Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 8 :
Life of Leisure
Judging from the prisoners' mail from home, the question that most intrigued their friends was - how did they pass the time away? Granted that they did no work; granted that wine and women were denied them and that song was just a trifle out of place, how did they spend their daily lives? How did they manage to keep sane?
Well some, of course, just didn't. I would cheerfully have certified my hutmates, and they would willingly have certified me. We were all 'Stalag Happy' in a way, but it was only late arrivals who were worried by it. 'If you chaps are sane,' said an Arnheim man, 'you've got a shock coming. Back in Blighty they're as mad as hatters ... don't even mutter to themselves all day!'
Even Jerries noticed we were queer, especially one lovely week in August when the sun was rather fierce, 'Crazy Week,' we called it later, and it all began, I think, with a Kriegie and a kite.
He had made this kite himself and was testing it on the Sports Field one afternoon when he saw a Jerry guard gaping blankly through the wire. The Hun's expression seemed to say: 'What ... a grown-up man with a kite!' so the Kriegie and a friend put an act on, just to make him stare a little more. They started squabbling like children over the kite, got it entangled in the wire, set up howls of anguish and, finally, one kicked the other on the shin, who promptly sat down, screwed his face up and started bawling.
The Hun's mouth opened like a cellar and off he went to fetch a witness. While he was reporting that the Englanders were mad, other clowns joined in the act and presently there were Kriegies playing 'Ring-a-ring-of-roses,' making daisy chains and so on - just for the sight of Hun reaction. This varied from dumb amazement to suspicious scowls, but was so satisfactory on the whole that the next few days saw all the clowns in camp working overtime. They embarked on a full scale 'Crazy Week' directed at the Hun.
There were greatcoated Napoleons gazing darkly through the wire, cocked-hatted Nelsons peering up through telescopes, bands of painted Indians whooping through the roads, men riding invisible bikes, leading imaginary dogs, playing marbles, marching to a Chinese band, staring in bunches at the watch-towers - doing anything, in fact, to get the Huns bewildered. In the sweltering heat, fellows would come on parade in coats and balaclavas and stand shivering next to others dressed in handkerchiefs. There were idiocies galore - and to crown them was the 'train.'
The train got the Jerries really ga-ga. It consisted of a short row of huts near the fence - and much imagination. It left for England twice a day at times announced throughout the camp, and passengers were warned to be on time and have their tickets ready. Whistles would blow in the Stalag, men would grasp suitcases and kitbags and rush from all parts of the camp, giving up their tickets at the barrier and crowding into compartments where they could get a seat at the window. Once inside, they would crane their necks out, smoke would belch from the funnel, late arrivals would dash desperately through the barrier, urged on by guard and porters, and, finally, the waving of a red flag would close the platform. As the train steamed out for Blighty, there would be wavings and counter-wavings from passengers and friends, last messages would be bawled out frantically and, as the guard announced the time of the next train, the crowd would disperse to their huts, leaving the extra Jerries in the watch-towers to work things out.
Mad, quite mad, of course, but none who saw the Jerries' faces could esteem it waste of time. For sheer concentrated stupidity, for utter and complete bewilderment, for dark, scowling suspiciousness - nothing could approach the Huns' expressions. The only thing they never did was laugh.
Eventually - after Staff talks in Berlin - the Kommandant sent for MacKenzie. The prisoners he said, were acting strangely: in fact, he thought that some were going mental. What did MacKenzie think himself?
Mac cashed in beautifully. Undoubtedly there was madness in the camp, he said, and certainly it was spreading fast. But who could expect otherwise? Thousands of men caged in like that and never a walk outside the wire. What about a few walking-out parties while the weather lasted? The Kommandant agreed. Anything was better than mass insanity, he thought. So a system of walks under parole was introduced, and the crazy, claiming this had proved there was method in their madness, decided to relax for a bit. It was rather a relief all round.
But a truce from craziness while I try to answer that natural question: what did the prisoners do all day?
