WW II, a British focus  




In the spring of '43 we discovered that there was another camp, about the same size on the other side of the town. We asked if we could visit them on a Sunday and perhaps arrange a game of football. Application was made to Stalag and it was arranged. When we arrived we discovered that a British padre had volunteered to stay at the camp and, with a young pistol packing Gefreiter as escort, he came so he could acquaint himself with both camps. He was a large beefy man, Captain King, Padre and of jovial disposition, soon making himself popular. He asked our guard if he could speak English. The guard smartly snapped to attention and said 'Ja wohl!' and then proceeded to recite every swear word in the army vocabulary. Captain King could not keep a straight face, he folded in laughter.

The visiting camp was part of a barracks, so the match was played outside on open grassland. Instead of playing the inmates we played German soldiers with blue coats at one end and brown at the other for goal posts. There was an N.C.O. referee who acted quite professionally, and he must have been blind. At the end of the game, with no goals scored, every player had bad ankles, a ball was hardly necessary! Afterwards we were invited in to the billets for tea where, to my surprise, being in several separate rooms they had settled into what might be called ethnic communities, all Scots in one and Londoners in another, etc. I headed into the Londoner's den.

It was there that I saw Gordon Rolls again. He was alone in a room, sitting on an upper bunk, not taking part in any of the activity. He was unshaven and pale although still heavily built. A more depressed, dirty and louse bound specimen I had not seen since Red Cross food had started arriving a couple of years earlier. But he was busy. With a frown of concentration he was reading letters. I never saw so many letters for a whole Stalag as he had there on his bunk, with two sackfuls on the floor. They were begging letters and he was reading every one of them. Heavenly Father above, if only those that had written them could have seen him there in that condition, and in those circumstances! I only know what I saw, and the assurance of his room mates that he used all his weekly cards and monthly letter cards to make grants to many of them. To illustrate adequately what I saw and felt is beyond me. One had to be there. The sight, apart from the correspondence, was in no way unfamiliar, remembering the awful winter of 1940/41. He was like a ghost, reminding me of temperatures dropping to 40 degrees below whilst still clad in the clothes we had been captured in. It was a moment that has stayed in my memory.

After the war Gordon Rolls was in the national newspapers again. What went wrong I don't know, what the dailies did record was that he was made bankrupt and died soon after. Is it wrong to wonder if anyone tried to help him?

Back at work, the Meister looked quite ill. The war was not mentioned at all but someone, no doubt one of the Poles, had drawn a large question mark in ash on the map. He did not notice it for several days it seemed, then the map disappeared one night.

My stomach trouble was getting worse. Without a temperature to prove I was unwell there was no way I could get treatment beyond my own nursing kit. To add to my concern, some days my motion would be black. That did not register anything in particular, as I had not been able to take the finals for the First Class Home Nursing Certificate before the war. The matter came to a head one day whilst operating the spindle moulder. Suddenly and helplessly I was sick. The flying cutters spewed the vomit across the machine shop. I was able to switch off the machine before collapsing helplessly against it. Fortunately for me - at least - the Meister was there, and received an unfortunate share of spray. There was no question about it: I was ill. Although he could be such an old brute, I give him full marks because keeping calm. He took me straight to the nearby hospital. He explained what had happened and that I had had the trouble for some time, for it was he who supplied me with bay leaves. I was sent back to Stalag and accepted as a bed case in the sick hut.

That was all very well, but as so often happened, after a nasty spell I would feel fit again and I did. The doctor, Captain Rose, would come round each day and pass me by with hardly a glance. I imagined that I would soon be discharged and sent back to work, not that he had much in the way of resources anyway. So, I ate a whole tin of corned beef thinking that would stir it up and then he could see for himself. Even so, I still felt alright, so tried another tack. When he came round I told him that it hurt when I laid on my left side. Imagine my humiliation when he replied 'Then lay on the other side!' It transpired that I was simply on a waiting list. Taken to the doctor's surgery, I was given a 'meal test' which consisted of taking down the prepared gruel and then a tube was passed down to my stomach. At regular intervals samples were drawn off, tested and the results entered on a chart. The result was that I was sent for an X-ray. That showed I had duodenal trouble. Apparently a severe ulcer burst on the duodenal duct could kill so, for me, work was finished, which I considered a tragedy in itself since quite apart from the interesting activity, I had been learning my trade.

