Work Camp 934 L
Type of work: Forestry
Man of Confidence: Unknown
Number of Men: 17.
|Fred G.||Balls||Dvr||RASC||8092||Harwich, Essex|
|Fred Johann||Orban||T/L/Bdr||SA Art.||8254||South Africa|
|Dave W.||Thomas||L/Bdr||8167||South Africa|
Having been evacuated from Greece, Charles Currie was captured in North Africa. After some time as a POW in Italy, he was transferred to Austria in 1943.
Klagenfurt, Austria was to be our destination. We arrived on the afternoon of October 11th 1943 at Stalag 18A. This was only a transit camp, we were told, and we would only be staying for a few days to be allocated to a working camp. Unlike with the Italians, all prisoners were forced to work, the only exceptions being officers. All our clothes were taken from us, and we were issued with clean British battle dress, two pair of boots, three shirts and three pairs of socks. It must have been all from our stores, which had been abandoned in France and Greece. The only alteration they had made was a section had been cut out of the right hand sleeve, and a band of field grey material sewn in. This was to let every body know we were prisoners of war. We were also given an identity tag similar to those worn by the German soldiers, and told it must be worn at all times. Any personal effects were given back to us after they had been checked out. After a few weeks we were put into small groups to go to working camps, some were sent singly to work on farms, our group was twelve men, none of them that had been captured with me, they had split us all up.
We left by truck early one morning under guard, driven to the railway station, put into a cattle truck and locked in. The train journey took us as far as a small town called Furstenfeld, where we were transferred into the back of a lorry and taken to a small village called Glashutten. It was the 7th November 1943. The guards that had accompanied us passed us over to two other soldiers and two other men in civilian clothes. We were lined up in twos and told to follow one of the civilians, the others following at the rear. We were in mountain country, and seemed to be climbing all the way. We were in for a shock, the walking turned into a mountain climb. It took us two hours to reach our new accommodation, climbing all the way, although we all had thought we were quite fit, it came as a shock to find the elderly man who had lead the way, still looked fresh while we were all shattered. It turned out the two guards who had met us were to be our permanent custodians, a corporal and a private.
The accommodation was a good-sized wooden building within a barbed wire compound. There were ten bunk beds, a table and twenty folding chairs. It had three windows with iron bars on the outside. It appeared to be quite roomy inside with electric lighting. There were two prisoners already there when we arrived, one was John Davidson, a Scot, who spoke enough German to understand, and make himself understood. He had been working in the sawmill down in the valley. The other was Clive Nelson who seemed to live on his nerves. He had been the cooks dogsbody. We were told we were in Austria and the two guards were local men. The camp was on a private estate owned by Prince Bourbon and we were sent by the military to work with the estate workers in the forest.
After a good wash and freshen up, a hot meal was served to us by a woman who was introduced to us, by the Guard, as Fraulein Maria Gabauer. He told us she would be cooking for us and we were privileged to have her, as she was in normal times the Prince’s cook. I am sure we all agreed that after army cooking and Italian prison camp food, anyone who knew how to cook would be a great privilege indeed, but we wouldn't tell him that. We found out later from the civilians with whom we were working, the prisoners we had replaced had been French. They had been given their own rations each week and one of their number would do the cooking. Unfortunately they seemed to run out of supplies after five days and consequently spent more time looking in the woods for something to eat than doing any work. To make sure that wouldn’t happen again the estate manager, known as ‘The Furstmeister’ had sent the cook to look after us.
To get back to our first evening. After we had eaten, we were told that our routine would be reveille at six, we would be given a packed lunch, start work at seven, work on site until five, a hot meal would be given to us after we had refreshed, lights out at ten. John Davidson and Clive Nelson were told that they would continue with their allocated work, the rest of us would be working with the civilians in the forest. We would be under a Herr Piklever who was the party member in charge of every one and every thing in the village. The guard also told us there would be nothing to stop us from running away, but obviously we couldn't get very far. We would stand out like a sore thumb, and we would be risking our lives both from the military and the mountain terrain.
