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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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POW Life

by bacotton

Contributed by 
People in story: 
'Basil Cotton','Dickie Davis', 'Ken Bowden',' Ron Lakin','Dixie Deans','Peter Thomas'
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 May 2005

Heydekrug (East Prussia), was my first actual POW camp and I arrived here on November 29th 1943, nearly 2 ½ years after being shot down.

The journey from Mühlhausen to Heydekrug, on the Lithuanian border with Poland, took four days travelling on a cattle truck on a train with a bucket as a toilet. We had to sleep standing up as there was nowhere to sit down.

I remember moving by train, it was crowded I was sitting down. Further up the train were German Airforce Staff — they were complaining about the ‘terror fliers’. Ie anyone who bombed Germany.

The traveller with me was also injured. I said ‘Can’t you speak more quietly?’ in German and he disappeared. We offered our seats to two ladies but they refused.

On the second day we travelled through Poznan in central Poland. We would get to a station in central Poland; it would be built like a castle, a wonderful edifice, but with nothing around it. A few old women, dressed in black, would get off and you could see these black figures heading towards the horizon where presumably the town was.

We stopped at a little station in Poland because we needed the toilet — which was a trench with two poles over it, one to sit on, one to hang on to. A train came past with lots of girls on and we waved!

We also stopped at Konigsberg for a couple of nights.

On the third day of travelling we went through East Prussia via Deutsch Eylau, a junction for trains, then to Torun, We changed here and I met an Englishman from Stalag 22A. We waited on the platform for transport. A train came but it was full. A marine captain got off the train and asked what we were waiting for, when he found out he got 15 people to get off the train so that we wounded could travel.

We spent a night in Instaberg in East Prussia and from there travelled in two stretches to Tilsit.

At one point on this journey we stopped in a siding and the guards got everyone off the train. It was bitterly cold. A German railway man came to us and said ‘I get heat’ . He brought coals etc and warmed the place up.

When we arrived in Heydekrug we walked to the camp, Stalag Luft 6, I was using crutches. This was an RAF camp - the RAF POW were segregated from Army POW and put in different camps. They thought the RAF POW were dangerous and we didn’t have to work, nor did senior officers in the Army.

Heydekrug was a nice camp, particularly in the summer. I met up there with the remainder of my crew, Dickie Davis, Ken Bowden and Ron Lakin were all there. I was in the same hut as Dixie Deans, who spoke perfect German, it was hut D8 or D9. Peter Thomas was also in this hut, he became an MP after the war, Dixie Deans got the MBE.

The Gestapo regularly searched the huts, they would search the beds and chuck everything into the centre of the room.

I got a poisoned foot at Heydekrug. There was a medical section there staffed by the British, but they were young and probably had limited knowledge.

Some of POW life was a hell of a good experience; I met Serbs, Croats, Poles etc (the Serbs and Croats hated each other). The Poles were a cracking good lot, tough, honest, straightforward. Most could speak a bit of German some could speak a bit of English. We had a secret radio and could pick up the British stations. We received parcels from the Red Cross — the Canadian parcels were the best, I don’t know how I got them, someone must have given them my name.

Eric Williams gave the impression in his book that all POWs were trying to escape, but it wasn’t like that, we were more like a small village. We arranged lectures in every conceivable subject, some people got degrees as POWs! I used to give lessons in practical German, using phonetics and also lessons in sums. We did try to grow vegetables here but it didn’t work. I did a fair amount of sunbathing.

It was at Heydekrug that I was given my ‘War Time Log’ book through the Red Cross, in which I kept many notes about POW life.

The end of the war

We stayed at Heydekrug until the Russians came near, then 3000 of us (the camp had 9000 in total) were moved back in horse trucks to Torun, mid July 1944, using the same route as that we came by. Everything was disorganised at Torun when we arrived on July 19th. We spent about three weeks here then on August 8th moved on again, travelling by train via Bromberg and Stettin North Germany to Fallingbostel, which was an overcrowded camp, 20 miles north of Hanover. This was our last POW camp, it was rough, there was no food because of the British bombing everything, the Germans were really scared. There were 72 people in one hut, there were no sheets, just mangers and we weren’t in a good state as we hadn’t had Red Cross parcels for some time. I have a poem written by Dickie Beck at Fallingbostel dated September 7th 1944.

One memory from Fallingbostel, as the war was drawing to a close and we knew the Germans were beaten: one day the Germans came to our hut shouting ‘Appel!’ ie parade, they had guns. So we all went to the central parade ground in the middle of the camp and found we were surrounded by Germans with machine guns, all pointing at us POWs. (At this point we knew that 50 RAF POWs had been shot at this camp).

The German Colonel (accompanied by various minions and an interpreter) announced at some length that because Great Britain had ill-treated their German POWs, our beds were going to be taken away. He paused during this spiel and a POW shouted in a raucous voice ‘F*** off!’ and we Brits all walked back to our huts, leaving the German guards standing there, pointing their guns at each other.

Xmas 1944 was an excellent day, food started to arrive from the Red Cross and a cigarette parcel arrived in January 1945. However the weather turned very cold. I had stomach problems and spent time in the camp hospital, was better after three weeks. February passed very quickly, in March there were no parcels, very little food, the Germans’ rations had dwindled too.

On April 6th 1945 the camp was ordered to move, but I stayed put. The people chased out from Fallingbostel may have ended up on the Long March.

The camp was bombed around April 12 by Mosquitos. The Germans left, the Russians had chased them out. On the 16th April a jeep from the 7th Army Division with a young man from the 11th Hussars turned up. Everyone gathered around the jeep, I knew it was all over and didn’t go up to the jeep but went for a walk around the camp. The officer asked what we wanted and we said ‘tea, cigarettes and bread’ and this was all brought to us that night.

Over the next two days it was decided how to transport everyone from the camp home, we stood in the square and an army man read out the list — those in the longest went first. It was all very organised, they brought lorries. I left Fallingbostel on April 20th was taken to Skipholtz in Belgium and from there was flown to near Aylesbury, arriving on April 22, 1387 days after leaving England.

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