Private Thomas Parton

 

Unit : "B" Company, 4th Battalion The Seaforth Highlanders, 51st (Highland) Division

Served : France (captured)

Army No. : 2821547

POW No. : 380

Camps : Stalag IXC

 

Thomas Parton was captured during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Copies of some of his experiences were contributed to the National Ex-Prisoner of War Association shortly after his death 2008, with an introductory letter from his widow, Doris Parton.

 

 

My late husband Mr Thomas Parton... sadly died on July 4th 2008 aged 88... He joined the Seaforth Highlanders as a regular in June/July 1939 and became 2821547 Private Thomas Parton and did his initial training at Fort George on the Murray Firth. When the war broke out instead of going to the Far East, as intended, the Seaforth's were sent to France instead. They fought on the Somme and at Abbeyville until the evacuation of Dunkirk when they were deployed to St Valerie en Caux to hold back the Germans while the evacuation took place. They were then taken prisoner and became known as Churchill's Sacrifice. After marching many hundreds of miles, then by barge further into Germany they were finally encamped in Stalag 9C where he became POW 380 Pte T. Parton. He remained there until released by the Americans in 1945. When I say he 'remained' there it is not strictly true as he tried to escape three times. The third time he was with a friend and they reached the Swiss Border but while waiting to cross his friend took off his Wellingtons only to discover that he had frostbite (it was winter) so they had to give themselves up. The friend subsequently lost his toes. This did not deter him from trying to escape again. He was with a working party in a stone quarry, where the dust formed cement in his intestines necessitating an operation to remove part of his bowel. He said the surgeon was English whom they named 'Tiny' Martin because of his height (over 6 ft.) While in the Salt mine he got a salt rash on his face which spread to his ears eating away at his eardrums and in later life he became deaf. After one escape he was 'awarded', a description which always amused him, 28 days solitary confinement on black bread and water. He was confined in a dungeon, the only light being from a small window high up, with only a plank and a blanket to sleep on. Nothing to do or read only amuse himself with a spider which he fed with crumbs from his meagre rations. When he was finally released he had lost so much weight that he was given a Red Cross parcel and told to eat it all himself. Normally they would share the parcels and use klim tins to boil water in and mix up various concoctions. Finally the Germans got tired of his frequent attempts to escape and sent him to the Base Camp to eke out the rest of his time. The 28 days did more harm to his mind than his body. You can feel a body but you cannot erase the mental agonies. This was apparent throughout our sixty years of happy marriage. I never did know much of what he suffered but it was very many years before he stopped having nightmares and wakening up screaming. When he was eventually freed by the American army in 1945 he stayed fighting with them and got some of his own back on his captors. I am enclosing copies of his memories and his POW experiences which I hope you will find interesting... I was always very proud of being his wife, he was a good man. He intended making the army his career but as a Seaforth you had to be A1 medically and he had become C4. He was transferred and became a driver serving in several parts of the country but refused to reenlist when asked to do at the end of his time. He did his four years as a reserve but never had to go anywhere. He was eventually discharged and we were married in 1948.

 

 

France 1940

 

I was a Soldier in the Seaforth Highlanders, part of a Regiment of the 51st Highland Division. We arrived in France early January 1940, disembarking at Le Havre. From there we travelled to Bolbec. After a few days we moved on to Lillers, then on to Roubais on the Belgian Frontier where we spent several months straightening the defences. From there we moved to Metz where I got seven days confined to barracks for returning late one night. My friend who was with me, but belonged to a different company, got away with just a warning.

 

Next we moved up to the front line to a place called Hombourg-Budange in front of the Maginot Line. When my section move to the front line I asked a French soldier what the front line was like to which he replied 'Tres Bonne, Tres Bonne if you do not fire at them they do not fire at you'. We soon rectified that by sending fighting patrols out that night. Then my section was told to occupy a house in no man's land but were told not to fire on the enemy, just to observe where their positions were. From the upstairs window we could see the German positions and we duly reported back to our Mortar and Artillery who dealt with them.

