4 - Prisoner of War
were taken prisoner by German Infantry at 4pm on Sunday afternoon
on the 26 May 1940. The Colour Sergeant had just taken a
phone call on the field telephone. He said, ‘We are going to
surrender. They have asked for a senior officer to go forward with
a white flag and surrender. Destroy the gun’.
army officer then told a Sergeant to take a white flag and stand on
a hill. The Sergeant was shot. The procedure was repeated and a
young German officer who was as broad as he was tall approached us.
As he did so we were busy destroying the gun.
mate on the gun, Geordie, said, ‘Paddy, I don’t know how to
pray. Say a prayer for me.’ I replied that I had already said it.
‘What did you say?’ he asked. I replied ‘God help us.’ He
asked, ‘Is that enough?’ ‘I think so.’ I replied.
German officer asked us what regiment we belonged to and we refused
to answer him. He then told us we were in the Royal Marines because
he recognised the buttons on our tunics. He then asked us if we
knew what the Germans did to Royal Marines. We replied that we did
not know so he informed us that we would be shot; a rare sense of
humour indeed! He had been educated in Cambridge before the war and
spoke perfect English. After talking to us for a while he returned
to the German lines.
spent six years in different German Prisoner of War camps. I was
seventeen years old when I was captured and twenty-two years old
when I was released. I spent my youth in six years of hell.
Royal Air Force
lone Spitfire came over our location just after we were captured
and was shot down. As the parachute drifted down onto the beach the
attacking German aircraft shot at the airman. Only the parachute
was damaged and the pilot came down safely. He landed on the beach
and came to our position as a prisoner. The Germans shifted him
away but he gave the Royal Marines a Sunday paper that he had used
to wrap up his meal of fish and chips. He did not have time to eat
his meal before he was sent on that last mission.
were not interrogated at great length when we were first captured.
They only wanted to know what regiment you belonged to, what you
were doing before you were captured and what weapons you were
trained to handle. They never asked where you were stationed in
England because they already knew we were Royal Marines and knew
where we were stationed at Deal, Chatham, Plymouth or Portsmouth.
We expected a more thorough interrogation but that never happened.
POWs and the German Guards
had a good relationship with some of the German guards. The young
element among them had a poor attitude. The young men were about
the same age as us and were very bitter. Some of them were nasty in
that they found the butt of the rifle a very handy weapon. Then
there were others who kept their rifles slung over their backs but
carried a big stick. If you stepped out of line at all they made
good use of the stick.
older guards were all right. After the third or forth day on the
march the Germans took the younger guards away and the older men,
those due to retire or go on their pensions took charge of us. They
were not as bad as the younger men.
sat in the sun until about 7pm waiting for the Germans to move us
off at a light infantry pace along the Haselbock Road out of
that first day we were still wearing our .45 revolvers at the start
of the march, as we had not been searched after we were captured.
The guard was walking around and did not notice us wearing them.
When we reached an iron bridge we threw away our ammunition and
smashed the revolvers at the bridge and threw them into the canal.
One of the guards saw us do this and said, ‘Good soldiers destroy
weapons’. We said, ‘No, good soldiers should have kept the
weapons and shot some of you Germans’.
He laughed at us.
the first two hours we were secured in a church until the following
had nothing to eat or drink until that night. That was the first
time we tasted sauerkraut (pickled cabbage); it had the same effect
on us all as a good dose of Epsom Salts.
were over 2,000 prisoners marching together for the first two days.
After that, the POWs were split up into smaller groups of about 200
prisoners each. Each group went off in a different direction. My
group ended up marching in a wide circle and after a week we were
back near Calais again. We started off again on a three-week
journey that turned out to be a series of marches where we were
continually getting lost.
on the March
French people would lay water and bread out for us along the road,
which was always welcome. We put whatever we could into our
stomachs to stay alive. That included leaves off the trees and raw
potatoes straight out of the ground. We learned to keep our boots
on because if you took your boots off at night your feet would
swell up and you would be unable to get them back on in the
day on the march he looked at the hedgerow and said, ‘That looks
very good’. We started eating the leaves of the hedge and before
you knew it the whole column had stopped to eat the hedgerow.
couple of days later we noticed a field of potatoes that were
almost ready for digging. They came up early in that part of
France. Two or three of us jumped into the field and started
pulling up the potatoes. The field was soon full of POWs tearing up
the potatoes. I had to stop one man from eating the potato top
because it was poisonous. The whole field of potatoes was soon
cleared out that day. We just rubbed the dirt off the potatoes and
ate them raw. Any water we had was for drinking so we never wasted
it on washing our food.
one time a Sergeant Major joined our group. He had removed all his
rank and was travelling as a private soldier. We enjoyed his
company because he had been in action and was a sea Marine so he
knew how to survive. He kept everybody in good heart. He always
said, ‘Never give up, just keep going, even when you are hungry
or tired, keep going’.
lost the Sergeant Major when someone reported him to the Germans
for removing his rank insignia.
