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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

THE MEMOIRS OF JACK AARON


CHAPTER EIGHT


BLECHAMMER: UPPER SILESIA

Our new camp was situated in an area that before 1946 was known as Upper Silesia but which now forms part of modern day Poland. The camp itself was located within the perimeter of a synthetic oil refinery where they produced oil from coal. The factory covered about three square kilometres. I must say that the camp was pretty good compared to what we had experienced earlier and each hut accommodated 24 men to a room and had washing facilities and outside toilets.

One of the jobs we had, a building project, was just across the river from us. We enjoyed that job because we hadn't far to walk to get there and it was quite a pleasant location with a sort of lagoon in the midst of the woods where we used to swim after work. The guards didn't seem to mind.

One day one of the lads had misbehaved although I don't recall exactly what he had done. The guard asked for his number. We had each been issued with a metal identity disc, which was worn round your neck on a length of cord. You had to carry them with you at all times. The lad reached into his shirt, lifted the cord over his head and gave the disc to the guard who immediately dropped it as though it was a red hot poker! A big fat louse was crawling across it. After that I don't think he bothered to report the lad.

We were told the building we were working on was going to be a bordello for the German soldiers, however, we were moved on long before the ladies arrived.

On another occasion we were working outside the factory fence in a wood works and saw mill, when we witnessed a shocking incident. Apparently the Polish workers had been leaving work early by sneaking out through a hole cut into the wire mesh fence and this had been brought to the attention of the guards.

We noticed a Polish prisoner approaching the hole at the same time as a German guard, accompanied by his two German Shepherd dogs, was coming up the lane. The guard waited until the prisoner had come through the fence and then he let the dogs loose. The screams from that poor man were horrendous. I never want to see anything like that again.

The Guard simply secured his dogs again and casually walked on. I suppose similar acts of kindness were being repeated every day all over Germany.

I often experienced dreams about food and these weren't good for you. You would visualise sticking your fork into something really nice and raising it to your mouth but you never tasted anything. You woke up feeling rotten.

Every work party returning to the lager was subjected to a spot check. On one occasion as the men were filing past, a German guard raised his hand and brought it down onto one poor lad's hat, which contained half-a-dozen eggs. Bloody-minded Germans! Why couldn't he just let the poor lad through, they were starving us to death anyway.

One day a man was sitting in the sunshine with his shirt on his knee. I asked the bloke next to me, what he was doing? "Delousing", he replied. "Take your shirt off", he said to me. I was amazed; the little swines had got into the seams. If you ran a lighted match or a cigarette lighter along the seams, they would go snap, crackle, and pop. They didn't like it up em!

The Germans came up with a delousing machine, which resembled a large boiler. You removed your clothes, tied them up and labelled them, placed them in the boiler and half an hour later they were cooked - no more lice.

One summer we got a plague of fleas. This must have covered a huge area because camps many miles away were also infested. The Red Cross supplied us with dusting powder though, which soon eradicated them. Another time almost everyone in the camp came down with scabies.

Then we were all ordered to report to the medical officer where we had to drop our pants. Nobody escaped the treatment. We were daubed with a violet coloured stain that did the trick.

On site in the factory was a German built latrine and our group were getting fed up with having to wait for the Czechs, Poles, Ukraine's, Latvian's, Bulgarian's, and Hungarian's before they could use it. Perhaps that was where the Scabies outbreak had started?

With a lot of redundant timber lying around we decided to build our own latrine. Some of the lads were joiners so construction wouldn't be a problem. Having done a first class job, and with the old guard looking on behind us, we wrote "Nur Fur Kreigsgefangeber" (only for P.O.W.'s) on it.

That was okay until some silly sod came along with a brush and a spot of paint and wrote W.C. on the door. I looked round at the old guard behind me who had started laughing uncontrollably with his belly shaking up and down. I asked, "What's the matter with you?" and he pointed at the sign and said "WC, Vinston Shurshill." That's exactly how he said it, laughing his head off. "Good on him!" I thought. You can't win them all - Winston Churchill was now a latrine!

Another time we had a job in a sand quarry and were waiting with our shovels for the Polish ponies and carts to arrive. We had to fill a number of carts with sand and when they'd been filled and despatched we'd wait for the next little convoy to arrive. Nothing could be simpler; or could it?

