Ch5 Pt3 Paddy, cruelty, Freedom.

Paddy and I were loading a clay-tub at the quarry one day when he suddenly took off the old felt hat which he was wearing, flung it in a puddle, and with an unprintable expletive, uttered in a rich Irish brogue, announced that he wasn’t going to work anymore.

“But you must,” I said. “Otherwise they’ll clobber you.”

“Be Jaysers I won’t,” said Paddy, and threw himself full length upon the clayey earth. 

The Maestro saw us from afar and came hurrying over to our section of the quarry.

“Mensch! What’s the matter?”

“Ich bin krank,” said Paddy, holding his hand to his stomach. “I’m sick. Fetch a doctor.”

The Maestro was at a loss.

“You had better come with me to the hut.”

There was a hut at the end of the quarry, where we always ate our lunch. The Maestro helped Paddy there, and subsequently Wingy, looking more like the villain of the piece than ever with his slouch hat and evil smile, came hurrying towards the quarry to find out what the trouble was. Paddy complained of vomiting and pains in the abdomen, and suggested that he might have appendicitis. Wingy was sceptical. But after he had unsuccessfully tried to cure Paddy by kicking him several times in the ribs and other parts of the anatomy with the toe of his jackboot, he had to accept that a cut in his work force was inevitable.

Paddy was sent into Halle. There a South African doctor, himself a prisoner, who ran a clinic for POW’s, diagnosed appendicitis. Paddy went into hospital, and a fierce discussion raged for some days between learned English, German and Polish doctors as to whether his appendix was inflamed or not. Finally he was given a local anaesthetic, and he was able to watch with interest as the offending organ was removed. Of course, there was nothing wrong with it. But the operation was rather more extensive in those days than it is today. So Paddy now had a good rest in hospital until the incision healed.

In spite of everything, however, his plan miscarried. He had hoped that the war would be over in three months and that he would never see Wingy or the quarry again. Unfortunately the war was to last much longer, and Paddy returned to the quarry as a very reluctant labourer in Wingy’s workforce. 

“Flaming one armed penguin,” said Paddy, vengefully. “But I still conned the bastard, didn’t I?”

Our chief pastime when work at the brick factory was done was discussing rumours of the allied invasion of Germany. Thanks to my knowledge of French and some limited German, I became the chief purveyor of rumours. In the quarry were several forced labourers who, having given their promise not to escape, were allowed to go about more or less as they pleased. One of these was Stefan the Pole, who had not seen his wife and son in Warsaw for five years. He had access to a wireless set whose owners tuned in to London, and every morning he gave me news which he, in his wishful thinking, probably garbled somewhat, and which I, not always fully understanding, undoubtedly garbled even more. After each recital of Anglo-American and Russian successes on their respective fronts, I would ask:

“Stefan, are you sure this is true?”

And Stefan would answer: “Yes, it is true. Every word.” Then, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “English radio. English radio speak.”

Two other informants of mine were Piccolo and Mario, former Italian soldiers, now pressed into the unwilling service of the Reich. Piccolo and Mario both spoke good French, albeit with a strong Italian accent, and under the jealous eye of Wingy, who understood only German, they would pass on to me all the news they had picked up in the town.

Sometimes, too, they would bring me cooked sugar beets to eat. Sugar beets, indeed, threatened to become the staple diet of all of us.

At this time the sugar beet harvest in Germany was in full swing. Often Polish ex-soldiers used to drive ox carts loaded with it past our billet towards the railway. Then we would rush to the barred windows.

“Psst! Kamerad!”

Quickly the Pole would dismount, grab an armful of sugar beets and thrust them through the bars to us before the guard in the adjoining annexe had seen him. These sugar beets we used to bake in the barrack stove. A black crust would form on the outside which, when chipped off, disclosed a soft, sweet core. Unfortunately, too many sugar beets gave one a distended stomach and excruciating pains, for which reason Wingy had strongly forbidden their consumption. Thus our guards were always on the alert for the sound of an ox cart on the cobbles outside.

