- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Eric Marchant (Blondie)
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 October 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jane Songi on behalf of Eric Marchant and has been added to the site with his permission. Eric Marchant fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
This is the second part of Eric's story as a prisoner of war in occupied Poland. He was a private in the Royal Sussex Regiment and was first captured in Belgium in May 1940.
In October 1941 as prisoner Stalag VIIIB N14049, I was moved to my third labour camp, this time working in a cement factory in the Polish town of Opoleonoora — camp number E196. The cement factory was a massive complex with many different jobs. I got a job as a painter working with a Polish civilian painter. The civilian was a nice man who also looked after the chief engineer’s rabbits and chickens. Between the painting tasks the civilian painter and myself would go out into the nearby field and feed the engineer’s livestock. We would cut the grass, feed it to the rabbits, and would also collect eggs. Every now and again the engineer would ask us to kill a rabbit, and so we would kill one and I would then skin it. This was a very lucky job as the painter was a good boss and we were able to get out of the giant cement factory to attend to the engineer’s animals, and also sometimes to paint one of the local houses. When the civilian painter got called up I took over not only all his painting tasks, but also the job of feeding the rabbits and chickens, and collecting the eggs for the engineer.
The cement factory had its own cookhouse and the prisoners were also fed there. Again they had bread and ersatz coffee for breakfast and lunch was a sort of gruel, but there was no evening meal. The men by now had been kitted out in British uniforms with proper boots instead of clogs, but the German guards usually took our boots away each night. However, after a while the German guards got more relaxed and stopped bothering to take our boots when they locked us in for the night. It was now, decided a group of men, time to try and escape. So 15 of the 50 English prisoners in my room hatched an escape plan. The men were billeted three stories up but there was a sloping roof underneath which they could jump onto if they could just get out of the barred window. So Harry Peach, a Londoner who was working as a joiner, managed to sneak some tools back and started work lifting the metal window frame out from the inside. He then had to cut through the top of two of the bars on the outside of the window. At the end of each cutting session everything had to be put back exactly as before. It took a fortnight for the work to be done, then the bars were ready to be bent back for the men to escape.
The 15 escapees were all recaptured quite quickly and sent back to the main camp at Lamsdorf. There they were put into the punishment block and had to stay inside and did not receive their Red Cross parcels. New prisoners were sent out from Lamsdorf to make up the numbers at the cement factory. The new men were from Australia and New Zealand, and had been captured in North Africa or Crete. By this time we were now getting a Red Cross parcel every week. The parcels included cigarettes, soap and chocolates. The men exchanged soap and chocolates with the Poles and got eggs and any other food that could be bartered for. Two of the Scottish lads in the room, one named Dundee, and the other a tall, young man with a friendly face called Tommy, shared all their parcels and one day swapped some of their gifts for locally made wood alcohol. That night they sat on their bunks and started drinking the evil brew. My friend said to me that someone should warn them not to drink it. So I went over and told them not to drink the alcohol as it was “poison.” Tommy looked at me and said “Look Blondie, you can have your years but we want our moments.” A little while afterwards Tommy was screaming with hallucinations. The men laid him out on a table in the room and tried to hold him down and calm him. He died there on the table.
The men put Dundee to bed as he was unconscious, and during the night he woke up screaming that he could not see. By the morning he was completely blind. When the guards unlocked the door that morning the men told them that one man had died and another had gone blind. The guards brought a doctor to have a look at Tommy. He looked at the dead body and saw that the whites of his eyes were completely black. The doctor said that the men had been poisoned, but as no one knew who they had bought the alcohol from nothing was done. The Germans let the men bury Tommy in a cemetery by the Oder River.
A short time after this a German guard shot one of the Australian boys dead just outside the toilet block. There seemed to be no reason for the shooting. There were no witnesses, but one of the men heard the shot and ran to see what had happened. He was threatened by the guard, and so left the scene.
