MEMORIES OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR
After the crisis of 1938, (when unsuccessful attempts were made to curb the expansionist ideas of Hitler), our Parliament decided to introduce, for the first time, Peacetime Conscription. The statement was made by the Prime Minister; Neville Chamberlain, on the 25th April 1939. It would affect all men of 20 years of age. Those who passed the medical examination would serve in HM armed forces for 6 months - the elder half from 1-7-39 to 31-12-39 and the younger half from 1-1-40 to 30-6-40. (I was 20 years old on 25-4-39!)
The first batch had their medicals, from a panel of nine doctors in May/June ’39 and those passed as fit were then helped to select the branch in which they could most usefully serve. The Medical Panel immediately carried on dealing with the second batch in June/July ‘39. I was passed A1. (My only memory of the “medical” was standing in my birthday suit in a long queue waiting to go behind a screen and, under the scrutiny of a nurse, pee into a bottle.)
Immediately I was dressed I was ushered into a small room, containing a table at which sat an Officer (rank not known) who, although smartly turned out, looked about the same age as my Grandfather. He invited me to sit down opposite him (the room was otherwise empty). The conversation was brief, “What branch of the HM Forces would you prefer to join?”
“The Royal Air Force”
“At the moment I am a trainee Draughtsman after serving for two years in our company’s Engineering Workshops, and I know the RAF need Draughtsmen.”
“That is very true, but I see that you are wearing spectacles, and although this is due to eye strain rather than a sight defect, I must point out that the vast majority of Militiamen choose the RN or RAF and therefore the RN and RAF can pick and choose. It is my duty to point out that the RAF will probably reject you; in which case you will go into the PBI. On the other hand, if you choose the Royal Engineers, they can use your existing skills and can probably help to improve them.”
That is how I became a Sapper (number 1889035).
On the 3rd September 1939 war on Germany was declared. After all the reservists had been called; the Territorial Army were mobilised and finally the second batch of Militiamen were called up. In late September I received my papers and travel warrant, boarding a train at Gravesend Central and arriving at Woolwich Arsenal at 11.30 AM with a few hundred other bods. Whilst queuing for a meal we watched a somewhat foul-mouthed person (we subsequently discovered he was a Drill Sergeant) who was checking the marching of a squad of recruits with a pace stick (like a large pair of dividers) to make sure they kept to a 30 inch pace at 120/minute. This was to be kept up for 50 minutes giving one 10 minute break per hour - that meant that in an emergency a squad could cover 50 miles in 18 hours.
Gravesend Central Station 1932
(Picture from the archive of the The Gravesend Railway Enthusiasts Society)
By about 4.30 PM I was again outside Gravesend Central railway station, trying to get “fell in” to a three abreast squad. We then “marched” to Gravesend Barracks and into the NAAFI building ground floor where we were split into four groups, (three were Field Company’s and one was a Field Park Company); we were further informed that we represented 3/4 of the total Company strength, the remaining 1/4 coming from a County of Sussex TA, RE that had been split to provide a nucleus (ie our NCO ’s etc). Further information provided the following facts:- The four Companies represented the total RE strength of a division, in our case the 12th. The 3 Field Companies were Front Line Engineers, expected to cope with normal requirements such as Wet and Dry Gap Bridging, Mine Laying, Demolition by Explosives and many other general aspects of Engineering with a Military Bias (whatever that might be). The Field Park Company, on the other hand, was not expected to be front line: they coped with jobs beyond the capabilities of the Field Company and anything beyond their abilities then went further ”back” to the Ordnance Corps. We subsequently found out that this arrangement had been developed during the Great War of 1914-18.
I discovered I was in 262 Field Company (the others were 263, 264, and the Field Park who were 265). We were fortunate in our quarters - all being housed in new huts and new ablution blocks on a former playing field (furthest away from the Guard Room and Officer’s Mess). The rest of the quarters were Victorian, less individual space and very dingy.
The Lance Corporal in charge of our hut showed us how our two issue blankets were to be wrapped around our three biscuits (each 2 foot plus square kapok filled mattress sections) each and every morning before going on Breakfast Parade at 7.30 AM. We were then marched to the Cook House for a meal - rissoles, bread and butter and jam with a pint mug of cha. After this we were free until First Parade.
Most of us gravitated that evening towards the NAAFI including yours truly, where I was surprised to bump into John Knight ; he was very fed up, as a professional cartographer he had been told the army wanted his skills and would value them in the RE (but not, as he pointed out, in 263 Field Company.) We did not know then that our next meeting would be on our “Demob” leave in 1946.
The next morning at first parade, at 8.30AM on the Barrack Square, we met Sergeant Hollis our PSI (Permanent Staff Instructor) who had the unenviable task of trying to lick into shape some 21 people from very different walks of life and make them into an efficient unit. Sergeant Hollis, who had the equivalent rank to a full sergeant, informed us that he had watched us march in from Gravesend Station the previous evening and we “looked like a herd of pantomime camels” He hoped that while we, for the next few hours, with other similar units, were waiting our turn to to go to the Quartermaster’s store, to be kitted out, would try to become less like pantomime camels. We were therefore marched around: from time to time Sergeant Hollis would grab someone, pull them out of the ranks and tell them to wait. I looked toward the only other chap I knew in the unit (he slept in the next bed) and we wondered what was going on, it soon dawned upon us that all the people being pulled out were the “Misfits”, one chap who kept falling over his own feet, someone who when told to turn left turned right and marched off in the opposite direction and two others who managed to “march” swinging their left arm and leg together, a most peculiar way of rolling along.
We were then kitted out and issued with our army paybooks. We were not allowed to write in them ourselves, this was done for us by a “Clerk”. He filled in our names etc. and on the last page was a Soldier’s Will in which he “left all his worldly goods to his next-of-kin.” We were allowed to sign our wills. The final question concerned our Religion. My family has always been Non-Conformists and practicing Congregationalists. When I mentioned this, I was told gruffly, “You can’t be “____” , you’ve got to be RC, C of E, or Atheist.” I then opted for C of E. The following Sunday when told to parade for Church Service, Dick (my neighbour in the hut) who was a Methodist (and had been given the same choice as myself) and I, after inspection, and the command “Fall out the C of E’s”, followed by “fall out the R C’s”, stood firm. It was an anticlimax, because after the two groups had disappeared, we, together with the Atheists were marched up to the cookhouse and spent the next hour peeling spuds.
