WW II, a British focus




With work to occupy us, warmth, the fairly regular arrival of food parcels, and the means to cook and prepare them, the ability to boil our clothes, regardless of the fact that everyone's underwear came out the same colour, and keeping generally cleaner, we were able to live a fairly normal existence. Little reference was made to how bad things had been during the early months - always coping with the present and looking hopefully to the future, a philosophy I have never forgotten. After all, it always helps to look for a silver lining.

I did wonder about Taneck, who used to come around during the first winter reciting 'Running Down The Dunkirk Sands'. He was trying to get himself put forward for the Repatriation Board that came once a year. Forty were sent home after the first visit, mostly 'head cases', men that had become mentally crushed by events (it is quite something to see a young man go grey), and kidney cases. Taneck would go out in all weathers open at the neck. When I was later returned to Stalag in 1944, I learned that he had succeeded and been sent home and the others that went with him wrote back to say he had been certified insane. He tried too hard I suppose!

There was another fellow who broke a leg working. He got the full treatment and a plaster, plus, of course that valuable excused work ticket - he deliberately broke it twice more simply to retain his sick status, but that was his business.

Back in the first winter many found the British oblong shaped mess tin was not designed for soup rations because it was too shallow to carry a hundred yards in freezing conditions over slippery ground. A few that had been captured without their equipment had been issued with the German versions that were deep with the carrying handles over the top, not to hot to hold and nothing spilled in transit. Hughie had one because he had swam out to a boat at Dunkirk naked, but the boat sank before he could reach it. He was actually on his way back having been recommended for a commission, probably Captain. He had been a sergeant in the Royal Engineer's after seven year's service, which was exceptional in the Engineers. His recommending officer had been told he was not particularly intelligent but had a hell of a lot of common sense. You know, I still wonder about that! A popular pass-time was organising general knowledge questions and it was surprising how good many were without particular education. One Scot from the wilds could hardly speak English and had not seen a train until he was called up, but often won. No, he wasn't a 'Mac-something, his name was Simson!

Deutsch-Eyleau was on part of a complex of lakes and rivers that reached right up across Lithuania into Russia and was surrounded by waterways, one of which ran past the rear of the camp just beyond some wooded ground. There were requests to be allowed to swim there, and one sunny afternoon the guards took us. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in a small secluded bay until out of the blue, several rowing boats with young German men and women appeared and caught us there with no clothes on and not enough water to cover us. It was hilarious with the German women making the most suggestive comments.

I received a letter from Ellen with a photograph of herself in A.T.S. uniform. She had become involved with a Canadian, become pregnant and he was going to marry her and take her back to Canada after the war. Hardly surprising, she was very attractive. We had not parted with expectation of continuing our relationship or bad feeling. We had been sweethearts and would always be good friends, unlike my companions. It seemed every relationship was being lost through the highly geared atmosphere at home of 'if we don't today, there may not be a tomorrow' plus the invasion of Americans and Canadians who enjoyed the same exchange rate advantage that we had enjoyed in France. I wished her well but never saw her again.

I was lucky not to be committed like so many of the men, married or engaged. One received a letter telling him he had a lovely new fair-haired son. He sat on his bunk reading it out excitedly. When he looked up he saw everyone staring silently at him. The penny dropped, he had been a prisoner two years. His reaction was pitiful. One weekend we were all called out for a special job that required all Saturday and Sunday. Taken to an area that had a high bank either side and at the far end, we had to dig to complete what may have been intended to be a shooting range, but have since read of the enormous mass graves that have been discovered, and I now wonder.

