- Contributed by
- Elizabeth Lister
- People in story:
- George Ballard
- Location of story:
- Belgium, Stalag VIIIB
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 November 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Matthew Smaldon on behalf of George Ballard and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr Ballard fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
In 1938 I joined the TA. They came around all the villages near Newbury, looking for recruits. It included camping, and some extra money. We were young, and we jumped at the chance - it offered us something fun to do.
The third of September 1939 was a Sunday, and I was on church parade in Newbury in St. Nicholas Church. Someone came in, and gave the parson a note. He announced to the congregation — ‘I have a note — we are at war with Germany’.
Well, we were soon sent off to France as part of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). The night before I was up on guard, so I fell asleep on the boat not long after we left Southampton. When we arrived in France, we were given a nice bowl of soup and some bread. I think we arrived in Cherbourg, then we were sent to Belgium, going through Lille on the way. On the journey we slept in barns, in the loft, with the animals below. We ate stew during the day, and bread and jam in the evenings. We were on duty at all times, but we weren’t afraid of what was to come. We were just boys really, armed with our .303 rifles.
My unit, the 4th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment, was sent to defend the Albert Canal in Belgium. There were only British troops in our area. Our officer put us into position, and that was the last we saw of him. We weren’t ready - we were completely unprepared. The German troops who attacked us were the cream of the army - Rommel’s troops. They overwhelmed us. I was captured on the 29th May 1940. I was 21. I was wounded in the wrist when I tried to surrender, and two or three of the boys by the side of me were killed. A German soldier said ‘Tommy, the war is over for you’. After I was captured I saw Rommel going by. The younger Germans were horrible, and knocked us about. We were marched through Holland to the German border. The summer of 1940 was very hot, and the Dutch put out water for us. When the Germans saw this, they kicked it over. At the German border, we were put on cattle trucks, and I was sent to Stalag VIIIB.
As I was a private, I had to work. I was sent to a Portland cement factory in Obersilesia, filling up cement bags. I had to stand at the end of a conveyer belt, fill the sacks, and put them onto a cart. The cement was being used to build pillboxes. We weren’t meant to do any war related work, but you had to do it, or you’d be shot. It was hard work - my fingers were like raw beef.
Then I was sent to a village called Piaski, which is in Poland. I was sent to work in the coal mine there. The only equipment we had was a pick and shovel. Every shift, we had to fill 56 wagons. Each wagon contained 1500 weight of coal. It was our job to dig out the coal, fill the wagons, and then push them along the railway, into the main shaft of the mine. I was working 8 to 12 hour shifts. It was dark when we went into the mine, and dark when we came out at the end of the shift. We were given 1 slice of bread during the day, and potato water in the evening. I was wearing the uniform I was captured in — we had to repair our clothes the best we could. We were sleeping in a log hut with one blanket. We were covered in lice, and a lot of people were sick. Every day was the same. The Germans were everywhere, no one escaped from my camp. They held us. It was a case of putting up, or being shot.
In other places the RAF men used to try to escape — they knew the ropes and didn’t work. Maybe one or two people tried to escape from other camps, but a lot got killed who did try.
There was a crystal radio set in my camp. I remember hearing about the fall of Rome. One person would listen to the radio, and write down the news. This would be passed on, but they had to be careful. There was always a guard posted outside when this was going on, to look out for the Germans.
In all my time in captivity, I saw no more than half a dozen Red Cross parcels. The prisoners who were in the main camps were better off. A friend of mine who was captured in France did very well with his Red Cross parcels — he used them to bargain with the German guards. But I never had any of that. Many people died from starvation. In the Russian camps there we 20 to 30 people dying a day. And there were concentration camps in the area too, and they were even worse off. I was in this camp for over two years, until the end of 1944.
The winter of 1944 was very bad, and we were evacuated on a forced march by the Germans before the end of the year. We were marched to Czechoslovakia, into Austria, then up into Bavaria. There were all nationalities on the march, and we were walking for several months. We didn’t get any water, and people were collapsing from exhaustion. As we marched, we could hear the sound of guns. I remember turning to someone and saying ‘War’s coming to an end mate.’ He looked at me, and I said ‘Can’t you hear those guns? This is the day it’ll finish’. Not long after that an officer took all the guards away, and we were left to our own devices — we had to get food from the German civilians. Some American soldiers found us, and took us to Munich. The Yanks weren’t interested in us; they were paying more attention to the German prisoners. I was put on a plane to Brussels, given a new set of clothes and bathed, then taken by the RAF to Kent. I was sent home on 13 weeks leave on full pay.
When the Japanese surrender was announced, I was at a service in St. Nicholas Church in Newbury, so I think I must be the only person who was in that church at the start and the end of the war.
After the war, no one really asked about what happened, so I didn’t tell them. I used to talk to other people who went through it, but I think that there’s only me from the Royal Berkshires left now.
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