Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 7 :
Graphic by Raine
Said a rare bird, a wise-cracking German censor: 'This is a queer gaol, this Hohenfels. The French walk about as though they own the place. We Germans like to think that we own it. And the British don't give a damn who owns it. They just run it how they like - and patronize everybody!'
Now that was a pretty bright remark for a Jerry and fair testimony to the fact that we weren't exactly squirming under the Hun jackboot. It sheds a ray of light on a very common question - a question put to every one-time prisoner: 'How did the Germans really treat you?'
And the only fair answer I can give to that is that at Stalag 383 they treated us a lot better than we treated them. For though many of our guards assumed the status of attendants at a holiday camp, and came in very useful for shopping chores or for fielding cricket balls knocked through the wire, they were not always treated with respect. They were subjected, in fact, to severe mental cruelty.
Take the chain gang attendants, for instance. I have described elsewhere how they would come round the huts with armfuls of handcuffs which they would be told to sling on the beds while they showed us that they had to sell. Well, every so often, some hapless Hermann would fail to produce even saccharines for sale, but would still have an urge for a smoke. Then, woe betide him! The British would demand their pound of flesh. Before a single smoke was handed over, the Hun would have to click his heels, raise his arm and, with Wehrmacht smartness, 'HEIL CHURCHILL' - nor must he mutter reservations.
So loyal to the Fuehrer were some Nazis that they would only 'HEIL CHURCHILL' for English cigarettes and would preserve a proud, soldierly silence if offered others. And so harsh were some prisoners, that for anything less than a hearfelt 'HEIL' they would hand out naught but roll-ups. It was a pretty hard world for the Huns.
But the fact was we didn't really like them. They were civil enough at Hohenfels as a rule, and they provided laughs in plenty. But most of us were not to be imposed upon. We knew too much about the Huns of other days. There were too many witnesses to their habits when 'on top' - and these habits had not been endearing.
They were at their nastiness in 1940. At least, the captured B.E.F. men said so, and the rest of us could well believe that Nazi boots and rifle butts were then more in evidence than smiles and saccharines.
The early British prisoners were unfortunate. Many months went by before Red Cross or clothing parcels reached them, and winter found them in regions like Silesia and Poland, working outdoors in their threadbare uniforms, or forced down the mines on inadequate rations. Frostbite, hunger, lice and dysentery were their minor miseries compared with the lack of news from home and the black prospects of the war, and the best stroke of luck a prisoner could hope for was an accident serious enough to give him a spell in hospital. It was not unknown for a youngster to 'go sick' and have sound teeth pulled out, just to get a few hours break from work.
Under these circumstances, it surprised no one to hear that the Germans had been tough on the B.E.F., for if there was one thing we all agreed upon it was that the Hun kicks you hardest when you're down.
Only a scrap of paper - the Geneva Convention - promised just treatment for prisoners of war, so the Nazis naturally ignored it. They provided the barest necessities of life - and sometimes less; they forced a seven day working week on ill-fed, unfit men; they threatened life enslavement for all but the docile; and they tried to terrorize the bolder spirits by plain brutality. In some camps, for instance, recaptured escapees were beaten up, and the little Himmlers in charge delighted to parade other prisoners and make them watch the sport.
Among the men in my own hut who remembered the victory-drunk Nazis was Bill Welch of the Rifle Brigade, who once made a break from a Silesian working party, was tracked by dogs and subsequently handed over to the guards he had escaped from.
Bill described his beating up in an extraorinarily detached manner, being more concerned to show us how he had protected his head from boots than to moan about his suffering elsewhere; but though the rest of us just chuckled, and told Bill that he hadn't protected his head as well as he thought, we didn't really think it funny that a fellow should be knocked down in cold blood and then kicked and rifle-butted to the orders of an officer, though we agreed that it was better than being 'shot while trying to escape.'
Shooting incidents always made us cynical, no matter how reasonably they were explained or how impressive a funeral the Germans gave the victim. I have mentioned elsewhere how the two young prisoners who were shot on a working party had neglected some wise advice from a Scot. I should add as a sequel to that episode that the same Scot was himself shot dead at another camp.
The story to reach us was that Jock had gone 'Stalag crazy' and had tried to scale the barbed wire fences in broad daylight, so that the watching guards had 'simply done their job' in shooting him. But we, his friends at Hohenfels, were not convinced that they had done anything other than a safe murder. If Jock had suddenly taken leave of his senses, why, we asked each other, couldn't the guards have overpowered him, instead of killing him on the spot? And we answered that question ourselves - Simply because they were Huns.
