Business as Usual
Under the Nazi terror, it was forbidden for prisoners to shoot their guards, and to assist the enforcement of this ban, the mere possession of firearms by a P.o.W. was frowned upon. In fact, both he and his supplier were liable to be shot.
Nevertheless, if a fellow still felt safer with a L�ger and ammunition, he could get both at Stalag 383. It was just a matter of raising the cast - about 500 cigarettes for a L�ger - and making contact with one of the racketeers well in with his Hun counterparts.
In the same way, he could buy himself a radio, camera, compass, or any other article streng verboten to prisoners, while if he wanted something reasonable, like an armchair, a packet of French postcards, a live duck, or an oil painting of his wife, he could deal openly on one of the properly established marts in the camp.
For Hohenfels - though a non-working camp - was a pretty seething centre of activities, ranging through honest labour, professional services and big capitalism to doubtful dealings and plain robbery. All this initiative, popularly lumped together under the general terms 'rackets,' found its focal point in the marts, of which there were forty or fifty in the camp in thriving times.
Sometimes a mart might consist of 'shop premises' in the corner of a hut, the customers being served through the window after reading the prices on a chalked board outside. More often, though, they took the form of market stalls on which the goods were openly displayed to the world.
Since tables and forms were hard to come by, the mart owner often had to remove the front door from his hut, and mount it on Red Cross packing cases to serve as his stand, and this door-lifting business naturally called for delicate negotiations with his hutmates, to say nothing of frequent hand-outs from takings.
However, granted the stand, a pitch not far from home, and some trading name such as 'The London Mart' (Service with a Smile) or 'Lemmy's Mart' (Lemme sell you something) the next step was to dress the stall with any odds and ends he could muster from his own and his pals' clothing parcels, put a couple of Red Cross food tins amongst the socks and shirts, and exhibit a notice that he was willing to buy, sell or exchange any form of goods with the maximum of courtesy and fairness.
From this humble start he might develop a business with strange ramifications, bringing him not only all the food and smokes he wanted, but many little luxuries, including a credit balance in a Blighty bank. On the other hand, he might develop only corns and pneumonia from standing about all day in all sorts of weather. Nor was it just a matter of luck. It was a question of business acumen, too, in a highly competitive market.
Mick Moore, a Lancashire bus driver, whose 'emporium,' the oldest established and best known in the camp, made him a Stalag millionaire, able to bestow Nuffield-like gifts on camp good causes, made his pile by initiative and energy which would have brought their reward anywhere.
You could buy anything at Mick's mart, from a mandoline to a mouse-trap, from a buck rabbit to a wrist watch, and whether he was filling your lighter for a cig a time, swopping you a record of Gigli for a tin of sausages, disposing of your pants on commission, or arranging to buy you German civvy bread for your party, he carried out the transaction in a business-like manner.
He once paid me twenty-five fags for a pair of braces I only asked fifteen for, and in support of other good causes he was time after time the highest bidder for theatre and boxing programmes auctioned from the stage in aid of camp funds.
In short, Mick fulfilled graciously a real community need, and the projector operator at the 'National Theatre' could flash his mart advertisement on the screen during intervals, without fear of causing a riot.
But some camp capitalists were not so popular. In fact, the fiercest feeling against trading of any kind existed in some quarters of the Stalag, the main cause being the men's experience in other camps, where the term 'rackets' had implications far more sinister than at Hohenfels.
For not all our enemies wore the field grey uniform of the Wehrmacht. There were camps so rotten with racketeers in Khaki, so controlled by rats who fattened on their own comrades, that in the dark days when a man's health, and even his life, hung in the balance, he could only ensure his full share of what meagre food the Huns issued by bribing fellow prisoners who'd toadied their way into certain jobs.
In these camps, there were hangers on of the cookhouses, ration stores, administrative jobs, &c., who had fat bellies, good accommodation, friendly treatment from Huns - and little hoards of watches, rings, cigarette cases and money, all received as 'gifts' from comrades who also wished to live.
Yes, the word 'rackets' in some Stalags stood for an octopus of greed and ruthlessness, with tentacles in strange places. It is to the high credit of MacKenzie, and other administrators at 383, that no such monster preyed on us.
Even suspicious souls - and, God, how they breed in prison camps! - were fairly certain they got their rights at Hohenfels.