We spent the next month “square bashing” and breaking in our army boots. For the first week we were not allowed to leave the barracks, but in any case most of us, after we had tried to get our boots and equipment sorted out and polishable had little inclination but to get to bed, after a quick visit to the NAAFI to augment our rations. It should be remembered that the ACC (Army Catering Corps) had not then been formed. The rations were quite good until the “cooks” got hold of them. During this month, in addition to improving our marching as a unit, we became proficient at rifle and bayonet drill, using the 1914/18 Lee Enfield rifle (weighing 8lb without the bayonet) and at the square bashers final passing out parade, we even satisfied PSI Hollis.
After the first month we became eligible for two duties from which we had been exempted. Every day except Sunday between 11-00 and 12 noon, everyone when outdoors, without exception had to wear their service respirator (gas mask): every fourth day we were Duty Company and confined to barracks, duties ranged from Main Gate Guard, Barrack Patrols to ARP inspections for every building.
During the last week of our square-bashing month, as a section we had visited the 25 yard rifle range where from the prone position, every man, and most of them for the first time ever, had to fire five rounds of .22 ammunition. Just as we approached the range, the 11AM warning sounded. this meant respirators ON and in the case of Dick and I, first remove our civvy spectacles and case them. Both of us were short-sighted; we were forbidden to replace our specs and the result as you can imagine was hilarious, between us we managed to get ONE shot (out of ten) on a corner of the paper target. We waited outside while our section Sergeant read out the scores entered in the section Record Book. We were dismissed for dinner: Dick and I assumed that some explanation would be made about our low scores. The answer was a gruff NO.
We found most of our military engineering training very interesting. In addition to those already mentioned previously, there were two for which we found the Army Method very peculiar. One was trench digging; given a plot some 4’ by 2’ and working in pairs to the instructions, “raise pick, pause, strike, pause, rake back then stand aside for the shoveller”. After about half an hour most pairs got down about 2 inches, but one pair had gone down 6 inches and squared and leveled the trench; the one who had done most of this excellent work was, needless to say, a former professional navvy (or, to use his own job description, a clay carpenter). Because he had ignored the army steps (and worked continuously), he failed the test. Similarly in the knots test, quite easy for former Boy Scouts, the only one to fail was a qualified Steeplejack, once again his methodology was wrong. It should be remembered that in the thirties there was little if any tubular steel scaffolding in use.
Every Saturday morning we had a rest from our engineering training and for four hours, under the eagle eye of our Section Subaltern, we had a refresher spell on rifle drill and marching. Our “Subbie” was a Canadian, and by general agreement amongst the Sappers, the finest officer in 262. One particular Saturday I shall always remember. About 12.00 another section was passing by and their subultern called across to ours’ and said “there’s ten minutes left on the 25 yard range if you can use it”. There’s no prize for guessing which two Sappers went with him and it must have been beginner’s luck because Dick got five bulls and I got four and an inner out of ten shots. All the officer said was “I presume your last visit was between 11 and 12 noon?” We found out later that the Section Sergeant had been reprimanded for not adding an explanation in the Record Book.
Around this time I was told one afternoon before we were dismissed that I was to report to the CO next morning. He informed me that I could return to Civvy Street if I wished. This reminded me of my last interview with my Research Department Manager; when I Informed him that I had received my call-up papers, he pointed out that the original intention of the Militia Act was for 6 months training (in peace time). I had been called up early and by the time my original 6 months was due to end, ie 30th June 1940, I would be 21 and, as a draughtsman in a reserved occupation, exempt from callup. Did I wish him to apply for such an exemption? This was a nasty question, so I countered by saying that I was anxious to serve my country to the best of my ability and I wished to leave the choice to him. His answer was that he would have to consult his superiors. It was nice to feel wanted.
The OC’s view, not surprisingly, was very different; eg the reserved age might advance at a faster rate than my age. If called up later on I might not have the great privilege of being an RE etc, etc. I decided to remain in the army, a decision I was to query many times in the years to come.
Early in December we were informed that every Sapper would be trade tested before Christmas. The tests would take place at the SME (the School of Military Engineering) at the RE depot in Chatham. This information caused a buzz of excitement throughout the four companies stationed in Gravesend barracks and particularly amongst some of the dubious tradesmen on company strength.
To understand the situation it is necessary to look at the pay structure of the RE (one of the few trade pay systems then operating). Every Sapper received Basic Pay. This at the time was 2/- per day. To this was added Trade Pay for which there was one of 15 different amounts to be added on and based on the RE recognised trades which all fell into one of five categories running from “E” the lowest through to “A” the highest. As a 3rd class tradesman “E” received and extra 3d and “A” an extra 1/3d per day (giving a total pay of 2/3d or 3/3d per day respectively). As an example I knew that in the “A” class there were only three trades, Draughtsman Mechanical, Draughtsman Architectural and Blacksmith. Fitters and Turners, separate trades according to the army, were both “B” and the only other one I can remember was the “E” trade of navvy. In addition, each tradesman could become a 2nd class tradesman and earn an additional 6d per day and finally become a 1st class tradesman when his pay increased by a further 1/- per day.
The range went from a basic 2/- per day up to an “A” class 1st class Sapper who received 4/9 per day.
