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15 October 2014
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A German POW remembers

by Epping Forest District Museum

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Contributed by 
Epping Forest District Museum
People in story: 
Josef Kox
Location of story: 
Venlo, Beverlo, Edingen, Zedelgem, Kempton Park, Butterwick, Lowestoft, Seething, Purfleet, Theydon Bois, Waltham Abbey
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
06 December 2005

Josef Kox, 1943

(Extracts from recorded oral history interview. This story was submitted to the website by Epping Forest District Museum on behalf of Josef Kox and with his permission.)

I was born on the 11th of February 1926 in Osterath, Germany. I was called up in 1943 and served in the First Paratroops Army. On the 14 of November 1944 I was captured in the Venlo pocket in the Netherlands by the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders.

Being taken prisoner is quite traumatic. Before they attacked, the artillery shelled us to keep our heads down. I was in a reasonably safe little shelter near Hulsen Lock on the Noordervaart. But we had high explosive stuff in there, tank mines, land mines… Anyway, they fetched us out of there, calling ‘come out with your hands up’. So that was the end. But it’s traumatic. You don’t know what’s going to happen. There are a thousand thoughts going through your mind, all in a split second.

One thing that I said to myself was that if they asked me my profession, I would say farmer. I come from a rural area, outside Dusseldorf, with lots of small holders and farmers. When the Polish campaign was finished, we had Polish prisoners there and they worked on the farms. They were looked after very well by the farmers because if you wanted any work out of them, you had to give them some food. And food was rationed and short. So I thought ‘I’ll say that I’m a farmer’. But it didn’t work like that here! In Yorkshire were large farms, you never saw the farmer there so that didn’t help!

They took us from camp Beverlo, near Leopoldsburg, to Edingen near Brussels, to Zedelgem near Brugge. One week before the war finished they brought me over here. They took me from Ostende to Tilbury, Tilbury by train to Fenchurch Street, on the lorry across to Waterloo, from Waterloo by train into Kempton Park race course. That was the big transit camp for all the prisoners coming from the continent. We were interviewed, frisked and interrogated and so forth for three or four days and then sent up to Butterwick, Yorkshire. From there we were sent to Lowestoft. They were building a big housing estate there and we worked on site, digging, drainage, building the roads. I spent the winter of 1945 there. I was moved to an ex American airbase in Seething, Norfolk for a while and then to Purfleet, Essex (No 286).

Purfleet was a large camp with quite a few thousand prisoners. I arrived in March 1946. We slept 8 in a tent with just wooden flooring. It was very primitive, like in the Army. It wasn’t very nice with thousands of people and nothing much to do really. We were taken out to work every day by lorry, but at night time what could we do… play football, as much as poss, play table tennis. We did have quite a bit of help from the YMCA; they supplied musical instruments, proper footballs, football boots and books. They made quite an impact, it was quite something what they did for us and it was very much appreciated.

Every day some people were taken to work on farms, others to Romford to work on a building site. One day I was called to stay behind and report to the office. They told me I would go into billet and live on a farm. That evening a Captain McGregor took me in his jeep and I thought ‘where the hell are we going?’ We kept going and going and going…we finished up in Theydon Bois. It was a pig farm.
I was shown my quarters, which I had to share with another prisoner, Arthur. There was electric light, there was a stove, a radio, there were two single beds, white sheets… I didn’t know what hit me! And in the evening we were given a tray each: welsh rarebit, bread and butter and jam, pot of tea, cup of cocoa, ten cigarettes… I said to my friend, ‘how long does that have to last?’ He said, ‘oh that’s for now, tomorrow we get more’. I wasn’t used to that, you know, prisoner of war camp…

I remember Christmas ’46. Christmas in Germany is very much a quiet and sober affair. Mr Morgan asked me and my friend to have Christmas dinner with him. I said ‘Mr Morgan, thank you very much, that’s very kind of you, very kind, but Christmas is a day for the family. Don’t worry about us, we’re all right’. He said ‘you’re going to have Christmas dinner with us, you are two of the family.’ So we accepted. Not only was there Mr and Mrs Morgan but their daughter Pam, their son Roger and then two American GI’s, Tom and Jerry, who were friends of the family. It was a very nice and moving affair. I shall never forget it.

From Oakhill Farm I was sent back to the camp for a while and then sent to Hayes Hill Farm in Waltham Abbey. This is where I met my wife. She was an art student and during the school holidays she would go and work on the farm. That’s how we met and we never looked back. We have just celebrated our Golden Wedding.

After a short while I was sent to Rochford’s nursery, Waltham Abbey. I was billeted there and lived on the nursery in a hut. A lorry load of POW’s came every day from Epping camp (No. 116 Hill Hall). We worked hard: picking tomatoes, stringing tomatoes, digging, washing down, washing the pots, carrying, packing, spraying… everything. The relationship between the prisoners and the local people was very good apart from the odd one who was not so friendly.

I had some difficulty with my father in law. He had been wounded by the Germans in the First World War. He was very opposed… My wife was only 19 when I met her and I was 21, in a prisoner of war camp… what future could I offer her! I could understand her father not being impressed! He was a good man, an honest man and eventually we got on very well, as I did with all the family.

I was demobbed and decided to stay here. I picked the language up as I went along. I had a dictionary and once I looked up a word, I never forgot it. That’s how I built up my vocabulary. When I listen to myself talk I think I’m speaking perfect English. But in reality, when I talk to people it doesn’t take long for people to say ‘where do you come from!’ This is after 60 years. I always say ‘have a guess’. And they say ‘Poland? Holland? Sweden?’ Nobody wants to say ‘are you German?’

Being a prisoner was the worst time of my life. To be in a Prisoner of War camp, deprived of your freedom… At the time in particular because I didn’t know if my people were still alive, what was going to happen, it was an awful time. Escape? Where to? I thought of escape soon after I was captured. There were three of us, the fourth was wounded: Heinz Mirus, Karl Bente, Werner Schnabbel and myself. We were in this little compound, with barbed wire. It was very cold that night, I’ll never forget. And this soldier standing there with his rifle… and I thought to myself ‘I don’t know. It wouldn’t take very long to take that rifle off you and make you the prisoner and we’ll go…’ And then I thought ‘go where?’ We were already near the German border. We knew, it was not long before the game was up. It was only a matter of time. We had nothing to fight with. So there was no point. We knew the game was up. It was the end.

At this late stage I would like to pay a tribute to the people of Waltham Abbey. Considering the war, six years of it… and people here suffered and everyone suffered. Everybody suffered in that war, didn’t matter where you were, or who you were, you suffered to some degree. So I was really surprised to find that people took to us, they were very tolerant and friendly and I will never forget that.

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