Life as a POW
Anthony George (Tony) Verth
We spent our first night in a large building in Amiens. We had to double march through the main street, as all the shops and buildings were ablaze. The heat was unbearable!
The next day we set out on a nightmare march, from dawn to dusk. It must have been one of the hottest summers we had for many years. Just as well, as we slept in open fields and the nights were very cold. When settled in the field, we used to boil water in our steel helmets and collect stinging nettles or any edible leaves. Luckily, we had some men from the country, who kept us right so that we did not poison ourselves. There were over a thousand prisoners of war on the march. As we passed through towns and villages, the local people tried to give us bread and bottles of wine. The guards chased them away, using their rifle butts if they were too persistent. I think we marched for about two weeks. Luckily, the mind became dull through lack of food and exhaustion. At Luxembourg, we were hustled into cattle trucks, another nightmare, as we were so overcrowded we had to take turns sitting and standing. The air in the trucks was foul. The train did stop once, the cattle trucks unlocked, doors flung open. The fresh air was wonderful!
The guards had their rifles trained on us, while the ignorant locals threw stones and spat at us. They must have been Germans who had taken over Polish properties as the Poles had been thrown out of their homes and farms and had to work for the Germans. On reaching Thorn in Poland, we were put in tents temporarily. I don’t think they were ready for so many prisoners. Also this was our first introduction to lice. I suppose, owing to the fact that we were so undernourished and weak, the lice had a field day. A few weeks later we left the tents, known as Fort 15 and marched to Fort 17. The fort was built underground and, as we went in, I had an awful feeling of being cut off from the outside world. We were put in rooms, 50 men to a room, with three-tier bunk beds. It was here that I first met the 152 Field Ambulance men, all Scots from the Aberdeen and Dundee area. Rations were a fifth of a small brown loaf per day, with potato soup lunchtime. It was there that we became official prisoners of war, where our particulars were taken and, I presume, sent to the British Red Cross, who passed this to the British Government. When I got home, I learnt that that I had been classed as missing for a year. The first two years were grim, then Red Cross parcels began to arrive, which were heaven-sent! Marvellous! And, I maintain to this day, they saved our lives! I was down to five stone from nine, when I reached the Fort. Arms and legs like broom handles!
Being a medical orderly, I was put to work in the sick bay or MI room and there was a German medical orderly with us. We got on very well. I learnt a lot of German from him and he also learnt English from me. I finished up speaking quite fluently by the end of the war. We were very limited with medication and equipment, had to do a lot of make-do-and-mend. Quite a few of the prisoners had bullets or shrapnel in them and did not know until a swelling or lump appeared. These all had to be lanced. We had a very good Medical Officer with us, a Captain Fulton. We called him ‘Tubby’ Fulton. He was another great chap I met in my travels. The wounds took a long time to heal, as you can imagine, owing to the poor condition of the men. It was not long before all sorts of sickness took over. Many died with meningitis and dysentery.
The guards in general, particularly the older ones were not too bad. The younger ones, often been through the Hitler Youth movement, been wounded on the Russian Front, were absolute pigs. However, after Africa fell, the attitude of the guards changed completely and they were mostly veterans of the 1914-18 war. They said the ‘Tommies’ had been good to them That’s when all the rackets started, swapping an item from the Red Cross parcel for bread or tobacco. That made life a great deal easier. As I say, life improved with the regular supply of Red Cross parcels arriving monthly and our general health improved. Red Cross syndicates were formed and parcels were pooled and shared. They lasted much longer that way.
Franz was still in the MI room with me, getting worried they would send him to the Russian Front. We continued with ‘Was das auf Deutsch ist? Was das auf Englisch ist?’ Meaning, ‘What is that in German? What is that in English?’ We became more like friends. I felt so sorry for him when he eventually was sent to Russia. The Germans were needing every able-bodied man. I should have been repatriated, being covered by the Geneva Convention as a Battalion Medical Orderly, as stated in my army pay book. I learnt after the war, that this was ignored by the British Government, who told the Germans to keep all medical personnel as they had so many prisoners of war. So much for the Geneva Convention!