True, they'd pound your ear with tales of cookhouse helpers standing steak suppers to their pals, and so forth, but they'd have to admit that these rather human lapses were quickly jumped upon and that, on the whole, we were quite remarkably free from the more vicious type of rackets. If a man thought otherwise, he had every encouragement to state his case.
But to return to our marts - what colour they splashed on the drab camp scene; what interest they lent to the caged-in years! On one of the rare fine days when all the stalls were out, a man might spend a morning window-shopping - just walking from store to store seeing what money could buy in any camp currency from Woodbines to Rowntrees.
It was useful to know what 'Topper Brown' was asking for pancake mixture, what 'Mick Moore' was paying for Nestles, and whether socks and sardines were still an even swop.
Here's 'Smudger Smith's Store' with its stock of Red Cross tins, its books and clothes and records - and its special line in showcards. 'Politeness, Civility and Courtesy Our Watchwords. Please Ask for what You Want,' and though all you want from Smudger is to know how he distinguishes between his various worthy 'Watchwords,' at least you must respect the high class tone he sets.
Farther up the road, a Cypriot stall has onions for sale at five cigs for eight; a very nice line in rabbit fur bedroom slippers; and a small bust of Voltaire (or is it Dan Leno?) for a bar of Canadian chocolate.
The Aussie mart wants outsize pyjamas (which reminds you of 'Shorty' and his Aunt Agatha's clothing parcel. Don't forget to tip him the wink) and will sell a set of 'two-up dice' for one hundred cigarettes, 'not two-up cigarettes, please.'
The 'London Mart,' whose official price list is nicely situated in Nine Company latrine, requests gentlemen not to alter the chalked up prices 'thereby wasting time of one and all,' and 'Syd's Cash Stores' have also had some trouble, since they beg their many clients not to put 'roll-ups' made from butt ends in genuine cigarette packets as this practice 'creates a very bad impression.'
All round the 'Main Square' are dotted different stalls, and most of them have something odd to show. A really gorgeous blanket, knitted from vari-coloured socks, adorns the corner mart, which also accepts commissions for 'an exact likeness of your loved one by an accomplished artists.'
Judging from the specimens displayed, the 'accomplished artist' uses the squared-up method of enlarging from photographs, and is a trifle out in his measurements, but who cares, anyway? For a few more cigarettes, the 'loved one' could be painted in oils by a Spanish painter, and the portrait set in a hand carved frame.
There are stalls which specialize in books, and from whose shelves you can buy Marx's 'Das Kapital' for only fifteen more cigs than you pay for Hitler's 'Mein Kampf,' but don't ask me what Karl Marx is doing in the heart of Naziland, for if it would take a volume to list the goods on the marts, it would take a library to explain how some of them got there.
There are stalls that take in washing, hire out gramophones, act as pawnshops, or 'undertake special commissions,' which latter service might mean anything from procuring you a radio to selling you cigarettes at �150 per thousand, payment to be made through army paymasters.
Other establishments have chalked-up notices that 'Uncle Ned will be in tonight' or that 'Fresh hen fruits will be on sale tomorrow' and if you are curious to know who the stallholders get hold of the precious bread and eggs perhaps those Jerries spying down with field-glasses from the watch-tower can enlighten you.
'Coffee is down four cigarettes, Herr Hauptmann,' reports Fritz to his captain. If you desire me to ...?'
Yes, of course the gallant Hauptmann wants his shopping done before he goes on leave, so tonight at dusk the faithful Fritz will be slinking round the perimeter wire looking for some Englander willing to sell a packet of coffee for a loaf of Wehrmacht bread, a few eggs, or a radio valve.
Fritz will have to be careful, though, because you can't trust some of these Englanders. Just because they're sometimes given a dud valve or a stale loaf, they have a habit of filling up coffee packets with Condy's Crystals, or, worse still, substituting German ersatz coffee for the British brand.
But, before we go to the wire to watch these weird transactions, just let's take a look back at the beginnings of the Hohenfels black market.
The Chain Gangs
It really began with the 'Chain Gang,' which itself began with the Dieppe raid. In return for the alleged tying-up of Germans on the Dieppe beaches, Hitler ordered the chaining of Canadian prisoners of war. Improving on this idea, he decided to have all the non-workers of Hohenfels chained up as well, and for this purpose he rooted out thousands of pairs of chain-joined handcuffs and sent them to Stalag 383, where the Kommandant was ordered to see that we were chained up daily for at least twelve hours.
