The guard was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die. It’s electrocuted.”
Londoner I was on Guernsey. After about a year, or two years – I don’t quite remember – the Germans issued an ultimatum that all “non-islanders” as they called us who were of British birth, and not Channel Island birth, had to report and that we were to be sent to Germany. Some managed to duck it, but for the rest of us it was very worrying because we had no idea what to expect. We could not get any information as to where or why. We’ve learnt since it was a political trick – “I’ll pay you one” – for something I’ve been told our forces did elsewhere in the world. (1)
They took many, many hundreds of people. We got a week’s notice. We were told to wear what warm clothing we had, and sturdy clothing and a pair of decent boots if we had them, and that was about all. The bare necessities for marching. There were single men, women, girls, boys and complete families. They transported us by boat to St.Malo and from St.Malo we were put on a train – not on cattle trucks, we didn’t have that unfortunate experience – but a French third class train with wooden seats.
We wound our way through France and Luxemburg. On one occasion the RAF bombed the line in front of us and we had to be diverted by another route. We slept in the train a couple of nights. It was blue murder. They issued us with sticks of German sausage. It was German Army rations, which just about kept us going. But we could never get enough water. The train was packed and the driver obviously couldn’t keep giving his water up for drinking purposes.
We passed through Cologne and the train stopped. The guards sprang out on the platform and ordered us to pull the blinds down. It was a semi-secret job, you see. We didn’t all do that though. I and another feller got the window down. The place was packed with German civilians – men and women going to work. We rattled our dixies and asked them for water. Some of them probably got us water without knowing what nationality we were – which they did from the fountain on the platform. One man asked me “Who on earth are you?” I’d learnt a bit of German and I said “We’re English.” He seemed most surprised and smiled. We didn’t have any animosity. The guards, of course, came rushing up with their rifles. They didn’t like it because it was their orders that we weren’t to do that. They didn’t sock us, especially not in front of their own civilians.
The guard was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die. It’s electrocuted
We ended up first in a camp called Dorsten, which formerly had been a military camp – Ilag Six they called it. Our Infantry had been prisoners there sometime previously. The diabolical thing about this camp – and we think it was done purposely – was that our camp was down below two elevated canals – the Dortmund and the Ems canals. If the RAF had bombed the canals we would have got drowned, as we were locked in. We didn’t fancy that but there was nothing we could do. The German guards at least had a chance of doing a bunk.
The other intolerable thing was that we didn’t have enough food. We lived on what the Germans called “Army Rations”, but as we pointed out to them, in England, besides your army rations you had a few bob in your pocket and you could go out and get some unrationed chips, and so forth. It was really miserable. It was so bad that three or four of us went out on this small gravel exercising enclosure. There were some sunflowers and I knew you could eat sunflower seeds, although I’d never eaten them before. We gathered a few seeds and I stuck my hand out to get some more, because they were seemingly growing wild, all around the barbed wire, when one of the German guards up in the tower started bawling and waving. I then realised he was talking to me, and he was saying “Don’t go near that, you’ll die. It’s electrocuted.” That was my first experience of electrification. I didn’t quite comprehend it. Even then I was as green as grass. I passed the word around.
We were there about two months. Somewhere in the vicinity were some English officers – prisoners – who by some chance got to hear of us and they sent some Red Cross supplies, which helped us. This place was an assembly point for us crowd. They took all the married people and the single girls, and the very young fellers who were about fourteen, fifteen, sixteen – they took all of them to what they called a married camp. The rest of us were shoved through Germany, right down to Bavaria.
When we got there the food situation was just as bad
There were dungeons in this camp, but we were only in those later on. The camp was a typical old German castle, like the pictures you see of them. In addition pill boxes had been built and you had machine guns and searchlights and barbed wire, and dogs yowling away. Salzburg was the nearest big town to our camp. We were right on the Austrian border – although it was all one then. There was a bridge over to Austria, over the River Salzach. (2)
In the camp there were about two hundred American civilians, who had been working or were living in Europe when America entered the war. For instance, there was the American announcer of the English programme for the Lublin radio station. There were also a lot of Polish Jews who were nominally American citizens. They had American passports. They were dual-nationality. Many of them couldn’t speak English at all. You couldn’t really describe them as Americans. It was a legal technicality that’s all.
