THE RUSSIANS ADVANCE
Nineteen Forty-four saw barely suppressed excitement that the war could be over any time, but a bad shock occurred when a convoy of lorries arrived and drove straight into the camp. A full company of Italian soldiers got out complete with every kind of small arms and boxes of ammunition. An order was shouted and they formed up in line with the machine guns, mortars and ammunition on the ground in front of them. ‘Christ Almighty' had they been brought in to shoot the lot of us? Cold fury rather than fear swept through us. What an end, after everything we had endured!
We were wrong. The next orders saw them load everything, including their rifles back onto the lorries. Then, to our astonishment, and theirs, they were registered as prisoners of war. They were shattered, thinking that they had been brought in to take over guard duties. In a few weeks, without food parcels, they were reduced to scrounging for anything to improve their lot. Two metres inside the main wire around the Stalag was a single wire about 300 millimetres above ground level. One Italian POW stepped across to pick up a cigarette butt laying there and got a burst of machine gun fire. He was left there dead for several hours as a warning to the others before his body could be removed by his comrades. We knew the rule and assumed the Italians had been warned. Normally a shouted warning from the tower would been given before any shooting. No doubt the Germans were feeling bitter with the Italians. There was something else. Those working outside saw many goods trains going through with Italian markings, some open trucks loaded with potatoes - it seemed the Germans were taking everything they could out of the country whilst it was possible.
Summer came and the fleas did not return, perhaps defeated by the cold winter. Now bugs were the new pests. These things did not live in our clothes or open ground but in crevices like the corner joints of the beds and match board walls of the huts, breeding there and emerging at night to torment us. And they stank when we squashed them. I have always wondered why we had to suffer the lice, then the fleas and finally the bugs in turn and not all at the same time - perhaps they could not stand the sight of each other!
As the German morale went down, so ours lifted and we took more pride in appearing soldierly. Instead of lounging about in the evenings groups walked up and down the camp in line abreast like officers on board ships. Captain Rose, the Medical Officer took bagpipe lessons at one end of the camp, and as if that was not painful enough, at the other end an Italian tenor gave singing lessons, which was all rather painful. Captain King, the padre, had, after a long haul, acquired educational books and started classes up to Army First Class, which I was pleased to join having lost so much schooling.
By the autumn, the Stalag had a regular newsheet produced in three languages. The sheets were screen printed using Red Cross jelly. Where the news and actual printing came from remained a mystery to all but those involved. Clearly the war was reaching its climax.
As earlier visualised, anticipating another long march, and given that winter was approaching, I decided to make myself a sledge and used theatre props for materials. It was sturdy and big enough to take a food parcel, blanket and spare clothing. There was a set of heavy duty castors someone had acquired for scene shifting and I screwed these underneath with the idea of converting it into a trolley.
Christmas came and went with all eyes focused on New Years Eve since the bulk of the British were Scots who had formed the perimeter at Dunkirk. On that night all hell broke loose. Waiting until after lights out, a complete pipe band formed up on the compound and marched up and down playing loudly, fortified by an intake of hooch, which by force of circumstances was almost 100% alcohol. The Germans were furious and fired into the air with rifles and bursts from the machine guns until peace reigned once more. A guard was later found with a side drum wrapped around his neck. We had to stand on parade in the freezing cold nearly all of the following day without rations and were not stood down until evening.
The only other real outburst I saw was, when out on parade for roll call, a glider, apparently taken by the wind sailed over the Stalag and clipped the top of one of the towers that overhung the cliff. Everyone cheered as the tower tilted, then silence as it rocked back and forth: suddenly it crashed down, guard and all, out of sight and could be heard a few moments later on the rocks below.
A tremendous roar went up and the British sang the National Anthem, the French sang theirs and even the guards had a job to keep a straight face whilst trying to restore order.
