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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

THE MEMOIRS OF JACK AARON


CHAPTER SEVEN


ARRIVAL IN TRIER, GERMANY

Having trudged through Northern France, the Somme, and Belgium, we arrived at the West German border town of Trier, where some hot soup had been made available. I was among a batch of very hungry prisoners but although we got to the soup kitchens as quickly as we could, they ran out of soup. There were just far too many prisoners for the small amount of food available.

Some days earlier, while we were still in France, we had encountered a large, well-built man - a French chef - who stood at the side of the road. As we passed him he dipped his hand into a barrel and gave each one of us a generous piece of horsemeat. It was so tender and tasted delicious.

In Trier we were herded into cattle trucks, about sixty men to each truck. There wasn't room for everyone to lie down and the best you could do was sit upright with your feet out in front in someone else's face. We endured two long days and nights, stopping and starting during the blackout. All this stopping and starting gave one of the lads an attack of the runs but toilets and toilet rolls were a luxury that was unheard of and certainly not provided by the German army. I was lucky that at my feet was a crack in the floor, which a few of us managed to enlarge a bit so we could use it as a urinal but sometimes, if the wind gusted, you got your own back!

A friend of the lad with the upset stomach had had the good sense to bring some empty paper cement bags onboard with him. Having torn off a suitable piece he spread it on the floor and the lad proceeded to do what he had to do. He then folded it up like you would fish and chips and tied it round with paper string.

Meanwhile further up the line two German railway workers were leaning on their shovels grinning and smirking at the prisoners as the train was slowly pulling away from Berlin.

"Where are they now Jim?" asked the lad holding the home made 'bomb'

"Fifty yards away", his mate replied.

They waited until they were about ten yards away and then they let them have it, throwing the 'bomb' onto the tracks.

The German's pounced and fought amongst themselves as they each tried to grasp it. They were shocked to say the least when they discovered the contents. It certainly wiped the smiles off their faces. If their shovels had been rifles I am sure they would have opened fire. I wouldn't like to think what they were shouting at us while they were jumping up and down on the tracks. Some light relief for us you might say. The train gathered speed and we left them behind.

Along the way we passed through some beautiful scenery. It was difficult to imagine that we were caught up in the middle of a vicious conflict. There were lovely green forests, open grasslands and natural lakes with an abundance of wildlife, birds and deer. My predicament made me realise just how much I appreciated the wonders of nature.

Eventually we arrived at a town called Posen and what a reception we got! There was no hot coffee or soup for us, instead, besides the regular guards there was also a crowd of German Luftwaffe cadets who I didn't like the look of. There were also some German newsreel cameras obviously being used to make a propaganda film as we were turned out of the luxury cattle truck that had been our home for the long weekend.

We were marched along a dry and dusty road eventually coming to where the road cut through a hill and with banks rising steeply on either side. Tired and weary, we were allowed past a sentry box manned by an armed guard and where a large wooden pole stretched right across the road, which led down onto a dry moat. Facing us was a huge underground fort (Fort V111) "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here!" should have been displayed there for all to see. My heart fell to zero and I thought, rightly so, that if we were going to have to remain here for the duration of the war we certainly would never survive. It was too horrible for words.

As we entered this ghastly place in complete darkness you couldn't see a thing for a while until your eyes began to adjust to the conditions. All you could hear was a mad German shouting "Los Los, Snell Snell" (Hurry up, hurry up!) Down a long corridor there were a series of small rooms and twelve men were placed in each room. There were no tables or furniture but it didn't matter as we just dropped down as though pole-axed and slept for hours on the bare boards.

The cry of "coffee up" wakened us all. However, German coffee isn't worth waking up for - I think it's made from roasted acorns. All you could say is it was hot and wet. We did drink some of it, what else was there? It was okay for shaving with though!

After topping up with this ghastly synthetic coffee we were detailed off into our assigned working parties. If we hadn't been so hungry and tired roll call would have been hilarious.

