WW II, a British focus



 

 

     REFLECTIONS

Well, there you have it. I have done my best to describe, perhaps record might be a better word, those events I experienced without seeking to make a point of the hardship. Indeed, I look back on those years as a supreme adventure that not even a millionaire could have bought. Everyone has a life's experience and judging by the Falklands and Gulf war campaigns, the young today may be thrust into events that will mark their lives and mould their character. It would be a mistake to think that after so much that happened, I would be finished with World War II and all that went with it. On the contrary, I have been fascinated by all the battles and everything connected, enjoying the many realistically recreated battles on films and reading the historians, now that is quite something, the '2,194 Days' by two Italians and 'The World At War' by Martin Gilbert the official historian. The latter being a huge volume tracing the war day by day in every part of the world in sequence.

Whilst it brought home to me how insignificant and futile was my own involvement and accepting the general authenticity, I have to make the point that in the records of Martin Gilbert, it states that the Russians attacked Elbing during the last week of January 1945. In fact, scores of us prisoners stood staring through the wire of Willenberg, out over the Vistula, and were able to watch the first battle raging around Elbing as early as the 12th of that month. Also Marienburg was attacked on the 17th, the same day as the much documented march to Silesia began and not as recorded much later. It was certainly true that the Germans regrouped to counter attack, they did and retook Marienburg and held it briefly after we had left pushing the bed cases. Trifling points of accuracy perhaps, but nobody asked those who were there to witness, as it was certain, that pockets continued fighting all over East Prussia until the war finally ended. The real mystery is how we managed to walk through the middle of it all unscathed.

With regard to the Russian forces I can only give my impressions gained on my journey. Adverse propaganda put out by the Germans described them as evil animals, undisciplined and uncultured hoards guilty of mass pillage, looting and rape and not really human at all. To me this was given some substance by what we already knew of the Communist Revolution; mass murder of the upper classes, Siberian labour camps and mass movements of populations. So it was considered one hell of a risk going through the advancing forces. The alternative of retreating with the Germans was equally as bleak. Whatever the political activities of the Kremlin and the political officers that followed in the wake of the advancing Russian forces, we always managed to keep one step ahead. Our association was only with the military, although the rapid establishment of red flags everywhere in Poland demonstrated that the politicos were never far behind. I can only write as I found, which is that the Russian troops were highly disciplined, well clothed right down to their boots, which initially struck as odd because as often as not they had newspaper or straw sticking out of the tops and appeared too big.

I discovered that this was the prescribed answer to extremely cold conditions, by providing space between the foot and the boot to hold the body warmth and act as insulation. We were treated with respect as allies but otherwise the Russians appeared to keep themselves to themselves, perhaps because they were uncertain as to what attitude they should take in regard to isolated Commonwealth troops within their midst. That looters would be shot on sight was clearly a major issue, even our foraging party in Marienburg, when we obtained flour was closely guarded.

As for the German allegation of looting by the advancing Soviet forces it was perhaps significant that none of the forward troops carried any packs and so it would have been impossible to take anything of any size that would not fit in a pocket. What did seem almost uncanny was that we never saw them eat or any signs of field kitchens other than at the base camp where we saw the film, which was situated well back from the fighting. The impression was that the Soviets had advanced so quickly and so far that they were dependent on whatever livestock and edible stores the Germans had not had time to take or to destroy. Everything taken must have been on an official basis, all of it, giving substance to their War Cry of 'All for Victory, all for the Front!' They neither knew or cared how we survived and apart from the one occasion when we were given the basin of jellied meat by the tank crew we received no further rations until those supplied on the train from Lublin to Odessa.

For a good overall view of what happened to POWs overrun by the Soviet advance into a Poland I would recommend you read "The Iron Cage" by Nigel Cawthorne, published by Fourth Estate Limited. In it he deals comprehensively, not only with the fate of Allied POWs but also poses the question of whether up to 30,000 British POWs were abandoned in Soviet hands and consigned to the Soviet Gulags in remote parts of Siberia from where there was no escape. It is quite feasible that even in 1995 there may well be some survivors. Perhaps I could have put a lot more feeling and detail into my story, but I leave this to the reader's imagination. I have done the best I can in translating my thoughts to paper.

