Warrant Officer Kenneth B. Wood

 

Unit : 61 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

POW No. : 150

Camps : Stalag Luft VI, IV

 

Recollections of a Fateful Journey.

By W/O Kenneth B. Wood

Ex. 61 Sqdn. R.A.F.

P.O.W. No. 150.  July 1940 - March 1945.

 

For some time, I have felt a strong desire to record the following incidents while they remain fresh in my memory.

 

They must surely be the most traumatic experiences of my life and perhaps they will impart something of the tensions, frustration and indeed, overall sense of apprehension for the immediate future from which the mind could never free itself.

 

HEYDEKRUG   LITHUANIA   JULY 1944.

 

I couldn't believe my ears. He was announcing, in that unemotional, clipped German accent, that the Gestapo had actually shot dead 50 R.A.F. officers who had escaped from Stalag Luft 3 at Sagan and had all 'resisted recapture'.

 

The camp commandant at Heydekrug, Stalag Luft 6, had never been very popular with the 'kriegies' now lined up before him, but this was incredible. The prisoners turned to each other in sheer disbelief.

 

After four years of captivity, I had felt that I knew all about the German attitude towards P.O.Ws. Their straightlaced rejection of our 'rather vulgar and stupid humour'. Their non-comprehension of our ability to criticise and ridicule ourselves. I had come up against only rare occasions of ill-treatment of prisoners although there had always been a strange apprehension in my mind that something sinister lurked in the minds of most Germans. I just hoped I would not be around when it surfaced.

 

I suddenly felt strangely depressed. The future looked bleak to say the least. Lithuania was a long, long way from home. In four years I had known the despair and frustrations of 'tunnels' discovered by the 'ferrets' (German search parties) before they were ready for an escape attempt. Various escape plans enthusiastically worked upon only to be thwarted by premature discovery resulting in a 21 day 'sojourn' in the 'cooler' for my efforts.

 

At this time, the Kriegies really were quite unaware of the enormity of the concentration camps and the mass murder taking place at that very moment. The only inkling we had was from the occasional new prisoner who had spent odd days in transit at one or other of these - soon to become notorious - camps. We had not paid much attention to their stories. Perhaps we did not want to!

 

The announcement had ended in angry booing and shouting by the prisoners towards the Germans, who now left the compound after a warning. All further escape attempts would be punished in the same manner. This, we were told, was a direct order from the Fuehrer himself.

 

In those long years of captivity, I had constantly marvelled at the high morale of the prisoners. Nothing seemed to really get them down. They stood up to insults from guards, punishments for infringing the rules and loss of so-called 'privileges' admirably. It was really no picnic to be more or less constantly hungry whilst being deprived of freedom.

 

An air of gloom seemed to settle on the camp - what would really happen to us? We knew that the Allies were doing well since the invasion of Normandy but we were a very long way from their positions. On the other hand, the Russians were beginning to gain the upper hand in the east and we knew that the Germans were retreating steadily along the entire front.

 

A prison camp is a 'natural' for rumours and one morning, the big one came round - Russian guns could be heard in the distance. I felt somewhat cheated because I never did hear them. It could be that the Germans had however, because the next day we were ordered to prepare to evacuate the camp. No hint as to where we were going!

 

It would probably take a prisoner perhaps ten or fifteen minutes to collect his belongings together. This was never a problem.

 

Once again we were off - to where - it would be some time before we found out. At dawn, next day, with the usual confusion, we were eventually persuaded to form into a long column flanked by the guards and slowly got under way. As I remember, the march was without incident and eventually we arrived at the local railway sidings. There we were unceremoniously bundled into the usual '40 hommes au 8 chevaux' wagons. It seemed to me that the entire stock of French freight wagons must have been exported from France during the early years of the war. The big locomotive with its logo painted on the side of the tender - Den Rad Rollen Fur Den Seig - The Wheels Turn For Victory - was getting steam up and we were at last on our way.

 

After an uneventful journey of several hours duration, we finally came to a halt. Until now, we had no idea where we were, or where we were bound for.

