WW II, a British focus  



memories of Pte Tom Barker
1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

Tom Barker passed on October 1st 2008poppy.gif - 1571 Bytes


Trains always fascinated me when I was a lad, so it's not surprising my interest in them was renewed when I was forced to work near any railway yards while a prisoner of war in Germany for four years (1941-45).

As I grew up I also accumulated (alongside the three Re's that one learns), more by keeping quiet and listening to others. I also learned that, to do unto others as you would be done by, sometimes didn't work so I adapted my own theme, do unto others then run. Well it seemed to work better, for me, -------that is.

The first labour camp I was in was Stalag 3D, near a village called Teltow and Herr Montag was the camp commandant. A labour camp was so named because if you did not work you didnot eat, so you did not have a choice but to work to live. I think one does what one has to just to survive, because who knows what tomorrow may bring. The food we got was just enough to sustain us so that we could work.

One day when we were on the station platform waiting for a train to take us to our work. The guard who was watching over us was told by the station master to move us away from the station also everyone else was ushered away from the station and I thought to my self 'there must be a bomb!

But a little while later this all black heavily armoured train bristling with anti aircraft guns came gliding into the station. As it stopped SS guards blocked all doors, and through one of the huge oblong windows of what looked like the lounge carriage, I could plainly see Adolf Hitler talking to some one opposite across a table. We were approximately a hundred yards away and the thought flashed through my mind to grab the rifle off the guard who was too busy picking his teeth, but then I thought if the glass is bullet proof I would achieve nothing and we would all have been shot, probably the guard with us also. To me the swap was unequal, fifteen pow's plus one guard, I didn't consider even Hitler was worth that much. The train moved on about fifteen minutes later, so I had just missed getting my name into the history books. When the train had gone we were allowed back on the platform and we got our train and went to work.

Later on in the day at work I would say to the guard "pingle pauser", meaning I wanted to relieve myself and I would point behind some rail wagons. The guard would shout "ya,ya", and wave o.k. So I would crouch behind the wagons and pretend to be looking for ants in the gravel and when I was sure no one could see me I would lift the metal lid on the axle grease box of the nearest wagon and scoop out a hand full of grease and push into the grease box a lot of sand and gravel then put the grease back on top of it and shut the lid. Then I would emerge with a contented smile at the guard and to add a bit of colour I would be adjusting my clothing.

I knew what I was doing, so if I got caught I would be shot as a saboteur. Also you never knew who you were talking to, so it payed to keep mum. I did not push my luck and I would sometimes make up for lost chances, what I mean is, I never stuck to a pattern.

One guard we had was a head case. He used to wait till we were working and he would then pull out this little mirror and look at himself while smoothing his eye brows and tweaking his nose. One day he was so busy looking in the mirror he tripped over a tree root and nearly fell down. The only thing was all the blokes had stopped working and had been stood watching him for a while and there were comments like "cor don' e'loike hissel" and "it's just as well no bugger else does". Then there would be a titter of mirth and when he tripped every one shouted "bravo encore, author" and we all clapped our hands. The guard got real nasty so we went back to working.

What happens is the bearings in the axle box are made of white metal whose melting point is a little above that of lead and while they are lubricated by the grease packed in the box they stay relatively cool. But should impurities like sand get in and cause friction which in turn, turns to heat then the grease melts and runs out of the box and the now dry bearings get hotter and hotter until they turn to liquid and leak out of the box. The axle which was turning between two halves of well greased white metal now has a whole box about a foot square to jump about in, so the end result is the continued buffeting of the axle in the box smashes the box and the wagon is derailed and all wagons following it pile up onto each other causing chaos on that line. If it happens near a built up area or hilly area it really causes havoc for a long time, and the cost to the British government was not so many Lancaster bombers and crews but 10/- a week for a Pte. soldier.

And the best part about it was partisans were being blamed for it, "the French under ground has struck again" would be the cry. Don't get me wrong, I think the French underground did a terrific job, as did lots of individuals, but I have not read or heard any one mention about those few of us who did what we did right under the noses of the Germans and without tools or explosives.

The only thing that got up my nose were the blokes who would say "I can stick this till the war ends" and "your a bloody idiot risking getting caught and shot, and for what ?, when it's all over who will care what any of us did".

Well this might sound corny but I have no regrets for what I did but I do feel sorry for those blokes who had the could not care less attitude because with their lack of zeal or zest for life they may as well be dead. Its a pity they were born in the first place. I would lay on my bunk and think out different ways I could sock it to the Jerry so to speak. I often wondered how they got that name, "Jerry" was there any connection with the pot under the bed, maybe toilet would have been a better word even, maybe I was flag happy but I was not alone. Maybe my mum bought me too many comics when I was a kid, but I would do it again given the chance.

Why suddenly am I writing this? Well I am 75, no big deal. Lots of people get to be 100, the only trouble is we don't get a ticket or a pass that guarantees we will get to be 100 so I thought it was time to write this and clue in some people who seemed to think we sat around on our backsides waiting to be rescued.

