Corporal W. John E. Stark

 

Unit : Corps of Military Police.

Army No. : 7685881

POW No. : 247578

Camps : P.G. 54, Stalag IVB

 

After soldiering in France and evacuation from Dunkirk I eventually went with my company to the Western Desert and finally to Tobruk where I was captured on June 21st 1942.

 

After miserable spells in Derna and Benghazi I, with others was shipped in an armed Merchant vessel to Brindisi and then onto Bari and finally to PG54 Fara Sabina, N.E. of Rome.

 

After the Italian capitulation and exit by our guards, we moved out to the countryside, feeding off the land and with some help from friendly villages.

 

After 14 months of captivity in Italy and a short spell of freedom before recapture by the Germans the occupants, almost to a man of Campo 54 closed in trucks were moved North and via the Brenner Pass entered a sunless Germany, finally ending our comfortless journey at Muhlberg on Elbe, some 100 miles South of Berlin. After entering the large Stalag we halted beyond the main gate to be addressed by the German Commandant who told us that we would be treated according to the Geneva convention but that any misdemeanours would be dealt with severely, this intoned with some emphasis.

 

After dismissal we found our way along a wide dirt road to the compound allotted to us, past rows of long wooden huts divided in two with a washroom in the centre. Two tier bunks filled the huts but with a central area containing a range for some warmth and long tables and forms. A solitary 'one man' toilet served the 150 or more occupants.

 

After my friend Simpson and I chose a hut on the camp perimeter and two top tier bunks we joined all the new inmates in bare section of the camp and there had our heads shaved. A sensible hygienic precaution but having been without shaving tackle for several weeks we all wore beards and must have appeared incongruous.

 

The camp we found was very much larger than Campo 54 and housed many Nationalities, French, Russians, Poles, Danes, South Africans, Serbs and later Americans. The Russians were grossly maltreated and because their country had no affiliation with the Red Cross they had no assistance from that quarter and many had died from typhus and utter neglect.

 

As in Italy we attended two roll calls each day and were confined to our huts at dusk there to try to tolerate inferior lighting and severe cold in the Winter months.

 

We had two meals each day consisting of a mug of ersatz coffee, a few small boiled potatoes with skins attached, two small ladles of thin soup and a small wedge of bread. Satisfactory if supplemented with contents of a Red Cross parcel but a near starvation ration if not.

 

Watchtowers were situated at each corner of the camp and searchlights lit the camp during the dark hours. Dogs with their German handlers sometimes patrolled and hut raids were sometimes made if an escape plan was suspected. But no escape from Stalag IVB was I believe attempted for we were far distant from Switzerland, the only goal. Fairly close to the Czecho-Slovakian border the camp lay in flat terrain with widely dispersed farms and dotted with coniferous woodland. A railway line ran just beyond one side of the Camp, along which goods trains and sometimes Army supplies ran.

 

A reconnoitre of the Camp showed two large areas, one used for football matches and the other eventually for Rugby when Goal posts were erected and the South African element came into their own.

 

One wooden hut served as a Hospital and Medical treatment centre and there patients were questioned and examined in full view of those sitting nearby and waiting to be seen.

 

Slowly the Camp became more organized and amongst our diverse numbers there were experts in many fields. I attended a course on Forestry given by a Forestry Officer from the Transkei in South Africa. Talks and lectures were given on many subjects and some months after our arrival The Empire Theatre was built, this with a large stage and off stage quarters and event a raised auditorium.

 

The Red Cross once they were aware of our existence sent Play copies and a supply of grease paints whilst costumes were either made from materials surrendered by enthusiasts and later by our captors.

 

Our first production was 'Boy Meets Girl' an American Play in which I played the part of a young and rather naive actor, and my opposite number, an RAF man played an extremely presentable female. The fact that female parts were acted by males incurred no hilarity or amusement which speaks well for the quality of portrayals.

 

So, our first Production was launched with the Camp Commandant and henchmen seated in the front row.

 

The performances ran for about 10 nights, the admission charge being one cigarette, these being a form of currency and used in the acquisition of materials for the Theatre through more lenient sentries who would do much for British brands of tobacco.

