Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008
memories of Pte Tom Barker
1st Bn Argyll
& Sutherland Highlanders
THE STOVE IN BARRACKS 3
Outside the rain was pouring down, and looking through the window I could see the Postern (guard) outside the wire slowly meandering on his beat from one guard tower to the next, where he would get under and shelter and look round to make sure no one was watching. He could stay there a bit longer out of the downpour of rain, then he would set off and make for the next tower, but when he got to that one he had to turn round and come back. He could not tarry under that particular tower because it could be seen from the camp Commandants office, and if the Commandant was in a bad mood and noticed a Postern taking shelter from the elements instead of trying to catch pneumonia for the Fatherland he could find himself on the next train for the Russian Front, so the sooner he got back to the other tower the sooner he could get into shelter again.
Inside the barrack room it was warm and for a moment I felt a bit sorry for the bloke, having no choice but to stand or walk outside in this miserable weather, with wind gusting, blowing his great coat open at the front so that all the front of his trouser legs were soaked. Also due to the fact he was wearing half jack boots, (top ended at the calf of the leg) the water was running down and he had wet socks and feet. Then I thought "well they started it all let 'em get on with it, and I'll go lay on my bunk and think of how I can stuff it up for them a bit more". But having got comfy on my bunk I would close my eyes and think about Turner's fish and chip shop in George Street back home in Barton-on-Humber in Lincolnshire England, and all those cake shops with cream buns and iced cakes, sitting under those lights. And the fresh bread smell oozing out every time someone opened the door to go in and peruse the whacking great ham sitting on the bacon slicer on the gleaming counter. Then my reverie was broken by the bloke in the next bunk, "you alright mate ?" he queried, looking at me concerned and the book he had been reading was now laid on his chest. "Yea, why, wot's up?" I asked. "Nowt," said he,
"ony ah eerd yu whimper, ah thowt as mebbe yu had got summat caught atween' t' bed boords"?
So I put him at his ease and assured him all was well, but mentioned I was day dreaming about my favourite cake shop. "Oh aye" he says, his face lighting up, "me mam used tu let me 'elp 'er when she wer cookin, she allus sed ah wer a bit like me dad, ----reet good at shovin' creem in'ter tarts."
Then someone would be shaking the bunk and I would hear "mail up" and the face at the end of the bunk would disappear and I would get up and wander over to the stove area where most activity was on a cold wet day, and waited for the mail bloke.
It's funny but always when you are waiting for something good to happen why does it always take so long. I mean we stood like silly buggers as if hypnotized by the closed door. The bloke who a few minutes ago had been busy tin bashing had stopped (he would get a empty meat loaf tin, cut the bottom out, then cut along the seam and by crimping instead of cutting the corners, thus making it water tight, he made a flat tin tray about a half inch deep). Now if he felt like it he could make some chips from potatoes if he could get some potatoes from some where, well you never know your luck in a big POW camp, "know what I mean"? Then there was Hawkesbury Hill on the top bunk, with a big blond handle bar type mustache and mop of blond hair reading a girlie magazine and chortling "gawd do you believe that, as he turned the magazine this way then that way and wishing the pic of the topless girl was in three D so he could poke his eyes out, but when the bloke in the tin bashing business making the tin tray started bashing on this tin, he lowered the magazine and drawled lazily, "I say old thing, do we have to have all this noise, do go somewhere else to bash that bladdy thing, ask the guard if you can have a transfer to another camp, preferably in Siberia, what?" Someone else would rally to Hawky's cause " yeh, f—k off why don' yer an' tek yer f-n tin wit' yer". However all this banter would cease as soon as the door crashed opened, and it's funny, but at home, speaking for myself, we were always brought up to opening and closing doors quietly, and in the house you walk, don't run, and so on. But in a POW camp you have to get in first, and it's every man for himself, and if you don't do it someone else will, y'know, that kind of mentality.
