Ch5 pt 2. Capture. Escape. Recapture.

We spent that evening in a disused factory just over the German border, sleeping on a little straw we found there, which may or may not have been provided for our especial benefit. We were beginning to feel extremely hungry, but received only four small potatoes each. Had we but known it, by the German standards of that time, this was an ample meal. The following day we had a little potato soup. Then in the evening we received two doorstep size slices of brown German bread, a piece of margarine as big as one’s thumb, and an equally meagre amount of liver sausage. This was to last us, we were told, for forty-eight hours. In actual fact it lasted for the next four days.

We were split up into parties, taken outside to a railway siding where cattle wagons of the “eight horses, forty men” variety were waiting, and after being counted several times were bundled into them. The doors were locked and, in pitch blackness, we were left to our thoughts. We could feel straw on the floor, but due to the crowding of the wagon there was little room to sit down, and none at all to stretch oneself out full length. A subsequent count revealed that fifty-eight men had been crammed into our wagon, one or two of them with fairly nasty wounds.

We were being taken to a prison camp near the country town of Limburg, which we gathered was not far from Cologne, although in actual fact it was probably closer to Frankfurt. However, allied strafing of the railway system and general disorganisation prolonged our relatively short journey from forty eight hours to five days. During the first four of these we received no food other than that which had been originally given to us. We had been very hungry before, and at the end of this final four days were ravenous and starting to feel weak. We sat hunched up against each other in a dull stupor most of the time. One or two of us who stood up too quickly felt their heads spin and had to grab something for support.

Our difficulties were aggravated by lack of water. When the train stopped, we had to attract the attention of one of the sentries. 

“Hallo! Posten! Bitteschon! Komm’ hier.”                                                   

Slowly the sentry would stroll towards us, his rifle slung over his shoulder, his grey-green forage cap with the small red white and black concentric circles at its tip perched ridiculously on his head. (The English, too, wore these forage caps, with regulation khaki colour and slightly different cut, but equally stupid).

“Was wollen Sie?” he demands. 

“Wasser, bitte. Water.” 

We hand him out mess tins and tin hats through a slit that has been left between the sliding door and the wall of the wagon. However, there are several wagons, and the sentries do not hurry themselves. Sometimes the train starts up and we miss out, losing the receptacles we have given out. We hope that our supply of tin hats will last till the end of the journey. But the result is that to our hunger is now added a very considerable thirst.

We were not allowed out of the train to relieve ourselves. So we had to urinate through the narrow slit where we passed out our mess tins. Or we used our steel helmets and subsequently emptied them through the same slit. Probably through lack of food not very many wanted to defecate.                                                                            

At the beginning of the fifth day, a Luftwaffe officer from a neighbouring air force prison camp visited the train and ordered that the men be let out to relieve themselves. He also conjured up some loaves of bread, which did not allow much for each individual but were nonetheless very welcome.

The following day, our train pulled up in a siding, we stumbled into the open air, and our guards began to march us across a series of mud dunes towards a road and a railway crossing. Around the railway crossing were gathered gabled houses, reminding one of fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. This was Limburg. We turned our backs on it, and straggled along a slowly rising cement road, passing on the way a couple of carts drawn by dull eyed oxen. We were to discover that oxen transport was a regular part of the German rural wartime landscape. 

Finally we reached the summit of the hill. The road dipped, and rounding a corner, we came upon barbed wire and a towering wooden gate with a carved German eagle surmounting it. 

This was Stalag X11A at Limburg. Like sheep we were driven into the compound.

The Germans had never expected such a huge influx of prisoners, and the timber barracks were already overcrowded. We were therefore banished to the other end of the camp where half a dozen outsize tents had been erected. Straw was on the ground, and here the survivors of the Arnhem operation found themselves billeted with sundry other British, American and Polish prisoners taken during the recent push through France, Belgium and Holland. The tents were overcrowded, but we did not mind that. The weather had turned extremely cold, and at least the fact that there were a large number of men in the tents ensured that the temperature there was warmer.

