Our Senior Officers were on the alert for the danger they feared. It had been reported that Himmler had given orders that no prisoners were to be left behind in any withdrawal. Berlin was about to be overrun by the Russians. Rumours were rife and expectations were mounting. Suddenly one day a message was passed around, the Germans are preparing to pull out. All members of the field force to report to the Vorlager. Our liberation was at hand.
Sure enough, before long the German staff with exception of a small number left to man the towers, could be seen marching along the outside of the wire. Those left behind were quickly removed and the field force was armed with an odd assortment of rifles, bayonets ands ammunition. The field force was commanded by Lt. Col. W.H.D. McCardie.
Our immediate task was to take up positions some distance outside the camp and then to patrol these areas. We were not expected to tackle any powerful German forces but to give protection against smaller isolated units. The situation was rather a legal one; as a large prison camp we were protected personnel under the Geneva Convention but in the absence of our captors we had lost this protection and were once again operational.
The field force amounted to a total of some three hundred armed men organised in sections of eight. Some of these were sent in the direction of the airfield which had also been evacuated. My own section went about two miles south east of the camp and adopted an area around a farmhouse. The German occupants of this farm included an ex-serviceman who had lost a leg. There was very little hostility shown towards us. Much more obvious was fear for their future particularly at the hands of the advancing Russians. I understood that other small groups and individuals were directed both east and west with the idea of making contact with the allies.
This contact was made with units of the Ninth Army and information was sent to the Commanders of the 12th Army Group, 9th Air Force, and XVIII Corps(ABN). The message ran as follows:-
"Stalag Luft One located at Barth (P2553) overrun by Russians 30 April contains approximately 7500 US Air Corps Officers, 400 US EM, 500 RAF Officers, 150 British Inf EM. 50 Polish, French, Czechs and miscellaneous did not stand fast. Portable water supply ended 1 May. Water after 1 May being hauled 3 miles by horse drawn teams. Last regular Red Cross parcel issue 1 per man made on 30 April. An emergency issue made on 2 May. Approximately 22,500 Red Cross parcels on hand being held by the Russians. General state of heath good. Commander of prisoners of war is Col. Hubert Zemke, Air Corps. Stand fast orders being obeyed. Radio receivers operate. Good reception on commercial band, especially BBC broadcasts. Nearest airfield located 2 miles south of camp. Col. Zemke requests air evacuation. Above information received verbally from ex-PW Capt. John F. Bell, 03892828, HQ 9th Air Force. XVIII ABN reports that Marshall Rokossovsky will allow no negotiations except between himself and Field Marshall Montgomery. G-4 section this HQ, states it is impractical to run a truck shuttle from Barth to Hildesheim, due to travel distance involved, shortage of available trucks, and due to physical discomforts for EX-PWS to be evacuated. Request that either air evacuation be arranged from Barth direct to Le Havre with processing to be done at Le Havre or that evacuation be arranged by sea. GNMDA."
This signal itself indicates some of the happenings of these memorable days. The Russians had arrived and continued on their way. A couple of days later the Germans capitulated. The camp organisation was administered under the command of Col. Zemke and was given a new title:- Headquarters, Provisional Wing X, USAAF, Stalag Luft l (Barth) Germany. Within this organisation there was also a Provisional group RAF with the Senior British Officer, Group Captain Weir in command. In the two weeks that followed, regular bulletins of information and instructions were issued. These covered a wide spectrum dealing with such things as food, water; the preparations of nominal rolls for evacuation; roll calls and parades; policy of friendliness and co-operation with the Russians; boating and fishing privileges; and the maintenance of discipline and obedience to orders.
It can be well imagined that the response of some prisoners to a long awaited liberation was to let off considerable steam. Hidden supplies of "Kriegy Brew" (alcoholic concoctions) were broken out and quite a few individuals were to be seen in a state of hilarious intoxication. Quite a few just took off, either being unwilling or lacking the patience to wait, for the complexities of the official evacuation to be negotiated. I don't know how many of these there were but they must have been only a tiny minority of the approximate total of some 9000. For many of course it was important to have tasted the joy of freedom by leaving the camp. In some cases this led to difficulties with the Russians.
