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Aug. 1, 2022

85 Bill Turner POW and the Cockleshell Heroes WW2

85 Bill Turner POW and the Cockleshell Heroes WW2

WW2 POW story plus a daring Royal Marine raid!

How the Cockleshell Commandos upset Nazi supply lines with canoes!

How a British Royal Fusilier survived  for 3 years as a German POW.

More great unpublished history!


Support the Cockleshell 2022 team for December 22 and donate to the Royal British Legion:

Paul Britton, Senior reporter at Manchester Evening News. 
Twitter: @PaulBrittonMEN

Cockleshell article in Manchester Evening News:

Cockleshell article BBC:

On This Day Australian military history - Facebook page:

Donate To Salvation Army Ukraine Crisis Appeal

Red Cross/ Disasters Emergency Committee

Full show notes, photos and transcript at:

Reviews on main website:

Apple reviews:

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Interested in Bill Cheall's book? Link here for more information.

Fighting Through from Dunkirk to Hamburg, hardback, paperback and Kindle etc.


The James Conway WW2 Cockleshell Heroes memorial in Stockport - Image, Manchester Evening News


There's another British memorial in the Pointe de Grave, Bordeaux, France - on the headland at the mouth of the River Gironde close to where the marines were delivered by submarine.

Frankton Memorial , Pointe de Grave, below




Major Herbert Blondie Hasler - front and Corporal Bill Sparks Image, MOD

Fighting Through WW2 Episode 85 – Bill Turner POW, Cockleshell Heroes - More ww2 memoirs

More great unpublished history!

WWII military history podcasts

Intro Passage 1 ww2 memoirs

In the dead of night the commandos left HMS Tuna to paddle 80 miles upstream of the Gironde estuary to silently plant limpet mines on docked German vessels.

Intro Passage 2 ww2 podcasts

I was captured at Battapaglia on the Salerno landing in Italy, September 9th 1943. Prisoners were transported to Stalag 7A at Munich.

Intro Passage 4 ww2 history

We had some fierce arguments when we were working in the factory. Once I smashed a lot of bricks in front of the boss. He shouted to the guard to shoot me.

Intro Passage 4 ww2 history

One day we were asleep in a barn and a German soldier on patrol looked in on us. He shouted and pointed his rifle and at the same time pulled back the bolt to load

Intro Passage 5

We like to think that British soldiers are above looting but that is just what started. They were looting the carts and I know that they were stealing from German civilians ---

Welcome to this ww2 podcast

Hello again and another warm WW2 welcome to the Fighting Through second world war podcast. 

I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall whose WWII memoirs have been published by Pen and Sword – in FTFDTH. 

The aim of this podcast is to read family stories, memoirs, and interviews with veterans in all the countries and all the forces. I dare you to listen!

Today, I’ve got a couple of great stories for you, one is a classic story about how Royal Marines scuttled Nazi ships in the dead of night and upset the German supply lines.

Then we’ll move on to the memoir of a British POW which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a Royal Fusilier captured in Italy – Bill Turner.

And we’ve got various bits of calvados, coffee, feedback, war factoids and other ephemera to share too. So settle down and I’ll crack on straightaway with a story.

This episode of my ww2 history podcast

Cockleshell Heroes

We’re now about to follow the footsteps of an heroic Stockport milkman who helped bring WW2 to an end

This is about the Cockleshell Heroes mission retraced - 80 years on, and we’re also going to learn of a great charitable venture by former soldier Loz Moore and his efforts to raise money for the Royal British Legion.

For 10 marines in December 1942, their secret mission was so daring and dramatic they were hailed as the Cockleshell Heroes and in 1955, immortalised in film.

Unbeknown to them when they signed up for "hazardous service", their job was to the attack enemy German ships moored at the port of Bordeaux in occupied France from their canoes. And the op was called Operation Frankton.

This is about the Cockleshell Heroes mission retraced - 80 years on

This is an article from the Manchester Evening News by Paul Britton, brought to my attention by loyal listener Derek Whittle.

Royal Marine James Conway's bravery has inspired a new mission

Brilliantly simple on paper, but fraught with danger in reality. The successful execution of the plan, Sir Winston Churchill was later to say, disrupted key Nazi supply lines and infrastructure so much it shortened the Second World War by six months.

But the daring and novel raid into occupied France in December, 1942, claimed the life of former Stockport milkman and Royal Marine James Conway, who was just one of the 10 famous 'Cockleshell Heroes'. With the fortunes of the war at the time seemingly stacked heavily against the Allies, Royal Marine command devised a plan to attack a strategically vital Nazi port and harbour in Bordeaux. Using small canoes.

In the dead of night the commandos - sitting two apiece in canoes with codenames including 'Cuttlefish' and 'Catfish' - entered the still waters of the Gironde estuary from submarine HMS Tuna. They set off to paddle 80 miles upstream to silently plant limpet mines on docked German vessels.

The small, foldable canoes were known by the mission as the 'cockles'. The plan would see them flee the scene on foot afterwards, living off the land and hoping for the best, but only two survived after escaping over the border into Spain. The raid, officially named Operation Frankton, was immortalised on film in the 1955 classic, The Cockleshell Heroes.

Marine Conway, who lived with his mother Mary Ann at Heaton Mersey View, Larkhill, Edgeley, was apparently chosen for the mission after another Marine suffered a sporting injury and had to step down at the last minute.

He was eventually shot by the Gestapo after being captured at the age of just 20. The raid, however, was hailed as a huge success despite the heavy losses. One canoe was damaged before the mission even started so five were launched on December 7, 1942.

One went missing in the first few hours in fierce tidal races and, after its occupants Sgt Samuel Wallace and Marine Robert Ewart got to shore, they were captured by the Germans. Then another capsized, its two occupants Cpl George Sheard and Marine David Moffatt lost at sea.

By the second night, a third canoe had been lost, Marine Conway and Lt John MacKinnon's craft having sunk after hitting an underwater obstruction. Just two canoes reached the target - with the commandos on board paddling by night and hiding by day. But they planted 16 mines to destroy six merchant ships, sparking chaos and unease among the Nazi command and triggering a renewed sense of optimism among the French resistance.

It's a remarkable war story that has descended through time - and a statue to honour Marine Conway's bravery and sacrifice stands proudly to this day near Stockport Town Hall. WW2 Pic in the shownotes.

And, to mark the 80th anniversary of Operation Frankton later this year, a team of current and former service personnel from across all branches of the military will retrace the steps of the Cockleshell Heroes by completing the same journey … without the mines.

The adventure is the brainchild of a group of former soldiers and Royal Marines who wanted to take on a challenge in honour of their military predecessors - Marine Conway included.

Former British Army officer Loz Moore, from Marple, Stockport, trained alongside the Duke of Cambridge at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and is one of the team members.

The team of 10 will set sail in kayaks in December 22 to coincide with the anniversary. They reckon the feat will take them 11 days in total

Father-of-three Loz said: "Since leaving the military, I've had to deal with my own mental health and transition issues, but adventurous challenges with like-minded people have huge therapeutic benefits. It's also a chance to give back to charities that have supported me. All the other members of the team strongly feel the same.

"On the 80th anniversary and by way of commemoration, our group of veterans and serving personnel will retrace their journey, learn about these men and what really happened. This will be an incredible journey of discovery for everyone involved."

The mission will raise money for service charities, including the Royal British Legion, and aims to highlight the benefits of such an event, from positive mental health to a sense of pride in military endeavours. Loz has previously helped to raise £18,000 for the Legion by taking part in an Arctic Survival Challenge, sheltering in a snow hole close to the Arctic Circle.

He said: "I had a great time in the military, but I had a complete breakdown. I suffered paranoia, anger, panic, aggression, hyper-vigilance, all classic signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"The RBL (Royal British Legion) funded me on a multi-activity course at their Battle Back Centre in Lilleshall and it was life-changing. Ever since, I take every opportunity to give something back."

Loz went to Sandhurst at the age of 23 after studying for a degree in Military History and trained alongside Prince William. He went on to serve in Northern Ireland, Iraq and did two tours of Afghanistan, where he was injured in a bomb blast.

He's now rebuilt his life and is engaged to be married. "What the RBL offered me was so powerful, it was the starting point for changing my life," he said.

