Barbed Wire
Memories of Stalag 383

 

 

Chapter 6:

But No Women

 

 

'PRISONERS of war are strictly forbidden to approach, or have friendly intercourse with German women. Breaches of this order will be met with severe imprisonment, and in serious cases (particularly where sexual intercouse is involved) with punishment of death.'

 

This pleasant announcement, less nicely worded, was issued by the German High Command to be read out or posted up at stated intervals in all prison camps in the Third Reich. It was the only official reminder prisoners ever had of the existence of women - and it excited more derision than almost any Nazi order issued.

 

Many Kriegies, of course, never glimpsed a female, German or otherwise, for years on end. Many others found that shortage of food blotted out sex as a subject of interest anyway. But even on 'working parties,' where some point was lent to the order by the fact that prisoners mixed daily with German girls, it was generally regarded as Hitler's worst joke. It stunk with hypocrisy. It's underlying assumption was based on a conception of 'Nazi Womanhood' ludicrously false to the facts.

 

As a certain gunner remarked, after the reading out of the order on a working party parade: 'It sounds as though Jerry girls were a bunch of vestal virgins - and we were a crowd of morons, panting after 'em. Well, I've not met one who rates herself above a bar of chocolate - but I still think I'll stick to the Missus!'

 

And the gunner was not ungallant, nor censorious. It was just that propaganda about 'Clear-eyed Nordic Maidens' and 'Noble Nazi Wives,' coupled with threats of the gallows to those who dared approach them, shed a rather ironic light on the actual Fraus and Frauleins we came across.

 

Many of these seemed almost comically sex-obsessed, much given to suggestive banter, and singularly poor champions of feminine dignity in their tame submission to the own menfolk. For if many Huns were brutal in their treatment of the girl slave workers, their attitude to their own women was seldom better than boorish.

 

In the early days in Deutschland, some of us were surprised that German guards should invite our attention, with crude gestures, to German girls passing near the wire, and that others should exhibit photographs of their own wives, and wisecrack coarsely about them, while even the following petty incident was an eye-opener in more senses than one.

 

We - a party of N.C.O. prisoners - were being marched towards a station one winter's day when there came in sight a stately, well groomed blonde, accompanied by two Luftwaffe officers.

 

Just as they drew level with our squad, one of her escorts drew the Fraulein's attention to the British Gefangeners. As she turned her head, the other stepped quickly forward and then dropped, almost flat, in her path, thus 'making a back' for her. The next second the blonde was standing on her head, face in snow, legs in air, her startled squeals drowned in the guffaws of the Luftwaffe.

 

Naturally, we enjoyed the show, but discussing it later, it seemed a bit tough on the girl, who must have been pretty shaken by her somersault. We wondered what she'd said to her gallant cavaliers.

 

Nothing, probably. Later, on a working party where we mixed with German factory and office girls, we found them strangely docile to the male Huns' whims.

 

'Why doesn't she sock somebody?' we'd ask each other as Gretchen, perhaps, busy at a work-bench, would be given a pinch, slap, or similar salute by almost every Jerry who passed, and whether it was that Gretchen was afraid of being socked back, or that she was proud to be noticed anyway by the 'warrior sex,' we couldn't quite decide.

 

There were pretty girls in plenty amongst these German workers and, thanks to the loot from Europe, they were not short of frocks, make-up and Nylons, so that the 'frumpish Fraulein' gibe was a bit played out. As for their legendary plumpness, it was so often situated in the right places that they met little criticism on that score, whilst Deutsch, though harsh enough when belowed by a jack-booted Hun, can be music itself when voiced by a smiling Madchen.

 

Nevertheless, despite the Frauleins' flattering interest in 'Tommy,' and despite attempts to please by telling us bluer jokes about Hitler than we could make up ourselves, or by giving us news, usually false, of Allied successes, the German girls had few admirers amongst the British Kriegies. Even those fellows who occasionally 'invested' a bar of chocolate with them seemed to be acting more from defiance of the High Command death threats than anything else.

 

There were several things we didn't like about the Frauleins. They seemed to us to be typically Nazi in more important respects than lip service to the Fuehrer. They had the same Hun indifference to suffering in others. The same Hun hardness to all who were down.

