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Flying Officer Tom Nelson

Flying Officer Tom Nelson

 

Unit : 51 Squadron, Bomber Command, Royal Air Force

Service No. : 155587

POW No. : 222751

Camps : Stalag IVB

 

Tom Nelson wrote the following article in the Daily Mail on the 23rd December 1995, under the title of To the Americans it was just food. To me it was the most precious gift I've ever given, and one I have never regretted.

 

Among my Christmas memories, the clearest is of 1944. We were prisoners of war. Nearly all of us had spent one Christmas in captivity. Most of the airmen had been shot down in 1943, the year when Bomber Command suffered its heaviest casualties.

 

Stalag IVB was a huge dreary prison camp at Muhlberg am der Elbe, 60 miles south of Berlin. It contained prisoners from almost every country in Europe - Russians, Dutch and French. Each nationality was confined to its compound or hut. In the centre was the RAF compound containing more than 1,000 men.

 

Others were sent out of the camp from time to time on working parties to farms or construction projects; we were not. The Germans considered the RAF more of a risk than other prisoners, so our compound was more closely guarded than the rest of the camp and we were never allowed to work on the outside.

 

We spent the months and years until the war was over behind a double row of barbed wire, with more wire piled in coils between them.

 

Claustrophobia, tension, boredom... those were everyday things to us. We had become used to them. But there were other torments of the mind. Every man in the camp was consumed by his own memories of war.

 

We were young men. Our average age was just over 20. At 25, I was one of the oldest. But every RAF crew member had a story to tell. Crashing in flames, blown out of the sky, parachutes descending in burning cities, long days of interrogation, a three-day horror trip crowded into a cattle truck on the way to the camp. That was my story. For some - those who had been captured early on in the war - it was the fourth or even fifth Christmas that they had been separated from their families. I was luckier: I had been shot down over Berlin at midnight on August 31, 1943.

 

I was navigator in a Halifax of 51 Squadron, Group 4, Bomber Command. A night-fighter caught us, the plane caught fire, then exploded. There were seven of us in the plane. Four of them died: Larry Cates, the pilot; Jack Watson, flight engineer; Junior Drondgeest, our Canadian rear gunner; Ken Murray, mid-upper gunner, also Canadian. Three of us - myself, Curly Manning and Robbie Robinson - ended up behind barbed wire.

 

The worst part was at the beginning, when we were new to imprisonment, shocked at it, when we did not understand the little things one had to do to cope, to survive. We were lucky. Some Army men who had been captured in the Western Desert a year earlier were transferred to our camp and they showed us the ropes - what had to be done, what couldn't. What you could get from the Germans, what you couldn't. Above all they showed us how to organise ourselves so that we could survive in a small area without tempers reaching flashpoint.

 

Strangely, I remember almost nothing of our first Christmas in captivity. Perhaps we celebrated with carols. There was certainly a church service. I know that Red Cross parcels had just started to come through to us. Parcels at Christmas have probably never been so important as those parcels from the Red Cross. They were, literally, lifesavers.

 

So perhaps we celebrated with something, a tin of corner beef or Spam. It does not stick in the mind. But the second Christmas in captivity is the one I cannot forget. The Stalag was built like all the other concentration camps, but without the gas chambers or incinerators. Two hundred and fifty men crowded into each hut, filled with three-tier rickety wooden bunks. The top bunk was the sought-after one, though you could not sit up in it because it was so close to the ceiling. But heat rises and the top bunk was the warmest. Right across Europe, the winter of 1944 was a bitter one.

 

We had a sacking mattress filled with straw and one thin blanket each. There was one cold tap to wash with. Other than that, one shower a month was the ration. Consequently, we were lousy, literally. In summer, it was just about tolerable. In winter, it was smelly, filthy and muddy. Snow melted, boots cluttering up the place and it was desperately cold.

 

And we were hungry. Every one of us knew what it was like to starve. There is one sort of hunger that twists inside like a knot and continues every hour of the day and most of the night. That is the sort we had. It was worst in the first month after capture. After that your stomach shrank but the hunger never went away.

 

The standard German daily ration of food for prisoners was one seventh of a loaf of black bread made from sawdust and rye, one pint of soup always made of millet but occasionally with some scraps of unidentifiable meat thrown in, and a beaker of coffee made from, and tasting of, acorns.

