- Contributed by
- CSV Media NI
- People in story:
- Lawrence Travers Dorins, Rex Pearson and Frank Fuller
- Location of story:
- FORT 11 STALAG XXA THORN (TOR UN) 1940
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 October 2005
One of the Forts (at Stalag XXa)
This story is taken from a manuscript by Lawrence Travers Dorins, and has been added to the site with his permission by Bruce Logan. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
FORT 11 STALAG XXA THORN (TORUN) 1940
After our capture on the 20th. of May, 1940, we eventually arrived at Thorn in Poland on the 7th. of June. It was early morning as we staggered, stiff, hungry and exhausted from the cattle trucks. It was Saturday and we had last eaten on Tuesday afternoon, a slice of bread and marge. The train journey had been a terrible ordeal.
The trucks were overcrowded and the exhausted prisoners were packed in like sardines. Too weak to stand for long, they lay or leaned against the sides, unable to move or stretch in their close proximity to their neighbours. If anyone needed to urinate they had to use a cup which was passed from hand to hand until it reached someone near a ventilator and it could be thrown out. I can't remember if many or even if any people moved their bowels. Probably not as they had eaten so little in the last two weeks. The train stopped frequently to allow other traffic to come through and once or twice at stations, when we were given water. At one time I remember crossing a long bridge, probably over the Rhine, and I saw a factory chimney with Persil written on it, a reminder of home. There were ventilators at the four comers of the truck but it was very difficult to see out. We had no idea where we were going and it was some time after we arrived that we found out that we were in Poland.
The guards marched us away along cobbled roads and we soon found ourselves out in the country. We were all very weak and some collapsed by the roadside and were picked up later. The march seemed to go on for ever but at last we reached our destination, Fort 11. It was not really so far but in our weak state it fe1t like it. There are about twenty of these forts around Thorn and I was told that some of them were built by French P. 0 W. s during the Franco Prussian war of 1870. Our first sight of the Fort was not reassuring. It was surrounded by a high bank, with tall gates across the entrance road which cut through it. Once inside we saw a dry moat and at the other side the walls of the fort. There was a bridge over the moat which led to a sinister looking tunnel, level with first floor of the fort. The roof of the fort was covered with earth, with trees and bushes growing on it, and entering the tunnel gave the impression of going into the bowels of the earth from which one might never return. Once inside we turned left and were sent into a room with a curved brick ceiling, a small window facing the moat and piles of straw along each side for us to sleep on. Every day, at twelve, we were given a bowl of watery soup and at five, a loaf of German Army bread between six men. Five watched like hawks while the sixth cut it as fairly and evenly as possible. There were about thirty of us in the room, including Rex Pearson and Frank Fuller from my own unit and home area. To meet and talk to those who knew, and could talk about familiar people and places was a great consolation at that time.
The main topic of conversation, however, was food. They say that soldiers are always talking about sex, but not when they are hungry. It was torture as people racked their brains to think of all the delicious chocolates and sweets, cakes and other delights which had previously been available to them. The favours of the most beautiful of women would have been spurned in favour of a sandwich. We would continue to think about food for a long time to come.
After a day or two I moved my bowels for the first time for about twelve days. By this time we were all lousy so one of the prisoners was given a pair of clippers and the task of running them over our heads. We were completely bald and I was very self- conscious. When I woke up in the morning I put my hat on and only took it off again when I went to bed at night. We had lost most of our kit so the Germans had issued us with some of the stuff they had captured in Poland. I received an olive green Polish cavalry greatcoat with a tight waist and a flared skirt to go over the horse's flanks. It was very similar to the fashionable style for women's coats at home before we left. I also had a soft Polish Army cap with a floppy brim that had warped into a curve. I was not happy with my appearance and I got very tired of snide remarks like, "Lost yer orse, mate?" or "What a nice outfit." It was about two years before we received some greatcoats from home.
It was a depressing time in Fort 11. We had escaped death, but we felt very insecure. The time on the march and the train journey had had its effect on us. Life was also boring with no radio, nothing to read, no real news about the war, just lots of wild rumours. We were all very worried about what was happening to the people at home and by this time I think that we knew that there would be no miracle reversal of fortune.
Sometimes Rex and I went along the tunnel and out on to the top of the Fort. It was not level but had little hills and valleys where gun emplacements and ammunition bunkers had been covered with earth. We enjoyed sitting in the sunshine but when we stood up we were very unsteady and saw bright lights in front of our eyes. We could see very little from the top but we seemed to be out in the country. Through the open gate I once caught a glimpse of a sandy track but no proper road.
Occasionally an army lorry came or a brewery lorry brought drinks for the guards. A map, which I bought on a visit in 1997, shows forts 11 to 15 on the southern side of the Vistula in an area with little development. Fort 11 lies on the western edge, not very far from the railway line and the road to Poznan. I remember that Fort 15 was used for prisoners and Fort14 was the camp hospital.
One day we marched to a large building which was the administration building and the stores. We were photographed holding a board across our chests with STALAG XXA and a number on it. Then we were issued with identity discs with Stalag X X A and our number stamped on them twice. If you died the disk was broken in half, half was buried with you and the other half went to your family. While we were waiting a German officer was sitting at a table and handing out discharge papers to Polish prisoners, shaking hands with them and wishing them well. I felt happy for them and envious, a bit reassured that a German officer could behave in this friendly manner, but apprehensive about the future and how long it might be before we were free. Before returning to Fort 11. we were issued with foot squares made of flannelette and about the size of a large pocket handkerchief. They were in common use at that time in E. Europe, instead of socks, and we soon got used to them but we had problems when they issued us with Dutch clogs.
We were still obsessed by food or the lack of it. A chap from the East Kents used to visit our room and describe, in excruciating detail, his visits to his married sister. "I went to her house, walked up the path and rang the bell. There was nobody in so I went round the back and found the key under the flower pot and went into the house. I opened the door and went into the kitchen and then I went to the cupboard and opened the door and took out the bread and cut some thick slices and I went back to the cupboard and I got out the butter and I spread it on the bread, ever so thick, and then I got the jam out and spooned it over the butter, ever so thick and then I took a bite and it ran down my chin and I wiped it with my fingers and licked my fingers and it wasn't arf good." I think some of us were dribbling and others were fantasizing about slowly torturing him to death.
One morning I was standing on the bridge with another prisoner who suddenly said, "I wish I was where I was at this time last year." "Where was that?" I asked. "In stir," he replied. He then went on to paint a picture of an earthly paradise.
Comfortable beds, adequate meals three times a day, library books and a fixed sentence. I began to wish that I was in a nice English gaol.
As the days passed rumours of any improvement in the military situation died away, we realized that we had been overwhelmingly defeated and that we were probably here for a long time but would have been very shocked if we known exactly how long.
One day there was a rumour that we were to be sent out on a working party. Two days later we marched to the station where we had our first encounter with the Field Gendarmerie, known as the Ketten Hunde or chain dogs to German soldiers because of the metal chain and plate they wear round their necks. They are the military police, feared by soldiers, especially those without passes. No station was complete without one. After they had shouted at us, and the guards, we set off on our journey. It was a steam train and the carriages had wooden seats but after the journey in the cattle truck and the isolation of the Fort, it was pleasant to roll gently across the flat cultivated countryside of the Polish Corridor.
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