My name is Ian McCloud. I am a 25 year old infantryman--assigned POW number 9763 at the Stalag XX-B camp located in the Northern Polish town of Marienburg near Danzig. Along with 10,000 fellow soldiers from the 51st Highland Division, I was captured by the Germans in the northern French town of St. Valery on June 12, 1940 after a desperate but mostly successful attempt by the Royal Navy to evacuate the allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. Our division was under French command in a failed attempt to assist the depleted French forces in the area. The French were the first to surrender. It was my initial experience with the reality of combat but not a single round was shot from my Lee-Enfield issued rifle.
After our capture were processed at a transit camp--a Dulag the Krauts call it--for interrogation. The German officers tried to trick us into revealing strategic information by asking ambivalent questions. We had been briefed by our commanding officers to reveal only our name, rank, and serial number according to the terms of the Geneva Convention. The first 6 months in captivity have been spent at the Stalag XX-A camp further south in Torun. I have spent much of my confinement in physical and psychological depravity, micromanaged by our captors with great relish, especially by the younger guards. For example, when the Red Cross packages arrive, the guards, some who couldn't have been older than 17 or 18, often open the packages and in a kind of sadistic burlesque, they toss the food: cans of salt meat, raisins, powdered milk, chocolate, biscuits, and cheese to each other, letting some of the items fall at our feet. Then the guards rifle butt any soldiers who bend down to grab the food. They open the boxes of cigarette packs and urinate in them. The rest they keep for themselves or use it as rewards for the POWs who snitch on the others. The older ones, some who probably fought in the last war, are easier on us. Most of them look physically unfit for combat. Some I reckon would have children the same age as some of us prisoners.
Just awhile ago a group of drunk younger guards ordered a handful of POWs to dress in women's clothing. One of the guards told us that the clothing had been pilfered from Jewish prisoners at one of the nearby work camps. They chose me as one of their stooges. But we all refused and and it looked like a possible riot and massacre might erupt. Thankfully, an older guard heard the shouting and quickly put an end to the disgrace. Just in time too! One of the guards had the trigger of his rifle cocked and ready to serve out some nasty punishment. Funny though, we never saw those conspiring younger guards at the camp again.
Escape for us is near impossible. We are confronted with two impenetrable fences, one higher than the other. Barbed wire and guardhouses, equipped 24 hours with armed guards, frame our wooden barracks. Only a bloke with a suicidal wish or gone wonky from depraved captivity would even contemplate such foolishness--not that some didn't try. A year ago on Christmas Eve, a small group of prisoners from the neighbouring barracks had risked an escape using crude tools smuggled in by some POWs who did outside labour duty in the fields and factories. They were caught in an overly ambitious attempt to dig a rudimentary tunnel under the barrack's charcoal stove. Two of the lads caught digging in the dead of night were shot--the other two accomplices who had supplied the tools were committed to solitary confinement in one of the camps "special huts." I didn't know either of them. The Nazis hung the two dead soldiers on a nearby utility poll, and as a dire warning, paraded all of us past their frozen remains on Christmas morning. It's hard for me to even imagine how cruel human beings can be! Several days later we were rounded up and marched to the train station and stuffed into cold damp cattle cars and shipped out to what turned out to be our permanent camp.
I will gladly concede that I am less than a model prisoner. I recalled the time I was caught with a functioning radio that I had put together from parts smuggled in by some prisoners. I've always had a strong mechanical aptitude--one that is gratefully appreciated by my barrack mates. Once or twice a week the guards would tour the barrack's, looking for contraband. They empty pillows, search mattresses, and conduct body searches, then make us clean up the mess. Although my punishment was harsh, I was fortunate in that I could easily have been shot or hung. They denied me food rations for two days--gave me only water and little at that. In addition, I was forced to clean out the camp's latrines for a fortnight. I was no longer allowed to perform any outside farm labour which was one of the few opportunities we had to bypass the crippling everyday mental boredom and the unflagging scrutiny of the guards. But most devastating was that I would no longer be provided with healthy meals by the kindly farm families.
We are fed twice a day--usually a watered down soup made from potato and carrot scraps and a piece of black "bread", the ingredients of which we are never told (maybe a good thing!). Rarely do we get to taste even a meagre sampling of meat or cheese. Hunger is an immovable, relentless, and gnawing shadow. At times I initially refuse orders and spit behind the guards' backs. My main preoccupation is trying to conjure up various means of sabotaging the Jerry's plans for humiliating me and my mates. I am being denied sending and receiving letters from home. My mates have been warned of severe punishment if they are caught sending letters on my behalf or relaying my whereabouts or state of health via their loved ones. A few had tried but were tripped up by the vigilant German censors. Some of my fellow inmates resent my refusal to soften my attitude towards the guards. They feel that if I would turn the other cheek more often, it would ease up the harsh treatment--maybe even allow better and more plentiful rations. Some fellow prisoners try to cajole me into easing up on my belligerent behaviour but to be honest, it makes me all the more more stubborn. There have been occasional kerfuffles between me and some of these gutless wankers, sometimes ending in full blown fisticuffs and bloody noses--I'm some some brilliant entertainment for the guards!
