Pictures

Les Foskett and the occupants of Hut 22

Les Foskett with two of his pets

Private Les R. A. Foskett

 

Unit : The Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Served : North Africa.

Army No. : 6346146

POW No. : 10758

Camps : Stalag VIIIB, 383.

 

Les Foskett joined the Territorial Army at the age of 18, and a year later, in 1940, he was captured in France. He spent a short period of time at Stalag VIIIB, at Lamsdorf, before being transferred to Stalag 383.

 

'I was taken to the NCO compound where I found several of my friends from Hitler See and Opelm days. There were rumours going round that all NCO’s were to be moved to another camp the German Abwehr had been checking up on records but mine passed OK. We were to leave in two batches, I was in the second batch. One of the guards who went with the first batch on his return said it was a concentration camp and I wondered if I had made a mistake. But as it turned out, he was wrong it turned out to be a fine camp.'

 

'We were given a loaf of bread for the trip, which took three or four days. Lamsdorf was near the then German Polish Border and the camp we were going to was in Baveria near Nuremburg and Regensberg. We travelled by cattle truck and were able to get a breath of fresh air each day when we made tea getting hot water from the engine driver. Arriving at the local station we were met by trucks to take us to the camp. The camp was situated in a wooded valley high in the hills. As we pulled up to the gates I noticed it was signposted as Oflag 3c, and must have been used as an Officers camp at some time.'

 

'Soon after it was named Stalag 383. Prisoner of War camps were numbered according to the German unit running them and this was usually the unit or Regiment that originally took one captive. There was a great deal of rivalry between the Navy, Army and Airforce about this.  Later in 1942 all prisoners came under a different organization (after the attempt on Hitlers Life). The German Officers also had to swear allegiance to Hitler and give the Hitler salute, a thing that many resented and made obvious to us. Many Camp Commandants were from the old World War 1 school.'

 

'On entering Stalag 383 we were taken to a group of small huts and told to choose one. There was accommodation for 14 men in each hut with two tier bunk beds down each side and a stove and table with stools in the middle. The front had a window on the left, a single door in the middle, which on entering was a small porch with another door into the hut. The floor was double with glass wool between as were the walls, which were hard board. Our hut actually only had 13 bunks and had not been in use before. It was without lighting, several British POW’s were in the process of wiring our hut and four or five others. A German Under Officer had given them the materials and told them how to do it. I realized immediately that they were doing it wrong and told them so, but they insisted on completing it to find they had lights as bright as a string of glow worms. Some of my friends convinced them I knew what I was talking about and they let me show them the correct way. I chose a top bunk which had the fuse box for the supply just above and this later proved of use. Unlike many other hut members we kept our hut in good order and did not as some use parts for fire wood to keep the stove going. This was short-sighted as the winters could be severe as we found out. In the winter of 1944/45 we were cut off from outside by heavy snow for about 2 weeks.'

 

'Stalag 383 was strictly speaking a camp for British Army NCO’s and Warrant Officers but a few like myself had come under false pretences having falsified our records. There would have been many more but the Germans had got wind of it and gone through them with a magnifying glass and found the alterations.'

 

'After the best part of two years in various camps or working parties, I can only describe Hohenfels 383 as a holiday camp. We survived under conditions I prefer not to talk about, but for any one interested there are plenty of books on these. I do not blame the Germans for this, there was a war on and we had gone to France to destroy them, as far as I was concerned I had been treated in a true military manner.  It was just our bad luck. It would have been a lot less bother for them to have shot us, as they would have been entitled to. Hohenfels made a terrific difference. Anyone having been taken prisoner in Greece or Crete etc. and coming straight to Hohenfels would have had only a few weeks of bad conditions but of course those that went on marches at the end endured the same as we had done from France in 1940.'

 

'In some ways 383 was like a town in the Old Wild West. With many small huts and dirt roads. Business’s and enterprises would spring up overnight, gambling on the camp square (mainly the Australian game of Two-Up) and a Theatre etc. As for law, there wasn’t any and it says something for the occupants that life was usually peaceful. It also has a lot to say for the Camp Leader S.Q.M.S. David MacKenzie.  Anyone reading “Barbed Wire memories of Stalag 383” may get the impression that we always had guards or snoops in the camp but this was not so. The Germans were quite happy to leave the running of the camp to the British as long as they stayed inside and only intervened for reason of security. During the first few weeks there was a roll call each morning but with the advent of winter they didn’t like the idea any more than we did and gave it up. While there were occasional raids, and for a short time regular troops came in each morning in theory to handcuff us, in practice gave up on the second day, and after hanging the cuffs up on a hook behind the door would produce goods they had brought in to swap for cigarettes, coming back at night to collect the cuffs and bringing anything we had ordered in the morning.'

