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AND SO ...

9. A STRANGE LIFE ..... continues in Stalag VIIA before going on to Stalag VIIIB

Chapter 10. "We March West"


By now Jerry was heavily committed in the war against Russia and each day a civilian would be missing from the track workers. Enquiries about what had happened to the missing civvy were always met rather quietly with: "Fuer ein Soldat, gegen Russland." And to rub it in, the worker would be asked when it was his turn to go, which would be followed by the answer: "Ich weiss nicht." When marching to work we saw posters appealing for gifts of warm clothing for the soldiers on the Eastern Front; this was their "Winter-Hilfe" - winter help - appeal. Because of working on the tracks in the cold winds many of us suffered from badly cracked lips, and the more you licked them, the more painful they became.


One morning, dark and cold, we had Harry ask the German Sergeant Major, who always conducted the rapid countings, whether we could have some sort of cream as a protection for our lips. We were told to be like the gallant German soldiers on the Eastern Front, who used the wax in their ears to rub on their lips. Just try it. This Jerry was built like an oak tree and one of the few who did not sport the toothbrush moustache which most men had, to copy their beloved Fuehrer. Instead, he sported a large Hindenburg-type decoration. When he spoke, those guards jumped.

Whilst at work we were frequently photographed, to be used as material for propaganda. Each month there was an edition of a newspaper for P.O.W.s, called "The Camp"; the issue didn’t quite work out to one each so a rota was arranged for turns to keep a copy, worth its weight in gold as toilet paper - after reading all the lies, of course. One Sunday, which in the early days was a day off work, Dolmy came round to tell us to save five camp marks, so that we could purchase a copy of Adolph Hitler’s "Mein Kampf", printed in English. He showed us a specimen book and of course the initial concensus was "Not bloody likely". Then, with afterthought, the penny dropped. The book was very like an older type Holy Bible - masses of pages made of good quality thin paper. Were we going to buy those copies and read about Hitler’s struggles? Yes, three pages at a time in the toilet! Could we buy more than one copy? No, owing to popular demand by kriegies to read the valuable work, restrictions to one copy per person had to be enforced. Poor Dolmy was delighted with the reception, not knowing to what use the end product would be put! Over a week’s wages to buy bog paper, but it was good economics - and good reading, because there was nowt else.

Harold Siddall and "Andy Andrews" in December 1941 - the first winter as POW's

Once again strong buzzes permeated about the elusive Red Cross parcels; Jerry promised an issue at Christmas, but then put a damper on it by kindly telling us that the R.A.F. had bombed Lubeck, a port in the Baltic where the neutral Swedish ships, chartered by the Red Cross, unloaded those necessary supplies. How we hated the R.A.F.! They were nowhere to be seen when we needed them on Crete and now, of all places to drop their loads, they had to bomb Lubeck. Jerry certainly knew how to twist the knife! The next excuse was that the railway tracks from Lubeck were being continually bombed by those "Terror-Fliegers". I don’t suppose any of our compatriots had ever seen the contents of a Red Cross parcel, but each evening we slavered over the possible contents of those beautiful boxes. On one occasion when hunger racked us and the subject just had to be food, somebody organised a verbal competition about the best sort of meal. Of course the descriptions varied and the quantities would have made it impossible for a dinner plate to be large enough. But one bloke took the biscuit. He described how his Mum scooped out the inside of brown, roasted potatoes and filled them with some of the creamed interiors. Then, when the menu was completely described, somebody asked him what his Mum did with the rest of the scooped out potato and he calmly replied: "She throws it away." A howl of anguish arose at this and she was hated for throwing away succulent food. Such was the power of hunger in those days, again not helped by the biting wind and the snow.

Snowballing had long since ceased - how we hated the stuff! We had to make an effort at work, just to keep warm. The most affected parts were the feet: boots leaked in the snow, socks and Fusslappen became wet and the chances of drying them were nil; we just put them between blanket and mattress and let body heat work. Many developed chillblains on their toes and fingers and it was murder for them once we returned to our rooms and body heat raised the temperature. I count myself fortunate that I was not afflicted by this. The Aussie, Harry Woodward, developed an ulcer on his shin, but there was no treatment for it. There was always a queue hoping to report sick, but the German doctor didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word. Anybody who collected "zwei Tage Bett-ruhe" - two days off work - was very lucky. It was a case of no work, no pay and, what is more, no midday ladle of cabbage water.

"Regulation issue" Christmas card sent by POWs at the end of 1941

On one of those nights tramping back to the barracks, the wind was bitterly cold and the snow was blowing in every direction; we entered the camp and after the usual endless standing whilst being counted and signed for, the Feldwebel told us that there was mail in the huts. With a whoop and a holler we dashed indoors to find that some lucky sods had letters; whilst there were not many, Bob Andrews had received one from his Mum. Jack and I were not so fortunate, so Andy read his to us. There was no mention of the parcels for which we had written. Several lines about what the Red Cross was doing; apparently parents and wives of prisoners were being put in touch with one another, but nothing about food. Here and there lines were blacked out by the censors.

One of the guards was a photographer by profession. When war was declared he was on the dockside, waiting to board a liner and emigrate to America. Instead of boarding, he and all the male would-be emigrants were rounded up and before they knew it they were in the German Army! Being a professional photographer, he was able to wangle a job in the propaganda department of the Army. In anticipation of emigrating he had learned a little English and from his conversations during some of the propaganda sessions he let loose that he hated the Army, Hitler and anything they stood for; but this was always expressed in a very low voice. He was forever wanting to learn new terms and English phrases, so of course he was taught some choice expressions by us!

Then, Hallelujah! At our first Christmas there was an issue of Red Cross parcels. We arrived back at the lager to see a huge van leaving and all we could hear from the camp guards was: "Rote Paeckchen!" And we just couldn’t believe it. Once counted, there was a dash back to the barracks room, consume the soup, bread and spuds and bubble with anticipation. Then came the news that the issue would consist of a parcel between two men. Those wonderful boxes were bound by strong white cord, so here was our first clothes line to rig up in the room to dry our washing and the boxes could be used to give each one a sense of privacy. A few years ago, Mabel and I had a holiday on the island of Jersey and one of the places of interest we visited was the German underground hospital, carved out of the ground by Russian P.O.W.s. At the entrance was a Red Cross parcel box and the sight of it momentarily dimmed my eyes, as they watered from the memories. Pardon me for digressing; let’s get on with the story.

What was in that wonderful Red Cross parcel? Writing this part of the yarn on the afternoon of Christmas Eve 1993, a cold, dry, sunny day, looking at the blue sky from my breakfast room window, I find myself racking my memory to recall what was in that box. Here goes. A two ounce packet of tea, a tin of rice pudding, a tin of condensed milk, a tin of meat and veg., a packet of Yorkshire pudding mixture, a tin of margarine, a tin of meat-loaf, a packet of hard biscuits, a tin of jam and a tin containing fifty Gold Flake cigarettes. There were other items as well, but my memory fails me.

The boxes were kept in a store controlled by the Germans and the bloke in charge was the American German, our enemy, the "bar-steward". We were told all tins had to be opened and emptied in his presence, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. He obeyed these orders to the letter initially and, since we had only one dish each, he was not averse to putting several selections in one dish. Thus one could leave the store with portions of jam, rice and meat-loaf all in the same dish. We were allowed to take the cigarettes separately. Of course this could not be allowed to continue and we lost no time in hunting out Dolmy to ask him about it. Even the British doctor could do nothing and we three musketeers had to carefully plan what to collect in our three dishes, to put together a satisfying feed as economically as possible. At least we were able to make drinking mugs out of the empty tins. Try to imagine, if you can, piping hot tea flavoured with condensed milk! Paradise! Definitely a better start to the day than Jerry’s mint tea.

But a drink of tea requires boiling water. In the hut there was no provision for this and Jerry in the cookhouse wasn’t interested. So how was this problem overcome? It was here that cigarettes became the currency. There was a German civilian general handyman in the camp; he called himself a carpenter, which in German is "Tischler", so he was called Herr Tisch in deference. He was bribed to produce some electric flex and a connection. With these items an enterprising inmate joined each end of the twin flex to a razor blade and the other ends to the connection. With the razor blade immersed in the can of water and the connection plugged into the light socket, we had a heater which rapidly boiled the water. We had to immerse the razor blade before plugging in and disconnect before removing it; in this way we could make a brew in turns. Of course the fuse for lighting wouldn’t take too much of this, so when Jerry wasn’t about somebody stuck a nail in the fusebox. We had no more worries, but it’s a wonder the place never burned down. Innocents abroad!

I have mentioned the string which secured the parcels. We were asked to donate any spare string to the Aussie sergeant major, with no questions asked. The outcome was that two under-sized lads on our work party, one Aussie, the other Welsh, wove hammocks from the string. One evening they disappeared from the Tick-Tocking party and made their way to the railway goods yard. They had gained the necessary information secretly and in the dark they slung their hammocks between the axles of a goods truck, which became part of a train travelling to St. Margarethen in Switzerland - and thus they had escaped. They were the only two in our camp to achieve this. We knew they were successful because the sergeant major received a picture postcard from his "nephews", lording it up on holiday in Switzerland.

Our room’s services were not measuring up to the work requirement as Tick-Tockers for the German railway. I wonder why? Anyhow, we were sacked, and our feelings were not hurt. But this meant we would not be kept at Arbeitslager 2780A because the railway was not employing us. So it looked as though we would be heading back to Stalag VII A, and this was not a bright prospect. That weekend Dolmy came into our room and asked if amongst us there were any what sounded like "mourers". We thought about it and realised he was asking for masons. The Firma Winkler was losing its two masons, called up in the Army, poor sods, and replacements were urgently required to work on a drain-laying contract in Munich. Now that was the way for Andy and me to avoid returning to the Stalag. So we told Dolmy that we were masons; this part is laughable. When he enquired as to our "mourer" status we didn’t understand, so he had to dig out his interpreter’s book to find the necessary words. Andy, being a bricklayer, was a Steinmaurer and I, being a plasterer, as I told him, was a Mortelmaurer. And we were accordingly employed by the Firma Winkler. Dolmy also brought the news that the whole room was going to be employed because of anticipated call-ups.

