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- William Grieves Brown
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- 07 September 2005
William Grieves Brown was born into a mining family and had two brothers and two sisters. Peggy, one sister, died of meningitis when she was eight years old. Grieves was 13 at the time.
Most of us skip past pages in a newspaper at the mention of World War II. It was so traumatic for Grieves that only in the past seven years has he been able to talk about some of the inhumane experiences he went through during his four years and 10 months of captivity by the Germans.
Grieves hated his job mining down Whittle Pit, so in 1938 he joined the Territorial Army to pick up an extra two weeks' holiday. However on 3rd September 1939 war was declared. In the summer of 1940 Grieves was sent over to France to commence duties as a medical orderly, where he was appointed a stretch-bearer. He had been in France for six weeks and saw no action, when he was sent to the front line on the borders of Belgium on the morning of Sunday 20th June 1940.
It was on the same afternoon while attending a man who had three bullet wounds in the back, that he and ten other men were captured by Germans.
He recalled: "They lined us up against a wall and took everything from us - photos, money, rations, everything. I was 19 years old at the time. When I was released I was 25". He considers himself lucky - in Singapore they did not believe in taking prisoners ...
Grieves continued: "We were boarded onto a cattle truck which was packed full of prisoners. The carriages were so packed you had trouble sitting down. We were on the truck for 10 days without a drop of water or food and nowhere to go to the toilet, so it was not surprising that we were all covered in lice and worse by the time we got off the truck. The Red Cross stopped the train at one point and gave us soup, but there weren't any bowls or cups so had to use our hands - most of it went on the floor".
They were taken to a camp in Poland on the River Vistula, and Grieves was there for 19 weeks before being moved on. They lived in shocking conditions and had no means of cleaning themselves. They slept on beds with one long plank of wood running across the top of them. Inevitably there was disease and lice. They were made to comb their hair on arrival to have their photo taken with their POW number. Then they were taken and their hair was shaved off in a vain attempt to curb lice. "Two numbers that I'll never forget are 8621, my POW number, and 4274241, my Army number" - he rhymes them off without having to think about it.
During his 19 week stay they were continually brought on parade in the middle of winter at 12 midnight for a count to ensure no-one had escaped. Grieves talked about a particular English soldier called Sergeant Major Homer, who had been put in charge of his group of men. "He was a proper Nazi, and was sometimes worse than the Germans, he would be allowed to eat with them". They would be given 1/5 of a 2lb loaf of bread in a 24-hour period - sometimes a bowl of soup was offered but not very often.
After 19 weeks he was taken on a working party in Prussia, to a larger camp of about 2000 men, where he stayed for 5-6 months.
Grieves was moved on again to a farm where there were small groups of 10 men working there. He says "After the first 12 months the Red Cross parcels started coming in. In big camps they got one about once a fortnight, we got ours once a month. The Germans weren't allowed to stop us receiving parcels, which would have treats like chocolate in". I asked him if they were given bigger rations because they were working all day, but they still got about the same amount of bread, with lard to put on it. "We would get Sauerkraut once in a while, but it's not like you get over here. The smell was so bad I couldn't eat it", he says, shaking his head in disgust. On the farms they would sleep 10 to a small room on five bunk beds. On one particular farm the farm was next to the living quarters of the farmer and his family. "The farmer's wife used to like to hear us sing, but she didn't understand that we were singing dirty songs. Her name was Frau Schamausia. She had a son with one arm - he had lost one in a farming accident, but he could still fire a gun.
"We got a fresh guard every six months. They would come straight from the Russian border, so most would be tired and resentful". There were nice guards as well and one he recalls with fondness, kept in touch after the war. He was Wilhelm Lukas, the guard for his six last months in captivity. "He was a proper gentleman, I've got a photo of him and I would never part with it. He owned three businesses before the war and the Nazis took them off him and enlisted him to the army, so he was dead against the Germans.
One of the bad guards used to make us work in wooden clogs, because he thought we would not be able to escape that way. One day on the way to the field one of my clogs broke and I had to stop. The guard asked why I had stopped, so I told him my clog had broken. He came up behind me and he slammed his rifle butt in my back and told me to go and change into my boots". Grieves has a good knowledge of the German language and was able to tell me about the conversation as it happened, speaking German.
