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Chapter 6 – Labour Camps


The First Labour Camp


The prisoners were sent out from Lansdorf in small groups as work parties to other areas. I was in E361 Work Party. We were wakened up in the morning and detailed off into work parties. When we walked out the main gate we were handed a couple of slices of bread and we never knew where we were going. We were usually taken to the railway station and could be travelling for five or six hours, well off the main line, before we reached our destination.  Sometimes we would be away from the main camp for months at a time.


The first Labour Camp was the worst of our six-year confinement. I was sent out in November with a party of sixty-five to seventy POWs, a day’s train journey into East Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, to the Petershofin coalmine. It was poor quality coal, full of stones.

That was my home for almost a year. The approach to the camp was a scary experience because there were German paratroopers out on night exercise landing all around us.


It was an absolute hell of a camp and spirits very always very low. We were accommodated in a hut at the pithead but it was far from comfortable. It had been a wood drying shed and was far from airtight.

The food consisted of nothing but sauerkraut, or what they called potato soup. Bread was scarce. We only had two thin slices per day.

The work was hard, either 12 hours of day work or a 12-hour night shift working over a mile underground and that included Sunday.


Our only dress was a pair of boots and a pair of overalls. The German guards and mine workers were allowed to wear knee guards but the POWs had to suffer without these items for protection

I was detailed to work alongside an old German coalminer. He was in his late fifties or nearly sixty. We got on well together and he treated me well. He was issued with a better coffee flask and would give me a drink from it when my coffee ran out. Sometimes he gave me some of his drinking water and the occasional slice of bread. During the break we would sit and talk and I soon learned German. He often joked that we might be related because his name was Bulmer.


We would crawl about 300-400 yards to the coalface every morning. The approach was about eighteen to twenty inches high but once you got to the coalface there was room to stand up. I had to wear a leather belt with a hook on each hip. That allowed me to trail two twenty-four inch pit props roped together on each side. The old German was always listening for the crack of the pit props breaking and was very good at locating the fault. He always went straight to the point, took a pit prop from me, hammered it into position and then gave me the broken pit prop to drag out. 


There was an electrical supply at the coalface. That was used to drill the shot holes when we wanted to blast the face for more coal. There were also two pipes running through the coalmine. One supplied water to reduce the stone and coal dust at the working face. The other pipe supplied air for the pneumatic picks, the ‘Windy Picks’ at the coalface. The air supply pipes in the coal mine also served as a form of communications. The miners used a series of coded taps on the pipes for every event. For example, before the coal left the face it had to go into the ‘Shakers’ where the stones and coal were separated. There were signals telling us when to do this and other signals telling us when they wanted either stones or coal loaded on the trucks.


On many occasions this tapping system saved our lives. One night we had just started to make our way to the coal face and we heard a series of taps on the air pipes. We had to jump into a long metal tool chest and lie there for the full shift. The signal told us that there was gas circulating in the mine and the tool chest was the safest place to be.


By 23 November 1941 I had been down the mine for over eight months until I suffered from the effects of stone dust in my lungs. I was taken out of the coal mine and returned to Stalag VIIIb until I recovered. Some POWs stayed at the coal mine for the duration of the war. If the Germans had a prisoner who worked away steadily they tried to hold on to them.


The German Military Hospital


The POW camp I was incarcerated in was located close to Warsaw. There was a large hospital complex nearby. I had occasion to attend that hospital after suffering from a plague of boils. It was determined by the doctors that I was malnourished and overworked and this had caused the boils to erupt. The cure was a three-week diet of charcoal and cows milk that I had to consume before I left the hospital.


The matron at the hospital was originally from Germany but had spent most of her adult life in Australia. After she had trained as a nurse she had been to almost every hospital in Northern Ireland before returning to Australia. Just before the war started she took a year out to visit her parents in Germany. But as the war started she was not allowed to return to Australia.


