WW II, a British focus




About two weeks passed during which a consignment of Red Cross parcels arrived that did allow a whole parcel each. The effect on morale was euphoric throughout the camp. The French were not jealous since they were already receiving private parcels direct from home making some trading possible. In the more settled atmosphere of the camp, some vestige of community life was emerging. There were many working outside but based in the camp who were able to smuggle anything that could be get past the gate, from small quantities of eggs, sausage and bread, to oddments that might come in handy.

One Englishman would come round the huts in the evenings and recite a poem he had made up called 'Running down the Dunkirk Sands'. It was funny with verses continually added. He would pass his cap around for any reward, which were mostly rotten socks. He accepted these, washed and unpicked them and made them up into small skeins for repairing. He would trade these for a potato or a French cigarette perhaps. There were other examples of trading and anyone found cheating soon got short shrift. Almost unnoticed, we were slowly adapting to circumstances, always someone with a new idea for making life more tolerable.

There was a row at the gates one day between the German Feltwable (Sergeant Major), Charlie and Captain Rose. It appeared they wanted ten tradesmen, carpenters and joiners, to work away from the camp, but there was only two registered as woodworkers, a Sergeant of the Royal Engineers and myself. Apparently, nobody was sent out on a job alone, there had to be at least two to justify a guard and the German commander was insisting that I be sent regardless of the fact that I was excused duty. Captain Rose, supported by Charlie argued the Geneve Convention and anything else they could think of. Eventually I was called and asked if I felt fit enough and wanted to go. It seemed to me that one got better rations outside and that it may be more interesting. I asked if it was indoor work, benchwork in a workshop for instance. This resulted in a retreat to the outside hut and phone calls, and it was confirmed that it was that kind of work. So Sgt. Hugh Watts and myself were soon at the gate and taken to the railway station.

Our destination was Deutsch-Eyleau, a small town where timber and woodwork were the main activities. If Eyleau meant island then it was well named as I was later to discover with saw mills and rafts of timber floating downstream all around and workshops. We were taken to a camp on the edge of the town. It had been a slaughter house in a previous existence, and was on the edge of the equivalent of a village green. It had no wire around it, just a solid brick building. A room at the front was occupied by the guards leading into an area where a large kitchen range stood. Beyond that was a small room that led through to two larger rooms where 25 prisoners were billeted. That was it. There were two Frenchmen who worked at a jewelers on clock and watch repairing and another sergeant and private of the Service Corps who worked at a sheet metal place making chicken incubators. The remainder were taken to the town hall each morning where they were split up into various labouring jobs, some taken over by civilians armed with pistols.

There were two double bunks in the little room next to the cooking area. One to be shared by the two sergeants and the other by myself and the cook, an elderly man who had volunteered for the Pioneer Corps building positions. He did very well with the rations but would let his cigarette ash drop in the soup.

The next morning everyone was turned out and marched up to the town hall with the two metal workers being dropped off on the way. The two Frenchmen fell out along the high street at their place of work. Hughie (as he became known) and I continued further along and were taken through the front garden of a large house to find a large 'L' shaped workshop and timber shelter occupying three sides of a yard where chickens ran freely. A large gentleman of robust build greeted us, and if there was ever any doubts about the expression 'square head', he was living proof. His attitude was polite, even gentlemanly, apologising for his limited English as he waved a translation book. He said he’d had ten Frenchmen there but they were useless and had sent them back. He would have preferred Frenchmen because he could speak their language.

He introduced himself as Herr Sukhard and told us that he had been a major in the Ulan Cavalry in the first war. What was my rank? He asked pointing to my chevron. Gefrieter (Lance Corporal) I replied. Where did I come from? London I said to which he shook his head sadly saying 'much bomb-bomb'. He then asked Hughie the same questions and seemed impressed to find he was a sergeant, but when Hughie said he came from Edinburgh, the old boy shot back a pace with a startled expression. 'Nay, Scotlanders, heathen who came up out of the trenches wearing skirts and playing doodle-sacks!'

He could not take it in that there were educated and civilised Scots like Hughie. Further inquiries resulted in Hughie being established in the machine shop where he would work mostly alone. I was given a bench just inside the door of the bench room. Poles occupied the next two benches. Beyond them were three benches occupied by apprentices. The oldest of the apprentices was my age. Previously he was a member of the Hitler Youth. There was no doubting his fervent support for the 'cause' but he was not so bright as his contemporaries. The Meister did not countenance failure in his work. The apprentice was handicapped because, by virtue of his age, in addition to day release as part of the apprenticeship, he also had a further day off to train as a glider pilot. It was on those days he would sometimes call into the works in his uniform of black with silver buttons, lanyard, etceteras, a very impressive getup. He would put on a show, strutting around and the Miester clearly approved of this exhibitionism, but, like the war itself, it had its limitations.

With the successes of the war, the older lad would come back to the workshop after his afternoon training. It was only a matter of time before he came up to me, and in a loud voice so that everyone could hear, said that although we were the same age, he, because he was a German, was a better man than I. And, believe it, challenged me to a dual! It was nonsense but I agreed to take him on. Hughie was horrified that anything should happen and the Meister find out, and the others were concerned too. No doubt he had told his outside friends about me being the same age and was possibly goaded into this. I was not going to back down for any reason and so it was decided that the others would keep watch for the Meister whilst we went into the machine shop on our own and squared up.

