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..’
Combat, May 20th 1940
‘…On Monday 20th May 1940 two volunteers were needed to accompany an officer and driver in a 15 cwt truck to make a journey ahead of the town (Doullens). I volunteered with a good friend from my platoon. A Major in a staff car with a driver and two more Privates were going to accompany us. The mission seemed to be very vague and the venue unknown.
We travelled several miles, stopping to look at several houses which were securely closed with metal shutters. Then the Major stopped as he spotted a good sound house on a sloping front garden. It was empty and we were able to break in. There were trees around and this became the chosen place for the Major’s base. In a fatherly way he called us together in a room and admitted that we had been sent on ahead to try and find out something about the enemy’s position and strength, then to report back. The Major seemed to have no set action for the moment, when a dispatch rider on a motorcycle found us and drew up and said that he had brought a message. The Major read it, sighed, and then told us what it contained; that we were to hold on at all cost. He then added with firm decision that he was not going to let the group get slaughtered. The next move then occurred to him.
There was a steep incline on the other side of the road rising up to a considerable height. He told the Lieutenant to go, with the 15 cwt truck, the driver and the two volunteers, to take the next chance to get by road to the top of the hill. Perhaps from there we would be able to see any form of activity or enemy troop assembly. A short distance further on the driver turned up a narrow sunken lane. There was an ominous silence all this time and I imagined we would get out then crawl on our front through long grass, as in training, and spy on an enemy’s strength. There was no greater delusion or shock to come to me.
The truck ran straight up and out of the sunken lane onto two ploughed fields, one on each side of the lane, which were typically without hedges. There on the left about twenty yards away, lined up, were five large German tanks! The officer jumped out and seemed to be completely unaware of the immediate action needed. He was standing beside the truck very close to me, who had remained seated, and said he would check with his field glasses. I replied saying I thought there was no need as the white and black cross was so plain on all of them. He jumped back into his seat and told the driver to turn round and retreat. The driver had only one course of action which was to circle round over the ploughed field. He had not bumped over more than six deep furrows before the engine stopped and the officer called, “Take cover”. The tanks had by now got their sights on us and we were being machine-gunned. As I jumped over the side of the truck, a bullet went through the sole of my boot. It felt as though a London bus had hit me! There was a small wood at the top of the lane and I can remember three of us lurching clumsily over the furrows towards it.
The short distance of about thirty yards seemed to take an eternity to reach it. Bullets were throwing up soil all around and I felt sure I would get one in my back. There was no fence around the wood so it was possible to dive straight into the undergrowth. Firing did not stop, so twigs and leaves were cut off, but lurching further into the wood I was able to take cover by dropping down behind a fallen tree trunk.
At last the firing stopped. I realized my apparent good fortune and thought that although we had failed to return to the cottage HQ to report the position and strength of the enemy, they would certainly know from the firing they would have heard that he was on the hill top! I continued to listen carefully although feeling exhausted. The failing light and darkness of the wood caused me to fall asleep. Soon into the night it seemed that all forms of warfare had broken loose. Endless lines of tanks were passing down the lane and no doubt along the main road. Then it seemed as if lorries were pulling artillery and carrying soldiers. Worst of all heavy planes droned over at a very low height just missing the tops of the trees. This was followed by several thumps which I thought, as if being drums of fuel being dumped.
There was an ominous silence quite suddenly. As there was no possibility of falling asleep again I remained wide-awake and listened. There came the distant sound of heavy bombing. No doubt that the planes were plastering Doullens which was about three miles away. This was an example of the blitzkrieg with tanks moving very fast and occupying a town. It was now obvious that hopes of an allied offensive to return this way and release us was absolutely impossible.
I was friendly with a calm and quiet fellow whose name was Private Albert Jupp. He happened to become the other volunteer because he was standing next to me when the officer called for two volunteers. The same officer was with us on the reconnaissance truck and had his ‘bed roll’ in the back of the truck.
Unfortunately Albert was on the side of the truck in direct line of fire from the tanks. I was on the leeward side and may have had some cover. When we ran towards the wood, I could recall only three bodies struggling over the furrows. We never saw dear Albert again – he never left the truck.
It was cold lying rough, and all went quiet again in the small hours. In an exhausted state I fell asleep. When I woke at dawn, I crept to the edge of the wood to look out and see whether the truck was still there. Remarkably there was no sign of it. The haunting question was to know what had happened to Albert. There was neither evidence of a burnt out truck nor signs of debris from a direct hit. It was obvious that the newly occupied territory would have the following infantry spread at various positions to maintain a guard over the area.
Albert Jupp’s body was never registered as missing or dead which caused great sadness for his family. His mother wrote to me, through the Red Cross, in prison camp, several times asking if any further information had been found..’
‘..With no clear thought of what action to take I went back deep into the wood and lay down again. In spite of the situation when one should have been on the alert I fell asleep. Early next morning I crept cautiously to the other side of the wood and lay down in the grass hoping I should not be seen but able to see a distance ahead. In the intense silence I heard some footsteps so I buried my head in the grass and kept quite still. If I were spotted would it be a bullet or bayonet? I was seen and someone shook my shoulder so I looked up. It was the officer who said he was relieved to find me alive. It seemed safest to turn back into the wood for cover when he told me he had found the driver and could take me to where he had left him. We found the driver and in whispers the officer said he himself had not been hit but the driver had a bad wound in his thigh. Now we were three and I learned [later] that the officer was Captain Stanion and the driver was Bert Harman.
It was as well that we had no planned action to move out of cover, as much to our surprise there was some action nearby. Machine guns crackled, convoys passed by, then more tanks and shells burst which started fires. All around us was open agricultural land so the cause of the activity remained a mystery. It began to rain, so we turned our helmets upside down in an attempt to catch some rainwater. We were very hungry and I had never given it a thought previously that I should need our emergency ration. This was sewn into a fob pocket and was to be eaten when in dire need only on the permission of an officer to eat it. The ration was a dense brown cake which apparently was full of nutrition.
Any hope of moving out of cover seemed even more remote now. The decision was made that we should stay one more day before attempting to move. We were wet, thirsty, exhausted and cheerful although there was no hope of release. Night came and Captain Stanion seemed to be fast asleep. I felt further fear as the Germans still felt dissatisfied with the security of the wood. Harman was stirring and often groaning in sleep. At about midnight, while it was pitch dark, there was a phony owl hoot and I heard footsteps approaching causing twigs to crackle.
Back in England a dear nurse friend had given me a small bottle of brandy just before we left and said I should drink it if I was in trouble or if necessary to pour it over a wound as a disinfectant. Fortunately, I had offered this to Harman that night who sipped it and appeared safely asleep at that moment. Was my heart pounding loudly enough for the German to hear it? His foot broke a twig right near my ear as my face was turned away. He must have cleared the wood and used some sort of prearranged code when he imitated a cuckoo and another man called cuckoo back.
Surrender & Captivity, 21st May 1940
Next morning I told the other two of our narrow escape when the Captain made a decision. Harman was weaker, possibly from lead poisoning, as a bullet was sticking out of his thigh muscle. We had not had anything to eat or drink for four days and Stanion decided we must leave the wood and be ready to surrender.
The captain tied a white handkerchief to a stick and we staggered across the plough field until we reached a road. At that moment a German staff car was passing. There was the usual crew of a driver, an officer and two soldiers in the back seats. The German officer got out of the car and approaching the English officer asked him for his revolver. Then inviting Capt. Stanion into the car the German ordered one of the soldiers to accompany private Harman and me to go somewhere along the road. Harman was very weak and my foot was swollen in my boot when a convoy passed and gave us a short lift.
They put us down near a clearance where some soldiers had a form of rest camp. When we arrived there were no stares of curiosity or of hatred. An aura of the precept ‘love your enemies’ seemed to prevail here. One soldier came forward with a tin of milk (like our own Carnation milk) and punctured two holes in it, and offered it to us to drink. I took a swig then passed it to Bert who sucked it dry and continued to suck air though it as though he was becoming delirious. We must have looked a sorry and unshaven sight. Another soldier came up to us and gestured for us to put our hands out. Into one he plonked a dollop of firm pearl barley and into the other a chunk of brown meat. It was very tender beef or perhaps horse flesh. I told Bert to eat slowly as we had had nothing to eat for several days.