Once I was in the hospital for treatment the matron kept the guard outside the door and both the matron and the nurse started talking away to me. They wanted to know if I could get them any soap. I let them know that I had access to plenty of soap, chocolate and cigarettes. The nurse said, ‘I love soap’. I replied that I could get her some soap if she really wanted it. Although this was a hospital, the matron still wanted a bar of good quality soap. The matron said that I would have to return for follow up treatment in two days time.


As soon as I returned to the POW camp I asked around for some soap and within a short space of time I gathered a good supply.  I took two bars of soap with me for the next treatment session. I then asked them if they liked chocolate and the nurses eyes nearly popped out of her head. I then produced a bar of chocolate that was consumed straight away. As I was leaving after treatment the matron passed me a small wrapped parcel. When I returned to the POW camp I found that it was half a loaf of bread. The first white bread we had seen for a long time. It was shared amongst the rest of the billet.


The next time I went for treatment I took more chocolate and soap in exchange for more white bread. That routine went on for the full fortnight of my treatment. On one occasion I even got a cake.

As soon as the matron was given soap or chocolate the first thing they always done was to remove the wrappers, wrap them in paper an give the origional wrappers back to us.  They did not want to be caught with anything belong to the allies.


Hospital Laundry Duties


On one occasion in Poland two of us were detailed off to work on hospital laundry duties. The soiled laundry would come down a chute and we had to sort it out for washing. We had no protective clothing such as facemasks or gloves and felt uncomfortable doing this filthy task.


After the second day two nurses came along and took a puzzled look at us. They could not understand our language but soon worked out that we were British. They asked us why we were working in the laundry without wearing protective clothing.


We thought that because we were POWs we were not allowed protective clothing. 

They told us that the Russian POWs always did the job because that was all they were good for.

We were taken away and had to wash up before returning to our work party.


The Sternberg Timber Yard


After my medical treatment had finished I was posted to my second labour camp and it turned out to be the best camp I have ever been to. Ten POWs, two senior NCOs and a Medical Orderly from the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) marched to the railway station and boarded a passenger train.


Late that evening we arrived at a place called Sternberg. After a short march through the town we arrived at a large timber yard, were ushered into large worker’s canteen to be greeted by our future boss and his daughter. Both spoke English, the girl was a schoolteacher and her father, the boss, had been a POW in England from 1916-1918. He was very polite to us and understood how we felt.


Our room were a very pleasant surprise. Each room accommodated only eight men and there was an oven. At the end of the hall there was a washroom and toilet.  We were then taken back to canteen for a lovely meal of potatoes, vegetables bread and butter, coffee or tea and music was playing in the background.  We really enjoyed that meal.  Then it was back to our billets, good clean beds and a good night’s sleep in comfort.


The next morning we were divided into two working parties, a day shift and a night shift in a factory producing self assemble huts that had to be packed into large crates. Most of these huts were made for the Red Cross. They were to be used to accommodate sick and wounded soldiers or British POWs. Some of the huts were sent to the rear of the German advance in Russia to be used in hospitals and rest houses for battle fatigued soldiers.


The work in the factory was clean and not too hard although it was usually a 12 hour shift; Monday to Saturday with no work on a Sunday.  We all hoped we would be able to stay there for the remainder of war no matter how long or short it lasted but that was not to be – the Germans had other ideas.


The Traitor


There was a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) in our billet at Sternberg who became known as a traitor and was transferred to a series of different camps for his own safety.

At the time we had a Post Office engineer in our billet and we managed to collect the material and put together three small wireless sets. These sets kept us well informed on the progress of the war.


The PTI must have overheard someone talking about our radios because one morning the Gestapo came into our huts and ripped up floorboards and wall panels until they found two of the radios. They did not find the radio that was in my room because I picked it up and dropped it in a bucket of slops. I knew from experience that the guards would never go near the slop buckets so the radio was safe.


It was one of the German guards who ‘spilled the beans’ on the culprit. The guards knew we were getting news from somewhere but did not bother trying to find the source.

