Memories of Stalag 383
Griff and Hooch
Graphic by Raine
Whoever first said 'no news is good news' was not a prisoner of war.
No news is hell in a prison camp, and it was good of the Kriegies' friends and relations to realize this fact and to try to send us war 'griff' in letters, parts of which were more or less in code.
Some of these letters were so ingeniously cryptic that ex-Kriegies are still puzzling over them now. Others which spoke of 'Uncle Joe making fine progress since Uncle Sam sent him medicine,' &c., were a bit too lucid, and much annoyed the Jerry censors, who used to ask us angrily why the writers imagined Germans to be so completely dumb.
But sending war news to Hohenfels was rather a 'coals to Newcastle' business, anyway, because, one way and another, we were at least as well informed on the war situation as most people. This, I suppose, sounds smug - but then we always were a bit smug about our 383 news service.
Not only did we get information from fresh arrivals at the Stalag - Commandos from Norway, 8th Army men from Italy, paratroopers from Arnheim; not only did we have talks with Germans just back from the Eastern Front, some of whom were remarkably frank with us; but we also had, from beginning to end of our stay at Hohenfels, a really first rate Radio Service.
From the first bright hopes of El Alamein right up to the 'dream come true' of liberation, we followed Allied fortunes on the B.B.C. Strange that for two and a half years a regular radio news service could be maintained in a Stalag as swarming with snoops as 383.
The story begins in a drum. A valve set, purchased piece by piece from Hun civilians for English cigarettes, was concealed in a side drum and smuggled into the camp by the first arrivals in September, 1942. It went into immediate action against the dope-sheet 'Camp' which Goebbels printed for prisoners.
B.B.C. bulletins were taken down in shorthand, transcribed and distributed to company commanders, who appointed special 'confidence men' to read out the news in the huts.
Despite all warnings, fellows would discuss the 'griff' in latrines, or in bunks at night, with the result that Nazi noses were soon to the ground and hut-to-hut searches were organized. Yet - with hair-breadth escapes - the set survived. Packed in a cardboard box and shifted from place to place - sometimes stowed beneath the floorboards, sometimes buried in the ground - the precious link with home contrived to function. Volunteer counter-snoops kept watch for the searchers - and a 'special cigarette fund' was prepared in case of need.
By the time the snoops had done their work - so had the cigarettes. Triumphant Huns carted off the first set to the Kommandant's office, but four or five new radios were ready in reserve. They had come 'through the wire' via racketeering sentries, and while a few thousand cigarettes reached the Berlin black market, the news of Allied victories reached us.
For thirty months a ceaseless fight went on. Never did the Nazis cease to search, and many were the hauls they made - but they couldn't stop the 'daily dose of truth.' Frequent searches, sudden swoops and field-glass spotting from watch-towers helped the Huns. Ingenious hideouts, constant switches and keen co-operation favoured us.
Underground listening-chambers were dug by volunteers - one in the 'Quiet Room' of the Camp Rover Scouts Crew, another in the potato cellar of the cookhouse. The Scout den hideout was partly masked by a bookcase and the covering slab was imperceptible, but whilst probing for tunnels Hun searchers chanced upon the chamber. A blow, but not a knock-out. The radio had already been shifted to another hideout, and a useless set planted in its place. A rugby football hid a smaller set, and a hollowed-out roof beam in another hut survived many a Nazi search.
By means of jelly squares, and copying ink from indelible pencils, a duplicator was made to print the bulletins and facilitate distribution of the news. More than once 'confidence men' were caught red-handed with the slips of paper, but there were always duplicates to follow.
Reports reached Nazi higher-ups, and the Kommandant was worried. Racketeering sentries were threatened with dire penalties; renewed searches were made for secret sets; more snoops were called in to probe the camp. And still the news went on.
Two squareheads entered a hut where a specially valued valve set was in use. Immediately, a Kriegie grabbed for a suitcase, dived between the Huns and vanished through the door. Bellowing fiercely, the Huns gave chase. They caught the Kriegie in the compound and pounced on his case. By the time they discovered it was empty, the radio had been whisked through the window to a place of safety.
