ONWARDS TO THE BLACK SEA
Two more days on the road with similar foraging successes, no chickens, but a jar or two of preserves left in a cellar and always some potatoes. It was late afternoon and we seemed to be heading towards more conflict. With soldiers at junctions we could not choose our route and so came to Deutsch-Eyleau (now Elbag), where I had worked for Herr Sukhard with Sgt. Hughie Watts for two years. There was still some small arms fire and the place a shambles with some buildings on fire and many in ruins. Russians prowled everywhere very alert, but by repeating our formula of 'Ingliski Soyusniki' we made our way to the centre of the town and arrived at the main crossroads.
Opposite the main post office, which was ablaze, was a hotel, one side of which was badly damaged. We entered and found a room intact, but with the windows knocked out. From the debri we got a fire going in the grate. We were not going to catch any chickens or find potatoes here with the fighting only just ending and the Germans not far away planning whatever, so we decided we would stay just the night and be satisfied with just a drink or two. Amazingly, between our three food parcels, we still had a good supply of tea and sugar because, back in Stalag it was often more convenient to cook food on the crowded stove and make do with the ersatz coffee sweetened with saccharine. We had cigarettes too, not having smoked much because drifting snow kept our hands and faces wet most of the time making smoking difficult. Matches we had plenty, having been careful using them right from the start. Modest enough in bulk terms and yet we were still lugging substantial items, mostly clothing. I changed my underwear and shirt and discarded the dirty ones since washing and drying them was out of the question. That left me with only what I stood up in. There was another pair of socks but I was not taking my boots off again. The blanket was a must, and a towel, soap, toothpaste, brush and shaving gear. Razor blades had been difficult to get and now I only had one. It was still felt important to look as respectable and soldierly as possible to help our being accepted by the Russians. The blade was blunt now, and I had to strop it on the ice formed on a puddle to get any edge at all. I still had the compass plane and this must have weighed four or five pounds but it was a prized possession.
We decided to go out on to the road and see what was happening. As we came out into a courtyard at the side of the hotel, to our astonishment we found six Frenchmen. They had been working on a farm that had been overrun, and like us had the same passport or safe passage word and had been told to go home. Whilst we talked, there was a new commotion out on the road where a herd of skinny cows were being driven along - food! The effect was electric. Quickly putting our heads together, we were out on the pavement as the animals came by and one was swiftly headed off into the courtyard. As soon as it was quiet again, with Lofty holding one horn and Jock hanging on to the other I prepared to cuts its throat. Even as I was doing it the French were cutting steaks from the other end whilst the animal bucked and struggled until it sunk to its knees and keeled over. Finding some flesh was not easy, it was built like a greyhound. Taking our acquisition to our room we built up the fire. We cut the meat into small cubes, boiled it - and boiled it until, as they say, ‘until the cows come home'. It never did become tender but eventually we chewed what goodness there was out of it, and made a drink of the water the meat had been boiled in. We slept, wondering how we could have done better.
Morning came, another drink and we were off down the road feeling no worse for our feast. I knew the way out of the town and headed for where our camp was wondering if we might find any more P.O.W's there. It was empty. There were no Red Cross parcels left in the guardroom, everything had been cleared out. Everything? I went through to the rear room, which was locked and forced it open by simply charging at it several times. Sure enough, potatoes, lots of them. We filled our pockets with as many as we could comfortably carry and set off again out through the countryside.
That was an uneventful day. There were still some bodies out on the fields but not so many. No doubt they were all put into mass graves and may well answer some of the speculation about their origins. What did strike us as strange was that, apart from the three Germans we had seen dead above the air vent, we had not seen a single body in uniform, German or Russian.
The Frenchmen stayed in Deutsch-Eyleau hoping to get a lift. That sounded OK. There were frequently lorries on the roads, either overloaded racing to the front or empty going hell for leather to 'Moscow'. As far as they were concerned everything emanated from Moscow which was perhaps a 1000 or more kilometres away. We did not particularly want to go to Moscow and, anyway, how could we survive such a journey in that weather in the open back of a lorry? Like Felix, we kept walking hoping always that we would arrive at a base camp that would provide.
