Pictures

Gareth Prytherch in 1974 with his former POW friends, Keith Butters and Jean Le Bras

A painting of Gareth Prytherch by Dutch artist Wiem Van der Hoof

Sergeant Gareth Prytherch

 

Unit : Royal Air Force

Service No. : 1412933

POW No. : 250751

Camps : Dulag Luft, Stalag IVB

 

This account of living conditions and some of the main events which took place from October 1943 to June 1945 at Stalag 1Vb, Mühlberg am Elbe, Germany, is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend and fellow prisoner of war, W.O. Pilot Keith Butters, who despite often suffering quite considerable pain and discomfort, showed tremendous courage and determination to achieve our final freedom.

 

PER ARDUA AD ASTRA

Gareth Prytherch

 

 

On a beautiful sunny day at the beginning of October 1943, I was one of about five hundred or more RAF air crew prisoners of war assembled at a transit camp on the outskirts of Frankfurt-am-Main Germany. We had all recently experienced nine or ten days of intensive interrogation at Dulag Luft, the headquarters of Luftwaffe Intelligence, and were waiting to be sent to prisoner of war camps in various parts of Germany. We were all rather apprehensive about the future and wondered what German POW camps would be like, and if we would be treated fairly in accordance with the terms of the Geneva Convention concerning prisoners of war.

 

During our three-day stay at the camp the officers and non-commissioned officers were segregated as the officers would be sent to an oflag or luft camp and the rest of us to a stalag POW. camp. On the morning of the third day, we were all ordered to parade according to German military tradition, in ranks of five, and a tall, elegant looking, blond German officer spoke to us through a sergeant interpreter. He said that sixty of us would be selected for a special kind of treatment. We all wondered what this meant as there was a terrifying rumour in the camp that, as the Germans were beginning to suffer severe damage from RAF air raids, they would begin throwing RAF aircrew prisoners of war alive and without parachutes out of German aeroplanes flying over Britain to discourage RAF bombing raids. The German officer marched up and down the ranks and at random ordered sixty of us to fall out. To my horror, I was one of the sixty chosen and expected the inevitable treatment, but much to our surprise and relief we were told that we would be travelling by train to a POW. camp (Stalag NB) near the small town of Mühlberg situated on the river Elbe about twenty miles north of the city of Dresden. We were marched under escort to the central railway station, and again we were surprised to see that the train was not the usual goods train used for the transport of prisoners of war, but a clean and modem passenger train. The sixty of us were ordered into a very clean third class carriage with wooden seats and tables. Pleasant, young and smiling German Red Cross nurses came aboard and served us excellent soup, sandwiches and coffee. We were given the same treatment during the long journey to Mühlberg-am-Elbe and I remember passing through very picturesque countryside and clean orderly towns. At night the train stopped at such famous cities as Weimar and Leipzig which had played such a large part in the cultural and industrial development of Germany. We assumed that this preferential treatment we received was no doubt German propaganda to prove that allied prisoners of war were well treated, but perhaps it was also an attempt to ensure that the many thousands of German prisoners of war, especially members of the Afrika Korps who had been captured by British and American Forces in North Africa, would receive humane treatment in allied prisoner of war camps. In general, German prisoners of war were treated much better than we were, but some former SS soldiers received very harsh treatment in some allied POW camps.

 

Sitting opposite me in the train was a very young RAF pilot who on recognising my Welsh accent, told me that his wife whom he had only recently married, was also from Wales and had been brought up quite near to my own home in Resolven in South Wales. We introduced ourselves and exchanged our flying experiences. He told me that his name was Keith Butters and that his parents lived in Enfield where his father was a bank manager. His wife, Mary, was a cashier at his father's bank and he also had a younger brother, John, and an older sister, Joan, married to a serving artillery officer named Bob. Keith told me that he was flying as a second pilot on a Halifax bomber on his first raid over Germany, the target being the very heavily defended city of Frankfurt. His plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he was the only one of the crew of eight who managed to bail out successfully before the plane exploded. During the descent by parachute at midnight, he became temporarily deaf from the loud noise of exploding bombs and anti-aircraft shells and found to his dismay when he landed that his flying boots had come off. He gave up any serious attempt to walk the sixty miles or so to the French border as his feet soon began to bleed and ache painfully, and feeling he could walk no further, gave himself up to the German police who after a few days sent him to the Luftwaffe Interrogation Centre at Ober Üssel near Frankfurt

 