"My complex mental health problem is now just a part of who I am today. It's something I live with. I've accepted it and it’s made me a better person. I just want to be the best version of myself that I can."

Nicola Cook, Assistant Director of Operations (North) for the RBL, said: "We know that 80 per cent of people who leave the armed forces make that transition perfectly well, but for the remainder it can throw up challenges and that’s where the RBL can offer support.

"The change of lifestyle can be extremely challenging for some individuals and their families, so we are there to help people who leave the armed forces and return to civilian life.

"Our Battle Back Centre in Lilleshall was established ten years ago to support wounded and injured service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recently we have expanded our service with the introduction of wellbeing courses for veterans."

Marine Conway was in a canoe with Lt Jack MacKinnon. The two survivors, Major Herbert 'Blondie' Hasler and Corporal Bill Sparks, escaped capture by fleeing to Spain, assisted by the French resistance. It was not until August 1945 that Marine Conway's family received formal confirmation of his death. There is no grave.

To support the Cockleshell re-run for the Royal British Legion, donate at the Just Giving link in the show notes, where you’ll see some great photos of Loz Moore, the Cockleshell heroes in action and the superb Cockleshell-22 - Op FRANKTON 80th Anniversary Memorial statue.

So, if you’ve never donated to the FTP WW2 podcast, here’s your chance to instead support a different cause – support the Cockleshell 22 team and donate to the Royal British Legion, WWII podcast.

My thanks go to Paul Britton, Senior reporter at Manchester Evening News. If you want to follow Paul on Twitter or Facebook, there’s a link in the show notes, together with a link to Paul’s original article. WW2 Podcast.

And if you want to read a bit more, there’s an excellent BBC article at a link in the show notes.

And just a bit of feedback on the Ukraine appeal for the Salvation Army and Red Cross, FT listeners have now visited the link I provided 80 times, which I think is just staggering tbh, so many thanks to those of you who’ve donated to that appeal. I’ll likewise let you know about progress in support for the Cockleshell venture.



The following people kindly left 5 star book reviews on Amazon:

Review 1 David Atkinson

David Atkinson

I bought it to assist in research I was doing into my Uncle's war - he was killed at the Battle of Wadi Akarit in April 1943. Bill Cheall also fought in that battle - but much more to his story than that.

Review 2  Michael Stapleton

Very well written and put together and, Bill I hope wherever you are now you’re having a good old tin of bully and a cup of tea with loved ones and friends lost way too soon, what a man and what a story.. a must buy for anyone interested in wartime books!!

Buy me a coffee 1 Andy S

Andy S has bought me some Normandy Calvados

“Paul, great work in gathering all these priceless accounts of war time experiences, by far the best podcast on ww2 out there! Good man Andy!

I've always been fascinated by the events of the time, but especially by that generation, how they endured and sacrificed, their compassion, their losses and immeasurable courage....and through all of that, the incredible humour they shared that can be found in almost every account. Keep it up!!

Andy S , Seaford, East Sussex.”

Findon’s in East Sussex Andy – I was out there a few years ago exploring my ancestry because I found out that if you go back far enough every single Cheall in the country lived in East Sussex and I traced myself back to the 1600’s and I reckon I’m related to either a gardener or a lord, John Cheall of Findon Manor who was curator at Findon church at one time. I’m pretty sure it’s the Lord I’m connected to lol. But there is a missing link between the gardener and John Cheall which I think is probably an illegitimate one hence the vague connections. But I can live with that.

Thank you guys, for the comments and coffees - all of you

Best military history podcasts

Spooky or What? Dustin Fisher

Dustin Fisher, Ontario Canada 

Hello Paul, 

I was just listening to episode 61 today, featuring a Churchill’s Hellraisers by Damien Lewis. It featured journalist Paul Mortan who worked for Canadian newspaper Toronto Star.

A while later I was tearing up the lanolin floor in one of the bedrooms of the farm home I am living in, built in the late 1800's. Upon doing so I discovered the layer between the lanolin and hardwood floors was …. copies of the Toronto Star from 1940-1946!!

When I get home today I will have a look at them and see if there are any mentions of him!!”

Feedback 1 - Garry Rose

Hi Paul, I have listened intently to all 84 podcasts (at least three times and going for my fourth)

I find them interesting, funny, and also very sad. They are all fantastic and if I had to list my favourites then it would be all 84. Plus your Dads book, simply amazing down to earth history.

I have searched but cannot find any new podcasts, I have listened via Spotify. Have you or are you going to do any more.

Your dedicated listener

Garry Rose

Garry thanks for that and your yearning for another episode so here it is now, this one, dedicated to you. I must admit I’ve been only too aware of the irony in my calling the previous episode a bonus episode! And I know this one is later than usual, so I know I owe you one or two extra to catch up and I’m on it. And rest assured that every episode will appear on all the players so don’t fret thinking you might have missed one. If in doubt go to the web site to check. And hi to little, getting bigger, Savannah, her of the broken arm from doing handstands – hope you’re finally better Savannah - and hi to dad Dawane.

Feedback 2 Jack

Hey Paul - I just wanted to you know that near where I live a dam was built using German SS POW's. Jack Fritz, South Dakota.

Feedback 3 Sam

I am currently on episode 32 (Women at War) featuring your mum. Love it

Samuel Montgomery

Survey Stuff – Craig etc

Thanks to Craig Gingell from Welsh Wales for returning kind survey comments and expressing a desire for 3 one hour episodes rather than one three hour one. I’m with you all the way craig, mainly because more episodes gets me a few more downloads and brownie points in the pod charts, so that is my plan from now on whenever possible.

War stuff 1 DNA family secrets

Shout out for new TV episode on BBC2 that I watched recently that I think you might enjoy.

DNA family secrets

With Stacey Dooley

Episode 2

Season 2

It’s about a British Lady in her 70’s who was fathered by a black AMERICAN GI who was stationed over in the UK during WW2. He died back in America never knowing he’d fathered a daughter and his only child. The program traced her ancestry through DNA records and traced some really fascinating and poignant history

Did she trace any missing family?

Did she locate her father?

Has her musical son got any musical talent in his ancestral DNA?

Fine out on DNA family secrets on BBC2 or a catch up channel near you.

That’s Season 2

Episode 2

War stuff 2

Quick shout out for “On This Day Australian military history” Facebook page

The purpose of the page is to provide a brief overview of interesting events that happened on this day, which the Australian Military was involved in.  They try to cover a range of events across all services and time periods. Link SN.
Main event

Family story – Bill Turner POW

POW STORY FROM BBC peoples’ war website.

Back in 2003 Linda Flynn transcribed her father’s story from tape recordings he had made.

She describes how “My father, Bill Turner, was in the Royal Fusiliers in the 9th battalion and was also in Stalag 8B. He worked first in a coal mine then in a sawmill for about a year in a small hamlet in Czechoslovakia.

He escaped when the end of the war was close, contacted the Czech partisans and advanced to Prague in the company of the Russian army.

In Prague he parted company but he was there on the night of Prague’s liberation in May 1945.

The next morning, he and an American he had met made their way to Pilsen where they met up with the Americans who were waiting for the Russians to take Prague.

Linda Flynn

Nov 2003

So this is

BILL TURNER P.O.W. 1943-1945

Royal Fusiliers — 9th Battalion

Chapter 1

I was captured at Battapaglia on the Salerno landing in Italy, September 9th 1943. Prisoners were transported to Stalag 7A at Munich. Then two weeks later taken by train across to Stalag 8B, not far from Breslau. The camp was called Lamsdorf and it was not far from the River Nysa. Brieg was somewhere nearby.

After being photographed, fingerprinted and registered, I was now Kriegs gefangener 32590. I was put into the RAF compound in the middle of the camp. It was placed in the middle because the Germans considered the RAF to be more intelligent than army personnel and they were further away from the outside perimeter wire. Douglas Bader was in the next hut. Most of the RAF were bomber crews and fighter pilots. My first roll call the next day surprised me because as we were counted in fives, guards were coming along handcuffing us. However, as the guards moved away, a couple of RAF chaps followed up with sardine can keys, unlocking the handcuffs and throwing them onto the floor. This reprisal was because when the Canadians raided Dieppe they took German prisoners and handcuffed them to bring them back to England after the raid. However, the prisoners’ boat overturned and the handcuffed Germans were all drowned. So all of the Dieppe Canadian POW’s were handcuffed every day. The Dieppe compound was next to the RAF, so the RAF used to stand at the wire every morning jeering at the German guards. The guards got fed up with this and decided to handcuff the RAF and as I was among them, I was handcuffed too. While I was in that compound an RAF pilot crocheted a woollen hat for me. I wore it all through the cold weather and I still have it today.

