Lance-Corporal Robert Bennett Warren
Unit : 1st Battalion The Duke of Wellington's Regiment
Served : Italy (captured).
Army No. : 6346941
POW No. : 86478
Camps : Stalags VIIA, Stalag VIIIC
This account has been typed from a handwritten version written by my father, Robert Warren, sometime during the early 1990’s. I discovered it shortly before he died whilst sorting through the possessions. During his life he rarely talked about his war-time experiences and, therefore, much of this record was new to me. His ‘souvenirs’ were stored in a box which also contained other mementos including medals and maps cut from newspapers. In his will he requested that the mementos were passed to the Imperial War Museum.
Robert Bennett Warren was born in Harold Wood, Essex on 4th February 1919. After attending Brentwood School he joined Royal Exchange Insurance as an Insurance Clerk. He was called up on 16th October 1939 and joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. He was transferred to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment in May 1943 and after a period in North Africa joined the landing at Anzio just south of Rome. He was discharged from the army in May 1946 and on his return to civilian life went back to his job with Royal Exchange Insurance. He married Dorothy Ruth Jackman in 1949 and remained living in Harold Wood. He had two sons, Robert Geoffrey born in 1951 and David John born in 1954. In October 1972 he moved Ipswich in Suffolk as his employer, now Guardian Royal Exchange, relocated out of London. He retired on his 60th birthday in February 1979 and in 1985 moved to Felixstowe. He died in 1st November 2003 after a long illness.
David Warren November
Prisoner of the Germans
This account is based on the following sources of information:
1. Memory (now getting dim)
2. Notes in a small pocket diary. The amount I could write was limited by space.
3. Letters sent home to mum by me and found by me when sorting out her effects after her death.
Naturally I had to be circumspect about the information written down in 2 & 3. Even so, a few of the letters bear the heavy hand of the censor.
At the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 the Allied Forces had been slowly battering their way northward in Italy, but had come to a halt at Monte Cassino where some of the bitterest battles of the war were fought. In an endeavour to break the stalemate a landing was planned at Anzio and Nettuno just south of Rome. Anzio was a small port on a headland, and Nettuno immediately to the south with its long sweeping beach had been a prominent watering place. We in the task force were kept in the dark until the last moment; the strongest rumour was that we were going to invade the south of France.
The initial landings were achieved with negligible opposition by the 3rd American Division and the British 1st Division of which I was a member. We were expecting to have to wade ashore and because of this we were all given a tot of rum, but in the event we landed in Anzio harbour. After creating an initial bridgehead, 1st Division began probing attacks towards Rome. It is not my intention to expand fuller on the Campaign or the Bridgehead; a number of books have been written on the subject by persons better qualified than I am.
At the time my story begins my Company had reached the furthest point the bridgehead ever reached before the break-out in May 1944, the outskirts of the little town of Campoleone. Our platoon positions were on the crest of a little rise with a narrow valley and a railway line to the north of us. Immediately to our right was a farmstead. We were in fact at the extreme point of the salient 1st Division created by their advance. On the night of February 3rd/4th the Germans put in their first counter attack and they did the obvious thing; they nipped off the base of the Salient. My company was thus cut off from the rest of the battalion, though I didn’t appreciate this at the time.
It was like a gigantic fire-works night with coloured tracers flying in all directions. I could hear tanks moving in the valley below us and the sky was lit up when one went up in flames. The Germans then attacked us from the rear and we could hear them getting nearer and nearer. All the time they were shouting to each other, quite unlike our procedure at night. There was some answering rifle fire but not the amount I would have expected. We (that is my section – I was section leader) were expecting it would be our turn at any moment, but it was not so; presumably they missed us in the darkness. So, one of the longest nights of my life dragged on. I remember trying to keep awake by very slowly getting through a packet of biscuits and a tin of syrup!
With the coming of daylight, the Germans apparently realised they had not mopped everyone up, because we were subjected to a sheet of machine-gun fire and a bombardment. All we could do was to crouch in our slit trenches; to have put our heads up would have been suicide. One bullet went right through my knapsack resting on the parapet of my slit trench. I thought my end had come. The expected attack, however, did not materialise and all became deathly quiet. We had little idea as to what had happened in the night or what we were supposed to do, so as Section-leader I saw it as my duty to take some action. After a time of quiet I stealthily climbed out of my slit trench and crept on my stomach in best bird-stalking fashion back to my platoon HQ, but there was not a soul there. Carefully looking around I could see no signs of any other section either. It seemed all had gone bar the four of us.
I crept back on my stomach to my section and reported the situation as I understood it. We had no idea what to do next, but we did not have long to ponder. We became aware that a section of Germans was searching the farmstead 50 – 100 yards to our right and that there were a lot more Germans milling about at the bottom of the hill behind us. It was now quite clear that we were the last survivors and that we were well and truly behind enemy lines.
We were no suicide squad, so I gave instructions to the section to destroy their weapons as best they could. Then we put up our hands and shouted ‘Camarade’ in time-honoured fashion. The Germans searching the farmstead beckoned to us to come to them. As we dashed over to them the Germans at the bottom of the hill began firing at us. One of the section who had captured us ran out into the open and fired his rifle in the air as a signal for them to stop. I thought it was very brave of him. They searched us for arms and ammunition, but made no attempt to take anything else from us such as watches and pens. They were far more disciplined in this respect than the average ‘Tommie’. We were then put into one of the rooms of the farmhouse with guards while they went to get instructions. The two or three guards proved very friendly. They tried to talk to us but we knew no German and they little English. All they could manage were such expressions as ‘war no good’ and ‘for you the war is over’.
After this we were given the job of carrying boxes of ammunition up to their front line. Whether this is permissible under the terms of the Geneva Convention I do not know, but we were in no position to argue the niceties of that Convention. At this point several of our shells came over. I remember thinking that the Germans seemed more scared than we were. A whole line of soldiers were strung out lying on the ground in the open and firing their rifles at random. We were told to pick up a stretcher bearing a wounded officer and carry him away from the line. As we began to do so a stray bullet from the battlefield hit and wounded one of the Germans escorting us. They were so upset that they threatened one of my section, but fortunately quickly realised it was nothing to do with us. The wounded man was given a pick-a-back out of the line.
As we walked along the German officer, quite a young man, started a conversation with me. He did not know any English and I no German, but we had both learnt French at school so we talked to each other in school-boy French. We only mentioned our homes and families, and of course did not touch on military matters. Later one or two presumably Intelligence staff joined us. They questioned us about our artillery and I was quite pleased I could honestly say I had no idea.
Eventually we reached their regimental H.Q. where we left the stretcher and its burden. An officer or Sergeant-Major gave instructions for one of the soldiers to escort us further. There then occurred an incident that caused us no little amusement (we were needing some light relief), though the Germans did not find it amusing. The soldier who had been detailed began to walk down the road with his rifle slung over his shoulder and kept looking back to make sure that we were following. The officer bellowed at the poor man and gave him a terrific dressing down. He should of course have walked behind us with his rifle at the ready.
