Lance-Corporal Ivor H. S. Lipscombe

 

Unit : 2nd Battalion The Dorsetshire Regiment.

Served : France (captured)

Army No. : 5724762

POW No. : 20890

Camps : Stalag IA, XXB.

 

In September 1939, in a small French village called Rumegies – about two miles from the French-Belgium border – my regiment, the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshires were billeted throughout the village in barns, sheds and pigsties. Myself and thirty others were in the local theatre where we slept between the rows of fixed seats. From Sept to April, when not on guard duty, we marched to the border where we created an improvised extension to the Maginot Line, digging deep anti-tank trenches and constructing concrete pill boxes, sometimes up to our knees in cold, wet, sticky mud.

 

May 4th 1940 at 1.30am I was roused from my slumbers and told to report to Bn HQ at the double. There I was passed on to the Intelligence Officer (IO) who briefed me on a large wall map (which I had previously enlarged). I was also given a map to plot my journey through Belgium to a town called Ath. I set off around 6am with my worldly possessions in a pack on my back to place route markers on the way to Ath for the Battalion to follow me. When the Brigade was assembled around Ath we advanced further to what appeared to be a holiday camp, around a large lake. It looked so peaceful, but that was where we came under fire. Out-numbered by manpower and armour we retreated under cover of darkness, marching for three nights – no smoking or talking.

 

We reached the French village of Gore on La Bassee Canal - the same village where my Regiment were almost wiped out in the First World War - and I was put on night guard duty. The next day the Battalion moved on, leaving me and four men to follow as rear guard. By mid-day the five of us were surrounded by German tanks, and in the afternoon we made a quick decision to use our small truck and try to break through to join the rest of the Battalion. We tried – but we failed! The truck was raked with shell and machine guns. Our driver was killed, I received bullets and shrapnel in my right thigh, and we were all taken Prisoner of War. (I later found out that our CO, Lt.Col. Stephenson, had led the Battalion on foot to the Dunkirk beaches)

 

A German arrived in a motor-cycle combination and took charge. He was obviously a high-ranking officer. After making sure we were all disarmed he came over to me, looked at the damage to my thigh and ordered in English that two of our lads should put me in his side-car. He spoke to his driver and I was taken to an ambulance, then on to a field dressing station – a building on top of a coal mine. Two German officers interrogated me that evening. They eventually looked at each other, shook their heads and left, probably thinking I was also wounded in the head. I spent the night on stretcher and was taken to a room where two German doctors removed a lump of shrapnel and two bullets.

 

I came-to in a large shed which I took to be the changing room for the miners, because there were many hooks on chains slung from the roof on which clothes were hanging. There were probably thirty British soldiers lying on the floor. Later on we were taken by lorry to ‘Cambria’ hospital. There were no beds available, so we were put on the floor of the hospital chapel. Here, in the quiet of the night I silently hoped that the German officer who helped me would survive and return to his family. I still wonder if he did. Two days later I had an operation to remove gangrene from the wound. The French Medic told me that if the operation was not successful I could lose my leg. I make no apologies for crying when I came round to find my leg still attached to my body.

 

Our next move came about seven days later when we were packed into closed in cattle wagons and sent to Poland by rail. Each wagon had two louvred air vents. Some of the lads had developed dysentery and God, the stench was terrible. We spent two days in those wagons and then checked into Stalag 1A - a deserted Polish barracks on the outskirts of Toran. Being unable to do any physical work at the time, the Germans put me in charge of issuing ‘Dinner Tickets’. The barracks were split into sections with the highest-ranking person as ‘Section Leader’. I had to give them the dinner tickets – one per person in their section – in seven different colours. Each section had a different colour every day. Tickets were exchanged for a daily ration of watery soup, generally swede and potato. All went well until the Germans realised that they were feeding about twenty extra POW’s who didn’t exist. I had been handing out tickets for the sick and badly wounded who were in a different place! I got the boot and was sent to Stalag 20B, a punishment camp near the German-Russian border. This had been a POW camp in WW1 and an elderly chap in our Pioneer Corps had actually served in that war. On arrival we were counted, checked and photographed with a board around our necks. Yours truly became POW 20890 and would stay there for the next four years. We lined up to each receive one blanket (crawling with lice) and one pair of wooden clogs, and were marched to the huts where we would spend the next four years.

 

The camp area was something like a quarter of a square mile and the huts were built on eight inches of sand. The German guard’s accommodation, complete with three lookouts and machine guns, surrounded the outside of the wire perimeter. Our latrines were the usual long, deep trenches with crossed poles each end and centre, and for urinals there were large wooden barrels placed at different points around the camp. All these were placed so that searchlights could highlight anyone using them in the night. If you needed to use them you had to clap your hands on the way there and back, and kick the barrel with your clogs while you were using it! Both latrines and barrels had to be emptied. The barrels needed two men – one each end of a long pole, passed through two rope loops on each barrel. The barrels were emptied first, then taken back to be filled from the latrines by large saucepans on poles used to scoop out the contents. All this was carried two hundred yards down a treacherous path and emptied into the river Elb.