While I was there, I was asked if I would like to swap over with an RAF chap who could become me so that he could get out on a working party to try and escape. I would assume his identity and receive his parcels from home. Wandering round the camp in the day I spoke to some of the old Kriegies (prisoners) who warned me to be careful of the RAF chaps. (They had a nickname for them calling them ‘Wingers’ — short for wings.) During an escape attempt they might sabotage, hit a civilian foreman or fraternize with women, all of which were forbidden and offences warranting a court marshall. If subsequently caught and returned to the Stalag they might swap back their identity with you, not mentioning that a court marshall would be coming up in your name In such a situation it was of course useless to say it was not you. Everyone was wary of Wingers.

In the Stalag there was a theatre and the shows put on were very professional. Now to put on a good show you need girls or course but out of the thousands in the Stalag it was no trouble to get the type you needed. The only trouble was they needed strong arm men to protect them when they were not on the stage. There was also a call for strong-arm men to help in Block 4 — the ‘bomb happy’ and ‘Stalag happy’ nut cases. Extra rations were promised to volunteers.

I do not want to dwell too much on my time at 8B because so much was going on and I could make a tape about this on its own. My story took me away from Stalag 8B. However it is important to give some background of the time I was there.

I left the RAF compound to go into Poland and work in a coal mine near Katavice. There were 300 men working 12 hour shifts. Some POWs put their fingers and hands between the buffers of the wagons to get away from the working party. I had a bad knee so I played it up and managed to return to 8B. I was put into Block 4, Hut 2. This hut contained 120 men. In charge was an Australian Sergeant Major. There were Aussies and New Zealanders there. I assumed they had been taken prisoners in Crete or Greece. The bunks were 3 tiers high and the hut was always very cold. I slept on the second bunk up from the floor. Around me were a mixed lot. The English chap underneath me was very clever. He was an expert on Sport and knew all the details, dates and times. The only problem was he was ‘Stalag Happy’. He only shaved one half of his face one week and the other half the following week. He had a filthy mug that he never cleaned and he ate and drank everything out of it.

At this time the Swiss representatives were negotiating POW repatriations with the Commandant of 8B and POWs were trying all sorts of tricks to be selected. There was a chap called Sawkins who kept us in fits of laughter every night with jokes and country sayings. He lay all day on his bunk with 2 pennies on his eyelids making them droop. Then he would walk round the camp bumping into the posterns (guards) because he could not see them. He did get onto the repatriation medical. Unfortunately the silly sod entered for a boxing match and was recognised by the German officers who always had ringside seats.

I shared a parcel with an Aussie who gave me his address, 81 Blaxland Street, Sydney. He was a real ‘bludger’. Anyone from outside a big town was a ‘cow cocky’. Others around me were one known as ‘MM’ because he told us he had won an MM and another, a Cockney from Poplar in the East End who the Aussie had nicknamed ‘Slasher’. On the top bunk was a New Zealander who did nothing but talk about wild weekends in a boat, boozing up the Wonganooi River and he was forever letting us know that not a lot of love was lost between North and South Isle. The Aussies hated all the New Zealanders and kept on about ’Gundiguy’.

The Aussies told us never to go over to the toilets after dark in case we were mistaken for someone who was going to be duffed up.

As time went by people moved into other compounds. I eventually got to the top bunk and so did Slasher beside me. Because of this we started to share Red Cross food parcels.

A Red Cross parcel contained 16 articles of food and when it was available it should have been one parcel a week each. We did not always receive it because we were told the Royal Air Force had bombed the railways. When issued it had to be one parcel between 2 on Tuesday, sharing the contents and the same on Friday. All of the tins were stabbed by a postern or in front of him to let the air in. This was so that they could not be put aside to aid escapers. In bad moods the Germans would break open tea packets, chocolate, prunes, biscuits etc. and mix them up in the box. When we complained to the British Commandant about this the Stalag Commandant responded,

“The Geneva Convention states whenever possible British prisoners shall receive a Red Cross parcel with 16 articles inside. It does not say how you receive them.”

In such a situation we shared a mixed up parcel twice a week becoming ‘muckers’ because we decided to ‘muck in’ together, sharing not only the parcels but any food we got daily together. Some teamed up into fours. Unless someone stayed behind when you went out and left your parcel of food, 9 times out of 10 it would be gone by the time you returned. To get over this you had to scrounge or make a bag if possible to carry with you on your shoulder. This was known as a ‘rackets bag’. It was also handy to carry anything that was going at the time.

Barrack Room 2 was a very special room in the camp because every evening tables were put up and covered with blankets. Hut 2 became the main gambling casino with bets going on and thousands of cigarettes going from one side of the table to the other on the roll of a dice. My mucker and I would lay on top of our bunks in the evening and through thick hazy smoke, sometimes with the smell of the orient, we would take it all in.

In a POW camp cigarettes are money. Money gives power and there are always hangers on. The lads running the school took a percentage of each win. One day they received a letter demanding a cut from the casino earnings, threatening to slash up those running the show if they did not come across with a pay off. In my opinion they were Scots lads from the Gorbals in Glasgow. It was their type of threat — a razor blade sewn into the peak of a cap. This night, laying on our bunk, waiting for the game to start, a big Aussie jumped up on the table, read out the demand, then produced an open razor and said.

“If I catch anyone talking of slashing anybody, they will have me to reckon with.” No more was said.

Up until then my mucker had only been known to us as Slasher, or Slash and things could have got a bit dodgy. He was always talking about West Ham Football Club and West Ham Speedway. His idol was Champion Speedway rider Bluey Wilkinson who had let him push his motorbike on and off the track. So Slasher became Bluey. His surname was Uden but we never mentioned it because the German word for Jew is Uden. Sometimes his behaviour was a bit strange as he was ‘bomb happy’. He got very depressed, even suicidal, so he needed someone to keep an eye on him. There was no harm in him. He was a nice bloke.

By this time some of the sick and badly wounded had arrived back in England and so many tales were told by ex-prisoners about 8B that the Germans decided to change 8B to Stalag 344.

Whilst in 344 I was very surprised that 9 out of 10 POWs captured at Dunkirk in the early part of the war spoke so little German, as it was possible to go on courses run by British professors. It was possible to pass exams under the auspices of the Swiss delegation, which were accepted back in England. I signed up for lessons in German but after a short while the frustrated tutor took me aside and said he thought I would do better learning to speak English properly before I tackled another language!

Bluey and I were out every morning, mooching around the perimeter, talking to other POWs, watching football, looking at swop shops set out on the tables by established POWs, getting into the Dieppe compound and chatting to them. They nearly all came from Montreal. One warm day we were on our usual mooch round when we passed a huge concrete tank that held water in case of fire. There were a few scattered around the camp. We wondered if it would be deep enough to swim in. The next day we were sitting on the wall with a piece of string and a stone, testing the depth. Of course the lads passing thought we were both stalag happy and called out smart remarks about fishing. The incident would not have been worth noting except that two days later the guards were going mad, turfing us out into the compounds, hitting out with their rifle butts and shouting,

“Get out! Get out!”

They had discovered a dead body floating on the top of the water tank. We found out later it was a ‘ferret’, a German dressed up as a POW. Someone had done him in and dumped him in the water. Two days before we had been testing the depth!

The Germans pumped out the water and bits of hand and fingers were found. The Gestapo were around for a long time.

I met a 2nd Battalion Royal Fusilier who had been captured at Dunkirk. He advised me to get out on a working party if possible because typhoid broke out in the camp in summer. He had been writing to a girl for a long time and she had promised to marry him. He had his pay signed over to her and we said,

“Do you really think she will be there when you get home?”

After the war I contacted him. The girl had waited for him and they got married. What faith Bert Rowe had!