Just a few days ago, during one of the daily roll calls, the camp's Unteroffizier entered--boots shining, head cocked upwards--a complete arrogant bastard!. He glared at a young guard standing at the barrack's entrance and shouted: "bringen die unwissenden Schweine diese Bücher des Wissens!" Immediately a guard entered with a wheeled wagon upon which lay a large box.. "One for each", he ordered. He opened the box and started to distribute books. We were all given a copy of the Fuhrer's "Mein Kampf"--the English translation. The cover page titled "My Struggle" had the Stalag 20B library stamp on its mid section, as well as the pervasive Reichsadler--the "Imperial Eagle" emblem embossed underneath. If I could have gotten away with just a beating, I would have dropped my trousers and happily pissed on the disgusting piece of written shite.
The Unteroffizier, with help from his English translator, presented a fiery lecture on his Fuhrer's incredible insight into the dangers facing the German people and their struggle to retain their national and racial pride against the Jewish threat. The irony of his words did not escape me--many of us lads at home would often listen to our own parents' and elders' angry tirades about the Jews'--their communist ties, and dangerous aspersions to gain control of international banking system.
While sipping the last dregs of bitter coffee, McCloud skipped to the final part of his journal. It was the waning days of the war and the most trying time for him and his POW mates.
October 12, 1944
We are now into the cooler autumn months. We notice that our captors are becoming more ornery than usual--even the older guards. We reckon something's up. We know from the BBC's broadcasts (one of our barrack mates was able to sneak in a wireless set from a generous farm family) that France had been liberated by the Americans and French Resistance Forces. A lieutenant in the officer's barracks who understands German overheard a senior guard talking about the quickly advancing Red Army from the east and the American army ready to merge with the Allies from the west. It doesn't sound very good for the Krauts. A sense of hope is starting to emerge from the fog of our despair, although tempered by a real possibility that the guards, backs up against the wall, might turn on us with a bloodthirsty fit of desperation and vengeance.
December 14, 1944
Me and the lads are awakened in the middle of the night to loud shouts from the guards ordering us to gather up our kits and sparse belongings and prepare to leave the camp. It has been a brutal start to the winter so we packed our warmest clothing and anything we could grab, including bits of food that some of us had hoarded or been given by the Polish farmers where we did forced labour. I had only a small can of plain biscuits that I won in a poker game a few days ago. The special Red Cross Christmas parcels had arrived that morning. It was only through the intervention of an older guard that we were allowed to keep most of the parcels' contents including our much anticipated cans of tobacco and rolling papers.
Some of our officers reckon that we are being evacuated so as to prevent the indignity of having the Russians liberate us. After roll call they counted 185 of us. They jotted down a bunch of information into their notebooks. They told us we would all be leaving at idle time to keep a list of all the bastards and assign them a number indicating which ones would be the most likely recipients of my future vengeance. Although the numbers were constantly changing, several of the older guards were exempt-- the ones who treated us with reasonable humanity considering their slotted roles.
For the past few days, intermittent rumbles of artillery echoed from what sounded like several miles away towards the east. There was little doubt now--the Russian Army was now on our heels. At first, rumours had it that the guards were taking us to a camp somewhere in Germany. Then we found out from one of our officers who understood German that he had overheard two guards in conversation saying that they were taking us on a westward trek to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.
Our group, the first to leave, started out as the sun was rising. Outside, it was a cold with only a wisp of wind. Our breath had formed thick clouds of vapour in the frozen air. We were promptly warned to form a straight line, two abreast, and not to fall behind. Anyone trying to escape would be shot--no questions asked. According to the tattered calendar I kept in the side pocket of my journal book, it was a Saturday the 16th day of December, a little over a fortnight left in both month and year.
After an exhausting trek, just after the sun fell , we hunkered down in an abandoned barn we found nestled against a phalanx of mature pine trees. We were exhausted and hungry. One of the lads was escorted by an older guard to gather pine needles and cones for kindling. Good luck had it that at the far end of the damp structure there was a rusted old wood stove shrouded by thick cob webs. The stove was not vented--somehow the stack was no longer attached--perhaps the previous users took the metal vent for other purposes. The barn's windows were gone so there was little risk of us being asphyxiated. We broke off some of the rotting timber, cleaned the stove as best we could and eventually had a decent fire going. The guards ordered us to move to the farthest end of the barn so they could sleep next to the stove. We drank weak tea but were comforted by its warmth. We shared rations, making sure we conserved as much as possible. The smoke from the stove drifted through the naked windows. A few of the lads played cards, some spoke in soft tones and smoked, most of us slept from sheer exhaustion. The guards slept in shifts so they could keep us under constant surveillance. None of us were foolish enough to attempt an escape. Hopefully, the time would come later as the Russians advanced.
