WW II, a British focus  




One of the problems I have found in recording the past is certainly not remembering so many incidents. They flood back only too often without help. No, the problem is getting them in the right chronological order, so in this respect I am not so sure of myself. Anyway, there are a few today left to prompt me in that respect. What does happen is that some everyday incident will spark off one of those far off occasions quite out of context, so it was a near accident in my workshop that reminded me of the following.

The 'Meister' had a daughter, but it was some months before she became known to us. Either she was at university or away doing war work of some kind. Whatever, what we discovered one summers morning was a truly beautiful girl about the same age as me. She emerged from the house wearing a dressing gown and carrying a shopping bag. Walking the length of the yard she bypassed the end of the machine shop and reappeared in the garden at the rear. Both Hughie and myself were working on machines, Hughie on the large band saw facing into the garden, I was moulding sections on the spindle moulder parallel to the garden. We were able to watch her remove her dressing gown revealing her in bra and pants no larger than was absolutely necessary. Not slim, she was rounded without obvious muscle to something approaching film star perfection.

Whether she was aware of our presence or not she gave no sign but proceeded with some loosening up exercises, first arm swinging, then body movements twisting and turning every which way. Needless to say production slowed down. When we could tear our eyes away to look at each other our emotions were fully expressed on our faces, our eyes almost falling out of their sockets. We had to do some work to ensure the rise and fall of the machines in action did not draw attention to ourselves. There was more. She extracted an iron ball from the bag and started a fresh range of exercises. It was not fair. It crossed our minds that she knew damned well we were both watching. After a while she began to perspire but could she have been deliberately tormenting us! By now we were sweating buckets, just watching. In frustration I looked at Hughie and could only ejaculate one word ... Christ! Working parallel to the window and the spindle-moulder being such a dangerous machine, I had to pay attention to what I was doing. But Hughie was working facing out of his window. She laid down on the grass, had a rest and began her exercises again, so I looked across to see Hughie's reaction. Oh my God! His eyes were riveted on her, but he was still pushing his work piece forward past the blade and already he had cut beyond the mark.

The blade was now cutting between his fingers. Any second and he would be cutting his bloody hand in half. 'No .... No ....' was all I could get out, but thank heavens it was enough. He stopped pushing and looking at my petrified gaze directed, he looked down and realised and went as white as a ghost. 'Soddin' bloody bitch, she knows we are here and she's doing it on purpose. Bloody demonstrating Hitler's Arien superiority through health and fitness - I couldn't stuff her for all the tea in China - but I could kill her, she's done it all on purpose. I wonder if the Meister knows?' That night back at the camp we told the others of our experience and later I saw Hughie sitting cross-legged on his bunk facing the photo of his wife. His lips were moving. I could not tell if he was praying for her to be loyal and be there when he got home, or whether he was threatening her with all kinds of fates if she were not. The Meisters daughter appeared again a few more times but that initial effect on us was never recreated no matter how much she tried. We became convinced she did it deliberately because the Meister was never around when she was.

There was no doubting the Meister's enthusiasm for the war and pride in German successes. It was hard to tell what his intentions were in coming to me in particular every morning and reciting how many British tonnes of shipping had been sunk the previous day. He made his reports with a serious face and a sad shaking of his head as much to say 'Never mind, it will soon all be over at this rate', or 'How clever we are'. Hughie always seemed to accept everything with a comfortable unconcern. I was a bit of a sucker for a brass button if you like. I tended to be more up-right and soldierly in my battered uniform, taking my boots off with great care and setting them on two parallel sticks to drain off when wet and wearing wooden sandals for work, but it got right up my nose like hell.

To add to my discomfort, each morning on our way to work we had to pass a huge sign in the high street made like a thermometer with the announcement that Great Britain began the war with three million tonnes of shipping. From this the daily total was deducted until the grand total was greater, and the sinkings were proceeding even worse. At first I thought it was a propaganda stunt that had gone wrong but the Poles confirmed the bad news. The Meister would give Hughie and me a run-down of the news each morning but the Poles were able to give us more accurate information that included some successes in North Africa, but there was no doubt about the shipping losses.

Eventually the tide seemed to begin turning, until one morning the Meister came on his rounds and with the usual pomposity announced that yesterday a further ten thousand tonnes had been sunk. The news from Russia was bad for the Germans with Stalingrad becoming a disaster and it was my opportunity. I turned to face him and said 'Ten thousand. Is that all?' He puffed up and his face reddened as though he was going to have a stroke or explode. He exploded. Grabbing a length of wood from against the wall he brought it down on my shoulder. I did not stop to think but drove my left fist straight into his ample corporation. He staggered back against the planing machine deflating like a balloon. I could but stand and wait his reaction, drawing myself almost to attention; classic example of 'dumb insolence' and we just stared at each other.

Then, without further ado he turned and marched out of the machine shop up to the house and went in. Oh my God. Now I was in the shit, so I found Hughie and told him. The apprentices and Poles gathered around and heard what had happened. Young Kort was convinced the old man had gone to get his gun and would shoot me whilst the others guessed he had gone to telephone either the police station or the camp commander.

