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Rear Gunner POW – Tim Rees

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Quick thinking, lemon curd and sheer bloody luck.

Germany, Summer 1944 — Spring 1945

This is the second story recounted by my Grandad, John William Bull 1919–2005, about his time in captivity in WW2. The first can be found here. I don’t believe there are any more but will endeavour to find out. I have left them unadulterated, included the misspelled Fallingbostel, for authenticity.

The last few months of the war we spent in a camp at Fallingbostle, not far from Hanover. We arrived there from Thorn, Poland, in cattle trucks after a slow, laborious journey, imagine fifty men in one cattle truck for three days you will appreciate what we went through during the last days of late August. However, upon arrival we sorted ourselves out in our respective billets, and sallied forth for much needed exercise by walking endlessly around the compound. In the course of the walk we noticed an unusual smell, it wasn’t strong enough to be a stench, or pleasant enough to be an aroma; it was a pungent smell of sweet apples, pleasantly nauseating. We subsequently found out it was the smell of a thousand rotting bodies from Belsen a few miles away. All pervasive when the wind was in a certain direction. So much for our new home.

British POWs in Fallingbostel (Stalag 11b) 16th April 1945. Photo credit WW2today.com

Had the Arnhem adventure been successful, it would have saved untold misery throughout the oncoming winter due to food supplies running out, we quickly found ourselves among the victims. By a conventional yardstick the depths of misery were plunged to the limit, but somehow it did not seem that way. We faced every day as it came, took life in its stride, and managed to extract something from every hour. Moaning was non-existent, humour predominated and always won through.

Moaning was non-existent, humour predominated and always won through.

One day, deep in the winter, hundreds of fully armed troops came into the compound, bristling with menace with their fixed bayonets, and formed us up on the parade ground. The only comments I heard from the boys was akin to, “this looks interesting”. The commandant of the Camp then appeared with a bevvy of supporting officers, stood on a soapbox, or the equivalent, demanded our silence, then went on to tell us that due to the displeasure of the Wehrmacht caused by something or other we had done, they were going to impose a series of punitive measures, clearly designed to make life unbearable. Well it was unbearable already. Apparently, so certain were they that the measures being inflicted upon us would result in an uprising, the troops were there to quell it at any cost.

A German Officer with “a bevvy of supporting officers” circa 1944. Photo Credit BBC.

When he had ended his speech, he was clearly nervous expecting the reaction that could only end in considerable bloodshed. There was a pause of a few seconds and then three thousand half starved men let forth the loudest cheer ever heard, before or since in Europe, and maintained it as long as their strength allowed. It was utterly spontaneous, and had it been orchestrated the timing could not have been better. The German’s to a man buckled, looked foolish beyond belief, and traipsed away to their own quarters, all looking six inches shorter than when they came strutting in. It made you proud to be British.

The German’s to a man buckled, looked foolish beyond belief, and traipsed away to their own quarters, all looking six inches shorter than when they came strutting in.

Well the winter dragged on and things became worse by the day physically, although morally we were uplifted by the marvellous war news, and we could hear the British guns in the distance. Late March, I developed an ulcer on my leg due to malnutrition, and as it was looking pretty ugly I reported sick and was attended to by Captain Bonham Carter, who had been captured at Arnhem. He immediately took me into the sick bay, which of course, was heavenly, sheeted beds, Red Cross food, and I began to improve rapidly, too rapidly as it happened.

I began to improve rapidly, too rapidly as it happened.

Then the dreaded news came, they were going to evacuate the camp ahead of the advancing British troops and march us back into inner Germany. Horror of horrors. Logically speaking, no man was fit to march as they had been passing out by the score just walking round the compound. However, this did not bother the Germans and the camp began to empty. Coinciding with this my leg had shown big improvement, and as the best of the sick bay patients were on the short list to be moved out. Panic stations, what could I do to delay my departure and lo and behold, inspiration came; straight from the Almighty, I am sure. In the Red Cross parcels there was lemon curd which we usually had at tea time and lemon curd was very similar in appearance to the contents of my ulcer a week or so ago. So, I smeared it all over my wound, this has the effect of looking not only gruesome, but it also inflamed the area around making it look angry.

Lemon curd, an unlikely saviour. Photo Credit Dodo Posters.com

I was given a brief respite, and two days later I saw my colleagues of four and five years disappearing out of the gate. Eventually, I was put on the last batch, walked twenty miles the first day with everything I owned on my back, and like everyone else feeling in a pretty desperate state. We dossed down in a huge barn, some three hundred of us, and if you can imagine what that was like in the pitch black of the night, half of them with dysentery and the only floor to walk on being tightly packed with bodies. I escaped and started to hoof back to the camp arriving back a day and a half later, playing hide and seek with the Germans most of the time. How I never got shot I’ll never know but that is another story. A few days later, the Guards Division rolled up and we were free.

..if you can imagine what that was like in the pitch black of the night, half of them with dysentery and the only floor to walk on being tightly packed with bodies.

Liberated by the British 7th Armoured Division 16th April 1945. Photo Credit ww2today.com

How does one go about describing such a moment: There is nothing to say, as with other deeply emotional experiences, one is stunned into silence.

“… they drove right through the front gate, followed by a couple of Bren- gun carriers. Everyone started hollering, and the soldiers were throwing out rations and cigarettes. I stood well back, just in case. I was damned if I was going to be killed by the very British tank that was setting me free. But then the reality of the situation sank in and it was like New Year’s Eve, the Fourth of July, your birthday and the wildest bacchanal you’ve ever been to all rolled into one.” Sergeant George Guderley

Alas, this story ends with one of the most dramatic and saddest stories of the war. All my pals who I lived with for four or more years, chaps I had got to know so well in all their moods through the nightmare experiences we had all suffered. They who spoke of their wives, girlfriends, families, with whom I played bridge, rugby, basketball, cricket, football and so many other things, who I laughed with, felt sad with, joked with, argued with, solved the world problems with, all the things that people do who are thrown into a heap together under adverse conditions, and who had set out on the march without me due to my contrived delay in the sick bay. As they were trudging East with thoughts no doubt on the war nearing its end, and freedom and normality possibly but a few days away, a British rocket firing Typhoon came over, and apparently mistaking them for a column of Germans, strafed them and wiped them out almost to a man, about fifty of them. The war ended three days later. But for a God given idea, and access to some lemon curd, I would have been amongst them.

The reality for these young men was serious malnourishment and disease. British POWs the day after release, April 17th 1945. I like to imagine my Grandad just out of shot. Photo Credit ww2today.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !