This account is taken from an obituary for Bob’s dad Jack. Bob, who has been a regular and well liked member
of our group for a number of years, recently brought in this account, written by a comrade of his Dad,
about their experience as Prisoners of War. They were both captured by the Germans at Dunkirk in 1940
and held in captivity until their release in 1945 at the end of the war.
Bob tells us that his dad, who trained as a carpenter, worked at the Rushmoor Arena before the war where he helped make the scenery and work the flood lights for the Army Tattoos. He was also in the Territorial Army and, after a first job at the beginning of the war guarding Frimley Water works, he was then sent to France as part of the Queen's Royal Regiment to join the British Expeditionary Force, where he was captured.
After the war Jack worked as a maintenance carpenter for Chrismas Estates, near Newport road Aldershot, and then at A R Wade, North Lane Aldershot, a manufacturer of electrical furnaces long since closed, helping in aspects of the construction of their building including the making of the front sliding door, the stair case and also cutting sheets for the factory roof.
Jack Willams was born in India where his father was serving as a regular soldier in, I think, the Green Howards. On retirement he returned to this country and took a job as part time instructor with the 4th Bn. Royal West Kent Regiment, which Jack joined. On the family moving to Aldershot, Jack transferred to 5th Queen’s. He was a very good shot and also a useful boxer. On embodiment Jack, by then a sergeant was posted to the newly formed A Coy (A company), of which I was CQMS (Quartermaster sergeant).
When the battalion received its first intake of ‘Belisha Boys’ Jack was posted to Guildford as an instructor and did not re-join his company until a month or so before he went to France. He was on the (so called) road block at Bellancourt and I believe pooped off our 5 rounds on the Boyes A/T Rifle (Anti-Tank rifle effective against light armour). Trying to make his getaway with a small party they were fired upon by tanks and returned the fire with their rifles. He received a slight wound in the groin and was captured, he spent a few days in a French Hospital run by Nuns and thus avoided the long, hungry and tortuous, march to Arras and the lorry journey through Luxembourg to Bitburgh. Bitburgh was on the wrong side of the Siegfried line where I was carefully guarding my washing- one very worn pair of socks hung on the perimeter barbed wire when Jack was pushed into the cage. We were delighted to see one another. Jack gave me his moral support when, as the senior NCO and the only possessor of knife, a very small penknife at that, it fell to my lot to cut up the 2 loaves given to my coal truck of POWs as our ration for our journey across Germany. With 51 pairs of eyes watching to make sure that I did no sleight of hand, but made a fair division it was a most difficult task. The ration lasted us 2 nights and one day until we received a bowl of soup at a station in Berlin before proceeding on to Thorn in Poland, where we were accommodated about 50 to a room in one of the forts so vividly described in the Mansell Diaries.
From our meeting at Bitburg for the next 2 and half years it was share and share alike for Jack and I, and I could not have had a better ‘mucker’. At Thorn, Jack managed after much haggling to secure 2 loaves of bread in exchange for his wedding ring and these loaves formed the basis of our reserve until we got our first Red Cross parcels. The ration was 5 men to 1 loaf – we parodies a German marching song with the words, “Funf man ein brot”. Most POWs scoffed their bread at one go, Jack and I always managed to keep a little to eat with our breakfast – one mug of ersatz coffee (a coffee substitute). We had our only meal, so called, a soup of barley and water with some potatoes at 4pm.
