The Prisoner Story
from Low & Everett’s history of the Regiment

After capture the officers and other ranks were taken to various Prisoner of War Camps in Germany by devious routes since they were mostly captured at different times and places.

Only the late Major G. Whitehead and Sapper Bate escaped temporarily from the encirclement at Cassel. Captain W. Deacon was picked up by a German Field Ambulance and treated in French Hospitals before going to Oflag VII C at Laufen on the R. Inn. near Salzburg in Bavaria where he met Lt. Mercer who had travelled by luxury motor coach and rail via Holland and Dortmund.

On arrival at their respective camps any property likely to assist escape was taken from them and they were ‘de loused’ and given a tonsure.

The first six months were pretty grim as the food was short and of atrocious quality and by the time winter approached clothes were thin and inadequate.

By Christmas 1940 the first Red Cross parcels began to arrive and at first one parcel had to be shared between nine which meant that each man received a very small part. However, as 1941 progressed the food and clothing situation became much better and continued so until the winter of
1944/45 when the whole of Germany was hard pressed and disorganised by our invading armies and their supplies became short.

After a period of acclimatisation when there was little to do except read and exchange stories of war experiences, they settled down to learning with the more intelligent as lecturers, and the production of plays and concerts. Almost everyone indulged in’ baiting’ the Germans known as ‘Goon-baiting’ and endeavouring to escape which was more difficult at some camps than at others.

The standard of talent available for stage plays was remarkable as many were not regular soldiers and came from all walks of life.

Sometimes amusement was unrehearsed as on one occasion at Laufen when some eggs were found in the locker of a Scottish soldier orderly who had been working on a farm and had been able to barter soap, chocolate or cigarettes which had a high exchange value. He said he had found them whereupon the German Security Officer with smooth sarcasm replied “In Germany patriotism is high but so far our hens cannot lay eggs with Swastikas on them.”

On another occasion at the same camp a German guard known as ‘ Taxi ‘ who was very short and immensely strong fell out with an equally tough Scot who threatened to punch his nose. When the German came off duty he went to the Scot’s billet where a space was cleared and a formal bout took place with the result that the German came off very much the worst and manfully acknowledged it. He appeared the next day wearing the scars of his battle and it is believed that his superiors never knew the true story.

Not all guards were as human and many were trigger-happy and had orders to fire at anyone seen at a room window. As time went on the awkward minded regular guards were replaced by reservists and convalescents interested only in an easy life and who could be bribed to provide useful material for escaping.

At Oflag VI B at Warburg our three officers (Major Whitehead, Capt. Deacon and Lt. Mercer) were together for a time. It was a hutted camp, exposed on all sides to the wind which blew across large areas of arable land, and had been previously used for Balkan Prisoners. The huts were for a time infested and the whole camp was very crude and inferior with the result that the personnel there from all the three British services became very rebellious and a large force of German guards was necessary to keep the camp under control.

At this camp which held about 3,000 officers they were divided into battalions for counting purposes and each battalion was in charge of a German officer.

The O.C.
of one battalion was an ex-schoolmaster named Kager. In many ways p.o.w. life was like being at an undisciplined school. Counting parades were often used to keep the Germans on parade as long as possible, for time had no meaning and various methods were used to upset the count, such as running from the left of the company to the right between the ranks so that one was counted twice. This used to infuriate Kager and his punishment was to keep them on parade for half an hour or more. Nobody worried about this and most people read, talked and even played cards.

On one occasion Kager sentenced his battalion to one hour’s detention for this behaviour and the other battalions were released by their commanders before they realised that one was being detained, but soon the remainder of the 3,000 were grouped in a circle around the guards who surrounded the miscreants so that the guards were being ‘baited’ from both sides.

