Private Cyril E. Symons
Unit : Royal Army Ordnance Corps.
Served : France, North Africa, Greece, Crete (captured)
Army No. : 7621480
POW No. : 95847
Camps : Stalag IVC
The following was written by Cyril Symons in September 2000.
May 31st 1941 and I was with about 5000 other troops waiting to be evacuated from the village of Sfakia, on the south coast of the island of Crete. A few miles south, in the Mediteranean Sea, was a small fleet of naval ships waiting for darkness to move in close to shore. On board one of the ships was a sailor from my own village of Menheniot.
We knew what was going to happen. LCTs would come to the beach when it was dark and we would get on board and be taken out to the ships, and climb up the rope ladders, then a hot cup of cocoa, and head for Egypt. Five weeks earlier we had done a similar evacuation from Greece, but instead of being taken straight to Egypt then, we were dropped on Crete for a couple of days and found ourselves still there a month later, when the Germans invaded Crete using their Airborne troops. We were not equipped for war, having lost nearly everything in Greece. My arms consisted of a .45 revolver, which I had as a Dispatch Rider and 6 spare bullets and a .38 revolver, which an officer had given to me, and no spares. Very few of us had rifles and we were really no use against the heavily armed, invading German Parachute Regiment, so we were told to make our way over the mountains to Sfakia, about 60 miles away.
Dodging the German air attacks, we finally got through, but food was not on the agenda, and after six days we reached our destination and found there was no food there either. We shot a chicken and shared that between a dozen of us, and waited our turn for the ships to arrive and looked forward to a good meal in Alexandria.
On May 31st at 2200 hours the ships were ordered to return to Egypt - empty. We were told that no boats were coming in for us that evening. We settled down for one more night in a large cave and in the morning we were informed that the island had capitulated to the Germans and we were Prisoners of War. I think my first thought was that at least we shall get something to eat now.
The Germans arrived about 1000 hours and we were told we must go back over the mountains to where we had been before, near Suda Bay, on the north coast. We did eventually get some food in, a tin of corned beef between four and some biscuits, not a lot to satisfy hungry men. That was our ration each day during the four days it took us to reach the Suda Bay area. We were not made to march and could rest if we wanted to, but not for long.
We were allocated a patch of sand for a camp and had a meal of sorts each day, but it was only a watery soup and did not satisfy us. After a couple of weeks there we were put on an Italian boat and two days later we reached the port of Salonica and were put into a large army barracks, with sentry boxes on the walls all around the square and each sentry box was manned by soldiers who had searchlights and machine guns.
Then came six weeks of the worst period of our lives. The food was not plentiful and we were pestered with lice. We were bitten and many chaps had raw places on their bodies, which became infected. We were so weak that it was not possible to get up from the floor quickly without blacking out. It had to be done in easy stages. Several men did not survive, but I as with three good mates and the four of us had been together since before we went to France in March 1940. I know our comradeship helped us thorugh our blackest days.
Finally we were on our way to Germany, but our misery was not yet over.
We staggered to the station and there we were put in box trucks, 36 to a truck, and there was not enough room for everyone to lie down. The doors were locked and there were only two small windows to let in light. These were about 20 inches by 8 inches and had barbed wire on the outside. Our rations were a 2 kilo loaf of bread and a tin of meat.
We set off north and for seven days we were in those trucks and allowed out once a day for toilet purposes, usually in a siding somewhere, with armed guards all around, but we were in no fit state to escape in any case. This was done one truck at a time so it took ages. Any other toilet duties that were needed was done in tins and put out the windows.
We had no more food on the journey, except twice, and that was when we reached Belgrade station and we were allowed out to get a cup of lemon tea and a biscuit provided by some ladies, late one evening. This happened again when we arrived at Salzberg station. We must have spent a lot of time in sidings as the train was often stopped for long periods.
Finally, on a chilly damp evening, we arrived at a small station at Riesa, near Muhlberg in Saxony, Germany, and we were unloaded and had to walk about a mile to Stalag IVB, where we spent the night in tents in a part of the camp and tried to sleep, still hungry, dirty and covered in mud from walking through a field on the way to the camp.
At 0730 next morning we were put into huts and then taken to the bath house, where we were stripped of all our clothes, which were taken away to be burnt, and had all the hair on our bodies shaved off and then we had the luxury of a hot shower before being issued with French Army clothes. After that came a good helping of thick pea soup, and then we were taken to an office block where we were checked in, details taken and numbers allocated to us. We were given a card to send home and after that we were weighed. I was 42 kgs or 6 stone 8 1/3 lbs.
A medical check found I had yellow jaundice and one of my mates had a badly infected leg (from lice bites) so we were sent to different huts. I was on my own now. There were about 60 men in the hut and then it was discovered there was diphtheria in the camp and we were put into quarantine and confined to the hut for 5 weeks and not allowed outside. Food was passed in and it was better than we had been getting for the past 3 months. We also had a Red Cross parcel issued after we had been there a couple of weeks, and the rich food caused some problems with our stomachs at first and, as there was only one toilet in the hut, it was a matter of use it and get back in the queue.
