STALAG V111B, Krakow, Poland – A PARTICLE OF HISTORY
Strange things happen to regular folk in irregular times. My father was a good example.
Like a lot of servicemen Dad never, ever, spoke of the WW2. Growing up all I knew was that he got captured by the Germans and that was his war over. I don’t think he took any pride from being captured; more he felt like a loser. I believe that fact blighted his life thereafter. When kids in the playground boasted about their fathers’ exploits in the Far East or on D-Day then asked what mine did all I could say was that he got caught – a bit of a conversation killer really. It was only when the old boy got vascular dementia that he lapsed back into previous times and, in conversation, passed on to me a few clues; a few stories of his time in that particular war – of all conflicts perhaps the only one where, even an almost pacifist like me could not put forward a coherent argument that it wasn’t necessary. Had he not lost his mind then I would still know nothing of those times. I say, ‘lost his mind’ yet in essence I think it more accurate to call it the, ‘new reality’ he came to live in. He died aged 88, in 2008 at a care home in Paignton, Devon.
His name was Jim; Jim Steeden and he was world weary for as long as I can recall. A builder by trade, a fine darts player, a man who liked more than just a pint or two and amazingly for one who made it to a good age, a once heavy smoker with a passion for ‘beef dripping’ sandwiches for most of his life. He became one of the victims of a poorly planned defensive strategy by the French and the British that completely over-looked the fact that the Germans would invade France through the forests of the Ardennes – something the Allies thought not very likely!
At just nineteen years, and having just signed professional papers for Brentford Football Club (a centre forward no less) he was conscripted into the army; the British expeditionary force to be precise, and found himself in France then Belgium awaiting, with his comrades for the onslaught of the enemy. WW2 for Dad had arrived. Sometime between 27th. May and the 4th. June 1940 just outside Dunkirk whilst trying to retreat back to the beaches and possible sanctuary he was captured by the Germans. Shortly before his death he told me that the truck he was driving ran out of fuel just a few miles short of the beachhead. He and his mates, apparently, armed with only wooden rifles – there were not enough real ones to go round and the Army wanted to make it look like all conscripts were armed – were herded up with the other POWs and, over several months, were marched across Europe to a camp right next door to the Krakow Concentration Camp in Poland which would be his home for almost the next five years. His particular camp was named Stalag V111B for what that may be worth.
My Mother used to tell him that it was a good thing he got captured because if he had made it to the beaches of Dunkirk he would have probably got bombed shitless, or, if he had made it back home, he would probably have got bombed shitless again in the Normandy landings on D-Day. He never said if he agreed with her or not. I suspect though he would have preferred not being banged up for all that time.
Whatever, he has told me that when being marched across France he and his comrades were pelted with rotten fruit and ‘veg’ by the French who, in some way, sought to blame the British for their plight. He hated the French to the day he died – which is a shame, as I really like them! As a prisoner he was, as I understand it, used effectively as slave labour down the coalmines of Silesia. The prisoners were regularly manacled (I cannot verify this; it is merely as he told me) and this awful fact came back to haunt him in the graphic nightmares of the dementia of his dotage. Nevertheless, post war and safely home, Jim, a six footer and the youngest of ten made it back to England five stone lighter than when he left these shores. I guess he knew he had, subjectively, a much ‘better’ war than the Jews and Gypsies housed in the ‘ovens’ next door – not that there would have been any comfort in that.
Insofar as his actual capture was concerned he said that his truck had been running on thin air and eventually had emptied itself of fuel on a straight road through a small hamlet with just a dozen or so houses either side of the road. Marooned there he and his mates had to dive for cover as the Luftwaffe tried to bomb them. They missed as it turns out, yet took out the whole row of properties on just the one side of the road (sadly taking out the residents as well) and leaving those on the other intact – without even a broken pane of glass! He kept repeating his amazement that those windows never blew out with the blast. Also, so close to the bomb blasts was he that he couldn’t hear anything for days thereafter.
In the camp Dad advised me that the main diet was ‘cabbage soup’ although on a good day they might get a bit of swede and stale bread. Sometimes the local Poles traded with the prisoners; they swapping rabbit for whatever the prisoners could barter. A couple of years into his time there it transpired that mostly, what he thought was ‘rabbit’ was actually domestic ‘cat.’ Most of the German guards he regarded as ‘good blokes’ although he added some were ‘utter bastards’ – although he would never elaborate in that regard. Some of the prisoners in the camp went blind after making pure alcohol to drink from a home-made still using, as a source material, root vegetable peelings. At Christmas time those prisoners with a theatrical bent would put on a show for the other POW’s as shown in one of the photos – I must say I’d be reluctant to be the one in the middle of the shot, dressed thus and in the company of hundreds of blokes who hadn’t seen a woman for ages! Lastly, I had always wondered how his toes got to look so awful. I knew that he had once got frostbite though. In his final days he told me that toward the end of the war the guards at the camp got wind of the allies advance and, quite literally, disappeared over-night leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves. The next day the Americans arrived. The Yanks were frontline troops so couldn’t provide much aid to the Brits. However, what they did do was map out a route our chaps could take from Poland to Austria crossing only already liberated areas. They advised that from Austria safe passage back to England could be arranged. It was during that long trek that Dad got his frostbite.
On the main photograph, Dad is the last bloke on the left in the second row which, according to the stamp on the back was taken by an official German photographer! The other picture, the one with the three blokes is from 1945 back in the UK when, although not back up to his fighting weight of 13 stone 7 ounces he had clearly had the benefit of better food rations.
And that is all I know, or will ever know about my father’s war. His entire peer group are long dead. At least, writing it down thus, should I get run over by a bus tomorrow I have passed on his story such as it is. The worse thing is it took him 58 years to tell me and I would never have known anything worthwhile at all were it not for the ‘new reality’ he found himself whilst in the departure lounge of mortality.
Growing up, unusually, I knew my father was proud of the things I did (even when I did not deserve such pride – which was most times) yet I always sensed he thought I wasn’t proud of him. Well I was – he was my Dad. The only real rows we ever had were over my frustration that he could never comprehend the evil of Thatcher or the honesty of my left wing politics. Regardless, the thing is I’d have been a bloody sight prouder if I had known the things he had had to endure. After-all, he gave his country that precious piece of his life from the age of 20 until 25. It matters not how he gave – he still gave! I know we should never regret events of the past we cannot change, yet I truly wish I could fully appreciate the big picture – if only he’d given me more flesh to add to the incomplete skeleton of the story I’ve imparted here!
IN THE ABOVE PHOTOS JIM IS FAR LEFT SECOND ROW DOWN IN THE TOP PHOTO & FAR LEFT IN THE BOTTOM ONE.