In my endeavours to find out what happened to the staff and bed patients left at Rosenberg, I eventually put an advertisement in the 'Lost Trails' section of the British Legion magazine. There was no charge for this and since it did not appear in the next quarterly issue I thought it had been set aside but it did appear a year later. It is just a fact of life that so many of those involved in World War II have spent the in-between years rebuilding their lives, earning a living and bringing up families. For many, it was not until retirement that they have had time to reflect and remember and try to contact old companions. To my amazement, letters began to arrive and the telephone never stopped ringing for several days. Unfortunately, whilst feeling obliged to write replies to letters and indulge in long telephone conversations with the help of amplification techniques, most were evacuated from the Stalag and were on the long march across Upper Silesia and wanted to know if I knew so-and-so.

Although all this activity clouded the water, one correspondent thought that Captain Ian Rose, the doctor, had left Marienburg Hospital with a party that had set out for Krakow but was not with them when the party arrived. Another said he had heard that the doctor had got back to England and had been working in a London hospital but had subsequently been knocked down and killed by a taxi. Since nobody had any first hand information, either of these two stories could have been true. None of those who contacted me could positively say that they had seen the doctor after his departure from Rosenberg.

The best information I received was from a medical orderly who was also a patient and had been in the main building during the whole battle. This man had kept a strict diary of which he kindly sent me a photo copy of the transcribed document. There were actual times and dates of those events quoting much of what was going on all around from his own observations and gleamed from a wireless that was picking up British news. I based my calculations on an entry in the book by Martin Gilbert the official historian that quoted the 17th January as the day the Stalag was evacuated. The diarist would have been unaware of that but allowing that evacuation took place the day after we had left, his dates ran several days later, but ran in tandem with my own experiences.

The diarist records how someone left his shelter to try and get water from the main building but was wounded in the attempt and that medic J. Walker who went outside to try and rescue him was shot and killed. In addition he recorded how the heavy and small arms firing fluctuated and made particular reference to a heavy machine gun close by - which undoubtedly was the one positioned a few feet above our heads whilst we were trapped in the shelter beneath. Whereas I had formed the impression that Marienburg had been evacuated some time earlier, he records that the bulk of the population did not leave until the last and there were trains at the station full of people but no engines to pull them. His dates confirm that we were trapped in the shelters for between 6 and 7 days and that the journey to Rosenberg took a further three days pushing the carts, although the distance was only 26 kilometres.

From my own observations I suspect some of the diarists' details were sometimes exaggerated and these I have ignored. What I did not know was that those that could walk at all, also had to take to the road and left Rosenberg in groups over a week or two later which might explain the story of the doctor heading for Krakow.

Not in his diary but during a telephone conversation, the diarist said he had been lucky enough to acquire a bicycle and that some did get transport at least part of way. He also mentioned the fellow who had to do the walk with a broken leg in plaster! It seems a variety of routes were pursued and all said they had been treated with respect by the Russians, but no food or other assistance was offered. After all that and still no positive news of the doctor or of the fate of the bed patients!

What happened to Lofty Brassington and Jock, my companions on the long march to the Black Sea? Lofty and I corresponded for a while after the war. He had got home about a month later. I got separated from Jock on the boat and did not have his address. When I tried to contact them many years later, I discovered that Lofty had died some years earlier, so my efforts to trace Jock came to a dead-end. I also made efforts to trace Captain King, the padre, and was eventually put in touch with the Chaplains Department only to discover that he too had died several years earlier. I had no wish to pursue Captain King's family for any information regarding the two medical orderlies that did the journey with him.