The next morning we were given a cup of coffee, a round of bread and a slice of cheese for our breakfast. Herr Piklever and another civilian came to collect us, counted how many of us there were and off we went into the forest. Herr Piklever leading the way with the other civilian at the rear. It took us a good half an hour to reach the cutting where we would be working, and there we met the rest of the civilians. They were all middle-aged men, as all the younger men had been called up into the army. There were quite a few trees already felled, and one of the men was assigned to teach us what we had to do. The procedure was to chop off all the branches with an axe, then strip off all the bark with a long handled scraper, the blade was similar to a paint scraper, only more robust. The axes they used, had a shaft of about 20 inches long, much shorter than those used at home, they would be about 30 inches long I would think. Although none of us knew any German, and none of them knew any English, his instructions were quite easy to follow. He explained that for safety sake while chopping off branches, we must always work on the side of the log away from us. He then showed us how to remove the bark with the scrapers, which turned out to be remarkably easy. If the bark was left on for any length of time, its removal got harder he told us. When he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, four of us were given axes, the rest were given scrapers, and left to get on with it.
The trees we were working on were all about 100 years old, 40 to 50 foot high, and were all felled to fall uphill. As the slopes were fairly steep, this meant we were working one leg longer than the other, and was quite tiresome. We solved this, as one leg became tired, we moved round to the other side of the tree. The Austrian civilians were all quite friendly and easy going, not at all like most of the Germans with which we had come into contact. Although we did do a little work, a great deal of time was spent larking around. I think they thought we were a lot of fools and very impractical, but that was what we intended.
At the end of the day, as we came down the mountain, it gave us a chance to look around. The position of our hut was at the end of a short road. The guards’ quarters were just outside the entrance to our small compound. Their hut contained the kitchen and also their office. Beyond this there were three houses, and behind them another nine or ten built on the mountainside. All these houses were built from wood in the traditional Austrian style, but not so posh as those seen in the tourist areas today. Every thing around seemed to be made from wood apart from the wire fence around our compound. Even our washing place was a trough carved out of a log. The water was from a mountain stream piped into it through a wooden pipe. There was also a wooden overflow pipe so the flow could be continuous. The toilet was a small wooden hut containing a dry toilet box also made from wood. This had to be emptied every Saturday afternoon after work. We did have a rota for this job.
We did receive pay for our work, but as there was little to buy, we spent it on services. Some of the women did our washing and mending, so it made life quite easy going, more than easy going for a prisoner of war camp. I am quite sure if the German authorities had known the conditions we were living in, they would have made it much harder or moved us out all together.
It was October and we had only been at the camp for a few weeks when it started to snow. When it snows in Austria it is a white out. Nothing to be seen but a white screen. Never the less, if we expected to get time off, we were sadly disappointed. Each day it snowed, and did it snow every day for a whole week, our first job was to follow the snowplough, and shovel the drifting snow from the road. Starting from the camp, passing the houses along the road, we then walked about three quarters of a mile to the sawmill. Carrying on from there for another quarter of a mile, we then came to a guesthouse. Then onward again for another mile to where the road led onto a major road. We were told that was the boundary of the estate, and where their responsibility ended. Everything went on as normal in spite of the snow, all the locals used skis to get around, even small babies wore very small skis and transport was horse drawn sleighs. After it stopped snowing it was back to work in the woods.
The civilians all turned up in the morning, but none of them were wearing skis. We were told we had to make a path through the snow, the best way to do this was to walk in single file as this trampled the snow solid. After a while we noticed that where previously we were walking through the woods, we now appeared to be on top of the trees. Because the trees were growing so close together, the snow had formed a platform on the branches. What previously had been tall trees, now appeared to be small Christmas trees. They assured us it was quite safe, the path would be solid until the thaw, and as they seemed quite happy to use it, we assumed we could too.
On arrival at the cutting we found everything deep in snow. It was not as bad as we expected. As it was an open space, much of the snow was piled up at the boundaries, we were told to dig out all the narrow tree top logs that were less than 200 mm in diameter. The civilians were busy making saw trestles from pieces of branches. It was amazing what they could make just using an axe and an auger. As each log was dug out, we dragged them to the men who were then cutting them into one-metre lengths. This was to be next winters fuel for the village. After a few days there was quite a large stack of cut logs.
The following day we took three large sleds up to the site. They were loaded up with the logs and a bundle of them tied with a chain was attached to the back of the sled. One man was in the shafts at the front and another man stood on the logs at the back. Going downhill the man at the front had his legs stretched out in front of him, digging his heels into the snow. The job of the man at the back was to act as a brake if the speed got too fast. He did this by jumping up and down on the trailing logs. This may sound pretty primitive but it moved a lot of logs a long way down the mountain in a very short time. We really enjoyed these couple of days, it was like a fantasy Cresta run. It could have been quite dangerous. If one of these loaded sleds had turned over while travelling at that speed, goodness only knows what the outcome would have been. But we thought it was great fun, and made the most of it.