Another three days followed, stopping at wayside homes and finding enough to keep us going. Following the fourth night, there were endless fields with nowhere to shelter until finally, weary and exhausted, we lay close together by the roadside with our blankets over us and wondered if we would wake up in the morning. Maybe there is something more than we understand, for we did wake up, stiff and wet through. There had been a slight thaw overnight and this plus our body heat had melted the snow around us which we had pushed up into a mound either side as some protection against the biting wind, but we were not alone.
The other side of the road looked as though scores of dead sheep had been laid out there as far down the road as one could see. As we beheld this spectacle, a whistle blew and the mounds rose up one by one revealing they were soldiers who had arrived after us and laid there for the night in their sheepskins. Having identified ourselves we became quite popular and clearly they were concerned how we had survived the night without sheepskins like they had. Our F.S. hats were a joke, thin cotton with flaps that came down over the ears. One of the Russians delved into his gear and produced one of their fur hats that also had flaps that came down over the ears and tied under the chin. He took mine as a souvenir and plonked the fur hat on my head complete with a red star on the front. My companions held out their caps hopefully but it seemed that there was only the one to spare.
We had to get moving because we were wet through and the only way to dry out was to keep walking. With a great deal of 'Tavarich!' and all that, we moved on. Despite walking a little faster and swinging our arms more than usual, our clothes were still wet come nightfall. We were fortunate enough though, to find another shelter, dry ourselves out completely with a big fire and stuff ourselves with potatoes.
Another day arrived and we pushed on again. There were more Russians about, very relaxed as though the front really was far away now. Passing a cottage that verged right onto the roadside, Jock noticed there were grills at ground level that indicated a semi basement cellar. The chance of potatoes for an evening meal without leaving the road was not to be missed. I went in, and finding the cellar door open went down and indeed there was the usual store piled in the centre held there with wattle fencing. There was a sound from the other side and, peering through the darkness I saw a bayonet sticking out. Bloody Hell! - a German hiding there! What should I do?
Presumably he’d have interpreted my standing still as having become aware of his presence. If I retreated, the light from the stairway would make me a first class target. To give himself away was neither here nor there, he was either dead or doomed for a long walk to Siberia anyway. My thoughts ran as I heard another movement indicating he was now behind the centre of the pile. I decided, rightly or wrongly, that he would act soon, so it was him - or me. Squatting down my side, I gathered some newspaper (always used on the floor for these stores) and got out one a match. I lit the paper which flared up, and charged across the top of the spuds shouting my head off.
It was no act of bravery, it was the only thing I could think of. I grabbed for the bayonet or rifle top, whatever it was and got it. I nearly let go I was so strung up: but I’d caught no German: I’d caught a hare, by one of his long ears! It struggled and kicked and I was amazed at how strong it was. They are bigger than rabbits with longer powerful back legs. I don’t know who was the more surprised as I dragged it back across the pile, potatoes flying everywhere.
When I emerged with my capture, I was almost hysterical, my nerves all of a jangle. My companions looked with amazement as I held it aloft. We decided to kill it straight away. With another wrestling match my hold was transferred to its back legs. I raised my hand flat edged to chop it behind the ear when a shout made us look across the road to where a tank was backed into the trees. Half emerged from the top was an attractive young woman soldier waving a pistol and shouting. She climbed down and came across with three others (men) and we, fearing the worst as looters caught red handed, stood transfixed.
You know if your time has come. You might as well accept it with fortitude because, if you get all in a lather of anticipation and then find it has not come after all, it is a terrible waste of nervous energy. Such was the case here as she took the creature from me, gathered it up in her arms and made a fuss of it! There was a lot being said of which we could make neither head nor tail, but in defence, we kept pointing to our mouths, stomachs and the hare in turn.
