British Army Royal Army Medical Corps
5th February 1945
At the time of writing this, I am listening to Artillery fire and bombing near this camp known as Stalag 344. About five thousand of us are awaiting our release by Russian troops. These are memories of my captivity.
On May 29th 1940, we were in position near a river "somewhere north of Ypres". After a day of excitement and peril, beginning at approximately 7.00 a.m. with our billet, a barn, being set on fire by Jerry, I was captured. On our way back to German H.Q. we picked up three of our chaps who were wounded, and left then at a German R.A.P. After that, we who were fit marched back under guard to a house and stayed the night in the garden. It was cold and we were soon wet through with dew. Next day we moved on and at night reached Rosalere having covered about 45 kilometres. Our billet was a convent school. During the night the RAF bombed the town but missed us. From there we moved on another 38 kilos to a small place I do not know by name. Four days we stayed there in a small school playground. My 25th birthday was spent in this place. On June 4th we moved on another 41 kilos to Coudenarde. After being paraded round the town we were put in an old Belgian army barracks where we stopped for 3 days, most of the time queued up for food. There were thousands of British and French mixed, up. We were to curse the French fluently from then on.
Whenever we moved from then on, the French were put in front. They carried so much kit - food and clothing - that they could not keep up with the British who had nothing. We saw these !*! sitting by the roadside eating while we starved and marched on. As the march progressed, the French straggled out more and more, so at each fresh start - mostly daily occurrences they were given longer starts on the British.
On June 7th, we left Coudenarde and marched 35 kilos to Edingem, where we arrived at 11 p.m. On the road jerry guards stopped the British for over two hours while the French straggled on ahead. Then, in threes we were told to march on. One of the Germans said "Sing Tommy", so we sang "Tipperary" and others of the old favourites. To show we weren't too down hearted we sang "Hang out our Washing on the Siegfried Line"; as we came to the field where we were to spend the next couple of days. The Germans here didn't see eye to eye with us and bashed into us with big sticks yelling and raving. Because we couldn't understand then, they got real mad.
June 8th; word came out to us that we could write a letter from here - only a short one. This I believe got home. In a full view of a road, three of us had a rough strip-down wash in a pint and a half of water. It felt good.
Sunday June 9th: We left this spot and hiked onward. 40 Kilos we went that day to a place I haven't the name of. Somewhere I slipped up as I usually wrote the names and distances as a destination became apparent en route. At this place we were put into an old mill of some kind. Textile weaving I believe.
In the yard we crowded, and at the end nearest the building were three field cookers, with Belgian Red Cross workers, issuing soup, not much, but it was good to our hungry bellies. We filed through and then on to the building to "grab" ourselves a spot on which to sleep. As we left here on June 10th, I wrote down what I thought was the name of the town from a railway signal box. Seeing it several times afterwards on other boxes I knew I was wrong. It may have meant north, South, East or West but it wasn't the name of town. 32 Kilos onward - not 'half-a-league' - we stopped at a town named WAVRE. On the way we passed through HAL and WATERLOO. Our route was skirting us round BRUSSELS. All this time we were living on what food we could get here and there from people in villages and towns we passed through. The Germans seemed to have no organisation to deal with P.O.W. As my fellow Stretcher-Bearer and myself [sic] were keeping with our Sgt. Major, who by this time was feeling "groggy", we didn't get much food. Those "froggies" in front didn't leave much for our boys either.
The next place - Tienen, carried us towards Germany another 43 Kilos. At this place we all got some soup and rice as we went into field. It was midnight before I was "served'. This was June 11th.
On the 12th we had the shortest march of the lot - 18 Kilos to St.Trudien. As we entered this place, people lined the streets to see us. Not to cheer but to sympathise - they were Belgians. We did manage to get a few lumps of sugar, two small bars of chocolate and a macaroon, which we shared. From here we went to Tongeren, 21 Kilos 'up the road'. All the places we passed showed signs of bombing or shelling. Some of the big towns were severely damaged.