When we got there the food situation was just as bad. I’ve walked out – several of us – and gone to a garbage bin and picked out the least of the filth and eaten it. After a time the International Red Cross got weaving and we had more or less regular supplies of Red Cross food, which frankly kept us alive. I had T.B. and probably would have died of it, had I not had this extra food. We also got mail, through the Red Cross. But we got the worst of both worlds. I sent a letter once which was not censored by the Germans, but it was censored by the English when it got over there. One letter I sent, there was only about three lines in the middle that was still there. The British had censored the last half and the Germans the first half.
We were in a most peculiar position. We weren’t officers, we weren’t other ranks. We were something a bit apart
For instance, they couldn’t make us work. Provided we got out and obeyed their roll-calls, we could lie on our beds all day for three years, if we wanted to. The Germans stuck to the Geneva Convention as far as we were concerned. But of course, if you did lie around all day you’d soon go raving mad. Most of us did a little bit of work. We tried to improve things. It was the sensible thing to do. I occupied myself in the camp as a maintenance man. We organised our own work. As I say, we tried to improve things. You wanted grub – so you’d do a bit in the kitchen and peel spuds. Then there were the market gardens outside the camp and you could volunteer, if the Germans didn’t think you were too risky. Quite a few of them did that.
We had to elect our camp leader. In fact we had to have two. They were sort of figureheads, to negotiate with the Germans. They didn’t have any real power. It was more committee things. You built your own parliament. Different committees for different things, for hygiene and so on. There was no politics, but there was the same hoo-ha you get anywhere – pettiness, back-biting. There was class-distinction here and there, but I think there always is.
We had a gentleman from the German Foreign Office who visited the camp. He was connected with Lord Haw Haw
An old German sergeant major came clomping along and said “You’re wanted.” I got carted up to the office, and there’s a gentleman sitting there, wearing a beautifully cut English suit and smoking Players English cigarettes. “Come in,” he said. “let’s see… I’ve got your papers here. You were born not far from Dagenham – Leytonstone. Not that far. Fords at Dagenham. We bombed it last week.” As much as if to say “Do you know much about it?” There was all that sort of gear going on, but I didn’t have anything to do with him. He was offering us pretty girls, good living and a good job in Berlin if we’d go on the German radio. We had to be very careful, of course. I said “Very interesting.” But I wasn’t going to Berlin. God! I’d have been put in the Tower when I got back. Shot! I had that much sense.
The only news we did get was from the German controlled radio, but after a year a boy did knock up a secret radio, which we had in the camp, so we could pick up various English broadcasts. In fact it was so secret 90% of the inmates, including myself, didn’t know where it was. It was a little one or two valves, which is now in the museum in Guernsey. The Germans after a time realised there was a radio in the camp and began to make searches, without any luck. One of the chaps on the Liaison, he told us that the German Commandant had said “Look Mr So and So, we know there’s a radio here. If we have visitors” – he didn’t say what he meant by ‘visitors’ – “it’ll be very bad for you, and it will be very bad for me.” He was obviously referring to the Gestapo, but these chaps wouldn’t play ball. They more or less said that if there is a radio it’s up to him to find it.
“There are other people in Germany. My guards may not be able to help you.” It sounded rather funny. He actually used the word “Help”
I got myself what they called an Ausweis – a pass. Because I was on the hygiene and maintenance squad I had to go to the local railway station to get various bits and pieces. When I got the pass I had to go before the Commandant. There were swastikas and pictures of Hitler, in his office, and he was sitting there, with his Iron Cross. He said “I want to warn you that this pass takes you from A to B. When you get to B you do what you have to do.” He was describing it in broken English. “You don’t look left, you don’t look right. You turn round and you come back here. I’m telling you this because if you wander off these tracks, either to the left or the right, there are other people in Germany and my guards may not to be able to help you.” It sounded funny – he actually used the word “Help”. I didn’t actually really understand, at the time, what he was on about.
I’ve realised since that there were two Germany’s. There was the SS and the Gestapo and the Nazis – meaning your local gauleiter, or Lord Mayor, and all the bumph and officialdom, who were in the Party, and there was the ordinary German plus the German Army. What he meant was if I strayed out of his district – well, god knows. I took care not to, I might tell you! I also had no intention of trying to escape. I was quite attached to the guy who was my guard and I had no intention of getting him into trouble. It was a case of “Keep quiet while you’re lucky to be able to walk.”
