- Contributed by
- Pat Jones
- People in story:
- William Robert Clark 7630216 Sgt RAOC
- Location of story:
- Europe, North Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 January 2006
So, once more I was in the bag.
At this time we were very depressed, the weather was getting colder and our clothes were inadequate and the rations were very small. Before being returned to the “Base Wallahs” we were made to dig anti-aircraft gun sites. This was against the rules of the Geneva Convention, but we were in no position to argue. There we were in the pouring rain, digging holes while the guards were under shelter. The only time we stopped was when an air-raid was on.
One episode that sticks in my mind was when we were being taken to a new site. A German officer (a young man), asked us if we were hungry and then told the sentry to give us a loaf each. These loaves, German type, weigh about 1½ lb each and it was like a banquet. Present day standards would describe them as blocks of sawdust. Anyway, they went down well, and each morning the officer did the same thing.
One morning he was very depressed and told us that his mother and father had been killed on a raid on Cologne. We felt very sorry for him and rather embarrassed, although very much aware that our own people in London had suffered similar tragedies and it was the Germans who had started bombing innocent victims.
Nevertheless he was a decent sort, and to his credit he didn’t take it out on us. When he went on leave our rations stopped. Eventually we were sent back to a place called Frosinone, a little south east of Rome, where the road wound round and round until you arrived at the top of the hill. This road was bombed many times and it was our job to fill in the craters as they appeared. Frosinone turned out to be a miserable prison. The guards were demoralised; there were no Red Cross parcels and no cigarettes to be had by Germans or P.O.W.’s.
Rations were poor, yet the camp commandant decided, when he realised it was almost Christmas, that he would honour us with his presence together with his officers and try to organise some sort of party. The difficulty was that being hungry; having no drink or cigarettes does not help to generate a party spirit. However, among the P.O.W.s were many nationalities, so a representative from each country gave a national song or did a turn of sorts.
We had been round the lot, the French with ‘J’attendrai’, the Italian soldier with ‘O Sole Mio’, the Dutch, Belgian, Yugoslav etc. when the call came up for a German song, but the Germans wouldn’t have any of it, so I got up, much to the surprise of the room, went to the front and sang the song ‘Die Lorelei’ which I had learnt at school and knew to be a folk song and therefore well known in Germany. It was about a mermaid seated on a rock on the Rhine, singing to lure the sailors and so wreck their boats. Well I got through the first verse and then the Germans joined in and we must have sung about 10 verses before it finished. The Germans as well as fellow P.O.W.s were impressed, although that was practically all the German I knew. However, it got us an extra bread roll each, whether it really had anything to do with that I’m not sure, but many of the P.O.W.s thought I could speak German fluently and I had a job to convince them otherwise.
So the days went on, nothing was happening on the battle front. We were hoping that our boys would make a move, but it was not to be. Actually the terrain was not suitable for massive advances.
Eventually we were put on a train for Germany (or at least that’s what we thought). The journey was long and most depressing. We would do about 20 miles one day, another day we would stay in the siding. It took over a week to get out of Italy and arrived in the snow at Mulberg to be taken to a huge transit camp of 200,000 P.O.W.s. Our stay there was horrendous, the weather was bitterly cold, we were soaked and the huts we were in were overcrowded. I did manage to get hold of a pair of clogs made of wooden soles and leather uppers, similar to sandals. We found that the rubbing of the foot against the wooden sides kept our feet warm, although we had suffered from frost bite before receiving the clogs.
While at Mulberg (upper Bavaria) we had the depressing sight of seeing miles and miles of tanks being transported from the factories, a trainload of them would be nearly a mile long with several engines, passing by our camp frequently. It wasn’t a heart-lifting sight. To add to the unpleasantness of this camp was the aggravation of Red Cross parcel distribution. At this huge concentration camp it was made up of different nationalities and because of the length of P.O.W. service the French appeared to be trustees. They seemed to have ‘Carte Blanche’ on the rules with the Germans. It so happened while I was there that the British Red Cross parcels were distributed to the French compound while we went without.