So we walked along a long road away from the front. I had a number of letters in my pocket with the address referring to the 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. As we had been instructed only to give our name rank and number if captured and not the name of our unit, as we walked along I slowly tore these envelopes to bits with my hand in my pocket, compressed each bit into a minute ball, and let it drop. In actual fact and to my surprise we were not searched again after the initial search for arms and ammunition when first captured. At one point we passed a motorcycle lying by the road-side with a dead dispatch rider by it, presumably a victim of our shelling and a grim reminder that we were not yet out of danger. Eventually we came to a cave in the hill-side into which we were put and which was crowded with British Prisoners-of-war, presumably captured earlier.
So ended the 4th February my 25th birthday! At this point my memory conflicts with my diary entry. I seem clearly to remember spending the night in the cave and being taken away in ‘buses’ the following morning. During the night while I was asleep someone stole a bar of chocolate from my haversack which had been sent to me for my birthday – I could have done with that. However my diary records that we were taken away that night. A possible explanation for the discrepancy is that we were taken away very early in the morning before light. After all this time it is difficult to remember exactly what my emotions were during and after the events of the day, but I do clearly remember thinking that I now had a good chance of surviving the war; I had practically given up hope before.
The Film Studio and camp, Rome
Our first P.O.W. ‘home’ was a large film studio on the outskirts of Rome; conditions were very crowded. No form of bedding was provided so we stripped off sheets of the fibreglass noise insulation materials from the wall to lie on. It would probably have been better if we had not done so, as bits of glass penetrated our clothes and were highly irritating.
Our first meals from the Germans were given to us on February 5th:-
Breakfast: Ergaty coffee only without milk or sugar. This was the coffee we continued to receive all the time I was a P.O.W. It was popularly supposed to have been made from acorns but I have read that in fact it was made from roast barley.
Lunch: Soup with vegetables in it (skilly in P.O.W. parlance).
Tea: A large square biscuit and butter.
One day we were put on to open trucks and driven round the street of Rome: a propaganda exercise to impress the Romans with the number of prisoners being taken. At least, I did have a wonderful view of the Coliseum; the road went right round it! My diary notes that the drive finished up at a prison camp, presumably in the outskirts of Rome. Memory is a funny thing; I have absolutely no recollections of this camp, though I do remember the film studio clearly. At this camp I made myself a set of playing cards out of paper, with which I played patience and which I still have among my souvenirs.
Some-one also lent me an encyclopaedia to read! One day I was put on a wood chopping fatigue and was given extra bread as a reward! It was at this camp that we were introduced to German Rye (‘black’) bread, our basic food all the time we were P.O.Ws. We considered it a special war-time bread, so I was astonished when we were given it on a holiday at Mitterwald, in the Bavarian Alps in 1985. We were given with it Margarine and Jam, and on one day a bit of cheese. The ration was four men to a loaf, more generous than we were to get much later on. At the tea meal one day we received green, scented (presumably herbal) tea.
There was a short service on Sunday February 13th, but who led it I have no record. On the 16th we were issued with pre-printed cards to send home. Whether mum ever received my one or not I do not know; it was not among her papers. My diary notes that men were trying tea leaves, coffee grains, and dried cabbage leaves in their desperation for a smoke. Weather during this period was mixed; warm sunshine, cold north wind, and some rain. We had a pair of Black Redstarts around the camp.
Laterina (Florence area)
On February 22nd we were moved in closed trucks to a P.O.W. camp at Laterina, south-west of Florence. On the way we passed a large lake, possibly Lake Tresimeno. The rations for the day were one third of a loaf and half a tin of bully beef. Our truck finished up in a ditch, fortunately on the ‘doorstep’ of the camp. I have lost all memory of this accident so it could not have been a serious one.
This camp had been used by the Italians to keep British P.O.Ws up to the time of Italy’s capitulation in September 1943. The camp was infected with lice and one of our main occupations was a continual ‘search and kill’ operation. Fortunately we had a lot of warm sunshine so we were able to sit out-of-doors and divest ourselves of clothes for this purpose. When the camp had been evacuated in 1943 a lot of library books were left behind, so I did a fair bit of reading. I discovered a bird fancier from Devon and we used to have chats about birds. Some years later, probably on our holiday at Woollacombe in 1956, I looked him up and we had quite a chat about old times.
At this camp the ‘skilly’ was better. In addition to the usual rations I noted that we got paste on one occasion, sweet rice at least twice, some cheese, and even sweet coffee. The amount of rations we were given continually hungry but not starving as during the closing days of the war. While I was at this camp I had a surprise reunion with three members of my platoon; Corporal Blackman, Paddy Walsh and Underwood. No doubt they told me their stories as to how and when they were captured but my memories fails me. On February 24th I was feeling wretched with a swollen jaw, no doubt a septic tooth, but by March 1st it was easier.
Sunday, March 5th: there was an improvised Communion Service led by a Church of Scotland Padre. He was careful to point out he was a non-conformist minister and he would understand it if anyone felt they could not participate, but no one opted out. He had applied to the Germans for a small supply of wine but they would not co-operate, so we celebrated with army biscuit and water. This service took place in the open air. The following Sunday there was another communion service in a hut and once again water was used. This was followed by a Church of England service. Some officers provided a choir and there was fine singing.
On the 14th I noticed a mouse around my bed and on the 16th someone gave me a hair-cut, using my nail-scissors! During this period we had some warm days after early frost. A mail Cirl Bunting visited the camp on the 8th and I heard a Crested Lark singing on the 21st.
Stalag VII – Moosburg, Bavaria
The ‘word’ Stalag is short for ‘Stamnlager’ and means base camp. Germany was divided into a large number of military districts and the ‘stalag’ was numbered after the military district in which it occurred.
March 21st: We at last left by train for Germany packed tightly into cattle trucks. Through a chink in the side I managed to see the grand scenery of the Alps; presumably we passed through the Brenner Pass. We finally reached Stalag VIIB on the 23rd and there was tremendous excitement as we now received our first Red Cross food parcels. These were to form part of our life for most of he rest of the time as P.O.Ws, and at the best each one of us received one parcel per week. They weighed about 10 lbs each, measured 12” x 6” x 4”, and came from Britain, New Zealand, Canada, America and the English community in Argentina. These parcels together with the rations from the Germans and what we could obtain by bartering with cigarettes gave us a reasonable diet. In some cases, e.g. butter, we were doing better than people back home in England.
Sadly I did not have the appetite for a parcel as I did not feel at all well. It was the same the next day, the 24th, and in the evening I was admitted to the camp hospital. The following day I was diagnosed as having pleurisy and pneumonia. I still had no appetite and was provided with a special medical Red Cross parcel. What it contained I cannot now remember. At first I was treated ineffectively by a British M.O., but then a German doctor was called in and he prescribed intravenous injections. These were not very pleasant but did the trick.