One day in the quarry I got a piece of grit in my right hand. The hand turned septic, and the inflammation spread up my arm. I was in considerable pain, but Wingy would not let me go to the doctor, telling me when we met in the factory one day, that I would shortly know, as he did, what it was like to lose an arm. As luck would have it, there was a new Feldwebel in charge of the Arbeits-kommando. I was finally sent to the sick bay in town with Pop. A grey haired old guard who was friendly with us all, although I never entirely forgot that he had joined in with everybody else in beating us up after the four of us had escaped from the lager. From the sick bay, I was sent immediately to hospital, with the message that I could possibly lose a finger. However, the German doctor who operated did a good job, and today the only souvenir I bear is a small scar joining the third finger and the palm of my right hand. The result of this operation, however, was that I spent several weeks with my arm in a sling unable to work. 

Soon after my return, a skipful of clay came off the overhead rail in the quarry and fell on my right hand, crushing my thumb and obliging me to spend several more unproductive weeks in the billet. Wingy, who heartily detested me, and whose feelings I reciprocated in full, therefore took the opportunity of transferring me and one or two other unsatisfactory characters, including Paddy to another brick factory on the other side of Halle. I guess it makes sense, if you have rotten staff, to transfer them to the opposition.

I never saw Wingy again, but later, when I was free, I passed through the town in an American truck. The Polish flag floated lazily over my former prison, and I wondered whether some foreign worker, ill treated for years by Wingy, had seized his opportunity and taken just vengeance.

The new brick factory to which I had been sent stood on a main road leading out of Halle, and differed very little from the one I had left. One morning, shortly after I had been transferred there, the town received its first serious air raid. The sirens wailed, we heard the spluttering of guns in the distance, and then the attacking aircraft came roaring in. They were American, and they flew over continuously for about ten minutes, never breaking formation. Bombs began to fall from their silver bodies just as they passed over the factory, and we could see little trails of vapour as they hurtled diagonally down to the centre of the town. There were many French forced labourers working beside us whose first sight this was of allied revenge, and they went wild with delight. After several minutes, the last bomb sped shrieking to earth, and the last aeroplane disappeared into the blue sky. But an immense pall of grey smoke was rising from the centre of Halle and spreading over the town.

That night, and on subsequent days, we were marched into town in a quite hopeless attempt to repair some of the damage which had been caused. For instance, they gave us shovels to fill in bomb craters that would accommodate a small house. Evidently the railway station had been the central target, for overhead electric cables had been ripped down, and the steel tracks were twisted fantastically above gaping bomb craters. But other parts of town had been hit also, and in one street we saw the mutilated corpses of men, women and children laid out by the civil defence authorities in neat rows along the pavement. Many years later I paid my first and only visit to the killing room of an abattoir, where the bodies of beasts are carried on meat hooks around the work floor while men skin them and then carve up the bloody carcases in transit. Only then did it occur to me that the expressions “charnel house” or “slaughter house” are the only terms to describe accurately the scene of bloody murder we saw that night by naphtha flares in the town of Halle.

Such is the nature of modern warfare.

A few days later, when we were working some way away, in the quarry, another alert sounded, and we retired with our guards to the little hut where the men ate their lunch until the all clear should go. Grimly I recollected London’s baptism of fire. Then I remembered how the inhabitants of Halle who had previously ignored the sirens now scuttled like bevies of startled farmyard hens for the nearest cellar marked “Luftschutzraum.” 

Suddenly Paddy’s voice broke into my thoughts, saying, “D’you mind moving away from the stove?”

He was speaking to a thin, irregular-toothed Czech, a volunteer worker who was regarded by everyone as something of a collaborator. The Czech had planted himself directly in front of the iron stove so that nobody else could see the fire.

“D’you mind moving, please?” asked Paddy a second time.

The Czech affected not to understand.

“D’you mind moving so that we can get warm as well as you?”

Paddy repeated, and made signs so that the other could not fail to understand, and was obliged to shift very slightly to one side.

“Thanks,” said Paddy, sarcastically. “It’s very kind of you, I’m sure.” He had never liked the Czech, who was a great tale-teller to his German masters, and I could see that his Irish temper was rising.

