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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Judith Proctor
User ID: U2760916

-Memories of life as a Prisoner Of War, written by Sub. Lt. J. E. Proctor RNVR.

According to my diary, the eventful journey from Wilhelmshaven started in chilly dawn and ended the following chilly dawn at Spangenberg. Up above the village on its hill stood the "Schloss", the medieval moated castle which looked quite in character for the incarceration of captives. Two prisoners and two guards, we waited for admittance. Over the drawbridge and through the gates I was curious to see RAF figures moving to and fro in the cobbled courtyard, and noted khaki patches on blue uniforms and the lean look of some of the inmates.

We had already had to suffer rigorous interrogation when reporting at the German Army camp and now had a few more formalities to undergo before becoming full members of the club. Once installed in our quarters we were besieged with clamours for news of home and the war effort by officers from submarines, an A.M.C., Fleet Air Arm pilots and navigators, RAF fighter and bomber pilots. One soon learned, as we in our turn besieged the latest arrivals for news. One Squadron Leader had already had a year of captivity. It seemed an incredibly long time. As one found one's way about, a routine seemed well established; in fact it was a hive of activity. It was like an old school: everything within earshot. Jazz band practice, various musical instruments in another room, stage shows rehearsing. The notice-board was full of lists of lectures, talks and educational classes. In every corner hobbies and industrious handicrafts seemed to be absorbing quite a number. The energy so devoted seemed to keep the mind off food. We were all hungry. Since the fall of France, Red Cross parcels had stopped and the food was down to almost basic German Ration, which was inadequate. As one became more and more acquainted with the inmates it was a source of wonder to hear accounts of action where almost everyone had survived by some quirk of fate or minor miracle.

It took time to adjust to the environment and the implications for the future. It took several weeks before the body accepted and capitulated to prison diet. Already there was a reasonable library and for a while, reading served as an escape. My legs were still weak and the cobbled courtyard made walking exercise painful. There was a limited walk on the ramparts overlooking the moat in which were kept wild looking boars collectively known as " Gustave". Guards or "Postens" patrolled the barbed wire across the other side. From this height there was a good view of the countryside and the village down below. There were occasional parole walks with a crocodile of as many guards as walkers. Orderlies brought in our rations, cleaned and cooked, for which we paid, and we kept as many as possible, to keep them from factory or farm work. We were apportioned mess duties and some voluntary kitchen work, otherwise left to our own devices. It was a draughty place, 700 years old, high ceilings and oak beams. Two-tier bunks with a wood-shaving filled mattress - there were about twenty of us in this room. Until the week before it had been very overcrowded, with two sittings at mealtimes. The army had been separated and were now down in the lower camp which was in the village. The handicrafts interested me. A few artists producing drawings, paintings and portraiture, and some scale models of ships and aircraft, were quite impressive. The canteen shop sold sketching materials, adhesives and paints, scissors and penknives. I made a wooden spoon from a piece of beech log and then a handle to convert a Red Cross parcel tin into a mug. I had always been interested in 3-dimensional form and had played around with clay making a head. Why not carve a small head? In the boiler house logs were used to stoke the fire. I found a piece of ash and with the new knife whittled away and eventually, with a finger blister or two, I finished a rather amateur-looking head. Next, I made what I thought was a likeness of the surly caretaker-boilerman, the supplier of the wood. This showed progress from the first effort. I had to thank one of the orderlies who thought I could make fuller use of a small leather-working tool which he gave me. It was just what I needed for detail carving. This was to be my line. My effort at a likeness was encouraging.

Winter was approaching and I suffered from the cold nights with only one blanket. The issue of a second hardly kept pace with the colder weather. Then I received a Czech greatcoat which helped the blankets. I noted in my diary that we had a Red Cross Parcel each on 18th December- great jubilation. With another fall of snow, I was issued my third thin blanket. Underfed and underclad, and now always cold. Mid-January news of a pending move shook most of us out of our complacenecy. Naval personnel, except for Fleet Air Arm, who were regarded by the Germans as a branch of the RAF, were to go to a camp near Bremen, Stalag XB, to be under the jurisdiction of the Kriegsmarine.

The 21st January arrived, accompanied by a sudden thaw. We entrained at Spangenberg station for a very uncomfortable 24-hour journey towards Bremen, ending with a very hostile reception at Sand Bostel. A promising start, continuing to a flooded camp and rigorous search, then through slush and floods to unprepared barracks. Wet beds and bankets and general bedlam were the last straw, almost, for the weather changed overnight and there followed an unbelieveably hard frost of 28 degrees which lasted for what seemed an eternity. We seldom left our rooms. In time we became organised and the influence of the Kriegsmarine began to assert itself. Conditions improved. The desire to carve survived the vicissitudes, and with some scraps of beech I fashioned small relief figures which I found more difficult than carving in the round. I finished my efforts fairly satisfied after a long break from artistic efforts.

