Warrant Officer Basil Cotton
Unit : Royal Air Force.
Camps : Dulag Luft, Stalag Luft VI, Stalag XIB.
I was flying a Whitley when I was shot down. On July 4th, at 2am, I made a parachute descent at Eindhoven, Holland. There were 5 of us on our plane : Dickie Davis (rear gunner), Ken Bowden (a good actor), Ron Lakin and myself who all survived (the other three weren’t injured) and Gibson who died. I subsequently met Ken Bowden at Heydekrug, he was in the bed next to Roy Dotrice. I was found by a dog, shot in both legs, in an irrigation ditch. A German orderly helped cut me out of my flying suit, he was very gentle and kindly. He wouldn’t let me walk but got an ambulance, which was driven across the field to pick me up. I was put on to a stretcher and was taken to Krefeld to a hospital run by nuns.
My legs were in a mess, I was shot in the right thigh, my head was hit too, my left foot had been stuck…. The nuns at the hospital treated people very badly. They used to put food by my bed but I wasn’t strong enough to eat it. When they came back and found the uneaten food they swore at me. My left leg went gangrenous. They took me to a hospital (Res Laz) in Dusseldorf Gerresheim, which was run by the French and had about 1000 French patients, I was the only Brit. This was in 1941 on July 8th, when France was under German rule and French workers were taken into Germany to work. They were used to handling minor injuries, hernias etc. A doctor there called Galving came to look at me. I was on a stretcher and when he saw my left leg he recoiled. I stayed in this hospital for about 8 months.
I’d already learnt German and French at school – at Dusseldorf I got a big compliment from a Frenchman. He said ‘You speak very good English for a Frenchman’. I had done 7 years of French at school and was better at it than German. I learned the correct version but you pick up the patois from French men. Of course I picked up a lot, I was stuck in a hospital with only French people. My greatest friend was a Frenchman whom I met at Dusseldorf, he gave me some of his ration and a lighter. I saw him a couple of times after the war, once in Lille, another time in Leicester in 1957 when Muriel was expecting Fran.
We used to have very good concerts at Dusseldorf, Paul Boissier ran an excellent orchestra and he arranged a jazz gala on 26th September 1941; I was the only English man there.
I had two operations on my legs at Dusseldorf, both by Galving.
On March 2nd 1942 I was moved to Dulag Luft at Hohemark (which means ‘High Point’), near Oberursel, Frankfurt where RAF prisoners were taken for distribution to POW camps. This was up in the mountains, on the Rhine, a beautiful setting, lots of snow. Around this time I spent time in solitary confinement. They took my clothes away and interrogated me for information and turned the heat up. I was warned ‘No one will know you are here’, but I told him I’d already been here for 12 months and had received parcels, which took the wind out of his sails. Another German, Lieutenant Erihart, came in to see me, he spoke perfect English and said he’d been to Queens College Oxford, but I wouldn’t tell him anything. I heard after the war he got four years for ill-treatment of POWs. This happened over two days, by then they knew I was no good to them.
I was next taken on April 2nd 1942 to Stadtroda hospital, where I was in bed next to an Army man, Taffie (he was Welsh) – he looked after me for weeks, used to sort out food for us both as I couldn’t do anything. The hospital was in a nice village. The hospital was under German control but with British doctors, the patients were English plus some from Crete and New Zealand. They did two operations on my left leg, which straightened it and put it in plaster, after which I could walk, more or less. The surgeons there were Leslie Lauste and butcher Martin (I met Martin at Wimbledon years later, he was very tall). The senior sergeant made the patients clean the hospital.
On August 21st 1942 I was moved to the hospital at Egendorf, near Stadtroda, in the central part of Germany. The countryside reminds me now of Wiltshire, it was beautiful. The hospital was previously used as a college for the Hitler Youth; it was on a hill and like being in a holiday camp. It was more like a convalescent home than a hospital; they didn’t do any operations there. My left leg was affected by the move. I made sure that I got a bed near the kitchens, so I could watch the girls at work there and hear the radio playing every night. The summer of ’43 had beautiful weather and I had a girlfriend in the kitchen, Anna Maria Blankenfuland, she was very blond and had a sister Lottie – there were about 5 girls working there in all. We got Red Cross parcels and took them to the kitchen and they’d heat them up for us. The parcels had tinned meat, prunes, little things of cheese, dried egg, tins of fish. We received German rations too, but they weren’t anything special.
