Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
SWISS RED CROSS
We read or watch films of War, POW camp's, escapes and so on and amid all the clamour and excitement we ignore, or miss out on a movement or group of people who even today in peace time quietly go out of their way to bring help, and relief to the less fortunate of us who some times through our own stupidity find ourselves in dire situations.
What prompted me to jot this down?.
About a week ago I got a query from a gent who was doing a bit of research, I was pleased I could answer his question. I got to thinking that while writing all this "Bang yu is dead stuff", a lot of other stuff got left out, like, "on Thursday we got a Red Cross parcel between two men". "What is wrong with that?", you may ask. Well, if you ever read the ads in a newspaper, "Wanted, bath for a baby with a copper bottom", you may want to peruse the two men bit again. It would have made more sense, "one Red Cross parcel was shared by two men." But some times when one sticks to the Kings English, one loses the rhythm of a story and if a person can jot down his thoughts as they enter his head the reader gets a fresh and original yarn to read. I suppose it is in a way the same as painting in oils, when one paints a picture sticking rigidly to the rules, no one give it a second glance but if someone paints something outrageous he gets a million dollars for it. It's a funny old world to be sure.
Anyway we read that parcels were issued, but what was never mentioned what was in those parcels. A parcel would be made of very strong cardboard and would be in two parts. The bottom half and the top half, the top half covered the bottom half and was secured by strong string. Not unlike a shoe box except this lid reached to the bottom of the bottom half making a double barrier against damage to the contents at the sides. It had a Red Cross stamped on one corner and on another corner it was stamped Croix Rouge. The colour of the cardboard on the inside of the box was a very light blue but the out side was a beige to light brown colour.
The contents of each parcel varied but among a group of POW we could swap what we didn't like.
A typical parcel would contain the following
1 bar of soap or toothpaste
1 bar of Cadbury's nut and fruit chocolate or similar
1 tin of Klim (Canadian dried milk powder) or 1 tin of Carnation evaporated milk or 1 tin of Nestles condensed sweetened milk.
1 tin of Player's cigarettes (50) or 1 tin of Digger flake pipe tobacco.
1 tin of Irish stew or similar.
1 tin of rice pudding or similar.
1 tin of Fray Benthos corned beef. or 1 tin of pilchards.
1 tin of sardines.
1 small round tin of cheese.
1 tin of jam or marmalade
1 tin of butter usually Canadian, and I used to love the way it squeezed through the holes in a cream cracker biscuit.
1 tin of coffee.
And other yummy stuff.
You would not believe the mischief you could get up to if you got a tin of coffee in your parcel.
It used to happen like this. One of our blokes perhaps has done a bit of washing and hangs it out on a line between the barracks to dry. Sounds a bit mundane but there is a lot more to that than meets the eye.
To begin with he has chosen that particular spot to hang his line so that when he washes his rags out he can dry them on said line. Since he has chosen a spot near his window he can now sit by that window and, while reading all about Betty Grable he can make sure no one nicks his apparel, or what passes for a uniform. While devouring Betty's picture on the front of his book and nibbling on his nails, I thought it's a good job we don't have mental telepathy or he would be barging into Betty's mind, just as she was having a cup of tea in her favourite restaurant and he mouths "ok cutey ahm 'ere, gerrem off". While ravaging Betty this character would now and again look up from the page as he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. He would note the approaching ferret (a roaming at will guard inside the camp) and a couple of sharp taps on the wooden wall would alert any ne-er do well to desist in his enterprise until the all clear was given. Some times he would leap up and yell "there's a truck at the main gate". Some blokes with dirty minds would immediately scramble to the nearest windows with tongues hanging out with cries of "where, where?" and the droll reply from our mate with the book would be "I said TRUCK". Then we would have to wait until the main gate was opened and the truck came into the camp to see if it contained a contingent of the Gestapo coming to look for some one hiding in our camp or it was indeed a Red Cross truck.
If it was a Red Cross truck we knew it would not be long before the middle gate would be opened by the Jerry sentry. If you have ever been to the dogs, you know the dog races where all the dogs are straining at the leash and as the hare flashes past they leap forward as they are let go, all bunched up muscles and flailing legs, slavering at the mouth, gleaming fangs, blood shot eyes fixed on the nuts of the dog in front? Well our mob was a bit like that when Jerry opened the gate, and if he had not stepped back a bit sharpish he could have got trampled to death.