My impression of the Russians in the first few days was as follows. The first troops had a job to do as forward units and continued their advance in pursuit of the German forces. It seemed as though they were followed by small numbers of troops who, following in the wake of these advance units, carried out an almost deliberate policy of striking terror into the local population by pillage, rape and the unnecessary use of small arms. It was as if to say, "This is what happens before you break any of the rules of occupation. What do you think will happen if you do?" This was only for a very short period after which the occupation troops moved in bringing with them law and order. I believe one item in the first official proclamation read:- "The language of the occupying power is Russian!" For some members of the Field Force the arrival of the Russians signalled our return to the camp. Here we set up a series of piquet posts around the outside of the perimeter. These were manned by equal numbers of Russian and Field Force troops. We shared our time on duty and our mutual tasks were to discourage the inmates from going on the rampage and to exclude outsiders.
Meanwhile for Col. Zemke and his staff, there were many other problems to be solved before the evacuation could take place. Initially of course these were concerned with obtaining Russian assistance for the maintenance of supplies of food and water. Besides this there was the need for diplomatic co-operation which would lead to a smooth and total evacuation to the west with the minimum delay and the maximum comfort and efficiency.
On the 3rd May, Col. Zemke had a long and cordial meeting with the Russian Colonel commanding the Barth area. The Russian first asked the Americans to help by providing medical staffs and assistance for the smaller prison camps in the area, in particular for two French camps of 100 and 200 men. One of these was at the airfield. This led to further discussion about the airfield and it was agreed that the Americans would undertake to clear the airfield of mines if the Russians would provide detectors. Col. Zemke emphasised that he had standing by a team of experts who could undertake all the necessary preparations for an evacuation by air for which the whole movement schedule was already planned.
There followed discussions over the details of appointing liaison officers. It was agreed that Col. Zemke would be given written authority for the requisitioning of ten horses and carts and whatever else he judged necessary. This would prevent the recurrence of an earlier problem when the Russians had confiscated what had been requisitioned. Col. Zemke also expressed concern about the exclusion of German refugees and the containment of the ex-prisoners. He referred to a difficulty which had arisen the previous day when a Russian had arrived at the camp and insisted on the opening of all the gates with the result that 116 men were missing. The Russian colonel suggested that separate or isolated Russians wishing to come into the camp should be taken into custody by an armed guard and brought in front of him. Col. Zemke pointed out that it was Russian territory and he did not wish to give orders to Russian soldiers. Special orders were promised to cover similar situations and proclamations would be posted on the camp gates. This meeting closed with an agreement that British and American members of Stalag Luft One would arrange the change of camp time to Moscow time which is one hour ahead of GMT Two days later, Col. Zemke sent a telegram to General Carl Spaatz, Commanding General, USAAF, London, England in which he reported:-
1. I am commanding over 9000 American and British flyers at Barth, Germany. We have cleared the Barth airdrome of all mines and bombs for air transport of our men to England. The airdrome is very large and in excellent condition (5000 foot runway). Flying control is set up in operations. No gasoline here.
2. We have no need for a thing. The Russian troops are furnishing us with everything. There is perfect liaison between all Russian, American, and British forces. We are deeply indebted to the Russians not only for freeing us but for the assistance they are affording us.
3. Reply is desired on any plan of evacuation. Respectfully, Hubert Zemke, Colonel, US Air Corp, Commanding.
Also on the 5th May, Colonel Zemke despatched a letter to Marshall Rokossovsky informing him of the present condition of Americans and British and naming the Russians to whom thanks were due. These were Colonel Zohonovitch and his staff who were the first units to contact and free the camp. He expressed thanks to Major General Borrisof and his staff for continued co-operation and supplying our needs, mentioning the liaison officer Captain Samoshenko who was the bearer of the letter and who had noted immediate needs not locally available. He stated as his main wish the early movement by air to England of all Americans and English. He emphasised the suitability of the airdrome at Barth and the availability of expert personnel to organise and control the departure. The letter concluded with:-
