50 years ago



50 years ago
Prisoner of war in Germany


The memoir covers Sergeant Officer A Yates' time as a prisoner of war from September 1942 to April 1945. He was initially imprisoned in Stalag VIIIB in Upper Silesia, he was evacuated with 30,000 others to escape the advancing Russian Army. He and a friend escaped but the conditions were so bad that they turned themselves in. He evaded the next evacuation but was quickly caught and lined up against a wall. Some Russians were shot but he and some British paratroopers pretended they were medical orderlies who were protected under the Geneva Convention. They looted a Red Cross store before being put on a hospital train. This was a great improvement on their previous conditions. They stayed onboard for several days until Freising where they set up in a hospital. Because of their condition they were treated as patients at a much greater level of comfort than the camps. They were about to be evacuated when there was a huge bombing attack, by the Americans, which destroyed most of Freising. The hospital was used to treat the survivors. A few days later the hospital was liberated, the German’s asking for a volunteer to run up a white flag.




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The 8th May 1945 was officially recognised as V.1. DAY - VICTORY IN EUROPE DAY
My own particular war in Europe came to an end on the evening of Sunday 29th April 1945. and this is an account of my last few months as a Prisoner-of-War, and my return to U.K. and service life in the R.A.F.
I was shot down on the night of 10th September 1942 over the Dutch coast on operations to Dusseldorf in a Stirling of 149 Squadron, and it was 2 years and 231 days later that freedom came when the town of Freising (some 20 miles north of Munich) was occupied by units of General Patten's 3rd Army of the United States.
I spent most of my time as a P.o.W, in Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf, in Upper Silesia but was evacuated and marched with some 30,000 others away from the advancing Russian army who had reached the River Oder in January 1945. Two of us broke away from the main column of prisoners, and with the vague idea of being overtaken by Russian soldiers, we dawdled along from village to village in bitter cold winter weather. On the twelth [sic] day, a thaw set in, and our sled was useless, so we thumbed a lift to 'anywhere' in a German army truck. The driver and his comrade were quite happy to provide us with a ride to a French Army prisoner-of-war camp (Stalag) at GorIitz. It was an appalling camp for us. The French had got things organized, but for the rest of us in that comparatively small Stalag it was over-crowded, there was very little food (no Red Cross food parcels), diarrhoea and dysentery reached epidemic proportions. Somehow, I managed to avoid the worst ailments, but I lost weight and developed a chesty cough.
Eventually, as the Russian advance drew near, the French prisoners were evacuated as we had been from Lamsdorf. Then the British, Belgians, and other allied troops including some Americans who had been captured in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge. I watched them all go from my hide-out in the German clothing store, as once again, I had the idea that the Stalag might be overrun by Russian soldiers.
Early in the morning of my first night in hiding, I was awakened by shouting and shooting. A German soldier soon found me, and chased me outside, where I found myself lined up against a wall with six British soldiers of the Parachute Regiment. Wasn't I glad to see them!
An Unter-Officier (corporal) threatened us with his machine-pistol, bawling his head off at us, and I for one, was pretty nervous of the outcome. Apparently, a few Russian P.o.W's had broken into the clothing store (most probably to get some warmer clothing), and the section of German soldiers under the command of the ferret-like corporal had flushed them out (and us as well), and had shot one or two of the Russians. The German corporal then shot two more, slung his machine-pistol over his shoulder, stopped shouting, and asked us (in German of course) "What/Who we were?"
Sgt. Hunter of the Paras (who spoke German) said that we were all 'sanitators' i.e., 'medical orderlies', and as evidence, he pointed out their maroon berets, and my 'angel's wing' (Observer brevet). 'Sanitators' or 'Medical orderlies' were protected personnel under the terms of the Geneva Convention.
The German corporal seemed to think that his luck was in. A hospital train was due in Gorlitz that afternoon with wounded from the Russian front, and there were also some British P.o.W's on the train. We 'medical orderlies' might be said to be 'just what the doctor ordered' - we would join the train, and look after our own sick soldiers.
We took cover as a couple of light Russian bombers strafed the empty Stalag with cannon and machine-gun fire, then me and the Paras searched the German Administration section of the camp to see what we might find. In the Red Cross store we found a number of 7 lb. tins of corned beef, a case of 4 doz. tins of Nestle's condensed milk, and some large tins of Nescafe. We concluded that the fleeing French P.o.W's had found these too heavy or bulky to carry. We also found some potatoes, some carrots, some onions, and the ex-Camp Commandant's two pet rabbits. Our lunch that day consisted of rabbit stew, followed by cups of coffee. I did not feel very well afterwards, but nevertheless we travelled to Gorlitz railway station on a horse-drawn cart - two German soldiers, six paratroopers and an airman, plus the tins of corned beef, the case of condensed milk, and the large tins of Nescafe.
