Memories of Stalag 383
As that last winter of war limped grimly on, the position at Hohenfels grew serious. Day after day the meagre rations dwindled; soon the seemed likely to cease altogether; and with Allied bombers blasting the railways, with Wehrmacht food dumps blown sky high, and with Prussian refugees swamping Bavaria, one fact was pretty plain - non-working prisoners-of-war were last in line for German food.
And food was needed badly. There were still some foul potatoes in the clamps, though they would not last for long; there were still some swedes and water for the mid-day cup of soup; and there was still our daily bread - a loaf between eight men.
But there was precious little else - and it was not enough. Thousands of men were weakening rapidly ... the hospitals were full to over-flowing ... the huts seemed peopled by queer, gaunt strangers ... and an epidemic might have swept the camp like wildfire.
Major Neal, the Senior British Medical Officers, and his brother doctors, grappled with this danger, while S.Q.M.S. David MacKenzie, the camp leader, battled with the Germans on our behalf.
Had blood been drawable from stones, MacKenzie would have wrung food from the Germans, for no grander fighter, no better diplomat than this shrewd Scot ever served his fellows.
But to all demands the Germans had an answer: an answer audible to all - the Allied bombers. Daily, huge fleets of planes sailed overhead - so calmly bound for Nazi strongholds that even Huns gaped admiration - and every bomb they dropped was another German alibi; another good excuse for withholding vital food.
Nuremberg and Munich, Regensberg and Ulm - all these Nazi cities were centres of supply; all, declared the Germans, might once have fed the camp; and all in turn were shattered from the air. Shattered like our hopes of German aid.
So, once again it all summed up to this: the hopes, the health, the very lives, of several thousand men were hanging on a thread - the thread of Red Cross parcels. If parcels reached the camp, then the men's worst trials were over. If they didn't reach it soon, then for some all trials were over. Matters were as desperate as that.
And the odds against the parcels mounted daily. There was firm faith in the will of the Red Cross to send us aid, but there was bitter knowledge of the obstacles in their path: and as the days crawled on and the bombs sloped down and the Red Army sprawled across Prussia, it seemed less and less likely that the Reich railways would carry parcels, instead of troops and guns.
It was now that the realists, as they styled themselves, had their say. Since no parcels had reached us for six months, they argued, how could we reasonably hope for parcels now? We knew that all things possible had been done. That MacKenzie had written and wired to Geneva, and that Mr. Berg of the Swedish Y.M.C.A., our good friend, had acted as a courier on our behalf. We knew that the Red Cross - with many other Stalags to feed - were aware of our plight. We had even seen telegrams advising the despatch by rail of Red Cross parcels. But that was weeks and weeks ago, and even if those wagons had not been plundered by the Germans or smashed in a bomber raid they would, at best, be stuck in a siding, there to wait till the war was over.
Face the facts, urged the realists, and get out of the Stalag while there was yet time. Volunteer to work for Jerry - they would have to feed us then. Hunger we had known before - most of us had gone months without parcels in the early days - but this was different. German rations were lower now than they had ever been, while four or five years of Stalag life had weakened our reserves. Let the bread ration fail for just a few days, as well it might, and we were sunk.
And why not volunteer for farm work, anyway? It wouldn't save some of us - and there was no bigger fool than a needless martyr!
Thus argued a small section of the camp - perhaps one man in every hut - and since these realists were by no means always the faintest hearted, they were not unduly despised for their viewpoint. In fact, they were much less unpopular than the consciously heroic.
'I'd sooner starve to death than work for the enemy!' declared one of these latter prigs dramatically.
'You'd sooner starve to death than work for anybody, Chum!' retorted a realist, and the grins that followed showed that most of us realized that we had mixed motives for our 'won't work' attitude.
Nevertheless, not to withhold credit from the bulk of the camp, it must be recorded that through thick and thin they stuck to their decision not to work for Hitler, a decision that commanded German respect though it did not produce German food.
There was little disposition to blame the Stalag Kommandant for our plight. This gross, good-humoured barrel of a man seemed more of a soldier than a Nazi, and his powers outside the camp were negligible. He admitted that we were short, dangerously short of food; he admitted that it was Wehrmacht responsibility to feed us; and, while regretting that there was little he could do about it under the circumstances, he seemed genuinely anxious that a miracle should happen and Red Cross parcels reach us.