Then I decided to take off my boot and sock which was stiff with blood. It appeared that a bullet had hit a bull’s-eye on a metal stud and both had passed through the thick leather sole and out through the toecap. It was no wonder that the blow had felt powerful! Between the wars there were many gadgets arriving in England which were marked ‘Made in Germany’. Among such pieces was a small pair of folding scissors. Also at that period men wore waistcoats and often could be found with such a pair in their waistcoat pocket. A soldier, who was passing by as I sat looking at my toe, stopped and offered some help. The top half of my toe was missing, with some odd bits of skin coloured green and yellow, also smelling putrid, hanging on. The soldier produced from under his tunic such a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut the joint more cleanly. The middle toe was bent sideways, probably dislocated, which he worked into better shape. This seemed to satisfy him as it also satisfied me. I had never seen the equivalent of one of our RAMC men while I had been with the Germans and there was no bandage. We were taken by a German truck that was going into Doullens to a hospital there. We were given some food and medical attention. I did not see Bert again and so presumed he had been taken elsewhere for an operation.
I must have walked, or hobbled, a short distance to a school where with some other British prisoners we were to receive further treatment. There appeared to be thousands of civilians and French soldiers, all of whom seemed quite old, moving about in Doullens.
To Dinant, France 26th May 1940
The following Sunday, 26th May, a limited number of British prisoners were loaded into a convoy of trucks returning towards the East. During the night there was gunfire and aerial activity but we travelled on and were put down at a school. Here I met a British Major who said that we were in Dinant, a town on the Franco-Belgian border. From the school we had to join a long column of civilians.
During these various journeys there were memorable occasions but the exact time and place that they happened is vague. Once up on high ground a column of civilians, who seemed to be forced back as refugees to their homeland, were crossing an airstrip which was abandoned after being overrun. As we were halted I happened to be opposite a lonely cottage, where men went straight to in order to beg for water. I joined them, when as apparently the only British soldier amongst them, the woman beckoned to me to enter right into her hallway. Quickly she poured me a glass of red wine and put some rhubarb jam on a slice of bread. A man arrived and invited me to stay and hide there. I replied ‘Vous êtes très gentil’ and that without preparation it would be very difficult. They would be severely punished if they were found hiding an enemy soldier. I knew the area was thick with soldiers of the army of occupation. I thanked them and wondered what might have become of me if I had stayed. I hurriedly rejoined the column. I had my boot, which I could not get on because of the splayed up sole inside, hanging by the laces and tied to my webbing belt.
An accompanying armoured vehicle passed beside me and the soldier manning the heavy machine gun which was mounted on it, beckoned to me, as I was limping along, to climb up and sit on a ledge of the body. The column was passing a large galvanised tank which was full of clean looking, clear water; it was probably used by the airfield builders. Several men moved out sideways and were dipping out water from the tank. The gunner let off a few rounds into the air and the men went back smartly into the column. Unfortunately this well intended help for me proved a sad experience, the very hot shell cases fell on my cheeks and burnt them and the explosions exactly opposite my ear caused me to be deaf for several days. When hearing returned I had a sound like hissing steam remain with me forever and recently I have become hard of hearing in that left ear; maybe it is just a coincidence.
Back in the camp at Alizay [in Normandy, early May 1940] just before we were hurried out, there had been some very wet days and completing the trench work was impossible. We had received a payday in francs and had little opportunity to spend this money.
Inevitably someone produced a pack of cards and a game was started. Pontoon had been chosen and I was invited to join in. I had never played before but had watched others play while I tried to memorise the run of the cards as the pack was never to be shuffled. With gay abandon I joined in and several times took the risk of calling for another card – twisting – and hoping to have a total nearer twenty-one than that of the banker. Ace was declared low, that is worth one point. As it happened I won a large number of francs. We had to leave soon afterwards and I did not have a chance to lose them.
At another halt a convoy of lorries made a stop. Perhaps it was a ‘convenience’ stop or a leader needed to be given a safe direction. Our lorry came to a halt opposite a small farm. I jumped out and saw a yard in which stood a few cows. There was a young girl of school age, at the most fourteen years, who was milking one of the cows. Thinking up some German words I asked the guard near us if I could get some milk. He gesticulated that I could try and so I opened the gate and approached the girl. Now I dropped back into enough French to ask if I could buy some milk. When she got up from her stool I saw a pictures I can never forget. The dear girl was unkempt, dressed in a long white dress, which was very grubby; she looked tired and worn-out. It immediately occurred to me that she was trying to run the farm by herself, as there were no adults about the place. She went into the house, always beside the cows and sheds in France, and brought out a wine bottle full of milk. As she offered it to me she said something like ‘a franc a litre’ and I was able to press into her hand the wad of notes and say ‘Tenez, c’est pour vous, pas pour les allemands’ and turned and left, without noticing her reactions, and held back a tear. I felt that this little cameo showed the vile wickedness of war as poignantly as death and destruction.
In one of the convoys in which I was picked up and taken a little further eastwards, I found myself put off again in a school. The place was packed with women and children and some men who appeared too old for military service. It was pouring with rain and I was talking to a girl, who had a broken arm, as I tried to find out more about these people. It seemed that they were all refugees who were being forced back into the area which they had left. Suddenly there was a kerfuffle in the corridor which became clear as a high ranking SS officer, also physically tall, was ushered along the place by two lesser SS officers who simply pushed everyone aside, with two more following him. They were a terrifying sight in their black leather coats shining in the rainwater.
A private soldier of the Wehrmacht pushed his way to me and with his rifle carried so as to drive me on, put me out of the door at the end of the corridor. There was a yard, obviously the school playground, with a wall at the far side. He made me stand against this wall. A few minutes later another English soldier appeared and was made to stand beside me. It was still pouring with rain and the two guards seemed as equally uneasy as we were. I asked the guards what was happening. One replied that the SS officer, in his temper, intended to execute six British soldiers. This was to be a reprisal for his young nephew who had been reported shot while making a parachute drop.
After a few more minutes another German soldier appeared and called out ‘all in’ and we were ushered back into the school. Naturally I was very relieved and thankful for this escape from death. I hoped sincerely that the four henchmen could persuade the officer to cool down and call off such an action. Even they should know the rules of war and the Geneva Convention and they could remind him that such a deed would be regarded as a war crime. The officer left the school still shouting that he wanted to find six British prisoners. As large numbers of prisoners were not yet to be found in this region and as we never heard of such a deed being carried out, we prayed it would never have happened.
To Luxembourg, May 27th 1940
On Monday 27th May we left the Dinant area for Luxembourg by railway. There were more prisoners gathered up now, and we had to get on the ‘train’, which was made up only of cattle trucks. When we stepped out onto the platform a group of ladies, who reminded me of an English Women’s Institute or Women’s Guild, gave us a warm welcome. They were very kind and as we passed by in file, they gave us some very tasty hot soup in rather large white bowls, which were apparently their own property. After being given time to drink this soup (the Germans waited patiently because they had not been able to feed us) the bowls were collected at the other end of the platform. We were herded back into the trucks, which had been taken from the French who had in turn kept them since the Great War. The load for eight horses or forty men was still printed on them. Although we were only about twelve men to a truck, the rivet heads in the floor made sitting or lying down quite painful.
To Koblenz, Germany
The next stop was Koblenz. There we left the wagons and walked to a military hospital, where again we had some good bean soup. There was a Red Cross assistant and a French doctor who were attending to some very bad wounds. I received a fresh dressing but still needed to carry my boot, as so far there had been no cobbler to hammer down the spikes of leather. We stayed in a military barracks up on a first floor, apparently waiting for a further move into Germany. Much to our surprise and most unexpectedly we received three meals each day.
From this higher position we could look down and out over a very busy and manifold set of train lines, which we assumed to form a ‘Sammelpunkt’ or marshalling yard. Just before the war I had been with a party of boys to the Ford car production works at Dagenham. Here we could see molten iron being poured and cast to make the heavy front wheels for tractors, which were also built there. When after passing modern assembly lines the cars were complete and were run down a ramp and appeared to go in one direction for home consumption and the other for export.
As we looked across the railway lines here to the far side a great despondency settled on us. On the furthest line was a row of flat wagons. There seemed to be no light locomotive to move these wagons, yet by some ingenious method, probably a hydraulic ram, the wagons moved on one wagon length. At very short intervals a tank arrived at the mouth of a building and again some arrangement turned the tank sideways and placed it on the flat wagon which moved synchronised along the line ready with the next wagon and tank to appear. In our experience it seemed that Germany had enough tanks already to conquer Europe and to add more from this assembly plant like hot cakes coming from a baker’s oven was the cause of our despondency. We received good food here and it appeared that there was still plenty of food available in Germany; this went lower and lower as the months passed by.