 

Each Christmas Day we were sorted into batches of around a hundred men, marched five miles into the local town of Marienberg to the POW hospital at Lazarette. Here our heads were shaved and our clothes removed and sent through to the de-lousing oven. We had a shower then put on our still-hot clothes and marched back to the camp. This took all day from 6am to 8pm. During our absence from the camp the Germans were searching our huts and belongings. When we got back food from Red Cross parcels, cigarettes, soap etc were missing, but, of course, no-one ever knew anything about it. Eventually we had a wooden trough with running water, and a row of boxed toilets to sit on. We also finally had a wash-house and a de-lousing building where we could have a hot shower while our clothes were being de-loused.

 

‘Working Parties’ were collected by guards every morning at 6am. Some were loading and unloading coal at the town station (they frequently saw trains of flat wagons marked with the Red Cross full of food parcels destined for the Russian Front); some re-designating parcels to other parts of Northern Germany; some to local farms, working in a sugar beet factory; others to large state farms harvesting potatoes, sugar beet, Swedes etc. Quite often extra POWs were sent for, and on one occasion I was one of the extras. Some of the fields were so large that if you were standing in the centre, you couldn’t see the sides! The winter was so severe that we had to use pick-axes to raise the sugar beet.

 

In camp there was a twice-daily roll-call at 7am and 4pm. Many times we were kept out in below-freezing conditions because someone was missing, or the Germans couldn’t count. There was one hot meal at midday – a ladle of swede and potato soup. We worked out the recipe must be one swede and two potatoes to five gallons of water. After 4pm roll-call we lined up in groups of five and received one loaf of (almost) black bread, with either five spoons of jam, white curdled whey or a slimy fish paste (that looked, smelt and tasted revolting) to put on it. Our beds were in two tiers down each side and across one end of the hut. Those sleeping on floor level had to contend with rats that came up through the floorboards. We all suffered with bites from the bed bugs that came out nightly. To rid ourselves of both lice and bugs we turned our clothing inside-out and burned the hems with lighted paper tapers. The smell lingered for hours. The winters were very hard, with bitter cold winds and snow blowing from Russia. Summers were hot and dry. The sand on which the camp was built was a breeding ground for fleas and flies, and our kegs from ankles to knees were a mass of bites.

 

During 1941 Red Cross Parcels arrived. What a great day! One parcel to be shared between twenty men! My share? Three boiled sweets. Still, it cheered us up and the future seemed a little rosier. Late 1942 saw us allocated one hut for ‘recreation’. We built a small stage at one end and put on a short show of ‘Babes in the Wood’. Most of the costumes were made from coloured crepe paper, the back drops were painted by our resident artist Bill Firth, and the scripts and music by our interpreter Norman Wylie. The first show was attended by the Camp Commandant and some German officers. Some weeks later we were given a piano and other musical instruments, following, I think, a visit to the camp by officials of the International Red Cross, but all due to the kindness of the Germans of course! This led to the formation of a band, a small jazz group, a semi-classic and a small brass group. They all did so much to boost and maintain a high standard of the “we’re British and proud of it” atmosphere.

 

When we first arrived in Stalag 20B, the French were already in residence, and were settled in the ‘best’ huts with the ‘best’ jobs within the camp, in Stalag HQ and in Marienberg. In late 1943, roughly two hundred Serbs were marched into camp. Unfortunately they brought typhoid with them. Some of then died and we had to disinfect all huts. Our heads were shaved and clothes de-loused. We were forbidden to go anywhere near the Serb quarters. Soon after this, a group of around a hundred Italians were marched into camp. They had been at the Russian Front, where they had refused to fight. We were amazed that they had actually made it back to camp, and for a while kept away from them.

 

One incident that I look back on and smile to myself was when I was put to clean around the camp. I was sweeping outside the guard room when I spied an egg on the grass! I worked my way towards it, sweeping very diligently, then quickly picked it up. After all, an egg is a meal! As soon as I picked it up I knew it was a set-up – it had been blown! However, I didn’t let on that I had tumbled to the catch and put it in my pocket, but was annoyed at the sound of laughter coming from the guard room. I was cleaning the same area next day so I carefully replaced the egg. Our interpreter told me later that the Commandant had passed by, picked up the egg then walked into the guard room demanding to know which wooden-headed guard was responsible, and how dare he insult the Fuhrer! Someone had painted a picture of Hitler’s face on the egg!

 

One of the subjects I taught in school was book-binding. This I found was very handy as many prisoners had book parcels from home and they were well-used. Most titles needed repairs with one exception - I finished up with seven copies of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”! Obviously some newsagents were only too pleased to offload them.

 

Sometimes, when I think back, I wonder if one of our British POWs kept his promise. He was working on a farm in South Germany and fell in love with the farmer’s daughter. They decided to cross into Switzerland and make their way back to the UK. The young lady arranged the necessary papers, and the soldier came into camp on a pretext to see the doctor. While in camp we made him a civilian suit from blankets, which he wore under his uniform when he returned to the farm. Some days later we heard from the German guards via out interpreter that the couple had reached the border. He had crossed safely, but the girl had been caught. The soldier returned and gave himself up, promising the girl that when the war was over he would be back for her. He was sent to Detention Camp. She was dressed in prison clothes, her hair shaved off and then paraded through the local towns and villages with a notice hung around her neck – “I gave myself to the enemy”.

 

I was eventually sent back to the hospital where more fragments of shrapnel were removed from my thigh. (I had been wounded in 1940 when I was captured in France) Back in camp I sustained a ruptured groin through hopping around on one leg. We finally left the camp at 2am on 24th February 1945, after four and a half years.

 

© BBC. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/.

 

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