Private Les Allen
Unit : 1st Bucks Regiment.
Served : France (captured).
Camps : Stalag XXA and B, XIB.
I was an apprentice at the Intertype on the Farnham Road, in Slough. A friend and I decided, after listening to Hitler on the radio, to join the Territorial Army, which was the 1st Bucks Battalion in 1938. In 1939 we were at camp in Levant, near Chichester. While we were there it was obvious that war was about to be declared so the unit was held together. A week before war broke out we were called to the colours and after guard duties at the slough trading estate. On the declaration of war, September 2nd 1939, 60 of us were transferred from the 2nd Bucks to the 1st Bucks Battalion in order to bring the 1st Bucks up to war strength. On arrival at the 1st Bucks I was analysed by the RSM and the Colonel. They found out that I was a member of the St Johnís cadets and decided to put me in D-company as a stretcher-bearer, as they were one short. So now I was officially in the army. At the end of December the battalion got orders to move to France. We moved from Bowlegne to La Neuville, there winter conditions kept the battalion in limbo until May 1940. When the German onslaught into Europe started the Battalion immediately moved up to Waterloo.
After brief contact with the German forces the battalion was ordered to commence on orderly retreat. The retreat consisted of light skirmishes with the enemy until we came to a town called Hazebrouke. At Hazebrouke the battalion was told to hold their ground. The town was part of the Dunkirk defence perimeter, where evacuation of the British expeditionary force was in operation. The battalion organised an evacuated building, which had been an orphanage as HQ, using its callers as a wounded clearance centre. Unfortunately, being surrounded by German forces at the end the HQ was heavily shelled and bombed as a result the ceilings collapsed and buried all our wounded. I was rescued by two German soldiers, who pulled me out of the rubble. Wounded and semi conscious I was sent to a French field hospital on the outskirts of the town. There I was a lone British soldier in a ward full of wounded French soldiers. It didnít take long before a German soldier singled me out. He requested my identification papers, which stated that I had special medical under the Geneva Convention, he never returned them to me.
I was then transferred by truck to a make shift prisoner of war camp, which was basically a field. From there we were marched to the town of Trier in Germany, where after a very hostile reception we were herded into cattle trucks, 75 at a time. This was the start of a horrific train journey to Poland, which lasted 5 days. On arrival at Poland, we went to a camp called Torun. We were housed in marquees; the temperature was by then reaching lows of Ė25 degrees. I was still suffering, from my head wounds at Hazebrouke, but considered fit enough to work by the Germans. One job consisted of being given a two handed saw, which had one handle replaced by a large lead weight. The purpose of the weight was to enable the saw to be used single handily to cut ice blocks from the river Vistula, which average 2-foot square by 6 inches thick. Theses blocks were pulled to the side and stacked up.
As my papers had been lost, I was treated as a slave worker and not as Geneva protected personnel. Because of that one of my first jobs as a slave worker was in a sugar factory. I was made to work 12 hours a day and 18 hours on the weekends in order to change from the day to the night shifts. The job consisted of opening up the filter machines when they were full of debris extracted from the sugar beat. Another job was on a little railway. My job was to service the trucks on the railway.
I was at a place called Tregenhoff working at the Klienbienghoff and feeling particularly fed up. Danny Shields and I decided to take a little walk. Not having much confidence in our ability to get home after three days without food we had grown very hungry and desperate. On the third day we came across a woman planting potatoes in a field. We hid in the woods until night fell and went into the field to dig up a couple of potatoes, which we ate raw then fell asleep. Unfortunately, we had been spotted and as dawn rose we found ourselves surrounded by a very well armed group of German soldiers. After a brief spell in the local police station we were transferred back to Marienburge. We found it hard to believe, but we were soon informed that we were to be court marshalled for sabotaging the potato field! Fortunately, we were given the services of an astute Swiss lawyer, who persuaded the Germanís that it was ridiculous to consider us to be guilty of sabotage by stealing a few spuds. The German court agreed and sent us back to the Prison Stallag xxb. Where the commandant gave us 28 days in the cooler.
The cooler consisted of a brick wall with 8 single rooms inside. The contents of a room was a wooden bench for a bed, a blanket and a block Ersatzes Siefe, which was basically imitation soap, which was no good for washing, but great for drawing markings, as we later found. Danny and I were put into single cells and could only communicate by shouting to one another. Believe it or not Danny attempted to teach me chess this way, bear in mind that I had never seen a chessboard in my life. On his instructions I marked out a chessboard on the blanket. Every other square was marked with a W to represent the white squares on the board. With initialled white pieces of paper, supplied by a few sympathetic German guards, with the relevant chess piece names. After 28 days in the cooler I considered my self to be a decent chess player. After our release from the cooler we carried on with our makeshift chessboard until one day a consignment of games and including, Ludo and Snakes & Ladders arrived from the international Red Cross. Among the games was a chess board and chess pieces supplied by readers of the Daily Sketch. I got hold of the chessboard and still have it to this day, despite very difficult circumstances. Danny and I played chess for many, many hours. It was a way of relieving our boredom, fits of depression and giving us the opportunity to forget the many hours of my life, that I would rather forget. In fact, I can honestly say that I owe my very existence, if not my sanity to that board.
