Religion

 

Before September 1943, when the British arrived, the dominant religion in the camp was Catholicism. In 1941, Hut 28A was converted into a Chapel from where Father Henry Duthoit conducted regular services whilst enjoying the support of the Diocese of Cambrai. In time several artists had decorated the Chapel with a number of fine works, including a depiction of the Last Supper above the High Altar. Following their arrival, British Catholics were incorporated into the now well-oiled system, however their unexpected arrival had caused a major overcrowding problem and until many of these men had been sent away to Kommandos they had to make their beds wherever there was space and shelter, and this included the floor of the Chapel.

 

The RC Chapel

 

All of the British padres, because they held officer ranks, were quickly transferred to one of the Oflag camps, and so Sergeant Whitton took it upon himself to lead Protestant services. As they had no permanent base for the purpose, the congregation assembled wherever space could be found and at no set time. Initially hymns were written on blackboards and sung along to the sound of an accordion, but by November 1943, thanks to the YMCA and the Chaplaincy Service to POW's, they were able to supply both bibles and hymn books. The French and Belgian Protestants in the camp were most co-operative and supplied wine and other necessary apparatus so that within two weeks of the first service the British were able to hold Communion. In February 1944 Corporal Pretyman had assembled a choir, and before Easter Padre Jenkins arrived, followed in June by Padre Wrigley. Together they did much to improve the quality of life for their parishioners, and also led services for Serb prisoners of the Greek Orthodox faith, prompting a bond between the British and Serbs.

 

Gardening

 

In April 1944 the British obtained permission to use a triangular section of ground, covering about an acre, for the purpose of gardening. Seeds were generously donated from growers in Britain, via the Red Cross, and almost immediately 350 plots were allocated, to be managed however the owner chose. A few spades were issued by the Guards, but most of the tools had to be improvised by the gardeners. A section of the allotment grew mustard, cress, and various crops such as radishes, cabbages, lettuce, spring onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, beetroot, and silver beet, to improve the diet of the patients in the Infirmary.

 

Sport

 

There was plenty of ground available to the residents of Stalag VIIIA, and they made full use of it. During the early days the French and Belgians had dug and levelled a near full-size football pitch, together with a basketball and two volleyball courts. Tennis was also played though it never took off as a fiercely contested event which aroused the spirits of the prisoners. With the international flavour of the camp it was common for one country to play another, or a team which consisted of the best of the rest.

 

When the British arrived there were a number of spirited Rugby matches, keenly endorsed by the New Zealanders, however this did not become a regular fixture because the ground was very hard and injuries were commonplace. The first International game was held in the winter of 43/44 and saw the Anzacs battle hard in the snow for an 8-0 victory over an Anglo-Springbok side. Easter brought an all-Kiwi match between the North and South Island, which the North won 13-5. The last game of the season was played in April between New Zealand and the Rest, where the Kiwis again proved their dominance with a comfortable 14-3 win.

 

A rugby match A rugby match The New Zealand rugby team

 

In return for introducing them to the delights of Rugby, the French and Belgians instructed their Commonwealth friends in the rules of Basketball. Barely any who fought under the British flag knew how to play the game and regarded it as something for girls, however their interest grew after an introduction when they realized that required a lot of skill and could get very physical. Various international matches were played, and in time the Commonwealth teams began to beat their teachers, and also a league was created which consisted of teams representing various huts. Volleyball was one of the more popular sports in the camp due to the high number of people who were willing to play it, and as such it required two leagues and extra courts had to be dug and levelled.

 

Of other sports, Baseball had been learned in Italy and was greatly anticipated in the run up to the summer months, however the equipment was quick to wear and impossible to replace so it did not take off as much as was hoped. Boxing and Wrestling were practiced, as was Table Tennis.

 

During the Summer of 1944 the football pitch was converted into an athletics ground where various track and field events took place, including running, long jump, and javelin. Enthusiasm for the meeting was very high, and all the competitors were suitably attired in their national colours or those of their particular hut. On the 26th May the day was won on points by the Anzac team, followed by France, Belgium, England, and South Africa. The Australian and Kiwi voices were noted as being amongst the loudest, and according to reports they shook the heavens when Ken McInnes broke Stalag VIIIA's 100 metre record by finishing in 11.2 seconds.

 

A football match The British Football team Commonwealth relay teams The teams of an England vs South Africa Basketball match

 

Summer also brought Cricket to the camp, but as with baseball, finding the necessary materials was something of a problem. However the stumps were manufactured in-camp, balls were created using the string and wool in old socks, and using well-watered clay and a roller they succeeded in producing a satisfactory wicket to play on. To ensure everyone was happy, the players were divided into those who were good cricketers and those who merely wished to swing the bat in every direction and have a bit of fun. An A and a B League were formed to cater for both styles, and both leagues were won by the occupants of Hut 34B. A two day test match followed in September 1944 between the Anzacs and a South African team, which featured a token Englishman. The conditions were ideal and a large crowd turned out to witness the Anzac win. In the crowd, as always, there were the "crows" who were ever ruthless when it came to barracking a moment of bad play.

 

On the much less physical side cards were a night-time favourite, and during long and cold winter nights, Bridge competitions were arranged. There was even a beer drinking contest, naturally held unofficially, however it failed to produce a clear winner because everybody consistently demanded a re-match.