Grieves was still unable to talk about a lot of his experiences because he did not want to bring back the memories. He reluctantly mentioned that he had once tried to commit suicide but did not go into detail about it. Grieves continued: "There was a big pond with water in for irrigation and such inside the camp. One man was so desperate that one night he made guards chase him, then threw a heavy stone into the pond and hid behind a nearby hut. The Germans searched the pond certain he had jumped in. Eventually they gave in, thinking he must be dead. After they had gone, he quietly climbed into the pond and drowned himself". Just the very thought that anybody could be so desperate to take their life in such a calculated way sent shivers down my spine.
Grieves remembers his 21st birthday with clarity, but not for the usual reasons people remember such events. "We had a wicked little guard on at the time of my birthday, and four of us had scraped the iron bars from a window for a period of time - we took them out to escape. We had 10 hours of freedom before we were recaptured and sent to a different camp. I was put into solitary confinement for 21 days, and was locked up 23 out of 24 hours".
Prisoners were allowed parcels and letters from home and were allowed to send letters, but everything would be carefully vetted. The Germans took photos which could be sent to relatives. The prisoners were made respectable, dressed in smart uniform and told to smile, so ofcourse the outside world knew nothing of the real horror of the camps. The captives knew nothing of the atrocities towards the Jews until they got home. A disturbing recollection of this was told with sadness. "At one point three Jewish women were sent to our camp, but weren't there for long. It was the middle of a Polish winter and they all arrived wearing nothing but flimsy dresses, no underwear, socks, shoesm nothing. We would try to give them underpants and other clothing, but they were taken off them straight away. We tried to sneak them the odd bit of chocolate, but if they were caught taking it, they would get punished, not the prisoners. If they talked they would get slapped or worse". I asked what happened to them and Grieves said, "Knowing what I know now about the way the Jews were treated, they were probably taken and gassed". This brought us to the subject of the mass holocaust of the Jews.
"Although there was no real means to clean yourself, you were given soap which was useless because it had the consistency of sand. During the whole time I was there I was given maybe two baths. They would call it delousing. We would be made to strip off and hang our clothes up where they would be cleaned by very hot steam to try to get rid of any bugs. Then we would all sit in a round tub in a room which was then locked. I suppose this is what they did to the Jews on a larger scale. They wouldn't know what was coming from the vents and even if they did they couldn't do anything to save themselves. They could easily have gassed us and we wouldn't have known anything".
When almost five years of Grieves' life had gone by in this hideous way, the Russians invaded East Prussia. Grieves and about 500 other men, unaware of what was happening, were marched for three months over 1,500 miles (in zig-zag pattern) to the middle of Germany. "They kept us marching straight up with a rucksack on our back. Eventually things got thrown from the sack and then the sack went. By the end of the march we would be bent over until our faces nearly touched the ground. I slept amongst pigs, horses and worse, because I had to and didn't care by then. They marched us to the middle of Germany (Brunswick), which was declared an open city, which meant the Americans could march through. When we entered the city someone started shooting at the Americans: this started the shooting and bombing again. The Americans didn't know we were inside the city and bombed it until almost nothing was left of it. Then they marched in and found us. They asked us if there were any Germans who had been particularly nasty to us during the march: we picked out two in particular. One of the worst was driven around the city on a landrover and then both were shot".
Eventually the captives were boarded onto a plane in Belgium and flown home. They knew then they were really going home. Grieves recalls seeing the White Cliffs of Dover and there was a tear in my eye as I thought of the relief they must have felt. They were sent by bus back home. "The first person I saw when I got off the bus was my Dad. Lena's Aunties Sarah and Jean were coming down the road towards me".
His date of discharge from the army was 12th January 1946; he was discharged because his services were no longer required.
Grieves eventually resumed work down the pits and married Lena with whom he had two boys and three girls. He has lived a modest but comfortable life since his experiences.
Now he has another battle, this time with cancer, which he has struggled with for the past few years. It seems cruel that after all he went through, he is made to suffer further with this terrible disease.
Grieves sayd, "Young people just don't think you're telling the truth because it's beyond beleif". I agree with him but do not know if people do not believe or do not want to believe, in the hope that it will never happen again ...
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