We traveled to Chatham for our tests by coach, this was a pleasant change from the normal back of an MT section lorry when traveling out of barracks for Wet Bridging. Another chap, whom I had not previously met, and I found our way to the Drawing Office where a Civilian Instructor informed us that my colleague who came from 265 Field Park Company and I were the only two Draughtsmen from the four companies. (John Knight, mentioned earlier, had already transferred) We were at the SME for 3 days in total, The Instructor was in his forties and a very pleasant individual. After preliminary questioning and watching us examine the drawing instruments provided, he obviously came to the conclusion we were genuine. He asked us to collect for him, from the workshop, a 1” micrometer and some other tools. We couldn’t understand why it needed two of us to collect these tools but reported to the workshop. There was a long queue of “fitters” waiting to start their tests and going in one at a time: we were told to go in an turn left and then watched proceedings from a corner. A Sergeant Instructor was seated at a table. the only thing on the table was a 1” micrometer on a blanket. The incoming applicant was told to stand between two NCO’s and face the seated instructor. he was then told to hand the mike over. If he got hold of it like a football rattle he was frog-marched out of the workshop. If he did manage to pick it up reasonably well he was given a piece of metal to measure, failure meant he disappeared through the same door. On our return we thanked our Instructor who told us that nearly 40% of the applicants claiming to be Fitters or Turners were bogus. Those who failed and had been drawing 3rd class trade pay for some 14 weeks would go on 1/- per week until they has repaid the army the monies obtained by false pretences. At the end of our exam we were told unofficially that we had passed and would be officially informed by our COs in due course.
On Saturday morning, about a fortnight later and before being dismissed, our Subaltern read out the results, all but one had passed as 3rd class Tradesmen. However my name was not on his list. I queried this, after dismissal. He said “iI have no idea Brice. I have been instructed to tell you that you are too report to the CO at 9.00 hrs on Monday. I hope it’s good news.” I duly reported; the CO said he had both good and bad news for me. The bad - he had just heard that the War Office had altered the RE listing for “A” class tradesmen and in future each division would carry only one Draughtsman Mechanical, in the Field Park Co. The three Field Cos. would each carry one Draughtsman Architectural He gave me the choice of reverting to basic pay of 2/- per day until such time as I re-trained or to be re-mustered as Draughtsman Architectural in which case I could retain my Trade Pay. He required an immediate decision. I chose remustering. He then told me the good news: the sting in the tail, of all the Sappers who had taken their trade test, only the two draughtsmen (mechanical) has passed out as 2nd class tradesmen. he congratulated me and then said “The only thing you will remember about this conversation is that your request to be remustered was granted”
This, however was not the end of the matter and it is perhaps appropriate to continue the story now. Sometime in March we had an embarkation medical and everyone in our section passed as AI, but one evening I returned to barracks and was told that the Draughtsman from 265 had been looking for me. The next night i visited him. We were the only two in his barrack room fortunately and he said he had a fairly good idea about what had happened at the examination and that I had his sympathy. From that remark I assumed he had also been silenced. He said he had failed the embarkation medical because the MO had diagnosed mastoid trouble in his ear. As a result his OC had asked him, in confidence, to sound me out on my feelings about a transfer to 265 with, of course the carrot of regaining my second class trade pay. We discussed the matter and I realised that because I often walked home on the non-duty evenings I had not formed friendships as the rest of our barrack room members had done. Since I slept next to the door, my only neighbour, off parade, was Dick who was the only other member wearing glasses and we always tried to get near one another when forming squad, especially between 11.00 and 12 noon. The mutual support had, however, not been so necessary since we had received our army spectacles. My colleague from 265 realised that I could not request a transfer and said that he would merely inform his OC that I was willing (like Dicken’s Barkis). A few days later I was again in front of the OC, he accused me of breaking my word and said the answer was NO. I felt that i had been let down for the second time, but I was wrong, the third occasion was yet to come; it happened in France.
The Borough of Gravesend had an airport, located some 2 miles to the east of the town and on a site overlooking the River Thames. I had cycled up to it on several occasions to see Sir Allan Cobham’s Circus and the early flights of the “Flying Flea”. The residents of gravesend were somewhat annoyed to discover it was officially named “London East” and used by Imperial Airways whenever their main base at Croydon Airport was fog or smog bound. When war broke out a squadron of Hurricanes was stationed there and the guarding of the premises was a job for the Infantry. The Regiment on duty in 1939 were due to be relieved on December 31st. They were to be replaced by the Royal Sussex Regiment on February 1st 1940. it was not until after Christmas 1939 that the mistake was realised and we, in Gravesend barracks, being the nearest available troops, were given the “privilege” of taking over this infantry guard duty for the month of January.
It was a twelve man guard plus “Waiting Duties”, a sort of general dogsbody, and with a full Corporal as Guard Commander. The normal 2hrs on duty and 4hrs off applied. Of the four on duty, one pair patrolled the airport buildings and aprons while the other pair made a complete circuit of the perimeter fence. Of the 2 duties the second was the least attractive,. being January you had a two to one chance of carrying out the entire patrol in pitch darkness, falling over and treading in goodness knows what and returning to the Guardhouse to be greeted by ”Gawd, what a pong”. Our section were detailed for the Ist of January. It snowed heavily on the day we went up to start and continued throughout the night. On the following morning the lane leading to the Airport, on top of a hill and very exposed, which seemed to have nothing between us and the North Pole, with a North wind blowing it was most uncomfortable. the eight of us on guard were very glad to be in the warm. However, we were detailed to spend our rest period walking along the frozen tops of hedges bordering the lane leading to the Airport, each of us with a thin bamboo cane trying to locate six officer’s cars, completely buried in the snow. You can probably guess the next job; yes, to dig out the cars and the lane to the Airport and to push the vehicles into a spare hangar (a total distance of about 200 yards).
This guard continued and by the 30th January every eligible Sapper on the Barrack strength had done his stint. It therefore fell to our section, who had supplied the first guard, to supply the “hand over” guard for the 31st January. It snowed again and this delayed the Royal Sussex from coming, they were 12 hours late and by this time we were fed up with 2 on and 4 off and wanted to get back to barracks for a bath and some sleep. The advance party of the Sussex however, asked us, because they had been delayed, if we would be willing to continue on guard for another 12 hours by which time they would be ready. The answer from our OC was a two letter word.
One curious event occurred during a two hour stint around the airport buildings, when we came across a hangar that not only had an unlocked door that was swinging open, but was also showing a light. The light came from a hurricane lamp; we cautiously opened the door, it squeaked, and disturbed someone - a civilian, who was working on a plane and also an RAF officer who was watching him, and who immediately told us, in no uncertain terms to get out PDQ and to keep our mouths shut about anything we may have seen. it was nearly 60 years later before i found out what was going on in that hangar; it was a Blenheim bomber; there were two people working on it. One was patching up bullet holes which we had noticed in the fabric of the wings and the other, the civilian, who was attaching something to the underside of the fuselage. it was some new form of RADAR which had been made in three separate parts by three different firms, each ignorant of the other’s work and each supposedly ignorant of the purpose of the complete assembly. Whether the job was successful or not I still do not know.