Meanwhile, roll calls were practically cancelled, since efforts to count us were made farcical by about one man in ten collapsing on parade and four or five others having to carry him off, and life more and more resolved itself into a perpetual hibernation in bed - a hibernation broken mainly by visits to the icy washhouses.
Due to frozen pipes, there were only brief intervals each day when the water was running, but it was during these ablution periods that the astonishing changes in men's physiques could be noticed. A few months on German rations seemed tohave shrunk some men in frame as well as flesh, and their Gandhi-like limbs and torsos made an odd contrast to the pot bellies developed by years of potato excesses.
Odder still were the changes in physiognomy. Some men developed the puffy cheeks of hunger oedema and looked bloated, like Nazi caricatures of Churchill; others retained their normal contours, but took on a sort of luminously yellow tinge to the skin, while some of the weight-lifters, boxers and rugger players, whose normal mien was decidedly earthbound, were given by hollowed cheeks and hungry eyes an impressively spiritual appearance. Terry Daler, for instance, well known to the camp as an all-in-wrestler, and normally looking the part, developed the aspect of an Eastern mystic, so that when I visited his hut one day I was not surprised to find him reading tomes on Buddhism.
Reading, that winter, required almost Yogi-like powers of concentration and was not everybody's solace. Not only was it bitterly cold to keep one's chillblained fingers outside the blankets, but the brain seemed to have lost its normal receptive powers, so that the same page had to be read over and over again for its meaning to register. Most minds were so pre-occupied with food, anyway, that only descriptions of meals had any real interest. Dickens was naturally popular and Mrs. Beeton, if available, would have been a riot.
In the main, then, we didn't lie in bed and read - we just lay in bed. And it wasn't easy, even after the long practice enforced upon us at Hohenfels. Since for a great part of every year the camp grounds were either an unwalkable glazier or a knee-deep swamp, and since most huts contained only one small table to sit at, it had always been the custom when hutbound to lie on one's bed for most of the time. But what had been boresomely bearable in the days of parcles, when we had been able to split the days up by making cups of cocoa occasionally, was a very different proposition now that we were out of eats and smokes and mail from home, and now that reading had lost its charm.
For some men, every hour seemed a day and every week a month. The combination of hunger, suspense and intolerable activity unbalanced them. A few became definitely 'mental' and required supervision, and more than a few reached a point where, without being insane, they were lacking in normal judgment and restraint.
These men talked wildly about a mass attempt at fighting our way out of the Stalag and depending upon Allied aircraft to drop us food and arms by parachute.
They pointed to the new trenches and strong points that the Wehrmacht were building in positions commanding the camp, and they urged that it would be better to act at once before the posts got stronger and we got feebler.
Actually, of course, any such attempt would have been mass suicide in face of machine guns, mortars and the thousands of Hun troops stationed round about, which fact was demonstrated, silently but forcibly, on one of the now rare parades for roll call.
Some six thousand of us had assembled in companies in the great rectangular cage of the parade ground and were waiting, cold and cursing, for the usual handful of postens to count us. This morning, however, they shut the massive gates behind us and left us, for a spell, to our own devices. The comment was just passing round our ranks that the Jerry strong points and trenches outside the wire had been completed and were this morning strongly manned, when a company or so of Huns, other than our usual guards, appeared from nowhere and positioned themselves all around the outside perimeter of the parade ground - something which had never happened before. At the same time, the guards on top of the corner watchtowers were more in evidence than usual and the spouts of their Spandau machine guns usually prominent.
For a short while, the atmosphere was tense, almost sinister. It was easy enough to make cracks about this sudden display of armed might, but it was obviously not intended as a joke and the steel-helmeted company of Huns looked far from playful. Fortunately, we did not know of Hitler's current 'shoot prisoners-of-war' order or we would have been seriously uneasy about the situation. As it was, the thought entered many heads that, caged in as we were without any sort of cover or weapons, we could be wiped out in no time if the Nazi so desired, and perhaps the demonstration gave, and was intended to give, a sober hint to the reckless. No signs of uneasiness were displayed to the Huns, but we weren't sorry when the familiar Stalag postens eventually counted us and the parade was safely dismissed.
