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- Herts Libraries
- Location of story:
- Norfolk, Watford, Jersey
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 November 2004
Working in England
At the end of April 1946 I was sent to a proper working camp at RAF Marham near Narborough, near King's Lynn in Norfolk - my third posting. Here I was delegated with another POW to fill huge coke sacks. The instruction from the guard was twelve shovelfuls into each sack. The guard held it open and counted each shovel. We then had to load it onto a truck to be delivered to the RAF married quarters. By the time we had unloaded all the sacks we were covered in coal dust which was very unpleasant. Afterwards we had a welcome shower!
Marham Camp food was quite good, but we did not have any choice. Most of us did not like the marmalade, which is unknown in Germany, but after a week I got used to it. Sometimes we also had peanut butter, which suited us better, as we had been introduced to it in America.
There were three or four other airfields which were closed down and we had to clear the Nissen huts of benches, tables and iron bedsteads which we had to dismantle. The outdoor mats were infested with earwigs. All the lightbulbs we had to put into tea chests, and this was all taken to a huge hangar, except the nuts bolts which were taken to the RAF stores for re-use. After three weeks I was moved to working in the store... was I pleased! I was now working with two WRAFs! The Sergeant in charge ordered me to paint the parking spaces which had already been chalked out: NO PARKING - OFFICERS ONLY. The Sergeant provided me with a 3-inch brush and a gallon tin of white paint and other tools, saying, "Get on with this while the weather is fine!" But I took my time, enjoying working out of doors where it was warm; but I had to do a lot of bending down. When the Sergeant went off in his car I left my brush on the kerb, stood upright and stretched myself. I was thirsty so I asked the two WRAFs for water. One girl supplied me with a mug of water and the other offered me a chair. Our conversation was necessarily limited so I did not stay too long in the storeroom, and afterwards I was given an orangebox to sit on when I was painting the no parking sign.
Later on with three other POWs I got another job folding military maps. We like it there and after a week I had to do other duties. At weekends we had time for sports and leisure activities. We had been given a football so we kicked it about.
We also went for walks in the woods and found a proper football pitch. After getting permission to use it the German Commandant organised a team of which I was a defender. After three games I resigned, as I decided I preferred to do high jumping. I did fairly well in the group until I fell onto the hard turf and hurt my left arm. The next day I went to the doctor and he said there was nothing broken but I should rest it in a sling and not do any work or sport for one week.
I went into the woods with my English language book, found a log to sit on and immersed myself in English grammar. After a while I became aware that I was hearing bees buzzing, and alarmed I went round the tree trunk to find a swarm of bees so close that I nearly panicked. I slowly moved away and returned to the camp where I told two other POWs about the bees. It was on a working day, and they came with me to see the tree trunk and we found the bees had settled on a branch about 10ft off the ground. We agreed to catch them if we could and the German Commandant gave his permission. We needed a good smoker and a long pole, and the carpenter agreed to fix that as he was a good smoker and had a lot of experience with bees. We caught the bees in a wooden box - my Grey blanket came in useful until we found some wire mesh. Then the carpenter set about making a hive on stilts for the bees.
I was quite happy in Marham but in September 1946 I was told that after breakfast I would be transferred with seven other POWs to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Here conditions were not as good as at Marham. There were 18 Nissen huts and altogether about 180 POWs. As we were newcomers we were in the last hut. Here we saw barbed wire again. The next day we had to walk with a Sergeant to the Headquarters where they gave us painting equipment and overalls ready for work. In one room were four POWs and the second room another four. We started at 8.00am and after two and a half hours' work they brought us some hot soup, and we had a break every two hours before continuing until 5.30pm. Then we walked back into the camp where we had a hot meal. Our chef was now a German POW and he asked us which camp we had come from. So we told him we came from Marham RAF camp near Kings Lynn and there we had had proper baths in a brick building which was heated. The chef said, "You won't get that here!"
Back to decorating the headquarters. We just have done 16 rooms plus the corridor which was leading to the control tower. After the morning soup break one day I ventured out to explore a little, mainly because the others were smoking and telling dirty jokes. Noticing a spiral staircase leading into the control tower I climbed ninety steps to the top where I found a room full of typewriters. I couldn't resist doing a bit of typing, and off the top of my head I typed: "My father is sitting in an easy chair and smoking, my grandfather is also sitting in an easy chair, they are both smoking long pipes." That brought the memories flooding back; memories of my father's foot-long pipe and how he used to have to keep relighting it with matches; how he used to clean it with a special type of long grass with fluffy seed heads; how he pushed the tobacco in and forced it down with a hinged cover before lighting it, and the smell of tobacco in the house. He had sometimes rolled cigarettes and his father smoked a shorter pipe.
