Sergeant Arthur Shepherd
Unit : Royal Army Medical Corps.
Served : France (captured).
Camps : Stalag XXA.
Sergeant Shepherd was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940, and spent the remainder of the war at Stalag XXA. The following is a transcript of the notebook he kept from the 18th January to 2nd February 1945.
Thursday 18th January
Many rumours of moving back into Germany following the Russian breakthrough N & S of Warsaw. Issued Red Cross as usual & packed our kit as a precautionary measure. Drank a bottle of [?] juice in the evening.
Friday 19th January
Major Fulton went to see Weiclemann re evacuation of sick etc. Capt Lake came up in the afternoon & I reported that the sick were going to Confession as instructed by [?] Debewitz.
Major Fulton reports that we should have a long march but could get no other definite information from Oberstabsartz.
[Irving?] came in as usual & said there were rumours of us moving out 3.00 hrs on Saturday morning but as Stalag had not finished preparations he said rumours could be disbelieved. However we made final arrangements with the Medical kits for orderlies & our personal kits.
Saturday 20th Jan
Rev at 3.00 hrs. [?] came in to say we were moving at 5.00 hrs.
Got up & washed & went to see Bob [?] who was not O.K. re opening of Red X store.
Could get no satisfactory answer so went & saw Debewitz. Instruction was to march by [?] to [?] with the Hospital in rear & sort out the sick when we arrived there. I went out to the store to let the staff get store food & cigs etc & Major Fulton gave the O.K. to give away all the remaining parcels (160). I started this but the rush was too great & so let the men take what they wanted & then pushed off. The [?] eventually marched off & I was given an unter offizier & two men to take the 10 lying patients to [?]. After many break downs we reach Cop in about 2 hours. During which time we were joined by Billy, Bob & George.
On arrival at Cop the main column had gone so we were sent into the compound. I reported our position to [Foreman?] & another officer & he said they were expecting 120 men from Lager III & not 91 as were then [?]. It was too late to get our sick from the column who were then about 3 hours marching ahead so I waited for results from the German officer who seemed to be i/c [in-command]. We pushed back to the gate & an air-raid shelter whereupon we were told to get into Cop [?] compound & remain there. The Cop [?] staff were not expecting us but [? ? ?] us accommodated. We went up to the [?] house on top of the hill & made preparations to put the sick in the cellars.
This took most of the morning & eventually all the sick were lying in straw beds in the cellars. The temperature was then 17° below & the cellars were unbearable but the order was given by Capt Lake that all men were to go down & find sleeping space. Owing to the large amount of Russians in the camp it was impossible to leave the building without a piquet so six men under an N.C.O. were detached off for this duty. The remainder of the day I spent in marching around & getting together a bit of kit etc. There were air raids on & off all day. The night was uneventful & I slept on top because it was warmer than the cellars.
Sunday 21st Jan
Woke up feeling thoroughly chilled through & had some porridge for breakfast. The morning was spent in pottering around in general. It was plain from local observations that the Germans were preparing to meet the Russians on the outskirts of Thorn & hold our side of the Vistula.
The [?] being very much higher than the surrounding country enabled us to make good observation of movement on the Thorn side. We saw Germans taking up positions in the prepared trenches along the [?] Road which meant the Russians were getting near but so far there had been no fire to initiate action on either side; our own position was good because we did not come in direct line of fire from either fence but could look down practically on the [? ? ?] where the fighting was to come.
I got browned off with hanging about & went down the cellar for a bit out of the way [?] and came up to get some tea & did not go down again. The evening drew on leaving only ourselves on top & I decided to sleep alongside the fire to keep warm.
Bill & I & Chippy sat talking & then only scattered gun fire was heard which amounted to nothing important. The Gerry's were firing a few rounds every few minutes to keep the M.G. barrels warm.
Soon after 24.00 hrs we had a drink of Horlicks & went to sleep. Ken was a piquet then. Ken came in at 2.30 hrs & I woke up about the same time. It sounded as tho Hell had been let loose. I was not undressed in bed so I soon put on boots & jacket & went out to have a look at the battle. Things had evidently warmed up & the plain was a mass of tracer bullets going from side to side. The heavy guns at the back of [?] III were firing rapidly but in the direction of Fort XIV & possibly shelling the [?] road. My own idea was that a flanking attack had been made by the Russians to capture the heavy guns (6" calibre) & so allow the armour to move up the [?] road to Thorn without much enemy shelling. After ½ hr heavy firing & terrific mortar & M.G. fire there was a charge made & the usual yelling ensued. The Russian interpreter who was standing with me said it was definitely the Cossacks making a charge. I took that to be correct as he would know his fellow men's war cry when in action.
Things got quiet after that & we decided not to go down in the cellar as we had at first thought necessary, but to hang around & wait for the Russians to move up to us. However nothing happened beyond scattered M.G. fire after this & we hung around the fire until morning.