I went through my POW life, telling all and sundry that the war would be over in another six months. This went on for five years. I was nicknamed ‘Smiler’. Many men, spoilt at home, did not make it. A few gave up altogether, they did not come back either. I admit that it was ‘survival of the fittest’. At long last, the Germans realised the end was near, so they transferred all medical personnel to Fort 14, which was the Hospital Fort. All the other forts and camps, there were many of them, were evacuated and the poor chaps had to endure another forced march, towards Germany this time. After a short time, Fort 14 was released by the Russian advance. Another of my nine lives, as shells were dropping all around the camp as the Russian troops advanced through Poland. Of course, the Germans had fled by this time and two large tanks were at the entrance to the Fort.
No one could understand a word of Russian and the men, knowing I had been learning Polish, came rushing up to me asking if I would go to the Tank commander, which surprised me as it was a female. Fortunately Polish and Russian are quite similar, being border languages, so we managed to understand each other. I told the Officer in charge of the Fort, that the walking sick were to go to the next village. Those unable to walk, would be picked up by transport and taken to hospital. This was 20th January 1945 and there was two feet of snow on the ground. But who cared? Not us! On reaching the village, we were given a meal. Thick soup, with a large piece of Russian bread. This was not quite so brown as the German loaf and it seemed full of wheat husks but we got used to it. Then we were put into lorries and taken to the station, where we were put in cattle trucks, once again. Our destination was Odessa in Russia.
I must say that we were much more comfortable, than when we travelled to Poland, as we had blankets with straw on the floor and not so many in the trucks. It was rather strange. We travelled by night and spent the days out in the wilds, with nothing to see for miles but plenty of snow. It was great, as we could stretch our legs and the driver of the train would give us a cup of hot water from the engine to shave with. This was luxury, as it was freezing cold and we brewed up and made a meal from our Red Cross parcels. I think it took us about three days to reach Odessa. We were put in a very large hotel, commandeered by the army. Armed guards were posted outside, with fixed bayonets. We thought this very strange as we were supposed to be allies. Sometimes, we began to think that they were going to keep us.
After a couple of months, a British ship arrived to take us back to England. When the ship arrived in Odessa, the sailors came ashore and, on passing the hotel, we shouted to them that we were British. “Anything you want?” they asked. We said, “Bread and cigarettes.” They ran back to the ship, came back with bread and cigarettes and the guards chased them away. Another hold up! The Russians told the commander of the ship that he was to take the French POWs only. He said that he was under orders to take the British POWs. Fortunately, he would not budge and sailed to just outside the harbour. Eventually, the Russians had direct orders to let the British POWs go. Well, the skipper brought his ship back into the harbour and we were over the moon as you can well imagine. We were welcomed aboard by the skipper and four Red Cross ladies, standing behind tables loaded with white bread, still warm from the oven, butter, marmalade and jam. Our eyes popped open wide, on seeing such goodies! Can you just imagine, the first for five years! We took some bread. To us, it tasted like cake after five years of the German brown bread and the Russian bread, which was worse!
As we sailed out of Odessa, it was the first time we really felt free and we were on our way back to England. It was like heaven! The second day at sea, the captain asked for volunteers to look after a chap who had been taken mentally ill. It had all been too much for him. A couple of chaps and myself volunteered, as he would need someone to be with him all the time. So, we spent the trip home in the ship’s sick bay. The ship stopped the night at Naples in Italy but no one was allowed ashore, although some opera singers came aboard to entertain us. Also, it was the first town we had seen with the lights on, since the war began. What a wonderful sight! One which I have never forgotten and which we had taken for granted before the war.
I really enjoyed the trip home. Through the good food aboard ship, I soon got back to my nine stone, which was my weight when I enlisted. However, we landed in Gourock in Scotland, about five o’clock in the morning. It was dark. Not a soul about. I felt as though I was being smuggled back into my own country. But what an amazing feeling, treading on English soil, after being away for five years. You cannot describe it. This was now 17th May 1945. I had been released on 20th January. The prisoners that went on the forced march, were overtaken by the Americans on 10th May and were back in England before me! I learnt this after I got home.
However, we were put on a train, not cattle trucks, at Gourock and landed in Beaconsfield, near Slough, in Buckinghamshire, where we were kitted out with new uniforms, shirts, pants, the lot! We felt great! There we had a medical, then a fitness test. As usual, I passed out A1. I suppose we were there only a few days. The local people must have heard we were ex-POWs and, anytime we went out of the camp, they would stop their cars and give us a lift into town and back to camp. Very kind.