They didn’t mind people who were wounded going outside the hospital and I used to go to Blankenhein village.
There were Russians, Poles, Belgians and French in Egendorf, it was run by mainly English doctors plus a couple of French doctors. In winter they would ask for say 6 men to get the coal and I always volunteered because I could talk to them. Known there as Schwartze ie black because I had black hair. We used to travel by oxen cart and sled. The doctors there were doing a fiddle to get the coal. I was kitted out in striped Polish trousers and a blouson. We found out after the war that we were very near one of the concentration camps. I remember one day the sky was blue, but then a great black cloud came across. We thought it was just a rain cloud, or perhaps from a bombing but now I wonder if it was from that camp.
We had a good band at Egendorf, we used to put on shows for the English and French, I used to be the compere. I played a bit of table tennis there. I bought myself an accordion and with a Yugoslavian who played the trumpet and another chap on drums we set up a band called the Cosmopolitans.
I met George Friedlander, a German Jew, at Egendorf, he had joined the British Army and was a POW. I was friendly with Walter Kretchmer, the guard commander, German. He had lost an eye and finger and had been shot in the thigh, he was part of Rommels army that had marched across France. He was a sensible man, not vicious in the slightest. His brother was a famous submarine commander, who ended up as a POW in Canada.
Whilst at Egendorf Cooper, the doctor there, sent me to Obermassfeld on May 22 1943 for a couple of weeks. Here the Geneva Commission, who checked injured POWs in case any were eligible to be repatriated, saw me. One chap who lost an arm was lucky, he was sent home. Tiger Fulton was another doctor at Egendorf, he was an international bridge player and later an umpire at Wimbledon. I am not sure how these English doctors ended up in the German hospitals, perhaps they were captured during Dunkirk?
Shortly after returning to Egendorf I was sent back to Stadtroda on June 13th 1943, where I stayed for about 5 weeks and started to learn chess, taught by a Russian, before being put on a train to Mohlsdorf on August 21st. I was there about a week and contracted jaundice, so was sent back to Obermassfeld hospital on August 30th where I spent 4 weeks in bed, not at all well. At Stadtroda the cooking was based on a liquid fat which may have caused the jaundice. When I was mobile again they sent me to Mühlhausen Army Camp on November 9th. This was not very nice but I wasn’t there for long, setting off for Heydekrug later that month.
Heydekrug (East Prussia), was my first actual POW camp and I arrived here on November 29th 1943, nearly 2 ½ years after being shot down. The journey from Mühlhausen to Heydekrug, on the Lithuanian border with Poland, took four days travelling on a cattle truck on a train with a bucket as a toilet. We had to sleep standing up as there was nowhere to sit down. I remember moving by train, it was crowded I was sitting down. Further up the train were German Airforce Staff – they were complaining about the ‘terror fliers’. Ie anyone who bombed Germany. The traveller with me was also injured. I said ‘Can’t you speak more quietly?’ in German and he disappeared. We offered our seats to two ladies but they refused.
On the second day we travelled through Poznan in central Poland. We would get to a station in central Poland; it would be built like a castle, a wonderful edifice, but with nothing around it. A few old women, dressed in black, would get off and you could see these black figures heading towards the horizon where presumably the town was. We stopped at a little station in Poland because we needed the toilet – which was a trench with two poles over it, one to sit on, one to hang on to. A train came past with lots of girls on and we waved! We also stopped at Konigsberg for a couple of nights.
On the third day of travelling we went through East Prussia via Deutsch Eylau, a junction for trains, then to Torun, We changed here and I met an Englishman from Stalag 22A. We waited on the platform for transport. A train came but it was full. A marine captain got off the train and asked what we were waiting for, when he found out he got 15 people to get off the train so that we wounded could travel.
We spent a night in Instaberg in East Prussia and from there travelled in two stretches to Tilsit. At one point on this journey we stopped in a siding and the guards got everyone off the train. It was bitterly cold. A German railway man came to us and said ‘I get heat’. He brought coals etc and warmed the place up.