It was shortly after this I received two books sent by a neighbour of my mother. One was the life and music of Elgar; the other was the Forsyth Saga. The reading of them filled in quite a few pleasant evenings as we were always looking for things to fill in the time on these winter nights.
The days became very repetitive, working in the forest and clearing the snow. Very soon Christmas was upon us. The only memorable thing I can remember was the very good Christmas dinner Fraulein Gabauer cooked up for us. There was quite a lot of black market in it I am sure. The civilians were all subject to rationing, and though they all kept a cow and a pig, that was taken into account as part of their ration. When a cow or a pig was serviced, a record was kept by the authorities, and when the cow or the pig gave birth the owner had to notify them of the number of offspring from each animal. Needless to say if a cow gave birth to twins, one of them would disappear before the inspector arrived. The same thing would happen with the pigs. Whatever number of piglets it had in the litter, there would always be a few less for the inspector to count. This meant quite healthy eating for everyone in the village, including us POWs, for when one of these animals were slaughtered, it would never be reported.
After Christmas all the big logs that had been cut, had to be transported down to the sawmill, which was about two miles from where they had been felled. This turned out to be another eye opener for us. The method they used was to bring together a large diameter log, then two narrow diameter logs, and another large diameter log the other side, making a channel. At the bottom of the channel another one would be made, and so on to the bottom of the cutting. As all the trees had been felled falling up the slope, the bottom of each channel was bigger than the top of the next channel. So when a log was loaded into the channel at the top of the site it shot down at a terrific speed. The channels ended at the sunken path we had used to take the fuel logs down to the village on the sleds. As this was like a wide channel itself, the logs continued down this, past the village and right to the sawmill. Just before they reached the mill, the logs went into a hollow and had to slide uphill about 50 yards, so bringing them to a stop. It was the most primitive method and yet the most efficient method to move a few hundred logs two miles in a couple of days. This is only a brief description of the method they used. It was a work of art the way they managed to change the direction the logs had to travel to reach their final destination of the sawmill.
Spring came, and the work changed from felling trees, to planting three-year-old trees grown in a nursery. These were planted on sites that had been cleared three years previously, and the old stumps were just beginning to rot. The method of planting was each plant one metre apart, each row one metre apart. I understand that as they grow so close to one another they tend to grow straighter than if they were further apart. Every couple of years they thin them out, the first time is when they are tall enough for Christmas trees and then when they are big enough for telegraph poles. This leaves the others about three metres apart which are then left growing for about eighty to one hundred years when they are then felled for timber.
It was round about this time one of my back teeth started to ache. I put up with it as long as I could until in the end I reported sick. The guard escorted me to the dentist in the village the next day. When I arrived I was left in the waiting room for quite some time on my own. While I was waiting I picked up a magazine to look at the pictures, and came across an advertisement for the railway, which had a full-page map of the local area. You never can tell when a thing like that will come in use, so I tore it out and put it in my pocket. Shortly afterwards I was called into the surgery, if you could call it that. There was no sign of a dentist chair or any equipment. He sat me on a low chair, standing behind me he tipped the chair back resting it on his legs, had a look for which tooth it was and next thing I knew he had the pliers in my mouth and the tooth out. No anesthetic and I must say it was so quick I hardly felt it come out. He was a big man, a very big man. I don't know if he was a dentist or not, but he could certainly take teeth out. I thanked him, and the guard and I started our long climb up the mountain back to the camp.
When we turned out for work the following morning, Herr Piklever arrived with only one man who we all knew as Gunter. He informed us that the estate manager wanted to see three representatives of us POWs. So, wondering what it was all about, we had a discussion and the men chose John, the German speaker, Arthur, who could make himself understood in any language, and myself, just to keep check on the other two. With Herr Piklever at the lead, off we went to meet Mr. Big whom we had only heard about, but never seen before this. We were introduced to him as Herr Muller, after the usual niceties he came round to the purpose of this meeting. As from now, Gunter would take charge of the work, and we would be working alone. He wanted us to agree to fell ten logs a man per day, this figure was based on the reports he had received from the civilians we had been working with. If we would agree to this he would pay us civilian pay, which we could save up for after the war. When John told us what he wanted, we just looked at each other and burst out laughing. We said we would put it to the others but it was unlikely they would agree to anything like he was asking. He said he would like an answer by 3 o'clock. So back to the camp we made our way, with tongue in cheek, to put his proposals to the others.
