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Library Reference Number: 195

Some Recollections Of A P.O.W.

George Thomson

The descent into enemy territory at the end of a parachute provides one of the swiftest transformations imaginable. The end result is a loss of freedom and an unpredictable future lies ahead.

Bomber crews were well aware of that possibility but held firm to the philosophy that while it may happen to others "it won't happen to us". A philosophy that often proved to be unreliable as statistics would prove, particularly one statistic that suggested that on your first operation there is a 1 in 20 possibility of being shot down: after five operations that becomes a one in four possibility, and after ten operations a one in two. But after twenty operations your number could be up! Well, it was on 12th September 1944, and on our twentieth operation that we were shot down and I headed for an unpredictable future.

As luck would have it our Flight Engineer and I landed in the same field, in the area of Mannheim, and we took the decision that we would try to walk out of Germany. Eight days later our journey came to an end when we had the misfortune to bed down for the night in a wood, some two hundred yards from an army camp that had been screened from our view. So began my life as a prisoner of war.

Our captors were an Austrian Regiment, and after being taken to their camp where we were scrutinised by one or two officers, we were put aboard a truck and driven back to Rastatt, the town we had passed through the previous night as we headed for the French border. We were taken to the town gaol and lodged in separate cells. One incident I clearly recall is when I asked to be taken to the toilet; I had not been there long when an R.A.F. pilot with the rank of Flying Officer also came in and opened conversation by asking where I had been shot down? When I did not reply, he then asked which Squadron I was from? I told him to mind his own business and returned to my cell. When we were moved two days later to another gaol the R.A.F. pilot was not with us. Was he really a P.O.W., or a German hoping to get information other than name, rank and number, which we had already provided?

Eventually we ended up at Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe's interrogation centre at Frankfurt, where we only spent two or three days by reason of the fact that there was an influx of prisoners from Arnhem. It was here that we met up with our Bomb Aimer and Wireless Operator when loaded aboard a train for the journey to our permanent camp. Missing were our pilot and the two air gunners. After a tedious few days we arrived at Stalag Luft VII, at Bankau, close to the Polish border. To our great surprise and joy our Rear Gunner was in the crowd at the gate, waiting to see the new comers. Our concern for our Rear Gunner had been occasioned by the fact that he was of the Jewish faith. Later, we learned that our Pilot and other air-gunner had been killed.

This was a comparatively new camp, still under construction, and for the first two weeks I was accommodated in little more than a garden shed, or dog kennels as they were called, each accommodating seven or eight prisoners. On the 13th of October we were moved into the new compound where the buildings provided more space and an almost luxurious lifestyle by comparison with the kennels.

Life in the camp would have been monotonous had we not created our own entertainment and activities, and some can best be illustrated by quoting entries from my diary, of which a selection are given:

1944 Nov.11th Armistice Day. A service was held this morning at which the Last Post was sounded. It was impressive and must have had some effect on the Germans. A dull day with snow on the ground, not unlike many pre-war Armistice Days at home.

Nov.12th A Remembrance Service today, led by our new padre, Capt Collins In preparation for the arrival of the padre a lectern had been made, but it proved to be somewhat short for the. requirements of Capt. Collins who stood 6' 5" tall.

Nov.13 First night of Camp Capers in the Little Theatre. The main production was "Rookery Nook” and was enjoyed by all. The Little Theatre doubled as a utility building but it boasted a stage. The second show in the Theatre "Leo Mackie's Hepcats" ran for two nights to allow the whole camp, along with senior German officers, to see it. After the first night the Germans banned the singing of the National Anthem resulting in Peter Thompson, the Senior British Officer, ordering the singing of Land of Hope and Glory as loudly as possible, to the embarrassment of the Germans.

Nov 18 A meeting held for the foundation of a St.Andrews Society. Food was a regular topic of conversation and at one meeting of the St. Andrew's Society, when discussing eating places in Glasgow, I found myself talking to a nephew of my father's cousin. What kind of relationship was that?

Nov. 23 Getting colder and the news is that the coal ration is to be cut to ten lumps per day per room. First night of the new show “Dancing Time”

Nov. 25 Inter-Division rugby trial- result 1st Div.6 – 2nd Div 3. Played twenty minutes each way, which was more than enough. Spectators were interested and amused as we sloshed through the mud and puddles.

Sporting activities occupied a good deal of our time and I played in the 1st Division rugby team. The first Scotland v England match took place on the 2nd of December ending with no score either side, and the following day the United Kingdom lost to the Dominions by a single try - the final score U.K. nil - Dominions 4.

Dec.10 Church in the morning. In the afternoon the padre, a Cambridge Blue, gave an interesting talk. In the evening a new class started in auto engineering.

Dec.15 Snowing heavily. Showing of "Life Begins for Andy Hardy" at cinema. A musical evening at the St. Andrew's Society.

Dec 17 Up early to prepare for visit from the German S.S.

We were always warned when the S.S. were expected to lessen the risk of their finding equipment (radio and the like) which the Camp Commandant and his men could not find, otherwise they would have been in serious bother. No equipment was ever found and we continued to receive regular bulletins by word of mouth as to how the war was progressing A succession of bombing raids were taking place within earshot of the camp and air raid warnings were a regular feature.

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Dec.21 A letter was received from the Scottish P.O.W. Association wishing all Scotsmen the Season's Greetings. (Posted in Glasgow on 6th Novr.).

Dec. 23 The ice-rink now in use. (Built mainly by the Canadians). An unusual feature in a P O.W Camp.