"Come on lads, get into groups of three", said our English Sergeant. The German officer set off along the ranks followed by our own Sergeant who had already tallied up the numbers by the time he had reached the end. But the German and English figures didn't agree and so they had to start all over again. After about three or four failed attempts the German officer had had enough and angrily shouted out "Get into fives!"

As we were being taken to our place of work we passed a bakers shop. The baker came to the open door and began throwing breakfast rolls to the lads. It was the worst thing he could have done. With everyone almost on the point of starvation, they all stampeded and made a rush for the shop door. In the ensuing commotion the poor old chap was totally overwhelmed. Passing the shop the next day it had been boarded up. I think in all probability the old boy would have been shot. I felt really sorry for him.

A young lad about 14 years old came riding down the column on his bicycle handing out sandwiches to the lads. Suddenly a black car pulled up and bundled him inside. A woman who had emerged from a side street stood on the sidewalk and opened her briefcase to throw out her sandwiches. A Guard came alongside of her and smashed his rifle into her face.

Suddenly I became aware of a woman approaching our column carrying a basket of rosy red apples. Some of those women took terrible risks trying to feed us and they're the ones who should have been awarded medals for bravery. As I was on the outside line of the column so to speak, nearest to her, I broke rank to meet her. Immediately there was a cry of "Look out!" and glancing over my shoulder I saw a guard with his rifle raised high in the air ready to crash the butt end down on my head. I'd never noticed him before but it didn't take me long to get myself lost in the crowd.

That guard was a nasty 'son of a bitch', as the Americans would have called him. We knew him as 'Scarface' on account of his badly scarred face due to wounds received on the Russian front. I suppose he had some reason to be angry. This incident is brought back to me every time I see red apples.

We arrived at our place of work. It was very rough ground with tufted grass and shallow pools of water everywhere. A light railway ran from one end to the other and our job was to fill some skips at the slightly higher ground, then run them down to the lower end, to provide a kind of rough levelling off. This place was destined to become Posen Zoological Gardens.

It was extremely hot and sweaty, and it would have been hard work even for fit men on full rations. We were lucky to have working with us a big English lad called Alan Bonner. When a skip jumped the rails, which they did occasionally, Alan would be there with a big sapling in his hands and with us all shoving we'd get it back on track. I felt sorry for Alan because with his build he ought to have been getting more food than the rest of us, but it was useless trying to tell that to the Germans.

Our next job was out in the country by the side of the road where there were huge piles of rocks and some hammers. Our job was to break the larger rocks into smaller pieces for road building. By lunchtime, when the whistle blew for us to take a break, we simply downed our hammers, lay down and went to sleep. It was the best way to conserve our energy. We couldn't waste it on eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.

One day, after lunch, we resumed our rock bashing, when suddenly we heard a clanking and squealing. Along came a big panzer tank wagon with two Bren carriers in tow. The carriers looked frail and vulnerable compared to the big Panzer. Off they went down the road to the firing range and we resumed our chain gang work on the rocks.

Very soon we were on the move again and back onboard a train. We arrived at a place where the train was divided in two. There were two camps: Schubin and Schokken. I forget which one I was placed in. Here we were issued with identity discs, numbered, photographed and stamped on the back and legs with the letters KGF, which stood for 'Kriegsgefangener', the German for 'prisoner of war'. Feeling like nothing more than branded cattle we were dismissed into small rooms containing tiered bunks but I was so shattered I didn't have the strength to climb up onto the top bunk.

After a short while someone shouted "Soup up!" I was in two minds whether to go and get it or not, my spirits were so low. However, picking up my mess tin I staggered across the parade ground with some other prisoners to where this big German was sitting on a stool with a large container of soup in front of him. He was ladling soup out into mess tins - all the while abusing us with his big mouth and threatening to shoot us for the least thing. He'd obviously spent some years in America as he spoke with a perfect American accent, if there is such a thing. I didn't like him; he was just showing off in front of the other Germans and threatening to kick the soup container over.

I'd always thought from the very beginning that the German's deliberately kept us hungry so as to have greater control over us and this was proved to be true after the war.

