PRISONER OF WAR – GERMANY – 1943-1945
Hearts were heavy, morale was low and the ranks were silent as we wound our way up the winding road through the town of Laterina.The inquisitive townsfolk were out in force to watch our departure. No longer antagonistic as when we first arrived, but rather sympathetic and fearing the Germans.So many of their men had been sent to the Russian front and now many more were being taken to Germany as a labour force. Wherever we had worked we found many of the peasant farmers and townspeople to be helpful and kind and many put their own lives at risk as they hid and fed so many escaped prisoners.
At last we reached the station, puffed out and weary, to see the inevitable train of cattle trucks. Under a barrage of German guards shouting “Raus” and “Achtung” we were herded into the trucks-50 to a small truck and 70 to a large one -and barely had room to sit down. The doors clanged to a close and were locked and barred. As night closed in Laterina was left behind and the train chugged slowly northwards. Cramped and hungry I ate some of the food from my rations and then spent a grim night, half sitting and half lying trying to doze off.
A welcome dawn came and we all stood up to stretch our tired aching bodies. We passed the town of Verona and the route became mountainous and beautiful. During the daylight hours the doors were opened and we were able to see the fantastic view as the train climbed and wound it’s way through Trento to Bolzano and on into the Alps.Later that evening we crossed the Italian border at the Brenner Pass.Here, at a station, we were allowed to alight and were then counted by a miserable group of German guards who
interspersed their pushing, kicking and bashing with a rifle, with shouts of “RAUS”!
Hustled back into the trucks, another tortursome night lay ahead. At seven o’clock the following morning we arrived at Rosenheim and were let out to go to the latrines and were given soup and a quarter loaf of stodgy “ersatz” bread. Back into the train and on into Germany.The day was misty, dreary and colder and stops were more frequent and longer and we welcomed the toilet stops. The route passed through Landshut, Swarnsdorf and Nurnberg. Then another night and more stops at Weiden, Chemnitz and Dresden, and, as the third day drew to a close, the train drew into Gorlitz.
Was this really our destination? Stiff and cold, we formed up outside the station and were marched some six kilometres through a rather beautiful town of fine buildings and parks. I am sure that it was further than 6kms.as it took almost three hours to reach the Camp.At last the camp lights appeared and we straggled through the gates to await the allocation of bungalows. What joy to see 3-tier bunks again after three nights on bare boards and cramped conditions. The straw mattress was heavenly and I soon sank into an exhausted sleep.
So, on the 20th September, my sister Mary’s birthday, I found myself in Stalag VIIIA, in Silesia, South-East Germany. No hope now of seeing Home until the end of the War. I was up early next morning to make a “recce” of the camp and to get the feel of my new surroundings. Stalag 8A was a very old camp which had, apparently, been in use during the First World War. It had been occupied by French and British prisoners since 1940 and was, thus, well established and well organised. There was a large compound of Russian prisoners and a large contingent of other nationalities as well.
We were all saddened that morning by the death of an old Montenegran soldier who had been sent with us from Italy.He had no fellow countrymen with him and could not speak English.He had been ill all the way from Italy and should never have been included in our group. We had taken him to the Infirmary when we arrived but the Camp Doctors had not been able to save his life.
There were many “Ack-Ack” fellows in camp and I was happy to see Eric Sunde and “Spot” Stanford again, as well as John Wilson and other fellows from the Italian work-party at Foggia.Whenever one moved friends were lost and others found and I had now lost touch with Arty Hartley.”Dupie” du Plessis was still with me from our gun crew.
Gorlitz, being South West of Berlin and close to the Polish border, had, of course, a totally different climate from that of Italy. Already, at the end of September, there was an autumn chill in the air and I was sure that the coming winter would be far more severe than any we’d experienced so far. Now I faced a new
challenge and would, again, have to adjust to the changing surroundings and conditions. It was a new phase in my war experiences and I wondered what lay ahead.
My diaries, which I had written while I was a prisoner in Italy and Germany, ceased on December 4th 1943. This was mainly due to the fact that I went out on a Work Party in Gorlitz all day and, by the time I had showered, eaten, washed clothes and caught up on other activities, there was little time left for writing. I regret not having found the time as that final period was full of activity, action and interest. Despite the lapse of time, however, there are vivid memories which come to mind and I shall record and describe them as best I can.
Two Christmasses, two Winters, a glorious Summer and a final journey down through Poland and the Ukraine to Odessa on the Black Sea to Freedom and Home -a kaleidoscope of people,events and experiences never to be forgotten.(Reference should be made to the copy of “Interlude” for a general overview of daily life in Stalag 8A).I was in and out of “8A” from time to time and experienced some of that life but, for the final year, I was on a Work Party and lived among the German people in the small village of Ruckenwaldau.
So, back to October in 8A, where, after two weeks I realised that there was a vast difference between the Italian and German methods and organisation. Gone was the “Domani” attitude of the Italians and here was the stricter, precise German attitude. Soon all the new arrivals from Italy had been medically examined by our own Medical Officers, Major Bromilow-Downing, Major Woolley and Capt. Learner. Personal forms had been completed and we had been registered with a Kriegsgevangernommer.
Mine was 81187.
We all had to complete inventories of the kit, which we possessed and were assured that we would be receiving warm British battle-dress for the winter. German letter cards and post cards were issued and I was able to start writing to all those anxiously waiting at home for mail. (My brother Arthur and Kate kept many of those letters and they have helped to refresh my memory of some of the day-to-day events.)
Camp routine was Reveille at 0530hrs at which time hot water was available at the kitchen for an early morning “Brew” of coffee or tea (courtesy of the Red Cross Parcels). Roll call followed between 0645 and 0715hrs after which we made our own breakfasts, shaved, washed or showered and “fell-in” at 0945 for
general camp duties which included clean-up fatigues,sick parade and kitchen duties such as peeling spuds, transporting coal and removing rubbish to the camp dump. When this was over we were free until the mid-day meal. Our afternoons were filled with sports, lectures, rehearsals for concerts and plays, reading in the library or playing card games. There was a reasonably good library so, on the bad days spine-bashing” with a good book passed the time. The day was never complete without several circuits of the perimeter fence for much needed exercise.
The British “Man of Confidence”(Camp Commander) was S/Major Rossouw and the Camp S/Major was van Winsum. Three Padres took care of our Religious needs-Capt. Jenkins, Capt. Wrigley and Sgt. Whitten. There was a Hut Commander in charge of each hut who was assisted by 4 Group Commanders and there were about 100 chaps in a group.
The German food ration was an improvement on the Italian food and, shortly after we arrived at 8A, Red Cross parcels and cigarettes were issued. Further issues continued for three weeks when there was another break in supplies. There was an immediate improvement in everyone’s outlook as stomachs were filled and optimism brought a happier outlook to us all. The “Moaners” decreased in number and I found myself settling down again after the upheaval of being transported from Italy.I was actually putting on some weight.
“Dupie”, Des Grant from East London and I made new friends with 3 “Tommies”-“Dollar” Cathorne, a London Cockney, Ted Potticary from Weybridge and Arthur? We had many a laugh at Dollar’s brand of humour and his descriptions of his mother’s activities. She was a London Char and he had a photograph of her in “Pearly” outfit. She was like a Dickens character and, no doubt, her language was as colourful as Dollar’s. He proudly declared that his “Muvver”came from Waw”emstow-(Walthemstow). The six of us shared parcels and “Brewed up” together and shared most of our other daily activities.
“Brewing up” was an important item in the daily round and “The Blower” was THE great POW invention. First models were conceived in Africa, improved in Italy and perfected in Germany. It was a small blast furnace constructed from parcel tins. The Klim tin from a Canadian parcel provided the furnace and its ends the large gear. Smaller tins made the fan, the small gear and the funnel through which the air was blown into the fire.