We really enjoyed our train trip to Mühlberg-am-Elbe and were fully expecting the good treatment we had received on the train to continue in POW. camp, Stalag N B. It was raining heavily when we got off the train and made our way towards the camp located about two miles outside this picturesque Saxon town, a small port on the river Elbe. The countryside around the town was very flat and fertile supporting many large farms producing a variety of dairy and agricultural products, such as sugar beet, and where many prisoners of war and displaced persons worked long hours to replace young Germans who were sent to the war front. The POW. camp, with its high barbed wire fences, guard platforms with search lights, and dismal barrack huts, was spread over a large area, and we realised there must be many prisoners of war already there. As soon as we arrived at the main intake gate, we knew at once that life was going to be very different for us. Tall, jackbooted guards dressed in dark green uniforms and armed with rifles and revolvers started yelling orders in German in very loud and menacing tones. The more they yelled, the more amusing some of us found them as none of us understood a word of German. Eventually, a French POW. who spoke German and English acted as an interpreter and translated the orders of the ranting German sergeant major (Oberfeld Webel). We were told to undress completely and to prepare for sanitary delousing by first of all having our heads completely shaved by a French POW. using a kind of sheep sheers which another POW. operated by turning a huge wheel. We roared with laughter at our cranial transformation as the lovely waves and curls of the Boys' piled up on the ground. We then passed through a series of hot and cold showers, washed ourselves down thoroughly with German "Ersatz" soap, and then lined up in front of a bored and miserable German guard who splashed our armpits and private parts with an awful disinfectant, possibly creosote, which burned unpleasantly, and was supposed to destroy lice. I am sure it did so as our skin was red and raw for some days. Still completely nude, we were paraded outside, each given a POW. uniform which had a large triangle sewn on the back and red rings sewn on the knees which would identify easily any escaped prisoner. We were glad to get into our clothes again as the place where we were standing inside the camp was only about a hundred yards from the road in full view of passing cars and pedestrians, most of whom were women!

 

Yelling loudly at us again, the German sergeant-major and his guards lined us up "in fünfs" (rows of fives) and marched us to the camp administration office, given a POW identity number on a metal tag which we wore around our necks. Some more orders were yelled out and we were then marched through the camp to the encouraging shouts of "bon courage!" from fellow French POWs, and ordered into a small barrack in its own compound where we were isolated from the rest of the camp for six weeks, and all contact with other prisoners, some of whom had been there since 1940, was strictly forbidden. Many of these prisoners , especially the French ones, dearly wanted to know how the war was going as the only news they received was from the German Propaganda Ministry which claimed enthusiastically that Germany was winning the war. During these six weeks, the other prisoners shouted words of encouragement to us, but because of language difficulties, we could not communicate with them. A Swiss Red Cross representative from Geneva visited us and gave us the good news that we could send a short letter to our loved ones at home. He collected the letters the following day for posting in Geneva. The few letters we received and sent were very carefully censored. I wrote to my Dad and Keith wrote to his wife, Mary, and his parents. He also told us that all allied prisoners of war would receive one Canadian or British food parcel and we decided not to smoke and use our hundred cigarettes a month to buy extra food from a small number of camp guards who were prepared to risk exchanging bread and eggs for some of our excellent quality cigarettes, such as Lucky Strike and Players. At the end of six weeks of isolation, we were moved to our permanent hut. As soon as we were settled in our permanent hut, a few French and Dutch prisoners came over to greet us, but we could only communicate with the Dutch prisoners, many of whom could speak excellent English.

 

Our sleeping arrangements were made up of bunks of twelve beds arranged in three levels perilously nailed together and using short wooden planks as a bed base. The best bunk would be at the top of the three levels and the worst at the bottom, which was often damp and cold. Keith and I managed to get a couple of middle bunks, which had the unpleasant disadvantage of bed bugs from the bunk above falling on us. Fat, blood-filled bed bugs, fleas and lice were our constant companions, the lice being the most dangerous as they could cause typhus. The Germans fumigated the huts occasionally, but Keith and I got rid of our lice in winter by pressing our sheets and the seams of our clothing into the snow, a method which was very effective in killing the lice. We slept on straw-filled paillasses and were issued rough linen sheets, one pillow, and two blankets by the Red Cross which were often inadequate for the very cold German winters and at times we slept in our military greatcoats. In the middle of the hut were two large stoves, but we received only enough coal briquettes for three or four hours of burning. The stoves were lit at noon to heat up the hut and to enable us to make tea and toast. Enough briquettes were saved so that we could light the stoves again at eight PM to allow us to cook our main meal consisting of German soup, usually sauerkraut, which we ate with a slice of rye bread supplemented by a can of rice or Spam from our Red Cross parcel. Fortunately for us, we regularly received Red Cross parcels and cigarettes until October 1944 when, because of allied bombing attacks on German depots and railway marshalling yards, no more parcels arrived and we were reduced to surviving for the rest of the war on the basic German rations. The washrooms in our hut had about twenty taps and about four showers, but the water was always icy cold and most of the time we shaved in cold water or the remains of our tea. The main toilets were located in a large building about thirty feet from the huts, and consisted of about two hundred round holes cut in strong planks over a stinking cesspool to which was added lime. This liquid mixture of excreta and lime was pumped into cylindrical containers by Russian prisoners of war who spread it as fertiliser on the fields of the surrounding farms. Our health and fitness had been very good up until this time and it was sad to witness the deaths of prisoners from other nations, particularly the Russians who had existed entirely on German rations and suffered greatly.