Stalag XB was a grim place. We in our section were better off than Czechs, Poles and later Russians. The French were treated better and seemed to run the kitchens. To them we were beholden for an occasional hot shower. Sometimes the showers were closed and we returned to alternative cold showers in our own bath-house. Soon the French were sent home. By now I had enough carved work to show in an arts and craft exhibition. There were some very interesting exhibits; the time available and the conditions were conducive to a high standard of creative work. The Naval life and discipline gave us a head start for prison life; run like a ship with the adapatability and capability of men brought up in a closely confined atmosphere, trained to discomfort and restrictions and the need for give and take, made for harmonious relationships and amicable organisation. I continued steadily. The Merchant Navy prisoners followed in the next compound; we all benefited from the interchange of ideas. Many reservists were M.N. and ex-M.N. and soon had friends next door. Our concerts and shows were greatly improved.

19th June 1942- a move to a new camp, Marlag & Milag Nord, entirely under Kriegsmarine command. Security was,if anything,tighter, but we had more living room and a mess barrack, and eventually a purpose-built theatre. There was also a Chapel, a shop, and a less desolate landscape outside the wire, so we settled in more hopefully. Stalag XB had seen a typhus outbreak, with hundreds of dead Russians carted out every week to a mass grave on the heath. There was considerable cruelty to the starving Russians who were still alive - brutal point-blank shooting for snatching one potato. Such instances were common. Work parties were whipped or beaten with rifle butts for slowness. We saw only glimpses. With depressing war news and each fresh prisoner bringing tidings of a folorn hope or a doomed expedition, a change of environment, if only a matter of 20 miles away, would be good for morale. The guards were better behaved nowadays and our reception was in great contrast to the previous one. The new camp meant a new start, Kriegsmarine entirely for maritime prisoners, M.N. and R.N. but each in different locations. We regretted losing contact with the M.N. We were parted from our luggage for several days and went around unshaved, washed without soap, and very uncomfortable. The lack of a toothbrush can be quite a trial for creatures of habit. The camp amentities were much improved. As time passed, gardens were cultivated. Actors, musicians, writers and artists gained in proficiency; educational classes, plays, concerts and stage shows continued unabated. The organised quota of escape attempts broke out from time to time. The tunnels dug were getting longer, and security dog patrols increased. Camp searches were always popping out of the blue. Humour exacerbated or at times defused a tense situation.

My carvings were a matter of interest to our captors, who took photographs, and visitors were brought to see them, no doubt with propagaganda overtones. I kept my chisels, which was the main thing. I increased my output, with a strong stool for a bench and with my foot for a vice; for a few cigarettes I obtained wood. After three years of captivity I found I was having to fight the " dead beat" of apathy. Recent prisoners with no experience of the hungry days when " Jerry was on top" viewed us with suspicion. We had experienced everything before and the monotony, because there was hope now, seemed to bite more deeply. I suppose one was now counting the days. I probably owed more to the physical and mental preoccupation ( banging away with a chisel was quite a muscular exercise)of figure carving than I realised at the time. The success of the landing in France and the continued military advance meant the long vigil was over and the tide of war had changed. One knew then that there was real hope now and that, with reasonable luck, one should eventually get home. The spectre of the Roman Carnival in the Nazi victory parade of the Third Reich, when captives were to be paraded before the populace as a prelude to extermination, was well in limbo.

By 1944 I had accumulated so many carvings as to be a problem if I wished to get them home. I earnestly wished to do so, through the Red Cross if possible. Each carving had, apart from anything else, its place in camp history, milestones in the progress of long-endured physical captivity. The Germans were very co-operative and assured me that they wished to help and to show that art could bridge the gap between enemies. The climate had now changed to one of keeping as clean a slate as possible. The final crisis, with the advance of the 8th Army, was that all service prisoners were marched out of the camps, no doubt as hostages,in the general retreat towards Denmark. The march was dangerous for friend and foe. Living rough, no waterproofs or groundsheets, the heath for a bed; sometines at night the temperatures were down to freezing and the one blanket had to suffice. The march itself was an endurance for the first few days and our captors were not much better off. Our columns on the road, in spite of large Red Cross marks, attracted the attention of American air patrols. The resulting loss of lives with our own army so near made us extremely bitter. We couldn't fight back and had to live with this menace - march at dawn while the mist lasted and lay up in a copse, march again when the planes left the sky.

All our personal effects had been packed in allocated barrack space, to be handed to the Red Cross. Before then, the Germans themselves became captives. Sad to say, the store was wantonly looted by British internees. There was a happy ending, however; I carried a few token carvings in my pack, and the Red Cross were able to send me more than half of my collection, and no small thanks to them I survived too.

So it was in May 1945, with a plane-load of Naval "Kriegies" flown by the RAF in bombers from Lubeck, I stood on English soil. It was an intensely emotional feeling after all the years of waiting, too complex to describe. Apart from what I stood up in, my worldly possessions were in my pack from which I had not been parted during the long and frequently perilous forced march. In addition to the food we each had to carry I had also picked out a number of my most treasured carvings, hoping that if they survived I had tangible proof of my artistic endeavours, to be carried with me to freedom.

Stories contributed by Judith Proctor

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