Unit : British Expeditionary Force.
Served : France (captured).
Camps : Stalag XXA.
At Stalag XXA in 1940; at a place named Torun by the Poles. The first work I remember doing was sitting at the roadside with a hammer and reducing a pile of large stones to much smaller stones for road building purposes. Our accommodation consisted of a number of long, black wooden huts. We slept on wooden bunks, three tiers high. We had straw filled palliasses. Unless you were on the top bunk, you had a small cloud of fine straw particles descend on you every time that a person above you moved on his palliasse. The lower berths were also very gloomy as the gangways between the bunks were narrow. Top beds had unrestricted light from electric light bulbs and this was very beneficial when you were examining your underwear for lice. This was a regular routine, with many of the men sitting on their beds and cracking the lice between their thumbnails in the evening.
Every now and again some of the prisoners were sent off in groups to various locations for a variety of work. I think most of the men looked forward to getting away from the dismal camp atmosphere. These jobs could be farming, or road making, some went down mines, others to working in saw mills etc
I left the camp together with some others, and ended up at a place named Shaplitz. However I can’t remember now what we were there for because the first night I was there I developed appendicitis and was taken to a hospital in Danzig. It was a German military hospital and I was in a ward with two other British lads. After I was discharged I was sent back to Torun again to recover fully and was put to work sorting out tons of potatoes; picking the rotten ones out; until on December 18th, 1940 I went with a party to a place near Brahnau near Bromberg.
Whilst we were working a German passed by wearing shorts and a hat with a shaving brush sticking up on its side. He looked like a Swiss mountaineer and one or two of the lads began yodelling as he passed. He was infuriated by this and went to see our German officer in charge. We learned that he was in some military type organisation. He picked a couple of prisoners out who said were the culprits and they were forced to crawl on hands and knees up a very steep and muddy hill outside of the camp several times. Whilst the remainder of us were locked inside of our huts, some of us opened the windows to watch until the guards opened fire in our direction.
March 25th 1941. My next move was to a large camp where we were working for the well known firm of ‘Siemens’. This camp was outside of Torun and called Schlusselmuhle. When completed the area would have railway tracks and buildings such as engine sheds built upon it. I remember on one occasion in Schlusselmuhle that I feigned stomach trouble and was taken back into camp by one of the guards and taken to the medical officer. He was a British officer in the Medical Corps. I told him that I was suffering from diarrhoea. To my dismay he said ‘bring a sample with you to sick parade later on’. As there was nothing wrong with me I wondered what the solution could be as I returned to my room, that I shared with 7 or 8 others. When I entered the room, a mate ‘Darkie’ Anderson was already in there. He asked why I was off work and I replied that I had to pretend to have diarrhoea and had been classed as sick. He said ‘that’s why I’m not at work and I have got it!’ So don’t worry you can take my sample on to sick parade’. And after finding an empty red-cross cardboard box ‘Darkie’ duly obliged.
Schlusselmuhle was a well organised camp, and we had besides our Medical Officer, a sergeant-major and several other NCOs – Although I can’t remember that any of them did any physical labour. More administration jobs. We were paid a form of paper money here for our labour and had a canteen where we could spend it. Although the stock for sale was pretty limited. It was here that I bought my diary that I still have. We also had a concert party and dance band at Schlusselmuhle.
My next move was from Schlusselmuhle Camp to a village named Unislaw on October 23rd 1942. Here we worked in a sugar-beet factory. I was only there until December 28th when we returned to Torun again. However our stay was brief. And after a couple of days on January 1st 1943 we arrived at the Zempleburg area. We were split up into smaller groups and sent to work on various farms. I was sent to a farm which was quite large. Some of the farms only needed one or two of us whilst the one I went to needed fourteen or fifteen. It was run by an officer in the German army and he was known as the ‘chef’ to the people who worked for him. And they totalled almost all of the little Polish village of Waldowke. The farm was built in the shape of a large square. On one side was the large house of the German family. On another were buildings containing the sledges and coach used by them in winter. A third side consisted of large barns containing the kitchen where an old Polish woman used to make our soup every day and also where our guard used to live and sleep after locking us in our rooms in the evening.
As the war went on, one or two of the young Polish men joined the German forces and consequently there were no replacements to take on the work that they did on the farm. Mostly working with the horses – ploughing, or driving wagons to the nearest railway station to bring lime, fertilisers etc. and to take potatoes or sugar beets to the station. Therefore some of the POWs were the obvious solution. And when the two young Poles who, together with their father ran the cow-stalls, decided to enlist also, they were replaced by my mate ‘Lofty’ Dove and myself. That was on October 18th 1944. We thought that working in the cow-stall was better than being out in the fields weeding, or planting potatoes, or some other back breaking task. And it was dry and warm inside in the cold weather. The main snag was that we had to get out of bed at 3.45am and didn’t finish until 6.00pm. However, I am not going to dwell upon the various tasks we carried out on the farm but concentrate on events that evolved when we left Waldowke.
Christmas Day 1944 arrived and perhaps merits a mention. Although we were locked in every evening and our windows had barbed-wire criss-crossed over the outsides, we discovered that by opening the window and reaching out, we could pull out one of the large iron nails holding the wire in place and pull the wire aside enough to allow one to crawl through and drop down onto the ground below. Great care was needed because we were next to the cow-stall and one of the German civilians was employed as a night watchman and was in the cow-stall with his dog. I used to remove my boots and cross the farm (as also, did her two sisters and her father) and I made my way to the village and to their cottage. They made me welcome and upon leaving, I was presented with a cardboard box containing a lot of cake and a bottle of the schnapps which they use to drink.
During January 1945 we began to hear the noise of gunfire in the distance. We knew that the Russian Army was heading in our direction. As it grew louder we knew that the German forces were being driven back. By late January the noise of artillery and machine gun fire was very close.
January 26th 1945 and myself and ‘Lofty’ Dove went into the cow-stalls as usual to discover the place was occupied by a lot of retreating German troops lying down amongst the straw. They were dressed in white clothing to make themselves inconspicuous in the snow. They gave orders to our own guard that he was to depart with us immediately. The chef and his family were also told to leave. We prisoners got hold of one of the farm wagons and two horses and loaded all our kit up plus some food that we found in the kitchen in the Chef’s house. And set off in the snow.
According to my diary on the following day we had already thrown away a lot of kit and had walked about 25 miles. At first, our guard was taking us towards the noise of the fighting until he realised, and went in the opposite direction. I noted in my diary, ‘our guard is rather shaky’. We had also left the horses and wagon behind. How could we look after them anyway?
Whilst walking through a place called Friedland we saw a lot of German soldiers passing us on bicycles and with red-cross food parcels tied on their cycles and in their packs and smoking English cigarettes. Fortunately when we reached Hammerstein we were given American food parcels – one to every two men. Around 1st February we arrived at Neu Stettin and met some French prisoners who were working there. In exchange for a red-cross parcel they gave us about 30 loaves of bread.
After we had been marching for about 9 or 10 days, our original small party had swelled to about 70. Including some Americans. As we proceeded we would encounter other groups and they would be amalgamated into our column together with their guards. Usually at night we would arrive at a barn somewhere and be able to sleep in them. Although on February 9th and near a place called Shivelbein we reached a pig breeding farm and we had to bed down in the empty styes. Most days we received a bread ration that was quite inadequate. It varied. Sometimes 1 loaf between 5 men and sometimes 7 men to 1 loaf.
On February 11th according to my diary – ‘another 25 men joined us today – mostly Yanks. Also made a good soup tonight because we’ve got a dead pig with us’. We stopped at another large barn on February 13th when 400 Russian prisoners joined us. Because it was very cold they began pulling the barn to pieces to light fires. On February 15th I wrote ‘weather very cold. All ‘Lofty’ and I have eaten over the last two days is a small tin of carrot and potato soup each’. But later that day we were given 2cwt of potatoes boiled in their skins to share between 103 men. On February 16th. Our usual German guards were replaced today and the fresh ones are not so good. Kicking some of our lads and beating them with sticks.
On February 18th we passed through as place named Wollin. Then passed over an island at the mouth of the river Oder. The only place to sleep is on the ground in a large field in the snow. We dined on a few cold potatoes and sat around fires that we made all night. The following day we crossed to a second island by ferry. We passed through Schwinemunde. On February 21st we marched about 19 miles. Off the islands at last after passing through Usedom and over the final bridge. Feeling very weak. Up until this evening all I had to eat was half a raw turnip that I pulled up in a field and shared with ‘Lofty’. In the evening we were issued with 1 loaf between 6 men.
February 26th and we stopped at a large farm of 4,000 acres a few miles from Neu Brandenburg. Issued with bread – 7 men to a loaf. Now and again we struck lucky. On March 8th we passed through Gravenshagen and stopped at a barn outside the village where we all mucked in to make soup. Two chickens, spuds, carrots, peas and onions.
March 10th ‘we did 21 miles today. Deadly!’ Nothing to smoke, and only a tin of corned beef between ‘Lofty’ and myself to eat. In the evening we were given two fifths of a loaf each and told it had to last two days’.
March 25th and the weather had turned scorching hot now and our great coats were a liability to us. We passed a village named Domitz and approx 1,000 Americans joined our column. March 29th arrived at a town named Uelzen.
April 1st. Stopped at a German Air Force base. Put into old huts that had held Ukrainian POWs at one time. 20 men to a room and sleeping on the floor. Issued with 2 litres of soup and 1 loaf between 5 men. Put to work unloading stones from railway wagons.