Monday morning we were awakened at 4am.
The march started again at 4.30am.
We marched all day with nothing to eat or drink until 9pm
when we were herded into a field. All the sustenance we received was a warm drink
of ‘supposed to be’ coffee.
It was a very warm evening and we all slept under hedgerows.
Tuesday morning we all had a cup of bay leaf tea and the march
started at 6am. The
guards kept us on move at a fair speed for two hours.
We were halted to let an armoured convey pass. They were
heading for coast with a supply of very heavy artillery guns.
also saw our first SS Troops – very arrogant swine.
A big convoy came through the marching prisoners, heading
for the coast. The SS were guarding this convoy.
we watched the convoy travelling past I spotted a man I knew from
Bendooragh in our crowd. He asked to join up with us because the
group he was marching with ‘Knew damn all’. The Germans did not
feed us and his group were doing nothing to help themselves.
the convoy passed we were on the move again feeling very hungry and
times we took chances of leaving the column to get water or food.
That was very risky and dangerous as the guards were pretty
nervous and trigger-happy. We
marched all day without a break and were then herded into field at
approximately 8pm. That
was also the first time we tasted sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) –
not very wholesome – most of us were sick and vomited after
eating. We slept in
middle of a field; that was not a very comfortable experience. A
herd of cows had been driven out as we entered the field so you can
guess the mess.
Wednesday we were on the move again at 6am. We were all very tired
and hungry with no food in sight, only promises from guards.
We were so hungry we cleaned a hedge of all leaves just like
a herd of goats. Not
very long after eating the leaves, nature took its course and you
can guess the rest. The
constant ‘breaking column’ to relieve yourself resulted in a
bashing with rifle buts, sticks or batons.
We slept in field from 10pm hours until we were raised at
4.30am the following morning.
Thursday morning at 6am we were on the move again – still very
hungry, thirsty, dirty and stinking with sweat.
That day I found a box with thirteen bars of Cadbury’s
dark chocolate that had been thrown away by retreating troops. I
kept two bars for my mate and myself and gave the remainder away.
The French farmers started setting buckets of water out on
the roadside. That was very much appreciated; sometimes farmers’
wives and daughters threw bread to us. There were occasions when
the German guards took the bread from us and tramped it into the
ground. Then they told
us to pick it up and eat it. We
arrived at another field at 7pm.
We started fires and boiled some grass and ate it. We had to
put something into our stomachs, even if it wasn’t very tasty.
That night we slept under the hedgerow. The rain stated
were on the move again at 5am on Friday morning.
The guards were very excited and panicky and we couldn’t
understand why. They
kept moving us at a very fast speed. The reason turned out that RAF was bombing a
German convoy on adjacent roads not too far away. The guards
thought we would break rank and try to escape towards Dunkirk.
We had to lie still during one break in case the RAF
fighters came our way.
that break I met a man from Ballymoney and one from Bushmills.
They teamed up with us for the remainder of the march into
Germany. That night we settled down to sleep in another
field at 10pm.
Saturday morning we were on the move again at 6am. It was more of
the same old routine; moving all the time and being tired and
hungry. There was
plenty drinking water left at roadside by all local people.
Sometimes a pail of milk was also left out but nearly always
tipped over by the guards. We
arrived at a field for another night about 6.30am.
Sunday we moved out at 4am. New
guards had taken over and that was very welcome. They were all
older men aged between 40-50. A funny incident took place that day.
Archie Acheson from Bendooragh Road was along with me one day on
the march when a farmer called us in. The farmer gave us some eggs
and water that we packed away. Archie managed to catch a hen and
said we are going to eat well tonight. ‘I’ve never mis-killed a
hen yet’, he said as he wrung its neck and then put it into his
backpack. A couple of miles down the road the hen flew out of the
backpack into the fields. We were about to chase after the hen but
the guard warned us off so we went without our supper that night.