 

A typical day would begin with a full camp parade and roll call at six am in all kinds of weather. Sometimes the Germans would keep us standing in extreme cold conditions in Winter while they conducted a search for our secret radio receiver or an escaped prisoner exchange. A prisoner exchange would be arranged by the escape committee by organising a switch with a prisoner who returned to camp every evening after working outside on a farm with the prisoner who intended to escape and who replaced him on the farm the next day. Often the Germans would not be aware of the switch for a few days giving the escapee an opportunity to get away from the camp either on foot or by bike. As our camp was located so far into Germany, almost all escape attempts failed and up to the time of the invasion by the allies, all escaped prisoners who were caught were brought back to camp and sentenced to two weeks solitary confinement with very low rations. After the allied invasion of France, the Germans announced that all prisoners found trying to escape would be summarily shot. The only major escape attempt, after this time was made by airforce officers at Stalagluft III at Sagen and all of those who were caught were shot. This story was featured in the film "The Great Escape".

 

After roll call, we would return to the hut, go back to bed, especially in winter, and wait for the stove to be lit so that we could have our cup of tea and toast. We overcame our pangs of hunger by eating our toast and drinking our tea very, very slowly. Keith and I decided that he should do the cooking and I should do the bartering and exchange of extra food for cigarettes with the help of our dear French friend and "middleman"; Jean Le Bras.

 

Adjudant-Chef Jean Le Bras of Morlaix, Finistere, France was taken prisoner by the Germans in June 1940 when his fort in the Maginot Line was surrounded by German forces. He was transferred along with about three thousand French soldiers, mostly "Militaires de Carrier" (professional soldiers), to Stalag IV B at Mühlberg-Am-Elbe, Saxony. I met Jean in Stalag IV B a few weeks after my arrival there with my friend Keith and about fifty other aircrew prisoners in October 1943. Jean knew no English and, as my knowledge of spoken French was also non-existent, we found to our delight that we could communicate in simple phrases by using my native language, Welsh, and his native language, Breton, as both languages are Celtic languages of similar origins. Jean's cheerfulness, optimism, and encouraging advice to our small group of airmen was vital in maintaining our morale during the first few months of captivity. My friend Keith and I became close friends with Jean and we visited each other's hut daily. Jean had received from the French Red Cross a French text book entitled "L'Anglais Sans Peen" (English Made Easy) which we decided to study conscientiously each day. We alternated simple conversations in French and English correcting with care each other's accent and grammatical mistakes. By the end of our captivity, Jean ended up speaking English well with a Welsh accent!

 

He had excellent contacts with some of the German guards, particularly with those who supervised the coal shed, the hospital, and the delousing and shower facilities. He truly amazed us with the amount of eggs, bread and cheese he was able to obtain. Our cigarettes were in strong demand by the German guards, and they offered us a large loaf of bread for ten cigarettes or one egg for three cigarettes. Jean even managed to barter successfully for a chicken for our Christmas dinner in 1943! Jean must have foreseen the time when no food parcels or cigarettes would be issued and advised us to save some cigarettes to barter for bread and eggs when we would be on bare German rations. I must say Keith became a very good cook and did his very best to produce some tasty dishes, especially when we could obtain some German eggs. He also became and excellent maker of a cup of tea, our main morale booster during tough times.