We had a weekly issue of parcels after that and gradually began to feel better, but we missed the exercise and the opportunity to get out.
Time really dragged during the time we were shut up and we had nothing to occupy ourselves with or books to read and each day seemed like a week. It was a relief when we were finally let outside. We had recovered a little from our ordeals since our capture, but we were far from fit when the first day outside found us on parade and told to get into groups of 25. Friends were given the chance to get together and I tried to find my mates but could not.
We were not kept waiting long and our group were marched off out of the camp to the siding at Riesa and put into another cattle truck and locked in again. The date was October 11th 1941.
We travelled east and reached Reichenberg (Liberac) in North Czechoslavia at 1640 hours and a walk of a mile or so brought us to the small village of Alt Harzdorf where we were to work in a stone quarry. This was Working Commando R104 and in charge of us was Unteroffizier Kirkoff or "Shorty" as we nicknamed him. We were billeted in a large house with the guards quarters up stairs. We had our meals in the quarry canteen, a quarter of a mile away and started work on the Monday. The work was hard and we were still weak and unable to do what was needed from the quarry staff.
We told "Shorty" of our treatment up until then, and he promised to do what he could for us, producing Red Cross parcels and he also got 2 tonnes of potatoes for us to eat as and when we wanted. We gradually got stronger and we also got some extra clothes as winter was not far off and snow started falling in November and there was snow on the ground until early March.
We had a lot to thank "Shorty" for and he let us have a small Xmas tree and a large jug of beer at Christmas plus a special Xmas parcel. We had four days off then and again for the New Year. "Shorty" was alone on duty on Christmas evening and he came down and joined us, and one thing that I always remember was him playing, on his harmonica, "Silent Night". It made the evening.
January and February were very cold and we had a lot of snow as we were up in the mountains, but we survived and things improved as spring came. We had got used to the work and were really fit again. We did various jobs in the quarry mainly cleaning up ledges after the granite slabs had been blasted out, working as hammermen to the stonemasons and many other things.
Red Cross parcels continued to come each week and we had received mail and parcels of clothes from home by that time. We had been issued with British uniforms and, with the things from our clothes parcels, we were very soon looking like men again as our hair had grown back to normal as well.
In April 1942 a new power line was needed for the quarry and we all worked on that. It meant first of all digging a trench from the mains on the edge of the town for the cable, then it was by means of overhead wires across fields to the top of the quarry. I got a job working with the electrician who was putting the wires on the poles. This meant using climbing irons and working up the poles which I found most interesting. That job lasted three months and my clothes became very dirty from the tar and resin on the poles so I was issued with a new set of battledress.
That was just in time for our trip to the cinema in Reichenberg. We all dressed in our smartest clothes and had to walk, accompanied by the two guards, one Sunday afternoon and found it was a special show for all POWs in the area, including several French POWs. There was a lot of propaganda news reports and one film, in German, but it was quite enjoyable.
"Shorty" fixed for a team of French POWs to come and play us at football, using a field near our camp. "Shorty" was the referee and we lost 7-0, but the French had over 100 men to choose from, we had 25. My one and that was my only "International" match. We did not get another chance to visit the cinema or play football again. There were some trips out with a lorry to take granite blocks to the polishing yards on the other side of town, so we saw something of the countryside.
The summer passed quite pleasantly for us and we all got on very well seeing that we were together all the time. I don't recall any real arguments among ourselves but we did fall out with one or two of the civilian workers, who were mostly old Sudeten Germans. There were only two Czech workers in the quarry and we did not have much contact with them.
In September we were told that the quarry was closing down and we would be moving on. We hoped that it would not be back to Stalag and the boredom of life in a compound, but we were soon informed that we were going south and would come under Stalag IVC in future. We had amassed qutie a lot of kit by this time and we had to pack this somehow, but "Shorty" managed to get us each a large suitcase and we made good use of them when the time came to move.
One Saturday morning we walked to the station at Reichenberg with the guards and "Shorty" and were put on a train, in carriages this time, and were handed over to a new set of guards. "Shorty" said goodbye to us and we hoped he would be able to survive the war.
A journey of about 20 miles and we got out at the station of Morchenstern and into another train, which was standing in a siding. Another short ride, mostly uphill, brought us to another station where we had to get out. There was no platform there but a very large yard and a sign over some buildings which read "Georgenthal-Albrechsdorf". Below the station was a very large white factory, and we thought that we were going to work there, but as we walked down the slope to the road, we had to turn left and through the village and on to the next village which was Albrechsdorf.
We turned into a road that led to a smaller factory and that was our new place of work. It was a bit of a surprise to discover that this factory was the place where food was produced and bottled. In season they bottled all kinds of fruit and vegetables, tomatoes, gherkins, cherries, beans, peas, potatoes and anything else that was going. They made tomato ketchup and the main thing that was soon to be made was sauerkraut. Tomatoes were plentiful when we arrived and we always had plenty to eat.
The owner of the factory was Herr Franz Alter and we had the upstairs rooms of the very large house in which he lived with his wife and young daughter, who was away at school most of the time. We had to cook our own meals and we soon had someone on that job. We discovered that the house and our rooms were centrally heated. We were really in luck.
