- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- JE Durey
- Location of story:
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- Contributed on:
- 20 December 2005
We had been on the road living like tramps for around three weeks. Many days we had not eaten at all but the search for potatoes and one chicken shared had kept us going and now we were in possession of a whole cow and we looked at it with varied emotions. It was painfully thin but we had already realised that East Prussia had been evacuated probably after the Russians had taken a village and then withdrawn the previous October which accounted for the emaciated dogs with bared teeth that had followed us like wolves. Coming back to the present we only had an old dinner knife between us and so we sharpened it as best we could and then, with Brassie holding a horn on one side and Jock the other I began sawing at the throat of the beast which remained quite docile, finally sinking to the ground and then hacked a slice from a shoulder which was cut up into small pieces and boiled in melted snow (for, it seemed, hours) finally chewing the obstinate meat and drinking the water, and went to sleep.
In the morning we set off again ignored by the Russkies. The weather changed from day to day, sometimes well below zero but often thawing midday turning our frozen clothes wet. One day as evening drew in we could not find any after a heavy fall of snow and we tried to build an igloo shaping blocks and building a circular wall about two foot six inches high but trying to form a roof beat us and so we cuddled together sheltered from the wind and prayed believing that was the end. We woke up to find there had been a thaw and our clothes were wringing wet but out attention was taken by what appeared to be a long line of dead sheep along the opposite verge, A whistle blew and the lumps all rose up revealing soldiers using sheepskin mantles. We became objects of interest and one came up to me and swiped the FS cap off my head and put it in his pack but withdrew a fur hat complete with star badge and put it on my head.
Naturally my companions offered their flimsy FS caps too but only got shrugs of “sorry”. The next couple of days brought us to a town which I soon recognised as Thorn, so we were now in Poland. There was no sign of damage but there was no help for us because the place was crowded with refugees, mostly women and children so we spent the night in the railway station and pushed on again.
Instead of the barren open countryside there were more trees and one day walking through a wooded valley we found ourselves in danger from huge icicles hanging from the branches above us and as the temperature rose they fell about us like javelins. We found a woodman’s hut for the night and found a horse close by the next morning and Jock made a halter for us to lead it along. It was not long before we found a cart and hitched the horse to it and climbed aboard. It was not clever, we soon had circulation problems and were not moving any faster and the old was eating through our clothes so we got back onto the road and handed our acquisition over to some refugees with much bowing, smiling and incomprehensible flood of language.
We were not hurrying but to our concern got caught up with a column of battered and depressed German prisoners. Never sure of our status we slowed to the same pace for a while. Now and again one would drop out onto the wayside. Following was an officer and an NCO and as they drew level with the fallen man the officer shot him in the back of the head and the NCO took the ID from around his neck and made a note in a little book. We counted fourteen drop-outs and was sure some were deliberate suicides. Eventually they were taken into a large wired off area with buildings beyond a wide open area. There were no other souls to be seen but there was something creepy about the place. I wondered after the war if that place had not been Treblinka because we were then less than two days from Warsaw.
We came to a village where the houses were occupied and, Glory be! two men had set up a market type stall by the roadside. Certainly the display was only bric-a-brac but there was a small stack of match boxes - the one thing our survival had depended on. Somehow we made a transaction acquiring two boxes and some Polish change.
Each cottage had a small red flag outside and we reported to a house in the centre with a larger red flag and a sentry outside. We were then taken to a semidetached cottage for shelter for one night and a meal. Inside it looked knocked together giving one large 'L' shaped area. The place seemed crowded with people, there was a double bed in one corner with a baby in a cot, and on the other side were three beds in a row whilst the other leg of the 'L' had a long table and chairs. A pail of water was produced for us to wash and a meal was a thick stew with little dumplings with a little meat inside. We were offered the bed in the comer and indicated we only wanted to sleep. I leant over the cot and kissed the baby and was surprised that they all stood with hands together as though in prayer. We lay down together fully clothed and slept.
In the morning there was a commotion outside, a small crowd wanted us to go with them so we took our farewells and only then in the morning light I could see the baby was dead. Were taken some half mile to a vast area completely flattened, just rubble - it was the site of the Ghetto and uprising they wanted us to tell about if we got home.