Now, I don't want to minimize Adolf's foul intentions, and I am well aware that in some camps the chaining up was a tough affair indeed. In fact it is difficult to think of anything less pleasant than to be loaded down with chains all day, and having to ask a Hun to release one's hands occasionally for 'necessary journeys.'
But at 383 it didn't work out like that. In fact it soon became a farce - with Adolf as the clown. That there were far too many huts for them all to be properly supervised was one reason, and that the Kriegies just refused to take it seriously was another.
Instead of greeting the Jerry chainers with bitter defiance, or proud indifference, the majority of men greeted them with grins, showed the most friendly interest in the handcuffs - which, truth to tell, were singularly unbusinesslike affairs - and a second after the guards had clamped them on their wrists would unpick the clamps and drop them on the floor, complaining that Jerry hadn't done them up properly. It needed no Houdini to achieve this feat, since the cuffs were easy meat for a nail or pair of scissors.
At first the fur flew. Then there came a tacit agreement. The Kommandant didn't care for the chaining order - nor did the guards. It was glaringly unreasonable, and practically unworkable, but it was nevertheless the Fuehrer's orders. So, if we'd play ball with the Kommandant, he'd play ball with us.
The chainers would come round each morning and put the handcuffs on. They'd come again at night and take the handcuffs off. What happened in the meantime was nobody's business, but if a German general or Gestapo agents were known to be visiting the camp, then we'd have to wear the chains and try to look fitly wretched. Also, we must refrain in letters home from giving any idea that the order was not being carried out in all its intended rigour - which was fair enough.
Every morning then, for just about a year, a big squad of Wehrmacht men came marching round the camp. They were loaded with chains to carry out their duty - and they were loaded with other things to carry on some business.
Two of them would enter your hut with an armful of chains, go through the motions of chaining up some Englanders, and then get down to the real business of the day. Mouth organs, matches, cigarette papers and saccharines would emerge from their pockets. Soap, cigarettes or cocoa would be their demand in exchange. Sometimes, of course, they varied their goods.
'Wie viel' (How much)?' demanded a portly Hun one day, and from his ample breeches he produced a huge black frying pan, which he fiercely buttoned back again when offered only soap. This comic routine was repeated again the next morning and the day after, but this Jerry was a sticker, and he eventually sold the pan to another hut, from whence it made its way to the marts.
Yes, the chain gang was a simple avenue for rackets, and it broke our hearts when it ended, for it meant that unless a man was prepared to hang about at night near the barbed wire fence, he'd have to buy his racket goods on the marts at a much stiffer price.
And this trading at the wire business was not everybody's idea of a pastime. It wasn't a question of the danger - though with the incalculable temper of the average Hun to deal with, there was always a chance of stopping one of the stray bullets which used to whistle at dusk to keep us back from the fence. No, it was more a question of the endless patience required to contact the right Jerry at the right place at the right time.
You'd see a certain Hun on guard at a point outside the wire. You'd strain your tonsils croaking Deutsch at him, and he'd eventually agree to bring you a loaf the next night. If you were extremely fortunate, he'd be there at the agreed time with the bread, but most of us found that you could rely on a Hun for one thing only - to let you down.
It was easier on the nerves to smoke a few less cigs and pay a proper commission to one of the expert Kriegie racketeers, who did such vast deals over the wire that no Jerry would lightly run the risk of offending them and being put on their black list.
And when I talk of 'vast deals' I don't mean just a few dozen loaves, a sack of potatoes, a hundredweight of flour and twenty score of matches - for deals like that were everyday affairs. I refer to rather to the live sheep, the diamonds, the cameras, the wireless sets, the ducks, the suits of civvy clothes and the other rich merchandise the 'big shots' dealt with.
Yes, strange things came over the wire at night. A deal, for instance, with a local shepherd in league with the sentries, brought six live lambs across the fence one evening, the lambs being bound, one by one, to a huge pole and manoeuvred across the great double stockade while the Hun in the nearest watchtower assisted with his searchlight.