On April 4th we marched out of camp at 6.00am to a place about 21 miles away to be de-loused. When we returned in the evening we found that the air force camp had been bombed whilst we were absent. There was a further raid during which there were bursts of machine gun fire across the roofs of our huts. The following morning we were detailed to begin filling in the bomb craters around the camp. Seven Germans were killed in the raid. April 7th at mid-day hundreds of allied bombers and fighters passed over our camp. At 3.10pm the planes returned and must have had some bombs left to get rid of and dropped them on our camp. Our German guards locked us in our huts and then dived off into the air-raid shelters.
April 8th. Moved out at 5.00am and marched for about 25 miles. The allied front is said to be about 25 miles from here. April 9th we did 26 miles and there are a lot of German troops around now. We are to stay at this village for two days. During this stay hundreds of bombers passed overhead. April 11th after marching a further 15 miles we arrived at a village named Helenberg. Now we can hear the sound of gunfire. April 12th. Slept in a barn. At 5.00am the German Captain in charge and the guards moved out – those not ready were left behind. Gunfire is quite close. We found plenty of spuds to eat.
April 13th. Aubrey Grace and I collected up a lot of clothing and blankets that had been left in the barn when the majority of the lads moved off yesterday. We took some of it into the village and exchanged it for eggs and bacon and bread. We were without any guards now, but then a German soldier appeared and marched us about 6 miles from the village and left us.
April 14th. There are 50 of us left and we split up. Six of us went to a small village, Oldendorf, where ‘Lofty’ Dove, myself and an American went to the Burgemeisters house and asked for food. We were given white bread, fried eggs, spuds, cake, jam, sausage and coffee.
April 15th. Moved to a village called Clenze. There’s a camp there with French POWs and a few Yanks. We stayed overnight and slept on the floor. April 17th. We moved on and had a guard with us again. We arrived at a place called Tannenberg. April 18th. Arrived at a village called Quickborn – 8 of us - and we were put in a Serbian camp. Their guard got us some bread. April 19th. Our guard said that we must cross the river Elbe. We’ve got about 15 Americans with us now. Ended up in a barn tonight, and on our way to a place named Ludwigslust. There are also about 30 Germans with us now. Our planes were over strafing again. We went further than a few miles today April 20th. The guards are too scared of our planes which keep coming over and strafing the area.
April 21st. Drew red-cross parcels form a French camp at Ludwigslust. Left our wounded here. Remainder of us went to the railway station to sleep because we’re supposed to be going on a train in the morning to a place named Schwerin. Some way outside the station an ammunition train had been hit and there was a lot of the contents strewn across the tracks. Nearby, also halted, was a German troop train. The men were all standing around outside of it. A few of them came to our guards and asked if they could take some of us down the track to pick up the unexploded ammunition. Myself and a few other Britishers plus about a dozen Yanks were detailed to do this. We all refused to move which annoyed the German troops; after calling us all the names that they could think of one of them stood in front if us with a machine gun and said ‘start working or I’ll shoot you all’. Nobody moved but at that moment a German officer standing watching from a distance, called out that we should be taken back to the railway station again. That was a relief.
April 22nd. Boarded train at 6.40am. Moved off at mid-day. Had no bread issued to us since April 15th. Only boiled potatoes. Arrived safely at very large camp. There’s Russians, Poles, Serbs, French all in separate compounds. Still no bread, but issued with some flour instead. We were a few miles outside Schwerin. April 23rd. Bread was issued. 17 men to each loaf. The soup is like water. But we have been issued with red-cross parcels. By April 29th we had been given more red-cross parcels, and having stopped our marching for a week now, we were feeling much healthier.
May 2nd. Today all the guards vanished and our own officers took command. Later, to resounding cheers American Infantry arrived. One of them threw some wire cutters over the wire to us. Although we had been told not to leave the camp or to pick up any arms by our own officer in charge, I’m afraid that his words fell on deaf ears. We cut our way through the barbed-wire and got out onto the road. Thousands of German prisoners were streaming back past our camp and like they did to us in 1940, we relieved them of watches etc. Our liberated lads were returning to camp with motor cycles, radios, boxes of cigars, cars and binoculars. One even rode around the camp on a horse.
Aubrey Grace and I went to a house that had a car in the front. An Auto-Union. We told the person living there that we were taking it and drove off. Six miles along the road we were stopped by American troops and told we had to go back because the Russian troops were only a short distance ahead. We visited some flats in Schwerin on May 5th and upon leaving to return to the camp found that someone had stolen our car. We spent the night at a hospital in Schwerin that was occupied by American troops. In the morning they returned us to our camp in a jeep.
May 6th. Left the camp today. American trucks arrived to transport us all back across the river Elbe to the British lines. We were installed in a German barracks. We were deloused and given all new clothing, bathed and given cigarettes and food. On May 7th ‘Monty’ was in the area.
May 9th. After being taken to the airfield at Lubeck we finally boarded a Lancaster bomber and set out for England. Aubrey Grace and I managed to squeeze into the tail gunners ‘pod’ at the rear of the plane and had a clears view of the journey back home. We landed at Westcott aerodrome where we were given a great reception and a good meal inside a hanger before being taken to Beaconsfield Reception Camp. Went on leave on May 11th.
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