The discussion became quite complex because it was obvious he was not going to put up with the way we had been larking about up to now, and everyone agreed we couldn't have been better treated or had better conditions than we now had. So it was agreed to put a compromise to him. The compromise was this, that as they were not going to win the war anyway, the money was not worth the paper it was printed on. We would offer to fell and trim six logs a man if we could, then call it a day and finish work. We expected him to offer to meet us halfway and ask us to fell eight logs a man instead of six. The men had agreed to settle for that. At 3 o'clock we took back our offer, and were quite surprised to find he accepted it straight away. The men said that perhaps we should have offered to do only four, then it would have made him feel he had put one over on us when we settled for the same six. He wasn't too impressed when we told him their money wouldn't be worth anything after the end of the war, but he agreed that when the quota of the day was finished, the rest of the day would be our own.
The news of the deal soon went round the village, and the local men said that based on the way we had worked with them we wouldn't be finished by midnight! We were told we would be opening a new site, and the following morning set off up the mountains with Gunter leading the way and Herr Piklever at the rear. When we arrived at the new site, Herr Piklever took an axe, and marked the first line of trees to be felled with a blaze, and then, leaving us in Gunter’s hands, he left. Gunter was a simple countryman, a slow thinker but a very good worker. We found out later that when the Germans had taken over in Austria, he had been put in prison as a communist. It wasn't true, he just didn't agree to his country being taken over, and couldn't understand why people had to fight each other.
I don't think I have mentioned it before, but one of the chaps named Walter Lauder turned out to be John Davidson’s cousin, both Scotsmen. Walter had worked on forestry in Scotland, so he opted to do the cutting with another chap who was from New Zealand who had also worked on forestry. The first row of trees is always the hardest to fell because of the trees behind them. We had seen the civilians get a few caught up in the branches of the trees at the back. These two lads started on these trees, and had them falling like ninepins, it was taking the rest of us all our time to keep pace stripping them. Gunter was marking the stripped trees out for logs, it was usual to get three logs from a tree, depending on it’s height, but sometimes if a tree was misshaped it had to be cut accordingly.
Being our first day working on our own, we had been going at it quite hard, just to see what we could do. We could see Gunter was getting very agitated, telling us to slow down, and just after eleven o'clock he call a halt. We had already fulfilled the quota, and had twenty extra logs finished for the next day. He said we dare not go back down to the camp at this time or the Furstmeister would certainly expect us to do more. We could see he was quite right in what he said, so we had our packed lunch, and then just lounged around until three- thirty, getting down to the camp about four o'clock. The following day we took our time, and still finished by lunch.
In the mean time Gunter had started to make a shelter from tree branches, and the top parts of some of the trees, he said we would need it if we had any rainy days. He had made a large framework, which was put together by drilling holes with an auger and then fastening them together with pegs. We wondered how he was going to make it watertight. He then showed us how to strip the bark from the logs in sheets, rather than just scraping it off in the usual way. The sheets were then used in the same way as if it were roofing felt. It took quite a while longer to remove the bark in sheets, if a slight slip was made, the sheet would not be good enough to use for this purpose. As it was turned three o’clock by now, we left that job for the morrow. The two sawyers now had more space to fell the trees, so the work became even easier, we now had no problem finishing our quota by eleven every day.
Gunter had finished the shelter, with our help of course, but he had truly amazed us with the finished product. He may not have been the brightest brain box in the world, but he certainly knew his woodcraft. The shelter was about twelve feet long by eight feet wide, there were full-length seats either side, with soft pine fronds to soften the seat. A full-length fireplace right down the centre, with a six-inch full-length opening in the apex of the roof to let the smoke out. It was so good we began to think it might be a first haven in an escape attempt, but although the woods looked empty of people we knew there were plenty of men working there, and also the estate gamekeeper was armed with a hunting rifle. They knew their way around this maze of trees and paths, we didn’t. So that idea was put on the back burner for the time being.