 

In the afternoon, Keith and I would go for a walk around the camp perimeter and call on friends in other huts for a chat. I spent a lot of my time in the French hut making every effort to improve my French. Keith spent a great deal of his time reading text books, on botany, ornithology, and agriculture which he had received from the Red Cross. After studying a few paragraphs, he would ask me to test him on the contents and was delighted when he got all the answers correct. I wasn't too interested in these subjects and tried to persuade Keith to avail himself of the wonderful opportunity to learn to speak French, but about the only few words he mastered were, "(ca boum?" and "vivement la fin"! Most of the vegetables, fruits, and flowers were cultivated by prisoners in the gardens located between the two perimeter fences and guard platforms. Keith would ask the supervising Italian POW gardener many questions about the plants and flowers, and even the German sentry seemed to appreciate Keith's interest in the progress of the garden.

 

According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners of war of the rank of sergeant and above were not obliged to work in farms and factories outside the camp. On certain days, however, our hut was assigned camp duties and one beautiful summer's day, Keith and I had the good fortune to be assigned to the wood fatigue. About eight prisoners, accompanied by a guard, would pull, with ropes around our shoulders and waist, a large wagon to a small forest about a mile outside the camp, load it with logs and bring it back into camp. We were only able to do this wood fatigue on two occasions, but it gave us a wonderful feeling of freedom and of being away from the dull and tense confines of the camp. On each occasion, the guard was a very amiable man who had fought in the First World War and was certainly very fed up with having to do military service again at the age of fifty five or sixty and longed for the end of the war.

 

By June 1944, especially after the invasion of Normandy by the allies, the situation in Stalag IV B changed drastically for the worse and the new German camp Commandant, an SS colonel, became considerably more nervous and, at times, ruthless. The eight o'clock curfew was rigorously imposed and a number of prisoners who were found outside their huts after curfew time were shot on the spot. If any prisoner, who was visiting friends in another hut, forgot the curfew time, it would have been suicide for him to try to get back to his own hut and far better to remain in his friend's hut even if he had to try and sleep on the floor.

 

One of our comrades, "Taffy" Jones, a RAF rear gunner, had prepared a plan to steal some extra coal briquettes from the coal hut which was opposite ours. During the day, he had used a knife to loosen the bricks in the corner of the coal hut and every morning at about five a.m. he would dash about forty feet to the coal hut, remove the bricks, and rush back dodging the search lights loaded up with about thirty briquettes each time. We were therefore able to light one of the stoves and obtain some heat when we came in from roll call. Taffy's scheme worked very well for quite a few weeks in the winter of 1944 and Keith and I admired greatly his courage and daring. However, one morning his luck ran out when he was surprised by a shepherd guard dog and a sentry who promptly shot him in front of us all, threw a sack over him, and left him there for all to see during roll call.

 

After the eight o'clock curfew, we prepared and ate our evening meal very, very slowly, a good idea when one is very hungry. At the same time we listened on our secret radio receiver to the latest news of the war broadcast by the BBC A number of skilled RAF technicians had somehow built a successful radio receiver which was always carefully hidden from sudden and aggressive German searches. On one occasion, the Germans tore all our beds and clothing apart and threw them everywhere in frustration. Little did they realise that a prisoner was sitting on a stool outside the hut and the secret receiver was carefully taped and hidden under the stool!

 

The Red Cross had supplied us with enough musical instruments to form a camp orchestra and jazz group. Keith really enjoyed listening to the jazz sessions of Jimmy Munson, a RAF rear gunner who had been a professional jazz musician and enthusiast before joining up. The majority of about sixty musicians in the camp orchestra were Dutchmen, some of whom had been professional musicians in civilian life and others, especially the brass section, had been members of the Royal Dutch Naval Band at Den Helder, naval base. We enjoyed some fine concerts of the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and of course Hitler's favourite, Wagner. An operetta, "Merry England' by Sir Edward German, was also performed and we were amazed how many fine singers participated from the British prisoners, and much of the music left us feeling very sad and homesick.

 

To pass away the time, many of us played chess and crib and Keith really enjoyed beating me at chess, but one day I introduced him to my Polish friend, Adamkiewich, who enjoyed trouncing Keith and was considered the champion chess player among the Poles.

 

As the allied troops advanced further into France during 1944, allied airforces were able to operate from bases much nearer to Germany, and bombing raids were carried our against previously unreachable military and industrial targets in such cities as Leipzig and Dresden. When the camp air raid sirens sounded during the day, everyone shouted, "Forts up!" and scanned the skies to look for the waves of American flying fortresses flying high above us and heading for their targets. We had great admiration for the brave American aircrews who often met very fierce opposition from German fighters, especially from the newer Focke Wulf 190 considered by many as the most superior fighter plane of the Second World War. Although the American planes flew in tight formation to provide maximum defensive fire power against these attacks with their heavy machine guns, quite a number of American planes were hit and came down in flames with only a few of the crew managing to ball out. One American crew member who had bailed out landed about two hundred yards from our camp perimeter and was greeted by a loud cheer from all of us. These regular air raids, as well as being an exciting diversion, also gave us hope that we were winning the war and that we would soon be liberated.