 

It was impossible to exist on this ration. The skeletal bodies of the 5,000 Russians in the camp bore witness to that fact. Russia had not  signed the Geneva Convention. In consequence Russian prisoners did not receive Red Cross parcels. Want had turned them almost sub-human. I remember their thin, parched faces; I remember the few who were not out on work-parties hanging sunken-eyed around the kitchens, falling desperately on a potato peeling, any scrap of food. Theirs was an awful existence. How Russians existed without Red Cross parcels is not pleasant to think of.

 

But when things were going well, each British PoW received a parcel containing enough food to last a week. As the fortunes of war ebbed and flowed, so did the arrival of the parcels. As more railways were bombed, or sometimes for punitive reasons, the rations were reduced by the Germans to half a parcel a week, or sometimes nothing at all.

 

Without the Red Cross, we had nothing. The clothes you were captured in were the clothes you wore until the day your camp was liberated. There were no books to read, no paper to write on, no pencil to write with. Everything you had came in Red Cross parcels or was made from what was in them.

 

The Red Cross sent text-books; some prisoners received blankets and clothes. But it was the food that was vital. I was one of many thousands of prisoners who owe their lives to the provisions sent to us by the Red Cross.

 

There was always a tin of corned beef and one of Spam. There would be fruit, perhaps in the form of a tin of pineapple. Coffee, tea, sometimes a sachet of mustard to enliven the tastebuds. And a tin of dried milk powder - a big tin. It was called KLIM, which is milk backwards. When you consumed the milk, you could cut round the top and bottom of the tin, flatten it out to give a square of metal, from which you could make almost anything that ingenuity could devise.

 

One genius invented something called a blower. It was made almost entirely out of KLIM tins. A handle and ratchet affair turned a small fan which blew air onto a small piece of burning wood, making it glow hotter. That was all the fuel we had and the only means we had to warm our food.

 

Two things above all were prized: the bar of chocolate that every parcel contained and the packet or two of cigarettes. I remember one of my first days as a prisoner, when a newly-captured RAF man was offered a cigarette, smoked it, and threw the butt away. Instantly seven fellow-prisoners were scrabbling in the mud for that dog-end. I was lucky. I have never smoked - and the sight of those grown Englishmen on their knees was another powerful reason not to start.

 

Despite the privations, morale in the camp was high. Even in 1943, we all knew that Germany could not possibly win the war. We had seen their towns destroyed one by one; we had seen America enter the war; and on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of Europe began. Each hut had its clandestine radio put together by some electronically-minded genius. Where four or five thousand men are gathered in one place you will find all sorts of unusual skills. Bob Hale, our barrack commander, had been a champion shorthand writer before the war.

 

Each night, the radio would be brought out, Bob would take down the news from the BBC and it would be passed around the huts. By day, the radio was dismantled, hidden in holes in walls, or carried about by different people. Curly Manning, the wireless operator who had baled out with me, was one of those who did that job.

 

Every hut contained a map showing the advance of the British and Americans from the west and the Russians from the east. Everything was going so well. The lines were converging so rapidly on Germany. Everyone was convinced they would be home by Christmas. But suddenly the advance faltered. Then it stopped. The horrible realisation set in that maybe another Christmas would have to be spent in the miserably cold confines of the wire, with the awful smelling latrines, the crowded, inhuman conditions of the wooden huts.

 

And with this realisation, an idea was born. We discussed it among ourselves and between us all it was agreed. No matter how little the Red Cross parcel ration might be, each occupant of the hut would donate one item from every issue. The items would be closely guarded - against our own temptation to eat them, as much as from theft - and stored until Christmas Day. And when that day came the entire store would be consumed in one huge Christmas dinner that would be remembered for a lifetime.

 

A month or so later, in early November, I sent a Christmas card to my mother. It was the standard PoW postcard-form. An enterprising artist in the camp had decorated them, by hand, with holly, candles and ivy, in exchange for a cigarette or two. 'I had great hopes of being with you all this Xmas,' I wrote, 'but as we can't have everything I'll celebrate the holiday with you in my thoughts...' Also in our thoughts was the coming Christmas feast.

 

When the unthinkable happened. On the western front, instead of retreating, the German army suddenly attacked. They struck among four-foot snowdrifts, in freezing weather, a few days before Christmas, for surprise. These were crack German panzers, seasoned veterans, the best men and equipment and leaders still available to Hitler. Facing them were raw American doughboys, who had never been in battle before. In what later became known as the Battle Of The Bulge, the Germans surrounded the untried American 106th Infantry Division and surged westwards and back into Belgium. At Bastogne, by great bravery, the Americans held them. It was there that General von Manteuffel called on the American commander to surrender. Though hopelessly surrounded and almost out of ammunition, Brigadier General McAuliffe refused in the one-word reply that battled the Germans and has gone down in legend: 'Nuts!'