 

Some Kriegies who had worked in that part of Germany during the bitter winter of 1940 recalled that, when they were famished and frostbitten, when they were without clothes, parcels and news from home ... when, in short, they were 'down,' they noticed no friendly smiles from German women. Instead they remembered that on the occasional Sundays when they were not forced to work, but had to parade nearly naked in the yard of their Lager, holding up lousy shirts, &c., for inspection by the Huns, it was not made pleasanter by the presence at the wire of Fraus and Frauleins, much tickled at the plight of the Englanders.

 

Others remembered those well dressed women on a Prussian station who, when a cattle truck was opened to let starving Russians drag out the corpses of their comrades, laughed and joked. Still others spoke bitterly of tender German mothers holding up their kiddies so that they could get a better view of two Jews hanging in the local sports ground.

 

True- and happily true for one's sense of proportion - there were other types of German women. Anna, for instance, whose only son had gone down with the Bismarck, but who, from sheer human kindliness, risked her neck to help some British boys escape from the factory, and plump old Gertrude, wife of my 'human hairpin' boss, who wept so bitterly over the misery of the foreign slave girls that 'Hairpin' raised his bony fist and solemnly cursed Hitler and all he stood for.

 

Nor will some of us on that working party forget the kindness shown us at a small local hospital, where the Catholic Sisters - I am not a Catholic myself - were equally charming to Britishers, Poles or Germans under their care.

 

But, shining exceptions apart, our general impression of German women, and especially of the younger ones we worked with, was not high. It seemed that the Nazi spirit had defeminized them. They were wax to the boorish and brutal - stone to the weak or unfortunate.

 

Even when one of their own number died in the factory, under circumstances sordid but sad, the attitude of her Fraulein fellow-workers was revealingly tough. The girl's body was put in a short of tumbril, roughly covered with sheets of paper and wheeled away through the factory gates, while - apart from an eagerness to tell us the precise cause of the sudden death - the only emotion the Frauleins showed was a sort of ghoulish glee.

 

This being their attitude to one another, it was not to be expected that the German girls would show much sympathy for the foreign slaves. Nor did they.

 

In fact, it was their indifference to the plight of the Polish and Russian women that showed them in the poorest light of all.

 

Such sympathy as these slave workers (some of them mere girls, some of them mothers of children) received at that factory came from the British Kriegies, and when our fellows dived into their Red Cross and clothing parcels to help them the Frauleins were apt to be resentful.

 

Apt to make reports where even Huns had shut their eyes.

 

The Russian women had, outwardly, naught save their misery to commend them. Mainly of the peasant type, they were ill fed, scarecrow clothed and shod in clogs and foot rags. Herded about like cattle, they were forced to work on the heavy task of loading wood pulp, and they were supervised by Hun oafs armed with batons - batons they did not shrink to use.

 

Despite the language difficulty, our men found ways to communicate with the Russians, and gifts of food, clothing and soap were left in places where the women would find them. In return they left notes of gratitude which, when translated by a Polish communist, often spoke of their indifference to ill treatment, but of their longing to see their children again - and these notes gave some Kriegies a new outlook on Soviet women.

 

'I didn't think they ... well, sort of felt things like that ...' said one lad. I'd always understood that they just had their babies and then stuck 'em away in communal homes. Seems that I was wrong.'

 

But at that time, most people were wrong about most things Russian. Long before news of Soviet victories came through, odd Germans, back from the Eastern front, expressed a grudging admiration for Russian women. It seemed that their attitude to invading troops was much prouder than in some countries the Huns had overrun, and that the Bolshevik 'free love' Jerry had read about was not extended to enemy troops.

 

However, though the British prisoners gave help to the Russian women, they naturally had closer ties with the Polish girls, who were far more 'Western' in type. These girls were of all classes from farm girls to typists, some of them having been abducted by German 'press gangs' whilst shopping in Polish towns, others having been taken from their homes after five minutes' grace to prepare for their exile.

 

Unlike the Russian women, they received occasional clothes from home and were given an odd evening free from their camp. They managed to provide themselves with powder and lipstick, and, though they lived and worked under conditions terrible for girls, they made brave efforts to keep themselves attractive.

