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Chapter 5 - Prisoner of War Camps


Stalag VIIIB

We arrived at Lamsdorf in the afternoon and marched to Stalag VIIIb – an absolute hell of a POW camp.  There was a big arch at the entrance to the camp with the words Arbicht Macht Frei (Work Will Make You Free). On the exit was the term, Kraft Durch Fruee Macht Frei (Strength Through Joy).

On first entering Stalag VIIIb we were all photographed with our hair. Our heads were then shaved and another photograph was taken for the records.

We moved into barrack room with three tier beds and about 250 men in one room. The billet was so crowded that you slept head-to-toe with another prisoner. But that eased off because as soon as you started in the work parties the Germans kept you away from the main camp. 


Stalag IIIA

Although I spent most of my incarceration at POW work camps the other prison camp I am familiar with was Stalag IIIA at Luckenwal near Potsdam. That move happened because we started working in northeastern areas of Germany. Stalag VIIIB catered for the areas of Silesia


Daily Routine

The only set routine in the POW camps was a roll call every morning and a roll call in the evening, sometimes. The only other parades were for coffee or food issues. The remainder of the day was spent lying about, arguing about the progress of the war, playing football, walking around the camp and then returning to make yourself a cup of tea if there was any left in your Red Cross Parcel.



There was little opportunity to escape from the camps. W e knew that many prisoners had escaped before we arrived but we were unaware of their fate.

In one block, all the men were shackled together in pairs or threes.   These escapees had been recaptured and that was to be their long-term punishment, 5 months later they were still chained together. It must have been agony for them because they were shackled for feeding, toilet, washing and sleeping.



There was no money in the POW camps. In the last eighteen months of our incarceration they started to give us Prisoner of War money. That amounted to 5 marks each week and we were allowed to use that money outside the POW camp. The shops in the village had nothing much else to sell but it would buy you razor blades or shaving soap. We were not allowed to enter the shop and the shopkeepers were not allowed to sell us cigarettes. One of our German guards would take our money outside the shop and go into the shop and make the purchase. The other guard would wait outside and cover the prisoners.



Our first POW camp was at Lansdorf and our Senior NCO was a Sergeant Major. For the first week there he paraded and drilled us for fifteen minutes each morning. As expected the Germans ridiculed us but we kept up the drill for the first week and it moulded us into a team and showed the Germans that they had not broken our spirit.

He also lifted our spirits when he said that the Sergeant Major of the POWs had also been a POW for two years during the First World War and he knew how to deal with his captors.

The Sergeant Major said the main priority was not discipline but to maintain your personal hygiene and uniform. The most serious act was theft and even the Germans frowned upon any POW caught stealing from a comrade.

A Sergeant POW maintained discipline in each billet. There was one task everyone hated and that was cleaning the toilets. If you were found guilty of any misdemeanour your punishment was extra toilet cleaning duties. With over one hundred men going through every hour it was not a very pleasant job. The toilets were a simple affair, just a row of boards with at least twenty holes to sit over. There was no privacy. On a regular basis a tractor would come into the compound and tow away the septic tank.

The Germans only came into the accommodation to wake you in the morning and do a roll call. When they came into your billet you had to be sitting on the side of the bed. Sometimes they would do the same in the evenings. Again you had to be sitting on the side of your bed for them to do the count.

You dared not approach the barbed wire perimeter. If you touched the wire at the perimeter one of the guards in the tower would shout down to you. If you did not move back the guard would fire a burst down the perimeter.



All the POWs in our accommodation were British. The only foreigner who ever lived with us was a soldier with a Polish father and an English mother.

In many of the areas we were accommodated all the signposts had been removed by the Poles to make life difficult for the Germans. Because of that we never learned the name of some of the places we were sent to.


German POW Camp Guards

There was one young prison guard who was a bit different from the remainder of the guard; he always carried a pistol as well as a rifle. He had a habit of hitting you hard with the butt of his rifle. One morning we were supposed to be on the job at 7am but we were still in our beds. The young prison guard had been out drinking the night before and did not parade on time. He came into the billet with a bayonet fixed on the end of his rifle and was shouting his head off to get us out of bed. He came at me with the bayonet and drew blood so I lifted a pillow and hit him between the eyes with it. I then jumped out of bed and took the rifle off him. A fellow prisoner, a Sergeant from the Intelligence Corps witnessed all this and he came over and took the rifle from me.