 

'While we were receiving 50 English brand cigarettes per week they only got a limited number of ersatz ones. In later years there were 3 members of the Abwehr on the camp German Staff. There were a couple of Underofficers who came in at times. One of whom was anti-nazi and paid us visits at the hut I was in and kept us informed of any raids due and news of advancing Americans etc. He received no bribes.'

 

'Apart from the school and library which was established with the help of the Red Cross, we built an excellent Theatre getting a great deal of help from the German Commandant. The shows were so good that he with his staff were regular visitors. There was no room for boredom.'

 

'The village of Hohenfels which gave its name to the Hohenfels Truppenubungsplatz (Hohenfels Troop Training Area) was not actually within the military zone but just out side. The zone covered quite a large area and originally contained over 50 or so hamlets and villages. A hotel in Hohenfels being the headquarters of the Vll Armeekorps in 1936 while the zone was being constructed. It lay in the Municipality of Unterodenhart, Administrative District of Parsberg. Stalag 383 was built in a high valley surrounded by dense woodland and hills at a homestead called Polnrich. Its original purpose was to house troops but was commandeered by the military high command to house Pow's in 1939. This meant troops had to live in tents and it was not a popular posting especially as it was out in a wilderness. It was taken over by the Americans at the end of the war and in 1951 doubled in size. During the German time many civilians remained in the area but the Americans moved them all out. The fact of being isolated did not worry us as we were a self contained unit and of course were going nowhere. One of the first things we did on arrival was to build the theatre. There were two large stables in the camp and one of these was put into use. The dirt floor was sloped by moving the front half to the rear and digging a band pit in front of a stage. This was constructed out of crates which had contained Red Cross parcels (we started to get a weekly supply at this time). I can't remember how the curtains were obtained but possibly by a trade with the Germans of cigarettes. The result was a first class theatre. There were in fact two theatres, the other smaller and used mainly for plays. We had many musicians among our number and instruments were supplied via the Red Cross. Also many men had been amateur or professional actors in civilian life pre-war. The shows put on would have passed in London as a hit at any time. The costumes were unbelievable but once again we had professional tailors amongst us. For one play (The Merchant of Venice) the Commandant arranged for costumes from the State Theatre Berlin. The other stable housed the school and library which could cater for various exams via the Red Cross. To give the Germans their due, no attempt was made to censor or alter these exam papers when sent home for checking. Many men passed these exams and went into professions on demob. I lost a valuable opportunity but I was more concerned in living from day to day and growing vegetables also I had a couple of chickens, a couple of rabbits, a Jackdaw, a young buzzard and a kitten to look after.'

 

'There were some 400, 30ft x 14ft detached accommodation huts in the camp with 14 men to a hut. Only 13 in ours. At one time a population of some 6000 men. This number increased in the last months of the war as men from camps in the east were moved westward away from the advancing Russian forces. Large huts were built on the sports field to accommodate them and food started to get short with Red Cross parcels being delayed owing to trains being bombed. Our hut was situated up a steep incline in the Northwest corner of the camp. There was a sentry tower above us but on the out side of the double apron barbed wire fence. There were three or four huts and a toilet block further inwards and the Theatre and Library, large huts directly below together with a large fire pool and square. Being away from the larger number of huts the centre so to speak is possibly the reason I did not take a great deal of interest in activities in the camp but of course I often took a walk around it. The fire pool we confiscated as a swimming pool and in winter as an ice rink skates donated by the Canadian Red Cross.)  Swimming was later stopped as a health hazard there being no means of cleaning the pool. It was also used for sailing model boats made by several of our members. After a few weeks of changing around our hut settled down to permanent members. We were a varied bunch consisting of the following. 2 New Zealanders, 1 Australian, 3 Israelis, 1 welsh, 6 English, including myself. They were good company. We did of course have arguments but they never got out of hand every thing was kept friendly. We were of various ranks anything from Private like myself (unofficial Corporal) up to Sergeant Majors but there was only one rank that we recognised, that of POW as from date of capture. Officially every body kept their rank but most men were wise enough not to use it. I don't recall ever knowing the ranks of my fellow hut mates even Tom for sure, until a visit from him after the war when I saw he still had Sergeants striped on his arm. At first we organised our days individually but as time went on made up groups of two's or threes as we made friends. I paled up with a Royal Marine Sergeant "Tom" from Liverpool. Mainly because neither of us smoked and were able to use our 50 cigarette issue (100 in all per week that is) to bribe the Germans or get things from Racketeers in the camp. At this time we were also getting a regular issue of Canadian Red Cross food parcels and I suggested that we made our parcels last for eight days instead of seven, this means we built up over several weeks a supply of them to carry us over for a short time when food became short. As time went on all members of the hut combined parcels and one of us would be orderly for the day, making morning tea, cooking the main meal and generally keeping the place tidy. We also planted pumpkin seeds at the rear of the hut where we had a large garden, these we stuffed with any meat from the parcels or rabbits and were a great success if a bit monotonous. We were able to purchase a couple of laying chicken with our cigarettes plus I got a white buck rabbit, but this was not for eating but a pet.'