I was puzzled though because there were only capitals on the keyboard, no lower case letters, and so I typed: "Where is the lower case?" and had the shock of my life when a voice said, "Hello piper, are you a novice?" and in terror I left everything and ran downstairs again! Of course, they were teleprinters not typewriters! Would they find me out and punish me? I never told the others where I had been and fortunately no-one ever found out, as the control tower was out of bounds.
Our gang of painters then had to continue with painting a big house which was standing empty. It had five bedrooms, a big kitchen, living room and lounge. We. also had to clear out rubbish left behind in the three cellars. In one cellar was the central heating furnace. We had to clean all the pipes and brush away the cobwebs. The Squadron Leader came in his RAF limousine about once a day to see how we were progressing. After we had finished that job I was recruited to be a nurse maid to his three children, doing other jobs in the house like stoking the boiler as well. I liked the children and played with them, but sometimes they got too boisterous and were out of control. His wife drove her own large car. After six weeks I was given the push.
Just after Christmas 1946 there were heavy snowstorms and the snow which was 8 inches deep lasted until March and caused great hardship throughout the country. Due to a transport strike in the autumn stocks of fuel were already low, so there were power cuts and food shortages as the freeze continued and the Army had to be called in to distribute essential supplies to isolated villages. Of course, we Germans were used to extended periods of snow and blocked roads, but in England this was quite unusual.
Then I became a dustman: to start with I did not like the job but I did not complain. We had an open truck and a German driver with an English guard and two POW operators. The bins were heavy and it was still bitterly cold outside. When we drove to the dump we had to travel on the back of the open lorry, so we turned our backs to the wind. After dumping the rubbish the driver took us into town and bought us a cup of hot tea each from a kiosk. If I was really hungry I used to buy some biscuits, but now I had to pay with real money. We were earning 3 shillings a week. After three weeks the guard did not come with us any more so we took the opportunity to search for useful items in the rubbish. I found a powder compact with a mirror which was useful, and we also searched for bicycle parts.
What I liked about Mildenhall was that we could go to the nice warm RAF cinema twenty minutes' walk away and pay 3d (plastic POW money) to see the film. I remember wading through deep snow in the dark and I always followed Max the boxer, whom I have already mentioned in Chapter 3, and tried to sit near him because he was a good translator. I had a job to follow the films but when we got back to our Nissen hut we discussed the plot, and it cheered us up. Max was very optimistic and wanted to settle in America.
In February 1947 we were interviewed by the Inquisition' and graded according to our attitudes to Nazism. 'A' was Anti-Nazi, then there were three in-between grades of 13 plus', 13' and *B minus', and a 'C' was real Nazi - these would be the last to be sent back to Germany. I wondered where I would be sent next. As yet I had not had a single letter from my parents or brothers and sisters, and had no idea whether they were alive or dead. There were also rumours that Benes had already deported 90% of the Sudeten Germans, and I was worried that my parents might have ended up in the Soviet Zone of Germany and so be inaccessible. I just had to wait and hope.
When the thaw came in March there were terrible floods, and near Littleport in the Cambridgeshire fens a dam burst, causing huge floods. We helped by transporting sandbags, and formed a chain-gang to pass them along to a fireman who chucked them into the water to stop the gap in the embankment where the water was flooding out.
It was Easter time before I received my first letter from my father and learnt that they had all survived the war. This good news cheered me up, but I was disappointed to learn that they were living 60 km north of Leipzig, in the Russian Zone. I showed my father's letter to Herbert P. and he consoled me and told me not to worry so much about them. His home was in Bitterfeld, 30 km from Dahlenberg, in the Dubener Heide, a pleasant area. Herbert was as thin as a rake and his left arm was three inches shorter than the right. His heart was in the right place so he became my friend. He was a hard worker and although only three years older than me he looked much older. He was due to be repatriated and said he would return to his family regardless of the Russians.