Then we would get to the truck and file past and if the parcel was one between two, I mean sometimes there were not enough to go round, so the senior Brit would get out his note book and after ten to fifteen minutes of maths, he would decide it would be one between four. So if any were left over they would be safely stored till the next lot came, then the saved ones could be added to them to boost the number and maybe we could get one between two again. We did on occasion get one parcel each but then the next parcel would be late so it worked itself out. As I sit here typing this I can still vividly remember the comments as the senior Brit announced one parcel per man, a mad cheer would rise from the motley assembly, and for two men to a parcel there was a moderate cheer, but for four to a package you would hear "well it's still better than just lousey Jerry soup.
And sometimes we would hear from the guards that a long stretch of railway was under repair because a truck had jumped off the lines and stuffed up the time table in that particular area. I would go have a shave and wink at the bloke in the mirror. Unfortunately not only was the gear to the front immobilized but any Red Cross packages to us were also held up, so not wishing to be lynched I kept quiet. That poster I read so often on the station platform informing us that "pssst, Feind hurt mit" With an umlaut over the U in hurt, two dots if yu is higorant. In English it meant, "the enemy is listening", so I played it safe with both sides, Jerry and his trains and our blokes with their parcels.
But most times it was one between two and the main thing was to keep your eye on the bloke who had half of your parcel, and if you could have seen them you could be forgiven if you thought the two were manacled to each other because where ever the bloke with the parcel went the other bloke was like his shadow until you got back to the barrack room where you shared by common agreement. By that I mean you could say to him how about you take that and I'll take this. But a tin of corned beef you could not half because it could go bad, so you made an agreement to open it when you both wanted to use it at the same time, and so with other things and it worked pretty good.
The only gripe I had was sometimes when you got a tin of corned beef the key to open it was missing or the metal tab where the key fitted to wind it open broke off. And since we had no knives it was impossible to open a tin of corned beef with a spoon so you had to swap 1 cigarette to borrow a key, that is if someone had a key.
Sometimes a parcel would have something different in it like a tin of cocoa or Horlicks or a tin of Benger's food.. Benger's food is not unlike dried milk it can be used to make a milkshake or can be added to food like a sauce. Mixed in with a custard, there were lots of different ways it could be eaten. I think it's main advantage was it was ideal for people with tummy troubles, and since it was enriched with vitamins and minerals to enable the sick to cope better with their malady. As soon as every one got back to the barracks the questions would fly "What lucky B---d got a tin of coffee then. And someone or perhaps two would chortle "ow abaht that then" and holding a tin of coffee on high for all to see they would grin at everyone like they had just dug up the Hope diamond. "Lucky b---d "someone would mutter, but then the bloke had to find some where to hide it, because you just don't drink gold.
And I sometimes muse today about during WW 2 how Hitler flooded the market with funny money, how he went to all that trouble setting up people to make all the different plates and getting the printing organized and so on and right under his very nose there we were sitting with the equivalent of $5000 in one parcel. Coffee in England during WW2 could have cost about two bob a tin but in Germany real coffee was as scarce as rocking horse shit and if you had a tin you were indeed a lucky man. Of course it was not planned it just happened, the first time we got a parcel someone took the tin of coffee to work and at midday when he made a brew the breeze took the aroma (a bit like the Bisto kids) over the railway line and past this factory. If you have ever seen some of the zombie films where a gorgeous blonde is tied to a tree then someone rings the dinner bell at sunset and all the zombies rise out of the ground flashing fangs and making hungry noises, well this scene was a bit like that. In that one wiff and everyone downed tools, even those in the toilets, and with noses reaching for the scent of coffee like a bull elephant's trunk trying to detect a cow in heat they stumbled over each other to get to the source and it was not long before the owner of the coffee realized the potential in one tin of unopened coffee.