We arrived at our next field at 7pm and had a warm drink before settling down for a sleep.
were on the move again on Monday morning at 6am.
It was almost the same routine except that we had our first
drop of rain on the march. At
8pm we stopped for a meal of sauerkraut and a nights rest.
Tuesday we were on move again 6am.
It was very dull and sultry.
There were rumours that we were to be picked up by train
later in day but that rumour turned out to be false.
the Officers and Senior Non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) were
taken out of ranks and this gave us the opportunity for a long
rest. Then we were off
again and stopped at 10am for more sauerkraut and a sleep. We were
still very hungry, dirty and tired but our spirits were high.
Wednesday we were on move again at 6am.
We were taken off the road into a very dense forest. It was
supposed to be a short cut but the real reason was the fact that a
heavy German convoy was moving to coast.
After about 3 hours we came into clearing about 500 yards a
small village with river running past it.
You can imagine the scramble to get uniform off and into
water. For the first
time in a fortnight we got our faces, shirts and underwear washed.
That was a really enjoyable experience, really refreshing.
full village turned out to watch us and give us food and drink. The
whole episode was very annoying for the guards and very
embarrassing for those who had jumped into the stream naked to wash
clothes. That proved
to be the first enjoyable day of the march.
Some of the POWs stripped off their boots and socks and
waded into the stream. That was a bad idea because we did not know
what was on the streambed to damage our feet. Some men paid the
price. Most of us waded in for a wash but kept our boots on. The
sun was that hot our uniforms dried off in no time at all. It was
good to get rid of nine days dust. It was good to feel the water on
your face and to get rid of all the dust.
then carried on and stopped at 10pm for night’s rest in field
after more sauerkraut.
Thursday we were on the move again at 6am.
It was a very bright morning, and turned out to be another
scorching hot day. We
were all very tired, dirty and hungry and our spirits were
beginning to flag a little. We
were taken off the main road into a very narrow country road and
marched in a circle for some hours. It was obvious the guards got
lost again and we had to keep moving to make up for the lost time.
By that time we had crossed the border into Belgium. We arrived at
the night’s rest field at 11pm and under a hedge, sleeping very
then went into Belgium and passed a large area surrounded by barbed
wire. We found out that this was a convent and the nuns gave us
bread and water through the wire. They also took our names and
addresses and promised to send letters to our families back home.
The letter from the nuns was duly delivered to my parents. The nuns
said that I was alive and well and a POW. About a month after that
in June my mother received an official letter from the government
informing her that I had been wounded in action in the North Sea. I
had been in the North Sea in March but at that time I was on a
Naval Gunnery course.
on my mother received another letter informing her I was a POW in
Germany and had been wounded.
I had suffered minor shrapnel wounds to the leg but nothing
moved on again the following Friday morning at 6am.
We were always looking for food to steal; Spuds, turnip,
carrots, anything edible was eaten.
We drank plenty of water left at the roadside by the
Belgians. At 7pm we
rested for night. There was a very warm and sultry, heavy mist
beginning to fall.
out again on Saturday morning at 06am.
We started off with the usual drink of coffee or bay leaf
tea. It was never tasty, just slops.
We had a long miserable day and it rained pretty heavily.
The prospects for a dry night seemed very remote.
We arrived at the rest point 6pm for a meal of sauerkraut
and some sleep.
Monday we moved off again at 6am moving well into Belgium.
It looked like it was going to be a warm day. A woman
shouted ‘Tommy, Tommy’ and held up a loaf of bread, signalling
my mate to come over so he ran towards her. We got the bread and
ran back to column again. Two
French sailors jumped on me to take loaf.
I held on tightly got a few hefty kicks but held on, my mate
also got severe kicking. A
guard came on scene; he knocked one of the sailors out cold with
butt of rifle. He
spoke in English and run up the column and said, ‘ I will keep
these two back from following you’.