Listening to older POWs who ran away hoping to escape I very soon came to the conclusion that if those chaps, who had either lived in Europe before the war, taken holidays or worked abroad and maybe could speak French or German, had got recaptured despite their previous knowledge, what chance would I have if I did get away and which way should I head?

Bluey had been captured in the desert and was a POW in Italy. He had told me that life could be a lot better inside a lager of workers. In 8B there were over 40,000 POWs but working parties were smaller groups, never over 300, so we trooped off to the ‘arbiets’ compound — a sort of job centre. We spoke only a few words. Looking on the list we saw work on farms, stone quarries, mines and factories and so on. Then we came across E119 a ‘holtzfabric’ — four men needed in a village called Mankendorf in Czechoslovakia. We put our names down along with two Geordies. This meant our leaving Block 4 and transferring into the arbeits compound awaiting transport. We spent about a week there and then set out on a train with a guard to Mankendorf.

The moment we were on the train there was a feeling of freedom. No more barbed wire and we were sitting on the train among ordinary people again. You must remember that we had been in the desert since 1942 and had no contact with our own kind since then. We could not understand anyone on the train but just the surroundings made us feel normal again.

Chapter 2

Eventually we arrived at E109. The total party was 60 men, 30 in each room. We lived upstairs with just a single wire around the lager. A Sergeant was in charge. There was a schnieder to repair our clothes, a cobbler, two cooks and an officer to issue out parcels to other working parties in that area. That left 56 working. Two Czech women, who were good contacts for the black market, did washing.

Because it was a large timber factory, the lads had made long wooden baths and with a copper tank and fire – so we could all have hot baths every Saturday. No more fleas or lice! Each room had bunks, a set of tables and a large sawdust fire that would burn for two days. We could cook our parcels on it and toast bread. Some made Welsh cakes, others “stottie badgers” a Geordie cake. The work was classified as heavy so we got a little extra bread, potatoes and soup and sometimes some meat. The coffee was black “ersatz”. With our Red Cross parcels and the German rations I would say that the food was better than we got in the desert. No more hard tack biscuits, corned beef stews and having to eat Aussie sandwiches — two large slices of bread, a lump of cheese with a spoonful of jam stuck on your plate. Smack the whole lot together with a mug of hot sweet tea, made from purified water and you have your Aussie sandwich. I often have one now at home. They all ask me how I can eat it. It’s an acquired taste, like Londoner’s ‘pie and mash’.

It was now possible to leave your parcels and belongings safe by your bed. Other than being locked up at night, all in all things were not too bad. There were beautiful mountains either side of the Oder valley, colourful trees and fantastic sunrises over the mountains. The river Oder rose nearby and was not very deep. Sometimes in the evenings we managed to get a swim. There was a feeling of being free for a while. Some of us cultivated a bit of ground and grew tomatoes, lettuce and spring onions. There was enough room for the lads to play shuttlecock in the evening.

I spent a lot of time standing at the wire talking to some of the young children, trying to learn German. It was fairly easy because they did not mind repeating over and over. Also at the same time they were learning English. Sentences were beginning to form instead of just a word here and there.

We worked from six in the morning until six in the evening, the same as the civilians, with a short break at friestik 9.00 am and an hour for dinner. There were no German guards. At six in the morning we were taken to the factory and were then under civilian control. If we were not well a German doctor was available but we had to walk two or three miles to another village. If anyone was in pain with toothache he would pull out teeth without cocaine. He wore a white coat, jack boots and pince-nez glasses. I will talk more about him later.

It was possible to be taken into another village by train to see the dentist. Two men were taken once a week. Because other laagers in the area could do the same someone always went so that news could be exchanged.

Every night at roll call everyone’s boots and trousers were taken away and locked up for the night. Working in the factory we carved out the shape of our feet and with bits of leather made jointed shoes. We all had a spare pair of trousers. The local postans, or guards were the equivalent to our Dad’s Army although not as stupid. At times we had young men wounded from the Russian front. As experienced soldiers they were grateful to be away from the front line and sympathetic to us saying,

“Die fiel, die fiel” (“Orders are orders”)

They couldn’t really care less and were very easy to bribe. Here you could talk to the guards on a better basis. In Stalag 8B it was frowned upon for POWs to make conversation with any Germans. Perhaps that is why prisoners spoke so little German.

We had an old gramophone and made ourselves a dartboard out of cardboard. There was also time when we got newspapers and weekly magazines and read a lot. “Weil du est Bist” is the one I remember “Because of you”. Love stories of course. What you did not understand you could guess. So much now for lager E119.

The factory was known as Rosmanwitz. He was the owner. It was a holtzfabric and made wheels of all sorts and sledges. Some of the POWs had a roving sort of job going out on the “slipper”. It had front wheels driven by half tracks (not petrol of diesel) by smouldering small pieces of wood cooked to make a gas.

They also travelled miles away in a lorry, sometimes all day to get to the forest where the women land army found large trees and trimmed them. Loading them by hand and winch was a very hard job, but they also had Mickey the driver who was a civilian to take care of them.

They were on their word of honour not to escape. To run away would have been easy but where could you run to?

Without maps, deep inside enemy territory, surrounded by forests, mountains and remote countryside we remained prisoners but we had a sense of freedom.

If the slipper returned early and was quickly unloaded they could return to the laager. This was known as “Furarm und furtick” (Job and finish). Sometimes the slipper broke down waiting to make gas and the boys came home late. Of course it had nothing to do with them all having been in a guest house for a few drinks! I did manage to get out on the slipper a few times. Nobody would ever have dreamt of dropping Micky in the cart. Sometimes I even wore his pistol and belt for him when it got in his way. He was a German.

Bluey and I worked inside at first on the machines cutting and shaping spokes segments, spindles, hubs and all sorts. There was a big machine with a large blade one way and a lot of small knives fixed together and the whole lot were fixed to a piston. You clamped a log about two feet from the side, the piston went to and fro and the log went in producing what was known as holtzwal. It was then compressed into bales and sent away. We had this holtzwal in the paliases on our bunks. It was soft and warm to sleep on. When we had a chance we did a bit of sabotage, breaking the spokes and such. Our answer was always,

“Nicht Verstehen”.

The Meister whose name was Wiesbrot had a habit of looking across to see what you were doing. If you were doing something wrong he would curl his right forefinger, waving his hand in front of his eyes as if to say “I am watching you”. That sign was used between ourselves to say “Watch out!”. If the word geranium was spoken it meant “Be careful what you say!”

When we found out that we were helping to make sledges and loading them on wagons for the Russian front we went on strike and refused to load, unload or work on them. We did not touch them any more.

Two or three of the lads worked in the blacksmiths shop. One of the things they helped make was steel bands that would be fitted on the wheels. The bands had to be placed together in a heap. A big fire was then lit around them. After a time they expanded and were placed over the wheels. We then took water out of the river nearby and threw it over the wheels. The quick contraction meant that as the tyre was fitted it shrunk dead tight.

While we were doing this Russian men and women prisoners who had been marching for miles, probably on their way to concentration camps, were brought to the river to have a drink of water. They lay down to drink and some were so weak that their heads fell into the water and they drowned because they hadn’t the strength to raise their heads. We could only stand and watch. We couldn’t save them and felt so helpless.

As time went by we picked up more words, instead of sabotage it was possible to answer back, especially if it was to your advantage. For instance, when they spoke of German victories at the Russian front or in France, or of Frau Einz (the nickname for rockets over London), our reply was always two words, “Der tag” — “Our day will come”. We had another saying “sie sind sihone geweshen” — “You’ve had it!”. We had many arguments with the foreman and always finished up with “Du vier ecke kopf”, “You four cornered head — or square head”. We found we could swear at them in German or English, after all we had learned it from them. But you couldn’t laugh or take the micky out of them, or call them swindlers.

As time went by I was moved to Drausen arbeit. The outside work was in a very large area so there was more freedom instead of being inside all day. When the trees had been “auf laden”, (unloaded) we had to sort them out for size and type of wood, Eike (Oak) or Buche (Beech). We then loaded the holtzwool into the wagons and stacked the long planks for weathering. I worked with a Czech named Poldo. Instead of morgan it was now dobry den as a greeting. German and Czech now had to be understood. Poldo told us that he was going to get married. According to German law they both had to get medicals first. He even had to get a permit to buy an innertube for his bike. When he got married we asked him to bring us in some food. He brought some potatos with some sort of vegetables. The speciality was some spiced meat in batter. Later he asked how we had like it because it was “hund fleish “(dog). He said it was good for TB.

