WILLENBERG STALAG XXA
As we traipsed through the snow out of town, I confess that despite our deplorable conditions, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside: buried in deep snow and dressing the trees and hedgerows better than any Christmas card. Those impressions died as we reached the top of a long hill. There in front of us was Stalag XXA that was to be our base camp for the next five years. A huge pair of rough-hewn gates faced us with a board across the whole width of the top proclaiming in large Gothic letters:
'WILLENBERG, STAMLAGER XXA. KRIEGS-GEFANGENEN ARBEITSLAGER'
The gate was open framed, covered in barbed wire and about three metres tall. Along either side ran double fencing of barbed wire infilled with coiled barbed wire. To the extreme left and right were high lookout posts with guards, mounted machine guns and searchlights, everything festooned with frost and snow. In front of the gates were two more guards wearing huge moccasins made of straw over their jackboots. I have never seen, or wish to see, such a depressing sight again.
An officer emerged from a hut on the left. We were counted and searched before the gates were opened and then taken through. Inside, there was an area almost the size of a football pitch surrounded with wooden huts on three sides. We were taken to the huts on the left, which were up on a bank as though cut into a higher bank behind. We did not go into one, but down the slope in front, where steps had been cut into the earth that led down into what might be described as a cave. Inside bunks were built three high with just room enough to move between, and here we were allocated places. There was ice on the earthen walls that were moist from body warmth. In all there were forty in that hole and there was four more like it along the bank.
On this side of the camp and opposite were the English, and the huts at the end were occupied by French and some Belgium’s who’d kept themselves separate from the French who, by virtue of the armistice had certain advantages. They manned the cookhouse and stores. Behind the huts was a small barbed wire enclosure with a small hut. That was for prisoners awaiting trial who had stolen anything or interfered with German women whilst working out of camp. In another corner of the camp was a small brick building, which contained four cells. This was for more general punishment such as attempted escape, not wearing the P.O.W. disc and a variety of other offences for which the maximum punishment was being locked in on bread and water for up to four days. The guards would warn us of potential offences by holding up one, two, three or four fingers in front of their eyes and looking through them at you.
Anyone put in there did have one job to do morning and night. That was to go to the other side of the camp, which was on a cliff edge. A path led down to where they collected two huge barrels, which they carried with two poles passed through loops of rope, the barrels would be carried on the shoulders just clear of the ground. These were deposited, spaced out in the centre of the compound to be used as latrines during the night. In the morning, they had to be collected and taken down to the disposal point in the same way but this was extremely hazardous. By morning the barrels were not only be full, but overflowing and the overflow would be frozen all around. It was a difficult and disgusting task.
There was a roll call morning and night, which might take half an hour to count the hundreds there. We had to form up in what was effectively the unemployed section. This was the majority since those that had jobs were marched out and counted at the gate. There was a group who had light duty tickets and another with excused duty tickets. Numbers were often wrong and this could result in being on parade in the bitter cold for up to two hours. At first there was very little organisation making relations between prisoners and guards difficult, but a Sgt. 'Charley' McDowell volunteered to take charge with the permission of the Germans. He used his fists. Some 18 stone in weight, he was an ex-professional boxer and would call out anyone who disagreed with his supervision. There were some pretty rough characters that did challenge him, but they all went the same way, horizontal. It was the best thing because it kept the share of whatever was going. Charlie became a charismatic and well respected figure. Behind the system was the guidance and symbolic authority of Dixie Dean who later opted for a non-working camp for senior N.C.O.'s and W.O.'s
As life in Willenberg settled down to a pattern under McDowell's genial bulk and working parties came and went, so an amazing assortment of bits and pieces began to appear. Much of it being no more than a 'might come in handy' philosophy, but there were other minds at work. So it was not long before a modest radio receiver was created. But, in no time at all a special roll call had everyone out on parade whilst the Commandant and Unter Officier Posnanski strode into hut No.2 and lifted the precise floorboards beneath which lay the radio. They emerged with the contraption held aloft for all to see and the assurance that such efforts were a waste of time. Twice more over the following year a receiver was created, followed by the same procedure.