We were now really introduced to German food, and the meeting was not a happy one. In the morning, each man received a slice of bread and a little treacle, plus half a mess tin of ersatz coffee. At one o’clock in the afternoon a pail of cabbage, carrot or spinach soup would be brought up to be divided between twenty to thirty men, giving each about half a mess tin of vegetables and water. In the evening every man received three or four small potatoes, boiled in their jackets and very gritty. This was to be the best food ever given to us in Germany, but our stomachs rebelled against it just the same. Diarrhoea very near to dysentery became rife, and because there was no room in the improvised hospital a few minutes’ walk away, men lay drawn and weak about the tents, unable to move. The British medical officer gave them binding potions, but could do no more. The lavatories became stopped up, and finally the whole area around them turned into a stinking bog, not helped by the rain that now began to fall.

Then there were disputes about the fair division of food. Some NCO’s who had been supervising this were accused of putting out extra for themselves. Eventually we took it in turns to share out the pails of vegetable swill, optimistically called soup, also the evening meal of potatoes. No sooner had this squabble ended, than fights developed for the odd bit of potato peeling or cabbage leaf remaining in the pails after everything had been shared out as fairly as possible amongst us. Most of us stood back, but a minority fought. On the other side of the barbed wire, German guards laughed heartily at this, and even American and Polish prisoners looked on with undisguised contempt. Slowly the realisation of their shameful conduct and the miniscule amount of the prize came to the English, and the savage battles around the near empty food pails ceased.

At Limburg I met many acquaintances from my division who had been captured on the bank of the Lower Rhine as they waited for boats to ferry them across. The Germans’ idea seemed to be to split us up as soon as possible, and after three weeks about four hundred of us went to a Stalag near Muhlberg, somewhere in Middle Germany. Although Stalag IVB was large, the township of Muhlberg must have been small. The journey was by cattle wagon again, but this time it took only two days. Furthermore we had been liberally supplied with Limburg cheese to refresh us on our way. This cheese is made in long, sausage like rolls, and is quite the strongest cheese I have tasted or smelt. Such was our hunger, however, that we soon had no compunction about eating the stuff without bread and by the mouthful. However, I did not become a connoisseur, and after the war my aversion to this type of cheese returned. If presented with Limburg cheese, I would take the tiniest piece, just for old times’ sake, but that was all.

By International agreement the rule regarding prisoners of war was that all ranks under that of sergeant should be obliged to work, and Muhlberg was evidently to serve as a transit camp where it could be arranged to send us to various “Arbeitskommando” or working parties.

A favourite trick of prisoners was, of course, to sew three stripes on each arm and call themselves sergeants, thus avoiding the obligation to work for the enemy. Unfortunately I did not become aware of this minor dishonesty until my identity as a private soldier was established. In any event, I had no assets, such as cigarettes or coffee, which I could trade for a set of sergeant’s stripes.

Everything was highly organised at Muhlberg. The food was similar to the Limburg variety, but our stomachs were becoming used to it now, and diarrhoea was not so frequent. Furthermore, our diet was augmented by extra comforts from British, American and French Red Cross parcels. The prisoners were mostly British, and many had been there for four years. They seemed to be well in the saddle, more or less running the camp by themselves. There was a well-organised black market where one could buy almost anything if one had the necessary cigarettes, chocolate or coffee to pay for it. The camp had its own amateur theatre of good standard, and there were several secret radio receivers. The Gestapo were in the process of pulling the theatre to pieces when we arrived, believing that one of these radios was hidden there, but they did not find anything.

The most eagerly awaited part of the day at Muhlberg Stalag, apart from meal times, was the early evening. At about a quarter to seven regularly, unless it was found necessary to disarm the suspicions of a guard, a runner used to make the rounds of the various huts in our vicinity. Then the hut leader – the “confidence man” as he was known – would call us all together, look-outs would be posted at the doors, and the six o’clock news from the BBC in London would be read out. The whereabouts of the radios that received this news was kept a strict secret. The ordinary British prisoner was as ignorant of their hiding places as were the German guards and prison establishment.

Most men in the camp were equally unknowledgeable of details concerning the “Escape Committee”. This was a committee of prisoners who had contact with the outside world – undoubtedly through a corrupt guard – and could arrange for especially important prisoners to be smuggled out to freedom. Cases were cited of people who had got away and whose escape the Germans in this huge camp had not discovered until months afterwards. These tales – whispered conspiratorially into one’s ear – may have been true, although from the frequent roll calls which were taken, I was sometimes inclined to attribute them to wishful thinking on the part of homesick prisoners.

One evening a German officer came into the hut. The confidence man called us on parade, and the German read out a list of some thirty names, helped with the pronunciation of the more difficult ones by the confidence man. I was on the list. Tomorrow we were to march out of the high wooden gates of Muhlberg Stalag and across the fields to the neighbouring gabled railway station. There, amid the elegantly dressed German citizens, we would stand in our dirty uniforms, stared at by the wondering children in peaked caps, children who might almost be our own, as we waited for the wooden seated train to Halle. 

Halle was a town south of Berlin, straddling the River Saale. It had a population in excess of a quarter of a million, and was the birthplace, I was later to learn, of the composer Handel. We were to commence work in a brick factory on its outskirts, thus helping indirectly to reconstruct German buildings that the Royal Air Force and the Americans were busily engaged in knocking down. 

Loufoquerie de guerre!  (The madness of war!) But such was the game that we were engaged in.

From the first time that I saw them, I never liked the two men who ran the brick factory at Halle. One was in his sixties, small, plumpish, grey moustached and Homburg hatted. The other, his son, was jack-booted, slim and dark, with a slow smile, which discovered beautiful, white regular teeth. He had long black eyelashes, like a girl’s, and he wore a black trilby hat with the brim turned down slouch fashion. He had been an S.S. officer in the German army, and had lost an arm on the Russian Front. The realisation of this deficiency seemed to sensitize a mind already sufficiently wicked, and he revenged himself on the prisoners working in the brick factory, smashing his remaining fist into their faces on the slightest provocation, and taking a savage delight in kicking them with his pointed jackboots. The French prisoners called him “Le Manchot”. We called him “Wingy”, which by a not so strange coincidence, was just about an exact translation. He was detested by foreign prisoners and German workmen alike. 

The day we arrived at the brick factory, we were lined up for inspection by Wingy and his father. 

The old man came up to me.  “Beruf?”                                                                                                                     

“Bitte?” I did not understand.                                                                                 

“Beruf! Profession!”  Ah. He wanted to know my trade. How should I translate

that into his language?                                                                                                                     

“Clerk. Schreiber.”     

An evil smile wrinkled the skin about his hard eyes, and he said slowly in German, so that I could pick out the words:                                                                                       

“A clerk. So! We shall have to find some extra hard work for you. You will go and dig clay in the quarry. Eine sehr schwere Arbeit, Mensch. Understood?” Oh, yes. I understood him very well.

The quarry lay in the open fields, some distance from the brick factory. Here clay was hewn from the gaping earth and loaded into tubs. These tubs, running on an improvised overhead rail, were pushed to a machine at the end of the quarry. From this machine a never ending moving cable connected the quarry with the factory. All day long the moving cable captured one tub after another, and a continuous chain of clay filled buckets moved across the sky, supported by monstrous pylons and the endless cable that joined them. 

The brick factory was a long shed-like building of timber and corrugated iron. On the top floor, clay from the bucket chain was poured continuously into a mixer. Men then sped the empty buckets through the open end of the platform on their return journey to the quarry. Other ingredients were added, the mixture was compressed by huge rollers, and then forced downwards through a sieve to the ground floor where it emerged from a chute like a never-ending square sausage. A man stood by the hole from which the clay was extruded, cutting it into oblong pieces of the correct size with a device, which looked like an oversize wire cheese cutter. A further two men loaded the wet clay pieces on to a conveyor belt which would take them to a kiln to be baked into bricks.

After we had been working in the quarry for a week, a small party of us decided to escape while we still had the strength left in our bodies to move. For the food we received was more meagre than ever, and the bullying meted out to make us fill more and more tubs with clay had become unbearable.

