Warrant Officer James O. Badcock
Unit : 150 Squadron, Bomber Command, Royal Air Force.
Service No. : 1377440
POW No. : 25080
Camps : Stalag VIIIB / 344, IXC.
James Badcock - RAF Navigator, 150 Squadron, Bomber Command. Jim was shot down over the North Sea on 25th July 1942 and subsequently became a prisoner of war at Stalag VIIIB in Upper Silesia. The following is an extract from a collection of stories written by him which are now lodged with the Imperial War Museum Archive.
From time immemorial history has recorded epic marches. The Israelites fleeing from Egypt, Hannibal over the Alps, Napoleon to the gates of Moscow. On 23 January 1945, at Stalag 344, 3000 odd British POW, with 2 hour's prior notice, began another epic, aided by the bayonets and the rifle butts of the German army. Without proper kit and with little food and in the intense cold of the Silesian winter we were forced out - away from the advancing Russians.
There were three columns of about 1200 men each accompanied by guards who were in a sheer panic. Quo vadimus? Nobody knew. The first couple of days set the pattern. We hadn't learned the drill yet and felt awful. We were pushed on and on, with little rest. When we did rest we just flopped down in the snow and then, when we resumed, suffered untold agonies from our aching limbs which had got set in the cold, whilst we rested. Further food supplies already were meagre and water was non-existent. We sucked snow to refresh ourselves. Naturally our casualties in the first days were high, from torn muscles - muscles we did not know we had - rifle butts etc. Sleeping accommodation was primitive. We were herded into small barns like cattle. It was quite impossible to lie down and if you could wash you were fortunate. Attending to the wants of nature was a work of art. The Germans, however, are not fussy and the roadside was our latrine.
After two days of torture about a hundred of us were ordered to fall out at a village called Prieborn. We were sent to a State farm and thought our troubles were over. We got a little food and managed to buy six very sorry-looking sheep for a few bars of English soap - manna from heaven to the Germans. Two of the sheep were slaughtered and made a wonderful stew for us.
On Sunday 29 January our dream was shattered. In marched the German Feldtjager and caught us with the rest of the sheep. They were going to shoot us for looting - until we produced a receipt for the soap, so they shot the vendor instead. They pushed us on the road again to the nearby town of Strehlin. We heard the guns for the first time. We were housed, 10 to a cell, in the Young Offenders Gaol. Our gaoler was himself doing 3 years for a military offence and couldn't have cared less. We stripped the gaol of movable fittings to stoke up the central heating and a party was sent to the local bakery to bake our own bread. Incidentally, we released a Pole, who was facing a murder charge. He was provided with a British uniform and left with the main column the next day. The town was in a state of panic. Evacuation was in progress - the Russians were coming.
The next day 120 of the lads who were sick were sent on by 'special' train. I was placed in charge of them. The train consisted of two open coal trucks and a metal, covered, wagon. It was snowing hard and the worst cases were put in the covered wagon which was then locked. It must have been awful inside. Nobody had a clue where we were going - least of all the guards. It was bitterly cold in the open wagons but the first night was enlivened by a passing ammunition train which was on fire - and for some time we were in great peril from stray bullets. The journey went on for five weary nights and days, along little used tracks apparently leading nowhere. We felt thoroughly miserable. We got very little food, had no washing facilities or toilets. The guards were vicious and, of course, the lads themselves, were all sick men.
We spent the fourth day of the journey in the siding of a little wayside station. We got a little food, stole a little more, established a local Black Market and turned back two Luftwaffe bods who were supposed to be joining a unit in the east. They told us that prisoners were on the march everywhere. That night we arrived at a busy junction near Gorlitz. After a bitter argument we were allowed to send a party to the local food depot. As we crossed the station I was accosted by two fat German fraus who demanded to know which was the next train to the West. I explained I was a Kriegsgefangennen but that didnít worry them - they just wanted to get away. On the way back we came across a railwaymens' canteen. Two of us ventured inside and I managed to buy a couple of bottles of beer - no questions asked.
The next day we got to Gorlitz and rejoined the main party. Conditions were indescribable. In POW barracks designed for 140 men were crammed over 400. Of course, the barracks were filthy and food was scarce. A few of us were befriended by some Americans, newly captured in the Ardennes, and to them we owed a lot.
After five days of the utmost squalor we were on the road again. It was now 10 February. Hopes were higher, we were getting nearer home. The pressure was now really on and by the 12th we had covered 58kms to Bautzen. Food, of course, was scarce and barns provided the nightly shelter. At Bautzen we got some hot food and even managed a decent wash - a luxury indeed.
On 13 February we had our worst day so far. We were forced along at a fast pace all day. There were very few rests and the Germans wouldn't allow us any water. We were paraded through several villages and small towns to the delight of the locals. We looked pretty grim - unshaven and with our clothes all creased and dusty from the straw we slept in - we felt worse - it was most degrading. We lost several stragglers by the wayside. The rest of us were not allowed to help them. Some got a ride on a cart which was with the column. That was alright until the cart was full then those who had recovered had to get off to make room for newcomers. Some just didn't get picked up. It was so tough that six of the German guards dropped out also. After 40, killing, kms we arrived at the barracks at Kaumenz. We got a little soup but there wasnít room for all of us and so 400 had to march back to the town - another 3kms. The sirens wailed - the RAF were on their way. The guards panicked and marched close together at the head of the column - the POW were left to it.
We were taken to a magnificent church and, as we counted the lads, the bombing started on a nearby town. In their haste to get inside the Jerry failed to notice that we had lost about half of the party on the way down. The church was being used as an electrical stores. I went outside and laid down by a tombstone to watch the raid. I had never seen anything like it. There was one incessant roar as the bombs went down. The target was, I believe, Dresden. All I prayed was that one of the lads wouldn't get off course and jettison over Kaumenz. The ground shook continuously this was some raid! Inside the church the guards were nervy and our boys were restless. In the morning a fight started in the main aisle. We quickly sorted the contestants out and off we went again. It was funny, as we marched back to the barracks to see our missing chaps appearing from shelters and joining the rear of the column. They had spent the night in air raid shelters, with the German civilians.
We pressed on for another 18kms but were held up for two hours by another raid. The Germans would not move when an Alert was on. We slept in tents and it poured with rain. All the food we get was 4 pieces of Knackerbrot (like Ryvita). On we went the next day for a further 24kms. There was a mad scramble for somewhere to sleep. It was very difficult to keep the columns in any sort of order. By Saturday we had reached the village of Nomartz, having gone 8 days without any butter or fats of any description. Things were getting worse. A German officer had his rations stolen and there was a terrible scene - but how can one stop starving men from stealing food? The guards had fired at a chap who tried to get a turnip out of a wayside clamp. Our kit was a great problem. We needed it but it was a tough burden to carry. We had a day's rest at a small farm but only got a little soup to eat. We saw a Polish maidservant beaten by the farmer because she gave us some water. It made us sick.
During the next week we covered another 142kms. We were in very bad shape by now the weather was awful, the sleeping conditions a disgrace, we could not wash, our clothes were filthy and, through lack of food, we were all getting very weak. On 20 February we got three days rations, amounting to 70% of a loaf and 33% of a small tin of meat. We were back in the war alright. Air raids delayed us each day and everywhere we met refugees. We passed through many small towns, which had been bombed, and looked far worse than Bethnal Green. In one such town bricks were thrown at the column. They were aimed at the Palestinians, but we all had to duck.
The numbers dropping out were increasing and on the Thursday one of my friends died from pneumonia. There was nothing we could do. The Volksturmer, who were guarding us, were deadly. They were not so tough as the army, but a lot meaner. It was amazing to see the youngsters of 15 in the German army. Straight from the Hitler Jugend they came, real little Nazis. Even now they believed the Leader would pull them through. We had a skirmish with some of them at Liegnity Barracks and the tommy guns came out again. Here I realized how much the Germans hated the Jews. I was on a scrounge for rations when I met a kindly old lady in the German kitchens. She gave my friend and I some soup and a piece of bread. She talked about London, where she had been a governess for 20 years, she was sorry about the war. Just then one of our Palestinian comrades came along and spoke to us. The old lady snatched the soup away from us. I asked her why and all I got was a violent tirade against the 'juden'.
We had been promised that we would be finished marching by the weekend. That kept us going. On Sunday we reached Eisenberg, which was supposed to be our journey's end, after a gruelling 28kms but we went on for another 8 kms before we stopped. The promise was forgotten. We were given a rest day but on Tuesday 27 February on we went again to Jena, 20 kms away. Another peril had now attacked us - dysentery. This would have been bad enough in the best of circumstances but on the road, with no medical supplies to combat it, it was deadly. As the victims became worse they became unrecognisable. During this week we had marched nearly 100kms - on 3/8ths of a loaf and a small issue of raw meat.
During the next three days we pushed on through Hostedt and Mellingen to Urbich. We were constantly stopped for air raids, and on Thursday l March two chaps died during the night. What with our increasing weakness and the stoppages we couldn't make the daily journeys nearly so fast and walked on into the late evening: that meant even more trouble over billeting and no food because it was too late. We were lucky if we could get a wash in 4 days now and it was a miracle we weren't all lousey.