 

There were one or two near beauties amongst them, lucky to avoid 'more comfortable' jobs in Hun officers' clubs, and there were quite a few to whom the circumstances lent a certain glamour.

 

So it was not surprising that the natural sympathy between the Polish girls and the British Kriegies led, in some cases, to 'romances,' which were carried on by notes in pidgin Deutsch and by risky meeting in odd corners of the factory.

 

To these trysts, the Romeo might bring an offering of chocolate, and the Juliet ... well, anything from a piece of bread or a Polish poem to some lovingly executed darning. Any little thing to show that, even if the friendship was not platonic, it was on a vastly different footing from Tommy's affairs with the German girls.

 

Apart from the comparative few who 'courted' particular Polish girls - one of whom, at least, was determined to marry his lady after the war - there were plenty of Kriegies who spared their weekly bar of chocolate from the parcel to give to any Polish girl they happened to notice - these gifts being mere tokens of Allied good will, repayable only with a smile.

 

Kriegies being human, however, it was usually the prettiest girls who got the chocolate - until a gruff remark by a tough Scot evidently caused thought.

 

''Tis nae only the bonnie lasses likes sweeties' was all he said, and none, at the time, even commented on his words. Next week, though the parcels were dipped into as never before ... none of the ugly ducklings was neglected ... all the Cinderellas went to the ball ... and one badly crippled youngster received more gifts than even Sandra, the undisputed belle of the factory. Nice work, Jock!

 

What a pity, what a damnable pity, that some other words Jock spoke were not so heeded. The story of the British Kriegies and the Polish slave girls ends in tragedy. It need not have done had his sane advice been taken.

 

Two younger men on that party were taking a foolish risk. They were bribing Hun guards to let them out of the camp on certain nights to see their girl friends. A payment of cigarettes ... an agreement to be back in two hours ... a system of signals ... it was all so simple.

 

'Laddies,' said the Scot, 'dinna' do it ... dinna' stake your lives on the promises of a Hun!'

 

And for a time they didn't. Then, months later at Hohenfels, I got a postcard - a photograph of twin British graves in a German cemetery. I hardly needed to hear the story.

 

One last visit to the girls, no doubt. A German woman spying through her curtains. A flurry of skirts as she hastens to report. Panic amongst the guards as they visualize inquiries. A slipping back of rifle bolts as the Englanders return, and ... dead men tell no tales.

 

Well, there were no tragedies like that at Hohenfels; no fatalities due, indirectly, to the nearness of women. But there was no lack of wretchedness and despair and sickening suspense for the opposite reason - the complete separation from women. In particular, there was much misery caused by broken marriages, for, while all the forces suffered from the fruits of separation, perhaps no section was so badly placed as the caged-in Kriegies, denied the age-old balm of 'consolation.'

 

It is no secret that great numbers of prisoners of war got divorces whilst in Germany and that great numbers more would have had ample grounds to do so. Nor is it surprising that after four or five years of separation, bridged only by the skimpy Stalag mail, so many marriages should fall to bits.

 

One factor tending to give Stalag 383 its full share of break-ups was the number of men who had married, or been married, on the strength of their promotions. These romances seemed to run to type - the usual story (see 'Pams Paper') running something like this.

 

Tom, a young sergeant, marries, while on leave from France, Jean, a girl he hardly knows. Peggy, his old school-friend, eats her heart out silently. Tom is captured at Dunkirk, has very thin time for a very long while, and only keeps his spirits up with thoughts of Jean. The young wife, however, working in a factory and daily meeting other men, finds Tom's memory apt to fade. He becomes a mere army number through whom she gets some money.

 

The years roll on, and Jean's letters to the sergt. get fewer ... and colder. Then they stop altogether. There follows months of anguish for Tom - and then he hears once more. Jean has met a Yank. He wants to marry her. Will Tom give her her freedom? Divorce will be simple, since she's just had a baby.

 

The sergt's hutmates guess about that letter. They also suffer from it. From a mere brooder, always waiting for the mail, Tom now becomes a bitter cynic, wounded in his pride. He's a pretty hard fellow to live with for a while.