A small gear, a piece of string to connect the gears and a handle completed the construction. A most efficient cooker of food and boiler of water was the result. Outside the huts a special area was set aside where all the brewing took place. Wood and matches were always in short supply and, therefore, no coals or embers were ever discarded. The moment a brew was completed your coals were religiously passed on to anyone who was just beginning. “Any Embers” was the eager call from a would-be brewer, and, “Here yer are, Mate” was the equally, eagerly awaited reply. The process continued from dawn to just before “Lights-out” and in all weathers.”The Brew has got to go on”.
I have previously mentioned a desert sore, which had bothered me in the Western desert and in Italy, and it’s treatment by the Padroni on the farm. The cycle of healing and recurrence began again soon after my arrival at 8A and required treatment by the Camp Doctors.This time, with the use of a new antibiotic cream, it healed permanently. Soon after this I also had a recurrence of Malaria, which was, no doubt, brought on by the climatic change between Italy and Germany. It necessitated a short spell in the camp infirmary for treatment and came at a most unfortunate time as groups of POW were being sent off on Work Parties and Dupie, Des Grant and “Dollar” were among them and had to say Farewell. I was very sad to see Dupie go as he and I had been together since our capture and I was now seperated from the last member of our gun crew. Arthur, the fourth member of our little group, had already left, leaving Ted and I as companions.
Life was more settled now, as there were so many activities to occupy our time. Once the daily camp duties were completed I played a lot of Bridge and Rummy and participated in Inter â€“ hut Bridge-drives, Darts and Table tennis. On the fine days, of course, most of us would be outside escaping from the murky, gloomy, smoke -filled huts to partake in or to watch sports. Red Cross equipment was supplied for Soccer, Rugby, Hockey, Volley Ball and Athletics. There was, thus, an incentive to attain some degree of fitness and so the Gym classes were well attended. Ted was a very good Soccer player and played for both our Hut and the British International side. With the regular supply of parcels and better rations the standard of fitness improved rapidly and, with it, the standard of the International games was excellent and were hotly contested.
I think the worst scourge of POW life was LICE. I have described the infestation in Italy and, here at Stalag 8A, Gorlitz, they were everywhere. The bungalows had been in use for 4 years and they, the bunks and soon our clothing were very badly infested. While the weather was good each group had to clear the
hut, strip and dismantle the bunks and burn off all the eggs in the cracks and disinfect each joint. Each hut was fumigated and all our clothing went into the “De-louser”. Finally we, too, went into the showers and the relief was complete. It was an immense task, but worth the trouble as we were free of the pest for quite
a while. Cleanliness was essential, of course, and, while many of us showered and washed our clothes regularly, there were those who, with the onset of the colder winter weather, were loathe to strip
and shower or to wash their clothes.
Autumn was advancing steadily and the daylight hours were drawing in. Chilly, foggy, rainy days were interspersed with clear, sunny spells and crystal clear starlight nights which heralded crisp, icy, frosty mornings. The countryside was already barren as all the crops had been harvested and the trees were stark and bare. I shall never forget the morning of the first very heavy frost. Overnight the world had changed from the dull greys and browns to bright white. The windows were frosted over with a fine lace filigree of beautiful designs and the trees and bushes were etched in a dazzling white coat. The whole starkness of the scene
was accentuated by the sparkling whiteness of each strand of wire of the perimeter fence and the sentry boxes standing out against the azure blue sky.Soon came the icy East winds from the Russian Steppes bringing banks of low cloud and fog with rain and sleet. November days were dark and murky and soon the first snows of winter came in earnest.
Our camp habits changed accordingly and most of the day was spent indoors. I hunted out many of my 2nd AA friends in other huts. Eric Sunde had carved out a nice niche for himself in the carpenter shop, where all the furniture and stage props were madefor the plays and the band. The wood was obtained from the large boxes in which the Red Cross parcels were transported.
Numbers in the camp were being reduced as Work Parties were being sent out to labour camps. My malarial attack had subsided and I was passed fit by the M.O.I wasn’t very keen to be sent to an Arbeits Kommando before Christmas so I volunteered for work on a local work party which went out on a daily basis. This ensured that I would have camp comforts for Christmas and New Year and would be able to share in the Shows and Band performances arranged for that period and also be able to attend some of the
religious services in the camp.
The work party met at the Main gate at 0600hrs in the pitch dark and marched to the nearby Tram terminus. The route ran for some six kilometers through the outskirts of Gorlitz, over the Neisse River, through the city centre and out into the suburbs on the other side. The trip took about 45 minutes and we had to stand on the front and back platforms of the tram in the icy cold. Work started at 0700hrs and we had a break for Fruhstuck at 0900hrs. The Mittagessen break was at 1300hrs.and “Arbeit fertig” was at 1530hrs. A short walk to the tram and the return trip brought us back to the camp by 1700hrs.
This was a very satisfactory arrangement as I could enjoy the weekend camp activities and also see something of the town of Gorlitz and the German people. The population was mostly old men and women, and young mothers with their children. Some of them would talk to us if the guard’s attention was diverted but, mostly, they were inclined to be rather aloof and unfriendly.
The work we were engaged on was the construction of air â€“ raid shelters in one of the open spaces in one of the surburbs. We continued until Christmas when work stopped until after New Year. Everyone was wrapped up in their full winter clothing now and I was extremely grateful for my new issue of British Battle-Dress, Balaclava, Gloves and canvas mittens.
I was unfortunate not to get a new great coat, as my old one was a little threadbare by now. Still, with a vest, thick army shirt, jersey and long-johns I managed to keep out the cold. The huts were warm inside as each had a stove at one end. The showers and washrooms were at the other end and the windows were double glazed for added warmth. Coal for the stove was scarce and came in the form of brickettes made from compressed coal dust. The Latrines were situated away from the huts and the journey there and back was one of sheer determination and visits were postponed for as long as possible. They operated on the septic tank system and the fatigue appointed to assist with the pumping out of the tanks was to be avoided at all costs. The contents were pumped into tankers which were towed away by tractors and then pumped out onto the nearby farmlands!! After a job on that fatigue one’s whole being was permeated with the aroma of “sweet violets” which necessitated a good shower and a scrubbing of all one’s clothes. The coal fatigue, on the other hand, was welcomed, as we were able to snitch a few brickettes to augment the ever-present shortage of fuel for our “Blowers”.
Mid-winter, the shortest day, had passed almost unnoticed as all the days were bleak and bitter and Christmas came amidst the snow and ice.”Brewing up” or making a hot meal on the “Blower” was a hazardous affair. Sliding and slipping on the slush one hurried back to the hut to get there before the food got cold. Washing clothes in cold water was another trial. Clotheslines were erected all over the hut and added to the stale, humid air in the hut.
Christmas Day was much the same as any other POW day. I went to a Communion service in the chapel and Ted and I made up an extra special hot meal from our Red Cross parcels. During the day I visited Eric Sunde and also John Wilson and Paddy Hatfield, who had been with me on the wheat farm at Foggia and Laterina. In the evening there was an excellent Variety Show.
Somehow or other snippets of war news filtered into the camp via friendly guards and from outside Kommandos. The whole Italian campaign was bogged down but the Russians were making some advances. There was still no news of a Second front in the West, but that was understandable because of the winter. Hopes were high that there would be one during the summer of 1944 and we were all quite sure that we could look forward to the next Christmas at Home. Bing Crosby’s song:-“I’ll be home for Christmas” was a firm favourite.