We were put to work on the Monday and found that mainly we were outside helping masons build an extension to the factory, but some were needed inside at times. We were allowed a lot of freedom there and we could walk around the grounds as long as we did not venture near the road to the village and mix with the people there.
There were 7 women working in the factory, four of whom were elderly, the charge hand was middle aged and was our boss when we worked in the factory, a very plain Czech girl and Mitzi Sommer, in her thirties, with a husband in the Army in North Africa, and who was always cheerful and fun to work with. The men who worked there were mostly engaged in the building work, but three of them were used for the heavier work in the factory, and one of them drove the lorry that fetched the produce from the station.
That was where we came in useful as the large cabbages used in making the sauerkraut came in by rail and we used to go with the truck to unload the wagons. This was a job that I did quite often and it was cold work handling the cabbages. One evening I was picking up the ones that had fallen on the ground and was cursing everything when a voice in English addressed me, commenting on the work we were doing. It turned out that she had lived for many years in America, having gone there with her husband but had never become American citizens, and had been in Germany when war broke out and he had been called up in the army. He had been killed on the Russian front and she was still there with their two young children. We could not stay talking for long as her train was coming, but I was to see more of her in the future.
One thing about the work at the station was that all wagons had to be unloaded the same day and it meant that we sometimes worked into the evenings. We complained about that and were offered overtime rates of pay, but we argued that money was no good to us as were only allowed "Lagergeld" which could only be used in camp canteens and we had no canteen. Any goods that we did need was got through the guards, but we really had enough for our needs through the parcels from home.
In the end we were allowed time off for each hour we worked, but that was too complicated and a small gang was put on shift work, starting later and going on in to the evening. This also was a little difficult when there were no wagons to unload and we had to help in the factory looking after the large vats of sauerkraut, which had to be topped up with water almost every day.
Our cook sometimes was given some little extra bits of food from Frau Alter and even had some cooking oil at times, which was something we liked to have. We knew that all the best stuff, such as white flour, sugar, powdered eggs and cooking oil was kept in a store near the house and some chaps kept watch in case the door was left open, but it never was. Then one of them discovered a window that was now properly fastened and got in and took some oil. When we found out about it we played up hell with him and it was agreed that we were being treated very fairly and that was not a thing we wanted done in case things got out of hand.
In October a gang of five or six men were taken away each day and they were engaged in the erection of wooden huts in the valley below the station, to where we would be moving later. There was a large hut already there which housed about 100 Russian and Ukrainian girls and some of them would be replacing us at the food factory and we would be going to work in the large factory below the station, which was in the Georgenthal area.
It had not seemed possible that we would be allowed to stay in a food factory for the rest of the war, but we made the most of while we were there. When the huts were ready we packed up our kit and walked to our new camp. Our section was surrounded with a barbed wire fence about 10 feet high and there were two other huts, one on each side of us which were to house Polish men. The large hut for the Russian girls was on the other side of the road and on higher ground.
At the back of the huts was a large field and beyond that was a river, about 10 feet wide, which was a tributary of the river Elbe. It was rather a nice area only the barbed wire fence spoiled it. We settled in and got beds and found that again we had to do our own cooking. The huts were comfortable enough but we missed the central heating of our last place.
On Monday morning we found out all about the new factory which made all kinds of things from wood, toys, games, and many other novelties, but at present, it was making model aircraft for the aircraft recognition schools and for army training. The models were from all the countries that were engaged in the war. British, American, Italian as well as german and also models of tanks from the countries. They were all scale models and were really good. We saw very little of these as they were made in the upper storeys of the factory, where we hardly even went. The factory also made rifle butts, hand grenade handles and various other wooden articles needed in wartime.
We debated whether it was was work, which we were not supposed to do, but as we did not deal with those things in the finished state, we did not argue. Our jobs were to help outside with maintenance work and unloading wagons at the station, and all the material for the factory arrived by rail.
At one end of the building was the sawmill where logs up to 3 feet in diameter and 30 feet long were sawn into planks and then passed on down to other, smaller saw benches until the pieces were the size required. Each saw bench was fitted with a sawdust extractor and the floor was always clean. The dust being sucked along tubes to a big silo above the boiler house, where it was fed slowly into the furnace, which was kept going day and night and needed tonnes of coal and coke.
The gang I was with, eight of us, were sent to the station to unload the wagons of logs, coal, coke, and sometimes special planks of wood. We soon got used to the technicalities of unloading the large logs from the railway wagons on to the horse drawn wagons used by the factory, and these were taken to the sawmill area where another gang unloaded them there and then they were taken into the sawmill when needed.
If that area was full there was a stockpile beside the siding to store logs until needed. We soon got used to the tools for handling logs, but the coal wagons were a different story. They had to be unloaded by hand, using large shovels. The same factory wagons were used but then they had sides on and the coal was deposited outside the boiler house, where another gang unloaded the wagons. We soon found the easiest way to unload the coal wagons, but when the coke arrived, which was not as often as the coal, we had a more difficult job.