Warsaw was in a bad way with no services working but Lublin, a few more days away was undamaged, it was the place to head for but Brassie's boots were finished, he had been walking partially on bare feet. He insisted he would be aright so wee Jock and I set off again finally reaching the suburbs two days later and were told to take a tram to the centre, arriving in a square and making for a large building that could have been the town hall or a church with some twenty steps up to the entrance which we had to crawl up on our hands and knees but were helped inside and sat on chairs with a steaming cup of coffee.
After recovering somewhat we received a coupon each and were told to find a restaurant and a meal then return. We did not have to go far before finding a place like a Lyons Corner House with walnut panelled walls and maids in black dresses with little white aprons and lace headbands. Standing outside peering through the glass we must have looked like Bisto Kids and too embarrassed to go in, but we were called in so we took care to sit in a corner on our own. We knew we stank, but a bowl of soup was soon put before us followed by a main course of vegetables and a little meat and to cap it all, a sweet of pudding and custard.
I wanted to cry I was so overcome, and looking across at Jock I could see tears rolling down his face. We could not stay there for ever and so reluctantly returned to be taken to a railway depot where other overrun POWs were assembled on straw. There were three American RC men supervising, they gave us each a fag and an American 'K' ration which was useless without a fire but there was a square of toilet paper, one cigarette and one safety
We spent the night there and the next morning boarded a troop train, twenty five to a wagon. There was a small stove in the centre and a lump of coal and a sack half full of what could only be described as lumps of dehydrated bread with a fish flavour so hard it cut the gums. There was a shelf each side with straw allowing for six each side to lay down on the floor and six on the shelf above. The train took off in no kind of hurry but we learnt we were going to Odessa.
The train never hurried, the weather worsened into a snow storm and after two days arrived during the night at Tarnopol. The driving snow was so strong we could hardly stand up but found our way to a huge hut guided by the smell of cooking and there received a bowl of soup so thick with grease a spoon could stand up on its own but it was so very welcome. It took another two days to reach Odessa where we were taken to a large warehouse, all our clothes stuffed into a delouser and pipes overhead sprayed water down on us. The water was cold and we had no way of drying ourselves so were relieved when our clothes could be reclaimed.
We were then taken out into a quayside where a ship was being loaded with RC clothes etc., from a Red Cross ship alongside. I went into a latrine to relieve myself and some seven or eight Frenchmen came in behind me. I answered them with the little French I knew but when I turned they surrounded me and several were holding knives. They could not believe I had come all the way from the Baltic; I have since calculated that from the Stalag to Lublin we had walked about 1,000 kilometres so I must have been fighting for the Germans. It was a very nasty situation relieved when some other British came in thus breaking up the tense situation. I thought how typical of the French who, for nearly five years bad been scratching the backs of the Germans were now demonstrating principles!
We were called together and formed up in order of rank to board when a brass band struck up playing Colonel Bogey and there then appeared a band of about a dozen with instruments followed by another handful of ex-prisoners including Capt. King the padre and his two medics. Naturally he boarded first and halfway up the gangplank be turned, looked down at me and putting two fingers up shouted "I beat you after all!"
There were three hundred British on board plus a handful of French and Italians. New uniforms, a shower and a nominal pay of five pounds that was immediately given to the Red Cross and then glorious, beautiful food, as much as we could eat. As the ship cleared the Black Sea the British were assembled under two Intelligence officers and we had to take a vow not to talk of what we bad seen and experienced with the Russians.
We docked at Liverpool where a large crowd were assembled with bunting, the mayor and other dignitaries but no contact was allowed and so by train I was borne to a surprise. My parents had a cottage and small bolding in Egerton in the heart of Kent. I walked in, dumped my kitbag and greeted my parents. Sure they were excited and put their arms around me but they were calling me "Norman". No-no, I’m Jack! I was nineteen when they last saw me, now nearly twenty five and had gained some sun tan from a stop at Port Said and through the Med. But despite my protestations they thought it was a joke because brother Norman was expected from Burma and only an hour before had received a telegram from Moscow to say I had been liberated by the Red Army! They thought this meant I was on my way to Siberia.
After six weeks on double rations and recovering from a nervous collapse I was sent to Barnsley for medical and IQ tests. I passed the IQ but was discharged unfit and three months in hospital followed. Brassie got home a month later, we corresponded but he died within the year without passing me Jock's address, we had got separated on the ship and despite much advertising in Aberdeenshire local papers I found no trace. I was finally discharged with a strict diet sheet of instructions to take only the lightest work and definitely no smoking. I ignored all that and in fifteen years built a business into a factory that was taken over and then made a new career in DIY retailing and timber.
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