To Limburg an der Lahn, 31st May 1940
On Friday 31st May we left for the cattle wagons again and passed along a platform to reach them. Many more prisoners had appeared and all groups were accompanied by guards, who were privates in the Wehrmacht, and their job was to see that nobody escaped. A group of schoolgirls had been lined up and their job was to spit at us! We had to en-train, or rather en-horse wagon, in comfortable numbers and then the sliding door was slammed and securely locked. The journey was relatively short, about forty kilometres, but with many curves on the way, which emphasized the presence of rivet heads in the floor.
POW Transit Camp at Limburg, June 1940
The camp where we left the wagons was at Limburg an der Lahn. It was a new camp and still being developed. This was our first experience of being in a barbed wire enclosure where more wooden huts were being built as barracks.
It was a bright day when we arrived and down the hill there was the view of the river with sails on small boats to be seen. A railway line passed nearby on which only slow locomotives ran and had that depressing sound of a bell dangling as it moved by. There was medical attention, enough food and in the same room as a group of English private soldiers were some French and Polish men. As we were at this camp for nearly a week, we felt bored, but found some playing cards and a makeshift draughts board gave us some entertainment.
One day a British private was in great pain in his stomach in such a way as reminded me of my own appendicitis symptoms and operation about two years earlier. I called a guard and said I considered the man was suffering from appendicitis, the German for which I had learned, during my own illness. The man was taken away and since he did not return there could have been some serious illness to cause this pain.
17th June 1940
On Monday 17th June there was another event which occurred in our tiresome days. We were made to parade in correct military fashion, in hot sunshine, for a long time while waiting for some obviously important event. At last a group of French officers were made to parade before us, then some German officers, who made an attempt at producing a miniature pageant, accompanied by a regimentally dressed bugler. He sounded some formal calls and then a herald of bad news stepped forward and declared in English, then French followed by Polish that France had capitulated.
We were dismissed and returned to our barracks. I developed a severe headache, then the whole place was swimming and I wanted to cover my eyes and not move. Apparently a bowl of sauerkraut soup had been issued and a kindly friend must have taken one for me. I can only recall saying, “Thanks, you eat it” and feeling even more sick. Later I asked for help to get me, with the aid of an arm, to the latrine. This miserable condition lasted about three days and I imagined it was sunstroke. Of course I was so grateful to have been kept in this compound, as I could not have walked away, and since there was no visible sign of injury the German interpretation is ‘malingerer’ and a bayonet prod. An opportunity to show a high temperature and fever would have been accepted but needed a medical orderly to be present.
We still hung on in this camp and I met a French schoolteacher when we each tried to improve the other’s foreign language. My toe was dressed here and it seemed to be drying up as there was no demand to hobble about. All this time I longed for a toothbrush and razor. Strangely, it happened that the camp was visited by a Swiss doctor who was able to give us both a toothbrush and a razor, and also declared that we needed ‘cleansing’. Since we had not become lousy with lice it meant we were able to have a hot bath. I considered myself very fortunate to have recovered well enough to benefit from this treat, although I was still unsteady.
The men were already mumbling that life would be more tolerable if only we could write home or receive mail. This attitude seemed to show a sign of homesickness even at this early stage of isolation. We had some good food, mostly soup and bread. The number of prisoners in the area was still very small, so there appeared to be food enough to feed us well. But as the German stocks dwindled and the number of prisoners leapt with the very large number arriving from such arenas as Dunkirk the whole story changed.
To Lamsdorf, 21st June 1940
On Friday 21st June, the rumour that we would soon leave this Limburg camp became a reality. By now more British prisoners had arrived; some were from my battalion and had come from Doullens. I asked them how they had fared in the rearguard notion. It was a dismal story since tanks had arrived backed up by infantry. The defence was bravely carried out, but riflemen alone made little impression and many men were killed or wounded. After dinner the British soldiers only were ordered to fall in. We made the best show possible in threes and formed a column of about forty men. I was put in the centre row to mask my hobble and we set off at marching pace, back to the station at Limburg. It was not a great distance but shortly before we were there my strength, through trying to hobble at marching speed, let me down.
I sank to the ground and a guard raced up, pointed his rifle with a fixed bayonet at me, possibly thinking I was refusing to go on. As in such occasions the camaraderie of the men around me quickly took shape as they carried me by an arm and a leg each for the rest of the way to the station platform. I thanked them but it seemed quite superfluous as they moved away unconcerned. Later the catch phrase for such action was ‘Kein Problem’.
Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, June 23rd 1940
I pulled myself together and climbed into the train, which again proved to be made up of several horse wagons, and the very long ride on rivet heads took us to Lamsdorf, on the German-Polish border [now Lambinowice in Poland].
The journey was about 800km, our route was not direct and seemed much longer to us. This small station is near the Polish border town of Beuthen which is now renamed Bytom. At times the guards unlocked the door and rolled it back when we were given water. In some very quiet countryside we were allowed a comfort stop but always with guards standing so that no one could have attempted to escape. We rolled on for two days and nights and by this time our bottoms were quite tender!
Through a grill, which allowed us some air, I looked out from time to time on the landscape which changed over such a long distance. There were very large pinewoods, an extremely large lake, and later rather more level agricultural land. The train passed through Leipzig and shortly upwards over a bridge which was high up over a street in Dresden. There was next a large marshalling yard of train lines probably at Gleiwitz [now Gleiwice]. The train lumbered on at no great pace and arrived at Lamsdorf early on the Sunday morning of June 23rd. My toe was still open and leaking when we walked about half a mile to a large camp, still being developed, known as Stalag VIII B.
The walking had caused my toe to open up again, but concerning this I was later fortunate. We were put in an established barracks as accommodation until further new huts in wood were finished. From these I found an off cut of wood about five inches long and three inches wide. With a sharp piece of stone, and patience, I was able to make a groove which would hold a length of old string in place and so make the wood rather like a sandal. This was a wonderful help as now I could rest my foot flat. We were given some food and soup. I noticed some of my battalion of Q.O.R.W.K men around and wondered how they had arrived here first. At many places between the Belgian border and Doullens brave young men, regardless of their own lives stayed to fight an advancing wall of steel. They had only their old rifles, twenty rounds of ammunition at most, an ineffective anti-tank rifle and a Bren gun per platoon. These stands, which cost many lives allowed thousands of men, who were given the order to retreat to do so, back to Dunkirk.
The information I had gleaned was from a soldier in B Company who was at Doullens on the day that I went on reconnaissance. Not very ready to talk, he simply said that they put up the best resistance they could but many men were killed and the tanks won. Years later I visited the town cemetery at Doullens and found three graves of men from B Company, including one bearing the army number next to mine. There were others in a cemetery which I could not find..’
‘..We entered Lamsdorf through double gates over which was plaited an arch of barbed wire. The flat land of the camp was well defined by strong wooden posts supporting well laced barbed wire at least seven feet high. The weather was extremely hot and we needed to stand in queues to receive our ration of boiled potatoes, in their jackets and gritty, and soup. We were put in new barracks and registered as prisoners of war. My number was 16349 and each man had two identity discs to be worn together with our British pair.
The hot weather broke and it rained heavily. We were allowed to stay in the barracks and were given a post card, which we could send home. From this card our parents could learn our P.O.W number and Stalag identity. It was September before they received these cards, obviously to their great relief and it was not until March 16th 1941 that I received mail from them. It was ten months since I had my last letter, which was in France, and this long delay gave me very anxious moments.
My toe was dressed again and later we had our photographs taken. Next day we went to be deloused and return to the old barracks, followed the next day back to the new! A peculiar memory remains with me of a passing airman giving me a chocolate biscuit, which was a great treat.
It is difficult to over emphasize the one great maxim in the new German state which was ‘Arbeit’ or work. Already this was clear that any man who was fit to work was not going to be fed and housed any longer without working.
Standing apart from other prisoners, I was with a small group of men who needed medical treatment. Since I had not seen a sign of any service to compare with our RAMC I was curious to know if and where treatment would be given. I was standing near four friends who had been through a most extraordinary experience. They had been captured by a young S.S soldier who made them walk in single file in front of him. Then nervously he called them to halt, drew his revolver and aimed a single shot at each of them. The shot was intended to be fatal and through the throat. He ran off thinking that he had killed them. I saw their wounds, and marvelled at their escape. The first had a bullet wound through his neck, which left a suppurating hole just to one side of his spine, while all the other vital parts internally, seemed not to have been injured. The second had a bullet through his mouth which blew a back tooth our through his cheek. The third had a bullet sticking out through his triceps, which made his arm weak, and he was feeling unwell probably from lead poisoning. The fourth man was uninjured and determined to accompany his friends to wherever they would be taken for treatment. I hope they all survived.
