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AND SO ...

10. WE MARCH WEST ..... away from the Russians reaching Brunswick and then Duderstadt

on to Chapter 11. "Liberation"

And so I began the long march which was to eventually lead to freedom (Russian Front summary).

Jerry kept us moving and initially I could see flashes in the sky and hear the rumbling of the guns in the far distance, but as my column moved along the sounds and sights faded. Initially we passed through villages in the dead of night; dogs barked to warn the occupants and I remember the conversation with my immediate comrades about the fate of the geese when the Russians arrived - how the feathers would fly! There will be more about flying feathers later in the episode. Because of the sharing of a Red Cross parcel between two I had chummed up with a young Naval lad named Smart, curiously nicknamed Panic. Together with another whose name escapes me, we became a sort of loose threesome on the long march. Jerry kept us moving for many cold hours through that first night and eventually stopped us near a farm.

Our group was in a farmyard, in the centre of which was a huge mound covered in snow. Tired and exhausted, I climbed up onto it and crashed down; sleep came. With daybreak we were ‘Raused’ to commence the march once more, only to find that we who had bedded on the mound had become social pariahs. The snow had covered a mound of pig manure; the warmth of our bodies had melted the snow and the essence of the muck clung to our greatcoats. We were identifiable for several days to come!

The snow fell and the wind blew such that we had to keep moving to keep alive. At the end of our long column was a horse-drawn cart, carrying the guards’ packs. Should a kriegie fall by the wayside he would be thrown up onto the cart, which could be fatal in the freezing cold; he could freeze to death, as some did. Soon nobody wanted to ride on the cart. It was likened to the tumbril carts of the French Revolution, where a ride meant certain death. Want to ride? No thanks, these boots were made for walking.

The West Country POW "Association" at Stalag VIIA, February 1944. Did they all make it?

Life became moving from dawn to dark and then literally dropping to the slushy ground, exhausted, cold and hungry. A piece of bread and a prune became my diet; for dessert came the nut inside the prune stone, after sucking the stone until it dissolved. On the second or third morning I began to suffer badly from chafed thighs, due I suppose to the effects of the serge trousers continually rubbing during the hours of marching. Some of the kriegies discovered that their possessions were becoming too heavy and began to discard items. Lo and behold, one morning I came across a pair of pyjama trousers, discarded by somebody as being unwanted. I quickly picked them up and stripped down at the side of the road; this was nothing new, being done all the time when nature demanded and, believe me, it was nature in the raw! Donning the pyjama trousers and up slacks again, this was the remedy for the rubbing of the serge trousers and I wore those pyjama trousers continually until I arrived home. Were they dhobeyed? No, sir; they finished up almost as a second skin!

What did we live on? Not very much. An occasional issue of a part of a loaf; once there was a packet of biscuits each. When you realise that something like twelve thousand of us from Stalag VIIIB were on the move, plus the numbers from the working camps, the supply of food in that winter must have drained resources and it became the luck of the draw just where one stopped and dropped for the night. We very rarely moved onto main roads and were kept to country lanes, thus meandering like a wandering stream, hoping to stop in a village, to find a barn or doorway in which to sit for the night.