But, as regards the early prisoners, it was not so much the ruthlessness of the Germans that embittered the B.E.F. as their arrogance, boastfulness and insufferable cocksureness over the complete collapse of England. In particular was the unconcealed gloating of civilians hard to stomach, though their attitude varied greatly in different districts.
'The civvies used to crow till it made you sick!' said a guardsman who had worked in Prussia. 'They'd rub it in about Norway and Dunkirk ... They'd ask you what regiment you were in - and then grin at the way you marched in clogs ... They'd find out you came from Liverpool - and tell you the Luftwaffe had wiped it out ... They'd nudge each other as they asked you who was going to win the war - but when you told 'em they'd get nasty. Soon they'd be shouting and screaming and shaking their fists like so many blarsted Hitlers. Prussians are all alike, Chum: pure-bred, double-dyed bastards!'
What the guardsman meant was that Prussians are unlovable types, and if he was looking for an argument about it he didn't get one from me, for I'd noticed the same fact myself. Indeed, everybody noticed it including most other Germans, some of whom tried to make the Prussian pig an alibi for all the misdeeds of Hitler's Reich.
The first specimens I saw myself were the guards who met our prison ship from Crete at the port of Salonika. In the main they were big, awkard-looking fellows and there was a marked percentage of buck-teethed, thick-spectacled types amongst them. They seemed to be in extreme awe of their N.C.O.s, who were often of the small, cold-eyed, thin-lipped breed who delight in their own fanatical nastiness and have Himmler - that 'cross between a pig and a wasp' as a Yank described him - as their pin-up boy.
As they marched our column of ragged, half-famished Aussies, Kiwis and Englishmen through the main streets of Salonika, these guards kept up continuous pointless shouts of 'Raus ... Raus ...!' accompanied by such a display of menacing bayonets and malevolent scowls that it seemed they might stage a massacre at any moment. If this was intended to dispirit us it was a bit superfluous, for any signs of perkiness we exhibited were entirely ersatz and intended only for the benefit of the Greek population who, grand people that they are, were giving us the same friendly smiles and victory signs as they did before Britain failed to save their country and Crete.
It was as we were passing a smart cafe in a main street that the Prussian showed his nature. A lovely Greek girl - she looked about seventeen - stepped impulsively forward and, with a quick 'Good luck,' gave some cigarettes to Frank Felix, who was marching by my side. Instantly, the nearest Huns reacted. Shouting like maniacs, they rushed up, grabbed her round the neck, swung her completely off her feet and pummelled and punched her towards an officer, who screamed at her as though she had just attempted the Fuehrer's life. Finally, the frail, terrified girl was pushed, weeping, into the rear ranks of the column and made to march with the prisoners all the way to the transit camp.
This rather sickening scene was repeated several times along the route, and by the time we had reached the gates of the transit camp there were a number of Greek girls and women in the column, including a grandmotherly old soul who had thrown a melon to the prisoners. They were all herded into a guardroom, from which we saw more Greek girls emerge weeping as we entered the compound.
Nor were children safe from brutality. We found that a Hun would rifle-butt a cheeky boy as lightly as a normal man would wag a finger at him, while an episode which particularly sickened Bill Spink concerned a little Greek girl of six or seven.
Bill, with other prisoners, was doing a forced fatigue in some stables when the child, whose mother had given her a piece of bread for the Englishmen, came running towards him. He tried to wave her back. Too late. A Hun guard saw her and seized a whip. As the child ran past him he cut her legs from under her with the lash. There were scores of ugly incidents like that, and they left more bitter memories than the many wanton shootings of prisoners.
It was an understood thing which nobody questioned that the guards at that transit camp were out to kill if they got the chance. The Serbs who were there before us begged us to keep yards inside even the warning wire limits allowed by the Huns. Otherwise, they said, the watch-tower sentries would shoot on the pretext that we were just about to infringe the wire, and British bodies would be left as a warning on the parade ground, just as Yugo-Slav bodies had been lying there when we first arrived.
Fair enough! We all agreed that this filthy hole with its rats, lice, fleas, bugs and mosquitoes would be the last place one would choose to be seen dead in, so while we could live on the rations (a cup of horse-lights soup, a few ounces of green-mouldy bread and three-quarters of an Italian army biscuit per day), we determined to give the guards no excuse for murder.
But they found one. The middle of a quiet August night was the time chosen by a guard for an act which was as foul and Hunnish as any I remember. He tossed a stick-bomb into a barrack full of sleeping prisoners, giving no sort of warning before and no sane reason after.
