WW II, a British focus



 

 

     POLAND

The end of the march was a large railway siding where we were contained in sheds and warehouses. Someone confessed they had lice - the effect was electric with everyone around moving away from him, but a medical orderly explained that it was due to circumstances and if he was lousy, the rest of us were too. Discrete investigations proved him only too right. We were taken out and put into cattle trucks and entrained for Poland.

The journey took about three days during which time nobody was let out although the train frequently remained stationary for long spells. Toilet facilities were to hang out of the door. When we arrived, some fell out whilst others were pulled out, and then began a long process of registration which consisted of having finger prints taken, then, bare headed and holding a small blackboard across the chest with a number on, photographed.

I saw some of those photos later and without exception everyone looked terrible; wan, unshaven, dirty and disheveled. Following that we had to answer questions such as full name, home address, trade and army number.

The officer at the desk taking down these details exploded when the man in front of me declared that his profession was 'gentleman of the road'. Despite having a pistol waved under his nose he insisted and C.S.M. Dean, present, saved the situation by explaining that the man was a tramp in civvy street and had enlisted in the Pioneer Corps that took all ages for labouring work. The manís name was Rickets, he was unable to read, middle aged and crafty as a wagon load of monkeys. He was one of many varied characters I came to know and understand.

Some were marched to a Polish fort that had become Stalag XXB and the rest of us into a nearby overflow camp of large marquees where we stayed until the autumn. During this period an officer speaking perfect English came round and announced that France had fallen and it was expected that the English would soon sign an armistice. It was all very much regretted he said, since Hitler had hoped we would be on their side and it would be unfortunate if England had to be invaded. It was very depressing and everyone fell silent. There were several hundred of us in the same marquee, and an Irishman stood up and started to sing 'Home Sweet Home' with a broad accent. It was too much. I threw a boot and caught him alongside the head. He went down with a howl, then got up and made for me, but was pulled down by the throng between us. Whatever the action did for my feelings, I had lost a boot, but philosophically accepted that the remaining one was worn out anyway with no studs or heels left. It was a handicap though, and not a situation to be handicapped in.

Conditions were deteriorating because of the lack of rations. The daily soup was no more than a thin potato gruel and many, including myself, had sores opening up on our legs that became known as 'Potato Rash'. There was no treatment. The sores formed a crust on top of which, if touched, leaked at the edges and spread or created another sore where it contaminated. We were able to wash though, when water was turned on morning and evening for a period from a long pipe with holes in it. The pipe only produced a dribble.

Washing our clothes was impossible but the continual pressure of Dixie Dean began to produce results. First, cabbage became included in the soup with the result that the sores stopped spreading and then began to dry up.

Next came information that laundry arrangements had been made and a day or two later a lorry arrived. We had to strip off and hand in our underpants, vest and shirt in exchange for Polish shirts and underwear. They were thinner but they were clean. That did nothing to help combat the lice though. Killing the eggs was the secret of success, but hidden in the seams they hatched faster than we could kill them.

The Germans now required a few working parties for jobs outside the camp. It soon became apparent that small extras, a piece of bread or cigarette could be obtained on these duties, so there was a crowd at the gate each morning. Fights would break out until a queuing system and rota were organised to ensure fair turns. That was not good enough for one stocky thick head who made a nuisance of himself. The chap in charge of the rota list was a real clerical type with baby face and large horn-rimmed glasses. The dissenter squared up one morning and it looked as though the orderly was in for a hiding, but to our amusement he gave a first class boxing lesson and that put paid to that.

I now had a pair of clogs I shuffled around in. They were surprisingly warm, especially for standing on roll call which could take an hour or often much longer. I thought I could handle a job and got in the queue. It was a day or two before I was allocated to a small work party that became a regular job. Marching into Thorne, some three kilometres away in clogs on the cobbles was sheer agony but the pain passed well enough during the day to face the journey back. The work was in the stables of a German barracks mucking out on my own. Nobody bothered me. I did not even have a guard so soldiers would come up and try to talk and give me pieces of bread or a cigarette. Philosophically, I no longer felt any hard feelings about things, simply on the best ways of coping. The one handicap was a goat, presumably a mascot, that would come up behind me and put his front legs on my shoulders and tried to rape me. The bloody thing, no matter how many times I hit it with the fork it would not leave me alone, much to the merriment of others.