On one occasion my group happened to be passing through a village when the order to halt came and I was fortunate enough to be outside a house with a recessed doorway, into which I promptly dived, to create my boudoir for the night. I started reorganising the contents of my pack, for I would be leaning against it all night, and an idea struck me as I was putting the soft contents against my back. I took a cake of soap and, after telling Panic Smart to watch over my billet, stood up and knocked on the door. Just about to give up as a forelorn hope after what seemed to be a long period of waiting, the door was opened by a lady who immediately wanted to know the reason for disturbing the family. I showed her the large cake of perfumed soap and let her enjoy its smell, all the time keeping it in my hand, in case she snatched it and shut the door. Then I asked if she could give me any bread in exchange for the soap. I was invited into the cottage and there met her ten year old son and her mother. I was obviously a Kriegsgefangener, because they had seen from the window each side of the street lined with bodies lying all over the place. Just who was I? When I explained that I was a sailor, a Kriegsmarine, and an Englander, they relaxed somewhat and I was told to sit at the table. It seemed that as long as I was not a Russian we might be able to do business. They had a great fear of the Russians; as far as the younger woman knew, her husband was missing on the Russian front. She had had no communication since the original message and just hoped he was a prisoner. I didn’t know whether to be glad for her or sorry. Germany and Russia did not participate in the International Red Cross and from the state of the Russiam P.O.W.s and remembering those endless rows of burial mounds at Freiburg, if her husband was alive, he was not having a very good time. By now Grandmother was holding and smelling the soap and saying: "Schoen", which to me meant good. The family had a small-holding at the rear of the cottage and by the looks of the place, it needed the attention of a man. I was given a cup of black ersatz coffee. At the same time I noticed I was sitting on a cushioned chair. The last time I had sat on anything cushioned was on the mess seat on ML 1030! The younger of the two women brought a loaf of home-made bread and some saccharin granules, which she put into a paper bag and, after nods between the two women, she brought a large piece of what seemed to be a Madeira cake, which as youngsters we called ‘seedy cake’. I was then asked if I would like to stay with them and work for them, in case the Russians came, hoping the presence of an Englishman would be of help to them.

During our days of wandering the Rev. Welchman often joined in, occasionally carrying the pack of anybody not up the grind. He would always say: "Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down; we’re marching on to freedom!" The ‘em meant feet, so I was anxious to keep with the crowd, moving to freedom. I declined their offer and took my leave of them, not forgetting to take the victuals in exchange for the soap. Outside on the doorstep I shared some of the bread and cake and during that cold night I thought seriously about that offer, but when move-off time came that next morning I was glad to move off with the others.

Came one morning late in February when I remember waking to a strange smell, a thaw in the weather had set in and the strange smell was that of the earth where the snow had disappeared. That in itself was good news, meaning that the temperature was rising. But at the same time it became a bloody nuisance because there was slush everywhere. Boots let in water and the ground was wet come bedtime, with nowhere to dry anything. Ever since leaving VIIIB I had not taken off my boots; one did not dare remove them because they would freeze. Now it was a case of wring out socks and hope to find a dry road. On the march one changed groups regularly, moving up the crowd or dropping to the rear, just for a change of conversation.

I remember the morning of the thaw saw all the various types of sleds being abandoned, no longer being able to be pulled over the snow. And with the sleds went articles which were superfluous when everything had to be humped on a back. By this time the shoulders and back ached continuously due to the rubbing of the pack straps; it became a case of alternately carrying by hand to ease the aching shoulder bones. Even when the snow and the frost had disappeared there were no takers to ride in the cart; that cold, piercing wind was still in evidence and the only relief was to curse Jerry and Hitler and all of his forebears. It seemed that we were being kept out of civilisation, wandering along the country roads. I remember on one occasion we did strike the Autobahn - the motorway - and we were all surprised to see the string of horse-drawn carts, loaded with men and material on the move. The obvious subject of talk amongst us was why the soldiers weren’t marching. Nobody knew, and I couldn’t work out in which direction they were going, because of the dark, low-clouded sky. We all hoped that they were going to the Russian Front, because they were travelling in the direction opposite to us. On one occasion we passed a contingent of uniformed youngsters of the Hitler Youth Movement, fully armed. Some of them so young and so small, and seeing us they sang one of their morale-building songs: "Wir fahren gegen England." We couldn’t help but shout: "This will be your last fahren!"