We knew how the Fifth Column had operated in Allied uniforms, speaking perfect English or French and it was obviously easy for them to infiltrate one of their members into one of the working parties that were constantly coming or going from outlaying areas. There was also the possibility of collaborators. The Germans never missed an opportunity to recruit men from the Irish Republic and persuade them to change sides, and if successful, strategically place them in various camps. We did know that much, but not how much the Germans achieved.
December brought the full fury of the Eastern winter with temperatures dropping to as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It was in such weather on an extended roll call that I collapsed. I had not felt well since returning from the farm and the exposure proved too much. I remember laying on the ground feeling at last, comfortable, telling those around me to leave me alone, I was alright, but I wasn't. Since many had been moved out of the camp to live-in jobs outside, the caves had been filled in and we had been transferred to huts previously occupied by some French, but crowded in like sardines in three tier bunks built in blocks like pigeon-holes. Incidentally, we learnt that the camp had been used for P.O.W.'s in World War One. The age adding to the general worn and degrading atmosphere.
I was picked up, carried in and put into my own bunk, two metres long, half metre wide and the same height. I cannot remember that, but had the vaguest impressions of laying there with the British doctor, Captain Rose, coming occasionally to push his stethoscope through my clothes to sound my chest. It was much later that I learned that I had lain there for almost a week. Feeding or toiletry I had no knowledge of, but became aware of being taken out and heaved into the back of an open lorry.
The engine started up and I could feel the vehicle moving about as it lumbered over the roads rough ridges created by frozen snow. It was dark, and hearing grunts, I lifted my head and could see other bodies silhouetted. My God! Are they dead? Am I supposed to be dead too? Thoughts raced through my mind. A spark had returned to motivate me. I lifted myself up into a sitting position and called out, but there was no answer. Something had to be done, the driver could not hear me above the roar of the engine. I peered over the side and saw that we must be entering the outskirts of Marienburg. Panic took hold. I had got to do something, so as the lorry slowed to take a turn, I heaved myself over the side and fell into the road lying there with a thousand shooting stars above.
As my head cleared a little, I could see a group of faces staring down at me and could make out one was a German officer who was giving orders. I was hauled to my feet and with someone either side helped along, an interminable way it seemed, before reaching a building through large gates. By some miracle of humanity or tidiness I had been taken to the P.O.W. hospital in the town where I was stripped, bed bathed and put into the lower section of a two-tier bunk bed. I either slept or lost consciousness for an unknown time after which I was given a thin gruel and then a doctor came. Bronchial Asthma was the trouble. Nobody knew of the lorry or the people on it or where it had gone, it had not come there. I was apparently very fortunate. There was no treatment, simply rest and warmth. The bunk I shared was not like the rough and ready ones of the camp but as used by the German military, joinery made and varnished. There were white sheets too, but the only way to keep warm was to stay in bed. Although there was a single radiator in the dormitory, it was virtually ineffective.
While I lay there my thoughts turned to Ellen. Our friendship lasted from when I was 15 until enlistment and had a remarkable influence on my life. As mentioned earlier, we never did become lovers although the physical attraction between us was powerful. Apart from a lot of kissing, cuddling and groping we never went the whole way. I think this was not out of fear of our respective parents, but because we were friends in the truest sense. We respected each other and both knew I could not afford to support us if anything went wrong. But there was an intellectual gulf between us. Whilst I had missed half of my elementary schooling through health problems, she was still going to secondary school preparing to matriculate which in those days was the equivalent to a junior Cambridge. She was also good at sports but found her contemporary boys at school too immature whilst I, having been obliged to start work at 14 was keenly interested in my work and becoming a cabinet-maker. I was involved in the British Red Cross was generally more 'grown up' with interesting things to talk about.
Work meant I had a little money so took her to Southend one day where we walked the length of the pier and rode back on the train. Strolling along the prom afterwards I noticed the public toilets. I wasn’t busting myself but drew Ellen’s attention to them. She gave me a smile and with her eyes shining ran into the Ladies. When she came out she thanked me saying her schoolboy associates would never have been so considerate-I felt ten feet tall. There were a few visits to the Stratford Empire to see Vaudevilles and Music Hall shows. We saw Flannagan and Allen and the ‘Cheeky Chappie’ himself, Max Miller. I can still remember bits of the old songs so familiar to the pub life of the East End. It was boozy, tear jerking stuff, for the old ladies in particular, sentimental in the extreme, balanced by the ‘naughty’ jokes and songs of Max Miller that got the audience roaring with laughter. When they’d calmed down everyone could hear Ellen still laughing helplessly. She had one of those laughs that make other people laugh: Max looked up once and said "You lay ‘em luv, and I’ll sell ‘em."