 

In summer we played cricket against teams from Australia, India, and South Africa. Many prisoners from these countries had learned cricket during the time of the British Empire and showed often that they had more skill than the English themselves. While Keith and I were sitting and watching an interesting cricket match one sunny day, an amazing and tragic incident occurred. A twin-engine German Junkers 88 appeared overhead and began doing the most astonishing and daring aerial manoeuvres. The pilot obviously wanted to show off his skill and the calibre of the plane by diving to a very low level above us, climbing steeply, doing some risky tight turns, and hurtling down over our heads again. At any moment, Keith and I expected this crazy pilot to crash into the camp and cause a real disaster, and at times he seemed to be only a few feet from the ground before climbing up sharply again. As all of us ran as fast as we could to get out of his way, a tragic and unbelievable accident occurred. A tall Canadian was struck by the plane's tail airline as he was running away and died on the spot. The plane flew away after the incident leaving us all very sad and angry. The incident was recorded years later in the Canadian Legion magazine, the guilty pilot was identified from Luftwaffe records, and lawyers representing the victim's family was eventually compensated by the present German government. This accident could have involved Keith or me as we were running close to the unfortunate victim.

 

By the end of the war our hut and other huts were very overcrowded with the arrival of many prisoners of war, most of whom had arrived later, and consisted of British paratroopers caught in Arnhem and Americans taken prisoner during the German breakthrough at Bastogne in the Ardennes. Our own hut had about two hundred and fifty prisoners and living conditions became very tense and difficult. Some of the newly arrived prisoners began stealing other men's soup cooking on the stove and we had to take very drastic and unpleasant action to discourage this. Anyone found stealing was ceremoniously dumped in the toilet cesspool, and after the few thieves were punished in this way, no more stealing took place.

 

In February 1945, Keith became seriously ill with pleurisy and had great difficulty in breathing. Jean and I felt that unless we could get some satisfactory medication to ease Keith's severe pain and lung congestion, he would not survive. A South African POW. doctor at the small POW. hospital had few drugs and could do very little to relieve Keith's condition. Jean told me that he would try to get in contact with a German medical orderly and, at great risk to himself, he obtained from this medical orderly for sixty cigarettes a thermometer, some vitamins, decongestion tablets, aspirins and also instructions on how to treat Keith. This depleted our stock of cigarettes, but it was well worth it as we believed the transaction saved Keith's life and enabled him to regain his strength sufficiently to be taken to a French military hospital in Leipzig ~ for a lung puncture and other treatment by a French specialist. For the German camp authorities to allow this transfer amazed us, but perhaps they did it because they felt that the end of the war was near. Keith was in a ward with ten other POW. patients all of whom suffered and died from the same severe lung congestion. A few weeks later Keith returned to Stalag IV B in a goods railcar after enduring a severe nerve wracking allied bombing raid in the railway marshalling yards in Leipzig where the goods train was held up. Keith really thought, with the bombs exploding all around him, that he was going to be killed by his own comrades in the RAF. Needless to say Jean and I were delighted to see him alive and looking reasonably well. With our few remaining cigarettes, Jean went out on another search for bread and eggs which we used to celebrate Keith's safe return.

 

Towards the end of March 1945, we heard the good news from a secret radio receiver, that the forward units of the Red Army were getting very close to our camp. We could hear the roar of guns and bombardments throughout the day and night and knew that in a very short time we would be liberated. We woke up one morning and found that the German guards and their officers had fled and had been replaced by Hungarian soldiers who were dressed in uniforms like those of Napoleonic times. A few days later, we heard the sound of bagpipes being played in the army compound and the wild cries of our comrades yelling, "We are free! There are no guards around the camp." Everyone began singing "Land of Hope and Glory". In the French, Russian, Italian, Dutch, and Serb sections of the camp, there were also wild shouts of joy and singing. The small number of Polish prisoners of war, who had great distrust for the Russians, had decided to flee to the west twenty four hours before. Prisoners began dismantling the barb wire enclosures and sentry boxes around the camp and setting them on fire. Later in the afternoon, a group of Red Army Soldiers accompanied by an officer and interpreter arrived in the camp and gave us strict instructions in German, not in English, to remain in the camp as there were a number of dangerous and suicidal SS units still in the area which had not been eliminated by the Red Army. A few days later, Jean and the rest of the French prisoners were taken by the Russians to a nearby town where they provided the labour for the construction of an airbase runway and did not return to France until the work was completed.