They didn’t really believe it all, some of them
In the camp we were under German army discipline, more or less. Some of the soldiers guarding us were from the Russian Front, who had been wounded. Several of them had the Iron Cross. These were the daytime guards. At night they went off duty, air raids permitting, and a separate detachment of German infantry guarded the camp. Both the daytime and night-time guards were the ordinary army – Wehrmacht. This is a totally different thing to the SS and the Nazis. There’s just no comparison. I spoke a bit of German and I got friendly with some of them. In fact I had a letter a couple of months back from a girl who said “Do you recognise my husband, because he was one of the fellers who was guarding you.” And would I pay them a visit? Which I’m hoping to do. A peculiar relationship sprang up between us and the guards.
They employed one or two German civilians in the camp. They had to wear a special – a green – armband. Although the authorities didn’t encourage fraternisation, I spoke to quite a few civilians. They weren’t particularly Nazis. I can only say that it was the same over here – it’s like anyone here standing up for the King. They’re not particularly patriotic, but if I came along and sat down… I got friendly with one or two German girls too. There were girls, for instance, in the censor’s office, who used to censor our Red Cross letters on the German side. The Bavarians didn’t like the Prussians. You could tell. For instance, Hitler had an association called the Bund Deutscher Mädel – the Association of German Girlhood – probably something like our Girl Guides. Some of the German girls I knew used to say “It’s not the ‘Deutscher’ but the ‘Dummer’ – Dumb – Girls.” They didn’t believe it all, some of them.
I used to secretly sneer at them
The Polish Jews either held forged or authentic American passports. With them, there was real hatred, and I can only assume it was something that they had seen and endured that I had not. The Germans put them in a ghetto – a room of their own. They didn’t mix with us. Well, they sort of mixed with us. It was more – this is my room and that is your room, and if you want to come into my room that’s up to you.
They had a rabbi, and to this day all this religious hoo-ha turns me not on, but off. I wasn’t too keen on them. They all seemed to be mumbling and praying about something. I got on alright with most of them but I didn’t have much time for the rabbi and his crowd. As they were nominally, on paper, Americans, the guards didn’t ill treat them. I don’t think they liked them, but quite frankly – some of them – neither did I. I used to secretly sneer at them. I thought it was ghastly – you see, they were so servile.
If a German officer came in, these Jews would spring up and say “Oh, won’t you sit down?” You wouldn’t get me doing that. I mean, our fellers would never do that. If somebody shouted an order – “Bloody well get up!” – well, we slouched to our feet. But I thought, perhaps I’m being a bit naughty here. If I’d been through what they’d probably been through I might be different. They had two wars. They had the Russians on one side, the Germans on the other. It seemed to me they suffered just as bad at the hands of the Russians.
My people died whilst I was in prison
I never saw them again. It was a terrific shock when I got this message. I was feeling pretty ribby and there was a German officer who so used to aggravate me. I said to an under-officer, who was friendly with me “Look” I said – in fact, I lost my temper – “You tell that geezer of yours I can get hold of a gun, and anymore nonsense out of him, I’ll pop him off. I’ve been in this place so long, I couldn’t care less. You’d better tell him that when I say ‘Good Morning’ he says ‘Good Morning’, and doesn’t swear at me.” I did in fact get a gun.
I never saw this officer for a couple of weeks after this, and then by chance I ran into him. He looked pretty foul, but he did say “Good Morning.” I thought: somebody’s been talking around this joint. I didn’t know whether I was going to be hauled up or what. Three days later the under-officer came up to me and I said “I saw that goddam officer. Is he back off leave?” He told me that he’d spoken with the officer, and he said “You know he lives in Munich?” “No, I don’t”, I said. “Well he does, and I thought I’d tell you that three weeks ago your airforce came over and bombed it, and he lost his wife and child.” I told him that I’d heard at the same time that I’d lost my people. There was a sort of understanding. I could understand why he was mad. He must have hated Englishmen and sub-consciously I equally hated Germans, at that point. We were really going for each other. It was madness, but understandable.
