WW II, a British focus  




It was a Sunday, 22nd June, 1941, that instead of the usual routine, we were all turned out early and marched to the railway siding where there was an enormous stack of bales of hay and straw which we had to load on to wagons. There was something special about all this. The Germans were excited and an officer kept climbing onto the top of the stacks and surveying the sky with binoculars. The work took all day and we returned exhausted. The next morning, marching to work as usual, an endless column of tanks and other armored vehicles were moving through the town center. Everything looked new and very smart with crews wearing their black and silver dress uniforms like a ceremonial parade as indeed it was. A whole division or more took nearly all day to pass through but there was more to it.

Back in the workshop, everyone was visibly excited and the Poles kept passing us furtive glances. Eventually the oldest lad strutted up and angrily informed us that Russia had attacked them, 'stabbed them in the back', but they would pay for it. The next day the Meister brought in a map and hung it on the wall without a word but we could see arrows had been drawn on it showing advances into Russia. Each day he would come and increase or add to his arrows without comment. A week passed like that and then it seemed the whole town was dressed in black. We learned that the parade we had seen was a local formation that had gone straight to the front and been wiped out in the first few days. The Russians were said to be barbarians. They had swarmed in thousands without guns, only bags of grenades and had climbed over the armored units and tanks like locusts. For us it was embarrassing. No one knew at the time that it was Germany that had attacked Russia and it had indeed been made to look like a dirty trick (as indeed it was in reverse). We were held partly responsible despite of our situation and bad feeling was felt in the workshop although no comment was made, other than the Poles could hardly conceal their delight. Soon they were able to tell us the truth of the matter.

Being marched to work in the mornings and back at night was bad. The population swore and threw stones at us. Even the guards, who were not local, were affected because they had the depressing job of defending us from being attacked. Two or three weeks later the atmosphere cleared. The Meister was obviously enjoying marking deeper penetrations on his map, clearly for our benefit. It really did look as though they were going to wipe the floor with the Russians, and then what - Britian next? I tried my hand at sabotaging the machines by jamming the grease caps with pieces of wood but nothing serious came of it.

Come August 16th and my 21st birthday. The Meister quietly told me, so that no one else could hear, to look on the window cill when the guard came to collect us. I did, there was a small parcel wrapped up in newspaper which I slipped into my greatcoat pocket. Safely back in the camp I pulled it out for inspection. It was the butt end of a loaf of bread about two days old. I laughed my head off. Little did he know that I had a whole fresh loaf under my coat! Nevertheless, not knowing how we had learned to manage, I had no doubt he meant well and thanked him next day.

We valued our weekends in the camp, for pleasure activities, washing clothes, cleaning the place and some elaborate attempts at cooking that usually failed. There were still a few lice about but they were losing the battle. There was a steady arrival of nutritious items in the food parcels, changes of clothing and, of equal value, better news of the war. You just cannot have a healthy body without a healthy mind. Stress and worry, however concealed, only lowered the ability to care about ourselves.

To top our improved circumstances and attitude, we received a complete new British battledress uniform of blouse, trousers and overcoat. I already had new boots, which I took great care of by keeping them standing on two sticks when not being worn so the snow and wet could drain off completely. I had been issued with a light Polish cavalry overcoat during the first winter which, although long, had already seen better service and was thin, little protection against the severe winters. The Germans were quick to cash in on our good fortune and had us photographed as a group for 'sending home', but envelopes were never supplied. The photograph did appear in their newspapers to 'show how well we were being treated'. In the early days they had not cared at all and treated us like dirt, but the pendulum was swinging with a vengeance.

Other nationals were not so fortunate. There was a party of Russian prisoners somewhere near who were in the same despicable conditions that we had been through. Whenever possible several would creep up to us through the woods at the back of the camp for whatever food we could spare. In addition to putting out what we could for the Russian prisoners, there was someone else. It was the medical orderly who had given me the meal test for stomach trouble at Willenberg. He had got fed up with the restricted base camp life, volunteered for an outside working party and found himself on a farm. He went a little too far and put a German girl in the family way. The result was he finished up in the Straflager awaiting court martial. It was a serious offence by any standards and, once convicted, it was unlikely he would not be seen again. Because of the sterling work he had done during the early period as a medic heads were put together to engineer his escape. A pair of wire cutters were smuggled to him under the cover of darkness, and he did successfully get away. The plan was that he head for Danzig and try to get on a neutral boat to Sweden, but he was unable to get through the heavily protected port area. That was in 1942. For the remainder of the war he remained in hiding, always on the move but staying in the area with the help of Polish hostels, dependant on food from the outlying work camps such as ours at Deutsch-Eyleau. Although he was frequently seen and his predicament was well known through the Stalag, only the French had the organisation to help him to get back in Willenberg with a 'lost' identity, or by passing him through their civilian work hostels down to France. But the French declined to help in any way.

A guard did see me having a scratch one day and asked if I was lousy. I said I was and reaching inside my blouse asked if he would like one - he leapt back a foot but we believed they also were lousy. Their situation was little better than ours. Their uniforms were a joke with us because they were partly made of wood pulp and fibre, so that when they unfolded their overcoat after being compressed in their packs, it creaked and squeaked like an ill fitting door!