A doctor started to examine groups of men to find if they were fit for work. These men were then made up into working parties to go out to various jobs. Some were due to go to work in coal mines further east on the Polish border while others were going to work ‘on top’ which meant something like a forestry job. The doctor saw my toe and excluded me from any working party.
Perhaps because we became fewer the rations seemed larger and in the evening we were given a piece of egg omelette, some bread and an oxo-like drink. The airman passed again and gave me four bulls-eye sweets. His kit bag must have held some unusual gear and I must have looked quite pathetic while carrying my boot and limping. He left for an R.A.F camp two days later.
Working parties were still being formed, but not on days of very wet weather. The men who remained behind soon found entertainment by starting community singing, playing cards or draughts on improved boards.
By Sunday 14th July 1940 an open air church service was set up which was well attended and popular hymns sung loudly. It was a habit to form up and march round the bounds of the camp to keep fit. I tried but my toe broke open and I went to the place where arms and legs exercises were done. Several books were being passed round and even if the title was not of your choice you were pleased to read them.
On Monday June 24th 1940 I noted in my diary that I met a fellow Old Dunstonian named Sheppard, I met him again and he offered me a rub of his blacking. This made me realize that some P.O.W’s had grabbed their kit bags or been caught while wearing them especially as all I had was what I stood up in. With this offer I pulled my boot over my toe, which had a dressing on it, for the first time. A mild toecap polish appeared. I put my gaiters on and as I had shaved that morning, Sunday, I walked hesitantly to the church service; trivia perhaps but important in the circumstances. The authorities were offering four marks ‘Lager geld’ camp money for 100 french francs. I found enough francs to exchange and buy a hand towel. Actually to say I had only what I stood up in was true but also the good fortune to have in one tunic pocket a New Testament given to me after a talk from a senior member of the Church Army. In the other was a thin but precious diary, which I was able to keep though searched many times. The last article was a good Conway Stewart Fountain pen, which had been given me by a cousin as a twenty first birthday present. This I always managed to keep when being searched by holding it behind my lapel and seeming to help the searcher by holding my tunic wide open. It was the old lever and bladder type refill and I seemed to obtain some ink in a time of need.
One evening an outbreak of diarrhoea went through the camp like a bush fire. This meant we were up all night and making up to twenty-five visits to the latrine. Since if you tried to return to your barrack, soon you had to leave again, it was better to join the column walking round the toilet block and hope to pop in and find one of the seven holes free. Many books were torn up and some lucky men happened to hold a copy of ‘The Lamp’ which was a newspaper from Stalag VIII B. Next day there was a mass parade and everybody given an injection, although as in England, we had experienced use of one syringe and needle for several men. The shock came when the place was to be the breast. The orderly passed along the line like a dart player aiming for double top! We never knew what the injection was for.
In camp we were allowed to write a post card or a lettercard every week. It was September and still no mail from home. I wanted to receive news that my parents had been given my P.O.W number and had received some reassuring news from me. A few Red Cross food parcels had arrived and to share them up presented a great difficulty. I was offered a bar of Cadbury chocolate and was well satisfied.
To me these fellows who offered to interpret did not seem to have had learned a foreign language at school, but were trying their luck on some basic phrases connected with their work, in order to obtain the chance to tag along with a party. We were receiving some good pea soup, with pearl barley, a thick slice of bread and always queued up for three potatoes boiled in their gritty skins. The odd occasion when some extra food was given us, for example a small square of cheese, makes one think there was still adequate food for the German population. Five years later, food was stringently rationed and finally there was hardly anything at all.
I watched some working parties being formed and noticed that there was always an interpreter offering to go with the group, although the standard was not very high.
Transfer to Beuthen, Silesia (E72 Arbeitskommando)
Now that my toe had a hard skin formed on it I was declared fit for work. I told the officer who rounded up the groups that I had studied German in school. Next morning I was called as Dolmetscher, or interpreter, to accompany a group of 100 men who were going out as a mining party.
We assembled and marched to Lamsdorf Station and travelled by train via Oppelm [Opole] to Beuthen. It was quite a mile march to the billet, which was a disused beer hall in a green patch (this billet was at Schomberg). On our way we passed the pit entrance and were also intrigued by a tram-like train running alongside the road. The mine was the Hohenzollern Grube. We were received by civilians, given some food and settled in bunks. There were thirty beds each with three bunks in the hall and the rest up on a stage.
Next day we went to the pit head, having been called at 6 am and given a breakfast, to meet civilians and more guards at 10 am. I was correct in thinking this was too kindly. How soon this ambiance changed! We were taken to a clear patch of cobblestones and there in a great heap was the pit gear and clothing. It reminded us of the way we received the army ‘togs’ back in England. We stood roughly in a circle around the pit when an officer went out to the pile and called to one soldier to come over to him. Quite loudly he said “Nehm die Schuhe” (pick up some shoes) in German to the boy. The soldier did not understand. He thought he said, “Name the shoes!” He tried to act correctly by saying ‘boots’. The officer thumped him and repeated ‘Nehm die Schuhe’ and the boy shouted, “Clogs!” Thump again. I called from the ringside ‘He says take a pair of boots’. Immediately a guard rushed at me with his bayonet fixed, thinking possibly I was aiding and abetting the refuser who had not picked up a pair of boots. I cried ‘Dolmetscher!’ the guard eased off and the soldier had chosen a pair of boots.
The group moved to pick up a leather helmet and a very light coat and trousers in dark, striped material for wearing in the pit. The whole distribution seemed now to have come to a satisfactory conclusion. Meanwhile someone, possibly watching the whole episode from an office window saw the apparent refusal about the boots, suspected insurrection and called the Beuthen garrison for help. Peace had been restored when a tank rumbled across the cobbles. We were whisked away and probably marched back to the barracks. One guard then wanted to write occupation against each man’s name. My job to translate these various trades stretched my vocabulary. Although milkman seems simple it is not easily understood to where there are no milk carts. Another was from the man who worked at the Mint. After a little pantomime to act, with the aid of a coin his job, it was decided, was a ‘münz prager’ or money presser. Another quite honest fellow said he had never had a job and was a plutocrat. Such a statement went right against the regime and I persuaded him to say Bauer, a vague farm worker. The last unique job was that of Jock Brebner. He was a quiet, likeable fellow who was a shepherd so far from Scotland that being forced down a coal mine after his open-air life must have been a terrible experience.
The next assembly was to announce the small groups, which would be working with different Germans in various places in the pit. These groups were known as ‘Abteilungs’ these were numbered 1 -19 and then further grouped into shifts. I had to accompany each shift to the mine. A guard would wake me early to get the first shift off at 6 a.m. To return to the billet, there was a tiled washroom on a lower level with a central drain grill. About five washbasins provided good washing facilities and earlier we had been given a razor and toothbrush from the Red Cross. A few yards down the grass of the former ‘bier garten’ a new latrine had been built with a five-hole bench over an open cesspit. Behind this and in several other places on the perimeter of the garden there was substantial barbed wire fencing.
The weather was bad; minus 14C with heavy snow falls. This weather caused trouble. We were asked for a group of about six men who were needed to go snow shovelling to clear the internal pit line, which lead out to the main line. Naturally there were no volunteers; no one was ready to go out to do more work after a shift in the pit. This meant the usual fixed bayonet and the cry “los, los” or “move”. Several men made up an acceptable group who had to walk back to the pit and be given shovels to clear a length of railway line. This was really hard labour! Their friends kept the fire in the iron stove in the corner of the hall as warm as possible and heated up some of the ‘coffee’ which was carried up daily in a large insulated ‘Kubel’ or a deep cylinder – like bucket. I had not seen anything like this in England but these Kubels were of great use in the camp. They carried the soup, which was ladled out, the boiled potatoes and the coffee. Snow had fallen from time to time and when deep enough to cause delay on the rail tracks then the un-likeable job of finding men to go back to snow shovelling was a bitter task. I went with one group and what an experience I witnessed. Jock Brebner was in the group and he suddenly cast off this shy quietness and told the group to stand away from the rails. He then said, “Do not tread on the snow you are going to move” and demonstrated how to cube out with the shovel, a load which could be easily picked up and thrown clear. Jock had obviously had much practice in Scotland.