One day I was given a loaf of white bread. It was only a half size one and shaped like a zeppelin so, that night, wishing to save it, I strapped it under the flap of my valise, which I used as a pillow. The next morning, to my disgust, the two ends which had projected about two inches each side had been cut off as close as possible whilst I was asleep! It was no good making a fuss, I was angry, but saw the funny side to it and offered to fight anyone who would admit to stealing my 'nobbies'.

Smoking was a problem because there was nothing to smoke. Every effort was made to overcome this by stripping the autumn leaves from the only tree in the compound, which resulted in several climbing accidents. Next, the bark of the tree was tried but both attempts to get some comfort from this source only produced terrible smells and coughs. One day, a senior German officer came round with escorts and Dixie Dean in attendance. The officer was smoking a large cigar, which had grown quite short. Behind the group, almost on tiptoe, followed a crowd of prisoners waiting for him to discard it.

Whether he suspected or knew of his following cannot be said, and eventually he walked out of the gate still holding it, either gone out or burning his fingers!

Despite the trouble the clogs were giving me the daily excursions out of camp had their compensations. One of these was seeing life outside. A most memorable sight was the main railway station in Thorne, which we passed enroute to the German Barracks. There was a large cobbled courtyard in front and lined up outside the entrance would be open horse drawn carriages with drivers in top hats and tails, it was a taxi rank. So many aspects of Poland were, to me, quaint with a distinctly Dickensian air. A grandness of many years before in England, one suspected, for a culture and social class much removed from the general population.

The job ended when I was allocated with nine others to farm work and for this I was issued with a pair of boots. We were taken by lorry to a large farm and shown into a cellar with one small ventilator grill high up inside, but at ground level outside. Half the floor space was strewn with straw for our bedding, allowing just enough room to lay down. The other half was occupied by a table and two benches. A milk churn stood in the corner for a latrine and that was it. The door was locked.

In the morning we were woken by a guard, and two men were obliged to take the churn out, empty it and bring back a bucket of water for washing. After that, we were provided with hot ersatz coffee and a generous supply of farm made bread that was appetizing and much lighter than the military issues. It was still dark when the guard called us out and took us to the edge of a field. Here we were given two pronged forks and lined out along the end of the row of sugar beet. The idea was that the fork was trod down alongside a beet, levered up with one hand with the other hand holding the leaves, the beet was thrown down, some to the left and some to the right. So as we progressed up the field they lay in a pattern for the next operation.

We began before it was barely daylight and with supervision soon had the system going. It was bitterly cold with a heavy frost lying on the leaves. Midday saw a return to our cellar where we had soup as good as one could imagine. Small pieces of meat were included and we wondered if we were not on to a good thing. Back out in the afternoon, about a quarter of the rows had been completed by dusk when a civilian came out and spoke to the guard who was suffering from the cold, stamping his feet and throwing his rifle from one hand to the other for exercise. It was explained to us that the bowermeister (farmer) wanted the whole row completed. We asked if that would be considered a fair day's work, and he said it would be. The next day, being more experienced we managed to complete a row apiece comfortably which pleased our guard who thought he would be able to take us off the field early. But the civilian came up again and we had to continue until dark completing another quarter row.

We received soup at night too. I'm not kidding, the food was so rich and bending over our labours all day gave everyone heartburn and some diarrhea. Complaints provided no solutions - of course we could eat less or go a day without eating anything but it was not as simple as that. One man broke out in boils and was sent back to Stalag. Before the field had been completed, I had the top of the third finger of my left hand, the 'leaf puller' going white, it was frostbite. I knew that if it reached the bone I was in real trouble so painfully and painstakingly I chewed the end off bit by bit. I now had a nasty sore, which fortunately healed without complications.

Our first post arrived since capture. It was an exciting moment. I had three letters and a small parcel. I could not recognise the hand-written address and when I opened it I found three paper back novels. My name had been taken at random by The Christian Book Club. Feeling very responsible, I loaned them out ensuring they were returned in good condition. One day I found a page at the back of one was missing. It had a full size advertisement for Cadbury chocolate, you may remember the one, a bar of chocolate with a jug pouring milk in. A picture like that was worth, to us, more than any reading matter and it took some time to get the culprit to confess. He had eaten the page.

