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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

THE MEMOIRS OF JACK AARON


CHAPTER SIX


TAKEN PRISONER

Being taken prisoner was both a traumatic and a depressing experience. We suddenly found ourselves at the mercy of the enemy and we had no idea what was going to happen next. I certainly don't take pride in the fact that I was a prisoner of war. We were all dirty, shattered, hungry and extremely thirsty.

I was just twenty years old and I recall a German officer of about 35 years searching me, but he wasn't being very thorough. I offered my tin hat and my mess tin in an effort to make it easier - after all they would be no use to me now.

"No, you may need that," he said, handing back my mess tin, which I thought was pretty decent of him.

After being searched, a group of about fifty of us were made to sit down on the grass and they placed a heavy machine gun on a tripod, along with two German guards to watch over us. I lost all interest. I was completely exhausted and fell fast asleep, although I didn't sleep for long.

"Get up", someone shouted, "we're moving out!"

I opened my eyes and was totally flabbergasted. All around the perimeter of the field, tight up against the hedge, were lorries, armoured cars, tank transporter's, gun limbers, anti-aircraft guns and every piece of military equipment you could imagine. We had been well and truly surrounded and captured.

As we moved out I remember a German motorcycle combination passing by carrying a badly injured English Sergeant.

We had been taken prisoner just outside Arras in Northern France around the 20th May 1940. On May 29th, Ostend, Ypres, Lille, and other Belgian and French towns, fell to the enemy.

When the German attack began in May, the allies sustained heavy losses and an immediate evacuation of some 330,000 officers and men from the beaches of Dunkirk was ordered. For us however, there would be no miracle of Dunkirk, and anyway we were totally unaware that this piece of history was being created many miles away, or indeed any of the other events taking place outside our own everyday environment. As part of the 51st (Highland) Infantry it had been our mission to hold up the German advance, which we did for a short time, but we were up against overwhelming odds.

We never heard those famous words, "For you the war is over", what we did hear was "England Kaput", which didn't really bother us a great deal as we didn't know then what 'Kaput' meant anyway!

We began a long hard slog towards the German border while masses of German equipment passed by us heading in the opposite direction - the lines seemed endless. I must say the German tank crews looked very smart in their black tank suits and black berets. Their trousers were gathered at the ankles onto jack boots - but we weren't there to admire them.

A German tank had parked up just off the side of the road while its crew were carrying out some maintenance on it. One of the crew spoke English. "I want some men", he said, and he collected about a dozen of us. "I want you to lift this cover up onto the tank." In our weakened state, lifting such a heavy piece of armour was a murderous task. So much for the dummy cardboard tanks our newspapers used to write about!

We continued on our march. The weather was especially hot, the roads were very dusty, and we were desperately hungry and thirsty. There was a water-filled ditch alongside that looked very tempting but after having already seen what those ditches contained, I resisted the temptation. One of the lads who did give in to temptation collapsed, frothing at the mouth - goodness knows what was in the water. It was not for me but he'd drunk it and I never saw him again after that.

I remember on our journey through France being ordered into this big open field, to one side of which, the Germans had built a rough open latrine. On the other side of the fence were some German's with their cameras, obviously having a field day taking pictures of us. At the far end of the field were the gates with German soldiers standing guard next to the fence.

Along the road that ran past the field came two French women and seeing me they started passing tins of food and other things which I gratefully stuffed inside my battle blouse. While I was doing this and contemplating how lucky I was, I received a tap on the shoulder. "We've paid for those", I heard. Turning round I saw two English Sergeants. Both being mature men and me being just a young lad, I handed the goods over. I began thinking afterwards that those women wouldn't be selling things. Wrong place wrong time Jack! I always thought Sergeants were supposed to look after their men? Not those two obviously.

Having missed out on my supper I bedded down with some more DLI's for warmth and went to sleep - and then it started to rain. It never rains but when it does, it pours!

By dawn we realised we had been so tired that we had slept right through the downpour. I awoke with a start and immediately dropped back down again and blacked out. I don't remember what happened after leaving that field I suppose we just trudged on ever eastwards.

Looking down at the heels of the person in front of you as you followed them, you were lost in your own thoughts, not quite with it so to speak. We passed a British war cemetery and looking at the rows and rows of orderly gravestones the thought passed my mind that I could have just laid myself down behind one of those stones and never woken up again. I didn't care anymore, but the mood eventually passed and I carried on.

Further down the column I saw a lad limping quite badly. I say lad because that's all most of us were really. His mates said to him "Drop your pants Geordie - let's see what's wrong with you." With his bottom exposed we saw an angry red patch the size of a saucer on his cheek. In the centre was a dark red purple spot about as big as an old English penny. "That's where the bullet is - see the Germans, they'll take it out for you - they're used to that." I've often wondered how poor Geordie went on.

"Get into fives", ordered a German soldier standing in the back of a pick-up truck. Having always being used to marching in columns of three we wondered what was going on. They were distributing a loaf of bread to every five men. It would have made it a whole lot easier if he'd said groups of four, but no, the Germans didn't work like that.

A few days later we came up to a bit of a crossroads and there was this tall German lad who was not much older than I was. He looked very smart and was leaning back, sitting on his motor cycle and sidecar and drinking from a bottle. I asked him for a drink and he readily handed me the bottle. Taking a good drink I was amazed, my thirst disappeared completely - it was a sort of vinegar or wine but I didn't feel thirsty for a good while after that.

The lad spoke very good English and was very friendly. "Don't worry", he said, "they'll find you work and a canteen." I often wonder what happened to that good German lad. You did actually come across some decent German's, though at that time they believed they had won the war. On the other hand, there were a hell of a lot of them who had neither a father nor a mother.

Jack Aaron

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