Memories of Stalag 383
Hiding and Hoping
by Keith 'Scoop' Hooper
Graphic by Raine
In the night they'd have stolen away - those Germans at Stalag 383 - and taken us with them, if they could have rounded up all the men who had gone into hiding under the barracks, in the kitchen cellars, even in the latrines. With six other Diggers, I preferred the cellars. One fellow had a hideout, though whether it was safe I leave to you. I put my foot down on what I thought was solid ground. Was it hell! I heard a grunt. So I went back and trod harder. Followed a lot of grunts, and a small voice which piped,
'Gerraway, yer stupid (I don't want to be Will Haysed, so I'll exclude the last word).'
I looked around and this I saw: a length of tube sticking from the ground. It was the voice's air vent.
Another hidey, Kiwi Fred Starkey, was above the boilers in No. 2 cookhouse. He sweated rage for three days and nights, for the cooks kept the boilers going to the last. All the heat Fred got. When he emerged, he looked like a parboiled beet. If you'd heard the way he castigated the babblers. Even the Aussies quailed with admiration at the venom. It was that poisonous!
All the time Jerry was doing a sweat too. As 'Boof' Ryan wrote in his immortal Isle of Doom 'the big guns roared'; but this time they were ours, at Neumarkt, 30 odd kilos from the camp. Jerry itched to get away. We prayed to stay. How we prayed! 30-25-20-15 kilos away - and the J.s sticking bayonets through barrack floors, screaming, chasing us all over the camp, men burrowing under floors, coming from under the floors, outandunder, outandunder, 'Look out! There's a Hun.' 'Raus!' 'Keep still.' 'Marsch.' 'Shut up for God's sake. You'll bring the crabs down on us.'
Wasn't it a panic! But wasn't it fun while it lasted! Pulling barracks to pieces, burning tables and stools, and all those things we made: furniture that would have made your wives green with envy - or never stop laughing; shelves, and valuable libraries of textbooks which none of us could take with us; chess sets, draught sets, backgammon and dominoes and beautiful ornaments made from toothbrush handles. So much patient labour gone up in smoke.
How it was none of us were shot beats me. Shots whistled everywhere. You couldn't tell whether that snarl might not end in your murder. And yet, these men - that's you Hohenfellows who'd bucked Jerry all along the line, not surrendering to them even in the worst days of our hunger in Jan. '45, 'Work for them. We'll see them in hell first.' I hand it to you, fellows. You had guts. No march into the Salzburg redoubt for you. Better a bullet here than be booby-trapped down there, or be made living landmines to catch unsuspecting compatriots. That's what Jerry intended for us. A Yank major got the gen out of a Nazi officer with more rage than thought for his skin.
Of course, the thing that made us resist was actually the fact that Patton might be with us at any moment. We expected him at noon, at 3 p.m. and every hour from then on.
He came two days later, and we had to go and get our liberators - a jeep manned by a corporal and a lance-jack.
Oh, I haven't forgotten the Thunderbolts.
All through the day they zoomed overhead, sometimes less than 50 feet high. In the hospital were approximately 1,600 men, some very sick; but sick or not, as soon as they heard an aircraft they'd rush out to look up. The pilots would dip their wings, dive and climb, shoot the German barracks just over the hill. You could hear the zip-zip of the ammo. I saw, myself, one pilot lean out and wave. Which prompted Nev Whitehead to say, 'I had one wink at me.' Oh, Nev! How could you pull that on me, your pal?
The best act of all was from Squizzy. Having installed himself as O.C. No. 2 cookhouse for the 350 'foxholers' and 'marschnixers,' he wrote on the roof, in white letters three feet long, the words 'Camels - nothing but.'
One person missed from all this barney was McGinty; he'd have been in his eccentrelement.
Where he missed out, the racketeers got in for their chop. The civvies from Hohenfels village had a haul, at first, till a few enterprising British posted a guard of their own beside the Jerry at the gap cut through the wire opposite the bunker. They did this because the civvies would wander in as they liked and go through the barracks for loot. And loot there was in plenty. Brand-new shirts I saw strewn in gutters. New jerseys, boots, underwear, uniforms were taken back to the village by the civvies, and by Hun soldiers who changed into our uniforms to escape internment.
As I said, in came our arch-racketeers. Over the sportsplatz fence, where a pair of boots would fetch a 10lb. sack of flour, two 4lb. loaves of bread, 2 dozen eggs, and as much more as you might wangle out of those pfennigbound bauers.
Some fellows did better. before the last Hun had cleared off, they were into the piggery we used to envy.
Another group, headed by one of the biggest personalities in the camp, got among the sheep. As for the Rusian slaveworker who always herded them, he was only too willing to give them away. Eventually he came inside the wire. Said he, 'Germanski, ich fertig. Nichts mehr.'
