Rear Gunner: Odds On 47:4 – Tim Rees
17 Months in Captivity: Aged 23.
Stalag Luft 1, Barth, nr Rostock, Pomerania which borders the Baltic.
The climate here would be described as continental, and thus divided into four very definite seasons. The three months of summer were warm to hot and dry, the mid-seasons nondescript, and the three months of winter very, very cold. The temperature seem to plummet overnight around the end of November to ten, twenty below, how could I judge?
“The temperature seem to plummet overnight around the end of November to ten, twenty below, how could I judge?”
All the signs of winter quickly became apparent, a heavy snowfall went on for days, frost appeared on the barbed wire in a circle about one and a half inches across creating quite a fairy land if your imagination stretched to that extent. The local population, mostly peasants as it was a poor part of the country, took the wheels from their carts, and replaced them with runners, and the Kriegies (that’s us) received a ration of coal for our stoves in the barrack room.
Stalag Luft 1 being the first main RAF camp, was of modest proportions with two compounds each with three wooden huts divided down the centre by a corridor, with about ten separate rooms on either side containing ten double bunk beds, and large trestle tables down the centre from which we ate, played Bridge, and partook of any other amusements that might come our way. Winter nights were very long at that latitude, and to fill them in as agreeably as possible was essential.
One sided respect
Relationships with the Germans at that stage in the war were fairly good, and strangely enough they had a great respect for our bravery as they saw it, for only they knew, certainly not the British public, how little we were achieving for such an enormous sacrifice. Although vast numbers of men were slaughtered in a battle such as the Somme, it was planned with a territorial objective in mind, and a possible shortening of the war.
“they had a great respect for our bravery as they saw it, for only they knew, certainly not the British public, how little we were achieving for such an enormous sacrifice.”
But in the first two years of this war, fine young men were fed into the jaws of the propaganda machine with its insatiable appetite by the thousands; achieving nothing except satisfying the vanity of the war leaders who considered their lives expendable, and a bargain at the price, for a few headlines in the Press. This must be the first and only time this has ever happened in war, premeditated mass murder in exchange for headlines.
Four stone Russians
This was a period of continual success for the Germans on the Eastern Front and as a result thousands upon thousands of Russian soldiers were marched back into Germany to compliment the labour requirements. Poor creatures they were too, mostly peasants, poorly clothed, barely fed, passing by our camp in varying numbers every day. Most days a batch of about fifty would stop off at the camp sick bay, for what reason I know not, but reports filtered through from the orderlies, that when weighed they hardly reached four stones which was calculated to be the weight of their bones and vital organs.
“..and come out with what looked like a pit prop. It was a Russian who had died overnight and frozen stiff.”
Apparent starvation after being captured and walking hundreds of miles in sub-zero temperatures they arrived at our camp with virtually no flesh on their bodies. Every morning after a batch had arrived a cart would arrive driven by an impassive German peasant, he would let the back flap of the cart down, disappear round the back of the sick bay and come out with what looked like a pit prop.
It was a Russian who had died overnight and frozen stiff. Although his cart was very small he piled it high with pole like corpses up to about thirty or forty, put up the back flap, got in the driver’s seat, flicked the reins, and the old nag who had presumably done it many times before, went on its way, while the German shouted “Morgen” (tomorrow) to the orderly who had supervised the operation. Life was very cheap in wartime Germany.
“..by next morning we had a near perfect skating rink. But what about skates? Well, where there is a Brit there is ingenuity.”
Ice skating and ingenuity
With the cooperation of the Germans, unthinkable in subsequent years, digging tools were provided for the Canadians to build up the sides of one half of the football pitch, watched closely by the Ferrets (escape deterrers) to ensure that the lads dug sideways and not downwards. Having ascertained that it was leak proof, it was then flooded, and by next morning we had a near perfect skating rink. But what about skates? Well, where there is a Brit there is ingenuity.
“Very exhilarating, very exciting, and a wonderful variation from what else was on offer, in such a place, at such a time.”
Examination of the forms in the barrack rooms and elsewhere revealed that two angle brackets held the seating part to the upright, and it was found that if you took one off the other one seemed to do the job. For the keen types, of which I was one, files to round off the shape of the runner, and screwdrivers and screws appeared as if from nowhere to enable you to fix it to the sole of your boot.
The result, a near perfect skate. Although I had never attempted to ice skate before, within a few days, I was even going backwards at speed. Very exhilarating, very exciting, and a wonderful variation from what else was on offer, in such a place, at such a time.
The ‘West End’ of POW life
During the time we had been at Barth a number of talented musicians, actors, comedians and suchlike had put on some very good shows. Instruments, and all the rest of the paraphernalia connected with the theatre were supplied by the Red Cross from Switzerland, and such was the quality of the shows:
Shakespeare, dramas, musicals, revues, band concerts, it was a great event when these occurred in the cookhouse which was sufficiently large to accommodate an entire compound, together with the German officers who always attended and took up the front seats.
This particular show, a sort of revue, was a tremendous achievement, named, if my memory serves me well, “Starlight Express” and was subsequently put on at the Stoll Theatre in London in late 1945 with the same cast to large audiences.
“Instead, of going into the show, he contrived to slip the guards and seek me out in my room. He then told me he had planned an escape..”
The plot thickens. A few days later the boys from the next compound came over to see it, and with them was Jimmy Thompson, my captain and close friend. Instead, of going into the show, he contrived to slip the guards and seek me out in my room.
“my job was to fix the roll call this end.”
He then told me he had planned an escape which was not possible from his compound but it was from this one. His plan was to hide up in our cookhouse, and during the night go through a nearby gate which lead into a small enclosure with just a single barbed wire around it. As someone from our compound had to go back with the visitors upon their return from the theatre to keep their numbers correct, my job was to fix the roll call this end.