So into the New Year 1944 and back to the Air Raid Shelter job. Our relations with the German community was becoming more relaxed and, whenever the opportunity arose, we took a great delight in slipping bits of chocolate to mothers and children. All propaganda! No chocolate in Germany but British POW had some and cigarettes and other super food from parcels from home. They were told that the Allies were KAPUT! They were all very careful and never spoke to us if there were other people around. One never knew who was a Gestapo agent and punishment was severe for any collaboration. Still, the Foreman and other workers on the job with us were old men and not very enthusiastic about the Nazi regime. Work on the air raid shelters progressed at a rather slow pace as we were not highly motivated and had no intention of doing a good job. I often wondered how well they would have stood up to a bombing raid as we made the concrete mix much weaker than the laid down strength. More sand and stone and less cement. When the concrete construction was complete we had to cover the whole structure with sand, which we pushed to the top in
co-co pans. Finally doors were fitted and sand-bags built up around the entrances.
The trips to and from the camp were always interesting as we watched the women pulling little four-wheel, wooden carts loaded with their purchases and noted the empty shops and people queueing for their rations. The job was completed by the end of January and I had a spell in camp with Ted as my mate. There were about 50 Kommandos attached to Stalag 8A and there was a constant stream of “Sick, lame and lazy” fellows returning to camp. I wasn’t really surprised, therefore, when my name appeared with a small group to go to Arbeitskommando 10001 at Ruckenwaldau.
I said a sad “Farewell” to Ted and off we marched to the Gorlitz railway station. The route was via Bunzlau and Liegnitz, a large junction on the Berlin, Breslau line, to the small village of Ruckenwaldau, which nestled against a large forest area of pines and firs. The population of a few hundred consisted mostly of old men, women and children who were employed by the local farmers, or as foresters, or by the railway.
The bitter winter weather continued throughout February and March and, although we were better fed and warmly clad I found the conditions of the outside work along the railway very severe. The whole countryside was blanketed in snow with deep drifts in the hollows and against buildings. The branches of the fir trees hung downwards, sagging under the heavy weight of snow and long icicles hung from the eaves like stalactites. The rough gravel roads were grooved and rutted by farm tractors and carts. Sometimes there
would be a slight thaw and the snow and ice on the roads would turn to mush and then freeze again,making more ruts and making walking a hazardous affair.
At last, in April, (see letter card 18/4th) the big thaw came and Spring burst upon us. The melting snow turned the roads to a gluey mud, which permeated our boots and made walking most unpleasant. Nevertheless, everyone was overjoyed to see the sun again and feel a little warmth in the air. Suddenly the fields were green too, for the farmers had sown the wheat, oats and barley before the first frosts of winter and, now, they had germinated under the snow and the first growth was there. For the farmers it was a busy time and fields of potatoes, sugar beet and swede turnips were planted. The dark green of the firs and pines were lightened by the fresh green of the oaks, beech and elms. Mushrooms appeared in profusion in the forest and Spring flowers bloomed along the railway line. Throughout the winter months our work had
centred on the stations, goods yards and points on the section of line that we were responsible for.We had had to sweep snow from the station platforms and,more importantly,scrape out the ice from all the points so that they would not jam up.
In order to do these duties efficiently the Kommando was divided into two shifts, for day and night work, and each shift was split into three groups, each group going to one of the three stations on our section of the line. Time passed slowly as there was little to do once the snow was cleared and we waited for another fall. It was not an inspiring or difficult job and we were quite happy to spend most of the time in the small waiting room crouched around a coal stove. A brew of good, aromatic Canadian coffee was always ready and it was good propaganda to share a cup with the German civilian railway workers, who were on duty with us. The parcel supply dried up from time to time and we, then, had to resort to the German “Ersatz” brand, which was ghastly. During the snow storms, which were often very heavy, we would have to be constantly at work in order to keep the points open. Most of the trains were goods trains carrying supplies Eastwards to the Russian front but, sometimes passenger and Red Cross hospital trains rattled by, all lit up and looking comfortable and warm.
With the onset of Spring the days lengthened, the winter programme came to an end and the Summer programme commenced. Once the snow had disappeared the whole section of line was inspected
by German Railway officials and the Foreman in charge of the section,for faults to the rails, sleepers, bolts, points and the ballast and embankments which had deteriorated or had been damaged during the winter.Herr Goebel was the very efficient foreman who was assisted by Herr Wiedemann and Hans.I found these three to be friendly,reasonable people when on their own but they were always very careful when some of the lesser labourer types were around.We suspected that some of these types were ardent
Nazi supporters and we were also very careful in their company. We were now working a nine-hour day, excluding the travelling time to and from work. Where the track and stone ballast had been damaged and undermined by the snow and ice we had to fork out the stone and repack it firmly under the sleepers. Each of us was issued with a pick, fork and shovel and allocated a section of five sleepers to dig out and repack before the breakfast break. As the ballast was being replaced, the foreman would check the level and alignment, and, using the hammer end of the pick, we would repack the stone in firmly under the sleepers. Then the remainder of the stone was filled in between the sleepers and the edges of the stone ballast raked up neatly along the edge.
As each of us completed our section we dashed off to the worker’s hut where we made coffee and toasted our German, brown bread sandwiches and then dallied as long as possible over our meal before going back to the job. A much longer section had to be completed before the lunch break and, often, the work included the replacement of a worn rail or a rotten sleeper. All bolts and fish-plates were tightened and the points checked and repaired. The lunch-break was longer than breakfast and the afternoon session was about the same as the pre-breakfast allocation and ended in time for us to catch the train to Ruckenwaldau. Having left the barracks at 0600hrs.we were tired by the time we returned at 1730hrs in the evening. There was time for a shower before the main meal of the day and a relaxed evening.
A description of the building and the surrounding village will give some idea of daily life on a Kommando.We were housed in the village Gasthaus which was double-storied at one end, with the village hall at the other. The owner of the Gasthaus occupied part of the upstairs while the entrance, bar, lounge and kitchen and maids quarters were downstairs. The German guards lived in some of the upstairs rooms and there was a door, which led on to a balcony in the hall. We were quartered in the hall, which had a stage at one end where there were tables and benches and a large flat-topped stove. The remainder of the hall contained the twoâ€“tier wooden bunks on which we slept. There was also a door downstairs which came in from the kitchen and reception rooms.
A Sergeant (Feldweubel) and four guards lived on the premises and they were assisted by four old men from the Homeguard (Heimwehr) when we were at work. At night we were locked in and two large metal refuse bins were brought in to cater for our nightly needs as “wee bliks”.”Lights out” was at 2200hrs and there was a last minute rush for the outside 6-seater “Loo”. The barbed-wire enclosure was large enough for the Loo and for a Volley Ball court. The main meal was prepared by two Polish girls who also worked for the owner/farmer in the farmyard and in the Gasthaus.The kitchen contained two large cauldrons in which our meals were prepared. Potatoes, boiled in their jackets,were cooked in one and the monotonously, unchanging stew of meat, swede turnips and barley was prepared in the other.We were quite sure that a
fair portion of our potato ration was fed to the farmer’s pig. (The final story of “The Pig” will be told later.)
A British Sergeant was in charge of us and our well-being. He and a Medical Orderly and the sick fellows remained in the barracks and attended to the cleaning of the barracks and the latrines. Each day, too, the Sgt, MO and a couple of chaps would go down, with a guard, to the village bakery for the ration of heavy, dark brown, ersatz bread -half a loaf per man.”Die Frau und drei Tochter” worked in the bakery and a good trade was organised for extra bread. One bar of chocolate was worth an extra loaf. Next door to the barracks was the village grocery store, run by a very friendly, buxom “Deutsche Frau und eine Tochter” -Freda.The Sgt. had a nice little deal going there too and little luxuries,like eggs,would change hands through the fence.
The Sergeant had an accordeon and most evenings we would have a sing-a-long. The long summer evenings allowed us time for games of volley ball which were often watched by the girls from
the kitchen and the Frau next door.Otherwise our time was occupied with reading,Rummy or Bridge or writing letters.On Sundays,our only free day,the guards would take us out for a walk around the village,or out into the forest,or to the village green where we would play Soccer.One or two of the guards often took
part and we had great fun as we purposely passed the ball to them when they were closely marked.They were immediately barged by our guys,much to our delight.I must say that they always took it all
in good style and there were never any hard feelings.