Shortly after a breakfast of tea and biscuits we were back on the move, following the Nogat River southward. The fresh snow created a blinding glare. Unlike our brothers in the RAF, we were not issued sunglasses in our kits at the start of the war. The river was completely frozen over which according to what we were told, was an oddity so early in the season. At nightfall we took refuge in a partially destroyed wooden church, probably evacuated during the German invasion. According to the guards' map, we were now near the tiny village of Pogorzala Wies.
Today our group marched through bitter cold and wind. The sky turned black, the east winds promising a dump of considerable of snow. The snow came in fitful intervals, occasionally broken by sudden jabs of sun. We slept outside in a wooded area, sheltered from the snow and wind, huddled together to preserve precious body heat. We ate meagrely to preserve our precious rations.
Another full day brought us to Biala Gora, a small diary farming village where the Nogat flows into the partially frozen Vistula River. The village was on a flat plain framed to the east by a dense forested area. An elderly guard told us that the Vistula was known as the Wisla by the locals and rarely did it fully freeze over. Fortunately, some villagers led us to an abandoned wheat mill. God bless them--they offered us some fresh cheese and milk. The guards hoarded most of the food--just threw us mere scraps. At least the old mill provided some respite from the bitter cold.
A cloudy but mild morning brought a brief escape from the sub freezing temperatures. A rare treat of fresh coffee was brought over by the farmers' wives and daughters, each holding pewter coffee urns, their original lustre lost with use. All of us had our blue and white enamelled pint cups issued by the BEF at the ready. We stared at the young women in awe. Their fresh beauty reminded us that beyond the despair of our circumstances, we were still young men with human desires. I could see the young German guards snickering and carrying on like grade school children. It did not seem much of a stretch to imagine them taking advantage of the villagers' kindness. Thankfully, they held back under the stern eyes of their older peers who most probably had daughters the same age.
Another Christmas--this was my fifth in captivity. Again, nothing to celebrate. We all shared a tin of butter cookies--our holiday treat! One of the Catholic lads took out a bible and recited a passage from John 3:16 "“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." Most of us had given up on religion--a just and compassionate God would never allow such a horrific war. But the least we could do was listen to him with quiet respect. All of us reminisced back to our holidays at home--the warm feelings of being with loved ones and hardy food. We wondered if we would ever revisit those good times again.
I thought about the Christmases of my childhood--the great excitement--being unable to sleep with the anticipation of gifts awaiting me downstairs under the tree. Sometimes the old man stayed sober long enough to help me assemble some of my gifts. My fondest memory was my first bike. It was a Pashley three gear roadster made in Birmingham. I was ten or eleven. It was the initial years of the depression. How the old man could afford the gift still puzzles me to this day, although knowing him, he probably won it in an after hours poker game at the pub. It must have cost at least 3 quid--a good week's pay back then if you were even lucky enough to find work! I still think about mum a lot and how she's coping. I worry that she's suffering the pain of having no inclination of my health or status. Thank God, according to a later BBC report heard through our barrack's covert radio, Bolton was spared the Manchester Christmas bombing carnage four years ago. But more and more, most of my conscious thoughts are tuned to survival--I want to live out this horror--it's the only viable way I know of revenging the Nazi pigs.
Ten days into our trek. We were following the Vistula southward--our rag tag, zigzagging cavalcade of guards and prisoners crossed the Wisla near Bydgoszcz, a large city at the confluence of the Wisla and Brda Rivers. We were told that there was a camp nearby for female Jewish inmates that was recently emptied--like us they were in retreat from the advancing Russians. We had heard on our pirated radio and also through some of our officers, that there were numerous extermination camps across occupied countries filled with deported Jews and other enemies of the Reich. Once outside the city, the guards ordered us to advance westward toward the German border, a distance of more than 300 kilometres. The guards reckoned it would take at least a fortnight to reach the border, depending of course on weather conditions and the availability of food. I think they've gone barmy if they think we can march over 20 kilometres a day in this weather in our current state of health!
January 1, 1945
New Year's Day. Just another day of survival--nothing to celebrate, other than I'm still alive. The fire we managed to start last night is reduced to embers but still hot enough to make some weak tea. It's a cloudless winter sky. Thankfully the wind had died down. Last night the guards shared with each other a bottle of schnapps, singing rowdy songs in German. The oldest guard, a decent chap considering the circumstances, we all call him Fritz, told us the German people call the holiday Saint Sylvester Day after the ancient Pope. Our group of prisoners were too tired and cold for any celebratory antics. I wondered how our people back home were celebrating, or more so, were they celebrating at all? We were aware through the radio broadcasts and the odd newspaper smuggled in through stealth means, that many of the cities in Britain had been mercilessly bombed by the Luftwaffe. One of the worst hit areas was my old neighbourhood in the east London dockyards.
After days on the move, our men are feeling the effects of the severe physical hurdles presented by the constant cold and lack of food. A lot of us are suffering from frost bite--purple coloured blisters on our fingers and toes are turning black. Adding to a miserable list of inflictions, lice has become a problem for many of us. During one of the rare sunny, windless days, we stripped down to the waist and helped each other scrape off the lice from our naked chests. The itching was a constant irritant. One of our mates who was a medical student before enlisting, explained to us in comical terms, that the lice hooks up with the typhus bacteria and while feeding on our human meat, they shit simultaneously on the bitten site. Then the victim scratches the host site and the bacteria enters through the bloodstream. Already, a few prisoners have early signs of the disease: headaches, rashes, fever, and muscle pain. So far I've been spared but for how much longer I don't know.
