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L/Cpl. Wilfred Williams

British Army Royal Signals


Our father, Wilfred Williams, Royal Signals Army No 2328793 was at Stalag XXb. He was a prisoner of war from June 1940 to May 1945. In his later years he told us some of what had happened to him. Dad was an office boy working in a hospital in Portsmouth. He wanted a choice, not be drafted into the P B I (poor bloody infantry) so joined up and was put into the Signals Corp. All the British equipment was old, no tanks. After the First World War disarmament was the way of most of the world, but the Germans had the principle of ‘guns before butter’. The Signals Corp had wireless trucks but instead of having the proper radio equipment in them, they had a lot of cricket equipment, games etc. They thought the war would be over soon. In 1940 he was near a beach with cliffs at St Valery-en-Caux near Calais as rear guard as the 51st Highland Division was being chased down the coast. Their original orders were to ‘Hold the line’, but then came the order ‘Every man for himself!’ and to dismantle rifles so they could not be used by the enemy, but the guns were from the 1914 war anyway.

It was desperate. His company was surrounded at gunpoint by Germans. Eventually with thousands of other British, French, Dutch and Belgians they were marched from France to Holland, living on the occasional loaf or whatever they could find in the fields or hedges.

In Holland the POW's were loaded onto barges with no facilities for five days, until reaching Germany where they were put onto trains. The carriages said ‘8 horses or 40 men’, but 100 men were put in each. There was little water or food, and just a 3 feet by six inch opening where men took turns to stand. In Poland they were taken to the prison camp Marienburg Stalag XXb. Dad told us, ‘Everyone was suffering alike. They were a good lot of lads and relieved to be alive, to live through another day. Some comedians had a sense of humour. They were never overfed. It kept you down.

Lousy, covered completely with lice. In the delousing chambers/showers it just brought the young eggs out. Clothes would come off and be boiled and cooked. We had to walk through the water, no soap or towels. By the time you got back to camp all the lice were back again.

People were moved from camp to camp. It was boring and rotten. There was day after day of lice, scratching and no food. If there was bread, you ate it. Some saved it in pieces for breakfast/lunch/dinner, others ate it immediately. ‘ The friends he refers to in his account are Frank Tayler, Gordon Gibson (Gibby). He also mentions ‘Double’ (liked 2 food portions), Jake Porter (cockney) and Andy Anderson. At Stalag XXb he was sent to work in a factory for 3 months during the beet harvest, doing 12 hour shifts. The beets were cooked in eight big boilers. He had to open the boilers at the bottom to empty them of the cooked beets, all hot and wet, then closed them up to refill. He suffered with painful, cracked skin on his hands for the rest of his life as a result of this. Back at camp they were starving and bitterly cold. Dad collapsed and was marched off to a hospital by a German soldier, having to walk in the gutter, was given a ‘pick-me-up’ and then walked back to camp having lost his clothes but in a long Polish army overcoat. On the footpath Poles stuffed things in his pockets, cigarettes, hard buns. One job was to get sand for rail works. They were on narrow tracks, shovelling sand. One day all the sand slipped and two chaps died. A New Zealander officer who led the funeral told the POWs the latest news from the outside world. Dad volunteered for a farm. The first farmer was a ‘typical’ Prussian and did not want English prisoners saying they were trouble and would not work. They were then taken to another farm under Herr Johst, who was remembered as being important as he had a vehicle with rubber tyres. Ten of the lads were there from November 1941 to February 1945, all survived. At the farm the granary was destroyed and extra hands came in, in the form of Ukranian civilian POWs who brought whisky and a radio, so they heard the news that Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. When the farmer was away the Polish housekeeper let Dad in to listen to the radio and he heard ‘ITMA’ (It’s that man again – Tommy Handley). He was nearly caught coming back and had to dive into a ditch, a hairy moment, no fun at the time. He reported that all the Germans were different, some friendly, some not. In early 1945 the invasion was succeeding. Dad and his mates were told that they must move out. On 12 February they had to leave hurriedly because the Russians were coming. They picked up what they could carry and were marched from Poland across N Germany. Now we know that the troops were used as pawns by the Germans. They walked for 3 months living off the fields with no washing facilities anywhere, heading closer to the war activity. On 5 May 1945, still marching, US vehicles came over the horizon. The Germans put down their weapons and the US soldiers rounded everyone up. The US soldiers gave out cigarettes and candies. Vehicles took people to camps – with food! His group (in rags but with food) was put in a Lancaster bomber. It had no seats or weapons, just shells and gun towers in the middle and tail. They took turns to view the devastation. They flew over Essen and saw the damaged towns with white sheets hanging from the windows – surrender. They landed in Beaconsfield and were showered, given new underwear, a uniform and a meal. There was a show from the Folies Bergere and every chair had a copy of the Daily Express. Dad remembers black singer Josephine Baker stroking the hair on the back of the soldiers’ necks. He was given money and a railway pass, put onto a lorry to London and dropped off at Waterloo Station. He sent a telegram to his parents saying he was coming home. When he arrived at his parents’ home in Portsmouth his mother was crying with relief as his brother had arrived home from the Navy that same day. The telegram arrived three days later. Dad told us,”For me, the war was really over”. At the age of 80, in 1996, Dad went with his wartime pals Frank Tayler and Gibby back to Poland. They hired a car and visited the old buildings in Gdansk and looked for the farm they had been on. They found the house of Mr Klein, who had been the leading farm hand, and they found the house of Herr Johst. They remembered where the concentration camp they had been in was, and the striped uniforms of the Jews and dissidents. All they saw of the area they knew was run down, just grass and mature trees. They met a farmer who said that there had been a transformer and houses there, which were blown up by the Russians. The three old soldiers were given strawberries and a red rose each by the farmer’s wife, which Dad brought back to Mum. Wilfred Williams 16 July 1916 – 23 October 2009

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