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George Charlton

Private George Charlton

 

Unit : Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

Served : France (captured).

Army No. : 5387389

POW No. : 10169.

Camps : Stalag VIIIB / 344.

 

George Charlton, born in West Stanley, County Durham on 4 February 1919. I can remember the 1926 strike. I was 7 years old, and what I remember most was having to go to the soup kitchens to get a bowl of soup. My family moved from West Stanley to East Stanley just before I started school. The school I attended is now in the Beamish Museum, also the chapel I went to, also parts of the pit I worked in. I passed my 11+ exams and went to Ann Field Plain Intermediate School, which was previously called The Upper Standards. I can still remember the head masters name (Mr. Bolum). The only other teacher I can remember was (Mr. Knags). He was my maths teacher, which is my favorite subject; I suppose that is why I remember him.

 

I left school on my 14th Birthday, and started work the next day down Jackieís Pit as a pony driver. When I was 16 I became a putter, you'll have to be a miner to know what a putter does, roughly you push the tubs of coal from the coal face to a siding where they are collected by the drivers. The pit closed when I was 17 so they transferred me to another one called Chophill Colliery. I stayed there for a year and decided to move on. So in the summer of 1937 I moved to Birmingham. After four days of being in Birmingham I managed to get a job in a Brass Foundry (Newey and Taylors), where I worked for the next 39 years, which include the 6.5 years I spent in the army.

 

I was called up or what you call conscripted in September 1939. I was sent to Cowley Barracks in Oxford to do my training. It was here in the following month that I met my wife and we will be celebrating our Diamond Wedding next month on June 2nd {2005}.

 

I was shipped off to France and that was the last time I saw my now wife for 5.5 years. We were married 26 days after I came home from Poland as I was a P.O.W. I will try to recall a few things that may be of interest, since this is the reason I am writing this whatever you want to call it. Writing isn't one of my strong points but, nevertheless here goes: We sailed from Southampton to the Isle of White, anchored over night and completed our journey the next day and landed at Cherbourg. From there we moved inland to a place called Bacquepea (I wander if this Bricquebec?), this may be spelt wrong but the pronunciation is correct. We were billeted on a farm sleeping in Barns and various out buildings. As far as I can remember I was here for about a month and we carried on doing bits of training. None of us privates knew what was going on, we only knew we could move any day. I didn't keep any records so most of the following is from memory. Towards the end of March we marched, walked call it what you will to Belgium and it was here I saw my first bit of action. We were told what to do, single file, spread out or what have you. We slept where we could, mostly in Barns but a couple of times we weren't so lucky and slept in ditches. We were told to spread out, as we went through a wood, and this is where we had our first casualties, we believe it was snipers. When we went through the towns in Belgium the people cheered us, but it was a different tune when we came out as German prisoners. We walked under guard all the way to Germany, eating stations were set up on route, we were given a bowl of soup and a piece of bread. Sometimes we had a drink of coffee and do you know that was the first time I ever had coffee. After about four or five weeks on the road we eventually reached our destination. Stalag 8B which is in Lamsdorf near Kambinowice.

 

We were lined up in the camp then counted, and this was to be our twice daily routine Line up and be counted. We were put into huts about 100 in each hut. The beds were long benches running the length of the hut and were in not double bunks but triple.

 

We were each issued with 1 blanket and a straw palliasse. Eventually we were given the usual bowl of soup and a piece of bread. The following morning after the usual count we were told to get in lines to have our hair cut. This was done with horse shears, the old fashioned kind. One German turned the handle while another ran the shears around your head. You would have thought these supposed superior race would have had a prisoner turn the handle. Over the next few days we were asked various questions, are you single or married? What was your occupation in civy street? Things like that, the answers some of them gave was really funny. One was a lion tamer, another told fortunes. We were given identity discs with a P.O.W. number on it. Mine was 10169 my army number was 5387389. After a few days we were glad to have our short haircut, as we became crawling with lice.

 

Washing facilities were poor, our clothes were filthy and we did the best we could to wash them. The clothes they issued to us were Polish or French army uniforms. The worst things they gave us were clogs. These had wooden soles and scrap pieces of leather, which were held together by rivets. We didnít have socks supplied, but two square pieces of cloth the size of a handkerchief. You wrapped these around your feet to wear with your clogs, we called these pieces of rag fooselapping. The time dragged we were always hungry, all we could think about was food. P.O.W. Life opened my eyes meeting all the various people, we had Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and soldiers from the Channel Islands. The biggest surprise I had was when they wanted some details done, like peeling potatoes and what do you know the sergeants and corporals did this so they could help themselves to a few potatoes. That's when I found out they were no better than a private. After a couple of weeks of being counted and counted again and hearing the word Apel so many times being shouted by the German guards. I found out it meant on parade. Apel, marche, snell, one got sick of hearing it. On parade, march, and quickly and over and over again.

 

The Germans photographed us and sent the photo home to show that we were still alive.