Anyway, enter the mailman, and the first time I was a bit disappointed, I can't explain why but when I saw this bloke dressed like we were, I mean I didn't expect him to look like Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny staggering under a sack bulging with parcels of goodies from home. But just a scruffy bloke needing a shave, with this pathetic little bit of hussein sack with a canvas strap sewn on it
slung over his shoulder, and the size of the sack indicated it's max capacity was a small package and about half a dozen letters. So was it any wonder a lot of faces fell when the mail man withdrew his hand from the sack with only a few letters in it.
Meanwhile there was a buzz of conversation until a voice screams "QUIIIIIIIIIET" and it was as if someone threw a switch, you could hear a pin drop.
"Roit lissen fer yu name" said the mailman
"Smiff?", " 'ere"
"Jenkin's "'e just wen' fer a shit
"Pandora" "e's on't box 'avin' a shit wit' Jenkins"
"Death" " if you don't mind old boy, the name is De-Ath,
"Tenny" "over here" and my heart leaped, I had a parcel, and when I opened it, it was a carton of cigarettes and a pair of woolly socks.
"Right pay attention" cried the mailman , and pausing until it was quiet again he said "I have been asked by the escape committee to inform you that if any of you have got anything lined up for the next four or five days to forget it. A tip has been passed to us that the Gestapo are out in force looking for a bloke who has been busy in our area blowing up things, and they are extremely dischuffed, so we have to keep our heads down for a while until it blows over, o.k.", and disappointed murmurs of "yea, yea, we hear, f—k off why don't yer and dig up some more mail".
Since I did not smoke, the fags were as good as money, for barter that is. I must point out here to save you from being confused that my real name is Tom Barker of The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders but I had changed I.D. disks with a R.A.F. bloke while in the showers, so I was now as far as the Germans were concerned Harry Tenny, Observer, R.A.F.
Tenny and I had agreed that any letters that came for us were to be held by the senior Brit in the camp and were to be delivered when and wherever possible to the rightful recipient, but because parcels were bulky and could not be smuggled so easily we agreed to keep and use each others parcels.
The purpose of this masquerade did have a dual purpose, one reason was to get the real Tenny back to England because being short in the Air Crew Department they could put a fully trained bloke to good use. I, on the other hand had a sneaky feeling that the SS and Gestapo might suddenly wake up to the fact that where POW No 12244 (Tom Barker) was, a lot of trains were being tampered with. So far my sixth sense had kept me out of trouble so I was inclined to take notice of it.
I did think that if indeed Tenny got to England as Tom Barker, Tom Barker would no longer be in Germany, so Jerry could not possibly find him. But if Tom Barker (Tenny) got caught Jerry would match finger prints and photo's and realise he wasn't who he was supposed to be and they would then look for the real one and both of us would be given a sharp tap on the back of the head with a 9mm slug next to a hole in the ground supplied by yours truly and the real Tenny.
Well Tenny did escape from a work commando and got caught, and I sweated, and even today I cannot believe that the Germans never latched on to who he really was, because after a while in the cooler, the last time I saw Tenny was waving to me from the back end of a work commando, just going out of the main gate. So I wandered back to the stove and got my empty meat loaf tin with the wire handle on it and nimbly nipping into the wash house adjoining our hut and nonchalantly nicking half a pint of H2O from the nearest tap I nipped back to the stove put it on the iron plate next to all the other tins that were gradually getting warmed up and had a natter with another bod who like me, was waiting patiently for a brew the noo, and when it brewed I was going to raise my tin mug to Barker (Tenny) and hope he made it the second time round.