At Ubich we were split up into smaller parties. The RAF contingent, which had been about 1200 strong when we left Lamsdorf, was now down to 300. Some had got detached when we split up before, some were dead, some had fallen by the wayside. The first day with the smaller party was deadly. As we covered the 28kms the guards really went to town on us. The rifle butts were busy and one poor devil was shot. The only thing that kept us going, at this stage, was will power. If we could stick it out we were getting nearer home!
We 'rested' on the Sunday. It was a terrible day. We were searched twice by the Germans. Some of us got no food at all because others doubled up in the soup queue. It was enlivened only by the poor soul who developed an abscess behind one of his back teeth. Our M.O. did a marvellous job in extracting the molar. He used a small pair of forceps which he had from a sharpened match stalk, but no drugs - because he had none. Yet another chap was killed by a trigger-happy Jerry.
During the next week we battled on for another 111kms but they had to give us a rest on the Thursday. The weather was still bad and the rations had got fewer. The stench in the barns at night had got terrible. Those poor devils with dysentery were too weak to help themselves. During the rest day one poor chap went sick. At 11.00 hours he was given a spoonful of arrowroot, to stem the dysentery. At noon his friend called me over - the chap was dead - choked - he hadn't the strength left to either swallow the arrowroot or spit it out.
We existed now, merely by instinct. We sold anything the Germans would buy. A lovely gold watch went for two loaves. A poor price - but we could eat the bread, time didnít matter any more. The Germans didn't know what to do. The air raids were stupendous Everywhere we could see the results. One day we passed a large tanker riddled with bullets, by the side of the road. In a field on the other side they was a Fortress which had crashed. Some of the crew were still aboard - dead. We were afraid of being strafed by fighters but our luck held. Of the mighty Luftwaffe we saw nothing.
On Saturday 10 March we reached Sorga. It rained all day. We were given two days rations: a small piece of bread and a quarter tin of meat. We were told we had only two more days to go. Even that news failed to cheer us up. We were in such a state of despair that nothing really mattered. The deaths were increasing. I think that some of those who survived envied those who died, because they were out of it. We staggered on for another 21kms on the Sunday to Freiwillingen. Our Medical Officer was struck with a rifle butt when he went to the aid of one of the sick. We got no soup or drink, but the end was near.
On Monday 12 March we walked for another 21 kms and arrived at Ziegenhain. Here we linked up with the main column and entered Stalag IXC. The march was over, for the present.
It was 49 days since we had left Lamsdorf. How far had we travelled? I think it was about 600 miles, as the crow flies, but it could have been 6000 the way we felt. Still, we had made it! We were put in huge marquees but, as the weather was improving, we were alright. The food at the camp was very poor. Of course, all Red Cross food had stopped and all we got was a little soup and some bread. I found that young dandelion leaves were very tasty on bread. We rested and licked our wounds. The Jerry still pushed us around a lot but it couldn't be for long. Unfortunately, it was not a happy ending for many. The dysentery continued to take its deadly toll. The Germans would do little to help us. In fact, one German officer, who was approached for some clean clothing for these unfortunates, replied, in perfect English, 'What? Clothes for the English swine, I hope you shit yourselves to death.'
After about a fortnight we got a terrible shock - we were ordered to get ready to march again. This caused pandemonium. We could just about walk but as for marching - impossible. Furthermore, we knew (from our temperamental radio) that the Americans were probably only 20 miles away, so what was the use, where could they force us to march - it was pure Nazi bloody-mindedness. We held a meeting of the marquee Commanders and we decided to talk to each section. The decision was to tell the Kommandant we would not go. We got the reply we expected - if we resisted they would shoot. Our next move was to call in the Medical Officers and get them to certify us all as unfit to move. This move didn't work either, as the Germans refused to accept this mass sickness. Finally, about half our number decided to march. The rest of us were left to take our chance. I was asked to take charge of the sick - anything was better than another march. The next morning came the crunch. At about 07.00 hours the guards arrived to take over the marchers. The first thing we noticed was how few of them there were - so a few more dozen decided they were too sick to walk. Surprisingly, there was very little fuss and it seemed the guards were far too anxious to get moving to worry about a few hundred British POWs who were pig headed. Anyway, away they went - we waved goodbye to our friends and settled down to wait. What would the Germans do? Again a big surprise - nothing much happened, we saw very little of any guards and so we waited.
The next morning, a Tuesday, we had the first kick back. I was in charge of the morning 'appel' and had the chaps all lined up ready for counting - the time, 07.00 hours. The German Ober-Feldwebel appeared (he was a pig of a man), the count was completed and I was preparing to dismiss the parade when this character ordered me to stop and said he was taking the whole of our Jewish contingent away to work. I said he wasn't and so the fun started. He raged about the hated Juden, he sacked my Dolmeche (interpreter) because he was Jewish and there we were. I couldn't speak German (officially), I had no interpreter so I was able to play it that I didn't understand a word he said. He ordered me to find another dolmeche but when I addressed the lads and told them what he wanted not a man moved - suddenly out of about 700 men not one could understand German. This farce went on until 11.30 hours - we were tired and hungry (we had had nothing to eat before appel) but we stuck it out and finally I got the order to dismiss. This German Ober-Feldwebel came over to me but all he said was 'I cant understand you, you are a British officer and yet you keep all your men standing about because of a few Jews - I think you are mad!' I tried to explain that, as far as I was concerned, they were in British uniform, had been captured as British and so were British, - we agreed to disagree.
The young Palestinian I had put in charge of the Jewish contingent (some 260 of them) came over and said 'Thanks for the effort Major but they will win, in the end, they've still got the guns and we are still Jews'. At 2pm that afternoon a contingent of guards arrived and removed the Jews - there was nothing further we could do. Happily, it wasn't serious, as within 3 days it was all over.
That night whilst I was on my nightly vigil outside the marquee I heard the usual noises of evacuation by the civilians the thought that went through my mind was 'quo vadis?' just as the Roman General had thought all those years ago when the people were leaving Rome. The RAF passed over on their nightly errand of destruction, but tonight there was a new sound - sounds of great activity coming form the German quarters - something was afoot.
The next morning came sensation. No German arrived to unlock our compound. We waited until 08.00 hours and then decided to do something. We lifted the gates off their hinges and sent a Warrant Officer and 2 men, who could speak German, down to the main part of the camp to find out what the score was. They came back with the news that practically all the Germans had gone, there were only a few officers and a handful of old men left. The noises I had heard during the night now meant something.
We managed to contact the American and the French contingents and an interview was demanded with the Kommandant. He had fled so we had to make do with the highest ranking officer they could provide - a Herr Major. We found that the German garrison now consisted of only 26 officers and men - all of doubtful physical ability. We decided it was time to take over. There was very little argument from the German officers. The only thing they protested about was when we hauled down the German flag and hoisted a Union Jack, which mysteriously appeared from somewhere. The German Major protested that the Germans had not yet surrendered and, in fact the Americans were not yet in the district and that it was unwise to fly a British flag with the SS in the district, so we compromised - we made a Red Cross flag and hoisted that. We left the German sentries on the gate but took over the running of the Camp - including the cookhouse - at least we got something to eat.
It was decided to evacuate the marquees and so the French were moved out of their compound into a smaller one and the British took over their barracks. When I first saw the Compound I could have cried - the plumbing had broken down and the whole place was indescribably filthy. However, it doesn't take the average British serviceman long to get organised and as we moved in so we cleaned up as best we could. Food was still short, people were still going sick, mostly with dysentery, and alas - each day someone was dying. We weren't home yet. The Americans were still about 11 miles away.
The next couple of days were probably the weirdest I have ever spent. There we were, right in the thick of the battle for Germany, still stuck in a prison camp, with Germans still walking about, but yet we were not really prisoners any longer. On the other hand we were not free to go outside the Stalag, it was like being in a small neutral country - an oasis if you like - surrounded by the combatant countries, just wondering and waiting. To say we were apprehensive would be the understatement of all time. What would happen if the Nazis counter-attacked? What would happen if the Americans, not knowing it was a POW camp, shelled the Stalag, believing it to be a German camp. It sounds silly, in retrospect, to dwell on such thoughts, but they were very real, believe me, during Easter week, 1945.
Amidst all the apprehension we managed to get some organisation moving. We got the barracks a little more shipshape, but were unable to do anything about the plumbing. We had a thorough reccy of the German part of the camp and found the clothing store. This was just what we wanted - clean clothes. However, we didn't get much joy. All the store contained was a few pairs of underpants, of dubious origin, and a whole mass of new boots - of Italian manufacture. However, this was better than nothing the underpants were a godsend to those chaps still suffering from dysentery and there were enough boots for everybody to have a pair - and wonder of wonder! - most of us got a pair that fitted. They were good boots too, lovely soft uppers and quite well-made. As I had walked a pair of boots completely out on the march the Eye-tye replacements were very acceptable.