On 1st April I was able to write a letter and a French barber gave me a shave and hair-cut. On the 3rd I got up for a short time in the afternoon but was very shaky on my legs. I went for short strolls on the 10th & 11th. On 16th I wrote to mum that I had two spare pairs of socks and a ‘house-wife’ for darning. Finally on the 17th I was discharged; I had been in hospital over three weeks. Activities noted in my diary while I was in hospital included writing cards, studying an Italian grammar, and making oat-cakes. In the hospital we were cared for by British medical orderlies and by patients who had reached the convalescent stage. It seems likely that the pneumonia was brought on by the ‘starvation’ rations, lack of warm clothing especially an overcoat, and the very cold spell on the train journey. My great-coat had been blown up in a truck while we were in action.
Following my discharge I was put in a different compound. (Internal arrangements in the camps were organised by the Senior Warrant Officers, or N.C.Os.) Here I noted we had three-tier beds, palliasses and two blankets. What we had had before was not recorded. In this compound I had a surprise meeting with Ritchie with whom I had trained at Maidstone Barracks during the winter of 1939/40 after which our ways parted. He had been captured in the Dodecanese Islands, during the ill-fated campaign in Greece. I also met again Smith, Jack Steel, and Cowdrey who had been members of my Company on the Anzio beach-head. On the 19th there was the issue of five German razor blades, so the one I had been using for weeks was given retirement! Activities noted include bird watching and reading (including a detective story in French borrowed from French P.O.Ws.
April 23rd: We had an Anglo-catholic communion service followed by international football matches with the French and Yugoslavs in the afternoon. The following Sunday there was a simple service accompanied by a band in the French ‘theatre’; this was well attended.
April 24th: There was an air raid warning during which we saw formations of our planes passing over. I wrote to Mum I was intending to join classes in French and Spanish but our move on May 1st intervened.
April 26th: I was moved back to the original compound and we were de-loused and given baths.
April 27th: Noted that I washed my socks and darned them.
April 28th: We made a cigarette collection for the Russian prisoners who received neither Red Cross parcels nor cigarettes. Had the unusual experience of a cock Common redstart and a cock Black Redstart side by side.
German rations at this time included pea soup, rations of sugar and cheese (made locally at Moosburg), German sausage and potatoes. The issue of food parcels resulted in much trading and the setting up of an auction mart. We also incredibly received 50 cigarettes a week from the Red Cross. With my cigarettes I obtained a pudding, tinned raspberries and gooseberries, jam, and a tin of boot polish and a tin opener. One midday I made a lovely batter with syrup. A specimen menu was as follows:
Breakfast: Coffee, sausage, potatoes, bread, butter and honey.
Lunch: Macaroni, grated cheese, potatoes and cocoa.
Tea: Sardines and potatoes, biscuits and honey, cocoa.
Supper: Bread and butter and Ovaltine.
This menu was of course concocted from both German rations and Red Cross food.
I had a cutting from the Daily Telegraph giving the obituary of Edward Ward the B.B.C. Foreign Correspondent. He was captured in the western desert and sent to Stalag VIIB in 1942. He said “discipline was lax and the guards gratifyingly corrupt; for a few hundred cigarettes a prisoner could even acquire a Luger pistol”.
Stalag VIIIC, Sagan – Upper Silesia
May 1st: We were marched to the station and loaded onto cattle trucks; this time no straw was provided. The Germans doled out a ration of three-quarters of a loaf and a sausage for each man to eat on the journey. Presumably we had the usual ‘coffee’ but how often is not recorded. On the journey I particularly noted the frequency of bird-boxes on farms and in gardens. Hares were also seen and a few deer. En route we had an issue of Barley Soup. We reached our destination during the night of the 2nd/3rd but had to stay on the train till morning, and then we discovered we were at Sagan, 80 miles from Breslau, at Stalag VIII C.
In a separate segregated compound was Stalag Luft III for airmen. This was the well known camp from which 74 airmen escaped in March 1944, of whom 50 were shot. The airmen received so many cigarettes that anyone receiving a parcel put it into a collective store from which anyone could help themselves when they liked. They used to throw packets over the wire to us.
At the new camp we were given baths and de-loused and allocated to our living quarters. The beds were the same type as at Moosburg. That first day we received some thick barley stew. On the 4th our rations were: potatoes, soup, sauerkraut, margarine, sugar and bread. That day I improvised a knife, how I do not recall. The following day we were officially registered at last and I was given the number 86478, also our finger prints were taken.
May 6th: I improvised a darning needle from a nail (I cannot imagine how I did it), and a mop from a piece of wood and sacking. There was an issue of Canadian food parcels but unlike at Moosburg there was very little trading. We also received games and 75 French cigarettes!
May 7th: I borrowed a book from the camp library and sent off a letter to Mum. I told her we had had a simple service led by the camp band. Menu for the day:
Breakfast: Sardines and potatoes, bread and jam, tea.
Lunch: Barley broth, tea
Tea: Salmon and potatoes, stewed prunes and raisins in syrup, cream
Supper: Biscuits, butter, jam and tea.
May 8th: There was an issue of clothing: socks, pants, vest and pull-over. That evening we were invited to a concert in another compound. According to a letter to mum the concert was given by older prisoners. It included an hilarious comedy complete with full stage props. Two ‘girls’ in the comedy were so well made up that one could easily be taken in.
May 9th: There was an issue of apple marmalade instead of margarine.
May 10th: I completed an application form for educational books; French and Insurance, but they did not come through until November 25th!
May 11th: Another bath. We had an issue of Canadian food parcels, but again trade was slack.
May 12th: I received a spare pair of ‘slacks’ presumably through the Red-Cross, had a haircut and made a case for my shaving soap having just been issued with soap and shaving soap. The camp barber ran a regular business and was paid in cigarettes. About this time we also received some spare underclothing.
May 13th: It was a general practice for prisoners-of-war to work in pairs for cooking and other activities. My particular mate, Sam, who had had tailoring experience shortened my ‘slacks’ for me. We worked out a menu for the week and in a letter I told mum he was a good cook. I can still see his happy, cheeky face. After the war I tried to make contact with him but with no success. I understood the area in which he had lived had been redeveloped.
Sunday May 14th: There was a service this morning followed by Holy Communion according to the Church of Scotland order.
The next week I made an inkstand, a cover for my notebook and a coat hanger. Library books read were: ‘Samuel Titmarsh’ by Thackeray and W.H. Hudson’s ‘Adventures among Birds’. We had a general issue of matches, and jam again. Sam obtained some biscuits for 25 cigarettes, and extra bread from the other compound.
May 18th: Today there was another issue of Canadian parcels. I traded for sardines and raisins.
May 19th: Another bath in the morning and we were able to wash clothes. The afternoon was very warm and we were able to sit out-of-doors. I obtained some coffee and cheese, presumably in exchange for cigarettes.
May 20th: I obtained some jam, three packets of prunes and one of raisins for 40 cigarettes. There was a band concert in the afternoon and some German films in the evening including one on the life of the crayfish.
May 21st: I sat out again. This last week I read ‘The Christ of the Indian Road’, and part of ‘Our mutual friend’. (Did I get bored with it?)
May 24th: Received an overcoat at last (Just as we were approaching summer – how I could have done with it during the winter!), and an issue of pyjamas. In the evening there was a camp concert including an excellent conjurer.