We were herded back on to a train and taken to a place called Warthalager, near the river Warta in Poland. The camp turned out to be an old Polish Cavalry Camp and we were billeted in the stables. Just across from us was a Polish latrine, which was very handy.

Having occasion to visit the latrine I was standing outside one of the cubicles waiting for the bloke on the next box to leave. When he got up it turned out to be an old neighbour of mine, Bill Groves. He waited for me, and having done my duty, he invited me to join him. Taking me to where he hung out he then gave me one or two packets of German biscuits called 'knacker - brotog Brot Congooo' ('brot' meaning bread in German). These weren't very palatable but it was very good of him.

Warthalager was an improvement on our previous camps as we had more room to move around but having said that it was only a summer camp and wouldn't stand up to the rigours of the Polish winters that could prove very severe.

Down at the corner of the camp, where we had a good view across to the village, we were all sitting and standing around having rested and got our second wind back. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and groups of us were singing country and western songs. One lad had his mouth organ with him and provided accompaniment as the lads sang along. After a good while, out of the German canteen emerged some young German soldiers of similar age to us who took offence to our singing and started shouting abuse at us.

We didn't like them so began returning the compliment and suddenly they started throwing stones, which we returned with vigour. Things were starting to hot up when the guards appeared and chased the young thugs up the village before coming back and chasing us into the stables. England nil, Germany nil!

WINTER QUARTERS

Eventually summer drew to a close and it was time to move over to our winter quarters. These were brand new wooden barracks, double clad with cast iron stoves provided. These huts had a corridor running down the middle with rooms on either side.

Our first winter was, however, bitterly cold and if the blizzards were blowing you couldn't get through the hut door. The Germans hadn't provided us with indoor toilet's en-suite, so we utilised a tin and after use we opened the window and disposed of the contents. However, we hadn't reckoned on the freezing conditions outside and every time we emptied the tin this little iceberg beneath our window grew taller and taller. Eventually it reached the window and threatened to block out the light, though when the sun shone on it, it flashed some beautiful amber highlights.

The camp toilets were situated at the opposite side of the camp to where we were and you can imagine walking across there in the middle of the night during a snowstorm. Anyway, once the harsh winter weather had eased up somewhat, a German Sergeant Major came to visit the camp. He picked up the iron that lifted the stovetop, reached across to me and removed the civilian cap that a Polish lad had given me and dropped it into the stove. Then, looking up, his eyes caught sight of the iceberg reaching to the window. He was furious. Muttering a lot of German about "swine hunt Englishmen", he ordered a pair of unlucky lads to take a pick and shovel to go out in the cold and knock it down.

Bringing water from the ablutions during winter was a very cold job. Any spillage over the side of the jug froze immediately.

On one occasion we were standing at the door watching a German NCO ordering a poor German lad to do press-ups in the snow. We don't know what he had done wrong but our sympathy was with the poor young soldier. We started mocking the N.C.O. who endured it for a while before eventually losing his temper. He collected a couple of guards and headed directly for our barracks. Meanwhile there was a mass stampede down the corridor and a lot of doors slamming shut. The German's trashed the first room amid a lot of shouting and swearing. Down at our end of the hut we had an old army sweat who'd been in the army of occupation after the First World War and who could speak some German. He was standing at the door in his long-johns shouting obscenities at the Germans, while grinning all over his face. "Come in Craggy, you'll get us all shot!" we called to him. There was never a dull moment.

Due to the severe weather we hadn't been out to work for some days and consequently no one could bring in any firewood. Perrin, one of the lads, had a bright idea. At the rear of the hut, up in the ceiling was a square of wood which when pushed upwards gave access to the loft above. Two of the boys got in there and Perrin stood at the hole inside of the loft. I was standing by the side of the stove and Perrin began handing down planks of wood, taken from the roof void, which I stacked against the wall. "We're going to be warm tonight", said Perrin. We didn't take the planks from the area above our room but from several rooms further down.

Just then I received a tap on the shoulder and looking round I came face to face with a German Sergeant Major. He quietly motioned me to one side and took over, accepting and stacking the wood himself. Perrin continued enthusing about how warm we were going to be tonight when he suddenly realised who he had been talking to and almost fell down out of the hole with fright.