Blenheim bomber on the airfield
On the 31st March we left the Barracks, in full marching order, and behind a band, for Gravesend Central railway station where we entrained for a secret destination, which turned out to be Southampton where we boarded an ”Isle of Man Steam Packet Co” vessel (built in 1880) which pitched and tossed crossing the Channel by night. Covered accommodation on board was reserved for officers and NCO ’s whilst the Sappers had the privilege of sleeping on the deck; not very pleasant thanks to the occasional splash of seawater. Next morning we disembarked at Le Harve and found waiting for us a train of French goods wagons, each labeled “40 hommes, 8 chevaux”. We filled each wagon (still in our full marching order) and settled down in the semi-darkness inside. When we started off we soon realised that the last goods carried must have been sacks of charcoal, judging by the clouds of black dust that arose from the floor, nearly choking us and sticking to our still-damp clothing. Some 4 hours later we arrived at the end of our rail journey at a large shunting yard. On getting out in the gathering gloom we could easily have been mistaken for French Senegalese troops who were stationed in the area. We then marched some 4 miles to our billet which turned out to be a manufacturing plant on the downstream outskirts of a village.
"Luxury French Coaches" - used for Transport of Troops in 1940
The ground floor plant was powered by an undershot water wheel turned by the stream. We were using the upper two floors as our sleeping quarters. it was almost dark when we got there, and with no means of washing (there was evidence that the stream was used by the villagers as a latrine), we turned in, only to discover that we had disturbed families of rats who seemed to resent our presence. Next morning, having washed and shaved in cold water drawn from the stream, we went on parade. After inspection, all those who had learned French at School were told to remain after the parade had been dismissed. The Orderly Sergeant then came round and asked each of us “for how long we had been taught”. My neighbour asked whether he wanted to know if it was progressive years or for the total number of years (ie by changing schools and starting again). The request fell on ignorant ears. he was told “’Ow many bl-----y years have you been taught for”. i had learned for 6 months more than any one else and I was therefore appointed Company Interpreter. The ironic thing was that after this parade I discovered that another lad, from a different section had a father who served in Alsace in the Army of Occupation after WW1 and had married a French girl, and the son had spent all his long summer holidays with his French Grandparents, as a result he spoke the language like a native, but had not been considered, since he had not learned French at school. To my great relief he replaced me.
Headquarters Section of our Company was stationed in an old building adjacent to the mill. The other three sections, consisting of some 60/70 men each day for the first fortnight of our stay in France, were carried by our transport to a remote railway station where we dug up a perfectly good approach road, using only picks and shovels; we then had to roughly grade what was dug up from a depth of 6” and store it in piles, then later on relay it “evenly” . After this, we were surprised to see a French civilian leading an ancient horse pulling the type of ancient roller used on pre-war cricket grounds. After some ten passages along the 100 yards of road, with the roller bouncing from one lump to another it looked considerably worse than when we had first started but this was life in France and it kept us occupied.
Two other things that I remember and both concern cleanliness. One, the fact that our own cookhouse only had one boiler, enough to provide every man with a mug of hot water a day for shaving. The rest of our body and clothes washing wa carried out in cold water. Once a week we were sent to the public baths, in Rouen, which had been taken over by the British Army. There we were rationed to 10” of reasonably hot water that made a refreshing change from the normal cold water, however we were strictly rationed to five minutes and also told that the attendant who timed us, would come in, pull out the plug and start cleaning ready for the next occupant. Several Sappers deliberately over-stayed their time and not only faced a charge but discovered that the attendants were all female. Matters proceeded in a more orderly manner on subsequent visits.
I used my skills as a draughtsman on only two occasions, the first was interesting - we happened to have on Company strength a master bricklayer (not a Militiaman) whose father was a baker, he built an oven that was extremely good and enabled even our Sergeant Cook to bake very good bread. We had far more enjoyable hot bread with our meals than we had received in Gravesend Barracks. The OC was so pleased with the oven that I was told to prepare a set of working drawings, to be sent back to the War Office. The second occasion was rather more disastrous for me. One of our section Subalterns (a very popular Officer) did not come to France. His replacement arrived just after the oven incident. He was TA and the complete opposite of the Officer he replaced. In peacetime he had been a practicing Architect. The OC gave him the job of preparing site plans of our billet and, as Company Architectural draughtsman, I was ordered to assist him. He soon realised I was not an AD and referred to terms of which I knew nothing, then despite the fact that I explained the circumstances which led to my transferring from Draughtsman Mechanical to Architectural, he insisted that he would report to the War Office and have my trade pay stopped. I did not know until after the War in Europe had finished that the Blitzkrieg in Holland, Belgium and Northern France had prevented his letter from reaching the War Office.
My only other recollection of our stay in that billet was the large number of route marches we “enjoyed”. These were certainly good for our health and did a lot less damage to French roads than our efforts at rebuilding them.
Then one morning (on the 19th May) we were told on first parade that in half an hour we would be traveling in our own transport towards Belgium. After 18 hours on the road we arrived at Doullens (in Picardy) where we were billeted in the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and sleeping on a marble floor.
Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) Doullens, Picardy, where we slept on the marble floor
As we were now on Active Service all the clothing we could take off when sleeping was our greatcoat to fold and lie on, and our boots and tin hats to act as a pillow. In common with others who wore army spectacles I wrapped mine in a handkerchief and put them in my boots. just as before dawn our section was roused, about 3.30 AM told to dress quickly and still half asleep I put on my boots and cut my foot on my broken glasses (it was six months before the British Red Cross sent me a replacement pair). We were apparently going out to lay and prime anti-tank mines, something that neither we nor the Subaltern I/C had ever practised. However we laid them and subsequently realised they could never have worked since we were not given any detonators. I knew that we had brought them with us to Doullens because I had traveled up sitting next to the driver (instead of the normal “seat” on the floor of the back of the lorry) and because of this I had been given the box of detonators to hold (for 18 hours) and told that if jarred too much they could explode.