The hospital train was well fitted out. We were directed to a coach containing the sick soldiers, and there were more than enough bunks to spare for us. The bunks were comfortable with the usual army type mattresses, duvets, and we found that we would be looked after by a German doctor and two nurses. Girls! We had not seen any for years!
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They looked after us very well, because something seemed to have gone wrong with the much vaunted German efficiency, as it now appeared that the 20 sick British soldiers on the train had now increased to 27. Speaking for myself, I did not mind at all, because I felt in need of tender, loving care. It started to snow just after we left Gorlitz, and we saw some lovely scenery during the five days that we spent on the train. Five very pleasant days — on the move, and not behind barbed wire. We cleaned ourselves up. We were warm, and we received German hospital rations supplemented by corned beef sandwiches and coffee (which were also well appreciated by the doctor and the two German girls.)
Our train moved in a westerly direction, then south, being routed and diverted to avoid bomb damaged tracks. We passed through Dresden, Chemnitz, then northwards through Leipzig, westward again via Erfurt and Wurzburg, then south through Nuremberg and Regensburg until we reached Freising where we British P.o.W's had to leave the train.
The town of Freising was built on two levels. The hospital was located in some medieval buildings on the edge of an escarpment some 100 feet higher than the lower town where the River Isar (a fast flowing tributary of the Danube) and the railway station were. This cluster of solid stone buildings within an exterior wall must have been the centre of a religious order centuries ago, because is still housed a beautiful Dom and a convent. We found that the nuns who lived there acted as nurses and orderlies, because as soon as we arrived we were directed into a bathhouse on the ground floor by an English speaking nun. In the bathhouse, a Scottish orderly of the R.A.M.C. took over. There was a plentiful supply of very hot water, Red Cross soap, and Red Cross pyjamas and dressing gowns to put on when we were clean — so carrying our discarded uniforms, Jock led us upstairs to a room on the third floor. There must have been thirty beds in the ward — real hospital beds, and I can say that Warrant Officer Yates and Sgt. Hunter took advantage of their rank and chose beds next to two of the heavily curtained windows. It was quite dark now as we settled down. Jock issued each of us with a chemical hot water bottle. "Just put a bit of water in it — shake it up, and it gets bluidy [sic] hot" said Jock. "Dinna put too much water in it, or yee'll no be able to bear it." He came back once more, this time to give us all a mug full of cocoa, and to wait around until we had drunk it, and of course to answer lots of questions.
"Tomorrow morning those of ye who are nae to [sic] ill to move will go downstairs to see the doctors. Aye, German doctors. The ChefArtz [sic] is a Dr. Straubel — I think he's a Major and he speaks English — the other bloody Artz doesn't. Then there's a French doctor who does the ward rounds every day, that's Capt. André. He's O.K. for a Frenchman."
It is hard to describe the state of euphoria I was experiencing. Compare this warm hospital ward, warm bed, hot water bottle, pillows, duvet, pyjamas — with the dreadful conditions since leaving Lamsdorf in January. I was not sure what month it was — most probably towards the end of February, but surely, the war must end fairly soon now, and as far as I was concerned, this place would do me until then. On that note, I slept.
In the morning, Jock drew back the curtains, and gave us two thin slices of bread spread with either honey or jam, and a mug of tea. "Sick parade at 9.0 o'clock. I'll come for ye."
From my adjacent window, I could see that the walls of our 'hospital' were almost a metre thick. The windows were double—glazed with heavy frames with at least half a metre between the two frames. Below the window, three floors below was a gravelled terrace with a low wall, and beyond that, a series of terraces led to the outer wall and the lower town.
The garden terraces had been neglected, but I am sure that before the war, they would have been very nice. But the view! We were overlooking a plain southwards towards Munich. We could see Munich, and beyond that city, the snowwhite [sic] glistening Alps.
Jock came to collect his patients for the sick parade. A few of the lads remained in bed too ill to get up, but the rest of us went downstairs and waited in an anteroom to wait our turn in the surgery. In the meantime, an English speaking nun took our names and other relevant particulars. I had expected that with a surname 'Yates', I would have been last to be called, but I had forgotten the principles of the German Army. "Warrant Officer Yates" was the first name called. In the Wermacht, [sic] they salute an Unter-Officier (corporal) so a R.A.F. StabsFeldwebel is quite an important person outside the officer class.