On one rare memorable night my particular group was fortunate enough to stop outside an empty barn, so together with a couple of the guards we were allowed in to spend the night. There was straw on the floor, almost knee-deep, and that to us was Paradise. And even deeper into Paradise was the fact that beneath all that straw were grains of wheat, so we promptly emulated chickens and delved. Wheat contains flour, so find, chew and eat as many grains as possible, and what do you know? Even the guards joined in with us! They must have been on short rations as well. One Sunday we rested all day on the outskirts of a farm, but in open air in the fields. Around the edge of the fields a stream was flowing, so we were able to half strip, shave and have a good wash. Word syphoned along that a good number of N.C.O.s were nearby, so I made it my business to contact them, to see how Jack Adams was faring. I found him, but he was not the Jack Adams I had known. He was sat on his pack, looking completely demoralised and sorting through some of his socks, of which all I could see had holes in them. He had not fared very well on the march and I invited him to come and join my group, but he had made friends with some of the N.C.O.s and preferred to stay with them. He had no wool with which to darn his socks; I had some bits and pieces which I fetched for him, we chatted for a while and arranged to meet up at home, especially at my wedding. We said cheerio and that was the last I ever saw of him. He died on the march.

You might well ask, after reading about the march, how life carried on when just moving, sleeping and hoping for a barn in which one might find some sort of comfort. One evening my group was fortunate to be near a barn when the halt for the day came and - lo and behold - at one end of the outside of the building was a mound of onions. How they came to be left there and not bagged and stored was anybody’s guess, but there they were. Now, I don’t like onions - often wish I did - but just can’t stomach them. But on this occasion I remembered how my Father liked to eat an onion: skin it, sprinkle salt on it and just bite into it, like eating an apple. Hunger is a great leveller so, taking a chance, I picked the largest onion I could grasp. I picked away the skin; there was no salt in evidence, so, closing my eyes, I bit the largest piece possible. I quickly chewed and swallowed and then wished I had never laid eyes on the thing. There was the smell and then the taste, then came the revolt from my stomach when I regurgitated that mouthful and carried on urging and urging on an empty stomach, with the smell of that damned thing coming from my mouth. I remember somebody saying: "Don’t you want that onion, Jack?" and it was taken from my hand and I was heartily pleased to be rid of it. The only solace was to drink water, which did little to alleviate the taste in my stomach. Yet I still envy people who can eat raw onions and enjoy such dishes as liver and onions.

We went through some bad patches on that hike. On another occasion the group in which I happened to be at the moment of stopping at the end of the day found itself in a field, near where a large body of German soldiers was encamped. On the outskirts of their camp was a cluster of buildings which seemed as though they could be the supply buildings for those in transit. Outside one of them was an armed guard and this building turned out to be the kitchen. Remember that when I commenced the march I had nine cigarettes, but in exchange currency with the soldier racketeers ten cigarettes were needed to acquire a loaf. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I sort of drifted over to the guard and asked to see the Feldwebel to exchange cigarettes for bread. Surprisingly he allowed me to enter; I suppose that cigarettes were in such short supply the guard thought he might be doing the Feldwebel a good turn. I was inside a kitchen right enough, because it housed several cooking vats, each containing large pieces of pork, which could be seen boiling merrily away when the cooks lifted the lids. Upon reflection I could have been in dreamland, because none of those two or three cooks took the slightest notice of me and I could only stand in that kitchen like Ali Baba in the cave. I was hoping that my nine cigarettes would be my "Open Sesame". Somebody must have told the Feldwebel that a disreputable-looking specimen was in his clean kitchen, because he appeared shouting: "Was ist los hier? Was brauchen Sie?" I told him I had nine English cigarettes for a loaf of bread. "Neun englische Cigaretten fuer einen Brot." He became interested when I showed him the nine cigarettes in a round tin. Then he replied that he had a loaf of bread for ten cigarettes and shrugged his shoulders. So I asked him if I could have three quarters of a loaf for nine cigarettes. "Drie viertel Stueck Brot fuer neun Cigaretten?" But no dice, he was adamant about ten cigarettes or nothing and, what is more amazing, he just said: "Los", meaning for me to leave the kitchen, whereupon he and the cooks went into a small room at the end of the building, leaving the place unattended. That was enough for me. As quick as a flash I lifted the cover of one of those vats, stuck my hand in, grabbed a large piece of pork and secured it inside my jacket. How I did not scald my hand in the process I will never know. I felt no pain at all and no heat seemed to emanate from the piece of pork inside my jacket. I closed the lid of the vat and promptly exited the building.