A Hun detective (civilian branch) fared worse than the snoops. Entering a hut without escort, he probed about the room in arrogant silence. 'What's a civvy doing in an army joint?' demanded one P.o.W. 'No good, anyway - let's chuck him out?' said the others. And out he went on his Nazi neck.
Oddly enough, this outraged sleuth got scant sympathy from the Kommandant. The 'Englanders' had acted like soldiers he was told.
Next came the Gestapo - a different proposition altogether. So worried was the Kommandant by what the Gefangeners might do, or the Gestapo might find, that he warned us in advance that these super-sleuths had full powers to enter military establishments. Perhaps it was he, too, who let it leak out exactly when they might be expected.
At any rate, when they rolled up in cars - whole squads of 'em, big brutal fellows with padded shoulders, green trilbys and flashy shoes, it was no surprise to us. All the surprises were reserved for them.
To begin with, the camp itself, always a quagmire, was that January day at its muddy foulest. We were turned out of our huts to find what shelter we could from the drizzling rain in latrines and wash-houses. And we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly!
For the grim, ghoulish Gestapo boys were funnier than Keystone coppers. They lost their tempers in the knee-deep slush and, while we laughed ourselves sick from a distance they vented their wrath on each other, or on the normal Stalag guards who accompanied them.
The trouble was that their chief ordered them to search beneath the hut floors. Now the huts in Nine Company being raised on piles from the ground, the only way to really search between the double floors was to crawl on hands, knees and belly beneath the buildings.
To see a fat-necked, broad-beamed Hun in his Sunday suit crawling under a mud-bogged hut was pleasing. To see him emerge, purple-faced, mud-plastered and hoarse with cursing was better still. But to see one stick his podgy hand between the boards, 'find' some discarded razor blades, and, bleeding and squealing like a stuck pig, aim a kick at the nearest Wehrmacht man, who hadn't even laughed, was worth a Red Cross parcel.
Of course they took their reprisals on the Kriegies. Many fellows returned to their huts to find their kits strewn over the floor, their straw paliasses ripped to bits, their photographs and letters kicked about - and their food parcels upside down with condensed milk glueing everything.
But in the radio line the Gestapo drew a blank. Even the set they were meant to find - an old two valve affair, carefully planted in an obvious false-bottomed packing-case armchair - they managed to miss. The Kriegie hut leader, ordered to stop in this hut while the search was on, was turned out of the armchair by the Gestapo director of operations, who plonked his own posterior in the seat whilst his underlings pulled up the floor boards, dismantled the stove, stripped the fourteen beds, &c. Net result of all this arbeit was the purloining of some pepper - verboten at 383 because escapees used it for putting dogs off the scent. The radio stayed put under the seat of the mighty.
When the Gestapo, mud on their clothes, murder in their eyes, finally drove off, the B.B.C. bulletins were brought round as usual. Appended was a footnote from MacKenzie stating drily that today's 'visitors' had complained bitterly about the foul condition of the camp. How our hearts bled for them!
But though the Kommandant was perhaps gratified that Himmler's hounds had achieved less than the Stalag snoops, he did not rest on his laurels. A new Security officer was added to the staff; keener, more cunning snoops were spared from outside duties - and a new drive began against the 'Voice of Britain.' Nor was the Hun without his triumphs.
A bombardier in One Company, for instance, brought out his valve set one day from its rabbit-hutch hiding place, and settled down snugly on his bunk, earphones on his head.
'Was ist das?' came a guttural voice behind him.
'Sssh!' frown the bombadier, wagging a finger.
'Was ist das, Englander?' came the voice, a bit louder.
'Shut up, can't you! ... I've got London and ...'
The Kriegie's voice trailed off as the field-grey uniform came into view.
'Well, thank Gawd the buzzard didn't get the other pair of headphones!' was the bombardier's remark, as radio under arm, the Jerry reached the door.
The Hun turned back. 'So, my friend! You have still more forbidden articles, eh?' he said in perfect English, and from a rather crestfallen bombardier he completed a useful haul.