So the next Monday morning we mustered to the call of Firma Winkler. The next part may be humourous now, but at the time was not so comical. When mustering inside the barrier gate, the fussy German corporal, who seemed to be always querying and poking his nose into whatever was going on, asked me if I was a Maurer and when I replied in the affirmative he followed up with the question: "Bist Du Freimaurer?" To me it was all the same, so once again I answered yes. At this he began to slash me across the face with his gloves and for a moment I could only stand flabbergasted. Then I let out a roar and called him a good few Anglo-Saxon lower deck titles. With this uproar going on we were soon surrounded by armed guards, who must have thought that I was attacking the silly sod. This was enough to draw the solid oak Feldwebel to the scene, accompanied by Dolmy. There followed screaming questions and screaming answers until Dolmy was able to intervene. It seems that being a mason was acceptable, but being a Freimaurer meant that I was a Freemason and an abomination in the sight of Hitler and his cohorts, about on par with Jews. The only thing I knew about Freemasonry was that Uncle Stan and Uncle John had been members. And so after explanations the Feldwebel blasted the corporal for poking his nose into affairs which did not concern him, so Dolmy told me. He had the corporal standing to attention, stiff as a ramrod, this being as near to an apology he could offer to me, an enemy, whilst he dished out the blast, and when we marched off, old Nosey was still standing there. Of course on the way to the workplace I had my leg pulled something rotten by the lads and even Hurry Hurry told me that the corporal was "schlecht", which means rubbish. Such was life!

We arrived at the place of work to find we would be digging a very deep trench at the side of a fairly long street, the objective being to lay large diameter pipe sections in the bottom of the trench to make a rainwater drain. Each of these sections was pre-cast in concrete and Andy and I would be the pipe-layers and would build the interceptor pits along the system. Initially we were with the diggers; of the two tools I found it easier to use a pick, the soil and the strata was loose, so a couple of grunts with a pick ensured a bit of a spell whilst the shovel brigade took over, and those lads had to throw the diggings fairly high onto the upper stage of the scaffolding, from where it was shovelled into heaps at the side of the street. This went on for a couple of days and then Dolmy cycled onto the scene. We must have been making some progress because Herr Winkler seemed satisfied until Dolmy asked where the two mourers were; when he saw Andy in the bottom of the trench digging, he blew up. The mourers shouldn’t be digging, they should be mouring, but really at that time there was no construction work for us to do. The outcome was that we went to assist the surveyor, handling the T-shaped boning rods, with which he ensured the slope on the bottom of the trench was correct. Heavy work that! In my earlier writings I mentioned the Standard Inn, where I was a member of the darts team; the Manager was called Percy Hemer. Just keep this in mind.

With a section of the digging in the trench completed there arrived a lorry-load of pipe sections. There was no space to store them, so the garden of a hotel opposite was commandeered. The hotel was called "Ost Wirtschaft" and the owner was a Michael Hemer! Any relation? I don’t know, but just fancy having to enter Kriegsgefangenschaft to find another Hemer! Seems as though I am waffling.

With the pipe sections in the Biergarten, Andy and I came into our own. Before laying the pipes in the drainage site, the insides had to be sealed with a cement wash; the pipes being almost a yard in diameter, we were able to crawl inside to do this. Adjacent to the beer garden was a house with a metal railing balcony. Now the Honorable Robert Andrews was gifted with not too bad a voice and one morning Andy was inside a section of pipe, slapping cement wash all over and busily singing the "Woodpecker Song". It didn’t sound too bad and suddenly we heard a call which sounded like "Harold", so I scrambled out of the section of pipe for a look-see. Nobody in sight, but again came the call and this time I realised it was "‘Allo!" I looked up and there, standing on the balcony, was a vision in the form of a girl with long blonde hair. Andy was still singing away inside his section of the pipe and I have to admit the tune was not too bad. The vision asked me if I was English and after my reply she wanted to know the name of the song coming out of the pipe. I called Andy and when his eyes had gone back into their sockets he proceeded to give the girl the full Bob Andrews treatment. He had a charming smile and a pleasant voice and was soon able to enlighten her. Her command of the English language was good and she appeared to have a number of records of the latest songs, mostly sung by Bing Crosby. But the "Woodpecker Song" was new to her and would Bob sing it again for her? Like a lark on the wing he obliged and next she dropped a folded sheet of paper together with a pencil for him to write out the words. Just like Romeo, had there been a suitable trellis Bob would have personally delivered the missive to the balcony, but ‘twas not to be, so the song sheet was delivered wrapped in a stone.

She was full of thanks and asked what she could give us in return; the spontaneous answer was: FOOD. She left the balcony and we waited, but neither she nor food materialised, so it was back to work, slapping cement inside those cylinders of concrete. The day passed with no more "‘Allo"s and it ended like any other day at that time. The next morning came another "‘Allo" and there was the girl. She motioned for silence with a finger to her lips, looked around as a cautionary procedure and then dropped a newspaper package. Immediately opened, it contained the cob end of a loaf, four small tomatoes, some salt in a spill of paper and a sheet of paper requesting the words of any of the latest songs we could think of. Now I am not a lover of tomatoes, but the shared bread and two tomatoes with salt was as good to me as the Manna was to the Israelites in the time of Moses. I had forgotten the taste of salt and its succulence made me realise what I had been missing.

Now we had to play this game carefully, not to expend the repertoire too quickly, so we began with the words of "Little Old Lady" - an earlier song by Bing Crosby, threw the pencilled song sheet to her and Andy, once more inside a pipe section, sang the song a couple of times. Then once more she left the balcony. We must have been progressing favourably because after a couple of inspections Herr Winkler left us alone and Hurry Hurry locked the garden gate, so as far as he was concerned we were secure. The "‘Allo"s did not come every day, but when they did there was always the cob of bread, four tomatoes and salt wrapped in a sheet of newspaper. The newspaper was invaluable; it helped with the learning of German words, which at times proved very difficult because the text was in Gothic print. The parts of the "Volkischer Beobachter", cut into six inch squares, helped to take the strain off "Mein Kampf" and we asked the girl for more newspaper - for learning German, of course - and occasionally we would see a complete newspaper come sailing over the high railings of the Biergarten. On one occasion the girl was on the balcony, listening to Andy rendering the latest in the repertoire, when a newspaper came over the railings; I climbed to see who the supplier was and saw a lady pushing a bicycle. She put a finger to her mouth, mounted the cycle and rode off down the side-street. When asked, the girl told us the lady was her mother and that her father had been killed early in the war. We asked how she came to have a collection of records and she told us her brother was a guard on the railway, who frequently travelled to Switzerland, where he had bought them.

Eventually enough trenching had been created for Andy and I to begin the pipe-laying, with each section resting on two bricks, the joints plugged with oakum and sealed with cement. We would lay the sections fairly quickly, build inspection pits, with special sections into which we fitted metal crampons as foot rests; then we returned to the garden to treat the awaiting sections. One morning, whilst Andy and I were working in the Biergarten, following the awaited "Allo", the girl asked us if we were allowed out of camp on Sundays to walk around Munich and was astounded when we fell about laughing at the suggestion. I still had my beard and my blonde hair was a respectable length and she told me that, being tall and blonde-haired, I would easily pass for an example of a Saxon German. She had thought that because we were workers in Germany we had a certain freedom, like many conscripted workers from occupied countries. When we asked why she had raised this question, after much careful looking around as, she replied that, firstly, it would help her to increase her knowledge of English and, secondly, if we were always so hungry we could buy some bread and tomatoes. This was the opening which we had been seeking. Wrapping some of our Camp Marks in a piece of newspaper weighted by a stone, we threw the parcel up to her and asked if she could buy anything with our kind of cash - preferably a loaf of bread. Of course she had not seen any of this rubbish before and said that if we had German money her mother would buy us a loaf of bread.

It was then a case of "on thinking caps". The camp guards were rationed to three cigarettes a day, when they could find them, and the latest supplies were from Russia. Each consisted of a cardboard tube, at the end of which was a small cylinder of black tobacco, which meant that after a couple of sucks from the cardboard tube, cigarette finito! The name of those cigarettes was Mokri Superb. What a mockery! So our cigarettes became currency, but the only snag was that a guard was in trouble if he was caught smoking an English cigarette. Those who could not obtain our cigarettes would sell a fortunate comrade down the river. The best was to deal with a guard who was on his way home or on weekend leave, because he could collect a food ration ticket for three days. We found Hurry Hurry was due for leave and persuaded him to do a deal for his bread coupons and German Marks. Both Andy and Jack smoked, but I didn’t, so there were enough cigarettes in the kitty to do a deal and we were able to obtain the cash and coupons. The next time the vision appeared on the balcony we threw up to her our supply of one-Mark notes with a request for bread to be purchased. The next "Allo" came from over the garden railings, this time from the girl’s mother. She was asking for the bread coupons, which we had completely forgotten. So next day, following the welcome sound of "Allo" from over the railings, we gave the lady the "Brot-Marken", as they were called, entitling the purchaser to so many grammes of bread. The girl’s mother, whom we called "Meine Frau", must have been sympathetic to Andy and me because she often shopped with her bicycle and stopped by the railings and rang the bell of her bicycle. As long as we could supply the bread coupons she would not take the money and became a good friend.

Shop where working tokens could be exchanged for (mostly worthless) articles. Right hand notice says "IT PAYS TO ADVERTISE!" Photograph taken in 1942

Our Red Cross parcels issue worked out roughly at one between two at three-weekly intervals. On one occasion we were issued with a parcel each and agreed between the three of us to give Meine Frau one of the two-ounce packets of tea. When the bicycle bell tinkled, we threw the packet, wrapped in newspaper, into her shopping basket and motioned her to ride off. Some time later from the balcony came the "Allo" and there was the girl with her mother. The girl had tried to teach her mother to say "Thank you very much." But mother finished up crying and covered her face with her apron before going back into the room. Meine Frau was good to us. On another occasion we had received an issue of goodies from America in the form of toiletries, including toilet paper. We each received several cakes of soap and agreed to give one to Meine Frau. I remember it quite well; the soap was a large, bath-size piece with a swan embossed on it, and it was perfumed! The mother had difficulty organising her tongue to make the "th" sound, but she was learning to express her gratitude, and that was all that mattered. I say again, during those hungry days before the arrival of those parcels Meine Frau was good to us.

You remember me calling the Yankee German a ‘bar steward’. (Say it quickly and you will get the message.) He started a racket when we went to the parcel store to collect an item or two. He would place the chosen tin on the store counter and go through the motions of opening it. If you gave him a couple of cigarettes he would just open the tin; if not, he would empty the contents into the dish with other choices. No cigarettes and there would be a mixed dish. He must have been his own downfall, flashing the cigarettes around, because not long after starting his racket he disappeared and, according to Hurry Hurry, he had been sent to the Russian Front. There were great rejoicings when we learned this and even greater rejoicings when the Camp Commandant allowed us to have the parcels in our rooms.

The next requirement was a source of heat; such foodstuffs as meat and vegetables tasted better when heated. The German photographer became the initial supplier, bringing in boxes of Meta Tablets, a form of compressed methylated spirit which burned with a clear blue flame. I cannot remember the precise details: suffice to say that cigarettes were the main form of payment, followed by the two-ounce bars of chocolate which came in the Red Cross parcels. His propaganda visits were usually short-lived, so we had to cultivate other guards and with them chocolate had priority; they were fearful of being seen smoking English cigarettes in camp. You must realise that chocolate was a source of food and we were reluctant to part with it. Surprisingly enough there were bods in the camp who were always ready to swop their chocolate for cigarettes. The Lady Nicotine must have had a stranglehold on them.