 

Eventually a Curtain Club was formed for Plays to be read and with sound effects, in various huts after dark. The cast performed within a framework of curtain drapes. I was often the Narrator and also I adapted The Prisoner of Zenda as well as writing a short Play called Taboo. These performances were well received by the hut occupants as they lay on their bunks.

 

On one occasions we gave a performance in the Hospital and afterwards were treated to a pail of some beverage, Ovaltine or Horlicks.

 

A camp newspaper came into being under the editorship of a South African, Dave Katzeff and to this weekly paper I subscribed with short stories and verse. It had to be presented to the Germans for censorship but after return quite often pieces were added which the censor would have struck out. My artist friend Simpson provided much of the illustrative work in professional style.

 

A radio somehow appeared, in some way smuggled into camp and after the daily News was heard from a British station parts of interest, especially relating to the various War fronts were noted and most nights a tubby Sergeant would run the gauntlet of German foot patrols by jumping from hut windows, to scamper across no mans land and then to be hauled in through the window of an adjoining hut.

 

We followed the War on the Russian front with particular interest and from maps we made were able to follow the German advance to Stalingrad with ever increasing depression. Minsk, Smolensk, Kursk and the Pripet marshes are forever engraved and depression in the camp was deep until the Russians halted the advance. So the Camp became well organised and those who did not lie on their bunks much of the time found much to stimulate their minds and bodies.

 

Over the two Christmas times spent in the camp there was a festive air. Special shows circulated around the huts and although our captors provided no Christmas fare or even extra rations we did, luckily have part of a Red Cross parcel to enjoy. Predators on the way allowed only infrequent arrivals of these parcels from Britain, Canada and sometimes from Argentina.

 

Parcels from our families also reached us either containing clothing or books but these were ruthlessly plundered en route, or, later they were destroyed during Allied bombing raids of railways and marshalling yards.

 

So the weeks and months passed and when the Russian armies started their steamroller advance and after we landed in Normandy our spirits were at last buoyant.

 

Eventually we knew that the Russians were approaching from the East and the Americans from the West and we realised that we were wedged between them.

 

Standing in a compound one day I heard the sound of planes and witnessed a seemingly endless stream of various trails at a great altitude. This was a mighty host of aircraft returning home after a bombing raid of Leipzig, Dresden, or possibly Munich.

 

There were a few tragedies, inevitably I suppose; the suicide of a young prisoner who could stand his incarceration no longer; the death of a Flt Sgt, struck by a German Junker whilst he watched a football match from the touch line. The plane swooped down clearing the ground by only a few feet, hit the victim, and missing some barrack huts by inches soared away. The Camp Commandant expressed laconic regrets.

 

On another occasion whilst I was seated in the Empire Theatre listening to a singer accompanied by our small orchestra an Allied fighter arrived and machine gunned the camp, some bullets piercing the auditorium. Both Orchestra and soloist stopped in mid chord but continued, unperturbed when the racket ceased.

 

As those warm Summer days went by, although camp activities continued we were all aware that our long term activity [captivity?] was close to an end; but there was an everpresent concern about the Russians who were approaching fast and would reach us before the Americans who in any case would have to negotiate the Elbe.

 

One of the last important events in Camp was an International Rugby match between The Springboks and Great Britain, a game preceded by the pitch invasion of Zulus in full warpaint and with Assegais and shields. Entirely coal blackened and wearing loin cloths they grouped on the pitch, a witch doctor in their midst had in 'monkey tails' and there chanted and performed their war dance.

 

The last Play was also performed in the Empire Theatre, this being a Comedy George and Margaret in which I performed. The Grand Finale after numerous Productions - 'Boy Meets Girl', the Thriller 'Rope', 'The Barrets of Wimpole Street', 'Petrified Forest', 'Ways and Means' by Coward, 'The man who came to Dinner' - and others.

 

Then a dramatic day arrived when the entire German staff vanished overnight.