After doing our duty we started to return to Doullens, in the hope that our comrades would still be there, when suddenly we heard gun fire, our immediate response was to jump over a low hedge and into a ditch that had some water in it, and as we watched a tank came down the road, firing as it came; the Sapper in front of me was hit in the chest, receiving a wound from which he subsequently died, and the Sapper behind had a tank shell through his chest and died instantly. I was not even scratched, just scared, and then realised that someone was shaking my shoulder and gave me the message that our Subaltern had surrendered on our behalf and “no one was to do anything silly with their rifle”. We were then led away by German Soldiers to an open area where we discovered other UK troops who had had similar experiences.
Some time later when all the wounded had been segregated to await attention, the able-bodied were told to form up. We were then marched off towards the east. By the early evening we had skirted Bapaume and stopped in a small village with a large church. The OC of the German guards addressed us in excellent English and said he had found two butchers amongst our group of about 100 and given permission for them to round up three calves, kill and cook them for us to eat (with our fingers). After this, in order to prevent our trying to escape under cover of darkness and to rest his men, we would be locked up in the church (and we had a second night sleeping on a marble floor), but this time for 12 hours. There was one guard on duty and he allowed us to go out, one at a time, for obvious reasons. The next morning several of us were contemplating trying to make a break for the Channel coast, but two others in the group attempted this and both were spotted and shot - since no one investigated we assumed they were both killed. Around midday a car containing an officer and driver overtook us and stopped by the German OC. After a discussion, both officers and two guards walked past our column and, at a signal from the newcomer the two guards just pushed through and dragged 12 POW’s out. I was one of the them and we thought at first that the 12 of us were to be shot as a reprisal for the two earlier would-be escapees, when one of our number realised that we were all around 6ft and quite burly he said “I think this means hard work, not death”.
He was right; we marched off up a side road into a small copse where there were six Wehrmacht lorries with slated sides; all were empty and standing in a fuel dump. We soon found out what our job was - to load about two and a half thousand 3- gallon jerry cans onto three of the lorries. It was dusk when the three loaded lorries, including a trailer attached to the second in the queue, took off. Our trailer consisted of a large box made of welded up reinforcing mesh with a securely locked door. Around 10 PM we had reached St Quentain when the air raid sirens went off. The drivers all disappeared in search of shelter and we were left, with 7,500 gallons of fuel front and back. Fortunately no bombs dropped nearer than 100 yards but we spent an uncomfortable night and next morning our drivers returned and we drove off. Mid afternoon we stopped at a village in the Belgian countryside where we were taken off and locked into a barn with a guard outside.
German Tanks in Belgium, approaching France - Tanks of Panzer Regiments 3 in St. Quentain, France, May 1940
The OC visited us and told us that the farmer’s wife had been told to feed us. He also said that we would remain here until he received orders; we slept on straw for the next three nights. The food wasn’t too bad considering how many others the farmer’s wife had been forced to feed. She was most defiantly anti-Bosch. The convoy including us moved off on the third morning and the evening we arrived at the Radio Luxembourg building and slept once more on a marble floor, this time the entrance hall. Next morning the OC arrived and told us he had orders to proceed to a place that few of us had ever heard of, Dunkerque. It was May 27th 1940, the day after evacuation started. However we only traveled as far as the goods yard at Luxembourg station where we were handed over to other guards. As a farewell message we were told by the German officer that there would be plenty of “Tommies” at Dunkerque and we would not be required.
Radio Luxemburg Building - another night on a marble floor
Our new guard escorted us to a familiar form of transport, a goods wagon labeled “40 hommes/8 chevaux”. It was already occupied and smelt as if the occupants had been there for days. They told us that we would be attached to a train (of similar luxury coaches) due to arrive that night: the train eventually finished at Limburg in Germany [Later on Limburg an der Lahn was a camp for the registration of POWs]. After three days in a very hastily made prison camp, we left Limburg in yet another similar train and continued traveling eastwards for a further seven days eventually reaching Lamsdorf in Upper Silesia.
Stalag VIII B Lambsdorff in Upper Silesia (additional information)
Just as the area of Alsace in the west had frequently changed hands between Germany and France, as a result of past wars, so Upper Silesia had suffered the same fate between Germany and Poland. It was to be our base camp for several years to come (although fortunately, at that time it was a fact about which we knew nothing). We were temporally lodged over some cavalry stables for two days and then, filthy dirty and very depressed, we were de-loused and given a hot shower. We waited for about one hour before we could sort through our clothes which had been through a cyanide chamber. Our greatcoats which had served us so well we never saw again, but we each received two very thin blankets. Following this we went into a roofed area, with completely open sides, apparently intentionally draughty, but whether this was done for our benefit or the row of English-speaking clerical workers, I do not know. We gave our name, rank and number but were not asked for any other information. We got the impression that they already knew more about our various units than we could have told them. Finally we were given a prisoner number, stamped on a piece of metal to hang round our necks, with strict instructions to leave it there at all times. it was a type of safeguard, proof that Germany had recognised us as “Kriegsgefangene” (POW’s) up until then, we suddenly realised that we could have disappeared and no questions asked.
Then the greatest indignity of all, horse clippers were run over our scalps to within 1/8” of the flesh and we had a head and shoulders photo, one side and one full frontal view taken. We then entered the Prison Camp proper. It had been hastily constructed after the start of the Blitzkrieg and everything was new and smelt fresh. There were four barrack blocks in each wired-off compound, divided into A and B ends, each in charge of a British Warrant Officer. Each end had beds, in blocks of four and three tiers high, giving a total complement of 144 - 1,152 per compound. Soon afterwards we met our Barrack Room Commander; he reminded us that we would at all times remember our duties as British Soldiers. Our rations would be after AM roll call - watery but hot, "Ersatz coffee" made from acorns, midday watery soup and one potato; late afternoon a thick slice of bread. Just before dark we had evening roll call and were then locked into our barrack room for the night.
Initially there were no British Officers at the Lamsdorf camp. The authorities dealt with the senior ranker (ie the longest serving RSM ). German orders were given out at roll call. On our first morning it was announced that ranks above full corporal could go out I/C of working parties, if they wished. All ranks full corporal and below had no choice but work in or away from Lamsdorff. The only exception to this ruling were Army Bandsmen, they were trained in Basic First Aid and acted as stretcher-bearers (based on WW1 experiences) and carried no arms and for this reason, together with members of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps), were protected by the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory.