Somewhere in the camp an enterprising kriegie had done a deal with somebody on the outside and come into possession of a circular electric hob. The news of this achievement spread through the camp like quicksilver; in no time at all negotiations were under way to purchase something similar. Those electric hobs were very expensive and cigarettes were the necessary currency. So the occupants of each room pooled cigarettes in order to have two rings per room. Some civilian was onto a good racket, being able to deal in such a commodity, because by then everything was diverted to the war effort. Each room had to wait until the shutters over the windows had been closed externally, then the two-way adaptor was fitted into the light socket and, according to the roster, meals were produced by the groups at the top of the list. I had previously written about having a French Army water bottle, which was shaped like the Ace of Spades on a playing card. With a tin opener on a soldier’s knife I cut out one side of the water bottle, hammered a piece of wood into the neck ring and - hey presto - there was a frying pan. Each morning the two cookers were placed in an empty Red Cross box and stowed in one of the two cupboards.

Of course, this luxury couldn’t last. Trouble came when the consumption of electricity had risen beyond all expectations and the nail in place of the fuse wire was found. There was a hell of an uproar and cries of "Sabotage" exploded from every German mouth, and sabotage was punishable by death! Of course to Gerry there was no accounting for this extra demand for power; the lighting was about half a candle-power and the kriegies were using Meta tablets. Puzzlement all round, but not for long. Next evening on return from work we found everything from each room outside on the ground: beds, bedding, cupboards and contents strewn everywhere and we had our first visit from the Gestapo. They were of all shapes and sizes, but readily recognisable by their long black leather coats and their grins, together with the confiscated electric rings and one idiot holding up the nail which had done such good work in place of the fuse. We were made to form up outside our blocks, while a senior Gestapo member worked himself up into a frenzy and, according to Dolmy, declared that everything except fresh air was "strengst verboten". The supply of Red Cross parcels was stopped, the hot shower once every ten days was stopped, mail in and out was stopped and anything else he could think of was stopped; plus we would be rigourously searched each time we returned from Arbeit! So there!

Once released we gathered the contents, made the room ship-shape and waited for the supply of rations from Gerry; even our Meta tablets had been trodden on and ground underfoot. There must have been some chastisement served out on the other side of the barbed wire. Next morning we were counted and counted, the Camp Commandant was there and everybody seemed to be trying to outshine the others, shouting louder than the next counter. On the march we could usually converse with the guards, to help improve their English, but not today. Of course we could talk amongst ourselves and the main topic was how to get around the suspensions. The only shot in our locker was to copy the French method, which was passive resistance. In other words, don’t refuse, just work as slowly as possible without completely stopping. We adopted an Italian expression: "Dopo domani, Giorgio", and it was a case of putting off until tomorrow what you can avoid doing today. The word spread throughout the camp that dead slow was to be the speed.

Amongst our camp members was a working party whose job was to unload large railway trucks and disperse the goods to other trucks for onward transport. Of course the goods trucks had to meet a schedule and this was soon upset. The trench diggers on our party worked so slowly that the Biergarten was piled high with pipe sections; very few sections were laid. Herr Winkler wanted to know why production had become so poor. We told him that in camp there was "viel Hunger", because Red Cross parcels had been stopped and as a result we had no strength. Each morning dozens of us took turns to report sick; it came to nothing, but we had to wait in camp until the Gerry M.O. appeared to pooh-pooh all hopes of time off, then guards had to be found to march us to our workplace. Dolmy had to ride around every work group, explaining to the bosses why the work rate was falling and to confirm that the delivery of Red Cross parcels had been stopped. This didn’t go down too well, since the civilian strength was so sadly depleted through the demands of the armed forces. All that remained was an elderly force of civilians - and not too many of them.

It was necessary to keep our room clean and tidy, but we had to organise our own cleaning gear. So we procured two pieces of wood from Herr Winkler and had him drill a series of holes in them; then we knotted two pieces of Red Cross parcel cord to the flat wood; one piece became a hand scrubber and the larger became a floor brush. One kriegie from each room was allowed to "go sick" each day and it was his job to brush out the room, tidy up the place and scrub the floor with the improvised hand scrubber, using scraps of soap when available, and sand when there was no soap. Because I was the only sailor in our room and because of the high regard in which the Navy was held, I was elected "Zimmer Fuehrer", i.e. Room Leader, but because I was also a mourer I was not allowed to take a turn in having a day off work to do the "sauber machen" - cleaning, that is. We agreed to make a few rules amongst ourselves and one was a Navy rule. In the Navy, anyone guilty of leaving an item of clothing outside his locker would find that it had been put into what was called a "scran bag" and could only be retrieved on payment of a piece of soap, which was then used to keep the mess deck clean. No soap, no item returned and, as the owner’s name was stamped upon each item of clothing, the miscreant was soon recognised and would face the wrath of the "Chiefie". So, when soap was available, we agreed in our room to follow this example, and of course scraps of soap were better than sand.

In the days of writing this story I am plagued by arthritis in every joint of my body. One morning in 1942 I awoke with the most excruciating pain in my left shoulder and any movement was horrible, such that I had to report sick. Being a mourer, at first any chance of being allowed to report sick was firmly denied. But I finally convinced the Feldwebel that I was in great pain and he allowed me to remain with the "dead and dying". The British Army Medical Officer, who had little power, took me to the medical hut to be inspected by the German M.O. "Abandon hope, etc." After swinging my left arm around as though he wanted to unwind it from my body, he asked me what service I was in and where I was captured. He had me sit down and tell him about our action off Crete and recount the events leading up to captivity. He was enthralled and commented that the long hours in the sea had eventually taken their toll. Wonder of wonders, he gave me a sick note for the Feldwebel: "Drei Tage Bettruhe." This meant three days in bed and I collected six of what I think must have been aspirins. The Feldwebel looked at me in amazement when he saw the sick note, entered my number, 5850, in his notebook and told me that I would be my room’s cleaner for the next three days. So much for Bettruhe!

On the third day I reported to the Feldwebel, only to discover that I had to carry a thumping great sack of boots to the railway station, to be returned to Stalag VIIA, where they would be exchanged for an equal number of repaired boots. Of course I would be accompanied by an armed guard. By the time we had reached Munich Station that sack of boots weighed a ton. At least we rode in a passenger compartment, but no-one else was allowed to join us. We arrived at Moosburg and trudged to the Stalag, where I took the sack of boots to the French cobblers’ workplace, after receiving instructions to be at the main gate by a certain time, early in the afternoon. Whilst waiting for the repaired boots ther French cobblers gave me a bowl of thick cabbage soup and a bag of their hard biscuits, so the journey had become worthwhile. Once at the main gate, I was collected by my guard and we trudged to Moosburg Station, to ride back to Munich.

Alighting at Munich Station, the guard took me to a newspaper stall and told me to wait while he went off somewhere. With the sack of boots on the ground, I just stood there looking at civilisation. After a short while a German woman armed with an umbrella came toward me and began to gabble away to me in an agitated manner, her voice becoming louder and louder. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying so I turned away from her and with that she set about me with her umbrella. By now there was a ring of civilians around us and all I could do was protect my head; she was certainly good with her umbrella. It seemed ages before the guard came onto the scene and at first he thought that I had caused the ruckus. There was screaming and shouting until he snatched the umbrella from her and roared at her, whereupon she began crying. It seems that her husband had been killed fighting the French and, seeing me by the bookstall in a foreign uniform, she thought I must be French and decided to extract her revenge. The guard bellowed and I recognised: "Englander! Kriegsgefangener!" He took me and the boots to the station exit and back to the camp. By means of gesticulations and my little understanding of the German language, the guard conveyed to me his wishes that I should not report the incident on the station platform. He should not have left me alone while he sloped off on some nefarious expedition and stood to face the wrath of the Feldwebel. Of course, the guard was not allowed to get off scott-free; he had no Brot-Marken, so I settled for a few German Marks. T’was all grist for the mill, m’dears.

Whilst writing this piece, for what it is worth I have remembered the name of the Feldwebel - Herr Weiblinger, although it adds no value to the particular reminiscence.

Of course, by now each party was thoroughly searched upon return to the camp from work. Several of us had, through barter, obtained German Meerschaum pipes and on this occasion I had obtained a supply of German Marks. Knowing that a search was inevitable, I had to figure where to hide the Marks. Out came the Meerschaum pipe, the money was stuck in the bowl and pipe in mouth I marched into camp, was body-searched and, seemingly all clear, was allowed to enter the compound.

Meta tablets again became the source of heat supplies, so with the aid of the razor blade immersion heater and tablets we could have our cuppa and heat the contents of a desired tin from the parcel. Because the "Lagergeld", camp money, could purchase very little in the camp canteen, we soon began to accumulate fairly large sums of useless paper and on Saturdays had a fair amount in hand. Razor blades, blocks of toothpaste and tins of dubbin were all that were on offer and even now I still have a couple of Lagergeld pfennig notes in my kriegie wallet. More about the wallet later.

Eventually the road works with Firma Winkler ended and on the last afternoon Herr Winkler gave each one of us six plums. There were many shouts of "Auf Wiedersehen" and as we paraded to be counted Andy and I saw Meine Frau standing by the railings. There was no sign of the vision, no more "Allo’s" from the balcony, but as we marched away and passed our benefactress we shouted: "Auf Wiedersehen! Wir Kommen wieder!" But of course we never did, although I am sure we left pleasant memories with that good lady. I wonder if the Ostwirtschaft Gasthaus escaped the rigours of the war. Is the house with the balcony still standing?

Jack, Andy and I were still together, which was the main thing and, what is more, we shared everything. Personal parcels from home were starting to dribble in, but those first requested food parcels never saw daylight. Even money Gerry never sent them. The personal parcels were mainly items of clothing: woollen gloves and mittens, plus the ever-welcome balaclavas, which were going to be so needed in the coming winters. Sometimes there would be a bulk issue of scarves, gloves, socks, etcetera and frequently there would be a note from the knitter, inviting a reply. I wonder if any permanent attachments ever came from the rationed reply letters.

As I have written, the civilian workers numbers dwindled and a day or two after finishing with Firma Winkler our room was told off to work for the Firma Best and once again Andy and I were the mourers. Work for the Firma Best was varied. The civilian in charge of the day-to-day jobs was a Czechoslovakian called Mendle. He sported a Hitler moustache and was never backward in giving the Hitler salute whenever Dolmy came around. On one occasion the whole crowd of us were engaged in making a road towards what we thought to be another prison camp. We unloaded ballast from railway trucks and transported it in wheelbarrows to make a road from the goods yard to the main gates, over which there were those words I will never forget: "Arbeit Macht Frei." During the several weeks on that job there was always an unpleasant smell permeating the air. Many years later, when teaching at St. Nicholas School in Sidmouth, I experienced that smell again and when I asked the school gardener what was causing the smell, he told me he was burning pork bones from the school kitchen. The place where we had been building the road was called Dachau.