Below us, from the Vistula to as far as we could see the landscape was flat, and each winter the river was frozen over. Late each afternoon children could be seen, tiny bundles of fur with packs on their backs making their way from school along the frozen surface on snow shoes or skis. At other times of the year they made their way by routes out of our view. It was rare to see anyone on that landscape other than the fishermen. They would make two holes in the ice and float a net down from one to the other catching what they could.
In early January 1945 the view looking East from the elevated position of Willenberg above the Vistula was different. A thin dark line appeared across the whole width of the horizon suggesting a worsening of the weather with a vast storm approaching. But unlike ordinary weather this threatening front was static and it remained there the following day without any apparent movement. Later in the day a steady roll of thunder could be heard implying that a terrible storm was taking place just beyond our vision, but thunder - in January?
It was impressive, encompassing the whole of the horizon that by the end of the working day and after roll call most of the camp had collected along the wire speculating about the phenomena. As darkness descended it could be seen that the whole width of the dark cloud was sitting on a continuous line of flickering light, and the noise grew louder. As time passed we realized that what we were witnessing was possibly the most unremitting, concentrated barrage of the war. It was. I later discovered it was the 2nd Belorussian Army breaking into East Prussia supplemented by German counterfire.
From our elevated position we had the most extraordinary grandstand view of the battle that slowly encroached until it enveloped Elbing. A town almost 30 miles away that could normally only be discerned when the sun glinted on the towns great steel bridge. Whilst this was happening working parties were going backwards and forwards loading office equipment and other things from the guard's barracks outside and from our own stores. Either we were going to be left to the Russians or, as I had anticipated, we were in for a long march deeper into Germany. We had to assume, despite their reversals they were simply withdrawing to their own frontiers and the war would continue from there for some time.
In view of the weather and my health problems, my prospects of surviving a long march right across Germany were poor. I could see that whilst many along the wire watching the battle raging around Elbing in the distance, others were packing for any eventuality and a crowd had accumulated around the gates to pick up any information from those coming and going. In the short term I thought that the most sensible thing to do was transfer my belongings to the theatre hut and I strapped them onto my sledge with room to spare.
Room to spare? There was something I had a special attachment for, a compass plane in the tool cupboard. I got it out and looked at it. Do you know what a compass plane is? Well, it is similar to an iron smoothing-plane, but a little longer. Instead of a pistol grip handle at the rear it has a knob the same as the front made of rosewood. The cutting iron and adjustments are the same but the sole, instead of cast iron machined flat, was spring, steel that by turning the holding knobs it can be flat, concave or convex, so that any flat or curve within the maximum radius of the adjustment can be planed. This one was very old. It had some brass fittings and was heavily engraved like a good quality shot gun. It was a masterpiece, which I would be proud to get back home, so it went into my valise.
Going down to the gate to see what news I could pick up, I mingled with the crowd. I was with nobody I knew but that did not matter since everyone talked freely to each other. There was nothing to learn other than speculation when, suddenly, a German officer came pushing through asking if there was a padre of any denomination to stay with the bed cases at the P.O.W. hospital in Marienburg. That was it. The Russians were coming. That the camp was being evacuated was certain and men dispersed to the huts for their possessions.
Suppose it was possible to get to Marienburg? The Russians were allies now. Surely there was a fair chance of the sick being treated properly? I voiced my thoughts out loud. What! Take a chance with the Russians? - not bloody likely! We knew the war had become very savage and the Germans had a great deal to pay for, but to me it seemed the options were evenly balanced. There was every prospect of a hard time ahead whatever.
Everyone was being told to get out on to the road into column. I went and got my sledge, which, believe me caused some comments. Having been in the know, part of the inner circle of privileges, making my acquisition something of an embarrassment and making me want to disown it. I kept my nerve stating that I for one was going to try to get to the P.O.W. hospital and take my chances there. Others had been weighing up the prospect and, subject to them being able to share my sledge, two offered to have a go with me. It meant carrying my valise to my back and the others the same with our blankets, food parcels and bundles of spare clothing tied firmly onto the sledge. Of my two new companions, one, named Brassington, was as tall as me, also a lance corporal of the Service Corps and came from Grimsby. He offered to send me a box of kippers if we got home. The other man, a little Scotsman from Aberdeen who had little to say beyond agreeing 'Och Aye' to everything.
