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Pte. Terry Gorman 5th Battalion Yorkshire RegimentI spent quite a lot of time with my Dad, Terry Gorman recording his stories in the year before his death in 1996. Before then he never really talked about it – tho’ I knew he had fought in the Western Desert and had been a POW for a few years.
We were watching TV together in 1995 and there were several programmes commemorating the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. There was a shot of the train tunnel and guardhouse leading into Auschwitz Birkenau 2 and Dad said "I used stand just there and warm my hands on a brazier as the trains came in." After the initial shock, and disbelief, we began to talk and piece together his story.
Dad was born in 1920 and conscripted into the Army in 1940. He joined a Yorkshire Infantry Regiment – The Green Howards – and after training sailed around Africa and got stuck into the enemy in 1941. At first he was based at Ismailia taking ammunition up to Mersah Matruh by train. At Mersah he had his first meeting with Australian troops who had been pulled out of the front line and were on their way to protect the oil fields in Iraq. He was very impressed with the Australian troops who seemed taller, fitter and better equipped than the British Army. They were also far better paid – about £2 per week (Dad got 14 shillings). When Dad and his best mate approached the Australian lines there were several wolf whistles and a loud voice shouted out – “look out – the poms have sent the boy scouts!” – a reference to the ill fitting shirts and shorts which had been issued to Dad’s unit. He got on very well with the Australians who shared their (far better) rations.
In May 1942 Dad was moved up to Gazala and a great tank and infantry battle took place which ended in the loss of Tobruk in June. Dad was wounded and captured on 2 June and spent a brief time at a transit camp at Derna, then some months at a terrible open air POW camp at Benghazi. The camp lacked even basic sanitation and the Italian guards were trigger happy and brutal. Eventually they were loaded in the hull of an Italian freighter and sailed across the Med all fearing that they would be torpedoed (as some POW ships were) by the Royal Navy.
Dad got to an Italian POW transit camp at Brindisi and then he was moved to Campo 7 at Capua near Rome. Later he was moved north to Campo 54 at Chiavari near Genoa. Life in Chiavari was relatively good. There was food, Red Cross parcels and plenty of sport and books. Dad, and his friend Charlie Murphy, were experienced with horses so got out on a small work detail to work on the estate of the Marquis of Turin – he looked after a string of thoroughbred race horses and was allowed good grub and plenty of cheap wine. Then Marquis hated Mussolini and wanted the Allies to win the War.
In September 1943 events took a turn for the worse. The Italian Army gave up the ghost and the Germans took over in Northern Italy. The POWs were rounded up and moved to Germany. Dad’s camp was sent to the Juventus football stadium in Turin. Dad spent three nights sleeping in the goal mouth whilst the Nazis sorted themselves out. They were then taken to the railway station where they were crammed into wooden cattle trucks and set off for the East. Dad remembers stopping at Innsbruck station, in Austria, where they were allowed to get some water and a little food. After a couple of days they arrived at a grim railway halt in Silesia and were marched up the road and into Lamsdorf POW camp, Stalag 344/8B – the most easterly of all POW camps in the Reich.
Lamsdorf was tough, violent and very large. The Germans segregated POWs according to ethnic origin. There was a very large compound for Russians who were treated terribly (they did not have the protection of the Geneva Convention) – many living in the open or crude dugouts in the ground. There was an outbreak of typhus in this compound and Dad witnessed the Germans spraying the area with petrol then setting light to it – any POWs who survived were finished off by guard dogs.
With the large influx of POWs from Italy the main allied compound was full and Dad was placed in an Annexe reserved for French Canadians who had been captured at the raid on Dieppe in 1942. They were a ruthless lot and had managed to cut the throat of a couple of guards (or goons as they were known). As a reprisal all the Canadians were chained to their bunks or radiators and Dad had to do this whilst waiting for transfer to the main compound. Of course, the Canadians thought he was a stooly – a plant put in by the Germans to get information about possible escape plans etc – and they threatened to kill him. Fortunately, for my Dad, they had been based in Manchester for part of their training and he was able to answer questions about the city. One question was “What is the Band on the Wall” which Dad knew to be a jazz club (which many of the Canadians had visited). After a few weeks Dad got to the main compound. There was very little food and nothing to do. One option was to join working parties outside the camp which gave you double rations (800 calories a day) and a chance to relieve the boredom. Dad signed up and was put on a train which took him to Katowice – about 90 minutes south east of Lamsdorf.
He was given a donkey jacket with KG stamped on the back – KG stood for Kriegsgafangene or Prisoner of War (POWs often referred to themselves as “Kriegies”). He worked as a mate to a German electrician, then laboured in a sugar beet farm, then ended up in an arbeitskommando (work camp) in the Auschwitz complex. What he saw there haunted him for the rest of his life. Auschwitz is a 25 square mile concentration camp complex with four separate camps: Auschwitz 1, Birkenau, Auschwitz 3 and Monowitz. Allied POWs worked in many small work camps, and there was also E715 (E stands for Englander tho’ that included Australians and New Zealanders) at the infamous Buna camp at Monowitz. About 1000 POWs existed here and were forced labourers in a plant which was supposed to produce oil – not one drop was ever produced as many acts of sabotage were undertaken by the POWs.