On one occasion we had to make a concrete platform in a covered part of the goods yard and after concreting the area it was decided it should have a layer of cement and sand covering it. Andy and I, being the mourers, had to do this and the work took several days. On the Saturday it was obvious that the work would not be completed in normal working time, so Dolmy was sent for to agree that the others would go back to the camp with the guards and Mendle would bring us when the work was completed. It was mid-summer in 1942 and we must have completed the work about six-ish. So we began the walk back - actually walked on the pavement, instead of in the road. Mendle took Andy and me into a Biergarten which was patronised by Auslanders - recruited workers from occupied countries. Here he bought each of us a half litre of beer and in our mixed German we talked about our respective homes and families. Then he took us into the pub and bought us each a bowl of soup with a cob of bread, and it was good. That evening was the end to a very rare and perfect day; we sauntered along the pavement, discussing life in our own particular German; the sun was warm and existence was not too bad, until we came to those grim reminders: gates, barbed wire and German soldiers. Here waiting for us was the Feldwebel, standing like an oak tree. Andy and I were checked in, Weiblinger checked us thoroughly, just in case Mendle had gone soft, I suppose, then through the inner gate of barbed wire, where it seemed that the sun had even stopped shining! It was a very depressed sailor who sat quietly on a stool that evening, keeping himself to himself. If only Subby had collected us that morning at Sphakia! I would have still been 91819, instead of 5850.

The next morning it was back to work; on a part of the platform where an office was to be built and here Andy came into his own. He became so enthusiastic at being back to his tools that we all had to dampen his enthusiasm; the building of the office was going to take a long time. Andy concentrated on the corners of the building and I worked to the string line, laying the courses of bricks. From somewhere or other a civilian bricklayer materialised and seemed to think that he would take over the job; he was surprised when he discovered that Andy was a P.O.W. He began to complain that Andy and I were not good enough to build the office; about me he was correct: parts of my walling wandered like a dog’s hind leg, but Andy knew his onions. When he built keyed arches over the windows and doors, the civvie brickie had to concede. Strangely enough he disappeared - to the Russian Front, I hope. After the completion of the office there was no more building work and our party was engaged in anything that seemed to be urgent.

By now Russian P.O.W.s were in evidence, being used in large numbers. Often, when arriving at the base, we would be loaded onto a lorry and taken to a railway depot to offload ballast at various points where Russians were doing the Tick-Tocking work. There seemed to be swarms of them on each job; they seemed to be getting in each other’s way, a motley crowd, dressed in a similar manner to when we were first kitted out. We had one contract to unload a large number of goods wagons filled with sand; each day saw us at the rail depot, shovelling sand into lorries. Because of the war effort petrol was scarce and the fuel for the lorries came from wood which, when heated, gave off a gas which was used to fuel the motors. This required the gas to be collected in a large bag fitted to the lorry; I believe that something like this was tried in this country, but I cannot recall seeing any.

You will remember me writing about the three Australians, one of whom was Harry Woodward. He developed an ulcer on one leg and the sore became such that a depression developed. There was no treatment for this sore and we agreed that he would be the one to go sick each day to clean up the room and rest his leg as much as possible. Eventually a French soldier, a medical orderly, came to the camp and told Harry that the only cure would be to expose his leg to sunshine, commencing with short periods of exposure and gradually lengthening the periods. Sure enough, this treatment did the trick and the ulcer disappeared. Another casualty was a room-member called Archie Goodchild, who lost all his hair. The prescription for treatment was to have his bald head covered with shaving soap and then shaved with a safety razor. Every evening we took turns to shave Archie’s head and, believe it or not, some signs of hair began to appear - not all over, but in patches. Once the signs of hair began to appear Archie thought that the travail of head-shaving was over, but not so; every evening his head was shaved billiard-ball clean until the French medical orderly agreed that the treatment should cease. The whole head of hair did not grow again, although small tufts of gingery hair appeared and stayed.

Eventually the Firma Best dispensed with our services and because of the call-ups to serve on the Russian Front the civilian labour employed at the railway goods yard became almost non-existant. So we were sent to the Hauptbahnhof once again. Not Tick-Tocking this time, but emptying goods trucks at the Central Goods Yard. We worked in groups, so Andy, Jack and I contrived to work together. All the groups had a chief goal: look for parcels or packages that could contain food and spread the word of the whereabouts of the truck concerned. We often came across boxes of biscuits, canned sardines, tins of fruit and, frequently, dried fruit. Each group had a civilian overseer, very elderly or medically unfit. The goods yard contained a large number of platforms at which the trucks were placed overnight. Each morning our civvie would collect from the office the numbers of the trucks and the platforms at which they were standing; our job was to open the trucks and disperse the contents, according to destination. We each used a two-wheeled trolley, to which was attached a hinged steel platform. Large boxes could be carried by opening out the platform, which also became a handy weapon for ramming the boxes to ascertain their contents. When we found food boxes, after dipping in, we would move along the platform, singing a song about food, something like "Boiled Beef and Carrots" and sing out the platform number when passing. Then the damaged box would be buried beneath the remaining contents. There were occasionally very long wagons en route, if I remember correctly, to Nuremburg, where there was a flying school, specialised in glider training. These long wagons contained glider parts, which came in for special treatment from our trollies. Packages for Nuremburg would be stacked around the glider parts and, since the long wagons commenced their journeys at the glider factory, we were seemingly never under suspicion of causing the damage. The goods yard overseer was an elderly man, short in stature and very obese, always spic and span in his German Railway uniform. One had to watch out for him; he moved silently and one never knew where he would pop up. The German word we used for "platform" was "Buhne", so of course he was called the "Binney Fuehrer". We learned to discover the whereabouts of the Binney Fuehrer before cracking open any containers. One could hear shouts of "Binney Fuehrer?" and others would shout back the platform number, where he was to be found. Once he caught me fair and square, as I will recount later.

Now the episode of the sardines. Part of our uniforms was cloth gaiters which buttoned around the bottom of the trousers and over the top of the boots. Late one day Andy and I were loading the same wagon and found a container of small tins of sardines. We promptly stuck two of these small tins into each side of our gaiters, just as the whistle was blown to sound "fall in" outside the office. Being last to arrive, together with Jack we made up the last three, were counted off and were ready to march when the Binney Fuehrer demanded a search. Those tins of sardines became red hot. The first three stepped forward to be searched by the guards and we slowly shuffled forward to our fate. Just a couple of threes before us and Hurry Hurry exploded, complaining that he had done enough; his food would be cold, our soup would be cold, we had miles to march and enough was enough. So we marched off, breathing sighs of relief and the tins of sardines suddenly became cool again. Once back in our room and locked in we had to display our wares and explain how we had found them late in the day, with no time to share the knowledge; we had not broken any of our rules. Those sardines came in very useful during one of the long spells between Red Cross parcel issues!

By now our hair had grown so much that we needed the services of a barber. The cost of living was certainly increasing because a haircut cost a couple of cigarettes. One offered camp money - "Gefangenschaftgeld" - but no dice; cigarettes or go unshorn. I haven’t described Jack Adams too distinctly, but he was a handsome looking lad. His complexion remained brown, doubtless from his service in Palestine; his hair was black, with a sheen on it, such that the secretary of Binney Fuehrer took a shine to Jack. Now, she wasn’t a lass you would look at twice, being stockily built and with slightly bowed legs. Jack didn’t make it his business to learn much of the German language and when she cornered him in an empty goods truck I don’t know how they conversed. Suffice to say that each morning she would appear on the main platform and enquire: "Wo ist mein Johann?" This we soon learnt meant: "Where is my John?" Give him full marks: he tried to avoid her, but she invariably brought a bag of buns, so Andy and I always contrived to know where she was, knowing we would have our share. Betty Albrecht was her name and poor Jack was ragged unmercifully; he could deny as much as he liked; he spluttered and decried, but as long as the buns came regularly he knew he had to conform. I can still hear Betty Albrecht asking: "Wo ist mein Johann?" The shout would echo around the platforms from us until somebody would provide the answer and away she would trot. Poor Jack!

I have mentioned that once the Binney Fuehrer caught me fair and square. We had been plagued several days by the Gestapo; they popped up in the trucks and kept watch on the platforms, so we decided that we would break open as many boxes as we could and hide them, put boxes in the wrong trucks and alter destination labels, just to keep the Gestapo busy. On this particular morning, I had found in a truck a carton of "Pudding-Pulver", custard powder. I duly broke open the carton and put a packet of powder into each of my gloves, intending to ditch them in another truck, when in walked the Binney Fuehrer. He saw the busted carton and asked me if I had broken it. Of course I denied it, so he called a guard to search me. I kept the mittens on my hands, raised above my head, and the guard found nothing. Then it was "Brotzeit" for the civilian workers, time to gather in the works canteen. He followed me and when I took off my mittens he grabbed them and, of course discovered the packets of Pudding-Pulver. That made his day. He exploded and, when he finally calmed down, had one of the guards take me back to camp. On the way back the guard asked me why I had bothered to steal Pudding-Pulver, which was of no value to us, and I explained it was to give the Gestapo something to do. He agreed that the sooner they left us alone the better; they were all "schlecht". Back at the camp the Feldwebel was sent for and he seemed to think there was something wrong with me for bothering to steal such a useless article. So with Dolmy I was arraigned in front of the Camp Commandant and explained that everything we did was to keep the Gestapo busy and how they were behind our backs wherever and whenever we moved. Now my crime meant that I should be sent back to Stalag VIIA for punishment, but instead he gave me five days ‘calaboose’; this was solitary confinement in a prison cell at the end of the guards’ block, on bread and water. We later learned that at about that time the Commandant had received news of the death of his third son, who had been killed on the Russian Front.

And so I collected my blanket from my bunk, together with my toilet gear and went to the other side of the wire, where the guards’ hut was situated and was duly ensconced in the small room. In it was a single bunk on which was a well-used mattress which contained very little straw. There was no window and the room was illuminated by a low wattage electric lamp. My guard turned out to be the sort of caretaker of the block; he certainly wasn’t physically fit enough to be a soldier, but a soldier he was. He had a smattering of English, mostly football jargon. His claim to fame was that he had visited Wembley to see an international football match and as a youth had played as an amateur for an Austrian national youth team. He too had a desire to improve his knowledge of the English language and would often open the door of the calaboose to converse. Should anyone walk along the passage the guard would call out: "Abort, ja, ja." as though he was about to take me to the toilet and he would remark to the newcomer: "Englander immer Abort gehen." as though he was always taking me to the toilet. For five days I had as much water as I could drink and a seventh of a loaf of bread each morning; on two mornings he brought me a mug of hot mint tea, which was most welcome. From our exchanges it seemed the guards were sympathetic; anything to upset the Gestapo was welcome, but to take Pudding-Pulver meant that I was a few coppers short of a shilling - a Dummkopf! After the working parties and guards had returned, the evenings were long until just before lights-out, when I would be taken to the toilet, before being locked in for the night. I remember the long nights when I lay sleepless and reminisced, wondering where the Subby was and what had happened to Taffy, the coxswain, Tommy Shiels, the Seaman Gunner and to Syd Pownall, the Ordinary Seaman, who all went into the bag with me.