From Thorn about 250 of us were sent to a place near Gottenhaffen (Germany) or Gydnia (Polish) where we were accommodated in a two storied wooden building which had, we thought, been a hostel or something of that sort. All of the windows lacked glass and part of the roof was missing, presumably as a result of bombardment from the sea. Here jack plied his work as a carpenter. After doing a few jobs around the building he was provided with a hammer, a saw, a lot of bent nails and a heap of wood from which he constructed two tier bunks for the guards and for the POWs. It may interest some readers to hear that a camp of 250 POWs was commanded most of the time by an ‘unter officer’, though for a short while by a ‘feldwebel’ (field usher a NCO rank in the German Army) of homosexual tendencies. What would such a camp rate in this country? A captain at OC.? (Officer in Charge)
Sgt Charlie Turner of 2/5 Queens was one of my fellow POWs at Gotenhafen and also a man named Churchill, known as Winston or was it the other way around? I am not sure. Another inmate was the Right Honourable and dozy minister of state – Fed Mulley, known in those days as ‘Wimpey’, he was lucky to be there as he had a shot hole through one of his prominent ears. Fred Mulley was the camp interpreter until one day we were visited by a German Officer who, for some inexplicable reason, decided Fred was a Jew and had him whisked away to another camp, Stalag XXB I think.
In August 1941 we were transferred to XXB at Marienburg where Jack and I remained for about a month collecting our ration of fleas to add to our ration of lice. We then went to work on a farm in the Danzig Free State where, from the point of view of food, we did fairly well. We managed sometimes to augment our Red Cross supplies and the farmer’s food by illicit supplies from the farm. At one stage the farmer’s wife thought the hens were going off lay and when we got back to our hovel we were wheeled into the guard room for a search. It was winter time and I was wearing the end of a woollen scarf as a cap comforter. I turned out my pockets and was well frisked but I was not asked to bare my bald head. We had our eggs that evening, they had been nestling one at each end of my cap. Writing of eggs reminds me of the story told at XXB of the POW who, working at a railway siding, found a truck full of eggs. One of the guards had his suspicion and on return to Stalag the man was marched into the Commandant’s office and told to empty his haversack (No POW on a working party went out without such a vial piece of equipment – just in case). The POW unslung the haversack, undid the buckles and holding it above the Commandant’s desk shook out it’s fragile contents.
After a year of more at the farm I decided to ‘retire’ and become a ‘Nix Arbiter’ as permitted to NCO’s by the Geneva Convention. After a few days back at XXB I went down to a party to Stalag 383 in Bavaria where at the gate I was spotted by Fred Mulley, again an interpreter, who fixed me up in a first class hut which I shared with six Maoris, one white New Zealander, four Aussies, a Taffy, and another Englishman who had known Fred Mullen at Gottenhaven. We lived very well in the hut, all the food was pooled and the cooking done by the white New Zealander, in consequence when the famine came owing to the failure of the Red Cross supplies to get through we had a pretty good cash of stores under the floor boards, and we did not drop down to the bare, very bare, issue ration until several weeks after the rest of the camp.
Jack Willams stayed on at the farm for another year or so, but eventually turned up at 383. When the Red Cross Supplies failed Jack was in a rather poor way, and like many others suffered from malnutrition. One day he told me his legs were swollen. I noticed when I depressed the skin and released the pressure the dent remained for a time. I believe that is a symptom of Beriberi (nutritional deficiency of vitamin B1); fortunately a small supply of Red Cross food got through and Jack’s condition improved. In the early spring of 1945 the camp was supposed to be evacuated, rumour had it to Hitler’s Redoubt, so most of us were on our travels again, but the sick, including Jack, remained behind. This time I travelled, one cannot say we marched, we merely straggled, in company with Cpl Freddie Cattermole of B Coy 2/5 Queens. We meandered through Bavaria for several days. We went through Ragensburg where we tried to dally to admire the work of the RAF had put in on the railway system, but the local garrison – Hungarian SS – had other ideas and wanted us out of the area. It is quite surprising how far and how fast one can walk without food if you are encouraged by a bayonet at your backside.
The marches got slower and slower, the guard lost interest, much of the German traffic was going in the opposite direction to us and one welcome sight was to see afield gun drawn by oxen – a very different state of affairs to our march through France 5 years earlier. During this march one burley Aussie announced to the world that, “He had had enough” and threw himself under a passing lorry. Three of four days later he would have been a free man.
Jack Willams was taken care of when the Yanks took over Hohenfels Camp and arrived home safely, but suffered more or less continuous ill health since, one complaint following another. He was a true friend and his death brings home to me how fortunate I have been.