June 14th, we left 'Tongeren and soon after crossed the Dutch border. About 2.00 p.m. we reached our camp on the outskirts of Maastricht, after a 30 Kilo march. 6.00 p.m. a 2/Lt came over and said all Medical Corps and S.B's were to keep separate, if the German doctor had time to see our pay books and pass us; there was a chance of us going home from there. Next morning we moved out with the rest and got 1/5 of a loaf and a piece of raw pork fat. Holland- the part we saw - greatly impressed us a clean, nice place after what we had seen in Belgium. On the 15th we marched our last 30 Kilos. Crossing through Heerlen, the Dutch Red Cross had tables in the street and as we went past, we got something from them. I got a small packet of sweets a slice of bread and a small bun. We were all grateful. The end of that march was a railway siding 2 Kilos in Germany at a small place named Palensberg. We knew we were in Germany alright, as every house was hung with a Swastika flag. On this siding, there were some German nurses who treated blistered feet and dressed one or two minor wounds. A German officer of some sort wanted the brass band harp badge I wore on my tunic sleeve. When it was explained - not truthfully I am afraid - that it was a souvenir from my dead comrade, he seemed pretty decent and told me to keep it, so I promptly took it down and put it away in an inside pocket. Out of sight out of mind.
Later we were put 50 in a cattle truck and taken away. All night we travelled and arrived next day at a place like a level crossing. From this point we marched on a very rough track about 3 miles to a camp, only British were on this party, as the French were separated at Palensberg - (loud cheers under breath). This camp proved to be only a transit camp, so, arriving on June 16th we left on the 19th. Three days on a train brought us to the place where this is being written - Lamsdorf in Upper Silesia. (Stalag VIII B) Friday June 21st was that fateful day.
Here we were registered and given a German field card to send home the "glad" news, on this, the phrase "I am lightly wounded" did not get crossed out and caused mother a lot of unnecessary worry.
Now started a "grand" time for us. We were fed on very watery soup, with 3 or 4 potatoes separate, for dinner. About 5.00 p.m. we got 1/5 of a loaf of bread about 10 ozs - with a very, very small portion of margarine and jam. After this we had to do from 8.30 to 10.00 a.m. and 5.00 6.00 p.m. Physical Training. When not on this we were either hunting LICE or resting in any place we could outside. Every time you stood up, you suffered from a "black-out' and then "spots before the eyes". This state of affairs, together with dysentery lasted for a long time. That winter was very severe and we had no warm clothing, no great coats and only two blankets. They were black days. A weekly paper, in English was issued to us, telling us the news - German version. They had done everything to us. Sunk our Navy three times over and practically sunk England. Sane chaps took it to heart and got real down hearted. We started a choir and sang four-part harmony. One chap produced a Saxophone he had carried from France. With this going, we got an hours singing at night during the good weather, instead of P.T.. It was impossible to make anyone realise what really happened on that March and in the following years of captivity. Many times the Germans tried to break our spirits. In some individual cases they succeeded, but on the whole, they failed.
By Christmas 1940, with one or two piano accordions and several mouth organs, we raised an Orchestra and produced "Snow White and the Seven 'Twerps", There is no need to state where this was taken from.
That Christmas seems to have been lucky as on December 24th we received our first Red Cross Food Parcel and on the 27th I had my first letter from England. It was from my mate and his wife. Mother’s first letter came about three weeks later.
I was recognised as a person protected by the Geneva Convention and on April 2nd, 1941 went to another camp, (Stalag XX1 A), at Schildberg, which was 18 Kilos over the Polish border, passing through Oppeen and Kreuzberg on the way. This camp seemed like heaven after the one we had left. Here the doctor would only accept R.A.M.C. men, as the job we went to take on was working in hospitals. So when the camp had a 'clear out' on April 10th, ten of our party of twenty six moved on.
About 200 men were in this party, which went on to Woolstien (Stalag XXI C/H). This was a French camp and we seemed unwanted guests. We stayed here for eight days and the "protected" men had a hard job to keep out of going on the pleas-ant job of canal digging. This we managed at the last minute without the aid of the R.S.M. in charge. 120 men left us on the 17th and we other 80 or so, moved next day to Sudhof, (Stalag XXI C/Z later XXI E), which is 3 Kilos out-side Gratz.
This had been a French camp but was being taken over by British P.O.W. Towards the end of May we had a lot of snow and bitterly cold weather. About this time the remaining French left us. The Medical Orderlies were good chaps and so were the two doctors and the dentist. Us chaps, who were taking over the hospital, got up a farewell party, which consisted of a feed and afterwards some singing. This was broken up by a German Corporal assisted by two guards with rifles and fixed bayonets. When he first came in - without guards - we took no notice but carried on singing. The second time he didn't argue. Late next day, we learned that the senior French doctor had been fined 50 Riechmarks £3-6-8 for some alleged offence. We knew it was in connection with our party, so we raised the money to repay him. He declined the money and told us it was well worth that amount for so enjoyable an evening, so everyone was satisfied and happy.