As we couldn't get any new clothes we had to do the best we could with what we had and most of us set to on a glorious laundry exercise, but it's a bit difficult when you haven't got much soap and very little warm water. However, with the application of a lot of energy we did at least manage to freshen up our shirts, socks and underclothes - and they dried very quickly, as the weather, at least, was on our side - it was a glorious Springtime - warm, sunny days - and we were able to sunbathe whilst our newly washed clothes dried out. The sun bathing would have looked a bit macabre to any onlooker - we all looked like something from a horror film - remember, we had walked over 600 miles on very little food, so most of us had lost our puppy fat. I weighed around 8 stone, and that was some loss when you think I was a sturdy 12 stone 10lbs when we started to march from Lamsdorf about 2 months ago - I think it is the only time I have seen my own ribs - and I was one of the fittest ones left - so you can imagine what the sick boys looked like.
One good thing which had emerged was that we had been able to rescue our Jewish, or Palestinian, comrades who the Nazis had forcibly removed from our midst, a few days before. No harm had come to them so the British contingent was, once more complete. Meanwhile the war was closing in on us. We were able to get some information from our radio, which was very temperamental. On the Thursday evening we realised we hadn't long to wait - General Patton's 3rd US Army was fast approaching the gates - it was any time now. I think most of us found it difficult to sleep on the Thursday night - what with the distant gunfire, the refugees going past the Stalag, the constant sound of aircraft - invariably RAF or USAF - and with the still present apprehension - we waited, fitfully, for tomorrow.
Finally Friday dawned - Good Friday 30 March 1945 and most of us were up and about very early. We posted lookouts on any vantage point we could find - we had managed to 'win' a couple of pairs of very good binoculars and it was the lookouts' job to keep scanning the horizon to try and pick up any troop movements - on either side. Meanwhile the rest of us concentrated on cleaning up the field where our marquees still stood and generally finding anything else to occupy our minds. The day was, again, warm and sunny, the food was, again, conspicuous by its scarcity. The tension was terrific. The few Germans who were still about looked completely despondent - it was now their turn to be apprehensive. Incidents still happened - like the one on the road outside our new compound. I had gone down there about 1100 hours to see how things were going and when I came out to the compound gates I met a German Ober-Feldwebel (Staff sergeant). I had met him the previous day for the first time. We stopped to chat but we were interrupted by the jeers and howls from the Russian compound. He was explaining to me that the battle was now very near and that he expected a tank battle to develop around the Stalag at any time. He asked me to make sure that all the Britishers kept under as much cover as possible (we had some slit trenches up on the field) as he quite rightly said 'it would be a great pity for anybody to be killed at the last moment, after being away for so long'. I agreed with him. By now the Russians were really showing their teeth and the German asked me to explain to them what was happening and to ask them to take cover. Just how I was to do this, I don't think either of us was very clear. I spoke no Russian, and neither did he, apparently - my German, learned entirely whilst I was a POW may have been adequate for a swear-off with a German, but would hardly be understood by a howling mob who knew no language other than their own, and didn't want to listen, anyway.
'They are your prisoners,' I explained to the German 'you have a go.' 'They are your allies' he replied 'and anyway I am your prisoner, myself.' And with that he handed me his Luger and said 'perhaps this will help.' It was all very amusing - for us, but the whole scene wasn't so funny for the Russkis. It seemed that they were all Russians who had collaborated with the Nazis, after their capture (which explained why they looked so well-fed and clothed - I had never seen Russian POWs so well cared for) and now the moment of truth was at hand - they were afraid of liberation because they faced almost certain death when their own people got hold of them. It was impossible to tell them to get their heads down so I walked away and went back to the field where the marquees lay. There was tremendous excitement - one of the lookouts had spotted a tank column, but he was not certain whether they were Nazi Panzers or American Shermans. I thought they were German Tigers and this was confirmed when I looked in the other direction and saw a column of other tanks which were very definitely from the USA. So, there we were, caught right in the middle of the rival armour. It looked as if the battle must sweep right round us, and perhaps right round the Stalag - what a prospect after all this time. The time was exactly noon and we didn't have long to wait. I had just called the section commanders together and told them to get everybody under cover when - wham - there was a bang and an unfamiliar whine. I have never hit the deck so quickly in my life - before or since - it was the opening shot (a tank shell) of the battle. Then came the aircraft, ours fortunately, and we hugged the ground and crawled towards the slit trenches. However, nothing sensational happened and we watched the village, about 2kms away from us. All of a sudden we saw it - a white flag, then another, then another, as the local inhabitants forgot all about their beloved Fuehrer and hung out their nice, clean bed linen from the bedroom windows as a token of total surrender. There was no more firing - for a moment there was total silence and then the boys let out a cheer - it was all over.
I made my way down to the main gates where the office block was situated and here one of the most amusing incidents of my whole career as a POW took place. There was still a poor, frightened looking, Goon at the gate, complete with rifle and bayonet. This was a moment I think most British POWs had waited for. When we were, ourselves, captured the first thing any German said to us was 'Ach so, my friend, for you the war is over' We'd all had the same treatment. Now, it was my turn! I went up to the German. He sprang smartly to attention and gave me a real, first class salute - they always saluted a senior rank. I stopped, and in my best Stalag German I said 'Ach so mein freund fur zu der krieg is fertig, nicht wahr?' It must have been a good effort because, apparently, he understood. I was totally unprepared for his reaction. With a grin, he dropped his rifle but retained his bayonet, fumbled in his haversack, produced an enormous bread and cheese sandwich (ersatz cheese of course) which he proceeded to cut in half with the bayonet. He shook me by handing half the sandwich to me - and I shook him - I stood there and ate it - I was very hungry and that sandwich was like manna from heaven - in any case it would have been rude to refuse. When I left him to go into the office, he was still chuckling.
There was an American officer - Major Morton - who had been captured in the Ardennes, a few weeks before. He was the senior US officer and, as this was the American sector, naturally assumed overall command. I told him what I had seen - the white flags etc and we agreed that liberation must come in the next couple of hours or so. Now came our first big problem, to contain our chaps until the liberating army arrived. Obviously, we were right in the front line and there must be no rash actions or anything which might place anybody in the camp in peril. We decided to mount a strong guard on the gate and to appeal to our respective contingents to try to cool it down a little until the final release came. We contacted the French Senior Officer and he agreed. It was no easy task, some of my chaps had been taken at Dunkirk - nearly 5 long weary years ago. However, reason prevailed and we all tried to stand by and wait. We had to wait for nearly 3 hours before it happened - what a long 3 hours that was!
It happened just after 3pm. I was sitting in my room in the barrack when I heard a tremendous roar - Hampden Park, Wembley Stadium or the Kop at Anfield Rd. - have never heard anything like this. I ran outside and looked towards the main gate to see a seething mass of people - the Yanks were here. I hurried down towards the gate and there I saw the most amazing sight. A US Army jeep, complete with a crew of 6 husky Gis, was being lifted from the ground and borne in triumph through the gate. It was amazing when you realise that the people doing the lifting were the ex POWs, many of whom an hour before could hardly lift a comb to do their hair, let alone lift a fully laden jeep. Pandemonium reigned. Everybody seemed to be talking at once. Strangers hugged each other like long lost brothers - so! This was freedom at last! Not a bit like the end of the Colditz story, I am afraid, where we saw one rather frightened looking GI push open the gate and warily step inside. There was no such apprehension at Stalag IXC, I can assure you.
When the hubbub had subsided a little we managed to make ourselves heard, enough anyhow, to warn the excited inhabitants that they must, on no account, whatsoever, go out on to the road outside the Camp as the 3rd US Army had the Jerry on the run and were in a hurry to catch him, so they didn't need to be held up by a few hundred released POWs meandering about the road. It was very difficult, a few had already strayed on to the grass verges outside the wire. It was my job to go out and persuade them to come back inside - for their own safety. Meanwhile the main columns of the American Army were speeding by. The occupants of the armoured cars seemed to be as excited as we were. I was standing on the grass verge, having urged the last of my 'flock' back into the camp, when one of the Gis in a passing vehicle shouted to me - I looked up just in time to see him throw something. I stumbled along the grass until I found it - gold dust indeed - in the form of a pack of 20 'Camels' - real cigarettes at last! I sat by the roadside for a few minutes and really enjoyed a smoke - it truly was Good Friday.
I was brought back to earth by an orderly calling to me from the Camp Gates that I was wanted in the office. I went over and was introduced, by the American Major Morton, to a Colonel from the US 3rd Army. I can't remember his name, but he was a charming character. He explained that he would get relief organised, as soon as he could, and asked what we were most in need of. We explained that it was medical supplies for the sick and, after that, food for everybody. He explained that things were moving so fast it might take him a little time but that we would have relief by the morning. In the meanwhile he asked us to get organised and prepare for evacuation - he wanted the British and American ex-POWs out of the camp as soon as possible. As there were about 1200 of each this was going to be quite an organisational exercise. He also requested that nobody was to leave the camp, unless detailed to do so. This was common sense, you couldn't very well have hundreds of spare ex-Kriegies roaming about the countryside, but it proved an awfully difficult problem, for the first few days, anyhow.