We moved out onto the road together, hardly surprising anyway now that much of their gear was on my sledge. There was no organised column being formed so the road, or country lane as it was, was crowded the full width. Pushing our way along we came to a rough hedgerow on the opposite side from the Stalag. Here we found a place where we could break through into the field. Now we waited until orders were shouted to start moving. So, before the crowd thinned out into a column, we pushed our way through the hedge to the accompaniment of some discouraging comments. So far we had seen there were no guards too see us and must have been up front and at the tail end, which was still emerging from the gates.
Moving along to a dense part of the hedge, we lay down hoping the disturbed snow would not draw attention. We lay there an hour, the cold biting through to our bones until all was clear, everyone gone, just a lorry creeping along in the rear. It took some courage to get back on the road and then some time jumping up and down, arms swinging and thumping each other to get the circulation going again. After 10 minutes of this we set off along the lane in the opposite direction. We could not help stopping for a moment to look through the gates now left wide open. Brassington, who became known as 'Lofty' asked if we would like to go back in again. We could occupy the commandants quarters he joked. It was a strange feeling looking at the sheer desolation of the place that had served the same purpose in two world wars, now barren and empty. We struck out feeling pleased with ourselves for having 'done something'. It was not the result of ingenious planning, simply a case of opportunity having knocked and seized upon. It was several kilometres to Marienburg but there was no sign of anyone, civilian or military, just the noise of battle in the distance.
Arriving on the outskirts of the town, there was a wide bend into the high street. It was probably here that I had heaved myself out of the lorry that first winter. We were progressing down the middle of the road abreast towing the sledge when, as we turned a corner we came face to face with a barricade of sandbags piled chest high. Through this poked two anti-tank guns. Along the top was a row of dirty, tired faces under steel helmets with rifles, machine guns and grenades laid out along the top. Oh God! We had walked smack into the German front line! Not normally a quick thinker, I hissed 'Keep hold of the sledge, but put your other hand up and keep going'.
As we came closer, expecting at any moment to be shot, an officer called out 'Where are you going?' Saying that gave me the answer 'We must go the P.O.W. hospital to work'. To our astonishment that explanation was accepted and they even helped us over, sledge and all, and allowed us to continue.
It took only another 15 minutes to find the hospital. A large house set in its own grounds with large iron gates. There was a tree either side of the gates, between which several sheets had been pinned together and stretched across to form a banner. Either side of the banner had been painted with red crosses and between, probably with blue unction, something was written in Russian. Outside was one of our old guards, probably in his fifties. A likeable old boy who had escorted us to play football at Deutsch-Eyleau and who had demonstrated his knowledge of English swear words to Captain King. We told him that the Stalag had been evacuated and all the guards had gone so that he would be better off if he went up the road and joined his comrades at the barricade. He did not want to, then, after some thought asked each of us for our uniform in exchange for his uniform, rifle, ammunition and identity discs. Nothing doing, we felt sorry for him as he trudged off down the road in the direction from which we came.
Entering, we found the place a hive of activity with medics and those able carrying the bed cases into the basement. Captain King the padre was there. We discovered that he had volunteered to stay, he really was quite a guy. In the former garden area there were two huts to the right with the high bank behind where the girls used to ply for chocolate, and straight ahead were a row of four huts parallel to the road.