In the meantime a Saxophone, Clarinet, Trumpet, String Bass, Trombone and Bass Drum had come to light. A piano was in a small concert hall, so our "Orchestra" was started. The Saxophonist and Clarinet player were Army Bandsmen and quite good. Our Trumpet player was fairly good, too, but the chap who took the Trombone Well! X?.
Later, this was taken over by a chap who did know a little about it. The pianist played by ear and not music. For a Side Drum - the small one - we had a 2Olb jam tin turned upside down with a bunch of keys jangling on the bottom. The String Bass player was myself - least said soonest forgotten.
On June 22nd we heard Russia hail come in on our side. That morning I was told to report to the Commandants Office. Wondering what was wrong, I went. A new addition had arrived. An 80 Bass Accordion. He wanted to know if this was a good instrument and I played what I could remember of "Black Eyes" for him as a test. From then on I took the Accordion - not that I was good and another chap took the Bass. The Commandant was proud of the band, and thereafter, when anyone came to the camp, we were sent for post haste to play something. He got us music in the form of German dance arrangements.
In May, just before the French left, we put on our first Variety show and called it "Spring is in the Air" No.1, that afternoon it snowed. Soon after the French left two British Medical Officers arrived. We spent a' good summer in Sudhof camp. October brought rumours of our camp becoming Russian and the British were leaving. Hospital staff and doctors stopping. We were to stay until February 1942. However, they changed that and we left on November 2nd 1941 to return to Schildberg.
I went practically straight into the Orchestra there, on a Baritone, playing bass parts. Soon after the New Year of 1942, a party of Repats - back from Rouen - joined our Stalag and I met many chaps I knew.
Whilst at Gratz, I had written for confirmation of my being a Stretcher Bearer protected under the Geneva Convention. In February the answer came that Records Office knew nothing of my being a S.B. Of course, I was promptly crossed off the rolls by the Germans.
That made me elligible for work at anything, anywhere. Being in the orchestra saved me. I got a small job in the camp. A three valved Euphonium came soon after this, so I took that over in place of the Baritone. The orchestra had grown from 18 to 40 strong and it gave many concerts, which were greatly appreciated. Just before Christmas, we bought a String Bass and knowing something about it, I took that on. It was difficult at first, as I had only done dance work with the String Bass, but with plenty of practice, I made myself fairly good.
In March 1943, Stalag XXI A closed down. The fit men went on three working parties. My party was last to leave and went to Krotoschin and became No.14 attached to Stalag XXI D. This was the nearest I ever got to breaking my hope that I would never have to work for Germany. We went to Krotoschin on Monday 29th March 1943 and we were given a week to 'settle down'. On Thursday we were taken out to "view the job". It was "miles from anywhere". No house or person in sight. In places it was ankle deep with water - very marshy. The contractor and surveyor were rank jews. The former handed out shovels saying,' "Ein uhr schnell arbeit" meaning "One hours quick work". He got it - I don't think. Then a real heavy snow storm came on. What a day! April 1st. Friday 2nd was spent in thinking up ways of getting off the party and back to main camp. Mine came on Saturday the 3rd, in the form of a recognition paper, making me again a protected person.
I stopped on the job as medical orderly and went out each day with the workers. My main job, other than first aid, was heating up the 9 a.m. drinks, which chaps took out in beer bottles.
In September thirteen unrecognised medicals were called in to join the Repats. For some reason they missed it but went in May 1944. My chum went on that. We had many disputes with the Germans over the amount of work that should be done. More often than not we got our own way. For three days we stayed out from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. They said we had to do 27 trains of earth, or stop there until we had. The lads did 12, which was 3 less than we had done before. They cut it to 18 - we still "kicked", 15 was our number. In the end, the guards "gave" us 1 and the foreman gave us 2 and we did our 15. Everyone was satisfied. This party was billeted beyond a German barracks, of which there were three in the town. On May 30th 1944 we moved into Stalag XXI D Posen. The camp there was an old fort, named Foert Rauch. The day before this the RAF had bombed Posen and there was plenty of damage to be seen. Within a week I got a job in the Medical Inspection Room doing dressings etc. Whilst in this camp I managed to do quite a bit of swimming.
Posen broke up on August 17th and we went to Tescgen (Stalag VIII B), but out of 890, they could only take 500, so, with the remainder, I travelled on and got back to Lamsdorf, (now STALAG 344) on August 20th 1944.
This camp seemed to have got worse during my absence. Several days we saw our bombers go over to bomb Oppeln and Blechammer. They always used our camp as a turning point.