 

One day he can hold it back no longer. He bursts out with his story, tears up Jean's letters for the hut stove, burns her photograph thereon, pours forth scorn on womankind in general, and announces his future as a hater of the sex.

 

That clears the air a bit. Then Tom finds that many other fellows have been 'let down' too, which is something of a solace. With them, he lets off steam at the Stalag debates - an ideal safety valve for Stalag cynics.

 

And then he gets another letter. That's right - from Peggy! Peggy has been given his address by Tom's sister. She writes to ask what sort of cigarettes he'd like, and she ventures to enclose her photograph ('wretched of me, really, but perhaps you'll recognize it') and the next thing Tom's pals know is that he is offering fantastic sums for letter cards, and is happily engaged in framing Peggy's picture, which all agree adorns the hut no end. Later, he celebrates his engagement with a 'Hooch' party in the hut.

 

But, if we all knew affairs no more fatal than Tom's, there were also plenty of broken marriages which left scars on a man's mind. Cases of men, happily married for years and with children to seal the contract, learning by letter that their wives had left them, just foisting the children on reluctant in-laws. Cases of men living in Othello-like agonies of suspicion until their worst fears were confirmed, and then devoting themselves to dark and bitter brooding on the future.

 

Sometimes the wife would use imagination. Would realize that a man caged-in for years is easily unbalanced, and would write the type of letter best calculated to ease the wound. Others were not so kind - or wise.

 

One woman, three years after her husband had been wounded and captured, discovered that she 'could no longer be tied to a coward' and wanted her freedom so that she could marry a 'real man' - the 'real man' apparently having a reserved occupation.

 

That letter nearly deranged the husband's mind, but no doubt the writer had cause to regret it, for the classic sequel to many 'let downs' was that, shortly after the wife's allowance had been stopped, her new found lover disappeared, leaving her to write rather awkward letters to the P.o.W. husband.

 

Over ordinary lapses - the type of case where a wife sorrowfully admitted that she had 'been to a dance,' &c., and that it would not happen again, there was much tolerance shown, and there were 'foster-fathers' at Hohenfels who would display photographs of babies with almost the pride of the usual 'daddy.' Rather touching, eh?

 

Perhaps it was because there were so many of these cases that they were not taken unduly to heart, for certainly there was precious little attempt by some injured hubbies to hide their wounds. Some of them, indeed, seemed only too anxious to share the 'joke' with the Stalag.

 

The hero whose wife wrote that she had been a 'bad girl,' but the baby was really rather sweet, and would it be all right if she bought hubby a motor bike? was justly proud of his answer, which told her sternly that she'd have to make it a side-car too while she was about it!

 

Then the Kriegie, whose faithful spouse had 'found a dear little boy on the front doorstep' and wanted her husband's advice on the matter, surely mixed kindliness with caution in telling her that 'findings were keepings' this time - but she'd better give the neighbours a chance with the next windfall.

 

As for that tough Londoner whose wife wrote that fifteen years of married life had convinced her that they were not 'temperamentally suited' to one another, and that she had therefore married (legally wedded was the term she used) a Canadian, he might have found it hard to express himself on a Stalag postcard - but he certainly made a pretty perfect start. 'Dear Mrs. What's-your-blinking-name?' he began, so the rest didn't matter.

 

But I must hasten to add to these tales of married woe that, if numerous, they were not disproportionately so. The majority of men at Hohenfels were patiently waited for by their wives and sweethearts, whose loyalty was a prisoner's greatest solace.

 

Girls who stuck to their engagement during five years' separation - often to a man wounded before capture, or undermined in health since - wives who wrote almost daily to husbands who could seldom reply - sisters and aunts and cousins and girl friends who kept up a correspondence inevitably one-sided - all these and, above all, perhaps, the mothers, dependable through thick and thin, prevented any general cycicism about women.

 

Many Kriegies, in fact, got engaged during captivity - one, at least, to a girl he'd never seen. A charming 'cheer-up' message, slipped into a packet of biscuits and intended for any P.o.W. who opened it, led to this little romance.