We parted good friends but when I came home on my first leave after some three months, I was upset to find she had being pilloried by her family. They believed she had been two-timing me (being very attractive, she was certainly pursued by several boys from her school) and I had enlisted as a result!
This story explains the true reason I enlisted: so that my parents could retire to the country. But there was another reason that influenced me. For some months I had listened to my Jewish employers worrying about the situation in Europe and probably understood better than most how serious the Hitler problem had become. Anyway, Ellen sent me a photograph of herself, which with a few others were overlooked when I was captured and searched. Over the years these photos frequently had to be kept in the soles of my footwear. Her picture was a great comfort through those years. It helped my through, and I still have it.
After a few days I took interest in the other patients who were all British. The gruel (or soup) was nourishing and the small bread issue was white and the rations were just about adequate although, as health returns, so does the appetite. Wonderful news came that the first Red Cross food parcels had arrived and would be distributed in time for Christmas a few days hence. The parcels were intended for one each per week plus 50 cigarettes or equivalent tobacco. It was now almost 8 months since capture and, apart from news of the war and sex, the anticipated parcels were the top topics of conversation, but there was not enough to go around. The parcels were all the same size but contents varied from 12 to 14 items and there was only enough for one item apiece, so every item was numbered and drawn as a lottery.
I received a small tin of steak and kidney pudding whilst those less fortunate had, perhaps, a packet of tea with no way of using it. That did not stop one recipient from trying to suck some satisfaction from the leaves, looking a pathetic figure with them stuck all round his mouth. I had problems too. First, how to heat my tin which was frozen. The only solution I could think of was too wrap it in the front of my shirt and keep it tucked in my crutch. I nearly gave up on that since my genitals became blue with the cold, but after two days it was luke warm, patience had won.
Now I had the problem of opening it. Our knives and forks had been taken on capture so we only had spoons. One patient, brought in from an outside job had acquired a small screwdriver with which, after much stabbing at the tin produced an opening large enough to get at the contents. However, by that time the contents had gone cold enough for the gravy to congeal into grease so I was obliged to warm each spoonful in my mouth.
After nearly four weeks I was discharged from hospital with several others and marched back to camp. I had to go on evening sick parade, which was always a long queue. After a long wait outside it was quite something to at least be inside the warm medical room watching those in front receiving attention. Beyond a few tablets and some paper bandages there were no medicaments of any kind. A Frenchman sat on a chair back to front, stripped to the waist where he complained of rheumatic pains. The treatment was to quickly and lightly keep touching his skin in the area with a red-hot poker drawn from the stove raising a multitude of red spots whilst he jolted up and down at every touch. Another patient received treatment for a chest complaint. He sat back to front stripped to the waist whilst an orderly functioned quickly and expertly with a collection of small jars like goldfish bowls, no bigger than a honey pot. He had a lighted candle beside him and tufts of cotton wool. He would take a tuft, light it over the candle, drop it into one of the globes and quickly plant it onto the patients back where it would cling until cool. Then he would catch it deftly like a juggler with one hand whilst applying another with the other. Each application left a red circle about three inches in diameter. My turn came. Before I could announce my name or number, the doctor went white and, stepping back ejaculated - 'Good God - Durey - you're dead!'
I had been born with an abscess on my right breast and it was thought I would not live. I had diphtheria when I was seven and it was said I would not survive. Bronchial asthma had followed and it was said that I would never be fit enough to work and become a dependant. I had nearly been shot at close range by a guard but hadn't, and now I was supposed to have died! Quite honestly I was getting fed up with it and my anger swelled, but I managed a smile and said 'Hard luck Sir'. I received the gold fish bowl treatment and was given an excused duty ticket so that not only was I protected from being sent out on a work party but excused roll calls as well. It was not to last though.