Transferred to the P.O.W. hospital in Marienburg, I was allowed a weekly invalid parcel in addition to the usual and told to lay off the rations and live off the Red Cross food. I was free to move around, and provided I ate sensibly would be alright. My name had been put forward for the next Repatriation Board that came once a year. I still enjoyed a smoke which I was told not to do, but cigarettes were few and far between. However, the Stabsartz (German doctor in overall charge), would come around unexpectedly when his prime interest seemed to be to inspect everyone's fingers. If there was a trace of nicotine, immediate discharge followed. He was also an advocate of moving about for back troubles as opposed to rest, so such cases rose like ghosts and moved about when it was known he was in the vicinity and sank back into oblivion when he was gone.

There was another interesting thing: venereal disease. This was a very tricky one because quite a number were old soldiers or older men who had been around, so there was some cases amongst them that needed treatment from time to time. At the same time, the inference of any newly contracted cases meant severe punishment, particularly if a German woman was involved. To overcome the problem, there was a tacit agreement between the German and British doctors to avoid trouble by calling all such cases the 'Polish Disease'. One such old sweat, suffering a reoccurrence lay as though dead one day when the Stabartz came round with the British doctor. When asked what his complaint was, before our doctor could reply, the fellow jerked bolt upright and recited 'Hong Kong, 1936, Sir' and fell back flat as before. Even the Jerry had to laugh at this performance. I do not imagine they had any idea what was going on under their very noses.

The hut I was in was in the corner of the yard had a high bank behind it with trees and bushes at the top. There were no watchtowers around the hospital and it was the one spot that could not be observed if we went behind the hut. Some days a couple of young German women would appear at the top offering sex for chocolate or coffee. It surprised me that there were any takers prepared to run the risk of VD and getting caught, but there were. Mostly older men who had previously had a sex life. Maybe they simply had more confidence than we younger cock-virgins!

After a few weeks I was returned to Stalag to discover more civilising innovations. There was an additional hut that contained a long stove along the centre providing a cooking facility for prisoners to use after six o'clock each evening, when the hot surface would be crowded with dixies, cans and home made frying pans of all kinds. Occasionally the place would be suddenly surrounded by guards with some rushed in to inspect the contents of each vessel. Little good it did them, but it signified that another cat had disappeared from their quarters. The only evidence being another Frenchman wearing a fur collar attached to his tunic.

The French were different in a variety of ways as we witnessed one evening down by the latrines. Joining a crowd that had gathered there it was seen that two of them square up for a fight over some personal matter. They did not square up boxing fashion, no way; they kept their overcoats on and the reason soon became apparent when after wrestling, kicking and biting each other, they drew knives. It was a nasty fight, and every attempt by the appalled British to stop it was prevented by their compatriots explaining that it was the way the French fought. There was a lot of blood before it was all over, but the overcoats prevented any serious damage.

There was now what appeared to be a swimming pool too. An order had been made, that because all huts being of timber construction, and the camp being on such a high prominence, a water reserve, in case of fire had to be provided to preserve the limited amount of water that had to be pumped up to the camp storage tanks. The French, always able to get preferential treatment had asked for it to be in the form of a swimming pool, and had done the work themselves with a concrete base, bricked up walls and sloping bottom. One and a half metres one end and two metres the other. I gathered that after it had been built the previous summer it had been very popular. But with no way of changing the water, not only did it have a skin of dust on it, but it was a breeding ground for mosquitoes and so was definitely very unhealthy.

That summer, in place of lice, the camp was swarming with fleas. They not only abounded in the hot shady surface of the compound but penetrated the huts as well. During the hot summer nights we would lay still and naked on our bunks. It was possible to feel them on your body, and so gently, with fingers wetted, catch the perishers in the dark, and roll them between the fingers, dead.

The Stalag was not the best place for getting the latest news, being dependent on what 'Griff' as it was called, being brought in by returning work parties who did not always have contact with civilians or Poles. The result was what that the good news that was known was highly entertaining. This was best illustrated down at the latrine, which was a single large hut with two long trenches over which long poles were arranged to seat 25 in a row, 50 back to back. The game was to feed in some trifle of information, or 'griff', one end and by the time it emerged the other, had grown out of all proportion, no doubt giving birth to some of our latter day media moguls!

The standard of shows in the theatre hut had reached a high standard and before long, being a free agent, protected with my yellow excused duty ticket, I was able to lend a hand making props. We were fortunate in having Norman Wylie with us who was a barrister in civilian life but did not take a commission. He was brilliant, not only writing the scripts for several Terence Rattigan plays but composed suitable music for them too, of which 'Rope' was probably the most successful. There was other talent in the camp too. Each building on each other's efforts producing very colourful shows.