This was done by sawing out a panel beneath my bunk in the corner so that the smallest chap in the room could bolt through it in the time it took for the German officer to get from our room to the next via the corridor.
All plans completed, we shook hands. I wished him a safe and relatively pleasant journey and he duly promised to contact my mother and girlfriend upon arrival in England.
Back to England!
So far, so good, the next morning dawned and peace reigned which told me he had got away. As soon as the barrack doors were opened I made haste to the exit point, and noticed he had managed to dig his way under the gate.
“..time was important, as the Germans could find the hole at anytime.”
Whoopee, I had a simple way out of the camp, and it was all mine, and then the truth struck — there are few things more brutal than the cold hard truth. A few weeks before, the Ferrets had paid our room a visit and cleaned me out of everything I needed to sustain me in an escape attempt. What could I do? A hole to go through, and nothing to go with, and then I remembered Lloyd Evans.
He told me recently he was fully equipped for a break out, and was just seeking an opportunity. I scampered round to see him, time was important, as the Germans could find the hole at anytime. When I saw him he told me had agreed to go with Johnny Shaw. I had the hole, they had the gear, and three was a bad number to go with, it had to be two.
“Getting out was only the start of the venture. The obstacles to overcome were innumerable, and without immense luck impossible.”
As always when Englishmen differ, a compromise was struck. We agreed that Lloyd should go because he had everything necessary to give it a chance of success, and Johnny Shaw and I would cut the cards for the other place. We then went about what we had planned for that morning, and did all we could by way of preparation for “our return to England”, agreeing that the card cutting would take place that afternoon.
Tension was running high within me, and I am sure the same with Johnny Shaw. Getting out was only the start of the venture. The obstacles to overcome were innumerable, and without immense luck impossible. I wondered how Jimmy was getting on?
The big moment
Come afternoon, and I set out for their hut with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Rooms at that time of day were heavy with the gloom of a darkening winter’s day, and filled with tobacco smoke and looked rather like I would imagine a gamblers den would look in some seedy part of town. As soon as I arrived everyone got off their bunks and gathered round the table for the “big moment”.
“I turned over the King of Spades, and there was an eruption, all wanting me to contact their mums, their wives, their girlfriends, etc.”
It was taken for granted that whoever won the cut would spend the rest of the war in England. The eternal optimism of youth. The moment had arrived, the cards had been shuffled, a dead hush fell over the assembly. It was mutually agreed that I should take first cut, based on bridge high. I turned over the King of Spades, and there was an eruption, all wanting me to contact their mums, their wives, their girlfriends, etc.
47:4 Odds on
There were four cards higher in the pack, but forty seven lower. In the minds of all of them, it was a foregone conclusion. For me, I was thrilled and scared at the same time; thrilled at the opportunity this might give me, scared at all the fearful hazards ahead.
All those thoughts were gone through in the time it took Johnny to step up to the table for his cut. He pulled out the ace of Diamonds, one of the only four cards to beat me.
Unbelievable! Now all my thoughts were of acute disappointment; that wonderful world of excited anticipation had crashed around me. I shook his hand, and wished him well.
“Johnny Shaw has been written off!”
Work to be done
No more hopes, dreams, fears, anticipations, disappointments; there was work to be done. We had to get them settled in the cookhouse within the hour, and make arrangements to fix the roll-call. That evening I was all asunder, I couldn’t read a book, I couldn’t play Bridge, I could do nothing but mope, and think negatively.
“Nothing, either before or since, has so ripped me apart to that extent.”
Lights out came at ten o’clock, and surprisingly I slept well, from mental exhaustion, I suppose. What a day! The first thing I knew was Jack Potter, the block leader, shouting “Wakey, wakey” in his usual manner.
He threw open our door knowing of my involvement, and shouted in true RAF indifference to death, “Johnny Shaw has been written off”.
I was stunned, mentally incapacitated, and remained that way for several weeks. Nothing, either before or since, has so ripped me apart to that extent.
Forty seven cards against four, and he picks one of the four, and for so doing now lies dead. How does one ever come to terms with the twists and turns of life, certainly not the individual because he remains remote from it, and seems to play no part in it. “There but for the grace of God lay I”.
“the guard below went on one knee and put three bullets into his chest.”
As the story unfolded, it seems that Lloyd Evans led the way and reached the single wire in the distance. After a short wait Johnny followed him, got halfway to the wire when the searchlight from the Postern Box picked him out.
He immediately rose with his hands above his head, when the guard below went on one knee and put three bullets into his chest. Meantime, Lloyd lay doggo, as hell was let loose, and the whole camp was floodlit, and in a short time a group of soldiers appeared led by the Duty Officer.
“That guard was despatched to the Russian front forthwith..”
When he saw what had happened he screamed at the guard responsible, and it was clear from Lloyd’s account that he was furious at what was a totally unnecessary act; it was in simple terms cold blooded murder. That guard was despatched to the Russian front forthwith, the ultimate punishment for any German soldier. If you didn’t get killed, you froze to death.
Full Military Funeral
As an expression of sorrow and regret, the Germans arranged a full military funeral in Barth with his immediate friends attending, but I declined because I couldn’t face it.
“I weep now as I think of it, I wept profusely then.”
I think I felt the corpse was half me. They did a fine job, with flowers, and a full gun salute was given as the coffin was lowered into the grave, and the whole procedure was photographed, including one of Johnny lying in “state”.
One more death
For twenty four hours before the funeral he was indeed lying in his coffin in the cookhouse, and the whole camp filed past to show their respects. I weep now as I think of it, I wept profusely then.
Jimmy Thompson was recaptured three days after he escaped.
Three days after the funeral I received news that my Mother had died. I did not even know she was ill.