So we started to get organised. In the British sector we had already appointed Barrack Commanders who were responsible for the discipline and organisation of their respective barracks - there were 8 of them so each had about 150 men to look after. I called them together and told them what the Colonel had said. We decided to have a general parade in the Compound and explain the situation. This we did and the order to stay put was not too well received. We appointed a Compound Quartermaster, to deal with the supplies as they were received and each barrack then appointed its own quartermaster to deal with rations etc. The time passed quickly. We rustled up some food from nowhere and, as I had now acquired a batman, a Yorkshire lad from Brighouse, who was a baker by trade, he cooked a meal for four of us. It was alleged to be rabbit. Where the said rabbit came from nobody asked - or cared, for that matter. Yorkie certainly knew his job - I had never eaten rabbit before (or since for that matter) - as I didn't like what was supposed to be a country delicacy - but I ate it that evening - and certainly enjoyed it. Sleep was out of the question although I, for one, felt terribly tired, but the excitement still lingered on. Yorkie and I lay on our bunks and talked, listening to the bombers droning away overhead - the war was still with us.
The next morning we called a roll call for 08.00hours and there we were all lined up, barrack by barrack, in parade ground order. Finally, the barrack commanders all reported back 'all present and correct' and the work for the day began. We held a meeting down at Camp H/Q and drew up a set of rules. Parts of the camp were placed out of bounds to all ranks, except those on duty who were issued with a special pass - I still have mine. We hurried back to our compounds to propogate the orders and asked the chaps to keep reasonably with the Compound. We found a couple of footballs and these helped a lot, especially as we found a football ground in the German sector, complete with goalposts and marked out. We now had an extraordinary job to do in the British compound and that was to sort out the true identities of everyone. This was necessary because of a system we had for helping would-be escapees in the old days. It concerned the RAF and the Army boys. The RAF contingent was never allowed out of the camp when we were in Stalag VIIIB. We were nearly all senior NCOs and, as such, under the terms of the Geneva Convention, could not be sent on Arbeits Kommandos (working parties). Now these parties lived outside the camp, at the site of their work - sometimes at a factory, sometimes a coal-mine in Ober Silesia, and, therefore, offered a much better chance of escape. What happened, therefore, was that any RAF bloke who fancied his chances of escape found an Army private who looked like him, and they exchanged identities - the Army private becoming W.O. Blanks of the RAF and the RAF W/O becoming Private Bloggs and thus going out to work. This scheme had been fairly successful. Of course, many such swapovers were detected at the Main Gate, as the working party left (especially if one Fraulein Richter was on duty - she could spot a swap a hundred yards off) and both parties were hustled off to the 'bunker'. However, most of the swaps got through and eventually made their escapes - although I only ever heard of one chap getting back to England. Naturally when we were pushed out onto the road in January the RAF contingent contained many such swapovers and they had no option but to march with us. It was these characters we now had to sort out. It was amazing how many times W/O Blanks, RAF, suddenly became, in reality, Private Joe Bloggs of the Downshire Fusiliers. This we had to sort out. The Barrack Commanders formed a committee to examine each case. We were determined to establish each true identity beyond all reasonable doubt. We had picked up quite a lot of stragglers during the march and a few more the Americans had already picked up roaming round the countryside, but we were determined there wasn't going to be any infiltrators, or would-be escaping Nazis among our party. However, the job was finally completed and I was able to hand in to the US authorities a comprehensive list of all British ex POWs, complete with his true name, regimental numbers and correct POW number.
In the meantime the first relief lorries arrived and the Q/Ms were soon busy allocating rations. It was agreed that all POWs irrespective of nationality or rank, should be treated the same, as far as the rations were concerned. The Americans explained that these were only front line rations, and, as such were not as full as they would have liked. When we got the first supplies we thought this must be a joke. Tinned chicken, many varieties of tinned meats, butter etc etc It all looked pretty good to us - let alone being regarded as 'iron' rations. When you had been as hungry as we had even a bit of bread and cheese would have been a banquet - and here we were with food lavished on us which must have been better than the folks at home were getting on their wartime rations. In the afternoon we got our first taste of the famous US 'PX' rations. These are extras with which the US Forces are supplied. Again we got an expression of regret from the 3rd army that there was only enough supplies for each man to receive a half ration. When I tell you that this meant that we got only 60 cigarettes each and 6 chocolate bars plus some extras - you can imagine our feelings. So Saturday passed. Of course, the jackpot question was 'when do we go home?' but we had not yet been given any indication.
Easter day dawned, much the same as any of the other days before, - except that today we had some breakfast - and that must have been the first time for just over 2.5 years for me and longer for many of my companions. We were asked to emphasise that nobody must attempt to leave the Camp and this we did. There was still a lot of work to be done but I managed to get an hour, during the morning, to attend a drumhead service conducted by an American padre in the field where our marquees were situated. It was a marvellous service. I had attended church every Sunday in Stalag VIIIB and taken communion, both under my own faith as CofE and, on alternate weeks as a Non-Conformist, but this service was so different. It was a lovely morning, the sun was shining, there was a large congregation both American and British - it was a very moving ceremony. Just before lunchtime Major Morton told me he had reports that ex POWs were leaving the camp by various means i.e. any way except through the main gate and he wanted a roll call of each compound. I returned to my own compound to arrange the roll call - it seemed the Major was right - I was 102 men short on the count. When I got back to our H/Q I found the story was the same from the American compound (148 short) and the French and goodness knows how many Russians had gone as well. The Major was very annoyed and we agreed that directly after lunch we would start investigating.
The Americans had opened a special Mess for their officers who were coming and going to and from the Front Line and also for the US staff working in the camp. It was fully staffed by cooks from the 3rd Army and was quite something. I was invited to become a member of the Mess because I was working as the Senior British Officer and hadn't got time to get my own food ready. I was very pleased about this as it meant I hadn't got to go back to my barrack each time I needed a meal. The food was excellent and the place was conducted on the usual lavish American lines. I lunched at the mess and then we started our tour of investigation. It didn't take long to establish HOW the chaps got out. They had adopted the old POW method of going under the barbed wire, aided and abetted on this occasion by members of the 3rd US Army who very considerately cut the wire for them, from the outside.
In the meantime a steady stream of Germans were being brought in as prisoners and were held in the camp; as they were rounded up and whilst they awaited transport to the main prison camps - it was amazing how demoralised they looked - there was no sign of the jackboots or the goosestep in this lot!
Hereabouts we ran into our first bit of serious trouble. When I returned to the Compound one of my Barrack Commanders - CPO Eric Fox RN, was waiting for me to report that the lads were having serious trouble with the Russians. It appeared that they were welcomed into the compound by our chaps but had immediately started stealing things. When the British boys tried to prevent the stealing the trouble started. Eric had managed to throw them all out but feared they might try to come back after dark, and really go to town. We talked about it, he was a very sound type with about 24 years service in the Royal Navy, and not given to panic. Finally, we decided we would have to mount a picket on the gate to stop any unwelcome visitors coming in at night. I returned to the HQ and reported the matter to Major Morton and he told me the Yanks had got the same trouble in their compound. He was of the opinion that an unarmed picket would have no chance of stopping the Russians and he didn't want any of the American or British contingent to get hurt. He therefore suggested that we should mount an armed guard on both the British and American compounds. He proposed to issue 10 rifles to each compound with 10 rounds of live ammunition for each rifle, so that we could maintain a full guard of 2 men on the gate of the compound with 4 armed guards patrolling the wire. It seemed very drastic but I returned to the British compound and called a meeting of the Barrack Commanders. I explained the situation but said I would refuse the offer if they were against it. After a short discussion they were unanimous that we should accept. We decided that each barrack should take its turn to supply the guards and that only apparently responsible people should be detailed for guard duty. I took a party down to H/Q and drew the rifles and ammunition from the armoury - happily we never had to use them.
This incident highlighted our greatest problem - the Russians. Communication with them was extremely difficult owing to the language barrier, yet we wanted to treat them exactly the same as all the other ex POWs. It was obvious they didn't trust us and they seemed to have nobody who could speak either English or German so we had to find somebody who could speak Russian. The grapevine told me we had just such a chap in our compound - he was one of the Palestinians who was a Jugoslav by origin. I never knew his surname but he was known as Peter to us. He wasn't one of the favourite characters in the compound as people had always been suspicious of him. However, I had no complaints and I sought him out and asked him if he would help. Naturally, he was a bit wary, so I invited him down to H/Q to talk it over with Major Morton. We talked to him for a few minutes and he agreed to help. We therefore appointed him Compound Commander of the Russian Compound and we had no more trouble.