 

After several nights the Germans realised from where they were being observed and sent a patrol to try to move us. The first we knew about it was when the German patrol tried to kick the door down shouting in perfect English 'Come out and fight Tommy.' They always called us Tommies, but the French troops had really reinforced the house. We retaliated by throwing hand grenades at them from the upstairs windows. We heard the cries of the wounded and by inspecting the pools of blood next morning knew that our throwing had been successful. In those early days the enemy always carried the wounded and dead back to their own lines. It did not deter them and they came back several nights afterwards but they kept out of range of our hand grenades. We were limited as to how far we could throw them because the upstairs window had been blocked up. It was then they realised the Jocks were in the line!

 

The Germans then attacked through Holland and Belgium so we withdrew behind the Maginot Line and then travelled by train till we reached Rouen in Northern France. We stayed there a few days while we rearmed then we boarded buses to get closer to the front line.

 

After we had been travelling for about two hours we had problems because of the refugees. There were some in cars, horses and carts, even in wheelbarrows. It was so sad to see old people and small children trying to get away from the war.

 

Eventually we pressed on until we came to a full stop. There had been an air raid and the German Air Force had machine-gunned the refugees. How could they mistake refugees for troops? We did our best for the wounded. The most tragic sight for me was a young mother who had pushed her pram with a child in into a ditch then thrown herself across it to protect the child but both were dead.

 

We moved then to Bainast and Zaillwux. In the few days we were there we had several fights with the Germans.

 

Anyone who has served in the front line knows fear and anyone who says he has not is a liar. You have to be master of yourself so you can do your duty by your comrades. Also in the front line there were not any Atheists. At least I never saw one. I was while I was serving in the front line that I realised that if I heard the sound of a bullet I knew it had missed me.

 

Eventually we were taken out of the line to prepare for an attack against the German bridgehead over the Somme. The plan of attack was that the divisional artillery would open fire at 3.20 a.m. for 20 minutes in a rolling barrage followed by the French tanks of Groupment De Gaulle, supposedly ten Highlanders behind every tank, But, as Robbie Burns, the Scottish poet said 'The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft Awa'. The plan was good but the execution.

 

My company, which was leading the attack, lay at the start line with fixed bayonets 600 yards in front of a track from the Route National to Boencourt waiting for the tanks to arrive. They were over half an hour late. The rolling barrage had finished and only three tanks turned up. Our objective was Mount Caubert but the attack still went on. The tank with us got stuck in a shell hole. The Germans who had withdrawn a small way back to avoid the artillery barrage because of the delay were now back in their original position waiting for us as we charged up that hill. The company Commander sent his tank across to us to give protection against the machine guns. That got knocked out but we still carried out charging with fixed bayonets hoping to get close enough to the enemy to use them.

 

It was a disaster, it was sheer slaughter. B company was literally wiped out. I have never seen courage like it as the Seaforths charged up that hill without any support whatever. What remained of us got to about 20 to 25 metres from the enemy front line when we were brought to a halt by the heavy machine gun fire. Then their snipers had a field day with what was left of us.

 

When you see war films on the T.V. you do not hear the cries of the wounded and dying. It takes very little effort on my part now, 66 years later, to recall the cries and screams of the dying and wounded. I was surrounded by death and destruction. The least movement by the wounded and the snipers and machineguns would open fire again. My comrade next to me was hit several times. I told him that when it got dark I would try to get him back to our own lines but when it got dark I found he was too badly wounded to move so I stayed with him until he died. All through that day and night I could hear the wounded French soldier crying for water.

 

My comrade, Tommy Stoddart died in the early hours of the morning and I realised then that I was the only one left alive.

 

It was on that battlefield that I found the power of prayer. I fully expected to get killed so I prayed for courage that if I was going to die then grant me the strength to die like a soldier. I also prayed for my widowed mother and my eleven brothers and sisters back home in England. After praying I had a feeling of a Presence. I cannot understand it. I have spoken about it on numerous occasions since the war. I am still bewildered by it. As I got out of that tight situation I can only conclude that the Good Lord heard by prayers.

