Our first day as a POW was anything but a pleasure. It is hard to estimate the number of prisoners that were taken at St Valery and on the march to Germany. A guess would be between seven and eight thousand. The weather in June was very warm, and many POWs passed out. Considering what these men had gone through prior to capture it was understandable. Lack of sleep, bombing and strafing by the German Air Force, had brought many to their knees.
On the first day, at the end of the march we were parked in a field. Soup (beans and water and rye bread) if you did not have a container you were out of luck. Tired and dirty, next day the march continued as the Armistice was signed with Germany. Also, Italy had joined up with Hitler. Little did we know that the march would take at least 20 days.
On the morning of either the third or fourth day I met my brother Andy, who had been attached to the 51st Anti-tank unit. In civilian life he was apprenticed to the Bank of Scotland, a white collared position, if I remember rightly he was never known to dirty his hands. He really was in a bad way, food was at a premium. When passing a small town I would slip out of the column and rush into a baker shop and lift a loaf of bread. A guard would chase me but I managed to evade him … Drinking water was also at a premium.
On the march the French farmers put cans of milk by the roadside, but they might as well have left it on the farm. Many days on the march we had to depend on the water in the ditches by the roadside. The routine got very monotonous – not enough food – sleeping in fields – getting up in the morning, clothes saturated from the dew. From France to Belgium and then into Holland. The inhabitants of these countries did their best to pass food on to us. For their kindness quite a few of them suffered at the hands of the guards. In Holland, loaded onto coal barges and taken direct to Emmerick where we spent the night in a sports place in pouring rain. However, worse was to come.
We moved to the railway station and were packed into cattle wagons, fifty to a wagon. Doors were locked and we were on our way. No clue as to our final destination. We could lie down, but were packed like sardines in a can. The only ventilation was a small window 8 Î 10. The toilet facilities provided was a big galvanised pail. Many of the boys plus my brother had dysentery and could not make it in time – you know the rest.
After many hours (with the Germans stripping us of our watches we had no idea of time) we would pull into a railway siding – doors opened – first job to get the toilet pail emptied/ Loaves of rye bread and an urn of ersatz coffee were handed in – doors closed tight and once again we were on our way. The treatment and the conditions we travelled under would be very hard to translate into English. By the time we arrived at our final destination we stank so bad that even the guards kept their distance. My only problem was that I was so lousy that my body was covered with blotches. It was unreal. However at the first camp we were deloused, our heads were shaved, we were fingerprinted, photographed and lastly given a disc with your POW number on it. I was … 10467.
I was on the move, this was a transfer to Schubin, but I’m not positive. The railway ran past the camp to the Russian border which was not too far away. Practically all day long we could see trains of troops, tanks and all kinds of equipment (war). The work party consisted of 20 POWs in the charge of an English Sergeant Major. We headed out wondering what the nature of the job was. Imagine our amazement when we were marched into a Jewish cemetery and told to destroy it. It was a fairly large burial ground. Some of the gravestones did not look too old.
The Sergeant Major refused an order and all hell broke loose. The guards threatened reprisals – it looked a real dicey position. However Sergeant Major Doug Harpin (Yorkshire Regiment) stood his ground. An officer was called and after a confab the Geneva Convention was brought into conversation. The officer seemed to appreciate our position … It was agreed that instead of demolishing the cemetery we would help clean up the town. It wasn’t a tough job and it paid dividends. The old Polish ladies would keep their distance from the prisoners, but would drop bread and goodies a certain place, we could see what was going on. The ladies would disappear and we would gradually wander over and pick up what had been left.
Life on the farm was a lot better than stuck in a camp 24 hours a day. The best job I had was working in the piggery. Starting at 5.30 in the morning with chores. First was to feed the pigs then clear out their stalls. Next in line was to dump four sacks of potatoes into a steam boiler. Some mornings the other boys would be in the vicinity and join me in a feed of potatoes. If it was inconvenient for some of the boys to join us I would fill a pail for them and they could have it later in the day. When not working in the piggery I would fill in my time working in the garden attached to the main residence.
Half an hour at midday lunch which consisted of watery soup. Dysentery affected all of us, we were never really free of it. One time I got boils on my rear end and had to sleep on my stomach all night. Eddie Scot, my Company Sergeant Major, had a brilliant idea on how to fix them. I don’t think that Eddie was well up in medical procedures. However, having suffered the past few nights and days I agreed to his idea. He filled a bottle with boiling water and pressed down on the boils which drew out the pus. I was ties down to the bed otherwise I could not stand the pain.
I could have refused [farm work] but I reckoned it would be to my benefit. Getting work on a farm proved fruitful to me on many … [occasions]. For over two years I worked on the farm at Gross Krebs – just outside Marienwerder and Marienburg. I was able to get extra nourishment on the farm, and from the kind hearted Polish people – in the main camps it was more or less survival of the fittest. I often wondered how my brother was surviving at Hohenfels non-working camp for officers and NCOs. They had a regular supply of Red Cross parcels donated by the British, Canadian, American and Australian people. Not only the above, but a school was set up in the camp. Andy had his brains as well as mine, a first class pupil … The Red Cross supervised the examinations for all kinds of jobs. Andy, as already stated, worked in the Bank of Scotland. He came out tops with his Associate and Members exams … They had a theatre – put shows on like the Gondoliers, even the Maories put on their war dance. Musical instruments were sent out by the British under the Red Cross.