The day ended on a much lighter note. When I returned to the compound I was told that our 'defaulters' were drifting back and when I got back to my room there was deputation from the Palestinians contingent they said they wanted some advice. Apparently whilst they were out they had visited a small farm and has purchased a sheep. They hadn't stolen it, they had bought it with some soap, coffee and other items they had received in their PX rations. Their trouble was that, according to their religion, all meat had to be hung for 24 hours before being cooked and they didn't know how to hang it - could I help? I couldn't but Yorky was just their boy. I asked him to go along with them and show them what to do. He obliged. Later on that night when I was making my final 'rounds' of the barracks I went into the Palestinian barracks and there I saw the sheep - neatly suspended between 2 sets of bunks with 4 Hebrews solemnly sitting round it. I asked why the ceremony and they assured me they were mounting guard all night to make sure the sheep didn't 'walk' or be helped on its way by any light fingered member of the community.
On parade on the Monday morning it was remarkable to note that we were up to strength again - all our absentees had returned - the same way as they went - through the wire. I had asked for a working party the previous day to clean up the compound. We were using the Germans to do any jobs for us so the party was no problem. As the parade finished I was told the working party had arrived and I found 15 nondescript Krauts waiting my instructions. They were a mixed bunch, some Wehrmacht, some Luftwaffe, apparently we were gathering them in from all quarters. I spotted a Luftwaffe feldwebel (sergeant) and he looked the brightest of the lot. I told him he was in charge and explained exactly what I wanted doing. He, of course, recognised my uniform and, amazing as it may seem, there seemed to be a rapport straight away. I had always been treated well by the few Luftwaffe bods I had met. Apparently, even in the Third Reich, there was the same feeling between the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht as existed between the RAF and the Army, at home - the luftwaffe were regarded as the 'Brylcream' boys, just as we were. As an afterthought I called this particular German back and asked him if he smoked. He grinned and said he would if he had any tobacco. I gave him a cigarette, and one for his mate, also from the Luftwaffe. I had a packet of Jugoslavian tobacco in my pocket, which I had acquired from somewhere, so I gave him that and a packet of cigarette papers. I donít know if you have every experienced any mid-European tobacco - if you haven't, you have missed quite an experience - I had never been able to give it away to my own comrades, even when they had nothing else to smoke. When you lit it and drew on your pipe or cigarette it literally blew your cap off. Personally, I could get along with it - but, then, I like strong tobacco. You may think I wasn't doing much of a favour to my prisoner by giving him this stuff - but he was delighted - and the result was really comical. I left them to it and went down to H/Q and didn't return until about 2pm, by which time the working party had finished the cleaning up.
I went to my room and I was truly amazed at the sight which greeted me. The place was absolutely spotless. The buttons on my greatcoat had been polished and a pair of light shoes which I had with me had been cleaned and laid out all ready for wearing. The whole place, floors cupboards, shelves, table had been scrubbed white and even the pots and pans we had managed to 'acquire' had been polished. I got hold of Yorky, my batman friend, and castigated him for doing all that unnecessary work, telling him I could still clean my own shoes and when I wanted the pans polished I would ask him to do it. He stared at me, over the top of his glasses, 'unnecessary work be boogered' he exclaimed in his broad Yorkshire accent 'ye doant think I'm fool enough to do that, do you - even for you? Y'oud better have a word with your bloody Nazi mates - that so and so feldwebel from the luftwaffe came in here, turfed me out of my own kitchen and then turned about 4 of them loose in here. When I was let back in, this is what it looked like. Pity you hadn't got a pound of that bloody camel dung you gave him to smoke - he'd probably have pinched you a bloody aeroplane to go home in.' Yes, being a POW, or rather an ex POW, had its lighter moments, which was just as well as I had a very serious problem on my mind at the time.
When I had arrived at H/Q that morning I found the US Major in a very bad mood. First of all he had one of his own blokes on a charge - of stealing - which didn't please him at all and I sat through the charge with him - it was very interesting to watch how they handled such an event - so different from what we were allowed to do - if I had treated a ranker the way he did I would have been court-martialled myself and probably slung out. However, that was their business. Then came the really serious bit. He sent everyone out of the room except the US senior rank and myself and then he told us that he had had a most serious complaint - that a German girl, down in the village, had been raped by 2 ex POWs the previous afternoon. Remember, this was the day when so many of our chaps had gone AWOL. Needless to say rape is regarded as a most serious crime within our military code and rape of any enemy alien was even worse. I just couldn't see that any of our chaps would be involved. True, many of them were, without doubt, in the village that afternoon, true, also many of them had had no contract with the opposite sex for a long long time and equally true, that few of them would regard a German girl as an 'enemy', but against that it was amazing how quickly people had adapted themselves to freedom and British discipline. Furthermore, there was the question of physical condition. Although we had had a couple of days on the ample rations the Americans so kindly provided, we had had three months of almost complete starvation plus several years of inadequate feeding and a gruelling and totally exhausting march of 600 miles behind us - the total result was that, physically, very very few would have been capable of committing rape - even if they opportunity arose. No - it just couldn't have been our chaps. I put these arguments to Major Morton and my American counterpart was equally vehement in his denials. The major was obviously impressed but said 'Even if I agree with all you say, I've still got to clear the case - and I don't have to tell you what it means if either a GI or an Englishman is involved.
I sought the assistance of a local plumber who had been called to complete work on the camp. He was a poor, scared looking, old man of about 5'5" - a typical German peasant - obviously very apprehensive and prepared to be very wary. I asked him to sit down and Yorky handed him a cup of coffee and we gave him some bread and cheese and a cigarette. He was obviously stunned by this treatment but it didn't stop him enjoying the snack. When he settled down I told him why I wanted to talk to him. I asked him if he had seen any Britishers in the village the previous afternoon. Yes, he had - in fact one of them had called at his house and asked him for a drink of water. Apparently his wife had offered them some milk, which they had accepted, most gratefully. He had invited them in, to sit down and rest, but they had refused but he said how courteous they had been to his wife and how they had insisted in paying for the milk. He said 'what nice boys' they were and how he had enjoyed talking to them.
I then told him that two of these 'nice boys' had been accused of raping one of the village girls, and I had to find out who the culprits were. The mild, frightened little man jumped up from his chair and called us a few choice names (in German of course) and said the Russkies were responsible. We pressed him for details (after he had calmed down again) and it appeared that whilst he had not actually seen the incident he had, as I had hoped, heard all about it and, in fact, his friend in the village had, indeed, witnessed it. This was good enough for me. I took the little German down to the US Major and got him to repeat his story. He said he was quite willing to go down to the village and bring his friend back. We accepted his offer and he was taken, under escort, in a jeep back to the village and the friend was located.
When they returned they were both cautioned and asked to make a statement. The friend was just another elderly German peasant, certainly not hostile in his attitude and he told us a story very much the same as the plumber, with the addition that he was able to describe what he said had happened. The whole incident took place in the main village street - on an Easter Sunday afternoon, mark you - and the two men concerned were Russians. There seemed no doubt on this point - the German was able to describe them and also their uniforms, in detail. His only doubt seemed to be whether the girl was actually raped or whether it was just a 'valiant' attempt by our allies. So far so good. We got the name and address of the girl concerned and dismissed the two witnesses. Our plumber friend insisted on returning to my compound to complete the job I had interrupted, his friend was taken home. We were all satisfied - and very relieved - that we had been able to exonerate the British and US contingents. However, to make the matter absolutely certain, it was decided that the girl must be interviewed. We arranged for the military police to go along to see her. This was done and her statement tallied with the information we had - she was certain the men were Russians. So a very unpleasant incident was closed. We could do very little about the Russians, except to keep them confined to their compound, well guarded, so that they couldn't repeat the offence.
So life went on. Of course, everybody was still so very excited and impatient to get moving. One amazing thing was how quickly everybody in our compound got back into the groove again. Uniforms were cleaned up, as far as possible, boots cleaned, people began to shave again each morning, haircuts became the order of the day and I found my own RAF comrades parading not only in spivved up uniforms but complete with uniform neckties as well - it was all very pleasing - physically weak a lot of them may have been, but there was nothing wrong with their intelligence. You would have thought the guards on the gates of the compound were at Buckingham Palace.
Of course amusing - and amazing - incidents still abounded, but everyone was quick to get organised. One really amusing incident occurred to me the next morning. My Interpreter and I were on the way down to breakfast in the mess when we noticed, in a small paddock, a whole collection of German prisoners - and what a sight they provided. They stood huddled together - rather like a herd of cattle on a cold, wet, day - except that the cattle would have looked much cleaner and certainly more lively. I don't think I have ever seen a more dejected or miserable looking collection. True it was cold at this time of the morning and damp with overnight dew, but this couldn't account for the dejection. It was impossible to imagine that only a short time ago this mob were part of the mighty German Wehrmacht, strutting through Europe, rulers of all they surveyed - I am sure that our boys, even in the darkest days of captivity, had never looked like this.
Harry and I decided to go over and have a closer look. At the gate of the compound we found a big, tough American Master-Sergeant from the 3rd American Army - armed to the teeth and looking as if he was really enjoying his job. We showed him our passes and stopped to chat. 'What have you got here Sergeant?' I asked. He replied, in a rich Bronx accent, straight out of an American movie, 'Krauts Sir, - 240 of them - and ain't dey lovely?' 'How long have you had them?' Harry queried. 'Since yesterday afternoon' 'Where do they sleep?' I asked (there was no sign of any huts or tents). 'Sleep? Dey sleep where dey stand'. 'You mean you just let them lie on the ground, in this weather?' 'Lie on the ground, Sir, they donít lie down' he cracked, 'dey sleep where dey stand - dey only lie down if de doctor says dere sick' he paused - 'and I'm de doctor - there ain't bin many sick, I can promise you!'