 

After about a couple of weeks, we were put into groups. I was in a group of about 40 of us. We were marched out of the gates escorted by 3 or 4 guards. After about half an hours walk we ended up on a building site, which I found out later was Siemens a well known firm. Here we were put to work doing various Jobs laboring; under a German civilian who was a foreman or charge hand or something. One day I was carrying bricks, another moving bags of cement, shoveling sand; anything, just a general dogsbody. At least it broke the monotony. We were given a bowl of soup and a slice of bread at midday. When we got back to camp we were given the usual soup and piece of bread, of course we always got a mug of coffee, there was plenty of that. Before we marched off to work we had the usual coffee and slices of bread, sometimes with cheese or jam. We even had black pudding a couple of times. We were paid each week, I can't remember exactly how much, but it certainly wasn't over paid. It was enough to buy the essentials we needed, like razor blades, tooth paste and soap powder to wash our cloths or at least try. This job lasted for about a month, you could count the time because we used to have Sundays off, (a day of rest) Apel, marche, snell even on Sundays. The next job I had also lasted about a month. It was in a paper mill, my job was putting wood into a chopping machine. The wood was just like pit props, how boring, but we had our midday meal to look forward to. You guessed it soup, the usual bread and coffee.

 

My next job lasted 3 or 4 months, it was in a sugar beet factory, I was always reminded of it when we used to visit my daughter when she used to live in Stourport. We had to pass through Kidderminster. That's where they have a sugar beet factory. I don't know if it is still there, as we donít go that way anymore. My task at the factory was to carry the sacks of sugar as they came off the conveyor belt and stack them in their appropriate place. It was a bit difficult the first couple of days, but once you got the knack of how to balance them on your shoulders it was no problem. We got the usual snack for lunch but were able to put a bit of sugar on our bread this made a change. Of course we were able to sneak some back to camp in our pockets, this we used to barter with other prisoners, or sell it for the special money they had printed. It was pink and just looked like a bus ticket, only made of ordinary paper, by the way the pay was the same. I was still working here when we had our first Xmas as a P.O.W. I can remember it quite well as we had our first Red Cross parcel, one between two. Most of us had palled up with someone so it was no problem sharing. We had 2 days off for Xmas. We played cards and various games as some of the luckier ones had personnel parcels sent through. We were allowed 1 letter and 2 post cards each month and these we could send back home. I used to send the letter to my girl friend and the cards home. Sometimes I was able to barter for an extra card with my sugar. You couldn't leave any food around as there was so much pilfering going on all eatables we disposed of straight away.

 

I was able to send to my girlfriend a picture of a group of us at Stalag 8B.

 

This job in the sugar beet factory lasted until March, after that I was back in the camp full time. This only lasted about 5 or 6 days, the next job I had was the last as a P.O.W. I was moved this time by train, there must have been about 80 to 100 of us. We traveled in cattle trucks, which was not very comfortable as you could only stand. I donít know how long the journey was but it seemed a long one. I remember we stopped once to have the usual bowl of soup with a slice of bread and coffee. When we next left the train at last we had completed our journey and found ourselves in Poland. We walked from the station to a new camp. It was nothing like Stalag VIII B. It looked as if it had been a small school, as there was a sort of play ground and the building had a number of rooms of various sizes. We were lined up in the play ground, which gave me a chance to see that it was fenced in with high barbed wire, so they must have prepared it for us. There were only 8 guards plus 1 of a higher rank in charge. We were counted again as usual, and then split up in groups of various numbers. I noticed there were only 8 in our group, most were in groups of 12 or 14. We didn't have to wait long before we found out why, these were the numbers allocated to each room and I felt lucky as there was only eight of us. We did nothing that day other than collect our palliasse, blanket and pillow. There was one big room with a long table and forms to sit on. There was a stove at each end of the room. The toilets are quite normal, these you could flush, not like the ones at Stalag 8B where you sat on a wooden sort of bench with a round hole.

 