4. May I express my appreciation for the many things given to us by your Russian Officers and soldiers.
5. My men thank you for their freedom. They will never forget their liberation.
A bulletin issued the following day informed all inmates that General Borrisof had indicated that he had the combined duties of arranging the speedy evacuation of the Americans and British and to keep them supplied in the meantime. This bulletin also announced Colonel Zemke's authority to command the camp and the need for military discipline and patience. Only authorised personnel with passes would be allowed to leave the camp and ex-PWs found outside the camp were being rounded up and placed in the nearest camp to their capture where they might only receive low priority for repatriation by the Soviet Forces.
Before the embargo referred to above, being outside the perimeter of the camp, I had been able to do some local exploring in the surrounding district. The French camp was close by the airfield but on the airfield itself was a small concentration camp. It had been housed in permanent brick built accommodation such as might be found on a permanent R.A.F. base. The buildings were surrounded by barbed wire. The inmates had been evacuated but the deserted buildings bore evidence of the squalor in which they had been held. There were large numbers of files scattered about and reference to these indicated that many of the inmates had been transferred from other camps whose names were better known. Most striking to me were the corridors which led to the wash rooms and toilets. There was ample evidence to indicate the total inadequacy of the amenities for the number of prisoners being held. Due to this and their deplorable physical condition many inmates had been unable to control their bowels and had defecated on route.
A report, addressed to all personnel dated 10th May and signed by 2nd Lt. E.D. McKenna, Public Relations Officer, gave details of the first free German meeting held in the town square on the previous day. The meeting had been addressed by the new Burgomeister, Herr Lemke and also by the Russian commander who spoke through an interpreter. Seated on the platform was the former Luftwaffe Hauptman Muller, one time German intelligence officer at Stalag-Luft One. Herr Lemke appealed for people to co-operate with the new administration so that an orderly civilised existence could be resumed and that if everyone did their duty, the disgrace of Nazism might be removed with the rise of a new free nation.
The Russian commander spoke of the fact that the Germans had been unable to destroy the Russian forces as they had hoped thanks to the wholehearted defence of the homeland by the entire population of Russia. He went on to deny the German propaganda that the Russians wished to destroy the German people - Stalin had promised that only the militarians would be dealt with. "The German People, as a people, and as a nation shall live on, but Nazism shall die." This statement was greeted with cheers by the audience of several thousand many of whom were Pomeranian refugees who had fled before the Russian advance.
The new orders of the Russian garrison were read by a Barth "carpenter-meister". No weapons allowed, curfew between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., no allied soldier to be billeted with a German family without an official order from the Russian commandant. Everyone had the duty to ensure that young women were kept indoors during the evening hours. Apparently German girls "had been calling to soldiers from second storey windows, asking for cigarettes and chocolate, inviting them into their homes, and then complaining of the consequences." He then referred to the disgrace which had come to their city with the discovery of the concentration camp in their vicinity and the exposure of the frightful conditions there. The culprit responsible were known and would be hunted down. They would be forced to clean up the filth they had created and to work for the rehabilitation of their victims.
He referred to the destructive results for Germany of the Nazi regime and pointed out that when Hauptman Muller had offered the surrender of Barth, young SS men had disobeyed the orders of their superior officers and attempted to incite the population to offer resistance to the Russians. "You know what that would have meant. Hitler and his Goebbels would have been the death of all of us had they continued in power a little longer." After speaking of the disgrace brought by the treatment in the German Press in the obituary of the "great American President Roosevelt" he exhorted everyone to work not for war and destruction but for the essentials necessary for human life.
One of the highlights in the period while we were waiting for the return to England was a visit to the camp by a Red Army show. This arrived in a convoy of lorries early in the morning. An open air platform was erected in the compound and pictorial posters showing aspects of life in the Soviet Union were displayed on the sides of the huts. For several hours there followed a continuous performance of singing, dancing, orchestral music, drama, and oratorical declamation. This non-stop spectacular was attended by an ever changing audience (no longer captive) of thousands who cheered enthusiastically at the conclusion of each new offering. At the end of the day after all their belongings had once more been packed, the performing company departed in the manner in which they had arrived.