We slept and ate in small groups of four or five so we could better look out for each other's welfare. I settled in with two privates from the 51st: Lenny Stenson, Conrad "Corky" Bolland, Dalton Vickerson--an older junior officer, and Gordy Prickett, my best mate. All of us were close during the years of captivity at Marienburg. We all have something in common: all of us proud, stubborn, bloody-minded blokes and we paid for it with extra doses of physical and mental abuse.
Days go by slowly as we head towards the border. I was weakening under the strain of fatigue, cold, and lack of food. We got our water from melted snow, scavenging from farmer's wells and handouts from generous Polish villagers. I learned early in our trek that sucking on raw snow was detrimental to proper hydration and resulted in further hypothermia. We each had some form of intestinal problems, including full blown dysentery. It became a fruitless task trying to keep our undergarments reasonably clean. I was becoming immune to the constant stench. I imagined how much worse it could have been if we were in the midst of summer's heat.
Our pack slept in factories, churches, farmers' cowsheds, and often in open fields or wooded areas. When we passed villagers they would sometimes throw food or clothing at our group--other times they threw rocks. We would forage rotting and broken wood from abandoned sheds and barns, using it for firewood. Corky had been a Rover Scout before he enlisted--fortunately for us he had learned some survival skills. He showed us how the outer bark of the birch trees provided ideal tinder for starting fires and pine cones and needles were good for kindling.
The cold is bloody relentless. The villagers we passed told us they had never experienced such a frigid winter. We already had experienced several blizzards which forced us to stop marching altogether. Instead, we spent the time trying to keep warm, drinking weak tea, eating from the remaining rations, and trying to dry our wet and stinking clothing. Card games helped keep us occupied. I spent time updating my journal and whispering strategies with my group on a possible escape. The consensus was that the best chance would occur if we lingered at the back of the pack when we trekked through a village--if a guard, just for a few seconds was distracted, then we could lose ourselves amongst the villagers and dwellings and run like hell. Of course there was always the danger that one of the villagers might call us out to the guards in fear of the dire consequences of hiding an enemy soldier.
We have now lost dozens of men. Most couldn't keep up with the pack--sick, half frozen, starving, they collapsed, no longer able to carry on. Others rooked the dice on an escape but were quickly corralled and shot. The guards ransacked the dead bodies--overcoats, blankets, hats, and boots were most the treasured booty.
The strength of determination to live has now become our most urgent survival tool. It's become an internal battle, a game played out between mind and matter. In order to have any chance at winning we must visualize some hope to get us through all this horror--for most of us it's the memories of our loved ones and faith in our future!
Almost daily, a guard quietly escorts a stray POW into an isolated wooded area and shoots him. We hear the sound of a pistol, sometimes accompanied by a muted scream--the poor souls haven't even the strength to raise their voices. Hunger has become unbearable. Yesterday I witnessed some prisoners killing stray cats and dogs with discarded lorry parts left behind by the villagers fleeing the Red Army. I am becoming ever so much closer to entertaining such a desperate act but then I think of my beloved, gentle lab "Wharf," left behind with mum, and I'm repulsed. "What next?", I thought--"fellow fallen prisoners?...dead guards?"
Corky showed us how to dig under the snow in barren farmer's fields using makeshift tools made from scraps of wood and metal found along the way. We dug for old roots and anything remotely edible--sometimes we found frozen, partially decomposed unharvested potatoes and carrots which we made into a thin soup. Corky gathered pine needles and shredded bark from trees, making a bitter brew of tea. He taught us that the inner soft white bark of pine and birch trees could be extracted and boiled into water for soup or ground up into a grainy flour with added water for a paste to make "pancakes."
We were averaging only a paltry 5 to 10 kilometres daily. Breaks during the day get longer and more frequent. Most of us are suffering from trench foot from the cold and damp. My feet are swollen and numb. Some of the men's limbs have developed into gangrene. We see them hobbling behind us, losing ground and collapsing, unable to continue on. There is no medication or antibiotics and no medical facilities. The guards don't bother to shoot these hopeless cases--they just leave the struggling POWs in the snow to die--without a hand to hold--without a word of comfort. I think of all the telegrams that will be sent to their families: the mothers and fathers, the wives and sweethearts, and most sadly, the children who may never meet or remember their fathers. And for the five long years of waiting, hoping, and praying--all for not!
As I write this, my hand shaking, the tips of my fingers raw, I abdicate any faith I once had in humanity and as well, my belief in God. If I survive this nightmare, I wonder how I will be ever be able to carry on a normal life--I feel so much humiliation, anger, and guilt.