In general conversation with one of the British POWs he openly accused the Corporal PTI. The PTI was shifted that evening. He was taken to the coal mining camp at Gliwich where over 100 English POWs were accommodated. But one of the German guards who escorted the PTI spoke with a POW Sergeant and told him that the PTI was a traitor.


His treachery had caused the German guards as much bother as it had caused us so they were out to make his life a misery.  He had to be moved again otherwise he would have been hung on the barbed wire that night. We lost track of him after that. He was English and a very good PTI but a traitor.


Mental Problems


We had to jump on a young Scotsman who tried to burn down the factory. On another night he destroyed as many dynamos as possible in the factory so that the electrical system failed. Then one night I couldn’t find him. One soldier came to me and took me to where the young Scotsman was. ‘Jock’ had gone to the timber yard and had lain down on the rollers just below the pendulum saw. He had manoeuvred himself so that when he released the saw it would cut his head off.


I asked him what the problem was. He replied that he wanted to get home so he was going to cut his head off.  We told him he was stupid because they would not send him home without his head attached. This was the young man that had built us or illicit radio sets only a few months before.


We talked him out of releasing the saw blade that night. It was not long after that incident I was woken up late one night and asked to go to the timber yard. ‘Jock’ was lying on the rollers and was about to pull the rope that released the saw blade. We managed to save him again but this time we informed the German guard. ‘Jock’ ended up in hospital and before we knew it he was back in Scotland in a psychiatric hospital.


Not soon after that episode the Sergeant in charge of our billet received a very nasty letter from ‘Jock’s’ sister. She wanted know why we had allowed all this to happen.


The Railway


At one time we moved to a railway located in the northeast of Warsaw where we had to lay two miles of track into Warsaw. There was a canal beside the line and every time a train came along the track we had to stand in the canal.

The next posting took us to the south of Warsaw. That was right in Germany and it was a hellhole. It was commanded by a person we called ‘The Mad Major’. On our first day there we were all kept standing outside our billets. When we were eventually allowed into the billets we were told to expect an early call. Just as soon as we were in bed, we were roused at 3am and had to stand outside for an hour regardless of the weather. After that muster we were allowed back into the billet until we were raised to go to work. That was the daily routine. The work was not bad but the Mad Major treated us very badly. Our next posting was less severe. We were tasked to clean out a canal.


Canal Cleaning


We had to clean the canal of debris and other rubbish. There was a young Cockney Corporal in the Royal Corps of Signals with us. He could speak fluent French and German although the Germans did not know he spoke their language. He was a trained medic and spent most of his time in the Hospital. He built up a friendship with a French girl from a nearby female prison camp. He decided to see more of her. One morning he asked us to watch out for a signal from the women’s camp, he was expecting something to be hung on the fence and we all looked out for it. He said, ‘I want to get into that camp so when they hang up the signal, I want you all to develop diarrhoea or something to distract the guards’. We all agreed and as soon as the signal came we all started to distract the guards because some of us developed a ‘dose of the runs’, we all made a dash to the bank of railway. 


The Lance Corporal swam across and dashed over to the female prison camp, at another arranged signal he would dash to bank and he swam back again. But this time, a number of men fell into the canal, so as to cover for Lance Corporal, the guard never saw what happened but a number often went sick next day to make it look as if we were really sick because the guard’s had reported our sickness.

The guards never suspected anything and the Corporal tried the same escapade a couple of days later. This time we threw a couple of men into the canal to create a distraction at one end of the canal while the corporal swam across the canal further up. That was the last time the Corporal tried that escapade, as the guards would have caught him out.

We stayed on the canal for over four months and then we were sent back into Germany again I was sent back to main camp again for a short time at Stalag VIIIB and then on to Stalag IIIA near Potsdam. 