Of course there were types among us who laid back and did nothing, "I can sit here and relax till the war is over then go home in one piece, but if you want to be a hero go for it" was their motto. Sadly there were more of these than blokes who felt they should do something no matter how small. I salute the minority.

We would be working one day and suddenly a cheer would go up when a train went racing past with smoke pouring from one and sometimes two of the wagon axles and we would hear from the guards. Little did they know ?.

I would be really chuffed when the smoke coming from an axle belonged to a train loaded with fifty Tiger tanks and other war materials. And it was good to see the wagon with the smoky wheel was in front of the wagons loaded with tanks because all the wagons after the smoky would be derailed so fifty tanks would be late for the front if they got there at all.

Certainly some would be damaged. Some would say I was mad to go picking up the white metal off the sleepers where it had dropped from the wagon forming shapes like coins and sometimes like tear drops. When I got this metal back to camp I would save it until I had enough to make utensils. Then we got moved.

Stalag 404 near a village called Grossbeeren was a different camp in that during our short stay there we never got to play with trains or any thing else for that matter. But I did almost put my foot in it so to speak when I thought I was being smart.

I had been rounded up with other blokes because we said we could lay bricks, so jerry decided to use us to help out the local contractor to repair some buildings. Well I thought this a golden opportunity to get up to mischief, So when I built up this wall which was supposed to key into an existing wall at right angles, I left out the key brick so when the wall was finished if some one leaned a ladder against it it would fall down.

If you have ever seen a wall with half bricks missing every other layer then these were the bricks I left out. But the snag was before they got covered up the guard spotted what I was up to and stopped me doing that job any more. He made me join the lads who were mixing the mortar so I put in less cement and stuck it to the jerry that way. The next day I was not with the building brigade any more.

Alas I was now missing out on those hot potatoes at midday and had to settle for what passed as soup. And yes it looked like someone had just passed it. And some times smelled like it as well.

To make matters worse any one in the camp all day had to put up with being roused about by some of the ferrets. Ferrets were the German guards who did not patrol the wire but roamed all over the camp just watching and waiting for an excuse to harang or abuse anyone they thought hadn't been abused lately. They took to baiting anyone. For example one day a bloke with a broken leg was hobbling along and a ferret coming from the opposite direction turned his foot a little and tapped his toe against the near crutch causing the bloke to crash to the ground. All the guards had a good laugh, meanwhile the ferret was saying how sorry he was and added "vie don' you look vare you are goink". There were lots of little incidents that were more frustrating than annoying.

Some of us thought the mentality of some of these Germans was such that, that was the reason they were here. They were too stupid to be otherwise employed, and when some of us voiced this opinion it was like some one had scored a goal at a footy match and it helped to get us through the day.

We had a bloke in our hut, his name was, Nat, he was A&sSH same mob as me but he was a right Charlie. One day the camp commandant came round the huts to inspect them and when he got to Nat, Nat clicked his heels and pressed his hands to his sides and copied the German soldiers way of following the officer with his gaze. Then when the officer was passed clicking his head to the front. Nat spoke a little German so when the officer spoke to him Nat stiffened even more and answered in German. The officer remarked that Nat would make a fine German soldier and Nat responded with a click of his heels.

.Some of our blokes didn't like this show of fraternisation and loudly voiced their opinion to Nat when the camp commandant and his cronies had gone. "Why don't you go and join the f---gkrauts if you so pally with them". They grabbed his bed and slung it out. He must have found succour elsewhere because he did not sleep in that hut any more.

We would pass the time by telling jokes or making up stories of what we were going to do when we got home. Some of the suggestions were hilarious and even if we were hungry we could still laugh. It also served as a cloak because while jerry was busy wondering why we were so jolly when we had nothing to be jolly about others were busy with escape plans and diggings.

I did hear that in one camp there were so many tunnels under the barracks the whole block sank four feet one night after it rained all night. In another barracks the roof collapsed because of earth piledup in the ceiling. One wooden shed finally collapsed because we had scavenged most of the nails that held it together. Nails made good tools, they also made good axles for fans in tea blowers, (like in a blacksmiths forge).

Then one day a bloke on a tractor was mowing the clover outside the wire and the guard out side the wire stopped to watch. As he passed when all of a sudden one of the big rear wheels of the tractor sank down and the engine stalled. When jerry brought in another tractor to tow the bogged down one out they discovered a tunnel out of our camp, so then for the next week we had a search looking for more tunnels.

We had fun because when jerry found a tunnel he would smirk at us and say "vie du yu vaste yore tiame dikkink tannals ven yu know vie hef vays of findin,k zem"? But most were old tunnels so we couldn't care less, but it did keep jerry busy while we were interested in other projects. Anyway if I made a jerry miserable if only for a short time it was worth it. The main clue to success was think like a German and do the opposite.

Well it worked for me from 1941- 43. Then I changed identities with an RAF bloke called Tenny so my getting out of the camp was curtailed.

2982252 Pte Barker T.O. 1st Bn Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, Born 23 May 1921.
Tom Barker