War Diary (1938-1946)                                                       

Prisoner of War (P.O.W.) experience. Henry Austin Lane - Generation 1. 

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Captured, 1940
Captured, 1940

© Hamson-Lane Archive

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Road to Stalag XX1-D
Road to Stalag XX1-D

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Henry, 1943
Henry, 1943

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Harry Harper, 1944
Harry Harper, 1944

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Return to St. Valéry
Return to St. Valéry

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This version of Henry's diary is not intended to be a facsimile of his own very personal account, but has been abridged and supplemented with contextual information from a number of other sources.

 

Enlistment (1938)

 

On 11 February 1938, aged 18 years, Henry enlisted with the 4th Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (4th Camerons), Territorial Force to supplement the wages he earned as an errand boy and cartoon strip illustrator for a local newspaper.

 

Mobilisation (1939)

 

At the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) Henry was 19 years old, and a Private in the Carrier Platoon, H.Q. Company, 4th Camerons. When war against Germany was declared on 2 September 1939, the 4th Camerons were mobilised at Inverness, Scotland.

Extract from the "Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) an Illustrated History" by Angus Fairrie (The Official Regimental Diary):

"The battalion formed part of the 152nd Highland Brigade in the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. The 4th Camerons moved to the south of England where they were visited by King George VI, Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment, at Aldershot in Hampshire on 18 January 1940. The 4th Camerons left for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) on 26 January 1940. After arriving at Le Havre, the battalion moved forward to defensive positions on the Maginot Line in the Saar Valley." [sic].

By May 1940, the Germans had forced the B.E.F. to retreat back to Dunkirk, France. Through 'Operation Dynamo' a total of 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk by a flotilla of 600 ships including Royal Navy vessels, fishing trawlers, cockle boats and pleasure cruisers (the 'small ships'). By 4 June 1940 enough of the B.E.F. had escaped from the German trap, to enable British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to convince his Cabinet colleagues to fight on regardless of the fate of France.

Capture (1940)

Extract from the "Queen’s Own Highlanders (Seaforth and Camerons) an Illustrated History" by Angus Fairrie (The Official Regimental Diary):

 

"When the Germans advanced in May 1940 bypassing the Maginot Line, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division withdrew from the Saar to a new line on the Somme at Abbeville in northern France. The 4th Camerons moved by train to Rouen and then in buses to the new positions. On 4 June 1940, the last day of the Evacuation of the B.E.F. further north at Dunkirk, the 4th Camerons together with the 4th Seaforth Highlanders took part in the counter-attack on the German Bridgehead over the Somme. But the overwhelming strength of the German advance had now forced the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division to fall-back to the coastal town of St. Valéry-en-Caux where it was hoped that the Division would be evacuated." [sic].

​With a limited supply of ammunition and no means of escape or access to reinforcements, Henry and his comrades were able to hold back the German advance for 8 days before Major General Sir Victor Fortune surrendered the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division to Major General Erwin Rommel on 12 June 1940, at St. Valéry-en-Caux, Northern France.

Surrender at this time, condemned Henry to 4 years and 11 months of incarceration as a Prisoner of War (P.O.W.). Following his capture, Henry kept a diary including many photographs and hand-drawn illustrations in a black canvas pouch he carried with him throughout his captivity. Henry passed his original illustrations to his P.O.W. comrade Trooper Harry Harper (15th/19th King's Royal Hussars, Cavalry Regiment). Henry finally wrote up his memoirs (from the various scraps of paper used to make up his original diary) in the early 1970s, and his widowed second wife has these for safekeeping.

Incarceration (1940-1945)

 

1940: Henry and the other 51st Division troops captured at St. Valery-en-Caux, France, were moved 700 miles through France, Germany and Poland to be incarcerated at Stalag XXI-B Schubin (Szubin), central-north Poland, north-east of Posen. Henry’s P.O.W. number was 6394. This transfer took around 4 months, during which time P.O.W.s were transported in cattle trucks (trains) or on foot, with intermittent stops to allow them to relieve themselves at the side of the road or railway tracks. During transportation, little sustenance was provided, and the P.O.W.s had to rely on local French, German and Polish women to provide whatever they were willing to give or were able to spare. During the first 6 months of captivity the P.O.W.s were starving.

 

1940: On arrival at Stalag XXI-B Schubin (Szubin), Poland, the P.O.W.s were housed in one-storey wooden barracks containing bunk-beds and a charcoal burning stove in the middle of the room. Although the Germans complied with the Geneva Convention, starvation, lice, diarrhoea, dysentery and protein in the form of rats were a fact of life for all P.O.W.s. Prisoners typically received two meals a day consisting of ¼ pint of watery soup served with a small loaf of black bread. Each also received a cup of erzatts coffee morning and evening. Although individual camp layouts varied, all of those known to Henry were enclosed with barbed wire, and had guard towers manned by soldiers ready to shoot anyone trying to escape.

