WW II, a British focus




Soon after we all had to fall in, called out by name, number and rank which had been taken back at Lublin with the result that, as a lance corporal, I was in the front row. Barely had this been completed when from somewhere the other side a brass band struck up playing Colonel Bogey. At first we thought it was coming from on board the boat but as the sound grew louder and closer, the band appeared around the end of warehouse marching towards us. They were Russian soldiers playing brass instruments that were green with verdigris. There were about a dozen of them with an officer marching in front, behind was another half a dozen English including Captain King, the padre, and his two companions. He was a highly regarded man by any standards, religion or none, and I was pleased to know that he had made the journey safely. Now he replaced me at the head by rank and so was first on the boat. Halfway up the long steps on the side of the boat, he turned, looked down at me with a grin and putting up two fingers called, 'I beat you after all!' No doubt secluded in the ship's officer's quarters, I never saw him again.

The ship and the Red Cross lighter, were British. The result was rather embarrassing in some respects since we were all immediately issued with new clothes and boots. My boots were now almost finished and Jock revealed that he had been walking partly on his bare soles. I found that having taken my boots off, it was not possible to take off my socks. They had been hand knitted by my mother and received in a clothing parcel. Incredibly, they had not worn into holes as one might expect, but the area below the ankle had worn evenly cobweb thin and the skin had grown over so that they were now effectively part of my feet. I removed the upper part and was able to put new socks on, but it was a long time before those old socks disappeared altogether.

I reflected how much I had hated my mother's hand knitted socks as a kid. There was only enough turnover to cover the garters whilst other boys’ had ones with big turnovers that included their house colours. The evidence was that mine had always been better socks but a kid only wants to be like the others or feels a bit of an outcast. Having changed our clothes, a pay parade was held next with a payment of £5, which everyone immediately contributed to the Red Cross box fixed to a mast head. Such was the amount of contributions that the box proved too small, so the donations accumulated on the deck beneath with a seaman on guard. Another £5 was paid out later on the voyage home.

The next thing was a meal. I do believe that whilst some ate like animals, others cried. Bread whiter than ever imagined, ham, eggs, oh the fare was simple but so good and plentiful. It was to us, incredible but life on board, war or no war, had compensations. The French and Italians had the same food of course and afterwards everyone wanted a damned good all-over wash. Unfortunately, although showers were available, there was not nearly enough, and again the demand meant that most had to make do with cold water. On deck everyone crowded together and the British were giving their discarded boots and clothes, many of which were still in fair conditions, to the most needy of the French and Italians with the result that one entrepreneurial Frenchman sold a newly acquired pair of boots to a crewman. This act was thought to be so ungrateful that, in the ensuring row, he was thrown overboard and the matter not reported.

We stopped at Istanbul to take on water and we were able, from our anchorage, to watch the sun set over the town, reflecting on the minarets. A fantastic sight. The next stop was Port Said. We stayed for three days. To relieve the burden on the ships supplies, tickets were issued each day to go to the English Club for a meal. That was another special treat with no one ordering anything fancy. The most popular dish was ham that overhung the plate with four fried eggs on top and plenty of white bread and butter. We were able to walk into the town but did not venture far because the Arabs looked a villainous lot (perhaps not their fault although we did have warnings to be careful) and bought small souvenirs. A special party for us was arranged at the Club with chorus girls and turns brought in from Cairo, free beer too. It was a farce: nobody was accustomed to the strong beer and those that tried, even one small bottle were knocked for six with the result that the floor was so littered with bodies that the girls could not perform. The beer was handed out to rows of delighted sailors framed in each of the open windows, but like they say, it is the thought that counts!

After picking up a different boat we set off along the Mediterranean. Ever since leaving Istanbul the weather had changed dramatically to clear skies and soft warm winds. Out to sea it was calm with a gentle swell that gave me, and many others I'm sure, an uneasy feeling in the stomach, not sea sick, I have never suffered from seasickness, but it was an uncomfortable feeling. It had never occurred to us that we would, but perfectly logically the ship called in at Naples to off load the few Italians on board and to take on fuel and water. As we came in close it was a wonderful sight to see the town sprawling up the hillside and the huge volcano behind. I had heard the expression 'See Naples and Die' but could not pick out which group of buildings was Die.

Pulling into a quayside the picture became very different. I had seen enough disaster and destruction over the last five years but nothing like this. The place was in a terrible, filthy state. What made it so sad was the numbers of dirty ragged children, some offering to dive in to retrieve a coin. It seemed that for some the aftermath of the war was worse than the war itself. After a few hours in Naples harbour the ship sailed on heading for Marseilles to put off the French. Before reaching there, another incident occurred when the French, ever suspicious of any Frenchman that may have been fighting with the Germans, thought they had found one. The result was a large silent crowd of them by the handrail which dispersed after a few minutes when they informed us that the traitor had gone over the side and left to drown.

