Memories of Stalag 383
Chapter 11 :
Back to School
by John E. Mallory
Graphic by Raine Alexander
It has been said by Sir Richard Livingston, President of Corpus Christi, that education, like religion, quickly degenerates into a routine and that then its meaning and its effects are lost.
It is only when one looks back upon the Stalag years from the depths of an armchair that one sees in perspective, as a shapely whole, that conglomeration of experiences that made up prison life: now we realize more than ever that those days of 'back to school' never developed into mere routine and that they gave us something that will never be forgotten.
I remember 'Yank' Johnson at one of the meetings of the Talks and Debates Circle saying that if we could have got some bodies we all had the time to become doctors. 'Yank' was talking about the war as a pessimist and that was in the early part of 1943. How we jeered! Even then it was case of 'any minute now.' Though we could not have become physicians, very many men, hitherto without any trade or profession, profitably passed the years in fitting themselves to take up well-paid occupations when the 'great day' arrived.
The School at Stalag 383 was built out of nothing but determination. The Camp had been open only a few days, when MacKenzie, in September, 1942, convened a meeting of those interested in education. There were no books, no chalk, no blackboards, no writing paper, nothing but enthusiasm and that, directed by W.O.II Wright, was sufficient to make a start on thirty different subjects. German promises to help were not fulfilled, and the men who went to school in the then empty huts carried their own stools with them and wrote their notes on chocolate containers and tea packets.
When forms were obtained 'the rats got in' and they were stolen along with the stoves, floor packing and boards, and electric fittings. After two or three weeks in the huts, the pioneers were moved on again and settled in the National Theatre, at that time known by the Cabalistic title of K2.
Only 400 students out of more than a 1,000 survived that first winter. Two classes worked in the one large room and it was a brave heart that defied the cold. Men like Basil Marin, who taught advanced French and three grades of Spanish, spent whole afternoons taking consecutive classes with unfailing cheerfulness and efficiency. Do you remember Basil's trousers? Day by day they became more threadbare and ragged. I was glad when new clothing arrived. It is the only time I have been taught by a man without a seat in his pants.
Regularly appeals were sent by Don Wright to Geneva and Oxford for material with which to carry on. Don was deceptively unassuming and seemed to lack that drive which made a man a Stalag personality and won him a coveted 'bunk.' Yet the amount of work he did was phenomenal; and those letters would have melted a heart of stone.
Two months after opening, the school received half a dozen rubbers and a few pencils and T-squares. These were followed by a few note-books for the Australians, but only sufficient to give each man four or five sheets. Then material, much of it from Sweden, began to arrive more regularly and there was enough for general issue, though there never was a glut.
From the Spring of 1943 onwards the School never looked back. More subjects were added to the curriculum, more study groups were organized, instructors came forward in numbers and problems of organization became more difficult to solve. Time-tables appeared pinned to bunks, for some men were spending nearly all day in educating or re-educating themselves. The choice grew wider; the curriculum strode through the alphabet from aeronautics to zoology, Maori, Japanese, Hebrew, Dutch and Arabic, equitation, veterinary science and viticulture, I.C. engines, C.I. engines, road building, radio communications and photography, banking, estate management and town planning, psychology, graphology and educational theory, and added to these, all the usual school subjects which were in such great demand that some were organized in triplicate. Great characters like S./Sergt. 'Sammy' Mattatia were taking six different language classes twice a week.
Didactic apparatus was improvised from the most unpromising material. The equitation group's horse made of a barrel, palliasse covers, string off Red Cross parcels and odd pieces of wood achieved more than local fame. I recently found its description in a shop in Derby! Perhaps John McTigue's humorous poem, 'There's a Horse in our Schoolroom,' helped to make it as widely known as a Derby winner.
The transition from K2 to 'Coney Island,' the stable which eventually became the school and library, was slow and difficult, move and counter-move, discussion, and sometimes acrimonious argument took place between the concert parties and clubs then in possession and those who were interested in education. Inevitably the maxim, 'the greatest good for the greatest number' was produced by both sides and statistics were hurled backwards and forwards by protagonists of all parties.
The inevitable compromise solution was reached and the various parties agreed to share. Partitions were erected with wood from Red Cross boxes and gloomy cabins without windows except for the blue-painted skylights became the seat of learning. One could, by exercising great humility and giving many promises, 'borrow' an electric light bulb from the caretaker, 'Talkie' Turkington - if the electricity was not turned off. Then the student with a belly-aching hunger and empty 'tucker' box could feast his imagination on the stencilled inscriptions on the classroom walls - 'Armour's Veribest Corned Beef,' '3doz. 1lb. Peach Jam,' 'Oxford Sausages,' 'Produce of Argentina,' 'Stow Away from Boilers,' 'Genoa Transit,' 'Col. Iselin, Lisbon.'