By that stage of the war, most prisoners had a strong prejudice in favour of preserving their lives, the theory being that with four or five years of captivity behind them it would be a pity to pass out now that the war was obviously on its last legs. Never, indeed, had life, or, rather, the prospects of life, seemed so sweet; and never had the phrase 'the struggle for existence' assumed such meaning.
There were a few hungy souls who scrambled daily round the refuse bins in search of food. God knows what food, for even swede peelings had long since been rationed and queued-for luxuries, but no doubt temperament drove them to action, however futile, to try and help themselves. The struggle of the vast majority, however, was confined to just hanging on grimly to their remnants of strength and to making sure that they got their exact share of the daily rations.
Justice in the distribution of food was an obsession, unblinking eyes in every hut watching each move of the quartermasters. Different rooms had different systems for sharing out the rations, some using home-made scales to weigh the bread and potatoes. One hut employed a different man each day to cut the bread.
He was encouraged to cut the loaf into equal eighths by the knowledge that he, the breadcutter, would have last choice of the slices on the table. This system was said to be effective in eliminating light weight slices, but to be agonizingly slow to perform or watch.
In Hut Sixteen we stuck to the method I have described, the mainstays of which were Bill Welch's eye and a pack of cards. None could dispute the essential fairness of the system, but one or two men had the fixed idea that day after day, by sheer ill luck, they drew the foulest portion of potatoes and the smallest piece of bread. Sometimes their nerves betrayed them into voicing this conviction, in which case they were promptly jumped upon, for moaners and self-pityers were definitely not popular.
Not, on the other hand, were the determinedly cheerful, the 'keep smiling like me' characters. Unlike the naturally merry souls, who were a great blessing, these dutifully happy warriors were apt to be irritating, so that 'Lord preserve us from cheeful heroes' was an oft-breathed prayer.
The fact was that we knew each other too well. Years of unescapable intimacy under all sorts of conditions gave us X-ray insight into each other's characters and anything that seemed forced or phoney at that stage struck a peculiarly jarring note.
Jarring notes, indeed, were pretty common those days, and had the B.B.C., miraculously and ill-advisedly, contrived to broadcast 'Ten minues in Stalag 383' there might have been more than strong language to shock listeners. There might have been the impression that cats and dogs could live in greater harmony than British prisoners and that some of us disliked each other far more than we did our Nazi gaolers.
And so we did - at times. The Nazis were starving us, of course, which was unfriendly of them; but they were a remote, impersonal force, represented only by the Stalag guards and snoops whose occasional visits to the hut were an interesting diversion. Our hutmates, on the other hand, were fine fellows at bottom and would share their last smoke with us, but in the meatime it was they, and not the Nazis, whose odd mannerisms, pet phrases, weird opinions and jarring voices were an active irritant for most of our waking hours.
There were the hut parrots, for instance. 'Ah, well, it's a grand life if you don't weaken!' a voice would proclaim as, perhaps, the snow drove through the window, and you could almost hear the teeth grinding beneath the blankets as the rest of the room tried to recall whether that was the fourteenth or the fifteenth time that morning that the same voice had registered the same great thought.
Or: 'I've got a hunch that parcels are on the way!' a phoney optimist would announce at intervals, whereupon his hutmates were left writhing at the thought that either he would poison all hopes of food reaching them at all, or that they might one day have to hear him congratulating himself on his wonderful foresight - both prospects being quite sickening.
Then there were the chronic arguers, who had the figt of turning the friendliest discussion into a violent row within two sentences, and there were the cross purpose pairs who, by not listening to each other, could argue for hours without discovering that they were both saying the same thing, their voices batting inanities endlessly to and fro across the room.
Perhaps the most maddening thing about these arguers was that they never chose their immediate neighbour to argue with. That might have given the rest of the room some peace. Instead, the fellow in bed seven, say, would start an argument with the fellow in bed five, while the unfortunate occupant of bed six, between them, would suffer all the tortures of the damned, sticking his fingers into his ears to cut out their voices and stuffing blankets into his mouth to avoid screaming at them. Usually, he would end by screaming at them anyway, whereupon his tormentors would ask him pityingly 'What's the matter, Chum - letting the life get you down!' while the hut parrot would never fail to comment soothingly: 'Ah, well, it's a grand life if you don't weaken!'