Several incidents occurred about this time. Our original 100 strong party had dwindled by about 30 men who went to hospital or who returned sick to Lamsdorf. This number was soon made up when 20 men arrived to work as a forestry party. They had their own barrack room, a sergeant in charge and their own party number, E411. The next day I was called to the guardroom where I was told a civilian was to take me to another neighbouring pit. This was to try and sort out some trouble which the Dolmetscher there was unable to do. We travelled in a VW beetle car and I saw a new corner of this area. Roads were straight and well maintained, then we turned and passed through a woodland track which seemed to have no traffic. The driver said nothing but did move his revolver into a readily accessible position and I became quite alarmed. We did, however arrive at a road again and reached the barracks of E51 [Klusberg mine]. Some trivial misunderstanding was soon cleared up and I was returned to our won barracks.
All thoughts turned to the mail. It was the end of January 1941 and a few letters had been redirected from Lamsdorf. We put our heads together to try and find out why these letters had arrived for the few and nothing for the rest. We soon learned that the few had been registered while still in France and soon after capture.
It was two months later that many of us were first registered as we settled in Lamsdorf. This two month advance on us meant that their cards had arrived home and parents were starting to send the permitted clothes parcels. During the week ending 2nd of February 1941 about 80 letters arrived, which I sorted out into shifts, but found none for myself. As a side thought, I noticed I had been one year in the army, at present there were about a dozen of us who had not yet received any mail. It was said the there were 70,000 letters in Lamsdorf still waiting to be censored! Finally there were only three of us who had not received any mail. We tried to find a reason and the only one we could think of was too sad and too great a co-incidence to be true. This was that we all lived in nearby areas and that each had been bombed.
I was still working on why I hadn’t received mail. It was very worrying not to have had any contact with home for nine months. The possible answer came to me in a sort of mental flashback. These three men and myself were hurriedly added to the main party to make up the round 100 men. Possibly we were not on the roll call. I asked the Schreiber (clerk) on guard who did part time company clerk work to write to Lamsdorf to check my suggestion.
There was an outbreak of sore throats, for which we were given a peroxide gargle. Fortunately the whole outbreak cleared up. Since nothing special seemed to be happening I summed up some things rather trivial. On Monday 12th January 1941 I had been in the army a year and in Germany for eight months, and no mail was proving the greatest hardship. I wrote in my diary “sometimes a small amount of snow melts but it is snowing again and last week the temperature dropped to minus 23C. We hope for a sudden improvement so that there will be no need to have snow cleaning parties again.
There was a rumour here that German prisoners who have been sent to Canada are being ill treated; of course we hoped this was not true. Later a guard told me he had received mail from a nephew a P.O.W in Canada and was reassured that the treatment was lenient. The members of E411 party had been in Leipzig and bought or obtained a large number of books, which were in turn being passed over to us. A student had received them and lent to me one entitled Chemistry Triumphant, which was an American production by W.J Hale. Germany was given a fair share of honours for the research and advance in chemistry during the past forty years. A lead in synthetics was part of her war effort and cracking coal was providing much needed material. It appeared to us to vary from butter to a fabric!
Forty more letters had arrived and appeared to be for the already fortunate fellows. The men had just been paid by the pit and immediately schools of cards were formed to make their own entertainment. During this slack time I listened to a soldier with a unique army history.
He was Sergeant Whitehead, a Yorkshireman, and by far the oldest man in the camp. He had been a boxer representing his regiment and was still very fit. There were many earlier experiences to be told but at the moment he told us why he was so ‘gummy’. He had got back to Dunkirk and found the chance to wade out to a small boat. He realized he had left his false teeth in his overcoat pocket and thought he knew roughly where the coat was. So he waded back to the sands looking for the coat. He had no luck so turned to go back to the boat, which unfortunately had set off. Another opportunity never came again and so he was able to amuse us on camp now with the strangest of facial shapes. He had been in action against a Russian force possibly the Bolshevics towards the end of the Great War, for which a medal had been struck. Now that Russia was firmly allied to Britain he was told to return his medal! He could relate much more and had an endless store of jokes mostly for telling strictly in the barrack room. We had had a loud speaker set up in the hall so that the English version of the German news could be given. The men knew there was much exaggeration, but nevertheless were quite worried. The reports said we were losing much shipping by the attacks of ‘U’ boats including a convoy passing in the English Channel. It was alleged that both HMS Illustrious and Southampton had been attacked.
In a somewhat monotonous daily routine there were some incidents which were of interest. One day three men, myself and a guard travelled only a few stations away and we collected a number of pairs of clogs. They were new and probably taken from Holland. The fortunate men who had them learnt to walk in them, only about the barracks and said they felt warm and dry. Another surprise was for me and several men to go again a few stations away and collect fifteen new battle dress trousers and jackets. When these were distributed I was lucky to get one and felt fine as I put them on. Then I experienced a sentiment for a moment in discarding the old outfit, which had seen such history of wants.
Another situation worth recording was brought to our notice in a negative way. When we first arrived at the ‘Biergarten’ hall we were given the extra pleasure of white sheets. Some months later these were collected and laundered. There was also a paillasse stuffed with straw. As time went by the sheets were collected again but never returned. The straw in the paillasses became reduced to short strands and dust so these were collected and never returned. This meant we were sleeping on the bare bed boards. It was an art to so arrange the two blankets issued around your body rather like a cocoon in order to get the maximum warmth from them. The army tunic on top gave some extra warmth.
Toward the end of our stay in this barrack the under officer, Weise, showed signs of lacking proper military conduct. He was getting a little drunk and later very much so. Some nights he would wander into the hall and rouse the sleeping shift. On one occasion he wandered in, staggered up the steps and came to my bed. I had to get out and then he announced loudly so that the whole shift could hear, as he drew his revolver and slammed the bevel in my ribs, that he would shoot me if anybody escaped. Because of his drunken state I was worried lest his control lapsed and there would be a fatal accident. He seemed to be come satisfied, replaced his revolver and staggered back down the steps and back to the guardroom. Naturally the guards said they were ashamed of such behaviour. By chance an officer visited the group and we reported the U/off as being drunk and no doubt the guards corroborated this, because U/off Weise disappeared smartly. One disgusted guard said, with some wishful thinking, that Weise was on his way to the Russian front!
The huts in which we were sleeping were typical in design as many in England. These were two large double doors as a main entrance, but these were never unlocked. About midway along the side wall there were two more smaller doors. These lead out onto a small concrete apron and six shallow steps which were needed to accommodate the sloping grassland of the bier garten. Here a most unfortunate incident happened. Guardsman Baggley hurried through these open doors on his way to the latrine and brushed lightly against a guard who was standing on the edge of the top step; a most unusual position for a guard. This sort of incident happens very quickly and there were no witnesses when the guard stumbled down the steps. Some men who looked out when they heard the noise thought the guard was not injured. However he went to the guardroom and reported that he had been pushed down the steps. Baggley was put under arrest by having his boots taken from him. I had to go to the guardroom and explain what had happened. All I could say was that it was an accident and the guard had been only lightly touched. I could only add that every prisoner knew that to push a guard down the steps was a foolishness that would bring heavy punishment with it. An office called the next day to hear from me but I could report only the same statement. The guardsman was sent back to Lamsdorf by train accompanied by a guard and sadly we lost all contact with him.
Those men who were receiving letters and had parents living in or near London were able to let us know that they were being heavily bombed. When at last I did get some letters this was true for my parents who had been living in the Catford suburb told me they had moved about six miles to a more rural place, West Wickham.
There were other targets for bombing raids, the port of Liverpool being one of them. In the top bunk of the bed next to mine there was a fellow, I think he was called Senior, who lived in Liverpool. By chance he had been registered with a P.O.W. number very early on, and was one of the fortunate fellows who had been receiving mail. His wife and their baby daughter were still in Liverpool so he wrote a letter card home suggesting that she should leave as soon as possible. He told her to go to the quiet, rural and non-industrial county of Devonshire in the South West of England. She should go to the county town of Exeter, ask an estate agent to find her a cottage or get lodgings in a quiet village. She stayed in Exeter overnight to wait for a reply. I heard Senior weeping quietly and with great difficulty managed to get him to speak. He said that he had killed his wife and baby because Exeter had been bombed that night and both had been killed! The incident was tragic enough but the emotions and feeling of uselessness together with his anguish from guilt also served to make it almost impossible to comfort him.
The tragedy still played on his mind because a few days later he said that he was going to kill a German. This was the last thing he dared to say. We reasoned with him asking whether he wanted to kill many of us also. This made him think again when we had him recall the severity of the German ‘Vergeltung’ or ‘pay back’, which is the revenge they demand. There were already good examples of this revenge and many more even harsher to follow. We seemed to be successful in getting the idea out of his head as he calmed down considerably. Of course he still had to go to work as the Germans would never have considered his anguish as an illness making one unfit for work.
