Private G. William Pledger
Unit : 5th Battalion The Buffs Regiment.
Served : France (captured)
Army No. : 6288782
POW No. : 13919
Camps : Stalag XXB, Stalag VIIIB
I was taken prisoner at Dunkirk and spent the war as a slave labourer in the coal mines of Upper Silesia. Cold, hunger, brutality and exhausting back breaking labour that went on day after day until so many literally dropped dead of illness and exhaustion is my memory of the years between 1939 and liberation in 1945.
We did not have the opportunity to train for special forces or some other intriguing and valued military exploit. Nor the chance to earn the rows of medals proudly carried by others on parade. Instead his war was one of every day survival within a situation of the deepest privations and brutality.
I’ll begin by saying that before the war had even begun I, like other conscientious young men, joined the Territorial Army which was formed in response to the military threat of Nazi Germany. This meant of course that I was amongst those who were first called up for service after war broke out in 1939.
In April 1940 as a member of the 5th Buffs regiment I, along with my own regiment and the 6th and 7th Royal West Kent’s, found ourselves in France and Belgium as part of the British Expeditionary Force.
We were classed as a working battalion but we were under equipped and under trained. When the Blitzkrieg started we were in the Somme area of Belgium. We were pitted against a fully equipped and trained Panzer Division with the inevitable consequences that most of us were too far from the coast to escape our fate. There were some lucky enough in our regiment who were able to get back to Blighty. I think there must have been out of 700 possibly 50 who got back to U.K. However I was not one of the lucky few, I was taken prisoners of war and remained a prisoner for five long years.
When our captors were sure that as many as possible who did try to make for the coast were rounded up we all had to face the stark truth of captivity for how long we did not know. After our captors were sure that none were left at large our long and gruelling march through East Germany to Poland began.
We marched for over a month having little or no food, few medical supplies and no knowledge of how the war was going or what our fate would be. It was a worrying and uncertain time for us. It was to be over six months before we had news from home and could comfort ourselves with the knowledge that our families knew we were at least alive and that there was hope that we would one day return home.
After our forced march into Poland we arrived at a camp at a place called Sczubin Its funny really that although conditions were so bad everywhere we were all interested to know where it was that we were. As if it made any difference to our plight, I guess its like taking any journey you always want to know where it is that you have arrived at.
Anyway we were in a camp at Sczubin and life could not get much worse. Tired, hungry, clothes and boots threadbare and in poor repair and lacking in medical supplies. We also had to face the totally awful unsanitary conditions plus lice and the rigors of the Polish winter with no adequate clothing or means to keep warm or properly sheltered from the elements. We were housed in old farm buildings and our only means of taking our ablutions was one hand lever operated tap in the yard which for much of the time was frozen owing to the worsening weather of the winter months.
It was totally and utterly degrading and added to that we all worried that our loved ones had no idea if we lived or had died in the desperate retreat and exodus of Dunkirk. I heard later that it was October before my own parents heard of my capture and were given some reassurance that their son was still in the land of the living.
It was to my great joy that I got a letter from my parents in the November of 1940. With all the brutality we endured it might seem strange that we had letters and even had our photos taken but it could be thought that this can be more attributed to the crafty Germans wanting their forces, who were taken prisoner by us, to be treated well rather than any humanitarian thoughts they may have had for us. I will give some examples of their treatment of us as their helpless prisoners which will explain the way the Germans really cared? about their prisoners!
In the midst of our privations it was wonderful to receive a letter from loved ones at home. It was a link with home and our letters were our most treasured possessions. I still have a number of mine from that dreadful time of captivity. The letters were written on small piece of the thinnest of tissue paper and although they had to pass censorship they gave news of babies born, news of friends, assurances of the health and security of family which helped to give us the encouragement and hope we needed to carry on.
It was to be over a year before we got our first Red Cross parcels which provided us with a very welcome supplement to our merge rations. Our daily ration consisted of a couple of slices of Rye bread and a bowl of ’doubtful’ soup. This was not enough to keep us going with the hard labour were forced to do and we were all very much underweight. I think most lost 2-3 stone and I think it left us all with stomach troubles that persist for many of us to this day.
As well as lack of food the conditions we lived in were very unsanitary and damaging to our health we were also constantly plagued with lice and bugs that added to our miseries. This misery was added to by the brutality of our captors, beatings and shootings were common place occurrences even though this was against the Geneva Convention as to the proper treatment of Prisoners of War.