I want now to tell you how we spent the evening in the lager. Some played cards or darts. Although by the time we got back at 6 o’clock, washed, had some soup and cooked from Red Cross parcels, it would be quite late. One chap, Smudger Smith said to me one evening.

“I have some books on how to learn German but nobody to talk with. How about us learning together?”

Remembering what the tutor in 8B had said, I replied

“OK. Anything for a laugh”. I wanted to do Smudger a favour but I didn’t have much hope.

Each evening we sat together and I found sentences became longer and I could read the local magazines. Bluey joined us and amused the chaps lying on their bunks listening. He had the knack of reading the words the wrong way round and also guessing. We reached a stage where we no longer needed an interpreter. We could converse fairly well and could no longer use “Nichts Verstehen” as an excuse. We spoke a mixture of German and Czech but we now understood and could answer back.


We worked a 5½ day week finishing at 12 noon Saturday. In the week the train brought in wagons to load. They had to be loaded immediately so that the same train could pick them up on its way back in about 6 hours. This was very important otherwise those in charge of the factory could be put into prison or heavily fined. This meant the outside workers having to work fairly fast, instead of the old poomaly (go slow). To encourage us to move a bit faster the Meister Foreman would say “Fur arm and Fertig” (job and finish), and if the wagons came in early you could be back in the lager for the rest of the day. This worked very well until wagons came in late in the afternoon and you were still loading after the others went home. Tactics had to change to stop the loaders walking off as well. Ackord Arbeit (piece work) was agreed and we kept a check until it mounted up to enough time to have a day off. This system worked alright until the empty wagons came in on a Sunday and nobody would turn out. Three wagons to load and we all said no because Sunday was our day to play football on the village green with other lagers. Mostly it was just a kick about and a chance to discuss events. Having made our point, we were ready to give in on the argument. When the guards came in shouting “Raus! Raus!” with their rifle butts ready to knock us out. It was time to move.

We got to the wagons and started loading. It was poomaly, poomaly — (work slow) The checker watching our work soon realised the wagons would not be loaded in time for the train to take away. Soon the boss was called in and it was agreed that if we loaded the wagons we could have the next day off.

The sequel to this was months later when thick snow covered the ground. One Sunday the guards burst in “Alles fur Futeball” (Football for everyone). Nobody wanted to go but they forced us all out.

“Geneva Convention say Sunday day off — English play football!”

There we all were chasing a football around, up to our knees in snow and the local villagers shouting

“Englanders Verucht” (The British are mad)

We all saw the funny side of it when we came back in.

We had some fierce arguments when we were working in the factory. Once I smashed a lot of bricks in front of the boss. He shouted to the guard to shoot me. Bluey stood in front of me between the guard shouting “Nix, Nix”.

Sometimes I used to look at Bluey working on the saws and he seemed mesmerised. I dreaded that one day he would do something wrong and cut himself. There was a time when he was working on the big saws cutting the holtzwoll. It had a piston with the knives going up and down. He reached out and put his hand on it, just to see what it would do. Luckily it only gave his skin a little shave.

Chapter 3

One day I was working outside and the Meister came up to me, took my arm and said “Commst du mitt “ come with me. He had another POW with him, Harry Mead. He took the two of us back towards the lager. A very old man was standing there, typical 1914-18. As we got to the old boy the Meister said, “Arbeit mitt”, we were to work with him. So we marked out a big square and started digging a deep hole. That evening as the lads came in, they asked us what we were doing. We had no idea. When the hole was large enough the spoil was taken away and lorries dumped a load of chalk. We then ran a hosepipe from our lager and the water made the chalk bubble and steam. We found we had made a big lime pit. Then we worried what it was for. Some guessed maybe for the bodies of the dead Russians from the river.

By this time we managed to say good morning to the old boy. He did not start until 8 o’clock and he went about 4.30. It suited Harry and me, last out in the morning, first in at night to wash.

After a couple of days another German civilian arrived and he was the “bauwer meister”. At last we found out we were going to build a house and the lime pit was for the foundations. We carried on digging with Franz, by now the old boy had told us his name. He had got used to us now. The meister zibert we had under our thumb from the first day. He liked a smoke so we soon bribed him. Later we had a very thin Czech lad about nineteen years old working with us. His name was Vlashik Lewiosky and he came in daily from Marie Ostrau. Today it is called Ostrava. (Many years later remembering that name helped me a lot.) Again, no guards, brown as berries, a bit of black market, everything was acceptable.

As the job progressed the bricklayers arrived and we became labourers. Because of this I managed to get Bluey working with us. The weather was grand at the time. The carpenters on the job were also Germans, working on the roof. So we were now doing a bit of bartering for the lads in the factory, and as labourers doing a bit for everyone, we found time to chat, talking to the Germans and them telling us how good the two fronts were going on. I used to say my usual “der tag”, then spin them stories of what the Ghurkas would do to the SS, so I became known by them as “Wilhelm the propaganda minister”. It was lovely to listen to the Czech women in the fields singing at work. They sang “La Paloma” and other songs. The German soldiers marching in the forest sang the “Horst Wesel” song. Also “Mein vater ware ein wanderman”, “Lilli Marlene” and others. We learned to sing many of them.

Not far from where we were working building the house, there were some fruit trees and Bluey decided one day to get some of the apples. He picked quite a lot and while he was doing it a German came along and asked him what he was doing. Bluey tried to tell him that he had been picking the apples up off the ground. The trouble was he had great branches sticking out of the front of his jacket, so it was obvious he has been up the trees.

Come to the end of Autumn the house was practically finished. Bluey and I went back to Drausen Arbeit in the factory cutting the logs for the holtz wool machine.

Back now to the Artz doctor.

A few months before the house was finished Bluey received a kick in his leg playing football. This turned into a large ulcer, bigger than half a crown. It was very bad and showed no sign of getting well. Eventually we convinced him to visit the Artz. Really he was worried in case he was sent back to 8B unfit for work. If you ever saw a doctor dressed in a long whit coat, jackboots and pince-nez glasses, I am sure you would never forget him. He mixed up a white paste and it had to go on in a circle round the ulcer. Slowly it started to close. Some time later it cleared right up. Many a time since I have been home I have wished that I knew what that paste consisted of, talking to elderly people with ulcers. On top of that, Bluey played football again, received another kick and had to go through it once again.

If you had a bad toothache the doctor would pull the teeth out without cocaine or gas. I was caught outside the camp one day by a patrol and brought back, so to save the posterns getting into trouble we all had to pretend I was returning from the dentist in Odrau. I had lost a front tooth many years before. The excuse was that I had been to the dentist for a false tooth to fill the gap. To make it stick, I did go to the dentist many times. I had a tooth crowned in silver with a false tooth to fill the gap attached. It only broke off about 5 years ago and became a distinguishing feature that people always remembered about me. After all you don’t come across many people who show a silver tooth when they smile. It cost 50 marks and the sergeant of the guard paid for it for me.

I had an idea that very near to us Czech partisans were operating in the area. We picked up hints from our Czech workers. Sometimes they asked us for salt or pepper. After raiding German dorfs and stealing pigs and such like, the salt was needed to cure pork. The large saws cutting long trees into planks needed to be about 12 ft. long and had to be mounted according to the thickness of the planks. These saw blades needed to be changed very often. They had to be taken to the Schlafferi. The sharpening shop. They were taken on a horse and cart driven by an old German. His name was Byuss. Bluey and I always went with him to help carry the blades in and out. This night it was quite dark and as we walked in there were Czech workers making knives and bayonets out of the broken steel saws. We told Byuss to stay with the Pherd (horse) and we did the unloading and loading. Poor old Byuss shot himself as the war came to an end. Gradually now we learned more.

The Biggeri shop (that is the shop where wood was taken for steam treatment before bending), had members who knew where the RAF escape route was and there were contacts in the factory who we could trust.

In the lager we did have a crystal radio set. One chap spoke 2 or 3 languages very well but most of our news came from the locals.

