World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Walter Darbyshire 

My War from the Inside

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Walter DARBYSHIRE
Location of story: "Thorn" Camp 13XXA, Camp 35 at Guttowitz, Shippenstadt
Unit name: Duke of Wellington Regiment
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Olga Darbyshire.
My War from the Inside

Walter Darbyshire

The Duke of Wellington Regiment

I joined the Army in January 1940, in The Duke of Wellington Regiment, and after ten weeks' training and an issue of a 1914 rifle, five rounds of ammunition and a gas mask, we embarked for France on the Manxman, and duly arrived in Cherbourg. We were transported to somewhere near Nantes, where we were under canvas, and received a few more weeks' toughening up training.

Suddenly, we were dispatched by Army trucks, obviously towards the action, and we passed, on the way, thousands of refugees, fleeing back the way that we had come. We saw evidence all the time of the devastation caused by the German 5th Column and the Luftwaffe, we and the refugees were continually strafed from the air, but most of us did eventually arrive at Abbeville. Here we were ordered to dig in, facing an expected German attack, incidentally, still with only the same five rounds of ammunition. Somewhere along the line, I managed to acquire an anti-tank rifle, no ammunition of course, so it was never any use to me.

We did not have long to wait before, over the horizon, appeared numerous German tanks, closely followed by the Infantry. All hell was then let loose and, as you will know by the War Office Records, most of our Battalion was wiped out. The best we could do was to keep our heads down and pray. Eventually we got an order from somewhere, "every man for himself", so, along with the remaining four members of my own Platoon, we managed to head Northwards, away from the advancing Germans. We never, ever, saw a British tank and only one aeroplane, which, incidentally, was shot down.

We roamed about France for what must have been two to three weeks. We managed to avoid various groups of Germans, because by now of course, we had not got one round of ammunition between the five of us. We slipped up once and one of our group got shot dead. The other four of us eventually managed to make our way to Dieppe, only to find the harbour was blocked, so no boats.

We wandered down the coast to Le Havre, no boats again. The end was now in sight, we had joined up with a group of French soldiers and then, one morning, once more German Panzers came thundering towards us, we could do no more than surrender. The young German troops came up to us, took our rifles and smashed them in two on the ground, then led us to an area where they had some more prisoners. One of the Germans gave me a cigar and, in quite good English, he said, "For you, Tommy, the war is over." This, I think, was 12 June 1940. We were all then taken somewhere, I cannot remember where, to be interrogated. I do not think this was very awful, but I cannot really remember much about it.

During the next few weeks, we were marched, and transported in various ways, through Belgium on foot, through Holland by railway, through the streets, through France mostly on foot, and through Germany on foot and in cattle trucks, also partly up the River Seine in a barge, like cattle, through to Poland. We were issued with very little food and had to rely on what we could either steal or were given on the side by various civilians. I, personally, was once stabbed with a bayonet, whilst being seen accepting food from a French girl.

I finally arrived at what was classed as a permanent camp, which we called "Thorn" Camp 13XXA, which in fact, was an old fort. There was also nearby a Camp 13A, where I also had a short spell. Conditions here were atrocious, food was very scarce, a day's ration being one slice of black bread, one very small piece of either sausage, cheese or margarine and one bowl of very watery soup, if you had an old rusty tin, or even a tin hat to collect it in, and plenty of ersatz coffee, with no milk or sugar.

Things of any value that anyone had left by this time, e.g. gold rings, watches, etc., were exchanged, whenever the opportunity arose, with civilians, for, perhaps, a slice of bread or something similar. We were sent out occasionally on small working parties, doing such jobs as unloading railway trucks of cement or other similar commodities. I remember one particular time I was with a small working party, unloading foodstuffs, e.g. biscuits, etc., and, of course, even though we were always searched before being allowed back into the camp, we could not miss an opportunity like that. By devious means, we usually managed to get the spoils back into the camp. This particular time, I was not so fortunate and was caught. I was taken before the Commandant and given fourteen days' solitary confinement, which was in small cells within the fort and all you got each day was one slice of black bread and a bowl of ersatz coffee.

