Signalman Andrew C. Cheyne
Unit : Royal Corps of Signals, 51st (Highland) Division.
Served : France (captured).
Army No. : 2578245
POW No. : 23
Prison Camps : Stalag VIIIB / 344
On September 3rd 1939 all Territorial soldiers were ordered to report to their individual barracks. I, personally, heard the message over the Tannoy at my Engineering works and immediately went home and got dressed in uniform and found myself posted on the first guard at Fonthill Barracks, Aberdeen that evening. From then on we went swiftly through training, first in Aberdeen for two weeks and then on to Aldershot until January 1940 when we were transported to France by troopship convoy as the 51st Highland Division, B.E.F. The weather was particularly vicious, cold in the extreme for my job in Line Communication (Royal Corps of Signals), snow, which continually demolished our telephone lines, climbing a telephone pole, heavily iced, in leg irons and then wrestling with sinking lines, tried our sense of humour somewhat.
Winter passed, Spring arrived and we left Northern France for the Maginot Line, a very pleasant piece of country. There were a few skirmishes between Jerry, our Black Watch and Gordons. We had a few interesting episodes, but none under fire. The scene changed when German armour blitzkrieged through Belgium and we were quickly withdrawn across France to the La Basse Canal area, at Abbeville we very soon discovered German fighting units far superior to anything we had envisaged. At this stage we (the ordinary soldier) had no idea what was happening north at Dunkirk, only that we were being forced back daily and, as history can tell, by Rommel's pincer tactics pushed towards the sea. So within fourteen days we found ourselves on the outskirts of St Valery-en-Caux. For me, as for many others, this was going to be an episode in our lives we would NEVER forget.
We entered St. Valery on Tuesday morning, eleventh June after being lectured by our Commanding Officer that we no longer would be used as a Signals Regiment, but that we should join the remainder of the Division in St Valery and shore up the defence of the town. We were ordered to destroy all equipment so that the Jerries would not be able to use it. Having nursed all the instruments, exchanges, wire etc., it was work done with a sad heart. We joined in with the axe to ravish it all. Transport was either destroyed or driven into the harbour and sunk.
We took up position around the 'Chateau' and soon found the Jerry tanks on the raised ground on our three sides, behind us, St Valery and the sea. By afternoon things hotted up. There was a fair amount of shell and small arms fire, very, very noisy - and scary. A Captain Shakelton of the Royal Signals instructed three of us to follow him in over a wall on our right, - to do what? I really don't know, but at that moment a tank shell exploded, throwing us into the air. Luckily, all I had was a piece of shrapnel in my ankle, the other two were also injured, as was the Captain. We were taken back where our MO, Captain Levack attended to our injuries and sent us to be evacuated as walking wounded to the beach. St Valery, by early evening, was burning badly. Out at sea, on the horizon lay two or three ships, which we, hopefully, would eventually embark on, but they never arrived, being held off by German artillery.
Mortar and machine gun fire raked the beach, a petrol tanker exploded on the esplanade, creating panic among the wounded, who lay more or less adjacent to it. Using my rifle as a crutch I hobbled into position against the esplanade wall and quite honestly, I prayed as I had never done. The mayhem continued. Jerry had all the advantages of observation and fire from the high ground.
During a break in the mortar fire I, along with others, made a run for a raft, which appeared at the water's edge, but machine gun fire caught us and quite a few of the lads were hit. I was lucky and managed to reach the raft, but the first reached us there and stopped that manoeuvre. I eventually crawled up to the beach behind one of wooden splines which stretched into the water. Very wet, sore and miserable because it had started to rain; (This was the early hours of Wednesday the 12th) I came to what appeared to be a group of Medics doing what they could for the horror around them. I was directed to a path cut into the cliff side, which would lead a group of us down to the Beach under the high cliffs (on the north side of St. Valery).
Explosions were happening all around as we made our way; I was using my rifle to take the weight off my ankle, which was bleeding badly. Debris from above hit me and I lost my footing and fell down 15 to 20 feet to the beach below. Semi-conscious, I felt myself being pulled back under the cliff face by two of my Regiment, Corporal Ewen and 'Paddy' Garden. They made me as comfortable as possible and left to attempt to get onboard a ship lying further north. I know now that the boat was grounded and attracting shell fire etc, from somewhere. I saw soldiers, I don't know whether French or British climbing down a rope or similar. They hardly reached half way, when it broke and at least four of those lads could not possibly have survived the fall of a hundred feet. I lost consciousness quite a lot and with the water lapping not far from my feet I never expected to live.
From then on, weapons, wagons etc. were being thrown over the cliff above to smash on the shore. I suppose this was Jerry clearing up, as I heard later that our Division had surrendered that morning, June 12th 1940. Pain continually knocked me out; large swellings or bumps told me that I had both hip joints either broken or dislocated. Time passed, I had no knowledge of the hour, but daylight turned to dark then daylight again. The morning was bright, when I saw coming from the north along the beach two khaki-clad figures and four Germans with stretchers. The British turned out to be Lieutenant Montieth R.A.M.C. and his orderly Michael Dempsey. I learnt from the Lieutenant that this was, in fact, Sunday morning, and he couldn't understand why I hadn't been picked up earlier. He gave me a drink and a piece of chocolate while he examined me. He made me bite on my army Bible and then I passed out as he set my hips to right. I came to on the stretcher and the R.A.S.C. sergeant who had died from a vicious stomach wound and had lain beside me was carried on the other stretcher.
We were taken to a school being used as a C.C.S. and then I was treated and fed. Shrapnel was removed from my ankle (There was no anaesthetic as we were supposed to be big boys, eh!!). After 3 or 4 days I was transferred to Hospital De-Ernemont in Rouen where I came under better class attention. Run by British doctors, supervised by the Germans. Three British doctors I remember clearly were Dr Dickie, Dr Dark and Dr Plant. The Chief Medical Officer was Colonel Levack and one-armed Padre Duff catered spiritually. The Germans were keen to get us moved on as quickly as possible, but our doctors made sure we were fit for the road.
I cannot recall how long I was there, but eventually the day arrived when I was detailed for departure!; about the end of July. I arrived at the Citadel in Cambrai (a large French barracks). On arrival we were queued up at the cookhouse and given a 'dixie' of soup and a portion of bread. We were then put down on a stairway into a dark basement with straw on the floor and a bucket at the door for 'natures call', very soon full, I might add. I imagine this was Jerry's way of demoralizing us, after the soft life in hospital - anyhow it didn't work as we kept up spirits by singing loudly - and there was always someone with a joke!!
After a couple of days, 'my first introduction to lice', we were allowed out into the daylight, a bath and shave, and, of course, communication with the other 'Kriegsgefangenen' (prisoners of war). We were then herded into another room and individually photographed and given our prisoner of war number, from now on I was POW 23.
The next four months were spent in working parties outwith the barracks - tree-felling, farming, slaughterhouse, sausage making, window repairing, garage work, cleaning billets and ????. On all these jobs there was always the opportunity of procuring food from the French civilians. We always came back with something for the evening meal.
I was severely "bashed up" during December 1940 and was hospitalized until January in Cambrai Hospital. I shared a ward with four others, one of whom eventually became my pal throughout the war, 'Snowy' Wilkinson a blond haired Geordie. We faired very well indeed over Christmas and the New Year, the French nurses saw to that and also our English doctor Major Davis Thomas, who made sure we had good attention and food and other extras he managed to find.
Early in February we were told that the 'Cambrai contingent' of 100 British men including ourselves were to be transferred to a camp in Germany. We arrived at the railway siding to find that our train of 15 wagons marked?? six horses, 40 men were already packed with British and French P.o.W's. My wagon contained 53 men - and a half barrel for the toilet. There was no room for us all to lie down, it was very cramped indeed. I managed to get my back against the wall and sit down, a position I had to maintain (apart for toilet) throughout the four days and five nights it took us to travel spasmodically through Germany. We were bumped and shunted it seemed at every town we passed through. On this journey three men died in our wagon before we reached our final destination. They were not removed until we were all out. This then was our journey's end and our total food over the four days was one loaf between two men.