 

1940: In December 1940, Stalag XXI-B Schubin (Szubin), Poland, was made into a Stammlager (base camp) for French and Polish P.O.W.s, and the British prisoners were transferred to Stalag XX1-B Thure (Turek), Poland, where they remained for around 18 months. Henry was fortunate to get a job developing and printing films for the Camp Authorities. Camp roll-call took place twice a day. Henry was sick with pneumonia during his time at this camp. Army Medical and Dental Officers at XX1-B forfeited their rights under the Geneva Convention to repatriation, in order to stay with the P.O.W.s and look after their health. They were also bound by their ethics to attend to German military and civilian cases when no German doctors were available.

 

The British Red Cross

 

Seventeen British Red Cross Centres staffed by volunteers, packed up to 163,000 parcels each week. The Joint War Organisation had eight ships under permanent charter, with others standing by to transport these parcels. The majority of these ships operated a shuttle service between Lisbon in neutral Portugal, and Marseilles in the south of France. At Marseilles, the parcels were transferred to railway vans under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Through the French and Swiss Postal Services, the parcels finally reached Geneva in Switzerland, where the Red Cross arranged for their distribution to camps in Germany and elsewhere.

 

1941: It took until early 1941, for British Red Cross Parcels to start arriving at Stalag XXI-B on a weekly basis. Each parcel typically contained a ¼ lb packet of tea, a tin of cocoa powder, a bar of plain/milk chocolate, a tinned pudding, a tin of meat roll, a tin of processed cheese, a tin of condensed milk, a tin of dried eggs, a tin of sardines/herrings, a tin of preserve, a tin of margarine, a tin of sugar, a tin of vegetables, a tin of biscuits, a bar of soap and a tin of 50 cigarettes (usually sent separately).

 

To make weekly Red Cross Parcels go around, the P.O.W.s split into groups of four or six. This made better use of such things as tinned foods and cut out waste. When a member of the group went outside of the wire (camp enclosure) on a job, he was expected to do his bit to scrounge what he could from the natives and the guards, for donation to the ration pool of his group.

 

1942: In early 1942, Henry was transferred to Stalag XX1-A Schildberg (Ostrzeszów), Poland. Henry worked here as a farmer, road repairer and gardener. Bartering and trading with items from Red Cross Parcels became par for the course. This was a P.O.W. hospital camp, where the most seriously wounded troops captured by the Germans were given the medical care they needed. It took three years before these sick and wounded troops were exchanged and repatriated on a man-for-man basis, with British-held German P.O.W.s.

 

One of the guards at this camp genuinely wanted Henry to fall in love with his daughter and marry her. The guard was utterly convinced that Germany was going to lose the war, and with a British son-in-law he would stand a good chance of settling down somewhere in Britain when the war was over.

 

1943: From Schildberg (Ostrzeszów), Poland, Henry was transferred to Krotoschin (Krotoszyn), Poland (via a few weeks stay at Stalag XX1-D Posen (Poznan), Poland), to form Arbeits Kommando (work party) AK14, a satellite of Stalag XX1-C Posen (Poznan), Poland.

 

1944: Following the Normandy Landings ('D-Day' 6 June 1944), the Germans were retreating, and transferred Henry and the other P.O.W.s to the south of Poland, to work in the coal mines of Tscheschin, Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec) and other pits in Silesia (Śląsk). These later camps were managed by Germans who were unsympathetic to the needs of the P.O.W.s. Notably, the Germans tried recruiting British P.O.W.s into their Free British Corps to fight against the Russians. They did get some volunteers by withdrawing Red Cross Parcels, keeping P.O.W.s underfed and offering double-rations to Britons who fought alongside them.

 

Henry and his mother Ellen, regularly corresponded during his time as a P.O.W. Henry also made many small tokens and gifts that he sent home to his mother, including an embroidery of the 1936 Berlin Olympics Stadium, hand-illustrated birthday cards, Christmas cards and 'best wishes' cards. Ellen was not the only person with whom Henry regularly corresponded, he and his school friend Campbell Stewart (a P.O.W.) also regularly corresponded. P.O.W.s were only permitted to correspond with each other once a month, and then only if the two were related by blood. Henry and Campbell discovered one another’s whereabouts, and as an explanation of their different surnames, corresponded as half-brothers. 

​Freedom (1944-1946)

1944: Henry’s final camp was in Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec), Poland, on the Silesia-Czechoslovak border. During the final weeks (December 1944 to January 1945) at Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec) the areas surrounding the camp were subjected to intensive American and British air raids, prompting the German camp authorities to commence evacuation. It was from this camp that Henry and the other P.O.W.s set out on a 1,000-mile long march to freedom.

