Norman Gibbs’ Diary- Part 3

Norman Gibbs’ Diary – Part 3

Return to Lamsdorf, June 1944

‘..I set off next morning with a heavy heart as I felt four and a half years of close contact had come to a sudden unexplained end. About half way on the walk to the station I asked the guard for a rest saying the case was heavy. I hoped he did not notice a tear running down. At least I travelled in a normal railway coach to Lamsdorf station; then there followed the walk to the camp. Here the guard left me, as I had to be searched in a special hut. I had heard back in camp from men who had been sent back via a similar way that if there was a bar of chocolate from a food parcel on the top of the kit bag when it was opened, the guard did not ferret around and disturb much. It worked and I was back in the immense Lager VIII B.

I was put in a barrack room with very few men and felt that it was a holding room for new arrivals. It was obvious that this group would be reviewed and anyone without good reason such as reporting sick would soon be sent off again on a working party. I tried to keep well away during the day and so avoided an immediate selection for work. I met up with a small group of men who were retained in the camp to do some office work – mail and letters home.  They sympathized with my scheme for lying low and let me stay in their barrack till I ate, and then I walked back to my own room.  One day I was spotted and questioned.  I said I was given a break after four and a half years as interpreter. There was a terrifying looking woman in an office who interviewed me and more or less judged my conversation standard in speaking German.  Then she wanted some written work.  I failed at this since it appeared she expected journalist–like answers with long compound words.  That interview helped me to stay from being picked up by the selectors for working parties and altogether I scrounged 3 weeks rest before being caught.

E51 Klausberg

I was a lone prisoner to go with a guard to a coal mining camp labelled E51 [this was Klausburg, Silesia, a mining camp of about 450 men]

Pre-war colour photograph of E51 coal mine Arbeitskommando at Hindenburg (now Zabrze- Mikulcyze)


Derelict remains of the E51 Mine complex at Zabrze, Poland (2024)

Before being sent off I asked to be given a top-workers job.  The selector said that he could not fix that and I should ask when I arrived at the camp.  After a short train journey and a walk, I was presented by my guard to the office of the camp Under Officer where the interpreter was also present.  Strange to relate this was the pit to which I had been taken nearly three years before to help out their ‘Dolmetscher’ [interpreter] and I recognized him as being still there, the same man. His German did not appear to have improved much and when the U.O. [Unterofficer] said I would be sent down the pit I started to defend myself. I said I had been promised top-work as I had a festering throat and nose bleed which worsened in underground pressure. The U.O. said he would see what work was available next day.  Actually I was put in a woodwork shop and I knew I should cope because of my civilian training.  This all seemed to be working very smoothly until a group armed me to a barrack room for a kangaroo court.

Here the interpreter said he thought I was a German plant and needed to explain myself.  First of all I said I remembered him from the visit three years earlier. He could not remember the occasion and dismissed it. Then I said I was a resident of south-east London all my life and just because I studied German up to A level at college that there was no reason to be suspicious. A bright boy suggested they find a soldier from the Catford or Sydenham area to make a check on my knowledge of these places. This was simple to do, as there were many conscripts from these densely populated suburbs. When I named all the shops and roads that I was questioned about and added more detail for good measure everybody seemed convinced and satisfied with my identity. The court broke up with the interpreter saying I had just saved myself from being pushed accidently into the cesspit!  Later I realized their concern for security as they had started a tunnel that had been found and also a radio, which was used, and news circulated by the chosen few.  A radio! How this came about was the greatest mystery of my camp life.

A daily routine job in the woodwork shop was to construct a dozen ‘Gefludders’ [wooden gutters or water courses].  These were made by nailing four boards about five inches wide and ten feet long to make a square tube. Each end of the boards had been cut with a taper about six inches long, by the other man in the shop standing by a circular saw and with me at the other end feeding the board towards him at the correct angle. The one end had a male, the other a female taper so that the boxes could be fitted together.  These were transported to the pit cage and somewhere sand and water slurry was poured down them that was to fill a cavity. Every few days this meant we had to go out into the yard with a barrow for more boards. These were stacked very high and I had to climb to the top, by pulling out a board on the way to make a foothold, then pass the boards down to the other men. I was pleased to clamber back down safely.  From stout boards we made frame works to carry boards that could not be carried in the iron ‘tubs’ meant for carrying coal or stone. This was an enjoyable job where an old man with poor eyesight still managed to do a days work. There was also a middle-aged man who was constantly pestered by ‘friends’ wanting a repair to a wheel or part of their small cart.