So you see we were being treated a little more civilized. Our first meal was much better it had been cooked by our own cooks, which we also found out later. They had come with us from Stalag 8B and were army cooks so that was their job for the duration. We also found out that day what our future job was going to be. We were to become coal miners. This didn't bother me in the least as I had done my apprenticeship when I was 14. We were to be put into 2 groups so that we could work in shifts. We decided it would be better if we had 4 on each shift so that we could always have someone in the room at all times. We found this worked a treat, especially when Red Cross parcels arrived. They came from home, Australia and Canada and didn't we look forward to them. We in our room decided to pool ours and anything else we could barter. This worked well especially with tea and milk powder. Tea went much farther when shared. We found we could have a pot a couple of times each day, well most days. There was always a little extra food, like tinned beans, corned beef, cheese, pilchards, meat loaf, hard tac and various other things like soap and chocolate, also drinking chocolate sometimes. These latter things we found very useful as we bartered them with the civilians we worked with. A loaf of bread went better on an empty stomach than a bar of chocolate or a bar of soap. After a couple of weeks we resigned ourselves to a little bit of comfort. The food was a big improvement and we were having regular meals, not big meals but with the parcels and the bartering we didn't do too bad. The P.O.W.'s worked on the coal face. Their job was to fill the tubs with coal. In most cases the normal format was 1 German, 2 Poles and 2 P.O.W's. Working together and most of them got along together. We worked 6 days a week and had a free Sunday, when we played cards and various board games which had been sent from home. I picked up quite a bit of Polish and German, on which I could get by. So much so I was put on another job, sort of part time interpreter. I was put with a Pole who was a pipe fitter. I was his laborer. We had to do pipe repairs and extend them were necessary. They were for compressed air so that drills could be worked and also air pipes. We still got the same pay 70 Fenings a week. I think it was about 3s 6d a week. With the regular food we were now having our bodies were returning to normal, our strength was coming back. We were able to get rid of the lice. What a pleasure to get into bed have a good sleep without having to scratch all the while.

 

We used to look forward for letters from home, these were the better days. Sundays we washed our clothes the best we could. We had a shower when we came up from the pit and of course changed our clothes we had a sort of overall coat and trousers to wear down the pit also shoes, second hand of course, but anything was better than the clogs. The name of the place was Yewugiuow that is not the right spelling but that is how it sounded. There must have been a camp for Jewish prisoners somewhere near, as they used to stagger past our camp in their stripped coat, trousers and cap. I suppose they were also on a working party, they didn't have Sundays off. We worked 10 hours a day but they worked longer as they passed our camp before we started and returned after we had finished. We used to call them striped jackets, we did not know of the concentration camps then, but we must have been pretty near Auswitch.

 

I made quite a lot of friends but today there are only 2 names I can remember, one is called Metchezslaf Palko. He was the pipe fitter I worked with, the other one I haven't met as yet in my story. We got very little war news as we didn't have any new P.O.W's coming to our camp, so we hoped and prayed for the best. All our mail was heavily censured especially the letters from home. In 1944 we had a feeling in the camp of change, the guards were acting differently, getting towards the end of 1944 they took us to the pictures and we knew then the war was coming to an end in our favor. A few weeks later in early December they marched us out of the camp without a word. We were kept on the move all day and in the evening we were turned into a barn, given the usual soup and bread and told to bed down for the night. There was plenty of hay so we were o.k. for sleeping. We were on our way again the following morning. This was the pattern for the next couple of weeks. There must have been other working parties, because our group was increasing each day.

 

One day when we were lining up for our usual bowl of soup, I had the surprise of my life. The cook who was serving the soup was a school friend of mine when I was 9 or 10. He was the only person I really knew all the time I was in the army. He was in the Durham Light Infantry, and that's where all my school friends 'landed' he informed me. I palled up on this march with a chap from Dudley, he was in the same regiment as me, but I had just met him for the first time. We knew the war was nearly over, because we used to call at the farm houses for bread or anything to eat. It looked like my P.O.W. days were going to finish as they had started, hungry all the while. We had been walking about for 3 or 4 months when my friend whose name by the way is (Howard Bryant) said to me "I'm sure we have been here before, we are just moving backwards and forwards". After a bit of discussion we decided to hide that night and after the column moved off in the morning we would go in the opposite direction. This we did and no one bothered us, food became easier as there was just the 2 of us 'on the scrounge'. The language we heard from the civilians had changed after a few days and we realised we were back in Germany, so we decided to carry on as no one was interested in us. About the end of March we bumped into a couple of Yanks and oh boy what a surprise. We were questioned and told them we were P.O.W. and that we had been walking for months. They had headquarters in the town, which they took us to. We were the first P.O.W.s they had seen, but now they were on the move they were sure to meet more. They took us to a hotel where we were put up and told to stay put. We could walk about but were to stay at the hotel as they would send any other POWs there. When there was enough of us they would get us back home. I was there for about 5 or 6 weeks and they were the best we had for some time. One of the P.O.W.s who came to the hotel could drive. We got a car from somewhere, so we used to ride about as long as we could get petrol. We were eventually taken to an airport and they flew us to France in a Dekota. We stayed in France a while and finally we flew home in a Lancaster Bomber the day before V.E. day.

 

The day before V.E. Day we landed in Oxfordshire, I think it was called Wing. We were given a pre-printed telegram to send to next of kin. Which of course were my parents, who were in Birmingham. I was given a travel pass and sent home on leave. My girl friend, Ellen Williams, whom I had not seen for nearly six years, she was also in the army, but on V.E. leave at the time, she lived in Oxford. As soon as my parents received the telegram they sent word to Ellen. Ellen managed to phone her camp and explaining the situation she was allowed leave the same as me as long as we got married. We were married June 2nd 1945 just 26 days after arriving home. We will have been married 60 years in a couple of weeks and are greatly looking forward to our diamond wedding anniversary.

 

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