A couple of tins in the middle were boiling merrily, and sadistically I thought for a brief moment, "if they can't be bothered to check their tins then let the buggers boil dry. But since my mother had always taught me "be nice," I looked at the little metal tag attached to the handle and read the number and shouted the numbers so the owners could come along and dunk their tea bags into them. Sometimes the owner was pre-occupied and if five minutes later the tins were still there boiling away then you would remove them from the hottest part of the plate and put them on the outside of the group of tins on the plate, so as tins boiled and were removed the outsiders inched their way to the hottest part of the plate in the middle and of course they in turn boiled, so everyone was happy. One removed ones tin when boiling by using a metal hook because the wire handle could and did sometimes burn fingers.
One could not put paper or cards on a tin and someone tried to paint a number on his tin, but because the stove would some times be red in the middle it would burn these off. So some enterprising bod came up with these little disks about the size of a penny, made from tin lids and a number stamped on each, the number would be stamped on the metal by holding a nail and tap tapping it with an iron fish plate (that's the metal bar with four holes in it, you will find two of these locking one railway line to the next with four heavy nuts and bolts). "Where on earth would you get a fish plate"? you might casually warble, well, when in adversity, you nick anything that's not nailed down, even if you don't need it at that particular time. There is a special name for that kind of junk, it's called "come in handy gear", and you wouldn't believe the gear some blokes stored, nails, bits of wire. One bloke had a metal washer from the bolt that secured two fish plates together between two railway lines, and as he lay on his bunk he would juggle it down between his fingers and one of his mates in the next bunk said to him one day "yu gittin' pretty good wi' that thing aint yu" and matey with the washer looked at it wistfully and replied "yea, it reminds me of somethin' but ah can't put mah finger on it. But if Jerry locks me in the cooler ahm goin' tu crawl through that little hole", indicating the hole in the washer, "and ahm away". Mind you if we moved most of it had to be left behind sometimes, one can only carry so much, as the elephant said just before giving birth to quads.
One could buy a number tag with wire to attach to one's tin, it would cost you two fags.
The stove was simplicity itself, a brick layer had built an oblong box of bricks about the size of a dinner table with a hole at one end to feed fuel into and an iron plate about a quarter of an inch thick was laid on the top. About six inches from the floor inside the stove were iron bars set into the brick work so as the wood burned any ash could fall through. We would take it in turns to clear and empty the ash daily, also the top of the stove would get a good scrape to remove any food that had spilled on the plate causing smoke and cinders.
A bloke called Coulson was a R.A,F. bod, he was also a painter, and our stove had a brick chimney which was about two feet square, and on this chimney was a notice board where local gossip and notes about wanted to swap, one tin of meat loaf for a tin of herrings, or two fags for a hair cut, or tin of sardines for a packet of custard powder, and so on. Well Coulson the painter was painting in water colours a picture of a Lancaster 4 engine bomber, and I sat for a while and watched him, "you paint?"
he queried after a while, glancing side ways at me and not missing a brush stroke. I replied "yes, but not like that" "oh you paint in oils?" said he with a smile, and I said "no I meant my painting is pathetic". And he with a grin said "practice and you will get better, but whatever you do don't give up on it" and today in 1997 at the age of 76 I paint with oils, gratis Coulson.
Coulson also painted a girlie picture about two feet square and if you have ever seen those pics the Yanks had on their bomber aircraft, a girl in a tight blouse, looked like she was a water melon smuggler and had legs all the way up to her bum, encased in equally tight shorts or mini skirt. Well when that pic was finished and hung on the peg above the notice board, word got round the camp and it looked like Sutherby's in London had just announced that they were giving away free antique furniture, there was a queue outside our hut you would not believe, and that was next doors mob, wait till word gets to all the other huts.
But worse was to come, because the first night when the lights went out we became aware of something different, someone whispered "what's that noise" and someone else suggested "my guess is if it's not bombing a long way off it's a slight earth shake, about 1.2 on the Richter scale at a guess". All was quiet for a while then it started up again, and someone snarled, "sounds like a f---n' ship yard, ------all of a sudden every b-----d is an expert riveter. The next day, to cries of woe the picture was removed by order of the hut leader, but someone countered this by suggesting it would be a good cloak for a map, so in due course we got the pic back but as soon as the door was bolted for the night it was turned round and on the other side we had a map of where the Russians were and where the Allies were and flags were stuck in so anyone could wander past and see the latest moves. But at midnight it was turned to the wall again minus the flags.