Well, the closest analogy I can think of to our normal life is that of students at a rather frowzy university. If a man so wished, he could study all day, play sports in season, join clubs of every kind, hear music, read books, join a gym class, attend debates and even do a theatre on occasion. Almost every form of hobby could be practised from rug-making to bee-keeping, there was every facility for gambling, whether from the bookmaking or punting end, and there were not only tutors for all the normal school subjects but there were coaches for bookies and tic-tac men, which put us well ahead of even Oxford.
If a man would fence, skate, swim, dance, play golf or speak Bulgarian, he could either do so or learn to do so without hindrance, save for weather. If his taste ran to Chess and Bridge or Snap and Housie-Housie, to sailing model yachts or knitting balaclavas, to getting ruptures at the weight-lifting class or to learning how to treat them at the St. John Ambulance class - it made no difference. He would be fully catered for.
Quite apart from the business activities I have written of and the social clubs, debating society and theatres which are later dealt with; quite apart, too, from the underground activities against the Huns, which occupied many, and the cooking, cobbling, gardening and hairdressing jobs, which occupied more, there were such activities as pet keeping, spirit rapping, band practising and hooch making to pass the time away.
Then it was always possible to spend the whole day just collecting fuel, cooking meals, making brews and doing washing: indeed, experimenting in the cause of Science, some of us discovered that it was possible to just lie in bed and watch others do these things, without feeling any great fatigue.
And even now I have not touched on the main occupation at Hohenfels, which was spreading rumours, waiting for the news, misinterpreting it and nattering endlessly about the prospects of the war. There were maps in every hut and pins to mark the fronts. There were calendars to mark off, notches to cut in bedposts and other ways to mark the passing days. We all had theories when the war would end and most of us had bets about the date. In this way I won from Sergt. Gilbert a complete recording of the 'Messiah' - and I still have hopes of getting it one day.
However, having indicated that we were not short of varied pastimes I had better say a bit about our only daily work; the task of being counted by the Huns.
Sometimes roll call was held on the Sports Field and sometimes just outside our huts, according to the state of the ground. In the latter case, it was something of a farce. Ten minutes or so after the 'fall in' had sounded, men in all stages of attire from pyjamas upwards would stroll on parade, decide that they couldn't hang about waiting for still later arrivals and would retire to their huts again, leaving the Jerry postens screaming, grinning or shoulder shrugging according to temperament.
It didn't make a lot of difference if there were a few short, because the normal Jerry couldn't count anyway, and if he was a bit doubtful about the numbers the British Company Commander would find out what numbers he expected, count the ranks himself and tell the Jerry it was all okay and would he mind not wasting further time.
When the escaping season was in full swing, roll calls were more elaborate and might last for hours; and in good weather, when parades were on the Sports Field and there were Hun officers to run them, the counting was pretty thorough. All the same, there were always many latecomers, and since the Huns couldn't stop defaulters by imposing bunker sentences, the Kriegies themselves took action. It was such a nuisance to Kriegies attending school classes etc. to be kept waiting for others, that sanctions were imposed on offenders and a latecomer might lose a job in the cookhouse, or be deprived of camp services and have to fetch his mail himself.
Considering the strict discipline in the German Army, it was surprising how little of it they managed to impose on the Hohenfels prisoners. We would smoke and talk and move about while the count was going on and, as soon as it was over, make a mad dash for the Sports Field gate, the Jerry officers scuttling out of the way to avoid being killed in the rush. There were periods, of course, when they would try to get control by locking us in the Sports Field for a few hours, but, on the whole, the Hun attempts at discipline were laughable. It was a common comment amongst the Kriegies that though German prisoners in England would be immeasurably better fed and housed than we were, they would certainly not be allowed to make such stooges of their guards.
Just to show the Jerries how a parade should be staged, we occasionally put on a smart affair ourselves, Anzac Day and Armistice Day, for instance, making the Jerries rub their eyes at the pressed uniforms, shining boots, polished badges and stylish marching of the prisoners. There were some men who, right throughout their Stalag days, maintained a spic and span military appearance in all weathers; but most of us were more concerned with comfort, so that they summer saw men in shorts (often converted from underpants or from cut down battle trousers) and nothing else, while winter was a time for clogs, scarves, balaclavas and woollen skull caps, the latter made from multi-coloured socks. The effect, on parade, was not aesthetic.