After a time at a holding camp I was sent to Stalag V.111B at Lansdorf which was near to the Auchwitz concentration camp (thinking about that makes me wonder how any of us survived!). Lansdorf was a big camp with a compound which also housed R A F prisoners it supplied work parties for the surrounding industrial area. We were put to work in local factories, mines, work camps and petrochemical works. Of course we weren’t protected from air raids on the area and sad to say on one raid over Blechhammer in the summer of 1944 about 50 of our lads along with their guards were killed.
I was assigned to a coal mining party and remained in it for 3 ½ years. These were hard years of cruel, pitiless toil from which many of my comrades died or never fully recovered. Others have given testimony to the horrors and cruelty of these slave labour conditions and I don’t want to dwell on them here.
It was a terrible time I just wish we had been able to live under the conditions German P O W’s lived under in this country. Possibly it might be enough to say that when people talk about the conditions of German prisoners in this country and liken them to being harsh they just don’t know what they are talking about. We, my friends and I, could tell you what harsh and more that that was because we suffered it and as I mentioned some never survived or recovered from it.
In the spring of 1941 we were moved to Pozan situated in Northern Poland on the banks of the river Worthe which flows into the Baltic. Pozan has a circle of forts surrounding it one of which is Fort Rauch which is quite pleasant and situated on a hill over looking the town. However there are several other forts which are partly underground these were the ones used to house the P O W. They were dank, smelly, rat ridden and unsanitary.
It was while a prisoner in Poznan that on a work party one day a guard accused me of not working hard enough. The guard was a nasty piece of work and he took it into his head to charge me with sabotage. I was sentenced to 14 day bread and water in the cells. I think that was why in August I was singled out with several others to be sent to Stalag VIII B at Lansdorf the infamous ’Hell Camp of Eastern Europe’. We travelled through Poland and stopping off at a transit camp for a few days were aimlessly milling about in the compound when the guards bought in some more P O W’s. We had no idea why, maybe a bad mood, boredom, arrogance, madness or just plain cruel brutality but a guard suddenly started firing his machine gun wildly spraying all in the compound with bullets. He hit one chap in the back who sadly died a few days latter. I can recall that happening a couple of times before while I when we were on the long march to Poland and at the Sczubin camp. A group of lads in some huts got up a bit of sing-song to lift their spirits. Both times our guards fired through the huts that were only really paper thin, I think there were several wounded. Of course any wound or illness meant that you would not be able to keep going and this cut down your survival odds. It was survival of the fittest in that situation, any illness or injury was almost a death sentence.
By that time Russia and Germany were at war and we were soon put to work at Lansdorf putting up huts, wire compounds and stockades for the Russian prisoners the Germans were expecting. The Germans were expecting a huge influx of prisoners but with the miles they had marched, malnutrition and disease the poor souls died in droves. Not for them a Christian burial but rather a long trench and lime pumps. It breaks the heart to think of how many Russian lads died on their way or when they reached there. Possible a mirror image of Napoleons retreat from Moscow.
By September 1941 Lansdorf was getting a bit more bearable and we were more able to tolerate our captivity. We had books, fresh clothing, parcels from home and more regular mail. We even had some entertainment supplied for us by the talents of our comrades, we had musical instruments either through the Red Cross or through a bartering system with our guards. Jimmy Howe latter promoted Major formed the VIIIB Dance Orchestra al the members were very good musicians and what a lovely Glen Miller sound they made! It lifted of harts and spirits and helped to raise our moral no end.
The P O W were from all walks of life and although their skills were not appreciated in civilian life the criminal elements amongst us made life a bit more bearable in using their skills to our advantage. In civilian life picking a lock would be beyond most of us but for the ex burglars amongst us picking locks was no problem. This came in very handy for the Canadians as mentioned above.
Other prisoners could make radios, given that they could acquire the parts. With a radio we could keep up with the news from outside of the camp and so we could keep up our spirits with the knowledge that freedom would soon be on its way. The Germans knew we had radios but they just could not find them. We hide them in the most ingenious and unusual places
Other difficulties could be overcome as in the heating of water for a hot drink, a ’blower’ was made, in fact it was a small bellows stove made from a small wooden base and a Red Cross tin. Using the minimal amount of combustible material i.e. wood shavings or cardboard you could heat water enough to make a hot drink which was to us a wonderful luxury after a hard day underground.
At the mine one of the lad obtained a piece of round shaped wood just right for a dart board. The darts were made with paper flights and it all worked very well. Darts is not a German game and unfortunately when the guards saw how accurately some of the lads could throw the darts they confiscated them and stopped the game which was a great shame.