There was a man who wanted to be the leader of a small group of players and he wanted to bring several more players into this group. One wanted a drum another a clarinet. These instruments were bought and then there was pressure to get one of these men out of the pit and on to top work, since top work was done only during the day. This was so that the ‘orchestra’ could practice during the evening.  Pressure was put on the U.O to get me out of the workshop and the player into this job while I was sent down the pit.  This was just what happened.  I could not complain as I had wangled top work for myself for several weeks and now had to become a miner.

My first trip down in the cage was quite frightening and everybody got out and went to their usual work area.  I was alone for a moment in this strange environment where there were several lines for the tubs that were arriving full from the pit and empty from the cage.  It was a strange, noisy and bewildering experience.  At once a German miner came to me and explained what I was expected to do. This was really frightening. All this time an automatic arm had punched to and fro over the trucks arriving full of coal. It was so arranged that it dipped down over every second truck arriving to catch the rim of that truck and push it into the lined up cage. The arm was powerful and menacing. Frequently it missed the rim and then I was supposed to push it down on the next stroke to make sure it was making contact. While I was doing this empty trucks were passing out of a cage only inches behind me. I honestly felt that they were trying to kill me. Back in E72 I went with a man to John the Bastard who complained that where he was made to work he felt that they were trying kill him. The only result was that John the Bastard took a rifle and beat him out of the office! After a while the pressure eased off, rather like traffic in the rush –hour and I was called away by the workman. He must have been near retirement age, grumpy and difficult to please. We walked to a stretch of line where the wall on one side was shedding stone. It was a seam between coal seams. There was constant creaking and cracking sounds, which to a non-miner seemed quite alarming. The patching up work we did seemed quite inadequate.

After very few nights with this strange man there was a further change. Three hardened looking Germans were to go with another English prisoner and me to a new area. This was a very long way from the shaft and still in a frightening stretch. It was along several yards of rail track that had to be kept open even when the roof was sinking. A clearance height had to be maintained to allow the tubs to pass through. This meant that the floor had constantly to be lowered. Two compressed air diggers with a spike were supplied and while the lines remained in place it was necessary to chip away at the rock and load this into wagons.  The shaking up I had from the pick had been a new and unpleasant experience. The whole stretch could not be completed in one shift so only a limited length had been lowered a few inches. I witnessed then some work done by a following shift. On my travels I had seen some wonderful straight, clean conifers of huge girth. (Those near a road were often felled, to hinder German transport, by the Maquis) Wedged between the rails and the rock wall there appeared three on each side a length of such fine tree trunks, which finally wedged an attempt to support the sinking roof. These giant columns looked as though they could support any pressure. On the next night these great wooden columns appeared less smooth and tidy. This was followed a night later with cracks visible down the bark. When we were children we used to make paper lanterns by cutting slits in the folded paper so that when they were turned into a cylinder and pushed down, an imaginary light could shine through. The tree trunks were now squashed so that the centres bulged out and splintered like our toy lanterns. This was a frightening sight that emphasized the possibility of a roof fall. Our group kept chipping away at the stone below the lines. Each miner’s individual lamp consisted of carbide and water gas production, which was lit at a burner. Behind the burner there was a hook onto which an aluminium reflector could be clipped. It was unwritten law that these reflectors should never be assembled. The gaffers had a polished brass reflector that was always fitted. This enabled a man to recognize the approach of a Steiger or gaffer.  One night the other four men were ‘taking it easy’ when I chanced to see a yellow light in the distance.  I leapt up and grabbed the start lever of the digger and just managed to get the others appearing to be busy before the gaffer arrived.  The three ‘German’ workmen with us always confused me with their speech.  Sometimes it was Polish then German.  It seems that their homeland was first on one side of the border and then on the other. They did not talk much as any conversation was drowned by the noise of the digger.  During one of our official break ties their conversation turned to mentioning food. It appeared that civilian rations were being made smaller and calorie counts made less. T hen the one who spoke usually in Polish told a story in German which I followed with great interest.  He had planted every square centimetre of his back garden with rye.  He declared this gave the heaviest harvest and most nutritious of the cereals.  He cut and thrashed the ears and had the harvest ground for flour.  He still had some flour and the rye bread that he could still make to supplement the present rations.  Of course such conversation was revealing that the economy was weakening, much to our delight.  We carried a little longer on this work where it was obvious that nature was winning. I felt I was fortunate not to be shovelling coal at the face but worked with these three easy-going men without being bullied by gaffers.  While I was in the camp there was some perplexing news or rather the lack of it. In happier days I had a good friend, Howard Thorpe, in a motorcycling group.  I knew he had left for France sometime before me and in my letters home I asked for news about him.  At first there was no reply and later simply that he had been killed.  Pressing again in my letters I was told that his family were disappointed at being given no details. Later they were told he was killed at sea…’ [on board the Lancastria]

Howard Thorpe’s CWGC Grave at Cimetiere de La Bernerie-en-Retz, Pays de la Loire, France