Dr. Straubel introduced himself, then I was given a very thorough medical examination. Blood sample taken; blood pressure taken, urine sample given, chest x—ray taken, height and weight measured — and I was very surprised to find that I only weighed 7 stone, 8 pounds. Dr. Straubel told me that I had bronchitis. "Go back to bed Mr. Yates. Dr. André will come to see you."
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Back in the ward later in the morning, Jock came in with medical history sheets which he hung at the foot of each bed, and later, he accompanied Capitaine André, the French army doctor on his rounds. Jock issued medicines, pills, and anti-biotics as prescribed by Capt. André. The sulpha [sic] drug and their derivatives had now become available, and my bronchitis was treated with sulpha [sic] tablets of some sort.
Most of us suffered from general debility and weightloss, [sic] and some form of malnutrition. Coupled with colds, flu and associated aches and pains. We had an American with malaria, one chap had jaundice, others some form of gastro-enteritis with diarrhoea and/or vomiting.
In the next bed to me on my left was Cpl. Howle, a regular soldier of the Staffordshire Regt. who had been captured at Dunkirk. A taciturn man, bullet-headed, and whatever was wrong with him, he kept to himself. Next on his left was Pte. Waller of the Royal West Kents. He was a conscript, and he too had been captured at Dunkirk. He was a countryman, a farm labourer before his call-up, and he became something of a comic character. He was convinced that he had dysentery, even though Capt. André diagnosed that he had acute diarrhoea, and treated him accordingly. Next to him was Cpl. Corpe of the Royal Corps of Signals. He was a man in his mid-30's - a family man captured in Crete who used to entertain us with a fund of ghost and uncanny stories. There was an American S/Sgt. who lived in Los Angeles and had been employed as a camera man [sic] with Pathé. There were others who I never got to know - and the Parachute Regt. men who chose beds next to each other by the far wall under a huge painting of "The Last Supper".
Each morning, Jock served 'breakfast’, then came round to take temperatures and check pulses. On our second day, he took my temperature with an anal thermometer, then Howle's but when he came to Waller, he met with an objection. "You’re not sticking that up my bum!" said Waller. "It's been up his," said Jock, indicating Howle, "but you can have it in your mouth if you like." Waller turned on to his front and pulled down his pyjama trousers.
Capt. André made his rounds each day, sometimes calling in Dr. Straubel for his opinion. Every Wednesday morning Dr. Straubel checked, and it was then that he decided if the patient was fit enough to be discharged from the hospital and sent to the Stalag at Moosburg which was 15 kilometres north-east towards Regensburg. Two weeks after we arrived at Freising, the ward became half empty - all the Paras had gone, and a few others whose health wasn't so bad because they had not been P.o.W's very long. But me and those with a longer captivity stayed, and to some extent 'got a little better'.
We discovered that we were pretty free to roam the corridors of the hospital complex. Occasionally a guard would patrol the corridors, but mainly, the guards were only on sentry at the outer doors and gates. We discovered that there were several wards on the second floor that were for surgical cases, and that there were two British doctors, a Major Darling and a Capt. Church of the R.A.M.C. I also found that the senior soldier was a Lieut. Colonel who was recovering from wounds received in Italy. He was kind enough to tell me of the war's progress up until his capture.
I also 'discovered’ the beautiful Dom with its baroque interior, and the nunnery and the Mother Superior. She spoke fair English, and so did one of the priests.
We also found out that there was a Russian ward, a French ward, and a U.S. Army ward. As we started to get better, we quickly realized that the 'lunches' and the 'teas' which were a mixture of German Army hospital rations and the contents of Red Cross food parcels, need investigation. We 'old lags' from the Stalags knew what was in a Red Cross food parcel, and the majority of patients in this hospital did not. We found that the Quartermaster issuing from the parcel store was an American Staff-Sergeant, and he was not doing his job very well. In fairness to him, he had to send food into the kitchens, and it was communal cooking, catering, and coping with diets by German nuns who did not speak any English. He was 'persuaded' that he could increase his issue of parcels to the cookhouse, and that he could issue 25 English cigarettes per man per week, and that we could have mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and night-time drinks of beverages such as tea, coffee, cocoa, or sometimes Ovaltine or Horlicks.