 

The Russians told us that they would deliver some basic food supplies to us as soon as possible, but as we were all very hungry and weak, a number of us despite the Russian warning, decided to walk to the nearest abandoned German farms and villages to forage for food and drink. A Canadian friend of mine, a giant of a man, named Red (a nickname for a red head) Davidson, persuaded me to accompany him to one of the farms. The farm had been abandoned in a hurry, about eighty beautiful Holstein cows were still tied up in the cow shed and the milk was flowing from them and they were literally milking themselves. Davidson, who had come from a farming area of Alberta, and I were indeed very sorry for these poor animals and were almost tempted to release them. We were warned not to enter the farm house in case it had been booby trapped with explosives by departing Germans. The only other source of food, was in the chicken house where we obtained some eggs, and having witnessed my uncle wring chickens' necks on the farm in Wales, I promptly entered the chicken house, closed my eyes, wrung the necks of about eight chickens, and threw them out to Davidson who had already found a large sack to put them in. We returned to camp and shared our eggs and chickens with Jean, Keith, and other friends. Fortunately, Red knew how to pluck and clean the chickens.

 

We remained at Stalag IVB for about another two weeks during which time a number of us sought food in nearby farms still occupied by the German owners. The local farmers were very relieved to see us, but they were all very worried about what was going to happen to them. "Wir haben viel Angst." (We are very scared) was their constant anguished lament, and they thought our presence would ease the tension, but we didn't stay very long, especially when a Russian soldier approaching the farm shot the farmer's aggressive dog instantly with his machine gun. During our restricted freedom, we wondered when we would be allowed to return home and how the Russians would organise it. Keith had heard that the German camp administration and record office was being looted by many prisoners looking for souvenirs, and he went down to help himself to his POW. file showing him with a shaved head and numbered p.o.w.. uniform. The next day with a group of other prisoners I decided to look for my photographs, but unfortunately while searching for our files, we were surprised by and angry Russian officer who fired three shots from his revolver over our heads, lined us up, confiscated the stolen files, and put us in the camp prison for a week. This was not a pleasant experience especially at night time, but Keith and Jean visited me outside my cell window, passed me some good stew and bread and kept up my spirits until I was released. A few days later, all POWs were told that we were being marched about four miles away to a town called Riesa. I was concerned about Keith being able to walk this distance, but he did quite well resting from time to time to regain his strength. We were accommodated in a large, modern former 5.5. barracks which had clean beds, hot showers, and comfortable furniture. The Russians provided us with plenty of potatoes, and other vegetables, but they could only deliver live steers which we were supposed to butcher ourselves! Very fortunately for us there were about a dozen Australian airmen with us who had lived in the Australian outback and knew exactly what to do. The barrack garage area was used as a slaughter house, the Russian soldiers shot the animals and the Aussies did the rest.

 

The Russians, although they treated us reasonably well, would definitely not allow us to leave the barracks, and posted Slovak guards at all corners of the barracks. They followed this policy for all allied prisoners of war released by the Red Army, and we didn't find the reason for this policy until years later. Apparently the Russians wanted the British to hand over about eighty thousand Croatian soldier, captured in Northern Italy by the British and who had fought on the side of the Germans during the ion of Russia. The Russians were therefore holding us as pawns in this political game. Harold Macmillan, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, at first refused to do this, but as about thirty five thousand British and allied prisoners of war were being held by the Russians, he eventually relented by about June 1945 and some of the Croatians were handed over to the Russians. God knows what happened to them, but as the Russians eventually released by 1952 many German p.o.w.s caught by them, it is possible that a number of Croatians were also released, allowed home, and emigrated to such countries as Canada.