On Monday, 22nd January 1945 the evacuation of this camp began. My block was due to go on the 23rd. We did actually line up on the road, but the guards marched off without us. This was now February 10th, and we are hourly expecting Russian troops to arrive. For days we have listened to the gun fire, shelling and bombing, which is moving past us in the North West. We get the news twice a day from a set, somewhere in the camp. Now, like all the others I say "Come on Joe"!
This is 4 years and 9 months after my capture. I hope to celebrate the fifth anniversary in England, if not at home.
Sunday 11th February 1945
Today things are quiet. There have been several "strafing" attacks on the aero-drome close by, by Russian fighters. Germans have declared this area to be in a state of siege.
Monday 12th February 1945
Early this morning, 8.00 a.m. a lone Russian bomber came over and bombed the aerodrome. The A. A. send plenty of stuff up, but did not seem to hit any planes. German fighters seem to be elsewhere when 'Joe's boys' came over. Fairly heavy artillery fire in W. & N.W.
Tuesday 13th February 1945
Bad weather. Slight snow. Not much sound of activity.
Wednesday 14th February 1945
Early this morning - approximately 4.30 a.m. Heavy artillery from N.W. and very close. Most probably German artillery shelling Russian bridge head over the River Oder. No further activity. Plenty of rumours regarding a move. Can't see where Germans can move us, as we are virtually surrounded.
Thursday 15th February 1945
More heavy shelling heard again. Air attacks also continue on air-field, but no German aircraft to be seen.
Friday 16 February 1945
Early morning, a Russian tank came up to the camp perimeter and the commander spoke English. He said the Russians would rescue us in the next few days.
17th February 1945
Sounds of fighting now seem to be moving in a direction indicating the Germans are retreating.
Sunday 18th February 1945
We are expecting the Russian forces at any time now.
Completed From Memory 28/5/81:
On 19th February 1945, German guards suddenly appeared in the camp and said we had one hour to pack our things to move. Everyone was astounded that they planned to move us. There was only a single line railway in the area so we thought it was madness to use this. However, we were taken to the local station, and put 53 to a cattle truck. Where we were off to no-one knew.
Twelve days we spent on this journey. During this time we saw a great number of trains filled with German civilians just trying to get away from the fighting.
On many occasions we were stopped for air-raids and had to sweat it out hoping that we weren't attacked. The guards always fled to a safe distance. Our luck held. . A train load of P.O.W. following us was shot up, having some killed and wounded. Anything on the railways was a fair target for the Allied Air Forces.
Our "piece de resistance" while on the journey was going to bed. Starting at one end of the truck, one chap would lie down and wrap his blankets round him, then another chap would do the same, only in a head to toe position, number 3 would follow the same way as the first chap and number 4 the same as number 2 and so on. The whole 53 managed to fit in in this manner. Getting up was in the reverse order.
On 3rd March 1945 we arrived at a small place called Hammelburg. After we left the train, there was a hard march over a steep hill to a camp. After our lack of exercise many rests had to be made before we got to the camp. Hammelburg is not far from Sweinfurt. The air-raid warnings were almost continuous here.
It was whilst in this camp that one 'day we were startled to hear a commotion from a nearby officers POW camp. Later, some new American POW's were brought in and we learned that General George Patton had sent tanks some 50 miles forward, to rescue his son-in-law from the Oflag. The tanks had run short of petrol and so the petrol was siphoned from half of them to allow the others to escape.
It was during our stay at this camp that the "great escape" took place. This came about in the following manner. One day word got round the camp that the Germans were going to take the British prisoners out, to march on the roads. This was a ploy to stop the Allies Air Forces from strafing the retreating columns using the roads.
Early the next morning, before the "round-up" was due, holes appeared in the barbed wire fences, and streams of men could be seen heading for nearby woods, carrying all their possessions in bundles.
I and two others thought we had a good hide-out - in an empty sentry post on the perimeter of the camp. After about two hours, we had an awful fright when we saw a German N.C.O coming towards our hiding place. This is it, we thought. Fortunately - his attention was caught by one of the large holes, and he went through this, back into the camp.
Another attempt was made later, and on this occasion, I managed to evade the guards by being hidden by Italian prisoners in their hut. When the guards came, all lights (home-made wicks in grease) were blown out and everyone pro-tested so hard that there were no British in the hut, that the guards were convinced and left.
The camp was eventually taken over by the U.S. forces on 11th April 1945. We were flown home on 14th April.
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