to myself October 1944
Tonight for some reason I feel as if I am all choked with the dreary
life I am leading. One of my greatest emotional safety valves back
in England was my ability to sit down and write a letter, perhaps
to a close friend or a relative, as almost any writing to me meant
more of an outpouring of a torrent of thoughts than an organised
‘newsy’ letter. No doubt my many correspondents will
bear me out in this. But now, of course, I cannot do this, partly
because of the very scarcity of space in the letter forms and cards
that our captors give us and partly because these cards are censored.
Writing of my experiences after baling out gave me great interest.
I did think of writing a day-to-day diary but the nature of our
life is so boring one day is no different to the next. There is
also a paper shortage.
Below start the notes on the march from Bankau camp ahead of the
Russian army advance into Silesia. This was originally written in
Luckenwalde in 1945. A much better account was printed in a book
by an ex POW Vic Gammon. The relevant part of the book is photocopied
later in this notebook.
The Great Famine – How we ate
on the March
One of the greatest trials to us here in Luckenwalde is the shortage
of food, Red Cross parcels being non-existent and there being no
hope of any getting through. Yet, we are comparatively well off
compared to what we had during the march, although at the start
of the march we had a little reserve from more settled days. All
day long here there is little to think of but food, or the lack
of it, so perhaps this is a good time to recall our time on the
way here. Here is a list of what we received to live and march on
for 21 days in severe weather.
2½ loaves of bread. This was given us at various times; largest
quantity at one time was ¾ loaf at Bankau before starting
off. We received no more until 5pm of the 22nd January, 4½
days later, when we each received ¼ loaf. This variable issue
continued throughout the march, ending with 1/3 loaf at Prausnitz,
which was the last we got until 11am 9th February - 4 days of complete
During the march we had various bits of tinned meat, totalling about
11 oz in total, issued on three occasions. I must mention that the
distribution was by ourselves and scrupulously fair, with never
a grumble from anyone. Everyone helped each other, often two half
carrying a third for a while then others taking over. Denny and
I helped each other and were never separated. The best positions
for sleeping were obtained by those at the head of the column, but
neither of us thought about going alone if the other was painfully
slow that day; we stuck together.
Potatoes: we had 12 small spuds during the whole of the march. We
managed to steal a few from passing refugee carts, probably only
about 3 or 4. Very occasionally the field kitchens managed to give
us a little watery soup, never more than ½ a mugfull about
every day, very thin stuff though, with barley and oats floating
about. We also had about 9 hard, small biscuits, like dog biscuits
with caraway seed flavour. We also at varying times had dry rations,
which were no good as we had no cooking facilities so were mostly
eaten raw. These were 1 tablespoon sugar, ½ oz ersaty coffee,
½ cup barley and flour mixed and ¾ cup oats. We had
hot coffee from field kitchens at the beginning of the march.
Notes written in 1999
We arrived at Luckenwalde camp at evening time on 8 February. There
were not so many of us, so many had dropped out during the march,
fate unknown. They certainly were not on the trucks at Goldsberg.
Whatever condition the survivors of us were in, we were bundled
into the cattle trucks, 65 counted in each one. There must have
been many others put on board for various destinations, as I saw
German civilians in the freight yard too. When the sliding door
was eventually opened three days later, many had to be lifted off.
They could not even fall out of the door. You can imagine the conditions.
We had insufficient room for all to sit and many stood out of turn
to enable others too ill to stand to have room to sit.
Contents of new-type Red Cross parcel received 13th March
1 packet sugar, 2 ‘D’ bars, 1 tin cheese, 1 packet prunes,
1 tin veg, margarine, 1 packet Ascorbic Acid tablets, 1 tin jam,
1 packet ‘C’ biscuits, 1 tin spam, 1 tin M&V ration,
1 tin peanut butter, 1 tin klim powdered milk, 1 tin tuna, 1 packet
salt and pepper mixture.
Luckenwalde Camp was vast, like a town, with a central spine highway
cobbled street. The different compounds each held a different category
– US soldiers, US airmen, Poles, Russians, Scandinavians –
you name it. Each compound had its own gate and guard with space
between the compounds to discourage fraternising. Some of the compounds
were not guarded, being ‘albeit’ compounds from which
daily parties went off to work on street cleansing, farm labour
etc. The French were the largest in this respect and even had a
camp cinema. All this we learned when we got familiar with the system.
One section of the camp was occupied by Irish soldiers, many from
Dunkirk time. They had been separated out from camps all over Germany
to hopefully form a nucleus of a ‘free British’ army.
the authorities found they had a tough nut to crack, and even though
being ‘stranded’ for weeks in the open air without shelter
none would sign up for their propaganda army. They were very hospitable
to us, finding us food from their meagre supplies. We were all billeted
in a large wooden hut without beds, bedding or palliasses, yet it
was great to have shelter and a settled if spartan existence. The
weather was improving as we went into spring. We subsisted on soup,
bread and a small bowl of potatoes daily. The soup wasn’t
sustaining, generally what we named ‘whispering grass’,
which was hot water with a few barley grains floating and fronds
of a grass-like substance, about 5 small potatoes (we had stopped
being fussy, like peeling off the skin) generally cold, and enough
black bread to make a thick slice. On about two occasions we had
a Red Cross parcel each. This was a real red letter day, but it
was gone in no time. We now had the added misfortune of us all being
lousy. The lice we picked up on arrival in our hut. It had had a
previous bunch of French refugees and they had left us the lice
for a present. They were a really bad experience. On a fine day we
would send all our outer clothing to the ovens for delousing, wash
all our underwear (few of us had more than what we were wearing)
and dry it in the sunshine. Back would come a barrowload of hot
and completely creased clothing, we would dress again and within
minutes we were scratching again.
Friday 16th March, I fell ill and eventually reported ‘special
sick’. I was put into the isolation ward and found later I
had pneumonia and a temp of 40.6. In all, I was in hospital about
3 weeks. My temperature was seesawing most of the time but eventually
I got fit enough to rejoin my pals.
About this time I became ill. My pals rallied around, but I was
really zonked out. They took me to a British MO who had me transferred
to the camp ‘krankenlager’ - a hospital. To be in a
bed, a clean bed, and be washed was a miracle, but I was too ill
to enjoy it.
I was on sick rations of gruel when I came round a bit, but having
hot, nourishing food laid me low again immediately. However, I was
on the road to recovery and was sent back to the camp on a stretcher
(wheeled) and admitted to a small sick bay presided over by an Irish
MO. At first I was in a two-bedded room with a young Lancashire
solider who was dying. It was very sad. He loved to hear me talk
to him and tell him all about myself. If I stopped he would say,
“Do go on. I wish I could talk like you. I’m so uneducated.”
He had spent all his young life in the regular army, got captured
in Dunkirk and worked on farms in Germany, but he was so unused
to life he could not even tell me what he had done, where he had
been. After he died I was in the main hut. There were about twelve
in there and, although the doctor said I could stay longer to try
and get my strength back, I wanted to return to my friends on the
floor in the other part of the camp. My return was marked by an
unusual happening – a whole Red Cross parcel each. It was
the last one we saw.
Today is the 16th May, and contrary to all my expectations here
I am still in this Stalag. All of us feel frustrated. The early
optimism has vanished to be replaced by the constant question ‘when?’
The Russians refused permission to have the camp evacuated after
about 90% of the Americans and a few British had left. The American
forces returned to their side of the Elbe empty, and we have sat
on our backsides here and listened to the VE celebrations and speeches
on the radio with misery in our hearts and deep disappointment.
Today we have been promised that we shall be away by the end of