- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Trooper George Knowles Devlin, Trooper Norman Williams, Bandsman Harry Edward Weston ‘Haggie’, Raymond Devlin ‘Ray’, Margaret Devlin, Matthew Devlin ‘Matt’, Mary Hannah Devlin.
- Location of story:
- Stalag XXB, Marienburg / Marlbork (East Prussia / Poland).
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 January 2006
Margaret and Ray Devlin just after attending the Remembrance Sunday Service, the Cenotaph, Whitehaven, Cumbria, 14 November 2004. In June 1943 Ray’s brother George, a POW, gave his life saving a German farmer. Margaret and Ray visited George’s grave in Poland in 1997. [Photograph by Joseph Ritson]
This is the second of two articles about some of experiences that happened to fellows serving in the 15th / 19th King’s Royal Hussars, Royal Armoured Corps during World War Two. The first article covered mainly how fellows from the unit were surrounded while attempting to slow the German advance through Belgium in May 1940 and the survivors were taken prisoner.
This article mainly concentrates on the experiences of two Comrades-in-Arms taken prisoner by the Germans on 18 May 1940, their time in the prison camp and their numerous escape attempts. These two comrades were called Trooper George Knowles Devlin (Service No 555704) who came from Whitehaven, Cumberland (now Cumbria) and his best pal Trooper Norman Williams from York.
The source material for this article comes mainly from detailed research notes, photographs and personal letterers belonging to George’s brother Ray Devlin, and Norman’s personal testimony. Although Norman is now deceased, it was his wish that George’s story should be known. I am indebted to Ray and Norman for sharing their knowledge about George. The terms of the BBC “People’s War” website have been read and understood.
The POW Camp Stalag XXB and the town of Marienburg
After they had been taken prisoner in Belgium on 18 May 1940, George and Norman were interrogated by a German Interrogation Officer who had previously been a Bank Manager in York, Norman’s hometown. They were then sent to the prison camp designated Stalag XXB near the town that was then called Marienburg, East Prussia. After the war, when the international boundaries were redrawn it became the town of Malbork, Poland.
During the war there was a Focke Wolf aircraft factory in Marienburg, and it experienced some Allied bombing, most notably on 8 October 1943. Casualties at the factory included some French POWs who had volunteered to work at the factory in return for better conditions from the Germans. There were few tears shed by the other POWs at the prison camp who did not agree with volunteering for this type of work in return for favours.
According to Norman, life in the prison camp was definitely nothing like the popular perception portrayed in films or TV series. For the majority of the war, there was virtually no opportunity to take part in sport and Norman never remembers a single Concert Party! In fact, it was the lack of these sort of activities that largely led to George and Norman wanting to escape. Only once did Norman remember a visit to the camp by the Red Cross. When they brought up the lack of Red Cross parcels, they were told all the transport was involved in supplying the Front. In fact, the British POWs felt believed that at least some of the Red Cross parcels intended for them were being sent as supplies to the German frontline troops.
Norman also recounted that among the British POWs at Stalag XXB were some who ‘shopped’ their comrades to the Germans in return for favours. Chief among them was a party of what Norman called ‘bully boys’ who originated from the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Many other POWs, George and Norman included, spoke little if anything about their pre-war lives, as this was the best thing to do in the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Norman and George had their escape attempts thwarted on more than one occasion because of information given to the prison guards by one of ‘The Golden Circle’. This included what turned out to be their last attempt when information led to Norman and George being split up and assigned different work duties. It was at this time, in June 1943, that George was sent to a farm and where he lost his life protecting a German farmer from a rampaging bull.
The first escape attempt
After about a year as POWs George and Norman decided that the best time to make an escape attempt was in May 1941. As this proved unsuccessful they were to make subsequent attempts the following two years. In the beginning, Norman asked George:
“How do you feel about taking a long walk?”
They then started making escape plans, such as food supplies and the route to take. They also volunteered for a working party and this afforded them the opportunity to escape while they were outside the camp perimeter.
