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.
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.
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 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.
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.