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- 23 March 2005
This story was submitted to the People's war site by W. Jewitt of Wakefield Libraries and Information services on behalf of Mr Jack Gabriel and has been added to the site with his permission. the author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
He was captured by German troops in Norway in 1940 whilst he was a member of the anti-tank platoon of the Yorks and Lancs regiment and spent the rest of the war in Polish prisoner-of-war camps. Amongst the worst was one near Katowice, where he was made to work 12 hour shifts in the Satan-grube (Devil-pit). It was a punishment camp meant to break the prisoners' spirits. He remembers one German officer in charge of the mine whose ambition was to kill as many Englishmen as possible.
"At the end of each shift there was a rush to get into the cage so the officer had a white line painted in front of it. Nobody could step over it until he gave the order. One Russian stepped over in the rush to get out. the officer drew his pistol and shot him in cold blood, leaving the body where it fell".
This sickened him and because of the conditions he refused to work in the pit. With only bowls of water soup and a lump of "sawdust bread" for sustenance he became weak and determined that he would find some means of escaping from the camp.
"We were out on work-detail smashing up gravestones in a Jewish cemetary and digging up the bodies. A lot of the men had skulls at the top of their beds in the camp for souvenirs. We were levelling the graveyard to turn it into a playground. At a moment when the gusrds weren't looking I simply walked off the job and carried on walking to the other side of the city. On the main Warsaw road I noticed walking towards me what looked like an old hag. She stopped and beckoned for me to follow her through the back streets. I thought "she's nippy for her age" and had trouble keeping up. Reaching some railings a the back fo a house she climbed easily, but as she reached the top her wig got caught ahd she looked down at me. She was a young woman of about 30." The Polish woman and her family realised that he was a prisoner of war and realsing the danger that he was in they hid him in the loft of their house for 5 days. They fed him, gave him clothes (it was the middle of winter) and set him on the right road for Warsaw and the safety of the Russian border. The last he saw of the woman, who would have been shot had the Germans found out, was on a freezing winter night outside the city of Poznan. She directed him on the road to warsaw, telling him to hide in the cover of trees.
He finally reached Warsaw after tramping over 300 miles in 13 days, including a hairaising scramble under a bridge guarded by 2 German soldiers in the cover of darkness. He slept in barns and begged food from farmhouses.
"Big round loaves they gave you which looked lke cartwheels and tasted like sawdust".
But Warsaw was the end of the line, for as he stood in a crowd watching a parade of German troops someone recognised him as a prisoner of war and raised the alarm.
"I tried to run away but there was no point. My boots fell apart. I couldn't get very far so I gave myself up".
At Gestapo headquarters in Warsaw an officer told him to undress but lost patience as he began to peel off his four vests and six shirts. He could not believe that he had walked all the way from Poznan in temperatures of 30 degrees below. In fact he ordered a pony and trap to take the prisoner back to the station for his journey back to Poznan and gave him a cigar.
As he was being escorted back to the camp he passed the work party in the graveyard from which he had escaped. The sergeant in charge recognised him, shook his fist and shouted threats.
"I was put in a cell on bread and water for 28 days but it was next to a dormitory and at night I used to sneak out through a window which was left open and sleepwith the lads. The camp authorities never found out and I was back in my cell before inspection next morning".
He kept in touch with the family who sheltered him and has been back to Poland to meet them and also to lay a wreath on the grave of the woman who risked her life for him.
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