Time dragged until I was taken out of the calaboose and Dolmy took me to the Camp Commandant’s office. He told me that I would not be sent back to the Stalag, but would resume working with the Hauptbahnhof Partei - and would strictly leave Pudding-Pulver in its carton! Next morning I mustered with the gang and, heighho, off to work we marched.

The year of 1943 was well on its way and this was the year of the fall of Stalingrad. I don’t know if you are familiar with an Ouigee board; it apparently functions with people in a sort of spiritual seance, spelling out letters to form answers to questions. Remember the mess-deck buzzes? Our camp thrived on them; we had blokes who spent hours searching the Holy Bible, especially the Book of Revelations, to discover the outcome of the war. A pity we couldn’t lay hands on a copy of "Old Moore’s Almanac". Anyhow, back to Stalingrad, which was surrounded by the Russian Army, trapping thousands of Germans with no hope of escape. Apparently the Ouigee board during one of the seances had spelt out the answer that Stalingrad would fall to the Russians and of course this was splendid news to us, especially as the Allies had also gained a foothold in Italy.

By dint of bribery here and there enough parts had been obtained to make a small radio set, put together by a lad who was a member of the Royal Engineers, and each evening the set was assembled to hear the B.B.C. news. The aerial was a copper wire poked up the chimney. Now each day in the local newspaper, the "Volkischer Beobachter", a map of the battlefront around Stalingrad was printed and was obviously a propaganda effort to sustain the population, because it bore no resemblance to the information given out on the B.B.C. news. Brotzeit came and as usual the civilian workers gathered in front of the notice board. There was an initial silence as they seemed to ponder on the reason for the two lines of battle and then they began their comments. Of course we had agreed to say nothing, in case we divulged any knowledge. The news soon spread and in came the Deputy Binney Fuehrer; when he saw the map he literally exploded. I have previously written how the Germans scream and shout when enraged, but this fellow really foamed at the mouth and was beside himself, shouting "sabotage" before ripping the offending sheet from the board. To help the chaos continue, we asked the civvies what all the fuss was about, to be told that it was the different situation about Stalingrad that caused the upset and there were threats that the Gestapo would be investigating, which worried them somewhat. The old Ouigee board professed correctly, because Stalingrad did fall to the advancing Russians and many, many thousands of German troops were captured, poor sods. Hitler had decreed no retreat.

By now, Allied bombers were occasionally visiting Munich. On our Sundays off work at the railway goods yard we were taken out to fill in bomb craters in the roads and one could not help but see the warning notices on the bombed building about looters being shot. One weekend saw a very heavy snowfall and we were taken out to work at clearing the streets of snow. There was a supply of shovels and wheelbarrows and the procedure was to take up the manhole covers in the roads, load the snow in the wheelbarrows and tip it into the manholes. Just as today people will stop and watch construction or demolition work in progress, it was not long before the wheelbarrow operators had attracted an audience. Before tipping snow down the hole they shouted down to the non-existent member below such questions as: "Are you all right, Charlie?" "Are you keeping warm, George?" or "Look out, Ted, here’s another lot on its way." Anything to ease the boredom, and the goofers seemed quite impressed, especially when a tipper would wait for George or Charlie to get out of the way before tipping the snow. Jack Adams was one of the wheelbarrow tippers and one time he tip-toed with his barrow of snow to the manhole and, with his fingers to his lips for silence, looked around at the goofers before upending the snow down the hole. He then held his sides and began laughing loudly, as though he had tipped the snow over the unaware, but actually non-existent worker below. The goofers were silent for a moment, Jack was cavorting around like an idiot; and from the crowd, carrying her umbrella, came an elderly lady, who proceeded to wallop Jack soundly. Of course, the shoe was on the other foot and we all had a good laugh at seeing Jack ducking and weaving to dodge the efforts of the old girl. It took a guard to convince her there was nobody below and she had to look to make sure before going on her way with the other watchers who were moved on. I can’t help but think that Grandma in the Giles cartoons of the Express must have been copied from that old lady. Perhaps not so comfortably built, it being wartime.

Then came the news that the Allies had made great progress in Italy and hope began to flicker in our bodies. Strangely enough, none of us throughout those years ever considered that we would lose the war, even though the early times of captivity were harsh. Now we were hearing news of successes. Conditions in camp life improved. Wooden tubs appeared, with which we could go to the boiler house and collect hot water to dhobey our clothes. Whenever Red Cross parcels arrived we were allowed one each intact to take to our room.

German ration card for one day's supply, 1943

At about this time Canadian Red Cross parcels began to arrive and, as good as the British parcels were, those from Canada made it seem Christmas had arrived with each issue. In each parcel was a tin of butter, a tin of bacon, a large box of very hard biscuits which, when soaked in cold water, swelled to become large pancakes. Imagine how they filled the belly when eaten in dry form! Also included in the parcel was a large tin of dried milk powder and these tins were cleverly made so as to be converted easily into drinking mugs, or sectionalised to become part of a chimney stack. Besides these items was a flat tin of delicious chocolate and a packet of Sun Maid raisins. Paradise gained!

Being a non-smoker, I was able to exchange some cigarettes for chocolate; some of those blokes just had to have another cigarette. I remember one Autumn when dried leaves from trees were collected and, using paper from "Mein Kampf", the "dying for a smoke brigade" would roll their own cigarettes. The smell was awful and the accompanying coughing was harrowing, but it seemed like paradise to some, as they related the best way to cure the various types of dried leaves.

One evening I was approached by Tisch, the camp carpenter, who opened by talking about my girlfriend at home and how sorry he was about the separations. This led him to talking about his own family and how his daughter would soon have her twenty-first birthday. His wife would dearly love to make a birthday cake for the occasion but, sad to say, she could not buy any dried fruit. Was there any chance of possibly purchasing a packet of raisins? On thinking caps. He didn’t have much to offer, but the subject of eggs cropped up. Shades of bartering in Gibraltar, but instead of trying to force the price down we had to increase the price and in the end were able to demand twelve eggs for a packet of raisins. He couldn’t manage to raise a dozen at one go; he would have to approach other members of the family and we agreed to wait. And so eventually in his workshop we collected twelve eggs and handed over a packet of Sun Maid raisins - and at the same time managed to wangle a slice of the birthday cake for each of us! What did we do with those eggs? I remember that we had two boiled eggs each but, strangely enough, how we consumed the others escapes my memory. One could suppose that having eggs for the first time in a couple of years would remain in the memory, but no; sorry.

I have written how conditions in the camp improved after Stalingrad, such that we were no longer searched when returning from Arbeit. Of course this worked in our favour; we could take chances with what we could find in the goods trucks. On one occasion somebody found a box of Army grey woollen socks; we lost no time in gathering a couple of pair each and luckily on entering the camp there was no search. One clever lad in the room reasoned that when the pilfered carton was discovered there was bound to be repercussions, so for the time all of the socks should be hidden. But where? Just keeping them in our Red Cross parcel boxes would not do, so what was to be done? Ponder, ponder, think, think. You may recall in my description of the room, how it was illuminated by a low wattage electric light bulb, which hung low and gave off a feeble light, leaving the upper reaches of the room in comparative darkness. So, taking advantage of this, we strung a clothes line made of string from the Red Cross parcels high up in the ceiling and hung the socks on the line; they were all but invisible. It was agreed they would remain there for the foreseeable future and that we would keep quiet and wait, in case the Gestapo paid us a visit. They did shortly afterwards and questions were asked about grey socks destined for the gallant soldiers on the Eastern Front, poor sods. Vehement denials, of course, so we were allowed, after inspection, to carry out our Red Cross parcel boxes and wait. Once again they went to town in the room, throwing the mattresses out and emptying them of straw; beds, followed by lockers, table and stools were taken outside. The room was finally empty and then they looked for loose flooring. Finally they came out and admitted there were no socks to be found. The upshot was that this time we were allowed to fill our paillasses with fresh straw after replacing the room contents, and the socks were still on the line, up in the gloom of the roof! And they stayed there for a considerable time afterwards. Feldwebel Weiblinger often asked us what we did with the socks, when checking us in and out of the camp. Occasionally he would slap on a search when we returned, but no socks. We always blamed the theft on the Auslanders and eventually this was accepted. Upon reflection, taking the socks was an act of complete foolishness, when they were destined for the Wehrmacht in Russia. Had we been caught, we would probably have had a rough time from the Gestapo; but needs must when the devil drives!

On thinking back about our episodes while working at the Hauptbahnhof, I realise we did our best for the war effort - ours, that is. Once a truck was filled and locked, it became the job of one of us, while the others kept watch, to remove the destination label from its cage and swop it with one from a truck bound in the opposite direction. We often waved those wagons goodbye as they were shunted out. The only wagons which could not be redirected were the extra-long ones, which contained glider parts and were going to a set destination. We managed to obtain a spanner to remove the drainage bolts from the axle oil boxes of the wagons; then we urinated in the empty oil boxes after replacing the drainage bolts. A skin of oil would float on top of the urine so that the axle boxes would seem to be full of oil; for good measure a handful of gravel would be added. On many of the wagons was stencilled the exhortation: "Die Raeder muessen fuer den Sieg rollen." i.e. "Wheels Must Roll For Victory". Did our efforts help to combat this? After all, they did chuck in their hands. Every little helps, as the old lady said as she ------ into the ocean!

One evening, marching back to camp, we were halted by the guards for some reason or other; on the pavement watching us was an Italian soldier. He was dressed in what must have been his best uniform, because he certainly looked smart; the uniform included a topi-type piece of headgear, sporting a mass of cockerel feathers of differing hues. Alongside us, he must have stood out like a hotel commissionaire. In our working party was a lad from the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a London lad of Italian parents, who spoke Italian fluently. So as we waited in the road Peter Bonetti began speaking to the Italian soldier and when we moved off again the soldier walked with us, all the time talking with Peter. He had been wounded, hospitalised in Munich and was very lonely, being disregarded by everybody. This was apparently how much the Germans valued their Italian allies. The soldier would have come in if allowed, but no dice. Once inside the gates to be mustered, Hurry Hurry harangued Peter for lowering himself to talk to an Italian. He said that we should have learned a lesson from having them as allies in the Great War. Dolmy happened to be nearby and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. When Peter explained that he was of Italian descent and was practising his use of the language, he was reminded that he was a British Italian - and that made all the difference.