Just before Christmas 1944 we saw Russian aircraft overhead and we were all made to go into the bunkers for safety. Again we said — “Der tag. Zweiter frunt jetz fahren schnel nacht Berlin” Second front on its way to Berlin fast.

There seemed to be a slowing down in the Fabrick with not so many wagons arriving. More aircraft appeared overhead and an uncertainty of what was happening. The chef (boss) went to Prague knowing that east and west had begun closing in. Our fears were of the SS and what was happening in 8B with all of those POWs. The chef returned and the word went round that he had been away to place all his money into Swiss banks.

At that time I was waiting to go to Novyjicin to have my knee looked at. It meant being taken in a horse and cart and I considered trying to get back to the others? Some of the lads were talking of trying to get back to Stalag 8B but Bluey and I had other ideas, the Czech partisans. We now noticed that the guards were not the same and were very relaxed when we returned from working in the evening. They had always been at the lager to count us in, now they could not care less. Even evening appel and taking our boots and trousers was forgotten. In fact some of the lads often spent the night out with a Czech family. They showed up at work in the morning.

You must remember we were quite isolated in a tiny village. Some villages were known as Czech, others as Deutsch. Everyone was uneasy. Red Cross parcels were not so regular. Czechs were beginning to take days off, never known before. About the end of January or early February, on the spur of the moment, nothing planned, Bluey and I decided to weg — that means go. No one ever called it escape only weg. In the past years some of the POWs used to weg laufen (run away). When caught and brought before the Commandant at 8B it was said “ He got fed up and ran away for a while”. Some lads did this regularly and after a while gave themselves up, collected their mail and other things, spent 2 or 3 weeks in the bunker then looked out for another working party.

I have often puzzled why officers claimed officer status as soon as they were captured, if they wanted to escape. As ordinary soldiers you could get away without digging tunnels. I can tell you I never met any Bridge over the River Kwai officers. Getting away was easy but getting away from Poland or Czechoslovakia to a friendly country without skills was another thing. Remember they held all the aces.

Our decision to walk out of the lager was easy in one way but not in others. It took a lot of thought, collecting information, watching the situation on the Front and deciding which way to go. Could we get Resistance help on an escape route? We had to be careful about who to trust and to gain the trust of civilians? There were German Sudateland folk running the Resistance who actually were communists. I don’t want to mention names. Remember, to this day families still live there.

Remembering the Stalag days and the lessons of old POWs who had escaped and been recaptured I learnt all about where I was and knew the source of the River Oder and where it went north to sea. I also knew it was possible to get down to Vienna in Austria, heading towards the Swiss border. I knew that to head west was impossible without help from the Resistance and you needed 3 or 4 weeks to hide away as soon as you got free and so the timing had to be well thought out. I would not go as far as to say we planned it but we listened and waited and eventually balanced our chances. We had no idea we would end up on Yanosik Kries in Mala Fatra with the partisans.

One day in 1944 we just wandered off. We came to a village, I believe it was called Landskrone. Then we wandered to so many places that I can’t remember them all, dossing down in barns or fields, running into German cyclist patrols and trying to make out we were Russian POWs working on farms, acting dumb by answering Nero Zomice, Ni panimoi. Slowly we got further away from the laager and found ourselves in the Bedskids hills. From here things get a bit mixed up.

One day we were asleep in a barn and a German soldier on patrol looked in on us. He shouted and pointed his rifle and at the same time pulled back the bolt to load … and all his bullets fell out onto the straw. He was very cross with himself but we saw the funny side of it. We helped him to look for them, joking and laughing, then he stormed off.

I believe it is now time to study the map. The River Oder, marked with a little X, Odrau is about 3 to 4 miles away by train. Stalag 8B is not far from the River Neisse. A village called Lambsdorf Brzeg or Brieg was the nearest railway station. Opole is a small town in Poland and a leading area for Polish partisans. It was also part of the route for any RAF escapees. More of that later.

Cesky Tecien was a place we stayed for a while. It was half Czech, half Polish. If possible we kept away from towns. So now we are near Odrau again. There we found out that we were not far from the RAF escape route. I never did find out how many got through.

After the war I enquired to an RAF escape committee at the Duke of York’s HQ, Chelsea who had no idea. They told me that only 2 families in Poland were in receipt of a pension for helping the RAF. The route from Odrau ran down to Gottwaldov south, I believe towards Budapest to the Danube. We did send out feelers with some of our contacts. We were told the escape route was very dangerous for everyone. British contacts had told them not to help British soldiers along because it was only for RAF and submarine officers. That is how much they were interested in ordinary POWs.

Watching Russian aircraft flying low and not dropping bombs we found out that we were near an area of the mountains called Janosik in Mala Fatra. The beginning of the Tatra mountains. It was the headquarters of the partisans and the Russians were dropping supplies to them — The Poles on one side, the Czechs on the other side. The whole area was known as the Janosik Kriese (Janosik circle) and is was very dangerous for the Germans to contain, which suited us. We got food from the partisans very often and saw how they waited by the mountain streams to trap wild deer coming for water, and put snares on poles just before dark, pulling down birds out of the trees. Sometimes we didn’t see them for ages. They told us when going to dorfs to scrounge or steal food, always to look for the first or second farm house, and to wait and see who was about to ascertain if it was a Czech or German house. They advised never to beg in the centre of the village, only on the outskirts so that it was easier to run back into the woods if it looked like trouble. I must say we got very good at that, even Bluey took a turn and at most times were successful. It was somewhere here that I took a pistol and rounds from a German.

Now the usual greeting in all villages, towns and shops was always “Heil Hitler” so when we knocked on a door or shouted hello we always said “Gruz Gott” (God be with you). If the door was opened by a woman, nine times out of ten it would be, we always told them that we were Kriegs Geffangeners, POWs, and asked for “ein stikel de brot” (a piece of bread). Sometimes it was, wait a moment, a piece of bread or cake given and the door shut, so we would leave quickly because we knew the people inside were afraid to be seen helping us. Other times it was “Herein kommen” (come in). Here we had to take a chance — Was a party member inside? Police? or a soldier? As we went inside, a quick look round to satisfy all was OK. We always asked the same question, “Where is your man?” Knowing full well that he was likely to be at the front. On the answer we would look sympathetic and say, “Yes, Russian front very hard”, then we would tell whoever was there about ourselves, by now probably eating a piece of bread or soup. Sometimes there would be a deserter, maybe a son, about the place. If we could stay a couple of days sleeping in the barn that was great. The only trouble was rats would run over you in the night. We were offered glasses of slivervitch which we both hated but it was given as a toast so we had to drain it.

You may not believe this but once up in the mountains Bluey and I had a fight. I think it was over an overcoat that he had left behind somewhere. I went off alone but we ran into each other two days later so we teamed up again.

There was a time when we were so hungry we took the horses oats out of a stable, boiled them up and spat out the shells. I wouldn’t recommend it. One day I got hold of a chicken and we were starving. We boiled it in our can and when it was ready to eat Bluey said “I don’t want any, I don’t like chicken.” This tale has amused our families and friends for years, but it is true.

Chapter 4

While we were in Mala Fatra we heard that the Russians were advancing. Decisions had to be made. Should we wait for the Russians to come or start back into Czechoslovakia and strike for the east? We knew that somewhere back were the German military police waiting to shoot deserters from the Russian front because we had already seen deserters. Also the SS were about.

It was Autumn. Somewhere in a mountain area not far from a village called Makov we came down a track and lo and behold a Russian tank column was sitting on the road. By our wireless in the lager and local news back in Mankendorf we knew that Churchill and Montgomery were not happy with the three powers agreements. Bluey and the POWs in Italian camps had been taken into Germany when Italy fell to the allies. We did not want to risk that happening to us and ending up in Russia! So we brazened it out, greeting the tank crews who were made up from whole families, including women, and asked if anyone could verstehen Deutsch. An officer came along and we managed to tell him who we were. After all by now we could have passed for Russians the way we were dressed. They gave us food and water. He then offered to get us sent back to Odessa. He said we could be put on a boat home from there. We were not too keen on that and said we would go east, towards Prague. He was waiting for some heavy artillery to come along to lead them into Prague. I found out that they were the Georgian army. Talking to them I said that I knew a Georgian division in 1942 where the Russian soldiers were on one side of the road and the British 56 Division was on the other side of the road. Both had orders not to speak to each other. It was at Mosul, north of Iraq. We were to assist the Russians as the Germans could have broken through Turkey, making for the Suez canal. Of course they never did. The artillery arrived, we all shook hands and we advanced with them.