The French didn’t hesitate to tell us their parcels came from Oxford, Birmingham, and Glasgow etc. to add to our discomfort. Fortunately after a month we were moved on, it seemed to be from bad to worse. The weather now was really bitter and when we arrived in Moosburg (still in upper Bavaria); we had to walk several miles from the railway truck to the camp. The situation didn’t change, all we seemed to do was stamp our feet or lie down and wrap ourselves up with whatever we could find. The Germans did organise some ‘wood parties’, but apart from the exercise we got they took about 80% of whatever we collected Keeping one stove going in a Nissen type hut for 80 P.O.W.s wasn’t easy.
On arrival at Moosburg we were sorted out in different huts which were already full up and the occupants were not exactly pleased to have additional boarders. To my surprise a chap came to greet me, he was none other than the Algerian who I had left behind in the camp near Spoleto. He was so pleased to see me that he took me under his wing and I got a good bed spot, which was important as the cold draughts play havoc when in the wrong places. We always conversed in Italian since that was his language and he told me that after the escape the camp commandant went mad. The escape hole was not noticed until daylight and the whole camp saw it. Anyway, the commandant had everyone on parade, told the camp that we had been caught and shot and he was going to be strict with them. No-one would be allowed to leave the tents after dark under threat of being shot. The Red Cross parcels would be stopped, (he had run out of them anyway) and there would be a roll call four times a day. We reckoned that that was to punish the guards because they didn’t like roll calls either.
The Algerian added that two nights after we went, one P.O.W. went to the end of the hut, opened the door to urinate, the searchlights caught him, there was a burst of machine gun fire and he and another P.O.W. were shot dead. This shook the whole camp and after that the whole camp settled down to a normal routine and within a week the Algerian was on his way to Moosburg. Having met him was a stroke of luck as my clothing was in a sad state and he had got together quite a wardrobe. Anyhow, he was pleased to give me a shirt and a pullover, for which I was profoundly grateful. Poor fellow, he was very ashamed that he had flunked the escape and this was his way of putting things right. During my stay the weather reached blizzard proportions and to move out of the hut was quite an effort. It took hours to generate any warmth; the lighting was very dim and very depressing.
This camp was of considerable size, there was a compound of Russian P.O.W.s who were not included in the Geneva Convention and who were treated abominably. They were Mongolian types and I can understand how the Germans were frightened of them, very large-boned monsters. I have never seen men so gorilla-like in actions and habits. At night in the compounds these desperate and starving men would wander around the rubbish searching the empty tins for meat or anything that was edible. When roll call was made in the Russian compound several times a dead Russian was not reported so that his companions could collect his ration.
One thing that the Germans feared during our stay in this camp was Typhus, it was prevalent in the Russian sector and we often got called out, one shack at a time, at 2 a.m. to have a shower and be fumigated.
We finished that miserable existence after about two months, when we were told we had to move out. It seems strange that whenever we had to move camp it had to be 2 or 3 a.m.
We thought that wherever we went it could not be worse and spring was on its way, so, to the railway sidings and onto the trucks we scrambled. The thought of escaping didn’t come into it, as we were desperately cold and hungry and snow covered the whole countryside. We settled down in the truck for a journey which was to last a fortnight. It was near the end of the journey that we crossed a river and on asking the guards discovered that we were in Poland and the river was called the Vistula, and we were passing the outskirts of Warsaw. Our journey finished in the middle of a large pine forest where, were we able to walk through it, we would discover that after a few hundred yards there was complete darkness and this forest was more effectual than the Germans.
We settled down very well in this comparatively new camp. There was a predominance of Canadian and Australian P.O.W.s and they appeared to be in good spirits, and there were books. Books that we had not seen for a long time! Some of those Canadians had a small library and I got stuck into Dickens, sixty odd pages at a time, and I enjoyed every page! The pleasure those books gave me was indescribable. It appeared that whereas the Imperial troops were getting no mail and little in the way of Red Cross parcels, the Canadians were receiving personal parcels, even up to a gramophone and records. The Australians were managing on cigarette parcels which were good currency and they indulged in gambling to such an extent that the camp was never without a ‘toss, ‘a head’ or ‘tails school’ somewhere.
