Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 10 :
Clubs were Trumps
by William Kemp
Clubs were trumps - and there was a full deck of them in Stalag 383.
At the height of the club craze, there were getting on for 100 'get-together' organizations in the camp. When the camp strength was just over 4,000 men, club members numbered well over 5,000. For there was nothing to prevent a man being a member of more than one club, and some 'Joiners' were members of half a dozen.
There was something uncanny about the ease with which you found yourself a clubman. There was none of the 'proposer and seconder' patter. There was no old-school-tie qualifications, no system of 'black-balling' which is found in some exclusive brotherhoods.
No. Some important-looking guy came dashing round with a pencil and paper - in a camp of non-working N.C.Os. there were of course plenty of these chit-merchants, - 'You're from Sussex? Right, you're in the Sussex Club.'
That was that. There wasn't very much you could do about it, was there, except 'Bring your own mug' when the Sussex Club Social came round. But Sussex was only a beginning, and unless you were a man of iron will, you found yourself carting that blessed mug around as if it were chained to you.
For along come other important-looking guys with other chits of paper. 'Your mother came from Ireland.' You worked in Newcastle, your wife belonged to Edinburgh, you'd a second cousin in Liverpool.
Clubs were trumps, and the chit-traders had dealt you a hand of them.
Somebody must have started it, of course, and I think that honour belongs to the Liverpool men, with the haggis-bashers - sorry, the St. Andrew's Society - following close on their heels.
At the full tide of the movement, club notice-boards crowded each other on the barrack-room outer walls. All were brightly coloured and some were most elaborate affairs, with eaves like a dovecot.
When the Gaelic Society - haggis league with which 'Basher' McLean had a lot to do - posted a notice, one of their members immediately dashed to the Secretary, and said breathlessly: - 'Look here you'll have to stop these bloody Palestinians from posting notices on our board!' It must be added that this particular Gael hadn't been long in the Gaelic Club.
At the ebb of the club movement - the last hungry 383 winter - notice-boards disappeared. They were used for fuel. After all the huts were a bit dilapidated by this time, and you could not take your last beam down. It was different with the Yanks nearing Nuremberg!
And what were the advantages of being a club-man? Oh, boy, ask those Aussies and Kiwis! Oh, boy, those brews - and brews!
Five 'do's' in a week was just about the most anyone could stand. But it was possible, when clubs were trumps, to shave, brush your hair, fix collar and tie, disinfect your mug, and step out seven nights a week.
After about three weeks of this, it was almost a relief to know that, in one case at least, your mug wouldn't be necessary. Somebody or other had got at the beer before the event! They say that one official drank four club brews on his own, but I don't believe it.
But I will say that I saw three club barrels knocked off one night by a private party. Our room had been de-bugged that day, and we were all a bit light-headed.
Sometimes, on the great night, there was more than a trace of aqua vitae in the girthsome barrel. 'Order, gentlemen, please. Sit down. There's plenty for everybody. Order, gentlemen, please -' Ah, memories, memories.
Sandwiches, pasties and cakes baked by club members - Cpl. Nogan, 'shun - were a feature of many club suppers. One of the reasons why the movement declined was the fact that food became too short for even a cup of tea to be offered - and a social meeting isn't the same without a cup of tea, is it?
Many club gatherings featured an excellent cabaret show. 'Dun and D' never failed with 'Barefoot Days' and I have seen Stan Long and Fred Parker gallantly do several shows in a night just to keep the boys cheery - hurrying in their female attire from hall to hall, 'and no escort, thank you (Sniff).'
The 'Captive Drones' could score a spot of real honey in their cakes, and they had two smashing bakers in Ron Butler and Harry Adams.
Stormiest business meetings were said to be those of the Glasgow Club. 'On a point of order, Mr. Chairman.'
The Glasgow Club, like a great many others, was responsible for the 'adoption' of some of our Channel Island comrades. Clubs which adopted a Channel Islander collected for him clothing, soap and other necessaries which he was able to parcel up and send to his people.
And many a Blighty boy, too, must have a very high word of praise for the clubs. When he came in short of kit, when his parcels didn't turn up on time, in stepped his 'townies' of the club and saw him right.
Stage entertainment of a very high standard was provided by some of the bigger clubs. The Aussies and Kiwis had some very fine shows. Glasgow and London too. And I shall always remember the Welsh Club's 'Hewers of Coal.'
Here it must be mentioned that while we were still waiting for the second front - oh glorious long-waited for D-Day - Stalag 383's Clubs were engaged in two major wars. One was about the stage in the National Theatre (or K2 as it was better known) and the other was about the football pitch.
There was no 'unconditional surrender' about either of these two wars. Peace hasn't been signed yet as far as I know. While they lasted, they provided argument and counter-argument, meeting and counter-meeting, and notice and counter-notice, which must have used up a whole Norwegian forest, if it was German and not Geneva paper the 'signatories' were using.
All said and done, however, the clubs got a lot of stage and a lot of pitch - more than one between five anyhow.
They ran several football tournaments, in which the dominating clubs were West Riding, Wales and Perth. When the Jerries finally got me out of the camp with the last party, the Perth men were still hollering at Secretary Fincham for that promised shield which never materialized. Perhaps it made a brew of Ovaltine during the winter.
Mrs. German, of Leicester, sent a shield to the Leicester club for a basket-ball competition and club water-polo provided very good sport. 'Keep it up, Menora!' 'For God's sake Jackie Ross, don't drown.'
Biggest club 'creeps' were suffered by the man who opened the door of a pitch-dark firehut, and heard a deep voice intone: 'My name is Death.'
It was only 'Dodger' Rodgers, Burns club maestro, warming his hands at a cold stove, reciting 'Death and Dr. Hornbrook.'
One strange 'club,' flourishing in secret in Nazi Germany which banned it, was composed of the Freemasons in the camp. They met behind bolted doors.
Accommodation was one of the clubs' biggest bugbears. They met in the School, in K2, in the Gym, in bagpipe haunted Dunvegan. Often they were hunted from room to room and a lot of them finished up in the open air.
A quizz, a talk, a spelling-bee - those were features of routine club meetings, when the club wasn't dealing with the resignation of one of its officials. For officials had a habit of resigning - the resignation bug often bit Stalag people.
I used to think there was a spot of drama in some of the send-off gatherings which the clubs organized often at short notice, when some of their members were due to leave on repatriation.
There they say - often by the flickering light of two little fat-lamps - the men who would leave for Blighty to-morrow, the men who would stay behind, maybe for years.
Perhaps Davie Laird, on his accordion, would play 'Auld Lang Syne.' And every man had his own thoughts.
Now we're all home, and you - Three Crowns, Greenjackets, Alen of Angus, the whole colossal pack of clubs - you who used to curse that too-conscientious treasurer when he came round for your weekly subscription of one fag, remember now that in keeping up your spirits, passing your time, fighting boredom, seeing you through, clubs were not only trumps, they were aces.
Music : Count Basie Medley