May 25th: We were issued with English food parcels and I bought extra chocolate, salmon and sugar with my cigarettes.
May 26th: Busy again. I made a kit bag from some sacking, a picture frame for my photo of Mum, and a stand for my mirror. We received an issue of razor blades. From the library I borrowed ‘Polar journey’ and ‘The animal world’. A triumphant letter from mum: “Hurrah! I have heard from you at last.” She had written 12 letters to me via Geneva.
Sunday, May 28th: There was a service in the afternoon led by a padre. Our dinner that day: steak and kidney pudding, peas and potatoes, sultana pudding and cream, tea. I wrote to mum: “getting rather fat – my belt will scarcely meet.”
May 29th: We celebrated Whit Monday with a late appel (roll call) and it was the only one of the day. (normally two).
Among the things we received in this permanent camp were:
1. ‘The Camp’, a weekly propaganda newspaper from the Germans.
2. Lager-Geld i.e. camp money. They gave us a small allowance to spend in the canteen on things like razor blades, writing paper, but in fact there was very little to spend it on.
3. German soap. Very heavy, greyish and pretty useless. It was said to consist of pumice powder and horse fat!
Another ergaty product we noted was string made out of twisted brown paper. (I still have a specimen).
Arbeitz-Kommando No 4032 – The Brick and Tile Factory
Arbeitz-Kommando means literally works command. All prisoners except officers and senior N.C.Os could be compelled to work provided they were fit. As a result each Stalag had a large number of satellite work camps. One was sent first to a stalag and then directed to a work camp as required. Generally speaking and subject to the character of the German camp commandant life was pleasant at work camps. One had something to occupy ones mind, the work kept one fit, there was often greater freedom, and opportunities of bargaining with the German civilians for extra food and other things. I met a prisoner towards the end of the war and he told me what went on in his camp in Poland. For the consideration of a regular supply of cigarettes (German soldiers only received six a week, the civilians none) a door was ‘accidentally’ left unlocked and the British P.O.W.s went into town drinking with the locals and flirting with the girls. As the Poles hated the Germans there was little danger of being betrayed.
May 31st: About 100 of us were moved to a brick and tile factory about 20 miles south east of Sagan, close to the village of Gross Pogul and Klein Pogul, the nearest town being Dyhernfurth. Sadly my mate Sam did not go with us owing to ‘a bad toe’. Travelling conditions were the best we had experienced so far. The country was flat and rolling, mainly arable, with abundant woodland. Our new quarters were part of the factory building, fenced with barbed wire. The premises were in the depths of the country and on the south bank of the River Oder. We were astonished to find that our two rooms were furnished with sprung beds and pillows!
When we first arrived the German Sergeant-Major (Oberfeldwebel), our camp Commandant, paraded us and among the things he said he told us he had been a P.O.W. in England in the first World War. He had been well-treated in England and would do his best to look after us, and he was good as his word; this account refers to several instances of his kindness to me personally. In the evening we had the best ‘skilly’ we had had as P.O.Ws, prepared in the factory canteen by the factory staff.
The German guards consisted of the Sergeant-major, a corporal (Oefreiter) and six men, four of whom would be on guard duty at any one time. During the day the four on duty would stand at the four corners of the factory. It was not unknown, however, for one to sneak into the trees for a sleep!
In the factory there were working: German women and older men, several Poles, about a dozen Ukranian girls (conscripted by the Germans) and we P.O.Ws. Our relations with the German workers were very good, so much so that we could pull each others legs as to who was going to win the war without giving offence. It must be remembered of course that they were very conscious of the advancing Russians, and had a secret hope the allies would save them. Indeed one German expressed this hope openly, to me personally.
This map was prepared on the spot in connection with a study of the breeding population of house sparrows I was making. Our living quarters were on the north side of the factory and the dots indicate the wire. The width of the River Oder was about 100 yards as far as I remember.
June 1st: We started work. I was allocated a job feeding the kilns with coal dust. As the furnace had to burn continually night and day, my job entailed shift work and that first week I was on from 1.30pm to 10 pm. Hugh mounds of coal dust were heaped just outside the factory. Those of us on coal dust duty (we worked in pairs) had to fill a skip or back- pack with dust and hump it up steps to a walk-way around the top of the kilns but within the factory building. In 1993 in a local paper I discovered a picture of one of these skips, identical to those used by us, being used to gather grapes.
At the top of the kilns we filled large boxes on the floor with the dust. Over the tops of the kilns were what resembled cylindrical ‘tortoise’ stoves and these we had to keep filled. A mechanical apparatus at the bottom of each ‘stove’ allowed coal dust to trickle onto the fires. The German supervisor had a thermocouple and was constantly monitoring the temperature in the kilns to keep it at a constant level. If necessary he would speed up or slow down the rate of trickle. It was hard work but we were not working continuously; there was time to rest (or even break for birds!). We were given by the Germans two ‘stews’ (a regular ingredient was Swedes) during the day and in addition coffee, bread, margarine and jam.
June 2nd: Discovered a nest of Black redstarts with young in our compound.
June 3rd: I was one of a party sent under escort for rations from one of the villages. We remarked how frequently people greeted each other with ‘Heil Hitler’. My supervisor told me I would be speaking German in six months.
June 5th: A day off. I did some ‘spud-bashing’ and my washing, and this became a regular pattern each week.
June 7th: Made myself an oat-cake.
June 8th: Much rejoicing as news came through of the second front in Normandy.
June 13th: I was transferred to the 5am to 1.30pm shift. In my spare time I got a hair cut. This week I noted swarms of cockchafers flying around; the local sparrows played havoc with them.
June 18th: Sample meals:
Dinner: meat dumplings, sauerkraut (we had a lot of this at the factory), potatoes, lettuce, rich gravy.
Tea: Salmon, lettuce and potatoes.
I do not know whether the lettuce came from the factory kitchen or whether I obtained it from one of the German workers. About this time I read Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, no doubt thoughtfully provided for the camp library by the Germans. Observed a pair of Common sandpipers by the river.
June 19th: We received pamphlets from the British Free Corps which were treated with the contempt they deserved. The Germans were attempting to form a unit to fight the Russians, I read somewhere that they were successful in recruiting 58 out of the thousands of prisoners in their lands.
June 25th: Some mouth organs, canteen kit, testaments and hymn books arrived. We therefore started holding Sunday services in the evenings led by a Methodist Lay preacher with my assistance; some 25 – 30 attended these services out of the 100. Later I resigned from active participation because the men insisted on singing the hymn ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ every Sunday. The tune was the German national anthem and they wanted to bait the Germans. Whether the Germans ever heard I do not know but I considered baiting the Germans not a legitimate activity in a service of worship. I continued to attend the services though.
June 27th: We had some rhubarb given to me by the Germans I worked with.
June 28th: An issue of New Zealand parcels containing: Mutton, tongue, quince jam, honey, chocolate, tea, coffee, milk, sugar, currants, peas and cheese.
July 1st: The camp received a piano-accordion through the Red Cross.