 

Keith and I became very frustrated being confined to this barracks and, being anxious to get home, we decided, if the opportunity presented itself, to try to escape and make our way westward toward the American lines. Keith's health had improved a little, but he was still having moments of extreme fatigue and looked rather pale despite the much improved food we were receiving was beginning to feel quite fit and reasonably strong although very thin and weighed about one hundred and eight pounds. We noticed that the guards were posted at each end of a long wall which had a number of large holes caused no doubt by a Russian attack

 

We checked a fairly small opening in the wall about a hundred yards distance from each sentry and thought this would be the most convenient and least dangerous exit; however, two main problems remained. The most important one was how quickly we could run across the thirty - foot wide street, dive through the open cellar door of the German house opposite and, without stopping, through the back door. The second problem was to somehow distract the attention of at least one of the guards, and to do this we obtained the co-operation of a number of our pals who intended approaching the guard in a large group and singing loudly some popular songs.

 

We agreed to leave very early in the morning, and as the weather was sunny and warm we decided to make our break wearing only our uniforms with the red p.o.w.. patches removed. Many of our friends thought we were very foolish to risk being shot as the war was now over. I called to the German housewife in the house opposite and explained to her why she should open the cellar door. As soon as she did so, our friends started serenading the guard at the nearest end, and without hesitation Keith and I made our dash for the open cellar door running like terrified rabbits and diving through the cellar door as two rifle shots rang out above us. Without stopping, we fell headlong out of the back door and slid quickly down the grassy slope of the railway embankment and continued running for about two hundred yards before collapsing exhausted behind a clump of trees. We hid there for about an hour wondering if the guards were searching for us, but for some strange reason they obviously had no intention of doing so. We decided to climb to the top of the other embankment and follow it to the town centre a short distance away. The town centre was full of Russian soldiers and two heavily armed Russian women soldiers were directing the movement of military trucks, horses and carts and refugees. As they didn't seem very interested in us, we began to relax and started walking westwards. After walking a few miles, we heard a horse and cart driven by and old Russian smoking a pipe coming up slowly behind us. He stopped and invited us to ride on his load of hay, a welcome ride which we enjoyed for about fifteen miles or more. We thanked the old Russian and carried on walking a few more miles eventually coming to a small town which must have been the scene of a recent fierce battle between Russian troops and desperately defending German soldiers. Keith and I being aircrew, had always experienced war from a distance and we were profoundly shocked with what we saw at close hand many beautiful buildings and homes were completely destroyed and looted. The decaying and smelling corpses of animals, horses and dogs, were everywhere and here and there lay the body of a soldier or a civilian. Some terrified and weeping women came out of the few undamaged houses and tried to round up and comfort a number of small hysterical children, crying pitifully for their mothers who possibly had been killed. They, pleaded with us to help them and give them food, but there was very little we could do. Further up the street we stopped and entered a house which had been riddled with bullets and completely ransacked. On the floor was a large, torn swastika flag and a beautifully bound copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" usually given to all newly married couples. As there was a large garden shed alongside the house, we decided to open it to look for some vegetables. The heavy door was partly open and swinging back and forth slowly in the breeze. "There's blood coming from under the door", Keith said and we slowly opened the heavy door. To our horror we looked straight at a dead German soldier who had been shot several times and left to hang from his uniform on a large coat hook on the door. Keith and I never forgot the dreadful scenes in this town of the atrocities of war.

 

We left this devastated town as soon as possible and eventually came to a large country house with a large garden and orchard. We decided to enter and dig up some carrots, and while we were doing so we were shocked out of our skins by a very loud bang and the wild laughter of a lone Russian soldier) who had just thrown an explosive charge behind us. We approached him with our hands in the air repeating several times, "RAF. RAF, " and showed him our RAF identification tags. He immediately understood, embraced both of us, and insisted we help him drink a bottle of vodka which fortunately had only a little left. We took a few swigs, thanked him and went on our way.

 