Either side of these was an air raid shelter built against the bank on either side with only the entrances visible with the snow covering everything in its mantle. The transfer to the basement had hardly been completed when shellfire began coming in and everyone had to take cover. I had the impression that only the bed cases, doctors and padre were to be left, but there was some 15 others and these, plus five medics had to take to the shelters with us. We were in the left-hand shelter, which was crowded. We had to stand shoulder to shoulder with just enough room to squeeze past to use the latrine, a hole dug in the side and just opposite where we were standing. It was well laced with chlorine, the German's main disinfectant. A little to our left there was an air vent high in the wall with a ledge cut in to allow one to step up on or perhaps it was intended as an escape exit. The way the fighting had come close so quickly gave us the impression that we would not be there for more than 24 hours, so there was no real problem regarding food and drink. Anyway, the sledge had been left in the hut nearest the gate. There was a great deal of shooting outside, both heavy and small arms fire. Thankfully nothing in our immediate vicinity. As night fell the sounds of battle diminished.
There was much we did not know: the Germans were holding out and fighting fiercely in many parts of East Prussia. Although the Russians had come this far, fighting was to continue around Kalinigrad to the north, Elbing and many other pockets. Himmler had been put in charge of the 1st Army to establish a line along the Vistula but the Russians were already across in some places whilst the Germans mounted counter attacks everywhere. Our situation became very bad. Propped upright against the damp dirt wall of the trench, the latrine soon began to fill. Those needing to drop their trousers were obliged to hang onto the coats of others to avoid falling back in. There was no water yet everyone came to urinate as though it was a pub’s closing time - where does it all come from with nothing to eat or drink? The battle drew closer with heavy shelling or mortars landing close, and almost incessant small arms fire with the distinctive 'dot-dot-dot' of one kind of machine pistol and a 'brrp-brrp-brrp' of another continuing well into the second night. The following day, the battle seemed to move further away and firing became more scattered. I was determined to go out that night to the hut containing our sledge for food and water.
With no real idea of time it must have been into the small hours before I stepped up and peered through the air vent. There had been more snow but the air was still and clear, with only a desultory rifle shot in the distance. The moon was full and clouds were moving rapidly providing deep shadows. Taking a deep breath I hauled myself up until my head was outside and peered slowly around. Ahead of me was the end of the row of four huts with the roofs almost level with me. If I was going to get to the sledge, it was necessary to get down the bank and across the short distance to the gap between two of the huts, go along between them, then turn right. From this point I had to negotiate my way to the end of the hut that contained the sledge which was at right angles facing the opening of the air raid shelter on the other side. The last thing I wanted was to be spotted by the others in case they called out giving my position away to whoever might be lurking in the darkness.
It was now or never, if I hesitated… I did not think I would be able to screw up the courage for another attempt. Decision made, I snaked down the slope and made for the space between the huts already breathless. After a short rest, I moved along the side of one hut until I reached the other end. Before I could turn right, the cloud cleared with everything becoming bathed in moonlight. Immediately small arms fire opened up all around. Did nobody sleep! I dare not lift my face to see how long before another cloud blotted out what might, in other circumstances have been called a beautiful night. I remained motionless getting colder. After about 10 minutes the moon disappeared and I cautiously ventured on until I was directly opposite the door of my objective. Then the clouds cleared and the moon brightly shone, illuminating the open space of about 20 yards. I cringed against the hut and froze for perhaps 15 minutes before the clouds returned. Then I was able to stir my stiffening limbs into running the last 20 yards to the door behind which my sledge lay. The door opened to a push and I fell inside convinced that a return journey would be just too much.
It was not long before I picked myself up, and after indulging in some exercise to help the circulation I found the sledge untouched where we had left it. I now had another problem: apart from getting back, what could I take and how? Most of our store of Red Cross food needed cooking so there was only biscuits of any practical use. Furthermore, the tap in the hut produced nothing, so water was unobtainable, the pipes had frozen. Water could be got in the main building but it was too far away, across an open area. So little achievement for so much effort! Without interfering with anyone else's belongings I packed all of our biscuits which, in our present situation, did not amount to much, into my pockets. Then, taking off my overcoat I wrapped a blanket around myself and tied it to my body with the string from the sledge, then put the coat back on. This was the easiest way of carrying the blanket.
