- Contributed by
- malcolm keeling
- People in story:
- Charles Trevor Keeling
- Location of story:
- European Bombing Campaign / Stalagluft VII 1944
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 September 2004
Each morning we would parade and have our numbers counted. Lined up in ranks of three we would be as awkward as we could, not keeping in clear lines, making it more difficult to be counted. Sometimes someone would slip from one rank to another. It would always take the guards several counts before being satisfied that we were all present. More often than not they would have too many. They never seem to twig what was going on.
Sometimes we would be called on parades for random searches, and then the huts would be searched while we were outside. If they found any small stocks of food it would be confiscated. They claimed that we were saving up for an escape attempt. On one occasion when I had a small stock of food, a random search was ordered. Whilst on parade outside I saw one of the windows to our room was open, I took my chance, jumped in, and retrieved my food. While inside I could hear the 'ferrets' in the next room, so I was out just in time.
As Christmas approached we tried to save a little extra food for the occasion. One group made some 'hooch' wine from prunes and sugar. I made a cake by crumbling up some black bread and adding chopped prunes and diced carrots boiled up in sugar to serve as fruit, some butter and even vitamin tablets because the pack claimed they contained some yeast. After cooking the top was decorated with powdered milk and pieces of sweetened carrot.
On 27 December the camp sirens sounded, warning us of an air raid. The nearby village also had a siren that sounded very similar. It was difficult to tell which was which when we were confined in our huts and a warning sounded. A few of the men were suffering with dysentery. One of these men thought that the 'all clear' had been sounded and dashed out to the latrine. He was shot. He staggered back to the hut but fell dead in the doorway from stomach wounds. The excuse the Germans gave was that only the village siren had sounded the 'all clear' and not the camp siren.
To retaliate we refused to salute the German officers. This was a punishable offence. We also tried to ignore the other Luftwaffe personnel. The Germans, feeling some guilt at what they had done did not counter retaliate. After several days the situation gradually returned to normal.
In January the weather turned bitterly cold. A group of P.O.Ws from another hut made a request to build an ice rink. This request was granted and they were provided with shovels to do the work.
In one of the huts a crack appeared across the concrete plinth supporting the stove. This plinth was supported from below the hut by a hollow brick base, making it possible to dig down through the hut. Disposal of the earth was easy; it was put into the earth walls of the ice rink. Props, wall cladding and lighting were stolen from an unused ablution.
It was possible to hide up to sixteen men in this chamber. In the event of the Russians advancing and the camp being evacuated, they could hide until the Russians arrived. The time had almost arrived for this chamber to be used, when a guard looking around happened to stand on the plinth, the plinth collapsed and he fell through into the chamber. The excavation was so large the Germans had to call on the fire brigade to deal with it.
Two or three days later, on 18 January, late at night we were roused and hurriedly marched off, away from the Russian advance.
After walking several miles we were housed in a school hall to get a little sleep. We had only settled down for a short while when we were roused again for another spell of walking. After walking most of the day we camped in a barn and were told we would for 48 hours. This did not happen. The next night we were marching again through a blizzard. The temperature being -20C. We were warned that anyone trying to escape would result in three others being shot. That night we crossed the River Oder. It was said that the ice was thick enough to carry a tank. Our next stop was a brick factory. We had the same promise of a stay for 48 hours but the Germans suddenly became alarmed and got us on the move again. I was with John Lovatt and found that we were the last two in the building except for one guard who was rushing around looking for stragglers. I suggested to John that we hide. He said he did not think it was worth chancing it in view of the warnings given, and that the war was nearly over. I was carrying what food we had between us so we departed with the rest.
We later heard, via our secret radio that twelve had escaped that night. There were no reprisals.
The amount of food we had soon ran out. We now had to rely on what food the Germans gave us, which was practically nothing for the next two weeks.
There was one P.O.W a man named Thompson, who one day was walking up and down the column urging us on. I wondered where he was getting his energy. I was later informed that he was a collaborator and that he had been an assistant to William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) helping him in earlier days with his broadcasts from Berlin.