A colourful touch was added to an extra roll call one evening by the appearance on the Sports Field of actors from the Stalag theatre - still in their stage get-up for 'George and Margaret,' which had been interrupted for the purpose of the roll call. Teddy Laws in skirts and a blonde wig was a bit of a distraction from the business of being counted, and there was even more skylarking than usual in the ranks, so the little Hun officer in charge of the parade got annoyed.
Drawing his revolver, he shouted for silence, got it for a second and then announced in English: 'Stop this noise at once - or I will shoot myself!' Whereupon there was a moment's pause, followed by roars of laughter, cries of encouragement and the final break-up of the parade while the Jerry was explaining that what he really meant to say was: 'Stop this noise - or I will shoot you myself.' He was a harmless little chap, that officer, and there was much Kriegie sympathy for him when he made an indiscreet remark about the Nazis to his batman, was promptly reported and was sent away to jail.
His successor was a big, bull-necked Hun, who tried, for a time, to throw his weight about. One summer's day an England-Australia Test Match had been arranged on the Sports Field and great pains had been taken to rope off the carefully prepared cricket pitch. Observing that everybody else was walking round the ropes, this Hun climbed over them and walked across the wicket. Immediately, howls of wrath and execration arouse from the Kriegies and shook him to his jackboots. Recovering his dignity, he stalked up to our interpreter and demanded to know the meaning of that English expression he had just heard shouted. He was told that 'stupid bastard' was good English, and meant somebody who walked across cricket pitches instead of round them. He had to be content with that, though we all hoped he bought himself a dictionary.
Cricket, by the way, aroused mild interest in the Germans, and civilians outside the wire would pause to watch the net practice (the nets being made with string from Red Cross parcels) on the Sports Field. Football and boxing, however, were what the guards like watching and some of them were really eager fans.
Some matches as England versus Scotland at soccer always drew Jerries as spectators, and those who had a grandstand view from the nearest watch-towers were envied by the others. This match was staged in style and was always preceded by the Scots being piped on the field by kilted pipers. The standard of football in this, and in the league football between company teams, was pretty high, but matches were limited to half an hour each half, since Stalag rations did not make for stamina.
As for the gruelling rugby matches - in which the Welsh and New Zealand lads excelled - and the boxing and wrestling tournaments which were staged by the 'Four Posts Club' - some men said they couldn't even watch them on the food at Hohenfels.
Certainly they were heroes those boxing lads, who, with no more rations than the rest of us, would train for weeks on end and then stand up and hammer hell out of each other for the sheer joy of combat. They had no greater admirer than the German Kommandant, who always had a seat at the ringside and seemed astonished at the cheerful way in which hidings were taken and given. The ordinary Jerry postens were keen fans, too, and one, at least, postponed his leave so as not to miss a famous fight between Sam Scrivens and Jock MacKenna. Very popular with all were the all-in wrestling bouts between Terry Daler and Snowy Wright, both of whom had had professional experience - though not on the same scale of training diet.
Duggie Thwaites of Australia, a wrestling champion at his weight, not only taught many men the rudiments of wrestling, but he conducted a weight-lifting class which, in some complicated manner, carried on a competition with a Sydney class - and beat them! Weight for weight, the Stalag men lifted more than their rivals, but though this result was hailed with enthusiasm at Hohenfels it no doubt encouraged the over-exuberance of some gym enthusiasts who discovered, in hospital, that they had not been quite so proof against strain as they had thought.
Under the supervision of Duggie, Jimmy Seed, the gym expert, or other experienced men, it was possible to reach a pitch of fitness safely enough, but lone wolves who liked to train themselves were apt to overdo it and tax their constitutions. Bones seemed more brittle than in normal life and broken limbs took a greater time to knit, while a common ankle sprain might keep a fellow hobbling for weeks on end.