On this occasion, George and Norman walked eastwards across from what was then known as the Polish Corridor and across East Prussia towards the Lithuanian border, then part of the Soviet Union. They travelled on foot, moving by night to avoid detection, and looked for food and water during the twighlight hours. George and Norman took cover during the daylight hours, taking alternate ‘watches’ as lookouts. After about 200 miles in this way the two pals reached a river they felt was the Nieman, then the frontier between East Prussia and Lithuania.
The next move for the two escaped prisoners was to cross the river, reach the then-neutral Soviet Union and hopefully make their way to the British Consulate and then back home. However, while hiding out in the daytime, George and Norman found there were German troops all over the place! Later on, the reason for this was to become clear. It was the build up of troops for ’Operation Barbarossa’ on 21 June 1941: the German invasion of the Soviet Union!
Nevertheless, George and Norman managed to cross the river. Believing that they were by now in Lithuania, they found themselves surrounded by German troops. They later discovered at the point they had crossed the river, it turns slightly South-West and at this point both river banks were still in East Prussia. The frontline troops that captured George and Norman treated them very well: far better than the prison camp guards at Stalag XXB. These frontline troops supplied them with generous proportions of food and drink and allowed them everything for washing and cleaning.
By contrast, when George and Norman were sent back to Stalag XXB they were ‘interrogated’ in a way that involved being beaten up by the Commandant’s special ‘Bully Boys’. They then were given the standard period of 35 days in the ‘Strafe’ (Punishment) Company and 21 days in ‘The Bunker’. While in the Bunker, a POW was in the dark, apart from a small peep hole in the door. For sanitary facilities, there was a small tin can, they had a wooden bed and wooden pillow to sleep on and two threadbare blankets. Additionally, a prisoner in the Bunker was deprived of contact with the outside world, including receiving and sending mail from home. Rations involved a thin potato soup every 5th day and some black ‘bread’, one of ingredients being sawdust! As Norman and George had three failed escape attempts, they were to suffer this punishment on each occasion.
The second escape attempt
It was about March 1942 when this time it was George who asked Norman the question:
“How do you feel about taking a long walk?”
This second attempt was again planned for May, but on this occasion the plan was to reach the Baltic coast, make their way to Denmark and from there catch a boat across to neutral Sweden. At George’s suggestion, it was decided that another pal from the 15th / 19th King’s Royal Hussars should go with them: Bandsman Harry E. Weston, known to his pals as ‘Haggie’.
Before setting off for Sweden, the pals had been warned by some Polish prisoners to avoid a the town of Peenemunde. A rocket site was being constructed there by slave labour. The pals managed to avoid this area.
Following the strategy that had served them well the previous year, everything went to plan for the first four days. Then, George and Norman noticed that Haggie was deteriorating and beginning to have trouble breathing. On the 5th day of freedom, George and Norman decided Haggie needed urgent medical treatment and agreed to surrender to the Germans. Haggie told his two pals to leave him so they could continue with the escape attempt. Nevertheless, they all surrendered.
George and Norman were returned to Stalag XXB where they were punished in the same way as the previous year. The two pals heard that Haggie was taken to a Sanatorium and cared for. Two months later, in July 1942 they heard he had died. Using Norman’s testimony, I checked the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website and found that Haggie’s full name was Harry Edward Weston and his final resting place is at the Berlin 1939 - 1945 War Cemetery (Grave Reference 11.M.18). Haggie’s Service Number was 551965 and he was 25 years old when he died on 18 July 1942. Haggie’s next of kin or his hometown are not listed on the CWGC website.
The third escape attempt
After the second escape attempt, George and Norman decided to keep a low profile until the following May. In the meantime, they built up their knowledge, and their strength, by volunteering for working parties on various farms and even a road gang. Although the work was hard, the food was better than in the camp and the two pals bided their time.
This time, George and Norman were part of a working party sent to a sawmill in the Polish Corridor. Using the local knowledge they now had, the pals set out for the port of Danzig (now Gdansk). It took them two days to walk to Danzig.
Local Polish sympathisers had told George and Norman that there Swedish sailors who would help them escape. Upon reaching Danzig, sympathisers told them to hide in a coal bunker for three hours and they would then be taken on board a neutral ship and hence freedom. Unluckily for George and Norman, some escaping French POWs came and hid in the same coal bunker.