 

Other Kriegies corresponded with delightfully mysterious maidens who'd sewn messages and addresses into such things as battle dresses from England. When requested to send photographs, these sirens invariably posted suspiciously beautiful 'bathing belle' snaps, on which the Jerry censors might add approving comments. If the correspondence developed, however, the Kriegie would eventually receive a genuine photo, and apologies, totally unnecessary, for the previous fake snaps.

 

But perhaps the best opening for a Stalag love story was in a Canadian Red Cross parcel received a Hohenfels. On opening the packet of raisins, a lucky Kriegie found a little gold watch, obviously, whether by accident or design, from the wrist of a lovely lady. That Kriegie swore that he would never rest until he had personally slipped it back on the wrist it came from. Booked your passage yet, George?

 

Yes, there were precious few misogynists behind the wire, and so eager did some men become for the mere sight of a girl that practically any village Fraulein passing near the camp would bring a flock of fellows to the fence.

 

Observing this, 'Stalag happies' evolved a system of look-outs, whereby the sighting of a girl was announced by the shouting of a certain mad word - a double-barrelled, surrealistic sort of word, so completely crazy as descriptive of a girl, or, for that matter, of anything, that it tickled even the sane and was echoed and re-echoed throughout the camp.

 

Crude fun, of course, and soon dropped by general consent when overworked by the minority, but there were some good laughs to be had out of the attitude of the Hun Guards to this unfathomable word. They held confabs, consulted dictionaries, called in interpreters - all in vain. Then they waylaid Kriegies who spoke German, begging and bribing them to reveal the meaning.

 

This sublime opportunity was not wasted, and by the time the Huns had finished sorting out the various weird explanations they were given, they weren't quite sure whether the Englanders had gone mad at last, or whether the word had something to do with a mass escape and an attempt on the Fuehrer's life.

 

But it must not be supposed that we were one big crowd of smarties, for ever pinning the laugh on the poor, dumb Hun. No doubt Jerry got as much amusement from us as we did from him - and in this 'no women' situation he admittedly laughed last.

 

Fritz could, after all, walk out with Frieda, and he could, if he wished, give her plenty to giggle about in tales of the mad Gefangeners. With tales, for instance, of their bizarre ballroom nights.

 

For, yes, we did hold dances, and they were a bit bizarre. No other word quite fits these Stalag Hops, where teak-faced Aussies waltzed with grim-lipped Scots, the partners oblivious of each other as the music took them back to Matilda or Maggie, and Sydney or Glasgow and all the long-lost joys of normal life.

 

Let's peep into the 'Palais' when a gala dance is on. A dance, let's say in early '43.

 

The Palais, by the way, is a fair-sized wooden hall, begged or bribed or blackmailed from the Huns. It's not too brightly lighted and it's very tightly packed, but the scene, by Stalag standards, ranks as brilliant.

 

A platform at one end holds Dennis Whiteley's dance band. Khaki trousered, blue shirted, smartly groomed, they swing their way through a quickstep, danced to, more or less, by the flower of 383.

 

All ranks are present from Stalag Promotions to R.S.M.s. There are boys in Air Force blue, one or two in Navy, and a few Scots in kilts. There are Aussies in their dapper tunics, Kiwis, Canadians, Cypriots, Palestinians - all the varied types, in fact, of Hohenfels, all freshly shaved, trimly dressed, and with enough grease on their hair to polish the floorboards, which are rather on the rough side for dancing.

 

And then there are the girls ... the dancing partners ... the call-em-what-you-wills, in their dazzling evening gowns, their dainty little shoes, and their nicely bandeaued hair styles.

 

Not many, really. Not nearly enough to give everyone a dance - but enough to catch the eye and enough to dress the hall. They're the brightest spot of colour in the Palais.

 

We can see them now. Hugh Cameron, tonight's M.C., has just announced a Tango, and as Dennis and his band slide into 'Jealousy' the floor clears of all but expert dancers. Of all but expert dancers and the girls. The rest just stand aside and watch and chatter - the comments bearing mainly on the girls.