Sick parades were held every morning and each chap was checked by our Sgt. our M.O and the German Feldweubel. The nearest doctor lived in a small village about 6km from Ruckenwaldau so, consequently, only those able to walk there went to the surgery. The others remained at the barracks until the doctor could visit them there. I was unfortunate enough to have an abscess develope in my armpit and, after some days of intense discomfort, the Feldweubel agreed that I should go to the doctor to have it lanced. Now, the doctor turned out to be a very old man who, under normal conditions, should have been retired. Under war conditions, however, he had been retained to release all the younger doctors for the war effort and, here he was with his shaky hands and antiquated instruments. No local anaesthetic was considered necessary and, while I held a kidney bowl under my arm, he attempted to lance the abscess, which had several heads. It was soft, like a ripe tomato, but the skin was tough and his lance seemed to be rather blunt. As he prodded and probed I was in agony and the perspiration poured down my face until the point pierced the skin and the wound opened and the putrid mass poured out. The relief was immediate but there was still the cleaning of the wound and the dressing to face before I could attempt the return journey to the barracks. It was an agonising march back as the wound throbbed with each step. After a few days I returned to the Doctor to have the dressing removed and suffered the 12km gladly when I was told that the wound had healed beautifully.
My general condition must have been rather low as, shortly after the abscess,I went down with a recurrence of the malaria which I had had in Abyssinia and Italy.This time I could not walk to the doctor and was visited by a young female student doctor who was now working with the old man.She was extremely interested in all the symptoms and wrote down the whole history of my various attacks.While she was at the barracks she had to examine one of the fellows who had “piles”.We roared with laughter when she exclaimed:-“Ach Schon”.I had to wait until I was fit enough to travel before I could return to Gorlitz for further treatment and recuperation.I spent three weeks in hospital and a further two weeks on medication. Mepacrine,a new antibiotic,and vitamin B1 and B2 tablets were poured into my system until I felt as though
I would rattle if I was shaken. The cure was sure and I never had another relapse.
While I was back in Camp, Charlie Waylett,a family friend, came in from a work party with a broken arm (see letters dated 19/6/44 and 23/7 44) and he was still there when I went back to the Kommando at Ruckenwaldau.Another fellow with whom I had been very friendly was Ron “Ponto” Williamson.He was a Kiwi and part Maori and had been at the Kommando with me.He went into hospital for an appendectomy and I did not meet up with him again.
I returned to the Kommando in the middle of June carrying a very precious “Ligte Arbeid” certificate. The train journey, this time,was via Bunzlau,Cottbus and Sagan.Stalag 8C was an RAF camp at Sagan which was the scene of “The Great Escape” in which over a hundred prisoners escaped.Summer was at it’s height and it was now two long years since the Tobruk debacle and my capture but, spirits were very high as the fantastic news of the Normandy landing filtered through from the local people.
News of the Second front was heavily censored in the German newspapers and on the radio but we had learnt,from reports of the Russian front,that there was a delay of a few weeks before town names appeared in the press.Initial German reports indicated that the landing was a failure and that the invasion forces had been thrown back into the sea.Then the landing was acknowledged but that it was confined to a very small beachhead and so on.We soon observed that town names outside the beachhead were mentioned in the fighting and we knew that the landing was a success.I think that we became over optimistic as rumours gathered momentum and it was confidently expected that we would be on our way home before Christmas.
I have not described the Russian Sector of Stalag 8A as yet. Unlike the countries in the League of Nations, who had signed the International Red Cross agreement re prisoners of war, Russia had not signed and, therefore, conditions in the Russian sector were extremely poor. When we first arrived at 8A many of those Russians had been there for three years and the situation was critical. During the winter of 1943 there were several deaths every day and, in order to obtain extra rations, the dead were not reported for as long as possible. Bodies were left covered over in the bunks until they were discovered by the German guards, when they entered the huts and made a thorough search.Some of the Russians had a way of getting across into our Sector at night to obtain food.I recall one tall Cossack,thin and hollow-eyed,who had a fine,deep resonant voice.He sang beautiful Russian songs and we gladly gave him a meal and food to take back for his friends.Our own camp leaders did all they could to assist them with voluntary gifts of food from our own parcel supplies.
Back to the Kommando I was soon out with the fellows working along the railway track. While I had been away ill, many sections of the main line had been re-ballasted and re-aligned but the reÂªshaping of banks and cuttings, the replacement of sets of points in the yards and general maintenance still required a great deal of attention. Two German Fraulein were attached to our work party to act as look-outs. When trains approached they had to blow a trumpet to warn us to get out of the way. One of them was an
elegant, educated and rather aloof person who refrained from any fraternisation with us and only spoke to Herr Goebel, the Foreman. The other was short, fat, uneducated and coarse. She had been a Land Girl, working on farms to assist with food production and, no doubt, for the increase of the German “Master Race”. Her name was Magda and she was friendly with all and sundry and joked and laughed raucously at the guards rude jokes. We called her “Toy Toy” as that was the sound her trumpet made when it was blown.
I made full use of my Lichte Arbeid certificate along with “Tich”Purcell, who also had one. No more pick and shovel work for us. We were given the job of weeding the paths along the tracks and around the shunting yards.We also returned to the small hut before the others to put on their pots of food and to make toast and coffee for them on the flat stove.Our breakfast and lunch breaks were noisy affairs with a lot of fun,jokes and laughter. I suppose it was one way of forgetting where we were.
Tich and I were left very much to ourselves and were often far up the line away from the main gang. We all used the forests on each side of the line as a toilet when we worked between stations and only had to ask the guards -“Toilette Bitte”-take a spade and wander off into the forest. The arrangement worked very well until one day one of our chaps, Haarhof, wandered off in the wrong direction and lost his way.He was quite bewildered when he arrived at a small village,which he did not recognise.The German
shopkeeper was just as amazed when he went in and asked where he was and how to return to the railway.No one had noticed his absence until we climbed aboard the train to return to our barracks and the guards did their usual count.What a Schemmozle! The Gestapo were called in and a hunt started and he was found having a beer with the locals, quite unconcerned about the uproar he had caused.
It meant an immediate tightening up of control by the guards and a curtailment of some of our privileges. A little later two chaps came out from 8A to the Kommando with the express purpose
of escaping.We weren’t particularly in favour as we knew that it would mean another clamp-down on our movements.They made their break from the gang into the forest and were free for less than a week.This time the Gestapo really put the pressure on and many of our privileges were stopped.Any laxness and friendliness by the guards was stamped out and a new Feldweubel was put in charge of the guards.
Another event, which occurred during that summer, was “The Great Escape” from the RAF Stalag 8C at Sagan, which was not far from Ruckenwaldau.Over 100 POW escaped and an intense manhunt ensued. The repercussions were extreme as the Gestapo questioned everyone in the village and made several visits to our Kommando. Once again security was tightened up and for several weeks the trains were checked as strange characters appeared at the stations and around the village. I had actually seen two chaps in the forest at the time of the break but they did not communicate in any way and I did not mention the incident to anyone until thefurore had died down.
Our efforts at sabotage had,I suppose,a minimal effect on the German war effort but there was a steady loss of equipment as spades,forks and picks were thrown onto goods trucks destined for
“somewhere” in Germany.The rolling-stock was in poor shape and we often noticed that a truck would pass with one wheel skidding.The brake had not released and,thereafter,we would apply the hand brake at the end of a truck standing in the goods yard.Thus,when the train pulled out the vacuum brake would not release and the wheel would skid along the track.Another idea was to open up the axle-box and remove the oil-soaked packing which lubricated the axle-bearing and fill up the box with sand. This, hopefully, caused the axle to overheat and seize up.I am quite sure that these efforts had little major effect but they made us feel that we weren’t standing by and doing nothing.