There were no hard feelings, indeed, we were taken over to the rear of the tank where a fire was smouldering and given an old battered wash basin half full of cold jellied meat. We accepted gratefully and were bent on continuing on our way, wondering what next, but we were taken further through the trees to a clearing where a large camp had been established with tents. Taken to a large marquee, we were invited to take seats among a crowd of soldiers to watch an American cowboy film with Russian subtitles. Afterwards, with hopes raised that here was our destination, we were taken back to the road again to farewells, handshakes and vigorous back slapping. That was it. We were on our way again, but very grateful for the hospitality.
Another day proceeding in the same direction brought us to a village. Now this struck us as quite unusual since leaving Deutsch-Eyleau several days previously. We had not seen another town or village and had come to assume that we had been deliberately steered clear of them. We certainly seemed to be in base areas now with a great deal of coming and going. Vehicles always going like the wind in both directions, full one way, empty the other, but the troops very casual, and there was a lot of them. They did have an alarming habit of shooting at chimney pots and other targets that took their fancy as they passed by.
Through the village we came to a large wire pen by the roadside with about 20 chickens scratching. Stopping to look at them attracted the attention of those around so we indicated the chickens, then our mouths and stomachs. The gestures were not wasted but, instead of encouraging us to help ourselves, we were pushed aside and two of the soldiers emptied their entire magazines into the pen. The chickens whirled and squawked, feathers flew in every direction. Slowly the commotion died down and we all waited excitedly to see which one would topple over. Not one was hit! Raucous merriment resulted and one was brought out to us with indications on how to wring its neck. I knew dammit. I knew and anxious to demonstrate, once again pulled its head right off.
I may be of a philosophical turn, but I was now filled with marvelling how we were able to keep going. It did not seem a hardship anymore. True, we were now getting enough to eat one way or another, our legs had become used to walking, even on cobbles, ridged with frozen snow and we had adapted to our circumstances. But now we were dirty, unshaven and, no doubt, stank. On the outskirts of the village, stores had been piled high either side of the road, mostly ammunition and a lorry that had unloaded was preparing to leave. As the driver and his mate climbed into the cab we pointed to ourselves and the back of the lorry suggesting a lift. They nodded cheerfully and we scrambled aboard without a clue as to where we might finish up, but we would at least be going in the same direction. Setting off at a cracking pace as though a starting gun had been fired, we got no more than half a kilometre where the road was narrowed by a defunct tank. As we approached so a laden lorry came towards us from the other direction. It would be unfair to say they did not slow down, they did a bit, but with loud shouts and obvious curses kept going until the two bonnets ground together like bulls in combat. Not only that, but they started shooting pistols, into the air or at each other we did not stop to find out. We slipped over the back and crept around the other side of the tank and were on our way without looking back! Funny people.
Another opportunity presented itself the next day when we came to a railway siding. There was a goods train with steam up facing the way we were going so we climbed onto it and waited. Quite a time elapsed. We were on the point of giving up when a whistle blew. Another train came shunting along on the next line going the same way, that too was pulling a long line of open empty wagons, and there, in a wagon just coming into view, stood 'Cracker' King, the padre and his two sidekicks. To our chagrin they waved and jeered at us as they passed by. Just as that train was passing from view it stopped for a while and then, with more whistle blowing it came back past us and disappeared altogether. We laughed our heads off at the others, but realising our prospects were probably no better, took to the road once more.
There was another incident on that part of the road. We came across a small piglet. Forgetting any need to preserve energy we chased it up and down the road, falling over as we tried unsuccessfully to grab it, forgetting everything else in part need and part fun, until once again some passing Russians stopped. They shot it. Tying its legs together we put a stick through that Jock had been using as a walking stick so that two could carry it, and it was surprisingly heavy. As evening drew in there seemed no place to shelter until it was nearly dark when a cottage was spotted well back off the road. As there was no discernible path to the cottage we elected to climb over the hedgerow and cut across. We heaved the pig over first where it promptly disappeared into what was apparently a deep snowdrift from where it could not be recovered. As we could not afford to take chances we carried on into the night until a more accessible place was found.