Paddy was the acknowledged escape expert of our group. He had deserted from the Irish Army, breaking out of detention barracks in order to join the English. Then there was Jock, with a broken nose, broken teeth and a broad Scottish accent, and small, crafty-eyed Dave from Birmingham. I was the fourth member of the party.

We were billeted in a large hut close to the brick factory, watched over from an annexe by three geriatric soldiers from the German Home Guard and their sergeant major. Outside the billet and the annexe, in a small area of ground surrounded by a barbed wire fence, stood the lavatory. One evening we dollied up our beds with broomsticks and rubbish to make it appear that we were sleeping. Then we slipped out separately and, when we were all gathered by the lavatory, squeezed through a gap in the wire. Unfortunately a guard came out at that moment. He saw us, gave a shout. A shot was fired and we scattered. Paddy and Jock dashed in one direction, Dave and I in another. 

When we had got well away from the billet, Dave and I stopped for a consultation. It now seemed that we had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, and we had no idea what we were going to do. We noted a railway line running across country. that we had persuaded ourselves went in a more or less northerly direction. We decided that if we could jump a train we might finish up close to Berlin. We would jump off before we reached Berlin, then strike westwards. We would lie low close to some small village where we could steal food from a local farmhouse, and wait for the advancing allied armies to pick us up.

Unfortunately this grandiose plan was proved abortive almost as soon as we had conceived it. For the goods trains which travelled along the line at this point went at a fair speed, far too fast for us to have any hope of boarding them. We therefore decided to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the brick factory. We struck out across country, both of us plunging up to our knees into a small hidden watercourse on the way, and getting fairly well soaked. It must have been early morning, as we were walking, cold and shivering along a railway track, that two shadowy figures suddenly appeared behind us, guns were rammed into our backs, and a hoarse voice shouted: “Hande hoch!” 

Recovering from our surprise we put up our hands. We were marched ahead for several yards, then one of the shadowy figures went forward and opened the door of a wooden hut whose interior was lit by an old fashioned oil lamp. We now had a chance to see our captors. One was a tall man wearing jackboots and what seemed to me to be some sort of a naval uniform complete with blue peaked cap. After a moment’s reflection I put him down as a local railway official. He kept us carefully covered with a large revolver while his colleague, who was dressed in the grey-green semi military uniform and tall helmet of the German police and had a rifle slung over his shoulder, picked up the telephone and asked the exchange for a number.

The policeman seemed very pleased with himself. He swaggered up and down while awaiting his telephone call and addressed sundry sentences to us in a harsh Middle German dialect that we were totally unable to comprehend. I thought that he would probably get a mention in dispatches for our capture and was letting off steam. The telephone rang. We heard the words “Prisoners of War” repeated several times. Then he hung up abruptly and made a sign. “Hande”. We held out our hands, and in a moment were manacled together. “Komme mit. Come with me.” At the door, however, he stopped. He thrust his face close to ours and burst into a torrent of incomprehensible words at the end of which, however, occurred one we could not fail to understand. “……….geschossen.” Dave looked sharply at me.                                                         

“Did he say they’re going to take us out and shoot us?” 

I do not know. The Germans had recently posted up notices stating that certain areas of the country were “forbidden”, and that any escaping prisoners of war found in them would be shot. Moreover, the two men, in spite of their bravado, were obviously as afraid of us as we were of them, and they handled their guns in a far from reassuring, trigger-happy fashion.

We marched through a sleeping village and across a dark, sloping heath. It seemed an ideal spot for an execution, and we were aware that some of the more fanatical Nazis had carried out this kind of deed from time to time with no compunction whatsoever. If they were going to shoot us, this was the obvious spot to do it, out of hearing of the houses behind us.

And now a strange thing happened to me. If I was going to die, I felt that it would be a matter of deep regret. But peace had descended upon my mind, and suddenly, in a way that I could not understand, I was no longer afraid. Moreover, it came to my mind that it was important that I give no indication of fear. My executioner should remember for the rest of his life that an Englishman knew how to present himself when the final moment came.  