In June 1943 I and 12 others were sent to camp number E702 at the coal mines in Sosnowiec in southern Poland. The mines here were deep, going down four levels, and it was frightening as the cage plummeted down to the shafts. The prisoners of war worked as the labourers for the Polish men working in the mines. The prisoners did the hardest tasks, and conditions were not pleasant — the mines were damp and wet, and there was water everywhere. Each man was issued with an ID tag and a carbide lamp every time he went down into the mine. The lamp had a flint on it so that it could be lit, and it made a gas that burnt when water from the mine dripped onto the lamp. There were three shifts each day, each shift being about 8 hours long: 6am ‘till 2pm, 2pm ‘till 10pm and then the night shift which was 10pm until 6am the next morning. The morning and afternoon shifts dug out the coal, and the evening shift moved equipment and supports into position for the next day’s work. I worked at night moving equipment and putting in new support structures, it was unpleasant and dangerous work. Prisoners thought about trying to sabotage the mine, but there were always men working on the lowest levels so any attempt would inevitably endanger many prisoners. On occasion the lift was damaged and men in lower levels had to escape by a complex system of ladders, but nothing more extensive was done because the resultant loss of life would have been great. The men lived in huts beside the mine. There were 10 to 12 men in each hut. Men on different shifts were billeted together, this made it very difficult to get any real sleep. The food was the same as at the other camps— bread and coffee for breakfast and one meal a day of soup. Thankfully the men were still able to receive their Red Cross Parcels. I am sure that without them we would not have survived.
After a short while I got bronchitis and was sent to the infirmary. The infirmary was run by a Jewish prisoner John Gotea, who had joined the British army but was from Athlith near Haifa. I always felt very grateful to John because he persuaded the German doctors that I was too ill to work and should be sent back to the main camp at Lamsdorf. Without this help I might not have survived. Back at Lamsdorf I was allowed to stay in a convalescent hut for a couple of months. This hut was not really any different from the other huts. Like the other huts it had fires but they never worked. However, with the help of his Red Cross parcels I did recover and once well enough was sent off again this time to work at a limestone quarry in Saubsdorf in Poland.
At the limestone quarry in Saubsdorf the prisoners of war dug limestone out of the ground, and then it was moved to the works and burnt for lime. Some of the limestone was also cut into slabs to make gravestones. Each day the prisoners at Saubsdorf were given a target for the amount of limestone they had to get out of the quarry, and work did not finish until the target was reached. Enormous boulders of limestone were attached to a pulley and six men would work the winch to ease the limestone out of the quarry. Smaller lumps of stone were dug and then broken up and loaded onto flat wagons that were pulled out of the quarry by men. It was while I was pulling a wagon laden with stone out of the quarry that I said to my companion, an Australian P.O.W., that I was going to get away. Mickey Bell, from Melbourne, said that he would like to escape with me.
The camp was on the borders of Czechoslovakia and Poland and we could see the Czech mountains in the distance, and thought that if we headed in that direction then we could escape. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire, but the toilet block was up against the wire fence and there was a spot behind the toilet block that the guards could not see. Over a few days I dug out the ground beneath the hidden area of fence, and Mickey kept watch. When we were ready to go Jack Jones, a New Zealand P.O.W. gave me a haversack so that we could take some Red Cross parcel provisions with us, and we left at dusk. Mickey and I climbed up over the wooded hills and into Czechoslovakia. On the second day we were very lost and didn’t know which way to go so decided to head south. By the third day we had seen no one and run out of food. At the end of the day we came down from the hills and into a village. A band of Russian prisoners was passing along the road and we decided enough was enough and fell in with the Russian prisoners and gave ourselves up. We were able to show our ID tags from the labour camp, so that the Germans knew that we were prisoners of war and not spies. We were concerned that we were not sent back to the quarry as we thought the guards at the quarry might want to take revenge. We were lucky as one of the German guards had been captured in World War I and had been well treated in England, he spoke a bit of English and I spoke a bit of German. The guard gave us a bowl of soup each and agreed to send us back to Lamsdorf the main camp for the area, and not to the quarry.
Two days later we were taken back to Lamsdorf. There we were sent to the punishment block. This meant we were kept in a separate area to the other prisoners and were not allowed to walk around the camp. A German officer then interviewed us and asked us why we had escaped? We said that it was “Because it was a soldier’s duty.” This was deemed an acceptable and understandable excuse, as you could not say you had escaped because the work was intolerable or the guards were unkind. Mickey and I each got put in solitary confinement for seven days. However, as the prison was so full, 'solitary' turned out to be two prisoners to a cell!!!
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