At the end of April 1947 I sent my first parcel to my parents, containing cocoa, coffee and biscuits which I had bought in the RAF canteen with my POW earnings. Since it was sent through official channels in the camp I didn't have to pay for the postage, but everything was carefully examined.
The next thing to happen was that a group of 25 of us, myself included, were sent by lorry to Rugeley in Staffordshire for ten days. The camp was sparse and so was the food; we were pleased to leave there again though we were sent away without any breakfast. We were taken to the main station in Birmingham and put on a train back to East Anglia, this time to Bury St Edmunds. Here we were given water but no food. From Bury we were transported by lorry to a small camp between Bury and Lavenham. It was getting dark by the time we arrived and the camp was quite isolated. They cooked a meal for us before we retired.
In the morning we discovered to our surprise that our surroundings were quite nice and we were to plant potatoes in the fields. This gave us backache. It must have been a huge farm and they had a big herd of cows which knew what time they should be milked.
I and two others were then moved on to Friday Bridge Camp near Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. The guard allocated me the top bunk. All our basic requirements were provided for on site, including night school. I enrolled as soon as possible to study English. I was put to hoeing crops, which could sometimes be very boring on the huge fields. As it was summer time sandwiches were provided and cold black tea! I spent a lot of time studying English and Russian language. After three months there my Russian teacher came to my hut one day and offered me a job in the camp Post Office on the other side of the barbed wire fence sorting and delivering mail. Was I pleased!
The Friday Bridge Camp held 950 POWs when I started working at the Post Office so there were a lot of letters to be sorted and delivered to inmates. More and more comrades were being sent home and the Sergeant had to collect POWs from Satellite camps and I sometimes used to go with him. On one of these trips I met up with Werner Grunental who was camp leader and we became friends. Since I was a post office worker I lived outside the camp, just 20 metres from the fence, in fact. There was another Sergeant in charge and he sometimes took me in the car when he went shopping - he loved sausages especially! We had a few musicians in the camp and sometimes they would play for the British. I had never been to dance lessons but I learnt to dance later on.
When the weather was really hot I would go swimming in the River Nene at high tide. The water was very brown but that didn't matter to me, nor did the spectators who stood on the embankment - I received no donations! Back in the camp I would take part in the ^weight shot' competition. I also liked the parallel bars.
In May 1947 there was double summertime, so it was light until about 11.00pm! So in June after tea-time I started with strawberry picking. It was a very hot summer that year and there was a bumper crop to be harvested. On Wednesday afternoons I used to pick peas, strawberries and other fruits for real money, which made my shopping easier. On Sundays I would go to the Parish Church in Friday Bridge and once we had an invitation from the vicar for tea. I think there were five of us POWs and we had a tea party in the vicar's garden - the ham and jelly were especially appreciated. When I bought myself a bicycle I could go further afield and so I paid visits to the Roman Catholic Church, but somehow I didn't seem to fit in there. I tried the Methodist and Baptist churches too. Once I wanted to visit St Mary's in Wisbech but arrived too late to go in so I stayed behind the glass door and listened to the tune of the hymn they were singing. To my surprise it was Franz Josef Haydn's tune Austria being sung to John Newton's great hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken- Haydn lived from 1732-1809 and was a prolific composer, writing 84 string quartets, most of them in London.
When the Queen and Prince Philip were married in November 1947 we listened to the ceremony on the radio.
The weather in December 1947 seemed quite mild so on Christmas Eve I took my bicycle and cycled to St Mary's Church in Wisbech. The side door was open so I went in to see whether they had a Christmas Crib. Yes, there was the crib, but Jesus was as yet not there. Because the church was empty I did not stay very long. I left my bicycle hidden in the churchyard and wandered about the town and then followed a footpath. I heard a bird calling for help and then I saw the cat catching it again and felt upset. There were at least 15 sparrows which made a penetrating noise. I noticed a lady struggling with her luggage and offered to help her - she was very grateful for my help as her suitcase was quite heavy and it was a long distance to her home. She told me she worked in London and had come by train. On the way she invited me to spend Christmas Day at her home and I happily accepted. I returned to the Church to collect my bicycle which I had hidden in the churchyard and as it was getting late and I was getting hungry I returned to the camp as there was no service until 11.00pm.
The next day I arrived at the lady's home where I was made very welcome. I enjoyed the day with her family and we played board games. She was a good hostess and managed to make me laugh. We listened to the King's speech and had turkey dinner and drinks - a good time was had by all. Unfortunately, I had to be back in camp by 10.00pm. It had been a memorable day and my pigeon English had served me well!