When we arrived in Heydekrug we walked to the camp, Stalag Luft 6, I was using crutches. This was an RAF camp - the RAF POW were segregated from Army POW and put in different camps. They thought the RAF POW were dangerous and we didn’t have to work, nor did senior officers in the Army. Heydekrug was a nice camp, particularly in the summer. I met up there with the remainder of my crew, Dickie Davis, Ken Bowden and Ron Lakin were all there. I was in the same hut as Dixie Deans, who spoke perfect German, it was hut D8 or D9. Peter Thomas was also in this hut, he became an MP after the war, Dixie Deans got the MBE.
The Gestapo regularly searched the huts, they would search the beds and chuck everything into the centre of the room.
I got a poisoned foot at Heydekrug. There was a medical section there staffed by the British, but they were young and probably had limited knowledge.
Some of POW life was a hell of a good experience; I met Serbs, Croats, Poles etc (the Serbs and Croats hated each other). The Poles were a cracking good lot, tough, honest, straightforward. Most could speak a bit of German some could speak a bit of English. We had a secret radio and could pick up the British stations. We received parcels from the Red Cross – the Canadian parcels were the best, I don’t know how I got them, someone must have given them my name.
Eric Williams gave the impression in his book that all POWs were trying to escape, but it wasn’t like that, we were more like a small village. We arranged lectures in every conceivable subject, some people got degrees as POWs! I used to give lessons in practical German, using phonetics and also lessons in sums. We did try to grow vegetables here but it didn’t work. I did a fair amount of sunbathing.
It was at Heydekrug that I was given my ‘War Time Log’ book through the Red Cross, in which I kept many notes about POW life.
The end of the war - We stayed at Heydekrug until the Russians came near, then 3000 of us (the camp had 9000 in total) were moved back in horse trucks to Torun, mid July 1944, using the same route as that we came by. Everything was disorganised at Torun when we arrived on July 19th. We spent about three weeks here then on August 8th moved on again, travelling by train via Bromberg and Stettin North Germany to Fallingbostel, which was an overcrowded camp, 20 miles north of Hanover. This was our last POW camp, it was rough, there was no food because of the British bombing everything, the Germans were really scared. There were 72 people in one hut, there were no sheets, just mangers and we weren’t in a good state as we hadn’t had Red Cross parcels for some time. I have a poem written by Dickie Beck at Fallingbostel dated September 7th 1944.
One memory from Fallingbostel, as the war was drawing to a close and we knew the Germans were beaten: one day the Germans came to our hut shouting ‘Appel!’ ie parade, they had guns. So we all went to the central parade ground in the middle of the camp and found we were surrounded by Germans with machine guns, all pointing at us POWs. (At this point we knew that 50 RAF POWs had been shot at this camp). The German Colonel (accompanied by various minions and an interpreter) announced at some length that because Great Britain had ill-treated their German POWs, our beds were going to be taken away. He paused during this spiel and a POW shouted in a raucous voice ‘F*** off!’ and we Brits all walked back to our huts, leaving the German guards standing there, pointing their guns at each other.
Xmas 1944 was an excellent day, food started to arrive from the Red Cross and a cigarette parcel arrived in January 1945. However the weather turned very cold. I had stomach problems and spent time in the camp hospital, was better after three weeks. February passed very quickly, in March there were no parcels, very little food, the Germans’ rations had dwindled too. On April 6th 1945 the camp was ordered to move, but I stayed put. The people chased out from Fallingbostel may have ended up on the Long March.
The camp was bombed around April 12 by Mosquitos. The Germans left, the Russians had chased them out. On the 16th April a jeep from the 7th Army Division with a young man from the 11th Hussars turned up. Everyone gathered around the jeep, I knew it was all over and didn’t go up to the jeep but went for a walk around the camp. The officer asked what we wanted and we said ‘tea, cigarettes and bread’ and this was all brought to us that night.
Over the next two days it was decided how to transport everyone from the camp home, we stood in the square and an army man read out the list – those in the longest went first. It was all very organised, they brought lorries. I left Fallingbostel on April 20th was taken to Skipholtz in Belgium and from there was flown to near Aylesbury, arriving on April 22, 1387 days after leaving England.
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