One of the problems we had with our stove was if someone tried to escape, whether he got home or was recaptured make no difference, but our fuel for the stove would be revoked for about a month, and instead of hot showers we got cold ones. If the commandant's missus said "no" when he went home for the weekend he would come back and we would get no parcels for a fortnight, so with no fuel we had no heat, we could not cook, but if it was winter time with no heat to warm the barracks and ice forming on the inside of our window panes due to condensation it could get to be a bit uncumfy.
So this situation became more aggravated because when you can't get warm you soon start to devise ways to stimulate the flow of blood. One good way was to dig a tunnel, not unlike story telling in that you get so far and everything caves in, so you start again, but this time you think ah ha, well some might say "oh ho," "I need a different approach" but you know what I mean.
Well when you start again you think "now if I had some boards I could shore up the sides of the tunnel and collapses would be a thing of the past." Boards?, ding ding," under every body's bed, there are lots of boards made for the job, so without more ado now and again every Tom Dick and Fred will nick a few boards from this bed and a few from that bed when the owner is abroad trying to flog his spam for fags, and because the fuel ration has been stopped some lads have been nicking boards from beds other than their own to make a brew on the stove, and heads have been scratched to queries of "I thought Jerry had stopped the fuel issue?" "so how are come they are making tea?"
Due to the fact that some blokes are now trying to sleep balancing on three bed boards instead of the issued twenty it's not long before you get two or three blokes during the night turning over and dropping in on the bloke below to cries of "shit ,where did you come from", and f--k off this is my bed, and "oh, so sorry, I just thought yu looked lonely, so ah dropped in fer a quick chat". The angry owner having been wakened just when he was chatting up Betty Grable in his dream, retorts "well now yu had yu f--n quick chat, ger aht me bed or ahl f—n do yu".
Next day the scouts would be out foraging for more boards, and it got to the stage where one or more of our blokes were sleeping on the floor, but this had it's hilarious moments, you see Jerry had built all these barracks on stilts so the dogs at night could roam underneath and thwart any attempted escape in the downward direction, from a barrack room that is, so these blokes sleeping on the floor, while trying to get to sleep would perchance hear "sniff sniff" from some where under the floor boards, and some crafty devil sees a knot in the wood and pushes it out and the dog, now attracted by a kissing noise emanating from this hole in the wood above investigates it with his nose and the bloke above knows that it is a physical impossibility for the dog to lift his leg and piss through this knot hole above it's head, so assisted by gravity he leaks on the sniffing nose instead, and the dog retreats sneezing and whining and shaking a now wet smelly head, while a smirking bloke above is nudging his mate and chuckling "I think that dogs pissed off".
Some blokes would overcome the fuel shortage by approaching me with a slack hand full of fags, with the request "make me a blower mate" and I would get some tins, the main one being an empty Canadian powdered milk tin (Klim) and after about an hour I could swap a blower for said fags.
So now clutching his new blower the bloke would make a beeline for the wash house, where a scrap of paper and a couple of twigs would soon have a blacksmith's forge going before you could say "stroll nonchalantly to starboard", but even that had it's down side because soon lots of blokes had blowers.
and in the morning when the first brew was being made Jerry thought the barracks were on fire, so all hell let loose until we showed the irate commandant the source of the smoke, and he got quite carried away by our ingenuity, and as he was leaving he turned and wagged a finger at us and the interpreter
translated his parting shot "I don't mind you burning rubbish, it keeps the camp tidy, but woe betide any one caught breaking wood from the barracks to burn" "Oh, and stop pissing on my dogs."
Tom Barker 1997©
2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.