A DEFEATED HERO – A ‘true’ story!

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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.

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36 thoughts on “A DEFEATED HERO – A ‘true’ story!

    1. Cheers – interesting I think that most sons take up opposite politics to those of their father. Odder still that he swore I’d become more right wing with age yet I haven’t. Tell you though discussing politics over a pint is one of the greatest pastimes there is!

      1. When I only had three children – my youngest George came along much later – I used to announce to their embarrassment that I’d got ‘one of each!’ Although my jest wasn’t aimed at their politics!

  1. I loved this Mike, I think the history of those closest too us is the most fascinating. I would’ve loved to have documented my Grandad’s experience in the Navy during WW2 but sadly he passed before I discovered how to write. Well done xx

  2. This is probably the most touching and impressive post you published so far…to me at least. WW2 still has so many stories to tell. I’m glad this one was told. It’s a beautiful snapshot of the 20th century, both on a personal and on a global level. I’m glad your father, in his final days, spoke a bit of his experiences…

    1. Sad thing was he only spoke about it when he had lost his marbles and most often when I visited him in the care home the next day he had no conception of what we had previously spoken about – bit like the movie Groundhog Day! Thanks for taking time out to read as this was a tad on the long side – could have made it longer if I recounted his dream stories where in dementia there was no way of him separating them from reality. Now they would have provided scope for a WW2 movie no less.

  3. I recall when visiting Jim he would rub his ankle and complain that he’d been shackled all night. I felt so sorry for the old bugger but whatever I said to the contrary he never believe that he didn’t sleep with chains on. He went on to visit Germany many times with his wife and had great respect for the people. He always boasted about his smattering of German!

  4. Sir, a sound effort to document your father’s war experience. If anything, there is no shame in surrendering as you can live to fight another day. But whether in the European Theater or the Pacific Theater, the enemy had little food rations for their own soldiers, let alone for the POWs. Certain Stalags were extremely brutal. Many did not survive the physical abuse would perish.

    I did find what appears to be your father’s nae in a chart…

    1. Thank you for reading this post – ’tis appreciated. If you have found his name in a chart that is truly amazing. The only Steeden I ever found on was one who seems to have been killed on the 11/11/1918 no less! How bad can luck get!

      1. I would be eternally grateful if you would. Also, I take your point that, in essence, many a brave soul has taken their own particle of history to the grave.

      2. No problem. The file is over 185 megs so I cannot email it to you but you can download it yourself, free of charge, from your National Archives. The link can be found on this website on Stalag VIIIB:

        http://www.lamsdorf.com/help-with-research.html

        Scroll down to “British Army POW records” and click on the link. You will only have to supply your email address.

        I found a “Steeden, J. J.” on page 420 of 490. If it is him, it shows his ID number, rank and regiment as well. If it is him, and at least here in the US, you can apply to obtain a copy of his army records as next of kin.

        Good luck.

  5. A wonderful tribute to be remembered for the ages! Your father went thru so much that I am unable to comprehend how any of the men survived. Your love for him shows in your words.

    1. Thanks for that – I still get angry (not with him; just because it is the way of things) sometimes that he (and I guess millions of soldiers like him) never told me a thing when he had full control of his mind though. I would have liked to have been able to pass on so much more to my kids/grandkids. Still he wasn’t a bad old boy I have to add.

  6. The word Dunkirk got me jumping here.
    I will comment later.
    I see gpcox and Mustang Koji did.

    Did not know your dad was at Dunkirk.
    I will keep this post for tomorrow.

  7. Now you know why I write so much about the war.
    But I think you already knew this.
    Your dad was a real war hero.

  8. My dad was in Stalag viiib which was at Lamsdorff, Opole in Poland. It was close to Auschwitz and some POWS were made to work at Auschwitz for IB Farben. The shackles of which you speak took place over a period of a year. All POWS were shackled in retaliation for a belief that German pows had been shackled, so at viiib, the largest pow camp in Europe. It became the norm. There was a particularly brutal guard known as Ivan the terrible , I think who would punish POWS for the most minor offence. In January 1945 the camp was closed as the Russians were advancing. It was the worst winter on record and the prisoners were marched into Germany, from camp to camp. Many died of malnutrition, we’re shot for falling behind, or simply froze to death. They had no winter kit and were given no warning of marching out. They left on 27 January and my dad was liberated by the American army, around 1200 miles from the camp, in April or May. They had marched for three months, eating whatever they could find, including frozen turnips! There are a number of books written about viiib, sojourn in silesia is very good as it was written by someone captured at Dunkirk. It’s on amazon and there is a kindle version too. The camp us now a polish army training ground but has a museum. Google Lamsdorff. Or Stalag viiib and you will find it. Incidentally apart from allied troops, there were poles and Russians in separate compounds and these were systematically starved. British prisoners would throw whatever could be soared over the fences to them. You mentioned concert parties. My dad was a stage hand in these and I have somewhere a hand coloured post card of the cast and crew of one production. Stalag viiib was a dreadful place, and the three month death march must have been a harrowing experience for those that survived.

    1. Sir, you have added flesh to the bone of a skeletal story told to me by my father when in had dementia and shortly before he died. I cannot thank you enough. I shall take a printed copy of what you have written here and pass it about my family so they as well can get a feel for what the old boy went through. Cheers for this – made my day to know more.

  9. It is great that you have recorded the memories that you do have. I had my fathers detailed memoirs of his life as a Far East POW, yet it was only when he was close to death and thought, for an hour or so, that he was back in a prison camp on the railroad, that I had some insight into the daily terror and grind of his life. The men who played girls had celebrity status, in one of the better camps my father played chorus girls in the concerts and really enjoyed himself.

    1. What you have said mirrors my dad exactly – no talk of the war at all, then dementia kicks in and out come a few stories providing a tantalizing glimpse of what he went through. Oddly I also have a picture of some of the POW’S dressed for a concert! Thanks for taking time out to write.

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