The Sergeant of the Guard came into the hut and asked us what was going on. The Intelligence Sergeant threw the rifle down in front of the Guard Commander and told him the full story. The Guard Sergeant then told us that our guard should have paraded at 4am and got us out of bed for 4am but had failed to do so. Because none of the Guard liked him they had given him enough leeway to get him into bother. The Guard Sergeant had also found out that our guard was in the SS. He had been badly wounded and was sent to the POW camp as part of his recuperation.

Our guard was taken away that day and we found out that he had been sent to the Russian Front. Six weeks later he was back in hospital again, badly wounded. One of the prisoners was friendly with another guard and we managed to send the wounded SS man some letters designed to upset him.



The guard knew what was going on but we bribed him and were able to continue our exchanges for the three-week treatment period. Once you gave a German a packet of cigarettes the first thing they did was to take the cigarettes out of the packet and put it into a cigarette case. They did not want to be caught with an English cigarette packet in their possession. I the cigarettes had a cork tip they would break off the cork tip. The guards would never smoke English cigarettes in front of other Germans.


POW Camp Food

The first thing you got in the morning was coffee, that’s all. It wasn’t real coffee but it was called Ersatz and there was no sugar or milk. Sometimes it tasted like coffee and sometimes it didn’t and usually by the time it reached you it was cold. There was nothing else for breakfast. Then we received our bread ration shortly after that. This was a small loaf of brown bread, (it was almost black) between four of us. Each man got two very thin slices out of that loaf.

At midday the men came back from the cookhouse with two great troughs of food. One day it would be sauerkraut and the following day they would contain potato soup.

There was supposed to be some meat in the meal but this never happened. Those at the front of the dinner queue had the best pickings of the meal. Those at the back of the queue had to settle for the cold leftovers. The dinner queues were sorry sights to see, all of the POWs lined up clutching their mess tins hoping to get a substantial meal.

The only change to this regime occurred when you were working outside the main camp. Sometimes you had an extra slice of bread to look forward to. There was nothing to eat in the evening, only a mug of Ersatz coffee.


Special Days

There were no special days when it came to food. It was the same fare every day. On a Sunday some camps made an exception and allowed the prisoners to rest in the afternoon.

There was never a special meal laid on for Christmas, just more of the same. The Red Cross tried to make a difference at Christmas time but the parcels were usually late if you were working outside the camp. There were no fat POWs; I was only about seven stone when I was liberated which was a big drop from the eleven stone I weighed before my capture. If you worked on a farm you were usually well fed. The farmer knew how to get the best out of you required you to be well fed. The relationships between the farmers and the POWs was usually very good, in fact many former POWs returned to Germany and married the farmers daughters.

In the coal mines and the salt mines we were better fed. We had more vegetables, such as turnip and cabbage and sauerkraut. If we ever got the chance we took it to supply ourselves with the local produce. Extra cabbages and carrots were all welcome and we ate them all raw. We always managed to steal something and I believe that is what kept us alive for so long. One day we were tasked to go out and pick tomatoes. At times we ate one tomato for every tomato we put in the basket. The guards soon picked this up and they took us off the detail and gave the job to the Poles.


Red Cross Parcels

We were supposed to receive one Red Cross parcel every month, but that did not always happen.

Sometimes we received parcels from our own regiments and these parcels were usually individually addressed. The Red Cross parcels sometimes contained food but the Regimental parcels never did, only toilet gear and cigarettes.  Between the two groups, the Red Cross and our regimental parcels, I received a parcel every couple of months. There was one peculiar rule we came up against when we were first placed in a POW camp. Before entering the camp we were searched and all razor blades were taken off us. But once we were inside the main camp we had access to razor blades. The Canadian and American Red Cross parcels were always welcome for their high quality content. We also enjoyed Red Cross parcels that had been packed in Scotland because they usually contained a good supply of porridge oats.

Because the Red Cross parcels were handled by the Germans on their journey to us I suspect many parcels went astray. We never did receive our full quota at any time because that quota never reached the POW camp.