July 3rd: I formed part of a squad detailed to load tiles onto a barge destined for Posen. This was a regular chore for us P.O.Ws, but as far as I can remember I did it only once. One day a message came through to us from the British Secret service warning us not to be tempted to stow away on one of these barges. The Germans had discovered this escape route and were now gassing the holds of ships at the Baltic ports. I have read several accounts in recent years of prisoners who had successfully used this escape route to reach nuteral Sweden.
On one occasion there was a remarkable incident. I did not see it happen myself, but I was told about it shortly afterwards so do not doubt the truth of it. A gang of my colleagues were wheeling barrow loads of tiles on to a barge and stacking them in the holds of the barge. The manager of the factory came along and complained my colleagues were not working hard enough (a matter of principle with us!). He ordered the sentry who stood by the gang plank to make them work harder. The sentry replied that that it was not his job to make them work hard; the only orders he had been given were to see the prisoners did not escape. A furious argument arose and my colleagues had to separate them. It was even alleged that the sentry drew his bayonet. If true it should have been a court-martial offence, but nothing happened to the sentry as far as we know and he remained with us.
July 5th: We were paid 23 Reichmarks for our labours, but how much this represented we had no idea. It was an obligation under the Geneva Convention that P.O.Ws be paid for work done but as the Germans were entitled to charge for board and lodging it was doubtful if we got a fair deal!
A stock of library books arrived and I was appointed Camp Librarian. At some stage too I became the camp newsman because I was learning to read German fairly fluently. Anyone getting hold of a newspaper in the factory brought it to me and I published a summary of the news on the notice board. The papers were of course full of propaganda but it was not hard to read between the lines.
July 7th: I found a toad in the heap of coal dust outside the factory. My German supervisor commented that Jews ate them!
July 9th: While I was working outside of the factory a lady walking along the river bank stopped for a chat. She expressed surprise that an Englishman should be put to work. Manual labour should only be reserved for Poles, French etc. She then told me not to work so hard! Her uncle had an English wife.
July 11th: We had an issue of overalls, from the management I should imagine, for use at work; very useful for a job like moving coal dust! Later we had an issue of wooden clogs for working in – not very comfortable. Whether we were given them to save our footwear or whether to hinder an escape attempt is a moot point. A card I sent to Sam at Sagan was returned; I wonder why.
July 12th: Some excitement today. A paratroop sergeant captured in Normandy and recently arrived at our camp made an escape attempt, but we were informed he was soon rounded up, and presumably returned to the Stalag. The usual punishment for such behaviour was a spell in the ‘cooler’ (solitary confinement). As sergeants were not obliged to go out to work camps, presumably he volunteered in order to try to escape.
July 14th: Cpl Harry Dixon our camp leader (Vertraulnsman in German) received a backlog of 35 letters today! One of the women in the factory fell passionately in love with Harry, who did not reciprocate these feelings at all, I am glad to say. He received a stream of love letters from her and as he could not read German he used to pass them to me to translate for him. They were very ‘juicy’. Her husband was on the Eastern Front and she did not expect to see him alive again. She knew it was a capitol offence for a P.O.W. to have an affair with a German woman, but she was quite prepared to die with him!
Sunday July 16th: There were about 25 at the service this morning, and the camp held a whist-drive in the evening.
July 17th: Today it was my turn to go on night shift (from 10pm to 5am). On night shift there would only be two people in the factory; the labourer (e.g. myself) and a German supervisor. Incidentally the civilian supervisors wore a special arm-band to indicate their authority to supervise P.O.Ws. If I had been minded to escape I could have got away with perfect ease while on night shift!
On night shift the supervisors would unwind and say things they would not dare to say if there was the possibility of being overheard. Some of the things they said about Hitler were far from complimentary! I have read about Germans being sent to Concentration Camps for saying the kind of things they said to me. On the other hand the things they said about Jews and Gipsies showed how they had been completely ‘brainwashed’ by Hitler’s racial doctrines. I wrote to mum that it was surprising how quickly the night passed. I used to take my breakfast with me, cooking it on the job and eating it about 3am. On coming off in the morning I had a good shower and then to bed until lunch-time. As all the others were at work I was little disturbed.
On one of my night shifts I got myself into a very dangerous situation. I had previously noted House Sparrows entering small holes in the side of the roof of the factory and it seemed certain that they were going to roost there. I decided to investigate. I got hold of a torch (I cannot now remember how but presumably I borrowed it from a German supervisor), climbed up to the edge of the roof and discovered the fact previously unknown to me that sparrows had built small nests in these holes for roosting; the holes were too small for breeding purposes. I have read since in the literature that sparrows build these roost nests in colder parts of their range. While I was upon the roof the manager of the factory (an ardent Nazi incidentally) took it into his head to make an inspection and caught me red-handed. I explained to him what I was doing and such was my reputation in the factory for bird-watching he accepted my story. I could easily have been arrested either for trying to escape or even for attempting to sabotage the factory.
Today I obtained two eggs, presumably from one of the Germans in the factory.
July 18th: Heard a corncrake calling at dawn. White Storks regularly fly over.
July 21st: News came through of the attempted assassination of Hitler. I cannot now remember the reaction of the German workers in the factory.
July 26th: Once a month our camp leader was allowed to return to Sagan under escort to confer on matters of welfare. Today he returned with a complete ‘bombshell’. He told me he had met my brother Laurie. I had had no news of him for many months, but I knew he was a paratrooper and would probably have taken part on D.Day. I at once put in an application to be allowed to visit him, but with no response on the part of the German authorities (but see the entry for December 12th). I wrote to Mum “strange things happen in this world but the last thing I dreamed of was that Laurie should come to Stalag VIII c.”
After a subsequent visit, when Cpl Greenhill was camp leader, the latter said to me he wanted to speak to me privately. He cautioned me that on no account must I know the source of his message. He told me that the British Secret Service were interested in a new factory that had sprung up in a forest not far from us. (we had seen it on our journey to the camp.) It was suspected it might be in use to construct the new ‘V’ weapons; the doodle-bugs and rockets. As I was fairly fluent in German and as I got on well with the German workers he thought I was the person to make enquiries. Of course, I could not ask them outright. The line I took was this; there were no such things as ‘V’ weapons. It was pure propaganda on the part of their government to boost their morale. I was hoping someone would say “but I know someone who is working there”. In the event I got no information, either because they were well-disciplined against careless talk, or because they just did not know. At least it was a good try.
July 28th: The camp leadership were continually encouraging people with a particular knowledge or skill to share it with others. Today I began shorthand class with half a dozen pupils, but eventually it petered out through lack of interest. I asked mum to provide a dunces cap.
July 29th: My German Supervisor gave me a cucumber.
July 30th: One of my colleagues, Albert Sutcliffe, was interested in Lepidoptera. Today he caught a Swallow-tail Butterfly, and on August 3rd a Camberwell Beauty.
August 4th: We welcomed a newcomer to the camp; Jack Runey, a medical orderly.
August 8th: Made myself a raisin pudding, and on 10th a Baked Jam Roll.