Next, the French POWs disturbed the coal to such an extent that they disturbed the coal, got buried in, alerted the German guards and were taken away as prisoners. After a short while, the Germans returned and picked up George and Norman straight away, no doubt having been tipped off by the French POWs. George and Norman were returned to Stalag XXB where they were again punished and thrown in the Bunker.
A military funeral for a brave man
George and Norman had agreed to meet up and make plans for a further escape on Norman’s birthday Tuesday 22 June 1943. However, George was not to make that date, having given his life saving a German farmer from a rampaging bull. As previously explained, because of denunciations by other POWs who belonged to ‘The Golden Circle’, George and Norman had been split up only a short time earlier.
So, Norman was not present when his best pal George met his end. However, Norman and all the other prisoners learnt what happened from the Germans. It was something that none of them would ever forget. As the manner of George’s death had touched even the German Commandant, George was accorded a Military Funeral and he was honoured for the brave and self-sacrificing soul that he undoubtedly was.
At the farm where George was working, the farmer was attacked by a rampaging bull. The German workers and the guards looked on, fearful of their own safety. According to the report, George then got hold of a pitchfork, attacked the bull, and saved the farmer’s life at the cost of his own. The date was 10 June 1943, and George was 23 years old.
George’s action in going to the defence of a German civilian while the farmer’s own countrymen stood by so impressed the German Military that they granted him a Military Funeral. In no way did this ease the pain of his comrades in the prison, nor George’s family back home who did not know of the circumstances until long afterwards. According to Norman, this was he only occasion he could remember that a British POW was accorded a Military Funeral, and it was possibly because a German civilian was involved.
In 1997, George’s brother Ray was given photographs of George’s funeral. The bearers of George‘s coffin were his comrades in the POW camp and the coffin was draped with a Union Jack. They were allowed to fire a volley over George’s grave after he was lowered into the ground. Some armed German guards can be seen in the background, no doubt honouring a brave fellow soldier.
In 1997, after learning of George’s story, and his final resting place, Ray and his wife Margaret visited Marlbork Cemetery in Poland. They were the first of George’s kinfolk to visit the Cemetery. Ray took with him a small piece of turf from the grave of George’s parents, Matt and Mary Hannah Devlin. This was placed on George’s grave. Ray then took a small piece of turf from George’s grave and placed it on the grave of his parents in Whitehaven Cemetery. During the war George had tried so very hard to return to his homeland and his family. Sadly, this was something he was never able to do. Yet, this fine gesture by Ray means that George now lies a little closer to both his homeland and his family. Ray and Margaret also placed a poppy wreath on George’s grave. Finally, George’s family were able to pay honour him at his final resting place.
Prisoners of War assigned to the Strafe company as punishment, such as after a failed escape attempt, had to load barrels of filth from Stalag XXB and carry them to the river for disposal. The barrels were full to overflowing and the stench was overpowering. The men who put up with this, such as George and Norman were able to do so because their love of freedom and the desire to get home overcame the deprivations of this punishment. Knowing what punishment they faced if they failed, nevertheless there were the eternal optimists like George and Norman who continually tried to make a run for it.
As mentioned earlier, Norman is now deceased, but to his dying days he always remembered his great pal George. After the war, Norman became actively involved with the Regimental Association, becoming a Trustee, Vice Chairman and Vice President. It was largely due to Norman’s help that George’s relatives were finally able to learn what had happened to George while he was a POW, and how he had met his own demise while courageously rescuing a German civilian from certain death. Although I never met George in person, I know that he must have been someone very special and I am, pleased to honour his memory by writing this article.
I would like to thank Ray for allowing me access to his personal research notes and photographs to write this article. Although Ray was too young to be in the wartime Armed Services, after the war Ray volunteered firstly as a paratrooper and secondly as an officer in the Territorial Army. Ray is also the Secretary of the local Branch of the Paratroops Association and a respected authority on Cumbrian military and mining history. Ray’s wife Margaret, served as a Councillor for many years that included a term as Mayor of Copeland. Both Ray and Margaret have always encouraged others in their endeavours and I would like to thank them for their assistance enabling me to write this article.
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