- Contributed by
- Bill Forster
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 November 2005
Continued from A7257099
Alan Forster (4459370 Pte. A. Forster) enlisted in the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish, a newly reconstituted territorial Battalion of the Black Watch, on the 17 January 1940. The recruits were Tynesiders, not necessarily of Scottish descent.
The Battalion left its HQ in Gateshead for Southampton on the 23 April 1940 and embarked for Le Havre with so little notice that one soldier was in the cinema with his girl friend when the film was interrupted with an announcement that his unit was to go to the docks. He had to change out of civvies and into his uniform whilst crossing the channel. On landing they went by train to Beauvoir, an aerodrome 7 km from Frevent, where they spent two quiet weeks living under canvass in orchards heavy with blossom.
The Battalion consisted of 660 men organised into a HQ Company and four rifle companies (Companies "A", "B", "C" and "D"). Alan was in the 13th Platoon, "C" Company. On the 17 May they were sent to defend a ten mile length of the Canal du Nord but plans changed constantly and on the 19th they were withdrawn to Hendrecourt where they occupied the grounds of a small chateau. Later that day they were ordered to march to Saultry but due to their evident exhaustion were told to rest for the night at Neuville. They arrived there at 3 am on the 20 May but at 6.50 refugees’ reports of tanks approaching on both flanks forced them to resume marching with “C” company being left to cover the retreat.
THE FINAL STAND
The Tyneside Scottish fought its first and last engagement in this campaign to defend the retreating BEF when they were overrun by the rapidly advancing German forces between Neuville Vitasse and the village of Ficheux on the road to Saultry.
A brief description is given in “The Black Watch and the Kings Enemies” by Brian Fergusson (London: Collins, 1950):
“The companies of the Battalion, under-armed and ill-equipped, continued to fight individual company actions until they had exhausted what little ammunition had been given them for their original role. The provost serjeant was killed as he clambered on to a tank and thrust his rifle through an embrasure. A section of the youngest soldiers, with less than eight weeks' service, was seen to fix bayonets as an enemy tank approached them. Two old-soldier G.S.M.s were both killed behind anti-tank rifles whose crews had already been knocked out”
A more detailed account of the engagement in which these young untested and lightly armed territorials and a few old soldiers held up the advance of a German Panzer division for five valuable hours is given in the Battalion history, published privately in 1947 (no publisher or author given), which I consulted in the Library of the Imperial War Museum, London.
This described how Alan’s Company confronted the enemy in Neuville Vitesse whilst covering the retreat of the other companies:
“At 08.25, immediately after the withdrawal of "D" Company, "C" Company (Capt. G. D. Harker) in Neuville Vitasse Village was attacked by enemy A.F.V.s from both flanks. In half an hour's fighting, some of which took place in houses that were soon ablaze, a determined but costly resistance was made against the enemy, but at length, with the line of withdrawal cut to the rear and to both flanks, and with all ammunition expended, the survivors were compelled to surrender. Captain Harker and a small party escaped, and remained at large for three days.”
The First Battalion Tyneside Scottish, The Black Watch — Royal Highland Regiment, 1947.
Alan told me they were marched out of the village to hold up the German advance. They rounded a bend and came face to face with the German tanks. Alan, holding one end of an anti-tank gun, dived into the ditch but the soldier on the other end of the gun was killed. Within minutes they were all on their feet, hands in the air, prisoners of war.
The Tyneside Scottish were almost completely wiped out in this engagement.
I was fortunate to obtain copies of the index cards kept by the German’s of Alan’s five long years as a Prisoner of War (POW) from the Veterans Agency in Blackpool. These contain his photograph (with POW number 3921 chalked on a board hung round his neck), finger print, date and place of capture and all subsequent movements.
They were marched south east for three long weeks to a holding camp at Trier on the German frontier near Luxembourg. From there they were transported by train in cattle wagons to Stalag XXIB at Schubin in Poland, arriving on the 11 June. Five weeks later he was moved to Leslau (where eighteen prisoners escaped under cover of a play written and directed by Alan), a small outpost of the main camp at Schubin.