We were all formed up to march to the new camp, a frozen, dirty, hungry, miserable mob. Lamsdorf (Stalag VIII B) awaited its guests!! The camp, a World War I prison camp lay close to River Oder in Upper Silesia, south-east of Breslav and about 30 kilometres north-west of the Silesian town of Oppeln. It was squeezed between the Polish-Czechoslovakian border and very, very near the Russian border.
I had to be taken by sleigh to the camp, I seemed to have lost the power in my legs. On any other occasion this trip by sleigh would have been a real highlight. It was a large 'Santa Claus' type sleigh with the driver in front, bearded in a thick fur coat and pulled by two lovely black horses, their bells tinkled as they pranced towards our new home. After entering the reception area, we were immediately subjected to a clothing and body search. We were then put into another room, where we had to strip, except for our boots. There were about thirty of us in the room - Not a pretty sight!! Two chairs sat in the middle of the floor and two German privates proceeded to cut our hair - All of it!! We facetiously asked for square back and not too much off the top but no!; hairclippers left us like a billiard ball. What an evil-looking bunch we appeared.
From here we were herded into a shower room with about twenty showers - steaming hot. We only had about five minutes in there but oh boy, it was luxury after five days and nights huddled together in a rail wagon. Our clothing, in the meantime, had been 'de-loused' and lay in a steaming heap and we had to sort out which was ours. On then to our hut where we were going to eat, hopefully, sleep and pass the hours away. This hut looked like a large warehouse with a concrete floor and three-quarters filled with three-tier wooden bunks with wood slats and a straw mattress, which we had to fill ourselves with straw from another shed.
The glass in the windows had been broken and not replaced. I found unfortunately that my bunk was adjacent to one of these windows, and the Silesia winter was about 10 degrees below zero. Oh this war! Misery indeed after that horrible journey from France. No sleep at all, we just huddled and froze all night and the next day. I thought I would never be warm again, or so hungry. The windows were boarded up two days later. We welcomed the protection but deplored the loss of daylight.
Food was very basic and insufficient for our young stomachs; I felt hungry all the time. Red Cross parcels hadn't yet been organized so early in our captivity, consequently our thoughts were always on food or how to get it. Already individuals in the camp had organized classes on various educational subjects, etc., and talks on Trade and Commerce. As money was of no value, bartering was the order of the day. Each day the Camp Leaders set up a Trading Chart. Cigarettes were the means of getting various things i.e., if one required Chocolate this would be valued at, say, ten cigarettes, five cigarettes could buy soap, etc. Shops were set up around the camp - licenced by the Camp Leaders. However, when you have neither cigarettes, soap nor food to barter the opportunities came from outside the Camp on working parties within approximately 20 miles of Lamsdorf. Each day usually brought some men in from working parties to the Camp, either defaulters, or jobs had been completed and when we saw this food and cigarettes in plenty our appetites were whetted to get in on this game.
There were working parties required on farms, in factories, mines etc., going out each day so when a Guard came in asking for 25 men, I along with two of my comrades immediately volunteered. We had no idea what the work was, but hunger 'commanded' and we were willing to try anything. So along with another 24 P.o.W's I found myself travelling to 'who knows what'. After a couple of hours we discovered that we were to replace civilian workers in a Limestone Quarry. This was to be our life until we were forced to leave in January 1945 before the Russian Army's offensive.
Many hundreds of stories can be told of life under the Germans in our Arbeitskommando E94 at Emilienhof, happy tales, sad tales, heroic tales, enough to fill many books. Let me sat at this point, what happened during these few years changed the lives of us all and even now fifty years after the effects are still very much obvious. We grew up very quickly; the life we had known in our lovely Scotland had no comparison to the 'living' we endured under the boot of our new 'Masters', both civilian and military. It quickly became obvious to know that they 'always had the last word'. No matter what we attempted or said against them, they could make life very hard indeed, no extreme was impossible with them. This, however, did not prevent us boosting our morale by various little acts of sabotage, games, stories against our captors. We didn't always get away with it, but it gave us a small satisfaction that we were 'kicking back'.