 

It was now quite dark as we unloaded fro the wagons and looked around. There must have been a blackout in the area, I could see no lights anywhere. There was a lot of shouting in German and from what I could make out, the guards were being ordered to make sure that the prisoners had no opportunity to 'wander off'.

 

A strong smell of the sea with its salty tang and the noise of clanking machinery left us in no doubt that we were now at a dockside. One of the guards told us it was the old port of Memel on the Baltic. Cold, hungry and tired after a long and gruesome journey in the cattle trucks, we knew there would be no further movement until daylight.

 

Around me, the boys were busy trying to arrange their meagre belongings in a rather futile effort to get comfortable. Eventually some of us managed to get some sleep and I awoke to find that it was already daylight.

 

There, in front of us was the oldest, scruffiest, filthiest looking excuse for a ship I had ever seen. I suppose it would have been between five and seven thousand tons and very soon, I would know what it had been used for. The S.S. Insterburg was soon to become notorious among our P.O.W.s.

 

Suddenly, with guards all over the place, we were herded up the gangway and on to the deck. This was to be no sightseeing tour. A few yards across the deck and down a hatch we were bundled one after the other via an iron ladder which disappeared into the unknown murky regions below. After what seemed an endless descent, my feet contacted something soft beneath. I was ankle deep in coal dust. There were just a few small wattage lamps glowing here and there and slowly, as my eyes became accustomed, I got a picture of my surroundings. It was like being in a huge cavern, gloomy and claustrophobic.

 

From the main deck to the bottom of the hull there were no intermediate decks, so I could now make out the curved shape of the ship's sides, re-inforced with steel girders. I doubt whether animals had ever been transported in this manner.

 

More and more prisoners were unceremoniously pushed down the ladder into the hold until it became frighteningly overcrowded. The coal dust was everywhere, but eventually everyone settled down on their kit in some effort to get comfortable - what a hope!

 

As far as I can remember, there were now perhaps two thousand prisoners in the hold, British and American airmen.

 

I will not dwell on the matter of sanitation. As I recall, once at sea few prisoners at a time were allowed to climb the ladder and once on deck used an opening to the sea. I never made it, nor did most of the others. One can imagine the state we were in. The whole business was pretty ghastly.

 

We had no idea of our destination, or how long we were going to be travelling. I cannot remember being issued with any food other than bread and water and I recall we had odds and ends of food left over from Red Cross parcels. After all this time, I cannot be sure whether we were at sea for three days or five days. It seemed more appropriate to reckon in months - that is how long I felt I had been aboard this nightmare Baltic cruise. Word went round that the ship was zig-zagging its way across the Baltic to avoid minefields. This was no doubt true and would account for the seemingly endless journey.

 

At long last we heard the engines stop and we sensed we had docked. I wondered where! We were soon enlightened. After what seemed an indeterminable length of time, the hatch was opened up and we were ordered to climb the ladder out of the hold. As we reached the deck, the fresh air seemed to inject new life into us. Anything was better than the dark grimy atmosphere we had just left. Now we were trooping down the gangway on to the quayside.

 

One of the guards leaned towards me and after making sure that none of the other guards could overhead, whispered 'Sweenamunde' in my ear. This was an important north German port which was also a naval base. The ragged column of prisoners waded its way into what was obviously a marshalling yard and once again we were loaded into the familiar wagons waiting there for us. Eventually all were loaded and the wagons locked.

 

We now experienced a rather unpleasant diversion. The air raid sirens began to wail their warning or an impending air raid. We didn't have long to wait. Soon we could hear the sound of a large number of aircraft approaching.

 

The bombs began to fall and the guards started to run for cover. Through the slots in the sides of the wagons, there was not a soul to be seen. Now and again, a bob would fall quite close to us - near enough to lift one of the wagons off the rails due to blast effect, but fortunately none of the prisoners were hurt. We were all badly shaken, naturally, but there was no actual damage to the column of wagons.