Life on the Kommando was not always humdrum or placid. There were often differences of opinion amongst us and tempers would flare up and there were also confrontations with the guards.
As prisoners, we were always ready to take the “Micky” out of the guards, some of whom did not appreciate our sense of humour.We had a very bloody-minded,anti-Nazi Kiwi in the group,who took a
delight in baiting the “Jerrys” when the opportunity arose.At many points along the line there were country road crossings with a boom across.At one of these there was a little house where the keeper lived and he had laid out two gardens,one on each side of the crossing.In the centre of each was a stone design.The one had the German flag and Swastika in the centre and the other the German Eagle with a large red stone for it’s eye.One of the guards,who had recently been attached to our Kommando,was a mean, unfriendly,pasty-faced individual who had seen no battle service like the others.A nasty,Nazi base Wallah!
Well! One day the Kiwi suddenly strode out onto the garden and, grinding his heel into the eye of the Eagle, gave the Nazi salute and shouted “Heil Hitler”.The guard went beserk and,with a scowl and a face white with anger,rushed at the Kiwi,pulling out his revolver as he went.Shouting and screaming “Vervlugte
Englander” he pointed the barrel at the Kiwi’s forehead. Silenced with shock, we froze as another guard rushed up to stop any shooting and, slowly and almost imperceptably the tension eased. The whole scene almost erupted again when the Kiwi, sneeringly, laughed in the guard’s face. The Kiwi was sent back to Gorlitz for unishment and there was a sequel to the guard’s attitude later in the year, when all able-bodied men were receiving orders to report for duty on the Russian front. He was selected and he took the dishonourable way out by “accidently” putting a bullet through his foot while cleaning his rifle. He was removed by the Gestapo and we never heard of him again.
In August the late summer days became hot and humid and, most afternoons, thunderstorms gathered. We worked stripped to the waist and were becoming quite tanned. News of the war from both the
Western and Eastern fronts filtered through and our hopes rose as the advances continued. It was also interesting to note how the civilian attitudes were changing towards us as their situation deteriorated. I had been told how arrogant and harsh they had all been in 1940/41 when they were all-powerful but, once the tide had turned in North Africa, Italy and Russia, their attitudes had slowly but surely improved.
We met many civilians on the train each day, some more friendly than others, and a sure way of getting them to talk was to offer the children some chocolate from our parcels. Their own rations were becoming more basic and ersatz as rail distribution problems arose. In the forests the Blue Berries were ripening and there was a daily invasion of people from the towns and villages. They came loaded with buckets, baskets, bags and tins of all shapes and sizes in which to collect the berries. The train even stopped between stations to assist the gatherers, who clambered off and dashed into the forest for the day.In the afternoon they returned with their utensils filled to the brim,tired but happy,excited, talkative and overjoyed to have something different from their normal ration.Underlying their joy,though,was the worry of a war going wrong for them. So many men gone -so many never to return.
They were beginning to suffer the deprivations and fears similar to all the ordinary people in the countries, which the Nazi war machine had over-run. Nevertheless, there were still many rabid Nazis and, amongst the remainder, there were many who had been coerced into support through fear. In our small village most of the old men spoke nostalgically of the “Old Germany” and Frans and Willi, two of the Home guards, were certainly not pro Nazi and openly passed on all the news from the radio.
Anyway, we also collected Blue Berries during our lunch-break and ate them fresh with Klim milk and sugar or boiled them up for jam. They were very enjoyable and it was a change to have something fresh to eat. Then the harvest was over and the firstsigns of Autumn appeared as the leaves turned to gold and began to fall.In the country villages and on the farms much work had to be done to prepare for the coming Winter. Throughout the summer, wood was cut and stock-piled under cover in the lee of the buildings; thatch roofs and fences were repaired and drainage sloots cleaned out. The Sugar Beet was harvested and delivered to the sugar factories. Turnips and potatoes were marketed but sufficient were retained for private consumption during the winter months. These were placed in large piles in the cellars and firmly covered with a thick layer of straw to protect them from the severe cold.
The railway work continued rather monotonously but one morning our whole group was rushed to Liegnitz to assist with track repairs after a major rail crash. A whole goods train had derailed, overturned and ploughed up the double track for nearly a mile. There was already a large labour force of Russians,Poles and other prisoners on the site when we reached the scene and they had already moved some of the goods and trucks out of the way.Our gang began re-laying the least damaged track from the one end in order to re-open one line to traffic as soon as possible.It was very heavy work as some sleepers were splintered and new ones had to be put down and some broken or twisted rails replaced.The Russians and Poles brought in the sleepers and laid down the new lines while we dug out the ballast and then re-packed the stone
to bring the line up to the correct level and re-aligned it.This work progressed so well that,by mid-afternoon,the one line was re-opened.Our group continued working until late in the evening and were utterly exhausted by the time we returned to our barracks at Ruckenwaldau.The remainder of the repairs were finally completed by the other gangs by the following morning.
Letters from home took up to two months to arrive and it was at this time that I received two items of news from home. One was a happy one informing me that my cousin Jean Bates, from Illovo, Natal had become engaged. The other brought me the devastating news that my brother, Walter, had died of pneumonia during June. I was very depressed with this news as, here I was after all the trials and dangers I had experienced, while he, in the safety of home had been taken away. On the 28th August I “celebrated” my 25th birthday and had been away from home for over four years and had been a prisoner for more than two. War news on all fronts was good and we still felt that we could be home by Christmas.
On the Kommando I was especially friendly with Jack Roberts, who had been in the S.A.Police Regiment and came from Pretoria and Les Bowles, who was from East London (SA) and who was our interpreter at the time. We three always sat together at a table with Harry, a Kiwi and John Finney,a Londoner,and played Rummy and Bridge much of the time.None of us fancied spending another winter on the Kommando and I certainly did not look forward to the long,bitter,dark nights and the gloom of the icy,snow-laden skies with temperatures plummetting to 10 -20 degrees below zero. Certainly, among the Germans, there appeared to be a feeling of uncertainty and their faces were drawn and unsmiling with, perhaps a premonition of things to come. The Russians continued to advance through the Ukraine, Hungary and Rumania and we knew that Paris had been relieved in late August and, that, by mid September, the Allies had advanced to a line running from Ostend to the Siegfried line and the Swiss border. Despite all the portents of the coming winter our hopes were optimistically high in expectation of an early end to the war.
There were other signs now which indicated the ever tightening noose around Germany and it’s Armies.For several weeks in September and October all the able-bodied folk in the village were transported eastward of the Oder river to dig and prepare defence trenches and gun emplacements. All the boys of 14 and over were called up to make good the losses of the thousands of German soldiers captured in the west and those lost on the Russian front. As the winter deepened the first trickle of refugees appeared. They were fleeing, westwards, from the advancing Russian hordes, with all their worldly goods piled high on 4â€“wheeled wagons, on bicycles, on horses and an occasional car. Many pulled the little 4-wheeled, wooden cart, commonly used in Germany in order to save the use of petrol-driven vehicles. Some even drove cattle ahead of them and poultry, pigs and other livestock were carried on the carts. Aged men, women and children, heavily clothed against the bitter winds, trickled by until the trickle became a flood during November and we discovered that some of them had trekked from as far away as Hungary and eastern Poland. Now, too, we became aware of the distant rumble of guns and bombing at night and, on some crystal,clear,frosty days we could see the vapour trails of bombers on their daylight missions.
We continued working along the tracks until the first blasts of winter blew in from the East, bringing the first sleet and snow flurries. Then we reverted to the winter programme of working around the goods yards and stations unless an urgent repair was needed somewhere along the line. I recall one such occasion when, despite the worsening weather, we had to repack a portion of line, which had been undermined by water. Throughout the day the sky grew blacker and blacker and, the clouds, heavy with snow, came lower and lower. An eerie silence surrounded us as we hurried to complete the task and then, as we set out on the few miles back to the station,a wall of softly driven snow enveloped us. Visibility was soon reduced to a few yards as larger and larger flakes floated down covering everything in a white mantle.