The guard outside saw the lump under my jacket and just asked: "Geht’s gut?", meaning was all well, thinking it was a loaf of bread. I answered that all had gone well and sped back to my billet, where Panic was minding the fort. But that was not the end of the lesson - no, sirree! By chance there had been the issue of a small amount of bread to each person, perhaps because we were fortunate enough to be billeted for the night near the transit camp. When I found our bedding place Panic could hardly believe his eyes as I brought forth the hot pork, and we lost no time in having an evening meal of bread and hot pork. Silly me. Of course the pork was enjoyable and some of it, together with a small piece of bread was saved for the next day. And a good thing too! Had we eaten all of it, we would have been dead! During that night the hot pork worked on us like a tin of Epsom Salts. I awoke to the feeling of gripping pains in my stomach and the next moment I was dashing for the hedge, because my bowels were moving strenuously. No sooner was I back to my billet than, heigh-ho, off again. Well have those actions been called ‘the trots’. One didn’t dare to walk! Came the dawn and Panic called me all the silly sods he could think of. But the cold pork and the small portion of bread proved to be a better repast.

Luckily, for some reason unknown to us, the next day was a rest day - thank goodness. The Rev. Welchman came amongst us with a sergeant in the Parachute Regiment who had been captured at Arnhem and he cheered us up immensely by telling us of the advances made by the Allies. From his information we could almost see a light at the end of that long, dark tunnel. It was on that day that we again saw uniformed members of the Hitler Youth Movement, all fully armed, and they were just boys. We all crowded to the edge of the field as they marched along the lane past us; we learned that they were going in the opposite direction, towards the Russian Front. Some of them seemed to be hidden in their over-large helmets and greatcoats, which touched the ground. There must have been some copious weeping among some mothers about them. Surprisingly enough, we stood in silence as they marched past. We felt an inward sense of sorrow for those poor young sods. Did they become lost souls in Russia in the aftermath of the war, when Russia became one of the victors? Has any survivor from Russia written about his life behind the barbed wire in the manner of my experiences? I would like to read it, should such a book be available.

Later, after the war, when in Lincolnshire I saw German and Italian P.O.W.s being loaded into trucks to be conveyed back to their camps at the end of the day. I could not but compare with the end of a day when I marched in the roads, winter and summer for four miles or more, back to barbed wire and cabbage soup. I apologise for injecting a mournful note into this episode. We were now into the month of March and beginning to walk along wider, tree-lined roads, still without a clue as to where we were and still not touching any large towns.

These wider roads had deep trenches on each side and we were warned that at the sound of an aircraft approaching we were to dive into the nearest trench. Seemingly, to enemy aircraft we were Allied forces and I suppose that in an aircraft flying at two hundred miles an hour in a dive, discernment would be difficult. On one occasion we did have to dive into the trenches when an Allied aircraft machine-gunned a section in which I was at the time. In his efforts the pilot felled a large tree by gunning it. Imagine what those bullets would have done to a human body! Once again the RAF was blamed and many choice epithets were hurled skywards. Upon reflection, there must have been many large columns like ours from different Prisoner of War camps, occupying the roads in that trek westwards. Plans were made for the leading group each day to be prepared to form the letters P O W with bodies, but I don’t recall that the plan was used. Aircraft continually flew high above us, I suspect merely as observers. Because our large contingent made the newspapers, Mabel was able to follow our progress. Once a large aircraft flew low over us and bundles fell from it. We all thought of food, of the famous "K" rations that the Americans often told us about. But no, they were bundles of front-line newspapers, which served two purposes. The first was to keep us up-to-date about the progress of the war; the second I will leave you to work out for yourself. At least we had the consolation of knowing that we had been recognised. Even the elderly guards were pleased at being under the supervision of the Allies and far away from the Russians.

