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Memories of a 2nd Lieutenant captured in Tunisia and life as a P.O.W. - Part Two

by bedfordmuseum

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. John Kenneth Clark
Location of story: 
Sedjenane, Tunisia and Bavaria, Germany
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2005

Part two of an edited oral history interview with Mr. John Kenneth Clark conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

Oflag 5A
“In Oflag 5A there was a camp theatre, a camp orchestra — not at all camps! Camp orchestra, camp theatre and we had a news summary every day of the German papers which we laughed at. In a way I was happier there than I was in the Army. I didn’t like what I had to do in the Army whereas I was playing my trumpet, I was translating and I was talking German to German Guards. I had more freedom of activity there than I had in the Army. Certainly more freedom than I had in the Front Line in the Army. There were 1,200 British and Commonwealth Officers from every sort of background; journalists, businessmen, farmers, actors and musicians and you could meet a very varied group of people.

Whilst I was in Oflag 5A I was ‘Putz’ the German in a production of ‘Rookery Nook’. They made the sets for the stage from Red Cross cartons, it helped to relieve the boredom. As I say if you got involved some camp activity, whether it was escape or a camp activity then it did relieve the boredom. I think there was a lot of latent homosexuality, never any open. I mean there was no privacy but men used to talk about the girls who — like the one I told you about who escaped (see ‘Out of the bag in drag’ story) they were sort of ‘pin up’ men in the camp. They would look at them like women but I don’t know whether there was any homosexuality but I never saw any.
There was a period of life at 5A when I was quite content really, could have done with a bit more to eat!

Officer rank counted but no so much. The Germans imposed the discipline really. You had a Hut Commandant, an English Hut Commandant. There was about a hundred men in each hut! We had double and treble, sometimes double, sometimes three bunks. It was very crowded. It was alright until the last winter and the Germans used to take us out to gather fir cones to burn. It was cold in Bavaria.

Another story about an escape.
A chap I knew escaped when the Germans took over the camp as there was a gap between the Italians going and the Germans coming and you could escape. The one I know spoke fluent Italian and had a vocation for the Priesthood. He reached Rome and took sanctuary in the Vatican which was a neutral state. He’d borrowed a set of Priest’s clothes and passed himself off as an Irish Priest, Ireland was neutral you see. He was advised not to go out into Rome but he did so foolishly and began to take parties of German soldiers sightseeing! He had a pronounced Geordie accent but I suppose the Germans weren’t authorities on regional accents. He had a photograph of himself with a group of German soldiers near the Forum. It couldn’t last and one day a German in a long leather coat tapped him and said, ‘Do come!’ He was taken to Gestapo Head Quarters and straight away admitted that he was an escaped British Officer and he was sent to Oflag 5A. That’s where I met up with him again!

Oflag 7B
Packets of cigarettes were money in Oflag 7B. They were durable, divisible and had intrinsic value. There was a central market and hut markets with lists of prices for everything from condensed milk to Russian dictionaries. A group of black marketeers traded cigarettes with the camp Guards for flour, sugar and margarine. The entire Guard Company was involved in providing the camp entrepreneur with food for cigarettes. I’ve seen a Guard in a watch tower throw a sack of flour and a tin of margarine down to a black marketeer. Rumour had it that the cigarettes were unrolled in Munich and re-rolled for the black market. It all helped to create a completely different atmosphere from that in Oflag 5A where I was previously where stocks of cigarettes were much lower and there were no rackets with the camp Guards. The tobacco Barons in 7B dominated camp life - those who had 10 or 20,000 cigarettes lived well, the rest did not. You see in that camp, at 7B there were a lot of men who had been prisoners since Dunkirk and you were allowed one food parcel a week but there was no limit on the amount of cigarettes that you could get. So people had 10 or 20,000 cigarettes and if you were a wealthy cigarette owner you could buy anything. I hadn’t enough cigarettes! I was taken prisoner in 1943 and these men had been there since 1940. The Barons had established the rules, it was a bit like ‘Porridge’, there were grouties.

