Chapter 11

Chapter 11

The Germans, particularly in the towns, were getting very short of food. Having consumed the tins we had brought with us for the train journey, we were back on vegetable soup and “Kriegsbrot”. After six weeks of waiting we had to sustain a severe shock – being informed that the exchange to Holland had broken down owing to the sinking of a British hospital ship on its way to pick up German prisoners from England. We were to be shipped back to a P.O.W. camp on the Baltic. So, packed tight in 4th class carriages, we wended our way by train via Berlin and after several nights, when it was difficult to get any sleep, duly arrived at Stralsund. Our new camp had been occupied by Russians and was on an island called Dänholm, separated from the city by a narrow stretch of water and crossed by small ferry boats. The island in peacetime had housed a garrison H.Q. and was provided with several blocks of barracks and other buildings. We messed in a hall some way from the barrack rooms in which we were housed. Sanitary provision was medieval and consisted of a circular structure, on the first floor of which was a circle of inclined “seats” and underneath the “shit cart” which was drawn out periodically to have its contents tipped. The Baltic winds blew strongly up the apertures which were only partly sealed by their seated occupants! When we arrived, there were about four hundred newly captured British prisoners, mainly taken in the German spring offensive. We – the old hands – had to teach them the various tricks and devices we had learned during our two years of captivity. Food was in very short supply but supplemented by a hoard of potatoes stored in cellars under our ground floor rooms. It did not take long for one of our experts to make a key and open up the door to the potato store. After a time some food parcels began to turn up – if I remember rightly, emanating from Holland and Switzerland.


Early in October a message came through to me to say that my youngest brother Eustace had been killed on September 27th, when serving with the Coldstream Guards, in an attack on the Canal du Nord. I had not seen him for the two years in which he had grown up since leaving Eton and going to an Officer’s Training Unit at Bushey Park. My eldest brother Roger, who had transferred from the 4th Dragoon Guards to command a Company of the Rifle Brigade, had been badly wounded and had lost a foot earlier in the year. The War caused terrible casualties to those of my generation and in the post-war years, the country suffered from the loss of the thousands who would have become its leaders. The slaughter was terrible and many of my contemporaries at Eton fell by the wayside.


There was plenty of room in the camp for exercise and the German staff were fairly amiable and left us to ourselves. In October, three German-speaking officers from our barracks planned to escape, having acquired civilian clothes and forged identity and travel documents. One of them was Hugh Durnford – later to become Bursar of King’s College, Cambridge. One evening he walked to the ferry in his disguise as a workman – showed his pass to the sentry and spent some time in Stralsund until he could catch a train to Hamburg. From there he travelled in stages to the Danish frontier, crawled between two German sentry posts and got away to freedom. He wrote of his experiences as a P.O.W. in a book called “The Tunnelers of Holzminden”. On the same day, a German speaking officer by name Ortweiler also got away and in time reached England.

There was not much to do to keep one occupied at Stralsund but the American forces had been flooding into France, the War with the Turks was over and at last it became clear that it was only a question of time before the Germans would be defeated. The autumn turned to winter and at last, in November, we heard that an Armistice had been signed.

We were told that there were some Russian officer prisoners locked up in an Asylum near Stralsund and I was asked by our Senior Officer to accompany him on a visit arranged by our captors as I could speak Russian, by this time quite fluently. Our Senior Officer was taken into one of the wards and was told by the German Superintendent that the Russians – who were in beds between two genuine mental cases, were suffering from various kinds of mental illnesses. Following behind, I was able to converse with several of the Russians – one of whom told me he had been sent to the Asylum as a punishment for having made several attempts to escape. Poor fellows – we could do little to help them and one hesitates to imagine what were their ultimate fates, either in German hands or in the hands of the Bolshevicks if they got back to Russia.


The German collapse came as a great shock to her ruling classes and with demoralised troops working their way home from the fronts, the climate was ripe for revolution and a Communist take-over. Soldiers and Workers Councils sprang up in several cities, among them Stralsund. Naval ratings from Kiel took over the Camp, appointed a Sergeant, who had previously looked after the camp hens, as Commandant. The German officers were summoned to the canteen, where they handed over their swords and left for the mainland. The elderly Second-in-Command of the camp – a distinguished looking cavalry officer who used to strut around looking impressive in his uniform with its black polished field boots – and a shako headgear – was to be seen in a knickerbocker suit of clothes and a porkpie hat which he removed as he bowed to his new masters.

We had not long to wait before we were sent off on a train which fetched up at Warnemunde, from where there was a ferry to Denmark. After crossing to Jutland – the mainland – we were housed in a camp, warmly greeted by the Danes who had managed to keep out of the War. The warmth of their welcome astonished and delighted us and at every stoppage the population, many of them wearing gala dress, provided refreshments. We were allowed to take walks without supervision and appreciated the luxury of sleeping between clean sheets. After a stay of about ten days, we went by train to the port of Aarhus, and embarked on a very smelly small steamer. The North Sea was rough. We were crammed tight in what cabins were available and most of us suffered from mal-de-mer – made worse by a diet of very greasy Irish stew! After a stormy crossing, we arrived at Leith, the port of Edinburgh, where we were greeted by local dockers who enquired, “Where have you been spending the War?” R.F.C. officers were sent to Scarborough where we were interviewed and after telling our various stories covering experiences of becoming prisoners-of-war, we were allowed to go off on leave. I ended up in London, just before Christmas, at my Uncle’s house in Lennox Gardens where my Mother was staying. It took some time to accommodate oneself to a normal way of living, but early in January I set off for Cambridge and entered Trinity College three years later than originally planned.


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