It was possible if you had some kind of trade to wangle a permanent job in the camp, this was the best place to be as some of the work parties could be very hard indeed, as my experience in the coal mines which I was very hard and dangerous work.
We had all sorts of trades and skills in the camp cobblers, barbers, tailors, cooks and perhaps most important of all medical staff. If you were one of these go were vulnerable to be collared for a work party. There were parties for heavy industry in the petrochemical factories, war supplies and for me the mines.
However by September 1941 a party of about a hundred of us were rounded up and marched off to work in the mines. Before we were taken to the mines we were kept in a compound where one day we saw Canadian prisoners arriving. They were survivors who had come from the ill fated Dieppe Raid. It seemed the Germans had got word that the Canadians were allegedly not treating German prisoners very well it was alleged that the Canadians were supposed to be tying up their prisoners by the wrists for hours. As a reprisal for this the Germans retaliated by tying up the Canadian prisoners for hours on end. This became a farce as the crafty Canadians worked out ways of getting loose from their bonds. It all started with the Germans using short pieces of rope, chaps were merely rounding a corner getting untied and then rejoining the queue again. The Germans got wise to this and began using metal manacles which the ever ingenious prisoners could unlock using metal keys made from tins taken from Red Cross parcels. So the whole episode descended into a farce, you might call it a black comedy.
What was not at all funny was the work at the mine, the mine was situated on the outskirts of Beuthen, one of a cluster of industrial town in Upper Silesia. There were three levels to the mine I worked on the middle level 500metres down, the main haulage way was lit by electricity otherwise we had to carry personal carbide lamps which needed to be conserved for 8-10 hours. Rules on health and safety of course did not exist and it could be very dangerous in the pitch black darkness.
We lost two good comrades in the mines, both were in my hut, we lost one in 1942 and one in 1943. The first lad was in The Royal Sussex Regiment the second was a New Zealander taken prisoner on Crete he was a smashing lad, an only son if I remember rightly, they both died as a result of roof falls.
We were so far underground as not to know when one night in 1943 the area was heavily bombed. The Russian U S and the R A F gave the place a real plastering fortunately our huts were some distance from the pithead and both the 2pm and 10 pm shifts had showered and returned to camp so we did not suffer any fatalities. It was the Poles and the Germans who suffered from the raid, it’s a strange thing to be bombed from your own side but we understood that they had a job to do and we were just glad that we hadn’t come to any harm ourselves.
People have asked about escapes from the camp and did I have a chance to get involved with an escape plan. The answer to that is that I did escape in 1945 but not from the camp itself however there were four escapes from the camp while I was there. One escape was made over the wire from the top of the ablution block. Two fellow prisoners worked on loosening the wire from their hut window, during the day they would use some kind of paste to keep the wire in place while at night they would work away at getting the window open when they were ready to go.
Another attempt was made by one prisoner diving into a water filled culvert on a bend in the road as we came back one dark night from the late shift. After the dive into the culvert escape bid when we were back at the camp we went through the usual shuffling about to confuse our guards while being berated as ’Englander Dumnkofts’ and ’Shwienhounds’ it was all designed to be a nuisance but it delayed our dismissal. After this the Germans reacted by making the last man in the column carry a large spotlight which was shone along the ranks.
But it was not until later when we heard the blessed sound of the Russian guns that there was any real point of trying to escape as before then there was no where really for us to go. If there were escape bids made we all suffered because of the inevitable lack of privileges i.e. no mail or parcels from home or the Red Cross and a cut in food when we were already on starvation rations.
At the end of things there was an MI5 team working on our repatriation but their main efforts were to recover crashed pilots and air crew. I can remember being at the dock in Odessa with a young liaison officer who was checking us on board he turned out to be the actor Michael Denison, he was used I suspect for his linguistic abilities.
It was always wonderful to get a letter from home but one sad part of this was for those with wives and fiances was the prospect that they might write them a ‘Dear John’ letter. This was obviously depressing for some as they were powerless to do anything about it. Even so there was a dark humour of sorts in this situation, the funniest letter I heard of went something like this - Dear John, We hope you are well and getting along O K I’m now staying with your father, we married a couple of weeks ago. Love mum.
My time in the mines ended because of my ill health. I will not say that this was compassion on the German part but rather a way of extracting all that they could from me and that my death would have meant a loss when they could still get more work out of me. However it occurred though I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to know that I did not have to go back down the mines. I was overjoyed!!