Anyway, sounds of others working and shouted orders could be heard from the other side of the bank on the left so several of us climbed to see if other prisoners were working there. When we looked over, there was another area similar to the one we were working in but at a less advanced stage. Trees were being cut down and carried away. The workers were not P.O.W.'s, they were concentration camp inmates. The place seemed to be crawling with hundreds of them like ants. They wore striped jacket and trousers and moved the trees manually. It was incredible to see so many crowded around one trunk so that only the top of the tree was visible. They were terribly thin with faces that were sallow or a yellow that I knew was close to death, but they all had to work. It turned the stomach over not having seen anything like it before or, indeed thought it possible. We had experienced a hard time but these people were travelling through hell. Those impressions were gained in seconds before a guard came up the bank to fetch us back. He too looked and I do believe he was going to be sick. He was as shaken as we were. He told us later that they were hard labour convicts who got extra food for the work, it was the best he could think of poor sod.

We had another weekend project that required all of us. This time we were taken to a railway siding and had to build a large shed. The materials were already there. The Camp Commandant had a plan but it was clearly not his forte as much discussion and argument with the guards demonstrated. First we were divided into groups and told to do this and that and then told not to do it. It was evident the guards were out of their depth, so we played with them. The result was that as some dug two long trenches required, others digging holes to set posts in, threw their dirt into our trenches, so that by the end of the day the place looked very much as when we had started. Except that the ground was very uneven, like a gone-wrong sand castle competition.

The guards were furious and worried but took us back to camp as darkness came. We had a board meeting and put it to the Commandant that, since Hughie as a qualified engineer, he could he have a look at the plans and if he could understand them we would work under him the next day and not have the language problem either. Grudgingly the idea was accepted and the next day we set to again. The project was a vast latrine for slave labour being brought down from Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The construction was of timber, roofed over with sheets of an ersatz material and two long trenches inside with poles arranged over the trenches the same as that in the latrines at Stalag. Hughie engineered a marvellous piece of engineering. It looked all right when we finished and the guards expressed their satisfaction and relief that the job had got done. There was a problem that had been skillfully built into our handiwork: the whole lot fell down overnight. Our services were no longer required on the project. Someone else did it.

Sunday mornings volunteers would be asked for to do special jobs, mostly unloading trucks at the railway sidings where trucks were fined 50 marks for each day they were left there unloaded. Although the work was heavy, the civilians concerned would go to considerable lengths to make volunteering as attractive as possible with drinks of schnapps, particularly welcome in the cold weather or bread, a whole loaf, to be smuggled back.

There were other opportunities. For instance, on more than one occasion there would be German soldiers unloading cabbage or something at another truck whilst we would be working on coal. They would trade green vegetables for coal and we were only too pleased to do this provided they found us an empty sack we would fill with coal and hide for the Irishman to collect on his rounds. The result was that, when a guard came in during the evening to get someone to draw the single shovel of coal, the daily ration, he found the two stoves red hot, everyone stripped to the waist and the floorboards uneven because of all the coal stored beneath. The guards always ignored this, no doubt supplementing their own ration whilst we were at work, but insisted that we draw the shovel full in case our fortunes changed.

One such morning a whole gang was required to load a barge with sacks of grain. We had sack trolleys but had to push along a narrow gangplank, where with hilarious abandon several sacks were deliberately tipped into the water and disappeared from view. Despite much shouting and threats from our supervisors it made no difference and we returned with pockets full of grain, although Pop the cook could do nothing with it.

On another occasion I was out delivering coal from the back of a lorry to delicatessens that seemed to trade in everything. It was summer time and as I shoveled, stripped to the waist, all thought of the miseries of earlier misfortunes forgotten, a young woman of about 20 came to a side gate. Leaning against it she watched me whilst I showed off by shoveling accurately through a trapdoor in the pavement and sneaked glances at her. She really was something and was showing off too as she stretched and writhed against the gatepost. Suddenly there was a gruff shout and a man emerged, fetched her a cracking blow across the face, then hauled her inside and slammed the gate. I can only hope that she enjoyed our moment as much as I did. I will always remember her standing there.