After working in the sugar beat factory I was sent to work in Stobberís brewery Tiegenhoff. Where I was put to work loading barrels of beer. One day I was given a twig brush and told to accompany a German guard to a little green door at the side of the brewery. I was about to enter the room behind the green door, a Polish worker shouted over to us and the guard held back ordering me to wait. After a few minutes the worker came running over and handed me a club hammer. After a few words to the German he went away. I must have looked longingly at the club hammer and then back at the German guard; for that is the only reason I can give for the very violent attack I received from the guard. I subsequently woke up in the prisoner of war hospital and found myself with a broken jaw and severe bruising around the head & shoulders.
I later learned that the reason for the hammer and brush was that the brewery being an old building allowed dust and kernels from the barley to filter through the cracks of the floorboards, which eventually ended up in the cellars. This was ambrosia to the vermin, which had become a permanent fixture at the brewery. The rats were abnormally big and to keep them under control a group of wild cats were introduced. Every weekend it was necessary to clean out the cellars. Thus, I was issued with the broom to sweep with and the hammer to ward off the enclosing rats and cats, by striking one of the many iron pipes of the brewery.
After many such adventures I was sent to labour camp about 20 miles from Konigsburg, which was possibly the heaviest allied prisoner of war working camp nearest the Russian front. In my time as a prisoner of war I was issued with a pair of Dutch wooden clogs and a pair of pantoffles and four squares of flannel, which we used as socks. Strange as it may sound I would wear my clogs and pantoffles regularly to conserve my military boots. Whenever I was called out on roll call I would place my treasured belongings along with bits of food under my tunic and go out leaving my military boots and other clothing that I thought would be safe from theft, behind.
Just before Christmas 1944, we were woken up very early one morning and ordered out for roll call. As usual I got out my treasured possessions under my tunic. I considered my most treasured possession to be my Chessboard. I had no reason to believe that this roll call would be any different so I wore my clogs, thinking Iíd soon be back inside. To my dismay, as I entered the court yard we were surrounded by what appeared to be front line German soldiers, who forced us to evacuate the camp immediately. That was the start of a march, which was to end 1000 miles and 3 months later: in temperatures of 25-30 below freezing. A march in which many fell by the wayside never to rise again.
For the first month we were strafed and bombed by the Russian Air Force. After a month of quiet, we came under the eyes of the allied forces in the west, who also bombed us, thinking no doubt that we were re-treating Germans. As the march continued further into Germany the Royal Air Force. It was then that I realised that the mastery of the air was in the hands of the Royal Air Force; this gave me the will and encouragement to go on. I clapped and cheered every time I saw the results of bombing raids I passed through towns and villages. I firmly believe that it was the results of the RAFís activity that was the incentive for me to carry on marching. The march ended with me finding myself a prisoner in Stalag 11B, which was situated in Hanover 40 miles from Belsen concentration camp. I mention Belsen because this was our destination. The Germans intended to leave us there we would have probably faced death. It was there that I met Regimental Sergeant Major, John Lord, of the paratroopers. He was accompanied by a doctor, who cordially asked me to stand up and then ordered me to lie down, which infuriated me but it was an order.
Later, I found out that this order was considered as a medical examination, to see if I was fit enough to lye in a bed of straw in marquee or in a barrack room, previously occupied by John Lordís paratroopers. These paratroopers had been asked to volunteer the dry barrack rooms to accommodate the sick and wounded survivors of the march. The next day I bumped in to RSM John Lord, he enquired when I had been taken as a POW. I explained that I was captured in 1940 at the Dunkirk perimeter. He then swiftly ordered me to go and sit on an upturned Tea Chest, which was nearby. To my delight a squad of four men each armed with hose in hand; put the nozzle of each hose up each of my arms and legs. They then started a machine, which released a thick white powder. I later found that this powder was DDT. The powder was administered to kill off the lice and bugs, which had lived off me for four and half years. I was then ordered onto a truck, which sped me away out of the camp. After a short time I was taken to a marquee along with a couple of hundred other POW. To the horror of the medical officer we were invited to a huge dinner. The medical officer immediately ordered the removal of all food and each prisoner was given a morsel of mincemeat and potato. We then continued the journey to an airfield where I embarked on to a Hastings or Shackleton Bomber. On the way over the radio operator offered me an earphone. I crossed the channel listening to Bing Crosby, ďSinging in The Blue of the Night.Ē The pilot invited me jump out as the plane was going over Slough. On landing I realised my impossible dream had come true. I was home.
© 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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