On the 9th of May, Allied Headquarters sent the following message over the BBC :-
"Orders to Stalag Luft One, Barth on Baltic, twenty five miles from Stralsund from the Supreme Headquarters. The inhabitants of Stalag Luft One are to obey the orders of the Senior Allied Officer and are not to go off on their own." This message was contained in Bulletin 43, dated 9th May. At 4.30 p.m. on the 11th May, Colonel Zemke received a letter from the S.B.O. Group Captain Weir who was at Hagenau arranging for the final evacuation. He gave the official news that the evacuation would be able to start as soon as he had completed plans and arrangements at Wismar and then cleared the routes through General Batow's headquarters at Tribses. After this had been completed Group Captain Weir would be returning to Barth.
Things then proceeded rapidly. Bulletin 45, published the same day, gave details of the proposed plan for evacuation by air. Bulletin 46, dated 12th May, gave the official news that our evacuation by air was scheduled to begin that day:- "ten (10) motor vehicles will arrive at the camp this morning; C-47s and B-17s are expected to arrive at the aerodrome this afternoon." As announced in the bulletin, the aircraft and departed with the first evacuees, the sick and the wounded. Early the next morning (13th) the lorries began shuttling loads of ex-kriegies to the airfield and every hour some dozen or so Fortresses arrived and departed with their excited passengers. This continued throughout the day and by sunset all had departed with the exception of the Wing HQ and the Field Force.
On the morning of the 14th, Phil and I left the camp for the airfield. At about 10.30 a.m. we took off in B-17 (Flying Fortress) 338997 flown by Lt. Orson and his crew who were taking part in Operation Revival. The flight took us over the devastated city of Hamburg, over Northern Holland and across the North Sea, making landfall on the Norfolk coast near Norwich. On route we flew over central London and then towards the Sussex coast before landing at Ford.
Those prisoners who had waited at Luft One were amply rewarded for their patience. From the actual liberation of the camp to the arrival of the last load at R.A.F. Ford, only 14 days had elapsed, and for the majority it had been no more than 13 days. I doubt if any could find praise enough to do justice to the organisation, co-operation, and efforts of those responsible for our return to the UK. Our reception also could have asked for no more. As we left the aircraft at the perimeter track, we were asked to go through a tent where we had a dose of delousing powder squirted down our shirts. Then we were taken to the NAAFI which had been organised to deal with everybody smoothly. A voice over the tannoy advised everyone which window to report to when we had finished our refreshment. After much admired white bread, sandwiches and cakes, Phil and I reported. In less than ten minutes we were in a lorry on the way to a tented camp set up in a village some ten miles away. Here we were taken to a marquee type tent which had eight beds already prepared. There was also an orderly whose task was to make arrangements so that we could be guided through each stage of our processing without delay or frustration. The result was that by five minutes to six, Phil and I were standing outside the village pub waiting for it to open. Before this we had already sent home telegrams; received a kit issue; had a meal; showered; changed into new uniforms; had stripes and flashes sewn on by the local W.V.S.; filled in debriefing forms; been paid; and been medically and dentally inspected. There were still a few more formalities to be completed but early in the morning we were taken to Horsham station complete with kit, ration cards, and travel warrants, so that I arrived at my home in Manchester that same afternoon. On the journey from London I shared a compartment with another Glider Pilot who had been repatriated from another camp. He was a member of my own squadron, Staff-Sergeant Alan Cram, and he came from Salford.
In this narrative, I have largely drawn from my own experience without the addition of researched material which though relevant would have interrupted the flow. There are one or two exceptions and of course the previous chapter is a mixture of experience and researched material. It is my intention to use additional material in Part 2. A large part of this consists of details which were not known to me at the time, and it is my hope that the reader will find them to be of some fraction of the interest which I had in their discovery.
Return to POW Stories Menu