In spite of the mournful scene before us we couldn't help laughing. The 3rd Army were certainly tough. Our conversation with the guard was interrupted by the arrival of yet another batch of prisoners. These were a mixed bunch, some very young, some old men, some from crack units like the SS, others, veterans from the Volksturmer - most of them looking as miserable as the crowd already behind the wire. Just one or two were still a little defiant. One, in particular, was a really nasty specimen - he was a young lieutenant from the SS, and therefore a fanatical nazi - his world in ruins around him, herded in with a nondescript bunch who he would have expected to jump each time he spoke - now no longer even noticing him. His vanity was shattered and he acted like a petulant child - but he soon learned.
The American guards moved in to search the POWs, as they were perfectly entitled to do, and ordered them to turn out their pockets - obviously they had only just been picked up. Everybody seemed to obey - except our arrogant young specimen. He resisted, perhaps he didn't understand the orders - more likely he was determined to show off his prowess. Anyway, as a burly GI moved in to empty his pockets there was a scuffle - whether the hero of the 3rd Reich tried to strike the GI was not clear, but the result was he got a resounding clip in the ear which spreadeagled him on the turf. A tough GI promptly sat on him and ripped off his combat jacket, Iron Cross and all. The pockets were emptied and then the jacket was ripped down the centre seam. One half was flung to the ground and the other half was handed back to the now thoroughly cowed young German. His last stand for the Fuhrer was over - he was thoroughly humiliated - at last he knew that might would get him precisely nowhere. Harry and I turned away and went to get some breakfast.
There was still plenty of work to do. We were still getting stragglers in in the form of British and American ex POWs who had dropped out of various forced marches and had been picked up by the 3rd Army. They all had to be interrogated and sorted out. During that morning I had one of those amazing experiences which make the world seem so very small. We had a constant stream of visitors, in the form of members of the 3rd Army, who dropped in on their way to and from the front line - which had now left us some way behind. One such visitor turned out to be Captain Al Miller from Texas - you could almost imagine him riding the range - big, strong and very hearty. He came in with his 'buddy' a US Master Sergeant (the American army was far more democratic than our own - officers and enlisted men mixed much more freely.
I was introduced to Captain.Miller and took him and his companion over to the mess for morning coffee. It was soon evident that he was very fond of England, and of East Anglia in particular. I told him I came from Essex and by strange coincidence that is where he had spent most of his service in England. We talked of various towns and villages and it came out that I had been at school, for a short time, in Braintree. 'Gee, that's strange' he said 'I got myself engaged to a lady from Braintree, only a week before we were posted to France - so you can sure see why I'm in a hurry to get back'. I asked him the lady's name - it turned out that she had been at the same school as me and that either she, or her brother, were in the same form as I was - 20 years before. It was really incredible. He was tickled pink. He turned to his mate, 'Well, Sergeant, what do y'know - I come all the way from Texas to get into this man's war - I stay in England, come on over to France and now into Germany and end up having cawfee with a guy who knew my fiancee 20 years ago - it sure is a small world, yes sir!'
That day there was another happening that wasn't quite so pleasant. In the afternoon, I was in the Orderly room when Major Morton came in and said 'Oh Jim, just the bloke I want - I've got one of your guys locked up in the cooler, what are you going to do about him?' This took me completely by surprise because on parade that morning we had been all present and correct, so I couldn't see how anybody from our lot could be in the cells, unless he had been arrested since breakfast time - and if that had happened I would have been notified at once. I explained this to the Major and he agreed. 'Yeah, that's right - this one was picked up outside the camp but he claims to have come from your party - here's his name and number.'
He handed me a piece of paper and I recognised the name as being Palestinian but I certainly did not know the chap. I explained to Major Morton that I had put the Palestinians under the charge of a Palestinian NCO and that I would prefer to hand the matter over to him. He was quite in agreement but suggested I saw the prisoner myself first. They fetched him out of the cells. He was a complete stranger to me and I could get very little out of him as he spoke very little English and, unfortunately, I spoke no Hebrew. So I had him sent back and went to find the Palestinian NCO, Eddie Dreyfuss. Eddie had acted as my interpreter, at one time, he was half Jew, half German. He had been brought up in Germany - in fact he was a complete German - except in the vital matter of faith - he had got away to Palestine when the Germans began to persecute his people. His father had died (mercifully, as Eddie said) and his mother was still in Germany. In fact we had walked through a badly bombed town whilst we were on the march - it was almost completely shattered - that was the town from whence Eddie had last heard from his mother (NB he found out, after the war, that she had been evacuated before the fatal raid and was still alive and well). Eddie was a quite, well-mannered, well-educated Jewish boy who had the respect of all the Palestinian contingent (they had chosen him as their leader - for which I was very glad).
Eddie came to see me directly I sent for him. I explained the situation to him. I handed him the piece of paper with the details on it and asked him to come down to H/Q to secure the lad's release. He looked at the name and then turned to me and said: 'Is that an order, Sir, or a request?' I was puzzled by this attitude. 'Since when have I had to give my friends orders, Eddie, what's the difference anyhow, all I want is to get this kid out - he's been a POW held by the Germans for 3.5 years, remember? Surely you don't want anybody locked away now we are supposed to be free? I am asking you to accept him into your custody - so why the questions?' He looked at me steadily for a moment and then said very respectfully: 'If it is an order, Sir, I shall, of course, obey - but if it is a request, as a friend, I beg leave to refuse it.'
I just couldn't believe it. After all this time shut away by the people they had every reason to hate, here was one Jew asking me to keep another Jew under close arrest - in a German camp of all places. He saw my perplexed look and hastened to add: 'I am sorry to question your motives Sir, but I am afraid you English still do not understand my people. I know you have stood up for us when we have been in trouble, even at your own risk, many times, but you don't know just how bad, a bad Jew can be. I know you have bad Englishmen, there are bad in all nations. The vast majority of my people are good people - and those are the sort you know - but if we get a bad man among us then he is very bad and the rest of us want nothing to do with him. This man is very bad. If you bring him back up into the compound you will have more trouble with him, perhaps bad trouble, and as we are only a few days from going home to England - we don't want that. Please let him stay where he is - it is far safer: he has done wrong and should be punished. When we return to England I shall report his conduct. With your permission we will take him back to England under escort - he will be court martialled, anyway, when we get back.' I knew he was quite sincere in what he said and I wouldn't have dreamed of upsetting him. Hoping he would change his mind I took him down to H/Q and let him talk to Major Morton. The Major listened to his story and said, without any hesitation at all, that he thought Eddie was right. Good jews, bad jews, German jews, continental jews, I now realised just how ruthless some could be.
The regular food and the chance of a bath now and then were having a tremendous influence on the men. The sickness rate was certainly checked, although, unfortunately we still had some trouble and the Revier was still pretty full with the seriously ill cases - many of whom seemed to be making very little progress although they were, by now, getting plenty of medical attention. Unhappily, they were too far gone, some of them, before the help had arrived. However, most of us were feeling the benefit. I could feel I was putting on weight again, even in those few days and we all began to feel stronger and ready for the journey home.
One afternoon Harry (my interpreter) and I decided we would like a bath, so we got some soap and towels and hied our way to the bath house - the same place where, you will remember, I had had the swear-off with the Nazi in charge when I took a party of Jewish POWs down for a bath whilst we were still in captivity. When we got there the shower room was occupied by some Russians who were the last of an official bath party. Harry told the bath attendant - he was my old enemy - who we were. The effect was amazing . He immediately began to chase the Russkis out and then insisted on cleaning down the floor before we were allowed in. He even used some ersatz disinfectant on the place to make sure it was clean for the English Fuhrer and so there we were - just the two of us with 25 showers between us. He turned them all on so we were able to soap ourselves under one each and then run through the others to rinse off - what luxury!
When we had finished the fat Hun was waiting for us. He hoped the bath had been alright? - had we had enough water? - please would we come up at any time we felt we wanted a bath. What a contrast - a little over 10 days ago he had been screaming at me for being a 'dirty Jude' and now all he needed was a prayer mat to kneel down in front of me. There is no doubt that Winston Churchill (or some other notable statesman) was quite right when he said a German was to be found in only two positions - either at one's throat or else at one's knees. This fat specimen certainly proved that point
As we left the bathhouse we spotted three young Germans wandering round as if lost. They were, in common with most of the others we had seen, indescribably dirty. They were all dressed in the uniform of the Wehrmacht, complete with greatcoats, which were many sizes too big for them. They were obviously very young - just kids in fact and I noticed one of them - the biggest - was limping rather badly. We called them over and they came, stood before us, saluted and waited. That they were scared stiff was obvious. I suspected that they were on the run and had got into the back of the camp by mistake. We spoke to them and told them we were not going to shoot them. We offered them a bar of chocolate each and this did the trick - we could have been their friends for life. We then got their story. The youngest was just over 15 (or so he said but I thought he was a jolly small boy for 15) and he had been in the army for 6 weeks he had seen some action, mostly on anti-aircraft guns I think, but certainly wouldn't have frightened many of the enemies of the Reich. He was dirty, hungry and should have been at home running errands for his mother.