Suddenly the Czech said: “Ah, this terrible war. So many people are dead in Halle. Men, women and children.” 

“That’s the way war is,” said Paddy. “Dies ist Krieg, Verstanden? War is bad. Men, women and children – no difference in war. Impossible to make any difference – verstehen? The Germans have bombed us. Now we are bombing the Germans. It cannot be helped. Krieg – War.” 

The Czech looked at him through half closed eyes. Paddy was a small man, not physically imposing. The Czech spoke in clear, good German, thinking perhaps that Paddy with his mere smattering of the language would not understand him.

“What terrible destruction.” A sneer revealed his ugly teeth. “But then, what can you expect? Alle Englische Leute sind Schweinerei! All English people are swine!”

The last words, hissed spitefully, brought a sudden stillness throughout the hut. Everybody had understood perfectly. But while the rest of us were letting it sink in, Paddy was on his feet, his face chalk white with anger.

“What’s that? What’s that?”

The Czech was uncertain of himself. He continued to sneer, but looked towards the German workers and the guard for support. Suddenly Paddy punched him wickedly in the face. Crack! Like a cricket ball meeting the bat.

“What’s that you say?” Again he hit him. The Czech stumbled against a table.

“What’s that you say?”

Beside himself with rage, Paddy smashed his clenched fist again and again into the other’s face. Blood was trickling from the side of the Czech’s mouth.

Then the guard interposed himself and we were pulling Paddy away. 

“OK, Paddy. Leave the lousy collaborator alone. You’ll kill him.”

“Kill him? Too true I’ll kill the bastard if he doesn’t stay away from me.”

The unfortunate Czech was not at that moment in a position to stay away from anyone, having collapsed in a daze against the table.

A second guard came bustling across, opened a tin and offered it to Paddy.

“Eine Zigarette?”

Paddy looked at him, composed himself, then carefully took a cigarette, rather as if he were selecting a choice Havana cigar.

“Thank you kindly. I’m obliged to you. Dankeschön, Posten.”

“Bitte,” said the guard, politely. “Don’t mention it.”

He took a cigarette himself, produced matches, and with assiduous attention gave Paddy a light.                

The Czech had picked himself up and slunk to the back of the barrack. The guard proceeded to address all and sundry.

“This man,” said the guard, placing an affectionate arm around Paddy’s shoulders, “is a good soldier. He did well to strike that other person. He was defending his Fatherland. In his position, I would also have defended my Fatherland. Everybody must defend his Fatherland.”

We English looked at each other in amazement. We might almost have been transported to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, or to the Theatre of the Absurd, although that had not yet been invented. Here were the Americans belting the tripe out of the Germans in Halle, an Irishman belting the tripe out of a Czech for insulting the English over the Americans, and the Germans praising the Irishman for supporting the English……..Une drôle de guerre……A bloody funny war………

It must have been a fortnight later that we heard the rumble of artillery in the distance. It continued for two or three days, growing rapidly louder. Then, one night, we were roused from our beds in the barrack, lined up outside, marched through the factory grounds and out into the main road. All the French prisoners had been paraded as well, and our two columns merged into one as we poured into the street.

“Bon soir, camarade.” 

“Ca va?”

“Ca boume. Et toi?” 

“Il paraft que les Boche vont trinquer.”

At the gate stands a Russian forced labourer. It appears that only prisoners of war are being evacuated.

“Cheerio, Russky.”

“Sheeri-o, Kamerad.”

I look around for some Italian friends of mine – black marketeers who have connections among the farmers in the country, and whose billet is normally stuffed with food of the kind to make the average German worker’s mouth water. They are not to be seen, and the word is that they have sneaked away into the countryside to await the advancing American troops.

Suddenly, in time with our marching feet, a song begins. The Frenchmen who for years have suffered bullying, hardship and separation from their families are beginning to sing the Marseillaise. The melody starts softly at first, then bursts full throatedly through the German streets. Even the English, who do not know the words, hum the tune.

“Allons, enfants de la Patrie,

Le jour de gloire est arrivé.