Or the instructor, involved perhaps in describing Kohler's 'Gestalt' theory in psychology, the theory of form and shape, would be drowned by a tattoo of hammering with saw accompaniment, as stage properties, super bookmakers' stands, or armchairs for the 'Elite' took form and shape on the other side of the frail boxwood. Sometimes 'Talkie' would hold a 'swarry' in his room, quite in the manner of Sam Weller at Bath, and crooners and accordions sobbed and snored a couple of feet away.
The number of students continued to grow and it became impossible to share Coney Island with concert parties. On the other hand the concert parties, too, felt that they were playing an important part in maintaining morale, and that quite rightly, and there was another constitutional crisis, resulting in the whole of the building being taken over for education with the clubs using it during the evenings.
When 'Talkie' found himself unable to reach the Sports Field in time for 8.30 parade one morning, he was ejected from his caretaker job and Roy Veryard took his place, Roy and his staff worked day and night to make a real school, though it must be said that 'Turkey' with his organizing drive had done a great job and many were sorry to see him retire into the obscurity of hut-dwelling.
Six classrooms were built and wired, windows were hacked in the walls, which were coloured, and injunctions not to throw 'fag' ends about replaced the stencilled descriptions of food and stevedores' instructions. Forms and tables, dragged four miles on improvised sledges from German barracks, completed the furniture, and the fiction library which had outgrown its accommodation in a hut was rehoused in the school. A large and comprehensive technical library was organized in the same building and the school became the Stalag's biggest and best equipped institution.
All this indicates a lavish flow of material. The British Red Cross spared neither expense nor encouragement and sent the most useful and valuable textbooks obtainable. I wonder if the Agricultural Group knew how great were the efforts made to send them books on Veterinary Science? A few days ago I visited the Bodleian Library and met the lady who is the Red Cross adviser on Agricultural and Veterinary Science books. She told me that those books were the best on the subject and that she had to write to booksellers all over the country before she could get them.
Co-operating with the Red Cross were the European Student Relief Fund and the Y.M.C.A. in Geneva, and in addition the Swedish Y.M.C.A., the men of Science in America, and the Canadian Red Cross sent quatities of writing material, drawing instruments, slide rules and books; never has a school been so amply equipped with so many books on such a multitude of subjects.
Special enrolment days raised the number of student subjects to over 3,000 and the number of students, excluding those, who worked privately, to 2,000. At its peak, the curriculum was comprised of 84 different subjects.
The number and variety of examinations taken was remarkable. Even to one engaged in education for a number of years the multiplicity of examining bodies was a continual surprise. It is possible to take examinations in everything from arithmetic to hairdressing and the successes won by Stalag students from a record to be proud of. The conditions under which examinations were taken were often appalling in their discomfort. Apart from the disadvantages of hunger, there was in winter the cold with which to contend. It was quite normal, particularly during the last winter of 1944-45, to write while muffled in greatcoat, scarf balaclava and mittens with the additional comfort of a blanket wrapped round one's legs. The padres did a fine job of work, sitting day after day as invigilators under such bitter conditions.
Yet the record of examination success was magnificent. More than 2,000 candidates in 1,000 examinations showed 90 per cent. passes very many with credits and distinctions. The R.S.A. and matriculation examinations were the favourites, but several men succeeded in graduating and very many qualified as linguists. Here it may be said out of fairness that the German authorities co-operated to help in making examinations a success. It was seldom that papers under the magic seal of the Red Cross were opened before they reached the invigilator; but they might have given us more coal!
No account of education would be complete without some mention of the semi-independent groups. First among these was the St. John Ambulance Brigade under its Secretary-Organizer, Sergt. A.E. White - 'Blanco' was the only prisoner I knew who did not want to be relieved for just a few more weeks! The reason was that his Brigade had an examination record in First Aid and Home Nursing of 490, and he wanted to see a nice round 500. I had lunch with Blanco the other day; he tells me that he is anticipating being made a Brother of the Order. It is a well-earned honour.
The spectacle of a dreamy, contemplative, pipe-smoking semicircle of men sitting on the grass round a couple of bee-hives in the enclosure near the Sports Field gate did not mean that those men were monopolizing the only square of turf left in that muddy wilderness of Stalag 383 for the purpose of extending their already ample rest period. They were the Captive Drones with their instructor, C.S.M. Savage, and their President, Padre Grant, learning the satisfying, bucolic art of bee-keeping, a pastime old when Virgil described it. 'Leisure is a noble thing,' said the Ancient Greeks, and these men were nobly spending their enforced leisure. Their results in the examination of the Bee Keepers' Association show how profitably these men studied bees.
Already the memories of Stalag days are growing mellow. Human nature, resilient and optimistic, submerges the miseries of mud, starvation, overcrowding and incarceration. There comes to the top those finer, cleaner things which can be recalled readily and with pride. Many fine Camp institutions will contend for first place; but none for the lasting benefits it conferred on so many can equal that Barbed Wire University at Stalag 383.
Music : Chatanaga Choo Choo