Dec. 24 Christmas Eve. A carol service this morning. Busy icing Christmas Cakes.

Dec. 25 Christmas Day. Parade at 8 a.m. but rest of day free The menu for the day was Breakfast - Porridge, egg and bacon, coffee. Lunch Spam and roast potatoes, Christmas Cake, coffee. Tea - Corned beef, salmon, chips and tea. Supper - Flapjacks and jam, coffee. Never felt so full.

Such extravagance had only been made possible by conserving parts of the Red Cross parcels over a few weeks. When parcels were being received regularly we ate reasonably well, but over the end of 1944 and into 1945 the delivery of parcels was irregular. Only 498 parcels were received early January, equal to one-third of a parcel per man. Mostly, the parcels we received were American Red Cross containing for example -
1 tin Bully Beef; 1 tin Pork and beans; 1 tin of Salmon; 1 tin of Meat Pate; 1 tin of Klim (milk) powder;
1 tin Margarine;1 tin Blackberry Jam; 1 tin of coffee (20z); 1 pkt. of prunes; 1 pkt of cheese; 1 pkt of sugar lumps;
1 pkt of biscuits; 4 2oz bars chocolate; 2 bars of soap; 100 cigarettes.

Dec.27 An unfortunate incident occurred at lunch time; Flight Sgt Stevenson, a Canadian, was shot as he left his hut to go to the cook-house. It seems he had heard an all-clear going after an air-raid, but this had been from the nearby village and not the camp. He died shortly after being taken to the hospital.

Dec.31 Tonight the St. Andrew's Society produced its own entertainment programme to celebrate the New Year. One of the best shows and the singing of Auld Lang Syne near lifted the roof.

1945

1945

Jan 9 Last night the Germans found a tunnel in No, 8 Division complete with lights, beams etc. Probably most of the soil excavated was used in the creation of the skating rink!

Jan.10 My birthday! The boys in the room wakened me with the usual chorus, and made a cake to celebrate, but, alas, no" key of the door".

Jan.15 Rumours are that we may have to move. German communiques suggest Russians are advancing in our direction.

Jan.17 At 11a.m. we are given one hour to pack. Stores thrown open to all and nothing of use will be left behind.

Jan.18 Will possibly move today. At morning parade we were divided into three groups, while the sick fell out for transport.

Jan.19 Today Stalag Luft VII evacuated. Our group left at 5 a.m. and walked until 4 p.m. covering 28 km under severe weather conditions.

Jan 20 Spent the night in barns, and moved off again at 6.30 a.m Only covered some 15 km before halting at 10.30 a.m. Lodged in a brick factory at Karlsruhe - not much comfort.

And so the march continued, day after day with the weather deteriorating. Our final march took us to Prausnitz, which we reached on 1st February, and where we were told transport would be provided. On the 5th of February we were marched 8km to Goldberg where we were put aboard a train of cattle trucks - 55 men to a truck - for an uncomfortable journey ending on 8th February when we marched the last 2km to Stalag lllA at Luckenwalde.

My record of the rations I received during the twenty-one days were - just short of 3 loaves of bread, 4 packets of Knacke-Werke (like Rye-Vita),1 bag of small biscuits, 6 cups of soup, 4 cups of porridge, 1 cup of barley.

Our condition on arriving at Luckenwald was poor; many suffered from dysentery, and for the next day or so we mostly lay in our bunks in an endeavour to recover. The camp was the filthiest I have been in, and we soon acquired body lice. Rations were low at all times, on occasions it was no more than a fifth of a loaf of poor quality bread, and a cup of watery soup; Sundays were distinguished by the issue of not unreasonable pea soup.

But worse was yet to come. An attempt was made to move a group of us but after again being in cattle trucks for two or three days we were returned to camp, thankfully, for it later came out that the plan had been to move us to Berlin as hostages.

I suffered an accident mid-March when a bucket of boiling water went over my left foot during an air raid when all the lights were out. When my sock came off some of the skin came too, and I was taken to the sick-bay for treatment. This handicapped me for a while and I was excused parades.

Mar 16 Max Schmelling, the boxer, visited the camp as part of a propaganda campaign - he was not warmly received!

As the Russian advance drew nearer to Luckenwalde aircraft occasionally overflew the camp and gunfire could be heard in the distance. Finally, the Germans pulled out on 21st April and on the 22nd the Russians arrived. We looked forward to liberation and a swift return home, but this was not to be, and we were held by the Russians until the 20th of May when we eventually left at 13.30 hours.

There were numerous detours on the way and it was 19.00 hours before we reached the Elbe where we transferred to American trucks for the journey to Halle. We spent another five days there before being flown to Brussels, and here we had a stroke of fortune.

Our Dakota, in which we had flown from Halle, was the last to land and while we hung about on the perimeter awaiting transport, the pilot of a Lockheed Hudson approached and asked who we were. On learning that we were returning P.O.Ws. he told us to get aboard the Hudson and flew us back to England that afternoon.

Arriving at an aerodrome that had been expecting a large influx of ex prisoners, we were deloused, given a meal and then taken to London for a train to Cosford.

There we had a medical, were fed, given a bed for the night, issued with new uniforms in the morning, all correct with our rank and flying badges, and that afternoon I was on a train for Glasgow.

So my homecoming was accomplished. My mother had laid on a substantial meal, but after a large plate of Scotch broth I could not cope with the main course, much to her disappointment. Still, my parents were glad to have me back and it was good to be home.

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