Our man in charge was a German civilian who had probably worked in the quarry all his life. 'Herman the German' we called him. He was very volatile, hand-made for us to get him going. We started throwing shovels full of sand but purposely missing the cart altogether and the sand would land on the ground at the other side. Herman saw this and grabbing the shovel off one lad he went crazy, filling the cart in no time in an attempt to show us how it should be done. "You stupid Englishmen", he said, "that's how you do it!"

Only occasionally did we see any Russian planes overhead. What we did see during broad daylight and so high they were just like a dust mote, would be American Lockheed Lightning Reconnaissance planes designed for high altitude photography. They were out looking for oil refineries, which didn't look very promising for us living right next door to one. Since the Americans had established the American 8th Army Air Force, themselves in northern Italy, the only time you knew they were about was when the anti aircraft guns opened up. They didn't start their bombing raids straight away, instead, what they did was drop leaflets written in German of course, saying they were going to send seven thousand bombers over Silesia.

The very first air raid caught everyone napping. We didn't have time to get clear of the factory but just managed to reach the outskirts where there was a little shelter beneath some trees. We flattened ourselves to the ground and hoped for the best. Finding yourself at the mercy of those heavy American bombers wasn't a very nice experience.

When the bombers had gone and it was safe to lift my head up again, I looked around and was amazed to see everyone had shucked down and were relieving themselves. This was the effect of blanket bombing. I mentioned this incident after the war to a medical officer and he gave me a simple explanation. When an animal is threatened by a predator it automatically evacuates its bowels as a kind of nervous reaction. It no doubt makes for better running I suppose but in my case I had nothing to evacuate.

Meanwhile we were still sent out to work - work never stopped. The Germans hadn't been idle during this time, they had strengthened their air defences and built some massive air raid shelters. These were all built above ground and reinforced inside with railway metals, bowed, and standing shoulder to shoulder the full length of the shelter - they were very strong. Myself and two others were caught short during one raid and we hadn't time to run to our usual place of safety well clear of the factory, so we decided to shelter in the bunker. Just inside was a massive door that we weren't allowed through but there was a recess, which we thought would give us sufficient protection - but never again. When the bombs dropped we felt the tremors go right through and underneath the bunker. It was very scary. I much preferred being out in the open in a trench. I did see later where a bomb had hit one of these bunkers. It didn't penetrate it but it had left a big scar right down the side of the bunker.

Within the factory the Germans had installed some smoke screen devices. These were manned by Ukranian soldier's who had defected to the German's. They were dressed in German uniform with 'Ukraine' stitched on their shoulders. During one raid I'd found myself out in the woods well clear of the refinery. Shrapnel was knocking twigs and branches off the trees when I noticed a smoke oven with a pair of boots sticking out of it. It hadn't been lit and pulling on the boots I slowly unearthed a grinning Ukranian. I think he was simply pleased to discover I wasn't a German. We decided to shelter together amongst the trees. He was quite a cheerful, pleasant companion really, for a short time.

We still had to work alongside the other Nationalities but we now worked with a heightened sense of awareness, keeping a watchful eye on the Ukrainians when it was time for the bombers to come. One step by them towards the fifty gallon drums and we were up and off like a covey of flushed pheasants. Self-preservation is a powerful force.

During one bombing raid the American's blew up our water system and we were unable to get any fresh water. We saw some lads drinking tea and asked them where they had got the water. They told us they had got it from the river but on a few occasions we had seen bodies floating down there and it didn't seem like a good idea. Eventually, however, my friend and me went down and scooped some water from the flowing river in a dixie and we boiled it vigorously to get rid of any bacteria. Having some Red Cross tea left we made a brew but it tasted of mud and we couldn't taste the tea for the river.

The Americans scored heavily on the refinery despite the smoke screen around it. After one such raid we were passing a big crater in the ground and stopped to look. At the bottom of this hole was a German going to work on an unexploded bomb. It just lay there like a big fat pig. As I stood there I admired that German's nerve but I suppose it was the job he was trained for. Then the penny suddenly dropped. Why were we standing there? That thing could go off at any moment and I don't think it was called a Little Demon. This was bigger than any bonfire night banger! Anyway, he didn't need any advice or assistance from us, so we scarpered!

To make things a bit more difficult for the Germans, the Americans began mixing some delayed action bombs amongst their regular bomb loads. These DA's didn't explode on impact but lay dormant often for several days depending on the type of ground they landed on. If it was sandy soil they just buried themselves in and disappeared.

We got back to camp from work detail after another bombing raid and when the smoke screen had cleared we saw a party of Jews working on the German latrine right opposite my barrack window, just outside the perimeter wires. Asking one of the lads who had stayed in the camp, what they were doing, he said they were digging out a DA bomb, which had embedded itself in the foundations and they got extra soup for this type of work. The German's were so considerate!