The best tactics against arguers was to butt in on their talk, flatly ignore the point, if any, of their argument, and introduce some irrelevant subject upon which the whole room felt deeply. The subject, for example, of toilet tins. This would cause heads to pop up everywhere, and would soon change a dull duel of words into a free-for-all debate in which everybody had the same chance of getting on other people's nerves.
These tins, perhaps, are an indelicate subject, but they were part of an indelicate life and must be explained. With the best will in the world, then, it was often impossible to reach the latrines at night, owing to the foul outdoor conditions of the camp. There were times when a man might put on clogs and, with Jerry seachlights trailing him, wade through mud and rain to regain his hut with nothing worse than a soaking, one clog sucked off his feet and mud all over his legs.
That last winter, however, it was not so simple. At night, the icy slopes leading to Nine Company latrine were practically unscalable without picks and tackle, especially during the frequent air raids, when the perimeter lights were switched off and the whole camp devoted to darkness through which peered suspicious Hun guards. Then, too, nocturnal blizzards were fiece and frequent, and for some of the spindle-legged, light-headed inhabitants of the huts an excursion from bed into such elements would have been an open invitation to collapse.
In short, then, a man made serious calls during daylight, and at night was obliged to rely upon a communal bucket if the hut boasted one, or a personal tin or tins if it didn't.
Now, no one who has not lied in a democracy of fourteen men intent on killing time can imagine the spate of suggestions, amendments and furious disputes that shook the hut before it was finally agreed that the tins were indispensable, that they should be kept just inside the porch at night, and that each man should be responsible for emptying his own the first thing every morning. Still less could an outsider imagine the supicions, feuds and recriminations that soon developed over alleged breaches of these rules.
'Some lazy swine hasn't emptied his tin!' the day's orderly would announce bitterly. 'Perhaps he thinks I'm going to do it for him?'
'Wouldn't do you any harm if you did, Chum,' some trouble-seeker would put in, 'you're not too particular whose tin you get hold of at night and ...'
Down would go the orderly's broom. 'Are you suggesting it was me used your filthy tin the other night? Let me tell you this, Chum. I know my own tin, and that's the one I use - but if you're too dopey to remember which is yours, there's no need to ask whose this is. Damned if I'll sweep up till you've emptied it!'
'Now, now, gentlemen!' a would-be pacifist would soothe, 'don't let's start all that off again. After all, anybody can make a mistake at night. It's not as though we had any lights. Why, I dare say I've used other people's myself before now, and ...'
'Then you can bloody well empty this one!' the orderly and his late antagonist would announce together, while the rest of the room, pretending to be annoyed by the disturbance, but secretly only too glad for something to be happening, would emerge from their blankets, forget their craving for breakfast, and wade into yet another toilet tin debate.
Yes, they led to endless waste of words, those tins; but they sometimes provided a bit of fun - as when a joker secretly filled them from a jug, leaving those 'in the know' to smother their chuckles as, all through the night, murderous breathings emananted from the porch; or as on the morning when the most irritable man in all captivity emptied, by mistake, the tin of his rival and was later obliged to make a further journey with his own, whereupon he ...
But no! Ill draw a veil over that episode and, indeed, will now quit the whole subject of hut squabbles with the reflection that we were not, on the whole, a cantankerous crew, but that no community of men, whether of soldiers, stockbrokers or Saints, could be snowed up together for months without sometimes loathing the sound of each other.
I say sound, rather than sight, because most of the time we wallowed in Stygian darkness, due partly to the broken windows being largely boarded up and partly to the Hun system of allowing no electric current before dusk - on the grounds of economy - and no electric current after dusk - on the grounds of air raids.
In happier days, we had improvised lamps out of shallow tins, pyjama cord wicks and ersatz margarine; but now the only emergeny light in the hut was John Newby's nightlight, which worked, I think, on an allowance of boot dubbin, and was zealously guarded for speciall occasions such as the reading out of news bulletins.
