Norman Gibbs was born in 1917 and died in 2010 at the age of 93 years.
He had gained a scholarship to St Dunstan’s College, Catford, where he studied until 1938. He became proficient in German, a skill that he would later be able to put to use during his five year captivity.
In January 1940, at the age of 22 years, he enlisted into the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. In April 1940 the Regiment joined the BEF in France, and on May 20th Norman Gibbs was injured and captured with most of his battalion by the advancing German Panzer army near the town of Doullens, France.
Gibbs was marched as a POW to Stalag 8B at Lamsdorf, from where he transferred to the E72 Arbeitskommando at Beuthen, Silesia. In June 1944 Gibbs was ordered to return to the main camp at Lamsdorf and then transferred to the E51 Arbeitskommando, Abhwer Coal Mine, near Klausberg, Germany
At the mine complex at E72 Beuthen [now Bytom, Poland] Gibbs volunteered for the role of camp interpreter, and he was able to maintain this difficult role, which involved daily liaison with the notorious unter-Feldwebel Arthur Engelkircher (‘John the Bastard‘) for four years.
In June 1944, and without being given an explanation, he was relieved of his post and transferred to E51, another mining camp.
My father, Eric West, who by this time had acquired self-taught fluency in German, took over Norman Gibbs’ role as the E72 interpreter until the camp was evacuated in January 1945.
On January 22nd 1945, Norman Gibbs set out on the Long March from E51 Klausberg and for the next three months was force-marched through Czechoslovakia and into Germany. On May 1st 1945 he was liberated by the American army in Buchbach in Bavaria.
‘Norman Gibbs, Prisoner of War 16349, A Retrospective Diary’
During his retirement, Norman Gibbs dictated his wartime diary. At the same time he had made contact with George Hawkins, with whom he had spent his captivity at the E72 camp, and having suppressed his memories until then, felt able to send off for his medals from the British war office.
The diary manuscript was typed by his wife Elizabeth and was in his family’s hands until after his death, when it was donated to the Upper Silesian Museum at Bytom, Poland. The Museum is near to the site of the E72 Arbeitskommando and other mining work camps affiliated to Stalag VIIIB.
Sadly, in 2010 and soon after he had completed the diary, Gibbs died following complications of open heart surgery.
Norman Gibbs’ diary, together with transcripts of interviews with George Hawkins (Royal Sussex Regiment) and Frederick Linaker (Durham Light Infantry), have recently been published in a book by Dr Joanna Lusek, a historian based at the Upper Silesian Museum, as part of her research into the wartime history of British POW’s in the Bytom area.
‘Norman Gibbs, Prisoner of War number 16349, Retrospective Diary’ by Dr Joanna Lusek. ISBN 97883-931223-1-8
Norman Gibbs Diary. PART 1- THE GERMAN INVASION
‘..On 10th May 1940 the news came through that German forces had invaded Holland and Belgium. France had constructed the famous Maginot Line, which was expensive, elaborate and bore the motto ‘They Shall Not Pass‘. Unfortunately the firepower was fixed inflexibly towards the east. This lengthy and elaborate defence proved of no significance to the Germans who simply circled round the northern end and occupied the French coastline from Abbeville on May 20th to Dunkirk by June 2nd.
On Wednesday 15th May we were still digging trenches into which were fitted stout timber frames. These were carrying duckboards, which had arrived in the railway wagons. The World War One scene was now complete. During that morning a German bomber droned leisurely from the cliff top and received no form of attack. The guard said he could have shot it down, as it was so slow and skimming the ground…..’
‘…The news that evening included a threat to show us what modern ‘Blitzkrieg’ warfare meant that very night. The officers seem to have taken the boast quite seriously as the order came for us to pack up all kit and prepare to leave! I had an old school friend who was in another platoon who was told to stay with a sergeant and pack all the NAAFI stores into a lorry and also carry the cash box. The whole battalion assembled on the main road and stood about until it was pitch dark. We were ready to march along a straight road which was covered by an avenue of trees. I felt grateful for this since Stukas were known to swoop down and machine gun such columns. Next day when the men with the NAAFI stores caught up, I managed to speak to my friend. He assured me that soon after they had left the campsite it had been badly bombed as they were driving a mile or so in our direction.
During this long trek at night a halt was made before dawn. Using this time several of the men including myself went into a bar where we were allowed only citron, or as I preferred, a cup of hot coffee. At the end of the bar a middle-aged man was silently weeping and wiping his eyes. I asked the barman what his trouble was. He replied that he and his wife were with a small group of people who were leaving a small town when they were strafed by enemy aircraft and his wife was killed. Soon afterwards two attentive ladies, about thirty years old, seemed to think I could understand enough French to start talking to me. I clearly understood that they had left their house a short distance along the road and described it to me. They said that if we spotted it we were to go in and take anything we wanted including food from a well-stocked larder. Furthermore they said that they had got the ‘essence’ or fuel and were then making for the Spanish border. I wished them ‘bon voyage’ and had to leave.
We had marched a considerable distance but while it was still dark we were loaded onto a convoy of road trucks. We travelled nearly a hundred miles to the north to Doullens. A short distance from the place where we left the vehicles we marched to a patch of ground, probably formerly a village green on which wooden huts were standing. These were to be our billets. We were given food and rested for the remainder of the day.
It was in this square that a small number of French soldiers appeared looking tattered and with walking wounded. They went to a pump to wash off blood and generally freshen up. There was an officer who went to the pump after his men and I walked over to him and asked what had happened. He told me that the small group of men were retreating from a battle where they had sustained heavy losses. They had held out against Germans at the Albert canal until the number of dead was great…’.
‘…Doullens had been an evacuated town and really appeared deserted. We were issued with two letter cards which we could write home, but knew that they would never arrive, as the truck carrying the mail was hit next day when it caught on fire..’