Pte. Rupert Ainsley Wright
British Army 2nd Btn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment
I joined the Territorial Army in 1938 and was called up on September 3rd 1939 in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in Coventry. I was sent to Swindon for basic training and then we were shipped to France via Le Havre at Christmas. We were stationed near Lille in Northern France with the BEF.
Infantry training continued until May 1940 when we were sent to Belgium to try to hold the German attack on France. We also experienced action in Holland. I was taken prisoner at Houthem, near Ypres.
We were marched with thousands of other British and French troops through Rotterdam in Holland and then crammed into coal barges and taken up the Rhine to Germany. The Dutch were the only people who tried to give us food. I remember I was given a very old Blue & Red coat to wear with a brown blood stain on the front. I imagined this was possibly from the Franco Prussian war of 1871.
We were then herded into cattle wagons with (70 men to a wagon) on a German railway, and then taken to a siding at a station in Berlin where trestle tables had been set up with food on the platform. Red Cross nurses stood by with baskets of bread and one wagon was opened to allow men to stand by for food. German propaganda camera teams took photographs. The prisoners were then returned to the wagons having not been allowed to eat any of the food.
The train continued on to Poland and East Prussia and arrived at Marienburg. There were 10,000 men in camp with a 20ft barbed wire fence all around. This was Stalag XXA. I was later at Stalag XXB.
Our food consisted of one litre of watery potato soup per day with black bread or a handful of dog biscuits. Pea soup was boiled in huge cauldrons still in the sacks and meat was almost non-existent. One day a man sitting next to me received an entire horse’s hoof complete with nails in it. The public latrine consisted of a large pit in the ground approximately 20ft long and 6ft wide and 6ft deep.
I had a small understanding of the German language learnt at school which I improved on and I became on of the interpreters who were in short supply. I volunteered for farm work and was sent to a work camp in East Prussia with others who worked on the land. Red Cross parcels began to arrive which helped the food situation a little. We even received some basic German medical care. Dental care in my case, as I was unfortunate to be standing behind another POW who answered back a German Guard and instead of him receiving the end of a rifle butt (he ducked down) I received it on my jaw, knocking out some front teeth.
We made several attempts to contact “underground” with escape in mind but were always told that RAF crews were given priority because of bomber losses over Germany. Aircrew were more expensive to train. I was involved in an escape plan but decided the night before not to go. Those that did were found the following morning. They had all been shot.
I remember on another occasion we had heard that there was a coal miners strike in Britain. There was a petition drawn up that everyone signed to say that we would gladly swap places with the miners and we would work the mines instead. This was apparently sent to Winston Churchill. We never got a reply.
I have another memory that many prisoners took up smoking, I mean those who never had back home, and cigarettes being scarce, people experimented with oak gall. This being poisonous, the guards threatened to shoot anyone caught smoking it in the future.
Another memory I have is how some of the men would receive letters from their wives to say that they couldn’t wait any longer and that they had found themselves new partners. The men would publicly display the letters for the other men to read.
In 1944, American planes began bombing which was always in daylight.
Christmas 1945, heavy artillery was heard coming from the east. The Russian army was getting closer and soon all allied prisoners were force to march westward into Germany. British, American, French and thousands of inmates from the death-camps were herded away from the battlefront. As a result we received no more Red-Cross parcels.
We marched along the Baltic coast in the snow and on Easter Sunday we arrived on the River Elbe at Wittenberg. There were rumours from Polish slave workers that the American army was just across the river, which was about a quarter of a mile wide. We were then moved northwards to the Hamburg area. RAF Typhoons now started to visit us, everyday they would fly about 20ft overhead up and down the long column of prisoners with an occasional waggle of wings to give us a sign of recognition, to much waving and cheering. The terrified guards would leap into the adjacent ditches on the roadside. I remember the joy of seeing the red, white and blue spandrels on their wings instead of the usual black crosses.
American tanks caught up on May 2nd 1945 to liberate us. One American officer (who had been drinking) asked the prisoners if anyone (meaning our guards) “had given us grief?” whilst offering us his machine gun. Nobody took him up on the offer. We were then taken by troop carriers to British headquarters in Lunaberg. We had marched well over 1,000 miles and had our first hot bath in years. We had said at one point to our liberators not to get close as we all had lice. We were told by one soldier that they had had them for months too.
An opportunity arose to meet Field Marshall Mongomery who asked us if there were any “Royal Warwicks” amongst us, that being his old regiment.
We were then taken to Lubeck on the Baltic and flown home in a Lancaster bomber with 25 men in the bomb bay. On arrival we learnt that the plane behind us had crashed in France and all were killed.
After 6 weeks leave at home, the army selection panel offered me a temporary commission as an interpreter in Germany if I signed on for a further two years. I declined the offer. I was posted instead to Oxford Ordinance HQ and de-mobbed in 1946.
Like many other POW’s, I brought back a German steel helmet, epaulettes and a Luger as souvenirs.
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