The second professed to being 16 and said he had been in the Wehrmacht for nearly a year. He had been in the infantry and seemed to have been on the retreat most of the time - he still didn't seem to know what it was all about. The eldest of the trio was nearly 17. He had been a soldier for 18 months and had actually been in action on the Ost front against the Russians. He was far more wary than the other two and it took us longer to break him down. We had a look at his leg. He had a nasty wound which was covered by a dirty dressing and obviously needed treatment. He said he had been shot, but I doubted this - it looked more like a very bad cut inflicted by barbed wire or something of that nature. Anyway, it was a nasty angry-looking wound. We told him we were taking him to the Revier so that the Doctor could see his leg. He seemed terrified. We assured him nobody was going to hurt him and in order to placate him we said we would take all three down to the Revier - I thought it wouldn't do the other two any harm to have a Doctor run them over as, goodness knows, how long they had been on the run - they were certainly underfed. What a tragedy. Three kids who ought to have been doing their homework -fully-fledged 'soldaten' it showed the awful depths that the Nazis had reached.
We handed the three kids over to the medical authorities and whilst we were at the Revier I asked permission to visit one or two of our chaps who were still seriously ill. Normally we didn't go into the Revier any more than was necessary because the staff were so busy with all the sick they had to attend to that we would have been in the way. However, whilst we were there we thought we would make the most of it. I spoke to one or two who I knew quite well, answered a few eager questions about when were we moving out etc and then came across two chaps, both aircrew, who I had known very well indeed and who had both been with me since my very early days in captivity.
The first was a young Canadian wireless operator, who I still call Danny. He had always been in my barrack, and was a really nice kid. He had been taken prisoner when he was shot down on his first operational mission - shortly after his 18th birthday. He had adapted very well to Stalag life and was very popular. He had been taken ill some days before we finished the march but we had managed to get him into the camp. He had been in the Revier since we arrived. It was obvious that he was desperately ill but I think he recognised me, As I was talking to him one of the Orderlies gave me the thumbs down sign so I knew Danny was pretty bad.
I left Danny and went on to see Jock, a Scots navigator, who I first met when we were in solitary in the cells at Amsterdam SS gaol - we had both been captured on the same day. He had been a fitness fanatic whilst he was in the Stalag - a finely built chap, a little on the slim side, who really looked after himself. He didn't smoke or drink any of the 'jungle juice' we produced from time to time. He certainly looked a bit better than Danny did, even so, it was obvious that he was very ill. He recognised me, alright, and I sat and talked to him for a bit. We talked of going home and I pulled his leg, and reminded him he had got to get out when I did because we had both got in together and had been through the lot together. Although he was so very weak, he was quite cheerful and I promised to drop in and see him again. I was glad I did - I was unable to see Danny any more because he died that same evening - just about 21 years of age, thousands of miles from the home he loved - killed not by a bullet or in a crash, as you would expect an airman to die, but killed by a nasty little germ called dysentery. I went in to see Jock on the Saturday, to tell him we were going home on Sunday or Monday. He didn't seem to be much better and was just like a skeleton lying on that hospital bed. He was fully conscious, however, and quite cheerful when I left him. He died on the Sunday - the next day we came home.
Truly the war is not over when the shooting stops and there are many other ways of dying besides stopping a bullet. Ways which are slow and much more painful - in these two cases and many more like them, which need never have happened. Both those boys could have been saved with proper medical treatment when they were first ill - but this had been denied to them by our brave Nazi captors.
There was really only one more outstanding event - apart from our actual journey home - and that was the visit of a broadcasting unit from the BBC who came into the camp one morning. I remember that the commentator, or interviewer, was Bobby Reid who I have listened to many times since. He talked to several of us and finally asked one of the padres and myself to record our messages, along with one of the Yanks. This we did. The incident had an amazing sequel. Apparently about a week later, on the very night I reached England, the BBC broadcasted the recording. Apparently the BBC, in their wisdom, decided to cut the recording and all they put out was a short message from Bobbie Reid and what the padre said. The rest of us they cut out. The padre's contribution was a particularly harrowing tale of what he had seen in the camp. (he was NOT on the march with us - I don't think he was even a POW) and of the terrible conditions we were in. He mentioned that most of us were people who had been on the forced march. My wife was listening to the broadcast - she knew I had been marching but had no idea where I was - it must have been pretty upsetting and if the BBC had only broadcast the complete tape she would have, at least known I was alright. However, after a miserable night - she heard my sweet melodious voice the very next morning, when I telephoned her from London.
Arrangements were now well in hand to evacuate us and on the Friday we were told we were being taken out on the following Sunday. It was quite some task as there were some 1377 Britishers (including 35 chronically sick men) and about the same number of Americans. Around 3000 men take some transportation and we were still quite close to the front line. On Saturday evening we had a setback - we were told they could not move us out until the Monday, owing to lack of transport. The French were to go the next day (Tuesday). However, we managed to stifle our disappointment - after all just one day didn't make all that difference and we would rather be safe than sorry.
We spent the Sunday clearing up all our kit etc. and leaving anything we didn't want for the Russkis. We also managed to go through the de-louser, just as a precaution. We tied up the final details at H/Q and had all the transport lists ready for an early start.
On the Monday morning - 9 April 1945 - we were all up with the lark. It was the only morning in all my time as a Barrack Commander and then as a Compound Commander, that I had no trouble in getting everybody out. We all had a good breakfast i.e. those of us who could eat through the excitement and were paraded all ready for departure at 06.45 hours - we were scheduled to start at 07.00 hours and we had visions of lunch in England. 07.00 came and went, so do 07.30 but still no transport. You can imagine the situation - gloom and despondency growing deeper every minute, questions from all sides. The delay gave me the chance to go back to my old barrack to get my greatcoat which I had forgotten and the weather had turned much colder. We had left all the barracks scrupulously clean with all the stuff we had to give the Russians neatly stacked on the bunks. That was less than an hour before. When I went into the barracks I was astounded. There were Russkis everywhere, that wasn't very surprising they were prize scavengers - but what shocked me was the state of the barracks. Instead of just taking the stuff we had left our Eastern allies had just plundered the whole compound - fittings had been ripped from the walls, tables overturned, and the whole place was a shambles. Needless to say I did not find my greatcoat.
However, at around 08.00 hours our troubles were eased - the transports began to arrive. I had 1341 bodies to get loaded on to the trucks (and that little lot took 51 trucks) and 35 seriously ill men plus an orderly to go by ambulance. Fortunately, everybody was sensible and all filed quietly, if somewhat eagerly, on to the trucks, as their names and numbers were called. I said goodbye to Major Morton and my other American friends and at last we were on our way. As we reached the first village we saw the first signs of war - a disabled Nazi tank at the entrance to the village - and all the bedroom windows festooned with white sheets.
Hereabouts began one of the most hectic journeys of my life. I thought there was a bit of a thrill to be had in flying a bomber on operations, what with the night fighter and the flak, but that had nothing to compare with the thrills(?) of speeding down an autobahn in an American army truck with a negro driver as the 'jockey'. I was riding in the cab so I could see what was going on - and I was terrified so goodness knows what the chaps were like who were in the back of the truck and couldn't see anything. On second thoughts perhaps they were better off - they could only feel the sensation - I could see it as well. I know Hitler built the autobahns so that aircraft could land on them - I am sure our driver was determined to prove that you could also take off from them - in an Army truck. Mind you, the driver was a cheerful soul - he entertained us with some beautiful singing, - the way he drove I consider we were very lucky not to have ended up hearing the angels singing, let alone him. I had never had an experience to compare with it - and I certainly haven't had one since - thank goodness.
We stopped a couple of times to find out where we had to go - nobody seemed to be too certain. That at least gave us a chance to get our breath back. As regards our eventual destination I would not have been at all surprised if we had gone right through the German lines and landed up in Berlin. Eventually, we arrived at a place where there was an array of huge marquees. We were puzzled - it did not look like an airfield - it wasn't - it was a Field Hospital. In each marquee there were rows and rows of beds - all fortunately empty. An American doctor told me they had expected heavy casualties as the 3rd Army pushed forward. Fortunately, the Jerry had not stopped to fight so the beds weren't needed.