In January 1948 more and more POWs were being repatriated and I was told that I would be released in May. However, my turn came earlier in February and I was released along with Walter Ortel and Werner Grunental. Werner had suggested that we should become European Volunteer Workers on our release because we did not want to be repatriated to the Russian Zone. So Werner and I joined up and were moved to Thorney Camp near Peterborough.
Here we were accommodated in a hut with ten other ex-POWs and the camp was not even as cosy as the Friday Bridge Camp had been. The work was not as cushy either: we had to do potato riddling in very cold weather. We were taken in open lorries to various farms and two of us were let off at Thorney Toll Farm where we were given tools to open a potato clamp 20 yards long. Under the soil there was a thick layer of straw. My friend and I had to shovel the potatoes onto the riddling machine where about six women picked out the bad ones and threw them out. Once I had to deliver seed potatoes to be planted in the field and I remember the gang of eight women bent double dropping the potatoes in the trench as they walked along - back-breaking work. I also helped in the stable and did some digging in the vegetable gardens.
After three weeks at Thorney Toll Farm my friend and I were sent to Beggars Bridge Farm (he was a tenant fanner) where the fields were very small. He had a very old shire horse, three cows, some pigs and hens. Our first job was to clear out the muck in the sty and spread it on the fields. Every day we had to take the horse into a field to do various jobs. On the way home my friend ran up to the horse while I held the bridle, and he managed to climb on his back. I gave him the reins and he rode him back to the farmyard where the horse had a long drink. The next day my friend said, "It's your turn. So I tried to get onto the horse's back but I failed. He told me to aim at his belly and grab with both hands, reassuring me that it wouldn't move. I took his advice and succeeded in mounting the horse. I sat on his back, took the reins and enjoyed the ride. From then on I had many rides on this horse. It knew the way home and always went to the trough where he drank for ten minutes. Even when he was walking along the lane I dared to put my knees on his back - there was no saddle - when he was drinking, and I went from a kneeling position to standing upright for two or three minutes before jumping off.
While at Thorney camp I heard that some workers were required at the Agricultural Institute in Trumpington, near Cambridge. I spoke to a colleague of mine called Mr Schneck about it and got more information, with the result that eventually twelve of us were moved to Trumpington where we were to build an aluminium frame stand for the Essex County Show which had to be dismantled and moved to different locations. The display was to be called 'Farming Today'. First of all we had to level the turf where the columns had to go. The foreman asked who could use a spirit level and I held up my hand and told him I had used dumpy levels in Germany. Everything was prefabricated and the base plates, columns and rafters were pinned together with steel bolts and wing nuts. The twelve men laid out two columns on the grass and two rafter elements were put together to form a portal of 30ft span. When we had two portals we could start with the erection of the building. The first time it took us four days but by the time we had done it eight times over it only took us two days! Finally we returned it to Cambridge before going back to Thorney. In May 1948 the King and Queen came to the Essex County Show which was held between Tilbury and Southend. There was lots to see then: cattle, sheep and pigs, tractors and other modern farm machinery, demonstrations and competitions, horse-riding and jumping contests and various other side shows.
At the end of September 1948 we had to vacate the camp at Thorney with ten days' notice, and find somewhere to stay which was not easy. We were split into groups and given identity cards so that we could get proper jobs. Walter Benzin, Herbert Powalka and I found work at R.H. Bath market gardeners, and accommodation at a guesthouse in Emneth, a small village near Wisbech, where we could get full board for 30/- a week. Once again we enrolled for evening classes in English for foreigners to improve our ability to communicate and widen our outlook. We all had bicycles: I bought my first bike for 30 shillings and rode it every day to work for nearly seven years, and as far as Peterborough and back. One day I rode to King's Lynn, and on the way back I felt that my knees were knocking the handle bars. When I stopped to investigate I found the frame had broken and I had to push the bike the four miles home! Fortunately I was able to get it mended.
We were pleased to be working at R.H. Bath Flower Farm as it was much easier than working in the potato fields! There was fruit to be picked off the trees and I loved pears, so I considered myself very lucky. After the fruit harvest had been gathered I was asked to help lay concrete foundations and then we all helped with brick-laying. One day the foreman put me in a gang of six English men, four of whom had been in the British Army in WW1. I did not feel comfortable when they talked about the war. I longed to change my job and become a draughtsman, but this did not happen until February 1952.