My next work detachment was as one of a 50 strong work force assigned to locomotive and wagon repair for the trains used in the mines. The work party were a great bunch of lads who were mostly all Irish from Eire. The Germans hoped to use them as a form of propaganda and could not understand, given the relationship between our two countries, why the Irish lads joined the British army and were fighting against them. Even though the Germans wanted to use the Irish lads for propaganda the Irish lads told them in no uncertain terms where to go even to the point of spurning their supposed repatriation if they were willing to allow themselves to be used in this way. This was very brave decision for them to take and it should be remembered with admiration by all.
By January 1945 we began to hear the sound that, I must suppose, brought fear of retribution to some but to us it brought hope of liberation. We began to hear the sound of distant gun fire! It could only be the sound of Russian guns. Still far away but each day bought them closer and each day bought closer the joy of freedom, the hope of making it home, the end of brutality, disease, hunger, privation and slavery.
We had heard the news of the German crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto and had not expected liberation for months but the sound of those guns was one that I’m sure we will all remember as bring hope in the midst of the cold, snow and ice that had seemed to mean that no one had seriously expected a major offensive to come so early in the year. At that time of year it was always sub zero temperatures but there it was the hoped for and long awaited offensive that to us spelt home, family and freedom.
However we were not allowed to await our freedom and we began to be marched off along the Baltic coast west across the Oder or south across the Carpathian Mountains into Czechoslovakia. Many were on the move during this time and by the end of April 1945 I think many must have marched over a thousand kilometres. After all they had endured as P O W’s and with this march as well it is hard to say how many succumbed to these turbulent times of further privations no one will ever know.
It was at this time that I had a chance of escape! It was a stark choice for the small party of us who took that chance, we could stay with the crowd and maybe just maybe get some food no matter how meagre it was. Or could we manage to get to safety if we made a break for it on our own. The future was uncertain for us all. There was always the fear that we could we fall into the hands of the S. S. or Gestapo who might shot us out right whether we stayed with the crowd or made a break for it on our own.
One night we made a break for it and got as far as the outskirts of Gliewitz. It was being bombed and shell unmercifully by the Russian Army. All day and all night and on the next morning the Russian army occupied the town. The sight of the carnage was indescribable. It was still mid January and in the sub zero temperatures bodies were frozen into the most grotesques positions. It was total carnage. A site I will always remember is that later in the days that followed slave labourers from the near by camps, clad only in rags, came into the town looking for food that was not to be found. They were all pitifully emaciated, this nightmare scenario is etched onto mine and anyone else who witnessed this terrible scenes memory for ever.
Even though we were free at last our ordeal was not over because in the following days the Luftwaffe were to fly over the town strafing the Russians and their traffic conveys on the roads in the area. The Polish people were very kind to us, sharing what meagre fare they had with us. Their kindness at a time when they had so little themselves will always be remembered with gratitude.
After my escape from the main body of prisoner who were being marched either to the Baltic coast, west across the Oder or south over the Carpathians a group of us arrived at the outskirts of Gliewitz. The town was at that time held by the Germans and was being smashed into submission by the bombs and shell of the Russian forces. However we were very glad at reaching Gliewitz which after the Russians took it was, for us, the beginnings of freedom although we still had a way to go before we could say we were actually on our way home.
After marching many miles through Poland, where I must say the Polish people were very kind to us. Although they had little themselves they shared their meagre food with us and I will always be grateful for their kindness especially in this time of great hardship for all.
After enduring strafing from the Lufwaffer along the way due mostly to them trying unsuccessfully to knock out the Russian advance, we made our way into Czechoslovakia. It was during this time that I ‘mucked in’ with a tough little scouser lad from Salford Lancashire. Now here is a case where truth can be stranger than fiction. He had two other brothers who were in the same Lancashire Regiment they were all taken prisoner at Dunkirk in 1940! Can you imagine how their poor old mum must have felt with three boys prisoners of war? Tommy Gibbons was the oldest he was always bemoaning and cursing the Germans for separating him from his brothers.
I read a book by Len Williamson an ex P O W who told a story about a work party he was on. The brothers by that time had been reunited and it seems that were all out working together. It seems that Tommy got into some kind of altercation with a guard who hit him on the head with a rifle butt. He told me later that it only hurt when he combed his hair. However he was, in later years, to die from that injury. I suppose it might have been a cracked skull and because it had gone unattended he had died from his injury. This is what I mean when I speak of the loss of our old comrades through the privations and cruelty of those years.