 

Now came the problem of getting back to my own lines. I decided to leave my rifle there as it would only be a handicap if I had to do any crawling so I took hand grenades and set off back down the hill. I had not gone far when dawn broke and the snipers opened fire again. I had already crawled past two of the enemy but when the bullets started kicking up the dust round my feet I moved more quickly. I could see a shell hole in front of me and I am more or less certain that I broke the Olympic long jump record that day. I took a run and jump and landed straight in this shell hole but who did I find in this hole but the poor wounded French soldier who had been crying for water for the last twenty four hours. I gave him my water bottle and he was very grateful.

 

Eventually in my efforts to get back to my own lines I was taken prisoner. On being questioned by a German officer I asked if I could have a drink of water. I had left my water bottle with the wounded French soldier. He said I could if I had anything to drink out of. On taking my mess tin from my small pack he said 'That's not much good'. There were four holes in it. Two bullets had passed straight through it. On closer inspection they found that seven bullets had passed through my clothing and equipment and one had nicked me at the back of my right knee.

 

Then the long march to Germany started. I shall always be grateful to the French women who put food and water out for us. The Germans could not or would not feed us. On one occasion a French lady was putting a bucket of water for us to dip our cans in to get a drink. She must have been five months pregnant when his guard hit her in the stomach with his rifle butt and kicked the bucket of water over. It was only when the Germans who had machine guns on their vehicles threatened to open fire, which prevented his lynching. I was told later on he was disposed of down a well in a farmyard. All the farms along the route were deserted. By this time, we were a starving lot. Our boots and uniforms were worn out. People would go into the farmyard looking for rabbits and chickens, which were reared for the table. In the search for food we would have done anything for a slice of bread. When some prisoners went into one farm yard looking for food a guard foolishly followed them on his own and started lashing out again with his rifle butt. He was grabbed by two old soldiers and thrown down the well in the farmyard.

 

The march lasted more or less a month until we came to the barges on the Rhine. We were forced down into the hold at gunpoint till we just stood shoulder to shoulder. How long we were on those barges, one or two nights, I cannot remember. I know that after we set sail they had to open the holds up and let some of us come on deck because people were passing out. The only water we had to drink was out of the Rhine itself.

 

I cannot recall the name of the German town where we docked. We were lined up on the dock side with a view, no doubt, to show us off to the local inhabitants. This motley lot of POWs were all lousy and filthy. I could not remember when I last had a wash. There must have been over two thousand of us all in the same condition. As we entered the town someone shouted 'March to attention lads' and a sudden transformation took place. Everyone was marching in step, arms swinging; one would have thought we were on the Barrack Square back in Scotland at Fort George. It started quietly at first 'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag' followed by It's a long way to Tipperary. As we marched through the old centre of the town it changed to We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, have you any dirty washing mother dear.

 

The guards were astounded. They could not believe what they were witnessing. The civilians spat at us, they could not believe it either. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. They could break our bones but not our spirit. These were soldiers who a few hours earlier would have killed for a slice of bread. The Germans found that throughout our POW life our spirit as members of the 51st Highland Division was incalculable.

 

I was nineteen years of age when I lived through this. I am now nearly 86 so my memory is not what it should be.

 

 

I was a POW for five years. I was a Seaforth Highlander in the 51st Highland Division in France. My POW number was 380 Stalag IXC. I think the Kommando from which I escaped was 207. It was a stone quarry. I was sentenced to a punishment camp on top of a mountain near a town called Romild which was another stone quarry so it was not any punishment really. From previous experience I was an expert at breaking large pieces of stone. I was able to instruct my comrades how to swing the eighteen pound sledge hammer to break the rocks. Now pushing 85 years of age I cannot remember how long I was up there, whether it was for 6 months or 9 months.

 

The German custom when they thought you had done your punishment was to transfer you to different Komandos, two here, half a dozen somewhere else, then they realised what they were doing, putting bad apples amongst the good ones and the bad ones influenced the good ones to escape. We escapees counted it a successful escape if we were out for 48 hours or more because of the number of enemy we tied down looking for us.

 

The Authority, in their wisdom, decided the best plan was to put us all in the same camp. Again my memory lets me down as to the name of the camp. It was next to the Gluck Hof Gast Hof Hotel Lengfeld Strass Tiefnort Kries Isenach. A salt mine a kilometre away was Mercers, the deepest salt mine in Germany, where Goering hid some of his ill-gotten gains.