For our next operation we were given large machetes. We had to go over the whole field again hacking the leaves off the beet and leaving them where they fell. The leaves had to be thrown to a pattern so that as the following operation proceeded, loading the beet on to carts, the wheels ran over the leaves. I could see that if the ground had been soft, the leaves would have provided some support for the wheels, but on the hard frozen ground they were crushed both by the horses hooves and the wheels. I knew little of farm work but learned that there was a lot more than sheer labour involved.

During the work Iíd seen a girl, well wrapped up against the cold and with the diamond shaped yellow patch with 'P' showing she was Polish. Again like someone out of an earlier age. She was only a teenager with a pale face and clogs looking just like a Dutch china doll. Also, just like earlier times she carried a heavy wooden yolk across her shoulders with a bucket either side. She had what at first sight appeared to be a tail poking out behind her. She was walking across the field opposite to ours towards some cows and, as she reached the nearest, she sat down and began milking. I could see then that her 'tail' was a one legged stool strapped to her bottom.

The field to our right had crops of some kind but was too far away to identify. I suppose a fortnight had elapsed since we had started when a group of perhaps two dozen women appeared on that field and began working, all wearing the yellow patches. They could not help be aware of our presence but made no sign. A few days later, one that was pregnant had her baby at the edge of the field and was helped off, but two days later was back at work again with her bundle, wrapped across her breasts. I did meet one in the farmhouse once when getting the water for washing. We came face to face. She was only a teenager and stared at me without speaking, then shrugging her shoulders helplessly, turned and went.

Eventually the beet were stacked into heaps across the field and had to be loaded into carts and taken to a stack nearby. There were now only five of us since two more had been sent back sick. There were two carts working in tandem, one loading and the other unloading, keeping us going without stopping. I stood on top of a heap and threw over the heads of the others below me. The guard had become increasingly agitated and we understood that there was a time factor in getting all the beet to the road before the lorries came. It was due to this that the guard tried to ensure each load really was stacked to maximum but beet would roll off the top over the other side or back on our side.

That was the situation when the bowermeister came out to see for himself. He was dressed as though he was going to the opera and riding in a highly polished two wheeled buggy and pair. As he came up on the further side someone yelled out 'get him' and so, instead of throwing two together, I threw one. It sailed right over the top and we heard a bellow. Instinctively I looked toward the guard who had turned white. He raised his rifle to his shoulder, and pointing directly at me pulled back the bolt. From my elevated position I could see the round being pushed into the breech. His finger went for the trigger and, no longer caring one way or the other, spat at him. But he stopped as the farmer came round the end of the cart rubbing his now hatless head and shouted 'Halt!' Despite many desperate moments of depression, that was the only time I can remember when I no longer cared. I was in the wrong, not for trying to do something, but for risking my life unnecessarily. There had been many incidents of provoking the guards, but craftiness had always been the technique so nobody could get blamed.

There was another incident with a stocky little fellow called Joe Hartley. Joe certainly did not lack guts and he had been an amateur flyweight boxer. He was on another farm when a large cart with four horses had become bogged down in mud. The driver had been laying into the horses mercilessly with his whip. Disgusted beyond control, Joe had snatched the whip and laid into the driver with it. He was taken back to Stalag and kept in a small separate section awaiting 'Court Marshall' and was subsequently sent to Straflager (punishment camp), never to be seen again.

With the beet harvest finished we were returned to prison camp. This time we were taken to Willenberg, a few kilometres from Marienburg, and about fifty kilometres from Danzig in East Prussia. Of the four that survived the work party, two went straight into hospital, one with scurvy. Despite the greater abundance of food on the farm and its richness, there was no fruit or vegetables to provide ascorbic acid and such like needs.

The winter had set in with a vengeance. Although the winter in France had been severe, we were now in a more Northerly latitude and heavy snow had fallen. We marched from Marienburg station through the town, but could not march in the road because the snow had been shoveled off the pavements into the road and it was shoulder high. The carts had their wheels taken off and runners fitted, and there were also hoops over the horses feet with bells tinkling. There were no cars or lorries to be seen.