August 11th: Another unexpected visitor; a chimney-sweep to attend to the chimneys in our living quarters, complete with black top hat! Today we adopted a kitten and named it ‘skilly’, but it was soon sent away. My supervisor gave me some onions, and the next day more cucumbers.
August 13th: I wrote a card to Laurie and we subsequently exchanged cards from time to time.
August 14th: Started on night shift again. Today and on subsequent days Wilhelm one of the supervisors gave me some tomatoes.
August 17th: There has been a plague of mosquitoes lately, not surprising with the marshes nearby.
August 19th: I caught Albert a Red Underwing moth.
August 20th: There was an air-raid alarm and we all had to go into the works shelter.
August 28th: made myself another raisin pudding.
August 29th: Harry our camp leader has bought two rabbits with cigarettes.
August 30th: Received a personal parcel from my friends at Hawick. I did not record the contents, but they would not have been cigarettes! Sometime in August we had a morning of table-tennis; I told mum I was in good form and beat everyone I played.
September 2nd: I made another apple pie.
September 4th: A letter to mum included “A great week – I have received my first mail. January to August is quite a jump! More arrived on subsequent days.
September 12th: Played shove football with Albert.
September 16th: From today we have been reduced to one food parcel a fortnight, a symptom of deteriorating conditions in Germany.
September 17th: I picked some black-berries on the outskirts of the factory and later made a black-berry pudding. Also caught a Comma Butterfly for Albert. I adopted five young rabbits or hares which I found in the coal heap but a fortnight later I handed them over to the German Sergeant-Major. Where I kept them, what I fed them on, or what he did with them I have no idea now.
September 22nd: It was announced that an addition to our number was coming. I had been hoping it might have been Laurie, but it was Cpl. Greenhill who had come as interpreter for the camp.
September 23rd: Another parcel from my friends at Hawick.
September 25th: Received a parcel containing a pair of socks, and slippers from the Red Cross.
September 27th: A big upheaval. Today about 50 of the original 100 sent to the camp were transferred elsewhere. By the rules of seniority Cpl. Greenhill was now elected camp leader, but that was a bad move; Harry was a good man.
September 28th: In the factory as a whole, working hours were changed to 6am to 5,30pm (12.30pm on Saturdays), a reflection of Germany’s worsening economic situation. This did not affect me as the kilns had to burn continuously, those of us shovelling coal dust kept to the old shift pattern. About this time I was introduced to the game of chess. My teacher had worked in Marine Insurance at Lloyds. I wrote to mum that my German was making considerable progress.
Sunday, October 1st: Our Sunday service is now being led by someone by the name of smith. Today numbers were about 20 out of 50, an improvement on about 30 out of 100.
October 3rd: We are now getting meat three times a week. The canteen also issued some blancmange. The hot pipes in our quarters have been turned on.
October 5th: Some personal parcels arrived for the camp. A limited number of parcels could be sent by relatives and friends, subject to strict conditions as to their contents. One of my colleagues gave me a tin of boot polish and some tooth paste. One of the Germans gave me two eggs again.
October 6th: Some of us were escorted into Dyhernfurth for routine x-ray examination. I received a card from Laurie dated September 9th.
October 11th: Both our Corporals (Harry and John) went on the monthly visit to Sagan and Harry spoke to Laurie again.
October 13th: The German sergeant-major knew I was a bird watcher and disclosed he had been a bird ringer before the war. Today he invited me to go on a bird-watching trip to some woods in the Oder valley. I remember seeing my first waxwing in a birch tree. Today I was paid 30 Marks for my labours and entered into an arrangement whereby most of my work pay could be transferred to my bank account in England via the International Red Cross. There was little to spend it on here. I have always marvelled that such banking operations could take place in wartime between two belligerents. Because of the credits and my army pay which continued to be paid to me all the time I was a prisoner, I had accumulated a substantial bank balance by the end of the war.
October 16th, 22nd and 30th: Made black-berry puddings eaten with blancmange. I heard from Laurie that he was to have a medical to see if he was fit for work, but as he had been playing football there could not be much wrong with him. In the event he managed to stay in the Stalag.
October 20th: A new stock of library books arrived. I was put in a working party to collect a supply of coke in Dyhernfurth for our living quarters.
October 25th: Noted large flocks of Rooks and Jackdaws passing over, presumably migrants. One flock contained 1000-2000 birds.
October 28th: I received a box of 200 cigarettes from the Duke of Wellington’s Benevolent Fund; the Duke of Wellington’s being my regiment – very useful for bartering.
November 2nd: We have been complaining of bed-bugs so the Germans arranged for us to move out temporarily so that our rooms could be gassed! Where they put us I cannot now remember.
Sunday, November 5th: An innovation; we were taken for an escorted walk in the afternoon; a memory I have completely lost.
November 12th: The German sergeant-major gave me some bird picture cigarette cards, which I still have.
Sunday, November 19th: Another stroll in the afternoon. I made myself a chocolate pudding. I wrote to mum that some-one had put up mistletoe in our room. Rather early I commented.
November 22nd: Up to now we had been living in two rooms. The Germans decided that as our numbers had been halved, one of the rooms would be closed.
November 25th: Received the insurance course and the French grammar I had ordered last May! We are to get no more food parcels, presumably because of German transport difficulties.
November 27th: During my day-off I made covers for my books.
December 5th: Set about repairing books in the library with some glue our camp leader, John Greenhill, managed to obtain.
December 10th: I wrote to mum that a tooth had been worrying me. A piece had broken off and the sharpened end made talking and eating uncomfortable, but there was no tooth-ache. I shall have to get an appointment with the dentist in the local town; other fellows who have been to him say he is a good man. I cannot remember now what happened about this but probably the appointment fell through because of the state of the war.
December 11th: Received a new pair of boots via the Red Cross, what a blessing in view of subsequent history.
December 13th: What a wonderful day! The German sergeant-major told me he had to go to Sagan on a conference and invited me to accompany him in order to visit my brother. We travelled up on a civilian train with civilian passengers in the compartment. Normally when prisoners travelled by train they and their guards had a reserved compartment. The German passengers were very intrigued to find I was a British P.O.W. On this journey I saw sight indelibly etched in my mind; I can see them now; two Jewish men waiting on a platform with an S.S. guard in charge. The look of despair on their faces has remained with me to this day.
Being a sergeant-major he had no difficulty in getting me past the guards at the entrance of the camp, and I spent the evening chatting with Laurie and catching up on all the news. He had been slightly wounded soon after D-Day and taken prisoner. Because of his wound he was sent to a hospital in Paris, from which he and another paratrooper attempted to escape. They were soon caught and sent to Stalag VIIIc. I slept the night in Sagan and was brought back by the sergeant-major at 11.30am next morning.
I arrived back to find there had been a rebellion. Cpl Greenhill, a weak leader, had been rejected and Harry elected again. Two days later John was recalled to Sagan, but he did me a favour; he took a letter back for Laurie in which I was able to say more than in the official post-cards.