We had our own Cookhouse. The Germans gave us some rations and we all gave up part of ours — at least it varied from camp to camp. At one camp we all gave up the tinned meat and the oats and perhaps some margarine from Red Cross parcels and then the Cookhouse mixed it with the German potatoes and turnips and that’s how they fed us.

There was only one Guard that I got on with. I did talk to them all but one Guard was from Czechoslovakia and he was very anti Hitler and I used to give him cigarettes and talk to him trying to find out information about military installations. But I never found anything useful and I got 10 days solitary confinement — one of his mates shopped him and me. Because he must have seen us in the latrines talking and I got 10 days solitary confinement. But that wasn’t too bad because for two reasons; to try and demoralise the German soldiers the kitchen when they sent the food round they used to send special food for us, bigger rations to try and demoralise the Germans. And the other reason was I put some Capstan Navy cut flake inside my — I turned my socks down and put some Capstan Navy cut like that — inside the cuff, so I had enough. It was a relief to begin with to get away from the camp because it was rather cramped and noisy and it was peaceful. I read ‘War and Peace’ there.

Activities varied. Some Officers studied, some played cards or chess and some just seemed able to idle the day away. Lighting farts - that’s one way we used to pass the time sometimes at night! We had two leagues — one for length of flame and one for colour! There was the pétamane man - I remember Lou in Hut 13. German potato bread went hard and stale but Lou would always consume anything and this fuelled his masterly performances during the long winter evenings. As the poker, chess and bridge games got under way the crowd would ring down the corridor, Lou is beating his best!’ Half the hut would crowd round into Lou’s room where an accredited timekeeper would be counting out the seconds as Lou maintained a interminable A flat. ‘She’s a beaut, Lou! You’ve beaten Sunday. Good on yah.’ Bets were made as Lou struggled to beat his previous record.

If you hadn’t enough to do it could be very boring. In one camp I was in they didn’t have a German newspaper and I wasn’t in the camp orchestra, I was very bored there. When we did give a concert they’d invite the German Officers, not the ordinary Guards but the Officers. There’s an interesting point they objected to us playing Mendelssohn because he was a Jew.

We barely had any contact with civilians. We had parole walks but we weren’t allowed to talk to civilians, no we hadn’t any contact. We used to whistle at girls.

By early April 1945 advanced Units of the American 9th Army were close to my Prisoner of War Camp, Oflag 7B. The Germans decided to move us south along the eastern bank of the Altműssel river. Moving north to the Front along the west bank were German troops, guns and supplies. We had hardly left the Camp when three Thunderbolt fighter bombers attacked the German vehicles on the western bank. We stood, cheered and were then moved on by the German guards. I was in the centre of the column and heard machine gun fire from the front, I saw that the prisoners in front of me were running to the side of the road and throwing themselves down. I found a hollow by the side of the road and watched as the Thunderbolts swept backwards and forwards about 30 feet above me machine gunning the line of prisoners. They left 11 dead and 42 wounded. We were wearing British battle dress and it was a bright sunny morning. On their return to Base the Americans said that they thought we were Hungarian SS.

Large red crosses were painted on sheets that were put on hut roofs in the camp. We set off again in a series of night marches through Bavaria to Moosburg. A question was asked in the House of Commons about the attack and Sir John Grigg said according to Hansard, ‘The Prisoners of War from Oflag 7B were warned not to move on April 14th. When the column was just outside the camp the column was fired on by Allied aircraft with the result that 11 Officers were killed and 42 wounded. The column returned to camp and the wounded were transferred to hospitals in Eichstätt. The prisoners left on the night of the 15th for Moosburg. They should have had the camp marked on the map and we were all wearing British battle dress and it was a bright sunny day.”

Please see ‘Role Reversal in Civvy Street’, ‘Out of the bag in drag’ and ‘Role reversal’ — three other stories submitted to the BBC ‘People’s War website on 16th February 2005 by Bedford Museum on behalf of Mr. Kenneth Clark.

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