LAST LEG TO ODESSA
The next morning we found more had arrived during the night of differing nationalities. Imagine, a G.I. who claimed he had only been in Europe a fortnight, the fronts were moving so rapidly and he had got himself lost. From there we were taken to a goods train with cattle trucks which had been adapted by the Russians for troop carrying. Each had a second deck built in so that some could lay on the straw on the floor and others above them, six side by side, making a complement of 24. Crowded to be sure, but superior to the 50 per truck when we were taken to Poland from Maastritcht in Holland. There was another feature: in the centre of each wagon was a small stove with its chimney poking through the roof and a small pile of coal just inside the door. Barely settled in, a sack of something we took to be coal was flung in as the whistle blew and the train moved off. Trundling along at a steady pace soon found ourselves going through wide open expanses of countryside blanketed in snow. The weather had turned colder and there were snowflakes in the air, it seemed that we might be heading East, to Moscow after all.
On the second day, when the coal had been used up we bothered to look in the sack for more. The contents, as best I can describe them were small lumps of dehydrated bread. They were so hard that they could not be chewed but sucked with a fishy flavour. They were our rations for the journey. It grew colder with a strong wind so the door was kept firmly shut, only opened wide enough to hang out to relieve ourselves.
As if our situation was not limited enough, the wind, having developed into a blizzard, was working the roof of the old wagon loose. Scarves, belts and any other oddments were tied to the meat hooks in the roof, which we had to hang on to or risk loosing the roof altogether.
It was during the night following the third day that the train came to a halt and we were called out. The wind and driving snow was so fierce that it was necessary to lay forward into it so that our heads were two feet from the ground. Pushing ourselves along by digging our heels into the deep snow we were unable to see where we were going and consequently became separated. Fortunately the smell of cooking steered us one by one to a large complex of huts. Lights could be seen at the windows and many voices could be heard. Inside was a large area occupied by long tables and benches mostly taken up with Russian soldiers who were making all the noise. Large buxom women were bringing round bowls of soup, well, I called it soup. It was marvelously hot and thick with vegetables and grease. I have never known anything so greasy but it did not matter, there was plenty of it and it was more than welcome. It was probably three hours before we all climbed back onto the train. We had managed, by means of complicated arm waving, pointing and all manner of gesticulations, to convey the problem of the roof of our wagon and were allocated a different one at the end.
Over the next two days the train trundled along through a countryside that was mainly flat: a vast panorama of snowdrifts, that if yellow could as easily have been a desert. If beneath lay fields, there were no hedges to indicate them. Occasionally a ditch could be defined in the contour, but so rare that one might assume that it took all day to pass a single one. Despite the desolation, there was life out there. Trails of footprints were seen, sometimes leading to no more than a hump in the ground with a stove pipe chimney and drifting smoke, poking up through the snow as though a symbol of survival. It was eerie.
The third day brought us into a built up area with much stopping and shunting until, at last, we emerged into a siding lined with warehouses and were directed into one. The opposite side from our entrance was another large open door where a steam engine stood puffing away. We had to take off all our clothes and tie them into bundles, which were then crammed into the open front of the engine’s boiler. It was a delouser. We then stood under long overhead pipes for a shower, and hopping up and down, waited for the luxury of hot water to come streaming down. It didn't. It was cold, and it was only a dribble. We made the most of it by rubbing ourselves vigorously. We survived the treatment and ran round and round until our clothes came out of the boiler too hot to handle. Grateful for that we quickly got dressed in our nondescript garments again. From there we were marched round the end of the next warehouse and found ourselves on a quay where a large boat was tied up. On the other side of it was a smaller boat, its presence discernible from its davits working, loading bales and boxes onto the larger ship and its funnel painted white with a Red Cross on it. We now had to wait and broke up into groups. Soon we discovered there was a stevedore's latrine there and most made us of it. Many had been in there before me, and standing there with my face to the wall, I was spoken to by a group of Frenchmen who had just come in.
Now I am not going to pretend that I had learned to speak French, but with the association with them ever since landing France in 1939, I had acquired a smattering. Particularly from one particular Frenchman I had befriended in Stalag, who had been born and bought up in Putney. We had the common interest, both being woodworkers. He spoke Cockney better than his own language but had joined the French army because of strong family ties there, so whilst not learning much from him or needing to, what I could speak was with an authentic accent. Now it was my undoing. As I finished and turned, I found myself surrounded by 7 or 8 grim looking Frenchmen. Questions were being fired at me. They wanted to know; where I came from? What unit I belonged to? Where had I been? How did I get here? I did my best. London fell on deaf ears as did Stalag XXB. The idea of having walked all the way to Lublin from near Danzig was considered an unlikely story, no, I was not an Englishman. I was a Frenchman who had been fighting the Russians with the Germans (as many had done). Three of those in front of me produced knives. With eyes glued on them I could not see what was going on behind me. It was a desperate moment as their anger mounted, but then a group of English came in, and lucky for me in the group was Jock. Turning to them I shouted out that the bastards thought I was a Frenchmen who had been fighting with the Germans. My identity was confirmed with apologies from the Frenchmen, although I am certain they were disappointed and had been looking forward to a bit of nastiness.