Of course the same thing happened at the station as with the cabbages and we used the same system, but saved up the hours until there was a full day, and then we could only have it off if there were no wagons in. When we had finished unloading coal and coke we were allowed to use the showers in the part of the factory washrooms that we always used on Saturday afternoons to shower before returning to the hut. The Russian girls were taken to the factory after we had finished for showers as well.
We had to do our own cooking there and one man was left in the hut to clean up and cook a meal. There was always plenty of vegetables and meat, when we came back at lunch time, but the main meal was in the evening, when the Red Cross parcels food was prepared, and with the food allocated, was quite good.
Winter was approaching and we were quite warm in the hut as both rooms had round fires in the centre of the rooms and these were fuelled by coal with a metal chimney going up through the roof. We had good clothes and good food and were better off than the first winter. When heavy snow fell we had to go out with the large snow plough pulled by six horses. Work carried on as normal. The factory wagons were now fitted with runners and travelled around without much difficulty.
We found some places around the factory where we could go to get warm. In addition to the 4 stories that were visible from the front, there was a basement which was reached from the back and here were the drying room for the wood. We had no guards in attendance all the time and there were 8 civilian guards who were in charge of the separate work parties, plus the factory manager and the porter who was on duty at the main gate.
The factory had been owned by a Czech called Franz Schowanek and he still lived in a large house next to the factory with his sister, Suzi, but we was only the figurehead really, as the Germans were in charge. There were about 400 people working at the factory, Germans, Czechs, Russian girls, and Polish men. We soon had contacts and for cigarettes, coffee or chocolate we could get several extra things such as white bread rolls, pork chops and eggs.
We heard over the radio that America had entered the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbour and wondered if we would be home any quicker. Our second Christmas came and we had four days off again as in the previous year. We had a small tree, some beer, a Xmas Red Cross parcel and some games from the Red Cross such as Monopoly and Totopoly, so it looked like a good Christmas.
The first day of the holiday was on Christmas Eve and some of us were not allowed to enjoy it. At 1030 we were informed that two wagons of logs were at the station and had to be unloaded. We had a meal before going to work and while we were at the siding we heard music from the loud speakers in the factory and we soon realised that most of the music was British and American Jazz, which Suzi Schowanek had collected before the war.
We persuaded the guard to ask if we could borrow some records for Christmas. Our request was granted and we went back to the hut complete with a gramophone, 25 records and a box of games which had been made in the factory, a gift from Franz Schowanek. This consisted of draughts, ludo, chess, halme, and other games plus two packs of cards. Everyone was delighted with our presents.
We were allowed to keep the gramophone and records over the New Year, when we had another four days off. We had a very good time with all the things we now had and we did eventually get our own gramophone and some records through the red cross. We also had parcels of books sent, so we did not feel bored with life any more.
I developed snow blindness and had to go to a specialist in Gablonz, about 6 miles away, with a guard. We travelled by train, and I was prescribed dark glasses to wear when the sun was strong and it was at times. It was even possible to work at the station when the sun was high, without shirts on even though there was still a foot of snow on the ground, but only on the sheltered side of the station buildings.
All N.C.Os above Lance corporal had been returned to Stalag, much against their wishes, but we had several new chaps and we were now up to 30 in the camp. As the spring came the weather improved and we got some trips out into the woods to get some special logs. Four of us were able to go at a time and we travelled by the factory lorry which was driven by wood gas. There was a boiler on the back of the lorry which burnt small pieces of wood and the gas was fed into the engine by pipes. The initial starting was done with petrol and then switched over to gas. It meant lighting the boiler half an hour before it was time to start and the top speed was about 35 m.p.h. The factory had two Mercedes Benz cars driven by gas as well.
I went on fourr of these trips and the scenery in the mountains was always really wonderful. We took sandwiches and went to a Gasthaus for coffee, and it was always a 40 mile trip or about that. Another trip I did was to a brickworks near Prague where we had to load bricks by hand and then unload them at the factory.
A trip to a cinema in Dessendorf, a nearby town was arranged but, after walking there we found there was no film for us. The guard with us was fond of walking and we asked him if he would take us out on Sunday to the top of Spitzberg, which was a large hill, 808m high, overlooking the factory and valley. We could see the gasthaus on the top from the station.
This was arranged for us one fine Sunday and we walked up the zig-zag road for about 2 miles and got to the top. We were allowed to go up into the tower and the Guard brought us a beer each. We paid him back later as we had no German money as such. In peace time the Gasthaus was used as a winter resort for skiers.
Clothes parcels continued to arrive from home and Red Cross parcels each week. We were accepted as workmen instead of POWs by everyone but we were still behind barbed wire at night. We had become used to all the jobs that we were given and had a good life really. We were kept busy at the station and it was there that I met with a nasty accident, while on a wagon of logs which we were unloading. Without warning the bottom logs moved and I was thrown off balance and in falling, my foot was caught under a large log. Luckily a crowbar was in place from the wagon floor to the pile of logs that we were unloading on to, and the log rolled up the bar, just touching my leg. I fell to the ground and was helped up. I was in pain from my foot and was carried into the factory.