After a stop of an hour or so, during which time the transport people finally found out where the British contingent were to go, we were on the road again. After another hectic ride we eventually turned into what must necessarily be described as an airfield - though goodness knows why! It was dreadful. I couldn't see how even a small plane could get down on it. However, to our delight there was the RAF - all ready and waiting. It was the first time I had seen the famous Douglas DC-3 - the Dakota. There was a very good type acting as Air Transport Officer - a Squadron Leader. He was anxious to get cracking as it was now evening and he wanted all the aircraft off the deck before dark. - I couldn't blame him, really, I wouldn't have liked to try to take off in broad daylight with no wind or other hazards. I told him how many men we had got and here came the bad news. To cater for all that lot we needed 56 aircraft. He had got only 51. Under safety regulations he dare not put any more bodies on any one aircraft than 25. As the evening was closing in it meant the aircraft could not make return trips. There was only one thing for it - some of us would have to wait (it turned out to be 117 in all).
It was my job to decide who would stay - not a task I enjoyed. I consulted my Section Commanders and - as I expected - they all volunteered to stay behind but that didn't make many. In the meantime the first Dakotas were away and in the finish the problem resolved itself by the mere fact that when the last aircraft was airborne there were 4 sections left standing there plus my working colleagues and myself. I was given the chance to fly back, by the Air Traffic Controller, as one of the aircraft was minus a navigator, so I could have come back as a member of the crew - talk about working your passage! I was sorely tempted, but I had accepted the task of getting everybody back so I figured it was my job to stay. Anyway, it was to be for a few hours only so why worry?
Our enforced stay, however, certainly caused problems. This place we had landed in was not a regular station - it was just an abandoned airfield - therefore there were no regular troops stationed there. This meant, of course, that there was no food available and no sleeping accommodation - and I had 117 men to find sleeping space for. Fortunately, we all had plentiful supplies of chocolate with us and some of us had brought some tinned food and coffee - so we would not starve. There were plenty of old buildings around the farm, I think it must have been a farm that had been hastily converted into an airstrip when the Nazis were getting desperate, so we would at least have a roof over our heads, but, of course, we had no blankets. The only 3rd Army men in evidence was a platoon of mechanised troops who had put into the field for a rest on their way to the front line. They sent a party down to the nearest village and came back with a truck full of blankets - I shrewdly suspect that some of the local Herren and Frauen slept rather cold that night.
We had nothing to do so some of us explored this so-called airfield. What treasure we discovered! Obviously the enemy had abandoned this area in a terrible hurry. There were lots of gorse bushes in the centre of the field and around the perimeter. In these bushes we found rifles which had been slung away and also several bombs. They were quite big bombs, I would estimate about 1,000 pounders. We couldn't see any fuses and no tail fins were fixed on so I suppose they were comparatively safe, though I often wondered what might have happened if one of the Dakotas had veered off course on take off or landing and hit one of the bombs - I should think it would have been very interesting - but it might also have been tragic. I certainly felt very uncomfortable that night. I came across some of the 3rd Army platoon in a small hut having their supper - bacon and fried bread. They were mostly negroes and very nice chaps. I had a cup of coffee with them, but I refused any food because I guessed they wouldn't have any spare rations until they caught up with their own Company. The young Lieutenant in charge of the platoon was an extremely nice chap - he came from Maryland and had joined the Army straight from college. Although so very young he was a veteran, where fighting was concerned. He told me his chaps were very bitter as things hadn't been too pretty during the advance. He said that a couple of days ago they had attacked near a small town and the white flags had gone up almost immediately. A party commanded by his best friend and consisting of this officer and 2 NCOs and 5 men had gone forward to accept the surrender of the town. Just as they got to the top of the main street machine guns opened up on them from both sides of the street. The whole party had been wiped out. So much for the white flag and Nazi integrity. Apparently they had stormed into the town after this - they smoked out the killers alright - not unnaturally there were the valiant SS - the Americans took no prisoners.
This Lieutenant told me he would be surprised if the RAF came back for us the next day owing to the difficulties they had experienced that evening. He said he had already radioed into his H/Q and reported the state of affairs and he promised to keep me posted. I decided not to spread the news around about the aircraft difficulties - the chaps were feeling disappointed enough already, because they hadn't got off - anyway tomorrow would be another day. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
We spent a cold, miserable night. I think few got much sleep and daybreak came with quite a heavy mist hanging over the airfield. The RAF certainly couldn't land or take off in this stuff. We ate what we had left of our food and had a drink and then there was nothing else to do but sit and wait. The waiting proved irksome. There was nothing to occupy our time and no more food to eat. Worse still there was no news and this was one occasion when no news was definitely NOT good news! Our host of the previous evening, the young lieutenant, did his best but could get no definite news other than that we were to await transportation to another airfield, some 50-60 kilometres away - as the RAF had decided it was too hazardous to try to use the field we were on - I couldn't have agreed with them more.
Eventually, just after noon, the trucks arrived to take us to our final point of embarkation. It was with great relief that we piled up the borrowed blankets, tidied up the buildings and got away. This last road journey was quite uneventful. The aircraft were waiting for us - again Dakotas but flown by American crews this time. There were no problems this time as the airfield we had arrived at, Gelenhausen, certainly looked like an airfield and not like the shambles we were on the night before. Embarkation went quite smoothly and eventually the last 17 of us were safely aboard DC-3 292865 'R' for Robert, piloted by Capt. Tiedemann of the US Army Air Corps. At 15.03 hours we were airborne, heading for England. The Dakota chugged steadily on and we were low enough for us to be able to see some of the ravages of war beneath us. Germany had certainly been knocked about a bit. We crossed the Rhine and settled down to enjoy the trip. However fate hadn't done with us yet.
The Quartermaster on the aircraft was sitting chatting to me when he got a signal from the skipper to go forward. He soon came back and told me he reckoned we might have to land in France. When I asked him what was wrong he said: 'nothing much, only I think she is dropping a few revs on the port motor - but she's all right - I reckon the skipper just wants to pick up his own aircraft, he doesn't like this barrow very much.' Oh! Oh! Here we go, I thought - its all going to happen again, the last time I flew we had a wonky port motor and that cost me over 2.5 years in Germany - and they say lightning never strikes twice. I told the Q/M this and that cheered him up no end. He went forward and saw the Skipper. After a moment or so the Captain came and sat down beside me. He told me that the Q/M had reported my remarks to him. I laughed and said I didn't expect the trouble on this aircraft was anything like what happened to 'G' for George in July 1942
'No,' he replied 'I donít suppose it is, and I have little doubt we could get to England alright, but brother, I'm taking no chances - I guess you've had enough trouble through dicey engines - for the sake of half an hour we are going to land in France and then we'll.pick up a real aircraft - but I'll have you back in blighty this evening - never fear - anyway I've got a heavy date in Oxford at 8pm and, buddy, she won't wait! True to his word he brought the aircraft in to a perfect landing at a French airfield called St. Andre at 17.33 hours. They brought us out some drinks and told us our new aircraft would be ready in a few minutes. They also said that if anyone felt too tired to go on, or would like a night in Paris - here's the chance - but there were no takers - home was getting very near and we had had enough hold ups already. For the rest of my journey my log reads as follows: 18.07 hours Airborne St. Andre in DC-3 315140 'K' for Kitty. Capt. Tiedemann set course England 18.58 hours Crossed English coast just below Brighton (At this point cognac was served. This was the first time I had ever had a drink, of spirits or beer, in the air but just as I tipped my glass we hit an airpocket so I didn't get a drink that time either!) The excitement was now intense! 19.27 hours LANDED AT RAF OAKLEY, OXFORDSHIRE
So just 2 years - 8 months - 2 weeks - l day - 19 hours - 45 minutes after taking off in Wellington Mark III 'G' for George I was back in England - rather a long trip - one which, at times, I felt would never end. As the aircraft taxied to dispersal point and stopped many willing hands were there to help us off the aircraft. I think they were expecting a gang of invalids (we were the first load of ex POWs to land there) and they were very surprised when they found 17 individuals of assorted Services and rank, all of whom were perfectly capable of looking after themselves. I said goodbye to my colleagues from the Army and I have never seen any of them since. I was taken over to the Mess where a little New Zealand w/o insisted on buying me a couple of pints - all the money I had got was 26 Deutschmarks, which I had acquired from somewhere. We had a meal, a lovely steak I remember, and then we were whisked off, by fast transport for an unknown destination - which turned out to be the Endsleigh Hotel, Euston, WC1. That night I slept in clean white sheets with a clean white pillow for the first time in nearly 2 years 9 months - HOME AT LAST!
This story may not read much like the release in the Colditz Story but I can vouch that this account, from Stalag IXC Ziegenhain is true because I WAS THERE. I cannot conclude this account without paying a small tribute to the 3rd US Army who looked after us after our release. They were magnificent! Although we were in the front line and, therefore, must have been an embarrassment to them - they did everything they could to ensure our welfare and bring us back to health. They fed us like princes and weighted us down with comforts and 'goodies'. The night I got back to London I still had over 1200 American cigarettes and two half-pound packets of excellent pipe tobacco. Thank you America!
Jim returned to live with his wife Doris in Hornchurch, Essex. They went on to have two children and four grand children. He became a popular senior lecturer in business studies and also worked counselling officers about to leave the RAF to start small businesses. Jimís health was compromised by his time in Germany (colitis). He died in 1985. He was a well respected man.
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