 

'We must have been doing all right because one day a Jackdaw came down and decided he liked what he saw and stayed with us until the camp closed.  Word got around and I got named the “bird man” and a guard sent in a young Buzzard which he had found in the woods.  For some reason the bird could not support itself on its legs.  I made a sling which it sat in and I hung it up to take the weight off its legs.  It took some time but eventually the bird was able to stand and take its own weight. I thought it only fair to let it back into the wild and took it up to the sports field, this being high and clear.  I threw it up in the air but it just flew to the ground.  It may be I had fed him or her too well and after three attempts I gave up. Later when food was getting scarce I made another attempt from our rear garden. He took off flying over the barbed wire fence only to land on the other side.  A German guard on duty out side approached, it gave a lend screech and took off flying back to me amid loud cheers from the many spectators. I decided it had made a decision I could not ignore and picked him up. I had managed to make a home for the pets by filling in the gap between our hut and next door using Red Cross wooden crates and they all lived happily together at the rear of our hut. I now had two chickens two rabbits, the buzzard, the jackdaw, a wagtail that used to visit and a dachound from I don't know where. I also had a kitten having heard a mewing from under our floor one night. I took up a board and put my hand down pulling it hastily and found a ball of fluff scratching my hand to pieces it was a really wild kitten and took several days to tame.  This was a time when we were getting a regular supply of food parcels from Canada and I found no trouble feeding them, having conquered hunger pains some time before. That was as long as no one started talking about the roast dinners they used to have. All in all we were doing quite well at this time also getting the odd parcel from home, not food of course but I managed to get my portable gramophone and records sent out. I also made a crystal set from parts obtained from some of the German troops by bartering Cigarettes. This was only able to get the occasional German station by using the overhead mains electrical wires as an aerial, not to be recommended. We did have a mains radio in the camp from which we received a daily bulletin. Delivered to us by the chap who became Minister of Defence in the Post-war Labour Government. Radio's of course were strictly illegal but the Germans never found all of them and we always had at least one at any time. Each hut had a stove but it was difficult to get fuel for them. The Commandant offered us the chance to go out and collect wood but did not have men to spare to guard us so offered us the chance to let us go on our own as long as we gave our word to come back. As this would only apply while getting logs from the woods I think it was a golden opportunity missed as it was rejected. I got over this by fitting an electric heater into the top of our stove and one day we had a visit from our camp Padre.  It was a bitterly cold day, we had a pot of water boiling away on top of the stove.  He opened the stove door to warm himself.  Seeing no flames he looked at the boiling water turned to me and said "I know I should not admit it, but I never believed in miracles until now" and left the hut with a dazed expression. It was just as well it was not one of the German Abwere men as we would have lost a great asset. For times when we did have fuel for the stove, we had built an oven made of red sandstone possibly from some one in the process of digging a tunnel in the vain hope of getting out (The perimeter of the camp was ringed with underground detectors to warn of any such goings on). This proved to be very efficient means of cooking our pumpkins.'

 

'Winter 1944 bought days of snow and deep drifts just before this we obtained some copper piping etc. and made a still. Fruit such as prunes and currents from Red Cross parcels were put into a large drum borrowed from the cookhouse and left to ferment then boiled and a fair amount of spirit obtained from the still. It was quite interesting and while I helped I wasn't game to drink it. We carried out a test with a piece of cloth soaked with it which burnt with a fierce flame. Several other huts also made this, and after some one used it to bribe the Germans the German Tax people told us if we did not put a stop to it they would tax us and so it came to an end. Then we had orders to get rid of all rabbits. This caused a problem for the buzzard as I received a fair amount of left overs given to me for him. He would only eat meat but one of German staff offered to obtain offal for me. Owing to transport being unable to get to the camp and hearing the buzzards cries for three days I had no alternative but to have it put down. The very next morning a truck pulled up outside our hut and dumped a load of offal.  The only thing I could do was to bury it in the snow regretting I had not waited.'

 

'Anyway early in 1945 with the advance of the second front and the severe bombing raids, were making food for the German civilians very short as well as our selves. The Commandant, under pressure from outside, had already ordered us to get rid of our livestock. Many of the guards were losing homes and families and we were not too happy about them being up above us with machine guns over looking us.  However our fears were unfounded as the only incident was when one of them killed himself while in a watch tower.'