We had an Italian prisoner of war. He was worse than the Land Girls
Somerset Farmer We applied for one when our Land Girl went. He was in his twenties. They were free to go where they liked after they finished work. Once a week they did go back to the camp. He went down to the camp one evening and when he came back he told us the boys were going to mutiny down there. Something about conditions – the conditions weren’t good enough, and they were going to mutiny – and they did! This was at Wells. Our people who were looking after the camp, I think they went in with their bayonets fixed on their guns. They drawed a bit of blood on one or two of them and that quietened them down.
I billeted the prisoner in my house, and I don’t mind telling you – every night we went to bed, the door was padlocked. I never trusted that fellow. He could read the English newspaper. He used to spit and go “English pigs.” He was a bit fuddy-duddy about what he would eat. One day I was going to have a tin of pilchards for breakfast, because they were on coupons that day. “Me no like pilchards. Too many pilchards in camp.” So I cooked him an egg, fried an egg for him. My husband and I had pilchards. When he saw the egg he picked up his plate – he was going to fling that at me!
If I was ever in the house there was always a poker or a bottle handy
I never trusted him. If he’d come towards me, mind, I should have hit ‘ee. I’d have made sure I got the first blow in. I don’t know how hard you have to hit a man to kill him, but I always had a bottle or a poker handy. I was doing some ironing one day in the kitchen and he came in. My husband was working in the field up by the railway line, and it was “Mrs Boyce, you afraid of me?” “What do you think I’m afraid of you for? Whatever gave you that idea?” “You always seem to keep de table between us. Down in de camp, de men that is out in farms and in billets, de English women, they like de Italians. There is a farmer’s wife, she bought him a bicycle. She buy him this, she buy him that. And here there is no woman.”
I had the blinking iron hot – heating the iron on the primus stove because we never had the electricity, you see. I had the damn thing hot, and I picked ‘un up and I held it at him and I thought: Yeah, you come near me man, you’re going to have this across your face. He said right out “We come out on farm for women, but out here there is no women.” “No,” I said “and it’s no good for you to think that there’s a woman in this house for you, because there jolly well isn’t. The best thing you can do is go on up to your room and stay there. I mean that. And I don’t want to see you down here until my husband comes home.” And he turned round and he brought out a string of Italian words – God knows what they meant.
When my husband came in I told him the Italian would have to go back to the camp the next day. I said to him “If you don’t take him away you’re going to come in here one day and I’m going to be stretched out or he is.” In the morning, after the milking was done, he was told to pack his bags. He was a good worker though.
His father owned a vineyard and probably a small farm as well. He knew a fair bit about farm work. He used to read our English papers and if there was anything about the army he used to spit and carry on, in temper. “Lies! Lies!” he used to go. Then he had a letter come from his parents and he reckoned the English had confiscated his father’s tractor and his father’s horses – “English, they are thieves.” Another time he went on about when they were in Abyssinia and how when they were raiding a village they did go in and take women and children and fling them out of the bedroom windows and smash ’em down on their heads and kill ’em. (3)
1. In 1942 non Islanders and those Islanders who served as officers in the First World War were deported, on direct orders from Hitler, as a reprisal for the internment, by the British, of German nationals living in Iraq. For every one German interned, the order was that twenty non-islanders and First World War officers were to be deported. The majority, such as the speaker, ended up in prisoner of war camps in southern Germany. Approximately 1,275 were deported , including women and children
2. This was Ilag VII. (Ilag: Internierugslager = Internment) During the course of their internment forty of the Channel Island deportees died in the camp. Most other Channel Island deportees were interned in Biberach an der Riss at the Ilag V-B camp.
3. According to one source (The Imperial War Museum online site) when Italy surrendered in 1943, 100,000 Italian POW’s imprisoned in the UK volunteered to be ‘co-operators’ which meant mostly working in the building trade and agriculture, and were given considerable freedom and mixed with local people. However in “An Italian Prisoner of War Remembers Somerset” (BBC2 People’s War online site) the implication is that co-operators volunteered before the Italian surrender, and it is remembered that they were regarded as traitors by some of their fellow POWs. It is also possible (the evidence is conflicting) many of these co-operators would also be in digs, prior to the Italian surrender, such as the Italian POW remembered by Mrs Boyce, the farmer. There were two camps used to house Italian POWs near Wells in Somerset. The main one was 107G Penleigh Camp, and the other was 666 Stoberry Camp, that only came into service June 1944, after Italy had surrendered. Local online media report that several Italians married Somerset women and settled in the area after the war.