1945: The P.O.W.s started marching on 24 January 1945, and finally stopped on 24 April 1945. Before the march began, Henry and the other P.O.W.s were split into parties of around 50 individuals. The march took Henry and the other P.O.W.s over the Carpathian Mountains called the High Tatra (Tatry Wysokie) near Zakopane, Czechoslovakia, through deep snow in temperatures as low as -30°C. Local girls helped to obtain sledges for most of the P.O.W.s, these were loaded with Red Cross Parcels and towed by them. These sledges and supplies lasted until the snow vanished in the Spring. Many weeks later the sledges were burned as fuel on cooking fires.​​

 

Article from the "Daily Express", May 1946:

​"Just over a year ago, 2,000 British prisoners of war were marched half-starving and in blinding blizzards from Silesia through Czechoslovakia into Bavaria - a foot journey that took them 13 weeks. Yesterday a Hamburg military tribunal sentenced Wilhelm Menzel one of the Nazi Guards during that march to 10 years imprisonment for 'resorting to deliberate ill-treatment for which he had no orders'. It was stated that when one of the prisoners left the ranks to accept bread from Czechoslovak peasants on the roadside, Menzel who boasted that he had no soft spot for the British - beat him with his rifle butt until it broke." [sic].

Henry confirmed that this article was not entirely correct in that the prisoner was shot, rather than beaten. Menzel was a drug addict, and the P.O.W. was a New Zealander, not a Briton. In any event, even without the mistreatment, this was a supreme trial of strength and endurance for all involved.

1945: Towards the end of their ordeal, the P.O.W.s were bombed by American Fortresses and Liberators at Regensburg, Germany. This was an unavoidable tragedy as the bombers were on a pre-arranged mission - Henry, Harry Harper, other P.O.W.s and the German guards were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The attack happened at the confluence of the rivers Naab and Danube, Germany. The target for the bombing was a railway bridge that carried the main electric line for the area. The P.O.W.s were being ferried across the river Naab in boats when the first bomber attack happened. Henry and Harry dived into the river and hugged the bank for as much protection as possible. The raid lasted for many hours. More than 100 P.O.W.s were killed, many were wounded and ten German guards were killed.

P.O.W.s were tending to the wounded and burying the dead when the local priest made his church available to them. He and many locals worked with Henry and the others to sort out the carnage.

In summary, the P.O.W.s had started out at Sosnowitz (Sosnowiec), Poland, on 24 January 1945, and marched through Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia and Lower Bavaria in Germany before staggering to freedom through the American lines of General Patton at Landshut, Bavaria, Germany, on 24 April 1945. Liberated by General Patton's American troops, the P.O.W.s were cleaned up and kitted out in American uniforms, and told to board any means of transport they could to get back to Britain for their final demobilisation.

General George Smith Patton Junior (1885-1945)

General George Smith Patton Junior, known as 'Old Blood and Guts’. During World War II (1939-1945) he served in North Africa and Sicily, before commanding the 3rd Army in Europe. Towards the end of the war, with Patton using his tanks to their full effectiveness, the 3rd Army defied the odds and drove the Nazis across France and back into Germany. Lamentably, Patton died after a car accident in Heidelberg, Germany, on 21 December 1945.

​1945: Henry and Harry Harper boarded a truck to Regensburg, Germany, and then a plane to Paris, France (although Henry didn’t know the plane’s destination when he boarded). After spending 3 days in Paris to acclimatise to their freedom, they boarded a train to Le Havre, France, where they spent 2 days looking around Le Havre and St. Valéry-en-Caux. They finally boarded a plane from Le Havre to Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England.

1946: Henry was transported in September 1945, by train and plane to an Army base in the Orkney Islands, Scotland. The time he spent in Orkney was shared between the Hatston and Tormiston camps. He was given some periods of weekend leave to visit his family in Inverness, Scotland. The highlight of these visits was when he brought fresh eggs home, a rare treat, until his demobilisation on 12 April 1946. Henry was promoted to Corporal 3 days before his capture. After the war, his surviving commanding and platoon officers ensured his promotion was acknowledged by the Army Records Office, and all back pay was reimbursed to him.

Henry and his P.O.W. comrades were young men in the prime of their lives, separated from loved ones and subjected to enforced captivity in conditions that were at times worse than those endured by criminals incarcerated at 'Her Majesty’s pleasure' in Britain. As a result of World War II (1939-1945), hundreds of thousands of British men were deprived of their youth through death, wounding, illness and incarceration overseas. 

1994: On 12 June 1994, 54 years after his capture, Henry revisited St. Valéry-en-Caux with three other P.O.W.s captured in June 1940, who had been his school friends in Inverness during the 1920s and 1930s. They were ex-Sergeant Campbell Stewart, who was incarcerated in different camps to Henry, and ex-Privates Arthur Fraser and Cameron MacKenzie, who were incarcerated in the same camps as Henry.

Henry most regretted his incarceration as a P.O.W., because he was unable to support his beloved mother during the final years of her life, see his siblings grow up or further his education. Unlike many others, he bore no resentment towards the German people.

The Highlander P.O.W. Lament

The English taught us well

after giving us centuries of hell

and we’re now taking up their fight

to drive Hitler out of sight.

We’ve been captured, but how?

What will become of us now?

Where are we to go? 

Do we really want to know?​

 

Days blend into night

as we contemplate our plight

so far away from home

where we feel utterly alone.​

 

We live with dread in our hearts

knowing only to play our parts

in keeping one another alive

so that as a collective we might survive.​

© Mel Hamson, 2010

Note: If you would like to know more, or have information that improves this history, we would love to hear from you.