 

About a mile away, there must have been an inlet or river estuary from the sea, because we could make out the outlines of several warships and an aircraft carrier, very much camouflaged. We assumed that this was an American day-light raid, but we could not be sure whether the warships were receiving any hits. There was plenty of 'flak' flying about, but again, it was impossible to tell whether any of the aircraft were hit.

 

The raid only lasted a few minutes and the 'all clear' began to sound. The guards returned and after they had used a crane to lift the derailed wagon back onto the rails, we were once again on the move. Understandably, everyone was in a rather depressed mood, but generally speaking, morale was extremely high. At least we were seeing some action by the Allies and this was something of a tonic to us.

 

Although we were unaware of it at the time, there had been an illfated attempt on Hitler's life by someone called Staufenberg, who was later hanged for his efforts. The guards were becoming irritable and unfriendly, presumably because they were beginning to realise that all was not well in Germany and the outlook was becoming bleaker day by day.

 

After some hours of travelling, we arrived at a small station. The name, Grosse Tschau, set to become another infamous prison camp. We were told that the new camp was nearby. In fact, it was about two kilometres up a hill which was scarcely more than a dirt track. The guards lined us up on the railway track and ordered us to remove our boots. This was most unusual and we sensed that things were going very wrong. I can assure you we felt very vulnerable with nothing but socks on our feet and I must confess I was beginning to feel a bit scared.

 

GROSSE TSCHAU. NORTH OF BERLIN. (Stalag Luft 4.).

 

Lots of activity now. Guards rushing all over the place. Slowly, they separated the Americans and formed them with much obstruction into an untidy column. They were about five deep and the front rank was lined up at the beginning of the road which we were to come to know so well! The order to march off was given and a very unmilitary body of 'scruffs' began to shuffle along, at this stage in comparatively good humour. The rear ranks were about a hundred yards away from us. We could hear the guards yelling at them to run. As they rounded the first bend, we lost sight and sound of them. After what seemed an age, their guards came into view round the bend of the road and we assumed that the Americans had reached their destination.

 

Our turn now! Once more, this time, a rather apprehensive column was formed up at the starting post. God! I wasn't looking forward to the next episode in my condition. Also, I was thinking, there were now twice the number of guards that had accompanied the Americans. Another sobering thought - the guards had returned with several Alsatian dogs, on leads at the moment.

 

The Feldwebel (Sgt) gave the order and we set off at more of a stroll than a march. He was not particularly amused at our tactics and soon had the guards giving us a little encouragement with cries of 'los' 'schnell' faster, fast and a few digs with rifle butts in our backs.

 

From this point on, the exercise was to become forever known - for want of a better description - as 'The Run Up The Road'.

 

It should be remembered that all these men (boys) were very tired and very, very hungry. By now, there was no sign of humour among the guards. Some of them had been relatively friendly during the journey but this was a thing of the past. A few true colours were becoming visible.

 

We had only travelled a few hundred yards and already we were staggering rather than jogging. Strewn all over the road ahead were items of kit which the Americans had discarded, soon to be joined by our own pathetic belongings. The way ahead had suddenly become a veritable obstacle course. We were continually tripping and recovering with the help of those running alongside.

 

Now, the guards meant business, they were really wading into us. To my horror, they started to 'fix bayonets' and began with no lack of enthusiasm to prod the backsides of those unfortunate enough to come within reach. Suddenly, a German officer on horseback rode back and forth beside the column shouting encouragement to his men. I learned later that he was, indeed, the commanding officer of the new camp. He was an Oberst-Colonel and while making a morale inspiring impression on his men, he did little for our peace of mind.

 

By this time, most of us were having considerable difficulty in breathing. We were engulfed in a cloud of dust and as for me, my mouth and nose were continually becoming blocked with a nasty mixture of sand and saliva. I wondered how long I could continue like this and what would be the outcome. Some of the boys had literally fallen by the wayside, their fate unknown. Also at this time, I could hear the dogs at the rear barking wildly and God help us, shots were being fired. I believe these sounds spurred us on to record breaking effort.