"Come Down", ordered the Sergeant Major. I was expecting at least 21 days in the bunker but amazingly we never heard anything further about it. That Sergeant Major was a genuine bloke; he certainly wasn't a party man.

Some of the lads who had been out on work parties had returned and said they had seen deer and wild boar. I was very interested in wildlife but had yet to see a wild boar. Anyway, a job came up that required the services of half-a-dozen prisoners and I was included in the party. It was the loveliest job I ever had - in spite of the ever-present hunger.

The party consisted of two beautiful shire horses and a long lumber-carrying wagon. The wagon comprised two sturdy front wheels with a long pole attached to it and to which the horses were harnessed on either side. The Polish workers were preparing felled trees and cutting them to length and our job was to lever the trimmed and cut to size trees onto the wagon. We did it carefully, bit by bit, during which time the two horses were unhitched.

After securing the load we sat down by the fire and had a drink of synthetic coffee. The Poles were always glad to see us. They didn't have much, sometimes just a little tobacco, but they were always willing to share it with anyone who was a smoker.

It was so quiet and peaceful out there with a blanket covering of snow and a big wood fire burning away. Two of us decided to have a little walkabout. The guard was dozing off and he wasn't particularly concerned anyway. Having walked about half-a-mile we came across a large clearing with trees growing on three sides of it. Suddenly, in the very middle, five animals broke cover and raced for the timber. They were Silesian Wolves, which made my day.

One day we were just on the point of going back to camp when there was a commotion in the thicket about 150 yards away. We'd never seen wild boar before, although we could see where they had been. On this particular day the piglets were trying to suckle and fighting for the teats, making a hell of a noise. Me and this other lad, David Croft, crept nearer trying to catch a better glimpse when suddenly everything went deathly silent and I knew that it was time to retreat. The old sow had sensed us. Looking back now I realise how stupid we were. That pig could have ripped our legs to shreds. Our guard came over and shouted at us to come out, "es ist gefahrlich." (it's dangerous!)

Returning to the Lager from a working party, we chanced to meet, going the other way, a platoon of German soldiers. They were singing Horst Wessel's, hymns of hate. We retaliated with Laurel and Hardy's Cuckoo Song, which caused a bit of a change in step but it was a dangerous game making fun of the Germans. After all they held all the power and had very little sense of humour.

PARCELS UP

Some people back home thought that as prisoners of war we lived a life of luxury, but that was far from the truth. The parcels which were handed out occasionally, (one parcel to every two men), were definitely a morale booster while they lasted, but always at the back of your mind you wondered how long it would be before you would be back on the German rations again. The parcels were very good and much appreciated especially the cigarettes. They always put a smile on the men's faces, but you never knew when the next lot would arrive. It was a constant worry and we didn't trust the Germans one little bit.

The Canadian parcels contained tins of 'Klim' milk powder. These tins, once they were empty, were used as blowers. Someone had a brilliant idea to use them to brew a cup of tea in double quick time. Chips of wood were placed in the empty tin and then a can of water was placed on top. Then, an ingenious device of a propeller was cut out of tin and attached by a small cord to a tiny wheel and turning handle. When you turned the handle and the kindling was alight it produced a very high temperature. The result was instant tea, which was a definite boon. Blowers sprung up all over the camp where there were any Canadian parcels as they required very little fuel.

Some camps even had their own distillery stills. We had one in our room although personally I thought it was a waste of good fruit, especially after having seen some of the lads in the sick bay shaking violently after drinking some of these home-made concoctions. All sorts of things went into the brew from potatoes, corn, dubbin, and old socks, to anything that would ferment. The lads lost out quite a bit though because to distil you had to warm things up and the Germans with their noses forever twitching could smell it. One or two lads were in the sick bay in a serious condition after drinking wood alcohol, supplied by the Poles, which was poisonous.