The porter saw a doctor passing the gates and called him in, and he soon found that I had broken my foot and arranged for me to be taken to hospital. One of the Mercedes cars was available and I was carried to it. A stop at the hut to pick up some kit and I was in hospital in Reichenberg, 20 miles away, in an hour and a half.
My leg was x-rayed and I was taken to the operating theatre and sent back to the French POW camp near by to stay. The French lads looked after me very well and I was with them during my stay there, not able to walk at all for a month and then another three weeks on crutches before going back to hospital for a check up. It was another three weeks, after a third visit to hospital. that I was pronounced fit to return to our camp. I was very lucky that I still had my leg and could walk.
When I did get back to the hut I was not able to do a lot of walking, so I was allowed to stay in the hut and help the cook. I found there had been some changes and some men were on shift work, starting at 0530 and finishing at 1630 while others started at 0730 till 1830, so we had an early start to our day in the kitchen. We moved our beds to the kitchen so as not to disturb the others, and we could retire early if we felt like it.
A very good black market had been established and some of the Polish lads were involved in this for us. They were of course well rewarded for their part in things. Most of the deals were done at the factory, mainly in the toilets, but we in the kitchen were able to deal with one of the Poles named Andry. Several times, when working in the kitchen I had noticed one of the Russian girls in the field behind the hut looking after cattle, which were in the field. There were no hedges and someone had to keep an eye on the cattle, like a shepherd looking after sheep.
One morning, while I was outside at the back of the hut hanging out clothes to dry, she was near the fence, and I knew the guards were out, so we started talking. We all go on with the other nationalities speaking in a sort of German that everyone seemed to understand. We became friendly and she offered to do my washing and mending for me. Andry was the one who did all the exchanges for us. This contact opened the way for other friendships, but winter was getting close and we saw very little of each other, as she probably worked in the factory then. She continued doing my laundry and every thing came back nicely ironed as well.
One of the lads had got hold of a skeleton key and we tried getting into the guards room when no one was there to listen to the BBC. It was a chancy thing, but practice did find a way. Lookouts could see a guard approaching and there was just 2 minutes to put the radio back to the German station, and lock the door. We had plans to delay the guard for as long as we could in case of trouble. It was something that was only tried a few times, but we did get some vital information about the war.
In October we had another 8 men join us and we had to reorganise the hut to accommodate them. Four had been prisoners in Italy and had hoped to be free when Italy capitulated, but the Germans had arrived first and took them all back to Germany. One of them took it very badly and gave us a lot of trouble by refusing to eat, undress or speak. It took weeks of patient coaxing to get him back to anything like normal, and even then he was very odd.
Some air raids had been heard in the area and the factory decided to make a shelter on the other side of the river from the factory. By this time I had been replaced in the kitchen by someone who needed the light work more than I did. I did not go back to the station gang, but joined a group working for the carpenter, who was then building a bridge across the river so that work could begin on the shelter. Snow had been falling by that time and was fairly thick on the ground.
We had to leave that job for a while. More workers were expected at the factory and we had to put up some more huts near ours. There was one for Czech girls who would live there during the week, going home at weekends and another for Italians who were now on the working list. When we had done that we were back on the bridge again.
One afternoon, while working in the river in long waders, I saw some young children with sledges on the other side of the river, and two girls on one of the sledges were unable to stop and went straight into the river near me. I was able to get them out and into our hut, where there was a fire, while one of the civilians went to get the girls mother, who happened to be the woman I had met at the station. We had no chance to talk then, but she was very grateful and sent over some cigarettes later in the day.
We all went to Reichenberg one day, by train, for chest X-Rays and the results showed that we were all O.K. We met some other POWs from around the area and had a good day out. We were being well looked after.
Another Christmas came and we had all the usual things that we had come to expect, but this year, we had some bottles of Schnapps, which we had bought from the Czechs. They were kept well hidden in the roof spaces and, in the middle of the night one exploded and frightened everyone. Luckily the guards were at the other end of the building and heard nothing.
The bridge was finished and work on the shelter, which was to be built into the hillside, began. That was hard work and I was glad when our carpenter moved us away to build the first of two new stores near the factory. The masons had already started on the pillars and our task was to put on the roofs. The weather had got warmer by that time and it was very interesting work.
We had always managed to get our hair cut by some of the lads, but we had the offer of having the village barber coming in once a month to do this for us and this was accepted. He was a small man and a member of the NSDAP - the German National Socialist Workers Party and was a firm supporter of Hitler, but he was always a greedy person and did not care whose hair he cut as long as they paid him and, as we were now getting paid in real German money, he was happy to come along, especially when he found he could always get a cup of real coffee and a cigarette or two. We even had him shave us sometimes.
We had some changes in guards from time to time and most of them were pretty good to us. One young soldier arrived who had been wounded on the Russian Front and was on light duty. We soon nicknamed him "The Boy" and he was really good and wanted the war to be over. When on his own he let us listen to the BBC and was eager to get the British news.