 

The German attack, out of fuel and stretched to its limits, petered out. But though it lasted less than a month, it had held and thrown back the Allies and it had taken thousands of new American prisoners.

 

Two days before Christmas, that success became apparent to the inhabitants of Stalag IVB. We looked out of our huts in the bitter grey of that late afternoon, and saw Americans streaming into the camp. They did not walk, they staggered. They had marched halfway across Europe. No one will ever know how many of their comrades had been left to die in the snow and the bitter wind blowing across the Russian steppes. I believe that another two days of marching would have finished many of them.

 

Line upon line of them crowded onto the vorlager - the assembly area - where they collapsed and sat in the snow. Darkness fell. When we looked out again in the morning, they were still there. There had been nowhere else for them to go. It was Christmas Eve. The new arrivals had to be squeezed into the already-full huts. It meant some doubling-up on beds.

 

Each RAF man chose a 'mucker' to share with, someone whose company he had learned could be tolerated over the past months of confinement together. The one who had to move beds - abandon his tiny piece of privacy and 'home' - was hardly delighted. The released beds were allocated to the Americans, who collapsed on them.

 

These were men at absolute rock bottom. They had been marched, with no food of any kind, to the end of their endurance. Shocked, frightened, suffering from dysentery and frostbite, completely demoralised and bewildered, they had no way of coping with the situation that confronted them. They were exhausted and hungry. Especially, they were desperately and terribly hungry.

 

These were Americans, well-fed until now. They were used to the best food, the most plentiful rations in the world. They were large, well-built men, large-stomached as well. Their guts, unlike ours, had not shrunk with privation. They were not, at that moment, healthy men. But their appetites were healthier than ever.

 

Here was an obvious dilemma. The next day was Christmas Day - the day we had been looking forward to for three months. The day we had saved and starved for. The day we had reserved for our treat.

 

Should that carefully-hoarded food be used for the planned RAF Christmas Dinner? Or should it be given to the starving Americans?

 

In the Christmas warmth of a home back in England, the answer seems simple. In the cold, freezing confines of a bleak hut in the middle of an enemy country, it becomes much more complicated.

 

A council of all the prisoners was quickly convened. This was not something the Barrack Commander could decide by order. It had to go right down the line. We all had to decide, each one of us. After all, we had all given and gone hungry, for that hoard. A few held out, half-heartedly, for compromise: share equally, give half to the Americans, eat half ourselves. The odd voices - not many, but voicing things that perhaps many more might have thought - said blow them, it is our food, our treat, why should we share? Others remembered how the veteran prisoners from Africa had helped us to get on our feet, back in the first days of our captivity.

 

It seemed a lot to give up, an awful lot. But the decision had already been made for us, by circumstance, and we all knew it in our hearts. The Americans needed it so much more than we did. Having seen the condition of these poor people, we knew we could not eat our Christmas feast ourselves.

 

We took a vote, and got our answer. The store was distributed to the Americans. It had been saved over months. It didn't take long to give out. We had been intending to savour every mouthful. They gulped it down.

 

Our feast would have lasted all day. To them, it was food, just food. A 90-day dream for 250 RAF airmen disappeared in that number of minutes. We had millet soup and rye bread again for Christmas dinner.

 

There were no embarrassing speeches of thanks, then or later. That was not the Americans' fault. In the condition they were in, it is doubtful if any of them even knew they had eaten a three-month carefully-hoarded supply and, of course, we were not going to tell them. After a week or two, most of them had been moved to other camps. We never really saw them again.

 

In April 1945, the camp was liberated by Russian soldiers. By then, I had been moved to another camp. It was the American Army that liberated me. After the war, I fell in love and married - my wife is American. We have had our Christmasses with our daughter and our son, watched them growing up year by year, and lately our grandchildren have played beneath the tree in the same corner of the same living room. We have given presents, and received them. Those happy Christmasses tend to blur into one in my mind.

 

For most of the Americans in Stalag IVB, the Christmas of 1944 must have been the worst of their lives. But for the 250 RAF men in the camp, that Christmas has been redeemed. We had been able to experience the satisfaction of having done something, given something, to help our fellow men.

 

That glow remains with us. We remember Christmas 1944 as one where, even in adversity, the Christmas spirit was to be found.

 

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