It was not long before we grasped that several of the new snoops had been chosen for their knowledge of English - an accomplishment which some of them liked to conceal. There followed some good, clean fun in testing these crafty Nazis. A snoop had to be poker-faced indeed who could stand a hutful of Kriegies discussing his horrible appearance, dubious parentage and probably fate without exploding into Hunnish hysterics.
A queer experience with an English-speaking snoop befell Hut Sixteen. Unknown even to our neighbours we were, for some time, in possession of a unique set obtained in a unique manner, which I cannot reveal. An all-electric set, equipped with four miniature valves and a single glass earphone which plugged into the ear, this tiny set was kept in a book, the inner pages of which had been cut out to form a sort of box.
It was operated by Sergt. Bill Spink of the 'Phantom' unit, who occupied a top bunk near the hut door. Bill would sit up on his bunk apparently absorbed in the book on his knees and thanks to a clever arrangement of wires, nothing could be seen connecting him with the radio set.
Occasionally, however, quite a bit could be heard until the sergeant manipulated the volume control. Apart from sometimes reading aloud some particularly important headline, Bill would take the safe course of listening silently and trusting to memory to give us the correct dope later.
One night, however, Churchill was speaking, and Bill broke his general rule and repeated aloud the stirring phrases. By ill luck, we had slipped up on certain door-jamming precautions and, before you could say 'Winston,' in slipped a snoop.
Bill switched in mid-sentence of a Churchillian passage to an impromptu remark about horse racing - the subject, by the way, of the hollowed-out book.
'Ah!' said the Jerry, in the slimy-friendly way he sometimes affected, 'you English are for ever talking about betting on horses. Now we in Germany regard the horse as ...'
And drawing close to the sergeant's bunk, the Hun started on a dull discourse about breeding in horses and humans and Nazis and so forth, whilst the rest of us joined in as noisily as we could to try and distract him from Bill's vicinity.
What a situation for the sergeant! Into one ear poured the resonant periods of Britain's war chief; into the other seeped the words of a Nazi underling. If the earphone slipped, or Winston's peroration boomed out, or worse still, the always audible military music started, then ...
But luck was with us that night. Luck and the R.A.F. Before the sweat on Bill's brow became really noticeable, the wailing of the sirens announced a British call on Munich. A few seconds later, the complete Stalag lights were extinguished and, cursing volubly, the snoop sheered off. Thank you, R.A.F.!
Not always, though, were raids an aid to the radio. In winter, especially, the lights were often off, due to planes overhead, and the Stalag news service relied upon battery sets which were hard to keep in service. Scores of crystal sets were in the camp, whose owners claimed to pick up the most fantastic news from the most improbable stations; but most of us concluded that the 'crystals' were in contact with some other planet, where a war even more incredible than our own was being fought.
These crystal sets could often be purchased at the marts, and though they were not, of course, openly displayed, it was not difficult for a Kriegie to interpret a notice: 'Canary for sale. Good singer. Only one ear.' as indicating that a crystal set with one headphone was on offer.
Loudspeaker radios were naturally not common. One hut, however, used to be packed out at night for open broadcasts, not only of news, but of commentaries on boxing matches, dance band sessions, &c. Beyond storing the set outside the hut when not in use, the owners took few precautions. A portable gramophone on the table was supposed to account for music which attracted Hun curiosity. Otherwise, blind luck and squarehead stupidity were the safe-guards relied on.
But you can't rely on Huns - not even on their stupidity. In the case of Sergt. Spink's super-set, with its neatly portable hiding-place, for instance, Jerry eventually pulled off a coup which admittedly shook us. Bill, having left Hut Sixteen for a supposedly safer one in Three Company, enjoyed a few months' listening-in without any real alarms. When a routine search was made, he would just pick up his fake book, together with some real ones, and walk off to the Stalag school for a little quiet study. Reading being a common accomplishment at 383, Bill's bookishness was not likely to attract comment.
One doleful day then, judge of his surprise - his indignation almost - when, outside listening hours, a Hun walked into the hut, went right up to the home-made bookshelves where a score of books were kept, put his hands straight on the 'radio volume,' and walked out smiling.
At the subsequent inquest, mourners could advance no satisfactory explanation for this tragedy. 'Huns aren't all so dumb!' was the jury's rider to an open verdict, and a bottle of 'Hooch' was solemnly drunk as a toast to the departed super-set.