Our day started at 6.30am with a bucket of 'Ersatz' coffee. Breakfast was usually a slice of very dark brown bread with margarine and a cup of substitute coffee served in a bucket. Work in the quarry was from 7.00am until 9am, when we had a 15 minute break, then carried on until 12 midday; we went back to our billet for a plate of vegetable soup, some of us were lucky enough to have a potato from some of the civilian workers. Being still hungry most P.o.W's took a nap until 1.00pm, then back to work again until 6.00pm 'teatime'. Our work in the quarry was very hard, but healthy exercise welcome by us all. We had to quarry limestone, break and load eight wagons each, (approx 10/12 tons) before we finished for tea. Teatime was our main meal using the Heaven sent Red Cross parcels. Usually we had one parcel between two and we tried to balance it out so that we had a Tea every night, which, at least, partially satisfied our young stomachs!!
Evening gave us the opportunity to practice our various hobbies; each week we had a debate (six each side). We avoided Politics and Religion but found ample subjects to 'sharpen our teeth on'. We had boxing once a week. Each week we would take it in turns to give a talk on our 'Hometown'. Another interesting evening was a talk by an individual on his particular work back home. We presented a concert with small playlets (written by ourselves) also monologues and jokes every so often. Church service was held on Sunday once a month. One of our 'boys' taking the Service and the Sermon.
I was the proud possessor of haircutting scissors and clippers and so I was the obvious 'Barber'. I cut hair for four cigarettes each and with my stock of cigarettes I could barter for food; many an extra I earned for myself and my mate 'Snowy', a Newcastle lad.
In Spring and Summer we would sunbathe on the strip of grass inside our barracks. This then was our life, work six days per week, resting, washing, sewing on Sundays always in the Camp as shown on my sketch until January 1945, when the Russian Front got nearer and nearer. We suffered heavy bombing by both the Russians and the Americans, who carried out 1000 bomber raids on Silesia. We in our area used to have constant daily groups of 50 bombers - always at dinner time driving our appetites away. Eventually at the end of 1945 we had to move in groups of 1000 P.o.W.s. Marching in heavy snow and frost approximately 20 km per day. Our first two nights were spent lying in the open, but gradually the German Guards were able to organize barns for us at night. At least we were out of the snow and wind. We marched every day until April across Germany until we finally arrived at a mountain village on the River Elbe called Königstein. I, unfortunately, was so ill from malnutrition that I had to be moved by wagon to a hospital about 20 miles outside Prague in Czechoslovakia.
It was while in 'hospital' (another P.o.W. camp) that we were eventually liberated by the Russians; a very uneasy seven day period under our liberators followed. I felt at this time that I would never see home again. I helped in the burial of five soldiers (one Scot, two English and two French), all died from tuberculosis, sad that this was after the 8th of May 'Victory in Europe'.
By this time I was completely off my feet, very will when a strange-looking soldier appeared in our room - "ANY OF YOU GUYS WANNA GO HOME?" The American accent was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard!! Within ten minutes we were all in ambulances and rolling HOME. I'm afraid they caused a hard reaction by the Russians as they had entered the zone without permission. We travelled very fast and we were fired at one three occasions. I don't think anyone was hurt, but we were on a 'high' and thrilled by the evacuation. After a very tense journey, our ambulances arrived finally at Mersberg, about 250 mile trip. We entered an American camp on an Air Force complex.
The very first thing our Yankee friends did was lead us to the canteen where we were each give a large mug of steaming hot sweet, milky coffee and two slices of cake, at least we thought it was cake, but discovered that this was 'white bread' spread with peanut butter. I can't imagine a more luxurious sensation than that meal. Then it was doctors, nurses, injections, photographs, showers and then 'sleep' for nearly three days.