It was now about six o'clock in the evening and fortunately the weather was sunny and warm. Another small town lay about a mile away and as Keith was complaining bitterly of fatigue and very sore feet, we rested for about an hour before deciding to get up and press on to the town. When we decided to get up, we found it impossible to do so as our joints were solidly locked and a very painful cramp tore through our leg muscles. Keith was on the verge of fainting and I realised we had to make it to the town somehow or other to find help and accommodation for the night. I dragged myself to a small log and I was able to sit on it for a while allowing my joints to unlock and the pain to subside, talking and encouraging Keith all the time. I struggled to my feet and after considerable effort I pulled Keith up and dragged him along the road towards the town. Sometimes in life one seems to find a surge of extra strength and both of us seemed to possess this as we struggled to the door of a fine looking house at the entrance to the town. I knocked loudly on the door several times and as there was no answer, I knocked and this time yelled again in German for them to open the door. From the corner of my eye I saw a curtain open slightly in a basement window and the terrified face of a woman peered at us. We smiled and beckoned to her to open the door. The door opened slowly and a pleasant, attractive lady of about forty years of age and her teenaged daughter greeted us. She was obviously the wife of a rich man, possibly a S.S party member, as the house was beautifully furnished. I told her we were British prisoners of war heading for the American lines and that my friend was very exhausted and had very badly swollen and bleeding feet. She invited us into the kitchen and gave us some very good soup, bread and cheese, and apple strudel. She then showed us upstairs to a lovely bedroom with spotlessly clean and comfortable beds and gave us clean towels and soap for a bath. She told us she was a nurse and that she would tend to Keith's feet after he had had his bath, but beforehand she took out her scissors and carefully cut away his socks which were stuck to his feet. I ran a hot bath for Keith and let him soak his aching body in it for quite a while. I then took a bath myself and afterwards felt like a new man. I can remember neither the lady's nor her daughter's name, but let's call the lady Erika and her daughter Heidi. Erika then took out her first aid kit, treated Keith's bleeding blisters and bandaged up his feet again. We were both now nodding to sleep and ready for bed. Her daughter Heidi then brought up some hot chocolate and sandwiches. Keith and I got into bed, but they both remained in the room and to our amazement Erika told us that they were terrified of the occupying Russian Mongolian troops and expected that both of them would be raped any day. Keith and I were absolutely flabbergasted when she invited us to sleep with her and her daughter for a couple of weeks and to impregnate them before the Mongolians did it! In our state of health I very much doubt we could have obliged any woman. ~ felt very sorry indeed for them and tried to comfort them by telling them that the Russians also had wives and daughters and would not necessarily harm them. We then fell into a deep sleep and woke up late in the morning. Erika had prepared a good breakfast of bacon and eggs and gave us some apples to take with us. We thank her very much and made our way down through the main street we learned was Würzen situated on the river Mülde. We have often been teased about this extraordinary situation in this German home, but even if we had decided to stay there apart from the moral implications, there was an incredible risk from the consequences of drunken Russian soldiers breaking in to the home or possibly worse still her husband returning home still armed.

 

Keith and I have often wondered what happened to Erika and Heidi.

 

The main street of Würzen lead steeply down to the edge of the river Mülde where there were a large number of Russian soldiers and officials checking anyone, especially Germans, who wanted to cross the narrow pontoon built bridge to the other side of the river where there were American troops. Almost all were turned back and Keith and I wondered what would happen to us; however, our RAF identity tags worked well again and we were allowed to cross after shaking hands with about four or five Russian soldiers who seemed to have a lot of admiration for the R.A.F. The Russians informed us that the Americans were about half a mile away at the top of a steep, open field. As we approached the far end of the field, we were ordered to stop, put our hands in the air, identify ourselves and approach slowly where there were about six tough looking GIs and some medical orderlies with stretchers. As soon as we identified ourselves, they placed us on stretchers, gave us a cup of coffee and took us down a slope to waiting military trucks. The trucks drove very quickly through the completely destroyed city of Leipzig eventually arriving a few hours later at the former German airbase and equipment centre in Halle. I remember my father who loved Handel's music telling me that Handel was born there. There we were again given the delousing treatment, but this time by very kind and caring American orderlies who helped us along in every way. We were examined quickly by a doctor, given new and clean American underclothes, boots and a uniform, told to have a meal, and to prepare to fly to a British and American redistribution centre in Reims, France. We boarded a Dakota which flew low over the countryside reminding us again of the enormous devastation of cities. On arriving at Reims, we were accommodated in tents for the night, given a further medical examination, a hearty meal, and loaded into waiting RAF Lancaster bombers acting as transport planes. As twenty four of us would be crammed into the plane, Keith and I wanted to avoid spending the flight in the fuselage and informed the Lancaster pilot that we were RAF aircrew and he allowed me to ride in the front gun turret and Keith sat in the second pilot's seat almost back to the same flying position he had left two years previously. A few hours later, we landed in and aerodrome in Kent and were filled with overwhelming emotion to be back again on English soil. Following further check-ups and interrogation, we were given new RAF uniforms, leave passes and generous back Pay. Keith and I parted company at the railway station, arranged to meet later, and thanked God for our survival during two difficult and tension-filled years.

 

 

Gareth Prytherch currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, his home for some forty years. He remained in contact with both Keith Butters (wbo died circa 1995) and Jean Le Bras (died circa 1993). My thanks to Stuart Davies for contacting him and passing on his story to the site.

 

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