Somebody had the brilliant idea of bringing out the camp band of some 30 instruments to play to them and at this stage the guards began to panic, because they were surrounded and outnumbered by about 100 to I and their lack of humour did not appreciate the situation. The remainder of the camp guards were turned out and seized the instruments and in a procession of 50 guards headed by Kager moved across the half mile wide camp followed in turn by some 3,000 British officers. That was considered a technical victory for the British and one which caused intense amusement.

Escaping was a very popular occupation at Warburg where the ground was eminently suitable and so many tunnels were dug that it was a wonder that they did not cross each other. Some escapes met with ill-deserved failure but several parties got away for short periods. It was here that Lt. Mercer was one of a team of about 20 who, starting under a hut, completed a tunnel some 80 yards long, of which 60 was outside the wire when it was discovered by the Germans. The tunnel was only 18” wide by 12” deep in sections with chambers every 50’ and by the end of the work they had developed enormous pads of hard skin on their elbows and knees through dragging themselves along. Solitary confinement was the punishment for being caught down the tunnel and, as there was a waiting list for solitary confinement, they were sent away to a French Camp about 60 miles away to ‘do their time.’ Far from being a punishment this was a real holiday as they travelled on normal trains, ate in the refreshment rooms on the journey and generally enjoyed themselves. On one occasion a German guard went to Lt. Mercer’s room and gave him a cigar and told him about the horrors of the Eastern front and that there had been 1,000 planes in a raid on Cologne which very much impressed him.

After this they started digging a tunnel from a rubbish bin not far from the wire. The initial breaking through the six inch concrete floor took about a month and was a most insanitary process for to avoid any suspicion being raised they had to continue working while rubbish was being thrown into the bin. They had completed the head-chamber and a few yards of tunnel when in the autumn the whole camp was moved.

At Oflag VII B at Eichstaett in Upper Bavaria where the huts were bad and it was damp and cold, the business of escaping had developed into an exact science and was strictly controlled. It was decided that apart from one or two individual attempts at impersonation, all escaping would be concentrated in one compact organisation and that one team only would attempt to escape during a particular period. It is worthy of note that when some 40 officers escaped after a year’s work, they were all recaptured by the Germans within 48 hours. If more than about five officers escaped at once, the equivalent of a general parachute alarm was given out and the area was combed by every available man, woman and child. One stood a fair chance therefore of being surrounded by a howling mob of small children aged 6—10, a somewhat humiliating end to a year’s hard labour.
By this time extensive libraries were in existence and there was opportunity for wide-scale reading which few had had before or would ever have again.

Oflag IX A—Z at Rottenburg was a bad and depressing camp and it was well guarded and few people escaped.

The main unpleasant feature of camp life was the mental boredom, the uncertain future and the ‘ Security Officer,’ usually an enthusiastic Nazi with a team of men engaged in the prevention of escape. Every now and then searches took place in all camps during which everything was turned upside down and when an officer returned to his quarters he would find a scene of utter chaos and confusion.

The Security Officer had powers over which the German Camp Commandant had no jurisdiction but, generally speaking, it was possible to appeal to any German Officer’s ‘code of honour’ as an officer and find that this made sufficient impression to prevent anything really unpleasant.

Even when escapes took place, the prisoner had no need to worry unduly if he remained in the hands of the German Army. The situation however was very different if he strayed into Gestapo hands as when some 40 officers were shot by the Gestapo after escaping.

After the Allied invasion of Normandy communications deteriorated and during the winter of 1944/5 food supplies became difficult. The Christmas of 1944 was probably the saddest of p.o.w. life because they had looked forward to a speedy release but things were slowing down and in fact the Ardennes offensive had just commenced.

At this stage they were allowed out for walks on ‘parole’ and they well remember during the end of February and the beginning of March sitting and listening to the roll of the guns away to the West which to them was a wonderful sound.

After four and a half years those taken at Dunkirk were still reckoned by the Germans as having some bargaining value, and when the tide turned against them and the allied armies and air forces were threatening the heart of Germany, attempts were made to prevent the long-term p.o.w’s from being liberated.