"D-Day" came and the German radio announced "A small force of British and American troops had landed in Normandy, but had all been driven off". He could hardly wait until the other guard had gone to get the BBC's version. A few days later he told us that he was leaving and had been posted to the Western Front. We told him to surrender as soon as he could and be a prisoner in England. Sadly, a few weeks later we heard he had been killed in action.
I had seen my Russian girl friend several times when working outside the factory and she still did my washing and mending. Some of the lads had started going out at night through a small gap under the wire and I decided to join them.
We had to make sure that only two were absent from the hut at any one time and we had to ensure that there was no moon, as it could get very bright in moonlight, so we had to keep a check on the times of the moon. There was very little rain during that summer.
My first visit was organised by my Polish friend, Andry, who met me outside the wire and took me around the camp, across the road, and up into the woods above the Russian hut to where Dasha was waiting. We spent a very nice hour or so together before it was time to get back, but had to talk very quietly. I learnt that she came from Minsk in Belarus and had been a nurse in the army.
We had several meetings during the summer, but it was a matter of once every two weeks or so, and after the first meeting we arranged our own dates, mainly by sign language across the road. It was really an exciting experience to creep out in the darkness and I always looked forward to the next trip out.
Because they had nothing to weather except what the Germans gave them and what little they could buy, they had very little clothes and I had given her some of my vests and pullovers and I was able to buy her a pair of shoes for 200 cigarettes, Żlb of coffee and a bar of chocolate, from one of the Czechs.
We had a new guard commander in July 1944 named Herr Neumann and he was the best we had. He was about 55 years old and had been a POW in Russia in the 1914-18 war and had married a Russian girl. He had only just been called up and he was a bone-setter in a local hospital, but Germany was getting short of men and all fit men were called up.
He was eager for the war to be over and we always listened to the BBC every day, and he kept a map in his drawer with the latest position on it. there was only one other guard and he lived near by as well so they took it in turns to go home.
As the summer drew to an end our work gang moved to a site near the huts to build some houses and we were prepared for the winter, working mainly indoors. The visits out had to come to an end, but I did go out once and spent an hour with Dasha in her hut, before the snows started.
Parcels and mail were not coming as regularly as they had and there was the feeling that it would not be long before the war was over. Then our troubles began. We had four Scotsmen posted to us and they started to upset things right away. They did no work and started pestering girls in the factory and got hold of some methylated spirits which they boiled and got drunk.
But the main upset did not come from them. The man who had been hoping to get home from Italy (we called him Mac) started to do silly things, like cutting belts when in the factory when we went there for our showers and other petty things. One night, at about 2130 hours he came into the hut wearing socks over his boots, with overalls and gloves on, all of which he took off and proceeded to burn in the furnace.
We asked him what he had done, but all he would say was "Wait and see". We did not have very long to wait and we soon heard a lot of shouting coming from the railway line above the Russian hut, and we guessed Mac had done something to the train. The small branch line had only three stations on it. Morchenstern, Georgenthal and Maxdorf, and was used mainly for the factory.
The Guard commander came in and asked if we were all there and told us to say that there had been a roll call, as usual, at 21-00. We waited for the knock on the door and soon the police came around. We listened at the door and heard the police tell the guard to check the prisoners which he did. The police were invited to check at the same time, but declined. It transpired that sleepers had been placed on the line in an attempt to derail the train, but, as the track was slightly uphill and on a bend, it was only going slow and was able to stop.
If it had left the track it would have landed on the Russian hut which was below it. We played up hell with "Mac" and he just talked about going further on trying again. He turned very nasty after that and we did not know what he might do to us when he started taking a hatchet to bed with him.
We had to keep watch every night, and we decided to consult the Guard commander. He never asked too many questions but in two days he asked for three big lads to go with him and "Mac" to Reichenberg for medical checks to see if any of them could be sent back to England. There was no lack of volunteers and they went off. Only the guard and our three lads returned. We never knew that happened to "Mac".
Those of us who worked on the houses were interrogated by the police and had fingerprints taken, as some of the clamps used on the track had come from that site, but we were not bothered again. Many men from the village, who did not have a good alibi, were taken away and several of the Poles and Russian girls were also picked out. Many of them had been on the train, having been in to the cinema in the town, including Dasha. I saw her the evening before she was due to go the next day. It was a tearful goodbye.
In all 72 people went from the village, some to concentration camps and things returned to something like normal, especially as the four Scotsmen had also gone back to Stalag. We had a rather subdued Christmas that year and then we got caught up in enquiries. Two of our lads were sent back to Stalag, we thought for black market dealing, and then it was the turn of three others, this time it included me. We had to go to Reichenberg to see the Control Officer. We spent the last evening outside the camp, visiting our Polish friends and in the morning there was only two of us to go, the other had disappeared during the night and had joined the Czech Partisans.
We had two Spaniards with us in the camp, who had been with us since we had left Stalag and they had got on well with everyone. They had been on the wrong side in the Spanish civil war and had eventually landed up with the Commandos on Crete. One of them had been going with me to be interrogated and both he and his mate had gone.
We knew that he had been talking to the Italians the previous night when we were outside the camp and was annoyed that he had not asked us to join him, but it was too late now.