Now we had more time in the evening, we began to entertain ourselves. We played Charades so much, I think we would have been taken on at any of the drama schools. One day while we were working, someone suggested if we were to cut two inches from the bottom of one of the big logs, it would make a good dartboard. In a few days, we not only had a very good dartboard, we also all had our own darts, which we had made ourselves. Gunter had supplied us with some fine nails, from which we made darts by knocking them into pieces of branch and then taking the tops off by filing the points at the other end with one of his saw files. He was completely mystified, he had never seen darts before, and I suspect he thought we were making some sort of weapons. An evening darts league was set up and we all played a match every night. The two guards were quite amazed, neither of them had ever seen a game of darts before, but neither of them would have a try. I think they thought they might loose face if they missed the board.
Another game we started to play was volleyball. Behind the hut, within the compound was a piece of land on quite a steep slope. We asked permission to try to level it. Permission was given as long as we didn't dig too near the fence. However when we started to dig at the top of the slope, we found we could only go down about twelve inches before we came to rock. So we finished with only a slightly less sloping area than we started with. Never the less, we made a volleyball pitch even though it was difficult to play on. At the beginning, the ball we used was made from paper tied with string, but the villagers always seemed to be interested in what we were doing, and so one of them sent us a ball.
Round about this time, one of the guards said that if anyone could play an accordion there was one for sale in the village that was going cheap. I thought that as I could play a piano, it wouldn't take much practice to learn to play an accordion, so I said I would buy it. The next evening, the guard brought in the accordion in its case. When I opened it, shock horror, it wasn't a piano accordion but the Austrian type with buttons at both ends. Never one to be defeated, I said to the others, “Oh well, it will be a challenge”. But I got barred from practicing inside, and had to go out onto the volleyball pitch. I did eventually get the hang of it, and could rustle up a few tunes they could all sing too, but I must admit I was never very good at it.
It was coming to the end of summer when one morning we were informed, “Change of plan for today”. A lorry was waiting to take us to one of the farms on the estate. Today we would be picking apples from the orchard. It was quite a big orchard, and the apple trees were also big trees. We were given ladders to reach the fruit at the top of the trees, and shown how to just twist the apples to release them without bruising them. The farmer provided bread and cheese for our lunch, and also a large barrel of cider to quench our thirst as we were working. I think that was a fatal mistake, for half of the lads were incapable well before it was time to go back to the compound. They just didn't realize how strong cider can be.
These breaks were a welcome change from the routine forestry work, and a few days later we joined some of the villagers to collect bilberries. The method they used was very interesting, if you can imagine a crumb tray with high sides and back made from wood with the front edge like a comb with long teeth, that was the tool they used. They just sweep the tools through the plants, and all the fruit falls into the trays. We had with us three old fashioned galvanized baths which we filled in about three hours. I don't know what the weight of the fruit was, but I know the baths were pretty heavy to carry even with two men to each bath.
The woods were a great source of wild fruit and mushrooms at this time of the year. A few days earlier I had come across a patch of wild strawberry plants. I can tell you the flavour of wild strawberry is intense, so much stronger than the cultivated fruit. There was some fungi in the woods, that looked like cream coloured cow pats, from which the locals used to make mushroom soup. I must say, that when our cook made some for us, I think it was, and still is, the tastiest mushroom soup I have ever tasted.
It wasn't long before winter set in, and we went into the usual routine of snow clearing, winter firewood and bringing down all the logs we had cut in the summer.
It was coming up to Christmas. One of the guards knowing I was a Catholic, the only Catholic amongst the prisoners, asked me if I would like to go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. I replied, “I would like that very much, but what are the chances of that happening?” He replied, “I will fix it, you can come with me”. All the other men thought he was trying to wind me up, and I must say I thought they may be right, but on Christmas Eve he told me to be ready at eleven o'clock, and sure enough at eleven he opened the door and called me out.
It is quite a long walk down to the village, but going down is much quicker than the long climb back. Tonight it seemed no time at all before we were at the church. The village seemed dead, there were no lights, they had a black out too, and even inside the church the lighting was not very bright. I'm afraid I got rather emotional, for me to get to mass seemed like a dream come true. However not all the people in the church seemed to approve of me being there, there were quite a lot of hostile looks, or perhaps they were just curious. I am afraid my few words of German made it very difficult for me to express my thanks to the guard for his kind gesture.