By the time we had struggled back to the station the snow was already more than a foot deep and the firs were hanging low with the weight of snow. During the night the wind rose to a blizzard causing deep drifts against buildings and in the hollows as the featherweight flakes were blown hither and thither in the swirling wind. Our shifts were already busy keeping the points and signals clean and the stations swept. Despite the weather the line which was on the main route â€“ Breslau, Liegnitz, Cottbus, Berlin – was kept busy .As we worked on those bitter nights we would see passenger trains rushing headlong on their way and we imagined the warm interior and the comfort of the heated compartments. Likewise, there were the troop trains moving eastwards to the front at Breslau and beyond with men, equipment and supplies and returning Red Cross hospital trains with the wounded -walking and stretcher cases. Sometimes the hospital trains were makeshift, open trucks in which the wounded lay on straw and we began to wonder just how far away the front actually was. October, November and into December and the winter cold was intense -far colder than the previous winter had been. Many chaps had chilblains on their hands and some had developed frost-bitten toes through bad circulation and bad hygiene. They were too tired to wash their socks properly and to make sure that their feet were properly dried. The village did not have running water and each house had a large cast-iron hand pump which, for the winter, had to be totally wrapped in a thick layer of straw to stop it from freezing up. A visit to our outside, unheated, draughty “Loo” was an expedition undertaken with great courage for sitting on the bare wooden seat was agony and threatened to bring on permanent constipation. Talk about “Freezing the balls off a brass monkey”!
The gloom of winter deepened with the news that the Wermacht had launched a major attack on the Western front on the 16th December “The Battle of the Bulge” was a desperate, all-out onslaught by a formidable Panzer force, which very nearly broke through the American lines in the Ardennes. They were hoping to penetrate right through to the French coast and cut off Gen.Montgommery’s army to the north. There was a momentary flutter of hope in German eyes while our spirits dropped accordingly. Fortunately, the Allied Command rallied, sealed off the German force and the attack failed in it’s objective. Nevertheless, instead of singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” we had to make do with “I’m dreamin’ of a white Christmas” as the Allies continued their advance into Belgium, Holland and up to the Rhine River.
We knew that the war was entering it’s final phase but,I think that the strain of the biting winter cold was eating into our minds,bodies and bones.Despite wearing nearly all the clothes I possessed I was still cold. My Great-coat was rather old, having been in use in East Africa and the Western desert, and threadbare. I wore gloves and canvas mittens and a Balaclava.Breath from my nostrils and mouth formed icicles on the outside of the wool, which melted on the inside and made my chin wet and chapped. Fortunately my boots were new and well coated with dubbin which made them waterproof and my thick army socks kept my feet warm.
Shortly before Christmas a work party was sent down to the next station towards Liegnitz to repair some points and replace a broken line. Just before the lunch break I returned to the small hut,where we kept our gear,to heat the coffee,make the toast and warm up the food.I was surprised to find a German Panzer drawn up nearby with the crew standing around looking totally exhausted and dejected.The Sergeant spoke to me and said,”Wie HeiSen sie?” -(Who are you)-to which I replied, “Ich bin eine Englander, eine Kriegsgevangener”. At that moment “Toy Toy”, our lass with the trumpet, arrived and invited them into the warmth of our hut, which they gladly accepted. The Sergeant was a veteran who had seen action in many theatres of the war and his face was lined and weatherbeaten from years in the field. The tank crew with him were all smooth faced youngsters and, no doubt, relatively inexperienced replacements. They were all surprised to see the food, which we had to eat until we explained that we received parcels from the Red Cross and only received basic rations from the Germans.Propaganda came to the fore as we offered them some of our good coffee with milk and sugar. We wondered why he was on his own and where the remainder of his tank group was and asked him how far the fighting was to the east. He made no comment, however, and we assumed that the remnants of their group were withdrawing and being regrouped in order to stem the Russian advance. Distant rumblings of guns could, sometimes, be heard in the silence of the night and we realised that the Russians were steadly pushing the German forces back.
Reference to letters which I wrote to Arthur and Kate during October, November and December indicated that the winter of 1944 was the coldest that I had experienced. Mail from Home was very erratic -no letters for two months but I did receive a parcel of cigarettes, which were of great value when buying extra bread from the bakery.Red Cross parcels had been reduced to one a fortnight due to transport difficulties on the railways.War supplies to the front were far more important than food parcels for prisoners.
Christmas 1944 at Kommando 10001, Ruckenwaldau.
My fifth in the Army and my third as a prisoner. We had to work on Christmas Eve but, in the evening, the Feldweubel and guards came down into our barrack room to sing Carols and requested “Heilige Nacht” – “Silent Night”.They sang in German and we joined in with the English version.A Grenadier Guardsman’s favourite was “You are my Sunshine” which was sung with great gusto but was hardly in keeping with the conditions outside.Then came all the Vera Lynn “Forces Favourites” and many of the old 1st World War songs. We had been allowed to buy “Bier und Schnapps” and a pleasant, but somewhat homesick, evening ended with “Auld Lang Syne” and Christmas greetings. -“Froliche Weihnachten”. We had not liked the Feldweubel when he had first arrived but he had mellowed as he had become familiar with our attitudes and customs. One or two of the guards were also very friendly as they, like us,had seen action in North Africa,where they had been wounded.One,Georg, actually brought his lovely,blonde wife and two little girls to the Kommando for a week-end and they were allowed to stand on the balcony to watch and listen to our sing-song.
Christmas day was a quiet day like any other Sunday and the fellows carried on with the usual chores of washing clothes and letter-writing. Most of them played cards or read books and Harry, Les Bowles, Jack Roberts, Finney and I spent a lot of the time talking of home and our various interests. Even the food ration was unchanged. The evening brightened up somewhat with the purchase of Bier and Schnapps and another sing-song took place. Georg brought his little girls in again and they were delighted when they were given some chocolate, which, I am sure, was the first real chocolate they had ever tasted.
Deep winter weather continued with the snow storms keeping us busy on the day and night shifts into the New Year.I wrote a card to Arthur and Kate on the 6th January 1945 which, as I learnt later, only arrived home on the 31st March. This was the last card that I sent home, although I was not to know that at the time. During January we became more aware of the distant, muffled, rumble of heavy gunfire. In the silence of clear, frosty nights the continuous noise of the artillery reached us and, for the first time, I think we realised that, in all probability, we were going to become involved in the final onslaught. The rail traffic became more frequent as the movement of troop trains and supplies increased in volume towards Breslau and the Eastern front and the number of returning hospital trains increased as well.
We were rather apprehensive as the German radio news service and the newspapers were heavily censored and full of propaganda. We watched avidly for names of towns where fighting was reported and also pressed the old guards to tell us where the fighting was actually taking place. From all the scources one could get a fairly accurate picture of the situation. The news was full of Russian atrocities, which was aimed at rousing the population’s hatred and resistance. One example was the story of an attack on a hospital train, which had been cut off. All the nurses had been raped and mutilated and everyone was slaughtered before the German counter attack could reach them. Great praise was, however, heaped on the German heroes in battle. One epic described the incident of a soldier who deliberately remained hidden, with a radio, until his position was totally surrounded by a mass of Russian tanks and armoured vehicles. He then radioed his position to the German artillery, which laid down a massive barrage and destroyed most of the Russian force. He was posthumously decorated with an Iron Cross 1st Class.