Following the solitary confinement, we struggled on for, I would imagine, somewhere round about six or seven months, when, along with about thirty or so other men, I was moved to Camp 35 at Guttowitz. Although this Camp left a lot to be desired, we did begin to live a bit. The beds were three tier bunks, with - straw palliasses, which were not too hygienic, as by this time, the first lice were beginning to appear, no doubt due to malnutrition and the filthy conditions that we were living in.

There were some cold showers in this Camp, but at first we had no soap, and not even a change of underclothing. We were issued with wooden clogs and foot rags but not much else. This Camp housed, I would guess, about 500 or 600 men, most of whom went out daily in working parties. I was sent with a party to a works called Junker & Rube, and this was where we came into our own a bit by being able to perform numerous small acts of sabotage. I was put to work on a milling machine, which I had never done in my life before, so it came quite easy to spoil about 50% of the work. Of course, I was taken off this job and put with the labouring gang.

One job we had was to take up, from their concrete bases, some rather large Skoda machines and load them on to railway trucks for transportation into Germany but we took off various plates, etc., and filled up the inside workings of the machines with sand, bricks, etc., and so it went on until, once again, I was punished for not working hard enough.

I was sent to work in an Army Quartermaster's Depot where I was told I would have to work hard because it was supervised by all army personnel, no civvies, but I did not do too badly here, as there was quite a lot of food loading and unloading to do and, by now, we were experts at stealing, concealing and smuggling all sorts of things, especially food, into the Camp and, apart from being shot at once (he missed), and once being caught with a loaf of bread for which, I think, I got one week solitary, I did all right and was even able to feed my friends.

It would be around this time, early 1941, that the first Red Cross and St. John food parcels started to arrive and I am convinced that these saved many POWs lives. We were supposed to receive one parcel each week, but sometimes it would be three or four weeks, and even as long as three months sometimes, but then we sometimes got as many as three or four parcels each and fifty cigarettes with each. Also, at this time, mail from home was arriving more regularly, censored, of course, and also parcels of clothing, etc., which was a god-send, soap was an item that was greatly appreciated because we could at last clean ourselves up better. Lice had now become a very serious problem. The Germans used to take us, once every few months, to Konitz to be de-loused and, though this was a relief, it did not last very long.
Quite a lot of POWs were now becoming mentally affected, I remember that at least two in my own Camp were. One I remember, was an exceptionally tall man, over seven feet, he was of course a Guardsman. Even the Germans were humane enough to grant him double food rations, such as they were, but unfortunately his mind went and he went over-religious. He used to wander around our quarters, preaching etc., and he even used to walk out to the front of the parade on roll call, to preach. The Germans humoured him for a few days but, eventually, he was taken away. Another man's mind went and he thought he was a tough cowboy, he was always shooting it out with someone.

He also was taken away. We never saw either of them again. So life went on at Guttowitz for the next three years or more. We managed to smuggle into the camp, radio parts, obtained from the Polish civilians, whilst out on working parties, and some of the radio engineers amongst us managed to assemble a radio, on which we used to receive the news in English from, I think, Russia. Although this was not always good news, at least it was a link with our own forces and better than the propaganda that we used to get.

Naturally, we had to keep the radio well hidden but we had it for four years before the Germans finally found it. We also started concert parties, variety, plays, etc., and we got quite a decent band together and, over the years, put on some quite good shows. Even the Germans used to come to see them and they used to stand up for "God Save The King". We also formed six-a-side football teams and had a small league. We used to play the matches in the compound, inside the wire, naturally. Playing cards of course, were constantly used and we nearly all became experts at playing Solo.

Life was often disrupted by the cry of "Aller-ous", "Appel", someone had escaped again and we were then kept outside for hours whilst they counted and re-counted us. They also went inside and tipped, all over the floor, our few belongings and any Red Cross food, etc., which we had left. We did-not mind all this. The worst part was, that 99 times out of 100, our comrade was either re-captured or shot and in either case, we never saw him again. The best escapes were the properly organised ones, where we used to save all the German money we could lay our hands on and, when we had acquired enough, the escape was all arranged with civilian escape organisations and, from what we were told, these were nearly always successful.