For the greater part of our waking hours, therefore, we lay in the dark - sometimes listening in silence to the bombs bursting on Nuremberg and the near-based German planes circling overhead to avoid being destroyed on their own air fields, but more often just chatting in desultory fashion about camp news, past experiences, future hopes, and everything under the sun except women. Women(other than as cooks) had dropped from first place to last as a topic of conversation, while Pin-up girls had long since been ousted from day dreams by the nearer-the-heart subject of hot dinners.
Not that our minds were completely occupied with food. For all I know to the contrary, my hutmates may have been secretly meditating upon the Universe, or drawing profound moral lessons from their sufferings; but certainly some, at least, of our feelings were on the physical plane, so that when an article in the newspaper 'Camp' asked the quesion 'What spiritual lessons has captivity taught you?' Alf Tuck's answer, 'Never to jib at anything to eat!' struck as a profound thought, beautifully expressed.
Alfred, besides being a smart bombardier, a versatile musician and an abominable cook, was the youngest man in the hut, and one to whom that winter was a real ordeal. Captured at St. Valerie when barely eighteen, he had stuck nearly five years' imprisonment - including a period of forced labour in the mines, during which an accident had badly injured his hand and affected his nerves. His must-be-doing-something temperament now had no outlet, as hitherto, in running a dance band or concocting cakes, and although Bert Gilbert and I were thus spared nights of groaning agony trying to digest his recipes, we were much disturbed by the sharp decline in his health that winter.
For a time Alf bore up very well without parcels and, indeed, when Bert 'blacked out' one morning, so deeply and lengthily that we had to carry him to the M.I. room on a stetcher, Alf was one of the four bearers who managed the awkward, slithery journey down a minature glazier without mishap.
But, whereas a day or two in the warmth of the M.I. room restored Bert to a state of health where he could rest on his bed as hartily as the best, Alfred, once started on the downward slope, slid rapidly into a mere ghost of his former self, his peaked features, saucer eyes and shaky voice being hardly recognizable to his friends. Unable to relax in bed, he felt the cold more and more keenly, yet it was farcical to try and make a fire with the handfuls of brown dust the Huns doled out as coal.
So it gave Alf, especially, a new lease of life when the hut decided to burn the last remaining under-floor boards together with most of the joists that supported the floor. By this expedient, we were able to keep up a real, honest-to-goodness blaze for a few days - a blaze sufficient to thaw the washing on the lines, melt the icicles on the roof beams, and make the room a lot more habitable.
During that brief spell of luxury, we borrowed a gramophone, invited visitors to the room and, in between records ranging from Bach to Duke Ellington, Alfred gave us tunes on his accordion, quite in his old style. It was a tonic, too, to all of us to sit up and talk to the visitors, one of whom, Jakey Ross, a popular camp boxer, had just done a stretch in the bunker for putting on a postcard his opinion of German rations - not, we gathered, a particularly favourable opinion.
One thing we chuckled over that evening was a truly brilliant feat on the part of occupants of the escapees' hut, who managed to decoy a Jerry sentry away from his post, then marched and stowed away for firewood long before the outraged Huns set the snoops in motion.
This sort of thing was heart warming - and so, too, were the optimistic views we exchanged about parcels under the cheerful influence of the fire. Even though the railways were kaput, we told each other, we knew, through Mr. Berg, that the Red Cross were striving urgently to reach us, so we could just hang on cheefully till a way was found. Besides, the rate the Russians were moving, the war would be over next week, and who cared about feeling peckish in the meantime?
But the war, alas, was not over next week - though our fireside evenings were - and the 'peckish' feeling was now giving way to something much more sinister: an awful lightness both of head and body ... a feeling that the rations were mere ballast, without which a fellow would float calmly away during one of those ever more frequent dizzy spells.
However, to return to Alfred, very shortly after our successful 'At Home,' a place was somehow found for him in the desperately over-crowded hospital, and greatly though we missed him, we rejoiced to know that he would now get the attention he needed.
Another real Londoner to go 'in dock' was Pop Gilbey, ex-policeman, who at well over fifity had done the 'longest beat in my service' - the weary trek through France, Belgium and Holland to the prison camp in Germany. Never more would Pop's head poke through the door to warn us 'only two hundred and seventeen (or whatever it was) more shopping days to Xmas gentlemen!'
