Today is the 100 year anniversary of Great Britain declaring war on Germany, starting World War I (The Great War). In acknowledgement of this, I’m sharing the next installment of my grandfather’s memoir of his experiences during World War II.
Today’s extract details his arrival and life at Stalag 383, a German POW camp in Bavaria.
A MEMOIR OF THE WAR (part 2)
by Harry Gregory
The first transit camp was a working camp about 40 miles from Munich. Men below the ranks of sergeant would go into Munich by cattle trucks and clear up the bomb rubble from the streets. I exchanged my stripes with a private for the day, and was taken with a party of eight men under the command of one guard. We were allotted the job of clearing up a street in the centre of the city and filling in the potholes.
The population would pass us and either spit or wink with a knowing grin. There was one lady in a fur coat who stopped and asked if I was British. She said, “Joe (Stalin) will soon be in Berlin. If you want to escape come to the Green Parrot nightclub and I will help you.” I didn’t think this was worth the risk at that particular time, but that lady will never know how I felt when she spoke to me. The future was so unsure at that time and no one knew what was to become of us.
We had lunch in a beer garden under the eyes of a guard, who paid for the beer, bread and cheese. We all managed to put chunks of bread down our trouser legs in our battle dress gaiters. Before entering camp again, we were searched for weapons. The guard ran his hands down my trouser legs, felt the bread, then patted me on the back. I walked on feeling that the German soldier was not a bad guy after all.
We were sorted into ranks and finally arrived at Stalag 383, which from memory was about 100km from Nuremburg. Life in the camp has been described in many places… Books have been written about the big parties and dinners enjoyed by the prisoners, but these were well before my time. When Red Cross parcels were coming through every week and food parcels were coming from England, I would imagine that life in the camp was not too bad.
When I arrived at the camp, it was during the period when the German people were suffering from 1000 bomber raids every night and railways were made useless by strafing. No Red Cross parcels were seen during my stay.
Life at Stalag 383
At 12 noon each day we would be issued one cup of thin soup. We also received one bit of hard black German bread about as big as a cigarette packet per day. Some kept half for tea-time; others split their ration into three to give themselves supper as well.
I ate all mine when I received it and then felt hungry again. I am sure nature gives you a fair go under any circumstances, because I was able to lie under my one blanket, fully clothed against the cold, and go into a state of suspended animation. All day and all night I could hibernate until food time the next day.
The highlight of our daily activity was when nature called and one would trudge 100 yards to the closets through the sludge. Or when you were rostered to empty the night soil bucket, which was placed outside the door of the hut every evening and used during the night.
No one was allowed outside the boundary of the huts at night, but sometimes we managed to visit other huts to hear the news from the B.B.C. on radio receivers made by those prisoners who knew how to do such things. It was on such a visit that I heard of the death of President Roosevelt and that the Allied Armies were advancing across Germany.
When Spring came, the weather improved and snow left the camp. Games and walks helped with circulation and it was good to be able to talk to the other men.
It was then that I first met a New Zealand sergeant, who even today I only know as ‘Smithy’. He was a non-smoker and won 30 cigarettes one day from a couple of Australians who ran the Two Up table. He bought about 2 lbs. of flour and we ate a dough made of flour and water, and that night I had a smoke. The pudding was a bit soggy and somewhat tasteless, but it was wonderful to feel a full stomach.
A week or so after the death of F.D.Roosevelt we were told that every man who could walk would be taken out of camp the following morning to start a long walk to the Bavarian mountains — about 250 miles. We learnt after the War that the S.S. armies were gathering there for a long summer of fighting to defend the last of the German Reich, and that the Allied prisoners of war would be killed as reprisals for the killing of German S.S. troops.
If I had known this I’m sure it would not have made any difference to my actions upon being told to “pack up your things ready for the morning roll call”.
“I won’t go. Blowed if I’ll go,” said I. “How about you, Smithy?”
“I’m with you, mate,” said Smithy.
So, in a few seconds we had made a decision that was going to very much alter our future — at least, I know it did mine…
It gets exciting in the next installment, when Harry and Smithy attempt to outwit the German guards and then escape the camp, but that’s for another day.
Lest we forget.