 

I had been jogging along behind a Canadian I had been friendly with for some time at Heydekrug. We was a hefty six-footer called Phil and he turned to see me in difficulties. 'Hang on to my belt' he shouted, which I did and thus enabled me to keep going. Just then, an over-enthusiastic guard came alongside. He reversed his rifle and holding it by the barrel swung the butt at Phil's head. It was a hell of a clout and the blood spread rapidly over his head and neck. He gave a great lurch forward, shook himself and regained his momentum. I think my hanging on to him steadied him, but he was, understandably, not in very good shape. The guard lost his balance with his effort and as I drew level, I managed to put my foot in front of his leg. He went sprawling, his rifle landing several yards away. Fortunately I never saw him again. He probably vented his rage on some other poor devil further back.

 

I could still hear the occasional shots being fired and the possibilities were frightening.

 

I hoped I could keep my position and not fall back. My legs were like jelly and I expected them to give way at any moment. There must be some hidden reserves that keeps one going in nearly impossible circumstances. I do not believe it was fear I saw in the now, fairly exhausted men's eyes - was it sheer excitement, or perhaps stubborn defiance - to beat this unfair challenge at all costs.

 

The road twisted and turned ever steeper between the high pine trees on either side. Would we ever get to the top? I did not think I could last much longer, the pace getting slower and slower by the minute. One blessing, no more obstacles on the road, everything discarded.

 

Suddenly, the road levelled out into a clearing and we emerged from the trees. In front of us was the camp. The high barbed wire and the watch towers. All too familiar. Perhaps it was the sight of the gates, or was it the machine guns pointing in a businesslike manner at our column. Whatever, we were now slowed down to a walk rather than a march and for this, we were grateful. I don't think the guards were in a much better condition than us, they were falling about all over the place and getting a hard time from their superiors. Once inside the compound we were ordered to sit down and put our hands on our heads. There was to be no chattering or moving about at all. No doubt the guards were anticipating some kind of trouble, but what kind of trouble were we capable of after a run like that!

 

We were now back to square one. No food, nothing. How insignificant we all felt after four years of captivity without a single possession other than a very dirty, sweaty shirt, jacket and trousers, not to mention a pair of practically non-existent socks.

 

Gradually our breathing returned to normal - more or less - and we tried to take stock of our situation. We learned later that we had beaten the Americans' time up the road by three minutes, but we were not celebrating the event. Considering we had to negotiate their discarded belongings as well as our own, we had not done too badly!

 

With everybody in the compound and the gates locked, the guards formed up and seemed to be waiting for their next orders. Looking around I could see two rows of fairly large prefabricated huts. At the far end of the compound were several more huts which turned out to be the Commandant's domain. Apart from a guard room, there was a hut which was to be used as a sick bay, one as a kitchen and the last one as the inevitable 'cooler'. We were now lined up for the expected roll call. During my time in captivity I never experienced a simple, straightforward roll call. With a little 'help' from us, they just could not get the count right and it was only when we began to get bored and wanted to clear off, we 'allowed' them to achieve a correct result.

 

With a sigh of relief, the Hauptman (Captain) in charge of the parade ordered his men to 'distribute' us into hut-sized numbers - no easy task - and it was much, much later that my immediate companions and myself were ensconced in the corridor of one of the huts. We were not lucky enough to get into a room where there was the luxury of a bed. We had to be contend with a straw palliasse on the floor.

 

Of course, in a situation like this, everyone was clamouring for information. What about food, clothing, blankets etc? This sort of information usually reached us via our elected leader, which, until we left Heydekrug had been the unshakable 'Dixie' Deans whose reputation for standing up to our captors was well known in all the Stalag Luft camps. Unfortunately, on evacuation, the inmates of Heydekrug had been split into two sections. Our, with Grosse Tschau as our destination - and the other section which was marched off to other P.O.W. camps, always further into Germany. We lost 'Dixie' to the other section and elected a very capable Sgt. Clarke whom we found to be ideal for the task. He spoke very good German and proved to be an able negotiator.