In retrospect it is difficult to understand how these thoughts came to me, for normally I am anything but chauvinistic. But it is completely true that some force outside myself gave me a serenity and courage to accept that I never knew I possessed. I believe that Dave had the same feeling, for we both straightened our backs, lifted our heads and began to march firmly and in step. But our manacled hands were rigid as we waited for the sudden report and the paralysing, punch-in-the-back entry of bullet into flesh and bone.

Suddenly I heard the bolt of the policeman’s rifle being drawn back and then thrust forward. He had put a round up the spout ready to fire. This was it. In another moment all would be blackness. There was no escape now.

Seconds passed. The conversation of our guards had stopped. The only sound was the swish of our boots through the grass. Suddenly I could not bear the suspense any longer. I looked round. And as I did so, the click of a bullet being forced up the spout was repeated. The policeman had sharply knocked out the ashes of his pipe against the breech of his rifle. I had heard nothing more than that. My inflamed imagination had done the rest.

After an hour’s march during which we met several other policemen — evidently the whole area had been alerted about our escape — we came to the little cobbled village of Teicha. Here our captors knocked at the door of a farmhouse. A sleepy soldier eventually appeared, and we were taken upstairs and thrust into a small cement cell. About half an hour afterwards, Paddy and Jock were pushed sprawling through the door to join us, and we spent the rest of a very cold night huddled together for warmth.

The next day brought our guards from the brick factory and a thorough beating up, administered the moment they entered our cell. This beating was repeated when we returned to our billet. We were stripped naked, forced into a cupboard and thrashed with canes. The sergeant major, firmly believing me to be the ringleader of the break, gave me a special punch on the jaw, which made me see the stars and put out of my head for all time any ambition to take up boxing as a career.

Then we were sent back to the quarry. Wingy gave us his special attention for the next few weeks, and the benefit of the toe of his boot. Additionally, we were sentenced to spend several Saturday evenings and Sundays, when there was normally no work, in the jail at Teicha with a small hunk of bread apiece and a communal jug of water to sustain us for the forty eight hours until we fronted up for work at the quarry early Monday morning.

However, it turned out that several Polish prisoners were billeted at the farmhouse. Moreover, the German soldier in charge of them had himself been a prisoner in England during the 1914-18 War, and had some sympathy for our position. The Poles were favourably disposed because the entire conflict in which we were engaged had arisen as a result of Britain going to war following the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Thus this very kind German soldier provided coal for the little stove in our cell and also collected potatoes for us to roast. He brought straw mattresses into our empty cell with its bare cement floor. And in the evening he let the Poles in to our cell, allowing them to make us gifts of sandwiches and of Polish cigarettes, smoked through long cardboard holders. All signs of this unseemly comfort were removed very early Monday morning before our guards came to fetch us. And, of course, we were most strictly enjoined not to say a word to anyone, not even our comrades. For in prisoner- of-war conditions it is regrettably true that there is always someone who will sell his grandmother for an extra slice of bread.

Eventually all good things come to an end. Wingy decided one day that we had paid for our sins, and thenceforth we were no longer allowed to spend our weekends in what had become our happy little jail at Teicha.

Another German who showed considerable kindness towards us was the foreman in the quarry. To the Polish forced labourers who toiled beside us and to the German workmen, he was known as the “Meister”. Of course, it went against the grain for us to call him “master”. So we compromised with the word “Maestro”, which did not make us feel inferior, and was near enough to the original pronunciation to satisfy all concerned.

The Maestro was tall and thin, wore little muffs like wireless headphones over his ears, to keep them warm, and cultivated a small black toothbrush moustache of the Hitler variety. Here, however, all resemblance to Hitler ended. The Maestro detested the Fűhrer’s master race theories, and said so in no uncertain terms. In broken German he and I used to discuss the eventual unity of mankind and the abolition of war.            

“Das kommt, Foxon.” 

“Ja, ja, Maestro. Das Kommt. In einer entfernten Zukunft. One of these days, one of these far-off days it’s coming.” 