December 23rd: I wrote to mum: “mighty preparations. In the centre of our table we have a decorated Christmas tree presented by the Germans, and all around people are mixing puddings. Mine has already been ‘tinned’ and I should be able to cook it, while on night shift, over one of the kilns. With some of the mixture left over I am going to bake a cake with the following ingredients: grated biscuit, stale bread, pinch of salt, sugar, egg powder cocoa, raisins, sliced up prunes, apple, margarine and syrup.” A new German sergeant-major took over today. As a treat for Christmas we were granted Red Cross parcels : one between four. There was also a bulk issue of food.
December 24th: A carol service in the evening.
December 25th: ‘Tubby’ (he was very short and stout, one of my supervisors, sent in some cakes for me.
Lunch: Beef, soup, sauerkraut, potatoes, followed by pineapple, rice and blancmange. A local baker sent in some rolls for us, and in the afternoon we went on another of our walks.
Main Christmas dinner: soup and a roll.
Rabbit (purchased with cigarettes), roast potatoes, carrots and peas, Christmas pudding with blancmange sauce.
In the evening there was a concert and a sing-song, one of the most remarkable sing-songs I have ever attended. The German guards put away their rifles and came and joined us, and we each sang our national songs in turn, accompanied by a piano-accordion. Then as a climax we all sang the carol ‘Silent Night’ together each in our own language; it was a very moving experience to think that we could do this in the midst of a bitter war. This carol has been very special to me ever since. The sing-song was followed by a short service.
December 26th: Another concert in the evening. I was now coaching one of my colleagues, Rex, in German. We were given a three day break and went back to work on the 28th.
In the second half of December there was a lot of snow and it got very cold. I noted blocks of ice floating down the River Oder. At least I had a warm job.
1945 January 1st: Most of the workers had a day off, but I had to do my shift as usual. ‘Tubby’ my supervisor gave me a pfefferkucken (ginger bread or spiced cake). Most of my colleagues stayed up and sang in the new year, but I was sound asleep.
January 4th: Made some Apricot jam.
January 6th: ‘Tubby’ gave me some sausage.
January 9th: Today I was given a day off for having worked on New Year’s Day.
January 19th: Rutterford who was going back to the Stalag at Sagan took a letter to Laurie for me.
January 20th: The German sergeant-major gave instructions that we were to pack as much as we could carry, as we were leaving the next day. The Russian armies were of course advancing rapidly westward at this time.
January 21st: So we started the ‘march’. It has been described in the media as a ‘death march’. It is true some did die, but the expression ‘death march’ is a bit of an exaggeration. Occasionally we would wake up and find someone had died in the night. At one stage there were three parallel columns proceeding westward. We P.O.Ws, the German Army, and German civilian refugees travelling in farm carts with as many of their possessions as they could take with them.
The first night was spent in a Russian P.O.W. camp, and we stayed here the next day. It was a very moving experience; the Russians could not do too much for us, though they had so little themselves. Russian prisoners were treated abominably by the Germans, and they did not have the protection of the Red Cross, or Red Cross food parcels; Russia was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention. We ourselves saw how the Germans rounded them up; they sent in German Shepherd dogs! I think it was this night that I slept on a narrow bench without falling off!
January 22nd: Some French P.O.Ws offered us cigarettes.
January 24th: A Russian gave me a cap! That night we slept in a barn and this was to be our general procedure throughout the ‘march’ (though we were straggly it could hardly be called a ‘march’!). I was able to practice my French with the French P.O.Ws who were also in the column.
January 27th: We slept at another Russian work camp. I now started keeping a record of the distance walked and I was helped in this by means of a map of Germany. How I obtained the map I cannot remember but I am now surprised at my temerity. A map for a P.O.W. was of course ‘contraband’ to the Germans and I could have been in real trouble if I had been found with it. (This map is another of the souvenirs still in my possession).
On average we walked about 15 miles a day, but one day it was 23 miles, and this on starvation rations. In all we covered about 500 miles between January 21st and March 21st.
January 28th: We passed a column of RAF officers and they gave us a lot of cigarettes, and then joined up with another Arbeits-Kommando at Freiwaldare.
January 30th: Both parties left and arrived at a camp outside Sagan. The Germans made us wait during the night an intolerable time in the cold while they allegedly arranged accommodation for us. We learnt that the temperature was -18°C the other day. The accommodation proved excellent, but the food was still starvation rations.
February 2nd: I had an interesting conversation with a Slovak with a fair command of English in this camp; he had been a teacher. He took my address but of course I never heard from him again.
February 4th: Celebrated my birthday with a bread ration of 14 to a loaf!
February 11th: We were marched to the airman’s camp and then we were off again. To our anger we saw German soldiers looting the store of Red Cross parcels. We noted that the town of Sagan was being evacuated and that soldiers were taking up positions.
February 12th: We had to march 20 miles last night and then settled in a barn. My diary records ‘some grand sights’. What these were I do not know now but my guess is that they were waves of Allied bombers.
February 13th: Marched 15 miles to Muskau and then stopped the night in a factory.
February 14th: We were compelled to sleep out in the open with rain pouring down! At least it was a milder spell. A bomb was dropped near us.
February 19th: To my delight I discovered my old mate of Sagan days, Sam, in the column.
February 20th: The River Elbe was crossed at Riesa, and then we spent the night in some barracks.
February 26th: We passed the outskirts of Leipzig. I have a strong memory of passing through a large town which was just a mass of rubble because of Allied bombing; it was probably Leipzig.
February 27th: The Germans gave us a rest day and then on 28th a new company of guards took over.
March 4th: Another rest day. Miracle – we were given some soup and potatoes.
Our normal ration had been a chunk of bread once a day, and ‘coffee’, and even the bread was omitted occasionally. (I still have in my possession a sample of the daily bread ration, set hard as stone. It was cut off a loaf after we had been released and were getting better rations).
March 6th: The owner of the farm where we spent the night, the local Burgermeister, was very good to us. We got some gravy, a good skilly, and coffee with milk from his own cows night and morning. The milk was contaminated with the taste of molasses which had been fed to the cows, but beggars cannot be choosers. We learnt he had a son who was a P.O.W. in England.
March 7th: Very bad quarters in a brick factory with no straw to sleep on. The place was filthy but at least we were sheltered from the rain. The French prisoners slept upstairs and we on the ground floor. One of our column was foolish enough to sneak upstairs to try to rob the French. We heard loud screams but whether he was lynched or not we never found out, and we were not disposed to mount a rescue operation.
March 9th: I reported sick with a septic heel, as I was having difficulty in keeping up. The new boots I had received from the Red Cross on December 11th had worn right through the heel. That evening the 27 in the sick party proceeded at their own pace and not with the main column. We were given a good billet and were provided with tea with milk, two lots of potatoes and two loaves between the 27. We are now near the Herz mountains
March 10th: We covered about 16 miles today, but I had a lift in a horse-drawn wagon most of the way.
March 11th: My heel was given a dressing at a first-aid station, and I had a good dinner! Jack Warner, one of the sick party died today. We were put on a train to catch up the main column, and then billeted in a cottage.