So allow me to vent my feelings on paper while I can still hold a pen...... I bloody well curse that arrogant coarse cigar smoking drunken wanker Churchill for playing us like a bunch of pawns on a chessboard just to slake his ego. I curse Hitler--the evil madman who threw all of us into this insanity--if I had the chance I'd cut off his balls and feed them to his gestapo lackeys. I curse Roosevelt, the bloody Yank, for his arrogant self interest in waiting way too long to join us in battle. I curse Stalin, the power-hungry Red who gives not a shite for the millions of his ill prepared and equipped troops who are being killed and maimed. I curse the damned relentless winter for making our already miserable existence even more intolerable. I curse the forced humiliation and depravity we have endured from our captors every day for five years. And most of all I curse the feelings of shame I will bear forever (if I survive this nightmare) for not participating in the war in any kind of meaningful way--merely being a passive tool for the amusement of our sadistic captors. And If I do live to see an Allied victory, what will I tell my family and mates back home? What kind of high blown war stories will I concoct with my drinking mates with five years behind a barbed wire fence? What can I say was MY contribution to the war?
I remember with bitterness my naive eagerness to enlist, caught up in a mania of patriotism and a young lad's quest for adventure. "FOR BLIGHTY!" we all shouted like over excited boys in a schoolyard. I never thought to consider reality: the ugliness of battle--literally the blood and guts of this sickening theatre called war. We were tricked and lured onto this stage by play directors concerned only about their own success. giving us only a slapdash of rehearsal. But oh how quickly we learned our roles: kill or be killed!
As the days pass, the cold becomes a relentless scourge. It grips its teeth into our exposed flesh like a rabid dog. We sleep and build fires anywhere we can find some shelter: in factories, churches, under rickety wooden bridges, in abandoned cowsheds, and in woodlands. Sometimes when we passed villagers, they tossed food or clothing at us--other times they threw rocks. Typhus is claiming more victims. When we looked back at the poor lads stumbling about aimlessly and covering their eyes from the sunlight, we knew they would die in short time--there was little any of us could do. On a few occasions we crossed paths with other marching inmates--Brits, French, and Canucks, all looking half dead as they stumbled forward, their captors patrolling both the front and rear flanks, their rifles flung menacingly over their shoulders.
There is a sustained physical and mental struggle to keep myself from falling behind the main pack. Two of our guards had already frozen to death into the third week of our trek. The guards found several abandoned farmers' carts along the way. They placed each of their dead mates into a cart then ordered two of our POWs to pull it--I reckon to the border for proper burial in their homeland. The other carts were used to store the clothing, stolen food from the Polish villagers, and other booty from the dead POWs.
It is starting to get increasingly difficult for me to enter notes in my journal. My fingers are chapped and bleeding from frostbite. I can barely grip the pen. I worry about gangrene setting in--I know it will mean a painful death. Following a miserable day of sub freezing cold and a bitter wind, we found shelter in an abandoned barn. None of us had the strength to look for tinder or kindling wood. The barn's loose wood had already been ransacked by its previous occupants. There were charred remnants of fires scattered throughout the dirt floor. Our group shared the meagre rations of canned corn and biscuits that we had received from a generous village farmer we passed the day before. We drank the cold half frozen salty corn juice and talked about our loved ones back home and our plans for the future.
Corky, a gentle young lad still in his teens, was musing about reuniting with his sweetheart back home in Yorkshire. He lived in Beverley on the outskirts of Hull. Corky showed us some photographs that he had stashed away lovingly inside his fatigue jacket of the young lass he said he would marry when the war was over. A real smashing bird she was at that--her hair was done in the popular style of the day, voluminous auburn curls framing her delicate face and high cheekbones. He told us her name was Kay. She looked no more than 15 or 16. Corky also spoke with pride of his two older sisters, both married to RAF airmen who were recently on leave. He told us his old man had a successful printing business in Hull and promised Corky that he would train him on the presses after the war. The young lad told us that he was too exhausted to eat but I noticed an aura of serene contentment on his face as if he was preparing for something unknown, but not unwelcome.
In the morning I was the first to wake. I went over to the boy, gently shaking him to prepare for the day's trek. There was no response. I gently turned him over. His body was unusually stiff. His face had a pinky blue tinge, his eyes still open. I realized that the poor lad was dead. Vickerson, a devout Catholic, came over and crossed himself and mouthed a prayer. He gently closed Corky's eyes. Later, with pangs of guilt, we distributed amongst ourselves his thick overcoat, fur cap, blanket and boots. I searched through his rucksack for personal items--I didn't want the quickly approaching Russians destroying anything that his loved ones might cherish. Inside I found a stack of letters addressed from home. They were tied with black shoelaces. The photographs of his sweetheart were in a small leather pouch along with a silver crucifix. Two Sherlock Holmes books: "The Adventure of the Three Gables" and The Adventure of the Creeping Man" we're tucked near the bottom--two faux leather bookmarks each with a bright port wine coloured tassel adorning the top. Embossed on each bookmark was: BOLLAND'S FINE PRINTERS. A copy of "Mein Kampf" was lying on the bottom of the pile. I took the rest of the contents and stuffed them in a worn gunny sack that I found in a farmer's shed a month ago and then placed it inside my own backpack. There would be a loving family: mum and dad, sisters, and later nieces and nephews who would appreciate these tokens to keep his memory alive. And of course, Kay. I thought about the poor lad--how a bright and happy future was awaiting him and now all of it vanished in a cold abandoned barn in a war-torn Polish countryside, a thousand miles from home.