It must have been about two o'clock by the time we got back to the camp, all the others were well away in the land of nod. So I got into bed as quietly as I could and I soon joined all the others in sleep. Christmas morning was a late morning for everyone; civilians, guards, and prisoners alike. Fraulein Gabauer cooked for us a slap up dinner, Wiener Schnitzel venison steaks with all the trimmings, followed by roly-poly pudding.
After dinner some of the locals offered to lend us some skis and asked the guards to let us have a try at skiing on the slope just below the compound. The guards gave permission and we all trooped out to see what we could do. I think perhaps there was a little bit of craftiness on their part, because if any of us could ski, they would be the ones to watch. For without skis, when the snow was down there would be little chance of getting very far in any escape plan. We all took it in turns to try to ski down the slope. At first it was all we could do to stand up, never mind get down to the bottom of the slope. But after a while we did manage it. We could neither turn nor stop, the only option open to us was to fall down, much to the amusement of the villagers who had all come to watch us making fools of ourselves. To them it must have been strange to see anyone who couldn't ski, all the children were on little skis when they were just learning to walk, so to them it was just a natural thing. It was all a complete change to us, and I must say a very enjoyable, memorable, and unexpected Christmas Day.
It was back to work the following day, and as time went on the war seemed to be coming more intense. There were many more air raids, and every morning, as we went to work, we were picking up leaflets dropped by the planes, which gave us some idea of what was going on in the outside world. I must say there were no raids in our area, they were much further away, but we must have been on the flight path to the industrial district of Wien. We did see a couple of dogfights as the German fighters tried to shoot down the bombers.
This reminds me of one such incident when Gunter came to work one morning very angry, saying that one of the planes had shot at his chickens. He could not believe that they were just stray bullets, they were not trying to kill his chickens. It took him all day to get over it, and he went home after work still very apprehensive and unconvinced.
Spring seemed to come early, the snow gradually melted away and the sun became much warmer. We opened a new cutting right on the top of a mountain. There were no trees above us, just heather where we could sit at lunchtime enjoying the sunshine and the marvellous view. From where we sat, we could see for miles over the plains of Hungary and down to Yugoslavia.
It was on one of these lunch time sessions, when one of the lads said, “What is that over there in the distance?” It just looked like a white cloud, but it was moving and heading in our direction. As it got closer we could see it was planes, a great number of them, they seemed to cover a massive area of the sky. By now we could hear the noise of the engines, it sounded like continuous thunder. We started to count the planes as they passed us by and got to around three hundred bombers with a number of fighter planes as escort. As they passed on we saw another lot and following on as many again, altogether close on a thousand planes. I don't think there can be many people who have ever seen so many planes in the air at the same time, but being so high up, and having such a clear view over a long distance, we could see them all at the same time.
After they had all passed over. The sky, which had been so blue before, was now completely covered with cloud made by the vapour trails from the planes. At first we thought they must be heading for Wien, but I think it must have been further on or we would have heard the noise. As we never saw any of the planes come back, the assumption was some town in Germany must have been their target. Wherever it was it must have been a big place to send so many planes. It could be the three groups each went to different places, however as we never heard any news, we never found out.I don't suppose we ever will.
The locals were quite shaken by the number of planes they had seen passing over the village. When Gunter told them of how many there had been altogether, it seemed to sink in that the war was very nearly over. There was quite a lot of rumour around that the Russian troops were not so far away. What we began to realize was the locals, apart from one or two who were members of the Nazi party, felt as much prisoners of the Germans as we did. But because of the politics involved, they were afraid to speak out. We tried to find out how the war was going from Gunter who had become very tight lipped since the chicken episode. He hadn't forgiven us for laughing at him about it, to him it was such a serious thing. However one morning he did tell us that on the radio there was a report that Hitler had ordered all prisoners of war from the outskirts of the country, to be marched into the heart of Germany. Not knowing whether this was true or not we decided to play safe and work on the assumption it could be true. It was time for us to prepare to move under our own steam in whatever direction we thought best.
That night, we all packed away anything we wanted to take with us and worked on the window bars until they were loose and could be removed. Sure enough, the next morning the guard told us to line up outside as he had received instructions to march us to a town where all the POWs from farms and outlying camps would be grouped together and marched into Germany. John as spokesman for us all, just told him we were not going. He replied he would probably have to shoot us. We all knew that unless a senior officer gave him an instruction to shoot us, it just wouldn't happen. Also as there was no telephone in the village, he would have to go to the guesthouse to receive any other instructions. So we told him to go ahead and shoot. If that was to be our attitude he said, he would have to go for extra men who would not be as nice to us as he had been, we would be locked in until he got back with assistance.