Seen about the camp also were four Indians who had escaped from that terrible march from Poland. Some Huns roped them in to us. There were scores of Hungarians about. Hounded all the way from Budapest for slave works: soldiers, old men, women and young girls, beauties that made you cry to see their state. Czechs and Russians with only one idea, to seek revenge, waiting for the Yanks to come so vengeance might have free rein.
There was an American girl as well. She was an escaped internee. Our doctors saw she had decent care by giving her their own room at the hospital. Gee, it was wonderful to hear her speak. I can't say for Major Neal, the S.B.M.O., but there were quite a few men who looked as if they might cry at the pleasure of hearing that girl's gratitude said in English with a good, honest U.S. twang. The follows made a formal presentation later. They carried the girl to the jeep which liberated us, put her in the arms of the two Yank G.I.s, and said, 'Take her home with you. She's a Yank and homesick.' And didn't she bawl for joy!
I don't know her name; but I know several of you fellows took her name and address. What a story were one of the addressees to marry that girl after the war! I hope I'm invited.
In Hohenfels village there must have been three score Kriegies living with bauer families. Far from being stupid, those fellows had the right lurk. The families thought, 'If we harbor der Englander gefangener, maybe der Amerikaner vill not molest us, Ja?' 'Ja,' said the blokes. 'You look after us. Gibt us viel Essen, we tell der Amerikaner you gut folks.' The stunt worked and the boys lived on ham, eggs and leberwurst, as much as the bauers could put on the table.
'Froggie' Bourne and I stayed two nights in the village. In 'our family' were the Mutter, an old man who kept asking us if the Yanks would kill him (he became such a nuisance we finally assured him they would 'if you don't quit bothering us'), and three pretty daughters, the eldest with a baby.
Meanwhile, S.S. troops were passing all the time in their retreat from Neumarkt. In groups of 10 or 12, many weaponless, they straggled by without bothering to give us a glance as we lolled in the house doorway. They hadn't interest more for anything but life and keeping ahead of Patton's tanks. It got that way Frog and I would go up to a Hun and ask, 'Was neues gibts?'
Invariably the Hun would shake his head and go on, licked if ever man was licked, dirty and unshaven - I'd remember our retreats in France, in Greece, Crete and Africa. But they were nothing like this. We still had spirit then. These men had nothing, except utter disillusionment.
Once, however, Frog and I were too smart. We were helping two fr�uleins with two heavy sacks of flour they were carrying along the road. When we saw them, naturally we decided to muck in. Besides, we reckoned if we helped them when we reached their house they'd give us a feed. We reckoned without an S.S. general. He came along in a staff car. With him were three more Nazi officers.
He sighted us. God, how he screamed! He pulled his gat out, brandished it in our faces, swore at the fr�uleins, Verr�terin, he called them. Schwein, he called us. We quaked. I thought we'd had it.
Suddenly, over came our Thunderbolt buddies. It was too much for the general. Like all Nazi rats, he couldn't get away quick enough. For mine, I was bloody glad to see him go. From then on, Frog and I did our fratting with the three daughters of our host.
'Come back, you mug. They're Huns.'
That evening we heard the gunfire closer. We were in a wood on the top of a hill then, heading north to reach the Yanks if we could. The tanks were taking so long to reach us! We walked towards the firing. We saw two tanks blasting at each other. Soon one turned and drove off at a bat. The other was partially hidden by the trees.
'Let's head toward it,' said I.
We went cautiously through the trees. The tank was still partially hidden. Near-by, two soldiers were rummaging in an overturned wagon.
'Hey, stop!' said Frog.
I was ahead of him by maybe 20 yards.
'Come back, you mug they're Huns.'
I wasn't sure.
'How do you make that out?' I whispered.
From that distance the helmets did look like coal-boxes. Then something about the tank caught my eye. It was more easily visible now. I saw a white star.
'Huns be damned!' I shouted. 'Those blokes are Yanks.'
We tore downhill to find three other Hohenfellows had beaten us to it. I can't recall who they all were, but one was 'Sailor' Brown, the Aussie P.T. instructor.
All five of us pumped those Yanks' hands until they must have ached. Frog was crying unashamedly. Finally the tank commander said, 'Sorry men, we've got to go. But the main column is following close behind.'
They drove off and went on towards Nainhof whence came sounds of gunfire. There we met a convoy of tanks and jeeps. We flagged one to stop and persuaded the crew, a corporal and a lancejack to return to 383 with us.
You who were in the lazaret will recall the ovation those two G.I.s got. They were chaired shoulder high, cheered and cheered and cheered again. They were torn apart for souvenirs, buttons and badges. They signed autographs on letters and scraps of paper till their arms must have ached. Frankly, I don't ever want to meet those guys again. They'll slay me for taking them 'to liberate Stalag 383.'
Thank you, Keith, and allow me to add that the date of liberation for the Stalag was April 22, it being about a week later that the men were taken by trucks to Nuremburg and thence, by air, to Blighty.
And now for the fortunes of the five thousand marchers.
Music : We'll Meet Again