Later, I wrote a note and placed it along with Corkey's things in my gunny sack: "If I don't make it, if possible, please forward contents to the address on the envelopes." I decided that I would keep "Mein Kampf." It would serve as kindling for starting the next evening's fire--a fitting fate for this piece of shite!. I checked to see if his identity disk was still on his neck, so that when the Russians found his body, they would hopefully document his passing and provide a proper burial. Sure enough, there were two disks, a red oval shaped one and just underneath, a green octagon shaped one, both made from the usual pressed fibre board and hanging from a frayed and discoloured cotton cord. They were hand stamped with the inscription: Bolland C T 203114 C.E. The C.E. indicated Corkey's religion: Church of England. I was also raised an Anglican, although I rarely attended church. Beside it was stamped his service ID number. I covered him with his blanket, took a piece of charcoal that I saved from an earlier extinguished fire, and wrote in large script: INSIDE: A TOMMIE'S BODY~ PLEASE LAY TO REST WITH GRACE. I had found a few barely lodged nails below a window and banged the note with Corky's boot into the barn's dilapidated entrance. Hopefully a Russian soldier or officer reasonably fluent in English would read the note. The final thing I did was cut a lock of my mate's hair and wrapped it in some foil from an empty pack of fags. I placed it inside an envelope from one of Kay's letters. Although no longer a believer, I made a silent prayer out of respect for Corkey's own deep beliefs. With my tears flowing freely, I took a last look at my mate and turned towards the morning cold.
It's was an unusually but welcomed mild day closing in on mid-January. In the late afternoon, we heard from afar towards the direction we were heading, what sounded like the rumbling of thunder. We noticed a change in the guards' bearing. They were much more irritable and nervous than normal. An older guard told us that we would have to turn northward, away from the ominous sounds. He later divulged that the Red Army was now in the city of Poznan, along our original route, and the distant sound was the artillery exchange between the Russian and German forces. So we needed to take a circular route around the battle zone.
In the early evening we reached a small village nestled in a wooded area next to a tiny lake. A small group of farm children were ice skating. It brought back fond memories of my childhood days when the winters were cold enough, I would go ice skating on Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park.
Today our group followed a series of narrow lakes, the surface layer of ice thinning from several days of mild weather. In the evening we reached the village of Lagow. Most of the village was surrounded by dense woods. Since leaving the camp we've now been on the move for over a month. One of the guards, with the aid of his well used tattered map, advised us that we were nearly 60 kilometres from the German border. I have now counted less than 100 POWs still on the move, almost a mere half of those who started out. We hoped that some of the missing lads had managed to escape and were in the safe hands of the Russians, but I reckoned from the occasional sounds of gunfire, that this was probably just idle optimism. On the other side, eight guards had perished from the cold, disease or starvation, and all but one was elderly. Everyone is getting weaker by the day. We wonder how much longer can we hold on.
The Germans led us to an old wooden church near a small pond. It appeared abandoned but it had suited our need for shelter for the night. In the distance I was struck by a castle's sand coloured turret rising from an indistinguishable structure. Once inside the church we were surprised to find an elderly priest lighting candles on a decrepit altar. The pews were worn and badly in need of repair. There was a strong smell of damp wood. The last shards of winter sun had broken through a badly faded stain glass widow. The priest was dressed in a badly frayed black cassock, a large silver crucifix hung from his neck. His remaining hair was pure white--a horseshoe shaped fringe, framing his bald crown. Curiously he seemed the least bit surprised by our abrupt entrance, in fact he appeared to be expecting us!.
The senior guard spoke to the priest in what I presume was fractured Polish . They both appeared amiable, at least according to their body language. They both shook hands and the cleric escorted the guard from the nave into what looked like the rectory attached by a narrow passageway. We unloaded our gear onto the pew seats while one of the guards did roll call. I caught site of a group of guards talking heatedly outside the church.
The priest told us that he had a working kitchen with a clay bricked oven in his quarters which was attached to the main sanctum. He had a modest supply of tea and coffee as well as tinned meat and fruit that he wished to share with both guards and prisoners. I felt dizzy with the thought of this possible bounty! Awhile later, multiple gun shots rang out intermittently from outside the church. I cringed. "Which one from our pack now?", I thought. A short while later the church door opened with two smiling guards holding a family of freshly killed hares.
The priest to our astonishment spoke excellent English. He eagerly attended to each of our small groups, crossing himself after each visit. The four of us had been busy playing a game of gin rummy when he came round to us.. He told us that the church was over 200 years old. He said he was born in Lodz 70 years ago when Poland was part of the Russian Empire. His father, a well known physician and surgeon in Lotz, was invited to take a position at the Queen's Hospital in Birmingham England in 1874 in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. The position allowed him to teach medical students and interns--a nice break from his busy practice in Poland. The priest was born a year after they arrived in England where he lived until the family moved back to Poland over a decade later.