Locking us in, or so he thought, away he went down the road to find help. As we had already planned, when he was out of sight, we had split up into twos and threes, and with what we could carry we got out one by one through the back window. One of the lads, Jim, went over on his ankle and sprained it getting out, he found he couldn't walk on it so decided to stay put where he was. The chap who had paired up with him, Bill, said he would stay with him. The rest of us left.
There were three of us in our group, Walter Lauder, Arthur Weston and myself. Our plan was to head for Hungary. So following a path going east we set off through the woods. This direction was new to us, all our work had taken us the opposite way, and we found ourselves climbing quite steeply. After about twenty minutes we decided to have a rest, and seeing a fallen tree a little distance away in the woods, we walked over and sat down. It seemed only like a minute later when we saw a soldier coming along the path, and we just froze. He had his head down, as if in deep thought, passing along without apparently noticing us. When he was out of sight we began to wonder where this path was leading and whether we should try another route. It was then that we noticed we had a very good view of the compound. We could see Jim and Bill just sitting in the sun outside the hut. We could also see the guard had returned, and seemed to be burning something on a bonfire outside his office.
It was quite intriguing, watching and wondering what was going on down there. It was not long before we saw the guard come out of his office, lock the door and after speaking to Jim and Bill, walk off down the road with his pack on his back, leaving the two of them on their own. It was then we started thinking, if there was no guard there, rather than sleeping rough out in the open, we could go back and sleep in our bunks, wake up refreshed in the morning, and set out with the whole day before us. We decided to take a chance, and do just that.
When we reached the camp, two of the others had arrived back. They had also been watching what was happening from another position in the woods and came to the same decision as us. It wasn't long before we were joined by two more of the lads who had taken a path only to find it was taking them in a direction they didn't want to go. They decided to return and take another path, but when they saw us, they came down to the camp to find out what was going on.
It was now getting late afternoon and Fraulein Gabauer came along to find out what was going on. We explained to her what we intended to do, and she said she would make a meal for us before she left. Later as we were eating the meal, one of the older men from the village came to see us and asked if we would do them a favour. He explained to us that they understood the Russians were not that far away, and fearing that if they came into the village they would take any food they could find, leaving them nothing. There was a field ploughed ready for planting, they knew we wanted to go, but would we help them to get the seed potatoes into the ground so that they would have at least some thing to eat next year. If the Russians did come before they could be planted, they would take the seed as food and leave them with nothing at all. We told him to leave us to talk about it, and we would let him know what we would do in the morning.
He told us that rumour had it, the German troops were withdrawing from Austria to the old German border, leaving Austria undefended. When he had left, we discussed what he said, and decided that in view of the fact, that apart from being locked up at night, we had been treated as part of their community and not at all as enemies. We had been given the same rations as they had, cooked by a top class cook. The women of the village had done all our washing and mending. In fact we could not have been treated any better. So we decided to stay a couple of days to help them out.
The next morning we joined the rest of the villagers in the fields which had been ploughed ready for the planting. It was not very easy work, for apart from having to bend down all the time, being on the mountainside; there was also quite a steep slope to contend with. At the end of the second day, between us we had all managed to plant two fields of potatoes. Walter, Arthur, and I decided to move out the next morning. Jim was still not fit enough to walk, so he and Bill were going to stay. The other four couldn't make their minds up about which way they wanted to go. We all agreed it would be better to stick to the original plan and split up into small groups, that way there was more chance of some of us at least getting through.
After walking into Hungary, Charles and his colleagues (Walter Lauder, Arthur Weston) were picked up by Russian soldiers. They eventually got back to the UK via Odessa and Naples.
Tom Darby, Alf Hague and John Davidson reached the Russian lines safely.
Cliff Nelson, F. Payne and David Thomas hid in the woods until 9th April and then contacted the Russians.
Ernest Mayo, James Corbett and Eric Beeching hid in the woods and then, with civilian help, contacted the Russians and were repatriated via Odessa.
Fred Balls, G. Andrews and D. Dowen reached Friedberg by 9th April and were then picked up by the Russians.
(Details supplied Roy Rees, Charles Curry's son-in-law, and Chris Kemp, grandson of Tom Darby.)