With the possible exception of Frank Moore who was now more than four stones under weight, and so thin that we used to warn him of cracks in the floor boards - the occupants of Hut Sixteen were no worse off than fellows in the hundreds of other huts in the Stalag. In fact, we were 'sitting pretty' in comparison with some, for we did at least have bunks to lie on, whereas in the big double-sized huts on the high, exposed 'Sports Field' newcomers from the camp at Moosburg were lying on straw on the ground, some of them having only one blanket to keep out the shrivelling cold.
But we derived little enough comfort from the thought that others were worse off than we were. Even when Jack Welch recalled the ghastly plight of the early Russian prisoners at Lamsdorf, it didn't help us much. We well remembered how we had tossed cigarettes, chocolate and bars of soap from our parcels into the Russian compound, and how the poor fellows had stuffed everything alike into their mouths, chewing and swallowing frantically. And we remembered, too, how day after day they used to push their tumbrils of dead down to the lime pits, sometimes members of the burial party themselves dropping dead en route.
Well, the camp hadn't reached that stage yet, but it wasn't so far off it that men could feel complacent about things, and as the cold, dark days dragged interminably on, many Kriegies sunk into a kind of torpor, more dangerous than the state of ravenous restlessness that preceded it. Their apathy became such that not even the most dramatic war news could now rouse them.
Men who had exasperated the Germans by dismissing the disasters of France, Norway, Greece, Crete and Singapore as mere trifles, and who had cheerfully informed their guards that Adolf was being 'led up the garden' in Russia, would now admit that Runstedt's short-lived offensive had shaken them. That they no longer had faith in an early end to the war - and that they just couldn't work up interest, anyway.
The fact was, of course, that after the high hopes of the previous summer, the whole of this winter had been a bitter anti-climax to prisoners, many of whom feared that unless food reached them soon, they would falter at the last fence and return home undermined in health - invalids dependent on their families.
This fear was seldom put into words, for there was a horror of anything that savoured of self-pity, but it could often be detected from chance 'thinking aloud' and it naturally took a lot of joy out of the prospect of the war ending at last. Unhappily, too, this fear was often well founded.
On the less serious side, one bogy that haunted quite a few Kriegies till it was laid by laughter, was the notion that we should all be sterile, if not impotent, for many years to come, due, said the whisperers, to deficiencies in our diet.
However, so badly had the rhythm of most men's lives been upset that there was some excuse for those who swallowed this yarn, and I must hasten to add that the majority of men were far from imagining themselves to be more unfortunate than they actually were.
In fact, as the situation in the camp got graver, so did most men show the stronger side of their characters. There seemed to be a greater realization that the 'other fellow' was also groggy, and more efforts were made to control nerves and preserve a little peace in the huts. There was a solid front shown to the Huns, and even the realists were determined not to fall for 'farm work.' In short, the spirit of the camp was sound.
And a sound spirit was needed now. Deaths had been mercifully few at Hohenfels (though there had been more that winter than in the rest of the two and a half years of the Stalag's existence), so it came as a shock to the camp when the first double funeral took place on March 13, and two of our comrades were left for ever in German soil.
All who felt able to do so lined the route of the funeral to pay tribute to the dead, and the Germans, as was their custom, provided military honours. Some men saw irony in this, though it is right to say that our comrades had not died directly from starvation: right to say, too, that some Germans seemed as conscious as us of the tragedy of these prisoners' deaths on the eve of liberation.
It was a sad, silent gathering that watched the cortege leave the Stalag, and when our own band, the Funeral March over, broke into the customary sprightly march for the return journey, it was still a silent crowd that dispersed to the huts.
Perhaps there were some who wondered whether they, too, might fail to last the journey; whether they, too, might never see their homes. And no doubt there were many who pondered the same questions: Could the Red Cross find a means to reach us? Could they get their help to us in time?
The Red Cross could - and did. On March 22, 1945, a car drew up at the Stalag gates. In it was Mr. Berg, his face all smiles. Behind him came two white motor wagons, the Red Cross marking on their sides. They had come to the camp from Moosburg. They were full to their roofs with parcels. And the parcels were meant for us - the first of a steady stream.
Thank you, Mr. Berg. Thank you, Red Cross. No need to tell you how we felt. We christened those wagons WHITE ANGELS - and that, I think, says it all.
Music : Minnie the Moocher