We had no news of the progress of the war. Winter gave way to Spring, and then it turned wintery for a few days, but the days lengthened, blossom and brand new leaves burst out on the trees, and of course, it was warmer and much nicer in Bavaria than in Silesia. From time to time we watched a daylight air-raid on Munich, and occasionally heard the sound of much heavier bombs during darkness as the R.A.F. attacked targets. From time to time Dr. André brought his chess set and we played chess during the evenings, and on a couple of occasions, Dr. Straubel also invited me to have a game with him. I had many little chats with Dr. Straubel, (I mean short chats), usually after his examination on Wednesday mornings, and I often wondered if he knew that Dr. André popped in to the ward
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on the evening before Dr. Straubel’s examination to give me some tablet which seemed to raise my temperature so that I was not as well as I ought to be the following morning. At any event, I was still in the hospital on the morning of Wednesday 11th April when Dr. André had felt unable to continue to assist me in my malingering. On this day, Dr. Straubel did not sound my chest, nor did he examine me at all. He merely said, "You seem to be much better now Mr. Yates, but we will give you another week here in hospital, but next Wednesday you must move to the Stalag."
The following Wednesday, the 18th April, I was prepared to be escorted to the Stalag in the afternoon, but until someone came to order me to put on my uniform I just carried on as usual. It was a lovely Spring day. Warm sun was shining through the window on to my bed, so I just lay there wearing only my pyjama trousers sunbathing. I must have fallen asleep, because I was shaken awake by one of the soldiers "Hey Raff! The Yanks have left one of those smoke things over here!"
What the soldier had seen was an approaching wave of U.S. Air Force bombers. The leading aircraft had just released his bombs, and with it a smoke marker to indicate that the other aircraft in the formation should release theirs simultaneously. What I heard was a screaming roar as hundreds of bombs fell on the lower town of Freising. I tried to duck under the bed, but I did not make it. The window frames were blasted inwards, parts of the plaster ceiling came down, and I was 'bounced' to the other side of the room. At that stage, I don't know what the others were doing. The American S/Sgt., one of the nuns, and myself wearing only pyjama trousers made for the air raid shelter. We made it just before a second wave of bombers attacked, then a third wave's bombs blew off an outside door with the blast forcing open a door between the air-raid shelter and the coal cellar. We were all covered in coal dust. The sound of aero engines died away.
We went back to our ward to find that Corp. Howle had watched the raid from an upright position in a rear corner of the ward. Most of the lower town was wrecked and on fire. The railway station was in ruins; there were six bomb craters in the terracing below our ward; there were trees half covered in new leaves with the other half sliced bare; up in one tree there was something that looked like a sack - it was a priest.
As the day wore on, civilians started to arrive at the hospital for treatment of their wounds, and later, Dr. Straubel told me that it was estimated that there were 700 killed and twice that number wounded or injured.
One thing was certain, I was not going to the Stalag now.
Sleep was hard to come by that night. The air-raid warning system had been put out of action; the room was lit by the fires in the town; smoke sometimes eddied through the non-existant [sic] windows; and the taciturn Howle did not help matters by saying "I hope the bloody R.A.F. don't come tonight - they don't muck about!" (He didn't say muck)
From then on there did not seem to be P.o.W's and guards; British or Germans; just air-raid victims. We helped where we could. Jock (the medical orderly) with myself and a German guard went out of the town and into the country with a horse and cart to collect milk in churns for the hospital. In a day or two, services were re-connected and it was something of a relief to hear the air-raid warning system again - this time it was a flight of R.A.F. 'Boston' day bombers on the way to Munich, and for the first time we heard the frightening noise of a jet fighter. A [sic] M.E. 262 made one incredibly fast attack on the Bostons to disappear into the distance - the flight flew on, then one of them started to smoke and it fell to the ground to finish in the usual mushroom of oily smoke and flame.
As days went by, we saw refugees passing through the rubble strewn town. We saw a column of artillery, and we saw German armour moving south in the direction of Munich. Then, at noon on Sunday 29th April I was talking to an English speaking priest in the timbered courtyard when a shell burst overhead and the sirens sounded not for air-raid, but "enemy tanks and artillery". The priest said, "I would like to stay with you if I may, and I think that we should go into the cellars." I told him to go to the cellars, and I would join him later. I went back to our ward where Howle, Carve, Waller and one or two others wanted to know what was going on. Another shell burst overhead, so down to the cellars we went.
During the following seven or eight hours we heard gunfire, artillery, demolition as the bridge over the Isar was destroyed. Some explosions shook the foundations, but we found it hard to distinguish between friendly fire or German. About 8.0 pm a German officer came into the cellar and asked for a volunteer to run up a white flag. Corp. Howle said that he would if they would give him a bottle of Schnapps. The spirit was produced, Howle left with the German officer, and shortly afterwards the firing ceased. We did not see Howle again until Tuesday morning.



A Yates, “50 years ago,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 12, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/1347.

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