As night came on we didn't feel like sleeping there in such close proximity to the bomb, so we collected our blankets and palliasse's and retreated to the bottom end of the camp and slept on top of the air raid shelter. By the next night we had decided we weren't going down to sleep on the air raid shelter again, bugger that, it was too cold.

Settling down to sleep after lights out we were awakened in the early hours by a terrific explosion. Going outside we saw the latrine had completely disappeared, but looking down the length of the barracks we found we had been heavily pebble dashed. What a mess!

Close by my living quarters was a first rate air raid shelter built of interlocking concrete slabs. It was very well designed and well built, but in my mind I always imagined those heavy slabs falling off on top of me. In an air raid shelter opposite in the adjoining camp was a solid built, all concrete shelter and that was the shelter that I fancied but then I always liked being outside the camp!

Returning to camp after one raid, we saw some activity in the vicinity of the concrete bunker. Two bombs had exploded there claiming the lives of 32 POW's. After that, the Germans always allowed men to leave the camp preceding raids. It's amazing but everyone always came back afterwards.

I never liked being inside the camp during air raids. I always felt trapped. Sometimes it was unavoidable. It was good to see the sick people high tailing it down the road, putting distance between themselves and the refinery. Roger Bannister would have been hard pressed to catch some of them!

We often saw parties of Jews coming down the road on their way to work. It would be bitterly cold and all they had to wear was a thin jacket and trousers, some with caps and some without, a pair of shoes called pantofles's without socks and no gloves or scarves. Some had to be supported and half-carried to work, it was so murderously cold! I thought, "There but for the grace of God and the Geneva Convention go I." But what could we do except feel utter contempt for the Germans for reducing men down to this level. To this day I still feel pity for those Jews.

One day we were working alongside a party of Jews and I forget exactly what they were doing but it involved working with cement. To ease their suffering from the cold they had stuffed their jackets and trousers with torn up cement bags tied round their cuffs and ankles with paper string. They showed us and we approved, it was a good idea. The following day they told us the Germans had made them rip them off and called it sabotage.

Every work party of Jews had a man called a 'capo', who wore an armband with CAPO printed on it. It was a job they would much rather not have had.

We saw one German ride up on his bicycle and prop it up against a brick wall, I think it was the pump house. Drawing on his leather gloves he called for the CAPO. I hated to think what that poor man's thoughts would have been as he hastened down to the Germans summons. I don't know what was said between them, the Jew simply bowed to the German but as he straightened up again the German hit him full in the face with his clenched fist and knocked him down. Feeling sick at heart, all we could do was shout and jeer, but he wasn't bothered; he was just showing off his absolute power over the poor Jews.

On another occasion working outside the refinery with a small party of Jews, one of them detached himself and quietly asked me, being the nearest to him, if I had any cigarettes. Unfortunately I didn't have any but I would gladly have given him some if I had. Red Cross cigarettes didn't last forever but I told him all I had was Russian cigarettes called Machorka's. He'd heard of them and gestured his approval so a deal was arranged for the following day.

The next day I gave him three packs of twenty Russian cigarettes and he was so pleased with them that in return he gave me a solid gold ring.

Anyway, come break time we made our way down to the blacksmith's shop where it was warm and as a matter of interest I brought out the ring. The German took it and put it in his hand and said, "Look, you see that?" I looked closely and where the light caught it, it reflected a gold colour. "There, you see it shouldn't do that - it's not real gold."

With him being a metal worker, like a fool I believed him, and after that I didn't place any more value on the ring and eventually misplaced it somewhere. To this day I don't know where it disappeared to, but that's yet another thing I have the German's to thank for.

On parade one morning the German's were looking for volunteers to join the fight against the Russians and naturally they promised us everything - free meals, beer, cigarettes and generous leave.

"What about women?" one of the lads asked.

"Ja, plenty women" the German replied, but all to no avail - they didn't get a single volunteer despite all the goodies they offered.

With the Russian advance on Blechammer we knew that eventually we would have to move out, but before this happened, and in good time, I wrote and asked mother if she could get me a haversack. She couldn't, but Uncle Jock, who was in the Navy during the First World War, let me have his old sea bag. It was white and in as new condition. I quickly converted it with webbing straps and a lid that fastened down. At the same time, my sister had sent me a new pair of boots. I was lucky - I was now well prepared for the death march.

Jack Aaron

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



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