One Saturday in the Summer of 1943 one of our lads who was suffering from malaria paraded wearing his greatcoat, because his fever was causing him to shiver and shake. Present at the parade was the Camp Commandant, who was an elderly, high-ranking officer. Because the permitted number had been considered sick, there was no chance of our lad being excused. The Camp Commandant eyed us up and down and the next thing we knew we all had to wear our greatcoats; he wasn’t having the Englaender marching to work in different stages of dress. And the two guards had to wear their greatcoats as well, all marching about four or five miles on a hot Summer morning, because one of us was trying to keep warm. Hurry Hurry was supposed to have had the day off to attend a wedding locally and its cancellation didn’t leave him too happy. After cabbage soup time he took the lad suffering from malaria and sat him in the workers’ canteen, left him the rifle and bayonet to look after and went to the wedding. He came back just before finishing time, merry and bright and on top of the world. We still had to wear our greatcoats on the march back to camp on that warm summer evening!

Hurry Hurry eventually went on leave and his place was taken by a very unpleasant specimen. On his first day with us he fixed his bayonet to his rifle and repeatedly made threatening gestures towards us. Apparently he had been wounded in a delicate place whilst fighting the British in France and seemed to think that he could take it out on us. Came a delivery of Red Cross parcels and with them a supply of cigarettes, but on this occasion it worked out something like a parcel between three and a small number of cigarettes each. The next morning, when at work, Mr. Nasty, with bayonet fixed, demanded a cigarette from one of the Australians, who told him to get stuffed and refused to hand one over. Mr. Nasty promptly stuck the bayonet into the Aussie’s stomach and actually drew blood. Of course there was an uproar and we all adjourned to the canteen. We had a discussion and one of the lads, who had been a newspaper reporter in civvie street, prevailed upon us to give a cigarette when demanded by Mr. Nasty. At this we all demurred, but he said he had a plan to get rid of that guard.

Mr. Nasty soon tried his threatening moves again and was quite pleased with himself when cigarettes were forthcoming. Now, part of the German soldier’s uniform was a leather belt on which were a number of pouches, ostensibly to hold cartridges, and Mr. Nasty began to put the cigarettes into his pouches. Being new to guard duties, he apparently had not been warned about possessing prisoners’ cigarettes. Came the end of the day and back to camp; when counted in the usual procedure was to pass through the barbed wire gate into the compound, but on this occasion the ex-reporter shouted to us to stand fast. Feldwebel Weibling wanted to know why and was told we wanted to see the Camp Commandant and refused to move. Dolmy came on the scene and eventually the Camp Commandant appeared. When Dolmy heard the charge against the guard he just would not believe it, until he was told to look in the guard’s cartridge pouch. There they were, all those prized cigarettes; then he saw the cut on the stomach of the Australian soldier. The cigarettes were handed back and the Aussie was taken to hospital. The guard was led away and Dolmy apologised on behalf of the Commandant. Honour was satisfied. We did not see that guard again and were told that he was considered to be slightly deranged and had been sent to the Eastern Front, which meant facing the Russians.

Over the four years of captivity a large number of personal parcels had been sent to me, but sadly I must report that not many reached me. Mabel and my Dad were able to collect clothing coupons from the Prisoner of War Section of the Red Cross at Mutley Plain in Plymouth, essential for the purchase of clothing and footwear. Mabel collected and bought wool to knit socks and gloves for me; indeed any parcel containing socks was most valuable. One personal parcel which did manage to arrive contained a pair of Naval pattern boots, ‘Wheatsheaf’ brand, which Mabel had purchased from the Plymouth Cooperative store. I decided to keep them for a rainy day, if ever such a day could occur in a kriegie’s life; more about them in a later installment of this reminiscence.

Hand-coloured Christmas card sent to the future Mrs Mabel Siddall in December 1942

An elderly guard arrived to take over the duties of Mr. Nasty. On the first roll-call he called my name twice and came to look me over well and truly. We marched off and when we arrived at the goods yard he took me to one side and began to tell me the history of my name. To him it was most certainly Seidl and not Siddall; I must have been of German extraction, being tall and having blond hair and blue eyes; most certainly my forebears could be found in Saxony. He was of course called Seidl. I joked with him, saying perhaps I should call him Uncle and with every roll-call he pronounced my name Seidl. Did our forebears come from Saxony?

Remember I had written how I stuffed German marks in the bowl of my pipe when entering the camp. These pipes were Meerschaum, similar to those used by the Bavarians. Andy, Jack and I obtained one each from our civvy boss and a French P.O.W., who was the camp cobbler, set up a business of carving intricate designs on the bowls. For me he carved the Naval crest, the German swastika and eagle emblems and the date of captivity. We were told to look out for sheets of leather in the trucks and I ‘found’ a large sheet of soft green leather, which I smuggled into camp by wrapping it around my body under my tunic. In return for this, the cobbler made a wallet each for the three of us. I still have the pipe and the wallet, among the memorabilia of that life.

One day there was great consternation in the canteen, when the "Volkischer Beobachter" newspaper reported severe setbacks in the Italian campaign. The civvie workers talked about the numerous hospital trains that passed through Munich station. Then came the day when the newspaper divulged the news that the Wehrmacht was retreating to set up new lines of defence. To us, this was history repeating itself, for we had heard this when our lads were retreating in France in 1940. So the writing was on the wall for their Italian campaign. All we could talk about was how our P.O.W.s in Italy would soon be free when our forces over-ran the camps. From later conversations with P.O.W.s who had been brought from Italy into Germany, most of the Italian camps had been well to the North of that country. Eventually, with the writing on the wall, the Italian forces sought an armistice with the Allies in 1943 and opted out of the alliance with Germany and Hitler. This left a large number of P.O.W.s in Italy no longer in captivity, but, as events turned out, there were no orders to take advantage of their freedom. A postwar film called "Hogan’s Heroes", although fictional, aptly shows the indecision in these cases. As the German forces retreated northwards into Germany they made it their business to scoop up all of the so-called free P.O.W.s and transport them by cattle truck into Germany.

These events also had an effect on my life. Because such large numbers were being transported into Germany from Italy the question of accomodation arose. The solution seemed to be to transport us to Northern regions to make space for the former Italian P.O.W.s. So one Saturday, early in October 1943, we were told to be ready to move out of Arbeitslager 2780A, to return to Stalag VIIA at Mooseburg. Hot showers were laid on and the Camp Commandant decided to clean out the Red Cross parcels store. So next day we each collected three Red Cross food parcels and duly called that day ‘Mad Sunday’, primarily because we hadn’t seen so much food in a long time and because some of the inmates seemed to go mad! Because we were leaving, the Commandant decided to put on an inspection in the afternoon. The word went round to put on a show for him; boots were dubbined, any parts of brass on badges, gaiters and belts were polished with toothpaste. And so we paraded outside our huts, ready for him to inspect our living quarters. When he approached our hut the Australian Sergeant-Major called us to attention and old drill memories brought us up with a movement as one man. He inspected us and our quarters, as he did at every hut, and to each of the groups he saluted and remarked: "Sehr gut".

And so on Monday morning, some with packs on their backs, all with Red Cross parcels, we footed it to the Hauptbahnhof goods yard, to be loaded into the same type of wagon in which some of us had been working a few days before. The fat Buehne-Fuehrer was there and we told Jack to wave to Betty Albrecht, but he wasn’t too keen. Once again we were boxed, but not for so long this time and eventually we de-trained outside Mooseburg station to trudge to Stalag VIIA, where "Arbeit macht frei". There had been quite a number of work camps rounded up by the time our lot arrived. We were housed in one of the lower compounds at the bottom of the long main road. The huts were exactly as we had left them almost two years previously. I grabbed a paillasse, made of some ersatz material, and crammed into it as much straw as possible. Then, with the paillasse and the rest of my possessions, I entered the hut, found a bunk, ensuring that Bob and Jack were close by and, as we had done so many times before, just sat and waited. Upon reflection, in comparison with life in the Stalag, some of the later days in Arbeitslager 2780A had seen us almost spoiled. Now in Stalag VIIA once again it was back to the large nail in the fuse box and razor-blade electric heating to make a brew of tea or heat tinned food. The next morning I discovered along with everyone else that the straw was the same as the first issue; the fleas were still there and we must have provided a fresh supply of blood to augment their menu. It was a case of itch and scratch, itch and scratch. At least we had the contents of the Red Cross parcels to relieve the agony and therefore the luxury of foregoing cabbage soup.

The compounds were left open, so the three of us were able to seek out a French P.O.W. who had been particularly kind to us in our early days in VIIA. He had been captured at the Maginot Line and had no idea of soldiering, so he told us in his broken English. Before the war he had been a representative of the manufacturing firm, Courtaulds; called to serve in the French Army he was captured uninjured. He had given us some of his ration of hard biscuit in those early days and, being so hungry at that time, we must have seemed beggars. So we visited him and took him a tin of jam. We had visions of a meal of bread and jam, but he had other ideas, opening the tin and eating the jam spoonful by spoonful! It was then that I learned that what we call jam, the French call ‘confiture’, and the phrase bread and jam didn’t seem to exist in their vocabulary.

During that stay in VIIA, I developed beri-beri; my feet and ankles disappeared in a swamp of liquid and as I walked my feet flopped in front of me. I went to the medical quarters, where a doctor from the South African Army examined me. I was so surprised to see the depressions remain in my ankles, or where my ankles should have been, when he pressed his fingers on my legs. "Beri-beri," he said and gave me a container of Bemax, a type of bran. I was to eat as much of it as I could in one session, without drinking. It was hard going, because Bemax is a very dry substance. The next morning I was in a dash to reach the toilet and with relief, I just stood there and let the liquid leave my body. I wondered when it would end. Having a pee was one thing, but as ridiculous as it may seem, this was bliss and the signs of beri-beri went with the urine! I made sure I polished off the remainder of that Bemax!

One day we were suddenly rounded up and confined to our compounds, there to see the arrival of a large number of Russians put into the compound adjacent to ours. The wash places and toilets for both compounds were in one building, with just a partition separating them. Somehow or other the Russians made a hole in the partition and soon our lads were passing cigarettes to them. In no time that small hole became man-sized and soon the Russians were in our compound and then in our hut, with our fellows sharing their posessions, mostly scarves, balaclavas and, of all things, soap. They were soon missed from their compound and quickly an armed Feldwebel together with armed guards entered. The word spread to the Russians and they rapidly exited our compound, via the toilets, back into their compound. Of course, dozens of men were leaving the toilet - far more than could be possibly accomodated in the place. When the Feldwebel discovered the hole in the partition he laid about them with his rifle and beat several Russians to the ground. Then the guards joined in and we began to curse at them. It seemed as though they were scared at being surrounded by the Russians. They panicked and began firing their rifles. As we continued booing, they turned their rifles on us and began to fire over our heads. That ended our protest and we all dived for our hut and safety. Next came a number of guards with German Shepherd dogs, large creatures with large teeth and long pink tongues - the dogs, I mean, not the coal-scuttle helmeted men. They came into each compound and cleared them; one didn’t argue with those dogs and we were locked in our hut. Somebody must have worked all night, because next morning the partition had been completely rebuilt and the Russian compound was empty. They had left the Stalag. Whether they were en route for elsewhere we never knew, but they certainly caused havoc in the short time they were with us.