In the winter months we had trouble in the latrine. Temperatures were very cold and the cesspit froze over. As time went by faeces froze very quickly and started to form a shallow heap. Soon there were five cones, which had built up to a dangerous height. A guard had to go to the village and acquire a stout length of timber. This we used to leverage over the cones and roll them to the back of the cesspit. When it was hot summer the number of flies was enormous. We tried bringing home only partly exhausted carbide from the lamps and throwing this over the surface of the pit and were surprised that the flies seemed still as numerous.
With regard to post, I, with about ten men, was still waiting for some letters. It was now eight months since I had my last letter and that was in France. These were really worrying times during that period when so much misfortune could have happened to the family, since the area around had been heavily bombed. I had written many pages of sentiment and speculation as to what was happening after the bad news at the bombing of London. Red Cross food parcels had been delivered at intervals and clothing parcels arrived containing mostly winter wear. It was now ten months since I had any mail but at last on Tuesday March 18th 1941 I had three letters! One was from mother and naturally I opened that first. It brought good news and I was beside myself with joy and relief. On Wednesday, the very next day, there were twenty-one more waiting for me in the guardroom; on Friday a further two. It was revealed later that these letters, although correctly addressed, had been to four different Lagers. There was a revision of the post and I was correctly located here in Schomberg. Some more snow fell but I was so engrossed in many hours of reading letters, I did not let it worry me. There was another batch of Khaki uniforms arrived meaning that nearly all the men had a newer look by now and the march to and from the pit looked more impressive.
Early in the year of 1942 there were great upheavals in our lives. We had to quit the Bier Halle and go down to some wooden billets, which had been built in the confines of the pit. The transfer meant virtually a day off and there were further softeners to the change. Firstly there was a Red Cross food parcel issued. Then as it was very hot we were walked a short distance to the Baggerfeld Teich. This was an extensive lake of clear water made by the extracting of clay, which was baked and used as bricks to build in the pit. The open-air swim was most welcome and reminded us of happier times at home.
During one of my excursions through the town of Beuthen to the military hospital, ‘Lazarett Schaley’ while accompanying the walking sick, I had a unique experience. The doctor who attended our men was extremely co-operative. Little by little we learned from him that he had been on the Russian front, seen atrocities and wanted a less intense time here even hinting the foolishness of being gulled by Nazism. While he was tending our men I was beckoned at an opportune moment by the Reverend Mother to follow her. The nurses were Sisters of Mercy and I passed two who were scrubbing out the operating theatre; then several sitting at a long bench table looking through microscopes which seemed to be the work of a path lab and on with the Mother to a flight of stairs. This area was clean and polished as she opened a door and led me into the balcony of a dimly lit chapel. Here in isolation and obvious safety she spoke to me in good English. She said that the war was going in our favour because she listened to the English news. A short prayer and she left but not until my heavy army boots had kicked a pew and a hollow blow sounded through the chapel. I hoped there was nobody about who would think that did not sound like nuns soft shoes.
There were other medical experiences inside the camp. On one occasion the whole number of men were without exception, laid low with diarrhoea. The Germans took action not only for the benefit of the prisoners but I felt sure in order to safe guard their civil population. Every man received a small tube and had to give a faecal specimen. The final result showed there was a man who was not affected but was a carrier. He was not a robust man and soon taken away in small white van.
On another occasion each man’s name was ticked off with absolute accuracy to ensure that not one was missed. We never found out what the injection was to inoculate us against but there was a surprise. As in the British army a large syringe with a needle was used for many men before being changed (compare today’s individual treatment). Here the needle was injected in the breast! Men lined up torso bare and a German medical orderly passed along the line reminding me of a dart thrower trying for a double top. Only one man reported, out of about two hundred, that his breast was swollen and red. Thankfully he soon returned to normal.
Many parties small and large kept arriving to swell our numbers to over 200. The barrack rooms were soon filled up but the basic needs were not improved. The latrine and washhouse was inadequate and the dump for empty food tins was just outside the wire, which attracted vermin. There were several under officers who came to take command of the new site but seemed to stay for only a short while. I had difficulty in dealing with them and especially with one. He fancied himself and said he was in place of an officer who was entitled to a salute by private soldiers. It was arranged and agreed to, by the night shift who passed his guardroom. There was also a touch of blackmail by his saying we would then receive our Red Cross parcels soon after 2 o’clock. It was also fixed that the sergeant who was with the party would give the eyes right command in the form of a most abusive shout. The under officer beamed with great satisfaction and so did we when we were given the parcels after an abusive display. Several camp commandants came for short periods and then disappeared until one day a most objectionable one arrived and stayed for the rest of the life of the camp.
John the Bastard
My diary stops abruptly at this point. Up till now I think I had not written anything that shows any objectionable material. I had always hoped that if the diary were confiscated and then censored that it would be returned to me. Had I written up the terrible scenes which occurred during the next two years it would have been burnt. The evidence of the turmoil and incidents of ill treatment of prisoners at working party E72 are now recorded in detail in the National Archives at Kew. The offending German was Unter Feldwebel Arthur Engelkircher 5/398 Landeschutfen, Gleiwitz, also known as John the Bastard. We learned later that he was notorious for his brutal treatment of prisoners.
During our years in E72 four prisoners had died and were buried at the cemetery in Schomberg, near Beuthen. I have a photograph of their graves. A least one man, Guardsman David Blythin had been shot by Engelkircher on March 23rd 1943. He and another man had protested about the dangerous conditions in the mine. Engelkircher became involved. There was a confrontation and he shot Blythin and the other man, Pte. Bromley was injured. [this war crime had also been witnessed by my father Eric West]
Another man, Lance-Corporal Frank Jarvis who was believed to have been shot by Engelkircher on September 17th 1941 but no record is entered in the National Archive. Frank Jarvis was buried in Schomberg. No details of the shooting by U/off Engelkircher can be recalled and no record is entered in the National Archives at Kew. Details are missing from my diary as I thought it prudent not to write in detail an event which could give reason for it to be confiscated if ever it were found and read.
British E72 POWs conduct a burial ceremony at Schomberg
There is a very clear photograph of C.S.M Raw and me at the head of the grave, which shows the wreaths with some flowers which were paid for by our ‘pit’ money. Broad paper bands bear inscriptions to relate to his parents and fellow prisoners. There was also a tribute from the Wehrmacht! A number of men who were not on shift had marched to and from the cemetery. The following day I had to return to the graveside, with a guard, in order to tidy up the area and improve the mound. Already a Polish dislike of their enemy showed when the paper ribbon bearing the insignia of the Wehrmacht had been torn off. Although I was joyful inside me I tried not to notice the missing ribbon.
There was another tragedy, which I did not write in my diary. A prisoner named George Holyhead was believed to have been shot by Engelkircher on 6th February 1944. I went later that day to the u/off office by being let out of the camp to his hut, which was opposite the main gate. The men and I wanted to know more detail so I started speaking to Engelkircher by reporting a man was missing. Before I could ask more he barked out “You do not come and tell me that when a man has escaped, get out”. He calmed down next day and a funeral was arranged. A party of men went to the burial service and grave, beside the earlier losses. All three had oak wooden crosses later at the head of the graves. There is a clear photograph of them taken in the churchyard of Shomberg Church, a short mile from the camp, but in Polish and sympathetic territory. Engelkircher never attended any of the funerals.
Only two months after the death of George Holyhead and just two months before ‘D’ Day. A New Zealander Pte Frank Wallace died of natural causes on April 4th 1944 and was buried with his comrades in Schomberg cemetery.
Frank Wallace’s grave at Schomberg April 1944
On a bright morning Engelkircher walked to the sawmill work place of Kommando E411. He found the men were in the coffee break hut taking their legitimate ten-minute rest. He dashed up several steps to the room and went in screaming “Raus!” or “All out” adding derogatory abuse most politely translated as ‘you lazy bunch of layabouts’. The men tumbled down the steps and heard a shot as John shot the last one in the back. These details were vividly told us back in the camp but the affair was to do with E411. I did not put the name of the man in my diary and unfortunately I have not been able to track a record or name. [This may be a mis-recording of events as It was Blythin who was shot in this incident, and it is recorded at The National Archives.]
Sergeant Bill Bailey was the N.C.O. in charge of E411 and so made all the reports to Lamsdorf, I had little to do with the funeral until I accompanied his men to the burial service in Schomberg cemetery.