We marched through the outskirts of a town, which we learned was Braunschweig (Brunswick) and it seemed to be a ghost town. The streets were empty; rubble and debris which had once been buildings was piled high and blackened by soot on each side of the streets. We saw nobody and I could not help but reflect upon the stories told by Peter Martin almost two years previously. Parts of Plymouth must have looked like this, but verbal descriptions could never create such a picture. When we arrived at the outskirts of that town we were covered with soot, which our countless feet had disturbed whilst passing through. Once back in the country we were glad to find a stream and have a sluice and shake out blankets and greatcoats. Once again we were back onto country roads and passing through villages, which also seemed to be empty, without even barking dogs or honking geese to challenge us. We had each received a packet of Knackerbrot biscuits; I still have the empty packet in my ditty box, and after that food seemed to be left off the agenda.

Then, one evening the section in which I happened to be was halted in a lane outside a field of poultry and just on the other side of the wired hedge was a cluster of hen-houses. Hunger creates recklessness and I reasoned that there could be eggs in the nearest hen-house. And so, long after darkness had set in I managed to climb over the chain-mesh fence, thinking all the while that I was making enough noise to wake the dead. Fortunately the nest boxes were fitted externally so, cautiously lifting the covers, I was overjoyed to find an egg in each of the half dozen or so boxes. I stowed them so carefully inside my battledress blouse - oh so carefully - not to break any of them, climbed the hedge again and crawled back to my billet, to discover that the eggs were made of china, duplicate things to represent eggs in the nest boxes, supposedly to fool the chickens. They certainly fooled me!

All of the conversations on the march at this time were about freedom: how we would be released, who would first make contact with us. The general concensus of opinion was that any day now we would see parachutists dropping from the sky together with their large containers, usually containing arms and ammunition, but this time containing food, glorious food. Some of the more knowledgeable bods were talking about self-heating tins of food; fantasy ran riot, but the staple joke to the married men was the old question: "What’s the second thing you’re going to do when you walk in the door?" And the stock answer was always: "Take off my pack." It still raised a bit of a laugh, although conditions then didn’t give us much to chuckle about. "Pick ‘em up and put ‘em down, you are on your way to freedom."

By now my greatcoat was heavy, my pack was heavy and my once-new boots were wearing thin. We were not marching for such long periods and at the end of one day’s march my group was halted in a village street; we happened to be outside a baker’s shop. ‘Twas an opportunity not to be missed. I took my set of thick vest and long-john underpants from my pack and entered the shop. Of course the baker looked at me with suspicion and my heart sank down into my boots when, on looking around, I could see no trace of bread on the shelves. Without giving him a chance to throw me out I showed him the set of underwear and asked him to exchange it for bread. I definitely had him interested and he called to somebody in the back room who, upon emerging, turned out to be his wife. When I explained that the apparel was similar to submariners’ issue the old lady was hooked. Their son was a soldier on the Russian Front and she just knew the goods would be ideal for him next winter. They did not seem to have a clue about the state of the war and I certainly wasn’t going to disillusion them. Then the bartering began and my hunger had me demanding as much as possible. But it seemed that their stock was heavily rationed and two loaves was all they could spare. Afterwards I was taken into the bakehouse to see a French P.O.W. who was the baker’s assistant. In our joint kriegie German language he told me that the village was almost empty of people. Anybody fit had been taken off for war work and he was also convinced that the end of the war was in sight. I was given a cup of hot, black ersatz coffee with saccharin, which was most welcome, and the two loaves, which I quickly hid under my greatcoat. I was loathe to leave that warm bakehouse and suggested to them that perhaps I could sleep on the floor that night, but my appearance was against all the hygiene of a bakehouse, added to which was the fear of being found harbouring a P.O.W., so it was plain that the couple wished me to leave the building. And so it was back into the street with bread to last for some days and a lighter pack, which meant that the straps would not be digging so painfully into my shoulders.