The next morning, too tired for anything else we lit a fire and boiled some potatoes. We baked some in the fire at the same time to carry in our pockets, which, by now, were very greasy from bits of chicken. The potatoes kept us warm for a while and served as lunch later on.
We had been uncertain about the Russians, and despite the obvious comradeship shown so often once we had identified ourselves, there were others who seemed uncompromising. There was no knowing what species we were going to meet next. Our next encounter was to find that we had caught up with column of German prisoners. Not wishing to become included in the column we slowed down. How many there were could not be seen since the front of the column was a long way ahead. Now and then one prisoner would fall out by the wayside and would be left there until an officer closely followed by another drew level. The first officer would shoot the prisoner in the head and his colleague would take the identity tags and make a note. We counted some 14 prisoners suffer the same fate, some of whom I am sure deliberately committed suicide.
Late in the afternoon the column was taken off the road into a vast wired compound. It was not like our prison camps, a long path led to buildings a long way inside. We had no idea at the time but the place may have been one of Hitler's extermination camps. As we reached the entrance, a lone guard brought out half a dozen, perhaps a working party, and as soon as they were clear of the place he stopped them, searching each one in turn and even making them drop their trousers in freezing cold. One could not help feeling something, seeing these pitiful consequences of Hitler's ambitions. Even though we had been reduced to the same depths of despair once and we knew that the Germans had a terrible price to pay.
The next day we were shocked by an unexpected experience. Having identified ourselves to a group of Russians, we were invited off the road to join them for a hot drink of some kind around a campfire where some dozen of them sat. An officer appeared through the trees and stood a little distance away rolling a cigarette. One of the group got up and approached him in conversation in which the word 'comrade' could be heard. The officer produced a small prayer book and tore out some pages in exchange for some tobacco whereupon the man returned to the group and sat down again and prepared to make a cigarette himself. Another, with gold appliqué spoke to him and an argument ensued, obviously in relation to the tobacco and papers. To our consternation, the one with insignia pulled out his pistol and shot the other in the chest. The man fell dead and both tobacco and papers were taken and shared whilst the officer, still involved with his rolling, looked on dispassionately. We waited a while before, with a glance and nod, we drifted away knowing that we still had a few cigarettes between us, the only nerve tonics in our gear.
A bit of a thaw came and snow melted away showing green patches in the fields. We passed into open wooded country that took us through a long valley. This was a worry because there were no buildings at all and we wondered how we might spend the night or find anything to eat. Lofty pointed out a squirrel that ran along parallel to us. We wondered whether it was edible or not, if, by the remotest prospect, we could catch it. No doubt it was hoping that we might provide providence to sustain it. We did find a woodsman's hut for the night but no food and carried on as usual. If there was any salvation, it had to be, as always, somewhere in front of us.
There had been no bodies for several days now, leading us to assume that we were far from any fighting. We had no idea which direction we were heading but were soon to find out when the landscape changed back to fields and patches that had been cared for. Cottages became more frequent eventually giving way to the suburbs of a town. Suddenly all hell broke loose ahead, not artillery but a lot of small arms fire which stopped again after an hour as suddenly as it had started. After so long, for the first time in our journey civilians could be seen standing in groups and talking. Approaching one group and pointing to the ground we asked where we were. It soon became apparent that they were Polish and we had arrived in Thorne (Torun).
That we had, for some days at least, been travelling around East Prussia, heaven knows what twist and turns we had been through before finally steering south. I had been in Stalag XXA just outside Thorne in the summer and autumn of 1940 and, having worked at a barracks in the town knew where the central railway station was having passed it each day in those cruel wooden clogs, so it was there we headed.