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History & CommunityDerek Stevens 10/09

Derek Stevens 10/09

In The Autumn of 1944 the numbers of prisoners of war being brought to the UK was increasing rapidly. Marked with the letter P sewn onto their trouser legs, white, grey and black patches were also added to signify the strength of their Nazi inclinations, white being the goodies, blacks being the baddies. German officers were mainly kept in camps in Scotland and it was the train journey of some which caused great upset to a Somerset  peer of the realm, Lord Poulett,  whose experience was reported in the local press.

“At a quarter to two on a very cold night I and my wife travelling on a crowded London to Scotland train were wakened up at a Midland station and turned out of our carriage into the corridor by an officer of the Military Police to provide seats for German officer prisoners of war. While the Germans sat in comfort, my wife – Lady Poulett – stood for five hours. When the British officer told us to get out I expostulated, said it was ridiculous and asked for the Station Master to be sent for, but naturally he was in bed. The assistant  stationmaster came and said there was nothing he could do. The officer had a sten gun. As a result my wife and I and a naval officer had to squeeze between other passengers on the overcrowded train but my wife found it so uncomfortable she decided to stand in the  corridor for the rest of the journey.”

Relating his experience to the House of Lords he added  “After Dunkirk British prisoners of war had to march and then were boxed in cattle trucks. We don’t have to imitate the Hun, but it is time that the British people were treated a bit better than this!”

Lord Croft, Under-Secretary of State for War, said the regulations laid down that when prisoners of war were being taken by train accommodation must be reserved in advance. In this case it appears that the reservations were properly carried out, but someone removed the labels from the compartment.

I have experienced that sometimes in recent times when returning to Axminster from Waterloo, although I do believe that the reservation tags had not been slotted into the seats in the first  place. South West Trains please note!

As told previously, despite obvious tensions which existed between the civilian population and captured enemy soldiers planted within their midst, many friendly relationships developed between POWs and British families. One such became a story of some poignancy. The story is recorded in the BBC archive, The People’s War.

Three young English speaking POWs, all of junior officer rank, are affectionately remembered by the daughter of a Herefordshire farming family. As in similar records, the Germans having children of their own back in Germany spent their spare time making wooden toys which, in this case, included a pram and a large doll’s house.

These young men remained in this country long after the war until Hans and Max were eventually repatriated leaving Otto behind in England. He, like many who found their homes had become enveloped within the Soviet empire, opted to stay in this country. Having lost contact with his wife he was eventually informed that she had been put in a Russian concentration camp from which she had escaped bur her whereabouts was still unknown. The English farming family paid a search fee to the International Red Cross who traced Otto’s wife. She had escaped to West Berlin,  then occupied by the western allies but isolated deep within the Soviet sector of Germany. She had courageously managed her escape by crossing the border clinging to the underside of a train.

Unhappily Otto was informed that his wife had lost all contact with their small son who had been lost within the frantic melee of the thousands of displaced persons now drifting about war-torn central Europe. Otto’s English friends paid another search fee and the International Red Cross, now employed with the massive task – the huge problem of bewildered refugees presented to them – fortunately located the child and reunited him with his mother. They both travelled to England and Otto’s reunited family settled in a cottage in Herefordshire where they became accepted and eventually integrated into the local English community.

There are many records of appreciation for the goodness and kindness of their captors by German POWs. Here is a letter left by two returning POWs from Clifton Maybank near Yeovil dated May, 1946. Published in the local press under the heading BEAUTIFUL  PRISONER TIME HERE.

‘Your Dears – Before I begin. I beg your pardon for my English what I am writing in this letter. Therefore I’m writing this letter becouse you was particular very god to us. Here in England I met many English peoples and they are all god to us German POWs. It is a pity that we was in a  war against you.

‘Never I forget my prisoner-time  here in England, it was more beautiful than the war-time. The war did bring the hatred, the prisoner-time did bring the love. How beautiful it is once all nations perceive that they live without hatred and grudge. Then the world is gay and happy. I will end this letter with the hope that you understand what I mean. We thank you very much for your kindness and particular for your god position of trust in us. Thausent regarts from us. Cherrio! Theo, Rudolph.’

A wonderful and colourful token of thanks for kindness received whilst being held prisoner here in this country was given to the parish church of East Chinnock. Gunter Anton, an 18-year-old Luftwaffe rear gunner shot down in 1944 worked on  Somerset farms until his return to Stuttgart in 1948. Together with his father he built up a business making stained glass windows. In 1962 he returned to East Chinnock with the first of a number of windows, the last of which was installed in 1982. These were his gift to the people he had lived and worked with for the kindness he had received and for his safe survival and return to his family in Germany.  Sadly he died just six months after the dedication of the windows. However colleagues in Germany said they were sure that he had died with the satisfaction of knowing that he had fully completed his task of conciliation he had set out to do twenty years previously.

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