One lad was lying on his bunk, out to the world, with his bare arm draped over the side of his bunk after having a good drinking session. One of the other men got hold of a fire bucket full of ice cold water and placed it under the snoozing lad's arm. The bucket was then raised until the arm was immersed in water up to the lad's elbow. Suddenly, he jumped up off his bunk, peeing himself. He didn't know where he was! "You silly buggers!" he shouted angrily.

Frank, my friend, had received new boots through the Red Cross which he sold. As punishment for this, he was marched for three kilometres under armed escort to the village of Ehren Forst where he was confined in the tiny jail and placed on a diet of bread and water.

We had roll calls every day and one Sunday morning after we had been dismissed we were recalled to be told by the interpreter "You're all going out to work again today". According to German Conventions we were allowed Saturday afternoon and Sunday off so we flatly refused.

"You are going out to work", we were told again, but we all stood firm and the position was stalemate.

The Commandant was sent for. A little fat officer duly arrived and asked "Will you or won't you go out to work?"

"No" we said firmly, determined to stand up for our rights.

"Bring over the machine gun!" he called to the guards. Two of them scurried off and came back with a heavy machine gun on a tripod and placed it in front of us. By this time I was getting a bit worried, not for the first time had this situation happened to me.

"Are you going out?" we were asked again.

"No!" we replied unanimously.

To break the deadlock he pulled half-a-dozen blokes out of the front rank and had them marched off to the bunker. He said, "I'll release them only when you return to work."

For the sake of the other inmates we had to relinquish our stand but on the way to work our guards let us know they were very proud of the way we had stood up to the Commandant. If we had to go out to work then it meant they had to go too but thankfully it never happened again.

Later, much later, that same officer on his white charger got the guards out and led us off for a long walk through the woods and surrounding countryside and insisted that we sing old First World War songs. "Pack up your trouble's", "Tipperary" - he knew them all. We discovered he was a veteran of the First World War and was in his element. It would have been nice if we had got some extra food for our renderings but that was perhaps hoping for too much.

One day during roll call a beautiful cream coloured German Shepherd dog appeared in the midst of us all. Where it had come from I don't know but it was in high spirits and eager to play. Over the next few weeks it appeared again and again and we decided to call him Snowy.

Snowy was forever breaking rank and running in front of old 'Baggy Eyes', as we called the German who took roll call. This continued for a number of weeks, until old baggy eyes lost his temper after having been interrupted on more than one occasion and he drew out his pistol. He fired two shots that both missed their target. A whistle sounded from an adjoining camp and Snowy was off, beneath the wire, across the walkway and under the wire of the adjoining camp. He was safe and we could all breathe a sigh of relief. After that incident we always ensured that during roll calls he was kept on a lead.

I don't believe the German actually intended shooting Snowy because that would have looked bad in front of all those men, however, a few weeks later they adopted a rather different tactic. Their Sergeant came into the camp leading a very ugly and powerful Rottweiler, which he set upon Snowy.

The Sergeant's dog clamped its powerful jaws around Snowy's neck. We were hoping that he wouldn't start shaking, but help was at hand. A young black Liverpool lad straddled the Rottweiller and, grasping an ear in each hand took control of it. Rather him than me! I think he must have handled dogs before. We got Snowy away without much damage being done. The Sergeant threatened to shoot the lad - a very brave lad from the Merchant Navy - a good Scouser. Snowy didn't care too much for the Germans after that. I wonder why?

By the early spring we were on the move once again from Warthalager to a place further down into Silesia. Camp 21 Bau und Arbiets Commando's building and Labour Company, Blechammer O.S. This was a massive camp; in fact ours was a camp within a camp. Our camp, Tau Arbiets, was administered separately and was tucked away in a corner of the main camp. We weren't isolated and we could mingle with the other inmates, but we were very close to our place of work; too close as it turned out.

After being there a good while I received a letter asking me if I would inform Bill Groves that his girlfriend had died. That was the hardest job I have ever had to undertake. Having imparted the sad news to Bill he took it on his chin like the good lad he was. I didn't stay with him for long though as I knew he'd want to be left alone with his thoughts. Happily, Bill survived the war.

Jack Aaron

CHAPTER  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11



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