Dad worked mainly at E727 – the Power Station for the Auschwitz complex. It was coal fired and his job was to clear out the old “clinker” from the grates under the large furnaces and boilers – his only protection was pieces of sacking with which he covered his head and body. The shifts were very long and he got little food. The Red Cross parcels, which he still got even at Lamsdorf, were now very infrequent and often looted by the German guards. Dad was 11st 5lbs when he left England – he was less than 5st 11 lbs when he returned. Food and tobacco were the gold dust of the concentration camp and could be bartered and exchanged for anything.
He worked alongside Poles, Ukraines and Jews. The Jews lived in terrible concentration camp compounds and were treated like dirt by the Germans who thought nothing of shooting a Jew for minor infringements. Some of the Allied soldiers also had little time for the Jews and felt they had “got it coming to them”. Dad had little time for this - he had witnessed the Blackshirts organising in Manchester before the War and had little truck with them or their ideas.
The Germans found out that Dad had worked for the railways before the War and, together with a New Zealand soldier, was detailed to move some bricks along rail tracks into Birkenau 2. It turned out that the bricks were replacement fire bricks for the gas chambers and crematoria used to murder and incinerate Jews by the thousand. The Germans didn’t trust Jewish labour to perform this job as they feared sabotage. He was allowed one communal shower per week to keep the lice and sores under control. On more than one occasion emaciated Jewish women were shoved into the shower blocks by the guards - nobody, as far as Dad knew – ever molested them.
He lived in a small wooden hut with an iron stove in the middle for heat. The men slept on bunks and the man below him was a South African who had been put “in the bag” (captured) at Tobruk. His surname was Silver. One day there was a routine inspection - the POWs came to attention and the Guards had a look around. This time they were accompanied by a man in the dark blue uniform of the SS. He walked along the line and stopped in front of Silver. He shouted, “Your name isn’t Silver, it’s Silberstein – you are a Jew! Take him out!” The Guards grabbed his lapels and dragged him outside where he was shot through he head by the SS man.
In January 1945 the POWs became aware of the heavy fighting to the East. The sky was lit up at night as the Russians advanced. It was a particularly harsh winter, and one night in early January the men were ordered to gather there belongings and line up outside – they were going to march West away from the Russians. Dad looked around and could see three columns – Allied POWs, Russians/Ukraines and Jews. This was the start of the infamous “Death Marches” – POWs marched West for the next four months through the worst winter of the last century. Many died and any who dropped out were left for dead or shot. Dad remembers pulling over to pee in a hedge and seeing many Jews who had been shot and lay frozen stiff in a ditch.
The POWs trudged, day after day, for weeks on end. Food was almost non existent or they got watery potato soup. They slept in rat infested barns. Dad’s column marched from Silesia, into Czechoslovakia then Bavaria in Germany. In late April 1945 the weather improved and they reached a large railway junction at Plattlin. As they sat on a hill near the town they saw allied planes come in and bomb the station – the POWs were set to work pulling the bodies from the wreckage of passenger and freight trains that had still been in the station. A couple of days later the guards simply disappeared and Dad took refuge in a pig farm, sleeping with the pigs. He heard the roar of a powerful engine and realized a tank had driven into the farm yard – and an American tank at that. He stood up and shouted “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” The Yanks were amazed to see the emaciated and starving POWs emerge from the pig sties and hedgerows. They handed out cigarettes and chocolate – and many of the POWs were sick as they had not had such rich, sweet food for years. They were moved back to the US Army echelon and deloused, fed and given new kit. Some were given weapons and drove off to wreak revenge on the local population. Dad remembers walking down to a local German village. Many homes had been looted with men making off with local delph china (Dad wondered how they would get it back via Army transport). He walked into a large house to see if he could get a cup of tea and bumped into a German woman. “Take me, take me” she said in German – behind her was her daughter who she thought Dad was going to rape. He asked her to make him a cup of tea then get upstairs and hide – many German women in the village were not so lucky.
After a few days a British Army Sergeant Major turned up and told them they were going home. They marched to a local airfield and were loaded, 20 at a time, on to Dakota airplanes and flown to Antwerp in Belgium. The plane in front of Dads crashed on landing and all were killed. He was then transferred to RAF Lancaster bombers and flown to Guilford in England – flying straight over the White Cliffs of Dover. He was debriefed and given leave to go home. Then transferred to Ireland to fatten him up… but that’s another story.
One brighter story from Auschwitz. One of Dad’s colleagues was Arthur Dodd who came from Northwich in Cheshire and had been put in the bag at Tobruk in June 1942. Arthur eventually ended up in E715 at Monowitz. One day he was marching back to camp and he noticed some Jews digging a ditch by the road . As they got closer one of them shouted – “I’m English mate, I shouldn’t be here, help me!” Arthur reached into his pocket and threw a packet of cigarettes at the man as they passed. Many years later Arthur was giving a talk about his experiences in Manchester Town Hall. He had written a book, “Auschwitz: Spectator in Hell” and made a programme about E715 for the BBC. After the talk he was signing copies of his book when, from behind, he heard a voice - “I’m English mate, I shouldn’t be here, help me!” It was Leon Goodman, who had been picked up by the Nazis in Holland and was the only English Jew in Auschwitz. He survived and, some fifty years later, and amidst many tears, was able to thank Arthur in person for the cigarettes he had given him in 1944.Michael Gorman
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