How many thousands of cigarettes, or how many bars of chocolate, tins of cocoa, or packets of coffee changed hands on this deal, I cannot say, but whatever the price was in Stalag currency our biggest racketeers would have little difficulty in raising it. They had their fingers in many rich pies, from bookmaking to distilling, and they pulled out some very choice plums.
Not ony were they supplying private customers and retailers on the marts with goods they got from Jerry; not only were they supplying Stalag clubs with all their catering requirements for a big 'do'; but they were also called on now and then to do the bargaining for semi-official organizations such as the theatres, sports clubs and 'escapes committee.' They did these jobs efficiently, and reaped their due reward.
One 'big shot' business man was Lawrence 'Talkie' Turkington - bookie, showman, auctioneer and live wire generally, whose quick wits, cheeky grin, loud voice and 'drive' were known throughout the camp. Though not without his critics, 'Talkie' was something more than a mere featherer of his own nest. He was a 'fixer-upper' of genius who, in the pioneer days at Hohenfels, could be trusted to produce from nowhere such things as the complete planking for a theatre stage, a couple of windows for the library, or twenty-seven electric light bulbs for the Stalag school.
For the Boxing Day celebrations at 383, 'Talkie' organized a 'Coney Island Amusements Hall' with all kinds of fair-ground booths, competitions, sideshows and other attractions, including bands in attendance, and this was only one example of enterprise which raised very useful sums for the Stalag Welfare Fund. His reward was to become 'Caretaker' of the barnlike building called 'Coney Island,' and there he built himself a cosy little sanctum from which to conduct operations. Operations, often useful, sometimes dubious - but always enterprising.
At parties in this private hideout you could meet Stalag stage stars, band leaders, bookies and merchant princes, and, over a cigar and a spot of 'hooch,' discuss not only the new camp spiritualist seances, and the bill at the next 'Four Posts Club' boxing show, but also all the latest news, prices and problems in the wide sphere of Stalag business.
What the Huns were asking for Leica cameras, for instance. The prospects of distilling enough 'Jungle Juice' to run a bar at the dances. Whether all that live poultry was being smuggled in by lads on 'outside' fatigues. The luck of Diamond Jim, the Maori, at the gambling schools. How long the phenomenal rise in cigarette values would continue. And what commissions 'Hamburg Harry' was executing on his next trip to Munich.
'Hamburg Harry' was a character bound to crop up in any discussion of Stalag rackets. He was a fair-haired, broad-shouldered, goodlooking Jerry, who had spent twenty or more years in America, and his calm, worldly, wise-cracking manner was far removed from that of the average Hun.
He was not keen on discussing the war, which he looked on as a boring interference with business, but he never sought popularity with us by disparaging Germany or the Nazi regime. An inveterate racketeer, he brought great quantities of verboten articles into the camp, and he took scores of thousands of English cigarettes out of it - allegedly packing his smart 'cavalry cut' breeches with cigarette packets every time he walked through the gates. His job was mainly to do with the parcel store, and he was said to regulate his prices for racket goods by his knowledge of the number of cigarette parcels received in the camp. For the rest, he was generally acknowledged to be as straight as a die in his dealings - and he was more mistrusted than any other Hun in the camp.
How was it, Kriegies asked each other, that while other Jerries were given stiff sentences for racketeering, Hamburg Harry should carry on with such calm confidence? How were we to know that he was not just planted by the Nazis to win our confidence, and keep his ear to the ground? What was he doing in that soft job, anyway? Surely, nobody could swallow his own story: that he had been entirely rejected for front line soldiering because his heart was weak!
Well, we never learned the whole truth about Hamburg Harry, and we certainly never will now. But in one respect, at least, he was vindicated.
In March '45 he wangled himself leave. In company with another Jerry, who afterwards told us the story, he journeyed to Regensburg, where they were caught in a Flying Fortress raid. They made their way to a shelter, and a bomb fell somewhere outside. No one was injured in the shelter, but a body from outside was somehow blown through the air vent shaft, and the shock was too great for Hamburg Harry. A heart attack followed and he died in the shelter - a suitcase full of cigarettes beside him.
'Poor old Hamburg!' said some of the Kriegies, when the story got round. 'So it was true about his heart, after all. Well, he was only a Jerry, but he was a pretty straight guy - and, oh, what a Prince of racketeers!'