Monday 22nd Jan
We reported the nights activities & Capt Lake was very emphatic about the people all remaining below ground. Later in the morning the Russian P.O.W's cut through the wire in their compound & got over the road to the potato dumps & started bringing in sack loads of potatoes to relieve their starving condition. This had been going on for about 1½ hrs when a man dressed in white & carrying a Tommy gun came up over the hill & called to the P.O.Ws. Three of them went over & disappeared from view& it was generally accepted that the man in white was a Russian patrol. By this time there was quite a crowd of Russians with us [?] the [?] officer who was very confident of an early release for us all. There had been continued air activity all morning & some flak was put up. The planes seemed to be using the two bridges as targets.
A German patrol of 8 men came along the [?] road & passed by the camp but did not speak. A little later a German officer came up to the wire & called one of our men over but Bill called him back to be on the safe side. The order was continuously given to keep the men below but they were all too enthusiastic to stay under for long. They were all pretty excited about the mornings activities to pay much heed to any danger that was about. About mid-day I saw someone moving through the trees over the far side of the road coming round the side of the mound. I didn't know whether it was a German or Russian. However the figure was in white & could be seen as he got in front of a back ground of fir trees. When he got within 200 yards of the camp a Russian officer P.O.W. went out to meet him & they greeted each other with kisses etc. He was carrying a Chicago Piano & was obviously a Russian patrol. The Russian P.O.W. had crowded round the opening in the wire & were all greeting him with open arms, he was sending them back the way he had come which meant there was a forward position very close which was sheltered by the low range of hills in front of us. Two Russian fighters came over & circled round possibly have spotted the P.O.W. running through the snow in the direction of the Russian lines & thinking them to be the enemy. However the Russian patrol sent up two signals & the planes went off. The woman officer was shouting at us to come over but Capt Lake gave the order for us all to stand fast until he made enquiries. However the patrol though he'd stayed too long & shot off back towards his own lines. I estimate that about 200 Russians had gone through when he stopped them & possibly said they would be got out later. It was pitiful to see men with no legs trying to walk over the rough snow covered ground to get the freedom they had waited for so long.
We were all sure now of an early release but there were still too many Germans on the other side of the camp to take any chances especially knowing how trigger fingery the Deutsch were. I had a bit of time so lay around for more action. The Germans started [?] over a heavy barrage on the hill behind which the Russians were moving up. They were all shrapnel & the artillery were very accurate. There was scattered M.G. fire possibly from patrol activity. About 16.00 hrs a lad asked if he could nip over to the lavatory about 50 yards from the barrack as [? ?] the men had to shit just outside the cellar door in tins etc. However he got into the lavatory & then someone riddled it with M.G. fire & also swept the compound so we had to take cover pretty quickly. The fire was from another Russian force coming down the [?] road who did not possibly know that the people running about were P.O.Ws. & not Germans. The fire raked the side of the building for about half an hour in which time we layed low below the windows. All the piquet were there & we decided that the piquet should keep under cover all night & not expose themselves to the outside at all. I walked through to the front of the building & stood there talking to a Russian P.O.W. & I could clearly see a tracked vehicle coming down the other [?] road in front of the camp. When it nearly reached the corner it was greeted by a terrific deluge of fire which died down & no more tank like vehicle was heard. This was an obvious indication that the Huns were defending the road on that side of the camp & that there were still German troops within a few hundred yards of us. The Russian walked away to his own compound & more M.G. fire came across the door way which indicated that someone did not know what the activity was around our building.
I went [back?] & joined the others & we all kept our heads low. We had been like that for about 10 minutes when we were nearly lifted off our feet & some of the plaster came down. A shrapnel shell had burst at the end of the building so we decided to go down the cellar & await results. Capt Lake said he did not expect anyone to stay up there now with such an unenviable job as ours. As we came down the stairs another shell landed & blew George & Bob down the stairs on top of some unfortunate person who was trying to come up. We thought it best to prepare for a night in the cellar but as there was hardly enough space for one more man it was difficult to find room for six more. However we sat on a form inside the door & had a few hot drinks & a piece of bread. Later Bill & I decided to go up & survey the situation now that the shelling had ceased. Everything was in deadly silence on top & I expected any minute to see a Russian dive out of the darkness & shoot us. However we looked around & went below again. We tried to make a bed down in the door way but this was impossible & after mid-night we decided to go on top & risk our necks for a decent sleep. There was only scattered M.G. fire at that time so we kept pretty quiet & curled down in any bedding we could find. When I woke I was handed a big lump of bread & some sausage which apparently Bob had got up to cook about 4.30 hrs. After that I had a smoke & everything seemed O.K. I got up & had a look round & everyone was still below.
It was very cold again & I had to run up & down inside the building to stop my feet from freezing. Firing started out in front of the building which in my opinion was German snipers who had got into the water tower that covered the whole camp. There was return fire from the left end of the camp which was very near & also the direction from which the Russians were coming. I had several narrow squeaks here when I was trying to keep the people from coming up stairs & I exposed myself to the fire.