I needed tools and the word went around. Over the following 12 months I accumulated some 50 useful items. This had become a problem to hide so, with fingers crossed, got hold of the German camp storeman and asked him to come to the theatre hut where I showed him the whole tool kit. He nearly fell out of his skin, having no idea what was going on under his nose. But he was a decent man. and accepted the fact that they were all carpentry tools, not wire cutters or shovels for digging tunnels. He understood the value of them to us, but it had to be reported. I was called to the Commandant's office together with Charley McDowell our camp leader. Naturally there was some shouting in the typical German way in which it was made clear that Charlie knew nothing of the accumulation. The items had simply been brought into the camp one at a time, no mean feat since his subordinate, an Unter officier who conducted the searches at the gate could normally spot a bulge a mile off. Once I arrived at the gate with a couple of eggs under my F.S. cap and he, with a friendly smile, asked me how I was getting on and patted me on the head, hard. The upshot was that a cupboard was installed at the back of the stage with a lock and two keys, I had one and the storeman had the other.

Apart from section frames for scene changes that could be quickly locked together, a few pieces of furniture were made from Red Cross cases. I was proud of my Chippendale chair for straight sets, but in another show a comedian hurled it across the stage and that was that. Regarding decorations, these were the forte of an artist who had been studying at Edinburgh University. He could paint trees and landscapes for a backdrop using a broom for a brush and yet the effects were first class. He could also do sketches of individuals for a fag or two and, whilst one could always see the unmistakable likeness, he contrived to make everyone good looking!

It was possible to put on a dance band or an orchestra with a full range of instruments. Of course, this was only possible in the main Stalag, but the majority of prisoners worked and lived out and never saw any of what I describe. The theatre stage had been allowed 10 forty watt bulbs for footlights but by the end of '43, having built concealed battens under removable floorboards and the main supporting beam above the stage hollowed out, there were many additional lights including 200 watt bulbs. The effect was marvellous. The Germans must have known something of this because when the curtain went up and the full lighting used, the searchlights would dim! The answer was that, isolated as the camp was, the German officers would come and enjoy the shows too, occupying the front row. When, on an orchestral evening the 'Magic Flute' was played, although the solo was played on a clarinet, it was so good that the Germans had it repeated three times inviting other officers.

For that Christmas a pantomime Robin Hood was devised. There were 13 scene changes including a transformation scene. This was achieved by an electrician standing on top of a pair of steps with a bucket of water, slowly operating a copper tube with the current going through his body in much the same way as I had seen Smith do in France.

I had a mishap in one scene when the Sheriff of Nottingham was sitting at a table with his head in hands on the castle battlements. As he pointed out with his right hand to the forest painted on the backdrop beyond the battlements, he shouts 'That's where he is, Robin Hood - Robbing bastard!' At the same moment I had an arrow with a message tied to it that flew down a thin thread from off stage and stuck in a hole in the table top. It worked OK but the Sheriff had his elbow over the hole and the arrow, quite sturdy, caught him right on the funny bone: the effect was unscripted and painful. There were many things that went wrong. My illuminated moon that rose half way and started to jerk about, a liner sailing along the horizon backstage with a light inside showing up the portholes was very effective until it caught fire, and the occasional rat on stage was sure to get unscripted laughter.

I became so involved in it all that I began making a model to scale of the stage and seating, laid out to scale so the producers could try ideas out. The seats I carved out in solid rows instead of benches and then really got carried away. The storeman got some stiff sheets of grey card for me and the whole thing developed into an Odeon type construction complete with dressing rooms. It never got finished.

Apart from deck quoits played across lengths of Red Cross string from the parcels, with rings made from rags, football was the main sporting interest. It was possible for each of the English, French and Belgians to produce teams of professional players, so regular 'International' matches were played of a high standard although the pitch, nearly the whole compound, was dusty when dry and muddy when wet. There were still a few of the old huts on the far side of the camp occupied by about 100 Yugoslavians and Serbs. They were in a pretty poor way not having the Red Cross parcels, but the occasional arrival of International bulk Red Cross went to them exclusively. They wanted to play football and challenged the English first class team. It was ridiculous of course. They had no decent boots but were not to be refused. In rags they were, playing in bare feet and, guess what? They won.

Christmas came and the French had a problem. It had been the custom for the last two Christmases to make some hooch with a Heath Robinson type distillery. The vapour from the mixture of corn, bluebell and blacking was condensed with lots of snow and everyone would line up and receive a few drops in whatever drinking vessel they had. The French thought this was daft so they made their own hooch and kept it in store to mature. When they drank it, many were ill and two died. They had used galvanised buckets.