Mistreatment of POWs
There were further incidents all of which seemed to be caused through lack of understanding and language difficulty. Some of the older men had learned enough to be able to keep the peace but many men were coming from later theatres of war, such as North Africa, and soon sent out on a working party without knowing a word of German. Five ‘Steigers’ or men responsible for a mine section – our miners knew them as ‘gaffers’ – had belted some men and caused wounds. One man who was a dedicated Nazi and middle aged with an Iron Cross from service in WWI, was fined 100 marks then seemed to cool down. Further complaints were investigated back in England after the war with witnesses called and cases judged by C. Buckley, Captain Legal Staff, Military Department, and Office of the Judge Advocate General, London. These convictions were submitted to the Polish Government but nothing more is recorded.
One observer noticed that there was no fire precaution, which of course was fundamental with so many wooden barracks close together. As a result a fire hydrant was set up inside the wire complete with a length of coiled hose.
One fine morning Engelkircher thought he would try the working efficiency of the new plant. He uncoiled the hose, made the necessary connection and told the guard to turn on. Most windows were open on such an evening and the miserable bastard could not resist directing the hose as far as it would reach through these windows. Naturally bedding was well wetted, men complained, nothing could be done and Engelkircher walked out of the compound leaving guards to try and recoil the hose.
Apart from my going out to the company office to translate complaints and incidents there was a great deal of time spent on collecting mail and sorting the large amount that was now arriving. Clothing parcels were coming in regularly. These appear to have been packed by Red Cross volunteers. T he cube-like shape was securely tied with the same type of coarse string, as were the food parcels. There must have been advice and vetting, as the contents were very similar. Unfortunately these contents had to be written out on a tear-off sheet about the size of a post card in German. The list was restricted it seemed to gloves, socks, balaclava, pyjamas and such in winter.
Sometimes a pair of soft half worn shoes were included and the men looked at them as old friends and a change from clogs, pit boots and ungiving boots. The sheet was headed Die Enpfangsbescheinigung or acknowledgement of receipt. After being opened in the presence of a guard, the prisoner’s number filled in and signed by a guard.
On two occasions, we were visited by Church of England padres (one was a Cornishman). But both held Holy Communion Services when the number of men attending was very satisfactory. The first was held on 6th. 12. 42 and the second 25.4.44.
Heavy bombers were now able to reach this part of Europe as they came from newly acquired bases. As a result an air raid shelter was deemed necessary. The top workers were set the task of digging out a large rectangular pit and throwing the earth well clear. Even more of our precious space was disappearing.
I did not see the final stages of roofing, but it was probably timber joists, which were then covered by the thrown out earth. There was a sloping entrance and the dark hole seemed to offer less protection than a barrack room. There was only one alarm when everybody left in the camp was forced into this pit and a guard stood by the entrance. I felt that this was not really for our benefit but possibly any man outside could shine a light, or a hit near the wire could allow a great escape if a gap was blown open. A bomb did actually fall in a neighbouring pit when several Germans were killed but no British.
There were between 100 and 110 working parties in this region of Upper Silesia, known as the Oppeln area. We knew little about these nearby Kommandos unless a man who had been working on one was sent back to Lamsdorf then sent out to E72. In this way we learned that at a nearby camp British prisoners and many forced labour men were working on a huge project called the ‘Hermann Goering’ cracker plant [probably this refers to Blechhammer] which was being proposed for the break down of coal into its many synthetic products. Doubtless the British Government knew of the project but did not attempt to destroy it until very late in the war, when many man-hours of work were rendered useless. It was bombed but of the cost of loss of lives we never heard.
When the party was only 100 men strong in the Bierhalle I tried to keep an index card on the odd pieces of paper available and used the food parcel box as a filing cabinet. On each card, with the soldier’s permission, there was as much information as possible such as next of kin etc. No man objected but agreed rather that it was a good idea. When we were moved to the barracks in the pit the number grew too great and time too scarce so the scheme had to be dropped. Eventually the number of men in the party approached four hundred and administration very difficult. The original RAMC sergeant who came out with the hundred men was called back to Lamsdorf and required to accompany the first batch of blind and badly wounded who were exchanged with similar Germans. Early in 1942 a very good medical orderly, an Australian Sgt Dobbyn of the AAMC come to the camp with a New Zealand corporal.
A young British doctor stayed for several months but left since he had no obligation to stay. A cobbler by trade was made permanent to keep pit boots in repair. He had no metal brads but hardwood pegs with which to repair soles. Oddly enough these seemed to swell out and act very efficiently. A partitioned off room was a sick bay where men with very high temperatures were allowed to rest for two or three days. To report sick in Germany, a very high temperature or blood being visible, was the only acceptable reason for being excused work! I was in the sick bay myself for three days because of a high temperature.
All such amenities did little to help the constant feeling that the German prisoners in England, or Canada, were living a much more civilized life. Men who came late to the camp were able to relate how easy life could be for them with no compulsion to work. A young German guard who limped obviously with a leg wound must have been one of the men who had been in the exchanged party. He could walk his stretch of ground outside the wire and at an opportune moment when no other guard could see him he put on an act.
There was a small group of Englishmen standing safely outside the two metre space away from the wire when this guard called, in German, that we should get back. He raised his rifle then said that life in England was good and he missed egg and bacon for breakfast! The Geneva Convention declared that prisoners should receive the same food as their captors of equal rank. That is why we went on parade at six o’clock for the day shift with nothing to eat!
It must have been in early 1944 that more men were to be sent to our mine. The boundary fence was extended to give more width to the camp. New posts and the usual barbed wire were erected then the old removed and room had been made for three or four old barrack rooms to be assembled in this new space. Most puzzling for us was to know what the civilian carpenters were doing in these latest barracks. Ready for any new influx of prisoners they had built the most disagreeable form of sleeping accommodation. There were no bunks but slightly sloping shelves. These were six feet wide and these seemed to run on without any break in their length. It was crude to have no demarcation as to a sleeping space allowed and needed a full bearing of comradeship to avoid rows and punch ups. At the time we had one Sergeant, Len Mears [140th Regiment RA], who complained to ‘John the Bastard’ and asked him to try and get bunks. This was of no avail; one was a prisoner and had to take what was coming. Men were consoled in that they were not in Japanese hands and the lack of bunks was a good sign that Germany was feeling the pinch.
Football and Swimming
At some time, in an undocumented period ‘John the Bastard’ must have gone on leave. His place was taken by an ‘obergefreite’ or sergeant. He said he had come from Berlin, with his wife, where they had been bombed out but bore no malice. A more relaxed air came over the camp as this man was behaving in a more tolerant way. It was rumoured that he was an international football referee, which was soon substantiated when he arranged a football match between a team from E72 and a neighbouring pit like ourselves. The visitors would certainly be able to march the distance to the pitch on a sports ground on the outskirt of Beuthen town. The men whose shift work allowed them came to the touchline but the sergeant did not referee. This was a wonderful pleasure to escape from barbed wire if only for half a day.
He also allowed more swimming in the huge clay pit at different times and so permits a different group to benefit. When we walked along an old track we passed a strange sight. A pond about ten feet diameter had been dug out and at each side a firm post with a forked end had been driven in. Across the pond and resting in the forked posts was placed a stout pole. The pole was passed through one orifice of a dead sheep and out of one at the other end. The sheep had become flyblown and now the maggots were dropping down into the pond where there was a flurry of young trout being fattened as perks for the uncouth residential gaffers.
The sergeant allowed us to so rearrange our bunks to obtain an empty barrack room. This was well used by the ‘orchestra’ and we had many merry evenings with singing and telling jokes! The sergeant put on an appearance one evening and listened to several songs – so different from the five note German army marching tunes. Later a play, which had been rehearsed was put on and he came to that for a while. Although he did not speak English he seemed well entertained. When Red Cross food parcels arrived they were given to us without the usual asking from John the Bastard. Life in the camp seemed to have a completely different atmosphere and I was asked to go to the company office fewer times with complaints. This changed abruptly when John the Bastard reappeared.
The Red Cross had a section that tried to help with the supply of sport equipment. Some camps we heard had received shorts and jerseys. To E72 there had been a delivery through Geneva of a football, a length of rope and two pairs of boxing gloves. John the Bastard seemed ready to give these to the men who soon found a suitable sized space between two rows of barracks to define a ‘ring’ or square, just how the rope was then held to be high enough and taut enough I cannot recall. Possibly four men acted as posts while standing in each corner. It was agreed that there was to be only sparring and all punches pulled. John the Bastard came frequently into the camp to see the bouts, possibly hoping to see black eyes and blood. The men knew, however, that any self-inflicted injury would never be regarded as a reason to go sick.