It was summer time and Werner Grunental and Bruno who were living close by had just come back from a week's holiday in Lowestoft, and Werner persuaded me to do the same. This was to be my first ever seaside holiday. Werner told me to take the train from Wisbech to Norwich and change trains for Lowestoft, where I should go to the information office and ask for a Bed & Breakfast near the town centre. So in August I set off and it was just as Werner had told me. The information office found me a reasonably priced Bed & Breakfast and after inspecting it I booked in. Also staying there were a family from Leicester. He was a tanker driver, and they had a lovely daughter of 15 years old called Carol who, her mother said, had fallen into the fireplace when she was 6 years old. She showed me the bald patch on the back of her head. Her father offered to show me round the town and we had fish and chips for lunch. I had never been in a fish restaurant before, and afterwards he took me to a pub and bought me a beer! I felt tipsy and could not walk in a straight line, but we ended up at the beach. They liked my company and we all went swimming together. Afterwards we returned to the guesthouse.
One day I decided to go for a longer swim by myself. I left my clothes and shoes on the beach near an elderly couple sitting in deckchairs, and asked them if they would mind just looking after my possessions. They agreed and I swam out quite a distance in breaststroke and then changed to swimming on my back. To my horror I noticed that I was in a strong current which was taking me towards Yarmouth. Looking back at the beach I could not see the elderly couple any more. I noticed that the waves were getting higher and I could not get nearer to land. When I saw the River Waverley the waves became very choppy with Svhite horses', the waves battering my ears and sounding like a heavy thunderstorm. My teeth were chattering and I was relieved when I got into longer waves. I had to battle on and on until I got onto land. I found myself in the harbour area of Lowestoft, but could not see anybody about so I was splodging about in the mud of the Waverley River until I saw some iron steps which I climbed. From there I could see the beach. I started running on the beach trying to find the couple who were minding my clothes, and by the time I found them at last they were the only people left on the beach. I was knackered and made my way back to my lodgings in Lowestoft. Carol and her parents from Leicester were there, but I did not tell them that I could easily have been drowned. Carol's parents suggested writing to them which I did for about four months.
Meanwhile in Europe events were moving fast. The Berlin Blockade had started in June 1948 and the Allies started to fly food and fuel into West Berlin. Three
months later they were flying 900 transport planes a day into Berlin to keep the people alive. Every day they unloaded about 7000 tons of food on two airports.
1948 was also the year when the London Olympics took place, and Britain won three Gold Medals. Russia and Germany did not take part in the games. Dr Kurt Adenauer became chancellor of West Germany, he was 73 years old , but he reigned for many years.
It was summer holiday time again and Walter Ortel recommended that I go to Jersey where he had been with his English wife. So I took a boat from Portsmouth to St Helier all by myself. As the ferry turned into the harbour area I saw the shadow of my boat, it must have been about 20m deep.
Once on shore I went straight to the Information Office where I was given two addresses for Bed 85 Breakfast to try, the second one being the best. In no time at all I went with my swimming things down to the beach and dived into the crystal clear water. What a delight to be cool again! When I got back to the sandy beach where I had left my shoes, I looked into my socks to see whether my valuables were still there. Everything was OK and two young ladies nearby said they had not taken anything, adding, "Next time when you go in tell us and we will mind your clothes."
They guessed I was not English, so I teased them, "Of course not, I am Irish," but
they did not believe me. I went off to buy three postcards saying I would be back.
On my return they were still there, so I asked them where they were from. "We are
"I have been there. I have even seen Robin Hood," I boasted.
"Oh you liar!" they protested.
"Yes, I can prove it that I was in the POW camp and I saw him in a film!"
"Oh you are a German!" they said.
"No," I said, "I am a Czech-German."
I started to write a card to my English friend Joe who had asked me to bring back a rock and send him a card. After I had written one sentence I got stuck, so I thought perhaps one of the ladies would know what to write. So I called to them, "Hi there! Could you please help me with my English!" Sure enough they came over to me and helped me write the postcard … the week went far too quick … and I had to go back to Wisbech and I had mail from my father and Liesl who pleaded that I should come and visit them for Christmas.
1950/51 Daring to visit my parents in the DDR.
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