It's strange the links that are created by circumstances, in a way it gives us who were in a sense out of it a feeling of being part of the same overall picture.
As I say I suppose that some of us felt that their imprisonment had put them in some kind of a way out of things, although through our ingenuity and inventiveness we did manage to have a highly prized life line in the form of a wireless set. Which we went to great lengths to hind from our German opressers.
With our wirless set we were able to tune into the BBC and in that way we knew albeit briefly the way the war was going. We heard of the victories in North Africa and Europe and I were able to know that captivity would soon, but not soon enough for us waiting in eager anticipation, be at an end. We were able to pass on to others through meeting them in work camps, even though at times the language barrier was a difficulty, that things were going well for the allies and this of course gave hope to all of the longed and fervently prayed for final freedom.
In February ~ March 1945 we began our journey home proper we were put in railway wagons and for 7-8 days travelled down to the Black Sea port of Odessa. The wagon I was in was the kitchen and from here we had a soup meal each day. It was a bit of a stop start journey because priority was of course given to transports and war material going westwards to the front.
When we got to Odessa boarded the S. S. Highland Princess bound for Port Said. What luxury we found on board! After the snow and ice and of having to taking our ablutions in icy ditches at the side of the road we were able to wash ourselves and our clothes. We could be clean for the first time in years it was real luxury! I can remember about a thousand of us including some French and some American G I’s with also some Paras who were taken prisoner at Arnhiem famed as the action that was ‘A bridge too far’. As we marched down to the dockside ready for embarkation we passed the Potemkin Steps which were famously featured in Einstein’s film of the Russian Revolution.
It was quite a stirring march to the quay we were led by a Russian Army Band and on our way we passed work parties of German prisoners. We gave them a bit of good natured jeering and although we remembered their arrogance and triumphal sneering as well as the treatment they had handed out to us we were really quite good natured to them. We were on our way home and I guess nothing mattered anymore except the feelings of euphoria we had because of getting home and seeing our loved ones again after 5 long years, so in the main we were without rancour to the Germans we saw.
On reaching Port Said we sailed home on the old Cunard White Star ship S S The Samaria, docking at Liverpool. I noted that on the TV series Band of Brothers that it was the Samaria that brought over the 101st U S Airborne prior to D. Day. They had trained in Wiltshire near Aldbourne, my sister married a Wiltshire lad while he was stationed in Kent and now lives in a Wiltshire village a few miles from where their training camp was. You might remember that it was the 101st who was dropped in Normandy the evening before D Day the depiction of the tragedy of some being caught up on the spire of the church by their harness and shot (which to my mind was nothing but plain murder!) is a picture that will stay in my mind for ever.
We came home to the lovely English Easter Springtime. Back to the lovely Kent spring sunshine and the joy of family reunions, this was a blissful and thrilling time which was in such a contrast to the grim things still going on in Europe.
Though out our P O W days we all tried our best to care for each other and to encourage and take care of each other as best we could. This care and comradeship went on after the war, we would met up for holidays and outing together, this was a great support and comfort to all concerned. It is not that other could not understand what we had been through but that the comradeship that had been forged in such circumstances of privation and cruelty was such that we did not want to let it fade away. Although through natural causes and as a result of the circumstances of our captivity many old comrades are no longer with us.
After my release and arrival home I went on to meet and marry my dear wife Iris and now have a family and granchildren. I hope and pray that none of my loved ones will go through the dreadful experience and the terrible privations that I and my comrades suffered.
The cruel and wicked suffering of humanity at that time came about because of a savage and evil regime the symbol of which is the swastika. Many think it clever or fashionable to display or even have this symbol tattooed on their bodies. A young prince whose advisers and family should know better might parade around with this symbol as if it makes them seem fashionable or as if it gives them some kind of power but those of us who have suffered because of all that is symbolised by the swastika know and remember just what terrible and horrific things happened under this symbol.
My wife Iris and I went back on a pilgrimage to Poland in 1980 we were able to take part in remembrance ceremonies in Krakow and Poznan. It is in Poznan that the P O W officers who were shot (murdered) after being captured in the escape story filmed as ‘The Great Escape’ are interred. We also visited the infamous Auchwitz Concentration Camp as someone who has lived through the horrors of war I believe that we should never forget and we should always be grateful for our freedom and that we and our loved ones can live in peace because of the sufferings a scarifies of those who took part in.
Return to POW Stories Menu