We rode in the back of a jeep. The driver did nothing but grin and wave to everyone. We were right up the front now, stopping now and then whilst a barrage was sent off guided by small spotter aircraft. We enjoyed being with them until our driver, covered with garlands of flowers and well on the way with drink, began driving up pavements and down ditches at the side of the road. The spotter pilots were landing on the road in front of us for their garlands and drinks. Our fear now was we would never reach Prague before overturning and crashing. It would have been ironic to survive all this time only to be killed by a drunken Russian driver! When they stopped for a while somewhere between Olomouc and Pardubice we decided to part company so we thanked them and continued alone. Glatz and Konigratz were two of the places I can remember. Eventually we got mixed up with thousands of German refugees pouring to the west to flee from the Russians.

We guessed that maybe the Russians had stopped further back because the road was blocked. Back in the mountains I already had the German original map of the front as it was. I also had the pistol I had acquired earlier. I still have the map.


As we moved along the road east we saw German deserters lying dead along the side, shot by the SS. Their right arms had been propped up set in rigor mortis in a Nazi salute.

We stayed with the refugees driving the horse and carts and helping them in general for food. As time went by British POWs were appearing en-route. They told us Hitler was dead. A photograph of him was displayed in shop windows. We lost all recollection of days and dates and heard that the surrender had taken place. Suddenly the SS appeared on the streets, shouting “Wier kampfew wieter allein!” We are carrying on alone. We were glad we were mixed up with the refugees, who were all crying because of this.

We like to think that British soldiers are above looting but that is just what started. They were looting the carts. I know that they were stealing from Germans. Maybe some of them deserved it, but Bluey and I thought of those German families who gave us food and shelter at great risk to themselves back in the mountains, and we did not want to be associated with what was going on.

By leaving the refugees we could push on faster across country, away from the main roads. We went through one or two villages and late in the afternoon we ran into some Russian infantry making their way to Prague.

The Czechs there were going berserk and beating women and men, chasing them up and down the road and making them carry and replace the cobbles that the SS had torn up to act as road blocks. I felt sorry for them and was going to lean out of the truck with some water but Bluey stopped me and said “Don’t do it. They may just take it out on us”. He was probably right as the mob was all fired up with hate. The Russian soldiers just sat in their trucks looking very contained. Their uncomfortable looks showed they were strictly under orders. They stopped on the edge of Prague and we gathered this was as far as they were going. We wondered why? We found out later.

So now we were alone again except for an American soldier who had tagged on to us. We made our way into central Prague. As it was getting late we wanted to be off the streets because we could sense that things were tense and there were snipers about. We walked through a tunnel and everything was quiet. Even today, I still cannot believe what happened next.

It must have been about 10 o’clock when we saw sign for a hotel. Bearing in mind we were ragged, unshaven and dressed like bandits, the three of us entered and walked up to the reception desk. There was nobody about so I hit the little bell. When the man came I asked in English if we could have a room for the night. Very casually he turned a huge register round and asked us to sign it, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to shelter escaped prisoners of war with no money, while a battle raged outside to liberate the city. He called a young man to take us to the lift and up to our rooms. As we walked away from the desk the Yank stopped, stood to attention and sang “God save the King” very loudly! Just before we got into the lift the receptionist called out to us asking if we would like an early morning call! I don’t know why but I said, “Yes, 4.00am!” What a strange thing to say! The whole thing was surreal.


We got to our rooms and settled down but somehow we felt very uneasy. I suppose we had broken the rule taught to us by the partisans, this time there was nowhere to run. We lay on top of our beds fully clothed. Bluey and I looked at each other. There was someone at the door, just a little rustle. I signalled to Bluey to stay there while I crept to the door, pistol in hand and opened the door. There was nobody to be seen. This puzzled us both. Then again we heard the rustle and this time I got up quickly and snatched the door open. Standing there was a dear old lady holding a tray with two basins of soup and a stikal brot. We thanked her and were very grateful. After we had eaten Bluey wanted me to throw the gun away but I would not. I realise now the risk of getting caught carrying an automatic pistol with over 50 rounds on me. I could have been shot on sight, and was not covered by the Geneva Convention. We dropped into an uneasy sleep waking with sounds of tanks moving about, their tracks rattling on the cobbles.

At 4 a.m. came my early morning call. I got up and went out into the street. Walking along the road I smelt bread baking. It was lovely. I found the bakers and managed to scrounge a few fresh rolls for our breakfast. I was nibbling one as I turned the corner into a great square. It was full of Russian tanks and from every lamppost hung a dead German. Some old scores had be settled that night. The Czechs were throwing petrol over the bodies and setting them alight. I was standing in Wenceslas Square. I hurried back to tell the other two and they came and had a look. We decided there and then to get out of Prague as quickly as we could. I looked at my map and found the road out to Pilsen.

About mid-day we came across soldiers with guns facing us up the road. We put up our hands and a group came towards us covering us. We thought we were done for and they were Germans. Suddenly the American shouted “They’re not Germans! They’re Americans!”

At last, about three to four days after the surrender had been signed, we were safe - no longer Kriegs Geffangeners, but British soldiers once again.

We were interrogated by the officer in charge and gave him all the information we could. We told him about the tanks and what was happening in Prague. He said that if they had been there first, it would not have been allowed to happen.

They were 20 kilometres outside Prague and had been lying there for three weeks, but under the three powers agreement they had to let the Russians enter Prague. It was the Yalta agreement.

After feeding us up with K rations, we were put on a plane to the Canadians in Brussels. Free but back under army rules and not able to choose for ourselves.

The first thing I did was have my photo taken. Bluey bought silk stockings on the black market to take home. My wife told me off, she would have liked stockings. The photo still stands to this day on our sideboard but the stockings are long gone!

We landed at Horsham, only about three quarters of an hour from my home in Sutton, but my feet were in such a state with sores and blisters I was kept there and given treatment for a week until they improved.


Bluey had decided after his leave was finished, to sign on and go to Burma. He spent a lot of leave with my wife and I, staying at my mother-in-law’s or at his sister’s. He didn’t have much in the way of family and was happy to become part of ours.

Eventually he reported back. I was still on leave. Not long after, he came to see Joyce and I and asked me to be his best man at his wedding. He had met a girl who worked in the NAAFI and was getting married. Joyce and I went up to Brooks in Wales, the only people on his side. They eventually got a council house in Weaverham in Cheshire. Bluey worked for many years for the Water Board in Cheshire until he retired. He and Freda had a very happy marriage and had one son, David. Bluey was devastated when Freda died on August 20th 1987. He told me that he walked down to her graveside every day to see his “old gal”. He died on 7th July 1990 and they are buried together.

Bluey looked a strange, tough character. He had scars on his face and a great mop of hair that made him stand out in a crowd. In fact one time back in England when I was supposed to meet him I was able to pick him out in a stadium full of hundreds of people — something about the shape of his head that was different to everyone else. Everyone expected him to be a really hard bloke because of the way he looked but he was one of the gentlest people you could ever meet. He was also very funny. He was accident-prone and could make you cry with laughter at stories of what had happened to him. It was even funnier because he could never quite understand why it happened to him. Joyce and I remember so many incidents. After one visit he was saying goodbye to us on the train. When the whistle blew he stuck his head out of the carriage window to wave goodbye without noticing the window was closed at the time. He broke the window and the train pulled out with him still waving and blood pouring down his face.

His war experiences before I met him had left him ‘bomb happy’ and he was in a terrible state mentally. One of the tragedies of the time was there was not much help or understanding for the many who suffered mentally for their war experiences. They had to struggle on alone and for some it took years to cope. Bluey was lucky. After the war Freda sorted him out and she was his rock. You couldn’t help liking him. I lost one of the best pals I ever had when he died.