On our way to Lamsdorf (or to give it its proper title, Stalag VIIIB) four of us Sappers who had kept together since being dragged out of the column on our second day after capture had befriended a couple of Scots; they were both WO’s in the RAMC and seemed very distressed at their situation. They seemed to be as old as our grandparents (although they could not have been more than 45 to be sent overseas). Soon after we had settled down we received a visit from them. They had come for two reasons, firstly to thank us for helping them, and secondly to give us some advice; they said that because of the semi-starvation rations we received, there was a great temptation to go on a working party; but to realise that there was almost no chance of getting onto internal working parties - ie tailors, cobblers etc (which were all sedentary jobs), and those outside the camp which meant living on or near the job almost certainly involved hard physical labour for which the extra rations would not necessarily compensate. They strongly advised us, if we could, to remain in the camp until the next winter was over. Many flatrankers (that is sappers, gunners, privates, etc) had volunteered for work outside so that “Jerry” was kept busy sorting out and dispatching these groups: who, of course, had to be escorted from the camp by German troops. Such troops would normally be those considered unfit for front-line duty, eg those recovering from wounds and on “light duties” or with one eye or other “minor” body parts missing. By two or three months after our arrival the supply of volunteers was running down and we received a further visit from our RMC WO’s. They told us that Jerry was preparing a purge of “flatrankers” and that they had met several captured LRAMC Medical Officers (MO’s) who had recently been sent to Stalag VIII B from a nearby Oflag (Offizierslager: German POW camp for officers).
British POW in Stalag VIII B in Lamsdorf.
(Copyright: Centralne Muzeum Jeńców Wojennych w Łambinowicach-Opolu The Site of National Remembrance at Łambinowice)
As a result of this meeting the WO’s had suggested that a Sanitary Squad be appointed to each compound. Their responsibilities would be to keep the 40 seater latrines clean and to assist the civilian, who came as required, to keep the pit under the latrine from overflowing. This proposal had been accepted by the German Camp Commandant who restricted the numbers per squad to four. The WO’s said “there are four of you and the job is yours if you want it”. We reluctantly agreed and were then told that the squad members had to be covered by the Geneva Convention (not for medical reasons but to stop flatrankers, like us, from stopping in camp.) As the only draughtsman in our four I got the job of copying out the relevant statement, in italic script, in four pay books. It was sufficient to fool the guard when we started the job. We were issued with an old pair of trousers, a thin ex-Polish greatcoat and mittens (stitched up from old blankets); the latter very useful since at that time we had no soap. The job was not quite as bad as you are probably thinking, because the outside temperature went below zero, when the show started in mid October and remained below until mid March. Anyhow, it kept us in camp until the Spring. then our WO ’s warned us of trouble in the offing, the Wehrmacht (the German War Office) had asked for a list of POW’s covered by the Geneva Convention. We managed to get onto a working party before we were rumbled, and heard nothing more.
At some time during the late Autumn we started to receive, via the International red Cross, food parcels packed in the UK and organised by the British Red Cross. They continued to arrive at intervals of approximately one week until December. The supply got interrupted most winters between January to March because of transport difficulties. They undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of POW’ s. Strictly speaking their issue to us should have been unnecessary, since, according to the Geneva Convention we should have received the same rations as German troops, but we never did.
Ratiborhammer (today: Kuźnia Raciborska, Poland)
The working party we joined in the Spring of 1940 was an iron foundry [Wilhelm Hegenscheidt GmbH, Hoffnungshütte in Ratiborhammer, Products: Gießerei, Schweißeisen-Werkzeug, Eisenbahn-Kleineisenzeug, Wagenachsen], at Ratiborhammer (today: Kuźnia Raciborska), on the main railway line between Breslau (Wrozlaw) and Wien ( Vienna). Our task was to dig out the earth etc to extend an existing canal. it was hard and boring using picks and shovels, and reminiscent of our own UK canal system dug out 100 years earlier. When our job finished we were absorbed into the iron foundry gang and doing the jobs others didn’t like. Foundry practice is basically making a shape in moulding sand contained in either a metal moulding box, or for larger items, such as lathe beds etc, in the sand of the shop floor, then filling it with molten iron, from a cupola (they poured twice a week). After cooling, but while still hot, it was fettled, ie the surrounding sand, which probably contained iron or slag was removed. This mixture then had to be “riddled,” thrown against a large riddle or sieve to separate the sand for re-use. We did this for 10/12 hours per day and 6 days a week.
Hoffnungshütte at Ratiborhammer, picture about 1930 (Owner Wilhelm Hegenscheidt GmbH, Ratibor)
One morning, whilst lining up for roll call, in Autumn 1941, the guard was told that one of the original party was sick, he therefore turned to me as I was nearest to him at that moment, and told me to do the work of the sick man. It turned out to be operating a single stroke fly-press. In this machine a piece of round bar 1/2” diameter by about 12” long was laid on the forming bed, by hand; the start button pushed and the ram made one vertical movement and returned to the dwell position whereon the metal rod was removed by hand having had a ‘U’ bend formed at one end. About an hour later, and while I was removing the workpiece, the ram came down on its own and tried to put a ‘U’ bend in my index finger, and I lost half of it. This accident, although I did not know it until after the war, was a blessing in disguise. I returned to the billet, reported to the guard Commander who told me that I was lucky: one of his hands had finished his term of light duties guarding us and was going to Lamsdorf (today: Łambinowice) - en route to the Russian Front - and would drop me off at Stalag VIII B Hospital.
British POW and a German Guard in front of the Lazarett (Hospital) of Stalag VIII B in Lamsdorf.
(Copyright: Centralne Muzeum Jeńców Wojennych w Łambinowicach-Opolu The Site of National Remembrance at Łambinowice)
The MO said that had I returned several days later (as I might well have done), I would probably have suffered from Septicaemia (blood poisoning ). He gave me the choice of having the stub properly amputated but without an anaesthetic (which was in very short supply) or leaving it to heal up naturally which would keep me off work for several months. I leave you to guess which i chose. The “blessing in disguise” was the fact that shortly after I left Ratiborhammer the entire party closed down (they were replaced by a group of Ukrainian women) and were sent straight to a coalmine where working underground two of the members were killed. Safety precautions, never as good as those in the UK, were skimped during the war years, particularly where POW labour was concerned.