Twice I was sent away to smaller Camps for a few months at a time, one of these I remember, was a village called Rittel. These camps housed approximately 100 men; and mostly were much easier going than the large Camps. The work consisted of clearing a way through the woods and levelling the ground for a motor-way, which we were told, would run from Danzig to Berlin.

So time slowly passed by, up to about the beginning of December 1944, when the worst period of all started. One morning, we were told, "Get together whatever you can carry", and we were then marched away towards Germany. We joined up with more POWs I think from Marienberg, making a column of, I would imagine, over 1,000 men. We were marched, or should I say shuffled, usually between 15 and 30 kilometres a day and then herded into some large building, barn or even in the open in perhaps, a football stadium, or similar. The weather of course, was freezing cold with snow and ice, and many nights we just flopped down on to the ground and slept. Frost-bite and dysentery were rife and we were never issued with any food at all, neither for that matter, were the German guards. We obviously were moving away from the advancing Russians and, if we had not been in such a weak state, it would probably have been our best chance, ever, to escape, but it was as much as we could do, even to keep moving.

The only food we had was what we could steal. Fields of any sort of food, cabbages, potatoes, etc., completely disappeared as we passed, so did pig swill or anything at all that was eatable. Men died through various reasons, pneumonia, dysentery, etc., or were even shot because they could no longer keep up with the column. I, personally, had one period of eight days without either food or drink, except for sucking snow and ice. I remember we once stopped near a river and the guards allowed us to take our clothes off and get into the river for a bath of sorts. This was the only time we had our clothes off in this period of about four months.

Looking back, one thing that does make me smile, is when I think of my pal at this time. He hung on to his toothbrush, of all things, and every day he used to brush his teeth with snow. I think we must all have been round the bend.

Anyway, quite a lot of us managed to survive and, after covering probably about 1,000 miles, we eventually arrived at a small town called Shippenstadt, where we were put into a large farm building, which, I remember, had a lot of sacks of potatoes in it. These, of course, were immediately eaten.

It was now either the end of March or the beginning of April 1945, and we had kept hearing little bits from some of the guards that the war was nearing an end and that the Russians were quite near. We were not moved this particular day, and I think it was about mid-day when over the hill tanks appeared, firing, so down on the ground we got, but this time we were delighted, because we could see they were American tanks. The Germans threw down their arms and were taken prisoner. The American soldiers gave us the small amount of food they had with them. They were only a small advance party and they told us to scatter around the nearby houses and acquire food and anything else that we needed, but we did not need telling, we were off. We fed ourselves well and thankfully, got cleaned up. Then we waited as more American troops. arrived.

After a few days, they got us all transported, by truck, to Hildersheim Airfield, where we were well looked after, and for the first time, we sent home an uncensored letter. I recall having American doughnuts for the first time, it was heaven.

Eventually, we were flown to Brussels, where we were thoroughly cleaned up I weighed just over six stones, and were issued with brand new uniforms, underclothes, etc. We then went to Ostedd and, by boat, to England. All our clothing was once more burned and we were issued with all new again. It was like being in Heaven, but the only thing in my mind was to get home, which of course, I did and I think it was the last day in April 1945.

I was granted eight weeks leave, after which I had to report to Otley in Yorkshire, where I was given a thorough medical examination and was down-graded to "B.2", so I had to transfer out of the Infantry and I joined the "REs" as a Driver. After moving around England and Wales, I was finally demobilised at Hereford in February 1946.

First of all, 1 do not hate the Germans. There are, and I have seen good and bad in every nation. After my first year out of the Services, l began to feel more settled and, as my health has stood up OK up to now, all in all 1 consider myself rather fortunate. 1 am now 63, have taken early retirement, 1 have a very good wife and I am enjoying life very much.