Chapter 5

I never thought I would return to Czechoslovakia, Poland or any of the places I had been during the war. That area all went over to Russia and the Communists and I thought many times that life must be hard for the people while we in Britain were getting back to normal and had a decent standard of living. However, 20 years after the war in 1960 I did go back.

Joyce and I were visiting a friend in Vienna and looking at a map I wondered if I could find my way over to Lager E119. I knew that if I could get to Marie Ostrau (now Ostrava), the nearest big industrial town, it should be possible to find Mankendorf.

Our Viennese friends thought it was mad and dangerous to go across into territory behind the iron curtain but I felt I had to do it. We set out by train from Vienna and eventually got to Ostrava. The problem was I was asking people for names of places I had known in German, not realising that the Czechs had changed them all back to Czech names. Then I came across a very old man who was willing to speak to me in German and he knew the places I was looking for. We took the train back to Suchdol and changed to go to Odry.

Now I was beginning to get my bearings. When we arrived at Suchdol we had to get a local train. It was very hot and a lady sitting on a train by an open window spoke to us on the platform, asking if we were English? We said we were and told her we had come to visit the POW lager in Mankendorf. She said this train would take us there. There were no hotels in that village but when we had seen what we wanted, if we got the train to the next village, which was Odry, we could stay at her house. She said her husband had worked with the British prisoners at the factory during the war and he would be interested to meet us.

Mankendorf was now called Mancovice. I recognized it immediately. It had hardly changed. Set on an open Slavic plain with mountains beyond were half a dozen houses, a church, a village green and the timber factory, backing on to the railway.

I showed Joyce the house we had built and also the factory. Of course the Germans had gone and were in a new factory in East Germany. The lager was still there, locked up. An old lady opened it up for us and we went in and had a look. The old copper and wooden baths were still there and the wire round the outside. I showed Joyce the bunks that Bluey and I used to sleep on and the tables and fire were just as we had left it all.

When we got to Odry I knew exactly where I was. We met the lady from the train and she told us her name was Herta. In her house we met her family. Her husband Leo came in from work and we started to talk to each other. A little time went by then it suddenly dawned on Leo who I was. He struggled to find the few English words he had learnt from POWs and burst out,

“Bill! You bloody bastard!” with a big grin on his face.

So we stayed with them and the word went round the two villages. Many of the men I had known took the next day off and we all met up in a barn for the “Mankendorf Conference” where we shared our memories and drank a lot.

We also met Herta’s father and found out her story. Although he was a German, Herta’s father had been a leader in the Odrau partisans. He was put into a concentration camp that was liberated by British Forces after the war. Herta and her mother were in a different concentration camp at Novyjicin and there Herta passed by her mother without recognising her, she had been tortured and suffered terribly and in the end Herta believes she was executed just a few days before the end of the war. Herta herself was involved in the partisans and the escape route. These people risked everything and many died.

Once we had made the contact we remained friends. Leo and his son Peter came to England and stayed with us, but Herta and her daughter were not allowed to travel. Husbands and wives could not travel out of the country together under the communist regime and we had to meet their expenses because they could not bring any money out of the country.

We visited several times once our friendship had been established. Leo and Herta took us back to the mountains Mala Fatra and the Bedskids, along the old trails.

I also went back to Zakopani on a visit to Poland, we were looked after by the Polish partisans from Opelan. They escorted us everywhere. When we got to Zakopani I had already phoned Leo and Herta and they came and visited us. We had taken a certificate for Herta and her Father which was read out and one of the British party presented Herta with a silver chain. The partisans paid their expenses.

Leo died a few years ago but we always receive a Christmas card from Czechoslovakia in English asking when they will see us again.

After the war I tried to get help for those who had helped us but the Foreign Office said nothing could be done to help them because they were not wearing British Uniform. It seems such a shame that those who had risked their lives ended up with so little. I went to the RAF escape Committee at the Duke of York’s HQ Chelsea to trace the escape route but they denied it existed. Only a couple of years ago I had an address in Brompton Road I contacted but they replied saying they had disbanded and had no knowledge. Official sources are still very secretive and don’t want to give information. I wonder how many people owe their lives to a few brave people who ended up trapped in a Communist state.

In 1993 I was thrilled to get a letter from the displaced lad who had worked with us on the house next to the lager 50 years before! We kept in contact and the week of the VE Day celebrations in 1995 I met him and his wife at a London Hotel on a brief visit. We recognised each other but it was a short meeting and we wish we had had more time. They gave Joyce and I a beautiful crystal bowl which we treasure and a few years after we were able to visit them at their home north of Prague, with our older daughter and her husband.

In 2001 (when I was already in my 80’s) I managed to get hold of my POW records. Everything is there except I was never recorded as liberated, but there is a photograph, fingerprints and information about my working parties.

I am now in contact with POW connections in New Zealand and received a book last year written by a New Zealander escapee. In this book Getaway by Gordon Woodroof MM printed by Publicity Printing Limited, Taurangh, New Zealand, he says he was told in Stalag 8B that if he got a chance to escape he was to head for Mankendorf where there was an escape route operating.

I have been back many times to Czechoslovakia the last time was in April 2002, when we went to Prague with my youngest daughter and her husband. Our original intention was to try and find that hotel where we stayed on the night before the Russians arrived in Prague. The three of us, Bluey, the American and I had signed our names in the huge old hotel register. I had hoped we might discover the hotel but that corner of Prague, behind Wenceslas Square and the big church, appeared to have been one of the few areas that had been updated after the war and I think the streets must be different. We had no luck. I would still like to see an old map to satisfy myself where I think it must have been. I also wish I could meet the American again. I don’t even remember his name.

We hired a car and made a brief visit to Odry and Mancovice. I was able to show them the old factory and this time it was deserted. As we walked through the open gates memories came flooding back. I could once again smell the oak and beech being unloaded and hear the saws and activity of men making wheels and sledges. There had been 60 men in those days.

Along the road in the churchyard lie people I remember and their faces came back to me as we walked round in the spring sunshine. Destiny brought me to this little place during the war and it has left an impression I will carry all my life. I feel linked with it.


We walked down to where the lager still stands. I could imagine faces round the table as bread was divided among us. It was a serious business to see we all got equal shares. Someone had to stir the soup continuously so that the vegetables and occasional meagre helping of meat would be evenly distributed.

A Russian lady now lives in part of the old lager. One of the highlights of our visit was when she invited us in to show us how it had been converted into a very comfortable and spacious home. Upstairs is only used for storage and remains much as I remember it. Looking across towards the dome of church the landscape was like something in Dr. Zhivago. I recalled watching the seasons go round from this window; thick snow and bitter winds of Winter and the cold earth slowly coming alive in Summer. As a rare treat we were allowed to swim in the river in the heat of summer. So long ago yet still so fresh in my mind.

We stood in front of the house my comrades and I had built when our future lay uncertain before us. The years rolled away as I remembered.

With the collapse of Communism the Czech Republic has a fresh start and is looking forward to being part of Europe. People are anxious to catch up with progress and opportunities offered by the European Community. We remember a time when shops in Prague had empty shelves and it is nice to see life is easier now for the Czechs. Nobody wants to remember the war. When you mention it they say

“We have move on since then”. There is a noticeable reluctance to talk about the bad old times.

Herta is frail and suffering with ill health these days but we are always overwhelmed by affection and hospitality when we visit Odry. Their son Peter reminded us of his trip to England in 1965 when he was 16. It left a big impression on him. He remembered us buying him his first pair of jeans and brought out a treasured box of mementoes including bus tickets and tickets to the Tower of London and Hampton Court. Herta’s grandson, David has dreadlocks and in perfect English speaks of his passion for ecology and saving the planet. He is educated and has travelled to places his grandparents could only imagine. He has a lot in common with my own grandchildren. We were impressed by the courtesy of young people everywhere we went. It is refreshing to see the elderly and women automatically offered a seat on the underground, buses and trams.

Herta is surrounded by loving family and treated with great respect. As they gathered to see us off she hugged my daughter and said,

“We old ones have lived through some terrible times yet we have found a special friendship. Now we pass it on to you and the next generation to carry on and keep up the link between our families”.

Thanks/Round up

Thank you to everyone who contributed in any way to this episode. Thank you so very much for your support and for making the time to listen to me.  Please do hear me next time.





I’m Paul Cheall


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