We in the next barrack, a few yards away, heard the explosion of the bomb, the screams of the wounded and the hoarse shouts of sentries. That was all. We could only stare sullenly at the Hun Kommandant who asked us next morning whether any of us had actually seen what had happened. He seemed uncomfortable and his manner was half apologetic. He inferred that the guard had seen, or fancied he had seen, some suspicious movement and he advised us to lie quite still at night to avoid danger.
As we were moved to Germany soon after that incident we never heard for sure what deaths and mutilations were caused by the bomb, but we did know that British officers in charge of the hospital were pressing for an inquiry, and we could well understand the Kommandant's uneasiness. Supposing Germany should lose the war?
Not that there seemed the least likelihood of that to the average German in August '41. The victories of Greece and Crete and the flying start on the Eastern Front had whipped up confidence to its height - as we noticed on our rail journey to the Reich.
During eight endless days in the tight-packed horse-boxes we stood in turn at the tiny grating, breathed a little air, and then reported to the others what we could see outside. Most men were too down with dysentery or too frantic with lice to care about the scenery, but once over the Yugo-Slav border into Austria there was eagerness to see the actual Reich and to try and judge the spirit of the people.
Nazi flags and bunting were everywhere - and meant nothing. But the jubilation of the people at windows, on platforms and at stations where the train stopped was unmistakable. The women, in particular, seemed far from war weary. They waved handkerchiefs, blew kisses and shouted greeting to our guards as though troop trains were a novelty in a really lovely war.
Silly as it looked to see children 'Heil Hitler' and shake hands with each other; laughable as was the bumptious bearing of station masters, the unconscious strutting of old men and the self-conscious swaggering of the Hitler Youth; it all served to give us this impression: that the Germans felt on top of the world and liked to show it. We wondered how the guards at our first Stalag would behave, and whether they would be an improvement on the Huns in Greece.
Well they certainly were that, those Lamsdorf Germans, and for this we had to thank the early prisoners. These men, by sheer cheefulness of spirit and by constant fighting for their rights, had made the Huns respect them. Indeed, now that they were properly clothed from England, now that they were fit on Red Cross food, and now that they were more serene in mind, they roused a sort of envy in the Huns. Even 'Powder Puff' could not subdue their spirits - though to give the clown his due he did his best.
Powder Puff was the Strafe officer. It was his job to maintain discipline, keep the prisoners down, keep the bunker full and put the fear of Hitler into everyone. A corsetted, powdered puppet of a man, with some sort of facial paralysis that gave him the fixed smile of a ventriloquist's doll, he rode about the Stalag on a bike, shouting threats, finding fault, calling prisoners to attention and imposing mass sanctions on the whole compounds.
His chief ambition was to make things so unpleasant for the non-working N.C.O.s that they would volunteer for jobs outside, and one of his brainwaves was to stage drill parades for four hours a day, these parades to consist of such dreary marching in a small space that they would drive men to ask for work instead.
The brainwave was a flop. It drove no N.C.O.s to work, but it nearly drove the guards frantic trying to round up the marchers from the barrack rooms.
Immediately the 'fall in for drill' was sounded, the thousand or so men in the non-working compound would dwindle by hundreds. Men would flatten themselves under mattresses on the top bunks, dive through windows from one barrack room to another as the guards entered, slip in and out of latrines, produce phoney chits excusing them from marching, pretend that they were booked for barrack fatigues, form 'sick parties' for the M.I. room - and so mess the Huns about generally that they would end by searing helplessly and making do with half the number of marchers they had been ordered to collect.
Once on the actual marching round, the Kriegies would drill as though they liked it, but as soon as there was the smallest break, or as soon as the column passed anywhere near a latrine or barrack-room, the numbers would mysteriously diminuish, which phenomena so infuriated Powder Puff that he once rushed fuming into a latrine, firing a pistol wildly through the roof and sides and making the occupants dive hurriedly in all directions.
Like many Germans, Powder Puff was a perfect stooge, for he had huge vanity, no dignity and a vile temper. Never will I forget one joyful day when he was cycling about doing his usual nuisance act of making everyone salute him. Some unkown hero waited till he had pedalled safely past and then saluted with a 'raspberry,' whereupon Powder Puff swivelled his neck round, jammed on his breakes and, to the Kriegies' huge delight, went 'rear over tip' over the handlebars. Needless to say, he did all the fist-shakings, screamings and pistol-fumblings necessary to increase our joy, and the greatest proof of his clown's success was that he made even 'Chisel' laugh.