And so came the news that we kriegies bound for destinations new; but where? Nobody was telling. Once again there came the guards with their clipboards, checking identity discs and counting. As usual, each guard seemed to arrive at a different total from the others and we longed to hear the word "stimmt", which meant they all agreed. My memory dims as to how long we remained in Stalag VIIA. I know it ran into weeks; we began to look for the daily potato and bread ration to augment the dwindling Red Cross parcel supply of Mad Sunday. By now we were in of isolation, contained in the compound, waiting for the cattle trucks. Apparently Jerry needed as many trucks as he could lay his hands on to transport the bodies that had been rounded up in the North of Italy. And the fleas were still feeding!

My story must go back to somewhere in 1942, and this will have relevance, as will be seen later. In preparation for the invasion of France a trial attack on the coast of Dieppe had been planned and carried out, using mainly Canadian forces. These forces were badly mauled during the attack and Jerry had a field day beating them off, inflicting severe casualties and taking many prisoners. Early in the attack the Canadians took German prisoners and to prevent escape tied the hands of the German soldiers behind their backs. In the ensuing attacks by the Wehrmacht the roles were reversed; the Canadians became prisoners and the tied Germans were freed. What a furore when this was discovered by Jerry! There were eventually repercussions, as you will see.

Returning to 1943, somewhere in October, my failing memory recalls, we were at last collected, trudged up that long main road of Stalag VIIA, where "Arbeit macht frei", and once more boarded a cattle truck of ten chevaux or forty hommes, but Jerry still couldn’t read French. At least Andy, Jack and I were still together. Crash went the sliding door and bang went the latch; history was repeating itself, except that we now had some bits and pieces in our posession. First job, sort ourselves out; second job, yes, you guessed it: attack a corner of the floor to make a hole as soon as the train moved. The train stopped well outside Munich station and our wagon door was slid open for each to receive a loaf of ersatz bread and a small tin of meat, so we knew the journey would take several days. Jack and Andy had their Army issue water flasks, so if we were careful we would not fare too badly, relying on Jerry to stop the train for occasional purposes - even the engine had to take on water. Whereas the first train journey from Salonika to Mooseburg is impressed on my mind, this train ride does not invoke many memories; it was long, with few stops, excepting that as it became dark the train stopped overnight, but not for our convenience: the inferior coal being burned gave off showers of sparks and Jerry was afraid of air attacks.

So we arrived in Upper Silesia, at a place called Freiburg, almost on the Polish border. Unloaded and counted and counted, we waited until at last we moved off to Stalag VIIIB, where once more "Arbeit macht frei". While VIIA seemed large, the main road of this place seemed to go on forever, gradually ascending. This was a really large Stalag, laid out as usual with the wired compounds at right angles to the road. Here, for me, disaster struck. There were selected compounds for private soldiers and the like, for non-commissioned officers and for Naval personnel. Because of this, Andy, Jack and I were separated, each to his respective compound. The one for Naval P.O.W.s was at the top of the road and we were isolated.

Once again I was alone for a time because I knew nobody. Naval P.O.W.s seemed to be something of a novelty to the Germans. There were not many of us and we were kept in of isolation, locked in the compound. We could communicate with those in the adjacent compound, Canadian soldiers captured at Dieppe, who revealed that the reception they received from Jerry when attacking Dieppe was no surprise. Apparently in the pubs in Newhaven on the night before sailing the barmaids had told them that they were going to Dieppe. So it is no wonder that Jerry was waiting for them!

After a couple of long weeks of isolation, for which there seemed to be no reason, the compounds were opened and I lost no time in going to the private soldiers’ compound in search of my first kriegie friend, Bob Andrews. Luck was with me: he had been detailed to go on the working party, to an Arbeitslager, which was a timber yard or sawmill. Upon learning this I immediately sought out the British Sergeant Major to volunteer to go out with Bob. No such luck; being a Naval rating I was confined to the Stalag. For some unknown reason Jerry was not letting any Naval bodies outside the Stalag confines. And so I lost touch with my very dear friend for a couple of years.

The next step was to visit the N.C.O.’s compound to look for Jack Adams, and I found him, handcuffed. Adolph Hitler was so incensed about the Canadians at Dieppe tying the hands of German prisoners that he ordered all N.C.O. Prisoners of War in Stalag VIIIB to be handcuffed during daylight hours. Many guards occupied the huts during the day, first to prevent the kriegies resting on their bunks, but also to unlock the handcuffs of any unfortunate who needed to visit the Abort. They deliberately took their time to perform this and there must have been some near misses among the lads, who quite frequently reached bursting point. It didn’t take long for someone to turn the key of a sardine tin into a key to unlock the handcuffs and that eased the crisis somewhat. In our Naval compound we heard that on the coldish Autumn mornings the N.C.O.s would parade in their greatcoats to be counted and handcuffed and in the evening paraded minus overcoats to have the cuffs removed. And Jerry never seemed to catch on!

The other drawback was that Jerry had stopped all mail, incoming and outgoing. Before this, we had only been allowed to send one air mail sheet and one postcard a fortnight; now these were stopped, as were the Red Cross parcels and the fortnightly shower. Because our compound was at the top of the road the water supply was often non-existant, due to lack of pressure from the water tower, which stood in the guards’ compound. We often had to wash and shave in the middle of the night, when pressure was high enough for the water to reach our compound. Our huts were of the standard Stalag pattern, with a washplace between two huts and each hut had an enclosed fire, where the smoke followed a tortuous passage before exiting via the chimney. The supply of ersatz coal was minimal and the heat given off was almost nil.

I have forgotten to write about my first impressions when approaching Stalag VIIIB. It was in the middle of moorland, with clear ground as far as the eye could see. As we approached I could see endless rows of what appeared to be numerous potato clamps. What we did not know was these were the graves of hundreds of Russian P.O.W.s who had died of typhus in their Stalag, not so very far from VIIIB.

When my compound was finally opened, dozens of long-time occupants of VIIIB came to look for friends. Surprise, surprise, in came a soldier who went to school with me and had lived three doors down from me in old Cornwall Street - a lad called Jackie Woodley. He was as surprised as I was when we met and we had a good old chinwag, exchanging news. He had been wounded at Dunkirk and carried shrapnel in parts of his body, as a result of which he was rated unfit for manual work and employed in the tailors shop in the camp, repairing uniforms. He had a good look at my uniform before he left and a day or so later I received a note to report to the tailors shop, where Jackie exchanged my Army uniform for an almost modern outfit, together with an Army greatcoat, which was an excellent fit and reached almost down to my ankles. What an extra blanket that coat made in the very cold winter nights.

The hut in which we Naval personnel were billeted must have stood empty for some time because many of the fittings had been purloined by others. Many of the windows were devoid of glass, some missing panes replaced by sheets of tin made from Red Cross parcel tins. A number of huts had chimneys sprouting from windows, with fireplaces made from oil drums. Several of us banded together to search for an oil drum and in no time one appeared, which was surprising, seeing that Jerry salvaged anything and everything. The next problem was to find something to be used as a tool for bashing the drum into a sheet of metal and here the firebars from the cold combustion stove came in handy. Various patterns from other huts were studied and a couple of us set to, to form the sheet into a stove. The soil in the compound was of sandy clay nature and this, mixed with straw from the bedding, made a type of fireclay to line the stove. As I have written previously, tins from Canadian Red Cross parcels, when sectioned together, made ideal flues and chimneys. The next problem was to obtain fuel.

Because of the shortage of civilian workers in the forests near the camps, volunteers were taken from the compounds daily to trim trees and cut down selected ones to be used as pit-props in the coal mines, not so very far away where, incidentally, Prisoners of War worked. Some horrible stories about life and treatment in those mines were told by injured lads who had been unfortunate enough to be graded A1 when examined for work. The forest formed a perimeter around the moorland, but each side was a good distance away; to reach it meant passing through a village where the main part of the population was made up of geese who would honk and rush up to us as we passed. We all vowed that when the war ended and we were released, a goose would be the first meal - one each at that! An aged forester would be waiting when each work group arrived and the first requirement was to provide three cubic meters of pit props, skinned of bark. After that we could forage for dead wood for ourselves. Sometimes there would be a horse-drawn cart, into which timber was loaded for the Stalag cookhouse. When felling trees, any young dead trees were felled and piled for distribution at the end of the day; these, together with what we could find, made a bundle for each of us to carry back. For such a long walk with a load on the back, two saplings would be inserted into a bundle to rest on each shoulder. Because of this heavy load, frequent stops were made for short rests.

Our Naval hut soon filled, when sailors who had been P.O.W.s in Italy arrived. They had been shunted into Germany almost as soon as the Italians sought an Armistice. With them came a number of members of the Merchant Navy from many different countries; these were billeted in the hut at the end of ours. These bodies shared many different languages and , parading around the compound for exercise, each passing group would be gabbling away in a different language. Of course, their hut had been ransacked for anything usable long before they arrived, just as ours had been while empty. One day a Merchant Navy bod came into our corner to find the bloke who had made our fireplace. His group had ‘obtained’ an oil drum and would I help them to make a stove? Glad of something to do, I helped them form a shape similar to ours; the trusty firebar made an excellent tool. The man who had approached me was from Haiti and when the job was completed all he was concerned about was that he had nothing to give me but his gratitude. We were all in the same boat, so rewards were not looked for, but he added that he was a servant of his religion and that Obeah would look after me for helping him. Strangely enough that incident had disappeared from my memory and it is only through travelling back down memory lane that it has surfaced. I remember him saying: "Good for good and bad for bad. Obeah will help you." It’s amazing now that I should recall him; he was such a big lad, in spite of existing on such meagre rations.

For a time one of the compounds contained captured RAF bods, many of whom were flight crew shot down whilst on bombing runs. One of them was a Flight Sergeant, Peter Martin, who hailed from Plymouth and was able to tell us about the state of the city after the decimating bombing it received in 1941. He described and named whole streets which had disappeared. This took a lot of believing, especially when he said that almost all of Fore Street had gone, together with the good old Royal Sailors’ Rest. No more threepenny jugs of soup, games of snooker and hot water baths with a drop more hot water for a cigarette! Together with Jack Adams, I pumped him dry of all the news he could remember and we realised that we didn’t have much to return to when we went home. But there it was, we knew we would go home one day.