I have to admit that he was a gentleman up to a point, in inviting me to say what form of contest should take place. I instantly suggested boxing but he said nay, that is an English sport. I then suggested wrestling which he was obviously angling for. OK, wrestling suits me I said and so without further ado he grabbed me. He should not have done that, or come to that, anything else, for in less than a minute I had him pinned face down on the floor helpless. He had the good grace to bang the floor three times and I let him go. We went back into the work room where he stiffly clicked his heels and acknowledge that I had bettered him and we shook hands, bloody fool!

When he failed to turn up for work for a couple of weeks and we were told he had had an accident. No details, until one day he materialised. He had his glamorous uniform on but he was also on crutches with one leg and one arm in plaster plus a bandage around his head. He had crashed a glider. Thus are the mighty fallen. It must be said, in the Meister's estimation too, for when he saw the apparition he went stark raving mad. Not only giving the poor sod a mouthful but clouting him as well, nearly knocking him off his crutches - how dare he be so careless as to smash up a valuable glider, he was a dumbkoff! He returned to work in due course but his glider course was terminated.

The benches were of Continental pattern and in many ways superior to our own. The wood planes provided were to me, a picture, being made of boxwood with curling pigtail at the front to hold but there were no iron planes. I was given some wood to prepare for, I suspect, no other reason than to see what I could do. Although left alone, my bench was at right angles to all the others so everyone could covertly watch me. I took up the jackplane, looked at the setting and set to work. Well, that was the idea but the timber, German spruce, whilst being woolly textured had knots like cast iron. As I hit a knot so I shuddered to a standstill discovering how weak I had become. This was a serious problem to me. It was the kind of work I needed, I did not want to be sent back. I made a show of inspecting the set and reset to take the finest shaving possible and in this way struggled through the day to flop out back at the camp exhausted. I stuck with it and gradually my strength came back.

A relationship built up between us working there. In addition to our better conditions, parcels had begun arriving fairly regularly and enough for one each. Sometimes they were Canadian parcels that contained a packet of coffee. There was nothing better to trade with. Bread was our greatest need to provide the bulk for the highly nutritious parcel items. The camp life flourished beyond all expectations. An Irishman got a regular job of going round the town with a horse and cart to collect potato peelings. On his rounds he would pass working parties of prisoners who passed him various items which he would drop off at the camp when collecting there. It had ceased to be small time.

As usual, one morning as we were marched first to the town hall. There was the inevitable small group of German employers waiting to engage workers and as we arrived so did a party of Poles wearing their yellow 'P's, also available for work. Once the employers had selected their men the remainder of us marched to our usual places.

That morning was different. It was clear one of the Poles refused to work for the same employer as before, there was much shouting but to no avail. The result was that regardless of his remonstrations, the Pole was roughly pushed several times toward the would be Meister, but he persisted in returning to his group of compatriots. To our consternation a German civilian took up a spade and clouted the Pole with it knocking him to the ground where he stayed shaking his head violently. The spade was repeatedly laid into him with such anger, and he lay there unconscious and I believe, as we were moved off, that he was dead.

That particular morning will always be remembered, not just for that. Having dropped off the two Frenchmen at their workplace we continued to the crossroads in the centre of the small town where the main body turned off. Hughie and I and our guard were left to continue on to where our Tischlerie entrance was only a couple of entrances further. As we arrived on the far pavement the guard handed me several letters and asked me to cross over to the post office and post them, whilst he presumably watched and waited with Hughie. It struck me as unusual but I made my way across the road and stuffed the letters into the oblong hole. Then, having felt quite 'ordinary' for a brief moment, nemesis struck. Seemingly from nowhere, two large civilians appeared and swept me off my feet, each putting an arm under my armpits, and hauled me round the corner to a doorway, which at that time of the morning it was still closed. At the same time a board meeting was being held between the two over my head in which I seemed to be included. It did not make sense. I was aware that I, an obvious P.O.W. had been seen to do what P.O.W.s and other aliens should not do. That is to apparently tamper with their post.

The services of another civilian was enlisted who dashed off somewhere whilst I was dragged around to an ordinary door at the rear which was also closed. There we waited whilst I tried to engage them in meaningful conversation. This was difficult given my knowledge or their language and their bellicose attitude. It was not long before a post office official arrived and I was lifted unceremoniously over the threshold and inside where I was dumped into a chair. I was now clearly in for a ferocious cross-examination; as to what I had been doing and what I had put into the letterbox. I did my best whilst the post official reappeared with the contents of the letterbox and emptied them on a table. He held each item up in front for me to identify. No way could I explain that I did not know the guard’s names let alone the addresses. This aggravated my two tormentors even more. They started shaking me in addition to their bullying monologue, with the result that now, exasperated, I started shouting back. With an extra push and a shove I finished up on the floor where one of my tormentors started prodding me with his foot.

To be fair, despite all the shouting and rough handling I was not hurt other than my dignity, but I had visions of that poor Pole being battered to death outside the town hall that same morning. Help arrived in the form of another postman who could speak a little English. I explained and was taken over to the Tischlerie where, in the workshop, the guard, an elderly little man who would have done nicely for a grandfather, the Meister and Hughie stood debating in a worried group.

It was explained that the guard, not expecting anything untoward, had carried on to the entrance with Hughie intending to wait for me to simply re-cross the road and rejoin them. Instead I had disappeared without trace, the two heavies having scooped me up and taken me around the corner out of sight. The poor old guard was in a hell of a state thinking I had done a runner, and knowing that he should never have entrusted a prisoner with such a mission. There were no repercussions but the Meister, being a typical Prussian not withstanding a one time major in the Ulan Cavalry, could not resist making the poor old guard stand to attention and giving him a mouthful.