Burial of a British POW in Stalag VIII B in Lamsdorf.
(Copyright: Centralne Muzeum Jeńców Wojennych w Łambinowicach-Opolu The Site of National Remembrance at Łambinowice)
Vosswalde ( Fosowskie, today part of the town of Kolonowskie, Poland)
In April 1942 I left Lambsdorff for the last time (although I did not know it at that moment). I was one of a party of three replacements for an existing work party. We had a long rail journey to the east and arrived at a station in Poland, which had been renamed by the Germans as Vosswalde [Fosowskie today part of the town of Kolonowskie, Poland] but also carried an old name board of Vossovska because before the Great War it was part of Russia; the Polish name was almost unpronounceable. The guard mentioned that our place of work was less than 100 metres away. We then walked nearly three miles to another village where our working party and another shared the former dining room of the local Gasthaus (Inn). The other party consisted primarily of Kiwis (soldiers from New Zealand) captured in the fall of Crete; they worked in another factory in the next village. Two of the bed spaces were in their party’s half of the partitioned room and I joined the Kiwis. This was an advantage in my opinion; when you have no privacy whatever and eat, sleep and spend every waking hour in the same company of about 20 people, life can become very stressful.
Vosswalde/Vossowska Railway Station (appr. 1920) - Chemische Fabrik Vosswalde (appr. 1940)
Our factory [Chemische Fabrik Vosswalde] produced charcoal, which was bagged and sent out by rail, and its by-product of wood alcohol.
Chemische Fabrik Vosswalde - View from the Railway Station (Copyright: Konzernarchiv Evonik Industries AG, Hanau)
Most jobs rotated,
1. to split the raw material from its delivered lengths,
2. to load and offload the ovens,
3. rake out the ashes from the oven fires and dispose of them,
4. offload rail wagons of timber and coal and
Left: railcar with timber and timber storage (Copyright: Konzernarchiv Evonik Industries AG, Hanau)
5. keep the two lancashire boilers fed, by wheelbarrow; with sufficient coal stacked inside the boilerhouse to keep them going for 24 hours.
Boilerhouse, in front the coal to feed the two Lancashire boilers. The coal was brought in the boiler house by wheelbarrows (Copyright: Konzernarchiv Evonik Industries AG, Hanau)
I remained at this camp until 20th January 1945.
Although most of us resented the fact that flatrankers had to work, we preferred where ever we could to avoid using our skills. Whatever we did must help the German war effort so we tried to help it as little as possible. Despite the fact that our rations were better than the Lamsdorff issue, plus the fact that we had a fairly regular supply of Red Cross parcels, we were always hungry. The long walk to and from work was through open country for part of the way along the valley of the River Malapane (and we presumed it had been renamed by the Germans). It was a very pleasant journey in Spring and Summer, even in rain, but with heavy snow we were glad that our hours were restricted by the reduced hours of daylight.
I have mentioned that the majority of our POW’s preferred to do labouring jobs rather than use any special skills they possessed because it was regarded as our duty to do as little as possible to help the German’s war effort. Escaping was obviously the best solution, but this choice was not available or practicable to all. The second choice was sabotage. This practice however, had its limitations as we had already discovered, on the foundry working party when one of our number caused a large casting to have a “blow out”. Naturally no one owned up and one of the Poles working with us, (a perfectly innocent individual) was blamed and finished up in prison (after being beaten up).
However, on our present working party we developed a form of sabotage that could result in long-term damage: rail wagons and trucks were shunted in on an almost daily basis, and it was fairly easy to remove a sealing rubber from the connection on the flexible part of the piping carrying the air braking system. It was common practice on the continent to fit this system to both goods trains as well as passenger trains (in the UK it was not used on goods trains).
Being located on the fringe of the Silesian coalfield and its associated heavy industry the area was an obvious bombing target. Towards the end of the war, when long-distance air raids became possible, we were subjected to quite a lot of high altitude bombing from the US Air Force by day and the RAF by night. The Germans maintained that the US bombing was far less accurate and therefore more dangerous to us (on a fringe area) than the night raids. Air raid shelters had been previously provided at the factory for employees, but we were not allowed near them as many of the work force were female. When the odd “stick” of bombs started to be dropped near us, we were told that the Germans were going to provide us and the Poles with an air raid shelter, for which we would have the privilege of digging the hole. The Poles and ourselves had only been allowed to use a two-seater toilet out in the grounds and built over a 6ft deep septic tank. This tank had walls constructed of 41/2” brickwork, and one side of our “hole” abutted onto the long rear wall of the septic tank; the roof of the shelter consisted of sheets of rusty corrugated iron. We were expected to crawl into the “shelter”, which the Germans referred to as a “slit trench for the Tommies, ha, ha, ha” (German joke). We refused to use it.
One of the most serious things that can happen in a POW camp is food being stolen. It went on for some time until one morning we discovered a piece of bread with small teethmarks on it. It was summer time and although the window frames were heavily barred the windows were left open. We immediately suspected a local cat and decided to teach it a lesson; building up three steps with Red Cross food boxes, on the first and second we laid a metal plate with food on the top step. The metal plates were connected to the lighting circuit and we went to bed; about 2 AM we were woken by a terrific squawk, as our four legged thief shorted out the two plates. We had no more food stolen.
We also had a clandestine radio by which we kept up to date with war news. (totally different from the German propaganda). No one knew who operated the set, and it was better if we remained ignorant since in my 2 3/4 years there we had four visits from the Gestapo who came to the camp while we were at work and left a shocking mess behind - but they never found the radio. In addition to keeping up to date with the second front we were equally interested in the Russian Army advancing towards Poland and en route to Berlin since there appeared to be more chance of our being “released” by them. Because of this possibility, I was one of two of our party who were asked to learn sufficient Russian to enable us to prevent any trigger-happy Mongol from shooting us before we had a chance to identify ourselves. As it turned out this precaution and the more obvious advice to store as much food, particularly tinned stuff from our Red Cross parcels, was very useful advice.