 

We arrived there to find it had been a Russian Camp. All windows and doors were sealed as it was being fumigated to kill off all vermin etc. We were told we would have to sleep on the floor of the wash room until our quarters had been cleaned up.

 

As we were lined up outside the camp a little, arrogant Camp Kommandant came out and started yelling 'Escapees are you? Well let me tell you I have been in charge of all types of POWs and not one man has escaped from me'. If he had only known that a few hours later he would have been between 30 and 40 POWs missing!

 

Eventually we were allowed into the compound after being searched. There were extra guards and more barbed wire put up. Later we were locked up in the wash place. When it got dark a little lad from Glasgow asked who wanted to escape. All the POWs put up their hand. The lad was surprised as he thought there would only be a few as we had only just come out of a punishment camp.

 

It was then decided to put all our names in a hat. The prisoner who could pick the lock and the one who knew where the wire had been cut would be the first to go. The rest would follow at one minute intervals as their names came out of the hat. This would teach that Commander a lesson. Everything was going according to plan when we heard rifle shots. Those left lay down on the tiles in their blanket to await what we knew would come. The onslaught from the guards. It came, crash, bang, wallop. We were lined up in fives to be counted. Even today I can see the Commander's face when he saw how many were missing. First it went grey and his jaw was going up and down. Eventually a loud scream came out and he went berserk.

 

Needless to say on an escape like that all except two were caught in a couple of days. I am led to believe that two finally made it to Yugoslavia.

 

The Camp Commandant was immediately removed.

 

A few days later a German in full uniform came to give us a lecture. He said 'You think it is your duty to escape. Well we think it is our duty to stop you and if necessary to shoot you.'

 

He could not put us back in the Straffe Camp, as the punishment camp was called, so when we had finished our shift in the salt mines we had to do extra work on preparing the roads.

 

Prior to the mass escape by the RAF it was probably the largest escape attempted. It achieved its object by getting rid of the arrogant Commander.

 

At this salt mine I was taken ill with a salt rash which broke out all over my face and in my ears. I was transferred to a POW hospital Obermasfeld. When I was better I was sent to another salt mine from which I again got away for a couple of days. When recaptured I was sent to base camp at a place called Mulhausen. One day, on parade after the morning count I was called to the front and charged with escaping. The German interpreter announced that I had been awarded 28 days solitary confinement on bread and water though the average was 14 or 21 days. At that time though the war was not going in the Germans favour. I was marched down to the cell and duly served my time with nothing to do and nothing to read. I thought it was a funny sort of 'award' as the interpreter called it. When I came up the steps from what was literally a dungeon I was met by our senior NCO who said 'Good God Tommy what have they done to you?' It appears I was a walking skeleton. He took me straight to where the Red Cross parcels were stored and obtained for me a full one and said 'Eat that and get some weight back on,' so I sat in the sun each day and recuperated with the aid of the Red Cross parcel.

 

As I sat in the sun I noticed a POW who sat by the gates of the camp every day. In a camp of this size there are always two entrance gates. The guards always opened the first and locked it before opening the second. On speaking to the lad it appears he had received what we called a Johnny's letter. His wife had met some American and was having a good time back home. He was devastated. He told me he sat there because one day a guard was going to get careless and leave the gates open instead of locking the first one, and he would be away. This was a suicidal escape as the guards would see him go. Lo and behold he was proved right, a guard did get careless and he was away. Shots were fired and the guards gave chase. We were all told to get on parade for a count to see if anyone else had got away. While we were on parade they brought him back. He had been caught not far from the camp. What a sorry state he was in. He had lost a shoe through having to hold his trousers up. From the waist up he was naked and his body was just covered in blood. The Commandant was gloating and saying 'This man has had a bloody bath for trying to escape and anyone else who tries will get a blood bath too'. He had been beaten by the guards using their rifle butts. Eventually he was taken to a POW Hospital where, so I was told, he committed suicide by jumping from the top of a spiral staircase.

 

As in life so in a POW Camp you win some and lose some.

 

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