 

'Who's the piece in blue satin?' ... 'Look at old Ginger treading on the Blondie's dress!' ... 'Don't tell me that's your china in the green rigout!' ... 'Of course, the hands give 'em away.' ... 'Wig, or not, it's pretty marvellous!' ... 'That Spanish turnout's wearing that pansy scarf the Aunt sent me. Must have bought it on the mart' ... 'Paint, powder, lipstick - beats me where they get it all!' ... 'Wonder what real girls would think of this - laugh or think it cissy?' ...

 

I wonder, too. Some girls, perhaps, would be so intrigued by the 'dernier cri' model gowns on view that they'd only want the name of the designer - but other people might well be puzzled to know how this dance girl business started - and ended. So here, to close this chapter, is the story.

 

The dances started in the first winter at Hohenfels. Only a few hundred could attend each week, but for them the hops provided entertainment, exercise, and a chance to meet new pals. Just to get away from the same few faces in the same small hut was a treat in Stalag life. Just to have a real motive for pressing your pants and sprucing up generally was a tonic, while, for those who cared for dance music, Davie Laird, Dennis Whiteley, Spike Keble, and other maestros provided good bands - just sufficiently besprinkled with beginners to add a sporting interest to tricky pieces.

 

So more and more Kriegies flocked to the hops, and plenty who first stormed the Palais for a laugh ended by enrolling in dancing classes specially run by Stalag experts.

 

Ably organized by Dave Shearer, the dances soon became more elaborate, and on special occasions fancy dress balls were staged, which led quite naturally to feminine costumes. At these affairs, a knight in biscuit tin armour might waltz with a Pompadour, powdered and crinolined, or a Geisha girl, wigged and kimono'd.

 

Cabaret shows were also featured, and star female impersonators of the Theatre and Club shows might appear in an interval turn. Some of these stage girls made it a rule to change into trousers as soon as their act was over, but others didn't mind a dance or two in their feminine finery and were popular as partners because they naturally accepted the woman's role in dancing, which most Stalag steppers found difficult.

 

A few fellows who had made, or displayed frocks for a special 'best costume' competition were induced to wear them at subsequent dances, and the ranks of the skirted were also joined by a few jokers who, from sheer tomfoolery, enjoyed dressing up in a burlesque of girl's attire.

 

All very natural, of course, so when a few more Kriegies, neither entertainers nor costume competitors, started turning up to dances in evening gowns there were few eyebrows raised for a time.

 

Most fellows thought it rather sporty of them to brave the cold and the leg-pulls and the fag of washing their backs to just brighten things up a bit, so these 'dancing partners,' as they styled themselves, were grinningly accepted as part of the fun. They would sit in a bunch together - just like the 6d. a dance partners at the London dance halls - and wouldn't even take a smoke for letting army-booted novices tread on their slippers.

 

But - and here I must try to be tactful - there are some queer people in this world, and perhaps one or two oddities whom fate landed in a prison camp did not become less odd behind the wire.

 

Shall we say, then, that a few individuals showed a bit too much aptitude for female impersonation, and that their readiness to slip into frocks was not entirely due to a sense of humour. Though their features might fit them for pantomime dames, they did not, it appeared, to dress up to be laughed at.

 

'Careful, Cobber, your wig's squiffy' grinned a Kiwi to one of them - and was rewarded with a stare of such icy disdain that he might have insulted a Duchess.

 

Well, Kriegies are all for freedom, of course, and eccentrics are apt to be popular in a drab existence. But all tolerance was quickly strained with these few queer cards.

 

No doubt 'The Fishmonger's Wife,' 'Bag O' Bones' and 'The Passionate Pig' were misunderstood. No doubt the tales about them were as phoney as they were funny. But no doubt, too, these stories had to stop.

 

Who could blame the normal impersonators if they thought twice about dressing up for the next club concert? Who could feel comfortable at the thought of Huns discovering these oddities?

 

No one in his right senses. So Stalag opinion and 'the powers that be' called a halt. Female impersonations were confined to the stage, and the partners reluctantly resumed their trousers.

 

The dances, of course, went on, and for many moons to come were a feature of the camp. They gave pleasure and exercise to hundreds. They fought valiantly against barbed wire blues, and when they eventually closed down, through loss of the hall, they were very badly missed.

 

 

 

 

Next Chapter/.....

 

 

Music : Bei Mir Bist Du Sch´┐Żn

 

 

 

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