Michael Whiteman’s Graphic Account of His Days as a P.O.W. in World War Two.
Part Four: January 1944
Could the end be in sight?
So came January and towards the end a party was sent out to Sosnowiec. It was an iron works, electric plant plus it had its own coal mine, making coke. We were pulling down two areas for re-building. One morning we all refused to go to work, saying that they were making us work too hard, as we stood on parade the German in charge with a guard counted ten men, me amongst them, put us up against the wall – I thought “Iv’e been here before”. Threatened to shoot us if we did not go to work. Our Sergeant in charge said “OK lads, we’ll go back to work and see if we can get it sorted”. This we did to our advantage, early in May we were seeing train loads of political or Jewish POW s going to Auschwitz. Poor devils. We used to wave to them as our camp was close to the line. We did know what was happening to them because the Polish workers we worked alongside told us, they all seemed to know but kept it to themselves.
Early July 1944
By this time the Germans were trying to get round the South African POWs. It was said that they worked better than us, so our camp was preparing to move out. I think we were causing too much trouble, at one time a few lads were getting out in the evenings, walking around the town perhaps finding a young lady “Polish” and then coming back. The guards were really worried thinking they would get into trouble, but we assured them that they would be back, which they were. Then they had to march to the local lock up nightly for two weeks to sleep, a laugh really! Once a fellow, so called POW, arrived saying he had been sent out from Stalag VIIIB. There was no trace of him when our Sergeant did his monthly visit to Stalag. We gathered he was what was known as a “floater”, the Germans used to use such people as spies in camps. He said he came from Yorkshire, but he didn’t speak correctly for that area. A Scots lad said to him “If you stay the night”, that he’d “wake up with a knife in his heart”. He disappeared that night. One other occasion we all had to pack our things and get on parade. We thought we were on the move for hours we waited outside, at last a pack of Germans stormed in. They searched the whole building, the empty bunks were even moved, then they started on us. One at a time in each room with two guards, if you could call them that. We had to strip, they went through all our belongings and photos, but found nothing. When all the lads had been searched they just packed up and disappeared, leaving us to sort out our rooms and settle down, returning to work the next day.
About the middle of May we were moved a few miles
up the road to Katowice. It was quite a nice building with double bunk beds, but we found we were getting bitten in the night by hard-shelled beetle bugs, which was not at all nice. They were in the cracks in the joints of the beds. One Sunday when we were off work we took the beds outside, took them to pieces and disinfected them, thus not being bitten again.
Our air-raid shelter was dug in a spare piece of ground in the yard of the camp, the sirens had now occasionally started to go, and leaflets had been dropped saying that this area would soon be on the list to be bombed. My work at this factory was on the bottom end of a huge carbide oven as they were called. On the floor above, seven or eight in all, these open retorts as we called them were fed with coke, stone (could have been limestone) and electricity heated with huge carbons on chains, which when heated for so long became white molten liquid.
Every twenty minutes, we at the bottom floor had to push a huge poker into a hole to release this liquid into the skips on the lower level. It was so hot that hanging chains on a stand were in front of this hole to act as a barrier. We in turn had to put on full length, thick asbestos gloves, apron and armlets, not forgetting the hard hat with a wire mesh front eye shield. After twenty minutes stopping the hole with the sweepings, taking off the asbestos garments, we used to stand outside, even when it was freezing to cool down, but trousers from the waist down would be quite soaked after eight hours work.
Then the third week in November, I don’t know why, myself and a few lads went down with English Measles. We were isolated in a room of our own, most of us got over it pretty quickly but I seemed to get it very badly, and was very poorly for a couple of weeks. However, I did get over it two weeks before Christmas.
I forgot to mention that we did know our armies had landed in France on June 6th by five o’clock. One of our Medical Orderlies was down at another POW camp on this day and the lads working with some Polish men told them they had heard it on their secret radio. They had to be very careful or they would be in big trouble.
January 11th 1945
Now, to my thinking, came the most hazardous fifteen and a half weeks of the whole time as a POW. On the 11th of January we were told we were on the move. Little did we know what we would have to contend with in the weeks ahead. The Red Cross parcels in store were shared out amongst us all. I made a haversack out of my kit bag so I could carry it more easily on my back, we could take only one blanket. It was enough for us to cope with we found, and so on the twelfth of January at four in the morning, pitch black and snowing huge flakes of snow, that we started our journey. Within minutes we all looked like snowmen sliding through the snow. It was freezing hard and our breath made ice on our top lips under our noses. We followed the road back through Sosnowiec and walking stiff legged on the hard-packed snow, to prevent ourselves from slipping over. It was slow going and we didn’t stop until 6 o’clock that evening, when we stopped at a little village hall, where we just flopped on the floor and slept dead beat.We were awake early, before light, the following morning. It was still snowing a bit, we were now told that we were on a forced march of about 100km, to get to the river Odra before the bridge being blown up. We could hear guns going miles away behind us as we started off on another day’s trek. We caught up with a column of Russians who held us up for the rest of the day. They were taking the same route as us it seemed. We were not too pleased about this. Eventually we reached a place to stop, a barn at a farm. It was so good to lay down on straw. We asked our guards if we could start off in front of the Russians the next day, but that evening we heard shots and were told that some of them were so ill and couldn’t be looked after, that they were shot, we didn’t like the sound of this. We went through a town called Rybrnik, and on the third day to Raciborz and over the bridge and a bit more for a welcome day’s rest. Our legs and bodies were now not so stiff and getting used to the trudging and sliding.