Reading between the lines we believed that the Russians were already in the vicinity of Breslau.In fact, by mid-January, Marshall Koniev had already by-passed Krakow and had reached Katowice, Gleiwitz and Breslau. In the north their forces were at the gates of Warsaw. Our Railway work continued at all the stations despite the disturbing news and we grew more apprehensive as the flood of civilians, moving westwards, increased daily.The trains were over-loaded with refugees and there was a constant stream of people,taking everything they could carry, moving through the village.We implored the Feldweubel to take us back to Gorlitz, to Stalag 8A,but he could not move until he received orders from his superiors to do so. We became aware of another sound intermittently mingling with the dull thunder of the artillery. It sounded like the staccato rattle of heavy automatic weapons, like 20mm cannon, firing in short bursts. We little realised that one of the main thrusts of the Russian advance would be around both sides of Breslau, to cross the Oder river, and to approach Gorlitz and the Niesse river along the rail route that our Kommando worked on. They advanced very rapidly to Liegnitz, which was far too close for our liking and safety, and the incessant noise of battle continued day and night.
None of us, despite all the signs, were remotely prepared for the dramatic events, which were to develop around us and in which we were to become involved. I think that I had merely considered the sudden ending to the war and an uneventful return journey home. Certainly, there was no way of predicting that the small village of Ruckenwaldau would be on the main thrust into South-east Germany on the pincer movement, which would swing northwards towards Berlin. Nor did we expect that we would be exposed, once more, to the vicious horrors and dangers of battle, or to the hard, aggressive, trigger-happy Russian soldiers.
I recall the final evening in the barracks at Ruckenwaldau. The last of the Red Cross parcels were distributed along with the remainder of the bulk stores as we expected to move out the following day. I packed up my belongings in a small case and my haversack and the rest of the evening was spent chatting or reading and so on. When we went out to the “Loo” we could clearly hear the chatter of light automatic weapons and, although the guards and villagers were also aware of the noise of the nearby battle, the alarm was not raised and it was “Lights out” as usual.
It was a disturbed night and, at about 0500hrs the guards rushed in and told us to pack hurriedly, taking only a few essential possessions and our food. I managed a quick snack before we left the barracks and marched off to the station. Most of the villagers were already there, crowded into the small building and out onto the platform.Hopes were high that a train would come from Liegnitz but they faded rapidly when the officials failed to make any contact with any of the other stations on the line to Liegnitz. The Feldweubel, guards and the old men of the Heimwehr decided that we should set off up the line to walk to Oberleschen
and cross the Neisse river there.
The greying darkness of the pre-dawn hour was slightly lightened by the whiteness of the deep snow. Our straggling column moved off from the station along the path next to the wall of the Fabriek on our right and a deep furrow and the railway line on our left. The road through the village was further to the right and came in at an angle,through the edge of the forest, to the rail crossing not far ahead.Apart from the distant rumble of guns, the silence of the hour was only broken by the muffled, slushing of our footsteps in the snow and the low murmur of our voices. Suddenly, the stark, chaotic havoc of the vicious crackle of Tommy-guns and the blast of 20mm cannon burst around us as shell and bullet scythed down the line of our column. I was about six chaps from the front and my reaction was instantaneous. I dived into the deep snow beside the path and gouged my way down into the frozen ground, finding a small hollow behind a fir tree in which to shelter. There were two Russian tanks, half hidden in the trees, with a group of infantry sitting on them. Ominous and threatening, they kept a steady stream of bullets and shells spraying up and down our position and I was quite sure that this was the end for all of us. Time stood still and the firing seemed to go on interminably as I apprehensively waited for the Russians to come over and finish us off. Les Bowles and Jack Roberts were lying close by and Les asked if I was OK. I whispered back to him, “Keep quiet -Just lie doggo”. Fortunately, apart from the first burst of shooting, which caught us all by surprise, most of the shells were going over our heads or hitting the railway bank behind us. Quite a lot of splinters and ricocheting bullets were flying around and it would have been fatal to have raised our heads or move. Away to my left I could hear the groans of the wounded and dying men and I wondered how many there were and who they were. After an agonising age, the firing stopped and silence, apart from the groans of the wounded, settled over the scene once more. No one moved as we waited, with bated breath, for more shooting but, finally, the tension broke as the two Tiger Tank’s engines thundered into life and, the rumble of their tracks indicated that they were moving away up the road towards Oberleschen.
Then they were gone! Our guards sprang to life and shouted for all of us to follow them across the railway line and make for the forest on the other side. Through the deep ditch alongside the line, breaking through the ice into knee-deep water, then up, over and away, the fellows fled. Some six or seven of us, however, hung back in order to assess the situation before blundering into any more Russian patrols. One of our guards was a Pole who had been dragooned into the German forces and he accompanied us when we crept into the small hut at the railway crossing.Time passed and just as we had decided that it was quite safe to move on, we saw, from the window,a patrol of “Ruskies” coming back down the line towards the village. We told “our Pole” to drop his rifle and to crawl out and start talking Polish to explain who he was and who we were. He was, I am sure, far more terrified than we were as, being in a German uniform, was inviting a bullet. Anyway, he crept out, closely followed by us with our hands held high above our heads, and poured out a torrent of Polish. The Russians had Mongolian features and their attitude was totally hostile. They thrust their Tommy guns into our stomachs, shouting and pushing us around while the poor old Pole kept talking. Slowly they relaxed as the Pole answered their questions and they understood that we were British POW (Anglichani). I do not know whether they were the patrol that had shot us up earlier but, as they marched us back to the village we showed them the bodies of our friends still lying in the snow. We were taken to the first house in the village and put under guard. Fortunately our Pole, with whom we were now on equal terms, stayed with us and helped to organise a rescue party to go out and bring in our wounded and the dead friends. The slate -grey, gloomy, snow-laden day drew to a dismal, devastating close.
Our small party was, finally, given permission to go out and attend to the casualties, who had been lying out in those extreme conditions all day. We found three or four dead prisoners and another four or five wounded, who were quite incoherent and unable to move. The first one we moved was Archie McKinnon,a good friend and likeable Kiwi. He was very badly hurt as he had been hit on the right side of his chest and some of his ribs had been shot away leaving a gaping hole, through which we could see his heart and lung pulsating. He was lightly built but his friend was a huge red-headed Kiwi, who was nick-named “Blue”. His right leg was badly shattered both below and above the knee and he was unable to move. We first brought in the fellows who could manage to walk with some assistance and, then found an old ladder, and went back for Archie and “Blue”. Blankets were piled onto the ladder and Archie was lifted on and carried in to the house. That was a simple operation as he was unconcious but “Blue” was a different proposition as he felt every movement we made and it was pitiful to hear this poor man screaming with the excruciating pain. The journey back was very slow as every step was a hazard with this ungainly weight to handle. At last we were there and Archie and “Blue” were laid on blankets on the floor and wrapped up with all the warm things we could find. Daylight was fading as we went out to bring in the dead. It was a grim, traumatic experience for, here were fellow prisoners who had survived nearly three years as POWs and who, like us, had known victory to be close and were already relishing the thoughts of “Homecoming”. They were laid in a room away from the wounded chaps as we identified them and made lots of notes for handing on to the authorities at some later stage. One man was quite unrecognisable as a shell had hit his jaw-bone and distorted his face completely and we were only able to ascertain his identity from his Identity disc.
More tanks arrived in the village and, out of one of them, a Russian female doctor alighted and came in to examine the wounded fellows. Poor Archie was deteriorating rapidly and she explained, through our “Pole”, that he could never hope to recover. She gave him an injection to ease the pain and he never regained conciousness and died during the night. She also attended to the other wounded chaps and operated on “Blue’s” shattered leg and set it in splints.
As night closed in the Russians set fire to one of the houses in the village as a signal to other troops in the area to indicate to them how far they had advanced. We were a dejected, little contingent, utterly devastated by the events, which had befallen us. Somehow we lit a fire in the kitchen stove and prepared some food from the supplies, which we had with us. The hot coffee restored us a little but we were still very apprehensive of the Russian attitude, which was an unknown factor and seemed to be extremely unpredictable. It had been a shattering day and we were all in a highly nervous and emotional state. In the stuttering light of an oil lamp, Les Bowles, Jack Roberts and I lay down on borrowed German bedding and tried to gather our senses and to assess the predicament we were in.