Life was certainly getting more difficult for the Germans in many ways. One Sunday we were all taken to a farm where vast quantities of cabbage had to be converted into sauerkraut. The cabbages had to be taken into a building where there was a very old fashioned machine like a mangle. Two turned a large wheel each side whilst the cabbages were thrown into a hopper to emerge shredded and fell into baskets which were transported into another room. Here the shreds were tipped into enormous barrels. Either side a prisoner stood on a box to gain height armed with heavy poles to stomp the shreds until the sap floated on top. The salt and herbs were sprinkled over and the process continued until the barrels were full. Left to ourselves much of the time, I thought I would get a laugh by tapping my cigarette ash into the barrel. That started something. Another spat in it and we all followed suit, then one of the lads pissed in it. About three months later we heard, and saw in a newspaper that the Poles showed us, that a large consignment had been condemned.

That autumn of '42 another weekend was disrupted when were taken out to a field of potatoes, some three acres, and was told that they were our supply for the next 12 months. We had to dig them up ourselves, a backbreaking job, but we did not really mind knowing our supplies would be assured. A store room was adapted where wattle fencing was arranged in a square leaving enough room between that and the walls to allow us to move around.

The Red Cross parcels that had been kept there were transferred into the guards quarters. A beady eye was kept on them so they were not tampered with. Soon after there was a general rule from Stalag that all tins and packets should be opened and inspected. This meant that we could no longer keep our own weekly parcel and use it as we wished, sometimes sharing for better economics. The parcels stayed in the guards quarters and at 6 p.m. each evening we had to queue up, select what we wanted from the parcel with our name on and then a guard would open the items. It was a bloody nuisance but some revenge was possible. After a while they got a bit lax, only opening perhaps one of, say, three tins. It so happened that occasionally one would be 'blown' (gone bad), and this could be seen by looking at the end which would, in that case, be curved outwards, convex. This one would be put forward for opening with the result that as soon as it was pierced, the contents would hiss out spraying all over the guard with a horrible stink!

There was further ado when we arranged a concert of several small sketches. I did rather well it was said as an anguished father having a nervous breakdown whilst his wife gave birth to twins, with lots of squeals and screams from behind a screened off 'maternity ward'. The next sketch was a nightwatchman looking after a hole with a leaky gas main in it. A drunk comes along and asks what the hole is for but it was not known so he climbs in and strikes a match. For the effect, we had obtained some carbon used for motorbike headlamps, which when water was added, gave off a gas that provided the light.

We did not get it quite right with the result that too much water produced too much gas. When the match was lit, the gas produced a terrific explosion and the area filled with choking fumes. The guards came rushing in with their guns whilst the lid was put on, again only to produce another big bang and more stink. Eventually it was transferred outside where it frothed, smoked and stank all night.

A new camp commandant, an unter officier, arrived to take over. He was short and stocky with a face like a bulldog. He was a real martinet and had us almost doing things by numbers. Having asserted his authority, he settled down and not only revealed that he was a professional musician in civvy street but also brought his zither in and played to us some evenings. He offered to get some instruments for us if we could raise the money. Although the camp money of five pfennigs a day was only the equivalent of one English farthing, the smallest amount possible above slave labour, I had, by virtue of trading and card games, accumulated 50 marks for which he would get me a guitar. It took 18 months to arrive and was a good instrument, but the tops of my fingers were still too sore from the accident so I sold it. The camp money, although specially printed, did enable us to buy such things as razor blades, combs, toothpaste and brushes.

One night a week the guard collected Hughie and me from the workshop and we would go to a bakery for the week's supply of bread on the way back to camp. I would wait there whilst they went to the shops and returned when the bread would be ready. One evening we had a new guard who apparently took it for granted that I would go straight back to camp with the bread and a bakery escort. I waited an hour or more and realising what had happened suggested someone from the bakery escort me back or I would be quite happy to go alone. The wait was no hardship, I was wallowing in the luxury of the hot smell of freshly baked cakes. It was agreed that it would be safe for me to go alone, the temperature was somewhere between 10-20 degrees below zero and the snow was deep, so I was unlikely to try and escape. I set out and was soon out of town trudging along the country road with my sack over my shoulder on the journey of a little more than half a mile. Suddenly someone loomed up in front of me out of the darkness. It was an old farm labourer who we passed each morning. Invariably he would emerge from a pub-like place, often one over the eight and greet us cheerily. He presented a pitchfork at my chest and called 'Halt!' I stopped and he asked where I thought I was going. I said I was escaping. He wanted to know what was in the sack and I told him it was bread, lots of it. He did not believe me, but to my surprise and limited German, he gathered that I was mad to escape in that weather. Wait until the spring he said, but I would not succeed, there was no place to go, we were too far from anywhere. Shaking his head he put his pitchfork over his shoulder, said good night and carried on.

I got to the camp. There was no wire or guard outside so I hammered on the door shouting 'Let me in. Let me in - I'm bloody freezing!' I heard bolts being pulled back and the key turned. The door only opened an inch or so and the conversation that followed made no sense at all until a guard was pushed aside and a Luger appeared with the face of the commandant behind it. I recited my name and number and that worked, I was let in. It seemed he was concerned that, with the weather, some prisoner on the run might have been trying to give himself up, and he was only responsible for the right number of prisoners! I do not suppose he got an Iron Cross for that. Would you believe it? Locked out of my own prison and difficulty getting back in!