It was dark very early and one Christmas when there was no snow the ‘orchestra’ and men gathered outside for some carol singing. Of some the words were known but others soon got to the la – la stage. One like this was starting ‘Silent Night’ when at a pause a guard outside the wire started to sing. He had a wonderfully clear voice and the crowd went silent until he finished his verse and then cheered him. The words may have been in Polish, which crime was obviously forgiven. I can hear that voice now.
It was Christmas Eve possibly 1943(?) when the AAMC sergeant was called to the sick bay because a man was feeling very ill. Sergeant Dobbyn looked the man over and soon came to the conclusion that the man had poliomyelitis. His legs were without feeling in them and a prick with a needle caused no reaction. Sergeant Dobbyn told John the Bastard that this illness was infectious and the invalid must be taken away. Early next morning I was told that I was to accompany the invalid who was an Australian to Lamsdorf. T he snow was deep and the sick man had to be taken to Beuthen railway station. A large sledge was found and some friends pulled him to the station. We met a passenger train already detailed to pass Lamsdorf, which had had a cattle wagon hitched on the rear. A guard watched several men carry the Australian into the wagon then return to camp. Another guard remained with the sick man huddled in the corner and me. It was about fifteen miles to Lamsdorf station where we were met with RAMC men. T hey lifted the sick Australian out of the wagon and onto a type of sledge, which they used for transporting sick men back to the main camp. The sledge was not original in design but copied the established method of having two poles lashed together with a blanket. The invalid was placed on this, with blankets round him and then pulled by the one end of the poles while the other skidded on the snow. We arrived at the main camp and went directly to the sick bay where a medical officer agreed with the E72 RAMC sergeant that the man appeared to have polio.
This done, I asked the guard if there was any food or drink available. He went to the kitchens but had the usual answer, no, since one was not counted in on any group. We walked back to the station and caught a passenger train to Beuthen. We stood on the joint of two carriages and the guard made a show by fixing his bayonet. The passengers appeared to be dressed in their best clothes and the air was thick with cigar smoke. There was a further walk back to camp from the station where I was simply let in through the main gate. Of course I looked around for any food available but had the same answer ‘no’ since I was not present and counted in on any list. Food as rations was unbelievably tightly controlled with calorie value always being reviewed. This emphasized the importance of Red Cross food parcels arriving to supplement poor food. I drank a cup of cold dregs from the empty ‘coffee’ kubel, Merry Christmas! It is very sad and disappointing that we never heard anything more from Lamsdorf about this unfortunate Australian soldier.
From time to time we had German officers visit the camp. They probably inspected the company office and guards quarters then wanted to look in on several barrack rooms. In 1944 two officers decided to walk around the camp when each chose to inspect a room. I accompanied a senior officer, whose pips I could not evaluate, and we dropped in at several rooms usually where men were awake and not on a shift. At the last barrack room just inside the gate the officer went into the room and just stood for moment when a disgruntled soldier of small stature said to me “Ask him if we can have our Red Cross food parcels, they are ours and we should have them.” A small group gathered nearby to hear more. The officer simply said “Nein.” This dissatisfied soldier said to me “You don’t bloody well ask him what we say and that’s why we never get nuffink.”
At this point the officer slapped the soldier on the shoulder with the gloves he was carrying and said, “Your interpreter has asked me exactly what you said and the answer is still ‘no’.” This reply was in perfect English. Oh! The little group of curious listeners seemed to glide silently away. The questioner appeared stunned and completely deflated, while I was amazed and in perplexed state of mind as we left the room and the officer went out through the gate. The officer had replied in perfect English with no discernable accent and without any hesitation. I realized that he had understood all that had been said officially or casually by the men and still wanted me to translate. I felt a relief when such a man said that I had translated exactly what was asked, as I never had a yardstick to know.
There was a procedure of payment for work. This was a fairly complicated job for two civilians from the pithead offices to come to a barrack room and pay-out according to whether the soldier was engaged on surface work or underground. The money was in the form of I mark notes which were poor paper about the size of a cigarette card, then larger 5 mark notes and finally the largest pink coloured 10 mark note. During the first year these notes could be exchanged for Deutsche marks and spent on specific articles, as I did for a towel. Now that the clothing parcels had arrived this facility seemed to have failed. In its place there was a new value put on the money.
This was to show a community spirit and give a contribution towards paying for musical instruments. The first purchase was a violin. I accompanied a fellow who said he could play to a shop that was still in business, by a train ride into the town together with a guard. I am completely non-musical and so it was a great interest for me to witness the man trying and choosing an instrument, naturally of a reasonable price limit. We returned home without knowing or caring about paying except that a sum of camp notes was collected from us. Bill Henessey was able to play without music and straightaway we had singing in the evening. Next a fellow, who said he could play the piano, was taken to a musical instrument shop where he bought an accordion. He soon adapted his fingers to the keyboard and we had a second instrument played by a young Scot, McLagan, from Oban. Mouth organs could be bought from a German soldier who stood out in the open near the main gate and carried a suitcase from which a few articles could be bought such as razor blades and matches. Bill Greenfield bought a more expensive mouth organ and played it wonderfully well. Greenfield kept smiling although he had rheumatism in his shoulders, which squeaked, and ground together but was not accepted as sick by the Germans as he might be malingering. There occurred an incident that most certainly was not written up in my diary. I told no one in the camp about it and was pleased that the U/off did not quiz me about being called away. He must have had some idea of the nature of the interview to let me out of the camp with a civilian who took me to a room in the Steigers’ residence. The interview started with straightforward intensity when I was told that I could speak some German and lived in the Bromley area and that I should be made a ‘Gauleiter’. (A Gauleiter was the party leader of a regional branch of the Nazi Party ) The work I was expected to do with position and power was outlined and then a specific task to be undertaken. This was to disband the masonic lodge on Masons Hill, Bromley. He declared that they had an up-to-date list of members and that they had to be broken up. All the time this was being elaborately poured out to me, I kept giving myself mental maxims. I convinced myself that this would never happen by repeating ‘you haven’t won the war yet, cocky’, and letting the detail go in one ear and out of the other. When I was taken back to the camp no one asked about my absence. My worrying about a future indoctrination was in vain. I never heard anything more because the Germans at this point were suffering a set back and speculation about after the war domination in a conquered England with occupation details was not an option. Actually what worried me mostly was the extent of their spies, fifth column or perhaps the number of ‘Quislings,’ which afforded them such detailed information.
As the years went by we found it increasingly difficult to keep up our morale. Prisoners taken in later theatres of war had brought the news that a Second Front was being actively planned in 1943 but the months went by and our release seemed as far away as ever. Then one night everything changed. Our Polish fellow-workers (and comrades) had passed on momentous news.
The night shift came back as usual to the gate with the guards but as soon as they were inside they whooped with shouts of joy and threw their caps in the air. This wakened up the sleeping shift but it was worth it when they heard the news. Our Polish fellow workers and comrades had passed on momentous news. The guards returned with fixed bayonets but found no sign of trouble. The date was 6th June 1944 – D Day. The news was that we had made a landing in France and established a foothold. Everything appeared to calm down until two days later when the news was broken to the Germans and their radio said a landing party had been repulsed. Of course this had to be more correctly admitted that both British and American forces had made advances. The fact became obvious to the guards and John the Bastard that our rejoicing was because of the true earlier report. John the Bastard never seemed to realize that men working near Poles could be kept up to date with the news as they obviously listened illegally to their radio. As a result John the Bastard thought we had a radio in the camp and took very drastic action. All bedding and kit was turned over and thorough searches made much to our inconvenience.
Transfer to Lamsdorf, June 1944
It was some time later in June 1944 well after D-Day that I received a knockout blow. John the Bastard called me to his office and said simply that I was to get my kit packed and be ready for an early train to Lamsdorf. This was both a shock and a mystery. When I asked why he again with as little talk said the he did not have to give me a reason. I packed all my belongings, which had increased over the years and was very pleased that I had bought a suit case with German marks as I had been paid recently. The case was cheaply made and obtained from an authorized salesman who came to the camp. At any rate I managed together with a kit bag to collect all my gear. Put together like that it seemed rather heavy, but everything seemed a necessary item and I was not prepared to shed anything. I had time to say farewell to the few old friends who had been with me since the Biergarten days. Surprisingly a group of New Zealanders heard I was going and gave me five of their addresses and declared that if ever I travelled to New Zealand I would be welcome to stay with them. They said that I had helped them when they first arrived. John Thomas a short but sturdy man, was a sheep farmer (such men suffered badly when sent underground) and said that if ever I arrived in Wanganui we would “eat a whole bloody sheep between us,” the food was not adequate in the camp.
[My father Eric West took over as E72 translator after Norman Gibbs had left the camp in June 1944].