He returned to Schubin on the 12 April 1941 but on the 22 April entrained in cattle wagons for Posen, the German name for the Polish city of Poznan, 100 miles to the south east, where he was to spend nearly four years at Fort Rauch, a nineteenth century fortress on the outskirts of the city. There were 29 forts surrounding Posen, two of which, Fort Rauch and Fort VIII (Grollman) along with outlying labour camps in the area controlled by the German XXI Army Group, constituted Stalag XXID. Fort Prittwitz, identical to Fort Rauch, held Gaullist French soldiers. The POW lived in basement rooms of the strong brick built redoubt of Fort Rauch which was described in an ICRC report in August 1941 as being “a circular building, made of red brick with three floors each with its windows facing an interior court which acts as the hub of the fort. There is no overcrowding and the rooms are not so large that they become noisy when filled with prisoners.” The number of prisoners at Fort Rauch varied but were generally around 750 (out of some 3,000 plus in Stalag XXID as a whole).There were fifty rooms with 30-46 beds per room (they may not all have been in use), a common room and theatre. Charlie Glasgow and Alan were in Room 28. Alan was the stage manager for many of the plays, variety concerts and pantos held in the theatre and sent photographs of the productions home with letters. His friend Phil Goold painted the scenery and since he looked very young often took the female lead (costumes were hired from the Posen Opera House). The prisoners were paid DM4.20 per week for the labouring work they did around Posen. Fort Rauch was demolished after the war (a college stands on the site) but Fort VIII still stands.
As the Germans were forced on the retreat from the advancing Soviet forces the prisoners were transported south to Stalag VIIIB and its complex of outlying labour camps in Upper Silesia near the Czech border. He arrived at Stalag VIIIB Teschen on the 18 August 1944 but on the 24th was sent to work as part of the E702 Arbeitskommando at Klimentowgrub, a coal mine at Klimontow, a village on the outskirts of Sosnowiec in the industrial and mining region of Katowice. His diary begins here on Tuesday 29 October 1944.
Conditions at Klimontow were very poor compared with Fort Rauch:
"This is going to be a tough billet for winter but I don't think ther'll be much better anywhere else around here so rotten is this Stalag V111B. To think we ever grumbled about Rauch!" Monday 13 November 1944.
"Last year at this time we were all looking forward to what we firmly believed would be our last POW Xmas. I at least was sure. We said of Cinderella this will be our last Panto., let's make it a super-show. It was our last, true but only because in this bloody hole nothing in the entertainment line can be done. Good God, are we browned off! I never imagined we would come down as far as this. Looking back to Posen it would seem to have been a dream ..." Saturday 18 November.
THE LONG MARCH WEST
On the 18 January 1945 they were awoken at midnight and told to be ready to move off at 2.30 am. This was the start of a 900 plus kilometre march which only ended near Regensburg in Bavaria, at the heart of the ever shrinking German Reich, where they were finally liberated by the American forces on Monday the 30 April.
The Diary finishes at a reception camp for released POW in Slough where he was debriefed (the interrogation questionnaires completed by liberated prisoners of war can be seen at the National Records Office, Kew; Reference WO 344).
There is a moving Postscript to his Diary written in 1985 after the death of his wife, 'Bunty', which describes the journey North to Newcastle on Tyne by train and the tumultuous welcome they received on arrival at Newcastle Central Station.
My brother, Stephen, was thirteen years old when he met his uncle on the beach at Whitley Bay shortly after his return to England. Alan tried to impress his nephew by speaking to him in German and Steve looking at his thin emaciated figure stepped forward and lifted him off the ground. Alan struggled to free himself but couldn’t and Steve gently set him free.
Five years imprisonment had left its mark on his body but life now had much to offer including marriage to “Bunty” and a family and a home of his own.
Continued as A7280291
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