Having found nothing else of any value, I peered out of the door and immediately heard someone hissing to me from the shelter directly opposite. I could dimly make out a figure and put my fingers to my lips – did the stupid bastard want to get me shot? It was obvious what was being asked for, water. Everyone needed water, but it may as well have been a thousand miles away. I shook my head and spread my hands wide to signify there was no water, but the figure persisted, so I withdrew and shut the door.
If the figure did not shut up, how the hell was I going to get back again? I settled down and waited for a long time eventually taking another look without showing myself. Whoever it was had withdrawn. Waiting for cloud cover I made it back to the corner of the hut opposite. Not wishing to disturb my unwelcome neighbour I went along the side of the first hut facing onto the open expanse to the main building. Any movement across the open space could be observed by anyone out on the road looking through the gate, but as I crouched against the dark timbered side in deep shadow I decided the risk was worth taking: I reached my objective. Now I had to get across the ends of the next two huts and come out opposite our air vent. Half-way there the moon came out again. I froze waiting some time before cloud mercifully came over again and was able to make my final dash for the hole where Lofty hauled me through like a pipe cleaner.
My reward: 'Christ, is that all you've got?' I explained as best I could and unraveled the blanket so that we could have it around our shoulders in turn. The biscuits did not last long, but it was something. A Frenchman also made the trip successfully the next night but he did not bring back much either beyond garlic, which certainly did us no favours. We learnt afterwards that someone, perhaps the idiot that had called me from the other shelter, did make a dash for the main building but was shot and wounded. A medic who ran out to pull him in was shot and killed. That's how it was. I was damned lucky. By the fifth day our situation had become appalling. The latrine was full to overflowing, but still they came squeezing along to use it, hanging on to us like grim death.
The battle raged all round. Sometimes close, then receding into the distance as though it was nearly over. What was alarming, a heavy machine gun, a German Spandau, kept opening up so close that we could hear the working parts clicking. Reciprocation came with a slashing sound, usually followed by more explosions around us. It proved too much for one of the French who, despite our protests, climbed up to peer out of the air vent just as shell exploded outside. He fell back, staggered and fell into the latrine with a pathetic cry and a most God awful stench. As he emerged we shrank away and he was forced along to the end where he had to stay by the opening. An Italian, already by the entrance had messed himself when something landed close and he spent the rest of the time being roughly pushed from one end and back again since nobody could tolerate him.
The end came on the 6th or 7th day, how could we tell? We were a sorry mess when we heard voices calling us out. For better or worse, and what could be worse, we emerged one by one; falling, staggering, blinking into the daylight, some simply sinking to the ground and laying in the snow. Outside the main building were our doctors and a Serbian medical orderly talking to a group of Russian officers who, surprisingly, looked very smart indeed. It transpired, believe it or not, that the Serb was acting as interpreter. It was he who had written the Russian on the banner out front - he could speak English with a Scottish accent gained whilst serving in a Scottish regiment in the first-world war. The man was a marvel and it really makes you think, to discover such a talented person serving with us and we cannot even speak English properly!
Inside the gate stood several Russian soldiers in sheep skin topcoats, and there were others out on the road with white mantle overalls. They were peering about suspiciously with machine pistols with round magazines. Unlike the cultured appearance of the officers, these were short stocky chaps, perhaps Mongolian. They were a frightening looking bunch. We hauled ourselves off to our hut and simply lay down unable to face up to doing anything for a while, then we got water and a fire going. Everyone seemed to be trembling. Reaction I suppose, and fatigue, after our ordeal. After a meal and a hot drink we settled down and slept leaving washing until later. We were young and that was what got us through. But what else were we fit for now? And what comes next? Well, we did wake refreshed and ate and drank some more, then heated water and cleaned ourselves up as far as possible. Then we emerged to have a look at our liberators. There was a huge tank outside with a red star on the side. Two soldiers, standing at the gate with their guns were mounting guard. My heart sank to my stomach at the thought of being regarded as prisoners again. Who knew what their intentions were towards us?