One day we were issued with Red Cross parcels at a railway station. Before we knew what was happening another group of SS soldiers came along and grabbed all the parcels, tipped the contents out and stamped everything into the ground.

One day we were told to get ready to go to Berlin and pick up Red Cross parcels for the remainder of the prisoners. These parcels were specially made up by the Red Cross with standard contents and issued periodically to all POWs. They contained toothpaste, soap, tinned meat, chocolate bars, razor blades and cigarettes. The German guards took about twenty of us from Spandau East to Spandau West. While we waited in Spandau East we were all smoking. The area was packed with people. German males and females were constantly coming up to us and asking for cigarettes. Some of the POWs lit a full cigarette in front of the Germans and then ground the full cigarette underfoot saying, ‘That’s how you Germans treated us when we were passing through with nothing’. That action started a riot and the guards had to get us into a station room until the parcels were ready to pick up.

Each POW was told to carry four parcels each. The ordinary Germans were so starved of food and luxuries that the guards had a difficult time keeping them away from us as we carried the parcels through the railway station. We all had to be accommodated in a carriage where the ordinary German had no access. We kicked one of the parcels open and allowed the guards to take whatever they wanted. They were just as desperate as the ordinary Germans for these luxuries.


The Thief

There was a time when I did not receive my parcels for over two months. I thought that the parcel system must have changed. I went down to the offices where the regimental parcels were issued from. The Sergeant Major in charge of the parcel distribution checked the issues book where each prisoner had to sign for their parcels and noted that my parcels had been signed for. I informed the Sergeant Major that my army number was correct but the signature in the book was not mine.

After checking out my signature against those entered in the book it was confirmed that someone else had been signing for my parcels. The Sergeant Major would not reveal the identity of the thief in fear of the retribution we would extract.

It was later claimed that the thief had been moved to another camp for his own safety.  

The parcels were very welcome because some of the items issued by the Germans were inferior. On one occasion I had to stop using German issue soap because it brought me out in a severe rash.


POW Camp Sick Parades

We could report sick when necessary but your treatment always depended on where you were located. If you were at an isolated location the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) detailed to accompany your work group would have administered the treatment. Their rank was usually a Corporal or Sergeant. If they were unable to help you he called the German guard commander and they organised your transfer back to the main camp, Stalag VIIIb. The German guard commanders always accepted the word of the RAMC NCO and made arrangements to have you treated.

Once you went back to Stalag VIIIb you were treated and as soon as you were fit for work you were posted off to any outlying work camp, not necessarily to the one you just left.

If you were working near a populated area the German guards would take you to the nearest medical facility such as a hospital. On some occasions British army doctors who were also POWs travelled around the main camps and administered to the sick.


Dental Treatment

On the outlying working parties, the Royal Army Medical Corps prisoners attached conducted the POW dental treatment. If you were back in the main camp both German and Allied dental surgeons would conduct dental parades. You tried to avoid the German Dental surgeons because they had a reputation for extracting teeth on the flimsiest of excuses. If you complained about toothache they would pull a tooth, even the wrong one, just as long as they got a tooth.


Another Repatriation

Archie Achieson from Bendooragh also had himself repatriated. He was about 6foot 2 inches tall. One day he approached me bent over and walking with the aid of a walking stick. I said, ‘Hello Archie, what’s wrong with you?’ Archie replied, ‘I have developed a bad back and I’m off to the hospital for treatment’. He then asked me to join him and do the same so that we would be repatriated. He told me that he had been pulling the same stunt for over a year and the doctors could not find the problem. They were on the verge of repatriating him.

One hour later I saw him come back from the hospital, still looking old and frail. Just then a soldier came out of the billet and shouted out, ‘Grub Up! Although it was the usual sauerkraut and spuds, Archie ran down the road like a one year-old greyhound, he was nearly first in the queue. I went into the billet and challenged him about his back condition. He told me that there were times you had to move fast. Archie was repatriated in 1943.



My favourite shirt was an American army issue. I had to sew a black diamond on the back. The diamond extended from the neck to the waist and out to the elbows.

We had to have a black diamond sewn onto our trousers on the left leg from the waist to the knee and out to the seams.

On many occasions the Germans would take our photographs for propaganda purposes. Those selected for the photo would have to dress in brand new uniforms. After the photo was taken the clothing was returned.