During this period we had a 'terrifying' fireworks display, when someone sabotaged the aerodrome ammunition dump. Very lethal as we had shrapnel scything through the tents. It was heads down as close to the ground as possible.
I was 'adopted' by an American officer, who was completely intrigued by my Scottish accent, and I must say, he was more than a little concerned with my skeletal condition. He kitted me out from top to bottom with uniform, boots, underwear, shirt, even chocolate and cigarettes. My deep regret now is that we left without his address. He even persuaded me to take a trip with him in a plane left by the Germans. It was my first flight and I remember thinking as I sat in my seat what on earth made me agree to this?? But he was an excellent pilot and did nothing drastic, just circled the area and I landed with my stomach still in its right place. A fine, decent fella and good fun.
After about four days six DC4 Dakotas arrived to take us home. We were taken to Rheims in France where we were further treated by French doctors and nurses. I recall have a shower there in the lovely warm bathroom. I went back four times that day, I just couldn't get enough. After three days my turn arrived for travelling home, once more in a DC4.
Flying over the English Channel, on my way home, no words could possibly express my feelings on seeing the 'White Cliffs of Dover' below us. With the background of the past five years and its fears, horrors, desperation behind us, here ahead in freedom, hope; our loved ones; the thrill of all that lay ahead, threatened to choke me. I wanted to shout out!!! I looked round and saw the look in all the others' faces and felt the 100% joy of life, that had evaded us for the past years. Seeing, meeting an English girl again; seeing an English bobby in his tall helmet. Simple things, I know but they meant so much to me.
After a sound sleep in a Nissen hut at Brize Norton (I think this was the aerodrome) I was transferred to Nottingham Hospital. I was seriously underweight and suffering from malnutrition. Eight stones just would not let them allow me home and I spent two weeks sleeping, feeding like a turkeycock and, of course, the inevitable injections, injections. I had not quite made the acceptable weight recovery expected after the two weeks, but my Doctor took pity on me and with a shrewd look at me he said "I haven't the heart to hold you back any longer Andrew. I have made arrangements for you to continue home."
I distinctly recall an Officer sitting in my carriage on the Aberdeen train as we got closer to Aberdeen. "How long have you been away, son?" He had noticed my new kitbag, he knew that I was a returned P.o.W. I told him six years to which he replied "I'd give a fortune to feel the way you do!". I had a wonderful reception at Aberdeen Station, Dad, Mother and Kath, yes she was there and my heart went into overload. Apparently I was the last of the returned Prisoners of War to arrive home. It was, I know now, a really dreadful, trying time for my folks waiting for me.
I had to report to Woodend Hospital for further treatment and had to wear the dreadful blue jacket, trousers, white shirt and red tie until they discharged me. After three weeks I received instructions to report to Haywards Heath, an Army Camp in Sussex awaiting discharge. I begrudged every hour I was in Haywards Heath, I wanted so much to get on with my life in Aberdeen. After two weeks I found my name up in 'Orders' to report to Basingstoke for discharge. Then I collected a Civilian suit, shirt, socks and a Porky-Pie trilby - and my one-way rail ticket home. This ended a very, very soul-searching six years of my life.
Meeting me at the Joint Station, Aberdeen was my father, mother and the lovely girl who was to be my wife and soul mate for the next fifty-eight years and we hope to share our Diamond Wedding on March 14th 2006.
My years from the age of 19 and 24 taught me many lessons, which affect me even to this day. I appreciate:- the love of my country more than words can express; my food, every meal is eaten thankfully with immense pleasure; my life, every single day as it comes; my family and friends with love and satisfaction. I take nothing for granted, each day is a 'bonus' to be enjoyed.
God granted me my life at St. Valery, I honestly hope and trust that I have shown my gratitude by my way of life - so far!
Cheyne recalled the following names from Room 1, of E 94; Jack Hemmingway, Fred Camfield, John Bowra, Dennis Tolson, Fred Potter, MacLennan, Gavin Halliday, Thomas Emmett, Albert Scothern, Bert Morton, William Hurst, William Ashford, William Little, Ted Weaver, Jack Peddington, Kiwi ?
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