To watch a Canadian lose his parcel half an hour after receiving it was not unusual. Meanwhile, all the Imperial P.O.W.s could do was receive, hand-outs gratefully. After a couple of months things got better. The weather improved, we got a better proportion of Red Cross parcels and we started exercising more. Actually it was in this camp that I learnt and enjoyed volleyball. Each hut had a team and the rivalry was fierce, the Germans must have wondered how our different countries fought together.
When we first arrived there was one occasion that bought shame, disgust and distress to all of us. As I said earlier, the weather was bleak and snow was everywhere, fortunately we had moved into a comparatively new camp and our huts were tolerable. One afternoon one of the lads came rushing in to tell us that hundreds of men, women and children were in a field just outside the camp in the freezing weather, huddled up and being moved along by the German Sentries. We all rushed to the trip-wire to see for ourselves. I know the expression is commonplace, but it was really ‘unbelievable’: men, women and children lying in the snow with no cover and few clothes. We rushed back to the huts for any clothes we could spare and threw them over the wire. To our disgust the German guards threw the clothing back and denied the Poles. That night, none of us slept and probably many more nights. Next morning, the huddled black bundles were moved on, how much they could take of that we will never know. They had been moved out of Warsaw, some were probably Partisans during the uprising. Looking back, those poor souls had jumped the gun when the Russians had advanced to the River Vistula. The Russians stayed in that area for several weeks and thousands of Polish Partisans were killed through their mistaken anticipation.
We discovered all this later, but under no circumstances should these people have been treated so callously.
So with the episode behind us we had no illusions as to our hosts and were aware that our own guards were not too happy either. During this time we were receiving radio bulletins from the B.B.C. It so happened that the Canadians (most of whom were R.A.F.) had got a radio together, with the help of blackmailed German guards, and with a man posted at each corner and window we got the 1 p.m. news every day. When D-Day arrived (4th June) and the news was read out, the camp was “electric”. We were so lifted; the guards couldn’t make us out. They didn’t get the news until several days later.
It was just after this event that activity in Warsaw on the Vistula became very active, so the usual procedure (three in the morning), we were gathered together and marched to a train to make a most uncomfortable journey which was to last two months in most appalling conditions. We would stay in the truck for several days, only to be let out for sanitary reasons, or for rations. Sometimes only five miles would be covered before we were put into sidings, then we would all take to the road and walk to pick up another train a week later.
In this way we left Poland and travelled across Germany to a place called Fallingböstel Stalag 357 near Hanover (it was August 1944). When we arrived, the camp leader and half the camp gave us a great reception. They lined the entrance and made the odd gift of a cigarette and pullovers etc as we straggled in very tired and exhausted. News must have got through of our arrival because we never envisaged anything like this Stalag 357. This camp turned out to be predominantly R.A.F with a sick bay and an escape committee and radio facilities, so our own which had been split up so that many parts were distributed, was not a dire necessity and we concentrated on B.B.C news that was delivered efficiently twice a day. There were several pilots among the P.O.W.s with Observers and Rear Gunners. Some had only been P.O.W.s for a few months. We soon got into the routine, baiting the Germans seemed to be the order of the day, and the Germans were getting a bit edgy over the war situation, although they still thought that they were going to win. They didn’t want to talk about the Russians.
Another Christmas was approaching, and the weather with it, the news was good but very slow. We heard that General Patten was moving fast, but not in our direction, the Russians were getting stiff resistance, and then another set-back came when a large number of new prisoners arrived, they had been taken at Arnhem and had had a bad time. They assured us that the war would be over very shortly, and that the Allies had overwhelming supplies of tanks, aircraft and that the Navy was very much in charge. Our short answer was, “What were they doing here then?” Nevertheless, after the setback of Arnhem the news was heartening, and every night, right on time, the thousand bomber raids continued to pass our camp, as regularly as clockwork around midnight. The camp lights were put out and the singing would start, the guard dogs howling.
It was in this camp that the remainder of my teeth were removed, since I had been involved in a few scuffles during my time, and my teeth left in Italy, Poland and Germany. On one occasion, officially I had three removed by a Russian woman P.O.W. who used the method of two men to hold me down and her putting her knee on my chest. So I found that trying to consume black bread was slow work, and on many previous occasions when stealing bits of sausage, meat and bread from working in German work camps, that digestion was the main handicap in avoiding discovery.
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