Contre nous de la tyrannie,

L’étendard sanglant est levé……….”

It is triumph. Triumph! Who can explain the joy in the hearts of people who have been degraded prisoners, and now suddenly smell freedom. Democracy and decency have triumphed in spite of everything. Soon the English will return to their foggy island and the French to beautiful, incomparable France.

Tramp, tramp, tramp. We march right through Halle, which, with its bombed buildings and derelict trams, now looks very much like Arnhem after the battle there, and into the countryside beyond. Presently the first joy of approaching liberation disappears. We have all been slowly starving for several months, and we are thin and weak. Conversation flags, the column loses step and begins to straggle. On either side the guards, themselves tired and dispirited, shout at us to get a move on.

“Los! Schneller! Schneller!”

At five o’clock in the morning we are only too pleased when a halt is called and we are all of us able to throw ourselves down on the frost covered ground, just as we are, and sleep. At sun-up, cold and stiff, we are roused, and the stumbling, staggering column makes its way forward again. There is no food. From now onwards we must fend for ourselves as best we can. Some of us have an odd tin of cocoa or coffee saved from the occasional Red Cross parcel which got through to us. These will be exchanged at farmhouses on the way for a loaf of bread. If we come across a potato field, we will plunder it. Sometimes, when we pass through villages, the German inhabitants will appear at their doors and offer us slices of bread.

In one village, as our column straggles through the main street, a German woman calls me into the back and gives me a glass of milk and a sandwich.

“I am very grateful to you,” I tell her, knowing how desperate the food situation is becoming for everybody. “Danke vielmals.”

“Bitte,” she says. “You are welcome. My son is also a soldier – in the German army.”

At another village, where I beg a glass of water from a grizzled old woman, I receive a shock.

“President Roosevelt ist tot.”

President Roosevelt is dead.

“What?” It is unbelievable. It cannot be. How will the world go on without this great American, the one true statesman who wanted to bring peace to mankind.

“……Are you sure?”

“Ja. The English radio. It is terrible. He was a very good man.” 

This is a tribute indeed from a German.

I tell my friends. The French prisoners, seeing their expressions of stunned surprise, ask me what is wrong. I tell them, and they, too, are shocked.

“Non. C’est pas possible. Pas possible.” One cannot believe it. 

The news spreads along the column and gloom grips all of us. The German guards shake their heads when we tell them about it.

“It is bad…bad.”

In later years history dealt harshly with Roosevelt’s judgment at Yalta. The occupation of much of Eastern Europe by the Russians was laid largely at his door. But I think that the respect in which he was held by so many diverse people, was a tribute to his honesty of purpose. If honesty has no place in international politics, well, that is another thing.

As we marched slowly through the flat fields of Middle Germany, we became less capable of effort. Soon we were stopping every twenty minutes or so for a ten minute rest. Then the guards would rouse themselves and us also, and we would struggle on for perhaps another mile. Sometimes we heard the sound of guns behind us. Once, in the evening, when we were camped in a large potato field, we saw the glow of a big fire somewhere on our flank. Presently allied aircraft appeared in the sky and began to shadow our column. They aroused a faint flame of hope in our hearts, but really we were becoming too exhausted to care much about anything except the next hundred yards or so of road and how it was to be covered. Many of us as the day wore on, would collapse on the road as it became too much of an effort to continue. This happened to me on two or three occasions. I remember a German officer coming up and standing over me for a few moments, perhaps giving me time to recover, then making a show of unbuttoning his pistol holster and saying, ”Na, los!” Would he have used his pistol on me had I been unable to move? I have no idea. Somehow I always struggled to my feet and struggled on.

Finally, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Leipzig, we came to a huge half completed camp. Here, in a forest encircled by barbed wire, English, French, Polish, Yugoslav and Sikh prisoners of war gathered together to await they knew not what.

Fires were forbidden, but we all began cutting down bushes and making fires just the same. The camp was so huge and the guards so few that they could do nothing about it.

In any case, from the frequent appearance of English and American aeroplanes overhead it was obvious that the allies were aware of our position, that they had complete control of the skies without any opposition, and that the German Reich was in its death throes. All that we had to try and do now was survive just a little bit longer.