In the Spring of 1945 began the forced marches, generally eastwards on a circuitous route avoiding large centres of population, in an attempt to place them and certain well known and senior officers behind the River Weser where a last ditch stand was to be made. Some of the marchers covered over a hundred miles and witnessed the incredible humiliation of the German Army as it retreated in disorder.

The march did most people a lot of good and was quite a holiday after their confinement, but they were in danger from Allied aircraft and at Achistalt a number of British Officers were killed and wounded by our own aircraft.

As they marched across Germany they lived ‘off the country’ using cigarettes in exchange for eggs etc. On one occasion when they halted near some milk churns on the road, the contents vanished as if by magic into water bottles and other receptacles.

In the beginning of April a spearhead of the U.S. Army liberated a number of the camps but the prisoners could not be evacuated immediately owing to the pockets of German resistance still holding out behind them, so our p.o.w’s at Wimmelburg guarded the tanks and vehicles for the Americans whilst they slept.

Within a few days the prisoners were lifted by air via Brussels to England and home, truly thankful and grateful to the Red Cross, the Regiment’s P.O.W. Committee and other voluntary organisations and persons who had sent them books, cigarettes, clothing, groceries, chocolate, soap etc. which meant much more to them than could easily be expressed.

A Prisoner’s of War Committee was formed in the Autumn of 1940 to help those of the Regiment who were unfortunately in German Prison Camps. The first meeting was held in the Ladies’ Club, Monmouth, and convened by the late Mrs. Gavin Low. The late Mrs. L. D. Whitehead subsequently became Chairman, Mrs. Howard Everett, Secretary and Mrs. E. Deacon, Treasurer. These were greatly assisted by the Mayor of Monmouth (Councillor Howard Bowen) who raised funds by means of weekly dances in the Rolls Hall at Monmouth; Mr. A. J. Smith (the father of Lt. D. A. Smith) who organised monthly cigarette parcels to each P.O.W. from Monmouth Town; Miss Pat Myers (now Mrs. G. Whitehead) and the late Mrs. Wheeler (W.V.S. Organiser for Monmouth); Mr. D. L. Jones, County Welfare Officer; and the Editor of the S.
Wales Argus (the late Mr. George Hoare) whose Argus Fund assisted many members of the Regiment and their families in time of need.

In addition to the monthly parcels of cigarettes sent out through the British American Tobacco Co., parcels of socks, balaclavas and scarves and chocolates were sent as well as the normal Red Cross parcels. A typical food parcel as sent by the Red Cross consisted of a box of cheese, a packet of chocolate, a tin each of fish, fruit, jam, margarine, meat, dried milk and dried eggs, also some sugar, table salt, Marmite and a tablet of soap.

Many postcards similar to the Green Field Cards were received by the Secretary from the prisoners acknowledging receipt of the parcels. The families of the prisoners were visited, especially in time of trouble, when they were also frequently assisted, financially and in kind.

There was a total of 168 Prisoners including
Major George Whitehead at Oflag IX A/H
Deacon IX at A/Z
Mercer at VI B
C.Q.M.S. F. R. Townsend at Stalag XX A (5)
J. Jordan at 344
A. Bird at VIII B
W. Casbum at 383
T. D. Gardner at VIII B
R. Haslett at XXA
and a number of other N.C.O’s, Sappers and Drivers making a total of 3 officers and 165 men spread over the following camps :—Stalags VIII B (97) XX A/B (44) XXI (9) 344
(5) IV A (4) IX C (3) and one each in Stalags 383, 210 and 376.

From October, 1943 onwards a few prisoners were repatriated because of extreme ill health but the main body did not return until they were liberated by the advancing Allied Armies. Both Major Whitehead and Capt. Deacon returned in April, 1945. A Reunion of returned prisoners and their families was held in Newport on June 12th when Lt. Mercer acted as M.C. and this was the forerunner of many other gatherings.