Thompson was tried for treason with Joyce when the war ended. While Joyce was sentenced to death Thompson got a few years hard labour.
Seventeen days after leaving Bankow we arrived at Goldberg having walked for 256 kilometres (160 miles). It was Sunday 4 February. We held a service on that day. I experienced an extraordinary silence during prayers. Our Padre prayed for an easement in the weather as it was still very cold and the ground was still covered with snow.
Later that day we had a meeting with our padre and Medical Officer. It was agreed that from now on we would only respond to our own officers and the Germans must give all instructions via them. The Luftwaffe were also told that we refused to walk any further because of the loss of eighty-eight men en-route unable to walk, and matters could only get worse.
The next morning the sun was shining, the snow had all but disappeared and it was remarkably warmer. I heard several men say they thought it was a miracle. The Germans informed us that the rest of the journey would be by train. We were shepherded to the station where we boarded enclosed cattle trucks; similar to those used for transporting Jews. On average there were fifty-three of us to a truck. When the doors closed we were in semi-darkness. There was not enough room for us all to sit on the floor, several of us had to stand in turn. Someone produced an empty dried milk tin, which served as a chamber pot. There was a small crack in the floor where the liquid could be poured away. No one required to get rid of bulk waste because we had not eaten anything substantial for days.
On the second day in these cramped conditions the train stopped. We hammered on the doors and complained of people being ill. Eventually we were let out to stretch our legs.
For a meal we were given half a cup of raw uncooked porridge oats. I found this difficult to swallow, the oats sticking to my mouth. After being given a drink of water we were again locked in the trucks for another day's journey.
We finally arrived at Lukenwalde and marched to Stalag 111a, a camp of many prisoners of all nationalities.
Our camp was on the opposite side of the road to that of the R.A.F officers from Sagan. They came out to their fence to greet us, Gene and Pat our crew pilot and bomb aimer were now within hailing distance. It was the first time we had seen them since Dulagluft. David Balchin and Clem Pearce had learned just before leaving Stalug Luft 7 that their promotions to Pilot Officers had come through. I think there was automatic promotion for Canadians in operational squadrons. They went to join the officers. John Lovatt and I remained with the men from Stalag Luft 7. We assembled in our new camp in a barrack type hut that had a stone floor and no furniture. We were asked to strip by our Medical Officer for examination. The most emaciated were designated to the only hut with a wooden floor that was also bereft of furniture. I had lost three stones in weight on the journey. I could see my ribs but I was not classed as being bad enough for the hut with the wooden floor. This was called the hospital!
I did however eventually end up in the wooden floored hut, together with John Lovatt and about 10 others. We occupied an area at the end of the hut with a 6' wide, slightly sloping floor.
We all occupied our own bit of floor, with just enough space to lie down and leave a gap between as a walkway.
We had nothing but our clothing, a blanket and a few personal belongings that we carried with us from Silesia.
I realised how weak I really was when, on going to the ablutions, where there were five steps to climb, I found that I had to take a rest on the third step in order regain enough strength to climb the other two.
After a few weeks in the wooden floored hut we were moved into one of the stone floored huts to make room for R.A.F. P.O.Ws from Lansdorf. These men had walked all the way, (about 350 to 400 miles) from Silesia. They were in really poor shape and had lost around four hundred men out of a thousand on their trek.
The Russian P.O.Ws, hated by the Germans, had to survive on the rations they provided, which was less than a starvation diet. I was told that an average of six would die in a week. They had to work on their meagre rations, and were not covered by the Red Cross convention.
Thanks to the Red Cross, and the parcels we received, we had enough to survive. An example of the food provided by our German hosts was dehydrated cabbage leaves, most of which had turned yellow, boiled in water. It produced a dirty brown liquid, the leaves also finished up the same colour.
Often a Russian prisoner would be passing along the main road and would push his mug through the barbed wire in an attempt to beg food from us. He would be lucky only if we had some of the dehydrated cabbage leaves.