Every Monday morning, when we returned to the quarry from Teicha jail, the Maestro used to say:

“Langsam, Mensch, langsam. Take it easy. No food, no work.”

And when the pail of vegetable soup was brought up for the men at midday, he would always arrange for us to have an additional helping. Of course, we did not tell him that we were receiving extra rations from the Poles at Teicha.

Work at the factory was pretty hard, and for the recently captured prisoners the rations were totally inadequate. A large loaf of bread of the spongy, light variety had to last a man nine days, and he received in addition only half a bowl of vegetable soup each day. We received a second bowl of watery carrot soup after work when we got back to our barrack in the evening. This diet was quite inadequate for heavy manual labour. Everybody lost weight and became physically very weak. 

One of our number – irrepressible, rubber faced Simmo from  Birmingham – one day put the index finger of his right hand in front of the wheel of a heavily laden clay-skip, and ordered Jock the Scotsman who had escaped with us to push the skip over it. Jock obliged, and Simmo got six weeks off in a Berlin hospital, a permanently incapacitated finger, and a violent tirade from the German sergeant major, who accused him of being a saboteur. Simmo’s unpopularity with the Feldwebel dated from the time when the two of them were having a political discussion in the barrack one night after work. The sergeant major was explaining very slowly in German to Simmo how all the troubles of the world were caused by the Jews, and how everything would be one hundred per cent if only one were able to get rid of them. Simmo listened carefully, an expression of strained attention on his face, a disciple at the feet of his master.

“You must understand,” said the Feldwebel, wagging a kind but didactic finger, “that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin all have Jewish blood in their veins and are the tools of international Jewry.”

Simmo’s tortured concentration became even more intense, then suddenly cleared as understanding dawned on him.

“Verstanden, Herr Feldwebel. I understand. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin are all Jews.”     “Richtig”, cried the Feldwebel, all smiles. “Ganz richtig. You have understood. They are all Jews.”  

            Never had Simmo and the Feldwebel been so close. It seemed that at any moment they would throw their arms about each other and embrace like long lost brothers. Simmo put his elbows on the table, and bringing his face close to that of the German sergeant major said:

“And did you know, Herr Feldwebel, that Hitler, the man who has caused this war, is also a Jew?”

Dead silence. The smile disappeared from the Feldwebel’s face to be replaced by an expression of incredulous horror turning slowly to livid rage. Springing to his feet he thumped the table and screeched a flood of strangled invectives, which the Fűhrer himself would have been hard put to emulate. We only understood the words “Englischer Schweinhund” which seemed to be repeated several times.

Simmo retreated to a safe distance, a somewhat aggrieved expression on his face. 

“I don’t know what he’s upset about,” grumbled Simmo. “We were having a political discussion. He told me that Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin were bloody Jews, so I told him that Hitler was a bloody Jew. What’s wrong about that?”

So Simmo finished up by mutilating a finger, which was rather a drastic way of getting a holiday. But Paddy’s was even more so.

2 thoughts on “Ch5 pt 2. Capture. Escape. Recapture.”

  1. From Lynda
    “But it is completely true that some force outside myself gave me a serenity and courage to accept…” Having reached such a terrible moment, accepting your own death, how does Jim manage to go on? His basic knowledge of German, his ability to communicate with people from various backgrounds, and his ability to see humour, are elements that help to see Jim and his friends through this ordeal.


  2. From Trish
    The progression of this story makes it increasingly difficult to read more than a few lines before I stop. There is discomfort in reading some truths about the way we treat each other as human beings, in war. Cattle trucks used to transport human cargo without water, food, and basic ablutions, is a degradation of the value of a man.
    Survival requires resilience to adversity, and you see this developing with Jim and his three inmates who escape. They are recaptured, only to be confronted by the possibility of a firing squad – fortunately evaded. On return to camp they are beaten inhumanely, yet on being left in jail, they found surprising comforts. There is an underlying humour, defiance and passive aggressive behaviour to German authority that permeates this chapter. The luck of these soldiers is like one of those rides in a fair ground with unpredictable twists and turns. It does feel like Jim has a guardian angel looking after him, keeping him out of the devil’s reach.


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