Back to Germany


After a period of time once again another move this time into Germany to a large work camp an absolute hell of a place, little food, very unpleasant huts, cramped conditions, hardly any toilet facilities.  The German major in charge was a proper Nazi madman. He enjoyed getting everybody out of bed about 3am in all kinds of weather. You were forced to stand to attention for an hour or more depending on what mood he was in. After some rest you had to be out of bed again by 5am to go to work. 


The work at that location involved clearing the canal for military transport and also laying a new railway track. That was a twelve-hour day no matter what weather was. 


The Polish Swimming Pool


On one occasion we were sent to work on the railway track in Poland. The area we were working in contained a large swimming pool built by the poles. When the Germans invaded Poland they confiscated the pool and the Poles were only allowed to use it once every week. We all thought this was unfair so we sabotaged the pool quite regularly. When no Germans were about we would soil the pool in the evenings to the disgust of the Germans. They always blamed the Poles for that bit of dirty work.

The Germans then had to open the sluice gates to empty the pool. The water was allowed to flow through the pool for two days before the sluice gates were closed again.




Some of the POWs at Stalag VIIIb had observed some terrible scenes in Czechoslovakia. One day a sick parade was escorted to hospital and they had to pass three Czechs hung by the Germans. The German guards told them that they had been hanging there for three days and would hang there for another five days. They had been hung to teach the remainder a lesson because there was a lot of sabotage going on in the immediate area including the derailment of ammunition trains.

The hangings had little effect on the sabotage as it continued. We would lie in our billets at night listening to the explosions of the tracks being destroyed. These attacks kept our German guards on edge all the time.




One day there was a heavy concentration of German troops and SS men so we were very curious about that. The Czech POWs in our accommodation were able to tell us that the Germans had destroyed the town of Lidice and murdered the occupants. We were informed that there were only about 200 – 250 people in that small farming village.

One girl who worked in the camp kitchens had been away on holiday but returned to the POW camp after only three days. She had spent part of her holiday in Lidice and left the village to visit friends in a nearby village. When she returned to Lidice she was dropped off one mile away at the crossroads and all she saw were green fields where the village had been. The tactic did not discourage the Czechs because the goods and ammunition trains suffered after that.

We were working in a German factory at that time and we ignored the Germans for a long time after the Lidice incident. The Germans could not understand what caused us to turn on them because news like that was always kept from them. They wondered why we never said ‘Good Morning’ or ’Good Evening’ and they could see the hatred in our eyes.


The British Free Corps


We were interrogated in great depth in 1943 when the Germans were trying to form the British Free Corps. The group promised potential recruits many inducements to join the Corps. They promised everything under the sun including wine, women and song and easy tasks such as guard duties at railway installations. They failed to recruit in our camp.


 They asked a load of silly questions but I was never interrogated. At the time I was sitting beside a middle-aged Irish Guards Sergeant called McNamara. When he walked into the room there was a row of officers sitting at a long table getting ready to question us. Sergeant McNamara walked up to the table and said to one of the traitors who was about the same age as he was, ‘I knew you.’ He replied, ‘How do you know me?’ The sergeant said, ‘ I knew you when you were in Dublin, your name is…’ The traitor panicked and denied the identification. The Sergeant reached across the table for the traitor and said, ‘If ever I meet you again in Dublin after this war is over I will swing for you.’ The pair of us were bundled out of the room and I missed the interrogation session. The whole process had to be halted for an hour until everyone calmed down.


Camp Amusements


There were no entertainment facilities available at the work camps. The main camp was well organised for sports as well as variety shows to keep you amused. The sports included lice races, cockroach races, such as football and track events and card games. Some of the card games lasted from the morning to the following morning.

The first cockroach to cross a white line was the winner. All these sports ended up in fights because we used cigarettes for stake money and these were expensive items to be fought and cheated for. If you were caught fighting part of the punishment was a restriction of food to bread and water.  




At one time we ran out of cigarette papers so we used the pages from a Holy Bible instead. Luckily my grandmother had presented me with a New Testament when I left Ballymoney but I left it in my suitcase in Chatham. It was the only item left in my suitcase when I returned to England after my liberation.