We had to take our kit with us and the guard took us to Reichenberg, where we had to appear before the German Officers. Before I was questioned I was asked if I needed an interpreter and I said yes, as it would give me time to think up my answer as I could understand German quite well. It transpired that when Dasha was questioned it was found that she was wearing clothes with my army number stamped on them. I was accused of mixing with girls and having black market dealings.
I did not know what they had forced out of her, but denied everything and said I had only given things to a Pole and he must have passed them on. When asked which one I gave a vague description of the Pole and in the end, after 40 minutes I was dismissed. My mate, Fred, had much the same treatment and we were sent to another camp 20 miles north of the town, with a new guard. The train trip took us close to the Polish border and we found that the work was once again in a quarry, but this one produced chippings and stone for road building.
We were soon installed in the large house, which was the living quarters for the twenty men who made up the camp there and it was situated in the middle of a small village, and we soon found out that this camp was not as good as our old one. The quarry was about half a mile from the house and the work was rather boring, but being there on punishment, we did as little as possible. In any case the Russian Front was only about 30 kilometres away to the east and the war would soon be over. I felt rather sorry for the 25 men who had been there for several months. The food was not too bad, and the woman who lived downstairs did our cooking, but rations were getting short in Germany by that time and any parcels that were still available, were rationed out to us. We were not allowed to keep tins in our lockers.
We had some air raid warnings too and planes were passing overhead, heading for some of the larger towns like Dresden, which had been very heavily bombed not long before and some planes were heading for Berlin from airfields in the north of Italy.
It was an anxious time and we saw many prisoners passing our camp who had been moved from camps in Poland as the Russians advanced. We expected to have to join them on the road, but nothing happened to us. We continued to go to work each day, but there was no opportunity to do any trading except with the village baker, at times, for some extra bread.
Not long after we arrived the German civilians left the quarry and had to join the Volksturme - the compulsory Home Guard. They used the quarry at the weekends to practice shooting. Leaflets were dropped urging us to join the Free British Corps to join with the Germans to fight against the Bolshevicks. Things were really getting desperate.
There was only the quarry boss and some Czechs left in the quarry and very little work was done. The Russian front remained in the same area, but we heard that the other front was making good progress. Finally on May 7th, when we returned from the quarry, we heard that there was to be an armistice signed, so we just walked out into the village to savour some freedom. The guards did not attempt to stop us, and we settled down for one more night.
In the morning we did not go to work but hung around the village and in the evening we heard that the rumour was true. The war was over and we were free at last. The guards told us that they were going to their headquarters and left us on our own. We spent the night there and early next morning we decided that it would be best if we went to Reichenberg as there was more opportunity there to find out what we should do next, so we packed up what we needed and set off to walk the 20 miles to the town.
We took things easy and got split up on the way, so when we reached the old French Camp in Reichenberg there was only 8 of us still together. We found the camp almost deserted except for some Cypriots and their girl friends. We found beds in a room on the top floor of the building and spent the night there.
We wondered what our next step should be as we had to get food. Some Czechs we saw were not helpful and later in the day when Russian soldiers came into the town, we found an officer and told him who we were and he sent us over a crate of champagne, on which we got very drunk, and next day we were not much better. Some other people arrived at the camp, among them two girls, one was from Yugoslavia and the other one was French and about six months pregnant.
We went searching for food and got a little and in the evening four Russian soldiers came to the camp and tried to chat up the girls, but we had taken the Yugoslav girl in hand and the French girl was asleep in a bed. We all had a Vodka drinking session and one of our lads made it clear that the girl with us, Danielle, was his girl friend and they did not bother us again, but woke up the French girl. We left them to it.
Next day four of us went out into the country to try and get food and took Danielle with us, as she knew a little Czech and the Czechs were refusing to speak German. She did not understand German and we got by with French, that I had picked up when in hospital which she could speak. Quite a mix up really, but we got on alright. We got some eggs and bread and had an awkward experience with a German woman of 52 and had been raped by a Russian soldier. She wanted us to stay with her as the Russian was there every night. She even offered to sleep with one of us if we would stay. We soon disappeared.
Three of us decided to visit the Russian Commandant in the town as we were getting nowhere. He told me that his orders, when liberating a POW camp, was to send the freed men back to the Ukrainian port of Odessa, where they would be sent back to Egypt. We asked about some transport to get to the American lines, 100 miles to the west. He could not supply transport and, as we were not really a POW "camp" he would not insist that we go to Russia.
He paid for us to have a meal in the cafe next door, which turned out to be the Imperial Hotel, the biggest hotel in Reichenberg, and wished us luck. Fred and I decided to go back to Georgenthal to see if anyone was still there. Trains were still running and we did not have to pay, so Fred and I went back to our old village and found most of the lads still there.
Many were billeted in the basement of Herr Schowaneck's Villa and others were around the village. Meals were provided by the factory and were to be had in the Gasthaus. I joined two other lads in the house of the Former Gestapo Officer, who had shot himself and his wife had gone off with someone else. Two of the lads with living with their girl friends and one couple was already married.