Shortly after the priest's visit I fell asleep, exhausted. I later awoke with the pleasant smell of fresh baked bread. Beside me, Lenny was reading one of Corkey's Sherlock Holme's books. I had forgotten that I lent it to him a few days ago. The old priest approached the cramped pews with a large cast iron caldron precariously placed upon what looked to me to be a child's wagon made out of some kind of strong looking metal. He left the wagon near the alter and returned a few minutes later with another wagon which held a long wooden ladle and a stack of wooden bowls. In a loud voice he announced that the soup was ready and proceeded to attend to each group of lads, luckily starting with us.
The priest handed out a large bowl and two smaller ones. The broth smelled wonderful, and unlike the endless years of eating watered down concoctions, the hot soup was thick with generous chunks of vegetables. He told us it was a monks vegetarian soup made from a recipe handed down over the generations and the ingredients grown in the church's modest garden. He apologized for having to make us share the bowls--he didn't have enough for everyone. Also, the lack of spoons meant we would have to drink the soup directly from the bowl. No complaints from us!!. I tasted potatoes and different kinds of beans. Strangely, they had a meaty flavour. It made me reminisce about he last time we had meat at the stalag--it was the fall of 1944: canned salt beef provided by the German Red Cross. The Red Cross workers had made sure we had the cans in our hands and watched us eat the contents to prevent any of the guards from pilfering. We heard later that there was a previous directive from the German high command that the Allies were set to deny all German POWs access to rations if the guards did not allow the food and cigarettes to properly reach their captives.
After distributing the precious soup, the priest announced that the bread was almost baked and would be distributed shortly. Several guards came out of the rectory to relieve the guards at the front of the nave. They wiped their mouths and seemed to walk with an unsteady gait.. The priest returned with loaves of dark round bread. He called it "wroclaw trencher"--saying it was originally made by medieval monks and often used as bowls for meat stews. It had a tasty sourness which made sense when he told us the ingredients included beer and rye. He winked and told us that the guards had "found" his storage of beer and were gathering around to sing German folk songs. He leaned over and whispered that the Unteroffizier warned him that if any of us tried to escape, we would be shot, including himself if he collaborated with us in ant way.
After we ate, the priest took some time to chat with us. He told us that after the Nazis invaded his country, many Poles and Jews were rounded up and sent to labour and extermination camps. The previous priest, a young lad from the village, had managed to secretly hide a Jewish family in the basement of the old church. He built a trapped door under the lectern with the help of a village carpenter. It led to a stairwell that ended in an enclosed enclave that could be used temporarily if the Germans searched the basement. After a few months the carpenter betrayed the priest and the family was sent off to camps. The poor priest was shot in the village square--the Germans gathered up villagers nearby and forced them to watch the execution on the threat of being shot themselves. He said it was rumoured by the locals that the Nazis refused to burn down the church as was their usual barbaric practice--rather, they wanted the old relic preserved to show the world how backward and underdeveloped the Slavic peoples were.
The following morning after a rare restful sleep, I suddenly awoke with a rifle barrel sticking in my ribs. The Unteroffizier was shouting at us in German--we were all familiar with the words: "aufstehen Schwein!" He looked a lot more cranky than usual--I reckoned that maybe he was hung over from last night's binge. We barely had enough time to say our goodbyes and gratitudes to the priest who was visiting each group, hugging the lads and crossing himself. I asked him to write down his name and mailing address so that we might correspond with him in the future. I tore out an empty sheet from my journal. He walked up to the lectern, took a pen and an ink well from the shelf and wrote with a great intensity. I asked how we could ever repay him for his generosity. He told me to be strong and when the war was over to write and ensure him that all of us were reunited with our loved ones. He handed me the note with a bible and wiped away a tear. The guards were shouting and threatening us with their pointed rifles. There was no time to read the priest's note. I placed the paper inside my journal and silently prayed for him and his village congregation safe keeping from the war's ongoing danger and chaos.
In the late morning we finally reached the border town of Dammvorstadt. The cold had eased--today it reached well above freezing under a cloudless sky. Some of us even discarded our heavy overcoats. After a brief rest we crossed the bridge over the partly frozen Oder River into the German town of Frankfurt an der Oder. The town seemed almost deserted. I noticed some of the townspeople peeking through the dark blackout curtains in their flats. They looked anxious. The Unteroffizier shouted out orders for the us to fall into single file so as to repel us from any thoughts of escaping through the town's winding streets. Near a courtyard, a elderly man appeared like an apparition wearing an oversized full length fur coat and matching hat. He beckoned the Unteroffizier with a wave of his hand. We were ordered to halt while the pair chatted. The old man appeared agitated. They spoke with animated gestures. Something significant was in the air. Several minutes later the Officer ordered us to remain stationary while he gathered his guards for a brief meeting. He made several motions, pointing his arm towards the Dammvorstadt side of the Oder. We reckoned they were talking about the Red Army who were now most likely only a short distance away.