Despite little drawbacks like these, every type of sport imaginable was staged in the Stalag, a static water tank being used for water polo and swimming and an ice rink being made in winter by hosing and freezing the basket ball pitch. Skates, like nearly everything else, were provided by the Red Cross.
'Sporting' equipment not provided by the Red Cross, but obtained in some mystic manner which escapes me, were the heads and tails dice used in the most popular of all Stalag gambling games - 'Two-up.' This game was introduced by the Aussies, and on fine days the whole of the main square of the camp seemed devoted to it, while in bad weather or at night there were one or two huts open to the public as 'Two-up' gambling hells.
It was a simple and fascinating game to watch and Jerries used to gasp at the ease and speed with which huge fortunes were won and lost - the fortunes, of course, being staked in cigarettes, not money. Originally the game was played by tossing two pennies and betting whether two heads or two tails or one of each would result from the spin. Later, dice rolled on a table superseded the pennies game, but the principal was still the same and the same reports would spread round the camp that Diamond Jim, the Maori, had already thrown fifteen heads in a row, had already won umpteen thousand cigs and was now prepared to stake the whole lot that he threw the sixteenth pair of heads next throw.
Some men were crazy enough to sell their Red Cross food for gambling cigarettes, while others were able to live like fighting cocks on their winnings at the game. It must be said, though, that big winners were very generous to camp funds, hospital patients, &c., as were the big mart owners like, Mick Moore, or the various Stalag bookies such as 'Talkie' Turkington, Arthur Bennet, Tim Madden (Simple Simon) and others.
The bookies took bets on most Stalag sports - particularly on big soccer matches, athletic meetings and boxing tournaments - and on all the classic race events in England. They erected big, brightly postered stands in the open air usually announcing that they were connected with such and such an established English Firm and sometimes claiming to have representatives in 'all the best Stalags in Deutschland,' though what advantage that gave punters was difficult to see.
Anyway, the bookies were a cheeful sight and it was good to be able to back the Derby loser as easily at Hohenfels as you could at Epsom and to be provided with all the latest news from the stables on the bookies' bulletin board. Bets were always paid out the morning after a big English race, for the results were heard by the radio, but since there were usually a few German punters who, in theory at least, didn't know about the secret wireless sets, these would solemnly be handed their winnings, if any, two or three weeks later when the race result appeared in the 'Camp' newspaper. A Tote system for betting was sometimes tried, but as a rule the bookies gave fair enough odds and, besides making books on the big races, they introduced pleasing novelties such as betting on the date of the second front, the next arrivals of Red Cross parcels and so on. Bookies, by the way, had less cause than most of us to worry when the next parcels would arrive, for they were no less prosperous than their civilian counterparts, and thought nothing of throwing away their butt-ends, or refusing German soup. They were prison camp plutocrats, those bookies, but they worked for their cigs and were not begrudged them.
Some Kriegies were equally prosperpous without working, thanks to their luck with cigarette parcels. It was not only a matter of some men having more and richer friends in England than others, it was also a matter of chance whether a man received all, or just a small percentage, of the parcels addressed to him. The same thing applied to the quarterly clothing parcels from home, which were all sent through the Red Cross, but which reached some of us regularly and others after long delay, or not at all. More than ever did the element of chance enter into the ordinary letter mail and, talking of Stalag pastimes, the daily wait for the company postman took a high place, since even the chance of getting a letter kept a man interested until the afternoon delivery had passed him by. The rush to the window when the postman was heard and the gleeful whoops of the lucky ones, the reading aloud of passages from Uncle George, or the announcement that all Mum's war news had been blacked out, were as much part of the day's excitement as the arrival of the 'con man' with the radio news.
Naturally, it was not always glad tidings that the postman brought: some of us learnt the saddest news of our lives, with eager, joking hutmates all around urging us to 'read it out' to them. The recipient of such a letter could only slip away on some pretext and, later, the awkward tactfulness of his friends would show him that he had not kept his secret. On such occasions, that complete lack of privacy which is the curse of Stalag life was a very great ordeal. Nowhere was it possible to be alone: even to think in peace was hardly possible, for unless a man were reading or asleep his silence would be bound to bring forth wisecracks. It was certainly no life for a recluse.