I learned that there had been a breakout of four men who had joined the Partisans. Extra guards had been brought in and things had not been too good.
One of our lads was in the local hospital and three of us went to visit him. While there we saw several victims of the concentration camps that were near. One, Auschwitz, was just over the border in Poland. It was a terrible sight to see human beings that were just skin and bone. I also saw our old guard commander, Herr Neumann, back at work in his old hospital. We wished him luck and found that our mate could go home with us. We had been living in the house that I was in now, so I went to look for the woman from America that I had met twice before.
She willingly agreed to let me stay there for a while and I learnt the full story of her misfortunes. We stayed on in the village for nearly a week and when the Czechs started to take revenge on some of the Germans who had run the factory, we decided it was time to make a move. They openly assaulted the older men who had been in charge and took the factory porter away, made him dig his own grave and shot him.
We had heard that Americans were in the area of Bodenbach, 40 miles from us and Bill, one of our gang, knew a girl who had worked in the factory and lived in the town. I had heard that a Russian girls camp was near there as well, so he and I went by train to find out the situation. We met the girl, Chrystal, and her family and spent the weekend with them. We saw a couple of Americans, but they were only there to look around and we helped them get some films they needed. They told us to make for Plauen, about 50 miles further west, where there was a big American camp. All the Russian girls camps had long since been closed so I had no chance of finding Dasha again.
We returned to Georgenthal and found that a lorry had been found to take the men to Prague, from where they hoped to be flown home and had left the day before. The group had included two Russian girls that had married two of our lads. Two others stayed on with their girls that they had already married.
Bill and I decided to head west and got to Bodenbach again and spent the night at the girls place. Then Bill decided to stay and get married and I was left to carry on alone. Trains were still running but to no sort of timetable, and I made my way across country with many stops at stations. At one station I saw some young Czechs, with whips and pistols making a group of German soldiers sing German marching songs, with much use of the whips.
At one station a young Palestinian approached me to enquire whether I was British and asked if he could travel with me. It seems he had been a student in Berlin at the outbreak of war and had somehow survived and he wanted to get back to his home.
We travelled as far as we could by train then came to a bridge that had been blown up by the retreating German army. I asked where the nearest American camp was and was told that it was about 3 kilometres along the road, so we set off on foot.
When we turned off the main road we were in a wide valley and found ourselves walking beside a large camp which stretched for over a mile and was full of German soldiers. When we got to the American camp I asked about the camp and was told it was a holding camp where all German soldiers were sent until something was done to return them to their homes. There was about half a million of them there. It was a sort of No-mans-land between the Russians and Americans.
Another couple of miles and we came to an American guard post and were taken inside, where an Officer came to see us. We identified ourselves as much as we could. We were given a lift in a jeep to Klingenthal and given beds for the night. I thought I would soon be on the way home.
A good nights sleep and breakfast and then we had to go before an officer to be screened. We must have satisfied him and he arranged to sent us to Plauen the next morning. I spent the day looking around the town and in the evening spent a couple of hours in the Officers mess.
When we reached Plauen the next day we were taken to a large barracks, where we would have to stay for a few days until transport was going west. This turnd out to be a Displaced Persons camp with people from all over Europe. There were French, Dutch, Belgians, Poles, Danes and many others, including women and children.
I found that I was to eat with them, but had a small room upstairs which contained another ex-POW, a South African airman named Ken, who had been a prisoner in Poland. After four days there, with no sign of the Americans, we found a group of Dutch boys who had somehow got hold of a workshop wagon and some cars and had also got mixed up with a French NCO who was taking some French nurses back to France.
He had obtained papers to travel and the group needed drivers to help take the vehicles back, so they asked Ken and I to go with them. It was heading in the right direction and we picked up the nurses and set off north to pick up the autobahns, which had recently been built. What they did not know was that the autobahns had been a prime target for bombers and the roads were disrupted in many places.
We saw many bombed cities and towns before we finally reached Frankfurt-am-Main. We had secured petrol at American camps on the way, so it must have been official. From Frankfurt we travelled on to the river Rhine and had a long way to cross the river on the narrow pontoon bridge that had been constructed. There was a one way system which allowed traffic 15 minutes each way. All road and rail bridges across the Rhine had been destroyed.
We finally got to Speyer in the French Zone and landed up in another Displaced Persons camp there. We went to see the American Consul, who turned out to be a corporal, and he could not help us very much. The Dutch boys told us they would be leaving in the morning and we could go with them, but next morning they found the French had confiscated their vehicles and they were stranded.
Another visit to the "Consul" and he told us to be ready next morning when an American supply truck would be coming and to get a lift with the driver. This we did and after several lifts and many crossings of the Rhine, we finally came to Dusseldorf and the British Headquarters.
Two days later, we were sent to Holland and an overnight stop there, then a train to Brussels, where we spent the weekend and then on to a plane and back in England on June 26th. After 6 weeks leave I had to go to Morpeth in Northumberland, where I was found to be classed as C3, because of my foot injury and that meant I was eligible for instant demobilisation. I had to stop off at York for my demob suit on the way home.
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