The hardest work was to come. We would be bending continuously for a few days, the potato and sugar beet had to be listed. A special tool was used to dig out the beets. They were pretty deep. The roots in the soil apparently have a heavy percentage of sugar. You worked on two rows at a time, cutting the leaves, making two rows. One beets, one leaves. It was hard and monotonous work with the guard right behind us we had no other option but to keep going. There was nothing left to go to waste. When all the beets were extracted from the ground we picked the beets and loaded them on to horse drawn wagons and took them to the station, where we unloaded them on their way to a factory where the sugar was extracted. Finishing lifting beets we next turned out attention to lifting beet leaves. These were put in a pit covered by straw and earthed over. I understood this was part of the diet of the dairy herd in the winter. A few days later we were on our way to the station. The pulp residue from the beets had arrived, six wagons were waiting to be unloaded. This was taken to the farm to supplement the winter feed for the dairy herd.
The Red Cross parcels were stored in the guard’s room. Lately the guard had turned real nasty – why – I could not find the cause. Whether he had noticed the changed relationship between the POWs, Frau Chef and the Inspector it was difficult to ascertain. Word came that a German officer would be visiting our workplace. Paddy put forward a question to the guard it was time for another Red Cross parcel. That evening after work Paddy collected another three parcels, one between two. As usual all cans were opened and a bar of Neilson’s chocolate was missing. Questioning Paddy all he would say was you’ll know tomorrow. We were in our billet when this landau drove up, reclining in the back was a beautiful lady with a high ranking officer.
We were brought outside the billet and the officer approached. The first question was “how are you boys being treated?” – all questions were answered by Eddie who held senior rank in the work party. Eddie replied that we had no complaints. We were surprised when Paddy stood forward and stated that one of our parcels had been tampered with. We were locked in our billet. The officer, his coachman and our guard went up to his billet, then the story came out what Paddy had done the previous day. Apparently after the parcels had been opened the guard had gone to relieve himself. Paddy had slipped a bar of Neilson’s chocolate behind a stove. We saw the officer, his lady and the coachman drive away. Apparently they had gone to the big house and phoned the main camp at Marienburg. Meanwhile, the guard had no communication with us, having been locked in his own room. Within an hour a small van drove up with an old man, an officer and a driver. Our door was unlocked and the old man dressed in German uniform introduced himself as out new protector.
When working on the farm at Gross Krebs Poland there came the day the government inspector came to the farm to collect his share of pork for the armed forces. The share given to the Frau Chef for her household was turned mostly into sausages, two feet long. They were cooked in a big boiler in the basement and then hung up in a small cellar. Unfortunately it was locked.
I spent some time in the kitchen grinding the pork which ended up in the big sausages.
Two nights later when we were in the basement for our supper a beautiful aroma was coming from the boiler. Lifting the lid, it was full of sausages. No one could blame us for helping ourselves. No one could blame us for helping ourselves, four big fat sausages were pulled out and deposited down the legs of our pants. Were they ever hot! How we managed to get to our billet without being found out I’ll never know. They say that stolen fruit is always the sweetest, but the sausages were the best meal we had on the farm.
One item we missed really badly was cigarettes. What happened to our parcels was a mystery. Every month or so they were sent to me from home. As a substitute, while working in the garden I would pick raspberry leaves and dry them off. Every other day the boys would gather the hay seed left in the mangers – it was a fine substitute – and lastly the British parcels contained tea. After each brew we would dry the tea leaves, that was when tea was available.
One morning a government inspector arrived on the farm. He made for the piggery and picked out eight head for the armed forces. A small portion of the pork would go to the farm household and the workers. Each pig was put into a crate. Eddie and I had to lift the crate and put it on the scales. I had been asked by the farm manager that I would be rewarded if I put my foot under the scales and lifted it. It was no problem – the idea was clear that there would be more pork for the farm workers and the POWs.
When scaling the pigs was over we, the prisoners … [were given] a few pounds of black German sausage. I was becoming more of a rogue every day.
The German cities are taking a terrible bombing, still continuous day and night. Mail arrives today – but still no word from home. Roll call comes twice a day and it all depends on how the commandant is feeling – we might be kept standing for hours. The odd man faints and is carried off. Should you need to go to the toilet during roll call that’s a no-no. Dysentery can happen any time, night or day. The German guards are not backward when it comes to trading – they are short of cigarettes and do business with the prisoners. My parcels of cigarettes from home must have gone astray. I get word today from the camp office that confirmation of my rank comes through the Red Cross from Britain so I’ll be on my way to Bavaria. I have very little to take with me, a tin cup and a spoon and a few rags which take the place of socks, no underwear.
This is one of those stories, believe it if you like. I know it is pretty far fetched. One day the honey wagon comes into the camp to empty the latrines. Once the tank is filled the boys entice the driver into the billet for a cup of coffee and a cigarette. During his absence a POW mechanic strips the copper tubing off the honey wagon. The driver leaves not knowing what has happened to his motor which drives the pump. Bertie MacRae, from bits and pieces makes a still and produces wine etc which was the talk of the camp.