We were roused early one morning, and in a milling, mixed column, poured out of the main gate. All sorts of rumours were rife. The first one, apparently believed emphatically by the German guards was that the war between Germany and the Anglo-Americans was shortly to be called off, after which we should all become allies and fight the Russians. This was so incredible that we didn’t give it a moment’s serious thought. It was quickly superseded by a more likely rumour that the Russians had begun a push towards Leipzig, and rather than have us all fall into their hands, the Germans had decided to move us westwards in the direction of the American lines.

Before coming into the countryside, we passed through a small village. Every house was being evacuated. Horse carts and oxen carts were loaded with chairs, cupboards, beds and sheets. These were the accumulated possessions of years for which people had worked out their lives. These desperate families were seeing a lifetime of toil destroyed in a matter of hours. Sometimes an old man would be sitting ready to drive the cart away, but mostly it would be the woman of the house who was in charge, her children gathered about her or perched on top of the piled up household goods. The younger men – even at this stage the young teen-age boys – had, of course, been called up for the army. We pitied these people. Who knew what wanderings and miseries lay before them, or if and when they and their menfolk in the military would see each other again. On the other hand, what mercy had the Germans shown to refugees crowding the French roads in 1940. And what mercy had been shown to untold numbers of people murdered in concentration camps because, by an accident of fate, they had been born into Jewish families? Or they had some tenuous connection with Jewish families which, according to Hitler’s mad philosophy, made them less than human.

These were sobering, saddening thoughts, and the dull, cold morning made our mood even more sombre. But as the day wore on, the sun came out. And with the warmth of its rays, a new hope tingled within us.

The wildest rumours now rippled through our ranks, the most unbelievable of them being that a temporary armistice had been declared, and that all prisoners of war in this part of Germany were being marched straight into the American lines. At about mid day we noticed – simultaneously, it seemed, as if by telepathy – that our guards were no longer with us. Suddenly a Frenchman beside me pointed excitedly across the fields.

“Look. The American flag.”

I strained my eyes in the now bright sunlight. In the distance a patch of cloth fluttered above a farmhouse.

“That’s not the American flag. That’s a white flag.”

There was the murmur of an engine in the distance. Then, with a sudden roar, a small artillery observation aircraft passed overhead. No sooner had it disappeared than we heard the stuttering of a motorbike, and a soldier in the uniform of the American army came riding along the column. A few moments later he returned and went pop-popping into the distance.

We were now passing through a village. White flags hung from all the windows, and silent groups of people stood at their doors, staring at us as we went by. Tired as we all were, we stumbled on as fast as we could. There was an indescribable excitement about the column, bordering on hysteria as pent-up emotions were released. Like a troop of thirsty horses smelling water, we were smelling freedom. Nobody can really know what a sweet word that is unless they have experienced imprisonment.

Finally we came into the town of Wűrzen on the River Mulde. White flags hung at all the windows. The column broke into a stumbling run. From the distance came the sound of cheering as men ahead of us realised the incredible fact that they were free and gave vent to their feelings accordingly. On the street corners German soldiers stood in bedraggled grey-green groups, their rifles stacked in neat heaps. American infantrymen, looking like cowboys with their low-slung revolvers joggling at their hips and tin hats pushed to the back of their heads, lounged nonchalantly on guard.

Cloud drifted across the sky and obscured the sun. A faint drizzle began to fall. But we did not heed it. We too began to cheer, hysterically, with breaking voices. We scattered all over the street, stopping every American soldier we saw, shaking hands with them, embracing them, even.

“Good afternoon, good afternoon. Glad to see you, chum! Glad to see you, mate!”

Freedom, freedom! In two days’ time I shall be twenty three years old. Never in all my life have I received such a marvellous birthday present as this.

Sitting on the kerb is a tough, stocky little man whose tartan shoulder flashes proclaim him to be a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. He looks up as I pass. His eyes are filled with tears; and tears of unashamed joy are streaming down his unshaven cheeks.

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.