But though Hamburg Harry and other Jerries played a big part in the Stalag's 'foreign trade,' they were not the only source of imports to the camp. A 'working party' of Frenchmen nearby did odd jobs about the camp, such as carting refuse away, &c., and they carried on a very brisk trade with our own racketeers, selling bread, onions, eggs and garlic for English cigarettes and parcel goods. As many of these Froggies worked on farms in the vicinity, they had plenty of opportunity of 'winning' eggs, chickens, and on one occasion, at least, a sucking pig, which was offered to us for a pair of size nine boots.
Our own Stalag fatigue parties, which left the camp to bring in wood, collect potatoes from the clamps, or fetch rations from German dumps, were also a great source of imports, and were, no doubt, responsible for that fine goose which strutted about in Ten Company, and which a curious Hun was told had 'just made a forced landing in the compound after wing trouble.'
A big risk was run by those fellows in Five Company where I was shown a fine young deer asleep on a bed, for the creature was a preserve of the Reich, and the penalty for its stealing could be death. The Kriegies intended keeping the deer as a pet, but as it put its foot through a hole in the floor and broke its leg, they were obliged, with or without reluctance, to treat themselves to a feast of venison.
The imports of Stalag 383 were also augmented at times by robbery nearer home. Over a hundred Wehrmacht loaves were 'won' in a single evening by fellows who broke into the German bread store just outside the main Lager, and the Jerries were henceforth obliged to store the bread in another building right outside the camp.
The chronic problem of fuel supplies was likewise tackled by 'direct action.' I forget how many tons of timber the Kommandant accused Kriegies of 'sabotaging' from the rows of new double-sized huts which French workers were set to erect on our former sports field, but certainly the hut sections seemed to disappear as fast as they were put up, and the erection of a fence to protect them proved worse than useless, since the racketeers filched most of that, too!
But besides the import and export trade of Hohenfels, there was a good 'home market' which many business and professional gentlemen set themselves to exploit. If a man was lucky enough to get large quantities of cigarettes from home, he could smoke and eat without working, but otherwise it was handy to have some little racket by which to earn an honest fag.
There were carpenters, tinsmiths, rug-makers and a score of other trades who made armchairs, pots and pans, blankets, &c., for the marts; there were tailors, tattooists, signwriters and other artists, and there were amateur barbers galore who, to save you waiting in the official barbers' hut, would cut your hair for a couple of fags and leave you longing for a chance to cut their hair some day.
As for the 'rafflers' who would take a live chicken round the huts, or perhaps a Nazi ceremonial bayonet, a portable gramophone, or a 'twenty-years' guaranteed' watch, you had to admire the cheerful way they ignored the 'keep out' notices on hut doors, but you treated the results of their raffles with considerable reserve, since no one ever met a man who admitted winning anything in an 'unofficial' raffle.
Quite a good business was done by photographers who sold snapshots of camp scenes, or took hut and regimental groups on request, but they often complained that it was not such a profitable racket as it seemed on the surface. Not only were cameras and developing gear expensive things to import in the first place, but being, of course, forbidden to Kriegies they were always being searched for by the snoops, who could wipe out the hard work of months in one lucky swoop on a hut 'dark room.'
The snoops came badly unstuck on one raid, however. Two of them, who had been given orders to make a search for 'candid camera shots' believed to have been taken of the Kommandant, pounced without warning on a hut which proved to be full of photographic material. Pleased with their haul, they were carting the camera and other gear through the door when they were called back by a smiling Kriegie.
'Here's a picture might interest you,' he said, and he showed them an excellent snap of themselves dealing at one of the marts.
'Okay, Englander ... you win,' said the snoops, or words to that effect, and with rueful grins they handed back the camera, accepting instead a consolatory smoke.
On the subject of cameras, I should mention here that the Kommandant allowed, under safeguards, one or two 'official' Kriegie photographers to take pictures of the theatre shows and sports, some of which photographs appeared in the 'Next of Kin' magazines at home.
Excellent work in this respect was done by Messrs. Hodges and Chase, whose signatures on a print meant that the snap was safe from confiscation by the Huns. Their stage and sports snaps were printed in quantity and sold at four or five cigarettes a copy in aid of the Theatre and Sports funds. For a very long while the theatre was largely supported by this bright idea, and some Kriegies collected hundreds of stage snaps to take back to freedom.