(During the 8 months in France we did not have much contact with the French, either civilian or military and usually remained in separate groups in the cafes and other meeting places. Yet, somehow I learned to sing the national anthem in French and can well remember, standing on a cafe table, filled to overflowing with cheap spirits, singing the Marseilles until eventually falling off and being carted back to our barn billet in the barrow reserved for that purpose.

Troops by nature tend to stick to their own groups but the French, perhaps, because their uniforms were more loose fitting giving an untidy effect and their lavatorial habits more casual and unsophisticated, implied a different culture and gave the impression they had no interest in the war at all. Vive l'difference' if you like, but after capture, when waiting to be added to the day long column of passing French prisoners, again I was aware of their casual acceptance and indifference. It was a very depressing spectacle. As evening arrived and the end of the column came in view it was something of a relief to see about 40 British marching properly, in columns of three, with C.S.M. 'Dixie' Dean at the head. Pride was restored.

When we eventually arrived at Stalag XXA at Thorne in Poland some days later and were registered, there was not a Frenchman to be seen. We learned that the actual Stalag was an old Polish fort nearby whilst we were crowded into five large marquees. It was not until December of 1940 after we finished the farm work of harvesting sugar beet that our contingent were taken to Stalag XXB in Willenberg in East Prussia. This was the hutted camp, which had been used for the same purpose in World War 1 and was in poor condition. It was, to all intents and purposes a French camp insofar that all the jobs worth having, cookhouse, etc. were in the hands of the French, whilst jobs like latrine duties were done by the British.

We knew at an early stage that Irishmen were being taken out and offered civilian jobs or persuaded to enlist in special divisions to fight against the Russian communists, but we did not believe that they had much success. However logical from the German point of view and although it was obvious that the French had some preferential treatment, it was a long time before we realised the full implications of what was going on. Slowly the number of French prisoners diminished and the numbers were made up with new intakes of British and a mixture of Yugoslavians and Albanians.

Eventually we knew the full extent of what was going on under our noses, so to speak. We did not know that Frenchman were volunteering to fight in the East against the Russians, or rather the principle of communism, as were the Dutch or anyone else who could be sold the idea. It was not until we discovered the French had smuggled out of camp the components of a dummy which they reassembled outside and brought back to camp in the middle of a large working party, thus leaving one of their number outside, that the penny dropped. Although this was normal enough as a technique to help someone escape they were invariably caught and returned, this was different. In addition to fighting Communism, large numbers of French had accepted civilian status, working from hostels and many were sent back to France if their particular skills were required to sustain the German war effort. This happened to such an extent that a network developed of these civilian workers that stretched right across Germany and into France. It became possible for anyone left outside the Stalag to make their way home, spend a few days 'holiday' and return. It was lucrative because they were able to take home their camp money (lager geld) and pay it into bank accounts because to the French monetary institutions it was valid currency.

Of course there was a hard core who would not accept any advantage from the Germans and there was more than one nasty fight with knives over the principles. The relationships between the French was therefore complex because, after all, France was a socialist country and there were many who normally voted communist anyway, and after the war it became apparent that resistance groups did fight each other. There is no doubt that under the circumstances the vast majority accepted occupation and it is difficult to imagine how we would have responded if Britain had been occupied. What is certain, however, is that many that had accepted German authority when they seemed unconquerable, became more assertive as the pendulum swung until at the very end. Some of those that had seemed so indifferent went to considerable lengths to show how patriotic they had suddenly become as witnessed by the two 'traitors' thrown overboard and my own desperate position surrounded by 'patriots' in Odessa. A dockside latrine far away from home and after so much endured over five years was not a good place to die?)

At Marseilles the atmosphere was depressing, but there was also an air of normality. Now there were only British on board and the next stop was Gibraltar where more water and supplies were taken on whilst we waited to join a convoy for the final leg home with the assurance that there was now little danger of U-boats. As if in defiance anyway, the ship was being re-painted in grey and dressed all over in buntings because a special reception was being laid on for us, as the first P.O.Ws to get home from that theatre of the war. It was possible to have telegrams sent home to inform our relatives of our coming. I did not send one because I wanted to create a nice surprise when I walked in unexpectedly on my parents in their cottage at Egerton. As the ship docked at Liverpool there was a huge crowd and on a raised platform stood the Mayor, Aldermen and other dignitaries with flags flying and a band playing. There were Liverpudlians on board waving and shouting hysterically to their families below. A highly charged scene.

We were shepherded off the ship and into a long tunnel to a train that took us all to a dispersal centre in the West Country somewhere and then, without any medical or questions, were given rail passes and double ration coupons for three months and sent off home.