 

We were advised to stay within camp for conditions in the countryside were very uncertain. My friend Harold Simpson gained access to food supplies and cooked a very presentable meat pie, but a few mouthfulls were all that we could manage for stomachs had shrunk due to meagre rations.

 

One night shortly after the Germans vanished I was instructed to man the main entrance. This was a somewhat eerie and lonely task, standing close to the empty German quarters and with the rest of the camp soundly asleep in their huts. I saw, in the direction of Muhlberg and the Elbe streams of tracers flying from East to West and sounds of a fight going on in a woodland not far away. That I supposed was where the Germans from Camp were positioned and had been located by the Russians.

 

I longed for some company and particularly when I saw approaching down the road a number of figures. I thought of retreating out of sight behind the sentry box but realised that I must have been seen, so instead I waved and they passed me and marched down the centre path into the camp. They were searching for Germans, finding a small number in one of the huts and these they took away to be quickly shot.

 

The following day several cossacks rode on horseback into camp and tore down a section of the perimeter fencing before riding away.

 

Out streamed a body of Russian POWs, making for a farm not far distant, bent on looting and also vengeance.

 

The day following Simpson and I ventured out for the first time in over two years, crossing some fields until we discovered a sizeable farm. On entering the farm house we discovered an elderly woman in the kitchen she being the sole occupier. Exploring the adjoining farm buildings there was evidence of a mass slaughter of animals, all of which had been taken away. It was not a place at which to linger but we did find a large bed of rhubarb in prime condition and soon we returned to camp with a crop of stems which Simpson that evening used to make an excellent pie.

 

Days passed with no sign of a move from the Stalag. Food was still served by our own Army cooks and on one occasion a supply of Russian bread arrived and slices full of whole barley were handed over; but I cannot remember managing to cope with it.

 

Our spirits began to flag for we were idling the days away with no signs of a relief from the continuing captivity, although a large number of Poles left Camp in an effort to reach their homeland.

 

The theatre had closed down as well as all sporting activity. We were in limbo and the long wait for some positive action became depressing.

 

Then this irksome waiting ended when we were ordered to assemble ready for a move out although the destination remained a mystery.

 

Carrying a few belongings including my treasured diary, the following morning I set off with a host of men in straggling fashion, following the road alongside the Elbe.

 

In our weakened state progress was slow but after several hours Simpson and I saw a horse drawn cart carrying fodder, the bearded and jovial looking driver aloft.

 

He gave us a lift, this Russian saviour into Riesa where we met up with other parties and eventually found our way to a large building where we were to be housed. At least we had been travelling West instead of East which was a relief.

 

Simpson and I decided to explore the town and finding a large building beside the river found that it was a superbly equipped group of offices. We discovered a host of typewriters, a fine library and a fine display of glassware.

 

Realising that the place was close to plunder I appropriated a finely bound book for my brother a German linguist, and a number of goblets which I hoped would survive the journey home.

 

From Riesa we were driven in cattle trucks to Halle and its aerodrome where American women served us excellent coffee and doughnuts of incomparable quality. I was also kitted out with excellent American slacks and jersey before we were flown to Brussels.

 

The heavens opened in Brussels to such an extent that a flight home was made impossible. Instead I wandered about the city and found a beer hall where I drank a gratuitous pint of ale.

 

After the rains cleared we flew across channel in a Dakota sitting against the side of what appeared to be a Whales rib cage and peering through a window as we flew low over the sea, spotting a convoy threading its way to France.

 

We landed at Cranleigh and there in brilliant Summer sunshine sat at long tables, fed a typical English tea by members of the WVS.

 

From Cranleigh we drove along leafy Sussex lanes until we reached Sompting near Worthing where we lived in tents for several days, and there my medal ribbons were attached to my blouse, and there I met my brother who I had last seen in 1940.

 

After received a Rail pass, leave papers and ration book plus some money I entrained for Victoria and from there to my home station where my father was waiting for me. After our embrace and with few words passing we made our way to a near and dingy pub for a celebratory drink and then, shouldering my white kit bag we walked up the hill to my home and reunion with my Mother.

 

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