 

During the next hour or two, we were all issued with two blankets to go with our straw palliase. This was followed by a ration of black bread - 'ugh' - a small amount of ersatz margarine - that's German for axle grease and a small amount of non-definable cheese. All this washed down with a delectable mug of - you guessed it - ersatz coffee.

 

After a while, the guards allowed us into the compound where our discarded belongings were being unloaded from a couple of lorries. Now came the monumental task of sorting everything out. Of course, everything of the slightest value had already been sorted and spirited away by the guards. Obviously there wasn't a hope of returning things to their rightful owners so everyone had to be content with a kind of 'refugee' style handout. The odd pullover, shirt, underpants and socks being about part for the course and did little for our morale.

 

The next few days were bleak and depressing. Scraps of news and information filtered into the camp. We learned, incidentally, that the shots fired on the run and the barking dogs were really a bluff to spur us on, but that was no comfort to those who had felt the prod of a bayonet or having fallen, a boot in the ribs.

 

Food had now become our main concern. We were back to the rations of our early days in 1940. This usually consisted of a two inch slice of that disgusting, mouldy bread, a small portion of 'margarine' with perhaps a piece of German sausage of very much past its 'sell by' date cheese. The main and only meal of the day was invariably a bowl of 'soup' - hot water with pieces of cabbage leaves floating in it and a couple of dubious potatoes, the whole thing looking very forlorn. I wonder how present day dieticians would assess the nutrient value of such fare! We were certainly missing our precious Red Cross parcels.

 

As the days slowly went by and became weeks, then months, things had gradually returned to the routine we had known in the early days. It was really quite depressing. There was little to be happy about, although the 'War' news was increasingly encouraging, it all seemed a long way away.

 

One day, out of the blue, we had an issue of Red Cross Parcels and this was all it needed to raise our morale to a comparatively high level.

 

Our radio engineer genius John Bristow, had once more miraculously produced a basic receiver which picked up the B.B.C. transmissions without difficulty. He had previously built a radio which he had housed in an accordion which actually played and had foxed the 'goons' - security guards for several years.

 

One can readily imagine the almost insurmountable difficulties in producing a radio from mainly 'bits and pieces' plus a few vital components such as radio valves and a telephone earpiece obtained after very, very careful blackmailing of certain old timers among the guards. A few cigarettes, a bar of chocolate, soap etc. which also showed how deprived these people were becoming at this stage of the war.

 

John really was fantastic when it came to working out the technical values of the required components for manufacturing purposes. For instance, a condenser consisted of leaves of silver paper taken from cigarette packets and interleaved with the thin pages of a pocket bible, courtesy of the British Red Cross. When fashioned to the correct size, it would be dipped in melted candle wax to insulate and stabilise it. There were many problems such as this which John resolved in his stride. The most exacting problem was to obtain hundreds of yards of wire to make up a crude transformer. The answer to this lay in meticulously stripping yards and yards of the electrical wiring in the block. Bit by bit, several strands of wire would be removed and the cable replaced after carefully insulating it. Obviously the electrical system still had to function after being cannibalised. At one stage, it was necessary to 'borrow' dozens of electric lamps to set up in series and thus providing a low voltage supply for the radio. This operation required us to use the smallest room in the block and because of the brilliant light produced, we had to cover the walls and floor with blankets to hide what was going on from the outside.

 

The foregoing is obviously just a rough idea of what went on. In reality, it necessitated hours, days and weeks of hard work under clandestine conditions, with John working non-stop on his calculations and the rest of us working shifts to provide his requirements. Imagine the sheer joy when at last we heard the confident voice of the B.B.C. news announcer giving us the latest news of the war situation.

 

Occasionally we would be visited by locally stationed Luftwaffe air crew. They were curious to see how their opposition fared as P.O.Ws. We found that their outlook was pretty much like our own and out of earshot of their superiors were quite ready to criticise the Luftwaffe just as we criticised the R.A.F. but I don't think they could match our sense of humour. On the other hand, they didn't appear to be very enthusiastic Nazis and seemed to think that the Nazi salute was a bit of a pantomime, preferring to salute the way we did.