 

'For some time and into my fifth year I had given up even thinking about ever getting free, it seemed as if the war would go on for ever and it did not help to think it would soon be over as the advance seemed to be getting bogged down. Then out of the blue the Americans were close and after a night of planes dropping flares and bombs around the camp, we had orders to move out. Next morning we started out on what for some was a terrifying experience.'

 

'Stalag 383 was finally evacuated on April 17th 1945. The American forces were only a few miles away and arrived five days later. There was no German forces of any size in the area. It was said that there was an SS unit in the area, but if there were they certainly did not stay very long as I saw no sign of them while riding around on horse back a couple of days later. Col Aufhammer, the German Camp Commandant did his best to avoid moving us. He had received instructions from higher up sometime before this to move, which he chose to ignore pretending he had not received them. He could no longer do this however as a personal messenger arrived wanting to know what was going on. I know this because we had a German Under Officers who was anti Nazi supplying information to the members of our hut for some considerable time. He kept us informed of such things as any raids that were to take place in the camp seeking radios etc. I might add that he was not bribed in any way for this information. He also gave us information on the position & situation of the Russian and American forces. We also had hidden radio receivers in the camp, from which we received a regular bulletin each day. The NCO (Fred Mullin) who brought this to our hut was later to become The Minister of Defence in the post war Labour Government.'

 

'Prior to evacuating the camp we arranged a plan with our German Under Officer. The idea was that members of our hut would drop to the rear of the column and the German U/O would do the same. We would make it look as if we could not keep up and he would instruct the rear guards to carry on while he would see that we caught up later. We would then escort him to the Americans and explain the situation. By the time that we had gone a Kilometre, Tom my friend and I were getting a bit concerned we were already at the rear of the column as were 2 German guards. One had a rifle and the other had an automatic machine gun under his arm. The latter looked as if he was looking for an excuse to use it. Just as we were giving up hope a miracle happened. This was not the first time I had reason to thank a German guard as you will read later. The one with the rifle turned to Tom and said "You look ill go back to the camp Hospital." Tom looked stunned for a second and then said "Not unless my friend can come with me" to which the guard replied, that's all right he can go and look after you. We didn't need telling a second time, turned round and started back. For the first few steps we were ready to dive for cover because we thought it may be an excuse for the one with the automatic to use us for target practice, but they gave a wave and carried on their way. To this day I can't understand why they let us go. Tom was perfectly OK if a little shocked.'

 

'We made our way back into the Hospital compound only to be told by a Sergeant Major we were not to leave it until the Americans arrived. The previous day he would not dared to have said boo to us. Very few Warrant Officers or NCO's tried to pull rank as a POW.  I found later this was on instructions from the War Office.'

 

'Anyway, we had no intention of staying. The Germans had left a couple of young lads I don't think they could have been more than 17, on guard out side probably to comply with Geneva Conventions that Prisoners should be protected. We asked them to cut a hole in the wire, so that we could get out and they were only too pleased to help. Another friend joined Tom and I and we made our way up to the German Officers Quarters and made our selves comfortable. The only problem was that after the Americans arrived they told us they would be sending trucks to pick us up and we were worried they might go with out us. The problem was soon solved I found several army field telephones and fixed a couple up with about a mile of wire between the Hospital and our new quarters and arranged for one of the men still in the Hospital compound to ring and let us know any news of the expected transport.'

 

'The next problem was food, but we soon had a cupboard full, some of which the Yanks had left in a small trailer full of PK rations at the top of the road. We also found a sack of flour and a grind stone and made our own bread. Having heard no news of transport we decided to do a bit of exploring the local countryside. Soon after setting out we met some other men from the camp who had a horse and trap, and told us they no longer required it and we could have it. So off we set. Our first stop was at a farm. A woman came out and we asked if we could have a drink of water but she said we could have milk if we preferred. We had received milk powder in our Red Cross parcels but had not had real milk. (In my case for nearly five years) I think it was the best had ever tasted straight from a cow and certainly far better than the rubbish we get today. We thanked her and carried on our way. The area at that time was outstanding with hills, valleys and tall pine trees. From the top of one hill we looked down into a valley and saw the first of the American Infantry Battalions making their way towards Regensburg.'

 

'Some 50 years later when making a return visit I found it was now a Nato training Base. The trees had grown to block most of the view and the grass cut to ribbons by American Tanks. My disappointment at seeing this was only compensated by the welcome given us by the Commander of the American forces Lt Col. Norman, who gave us permission to go anywhere we pleased.  (It being at this time a military restricted area.)  But that is another story.'

 

Thanks to Kerry Single - krsingle@xtra.co.nz - for this story.

 

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