I did find a sergeant of the Signals that I had been good friends with at Stalag, 'Red' Chambers, and met him at his home in Chatham. He was able to describe the 'hunger march’ to Silesia where they eventually met up with the advancing Americans. Chambers only had two years to go to complete his 21 year's service and had been given extended leave because of mild frostbite in both legs. He had been captured in a railway wagon operating a radio when a stick bomb was thrown in. He lost several fingers and one eye and could still show scraps of metal imbedded in his arms. When he reported back after his leave, he was discharged with a 5 shilling a week pension and was denied completing his 21 years and qualifying for a full service pension. He was naturally bitter. I thought it strange because his one good eye developed so that he could see notices across the prison camp when others could not and he was otherwise a very bright and able. It did not seem right that he should not have been allowed to complete his contract and retire on a sergeants’ pension. Events showed that both of us were capable of serving on usefully. It suggested that as many regulars were being got rid of as possible in addition to the conscripts being demobilised.

As my writing shows, the circumstances of arriving home via Liverpool and the Devon Dispersal Centre without any interrogation, coupled with home being in an isolated village, there was no official recognition of our successful escape. At the time it never occurred to us to make special mention of the matter to the unit or the press. That we were home in one piece was enough. Latter day knowledge is that, despite all the stories of attempted escapes, there were fewer than 100 successful escapes officially recorded without including ours. The oath we had taken on the boat with British Intelligence officers not to talk about what we had seen or what the Russians were likely to compounded the false records.

As stated earlier the German understanding was that we should accept responsibility according to our ranks and the fact that the back-pay was calculated on less than 1940 levels I have to live with and was not the reason I refused to claim medals. When one officer, trying to induce me to claim medals and threatening punishment if I did not asked what kind of medal did I think I should have, I suggested a circle of barbed wire with a silver louse. He did not understand.

About this survival business: I wonder if we really did so well because, like donkeys with carrots held in front, we always thought we were 'nearly there' and so only had a little farther to go. In the event the illusion did keep us going. The things we had to start with could have been made to last a little longer but would have made no difference. How it affected my life afterwards is more intangible. What I do know is that after my divorce, I lived alone for 9 years and managed very well. I brought a small bungalow, improved it, developed the garden and built a large workshop. I cooked, even doing four course meals for up to 8 guests. When I came to move however, I found the attic was stacked with cases of tinned food and over 100 toilet rolls! I also had a large stock of razor blades and matches. I suppose .... Oh never mind!

Moving to a larger property of nearly an acre at Matfield, Kent I found I was just a few doors from the big old house where Seigfried Sasson had lived (the WW1 poet) and wondered what it would have been like to have been able to talk to him. Something else, I have mentioned that circumstances made me an agnostic: the local vicar had taken up the cloth because of his experiences as a Spitfire pilot. We became good friends and I did some work and carving for the church but never attended a service. We understood and respected each other deeply.

You can't just walk away from such experiences, but the whole purpose of life lays in working for the future. A year or two after setting up on my own I had the opportunity to quote to re-french polish all that needed doing at Tonbridge railway station. I was advised that their contracts' departments were a load of snobs on the make. I had to meet a representative on one of the station platforms. Following advice I had my best suit on and carried a briefcase and was to take the man for a good lunch and give a price that would ensure something for himself. In good time I presented myself at the appointed place and watched a very smooth character gliding along the platform towards me. At the same time a train was slowly passing full of soldiers. Just as the man was a few yards from me, a soldier leaned out of a window and yelled 'Wattcher Spike', I turned to see one of the former inmates of Deutsch-Eyleau, so naturally yelled excitedly back with a wave. As I turned back to my man, he had turned and was retreating back the way he had come, and that was that! Nothing like a tough, villainous looking 'Spike', the nickname had become attached to me as a result of my part-time nursing and first aid. Someone had decorated my bunk with coloured chalks as a chemist shop and inscribed it as 'Spike's Joint'. The name stuck.

Now I come to the point of telling all this. When the big boys moved in on my company several of my team left and when I resigned the others, plus the office manager left too. That was over 30 years ago. In 1990 my three sons secretly organised a surprise party in Matfield village hall for my 70th birthday. There was over 100 guests, a band, champagne and ten of those that had worked with me all those years ago. Yes, learning to be part of a team with the 'Z' reservists and in prisoner of war life had done something, something very valuable. They say that out of every storm comes some good, even if it is only branches knocked down for making a fire. .... if you see what I mean.

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