'Hooch' had several associations with the Stalag radios, and may as well be explained in this chapter.
It originated, I think, when the local Jerry brewery, having a surplus of ersatz beer, decided to unload it on the helpless British Kriegies. A hundred or so barrels rolled up in time for the great sports fete and fair which we held on the August Bank Holiday of 1943. The phoney beer was paid for in equally phoney Stalag Marks, and was duly drunk.
Shortly afterwards, German orders announced that there were over fifty empty beer barrels missing - and that the most drastic steps, &c. ...
Well, some of the barrels had already been converted into private bath tubs, rabbit hutches, armchairs, &c., but a few of the others were being used to brew something a lot stronger than they had ever held before. Raisins and prunes, with a little yeast, were soaked in the barrels and the mash left to stand for about ten days. Then a distilling apparatus, constructed out of old tins and a little copper tubing, was fitted up over a hut stove, and enough wood was racketeered from somewhere to distil an amazingly potent spirit.
Apart from being slowly poisonous, 'Jungle Juice,' as we called it, was a classy product and was highly popular as a means of toasting triumphs. Great Allied victories were drunk to in 'Jungle Juice.' So were our own little triumphs.
When the camp succeeded, for example, in raising over five thousand pounds for a 'special fund'; when, by means of ingenious coded letters from our own Sergt. Miles-Osborne to Mr. Duncan Sandys, a Spitfire was purchased with it; and when we heard that this fighter of ours had been christened 'Unshackled Spirit' and had been in action - then we felt that a drink of something was definitely called for. So the many bootleggers in the camp did a roaring trade, and the Huns were sore perplexed by the all-night sing-songs in the huts.
A comical sequel to their eventual discovery of the 'Hooch' secret was a visit by a high Nazi official, who marched into one of the hut distilleries, bellowed himself purple in the face - and finally demanded to sample the stuff. Some weeks after he had been assisted away, the Stalag received official Hun notice that the distilling of intoxicants was emphatically forbidden to prisoners of war - and that under the laws of the Third Reich a heavy sum of money was due from us as excise duty!
That Teutonic thunderbolt gave the bootleggers a good belly-laugh - particularly since they now had keen customers amongst the Jerries, including one or two officers who liked to drown their sorrows.
It was not Hun taxation demands, nor the vigilance of snoops, that led to the dismantling of the stills: it was an order from the British M.O., backed up by the good sense of the men, who realized that 'Jungle Juice' was no better for one's innards than Jerry rations. So down came the stills, and into safe storage went existing bottles ... perhaps to be matured for the greatest day of all ... perhaps to be useful in ways yet unforeseen.
And one of these bottles proved useful indeed. Useful to our precious radio service.
It was in the dak days of February '45, when, to add to our other troubles, we were much shorter than usual of workable radios. Many of the private sets had gone out of action owing to shortage of racketable goods to buy new valves, &c. And then, one gloomy night, came a worse blow still. From hut to hut there passed the mournful griff: 'The Huns have got the last real working set. No news tomorrow, fellows!'
True enough, a snoop had rumbled the camp's best set and had carted it victoriously to a certain Hun officer. But now new factors swayed the long-fought fight.
The Hun examined the radio with interest - interest that gave way to horror. The set was a special type of military set. It had come from a Wehrmacht store at Munich. Circumstances pointed strongly to connivance by German officers. Had the Englanders 'Hooch' proved stronger than Nazi devotion to duty?
What a disgrace to the Wehrmacht! What a case for the Gestapo! What further scandals might be revealed in a real investigation? And who, at 383, could feel himself safe in a thorough S.S. showdown?
Perhaps these were the very thoughts that troubled the Hun. These that caused his strange decision.
'Break the valves - and give it back,' he ordered the snoop. But the shrug of his shoulders said more than his words.
So the snoop, too, used his loaf.
Back in the hut where he had made his haul, he put the set carefully on the table. 'Seems a pity to smash a thing like this,' he said deliberately. 'You don't happen to have a bottle of anything, do you?'
They had. And the radio war was won.
Music : Little Brown Jug