March 12th: A rest day. We stayed in another good farm and were given soup and potatoes midday, and soup again at night.
March 13th: We, the sick party, proceeded by walks and lifts to Manenberg. Received four slices of bread and meat paste, and coffee at midday.
March 14th: We were taken to a medical room in a barracks at Hildesheim for treatment and then returned to our barn,
March 15th: Another member of the sick party, Bartlett, has died. We were given some bread and jam, and a good soup in the evening. That evening a doctor came to visit us and I received another dressing.
March 16th: Another person has died. The cause of these deaths has not been recorded but most likely either Pneumonia or Dysentery. We were moved to a larger barn and given noodle soup. A Polish medical orderly paid us a visit.
March 17th: I was given an injection, but what for I do not know now.
March 18th: Unexpectedly we were given a slice of wheaten bread each; we had not seen white bread since we were taken prisoner. A party of twenty-one French sick joined us.
March 20th: Onward again after the six days break at Hildesheim, but we travelled in a wagon.
March 21st: The long ‘march’ finally came to an end today, and we were billeted at an empty school in Hannover. Obviously all the children had been evacuated.
On the ‘march’ we had been a long struggling column, far removed from a disciplined army, with guards at long intervals on either side. We got the impression they were struggling nearly as much as we were. When passing through forests there would have been ample opportunity to make a dash into the trees, and a few did so, intending to give themselves up to the advancing Russians. After the end of the war I met one such and he told me they were treated worse by the Russians than by the Germans!
If we passed a clump of root crops a few would dash out to secure some to eat. The guards only made feeble attempts to stop them. I believe some of the cases of Dysentry were caused by eating dirty ‘roots’. In one barn in which we stopped the night, however, I found a bag of wheat and filled my pockets with it. As I walked along I would eat one grain at a time, making it last as long as possible. One feature of the ‘march’ was the night-mares. I had a regular one. Some-one would offer me a large dish piled up with cream dough-nuts. As I stretched out my hand to take one, they would disappear.
The RAF used to drop propaganda leaflets over Germany. Some time during the ‘march’ I picked one up as a souvenir.
The wording may be translated:
In the West
The west wall broken through
Over 1,000,000 prisoners
Since the invasion!
Anglo-American air offensive
From the Rhine to the Eastern Front
In the East
East Prussia, Wartheland
And Silesia overrun!
The “Ruhr of the east” lost!
Red Army deep in
Brandenburg, Saxony and Pomerania!
(Wartheland is a province of east Germany)
On the ‘March’ we had a lot of snow and frost with short mild spells in between.
March 22nd: Today the rations were four to a small loaf and a sausage. There was a good ladle of soup midday, and straw arrived in the evening.
March 25th: There was a fire raid on Hannover and houses were burning all round. Some of our party volunteered to help save people’s furniture, but their real object was to loot.
March 26th – 29th: For rations we received the usual rye bread, potatoes and soup. There was actually sugar with the coffee.
April 1st: A pea and carrot skilly for a change, with potatoes.
April 2nd: A Polish work camp gave us a third of a loaf each with margarine and jam. In addition one cigarette each, and some soup.
April 3rd: More international generosity, some French prisoners gave us one American food parcel per ten men.
April 5th: We were de-loused. Bread and cheese in the rations.
April 6th: A big ration of meat today! There were rumours of the nearness of Allied troops, the landing of paratroops and a general emptying of the shops.
April 7th: Alarms and rumours all day; a threatened move did not take place. A little Red Cross food-stuff came in and an issue of flour.
April 8th: The sick party, including myself, was moved to a P.O.W. hospital, but the remainder of our column was marched away. I learnt, however, that many of them managed to be left behind.
April 9th: We were moved to a French work camp and were joined by two newly captured parachutist. There was much artillery fire in the area. The French gave us a good reception and we were given potatoes, and one American parcel between six. That day we discovered the guards had disappeared.
April 10th: Free at last! Some of us went out exploring and met a troop of American tanks guarding a cross-roads. They said they would report our existence to the necessary authorities. The Americans provided us with some eggs, presumably looted, otherwise they had no rations they could give us. We noted that the French prisoners were raiding wine stores! Someone gave us a lift back in a car.
April 11th: We received medical treatment from an American, and a hair cut. We were still given German bread but a greatly improved ration of only three men to a loaf. This meant I was able to cut off a sample of what we had existed on on the ‘march’. As I have already said I still have this specimen in my possession.
I went for another stroll in the evening. On one of these walks I picked up a red Nazi arm-band with a black swastika on it. No doubt with the arrival of the Allied armies, Nazi officials were discarding their arm-bands as quickly as possible. This is another souvenir in my possession. The French brought back some German prisoners to do our chores for us.
April 12th: Nineteen more who had been in the school joined us. Today we had a visit from a British Liaison officer and we were issued with bread, bacon and butter. He could not promise a quick evacuation.
April 13th: A big issue of rations today, mainly obtained from the Germans; bread, butter, cheese, sugar, tomato ketchup!, treacle, flour, soup powder, oats, egg powder, macaroni noodles, and beans. To our complete surprise there was also some Chinese tea, which we understood had been found in a Nazi official’s house. Another ‘explore’ in the evening and I met some British troops. The French supplied us with half a pig!
April 14th: We now have a radio in operation. Today there was a minute’s silence in memory of Roosevelt who had just died. We are just spending our time waiting!, washing clothes, sitting out-of-doors, reading etc.
April 21st: On the move at last. We were taken to Hildesheim aerodrome, where we were de-loused, and received coffee (my diary does not say but presumably real coffee at last.) and dough-nuts from the American Red Cross. We are now getting army rations.
April 22nd: A lot left today but I was not included. I met with some of our ‘march’ column.
April 25th: Away at last by American transport plane, and arrived at an airfield near Brussels. On the truck journey from the airfield to Brussels I could not help noticing a village with the sign-board ‘Waterloo’. We had a great welcome along the road and a good reception from the Church Army, the R.A.F. and Belgian civilians. After being registered we were sent to a leave hostel.
April 26th: There was an early departure in a Curtiss transport plane and landed at an airfield near Aylesbury. We had to sit on the floor of the plane, but who cared? At the airfield we had a reception in a hanger and were then sent to a camp.
April 27th: We went through various procedures, the details of which I have largely forgotten. I can remember we were debriefed by an officer who seemed mainly concerned if we had any atrocities to report. No doubt we had good baths, were re-clothed and given travel warrants. At 3.30pm I got away on 6 weeks compassionate leave with a parting gift from the Red Cross, and arrived home at 7pm. What a home coming! Obviously we were not much good to the army in our present physical condition.
May 7th: Total surrender of Germany announced.
Laurie who had suffered far more on the ‘march’ than I had was admitted to hospital as soon as he arrived in this country, but he too reached home on May 25th. Back home in Harold Wood I discovered there was a camp of German prisoners on our doorstep. Some of them used to come to St. Peter’s Church, and the Rev’d Bernard Hartley got me to give them a mini-sermon in their own language. You should have seen their faces light up! Dorothy remembers I referred to Martin Luther.
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