Perhaps what the reader does not realize is the fact that in WW2 in Germany the nearest one could get to a drink of coffee was roasted ground acorns and personally I would have preferred water from the local duck pond. It is not surprising when our mate made this coffee everyone who got a wiff of it was under a spell so to speak so it was not long before the price of a unopened tin of English coffee sky rocketed, and if some fortunate joker got a parcel with a tin of coffee in the contents it was like winning lotto. Needless to say, you didn't leave it lying around for all and sundry to peruse. It would have been like Barklay's bank leaving a gleaming gold bar in the middle of the street teeming with out of work ex soldiers. It would not have surprised me if someone had walked past me in those days with a twig between his hands dowsing for a bed whose owner had been fortunate enough to get a tin of coffee in his parcel. Well, when you are a POW you suddenly become Jack of all trades just to keep abreast of the times. With four tins of coffee the world is your oyster to coin a phrase. I often wondered how many tins would have persuaded some joker in the black market to knock off Hitler.
I think word got back to England that accidentally here was a secret weapon that could corrupt the German people because a lot of flag waving had died down a bit and people were beginning to see that Germany was not going to get all her own way after all. And more parcels seemed to have coffee in them all of a sudden. Sometimes if the guards were a bit slack or they had been bribed, a bloke would take out a tin of coffee and blokes on the work party came back into the camp with a loaf of bread tucked under their jacket and if there were ten men on that work party then ten loaves of rye bread wasn't a bad swap for a little tin of coffee. And the price kept going up as some of the Gestapo now were taking an interest because there was a profit to be made. Like I said before all this was undermining the German war effort.
Most German blokes who smoked pipes had a little tin in their pocket and in it was a pathetic collection of dried daisy flower heads, these would be crammed into the bowl of a wooden pipe and with a grimace the owner would light up. Our blokes would take pity and dragging out a tin of Digger Flake with a nudge nudge, wink wink to their mates they would ask the bloke for his pipe and knocking out the daisy heads, fill it with flake, then hand it back motioning the owner to light up and enjoy. With the pipe now firmly clenched in his mouth the Jerry would light up and the first time he puffed and inhaled he had to sit down because it made him so giddy. "Farfluchter noch mal, was is das?" (bloody hell what is that, or the equivalent). But a lot of these little niceties sometimes paid off later if you wanted a favor later on.
Chocolate brings back happy memories, the Bosh had chocolate but against English chocolate it was no contest. Rowntree and Cadbury's should have got a medal because with a bar of either you could bribe some of the guards to do hand stands while you held his rifle. So in after sight the parcel to the Brits did as much in undermining the German system as secret agents did because, lets face it you had only to pick the wrong bloke to bribe and that was your lot. So one had to step clever so to speak by knowing who you were dealing with or the next step could be your last. Most blokes made sure they had something on the bloke they were dealing with as insurance so to speak.
One day a car pulled in to the camp and two very dapper gents got out and went into the camp commandants office and our grape vine was such that we knew the moment the meeting was over and what we suspected came true, to quote one of our blokes "there y'are Dicko yu owe me 10 fags I knew the Kraut wouldn't issue new blankets just like that, an' ahl tell yu what, I bet yu another 10 they is gorn afore they two Swiss blokes is out the camp". So we watched them come out of the camp commandants office and the commandant was all smiles and stepping back to allow the two gents go first and behind these three fetching up the rear came the German Feld Wabel (sergeant and two posterns (guards) and this party strolled to our living quarters as if they were visiting the local zoo, mind you looking at some of our blokes I suppose that remark is not so far off target. Anyway on entering the first hut one of the Swiss gents asked one of our lads "are they treating you well", and we nodded and smiled politely and glancing left we noticed the grim face of the German Sergeant, woe betide anyone who says something out of line.
The Swiss Red Cross excelled in another direction in that they would push until Jerry repatriated some of our blokes back to their home land because of mental illness due to action at the front. To see some of these blokes would make you weep, some times today you might see a bloke selling poppies at the yearly parade on the 11th of Nov, all smiles and a vacant look, but a lot of young people today don't even know about let alone see some of the old blokes who have to be fed because the can't even hold a spoon steady now, and when a heavy truck goes by they cringe, weep and whisper Stuka (dive bomber) walk down the street and someone kick starts a motor byke and the bloke is on the floor trembling and ashen faced.
But like I said before the Red Cross did a Stirling job and they can call at my house any time. Tom Barker 1997©
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.