By this time my body was beginning to feel the strain of the continual walking and the fact that I had lost weight became self-evident. I was continually tightening the cord of the pyjama trousers; sitting on hard ground became painful, so the blanket became a good ally. Towards the second half of March I was drawing towards the end of my piece of string and, upon reflection, I can well understand how Jack Adams had been feeling when I visited him. There was very little energy and inclination and when Jerry said: "Los, ‘raus!" we just did as we were told. There finally came a time when a large number of us were billeted in the empty kilns of a brickyard. We just lay on the floor of the kilns, which were covered in inches of brick dust. Soon the lice became evident and by now I had become an expert in looking for the small ones and the eggs in the seams. Then dysintery struck, and that seemed to be the end. I remember how we had to dig trenches in the brickyard and fix bars over them as latrines. Came one occasion when, with nothing inside me, I still had to dash to a bar and, whilst sitting there, I just had to say: "Please, God, help me." As I said that short prayer I remembered that time in the boat when we were nearing the shores of Crete, when I opened my big mouth about prayer. It made me think that perhaps nobody was listening to me.

As I was pulling up my trousers a German soldier with a dog came to me and told me to accompany him to the block in which the soldiers were based. For now soldiers with dogs had taken over; there was no sign of the aged guards. Outside was another P.O.W. and we were to carry an empty milk churn which had contained their soup back to the brickyard kitchen. I thought to myself: "Here I go again; nobody up there is listening." Together with the guard and the dog we carried the heavy, empty churn to the kitchen. Nearing the kitchen, I saw the high entrance had a flat roof and - wonder of wonders - I could see a turnip on the flat roof. It seems that nobody else had seen that wonderful sight and, once again back outside the entrance, after waiting to make sure that the coast was clear, I lost no time in taking possession of that beauty. Somebody up there was listening, and chewing pieces of that turnip so slowly was heavenly. At last something was going down into my stomach. Hunger, being the great leveller, makes one think. Didn’t all the great artists work better when hungry? Perhaps that’s open to speculation. I reasoned that perhaps where that turnip came from there could be more, so when nobody was in evidence I prowled around the back of the kitchen to find a mound of rotting turnips. They were certainly smelling, but on digging into the mound I was able to find just a few that weren’t completely rotten and, cutting away the outside, I was able to salvage some pieces. Washed off under running water, we had another supply of stomach-fillers. After a number of days in the brickyard - I don’t know how many - we were just left to our own devices. Hanging around the cookhouse became forbidden and the guards and the dogs could readily dissuade anybody who tried. At least there was a supply of water so we could wash our filthy selves.

One morning the aged guards returned and that was the signal to "Los" and "‘Raus", so once more we were on the move. We moved and slept in the same old manner for some days until we walked into a town whose name I will never forget: it was called Duderstadt. We halted in the street and I found myself being marched into a church. Together with many others we were packed tightly into wooden pews. At least I was sitting on my blanket and, being packed in so tightly, I felt a delicious sense of warmth. I was in a pew with a number of recognisable colleagues and, perhaps because of the Sunday School experience and some church-going, we all sat silently in that place. Looking toward the pulpit at the east wall on the left hand side, in coloured glass from floor to roof was a representation of the Lord holding out his hands to me. Whether it was the warmth, the weakness or the coloured glass representation I shall never know, but I found myself quietly crying. Self-consciously looking around I found that many other weary, filthy fellows were crying as well. Once again I asked my God to help me and see me safely home and in my prayer I promised to be as helpful as was possible to others in return for His help. This perhaps may seem sanctimonious, but in my later years of life I have been given the opportunities to offer help to others, which perhaps has been a way to say "Thank You".

Apparently we had been packed into the church in order to make way for a convoy of enemy material, and we were in the warmth for a short while before the sounds of the familiar terms rang in our ears and we were on the road again. That experience will live with me forever.

Somebody discovered it was the month of April; the days were certainly warmer, but the nights were still cold. Then we stopped on a farm. There were cows and hundreds of chickens, but we were hemmed in by the guards and the chickens were "STRENGST VERBOTEN". But at last we were told the Germans were no longer able to support us and that we would stay for the foreseeable future, surrounded by untouchable chickens. And that was on Thursday 12th April, 1945.


on to Chapter 11. "Liberation"
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revised 27/9/11