This latter Hun - Hempel, I think, was his real name - had features so long, sharp and steely that it only needed someone to suggest that his mother had been 'frightened by a chisel' for the name to stick. He was not an officer like Powder Puff, but he had risen to some sort of N.C.O. rank by his natural talent for snooping, and was a tireless, though not always successful, enforcer of Stalag anti-prisoner orders.
There were dozens of these at Lamsdorf - petty and senselss rules, endlessly thought out to cramp our style. As though it were not cheerless enough to be shut up in winter in icy barrack-rooms where only those few nearest the light bulbs could see properly, there were orders against smoking, against making lamps to read by, and even against sitting down, for though the Huns admitted that there were only forms enough to seat a fifth of each barrack-room, they laid it down that bunks were only to be used at night.
There were rules against putting up washing lines, hanging up clothes, pinning up photographs, storing kit by beds and scores of other things which were quite harmless, and if ever a barrack-room showed signs of settling down despite these pinpricks, then it was a safe bet that the occupants would suddenly be shifted to another barrack.
But what irked prisoners most were the 'anti-eating' orders. The Huns made no effort to feed us properly themselves, but they did all they could to mar our Red Cross cooking. Not content with puncturing all tins in parcels and issuing the parcels in dribs and drabs so that a fellow never knew where he stood, they provided utterly inadequate fuel for equally inadequate ovens, and made it a crime to use home-made cookers of our own. When my own party arrived at Lamsdorf, for instance, there was no fuel issued at all in the reception barracks, and fellows were eating cocoa and pancake powder on spoons in default of means of cooking it.
Naturally, no true Kriegie would leave a meal uncooked while there was any wood about, so as soon as newcomers discovered bedboards under the palliasses they just burnt them and let their night's sleep take care of itself. Similarly, even the old hands had to burn bedboards - though they seldom made the mistake of burning their own - and it became such a common practice that the Huns called it 'Sabotage,' fixed a penalty of twenty-one days in the bunker for a first offence, and employed a host of snoops to trap offenders.
Chief of these was Chisel, and he kicked over more fires, ruined more meals and arrested more cooks than all the pests in Lamsdorf. Still he gave us many laughs, as on the night he grabbed a dixie handle sticking out of a stove and found, too late, that it had been heated white-hot by his Kriegie friends; or as on the night when he climbed snoopily through the barrack window, only to land in a great tub of liquid specially moved from the night latrine for his benefit. His language as he went squelching up the room in his jackboots was said to have been shocking by those who undersood German, but he never was a gentleman anyway.
As a contrast to Chisel, honourable mention should be made of 'Smiler,' a posten with anti-war views who had once been imprisoned by the Nazis. Smiler was as fine a little fellow as you could meet anywhere, cheerful, friendly and always willing to help the prisoners, even to his own grave risk. He did much to modify the views of those who tarred all Germans with the same Nazi brush, and wherever he is now I hope that he is getting as square a deal as he once gave us.
No doubt there were other good Germans at Lamsdorf, and certainly there were some so dumb by nature that one could not dislike them; but on the whole they were a morose, humourless crew, who took such pains to be unpleasant that it was cruel of Kriegies not to show they noticed.
As for the 'Stalag Watch' - the special security guards who patrolled the fences and the roads by night - they looked just what they were: a bunch of would-be killers, always seeking for the least excuse to shoot, and sometimes making one where none existed.
Over and above the normal roll calls, the 'Stalag Watch' staged special check parades. Several times a week, especially in the depths of winter, the prisoners would be turned out of their barracks at the crack of dawn and, breakfastless and freezing, would stand for hours on end waiting for the count to even start.
The delay, of course, was simply due to malice, but however the Kriegies were cursing in their hearts, they invariably raised grins and cheers to greet the guards, for it was both pride and policy with British prisoners not to let the Huns see them 'down.'
If that policy, tested out at Lamsdorf, was specially triumphant at Hohenfels, it was due in no small measure to the fact that Stalag 383 was not opened till September '42, and was then filled by N.C.O.s from Lamsdorf, Thorn, Spittal, Marienburg and Marburg camps who, between them, knew the Germans pretty well.
Right from the start they refused to think of Hohefels as the Strafe camp it was meant to be. Right from the start they treated the Huns as semi-comic characters. And right from the start they ran their daily lives themselves.
And it's time I said a little more about them.
Music : Theme from Dad's Army