By now Jerry had dropped the handcuffs skylark; the members of the N.C.O. compound were allowed out, so at least Jack and I could get together. But not Andy; he was out somewhere working in a lumber camp and lucky not to have been sent to a coal mine, as many had been. I am not certain whether the year was 1943 or 1944, but talks had been going on about repatriation of wounded Prisoners of War on an exchange basis regulated by the International Red Cross in Geneva. Buzzes abounded and the most excited in Stalag VIIIB were the hospital orderlies and bandsmen, who served under the Red Cross in wartime; some of them would also be repatriated to care for the severely wounded on the journey home. Eventually the negotiations came to fruition and a number of P.O.W.s who had lost arms or legs came to the camp and were made ready for repatriation. Seeing one-armed bods in the camp didn’t seem so unusual, but the sight of one-legged bods was unusual. In each compound at roll-call a camp doctor lectured us on the treatment of these repatriates, especially those who had lost legs. We were not to assist them unless really necessary; in order to make them become independent, they had to be encouraged to manage for themselves. Some of them came around the huts looking for lost friends and I remember some saying when they arrived home they would have to be ready for good-natured old ladies offering sympathy and help when crossing roads, but they weren’t going to have any of that here.

As with all negotiations, time seemed to stand still for those lads, so one day the British doctors decided to put on a cricket match between the one-arms and the one-legs, and what a game that turned out to be! There was no rule about eleven a side in those teams and there was much laughter and derision among them as they lost balance and fell when trying to perform the elementary movements of bowling and batting. We, the audience, were told to applaud and offer our advice, which became barrack-room stuff and the players soon returned the compliments with expletives, cursing themselves, their rivals and us in particular. The game, such as it was, served to unleash much of their stored hates and anxieties as they unloaded all of that pent up abuse. When talking to some of those who had lost an arm it was surprising to find they had difficulty in maintaining balance when turning rapidly or throwing a ball, due to the missing ‘wing’ - as they called the lost arm.

Came that day of the start of repatriation. With the medical orderlies who would care for them, they were isolated in a compound; the Red Cross officials came and, together with the Jerries, counted and checked, counted and checked until all were satisfied. Finally, with everybody else confined to compounds, they were off. To me, for a long time afterwards that place really became a Prisoner of War Camp. Anything and everything seemed to set a raw edge; roll-calls seemed to go on forever, guards with dogs seemed to be at the roll-calls more frequently; letters from home seemed to have much more of the censor’s black-out strips on them, as though they too had decided to join the misery game. I just wanted to be alone in my misery and often sought places in the compound to be by myself. I recall one occasion, sitting alone and moping, when a skylark rose from the grass near me and fluttered overhead, singing its own sweet song. On any other occasion that bird’s song would have been welcome, but I remember shouting at it something like: "Why don’t you bugger off, you silly sod, living in a prison camp?" But the bird hovered and sang. To me that long main road was the nearest thing to freedom, being able to walk for a fair stretch without coming up against barbed wire. In my daydreams about the time of release, I often sat on the bank at the top of the road outside my compound and I could see and hear a Scottish regiment, resplendant in kilts, bagpipes playing, come marching up the road to release me. Even these days, when recollecting my thoughts, if Scottish soldiers with their pipes appear on television, I can’t help saying to Mabel or to myself: "You didn’t come up my road." Those days must have been the time of being "wire happy", which happened to everybody at some time or other. During those despondant days conditions deteriorated to such an extent that members of the International Red Cross came to inspect the camp. By that time Stalag VIIIB was living up to its name of being an awful place. The outcome was that Jerry agreed to change the camp. He did - he changed the name to Stalag 344, so Stalag VIIIB ceased to exist! And nobody seemed to notice; the International Red Cross didn’t make any more inspections.

Kriegies in the RAF compound had somehow put together a miniature radio set and on ‘D’ Day, as the nine o’ clock news gave the information about the invasion landing; it was soon spread from compound to compound and I knew that my Scottish regiment would soon arrive. But it didn’t. From then on, just like everybody else, I daily expected to be released. When the invasion of France seemed to be established, Jerry began to ease up a little. For example, we weren’t kept standing for such long periods at roll-call; the word ‘stimmt’ came sooner; supplies of hot water were laid on - not from the taps, but via the "Kuebel", whereby two bods could go to the kitchen and collect a container of hot water for dhobeying purposes. These expeditions were between specified times, to ensure return to the kitchen for evening soup. Upon reflection, we were still sharing a loaf of bread between seven and took turns to have the ends of a loaf, which would not be quite as large as the middle portions. When a ration of boiled potatoes was on the menu they were still laid out in rows of descending sizes, according to the number of hut occupants. Before the war, when serving in H.M.S. Revenge and H.M.S. Repulse, it was the job of mess members each evening to peel the potatoes and to have them taken to the galley in a ‘spud net’, ready for the next day’s dinner. The issue of potatoes was made at a set time daily from the ‘spud locker’ by a Royal Marine and it worked out as so many shovels-full of raw potatoes per mess. Upon reflection, how did German cooks issue the boiled potatoes? Not by shovel, I presume.

And so the days dragged by. With the end of the summer weather in 1944 and the realisation that winter weather would slow the advance of the Allied forces, there came the knowledge amongst us that we would not be set free that year. The daily news from the nine o’ clock broadcasts was no longer distributed on a regular basis, in case Jerry should discover the set. Whether there was more than one radio in the camp is open to speculation, but in any case news of the Allies’ progress was brought to our hut by an Army padre - one for whom I have great respect, as future of writing will divulge. He was the Rev. D. Welchman, a tall, slim man, who always wore an Australian Army issue hat, which made him look so much taller. There was one time when I had a touch of the ‘flu and was bunk-bound by permission of the compound Feldwebel, which meant I was excused from attending roll-call for so many days. Feeling pretty awful and in the depths of self-pity, because no-one else would give me any, there came a voice saying: "How are you feeling, old chap?" And I, without thinking, replied: "Bloody awful. How do you think I feel?" Then I surfaced from under my blanket and greatcoat to see the Rev. Welchman standing there. I tried to apologise but he told me to think nothing of it; an expected answer to a daft question. "Sorry I can’t bring you any grapes or oranges," he said, "but buck up. The news is good and you will soon need all your strength." We chatted for a while about Plymouth and then he left. That visit did me a power of good, in spite of the lack of grapes and oranges!

We decided to organise a football team and from somewhere or other the name of Sligo Rovers appeared and that was us, a team made up from Navy, Marines and Merchant Navy. Amongst us was Joe Brown, a Petty Officer Joiner, or "Chippy" as he was known in Naval jargon. Joe was a survivor from H.M.S. Glorious, the aircraft carrier sunk on her way back from Norway. Joe was rescued from a Carley Float, a type of raft, and taken to Norway, by then very ill, suffering from pneumonia. He was taken to hospital, showed signs of recovery and was set to be transported to Sweden when the Germans marched in and Joe was in the bag. Cousin Stan was also in the Norwegian campaign, serving on H.M.S. Hardy, a destroyer in the attack on enemy shipping in Narvik. The Hardy was sunk and beached. Stan was able to reach the shore, where he was taken in by a Norwegian family, clothed and housed for a time and subsequently shoved over the border to Sweden before Jerry marched in, and from there he reached home. When I was in the Repulse watchkeepers were detailed to serve in the cruisers Ardent and Acasta, which sailed with the Glorious and were also lost in action. I could have been detailed to serve in one of them, but then my time had not yet come to make the acquaintance of Jerry.

The so-called football pitch was in the Naval compound and Sligo Rovers had a fair few games. Even the German guards, when off duty, would be spectators at the games and among the twelve thousand of us there were some good teams. A good match was always between a team from Stalag VIIA and Stalag VIIIB; even the Camp Commandant would have a seat at those matches. He didn’t come to watch Sligo Rovers

The snow came early towards the end of 1944. After the snowfalls the sky would clear and that cold North wind would make its presence felt. The huts, with their floors of concrete, were not very warm places in which to dwell, so after morning roll-call everyone who could walk would spend long periods tramping around the perimeter of the compound. We yarned about this and that, mostly about the latest news. There was an understanding that each member of a group had to be recognised; one never knew when Jerry would slip a ‘mole’ into the compound.

At Christmas 1944 there was a Red Cross parcel issue of one between two men. Over Christmas the sky was blue and the sun shone without any warmth. I am not certain of the exact day, but one morning close after Christmas the air was filled with a loud droning sound. On looking to the clear blue sky we could see hundreds of silver bomber aircraft which seemed to be meeting high in the sky over Stalag 344. Somebody in the know said they had come from Italy and Britain to join up and proceed to somewhere like Breslau. Of course we all cheered our heads off, but there was a most depressing sight when a bomber began to fall out of formation; obviously shot down, this silver speck fell, twisting and turning, like a leaf in autumn. We looked for parachutes to open and tried to count how many had appeared from the falling giant. From what we were told, many of the airmen froze to death on the way down. But what a sight it was - the first Allied plane since the ‘String Bag’ flew over us and waggled its wings when leaving Crete for Egypt in 1941.

By now the RAF compound held a number of American kriegies and I remember one in particular, named Joe Kaljinowski. Joe had a grandmother who lived in Breslau and he was hoping when he was released to make his way there to visit her, but it was not to be. From the news over the hidden radio we knew that the Russians had commenced their big push. When the wind was in the right direction, the faint sound of guns could be heard, which had quite a morale-building effect. It was obvious that the guards were worried; by this time all the active Jerries had been replaced by elderly men and instead of the normal infantry rifle, each guard had an older, long rifle with long bayonet to match. But the guards with dogs were still in evidence.

Then very early in 1945, late one afternoon came the compound Feldwebel to tell us to pack our possessions. We were going to march westwards. Each night the sound of guns could be heard and the sky was lit by the flashes. "Russkies kommen?" we would ask. "Ja, ja," was the worried reply. Seeing those elderly Germans with their obsolete rifles reminded me of my Dad, when I saw him early in the war, on guard outside the local gasworks, with a rifle with the safety catch on. He didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other!

The winter was very severe, with snow deep on the ground. I packed my few belongings in an army pack, which I had previously bartered for with cigarettes. While sharing the Christmas Red Cross parcel with another kriegie, I opted for a packet of dried prunes and a packet of custard powder; these, together with nine cigarettes, comprised all remaining from Christmas. I then took off my old boots and put on my brand new pair of "Wheatsheaf" boots which Mabel had sent me many months before. I had also received two sets of pink, thick vests and long john pants from a bulk issue of underclothing. Together with toilet gear and another cake of American-issue soap with a swan embossed on it, wearing my long greatcoat and my blanket wrapped around my shoulders, I prepared for the trek westwards. Joe Brown had taken a bunk to pieces and somehow had made a sled; he told me that when I desired I could let my pack ride with his gear. The early night was dark and the snow was deep when we paraded in the compound. The camp must have been evacuated compound by compound because we, at the far end of the road seemed to be kept waiting endlessly before finally being given the order to move off. At the main entrance to Stalag VIIIB or Stalag 344 we had to form into a single line and shuffle forward in stops and starts until coming abreast of a cart where each one of us was given a whole loaf of prison camp bread. A whole loaf!


on to Chapter 10. "We March West"
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revised 27/9/11