However, under normal circumstances and for the normal gregarious male, it was the communal nature of the life that was its greatest recompense, and the wise man made the best of it by keeping his interest in as many spheres of camp activity as possible. To help in this, there were occasional issues of Stalag magazines and a number of wall newspapers produced weekly.
The Main Square was considerably brightened by Jack Linday's 'Spectator,' illustrated with delightfully topical cartoons by Jim Welch, by a Kiwi newspaper with Bob Sweet as staff artist, by the bright newsy journal of the London Club and by a large number of posters advertising various social functions and sports events.
Just round the corner was an Aussie news sheet which once pulled off the biggest scoop in Stalag history. It printed an interview with Mr. Eric Berg in which he gave the first news of the then proposed repatriation scheme for prisoners of war. The camp was wild with excitement at the news, and the fact that the whole scheme later fell through did not detract from the brilliance of the original scoop. For days on end there were big crowds of Kriegies clustered round the paper, and if six thousand of them read the story there were six thousand different versions of it argued about later. Complete issues of that wall newspaper were bound for presentation to an Australian War Museum.
A Stalag incident that produced bright efforts from wall cartoonists was the departure of the 'Irish' prisoners from Hohenfels. Oddly imagining that Irishmen in the British Army could be seduced by Nazi propaganda, the Huns decided to put them all together in a camp where they would be better treated than other Kriegies. To this end, all the Irish at Hohenfels were told to pack their kits, and the morning came when they were to leave the camp in a party.
Those who turned up to see them off had the laugh of a lifetime. There were Palestinians in the party, there were Scots, Cypriots, Aussies, Kiwis, Taffies and Englishmen; every type and nationality in the camp, in fact - except Irishmen. The Paddies had exchanged identities with anyone who felt like a change, had provided the Cypriots with a few green favours and had taught Palestinians to sing 'Killarney.' The Stalag band played an Irish jig, the gates opened wide and the United Nations were off, cheered on their way by the Irish in the camp.
The laugh was on the Jerries that time; but now and then they scored themselves - especially that wisecracking censor I have mentioned earlier. He popped his head into K.2. one afternoon when a dancing class for novices was in progress. The Kriegies were being taught to walk dance-fashion, and were gingerly sliding one boot after another round the hall, with their hands above their heads to learn good balance.
'What's this?' jibed the censor, 'another Dunkirk, Ja?' And since there was no come-back from the dancers, save some sheepish grins, the crack was acknowledged to be 'one up for Jerry.'
A little later, though, the same Jerry was backstage in the theatre watching the make-up man working on an actor. 'Think you could make me up to look like an Englishman?' he asked brightly. 'Sorry Chum,' said the Kriegie, 'but I'm a make-up man - not a plastic surgeon!' So that was quits with the censor.
In exchanging yarns like that and in general Stalag gossip, some Kriegies passed the hours away. A man could go from hut to hut, calling on his friends, giving them the latest camp rumours and picking up fresh griff for his own room-mates. If he was out to learn things, though, he could call on men of every type of experience in every part of the world and find that they were mostly glad to talk.
He could hear about the French Foreign Legion from Spaniards who had deserted from it to join the Allies. He could learn about the Kaiser's old army from a Palestinian ex-German who had won the Iron Cross in the previous war and had fought against the Reich in this. He could chat to a tea planter from Ceylon, sheep farmers from Australia, a gold prospector or a radio announcer from Canada, policemen from South Africa, New Guinea or the Old Kent Road, and a host of diverse characters representing every walk of life from Peer's son to pavement artist. All these men had information to give, and they gave it very willingly to those who asked.
Even the most taciturn types were apt to open out in Stalag life and some were almost embarrassingly frank about their own affairs. Small talk of the type that passes among casual acquaintances was soon exhausted, and once one man revealed the facts about his marriage, say, others would outvie him in candid revelations. But not your husband, Madam. He was exception and was as discreet as you are.