Leaving the POW Camp
On January 20th 1945 about 3 AM we were roused from our beds and told we were moving off at 5 AM. it was bitterly cold and we marched off in reasonable order and kept going with only two short stops until 7 PM when we were locked into what appeared to be a similar billet to the one we had left. There was no light and the floor on which we slept smelt strongly of wine. Daylight showed the place to be far worse than we had thought. We and the traveling companions we had collected marched off. This was the pattern of our life for the next seventeen days. On day eighteen we moved off and were told by our own guards that we would get a hot meal that evening, we did, plus half a loaf each - our first food issue since January 19th (Thank God for Red Cross food parcels). We were also able to wash, in cold water, and to remove our boots for the first time. For the next 100 days we covered some 400 miles. Our pace was slow and we avoided any large towns or cities. On at least two occasions we were billeted in a farm barn and were fed by the farmer, under some duress, in return for our help. On two nights in January we slept in road side ditches and woke up covered in snow, in a temperature that had dropped to -10C, we otherwise had a roof of some sort over our heads and were wherever possible locked in (for the Guard’s benefit, I might add).
Lamsdorf Death March
The picture illustrates POW's being marched from East Prussia to Germany in 1945. It is from an oli painting by Mr Stan Johnson of Blyth, Northumberland who was on the march.
Source: 'WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar'
On the morning of the 10th may 1945 we awoke to find our guards had vanished. There was a great deal of noise and suddenly a squad of Russian tanks (T24s) came round the corner, with their guns trained on us; we noticed in a nearby ditch a body wearing a German Army uniform (this was field grey, their equivalent of our khaki), and it could have been the contrast in colour that caused them to withhold their fire; it certainly wasn’t our knowledge of Russian because we could not have been heard above the noise of the tank’s engines. We were thrown a few loaves and the squad disappeared. All the Russians visible to us appeared to be Mongolian. We separated into twos and threes and I went with the lad who with me had kept the factory boilerhouse fed with coal; he was in the PBI and his surname was Fox, this meant that he was nicknamed Freddie (after a pre-war jockey), I never discovered his Christian name. Freddie and I found out we were on the outskirts of a large village. It was in Czechoslovakia, had an unpronounceable name but had been renamed by the Germans as Königswalde (Kings Wood , today: Království, Czech Republic) . Some of the locals came out into the street and offered us a drink and a sandwich, even though, as a Subject Nation they had very little, and moreover every right to hate us because it was Neville Chamberlain and the contents of the famous piece of paper who, in 1938, sacrificed their freedom for the sake of peace in Europe. A peace that lasted less than one year.
We spent three days in the village. It consisted of several empty houses left by the hurried departure of Third Reich representatives, fleeing for their lives. We, under the guidance of the locals, found them, broke into them and discovered large stocks of food from which everyone benefitted. From the same friendly people we learned that the nearest non-Russian troops were in Leipzig, 50 miles away. Freddie and I “borrowed” two push bikes (one ladies and one gents) from their former German owners and set out for Leipzig. Early on the first day we made the painful discovery that the bicycles had back-pedalling brakes. On our second day we passed through the centre of the City of Dresden and saw the results of the “carpet bombing” to which it had been subjected just a few weeks earlier; this included a railway tank engine, intact, but upended and resting on the roof girders of the Central Station.
Dresden after bombing on february 14, 1945
Early next morning we arrived on the outskirts of Leipzig and soon found the US Army HQ. We were de-loused, given a hot bath and fresh clothing (our old clothes were burnt). Then given a meal - it was not very large and afterwards the medics told us that it would be very unwise to “fill our bellies” for some time. Three days later we were taken to an airport where we boarded one of the Dakotas. They landed about an hour later at Waterloo, Belgium where, after about an hour we were lined up and numbered in twelves.
Shortly after a Lancaster touched down and we in the first twelve boarded in order. No 3 had the best position sitting next to the navigator; Freddie and I sat in the midgunner’s well and like the other nine of us we could see no land, sky or sea until we landed at West Cot in Buckinghamshire that evening. Everything was in order, a bed with sheets in a Nissen Hut; after we had addressed and signed a postcard to our next-of-kin, had another medical and a light meal. next day I arrived home with a six-week pass on double rations. When the six weeks ended I reported to the same office in Chatham in which I had my original medical in 1939. I was amazed to meet a lad whom I had last seen queuing up in front of me and waiting to go behind a screen to fill a bottle. We separately saw an officer who told us the same story “as you have spent over five years overseas you will be given a home posting until you are demobilised” He was sent to Keswick in Cumberland and I went to a village between Carmarthen and Cardigan in West Wales.
Life in rural wales was a complete contrast. There were only two people in the village who spoke English - the Postman and the Vicar. Church Parade was still a compulsory duty every Sunday and the Vicar preached a hell fire and brimstone sermon in Welsh for half an hour and then repeated it in English for our benefit. At Christmas 1945 we were informed very proudly that two members of the choir had won prizes at the local Eistedfodd, as you have no doubt guessed we were lucky enough to hear their party pieces, in Welsh and then in English. The service lasted two and a half hours, and when we returned to camp, we found our Christmas Dinner very well cooked.
My time in His Majesty’s Service finally came to an end in June 1946 some six and three quarter years after I was conscripted.
Peter John Brice was born on 25th April 1919. He passed away August 2013.
|ARP||Air Raid Protection|
|Kiwis||soldiers from New Zealand|
|NAAFI||Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (Leisure activities etc for the Forces, especially catering/cafes/bars in this context)|
|NCO||Non Commissioned Officer|
|PBI||Poor Bloody Infantry (slang)|
|POW / PW||Prisoner of War|
|RAMC||Royal Army Medical Corps (mainly Officers)|
|RSM||Royal Service Man|
|Snapper||British army slang for the Royal Engineers (In Medieaval times they were the men who undermined or "sapped" the old city and castle walls.)|
Copyright: P.J. Brice, May 2011
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Key Words: British Army, WW II, Second World War, POW, Prisoner of war, Germany, Silesia, camps, Stalag VIII B, Lamsdorff