We enjoyed the bread later in the rest field at 8am.
the next few days nothing very interesting happened – march,
march, very dreary weather, spirits a bit low again, same old
routines. After we left Belgium we were marched into Holland where
the people were very friendly and there were plenty of gifts of
bread, eggs, cooked meat, plenty to drink which they could ill
afford. Our spirits were beginning to rise again. We had a good
idea that the march was coming to an end and the next border would
next day was started at 06am. We kept moving pretty steadily all
day and were thirsty and hungry. Very little food or water was left by roadside,
people were afraid. I saw a Dutch factory machine gunned because
workers threw bread and chocolate and cigarettes ahead of the
column. We eventually
arrived at an old army camp at 7pm. There was nothing to eat that
night but there was plenty of water to drink.
next day was another early start and a long day’s march again.
We marched into field at 8.30pm for more sauerkraut and
sloppy tea. The guards told we would be close to the German
border that evening.
was an early start at 5.30am the following morning. We moved out at
a pretty fast pace. About
five hours later we reached the German border and then halted on
street of small village on the Dutch side.
People came out of house with tea, coffee, milk, wine,
water, bread and cakes, which were gratefully received.
young women crossed over the road to speak to us, they spoke
perfect English. One
was very heavily pregnant. A German guard told them to move away
but they refused. The guard became very angry and started pushing
them around but they refused to move.
He then turned round and kicked the pregnant woman in the
stomach. As she collapsed unconscious about 30 of us surrounded
him. He had every
reason to fear for his life just then.
life was spared when a German officer came along to see what was
happening, on seeing the woman on the ground he guessed what had
happened. He called
the medical orderly to come and help her.
He then ordered guard to stand to attention.
The officer had a baton in his belt and he used it on the
guard very efficiently indeed.
He beat the man senseless and left him lying on the road.
Later that day we found out that the young woman was not badly
never fathomed the reason for us having to go to the west coast of
Holland and then march right across Holland. We reached a small
village of about 200 inhabitants. Close to the village there was a
canal and once you crossed the canal you were in Germany.
remained at the small village for over two hours as the German
engineers were working on the bridge. We were then marched over the
bridge into Germany. The girl had recovered by that stage and she
walked beside us as far as the bridge. She had to turn back when
one of the guards told her that she would be interned if she came
over the bridge.
of the men were liberated at the end of the war borrowed a German
motorbike and went to visit the village again. We never met up
again to see if they met up with the girls again.
Oates reckoned that we had done almost 1,000 miles. We walked from
Calais and must have walked in a circle back to Calais. We went up
through Belgium, on the west coast of Holland. We were marching
with nothing in our stomachs most of the time.
We crossed into Germany and marched on for a few hours then turned off main road. And went through the middle of a swamp into purpose built camp with so many into each hut. The area was very warm and there were millions of flies. That night we had the first good meal since we were captured; potatoes and soup and bread. It was very cold at night but that was the first long rest and sleep for weeks. We were totally exhausted.
following morning we moved out of that camp about 9am.
After a short march we arrived at a railway goods yard. A
goods train was ready to move, we were herded into cattle trucks
with straw on floors. We were crammed in with standing room only. To
sleep or rest we had to have so many lying or sitting. There were
no toilets available and you relieved yourself where you stood.
By the end of the day the smell and heat were really vile.
The train kept moving all through the night.
the morning the train was stopped at a railway siding.
The doors were opened and we were allowed out and stretch
our legs and get a breath of fresh clean air.
A crowd of Germans usually greeted us. They were all
jeering, young and old. It was a humiliating experience; we were
spat at and had dirt thrown at us.
We could not do or say a thing. If we did we had the butt of
a rifle or stick across the back. That raised a cheer from the
two occasions, when the wagons were opened up in the morning we
were confronted by at least twelve German girls who would lift
their skirts, turn their backs to us and bend over. If any POW
either looked at them or spoke they were hammered into the ground
by the German guards.
were then herded back into trucks and the train pulled into the
main station. The
doors were opened again and people were shown what POW’s looked
like. Many of the Germans were very arrogant, you felt as if you
had crawled from under a stone.
travel routine went on for three days.
One man died in our truck during the night and altogether
five men died in one night on the train.
Bodies were taken off at the stations. Some people went with
corpses but we never knew what happened. It was three days and
nights of hell and degradation.
German Red Cross
On one occasion we pulled into a main station and the German Red Cross were waiting on the platform to greet us. They had tea, coffee and biscuits. We never had the opportunity to get the refreshments because a gang of SS thugs wrecked the tables, kicking everything to the ground. They left the Red Cross girls in tears. We returned to the wagons so that the situation would not deteriorate any further.