Ersatz coffee was made from acorns, and tea from herbs. We found that the herbs made a better cigarette than tea, although it did burn rather quickly.
On rare occasions we were supplied with soft cheese-like cakes. These you could smell before they even arrived in the camp. The smell was so strong I would have to hold my nose to eat one.
When the American and Russian advances were getting near Berlin it was decided to move all R.A.F. P.O.Ws to Moosberg in the south.
We were marched down to Lukenwalde railway station where trucks were ready for transportation. We were allowed to use the trucks and were allowed on the platform. The Germans were unable to obtain the use of an engine to take us. During our wait some of the men managed to loosen floorboards in the trucks ready for possible escape attempts.
After two days of trying to obtain an engine, the Germans gave up and we returned to camp.
On 22 April the Germans had largely deserted the camp, leaving their machine guns still mounted in the watchtowers. These were collected up by the P.O.Ws and the six remaining guards were captured and imprisoned in the punishment block, known to us as 'the cooler'.
When the German Command learned what had happened they sent a message to say that they would surround the camp and start shooting unless the arms and the guards were returned immediately. The battalion we were being threatened with was made up of some of Germany's crack troops who were held up in a forest west of the Elbe for eight weeks after V.E. Day.
In the early hours of 23 April a single plane strafed the main road of the camp. This may have been a warning. There were no injuries.
Later on that day the Russian Army broke into camp with their tanks and started flattening the fences. They were asked not to do this in order to prevent the camp being overrun by prisoners from other lagers.
Marshall Zukov arrived sitting on one of the tanks. He asked all to collect up all the arms and join him on the assualt on Berlin. A number of Russians followed the tanks out of camp. Our senior officer, a Group Captain, said that we must not go. I am pretty sure that none of us would have gone anyway.
Six Russians were found dead in their huts. It was the practice of the Russians to conceal the deaths of their comrades as long as possible, by carrying them onto parade, in order to receive their food ration.
A military funeral was held for these dead men and they were buried in the camp mass grave.
It was now the Russians' responsibility to supply food to thousands of men throughout the camp. The rations we were given were even less than we received from the Germans, but the supply of Red Cross parcels was better as stocks could now be used up.
As the days went by V.E. Day came and went. We had little in the way of celebrations, not having anything to celebrate with.
It was about fifteen miles from Lukenwalde to the River Elbe and the American lines. We were all getting impatient with the Russians for not getting us on our way home. A few American and British P.O.Ws decided to chance walking to the River Elbe, despite there still being pockets of German troops holding out en-route.
After the first men got through the Americans came with a convoy of trucks to pick us up. It was now two weeks since we were liberated. We all piled in the trucks overjoyed to know that at last we were on our way.
Alas, this was not to be. The Russian soldiers surrounded the trucks and ordered us off. Any attempt to get back on the trucks would result in us being shot. The Americans had no alternative but to leave without us.
The Russians said that we had to be properly repatriated with a fair exchange of prisoners. It took another two weeks before the Russians were ready to repatriate us. Before leaving we had to fill in lengthy forms giving our personal details. We were taken in Russian trucks to the Elbe, where we walked across the river over a pontoon bridge and true liberation on the other side.
The Americans took us to Halle via Leipzig where there was a large P.O.W reception centre.
After about forty-eight hours we flew to Brussels by Dakota. The following day we flew on to somewhere in the South of England. From there we were taken on a top priority train, non-stop, to R.A.F. Cosford, Shropshire which was a rehabilitation centre and hospital for ex P.O.Ws.
Here we were debriefed and medically examined. I was found to be suffering from physical debility and stress.
A year later I was back to physical fitness, but it took many years to get over stress. Recalling the past can still cause me to feel emotive. It is only recently that I have felt ready to recount my experiences in full.
During World War II 55,000 airman lost their lives on missions, proportionately more than any other service. 101 Squadron lost more aircrew than any other squadron in the Royal Air force; 1,093 men dead and 178 taken prisoner.
Trevor Keeling 1997
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