Another Sunday job was less fortunate. This time it was bags of flour for delivery to the bake houses. The sacks were about two and a quarter hundredweight each. Backing up the lorry they came high on the back in the best position. It so happened that since the boots I had been issued were not comfortable, and as these jobs involved no marching, I wore clogs, but in taking my second sack, having one foot over the curb, it tilted too far forward. I brought my other foot over but owing to the cobbles, my left clog was not firmly placed. So, as I heaved my right leg over, putting all my weight onto the left, the clog split down the center. I went down in a heap with the sack on top of me. For several days I was allowed off work, lying flat and resting. This was not easy since the Unter Officier in charge argued that it would be better if I kept moving about, so I moved about when he was around and lay flat when he wasn't. Back trouble has persisted off and on ever since, but I have lost little working time because of it, but 10% disability pension was added when I was demobed.

Another 25 British were added to the camp for road repairs around the town so now the camp was 50 strong. My early Red Cross first aid training had made me the medical orderly on a spare time basis. Apart from a few pills, leaves of the bay tree and paper bandages I had no equipment for a long time, so I exploited some of the practices used by Captain Rose at Stalag. I later discovered these originated from North Africa and were no doubt introduced by the Moroccans in the French army. I acquired a pair of tweezers from one of the German boys at the work shop which came in handy for dealing with crabs, still quite common although we were able to keep ourselves much cleaner and lice had almost disappeared.

The two Frenchmen had built up a business of their own doing watch and clock repairs privately for civilians. This was very remunerative since, able to share our R.C., and stolen advantages, required payment in cash for their efforts, which could be sent home and banked in occupied France. Their bunks occupied a corner position giving them considerable wall space, which was often decorated with an assortment of clocks ticking away. A cuckoo clock appeared there, which at first caused some amusement. It soon became a nuisance so it was not long before its repeating cuckcoo-ing in the night attracted first a boot and then an avalanche of anything to hand that quite destroyed it.

The Stalag had produced some surprises. The worst huts now boasted varnished double bunks as in the hospital. There was two large huts joined together form a 'T' shape for putting on shows. The French had built a small stage and orchestral pit and this was rotated on a monthly basis with the French, English and Belgium's in turn, allowing three months for rehearsals. Instruments had been obtained through the Red Cross and theatrical costumes and wherewithal were obtainable from an agency in Danzig, paid for with camp money. I saw one show and it was very professional with 'Sticks' Randall, who played for Victor Sylvester, on the drums.

All too soon word came that the Meister wanted me back and I was returned to the workshop. The fingers were still very sore and a handicap, but the old so and so was, for once, quite considerate, saying he had had a replacement sent who knocked the glue pot over and cut himself on the first day! Hughie was pleased to have me back again, but there was another problem building up, stomach trouble. We had suffered a lot with constipation, quite the reverse of the epidemic of dysentery back in the winter. The only treatment was bay leaves in the ersatz coffee. I put up with it, sometimes hanging over the end of my bunk upside down to move the acid around, but it persisted. I had no idea what was wrong because nothing was felt for an hour or so after meals and it was miserable. Back at the Deutsch-Eyleau camp I told the others how life had improved at Stalag and that we would expect the three monthly clothing parcels to begin arriving since some had already arrived for others. They were restricted to ten pounds in weight; clothes, mostly underwear, shirts and socks sent from home to the Red Cross collection points and parceled up in a standard fashion with any weight deficiency made up with chocolate or soap. To receive a blanket in this way meant there was no scope for anything else. One or two had received pajamas which looked very out of place, but why not?

Knowing how valuable boots were, I wrote home in the next monthly letter card asking for a pair without much hope, but felt that the war would end much as it had begun: with another long hunger march. My parents could not buy boots but wrote to the Regiment who arranged for a pair of army boots my size. As far as I know, I was the only one who risked the whole weight of a parcel for a single item. Although not all parcels got through, that one did but took almost 18 months. There was no danger of them being stolen in the close knit community of our small camp despite the increased numbers.