This went on for about two hours & then a Russian P.O.W. came along & said that the patrol had arrived in the camp. I was very dubious until the interpreter called me over & I saw more Russians (4 dressed in white) coming through the huts. I was trembling with emotion to think that after nearly five years under German control & I had been liberated by the Russians. It was a great feeling. One that cannot be put on paper nor even spoken. You must go through it to know what feeling there is. The four in white went off to probe into the German defences at the other end of the camp & the other two I met. They kept me covered at seeing the strange uniform whilst the interpreter informed them that there were a number of British in the cellars. He told me to lead them to our Officers & I took them down to Capt Lake who was overjoyed at the news. He received instructions as to what we were to do & then the patrols started to go through the kit & stuff there was lying about. Capt Lake gave the order to get out as quickly as possible with only very necessary kit. There were hundreds of men trying to get through the wire on to the road & so we decided to cut another hole to relieve the pressure on the existing one. Bill started hacking away with a spade & Ken had a pair of wire clippers with him & in 10 minutes we were through.
There were stretcher cases & people who could hardly walk. All had to go up the hill which was also ice bound. It was tough going on the lads who were carrying stretchers & more than once they fell. All I could see in front was one mass of humanity all going to freedom. Hundreds of men who felt the same thrill as I did. That of leaving barbed wire behind after so many years of waiting & hoping & at last we were free. Many a tear of joy was shed on that hill. We walked on a few miles & then came to the Russian troops who had taken up positions. On one side of the road was an anti-tank gun & the other was a trench manned by Russian troops from then on we passed many of the infantry moving up.
We came to a cross roads & were turned into the woods where we were split up into our various nationalities. We were told then that the Russian High Command were to repatriate all Allied P.O.W. who had been liberated in a very short time. We were also told that we should carry on marching to the Div H.Q. where there would be transport for our sick.
We started this walk & we saw our first Russian front line women complete with Chicago pianos (so it was true). We passed many women soldiers after this & they were in the ranks with the men & apparently that is the normal run of things in the Russian Army. The road was practically blocked with [American?] lorrys bringing up supplies & troops etc. Also the big guns to start shelling Thorn (6" calibre). We must have passed thousands of Russian infantry most of them carrying M.Gs. There was horse transport & lorries such as we hadn't seen before & we realised how really bad our army was in France in 1940. At last we reached Div H.Q. where we were seen by Russian Press Correspondents & several photos were taken.
The sick were left in a small hospital building & we set off to march to our first billets. The land was badly battle scarred & most of the buildings were down. Here we saw the Cossacks moving up. They only have small ponies but by God they know how to use them. The Cossack officer has a very beautiful uniform. Later the heavy tanks passed us, all manned by the Polish army and they gave us some pretty loud cheers. The tanks went by in a never ending stream & we didn't see the last of them before we turned off the road to go across the fields. We walked on & on & on & then it started to snow. It snowed continually until we arrived in a town [Alexandrow] & were herded into a big courtyard & what looked like a school. Soon the civilians were on the move & the building was opened up & in we went. The place had been a German police academy & boy had someone been to work. The pictures of Adolf Hitler had all been taken down & jumped on & there was broken glass & china all over the place. We made ourselves comfortable on the floor & opened up some meat roll & had some grub. The girls came in with coffee etc. We found bedding & got down to it. Next morning we moved upstairs into another room.
The name of this place was Alexandrow & it was here that Busty turned up. She was very pleased to see us & we went out with her for some food. She looked after us well. There were girls posted to each room to do all the work for us & believe me they put in some overtime.
Thursday 25th Jan
Went out with Bill, Bob & George to Busties & had drinks. We arrived back at camp to find the Party had moved on. We were slightly under the influence & started to catch the column up. We caught up when they were nearby to [Chiecohienk?]. We were immediately told we were on charge by Capt Feltham for being absent without leave. This was all balls because we had checked out at the office & given the address we were going to. After much dallying about we arrived in our billets at [Chiecohienk?]. It was practically dark by this time. However we were put into a room for 8 men. We foraged around to get bedding etc & some food from the cellar of the billet which was well looted by the lads. Bill & Bob went out & were taken for a trip round by sleigh with the Chief of police. They came back with a bottle of Vodka & the Chief of police.
The morning was spent in forming the men into Platoons. Bill & I were made commanders with 40 men each. We were informed by Capt Feltham that we should be staying here for a few days & that this was the collecting station for all liberated P.O.W. The Russians put an officer in charge of us (woman). There were [?] of Jewish women from the Concentration Camps in Poland also liberated: they were in a terrible state. Mostly with sacking clothes & clogs to wear & no stockings. Some of the men who had escaped on the march began to come in. They brought rumours of many old friends who were making their way here after breaking away from the column.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Busty turned up with [Laja?] & brought bread & food for us from Alexandrow. She went back after dinner.
Nothing happened (still waiting)
Thursday 1st Feb
Went out for a walk & had to come in owing to a heavy shower of snow.
Friday 2nd Feb
My thanks to Nick Shepherd for this account.
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