We were now getting into higher ground, going through snow that had not been trodden on, the cold was more intense, it must have been 25-30 degrees below freezing at times. We had one day going through a blizzard on a flat plateau, the freezing wind was so biting, we all wore balaclavas which were sent out by our families in parcels which we now wore day and night. We mostly slept three together so we could get more clothes on top of us for warmth. We sheltered mostly in farm barns at night, sometimes in a village hall when it felt really good to have a good roof over our heads. Quite often these barns had slated walls and we’d be covered in snow where the wind had blown through the gaps during the night. Our food supplies were now running very low, sometimes the people in the villages we passed through would give us a feed of soup, though we had no bread and our drink was still roasted acorn I’m sure. Sometimes the farmer would let us have some potatoes, which we would cook in the pig boiler which they all seemed to have, quite often we had nothing at all and sometimes just a drop of this drink which I’m sure these farm people were short of anyway.
I remember passing through a funnily named town called Hradec Kralove. We slowly made our way towards the German border to Dresden, some days were bad going and we’d only do five miles, but mostly we would do about ten miles a day, there was still snow on the ground so it was not good going Dresden – RAF firebombed 13th Feb
Sometimes there would be more snow and still cold. I think it was during the second or third week of February we reached the German border, but we were turned back into the Czech Republic. We slowly made our way towards Praha, there was still much snow about, our own food supplies were now finished and we were hungry once again. Sometimes the village people did bring us vegetable soup which was gratefully accepted, the guards also had to rely on them for their food, again one day the travelling was so bad, snow and freezing wind, that we were all fed up. We saw a small column of Mongolians in German uniforms, we guessed that they were POW s, but had joined the German army to be better off. They were trudging the way we had just come. It was at this time we were handed a pamphlet saying, that if we joined the Legion of St George and the German Army to beat the scum on the Eastern Front, we could have the same rations that the German soldiers had, and go back to England when they had been beaten. We said “No blinking fear” and more, that night even though we were at our beams end, we had a sing-song. Roll out the Barrell, Pack up your Troubles and so on. No jolly fear would we join the Legion of St George, this was just another of their propaganda stunts.
We then got to a village and had a stand in a cul-de-sac for so long that we all froze. The guards had a job to get into the little hall, we eventually did get in and that’s when my feet were actually frozen, and I still know when its cold in the winter! We pressed on now with little food, sometimes none at all, at least we could see Praha in the distance, but we did not go very much closer, we kept to the right of it and could see all the tall buildings for three days.We didn’t see any more Russians in columns again, but on odd occasions we did see a body laying stiff on the road side, where they must have died as they had been walking along, and so we continued our way towards Pizen.
By the time we reached it, the weather had begun to give, the days were becoming warmer and the nights not so bitterly cold. We by-passed Pizen and headed back towards the German border, the roads were becoming slushy and for the first time my feet were getting wet and not still cold. We came to a little town by going down a very steep hill which was on the border. We were now in Germany. We stopped at this place for a couple of days and to our surprise we were marched down to the station where there was a small passenger truck for the few guards which we had, three cattle trucks with open tops and one more with an anti-aircraft gun manned by two men. There were about thirty of us to a truck and away we went no knowing where, going along quite merrily and slowing down to go through a station, suddenly two Yank planes in the distance were coming towards us. We madly waved our hats in the air hoping that they would realise what we were, no they took a line straight for us. Luckily only one let its bombs go. It all happened so quickly. The first bomb dropped close to our truck which was the very end one. We had all the huge lumps of clay mud drop on top of us, the other two bombs went safely out of our way.
When we looked up the two German guards who were on the gun next to us jumped out and were running off towards a wood, so we duly followed, but found we had gone right up to a side line where an ammunition train was standing, so back we went to the train and waited for the rest to come back. The planes did not return so we started on our way again. It did unnerve us for the rest of the journey. Eventually we arrived at Regensburg Station in a siding, just as we were getting ourselves sorted out there was another fright, a plane suddenly dived down with a terrific whistle right over the top of us we all fell to the ground, wondering whatever if was. It was the first engineered jet plane that the Germans had and were trying it out, it certainly put the wind up is until we knew this and what is was. We continued marching down a long straight road, past a hospital to the end of the town, turned left and found we were on the banks of the Danube, a flat bottomed ferry boat was waiting for us. It was long enough to take two ponies and traps at a time, we sat along the sides and dangled our hands in the water. This ferry was taken across by the flow of water once pushed out by a punt pole. It was held in place by a long hawser on a pulley wheel, that was then attached to another hawser running from each bank to the river, quite high, so other boats could go underneath it. A short march up the roads to a little farm where we were very glad to settle in again, a few spuds from the farmer cooked in the pig boiler, ‘cor what a meal’.
The next day one of the guards with a pony and trap went to see if he could get some rations of some sort. Poor fellow didn’t get far, I guess it was a Yank plane that mowed him down, also the pony. We had pony stew for a day or two which helped us on quite a bit. After a couple of days we were taken back across to the town, dished out with spades and shovels for filling in shell holes that the bombs had made, after a few hours we went back to the farm, we quite enjoyed our trip across the Danube.
To be continued.
Rye’s Own February 2008
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