 

Shortly after one of these visits, we were being entertained by a couple of Focke Wulf 190s from the nearby fighter airfield. They were following each other in rather tight circles directly over the camp when the leader must have blacked out with the 'G' force. The plane immediately went out of control, fell out of the circle, did a couple of rolls and headed straight for the ground. It hit and exploded in flames just on the other side of the camp perimeter. There were one or two half-hearted cheers among our people, but I think most of us would rather it hadn't happened. We may have been talking to this pilot a few days earlier and the incident didn't give us any satisfaction.

 

FEBRUARY 1945. GROSSE TSCHAU STALAG LUFT 4.

 

At this time, we had a visit from the International Red Cross Repatriation Tribunal, consisting of medical representatives from Switzerland and Germany. It seems there had been an agreement arrived at regarding long term P.O.Ws. Our own Medical Officer, Dr. Forrest-Hay, a captain in the Medical Corp, also a long term P.O.W. called together all the long term prisoners and explained about the Repatriation Board. He carefully briefed us and as I was one of the earliest prisoners, I was automatically included.

 

Dr. Forrest-Hay familiarised us as to what the Board would be looking for, so that when we were called before them, we more or less knew what to expect and set about giving a good account of ourselves. In the event, unbelievable, the Board passed my application along with several other long termers and we were ordered to prepare for our repatriation which would shortly take place.

 

The initial excitement gradually subsided and we wondered whether anything would materialise. However, within a week or two, we were told to be ready for moving to a 'collection' centre. The call came and still unconvinced, we prepared for this unbelievable development. Early one morning, those being repatriated were called to parade with our meagre belongings. Meagre, because anything of any value at all had been left with those remaining behind. I think there were six of us and we were loaded on to a truck, which, after much checking of the documents and with two guards on board left the compound, destination, the local railway station which had unpleasant memories of our earlier arrival.

 

After inevitable delays, not the least of which was the long wait for the train, we eventually arrived at Magdeburg where we were lodged in a hospital, now being used as a collection centre. During the next day or so, P.O.Ws arrived in dribs and drabs. They included quite a few amputees who had been recently captured and treated at various hospitals. Some of these were not in very good shape and I suspect they had been given the minimum treatment which would allow them to be transported. At least, if they were quickly attended to back home, they would stand a better chance of rehabilitation. Among them were army navy and R.A.F. types. We were well treated here and were told that we now awaited news that an exchange group of German P.O.Ws was on its way to a rendezvous with our party and we would be leaving for Neue Ulm, quite close to the Swiss border as soon as confirmation of the arrival of the Germans was notified.

 

Several days later, there was suddenly much activity in the German administration and sure enough, we were once again told to make ready for departure.

 

Early the next morning, we were loaded onto several army lorries and with a meagre food supply the convoy made its way to the local railway station. Surprisingly, with little delay a train arrived and we were settled actually into passenger compartments. This was a first in our experience. We travelled for several hours and after a fairly uneventful journey, we arrived at Stuttgart. We were very shortly to be treated to a dose of our own medicine. Shortly after arriving, by this time it was quite day, the air raid sirens started to wail and the already blacked-out station seemed darker than ever. Suddenly, the R.A.F. arrived and unloaded their trade mark on the town. The bombs fell fast and furious all around the place, but miraculously, from our point of view there were no near misses. I suspect the guards travelling with us thought that our survival was somehow planned and thanked the Lord they were with us.

 

In the midst of considerable panic with much shouting and dashing about, incredibly the train started to move off. Whether this was scheduled timing or a case of 'get the hell out of here' would never be known, but we were very relieved to be on our way out of that place. All the chaps were in extremely high spirits after our incredible escape and eventually, as it grew lighter, we pulled into the station at Neue Ulm which was more or less the last outpost of the Third Reich. We came to a halt... [Here the narrative sadly ends.]

 

Return to POW Stories Menu