The most innocent form of entertainment and pastime in the main camp was walking. You would walk and walk around the camp as long as you could.


Shows were kept running all the time in the main camps. A specific number of huts were allocated to watch the shows at a specific time. The variety shows were organised by the prisoners themselves. The most popular sketches were those that mocked the Germans, even the Germans enjoyed them. There was one group that travelled around all the camps and sometimes the smaller camps. The Royal Marine officer, Lieutenant Scott, was in one of the entertainment troupes. That was the officer we had pronounced dead back at Calais in 1939. Although he was badly wounded he was well cared for by the Germans and survived.

The Russian Gifts


In early 1944 I spent some time in Luckenwalde. There I met up with a Russian soldier who spoke perfect English. I gave him some cigarettes and food on that occasion. Six weeks later we met up again and he gave me two cigarette cases he had made out of an Army issue aluminium mess tin.

He had used a steel bolt as a hammer and a sharp nail to engrave the gifts.







The Russian Advance


The Russians were advancing very fast and the Germans were all moving west towards the Allied Armies as they preferred to surrender to the Allies than face the Russians.


The Lime Kiln


After about nine months five of us were taken back to main camp. After two weeks in camp, twenty of us were sent to a limekiln in Poland. It was really hard dirty work and very poor food.  About a month later we refused to work without facemasks because the Polish and German workers did have facemasks.  The British Medical RAMC and German Medics agreed with us and consequently we were withdrawn from work and back to camp again.


Laying Rail Tracks


We remained at the main camp for two months after that.  Then sixty-five of us, plus one Sergeant, were sent to work on railway some twenty miles or more from Warsaw.  Work was hard laying new tracks and sidings very busy line when troop and supply trains were going toward Warsaw we had to work on clearing a river that flowed alongside – dirty heavy work and soaked to the skin not very pleasant.  Early start every day moved out 5am marched two miles to work another twelve hour day and very poor food that lasted for some months and then back to main camp again.


Farm Labour


At the beginning of September 1944, I was moved to a working party of sixty-five Irishmen on the Baron Von Pulitz estate, just in time for the harvest.  It was very hard work and the working hours were long. The food was good but living quarters very cramped, we used an old stable that had been cleaned out and whitewashed inside.  We all slept in two tier beds. 

During winter no lights were allowed as we were under highway to Berlin – heavy bombing, nearly every night mostly by RAF.  During daylight it was the Americans bombers with their fighter escorts that scared us never mind the guards. They carried out a lot of low flying – hedgehoppers we called them – anything that moved was a target to the American fighters.


In one particular incident we were on a horse drawn cart carrying a load of carrots, beetroot and potatoes back to the farm when the German guards jumped off the cart into the ditch. The cart was blown to bits by machine gun fire, one of the horses was killed and there was vegetables blown apart everywhere. We never found out what sort of aircraft attacked us but it was a close call.


The Murder


April was also a sad month for us. Another young soldier, I didn’t even know his name, and myself were being escorted back to the farmyard. He had only been a POW for six months.  The German guards were very aggressive towards us at that time. The young soldier kept complaining about the guard and made rude remarks and signs at the guard.   I told him to behave and to move faster but he stopped and I kept on going. About 30 – 40 yards further ahead I heard a gunshot and on looking round the young soldier had been shot through the head. The guard said he threw stone at him and started to run away so he shot him.


I went on into camp and told the guard Sergeant what had happened. He went out and checked the scene.  We examined the body and agreed that the young soldier had been shot at point blank range.  The Sergeant disarmed guard and when the police arrived, they agreed with us.  The guard was taken away and tried by a military court. He was found guilty and sent to Russian front as punishment.  The young soldier who was murdered came from Donegal, but had been living in England.  We buried him in a small church graveyard with full military honours and a German flag and wreath on coffin.  The only person who knew his name was Sergeant McNamara of the Irish Guards who was in charge of our party.