If a man was tired of talk, had no smalls to wash in the Stalag laundry and found nothing to amuse him on the Square or Sports Field, he could still pass the time away browsing in the camp library. This was most efficiently run, very well stocked as time went on, and staffed by some of the most helpful and long suffering fellows at Hohenfels.
Besides the shelves of Westerns and 'Whodunits,' there was a good assortment of classics and modern novels, a fair number of biographies and travel books and an excellent selection of technical books sent through the Red Cross. There were also a number of mid-Victorian romances - many of which had been well thumbed by prisoners in the last war - and a few eighteenth Century editions of works by Voltaire, which may or may not have been of money value.
Considering the lighthearted views on property held by many Kriegies, it was surprising how few of the books were actually 'won,' but it was also surprising how many borrowers would keep a book for weeks on end, and then tell the 'rounder-upper' from the library that they had not had the time to return it themselves. The library was only a matter of yards from any hut in the camp, so that just shows what a busy crowd we were in this workless existence.
In the evenings, the favourite occupations were playing cards or draughts, or if possible, listening to the gramophone. There were quite a few portables in the camp before the end, but there was never one tenth of the number in demand. The owner of a gramophone was, therefore, very popular. Night after night, with never a break, he would be invited out to hut do's, and he could smoke and eat and drink tea to his heart's content, provided that he kept the handle turning.
Records wore out quickly in Stalag life - especially if you bought your needles from the marts - and getting new ones through the mail was a very chancy business. One fellow received an album of the Kreutzer Sonata - unfortunately without the records: another got a Mozart symphony, with every record neatly cracked in two. This was not carelessness in the post: it was thoroughness by some censors in Berlin. It seemed that the Huns were looking for concealed maps and it was thoughtful of them, not having found any, to put their okay marks on the discs they had ruined.
Despite this vandalism, however, there was gradually accumulated a fine library of recorded music and the 'Kalian Group' was formed to give twice weekly concerts in the quietest place available. Dal's delightful sketch of men listening to Beethoven may have been inspired at a gramophone recital, or it may have been suggested by the audience at one of the Sunday piano recitals; for men like Charles Loebel, Dennis Whiteley, or Captain France, all fine soloists, would ignore the unflattering condition of the Stalag piano and play the classics to men who were sometimes hearing them for the first time. These concerts grew in popularity every week.
Charles Loebel, a young Jewish student, was a composer as well as a fine interpreter of music. Those of us who heard his lovely Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano given its first performance (in a lean-to made from Red Cross packing cases) hope that musical history will duly record that it was composed at Stalag 383, so that all at Hohenfels may bask in his glory.
Two Kneller Hall musicians who did great work in the camp were John Rymer and Ben Sorrell. John's most ambitious effort, I thought, was to raise a Stalag symphony orchestra which tackled the Eroica as a first attempt! Shortage of experienced string players handicapped them, but they put up some grand performances and re-introduced the music of Mendelsohn to the Reich which had banned it. Ben's military band once gave a rendering of Tschaikowski's 1812 Overture, complete with 'noises and flashes off,' and the fact that this warlike music was played just before D-Day led the Huns to believe that we had known the date of the second front and were celebrating it thus! Very imaginative people, Huns.
Learning to play musical instruments was naturally one of the chief pastimes of Stalag life, and there were so many dance bands, swing orchestras, accordeon outfits and harmonica combinations that the fairest thing to do is to pick out none of them. If that sounds a bit ambiguous - well, it's meant to. anyway, it may safely be said that every form of musical taste was catered for at Hohenfels, and if a man had nothing else to do he could still lie on his bed listening to bagpipe practice, cookhouse bugles and the songs of Jerry troops marching to manoeuvres. Alternatively, he could just lie on his bed - for nothing I have said about Stalag pastimes must hide the fact that bed-bashing, pure and simple, was the favourite occupation of many.
Only one thing - a really good play or show - was enough to rouse some fellows from their bunks, and since both the Ofladium and the National Theatre of Hohenfels achieved that miracle on occasion, they deserve a short chapter to themselves, and shall get it.
Music : Ballin' The Jack