But there came a time, alas, when men who had gladly paid give cigarettes for single pictures were offering their collections on the mart at five pictures for a single cigarette.
This was no reflection on the theatre, of course, but simply one symptom of the bleak period after Xmas '44 when everything lost value save food and cigarettes. The law of supply and demand worked inexorably in those days, and while every phase of Stalag life was affected, none was more so than the rackets, which completely changed in character.
With thousands of fresh arrivals pouring into Hohenfels from Moosburg, Lamsdorf and other camps, with 'personal' and cigarette parcels as mere memories of the past, with German rations down to starvation level and showing every sign of running out altogether, and with our hopes of receiving Red Cross parcels apparently dependent upon railways which were being bombed day and night, the rackets became more than an amusing side-line for the businesslike: they became a tough scramble for food, with elements of gangsterdom introduced by the few.
But only by the few. The great majority of men at Hohenfels, though anxious not to crack up in health on the last lap to freedom, just accepted the hunger and privations of the winter as part of the game.
The average Kriegie might try to raise a few cigs for goods by putting his spare belongings on the mart, but when he realized that everybody else was selling too, and that the treasure he was offered six hundred cigarettes for a short while back would not fetch the price of a slice of bread now, he shrugged his shoulders and went back to bed.
He knew that some men were trying to buy cigarettes, through their credits, at prices like �200 per thousand, and that others, who had hoarded up cigarettes for months, were now buying up gold in the form of watches and rings; but as long as no smart guys showed signs of fiddling with camp rations, the normal Kriegie lost interest in rackets. He put up with things as they were; he hoped for better days soon; and if other fellows felt like trading - well, let them get on with it.
And the few did get on with it. Trading through the wire, for instance, got gradually more tough. It became a nightly cut-throat competition, with one group of racketeers bitterly accusing another group of 'invading its territory,' or of paying too high prices to the French and Jerry contacts. Competition came too from a new source. Men who had never before displayed any interest in trading were now fierce hunters for food, haunting the wire for hours at a stretch and offering almost anything for bread and flour.
'Wire' prices soared to new high levels, and French traders at the fence gained whole wardrobes of underwear, pyjamas and shoes. Prices on the marts soared likewise, and there was obviously no agreement between the 'big shots' as to the maximum to be paid for imports. Old time racketeers, now retired, shook their heads sadly. And finally there came the 'Vigilantes.'
These 'Vigilantes,' self-styled and unofficial, announced to the camp that they intended to 'clean up' the rackets by fixing maximum prices for flour and bread, and that they would first warn, and then 'take action against,' any Stalag trader exceeding these prices.
'Sound idea!' said part of the camp; 'Just another racket!' said another part; and with moderate interest, most fellows sat back to await results.
They were worth waiting for. They gave us a good laugh at the time when laughs were precious. For the main outcome of the new idea was a sort of gang warfare between 'strong-arm groups,' who offered themselves as protectors of tradesmen, on the one hand, and parties of bogus 'Vigilantes,' composed of the most notorious thugs in the camp, on the other - the 'Vigilantes' having so strong a sense of public duty that they were prepared to confiscate and eat any grub they came across, racketed or not!
There were several good 'rough-houses' between these rival bands, and at least one case of 'hi-jacking.' A refuse lorry, driven by a Frenchman and laden with concealed racket goods for one gang, was attacked by a rival gang as it entered the gates. This led to a glorious 'free for all' which passing Kriegies joined in joyously, and while it was going on a couple of wily non-combatants got away with the bulk of the flour and the bread - just before astonished Jerries came rushing up to see what was going on.
What would have happened in another few months of this Chicago stuff, and whether some Stalag Capone would have succeeded in getting control of the rackets in anybody's guess, because just about this time the miraculous arrival of Red Cross food and the breath-taking news from the Allied fronts swept everything else from Kriegies' minds, and even 'Vigilantes' forgot the price of flour as they set to work to pack their kits for home.
But looking back on Hohenfels, we don't forget the rackets. They kept our wits alive in the long, long days of torpor. They gave us food for talk, and they gave us many laughs.
The Stalag was a dreary place at best. It would have been a drearier place still without the rackets. And that's the only tribute that they need.
Music : Beat Me Daddy