We awoke to a dismal dawn, re-lit the fire, made some coffee, ate some of our left-over bread and prepared ourselves for another harrowing day. One or two Russkies wandered in but did not interfere with us as we went to find some picks and spades with which to dig four graves in the garden. It was a long, hard, backbreaking task clearing the snow and then penetrating the solidly frozen ground, but, by the end of the morning, we had managed to excavate the graves. The traumatic task of wrapping each body in a blanket and placing it in the grave was accomplished with heavy hearts and it was a forlorn, dejected little group that covered the bodies and placed a rough, wooden cross at the head of each. In the biting cold we paid our last respects with prayers and a long silence.
During the afternoon, Hank Harrop, who had become separated from the main group and lost his way in the forest, luckily found the railway line and walked back to Ruckenwaldau and rejoined us at the house. After making a sketch of the grave site and completing our notes of the dead, we still had the wounded chaps to care for and, with the aid of our now “tame Pole”, we were able to find the Doctor again and ask her to have the badly wounded removed to a Medical Post for further attention and despatch to a base hospital. More trauma as “Blue” was loaded onto a horseâ€“drawn cart – no field ambulances – with two other guys and driven away. I never heard of them again and wondered if they survived the tremendous problem of language and the hardships ahead.
Before the day ended we wended our way back to the barracks to find Louis Halgreen and a few of the chaps who had also doubled back to find refuge in the barrack building. We felt just a little more secure in the familiar surroundings and with the added support of a few more of our mates. We all realised just how precarious the situation was when we heard Hank’s horrifying story of his discovery of “Toy-Toy’s” body, which had been stripped, mutilated and raped by the Russian beasts before they killed her. The barrack room had also been ransacked and many things taken, but I was very happy to find my case with my diaries, notes and souvenirs.
For greater safety we decided to take all our things and go down to the cellar. There we found other refugees as there was still sporadic shooting around the village as the Russians continued to pillage and destroy. We all spent a very watchful, disturbed and nervous night but, at least, we were in warmer shelter and had the use of the kitchen and a supply of potatoes and swede turnips from the farmer’s store to augment the meal.
The following morning the Germans made a minor counter-attack with air strikes by fighter-bombers. We kept our heads down as strafing and shooting erupted in the village. A Messerschmidt fighter was shot down but the pilot managed to bale out and was captured. Things soon quietened down, however, and later in the day we saw our Feldweubel being lead away as a prisoner. We made a good meal in the evening and also made things more comfortable in the cellar with tables and benches from the barrack room. There were also some oil lamps to light up the scene and mattresses from the guards rooms eased the hardness of the concrete floor.
On recalling the incidents of the day I must confess that I, like the other prisoners, had had little sympathy for the Feldweubel when he was captured, yet he looked such a tragic figure as he trudged through the snow, that we all wondered how long he would survive. The village was practically deserted and those villagers who had remained stayed out of sight and locked up in their cottages. One German railway worker, Hans, had been shot in the doorway of his home when he stood and fired his revolver at Russian soldiers who were ransacking homes. Uppermost in our minds was our own survival and these incidents made us aware of just how tenuous our own situation was.
The following night some Russians came into the barracks and started drinking Vodka and singing songs. They insisted on us joining in and poured out liberal tots in our mugs. Their Vodka was a very raw, strong drink which, at the first gulp, burned it’s way down into one’s stomach and then the impact shot back and almost blew the top of one’s head off. Between gulps there was constant singing and we had to keep toasting “Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt”!!! The party became extremely uproarious with a great deal of backslapping but didn’t last too long as we weren’t used to so much alcohol and soon “dropped out”.
That night those same Russkies came in while we were asleep in the cellar and searched among the other refugees for someone. Who or why, we were never to know, but they dragged one man out and took him into the woods nearby and shot him! We were astounded but kept a very low profile as, in our nervous state, it further indicated how fragile our safety was.
At this stage, I must relate the story of “The Pig”. The owner of the Gasthaus was also a farmer and, in his farmyard, he had a pig. Throughout our stay at Ruckenwaldau all our potato peelings and vegetable tops were fed to the pig and I am quite sure that there were times when some of our rations went his way too. As the months went by we had watched the “Pig” getting bigger and bigger and fatter and fatter. Now was our opportunity. The enormous pig must be killed and cooked to supply us with food for the uncertain period which lay ahead. None of us knew how to kill a pig but, eventually, we found a very long, sharp knife and, while some of us held the pig down, one of the chaps cut away at the thick skin around the throat until he found the jugular vein and the deed was done. Throughout the process the pig’s squeals were terrible and we were all relieved when the poor pig finally died.
The next stage was another problem as the pig had to be cut up into joints and portions small enough to boil. We first washed and cleaned the carcass and then the bones were sawn up and the body cut into squares after which it was boiled in the two cauldrons in the kitchen. We kept the fire going for two days until every scrap of that pig was cooked and what a life-saver it proved to be. During the weeks that followed, as we wended our way eastwards into Poland, that “Porker” augmented all the food we scrounged and all the meals we cooked. The bitter, freezing cold of that extreme winter weather (-20 degrees) was kept at bay by the fat from “The Pig”! When the cooking was complete we packed our gear and made ready to leave Ruckenwaldau.
Our, by now, friendly Polish guard was still in the village and had changed into civilian clothes. With much talking and gesticulating he persuaded the Russian Officer in charge of the village that we should be allowed to move to a safer zone away from the forward area where fighting was likely to flare up at any time. Ruckenwaldau was almost a deserted village as far as Germans were concerned and, those who had stayed, remained indoors most of the time. There were no rations for us in the village and the Russians had made no effort to supply us with food. Finally, five days after their attack on the village, we were supplied with a note authorising us to proceed to the next village about five Kilometres away. We collected several small 4-wheeled carts on which to load the precious “porker’ and took all the blankets and clothes we could find, knowing that it would all help to keep out the cold and come in useful for bartering for food.
Apart from the tanks we had not seen any other motorised transport and all the Russian supplies were brought forward by horse-drawn carts. The soldiers were tough, rough and battle-hardened and travelled light. Clad in heavily padded jackets and trousers, they carried only a light pack containing mostly ammunition for their Tommy guns, some coarse bread, tobacco and Vodka. The horses were treated abominably and the drivers drove like maniacs. I saw one cart overturn on the churned up iceâ€“rutted road and all the supplies were strewn over the road. The driver scrambled up and brutally lashed the quivering horses. Our decision to move on was final although we were loathe to leave the comparative safety of our barracks and the little village which we had come to know so well. We had spent two and a half years as prisoners under the watchful care of the Red Cross, whose heaven-sent parcels had kept us alive, and we were now moving off into an unknown, forbidding landscape. We set off from Ruckenwaldau in the early morning, under dark, lowering snowâ€“laden clouds, into a frozen landscape of deep snow and desolation with trepidation and concern for our future.
At no stage during my army service had I ever visualised being taken prisoner and, now likewise, I don’t think that any of us would have ever thought that a situation would arise where we would be over-run by Russian forces and left to face weeks and months, in the depth of a bitter winter, in a war-torn devastated land, without any assistance from the Russians and with no knowledge of our ultimate destination. Unbeknown to us, of course, was the fact that thousands of POW to the East of us in Poland and Silesia were, at that time, being marched towards the West to escape the Russian advance and the fellows who had rushed away into the forest the morning of the attack on us became part of “The Hell March” and were finally “liberated” by the Allied forces and ended up at Brighton in England. We were to struggle on into the unknown for several weeks without any assistance from the Russians in the most severe conditions of an extremely bitter winter.