We remained at the Baron Von Pulitz estate until we were liberated. There was plenty of food and the guard turned a blind eye to most of our activities as long as we worked hard and gave them some of our spoils. Their food was always inadequate and they welcomed any extras.


The American Sergeant Flyer


A very interesting and also dangerous incident happened one evening, four of us were sent to the stables to clean out twenty stalls and bed, feed and water horses for the night.  Above the stalls was the hayloft; three Polish girls were sent in to throw the hay down to us.  After about ten minutes they started shouting and screaming.  A man was lying in the hay with a gun; two of us went up to see what was happening.  We stated to shout, ‘Come out whoever you are’, a young American Sergeant Flyer stood up with his pistol pointing at us.  We said we are British POWs.  He came towards us, he was very unsteady on his feet, and I took pistol from him.  He asked for food and one of the Polish girls went away and bought bread and hot milk.  One of our boys went to our kitchen, he bought more bread and a flask of hot tea, we told him to stay where he was and we would decide what was best for him.  The Police were looking for him for a week as they already had some of his crew and knew he was around.  We smuggled him food every day for a week then got him into our billet so he could get his strength back.   We kept him for three weeks and the guards never found out. Then, at his request we handed him over to our guards.  The German Luftwaffe came and took him away, strange to say we never asked his name but some time later our Sergeant in charge got a letter from the USA Air Force thanking us for befriending him and probably saving his life.  A Polish POW retained his pistol.


The Hitler Youth


There was a young man and a girl at the von Putlitz farm who were members of the Hitler Youth. They both had a bad disposition towards the allied POWs. One day he picked up some attractive items dropped from an American plane. It included a pen and ration books. The ration books were very good forgeries and were used in other villages by the Poles and Germans. The Hitler Youth unscrewed the cap of the fountain pen and lost three fingers in the explosion. All the POWs laughed at him because he always went out of his way to make our lives a misery.


The Schnapps Distillery


Being the youngest member of the party I got a job one day every week working with the Customs man in the distillery where schnapps was made.  I was asked to bring some into camp if possible, I managed to get flat bottle from the office and put it in front pocket of battle dress trousers.  I got quite a lot out before Christmas.


Silent Night


Before we left the labour camp on the Baron von Putlitz estate on our liberation march there was an incident with an old German woman who lived outside the labour camp. She lived right beside our billets and she had an open hatred for the allied POWs. She had a small space to the side of her house to walk round she was always complaining to the guards about us.


At Christmas 1944 the German guard came into our billet and took me to work in a nearby distillery where Schnapps was made. Of course everyone wanted me to get enough schnapps to make it an enjoyable Christmas. Along with a supply of ‘hooch’ brewed up from sugar beet and the contents of the Red Cross parcels by a Wexford man from the Tank Corps and a bottle I supplied, we had a good Christmas Eve.

We went outside the barracks and when the old German woman came out one of the men asked her, ‘Do you know Silent Night?’ She just looked at him so he sang the full English version of ‘Silent Night’. She stood and looked at him. There were about five POWs standing around me and I had a copy of ‘Silent Night’ written in German. We started singing the song in German and the tears were running out of her eyes. At the end she said, ’Good night’, and wished us all a Merry Christmas. One of the men speculated that she would hardly report us every day after that but the rest of us were unsure.


At 9am the following morning the German woman came up to the gate and spoke to the German guard and he brought her straight into our billet. She had spent the night baking a lovely cake and presented it to us that morning. She then had a good look around our billet and complained to the guard about the state of the place that we had to live in. She cried for a bit and then wished us all a Happy Christmas again.


After she left we asked the guard what had brought about here ‘change of heart’. The guard informed us she hated the Allies because her only son was killed in France. But now we had made a friend, she realised that we were just human beings like her son. The Germans had been taught that the Allies were animals and that was the way they treated us. We then knew why she always hated the British, but from then on, she treated us like human beings again, always giving little treats and making cups of coffee.