That evening the fitful sounds of the lads coughing kept me up. I thought about the old priest and the wooden church. Since leaving the church I had been too exhausted to take out my journal. I opened it and a loose sheet fell to the floor. It was the priest's note. The script was very small but symmetrical, the penmanship surprisingly aesthetic. I eagerly read his words.
January 23rd, 1945
My dear young men:
Your unexpected visit gave me the opportunity to reflect once again on this ghastly war. The Lord knows that both sides have witnessed the horrors--our human frailties have being nakedly revealed. Many of our Jewish brothers and sisters as well as our Polish citizens and clergy have been brutally murdered and forced to endure horrendous conditions because of Hitler's deranged designs. But the past years have also displayed the goodness and sacrifice of common people who have risked their own lives to hide those in danger. May the good Lord bless them for letting in the light of compassion. We must focus our thoughts on the righteousness of people--the power of good to overcome evil--the light that beams strongly!
Private Ian, when I first met you, I sensed a young man heavy in heart with the burden of shame and self reproach. Your eyes revealed this. I also sensed a burning desire for revenge. But I can understand your intense feelings.
My prayers are that your journey through the dark shadows will soon end. After, there will be a strong light that beckons you. Before you there will follow a critical choice for you to make. Either linger in the shadows or give over yourself of the light--spend your life with the burden of guilt and vengeance or choose to spread the light to others. But never forget the horrors you have endured and the evil you have witnessed. These memories will be your cement and love your architect for you to build a bridge towards reconciliation. Enlighten your family and friends, acquaintances and strangers, that we must never allow Hitler's depraved legacy to ever gain traction again. All the suffering on both sides is the mournful evidence of this obligation which we all must strive for if we desire a future with peace.
May our journey through these shadows bring light and peace to all, and may you and your soldiers (and guards as well) be granted a safe passage back home to the ones you love and cherish you. The Lord be with all,
Niech cię Bóg błogosławi!
Church of the Holy Saints
A cold rain fell in the late afternoon just before we reached the village of Brieskow-Finkenheerd, a tiny dairy farming village. The roads were flat which made the slog easier. The rain gradually tapered to a mist, making visibility difficult in the waning daylight. The guards negotiated with one of the farm families to spend the night in a huge building which looked like an old abandoned mill of some sort, located near the main barn where the livestock were kept. The structure looked dilapidated but was still intact. The door and windows were mere empty spaces. The sight of a flue's crooked crown was encouraging--maybe a stove for heat! Inside were a number of old wooden shelves, ghostly aprons of silky cob webs wrapped around old empty wine and liquor bottles. Although musty and damp, the shed provided a welcome shelter from the rain. We found a rusted out wood burning stove, the remnants of wood dust crusting inside. We broke into our usual groups while the guards positioned themselves for their watch.
Later, two young farm children entered with two huge metal coal scuttles filled with well water. Minutes later they returned with some weathered looking kettles and kerosene lamps. The father, a kindly looking gentleman, portly and walking with a strange gait, brought in some gnarled dry wood for burning. The wife, a matronly women with an enormous bun of bright straw coloured hair, brought freshly baked bread and cheese. We were mesmerized by their kindness, considering that they were Germans. The guards, in a rare moment of charity, perhaps spurred on by their exhaustion and anxiety, allowed everyone to share in the "feast." By the time the sun settled, we were drying out our soaked blankets and shit stained trousers beside the freshly ignited fire. It was the rarest of nights: we slept with more than just a morsel of food in our stomachs and the luxury of some warmth.
On a mild sunlit late afternoon, our pack reached Heidenau, a small town near Dresden. We had trekked more than 250 kilometres since crossing the border, experiencing a mixture of different weather conditions, but thankfully free from the extreme cold of January. All of us were suffering from stomach problems and rashes. Some had high fevers and were beginning to stumble, confused and delirious. There were now 78 of us left that I could account for. I tried to keep a record of gun shots to figure out how many of the poor souls were put to rest and how many may have escaped successfully, not realizing that some had just dropped, their frozen bodies left for the Russians to discover. For the past few days we witnessed multiple groups of German rural civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, trekking their way desperately from the advancing Reds towards the large city of Dresden. A few spoke some limited English. They shouted that they were seeking shelter in the city where they hoped the Wehrmacht would protect them. It seemed to me that in these hellish times, everyone was either fleeing, chasing, or hiding from someone or something.
Two days out of Dresden we heard the drone of planes to the north. We were in Klingenberg, a small farming village. The guards had led us to an abandoned train station for shelter. During the night we witnessed a full moon under a star studded cloudless sky--perfect conditions for an air raid. But where? A formation of what appeared to b RAF Lancaster bombers flew overhead in perfect formation, like a flock of migrating geese. I faintly recognized the back of the planes, the moonlight glancing off their uniquely recognizable twin tails. Shortly after, I saw another formation of Yank bombers--probably B-17s. Some of our officers had binoculars and later whispered to us that they were Tommy and Yank planes. We guessed that a huge bombing raid was planned--maybe Berlin to the north. I weeped unashamedly.