We waited but nothing happened. The Meister did not return and after a while we settled back down to our various jobs, if only to occupy our minds. Come 5.30 p.m. the guard arrived as usual and we returned to camp. Nothing was said and we assumed the incident had been passed on to Stalag and a guard would be sent to take me in to the Straflager, the small separately wired off section of the camp reserved for defaulters awaiting trial. The next morning we went to work as usual where the others were surprised to see me, and the place became a hothouse of conjecture as to my fate. Still no sign of the Meister. The Poles were especially concerned knowing how roughly they got treated on the slightest pretext, but it was young Kort, who seemed to be the brightest of the apprentices, about the middle of the morning came to me with his face lit up. He must have discussed it at home because he came up with an explanation that we should have thought of ourselves. Kort was there when the Meister had sent ten Frenchmen back as useless, and that we were the only two suitable for the work. So, although heaven knows how the Meister had intended to occupy so many with the limited number of machines and benches, he was certainly far below the capacity he wanted.

In addition, and equally if not even more important, no one could employ just one prisoner. There had to be a minimum of two to justify a guard to get them between camp and work. Therefore, if the Meister reported the incident I would certainly have been sent to Straflager or the bunker (individual cells for routine offences, maximum five days), and Hughie would have had to be returned to Stalag and the place would be back to the four youngsters and the two Poles who the Meister clearly did not trust one bit. It was clear I had clobbered a German employer and got away with it, but there was also the fact that under the Geneva Convention he had no right to hit me. After all, saying 'What! only ten thousand tonnes?' However personally hurtful to his pride was not enough grounds to wallop me with a stick as he could the others.

Mentioning the Meister's predeliction to a bit of physical, it is worth recording how the crafty old devil made sure none of his victims could duck, sidestep or cover up. He would proceed down the yard at leisure feeding the chickens enroute, and then enter the machine shop from the outside door. He could arrive at the adjoining door from where he could see everyone working the benches with their backs to him apart from myself whose bench at the end was at right angles affording me a grandstand view of his technique. He would quietly step up behind the first and peer over the shoulder, if everything was not as it should be he would cast around for a suitable stick, sometimes trying two or three for flexibility and when satisfied he would raise the tailcoat and strike. I would give a low whistle warning but they dare not turn around because they could not tell how near he was. Despite his authoritarian ways he was himself a damned good craftsman and wanted nothing less from his workers. Time was not important, it did not matter how long the lads took provided it was correct. They learned machining too. He would tell them a stage at a time, what to do in setting up and they may be left for hours before he returned to check their work before instructing the next step and heaven help them if what they had done was not right. He would often come and check my work and say I was a quarter millimetre out, release the fence, tap it one way and then the other, check it again and say that it was correct. I am satisfied that at least half of the time he did not actually alter the setting at all, but he made a point that raised my standards if only by psychology.

One day the Meister gave me a sketch of a platform to make which seemed to be the pedestal for a trophy. This was not surprising since we knew that he, like all the bosses, were brown shirts and would have meetings or parades at weekends. Come the Friday afternoon, in he came asking for it. I reached under my bench and offered him my effort. He looked as though he was going to explode. 'Swinerie! Ist saboturing ja! He was raving mad. It appeared that I had made it in millimetres when his scale was in decametres, so it was of one tenth of the size he required. It was to be a platform for a weekend meeting. It was hilarious telling the others back at camp but on the Monday the apprentices wagged their fingers at us in displeasure since they had to make the thing the right size in their own time on the Saturday morning.

Generally though, we all got on fine until one day whilst moulding components on the spindle moulder. I had the youngest boy behind me feeding the pieces to me with the face edge. Suddenly, just as I had fed one piece past the cutters, the Meister's voice shouted behind me, 'Faster, faster' as he pushed the boy aside and fed one of the pieces to me himself. I turned in surprise but too late, the tops of three fingers of my left hand had all caught the flying cutters. I held up my hand in front of his face and shouted 'Shnell ja?' (Fast, yes?). He took me himself to a hospital not far away where the damage was cleaned up. No bones were affected but the nails were slashed making the finger ends look like brushes. Of course, I was unable to work so was sent back to Stalag for three weeks whilst the hand healed.

At my place of work, despite a few disagreements with the Meister, Hughie and I had become an established part of the routine. I learned a great deal about methods and machining too, which became valuable in later life. Trying to sabotage his machines did not succeed but was pointless really since we were not involved in anything that might help their war effort. We made window and door frames for huts to accommodate the bombed out, but they, like our nissen huts, may have been used to house anyone. In a way I felt sorry for the old man. He was a typical proud Prussian old soldier, a major to boot, who after following all the early successes could now see the writing on the wall. From then on we could see him prematurely age until the time I had to return to Stalag. Hughie was able to stay because someone with woodworking experience had meanwhile returned from an expired job and was sent out to replace me. Early in 1944 they both turned up in Stalag and Hughie told me the old man had rapidly gone down hill with the war news and had died.